Sunday, August 27, 2017

Dracula: Prince of Darkness

(1966) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Based on the character created by Bram Stoker; Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters and Philip Latham; Available on Blu-Ray (Region B) and DVD

Rating: ****

“I hope people will not be disappointed by a greying Dracula. And, incidentally, as Dracula I never say a word. As I am already a vampire from the word go, there is nothing I can say – not even a courteous, ‘Well, here we are again…’” – Christopher Lee (excerpt from letter to his fan club, from The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes)

1958’s Horror ofDracula made such a huge splash that it was only a matter of time before a sequel surfaced. No one could have anticipated, however, that it would be nearly a decade before another proper installment, starring Christopher Lee in the titular role, was made. No offense intended to David Peel in 1960’s otherwise solid Brides of Dracula, but as Baron Meinster he couldn’t match Lee’s raw intensity. Lee returned to the role that helped put him on the map, without skipping a beat.

* Fun Fact: Budget-conscious Hammer Films shared the same sets and actors with three other productions: Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Reptile, and Plague of the Zombies.

The opening montage of scenes* from the first film’s conclusion, depicting Dracula’s defeat at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing, brings us up to speed. Of course, the implication is that evil doesn’t vanish, it simply lies dormant. Two English married couples traveling through Europe (played by Barbara Shelley, Charles Tingwell, Suzan Farmer and Francis Matthews) pause at a local tavern, where a priest admonishes them not to take any detours along the way, especially to a castle in the forest. Naturally, they do just that, because we wouldn’t have a story otherwise. They enter the castle, only to discover a dining table, with place settings for four guests, and its sole resident, a dour servant named Klove (Philip Latham). The only one who objects to the creepy atmosphere is Helen (Shelley), whose fears prove be warranted.

* The closing scene from Horror of Dracula is presented, as a recap, in a mist-swirled frame. Besides serving as a device to jog our foggy collective memories, the aesthetic choice had a practical explanation, since Horror of Dracula was filmed in a different aspect ratio, and the filmmakers had to accommodate the 1:66:1 image on a significantly wider 2:35:1 frame.

Hammer’s Dracula sequels find new and inventive ways to revive the count, and this film finds Lee making a grand entrance in baptism of blood. It’s no surprise that Lee settles back into Dracula’s cape with such ease. This time around, it’s a silent role, but Lee’s lack of dialogue doesn’t diminish his presence. He’s a powerful presence, a force of nature to be reckoned with. Depending on whom you believe, Dracula’s wordless performance is by choice or design. According to Lee, he excised his dialogue because it was so terrible, but script writer Jimmy Sangster offered an alternate explanation, claiming he never wrote the lines in the first place. I tend to believe Lee’s version, which seems to align with his long-running ambivalence toward a role that was at once his meal ticket and a curse.

Barbara Shelley* was one of the most underrated actors in the Hammer stable, who deserved to hold a place in the pantheon with Lee and Cushing. She never quite fit in the Hammer glamour mold – not to say she wasn’t easy on the eyes, but, but she always carried a more substantive air, and had the acting chops to perform with the best of them. Shelley demonstrates her formidable range as the repressed Helen, the most straight-laced member of her little group, finding fault with everything and anything that seems the slightest bit unsavory. Her husband and brother in law humor her concerns when they venture into Dracula’s castle, but feel she’s just being an alarmist. In a cruel twist of fate, she falls into Dracula’s trap, joining the uninhibited, licentious ranks of the undead,** Shelley provided some insight into the motivation of her character in the DVD commentary, stating Helen was so averse to Dracula’s castle because she was “feeling the call of evil.” We hate and fear most the aspects that we loathe in ourselves.

* Fun Fact: Shelley’s co-star, Suzan Farmer, provided Helen’s screams in the film.

** Another Fun Fact (SPOILER AHEAD):  During filming of the scene where her character is staked, Shelley swallowed one of her fangs. Due to the limited budget, there were no replacement fangs available. 

