Dan Curtis' Dracula on Blu-ray – review

Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.

Bram Stoker’s immortal vampire rises again, this time on Blu-ray, a format that – appropriately enough -preserves the youthful veneer of this 1973 production, making it look as good as (if not better than) it did four decades ago. Like Dracula himself, MPI’s new disc will no doubt endure, intact and ageless, for centuries to come, emerging regularly from its box like the Vampire King rising from his coffin at sunset.
DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (also known as BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA or simply DRACULA) is not the greatest adaptation of the classic novel, but it infuses some new blood into an old corpse drained of life by myriad prior film incarnations. This DRACULA features a strong central performance, atmospheric locations, and some enjoyably scary but not too gruesome moments of horror. However, the film’s greatest claim to historical significance is its (for the time) novel take on the titular character, which went on to influence later interpretations.

THE FILM: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

The fourth major adaptation of the classic novel*, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (the on-screen title) begins by acknowledging audience familiarity with the tale, opening with shots of wolves (actually German Shepherds) amassing outside Castle Dracula, while the Count walks through a corridor toward the camera, like Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. “We know you know who this is,” the film seems to be saying, “so we’re not going toy with presenting him as a mysterious figure, and we’re not going to tease you with a long wait for what you obviously expect to see.”
After that Richard Matheson’s script settles into the familiar story, but only up to a point. Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) arrives in Transylvania to arrange a real estate deal with Dracula (Jack Palance). However, the Count has ulterior motives: Harker finds a newspaper photo with a woman’s face circled. The woman is Lucy (Fiona Lewis), whom Dracula believes to be the reincarnation of a woman he loved during his mortal life. She also turns out to be the best friend of Harker’s finace, Mina (Penelope Horner).
After concluding his business with Harker , Dracula leaves the young man to the tender mercies of three vampire women (Virginia Wetherell, Barbar Lindley, Sarah Douglas) and heads to England, where he finds Lucy. Her finance, Arthur Holmwood, consults Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), who spots the signs of vampirism – though too late to save the victim. After Lucy rises from the grave, Van Helsing and Holmwood stake her in her coffin.
Arriving in her tomb for the expected reunion with his long-lost love, Dracula is enraged to find her undead life snuffed out. He targets Mina next, but the vampire hunters manage to track down the coffins he needs to sleep during the daylight hours; robbed of his refuge, Dracula retreats to Transylvania, with Van Helsing, Holmwood, and Mina in pursuit. The two men stake the Count’s vampire brides in their coffins and confront Dracula himself in a life-or-death battle that ends with Van Helsing tearing down a set of curtains, allowing sunlight to steam inside, incapacitating the monster, who is then dispatched with a spear through the heart.

In flashback, Dracula (Jack Palance) is seen with the woman he loved (Fiona Lewis).
In flashback, Dracula (Jack Palance) is seen with the woman he loved (Fiona Lewis).

Back in 1974, when BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA first aired on American television, portraying the Count with a measure of sympathy was innovative and surprising; something so simple as a flashback or two to his days of mortal life was enough to suggest a whole new perspective on the familiar character. Dracula was no longer simply a monster; he had human emotions!
In this, the film was enormously aided by Palance. If you prefer your vampires in traditional Gothic mode, then Palance’s Dracula is for you: the actor registers such powerful screen presence that you feel he could single-handedly dispatch the entire cast of TWILIGHT’s glittering vampire-wimps. Though hardly Continental (the actor avoids affecting a Lugosi-style Hungarian accent), Palance conveys not only the enormous power of the King Vampire (who seems threatening even when he’s not actually doing anything) but also Dracula’s sense of love and loss. He effectively modulates the shifts from fierce to pained to tortured, and you almost feel for him. Almost.
The problem is that BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA does not have the screen time or the focus to completely humanize the Count. The reincarnation plot is clearly derived from Curtis’ own Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS (in which vampire Barnabas Collins sought the reincarnation of his lost Josette), but the TV series had the luxury of months of daily episodes to gradually transform Barnabas from predatory villain to doomed anti-hero. Here, we get only a few minutes of flashbacks, which are at odds with the rest of the story.
In attempting to condense Stoker’s lengthy tale while simultaneously introducing new elements, Matheson set himself a near impossible task. It’s great to see several of Stoker’s previously omitted scenes finally transferred to the screen: wolves escort Dracula’s carriage in Transylvania; Dracula uses a lone wolf, liberated from a zoo, to attack Holmwood in a room protected protected from vampires by crucifixes and garlic; Dracula forces Mina to drink blood from an open wound in his chest, tainting her to become a vampire whether or not see dies by his bite. However, some of the novel’s best moments are reduced to almost nothing (Dracula’s vampire brides – a highlight of the novel- barely register), and some of the familiar action fits awkwardly into the new context, which muddles the character’s behavior.
Dracula reacts to the second death of his lost love.
Dracula reacts to the second death of his lost love.

