Light classical: A critical review of “The Vision of Escaflowne” (1996)

I remember when the anime “The Vision of Escaflowne” (“Visions of Escaflowne?” whatever) was going to air on Fox Kids. Its blend of high fantasy and giant robots appealed to my middle school mind. Or maybe it was just the name–what the heck is an escaflowne? Either way, I missed the first episode. Luckily, I had a playground friend who watched even more cartoons than me and could fill me in. Thus informed, I watched a few episodes of the show before being distracted by whatever also came out that year.

When the show popped into my adult mind the other day, I started researching it out of curiosity and learned a couple of things. First, I hadn’t technically missed the first episode. Fox Kids cut that out of the lineup due to violent content. Second, the show was sometimes described as “dark fantasy.” All this put together sounded pretty awesome, so I spent some time with the show.

“Escaflowne” follows a pretty standard pattern. A girl named Hitomi is accidentally transported to a steampunk/fantasy land where everyone conveniently speaks Japanese (or English if you’re watching the dub). The land is in a state of constant and increasingly nightmarish war, so naturally she gets mixed up in the affairs of a brash young king, a rogue knight, a delightfully villainous and scenery chewing mad man-child pilot, and some old guy strapped to an H. R. Giger-style throne. Also, Atlantis for some reason.

The uncut first episode starts out surprisingly tame. It’s about a girl who runs high school track and occasionally glimpses flashes of a more fantastic reality. This was too much for Fox Kids? Then, in the second half of the same episode, a swordsman tumbles onto the running track and fights a dragon. And by “a dragon,” I mean “a squat grotesque that resembles a dying lizard or toad.” And by “fights,” I mean “pops its eyeball like a pus-laden zit.”

Ah. I think I get it now.

“Escaflowne” is not a constant parade of violence, blood, attempted assault, collateral damage and torture, but it does not shy away from any of those elements either. In the first couple of episodes, a number of good characters you’d expect to hang around are systematically killed. Later in the show, a lesser villain is introduced who feels like he might hang around for a couple of episodes. Nope. Instead, the good guys shove him off a cliff, and the camera hovers over his body for a minute to make sure he’s dead.

As much fun as dark fantasy violence is, it’s just one part of the narrative. It gets a little more stage time than space opera-esque political intrigue–sanctions are mentioned at one point–but neither element is as prominent as the romance. As the show evolves, that’s what it really ends up being about, which is fine I guess. Things are told from the POV of a high school girl, and the cast includes gallant knights, so it might be weird if it weren’t romantic. The show tries to treat relationships seriously, so it works for the most part. Besides, every time this blog started to get bored of the raging hormones, something violent or trippy would pop out (I swear, one episode toward the middle reminded me of the head spinning Russian sci fi flick “Solaris”).

Despite her inability to make up her mind, I like Hitomi as a protagonist. She starts off kind of a mess, but she’s just been plucked by a cosmic claw machine off Earth and plopped onto a planet where dragons and robots coexist in constant combat, so I think it’s fair to cut her some slack. Her love triangle is a harmless enough hoop for her to jump through–although I do wonder how she keeps her school uniform so clean on a planet that clearly lacks washing machines.

As a protagonist, Hitomi is probably more realistic than interesting. In fact, “Escaflowne” does not offer much in the way of originality. It does a little philosophizing about luck, destiny and gravity, and a little psychoanalyzing about relationships, trauma and childhood, but much of that inexplicably falls away for an ultimate message of “war is gross.” Not to sound crass, but that’s hardly an innovation. Everyone from the Greeks to Gundam has hit that beat. The philosophizing and psychoanalyzing from earlier were stronger, but they hardly delved as deep as “Evangelion” did the year before.

Nossir, if one were going to watch “Escaflowne,” it would be for the presentation rather than the content. The look and feel of the show is largely unlike anything before or since. I don’t mean the animation, which varies in quality from episode to episode. Sometimes it’s pretty fluid. What I mean is the design.

The environments and character designs are a delightful mashup of all sorts of sources, and the result genuinely feels timeless. Where else or when else are you going to find steampunk mechs, corpulent dragons, Renaissance Italian architecture, World War I helmets, Blade Runner pyramids, ruined jungle temples, eerie doppelgangers and twin sister cat girl assassins who almost make out, all side by side? The soundtrack is likewise eclectic and eccentric, mixing stark atmospheric pieces and driving rhythms with sweeping orchestral movements. It’s good, but Yoko Kanno worked on it, so that’s probably a given.

Everything is helped by the repeated images and breakneck pace–apparently the show was trimmed by a few episodes from its original intended run, but the trimming was done in such a way that nothing narrative was lost. It can feel like you’ll be lost if you miss an episode–if you miss two minutes you can feel lost–but the trade off is it feels like there’s something new every second. This is definitely a point in the show’s favor, since everything looks so intricate and there’s hardly time to notice any flaws, particularly in the first half of the series. The second half, when things start to slow down, is when the show feels less interesting. Or maybe it’s just weepier. At least most of the conveniences that drive the plot are contextualized and the violence returns for the last episode, although the show definitely animates one-on-one duels better than sprawling battles.

