Thursday, December 24, 2009
For anyone who doubts that the awesomeness that is Jeremy Irons, he needs only to watch “Die Hard with a Vengeance” to see the actor at the pinnacle of his career. But as hard as it may be to believe, Irons does outdo his stellar performance as the brother of Alan Rickman (oh, if only they really were brothers, what an awesome family that would be…). Irons assumes the roles of twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s dark tale of mutant women and the men who pine for them.
Elliot and Beverly act as a yin and yang for one another – Elliot is the extroverted of the two, making the majority of the public appearances for the duo and conquering women with the slightest of ease, while Beverly is quiet, intellectual and shy, creating the majority of the innovations the two are known for and humbly accepting the females that Twin A has spurned. When Beverly falls in love with movie actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), yet another reject of Elliot, and he finds himself rejected by her, his world collapses. He regresses into a realm of drug-addiction and depression to the point that he creates custom gynecological tools that look more like torture devices. It’s evident that Beverly can only regard all women as mutants as his sense of alienation grows out of control, and soon Elliot finds himself spiraling in a similar downfall, for the two are interlinked through emotion and experience. Irons was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and deservedly so. He portrays the identical twins in such contrasting ways that not even the viewer has trouble distinguishing between the two. As time has passed, I’ve found myself repeatedly reflecting back upon this film, leading me to the conclusion that this is definitely one of Cronenberg’s best (though certainly not the most pleasant to watch).
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Here’s Cary Grant in yet another screwball comedy that’s reminiscent of “Brining Up, Baby.” Once again, the tale is occurring on the cusp of a wedding, though Rosalind Russell is the bride-to-be. She’s on the verge of departing on her honeymoon when she’s roped into an execution/jailbreak story by her old editor and flame, (Grant). Grant stirs the embers of her newshound ways and ropes her back into his life under the guise that he needs her to assist him with the scoop of the century.
The series of shenanigans that are tied together loosely with a plot are entertaining enough, though they start to feel flat about halfway in. I feel as if at one stage, the writer thought, “Damn it, this story’s getting too absurd for its own good” and so he roped back in some of the more rational characters to tone down the antics, leaving the film feeling a little uneven at points. However, Cary Grant still delivers his trademark, befuddled charm like only Hugh Grant desperately wishes he could.
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What can I say here? The fourth installment of the “Friday the Thirteenth” trilogy is filled with all the pathos, metaphorical imagery and subtle character development that one would expect from the fourth installment of any horror franchise. The killings that take place throughout the film are merely incidental to the plot which focuses on a group of young teenagers who want nothing more than to embrace life. Their inebriated revelry and debaucherous, sexual escapades are representative of the freedom of youth. Jason, then, could correctly be interpreted as an allegory for adulthood and responsibility.
Jason strikes down every adolescent he can the moment that they begin to revel in the pleasures of fleshly love. It is only the actions of a young Corey Feldman that quell the beast. His soothing gesture is to shave his head and make himself appear as the deliverer of swift, machete justice. While the ending can be interpreted in a multitude of manners, it’s clear that the filmmakers have one moral they wish to convey: the appearance of early maturity is advantageous during the annals of adolescence. Feldman survives by donning the attire of the representation of authority. Truly, if we all wish to escape the persecution of our oppressors, we must live under the guise that we are like they. But, don’t be fooled, for as the film demonstrates, only the façade is necessary to dupe the antagonist, not the alteration of one’s morals. Perhaps this is the most dangerous message of all then, for the story seems to say: convince you superiors that you are one of them and when their vengeance is quelled, strike them down with greater haste. It’s surprising then that the film didn’t spark a youth revolt upon its release. I think that the fault then lies in the fact that a young Crispin Glover is called upon to dance ad nauseum during the film’s third act – a display so cryptic that even the most analytical of viewers fail to interpret the message behind the gyrations.
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The story begins when a young, nubile girl hiking through the woods comes across comes across a pair of men, one of whom is accompanied by his son. At first their meeting is pleasant, but it’s not long before the girl is raped and killed. Later, the killers seek lodging at the home of the girl’s family and it isn’t long before the father figures out who they are. He must then decide if he should reduce himself to their level and exact a similar revenge to their crime.
