House on Haunted Hill (1959): A Classic That Could Have Been Good

house_on_haunted_hill

We continue the Halloween theme with movies in the lead up to Halloween with the original “House on Haunted Hill.” There was a later remake and sequel to the remake that I have no desire to see, given their bad reviews and the fact that I didn’t love this film. It had a lot of interesting ideas but the characters couldn’t carry it. I’ll get into what I mean in the assessment.

The film was directed by William Castle who was also one of the producers. It was written by Robb White who was also one of the other producers. This was their project.

The premise is an eccentric millionaire named Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who invites a group of people over to the haunted house for a party he did for his fourth wife where each will get ten thousand dollars if they can survive or stay until the morning. As everyone arrives we learn about past people who have died at the house as people are haunted and plots are hatched to use the people in the house by the millionaire and his wife and the visitors.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Frederick Loren – The fact that he’s played by Vincent Price makes him interesting, as we learn over the course of the film he’s insane and did this all as a plot to reveal his wife and her lover knowing they’d try to kill him. He wins and we see that though there are supernatural elements a lot of it is just human characters, like him playing giant puppets to make them seem real. I wish it had just been this and there hadn’t been spirits as it would have shown that the human were  the only monsters that were to be worried about. Still, Price is a great actor and he does a great job.

Annabelle Loren – His wife is just like him and they both hate and want to kill each other. She nearly wins when she fakes her own suicide and her lover the psychiatrist almost succeeds in manipulating one of the other visitors to kill Frederick. Carol Ohmart plays the calm collected role. I wish we could have seen why she loved the psychiatrist though, her reasons for hating her husband were understandably legion, but not her love for her lover.

The Haunted House – The Haunted House looks fantastic and has all the classic elements. From the ghostly groundskeepers, to heads in closets and an organ that plays on it’s own…as well as a cellar full of acid where the psychiatrist and Annabelle die. We get glimpses of other monsters too and the talk of all the murders and deaths add a sense of foreboding about the house, truly making it feel haunted.

Cinematography – The use of lighting and shadows is done really well in this film. From hands reaching around the sides of walls and hanging corpses with blank eyes…everything is just in the shadows giving it the feel of a haunting. Carl E. Guthrie did a great job.

Okay: Generic Visitors – The other four people are tropes and never get beyond that…we have the pilot who is the hero but needs to be saved, the newspaper columnist who is always drinking, the have the damsel in distress who gets used by the Psychiatrist, the millionaire and the wife, and we have the owner of the house who believes in the ghosts so is always haunting and on edge. None of them get beyond their roles and we never learn fully why they came for the money. This is where it being like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians falls apart as in that story the motivations were fully realized. This lack of motivation just hurt the plot.

The Cons: Extended Twilight Zone Episode – From the narration at the beginning of the owner of the house and the millionaire setting the scene between human versus supernatural manipulation this felt like a Twilight Zone episode that is just long. This would be a plus if this had been made for television, but this was a feature length film, so I have to count it against it. Unrealized potential is a good way to describe this film.

Mystery Unsolved – Why is the house haunted? What supernatural creatures are there and why? Why do the characters want the money being offered? These plot holes become apparent as scares are presented since we see that the characters would need good reasons to stay…and the monsters need motivation too, even if it is just something simple. This was a major con that took a way from a classic that could have been great or even good.

I would say check out this movie if you like Vincent Price and want to see some old classic horror films. I didn’t hate this film and like some things about it, it just couldn’t carry itself all the way through. This movie’s plot holes become more obvious as the plot progresses and the reveal of the wife as a major manipulator doesn’t feel as strong because we don’t get why she loves the psychiatrist. I said this in the assessment and I’ll say it again, this movie was unrealized potential.

Final Score: 6.7 / 10. It was enjoyably okay.

 

I, Monster (1971): Christopher Lee Owns This Adaptation

FTI, Monster

         So many horror films arose out of classic literature. From all the versions “Dracula” that came out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and for this film, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These classic stories have been the base for countless explorations of horror and aspects of humanity in both cinema and television.

      The production was Amicus who was famous for putting horror movies years ago, and it some ways it does deserve that praise. After watching this film, I plan on seeing more of their productions. I especially want to see more Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in action given how well they both did in this film.

        “I, Monster” was directed by Stephen Weeks and written by Milton Subosky, who also served as one of the producers along with Max Rosenberg and John Dark. The story is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

        In this version Dr. Jekyll has the name of Dr, Marlowe (both played by Christopher Lee) and when he transforms becomes Mr. Blake. He is researching the mind and how to separate the good from the bad on both animals and his patients and later himself. This leads to his transformation which he attempts to deal with first by hiding it but is forced to make a choice as his colleagues and his friend Utterson (Peter Cushing) attempt to help him.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Utterson – Peter Cushing is great in this role, I just wish he’d been given more to do. He’s very active in the first two acts, especially once Blake arrives on the scene and he thinks his friend is being blackmailed into giving Blake full reign of his house. He confronts Marlowe once over this but seems to have given up after. For someone who is supposed to be a friend I didn’t expect him to just give up than. He still is a great character though, it’s just he isn’t given enough to do. Still going to put him down as a pro though, since he does drive the action when Marlowe and Blake aren’t.

Dr. Marlowe / Mr. Blake – Christopher Lee is the best part of this film, which is saying something since Cushing is a phenomenal actor. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde role is a hard one to play and much of the cons here are  more due to writing since Lee plays Marlow’s empathy for his patients and Blake’s disregard for all so well. He does a good job contorting his face and showing the calm collected control of Blake versus Marlowe too. At one point it looks like he might be about to have a relationship with a patient, which would have been a nice change from the book but they decide to follow the book more closely and only change in his colleagues finding out the truth when one dies from a heart attack when he sees Blake change to Marlowe and Utterson kills him when Blake invades his home which changes Blake back to Marlowe. His story is still a tragedy as you see him realize his loss of humanity and how his idealism has brought him nothing in the end. Marlowe’s despair before his final transformation is very palpable.

