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Welcome to the Crypt!

Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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30 March, 2008

Changing Times, Changing Tastes?

Like most things about us, our tastes, whether in movies, music, food, or any facet of popular culture, changes over time. We grow, mature, gain wisdom. What we loved as teens now seem terrible, and vice-versa. Don’t believe me? Dig out those dusty old ABBA albums (if you’re near my age…) and try to sit through one from beginning to end… that’s it, just try. Couldn’t do it, could you? Now, what CD’s are in your car right now? Would you have liked them when you were 15? Not a chance.

Recently, it occurred to me that my tastes in food have altered through the years. Things that I once would’ve given absolutely no thought to trying I now enjoy on a regular basis, while foods that had been my favorites have completely lost their appeal. Similarly, my taste in Horror has altered to a large degree. Though most of the movies that I loved then I still love, that’s far from true in every case.

Now, I don’t mean that I’m somehow “outgrowing” my love of Horror and Science-Fiction films, or that I’ve suddenly developed a fondness for Julia Roberts—Hugh Grant movies. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that many of the movies that I loved as a child have since lost whatever appeal they originally had for me, or that I now love movies that, quite frankly, once bored me silly.

When I was ten, in 1974, I was deep into my Monsterkid years. Stacks of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines filled my room, nestled against equally large stacks of comic books, all watched over by an assortment of Aurora’s Monster models. During this time, I was blessed with an older sister possessed with two enormously beneficial qualities… a car with a spacious trunk, and rather liberal ideas on just what movies our parents would consider acceptable for a ten-year old to see.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, IT’S ALIVE, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS… these are just some of the gorefests I first saw at the local Drive-In, courtesy of my sister. Another movie I owe her for is Herschell G. Lewis’ groundbreaking gore classic, BLOOD FEAST.

BLOOD FEAST, the 1963 film that truly started the splatter genre, impressed me greatly when I first saw it on a long-ago north Florida summer night. Now, though I still recognize it for the pioneer it was, I also recognize that it truly was a stink-fest of a film.

Now I find myself less interested in gore, and more in story. Better able to appreciate the subtleties of a JU-ON or SECRET WINDOW, rather than the sledgehammer of FREDDY vs. JASON or HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.

Believe me, I haven’t totally sworn off spurting blood and torn flesh. Two of the best films of the past five years (SHAUN OF THE DEAD; DOG SOLDIERS…) had more than their share of blood, guts, and gore. They also had exceptionally good stories, great acting, and directors that understood how to make use of all three elements, all things that have become increasingly important to my viewing enjoyment over time. Though film-makers once loaded their films with blood and gore to cover weak scripts and poor production values, modern directors are learning that you can make a good movie that’s also a gory movie.

I also have a much lower tolerance for stupidity than I had at a younger age. Though any good Horror Film requires a certain suspension of disbelief, they should try to make some sense, if only within the confines of the movie itself. One of the better examples of this principle is M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE.

This movie established a series of rules for the film’s universe, and played faithfully by them. Thus, when the ending was revealed, the viewer’s first reaction was usually “Damn, I should’ve figured that!” Most movies, however, make no attempt to be so rational, so intelligent. We are simply along for the ride; if the movie makes sense, fine. If not, oh well. Well, I for one have gotten to the point where I need a little rationality in my cinematic fare, a little salve for an old and tired brain that’s seen far too many movies aimed at audiences with an average I.Q. less than their average age.

Thus it is that, more and more, I find myself looking to the classic Universal Horrors, or to the great 1950’s-era Creature Features, for my viewing. There is something refreshing in the simple innocence, the naïveté, of those films. Perhaps it is nostalgia, my pining for my lost youth. Perhaps as I age, my tolerance for blood and guts has diminished. Or perhaps I’ve just grown to expect more from the limited time I can take to watch a movie these days. At best I can squeeze three or four hours of free time out of each day. When I use those for viewing a movie, I don’t usually want to waste the time on CABIN FEVER, or HOUSE OF THE DEAD.

I need entertainment, not shocks… I need Whale and Hitchcock, damnit, not Boll and Roth. I need quality, not quantity. In short, I need my classics.







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DVD Review: HATCHET (Unrated Director’s Cut)

Title: HATCHET (Unrated Director’s Cut)

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment




THE MOVIE

Everyone who’s into film dreams about getting a bunch of buddies together and making a movie of their own. Adam Green and his friends actually did that, in a process that began with two guys going to New Orleans and surreptitiously shooting footage for a trailer while on a swamp tour; it ended with a kick-ass old-fashioned Unstoppable Slasher movie that involves some of the biggest names in Horror.

Set in New Orleans, the story revolves around two buddies in town for Mardi Gras, Ben and Marcus. (Played very well by Joel David Moore and Deon Richmond) They separate from their friends to go investigate a haunted swamp tour, and wind up as part of a group consisting of an older married couple; a “producer” shooting a girls-gone-wild type video and his models, who conveniently flash their considerable assets at every opportunity; a mysterious local girl; a Chinese tour operator; and our two heroes.

The tour boat winds up sinking in a part of the bayou that’s closed off, supposedly due to the presence of an undead boogeyman by the name of Victor Crowley. Crowley, the deformed son of a bayou fisherman, burned to death years before as a result of a Halloween prank. Now, he haunts the bayou, killing anyone who lingers near the burned-out shell of his home.

The story is adequate for the purpose, and borrows freely from such Horror standards as the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and the HALLOWEEN films. Still, it’s done well, and the viewer doesn’t come away with the feeling that it’s just a rip-off of better movies. First-time director Adam Green demonstrates a thorough understanding of the genre, as well as a grasp on how to mix the comedic and horrific elements of the plot into a (mostly) seamless whole.

The film is helped along in large part to the casting of a couple of genre veterans in small roles, and one, Kane Hodder, in a major role as Crowley. The experience and fan appeal that Robert Englund, Tony Todd, and Hodder bring to the production overcomes the admittedly miniscule star power of the lead cast.



THE DISC

If writing these reviews has taught me anything, it’s which distributors know how to package a movie for DVD release, and which don’t. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment definitely belongs in the former category. I’ve yet to see a poorly-done DVD from them, and their discs are usually so well-done that I can’t help commenting on that fact. HATCHET is no different, and even the most jaded videophiles should be pleased with the quality of this release.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

This disc has a full range of Special Features, including commentary tracks, interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the original trailer that gave the film it’s start. The best of these features is ANATOMY OF A KILL, an in-depth examination of just how one of the movie’s signature “kills” was conceived and carried out, without the use of CGI… and without a visible cut in the film! The scene in question is one of the best in the film, and knowing how it was done only makes the viewer marvel more at the ingenuity of the filmmakers.

Another feature worth watching is the genesis of the film, from Green’s childhood nightmares to finished movie. The story of how a small group of friends came together with a dream of making a good, old-fashioned Horror Film, and succeeded, is inspiring to those of us who share similar dreams.



