Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Diary Of A Madman?

I, Madman(1989)
Director: Tibor Takacs
Cast: Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William

By the end of the 1980s, the horror film was nothing but a dry husk. Like the vampire found so often in the genre, it had been sucked dry by large droughts of creativity, inspired by increasingly inane sequels and the rising slasher film. The horror film was simplified and dumbed down and for many, no longer interesting or scary. Few past 1986 were really in the classic vein and fewer still, were even interesting. Many got lost in the shuffle, one of these titles was I, Madman, an ambitious low-budget film with an inventive script and enough originality and humor to make it fresh today.

The film begins with a 1950s setting and a mysterious doctor who leaves his apartment, which subsequently gets checked by the super, who finds a strange, stop-motion demon that devours him. Meanwhile, beautiful Jenny Wright(the vampire babe from Near Dark(1987) is in the next room, wearing a gorgeous nightgown. The demon bursts through the wall was just a dream. Jenny is at home, reading a scary book and let her imagination run away with her. It's a great opening and plays both with genre conventions and manages to scare us and make us laugh, equally. Inspired somewhat by the nightmare premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984), this film deals with Wright, who works at a book store and becomes a fan of obscure horror author, Malcolm Brand, who dies in mysterious ways. She tracks down his rare book, "I, Madman," and finds that the murders depicted in the book are happening to people close to her and that the protagonist, a whacked out doctor, who has cut off his face, sewing on new pieces from his victims, in order to win the love of the love of his life, which turns out to be Wright!

I, Madman is a truly unique and bizarre film. It does borrow elements from contemporary titles, but also has an atmosphere all it's own, recalling classic Film Noir, with it' seedy city settings and a feeling for the classic horror film with a villain clearly patterned after The Phantom of the Opera. It's such a twisted and fun film that its a bit perplexing that it didn't receive more critical acclaim, as well as, more bizarrely, a cult following.
The idea of a monster unleashed from a book by a mad, occult-driven writer, is reminiscent of the later, Lovecraft-inspired, In The Mouth Of Madness(1994) which is a somewhat similar film, also involving a writer whose creations appear to take on a life of their own.

At times, this can be a rather sadistic movie. Randall William Cook's subdued and disturbing villain aside, his butchering of his victims is very creepy, especially the murder of a beautiful redhead, whose hair ends up adorning his scalp. Much of this can be very uneasy and it's suspected that a good portion of this was cut to avoid a harsher rating, perhaps another reason why this film has remained obscure. The script also highlights a few glaring issues, notably that cliche where nobody believes the hero/heroine, especially when they tell stories to the authorities that nobody in their right mind, would ever buy. The police interrogation scene is indicative of this main weakness.
However, Jenny Wright is a likable and smart leading lady, being both beautiful and resourceful, while remaining vulnerable and relatable. It's sort of a relief to see an intelligent heroine not reduced to becoming a Sigourney Weaver clone for the umpteenth time, but actually be in fear and display real mental distress at an obviously overbearing situation.
Clayton Rohner gets the thankless role of her detective boyfriend, but is decent in the part, if not remarkable. Cook is effective as the madman, but is used far too seldom and it would have been interesting to see a film that revolved more around his twisted character. His character combines traits previously seen by Lon Chaney Sr. and Vincent Price, but without the campy touch that the latter preferred.

This is probably no great movie, but it does deserve more than it gets as the script is fun and the film is generally a fun viewing. I, Madman is a real curio-piece, but deserves more love, especially from fans of the 80s horror film. I'd rank this with other late 80s forgotten horrors, such as Ken Russel's The Lair Of The White Worm(1988), The Blob(1988) and Pumpkinhead(1987) for near-classic titles that clearly deserve a wider and more appreciative audience.I certainly had a good time.
Not such a bad one to dig up for the Halloween season.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Snot Bad!

The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde(2006)
Director: John Carl Buechler
Cast: Tony Todd, Tracy Scoggins, Vernon Wells

Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella of Gothic horror has been read or performed almost continuously since it was first published in 1886. The story has attracted many of the great actors of cinema including Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, John Barrymore, Kirk Douglas and Jack Palance. It has also been used for tawdry exploitation, as seen in films like Dr. Jekyll's Dungeon Of Death(1979) or the various gender reversal flicks like Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde(1972). 
However, like with Frankenstein and Dracula, each generation needs it's own variation and many are quite good. When this modern day version of the story was announced to star Tony Todd, veteran genre performer, who had delivered one of the most memorable horror performances of the 90s in Candyman(1992), it seemed like a pretty good idea. Yet, like the character portrayed in the story, it would be a tad schizophrenic.

