Finally! Friday: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“Dear Diary, why does no one understand me? P.S., I am not mad.”–Victor Frankenstein’s school friend Clerval, mocking him.

Why Finally? …and by “Mary Shelley’s,” we mean “now with Kenneth Branagh!” It’s time to sit down with a movie I’ve been putting off since the year it came out (and putting off even harder after I started watching all those Frankenfilms last year).

It would appear my timing is unusually good this week.

The Premise: I feel sure I’ve already mentioned somewhere on this site about Dr. Frankenstein and his habit of playing god with charnel leftovers; like Frankenstein: The True Story, this version hews close to the book, Arctic voyages and all. Victor F., spurred by the deaths of his mother and his mentor and possessed of an intellectual method best described as “better science through shouting,” creates his monster (Robert De Niro) using a steampunk contraption full of electric eels. He then promptly rejects it for being an icky sewn-together corpse—parents, am I right?— and the usual mayhem of a spurned monster ensues.

Monster time!
Time to meddle in that which man was never meant to know!
This was by far the most frightening Frankenstein's monster I've seen yet, and I'm getting to be a bit of a connoisseur.
This was by far the most frightening Frankenstein’s monster I’ve seen yet, and by now I’m a bit of a connoisseur.

Of all the versions of Dr. Frankenstein I’ve seen, this is the only one I can imagine someone actually wanting to marry, even for a minute—probably because this movie has a much greater emphasis on the domestic side of the plot, and we become invested in his relationship with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).  Considering how badly that goes—Victor even attempts a grotesque resurrection after the monster murders Elizabeth—it feels odd to say it’s refreshing, but over the last year I’ve watched far too many movies in which Frankenstein’s fiancée is dragged around the plot like an awkward piece of luggage.

The Verdict: I hope no one would be shallow enough to rate a movie adaptation solely on hairstyle design, but if anyone did, this would be considered the greatest movie ever made.

Branagh and Aidan Quinn. Look at those curls!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is over the top, but in a way clearly drawn from its source material and which allows Branagh to chew all the scenery his handsome heart desires (I mean this as a compliment: big is what the man does best).  The action sequences are excellent, as is the cast, and I lost track of the number of artists whose work seems to have influenced the sets, from Bosch hellscapes to Turneresque skies and far, far beyond. Really good.

Might go well with: Absinthe. Avoid meat during this movie at all costs; after all, it might come back for revenge.


Next time: Spydaddy longlegs.

Finally!(?) Friday: Frankenstein: The True Story

Why Finally? This 1973 version was recommended while I was in mid-rant about the odd Franken-kick I went on with last year’s Friday posts, during which I watched Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (I didn’t write that one up), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I still haven’t seen the Branagh version…and just realized that it’s been *mumble* number of years since I took time from my college studies to watch Haunted Summer. At least we know what to look for in 2016…

The Premise: After his brother dies, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting, who was Romeo in the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet—many Americans will therefore recognize him as “the guy whose butt we saw in 9th-grade English”) is despondent. He decides to conquer the secrets of life, first being as snotty about it as possible to his fiancée Elizabeth. Even before he spends part of the movie reminding everyone he’s a doctor, you quickly realize this is the sort of man who reminds everyone he’s a doctor.

Victor hooks up with another mad scientist, Henry (David “Ducky on NCIS” McCallum), and together they plan to build their monster out of workmen killed in a building disaster.  Henry has a weak heart, however, so when a setback in their process manifests, he dies before he can tell Victor—and his brain is popped into the monster. Waste not, want not.

The overarching goal of the production, explained in a spoiler-filled intro by a gentleman standing at Mary Shelley’s grave, is to tell the story more as it appeared in the original novel and less like the 1930s movies. This it certainly does, and with a number of visual touches that would have fit perfectly into Ken Russell’s Gothic, even as it hits many stops familiar to fans of the old films. The cast is magnificent: Whiting and McCallum are joined by John Gielgud, James Mason, Agnes Moorehead, and Jane Seymour (I wasn’t familiar with Michael Sarazzin, who played the monster, but he gives a heartbreaking performance as the creation who falls from grace through no fault of his own).

