IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958), a low-budget black and white Dracula movie starring the unheralded Francis Lederer as the Count.

There’s a lot that’s significant about this no frills black and white Dracula movie from the 1950s.

First of all, it was the first standalone Dracula movie to hit theaters in nearly fifteen years, as the last time Dracula appeared alone in a horror movie was in Universal’s SON OF DRACULA (1943), in which the Count was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., and he was called Count Alucard in the film, which never really came out and said if the character Chaney was portraying was Dracula’s son or Dracula himself. It was left open to interpretation. The film implied it was the original Dracula, but its title was SON OF DRACULA.

After SON OF DRACULA, John Carradine took over the role, but he was sharing screen time with the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Bela Lugosi returned to play the Count three years later in the horror comedy ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

So, when Francis Lederer played Count Dracula in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, it had been a while since audiences had seen a movie about Dracula, especially a serious one where Dracula was the only monster in the film, and those movies had all been made by Universal and had followed the same formula. So, there’s a lot that was fresh about THE RETURN OF DRACULA. And Francis Lederer, a well-known Czechoslovakian actor who never became a major star but still made a lot of movies over the decades and who wasn’t known for making horror movies, actually makes a very successful and rather frightening Dracula, albeit all in the most subtle of ways. In fact, I actually prefer Lederer’s performance as Dracula in this movie over John Carradine’s performances in the two aforementioned Universal Dracula movies above.

Lederer with his accent and cold, calculating, and dominating personality, makes for a commanding king of the undead.

And while part of THE RETURN OF DRACULA was refreshing, since it was not part of the Universal monster universe, another part was very familiar, because the plot of THE RETURN OF DRACULA borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). In that film, a teenage girl begins to suspect that her favorite uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is really a murderer wanted by the police. Here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the teenage girl learns that her favorite cousin is really Count Dracula!

THE RETURN OF DRACULA, which takes place in the 1950s and so it was a contemporary setting for its time, opens with an atmospheric scene where vampire hunter John Merriman (John Wengraf) leads a group of vampire hunters into a crypt in Transylvania where they plan to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart. When they open his coffin, they discover his body is no longer there.

The action then switches to a train where we see Dracula (Francis Lederer) murder a passenger, and then he assumes his identity. He makes his way to the United States, to California, and there he pretends to be cousin Bellac, the eccentric artist who likes to sleep all day and go out at night at odd hours. Fortunately for Dracula, no one in Bellac’s California family knows what he looks like, since it’s his first time travelling to the United States. He’s welcomed into the family, and the teenage daughter, Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) takes a particular interest in her cousin, since she also wants to be an artist.

All is well, until people start dying. Well, Dracula has to eat, after all! These deaths attract the attention of our hero John Merriman from the opening sequence, and he makes his way to California in pursuit of the undead Count.

While there is nothing spectacular about THE RETURN OF DRACULA, the film does have some notable scenes, including a decent stake-in the heart scene, and as I said, Francis Lederer makes for a really effective Count Dracula.

This movie may have gone on to become something more than just a refreshing low budget Dracula movie, if not for another Dracula movie which was released just one month after this one, a “little” movie by Hammer Films, called HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Of course, HORROR OF DRACULA, the first Dracula movie in color, took the world by storm, and made international stars out of Christopher Lee, playing an athletic and violent Dracula, and Peter Cushing, playing an equally athletic and heroic Van Helsing. The film revolutionized the horror movie industry, and made a movie like THE RETURN OF DRACULA, seem pale and lethargic by comparison. Hammer went on to make seven more Dracula movies, six with Christopher Lee, and a multitude of vampire movies. THE RETURN OF DRACULA was largely forgotten.

Which is too bad since it really is a decent Dracula movie.

It’s also interesting to note that THE RETURN OF DRACULA contains a somewhat violent staking scene, much more explicit than anything Universal ever showed, and that it pre-dated HORROR OF DRACULA, which is the movie that is credited with adding more violence to horror movies. Of course, the blood and gore in HORROR OF DRACULA is much more explicit than anything shown in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and all of it was in color! Also, the film’s hero, John Merriman, played by German actor John Wengraf, is much younger than the older “professors” who were the heroes in the Universal Dracula movies. Merriman is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s younger interpretation of Van Helsing in HORROR OF DRACULA.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA was directed by Paul Landres, who also directed another interesting black and white vampire movie from the 1950s, THE VAMPIRE (1957), a film which had more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot, with the scientist in that movie turning into a vampire. Landres does a nice job with THE RETURN OF DRACULA. For a low budget black and white movie, the scare scenes work rather well.

Pat Fielder wrote the effective screenplay, and she also penned Landre’s THE VAMPIRE, as well as another 1950s horror classic, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957). She does a great job with the characterizations here in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, and the scenes between Dracula and Rachel are among the best in the movie.