This modern day updating of the Stevenson story fails in many ways. First, it was a little unwise to begin the film with a graphic murder. We get no emotional attachment with Jekyll and are left as spectators, rather than experiencing him as a man, and understanding his inner demons. Hyde is depicted as a monster, which is not in keeping with the story, but also makes things less than credible. Hyde is hideously ugly and resembles a neanderthal and just happens to have superhuman strength and an increased bloodlust. If this film was more clever, it would have first established Jekyll and his conflicts and issues and shown how a character like Hyde could manifest itself. Then, it could slowly develop Hyde as his own entity, instead of making him as a killing machine, and worse, a catch-phrase spewing caricature, who seems to have escaped from a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. The title of this review was actually a line that the character uttered when eating the nose of a pretty desk girl. I admit that I laughed, but only because it was that bad.

For some reason, the film decided to depict Jekyll as a literal schizophrenic, or at least  the Hollywood version of one, by having him hallucinate seeing Hyde as a separate character. The problem here is that we the audience, are well aware of the ruse and it makes Jekyll appear unstable and since we never got to know him normally, a lot of empathy is lost in the confusion. Worse, Jekyll's motives seem unclear and the script does him no favors, not bothering to elaborate on his kindness and generosity, rather focusing on his endless cursing and screaming, making Todd appear at times like his Ben in Night of the Living Dead(1990), except this time, with a multiple personality.
Todd seems to be having a ball as Hyde and he is pretty funny, though it's unclear whether that's intentional or not. Jekyll is working on curing heart disease, and works at a clinic that actually employs Hyde, even though he is a violent psychopath and even explodes when confronted by police for questioning, early on in the film.
And about those police. The screenwriter unwisely chose to take the pivotal role of Utterson and turn him into a female cop(Tracy Scoggins, who looks worse for wear, with way too much plastic surgery) and the film plays out like a bad(worse?) episode of CS1! She has not emotional attachment to Jekyll and constantly is on the defensive against him, making her appear all the more bizarre. Her backstory is especially jarring, involving a dead partner and an exploded gun(including a line to her boss about how his brains hit her in the eye!) and it all comes off as very silly.
Other characters are treated with even more contempt, such as Lanyon(Vernon Wells), Jekyll's best friend, who does not even have a single scene where they discuss his plight. Judith Shekoni as Jekyll's fiance has very little to do, but scream and cry at the end when Jekyll goes on an extended rampage.
And about the ending...boy, is it bad. As if to drain all the sympathy and believability from the character, Hyde goes crazy and turns into an eight foot tall chimpanzee(i'm not making this up) before he is shot dozens of times, causing a badly CGI morphing Jekyll to throw himself off the roof to his death, for the poignant finale, which really isn't that poignant, because we never got to know the character.

Most of the problems with this film derive from a truly abysmal screenplay. Such little thought is given towards the characters, that the whole thing ends up feeling fairly contemptible towards it's cast(and audience.) Todd is capable of great things and I believe he would have made a good Jekyll/Hyde, especially as he slowly succumbs to his id's base desires. He can be a very emotional actor and has something of the classic horror actor in him, but sadly, this film was more interested in duplicating the cheeze of the 80s, rather than the sentiment of the 30s. Stories like this live and die on characterization, without it, they just don't work. The script fails to allow us to connect to Jekyll, spending far too much time on Scoggin's character and the result is a dismal failure. Even as a piece of exploitation filmmaking, the film never manages to impress with it's endless array of makeup effects, chiefly because it all appears so artificial. The ridiculous conclusion could have actually worked if the plot allowed Hyde to begin a gradual descent down the evolutionary ladder, similar to March in the 1931 version, and kind of like Cronenberg's The Fly(1986). Unfortunately, little is explained and the story is given no such innovations. Some may argue that there was no room for such things in a low budget(750,000) movie, but frankly, characters are one thing that should have been of no expense and it's a shame that this film didn't have that in mind.