“The Vision of Escaflowne” is everything you’ve heard it is, perhaps even a little less, but it’s still pretty to look at. Everything about it seems familiar but different, and while this blog knows its copying something, it can’t quite figure out what (the show was a flop in Japan, so maybe it left everyone scratching their heads a little). Between the steampunk airships, the fantasy swashbuckling, the high romance and bloody low blows, the closest I can think of is the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (if John Carter were a high school girl). It’s weird, tonstant weader, but good old anime weird, where the characters had thick outlines, the images were needlessly violent just to succeed on television, and everyone had a nose. It’s not a classic, but it is light classical.

Black Friday Blues: News December 2020

I think we can all agree that 2020 kind of sucked. It wrecked havoc with the health and finances of people across the country and the globe. Being a professional writer means working from home is always an option, but even freelance work has been spotty. The lack of paid writing meant I had more time to focus on my literary writing, and I ended up with something to show for it. Accordingly, as weird as it is to compose some shameless self-promotion right now, I definitely have the opportunity to do so. I hope I am sufficiently grateful for it.

If you haven’t found an oversized stocking stuffer for everyone yet, this blog has some recommendations for all your thriller fans who can read. You can probably guess they’re all anthologies featuring stories written by me: the time travel collection “On Time” for the sci fi fan; the murder anthology “Hookman and Friends” for the slasher reader; or the retro styled “Scary Stuff” for the pulp horror connoisseur.

On the other hand, if you just want some fast and free Yuletide entertainment, you can read a couple of my pieces online. My slightly surreal psychological thriller “Worse Than Wolves” can be read at The Fabulist Words & Art. It is technically a Christmas story–admittedly one that may or may not involve werewolves–so this is the most appropriate time of year to read it. Likewise, introspective sci fi-flavored short “Life After Roswell” can be found in PDF form in the September 2020 issue of Red Planet Magazine’s archive.

Also, a guest post I wrote about unconventional time machines in fiction just ran at the Transmundane Press blog. Somehow, I managed to name-drop H. P. Lovecraft in it, although one of this blog’s specialties is getting Lovecraft name-dropped into everything. Feel free to give that a read.

All right, farewell to all that. What’s on the schedule for the next couple of weeks? This blog has a gift bag of Christmas horror movies to review when we get closer to the holiday itself, not to mention a firecracker of a haunted house flick to send out the year, all keeping up the purposefully-poorly-sketched-out theme of “homecoming.” But before we get into those, there might be one more anime series review post. Dark fantasy instead of murder thriller and decidedly retro instead of contemporary. Unless I decide to do something completely different. Either way, thanks for sticking with me, tonstant weader. Read you next year.

Everything new is old again: A critical look at “Higurashi” (2020) so far

This blog has pondered in the past the fairness, relevance and even necessity of comparing remakes and reboots to their progenitors. However, comparison seems this seems inescapable with “Higurashi: When They Cry Karma,” which this blog will call “Higurashi” 2020 for simplicity’s sake. Not only is it an animated version of a visual novel, it could also be considered a reboot of a 14-year-old anime.

For those not in the know, the Higurashi franchise begins with an episodic visual novel 2002. With no plot arc choices or dialogue trees, players were reduced to readers solving a disjointed, supernaturally flavored mystery. This was static even by visual novel standards. Perhaps the most apt description of the games was put forth by the UK Anime Network:
“Higurashi” is a game only in the most abstract sense of the word.

I’ve never played the games, but I have seen the first season of the 2006 series–or maybe it’s better described as the first series; I was never clear on that–and it is a deceptively violent masterpiece of psychological horror. Any discussion of “Higurashi” 2020 will involve the 2006 series, as well as the original games. One may ask, even if they’re both based on the same source, why would is it necessary to compare them? Well, the new series uses the same voice actors as the old series, so it’s basically begging for it.

Funimation, which is streaming “Higurashi” 2020, right now, describes the plot as: “Mysterious goings-on have disrupted life in a small town.” That is technically correct, but it’s a bit like saying the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is: “A young man encounters nosy guests and unexpected challenges while running a motel.” A more complete plot would be:

Mild mannered high schooler Keiichi Maebara (or middle schooler, whatever) leaves the city for his family home in Hinamizawa. The rural town appears sleepy, but it hides a secret under that facade, a secret that seems to change depending on who’s looking. Whether its a serial killer, a criminal organization running the village or the centuries-old cult of a demonic deity, Keiichi and his peers–all local girls with their own issues–will have to solve the mysteries or be consumed by them.

In comparison to its 2006 predecessor, this “Higurashi” is much more direct. I don’t even mean more accessible, because the show is still mysterious. It’s just much more direct about things. It gives its information in a much more direct way, sometimes sooner or sometimes just more of it. Images and lines of dialogue appear to have been added or reshuffled to make the narrative a smoother affair.

This blog is not a fan of the directness. There is more to “Higurashi” as a psychological thriller than its twists and screwy narrative, but part of its fun is wading through all that. Anything that clears its purposefully muddy waters doesn’t help it.

There’s still plenty of spooky atmosphere though, most of it courtesy of the voice actors. Admittedly Soichiro Hoshi and Mika Kanai as Keichi and Satoko respectively do not sound like teenagers any more, but the performances themselves are all strong. Satuski Yukino is especially good as the diverse voice of the Sonozaki sisters, and Chafurin’s work as Detective Oishi is as easy on the ears as ever.

