Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Were You in ’96?

by ScottDS

I’ve decided to jump ahead 10 years, so let us look back [gulp] 20 years at 1996. I was a 13-year old socially-awkward nerd (hard to believe, I know) and this was the first year I started going to movies with school friends and not parents, so it will always hold a special place for me. As per usual, the list leans towards genre stuff.

Independence Day – The big one. Back when Roland Emmerich could direct a watchable film. Back when a teaser could play in theaters and not be dissected within minutes. I’m still a fan of this movie. It’s just fun and goofy and ridiculous and some of the effects have dated… but it’s likeable and genuinely exciting. And David Arnold’s bombastic score is a treat. One wishes all this could be said about Emmerich’s 2012. Right now, an Independence Day sequel (sans Will Smith) is in post-production and I consider it a huge mistake. Nostalgia counts but this teaser doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. “All you need is love. John Lennon. Smart man. Shot in the back, very sad.”

Fargo – Would you believe I only saw this film for the first time this year? And that was after the excellent FX TV series! This critical darling is what I call “deceptively simple” – it’s a crime drama, but there’s enough homespun weirdness to make it unique. This is the Coen Brothers firing on all cylinders. William H. Macy plays (what else?) a sad sack who hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can extort his rich father-in-law. Frances McDormand plays a police officer who investigates a related homicide. The cold Midwest landscape is bleak and oppressive and Carter Burwell’s Norwegian folk-inspired score is downright depressing. “There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that?”

Twister – I thought this movie was awesome back in 1996. I recently watched parts of it and… yikes. Cheesy and clichéd and the otherwise talented Cary Elwes plays a mustache-twirling villain (you know, because tornadoes aren’t big enough?!). The film did have one of the great teasers (featuring that cool shot that wasn’t in the film) and ILM’s effects mostly kinda sorta hold up, but damn. I swear half the dialogue consists of “Run!” and “Go!” With Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg involved, you’d expect something a little, uh, better. On the plus side, however, this film was my first exposure to the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. “‘The Suck Zone.’ It's the point basically when the twister… sucks you up. That's not the technical term for it, obviously.”
Mission: Impossible – I’ll always have fond memories of this film, even if the plot was a little too labyrinthine. Brian de Palma directed what would be his highest-grossing, most crowd-pleasing film, and plenty of his trademark visual tricks are on display. Many criticized the film for making what was an ensemble TV show into a Tom Cruise showcase and many more criticized the film for turning series lead Jim Phelps into a villain. But for someone who had never seen the series, this movie was just a lot of fun, though the novelization helped to clear up some things. The CIA vault sequence is still a great case study in direction and the helicopter/Chunnel climax is ridiculous (and awesome!). “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”

Star Trek: First Contact – Picard and Co. travel back in time to 2063 to stop the Borg from interfering with Earth’s first warp flight. Jonathan (Riker) Frakes made his big-screen directing debut and while he’s still a regular TV director, I wish a studio would give him another shot at the big chair. Alice Krige is silky and sexy as the Borg Queen and James Cromwell plays warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane. The film is good but somewhat hampered by its low budget and I can’t disagree with fans who feel the studio-mandated Borg Queen was a mistake. The make-up effects are great, Jerry Goldsmith returned to do the music, and Deborah Everton's 21st century outfits are some of my favorite Trek costumes. (I love Cochrane’s ensemble!) “Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind.”

Jerry Maguire – Cameron Crowe’s critical and audience favorite features Tom Cruise as a super agent who one day has a moral epiphany, is subsequently fired, and is stuck with only one loyal client and one loving employee. The client is NFL star Rod Tidwell, the role for which Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar – it’s a shame his subsequent career has had more downs than ups. Renée Zellweger plays Maguire’s employee/love interest and she's on the receiving end of the classic line “You complete me.” Sadly the last time she was in the news, it was because of her cosmetic surgery. Hell, even Cameron Crowe’s career has hit the skids. He did Almost Famous after this, which is considered a modern classic, and then Vanilla Sky… and nothing’s clicked since. “Twenty-four hours ago, man, I was hot! Now… I'm a cautionary tale.”
Mars Attacks! – This is one movie I wish I liked more than I did. Equal parts 50s B-movie and 70s disaster movie, Tim Burton’s all-star mess is based on a series of grotesque Topps trading cards: big-brained aliens attack Earth, Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is attached to the body of a Chihuahua, and the only way to kill the aliens is to blast Slim Whitman music. Jack Nicholson plays two roles, Rod Steiger plays a war-mongering general, and Tom Jones plays himself. How can I not like this movie!?! Because it’s honestly not that funny and I don’t really care about anyone… even Danny Elfman’s theremin-heavy score doesn’t do it for me here. After this film, Burton would go on to develop an ill-fated Superman movie which is the stuff of legend. “Ack! Ack! Ack!”

Daylight – This disaster movie from Rob Cohen is one of those movies I’ll keep on in the background. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still watchable. Sylvester Stallone is former EMT chief Kit Latura, the Only One Who Can Save the Day after an explosion seals of both ends of an unnamed New York/New Jersey tunnel. It’s clichéd and predictable and there’s some ham-handed backstory explaining why Stallone is no longer on the force. The cast includes Amy Brenneman as a playwright who’s sick of the city and Viggo Mortensen as an adrenaline junky (you can see where this is going). This was one of Stallone’s last big movies before he ended up in direct-to-video purgatory for a few years. If you’re claustrophobic, I’d avoid this one! “Okay, we're high and dry and out of danger. Now, what we don’t need is more surprises. Right?”
The English Patient – Proof that Best Picture doesn’t necessarily equate to longevity. I still haven’t seen it (one day!), but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about it? The actors are talented and it’s well-made from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, but Fargo got a TV series… where, may I ask, is The English Patient series? [smile] I would argue that this film is better known today for the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine resents everyone she knows telling her to go see it and she gets stuck seeing it… twice. And in case you were wondering, the film tells the story of a wounded pilot who, in the final days of WWII, tells the story of a fateful love affair to the nurse who’s tending to him. “Those sex scenes! I mean, please! Gimme something I can use!” (That was from the episode, not the film.)

