A Week of Monsters – Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon

1954.  Directed by Jack Arnold.

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As the 3D fad of the early 1950’s was dying, studios opted to film Creature from the Black Lagoon in the medium in an effort to draw out its welcome.  Despite failing in that endeavor, the film features stunning underwater cinematography that has inspired horror films since its debut.  Unable to extricate itself from the romance angle, Creature from the Black Lagoon spends the majority of its time building suspense, presenting the man vs. nature conflict as a forefather of the slasher film.

Scientists searching for the missing link intrude on the lair of an amphibious humanoid holdout from the prehistoric age.  The creature begins to stalk its hunters in an effort to defend its home while simultaneously becoming enamored with the expedition’s lone female member.  Even for the time, the premise was overdone, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not defined by its plot.  It is the sum of an engaging fraternity of technical achievements that support one another to cement Creature as a subconscious definition of terror.

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William Snyder’s aquatic cinematography is timeless, building off preceding legends to form a sinister foundation for the future.  The underwater sequences are terrifyingly evocative, with compositions reminiscent of Night of the Hunter that later would be used by Spielberg in Jaws.  The black depths are offset by natural light flittering through the surface to illuminate a world unknown to man and yet essential to mankind’s evolution, symbolizing the dark symmetry of the story.

The creature’s design was conceived by Disney animator Millicent Patrick, though lead makeup artist Bud Westmore claimed credit for several decades.  Constructed by prosthetic artists from World War II the creature is an original amalgam of myth and legend that is not text based, another stark difference from the other Universal Monsters.  Ben Chapman remained in the body suit for over 10 hours each day.  Unable to sit down, he spent down time in a lake near the shooting location in Florida to stay cool, a real life parallel to the primordial onus endured by the beast.

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At its core, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an exploration of animalistic survival.  There are environmental underpinnings, but the film is best when taken as a horror story about confronting the unknown and the dangers of scientific discovery.  Many of the Universal films deal with the pathos of their monstrous leads and Creature side steps this in favor of focusing on the excitement of the reveal.  Whether it involves an innocent swim or an ill-advised showdown, Creature aims to unsettle with its simplicity and it mostly succeeds.

Available now for digital rental, Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the greatest horror films ever made, if only for its undeniable influence on the genre and its memorable cinematography.  Featuring remarkable costuming and makeup effects, this is the cornerstone of the Universal Monsters and a hallmark of American horror films.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace 


While not quite in the pantheon of powerhouse that the filmmakers intended it to be, Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace is still a bleak, devastating picture. This is a film about endings, and not resolute, satisfactory ones either. Set in a borderline derelict mining town somewhere in the rust belt, industry has come to a grinding halt, giving way to the inevitable rise of rural crime, spreading like a cancer across land that once flourished and prospered. Every character in the film meets their bitter end somehow, and what’s fascinating is that earlier in life they all could have been more whole, and come from some other, brighter genre film, but the lives they’ve led set them on the same course as their county, and one by one we see them reach the last bend in the road, and the light in their life unceremoniously flicker out, leaving a cold shell. If I’m making this sound depressing, I’m doing my job well. This is a soul crushing film, with no light at either end of the tunnel and all glimmers of hope already extinguished before the opening titles even show up, so just make sure you have Finding Nemo or Wallace & Gromit queued up next in line if you give it a go. Opening with a prologue that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know right off the bat what you’re in for, as we’re introduced to Woody Harrelson’s Harlan Groat, an absolute monster who runs everything from underground fight clubs to an intricate web of meth trade in the region. Groat is at odds with steelworker Russell Baze (An implosive Christian Bale), a hard man with anger issues just looking for an excuse to get fired up. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck in the film’s best work) is a broken Iraqi war vet who got on the wrong side of Groat’s gang, and has since disappeared. Since the law won’t venture into the near mythic backwood hills where Groat skulks, Baze goes vigilante, waging personal war and raging against a light that has long since gone dead. This is a big cast we’re looking at here, and some of the subplots either distract from the main show or just seem like overkill, like Zoe Zaldana as Russell’s ex who has since shacked up with the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), or an underused Sam Shepherd as his uncle Red. Willem Dafoe has a nice bit as a seedy but sympathetic local gangster though, it’s always nice to see him, as well as Tom Bower as the salt of the earth bartender. It’s all about Woody and the danger he brings, he’s terrifying in the most mundane of exchanges, and lethal when he gets worked up. The feeling of economic decay follows him like a noxious cloud, his brittle ruthlessness a mascot for the hard times that many a town in the US has fallen on in recent years. One need only look at the poster to see the obvious and intentional shades of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and though the film wears its influences on its heavy flannel sleeve, it finds its own dark, despairing poetry, and leaves you gutted in the final, anticlimactic frame. 

-Nate Hill

Review of T2 TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova. Directed by Danny Boyle. Rated R. 117 minutes. 2017.

Stewing in nostalgia is no way to go through life, but it’s the only way the characters in T2 Trainspotting know how to live. The film, catching us up on the lives of characters to whom we were introduced in 1996’s rambunctiously enjoyable Trainspotting, also stews in that sense of nostalgia, much of it empty, because while the ending of the first film certainly hinted at an enormous amount of interpersonal conflict between its characters through the self-preservative actions of one of them, this film only deals with that conflict when the machinations of John Hodge’s screenplay allow it to do so. Instead of dealing honestly with its wounded characters, director Danny Boyle inserts each of them into separate plots, then shifts randomly between them. The sense of focus and rhythm has been replaced by routine.

One of the plots dedicated to these characters works surprisingly well, and that would be our reunion with Spud (Ewen Bremner), whose position as the comic-relief of the central foursome hasn’t really changed. There’s a sense of melancholy to the character this time around, as we learn that his wife Gail (Shirley Henderson) has left him, with their son in tow, after he relapsed and spiraled into the drug world once more. There’s also a lot of potential in what we learn about what Renton (Ewan McGregor), the de facto leader of the group, has done in the interim since making off with almost all of the money owed to the others. The only one to whom he gave any money was Spud, who of course abused his chance at an escape. Spud is in the middle of attempting suicide when Renton is reunited with him and saves his life.

If these two are the ones who are treated as genuine characters, the others in the group are treated as narrative devices. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has been leading a life of con artistry with Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), blackmailing upper-class society people with forged sex tapes to take a considerable portion of their income. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been in prison, although he breaks out by staging a shivving with a fellow prisoner and being sent to hospital. When he gets out, he can’t wait to get back into his life of crime, even going so far as to employ his son in a scheme that nearly goes terribly awry. Much of these threads is played as comedy, although Sick Boy’s schemes quickly evaporate as the film sees less and less use for them and Begbie’s animosity toward Renton (once the film, in its last act, finally reunites the two) leads to a massive shift in tone as it all becomes a caper with a horror-movie killer as the predator.

Interwoven through this surprisingly thin material is a movie that consistently looks backward with an oddly misplaced sense of fondness that misses the point of the earlier film. There was at least a bit of optimism in that film, particularly when Renton twisted an anti-drug advertisement to look forward; here, he gets a similar moment that has itself been twisted into something as cynical as how he once viewed Scotland. He eventually turns to his old ways, which feels like an obligation in a screenplay that also contrives for Diane (Kelly Macdonald) to return for one scene to pass judgment on Renton. With T2 Trainspotting, Hodge and Boyle commit an act of revisionist history that feels dishonest, both toward its audience and toward characters who, for all of their flaws, deserve better.

Review of POWER RANGERS

Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G. Directed by Dean Israelite. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes. 2017.

There is a solid start, as well as a firm foundation in its characters, to Power Rangers. That is a surprise for this adaptation of the goofy television series that has just recently entered its 24th season and is primarily known for the over-the-top brand of karate-infused acrobatics employed by the titular superheroes to defeat various, fantastical villains and monsters. In fact, director Dean Israelite and screenwriter John Gatins barely seem interested in introducing the Rangers of the title until the point at which its climax begins, and that ends up being a good decision. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because for a long time, it’s easy to rally behind these misfits-turned-heroes, thanks to genuine chemistry between the actors and a screenplay that considers how they must end up being Rangers.

The effect is a nice deviation from the beats of the plot that we expect, but it only lasts so long. Until that point, we are introduced to those eventual heroes. The first three meet in detention. Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger, is a disgraced football champion who got into trouble with the law after an incident involving a male bull that was confused for a female cow (Think about it) and an ensuing chase with police. Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, was involved with an unfortunate candid-photo incident that drove her to knock a tooth from her boyfriend’s mouth. Billy (RJ Cyler), the Blue Ranger, accidentally blew up his lunchbox. There is an amusing energy to the scenes between the heroes, who also ultimately include Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, and Trini (Becky G.), the Yellow Ranger.

This is especially true after the driving narrative is established. The fivesome merge after an incident at a closed-off work site leads them to some glowing rocks and a collision with a train that unintentionally binds each of them to the color signified above. They meet Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a former Ranger who died burying the rocks in order to secure the destiny of five future warriors, and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader), the remarkably annoying robot who has been waiting 65 million years for these warriors. It becomes clear that the warriors could technically have been any five people who stumbled across the glowing rocks, but whatever: They must save the universe from the clutches of Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a villainous villainess of villainy who is searching for some sort of other glowing rock thing that’s been hidden away in a Krispy Kreme location (seriously) and who has a leviathan made of gold as her main lackey.

The best scenes of the teenagers accepting their destinies as Rangers include the initial discoveries of their increased strength and speed, a training montage that might be a montage but seems more focused on the physical comedy of teenagers whose hormones are raging as much as their new powers, and a fireside chat in which we learn about some of the issues plaguing the kids (Zack’s mom is ill, Trini is currently questioning her sexuality, Billy is autistic, and Jason and Kimberly are suffering from the ennui of their dull existence in the town). The particulars of the plot held by Rita are hogwash whose conclusion has apparently been left to the inevitable sequel, and the build-up to the climactic action set piece, in which the characters don their suits for the first time, is so long that, when it comes, the visually ugly chaos that ensues is all but entirely anticlimactic. Power Rangers is intriguing enough to make one wonder where a series spent in the company of these characters might lead, but then it becomes a Power Rangers movie.

JAN DE BONT’S SPEED — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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This is a totally smashing, R-rated action-adventure film, made back in the good-old-days-90’s before the obnoxious and lazy practice of smothering your film in needless, endless CGI became the new norm; no swirling vortexes in the sky to be found here! Joss Whedon and Graham Yost’s zippy and propulsive screenplay presents fully fleshed out characters that are sympathetic and still resemble actual human beings, while the villain that dominates the narrative is especially well-considered and performed by Dennis Hopper. Cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont never crafted a better film while sitting in the helmer’s chair, bringing his innate widescreen visual sense to each robust set-piece, with ace lenser Andrzej Bartkowiak doing some seriously muscular work behind the camera. The pulse-pounding musical score by Mark Mancina amps up the thrills to the max, with leading man Keanu Reeves dropping one of his signature performances, with Jeff Daniels, Sandra Bullock, Alan Ruck, Joe Morton, and many more all doing invaluable back-up work. I can vividly remember seeing this on the big screen on opening night, and how it sent shivers of excitement down my spine. And the best part – this is a movie that proudly holds up over 20 years later, casually brushing off the watered-down, PG-13 competition that has been plaguing the genre for years.

3

A Week of Monsters – The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man

1933.  Directed by James Whale.

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The Universal Monsters pantheon has a central theme of loss, with all of the stories focusing on a creature’s bereavement, be it from an errant loved one or surrendering to the murderous side of their nature.  James Whale’s The Invisible Man breaks this trend by focusing on the narcissistic aftermath of the protagonist’s transition from mild mannered scientist to preternatural madman.  A groundbreaking display of special effects enhances a sordid tale of discover gone awry, departing from traditional romantic Gothic themes and delving into the realm of criminal mayhem.

Claude Rains stars as the titular villain, a promising scientist whose experimentation with pharmaceuticals renders him invisible and unhinged.  R. C. Sheriff’s script weaves a farcical tale of madness and murder, with Rains’ interpretation of the material hearkening back to Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films, foreshadowing the eventualities of a certain Clown Prince.  The Invisible Man works best when the serious and slapstick combine, keeping the horror and pitch black comedy in harmony while never taking itself too seriously, but also never submitting completely to the satire.

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John Fulton’s special effects are vintage wizardry of the highest form.  The Invisible Man’s presentation and the use of wires to simulate obfuscated hijinks are jaw dropping considering the time.  While other films had the luxury of a visible monster, Fulton capitalized on the lack of a physical being, allowing the viewer’s mind to conjure the wickedness, making the film’s first act an unforgettable sequence of smoke and mirrors not often replicated to this day.  Una O’Conner’s squeamish innkeeper contrasts the underscored menace of Rains’ mysterious patron, leading to one of the film’s best, and absolutely hilarious scenes.  Despite the laughs, the film maintains an edge, staying loyal to the blackness that pulses through the heart of the story.

Murder is a complex undertaking.  Pre-code Hollywood was unrestricted, allowing Whale to take H. G. Wells’ novel into a realm of anarchy that continues to inspire cinematic villainy to this day.  This is reflected in several monologues that highlight Rains’ sinister transition by way of his relationship with an unwilling colleague, expounding upon the nebulous morality at the heart of Wells’ classic novel.  While it is the experiment that fractures the Invisible Man’s mind, it is the absence of identity, the unfettered freedom of true anonymity which calls to the dark heart of indulgence.

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Available now for digital rental, The Invisible Man is one of the strongest entries among the Universal Monster films. A maniacal central performance, a layered script, and cutting edge special effects work in tandem to allow Whale’s directorial prowess to deviate from narrative conventions to produce a chilling film that explores greed and mental duress, both of which are bathed in the shadow of gallows humor that infuses every scene of this essential film.

Highly Recommend.

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