Retrospective: The Climax (1944)

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Originally billed as a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, The Climax changed its course partly due to the unavailability of Claude Rains’ availability to reprise the role of the phantom. Instead some reworking in the script department led to some significant changes and bringing in Boris Karloff for his first feature released in colour. Karloff would play the role of demented physician, Dr. Hohner, driven by jealousy and the need to dominate his fiance, a prima donna at an established Vienna Royal Theatre, and murders her in his obsession.
Interestingly, Universal would resurplus some of the magnificent set that was used in their 1925 adaptation of Gaston LeRoux’s gothic novel and Susannah Foster who brought Christina Dubois to the silver screen in TPOTO (1943), would return albeit as a young operatic singer on the rise, Angela Klatt

Klatt bears a striking similarity to Hohner’s fiance, who has been missing some 10 years now, hence why Hohner has been able to avoid justice. With Klatt’s appearance though, it triggers the inner demon and conflict in Hohner’s mind and he seems hellbent on once more, keeping the diva for himself.

The film plays a familiar tune to previous Universal features and as such struggles to offer anything new in the horror scene. It is bolded by the presence of Karloff, Foster and Turhan Bey (The Mad Ghoul) as the romantic lead, Franz Munzer, but it’s Gale Sondergaard (The Cat and the Canary) as the dutiful Luise, poised to make Hohner pay for his past deeds that really shines through. 

A solid enough entry to the Universal Horror movies, but not nearly worthy of its predecessors.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie Review: Possessor

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When Brandon Cronenberg entered the filmmaking scene with his directorial feature film debut, Antiviral (currently available to stream on SBS on Demand), it came with the leadened presence that the Cronenberg name carries with it, and as such, a lot of eyes scrutinised this body horror tale. For a first time behind the camera, Antiviral is actually a solid film. Sure it has its flaws, but at its beating heart is a strong pulse with some decent ideas.

For his second feature, Cronenberg not only raises the bar of his previous outing, but elevates himself exponentially and quite possibly serves up this reviewers favourite movie of 2020.

It’s a bold statement and one that should not be marred by what has admittedly been a crappy year in film distribution due to the impact that COVID has brought to the globe. 

Boosted by an incredible cast in Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, The Grudge), Christopher Abbott (It Comes At Night, Piercing), Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, the screenplay (also written by Cronenberg) has the heavyweight performances to pull off a complex, and deeply unsettling narrative.

It’s a wildly compelling premise, which follows agent Tasia Vos (Riseborough) who works for an underground company run by Girder (Jason-Leigh), who infiltrate other people’s bodies through the use of brain-implant technology. The stakes are high and the clientele, lucrative. With each mission, the risk is great and requires not only a great mind, but also the efficiency to pull off these assassination attempts to reap significant profit as a result. 

The physician and mental drain on each assignment comes with its own hurdle as you must not only study the person’s characteristics and quirks to ensure that they are still believable to those family and friends but combined with the constant battle with the host’s own mind, the agent’s timeline to pull off the assignment is narrow. Failure would lead to both minds infusing together and potential brain damage. This deadline amplifies the tension much to the delight of the viewer.

The added spanner in the works is that Vos comes with her estranged husband and son. The gulf in their relationship caused by Vos’s work and a constant strain on their lives, and the anchor to her reality that constantly tugs at her emotions and clouds her own motives when carrying out her tasks. 

The mission in question is to infiltrate the mind of Colin Tate (Abbott), fiancé to Ava Parse (Middleton) and heir to her father, John’s (Bean) estate. Once in control of Tate,  Vos has 48 hours to kill John, Ava, and finally Colin, before being pulled back into her own body once more.
A task that may prove one stretch too far.

The Prognosis:

From the shocking opening scene, through a brilliantly crafted sci-fi screenplay and an ultimately rewarding conclusion, Brandon Cronenberg has thrown the gauntlet down, commanding our attention as a filmmaker with vision, powerful performances, and a beautifully presented mindfuck.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Mad Ghoul (1943)

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Presented with his first top billing for Universal, Turhan Bey (The Mummy’s Tomb) has been slowly rising through the ranks to be given this recognition. Much like his co-star Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man) who gets her time to shine in the spotlight. 

