Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Walking Dead (1936)

Well, I must say The Walking Dead was certainly different than I expected! Older too. Heartening to see so many on social media embracing the classics! Could've sworn this was a tv show...

A notorious crook and racketeer has just had the book thrown at him by the staunch Judge Shaw. Eager to take him out of the picture, the crook's gang turn to recently released John Ellman, and convince the down-on-his-luck musician to spy on the judge for them, under the guise of investigating a supposed infidelity. The judge is soon found murdered, and Ellman is framed for the crime. With the only two witnesses not coming forward in time, Ellman is executed, but they eventually exonerate him posthumously and send the body to their scientist boss, who brings the man back to life. Ellman is shook, and not quite the same, but he still possesses the musical skills he had in life, which the doctor is eager to showcase to his peers. This modern day Lazarus has other plans, however, filled with an innate desire to find and punish those who caused his death...

It's a testament to Boris Karloff's acting abilities and his quality control that he appeared in multiple movies about being unjustly executed then brought back to life, and managed to make them not all seem like the same movie! The Walking Dead is an at-times slow picture, but otherwise a very good watch, equal parts gloominess and pathos.

The movie is perhaps more of a crime-drama for a lot of its runtime, but as events fall into place, you know things are going to get spooky soon, and they do, even if it's in a more subtle way. The revenge part of the movie does take its time coming though, and we have to wait until the final 20/15 minutes. It's not bad the way it is, but I guess I would've preferred the death scenes to have been a little more spaced out, so this feels like a horror movie for more of the runtime rather than the switch coming so late in the game. The deaths themselves also come across a bit comically after a while. They're all good, but when each victim ends up dying through their own sheer stupidity, it gets a bit hilarious, with one falling back onto a speeding train, another having a heart attack (then falling out of a window to boot, making that scene that much more amusing). Poor Karloff doesn't even seem to want to kill these hapless dopes, but they're so terrified of him they just keep dying!

I didn't much care for the climax though. While I liked the poetic justice that befalls the final two villains, I didn't like how they have their encounter with John, then just drive away scot free while he has his last moments with his friends. It doesn't feel too unsatisfying since John clearly knows what's befallen them in the end, but I'm still a bit disappointed that he doesn't play a part in their end, indirectly or otherwise.

Something I really like about the movie is how completely it vindicates Ellman. While it comes too late for the guy in life, he's exonerated in the eyes of the authorities and in the public in every way, and there's never a point where his crusade of justice feels like a deranged man going off the deep end. Instead he's like a divine instrument, who is not seen as in the wrong, and never even outright kills his enemies, but rather lets them do it themselves, like a cosmic punishment.

The movie's best scene is an oft-discussed one, for good reason, when Ellman is giving a piano recital and looks at all of the guilty parties who did him wrong, watching as they grow more and more nervous and leave one by one, scared out of their wits.

Dr. Beaumont is a pretty good character. His arc is that of an increasingly growing obsession of finding out what lies beyond in the afterlife, sometimes giving way to almost callous ideas, but ultimately being dissuaded of the idea that the living can ever know by the movie's end. He's written quite believably. He's not a stereotypical mad scientist despite his unexplained ability to resurrect the recently dead, and he is a good guy, despite his unhealthy drive. There are a few moments where his actions make the movie aesthetically veer towards Frankenstein, what with resurrecting the dead in electricity filled laboratories, and proclaiming "It's alive!".

I didn't find myself very endeared to Nancy at first. She's a bit of a callous bitch who all but signs Elman's death warrant by pressuring Jimmy to not  come forward with their evidence, getting the guy convicted and zapped in the process. Thankfully she does eventually have a change of heart, and is one of the people on the medical team bringing him back to life, so I guess that makes up for what she did a bit. Jimmy on the other hand starts out more likeable, but rapidly deteriorates as he starts getting pissy about Nancy spending time with Ellman instead of devoting all her attention to him. then promptly vanishing. Whether intentional or not, he comes across as an amusingly pointed indictment against sexist men in the workplace. They might come across like it's the job they care about, but as soon as women start doing what they want, the guys suddenly claim they don't care about the job anyway and leave in a huff. What a sap.

