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.
On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: avoid!
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.


Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies present a double bill of black-and-white films from the Golden Age of Classic Horror: FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), both directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the monster. Though many old horror films do not hold up so well today, Whale’s work – with its shadings of humor and camp, mixed with precise craftsmanship – truly live up to their classic reputation.
The screenings will take place at various theatres nationwide on October 24 at 7pm, with some matinees at 2pm. The films will be preceded by exclusive interviews conducted at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, including conversations with Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jr. (son of the classic “Dracula” star), and Academy Award®-winning make-up artist Rick Baker. All three will discuss classic horror movies, how legendary icons like Karloff and Lugosi helped define the genre, and how today’s horror films measure up to the classics.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein

FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN are screening as part of the “TCM Event Series,” presented using new digital cinema projection systems in select movie theaters around the country. The series continues on Nov. 15 with a special 50th Anniversary screening of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” based on Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning book. Oscar® winner Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a racially divided Alabama town in the 1930s. The event will feature a special TCM-produced introduction and historical commentary featuring Osborne.
Tickets to the series are available at presenting theater box offices and online at www.FathomEvents.com. Click here for a complete list of presenting theater locations and prices.
The press release informs us:

As part of Universal’s 100th Anniversary this year, a commemorative 50th Anniversary release of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is currently available on Blu-ray™/DVD. Coming to Blu-ray™ for the first time, “The Birds” will be released as part of the “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” on Sept. 25. Also premiering on Blu-ray™, “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” will be included in the “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” available Oct. 2.


'Prophets Of Science Fiction' Premieres

PROPHETS OF SCIENCE FICTION debuts on SCIENCE this Wednesday, with Ridley Scott (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER) serving as host and Executive Producer.
 Via Press Release:

“For years I have been fascinated with the connection between creative inspiration and scientific progress,” said Scott. “Often there is an attempt to separate the worlds of art and science, when in reality the two are inseparably linked. I am thrilled to work with SCIENCE on PROPHETS OF SCIENCE FICTION, which will be the definitive exploration of science fiction’s ability to spark real-world genius.”
Each episode of PROPHETS OF SCIENCE FICTION focuses on a visionary sci-fi figure whose spark of imagination changed our reality. The premiere episode explores the celebrated author, Mary Shelley. Widely credited with creating the science fiction genre, Shelley’s seminal work, Frankenstein, provided a springboard for the future study and development of organ transplantation, cardiac defibrillation, electric batteries, and many other modern advances.
Using iconic movie clips and cutting-edge animation, each episode of PROPHETS OF SCIENCE FICTION features a bold future-forward on-air look that is consistent with Scott’s big-screen legacy. Scott and his group of cinematic and scientific experts, including famed director, Paul Verhoeven, and renowned theoretical physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku, dissect the genius of Shelley and other science fiction titans; such as George Lucas, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Phillip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Robert Heinlein.
ProphetsSciFi_RScott“Sometimes it takes a true genius to clearly articulate the genius of others. This is what makes PROPHETS of SCIENCE FICTION such a singular project,” said Debbie Myers, General Manager and Executive Vice President of SCIENCE. “Having the brilliant Ridley Scott as the on-air guide for this journey enables the series to illuminate the one-of-a-kind inspiration that transforms science fiction to science fact.”

Premieres Wednesday, November 9th , at 10:00 PM (ET/PT) with MARY SHELLEY.

“Mary Shelley set out to create a monster–along the way she created a masterpiece.
In 1816, teenager Mary begins stitching together a patchwork of ancient legend, modern technology, and personal tragedy- giving life to her novel, Frankenstein – and the genre of science fiction.”

Real Steel: Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast 2:39

Bots that Box: Hugh Jackman (right), Evangeline Lilly (center) and Dakota Goyo say hello to a new contender in REAL STEEL.
Bots that Box: Hugh Jackman (right), Evangeline Lilly (behind bench) and Dakota Goyo say hello to a new contender in REAL STEEL.

The official Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie is still in the planning stages, but until then, we have REAL STEEL, the Disney/DreamWorks family-friendly take on a world in which the squared circle has been commandeered by mechanical pugilists while the humans stay safely in their seats. Wrapped in the redemptive tale of an absentee father (Hugh Jackman) bonding with his son (Dakota Goyo) in order to rescue a hang-dog sparring robot from the junkyard and turn it into a populist sensation in the ring, the film features director Shawn Levy’s assured way with top-level special effects, not the least being Jackman’s formidable physique. Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss whether the project goes the distance, or should just retire and open up a night club in Florida (strained boxing analogy ahoy!).
Also: The gang offers an appreciation of Steve Jobs and discusses the recent spate of announced projects taking on the Frankenstein legend; and Dan gets all sloppy over the deliciously bizarre J-Horror film, THE SYLVIAN EXPERIMENTS. Plus: what’s coming in theatrical and home video releases.

Sense of Wonder: Counting Horror, Fantasy & Sci-Fi Franchises on One Hand?

franchise combo copy

In this post about SAW 3-D, being touted as the finale installment in the Jigsaw saga, Lionsgate president Jason Constantine makes the following statement about the longevity of the SAW franchise:

“You can count on one hand the franchises that lasted seven years — and every year, no less,” says Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions. “It became part of pop-culture discourse.”

This strikes my as slightly myopic in terms of the history of horror, fantasy and science fiction film franchise. Off the top of my head, here are several more than you can count on one hand – unless you are a polydactyl alien from a galaxy far, far away:

  • The Universal Pictures Frankenstein series began in 1931 with FRANKENSTEIN and continued through 1948 with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, totaling eight films.
  • Toho Studio’s original Godzilla franchise began in 1954 with GODZILLA (a.k.a. GOJIRA) and took a breather after TERROR OF MECHA-GODZILLA in 1974. The franchise revived in 1985 and lasted until GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER in 1996, then resumed again in 1999, wrapping up with GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004, with 26 films on its resume.
  • The Hammer Films Frankenstein series began in 1957 with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ended in 1974 with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, totalling six films (not counting the aberration known as HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN)
  • Hammer’s Dracula series began in 1958 with HORROR OF DRACULA and ended in 1974 with LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (a.k.a. THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA), totaling eight films (nine if you count BRIDES OF DRACULA, in which the Count does not appear).
  • The James Bond franchise launched in 1962 with DR. NO and continued until QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, totaling over 20 films. (There was a haitus in the 1990s, but still this is a long-lived franchise).
  • HALLOWEEN started its reign of terror in 1978, which lasted through HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION in 2002. The franchise started up again in 2008 with a remake.
  • FRIDAY THE 13TH began in 1980 and lasted through 2003’s FREDDY VS. JASON, before launching a remake last year.
  • A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET arrived in 1984 and officially ended with FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE in 1991 – barely six years. But then the franchise started up again in 1996 with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, followed by FREDDY VS. JASON in 2003, and then a remake this year.

Well, that makes eight. I guess we’re not supposed to count the ALIEN franchise and George A. Romero’s sequels to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), because the films were spaced out at long intervals: the ALIEN films extend from 1979 through ALIENS VS. PREDATOR in 2007; Romero’s latest, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, arrived earlier this year.
If we include non-sequel franchise, we get the Vincent Price Poe movies from HOUSE OF USHER in 1960 through THE OBLONG BOX in 1969. Extending past the real of cinefantastique, we get lengthy franchises devoted to Sherlock Holmes and other screen detectives, not to mention such low-brow fare as Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule.
Let me know if there are any I missed.

Del Toro on his future projects

The best news today is not that Peter Jackson will be directing THE HOBBIT. It’s that Guillermo Del Toro, having left THE HOBBIT, can now focus his attention on the myriad other projects he has in development. He discusses them at length in this interview with Collider.com, given during the Saturn Awards. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that, at this point in time, we don’t know what his next directorial effort will be; Del Toro talks about several, but all of them seem to be further down the line – what he will do after his next one, whatever that turns out to be.
The rundown goes something like this:

  • AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS – the proposed adaptation of Lovecraft’s spectacular novella, a wonderful combo of horror and science-fiction – is probably not going to happen.
  • HELLBOY 3 is not going to be his next film, but it might be after the next one.
  • FRAKENSTEIN does not have a completed script yet, but there is a storyline. Del Toro is excited about the sculpture designs for the monster, who will be played by Doug Jones (Abe in HELLBOY).
  • Del Toro plans to announce a project at Comic Con that he will write, produce and possibly direct.
  • His next directorial project will be one of  that have more fully developed scripts, including one he started 15 years ago!