The Verdict: To put it bluntly, this may be the only 3-hour film I’ve ever enjoyed that didn’t have a dragon in it somewhere. Yes, some parts are the purest fromage; it’s an old TV movie/miniseries. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the Frankenstein lore—which I am largely not!—it’s very good and cheaply available on DVD.

Random Note: Judging by this film, being the Fourth Doctor was just something Tom Baker did in between playing rough-spoken, bearded sea captains. And I’m okay with that.

Might go well with: Tea, opera, any of the other five zillion Frankenstein movies.

Next time: Who needs a special-forces guard when you have a kid with a basket?

Finally! Friday: Scream Blacula Scream

(Proofreader-brained side note: Do you know how hard it is not to put commas in that title every time I write it? Very hard.)

Why Finally?: Once I saw the first movie, there was no way I’d stay away from this one—especially once I found out Pam Grier was the heroine. And I’m a sucker for movie voodoo, even though I know it is to the real religion what exorcism movies and End of Days are to Catholicism.

The Premise: When the head of a voodoo-inclined family dies, two people are candidates for succession: the dying woman chooses her apprentice, Lisa (Grier), instead of her own flesh and blood, and the spurned Willis retaliates by acquiring Blacula’s (weirdly huge) bones and raising him from the dead. Willis is clearly pretty good at spells, but not good at calculating his own life expectancy after he raises a vampire.

Blacula, as Mamuwalde, uses Willis’s big old house as his HQ and infiltrates the surrounding community, meeting Lisa and her (partner? Romantic relationships never seem clearly defined in these movies) Justin. Justin collects African art, including artifacts from Mamuwalde’s past, and the vampire soon begins to see Lisa and her powers as a way to cure his bloodsucking habit and end his torment.

Remember when I complained about ‘Salem’s Lot and how you couldn’t have vampires multiplying at such a rate plausibly? Scream Blacula Scream is actually a bit of a field experiment in this regard: by the end of the movie, most of the secondary characters have been vamped, and there’s a shot of plywood coffin after plywood coffin in Willis’s basement by the end of the film. Just look at this!

The Verdict: Even playing on my pet vampiric peeve, though, the movie is great: the beginning harks back wonderfully to all the times the original Dracula has been raised again from movie to movie, and William Marshall brings his awesome performance to a film with a better budget—Blacula’s even had a cape upgrade! As in the first movie, there’s a genuine struggle to redeem himself that most movie vampires only experience if there’s a love interest in the, er, wings. Absolutely worth watching.

Might go well with: Love At First Bite, Taste the Blood of Dracula, étouffée.





Finally! Friday: Blacula

Why Finally? Like a surprising number of Hammer films* and (until last year) Universal horror pictures, 1972’s Blacula was one of those glaring gaps in my education—and this despite years of being told how good it is. A viewing was overdue, probably by decades.

The Premise: In the late 18th century, African prince Mamuwalde (the splendid William Marshall) goes on a diplomatic mission to Castle Dracula in an attempt to curb the slave trade. This goes badly, as trips to Castle Dracula tend to do, and Mamuwalde is cursed with vampirism, christened Blacula by Vlad himself, and locked in a coffin for 190 years. When the castle’s furnishings are bought by some decorators and shipped to Los Angeles, the vampire rises—and quickly finds a woman who looks just like his late wife.

Failure of diplomacy.
Negotiations aren’t going so well.

There follows a game of cat and mouse—once the police finally realize a series of exsanguination deaths deserves fuller investigation—led by a romantically partnered pair of scientists. Are they too late to defeat the forces of the undead, or will Blacula reclaim his bride?

Let’s get this out of the way: the vamp makeup in Blacula is often distracting. Some of his victims are completely green, and there’s a wide range of fangs at varying angles on display. Our titular villain gets bizarre facial hair when he vamps out: I enjoyed this, since it seems closer to the hairy-palmed Dracula that Stoker originally dreamed up, but it can be startling.

