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Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Study in Classic Horror- THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923)

This is the third film version I’ve seen of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, better known in the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it’s a large scale story to adapt dramatically in any era. Yet it’s a particularly massive undertaking for a time when films had no spoken dialogue, so it’s no wonder they called upon the talents of Lon Chaney to play the story’s best known character, Quasimodo.

Chaney was far more than a master of make-up. Even through pounds of prosthetics he knew how to convey every emotion with just a simple look. There’s a heartbreaking moment when he recognizes Esmeralda as the woman who gave him water while he was receiving a public beating, but is quickly dismayed when she recoils as he rushes to greet her. With half his face covered, Chaney manages to convey Quasimodo’s simplicity, his loneliness, his compassion, and every moment of anguish and pain.

The rest of the cast holds up their end of the story well opposite Chaney. Patsy Ruth Miller makes a good Esmeralda, particularly in the scenes when she begins to warm toward Quasimodo after he offers her sanctuary in the cathedral from the hangman’s noose. But I think Chaney’s greatest co-star is simply the enormous scope of the project. It’s just amazing to think in the early 1920s that a huge recreation of Notre Dame Cathedral was built on the back-lots of Hollywood.

It’s just a shame that this film hasn’t been preserved that well. A lot of its grandeur has been lost over time.

I do have to wonder, however, if I will ever see an accurate dramatic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. I read the novel shortly after seeing Disney’s attempt at making it into musical comedic romp, and found that the original story is far darker than Hollywood would have us believe, and no version I’ve seen so far has been willing preserve Hugo’s original tone. Granted, there are versions I haven’t seen, so maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

This version, however, was still a noble endeavor, though I think the 1939 version with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara is still my favorite.

This week’s supporting features:

The Looney Tunes short Eatin’ on the Cuff, or The Moth Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Our Gang short Choo-Choo! (1932)

Next time:

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, and Edward Van Sloan

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Study in Classic Horror- REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955)

In some ways I’ve been dreading reviewing this one, because the only time I’ve seen it before Mike Nelson and his robot pals were heckling it on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that may have clouded my perception of it. After a second viewing I’d say it’s not a bad film, but it’s certainly not a great one either. It’s kind of like the second Jurassic Park movie, which really didn’t work for me either. It’s about finding an excuse to get your monster to civilization so it can wreak havoc on a grander scale, but when you really get right down to it, it’s just more of the same.

The man versus nature theme worked so much better in Creature From the Black Lagoon. In that one, you could make the argument that the Gill Man is a sort of protector of his little part of the world that has remained untouched by humanity, even if he does have an inexplicable interest in human females. In this sequel he simply becomes a savage beast in captivity that turns on his captors. One tiny line about his DNA being closer to man than fish is about all the film does to further his saga, it may offer an explanation for his pursuit of the film’s blonde bombshell, and it might even set up events for the third movie, but apart from that it quickly becomes a rather generic monster movie.

Another sad fact about this sequel was the filmmaker’s need to tweak what was already a great costume. In my Black Lagoon review I talked about the near believability of the costume design, but here the eyes look a bit more rubbery and bubbles from the back of the Gill Man’s head betray the suit’s breathing apparatus.

But my biggest problem with Revenge is John Agar. I just find him so unappealing. In other entries I’ve talked about the forced romances in the old horror and sci-fi films, and I think this one has the most forced of all. Lori Nelson even seems to play the earliest scenes of romance as if Agar’s advances are unwelcome, yet they’re still engaged before the film’s last act. Their paring could not have been any less believable had Agar said, “We seem to be the two leads in this picture, we may as well be a couple.”

I’ve got one more film to go in the Gill Man’s saga, but based on this one, it’s hard to place high hopes on it, especially since I’ve already seen pictures of what becomes of his look in that one. Hopefully, I’m wrong and the script will make up for it.

This week’s supporting features:

Tom and Jerry in Puss Gets the Boot (1940)

The Our Gang short Free Eats (1932) featuring the debut of George “Spanky” McFarland

Next Time:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Norman Kerry

Friday, January 13, 2012

We Are ALL Geeks!

For those of you who don't know I work in the exit shop of a theme park ride that sells those photos they take of you at key moments of the ride. A couple of weeks ago, I had a customer buying a photo who informed me that she was only buying it because of her shirt. I glanced down and saw that you could clearly see "Carolina" across the front of the shirt. My own thought was "you have the shirt, why especially do you need this picture of the shirt?, but hey, if you're happy..." We finished the transaction, I handed her her photo, and as she turned to leave she said "Go Gamecocks!" and departed. Now I'm not a sports fan in the slightest, but I do know that the Gamecocks are a collegiate football team in South Carolina, still I thought this was an odd way to end a brief conversation with someone you've never met before. Obviously this is a person who invests a great deal of her enthusiasm into her sports team, but I wondered what her reaction would be to a group of fans at a sci-fi convention dressed as Klingons or Imperial Stormtroopers. Would she stare in baffled amazement? Would she sneer with superiority and label them "geeks"? I wonder does, she realize that she is also, in fact, a geek? I'm sure she doesn't label herself as such, she's a "sports fan", but what is a sports fan, but someone who geeks on sports? I actually get a glimpse at what it looks like when these two aspects of fandom intermingle almost every year at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia when the convention and a big bowl game both fall on Labor Day weekend. It's an odd sight, but somehow they co-exist in the same space for a few hours. There is even a little overlap. The truth is we all geek on something. I can't say I have ever witnessed a guy in a Jedi robe say "May the Force be with you" to a waitress who's just taken his order, but I have seen comic fans engage in behavior that is just as awkward to witness in public, as that of the Gamecocks lady.
I was in another position once where I volunteered to work a table at a convention for a pair of local museums who each had science-fiction themed exhibits. Some of the museum personnel were new to the con experience and were behaving as if they'd been deposited in the middle of a leper colony. I found myself in the position of having to defend fandom in general, which I'll admit was challenging at times, particularly with the guy in the poorly constructed costume who carried a picture of the character he dressed as to hand out so you could see what he was really going for. I tried to point out that they weren't just "being weird", they were exhibiting their individuality, their creativity and their skills. Yet for all my efforts these two girls still left that day still feeling they were somehow superior to all of the "geeks" they had witnessed, despite the fact that one of them became really excited when she got a picture of the back of Billy Dee Williams' head, or that another was at extreme sport competitions with boyfriend every other weekend. (Celebrity geek. Extreme sports geek.)
I'm not trying to claim that we pop-culture geeks are necessarily better than any other kind of geek, although I could do without those situations at parties where other guys think the only way to initiate a conversation with other males is to mention the latest athletic competition. It just amazes me that the different groups are unable to recognize their similarities. I mean which is geekier? The shirtless beer-gutted guy painted head-to-toe in his team colors, or the guy in the Superman costume with a decidedly un-Supermanish physique? Tough call; let's put them in a room and let them debate. I'm sure it would be more entertaining than any of the current Republican debates.