helen chandler

Helen Chandler as Mina in DRACULA (1931), setting her hungry eyes on her fiance’s throat.

LEADING LADIES:  Helen Chandler

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in horror movies, especially from years gone by.

First up, it’s Helen Chandler, who played Mina in the Bela Lugosi classic DRACULA (1931).

I have to admit, in all the years that I’d watched and re-watched DRACULA, I never really paid much attention to Helen Chandler.  Obviously, I was mesmerized by Bela Lugosi, thrilled by Dwight Frye as Renfield, and equally impressed by Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, but the two romantic leads, David Manners as “John” Harker, and Helen Chandler as Mina, I hardly noticed at all and dismissed them as the over-acting romantic lovers so often found in those early black and white movies from the 1930s.

But one day, about ten years ago or so, I focused on Chandler and noticed for the first time just how beautiful she was, and how sad a character she made Mina in this movie.  Suddenly, I was paying attention to her in her scenes, and I was hooked.

Helen Chandler made a bunch of movies, twenty-seven to be exact, but I’ll always remember her as Mina in DRACULA.

Chandler lived a sad life.  Early in her career, she enjoyed considerable success as a stage actress, but when she tried to make the jump to the movies, things didn’t work out as well, and she never became as popular in film as she was during her years performing on the New York stage.  She did make twenty-seven movies, her final one in 1938, a comedy/romance entitled MR. BOGGS STEPS OUT.

She was married three times, with two of the marriages ending in divorce.  Her acting career was derailed by alcohol and a sleeping pill addiction, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium.  In 1950, she was disfigured in a fire, apparently the result of smoking in bed.  She died on April 30, 1965 from complications from surgery to repair a bleeding ulcer.

I’ve always thought that Helen Chandler would have made a fine Daisy Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY.  Interestingly enough, Chandler’s life shared parallels with GATSBY author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda.  Both women were sent to sanitariums, Chandler for alcoholism and sleeping pill addiction, and Fitzgerald for mental health issues, and both were victims of fires while there.  In Zelda Fitzgerald’s case, the fire was fatal.  Both women died in tragic fashion.

In her early scenes in DRACULA as Mina, Helen Chandler is so full of life.  When you look deeply into her face, you’ll find an expression of playful mischief in her eyes, especially in her scenes with Lucy and at the concert hall when she is first introduced to Count Dracula.

These early scenes are juxtaposed perfectly to her later scenes after she has been bitten by Dracula.  In these, she appears distant, lost, the vibrancy and life which had been in her eyes is now gone.  She appears almost—dead.  Of course, this is spot on, since she’s on her way to being undead, and during these scenes she’s in a state somewhere in the middle. She captures the feelings of being lost, of not knowing what is happening to her, perfectly, and she slides effortlessly from lively Mina to near-undead Mina in a heartbeat.

It’s easy to overlook these subtleties in her performance because she’s playing in these over dramatic love scenes with co-star David Manners, who hams things up more than she does, so on the surface it looks like she’s just over acting, but if you pay close attention to her, you’ll find a lot more going on.

She’s much better than Mae Clarke as Elizabeth in the Boris Karloff version of FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and her performance as Mina continues to grow on me each time I watch DRACULA.  I really wish her film career had taken off and she had starred in some other major releases.  Some more horror movies would have been nice.

It’s too bad that instead of making horror movies, her life itself became a horror story and ended on such a depressing tragic note.

But by watching DRACULA we can forget all that and enjoy and appreciate a wonderful acting performance that remains with us, timeless, throughout the ages.  Sure, in DRACULA, Chandler is overshadowed by Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan, and rightly so, because all three actors are terrific in the film, but Chandler’s performance as Mina shouldn’t be overlooked.  There’s more going on there than what initially meets the eye, and in a very subtle understated way, Helen Chandler captures perfectly the character of Mina and her struggles with being under Dracula’s spell, a woman trapped halfway between living and being undead.  She does this as well if not better than the host of other actresses who have played Mina in the movies.