It shouldn’t detract from the story, though, which gives us an excellent antihero in Blacula. He’s been genuinely mistreated, had everything he valued taken away, and despises his own nature; it’s just not enough to stop the body count from rising, or to stop him from fighting back. And did I mention William Marshall is magnificent?

Readers, if any, know how much I enjoy tracing influences among movies/TV/books, and Blacula is a gold mine. It may be the first movie in which a vampire is haunted by the reincarnation of his lost love (though TV’s Dark Shadows seems to have done it first), an idea by now endemic to vampires generally and Dracula stories in particular. There are tiny details that were lifted almost verbatim by Love At First Bite. And there’s even an appearance by Elisha Cook (credited without his Jr.) as a hook-handed pathologist who suffers the eventual fate of most characters played by Elisha Cook.

My only problems with Blacula, apart from the terrible makeup effects, are ones I have with a number of old horror films—especially the syndrome I like to call vampnesia. (Vampnesia is, of course, a disease common to characters in horror movies in which “everybody’s heard of Count Dracula!”—at least enough to make fun of the people claiming they just saw him— but the good guys still must find an occult expert or make a trip to the local library’s folklore section in order to beat the baddie. I will never understand this.) The movie also has a case of “things spontaneously burning” reminiscent of the flammable stone mansion in The Haunted Palace, but hey, movie fire is fun.

The Verdict: All those people I mentioned above were right: Blacula is an excellent horror movie as well as an interesting cultural artifact. Even while rooting for the mortals, I was sad to see him go (is that a spoiler in a vampire movie, really?) and glad that there’s Scream Blacula Scream to bring him back.

Might go well with: rare steak, good music, anything crocheted.


*At least the ones not called [Something Something Something] Dracula.


Next time: The Quest(s) for the temple.

Finally! Friday: Brief Explanation + The Streets of San Francisco, Season 1

Welcome to Finally! Friday, an occasional feature to break up the (loooooong) list of things I need to revisit for Found-Again Fridays. Inspired last year when I watched Flashdance only 30 years after I first meant to, I’ll be writing about stuff you… and sometimes I… can’t believe I never watched/read before—and for this week, it’s 1970s crime drama The Streets of San Francisco.

Why Finally?  It’s a police drama with a young Michael Douglas in it. If you had any idea how much Law & Order I’ve seen, or how many times I’ve watched Romancing the Stone, you too would be flabbergasted.

…by my not having seen Streets, that is.

The Premise: San Francisco homicide detectives Mike Stone (Karl Malden, who to a demographic including me will forever be “the guy from the American Express ads”) and Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) solve a variety of crimes, from armed robberies gone wrong to apparent political assassinations.

It’s the classic buddy-cop formula: Keller is a bit more the charge-ahead man of action, while the older Stone is craftier (and has an uncanny ability to talk crazed killers into giving themselves up). Still, neither is a slouch in any department, and most of the fun lies in watching them work together to find the killer. And like some of the shows that followed it—Simon & Simon and Magnum, P.I. come to mind—the city itself becomes a kind of supporting character in Streets of San Francisco.

As does Douglas's hair. Look at that—it's a force of nature! Or a force against nature. It's definitely a force, at any rate.
As does Douglas’s hair. Look at that—it’s a force of nature! Or a force against nature. It’s definitely a force, at any rate.

The Verdict: If you are the sort of person who watches Dragnet ’67 for the funky clothes and slang, you’ll love this show. If you like cop shows, you’ll like this show. If your hobby is spotting character actors, you’re going to yell “Vic Tayback!!” a lot. (You’ll also see David Soul as a man hiding his ethnic background and David “Ellery Queen’s dad” Wayne as a newspaper seller.) And if you’ve ever seen Police Squad!, you’re about to find out why they did that title-card gag. Tremendous fun, just dated enough to be interesting rather than absurd.

Might go well with:  Seafood, Dragnet, and to the surprise of no one, Romancing the Stone.  You have to admit that hair is incredible.

Next time: Benton Quest vs. Blofeld Zin.