Comedy Meets Horror

It is 1948. The World Health Organization was formed by the United Nations. Honda Motor Company was founded. The first stored computer program was run. And the horror film spoof, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” brought laughs to families across the country. Although this picture brings together two very different genres of film, they seem to work flawlessly with one another. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” brings one of Hollywood’s best comedic duos face to face with the famous monsters of Universal Studios. The film stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello as our unlikely heroes, along with Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman, Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster.

Our story starts with two baggage clerks, Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello), who are asked to deliver crates that contain the actual remains of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to the town’s “House of Horrors.” During this time, Chick and Wilbur are repeatedly warned by a Mr. Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) that these crates are trouble. In fact, Talbot makes it known to the comedic duo that these creatures are still alive. Despite his warnings, Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates that night.

When they arrive to the “House of Horrors,” the monsters escape their crates. When the owner of the house comes to inspect the crates, Wilbur and Chick are thrown in jail for suspected theft. They are released almost right away by an insurance agent, Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who is investigating the disappearance of the monsters and also has an interest in Wilbur.

After a few comical scenes involving the duo and the Wolf Man, it is time for the masquerade ball at the lovely Sandra Morney’s (Lenore Aubert) house. Wilbur and Chick are unaware that she has become Dracula’s aid (due to a nasty bite on the neck) and is intent on transplanting Wilbur’s brain with that of Frankenstein’s monster. Soon the moon comes out (on this night it happens to be a full moon), and Talbot who is trying to suppress and put an end to Dracula’s plan changes into the Wolf Man. Chaos ensues, when the monsters, Wilbur and Chick end up at Dr. Frankenstein’s (the man, not the monster) castle.

Throughout the film, Wilbur and Chick find themselves in constant danger. In my opinion this is the most humorous part of the film. The two are constantly, though often unaware, inches away from the monsters. They constantly escape due to pure luck, or in this case their dumb luck. The story of this film is very interesting, because the monsters are not in comedic roles like those of Wilbur and Chick, they are in the roles that they have been playing throughout all of their movies. Although they are starring in a comedy film, the monsters aren’t given a comedic twist. This is what sets this film apart from others like it; the fact that two very different genres can come together and have such chemistry is amazing.

I have seen this film countless times, from when I was a small boy to when I viewed in during a film studies class my senior year of high school, and it has also been one of my favorites and most beloved Halloween films. This film stars most of the original actors that played these monsters in their original films with the exception of Frankenstein’s monster. Boris Karloff declined to play the monster because he didn’t feel as if the monster should be portrayed in a comedy film. Although Karloff did not play the monster in this film, Strange did an excellent job continuing the legacy of Frankenstein’s monster. Lugosi and Chaney Jr. also did an excellent job returning their monsters to film and transitioning them to be portrayed in a comedy. I highly recommend this film for all ages. It is a visual masterpiece and an extraordinarily well written film. It will always be one of my favorite Halloween films of all time.

Chinatown

It is 1974. The World Trade Center opened in New York City. Richard Nixon resigned from office after the “Watergate Scandal.” The Universal Product Code was scanned for the first time to sell a package of Wrigley’s chewing gum. And “Chinatown” became a smash hit. Returning to the roots of classic film-noir movies, such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Double Indemnity,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” sets the scene in the min 1940s.  Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, “Chinatown” was a setup for success. Although it was originally considered a “neo film-noir” movie, it has now settled in among the classic mystery flicks of all time.

“Chinatown” is the story of a private detective, J.J. Gittes (Nicholson), who is employed by a woman who claims to be the wife of Hollis Mulwray, a prominent official in the city of Los Angeles. This women is concerned that Hollis is cheating on her. Gittes eventually takes the case and starts to uncover other important details, including dried up river beds, Hollis Mulwray dead body, and eventually the real Mrs. Mulwray.

Throughout his investigation, Gittes uncovers a slew of conspiracies. He soon discovers that there is a very serious plot to buy up the San Fernando Valley by diverting the water supply so that the orange growers go broke and are forced to sell the land to these conspirators. After these conspirators obtain the land, they plan to use the water that was diverted in order to make the valley rich and prosperous again.

Gittes is fed up with all the lies. He is constantly being turned around and blindsided by facts. A man who likes to straighten things out, Gittes decides it is time to buckle down and figure out this whole case of corruption and secrecy.

Nicholson revives and revolutionizes the “film-noir hero.” Instead of playing the lonely, romantic, hero which was made famous throughout the noir genre by Humphrey Bogart, Nicholson plays a rather sad, lonely man. He is portrayed in a variety of ways throughout the film, as a tough guy wearing a patch over his battle scar, as a dirty jokester, and most importantly as a sympathetic man who just wants to help everyone and destroy the crimes he has stumbled upon. In fact, Nicholson’s role as J.J. Gittes essentially revolutionized his acting career and sent him to the top in terms of great actors.

“Chinatown” fits right in with classic film-noir mysteries of the 40s and 50s, making it into a classic itself. It is written in a way that the viewer feels as if they are back with J.J. Gittes in the mid-1940s every step of the way; leaves the viewers on the edge of their seats following the steps Gittes takes to solve this complicated murder. “Chinatown” is a classic made, especially, for fans of mystery movies, but also for fans of all types of classic movies.

