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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Monday, October 19, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Rustbelt
Publication Year: 1901- 1902 (serialized); 1902 (novel)

“…Sir Charles lay dead on his face, his arms out, his fingers dug into the ground, and his features convulsed with some strong emotion to such an extent that I could hardly have sworn to his identity. There was certainly no physical injury of any kind. But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did – some little distance off, but fresh and clear?”
“A man’s or a woman’s?”
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:
“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

A Ghastly Deed

On a dark and stormy night in December 1893, a fiend entered his own study. He could hardly have been prouder of his diabolical self. He’d committed the perfect crime- murder most foul. And by all accounts, there were no means- legal or otherwise- by which he could be held accountable for his actions. His grisly act left businessmen in London wearing black armbands, over 20,000 people cancelling subscriptions to the paper in which the gruesome act was reported, and mourning being declared all over the British Empire. And so, beaming with demonic delight at the misery he’d suddenly inflicted on so much of the globe, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in his diary- with devilish glee- “Killed Holmes,” and then laughed the cruel, victorious laughter of villains. (Well, it’s a mostly true story.)
“Elementary, my dear Watson”

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887. He was the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor who turned to writing after becoming bored when his lethargic practice attracted few patients. He based Holmes after Dr. Joseph Bell, his college teacher who introduced Conan Doyle to deductive (or forensic) science. (Holmes’ companion, Dr. John Watson, is based on Conan Doyle himself.) The character soon became a pop culture icon, and Conan Doyle found himself writing new stories at a frantic pace to keep up with demand- usually with a new one in The Strand magazine every month. However, after six years, Conan Doyle was tired of writing about Holmes. Finally, in The Final Problem, he pitted Holmes against Professor James Moriarty, a man every bit as smart and cunning. (Think of him as Sherlock’s evil twin.) In the end, Holmes is only able to defeat the evil professor when both throw each other off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

“Stay off the moors!”

Conan Doyle spent the next eight years turning his interest towards historical fiction and his newfound interest in spiritualism. Eventually, (and with some help from Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a journalist and friend,) Conan Doyle began working on a supernatural story inspired by English folktales of demonic hellhounds. (Not hard for Doyle, who hated dogs with a fiery passion.) It centered on a mysterious death in a family allegedly afflicted with an ancient canine curse; a punishment for a sadistic ancestor who’d killed a peasant girl who tried to escape his ‘embrace.’ The story then turned into an investigation to determine, first, whether the death was supernatural or not; and then, second, to find out if death was about to strike again and why. At some point, Conan Doyle decided not to create a new central character to investigate the situation and simply inserted Holmes. The story was dated to take place before The Final Problem, or a case that Dr. Watson (who narrates almost all of the stories), hadn’t commented on before.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was an amazing success, figuratively ‘wedding’ Holmes and his creator for life. Giving into public demand, Conan Doyle brought the Great Detective back, (the character used the excuse that he’d faked his death and been in hiding for years to escape Moriarty’s agents), and continued to write new stories until 1927. (He died three years later.) In all, he wrote four novels and 56 short stories (hereafter referred to as ‘the canon’), starring Holmes. And Hound of the Baskervilles is considered his finest work. (And, yes, I’m aware that Holmes never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson” in the canon.)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (20th Century Fox, 1939)

This is considered to be one of the most iconic versions of the story. It follows the basic storyline: that of Dr. Mortimer arriving from Devon to ask for Holmes’ help following the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Not only does he have doubts about Sir Charles’ death, but he wants to protect his heir, Sir Henry, from a similar fate. Dr. Watson then heads to Devon with Sir Henry where he notes several suspects who could be behind the whole thing: Barrymore, the butler; Seldon, an escaped convict; Stapleton, an eccentric ex-schoolteacher; and a mysterious man spotted on the moors.