Happy 100th Birthday, Frankenstein!

Charles Ogle as Frankenstein's creation
Charles Ogle as Frankenstein's creation

Writing at NorthJersey.com, Jim Beckerman notes that today is the 100th anniversary of the first film version of FRANKENSTEIN, produced by Thomas Edison in 1910. The twelve-minute silent film was long thought lost until a surviving copy was traced to a collector in the 1980s. Directed by J. Searle Dawley, with Charles Ogle as the monster, this FRANKENSTEIN is an interesting little movie, obviously with its story much condensed from Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel. The film more fantastical than frightening, with a highly symbolic ending that takes Shelly’s doppleganger theme (Victor Frankenstein and his monster are mirror images of each other) and renders it in literal terms – definitely a curiosity piece worth checking out.
We posted the video in April of last year. You can find it here.

Sense of Wonder: Bride of Frankenstein goes back to the lab

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Biz Blog informs us that the long-discussed remake of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is back in development. Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) is slated to direct, from a script he is co-writing with Dirk Wittenborn. Few details about the project’s direction are available except that it will differ significantly from previous script that have been developed for the project, including a modern-day take set in New York City
I cannot say I am particularly thrilled by this prospect. As much as I am pleased to see Universal trying to revive its classic horror legacy, the results so far have been disappointing. The MUMMY movies made a ton of money, but they were basically RAIDERS rip-offs. VAN HELSING was overwrought and under-developed, wasting its monsters on a film that had more in common with Japanese anime than classic horror. THE WOLF MAN looks as though it might be good, and I have some hopes for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
But Universal Studios’ BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is another matter; it’s one of those sacred films that should not be touched, except perhaps by a genius. Released in 1935, the original BRIDE dates from the Golden Age of black-and-white horror films. It was directed by James Whale, the most talented person working in the genre at that time, and it is generally regarded as superior to Whale’s earlier FRANKENSTEIN. In fact, Denis Gifford, in his wonderful book A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, calls BRIDE…

…the biggest-budgeted, best dressed, highest-polished, finest-finished horror film in history; a first-class Hollywood product made with all the artistry and technology a top studio normally lavished upon only its most commercial ventures. It was Whale’s best work – and his last in the genre; he felt he could not top it. With it he established himself as the master director of horror…

That is, frankly, a lot to live up to. Although I enjoyed THE ILLUSIONIST to some extent, it’s not the kind of film to convince me that Neil Burger should be let loose on what is, by almost universal consensus, one of the great classics of horror cinema. There is no reason to remake a film like this unless the filmmakers can bring a touch of genius to the project that in some way equals or surpasses the original. Guillermo Del Toro might be right for the project if he were not so busy. Right now, I’d cast my vote for Tomas Alfredson (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN).
NOTE: Commenting on the Risky Biz Blog’s announcement, Cinematical’s Monika Bartyzel opines that Helan Bonham Carter should play the Bride of Frankenstein in the remake. Ms. Bartyzel seems unaware that the actress already did play the role – in 1994’s MARY SHELLY’S FRANEKNSTEIN.