Few decent things can be said about this adaption. Todd tries in what is essentially, a very poorly written part. Most of the cats sleepwalks through the film, non interested, waiting for a paycheck. I did enjoy how they were able to get Todd into the traditional costume and found that fairly clever, even though the coffee house setting was a bit goofy. What else? Some of the one-liners were good for some cynical laughs and Todd was fun in the role of Hyde, even if the intention seemed a bit askew. And, oh yes, Arloa Reston was very cute as Jekyll's lab assistant. She was snot bad. However, the rest of this film was the equivalent of a used tissue and you know where that usually ends up.

Monday, October 8, 2012

King Of The Monsters: Boris Karloff's 10 Greatest Horror Performances

The name KARLOFF is synonymous with cinematic terror. No other actor has created as many indelible creations as that of William Henry Pratt, a quiet, English gentleman who was plucked from showbiz obscurity in 1931 to star as The Monster in James Whale's Frankenstein, thus ushering in a whole new era of movie horror. He followed this film up with several unforgettable performances, often buried under layers of makeup. His combination of grotesque makeups and sensitivity made him the ideal successor to the late Lon Chaney Sr., who was a friend and hero of the actor.
This list does not intend to list the best films the actor made, for surely The Old Dark House(1932), The Lost Patrol(1934), The House of Rothschild(1934) and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty(1947) would be present. Rather, the intention is to focus on his performances, and particularly those several fine ones he gave in his prime genre, the horror film.
By no means, is this list a definitive survey of the actor's many wonderful screen roles, but hopefully, as with several of my lists, serve as a guideline to those who wish to learn more about this great performer, and may even provoke seasoned film fans to return to past treasures, of which there are many in the career of the man known as Hollywood's king of horror.

1. Frankenstein(1931)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke

Frankenstein is not just one of the most influential and greatest films of the horror genre, but one of the finest motion pictures ever made. While rough around the edges, Frankenstein still manages to overcome the problems associated with early talkies, such as lack of a music score, by being one of the most deceptively complex films ever made. Whale simplifies Mary Shelley's masterpiece, by retaining the same primal power and that theme of Prometheus has seldom been as brilliantly realized, especially in the characterizations of Clive as Frankenstein and Karloff as the Monster.
Karloff's Monster is one of the great performances in the history of the cinema and the single greatest in the horror film, rivaled only by Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. It manages to walk that fine line between being horrifying and creepy, and also sympathetic. The Monster is a victim and as terrifying as Karloff's cadaverous appearance may be, especially in that most iconic of movie makeups, created by the great Jack Pierce, we never really see him as a villain.
It's a tribute to Karloff's talents that he made his performance that much more than a "monster." Amazingly, Karloff conveys all this power without a line of dialogue, using body language and those eyes, the most expressive since Chaney and Keaton. Few can forget the moment when the Monster reaches for the light like a child, perplexed by the new discovery, a scene which has also been interpreted on more spiritual levels as well.
The ultimate tragedy displayed in that scene and the Monster's subsequent moment with the little girl at the lake, which seals his fate, is that this creature is less a Monster and more a man.
I'd have to imagine that Mary Shelley would have applauded this version, differences aside, for among it's many welcome attributes, including the wonderful Gothic scenery, the snappy direction and a good cast(worth repeating) is Karloff as the most iconic of all movie monsters.

2. The Body Snatcher(1945)
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Bela Lugosi

For my money, Karloff should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this Val Lewton produced horror classic, the first of three the actor made with the legendary producer. His character of John Gray, the body snatcher,  is one of the most compelling in the horror film and a truly great performance, able to inject menace and even subtle bits of pathos and humor. The verbal duels he has between Henry Daniell(who is incredibly underrated here) are the best moments in the film, as is that ending, one of the most bone chilling ever.
The film has an added layer of poignancy, as this was the final pairing of Karloff with that other king of horror, Bela Lugosi. It's not as dynamic a part for Bela, but the key scene that he shares with Boris is perhaps the standout of the film and one of the best the two actors ever had together. It's also a sad metaphor for the way Karloff's career had (literally) snuffed out Lugosi's by this point in time.
The Body Snatcher is arguably the finest horror film of the 1940s and is one of the most popular ever made, along with being one of the "purer" Gothic horror adaptions, for few have been able to duplicate the atmosphere of classic Victorian horror prose as eloquently as this masterful film demonstrates.