This film is beautifully shot. In fact, it was the first movie to show Holmes in native Victorian setting. (Other 20’s and 30’s films had updated the time period to modern times.) However, there’s a strong emphasis on scenes not in the book. (Sir Henry arriving by boat; a séance; an engagement dinner, etc.) The characters are also extremely nice to each other; which is odd for a story in which everyone acts suspiciously and could be hiding something. (John Carradine is given little to do as Barrymore.) And, IMO, the style and exposition makes it feel too much like a Universal horror film of the same time. It really left me wanting more.
Holmes: To say Basil Rathbone stands out as Holmes would be a classic British understatement. He gives a thoroughly stylized performance (common in cinema for the time) of an eccentric English gentleman that gets your attention. I think he’s a little too nice and giddy, without some of Holmes other traits. (see below) Still, Rathbone was popular enough to play Holmes onscreen 13 more times, (14, if you count his cameo in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective.)
Watson: Nigel Bruce is the bane of Holmes fans. It’s from his portrayal that we get the idea of Watson being older, fatter, and nothing more than comic relief. Pass.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hammer, 1959)

It’s always a little unsettling when filmmakers make more than a few changes to a great story. Usually, said story gets watered down and becomes a huge disappointment. (See my Raise the Titanic review.) Then you get a movie like this and everything just... works! Director Terence Fisher took a LOT of liberties with the story. (See LIST.) Scenes were cut, motives were changed, and one key conflicted character in the text became a villain. Still, it works. For example: when Holmes meets Sir Henry (Christopher Lee in form as a pompous aristocrat), a tarantula crawls out of Sir Henry’s boot, forcing Holmes to beat the bug to death with a cane. I thought the scene was ridiculous at first. (Not to mention that they’re not really dangerous to humans.) Fisher, however, knows what he’s doing. The spider’s appearance actually helps lead Holmes to the real criminal. In the hands of a skilled director, such invented scenes- along with the recreation Sir Hugo Baskerville’s devious backstory- add to the narrative. It’s also a nice to see the great Christopher Lee, a man known for playing dominating characters, having to show fear as a would-be victim.
Holmes: Peter Cushing, Lee’s BFF, is pretty good as Holmes. Truthfully, it’s hard (if not impossible) to find Cushing giving a bad performance. It’s just that most of what he does as Holmes has been covered before or since. He, does, however, show Holmes being quite a jerk when interviewing people (a common trait in the canon). Maybe he was calling on his better-known villain instincts?
Watson: Andre Morell is faithful, if not memorable, as Watson. He’s not a buffoon. I give him credit for that. But there’s not much more. I call him OK.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Curse of the Baskervilles (Burbank Films, 1983)

This animated, one-hour special is amazingly faithful to the original story. Some corners are cut here and there, but it’s hardly noticeable. The filmmakers keep up a good pace, pausing only when the drama requires it. What really amazes me here is how well the characters are defined. Barrymore is elusive; Beryl Stapleton is conflicted; Sir Henry is daring, but arrogant; and even the coachman sounds like a Cockneyed, blue-collar guy from London. Heck, Inspector Lestrade makes an appearance with his trademark antagonism toward Holmes. Like I said above, it’s the behaviors and attitudes of the characters that keep you guessing, and this one really is the best at that.
Holmes: Peter O’Toole voices Holmes here. I like his performance. The only problem is that it’s a little one-track. Whereas Rathbone was focused on being stylized and eccentric, O’Toole is mainly cold and brooding. It’s just lacking a little variety.
Watson: This version is a cross between Nigel Bruce and Andre Morell. He has Bruce’s appearance, but Morell’s faithfulness to the character. Voice actor Earle Cross skillfully balances Watson’s seriousness with good humor to lighten tense situations.

(On Youtube HERE)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (ITV Granada, 1988)

Part of the “Sherlock Holmes” TV series that ran from 1984 to 1994, this version of the tale premiered as a special in August, 1988. The period Victorian settings are lavish, as would be expected of a popular version of Sherlock Holmes tales. But as an added bonus, the scenes of Devon and the moors were actually filmed outside instead of on sets, giving a greater feeling to the ghoulish world Conan Doyle described. It’s mostly faithful to the original story, though some changes are made. (Lestrade doesn’t appear; instead, Dr, Mortimer is made younger and has a considerably beefed-up role.) This version also the best-looking hound; this time, the canine phantasm is covered in phosphorous and glows in the moonlight- like in the book. (Previous live-action versions just used a dog; Hammer’s film put a nasty-looking mask on the mutt.) The only drawback is how slow this film feels. Though similar in screenplay to the animated version, this Hound lacks the tight, careful pacing and can actually be a little boring. That is, until Holmes makes his re-appearance.
Holmes: Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is regarded as one of the finest (easily rivaling Rathbone). At first, in the London scenes, I felt he was too brooding. However, when Holmes appears on the moors to Dr. Watson, Brett takes control of the show. He has an energy and determination that makes him very interesting. He also shows Holmes least seen trait- empathy. Holmes shows he happy that Watson is safe, given what’s going on. He also has incredible pity for Laura Lyons, the woman tricked and manipulated by the villain. Brett shows just how much Holmes feels for the victims of this story, and how much he wants to find whoever is responsible.