Francis Lederer, who in a very subtle and understated way is quite scary as Dracula, would reprise the role in an episode of NIGHT GALLERY, “A Question of Fear/The Devil is not Mocked” (1971).

Forever overshadowed by Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and rightly so, because HORROR is clearly the superior film, nonetheless THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a Dracula movie that is well worth a look and certainly should not be forgotten.

This holiday season, return to a time just before the Hammer Dracula explosion, when an unassuming Dracula puts the bite on 1950s small town America, but instead of indulging in mom’s apple pie, he’s taking a nibble on young teenage throats.

A RETURN TO MAYBERRY, this ain’t!

—END—

TROLL (2022) – New Netflix Giant Monster Movie Monstrously Good

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My favorite part about TROLL (2022), a new giant monster movie from Norway now streaming on Netflix, is that it pays homage to the monster movies of yesteryear and gets nearly everything right about the subgenre, even as it tells a story about a giant troll.

It gets that right too, since trolls are a part of Norwegian folklore, and so the fantasy here is grounded in mythology.

TROLL also has a fabulous script by Espen Aukan, based on a story by director Roar Uthaug. It takes its monster plot seriously, while keeping the script lively and at times light, and includes references to Godzilla and King Kong. It also didn’t hurt to have a couple of characters be STAR TREK fans, and so some of the conversations are peppered with STAR TREK references that actually have bearing on the plot. So, for this STAR TREK fan, that was a lot of fun.

In short, I enjoyed TROLL more than some of the recent bigger budget GODZILLA and KING KONG movies of late.

TROLL tells the story of scientist Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann) who is called in as a government advisor when there is an “incident” following a construction crew’s blasting of a major tunnel and there are what appear to be giant footprints in the ground leading away from the area. She is quick to point out the obvious, that they are looking at footprints, and while she can’t say what made them, she does tell the skeptical government officials that they should be looking for a creature of considerable size.

It turns out that what made them is a troll, and to help her with this situation, Nora turns to her estranged father Tobias (Gard B. Eidsvold) who is an expert on the subject but because of his intense belief in trolls has been labeled as somewhat of a crackpot. Tobias is only too happy to learn that proof of what he has been saying all his life has finally materialized, and while the government is only interested in destroying the troll, Nora and Tobias would prefer to learn more about it.

Nora gains more credence when traditional weapons fail against the troll, and her and Tobias’ expertise are again requested. Nora also gains two allies, government advisor and self-described STAR TREK geek Andreas (Kim Falck) and military captain Kris (Mads Sjogard Pettersen) both of whom come to respect Nora and value her insight on the threat.

The script nails all these characters, and everyone in this movie acts like real people, including the government officials. TROLL is not a giant monster movie where the characters are all cardboard and boring. They’re three dimensional and interesting.

And the actors all do standup jobs with their roles.

The special effects are excellent. The troll looks authentic and frightening. Director Roar Uthaug crafts some impressive giant monster scenes, some intense, some frightening, and others flat out exciting.

The back story for the troll also gives the creature plenty of sympathy. An intriguing subtext is the troll’s disdain for Christians, and the film almost takes a daring step to frame Christianity as a villain here, which would have been a gutsy and refreshing call, but the film stops short of completely developing this theme. There’s one scene in particular where a soldier is praying, and the troll can smell his blood, and that’s the soldier he targets and kills, but other than this, the topic is muted.

TROLL is available on Netflix in an English language version or in its original Norwegian language with English subtitles, which is how I saw it. Always go with the original language. As good as dubbing can sometimes be, the acting is always more natural in the original language.

If you like giant monster movies, especially those that take their subject matter seriously and know their cinematic history, you’ll love TROLL.

It’s a monstrously good time.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (2022) – Marvel’s Werewolf Movie a Visual Treat but Not Exactly Horrific

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WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (2022) is a curious creature.

This very short movie, which runs only 55 minutes and is a standalone film, not an episode of a TV series, is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also a horror movie. Based on Marvel’s Legion of Monsters comic series, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is being billed as an action, adventure, horror comedy.

Talk about your vegetable soup!

Anyway, I’d been hearing a lot of good things about this one, mostly from horror fans, who have been saying WEREWOLF BY NIGHT reminded them a lot of the classic black and white Universal monster movies. Sadly, I didn’t see or feel that connection. The only similarity I saw between the two was they were both shot in black and white. For me, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, which premiered on Disney Plus and is now streaming there, plays like a Disney/Marvel family friendly hybrid with a few mild and tame horror elements thrown in. While I appreciated the visual elements of this movie, I was basically unimpressed with just about everything else.

