the masque of the red death (roger corman, 1964)

It seemed appropriate to visit the films of Roger Corman on the news of his death at 98. I've probably seen Attack of the Crab Monsters more times than any of the others ... I could watch it again right now. And that film could easily stand in for much of Corman's work. But I thought I might honor his passing by watching one of his better films, The Masque of the Red Death (I'd choose either this or A Bucket of Blood as Corman's best).

Corman's Poe films are in general his classiest, and The Masque of the Red Death might be the creme of that creme. Masque was the penultimate film in the Poe series that began in 1960 with House of Usher. It gives the lie to any notion that Corman was an inept filmmaker ... he may have considered turning a profit to be the primary aim of a movie, but he wasn't incompetent about what turned up on the screen. (I just finished reading a book by Katharine Coldiron, Junk Film: Why Bad Movies Matter, and Corman only gets a brief mention ... Attack of the Crab Monsters might be awful, but compared to Plan 9 from Outer Space, it's Citizen Kane.) The budget for Masque was limited, of course, but it was still 20 times higher than that for A Bucket of Blood. And Corman was always a master of finagling to reduce costs ... a deal with the studio allowed Corman to film in England on a slightly longer shoot, and he was able to use sets leftover from the Oscar-nominated Becket. Nicolas Roeg signed on as the cinematographer, fresh off of second-unit work on Lawrence of Arabia ... the cinematography is one of the highlights of The Masque of the Red Death.

Vincent Price once again added his pleasingly hammy touch. Poe's story is short indeed, so another of his stories, "Hop-Frog", is worked in as a subplot. The build up is a bit draggy, and the final appearance of the Red Death lacks something ... Corman himself said he was dissatisfied with the sequence. The point isn't to dismiss the movie, which is better than just "Roger Corman's best", but it's a good movie without reaching the heights of a great movie.


film fatales #202: trouble every day (claire denis, 2001)

Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) is a favorite director of mine, and I looked forward to Trouble Every Day, but I was aware that it is not as acclaimed as her other movies (it has the lowest Metascore, 40, of any film she has directed). I think that low Metascore is understandable, and Trouble Every Day isn't up to her best. But it's an interesting attempt to make an arty erotic horror movie ... I'm thinking of Park Chan-wook's Thirst, which is a better movie than Trouble Every Day but has a similar blend of sex and gore shown with arty excellence.

Trouble Every Day seems like it is going to be a vampire movie, but it turns into something different, which allows for subtexts that don't necessarily match those of vampire pictures. Denis shows a connection between erotic attraction and cannibalism that is unexpected. It's thought-provoking, but I'm not convinced it goes deeper than the basic connection. Once you get what Denis is doing, there's not much else to say about that connection, leaving an arty horror movie that isn't all that great.

The acting is variable. Béatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) brings her idiosyncratic presence to her scenes, but Vincent Gallo is too low-key ... he struggles with what he has become, but his struggle isn't moving because Gallo is inert. There is also a big plot hole at the beginning (not that horror doesn't often have plot holes): Gallo plays a recently-married man who, we assume, has become intimate with his new wife, but given what we learn of him in the movie, it's impossible for his wife not to have noticed long before. It's hard to suspend disbelief in this case.

Despite that Metascore, the film is #793 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #103 on the 21st century list.


creature features: son of frankenstein (rowland v. lee, 1939)

Universal's third Frankenstein movie is the last with Boris Karloff. Director Rowland V. Lee does a solid job, supposedly reworking the script as he shot the film to give more emphasis to Bela Lugosi's Ygor. The movie has the look of German expressionism, and it's effective. The novelty of the monster has worn off, but this is still a decent picture, arguably the last time the Frankenstein story is played mostly straight by Universal.

The absence of James Whale reduces the amount of obvious queer subtext, but the acting lends a definite feel of camp to the proceedings. Basil Rathbone as the titular son, Lionel Atwill as a one-armed police inspector, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor all overact outrageously ... Lugosi, who is used to such things, comes off best, and some consider this his finest performance. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff once again imbues the monster with pathos, but he isn't as central to the picture (and he has lost the ability to speak that he showed in Bride of Frankenstein). He is the best thing about the movie, avoiding the camp stylings of his co-stars.

Son of Frankenstein goes on too long ... it's more than 20 minutes longer than its predecessors ... it's good compared to what followed, but it is clearly the least of the three Karloff Frankenstein films.


creature features: dracula's daughter (lambert hillyer, 1936)

Although it came 5 years later, this was the actual sequel to Dracula, starting off with the deaths of Dracula and Renfield. It's slow moving, and not particularly interesting, but the subtext has fascinated analysts to this day. There were suggestions of lesbianism in the script, but by the time the film made the screen, the Code had taken care of that. So you have to look pretty hard to see it. But once you've seen it, you can't shake it. Dracula's daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), wants to be freed from the curse of being a vampire, but her impulses get the best of her time and time again. A couple of her victims are women, and the element of seduction which underlies so many vampire stories is here as well. It has also been argued that the isolation from society the Countess feels reflects the status of lesbians at the time.

