Saturday, October 27, 2018


The cry came forth from a dark corner of my living room as it usually does this time of year, as it does sometimes during other parts of the year too. It was my wife, shrieking from the depths of her soul, articulating a cry of despair and disbelief: “You’re watching this again??!!” As the familiar strains of James Bernard’s magnificent score rose from beneath the blood-red Warner Bros.-Seven Arts insignia and the subsequent and equally scarlet opening credits, my wife didn’t even need to look up from her book to realize what was happening. It was the week before Halloween, and therefore time for my in-the-neighborhood-of-annual dose of Terence Fisher’s masterful, terrifying Hammer classic, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), the fifth in a line of gloriously lurid reiterations of the Frankenstein myth, the pinnacle of the series for the studio, and a movie I’ve long considered to be my favorite horror film and certainly one of my favorite movies, period.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is a high point not only for Hammer, but also for the great movie star and Hammer icon Peter Cushing, who wrings maximum effect from this most acidic and horrifying interpretation of the good Dr. Frankenstein, all vestiges of “good” having been leeched out of him in the years narratively separating FMBD from the previous installment, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). And it’s also a career peak, one of many, for the film’s director, the estimable and often under-appreciated director Terence Fisher, whose tenure in the Frankenstein series produced at least two, perhaps three inarguable classics, of which Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly the most brilliantly sustained, downright scary and, of all things, the most unexpectedly moving.

This year’s viewing came courtesy of a nifty Warners Blu-ray issued in 2015 which shows the movie off in a spiffy and revelatory way, and I highly recommend it to the movie’s legion of fans as well as to those who may as yet be unfamiliar with the particular pleasures this movie serves up. In celebration of both the Halloween season and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, I offer this assessment of the achievements of Fisher, and Cushing, of composer James Bernard, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, screenwriters Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys, and everyone else involved in bringing this brutal extension of Mary Shelley’s legacy to the screen. The following piece originally appeared on my blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, in 2007, and it is resurrected here, in much the same fashion as the unfortunate doctor who becomes the subject of Baron Frankenstein’s hubristic pursuit of pioneering brain transplant surgery, in a form only slightly altered...


Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page (aka Man Bait), but in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. These were filmmakers/businessmen who specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare which touched on all tones and subject matter, but they would find the greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output, and thus the legendary eye of a genre hurricane was truly born. The studio embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable-- their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were all directed by Fisher, and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. And Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.

By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing), and the director seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hijinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder visited upon those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high. 

(The previous entry, The Evil of Frankenstein, was director Freddie Francis' first contribution to the Hammer monster cycle-- he had previously directed Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and Nightmare (1964) for the studio. Evil holds up well enough, but it was largely content to rehash the familiar motif of the monster lumbering through the countryside, and as a result the movie is considered to be a more minor entry in the series, though it marks perhaps Cushing’s most benign interpretation of one of his two signature Hammer characters.)


Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. But all that has changed by the time we first see Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Here, Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even into the narratives of the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation. This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing's Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein must dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.

Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.

Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates the other residents for their dismissive attitude toward progressive science and his own experiments, conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD and Blu-ray  releases, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”-- suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) I was ten years old when I saw FMBD in a theater, in 1970, and it marked the first time, I’m sure, that I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of noggin from shoulders courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) 

Upon seeing the film again as an adult, what its violence seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most efficient, underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive. He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. 

And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Hammer’s last Frankenstein, was a lesser effort, an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match. 

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a changing partition as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.


Saturday, October 13, 2018


It's been a while...

Míriam Colón

Jessica Harper

Diana Sands

Mary Wickes

Elaine May

Karen Gillan

Elizabeth Patterson

Tiffany Haddish

Anya Taylor-Joy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez



It's been a while...