Boris Karloff does very well with the material given, delivering a performance that's emotional and angry. He does especially well in portraying the hollowness that fills Ellman after returning from the grave, with the make-up and hairstyling he receives aiding his spooky appearance. Edmund Gwenn    , while Ricardo Cortez is pretty good as the defacto main villain. Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull are fine as the two young lovers, and Henry O'Neill  as the helpful District Attorney.

The Walking Dead is a spooky film well befitting of that title. With subtle chills, and effective drama, it's quite an entertaining picture...

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Well in fairness, they could hang him, but he was just resurrected after the fact...

Scientist Henryk Savaard is researching a new method of anaesthetic, where the patient temporarily dies, allowing for easier surgery, then is revived. He starts to test it out on a willing subject, but the college boy's girlfriend gets worried and calls the police, resulting in Savaard's arrest and the boy's permanent death. There's a sensational trial, and despite many on the jury sympathising with Savaard, he's ultimately found guilty and executed. His faithful lab assistant has him brought back from beyond the grave through Savaard's science, but the doctor is now heavily bitter, determined to take a terrible revenge against those who wronged him...

The Man They Could Not Hang starts out more as a drama than horror. It opens with such shining optimism that you just know something terrible is going to happen. Mainly it all goes wrong due to the intervention of the test subject's girlfriend, who decides to try and save her boyfriend from the completely voluntary experiment he asked for by calling the police over and wrecking the machinery, killing him in the process. This whole section is cringy to watch, but if one thing's for sure, it definitely makes you feel a grave miscarriage of justice has occurred

From then on, a sizeable chunk of the movie happens offscreen, with 6 of the jurors being found mysteriously hung. At first thins annoyed me. I wouldn't necessarily have minded the other 5 being offscreen, but at least show us the first! There turns out to be a reason we didn't see the demise of those ones though, because it turns out the latter 6 are the special ones, who most of all earn Savaard's ire.

It's at this point where the film starts getting very interesting and enjoyable. The remaining jurors and officiators of the Savaard case have received mysterious invitations to come to his old house, where the man they sentenced to death lurks in the shadows, waiting to take his revenge in a very cat-and-mouse fashion. It's a thrilling concept, and executed really well! My only complaint is that we only see two deaths of the 8 or so people there before the climax, so while what's on display is great, there's not much of it to see.

The death scenes are prettye good, with a twist of lemon. One didn't end up going the way I expected. After the judge inadvertently kills himself, the others figure that if they all stay together and form a circle around the next man to die, he'll be ok. Seeing them standing juuust next to a suspicious looking chandelier, with just enough space around the man in the centre that it'd only crush him, I thought for sure that was would happen. I would've been a bit dismayed by the stupidity of these characters if this had've happened though, so kudos to the writers.

Also present during this final act is the reporter Scoop, a close friend to Savaard's daughter Janet. He's a 'kind' sort, telling her to get ahold of herself and not to worry too much, after the verdict sentencing her father to death! Besides that, Scoop isn't that bad a character, though he doesn't really do enough in the last act to be considered the protagonist. No-one does, in fact! Only Janet gets that distinction when she shows up in the final minutes, after having been absent the rest of the time. I really liked what happens with her in the end! It does what few 'Boris makes amazing but controversial discovery, is hounded for it, and dies before proving its potential viability to the world' movies don't do, and that's to vindicate his discovery in a way.

There are two things I quite enjoyed. The first was the acknowledgement that the reason only 6 of the jurors have been invited to the 'night of punishment' is because Savaard knows very well how those others tirelessly fought in his defense. One still has to wonder why he hung them all anyway, but oh well, I guess that was his way of providing a mercy killing. It's a shame he didn't resurrect them all for the end though! Wouldn't that have made for an interesting twist!

The second is when Betty meets the resurrected Savaard and softly repeats "No", realising without a shadow of a doubt that her boyfriend would've been fine if not for her actions. Quite an effectively subtle moment!

