Friday, December 22, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Ravings of a Lunatic Mind

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Monsters and revenge.


It's clear that Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder knew the Frankenstein films released in the Universal monsters heyday quite well, as their parody Young Frankenstein plays much like it could be an official follow-up to those films, even though it was released by 20th Century Fox. Although it is hilariously funny, it also doesn't go too far with its comedy - Wilder wanted there to be a fidelity to the films it was inspired by, and even forbade Brooks from giving himself a role in the film because he felt that Brooks's screen presence would break the illusion.

The initial story idea came from Wilder, who plays the lead role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (he pronounces his last name Fronkensteen) in the movie. Frederick is the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, the man who created the Monster, and he lives in the shadow of an ancestor he wants nothing to do with, dismissing his grandfather as a lunatic. He wants to put his family's history behind him... until he finds out he has inherited the family estate in Transylvania. Leaving his vain fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) at home, Frederick travels to Transylvania to check out the family home, much like Wolf Frankenstein did in Son of Frankenstein.

Arriving in Transylvania, Frederick is greeted by the hunchbacked servant Igor (Marty Feldman), the grandson of Frederick's grandather's servant, laboratory assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). During his first night in the Frankenstein place, Frederick discovers a hidden passageway to his grandfather's private library, where Victor Frankenstein has left behind a journal titled "How I Did It"... and as soon as Frederick finds that book, his stance on his family's monstrous history is reversed.

Frederick sets out to create his own version of the Monster, with the help of Igor and Inga. A body is stolen from the cemetery, Igor procures a brain for the creature (and accidentally gets an abnormal one), lightning shocks the monster to life, and it rises from its slab, played by Peter Boyle. While the simple creature escapes into the countryside to experience versions of scenes from the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the villagers are fearing that Frederick is going to repeat mistakes of the past, unaware that he already has. A local lawman, Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), tries to make sure that Frederick won't be causing trouble, and Kemp and his interaction with Frederick is reminiscent of Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh character from Son of Frankenstein.

There's a lot of history as we know it from the Universal movies being repeated in Young Frankenstein, but things eventually go in a very different direction than those older stories went in. We certainly never saw Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Glenn Strange performing "Puttin' on the Ritz" as the Monster. Wilder wasn't sure we should see Boyle performing it either, but Brooks and the laughter of the audience convinced him otherwise.

Young Frankenstein pays a lot of respect to the Frankenstein films that came before it, while mining a lot of comedy out of the scenarios those films presented. The jokes are highly amusing, the characters are great, and the performances are genius, particularly those by Wilder and Feldman. If you enjoy the original Frankenstein movies, or if you like to laugh, I can't imagine that you wouldn't have fun watching this one.

This was actually my first exposure to some of the classic Frankenstein scenes, as I saw this movie before I saw any of the Frankenstein sequels. I saw Boyle's Monster interact with Gene Hackman's blind hermit before I saw Karloff interact with O.P. Heggie in Bride, I saw Mars's Kemp long before I was introduced to Atwill's Krogh. It didn't hinder my enjoyment of the movie any. I've been a fan of Young Frankenstein since I was a little kid.

HANG 'EM HIGH (1968)

Fresh from starring in the "man with no name" trilogy, Clint Eastwood started his own production company, Malpaso Productions, and the first film made under the Malpaso banner would be set firmly in the genre that Eastwood was best known for at this point: the western. To direct the film, he chose a man he had been through western territory with before; Ted Post, who had directed Eastwood in a couple dozen episodes of the TV series Rawhide.

Eastwood is unquestionably the star of Hang 'Em High, which I'm sure he was happy about, after he had to share the lead on the Fistful of Dollars sequels For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The screenplay by Leonard Freeman and Mel Goldberg centers on his character Jed Cooper, who is established as a good guy in the first few minutes, showing special attention to a calf while he's herding his newly bought cattle. Being nice to animals is a quick way to get viewers to like you, and it's clever that they introduced Cooper in this way, because he is soon being assaulted by an overzealous nine-man lynch mob who won't listen to reason. Cooper is accused of being a rustler who killed a man and his wife to get his cattle. Cooper tells them he bought the cattle, even shows a receipt, but rather than consider that the man he bought them from was a real killer, the mob - which includes the likes of Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, and Alan Hale Jr. (the skipper from Gilligan's Island!) - just goes ahead and hangs him from the nearest tree.

