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Sunday
Aug282011

The Elephant Man (1980) Home Video Review

Three-ring Passion Play

David Lynch is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. Again, I'm beyond fashionably late to the party, having only watched one-and-a-half* of his films. But catching up with classics is a sure-fire cure for the end-of-summer blahs, and right now I could use some cheering up.

You might think The Elephant Man a strange choice. The movie is far from uplifting, but it's so beautiful and weird that even through tears I was ecstatic. Only the creator of Eraserhead could come up with such a brilliant spin on Oscar-bait. Yes, it's a lush period piece about an underdog who overcomes adversity, but those ingredients are strained through the sieve of Lynch's nightmare-mind, resulting in a film that is at once profoundly moving and deeply unsettling. At the end, I wanted to give the titular character a great, big hug--and then kill myself.

Set in the late-1880s, The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely-deformed twenty-one-year-old man. His mother was trampled by an elephant in her fourth month of pregnancy, resulting in bulbous masses distorting her son's facial features, as well as spiky tumors that jut from his warped torso. The only "normal" parts of his body are his left arm and genitals. The last of nature's cruel gifts is a case of chronic bronchitis, which makes speaking and breathing difficult; Merrick has to sleep in a hunched sitting position for fear of dying in the night.

Merrick travels England as a carnival freak, the ward of a drunken bully named Bytes (Freddie Jones). During a stop in London, renowned surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) hears of the so-called "Elephant Man" and asks for a private showing. Realizing that the man is terribly sick, he pays Bytes to allow him to take Merrick to London Hospital, where his poor breathing can be treated. It's a ruse, of course, to get him away from the slop-filled, portable shack and nightly beatings--as well as to have a better look at this truly unique human being.

Treves sneaks Merrick into a private room on the isolation ward and sets him up with a hot meal and a proper bed. Over several days, the men bond over Treves' discovery that the poor creature can speak; he coaches Merrick on the right things to say when meeting the hospital's director, Carr Gomm (John Gielgud). The introduction doesn't go well. Despite good manners and an ability to parrot the first half of the 23rd Psalm, Carr Gomm sees no evidence that Merrick is anything but an unfortunate mass of low-functioning tissue that happens to be alive.

On their way to formally dismissing Merrick from the hospital, though, Carr Gomm and Treves hear him complete the biblical passage--a feat that he'd not been "trained" to do. It turns out he's well-read and well-spoken, but a life of ridicule and beatings have rendered him nearly incapable of expressing himself. Under Treves' care, Merrick learns to come out of his shell, and becomes a fascination for London's high society.

One of his new admirers is theatre star Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who appreciates the classic tragedy in Merrick's life story and falls platonically in love with him. She gives him a photo of herself, which he keeps on a bedside table next to the one worldly possession he's kept since birth: a small portrait of his gorgeous mother, who he believes to still be alive somewhere, but whom he's never met.

Merrick discovers a world of daytime generosity in the hospital, but after lights-out, he's subjected to a new kind of freak-show exploitation at the hands of the sadistic Night Porter (Michael Elphick)--who brings regulars from local pubs to Merrick's room, where they pummel and ridicule him. Not wanting to trouble his new hosts, Merrick doesn't mention the nightly tortures; he endures the beaten-dog role knowing that within hours he'll be in the company of people who love and respect him (a side-effect of this cruelty is that we, like Merrick, are also extremely wary of the people to whom we're introduced--especially Mrs. Kendal, whose motivations are unclear and, ultimately, surprising).

The screenplay by Lynch and co-writers Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren (working from books by Ashley Montagu and the real-life Treves--yes, this is all based on a true story) is a very conventional one whose biggest surprise is how un-surprising it is. Three things elevate the material above a Forrest-Gump-style audience-pleaser into the realm of challenging art.

The first and most obvious is the filmmaking. Lynch's stylistic choices, which are largely realized by Freddie Francis' awesome cinematography. The Elephant Man is not only filmed in black-and-white, its performances and presentation all harken back to films of the 1930s--specifically Tod Browning's Freaks. Despite the superior film stock and lighting, it's easy to forget that The Elephant man was released in 1980; indeed, the one tip of the hat to the Spielberg Era is a series of distracting J.J. Abrams-esque lens flares early on (though I doubt this was a consciously pretentious choice on Lynch's part). And while much of it falls on the gorgeous side of typical, Lynch sprinkles his picture with the oddly framed imagery of his Eraserhead-style surrealism, which helps further the idea that this is a classic movie with a distinctly modern stamp.

The second contributor to the movie's success is the performances by everyone involved. From the child street urchin (Dexter Fletcher, the grown-up version of whom you might recognize from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to Hopkins and Hurt, there's not a bum actor in the cast. I was particularly surprised by Hopkins who, in his later career, has fallen victim to what I call Pacino/Jones Syndrome, which is characterized by once-great actors playing parodies of themselves in ninety percent of their newer films. There's not a trace of Hannibal Lecter in Treves; Hopkins is completely natural and understated, and I totally bought him as a doctor torn by the conflicting lures of fame and charity.

Lastly, we have the superb Elephant Man makeup designed by Christopher Tucker and fashioned by Beryl Lerman, Michael Morris, and Wally Schneiderman. John Hurt is completely unrecognizable beneath his latex deformities, which perfectly recreate the look of the real Merrick (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one of the reasons Lynch shot in black-and-white was to enhance his monster's illusion). Additionally, the restrictions force Hurt to squeeze every bit of great acting he can through a half-formed mouth and eyes that struggle to form tears. If the makeup has a co-star, it's the sound design by Lynch and Alan Splet: the horrible slurping noises Merrick makes when speaking form yet another barrier to the pure-hearted soul trapped inside his bad joke of a body--just as the crazy echoes in London Hospital's halls reflect the isolation Merrick feels even when surrounded by people.

I was blown away by The Elephant Man. David Lynch has made a film that's poignant yet cool enough not to be corny. The lesson, of course, is of the "don't judge a book by its cover" variety, but he attacks it with such brutal honesty as to force the audience to consider just how deeply their own prejudices lie. Like Citizen Kane, the point here is that the truth of a situation or a person is often much more complicated and harder to see at a glance. Whether considering politics, reality television, or homeless people that we've come to think of as really bad wallpaper, these themes are as relevant today as they were in 1980 and 1880--and probably well before that. The Elephant Man is a freakish film but also a very moral and humanistic one that, I would imagine, tests the self-image of anyone who sees it.

*The half-film in question is Mulholland Drive, which I turned off about thirty minutes in. I loved what I saw, but I started watching too late in the evening and wanted to give it my full attention. Time got away from me and I had to return the DVD, but I plan to revisit the entire movie whenever it comes out on blu-ray (#lamebuttrueexplanation).

Saturday
Aug272011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Nothing to Fear

Fun never lasts, kids. In the course of a week, I've watched three movies that illustrate, cosmically, why remakes are a terrible idea. For those of you who are into poor architectural analogies, watching Fright Night is like spending an evening in Paris admiring the lights from the balcony at Sacré-Cœur; Just Go With It is a drunken stumble down that cathedral's beautiful, ancient steps; Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the death-blow of a fat, American tourist family trampling over your half-broken neck in a desperate search for "real" food.

The marketing materials for this latest travesty heavily promote the involvement of executive producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, but I have to wonder just how far down in the weeds he got; Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the kind of generic, cat-in-the-closet horror movie that most self-respecting horror filmmakers would sell their souls to be disassociated with. It's as if del Toro held a contest to see who could make the slickest knock-off of one of his amazing, Spanish-language spook shows.

Lest you think I'm a snob who doesn't realize that most of the audience for this film has never seen--nor will ever see--Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone precisely because they don't watch movies to read (sorry; no, I'm not), let me assure you that this film isn't scary even by the standards of popular American horror. I know, because it's packed with most every cliché you'd expect from a Scary House Movie. Let's review the check-list:

  • Creepy, whispering spirits/monsters
  • Eerie kid with parental abandonment issues
  • Pages and pages of black-crayon drawings of creatures/spirals/unsettling family portraits
  • Clueless adults who ignore supernatural warning signs that would shake even die-hard skeptics

Those are the first four items off the top of my head. If you've seen Gremlins, Cat's Eye, Insidious, or any other horror movie released in the last thirty years, I'm sure you can fill in the rest (bonus points for familiarity with the wonderful episode of Monsters called "The Waiting Game", which presages Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's ending--without the insulting clumsiness).

All of this annoyed ranting has kept me from discussing the plot. Were I not aiming for the illusion of professionalism, I'd just say "look at the poster". But because I love you, here goes:

Unwanted by her mother, eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) moves to Rhode Island to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), who's in the middle of restoring the palatial Blackwood mansion. Sally is wary of dad's new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), who serves as the project's interior designer. Despite Kim's best efforts, Sally refuses to acknowledge her as anything but lame, and spends much of her time snooping around the house and the (Pan's) labyrinth outside.

One day, Sally discovers a glass dome in the hedge-maze/garden, which looks in on a hidden basement. The crusty, old caretaker, Harris (Jack Thompson), warns the family to stay out, but Sally ventures down into the dark anyway. For some reason, she thinks that the malevolent voices coming out of the ash chute are friendly--maybe because they invite her to come and play with the other children at the bottom of the smelly hole in which they're trapped. She partially opens the chute door, and an army of gray, rat-looking creatures with white-eyed zombie faces come scampering into the house.

It's not until after the monsters attack Harris that Sally realizes their sinister intentions, but once everyone's on the same page, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark becomes a paint-by-numbers child-in-peril movie. The only thing that sets it apart from films of its kind is the utter carelessness with which the filmmakers handle the creatures' back-story.

Movies like this live or die by their mythology. Think of the great horror icons: Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Pinhead, Jason Voorhees. They each have rich histories that make sense and inform their killing sprees. Sure, many of the later sequels become watered down and neglect storytelling altogether, but the foundations stand strong in the audience's subconscious. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins tease us with pockets of mythology that, when pieced together, make absolutely no sense.

Apparently, these monsters are a cross-breed of fairies and demons who've been around since before mankind. Whenever they're awakened by humans, they must kill at least one person in order to replenish their ranks. But a few hundred years ago, they entered into negotiations with one of the popes--resulting in a truce by which they leave silver coins under pillows in exchange for human teeth. The monsters have repeatedly broken this pact by kidnapping kids and holding them hostage for teeth. Though, like Captain Kirk dumping Khan and his race of supermen on Ceti Alpha Five, the Vatican never bothered to follow up.

This convoluted premise leaves the door wide open for critical questions, of which I'll pose only three:

1. Are there other houses across the planet with these monsters living in them?

3. If not, why Rhode Island?

2. Did the pope travel to Rhode Island for these troll truce talks, or did he send a proxy?

These aren't nit-picks; the movie is just that poorly conceived. Instead of coming up with something original (I realize this is a remake of a 1973 TV movie, but that should give the creators more leeway, not less), comic-book-artist-turned-first-time-director Troy Nixey throws a lot of quick-cut, poorly lit CG monster imagery at the screen and cranks up the clanging-pots noises on the soundtrack. There is nothing visually creepy in the entire film, and if you were to watch it at home at a reasonable volume, I guarantee you'd not only be bored to tears, you'd probably wonder what about this story was worth re-telling.

The only positive thing I can say about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is that the cast is great up until the point when they're called up on to be uniformly dumb (about twenty minutes in). I really liked the strained family dynamic and Madison made me forget that I'd just been irritated by her performance in Just Go With It the day before. Pearce can do no wrong--except, apparently, in his choice of roles. And Holmes reminded me of just how much I've missed her since she became Mrs. Tom Cruise (I'm one of three people on the planet who thought she was the second-best thing in Batman Begins). None of the performers, though, can save the material, which falls apart once we figure out that this is just another stupid monster movie.

There's no reason to see this film. It is a cheap copy of the executive producer's best work and the calling card of a young director who reeeally wants to work in television (graveyard shift basic cable, to be exact). The most frightening thing about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is that it may end up the pop cornerstone for a generation of kids who wouldn't know a great horror movie if it bit them in the ankle. Thoughts like that keep me up at night.

Friday
Aug262011

Just Go With It (2011) Home Video Review

No.

I don't know if I've shared my wife's Wedding Singer Thing, but it's important to understand when discussing Dennis Dugan's Just Go With It. In 1998, the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore film rocketed to the top of her Favorite Films list; she loves its chemistry, comedy, and charm, and while I haven't watched it all the way through in quite awhile, I can't say I disagree. That was Sandler's first truly mature comedy, one in which he wasn't playing an out-sized five-year-old. Sure, his Robbie Hart character had some issues, but none so severe as to warrant calling the cops or a shrink at first glance. It was also Drew Barrymore's coming out party as a mature actress, her first mainstream hit in which the audience didn't still think of her as "Gertie" from E.T. at the end.

My wife is obsessed with finding what she calls "Another Wedding Singer", a new, cute, lightning-in-a-bottle rom-com that will bring back the warm gooeys. Like all great pop scientists, she starts with the key ingredients, meaning we've endured just about every Sandler and/or Barrymore film of the last decade-plus; this painful experiment has yielded about a 0.000000000001% return on investment (Music & Lyrics came close for her, and contains one of my all-time-favorite opening scenes). Sad to say, I reached my breaking point last night, and have officially abandoned the experiment.

To call Just Go With It a pathetic comedy makes the erroneous assumption that it's a comedy in the first place. If anything, it's the successor to Ocean's 12: a group of mostly attractive and talented actors travel to an exotic location under the guise of making a funny movie and instead end up riffing on their least-favorite scenes from terrible comedies.

Sandler plays Danny Maccabee, a plastic surgeon who wears a wedding ring to help him pick up women at bars. Long ago, he turned a fianceé's betrayal into the ultimate plan for getting Sympathy Ass, and has spent decades avoiding commitment (and, miraculously, disease). His assistant, Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), disapproves of his lifestyle, but in an enablingly dismissive "Oh, you!" kind of way. She's more focused on raising her two precocious kids, who, wouldn't you know it, say the damnedest things.

Danny meets a stacked, blonde bombshell named Palmer (Brooklyn Decker) at a party and they hit it off right away. Following a passionate night on the beach, Palmer finds the wedding band in Danny's pocket, setting into motion a series of lies that will inevitably cause the scoundrel to wind up with his co-worker (Sorry, where are my manners? SPOILER!).

Danny and Katherine hatch a plan to convince Palmer that they're in the middle of a divorce. Katherine gets a luxurious makeover so as to look like the kind of high-class woman who'd be married to a plastic surgeon, and the three meet for a passing-of-the-baton dinner. At the end of the evening, Katherine slips up and mentions her kids, whom Palmer naturally assumes are Danny's kids, and--

I can't do this. The long and short of it is, the mixed-up trio heads to Hawaii with the children and, for some reason, Danny's cousin/brother/something-or-other (Nick Swardson, sporting a high-larious fake German accent). While staying at a fabulous Hilton resort, they run into one of Katherine's old classmates and her husband (Nicole Kidman and Dave Matthews, who, I assume, just happened to be on vacation at the same time/spot that Sandler and company started filming), and the rest of Just Go With It devolves into a laugh-free version of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, crossed with a high-def travel brochure.

My instinct is to say that everyone involved in this movie should be ashamed of themselves, but I have only myself to blame. Sandler, Aniston, Decker, and company got to spend months in paradise, goofing off and not even thinking about work (though I'm sure the crew worked really hard to make this pile of crap look gorgeous). The main problem is that Just Go With It is all ingredients and no recipe; scenes meander and die, one after the other, for nearly two hours, all on their way to a conclusion that is both predictable and, strangely, furiously unsatisfying.

At the very last minute, Palmer and Danny decide to get married on the island. Everyone "just goes with it", despite the fact that, according to the narrative of their ruse, Danny and Katherine aren't even divorced yet. On top of that, the actual climax in which Danny decides, at the altar, that Palmer isn't the right girl for him, isn't even shown. Danny pops up at an ocean-side bar and recounts his story to Katherine--then the movie ends. I'm not suggesting that writers Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling would have come up with something hilarious or exciting at this late stage of the picture, but being deprived of a scene with potential forward momentum is a big middle-finger to those of us who waited (somewhat) patiently.

Then again, maybe kid-blowjob jokes, competitive hula dancing, and an extended gag about giving a sheep the Heimlich maneuver are what satisfies and tickles modern comedy audiences. I'm fully willing to admit that it could just be me. But the only thing that kept me half-interested in Just Go With It was completing the mental picture of Brooklyn Decker and Jennifer Aniston's tits. You might call that misogynist. I call it the reaction that the filmmakers were looking for in male audience members. There's so much thin fabric, thin wet fabric, and side-boob in this movie that I'm sure the strategy boiled down to, "If the non-jokes don't get 'em, maybe the pronounced areolae will!"

Speaking of Decker, I'm thoroughly puzzled by her acting choices. Throughout the film, I wondered why she insisted on covering up her European accent, especially because she's so bad at doing so. The joke's on me: she was born in Ohio and raised in North Carolina! Hers is the first case of a performer who's natural delivery sounds like a terrible actor trying to disguise their native speech. Amazing.

I can't even write this movie off as the poor execution of a great premise. The story is ultimately about a single mom so desperate for love that she props up a womanizing liar as a role model for her kids. The one thing it does right is to not paint Palmer as a seemingly nice girl who turns out to be mean or tragically flawed in some way; she's a good person from start to finish--which is why I'm glad she didn't wind up with Danny. I'm pretty sure she's the only one who actually benefits from the film's saccharine, happy ending, even though it looks like she gets a raw deal.

I'm done with Adam Sandler. That's not to say I won't watch or review any more of his movies, but I no longer feel obligated to expect anything from them--just as he, presumably, feels no obligation to entertain the people who pay to see them. I think the reason The Wedding Singer is frozen in amber for me and my wife is that it's the last movie he did where the pathos, heart, and comedy were mostly balanced. Ever since then, he's gone too far off the rails in either the Artsy-and-Dark or Lowest-Common-Denominator directions. Even this movie's title is an insult to sentient people everywhere, a quit-thinking-so-much nudge in the ribs by people whose only concerns are making truckloads of rube-cash and "tastefully" presenting spectacular breasts. Just Go With It makes boobs of us all.

Wednesday
Aug242011

Miracle Mile (1988)

Worst Responders

Years from now, I imagine people will ask each other, "Where were you when Steve Jobs retired from Apple for the second time?"

My answer will be, "Writing about a terrible nuclear-holocaust movie."

It hurts to write those words. When I first saw Miracle Mile at age thirteen, I thought it was a harrowing triumph of acting and tense direction. This was during my "white lights, no cities" phase, when I obsessed over any movie that featured bombs dropping. From The Day After to By Dawn's Early Light to this film, I couldn't get enough of barren, nightmare landscapes and the dregs of humanity clawing each others' eyes out to survive.

The problem with watching movies as a kid is that children have no perspective. Had I seen the Star Wars prequels at the right age, I might have regarded them as highly as I do the Holy Trilogy today because I didn't have the breadth of knowledge or ability to recognize imperfections that I do now. Same thing with Miracle Mile: I used to love Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham as doomed young lovers trying to make their way out of Los Angeles during World War III. I still love the concept, but having just watched the movie again for the first time in twenty years, I can barely see past the corniness and desperation in writer/director Steve De Jarnatt's screenplay.

The film opens with Harry (Edwards) narrating a montage of his first encounter with Julie (Winningham), whom he follows around a museum all day. They meet, fall in like, and have three dates, which we don't see. One evening, they make plans to go out after Julie's late shift at a local diner. Harry oversleeps and rushes to meet Julie anyway (yes, Harry's the kind of self-involved dork who assumes girls just wait around for hours on end, in the hopes that the guys who stood them up will eventually show).

After getting Julie's number from another waitress , Harry calls her apartment from a pay phone and leaves a message (wait: after three dates, they still haven't exchanged numbers? Jesus, never mind...). Moments later, the phone rings and Harry answers. On the other end is a panicked young man who screams about launch codes and impact timelines. He'd dialed the wrong area code when trying to reach his dad, and ended up giving a complete stranger the best/worse piece of insider information in history.

Harry stumbles back into the diner and recounts his story to a cast of Wacky, 3am Angelinos, including the sassy waitress, nervous stewardess, sexist sanitation workers, and a wealthy stock broker played by Denise Crosby. After a few minutes of talking into the brick-sized cell phone she carries in her totally wired briefcase, she confirms the nuke story and announces that she's just chartered a helicopter to take the entire group to a cargo plane bound for Antarctica.

Instead of following this amazing crew to the coldest regions of the planet and watching them fall apart like a late-80s version of Lost, we're sidelined by Harry's real-time quest to find Julie and get her to safety. Because this happens in real-time, much of the adventure is confined to about two city blocks. The couple reunites and says goodbye to Julie's squabbling, old parents before heading to the helipad on top of an insurance company's headquarters. There, they meet two stoned Yuppies and a pair of machine-gun-toting lesbians, all of whom are in the process of Tetris-ing a Wal-Mart into what looks like a model helicopter--only one snag: none of them knows how to fly.

Harry leaves Julie on top of the building and sets out to find a pilot. He has amazing success, breaking up a pre-dawn aerobics class by waving a gun around; a gym patron agrees to help, as long as he can bring his boyfriend. On the way back to the rendezvous, Harry sees Julie running down the street and--

Aw, hell, we're almost at the end of the movie.

The one positive thing I can say about Miracle Mile is that it doesn't shy away from the Total Destruction ending that its genre dictates. But even this is problematic, since Harry begins the film by telling us this touching story about a great girl he met. When does he do this? After he dies? Is Harry a ghost? If so, why don't he and Julie tell their story together? Do they not end up in the same place?

These questions are both more entertaining and less ridiculous than the events of the movie. I can't convey how silly and over-acted this thing is. You can play several fun rounds of "Before They Were Famous" by spotting actors like Mykelti Williamson and Kurt Fuller, but I'd advise you to mute the TV first. No one escapes this picture with their dignity intact.

Okay, Tangerine Dream isn't mortally wounded. Their score is a slightly hipper version of the music they did for Risky Business. And I love that movie, so I'll project some good will onto this project.

Imagine a cast of solid actors hamming it up for ninety minutes before being blown to smithereens (and maybe drowning in the La Brea Tar Pits), and you've got the skeleton of Miracle Mile. The muscle is comprised of a cheesy romance written with the passion and life experience of a cloistered nun and bursts of spectacular Serious Acting that I guarantee will make you cover your mouth and/or eyes.

The lesson here is this: the next time a thirteen-year-old raves to you about how awesome a new movie is, throw them a look that suggests things could get violent. For best results, do this while yelling, "You don't now shit!".

They'll thank you later.

Tuesday
Aug232011

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

'Til Death Do Us Start

For me, the best and most embarrassing part of being a film critic is writing about really cool movies that I should have seen way before I got around to watching them. I've stunned people with my limited knowledge of Woody Allen's oeuvre, and can count on both hands the number of times I've heard, "You've never seen Cool Hand Luke?" I never know how to react, beyond shrugging and insisting that such-and-such movie is at the top of my list (right behind whatever Hellraiser sequel is currently streaming).

Yesterday, I watched James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, the follow-up to another classic film I've yet to see. I've heard this described as one of the all-time best horror films, so I decided to skip the original and jump right to the good stuff. Fortunately, there's a handy re-cap of Frankenstein in the beginning that's handled in a way I absolutely did not expect.

The movie opens in the grand estate of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), who's just finished hosting a small dinner with his friends, the Shelleys, Mary (Elsa Lanchester) and Percy (Douglas Walton). Byron congratulates himself on being the world's premiere debaucherous pervert, haughtily rolling his "R's as if practicing for a cunnilingus marathon. He stops short, remembering a story that Mary wrote involving a monster stitched together from the remnants of the dead and brought to life by lightning. He asks her to recount the tale.

With one of the creepiest smiles I've ever seen, Mary gives a condensed history of Dr. Frankenstein's monster, which is presented as a montage of the first film's events. The story ends with Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being tossed over the side of a mill by his freakish creation, The Monster (Boris Karloff). A horde of angry, German villagers burns the structure to the ground, allegedly killing the beast. Byron presses Mary for more, and she picks up the story with some of the villagers inspecting the rubble while others transport the battered but breathing doctor back to his family's castle.

Of course, The Monster is still alive. And he's pissed. Gone is the confused, misunderstood giant: he's been reborn as a straight-up killer, emerging from the watery depths of the well under the mill to roam the countryside. He takes out two nosy villagers right away, and scares another, who runs to tell everyone else that they need to finish the job.

After a couple of awkward encounters with paranoid, gun-happy citizens, The Monster happens upon the cabin of a blind, monk-like hermit (O.P. Heggie), who welcomes the company. The kind, old man teaches his guest how to talk, drink, and smoke, and it's here that I finally understood why Karloff is a legend.

The Monster isn't just a mindless predecessor to Jason Voorhees (though I can definitely see where C.J. Graham got inspiration for the psycho's body language in Friday the 13th Part VI); rather he's a frustrated spirit incapable of expressing how awful it is to stumble around in a shell made up of random, expired people. Karloff conveys his need to re-learn the art of humanity through subtle facial gestures and mannerisms that made me forget I was looking at an actor in fright makeup.

Before long, The Monster is discovered and hauled back to the village. Dr. Frankenstein, meanwhile, receives a visit from an old colleague named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who persuades him to try his experiment again--this time with a partner. Pretorius has dabbled in resurrection himself, but can't come up with anything better than miniature people that he dresses in costumes and keeps in domed glass jars. The scene in Pretorius' office where he unveils his creatures is stunning; the visual effects team creates an utterly convincing environment that kept me guessing as to how Pretorius could so easily interact with these pets without the obvious use of screens or cutaways. I'm still puzzled.

Pretorius arranges for Frankenstein's wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), to be kidnapped. As further insurance that the fragile doctor won't renege on his commitment, he frees The Monster from the castle's dungeon and presents him as a far angrier and intelligent beast than before. Using a stolen corpse and the still-fresh heart of a peasant, the doctors prepare their lab's equipment to receive the re-animating gift of lightning. What emerges from the mummy-like body wrappings is a tragically beautiful woman, The Monster's Bride (also played by Lanchester, who is officially uncredited in this role). She surveys the lab, the doctors, and, finally, The Monster and lets out that famous, other-worldly scream.

I won't spoil the ending for the three of you who, like me, will come to this movie late. Suffice it to say, Bride of Frankenstein surprised the hell out of me; first, by not introducing the titular character until the last five minutes, and then by...allowing what happens to happen.

It's easy to see why this film is so highly regarded, even today. In an era of 3D showiness and "more is more" evisceration effects, the subtle, mind-bending horrors of Bride of Frankenstein really stand out. You can call this old-fashioned filmmaking, but I'd be willing to bet this movie would be a hit if Universal pushed for a two-week, limited re-release. I realize I'm giving horror audiences way more credit than many people think they deserve, but above all, I think what draws fans to scare-shows is a desire to be wowed and creeped out. And there is plenty of unsettling weirdness to be found here.

For one thing, the movie's historical context can't be ignored. In a bizarre case of cosmic coincidence, the filmmakers tell a story about a German madman experimenting on people he deemed inferior in the hopes of building a master race--just four years before World War II. James Whale also includes lots of Catholic iconography here, the most sinister of which is a crucifix whose glow lingers during a fade to black. These and many other overt and subconscious touches kept me on edge during the whole movie, more so than John Mescall's harsh-angled cinematography or Charles Hall's twisted, imaginative sets.

I love Bride of Frankenstein. It's got heart and horror to spare, and represents a long-gone era in which the people behind big-studio films seemed to be in love with all the creative possibilities of the medium. Aside from one really annoying villager (Una O'Connor) who kept popping up as comic relief, this is a perfect film that should be seen and appreciated by everyone.