The move's most loaded part comes when Janet is trying to sway her father to not hurt the remaining jurors, and to simply show himself and the proof of his amazing scientific find to the world, to which he responds with "Not this world of savage cruelty. We gave them wings to fly and they rained death on us. We gave them a voice to be heard around the world, and they preach hatred to poison the minds of nations. Even the medicine we gave them to ease their pain has turned into a vice to enslave half mankind for the profit of a few.". Bloody hell, that's certainly a heavy statement for such a movie!

The science of the film sounds legitimate enough even if it turns out to be bunkum, but from what I've read it's actually rather a little prescient in a way, albeit presumably exaggerated in order to accommodate resurrecting the dead of course.

The acting in this movie is probably the only unremarkable thing in it. It's certainly not bad, just average all round. All save for Boris Karloff of course, who provides a fantastic performance, as both a gentle and benevolent scientist, and a wronged vengeful murderer, akin to a deranged Count of Monte Cristo.

The Man They Could Not Hang is a prime Boris Karloff film, and definitely one to seek out...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Bowery at Midnight (1942)

In the Bowery of New York, sinister goings on are afoot. Criminal mastermind Karl Wagner operates a popular mission that harbours a secret. Behind the scenes he orchestrates violent robberies all over the city, always leaving an accomplice dead at the scene, and always with a revolving door of staff,  whom he usually buries in his own personal indoors graveyard when he manages to keep the bodies. His trusty nurse Judy suspects nothing, but her high class boyfriend Richard does when he goes to investigate, and discovers something terrible...

This is a movie that threatens to be somewhat interesting at times, but mostly ends up disappointing. Discussing some positives first, the concept of mixing a by-the-numbers crime story with a horror is a good one, and I also dug the antagonist's attitude to his employees, making a habit of killing them after each job, usually to serve as a distraction, like when he hilariously tosses one of a rooftop. There are also weird stylistic touches, like the aforementioned cemetery, which even comes with names. Who does that? And what'll happen when he runs out of room?

The story also takes a few unexpected turns, like Richard actually getting killed! Dude isn't just in danger, but presumably met God (or was at the least in a cosmic waiting room, getting to read the afterlife's selection of magazines), yet is lucky enough to be in the company of a mad scientist, who promptly brings him back to life.

Bowery at Midnight's biggest failing is that it feels like everything that happens in it is on the periphery of a better story. Criminal ringleader Karl Wagner/Dr. Brenner is also a respected professor and doting husband, so one wonders about his motivations. You get the impression in a couple of scenes that he's only doing it to keep his wife living comfortably, showering her with fancy gifts, and this is supported by him suffering from horrible nightmares, as if his criminal life is something he doesn't want to do at all, but feels he has to. Interesting stuff! Shame the movie intermittently forgets all of that, as in all the scenes where the wife's not present, he's one-dimensionally evil, with no qualms or scruples.

Secondly, there's the plot regarding the undead, which is almost an afterthought! We see so little of the drug-addled Dr. Brooks and even less of his zombies, nor do we have any idea how he resurrects the dead. The one and only thing the zombies do is dispatching Lugosi at the end in an ironic punishment, then nothing is made of this amazing scientific advance, and Richard is a-ok too, seen in the final scene squandering his second chance at life by continuing being a prick to his spouse.

A bit of a plot hole is why Dr. Brenner even has a pseudonym for his double life anyway. He could easily just run the mission under his own name, as its not like his alter-ego is known for criminal deeds. Only good could come of his operating there as the Professor, and his plans wouldn't be so quickly and easily ruined just because the police want to talk to both Karl Wagner and Professor Brenner. It's also strange that Brenner kills Richard at all. There were several points in that scene where he could've let the young dope leave none the wiser, without having to take him into his secret HQ, show him everything incriminating, then have him shot.

Another problem is that the film can't pick a lead and stick with it. Is the newly promoted young policeman the protagonist? Or is it college student Richard? Or his girlfriend, Judy the mission employee?