Lucky for Cooper, a marshal played by Ben Johnson happens to ride past and cut him down before he's strangled to death. He's locked up with some real criminals while waiting for his time before the judge, but it's better than hanging for no reason. When the real killer is caught and hung from the gallows, Cooper is set free - but that's not the only justice he wants to see done. He wants the men who hung him to see their day in court, too. Faced with Cooper's determination, the judge (Pat Hingle) sees an opportunity. The judge doesn't have near enough marshals working in this area, Oklahoma territory, Cooper used to be a lawman in St. Louis, and having Cooper search for the mob in an official capacity is better than having him take the law into his own hands. So the judge makes Cooper a marshal and sends him off on regular jobs, during which Cooper keeps his eye out for the men who nearly killed him.

And so Hang 'Em High is a revenge film, but Cooper's isn't a bloodthirsty, roaring rampage of revenge. He does things by the book, he truly wants his attackers to be arrested, judged, and sentenced. He doesn't just gun them down, although some of them do have to be gunned down. When other lynch mobs want to give them vigilante justice, Cooper stops them. When the men are arrested with accomplices, he argues that the accomplices shouldn't be judged as harshly as the perpetrators.

While some of the members were bad men, keep in mind that others thought they were doing a good thing, it just got out of hand. This allows the filmmakers to show some reacting differently to Cooper's mission than others. Some turn themselves in, others go on the run... and some try to kill Cooper all over again. As the lynch mob members lose their freedom and/or their lives one-by-one, some of them decide that the best defense is a good offense.

That leads to my one issue with the film: after Cooper is injured in an attack, the film devotes around 11 minutes to showing a local woman (Inger Stevens) help nurse him back to health, with the pair falling for each other during his convalescence. This sequence took the wind out of the movie's sails for me and seemed like a misstep when you're at the 89 to 100 minute stretch of a 115 minute movie. The romantic interlude wasn't needed.

It would be unfair to compare Hang 'Em High to the three westerns Eastwood had just worked on before, as the style of direction, the music, and the filming circumstances made those movies something unique. Hang 'Em High is more straightforward, it doesn't have the stylistic flourishes, but taken on its own merits it is a terrific western. The story is engaging, and it's not often that you see a revenge film where the lead character is so commendably concerned with the rule of law. Characters out for revenge in films are typically just out to kill in any way necessary, so this one definitely stands out with the way Cooper handles his revenge.


I have an issue of Fangoria magazine from the late '80s or early '90s in which it was revealed, in the "Terror Teletype" column, that An American Werewolf in London writer/director John Landis was gearing up to make a sequel titled An American Werewolf in Paris. Unfortunately, the project ended up enduring some sort of development hell, and when the sequel did reach theatres in 1997 Landis had nothing to do with it.

The honor/challenge of crafting a sequel to Landis's 1981 classic went to Anthony Waller, who had just gotten some attention for his 1995 film Mute Witness, a solid thriller about, yes, a mute person who witnesses a murder. As he went from that to this long-awaited sequel, for a brief moment it looked like Anthony Waller could be The Next Big Thing. But as it turned out, An American Werewolf in Paris was not a good career move.

Despite coming sixteen years after its predecessor and having no returning actors, Paris is a sequel to London... one that takes place a little more than sixteen years after the events of the first movie, as Julie Delpy (one of my favorite actresses) plays the daughter of London characters David Kessler and Alex Price, conceived during their brief time together, and she's a twenty-something.