While this might sound like I’m describing the premise to Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” “The Virgin Spring” is actually a pensive little exercise in revenge by Ingmar Bergman. As is customary is Bergman’s tales, faith is an intertwining theme between incidents. (Max von Sydow) is a pious man who feels as if he’s going throught eh trials of Job throughout the incident, and despite his devout, religious beliefs, his overwhelming desire is to make his murderous houseguests suffer as much as he can. But despite the dark theme of the film, it’s beautifully shot and told, making it feel like a lost parable brought to life.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The premise of a black comedy featuring Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi was certainly a promising one. In fact, the story of a group of money-hungry relatives preying on the misfortunes of an old woman with the hopes of gaining her inheritance is not a bad one at that. But the execution for this Universal horror flick left something to be desired. The pacing is abominably slow and I found myself stopping the film and coming back to it twice. That's pretty sad when the film's runtime is 69 minutes.
Hell, I won't beat around the bush anymore. I just don't like Hugh Herbert. Sure, I've got a penchant for character actors, especially those with memorable schticks, from Franklin Pangborn's finger tenting to Frank Nelson's trademark "Yeeesssss." But Herbert's "hoo-hoo" laugh and bumbling nature just rubs me the wrong way. He feels like a cheap alternative to Lou Costello. And much to the dismay of many film fans, I will attest that while I love classic wacky comedy, from the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges, I just don't find Abbot and Costello funny. So, needless to say, it doesn't help for a film to bank the majority of its humor around a comedian whose stylings are reminiscent of a medium that I detest. A Herbert caricature did appear regularly on Looney Tunes shorts, so evidently he was popular for some unearthly reason.
It should be obvious by many of my reviews that I like low-budget horror. So when I hear that a film that cost $15,000 to make is receiving a national release, I can't help but indulge. The film features a lot of entertaining, yet effective "spookshow" elements to advance the plot and heighten the suspense. The general gist of the story is that a young couple believes that their house is haunted and so they decide that they shall tape every aspect of their days, including their nights in bed, in the hopes of capturing proof that something is amiss. A lot of the tricks that are used, from doors slowly creaking shut to odd bangs on the wall are unnerving. On more than one occasion, Katie (the girl who seems to be the target of the haunting demon's aggressions) arises from bed in the middle of the night and stares at her boyfriend, Micah, for hours on end, practically unmoving. She also seems to go into moments of mild possession where she will carry out acts that she does not remember later and artifacts from her childhood reappear with no logical reason as to how or why.
Unfortunately, writer/director Olen Peri gets very greedy at more than one point in the film. There's one scene featuring a Ouija board that is operated by an unseen hand shortly before it bursts into flame. Another shot features footprints appearing on the floor. Regardless of the "real-life circumstances," this is footage that, if real, would have had the attention of every paranormal investigator in the nation. So why Katie and Micah see these things occur and still take the events in stride is beyond plausibility. Furthermore, there seems to be a legitimate push to explain what is happening to the audience, with even a discovery of a website where another woman went through Katie's experiences, went crazy, blah, blah, blah.
I'm a firm believer of the "less is more" theory, because what is unknown is more frightening than what is defined, for that is the point that your imagination can run amok. It's merely indicative of our culture, for American audiences demand explanations and want to see everything. Speaking from ten years experience at a movie theatre, I can attest that films that feature ambiguous resolutions that are open to interpretation do not appeal to the average filmgoer. So the need to rationalize everything is a chronic problem that ruins too many films with great potential. However, "The Blair Witch Project" is not only reminiscent of "Paranormal Activity" in terms of plot devices and production, but it also features a highly indefinite finale, and it was a high grossing film. So with successful predecessors, it's saddening that "Paranormal Activity" went for the easy out. Kudos to the film though, for making the first night of going to sleep alone after viewing it a little uneasy.
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Like the greatest of giallo, "All the Colors of the Dark" (aka "They're Coming to Get You") is convoluted beyond compare. It features more red herrings than a fish market and any notion of a conventional plot is thrown out the window. And yet, the film is a lot of fun because it embraces the absurd, almost becoming self-parody, and it features great cinematography to boot. The best synopsis of the plot I can extrapolate is the film's heroine, Jane, is having bizarre nightmares, allegedly brought on by repressed trauma from her mother's death and a miscarriage. Everyone around her has solutions to her problems - her husband suggests pills, her sister suggests psychoanalysis and hypnosis and her neighbor suggests Satanic ritual (Satanic rituals? What won't they cure?)