One thing that bugged me is how numerous characters (mostly rich dicks) constantly badmouth the Bowery, acting all like 'Heavens, why would you want to associate with...poor people!', or 'Gasp! My son's in the Bowery? He's probably dead already! Get the police immediately!', and such lines amounting to that. It'd be one thing if this was part of some message, but nope, doesn't seem like it. While we're on the subject, Richard is a 'charming' example of manhood, with lines such as "Judy, I want you to give up that silly job. Saving humanity, it's ridiculous!". He proceeds to say he's not asking much, and doesn't want his future wife to be 'wasting her time' with a job, then gets all passive aggressive when she rebukes him. She apologises, and he uses her anger as an excuse to further criticize her job. Ughhhh, I'm glad he gets killed! Just a shame he doesn't stay dead. Whether or not he's improved at the end depends on how much of a sense of humour he has in the ending.

Bela Lugosi somewhat plays against type here. He's still the villain, but he's a crime-lord, not a monster or mad scientist. You'd expect him to have played the role of the put-upon doctor who resurrects the dead like it's nothing, and given said character a bigger role (as they should've anyway, regardless of who's playing him). Regardless, it's nice seeing Lugosi in a different role for a change, even if only slight.

The rest of the acting is serviceable, with Lew Kelly not being that great as the jittery mad scientist on Lugosi's employ, but distinctive at the least.

Getting back to Lugosi, there's an amusing goof in one scene where a poster for The Corpse Vanishes can be seen in the background of one shot as some characters walk by a theatre! It also made me chuckle as it showcases just how quick movies were made back in the day, especially by Monogram, as The Corpse Vanishes was released in the very same year as Bowery at Midnight!

Bowery at Midnight fails to live up to a lot of things  even its own title, as most of the movie is set at daytime. It's not awful though, and I still recommend it if you're a fan of its illustrious lead. It's mostly inoffensive...

Voodoo Man (1944)

Several women have gone missing on a secluded road, and it turns out they've been kidnapped by a diabolical mad scientist, who's trying to resurrect his sort-of dead wife, aided by a Voodoo priest and two dopey henchmen. Ralph Dawson, a groom headed for his fiancee's home, ends up running out of petrol and is picked up by Stella, a quick talking gal who turns out to be his future sister-in-law. The two connect, but while he's briefly away from the car looking for a phone, Stella is kidnapped by the henchmen and taken to the doctor, who believes he's finally found the perfect subject to bring his wife back to the land of the living...

Voodoo Man was one of the later horror pictures Bela Lugosi made for Monogram Studios, and if this script is any indication, it seems like they only had a limited number of ideas they could throw the struggling actor in, as this is quite derivative of earlier films they made with him. While it's a neat idea seeing Voodoo mysticism crossed with mad science, the former feels a bit like set dressing, and isn't really explored in any interesting way, which I suppose we expect from this kind of movie, alas.

The plot is actually a little tense, given that we know Stella isn't the hero's love interest, therefore her life genuinely feels in danger. After all, women and men simply being friends with each-other in a 1940s production? Pshaw! (Yeah, it's kind of a sad indictment of the times!). On the other hand, I feel Voodoo Man throws us into the main events a bit too quickly, with not much in the way of setup. Comparing it to The Corpse Vanishes, this fares less well, as that movie took its time in setting up the threat and what was going on and gradually showing what's happening, and we saw more of Bela interacting with the protagonists before being revealed as evil to them. With everything exposed to us right out of the gate, Voodoo Man kinda ambles around for a while, not really accomplishing anything, or having much in the way of character. The antagonist has got a good motive, if a little played out in these films, but we don't really see much of what else he gets up to. This character is defined simply by trying to resurrect his wife, and I guess we can freely assume he stops like a clockwork mannequin whenever he's not on-screen.

Things do pick up a little in the last act, when the heroes realise something is fishy with the 'kindly' doctor and  hypnotism, but the climax is a disappointment. It's just the same ritual scene we've already seen before, and culminates in a very anticlimactic ending. Ralph is knocked out almost immediately, and it's up to the police to save the day, bursting in with their guns at the ready and gunning down the doctor almost immediately, ending his threat in like one second flat, having faced no difficulty along the way.