The Mad Ghoul centres on an Ancient Mayan life-preserving technique that resurrects creatures after they have shuffled off this mortal coil. Attempting to play out this diabolical task is a mad scientist, (naturally) Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucci – The Mummy’s Hand) who sets about to prove it possible using a human subject.
Morris enlists the help of his student, Ted (David Bruce) to carry out his experiments. Ted however is too infatuated with Isabel (Ankers), but his love is not reciprocated, and when Morris too succumbs to Isabel’s charms, he decides to eradicate his opposition by performing his scientific query on Ted, and succeeds in doing so. The catch is that, in order to stay alive, Ted must continually replace his heart with that of the recently deceased. So throughout the film, Morris leads Ted in a ghoulish state to cemeteries in order to dig up the dead and steal their myocardium. There is great humour to be found here as both gentlemen mooch around attaining hearts so that they can eventually win the heart of Isabel.

Isabel, though, has her eyes for only one man, Eric Iverseon (Bey) and as such, Eric becomes the target for destruction. 

Morris’ grip on the situation begins to dwindle, trying to keep Ted as his ghoulish puppet, to carry out his dastardly deeds, but his pursuits eventually come untangled as his command loses its strength and Ted develops a will of his own.

For a film that uses some of Universal’s former motifs, The Mad Ghoul does enough to cobble a story together that connects with the audience and whilst it doesn’t stand up to some of the stronger titles that have come before it, entertains nonetheless and proves to be a solid enough encounter.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Sweet River (2020)

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The latest Australian psychological thriller, Sweet River has been released on streaming platform Netflix and like most recent flicks from Down Under it comes with some heavy-laden drama that grinds you down to a gritty conclusion.

The setting for this tale of grief, loss and the search for truth is definitely its selling point, cast in Northern New South Wales between Byron Bay and Tweed Heads where the land is rich in sugar cane fields. The cinematography by Tim Tregoning is stunning and elevates the landscape beyond the screen that is simply captivating and bolden’s Director Justin McMillan’s vision to the fore. Especially the use of red light cast across the river banks that highlight the need to see and not awaken anything submerged in the shadowy depths.

Here the saccharine land has been slowly rotting away with the local community who harbour a secret. This makes our protagonist Hanna’s (Lisa Kay – Indian Summers) quest all the more troubling, as every move she makes to determine what happened to her son is quashed. 

Leading the supporting cast is a stoic performance from an almost unrecognisable Martin Sacks (Wentworth, Blue Heelers) as John, who balances a fine line between help and hindrance to Hanna’s pursuit. And Genevieve Lemon as an equally tortured soul.

There are many elements that are at play here that warrant a far superior film than is ultimately delivered. The mystery and intrigue that surrounds the stunning scenery serves a great juxtaposition with a harrowing journey for the audience to travel down, but this also serves as its downfall, as often we are reduced to the murky depths of an at times stagnant quagmire of a narrative. 

The Prognosis:

The problem is that the standards have been set high in recent years in Australia, with Hounds of Love, Rabbit, and Killing Ground that we’ve come to expect a more hardened journey that stimulates whilst also being smart and intriguing.
Even though it’s a different medium Vicki Madden’s The Kettering Incident and The Gloaming have also set the precedence in this field, which admittedly she has more time to untangle the mystery in her tv show screenplays.
As such, Sweet River leaves the audience wading through thick undergrowth which can be difficult viewing. Despite the struggle, there are moments where the story flows and the scenery swallows you into its serenity. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: House of Dracula (1945)

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Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year is Universal’s second Monster mash up, House of Dracula, and being one of the last movies to feature these iconic creatures also indicated that the times were changing and a new shift in horror was about to occur.

Treated as a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, this feature would once again Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a mad scientist together.

This time though, it is the Count (once again played by John Carradine) that seeks a cure for his vampirism. Although there are questions around the legitimacy of his intentions as he seems to still go about his day (or should I say night?) without a care. This in complete contrast to the doomed and tragic figure, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr reprising his role once more). Dracula approaches Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) to aid him in his quest for a cure, who believes he can do so using a mysterious plant that can reshape bone. It is Dr. Edelman’s belief that using a series of blood transfusions, he can assist Dracula.

It is at this point that Larry Talbot enters the scene, also hoping that the Doctor can help him. Dr. Edelmann however is too consumed with the Count and so Talbot gets himself incarcerated by the police for fear that he will turn into a wolf and kill again. Whilst imprisoned, Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill in one of his last film roles) and Dr. Edelmann witnesses the transformation, with the latter now convinced, and promises he will try to find a cure.