Robert Forster

Fred Rogers

Herbert Lom

Kenneth MacMillan

Hiroyuki Sanada

Tom Pedi

Tom Hardy

Michael Ripper

Ned Sparks

José Altuve



Game Night is as high concept a comedy as they come—a group of very competitive friends who do a weekly game night together find themselves entangled in a kidnapping-smuggling-murder situation which they initially believe is part of an elaborate role-playing extension of their usual easygoing, harmless suburban fun—and as I punched it up on HBO GO my expectations were well in check. I didn't remember that anyone got all that excited about this movie when it was released this past spring— its very existence came into and went from my memory with barely a ripple-- but the lineup of good reviews on Metacritic that I discovered only after finishing it proved my memory insufficient. Nor do I recall the last time a contemporary comedy made me laugh because of the way it was specifically edited and directed, but Game Night did, consistently—the directors are John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the team responsible for the superfluous remake of Vacation (2015) and the nifty screenplay for last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming; the movie was written by Mark Perez.

It’s easy to imagine how in any other hands this could have been just a crass, cookie-cutter Hollywood comedy where style and timing are mere afterthoughts, if they’re thought of at all. But every joke, every perfectly timed side glance, is rooted in character, and the movie uses its considerable stylistic confidence to amplify its ideas, which only makes the laughs richer, and harder on your aching sides. I’ll indulge in just one gag spoiler out of a hundred possibilities here: I thought I was going to lose my mind when one of the gamers, a lovably blockheaded oaf played by Billy Magnussen, attempts to bribe the owner of a dinner-theater role-playing company ("Murder We Wrote")  for information by slowly pulling out a ten-dollar bill (his countenance betrays the fact that he thinks he’s making her an offer she couldn’t possibly refuse) and placing it on the desk. And then, when that's not good enough, a five. And then, even more slowly, a one. But it's the last one, which cleans his wallet out and brings the bribe up to an impressive $17, that completely slayed me, and it's because of the way the pay-off is directed. We’ve seen each bill deliberately laid out on the surface of the desk, and there they all are as the final dollar bill begins to creep slowly into the top edge of the frame, before the cutaway and the inevitable refusal.

This is a genuinely funny movie with a very tight, sharp script and a terrific cast who all get their highlight moments-- Magnussen, but also Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as the couple who host the weekly gathering, Kyle Chandler as Bateman’s one-upping brother who gets them caught up in his shady dealings, Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Harris as a couple whose sexual history is marred by a hilarious celebrity encounter, and Sharon Horgan as Magnussen’s date, who far surpasses him in the intelligence department and is continually nonplussed by what it is exactly that she’s doing with this doofus. But as good as these actors all are, the movie is stolen outright by Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies, The Post at the movies, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Fargo and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” on TV). Have I ever not liked this guy? I even thought he was good in the otherwise horrible Battleship. But he's next-level committed and hilarious here as the preternaturally even-keeled but obviously disturbed, freshly divorced next-door neighbor, who keeps angling, in his ominous way, for an invitation to game night and ends up taking things into his own hands. It's a brilliant comic performance, and though I know there's not a hope in hell of it happening, I do hope he's remembered when critics groups start tossing out their awards in a couple of months.


Thursday, October 11, 2018


Back in the summer of 2008, I absorbed all the terrible advance notices that the Wachowski’s Speed Racer was racking up, saw it on opening night, and was delighted to discover that I loved it. I became somewhat evangelistic about the movie, telling everyone I knew that the cranky critics and indifferent audiences were wrong, seeing it several more times before it disappeared from theaters during what was also the inaugural summer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ten years later, the world seems finally to be catching up with Speed Racer, and every time I see another article about how the movie is being rediscovered or how ahead of its time it was I try not to shout, “I told you so!”

Venom is not a movie hill to die on, like Speed Racer, but you may decide not to see it based on what you’ve heard from the aggregate opinions on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, and if you remember Speed Racer fondly (or insist that it's a masterpiece, like I do), then passing on this new picture could be a similar mistake. Some of the bad reviews this new Marvel creation has been getting may be due, in part, to simple Marvel/superhero burnout, which admittedly some of us (me) are more inclined to than others. And if Marvel burnout is not understandable, then what would be? But whatever the reason may be, Venom is an odd duck, a rousing, rude, crude, at times flat-out dumb blockbuster that at times feels constrained by the mandate of its PG-13 rating, and one that also feels truncated on the story level, but maintains a perhaps unlikely level of fun nonetheless.