Watson: Edward Hardwicke comes the closest to the print version of Watson. For one thing, he’s not a doddering, old fool. (In the canon, he’s only one year older than Sherlock, who’s roughly 35 in Hound.) Though he lacks the Great Detective’s imagination, this Watson shows you why he’s Holmes’ right-hand man.

(On Youtube HERE)
Any other versions of Hound you can think of? Think I’m off my rocker and have a different opinion on any of these films? Please step up to the mic…


-Full text of Hound of the Baskervilles HERE

-“Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror, Episode 4” (A terrific documentary on the creation of the Hound)
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Friday, October 16, 2015

Film Friday: Guardians of the Galaxy (2015)

I’m definitely souring on comic book films. Most are nothing more than dull origin stories that we’ve seen over and over. The same plot points happen like clockwork in each film. The writing is derivative. And they end with a massive CGI fight scene that lasts longer than a colonoscopy. Guardians of the Galaxy is that too, but it’s such a fun film that you don’t notice.

This is the story of how the Guardians of the Galaxy became a team. The story begins by introducing us to Peter Quill as a child. His mother dies. As she dies, he gets kidnapped by a group of space pirates who will reappear periodically throughout the story. They’re kind of like space trash and they kept threatening to eat him as a child. He is now understandably pissed off at them.
Anyways, after this introduction, the film really begins as we see Quill (Chris Pratt), now an adult, hunt for a mysterious orb. He finds it on a ruined world, but finds himself attacked by bad guys. He barely escapes with the orb, but soon finds himself hunted by bounty hunters, including a green girl (Zoe Saldana as Gamora) who is the daughter of one of the bad guys (Ronan) and a genetically engineered gun-nut raccoon named Rocket and his tree-like friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The orb is being sought by Ronan so he can blow up the universe or something.
Anyhoo, they get thrown into jail by Wreck-It Ralph. They become allies. The orb gets stolen several times and everything ends in a big shootout as Ronan comes to destroy the planet Xandar. Blah blah.

Look, the plot doesn’t matter. It’s a MacGuffin. This film is about the characters, the actors and the dialog. Oh, and the soundtrack.

Why This Film Worked

I really enjoyed this film. Why? Because this film was a ton of fun. It was a joy to watch, unlike so much else these days which feels like a chore. Its jokes were funny. Its scenes were clever and entertaining, even if the plot itself was generic. And the characters were likable and interesting and exactly the kind of characters you want to know more about. In fact, I was sorely tempted to buy some of the comics after the film ended... something I’ve never felt after other comic book films.

So how did this happen?

The answer, in a word, is writing. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman simply wrote the hell out of every scene. In most comic book movies, the scenes are just a construct to hit the required plot points as you watch the character arcs while you wait for the final fight scene. In other words, the “plot” is to see the characters go from slackers to heroes or losers to villains. The action points are just meant to highlight how they’ve changed. This film is different. In this film, the writers cared about each individual scene and they worked hard to make each scene stand on its own as entertainment. The result is that everything is memorable and fun.
Consider how we meet Quill. The scene opens as a fairly decent, if slightly clichéd search of alien ruins. It almost feels like Alien when they are searching the alien ship. This would be enough for most writers. They would have Quill attacked, whip out a one-liner and escape. This film doesn’t do that. Instead, Quill puts a walkman on his head and starts dancing. It’s a great dance too which makes you want to get up and dance with him. Then he grabs a space rat and uses it like a microphone as he kicks another rat. This is hilarious and it tells you right away about the tone of the film and the character... he’s a goofball and a scoundrel.