Eraser – One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last big headliners. He plays a Witness Protection agent who’s tasked with protecting a defense contractor employee (Vanessa Williams) after she finds out her crooked boss plans to sell the company’s new weapon on the black market… that old chestnut. There are a lot of familiar faces, including the much-missed James Coburn as Arnold’s boss, James Caan as Arnold’s mentor (and traitor), and the late Robert Pastorelli as one of Arnold’s previous witnesses who gets to help out. I haven’t seen the film in years but I remember some fun (if implausible) action sequences and some horrible CGI when Arnold comes face to face with a crocodile. “I didn't know treason was part of the corporate strategy.”
Hamlet – I first watched Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour 70mm epic in high school and enjoyed it very much. Unlike previous adaptations, this one uses the complete text. The cast ranges from excellent to “Him?” Branagh plays Hamlet, the prince who seeks to avenge his father’s murder. Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Julie Christie is Gertrude, and Kate Winslet is Ophelia. Charlton Heston is the Player King, Brian “Gordon’s alive!” Blessed is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Billy Crystal (!) is the First Gravedigger, Robin Williams (!!) is Osric, and Jack Lemon is sadly a bit out of his depth as Marcellus. Tech stuff is all top notch, as is the location work at Blenheim Palace. This film is truly an epic of the old school. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Island of Dr. Moreau – Cult director Richard Stanley was fired from his passion project three days in and was replaced by John Frankenheimer. Val Kilmer was a temperamental ass, Marlon Brando was his eccentric self, and Mother Nature was a bitch. I recommend the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – it features Stanley and others discussing what could’ve been. There were days where Kilmer wouldn’t leave his trailer until Brando left his, but Brando wouldn’t leave his trailer until Kilmer left his! Meanwhile, dozens of extras in strange animal makeup were sitting around with nothing to do. To be fair, Kilmer was dealing with his divorce and Brando was dealing with his daughter’s suicide. Stanley even managed to sneak back onto the set disguised as an animal extra. “I have seen the devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.”

The Long Kiss Goodnight – Honestly, I think this is Samuel L. Jackson’s most quotable movie. Geena Davis stars in one of her last big films as Samantha Caine, a housewife who finds out she was once a CIA assassin. Jackson is a PI who teams up with her to find the truth and Brian Cox does more in five minutes than most actors do in two hours as an eccentric doctor. Renny Harlin directs one of his last big movies and Shane Black writes one of his last big movies before bouncing back with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The plot involves a CIA false flag operation in which the agency would blow up Niagara Falls and place the blame on Islamic terrorists in order to get more funding – the stuff that truther dreams are made of. “…when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘umption’.”

Everyone Says I Love You – A charming Woody Allen musical. All of the actors (save for one) use their own singing voices: some are okay, like Edward Norton; some are actually pretty good, like Goldie Hawn; and others should stick to their day jobs, like [cough] Julia Roberts. The plot is immaterial – a series of vignettes featuring an upper-class liberal Manhattan family. The final 20 minutes are magic: a bunch of dancing Groucho Marxes singing “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” in French, followed by Woody and Goldie dancing along (and above) the Seine. Another example of an R-rated movie that shouldn’t be (one “mother---er” in a rap song… and nothing else!). “I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower. I'll be dead. In fact, if I get the Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier…”
Swingers – I need to see this again. Jon Favreau wrote the screenplay, basing it on his experiences as a newly-single struggling actor in LA. He plays Mike and Vince Vaughn plays his friend Trent. I saw this movie for the first time in high school and as someone who’s struggled with the opposite sex (and with friends who are all too eager to assist), this movie hit me on a personal level. The scene in which Favreau attempts to leave a message on a woman’s answering machine is positively cringe-inducing. The film’s budget was nearly non-existent – director Doug Liman shot party scenes at actual parties and the crew had at least one run-in with cops when they were caught without a permit. An indie classic. “I want you to remember this face, here. Okay? This is the guy behind the guy behind the guy.”

The People vs. Larry Flynt – It might be hard to believe but there was a time when porn was actually controversial! Milos Forman’s film stars Woody Harrelson as the titular Flynt, strip club owner and publisher of Hustler. Courtney Love plays his (fourth) wife, Althea. The main… uh, thrust… of the film involves Flynt’s legal battles with Jerry Falwell over a parody story detailing a sexual encounter between Falwell and his own mother – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually in Flynt’s favor. Ya know… as a 32-year old male, I can’t say I’m against any of this, but I do sometimes wonder where we’re going as a society. Sometimes. “I don't like what Larry Flynt does, but what I do like is the fact that I live in a country where you and I can make that decision for ourselves.”

Also: American Buffalo, The Arrival, Beautiful Girls, Big Night, The Birdcage, Bound, Broken Arrow, The Cable Guy, Courage Under Fire, The Craft, Dragonheart, Evita, Executive Decision, Flirting with Disaster, The Frighteners, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Ghost and the Darkness, Happy Gilmore, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, James and the Giant Peach, John Carpenter’s Escape From LA, Kingpin, Matilda, Michael Collins, Multiplicity, The Nutty Professor, 101 Dalmations, Ransom, The Rock, Scream, Shine, Sleepers, Sling Blade, Space Jam, That Thing You Do!, Trainspotting, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet
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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Film Friday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“This will begin to set things right.”

That was the very first line spoken in the new Star Wars film, and while it ostensibly involved a man handing over a map, there is no way that is not a slap to the face of George Lucas and an acknowledgement of the damage he had done with his last three films. And do you know what? This film backs up that line and more. After watching The Force Awakens, my faith in Star Wars has been restored.


Uh, no. This story is so full of potential spoilers that I’m not going to give you a plot. I will warn you, however, that some of the things I will talk about may... may be spoilers if you want to go into this one cold, which I recommend.

This Movie Was Fantastic!

So what am I going to talk about? I’m going to tell you what this film did right and why. And let me begin with my apologies to J.J. Abrams. After the total hack job he did to Star Trek, I expected the worst for this film. I expected him to exploit it with little care for the fans or the story. I was wrong. He did an amazing job.
With what did he do an amazing job? Well, first, the effects are fantastic. And I mean this in several ways. First, the effects are clean and utterly believable. More importantly, they fit perfectly along with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the ships, the sets, the costumes, the worlds all fit perfectly with the first three movies. They fit the time period. They respected the existing world. They didn’t feel like CGI at all; they feel substantive. Seriously. These felt like real ships, real worlds and real battles. The lightsaber fights feel real and tense. The explosions look real. The environment in which the characters find themselves is real. And all of this felt like the ones from the first three films.
Indeed, the very feel of the film fit with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the characters here are not cardboard. They come across as real people with real lives who really live on these worlds. They act in ways that are consistent with their own lives too.

Next, this film fit the storyline perfectly. In fact, it fit so perfectly that you could almost have dumped Return of the Jedi and run this instead and not only would it have felt like it fit, but it might even have improved the series.

Abrams was really smart too in terms of knowing what to keep and what to toss out of the prior films. I went in cold, so I didn’t know how much the original characters would be involved in this one. I suspected that Abrams would milk a cameo out of them and then rush off in some new direction. He didn’t. The original characters are vital to this film and the actors play them perfectly as the same people only a couple decades later. That was a smart decision because the story is so tied to several of them. It also avoids the sense that Abrams just wanted a younger cast.

At the same time, the storyline makes perfect sense for that time period. The Empire fell. Its ruins are everywhere in the film. But the universe didn’t become a happy place. Instead, a new threat stepped into the power vacuum and grabbed the failing Empire’s powerbase. All of this not only feels natural, but it gives you the sense of an exciting backstory that permeates the atmosphere of this film. It makes you want to know so much more, and that’s always a winner when your audience feels a strong desire to know more about everything they are seeing.

Abrams was smart about throwing away the deadweight too. There is no emotionally exploitive cameo to remind you of Yoda, there are no Ewoks, there are no flashbacks, there is nothing to remind you of the prequels. In fact, they even undo the stupid story of the stormtroopers being clones, which became the foundation of the prequels. Nor are there any Star Trek babies hitting on each other or any of the other asinine sins Abrams injected into Star Trek.
All of this is fantastic. In fact, up to this point in the review, I have to say that this is easily my third favorite Star Wars and the only thing missing that I felt should be in a Star Wars film but wasn’t was a bigger, more zen-like delving into the force. The force is used in this film, but isn’t the focus yet as it was in the first three films. That said, part of the film promises a deeper exploration of the force in the future. And if you stop to think about the story, you will see the force explained in great detail by two characters, there just aren’t any long talks about it.

All of that makes for a great Star Wars film. This is an excellent Star Wars film that feels indistinguishable from the original series and fits the story perfectly. Who could ask for anything more? But there is more... specifically, this is an excellent film.

I wasn’t expecting that. Even if you ignore all the Star Wars aspects, this was great science fiction. The worlds that were created were real and immersive. The characters were interesting, funny, and engaged in personal growth of a type rarely seen in science fiction. The action was fantastic. It was strong and well-choreographed with great effects. There were no 40 minute CGI fight scenes in this film -- fights were short and punchy. Even more interestingly, the story was gripping. It twisted and turned and moved along at a great pace and I never really knew where it would end up. Do you know how rare that is these days?

In short, J.J. Abrams not only created a great addition to Star Wars, he created a great film. This thing can be truly enjoyed by anyone from lifelong fans to people watching their first Star Wars. It is exciting and gripping and super enjoyable. And when it ended, it made you wish you could tell them to start the next one right. fricken. now! Finally, this film felt like it set everything right. I LOVE Star Wars again, which I hadn't for some time.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

(Please be very careful of spoilers in the comments.)
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Film Friday: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is not doing well with audiences, and I’m not at all surprised. There is a fundamental problem with The Good Dinosaur, and that is that the film mixes a main character who is too cutsie with a plot that is anything but cutsie. The resulting mishmash satisfies neither those looking for a mindless baby distracter nor those looking for a more compelling story.


To put it simply, The Good Dinosaur is a western that uses dinosaurs instead of humans as the main characters. In fact, this is a very, very clichéd western, right down to the use of Sam Elliot to do voice work. The story involves the weak son of a noble farmer who must prove that he can live up to his father’s expectations and ends up in a survival film as he must find his way home through a dark and evil wilderness.

The story opens with the birth of the main character, Arlo, and his sister Libby and brother Buck. Their parents, Henry and Ida, are Apatosauruses. They live in a world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and continued to, uh, evolve I guess (this is part of the problem with the film... it’s not clear what changed except that these particular dinosaurs are farmers).
Arlo is the runt of the litter and quickly proves not only to be incapable of doing the work required on the farm, but is a coward. He is afraid of basically everything. His father is patient with him however, though he simultaneously pushes Arlo to stop being such a whiny bi— uh, to become less of a coward. One of the tasks Henry gives Arlo in this regard is to trap and kill a pest that has been eating their corn... which they need to feed their chickens, who terrorize Arlo. The pest turns out to be a cutsie baby human! Oh goodie.

Arlo, of course, can’t bring himself to kill the human, and the human escapes. Henry then takes Arlo and chases after the human cave boy. They chase him up into some evil looking mountains, which end up flooding. The flood kills Henry and leaves Arlo stranded far away from home. Arlo then finds and befriends the human, who acts like little more than a puppy (he can’t even speak). The rest of the story is Arlo’s journey to find his way back to the farm.
Why This Film Doesn’t Work

This movie has a lot of problems, quite frankly.

The first problem is the simple blown potential. The trailer to this film was intensely clever. It asked, what would happen if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth? And then you see the asteroid shoot by the planet and all the dinosaurs who had looked up at its approach return to their grazing. This trailer offered limitless potential. It opened the door to anything. It promised a world where dinosaurs had evolved to something beyond just being dinosaurs. It promised a world where man and dinosaurs co-existed in some friendly or hostile way. It promised something you had never seen before. The film even skips a few million years at the opening, suggesting that we would see dinosaur society evolved into the modern world... whatever that would look like.

But none of that happened.

Instead, you get a world that is indistinguishable from dinosaur times except for the presence of one cave-boy and the existence of one dinosaur farm. That’s it. What a waste.
The next problem probably tells us why the first problem exists: the filmmakers never bothered to lay down the rules that guide their new universe before they began. Is there really a dinosaur society or not? There’s the farm. There are three T-Rexes who are herding the dinosaur version of cattle. But that’s all you see. There is no sense if there are cities or if there is an economy – does the farmer sells his crops? Do the T-Rexes sell their cattle or just eat them? The other dinosaurs they run into seem to be standard feral dinosaurs. So is there a society or not? They never say, and the result is that it’s unclear what kind of world Arlo really lives in and everything feels ambiguous and confused.
As an aside, I was also personally bothered by the sense that much of what they encounter felt vaguely stolen. The human reminded me of Mogli from Jungle Book; he even has a similar storyline – leaving for human companionship at the end. The nyctosaurus and pterodactyls reminded me of the vultures from Jungle Book. The T-Rexes reminded me of a combination of Bagheera and the elephants from Jungle Book. There's even a seemingly hypnotic horned dinosaur (a Styracosaurus), right at the end of a snake scene, which is clearly Kaa from Jungle Book. The scene chasing the human felt like the apes rounding up the humans in Planet of the Apes. The whole Arlo story felt like a number of westerns involving a weak son who must avenge his father’s death. And so on. This is the first Pixar film where I felt I could pick out things that were copied from other films.
The real problem, however, is that the film is a mishmash of concepts. For whatever reason, Pixar chose a main character who is better suited for the preschool set. He’s cute and whiny and stupid and whiny and seems made for backpacks and plush toys. Put him in a story with his imaginary friends and magic tree houses and he would feel right at home. But then they rammed him into a story that has a truly adult storyline in the sense of being dark and not at all funny, and about the subtle goal of proving one’s worth to oneself. This is a farmer western combined with a survival drama like The Grey or The Edge. It is not a plot that in any fits the childish Arlo.
The result of this is an entirely unsatisfying story. The preschool crowd will not like the dark, very unfunny plot. The people who might like the survival story will find the whiny, child that plays the lead to be too annoying and unbelievable for this kind of story. And people who come in having seen the trailer are going to wonder how this movie managed to ignore the entire magic the trailer promised.

Pixar is an amazing company that does a great job with its movies time and again, but this one is a total miss. This one is entirely unsatisfying. It’s boring, indifferent, and just out of place. And that’s too bad given the amazing potential the backstory suggested.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Recommendation: Monster Hunters International

No film today. Instead, I’m going to recommend a book that you will enjoy a lot, and I’m going to crap on another one. Both are by conservatives and I think there is a valuable lesson in comparing the two.

The book I’m going to recommend is called Monster Hunters International and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. The book I’m going to crap on is called Freehold and you can get it FREE ==> HERE. Consider this...

MHI is written by Larry Correia, who is some sort of conservative. He’s probably libertarian more than conservative, but I’m not sure. The book starts with the premise that all the mythical monsters we know, e.g. vampires and werewolves, are real and are a genuine menace. To eliminate the menace, the Federal government has a secret agency whose job it is to hunt these creatures – it’s illegal to tell the public about the existence of these creatures and people who do tell the truth are made to disappear.

The story isn’t about the Feds, however. Instead, it’s about a group of private bounty hunters who hunter monsters for something called PUFF bounties. This is a program set up long ago in the past which continues today because powerful political allies keep the Feds from shutting it down. Monster Hunters International is one such group of bounty hunters, and the main character finds himself recruited to the group after he fights off a werewolf with his bare hands.

What works so well in this book is Correia’s style and his originality. The writing is funny and easy to read, yet Correia doesn’t sacrifice description or storytelling to dumb the book down. The monsters are interesting too. Indeed, he twists them all a bit to make them unusual, and the main monster is an original creation with a fascinating history. He even pokes Tolkien rather playfully. (You’re going to love Skippy.)

Now, the book has a few flaws, but not enough to ruin the book. For example, I find the main female character to be pure cardboard. There are a couple of “coincidences” in the ending that weakened the story too. But all in all, I enjoyed the book very much.

So let me touch upon the politics. Correia is obviously a conservative and he’s certainly overt in his conservatism, and he’s clearly a gun nut. But it never bothered me. To the contrary, it felt entirely natural that these private-sector monster hunters would be anti-authority/free market types who despise the Feds, and it never felt like he was preaching or lecturing. To the contrary, it just came across as natural whenever the issue arose in the book.

That brings me to the comparison.

After finishing this, I went looking for other conservative authors. I came upon someone named Michael Williamson, who wrote a book called Freehold. This is the classic example of being blinded by ideology. Williamson is clearly a libertarian, though he seems to be the type who confuses libertinism with libertarianism. Freehold is the story of an Earth woman who works for the UN Peace Force, which controls the world, and she flees after being wrongly accused of stealing military equipment. She flees to the only planet in the galaxy that is run on the principle of individual freedom and small (non-existent) government.

The problems with this story mount from page one. For one thing, good writers know to introduce your characters in ways that make them memorable. This book doesn’t do that. Instead, the book begins with the main character fleeing Earth, traveling to the new planet, and then getting settled all in massive administrative detail. There is no action here, just page after page of the main character walking around as the author describes how horrible the regulated world is and how great the unregulated world is. What’s more, the main character acts as little more than a straw-man character who asks question so that others can lecture her on how great their unregulated world is. This makes for a truly dull read as it feels like you are being lectured rather than being told a story.

Finally, as an ironic aside, even if I accepted the ideological arguments Williamson makes, and I definitely do not – he basically makes the mistake of arguing that a libertine/anarchical world would cure all problems and make all people good – I still found myself cringing at the idea of living in his “perfect” world. When Correia railed against the government, I accepted what he said and I saw the wisdom in it because he was pointing out how government interference prevented better people from doing what needed to be done in the right way. When Williamson does it, it sounds like a childish fantasy cure-all.

The lesson here is again that injecting politics is fine, but the story must always come first and the politics must fit naturally within the story and the characters. The purpose of the story can’t be the politics and the politics can’t be so overwhelming that the audience feels like they are being lectured. And seriously, if you’re going to inject your politics, make sure it sounds like a good thing to your readers.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus)

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1818

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?..

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous a wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

The Story Every English Schoolboy Knows…

…begins in Geneva. However, this story really begins in Indonesia. In 1815, the volcanic Mount Tambora exploded. The debris released into the sky were thick enough to blot out part of the sunlight worldwide; dropping temperatures all over Earth fell and causing 1816 to be remembered as the “Year Without a Summer.” (Freezing conditions were reported in New England and northern Europe as late as July.) It was this miserable weather that forced four 19th-centurey hippies to spend their Swiss vacation indoors.

The Contest and the Nightmare

Stranded inside the Villa Diodati along Lake Geneva, and isolated from the starvation, diseases, and other weather-induced issues most of the world’s population was enduring, Percy Shelley, his then-future wife Mary, Lord Byron, and John Polidori (Byron’s physician), tried to pass the time by complaining about the world’s lack of enlightenment and how everything could be solved if people just ‘lived for today’ (like them). Finally, the well-endowed friends got tired of whining about the weather and amused themselves by reading a book of ghost stories. Finally, Byron proposed a contest in which they would each write their own ghost story. Neither Byron nor Shelley finished theirs; Polidori wrote one from a fragment that Byron started. (The work, ‘The Vampyre,’ was later condemned by Byron.) Only 18 year-old Mary completed the contest after having a ‘waking dream’ in which she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts” standing over a man he’d created.

He Who Tried to Play God…and Failed Miserably

Okay, I’ll try to keep this brief. While trying to sail to the North Pole, Captain Robert Walton rescues an emaciated man in the Arctic. The man, Victor Frankenstein, tells Walton his story. As a boy, Victor studied science at the family estate in Geneva. However, his true interests were studying the theories of life and chemistry created by outdated alchemists. When he goes to college at Ingolstadt, Victor spends two years creating a perfect man. However, working with larger human pieces, (which was easier), the result is a powerful, but hideous creation. Victor goes home, but the Monster follows, killing Victor’s youngest brother. The two finally meet in the mountains, where the Monster implores Victor to create a mate for him and end his loneliness. Victor leaves for Scotland and is almost finished with the mate, but destroys the project at the last minute. The Monster then follows Victor back Geneva, causing the deaths of Victor’s best friend, bride, and father. Thereafter Victor chases the Monster into the Arctic. At the end, Victor dies, and the Monster boards Walton’s boat to mourn his creator. He sails into the distance, and Walton orders his ship to head for home.
Was it just a Nightmare?

The popular story goes that Mary spent the next year turning the dream into a short story, which was then turned into a novel with Shelley’s help. However, Mary may have been inspired by more than her dream. The story heavily cites Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially the tumultuous relationship between God and Satan (with whom the Monster identifies. Mary’s family- the Wollstonecrafts- were very up-to-date on the latest advances in science. She, herself, cited galvanism, the process of causing muscles to twitch when struck with electricity, (discovered by Luigi Galvini in the late 18th century), as a key inspiration for Frankenstein’s actions. However, some historians think Giovanni Aldini, Galvini’s nephew who furthered his uncle’s work, may have been an inspiration. Johann Konrad Dipple, an early-18th-century alchemist alleged to have conducted unusual biological experiments is believed to be another. (Mary and Shelley may have visited his castle on one occasion.) Whether Victor’s family name ‘Frankenstein’ comes from another of Mary’s dreams (as she claimed), or is a reference to a known German castle or family is still debated. What isn’t debated is how the heart of the story remains the hubris of Victor Frankenstein. In his pride to do the impossible, he went blindly ahead, creating a man, but failing to appreciate the responsibilities and consequences of his actions. (Thus making it, like Jekyll and Hyde, an oddly moral story written by someone who- along with her friends- held immorality up as a virtue.)

A Note on the Title

The longer publication title, ‘Modern Prometheus,’ refers to the Greek titan, Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought’). In Greek mythology, Prometheus took fire (reserved only for the gods), from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans. A furious Zeus had him chained to a rock where a bird would eat out Prometheus’ liver every day. (Being immortal, it would grow back every night.) Like Victor Frankenstein, he failed to think ahead. Now, for the reason you really came here: the movies.
Frankenstein (Edison Studios, 1910)

This grainy, early-silent era version of the tale produced by the man who invented motion pictures clocks in at 12 minutes. (And you thought my summary was short.) And it fares like a bad romance novel. Basically, Victor (Augustus Phillips) creates his Monster (Charles Ogle), despairs, and goes home. After re-encountering his creation, Victor professes his love for his bride (Mary Fuller), purifying himself, causing the Monster to disappear. Does this make the Monster a hallucination of Victor’s dark half? Is this pre-WWI Fight Club? I think I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Victor Frankenstein: Not a lot to say here. Phillips plays him as a happy-go-lucky guy dressed like a 17th-century fop who screws with nature, but fixes everything with the power of love.

The Monster: I have not been able to find out where Ogle’s shaggy monster appearance came from. But it sure is memorable-looking. The Monster isn’t complex here. It acts like a jealous pet that tries to Victor’s bride when she comes between it and its creator.

Full Movie HERE
Frankenstein (Universal, 1931)

Now, we’re getting somewhere. This is the movie that defined Universal Studios horror for the ages. Director James Whale may have simplified the complexities of the story, but he makes up for it with some of the most memorable images and performances captured on film. This is the movie that established the driven mad scientist, the hunchbacked assistant (Dwight Frye as Fritz- NOT Ygor), the friends who appeal to the mad scientist’s sense of reason to stop, the isolated laboratory (it was originally supposed to be art deco, but was changed to a Gothic castle), highly electrified lab equipment (created by Ken Strickfaden and reused in Young Frankenstein), and the crowd of torch-and-pitchfork-bearing angry villagers, among others. Controversial for its time, the scenes of Victor screaming about how it was like to be God and the Monster accidentally drowning a village girl were censored not long after release.
Henry Frankenstein: The eccentric Colin Clive plays the Frankenstein we’ve come to know quite well. Clive’s Henry is a proud, obsessed fanatic, showing off the creation of his creation to his friends just to prove how advanced he is. After the Monster kills Fritz, Waldman (Edward van Sloan), and the village girl, he becomes equally consumed with a desire to destroy the Monster, and is nearly killed himself.
The Creature: Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the show: Boris Karloff. Possibly Hollywood’s all-time late-bloomer (he was in his early 40’s when he got this breakout role), Karloff was hired as a replacement when Bela Lugosi turned down the role (allegedly for the lack of lines). While the movie is mainly remembered for the makeup, Karloff’s physical acting, showing the Creature with a childlike wonder for the world and the equally childlike emotions of sadness, loneliness, and fear, endowed the performance with a humanity lacking in most- say, 99%- of all movie monsters.
The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935)

Coaxed back into the director’s chair, James Whale made this second entry into the series on the condition he could do whatever he wanted. After re-reading the novel, Whale took a few ideas- mainly the Monster’s encounter with a blind man and desire for a mate- and ran from there. The story really focuses on the actions of Dr. Pretorius (an original character played by Ernest Theisiger), who wants to create a race of creatures based on Frankenstein’s work. He blackmails and, later, threatens Victor into working with him. Pretorius also seeks out and befriends the Monster in order to make the creature a willing participant in the experiment. However, when the Bride (Elsa Lancaster) comes to life, she- like everyone else- rejects the Monster. In a rage, the Monster destroys the lab, apparently killing himself, Pretorius, and the bride (Victor and his wife escape).
This is the rare movie considered better than the original. Whale’s trademark attention to details and minor characters in order to make every scene memorable is also on full display, causing many to consider Bride his finest work. (Your author, however, would say that honor goes to The Invisible Man.)
Henry Frankenstein: This time around, Colin Clive’s signature character is broken and morose, (possibly mirroring Clive’s own alcoholism at the time.) Now devoted to his wife, he only comes out of retirement when her life is threatened. It is worth noting, however, that he seemingly enjoys the creation of the Bride.
The Creature: He speaks! Director Whale decided that allowing the Creature to learn to speak (like he does in the novel), though in a childlike way, would enhance the character. For the record, Karloff hated the idea. Still, Karloff once again played the desperately lonely role to perfection. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), the only person who treats the Creature as a friend, are remarkably effective and touching.
The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957)

Call this one the kingmaker. This is THE movie that launched the careers of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, (who started their famous friendship while making this film), as well as director Terence Fisher. In a nod to the novel, Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) tells his story to a priest while in prison. The film focuses mainly on Frankenstein and his relationship with his tutor, Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). At first, they’re both dedicated to their work. However, a split occurs when Paul wants to announce their early findings on animals to the world and Frankenstein insists on secret human experiments first. Though the two never give up on each other, they grow apart as Paul increasingly opposes Frankenstein and his former pupil descends from obsession into amorality, madness, and evil. Another fine example of Hammer taking liberties with a story and making it work with deeply satisfying results. Of course, it ends back in prison with Victor being lead to the guillotine.


