Friday, 22 July 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part four - Rumble in the Castle

Stitch this - fur flies in the original monster smack-down

Lon Chaney jnr, having played the Monster and the Wolf Man in their previous solo films,
was originally slated to play both roles in this film.
The monster mash-ups I’ve looked at so far have involved generally amicable meetings of monsters.  Disagreements are inevitable, but that hasn’t been the core of either Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Monster Squad, or Bride of Frankenstein.  This first sequel to The Wolf Man and fourth to Frankenstein was set up purely by Universal t have it’s two most profitable monsters ‘throw down’.  Despite going on to arguably eclipse the other horror-nati, Dracula wasn’t given a franchise of his own by Universal (even the Mummy got his own film series)! I’ll speculate on the reasons for this when we look at our next film.

But the fact that poor Bela Lugosi never received the recognition which he deserved at the time is undeniable, and here we see him reduced to playing the Frankenstein Monster - in his sixties.  He had famously turned down the role in his hey-day, rightly deeming it ‘not sexy enough’, and so unknown actor Boris Karloff took the role and his own name to undying stardom instead.

Didn't your mother tell you never to thaw out Monsters you don't know?
Not only were Lugosi’s speaking scenes cut in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (at this point the monster has the brain of Ygor - also played by Lugosi in a previous instalment), but so was any reference to him being blind as a result of that transplant.  This renders Lugosi’s flailing movements a little puzzling to audiences, but did also set the template for the arms-outstretched ‘Frankenstein Monster walk’, forever.
Another theory for Lugosi's lines being cut was the studio's reluctance in having a heavily European-accented antagonist delivering scripted dialogue about world domination in 1943. 
Either way, the Lugosi is more often doubled by stuntmen in this film - particularly in the climactic battle.

Or open wolfsbane-filled coffins on the night of a full moon?
In the other corner, poor Lawrence Talbot finds that the werewolf curse he gained in The Wolf Man also appears to make it impossible for him to stay dead.
In a splendidly creepy scene, Grave-robbers get the fright of their lives when they break into Talbot’s tomb, allowing moonlight to shine into the wolfsbane-filled coffin.
Revived and more determined than ever to rid himself of the curse, he travels to Universal’s fairy tale Europe to once again seek help from gypsy woman Maleva who only offers spectacularly bad advice.  She recommends a certain doctor familiar with the secrets of life after death - and they journey together to castle Frankenstein.

The first part of this film - the ‘Wolf Man sequel section’, is as good as anything Universal ever produced.  Lon Chaney jnr is as one note as ever, but it is the perfect note for his tortured character.  It is only when he thaws out and befriends the weakened Frankenstein monster that the film seems to veer off the rails.

Larry Talbot and the Monster seem to get on, but his alter-ego takes exception.
I first saw this with friends at a legendary Sunday Horrors session in my youth, and it certainly entertained. A scene beginning with an excruciating musical number, cut short by Talbot understandably losing his temper and ending with him leaving the scene on a horse drawn cart with the Monster kicking wine barrels off the back, is comedy gold.  We had to include that it was some elaborate improvised sequence performed to pad out the running time.

Our irritating hero - who begins the film as a normal surgeon but seems to rapidly graduate to international detective and mad scientist, has equally confusing motives.  Instead of curing Talbot and draining off the Monster’s remaining energy as promised, he suddenly decides to supercharge Lugosi instead.

No-one seems to have their heart in it in this publicity still -
but at least Ilona Massey as Baroness Frankenstein looks
like she's toppled out of a Hammer film.
This seems to both revive the Monster’s eyesight and his libido as well, promptly, and understandably, carrying-off the rather delicious Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.  Larry is having none of this however, and thanks to the experiment being carried out on yet another night of a full moon, transforms and defends the lady’s honour in a brief, but enthusiastic, tussle with Lugosi’s stunt double.

It all kicks-off in the castle - art by Joe Jusko
The biffo is cut short when the local publican, looking disturbingly like Benny Hill’s character from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, dynamites the dam above the castle and deluges the battling beasts in mighty flood. Hopefully it also wipes out the asinine villagers and our dull doctor/detective as well.  (Are we really supposed to care more about these extras than the monsters?)
And no, I haven’t made any of this up.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t love this film, because I do.  It is the original, definitive creature clash, rightly paid tribute to in the form of clips and music cues appearing in other movie matches to come - King Kong vs Godzilla, Freddy vs Jason and Alien vs Predator.