But there’s one more piece coming. The bad guys come after him and he needs to escape. Rather than give a one-liner and escape or kick all their butts, we get this funny moment where he shows us how calm and cool and kick-ass he is. Then he tells them his criminal name is “Starlord.” You expect them to be impressed, he certainly does. But they aren’t. They’ve never heard of him, and the disappointed look on his face is priceless. Then he escapes, with the orb, in a way which foreshadows the ending.

Scene after scene is like this: surprising, funny and insightful. And each scene builds the movie through foreshadowing. This has become a lost art in Hollywood today.
The film is full of fantastic lines too. Rocket, for example, is a quotable machine: “That’s the first thing you’ve said that isn’t batsh*t crazy!” “Hello... idiots!” and so on. His lines are the type you can’t wait to get home and use on your friends.

The other characters are highly quotable too. I love this exchange between Rocket and another character named Drax, who is humorless. Rocket tells Quill that Drax’s people are entirely literal and do not understand metaphors: “Metaphors go over his head.” Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too good. I would catch it.” There is a brilliant exchange with Wreck-It Ralph too about the use of the word “asshole” in a communiqué. And again, so on.
It is a real joy in this age of forgettable films written by marketing departments to find a film with lines that you find yourself repeating for days (or weeks) later.

All of these great lines, by the way, do an amazing job of telling you who these characters are and creating the relationships between them that make you want more. Add to this that the characters are an interesting mix – they’re not all the same character in different costumes as you typically get. The effects are decent. The fight scenes aren’t too long. And the soundtrack is fantastic. And what you get here is a really entertaining movie. This is perhaps the best entry in the superhero film category in a decade.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Monsterpiece Theater: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Rustbelt

Publication Year: 1820 (Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Nickerbocker)

“…Ichabod quickened his steed, in hopes of leaving this midnight companion behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind - the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him. There was something in the stranger's moody silence that was appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow traveler in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horrorstruck on perceiving that he was headless!...”
Washington Irving…

“Washington Irving.” Many of us know the name, but who was he? Well, in a nutshell, he was America’s first great author and man of letters. Born the year the Revolutionary War ended, named for the first President (whom he met at the age of six), and, by his own admission, a bored student, he began writing for newspapers in his teens. Eventually, he branched out into satire and newspaper hoaxes. (If he were alive today, Irving would be the equivalent of prominent blogger **wink, wink Andrew**, a Youtube celebrity, or cable TV host.) His career included fighting in the War of 1812, nearly 20 years of “backpacking” across Europe, serving with the American Legation in London, wildly popular author in his own time, Ambassador to Spain, and chairman of the Astor Library (predecessor to the modern NY Public Library.)

Today, Irving is known for many things, like the famous novella “Rip Van Winkle.” He created the terms “Gotham” (“Goat’s Town” in old Latin) and “Nickerbocker,” which are now common terms for New York City. He also created that most eternally popular of phrases, “the almighty dollar.” And his satires of popular history (he would’ve been at home writing for ‘Mad Magazine’ or ‘the Onion’ today), are where we get the incorrect notion that everyone except Christopher Columbus believed the world was flat. (Oops!) Yet, despite all of this, it’s this short story about a teacher, a ghost, an heiress, and a jock living a tiny village 30 miles from NYC that serves as his best known work. And it’s so well-associated with Halloween, what better placer to start this series?

…and his famous Short Story

It’s a tale many know well (and if they read the original story, nerds would hate): The lanky, scarecrow-shaped schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet), attempts to woo blonde beauty Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest farmer around. In his way stands the linebacker-built, be-letter-jacketed town tough guy Brom Bones and his gang of toadies, the Sleepy Hollow Boys. After enduring some of Brom’s good-natured pranks, Ichabod asks for Katrina’s hand at a harvest party held at her father’s house. Ichabod leaves depressed and looking crestfallen, (she said NO!), and heads home to the school house by way of the trail that runs through the woods of Sleepy Hollow. There, the extremely superstitious principal runs into a man on a horse with no head! The rider chases Ichabod to a bridge by the Dutch Cemetery. However, instead of vanishing like local legend says he should, the horseman throws his head at Ichabod. The next morning, only Ichabod’s hat, horse, and a shattered pumpkin are found. Many believe he was ‘spirited away’ by the ghost. On the other hand, Brom Bones, now happily married to Katrina, always smiles when someone mentioned Ichabod’s disappearance.
Irving wrote the story as part of his Sketch Book, a collection of his stories and essays, while traveling through Europe. At its heart, the story is about two guys vying for the town beauty. However, much of the story is devoted to the customs and local traditions of the mostly Dutch town. The narrator often tells us he’s rather unreliable, as he mentions that he can only infer what happened. (We aren’t told what Ichabod and Katrina say to each other after the party.) But each person and place are richly described it’s easier to picture them after only a sentence or two.

However, there are twists and motivations most people don’t expect. Brom, it seems, actually does love Katrina. (His pranks are more mischievous than cruel.) Ichabod is a shameless social climber; he’s more interested in marrying Katrina for the Van Tassel family farm and fortune than out of love for the lady. The horseman is one of the great American specters. A Hessian (German mercenary) who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, his head was shot off by a cannonball during an “unnamed battle.” It’s said he leaves the Old Dutch Cemetery at night to look for his head, but must hurry back to reach his grave before dawn. And, despite most adaptations portraying the horseman as a genuine ghost, it’s heavily inferred in the story that the rider Ichabod encounters is actually Brom in disguise. (In the epilogue, the narrator bemoans how the ‘old country wives’ maintain that the ghost was real and how that will probably be the history everyone knows.)

Well, that’s the story. So, how has it fared on screens of many sizes? Let’s take a look.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Disney, 1949)*

It’s been suggested on this blog that Walt Disney (and those who have kept his vision and outlook going), has done more to shape American culture over the last century than anyone else. I am not one to disagree. Like many people my age, I was actually introduced to this story while watching this version on the Disney Channel back in the 1980’s. And it seems to remain the most popular version of the tale.

For the most part, this version, despite a few liberties, is rather faithful to the story. The Ichabod-Brom-Katrina love triangle remains the heart of the tale. Bing Crosby does an expert and memorable job of narrating (he also provides all the male voices). It’s full of memorable music and songs. (While ‘Ichabod Crane’ is catchy, I’ve always preferred ‘Headless Horseman,’ which Brom sings at the harvest party.) And the chase sequence through Sleepy Hollow itself is one of the most amazing in animation history. The animation is classic Disney for the time. Though not as lavish as Snow White or Fantasia, it’s very reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. (It seems to have a strong feel of the art work of Disney artist Mary Blair, best known for the Disney short Sleigh Ride and the children figures at ‘It’s A Small World.’) It’s also a popular belief that Katrina may have been an early model for Cinderella.
Ichabod: In the stylized animation, Ichabod keeps his scarecrow-esque dimensions. (“His head was small and flat on top, with a long-snipe nose so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck.”) He also keeps many of his lesser-known traits- romancing the ladies, being mindful of the pupils whose families will give him room and board for the week, and is shown leading choir practice. However, his less desirable trait of greed for Katrina’s father’s farm- the road to easy street- is also on full display. In an odd move for a Disney cartoon, we end up with a very unlikable ‘hero’ figure.
The Headless Horseman: Though some say the original story’s ending can still apply, I disagree. Here, the horseman is clearly an apparition. He storms onto the scene following Ichabod’s wonderfully creepy ride through Sleepy Hollow, where trees, bugs, branches, and shadows form ghouls in every direction. Silhouetted against either fiery red or eerie blue backdrops, the horseman feels like a force of nature released from a demonic netherworld to terrify anyone foolish enough to travel through Sleepy Hollow at night.
Trivia: Not only is the Horseman considered one of the scariest Disney villains, he’s actually the only one to win in the end. (Pinocchio’s villains come close, though they really just get their comeuppance.)

*- (originally released as the second part of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.”)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (NBC, 1980)

The problem with short stories like ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is that they aren’t good material for full-length movies. (The Disney version, for instance, is only a half-hour long.) So, filmmakers inevitably pad out the original tale by adding all kinds of subplots and new characters. That is the best way to describe this made-for-TV treatment.

