Universal Horror: The Wolf Man


The Wolf Man is a 1941 horror film from Universal Pictures. Even though it came out a decade after the releases of Dracula and Frankenstein, it stands with them as one of the all-time horror classic films and the three characters form that iconic trinity of horror icons.

The Wolf Man stands apart from the other two films in that it is not based on any pre-existing work; it is, instead, an original screen play by Curt Siodmak.

The Wolf Man was Universal’s second attempt at a werewolf movie. Six years earlier, they had produced The Werewolf of London. While that film was a moderate success, it was considered a knock-off of Dr. Jeykll and Mr Hyde, which hampered it at the box office.

As with any review of classic Universal Horror, the challenge is to try and review it separately from the pop culture it helped create.

The plot revolves around Lawrence Talbot, the son of Sir John Talbot. After the death of his older brother, Lawrence returns to the family home in Wales, after spending the last 18 years in America. Lawrence and Sir John have a slightly strained relationship, due to Lawrence being the second son, and thus not heir to the title and estate. With his brother is dead, things have changed and both men mean to make amends with one another.

Lawrence becomes smitten with Gwen, a shop girl in the local village. He convinces her to join him at a carnival being put on by a tribe of Romani (the movie uses the term gypsy through-out, but since that is often considered a slur, for the purposes of this review I am going to use the term Romani).

At the carnival Gwen’s friend Jenny is attacked by a wolf that Lawrence kills with the silver headed cane he bought earlier from Gwen’s shop. Bitten during the fight with the wolf, Lawrence comes to realize that what he fought was actually a werewolf and that he has now had the curse passed on to him.

To a modern audience, this movie is not going to seem frightening on a jump scare level, but what does stand the test of time is the mental toll the curse takes on Lawrence as he comes to accept what has happened to him, and tries to find a way to deal with it.  The movie also plays with psychological horror, as most people believe that Lawrence is losing his mind and merely hallucinating that he is a werewolf.

Director George Wagner creates a suitably moody atmosphere, by 1941’s standards, including several shots that would come to be considered iconic, including several of the misty Welsh moors. He also put together an excellent cast. It is clear that Universal wanted a hit.

Naturally the movie rests squarely on the shoulders of Lon Chaney Jr. While not his first major role (having played Lennie two years earlier in Of Mice and Men) starring in The Wolf Man was significant, as he was firmly stepping into the horror genre that had made his father a star. The part calls for him to start as a jovial ladies man, but end as a character that would be at home in a Greek tragedy.

Claude Rains was already a Universal Horror star, thanks to his lead performance in The Invisible Man. As Sir John Talbot he conveys a man who hopes to mend fences with his son, only to see that hope dashed as he believes Lawrence is succumbing to madness, and later has to make a tragic choice when the grim truth is made clear. It would have been easy for this part to have been played as disapproving father, but Rains elevates it by making Sir John aloof, yet loving.

Oscar winning actress and revered Hollywood acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya plays  Malva, the Romani woman whose son inadvertently passes the curse on to Lawrence. It would have been easy to have Malva be a sinister figure, but between the script and Ouspenskaya’s performance she is one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, and the only person to truly try and help Lawrence.

Bela Lugosi appears as Malva’s son, also named Bela, whose bite infects our hero. He plays the part well, but it seems like an oddly small part for such a big name making it seem like a case of stunt casting.

Evelyn Ankers plays Gwen, the shop girl Lawrence becomes enamored with. She conveys her affection for Lawrence well and her concerns for him as his troubles mount. I find this notable, as Ankers and Chaney very famously did not get along. Despite this, they ended up starring, opposite each other, in four movies.

No review of this film would be complete without making note of the Wolf Man makeup, created by legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce.  The iconic look of the Wolf Man would serve as the model  for werewolves, in film, for years to come.