Next time you watch DRACULA pay particular attention to Helen Chandler as Mina, especially watch was she does with her eyes and her expressions once Dracula has mingled his blood with hers.  You’ll like what you see.

Helen Chandler.  February 1, 1906 – April 30, 1965.

Thanks for reading!


A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014) Stylish but Standard Vehicle for Liam Neeson


a-walk-among-the-tombstones-poster-Here’s my review of the new Liam Neeson movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014), published earlier this week at cinemaknifefight.com:



By Michael Arruda


You already know what I’m going to say.

“This movie looks just like TAKEN (2008).”

 That’s because that’s what everyone says when you mention A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES.

Yup, Liam Neeson is back in another thriller, in yet another variation of his hit movie TAKEN, this time as a former cop turned private investigator who’s helping other people find their kidnapped loved ones, in the poetically titled A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, and as such, it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.  The question is, is it any good?  Or is the Liam Neeson action-thriller formula finally growing stale?

Read on.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES begins in 1991 where New York City cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is drinking in a bar when it’s held up by some thugs who shoot the bartender.  Bad move when Neeson is in the room.  Scudder promptly chases these bad guys through the streets and shoots them all dead.  Unfortunately, a stray bullet from his gun kills a young girl.

The action switches to 1999— so we get to re-live the 90s and hear lots of Y2K references—where Scudder is now a private investigator because the pain of killing that little girl was too much for him to bear.  He regularly attends AA meetings and has been sober since that fateful day, since he blames the death of that girl on alcohol because he was drunk.  Actually, for a drunk guy, he could shoot pretty well as he blew away the robbers with ease, and from a distance.

Anyway, one of the guys he knows through AA, Howie (Eric Nelson), approaches him and tells him his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) needs his help.  Scudder agrees to see Kenny and learns that Kenny’s wife was kidnapped and then murdered, chopped up into little pieces, even though Kenny paid the ransom money.  Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this.  It’s obvious to Scudder that Kenny is a drug dealer, and so he declines to take on the case.

But Kenny is persistent and shows up at Scudder’s door with more details of his wife’s kidnapping and subsequent murder, and he leaves a cassette tape with Scudder that the kidnappers sent him, an audio record of the tortures they put his wife through.  Scudder listens to the tape, and sickened by the type of monsters these guys obviously are, he changes his mind and decides to take on the case and go after the men who murdered Kenny’s wife.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES plays out exactly the way you would expect it to.

First off, as you would expect, the best part of this movie is Liam Neeson.  Take Neeson out of the equation, and this film just isn’t as good, pure and simple.  Sure, it’s nothing we haven’t seen Neeson do before, but he does it so well.  He’s a compelling action hero who is believably tough and sincere at the same time.  He has a no-nonsense demeanor that penetrates even the most hardened criminal.  You have these two sickos who are terrorizing the drug dealing scene by kidnapping and murdering wives and daughters, and they have the drug dealers shaking in their boots, but when Neeson tells these goons to go screw themselves, and that he’s coming after them, they’re suddenly the ones who are trembling.  He immediately changes the balance of power, and it’s all very credible.

Neeson is great in these roles, and he’s excellent yet again here as Matt Scudder.  This is the second time the character Matt Scudder has appeared in a movie.  Jeff Bridges played Scudder in the 80s actioner EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986), a film I probably haven’t seen since 1986.  I remember liking it, and I believe it’s the first film in which I saw Andy Garcia, as he played a villainous drug lord.  The character of Matt Scudder comes from the series of novels by Lawrence Block.

Neeson isn’t alone either in terms of quality acting performances here.  David Harbour and Adam David Thompson both make creepy and formidable adversaries for Scudder.  As Ray and Albert, the two sickos who seem to enjoy torturing their victims even more than collecting their money, Harbour and Thompson are two of the better screen villains I’ve seen this year, especially Harbour.  These guys both deliver devilishly disturbing performances.

