Part social satire, part morality tale and part horror film, “The Menu” mixes it’s ingredients in the right proportions to set a satisfying movie meal before you. If you think too hard about what it all means, you are probably committing some of the same offenses as one of the lead characters in this film. Be careful, you could end up in the sequel called “The Screening”. If you can just sit back and savor what is in front of you, you will enjoy it so much more. Then you can digest it for hours afterwards and come up with all the right adjectives to make your own dessert.
The trailer for the film seems to suggest that this is a variation of the Hunger Games with guests being hunted down by the staff. That scenario does occur for about three minutes of the film, but it is mostly misdirection. This is a story about a group of zealots, taking out their frustrations on what they see as deserving targets, before they themselves participate in their own version of the “Heaven’s Gate” event from nearly twenty five years ago. This time, the cult leader “Do” is replaced with the star Chef played by Ralph Fiennes. Chef Slowik is a lot more charismatic than the befuddled Marshall Applewhite, but he is no less deadly and utterly fierce in his convictions. There is an incident in the story to demonstrate how he feels no compunction over what he is planning, because he is taking blame for his faults as well. This scene helps set up the twist at the end because we learn that in spite of the narcissism that he is guilt of, he wants to reject the label of being “special”. A chink in the armor is revealed.
With flashes of brilliant absurdism, the conceit of an exclusive dining establishment, imposing a menu on the guests that reflect their vapidity works very well at providing opportunities for surprise. A gourmet take down of the guests with the denial of a standard part of the meal, provokes laughter at the haughty way it is imposed and the deconstructionist baloney that lets the guests accept it. This is followed by a true reveal of how insidious the evening is going to be with a shocking swipe at mere excellence, in a ugly joke perpetuated as a lost soul dies. The nature of the cultish thought process sinks in at this point and that is where the real horror begins.
Anya Taylor-Joy as the last minute replacement on the guest list, matches words with the Chef in an assertive manner that gets slapped down, at least until she discovers the way to a man’s heart is through his choice of cuisine. Nicholas Hoult as a preening foodie who laps up all of the experience as a member of a very different cult, also provides a huge amount of amusement by his words and actions. It is the early relationship between Hoult and Taylor-Joy that makes the set up so intriguing and at first funny. In the end though, It is her manipulation of inside knowledge and her understanding of the Chef, that makes the story soar at the end.
“The Menu” has plenty of other characters but they are used for very brief bits of business. The three corporate stooges who feel entitled by their positions, each offer a moment of levity, but the story never takes any of them seriously. The same is true of the other guests. They have some chances to get a laugh out of us, or joust unsuccessfully with the staff, but in the long run they are background for the main relationship of the film. The devious menu is capped off with a dessert that mocks the gourmet spirit of the guests and celebrates the mendacity of the Chef and his crew. It will also provide you with an hysterical visual joke to finish your meal with. “Bon appetite!”
[This post is nearly a decade old. It was written for Fogs Movie Reviews as part of my “Movies I Want Everyone to See” column. This week I participated in a Podcast featuring this film ,”Pop Art” and so I am republishing this now for the first time.]
I think everybody loves the idea of sitting around a campfire, a dark living room or driving at night in the car and listening to a spooky story. We have been trying to entertain one another since the first primitive man came back from the hunt and shared his tale of the day with the rest of the tribe. I suspect that the first ghost story told was by the next guy, who in trying to one up the hunter made his story more supernatural in nature and more interesting as a result. Ghost stories and horror pull us in because they show something that we would not want to encounter in real life but don’t mind living through vicariously. Movies have attempted to frighten audiences from the beginning. One of the most vivid images that people have of silent films is Max Schrek in Nosferatu walking out of the shadows and revealing the horror of a vampire. Universal Studios was built by the monsters they showed in their films. Monsters are not the only kind of horror that early film makers tried to exploit. Psychological terror is a subject of many early films. It was natural that at some point the process of telling the stories would become part of the story itself. That’s where anthology films began to show up and up the ante with each succeeding tale. “Dead of Night” is maybe the first well know horror anthology and it is a “Movie I Want Everyone to See”.