Pretty soon Jane's nightmares take form in reality as she becomes an integral member of the cult. Are the cult followers vampires or ghouls? Is Jane crazy or is she a victim of a crazy plot? If she is going mad, who is pushing her to the limits of her sanity? Even after you complete the film, the answers to these questions will be a tad fuzzy. However, you don't watch Argento or Fulci films for coherence either; you watch their films for fun, tits and gore, and those are three fronts on which this film delivers.
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This is possibly the best John Malkovich vehicle since "Being John Malkovich." Rather than playing himself, the eccentric actor is a hammy, washed-up mentalist who spends his days in the limelight of backwoods towns, performing for crowds of dozens. However, when he manages to hypnotize an entire lobby of people in the absnence of any cameras, the rumor mill exaggerates the act and soon he's back on top. Malkovich is endearingly quirky as Howard, greeting fans with aggressive handshakes and bombastically declaring "I love this town!" at every new venue.
The main crux of the story, though, is not that of Buck Howard but of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks). Gable drops out of law school to take on the demeaning job as Buck's attache, much to his father's disapproval (played by Big Daddy Hanks - I'm guessing Colin roped him in for the star power angle to help rope in curious viewers). Troy's story has been done before, so it doesn't leave as much of an impression as John Malkovich's performance. In fact, had Malkovich been absent from the film, the result would have been mediocre at best, though there is a fun supporting cast, featuring the likes of Ricky Jay and Steve Zahn. I recall that this broke Louisville at the Village Eight during its transition period and as a result, very few people saw it. Pity. I feel like had this film opened at Baxter, it would have generated decent enough word of mouth to keep it running for a while (a la "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Little Miss Sunshine"). Instead, it shall undoubtedly find a modest following on DVD.
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Sunday, December 20, 2009
The first twenty minutes sets the scene for this epic film set in 17th century Japan. Noble samurai Hanshiro arrives at the palace of Lord Saito, hoping that the lord will allow him to commit seppaku on his grounds (for he deems it an honorable place to do so). Saito is skeptical, explaining to Hanshiro that the land has many wandering transients claiming to be samurai who wish to perform seppaku in the hopes that the feudal lords will placate their grief and poverty with money, rather than allowing them to kill themselves. Saito makes it known that he is not like those other lords and that Hanshiro will be forced to kill himself if he claims that is his wish. Saito recounts a tale of the last samurai that came to his palace, a man whom he deemed a fraud because the ronin had a sword and dagger made of bamboo. That man was forced to kill himself, very slowly and painfully, with the flimsy bamboo dagger. Hanshiro insists that his wishes are genuine and later, before the ceremony begins, Hanshiro requests a special second to assist him with the ceremony. While the requested guard is sought, Hanshiro essentially says, "Now let me tell you a story. You recall that samurai you mentioned earlier? I knew him - he was like a son to me."
From that moment, I was hooked. Hanshiro casually recounts the tale as to how his foster son ended up in the predicament he did, and along the way, we come to learn that a great deal of revenge has been enacted upon Lord Saito already, unbeknownst to the nefarious host. The film features spectacular sword battles, including a finale fight that was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the Bride's battle with the Crazy Eighty-Eight at the end of "Kill Bill Vol. 1." Quite simply, this was one of the most impressive revenge stories I've seen in a good, long while.
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This is yet another film I wish I'd caught in theatres, while mildly intoxicated in the company of friends. With practical effects gore abound and a schlocky plot, it screams "drive-in fare." Pity is was originally released in the cold barrens of March. The story is reminiscent of Fred Dekker's "Night of the Creeps." When I first saw the trailers for the film, I assumed it was a rip-off of the 1986 B-film and never caught it as a result. The film does borrow elements from "Night of the Creeps," but it snags aspects of a half dozen other 1980's horror films. So I suppose judging the film as a remake/rip-off would be as logical as deeming every one of Tarantino's films, especially the "Kill Bill" films as a rip-off as well.
The story does center around alien slugs that turn humans into zombies, just as "Night of the Creeps" did. However, while fraternity douchebags seemed to be the target of Dekker's piece, "Slither" sets its sights on South Carolina rednecks. Actually, I'll stop there, because to reduce a review to a comparison between the two is about as frivolous and belittling to the film as is a high school essay detailing the differences between the novel "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the film adaptation ("Aw, man...they totally changed the ending. Bummer"). Simply put, the movie's a hell of a lot of fun, especially with half-man, half slug Michael Rooker pitted against Nathan Fillon. I'd liken it to drinking a forty of King Cobra - it won't make you more intelligent and it's certainly far from classy, but if you're with friends, it's a great way to kill a night...and I can't believe I just made that analogy work.
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The film is a spectacle of an anthology featuring the directorial work of Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Human Nature"), Leox Carax ("Lovers on the Bridge") and Bong Joon-ho ("The Host"). Each half-hour vignette was theoretically created with the intent of capturing the spirit of the Japanese city, similar to the way that "Paris, Je T'aime" did the European highlight. However, I never felt like the stories immersed me into Japanese culture. I've always found that "Lost in Translation" did so successfully from an American point of view, capturing the sense of isolation and curiosity that emerges when one is a visitor to a foreign land. With the three tales within "Tokyo!" I felt that they could have been set within any major metropolis and still worked.
Gondry's story focuses on a girl who is slowly alienated by her peers and begins to turn into a chair. Joon-ho's tale centers around an obsessive-compulsive shut in that seemingly finds love in a strange, possibly post-apocalyptic future. The theme behind both is centered around the loss of identity and loneliness that comes from living in a major city. The most entertaining of the trio, Carax's "Merde," is the story of a feral, unkempt man who resides in Tokyo's sewers, eats chrysanthemums and periodically terrorizes residents with grenade attacks. When captured, he's put on trial in what is clearly an allegory for Western reaction and treatment of middle-east terrorists. There are even moments that mirror the final days of Saddam Hussein. The story calls to question the motivation behind such individuals and the aspects of hypocrisy that arise in determining punishment for them. However, as I mentioned before, I never felt like there was some unifying theme that tied the trio together and made the Tokyo setting imperative. Perhaps choosing three non-Japanese directors was the problem, but at least those three are excellent enough in their work to generate an intriguing piece.
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The last of the Frankenstein installments out of Hammer studios is still fun fare. This time, Cushing returns once more as the infamous Baron Frankenstein, only Frankenstein is absolutely daft. Imprisoned in an insane asylum, Frankenstein soon rises to power over the director though blackmailing means. There he uses his power to eliminate patients who possess desirable body parts for repairing his monster. A loony violinist provides supple hands for the monster, while the brain of a mad genius gives the monster new noggin meat.
Frankenstein is assisted by a doctor who was imprisoned for crimes similar to his own. Together the two bring new life to the monster, at which point it promptly and predictably runs amok. The story would feel overtired were it not for the presence of Cushing, who adds an amazing air of credibility to the notorious baron. David Prowse also has an early role as the monster itself, and Terence Fisher, the man behind some of the studio's better works, is behind the camera once more. The storyline scarcely surpasses its predecessors (especially the supremely smashing "Revenge of Frankenstein") but it is worth the watch for those fans of Cushing's horror work.
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This ain't a Disney-fied take on Le Prince de Beaumont's classic, cautionary fairy tale. Jean Cocteau presents a film that may have lapses of logic, but is never devoid of phantasmagoric beauty. To give a plot synopsis would be moot, for most individuals are familiar with the tale of a woman falling in love with her inhuman captor (Stockholm syndrome at its mythical best). What is worth mentioning is that this is one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema. Cocteau's knack for breathtaking visuals in "Orphee" was what lured me towards the film.
Jean Marais, the star of "Orphee" (and Cocteau's lover for a time), plays both the role of the garrulous Gaston, the egotistic hunter seeking Belle's affection, as well as the Beast. The makeup for the Beast is far more elaborate than the work Jack Pierce was doing with Lon Chaney Jr. across the ocean. The set design and costuming dazzle the eye as well, enhancing Cocteau's surreal take on the tale. There are elements to the story that seem to be lost in translation, making a few minor plot points a little perplexing, but I would liken the overall viewing experience to watching a good, foreign opera - while everything that's transpiring may not make complete sense, the production is so gorgeous you cannot turn away.
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This is one of the only films included in this ongoing list that I've watched before. In this situation, I include it only because I had a gathering of friends over to my home to watch it during the October season. I coupled it with "The Wolf Man," but I'm choosing to present only "The Old, Dark House" here because far too few film lovers are familiar with it. It's a shame really, for I think it's one of the best movies to come out of the Universal horror boom of the thirties and forties.
The film features two themes that are common to horror: a couple becoming stranded at a creepy manor on a dark and stormy night, and the subplot of a crazy relative locked in the attic of the home suddenly escaping. "The Old, Dark House" was the first film to feature these themes that have since been duplicated and butchered ad nauseum by decades of copycats. Here, our stranded travelers are Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart and Charles Laughton, and our eerie hosts are Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore. Thesiger and Moore plays Horace and Rebecca Femm, respectively, with wonderful, tongue-in-cheek glee. Horace Femm sets the scene as he greets his guests and then remarks "My sister was in the process of arranging these" before tossing a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers into the fire.
Brember Wills is also one of the most terrifying villains in early cinema. With a scraggly beard and a twisted laugh, he jabs a knife into the table repeatedly in front of Douglas while soliloquizing on his studies of fire. "It's not hot at all, but cold as ice and sharp as knives." The film is probably overlooked because it doesn't feature a monster that could later reappear in numerous sequels (though Boris Karloff does appear as the Femm's alcoholic and lecherous butler), but it is a wonderfully atypical, early offering from a studio that made an early fortune on the horror genre.
Not a trailer, but a decent review
There are two genres of film that are terribly overdone in cinema today - angsty teen romance and zombie flicks. The first has been common theatre fare since "American Pie," where an awkward teen tries to get the girl, but his foibles and eccentricities get the best of him until the girl learns to love and appreciate him for those qualities. I suppose it could be argued that such characters have been around far longer (Corey Haim could play such characters to perfection in John Hughes films), but it's only become a trend in recent years to make such characters the driving force behind the plot rather than having them serve as comedic relief on the side. As for zombies...'nuff said. Seventy percent of the horror films released in this day and age have zombies somewhere and it's become a theme that's exhausted as vampires. However, the amalgamation of the two surprisingly worked.
I went in expecting to find the film predictable and mildly funny (I think I'm one of the few people in my circle of friends who found "Shaun of the Dead" too "by the books"), but instead, I was quite simply laughing my ass off. Woody Harrelson was tolerable, nay likable, as Tallahassee, a Twinkie-obsessed redneck who shacks up with a nervous, yet level-headed Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg aka "poor man's Michael Cera"...I kid!) in a post-apocalyptic world. Columbus finds himself pining for Wichita (Emma Stone), a foil to the duo, primarily because she's the only girl in a hundred-mile radius that will talk to him and isn't trying to devour his flesh.
At this late date, I don't think it counts as a spoiler to mention that Bill Murray also appears in the film in the most brilliant, self-parodying cameo I've ever witnessed. Tears of joy intermixed with tears of laughter as he chewed the scenery far more than the zombie hoards could. This was easily one of the more delightful surprises I've had in theatres this year, considering I went in expecting convention and tedium. Thankfully, I received neither.
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Third in the vampire series by Hammer films and second film released sans Christopher Lee, "Kiss of the Vampire" stands up fairly well against its predecessors. This time, the victims are a honeymooning couple (Gerald and Marianne) that decided that Bavaria is a prime place to experience a romantic getaway (I'm sure that was a fad that had a half-life of two weeks in the early 20th century). The pair are invited to a dinner hosted by Dr. Ravna and his family in their luxurious and ominous castle. Marianne is turned into a vampire shortly thereafter and Gerald seeks the help of Dr. Zimmer (Clifford Evans acting qua Dr. Van Helsing) to bring his bride back.
The vampires in the film reflect the trend that was stared in "Brides of Dracula," where blood-suckery is an allegory for the cold nature of aristocracy. The parties held at the Ravna Castle are reminiscent of the celebration staged during the final act of Corman's "Masque of the Red Death" - colorful revelry masked by an ominous shadow. Evans doesn't rival Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing, but he's still fun to watch (though not nearly as entertaining as a sinister Noel Willman as the insideous Dr. Ravna). I find it somewhat sad though, that the hedonistic debauchery of vampire films of the sixties and seventies has been utterly replaced by teen angst and empty lust in the modern entries in the genre.
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Twins of evil? More like quadruplets of evil! Mary and Madeliene Collison, a pair of identical Playmates, take up residence with their Puritan, witch hunting uncle, Gustav (Peter Cushing, full of his usual, entrancing braggadocio). As i s typically the case with twins (at least within film), one is good (Maria) and one strays toward the naughty side of life (Frieda). Frieda is lured by her own desires to castle Karnstein where she revels in the pleasures of satanic love and badda-boom: vampire! Now Gustav has two problems: one, he must deal with the vampire menace of the village and two, he must save his niece from both vampirism and death at the hands of his witch hunter brethren.
I think it goes without saying that there's plenty of "bait and switch" within the plot. "How do we know which one is the vampire?" Poor Maria keeps ending up in the hands of the witch hunters. The film ranks up with "Vampire Circus" and "Captain Kronos" in the way of Hammer films that deviate from standard vampire lore. Delightfully dark, decidedly entertaining and, needless to say, a definite guy guilty pleasure. It's been a month and a half since I watched this film, but I still recall that those babies stay clad until the hour and twenty-one minute mark.
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This was the last of the "original five" film noirs that I had yet to see. The very concept of Fritz Lang teaming up with Edward G. Robinson is a golden one. Robinson's Professor Lanley is an expert on the psychology behind the homicidal mind, but his wits are put to the test when he murders a man. The victim is the enraged beau of Alice Reed (played seductively by Joan Bennett), a model who met Lanley when she caught the lumpy professor ogling her portrait in an art studio window. While the death could clearly be justified as self-defense, Lanley lets his libido do the thinking and acquiesces to Reed's suggestion of dumping the body in the woods.
It doesn't take a genius to foresee the perfect crime going awry, but a unique twist presented is Lanley happens to be best buds with the detective assigned tot eh case. Lanley struggles to mask clues as quickly as they're discovered. While the film is atmospheric and clever, it left a sour taste in my mouth at the finish. The cause? Possibly one of the worst/cliched endings I've seen in a film noir (and that's taking into account that the entire genre is based around convoluted plots and convention). I saw it as a cinematic "Fuck you" to the audience that can only be dwarfed by the saccharine wedding at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (though the big difference here is that Crystal Skull really didn't have any redeeming qualities). Research proved my hypothesis on the twist, comedic ending: it was studio intervention. Pity, for what could have been a dark and powerful finale is reduced to a gag denouement that instills disappointment.
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After a month-long hiatus of posting reviews (though not from viewing films), due to a deceased computer and knee injury, I shall endeavor to get caught up on my reviews with great haste, meaning I will struggle to be as concise as conceivably possible. Considering my circumlocutory ways, that might prove impractical though. Anyway, the Hammer studios production of the classic Gaston Leroux novel is a nice mix of the fanciful and the morbid (thanks to the expertise of Hammer veteran director, Terence Fisher), but it doesn't rival its predecessors. Well, namely, the 1942 Universal production starring Claude Rains.
Yes, the garish countenance of Lon Chaney Sr.'s role made the Phantom infamous, but Rains really generated sympathy for the character's plight. Herbert Lom dons the plaster mask opposite Michael Gough (who plays the opera-thieving, lecherous Lord D'Arcy) and while he executes the role well, he lacks the power of "presence" that Chaney or Rains commanded. This might be due to the script, which reduces the film's climax to a more altruistic end for the Phantom. The dash of treacle does not do this permutation any good in my mind, but it's still hard to dislike the film, simply because the source material is so good. Though I suppose the same could be argued that such is the case with Charles Dickens' immortal "A Christmas Carol," but that's not going to sway me to sit through two hours of 3-D, Carrey hijinks.
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