Indeed, the best part about WEREWOLF BY NIGHT and the main reason to see this one is the work by director and music composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino is one of my favorite film composers working today, and he has composed a ton of memorable movie music scores, including music for THE BATMAN (2022) and THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022). He has written the scores for other Marvel superhero movies, for the recent JURASSIC PARK films, for the recent PLANET OF THE APES series, for the recent STAR TREK movies, and on and on! Two of my favorite Giacchino scores were in horror films, the Hammer vampire movie LET ME IN (2010), and one of the all-time best giant monster movies, CLOVERFIELD (2008). His very memorable theme in CLOVERFIELD doesn’t appear until the end credits, but it’s worth the wait. He also wrote a pretty memorable score for ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

So, yeah, he’s scored a few movies.

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is Michael Giacchino’s directorial debut, and it’s a good one. Visually, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is a real treat to watch. The black and white photography is atmospheric and effective, and Giacchino even includes a la STRANGER THINGS the grainy look of film, even inserting the infamous cigarette burns— the little dot in the upper half of the frame– which used to appear in all movies to alert projectionists that it was time to start the next reel. Of course, there’s no need for those anymore since today’s movies are all digital. Giacchino does use some color, most notably for the very red bloodstone, which is integral to the movie’s plot.

Oh yes. The plot.

It’s pretty standard and also at 55 minutes pretty quick.

Basically, a group of infamous monster hunters gather at the castle of the recently deceased Ulysses Bloodstone, the most famous monster hunter of them all. These hunters are all tasked with hunting a very dangerous creature, and the one who slays the beast, will inherit the glowing red bloodstone, which will give its owner the power and right to be the master monster hunter. Blah, blah, blah.

The two main characters are Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hunter who isn’t quite who he says he is, and Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the estranged daughter of the deceased, and these two form a pact during the hunt to work together so Elsa can get the bloodstone, and Jack can get what he really wants.

Things don’t go as planned, and during the film’s second half, the werewolf element finally emerges.

Since this is based on the Marvel comic by Gerry Conway, the screenplay by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron pretty much tells an action-adventure story. While the horror elements are there, they are downplayed. The film also contains some witty snappy dialogue which Marvel superhero movie fans have come to expect.

But since I am also a huge fan of werewolf movies, I have to say that the werewolf stuff— both the actual werewolf and all of the werewolf sequences in this movie— was a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t impressed with the actual werewolf, and the scenes were just meh. The biggest problem I had with the werewolf scenes comes down to the movie’s plot, about hunters trying to slay a beast, which isn’t even the werewolf, by the way. The story is all rather mediocre.

But Giacchino’s work behind the camera is definitely not mediocre, nor is his music score, and it was fun to watch how he integrated the music with his film direction. The timing was impeccable.

I enjoyed watching WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, even though I found its story to be something of a snooze, and as such, and I for one was glad it was only 55 minutes long.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MIST (2007)

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My two favorite works by Stephen King are his novel Salem’s Lot (1975), which I read when it first came out when I was eleven years old, and it scared the crap out of me, and his novella The Mist (1980).

So, when the movie version THE MIST (2007) came out, I knew it would be hard-pressed to meet my expectations because I enjoyed the novella so much, and while I generally liked the movie, I didn’t love it.

Part of this is because of my love of the novella itself, but another more important part is the movie version simply isn’t as intense as King’s original story, even with its infamous changed and much darker ending. Having re-watched the film for the purposes of this column, my opinion remains unchanged.

In THE MIST, a mysterious mist covers a small Maine town after a ferocious thunderstorm, and a group of townspeople including David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son find themselves trapped inside a supermarket with giant carnivorous insects and other unseen nasties hovering outside in the fog, creatures that are not only waiting to eat people who venture outside, but also that are actively trying to break through the glass of the market and get inside.

It’s a great premise for a story.

THE MIST was written and directed by Frank Darabont, who also successfully adapted a couple of other Stephen King stories for the big screen, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) and THE GREEN MILE (1999). Darabont is also the man who developed and created the TV show THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2022). THE MIST shares a common theme with THE WALKING DEAD, as both stories follow a group of survivors as they try not only to deal with the supernatural threat in their world, but also the threat from other humans who lose their sh*t when the world as they know it comes to an end. They even share some of the same cast members, as Laurie Holden (Andrea), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale), and Melissa McBride (Carol) all have roles in THE MIST.

But THE MIST is not as intense as THE WALKING DEAD, nor is it as intense as the novella on which it is based, which has always been my problem with this movie. It’s generally enjoyable and scary, but it never really gets under your skin or goes for the throat, with the exception of its chilling conclusion. But so much before that, like the all-important sequences in the grocery store, is talky and drawn out.