Dan Stevens isn’t bad as victimized drug dealer Kenny Kristo, nor is Eric Nelson as his junkie brother Howie.  But the other actor who stands out is Olafur Darri Olafsson as the graveyard caretaker James Loogan.  His few scenes are all memorable, as he plays this offbeat guy who you just don’t feel right about.  You know there’s just something not quite right about him, or as Neeson’s Scudder says at one point, “You’re a weirdo.”  The sequences he shares with Liam Neeson are among my favorite in the movie.

If there’s one thing missing from the cast in this movie, it’s women.  There really aren’t any women in this film, other than the victims, and all they get to do is squirm, scream, and then die.  The film certainly could have benefitted from some female characters who actually spoke some dialogue!

While writer/director Scott Frank has made a stylish thriller with A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, he does have some issues with pacing, as at times the film slows down, and that’s because Frank’s screenplay makes some odd choices.

There’s a diverting subplot where Scudder befriends a young teen named TJ (Astro) who lives on the streets and has aspirations of becoming a private investigator.  Now, the young actor who plays TJ, Astro— Astro? Really?— is fine in the role, but his scenes with Neeson, in fact his entire storyline, seems so out of place in this movie.  It just zaps the life out of the plot and kills the movie’s pacing.  We go from these intense scenes with killers Ray and Albert to quiet scenes between Scudder and TJ— yawn.

When the movie sticks to the plot of Scudder vs. Ray and Albert, it works and works well, but when it steps away from this intense storyline to see how TJ is doing, it falters.  The movie would have been better cutting out this subplot and giving more screen time to Ray and Albert.

Also, as much as I like Neeson, he struggles with a New York accent in this movie.  In some scenes, he has the accent—which isn’t very good, by the way— and in others he loses it and sounds like his old self.

I liked A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES because I enjoy watching Liam Neeson in these kinds of movies.  Sure, the formula is growing tired, but I’m not at the point yet where I’ve stopped enjoying them because Neeson is still operating at the top of his game.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you won’t be disappointed.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES isn’t bad.  It’s got Neeson and has decent to strong performances by all of the actors involved, and it does have some dark defining moments.  It just gets sidetracked by a subplot that kills the momentum the rest of the story builds.

I give it two and a half knives.



Scarlett Johanson as the sexy crime fighter Black Widow.

Scarlett Johanson as the sexy crime fighter Black Widow.

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Up today, a look at films starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here is a partial list of her movies:

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

And look for Johansson in 2015 in the eagerly anticipated AVENGERS sequel, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  It’s also been rumored that she will star in her very own Black Widow movie, which would be awesome.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies. Hope you enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading!




the-return-of-the-vampire-posterIt’s time for SPOOKLIGHT Classic, where we look at some of the older IN THE SPOOKLIGHT columns from way back when.  This one, on the Bela Lugosi vampire flick THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943) was first published in the November 2002 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.  Where does the time go?

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!



by Michael Arruda

Bela Lugosi is so identified with the role of Dracula that it’s easy to forget that he only played the Count twice in the movies, in DRACULA (1931) and in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

However, Lugosi did appear in movies where he played a vampire other than Dracula.  One such film, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943).

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE was made in 1943 by Columbia Pictures, and since Universal owned the copyright to the Dracula name, Columbia had to choose another name for their vampire.  They chose Armand Tesla, a decent enough name for a vampire, but their better choice, of course, was choosing Bela Lugosi to play the lead role.

While Lugosi looks considerably older here and delivers a performance nowhere near as on target as his 1931 DRACULA portrayal, he still manages to create a memorable vampire in Armand Tesla.  As always, Lugosi is a joy to watch.  His is a dynamic screen presence, and he possesses the remarkable ability to frighten with simply a look or a line of dialogue.  “I shall command.  And you shall obey.”  You betcha!  No problem, buddy!

In addition to having Lugosi, THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also boasts some other memorable bites— er, bits.