Baron Victor Von Frankenstein: Cushing plays a remarkably effective Frankenstein. He’s neither a foolish college student, nor a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. In fact, he’s both. In an arc worthy of Walter White, he goes from mere curiosity and a desire to better humanity, to an obsessive mania to finish his experiments and prove his theories right. (He also cheats on his fiancée and murders for a brain.) Fans consider this and his role as a demonic fortune teller in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965) as the performances that made hi ma horror icon.
The Monster: Christopher Lee is hard to recognize- and I’m not talking about the makeup. This Monster is a pathetic creature easily beaten, tortured and used by its creator. A real bit player. In fact, Lee only got the role when he agreed to work for eight pounds a day, as opposed to the first choice, Bernard Bresslaw, who demanded ten pounds a day. According to producer Peter Rogers, “And so, for the sake of two pounds, Christopher Lee became an international star.”

Original trailer HERE
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (American Zoetrope/Tristar Pictures, 1992)

Amazingly, this one is actually the most book-accurate. I say amazingly because it can be so hard to follow at times. Director Kenneth Branaugh did an admirable job of not relying on or paying homage to previous ‘Frankenstein’ movies. He places it firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century time period and carefully follows the book’s character arc. Where it falls short is the manic direction. The camera and editing move like an Olympic sprinter with ADD. At least one third of the dialogue consists of actors yelling like the Novocain wore off halfway through the dental work. And the twist at the end of using Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter’s) body for the Bride just struck me as tacky. Oh, and BTW, the less said about the overt sexual imagery in the Monster’s creation scene, the better.
Victor Frankenstein: A while back, I saw post on IMDB that described this film as Kenneth Branaugh’s love letter to himself. I don’t know who that guy was, but he deserves a thumbs up. The camera is constantly zooming in on Branaugh in the role (when the editor doesn’t just start with a close-up of him, that is). Branaugh also suffers from Matthew McConaughey-level shirtlessness throughout the flick. (He’s also too old to be playing a college student.) Since when did being the director mean you could focus so much on yourself in your own movie?
The Monster: Is this when Robert DeNiro really began phoning it in? Honestly, there’s nothing memorable about this. DeNiro uses a losing-at-poker face throughout the movie. Unlike Karloff, he never bothers to endow himself to the audience. And…ah, nothing else to say. Just a classic case of going through the motions and picking up the check.

Original trailer HERE

So, who’s your favorite Victor? Monster? Movie?

Full text of Frankenstein HERE
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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not Coming To A Theater Near You

by Jason

Hollywood has plundered its TV catalog for feature film fodder for so long, it’s getting harder to think of older shows that haven’t been put onto celluloid. Still, there are a few no-shows that do stand out, that make you wonder, “Why didn’t the studio chiefs put this property onto the big screen?”

I compiled my own personal list of surprises that stayed on the small screen, VHS, and DVD, and didn’t make that leap. Some could have been made when the show was still on the air and featured the TV cast, while others more likely would have been rebooted with a new cast. In ascending order of surprise, I give you my list of TV shows that I’m surprised never got made into movies.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: Okay, I’m not actually surprised there wasn’t a Lois and Clark movie. Warners was obviously trying to reboot its Superman film franchise and any resulting movie would carry the Superman moniker and not be related to an existing TV show. At the time, however, the studio had picked Nicolas Cage to be Supes for its proposed Superman Reborn/Lives flick that ultimately never got made, which left a lot of people (myself included) wondering what the producers were thinking. At one point I wondered why they didn’t just port over Dean Cain, since he obviously looked the part and for five seasons played the part to no great complaint. It seemed like Warner Bros. didn’t have a clue how to properly cast Superman, so it seemed weird why they didn’t just go with a pretty good choice right under their nose. And painful memories of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in Superman Returns makes me retroactively pine for Teri Hatcher to have joined Cain on the big screen.

Kung Fu: This was a popular show in the early 70s and helped popularize kung fu action for American audiences. Given the rise of Asian martial arts movie stars and Hong Kong-style fight choreography in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s surprising Hollywood hasn’t rebooted this show for a feature film.

Max Headroom: Most people that grew up in the 80s remember Matt Frewer’s well-dressed A.I. with an occasional stutter (though I don’t know if anyone remembers the actual plot of the show Max was spawned from). The actual show never did better than cult status, but with decades of advances in computer technology, one would think someone would cart out an updated version of Max for the big screen. Be-be-be-believe it!

Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Call this the Irwin Allen smorgasbord, outside of Lost in Space which did get a movie in 1997. Back then, it seemed Hollywood was going crazy plundering sci-fi and adventure shows for movies, but they seemed to miss (or just not care for) much of Irwin Allen’s produced catalog. Also, I’m only counting Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a reboot movie, since there was a 1961 movie that the subsequent show was based on.

Space 1999: Again, it’s a surprise this British-made sci-fi show got missed in the 90s’ TV-to-movie run, although I’m sure it’d end up called Space: 2099 for obvious reasons.

V: Actually, you could argue Independence Day is pretty much what you’d get from a V movie, minus the allegory of fascists-as-aliens walking among us. Plus I wonder how many people would think this is a prequel to V for Vendetta.