The most frightening part of the movie version of THE MIST is not its monsters, but human character Mrs. Carmody, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who delivers one of the best performances in the movie. Mrs. Carmody believes the mist and its monsters have happened because her Old Testament vengeful God is angry with humanity and is exacting revenge. To appease her God, she begins to seek followers inside the supermarket, and there’s talk of offering a sacrifice to God to show him that they are faithful. This character remains frightening today as in recent years both religious and political extremism has grown more aggressive and violent.

Also memorable is character actor Toby Jones as Ollie Weeks, the supermarket employee and character audiences probably most identify with, as he is just an everyday loyal worker who finds himself stepping up and taking on a leadership role. I always enjoy Jones’ work, and his credits are too numerous to list here, but his performance is one of my favorite parts of THE MIST.

WALKING DEAD veterans Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurie Holden are also really good here in their roles, which almost seem like warm-ups for their roles on the blockbuster TV series.

Andre Braugher is fine as the annoying Brent Norton, and in the lead, Thomas Jane is okay as David Drayton, but I’ve always found his performance, with the exception of the ending, to be, like the rest of the movie, lacking in the necessary intensity. Supposedly, Frank Darabont wanted Jane to star as Rick Grimes in THE WALKING DEAD. Based on his performance here in THE MIST, I’m glad the lead role of that zombie series went to Andrew Lincoln instead.

Of course, you can’t talk about THE MIST without talking about the ending. The ending to the novella simply had the characters exiting into the mist, and their fate was left for the reader to decide, which was something that worked for me. Darabont famously changed the ending, which gives the film an incredibly dark finish, which for many fans, made this movie something extra special. Indeed, even Stephen King is on record as saying he loved the ending to the movie and wishes he had thought of it. As endings go, it is incredibly grim, and again, since I loved the entire novella so much, I prefer its original ending to the one in the movie. Let’s put it this way. It’s the ending which prevents me from wanting to watch this one over and over, as it’s such a complete downer.

But there is one positive that I took from this depressing ending as I watched the movie again here in 2022, a time when extremism is running rampant throughout the world. On the one end in THE MIST, we have the extremism of Mrs. Carmody, which is easy to see, and on the other end, at the film’s conclusion, we witness an extreme decision made by David Drayton, which at the time, seemed like the best decision, in spite of how excruciatingly painful it would be, to make. But moments after pulling the trigger— eh hem— on this decision, Drayton sees that it was so very wrong, and he falls to his knees and screams in agonized horror. So, the ending, in spite of the fact that I don’t really like it, does speak, like the rest of the film does, to the importance of avoiding extremism, whether that be extreme beliefs or actions. If Drayton and those in the car with him, had only expressed a bit more faith in humanity, their fates would have been different.

THE MIST is a well-made, frightening horror movie. For some, it’s an exceptional horror movie. For me, it remains just very good, because its source material, Stephen King’s novella of the same name, is far superior.

Either way, THE MIST is worth a look, and its ending is one you definitely need to experience at least once, and then as you walk away from the end credits, you can ask yourself, would I have done the same?

—END—

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.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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This is a reprint from 2013:

 With apologies to Michael Myers, Kharis the Mummy just might be the scariest monster who can’t outrun a turtle ever to lumber across a movie screen!  And he’s never been more frightening than in today’s SPOOKLIGHT feature, THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

THE MUMMY’S TOMB has always been my favorite Kharis MUMMY movie.  The make-up here on Kharis by Jack Pierce, the man who created most of the iconic Universal monsters, including Boris Karloff’s Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is by far the best MUMMY make-up of the Kharis series.  

It’s also my favorite due to nostalgic reasons, as I owned an 8mm Castle Films copy of it when I was a kid.  The film also boasts the most exciting ending of any MUMMY movie, period.

Kharis the Mummy was featured in four Universal Mummy movies, and in the Hammer Films remake THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Kharis, but it was Lon Chaney Jr. who played the definitive Kharis, appearing in three Universal Mummy movies, the first being THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB opens with a comprehensive synopsis of the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940), so if you’ve missed this first movie, no need to worry!  The initial ten minutes of THE MUMMY’S TOMB brings you up to speed on previous events quite nicely.  You can almost hear the voice-over narration, “Previously on THE MUMMY’S HAND.”

Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) the main character from THE MUMMY’S HAND recounts his adventures in that first movie to his son John (John Hubbard) and his future daughter-in-law Isobel (Elyse Knox), and his story is shown via flashbacks.  Little does Stephen know that over in Egypt the high priest he thought he killed, Andoheb (George Zucco) still lives, albeit he’s now an old man, as thirty years have passed since the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND.  Hmm.  With this timeline, shouldn’t THE MUMMY’S TOMB be taking place in 1970?  Where are all the hippies?

Andoheb now turns over the Mummy-caring duties to his young protégé, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) because Kharis the Mummy didn’t die either.  Not only is Kharis still alive, but he’s put on some weight!   Has he been eating too many tanna leaves?  No, he’s just being played here by the husky Lon Chaney Jr. rather than Tom Tyler, who played him in THE MUMMY’S HAND.