All of this is enough to get us through the short running time, but don't exaggerate its greatness. Eventually, movies got more explicit, and subtext often moved to context. I saw 1970's The Vampire Lovers at a drive-in, and it was filled with nudity and horseplay among the women. But in fairness, it wasn't any better than Dracula's Daughter ... nudity didn't guarantee quality.

Here is a scene from Dracula's Daughter, where the Countess takes a woman off the street to pose for a painting:

And something from The Vampire Lovers:


creature features: werewolf of london (stuart walker, 1935)

Universal's first stab at the werewolf genre, six years before Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman. While movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man were based on literary sources, Werewolf of London was basically invented out of thin air (it was the first feature-length werewolf movie). Much of the lore we think of when werewolves come to mind was invented here.

Werewolf of London is one of the few early Universal monster movies I had never seen. Like the others, it's quick, wasting little time getting to the good stuff. The makeup wherein the doctor turns into a wolf is similar to what Chaney Jr. underwent for The Wolfman. It's OK "for its time", even if it seems old-fashioned now. Overall, it's an OK film but no classic, eventually replaced in our minds with the version Chaney Jr. gave us. Henry Hull, who plays the lead, had a long career, with his last movie coming in 1966 (one of my favorites, The Chase). Valerie Hobson, who was Frankenstein's wife in The Bride of Frankenstein, once again plays the scientist's wife (she was 18 years old, working opposite much older men). Warner Oland, a Swede who played Charlie Chan in many movies, is also in The Werewolf of London ... he died a few years later. And Spring Byington turns up (in the 1950s, she starred in the radio/TV series December Bride).


creature features: the invisible man (james whale, 1933)

James Whale once again lends his particular brand of horror to Universal, following Frankenstein and The Old Dark House with The Invisible Man. This latest film looks ahead to The Bride of Frankenstein, although to my taste Whale overdoes the humor here. The Bride is many things, funny being only one of them, while The Invisible Man is mostly special effects that still impress 90 years later and some over-the-top comedic acting.

Claude Rains makes what is effectively his screen debut. I don't think of him as having a particularly recognizable voice, yet from the moment the Invisible Man speaks, you know it's Rains. Una O'Connor is basically comic relief, and a little goes a long way, but she makes more sense ... when Rains is goofing, it makes the movie less horror than slapstick, while O'Connor is only there for the laughs.

There's nothing really noteworthy about the movie in the end, beyond those special effects. Gloria Stuart has the female lead, and she had a fascinating career (no, a fascinating life ... among other things, she lived to be 100), culminating when she played old Kate Winslet in Titanic and got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The Invisible Man is worth a watch if you haven't seen it, nothing more. It does have a surprisingly large kill count, if that matters to you.


creature features: revisiting the mummy (karl freund, 1932)

Sometime in the past, I wrote of The Mummy:

This is appropriately moody, and Boris Karloff is typically excellent. The problem is that the Mummy isn’t the most fascinating monster Universal came up with in their glory years. He’s not a vampire, he’s not a man-made creature, he’s not a werewolf, he’s just a guy in a tattered outfit with a jones for his lady love of 3700 years ago. It’s probably true that this is the best Mummy movie ever made. That’s just not as big a compliment as it sounds.

Watching it again, I'd say I understated the interest the Mummy evokes in us. Truthfully, he's at least as fascinating as Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. But he's not very scary.

Director Karl Freund is a legendary figure in film history, although not for his directing. Freund was a cinematographer, one of the most innovative of his time. Later in his career, he was the cinematographer for I Love Lucy, also innovative in its day. Apparently, being nice to Zita Johann was not one of his finer points ... Johann, who played the reincarnation of the Mummy's love (or something like that), did not get along with Freund (or vice versa). There are numerous stories that Freund mistreated her during the filming of the movie. It doesn't show up on the screen, for what it's worth.


creature features: frankenstein (james whale, 1931)

After the success of Dracula, Universal went to the well a second time for Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Like Dracula, it had been a stage play, but while the movie Dracula was itself stage bound, James Whale and company moved away from that, immediately making Frankenstein a more interesting movie. The concept of a man creating a man clearly fascinates ... there had already been three film adaptations before James Whale came along, and since then, it's been a non-stop procession of Monsters on film. There were the literal sequels, of which Bride of Frankenstein is to my mind the best of all Frankenstein movies. There was Universal's crossover, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, another favorite of mine. In the 1950s, Hammer Films gave us Peter Cushing as the doctor and Christopher Lee as the monster. (There are at least 7 Hammer Frankenstein films.) There was Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter in 1966, the Mel Brooks' comedy Young Frankenstein, versions with Randy Quaid and later Robert De Niro as the monster, all leading up to to 2023's Oscar-bait film Poor Things.