Serafine is introduced when American tourist Andy McDermott (Tom Everett Scott) spots her attempting to commit suicide by jumping off the Eiffel Tower. Andy and his buddies Brad (Vince Vieluf) and Chris (Phil Buckman) are on a "daredevil tour" of Europe, which explains why Andy has bungee jumping equipment with him to use to save Serafine when she takes the leap.

Andy is instantly smitten with Serafine and obsessed with helping her turn her life around, to an almost creepy degree. He tries to woo her and somehow, even though he's utterly hopeless in his interactions with her, she falls for him, too.

Trouble is, Serafine is a werewolf. She has had a tough life, struggling with the beast within. Her mother tried to help her, marrying a man who thought he could cure her condition. Instead, his cure triggered a transformation. Alex was killed and her husband was mauled and turned into a werewolf himself.

Serafine and her stepfather aren't the only werewolves in this film. There is an entire underground community of werewolves in Paris, an unsavory bunch who have a similar approach to their meals as the vampires that ran the Titty Twister club in From Dusk Till Dawn. These werewolves let humans into a nightclub called Club de la Lune, they lock the doors and tear the people apart. Andy and Brad are in the club when the werewolves attack. Brad is killed, and Andy is bitten.

So now we have our American werewolf, as Andy proceeds to undergo the transformation. He turns into a ravenous beast and starts killing people around Paris. He is also visited by the mutilated, rotting spectre of Brad (much like David had visions of his mutilated friend and victims), who advises him on how to get out of this situation. This film adds to the mythology, as Andy is told that if he eats the heart of the werewolf who bit him he will be cured.

An American Werewolf in Paris has a bad reputation, and does indeed have a lot of problems. The script isn't particularly good, the characters are lacking, there is some bad acting on display. The humor doesn't work as well as it did in the original. Worst of all are the werewolves. I don't know if this was Waller's creative decision or if someone higher up demanded it as a way to save money, but it was a stunningly wrong-headed move and unforgivable that they would follow up a film known and celebrated for its amazing practical special effects with a movie filled with horrible CGI. Rick Baker won an Oscar for the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, but for An American Werewolf in Paris they decided to pull off the transformations with CG effects. It's awful. Then you have CG werewolves bouncing all over the place in the movie. It's this film's greatest sin.

John Landis doesn't hold back on sharing his opinion of An American Werewolf in Paris; he has openly stated that the movie "was shit". That's an opinion that many fans share. I wouldn't go quite that far. It does have some good qualities, some interesting idea, and nice cinematography courtesy of Egon Werdin. It's not completely disastrous. But it did come close to it, because there were a lot of bad decisions made while it was being put together.

As bad as this movie is, Waller was still showing promise as a director. His co-writers Tom Stern and Tim Burns have gotten a ton of work since this, but Waller has barely worked at all. In the last twenty years he has directed two thrillers and a documentary, and produced a few other films. I hope this was by choice and not because Paris derailed his career. He deserved to do more, if he wanted to.


The first season of the Eric Kripke-created television series Supernatural began with brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) losing their father. In a way. John Winchester (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who had dedicated his life to hunting demons and other monsters after a yellow-eyed creature from Hell killed his wife / the mother of his children back in 1983, had gone missing while on one of his "hunting trips". But the boys knew early on that John was still alive, as their father would even send them the coordinates of places where there was some kind of supernatural activity going on.

At the start of season two, Sam and Dean lose their father again, but this time he is gone. Dead. To save Dean's life in the aftermath of the season one finale cliffhanger, John sells his soul to the very yellow-eyed demon he had been tracking for twenty-two years. In the process, he gives the demon, who the Winchesters came very close to killing at the end of season one, the upper hand again. 

The following episodes do a great job dealing with the fallout of John's choice. The loss of John hangs over the entire season, and Dean in particular has a very tough time getting past his father's death, because he is the reason their dad is dead. John traded his life for Dean's. Dean didn't ask him to, and that fact adds anger and guilt on top of the pain.