Chaney has been criticized over the years for being too big and thick to look like an authentic Mummy, but I’ve always liked this look, as it made him scarier.  I mean, Chaney isn’t flabby and overweight.  He’s solid and huge, like he could crush a man with his fists.

Mehemet Bey brings Kharis to the United States, to Massachusetts to be exact, to hunt down and kill the members of the Banning family.  

And that’s pretty much it in terms of plot.  The screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher is pretty standard.

The strength of THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not its plot but its visuals.  The movie contains some really neat scenes, and Kharis has never looked creepier.  Shots of Kharis closing in on his victims still make me shudder, and some of the murder scenes in this one are downright brutal.  Director Harold Young, not known for his genre work, really deserves a lot of credit for making a very chilling monster movie.

Young also makes good use of shadows here.  Many times we see Kharis only through his shadow.  In fact, when Kharis creeps across the countryside at night, he is unseen except for his shadow which falls upon several unsuspecting townsfolk.  The shadow is used so frequently I’ve often wondered if the shooting script was entitled THE SHADOW OF THE MUMMY.

There’s a curious moment in the movie in the scene where Kharis attacks Babe (Wallace Ford), another character from THE MUMMY’S HAND.  After Babe shouts out Kharis’ name, Kharis’ lips move as if he’s saying something in response.  It looks almost as if a scene of dialogue has been cut from the film.  I’ve never read anything to support such a cut, and it wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story anyway, since Kharis had his tongue cut from his mouth in the previous film, and is mute.  But if you watch this scene, you definitely will see Kharis’ mouth move, and a cut does appear to have taken place right at this moment.  Interesting.

The ending is exceedingly memorable.  The torch-wielding villagers, in a chase scene reminiscent of the ending to FRANKENSTEIN (1931)- in fact, some of the footage from FRANKENSTEIN is used here— chase Kharis, who’s carrying an unconscious Isobel, and trap him inside a large house.  John Banning, the sheriff, and another man run inside the house to rescue Isobel.  The climactic battle on the second story porch between John, the sheriff and Kharis, while the villagers fling burning torches from below, is pretty exciting.  I can’t think of another MUMMY movie that has a better ending than this one.

The cast is standard, and other than Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, no one really jumps out at you.  However the beautiful Elyse Knox who plays Isobel is notable because she’s Mark Harmon’s mother.  Ms. Knox only recently passed away, in 2012 at age 94.

Lon Chaney Jr. actually does a stand up job as Kharis the Mummy.  Chaney played all four main movie monsters:  The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster.  While he’s most famous for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man, and rightly so, his three performances as Kharis the Mummy are more effective than his work as either Dracula or the Frankenstein monster.

He makes Kharis damned scary.  His look is such that when he enters a room, he almost paralyzes his victims with fear, which is a good thing for him, because with his limp, he’s not going to catch anybody.  You can outrun Kharis running backwards.  But Kharis always seems to corner his victims, and once he’s blocked the exit, his prey is as good as dead.

Very few of the old Universal monster movies are frightening.  I would argue that THE MUMMY’S TOMB featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis the Mummy is one of the scariest.  

I dare you to watch it alone this summer without having nightmares of Kharis the Mummy breaking into your bedroom in the middle of the night.  

Over there, by the wall!  Is that the Mummy’s shadow I see?  

—END—

MONSTROUS (2022) – More Mournful Drama Than Monster Movie

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MONSTROUS (2022), a new horror movie starring Christina Ricci as a woman fleeing with her young son from her abusive husband and looking for a fresh start in a new home in a new town, has the advantage of taking place in the 1950s, not something you see every day in a horror movie.

But it also has the disadvantage of a plot twist, the likes of which audiences have seen all too often before.

The result is a slow burn horror film that takes its time laying out its story, a process that in its 1950s setting is generally interesting, but what it ultimately does with this story isn’t all that exciting or horrifying. In fact, the prevalent emotion throughout this movie isn’t horror but sadness, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it’s simply not enough to make this movie an effective horror film.

In MONSTROUS, Laura (Christina Ricci) and her young son Cody (Santino Barnard) relocate to a new California town, far away from her husband and Cody’s father. They set up shop in a farmhouse run by the pleasant Mr. Langtree (Don Durrell) and his cantankerous wife Mrs. Langtree (Colleen Camp). Laura enrolls Cody in a new school, and she starts a new job, all in the hope of starting a new life together and moving on from the life she had before with her husband, and with its brightly lit nostalgic 1950s cinematography, it seems like everything should be hunky-dory.