While not as frequent as they once were, horror anthologies continue to be made, “V/H/S” from last year being an example (and a film I have yet to see myself). All horror anthologies probably have “Dead of Night” to thank for creating a format and softening up audiences for a mixture of styles in telling the stories. This 1945 film had four different directors and a big variety of screen writers (including H.G. Wells who contributed the story that the humorous segment was based on). Each of the segments is told in a different style but all of them have a element of the supernatural to tie them together.
The film begins with the arrival of Walter Craig, an architect hired to do some renovations on a country manor, for a weekend visit. Mr. Craig has a serious case of deja vu that is quickly explained by him as coming from his dreams. He knows the layout of the house and the names of other guests before he even walks into the house for the first time. One of the other guests is a well know psychologist and it is the way in which the doctor tries to explain Craig’s dreams away that starts the interweaving story. Each guest tries to challenge the doctor’s explanations by providing a story of their own that may break the rationality of the psychological explanations. Thus we get five very different stories, each with a little something to appreciate.
The first to step up is a race car driver, who is still recovering from an accident that was a near death experience. He shares a
short but chilling story of forewarning that prevented him from being in a second deadly accident. The image of a horse drawn hearse appears to him and an avuncular driver smiles in a slightly friendly but also creepy manner and tells him, “There’s room for one more”. If you are a fan of the “Final Destination” series, you know that death is always knocking at the door and that it can’t be cheated for long. This story takes that as a premise sixty years before that series of films began. Tony Todd nods and winks in the first “Final Destination” film in almost exactly the same menacing way that the driver does in this movie, that is not a coincidence. “I’ll see you later” is an echo heard sixty five years later.
The transition segments back at the country house are not always smooth or closely tied to the stories that the guests share. That awkwardness is rarely noticeable because “Dead of Night” is paced so quickly in the transition scenes that we are moved to the following story almost immediately. This film is indirectly a haunted house film and the second story makes that connection a little stronger. The youngest visitor at the house is a teenage girl. She confronts the psychologist with her own unexplainedexperience. A couple of times in my own blog, I have mentioned how ghost children seem to be a touchstone for horror films. This movie has such a story. It is not as immediately scary as the twins in “The Shining” but it has the benefit of being based on an actual murder. The resolution of the original case is said to have inspired detective fiction beginning with Sherlock Holmes. This segment also takes place at a Christmas party so if you are ever looking for another film to fit your annual Christmas list of movies, you can cheat a bit and throw this one in as a choice.
Haunted mirrors are the subject of the most intense story in the film. Horror stories are filled with examples of people seeing something in a mirror that is not there when they turn around. Mirrors are also used to give contemporary films a “boo” moment so often that it has become a cliche. In the segment here, we don’t get that kind of a scare, instead we are treated to an early kind of a possession story. It is the easiest one for the doctor to explain away with his theories of how the mind works. The bit here is a melodramatic interlude and it builds the tension of the movie up pretty well. Modern audiences will see what is coming but if you look at it from the perspective of an audience in 1945, it will be a bit more of a surprise.
In the 1983 “Twilight Zone Movie”, Joe Dante’s segment had a supernatural twist but it was largely played for laughs. That was the case in 1945 as well with a salacious ghost story involving golf. Two best friends who have devoted their lives to golf, suddenly fall for the same woman. Between the three of them, they agree to a match that will resolve the dilemma as to who gets the girl. When the loser drowns himself in the water hazard at their club everything seems to be resolved. Of course that is not the case. The ghost of the best friend arrives in time to haunt the upcoming wedding and honeymoon. By divine rule he must be no more than six feet from the man he is haunting and that will make the bridal suite a little uncomfortable. This section is filled with British “good show” and sportsmanship until the issue of cheating comes up. If you don’t think a golfer’s devotion to the sport can be funny or that a woman should be treated like a tournament prize, then this segment may not appeal to you. This was the segment that H.G. Wells contributed. It has the least consistently eery atmosphere of all sections of the film. In fact, this segment was excised from the original American release of the movie because it was so different from the rest of the movie. I suspect it was placed in the original spot in the film to give the audience a bit of a break before launching into the darkness of the stories that finish off the movie.