IN CONCLUSION

Though it got scant attention from the mainstream press, the Horror community really sat up and took notice of HATCHET, conferring several important awards upon it. I can only agree with that recognition, as it’s easily one of the best movies of the year; certainly the best shot independently, for less than $15 million or so.

Of course, it does have flaws… every movie does. But given the limitations the filmmakers were working under, these flaws aren’t any real obstacles to enjoying the film. They’re the same problems you’d encounter with virtually any Low-Budget movie, and true fans of B-Grade Horror Films won’t be bothered by them.

Still, I wouldn’t pay full price for it, not that there are many movies that I would go full boat on. Fortunately, I found my copy in the $9.44 Bargain Rack at Wal-Mart. I have no qualms about going a ten-spot on an impulse DVD purchase, and believe me, I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t think you will be, either.



















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22 March, 2008

DVD Review: THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER

Title: THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER

Year of Release—Film: 1957

Year of Release—DVD: 2000

DVD Label: Image Entertainment


THE MOVIE

There are bad movies, and then there are Bad movies… movies that are so unintentionally awful that they’re actually enjoyable. THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER is certainly one of the latter.

Directed by Ronald Ashcroft from a script by Frank Hall, TASM has a fairly standard plot for the late ‘50’s, with an alien who has landed on earth encountering a small group of humans to battle for domination of the planet. The differences are that here, the alien invader is a gorgeous female in a skin-tight bodysuit, and the humans she encounters are far from our best and brightest, as was the norm for these films.

The film stars Robert Clarke as a scientist whose mountain cabin is invaded twice, first by a band of gangsters running from the law with a kidnapped heiress. Soon, however, they realize that they are not alone on the mountain, and that all their lives are endangered. They must work together to overcome their mutual enemy or die.

While the dialogue is terrible, and the acting would seem sub-par in a high-school production, the conflict among the inhabitants of the cabin is interesting, as is She-Monster herself. She was nearly a great deal more interesting, as a tight budget, tight schedule, and most importantly a tight costume combined to cause Shirley Kilpatrick to perform some contortions to conceal the fact that the costume’s seams had given way in the back. Overall, the film is a good one for fans of Classic B-movie Cheese; not good, but not so bad that you can’t enjoy it.


THE DISC

The Image Entertainment disc is typical of the company’s releases… better than average, though not by a large margin. I’m assuming that the print used for the transfer is the best one extant; if not, then that is a major problem. The picture varies in quality from merely decent to dark and grainy. Fully understandable in a nearly fifty-year old film, but some effort should’ve gone in to cleaning it up more.

However, other than the poor picture quality the disc is about as good as you could expect. One complaint I do have, and this is common among older B-movies released to DVD, is the lack of either subtitles or closed captioning. Frequently, the audio is of as poor quality as the video, and if you’re even slightly hearing-impaired, as am I, understanding the dialogue can be difficult. The difference between a captioned film and one without may be minor, but the subtitles greatly enhance my enjoyment, and are missed when not present.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

This is easy—simply put, there are none. Well, there is the theatrical trailer for the film, and a rather complete set of liner notes, well-written and informative. But this isn’t a DVD you’ll pick up because of the bonus features.



IN CONCLUSION

The purpose of any review, at least in my opinion, is to give you the information you need to decide whether or not you should plop down your hard-earned cash on a book, or a movie ticket, or, as in this case, a DVD. Just like most of you, I work hard for a living, and on those occasions when I have some extra money to put down for a new disc for the collection, the last thing I want is to feel that I’ve been ripped-off. So I’ll only give you the straight, unvarnished truth about any DVD I review.

So the question is “Should you rush out to buy this one?” No… at least, not at it’s $14.99 list price. And not unless you are familiar with 1950’s B-movies in general, or else you might feel disappointed when you get it into your player. But there are plenty of retailers and e-tailers who have this one priced a lot lower than fifteen bucks. DeepDiscount DVD has it for less than eleven, and it’s at Amazon for about fourteen.
Still, it gets down to how much you love the cheesy old low-budget horrors of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and whether or not the words “Ed Wood—Creative Consultant” fire up your desire to see this one. If so, then by all means grab it. But remember, grab it cheap.









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Monster Toys and Ghoulish Goodies

There are certain things that tend to remain with you from childhood, things that have the power to pull you back through the intervening years… the smell of bacon frying on a chilly Autumn morning that instantly wakes you up; the whistle of the feedback that would come from my dad’s hearing aid when the earpiece wasn’t adjusted just right; the sight of a Christmas tree surrounded by kids, and heaped high with gifts. These are just some of the touchstones of my childhood, things that remind me of who I am and where I come from.

Other anchors to my past are more idiosyncratic: rushing home from school to watch Dark Shadows and Star Trek in the afternoon, or fighting to stay up all night, just to see if I could. My comic books and my monster mags. My models, and my baseball and football cards. But few things define a kid as clearly as the toys he plays with, or those he wishes he had; and few memories of childhood are sharper.

My personal taste in toys was similar to my tastes in entertainment. I had a G.I. Joe of course, the real one, not the 3¼-inch rip-offs of the ‘80s. He had a fully equipped foot-locker, including an astronaut’s space-suit, a deep-sea diving suit, and various combat fatigues. He could also boast more firepower than the 2nd Marine Division, with everything from a Colt .45, to a flame-thrower, to an M-16. He led a veritable regiment of toy soldiers, of every conceivable size, shape, and shade of plastic.

There were dozens of toy airplanes, ranging from tiny little plastic ones intended as party favors, to one massive cast-iron Tonka plane my older sister gave me, that now would be regarded as a lawsuit waiting to happen. It had folding wings that pinched me constantly, working landing gear that did the same, and weighed at least 2 lbs. I’m sure that today it would be classified as a deadly weapon in most states. Nor was the Navy neglected, as one of my favorite toys was a plastic Seaview submarine, from the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

But in the end, I was a child of the Ackermonster, and the toys that really stood out were the Monster and Sci-Fi toys that I owned. Star Trek was my first love, and it was well represented in my toybox. I had all the 8-inch Mego figures, along with the U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge playset… with working transporter, no less! At one point or another I built every Star Trek kit AMT/Ertl put out… multiples of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as they were thoughtful enough to provide decals for every Constitution-Class starship in the fleet; the 1:1 scale Phaser, Tricorder, and Communicator set; the Klingon and Romulan ships… let’s just say a significant portion of my allowance went to that company.

The monsters certainly weren’t neglected, either. I had toy Draculas, Frankenstein’s Monsters, Mummies… the entire Universal pantheon was well represented, as was Toho’s stable of Kaijû. Most of these were, in retrospect, probably cheap, unlicensed knock-off’s… but that mattered not at all to a young MonsterKid who just wanted to play with his beloved monsters. Fortunately, I was born in a time when such toys cost at most a dollar or two. The situation isn’t so good for aspiring MonsterKids today.

