Universal Horror: Spanish Dracula Review


Carlos Villarias as Dracula

As I stated in my review of Dracula, a common practice in Hollywood during the early days of talking pictures was to film a second version of a movie using the same sets and shooting script in a foreign language. At the time, dubbing was not a very refined art, and many considered it cheating anyway. Sadly, most of these films have been lost as they were considered secondary to the English language version and less effort was made to preserve them.

Fortunately, one of the few to survive was the Spanish language version of Dracula.

There is no real reason to go over a synopsis of the film’s plot. It is identical to the English language version that I reviewed last week. Go back and reread that if needed, I’ll wait.

A lot of interest has been given to this version over the years, as many people feel it is in fact superior to the Bela Lugosi classic. Are they right? Let’s find out.

The film was directed by George Melford who was already famous for having directed Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic The Sheik. Working for Universal, Melford directed four Spanish language films. Melford did not speak a word of Spanish and had to use a translator.

Melford also had a competitive streak, at least when it came to Tod Browning and Dracula. Melford and his crew would come in at night after Browning’s crew had wrapped for the day. He would get to look at the dailies with the idea that he would mimic what was shot. Instead Melford decided he could do better and chose to try and improve on what Browning had shot.

Watching this version can be jarring if you are familiar with the English version. Many scenes are identical in look and feel. However, as the movie progresses differences start to become more apparent.

First of all is the pacing. The Spanish version is much better paced, shrugging off the theatrical roots of the material. While the camera work is not as fluid at times as the English version, it makes up for it with grander sweeps and faster movement. There are two scenes in the Browning version that go on a bit long, a battle of wills between Dracula and Van Helsing, and a vampiric seduction of Harker by Mina. Melford improves the pacing by having them happen simultaneously and cutting between them.

Another very clear change is on the close ups of Dracula. In the Browning version, it is always a tight shot of his face with a band of light across his eyes. In Melford’s version, it is a tight close up of just the eyes, or a tight close up of the face and then a jump cut to the close up of the eyes.

Of course we also have to look at the performances by the actors as this is the chief difference between the two.

Carlos Villarias plays Dracula. Of the cast he was the only one allowed to look at the dailies, as the studio wanted him to mimic Lugosi. While there are similarities between the two performances, they are still very different.  Villarias plays Dracula more energetically than Lugosi did, and due to less stringent standards for the Spanish audience was able to make the seductive elements of the character more overt. In many ways this is a better performance than Lugosi’s. However, the difference is that Villarias did not have the same commanding presence as Lugosi. So while it might be a better performance technically, it was in no way matching the iconic one given by Lugosi.

Pablo Alvarez Rubio played Renfield. Here I feel that while his performance was equal to Dwight Frye’s, it was different. Manic Frye was menacing, where Rubio was just over-the-top raving. Calm Frye was sympathetic where Rubio became sinister.

Eduardo Arozamena played Van Helsing. Here I feel the performance was flatter compared to the one given by Edward Von Sloan.

The biggest difference was in the female lead. When I reviewed the other version I glossed over the performance of Helen Chandler as Mina. I felt it was just serviceable and did not really stand out. In the Spanish version, Lupita Tovar played the renamed Eva. Her performance was much more dynamic, especially when under Dracula’s thrall. It should be noted that Chandler’s career did not extend beyond the 1930s, whereas Tovar was working through the mid-1940s.

So in the end, I can say that yes, the Spanish version of Dracula is the superior film. Its biggest down fall is that it lacks the iconic performance of Lugosi.

I give it a grade of B-

Hopefully it will not take a year to get back to the Universal Horror movies again. When we do return, we will look at the final member of the Horror trinity, the Wolf Man.

Universal Studios VIP Tour Review

universal_studios_hollywood_001For our recent honeymoon trip, my wife gave me an extra surprise. Our honeymoon took us to Disneyland for what we named The Epic Disneyland Honeymoon. And it was epic, especially since we were there right at the beginning of their Christmas season programing. But this was not the surprise she had for me. No, the surprise was a special VIP tour of Universal Studios.

I had been to Universal Studios Hollywood several times, and even been to Orlando once; these trips were done as the normal entry in the park that everyone takes, with the rides and the famous tram tour of the back lot. But this was different, this was the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience. It cost nearly $300.00 per person special ticket. It is red carpet treatment and makes you feel like a big shot.

If you have followed this site for a while, it will be no surprise that I am a huge Universal fan. My favorite movie of all time is Universal’s Casablanca, and my love of Universal Horror is well documented. Of course the woman I married is well aware of this love of all things Universal. Thanks to this, she felt it was worth the money to make sure that our Honeymoon would have an event that would have special meaning for me. If you share this love of Universal, or really just movies in general, it is something you may want to consider sometime.