The film’s setting, for example, takes place in World War II London, a rather unique setting for a vampire movie (of course, the film was made in 1943, so the setting was contemporary.), and the war takes an active role in the film’s plot.  It’s a Nazi bomb that unearths Tesla’s coffin, setting him free to “return” to London, and bombs have a direct impact on the film’s very memorable conclusion, as well.

There’s also a werewolf in the movie, so you get two monsters for the price of one.  While the werewolf make-up by Clay Campbell is quite good, and he’d use the same make-up again with even better results 13 years later on Steven Ritch in the under-appreciated thriller, THE WEREWOLF (1956), this second monster played by Matt Willis is certainly and unfortunately one of the least ferocious werewolves ever seen on screen.  When fighting two police officers, for example, rather than attacking their throats with his teeth, he boxes them like a gangster.

Frieda Inescort is Lady Jane Ainsley, Lugosi’s main adversary.  How fun and fresh it is to have a woman as the film’s heroine in the “Van Helsing” type role.  This in itself makes the movie worth viewing.

Yet the film does have its drawbacks, amongst them the neatly dressed talking werewolf, and a lame “stake in the heart scene” where the vampire hunter wields his hammer with about as much force and intensity as one of Santa’s elves!

Director Lew Landers, who also directed Lugosi (along with Boris Karloff) in THE RAVEN (1935) under the name Louis Friedlander, does a respectable job here, filling the film with the kind of atmosphere one expects to find in a Lugosi vampire film, with lots of fog, graveyards, and wolf howls.  There’s so much fog that in one scene it’s indoors!

The screenplay by Griffin Jay is adequate.  The plot is your basic vampire seeks revenge on the families of those who tried to destroy him, but with Lugosi in the film, with lots of screen time and lots to do, the plot is secondary.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is not as good a film as DRACULA (1931) or even the well-crafted and hilarious ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) for that matter, but it is still a showcase for Bela Lugosi, and as such doesn’t disappoint.


What I’m Reading: BUDDHA HILL by Bob Booth


BuddhaHill_COVERWhat I’m Reading –Buddha Hill by Bob Booth


 Necon founder Bob Booth made it clear on his various writers’ panels over the years that he saw the novella as the ideal format for a horror story.  Booth, who sadly passed away last year after a battle with lung cancer, thought it the perfect length to tell a terror tale.

And so it only stands to reason that Booth would choose to tell the story of Buddha Hill in the form of a novella.

Booth wrote Buddha Hill two decades ago, in 1986, when he was in his forties, and it was based on his experiences while serving in Vietnam in the 1960s, when he was in his twenties.  The manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty some-odd years before it was re-discovered by his son Dan, and upon Dan’s prompting, Bob finally decided to publish it.

I for one am glad he did.

Buddha Hill tells the story of a young 21 year-old American soldier from Rhode Island who is serving in Vietnam.  He quickly learns the ins and outs of how to survive on Bien Hoa Air Force Base located just outside Saigon.  His daily life on the base is stressful as horrific pandemonium and uncertainty surround him on all sides.  He also learns of the Buddhist Monks who inhabit a place known as Buddha Hill.  There is something strange going on there, and he is warned by his buddies in the know to keep away from the place.

The story of Buddha Hill follows this young soldier as he tries to survive in Vietnam.  In the process, he pursues a relationship with a young Vietnamese prostitute.  All the while, Buddha Hill looms mysteriously in the background, an ominous reminder that there’s something supernatural going on out there in the jungle, something frightening, and something very deadly.

With the ever intensifying war closing in around him, and the mystical monks manipulating in the shadows, the soldier begins to wither under the weight of paranormal pressure, struggling to tell what is real and what is imagined.

My favorite part of Buddha Hill is that Booth nails the atmosphere of wartime Vietnam.  Booth obviously takes from his firsthand experiences in Vietnam, and this novella is all the better for it.  He brings you into the heart of the jungle, into the heat of Vietnam, so much so you can almost feel the humid moisture on your brow.  Booth also captures the fear these soldiers felt serving in a foreign land and culture halfway across the world.  The story is frightening even without its supernatural elements.