A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother

The year is 1960. The first Birth Control pill was put on the market. John Kennedy won the presidential election and became the 35th US President of the United States. Madagascar gained its independence from France. And Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” terrified audiences across the nation. “Psycho” is considered by many one of Hitchcock’s greatest works; it is often regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Shot and produced on a very low budget (about $800,000), “Psycho” was deliberately made to look as if it were a very cheap exploitation film, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam.

The audience is immediately thrown into a shady hotel room where two lovers, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), are forced to meet in secret due to complications with Sam’s recent divorce. Sam is a struggling business owner and Marion is what seems to be an innocent office worker; and both of them just want to get married, but they lack enough money. This all changes when a rather wealthy insurance customer walks into the business for which Marion currently works. The man is buying a property worth the likes of $40,000, enough money that would help Sam pay off the alimony payments from his divorce with just enough left over for the two to leave town.

Marion is instructed by her boss to take the money down to the bank so that it can stored in a safe place while the transaction takes place. As one can imagine, Marion has other thoughts in her head and she ends up taking the money, all $40,000, and skips town.

After a few scenes of driving, we see her asleep in her car with a police officer standing at her window (this is a common theme in Hitchcock movies: the paranoia of police). Marion instantly believes that he suspects her of theft, and she eventually in a rather flustered way gets the officer to let her drive away. For the next few scenes, the officer is seen following her and even watches her intently as she frantically purchases a used car.

Marion is now frightened and hysterical, so she decides to stop at a rundown old motel, The Bates Motel. She is soon met by a nice young man, the caretaker and owner of the motel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The viewer can tell that Marion believes that there is something wrong with Bates, after learning of his passion for taxidermy and hearing Mrs. Bates, Norman’s mother yelling at him. She soon seems to warm up to Bates, even feeling a little sorry for him. Marion even suggests that Norman try and move his motel to a more populous place near the main highway.

After Marion leaves for her cabin, we see Bates spying on her getting ready for her shower. We now witness one of the most iconic scenes in Hollywood history; a mysterious figure slashes Marion in the shower, killing her in the process. Hitchcock designed this scenes in an artistic manner. There is never an instance of the blade slashing skin, as we see in many modern horror films. There is also no gore and very little blood. Also, the classic score used in this scene added emphasis to the murder, almost acting as another character in the film.

Shortly after, Bates discovers the body and is taken back by the site. He seems to be confused about what to do at first, but then he decides it is best to clean up the scene of the crime by disposing of the evidence.

Marion’s sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles), becomes suspicious when she learns of her sister’s disappearance and hires a private detective, Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Soon, Arbogast turns up missing as well, so Lila and Sam are forced to get to the bottom of this. They learn some creepy truths of the Bates Motel and the Bates Family from the local sheriff. Because of this information they decide to make their way to the motel to see what is going on.

One of the greatest horror films of all time, “Psycho” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to thrills, mystery, suspense, and sheer horror. Many consider this a masterpiece by Hitchcock, and I would have to agree with that statement. The audience is frightened not by blood, gore, and jump scares as modern audiences are, but by the creepiness of the black and white film, the chilling dialogue, and terrifying character portrayals.

Overall, “Psycho” is a visual masterpiece and will continue to scare audiences for years to come.

The Rocker

Here’s an analogy for you:  The Rocker is to Rainn Wilson as Old School was to Will Ferrell. There you go – there’s your SAT prep for the day.

In 2003, Will Ferrell was a pretty popular actor, mostly due to his stint on SNL as well as some bit parts in fairly popular movies (Zoolander, Austin Powers). Old School propelled Ferrell to another comedic stratosphere – he was now A-list material. It seems Mr. Wilson is at this particular fork in the road in his own career now. Wilson is fairly popular, mostly due to his own hit TV show (The Office) and some supporting turns in a few films (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Juno).  Unfortunately, I cannot predict Wilson’s future to see if he will become as big a success story as Ferrell, but after watching The Rocker, I can say that this movie is indeed NOT in the same league as Old School, or even any other fairly decent Will Ferrell vehicle.

In The Rocker, Wilson plays Robert “Fish” Fishman, a dejected, immature man-boy who holds a 20-year-long grudge against a Rolling Stone-esque band, Vesuvius.  You see, Fish was the drummer for Vesuvius back in the late 80s before he was unceremoniously booted by his bandmates in exchange for a record deal. He now lives with his sister’s family, which includes his nephew Matt, who belongs to a band (called “A.D.D.”) himself.  Through some deft plot maneuvering, Fish ends up being the new drummer for A.D.D. and they somehow score a record deal, become famous, and go on tour.

If The Rocker’s quality as a film depends on Rainn Wilson’s comedic performance, it fails terribly. As luck would have it, much of The Rocker’s comedy comes from a motley crew of supporting players; Jason Sudeikis (as A.D.D.’s manager), in particular, delivers almost all of the hilarious one-liners in the movie. Sudeikis bears the brunt of the comedy and he pulls through it beautifully, while Wilson flops around in the background, repeatedly getting hit in the face or the jewels with a bevy of random items. Josh Gad plays Matt, Fish’s nephew, and he too gets a reasonable amount of mildly funny lines to deliver with ease. Emma Stone, as the requisite girl band member, doesn’t get to do much except hold a guitar and look pretty.