The World – The world is great. It is dark and you have the feeling of mystery and loss of control from the beginning, when the antidote makes a cat crazy and Marlowe has to kill it, pretty much setting up his own end. The murders are dark and the shadows make it so the makeup does make Lee threatening in his Blake form. In this way it adds a lot to making it feel like a horror movie.

Cinematography – The cinematography is good, especially in how it is used to show Marlowe’s dilemma when he is alone and realizes he’s in over his head, or when Blake is hunting and his dark eyes, large teeth and gaunt face stand out in the shadows. This was a good horror technique and it gets the job done for establishing transformation. Moray Grant did fantastic.

Okay: The colleagues – Outside of Utterson the others don’t do all that much. They are there to disprove and one is a mentor and they have some good conversations all together at the beginning, but it’s never repeated again. For htis reason we don’t see the breakdown of the friendship done from the experiments, which is why I can’t list it as a pro. They just weren’t given enough to do.

The Ending – The ending wasn’t great. I never got why Blake decided he had to kill Utterson. It made no sense given that Utterson didn’t fully know that Blake was Marlowe and had stopped hunting for him. I would have liked to see more happen here. Why did he try and kill Utterson? What was driving Blake at that time? Was it Marlowe just wanting to die? I liked that there was a confrontation, but it should have been in the lab and Utterson should have witnessed the transformation of Marlowe into Blake.

     This was a good, but not great adaptation. It does more with the story in that we see Marlowe’s relationships with his colleagues and also the double life he lives as Blake, which in the book you don’t get to see as much. But so many character moments got left behind which is why I can’t call it great. Marlowe’s motivation is never fully established, Utterson just gives up, why Blake targets Utterson isn’t known and the relationship between Marlowe and Blake seems non-existent. It is still a solidly good film even with these plot issues. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing add dimension to the characters and that is what makes it rich beyond how it was filmed.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10. Given more than 8 since Lee and Cushing did a great job.

Nosferatu (1922): Visually Stunning But Not a Great Adaptation

Nosferatu

     As we get closer to Halloween I’ll be reviewing more films associated with the holiday (or Day of the Dead as well). We start with “Nosferatu” a film that is visually brilliant but not a great adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ll go into the reasons why in the assessment.

      The film was directed by F. W. Burnau, produced by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau and written by Henrik Galeen based of course on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

        The story mirrors Dracula with some characters changed or deleted (No Doctor Van Helsing) but the premise of the hero (in this case Thomas Hutter) is sent by his employer as he is a solicitor to sell the home nearby to Count Orlok. He leaves his wife Ellen behind to make the trip. He travels to Transylvania and people react in fear when he says where he is going. He meets the count and finds himself having nightmares and after the Count signs the contract of ownership over the home he prepares to travel to Wisborg all the while feeding off of Hutter. Hutter is left behind and has to make escape as Orlok heads to his hometown spreading “The Plague” along the way.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The world is lived in, you feel the desperation of the people and the plague feels very real. From bringing plague rats with him, to all the coffins that are in every area…whether Wisborg or Transylvania. You can see how Count Orlok and vampires fit into this world.

The Music – The film is a silent one and the orchestra does an amazing job showing emotions…from Thomas and Ellen’s joy together, to the horror of Orlok. Hans Erdmann did a fantastic job!

Cinematography – The visuals in this film are the best part besides the world and music, which is needed as the characters aren’t all that interesting. There are good uses of shading and shadows, especially when Orlok stalks his prey. This I think is what made Count Orlok such a memorable villain. Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf did a good job at creating great visuals.

Count Orlok – Max Schreck plays a very memorable monster, he is both visually scary with his large clawed hands and dark gaunt face and also has a very high body count. He has great power too and gets to Wisborg without needing a crew for the ship as he controls it with magic and Knock is his slave even before he arrives and is the one who is blamed by the townsfolk, keeping Orlok protected from suspicion. It takes a lot to bring him down, which I appreciated.

The Ending – The characters aren’t all that memorable…the couple is young love and you don’t get their motivations, and the Doctors are their simply for exposition and to make comparisons between other predators (venus fly traps, etc.) to Vampires. But in this Ellen saves the day. She lures Count Orlok out and he stays to feed on her leading to his demise as he is up until the dawn and the light kills him. I liked this twist as she was the only character who actually did anything and in Dracula the character she is based off is only there to be rescued.

Okay/Con: The Characters – The best way to describe the characters is one dimensional. They have a single desire and that is it. Knock wants money and later to serve Orlok, Ellen and Hutter want each other, the Doctors just want to study and later just stop the plague and even Orlok just wants blood. The thing is in the end the only active agents are Orlok and Ellen. Ellen figures out how to stop Orlok and Orlok just keeping reeking havoc. This is a pretty big issue as I would have cared more about Ellen’s sacrifice if I’d gotten to know her character more, I would have cared about the townspeople if I’d seen what it was they valued. You don’t really get any of that, which brings the film down.

     This is a classic horror film and it is worth checking out. It is not the best adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula as in the book and some other versions I’ve seen the characters have more than one dimension and I care about what happens to them…not so much for this film. It is worth it though for the music, cinematography and monster design. Count Orlok looks amazing as a monster and I can see why so many shows post this film have called upon his visuals for their monsters.

Final Score: 7 / 10. It was okay.