But the real legacy of this film is the werewolf lore it created. Almost everything we take for granted in werewolf mythology was actually created from scratch in the script by Curt Siodmak. The curse being transmitted by a bite, the vulnerability to silver, the involuntary transformation, the mark of the pentagram, and iconic poem are all creations specific for this movie. Interestingly the transformation under the full moon was not from this movie, but came in the Siodmak’s script for the sequel Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. In fact the moon is never seen in the film at all.

The other horror trope codified in this film is the misty moors. In fact, the back drop of the moors used in the opening credits was reused by several other Universal Horror films, as it conveyed the mood so well.

Overall, I give The Wolf Man a solid B. It is a superior film for its era, and any classic horror film fan should make a point of seeing it.


Horror Review: The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods is a hard film to review.

Not that I didn’t understand it, or would have problems explaining the set up, it’s just that it has a complex script, and is full of clever reveals that are best viewed unspoiled. The problem, I find, is how to write about the plot without spoilers; I’m basically going to adapt the rule that anything revealed in the first 10 minutes is fair game.

But before we get into the plot, some background:

The script is by fan favorites Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and the film marks Goddard’s debut as a feature film director. Even though Goddard directed, this is considered a Joss Whedon project due to the scripting and the fact that he produced it. Also, the cast is filled with several Whedon regulars.

The movie was made in 2009. Unfortunately, due to several factors(not the least of which was the Bankruptcy of the MGM studio), the film was not released until 2012.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get into that plot.

The Cabin in the Woods follows five college students as they prepare to spend a weekend at The Cabin in the Woods, that was recently purchased by one of their relatives. The students are Curt and Jules who are a couple, Jules’ roommate Dana, Curt’s friend Holden (whom he and Jules are trying to match-make with Dana), and Marty (their mutual friend, whose dominant characteristic seems to be that he is a stoner). While prepping for their trip, the five are under surveillance by a mysterious group.

And that is all I feel I can safely say without spoiling anything.

What The Cabin is the Woods really is, is a self-aware deconstruction of the horror genre.  It does for supernatural horror what Scream did for slasher films. But it goes even more meta than that.

The script plays heavily with standard horror tropes; however, instead of defying them, it reinforces them( but in a very coherent way), all the while pointing out the ridiculousness of many of them. The best part about it is that at no time does the movie assume the audience is stupid which, in this type of horror film, is incredibly refreshing.

The film creates a connection, not just to the five designated victims, but also with the people behind their torment. It’s no easy feat to make you sympathize with both the heroes and the villains, but Whedon and Goddard find a way to do it.

It’s also worth noting that while the five friends all fit standard horror movie character types, each one also contains major subversions of those types.

Looking towards the cast you find a mix of unknowns and fan favorites.

Chris Hemsworth is the most notable name in the cast, even if this was not the case when the movie was filmed. Playing Curt, who fills the alpha male archtype standard to the genre, Hemsworth of course has the look, but also has to convey an intelligence required by the subversions in the script. A fun bit of trivia, Whedon finalized the deal to make The Avengers while working on The Cabin in the Woods and reached out to Thor director Kenneth Branagh, who was casting at the time, to suggest he take a look at Hemsworth for the lead.

Kristen Connolly stands out as Dana, who is fit into the
standard final girl role. Of course this role is going to get focus and Connolly pulls it off well.

The true stand out of the five kids is Whedon regular Fran Kranz as Marty, the stoner fifth wheel. Filling a role very similar to Jamie Kennedy’s character in Scream, Marty is the one member of the group aware that something is not right with their situation. Kranz manages to combine the characters laid back philosophy, while still conveying his increasing awareness, making him an excellent audience proxy. Again a bit of trivia. During a scene were the other characters go swimming, Marty stays on the dock and smokes a joint. The reason is that, in reality, Kranz is very athletic and actually has better muscle tone then Hemsworth, and Goddard did not think it would be a good idea for the stoner to be shown in better shape than the Jock.

Ana Hutchison and Jesse Williams do fine in the roles of Jules and Holden respectively, but neither really stand out in the way the other three do.