Season one took a while to get into the mythology of the show, partly because Kripke had originally envisioned it as an anthology that would have no greater mythology. With one having been firmly established by this point, though, the show digs much deeper into that story this time around. We find out more about the yellow-eyed demon, who is portrayed by Fredric Lehne. Obviously, the season has to build up to a rematch of sorts with the demon, and along the way Sam also learns more about the plans he has found out the demon has for him and the supernatural abilities that he has himself. The demon is looking for soldiers to serve for him in an apocalyptic war, and he has several candidates who were born in 1983, Sam included, all of whom have some sort of strange gift. Sam can see glimpses of the future, while others have mind control abilities, superhuman strength, or can kill someone with a touch.

Sam meets all of the remaining candidates by the end of the season, and one of them continues the "Where's Waldo"-esque game of spotting Freddy vs. Jason stars on this show. There were a lot of FvsJ cast members in season one, and here genre regular Katharine Isabelle (Ginger of Ginger Snaps) shows up as Ava Wilson, who has psychic ability similar to Sam's.

Although season two dives deeply into the mythology, it also has plenty of "monster of the week" episodes as well. There's a killer clown episode where a creature called a Rakshasa takes the form of a clown to trick children; there's a zombie girl risen from the grave by a Greek spell; the usual spirits seeking vengeance and/or justice; demons; hellhounds; a plague from Hell; a Loki-esque mischievous trickster; the ghost of real life serial killer H.H. Holmes. Supernatural's version of vampires were introduced in season one, and there are more vampires here, but it turns out the more dangerous character is a vampire hunter named Gordon (Sterling K. Brown) who is a little too stake-happy... and trigger happy... and grenade happy...

Where there are vampires there can't be werewolves far behind, and we do get to meet some werewolves. Unfortunately, the design of these werewolves is far from inspired - they actually don't look all that different from vampires. There's not much wolf to them at all.

In one of the best episodes, which shares a name with a Led Zeppelin and my favorite Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy, the Winchesters wonder if they might be dealing with an angel. Although they know demons are all around, Dean doesn't believe in angels, while Sam would like to believe.

Last season, a shapeshifter got Dean into some serious legal trouble, and not only is there another shapeshifter this season (in an episode co-starring Freddy vs. Jason's Chris Gauthier), but those legal problems also continue throughout the season. At one point, the Winchesters find themselves in the custody of a detective played by Linda Blair, and in another episode they're even locked up in prison.

Another one of the best episodes involves Dean being dropped into a reality created for him by a djinn, in which life has gone the way he wishes it had. His mom is still alive, his brother is a regular college student and engaged to the girlfriend who was killed by the demon in the pilot episode; Dean himself has a normal life and a girlfriend. It's a very emotional episode in a season that's packed with emotional moments.

Season two can get heavy at times, and there are some sad episodes, but the show keeps moving from location to location and dealing with different threats, so that enables it to switch up the tone from time to time. You can go from dead serious, touching stories to pure comedy - as you get in an episode where the brothers go to Hollywood and end up on the set of a horror movie being directed by a fictional version of Supernatural executive producer McG.

The expanding mythology also allows for the addition of some more recurring characters. Sam and Dean were on their own for most of season one, but this time they have some backup from other people in the monster-hunting world, like Jim Beaver as John's friend Bobby Singer; Samantha Ferris and Alona Tal as Ellen and Jo Harvelle, who have history with John and work at a road house that serves as a monster hunter gathering place; and Chad Lindberg as eccentric researcher Ash. (That name has to be a reference to the hero of the Evil Dead franchise, but this Ash is no Bruce Campbell.)

The second season of Supernatural tells both fantastic horror stories and dramatic stories, and through it all the show continues to have an awesome soundtrack. Episodes feature songs from the likes of Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Journey, AC/DC, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Jefferson Airplane, Styx, Bob Dylan, The Doors, Joe Walsh, The Animals, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ramones, Boston, and more. There's even a Spinal Tap song! And yes, Kansas's "Carry On, My Wayward Son" is used again.

I loved the first season of Supernatural, and I would say the second season was even better.

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