Universal itself was to repeat the multiple monster formula from here on, but sadly this film also sees the point at which the studio’s once prestigious Horror output dropped from A to B-movie status.

Marvel comics get in on the act in the early 1970s.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Cartoon carnival

How difficult can it be to be funny once a week?

NZ makes great films, but we'll always go back to 'hooning' (hopefully)

That lame title might give you an idea.  When 'I were lad' the local cinema used to present a ‘cartoon carnival’ - basically splicing together a whole programme of the cartoons which they usually played before movies.  Mr Magoo and Huckleberry Hound were all good and well in isolation, but a whole afternoon in the company of them and their friends could pale somewhat.
But the cinema made money and our parents got us out of their hair for a couple of hours.

This year I have been given a weekly cartoon to do - which sounds like, and is fun, but is not easy.
The only real stricture I’ve been given is to stay away from NZ politics, so as not to encroach on the sterling work of our immensely talented daily cartoonists. 
Mine is weekly, so I have to try to pick a subject which is current, but won’t be completely out-dated by the time Saturday rolls around.

The audience is predominantly female and probably looking for an amusing Saturday morning breakfast diversion rather than razor edged satire.  
There was much I wanted to say about Brexit, not so much about Britain's decision but the condemnation from other nations. Suddenly appearing to know all about the European Union and exactly what it meant for people living in the UK, questionably-informed shaming was sprayed all over social media. And as for critics from the US - get your own house in order first. PLEASE.
It’s a huge subject which I don’t know a great deal about either, so I’ll stop now - and I submitted a very non-judgemental illustration instead.

I try to keep it light, and possibly even amusing every so often. I will be taking swipes if I think an issue or person deserves it, though - I'm holding the pen!
But I have to admit it causes me agonies of self-doubt and apprehension every time I send a new cartoon for approval - so if any of you have ideas - do let me know!

A pet-hate of mine - and everyone else's apparently

And if you can't be funny - try going for a wry smile instead...

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part Three - Bridal Vile

Looking for love?  If you have the right connections it can be a straight-forward operation…

In our Ghoul Assembly monster-mash-ups series so far, we’ve looked at an Abbot and Costello comedy and a 1980’s coming-of-age family adventure.
This time, we’re looking at a romance - the great romance of horror cinema, even if it was a disastrous first date.

1935’s Bride of Frankenstein is cinema’s first big-budget horror sequel (as opposed to quick cash-in) and director James Whale’s masterpiece. Perhaps a little like Tim Burton and his smash hit 1989 Batman, when the studio finally convinced the director to do sequel he made his film first and foremost, which also just happened to have the title character in it.

Pretorius also has success in creating life - on a much smaller scale
I can’t agree that Bride of Frankenstein surpasses the original Frankenstein as it has been too long since I’ve seen that film, but film historians certainly think so. It is clearly a more expensive, expansive production, make-up genius Jack Pierce has perfected Karloff’s monster (looking more bulked-up and menacing in this film) and Ernest Thesiger’s fruity, frosty Dr Pretorius is one of macabre cinema’s greatest villains. 
His miniature creations still invoke a response of ‘how did they do that?’ today, and the cavernous expressionistic sets and painted skyscapes drip with atmosphere.

All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Elsa Lanchester’s startling bride. Horrifying and weirdly attractive in equal measure, her few, wordless moments on screen have earned the actress and her portrayal screen immortality. Perhaps the then current art-deco influenced fascination with ancient Egypt inspired her look: semi bandaged with an Egyptian head-dress style beehive which makes the bride look like an electrified Nefertiti.

Lanchester’s performance is also a masterstroke, conveying post-birth disorientation with her darting eyes and weird snaps of her head, and finally rejection of her intended mate with that goosebump-raising 'swan hiss'.

We only see this magnificent character for a few moments when she is barely aware and functioning - what a force she would have been at the height of her powers. Perhaps Billie Piper’s amazing performance in Penny Dreadful is an example of what might have been.

Elsa Lanchester also plays Mary Shelley, seen here with Percy Shelley and Byron,
in the prologue.  Her impressive decolletage was censored from the final film.

I have to be honest and say that the middle of the film, like the poor monster, tends to meander a little. But the final act makes it all worthwhile. It’s only appropriate that groom and wedding party are kept waiting for the bride.  Her eventual entrance, to a ghastly parody of wedding bells on the soundtrack, is unforgettable.

Here comes the Bride...

Sunday, 17 July 2016


I have to say; I think a critical error has been made

A recently released film has had a traumatic birth.  Wildly taken-against from the start, accusations of pointless and unwelcome rehashing of previous films, offensive stereotyping, miscasting and dodgy digital effects have cluttered the webisphere.
I saw it last night and am left feeling utterly mystified.  Not by the film itself, which we all gave a ten-out-ten, but the attitudes of people who surely go into a film with minds already made up and a grim determination to tear what is intended as a fun experience to bloody pieces.

I’m not talking about the fan tirade against the latest Ghostbusters, which seems to be happily entertaining audiences despite it all  (see Jamas's review here: but the critical lambasting of The Legend of Tarzan.

Really, film critics - what IS your problem?

Tarzan and friends about to bring a whole herd of trouble down on the slave traders army.
I know we seem to live in a world where to be interesting a literary hero apparently has to be a black clad, gravel voiced psychopath.  And CGI-ed violence apparently needs to distract an attention-deficited audience from their texting every other scene, but some of us still want a wholesome movie experience.

And The Legend of Tarzan is certainly that.  The intention of the film studio might be a cynical franchise building one, but the suits seem to have dropped that ball and somehow delivered a great night out for it’s own sake instead.  Which surely should be the point of a film about a man raised by apes.

Samuel L Jackson plays real-life figure George Washington Williams
The easy bulls-eyes this character has to wear have been addressed - the out-dated white saviour themes are rebalanced largely by a great performance from Samuel L Jackson and meaningful roles for the many African characters, our female lead is certainly no damsel in distress and animal cruelty is completely removed by removing animals.  The apes possibly fall under some digital effects scrutiny for knuckling through the uncanny valley - coming to close to ourselves and suffering from comparison with real humans.  But the other wildlife is beautifully realised - particularly in a surprising encounter with a pride of lions.

Surprise is a key word in this film. The plot may be linear and coherent, but like the many twists the jungle river which the villains must navigate takes, nothing ever feels predictable.
What is unsurprising is that the cast ‘get it done’. 
Alexander Skarsgard brings an enigmatic magnetism to John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, and an undeniable physical presence despite being no where near the steroid-engorged grotesquerie which contemporary Hollywood seems to demand of its heroes.  This is not an 'origin story', thank goodness, and so both actor and character have a mighty reputation to live up to when he returns to Africa.  Despite a shaky start, Tarzan’s legend is fulfilled. 

Jane Clayton is easily just as heroic and at home in the dark continent as her husband, without once again falling into improbable contemporary female tropes.  She is brought to life by the impossibly beautiful Margot Robbie, also about to play Harley Quinn, in DC Apologists last great hope: Suicide Squad.  Good luck to you chaps - your heroes have let you down so maybe the villains will do better.

In  a year where cinema royally afflecked-up a promising depiction of my favourite old-fashioned, pure-of-heart hero I’m enormously relieved to see the Lord of the Jungle done properly. 

If you want an old-fashioned adventure where good triumphs, you can tell your heroes from your villains, your heroine is brave and resourceful  - and friendship, honour and animals save the day - ignore the critics and grab a vine.

I gave this film a ten not because it is a perfect film - but because it was a perfectly entertaining movie experience.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Ghoul Assembly: Part two - Stand By Mummy

In 1987, the world was saved from the combined forces of darkness by an elite team who operated from a treehouse...

Monster Squad(s)

Films finding their way to New Zealand in the days before multiplexes could be a very hit-and-miss affair.  Before a collection of yawning big screens under same roof needed their endless appetites fed, there were the video rental shops on almost every street - and video-release only in this country was the way many of us caught up on films.
In fact, in these obviously very pre-internet days , this was sometimes the only way we found that some films existed at all.

I was working for film company, which subscribed to American Cinematographer magazine, and it was here that I found out about The Monster Squad.  I haven’t grown up now, and certainly hadn’t back then, so this film sounded fantastic.

Although the publicity material traded hard on the still-strong reputation of Ghostbusters from three years earlier, The Monster Squad has been more accurately described as’The Little Rascals meet the Universal monsters’, in the middle of the 1980s, of course.  Makeup genius Stan Winston was given the opportunity to update the universal creatures and, despite the film’s modest budget, brought them all into the era of MTV with obvious affection and respect.

The amazing Stan Winston and his Wolf Man
The Wolf Man is apparently modelled on Winston’s own features, while this decades’ possibly only representation of Dracula seems to pay homage to both Lugosi and Lee. American Cinematographer told me that Winston also made the supremely logical decision to make the Mummy look like a walking corpse, rather than an already burly, heavily swaddled stuntman, and cast “The thinnest actor they could find who could still move around”. (this gave me hope for a future horror film career). 

Young Eugene's Dad 'clears all the monsters out of his room',
but doesn't look in the closet
Tom Noonan’s sympathetic and expressive performance as the Frankenstein Monster is facilitated by an expert  makeup job which stays just the right side of copyright infringement on Universals’ original design. But the icing on the cake is a gorgeous piscatorial reworking of the Creature from the Black Lagoon which would hold its own if that film were to be remade today.

The creature walks among us
On the side of the angels we have a collection of kids who are definitely not your saccharine Spielbergian Goonies cast.  Honesty would probably bring you to the conclusion that you were more like these little rascals when you were their age, than Elliot from ET - complete with all the sexism, homophobia and inappropriateness which might make us cringe a little now. It’s ‘not OK’, but is at least an truthful depiction, and for the most part the young actors mainly portray an untarnished belief in doing the right thing, despite spending a good part of the film terrified. 
Main character Sean’s little sister Phoebe is a perfect example of this film’s perfect casting.  She is not the genetically-perfect poppet that you’d find in a children’s clothing catalogue - but her sweet and innocent nature allows her to befriend the towering Frankenstein monster and ultimately save the day.

Phoebe, and her new best friend.
They have help in the form of ‘Scary German Guy’, a reclusive elderly immigrant who subverts the children’s expectations by proving to be the kindest and gentlest of souls. He is crucially also able to translate Van Helsing’s diary despite the fact that I’m sure that character was supposed to be Dutch.  In one of the film’ s many effective shifts of tone from light to dark, our young leads remark that 'SGG' (his name is never given) sure knows a lot about monsters.  “Now that you mention it, I suppose I do.” he remarks, as the camera pans down to the concentration camp tattoo on his wrist.

Scary German guy would also be able to translate this poster -
which really emphasises the Ghostbusters connection with an unsubtle title change.

The performances are key but this film but visually it also delivers in the way that we expect from pre-CGI mid eighties mid-budget adventure films.  The previously-mentioned Stan Winston was an undisputed genius in his field, while Star Wars veteran Richard Edlund headed the visual effects team.  His crackling, ‘blue-lightning’ optical effects enhance the practical creature work in an organic and believable way which modern digital effects work often fails in.

Van Helsing, about to 'blow it'.
The opening sequence in 19th century Castle Dracula is splendidly creepy while the exciting climax satisfies on every emotional and visual level.  Films of this era do have their drawbacks of course, we also get a standard Second Act 'training montage' orchestrated to a forgettable single by Flashdance’s Michael Sembello, while the closing credits crawl embarrassedly under a horrendous rap theme.

I first watched this one with my Mum, and we both loved it. It is inescapably ironic that a film which is essentially comedy succeeds in bringing together cinema’s most beloved monsters in ways that Horror films have failed.  But the last film we looked at, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, also triumphed in this regard and in fact shares many plot points with The Monster Squad.

Like many of the films I enjoy the most, this was a notable failure at the box office but has built a strong cult following in the year’s since.  A cast reunion and re-screenings in 2006 were sold-out, enthusiastically attended by fans from all across the United States, and subsequent DVD releases have disappeared quickly from shelves.

Like Van Helsing in his slightly confusing reappearance at the climax of the film, The Monster Squad gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

How does the dog get into the treehouse?

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Moving the story along

Pressure to increase an on-line presence for my graphics
could lead to a motional rescue

I started by adding some subtle motion to this earlier illustration -
branches swaying gently in the breeze didn't tax me too much for a first attempt.

When I began illustrating the very funny Leah McFall's column for the Sunday Star Times magazine, the simplistic style which the editor and I developed together has since turned out to be easily adaptable for animation.
Well, I say easily, but I'm not a fast learner.  I had to teach myself how to create an animated gif file and then wrap my head around a way to bring my images into the realm of motion which didn't look jarring, crass, or just weird.

I'll let you be the judge (and do follow the links below each animation if you have time, not only do the stories put the images in context, but Ms McFall is also a spectacularly witty writer).

The joys of listening to the radio was difficult to illustrate,
but somehow moving sound waves convey the idea better.
Believe it or not - this gently undulating wisp of steam rising
from the tea cup was the most difficult animation yet.

A rare, more serious story, about post-natal anxiety.