The characters are merely ok. Stella is spunky but underused, while Ralph isn't as obnoxious as the male leads in these movies could sometimes be (except when he's getting fuel), but ends up as unremarkable (not helped by his inaction in the climax). Not being annoying goes a fair way though.
and Stella have some good chemistry, and I was looking forward to a sleuthing partnership where the two would be a man and woman duo who wouldn't end up falling in love, but just be pals. Unfortunately Stella spends most of her time after being kidnapped in a state of hypnosis, and the ok but less interesting Betty takes over as the sidekick, not that she does much.

Despite his z-grade trappings, Lugosi treats the script with dignity, turning in a performance that's both creepy, and genuinely emotional! George Zucco plays his assistant, and it's an odd role for him. Zucco has such an aristocratic presence to him that seeing him in a more subservient position is an interesting change, if not entirely believable. The guy's voice is just too commanding! As for his part here, it's just plain weird in places, and he seems to vanish at the end. John Carradine plays a shaky and slow-witted hillbilly, and it too is odd, which I put down to the direction. The remainder of the acting can be pretty amateurish, but it's tolerable.

The most amusing moment of Voodoo Man comes at the very end! Despite their general crumminess, the Lugosi Monogram cheapies attempted metatextual humour a surprising amount!

Voodoo Man is merely ok, but that marks it as better than quite a lot of movies of its type, and this one stars Bela Lugosi to boot, among other big names, so that alone makes it at least a little more distinctive than it otherwise would be...

Monday, October 15, 2018

Juggernaut (1936)

Juggernaut, eh? With a title like that I'm imagining Karloff the Uncanny either creating or playing some kind of gargantuan mutant or robotic behemoth to menace a city into giving him what he wants!... However, after the Regis Toomey crime caper Graft and the revelation that its title is simply referring to government corruption rather than sinister plastic surgery, I must say I'm not necessarily expecting a large payoff. Still, one can hope...

Doctor Sartorious is working on special experiments for the medical community in Morocco when his funding is cut. With not long to live, Sartorious is desperate to acquire the funds, and while running a practice in Cote d'Azur, France, he's approached by the venomous Lady Clifford, who's intent on getting her much older husband's fortune and run away with her young lover. She hires Sartorious to give Lord Clifford a deadly injection, and in return he'll receive the funds he needs to complete his research. The murder is pulled off successfully, but Sartorious' nurse Eve Rowe begins to suspect the truth, and has to stop these plotters from murdering the final roadblock to Lord Clifford's wealth-His son Roger...

Unlike in previous outings, Boris Karloff is playing a more unscrupulous mad scientist here. It was actually a bit hard getting used to seeing him as a doctor I wasn't meant to root for. As for his status as a scientist, he's not particularly mad as whatever it is he's so determined to study doesn't play any role in the plot, so we don't get any mutants or monsters terrorising the Cote d'Azur. Despite this clear and obvious setback (who doesn't wanna see that??)  he's a decently characterised villain, and we believe his desperation. His final act was a well-executed one on the part of the writers too.

Nurse Eve is the heroine of the piece, and she's quite intelligent! She quickly realises Dr. Sartorious' attitude isn't normal, and suspects him of some kind of foul play, cleverly hiding the missing syringe and sending it away for analysis. I'm afraid I'll have to dock some points though for her neglecting to mention to the chemist 'If you happen to ring me back and reach a certain Dr. Sartorious, do not trust him! And certainly don't give everything away!'. She makes up for it with her quick escape in the climax, and her efforts in taking the bad doctor down, all without any help.

The ending is incredibly abrupt. Lady Clifford doesn't really get any onscreen punishment, which isn't very satisfying, and there's not any kind of denouement with Eve and Roger bar a single hug before The End. Their friendship/chemistry wasn't the stuff of legends, but the two were nice enough together that I did want to see some kind of ending, but I guess the filmmakers were concerned that 61 minutes was long enough already and decided to cut filming then and there.