Larry Talbot continues to be one of the most fascinating characters in the Universal Monster franchise, with his inner conflict and turmoil, the characteristics that Chaney Jr played so well. Here Talbot is driven to suicide, throwing himself off the cliff into the waters below, only to survive the ordeal. Dr. Edelmann finds Talbot in the caves beneath the castle and in doing so stumbles across Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) still clutching the skeletal remains of Dr. Neimann from the previous movie. Edelmann takes the monster back to his castle but swears not to revive him for fear that it will only cause ruin.

Through all these distractions, the Count has been using his charms on the Doctor’s assistant Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) but is prevented by the good old cross. The Doctor’s other assistant, Nina, (Jane Adams) a hunchback, witnesses the Count’s attempts and notices the absence of his reflection. Time for another blood transfusion, only Dracula turns the tables, hypnotising Nina and Edelman and then reversing the transfusion, so that Edelmann is given the vampiric blood. 

This action proves to be the Count’s downfall however as Edelmann exposes Dracula’s coffin to sunlight, killing him. This is just beyond the half an hour mark leaving the question again as to the true danger that Dracula exhibits when he doesn’t last the entire feature.

With the Wolf Man being treated and the Dracula out for the… count (ahem), this leaves a hole for a villain to fill. In steps a transformed Edelmann, struggling with the vampiric blood in his system that sends him crazy and a climax that brings about the rise of Frankenstein’s creature, a horde of angry villagers, and only a cured Talbot to bring down the house.

House of Dracula serves up a much neater storyline compared with its predecessor, House of Frankenstein, and the performances are strong. It still struggles to incorporate all the different aspects, but considering it’s short running time of just over the hour mark, there’s enough packed in to entertain, and ultimately became a commercial success as a result.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The House of Frankenstein (1944)

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Some thirteen years after the release of Dracula back in 1931, Universal now had a decent backlog of Universal Monsters in their midst.
After the relative success of Frankenstein vs The Wolf Man, which pitted two of their creatures head to head in its climax, it was a logical step to combine as many as possible into the one film. 

In order for this trick to be pulled off successfully however, requires some clever plot devices to wrangle each intricate characteristic into a believable situation. Curt Siodmak was called upon to carry out this difficult task, which seems a logical choice as he had overseen a lot of the Universal horror movies during the time. His decision was to introduce a new character in Dr. Gustav Niemann, a mad scientist played by Boris Karloff in what would be his last role in the Universal horror franchise. Accompanying him from a prison break is hunchback (another trope), Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), who is willing to carry out Niemann’s demands with the promise of a new body. 

Niemann though only has revenge in mind for the three people who wronged him and sent him to prison. 

This story is really told in two parts; the first part being the revenge on Burgemeister Hussman, which Niemann does by initially killing Professor Lampini and taking on his identity as a travelling showman and his Chamber of Horrors. The show in question just so happens to contain the skeletal remains of Count Dracula with the stake still impaled. Legend has it that if the stake were to be removed, Dracula would once again walk the earth. Naturally this happens, but Niemann convinces the Count (John Carradine) to carry out his task of ridding him of his nemesis with the promise of protection. Once the Count offs Hussman though, the group land in a spot of bother and Niemann quickly reneges on his agreement and ditches Dracula’s coffin, forcing him to submit to the sunlight and ultimately be destroyed. Dracula’s demise seems all too easy and as such renders him slightly useless in the movie and far from menacing.

The latter half of the movie focuses on the resurrection of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) who were last seen washed away with the flood that submerged the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle. It turns out that they had been frozen in ice, and Niemann thaws them both, once again hoping to use them to his advantage. 

The film is aided by the return of Chaney Jr and the troubled Larry Talbot who continuously serves as the heart of the franchise. Here, a love triangle is formed as he finds himself falling for a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo – who was a descendant of the Verdugo family that founded Los Angeles), rescued by Daniel and Niemann. The former has also fallen for Ilonka’s charms and is then driven by jealousy when his love is not reciprocated, and also by anger from Niemann’s failure not to live up to his promise.

The climax is nicely tied up with a collision of personalities all vying for different means, and when that clash comes it can only lead to the demise of all, be it silver bullet, thrown from the roof, or driven into the swamp quicksand from angry villagers wielding flaming torches.

On face value, Siodmak ticks all the boxes of what can be expected from each of the characters but ultimately, there is nothing new to offer at hand, and because of this the film falls short on satisfaction. It is still a solid production, entertains, but never does enough to lift itself above the standards of its predecessors.

It was great to see Karloff (he definitely owns this movie and deserves to wield the lead antagonist mantle) and Lon Chaney Jr share screen time together, but the chance to have the creatures provide any form of menace are  squandered. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Gretel and Hansel

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The story of Hansel and Gretel has gone through numerous guises over the years before it settled in the form that we know today courtesy of The Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob, and their collection of folklore during the 19th Century. 