That being said, Buddha Hill is definitely a quiet horror tale.  This is a novella of mood and atmosphere, not of spilled blood and violence.  As such, it works.  The mysterious monks at Buddha Hill remain spookily in the background, subtly affecting those around them, especially the impressionable American soldiers.

As a novella, Buddha Hill is quick and efficient.  There’s no fat on these bones.  Author Booth gets in, tells his story, and gets out.

Buddha Hill is a moving, chilling tale of the supernatural amidst the backdrop of the volatile jungles and cities of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  It’ll get under your skin and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Highly recommended.



Lon Chaney Sr. remains the definitive Phantom of the Opera, even after nearly 100 years.

Lon Chaney Sr. remains the definitive Phantom of the Opera, even after nearly 100 years.


By Michael Arruda


Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we compile lists of odds and ends about horror movies.  Today we look at the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies.

It still amazes me that the best version of this terror tale remains the original silent version starring Lon Chaney Sr. I love this movie, from its incredible sets to its amazing Phantom make-up created by Chaney himself, to the way it tells its story.  It’s the most compelling and exciting of all the Phantom films.

Seriously, none of the remakes come close to matching it.

Here’s the list of the lot:



Directed by Rupert Julian

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux.

The Phantom: Lon Chaney

Christine: Mary Philbin

Raoul: Norman Kerry

Ledoux: Arthur Edmund Carewe

Make-up: Lon Chaney

Running Time: 93 minutes

By far, the preeminent version of the Phantom tale. Certainly the most faithful, and the one which most fully captures the spirit of Gaston Leroux’s novel.  Chaney is the definitive Phantom, even after nearly 100 years.  He’s phenomenal.  If you’ve never seen this silent classic, you’re missing one of the finest horror movies ever made.  Don’t wait any longer.



Directed by Arthur Lubin

Screenplay by Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein

The Phantom: Claude Rains

Christine: Susanna Foster

Anatole: Nelson Eddy

Make-Up: Jack Pierce

Running Time: 92 minutes

Thoroughly entertaining movie, although I think Universal got confused when they made this remake and thought they were making a straight musical. Lots of musical numbers in this one.  Claude Rains makes for a decent Phantom, but his sympathetic interpretation of the character is less effective and far less chilling than Chaney’s.  Memorable Phantom mask, but make-up by Jack Pierce is surprisingly ordinary.



Directed by Terence Fisher

Screenplay by Anthony Hinds

The Phantom: Herbert Lom

Christine: Heather Sears

Harry: Edward DeSouza

Lord Ambrose D’Arcy: Michael Gough

Lattimer: Thorley Walters

Make-Up: Roy Ashton

Running Time: 84 minutes

Hammer’s foray into the Phantom universe. Not bad, and Herbert Lom makes for a sinister Phantom, at least during the first half of the movie, before he follows in Claude Rains’ footsteps and turns on the sympathy.  The first half of this film is among Hammer’s best, but uneven use of flashback and the emergence of a sympathetic Phantom weigh down the second half.  Tepid make-up by Roy Ashton.  Chaney’s interpretation keeps getting better and better.



Directed by Brian De Palma

Screenplay by Brian De Palma

The Phantom: William Finley

Phoenix: Jessica Harper

Swan: Paul Williams

Make-Up: John Chambers

Running Time: 92 minutes

1970s rock opera version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Like everything else about the 70s, it’s far out, man.



Directed by Robert Markowitz

Screenplay by Sherman Yellen

The Phantom: Maximilian Schell

Maria: Jane Seymour

Michael: Michael York

Make-up: Jim Gillespie

Running Time: 96 minutes

TV movie version of the Phantom story. Ho-hum re-telling.




Directed by Dwight H. Little

Screenplay by Duke Sandefur

The Phantom: Robert Englund

Christine: Jill Schoelen

Make-Up: John Carl Buechler

Running Time: 93 minutes

Inferior movie tries to take advantage of Robert Englund’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET popularity, but Englund’s presence simply is not enough to lift this one up.  Decent make-up, at least, but Englund’s performance as the Phantom underwhelms.  Dark, violent version lacks imagination.




Directed by Tony Richardson

Teleplay by Arthur Kopit

The Phantom: Charles Dance

Christine: Teri Polo

Gerard: Burt Lancaster

Count Philippe de Chagny: Adam Storke

Make-Up: Catherine George

Running Time: 168 minutes

Elaborate TV movie version of the Phantom story.




Directed by Dario Argento

Screenplay by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento

The Phantom: Julian Sands

Christine: Asia Argento

Make-Up: Alessandro Bertolazzi

Running Time: 99 minutes

It’s Dario Argento. It’s dark and it’s bloody.




Directed by Joel Schumacher

Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher

The Phantom: Gerard Butler

Christine: Emmy Rossum

Raoul: Patrick Wilson

Running Time: 143 minutes

Film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ultra-popular musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Not bad.


And there you have it, all your Phantoms in one place. And not a single one tried to saw off a chandelier!  Hope you enjoyed this list of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies.  See you next time on another HORROR JAR.

Thanks for reading!




Last Days on Mars - posterPickin’ The Carcass:  THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (2013)


Michael Arruda

Welcome back to Pickin’ The Carcass, that column where we scour the sale bins and Streaming movie queues to find those undiscovered gems of horror movies we missed the first time around.  Or, as often is the case, we find yet another dud, which would explain why we missed them in the first place.

Today on Pickin’ The Carcass we look at THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (2013) a science fiction horror movie starring two actors I like a lot, Liev Schreiber [DEFIANCE (2008), X-MEN ORIGINS:  WOLVERINE (2009)]and Elias Koteas [THE FOURTH KIND (2009), LET ME IN (2010)].  So, with eager anticipation, I sat down to watch THE LAST DAYS ON MARS on Netflix Streaming the other night.

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS takes place on a scientific base located on— well, Mars, of course.  The scientists are led by their commanding officer, Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas) and all is well on Mars-land until one of the scientists discovers what he believes to be evidence of bacterial life.  When this scientist disappears, seemingly falling into a huge pit, Brunel orders a rescue party to enter the pit to search for their missing team member.

No!  Don’t go into the pit!

 Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to me.

The strange bacteria their missing friend discovered has an even stranger effect on the scientists.  It’s like a Martian version of THE WALKING DEAD, as suddenly members of the crew start dying, only to quickly come back to life as murderous unstoppable zombies.  And that pretty much is the plot of THE LAST DAYS ON MARS:  scientists vs. zombies on a Martian base.  It actually sounds better than it is.

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is a very top-heavy movie.  In other words, a bunch of action happens early on, and nearly the entire cast is done in before this film even reaches its halfway point, and I found myself asking, what’s up with this?  Where can this film go now?  A flashback perhaps to reveal a missing piece of the plot?  No.  Nothing this creative or clever.  We simply continue to watch the last couple of crew members fight to survive.  Needless to say, the first half of this movie is much better than the second half.

But the biggest problem I had with THE LAST DAYS ON MARS was the muddled direction by director Ruairi Robinson.  In spite of its simple straightforward storyline, this movie unfolds in a rather confused pattern of scenes.  Early on before the zombies show up, it struggles to tell its story, as a lot of what’s going on is unclear.

The pacing is also incredibly slow, which for a science fiction tale, isn’t all that bad, but it fails to really gain any momentum once all the horrific things start happening.  It also forgets to have fun.

The screenplay by Clive Dawson based on a short story by Sydney J. Bounds is fairly routine and not all that creative.  The reanimated corpses make for some suspenseful scenes, but we know nothing about these creatures other than what we can infer by watching their actions.  We know even less about the characters, as the character development here is practically nil.  The screenplay is based on a short story, so I’d have to say Dawson did a poor job of fleshing the story out.

Liev Schreiber gets most of the screen time as crew member Vincent Campbell, and I like Schreiber, and he does what he can in this central role.  I enjoyed watching him as the main guy who’s able to fight back against the threat in this movie, even though I learned nothing about who Vincent Campbell was.

Unfortunately, Elias Koteas has a much smaller role than Schreiber, and they’re barely in this movie together at all, which is too bad, because had Koteas been in the film longer, he could have added a lot to it.

Olivia Williams is on hand as fellow scientist Kim Aldrich, and she gives her character more personality than the rest of the folks in this film, but sadly, like Koteas, her screen time is limited.  We saw Williams earlier this year in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action pic, SABOTAGE (2014), and she was good in both movies.

Romola Garai is also very good as Rebecca Lane, as is Johnny Harris as Robert Irwin, two of the other crew members who along with Schreiber get the most screen time.  I have no problem with the acting in this one.  The players pretty much all do a good job.

The make-up on the reanimated crew members isn’t bad, but it’s nothing to write home about, either.  The best thing I can say for it is it’s not fake or cheap looking.  The entire film actually looks very good.

THE LAST DAYS ON MARS is a pretty mediocre entry in the science fiction horror genre.  It benefits from a professional cast doing a pretty decent job all around, but the story it tells is nothing we haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing really new about it, neither in the actual story or the way it’s presented.  Had greater care been put into some of the shock scenes for example, then this one would have been a more memorable film experience.  I didn’t find anything scary about this movie.

Had the film fleshed out its characters more, that also would have been a huge plus.  As much as I like Leiv Schreiber, his character, Vincent Campbell, is pretty much a cardboard cut-out who could have been played by any actor.

If you have nothing better to do, you may want to check out THE LAST DAYS ON MARS, but I certainly wouldn’t rush out to buy this one or put aside major plans to watch it, unless of course you’re a hardcore space-movie junkie and like to watch any movie which takes place in space.

For the rest of us, THE LAST DAYS ON MARS might remain the last movie in our queue.







mary_shelleys_frankenstein_ posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!








Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).

I remember being so excited when I first heard about it.  It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster.  And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.  What could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution.  The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.

As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN.  The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera.  I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one.  There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch.  And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.

Take the creation scene for example.  A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way.  It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary.  How about just flicking a switch?

The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant.  The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it.  That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie:  there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror.  It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.

Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.

For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit.  This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes.  Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob.  We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.

The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay.  It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.

We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all.  The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.

The acting is decent.  Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential.  I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation.  This doesn’t really happen in this movie.

Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster.  It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film.  De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish.  I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster.  I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie.  The make-up job here did not impress me very much.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work:  the love story between Victor and Elizabeth.  Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie.  Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.

If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature.  This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done

And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production.  Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle.  It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family.  This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.

Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.







Una O'Connor as Mrs. Hall in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).

Una O’Connor as Mrs. Hall in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).

In The Shadows:  UNA O’CONNOR

 By Michael Arruda

Welcome everyone to another edition of In The Shadows, the column where we honor character actors from the movies, especially horror movies.  Today we look at the career of Una O’Connor.

Una O’Connor made a ton of movies, 84 screen credits in all, but to horror fans, she’s most remembered for her roles in two classic Universal monster movies, THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).  When I was a kid, I used to call her “the screaming woman” because her shrill cries were unforgettable.  I think she could give Jonathan Harris’ Doctor Smith on the classic TV show LOST IN SPACE (1965-68) a run for his money, and anyone who’s seen him shriek on LOST IN SPACE knows what I’m talking about.

Una O’Connor often provided the comic relief in the movies in which she appeared, and her appearances in both THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN are no exception.

In THE INVISIBLE MAN, she plays Mrs. Jenny Hall, the owner of the tavern in which Claude Rains’ mad Dr. Griffin happens upon one snowy night, entering the crowded tavern all wrapped in bandages.  It’s one of the grander entrances of all the Universal monsters.

