Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where Were You in ’87?

by ScottDS

Last year I jumped back 20 years but this time I’m doing 30 years again. I had forgotten how many classic movies were released in 1987. Of course, I was four years old and not aware of any of them, though several later became favorites, starting with the first two.

RoboCop – I still can’t believe Andrew prefers the second film to this one! For my money, Paul Verhoeven’s blood-soaked satire is a near-perfect movie. Volumes have been written about the film’s satire of 80s America and Verhoeven’s outsider perspective (not to mention the Jesus metaphors) but the film really works both as a corporate satire, but also as an old-fashioned western. What is RoboCop, if not a sheriff who’s come in to clean up the town? They don’t make them like this anymore: memorable characters, quotable dialogue, a heroic musical score, and at the heart of the film, a genuinely human story. The film was followed by two sequels, a cartoon, a low-budget TV series, a series of Canadian TV movies, and a forgettable remake. “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Predator – One of the best “guy movies” ever made, Predator tells the story of Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer who leads a Special Forces team into the jungle on a rescue mission, only to find out their enemy is not of this Earth. The Predator (designed by the late Stan Winston) has become one of our iconic screen monsters. The cast, including Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, and future filmmaker Shane Black, is an absolute blast. McTiernan would follow this up with Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October and Shane Black is currently working on a new Predator film with his Monster Squad collaborator Fred Dekker. “I ain't got time to bleed.” This leads me to…

The Monster Squad – A box-office failure upon its release, this charming film has since become a cult classic. Fred Dekker, who was later sent to director jail after RoboCop 3, co-wrote and directed this story of a group of young nerds who have to battle the old Universal monsters. A wonderful “backyard adventure” in the Spielberg style (but without the success!) and the origin of the fan favorite line “Wolfman’s got nards!” I haven’t seen it in years but it’s just a fun movie. It’s also pretty un-PC: at one point, Dracula is threatening a young girl and screams “You bitch!!” to her face. Go figure…

Fatal Attraction – A classic I watched for the first time just recently. What amazed me was how casual Michael Douglas and Glenn Close are about the whole thing, at least at the start. They’re both adults, his wife and daughter are out of town, so why not have some fun? Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Some, including Glenn Close, have speculated that her character suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). Aside from the lack of cell phones, this movie is also dated in another way: it was released back when Hollywood made actual adult dramas, for adults, with adults acting like adults and not overgrown children. This film was the second highest-grossing film of 1987. Can you imagine that now? “I’m not going to be ignored!”

Moonstruck – Another perfectly pleasant film. Cher stars as a Brooklyn accountant who falls for the brother of the guy to whom she’s engaged. Norman Jewison directs a script by acclaimed playwright John Patrick Shanley (best known to me for Joe vs. the Volcano and, of course, Congo). Yet another classic I watched relatively recently for the first time. I’ve noticed that the best romantic comedies make it look easy. It’s difficult to make any movie, but romantic comedies… I mean, it’s just people. And we can all relate to these stories, whether it’s crazy relatives or getting over a bad breakup, or simply falling for someone who will never feel the same way. This is another genre that Hollywood doesn’t do much nowadays and I think it’s a shame. “Snap out of it!”

Broadcast News – I haven’t seen all of James L. Brooks’ movies, but I found As Good As it Gets to be a bit overrated. Needless to say, Broadcast News is considered to be not only a classic romantic comedy but also an excellent look at the news gathering process. Holly Hunter is Jane, a news producer with no personal life. Albert Brooks is Aaron, a long-time friend of Jane’s and a reporter who sweats profusely on camera, and William Hurt is Tom, a tall and handsome reporter who may have some problems in the ethics department. Another movie just about people trying to have a normal life in a workplace that’s anything but that. “Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”

The Untouchables – One of Brian De Palma’s most successful movies, this is one I have to keep on when it shows up on TV. Kevin Costner is Elliot Ness, a Prohibition agent who goes after Chicago gangster Al Capone, played by Robert De Niro. Yes, the filmmakers (including screenwriter David Mamet) played around with history a little bit but the final product is just so much fun. Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Malone, an old Irish cop who partners with Ness. Not only do Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith get in on the fun, be on the lookout for Patricia Clarkson in one of her earliest roles as Ness’ wife. The highlight is probably the Union Station sequence, De Palma’s homage to Eisenstein. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun!”

Dragnet – This is a total guilty pleasure! A comedic remake of/sequel to the original TV series, Dan Aykroyd was born to play Joe Friday, who loves to explain police rules and regulations in his trademark staccato. Tom Hanks, back when he was a “comedic actor,” plays his mismatched partner, the oddly-named Pep Streebeck. They’re tasked with investigating a series of arson fires and it all ties in to a Los Angeles porno king (a lisping Dabney Coleman) and a phony preacher (a wonderfully-sneering Christopher Plummer). There is actually an interesting idea here: when it comes to public outrage, one side can’t exist without the other. But it doesn’t matter – this movie is just bizarre, with cult rituals, a virgin heroine, and some pretty funny gags. “Pagans!”

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – Oh boy. Two words for you: Cannon Films, who purchased the Superman cinematic rights from the Salkinds, and then proceeded to slash the film’s budget at the last minute. In this one, Superman decides to rid the world of all nuclear weapons (breaking Tom Mankiewicz’ rule that Superman shouldn’t get involved in real-world events). Lex Luthor seeks to profit from this and ends up creating one of the worst screen villains ever: Nuclear Man. Most of the effects are laughable and the plot itself is borderline nonsensical (45 minutes were cut)… but Reeve gives it his all, Hackman is always fun to watch, and the music score – what survived, anyway – is pretty great. “Destroy Superman!”

Spaceballs – Not nearly as witty as The Producers or as political as Blazing Saddles, this movie is still hilarious. Even people who haven’t seen this film are probably familiar with “Use the Schwartz!” Sadly, this film is sort of a time capsule. John Candy and Rick Moranis were staples of my childhood and while Moranis has been retired from Hollywood for years and currently lives in New York City, Candy left us much too early. Making sequels after a long period of time rarely works but this is one instance where I’d be interested to see what they do, especially with Star Wars back in theaters for all eternity. “So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Speaking of John Candy, another staple of my childhood who left us much too soon was filmmaker John Hughes. Sixteen Candles might be my favorite Brat Pack film but this is my favorite Hughes film period. Steve Martin is just trying to make it home for Thanksgiving when he befriends a loudmouth shower curtain ring salesman (John Candy) and shenanigans ensue. When my brother and I were younger, we re-enacted the “You're going the wrong way!” scene for dad's new camcorder. (At the time, my brother was short enough to stand on the driver's seat without hitting the roof!) A sweet movie and a holiday classic. “Those aren’t pillows!”

Empire of the Sun – Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel features a young Christian Bale as a boy separated from his parents after the Japanese invade Shanghai at the start of World War II. This is one of Spielberg’s masterpieces and it’s a shame it’s not as well-known as Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Oddly, I tend to consider it alongside A.I. in that both films deal with parental separation and both leave me feeling uneasy by the end. (Is there a shrink in the house?!) Production values are top-notch, John Williams’ score is excellent, and look for John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, and a young Ben Stiller. “P-51! Cadillac of the sky!”

September – One of Woody Allen’s humorless melodramas – coming after 1978’s Interiors and followed by 1988’s Another Woman (the best of the three), September is a chamber piece and the plot is the usual Woody: upper-crust New Yorkers dealing with relationship drama and trying to make sense of a chaotic universe. The production history is more interesting: Woody cast the film, re-cast one role just a few weeks into production, finished the film, decided it didn’t work… then re-cast it and filmed it again! “It's hell getting’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside.”

Lethal Weapon – Richard Donner’s film more or less reinvented the buddy cop movie. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover have excellent chemistry as Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh: Riggs is depressed and suicidal while Murtaugh is a normal family man dealing with turning 50. While investigating the death of a young woman, they discover a heroine smuggling ring run by Vietnam War-era mercenaries. The movie could’ve been a forgettable potboiler but Gibson and Glover elevate the material, the villains are genuinely menacing, and Donner’s at the height of his directorial powers. This film was followed by three sequels, a spoof (Loaded Weapon, which is actually pretty funny), and is currently a TV series on Fox. “I’m too old for this shit!”

Also: Adventures in Babysitting, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Big Easy, Can’t Buy Me Love, Death Wish 4, Dirty Dancing, Evil Dead II, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hamburger Hill, Hellraiser, Innerspace, Ishtar, Jaws: The Revenge, The Last Emperor, Less Than Zero, The Living Daylights, The Lost Boys, Masters of the Universe, The Miami Connection, Near Dark, No Way Out, The Princess Bride, Prince of Darkness, Raising Arizona, Revenge of the Nerds II, The Running Man, The Secret of My Success, Stakeout, Three Men and a Baby, Three O’Clock High, Throw Mama from the Train, Tin Men, Wall Street, and The Witches of Eastwick.
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: The Count Goes Just Plain Weird

by Rustbelt

By the 1990’s, bad was cool. (See e.g. nWo, ECW, Austin 3:16) Anything that wasn’t extreme was dull. (See e.g. any Mountain Dew commercial) The Macarena ruled and stoners determined culture. How did this affect vampires? Well, just when it seemed as though filmmakers had finally realized that Dracula is meant to be scary, they go pants-crapping crazy and make the story utterly unrecognizable. Blood-drinking became cool. Any connection between Christian faith warding off vampires was deemed unhip. And unless you were an uber-sexy teenager/twentysomething, it was wrong to fight vampires because you were ruining all the fun. I blame this all on Jess Whedon.

But before that annoying hipster got his turn, it was a member of the Movie Brats who turned vampire lore on its head. To get to the root of this, we’re going to have to go back a few decades.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (American Zoetrope, 1992)

Probably the most famous play version of Dracula is the 1924 Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderson adaptation. Tod Browning relied heavily on it when filing his classic version starring Bela Lugosi for Universal in 1931. Over forty-five years later, the play reopened on Broadway with Frank Langella in the lead. This, of course led to the 1979 film starring Langella. However, the producers weren’t the only ones inspired by the play to make a bizarre new film version.

During the show’s run, screenwriter James V. Hart decided to take in the performance. Hart later recalled that on the night he was in the audience, (and apparently during the scene where the Count bites Lucy), he heard a woman in front of him mutter that, “she’d rather spend one night with Dracula dead than the rest of her life with her husband alive.” Hart went back and read the book. Interpreting virtually everything in the novel as a sexual metaphor for something, he eventually wrote a rough screenplay for his own adaptation. Years later, in 1989, budding Hollywood starlet Winona Ryder got a copy of the script and took it to Francis Ford Coppola -- the story goes that she was shocked that he listened to her since she had pulled out of the The Godfather Part III. Coppola liked what he read and decided to make his take on Dracula with one particular word in mind: weird.

Horror or Romance, You Make the Call

Bram Stoker’s Dracula starts off with something that never happens in the book: Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) claiming that he is Vlad the Impaler. He is shown fighting the Turks in…muscle armor? Then, after impaling his foes (recalling the Impaler’s real-life ‘forest of the impaled’), he learns the terrible news that his wife committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking he died in battle. In a chapel, he is told that her soul is damned for committing suicide and in a rage renounces God and declares himself blood thirsty, setting him on the path to becoming a vampire.
Note: Vlad the Impaler’s first wife did, in fact, throw herself from the battlements of Castle Poenari. The reason is unknown, but it’s inferred that because the castle was being besieged by the Turks, she killed herself out of despair.

The film then follows a similar plot to the Universal version, with Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reaves) traveling to Transylvania... and the weird is on. Everything is done to excess (cough, cough Peter Jackson). The ‘peasants’ in the coach seem dressed for Mardi Gras; the armor-clad coach driver looks like an enemy out of the Castlevania franchise; and when Harker encounters the Brides - one of whom has Medusa’s head snakes - it quickly becomes a scene out of Caligula.
The Count arrives in England and the script morphs from an LSD-fueled version of the Universal movie, to a hybrid of the Palance and Langella versions done in the Kabuki style. (Seriously! That’s what half the costumes in this movie were based on!) Dracula recognizes Mina (Winona Ryder) as his wife Elizabeta reincarnated and begins courting while feeding on her friend, Lucy. A near-insane Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and the uptight vampire hunters begin to investigate.
Finally, after Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Mina have deep sexual awakenings after being bitten by the Count, the hunters chase Dracula to his castle where Mina turns on the group and nearly helps the Count escape. She only stabs and decapitates him as an act of mercy. Whew!
Dracula: Gary Oldman

I have a lot of issues with this version of the Count, though they really can’t be blamed on the actor. Coppola wanted everything to be as over-the-top as possible. This included giving Dracula a red evening gown complete with twenty-foot train and a Krusty the Klown style hairdo. The appearance is more laughable than frightening.
It improves somewhat in London, as the Count dresses like a nobleman. However, he wears blue-tinted John Lennon-esque glasses and cries purple tears. [insert your Prince joke here] I can’t help but wonder if Coppola was actually making fun of the character by this point.
Anyway, Gary Oldman is one of those rare actors who can almost seamlessly become different characters and make them believable. Here, he does what is asked of him: he uses a deep Romanian accent and acts creepy as the old Count in the castle. After drinking the blood of the crew on the Demeter makes him younger, he switches gears to sex-starved stalker, albeit one with a heart. I say this because as much as he wants to make Mina a vampire to be with him forever, he doesn’t want to damn her. However, she falls in love with him because…?

Oh, Let’s Just Say It: Twilight for Adults

Why does Mina love Dracula? Because he took her out? Because he’s a gentleman and won’t bite her? Does he sparkle in sunlight? Will he introduce her to the family? Will he take her to the prom? (Well they do dance.) Oh, let’s just say it: this is Twilight for Adults!
This just hit me in the course of writing this article: the Count and Mina in this movie are Edward and Bella! He loves her, but won’t bite her because it’s terrible to be a vampire. She loves him and wants him to bite her so they can be together forever. How precious. Maybe he’ll also compose a lullaby on the piano for her.

Even more amazing, Mina is actually more obnoxious than Bella. As I mentioned above, she turns on the group in the end. She warns the Count of their plans, tries to bite Van Helsing, uses vampire powers to help Dracula get to the safety of the castle, and then pulls a gun on her husband to keep him from killing the Count. Turncoat, I say! Traitor! Witch! Benedict Arnold!
How to Make Bram Stoker Roll Over in the Grave (Which Would be a Feat, Since he was Cremated)

Once again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual liberator from traditional mores. I could rehash all of that, but I covered what I have to say on that subject in my article on the Palance and Langella versions. So let me detail other things I couldn’t stand:

- Even Coppola has admitted he doesn’t like the decision to cast Keanu Reeves. He claims the studio forced it on him. (He wanted Johnny Depp.) Reeves is wooden, uninteresting, and turns in one of the worst English accents of all time. Only three years removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you can’t help but wonder when he’ll say ‘whoa.’ BTW, Ryder is almost as bad with her accent.
- Feminism or non-feminism? Coppola deliberately focused the script on Mina and Lucy. Both constantly undermine the male characters. Mina even berates Dracula for thinking the cinematograph is a scientific achievement, and claims Marie Curie would scoff at it. (Screw you, Edison!) Plus, both spend a good deal of the film sizing up the men as per their sexual abilities. (Does Lucy have any lines that can’t be interpreted as innuendo?) And, of course, both choose Drac as their ultimate dude because he shows them a good roll in ze hay. Is that really feminism? You know, I can’t tell anymore.
- Finally come the costumes. Yes, I know this movie won Oscars for costume and makeup, but the Academy also gave ‘Best Picture’ one year to ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ So much for credibility. It’s all so over-the-top, it’s ridiculous. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching. Like I said above, most of the costumes are based on Kabuki dresses. Everything else seems to be Victorian garb on steroids. (The ‘muscle armor,’ BTW, is completely made up.) Exactly how you make a horror movie where everyone dresses like clowns and ringmasters is beyond me.
Obligatory Find the Good

All right, except for Gary Oldman, I’ve been really hard on this film. (And honestly, I think he saves it from being a total wash.) However, this film has many defenders and I can see why. The sets are highly detailed, crafted, and well-lit. But art alone can’t make a movie. You still need story and character. Christopher Lee pointed out the scene where Oldman licks the blood off Harker’s razor and has a moment of ecstasy as he swallows it. He called that a nice addition and I agree. To that end, here are some good things I found in the script.

- The hunters are all here. This is the first movie to show all of the vampire hunters- Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), who proposed to Lucy, but was turned down, Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), Lucy’s fiancé, and Arthur’s Texan adventurer friend, Qunicey P. Morris (Billy Campbell). Most movies reduce the group to one or two. It’s nice to see them all together, even if they are portrayed as inferior males. On that note, Anthony Hopkins is no Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. He was deliberately channeling his Hannibal Lector character for the role.

- There’s homage to the author. While walking through London, Mina passes an ad on a placard for the Lyceum Theater, where Bram Stoker worked as business manager. The placard further advertises Sir Henry Irving in Hamlet can also be seen. Irving made his reputation playing the Prince of Denmark.

- There’s plenty of actual dialogue in the film. Dracula, Harker, and Van Helsing use many lines from the novel in the film, particularly in the scenes leading up to, and taking place in, Castle Dracula. Harker quotes from the journal entries in the novel several times. It’s only when the plot changes into Twilight and Lucy’s nymphomania appears that Stoker’s words become lost.
- Tom Waits does the most outrageous performance as Renfield since Dwight Frye in 1931. He’s eccentric, unpredictable, and just plain crazy; a good friend one moment; a homicidal maniac the next. Let me amend what I said before: Oldman and Waits save the movie from being a total wash.

- And, yeah, I’ll admit: I like “Love Song for a Vampire.”
The Difference Between a Lost Chapter and a Lost Cause

In 1914, two years after Bram’s death, Florence Stoker published something odd: a book of short stories called Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. It’s widely believed that the title story is an excised chapter of Dracula. It goes like this:
An unnamed Englishman (presumably Harker), arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. Although warned not to go out, the Englishman walks out to an abandoned ‘unholy village.’ He finds a massive tomb with an iron stake driven through it. An inscription reads, “The Dead Travel Fast.” A hailstorm forces him into the tomb’s doorway and he accidentally opens it. Lightning reveals a beautiful sleeping woman inside. Just then, thunder frightens him away and another bolt hits the spike, destroying the tomb as the woman screams. Hours later, the man wakes with a ferocious-looking wolf licking his neck. A group of soldiers arrive, shoo off the wolf, and take the Englishman back to the inn. It’s later revealed that the man’s eventual host, Dracula, sent a warning to the inn to look after the man.

No one really knows why the story was removed from the novel. Theories range from the style (it’s not certain who the narrator is), to the length of the novel, to the scene just not fitting into the narrative. The evidence that it may be a removed first chapter comes from the original manuscript now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. Lines scratched out in the manuscript seem to refer to events in Dracula’s Guest. Also, nearly all the chapters numbers are scratched out and subtracted by one. The lack of information about this piece only adds to its mystery.

I think it was a good choice to remove it. First, it allows Harker’s experiences to build as we follow his journey across Eastern Europe. And second, it can be inferred that the experience should better prepare Harker for his experiences in Transylvania. If he went through that and behaves the way he does in the novel, he’d actually look rather stupid dismissing every superstition instead of carefully investigating them.
But sometimes family isn’t your friend. In 2009, Dacre Stoker, professional gym teacher and great-grand-nephew of Bram, co-authored a book called Dracula the Un-Dead. In a case like this, you’d hope that talent might be passed through a family bloodline. Alas, this is not the case.

I won’t bother with a full synopsis. Suffice to say, the original group of vampire hunters has drifted apart by 1912. They’re all recluses or addicts of some kind. Anyway, the vampire Elizabeth Bathory (a real-life Hungarian countess who had village girls killed so she could bathe in their blood, which she believed would cause her to retain her youth), has arrived in London and is causing trouble. Quincey Harker (Jonathan and Mina’s son), gets help from a famous actor named Basarab (Dracula in disguise), and they attempt to find Bathory and destroy her.

This isn’t written as a novel; it’s written as an attempted screenplay pitch. The book’s last chapters move and climax like a Die Hard film. Dracula takes over the role of superhero as he and Bathory fight X-Men-style. It’s also revealed that the Count and Mina were great lovers and that the group misidentified the Count as the bad guy the first time around. And, oh, yeah: everyone gets killed along the way.

Dacre Stoker has claimed the book was an attempt for the Stoker estate to reclaim the property. I, for one, hope they’re kept as far away from it as possible.
It Seems the Dawn has Arrived

How time flies. Well, everyone, it’s been a nice few weeks this October. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the many faces of the vampire king with you. And like Gene Wilder told Mel Brooks on the set of Young Frankenstein just after the last day of filming wrapped, “I’m so happy. I don’t want to leave Transylvania.” Unfortunately, the time has come. When this is posted, Halloween will be over. Remember how the ghosts and ghouls in the Night on Bald Mountain piece from Fantasia return to their graves as sunlight shines through the clouds to the ringing of the angelus bell? Well, now, the vampires, too, must return to their tombs.

This year’s series of Monsterpiece Theater is complete. But it’s just a chapter. There’s always room for more.

“I trust your journey has been a happy one…and that you [enjoyed] your stay in my beautiful land. Your Friend, D.”

Sir Christopher Frayling’s “Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror: Dracula”
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Guest Review: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

by Jason

Roland Emmerich, just give it up. You’re done. D-O-N-E. You’ve strip-mined disaster movies of everything they’ve got. You literally have nowhere else to go unless you blow up a whole galaxy. Then again, that might have been a better idea for a film than what we ultimately ended up with.

The Plot

It’s Independence Day all over again. Another alien ship shows up, lots of cities go boom, we fight back but our military is no match for them, we go to Area 51, we hatch a plan to get through the aliens’ defenses, an important character sacrifices himself to help beat the aliens, we win, main characters gather in the desert to celebrate the victory, roll credits. Now imagine all that done half-assed, and you have Independence Day: Resurgence.
The Good

Okay, snark aside, there are some good ideas in this movie. The film’s first act reveals that the war against the aliens started in the first film actually continued for a while in certain areas such as Africa, with a warlord who waged a guerilla war against some of them for a long time. We also learn that David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has been working with the world’s governments to use alien technology captured from the first invasion to help strengthen the planet’s defenses to the point where they can build a functioning moonbase and fighter planes that can fly in space. Meanwhile, former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), long bearded and apparently ailing, senses a new ship of aliens is approaching as a side effect of having telepathically linked to them in the first movie. The telepathic warning also reaches a comatose Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), who wakes up from twenty years after his encounter with the alien in the Area 51 lab and starts writing weird alien symbols all over the wall.
The Bad

Unfortunately, Emmerich doesn’t develop these ideas into anything compelling, mostly because the movie gets swallowed up in rehashing the first movie, only Resurgence doesn’t even do that well. In the first film, we got treated to big city-sized flying saucers shooting down beams that blow away whole cities. Here, we just get another mothership that only wrecks havoc because it’s surrounded by a gravity field that lifts up whole cities as it descends to the planet and then drops them back across the planet. I couldn’t tell whether the aliens were doing this on purpose or if it was just a byproduct of their ship’s arrival. And humanity’s air counterattack against the aliens? Boring and a mess. It’s like Emmerich forgot how to shoot an aerial dogfight scene. I could follow the air battles in the first movie much better.

The movie does introduce some new characters plus new actors that play grown-up roles of two kids from the first movie, but with the exception of Whitmore’s daughter, they’re all bores. Most of the original cast does return, even an ailing Robert Loggia (R.I.P.) who gets a quick cameo at a presidential ceremony in his old role as General Grey, and they pretty much outshine the newbies. There’s a female president played by Sela Ward who makes one big dumb mistake in the course of the film and is later killed by the aliens. That’s pretty much her contribution. Jeff Goldblum is still Jeff Goldblum, just a little older and grayer. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all the “Goldblumisms” that are worth seeing. Meanwhile, Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s dad is back and he ends up with a subplot so irrelevant it’s shocking that it got past Emmerich. After he survives a tidal wave brought on by the alien ship’s arrival, he dusts himself off, escorts a bus of children through the aftermath of the alien invasion to Area 51…and that’s it! On the other hand, this movie loves Brent Spiner’s Dr. Okun, so if you liked his short role in the first flick, be prepared to have lots more Okun served up in the sequel!

As an aside, the movie dumped Margaret Colin’s Constance Spano (David Levinson’s ex) even though the actress is still very much active and seemed from what I can tell ready to reprise the role. Why? Let’s see. Colin is currently 58 years old, while the actress that plays the new female character that partners with David is 45. Yeah, I think we can draw the expected conclusion here and move on.
How the Aliens Lose

I have to reserve some special scorn for how the human race fights the aliens in this movie. In the first, Goldblum and Smith fly up to the mothership and upload a virus that shuts down the deflector shields on the alien craft and allow the military to take them down. Simple, easy to follow, even if the fact that Goldblum’s laptop can successfully interface with an alien computer left more than a few moviegoers rolling their eyes.

In Resurgence, the strategy is to lure the aliens’ queen out of the mothership so they can kill it, and without the queen, the mothership will stop its attack on Earth and just leave. That’s it. The climax is basically a battle between a giant alien queen who’s the size of a Transformer plus some of her escort fighters. Once she’s dead, the aliens suddenly stop as if they get a mental blue screen of death, pick up, and go. Never mind that their mothership is still fully functional, they just can’t do the job any more. Queen dead, they go bye-bye. I don’t know if I have the words to communicate how both stupid and underwhelming this is.
Time to Hang It Up, Roland

Whatever filmmaking talent Roland Emmerich still possesses ought to go to other kinds of films, because this movie shows he’s completely out of gas when it comes to disaster and mayhem. Actually, I’d say this movie’s failure is a greater symptom of audience fatigue for these kinds of movies as a whole.

When the first Independence Day came out, movie audiences of the time had not seen special effects movies that depicted mass destruction of landmarks and cities, certainly not so realistically. You’d have to go back decades to flicks like War of the Worlds and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. Usually, mass destruction was a threat that movie heroes could stop in the nick of the time. So when Independence Day depicted an epic war between humanity and an invading alien race, it wasn’t a shock that people flocked to see it.

Now Emmerich has essentially given us the same movie twenty years later and it’s a snoozer. Why? Because mass destruction has been done to death. The Transformers movies have done it. The Marvel movies have done it. The DC movies have done it. Emmerich himself has done it twice, in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. There’s only so many ways you blow up city streets, buildings and skyscrapers. I’d be shocked if by now Industrial Light and Magic doesn’t have a “blow up a city” computer program to click on demand.

Final Verdict

The first Independence Day was lightning in a bottle. It was a huge success because of its basic alien invasion plot, effects that (largely) still hold up, and a cast that included a few ab-libbers to add some chuckles to the film (notably Hirsch, Smith and Goldblum). But it’s clear all the inspiration was used up for the first film. It’s like in that 20 year gap between films, Emmerich forgot how to put together a cohesive story, so he just rehashed the first one but made it less fun, less understandable and much more underwhelming. If Emmerich truly wanted to make a sequel, he should have done it years ago, and if the sequel hook from this film suggests the kind of film he wanted to build up to, a “let’s go into space and take the fight to the aliens,” thing, there was no reason he couldn’t have done that story then or even now.

Celebrate your Independence Day from this film!
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Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: Dracula Films That Keep You Up and Listening to the Children of the Night

by Rustbelt

For most of the 1970’s, vampires were associated with (consequence-) free love and counterculture lifestyles. Count Dracula was turned upside-down and remade into a sexual liberator- a sort of vampiric Timothy Leary, if you will. It seemed as if Bram Stoker’s intention to create a monster symbolizing the pure evil side of human nature had been completely forgotten. This wasn’t helped by a flurry of B-grade horror films in the spirit of Roger Corman that reduced the Count to a campy figure bent on world domination, creating a race of mutant supermen, or... whatever. Of course, the creation of cereal seller Count Chocula, Britain’s animated ‘fowl fiend’ Count Duckula, and Sesame Street’s resident math teacher from the dark side Count von Count didn't help either. As the 1980’s dawned, Count Dracula seemed more at home with King Tut and Egghead from Adam West’s Batman show than the coming likes of Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger.

But, apparently, a few filmmakers decided to read the book and realized the popular story being sold wasn’t what the author had written. With the release of two films, the story of Dracula was about to return to its chilling roots.

Count Dracula (BBC, 1977)

We start with a good one. This version is a mini-series, not a movie per se, so it has the time to show more than the average production and allows things to build. Unfortunately, I can hardly find any background information for it. Even when it was finally released on DVD in 2007, it had no bonus features. So, we’re going to have to jump right into the synopsis.

Unlike most adaptations, this version follows the story very closely. However, it takes advantage of being a miniseries and moves at a much more careful pace. For instance, a great of time is spent in Transylvania. This allows the naïve Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) to walk into the castle of Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan) as an innocent. However, he gradually becomes aware of the Count’s true nature (and his status as a prisoner). His admiration for the Count believably transforms into fear and then into hate. Thus, his overwhelming desire to destroy the Count feels more natural, rather than forced. This miniseries also has the most effective use of the scene where the Brides eat the baby Dracula gives them- a complete inversion of motherhood that lurks behind pretty faces.
The scene then shifts back to England, where many of the subplots of the story are largely left intact. These include Renfield’s (Jack Shepherd) bargain with Dracula, which he eventually renounces. Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) has time for her relationship with Quincy Holmwood to grow; making it hurt even more when Dracula kills her. The filmmakers also keep Harker and Van Helsing’s (Frank Finlay) quest to find Dracula’s boxes of Transylvanian earth, which I think demonstrates Van Helsing’s detective skills to a greater degree.
There are other nice touches, such as the coachman at the Borgo Pass (actually the Count in disguise), handing Harker a flask of slivovitz (plum brandy) to hold off chills from the cold night. Castle Dracula is also almost exactly how I pictured it from the book: thick, Roman-esque walls, tiny hallways, and a dirty, unkempt, decayed, claustrophobic appearance. Renfield is also shown gathering his flies and spiders to fill his zoophagous (that is, life-devouring) habit. Nothing really too rushed or drawn out. That being said, there are a few issues. The first is Susan Penhaligon’s vampire screeching, which could has the potential to break a mirror. And there’s the horrific character of Qunicy Holmwood (Richard Barnes). We’ll get to him in a second.
Dracula: Louis Jourdan

Film fans (and, certainly, Commentarama fans), probably know Jourdan best as the slimy, yet refined Bond villain Kamal Khan from Octopussy. Here, Jourdan puts his classy demeanor to work for great effect. Jourdan’s Count is brooding and calculating. He never loses his temper, always knowing that he has the upper hand. (One Internet article called him the ‘thinking man’s Dracula.’) This time, there is no effort to make the Count romantic. His cruelty is on full display as he taunts Harker and nearly lets him be devoured by wolves when Harker tries to leave the castle through the main door. He also ridicules Van Hesling’s use of the crucifix, accusing the professor of hiding behind a tool of humiliation and execution (recalling the Roman’s use of the cross). It really takes all of Van Helsing’s faith to hold his poise and declare that Christ had made the cross a symbol of triumph; as a lesser man may have lost some nerve.

The script also allows for Jourdan to justify Dracula’s existence, saying he does nothing more than feed and create needed servants, which is simply as natural to his nature as a person eating an animal. Here, I would say Dracula truly takes on a satanic mode. His attempts to justify his own evil mirror that of the devil trying to justify sin through either natural desires or jealousy of God. This is a Dracula who always seems to be prepared for his foes. The only thing missing- as noted by Internet reviewer Obsessed Movie Man- is the Count’s trademark rage towards humanity that often shows when he sees blood. However, I don’t think it hurts the performance. Jourdan portrays an immortal vampire who doesn’t care about frivolous human things wants and desires and instead pursues his own agenda.
A (Mostly) Strong Cast

Frank Finlay is one of the strongest Van Helsings ever. He balances the character’s eccentricity and professional approach with grace. He approaches things as a scientist, but isn’t afraid to reach a conclusion of supernatural activity. However, his empathy and deep-rooted Christian faith is also on full display, making him the perfect foil for Jourdan’s Dracula. His presence and courage come through and make the viewer understand why he leads charge against the Count. Other notables include Hogan as Harker. He truly captures the cowardly character forced to find his own courage and defend the woman he loves. Jack Shepherd is also good as Renfield. He is quite believable as an asylum inmate, and his eventual renunciation of Dracula is deeply satisfying.
Some liberties had to be taken, mainly making Mina (Judi Bowker) and Lucy sisters instead of best friends. But the bottom of the barrel is Quincy Holmwood. Richard plays a combination of Arthur Holmwood the Texan Quincy P. Morris, who works at the American consulate. Barnes gives one of the worst Texan accents ever recorded and it nearly ruins several scenes. Britain’s revenge for Dick van Dyke as Burt in Mary Poppins?
The Count’s True Nature

Despite Jourdan’s Count trying to justify himself, this miniseries shows the Count for what he is. Just to drive the point that Dracula is not a romantic character, Dracula is shown using hypnosis- a date rape drug, in other words- to get Lucy’s attention after using his wolf form to shock her mother, killing her via heart attack. He then has his way with Lucy. Later, he uses hypnosis on Mina to get her to drink his blood and begin turning her into a vampire. In the book, Dracula does this to create a mental connection with Mina (so he knows what the men will try to do to kill him), and to destroy her in order to personally hurt the men hunting him. Not exactly romantic. In fact, when the Count leaves and Mina snaps out of her trance, she screams in agony at what she’s done and what’s been done to her. If this isn’t vampire rape, I don’t what is.
This is the Count’s true nature. Evil and diabolical. (At least here, Jonathan was asleep under the Count’s control. In the book, it’s inferred he might have been awake and forced to watch Dracula molest his wife.)

Full Movie (please forgive the Portuguese subtitles; it’s the best one I could find)

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (Phantom of the Night), a.k.a. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, München, 1979)

Now, when I say ‘art movie,’ what jumps into your head? Over-the-top symbolism? Prodding pretentiousness? A script designed so that only the director can understand it?- and then taunt you for not being smart enough to understand it? Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s what I think of. Fortunately, here we have an art movie that you can- have I used this line yet? I forget- sink your teeth into.

Bidding Homage to a True Classic

This movie is the result of director Werner Herzog’s desire to re-make and perform reverence to the F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu. In order to make everything as authentic as possible, Herzog wanted to film on the same locations, but the East German government wouldn’t let him cross the border and make the film in Wismar. Stupid communists. Herzog proceeded anyway with a few obvious changes. First, he shot the film in color as opposed to black and white. Second, with Dracula now in public domain, Herzog used the characters’ original names as opposed to those from the 1922 plagiarized version. And third, at the request of American distributor 20th Century Fox, the film was shot in both German and English. No Toho-style dubbing here.

I had hoped to view the German version with subtitles (my German’s really rusty) as the filmmakers consider that to be the more “authentic” version. (They just put more effort into that one, I suppose.) However, lack of a copy and time left me reviewing the English version. Well, here we go.
Returning to Wismar

The plot keeps most of the deviations the original 1922 film made. The real changes are what director Herzog added to enhance the feel of the story. This starts with a blood-curdling shot of decaying bodies in states of torment as the opening titles flash and an eerie, unsettling choir plays in the background. (For the sake of your stomach, I won’t post any pictures of this.)
From there, Harker (Bruno Ganz) travels to Transylvania. This time, the innkeepers don’t just try to keep him from going to the castle, they take him to a band of gypsies who have been ‘on the other side’ of the Pass in the hopes that their stories will keep Harker away. Then Harker and Dracula (Klaus Kinski) play out many of the same scenes originally shown between Hutter and Count Orlok. In both the castle and the ship, Herzog recreates several classic images of the vampire, but doesn’t go too far. Later, the Count arrives on the boat in Wismar and releases thousands of rats in the city. Just as in the previous film, the plague is blamed for the sudden increase in deaths. Unlike the first film, the city is shown decaying as the population dies off.
SPOILERS: The final addition comes at the end. After Harker’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) sacrifices herself to trick Dracula into exposing himself to sunlight, Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) stakes him. The vampire’s body doesn’t disintegrate this time. However, Harker, who returned from Transylvania, accuses Van Helsing of murder. The professor is arrested by the lone surviving city official. Then, Harker, now sporting Dracula’s rat-like teeth and bulging eyes, says he has “much to do” and heads off to the Count’s castle.
Dracula: Klaus Kinski

We last saw Herr Klinski as Renfield in the Franco version of Dracula. Here, he’s been promoted from the Count’s slave to the Count himself. And he does a near perfect imitation of Max Shreck while sporting the original actor’s makeup. For the most part, Kinski moves slowly and deliberately, which is fitting for the film’s pace. For most movies, this could easily become a campy way to act. However, here it works. For instance, when Dracula bites Harker for the second time, he descends on Harker slowly, knowing there is no way for Harker to escape. Of course, the audience knows this, too. It makes the attack all the more unsettling. Kinski’s moaning and breathing (yes, the vampire breathes here, but it actually adds to the atmosphere so it gets a pass), make Dracula more animalistic, as though he can’t control himself. There’s also an attempt to portray the loneliness that an immortal, yet disgusting, creature must endure. In Wismar, the Count tries to demand that Lucy love him the way she loves Jonathan. When she rebukes him, the subplot seems to fall off. I think it was a nice idea, but unnecessary.
Of Mummies and Music

The opening shots of this movie feature the infamous mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico. These are the remains of victims of a massive cholera outbreak in 1833. Many of the bodies, which mummified naturally due to the climate, were disinterred and stored elsewhere over disputes involving burial taxes between 1870 and 1958. Many of the mummies- macabre and seemingly frozen in a state of torment- are now on display in a museum, and caused none less a visiting luminary than Ray Bradbury to want to get out of Mexico as fast as possible. During the opening shot, a haunting chorus groans softly in the background. The chorus is played several times in the film, always when the Count, or his effects, is on the move. It’s a good non-verbal cue that indicates death and destruction are coming. Herzog adds to the operatic feeling with several Richard Wagner pieces which perfectly compliment the chorus.
The Plague

Vampires are harbingers of death and often associated with outbreaks. No movie stresses that more then this one. Thousands of rats leave the ship after Dracula arrives. Within days, Wismar is awash in death due to the presence of the Count. Coffins pile up in the town square, the entire government and police are killed, anarchy reigns, rats cover the city like rain, and people try to revel one last time before their time comes, too. The whole thing reminded me of medieval drawings of the Black Death, which is fitting since the city itself seems to be dying.
Lucy the Heroine

Whether Harker’s wife is Lucy or Mina, depending on the adaptation, the character has never had more to do than in this film. Like the 1922, original, Lucy sleepwalks and feels terror as her husband is assaulted by the vampire several countries away. And here she again sacrifices herself to stop the Count. Only this time, in between those scenes, she leads a one-woman charge to convince her fellow city folk that a vampire, not the plague, is responsible for what’s happening. Her efforts are, of course, in vain, though she does manage to convince Van Helsing of what’s really happening. And it’s through her eyes that we see the decay of Wismar in its streets and city center. We feel her frustration and realize she may be the only hope for stopping the monster. You could also say she manipulates Dracula, since after rebuffing his advances, she knows he lusts for her and then uses that against him to draw him out into the sunlight. It’s an interesting enhancement of the original film and a fascinating, yet relatable take on a character that normally stays in the background.

Full Movie (English version)

Vampires: So What Are They and How Do You Kill Them?

Today, vampires are often depicted as sexy in a ghoulish way. And if the last 20 years are any indication, they split their time between drinking, rolling in ze hay because their immortality leaves them in a beautiful, coitus-prone state forever, and playing awful tricks on us uncool mortals. At least, that’s how Hollywood’s sex-and-youth-obsessed writers and directors would have us believe. (And, yes, I blame this entirely on Joss Whedon.) The reality is much, much different. Death is the one thing all men and women fear and all of us are fated to eventually face. As such, nearly all cultures have tried to put a face on death, creating a litany of legends about monsters that come back from the dead to prey on and torture the living:
Upier/Wampyr (Poland), Izcacus (Hungary), Vrykolakas (Greece), Strigoi mort (Romania, male) Strigoaică (Romania, female), Nosferatu (unknown)
For this article’s purposes, we’ll focus on the myths originating from (mostly eastern) Europe. And I must warn you now, dear reader, that many of these details are not for the timid. Continue at your own discretion and peril.
In classical folklore, vampires are corpses that have come back to bring pain, suffering, and death upon their friends and relatives. And when I say ‘corpses,’ I don’t mean beautiful people with pale complexions. Vampires of folklore are emaciated beings. They have darker skin, long, protruding teeth and fingernails, bulbous eyes, little (if any) hair, a bloated body shape, and blood oozing from the mouth, nose, and eyes. Simply put, they are the very embodiment of death.

So, where does this appearance come from? It comes from the natural appearance of a corpse. Today, we live in a world where we seek to put the best face on- and distance ourselves from- death. Embalming and modern burial standards have removed many of the more gruesome aspects of death. Unembalmed, the outer skin of a corpse disintegrates, leaving the thicker, darker (dermal) layer exposed. This, combined with recession of the muscles, causes the teeth and nails to appear longer. And as the organs decay, gases build up in the body, causing it bulge out. Eventually, these gases force their way through any available orifice- mouth, eyes, etc. It’s not hard to see medieval people without modern knowledge opening coffins and believing their loved ones had become monsters.
Now, we must ask where these beliefs came from. As mentioned, such legends are common across the globe. But there can be more specific origins for the vampire in Europe. Much of the folklore has been traced to the Middle Ages. Vampires were often blamed when people began dying en masse; particularly during the onset of the Black Death (bubonic and pneumonic plague), in the 14th century. Surviving records tell us that it would always start with one person becoming sick with the dreaded black splotches on their skin. Then, gradually, more and more would fall ill, as though a specter of evil had fallen on the town like a mist. Chroniclers in cities like Venice, Paris, Rome, Cologne, and others tell of the dead and dying piling up in the streets; of the stench of decay that permeated everything; and the struggle to bury the hundreds of bodies as quickly as they could. It’s possible that some of these unfortunate victims, not being clinically dead, tried to escape their coffins just before burial- increasing belief in the undead.
Identifying and destroying vampires was a careful practice in folklore. Digging up graves was tiresome, not to mention psychologically and spiritually demoralizing as well. In the case of plague, the first victims would be the first corpses to be examined. More specifically, people who had been murdered, committed suicide, or died violent deaths were likely candidates. Those believed to be vampire victims were also suspect, as their deaths had left them in a restless state as well. There are, of course, more obscure ways to become the undead- such as being the seventh child of the same sex in a family, die without being married, or be executed for perjury. (Romania) Or one could become a wraith-like beast that, unable to part with its worldly goods, attacks anyone who comes close to its burial mound. (Iceland) Sometimes a lack of rigor mortis in a corpse was a sign of impending vampirism.
This leads to the need to destroy vampires. And just like the movies, various regions of folklore have many ways to accomplish this. The traditional stake in the heart (Slavic Europe), works only with the vampire in the grave. (It pins the creature to the ground.) Other methods include decapitation, cutting out the heart and burning it, burning the body, and burying the corpse upside-down (so it will forever dig out in the wrong direction). Protection from vampires also varied. Since vampires were associated with Satan, symbols of Christ- crucifixes, rosaries, holy water- were used to ward them off. Garlic was widely used, often hung or rubbed on windows and entryways. Its usefulness comes from the Latin phrase simila similibus curantur (“similar things are cured by similar things”). The rationale was that, since vampires are corpses covered in the strong stench of decay, the strong-smelling herb could cancel them out. Sharp things, such as knives and roses (for their thorns), have been used to drive off vampires. In fact, sickles were sometimes buried with suspected vampires to decapitate them in their graves when they tried to sit up.

The folklore fight against the undead wasn’t just about destroying suspected monsters. It was about keeping death at bay so that the living could enjoy life and live their lives to the fullest, with death coming only in advanced age and the soul moving on into the afterlife. Vampires were a perversion of this process, spreading death as by a plague to destroy humanity before it could grow and prosper, with victims barred from eternal rest and forced to spread the misery. No pleasures of life. No fulfillment. Not a condition we humans would ever envy.

A Few Bonuses!

-The BBC Documentary I mentioned a few articles back:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

-Vincent Price’s Dracula! (You can’t go wrong with a host like this.)
-The many first meetings of Dracula. (See how the clips compare.)
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