Saturday, January 28, 2012

More Howls Than You Can Shake A Shiver At!

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(1948)
Director: Charles Barton
Cast: Abbott and Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange
If most monster kids were asked to name the film that got them into classic horror, the likely answer would be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the last of the original Universal horror films and the final entry in the Frankenstein series that began in 1931. There's no doubt in my mind, that Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is the best horror comedy ever made. Unlike other horror-comedies, the melding of scares and laughs is near perfect and the monsters are treated with more respect than expected. Bela Lugosi, who had not played Dracula since the 1931 original, is recruited for the role once more and that's alone worth the price of admission, though of course, there's also Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster, who are both more terrifying than they were in either of the previous two entries in the Frankenstein series.
The film was originally devised as a straight entry into the series, under the title, "Frankenstein's Brain", but it was later turned into an Abbott and Costello film. Lou Costello didn't like the script, but the film would become the team's best remembered picture of their career. The plot follows Bud and Lou who are Florida baggage clerks that are ordered to deliver cases to a wax museum that contain the real Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster! Lou sees the monsters, but no one believes him, and when they go missing the pair end up in jail, only to be bailed out by an insurance agent(Jane Randolph) who is trying to discover the whereabouts of the exhibits. Meanwhile, Larry Talbot(The Wolf Man) tries to contact Bud and Lou, thinking they will aid him in stopping Dracula. It turns out that Dracula wishes to revive the Monster to full power and give him a compliant brain in the form of Lou's! A sexy doctor(Lenore Aubert) seduces Lou and invites him to a seaside castle(one of the greatest in a horror movie) and plans to extract his brain. After attending a masquerade party, with various scary(and funny) encounters, Lou is taken back to the island for the operation. Luckily, Bud and Larry arrive to rescue him and engage in one of the most spectacular conclusions in horror film history, as the Wolf Man battles Dracula and the Monster goes on a rampage. In the end, all the monsters are defeated and Bud and Lou quietly row away in boat, where Vincent Price cameos as the invisible man, sorry he didn't get in on the excitement!

An absolutely hilarious film that still manages to entertain all these decades over. Abbott and Costello have made several notable comedies, including Hold That Ghost(1942) and The Time of Their Lives(1946), but this is the most enduring. The magic melding of scares and laughs has never been bettered, aided by top direction, including some of the most atmospheric(and violent) set-pieces ever seen in a classic horror film. Bela Lugosi is terrific as Dracula, portraying his most famous character for the last time and in his final major studio picture. He's actually better in this than he was in the earlier film, more relaxed and assured, complete with a wonderful comedic timing("what we need today is young blood...and brains!") as well as wonderful use of his hypnosis bit, which adds to the mythology of the character.
Likewise, Chaney Jr. has more room to roam than he did in the House pictures, and makes for an off-beat hero. His stalking of Lou in the apartment, as well as his transformation in his London flat are among the best werewolf scenes on film.
Glenn Strange finally gets to do something with his character of the Monster, proving to be a totally imposing and frightening juggernaut, especially in those last two reels. Strange was coached by the master himself, Boris Karloff, on the set of House of Frankenstein(1944), and maybe it's just me, but there is a certain poignancy when the Monster walks into the flames towards film's conclusion. It's also of note that while this was a fine send-off for our beloved monsters, all the creatures were "killed" off in ways that inevitably meant they would survive, which is sort of comforting for our ghoulish imaginations.

The monsters don't look as impressive as they did under the hands of Jack Pierce, but the Bud Westmore designs are serviceable and iconic. One of my most treasured items as a kid was my set of Imperial Classic Movie Monsters toys, which were all based off of the designs of the monsters seen in the Abbott and Costello films, including Klaris from Abbott and Costello meet the Mummy(1955)!
The cast are uniformly good, particularly Lenore Aubert as the scheming Dr. Mornay, who really meets a nasty end by getting thrown out of a window by the Frankenstein Monster! She later turned up in a similar role in Abbott and Costello meet the killer, Boris Karloff(1949).
Bud and Lou were always talented comedians, but really proved their mettle when working outside of their comfort zomes on this picture. Only a few gags, such as the brilliant "moving candle" bit, were retained, but most of the rest was new and the team's timing is unequal.