But such is not the case. And that’s because there is a monster in the pond in back of the farmhouse, a monster that emerges from the water and creeps into Cody’s bedroom. At first, when Laura is watching a black and white horror movie on TV also about a monster emerging from the water, the feeling is that perhaps MONSTROUS is going to be a creature feature type horror movie, but when Cody tells his mom that the monster isn’t really a monster, but a pretty lady, and that she’s talking to him, and he’s not afraid anymore, the film takes a different direction.

For most of the movie, the monster serves as a metaphor for the challenges and pain Laura experiences as she tries to raise her son on her own, dealing with his problems at school, stress at her job, and at home trying to deal with what seems to her to be a demon or spirit haunting their house, as well as her son’s changing personality. As I said earlier, there is a mood of sadness permeating the proceedings, and for most of this movie, I was reminded of another similar and better made tale, THE BABADOOK (2014). A lot of what happens in MONSTROUS is derivative of THE BABADOOK.

Carol Chrest’s screenplay works for most of the movie. I was definitely intrigued by the premise, and I was enjoying its 1950s setting, but the plot twist doesn’t do it any favors. It’s not awful. It’s just not very original. And there are enough hints throughout the movie for the audience to have a pretty good idea as to what is really happening.

I did like where the story finally goes, as it’s a touching emotional conclusion to a somber sad story. That being said, what comes before it doesn’t always make sense. In other words, l liked the conclusion, but the story of the monster and how the characters reach this point, didn’t completely work for me. The biggest question I have is, when you finally know the big reveal, why was it a monster in the first place?

Chris Sivertson’s direction is interesting. The brightly lit 1950s sequences work well, but the horror elements are few and far between. The film really isn’t scary. And without giving much away, the feel of this movie and the sense one has while watching it, is it definitely has a similar vibe as the Marvel TV show WANDAVISION (2021). You’re watching this “ideal 1950s world” and you just have that feeling in your gut that there’s something not right here. There’s also the TV commercial which plays nonstop nearly every time Carol turns on the TV, about a brand-new dishwasher— cleaning has never been easier, and water, water, water.

Water is everywhere here. Lots of hints. And the payoff works to an extent, but makes you question all that came before it.

Christina Ricci is fine as Laura, the mom who is fighting a losing battle in her attempts to raise her son on her own, and this in and of itself is sad to watch. Her life is a challenge even without a monster. And young Santino Barnard does what he has to do as Laura’s son Cody, acting sad, scared, and ultimately creepy weird. He does get the best scene in the movie, along with Ricci, when the two make peace with their situation, and Cody makes one final request of his mom. It’s an emotional moment, and the movie could have used more moments like this.

MONSTROUS really isn’t much of a horror movie, but it is a somewhat diverting drama with supernatural undertones that were enough to hold my interest for most of this slow burn chiller’s 90-minute running time.

It’s not the monster that’s monstrous here, but the hand with which life has dealt Carol. Seen through this prism, MONSTROUS is more mournful drama than monster movie.

—END===

IN THE SHADOWS: RALPH BELLAMY

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

Up today, it’s Ralph Bellamy, who during his long and prolific career often flirted with leading man roles but most of the time played supporting roles and developed into one of the most respected character actors of his time. Bellamy is known for so much more than his appearances in some horror movies, but for purposes of this column, we will focus on those horror movie roles, especially since one of those roles was a prominent one in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941).

Bellamy was also known for his tireless advocacy for actors behind the scenes, as he helped create the Screen Actors Guild and served as President of Actors’ Equity from 1952-1964, leading the charge against McCarthyism and its baseless accusations against actors of the time.

Here now is a partial look at Bellamy’s career, in which he amassed 194 screen credits, with special emphasis on his horror movie roles:

THE SECRET 6 (1931) – Johnny Franks – Bellamy’s first screen credit, in a gangster movie which also featured Clark Gable in the cast.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) – Daniel Leeson- comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn in which Bellamy eventually loses Dunn to Grant. Bellamy would become known for playing roles in which his character would not end up with the girl.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) – Bruce Baldwin – one of my favorite Ralph Bellamy roles as the honest but dull Bruce Baldwin who once again loses out to Cary Grant for the affections of the leading lady.

ELLERY QUEEN, MASTER DETECTIVE (1940) – Ellery Queen – first in a series of movies in which Bellamy played famed detective Ellery Queen.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Colonel Montford – if you’re a horror fan, this is where you know Ralph Bellamy from, and for me, this is my favorite Bellamy role. As the village law enforcement officer, it’s up to Montford to solve the mystery of just what or who is killing the villagers. Further complicating matters is he is good friends with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who just happens to be the Wolf Man, the creature who is committing all the murders. And what makes THE WOLF MAN so great is this compelling storyline isn’t even the main one, but only one of the many compelling storylines in the film, which includes an amazing cast. In addition to Bellamy and Chaney, there’s Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Patric Knowles.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)- Erik Ernst- Bellamy teams once again with fellow WOLF MAN stars Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. in this fourth Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, the first and only time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Monster. Bellamy again plays the town’s top law enforcement officer, this time involved with Dr. Frankenstein’s (Sir Cedricke Hardwicke) daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers). Lugosi of course plays one of his all-time best movie characters, Ygor, the second and last time he would play the character, having created the role in the previous Frankenstein movie, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Bellamy gets to be the hero here as he leads the charge to rescue Elsa and destroy the Monster.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Dr. Sapirstein- it took nearly 30 years for Bellamy to appear in another horror movie, but his turn here as the sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s classic thriller is one of his best and most frightening performances.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972) – Harry Lincoln- TV movie about a haunted house starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin, directed by a young Steven Spielberg!

THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER (1974)- Adlai Stevenson- Bellamy won an Emmy for his portrayal of Adlai Stevenson in this TV movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy.

OH, GOD! (1977) – Sam Raven- supporting role in this very popular Carl Reiner comedy in its day starring George Burns as God who communicates to unsuspecting John Denver. Also features Teri Garr and Donald Pleasence in its cast.

THE WINDS OF WAR (1983) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt- won another Emmy for his portrayal of FDR in this TV miniseries, the second time he played Roosevelt in a movie, the first being in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1960).

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Randolph Duke- memorable pairing with Don Ameche in this funny John Landis comedy starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Denholm Elliott.

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (1988-1989)- Franklin Delano Roosevelt- plays Roosevelt once again in this TV miniseries sequel.

PRETTY WOMAN (1990)- James Morse- Bellamy’s final film role in this insanely popular romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Bellamy passed away on November 29, 1991 due to a lung ailment. He was 87.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we looked at the career of Ralph Bellamy, known to horror fans for his work in THE WOLF MAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and years later, in ROSEMARY’S BABY.

I hope you will join me again next time when we look at the career of another memorable character actor in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973) – Kali Battle

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For some reason, the spring season often makes me think of Ray Harryhausen movies. Not sure why, but part of it, I think, is that there is something about the rebirth of trees and flowers and longer daylight hours that evoke feelings of great colorful adventures, the likes of which were captured by the imagination of Ray Harryhausen.

Hence, today’s Picture of the Day, which comes from THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), the second Sinbad movie in Harryhausen’s special effects Sinbad trilogy. The first was THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), followed by GOLDEN, and the third was SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). 7TH and GOLDEN are generally considered the better two movies of the series, and the jury is still out over which one of these two is the best. I find them equally as good.

Our picture of the day comes from the movie’s signature scene, the battle between Sinbad and Kali, the goddess of death. It’s the most memorable sequence in the film and features some of Harryhausen’s best special effects, both in this movie and in his entire career. I still prefer the skeleton battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), but the Kali battle in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD is still energetic and exciting.

Ray Harryhausen remains the master of stop motion animation effects. There doesn’t exist a movie with inferior Harryhausen effects. That’s because he always brought his “A” game to every film he put his name on. It’s also why he didn’t make more movies, because he spent as much time as needed to get his effects done right, and so often his projects would take longer to make than the traditional movie.

That’s John Phillip Law as Sinbad in the photo, and he plays the lead hero with a cool, confident charisma that for my money makes him the best Sinbad in the three Harryhausen Sinbad movies. And that’s Tom Baker in the background as the evil magician Koura, the villain who brings Kali to life so she can battle Sinbad and his crew. Baker would of course go on to play Doctor Who in the 1970s.

THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD is a rousing adventure. As seen in this photo, it provides colorful action, impressive set design, and topnotch stop motion animation effects by the best to have ever done it, Ray Harryhausen, and it tells an exciting story to boot.

Grand entertainment for a bright spring day.

—END—

Worst Movies of 2021

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Welcome back! As promised, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021.

As I did with my Best Movies List, I’m placing an asterisk next to this one, as once again, the pandemic has prevented trips to the movie theaters from being a safe activity, and so with this in mind, I know we haven’t all seen the same movies since we are not all heading out to the movie theaters to see the same national releases. I know there are plenty of movies I missed this year.

Okay, let’s get on with it. Without further hesitation, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021:

10. CRY MACHO – probably the dullest movie I watched all year. Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this tale of a former rodeo star (Eastwood) who goes to Mexico to bring back his boss’s teenage son to the States, and along the way, the two form a bond in this underwhelming buddy movie. While I am in awe of Clint Eastwood, who at 91 years old, is still making quality movies, the story here in CRY MACHO doesn’t do him any favors. The storytelling is muddled, and Eastwood seems to be playing a character who is much younger than 91, although the script never makes this clear. Not much to like about this one, even for Eastwood fans.

9. FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 – Yeah, I know. For a lot of folks, this second installment in the Netflix FEAR STREET horror movie trilogy was the best of the lot, but for me, it was the worst. Each part served as an homage to a particular horror movie genre, and here in FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 that genre is the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies. I’m going to ruffle more feathers here as well when I say honestly that I’ve never liked the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies and have found them all to be particularly bad. FEAR STREET: PART TWO does a nice job capturing the feel of these movies, but at the end of the day, it’s yet another variation of teenagers at a summer camp being slaughtered in the most unrealistically gruesome of ways. If that’s your cup of tea, you probably love this movie. But it’s not mine. I prefer intelligence in my horror.

8. GODZILLA VS. KONG – Again, this is one that a lot of people really liked, but for me, even as a fan of giant monster movies, especially King Kong movies, and Godzilla movies as well, this one was simply bad. I find it difficult to understand why this movie has so many fans when its script is so weak. The human characters are all forgettable, the situations unrealistic and uninspiring, and the dialogue is pretty poor. So, all you have left are the giant monsters in combat. And even those scenes didn’t do much for me. I know the argument is out there that that’s how the old Toho Godzilla movies all were. That’s a fair argument, up to a point. What always saved the Toho films was that Godzilla and his friends all had personality. The monsters in these modern-day versions do not. Plus, movies like KING KONG (1933) and THEM! (1954) did have superior scripts. These new giant monster movies do not. Instead, the modern-day giant monster movie (mostly Godzilla and Kong these days) has been reduced to special effects only, without any interest in creating any kind of a story worth telling.

7. COMING 2 AMERICA – the original COMING TO AMERICA (1988) starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall was very funny. This sequel, in spite of the return of Murphy and Hall, is not. Next movie…

6. TYGER TYGER – this was a movie that I fully expected to like, because it was so different and quirky, with a sense of style that I thought would make it a winner. But this tale of a pair of selfless robbers who kidnap a drug addict before they all find themselves hiding out in a bizarre psychedelic city is probably better enjoyed when you’re high! Seriously! The longer this one went on, the less sense it made, and by the time it was all over, it largely had become a wasted opportunity. No pun intended!

5. THE LITTLE THINGS – in spite of the presence of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto this one just doesn’t work. Washington plays a former detective who’s called in to help with a serial killer case, and the character he plays is known for spotting the little things others miss in these cases. Trouble is, the script barely shows him doing this. Malek plays the hotshot detective who calls in Washington for help, but the choices he makes throughout the movie make him seen anything but a hotshot detective. And Leto plays the man they suspect is the serial killer. This one should have been awesome. Instead, it’s a muddled meandering tale that gets worse as it goes along with a particularly weak ending.

4. WITHOUT REMORSE- With a script by one of my favorite screenwriters, Taylor Sheridan, I fully expected to like this adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel, but instead it proved to be Sheridan’s first real misfire. Michael B. Jordan plays an elite Navy Seal who’s gone rogue to solve the murder of his wife, only to find— of course— that it’s all part of a larger conspiracy. What. A. Surprise. Yawn.

And now, the drum roll please. Here are my Top 3 Worst Movies from 2021:

3. SWEET GIRL -Hands down, the worst action movie of the year. Jason Momoa plays a man who vows revenge against a pharmaceutical company after its “business decision” pulled a drug from the market which could have saved his terminally ill wife. So, hubby goes insane and plots to kill the heads of this company, who, while they are undesirable, probably don’t deserve to be killed. So, there’s that initial problem. But wait, there’s more! There’s a larger conspiracy! Of course, there always is. Plus, Momoa’s character against his better judgement is constantly bringing his teenage daughter with him and training her to protect herself and be an assassin vigilante like him… and then, thanks to a bizarre plot twist, his character disappears from the second half of the movie. So, yes, you have an action film headlined by Jason Momoa, that halfway through ditches its star. Ugh.

2. MADRES – the worst horror movie of the year. This tale of a Mexican American couple who move to a new community in 1970s California that seems to have a weird sinister secret involving pregnant women, doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. The film aims for a ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975) vibe but fails on both counts. This one is based on true events, and its reveal at the end is actually very good, but the problem is the film tries so hard to hide this reveal with a supernatural tale that is so lame it makes the movie completely ineffective. Had the filmmakers chosen to focus on what this film is ultimately about, it would have been a far darker, more memorable movie.

And now, drum roll please, the Worst Movie of 2021:

1. THUNDER FORCE – by far, the worst comedy of the year. Melissa McCarthy plays a woman who inherits superpowers thanks to her scientist friend played by Octavia Spencer. They then take on the world’s supervillains. Should have been funny. But it’s not. Jason Bateman fares the best as a supervillain known as The Crab. Written and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone.

And there you have it. My picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021. Now, let’s move on to 2022.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael