Thursday, October 8, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #8 - Carrefour

I used to watch zombie movies. A LOT. These days, though, I just don't care much about the newer stuff. I think maybe watching so many of them for my old podcast might have burned me out a bit, and I had some things happen in my personal life that drove me away from a lot of modern horror anyway.

That said, I still like a good black-and-white zombie flick. And I Walked With a Zombie (dir. Jacques Tourneur) is one of the best. I first saw this film before I got into podcasting, but I can't remember exactly when. I do know the first time I started taking the movie seriously was, again, when I was asked to appear on the B-Movie Cast. I was taken with the film. It's beautifully produced and wonderfully acted. The story works on a number of levels, and there are so many things to see and learn in the film. I did talk about the movie with writer Paul McComas on my own Monster Kid Radio podcast (here and here), and, honestly, I can keep talking about it on any podcast or other platform.

Darby Jones appears as one of the most iconic zombies in all of film history in this film. As Carrefour, he has little screen time. The time he spends on screen, however, is so captivating, so moody . . . SO GOOD.

Jones would come back as the zombie Kalaga in Zombies on Broadway (dir. Gordon Douglas), but he's not nearly as effective here. I blame the make-up being slightly askew and the direction just not being as tight. Even the presence of the master Bela Lugosi doesn't help (although it is interesting to see Lugosi in another zombie film after the ground breaking White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin)).

Darby Jones doesn't need anyone to help him stand out as a zombie in I Walked With a Zombie. He just needs a bit of shadow, a touch of atmosphere, and some loving cinematography, all of which I Walked With a Zombie provides.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #7 - Professor Henry Morlant

After Boris Karloff made a horror name for himself with Frankenstein (dir. James Whale) and The Mummy (dir. Karl Freund) in the states, he returned home to England to reunite with his family, and ended up making a film in his homeland as well. That film was 1933's The Ghoul (dir. T. Hayes Hunter), and while Karloff himself might not have had the grandest of times making the movie (he wasn't a fan of make-up artist Heinrich Heitfeld, who reportedly didn't speak English), I still find the film enjoyable and creepy.

Throw some faux-Ancient Egyptian elements into a film, and I'm hooked. I love that aesthetic, and that's a big part of the reason I love most mummy films (which I'm sure I'll get to as this month continues!). Karloff himself was in one of the (if not the) best mummy films, so to see him continue to skulk around an Egyptian tomb in The Ghoul was a real treat.

Karloff, as always, is a delight, and to see him in another movie with Ernest Thesiger is a bonus. Also, The Ghoul expertly incorporates a bit of Richard Wagner's "Der Götterdämmerung" into its soundtrack. (Previously, I'd been associating that music with Excalibur (dir. John Boorman), but I think I dig it a LOT as a funeral march now!)

This is the lanky, younger Karloff, so he's this thin creep of a man in the movie, and his performance (combined with the make-up) gives him the look of a professor-turned-ghoul. He exacts his revenge on those who've wrong him . . . and it's unnerving. I'm purposefully being vague about many more details of the movie because it really is something I think more people should see for themselves!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #6 - Teenage Werewolf

Speaking of werewolves . . . man, do I wish I Was a Teenage Werewolf (dir. Gene Fowler, Jr.) was available on DVD. I used to own it on videotape YEARS ago, and I watched it a LOT. When I first discovered it, I found it endlessly amusing that the "Little House on the Prairie"/"Highway to Heaven" guy was in a monster movie.

Image from eBay
How did I first discover the film? Junior high school. For some reason or other, on Halloween, my 7th grade science teacher brought in the taped-from-television "Highway to Heaven" episode I Was a Middle Aged Werewolf (dir. Michael Landon) for us to watch. (He also once brought in a recorded episode of the game show Joker's Wild featuring him as a contestant. I'm not sure what any of that had to do with science. That science teacher would also go on to become mayor of Cheyenne, WY.)

I eventually got my hands on the VHS release of the movie, along with I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (dir. Herbert L. Strock) and How to Make a Monster (also dir. Herbert L. Strock) at the local mall's Musicland store. Of the three, I found myself loving the two Teenage... movies the most. (I do wish Landon would have returned for How to Make a Monster.)

Before launching Monster Kid Radio, I appeared as a guest on the B-Movie Cast to talk about the two I Was a Teenage... films with Vince and the gang. Since then, I honestly don't know if I've sat down to watch the movie from start-to-finish (see Counting Down the Monsters #3). That said, I still can recall the story beats, the performance that made Whit Bissell one of my favorite actors from this era, and even that musical number. The image of Michael Landon grabbing his head when he hears the bell ringing is iconic, and the werewolf design is solid (and really does deserve more respect, even if the Alka Seltzer-like drool is a LITTLE over the top). Even just typing this, I'm remembering the scene in the high school gym and the camera shot that was shot upside down. This film has stuck with me for years.

My favorite memory of watching the film comes from my film school days. One Halloween day/night, my friend Matt came over to my dorm room, and we made our way through a marathon of monster movies. We started the evening with my VHS copy of "The Muppet Show - Monster Laughs with Vincent Price," and made our way through a handful of movies before we eventually called it a night/early morning. I Was a Teenage Werewolf was one of the movies in the mix, and since Matt and I were both film students and thought we'd be filmmakers when we grew up, we started talking about what a potential remake would be like. We decided we'd want a female lead, and for some reason, Anna Chlumsky was who we wanted. These days, I wouldn't want to see this film remade. I'd just settle for an official DVD or blu-ray release.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #5 - The Wolf Man

Of all the classic Universal monsters - maybe even of all of classic monsterdom period - The Wolf Man is perhaps one of the most sympathetic. The first time I saw the Wolf Man in a film wasn't in his own movie. Instead, it was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (dir. Charles Barton) (which also happened to be the first time I saw Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster - or heard the Invisible Man - in a movie as well!), but even in that movie at the end of his run, the Wolf Man made me feel more than any other monster.

As I got older, I started to understand more and more why I felt for Larry Talbot. He didn't ask for his curse, and he was constantly doing the best that he could to survive it and protect those around him/those he loved. The way he walked was indeed thorny, and I think on some level, I resonated with that as a kid.

My teenage years? I thought werewolves were just COOL. There was something about how beastial they were that thrilled me. I always wanted to dress up as one for Halloween, and managed to do so one year with a mask. It wasn't Lon Chaney, but it was something.

These days, I still think there's a "cool" factor when it comes to werewolves. But the Wolf Man . . . Lon Chaney, Jr., made that role his own, and perhaps channeled more of his own personality and struggles into the character than Lugosi did into Dracula or Karloff did into the Monster. Lon's demons took their toll on him over the years, and there's an eerie prescience to his performance as a man who can't control the monster within himself.

You can see this in all the Universal films in which the Wolf Man appears, but The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner) is the most poignant for me. It's in this film we see Lon-as-Larry before the lycanthropy. The film gives us a contrast between the human and the werewolf, a before and after view of a character that would take us through five films.

And I love every one of them.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #4 - Joseph Curwen

The first weekend of October is the 20th Annual HP Lovecraft Film Festival, so I'm definitely in a Cthulhu-mood. I've been attending the festival for years, and every year, it just gets better and better. As a monster kid, I'm always looking for some classic (or not-so-classic) monster movies involving Lovecraft to add to my movie watching record.

Released in 1963, The Haunted Palace (dir. Roger Corman) was the first feature film to tackle adapting an H. P. Lovecraft story. Based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," the film uses the title of an Edgar Allan Poe poem to link the film to the other Corman-directed Poe adaptations of the time. Vincent Price plays Charles Dexter Ward and his ancestor Joseph Curwen.

Vincent Price was a master actor, and he was more than capable to play both the antagonist and protagonist of the film. His Charles Dexter Ward is sympathetic, but his Joseph Curwen is dastardly and downright rotten. He's wicked. He's manipulative. And he bosses Lon Chaney, Jr., around, and it takes a lot of monster to tell the Wolf Man what to do!

I watched this movie most recently when Dr. Gangrene and I talked about the film on Episode #210 of Monster Kid Radio (and that was then that I became fascinated by Daniel Haller who was the Art Director on this film, and then would go on to be the director of two other Lovecraft adaptations - Die, Monster, Die! and The Dunwich Horror - I really should try to learn more about that guy!).

Vincent Price is always a pleasure to watch. Whether he's the hero or the villain, he's instantly watchable and magnetically charismatic, which are some of the qualities that make his Joseph Curwen such a great villain and monster.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #3 - King Kong

Because of how I discovered the classic monster movies and the haphazard way I finally got around to seeing a lot of these films, there are some pretty big holes in my monster-movie-viewing. I've made up for a lot of lost time (like with my binge watching every kaiju film I could get my hands on once I finally watched Godzilla vs. King Kong (dir. Ishirō Honda) a few years ago), but there are still a few gaps.

Like the King Kong-sized gap that I didn't fill until 2013.

That's right. I'd never sat down to watch King Kong (dir.  Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack) front start to finish until I saw it on the big screen at the Hollywood Theatre.

I'll wait a moment to let that sink in.

Kind of crazy, huh? The producer of Monster Kid Radio HADN'T seen King Kong? Well, the thing is, I HAD seen parts of King Kong here and there. I knew about the movie; I knew what happened in it; I'd seen pictures and stills and clips. I suspect what happened when I first started watching these classic monster movies, I stayed pretty close to the Universal monsters, and King Kong wasn't part of that pantheon.

That's since been corrected, of course. I've watched the movie more than once since that 2013 screening . . . from start to finish.

And, wow, isn't it FANTASTIC?

I love these classic monster movies because they're MORE than just movies to me. I can watch these movies, and enjoy them for what they are. But I can also detach myself a little and start looking at things like the production and design, the outlook on society, the portrayal of the mores and tropes of the time. This typically gets me REALLY excited about a movie.

And that not only do I get to do this with King Kong, but I also get to marvel at the groundbreaking stop motion animation.

It's easy to get so involved with that stop motion - and rightfully so - but there's so much more to this film. The music. The performances. The camerawork. It's a motion picture triumph.

Wrapped around one heckuva monster.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #2 - Dracula (Universal)

As much as the Universal machine likes to put the Frankenstein Monster front and center on nearly all of their merchandise featuring the classic monsters, Dracula (dir. Tod Browning) seems to me to be the "more important" of the films. This isn't a commentary on its quality (or Frankenstein's (dir. James Whale)). Simply, Dracula was the first of what we now recognize of the Universal classic monster movie cycle (a few earlier silent films notwithstanding). Without the success of Dracula, we simply wouldn't have all these resulting wonderful monster movies (and I don't want to think about a world without these films . . . and what they ushered into the world!).

A big part of the success of Dracula is undeniably Bela Lugosi. Hands/fangs down, no question. The man is charismatic, charming, scary, alluring . . . everything Dracula needed to be (in that movie). While this was not the first film in which I saw Bela Lugosi, it certainly left a massive impact on me.

Apparently Dracula also made an impact on my friend Bobby who lived across the street from me when we lived in Montana (I would have been between eight- and ten-years-old). One Halloween night, we went trick or treating and he was dressed up as Dracula. I was a pirate that year. (What? Not a monster?!?) When people answered their door for us, he would say, "I vant to suck your blood."

I'd quickly follow that up with, "Don't mind him. He's just a pain in the neck."

We thought we were hilarious (for kids somewhere between eight- and ten-years-old).

I don't think I ever dressed up as Dracula myself for Halloween, or even as a vampire at all. If I did, it had to have been when I was very young. As I got older and started doing my own make-up and creating my own costumes, I never attempted Dracula or any vampire at all, really. I don't have the straightest teeth, and the plastic vampire fangs didn't fit comfortably in my mouth. I always kind of wanted to be a vampire for Halloween, though, but even with more advanced vampire fang make-up/costume supplies, I still can't make them look right in my mouth.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Countdown to Halloween 2015 - Counting Down the Monsters #1 - Frankenstein's Monster

Over the years, I've watched a lot of monster movies, and when October/Halloween rolls around, almost everything I watch movie-wise is a classic (or not-so-classic) horror film. As the producer of Monster Kid Radio and a co-producer of 1951 Down Place, I'm already watching them, but there's something about watching these movies when the weather outside has a slight chill in the air, the trees have turned a beautiful autumn color (that I can actually see despite a slight case of color blindness!), and trips to the grocery store can result in a sighting of Halloween masks or decorations. As far as I'm concerned, THIS is the most wonderful time of the year, and I love to celebrate it with my monster movies.

And they wouldn't be monster movies without the MONSTER.

It shouldn't be any surprise that when I first started discovering and exploring classic horror film, the Universal monsters were there to welcome me with outstretched (Bela-Lugosi-as-the-Monster) arms. The Crestwood House books featured more Universal monsters than any other, so I became aware of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the rest fairly early. Watching the movies for the first time was AN EXPERIENCE for me. By renting them on VHS, and eventually buying them (on VHS, then DVD, then Blu-ray, and sometimes even more than once on Blu-ray!), I've become used to having the monsters in my life, so much so that sometimes, I worry that I might be "too used" to them.

This Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to look at the monsters that populate some of my favorite classic monster movies and remind myself why I love them so much.

Frankenstein's Monster (Universal)

I think it's appropriate that I start this Countdown with perhaps the most identifiable of the Universal classic monsters. Frankenstein (dir. James Whale) wasn't the first Universal monster movie, but it's certainly become one of the most iconic for a number of reasons, not just the monster.

But, come on, the movie's great!

Frankenstein's Monster IS Boris Karloff. Of course the monster was played by other actors, and while your mileage may vary, I personally think every one of the other actors who did time in the flat top did something interesting with the character. But none of them surpassed what Karloff did with the character.

Perhaps because we monster kids know now that Boris Karloff was a gentleman and a genuinely nice guy, some of what made the monster scary and thrilling might have been dulled a little bit over the years for me. There is a childlike quality to Karloff's performance, and I can and empathize with that every time I watch the film, and maybe that's part of the reason I'm not scared of this Frankenstein's Monster.

But maybe that's the point. Frankenstein is a wonderful horror film, but it goes so much deeper than that. This monster, who demonstrates that he is capable of great destruction, is also an innocent and at times, it's his own . . . I hate to use the word ignorance, perhaps lack of understanding or experience is more appropriate . . . it's his own lack of understanding that leads to the death of other innocents. No matter his intentions, no matter how hard he tries, he's a monster first, and the world isn't ready to accept him or embrace him.

I can see how that might have resonated with a younger Derek who was tall and gangly growing up, who had asthma and wasn't athletically inclined or interested, who spent more time reading books or working on a computer than playing with the other kids at recess. (I suspect this isn't tied exclusively to my love of the Frankenstein Monster!).

I dressed up as the Frankenstein Monster for Halloween one year. I borrowed a set up children's football shoulder pads from someone, and made the headpiece out of strips of plaster fitted around the base of a baseball helmet. What I remember most about that costume is going to the roller skating party and tromping around the roller rink in that get up! I wasn't the best roller skater, and I fell a few times. Every time, I didn't use my hands to try to stop my fall. Instead, my hands always went up to my head to make sure the headpiece didn't fall off!

(This may be the only Countdown entry that relates to an old Halloween costume of mine.)