This film was a smash hit and saved Universal International from folding and led to several follow-ups over the years. Boris Karloff reportedly disliked the film, feeling that his friend, the Monster, should not be treated with such indignity, but did agree to pose for publicity photographs. Dear Boris was right about alot of things, but wrong here. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is an affectionate, loving send-off for the monsters and holds the distinction of being both one of the greatest comedies, as well as one of the finest horror films ever made. If you have any kids that are interested in monsters, there's probably no better film to get them started on the path to Monsterdom. I know I love and 20,000,000 other guys.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Quest For The Bloodstone: The Subspecies Series

When I was a kid, I probably rented just about every film in my local video store that had anything to with horror and monsters. One of the most frequently rented video companies was the prolific Full Moon Entertainment line of low budget direct-to-video epics. This was the company that released such loveable nonsense as the Puppet Master series and Demonic Toys, among other oddities. Probably the best of the bunch was the atmospheric Subspecies series, which was like a blast from the past, echoing both the glory of Hammer horror and the brooding terror of earlier gothic classics. This series of vampire films ran for four films from 1991-1998 and is well remembered by the video generation as an enjoyable, above average series. It had been years since I saw any of these, as the Sci-Fi channel(sorry, I meant SyFy) use to run these all the time, but now feel content to play only there brilliant original programming(that's sarcasm, folks.)
So, I took it upon myself to seek the four films out and re-evaluate them after all these years. Admittedly, the results were overall subpar, but not enough to warrant me to not reccomend them, nor to admit that they were nothing less than entertaining. I'm actually surprised they haven't been hyped more, given the recent surge in all things vampire related, but alas, this series seems to have fallen into obscurity and now is remembered largely as a nostalgic product of the video age.

Director: Ted Nicolaou
Cast: Anders Hove, Laura Tate, Angus Scrimm

Subspecies is an ambitious little film, filmed on location in Romania(the first American film to be shot their) and carries an authenticity with it that few other genre efforts can match. Part of the reason that Murnau's Nosferatu(1922) was such an eerie experience was because of the location shooting which gave the film an atmosphere that Hollywood couldn't duplicate. The plot of the film revolves around an evil vampire named Radu(Anders Hove) who is seeking a special amulet called the "bloodstone" which produces the blood of the saints. He is threatened by his dashing brother, Stefan(Michael Watson) and fights for control of vampiric supremacy. Radu also menaces a group of American tourists, including Michelle(Laura Tate) whom his brother has afrfection for.
What most people remember about this is the creepy beginning, which contains a cameo by the Tall Man, himself, Angus Scrimm, who portrays Radu's father. Radu breaks off his long talons and creates miniature demons which steal the bloodstone and the vampire murders his own father. It's a wonderfully, twisted and creative moment, reminiscent of both Ray Harryhausen and Hammer films. Unfortunately, few such scenes appear in the rest of the film, which largely rests on the shoulders of Hove and the natural photography to lend the film any meager atmosphere that it craves.

Nicolaou does not utilize the sets to full adavantage and fails to set up proper scares and a decent mood throughout, despite the use of actual, decaying castles and vast wilderness. Most of the cast is unremarkable, particularly the leading lady, who fails to offer both sympathy and sex appeal(that haircut is horrendous) and was wisely replaced by the next film. Only Anders Hove manages to impress as Radu in makeup clearly based off of Nosferatu, complete with long tallons and huge fangs. His raspy voice and creepy gait add to the creepiness, but it's not enough to take the film over into the realm of being a minor classic.

Bloodstone: Subspecies 2(1993)
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Cast: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Kevin Spirtas

Picking up directly where the first one left off, Bloodstone finds the heroine of the previous film, Michelle, is still alive and now infected with the curse of vampirism, as she was bit by Radu in the previous picture. She also has grown her hair out and gotten decidely bustier, but that's another story. She escapes the castle, shows us some skin and calls up her sister for help from the United States. Oh, and she also has the bloodstone as well.
This film is decidely more balls to the wall then the previous picture, as the blood and gore(as well as humor and atmosphere) are given a decided burst in just the first ten minutes! Radu stakes his brother, realizes the bloodstone is gone and proceeds to break his brother's skeleton apart and stomp on it! Then, he runs to his mummy(Pamela Gordon) and complains, in a darkly comical bit, both grotesque and surreal. Another addition is the use of shadows as Radu stalks Michelle through Romania, using his shadow to guide him. The effect is quite eerie and it's apparent that there has been progression since part one.

Unlike the first film, the atmosphere and pacing help hide some obviously poor acting, particularly from Melanie Shatner as Michelle's sister, who has none of the charisma of her famous father, William Shatner. However, Denice Duff is a memorable bloodsucker, being both sympathetic and sexy, while retaining a vulnerability that makes her character consistently interesting. She gives the film an added emotional edge, even when the material surrenders to comic conventions. Hove's vampire is greatly expanded, battling with his suppressed human nature as he falls for his "fledgling" as refers to Duff, and there scenes together are the best in the picture, though special mention must go to Pamela Gordon's grotesque Mummy, a comical and disgusting character in equal turns.
If the film contains any real faults, it's in it's non-ending, as this and the third film were filmed back to back. Unfortunately, for us now out of the video age, this just dates the film and leaves an empty feeling at the conclusion that keeps this from being a good stand alone picture. That's a pity, because it's actually not just more entertaining than the previous film, but also better written and more frightening.