Babylon 5: An awesome sci-fi show that, for all of its quality, still suffered from being in the shadow of Star Trek. Still, it had enough name recognition that a movie could have been made. For a while in the late 90s, series creator J. Michael Straczynski was planning to make a movie, but then stated he’d rather wait until after the Star Wars prequels were finished, as his movie might suffer in comparison, f/x wise. For whatever reason, a B5 movie was never made, although recently JMS has talked up a reboot possibility.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I know there was a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson as Buffy, but I’m referring to the much-better received TV show instead. Like Babylon 5, this is another cult TV show that never quite broke out into the mainstream, and getting a movie made might have helped boost its standing. A lack of a Buffy movie with its TV cast is a bit more surprising than B5 because teen horror movies (The Scream movies, for example) were hot in the late 1990s, and a Buffy movie could have easily ridden that wave. For whatever reason, it’s unlikely there will be any big screen Buffy except for a reboot, as the TV cast has likely aged too much out of the roles.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess: Either one of these shows. This franchise was big back in the day, Xena especially, as it pretty much overtook Hercules in popularity (Xena got so big at one point you almost forgot Hercules even existed). Yet it’s surprising Universal never tried to parlay its success into a motion picture franchise, even when Lord of the Rings became a smash and memories of Herc and Xena were still relatively fresh, although the failure of the Kevin Sorbo-headliner Kull may not have helped.

The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman: Another male action show and its female protagonist (and arguably more popular) spin-off. Isn’t it strange that two well known shows featuring cybernetic humans, with stories rife with the possibility of big screen action and explosions, haven’t been adapted to the screen while Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard have? I heard at one point a comedy version of Six Million Dollar Man was being considered. Oy.

Quantum Leap: One of the most successful science fiction network TV shows of all time, although that’s probably because this is more Highway to Heaven than Star Trek when you think about it. Again, another Universal-made show that was big at the time, with talk that it would go to the big screen while the series was still on the air. But Scott Bakula never got to make that big leap (yeah I know, bad pun), even after the series was cancelled.

Magnum P.I.: The lack of a movie for this show must prove Universal really doesn’t give a rip about its TV catalog, as Magnum was absolutely huge back in the 80s. How is it that Universal never considered making a Magnum movie, particularly with Tom Selleck in the role? For years after the series wrapped, he could easily have reprised the role, and Selleck had already proven he could carry movie roles. Today a Magnum movie would likely be a reboot, but it’s quite surprising we haven’t seen that, either.

Family Guy: Out of the hugely popular teen and adult-skewering animated comedies of the past few decades (South Park, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head), this is the only one I can think of that never got a feature film. I suspect it’s more because of lack of interest on the part of the show’s creator Seth McFarlane, although considering his recent spate of projects haven’t been as successful, like The Cleveland Show, the move of American Dad! to TBS, and the disappointing box office of his last two movies, he may end up going for it.

So, any titles I’ve missed? What TV show are you surprised that Hollywood hasn’t butchered, uh, I mean, “adapted” for the big screen?
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Monday, October 26, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1886

“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness…

“I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine…

“I stole through the corridors, a stranger in my own house; and coming to my room, I saw (in the mirror) for the first time the appearance of Edward Hyde.”

In the Foggy Streets of London…

While out for his weekly constitutional, John Utterson, an unassuming lawyer, spots a strange door at the back of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s home. His companion, Enfield, suddenly remembers a recent encounter with a terrible man named Edward Hyde, who trampled a girl and then arrived at that very house for money that he used to pay off the girl’s family. Utterson is worried because recently Jekyll changed his will, giving everything to this Hyde person. At a dinner party a few days later, Jekyll assures Utterson that nothing is wrong and that Hyde will leave if Jekyll tells him to.

A year later, Hyde is seen killing an MP with Jekyll’s walking stick. Utterson is worried that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll into silence (and plans to kill Jekyll as well). Jekyll tells Utterson that he’s done with Hyde, but after a few months, cuts all social ties. About that time, their mutual fiend, Dr. Haste Lanyon, dies mysteriously, cursing Jekyll’s name. Not long after, Jekyll’s servants call Utterson to their house, fearing the worst. Inside the lab, they find Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes, dead by suicide. Subsequently, Utterson opens two letters. The first is from Lanyon, sent to Utterson a few weeks earlier. It says that after gathering some requested chemicals from Jekyll’s lab, he saw Hyde transform in Jekyll. (The shock led to his demise.) The second is Jekyll’s confession. The middle-aged doctor reveals that he created a serum (“potion” in the story), that allowed him to become the younger Hyde and indulge in forbidden vices. Eventually, Hyde got too strong and the changes came involuntarily. With the antidote failing and about to become Hyde permanently, Jekyll locked himself in the lab.

…Or Should We Say Edinburgh?

When Robert Louis Stevenson- sickly asthma sufferer, hipster-before-it-was-a-thing, and the original Holden Caufield- wrote Jekyll and Hyde, he wasn’t writing a good versus evil story. This is a story of hypocrisy. Stevenson grew up in the two-faced city Edinburgh, Scotland- part modern city, part medieval slum. Stevenson grew to hate the Victorian insistence on social grace and the importance of reputation. In a view reminiscent of the film The Purge, he saw everyone as hiding their true, sordid natures behind good-natured facades. (In the story, Jekyll sees himself as uncomfortable in his skin, while Hyde was a ‘genuine’ man.) It’s little surprise he enjoyed trips to the city’s old town and, later, wrote a novel that celebrated the pirate way of life.

The official story is that Stevenson wrote a draft following a “bogey” nightmare, only to have his wife say that it needed to be an allegory. He then burned the manuscript and wrote the new story in only a few days. Some historians challenge this, citing Stevenson’s poor health and the fact he never told anyone about this process. (He was a professional gossip.) Whatever the case, the 82-page novella debuted and quickly became a best-seller.
You Don’t Know Jekyll

To understand this story, it’s important to remember that Jekyll isn’t a wholly good man. Having indulged in vices (unnamed in the story), in his youth, he longs for a way to experience them again and break free of Victorian conformity. So, when the 50-year-old doctor creates his ‘potion,’ he willingly takes for a considerable time, only stopping after the MP’s murder. Jekyll is a first class hypocrite. In trying to indulge his vile passions, he unleashed his sociopathic dark side and damned himself in the process. It’s a strangely moral story coming from quite an immoral author, (similar to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). Also, Stevenson preferred to pronounce the name as JEEK-uhl. This is both the Scottish way of saying it; and it allows the title to rhyme vaguely with ‘hide and go seek.’

(Im)Perfect Timing

Within two years of publication, two things happened that changed the perception of the story. First, American actor Richard Mansfield adapted it for the stage, abandoning the non-linear format, focusing heavily on a love interest for Jekyll, and making it a good-versus-evil tale (allowing the audience to empathize with Jekyll). The play debuted in 1887 at- of all places in the British Realm!- the Lyceum Theater* and received rave reviews. Then, one year later in August, a prostitute named Mary Ann Nichols was found murdered in London’s Whitechapel district. Four more women were similarly done in through November by an unknown killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ by the press. The similarities between the Ripper and the fictional Hyde- men who secretly conducted horrible deeds in downtrodden parts of London- were too much for the public to ignore. Hyde has since been permanently associated with sexually sadistic crimes. (Though, except for the murder of the MP, they’re not described in any great detail in the story.)

(*-From 1878 to 1905, the Lyceum was managed by, uh…something, someone Stoker. >:-)=

Well, that’s enough history. Let’s get to the adaptations.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931)

One of the best known and most-celebrated versions, and it’s not hard to tell why. First, the film is amazingly well-photographed, using tracking and (Halloween-esque) POV shots to see the action through Jekyll’s eyes. The lavish, Victorian sets also do a great job of setting the period, which itself could be seen as an important characters. The story deviates heavily from the novella, however, relying heavily on Mansfield’s play. Most of the plot deals with Jekyll keeping his experiments secret from his fiancée; and, later, Hyde’s horrible abuse of a bar-singing girl (who earlier befriended Jekyll), whom he shacks up with in Soho. I must say, the pre-Production Code depictions of sexuality are incredibly racy, even for modern audiences. This is also the only major movie to use Stevenson’s preferred pronunciation of the doctor’s name, JEEK-uhl.
Jekyll: Frederic March shines in this dual role, making the doctor more complex than might be expected. Here, Jekyll openly talks of his experiments (they’re secret in the story) so as to purge evil from man. He first takes the potion while bored because his fiancée is traveling on the Continent with her overbearing father. Initially, he likes being Hyde, but is soon horrified by Hyde’s actions and tries to stop out of guilt. Thus, evil here is portrayed not as the result of hypocrisy, but out of weakness, and as corruptive and tragic. March’s performance was rewarded with the Best Actor award at the 1932 Oscars- a rare feat for starring in a horror movie.

Maybe it’s just me, but does Jekyll’s attempt to re-write human nature with a wonder cure only to backfire and produce the opposite of the intended result remind anyone of a certain political philosophy? Food for thought.
Hyde: The makeup and transformation scenes (using special makeup and camera filters), remain the high point of this film. Here, Hyde (called a troglodyte in the book), looks like the missing link and nothing like Jekyll. He’s funny at first, but quickly becomes brutal and truly threatening.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (MGM, 1941)

There’s not much to be said about this mistake. Basically, this a plot-point-for-plot-point remake of the 1931 movie. Literally. MGM bought the rights to the 1931 film from Paramount and remade it. Not only that, but MGM operatives were sent out to destroy all prints of the 1931 film to prevent it from being shown instead. No, I’m NOT kidding! (This resulted in the 1931 film being ‘lost’ for a few decades.) The film itself is dull. Not much imagination at all, even with Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind) directing and Lana Turner and Ingrid Berman as Jekyll’s fiancée and the bar singer, respectively.
Jekyll: The only word to describe Spencer Tracy here is miscast. His Jekyll is stiff and boring. He also sounds too American for such a definitively British setting. He’s just so uncomfortable as the doctor.
Kirk Douglas Hyde: Good grief. The only makeup used here seems to be a brow piece, messed-up hair, sweat, and Tracy’s over-the-top facial contortions and growls. (And a hallucination scene.) Unlike March and Robert Englund, Tracy just doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as a villain. And I don’t care what Bugs Bunny says. This one was a waste of time.

True story: Tracy’s performance was so panned in comparison to March, that March (a friend), sent him a telegram. March called the reviews the biggest boost to his own career!
I, Monster (Amicus, 1971)

No love interest, though heavy on the Freud talk. This version made by Hammer’s little brother gets closer to the novella, reunites one of the best horror duos ever, and, yet, somehow comes up short. The movie is dark and creepy, invoking the feel of Jack the Ripper’s London. Not too bad. But I think the problem is that director Stephen Weeks doesn’t know what to focus on. It’s the case where too much time is spent on meandering shots of the actors in their settings and plot points feel either rushed or cut too short (a.k.a. Peter Jackson Syndrome). Though, using a hypodermic needle for the potion is a nice touch.
Notably, the character of Utterson finally appears. Peter Cushing plays Jekyll’s Marlowe’s solicitor with all the skill you would expect of him. (Makes me remember why I miss him and his buddy, Chris Lee.) But something’s just not right.
Marlowe (Jekyll): First, I’m not sure why the central characters were renamed. Second, Christopher Lee plays the character as a classic hermit scientist who bases his experiments on Feudian theory. It’s almost like an unromantic version of March’s portrayal than the story version.

Blake (Hyde): Like Spencer Tracy, no budget was wasted on Hyde Blake’s makeup. It’s minimal again. However, it does get more gruesome as the movie goes on. Blake even seems to hate himself, as shown when he looks in a mirror and freaks out (a la Lampwick in Disney’s Pinocchio). But is he scary? Well, he’s Christopher freakin’ Lee!
Side note: IMO, Cushing was best when he used his physical acting skills to fill in dialogue-lacking parts of the script; while Lee was in top form when the script made use of his voice and presence to dominate the scene- such as in The House That Dripped Blood. This movie gets it backwards. Maybe that was the problem.
(Full movie HERE)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Burbank Films, 1986)

Another worthy animated adaptation from the Land Down Under. Though still a linear version, this version spends a good deal of time following the events through Mr. Utterson’s (John Ewart) eyes. (The world as seen by a lawyer. How can that not be scary?!) It also focuses heavily on the important theme of reputation as Utterson tries to protect his friend. Utterson, of course, represents rationality in an irrational story. Dr. Lanyon is also back to his story self, disagreeing with Jekyll, but remaining a friend until he sees Hyde’s transformation, after which he dies. Though several subplots are cut and/or cleaned up, this film hits all the right marks and comes the closest to Stevenson’s original vision.
Jekyll: Again, we have a ‘good’ Dr. Jekyll, instead of the middle-aged hypocrite. Well, it’s children’s’ film, so it works in that context. Max Meldrum is serviceable in the role, and makes for a very believable Victorian character.

Hyde: This is how Hyde should be. Shorter (he’s one half of Jekyll, after all), and ugly to the point of not looking like the doctor at all. David Nettheim’s guttural voice compliments the animation perfectly. Also, Hyde only murders one man- an MP- in the book. Here, he kills three people. Quite a body count for a kids’ cartoon!
(Full movie HERE)
All right. Those are just a few examples of one of the most analyzed stories ever written in the English language. Any comments on these four adaptations or on some that I didn’t cover?

Extra! Extra!

-Full text of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde HERE

-“Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror, Episode 3” (Documentary on the background of Jekyll and Hyde)

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