The psychologist now shares his own story, one that comes close to making him accept that supernatural events can occur. The most famous segment of the film is the multiple personality thriller featuring Michael Redgrave. He plays Max Frere, the sensational ventriloquist entertaining in a posh Parisian nightclub. An American with the same vocation tracks him down to watch his act and discovers that the dummy in the act is the one wearing Frere’s face. The idea of a ventriloquist losing himself in his art is so effective that it served as the basis of not just one but two Twilight Zone episodes. Another Shakespearean
actor will follow Redgrave’s path thirty five years later when Anthony Hopkins can’t make “Fats” shut up for five minutes. The psychologist is called in to consult on the case and he sees something that becomes the most complex personality issue he ever had to deal with, at least to that point in the story. The lighting of the vent dummy Hugo, and the obnoxious patter that isn’t really an act are the highlights of this macabre tale.
Classic horror from the past often relies on mood rather than shock. It was rare that any blood got spilled. That is not the case in subsequent anthologies. “The House That Dripped Blood”, “Creepshow”, “Tales From The Darkside” and others have put more than their fair share of crimson on the screen. They all follow a tradition however, that frightened our grandparents and great grandparents with hardly anything more than an idea. The final “tie up” of the story, is most horrifying because of it’s apparent inevitability. Every opportunity to break out of the “stranglehold” of the story is defeated by a piece of logic that we ultimately see was a mistake. When the denouncement arrives it might seem like old hat to modern audiences but it was as fresh in 1945 as “Memento” was in 2000. If a modern audience can have the patience required and recognize that acting styles that are older are not automatically invalid, then you are likely to enjoy adding “Dead of Night” to the list of films you saw before you died.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California and now Texas. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A D
In Case you missed it above, here is the link to the Pop Art Podcast
Faced with the loss of their charismatic and talented lead actor, the team at the Marvel Studios was faced with a crisis of huge proportions. Do they recast the part or do they find another way to proceed with one of the most important surviving character lines after the pinnacle of Endgame? I think most fans who see this will agree they made the right choice. By acknowledging the death of T’Challa and creating a new path to becoming the “Black Panther”, they have cleared the way for new stories on this path while still respecting the legacy that Chadwick Boseman had helped to create. Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole have handled the transition gracefully. There are still issues with the film but none of those will diminish the memory we have of our original Panther star.
The movie does have an interesting perspective with a political angle that will sound familiar as we go along. Wakanda has lost it’s King and his guilt ridden sister is angry at the world and herself. The Queen seems to rule with confidence but is struggling to show her daughter a way to grieve that will strengthen her rather than weaken her. There are some good action scenes that surround an attempt by other nations to obtain access to the resource vibranuim , the source of Wakanda’s power. Queen Romanda, has a stronger case than Colin Powell was able to make, since they present the captured mercenaries to the U.N. in person. Her warning to the world reveals that she has a steel backbone and a sense of righteousness to go with it. Angela Bassett has the kind of dialogue in this scene that should launch a thousand memes.
It does not give away anything to say that a new power appears on the scene with some legitimate gripes about how the late King T’Challa has created a problem for their world. Namor, the ruler of the undersea kingdom of Talokan, has a spine as unbending as Romanda, and the two powers find confrontation in the ultimatum, because a moral choice has to be made. Shuri, the princess of Wakanda chooses an ethical path at first, but manipulation and deception are required to free herself and an innocent scientist from captivity, and the consequences trigger a moral crisis. The fact that Wakanda is not a colonial power per se gives them some perceived high ground in the clash between the rest of the world and Wakanda, but that position seems shaky when Talokan enters the picture and the Wakandans react the way any powerful nation must with a display of power of their own. As with many grievances between nations, there is a valid point of view on most sides, but resolving the differences requires diplomacy which is not enhanced by belligerence. Everyone gets to suffer a bit in the process.
Vibranium has been the McGuffin in other MCU plots and that is one of the drawbacks for me. Although it makes perfect sense that it would be a continuing issue, as the power stones were for the Avenger’s movies, it feels a little tired. The scientist who creates a tool for locating the resource in potential underwater locations, is of course a young student, far in advance of her own instructors and not able to realize the dangers of her own work. This is a trope of dozens of stories, and the fact that she becomes the plot driving device also seems to be a bit old. However the action scenes involving her kidnapping, second kidnapping and subsequent rescue, are all solid moments for a comic style action film. I do have a complaint about the look of the movie. In these days of high definition, it is a regular occurrence that stories take place in the dark. More than two thirds of this film take place underwater, or at night, rendering several dim sequences that just look washed out. Apparently, this was also shot for 3D presentations and lighting for that effect frequently contributes to a less than stellar sharpness to the images.