Despite being a serious film, I have to wonder if some elements of Juggernaut were meant to be comedic, like the young trophy wife yelling at her aging husband "I've given you the best years of my life!".

Karloff gives his all as usual, even if his character becomes a bit more one-dimensional in the last act. Joan Wyndham is likewise quite good as Eve, especially in the climax. Mona Goya is hilariously bad as Lady Clifford, over-emoting to a ridiculous degree. She's actually French though, so if nothing else her accent is at least legit. The rest of the performances range from decent to poor.

Juggernaut has an interesting plot on paper, and an intriguing title at first glance (mainly in how much of a non-sequitur it seems to be (and ultimately is), it makes you wonder how it'll tie into the proceedings), but I can see why it isn't an oft discussed entry in Karloff's filmography. Not bad by any means, but it's just a mediocre quickie...

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Ghoul (1933)

Long believed to be lost until its rediscovery in the 1980s, The Ghoul is a Boris Karloff film that I was quite looking forward to! I can't help but feel rather quite disappointed by what I saw, however...

 Egyptologist Professor Henry Morlant is dying, and wishes to go into the afterlife on his terms, with a mystical artifact he acquired from the country he admires so greatly. Swearing to come back from the grave if it's ever stolen, he soon makes good on his promise. Meanwhile, Morlant's heirs Raiph and Betty (plus her goofy fiend Kaney) arrive at the estate to find out what'll become of his money, meeting a mysterious Arab along the way who claims to be a friend of the late professor, but is really intent on reclaiming the jewel. He'll have to stand in line though, because not only are there other thieves on the prowl, but the undead Morlant himself...

The Ghoul is a little slow to start, but has some great spooky build-up. This ends up being squandered when the movie meanders along without much happening. It's almost half an hour before the main protagonists are introduced, and they barely interact with the story. They're just...there. They don't witness much spooky goings-on at all, and when they do finally go to take action for the first time in the movie, there's only 10 minutes left, and the undead Morlant has already found what he's wanted and is actively trying to kill himself. By simply getting involved, you get the feeling that the heroes will only end up needlessly prolonging the movie. That doesn't come to pass though, only because all they do is watch the ghoul die again, having contributed zero to his downfall.

Getting specifically to Morlant, I'm a little confused by his motivations. So he's acquired the 'fire of life', and will carry it with him to the afterlife, but what next? Is he seeking immortality, because he makes mention that he'll only come back if the jewel is stolen. Sooo...he doesn't want immortality then? Why's he bothering with the whole expensive rigmarole in the first place then if he just intends to die like anyone else?

All of that end up being irrelevant with the reveal that Morlant was never really dead, but had just fallen into a cataleptic state. That's a pretty rubbish twist as it removes any tension or interesting story from the proceedings. Instead of an undead ghoul seeking revenge, we're instead just witnessing a cataleptic old man slightly inconveniencing a couple of people before dropping dead. This is such a disappointment. It takes forever for the titular ghoul to come back for his revenge, and shortly after he does, we're given this cop out. It's why I don't mind spoiling the twist because of it delivering such a negative effect, and opening up a fair share of plot holes (like why is Boris made-up to look like a zombie, or how he literally bends steel).

Despite being your typical strapping young hero in looks, Raiph is very shouty and abrasive, and comes off as a tad unlikeable, though he mellows a little in demeanour (if not in pitch) as the movie goes on, and the way he takes care of the human villain is hilarious as it is swift. Betty meanwhile is a bubbly ball of sweetness, who is much more pleasant to watch, even if her female companion gets more to do. Speaking of, Kathleen Harrison is darling as Kaney, the comic relief, providing practically the only amusing moments in the entire film. She totally saves the day in the end, too!