Crusading TV reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets wind of sinister goings-on involving a corporation devoted to space exploration that is in fact experimenting with matching alien “symbiotes” to human hosts in order to create the perfect interstellar pioneers. The somewhat reasonable-sounding but inevitably sinister and megalomaniacal company CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) doesn’t have a problem using societal outliers, like the homeless or the mentally deranged, as his guinea pigs, while the strain of symbiote invaders have a decidedly more Earthly plan of decimation as their ultimate goal. Eddie breaks into the facility one night and ends up merged with a symbiote himself, one who goes by the moniker Venom. (No movie if he doesn’t, folks, so no spoiler alert necessary.) Once symbiotically enhanced, Eddie turns out to be what Drake has been shooting for all along—the perfect human host, a physical and psychological match, one whose organs are not consumed from within by the invader, who can coexist with the symbiote’s unusual strength and transformative powers. It’s an interesting tightrope walk for a Marvel movie to attempt—just how much of is Eddie/Venom is hero, and how much villain. Eddie’s main conflict, besides saving Earth, is walking down the street, having a conversation with a deadly creature that no one else can hear and struggling to fend off the desire to bite the heads off innocent bystanders. (The PG-13 disappointingly ensures that things don’t get all Deadpool-graphic in this department.) 

The movie at time feels like it’s missing some crucial connective tissue, like it’s been cut down considerably-- Tom Hardy has claimed that 40 minutes of his best stuff, presumably character material relating to Eddie and Eddie/Venom, ended up on the cutting room floor, and if that’s true it’s a shame, because Hardy is the main attraction here. On top of his usual magnetism, the versatile actor proves himself to be a limber physical and verbal comedian, and the first 45 minutes or so, before the picture is overtaken by its B-movie CGI aesthetic, are its strongest. But Eddie’s interior monologues when Venom literally gets inside his head are a hoot too, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and for as clunky as it sometimes is, Venom does the balance between gruesome DC-style darkness and Marvel lightness better than could have ever been expected, given the claims of its worst reviews.

Venom’s story wobbles most when Venom himself does an about-face on the  genetic alien imperative to decimate the human race and decides instead to take up resistance against other less sympathetic symbiotes, all on what seems on a dime’s turn, because he sees in Eddie something worth saving in the human race as a whole-- perhaps those missing 40 minutes might have shored up this crucial story point as well. But that gap of logic isn’t a deal-breaker. The movie is just too much fun to get hobbled by common sense, and it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, despite dealing in all-too-real planetary consequences and dropping hints of its timely political awareness. (At one point, Drake refers to rumors of nefarious dealings within his organization as “fake news.”) 

In addition to Hardy’s playful charm (and that hilariously enhanced Venom voice) and Ahmed’s seductive unctuousness , Venom sports an appealing and surprisingly well-used supporting cast as well. There’s Michelle Williams playing for real in what could have been a dull stand-by-female role as Eddie’s wronged ex-fiancée, a corporate lawyer who ends up as his closest crusading ally; Melora Walters in a small but crucial role as a homeless woman who ends up on Drake’s list of doomed test subjects; and Jenny Slate as a scientist whose moral code causes her to reach out to  Eddie and, unfortunately, seal her own fate. Slate, it should be noted, does nothing funny in the movie, leading some to conclude that she’s been wasted in her appearance here. But she’s a good dramatic actress too and, as she was in Hotel Artemis earlier this year, she’s solidly believable, and presuming she didn’t show up on the set for free, she has no more reason than anyone else in the cast to be ashamed about appearing in a somewhat cheesy, completely enjoyable Marvel movie.

And I did enjoy Venom, a lot more, in fact, than something like the overstuffed Avengers: Infinity War, a movie which got much better notices than certainly I thought it deserved. Some critics seemed to defer too easily to that movie’s bloated self-importance, as if to resist the movie, and its fan base, would have been a bridge too far. Biting the head off of Venom’s relatively meager ambitions and its clunkier filmmaking, however, was apparently irresistible. So, don’t listen to the symbiote inside you who may be telling you you’re too good for it. Thanks largely (but not entirely) to Tom Hardy, Venom is a violent, absorbing, even charming hoot. See it, and then perhaps you’ll join me and the rest of the yahoos who were there in force this past Saturday night in the hope of eventually seeing those extra 40 minutes somewhere down the line.