Namor as an antagonist is convincing and strong, with some self justifying principles. When he leads the final confrontation and the way to defeat him is basically a giant hair dryer, that power seems less intimidating. It’s as if retreating to Death Valley would solve Wakanda’s problems with Talokan. It was not clear to me how the lakes and rivers of Africa would give a sea based power access to a landlocked nation, but that is just comic book exposition that does not matter much. On the podcast this week, we heard an interesting perspective on the original Black Panther, and many of the issues raised by that point of view are addressed by this film. I will say however that if you think that Killmonger’s solution was the appropriate one, you have given up the high moral ground and accepted the notion that “might makes right” which is the antithesis of the story. Replacing one imperial power with another is not a good solution. Shuri has to learn that lesson as well, and that is the real journey of this plot.
The DCEU has struggled to make the same sort of impact as the MCU has managed. They have a deep bench of characters to draw on, but the folks behind the scenes have not managed to find a tone, story-line or believable connections between the characters. The Justice League movie, turned into an awkward amalgam of stories and the resurrected Snyder Cut, while having some promise , still felt bloated and not much has been done with it since. “The Flash” movie has been hobbled with the problems surrounding the star, and the only emotionally satisfying film that they produced was the surprisingly lighthearted “Shazam!“. “Black Adam” is a project that Dwayne Johnson was committed to and the decision was made to separate it from it’s roots in the “Shazam!” sequel and make it it’s own thing.
This is a film that feels very much in the style of the “Aquaman” movie. It is a CGI heavy, action film filled with creative imagery but so much background exposition that it feels more convoluted than it really is. Teth Adam is the slave infused with the powers of the gods, who was almost immediately put into a prison for 5000 years. It takes us a while to discover the dark back story that fuels his rage and makes him a danger to the rest of the world when he is released, using the same command that brings forth “Shazam!”. The imaginary history of the Kingdom of Kahndaq forms the background of an origin story which takes up a chunk of the first part of the film. No one bothers to create a backstory for the other superheroes in the film. I’m not familiar with the Justice Society of America, or the two leaders of that group that appear in this film Dr. Fate and Hawkman. I got their character pretty quickly without those introductions and then we get two additional younger characters to fill out the team that is supposed to confront this character that apparently Amanda Waller knows about before he was even revived. She seems to be in charge of the Justice Society, I guess it is the counterpart to the Suicide Squad.
I enjoyed the superheroes relationship, in large part because Pierce Brosnan and Aldis Hodge sell it pretty well. There are occasional humorous bits with the character Atom Smasher, who feels like an Ant-Man substitute. The character of Cyclone is not as interesting as her powers are, and she is underused in the film which is too bad because there is potential there that is just wasted. The non-empowered humans are only important occasionally, with Anon, the skateboarding juvenile protagonist being both charming and annoying. For every moment that we want to root for him, he has a sense of self awareness that just feels cartoonish, which doesn’t quite work here. Anon’s Mother and Uncle are instigators, but after saving the Uncle, his character disappears from the film for most of the rest of the story.
Dwayne Johnson does have to carry the movie however and he succeeds well. This may be the most stoic I’ve seen him in a film. I don’t remember his trademark arched eyebrow showing up at all, and he is stingy with his smile, using it mostly in sarcastic moments rather than in any warmth. Clearly his physique and face are the acting tools he is using in this film, and sometimes he gets a little lost in all the CGI. The goal of keeping him as an anti-hero is largely met, although the finish of the film with a threat and a challenge from Waller feels like piling on. Most of that though pays off in the mid credit sequence that is trying to tie the films together and set up a future confrontation.
Black Adm is perfectly acceptable but it does seem to be more standard than groundbreaking. I’m not sure that it is the gamechanger that Johnson and the folks in charge of the DCEU want it to be. Frankly, I’m more excited by the “Shazam!” sequel which got pushed back then I am at the prospect of a second film in this series. It will happen I am sure because even though comic book fatigue may be a real thing, they seem to be the only kinds of films with the reliability that theaters need.
So I had this idea a while back, and I thought I would follow through on it, unlike so many ideas I have. I went back through the site, and picked out two films for each of the last ten years, that my memory barely contained. I was looking for movies that I recalled as enjoying and those that I did not care for, with the proviso that I have not really seen the films again since that viewing in a theater. Without looking at what I wrote, I selected the films and designated them “Worthy” or “Worthless”.
Now it’s time to look back and see if my memory has completely failed me, or if I was right all along. There are links to each of the reviews and I invite you to tell me that I have lost it, or that I should not worry too much about early onset memory loss. Have fun.
We are Fourteen Films into this Franchise, and you would think that the screenwriter and director David Gordon Green would do his best to get it right, given that this purports to be the finale. I’m afraid he doesn’t, and in fact is so off the mark that it is irritating. “Halloween Ends” probably won’t be the end of these films, but it should be. The desire to keep using the tropes that John Carpenter practically invented is not going to disappear, but it is clear that knowing the language of these films is not the same as being able to speak it.
I had skipped the last film, “Halloween Kills” until this week, when I watched it for the Lookback Podcast I was planning. Had I seen it before, I probably would have skipped this movie and the lookback as well, because it is not good. There would be no rescue with the current film, it is much like it’s predecessor, an attempt to approach the concept of the film from a different perspective, and failing miserably in the process. At least the first in this trilogy kept the focus on Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. “Ends” attempts to turn this into an origin story for an alt Boogeyman, but does so without any grace or sense of feeling for the very subject it wants to be exploring, “evil”.
There is a smashingly effective prologue that does get us emotionally invested. The character of Corey Cunningham starts off as a tragic but sympathetic figure, who could have been integrated into the story in some interesting ways but instead is turned into a PTSD knockoff of a central figure in the film series. The phrase “evil eye” is taken a little too literally by writers Green, Logan, Bernier and McBride and the movie switches from the nature of evil to a contagion film like “It Follows” or “Smile“. Both of those films never quite explain why the horror is passed on, but they still are more convincing than what happens in this story. Let’s just say, four years of hibernation in a sewer, dining on rats, is not a convincing way to turn someone into a Mesmer.
I was initially taken by Cory and his budding relationship with Allyson, Laurie’s grand-daughter, but both characters start acting out of the framework that has been created for them. It is as if another story is intruding on the promising character development and taking the plot in a direction that will lead to mayhem but be completely unsatisfying. Jamie Lee is forced to bounce back and forth between the character she was in the 2018 film, and the one she was in the original. Sometimes she is in denial and sometimes she is a realist. How she becomes a crystal ball, able to tell what is happening when no one else seems to know is not very clear. I like Will Patton as an actor, and I like his character, but he was supposed to be dead in the 2018 film and he lingers around the periphery of this story just to give us some hope for Laurie, he is wasted in this film.
There is no logic to the way secondary characters react to Laurie either. Some are sympathetic and still view her as a hero, while others seem to blame her for what happened for no reason at all. This feels like a thread from “Kills” but one that is not very strong and not essential to the plot. Like Patton’s Frank, it is also unclear how some of these people are alive after the first two movies. Two characters are picked at random for “Michael 2.0” to kill, and they are stalked in an amazing house that feels like it should be in the Hollywood Hills rather than in rural Haddonfield. The connection to Allyson seems important early on, but now it feels like a deliberate premediated act rather than a random Michael Myers slaughter. The inconsistencies in the story and characters just get infuriating after a while.
There is a lot of exposition provided by Laurie, supposedly writing her book out loud, and it sounds like it is trying to make a profound point but it is mostly gibberish, which demeans the character and antagonizes the audience even more. The best that can be said for this film is that there are some murders that are kind of interesting, but not memorable enough to make the story worth telling, much less having anything to say about evil.
What is it that happens when you get all the parts you need for a great movie, and it just won’t come together? Did the director fit things together incorrectly, did the actors blow it and not commit to the parts? Maybe the score just doesn’t fit with the tone. A chef can tell you that having the right ingredients is not all you need for a perfect dish, and “Amsterdam” is a good example of that metaphor being correct. If you look at all the parts separately, it sounds like it is going to be great. Somewhere in the process of assembling it, something went wrong. The film is not bad, it’s just not good.
I frequently use comparisons in my reasoning about a film because the things that I make comparison to should be familiar to the reader and help them understand the points I am trying to make. When people say “you shouldn’t compare things”, I get their point, a thing should be judged on what it is, the problem is that you can’t always figure out what something is without a comparable product. So allow me to make a comparison for you now that I think will help. “Amsterdam” feels like a Wes Anderson film without looking like a Wes Anderson film. There are kooky characters, outrageous scenarios, humorous quips and asides, and a great collection of actors, but there is not the same frenetic energy, warm color palate, and quirky visual detail to distract you from potential flaws in the storytelling. This movie wants to be embraced as an eccentric comedy, but it is just not warm and fuzzy enough, and it is trying too hard to be those things.
Writer/Director David O. Russell is a talented film maker, but his script here attempts to turn a historical incident into a major threat, although the incident was viewed by many as a hoax, cocktail plotting, and a big laugh. If the real people involved were anything like the characters in this film, we’d have even less to have worried about because of incompetence. If we overlook the real events, and just accept that this is a story inspired by those events, I suppose it would be more palatable, so I will do that. The premise now becomes that “Jules and Jim” prevented the overthrow of the U.S. government by fascist industrialists who admired Mussolini and Hitler. I suppose this might seem relevant to anyone who took the nutjobs of January 6 seriously, but otherwise it is an indulgence to make us laugh.
The thing I find so disappointing is that I did laugh at things happening in the film, but they had little to do with the plot. Christian Bale spends half his time making puns and quips that are entertaining enough, but they can’t compete with the visual jokes that come from his glass eye. When it starts looking around independently of what the character is doing, it was hysterical. John David Washington has no real flair for comedy in this film, undermining what goodwill might have followed from “BlacKkKlansman”. Margot Robbie feels like she is reprising Harley Quinn, just less obviously. All of them seem on screen to think what they are doing is a hoot, although much of the time it is just spinning wheels going nowhere. Robert DeNiro’s deliberate manner and clipped way of delivering his lines as General Dillenbeck, also emphasizes how the movie wants us to see humor in things that are not particularly funny.
I enjoyed the movie as a minor work by some talented film makers, but they all seem to be putting in energy that is not paying off in the way they want it to. It’s hard to say what does not work, but I can say that some of it did, just not enough for me to encourage anyone to add this to their list.
Ninety plus years later and these films continue to work. Sure they are a little creaky around the edges and the story telling and acting feels like it is from a different time, but there is still horror to be had and fantastic moments to revel in.
The Universal Monsters are the classic horror films that so many fans of scary movies were initiated with. As a seven year old you maybe hid your face under a blanket as you peeked out at Bela Lugosi in the TV screen, or maybe you had a nightmare featuring Frankenstein’s Monster tossing you into the lake. The iconic images of those films are the default icons of horror fans, even more that Ghostface and Jason.
The first film on the program was “The Mummy” from 1932. Boris Karloff had become a star the year before with the original “Frankenstein” and as a result, he was top billed and promoted as the feature attraction ion this film. Imhotep is not the image of the Mummy that most people will remember. Later films featured the fully bandaged leg dragging mummy strangling people, but in this movie, that incarnation of the creature is only briefly viewed, never walking and we don’t see it do anything more than drive a man mad. When Karloff shows up late as Ardeth Bay, his make up is more subtle but no less creepy. Even 90 years later, the light effects on his eyes work at creating a sense of evil and power, despite being a primitive special effect.
Production design on the film sets was pretty effective, conveying a sense of being in an Egyptian Museum or Tomb. while it is really just the back lot. The pool that reflects the history of Imhotep looks great when the foggy clouds roll over it but once the scene begins, it looks like a TV set, twenty years before TV sets became widely available. The plot however is nicely visualized and we get some great exposition with only a slight amount of narration by Karloff.
During the five minute break between the films, we got a countdown clock and a slide show of lobby cards, posters and Behind the Scene photographs of the film. It was a nice little treat.
The second feature on this Special Halloween screening is the beloved “Bride of Frankenstein”. This is the James Whale Masterpiece that made the creature the most sympathetic character on the screen. There is some effective editing of material from the original into the flashback exposition and that reminds us just enough of what had happened in the previous film. The most delightful part of the opening however is the imagined conversation between Lord Byron, Shelly and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Elsa Lancaster gets to appear in the film without the bride make-up in this sequence, and her story is the one that casts the spell for us. The flourish that Lord Byron provides is amusing and it frames the story as a real moment of theatricality.