According to my research, this film was shot in Utah, apparently during the winter since there’s always several inches of snow on the ground. (Oh, I don’t need to think about that right now.) It was clearly made on a TV budget, with most of the money going into sets and little- if any- into special effects. (Hence the horseman’s tiny, cameo-ish role.) The many subplots include: a local elder, Fritz Vanderhoof (John Sylvester White), trying to set up Ichabod with his widowed daughter, Thelma (Laura Campbell); Ichabod being ‘haunted’ by former schoolmaster Winthrop Palmer (Michael Ruud) ,who was allegedly killed by the Horseman; and Squire Van Tassel (James Griffith) constantly having to decide who he wants to order Katrina to marry.

Surprisingly, former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus does fairly well as Brom Bones. (He studied acting and Shakespeare after his playing days.) Brom is actually much crueler towards Ichabod here, with his pranks meant to frighten Ichabod out of town rather than just poke fun at him. (He actually plans to kill Ichabod by pretending to be the Horseman.)

And, IMO, Meg Foster is just plain wasted as Katrina. She doesn’t have enough screen time. (Full movie on Youtube HERE.)
Ichabod: Here, we he get Jeff Goldblum (age 28) in the role. He seems a little uneasy at times, maybe because he’s just at the start of his career. (The Fly was still six years away.) He does, however, look a LOT like the literary character.

The big change is that this Ichabod is a skeptic towards ghosts. (The story version of Ichabod is a believer in all things supernatural.) Eventually, after experiencing some supposedly ghostly events (Brom’s pranks), and encountering Palmer (who didn’t really die), Ichabod feels his sanity slipping away. By the end, however, he decides to keep an open mind and is allowed to court Katrina.
The Horseman: A mostly forgettable version of the character. Look, I know there was a budget, but…wow. The horseman appears as Brom (disguised at the Horseman) tries to force Ichabod into the river. The horseman’s appearance forces Brom to reveal himself and run off. We barely see the horseman (probably to hide the shoulder pads worn by the stuntman), and his jack-o-lantern ‘head’ is a little obvious. On that note, it’s probably best that we see so little of him in this one. He is, however, inferred to be an actual ghost.
Sleepy Hollow (Paramount, 1999)

‘Sleepy Hollow’ adaptations are hard to come by. And if I didn’t want another example for this article, I probably would’ve stopped watching this thing 20 minutes in. It’s just a mess.

If you’re looking for Irving’s story, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a detective-searching-for-a-serial-killer slasher flick. (Small wonder. The writer also worked on HBO’s Tales From the Crypt and wrote the screenplay for Se7en.) Tim Burton brings in his usual stable of players- Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, etc. And like the 1980 version, this feature adds a LOT to make the story feature-length. To that end, we get the hardly unexpected ‘small town hiding a big secret’ motif, a witch, vicious anti-Christian themes, martial arts action sequences, (I don’t recall ninjitsu being popular in post-colonial New York), and numerous exposition scenes. Burton said he wanted to create the feel of Hammer Studios and Italian horror movies. I can’t speak for the Italian style, (why do hipsters love that stuff so much?), but I fail to see the Hammer connection- those films are colorful; this one is gray. I also get the feel that Burton doesn’t like the original story. Like Peter Jackson with The Hobbit, he almost seems annoyed when he has to reference the actual tale, preferring to focus on his added stuff. Brom (Casper Van Diem), for instance, is reduced to redshirt status.
Ichabod: Johnny Depp is, well, Johnny Depp. This time, he’s an NYC constable sent to Sleepy to investigate a bunch of murders. Like the 1980 version, he’s a skeptic towards ghosts, (until he sees the horseman and completely changes). In keeping with Burton’s ‘weird for the sake of weird’ style, he uses steampunk scientific tools and acts quirky. Nothing special here. Oh, and his relationship with Katrina is very uncomfortable given that Christina Ricci’s outfit makes her (and her forehead) look like a 12-year-old.
The Horseman: HiIamChristopherWalkendaheadlessguyindismovie. An uncredited Christopher Walken plays the ghoul this time, at least in the flashback sequence and at the end, when you see his head. (Ray Park handled most of the headless duties.) Adding the trademark Burton touch of weirdness, the Horseman had his teeth sharpened into fangs when he was alive to look more fearsome. Sigh…

There is one good note to this Horseman. The filmmakers use CGI well here, giving the first horseman whose actor isn’t hiding his head inside the costume. At least it looks good presentable.
Well, there’s some of the adaptations of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ What do you think of these three? Are there some I missed and you want to mention? I open the floor!
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