As dedicated Monster collectors will attest, there is no shortage of Horror collectibles on the market today, and most of them are truly superb in terms of quality and faithfulness to their subject. Sideshow Toys, the 800-lb. Gorilla of the Horror collectible world, leads the way in this, with dozens of beautifully sculpted figures and busts, capturing virtually all of Universal’s Monster characters, and many more modern horrors as well. Meca and Hawthorne Village are also producing Horror collectibles; just as attractive, and just as high quality.
The one drawback to all of this? Price.

The 12-inch Sideshow figure of Lugosi as Dracula, in the box, can cost several hundred dollars, as will the Karloff Monster, or Karloff as Im-Ho-Tep. The complete Hawthorne Village Universal Horror town collection would represent an investment of more than a thousand dollars. Prices for these Horror collectibles are steadily climbing, with no sign yet of softness in the market. Yet for all their beauty and quality, they fail to fufill their prime function as toys… to be played with.

For all the Horror merchandise out there, there’s precious little that you’d let your seven- or eight-year old MonsterKid rip into in a sheer, unadulterated frenzy of childish glee. Let’s face it, when you pay $300 for a Sideshow figure, you aren’t likely to even take it out of the box, much less hand it off to a sticky-fingered rug-monkey who ten minutes before was burying his little sister’s Malibu Barbie® in mud. And that’s the real sadness of this.

Unless you are in your ‘80’s, you aren’t likely to have fallen in love with the classic Monsters in a movie theater. If, like me, you’re a Baby-Boomer, then your first exposure to Karloff as the Monster, or Chaney as the Phantom, was on TV… as some middle-aged guy in monster make-up cracked bad jokes in-between segments of the movies. Your love was fed and encouraged in the pages of Famous Monsters, and Fantastic Monsters, and Tales from the Crypt. And it found expression in the models we built, and the 8mm monster-movies we made, and the toys with which we played.

Well, with few exceptions, infomercials have crowded out the time-slots that used to be devoted to the Horror-Hosts. Famous Monsters is long gone, replaced by a pale, bastardized imitation. And the models and toys of our youth have been replaced by $150 high-tech resin kits and $500 sculpted busts.

As the horror industry constantly chases their next dollar, skewing the market towards the older collectors, those who can afford to pay a few hundred dollars a pop for a collectible and have no desire to actually touch their acquisitions, perhaps they should be more concerned about where the next generation of fans will come from.

I have three Sideshow figures. They aren’t in their boxes, and they are routinely handled. They may not be worth $300… they may not even be worth what I paid for them. But the joy they’ve given me has nothing to do with dollar signs or condition grades.It’s a shame our kids can’t know that kind of joy.







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15 March, 2008

Universal’s Unsung Monster: The Mummy Kharis

For those of you totally unfamiliar with me, you may take it as an article of faith that I’m something of a fan of the classic Universal Horrors. Put simply, there is a reason that my nom de plume is Unimonster. I enjoy them all immensely… from Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, to the Giant Mantis and the Gill-Man. And of all the great creatures that sprang forth from the storied Universal backlot, none are dearer to me than those reanimated reprobates from the Valley of the Kings, Im-Ho-tep / Ardeth Bey, Kharis, Klaris, and Imhotep.

While I love all eight films featuring these bandaged baddies, the four featuring Kharis—THE MUMMY’S HAND; THE MUMMY’S TOMB; THE MUMMY’S GHOST; and THE MUMMY’S CURSE—are by far my favorite of Universal’s “Big Four” Monster films, and save for Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 masterpiece THE BLACK CAT, my favorite classic horror films, period.

Now, I’m not denigrating the Daddy of the clan, Karl Freund’s 1932 classic, THE MUMMY; nor would I dare to compare Karloff’s brilliant performance as Im-Ho-Tep / Ardeth Bey to Tom Tyler’s creation of the Mummy Kharis eight years later, in THE MUMMY’S HAND. Not even Lon Chaney Jr., when he took up the role in 1942’s THE MUMMY’S TOMB, could approach the quality of Karloff’s acting. I love the original film, and recognize it for what it is: One of the truly great Horror Films to come from Universal in the early ‘30’s, alongside DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and THE BLACK CAT. The one thing it isn’t, though, is FUN.

The Kharis films have a quality common to all of the Universal Horror Films of the 1940’s… they are incredibly fun movies. THE MUMMY’S TOMB might not be studied in film school the way the 1932 film is, but it’s a joy to watch. To sit in front of a screen, with a big bag of popcorn and a bunch of your buddies or maybe your best girl, munching away as a host of Universal’s best sent chills down your spine… that’s why these films were made. Whale, Ulmer, and Freund were trying to make art. Cabanne, Young, and LeBorg were trying to make a buck, and to do that, they needed Asses in seats. They couldn’t do that without making movies that entertained, and these movies did that, in spades. Not just the Mummy movies; all of Universal’s Horror Films of these period were hugely entertaining… and still are.

However, from the time I first saw Kharis lumbering across the 13” screen on my older sister’s black and white portable, I’ve been a devoted acolyte of the High Priests of Karnak. None of Universal’s classic horrors (and I’ve seen them all…) can come close to the thrills, chills and plain old good times that these four films inspire.

I’m not sure if it’s the Egyptian theme, or the on-screen terror bred by the reanimated corpse of an ancient Mummy haunting a sleepy New England college town, but they connect with me in a way that few films do. There are times (not often I’ll admit, but it happens…) when I’m just not in the mood to watch a Horror Film; but that never applies to Kharis. I can put my Legacy disc in the player and watch all four, beginning to end, losing all track of time. So much so that, for a few hours, I’m ten again, sitting in my sister’s room on a quiet Saturday evening, watching the helpless residents of Mapleton being stalked by the vengeful Kharis on a TV screen the size of a dinner plate.

Are these movies perfect? No, far from it. They’re full of atmosphere, the acting is good, the photography, at least early in the series, is excellent, and the movies are long on action. But they are also weakly plotted and scripted, with incomprehensible plot twists and continuity errors, including how two Mummies that disappear into a bog in Massachusetts can be found in the next picture in the Bayou country of Louisiana. The photography also suffered in the latter films, particularly in the Day-for-Night process shots.

But none of that mattered to a ten-year old Monsterkid, and none of it matters to me now. I don’t watch these movies to critique them; I watch them to be entertained, and just as they did more than sixty years ago, or thirty for that matter, they never fail to accomplish that.

After THE MUMMY’S CURSE, in 1944, there was an eleven-year gap before Abbott and Costello, in their last film for Universal (and next to last film, period…) journeyed down the Nile to do battle with the Mummy Klaris, a two-bit, pot-bellied imitation of Kharis. The movie is far from the duo’s best work, and the era of Mummy movies at Universal came to an end. It would be forty-four years before the studio would revisit Mummies, but they would do so with a vengeance, with Stephen Sommers’ 1999 winner THE MUMMY. This was followed up by THE MUMMY’S RETURN two years later.

Nor has Universal been the only studio to capitalize on the popularity of the Mummy as a monster. Several production companies, most notably Britain’s Hammer Films, saw the value in exploiting the public’s fascination with the legends and lore of Ancient Egypt. It is interesting to note that, when Hammer decided to reinvent Universal’s classic Mummy movies, it was Kharis they chose to emulate, and not Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep.

All of these movies are good, entertaining, and enjoyable… but none as much as the four Kharis films. When I think of the Mummy, it’s not Karloff’s cultured tones, Chris Lee’s power and violence, or Arnold Vosloo’s Special Effects that come to mind. It’s Tom Tyler defending the tomb of his lost love Ananka, George Zucco passing the secret of the Tanna leaves on to Turhan Bey, and Lon Chaney Jr. hunting the survivors of the Banning expedition through the streets of a peaceful New England village to exact his revenge.The four films featuring Kharis were good enough when I was ten, and they’re still good enough today.





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DVD Review: THE MUMMY (1999)

Title: THE MUMMY

Year of Release—Film: 1999

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment



THE MOVIE

Over the past several years, Universal has chosen to revisit their iconic Monster franchises of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, releasing multiple DVD sets, such as the Legacy collections and the Bela Lugosi collection, and several big-screen, big-budget blockbusters either released or in production as I write this. Most notable of these has been the movie that sparked their reawakening of interest in the Monsters, Stephen Sommers’ 1999 mega-hit THE MUMMY.

The story is excellent, and perfectly matches Sommers’ style as a director. Playing more like an Indiana Jones adventure than a Classic Universal Horror, it’s a rollicking blast of fun from start to finish, and delivers exactly what I seek from movies: Entertainment.

Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo, the plot concerns a search for the lost treasure city of Pharaoh Seti I, the fabled Hamunaptra. Evelyn, an Anglo-Egyptian librarian (a perfect performance by Weisz…) stumbles onto a map leading to the lost city. With the assistance of her brother Jonathan, she traces the map to the man from whom he stole it, Rick O’Connell. O’Connell, played with equal distinction by Fraser, is in prison, awaiting the hangman’s noose. They make a deal to free him, in order to secure his services as a guide.

The cast is superb, with not a dud in the bunch. Especially enjoyable are two minor characters who steal the scene every time they’re on camera, the Warden, played by newcomer Omid Djalili, and O’Connell’s erstwhile Foreign Legion comrade Beni, (a stellar performance from Kevin O’Connor…) who virtually dominates his all-too-brief amount of screen-time. John Hannah, as Evelyn’s somewhat degenerate brother, also shines in a supporting role.

Everything about this production is top-notch, from the beautiful photography to the stunning effects. In short, it’s a truly first-class Hollywood blockbuster in the best sense of the word!



THE DISC

As is standard from Universal, the disc is absolutely faultless, from the crystal clear audio, to the perfect transfer, to Universal’s usually thoughtful captions and sub-titles. I know I often make too much out of the quality of the disc, but when you’ve sat through as many poorly-done ones as I have, these bits of minutiae truly matter.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

My example is the 2002 re-issue of the DVD, and has a few special features, the most noteworthy of which is the 40 minute long documentary BUILDING A BETTER MUMMY. Focusing on the reinvention of the classic Mummy movie, this is an interesting, informative piece, though I could have wished for more. And that would be true for the special features in general… apart from the de rigueur commentary and deleted scenes, (and a mildly interesting trivia section…) the documentary is essentially the whole of the extras on this DVD. I expected more from Universal on this disc, quite frankly.



IN CONCLUSION

I often say that Hollywood has forgotten how to do a good Horror film, and I stand by that statement. But they have no problem with good, old-fashioned adventures with mega-million dollar budgets and wall-to-wall effects shots. This is the kind of film the major studios really excel at; the kind that only they, with their vast resources, can properly pull off. And THE MUMMY is one of the best examples of the type in the past ten years. Even though this offering could be better, I’m very pleased to have it in my collection, and have no difficulty saying it should be in yours, as well.







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08 March, 2008

Old Movies, Old Mores: Judging the Films of Yesterday with the Eyes of Today

Movies, whether the classic Horror Films of the 1930’s, the Sci-Fi B-Pictures of the 1950’s, or the mega-budget Hollywood Hypefests of today, are in many ways time capsules of the era in which they were produced. Just as the Saturday morning serial Westerns of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers represented, not the Old West as it truly was, but how it was imagined to be by 1950’s audiences, movies capture the prejudices and sensitivities of the time in which they were produced. They reflect not only the best, but also the worst, of us.

Many films produced before the mid-1960’s are now considered problematic by virtue of the way they depict racial, ethnic, or sexual stereotypes, and there’s no doubt that they cast African-Americans, Asians, Women, and other minorities in the worst possible light. Several, such as Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH, have virtually disappeared into an all-inclusive sea of political correctness; while others, though coming close to that fate, have been rescued by studios and distributors who recognize that art and history don’t often cast a pretty reflection. Among these latter are the Charlie Chan series of films.

Beginning in 1926 and continuing for nearly fifty years, Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional Chinese Detective Charlie Chan was one of the biggest and best gumshoes on the cinematic street. First portrayed by George Kuwa, and later and most famously by Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, Chan was the stereotypical Western ideal of the inscrutable Oriental, dispensing bits of Confucian wisdom in Pidgin English, while subtly laying his trap for the unwary criminal. Aided by a series of African-American chauffeurs and butlers (most notably Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland…), as well as his numerically-differentiated offspring, Chan, an Inspector with the Honolulu Police Department, traveled the world in no fewer than 48 films, with titles such as THE BLACK CAMEL and CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND. At every stop, foul deeds would require his expertise to be set right, usually at great risk to himself and his party.

Given the strictures and mores of the times, these films hardly pictured Chan in an unfavorable light; indeed, he often came off as the only intelligent person in sight. As his sons, butlers, and various Occidental lawmen stumbled over themselves in their efforts to solve the crime, Chan would sit patiently, amused smile on his lips, waiting for the criminal to reveal him or her self.

When I was young, these films were staples of Saturday afternoon broadcasting, particularly the later films starring Toler and Roland Winters. (Winters inherited the role after his predecessor’s death) I grew to love them, almost as much as I did the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, and always looked forward to watching Charlie deal with the bad guys in his own enigmatic style.

