IN THE SHADOWS: ELISHA COOK, JR.

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most recognizable character actors of all time. Small in stature, he often portrayed intense oftentimes frightened characters, especially in his horror movies. One of my favorite Cook performances in a genre film was in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), in which he co-starred with Vincent Price as the terrified Watson Pritchard, the one man in the movie who believed ghosts were haunting the house. Cook also enjoyed a memorable moment in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) when he falls asleep in the back of Kolchak’s car, scaring the living daylight out of the reporter (Darren McGavin) when he bolts upright in the back seat!

Here now is a partial look at some of Elisha Cook, Jr.’s impressive 220 screen credits:

HER UNBORN CHILD (1930)- Stewart Kennedy – Cook’s first screen credit is in this 1930 love story drama.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – Joe Briggs – co-stars in this film noir with Peter Lorre. Often cited as the first film noir movie ever.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) – Wilmer Cook – one of my favorite Elisha Cook Jr. roles is in this classic film noir by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Cook plays the enforcer for Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who Bogart’s Sam Spade torments throughout, at one point slapping him around and eventually turning Gutman against him. Cook is wound up and intense throughout. Also starring Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. One of my favorite movies of all time.

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942) – Frank Lucas- supporting role in this Laurel and Hardy spooky comedy.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) – Harry Jones – reunited with Humphrey Bogart, with Bogart this time playing Philip Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, this one is so complex that even after subsequent viewings it’s still difficult to figure out who did what to whom, and why! Bogart famously married co-star Lauren Bacall shortly after this movie.

SHANE (1953) – Stonewall Torrey – supporting role in this classic Alan Ladd western. His character is dramatically slain by the villainous gunslinger played by Jack Palance.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1954)- “Semi-Private Eye” – Homer Garrity – plays private detective Homer Garrity hired by Lois Lane to prove that Clark Kent is really Superman in this episode of the George Reeves Superman TV series.

THE KILLING (1956)- George Peatty – supporting role in this film noir thriller directed by a young Stanley Kubrick.

VOODOO ISLAND (1957) – Martin Schuyler – zombie horror movie starring Boris Karloff, notable for featuring the screen debut of Adam West. Holy horror movie, Batman!

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) – Watson Pritchard – one of my favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. roles is in this William Castle horror movie starring Vincent Price as a cold, calculating husband who along with his equally manipulative wife plan a party in a haunted house where the guests are each paid a large sum of money if they remain in the house all night. And they have no choice once they agree, because they are all locked inside until dawn. Cook plays the one man there who believes in ghosts, and spends most of his time drinking and warning the others that they are all doomed. One of the earlier horror movies to employ jump scares, and the scene with the old woman who appears out of nowhere in the basement is a classic.

BLACK ZOO (1963) – Joe – horror movie starring the Hammer ham himself, Michael Gough, playing a character who uses his zoo animals to kill his enemies. Of course!

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) – Peter Smith – reunited with Vincent Price in this horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cook plays a frightened townsperson who is a yes-man to a tougher townsperson played by Leo Gordon, and they lead the villagers in attempts to oust Vincent Price’s Charles Dexter Ward from their community fearing that he is a menace to their community. And they’re right! Also stars Lon Chaney Jr., in a rare paring with Vincent Price. One of my favorite Roger Corman/Vincent Price movies.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Mr. Nicklas – part of the terrific cast in Roman Polanski’s classic horror movie which also stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, and Ralph Bellamy.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) – Mickey Crawford – plays an informant for Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak in this groundbreaking vampire movie written by Richard Matheson. Cook provides one of the better jump scares in the movie as noted above.

BLACULA (1972) – Sam – Cook appears in back-to-back vampire movies, this one featuring a commanding performance by William Marshall in the lead role in this underrated horror movie which is actually very good.

THE BLACK BIRD (1975) – Wilmer Cook – Cook reprises his role from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) in this comedy about the son of Sam Spade, played by George Segal.

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips – this TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring David Soul and James Mason is considered by many fans and critics as one of the two greatest vampire TV movies ever made, along with THE NIGHT STALKER. Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in both these movies!

MAGNUM, P.I. (1980-1988) – Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler – Cook’s final screen appearances were on the popular TV series, MAGNUM, P.I., in which he appeared in 13 episodes.

Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in tons of TV shows over the years, including GUNSMOKE, THE WILD WILD WEST, STAR TREK, BATMAN, THE ODD COUPLE, and STARSKY AND HUTCH, to name just a few.

I hope you enjoyed this partial list of Elisha Cook Jr.’s career. He was a character actor who starred in many genre films, some, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE NIGHT STALKER, are some of the more important ones ever made.

Join me again next time for another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at the careers of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael


IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)

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Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT we visit THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963), Roger Corman’s sixth Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.

Technically, it isn’t a Poe adaptation, since after making five horror movies in three years based on Edgar Allan Poe works, Corman wanted a break and chose as his source material for his next movie, the story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” by H.P. Lovecraft. However, American-International felt a Poe connection was needed, and so they tacked on an Edgar Allan Poe poem title “The Haunted Palace” to the film, which is mostly, if not completely, based on the Lovecraft story.

THE HAUNTED PALACE once again stars Vincent Price, who starred in most of Corman’s earlier Poe films, and he was joined by a rather interesting co-star: Lon Chaney Jr! This would mark the second and last time these two horror icons would appear together in the same movie, although the first time, in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), hardly counts, as Vincent Price only “appears” in the final seconds of the film as the Invisible Man. In THE HAUNTED PALACE, both Price and Chaney have ample screen time and share lots of scenes together.

THE HAUNTED PALACE opens with a prologue that shows the angry villagers storming the mansion of Joseph Curwan (Vincent Price) who they not only accuse of witchcraft, but they also drag him out of his home and burn him at the stake, but not before he curses the town and their descendants. The story then jumps ahead 100 plus years, and we see Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) arrive at the home of his ancestor Joseph Curwan, along with his wife Ann (Debra Paget) to start a new life together.

Not so fast Mr. Ward!

See, the villagers who live there, including Edgar Weeden (Leo Gordon) and Peter Smith (Elisha Cook, Jr.), have not forgotten the curse placed on them by Joseph Curwan and want no part of his descendant returning home! It doesn’t help that Charles is a dead ringer for Joseph, but to that end, I would tell these folks to go look in the mirror, because all of them are dead ringers for their ancestors as well! See, that’s what happens when the same actors play ancestors and descendants. Not exactly the most creative way to cast a story!

Anyway, the one townsperson who is sympathetic to Charles and his wife is Dr. Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell), but even he warns them about staying, since the townsfolk could make things mighty difficult for them. Inside the mansion, they meet the caretaker Simone Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.), and since he’s played by Lon Chaney Jr., you know he’s going to be something more than just an ordinary caretaker.

No, he’s not secretly the Wolf Man!

But he is secretly an old friend of Joseph Curwen, and he introduces Charles to a portrait of Joseph, and when he does, the spirit of Joseph enters Charles’ body. Together, they begin to work on fulfilling the plan they started 150 years earlier, involving the book, the Necronomicon, and the conjuring of a demon-like beast from the depths below. Their work is slowed by the fact that Joseph can’t remain inside Charles’ body for long, which allows Vincent Price the chance to basically play two different roles, almost a Jekyll and Hyde variation.

This back and forth continues, with Joseph gaining more power each time he enters Charles’ body, and the final part of the plan involves sacrificing Ann to the demon creature. Unless, that is, Charles can break through and save his wife!

THE HAUNTED PALACE is one of the livelier Roger Corman Poe films. His earlier works, like HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) were very claustrophobic, with the bulk of the action taking place inside the castle walls, whereas here in THE HAUNTED PALACE equal time is spent in the village as well, and the whole feel of this one is more melodramatic and freewheeling.

I also absolutely love the music score here by Ronald Stein. It’s a powerful score and my favorite of the Roger Corman Poe movies. Stein scored many genre films from the 1950s-60s, including DINOSAURUS! (1960), a laughable but likeable dinosaur-on-the-loose movie by Universal in which Stein’s serious score is also a highlight.

As he always does, Vincent Price chews up the scenery here as Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen. Price’s persona dominates these movies. Sometimes he’s the character who’s tortured by the evil within him, and other times, he’s the character who seems to take such glee and enjoyment in being evil. He gets to be both in this movie. In the Roger Corman movies, Price’s most intriguing performances probably came in the next two movies in the series, which would be the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). But he’s awfully entertaining here as Charles Dexter Ward and his nefarious ancestor!

Lon Chaney Jr. is creepy and fun as Simon, the caretaker with the sinister secret and agenda. There’s one shot framed by Corman in which Chaney appears from the shadows to frighten Ann, and he’s completely backlit, which means you only see the frame of his body and not his face, and with a little imagination, you can almost see the Wolf Man standing there in the dark corridor! Sadly, since he was dealing with health issues mostly due to heavy drinking, Chaney looks pretty awful in this movie. Of course, he was also made up to look rather sinister, but still, he looks about 10-15 years older than Price in this movie, when in reality he was only five years older, with Chaney being 58 at the time, and Price 53.

THE HAUNTED PALACE also has a great supporting cast. Leo Gordon was one of the great screen heavies, playing villainous roles in numerous westerns. I always remember him as the baddie Cass in THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966). If you’re going to start a mob in a horror movie, Leo Gordon is the guy you want leading it!

Elisha Cook Jr., a terrific character actor going all the way back to THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), where he was famously humiliated and slapped around by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Cook appeared in several genre movies, including HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), which also starred Vincent Price, and THE NIGHT STALKER (1972). Here, he plays a frightened villager who’s basically a yes-man to Leo Gordon’s character.

You also have Debra Paget and Frank Maxwell.

The screenplay by Charles Beaumont based on the Lovecraft story, and a little bit on the Poe poem, hits all the right notes and makes for a decent plot.

Roger Corman, who at 96 is still with us, keeps this one a bit more energetic than his other Poe outings. One part, however, that doesn’t work, is the storyline about the cursed townsfolk’s offspring, many of whom are “mutants.” The story is fine, but the make-up is rather ludicrous. It looks like someone stuck silly putty over their eyes. Here you go. Just add this silly putty here, and now you look like mutants with no eyes! Er…, no!

Other than this little hiccup, THE HAUNTED PALACE is worthwhile viewing, especially around Halloween time. It’s hard to find someone having more fun being evil in a horror movie than Vincent Price, and his talents are on full display here. Add a little menacing Lon Chaney Jr. and it gets even better! Why, there’s even a sinister final shot in the movie for good measure!

THE HAUNTED PALACE isn’t one of the more famous Roger Corman Poe movies– heck, technically it’s not even a Poe movie but a Lovecraft one— but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun!

Looking for a place to stay this Halloween? Try THE HAUNTED PALACE. Just don’t stare at the paintings for too long. I hear they have a knack for… getting under your skin!

Happy Halloween!

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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Hammer’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), is often cited, and rightly so, as one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made.

It’s also one of Hammer’s best, and that’s saying a lot, since Christopher Lee doesn’t appear in this Dracula movie, and that’s because when Hammer decided to make a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), Lee wasn’t interested in reprising the role for fear of being typecast (he would change his mind six years later) and so Hammer wrote a new story featuring a disciple of Dracula, and they brought back Peter Cushing to once again play Dr. Van Helsing.

But the true star of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA just might be director Terence Fisher who does some of his best work for Hammer right here in this movie, at least in terms of atmosphere. In terms of shock and fright, Fisher scored highest with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). His later work for Hammer while always visually impressive, often wasn’t that scary, since admittedly Fisher wasn’t trying to make horror movies but rather tell stories with horror elements. This may have been the reason some of his later films, like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) didn’t do all that well at the box office.

But Fisher is at his best here with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, as there are plenty of thunderstorms, creepy graveyards, an elegant castle, deadly vampire bats, and with Peter Cushing in the cast, some guaranteed exciting vampire battle action sequences. Another thing that Fisher always did well in these movies was use color to his advantage, often filling the screen with shades of green, red, orange, and even purple.