For example, with Jonathan (literally) out of the picture, Mina’s only connection to the vampire hunters is through her friendship with Lucy, so she has no clear reason to stay involved after Lucy’s death. Nevertheless, she remains, living with Holmwood and Van Helsing in Lucy’s house, apparently (though not expressly) with the permission of Lucy’s mother (who is never told what killed her daughter). One wonders why Mina does not return home or (better yet) lift a finger to figure out what happened to Jonathan. The answer is that the script needs to keep her close by, so that she can become Dracula’s second English victim – a development that now seems like an arbitrary remnant of the novel. (In the revised scenario, Dracula is presumably seeking revenge for Lucy’s destruction, but that would have made more sense had the characters been rewritten so that Mina was Holmwood’s fiance – suggesting that Dracula is taking Holmwood’s woman in exchange for Holmwood’s killing Dracula’s great love.)
Consequently, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA feels like a familiar old puzzle with a few new pieces tossed in – they’re pleasantly surprising, but they don’t quite fit. And speaking of things that do not fit: this film not only tells us that Dracula was once a sensitive, loving human being; it also tells us that the vampire was, in life, Vlad Tsepes, a true-life historical figure known for cruelly impaling his victims on large, painful wooden stakes inserted in the anus – a contradiction the script never attempts to resolve.
Visually, the film belies its made-for-TV origins, with impressive lensing and production values. Dating from an era when most tele-films were point-and-shoot affairs with bland, over-lit photography, this DRACULA looks as good as a theatrical feature from the era. The location shooting enhances the proceedings enormously, lending an authentic European flavor missing from previous versions of the tale (though the interior of Dracula’s abode sometimes looks more like a mansion than a castle).
Dan Curtis knew how to deliver the genre elements a film like this needed, but his strength was more as a producer than a director. At times, he tried too hard to be clever and cinematic, when a more confident director would have let the scene play without the bells and whistles (typical for the era, the zoom lens is used and over-used, like an explanation point dropped by a writer juicing up a line of prose). At other times, Curtis could let a scene fall flat, such as the Mexican Stand-Off during which Van Helsing and Holmwood use crosses to hold Dracula at bay but let him walk out the door for fear of confronting him directly. (You want to yell, “Don’t stand there – do something!”)
When it came to staging action, Curtis could rise to the occasion and deliver effective moments of shock and horror: Dracula’s first encounter with Lucy is emotionally charged – creepy and seductive; the later revelation of her dead body, still beautiful but pale and blue, like a broken doll, is evocative and disturbing. Within the constraints of network television censorship, Curtis spruced up the narrative with bursts of violence that show how overpowering Dracula is compared to mere mortals, emulating but not quite capturing the full-blooded excitement of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958, from which several ideas were clearly borrowed).
Curtis Dracula Palance Ward sunlight
Dracula's attack on Holmwood (Simon Ward) is interrupted by sunlight.

Such borrowings occasionally lend an almost off-the-rack quality to the scenes, though viewers without an encyclopedic knowledge of vampire cinema are not likely to notice or care. For example:

  1. As noted, the vampire romance is borrowed from DARK SHADOWS (there’s even a music box that plays a love them, scored by SHADOWS composer Bob Corbett).
  2. Dracula tosses someone out a window, as vampire Janos Skorzeny did in THE NIGHT STALKER, a previous Curtis production. (This scene became something of a recurring motif for Curtis – check out BURNT OFFERINGS for another example).
  3. Jonathan Harker never makes it out of Dracula’s castle, and Dracula is bound by physical limitations, unable to transform into a bat or mist – both element derived from HORROR OF DRACUULA.
  4. Dracula seeks a woman whose photograph he has seen – an element in NOSFERATU and HORROR OF DRACULA.
  5. Van Helsing defeats Dracula by tearing down curtains to reveal sunlight. This is taken from HORROR OF DRACULA by way of THE NIGHT STALKER.

The supporting cast fares less well than Palance. Lewis comes off best, emerging as one of Dracula’s most beautiful and alluring victims; unfortunately, she is given little screen time to register the transformation from innocent human to wanton vampire. Ward is an appealing screen presence, but his character has no distinguishing characteristics, nor an emotional journey worth following. Davenport turns Van Helsing into a methodical medical practitioner, without the commanding presence of Edward Van Sloan or the zeal of Peter Cushing. This may be a deliberate choice (an exchange of closeups, before Van Helsing delivers the fatal blow to Dracula, suggests we are supposed to relate to the tragic vampire rather than the heartless hunter), but it leaves the film without a strong protagonist. Horner’s Mina is not the surprisingly smart and capable woman of the book; in fact, she is not much of anything.
Seen in the purifying light of day, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is, like much of the producer-director’s work, an unapologetic horror film, eager to embrace genre conventions and deliver familiar elements that appeal to fans. Though no match for DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi, nor HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) with Christopher Lee, the Curtis production is an interesting variation on the tale, bristling with more energy than COUNT DRACULA (1977), the talky public-television version starring Louis Jordan. And for horror historians, the Dan Curtis DRACULA represents an important evolutionary step in the portrayal of the character on screen, retaining the supernatural menace but adding a layer of humanity and romance that would become a bigger part of the character in later versions.

THE BLU-RAY: DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA

You didn't see this on television in 1974!
You didn't see this on television in 1974!

MPI’s Blu-ray disc (featuring the title DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA on the box art) presents the film’s theatrical cut in widescreen format, with options for English, Spanish, and French 2.0 soundtracks, along with optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. The theatrical version is slightly gorier than the original broadcast version (all the vampires cough up blood when they die). Also, the tell-tale signs of the film’s television origin (e.g., blackouts for commercial interruptions) are missing, creating a more theatrical viewing experience.
The picture looks great on modern high-def televisions. There is a slight trace of grain (this was shot on film, after all), but the muted colors are lovely (lots of red backgrounds and that peculiar orange that passed for blood in those days). Though the film dates from the era of television screens with a 1.33 aspect ratio, the image looks perfect when cropped to today’s 1.78 aspect ratio (perhaps because the action was framed to work on wider theatre screens).
Bonus features include interviews with Palance and Curtis, Outtakes, Television Cuts, and a British theatrical trailer.
Outtakes offers raw camera footage, minus the on-set set sound, accompanied by music. These are mostly different takes, or slightly longer versions, of footage seen in the film, sometimes withe the crew and slates visible. Though not a blooper reel, there are one or two moments when an actor cracks a smile, as Lewis does after her gasping reaction to being staked.
Television Cuts presents alternate, blood-free takes from the broadcast version. These are limited to a few closeups the death throes of the vampires, who merely gasp when staked, instead of coughing up blood as in the theatrical version.
The Theatrical Trailer is a bit scratched and grainy (which perhaps helps us better appreciate the preserved picture quality of the film itself). EMI, the British distributor, sold the film (under the title BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA) as a bold horror movie, a la Hammer Films Dracula efforts, but also noted the romantic aspect.
The most interesting bonus features are the Interviews. Jack Palance discusses his approach to the character, saying that he did not play Dracula as a villain because that’s not how the character would see himself. Curtis talks about adapting the book, which he says “makes no sense” because Stoker never explains why Dracula leaves Transylvania for England; hence, Curtis decided to “rip-off” the reincarnation story line from DARK SHADOWS, in order to provide the missing motivation. (This explanation was apparently the approved party-line on the subject: Richard Matheson used almost the exact same words when I asked him about his script decades ago.)
[rating=3]
Worth a sanguinary midnight sip.

TRIVIA

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA was scheduled to make its debut on American television in October 1973; however, the broadcast was preempted by President Richard Nixon’s address regarding the resignation of Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew. The film eventually premiered in Feburary 1974.

British poster for the Dan Curtis production of (Bram Stoker's) DRACULA.
British poster for the Dan Curtis production of (Bram Stoker's) DRACULA.

Originally billed and advertised simply as DRACULA, the film later came to be known as BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, to distinguish it from previous versions. The posters and on-screen title cards confused the issue with graphics that conflated the star’s credit with the title and emphasized the character’s name at the expense of the author’s:

JACK PALANCE
as
BRAM STOKER’S
DRACULA
The word “Dracula” is in larger, bolder letters, suggesting that is the true title; Stoker’s name appears to have been included as a way of acknowledging the film’s literary debt to his novel, which is not otherwise credited as the source material for Matheson’s screenplay. The trailer for the subsequent overseas theatrical release adopted the full title, although the British poster, like the on-screen credit, emphasized “DRACULA,” with “Bram Stoker” in smaller type and lower-case letters.

Years later, home video releases also used the BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA moniker. However, since Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name, the 1973 production has been sold as “Dan Curtis’ DRACULA” on DVD and Blu-ray (though the on-screen title-credit remains the same).

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coppola version of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) contains two notable similarities to the Dan Curtis production. First, like Matheson before him, James V. Hart’s screenplay identifies the fictional Count Dracula with his historical namesake, Vlad Tsepes, also known as Dracula (i.e., the Son of the Dragon, thanks to his father’s membership in the Order of the Dragon). Second, Dracula (played by Gary Oldman in the Coppola film) is also seeking the reincarnation of his lost love.

The reincarnation plot line, previously used by Curtis in DARK SHADOWS, has no precedent in Stoker’s novel. However, it can be traced to Universal Pictures’ THE MUMMY (1932), which deliberately recycles many elements from the studio’s earlier hit, DRACULA. Curiously, the Dan Curtis DRACULA is a bit vague about whether Lucy really is Dracula’s lover reborn. She looks the same but never expresses any recognition, even when she is falling under the vampire’s spell; also, when she rises as a vampire, she heads not to the Count but to her fiance, suggesting she does not reciprocate Dracula’s centuries-old passion.

FOOTNOTE:

  • After NOSFERATU (1922), DRACULA (1931), and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (Blu-ray title, released May 27, 2014 by MPI). Also known as: DRACULA and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (copyright date, 1973; original air date: February 8, 1974). 100 mins. Made for Television. Produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Written by Richard Matheson, based on the novel by Bram Stoker (uncredited). Cast: Jack Palance, Simon Ward, Nigel Davenport, Pamela Brown, Fiona Lewis, Penelope Horner, Murray Brown. Virginia Wetherell, Barbara Lindley, Sarah Douglas.

Blood and Black Lace: Spotlight Podcast 5-11.2

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A fashion institute becomes a charnel house of death when a masked madman stalks a sextette of glamorous models, each of whom has come in contact with a diary containing a secret that the killer must – at any cost – keep from prying eyes…

It’s time for a 50th Anniversary Podcast celebration of Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (a.k.a., Sei Donne per L’Assassino – i.e., “Six Women for the Assassin”). This horrifying 1964 thriller, which sets violent murder in a world of high-fashion glamour, set the template for the Italian genre known as Giallo, which would percolate throughout the cinematic bloodstream for decades to come, offering violent murder-mysteries populated by beautiful victims and masked, black-gloved psycho-killers. Yet Bava’s original stands above the rest, all these decades later, thanks to the director’s genius for stylization – ranking among the best efforts ever in the horror genre.
With two-thirds of the regular Cinefantastique podcasting crew on hiatus, Steve Biodrowski hosts guests Keith Hennessey Brown (Giallo Fever) and Roderick Heath (This Island Rod) in a detailed discussion of what makes BLOOD AND BLACK LACE stand the test of time.


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Vampire Academy review

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Makes TWILIGHT look good – something I never thought I would say about any movie ever – now please excuse me while I go wash my mouth out with soap.

VAMPIRE ACADEMY is guaranteed to have cineastes and cult movie fans browsing IMDB to double-check that screenwriter Daniel Waters did indeed write HEATHERS back in 1988. Not that HEATHERS was so much better (it’s over-rated), but rather, VAMPIRE ACADEMY gives every indication of having been scripted by someone who never wrote a movie before. It’s a little bit hard to imagine a movie with more activity but so little actually happening, with more exposition but so little actual sense, or with more narration but so little actually worth narrating. It fills the screen for 104 minutes, and that’s just about all it does.
Not to put all the baggage on Daniel, brother Mark Waters directs so badly that even the occasionally semi-funny line falls deader than an anemic vampire bat taken out by a surface-to-air garlic bomb. The forcefully glib tone he elicits suggests he was aiming for something closer to WARM BODIES than TWILIGHT, but the result makes the TWILIGHT saga look good – and I never thought I would say that, but at least those films strove to please their intended audience, whereas in VAMPIRE ACADEMY the Waters Brothers seem to have been thinking they could joke and clown their way through material they clearly do not believe in. (It goes without saying that WARM BODIES is funnier, scarier, and more endearing.)
The story focuses Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) and Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry). Rose is a Dhampir, a human-vampire hybride who acts as a bodyguard for Lissa, a royal member of the Moroi (peace-loving, mortal vampires). You might be wondering why a full-blooded vampire – with magical powers, no less! – would need to be guarded by someone who is essentially human and has little going for her except an attitude and the standard allotment of generic action-movie kickboxing moves. You might be wondering, but VAMPIRE ACADEMY will not tell you.
What the film will tell you is that Rose and Lissa are really close – like, psychically close – but that’s more plot convenience than character development. Rose occasionally acts as willing bloody donor to Lissa, which allows Waters to get off on the usual girl-on-girl fantasy b.s. that male filmmakers like to throw up on screen, but for some unclear reason this activity is frowned upon by the other Moroi (who also get their blood from willing victims).
By the way, the film starts with Rose and Lissa on the run from the titular Vampire Academy, but we don’t know why, and it turns out they don’t know why either, but it’s later explained as a memory block, but why the secrecy would be necessary is never explained – except insofar as, if it didn’t exist, the characters (and by extension, we in the audience) would pretty much know the whole story right from the start.

High school sucks. (Get it?)
High school sucks. (Get it?)

Instead, the screenplay lets the plot drip like rusty water from a leaky faucet while “distracting” us with “satirical” jabs at high school life, as seen through the blood-red lens of vampire society. (High school sucks! Get it?) Yup, Daniel Waters really is back in HEATHERS territory (one plot development even involves two young dickheads embarrassing the leading lady by claiming to have double-teamed her), but putting fangs in the students mouths doesn’t make the old jokes sound new again.
Nor does it justify the scatter-shot approach of the script. There’s some stuff about Lissa standing up for herself instead of relying on Rose to fight her battles, but that’s bad for some reason or other. Also, Lissa wants to be popular, but that’s bad because …. HEATHERS!!!! Rose falls for a hunky Dhampir named Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky) – because after all this is the paranormal romance genre. And don’t forget (no matter how much the film almost does) Rose and Lissa had run away from the academy to avoid some shrouded danger lurking with its halls.
These random narrative “developments” characterize VAMPIRE ACADEMY pretty much from beginning to end. Someone is somewhere doing something for some reason; somebody says something about why they’re doing it; then they do something else for some other reason that has little or nothing to do with what they were doing before, but somebody else says something new about what they’re doing now. It doesn’t take long before you feel as if the film is simply jumping around from scene to scene – and sometimes jumping around within scenes – in a frantic attempt to suggest that there really is a movie going on up there. Alas, no…
Is that a stake in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
Is that a stake in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

VAMPIRE ACADEMY trots out the obligatory genre elements, but none of them work well enough to please even the most undiscriminating fans. The romance is as cold as the grave. The performances are embalmed. And the action has all the dexterity of a corpse with rigor mortis. In a sadly botched opportunity, Rose occasionally attacks fellow Dhampir Dimitri, to keep him on his toes – rather like Kato used to attack Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER sequels; unfortunately, Waters seems to think that simply rerunning the concept is funny in and of itself, without bothering to stage any of the hysterically extravagant slo-mo kung fu that made the gag funny in the PANTHER movies.
Deutch is pretty but not funny – essentially from the Kristen Stewart school of acting, though thankfully without the blank, gap-mouthed stare. Fry at least has the British accent to suggest something like a performance. Gabriel Byrne collects a paycheck and makes you wonder why he’s not in something better.
When VAMPIRE ACADEMY finally wanders around to the climax, a glimmer of competence emerges, thanks to a half-way decent final confrontation with a Strigoi (an undead vampire), but any flicker of audience good will is immediately extinguished by the most vile of insults: the “surprise” coda shouting that the filmmakers intend a sequel whether you want one or not. It is perhaps telling that this scene takes place immediately after the main action, before viewers could walk out during the credits. In a rare moment of clarity, the filmmakers realized that nobody would be eagerly waiting around to see whether a tag for a sequel would pop up just before the final fade out.
[rating=0]
0 out of 5 stars – Absolutely bloodless!
VAMPIRE ACADEMY (February 8, 2014, The Weinstein Company). Directed by Mark Waters. Screenplay by Daniel Waters, based on the novel by Richelle Mead. Cast: Zoey Deutch as Rose Hathaway. Lucy Fry as Lissa Dragomir. Danila Kozlovsky as Dimitri Belikov. Gabriel Byrne as Victor Dashkov; with Dominc Sherwood, Olga Kurylenko, Joely Richardson. 104 minutes. PG-13

Here Comes the Devil, Argento's Dracula, Comedy of Terrors: Podcast 5-4.2

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It’s another week’s worth of horror, fantasy, and science fiction film reviews at Cinefantastique’s Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast. In episode 5:4.2, Steve Biodrowski exorcises HERE COMES THE DEVIL, a Video on Demand opus from writer-director Adrián García Bogliano; Dan Persons stakes Dario Argento’s DRACULA, the Italian filmmaker’s eccentric variation on Bram Stokers immortal vampire; and Lawrence French recalls THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, the Gothic-themed spoof starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff.
Also included is the usual rundown of the week’s home video reviews, including FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1922). And don’t forget: after all the reviews are done, stick around for the “after-show” – in which the recording software continues to capture the musings of the three podcasters as they try to figure out whether the giant praying mantis in Argento’s DRACULA is related to the bee in Universal Pictures’ classic black-and-white version of DRACULA (1931).


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Here Comes the Devil (2012) review

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Fuses the grindhouse with the arthouse into an interesting but unsatisfying hybrid.

Landscapes are scary. Their enormity makes us feel small. Their longevity mocks the brevity of our existence, reminding us that they were around before our birth and will continue after our death. They represent natural forces beyond our control, that shape our lives in ways we can barely understand, and if you stare at them long enough, you might start to imagine that these forces are not merely natural but supernatural – possibly incomprehensible and potentially malevolent. This brooding, irrational dread infuses the early scenes of HERE COMES THE DEVIL, lending an aura of uncanny menace, a la Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, that lingers in the memory long after writer-director Adrián García Bogliano has diluted the atmosphere  with a potent but rather inchoate mix of exploitation horror, revenge, gore, and sex. Fortunately, in what is either a happy accident or a clever piece of cinematic jiu-jitsu, Bogliano’s inability or refusal to formulate the disparate elements into a rational whole leaves the film itself feeling a bit like an incomprehensible artifact – a metaphoric crevasse in the intimidating landscape the film depicts so unnervingly. So score this one as a partial victory, in spite of itself.
The story follows Sol (Laura Caro) and Felix (Francisco Barreiro), parents out for a weekend excursion with their children, Sara (Michele Garcia) and Adolfo (Alan Martinez). This kids want to explore a nearby landscape on their own. Felix grants permission, because he wants a few moments alone with Sol in the car, so that they can have sex (which we are led to believe happens too infrequently since the kids came along).

You don't need to be Freud to figure out the significance of this crevasse.
You don't need to be Freud to figure out the significance of this crevasse.

While Sara and Adolfo explore a crevasse in the rocks, Felix explores Sol’s crevasse in the car. There is an orgasm and an earthquake; the kids disappear; the police are called. The children are found the next day, and life goes back to normal. Well, not so much: there is something odd about Sara and Adolfo, almost pod-like; they seem too secretive about their mysterious absence, and a child psychologist suggests they may be too close for a normal brother-sister relationship. Did something happen on the mountain? Something vile and unspeakable? And was it sexual in nature, or supernatural?
In case you didn’t notice,  “crevasse” in this context is a deliberate pun on the use of the word as a slang term for female genitalia. I wish I could take credit for this, but that goes to Bogliano, who leaves us in little doubt about the true source of horror in the film. If there is one thing more profoundly disturbing than eternal landscapes, it is sex. Bogliano establishes this in the opening scene a gratuitous lesbian coupling that leads immediately to a violent confrontation with a home invader (later revealed to be a serial killer), who is wounded and retreats to the mysterious mountain top, presumably to die (though his death throes suggest a sex act with the local rocky terrain).
Clearly no good can come of this, at least not in a film titled HERE COMES THE DEVIL.
Clearly no good can come of this, at least not in a film titled HERE COMES THE DEVIL.

The sequence has little to do with what follows, except insofar as it provides one concrete example of the mountain’s ominous reputation for evil (like villagers in Transylvania, the locals warn the tourists to avoid the cursed spot). The real purpose of the sequence is to make the initial connection between sex, violence, and death. To be fair, there is at least a suggestion that the problem is not sex, per se, but feelings of guilt over acting in ways that violate conservative social expectations: Sol fears she is neglecting the children; one of the women in the opening seems to immediately regret her Sapphic liaison. In any case, the symbolic “little death” of the orgasm leads inevitably to literal death – suggesting a dark conspiracy of primordial forces both inside and outside of us, tempting us to indiscretions with fatal consequences.
If this sounds pretentious, don’t worry. HERE COMES THE DEVIL never makes the mistake of explicating this in the dialogue; the implications simply exist like raw ore, waiting to be extracted. Unfortunately, Bogliano is not content to let his viewers mine this vein on their own; he has other, more visceral concerns that trump thematic ambition, distracting him from what could have been an effectively ambiguous tale of sexual aberration hiding beneath a veneer of the supernatural (a la THE CAT PEOPLE or THE INNOCENTS).
Sol (center) wonders what's wrong with Sara and Adolfo.
Sol (center) wonders what's wrong with Sara and Adolfo.

Let’s face it: the audience for an unrated horror film such as HERE COMES THE DEVIL is not interested in subtle ambiguity; they want to see boundaries crossed and taboos broken, and Bogliano is happy to oblige, whatever the cost to his film. Besides establishing the sex-death connection, the lesbian prologue immediately grabs attention-deficit viewers, who might otherwise tune out during the slowly building tension of the first-act disappearance and the gradually escalating concerns of the parents after their children reappear. This kind of pandering is easy enough to understand – an artist has a right to hook his audience, after all – but later developments are not so forgivable.
HERE COMES THE DEVIL goes off the rails when Bogliano introduces a subplot in which Sol and Felix track down a misfit they believe sexually abused their children. Not only does this distract from the main story; it mars an interesting variation on the either-of ambiguity of the scenario: Most films would ask, “Are the children possessed, or are the parents imagining it?” HERE COMES THE DEVIL asks, “Are the children acting strangely because they are possessed or because they were abused?” Unfortunately, instead of exploring this concept, Bogliano uses it as an excuse to stage a bloody atrocity scene.
Working on the thinnest of evidence, Sol and Felix murder the suspected abuser. The scene is staged for maximum gore – and quite nonsensically. Felix slits the man’s throat, the inexplicably grabs his legs, which doesn’t seem a particularly effective way to restrain him but does give Sol access to the man’s upper torso. Not content to let the struggling victim simply bleed out, Sol reaches into his gaping throat and tears out his larynx with her fingers. The violence is spectacular but ridiculous. Even worse, it utterly destroys any sympathy we have for our protagonists, whose fate ceases to interest us, rendering the rest of the film as an archetypal example of the dreaded “Eight Deadly Words” syndrome: I don’t care what happens to these people.
Charitably, one might argue that there is a point to the scene: Faced with a horrible reality they cannot process emotionally, Sol and Felix seek a scapegoat. The irony here is that the “horrible reality” is demonic possession, and they mistakenly target a more tangible, believable source for their troubles. Whatever the intention, HERE COMES THE DEVIL starts to become less about the problem with the children and more about the parents’ getting away with murder, as a local sheriff starts showing up to ask questions about the missing misfit.
It's not PARANORMAL ACTIVITY but an amazing simulation!
It's not PARANORMAL ACTIVITY but an amazing simulation!

Along the way we see some paranormal activity focused on Sara and Adolfo; a babysitter recounts what sounds like supernatural sexual abuse and strongly hints at witnessing an incestuous relationship between the brother and sister; the story of the serial killer from the prologue is recounted, this time with a glimpse of his demonic visage. The clever touch here is that most effectively eerie supernatural phenomena are recounted second hand and seen in flashback, leaving us to wonder how literally to take these tales (is it real or imagination).
Just in case the title were not enough, HERE COMES THE DEVIL ultimately comes down squarely on the side of ominous occult forces, when we see Adolfo and later Sol levitating. The sequence with Adolfo is effective not only as a set-piece but also as a dramatic development driving the parents’ hysterical search for answers. Unfortunately, the later sequence with Sol leaves actress Laura Caro looking less like the helpless victim of supernatural menace than a comic relief character falling out of a hammock. In any case, after being menaced not only by her affect-less living children but also by zombie-like visions of their corpses, Sol returns to the mountain and learns the awful truth.
Not that we care by this point, but….
SPOILERS
… it turns out that Sara and Adolfo never came out of the crevasse: Sol finds their bodies inside the cave, suggesting that they have been replaced by evil dopplegangers. Just when you are wondering what she will do about it, the film takes another weird turn: she shows the awful truth to her husband, adopting an accusatory tone (presumably because he wanted to have sex while letting the children wander off on their own). Felix shoots Sol and then himself – presumably because he cannot face the guilty truth but really so that Bogliano can hit us with the “shocking” conclusion, in which duplicates of Sol and Felix emerge from the cave and drive home, presumably to reconcile with their duplicate children and enjoy a happily demonic home life. The nuclear family has been totally subsumed by the evil lurking in the mountain, their lives destroyed by the aftershocks of the parent’s sexual dalliance (a metaphor emphasized by the fact that an earthquake occurs whenever someone dies on the mountain and is replaced by an evil double).
SPOILERS
The downbeat ending might have had some impact if we had been in any way invested in the outcome, but by the time the film finally fades out, we have long since given up on the characters and are interested only in an explanation. The revelation about Sara and Adolfo is good enough to satisfy on a simple “What happened?” level, although strictly speaking it does not gibe with the legends surrounding the haunted mountain (which involve evil forces possessing people as vessels – not exactly what happens here).

CONCLUSION

In spite of all the narrative mis-steps, HERE COMES THE DEVIL’s gloomy aura of cynicism (which passes for authenticity in so far as it eschews Hollywood glitz) sustains itself for most of the feature length. Consequently, the usual suspects (Dread Central, Arrow in the Head, etc) have been singing praises to the film while overlooking that, far from being a radical departure, it is actually not far removed from todays’ mainstream horror film formula (in which families routinely succumb en masse to evil unseen entities).
What raises HERE COMES THE DEVIL a tad above the latest PARANORMAL ACTIVITY spin-off is more a matter of tone than content. Bogliano’s film adopts a grim 1970s exploitation tone that sets the viewer on edge. You see it in the cinematography and hear it on the soundtrack – not so much in the rapid-fire heavy metal song but in the background music, which offers echoes of Pink Floyd’s work for Barbet Schroeder’s mystical THE VALLEY and Fabio Frizzi’s work for Lucio Fulci’s gruesome THE BEYOND. (There is even a character named Lucio, though it is pronounced differently from the moniker of the Italian filmmaker.) Those two touchpoints may seem astronomically removed from each other, but they underline HERE COMES THE DEVIL’s singular achievement, which is fusing the art house with the grindhouse. The result may not be satisfying, but it is interesting.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW FILM
CLICK HERE TO VIEW FILM

HERE COMES THE DEVIL is currently in limited theatrical release, with engagements scheduled in Kansas City, Gainesville, Toronto, and Ottawa. Check Magnet Releasing’s website for details. You can also view the film via Video on Demand in the Cinefantastique Online Store, powered by Amazon.com.
[rating=2]
On the CFQ Scale of 0 to 5 stars, worth checking out if you like this sort of thing.

NOTE:

Adrián García Bogliano explores a similar theme in his “B is for Bigfoot” episode from THE ABCS OF DEATH, which also features a couple trying to get rid of a child so that they can engage in sex. Being a short film, “B is for Bigfoot” avoids the narrative detours the derail HERE COMES THE DEVIL. Also, the only characters who “get it” clearly deserve it, punished not so much for having sex as for cruelly terrifying a young child with a ghastly bedtime story (in order to get her to hide beneath the covers and thus put prevent further interruptions).

This babysister seems to have escaped from Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND.
This babysitter seems to have escaped from Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND.

HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2012). USA Video on Demand and Theatrical Release, December 2013 from Magnet Releasing. Written and directed by Adrián García Bogliano. Cast: Francisco Berreiro as Felix; Laura Caro as Sol; Alan Martinez as Adolfo; Michele Garcia as Sara; David Arturo Cabezud as Lucio; Giancarlo Ruiz as Sgt. Flores. 97 minutes. Not Rated.

Dario Argento's Dracula – review

dracula3d

Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.

Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!
Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!

The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again).  With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)

Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.

Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.

Click to view on demand
Click to view on demand

If you ignore our suggestion, you can view the film via Amazon Video on Demand, or purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD through the Cinefantastique Online Store.

TRIVIA

For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:

  • Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
  • Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
  • Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
  • Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
  • Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
  • Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
  • The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.

FOOTNOTE:

  • This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.

Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")
Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.

I, Frankenstein: Spotlight Podcast 5:4.1

i-frankenstein crop
So…. I, FRANKENSTEIN. What can you say? Is it a bad movie or a bad videogame? We report; you decide! Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski analyze this patchwork of plot elements that is every bit as much a stitched-together abomination as the titular monster, played by Aaron Eckhart. Stuart Beattie (COLLATERAL) wrote and directed, from a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, the man also responsible for the UNDERWORLD franchise, but UNDERWORLD-like box office success is eluding this effort.


[serialposts]

I, Frankenstein – review

I Frankenstein poster closeup

Like watching someone else play a bad videogame.

Have you heard about this new videogame called I, FRANKENSTEIN? If not, don’t blame yourself; the commercials and posters probably left you thinking that I, FRANKENSTEIN is a feature film. They even hired a few movie actors to make it seem more like a – well, like a movie, and adding to the confusion the demo version is currently playing in theatres, so you can check it out and decide whether it’s a game you’d like to play. Unfortunately, the answer is: No.
Now I know what you’re saying: How could a videogame with Frankenstein’s Monster caught up in a war between angels and demons not be super-exciting? I mean, at the very least, there must be some cool graphics and battle scenes, and stuff like that, right? Well, yeah, the computer graphics are great – almost like a movie – but the game itself is surprisingly dull, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
First, here’s what you need to know about the game’s story: You play Frankenstein’s Monster, an immortal artificial man with superpowers. You get caught up in a war between Good and Evil over the fate of mankind. You don’t really care much about mankind, because mankind hates you because you’re ugly, but eventually this hot, blonde doctor chick puts a bandage on one of your wounds and so you fall in love and decide humanity’s okay after all and take up sides against Evil.
I should pause here and mention that Aaron Eckhart (who was really good in THE DARK KNIGHT) reads the lines for the Frankenstein Monster. His presence is supposed to make this feel more like a real movie than a videogame, but you can sort of tell he knows he’s just filling time in between the action game-play which is the real reason someone might buy a game like I, FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose if they made a real movie out of this game, with him in the role, he’d probably do a much better job.
Anyway, acting aside, I had a really problem with Frankenstein’s Monster as an avatar, because when you play a videogame, you want your in-game character to be the most kick-ass warrior around like Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, or Alice in RESIDENT EVIL, or even John Grimm in DOOM, but Frankenstein just didn’t seem all that powerful in this battle between Good and Evil. I mean, yeah, he’s superhuman – which is good in a videogame – but does being artificially created really make you strong enough to battle angels and demons?
I was thinking maybe the idea would be that the opposing forces were so evenly matched that the monster would be able to tip the balance one way or the other, but instead it turns out to be that Team Evil just needs to study the Monster to learn something that will help them; meanwhile, Team Good doesn’t want the Monster to fall into the hands of Team Evil.
So your game avatar is really a pawn in what should be his own game instead of being the hero driving the acting. And it even turns out that Team Evil doesn’t even really need the Monster; all they need is the journal telling how the Monster was created, so the Frankenstein Monster avatar is that much less important to the game’s outcome.
At least, being superhuman, the Monster can fight, but though the action is nicely rendered, the fight scenes just don’t look that challenging to a potential player. Basically, any weapon with the game’s peculiar religious symbol carved on it will kill a demon, so all you have to do is pick up any weapon and hit a demon with it. That’s all there is to it. Not much strategy or skill involved. In fact, you wonder why Frankenstein’s monster need to be superhuman to do that. Anybody could hit a demon with a stick with a symbol on it. Or if the demons were too fast for that, why not carve the symbol on some machine gun bullets and just fire away?
So, uninteresting avatar and unchallenging fight scenes – at least the game might survive on the strength of its visuals, right? Because the fights are so easy to win, you should be able to quickly breeze through lots of cool settings with great-looking backgrounds and soak up all that wonderful atmosphere, shouldn’t you? Sadly, no.
Probably the biggest problem with I, FRANKENSTEIN is the way the “story” keeps interrupting the action and slowing down your progress from scene to scene. Once upon a time, you just killed something and then moved to the next level, where you could at least enjoy the graphics even if the game was not too exciting; now, however, videogames pretend there’s a story that ties all the death battles together, even though it’s pretty obvious that the story doesn’t really matter.
I’m not saying there’s shouldn’t be a story, but it needs to fit a little more smoothly into the game. Here, it just bogs the game down, constantly – in fact right from the beginning, when we get this prologue which acts like one big exposition dump telling us how “Adam” (as he is eventually named) was created by Victor Frankenstein – as if we didn’t already know that. In fact, I’m betting a big part of the reason they named the film I, FRANKENSTEIN is because they know we all know who Frankenstein is.
And that’s not all: the prologue also tells us way more than we need to know about the war between angels and demons. I mean, we get it: angels=good; demons=bad. About the only thing “new” here is that the angels call themselves gargoyles because they camouflage themselves as gargoyles, but I could have figured that part out for myself.
Unfortunately, figuring things out for yourself is not something I, FRANKENSTEIN ever lets you do. As boring as the prologue is, I took it in stride, because that’s the way these games start now, with the little introductory clip before the real game begins; sure, the absence of a “Skip” button was frustrating, but I figured a few minutes of tedium is par for the course before you get to the good stuff. Boy, was I wrong! Once you get into the actual game-play, the game keeps stopping to explain everything – and I mean everything. There’s never a moment when you wonder what to do next, because the character dialogue spells out what, where, and why before you start each new level.
This would be bad enough if I, FRANKENSTIEN were a non-linear game with multiple paths you could follow; however, the progression is strictly linear, with no two ways about it, so there’s really no need for explanations to justify “decisions” that are predetermined for you by the game. It’s as if they game designers realized their actual story was too flimsy to hold your attention from one level to the next, and so they tried to cover it up by giving you step-by-step explanations why you had to go on to the next scene and defeat the next demon or whatever.

Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.
Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.

Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t know why things happen, but part of the fun of a good game is strategy – weighing options and deciding what the next move should be. Here, it’s all laid out for you, and it left me wondering whether the designers even know who their target customers were. The fight scenes and computer graphics make I, FRANKENSTEIN look a cool game for teenage boys, but the constant hints and suggestions about what to do next make I, FRANKENSTEIN feel more like a lame Interactive Hidden Object Game for ten-year-olds. You know the kind: you can’t “lose,” because the game always tells you what to do next. (“Congratulations! You have found Frankenstein’s journal! You can use it to revive your fallen demon hordes and route the angelic gargoyle army!”)
What this means is that I, FRANKENSTEIN is predictable from beginning to end. Not just the usual predictability, where you know you’re going to win if you pay attention and play well – but scene-by-scene predictability, where you know what to do to complete each level even before you start playing that level. Watching the I, FRANKENSTEIN demo in theatres the other day, I ended up feeling like I was watching someone else play a videogame – someone not very talented. At first I wanted to take the controls for myself and show him how it was done, but after seeing how easy it all was, I just lost interest.
Sure, there would be a little more suspense with my fingers pushing the buttons to make Adam swing his club and whack his demon adversaries, but that’s not enough to make a satisfying game experience. I want some challenges, some puzzles, and adversaries whose weaknesses need to be discovered and exploited. To be fair, there is just a tiny bit of that in the end, when Adam comes up against the “boss” demon (named Naberius and played by Bill Nighy – another actor whose presence makes I, FRANKENSTEIN seem almost like a real movie). For some reason never explained (which is weird when you consider who much trivial stuff is explained) Naberius cannot be killed by weapons with the weird religious symbol carved on them.
If you plan on playing I, FRANKENSTEIN yourself, I recommend you watch the demo version on you X-Box at home and stop at this point before it gives away the solution for killing Naberius, which is just about the only halfway decent surprise in the whole game. As for me, as I said, I saw the demo in a theatre, and it totally gave away the solution for killing Naberius, which instantly killed any interest I had in ever adding this game to my collection.
The I, FRANKENSTEIN demo was show in 3D at my theatre, which did add a little bit to the game. I liked seeing wide-angle shots of the ancient cathedral (where the gargoyle order resides), which was surrounded by modern buildings, while demons swarmed the cobblestone streets for the final battle. But the 3D technology has its problems, especially when the game pretends to be a movie. If they had just done the whole thing with computer-generated imagery, it probably would have looked okay, but when they mix the real actors with the computer stuff, it doesn’t always line up properly – and in 3D, the alignment problems are more obvious. Like, there’s a scene where this character shifts from human form to his true demonic appearance, and his head is too big, kind of like a balloon – or more like that joke they do on THE TONIGHT SHOW, where they paste Jay Leno’s face on the body of some guy streaking through a football scene. Except the scene in I, FRANKENSTEIN is much funnier.
The last thing I will mention is that the actress who played Hannah McKay on the last couple seasons of DEXTER shows up as the doctor who sorta falls in love with “Adam.” Which is kind of funny, because on the TV show she fell in love with a serial killer who she thought might kill her because he had killed lots of other people, and now she falls in love with a monster who she thinks might kill her because he killed Victor Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth in that long boring prologue I mentioned above. But of course her blonde hair and good looks provide an invulnerability shield that guarantees she will survive through the closing credits.
Which, come to think of it, are the best thing about I, FRANKENSTEIN: at least there’s no post-credits teaser promising us a follow-up to a game no one wants to play in the first place.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: avoid!
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I, FRANKENSTEIN (January 24, 2014). A Lakeshore Entertainment production, distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment. 93 minutes. PG-13. In 3D. Directed by Stuart Beattie. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, based on a screen story by Beatie and Kevin Grevioux, based on the graphic novel by Grevioux, inspired by the character created by Mary Shelly. Cast: Aaron Eckhart as Adam; Yvonne Strahovski as Terra; Miranda Otto as Leonore; Bill Nighy as Naberius; Jai Courtney as Gideon; Socratis Otto as Zuriel; Aden Young as Victor Fraknenstein.

The Devil's Due, Oscar Noms & First Men in the Moon: Podcast 5:3.1

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Devil's Due

Volume 5, Number 3 of the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast brings you the latest news and reviews of what’s happening in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. The intrepid CFQ podcasting team analyzes the 2014 nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including GRAVITY and HER; and eulogizes late actor Russell Johnson, most widely known for playing the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, who also featured prominently in several science fiction films. Steve Biodrowski exorcises THE DEVIL’S DUE, a new “found footage” horror film featuring a demonic pregnancy. Lawrence French lionizes FIRST MEN IN THE MOON with a 50th anniversary appreciation of the 1964 science fiction film, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
Also on the menu are this week’s home video releases for Tuesday, January 21, and a look back at the 2012 Blu-ray release of GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE.

Top Ten of 2013: CFQ Podcast 5:1.2

Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast
This week, the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast celebrates the new year by looking back at the old: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, Steve Biodrowski offer their picks for the Ten Best Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Films of 2013. We’d love to tease the titles mentioned, but that would be spoiling the suspense, so you will simply have to listen in and find out for yourself.
Also on the menu: reactions to trailer for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and a look at home video releases for Tuesday, January 7 2014.


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