It is a little annoying how horribly judgemental the otherwise nice local parson is of Morlant's faith, constantly insulting the Egyptian religion. We do get a nice comeback from the Arabic Aga Ben Dragore though, when he proclaims "The Egyptians were not pagans, sir!". Kaney is approving, as is even the kinda rude Raiph! It's particularly amusing how Dragore indulges Kaney's wild fancies about exotic Egypt. She also seems to exhibit a bit of a kinky side with him, wanting to be treated like a Circassian slave girl. I imagine any Circassian moviegoers would laugh their ass off at this, and be impressed that a movie period (let alone one from 1933) mentions their existence!

The turn of Dragore's character into a bit of a villain at the end didn't really make much sense. He's not a bad guy-All he wants is the return of his country's stolen property. All he could do is ask and they'd probably give it to him. His turn was also unnecessary considering there's already a human villain in the climax. I guess the writers were in a bit of a pickle when they realised that Raiph's big moment clocked that guy out cold well before the final reel.

The climax to The Ghoul is a total mess. First it reveals that Morlant's resurrection wasn't supernatural at all and he anticlimactically dies for real. Then the Parson is revealed to be a criminal mastermind as he steals the jewel. No sooner than he opens his mouth with this revelation is he punted on the head with a vase and almost forgotten. Then Dragore busts into the tomb and traps the leads in with a roiling fire, stealing the diamond for himself until bumping into Morlant's lawyer, who would steal it for himself if not for the fact that Kaney has gotten ahold of it. This all happens in only 10 minutes, by the way! We go from not enough happening to too much happening at once! Nearly half a dozen characters are suddenly revealed to be bad guys, the jewel changes hands just about every 30 seconds, and the main duo only escape a fiery fate through what I presume to be an act of God, after which the movie just stops, satisfied that everything has been wrapped up, and not bothering with a denouement.

The acting is one of the better parts of The Ghoul. Boris Karloff's performance falters a little to begin with thanks to his character's ailing condition, and the weird make-up. He already looks like a ghoul even when alive! Things don't improve when he dies. The make-up he has then is good (really good in close-up!), but he doesn't get to say as much as a single word once he's back from the grave. Makes sense I guess, but when the actor comes off as awkward in his delivery because of his character's sickness, it kinda sucks to not hear him speak in a more healthy condition.

The rest of the actors do well, save for Anthony Bushell's pitch, and some of the overdramatic acting, such as Ernest Thesiger's (bearer of a possibly phony sounding accent to boot).

I think the biggest issue I take with The Ghoul is that its setting is fantastic, and thus feels hard done by being in this movie. The large house is a grand and Gothic abode, and the mock-up of an Egyptian tomb in the English countryside looks. The direction is quite nice too, with many well framed moments. I dig the poster, with its almost surrealist design, like it's a fancy European flick!

To finish, I don't recommend The Ghoul. It's not very enjoyable, and poor Boris is mostly absent. I'd suggest watching bits and pieces if only for Kathleen Harrison though!...

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Finally, a movie starring martial arts greats Jackie Chan and Jet Li together! Let's see how well it fares...

Jason Tripitkas  is a martial arts film fan who regularly visits a Chinatown shop run by the aging Hop. One day he's cornered by some young hoodlums and forced to help rob the store. Hop is shot when trying to fight off his attackers, giving Jason a mysterious staff that he tells him to restore to its rightful owner, before the youth is cornered on the roof and falls off. Suddenly finding himself in a new land in a new time, Jason learns of the benevolent Monkey King, a trickster deity who crossed swords with the Jade Warlord, a despotic general in the Heavenly Realm who took control of the land when the true ruler was meditation, and imprisoned the monkey king through deception. Finding out that he holds the Monkey King's staff, Jason is told that it's the key to freeing its master. Along the way, he meets a variety of allies, who are all determined to help stop the evil Jade Warlord and bring peace back to the land...

Taking its inspiration from Journey of the West (though isn't a strict adaption, as far as I know), The Forbidden Kingdom is quite a good adventure fantasy. I'm not exactly crazy about really heavy Wuxia films, so it's a testament to the quality here that this is able to keep interest the whole way through. With its mix of Kung Fu, philosophy, drama, and a thankfully minimal use of flying wire fu (which I always find to look absolutely ridiculous, especially in movies that are supposed to be serious), this encapsulates a lot of the themes of the genre.