3. The Mummy(1932)
Director: Karl Freund
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, Edward Van Sloan

One of Karloff's great hidden treasures is this remarkably restrained horror film from 1932. Not at all like it's follow-ups or remakes, this film is a sensitive Gothic that focuses on a tale of undying love and presents Karloff with more than just another great makeup job. Rarely has Karloff's voice been used to such haunting effect as it is here. His character reminds one of Dracula, but in effect, has a certain nobility to him and that makes him all the more tragic.
The opening segment, one of the best horror scenes, is an exercise in restraint. Karloff, clad in one of the great monster makeups, awakens from his tomb and steals the scroll of Thoth, after Bramwell Fletcher does what all movie archaeologists should never do, which is read it.
Karloff actually sports two great makeups in this one, not just the famous mummy in the sarcophagus, but also as his "human" alter ego, Ardeth Bey, which is very effective and creepy.
While, not always considered scary, I was always scared of Karloff's glowing eyes, which Freund, master cinematographer, focuses on in eerie fashion and in close-up.
The Mummy is a wonderful and neglected masterpiece of the golden age.

4. Bride Of Frankenstein(1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger

The apex of the classic horror cycle and a genuine candidate for the finest horror film of all time, Bride of Frankenstein is a superior sequel that actually manages to improve upon the already great original film. Karloff's monster is given even more dimensions than in the original film, even gaining the ability to speak, which he learns in one of the most poignant moments in any genre film: the scene with the Blind Hermit(O.P. Heggie). It's a wonderfully warm and funny scene, and despite the humor inserted throughout by director James Whale, the Monster is given dignity and a noble stature, climaxing in that beautifully dark conclusion, where Karloff, rejected by his Bride(Elsa Lanchester) pulls the lever that turns everyone into atoms.
Rarely has a horror film been given such free artistic reign as this one. This film offers so much for the viewer, from it's rich, twisted plot and characterizations, to the great set designs and camerawork, that many argue the merits of this film as a horror film.
That's a testament to this film's enduring appeal as a film able to transcend it's genre limitations. It's also in no small part to the great performances, led by Karloff in the second performance of his most famous role.

5. The Black Cat(1934)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners

Karloff was often known for portraying sympathetic characters throughout his career, but not in this one, his most downright terrifying character, Hjlamar Poelzig. He portrays an Austrian architect and satanist, who had previously sold out his entire company to the Russians in World War One and stole hid friend's wife, before killing her and later marrying his friend's daughter. Too bad for him that his friend was Bela Lugosi, who also in a change of pace, portrays the closest thing to a hero in this dark and dreary picture.
Karloff is a sadistic, evil presence, much like what Lugosi was often cast as. The big difference in the approach was the restraint, coupled with his odd, angular look and weird wardrobe, that helped create one of the most diabolical of movie villains.
The line readings are genius, such as his soliloquy to Bela as he explains the similarities between them and likens it to they're war experience, or even simpler lines, such as, "The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead." 
None more menacing.
His ultimate fate at the hands of Lugosi's hate maddened, Vitus Werdegast, is perhaps the most shocking ending of any of the 1930s horror classics. This film is doubly rewarding for offering the two kings both great roles to perform in and the chance to play something other than they're well established personas.

6. Targets(1968)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O' Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich

Karloff would make four more(terrible) films in Mexico, but for many fans, this is his cinematic swan song. Targets marked the end of an era, more or less marking the end of the Hollywood horror film, as newer and grislier horror films began to become the norm. This film juxtaposes a story about an aging horror actor named Byron Orlock(Boris Karloff, with the actor more or less, playing himself) and a mad killer who obtains an arsenal of weapons and begins a killing spree, ending in a drive-in where Karloff's final film is being premiered.
Targets is a brutal film with it's depictions of realistic violence, still disturbing and reflective of the horror of modern society and the relative safety of the sort of escapism that Karloff's type of horror represented. Karloff adds warmth and real sense of world weariness, well aware that the world around him is fast becoming a darker and crueler place, ultimately accepting his role as a master of escapism, much like he would in real life. Few performers were ever afforded as good of a last film, as Karloff is here. Bogdanovich's debut is still powerful and relevant and it's a wonderful introduction to one of the genre's most important figures, making a gallant exit from our theater screens.