The character actors in the movie steal every scene they are in, Uno O’Conner screams her way to immortality, Dwight Frye is creepy and funny as Karl, the murderer who supplies the body parts for the experiment, and of course, Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius outshines the two romantic leads who we never get a chance to care much about.
Karloff is the star, and even under the heavy make-up he gives a performance for the ages. Although the monster does speak a few words, the performance is largely silent and Karloff conveys fright, anger and pathos with his whole body, and he is never relying on the iconic voice that would make him an actor in demand for his whole life. You lovers of Dr. Seuss will know what I am talking about. The sequence that was parodied by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein, with the blind man making friend with the monster is a master class in acting by Karloff. Everyone in the audience is going to sympathize with the creature after this sequence in spite of all the murder that came before.
If there is a co-star the equal of Karloff in this film it is the production designers. They make miniature castles and mansions so appealing on screen. The laboratory is filled with equipment that is invented for this film and some items that did exist in the real world are adapted to the moment. The photography uses shadows and light to make each moment visually special. The sparks fly and the wind blows and the faces gleam in the carefully placed lighting. The whole creation scene is just spectacular. It is a shame that the title character has so little screen time, but as story efficiency goes, the climax of the movie does not draw things out and it is incredibly satisfying.
October has arrived, and with it, the start of the spooky season on-screen. We get a pretty good one to lead off in “Smile”. Basically, this is a contagion story, like “The Ring” or “IT Follows”. Some mysterious force is passing along a curse that is leading to the death of those who end up in it’s path. For ninety percent of the film, it sticks to this concept and the horror is based on creeping psychological moments and disturbing deaths that follow those moments. It is only in the last few minutes that it turns into a creature feature and loses track of what was working so well up to then.
The cast is made up of familiar faces from television, and they all do a credible job selling their moments. Sosie Bacon comes across as a sincere therapist who has the job of trying to help a disturbed young woman who is having bizarre paranoid vision. Her early calm demeanor and sympathetic face make what happens in the course of the film more horrifying. We know that this is a good person who is having something terrible take over her life. The fact that what happens is largely depicted as her own psyche falling to pieces is what makes the story compelling. It is a trope in these kinds of movies, that the victims come across as disturbed, which is why their explanations of supernatural origin are dismissed. You would think that a psychology professional would be able to get around that and speak to others in a way that is more rational and convincing. When the patient is yourself, it is not so easy.
There are a few death scenes that account for part of the horror in the film. The initial suicide is plenty disturbing, although the medical professional’s call for help should have been responded to quicker, the slow execution of the moment makes it visually compelling. Other deaths are mostly suggested and displayed in brief forms. The truth is that this film gets most of it’s horror impulse from jump scares, scattered throughout the movie. The jump scare is a cheap tactic but when it works, the impact on the audience can be quite chilling. There were two that worked on me, and one of them gave me the kind of shiver deep down that we really want from a horror film.
An important component of the plot is that the witness to the death must be traumatized by it for the contagion to take hold. We know from early on that Dr. Cotter, the character played by Bacon, witnessed her own Mother’s suicide after having been neglected as a child. She is in essence suffering from a survivor’s form of PTSD. The interactions with her sister and fiance are good opportunities for us to have insight into how the long term suffering is masking the current crisis. We know also, that she has had a failed relationship in the past because of these issues. The best parts of the movie deal with the tender way she is trying to hold it together in the current situation, and how she is failing at doing so.
Because it is a movie and not just a play, we are going to get some visual representations of those inner thoughts, and that is a tip off from early on that we cannot trust the things that we are seeing. Sometimes they are presented as nightmares, or daydreams, but there are a couple of extended points that are fake outs and undermine the audience’s ability to identify with the character. In the climax, we get a visualization of the traumatic id that turns the end of the movie into a monster story rather than a psychological thriller. It’s a pretty good visualization but it feels unnecessary and I thought it detracted from the ultimate finishing moment.
In spite of a few missteps, the movie largely succeeds at being frightening, thoughtful and entertaining. There were some nice scary moments and the film takes the time to let the pressure build. I’d say it is a reasonably good start to the Halloween onslaught of horror. Enjoy your goosebumps this month.