Look at the composition in the photo above, of a scene early in the movie, inside the tavern when the villainous Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) arrives to abduct the unsuspecting Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). You can easily recognize the effective use of red, purple and black, a combination of lighting, costumes, and sets. The set design is superb.

The red color in the back, highlighted by the red on Baroness Meinster’s clothes, and the purple light on the floor and to the right, give the scene a colorful composition of horror. Terence Fisher does this a lot in his movies, from the copious use of green in the lab scenes in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), to the use of red, green, blue, yellow, and purple in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). If you watch a Hammer Film directed by Terence Fisher, you are sure to spot creative use of color and light.

As seen in today’s Picture of the Day from THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, this gem of a vampire movie is imbued with detailed set design and costumes that make it look like a much more expensive film than it really was.

Sometimes watching Fisher’s work is like looking at a painting.

When people say THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of the most atmospheric vampire movies ever made, they’re right, and most of the credit belongs to director Terence Fisher.

Take one last look at the photo above. A nice long look.

Yup. That’s art in horror.

That’s also why Hammer horror is a thing. While their horror movies worked on so many levels, they were almost always impressive to look at.

Hope you enjoyed today’s Picture of the Day.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GORGO (1961)

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When you think of giant monster movies, you most likely think of Godzilla and King Kong, arguably the two most famous giant movie monsters of all time, and you probably think of Japan’s Toho Studios, who made so many of those Godzilla movies we love, as well as plenty of other giant monster adventures.

But today’s movie, GORGO (1961), hails from the United Kingdom, a country that historically did not churn out a whole bunch of giant monster movies. And while in some ways the plot borrows heavily from the original GODZILLA (1954), except in this case rather than Godzilla emerging from the ocean to destroy Tokyo, we have Gorgo emerging from the ocean to pummel London, GORGO is a good enough giant monster movie to stand on its own.

In fact, the special effects in this one depicting Gorgo’s assault on London are right up there with Godzilla’s more famous attack on Tokyo. Topnotch stuff! So much so, that this sequence which pretty much takes up the entire second half of the movie, ranks as one of the best monster-attacks-city sequences ever put on film! The movie is only 78 minutes long, and so at the end of the day, GORGO is one action-packed giant monster movie!

But it’s also rather odd in that it’s one of the few monster movies— or any movie for that matter— that doesn’t really feature any women! There are no female main characters, and I think there’s only two women in the film who even speak any lines of dialogue!

Then again, giant Gorgo is a female, as she is a mommy monster in search of her baby monster which gets kidnapped and taken to London. Hmm. Maybe Gorgo’s contract stipulated that she would be the only prominent female in the cast?

Anyway, GORGO is the story of Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) who helm a salvage vessel, and when they discover a sea monster off the coast of Ireland, they capture it and decide to bring it back to London in order to make money off it. These guys obviously went to the Carl Denham school of business! Little boy Sean (Vincent Winter), who lives on the island where Gorgo is discovered, tells Joe and Sam that they shouldn’t capture the monster and take him away, but the adults don’t listen to him. So, Sean secretly stows away on the ship, and when Joe and Sam discover him, they decide to take care of him and pretty much adopt him for the rest of the movie. Er, Sean, where the hell are your parents?

They bring Gorgo to London where he is shown off at a circus and much to Joe and Sam’s delight, makes them lots of money. But it turns out, this is only a baby Gorgo, and when mommy Gorgo emerges from the ocean, she’s none too happy about her son being abducted, and so she swims to London and attacks the city in order to get him back.

And there’s your plot!

GORGO was directed by Eugene Lourie, who must have loved giant monster movies, because this was the fourth time he directed a movie about a giant monster! His first, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), is probably his most famous, as it featured the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and was based on the short story “The Fog Horn,” by Ray Bradbury. Lourie followed this up with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), a film about a giant robot, and then he made THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured the special effects of KING KONG creator Willis O’Brien, which told the story of a yet another giant sea monster.

And then he made GORGO. Overall, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is probably his best movie, mostly because it did feature the effects of Ray Harryhausen, but GORGO is a close second, and the attack on London is far more intense than any of the scenes found in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

Even more interesting, these are the only four movies Eugene Lourie ever directed! He should have directed more, because all four of these movies are very good, and two of them, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and GORGO are downright excellent! Lourie passed away in 1991 from heart failure.

Robert L. Richards and Daniel James wrote the screenplay which tells a decent enough giant monster story, with the one glaring oddity being that there are no women in this story whatsoever!

Young Vincent Winter, who played Sean, would become disappointed with acting and turn to working behind the scenes where he would serve as an assistant director for many movies, including the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN (1978). Winter died in 1998 from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Also in the cast is Martin Benson, who played the circus owner who promotes Gorgo in London. Benson is no stranger to genre films, having played doomed Father Spiletto in THE OMEN (1976), and, in the role I remember him most for, playing the weasel-like Mr. Rash in NIGHT CREATURES (1962), Hammer’s pirate adventure starring Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Benson also had a “pressing engagement” in the Sean Connery James Bond classic GOLDFINGER (1964), as his character ends up being crushed in a car by Oddjob.

And speaking of Hammer Films, in the scene where baby Gorgo is paraded around London, you can see Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959) playing at the theater at Piccadilly Circus.

The impressive special effects were created by Tom Howard, who would later work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Interestingly enough, the same monster suit was used for both mommy Gorgo and baby Gorgo, and the size difference was achieved with different sets and models, as well as different roar sound effects.

When GORGO was released in 1961, there had only been two Godzilla movies released, the original and its sequel GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but the filmmakers must have had Godzilla in mind because they premiered GORGO in Japan rather than in the United Kingdom.

Japan returned the favor by basically remaking GORGO as MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967) (Its original and better title is GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS), a tale in which a mommy and a daddy monster attack Tokyo in order to bring back their baby monster which had been taken to Japan.

The lesson from both these movies is, if you’re going to put a young giant monster in a show, you’d best ask its parents’ permission first! You might also want to include them in the contract and give them a piece of the proceeds!

GORGO is one of the better giant monster movies of yesteryear. In spite of the dubious decision not to feature any female characters in its story other than the giant monster Gorgo herself, this one features really good special effects and a second-half giant monster assault on London that can’t be beat!