Now when I say ‘surprise’ I want to be clear that I knew about it before we got on the airplane; she didn’t just spring it on me that morning, which is a good thing because we needed an early start. Staying at the Disneyland Hotel meant we needed a rental car, and fortunately Downtown Disney has a car rental place onsite. This was important because the VIP tour has a specific start time, which meant that taking the shuttle was not optional. We got an early enough start that, even with Los Angeles traffic, we got there with 20 minutes to spare. Basically, you need to be there prior to park opening.

Valet parking was part of the package, and once we were parked we made our way through the Universal Citywalk to the Front Entrance of the park, checking in at the special VIP entrance to the park. The tour is not something you can just sign up for on the spur of the moment; with limited space each day, you must reserve your space in advance.  At check-in were given our special VIP badges, and then we were taken into the not-yet-opened park and escorted to the VIP lounge. Walking through a theme park, which you have visited several times, before it is opened is a very surreal experience; it was really the perfect start to a day full of surreal experiences.

The VIP Lounge is a somewhat non-descript building in the middle of the upper level of the park. It is like a small but very nice restaurant. We were greeted at the door and escorted to the patio where pastries, fruit, and drinks were available. There were two tour groups on the patio, each group consisting of 12 people. We were told our tour guide’s name was Matthew and that he would come to collect us soon. The first group left a few minutes before Matthew came to collect us. He was a 20 year veteran of Universal Studios, having worked both in the park and on some extra gigs around the studios. He was a great host, which I assume is a job requirement for leading the VIP tour;  it was clear that he knew everyone in the park, and had developed relationships with them.

The first part of the tour consisted of going on the rides. As a VIP tour we did not go through the regular entrances; instead Matthew would take us through side entrances and to the front of the line for every ride. He also told us that, after the tour was done, our badges would still get us front of the line access. We started on the Simpsons ride, on the upper level. From there we went to the lower level for the Mummy and Transformer rides. Jurassic Park was closed that day for maintenance. From there it was back up top to the Terminator 2 3D show (this attraction was really showing its age). Matthew told us that it was the last month of the show before it would be closed down and replaced with a Despicable Me attraction. He then took us back to the VIP lounge for a gourmet lunch buffet (which was delicious). After lunch, we went through the Universal House of Horrors attraction, their year round haunted house.

Next was the center piece of the whole tour: the back lot tram ride. The normal tram tour is done in a large multi-car tram that holds an enormous number of people; since our tour group was only 12 people, obviously we would not need that. Instead we got on a small tram that reminded me of a trolley.  For the most part, the tram tour was the same as the normal one, going through the backlot, discussing Universal’s history, and having staged events like a flash flood or the encounter with King Kong. But there was more to it; the normal Tram tour is around 45 minutes, whereas ours was over 2 hours. That extra time was spent doing things that made the whole trip worthwhile. Some of it was simple; since our tram was small, we were able to go places the big trams couldn’t. So we got to see where the sound stages for a lot of shows were. We passed by the CSI sets, which had their doors open a bit, although all we could see were the backs of sets. Right after that was the first thing that made the VIP tour stand out: our tram pulled up to a sound stage and stopped, Matthew had us get out of the tram and check in with a security guard after which we were taken into the sound stage. It was the set for a TV show called Parenthood, specifically a house set. I’ll be honest I have never watched this show, but that didn’t matter, this was a working TV set and we were being allowed to go in and see how it was set up and what they do to shoot the show there. Matthew went over various technical details of the set, describing how things are constructed in order to film the series, including the lack of a ceiling on the house to make room for lighting, the trees outside on wheels and the backdrop. I found myself focusing on details, like the books on the shelves. From there it was more tram tour, including the city street sets. We got lucky, and in the distance we could see a scene for CSI being filmed, my wife was very excited when she spotted Ted Danson on the set.

The next special treat was another stop. We parked outside of a very non-descript building and took an elevator to the top floor. This building held the Universal Wardrobe and Props departments; each of these departments is the biggest, of their kind, in Hollywood. Matthew pointed out that anyone can rent from them, even members of the public. The building was really just a normal warehouse with some offices. It was not glitzy, until you paid attention to what was stored there. When Universal makes a costume for a movie or TV show, they take it back when they are done and add it to their wardrobe inventory for rental. An example is that the battle armor from Starship Troopers was reused for the show Firefly. There were racks of clothes of all types. One row was ball gowns, another was chainmail, both fake and real, yet another was a whole row of Santa Claus outfits.  At one point we stopped while Matthew checked to see if we could go into the next room; the costumes we stopped by were from Hellboy 2, and my inner fanboy rejoiced.