As Mrs. Hall, O’Connor enjoys a bunch of scenes muttering her displeasure over Griffin’s eccentricities, and she also has the pleasure of being thrown out his room.  When she sends her husband upstairs to physically toss Griffin off the premises, and Griffin returns the favor by throwing Mr. Griffin down a flight of stairs, Mrs. Hall responds with her signature shrieking and wailing, a scene that makes me laugh out loud each and every time I see it.

In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, O’Connor plays Minnie, one of the head servants in the Frankenstein household.  She enjoys some memorable scenes in this one.  She’s the first character to see that the Monster has survived the fire in the windmill at the end of FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— or at least the first character to see him and survive.  The Monster had already killed the parents of Maria, the little girl he drowned in the first movie, but when he happens upon Minnie moments later, she shrieks at him and runs away.  Being the wise Monster that he is, he leaves her alone.

Of course, when she returns to Castle Frankenstein and says she has seen the Monster and he’s still alive, no one believes her.  Moments later, she’s also the first one to see that Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is still alive and has survived his fall from the burning windmill.  In a scene reminiscent of the creation scene in the first film, she sees Henry Frankenstein’s hand move, and she screams, “He’s alive!!!”

She also gets to introduce the memorable and iconic character Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) to Henry and Elizabeth Frankenstein, when Pretorious arrives at the door and demands to be announced.  No one says “Pretorius” better than Una O’Connor!

So, for those of us who grew up with the Universal monster movies, we know and adore Una O’Connor, based on those two performances alone.

Here’s a partial list of Una O’Connor’s 84 movie credits:


DARK RED ROSES (1929) – Mrs. Weeks – O’Connor’s first movie, a drama about a sculptor who plots to chop off the hands of his wife’s pianist lover.

MURDER! (1930) – Mrs. Grogram- lends her support to this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) – Mrs. Hall – Poor Mrs. Hall.  You shouldn’t have sent your husband up those stairs.  My favorite O’Connor role.  Her cries can wake the dead.

ORIENT EXPRESS (1934) – Mrs. Peters – Murder on a train.

CHAINED (1934) – Amy, Diane’s Maid – Romance starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Otto Kruger.  O’Connor plays Crawford’s maid.

THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934) – Wilson.  Period piece drama/biography starring Charles Laughton and Fredric March.

DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935) – Mrs. Gummidge – George Cukor directed this version of Charles Dickens’ novel, which also featured Elsa Lanchester who would co-star with O’Connor in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

 THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – Minnie – adds memorable support as Minnie the main servant in the Frankenstein household in this all-time classic monster masterpiece by director James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster and Elsa Lanchester as his bride.  O’Connor’s best line:  Dr. Pretorious? Pretorious?

 THE INFORMER (1935) – Mrs. McPhillip – John Ford-directed drama.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) – Bess – Classic adventure starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Patrick Knowles.

THE SEA HAWK (1940) – Miss Latham – Sea adventure directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn and Claude Rains.

THIS LAND IS MINE (1943) – Mrs. Emma Lory – World War II drama— contemporary at the time— directed by Jean Renoir and starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, and George Sanders.

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944) – Mrs. Umney –  Comedy fantasy based on the Oscar Wilde story about a cowardly ghost starring Charles Laughton, Robert Young, and Margaret O’Brien.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (1945) – Mrs. Breen – Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father O’Malley in this well-made sequel to GOING MY WAY (1944), about Crosby running a Catholic school and butting heads with nun Sister Mary Benedict, played by Ingrid Bergman.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) – Janet – O’Connor’s final role, in this Billy Wilder directed version of the Agatha Christie story (Wilder also wrote the screenplay), starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester, Won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor for Laughton, and Best Supporting Actress for Lanchester.

Una O’Connor died on February 4, 1959 from a heart ailment at the age of 79.

Una O’Connor:  October 23, 1880 – February 4, 1959.

Thanks for reading everybody!