7. The Black Room(1935)
Director: Roy William Neil
Cast: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen

One of Karloff's most underrated roles is this 1935 Columbia historical horror, where Karloff portrays a dual role of two brothers, Gregor and Anton, who are separated from one another, due to an ancient family curse that predicts that the younger brother(Anton) will murder the older one. They grow to adulthood and Gregor controls the estate as a tyrant. Anton is the opposite, a benevolent and kindhearted man, reflective of Karloff's offscreen personality. Unfortunately, after a council decides to evict Gregor from the area after a nasty scandal, the murderous brother does in his younger sibling and usurps his role...but the curse catches up with him.
The Black Room is a stylish and fast-paced Gothic, reminiscent in spots, of James Whale's fantastic work at Universal and probably the only one of the Golden age horrors that reflects that feel. Despite, a low budget, the film appears lavish and carries with it a wonderful, fairy tale atmosphere that makes it stand out from any other contemporary thrillers. Karloff's performance is a triumph, getting to portray both hero and villain in one and his Gregor is one of the most devious and malevolent characters in the actor's long career. It's a great indicator for those that believe only Lugosi was capable of that lurking, seductive evil.

8. The Walking Dead(1936)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn,  Marguerite Churchill

For years, this Warners Bros. horror was largely unavailable, until it was thankfully released on DVD, a few years ago. The Walking Dead is a clear cash-in on Frankenstein, but is actually a fairly subtle and poignant horror film, a sort of mix of Universal horror and Warners gangsters. Karloff portrays a wrongfully accused man who is executed and brought back to life by Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn, who tries to figure out the mysteries of the afterlife. The film is designed like a revenge flick, with Karloff going after the gangsters who sent him to die, but there's a twist; Karloff never lays a finger on them. Rather, he merely acts as their guilty conscience and causes each man to die, his very presence like the angel of death.
It's a great role for Karloff and contains one of his finest and saddest moments in his career, as he attempts to reveal the secrets from beyond. Curtiz was an ideal director for such a moody picture and Karloff, the ideal actor, for this most unusual of 30s horror films.

9. Bedlam(1946)
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House

Many critics(myself included) do not consider Bedlam a true horror film. So, that raises the question, why include it? Maybe it's because there's enough horror content to warrant it's inclusion, from the Gothic setting to the atmospheric and shadowy direction from Robson, and of course, Boris Karloff as one of the most memorable villains of his career. Karloff excels as Sims, the sadistic master of a sanitarium, where he treats it's inmates with brutality and menace. Anna Lee(in a very ahead of it's time performance) stars as the strong willed heroine, who matches wits with the crafty Karloff.
Bedlam reflects a different kind of horror than others Karloff was known for. This horror is one spawned by indifference and societal prejudice, which really are the monsters at hand here. To a modern audience, Bedlam is a truly revolting place, a far cry from today's sanitariums and institutions. Karloff portrays Sims as a egomaniac, who only cares about his place in society and the torture he inflicts on his inmates. Yet, somehow, in the climatic moment when Sims pleads for his life before the hostile inmates, there's a measure of sympathy that only Karloff could reveal. It was the magic of his ability to penetrate the soul of a monster.

10. The Man Who Changed His Mind(1936)
Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder

This is probably the most forgotten film on this list. Out of all the mad scientist roles that Karloff portrayed throughout his career, this would probably rank as his finest. It's not as one note as his Columbia characters or as tongue in cheek as Fu Manchu. Karloff's Dr. Laurience is a complex figure, a reclusive scientist who has developed an amazing invention(the ability to transfer the soul!) but is faced with ridicule. This leads to his turn as a true mad doctor and Karloff shines. He's supported by a good cast and impressive production values, for what was a low budget film. Most fans remember The Ghoul(1933) better, when discussing his British work in the 30s, but this is vastly superior, with a better script, complete with dark humor and a truly sad ending, one of Karloff's most impressive.
I've always listed this as one of the great underrated horror films, even outside of examining Karloff's horror output. It's a fine film, overall, and still remains a thoughtful and imaginative picture, nearly 80 years later.

There will likely never be another Boris Karloff. Few actors were able to penetrate that unreal world of the psyche and that cosmic universe of fear, as deftly as Karloff did. Ray Bradbury commented at the time of the actor's death, that Karloff's purpose was to help people deal with the inevitably of death. Like Chaney before him, his characters were reflectio of our deepest fears and our own societal outsiders. No matter how monstrous the part, there was always a touch of pathos, a bit of humanity that made them more than just mere villains. Many fine actors have appeared in this most underrated of film genres, most that deserve far more praise than I could write here, but Boris was special. Few actors have carved such an indelible niche in film history as the king of horror could claim his own. We could only wish that the great actor had lived long enough to understand the importance his gallery of grotesques played on the history of the cinema.
Long may the spirit of the Monster linger in the memory of the filmgoer.