Hammer Horror Series – Retrospective DVD Review

Yesterday, in a review of THE RAVEN (1935), I mentioned that, although the number of my DVD purchases is rapidly declining, thanks to the availability of movies through services like Netflix Instant Viewing and Amazon.com’s Video on Demand, I still appreciate the opportunity to own a boxful of favorite titles at a discount price, even if there is a diminished bit-rate that results from compressing two films onto one side of the same disc. After recently obtaining a 50-inch widescreen plasma television, I hauled out my Hammer Horror Series box set and tried out a few films, just to see how they looked, and the results were fantastic – not Blu-ray quality to be sure, but nevertheless bold and beautiful, as Hammer Horror should be. BRIDES OF DRACULA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN – all of them looked great. Perhaps a more perceptive eye than mine could have detected some flaws such as artifacting, but I found the viewing experience to be perfectly satisfying.
For those of you who do not know, Hammer was an English movie production company that began remaking Universal’s horror classics in the 1950s, except that Hammer’s films were in Technicolor instead of black-and-white, and for the filmmakers were not afraid to actually show things like vampire fangs and a stake going through the heart. Many of the best films were produced by Anthony Hinds, directed by Terence Fisher, and written by Jimmy Sangster, with Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS) and/or Christopher Lee (Count Dooku REVENGE OF THE SITH) in the starring roles.
The initial spate of Hammer films (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA) were not really remakes, strictly speaking; rather, they were new films based on the same literary source material. After the first few, Universal Pictures struck a deal with Hammer, which did result in some literal remakes (such as the Hammer version of THE MUMMY, which draws from several elements in the Universal series of films from the ’30s and ’40s).
The two-disc “Hammer Horror Series” contains eight films from the British studio that reshaped the horror genre in its own bloody image. The titles all came out in the early 1960s, when the company was simultaneously sequelizing their earlier hits and also poking around the in the graveyard for new spirits to evoke. Thus we get not only sequels like BRIDES OF DRACULA and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN but also new versions of old monsters (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), interesting variations on familiar themes (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), and a couple of black-and-white psychological thrillers (NIGHTMARE, PARAONOIAC).
What is especially nice about this collectionis that, although most of the more famous horror titles were already gathered together in the previous “Hammer Horror Collection” DVD box set, the films on the Hammer Horror Series DVDs are amost equally deserving of attention: all are entertaining; most are quite good, and a couple are classic in their own right; combined together, they make a must-have collector’s item for fans:
BRIDES OF DRACULA is the second in the company’s Dracula series. Although it suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee’s Count, Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing, fighting off a handsome blond vampire (the obvious inspiration for Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat). The production values are excellent and the story packs a few surprises.

Oliver Reeds Leon takes a turn for the worse
Oliver Reed's Leon takes a turn for the worse

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF remains probably the best werewolf movie ever made. You don’t see the wolf much; the story is more like a tragic history of a hapless human, cursed from birth with the taint of lycanthropy, which emerges briefly in his younger years, then sprouts full-blown as as adult. The late Oliver Reed plays the werewolf; the film is very good but very depressing (it ends tragically, as most werewolf movies do).
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was an attempt to do a different kind of “horror film,” with an emphasis on bigger production values and the tragic romance at the core of the story. (Supposedly, Cary Grant was slated to play the title character, so the script was written to de-emphasize the horror.) It’s an admirable effort but not quite the masterpiece it was intended to be; still, it’s much better than the interminable Claude Rains version from the 1940s.
PARANOIAC and NIGHTMARE are two psycho-thrillers, of which Hammer made several in the 1960s, following Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The Hammer efforts are not match for Hitchcock, but they are good-looking productions, and director Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer) knew how to use the camera to good effect, even if the scritpts are a bit mechanical in their attempts to yield unguessable surprise endings.
KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, for some reason, is the Hammer film for people who don’t like Hammer films. Although I’m not quite sure why, I think it has something to do with the plot, which is structured a bit like a Hitchcock thriller: a honeymooning couple comes to town; the bride disappears; and when the husband searches for her, the locals claim never to have seen her. Of course, everyone is silent because they are in a thrall to the vampires in the castle. The film has a fairly remarkable ending: instead of stakes and crosses, a magic incantation sends a swarm of vampire bats that bleed the living dead dry. Unfortunately, the special effects are not as good as the concept, so the execution falls flat.
Also noteworthy: If you saw KISS OF THE VAMPIRE on late night television in the U.S.A., you saw a bastardized version. Not only were things cut out, but also new scenes were added to pad out the running time. And we do mean pad: absolutely interminable dialogue with periphieral characters who never interact with the main cast, but just stand off in the sidelines talking about stuff we already know.
NIGHT CREATURES is a bit of a fake-out. It’s actually a thriller about smugglers who disguise themselves as ghosts and/or monsters to scare everyone away and thus insure the secrecy of their operation.
EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is actually one of Hammer’s lesser Frankenstein films, but Peter Cushing is, as always, interesting to watch in the role. The problem seems to have been that the film was designed to be more like the old Universal horror films, so the fresh and bold Hammer approach of the previous Frankenstein installments was abandoned in favor of embracing old-fashioned cliches like torch-wielding villagers. Like KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, this film had pointless new scenes added for American television.
The set is disappointing in only a couple of ways. First, there are no bonus features, not even a trailer. Second, the films included date from the period when Christopher Lee (who had co-starred with Peter Cushing in the first round of Hammer horror classics), was away in Italy, working on films like HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD; it seems a shame to have a Hammer box set in which one half of the greatest horror double team of all time is not represented by even a single title.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski. This version has been slightly updated.