Two other amazing cast stand outs are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the leaders of the group that is observing the kids. I wish I could point out what makes them stand out, but there is nothing I could say about them that would not be a spoiler.

Working with Jenkins and Whitford, you will spot Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk.

There is one other stand out actor who appears towards the end of the movie, but to even name who that actor is would be a spoiler. Yes the film really is that intricate.

But I think it illustrates the strength of the writing that, even with a script that intricate, at no point does it become confusing or not make sense.

Using the Fanboy News Network rating system I give The Cabin in the Woods an A. It is a top flight effort that even non-horror fans can enjoy, and is ripe for repeat viewing.

A testament to the films popularity is that this year at Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, one of the signature haunted mazes is based on The Cabin in the Woods. And yes, that maze has spoiler warnings.

Horror Review: Jekyll

jekyllJekyll is a 2007 six episode BBC miniseries written and produced by Doctor Who writer, and current show producer, Steven Moffet. It was his first take at doing a modern interpretation of a classic Victorian character, which he of course followed up on, 3 years later, with Sherlock.

The series follows Dr. Tom Jackman, a successful research scientist, who inexplicably starts transforming into another persona, complete with physical changes. Fearing the violent behavior of the other persona, Jackman leaves his family, quits his job, and sets up an apartment where he can try to unravel what exactly is happening.

With the help of recordings and surveillance equipment, the two personalities are able to communicate enough to come to an arrangement that basically equates to a time share agreement on their body.  To facilitate this, they hire a psychiatric nurse named Kathryn to act as an impartial aid to both of them.  Once the other personality learns about the book The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he adopts the name Billy Hyde.

Additional complications to the arrangement include: Jackman wanting to keep the existence of his wife and twin sons from Hyde, fearing he might harm them; his wife hiring an investigator to try and learn why he left his family; his old employer, and friend, wanting to know the same; and why a mysterious organization is now following him, claiming to be Hyde’s owners.

And all that is just part of the first episode.

Jekyll is a smart series that uses its set up to explore several questions. Of course you have the concept of duality, as you always will with the Jekyll and Hyde story. You also have a recurrent question through the series, is Hyde actually evil, or is there more to him? And like the original story, the heart of it is the mystery: why is Jackman transforming in the first place?

Two things make this series really stand out; the smart script by Moffet, and the acting. Moffet does not fall into the easy clichés of the traditional interpretations of the characters, but instead looks at them from a more layered perspective. The horror comes from the idea of Jackman not being in control and Hyde possibly hurting his family. Several tense scenes are based on Jackman waking up from being Hyde, at least once covered in blood, and having to piece together what Hyde has done, fearing the worst. There is also the dread that Hyde is taking over and one day will not turn back into Jackman.

From the acting side, any show like this is going to live or die by the lead actor, and how he handles the dual role. Fortunately Jekyll had the good fortune to cast James Nesbitt as Jackman/Hyde. Non-UK readers will know Nesbitt primarily as Bofur in The Hobbit movie. The challenge is making Jackman and Hyde distinct characters. It would be one thing to just play Hyde as completely over the top, and while he is at times, there is more to the character than that and Nesbitt makes that clear. The makeup for Hyde is subtle, just enough that he is recognizably different but can still be mistaken for Jackman at first glance. Nesbitt manages different body language and vocal styles for the two characters, and it is clear which is which even if he is far away enough that you can’t see the makeup.

Another stand-out, in the impressive cast, is Gina Bellman as Jackman’s wife, Claire. Audiences will recognize her as Jane from Moffat’s sitcom Coupling, as well as being the grifter Sophie on the TNT series Leverage. Claire has an impressive arc, as she struggles to deal with her husband abandoning his family and her growing realization of what is happening to him. Her story arc is as central to the show as is Tom/ Billy’s.

Other notable cast members include: Denis Lawson (who was Wedge in the Star Wars films) as Jackman’s friend and former boss, Michelle Ryan (who was Jaime Summers in the brief Bionic Woman reboot) as the nurse Jackman and Hyde hire to help facilitate their arrangement, and Paterson Joseph (the Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere) as the mystery man claiming that his company owns Hyde.

But for all the good things about Jeykll, there is one glaring problem, the final scene of the series.

I’m not going to spoil it here, but everyone I have ever talked to about the series, who has seen it, agrees that the final scene is terrible, and makes several plot points in the series make no sense. And that it was not needed. You could have ended the series on the previous scene and had a satisfying end. Also the final scene basically ends as a sort of cliff hanger, and since there was no second series it leaves the story in limbo.

I’m not sure why Moffet felt the need to include this particular plot point, other than perhaps he thought it was a cool idea, which it might have been if there had been more there to mitigate the plot holes it creates.

Using the Fanboy News Network rating scale I give Jekyll a B+. It is a superior effort, but the last scene keeps it from getting an A.

Horror Review: Shutter

shutter2dShutter is a horror film made in Thailand, in 2004. It is clearly inspired by the wave of horror films, coming predominately from Japan, that have come to be known as J-Horror.

After a night out drinking with friends, our main characters Tun and Jane are driving home when their car hits a woman. Freaking out, Tun insists that they not get out of the car and just head home. After the accident Tun, who works as a photographer, starts finding strange images in the pictures he takes. This leads him, and Jane, to start learning about the phenomena of ghost photos.

As the haunting escalates beyond the photos, invading their lives, Tun and Jane attempt to learn exactly whom they had hit, and what really happened. Things get more desperate when they learn that the friends with whom they had been out drinking have also been having strange encounters, and that two of them have died.

As the mystery unfolds, we learn that there was more going on than a simple hit and run, and that the ghost may have an honest grievance against those she is targeting.

Shutter is a masterfully made horror film. The directing and writing team of Bangjong Pisanthankun and Parkpoom Wongpoom  have a clear understanding of how to pace the film, which is where so many horror films fail. The tension is built expertly throughout the film and, unlike so many horror films, does not switch to action movie pacing during the third act.

Their writing is also top notch. They set up a standard horror movie premise in the beginning, and then a series of twists wherein something else was going on all along. And while these twists are well done, they are not M. Night Shyamalan twists that happen at the end and seem to be the point of the whole movie. Instead they are well integrated into the script and make perfect sense once revealed.

The movie also integrates elements of several horror traditions. Clearly the main one is typical of J-Horror, with the angry female spirit seeking vengeance.  You also have elements of standard EC horror comic plots, with someone who has been wronged, coming back from the grave to wreak their own brand of justice. There are even nods to Hitchcock in the film. But most importantly, all of these are subtle and do not detract from the story itself.

The acting is well done, especially by Ananda Everingham as Tun, and Natthaweeranuch Thongmee as Jane. Their reactions come off as authentic and believable.

The one element that really struck me, while watching the movie, was the cinematography. This is a movie that has photography as a major theme, and thus color and composition are going to be key to making that seem realistic. Cinematographer Niramon Ross does a brilliant job with this work, making this an important part of the story telling. It also ends with one of the most powerful and haunting images I can remember in recent horror.

I want to take a moment to talk about the jump scares. This is a pet peeve of mine in horror. I have nothing against a good jump scare; what I hate are false jump scares. The tension is built, the jump scare happens, and it turns out to be the cat, which then immediately leads to the actual jump scare. This never happens in Shutter. Each jump scare is legitimately the ghost. There are even some rapid succession jump scares, but they are still always the ghost. To me this shows that the directors knew what they were doing, and trusted their material.

It is worth noting that Shutter has become a fairly influential film, with eight remakes (seven in other countries, including the U.S., and one in Thailand).

Using the Fanboy News Networking rating scale, I give Shutter a grade of B+. Horror fans will love it, and non-fans should at least feel that they did not waste their time. It is a must have for any horror fan’s DVD collection.