The title, by the way, comes from the Gorgon, as Gorgo is short for Gorgon, and it refers to the Medusa tale of the creature so hideous one look at her would turn people to stone. While Gorgo is not that hideous looking, the creature is indeed monstrous and is impressive to behold.

So, you don’t have to be afraid of Gorgo’s face. It won’t turn you into stone. On the other hand, you probably should be afraid of Gorgo’s feet, which will turn you into some itty-bitty pieces of crushed flesh and bone when they step on you.

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The Horror! May Means Happy Birthday to Cushing, Lee, and Price

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

I often like to post tributes in May to horror icons Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price, as all three of these actors had birthdays in the fifth month of the year, Cushing on May 26, and both Lee and Price on May 27.

This year I’d like to have some fun with their genre of choice, horror! These three actors terrorized movie audiences from the 1950s through the 1980s, with Price actually starting way before that, in the 1940s, and while Lee continued to make movies all the way into the 2000s. The big screen may not see the likes of these three gentlemen ever again.

Each one has their devoted fans with their own ideas as to who is their personal favorite. For me, it’s Peter Cushing, but that doesn’t take away from my admiration and affection for Lee or Price.

For the sake of this column, they are all equally influential.

So, instead, as we celebrate their birthdays here in May 2021, we’ll look at some numbers.

For example, of the three, who made the most horror movies?

By my count, the prize goes to Christopher Lee for appearing in the most horror movies, 57!

Here’s the breakdown:

Christopher Lee: 57

Peter Cushing: 46

Vincent Price: 34

But who caused the most horror on screen? That’s debatable, but we can look at who starred in the most movies with the word “horror” in the title!

Again, the prize goes to Christopher Lee who made five movies with the word “horror” in the title. Strangely, Vincent Price never appeared in a movie with “horror” in the title.

Christopher Lee: 5. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), HORROR HOTEL (1960), HORROR CASTLE (1963), DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

Peter Cushing: 3. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), HORROR EXPRESS (1972),

Vincent Price: 0.

Okay, so what about terror? Who instilled the most terror? Well, again, let’s look at the numbers. Let’s see who made the most movies with the word “terror” in the title? This time the prize goes to Peter Cushing, who starred in three movies with “terror” in the title.

Peter Cushing: 3. DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), ISLAND OF TERROR (1966), THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968),

Christopher Lee: 2. THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961), DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965),

Vincent Price: 2. – TALES OF TERROR (1962), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963).

Vincent Price in TALES OF TERROR (1962).


So, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this playful tribute to these three icons of horror. Of course, the best way to celebrate their birthdays is to watch one of their movies. So, on that note, I won’t keep you any longer.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

LEADING LADIES: SUZAN FARMER

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Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today is an actress mostly known to horror fans for one major horror movie. The actress is Suzan Farmer, and the movie is DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer Films’ second Dracula movie starring Christopher Lee, and the direct sequel to their mega-hit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

In DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the undead count is resurrected when his servant murders an unsuspecting guest at the castle and uses the man’s blood to rescuscitate his vampire master. Suzan Farmer plays one of the guests, Diana, who’s married to the brother of the slain sacrificial victim. It’s a memorable performance in a movie that has continued to age well over the years, and is held in much higher regard today than it was upon its initial release back in 1966, when it was widely viewed as an inferior sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA.

Here is a partial look at Suzan Farmer’s career:

THE SUPREME SECRET (1958) – Tess – Farmer’s movie debut in 1958 at the age of 15.

THE CRIMSON BLADE (1963) – Constance Beverley – High seas adventure which takes place in 1648 and also stars Lionel Jeffries, Oliver Reed, June Thorburn, and Hammer regulars Michael Ripper and Duncan Lamont.

THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES (1964) – Angela – Hammer pirate adventure written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Don Sharp. Starring Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Duncan Lamont, and Michael Ripper.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965) – Susan Whitley – Farmer plays the daughter of a wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff. She’s stuck in the castle while Karloff conducts bizarre experiments, all the while her boyfriend Stephen (Nick Adams) tries to convince her to leave daddy and get the heck out of there! Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” Also starring Freda Jackson and Patrick Magee.

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Diana- My favorite Suzan Farmer role and performance. A big reason for this is she’s in some of the best scenes in the movie, certainly the best Dracula scenes. The scene where Dracula (Christopher Lee) attacks her from an open window, and later when he slits open his chest and invites her to drink his blood, are two of the more memorable sequences in the film. Farmer also enjoys playful chemistry with Francis Matthews, who plays her husband Charles. Their dialogue together resonates throughout the movie, and they really do seem like a young married couple very much in love. Farmer also dubbed the high-pitched screams for co-star Barbara Shelley.

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Vanessa – Shot simultaneously with DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, using many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Farmer.

PERSECUTION (1974) – Janie Masters – Farmer’s last movie credit is in this thriller starring Lana Turner as an evil mom tormenting her adult son played by Ralph Bates and his family. Also starring Trevor Howard, Patrick Allen, and Ronald Howard.

LEAP IN THE DARK (1980) – Grace- Farmer’s final screen credit was in an episode of this horror anthology TV series.

Indeed, after 1966, the majority of Farmer’s screen appearances were on the small screen on various TV shows.

Suzan Farmer passed away on September 17, 2017 at the age of 75 from cancer.

I hope you enjoyed this brief partial look at the career of Suzan Farmer. She made a lasting impression with only a few appearances in horror films in the 1960s, especially in the Hammer Film DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Speaking of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, with the recent passing of Barbara Shelley, and six months earlier of Philip Latham who played Dracula’s loyal servant Klove, all the major cast members from that classic Dracula movie are now gone, sadly.

Here’s a toast to them, a wonderful cast in a classic Dracula movie.

Please join me again next time for the next LEADING LADIES column, where we’ll look at the career of another leading actress in the movies, especially horror movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: NIGHT CREATURES (1962)

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NIGHT CREATURES (1962) (also known as CAPTAIN CLEGG) is one of my all time favorite Peter Cushing movies.

Technically not a horror movie, NIGHT CREATURES is instead an energetic and atmospheric pirate adventure, filled with mystery and intrigue, and since it was made by Hammer Films, the horror elements are certainly highlighted, including the eerie Marsh Phantoms.

In NIGHT CREATURES, Peter Cushing plays Dr. Blyss, the local reverend in the small village of Dymchurch, but all is not as it seems, as Blyss is secretly the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, who years after escaping his own execution (Hmm, sounds like something Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein once did…) settles into Dymchurch and decides to turn over a new leaf, to do good for a change. Up to a point. See, Blyss is also the leader of a secret smuggling operation which smuggles illegal goods in and out of Dymchurch and uses the mysterious Marsh Phantoms as cover.

When Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) arrives with a troop of a soldiers, he sets out to expose and thwart the covert smuggling operation. Collier is also the man who spent his life chasing down Captain Clegg. Hmm. Interesting.

And this one is much more than interesting. This rousing adventure set in 18th century England is so full of atmosphere you’ll feel like you’re riding the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney! It’s also a helluva entertaining story.

The cast is first-rate.

At the top is Peter Cushing, channelling the same energy he used to portray Baron Frankenstein here as Dr. Blyss/Captain Clegg, and he’s at it again playing the heroic villain. We should not like Clegg very much, but in Cushing’s hands, we root for him. The script by John Elder provides Cushing with many memorable moments, from his admonishing of the weasel Mr. Rash (Martin Benson)… “Mr. Rash!” to his verbal spars with Captain Collier. At one point, Blyss is doing everything in his power to make sure Collier and his men have nowhere to stay the night in Dymchurch, but Collier declares his men are definitely staying, to which Blyss utters under his breath, “Really? I wonder where?”

Another fine moment comes when Collier believes a man his men shot in the arm is Blyss, and when he grabs Blyss by the wrist, he flinches, but there’s no bullet wound. Collier asks him why he flinched when he grabbed his arm, to which Blyss answers, “It wasn’t my arm, Captain. You trod on my foot!”

Veteran character actor and Hammer favorite Michael Ripper delivers one of his all time best movie performances as Jeremiah Mipps, the coffin maker, Blyss’ loyal right hand man. He too has numerous memorable lines of dialogue and key moments in the film, like one where he is seen sleeping in one of his coffins. One of his better lines comes when an angered Captain Collier at discovering one of his key witnesses has been found dead, demands of Mipps to know why the man was out on the Marshes. Mipps replies, “I couldn’t well ask him, seeing that he’s dead.”

A young Oliver Reed, fresh after his performance as the werewolf in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) makes for a dashing young Harry Cobtree, who is also part of Blyss’ operation and is in love with Blyss’ daughter Imogene (Yvonne Romain).

And Patrick Allen is excellent as Captain Collier, the man who matches wits with Blyss throughout the movie. Allen also starred with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the science fiction thriller ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (1967), and his voice was also dubbed in for the character Rex Van Ryn in the Christopher Lee Hammer classic THE DEVIL’S BRIDE (1968).

NIGHT CREATURES also features a rousing music score by Don Banks, who also scored Hammer’s third Frankenstein movie, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964).

Director Peter Graham Scott fills this one with lots of memorable scenes. There’s an exciting fight scene between Blyss and the hulking Mulatto who is out for revenge against Captain Clegg, and the climax to this one is also action-packed. The special effects on the Marsh Phantoms are first-rate. All in all, this is one Hammer Film you do not want to miss. It’s topnotch entertainment from beginning to end, without a slow moment in sight.

Incidentally, Hammer had to change the name of Cushing’s character from Dr. Syn to Dr. Blyss, since Disney owned the rights to the character, which is based on Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn stories. Disney made DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW (1963) starring Patrick McGoohan in the lead role, which was later aired in three parts on TV on THE MAGICAL WORLD OF DISNEY.

If you are looking to bust yourself out of the winter blues this January, look no further than the thrilling pirate adventure NIGHT CREATURES, which features a talented cast touting out their A-game, with Peter Cushing leading the way with yet another of his phenomenal movie performances, this time as the heroic Dr. Blyss, doing his best to move on from his villainous past as the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, but only when it suits him, as he is more than comfortable running his secret smuggling operation. And when the relentless Captain Collier arrives, the stakes are raised, and Blyss’ cover and entire operation are suddenly in jeopardy.

NIGHT CREATURES is an underrated gem, one of Hammer’s best, and a must-see for all Peter Cushing fans. But be on your guard! Captain Collier and the King’s men are on the prowl! But don’t fret. Just look to the scarecrow across the way for his signal, and if his hand moves, then it’s time to run!

—END—

THE HORROR JAR: Peter Cushing As Van Helsing

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Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) goes to work in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, the column where we look at lists pertaining to horror movies.

Up today a look at the number of times Peter Cushing played Van Helsing in the movies. While Cushing played Baron Frankenstein more— he wreaked havoc as Victor Frankenstein six times in the movies— his portrayal of Dracula’s arch nemesis is right behind, as he wielded crucifixes and wooden stakes five times.

Here’s a look:

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) taking on Dracula in the famous finale of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Known outside the United States simply as DRACULA, this is arguably Hammer Films’ greatest horror movie. It followed immediately upon the heels of Hammer’s first international hit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), which starred Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature.

Both actors were reunited in HORROR OF DRACULA, with Lee portraying Dracula, and Cushing playing Van Helsing. Yet the film was tailored more for Cushing than for Lee, which made sense, since Cushing had been Britain’s number one TV star for nearly a decade, while Lee was a relative newcomer.  Cushing had the most screen time and was as awesome as ever, yet it was Lee with his ability to do more with less who arguably stole the show with one of the most chilling portrayals of Dracula ever.

Still, for Peter Cushing fans, his first turn as Van Helsing is pretty special. He played the character unlike the way Bram Stoker had written him in the novel DRACULA.  Gone was the wise elderly professor and in his place was a young dashing action hero, expertly played by Cushing. And with Christopher Lee shocking the heck out of the audience throughout the movie, a believable credible Van Helsing was needed. You had to believe that someone could stop Dracula, and Peter Cushing made this happen. It’s no surprise then, that the film’s conclusion, when these two heavyweights meet for the first time in Dracula’s castle, is the most exciting Dracula ending ever filmed.

HORROR OF DRACULA was also the birth of James Bernard’s iconic Dracula music score.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) hot on the trail of vampires in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

Director: Terence Fisher   Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, Edward Percy

Peter Cushing was right back at it again two year later when he reprised the role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Unfortunately, Christopher Lee did not share his co-star’s enthusiasm and refused to return to play Dracula, in fear of being typecast. Lee would change his mind several years later.

Anyway,  as a result, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA does not feature Dracula. Instead, it’s a brand new story with a brand new vampire, Baron Meinster (David Peel). While Dracula’s omission may have harmed this one at the box office, that’s one of the few negatives one can find about this classic vampire movie.

Terence Fisher, Hammer’s best director, was at the top of his game here, and for most Hammer fans, this is the best looking and most atmospheric Dracula movie of them all. In fact, for many Hammer Films fans, BRIDES is their all time favorite Hammer Film!

Peter Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and once more his performance is spot-on, without equal. Again, he plays Van Helsing as an energetic, tireless hero, this time sparring with Baron Meinster. Their battles in an old windmill, while not as memorable as the conclusion of HORROR OF DRACULA, are still pretty intense and make for quite the notable ending.

There’s also the added bonus of Van Helsing’s relationship with the beautiful Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur). In a neat piece of drama, while Marianne is engaged to be married to vampire Baron Meinster, at the end of the movie, she ends up in Van Helsing’s arms, not the vampire’s.  The future Mrs. Van Helsing, perhaps?

 

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Once again, it’s Dracula (Christopher Lee) vs. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

It would be a long time coming before Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing again, twelve years to be exact, and he wouldn’t even be playing the original character but a descendant of the original Van Helsing living in London in 1972, in Hammer Films’ Dracula update DRACULA A.D. 1972 which brought Dracula into the here and now.

The story goes that after the immense success of the TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) which told the story of a superhuman vampire terrorizing present-day Las Vegas, Hammer decided to get in on the action and bring Dracula into the 1970s as well.

A lot had happened since Christopher Lee had declined to play Dracula again back in 1960. He finally reprised the role in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer’s direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA, a superior thriller that sadly did not feature Peter Cushing in the cast. And then Lee played the character again in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which smashed box office records for Hammer and became their biggest money maker ever. Dracula had become Hammer’s bread and butter. Lee reprised the role in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and again in THE SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

With DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer finally decided it was time to bring Peter Cushing back into the Dracula series. Unfortunately, the “bringing Dracula into the 1970s” bit did not work out well at all, and the film was a monumental flop at the box office.

The good news is DRACULA A.D. 1972 has only gotten better with age. In 1972, what was considered bad dialogue and sloppy 1970s direction, today is viewed with fond nostalgia, and rather than being met with groans, the campy dialogue is greeted nowadays with loud approving laughter.

And you certainly can’t fault Lee or Cushing for the initial failure of DRACULA A.D. 1972. As expected, both actors deliver topnotch performances, especially Cushing as the original Van Helsing’s descendant, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. In 1972, Cushing was closer in age to the way Stoker had originally written the role, but nonetheless he still played the Professor as an action-oriented hero. His scenes where he works with Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) are some of the best in the movie.

Cushing also gets a lot of memorable lines in this one. In fact, you could make the argument, though no one does, that his best ever Van Helsing performance is right here in DRACULA A.D. 1972. The only part that doesn’t work as well is the climactic confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula, as it does not contain anywhere near the same energy level as the conclusion to HORROR OF DRACULA.

 

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) armed with a crucifix and a silver bullet in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Director: Alan Gibson   Screenplay: Don Houghton

Hammer wasted no time and dove right into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), which reunited the same creative team from DRACULA A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson once again directing, Don Houghton writing the screenplay, and with Christopher Lee again playing Dracula, and Peter Cushing once more playing Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. Even Michael Coles reprised his role as Scotland Yard Inspector Murray.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA is pretty much a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, as the events once again take place in present day London. At the time, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was considered the superior movie of the two, but the trouble was, back in 1973 so few people saw it, because DRACULA A.D. 1972 had performed so poorly at the box office Hammer was unable to release SATANIC RITES in the United States.

It would take five years for the movie to make it to the U.S., as it was finally released in 1978 with the awful title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDES. Ugh!

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA took a page out of James Bond, and had Dracula acting as a sort of James Bond villain hell bent on taking over the world, complete with motorcycle driving henchmen! It was up to Inspector Murray and Professor Van Helsing to stop him!

Strangely, today, DRACULA A.D.1972 is considered the superior movie, as its campiness has aged well, while the convoluted James Bond style plot of SATANIC RITES has not.

Peter Cushing also has fewer memorable scenes as Van Helsing in this one. One of the more memorable sequences does involve Van Helsing confronting Dracula in his high rise office, a scene in which Lee payed Bela Lugosi homage by using a Hungarian accent, but even this scene is somewhat jarring, seeing Dracula seated behind a desk a la Ernest Stavro Blofeld. The only thing missing is his holding a cat, or in this case, perhaps a bat!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually very, very good, and in a neat touch, as if to symbolize that the series had finally ended, after Dracula disintegrates into dust, once more the only thing remaining of him is his ring, a homage to the ending to HORROR OF DRACULA. In that movie, Van Helsing left the ring on the floor, and the piece of jewelry proved instrumental in reviving Dracula in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS. At the end of SATANIC RITES, Cushing’s Van Helsing picks up the ring. Most likely for safe keeping.

The series had ended.

Only, it hadn’t.

 

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Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing for the last time in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Director: Roy Ward Baker   Screenplay: Don Houghton

While Christopher Lee had finally had enough and called it quits after playing Dracula seven times for Hammer, the studio decided it still had one more Dracula picture left.

The gimmick this time was it would be their first martial arts Dracula movie. Yep, Dracula’s spirit enters a Chinese warlord, and he returns to China to lead their infamous seven golden vampires.

Hot on Dracula’s trail it’s, you got it! Van Helsing! And Peter Cushing agreed to play the role again, and since this story takes place in 1904, Cushing once again plays the original Van Helsing, a role he hadn’t played since THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in 1960.

As Dracula movies go, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is— well, interesting. It did not perform well at the box office, and unlike DRACULA A.D. 1972 hasn’t really developed a cult following, mostly because it’s just so— different. Kung fu fights in a Dracula movie?

I actually like this movie a lot, and I think most of it works well. It’s actually quite the handsome production, well-directed by Roy Ward Baker. It also features one of James Bernard’s best renditions of his famous Dracula score.

And of course you have Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing, sadly for the very last time. Also sad is that he’s missing from most of the action scenes here. While Cushing always played Van Helsing as a physical hero, he wasn’t quite up for the martial arts scenes. That being said, I’ll give you three guesses as to who finally destroys Dracula in this movie, and the first two don’t count

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a lot of fun, and today it provides a nice showcase for Peter Cushing’s final movie portrayal of one of his most iconic roles, Dr. Van Helsing.

Okay, there you have it. A look at Peter Cushing’s five movie portrayals of Van Helsing. Now go have some fun and watch some of these!

Hope you enjoyed today’s column and that you’ll join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we’ll look at more horror movie lists.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michaell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

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WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) has always been one of my favorite Toho giant monsters movies.

One reason for this is nostalgia. In addition to its regular play on the popular Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature back in the day, it also received a much-hyped prime time showing on our local UHF Channel 56 in Boston that had all the neighborhood kids, myself included, chirping about it before, during, and after it was aired.

But the main reason is it’s a darn good movie. Well, at least among films in the Toho canon, and this is no surprise since it was directed by arguably their top director, Ishiro Honda, who also directed the original GODZILLA (1954), THE MYSTERIANS (1957), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) to name just a few.

I was recently able to view the original Japanese version of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which includes the Frankenstein references that were removed from the film when it was released in the U.S. back in 1970.

And there are Frankenstein references because WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a sequel to Toho’s Frankenstein flick, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). I’m not sure why the Frankenstein connection was initially severed, but it’s too bad it was done, because the film works even better as a Frankenstein movie.

The story of a giant Frankenstein monster and his “brother” is much more intriguing than a story about two random gargantuas. And WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a better movie than FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which means it’s one of those rare cases where the sequel is an improvement on the original.

In WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, a mysterious monster is terrorizing the countryside attacking and eating people. It is also avoiding detection, as it always disappears quickly after it attacks, preventing the authorities from being able to stop it. It’s assumed that this is the same creature which escaped from the lab of Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his fellow scientists. Of course, in the original version, this was the Frankenstein monster from FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. Dr. Stewart doesn’t think it’s the same creature, because the one which escaped from his lab was peaceful and would never harm humans.

It’s later discovered that there are two gargantuas, the original who escaped from Stewart’s lab, and a new more menancing one, who is believed to be a sort of clone from the first. These two behemoths eventually do battle. Hence, the war of the gargantuas.

The best part of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is that there are lots of scenes featuring the gargantuas. In lesser Toho movies, you have to sit through long stretches of usually boring dialogue and bland characters while you wait for the monsters to make their appearances. Not so here with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. These creatures are in this movie a lot. There is a ton of giant monster action.

And director Ishiro Honda, who also wrote the screenplay,  fills this one with a lot of memorable scenes. The film opens with a frightening sequence where a slimy looking giant octopus attacks a ship, only to be deterred by an even scarier looking gargantua, who makes quick work of the octopus before turning his attention to the crew of the ship which he promptly consumes for a yummy dessert

There are a bunch of rather frightening scenes in this one. In spite of this being a silly giant monster movie, there are some dark moments. The scene where a group of hikers encounter the gargantua waiting for them in a dense fog has always been one that gives me the shivers. Likewise, in another sequence on a boat, the gargangtua is seen staring up at the passengers from under the water. We’re gonna need a bigger boat!

And the battle scenes here are second to none. There’s an excellent sequence where the gargantua comes out of the water to attack an airport, and of course, the climactic battle between the two garagantuas is a keeper.

If you’re a fan of the Toho movies, this is one film you do not want to miss, and if you’ve never seen a Toho film, this is a good one to start with, although I do recommend watching FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD first, since this is a sequel to that movie.

All in all, if you love giant monster movie action and want to see an A-list director at the top of his game, then check out WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.

It’s a gargantuan good time!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) – Mixed Bag of A-List Actors and Mediocre Giant Monster Battles

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), the latest American made Godzilla film and sequel to Warner Bros.’ GODZILLA (2014), is a well-acted action-filled monster movie that somehow in spite of these strengths is sadly underwhelming.

And that’s because this movie contains an odd mix of often ridiculous plot points combined with a tone that simply takes itself way too seriously. Instead, the film should have gone for one or the other. A campier tone would have aligned itself better with the goofy superficial plot points. Likewise, a much more realistic and gritty storyline would have fit in better with the film’s serious feel. As it stands, the movie mixes both, and it just doesn’t work.

Following the 2014 Godzilla attacks which left the world a different place, the secret organization Monarch is in charge of monitoring all the new giant monsters which have been discovered in various places around the globe (silly plot point #1), but the U.S. government and military want to shut down Monarch so they can destroy the monsters and save the Earth. But the Monarch scientists argue that the monsters really aren’t here to destroy the Earth but to save it from its worst enemy: humankind.

Top Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) lost their son in the previous Godzilla attack, and his death caused them to separate, and Emma alone is raising their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). It also caused Emma to have extreme ideas about these monsters, and so she aligns herself with the dubious Jonah Alan (Charles Dance)— cue evil villain music!— and the two plan to release the giant monsters so they can unleash their wrath on the world and “cleanse” it of its human cancer.  Hmm. Where have I heard this before? Is that Thanos I see whispering into Dr. Russell’s ear?

But Dr. Russell isn’t arguing a la Thanos that half the population has to be wiped out by the monsters, only some of it, and that at the end of it all there will be new growth and the planet will be greener for it.  Come again? 

Of course, when this starts happening, the rest of Monarch and the U.S. military go ballistic, and they not only form an uncomfortable alliance to thwart Emma’s efforts, but they also call in Mark Russell to help them. Mark is mostly interested in finding and saving his daughter, and speaking of Madison, once she learns what her mom has planned, she changes her tune about which parent she wants to be spending time with.

Things grow more complicated when one of the monsters, King Ghidorah, is discovered to be from another planet, and he decides that he’s going to control and lead all the monsters in a battle against Godzilla for supremacy of the Earth.

Godzilla? That’s right! This is a Godzilla movie!  Funny how I haven’t mentioned him yet. Real funny. Not. Which is to say more Godzilla in this story and less elaborate saving-the-world-nonsense would have been most welcome.

Anyway, it’s up to Godzilla to take on King Ghidorah and ultimately save the world.

But as you may surmise from this plot summary, it’s a helluva convoluted way to tell a story about everyone’s favorite fire-breathing radioactive giant lizard!

Poor Godzilla. He was supposed to appear in this movie more than he did in the last one, the 2014 film, and while that may have been the case, it sure didn’t feel like it. For a movie that’s called GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS it sure seemed like he took a back seat to the other monsters in this one..

The best thing that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has going for it is its cast. It boasts a really strong cast of actors, led by its three principal leads.

Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as daughter Madison were both excellent. This is Millie Bobby Brown’s film debut. Brown, of course, plays Eleven on the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016-19) so her effective performance in this movie is no surprise.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses working today, and while her movie performances have all been superb, it’s her work on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) based on PSYCHO (1960) where she played Norma Bates that I think is among her best stuff. Her interpretation of Norma Bates was much more nuanced and three-dimensional than the character ever was before in both the Hitchcock movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel.

Kyle Chandler is always enjoyable in nearly every movie he’s in, and he’s been in a lot, from light fare like GAME NIGHT (2018) to more serious stuff like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) to small supporting roles like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), Chandler always makes a lasting impression. His work here in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is no exception.

When these three actors are on-screen, the movie is at its best and most watchable, and the good news is they’re on screen a lot, but the problem is they are stuck in a ridiculous storyline and are often uttering some very superficial and god-awful dialogue that really detracts from the seriousness of their performances.

Incidentally, Kyle Chandler also appeared in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) which is not part of the current Warner Bros. giant monster universe, and he’s set to appear in the next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG.

The supporting cast is every bit as good as the three leads.

You have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER [2017]), Ziyi Zhang, and Bradley Whitford as fellow Monarch scientists. Watanabe and Hawkis are reprising their roles from the previous Godzilla movie, and in Watanabe’s case, he’s playing Dr. Serizawa, a name that goes back to the original GODZILLA film from 1954.

Bradley Whitford gets the liveliest lines in the movie, but strangely, his frequent attempts at humor seem to misfire repeatedly. Again, it’s that odd mix, and his campy lines seem out-of-place with the serious tone surrounding him.

David Strathairn plays Admiral William Stenz, another character back from the 2014 film, and Charles Dance does his villainous best at bad guy Jonah Alan, although at the end of the day the character is pretty much all talk and no action. In short, he does very little here.

The true villain is King Ghidorah, which brings us finally, to the monsters. After all, you don’t see a Godzilla film for the actors. You see it for the monsters. So, how do the monsters fare here?

Well, the main monsters here are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, and while they are all given modern-day looks, I can’t say I was all that impressed. It sounds strange to say this, but with all our current CGI technology, I find that I prefer the old-fashioned man-in-suit monsters from Toho’s glory days. These monsters all look okay, but nothing about them I find special nor memorable.

In the Toho films, for better or for worse, the monsters, both good and bad, had personality. The monsters here have no personality. They are quite simply generic and not at all cinematic, which is a major knock against this movie, and quite frankly against the other Warner Bros. monster universe films. If the Marvel superheroes lacked similar charisma that series would have never gotten off the ground.

Also, I did not like the look of this movie at all. Most of the action takes place during various weather events and storms, and so it’s always difficult to see what the heck is going on. For example, the film’s climax takes place in Boston, and at Fenway Park specifically, and I have to say it’s one of the poorest and most fake looking interpretations of Boston I’ve ever seen in a movie. What could have been iconic and devastating is instead cartoonish and superficial.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS was directed by Michael Dougherty, and he also wrote the screenplay with some help from Zach Shields. This is the same creative team that gave us the horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), a film I actually liked quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed KRAMPUS more than I enjoyed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.

Dougherty gives us plenty of monsters and monster battles, but since 1) the monsters didn’t look outstanding, and 2) the settings of these battles were often in storms and difficult to see, as presented here, the monsters’ presence didn’t really lift this one to great heights.

The screenplay is superficial at best. It never gives us real terror— real people are noticeably absent here—- other than the scientists and a few military types, we see no one else reacting to the monsters. The film lacks real world emotion big time.

While it attempts to be an homage to earlier films at times, like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon from the 1954 GODZILLA, it does it all in a fleeting manner that never really gets to the heart of the matter.

Dougherty has a cast of seasoned and talented actors that make this movie better than it is,  but he doesn’t really help them out. They are in few cinematic scenes and more often than not are uttering lines of dialogue that are pretty bad.

So, where do I stand on GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? For the most part, I did enjoy this movie, especially when watching Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, but whenever Godzilla and his fellow monsters showed up, I would lose interest, and for a Godzilla movie, this is NOT a good thing.

The film is a mixed bag to be sure, and while I enjoyed it more than GODZILLA (2014), I still prefer the Toho films of old, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Now, Toho continued the Godzilla series into the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, even making the critically acclaimed SHIN GODZILLA (2016), and while those films in general are okay—I like the aforementioned older ones more—, they’re about on par with this current Warner Bros. series.

The next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, slated for release in 2020, is one that while I’m definitely interested in, based upon the Warner Bros. films so far, I can’t say I’m excited about.

So, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is okay, but since the best part about it is NOT Godzilla, I don’t think Godzilla himself would approve, and for me, that’s all you need to know about this one.

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