Dracula: Prince of Darkness sports a fine cast of supporting actors, starting with Andrew Keir’s commanding performance as Father Sandor. Sandor is a substitute of sorts for Dr. Van Helsing, but with a more brash demeanor and less self-importance. He’s a true believer, dedicated to wiping out the vampire scourge from humanity, but not above enjoying the simple pleasures in life. Keir expertly walks the line, endowing his character with equal doses of conviction and humor, adding much-needed levity to the film’s serious tone. Thorley Walters amuses and horrifies as the fly-eating Ludwig (essentially the Renfield role), one of Dracula’s loyal servants, now confined to a monastery. He vacillates from a doddering old fool one moment to a dangerous sociopath the next. Philip Latham also impresses as Dracula’s manservant Klove, who lives only to revive his master. He’s unnerving from the first moment he’s on screen (Latham’s introductory shot parallels Lee’s in Horror of Dracula).

Outside of Dracula’s bloody resurrection perhaps, there are few big surprises in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Arguably it’s the Dracula film we needed at the time, re-establishing the character for audiences, with good’s eventual triumph over evil a foregone conclusion. Dracula: Prince of Darkness signaled Christopher Lee’s overdue return to the screen in the title role, and he doesn’t disappoint. He slips into the role as if he’d never left. The film is also distinguished by other great performances, especially by Shelley and Keir. Arguably, the sequels could have stopped right here, but if we’ve learned anything from Hammer’s Dracula series, you can’t keep a good vampire down. Perhaps he’s only dormant, waiting to be revived once more by another incarnation of Hammer Films.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


(1990) Directed by Frank Marshall; Written by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick; Based on a story by Don Jakoby and Al Williams; Starring: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Henry Jones, Stuart Pankin and Roy Brocksmith; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“What we’re trying to do in this picture is really give you a funhouse, where you’re scared but you’re having fun, almost like a rollercoaster ride...” – Frank Marshall (from DVD featurette)

A colossal thanks to Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini for hosting the Workplace in Film & TV Bogathon, honoring the many cinematic depictions of the workers and the workplace. Be sure to check out the other entries in this spectacular three-day blogging event. My film du jour focuses on the vaunted profession of family doctor, as portrayed by Jeff Daniels in Arachnophobia – more on his character in a moment.

Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures division stirred up much ballyhoo, touting Arachnophobia as a “thrill-omedy,” which I presume was their code for a broadly acceptable horror film with light moments. It walks the line well between preying on the audience’s innate fears, while understanding that most of us need a release valve to laugh off our terror. I’m reminded of an incident several years ago, on a nature hike with Kid Number One, as I absentmindedly walked through a spider web. The sensation of the sticky threads on my face was enough to unnerve me, but that was nothing compared to the stark realization its occupant was crawling on my head. When I think about it now, it only evokes laughter – there was no harm done (to me at least), but the perception of danger was quite palpable for a few very long moments. Because life is a cruel trickster, I re-experienced the incident on a recent walk with Kid Number Two a couple of weeks ago, as I stumbled through another web, with similar results. Arachnophobia evokes a similar reaction, with the initial jolt followed by a well-earned release.

The film opens in the Venezuelan jungle, a vast and remote tropical oasis, unspoiled for millions of years. Headstrong arachnologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) targets one particular tepui (plateau) region for his studies, feared by the locals (and as we’ll soon discover, with good reason), but a boon for scientists. He discovers a new, aggressive species of spider, which proves to be deadly venomous (as his photographer learns too late).  