Even with the film’s “star” making a complete fool of himself most of the time, The Rocker actually holds up as an adequate comedy, maybe for tweens or fans of cleaner humor. It delivers its morals clearly and concisely, tossing in some humor for flavor here and there. If the Apatow-type comedies, in their raunchiness and relatable stories about adults, are the cinematic equivalent of a steak and potato dinner, then The Rocker comes across as good fast food – quick, easy going down, and leaves you feeling relatively better although you’ll forget you just ate in a flash.

2 ½ 5 stars

Saw V Review Part 2

Face it. We’ve been here before. It’s Halloween, and there is another Saw film coming to your local theatre. However, there is a new director at the helm by the name of David Hackl. Does this new director change things up? DO we see a new reinvention to the singular movie that has reawakened the horror genre into a profitable franchise again?  Let’s find answers on these questions.

To be frank, if you’ve seen Saw IV, you’ve pretty much seen Saw V. The formula is still the same, the gore has picked up a bit, there are a few new wrinkles here and there from the new director, but the payoff is still the same. Not that I am complaining all that much, as these are purely subjective observations.

Saw V picks up literally right where Saw IV ends. Agent Strahm, fresh off discovering the bloodbath that happened at the end of Saw IV, ends up finding his own tape. Thus, he forced to begin his “game” because he just can’t leave Jigsaw alone!  At the same time, five strangers are locked up in a warehouse for their own “games.”   They must make it through four separate tests before they can escape their fate.

This Saw to me was a bit more gimmicky than usual. Some of the strangers were instantly recognizable, to me at least, which caused a bit of a distraction from the external chaos that the “games” were causing.  For example, Meagan Good (The Love Guru) plays Luba, a city planner, and Carlo Rota (Little Mosque on the Prairie, Wed. nights at 9 on CBET) was Charles, an investigative journalist. It just seemed to try and channel a bit too much Captivity with the casting.

Furthermore, scripts for Saw films have never been very good, but this one especially was not handled very well. As we follow Strahm during his search for the truth, we become inundated with slow-motion and the flashbacks. Without knowing left from right, this plot just becomes downright incoherent. What makes this all the more unfortunate is because it makes the end payoff (a trait this series has been pulled off quite well in the past) very cheap.   All in all, we learn some more of the back-story and get to go through some more “games” for another year.  It’s just too bad it’s just not worth it.

2 / 5 stars

Saw V

Not many “horror” franchises have enjoyed the success that the Saw series of films has.  Oh, sure, there were the classic slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, where one could count on almost yearly doses of gore and mayhem courtesy of such immortal movie killers like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers or Leatherface.

But the truth is, despite recent attempts to resurrect some of those same classic titles (Hellraiser and Friday the 13th are both getting reboots in early 2009), if you get down to it, most of those films were indistinguishable from each other.  I mean, seriously, could you really describe how Part Three of the Nightmare On Elm Street saga was different from Part Four?

Now, I’m not saying that the Saw series is markedly better.  Years from now, it may be just as tough to remember what happened in which chapter.  However, I do give the folks at Lionsgate for trying, at least adding to the substance of the story with a new angle or perspective each time around.  It’s very intricate (sometimes overly so) the way the events of the past connect with the events of the present…provided that you can tell which is which, of course.  But if you can, and as long as people continue to flock to see them, there’s no reason this series can’t go on indefinitely.

Saw V begins as many of the previous installments has:  with some poor dirtbag being “tested”.  This man, a convicted murderer let out of prison early on a technicality, is given a choice:  destroy his hands or be cut in half by a quickly-lowering razor-sharp pendulum.  The significance of this one test is explained rather quickly, and that’s when we are reintroduced to the character of forensics expert Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor).

If you saw Saw IV last year, this character emerged as a kind of successor to Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), who is now dead.  Through numerous flashbacks, we learn that he has actually been involved since the very beginning, as we see behind-the-scenes looks at events of all of the previous chapters.  But they are interspersed with scenes from the present, as two other plotlines play out:  Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) remains doggedly convinced that Hoffman is up to his eyeballs in this messy business, while meanwhile, five more seemingly random people are given tests of their own to survive.

Bottom line: if you’ve liked this series so far, you will probably like this one as well.  There are no shockingly new or earth-shattering revelations in store, despite the movie’s tagline (which, by the way, is the detail that I take the most umbrage with):  “You won’t believe how it ends”.  Uh, yeah.  “Ends?”   Let you in on a little secret: I’d be very surprised if Saw VI didn’t grace theaters one year from now.

Some people like brainless horror, which is fine:  gore and screams aplenty have enraptured audiences for decades.  I, however, like there to be a modicum of intelligence behind any storyline, and on that count, neither Saw nor any of its sequels has ever disappointed.  Still, one wonders just how high the Roman numerals will go before the franchise runs out of juice.

3 ½ / 5 stars