The number one reason the 1931 version still resonates is the performance of Boris Karloff. He didn't do it all by himself ... the script was tailored to make the monster more sympathetic. But Karloff is brilliant, setting up a long career in horror (he was already in his 40s when the film was made). Despite Bela Lugosi's iconic presence in Dracula, Frankenstein is a huge step up in quality, the first real classic of the Universal Monsters series. It's #646 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

As you can imagine, even for a pre-Code film, there was some outrage and some censorship. The end of this scene was edited in many showings:

What was the moment that stepped over the line? When Frankenstein says, "Now I know what it feels like to be Gods!"

James Whale wasn't done. Still to come was The Bride of Frankenstein, one of the greatest sequels in film history.


creature features: dracula (tod browning, 1931)

Universal Pictures had made horror films before Dracula, such as the Lon Chaney versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But various home-video repackagings of old Universal horror starting in 1991 have eventually resulted in what is called the "Universal Classic Monsters" series. This "universe" is similar to what companies like Marvel and DC Comics have done with their characters. According to the Universal "canon", Dracula is the first film in the series.

It remains the most iconic of all Dracula films, thanks to the performance of Bela Lugosi. And rightly so ... even in 2024, someone doing an impression of Dracula is likely to use a Lugosi accent. The problem is that Lugosi's performance is iconic, but poor, much like the movie itself. It's not just Lugosi's fault ... all of the characters seem to have instructed to read their lines with slow, pause-filled excess. Combined with the stagey production (the film is based more on a play based on the novel than on the novel itself), this 1931 Dracula is a disappointment, important historically but not particularly good in the end. Karl Freund's cinematography is impressive (and Freund's work overall was important enough that he was essentially an uncredited co-director), and some of the sets are properly atmospheric. But again the stage roots show through ... too much of the film takes place in small rooms, filled with awkwardly-delivered dialogue. It wasn't until Frankenstein, released later the same year, that Universal got it right.


x (ti west, 2022)

This is the fifteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 15 is called "Condemned! Week":

In 1995, in celebration of the centenary of the motion picture, the Vatican released a list of 45 titles divided into three groups. Its "Some Important Films" list highlighted a selection of outstanding films the Papacy felt warranted inclusion into the list's "Religion," "Values," and "Art" categories. "The Church's overall judgment of this art form, as of all genuine art, is positive and hopeful," John Paul II offered.

That's not what this week is about, though.

The Pope continued, "Unfortunately, though, some cinema productions merit criticism and disapproval, even severe criticism and disapproval. This is the case when films distort the truth, oppress genuine freedom, or show scenes of sex and violence offensive to human dignity." And so, from November 2003 to July 2022, the Catholic News Service and the former Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops handed out an "O" rating to those movies deemed "morally objectionable."

This week we'll disregard the positive and the hopeful and turn our attention to those films that earned the church's highest level of criticism and disapproval. Will we still be able to find art? Head over to TajLV's CONDEMNED!! Films Rated Morally Offensive by the Catholic Church list and select a film that could never dream of making any future revision of the "Some Important Films" list. Good luck, sinners, and may God save your souls.

I don't know what this means ... I'm sure it's irrelevant ... but going into this week's challenge, I had seen 78 of those Condemned films (14% of the entire list). Other facts related to that list: I own 6 of the movies. I gave a rating of 9/10 to two of the films (Moonlight and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood). And I gave a rating of 4/10 to three of the films (The Black Dahlia, Killing Them Softly, and Birds of Prey).

X lies somewhere between Moonlight and Birds of Prey. It's actually pretty good, and it delivers its exploitation values without insulting our intelligence. Writer/director Ti West has an intimate knowledge of the genre ... he has made many horror films over the years, although this is the first one I've seen. West shows the connection between the voyeurism of the porn audience and the voyeurism of the horror audience, but he doesn't beat you over the head with that connection ... he just gives you sex and violence and lets you connect the two. And it makes interesting points about aging, as well.

Fans of the genre know to look for the Final Girl (I can't help but look ... Carol J. Clover was on my dissertation committee). So it's not really a spoiler to note that X is heading to a predictable conclusion. Having said that, West does keep up the suspense by making the two most recognizable actors women, so we can't tell until the end which of Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega will still be around. Even though X came out last year, there is already a prequel, Pearl (and while franchises always smell of money, based on the plot of X, a prequel actually makes sense). The acting throughout is solid (and there's an interesting angle to the casting that would require a spoiler to say more), and the production belies the film's low budget ($1 million). I wouldn't recommend X to people who dislike the genre, but it should satisfy the fans.