Jump to the sleepy central Californian town of Canaima (actually shot in Cambria, California) where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) has recently relocated with his family, to escape the rat race of the big city. His plans to take over the reins from Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), an elderly family practitioner, and establish his own practice. Much to the younger doctor’s chagrin, Dr. Metcalf has a change of heart, deciding not to retire. Suddenly, Dr. Jennings and his ex-stockbroker wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) are faced with the prospect of no income. Things go from bad to worse when Jennings’ first and only patient dies under mysterious circumstances. A series of odd deaths follow, and Jennings begins to suspect a spider is the culprit. Suddenly, he’s faced with the prospect of saving his professional reputation, while convincing the authorities that an epidemic is at hand. Daniels does a great job as Jennings, finding just the right tone to make his character believable, with his down-to-earth, deadpan delivery. We feel his terror, rooting from a deep-seated childhood trauma, as he must confront his greatest adversary.

One of the things that makes Arachnophobia so special is that it takes the time to get to know the minor characters, building a history around them. In many other genre movies, the peripheral characters could have been disposable and two-dimensional, but here, each takes on life and purpose. Speaking of professions, Roy Brocksmith is a hoot as the local mortician Irv Kendall, who takes a rather glib attitude to his work. Stuart Pankin is also amusing as the dimwitted, self-important sheriff Lloyd Parsons, as well as Peter Jason as a gung ho high school football coach. One disappointment is the usually reliable John Goodman as ace exterminator Delbert McClintock. Compared to his fellow performers, he plays his character too broad and unsubtle. He’s funny in small doses, but wears out his welcome before long.

 A discussion of Arachnophobia wouldn’t be complete without giving due credit to the eight-legged beasties that appear in the film. In order to depict the colonial behavior of the cinematic spiders,* the filmmakers employed two different species: Delena spiders from New Zealand (much milder in temperament than the film would suggest) for the soldiers, and significantly larger bird eating spiders as the “general,” which directs their activities. Of course, when using live spiders was deemed too impractical or unethical (i.e., death scenes), a team of special effects wizards created animatronic arachnids. Of course, none of the featurettes or publicity surrounding the film mention how many real spiders died in the name of cinema.

* Fun, Creepy Fact: Thankfully, there’s nothing yet discovered to quite match the ferocity or lethal capabilities of the creatures in the film, but if you’re thinking this sort of thing is merely the domain of Hollywood nightmare-spinners, colonial spiders are really a thing

Arachnophobia occupies a sweet spot, appealing to a broad audience with a nice mix of fright and comedy, but doesn’t alienate hardcore horror fans or casual genre filmgoers. It compares favorably to other films, such as Jaws, Tremors (released the same year as Arachnophobia), and Piranha, which remind us good stories and performances go hand in hand with the shocks. It’s effective because it amplifies our basic fears. Most of us have little to be concerned about our arachnid friends – they do much more good than harm, keeping a vast population of pests in check. But most of us probably would prefer if they stay outside, where they belong. As tolerant as I am regarding spiders, everything breaks down when my world collides with theirs. Even if you don’t have arachnophobic tendencies, you’ll likely check inside your shoes, clothing and other potential hiding places after giving this movie a watch. Is that prickling sensation on your skin nothing but an itch, or something else? Arachnophobia is a machine that exploits our innate disdain (at least most of us) for creepy crawlies, and does it very well.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster)

(1971) Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno; Written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Toshio Shiba and Keiko Mari; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I just planned a regular movie, but when I look on the internet some people seem to evaluate it like a pop art or surrealist film.” – Yoshimitsu Banno (from 2014 interview for SciFi Japan TV Extra)

“Why complain about it? Green pastures exist only in our hearts now. Let’s sing. Let’s dance! Let’s at least use our energy to make a stand!” – Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)

After his auspicious debut in 1954’s Gojira (or Godzilla, King of the Monsters on these shores), the big gray reptile enjoyed a rocky career against many worthy and not-so-worthy opponents, vacillating between villain and hero. The strangest was yet to come, however, with 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora in Japan, or alternatively, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster),* filled with non-sequitur psychedelic dance sequences, trippy music and animated portions. For this entry, director/co-writer Yoshimitsu Banno took the already time-worn elements of what we’ve come to expect from a Godzilla film, dumped them on the floor, and rearranged the pieces in his own mosaic. The results created a rift between Godzilla fans, who felt it trashed the series or brought life into it.  