However, in recent years, it has become fashionable to disavow and ignore parts of our history that we deem unflattering or embarrassing, and as usual, Hollywood plays the role of trendsetter here. Whole catalogs of films have been removed from public view because of the manner in which they portray minorities, some merely because they might be perceived as offensive. The great Detective fell victim to this sterilization of the cinema, as 20th Century Fox, which owns the most of the Chan franchise, became concerned with how Asian-Americans would view the Chan films. In 2003, the Fox Movie Channel, after having given these films a restoration for broadcast, dropped their plans to air them. Charlie Chan disappeared into their vaults, and most of us fans thought he’d never return.

Then, in the early part of this decade, rumors began to circulate that MGM was finally going to release some of the Monogram Chans on DVD. The set, dubbed “Chanthology”, was slated to contain six of the first of the Chan films produced at Monogram Pictures, starring Toler. It wasn’t exactly what the fans were hoping for, but it was a damn sight better than nothing.

MGM acknowledged the criticisms of the films by including a disclaimer, explaining that, in the times these films were produced, racial and ethnic stereotypes were not regarded in the same light as they are today. This was not enough to quell the concerns voiced by some Chinese-American groups over the “Yellow Peril” connotations of the movies, though. Nor did it satisfy the valid argument that, of the three main actors to portray the detective, none were Asian—all were Caucasian men.

Beginning in the 1930’s, and continuing well into the 1960’s, Asians were one of Hollywood’s favorite ethnicities for casting as villains. Initially it was the Japanese menace that terrorized the Box-office, but following the end of World War II, and the rise of Mao Ze Dong’s Communists, that emphasis shifted to the Chinese. Though a few of the “Yellow Peril” films were well done, most notably the 1932 classic THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, most were low-budget programmers churned out ad nauseum by “poverty row” type studios. They have little enough redeeming value cinematically speaking; socially or culturally, they have none. Historically however, these movies do provide a powerful document on just how pervasive prejudice against the growing Asian population was at that time.

However, none of this is applicable to the Chan films. In no way could they be construed as fitting the “Yellow Peril” mold, nor is Charlie ever presented in an intentionally adverse way. True, he is a stereotype, and not a particularly flattering one to modern Chinese-Americans. But few characters in films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, whether white or black, Asian or European, male or female, were more than stereotypes. Few characters received the development that is taken for granted today, and none were well-rounded, fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional representations of actual people. No one wondered about their motivation… their motivation was the $50-$100 they were paid each week to act.

Nor was it unusual to cast whites in ethnic roles. If Sam Jaffe could play the Indian water-boy Gunga Din, German-born Henry Brandon the Comanche Chief Scar in THE SEARCHERS, or Myrna Loy the Chinese daughter of Fu Manchu, then no one would have been hesitant about casting the Swedish immigrant Warner Oland as the Chinese detective Charlie Chan.

Could they have done better? Of course, but why? Few at the time saw any problems with the way that blacks, and Asians, and women were depicted in the movies… at least few other than the blacks, Asians, and women who resented such portrayals. But their voices were ignored, until the studios could no longer ignore them. And that was long past the point of Chan’s heyday.

In the end, “Chanthology” did hit the stores, and its success led Fox to begin releasing their collection of the truly great films in the series, the ones starring both Warner Oland and Toler. Four volumes of these classics have now been released, not counting the original “Chanthology” and both MGM and Fox has a long way to go yet before the library is complete. But they’re getting there, and so are we… in the footsteps of Honolulu’s master detective.

While I truly enjoy the Chan films, I am not blind to their faults; neither do I feel they are as offensive as made out to be. Hollywood produced some incredibly racist films in the first half of the last century, and the Chan films are far from the worst. But no matter how hard these films may be to view today, we do ourselves a disservice when we lock them away and pretend they never happened.

It’s important that we remember these films, that we not allow these types of movies to become lost to us. When you cut people off from the historical records of the mistakes that they or their ancestors made, you also remove the instructive value of those mistakes. Aphorisms come into being for a reason, and one of the best is “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” If we are allowed to forget just how ugly prejudice can be, how can we remember to work against it?
















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DVD Review: FEAST

Title: FEAST

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Dimension




THE MOVIE

Fans of the cable series Project: Greenlight will remember this, the third film to be produced by the team fronted by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Directed by newcomer John Gulager, the son of veteran character actor Clu Gulager, from a script by Marcus Dunston and Patrick Melton, FEAST was one of the most surprising, and overachieving, films of the past year.

If you watched Project: Greenlight at any point during the third season, then you in all probability came away with the impression that you were viewing a train wreck of epic proportions underway. That’s certainly the impression I had of FEAST. The producers couldn’t get enough funding; the director couldn’t cast his usual circle of friends and family; the screenwriters rapidly attained Prima Donna status. At several points, it looked as though the project would be dead before filming began.

This gave me an unaccustomed insight into the making of a Horror Film, as well as a great desire to see the finished product. I must admit that, when I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised.

In a seedy redneck bar in the southwest, a group of regulars began to gather for their nightly efforts to drown their sorrows. The “festivities” are interrupted when a man bursts in, telling them that they’ll soon be under attack, and he’s their one chance for survival. What happens next begins a night under siege for the patrons of the bar, as they battle for that survival.

This is one wild ride of a movie, combining a great sense of humor with a solid grasp of the Horror conventions, and a willingness to push the envelope, if only a little.



THE DISC

For what is essentially a low-budget indie feature, this gets the full treatment from Dimension. The print is crisp, clean and sharp, with good audio, subtitling, even an attractive package. Though the film didn’t receive the support it deserved for a theatrical run, it’s nice to see it getting a measure of respect now.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

I must admit I was surprised by the quality of the Special Features on this disc, with commentary tracks, Making-of featurette, deletes scenes, and outtakes. Perhaps my favorite feature is a documentary on Creature Designer Gary Tunnicliffe. I’ve always been a sucker for both behind-the-scenes documentaries and the geniuses who create our favorite monsters, and a combination of the two will usually please me greatly.



IN CONCLUSION

Though I had expected a total disaster when I sat down to watch FEAST, my preconceptions were rapidly and completely blown away. This was one of the best films I watched last year, and it deserved a much wider theatrical release. But I’m pleased that we have it on DVD now, and I’ll be watching to see what’s next from Gulager. I still think he’s something of a train looking for a place to wreck, but he can turn out a great little Horror film. With a retail price around $20, it’s not exactly cheap, but it gets my hearty recommendation. Pick it up and judge for yourselves.

























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01 March, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dear Creature…

Fifty-four years ago this Tuesday, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released into theaters. With that release, a dedicated subset of Universal Horror fans was conceived, one of the most passionate of a passionate group of fans.

First, let me say that I love the Creature. Though he’s not my favorite of the Universal stable of monsters, he is by far the best of the Man-in-the Rubber-Suit fiends of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and for various reasons, his films have a special place in my heart. However, there are those for whom “the Gill-Man” inspires steadfast devotion and loyalty, almost to the point of fanaticism. Those for whom the phrase “Ben Chapman or Ricou Browning?” will start hour-long discussions, if not outright arguments, a’la “Less Filling’—‘Tastes Great!”

Don’t misunderstand me… a little fanaticism about your favorite films isn’t necessarily a bad thing… says the man who’s attended a STAR TREK con wearing Spock ears. Fanaticism is just another way to say devotion, or dedication, or passion. I’m certainly passionate about my love of the Universal Monsters, and appreciate the same in others.

The mere fact that Universal’s library of Horror films can inspire such a devoted following fifty, sixty, even seventy years after their original runs speaks volumes for the quality, the talent, the pure genius of the studio’s creative team.

As a faithful follower of the High Priests of Karnak, I myself have been guilty of a degree of fanaticism over my favorite monster, the Mummy. (Though the reports of my having injured several people in my zeal to grab the last remaining MUMMY Legacy set off the shelf were greatly exaggerated… one or two persons went down, at most, no matter what the lawyers say.) I know of Frankenstein fans who have built replicas of Kenneth Strickfadden’s laboratory props, and Dracula lovers who sleep in coffins.

These people are devoted to films that, in most cases, were made forty years before they were born… what is it that arouses such an emotional attachment to, of all things, a monster movie??
In the case of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, it’s no different from what stimulates the same level of devotion and commitment that’s displayed by fans of KING KONG. It starts with a story that’s essentially the same in both films, one you could say is as old as Eve and the serpent.

Though I’m the first to say that sometimes (to quote the father of sexual subtext, Sigmund Freud himself…) “A cigar is just a cigar…,” there’s no denying that there is a strong sexual theme to both movies. It may be more pronounced in KING KONG, but its presence is obvious in this film, as well. One of the most iconic images in ‘50’s Horror films is that of the Creature, watching in rapt attention as Kay, (Julie Adams in a career-making role…) white bathing suit shimmering in the sunlight, swims languidly above him. This can easily be compared to Kong’s fascination with Ann Darrow, as he plucked at her clothing, exposing her long white legs and arms. While the parallels may not be exact, they are certainly there; and both films are perfect examples of the “Beauty and the Beast” motif in cinema.

But while that may be why CFTBL, as well as KING KONG, were so successful in their initial runs, that doesn’t explain the continued popularity of the Creature. For that, we have to look at the text, rather than the subtext of the film.

First, you have the best-looking monster in American Horror and Sci-Fi cinema of the 1950’s. Let’s be honest—as much as we love those movies, some of those monster designs inspired far more laughter than fear. The gorilla with a fishbowl on his head from ROBOT MONSTER; “Beulah”, Paul Blaisdell’s creation from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, which looked like a squat cucumber; and the Martian Mutants from INVADERS FROM MARS are certainly representative of the creature creations that populated the matinees and Drive-In’s of the decade.

While Ray Harryhausen was doing spectacular work with stop-action animation on clay miniatures, and Toho would premiere the movie GOJIRA in Japan that same year, with the greatest example of a man-in-a-rubber-suit monster ever conceived, the Creature is hands down the best such American design.

Second, the story is simply one of the best of the decade; perhaps Universal’s best since FRANKENSTEIN twenty-three years before. Simple, stark, with a minimum of extraneous characters and dialogue, it functions beautifully by putting its cast in isolation with an unknown element, similar to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or ALIEN. Only this time, we’re the intruders in his environment, and the audience’s sympathies are drawn, quite naturally, to the Creature. He doesn’t attack out of greed, evil intentions, or even hunger. He’s simply fighting back against those who are violating his world, and we find ourselves rooting for him.

Also, the production values far outpace what was being done at most studios in the early fifties. While not approaching the budgetary heights that were lavished upon George Pal’s productions at Paramount, the budget for CFTBL certainly wasn’t small for the time.

Finally, there is the superb cast. Led by Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julie Adams, this stellar group of b-list journeymen turn in a tremendous performance, far exceeding the standard “Monster threatens girl, hero battles monster, hero defeats monster, hero saves girl…” format so prevalent in films of the era. While that is present, it’s much more subdued here. The characters are realistically drawn people, or as realistically drawn as possible given the times.
But I didn’t intend this to be a review of the movie, merely an invitation to a celebration. Fifty-four years ago this week, Universal gave birth to the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and like all great movie monsters, he’s still going strong. I for one just want to say “Happy Birthday, Gill-Man… swim on, dude!”









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Sexes in the Cinema: A Guy, A Girl, and A Gill-Man

When CreatureScape celebrated the 52nd anniversary of the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in the spring of 2006, Elizabeth Haney and John “The Unimonster” Stevenson took a closer look at this landmark film, from their unique perspectives across the aisle. Here’s that conversation, reprinted with gratitude to Elizabeth.

UNI: When you call yourself “Unimonster,” it’s just expected that you have an abiding love of all things Universal, especially one of their greatest creations. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON certainly qualifies as one of their best. One of Universal’s “Big Five”, it has long been one of the most popular of the Universal Franchises. To me, personally, “Creech” has always been the best of a great decade. Though many great horror and sci-fi films came out in the 1950’s, CFTBL was unique. It was a movie that never failed to entertain me as a child, and still entertains me now as a grizzled aging Monsterkid.

EH: Creature from the Black Lagoon ranks as one of my all-time favorite monster movies in part because it's one of my earliest monster movie memories from back in the days when I would sneak back out of bed to watch late-night horror movies on television. The Creature made a tremendous impression on me back then, and my affection for him keeps growing through the years; I feel like every time I watch the movie, I get to know him a little better. And to know a Gill Man is to love him.
One thing that really sets the Gill Man apart from some other monsters is how sympathetic a character he is; you really feel sorry for the guy as you watch what he goes through. This is classic Jack Arnold (the director); he was a master at creating circumstances so we see the events through the eyes of the “monster” and sympathize with that character.

UNI: Well, something that Universal did better than anyone else was to create characters that, while qualifying as “Monsters”, are nonetheless sympathetic, solid, three-dimensional beings. Often evil, always dangerous, but still, they had depth. They had, for want of a better term, soul. Anyone who doubts that needs to re-examine Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster in the original FRANKENSTEIN. The Creature stood apart from the common, ‘50’s B-Monster herd by giving us, not an atomically-mutated insect or invading alien, but a natural beast, at home in his element, posing no threat to anyone who did not threaten him. We transported ourselves into his world; we entered his home; we were, in essence, the invading aliens. He reacted no differently than would we in a similar situation, by fighting back with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

EH: As with other Universal monsters, it’s the look of the Gill Man himself that is a big part of why the movie is so outstanding. The artists who worked on concept of the Creature and then created such a wonderful costume, along with the work of the actors who portrayed the Creature, help to make us forget there is a human under there. However, the setting makes it very special as well. As a kid I was mesmerized by this small group of people trapped on a boat in an exotic jungle world. This was no rambling Gothic castle or ruined watchtower: these people were stuck on a tiny boat in a hostile jungle on a very big river until they wrangled themselves out of the situation. This was also the first time I saw a woman in an active role in a horror film. Even though it's pretty limited by today's standards, as a little girl it was pretty heady stuff having a character I could project myself into. Kay was there as a researcher, part of the team; she had a reason to be there, and wasn't tagging along as a fiancée or wife.

UNI: The location shooting (at Florida’s Wakulla Springs State Park, as well as the Universal backlot…) also set this movie apart. It was easy as a young boy to see myself on the Rita, cruising far up the headwaters of the Amazon. While Universal never turned out a totally bad looking piece of film, some photographer’s work was better than others, and William Snyder’s work was some of their best in the ‘50’s. As to Julie Adams’ unusually strong characterization of Kay… though I can now see how groundbreaking the role was, when I first saw her on the screen that was the furthest thing from my mind.

EH: I really envied Kay for her chance to have such an exciting adventure! And even though the Creature was a little scary to me when I was a little (and made a gal think twice about going for a swim), I think on some level I understood that this was a monster who was not going to bother you unless you bothered him. Now, as a grown woman, I get uncomfortable with some of the interpretations of the sexual subtext in the movie. Some people see the story merely as the male creature wanting to possess the female human, the creature being in competition with the human males, which can tweak the story into some kind of racist rape allegory. That is certainly not in keeping with what Jack Arnold strives for in his movies. Why would he create a sympathetic monster that you are supposed to relate to and then give it criminal or ugly motive?
The movie is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. It draws on elements from King Kong, but I think a major difference is in the character of Kay. Kay feels sorry for the Creature and we see and hear her express that clearly, in ways that Ann Darrow never did (or one might argue couldn’t). Kay even defends the Creature to the others and suggests they just leave him alone, and I really admired Kay for that!
To me, the more predatory battle for Kay is between the two human scientists, David and Mark. Their reactions seem so overblown and macho when they are pushed into competing for Kay, either between themselves or with the Creature.
Of course, there are two things that Mark wants and loves more than Kay. One is money and the other is that harpoon of his. And boy, does he love his harpoon. It's quite impressive in 3-D, and the corresponding dialogue when he describes the “positive weapon” is almost funny.
I see the Creature attracted to Kay not just for her beauty but because he sees someone with whom he relates. When David and Mark go diving in the water, it's very bold, and the sexual subtext is clearly there. The men prepare by putting on their scuba gear with grim determination. They penetrate the water, plunge, probe and generally intrude, bringing knives and harpoons no less.
Kay's approach to the water is completely different. She just smiles and slips into the water; no gear, no knives and harpoons, just Kay and her white bathing suit. Kay does not intrude in the Creature's world but flows into it. Kay delights in the beauty of the lagoon, appreciates the feel of the water on her body and her swimming says she is totally comfortable and at home. Small wonder the Creature feels he may have found a kindred spirit here. The Gill Man swims under her and matches her directions and strokes and when curiosity overcomes him he approaches her cautiously, gently, shyly and finally nervously touches her foot. It's almost a water ballet.
Even when the Gill Man pursues Kay in later scenes, I never get the impression he intends to harm her, which Kay also asserts in dialogue. This poor guy is lonely; whether he's been alone since the Devonian age or lost his mate or who knows what, Kay appears to be the first other being he's laid eyes on who understands and appreciates the beauty of his Black Lagoon. And she's not packing a harpoon.


UNI: While I might agree there is some sexual subtext, if not outright suggestiveness, in CFTBL, I don’t think I can agree with you on ALL of your points, Elizabeth. I mean seriously, even Freud might have a problem seeing a sexual context in the simple act of diving into the lagoon. I’ll admit you might have a point (no pun intended…) about Mark’s spear-gun… but sometimes a harpoon is just a harpoon!
Also, I do think there’s a certain sexual side to the Creature’s interest in Kay, just as I do think Kong had more than platonic feelings for Ann. It is a scientific fact that animals are attracted to menstruating women; animals such as chimps, orangutans, and dolphins have become aggressive in their interest for human women at that time. It’s not too hard to see that Creech could have such instinctive reactions. That hardly makes those impulses “criminal”; he is, after all, an animal. His actions, whether violence directed at the males of the expedition, or his interest in Kay, cannot, by definition, be criminal.
But I can’t agree with you enough on your description of how the Creature perceives Kay as she swims in the lagoon. In fact, I don’t think I could describe the scene any better than you did. It’s obvious that the Creature is captivated by Kay, perhaps to the point of obsession. As I watch the movie now, I can recognize the point at which the Creature’s motivation ceases to be the desire to eliminate a threat, to his growing curiosity and fascination with the woman.
Of course, none of this mattered, or even occurred to a nine year-old boy watching this movie for the first time while sitting three feet away from the TV late one Saturday night. I just wanted to see what all the monster-mags stacked in the corner of my bedroom were calling such a great classic. To me, classic meant Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy… maybe the Wolf-Man. Anything with so hokey a name as CREATURE in the title was usually relegated to the “Good, but not great…” pile in my mind. I’m happy to say that the magazines were right, and the Creature did, indeed, exceed my expectations.

EH: During that famous swim scene where the Creature sees Kay in his lagoon, I’ve often wondered about the wonderful white bathing suit and how much of the costuming choice there was deliberate and how much was just good fortune in terms of the effect it created. It’s white, and I’ve wondered if that was to emphasize the purity of Kay’s character, or if it was to create the wonderful image of just her shapely figure when backlit from above and filmed underneath, or perhaps a little of both, which creates some tension for the viewer. Julie Adams said that at the time the suit was almost a little racy, with the higher cut leg openings. My mother, who was a teen and worked in a movie theater when the movie came out, said seeing “Creature” inspired her to go shopping for a white bathing suit that year.

UNI: Kay’s pure white swimsuit is one of the iconic images that you carry with you from this film, and one that serves to illustrate just how powerful and effective Black & White photography could be. The stark contrast between her shimmering figure and the black and gray tones of the lagoon as she swam couldn’t have been just a fortuitous accident; it’s the job of the cinematographer to make such shots happen, and Snyder did that to perfection.

EH: Another scene that always impressed me, even way back, is when the Gill Man observes Kay toss a cigarette overboard. Growing up, my folks emphasized the importance of not littering and with a father who was an avid fisherman I spent a lot of time peering off the sides of boats. The camera captures such a powerful image there, the cigarette butt floating down in the water and the Creature observing this in a very bemused fashion. It seems like that little shot is intended to emphasize what was slowly happening in the lagoon. For me, a shift seems to occur at that point, it ups the ante a bit and his actions (even towards Kay) become more urgent and aggressive. Perhaps the Creature, who thought Kay saw his world the way he did, was disappointed to see her tossing junk in his water.

UNI: While my jerking knee is telling me that that’s a case of overanalyzing the scene, there’s enough documentation to establish that the environmental aspects of it were emphasized, as if the complicated shot set-ups weren’t proof that it was meant to be of some significance. I’m not sure that I see the change in attitude that you refer to, though. While the audience would grasp the significance of Kay’s polluting the pristine lagoon, however symbolically, I would argue that the Creature has no inkling that the item she tosses overboard was anything more than these strange creatures’ waste matter… certainly I would deny that Creech was “anti-smoking.”

EH: It’s fun to revisit this movie and celebrate the special people and circumstances that worked together to create not only a great monster movie, but to give birth to an iconic monster figure. How fortunate we are that “Captain” Jack Arnold and crew sailed down the Amazon and gave us the opportunity to discover, meet and love the Gill Man, and how fortunate we are to have him still with us today!

UNI: I agree completely with that, Elizabeth. You know, it’s been over thirty years since I first saw this film, and since then, I’ve probably sat through a hundred or so viewings of it. I’ve never been bored by it, and frankly, that’s a lot more than I can say for some of today’s films.






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DVD Review: Universal Monster Legacy Collection—CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

Title: Universal Monster Legacy Collection—CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

Year of Release—Films: 1954, 1955, 1956

Year of Release—DVD: 2005

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment





[Ed. Note: As I was working on this piece, news came that Ben Chapman, the gentle giant who gave life to the Gill-Man when he was out of the water in the first film, had succumbed to illness in a Honolulu hospital. He was 79.

Those who were fortunate enough to have met Ben often remark at how much he loved the fans, and how much he enjoyed interacting with them at the various conventions where he was a regular, and very popular, guest. Sadly, I never had that opportunity, and now it’s gone forever.

But his work, the work Monster-fans have loved for generations, lives on. And even those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have met the man can still visit with him, as often as we like.
]

THE MOVIES

One of the greatest monsters Universal ever created, the Gill-Man, starred in three features for the studio in the Mid-‘50’s: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, arguably the greatest American Horror film of that decade; REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, set, and filmed, in my home town, it’s always been a personal favorite, and; THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, the weakest of the trilogy.


When their first three Legacy Collections (DRACULA; FRANKENSTEIN; and THE WOLF-MAN…) became such huge hits among fans, Universal quickly decided to release three more sets, featuring their remaining top-tier franchises. Soon, fans were lining up to grab the MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, and, of course, the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON Legacy Collections.

The three CREATURE films are some of Universal’s finest, especially from the 1950’s. The first is perhaps the greatest American Horror—Sci-Fi film of the decade.

1.) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: The first, and definitely the best, of the Trilogy finds a party of scientists journeying up the Amazon in search of fossilized remains of a legendary fish-man. With Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julie Adams in the lead, and with Nestor Pavia doing an inspired job as Lucas, the captain of the riverboat Rita, the group discovers a good deal more than expected, as a living, breathing Gill-Man attacks these intruders into his domain. Jack Arnold’s sure direction keeps a less than ideal script moving, but it’s the superbly executed design of the Gill-Man, played on land by Ben Chapman and underwater by Ricou Browning, that transformed this film into the classic it is today.

2.) REVENGE OF THE CREATURE: My personal favorite of the series, due to it’s being filmed in and around my hometown of Jacksonville Florida, this entry finds the Creature captured and transported to the Ocean Harbor Aquarium in Florida. Once there, scientists John Agar and Lori Nelson study him, but he eventually escapes causing panic up and down the coast. Once again directed by Arnold, this lacks the iconic quality of the original, but works very well as a B-grade “Popcorn pic”, perfect for viewing with the kids on a Saturday evening.

3.) THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US: By far the weakest of the three films in the set, the final outing for the Gill-Man is the only one lacking Arnold’s deft touch, and it definitely shows. John Sherwood, who would direct the excellent THE MONOLITH MONSTERS for Universal a year later, clearly had no grasp on how to handle the Creature franchise. A party of scientists set out to capture the Gill-Man, now living in the Florida Everglades, and in the process manage to set him ablaze. Though injured severely, they are able to save his life by transforming him into an air-breather, thereby removing the Creature forever from his natural environment.

These Legacy collections were phenomenal, gathering together all the best of Universal Horror… and the CREATURE set was one of the best. With all three films featured, as well as new commentary tracks and special features, there’s something for every Gill-Man fan here.



THE DISCS

Though there were many reports of poor quality in the first three Legacy’s, Universal had most of the kinks worked out by the time they released the subsequent three volumes. At any rate, none of my sets evinced the problems encountered by others.

The sets themselves are objects of beauty, splendidly rendered packages for the treasures contained within. Using the Digipak® cases Universal Studios Home Entertainment favors for its special projects, these are about as close as you can get to bound library editions of DVD’s.
The two discs themselves are well-designed, with a common menu style and a simple, well-thought-out functionality. Every movie is subtitled; always a plus to the Unimonster, and the video and audio quality is far better than my beat-up old VHS’s.



THE SPECIAL FEATURES

The key Special Feature in the set is the documentary BACK TO THE BLACK LAGOON, hosted by film historian David J. Skal. This enjoyably entertaining look at the creation of Universal’s last Horror icon features interviews with such notable experts on the Gill-Man as Bob Burns, Monster collector extraordinaire and owner of the last Creature head taken from the original mold of Ben Chapman; and David J. Schow, author. Also interviewed are the three surviving (at that time…) major cast members: Julie Adams, Ben Chapman, and Ricou Browning. Lori Nelson, who played Helen Dobson in the sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, is also interviewed during a segment examining that film.

Each film also has an interesting and informative commentary track; of which, REVENGE’s is the best. It features Lori Nelson, Bob Burns, and Horror movie expert Tom Weaver, and is full of Nelson’s behind-the-scenes memories and insights that keep this from being just another dry lecture, as so many commentaries of older films are. For instance, the Gill-Man wasn’t the only one who had amorous intentions toward Helen; the director, Jack Arnold, also tried to arrange a private rendezvous, which Nelson was able to avoid with some adroit maneuvering.

Add in the standard poster and stills gallery, and the theatrical trailers, and you have a collection that will satisfy the most dedicated “Gillie.”



IN CONCLUSION

I’ve always loved the Creature; how could I not? No other Monster in the history of Horror, with the possible exception of Kong, is so innocent yet so put upon. In the space of three films, his habitat is invaded twice; he is shot, stabbed, harpooned, poisoned, dynamited, netted, burned, captured, carried halfway across the world, transformed through surgery, and has his heart broken… repeatedly! It sounds like a week’s worth of “General Hospital”, for God’s sake! He needs either the Humane Society, or a good personal injury lawyer.

Though the Legacy set are out of print, they’re still available through a variety of sources, and at reasonable prices. Everyone who considers themselves fans of classic Horror Films really must have, not only the Creature Legacy set, but all the Legacy’s. Or quit calling yourself a fan of classic Horror.

















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