Something else that’s notably new is the animation style. Even people who liked the 2006 series usually agree that its weakest point was its animation, which was frequently simplistic or generic. In 2020, the animation is still pretty generic, but at least it’s more detailed. Smatterings of CGI, which often look ugly in the middle of traditionally animated works, is relatively seamless. And sometimes when it all comes together, the result is quite pretty, as in Rika’s deftly smooth ritual dance.

While it’s easy to see this as an improvement, this blog is not entirely convinced. The animation in “Higurashi” 2006 could be erratic, but it was free to lurch from goofy and ugly to monstrous and memorable. “Higurashi” 2020 has yet to sink to lows of 2006, but the cost is character.

There is another 2020 show that we can compare to “Higurashi” 2020, and that’s “Magia Record.” It’s cosmic horror instead of psychological horror, but it’s also a kind of reboot that utilizes some of the old talent; it’s also from a favorite franchise of mine, making me approach it with the same blend of excitement and skepticism. Unlike “Higurashi,” however, it did something a little different with its characters and themes, developing an independent identity and driving away my skepticism. “Higurashi” hasn’t, and I’m losing my skepticism at a much slower rate.

Shoot, this probably sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not quite right. “Higurashi” is still a good story, and this particular presentation of it is fine so far. It’s got excellent vocal performances, a solid opening theme, and plenty of atmosphere and violence and blood. However, almost everything about it–from its original cast to its more direct approach to its improved-but-still-generic animation–feels frustratingly safe. If this “Higurashi” wants distinction, it will have to take some chances.

A walk in the art: A critical review of “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” (2017)

It’s probably fair to say that video games don’t suffer from the mystery science ghetto the way they used to. In fact, that’s an interesting question. What do you feel more comfortable admitting to your normie peers: that you like video games? that you like horror movies? or that you like Japanese cartoons about young men in fantastic settings who inadvertently surround themselves with groups of sexually hungry young women?

As interesting a question as that may be, it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a game that developer Ninja Theory sold as more than a game. It was an experience, one that took mental health and authentic medieval history seriously. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that “Hellblade” is a hack and slash dark fantasy game. Achieving a balance between those concepts might be a thankless task, but it’s one the game itself set out to do, and the developers have no one to blame but themselves.

“Heckblade: Shenmue’s Sacrifice” concerns the story of Senua, who is not a Viking but has come to Viking Island to save her dead lover’s soul from Hel, the Norse goddess of hell, unless of course she’s just having a psychotic break. Either way, she’ll navigate the island with the company of the myriad voices in her head, but she’ll have to face demons, seemingly from without and within, before she can achieve her goal.

In the conceptual balance alluded to before–the balance between experience and game–“Hellblade” exceeds at experience. Everything good about the game is experiential, and the environment one experiences is good indeed. From the minute one starts playing, the visuals and sound are just about perfect. A narrator announces that Senua has reached “the land of mist and fog,” and players can practically feel the damp and chill along with the character. Every environment of “Hellblade” is rich and painstakingly crafted.

Players who want to examine every nook and cranny of the environments will find some Dark Age design to observe. Additionally, the lighting and sound shift, sometimes not so subtly, in relation to Senua’s mood and perspective. Sometimes things are pretty and calm, as when Senua is optimistic or energetic; other times they’re dark and stormy, as when Senua hears a grave legend or unhappy prophecy. Regardless, this environmental flexibility always feels natural and never intrusive.

If “Hellblade” functions at all as a psychological horror game, it’s here that it does best, creating engaging and atmospheric environments that range from spooky forests and abandoned settlements to screaming hellscapes and beached dragon ships rotting into the ground. There is a constant sense that things are forgotten and falling apart, and it is a testament to the game’s design that the mood always feels fresh.

The sound is likewise fitting. On the ambient side of things, forests hum, swamps plop, fire crackles and swords clank, but it’s the voices in Senua’s head that draw the most attention. Well placed and well acted, they seamlessly blend into the experience. Also, since the game has no tutorial, the voices shout out advice. That’s a nice touch, although it can grate after a while.

The presentation is great, but unfortunately “Hellblade” suffers as a game. Remember how we said “from the minute one starts playing”? Well, that was a lie. The minute one starts playing is actually after a minute and a half of cutscene, which is fine, but control is leashed for another five and a half minutes. One can just barely adjust the camera while Senua paddles past the credits. Maybe you think that’s creative, but I’m pointing it out because it’s indicative of the game’s attitude toward the player.

“Hellblade” wants you to experience something, and it wants you to experience it the way it wants you to experience it, dammit. There is no room for innovation or interpretation. The game is aggressively linear. Maybe it will comfort you that everything you encounter has a purpose, but this blog was somewhat disappointed when an abandoned house that initially appeared to be atmospheric ended up being part of the game’s narrative structure. It was just a vehicle to find a stupid rune in the dirt.

All “Hellblade” is divided into two parts: puzzles and combat. The puzzles mostly involve trying to find depictions of runes in the landscape to unlock doors, and the combat involves using light attacks, heavy attacks and blocks to fight off spooky Viking warriors. At first the puzzles were so tame that this blog longed for more combat. But as the puzzles got slightly more complex, it became increasingly clear how repetitive combat was. And no, it did not mix things up to throw increasingly more Vikings at Senua. Considering how visually creative the game is, it’s surprising that it never varies in its range of enemies–barring one encounter with a spectacularly bestial boss rather than a humanoid one.

It also doesn’t help that the camera is eternally fixed behind Senua’s shoulder. It’s tolerable during puzzles, but in combat it allows enemies to spawn randomly behind her. The voices in her head try to warn her against such hijinks, but I’d rather play without the hijinks. Besides, Senua needs all the breaks she can get. Everyone in the game is yelling at her, from the various voices to a guy who looks like “Songs From the Wood”-era Ian Anderson. Her development as a character consists of standing around cross-eyed and getting the crap beaten out of her.

Still, it’s the narrative hand holding that gets to me. For example, “Hellblade” taps briefly on the fourth wall at the beginning. The chief voice in Senua’s head appears to address you, the player, to invite you in, which is when the game actually starts. Is it possible that you are also a voice in Senua’s head? It’s an interesting idea, one that is given no further consideration by the game and, considering how linear things are, seems thoroughly unlikely. I’m not one of the competing voices because I ultimately have no influence on Senua’s actions. Only her environment and the developers do.

Another thought. To what degree are mental illnesses temporally bound? If mental illness has certain biological or genetic markers, it’s fair to say that biology and genetics change over time. Also, mental illness is defined by the society around it. What is considered shameful in one culture might be celebrated or ignored in another. Definitions expand and contract. A mental illness, through biological, genetic or societal means, might evolve or even go extinct.

Accordingly, is it anachronistic of Ninja Theory to consult modern mental health experts about Senua, her motivations and experiences? Ninja Theory definitely did research on both psychological and historical fronts, and the goal was presumably to strike a balance between the two. It’s a noble effort, but one side or the other would end up suffering, and historical accuracy takes the hit. Upon closer scrutiny, “Hellblade” is a game that speaks to its audience–who is more familiar with contemporary psychiatry–than it does to its characters–an eighth century party of one.

Also, why is there a run button? Given Senua’s middling pace, I had that thing pressed all the time. In fact, why are there any run buttons in any video games? One would figure by now we’d have learned that if someone is leaning on a joystick they want the character on screen to run and we shouldn’t bother dedicating a button to it, but I guess not. Whatever.

I’m straying, and perhaps being critical, but “Hellblade” sets itself up as a work of art, and artwork invites artistic criticism. Ultimately, “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is not as original as it thinks, but it is beautifully designed and relatively accessible, a moody and engaging think piece. Too bad it’s not quite as good as a game.

Haunted for the holidays: News November 2020

Happy Halloween, everybody. Are we about two weeks too late for that? No, we’re 50 weeks early. There’s never a bad time to say Happy Halloween, tonstant weader.

Well, maybe you shouldn’t say it at a funeral. But outside of that context, there’s never a bad time.

Admittedly, this blog was a little late on Halloween hijinks, with our final Universal monster review missing both All Saint’s Day and Hallow’s Eve. I have a reasonable excuse, as I was solidifying a few writing projects. It ended up being a surprisingly busy start of the month, and there are a couple of items of personal note.

For those who are after the more literary stuff, please see my news feature “West LA Gothic,” where I delve into the lost Los Angeles haunts of writers like sci fi fantasist Ray Bradbury, thriller stylist Raymond Chandler and psychodramatist Tennessee Williams. From now on, my greatest literary claim to fame can be that I debunked a rumor about William Faulkner’s beachside rental.

For those who want a horror story, my short fiction “Worse Than Wolves” was published on Friday the 13th, arguably the second spookiest day of the year. It’s surreal and just in time for the holidays, since it details a weird encounter at a family Christmas get-together. The good folks at The Fabulist found it reminiscent of David Lynch, and I will gratefully take the comparison.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to talk about the weeks to come. Thanksgiving is literally days away, and the Santa Claus season will follow sooner than you think. I don’t know how it is for you, but this blog has pretty much canceled traditional holiday plans for this year. Instead of doing a regular “home for the holidays,” we’ll be doing what we do best: ignoring social reality and living vicariously through thrillers.

There will no doubt be a quick news post in December for some last second shameless self-promotion, but I’m thinking we’ll be posting reviews of various homecoming thrillers from different media until next year. What will that look like? I’m playing the medieval psychological horror hack and slash “Hellblade” right now and that fits the theme of “homecoming,” assuming homecoming is understood at its broadest definition. There’s also the new “Higurashi.” We have to talk about “Higurashi.” So you can definitely expect those.

And w can fill in the rest later. Timeliness is not my specialty, but I do take requests. What says horror and homecoming to you? Let me know. I’m not going anywhere soon.

Not out of breath: A critical review of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

After World War II, it seems like the horror market dried up for a while. The popular opinion is that, by the 50s, the public was sick of horrors and looking for something more optimistic. Arguably some film noirs kept the spirit of surreal thrillers alive, but when the atomic bomb came down and all eyes looked up toward the space program, cinema followed.

The Wikipedia page on Universal monster movies only reports Gill Man and Abbot and Costello movies for the 1950s. This blog has its own beef with that page–it doesn’t have the silent “Hunchback of Notre Dame” or James Whale’s “The Old Dark House”?–but the message is clear. It doesn’t take a seasoned cultural critic to recognize that in 1950s western cinema, horror was out and sci fi was in. Traditional vampire and wolf man movies vanished for a while, and even when they came back, they were clumsily crossed with atom age science, as in the howler “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”

For this reason, it seems like the “Creature” movies, with their ancient, monstrous webbed toes dipped into the pools of paleontology and anthropology, were an effort to view the old Gothic horror formula through the new sci fi filter. How well did that effort work? Let’s dive in.

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” starts with a grasping claw gaping out of a wall of solid rock (serious question: is “Jurassic Park” modeled on this at all?). This relic of an apparent missing link between man and fish prompts a hastily constructed expedition of scientists with swimmer bods to trek into the Amazonian rain forest to search for more fossils. Once they’re cut off from civilization, and the body count goes up, they find that their quarry is not as extinct as they suspected.

“Creature” is harder to fit into this blog’s reviewing mold of movie-Gothic thriller-horror film because it does not display the obvious Gothic trappings of its predecessors, but we’ll give it a shot. At least the first question is easy to answer. “Creature” is a good movie, well made and entertaining.

Anyone with a knowledge of ecology will note the Amazon looks suspiciously like Florida, but it’s well shot either way. The direction, by (appropriately) sci fi film vet Jack Arnold, is solid. The camera is active, the production is clean, the performances are believable. None of the characters and performances are particularly complex, but standouts include Nestor Paiva as the cigar chomping boat captain and Julie Adams as the team’s only lady scientist. In fact, I might like Adams more than any other Universal horror heroine. I like her big eyebrows, her form-fitting tops and generous bottoms, and her sense of actual agency. It would have been easy enough to make her a prop, but this film made her a character with actions and motivations.

Accordingly, Gill Man’s fascination with her comes across as, maybe not as profound, since I think the creature is just looking for a convenient place to lay his eggs, but at least relatable for an audience. The Universal films always tried to make the audience understand the monster, and “Creature” is no different. The bottom line is I’m attracted to Kay’s character, so it makes sense that both the bickering male leads and Gill Man would be too.

And before anyone gets on me about being sexist, we see plenty of toned, tan male bodies and chest hair too, so everyone has something to look at. Personally I think Mark is cuter than David, but he’s kind of a dick, so I guess it evens out.

The underwater stuff was handled by James Curtis Havens, and special mention must be made of his contribution. Underwater sequences in thrillers can be a bit dry, if you will (if memory serves, “Mystery Science Theater” once referred to underwater chase scenes as the drum solos of movies). You’ll get none of that in “Creature.” The underwater photography is elegant, sometimes strikingly pretty, and often pumps up the thrills with the creature carefully shot through gloomy weeds. Can anyone deny that Adams swimming right side up above Gill Man swimming upside down is an iconic horror image?

While we’re at it, Herman Stein is the uncredited author of Gill Man’s three-note theme riff. Hard to deny that’s iconic too. It’s more bombastic than I normally like, but well timed to the images on screen and never feels out of place.

Much of the film’s success is due to its effectiveness as a thriller. It is perfectly paced for suspense. The story/writing credits are all over the place, but at least one name is Harry Essex, who worked on high concept crime thrillers like “Kansas City Confidential” and thoughtful sci fi flicks like “It Came From Outer Space”; the editing was by Ted Kent, who’d been chopping up Universal monster movies since “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Notably, Gill Man isn’t overexposed–sometimes he’s just a claw at the window or suggested with bubbles–so his menace feels real. He doesn’t mess around either. Gill Man drowns people, claws them in the face, laughs at being set on fire. By the end of the film, he’s killed at least five people and disfigured one, making him one of the most dangerous monsters we’ve watched all month.

It also helps that Gill Man functions like a real creature. He gapes at new sights and gasps for air when he’s out of the water. Little touches like that elevate Gill Man from an animal–or just a guy in a suit–into something believable.

However, in case it wasn’t clear, “Creature” is not a particularly profound movie. It does not mine any Gothic depths or probe any aspect of human psychology. It acts like it’s going for something grand and cosmic, with an introduction sequence that quotes the book of Genesis over images of the big bang, but it never really goes beyond that.

Likewise, you’d think that with its paleontology, missing links and old relationships between team members there would be something about the past’s influence on the present, but that never materializes either.

Whatever. The fact is that more than 20 years out the Universal crew was still making effective monster movies. They didn’t all have to be Abbot and Costello vehicles, and they weren’t just rehashing “Frankestein” and “Dracula” either. They could still do solid thrills. “Creature” proved that, for at least 80 more minutes.

Something tragic about that man: A critical review of “The Wolf Man” (1941)

There are many mysteries on display in “The Wolf Man.” Like, how is it that when Lon Chaney Jr. turns into a wolf he looks like a werewolf teddy bear, but when Bela Lugosi becomes one earlier in the film he looks like a regular small wolf (or a medium-sized dog)? Also, when Chaney starts to transform for the first time he’s wearing a white undershirt, but when he’s a werewolf he has a dark button-up. Why? Did the werewolf think it was going to get cold, or did its latent sense of decency kick in?

All right, I’m being a bit facetious. The real mystery of “The Wolf Man” is how the film cannot make up its mind. Is it a murder thriller? A Gothic fantasy? Something in between? The result is a film that, like its titular character, is slightly awkward, but fascinating all the same and more than a little tragic.

It is easy to get distracted by the makeup and forget that, at its core, “The Wolf Man” is a family drama. The plot concerns Larry Talbot (Chaney), who returns to his family’s rural mansion in Britain after spending years in California. His father (Claude Rains) remarks that it was only the death of his brother that brought him back, although the eye of local girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is what apparently keeps him there. However, a deadly encounter with a wolf and a Gypsy fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) will send Larry on a crash course with supernatural forces he does not understand.