Down one floor was the props department, which is really just one big warehouse. At first glance it would not seem terribly exciting, unless you really paid attention. The first thing we saw was an aisle of nothing but lamps, but right next to it was a rack of disco balls, then a row of telephones arranged by date (oldest to newest),  followed by a row of body parts. Matthew explained that prop masters from different productions would come in with slips containing details about the production company, and the dates various props were needed; they would go through the department and if they came to something they needed they would tag it, marking it as reserved for them, and the department would record who was taking what. The production company would be responsible for collecting the props they needed on check-out day. During our visit, several people were loading carts with props. Some of the props were just for display, as they were too iconic for use in other productions, such as the dagger from the Shadow.

While we weren’t supposed to touch anything, Matthew did take us to one spot where we could. These were demo props for the tour, designed to look dangerous but be safe (for example, a foam frying pan painted to look real that he let my wife whack me over the head with). We also got to play with breakaway glass. Going down a couple of flights of stairs (and I assume skipping a couple of floors of props) we were at ground level where they have larger props like furniture, statues, phone booths, and a giant shopping cart from Jackass.



Back on the tram, we passed the Jaws set, the Bates Motel with an actor playing Norman, and the Bates House. Beyond the Bates House was the crashed airplane set from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The Tram stopped here and we were let out again; we were allowed to walk around the crash set, take pictures, and even touch some stuff. (Interesting note – the Station 2 set from Jurassic Park is hidden behind the crash set.)  After that it was back on the Tram to finish up that tour.

Returning to the park proper, we went to the special effects show where we had VIP seating. After that, we were taken to the Water World Stunt Show where, again, we had VIP seating. It was here that Matthew said goodbye, as this was the end of the tour. After the Stunt Show we had one last treat, a Q & A with a pair of the stunt performers.

And with that, we had about 20 minutes left for shopping before the park closed.

So I would definitely recommend this. The first part is fun, if you are a theme park fan. The second half is an absolute blast if you are a film or TV fan, especially if you have an interest in how things work behind the scenes. The food in the gourmet lunch is excellent, and the tour guide and all the staff went out of their way to make sure we felt special. At times it felt more like a friend sneaking us in the back entrance than going into a priority line, and I mean that in the best ways.

If you have a chance to go to Universal Studios and you can afford it, I would highly recommend getting the VIP package.

I give the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience an A+

Arrow Review

When I first heard that the CW was going to do a Green Arrow series, I was worried that it would be another “before they were a hero” concept like Smallville, as that seems to be their pitch for every DC comics based show.

Fortunately that is not the direction they went. However they still had to do something to drive me nuts. In this case it was calling the show Arrow, not Green Arrow, just Arrow.


Green Arrow is a character from the early forties. The general public may not be that familiar with him, but for the comic book fans he is a solid second tier character. Why mess with the iconic name.

And I have not been able to find an answer to this question anywhere. I would think they would offer some answer for the change, but no, nothing. The speculation is that due to the failure of the Green Lantern movie, the producers dropped the word green from the series title to avoid association. Also Greg Berlanti, one of the series co-creators, was a writer and producer on Green Lantern and I think that added to the need for distance.

So aside from the loss of the green how do I feel about the series?

Let’s take a look.

The premise of the series takes the basics of the comic book origin and uses it as a jumping off point. Oliver Queen, a rich socialite, is shipwrecked on an island for five years where he develops archery skills to survive. After being rescued from the island Queen comes home and becomes a Robin Hood themed crimefighter.

One of the series strengths is that it takes this basic story and filters it through the same sensibilities that fueled Nolen’s Batman trilogy.

Queen is now the son of a wealthy family. He is famous for being a rich party boy. While on a yacht trip with his father and his girlfriend’s sister, the yacht sinks and Oliver is the only survivor. Before dying his father confesses that he was corrupt and that he wants Oliver to survive, return home, and correct his mistakes by dealing with a list of other corrupt community leaders.

Using flashbacks the series fleshes out that Oliver was not alone on the island. It is clear that the skills he gained during the five years there were not self-taught.

Queen returns home, and lets people think he is returning to his party boy ways when really he is going after the people on his father’s list.

So how does the series work, both on it’s own and as an adaptation of Green Arrow.

As a series it works surprisingly well considering it is on the CW. The creators stated that they were using The Dark Knight trilogy as inspiration and it shows. The scripts are smart and there is at least a nod to practicality in how the heroics are presented.

One of the strengths is that the series does not make the mistake of having the characters act dumb in order to maintain their plot.