* Fun Fact: Godzilla vs. Hedorah featured one of the final appearances of the late Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed the title kaiju since Gojira in 1954.  

From the movie’s opening title sequence, we can tell this isn’t going to be the same old, same old. A factory belches smoke in front of Mt. Fuji, followed by shots of garbage floating in the sea. This pastiche of pollution’s greatest hits is juxtaposed with James Bond-esque shots of a singer wiggling to the title song. In a final shot, a broken clock (Signifying time’s up?) floats among other ocean-borne detritus. Only a few minutes into this, I’m wondering if someone slipped something extra in my coffee. I don’t have much time to process what I just watched, because it gets weirder. Hedorah rises from the ocean, the product toxic sludge, garbage and sewage (Yep folks, Hedorah is essentially a poop monster). After years of abuse to Mother Earth, it’s time to pay the piper. The monster feeds off of industrial smoke, leaving a cloud of caustic fumes in its wake, and a trail of death and destruction. Godzilla makes his appearance, accompanied by some oddly comical music (Akira Ifukube’s signature theme is nowhere to be found), and he’s not pleased with the state of things.

Tokyo gets a well-deserved respite from destruction this time around, with most of the action occurring in Suruga Bay* and the surrounding locale. Our grade-school protagonist Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) and his father Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) try to uncover Hedorah’s secrets, discovering four stages for the shape-shifting kaiju: aquatic, terrestrial, airborne, followed by an unknown phase. Although Earth-bound pollutants brought Hedorah to life, Dr. Yano speculates a meteor brought Hedorah to Earth from “a sticky, dark planet,” but aside from a few pictures of celestial objects, there’s not much to support this theory. Meanwhile, Ken’s uncle Yukio (Toshio Shiba) and his girlfriend Keiko (Miki Fujiyama) combat the toxic menace with music and dancing (I’m not really sure how this is supposed to help).

* Not so Fun Fact: The heavily polluted region set a real-life precedent for the movie, as described in this vintage New York Times article:

Amidst all the unconventional stuff, Godzilla vs. Hedorah follows the usual formula:  Godzilla tangles with the bad guy, and the bad guy prevails, but only for the moment – we know our favorite mutant dinosaur isn’t down for the count. Alas, that’s where convention ends and Banno’s vision begins. One of the advantages of being a casual kaiju film fan is that I don’t have a fit over what’s supposedly canon, which is a good thing when trying to make sense of this movie. When Banno came onboard, he threw a lot out the window. In one sequence, when Hedorah attempts to escape, Godzilla pursues him by taking flight,* using his atomic breath as propulsion (He does what? In this movie he does.). Banno’s film is full of so many crazy moments, it’s difficult to pin down only one or two things. There’s a Lovecraftian vibe running through the movie, starting with Hedorah’s design, with its tendril-laden face, which has more than a passing resemblance to Cthulhu. In one scene, dancers in a club suddenly transform into fish-headed monstrosities that could have sprung from Dagon.

* Fun Fact: According to Banno, he created Godzilla’s flying scene so it could be easily edited out if Toho disapproved.

It’s not too surprising this was the first and last Godzilla film that Banno directed, but it’s one of cinema’s tragedies that he never directed anything else (producer Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly wasn’t pleased with the results). It’s also not much of a revelation the big guy will ultimately prevail, but this one ends on a tentative note. We know it’s only a matter of time before another Hedorah surfaces. Humanity has only gained a brief reprieve by tackling the symptoms but not the cause. We haven’t learned much in the ensuing decades since Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Considering the poor state of the planet these days, it’s about time for Hedorah to re-surface. Unfairly maligned for many years, this Godzilla film like no other deserves re-evaluation on its own terms, as a silly movie about a serious topic.