If we ask “The Wolf Man” our big three questions, we might find ourselves coming up a little short. Not on whether it’s a good film. It’s fine. It might lack some of the eccentric character of its predecessors, but it’s a solid product. The film is only about 70 minutes long, and its breezy pace helps it easily pass over a couple of continuity errors and stock performances.

The photography is clean and at points elegant when it meshes with the chairoscuro lighting. The sets are dressed well. The soundtrack is a bit bombastic at points, and leaves this blog longing for the cautious soundtracks of “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy,” but maybe you’ll like it.

The cast is fine. Standouts include Rains, who does very well as the conflicted family patriarch, taking some dialogue about God and eternity and stuff that could have been off-putting in another actor’s mouth and making it sound weighty and organic. Lugosi also gives some haunted gravitas to a disappointingly brief role.

It’s as a Gothic thriller that the film shows some weaknesses. The atmosphere is fine, all snarl trees and fog machines on the moors, but the themes don’t line up. In a “real” Gothic tale, lycanthropy would be the Talbot family curse, and Larry would be shielded by his father and locked in an attic somewhere. But that’s not the case in “The Wolf Man.”

Larry is an outsider, and the film reminds us of it constantly. He’s an American in a British town. The only people who believe Larry about his condition are the Gypsies, perennial outsiders. By the way he speaks, it’s clear he has less education than his peers and family members. When he enters a church, a brilliant tracking shot scans the pews as everyone else turns to look at Larry standing by himself. Larry hasn’t been locked in the attic of the family estate. He’s never even seen the upstairs.

The film’s handling of the battle between good and evil, which seems like a natural for a Gothic tale with its Jekyll and Hyde connection, is more modern in its obscurity. Is good and evil all black and white, or is there some gray? Are we destined to our dark ends, or can psychic trauma be healed? The film displays all these viewpoints, but it’s careful to never answer the questions directly.

As a whole, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. For example, Chaney plays Larry like an overgrown child. How much of his aggression is a product of his lycanthropy and how much of it is natural? Is Larry’s father really trying to help his son? He is definitely chilly toward him, and not without reason, perhaps the village doctor is right when he says the man cares more about the family reputation than his son’s mental health. Even the final shot shows Gwen burying her face into her fiance’s shoulder but calling Larry’s name.

Accordingly, the Gothic trappings feel almost like a gimmick, which help us as modern viewers address whether “The Wolf Man” still stands as a good horror film. I don’t think it does, but that’s because it’s trying to be the wrong kind of horror film.

“The Wolf Man” achieved fame and notoriety for its special effects and iconic transformation scene, but now that looks as dated as its matte backgrounds. What if we’ve been remembering “The Wolf Man” for the wrong reason? What if it was actually a pioneering example of psychological horror?

In fact, imagine a “Wolf Man” that dropped the shots of Lon Chaney in a fur suit tiptoeing through the moors but kept everything else–the spooky atmosphere and occult murders, the probing questions about sanity and humanity, the dysfunctional family drama. Suppose the nature of Chaney’s condition were also kept ambiguous, and the film focused on the creeping dread of not knowing whether you were human–a man or a monster, sane or insane.

Wait a second, did I just describe Val Lewton’s “Cat People”? Oh well. Maybe Lewton was onto something when he said Universal’s idea of horror was nothing more than a werewolf chasing a woman up a tree.

A little walk: A critical review of “The Mummy” (1932)

“The Mummy” is a little out of step with the other Universal monsters. It’s not based on a book, and a lot of fascinating, frighteningly in depth work has gone into figuring out what its literary or cinematic inspirations might have been. Perhaps for that reason–without an obvious catalog of characters or lore to draw upon–it never spawned any direct sequels.

It also might feel the most aged out of its contemporaries, and I’m not just talking about how the culturally delicate topic of tomb robbing is one of its plot points. Unlike “Dracula,” which seems to take place in a Kafkaesque void, or “Frankenstein,” which is a delightful anachronism stew, “The Mummy” actually looks like it takes place in the 1930s. However, there’s something to be said for a film that acts its age.

The story of “The Mummy” is surprisingly simple. In 1921, British archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (1930s character actor Arthur Byron) leads a dig in the Egyptian countryside. He discovers the mummified remains of a man who appears to have been buried alive. Buried with the mummy is a scroll that claims to bestow life and a curse that threatens death. Whemple doesn’t take either seriously, even when the mummy goes missing and Whemple’s assistant goes insane.

Ten years later, an old Egyptian dude named Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff, of course) comes to Whemple’s son, also an archaeologist, and helps him locate the tomb of an ancient princess. As fresher bodies pile up, the connection between both mummies, Whemple and a young socialite with the improbable name of Helen Grosvenor will all be uncovered.

How does “The Mummy” hold up if we ask the same three questions we asked of “Frankenstein”–how does it hold up as a movie, a Gothic thriller and a horror film? As a movie, “The Mummy” is admittedly uneven. Its performances are fine, its use of music and silence is appropriate, and its photography and lighting are striking (director Karl Freund got his start as a cinematographer, and his resume includes the silent sci fi epic “Metropolis,” so striking photography and lighting are to be expected).

Script-wise, there’s a little more to be desired. The film starts fast–perhaps too fast–but it slows considerably as it moves on, and it’s not unfair to think of the climax as draggy. Accordingly, the movie never finds its pace. Oh well. At least the Egypt on display is notably contemporary–there are nightclubs and cars and modern dress, so the film never feels entirely exploitative of its location–and barring a quick reference to Bast as a goddess of evil, its religious history is not bad. The final script was by John L. Balderston, a former journalist who had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, so he was up-to-date on the current Egyptology.

As a Gothic thriller, the film might be better than some of its more conventionally Gothic contemporaries. From the start of the film, the themes of knowledge and eternal life are written on the screen (in art deco font no less). Knowledge is power. Knowledge is also terrifying. It’s paradoxical, attractive and repellent. It intrigues humans and destroys them. We fight over it, but it belongs to no one but itself. It is guarded by cosmic forces that we call gods or destiny, but we ultimately have no control over them. Oddly enough, with its Egyptian setting, ancient documents and humans going crazy from revelations, “The Mummy” is probably the most Lovecraftian of the Universal monster films.

The other big theme of life after death is just as compelling, thanks in no small part to the cast. Sure, David Manners as the human love interest is rather ineffectual, but his boyish and tepid interactions with Zita Johann actually make her interactions with Karloff seem much more powerful. Karloff’s performance is intense and understated, but when he’s around Johann he becomes fluid, sensitive, even vulnerable. His efforts to bring her closer to him (by psychically strangling people, to be fair) seem to take something out of the normally unflappable character. It’s a nice touch, and Karloff sells it well.

Arguably, the film’s themes of time passing and repeating, the transmigration of souls, existentialism butting heads with destiny, and an attraction that transcends centuries all had a profound impact on horror as whole. It seems particularly notable in vampire stories and the works of Clive Barker (would we have “Candyman” without “The Mummy?” Maybe not).

But it’s as a horror film that “The Mummy” holds the biggest surprise. Given the film’s odd pace and descent into melodrama, it doesn’t always feel like an effective thriller. However, the atmosphere is consistently dark and appropriate, and more than that, the first 10 minutes are an almost flawless example of what a horror movie should look like.

In those first 10 minutes, the pacing is ideal. Just enough information is doled out by Edward Van Sloan’s occult researcher to intrigue without overwhelming. The camera checks in with the characters like an active spectator. The atmosphere relies on images and spaces of silence, and the monster is carefully photographed, all to ensure there’s enough room for viewers throw themselves into the scene. Tension mounts, and the payoff is an unforgettable performance by Bramwell Fletcher as an unfortunate research assistant.

It is fair–if an easy joke–to say that “The Mummy” has gotten a little dusty with age. It looks as old as it is, and it doesn’t move as well as it could. However, its atmosphere, themes, performances and flashes of brilliance more than balance that out. While it might not have wormed its way into culture as obviously as “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it should be required viewing for any horror fan.

Stitched together wrong: A critical review of “Frankenstein” (1931)

It’s weird to talk about “Frankenstein” by itself because it’s not a film we often think about by itself. And I don’t just mean we think about it as a franchise–although it is, with eight pictures under its bolts at Universal. I mean the film is often conflated with its sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Perhaps it’s because that film has taken on a cultural and critical significance that rivals, if not outranks, the original. Or maybe it’s Mel Brooks’ fault. I don’t know.

A film that’s almost always thought of in relation to its sequel, but in a wholly positive way, is unusual. Feel free to correct me, but the only other films in the history of horror this blog can think of like that are “Alien” and “Aliens.”

What other horror franchise–or any film franchise for that matter–adhered to a distinctly original visual and thematic philosophy through its first three films and two directors? Not Freddy. Not Jason. “Psycho” had a distinct visual style, but you better bet it wasn’t kept up. Maybe Halloween, if only because “Halloween II” retained John Carpenter’s moody lighting and POV shots, if memory serves. Possibly the aforementioned Alien as well, which, even if not unified in vision, at least kept up the Giger feel (and dumped almost everything else)…

We’re off topic. “Frankenstein,” for those not in the know, is the story of Victor Frankenstein, son of Baron Frankenstein, inheritor of the house of Frankenstein. He should be preparing for his wedding, but he’s busy robbing graves and gluing together corpses in an abandoned castle outside of town where he set up a crude laboratory. Whenever things start off like this, you know it’s going to end with torches and pitchforks.

It seems to this blog that, when reviewing a film like this, there are really three angles to attack it in the modern era. How does it hold up as a horror film? How does it hold up more narrowly as a Gothic thriller? And how does it hold up as a movie?

The last question is the easiest to answer. “Frankenstein” is a good movie. It looks distinct, it entertains, and it does everything it wants in about 70 minutes. Let that sink in. “Frankenstein” is only 70 minutes long. Movies more twice its length have less than half as much to say.

This is tied to the second question. As a Gothic thriller, “Frankenstein” is unquestionably a classic. First off, as this blog as alluded to multiple times in this post already, the film looks right. Every single set is crammed with sloppily arranged skulls, uneven brickwork, and gravestones and ceiling beams connected at odd angles. The camera is never shy about showing this (the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, a real pro). Zooms, tilts and tracking shots are all composed to show off the sets, which are utterly cluttered but perfectly blocked.