In the first three episodes Oliver has a body guard, John Diggle, thrust on him by his mother. In most other shows Diggle would have to be treated as a fool in order for Oliver to constantly ditch him and not have him figure out the truth. Here by the second episode Diggle knows something is up, and by the fourth Oliver has decided that he can trust Diggle and recruits him into the mission. This allows Diggle to be treated as a professional and for the show not to strain credibility with keeping Oliver’s secret. This is one of the mistakes that Smallville use to make and it is really good to see it avoided here.

Another good decision is to make sure that this is not a super powered world. Even the most extreme characters are just really well trained, but not superhuman.

The casting is also well done for the most part. This is a CW series so of course it is populated with a gaggle of pretty people, but it also has a better balance of non-model types. Also the type of people Oliver’s party boy lifestyle attracts makes this at least make sense.

Stephen Amell is well suited to play this version of Oliver Queen. He is athletic and in scenes where Oliver is doing parkour it appears that Amell is doing it himself. He also brings a good balance to scenes that flashback to old party boy Oliver vs. determined crimefighter Oliver.  There is also a bit of fan service with him, as not an episode goes by that he does not appear shirtless at least once.

Katie Cassidy as Laurel Lance does fairly well. She is certainly much improved over when she first showed up as a reoccurring character on Supernatural. She holds her own with Amell in their scenes together and there is certainly chemistry. The biggest issue with her character is that she is they want to portray her as able to handle herself in a fight, and she does not have the shape or presence to quite pull that off. As her character is based on the Black Canary this is going to be a sticking point for a lot of comic fans.

Paul Blackthorn as her father Detective Quentin Lance is probably the strongest actor of the cast, and his character provides some good tension. He is a good cop, but is angry at Oliver who he blames for his other daughter’s death.  The only downside is that Blackthorn is playing Lance much the same as he played Harry Dresden on the Dresden Files and so it can be a little distracting if you watched that series.

David Ramsey as John Diggle is the only one on the main cast whose character does not have roots in the comics. Earlier I described his situation with both how well his character is written and played. His story arch is still developing, with him now being partner and voice of reason to Oliver. It is going to be interesting to see where they take him.

Susanna Thompson plays Oliver’s mother Moira. She is playing an odd balance of the loving mother to Oliver and yet she is clearly at least partially responsible for the yacht wreak that sets the series in motion. Right now it is unclear how deep she is in with the bad guys and her character suffers from needing more development

Colin Donnell and Willa Holland have it even worse in the development territory. Donnell plays Tommy Merlyn, Oliver’s best friend who expects that now he is back the good old days are back too. There are hints that he suspects more, but he does not get a lot of chance to show that. In the comics Merlyn is a rival archer and one of Green Arrows main enemies. Hopefully as the series progresses he will get more development.

Holland plays Oliver’s sister Thea. Her role on the series is that of a reminder to Oliver of his shallow past as she is turning out the same way. Her nick name is Speedy and it appears she was based in part on the second Speedy to be Green Arrows sidekick in the comics. She really has very little to do other than pout and get lectures from Oliver.

So what we have now that we are five episodes into the series is a good, if slightly flawed superhero series. I feel there is a lot of potential here and it seems that they are going in the right direction.

I give Arrow a B-, but I will take a look at it again at the end of the season and see where we are then.


Frankenweenie Review

Since we are now into the Halloween season, what better way to kick it off then with Tim Burton’s new film Frankenweenie? This is the full length stop-motion remake of Burton’s 1984 live action short about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life.

I’m not going to cover the differences between the two here. I’m going to focus on the new film as it is its own entity and there are enough differences between the two.

The film is a parody and homage to the horror film genre that Burton so clearly loves. It obviously references old Universal Horror, but also touches on Hammer Horror, Japanese kaiju, and a smart nod to Gremlins. There is also tribute to horror stars with characters based on Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorrie, and a clip of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

At the heart of the film however is the simple tale of a boy and his dog. The main character Victor Frankenstein (Yes there is a lot of naming like that in the film) is a boy who doesn’t go out and make friends, but rather spends his time with his dog Sparky making homemade movies. When his father’s efforts to get Victor involved in sports inadvertently leads to Sparky’s death, Victor is inspired to bring him back based on a lesson from the schools eccentric science teacher.

After his success several of his classmates learn what Victor has done, leading them to try themselves. Chaos ensues.

Burton has taken some heat in recent years over some not so great films, like Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows. With Frankenweenie Burton is clearly back on form. The large part of that is that this is a movie with heart. Victor is a character you can relate to, especially if you have ever had a pet that you loved.

One of the things I really liked about Frankenweenie was that the movie avoids a lot of clichés that normally plague a story like this. Victor is a loner, but not because the other children shun him or bully him. I was bracing myself early in the film for a scene showing Victor being bullied that never happened. From all appearances Victor could make friends but was just content being a loner. I like that the film showed that basically this was alright, even if it did worry his father.