Rodan/War of the Gargantuas – DVD Review

For kaiju(i.e. Japanese Giant Monster movies) fans, this double-bill of two of the best non-Godzilla movies represents a must-have. Featuring both the original Japanese and the revised American versions, this double-disc DVD presents these kaiju classics with the respect they have never before received on U.S. shores.
While Rodan went on to become Godzilla’s sidekick in a number of the later monster team-up movies, the original RODAN is quite a respectable achievement in its own right. This is something of a transitional film, abandoning the somber black-and-white moodiness of Toho’s earlier monster movies but still retaining the serious science fiction tone. Although shot in color, this was the last Toho kaiju in the Academy 1.33 aspect ratio. Subsequent releases from THE MYSTERIANS on were shot in the widescreen scope ratio of 2.35, and from MOTHRA onward the movies would veer toward light-hearted fantasy. Unlike many of these later kaiju efforts, RODAN shows director Ishiro Honda still striving to build an atmosphere of unease, much like the original GODZILLA.
Rodan (1956)RODAN’s storyline features a slow build-up over the discovery of the mutilated bodies of some miners on the island of Kyushu. Brave miner Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) leads an investigation but winds up getting trapped in a cave-in. The miners have been killed by some giant insect-like larvae, but when a giant pterodactyl egg hatches, the real menace -Rodan – emerges and makes quite a breakfast of the killer larvae, while leaving the observant Shigeru in a state of shock. Unlike Godzilla, who knocked buildings over with his claws or burned them with his radioactive breath, Rodan spends most of his time in the sky, creating hurricane-force winds with his wings and wreaking major devastation with the shock waves as he passes overhead. Instead of old stand-by Tokyo, the city of Saseabo gets leveled by the onslaught as Rodan is joined by a female mate. The whole thing reaches an unusual climax with a suicide pact between the monsters who plunge themselves into a growing volcano for a memorably somber finish.
This disc represents the DVD Region 1 debut of the original Japanese version of the film, which is 10 minutes longer than the truncated American version with which American fans are familiar. In addition, the Japanese version comes with stronger and brighter colors. At the same time, the American version is interesting, especially as almost the entire dialgoue track was dubbed by Paul Frees (WAR OF THE WORLDS) and Keye Luke (GREMLINS), doing different characters with stock Asian accents, and with a very young George Takei (STAR TREK) giving the English dialogue for Japanese children.
War of the GargantuasEven more exciting is the first widescreen presentation of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS on domestic home video (previously released on a full screen laserdisc). I had originally caught up with the movie on the Million Dollar Movie as a kid, where it seemed to play every night for a week, and I enjoyed it so much that I re-watched it almost every time.
The film was created as a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERED THE WORLD, which depicted a monster that could regenerate from a single body part, in this case resulting in two monsters. Both retain a flat-topped Frankenstein-type dome and headpiece, but American producer Henry G. Saperstein decided to rename the monsters “Gargantuas” and obscured the continuity.1In the Japanese version, after the revelation that there are two Frankensteins, the monsters are given the names to distinguish them: Sanda (brown one) and Gaira (evil green one, spelled “Gailah” in the English subtitles). The Japanese version is actually 4 minutes shorter than the American cut and has a darker picture quality.
War of the GargantuasWAR OF THE GARGANTUAS has an intriguing opening: in the midst of a rainstorm, a giant octopus attacks a Japanese freighter; helps seems to arrive when a Green Gargantua pries the octopus away, but instead of rescuing the sailors, the monster starts eating them. We are then introduced to Dr. Paul Stewart (a likeable but indifferent Russ Tamblyn, replacing Nick Adams who starred in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD) and his beautiful assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, returning from FCW), who refuse to believe that the carnivorous beast could have been the baby Brown Gargantua (looking much like LAND OF THE LOST’s Chaka) they had nurtured until he ran away.2
It’s not long before the Green Gargantua emerges from Tokyo Bay and ambles across Haneda airport where he devours a female office worker. The American version adds a shot of the worker’s chewed clothing, but the Japanese version cuts poignantly to some flowers on the ground. Green Gargantua runs away when sunlight emerges from behind some clouds, returning at night to pick up a Caucasian lounge singer warbling the memorably awful song “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” (sung in English in both versions), whom he drops when all the nightclub lights are turned on.
One distinction for GARGANTUAS is that, for once, the Japanese military prove somewhat effective. They bring out their giant Maser cannons and do some damage on Green Gargantua  before he gets away to wrestle around the city with his better-natured brother, Sanda. Also notable: after this film and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, Toho decided to save money on miniature buildings by setting their monster rumbles in the countryside rather than in cities, rendering GARGANTUAS one of the last epics of destruction before Godzilla was revived in the ‘80s.
The print of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is bright and vibrant, though there are some rare instances of aliasing problems due to compression. The sound is good overall, though Gailah’s chirping noises can remind one of a French rooster and begin to grate on the nerves after a while. The Japanese soundtrack presents Akira Ifukubie’s complete score (with a great march like the one the composer wrote for DESTROY ALL MONSTERS); the American version replaces some of the original score with library music.
A great bonus feature is BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, written and produced by GODZILLA experts Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. Though it has some pacing problems, the documentary gives us behind-the-scenes stories concerning Eiji Tsuburaya (special effects supervisor) and art director Yasuyuki Inoue (miniature city designer and unsung hero of kaiju movies), as well as commentary and reminiscences from Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma and Tsutomu “Tom” Kitagawa, who played Godzilla in the ‘50s-‘70s, ’80-‘90s, and GODZILLA 2000 on, each explaining and demonstrating their interpretation of the character as well as offering anecdotes about difficulties and near accidents, especially in Toho’s large water set. While similar features have been included on Japanese import DVDs (sans English subtitles), it is great to see a number of Japanese artists who worked on kaiju movies and hear their stories in a feature-length documentary.
This set is highly recommended to all lovers of kaiju eiga!
RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Classic Media release through Genius Entertainment.

  • RODAN (Sora no Daikiaju Radon [“Rodan, Monster from the Sky”], 1956). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata from a story by Ken Kuronuma; English dialogue by David Duncan. Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Harata, Akio Kohori.
  • WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Furankenshutain no Kaiju [“Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda versus Gaira“], 1966). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeshi Kimura, story by Reuben Bercovitch. Cast: Russ Tamblyn, Kumi Mizuno, Nobuo Nakamura, Kenji Sahara, Jun Tazaki.


  1. The original trailer for WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (which unfortunately is not included in this set) was constructed from takes featuring the dialogue recorded on set, with the Japanese cast speaking their native language and imported American star Russ Tamblyn speaking in English. This reveals that the decision to rename the monsters for American consumption was not a last-minute change made while dubbing the American version – Tamblyn can be heard calling the monsters “Gargantuas” while his Japanese co-stars call them “Frankenstein.”
  2. The existence of this flashback creates some continuity problems, because it does not comform precisely to what we saw in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which featured a very human-looking monster, not the bigfoot-like creature seen here. The scene seems to exist for the benefit of the American version, which pretends to be a stand-alone film.