Bloodlust: Subspecies 3(1994)
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Cast: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Kevin Spirtas

Weaker than Bloodstone, this third installment in the series feels uneven and rushed, despite some good ideas here and there. The film would probably have been more interesting had the focus been on a softer vampire story about the realtionship between a master vampire and his fledgling and his struggle with emotion and his lost humanity, but such concepts rarely surface in such popcorn fare, so we are left with that merely as a subplot, where the greater portion of the picture is devoted to Michelle's sister and her boyfriend from the American embassy, Mel(Kevin Spirtas) as they try to rescue her from Radu. Despite, a great brief back shot from Melanie Shatner and Duff drinking from the neck of a topless villager, this is a decidely less erotic film than either of the other ones, with not even a return trip to the metal bar from the last film with some no name Doom Metal band playing(Gosh, I wish it had been Type O Negative!) and that's a pity. Of course, the film is juicier than ever, with many a sloppy neck feasting on hand, courtesy of Radu and his constantly bloodied fangs.
The budget really shows in this film as Mel calls for an old CIA friend to aid him in the fight and he arrives loaded down with World War 2 era sub-machine guns and dressed like something out of Soldier of Fortune. This could have been a potentially hilarious plot derision, but instead the hapless CIA agent is killed off without much of a fight, which really was a bummer, as I particularly hate such shoddy writing. Why introduce a character for the sake of murdering them? That's just lame.

Radu, who had been staked and decapitated in the first film, only to be reassembled by his minions in Bloodstone, where he is again staked, dies a spectacular death here, where he is shot to death with silver bullets from a Tokarev automatic(where he makes a few hilarious faces) and he falls to his death, where he perishes in the sun. Wow!

Despite Radu's spectaculat demise, plot holes aplenty emerge and Ion Haiduc's Inspector is underutilized, a comic figure, also from the last film, this character is rather poorly killed off without much thought, as is Radu's mummy, who despite being shot at by machine guns, is easily dismembered by Radu's own bare hands when the plot needs her out of the way. Bloodlust is a very sloppy film.

 Subspecies 4:loodstorm(1998)
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Cast: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Johnathon Morris

Four years later and Full Moon produces an even weaker film than the last one! Saved largely by the performances of returning cast members, Hove and Duff, the writiing seems to be on autopilot from here on. Duff escapes from her last encounter with Radu, but everyone involved from the last film has died in a car accident, with little reaction from Duff's character, and she is taken by a nurse(Ioana Abur) to a clinic, where a mysterious doctor(Johnathon Morris) believes he can cure her of vampirism. Well, this isn't House of Dracula(1945), so nothing much happens, because the doctor really wants the bloodstone because he is actually a vampire, too. Radu(Hove in poor makeup) attempts to get his fledgling back, but is also undermined by other vampires(including sexy vampire mistress, Serena, played by Floriela Grappini) and eventually Radu ends up over his head(he's decapitated) and his head is placed on a fence post, where it burns in the sunlight. Michelle gets away, still afflicted with the curse of vampirism.

Again, potentially interesting plot points are brought up that could have made for an interesting and different vampire film, but formula takes over and soon the picture is lost in it's own tropes and conventions. The humor is now largely distilled, as is sadly, the emotional impact of the series with the characters of Radu and Michelle having developed very little, despite the experiences from the last three films. The subtle erotic element, along with the more blatant use of sexual exploiation is all but lost here, a shame for the story and the voyeur set. The Inspector character is actually turned into a vampire, but nothing comes from it, as he is killed off with little bearing on the main plot. Morris' doctor character is interesting, but given little room to roam and a potential collaboration with Radu would have been more interesting than the arch vampire decapitating the hapless doctor(boy, do alot of people lose their heads in this series!)
I really liked the addition of the new vampires, but little is done with them, even though the seduction of Radu by vampire mistress, Serena is one of the film's better scenes. I wish more time had been dealt with these characters.
In many ways, it's a shame this is the final picture, since it is neither as epic or encompassing as a final film should be, offering little in terms of closure or acceptance with the characters. Michelle has never adjusted to her vampiric state, nor has Radu found comfort with his own humanity, however evil he may be. There's more to be told and some great characters to expand upon, so i'm hoping someday that someone will gather the courage and knowledge to do what's right.(I'm sounding a bit like Van Helsing here. Coincidence?)

As a whole, Subspecies is an interesting horror series, far more interesting than many of it's contemporaries and offering a slight throwback to the glory days of classic horror, complete with it's ghoulish vampire and shadowy imagery. While far from classic films themselves, the Subspecies series is still worth the time of the vampire fan and beats the hell out of what passes for bloodsucking entertainment today. I'd like to feel that Nosferatu and Radu would have gotten along famously, and judging from the two character's locales, I bet they did. Now where's that movie?