From a technical side I was amazed at how well the stop-motion figures were able to convey the characters emotions. I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas right before seeing Frankenweenie and I could see how much the craft has evolved in the last two decades.

The voice work was also top notch. Defying expectations this is the first Burton movie since Big Fish to feature neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter. Other past Burton collaborators do make an appearance though. Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short both voice multiple characters including Victor’s parents. Winona Ryder voices Elsa van Helsing, Victor’s neighbor and love interest. Martin Landau steals the show as Victor’s science teacher Mr Rzykruski who is clearly based on Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price. Charlie Tahan is the voice of Victor and his voice helps carry the emotional core of the film. Special notice also needs to go to Atticus Shaffer as Victor’s classmate Edgar “E” Gore, who is of course based on the classic Igor character.

Frankenweenie is a Burton getting back to what he does best, telling a heartwarming story as filter through an Addams Family sensibility.

I give Frankenweenie an A+.


The Booth at the End

I recently discovered the Booth at the End during a very boring Saturday. With nothing better do due I decided to check this show out after seeing it advertised several times on Hulu. This became one of those odd moments where I (A) wanted to kick myself for not finding it sooner and (B) was glad that I was able to watch the first two seasons all in one go.

The Booth at the End is a web series originally produced by the FX network website. Despite a bit of research I could not figure out if they are still involved or not. Either way it is currently showing exclusively on Hulu. It is what I have termed a type one web series, which is a series that is produced by a professional studio and using professional actors for distribution on the web.

The premise is that there is a man who sits in a booth in a diner. People will come to him with something they want. He will make a deal with them, where he gives them a task to do and when they complete the task they will get what they want. Part of the deal is that the people have to check in with the man and give him an update on how their task is progressing. The things the people want can range from money, to curing a child of cancer to bringing the dead back to life.

The tasks will often not appear to have anything to do with the goal, but are always something the person asking would not do of their own will. The man who wants his son cured of cancer must find and kill a 5 year old girl. The girl who wants money to save her father’s restaurant must find a shut in and make them leave their home. The young man who wants to be immortal must “mark three people” with no explanation of what that means. Another twist is that the man does not directly give the reward. Instead completing the task causes the reward to manifest on its own. In many cases the stories intertwine. One man is given the task of protecting the girl that the other man is tasked with killing.

Some people complete their tasks and they always get what they asked for. Others try and fail and still get what they want. Some are stopped by others and get nothing. And some realize that what they wanted isn’t what they really wanted after all and abandon the task.

The entire series takes place in the diner so the story is told by the people coming in to update the man. This is obviously dictated by the show’s limited budget, but rather than a weakness the show makes this aspect one of its strengths.  Normally you want to follow the “show, not tell” paradigm, but here the reverse is true. What you have is a collection of private conversations and the emotion displayed is often that of someone dealing with the aftermath of their actions.

As is often the case, when you are dealing with a low budget show you need to step up in writing and acting to make up for it. I honestly believe that several actors on this series are using scenes from it on their demo reels. The scripts are strong and clever. It is amazing the amount of information they convey not only in what they say, but what they leave unsaid.

The actors on the show are a collection of actors that you see in supporting roles or guest star roles on other shows. The lead is played by Xander Berkeley who is familiar face from shows like 24 and Nikita. His unnamed character, called only the Man in the credits is a calm collected person who seems a bit detached. The man seems to have no vested interest in the people he deals with completing their tasks or not. Berkeley underplays the man but still conveys that a lot is going on under the surface.

The other stand out character is Doris played by Jenni Blong who True Blood fans will recognize as Sookie’s mother. Doris is the waitress at the diner in the first season. She does not ask the man for anything, seeming only interested in getting to know him, something he is not comfortable with. In the second season when the man moves to another diner she shows up again and reveals that there may be more going on with her.

Two other stand-out performances are Jennifer Del Rosario, who plays Melody, the only other character to appear in both seasons, and Noel Fisher who plays Dillon, a man who wants immortality whose story crosses over with Melody. Both provide very emotionally performances with Fisher providing one of the most heartbreaking performances of the whole series in his last appearance. If there is any justice he will find more work based on just that.

The nature of the show naturally provokes a lot of online speculation from its fans. Most center on the nature of the man, but I think there is a lot more interesting details in the other characters. The man is not the protagonist of the series; at least not in season one. He is a well written plot device, he servers to motivate the people who deal with him, but they are the ones that grow and change. Second season gives the man more to work with himself, giving him some growth as well, but even then it is the people who come to him that are interesting.

Put yourself in their shoes. You learn there is a man who can give you anything you want as long as you fulfill a deal with him. The deal will be difficult, maybe even unthinkable, but you will get what you want. How far are you willing to go for what you want? That’s the hook of the series.

As for the nature of the man, a lot of fans want to put him in Judo-Christian terms. They speculate that he is either the Devil or an angel. I personally think that is too simple for this show. If we look at him in context of archetype he is a trickster. He provides a deal that allows people to face a truth about who they really are while they work to complete their tasks.

I would give The Booth at the End a solid grade of A as a web series. I encourage everyone to check it out.

Site update

Sorry I missed last Saturday’s posting. A combination of illness and the article I was working on not coming out the way I hoped led to that happening. I am working on a post for tomorrow.

I’m still working on the move to the www.fanboynewsnetwork.com domain. I am waiting on one last element to be finished before I make the move. Once the move is completed I will get to work on setting up the Podcast.

Starting with tomorrow’s post I will be adding a rating system to any reviews. I will be using an A through F grading system with A+ being an all time classic, C being enjoyable, but flawed, and F being please do not waste your time with the tripe.

Finally I will not be getting a chance to see Avengers until tomorrow night. I will review it, but it will be a special mid-week post.

Review: John Carter

John Carter is a movie that has one of the oddest handicaps to overcome, the legacy of its source material. Edgar Rice Burroughs first Barsoom story was published in February 1912 so we are talking about a story that is literally 100 years old.  And it is more importantly one of the most influential science fiction series ever. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan were all inspired by the novels in their work. You can see the influence in Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Superman, and Star Wars. 

This legacy has led many reviewers to label the story derivative. That’s sort of like someone slamming the Lord of the Rings films as a Dungeons and Dragons rip off. I would prefer they get the order of their chickens and eggs correct.
Ignoring all of that, there is one question that needs to be answered, was it a good movie?
Let’s find out.
The movie uses the same framing device that the first novel used, Edgar Rice Burroughs reading a journal left by his uncle John Carter that details his adventures on Mars.
The movie takes a while to get going setting up the basic Martian conflict, the Burroughs framing device, and where Carter’s life is, before eventually getting him to Mars. It does get points for making the means of transportation make more sense and even a plot point.
Once Carter is on Mars or Barsoom as the inhabitants call it the movie kicks into gear. As is my habit, I will not get into a scene by scene breakdown. But there is a lot to call out.
The script on this movie is pretty strong. There is an actual story happening, not just excuses for action scenes. The characters have motivations that make sense and can but people into conflict without forcing it. It’s not an overly complex story, but it is there.
As John Carter Taylor Kitsch has to basically carry the whole film and overall he does a good job with it. While he is not going to be lauded as the next great action star from his performance he does well and if there is a major flaw it is that there is not a lot of humor in Carter and all his lines are delivered with a great deal of earnestness.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris steals just about every scene she is in. True to the books Dejah is a strong courageous woman who can hold her own. The Damsel in Distress aspect from the books is toned down for the movie, but is still evident. Collins plays her as an intelligent woman who is not content to wait for someone to come rescue her, but is not above relying on Carter do help win the day.
Williem Defoe has a harder performance to put across as Tar Tarkas, Carter’s Thark ally. All the Tharks are CGI so Defoe has to use his voice. Reports are that he and the other Thark principals were on set as is the current practice for CGI characters, so he is credited with the full performance, not just voice.
The movie also is a mini reunion for the HBO series Rome. Ciaran Hinds who played Julius Caesar plays Tardos Mors King of Helium and Dejah’s father (at least I think he is. In the books he was her grandfather) James Purefoy, who was Mark Antony plays Mors’ right hand man Kantos Kan, and Polly Walker who was Atia plays the Thark Sarkoja.
Mark Strong as Matai Shang, the antagonist that is motivating most of the action. I like that he opted to play his character as sincere without cruelty. It works better than being a mustache twirler.
Dominic West as Sab Than probably suffers the worst of the entire main cast. As Matai’s pawn he has the weakest motivation of any characters.  Frankly he is a bit of a mustache twirler.
Overall I feel this was a good movie and worth seeing. The major flaw I see isn’t with the movie itself, but how Disney has marketed it. It was presented as a standard action flick. A better campaign would have celebrated the history of Barsoom and the legacy of the story.  The fact that the title is just John  Carter, not John Carter of Mars, shows that they had no idea what to do with it.
I recommend this movie and hope that we see more of Barsoom in the future.

Review: Chronicle

I finally saw Chronicle last week.  I know, I call myself a fanboy and yet it took me two weeks to get around to seeing a movie documenting a geek fantasy come to life.  All I can offer in my defense was that I had to go with my sister to see Woman in Black, and then I got really sick.

But enough about me, I have a request to review this movie, and damn it, that is what I am going to do.
Basic set up: Three high school students come across a mysterious object in the woods. After this encounter, they slowly develop telekinetic powers.
 The hook: it is a found-footage movie.
When ads came out about this movie I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I am a leery of the whole found-footage genre. I think it is getting overused and you always have the sense that all the characters you are watching are doomed.  On the other hand the trailers looked like it was going to be a good movie.
So which hand won?
First, I think we need to look at what kind of movie we are looking at. Strip away the found footage aspect, and this is at its heart a superhero origin film. But even that is over-simplified, as it does not follow the normal conventions of an origin film either. 
I don’t want to give too much away, but basically this is a superhero origin film that does not focus on the person destined to be the hero. In pure geek terms this is like a Spider-man movie that focuses on Harry Osborn.
They also give a good reason why it is a found-footage film. In most films of this subset, it does not make sense why the characters would keep filming as the events progress. Here, Andrew, the main focus of the three leads, is heavily abused and bullied. He starts filming things as a coping mechanism, and as the film progresses it becomes clear that his filming has become obsessive.  Also since he is telekinetic he can be filming and still be in the shot.  It is a good hand wave and makes this movie much more interesting than a lot of others have been when this technique is used.
The heart of the movie is the main characters and their relationship. Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan , as our camera man is also our main character. As I said above, he is dealing with his father who is an abusive drunk, a mother who is dying, and he is a target of bullies in his neighborhood and school.  His retreat behind his camera makes perfect sense. His only friend is his cousin Matt, played by Alex Russell, who is more popular, and has been growing away from him. Rounding out our trio is Steve, played by Michael B. Jordan; a friend of Matt’s who is running for class president.
The first act of the movie is about the three boys bonding after they start gaining their powers. It plays true because I honestly believe that any group of teenage boys in the same circumstance would act the same way. 
The second act starts to turn dark as the first signs of strain from Andrew start showing. An abused kid starts getting power; the tragedy is almost a forgone conclusion.
In the third act, when things fall apart you still feel for them, because so much time was spent showing who they are and how they ended up there.
The films weakness comes from the supporting characters. They are just not well-developed. Andrew’s father is just a stereotype, a drunken abuser with no redeeming qualities. There were a couple of chances to give his character some depth, but they were not taken; instead just driving home what a horrible person he is. Andrew’s mother has no character beyond being sick and dying.
I wish a little more depth was given to Matt’s romantic interest, Casey. She is a video blogger, which gives Matt a chance at scenes that do not involve Andrew.  It is implied she is into social causes, but really she is there to give Matt someone to relate to beyond his buddies.
As a movie about superpowers it works great. They set the rules the powers obey, and stay consistent to them. They do fall prey to psychic nosebleed trope (please read the rebuttal to this trope here). As previously stated I think the depiction of what the boys do with their powers is very realistic. They do not start out as very powerful, and so they test what they can do, and largely use it to screw around in novel ways. The special effects are fairly effective, especially in conjunction with the home video style.  The way they handle the characters flying is especially effective.
Final verdict: This is a very good movie that every self-respecting geek needs to add to their collection once it has its DVD release.

Universal Horror: Frankenstein



Say it and an image immediately pops into people’s heads. The flat head, the electrodes in the neck (that everyone mistakenly calls bolts), the green skin, the heavily lidded eyes, and the lumbering movement.

And not one bit of that description appears anywhere in Mary Shelly’s original novel.

No, you can thank the 1931 motion picture for the popular image of the Frankenstein monster, and for cementing him as an icon of our culture.

To be fair the movie is also largely based on a stage play version, written by Peggy Webling.

One of the challenges in attempting to review this film is to separate it from the very pop culture it spawned.

The movie has an interesting opening. A well-dressed man steps out from behind a curtain. Speaking directly to the audience he warns them that what they are about to see may shock and horrify them.

Then we go to credits. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure what is up with the credits. Behind the title of the movie is the top half of someone’s head and beams are shooting from the eyes. The next part where the cast and crew credits are shown have a swirling kaleidoscope of eyes.

There are two interesting notes in the credits. First is that the monster gets fourth billing and is billed as being played by “?”. These credits are given again at the end and “?” is replace by Boris Karloff.

The other odd credit is “Based on the Novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelly”. I have not found any reason that Mary Shelly was referred to this way. I have to assume it was just the casual sexism of the 1930s.

I’m not going to do a scene-by-scene break down, so here is the summary:

The first part of the film details Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s efforts to create life by building a body from recent corpses and animating it by way of a new wave length of energy he has discovered. Once he succeeds, the film details the struggle of the Doctor with this new life he has created, and his creation’s attempt to understand the world he has been born too.  This spirals out of control as the creature becomes violent due to abuse at the hands of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz. Tragedy ensues leading to the monster’s demise and the Doctor nearly dying himself.

So let’s start with what works. And the first thing I want to point out is the performance of Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein. I think this role gets glossed over often, due to everyone focusing on Karloff’s performance as the monster. But the movie is as much about Henry as it is the creature. He is a man obsessed, but the foundation of what he is doing is sound. Clive has a great speech shortly after the creature is brought to life about scientific exploration and how its boundaries need to be pushed if anything is to be achieved. However, he has moments that show he is not as well hinged as he wants others to believe. He has bouts of mania and despair. A more modern film would probably come right out and say was suffering from bipolar disorder. While a little over the top for modern tastes, for the era it was a really good performance. His lines “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive” and “Now I know what it feels like to be God” are classics, and often quoted. This performance set the precedent for all film mad scientists that would come after.

Another stand out is Dwight Frye as Fritz, Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant. If Clive set the mold of the Mad Scientist then Frye set the mold for deranged lab assistant. While the level of Henry’s obsession is a slow burn at first, that something is not right with Fritz is clear from the beginning and has nothing to do with his physical deformity. Frye portrays Fritz’s madness well, and walks a fine line in playing big yet never going over the top. Every Igor that followed owes Fritz a debt.

And of course you have Karloff as the monster. There is a reason that this role became an icon.  Aided by the amazing make up work of Jack Pierce, Karloff portrayed the creature to perfection. The creature is both innocent and menacing. Karloff wanted to make sure that there was more going on than just a lumbering beast and he succeeded. There is a reason the creature is often portrayed as the good guy in many of the stories and adaptations that followed, and it all goes back to Karloff.

You also have a fine performance from Edward Van Sloan as Henry’s mentor Dr. Walden (he also played the well-dressed man at the opening warning to the audience), who is horrified at what Henry has done, and yet can’t resist the fascination of the science, and a decent performance from Marilyn Harris as the little girl who befriends the monster only to be killed because the creature doesn’t know how strong it really is.

A lot of credit for the success of the movie has to go to director James Whale. His pacing keeps the audience’s attention even 80 years later.

But not everything holds up.

Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth is a throw-away part. Her whole purpose in the movie seems to be to worry about Henry and in turn to have him worry about her.  While the subplot of their wedding helps drive some of the action, she is not a compelling character.

But even worse is Frederick Kerr as Henry’s father Baron Frankenstein. He is basically a blustering old fool. He adds little to the plot, and at best seems to be comic relief.

The Baron also brings up another point that does work now.  Just where the hell is the movie set? In the original novel it was Switzerland, and the movie has hints of this, but it might also be Germany. That would be great but the various characters have a wide range of accents. I’m sure it comes down no one carrying about the accents that much. But if you think about it for a minute it is just weird.

The sets are another issue. Specifically several outdoor scenes are clearly filmed in-studio and you can see streaks on the back drop.

There was also the tacked-on happy ending. It is pretty clear that originally Frankenstein was going to die at the hands of his creation. The studio was not happy with that and had a final scene added that showed Henry convalescing with his father doddering about. In fairness, this scene left the door open for the sequel which many feel is a superior film.

The legacy of this film more than makes up for the short comings I have presented. As I said before, the image of the monster from this movie has become iconic.  Every Frankenstein’s monster that has come after is compared to Karloff’s. Also many of the trappings we associate with the story were started here. Nowhere in the Shelly novel is the means of the monster’s creation detailed. But the use of electricity has become common due to the films influence. The same is true of the lab assistant. In the novel, Frankenstein worked alone.

I would also argue that the misunderstood monster came from here. Early scenes with the creature show that it was not inherently aggressive, and that it even wanted a connection with its creator. It was abuse from Fritz and the revulsion of Dr. Walden that made it lash out. Even the death of the little girl was not intentional and clearly upset the creature greatly when he realized she was dead.

And again, Dwight Frye’s Fritz set the tone for the horror film henchman. You see this from Ygor in Son of Frankenstein to Willy Lomas in Dark Shadows and even Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The same is true of Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein. It’s not even worth listing them all. Look at a crazed or obsessed scientist in any move since and you will see echoes of Clive’s performance.

Another influence is in the torch-wielding mob. This has become as much a staple as the gothic castle. And speaking of gothic castles, while this movie did not originate that, it was the first use of the castle thunder effect, and that trope it did start.

I think it also needs credit for kicking off the career of Boris Karloff. His contribution to film and television is significant, and had James Whale not seen him in the Universal commissary, we would have never had him as the narrator of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Finally, this movie is what truly kicked off Universal Horror. Even though Dracula came first, it was Frankenstein’s success that proved to the studio that there was an ongoing audience for horror.

Speaking of Dracula, next time we delve into the Universal Horror vault, we will take a look at the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi.