THE WOLF MAN – It was six years after Bride of Frankenstein before Universal created a new monster classic. They had been thriving in the silly sequels of their initial successful fright franchises, but in 1941 they finally opted to try a new story. The Wolf Man was the first original Universal Classic created completely out of thin air. Well, thin air and a little help from legend and lore. This was the one I watched the most, and while it remains my favorite in a very nostalgic sense it is clear the dip in quality from the Whale productions of the Frankenstein pictures and The Invisible Man. That being said, I don’t believe The Wolf Man or those involved ever set out to make a grandiose picture on the level of the Whale thrillers. This film and this character had a more everyman feel, something less celestial and more human at its core than the bloodthirsty undeads or the mad scientists of the past.
Author Larry Taylor
“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters!”…
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) - Watching these films so close together, it is easy to tell the quality fluctuation between the Universal Monster Classics not directed by James Whale, and those with Whale behind the camera. To this point Frankenstein, also directed by Whale, is the best of the early three entries in the pantheon. And now we have Whale’s second horror feature, The Invisible Man. Full of life, vigor, and a little more off kilter than the previous three films, The Invisible Man has always been, and remains, one of my absolute favorites. As mad as its protagonist, the film manages to squeeze in a little zaniness to the proceedings, perhaps understanding the ludicrous science at the core. It may not always be mentioned in the same breath as the first three features, but make no mistake, this Universal Monster Classic is among the absolute finest.
With only eight feature films on his record, it’s safe to say the jury is still out on the career of Paul Greengrass. Don’t get me wrong, promise has been shown, and Greengrass has developed a signature style, one that many filmmakers have borrowed from and tried to recreate. That is the sign of, if anything, an influential director. Greengrass’s films don’t show a great deal of range, and at this point he could be easily categorized as an action auteur. His films are action films at their most base level, but they are heady action films where explosions and gunfights are certain to come with emotional ties. Aside from perfecting a major franchise, the work of Greengrass has surrounded harrowing real-life narratives. And speaking of these true stories, whatever his career holds going forward, I believe Paul Greengrass has already passed his toughest challenge as a filmmaker.
I blamed my apathy towards Karl Freund’s The Mummy on my youth. As a youngster, pouring through the catalogue of Universal Monster Classics, I could never make it all the way though The Mummy. And by all the way I mean after the opening scenes set in 1921, my attention waned every second thereafter. So I went into the film apprehensive, but with an open, older mind. The result was just about the same. The Mummy never connected with me, and is still the slightest, most forgettable of the Universal Classics. It begins with some moments of brilliance, but the story begins treading water until it drowns under the weight of melodrama and stiff dialogue. No matter the performance of Boris Karloff, the picture never gains any dramatic traction.
The introduction by Edward Van Sloane, on behalf of legendary Universal producer Carl Laemmle (whose son, Carl Jr., is primarily responsible for this surge of horror films), is perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire film. It adds theatricality and dread, and Van Sloane’s delivery is perfect. With a sly grin and a threatening wit, Van Sloane sets the stage for an intensely gothic tale. Where Dracula has grown dated and transformed into simply a study of film history, many images from Frankenstein still resonate and carry a certain chilling suspense and dramatic flair.
October is, for my money, the best month of the year for a myriad of reasons. The reason applicable here involves Halloween, and the urge to consume scary movies almost on a daily basis as the leaves and the weather change outside. There are great scary movies, some not so great, and then there are the classics. Universal’s monster movies may no longer be frightening to most, but they are the most important horror films in the history of cinema. The scares may have become outdated, but without the unmatched run of great classic monster movies Universal Studios released over twenty plus years, so many films would never have happened. It’s debatable where the Universal string began; some may site Lon Chaney’s silent masterwork, The Phanton of The Opera, as the kick off. I site Dracula as the official, unofficial, beginning of greatness for Universal and all those wonderful actors, directors, and filmmakers involved in creating unforgettable characters and pictures.
Where does Ron Howard fit into the pantheon of great American directors? He’s hard to categorize and even harder to notice at times. Perhaps it is because his work typically carries no signature. There are obvious elements to the majority of Martin Scorsese’s films, be it thematic or editorial, that signify he is the man behind the camera. Paul Thomas Anderson delivers his own brand, as do The Coen Brothers, Spielberg, and on and on. But Ron Howard has never pinned down anything to differentiate his work. This is both a strength and a weakness when considering the portfolio of the child actor turned prolific American filmmaker. His nondescript style allows Howard to remain versatile in his work, but it also makes some of his lesser films feel generic and, ultimately, unrewarding. But every director has their misfires along the way, so perhaps the fact that his directing comes without the fanfare of a Darren Aronofsky or a ___ allows his poorer films to slide by everyone a little easier.
Prisoners is the first in a long and seriously credible line of fall films for people who have graduated high school. There are no explosions, no fart jokes, no capes or superheroes. Well, no superheroes in the traditional sense. But there is a great deal of tension, of drama, of thrills and tears and grit and moments where you will often forget to breathe. Prisoners is a phenomenal thriller with a group of actors who I could watch stand in an elevator together for two hours. Lucky for us, though, they have some meaty roles to embody here, full of conflict and humanity, and a screenplay full of twists and turns that keep the momentum pushing forward.
Editing can make or break a film. Everything on a picture comes together in the editing room, and clumsy cut and paste can hinder continuity, mood, and momentum of any movie out there. A Single Shot, the new thriller starring the great Sam Rockwell, seems to suffer from editing malfunctions along the way. What could have been a slick, mean, dark mountain thriller turns into a choppy, slow, sometimes confused drama with bright spots that are undercut by a lack of explanation. The film looks great, the performances are compelling, but if the structure of the film cannot support the acting, then you get something that is ultimately a mess.