What I find impressive is that how apart from the opening 10 minutes, literally everyone in this movie is Asian! A good chunk of the dialogue is in Cantonese, too.

The story in Forbidden Kingdom is a good one. Despite knowing little about any of the characters, we still get to care at least a little about them. The villains don't have a lot of depth though. There's a surprising amount of death here for a pretty family friendly journey! There are also some possible inconsistencies with the immortality elixir, but then again maybe not. I guess I'd make more sense in the source material, given that's a lot longer than a 90 minute film and can explain things better.

The martial arts on display is very impressive, as can be expected from the two world-famous stars, as well as everyone else behind the scenes working tirelessly. It can sometimes get a bit too frenetic to see clearly (mainly when there are more than just a couple of belligerents), but it's usually great to watch, with spot-on choreography.

The main draw of The Forbidden Kingdom is that it stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in one movie. Their fight scene is very good, though it stretches on perhaps a bit long. I at least get why, since Lu Yan and the Monk are on the same side from then on, so this is really their only opportunity to have a fight scene. The only thing coming close is when they both spar using Jason as a shield and weapon.

Jason Tripitikas makes for a decent hero, and The Forbidden Kingdom successfully keeps from falling into the 'unskilled white guy saves the helpless foreigners' trope. In fact, I'm sure the Chinese co-producers made damn sure we see that this American only learns the amazing stuff he does because the fantastic Chinese taught him. They do so love doing that in their co-productions. Anyway, getting back to Jason, he sometimes whines a bit and can be impetuous, but he's not egregiously annoying or anything, and when he is a bit of a pain in the neck, it's intentional. When he becomes more skilled at martial arts, it feels earned, as we've seen him gradually train over the course of however much time has passed. While it's a bit silly that he's a bit of a Kung Fu master by the climax, I guess that's excuseable for a movie, and we do see him as not an entirely flawless fighter against the main baddies, so there's that. Jason does get sidelined a bit in the climax, but for the most part each hero gets their own opponent to do battle with at any given moment.

Through no real fault of his own, Jason's 'sidekicks' each eclipse him. Lu Yan is a fun drunken master, whose booze habits never make his skills falter. The 'Silent' Monk feels more lively than other strong and silent badasses by getting amusing moments (some of which might verge on too much for some viewers, but I didn't mind). Lastly, Golden Sparrow is a more gloomy character, with good reason, and her non-personal speech pattern is typically strange, though she does something incredibly stupid in the last act. Try the art of stealth, Sparrow!

The acting in The Forbidden Kingdom is mixed, and I'm not sure if it's a matter of talent, but rather one of language. Being 100% English, Michael Angarano does fine. Jackie Chan is mostly good, though a bit hard to understand in places, especially in the scenes set in our world, where a mix of awful and creepy old age make-up and a put-on croaky voice make him almost indecipherable. Jet Li's line delivery is sometimes a bit weird. I hesitate to say bad because I've seen him in enough English language roles to know he can act, but he's oddly stilted in places. Whether it not it's a deliberate quirk of his character I've no idea. Liu Yufei gets a lot of the movie's drama, and handles it ok enough. Collin Chou makes for a fun villain, whose line deliveries are deliciously evil, even if a bit overdramatic at times. The witch is much of the same, but just to a lesser degree.

The score is made up of traditional sounding Chinese music, while other parts sometimes sound reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Filmed on location in China, the scenery is often breathtaking, and it's no surprise that nearly half a dozen tourism companies are given thanks in the ending credits. The set design is well-realised, and the practical effects are impressive. Overt computer effects are kept to a minimum, and while some of the more bigger CG stuff can be a tad noticeable, there's not much here to complain about. The opening credits are pretty neat, made up of the posters to various kung fu flicks.

The Forbidden Kingdom isn't perfect, but it's by no means a bad time. While there are many better Kung Fu and Wuxia movies out there, you can't go too far wrong with this one...