In fact, the initial story as we know it was told to the brothers by Henriette Dorothea Wild, who would go on to marry Wilhelm.

Throughout the years, there have been some common elements that have held true; the two siblings abandoned in the woods, the path of breadcrumbs, famine, the children’s inner strength and cunning, and of course… a cannibalistic witch. 

All of these features in Oz Perkins’ (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In Your House) third outing in the director’s chair. 

Upon the release of the film, it was noted the deliberate switch in the order of the siblings with Gretel taking top billing and for good reason, for this is her tale to tell. It also ties in with a theme that Perkins likes to dabble in, that of the suppressed female, struggling to find her identity in a strange or foreign world. 

It also combines Perkins fascination with the occult and the dark underbelly that lay under the world as we know it, waiting to ignite from the spark of curiosity, ignorance, or both.

Taking on the role of Gretel is Sophia Lillis who rose to fame as Beverly Marsh in 2017’s IT, directed by Andy Muschietti. Lillis takes the role in her stride as a girl forced to come into womanhood by an oppressive society and is required to endure total compliance on the slim chance that her family will reap the benefits. Not willing to live this kind of life, Gretel choses to steal away from her family home and the lack of love and support from her mother, taking her brother, Hansel with her.

Here the familiarity of the story sets in when Gretel and Hansel try to make ends meet in the wilderness, and Gretel continues to abate her brother’s wishes to return. 

Eventually they come across the witch’s house and the promise of new things to come. The Witch (played by the magnificent Alice Krige) is both wily and manipulative, with plans to consume Hansel, but is equally enamoured by Gretel, teaching her the ways of her craft. Will she be able to convert Gretel into her domain or can Gretel turn the tide of evil and save them from their torment?

The Prognosis:

Oz Perkins delivers another visually strong narrative, weaving a traditional folk story with a modern mindset. Perkins is a director who isn’t shy from female empowerment in his storytelling and Sophia Lillis proves once again that she can delicately handle the subtleties of human emotion that bely her years. 

If there is a hindrance is that Perkins is also a ‘slow burn’ storyteller and provides a hypnotic snail like pace to his movies. His previous two ventures suited the atmosphere that he wanted to evoke, and in some cases it works here, but equally the tempo is so slow and drawn out that it can be painful and laborious to watch.

I honestly wasn’t sure if I would write a positive account of the movie after viewing it as a result, and yet it lingers with you, which is a testament to the director and his visual playground. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Son of Dracula (1943)

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After a successful resurrection of their key horror monsters through the early monsters with The Invisible Man, Kharis aka The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and the birth of the tragic Larry Talbot – The Wolfman, it would be inevitable that Universal would turn their attention to Count Dracula.
The trouble is the Count was destroyed in the climax of the 1931 movie by the hands of his foe Van Helsing.
In 1936 Universal stepped around this issue by introducing an offspring in the form of Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska, but with her demise also coming at the film’s conclusion. 

The answer would be presented by the Siodmak brothers Curt and Robert, who produce another heir in the mysterious Count Alucard. 

Part of the film’s appeal is choosing to set the story in New Orleans, not only because it brings the gothic tale Stateside, but as a location is itself rich in mysteries and folklore.

Set on a plantation owned by an elderly Colonel, where one of his two daughters, Katherine (Louise Allbritton) has a morbid fascination with the occult to the point where she has invited the afore-mentioned Alucard to stay with them.
When Alucard arrives (played by Universal’s A-Lister Lon Chaney Jr, which may have been a way to appease the star having been overlooked for the role of the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, a role initially made famous by his father) it is soon apparent that he is of the ‘undead’ and after he pays a visit to the Colonel, the latter is found dead from a supposed heart attack.
The land and titles are left to the Colonel’s two daughters, but Katherine seems only interested in the estate “Dark Oaks” and not of the money which she happily relinquishes to her sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers).
Despite being betrothed to her long time boyfriend Frank, she supposedly jilts him for Alucard, who is not so cryptically revealed to be an ascendant of Count Dracula. Frank then in a fit of rage tries to shoot and kill Count Alucard, but the bullets simply pass through him and into Katherine, killing her instantly. The flip here though is that Katherine is already part of the ‘undead’ club having been transformed by Dracula and has claimed her wish for an immortal life.

Son of Dracula plays nicely with the mythology of Dracula and vampires, as we see numerous instances taking on the form of either the vampire bat or a cloud of mist providing him the ability to transform or travel at whim as long as he is granted an invitation of course.
Where the film adds its own flavour comes through the Katherine plot device which is revealed to be a plan to overthrow Dracula and entice Frank to join her in the afterlife.
This decision is a welcome inclusion to the franchise as it makes a more sinister approach to the central characters and this curious fascination that people have taken to the dark arts.
Possibly a logical step in the canon even if it does make Dracula secondary to the evil on screen and overshadowing his threat to a degree. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie Review: Vampires vs The Bronx

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It’s been a while since a movie has tapped into the feels of 80s flicks such as Monster Squad or to a lesser degree The Lost Boys but with Osmany Rodriguez’s sophomore outing in the director’s chair of a feature length movie, Vampires vs The Bronx, we come damn close.

Much like how The Stranger Things was able to breathe fresh life into the SciFi horror genre with an adventure aimed at kids whilst appealing to adults alike, this film delivers a fun-filled ride with a thrilling edge to it.

It may not go too dark, but does enough to satiate the senses that you would hope for from a teen horror flick.

Set in a small part of the Bronx, young Miguel (Jaden Michael) has been trying to raise awareness that they are subject to gentrification, especially from the mysterious  Murnau properties (a great nod to FW Murnau who directed 1922’s Nosferatu).

Miguel and his two friends Bobby and Luis to save their local corner store by hosting a block party. It is here that Miguel witnesses the killing of a guy called Slim by the hands of a group of vampires and is hotly pursued.

From here on in Miguel must do all they can save the Bronx from these fanged invaders.

The Prognosis:

There are some great support roles from the adults in the movie, namely the always brilliant Sarah Gadon as Vivian, the equally sublime Shea Whigham as human servant Frank Polidori (again another great nod to the author of The Vampire),  Method Man as the Lord’s servant, Father Jackson, and Zoe Saldana as Becky.

But it’s the kids that own this movie and riff off each other with great energy and enthusiasm that peppers the story along.

It doesn’t offer anything new, but it does entertain. Well worth your time.

– Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

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Having explored numerous aspects of Gothic Literature for Universal’s cannon of horror features, it was time to turn their attention once more back to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera; a tale of a deformed phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, murdering people to aid the woman he loves, Christine, to become a star.

It was a bold choice as nearly twenty years prior, the production house had successfully released a version starring “The Man With A Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney as the titular Phantom back in 1925. 

It was deemed however, that ample time had passed despite Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney Jr now a contracted player for Universal, which meant that the ‘25 version was still fresh in the minds of some people. Chaney Jr allegedly expected the part to fall to him in order to reprise his father’s role, but the studio elected instead to cast Claude Rains (The Invisible Man). This did not go down well with Chaney Jr. and apparently some bitterness ensued between him and his The Wolf Man co-star.

It has to be said that I have always enjoyed Rains’ performances on screen and this was no exception as he brought a certain level of heart and empathy to his role as Enrique Claudin. Claudin is the doomed romantic, whose heart belongs to Christine Dubois, a soprano that he has been privately funding her singing lessons.

We certainly feel for Claudin, who is a violinist for the Paris Opera House and is let go due to the ailing use of his fingers. Looking to make ends meet, he then ventures to his music publisher in the hopes of getting money from a piano concerto that he has written. Tragedy has struck however, when he learns that the publisher is attempting to steal his work. In a fit of rage Claudin strangles and kills the publisher, only to have the publisher’s assistant throw etching acid in his face, deforming him.

From here on in, Claudin withdraws to the shadows with his new moniker of the phantom, and then goes to extreme measures in order to propel Christine to stardom.

The film plays out well enough and Rains more than holds his own, but it never feels dark or sinister enough to scare or thrill the audience. It doesn’t help that it is peppered with operatics with an upbeat jovial manner, potentially to juxtapose the dark energy that surrounds it. And it is the setting after all, but if that was the aim, then the darker elements needed to be amplified much more.

As it stands, it’s a solid film, but is no match for its predecessor. There were plans for a sequel called The Climax, but a combination of not being able to cast Rains again due to other commitments and problems working through a decent storyline that would work, it failed to materialise and instead would be reworked as a completely different movie starring Boris Karloff.

With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical aside, the story would not be revisited again until 1962 Hammer Films starring Herbet Lom, then another twenty year abstinence until Robert Englund would don the mask in 1989 for 21st Century Film, and a Dario Argento feature in 1998.

  • Saul Muerte