Everything about the film presents a kind of fabricated, exaggerated reality. Its core concept is stitching a man together from scratch. Its backgrounds are painted. Its opening scene is set in front of a theater curtain. It takes place in a Europe that looks like a mashup of everything the continent had to offer between the 16th century and 1916 (and who knew there were so many Southern California eucalyptus in the Rhineland?). It’s a reality that’s been put together wrong, and it wants you to know it.

Thematically, the very Gothic subject of science versus superstition is present from the first scene on, but there are enough moving parts to the film that it’s hardly the only theme. There is a queer subtext too, not uncommon in director James Whale’s films, about the thrill of seeking knowledge and relationships that are beyond the accepted–and what could be more Gothic than hidden sexuality? Or, for something more pedestrian, it’s about a man so wrapped up in his work he destroys his life and threatens the lives of those around him (Frankenstein by Arthur Miller?).

The performances are where the Gothic trappings start to get in the way. Colin Clive is great, and I’m not just saying that because we share a name. He’s reading the same overblown dialogue as everyone else, but his shifts from sensitive to intense are eerily believable. Likewise, Karloff is amazing. Without any words, he manages to convey both pity and menace, sometimes at the same time.

No one else fares quite as well. Edward Van Sloan is dependable as a senior doctor; Frederick Kerr is fun as the Baron, but he hints at the goofiness that would threaten to overshadow the sequel. Mae Clark and John Boles are pretty wooden as Frankenstein’s fiance and cock-blocked friend respectively, with Clark doing a little better but not much.

Put your attention on the titular monsters instead. “Frankenstein” is possibly the first film where the monsters are supposed to be the most compelling characters on screen. Maybe Dracula was the most compelling component of his film, but that was because he symbolized a kind of dangerous seduction, and everything about him said “look at me.” Dracula intrigues, but what intrigues is his intrigue itself.

Victor Frankenstein is arguably the far more psychologically compelling character, and certainly the most psychologically compelling in this movie. Part of it is the depth and complexity of his moods and motivation, and part of it is Clive’s near flawless performance.

But despite the fact that he’s the deepest character, is engaged to the lead girl and has the most screen time, he falls off a windmill at the end. He’s not the hero. And even if you think Karloff-as-monster is more compelling–and it’s an argument that can be made–he doesn’t even get out of the windmill before it burns to the ground (sorry if I gave away the ending of a 90-year-old movie).

So it’s a good movie, a good Gothic thriller, but is it a good horror film? That’s a little harder to answer. Sure, the opening sequence looks like a horror theme, with all the Halloween decorations. But then the mood shifts, retaining its Gothic trappings but becoming a kind of melodrama, a tale of human failing, whether through ignorance, weakness or fate.

Perhaps that’s the point. While the central monster scenes are shot with a kind of quiet amorality, both the early grave robbing scenes and the closing mob scenes are shot like a standard horror film: jarring cuts, shadowy lighting, indistinct sound. Ignore that hasty happy ending; it was tacked on. The film might be about mad science and whispered superstition, but it’s more nihilistic than it is either spiritual or humanistic. It is humanity who initiates the horror of the film–whether by tampering in God’s domain or just tampering in the lives of others. It’s fitting that it’s humanity who closes the horror out as well.

Ugly buildings: News October 2020

Ho-ho-ho and Happy Halloween. I don’t have to tell you that this is the most important month for thriller fans, but I also don’t have to tell you that it’s been a really strange year. Perhaps we’re all feeling a little uncertain right now, looking for something somewhat stable. That’s why this blog is turning to the classics.

Before we get into what that means, I feel obligated to plug a couple of products. The first is a short story collection entitled “Hookman and Friends.” Produced by the brilliantly named publishing house Down But Not Dead, the anthology collects a variety of tales inspired by the urban legend of the murderer who bothered teenagers trying to have sex in their cars. Lest you think it’s a bunch of retreads, know that my entry in the book has no teenagers, no sex and no cars, although it does have the murder. Readers in the U.S. can purchase it here.

The second product is another short story collection, which I’ve alluded to in the past. It’s a collection of time travel stories, featuring a philosophically driven tale about fate by yours truly. If you’re feeling a little less “slasher” and a little more “sci fi” this Halloween, then that’s the anthology for you. You can purchase it here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what we’ll be looking at for the rest of the month. For me, as for many horror fans, the classics really mean the Universal horror franchises. If you can’t see back to the 30s, 40s and 50s, you aren’t really trying; on the other hand, if you look back too far, you start getting into some weird territory (not bad, mind you, just weird). The Universal films not only hit all the classic tropes of the genre, they also pointed the way for every horror franchise to come with their notions of character presentation across movies and marketing. Would we have Jason without Lon Cheney Jr.? Maybe not.

On the other hand, those movies are old, and age alone does not require respect (to quote Noah Cross: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”). Are the Universal horror films worthy of our veneration? To find out, this blog, with its discerning eye and chaotic voice, will be viewing the first films of all the major franchises for the next month to see how they hold up.

Except “Dracula.” Screw that movie. Nothing against Tod Browning or Bela Lugosi, but the titular vampire isn’t even killed on screen. What a waste.

We’ll be going in chronological order, so expect to see “Frankenstein” soon, followed by some of his closest friends. Not his bride though, but we’ll get to that.

Also, if I’m wrong about “Dracula,” have at me. What am I missing?