Monday, 23 August 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Neither the outright disaster I expected nor a good movie, Louis Leterrier's remake of the semi-classic 1980 Desmond Davis-helmed tale is yet another example of contemporary cinema’s marvellous grasp on technical accomplishment and ever-waning capacity to tell a decent story. Presenting in essence a synopsised version of the original’s plot, culled from classical legend but festooned with new story gimmicks that serve little real function, and a lot of expensive spectacle, Leterrier drives pell-mell with barely a breath taken for characterisation, romance, or mood.

Gone is the initial annihilation of Argos, and Perseus’s journeying to Phoenician Joppa. The dualistic rivalry of Perseus and Calibos has been reconfigured into a bifurcated war against vengeful patriarchs (an interesting new theme in reboots, after The Wolfman), as Perseus defies both his deity sire Zeus (Liam Neeson) and his nominal Earthly father Acrisius (Jason Flemyng), who is, in this version, the stricken mortal remade as Calibos. Simultaneously, an interesting but breathlessly hurried subplot entails Hades’ (Ralph Fiennes) plotting to take over from Zeus as lord of Olympus, manipulating a crisis of faith and trust between the Gods and humankind to force Zeus into unleashing the Kraken, a monster which will unwittingly feed Hades' power.

Such a boldly reconfigured mythology could have presented a wealth of possibility, especially as the film pays thematic tribute less to the zesty romance of the 1981 film than to the more cynical themes of Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) in explicitly using mythology to portray the development of human individualism in the face of archaic power and duty. And yet the urge to render the schematic moralism in more familiar Manichean terms doesn’t seem to comprehend the ethos of Greek mythology at all. Other Gods are barely even acknowledged, both visually – they’re mostly hazily perceptible on the edges of the frame whilst Neeson and Fiennes rant and hiss – and also metaphorically. Eros and Aphrodite have no hope of making an impression on a film that been rendered as dourly macho as this one.

The metaphysics are not really much more than window dressing on a film that works best on the level of a ‘50s B-movie, full of flashy stunts and colourful, indeed wonderful, sets and costuming. That it does hang together in the end is largely due to Leterrier’s optical pyrotechnics. He and his filmmaking crew have expended such a great amount of money and craft on presenting a dazzling mythical Greece. Leterrier does, to his credit, attempt to construct a sense of comraderie between the pick-up band that is Perseus’s mob of helpmates, including rugged old Argos warriors Draco (Mads Mikkelsen, amazingly wasted) and Solon (Liam Cunningham), a grotesque Djinn, and Io (Gemma Arterton), a cursed immortal detailed to advise and guide Perseus, and to whom he begins to possibly, sort of, maybe, kind of, distantly feels attracted to. The film’s embarrassing wetness about any kind of man-woman thing extends to performing a wholesale trash-job on the myth’s union of Perseus and Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), the princess whose sacrifice to the Kraken Perseus is attempting to forestall. His relationship with Io is instead emphasised, and there’s a moment when they seem about to, you know, kiss, or something.

Io’s presented as a more fitting mate for Perseus because she is like him no ordinary human, but also because she, unlike Andromeda must finally be, is not defined by passive willingness to be eaten. It’s hard to tell if this is a function of feminist parable or Leterrier’s unawareness of anything that doesn’t fit into his action-man sense of the universe. Arterton, a supple, unforced screen presence, does manage to inhabit Io with a quiet, unexpectedly soft and seductive kind of plucky fight and moral strength, but Leterrier’s awkward editorial grammar, cutting to random shots of her away from group shots of his boy’s club, merely confirms visually what is already apparent: she’s been tacked on. But then again, that’s also true of Calibos, who makes random appearances to cause trouble. Worthington, as Perseus, works up a fair level of low-key soul and down-to-earth sympathy, but he’s conspired against by a dourly conceived variety of mythic hero. There’s so many competing pressures to keep his character a 10-year-old boy’s ideal of manly cool that he’s frozen almost into immobility.

Worse yet, Letterier screws up the basic motifs of the story. Perseus no longer has to tame Pegasus; the winged horse just turns up when needed. Perseus’s resistance to using Zeus’s gifts, and his sheer irritable arrogance in the face of the heavens, saps the inherent wonder and mystery. He is given a magic fold-up sword, which he avoids using as long as possible, but he has to be provided with a shield on the run, made from the armour of one of the giant scorpions he and his fellows have to kill along the way, making the later use of it to reflect Medusa’s reflection defiantly illogical. The actual confrontation with the Medusa is staged like a video game, and most of the cast of characters, whom the film has taken some trouble to set up, are casually dispatched therein. Before venturing into the Medusa’s lair, Mikkelsen mentions how his kid sister was sacrificed to the Gorgon, a detail which comes from nowhere and leads us nowhere, only serving a kind of vestigial need for motivation. Even Leterrier’s more ambitious visuals smack of the derivative: the three Stygian Witches and Charon are obviously patterned after Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy/Pan’s Labyrinth creations, and cut-and-paste flourishes from other fantasy franchises are likewise constantly in evidence.

I’ve tried not to compare too much to the 1981 film, which, although far less well-produced and polished than this work, is nonetheless much broader in scope and emotional and sensual in quality. After all these comments, this Clash of the Titans probably sounds like a worthless film, and yet it does have qualities that stand on their own. The decision to cut out some of the more twee, kiddie-crowd-pandering refrains of the older film, like Bubo the mechanical owl, helps render the tone more even, but there's not much humour to take his place: when Bubo did turn up in a rather contemptuous cameo, I actually found myself missing his clunky charm afterwards. The motif of the human race rendered as a wooden statuettes which the gods manipulate like toys is retained, but barely utilised, until one late moment when the Kraken’s marauding causes dozens to be dislodged from their nooks and fall flaming to the ground – an inspired image. The good acting by a committed, excellent, but ill-used cast does a lot to make the film more compelling than it ought to be, particularly Fiennes’ hoarsely disdainful Hades.

It’s certain Leterrier never comes close to capturing the impact of most of the model film’s enduring set-pieces, which made up in flavour and vividness what they lacked in sophistication. Nonetheless, particularly in the epic-scaled finale, in which Perseus has to avoid not only the Kraken but Hades’ harpy-like minions and religious fanatics in trying to bring the Medusa’s head to bear on the colossal monster, this does possess a visual lustre and enthusiasm of staging that’s worthy of respect. Then Leterrier despoils his achievement by having Andromeda and Perseus fall into the sea and wash up apparently miles away a couple of moments later. The cumulative result is a film that bewilders in its simultaneous gusto and shoddiness.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979)

Long consigned to the status of shadowy misfire besides the zippier action-adventure series that the Star Trek film franchise evolved into, Star Trek – The Motion Picture stands, for me, in fascinating contrast in both purpose and reflexes to J.J. Abrams’ popular 2009 reboot. Abrams’ film utilised the tools, tropes, and familiar figures of Gene Roddenberry’s epochal creation to construct a sci-fi adventure film, with rapid-fire pseudo-scientific exposition and vast genre concepts offered, in essence, to decorate that modest genre film. Little sense of scientific or moral curiosity or sense of wonder, beyond the most functional, is overtly apparent or necessary in Abrams’ film: even planetary genocide becomes mere plot element. Star Trek – The Motion Picture, on the other hand, is entirely about those qualities, and it was, and is, generally denigrated for stressing such values over flashier pleasures. Yet Robert Wise, by this point in his career an old master of big-budget studio filmmaking, inherited a project that had proven something of a poisoned chalice in the period after Star Wars initially changed the rulebook for big-screen sci-fi.

The film that finally resulted channeled one major strand of the TV series’ lexicon of basic plots: dissemination of the nature of life and sentience, and a sense of awe at the scale of universal possibility, twinned to a central, Rod Serling-esque parochial irony. At a time when the rest of the Starfleet is elsewhere engaged, a colossal energy field disguising some variety of super-sophisticated vessel advances towards Earth, swallowing hapless Klingons and space stations in its path. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), having been promoted to Admiral and having been kept away from active duty for several years, enthusiastically uses the crisis as an opportunity to take command of his old ship, the USS Enterprise, which has just completed a total refit and still needs many bugs shaken out, to go and meet the enigma. To do so, he has to step on the toes of his younger, blander replacement as Captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and a series of accidents and contrivances draws his former shipmates Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Felly) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) back into the fold.

Wise’s later career had developed a recurring theme engaging man’s relationship to technology. It’s there in Steve McQueen’s relationship with his engine in The Sand Pebbles (1966), and in the grandiose but finally entrapping medical centre in The Andromeda Strain (1970), and even in the stately, doomed glory of the The Hindenburg (1975). It’s tempting to say this was a natural offshoot of Wise’s respect for craft, and partly a pragmatic response to his late-career drift into expensive productions, trying to squeeze the most possible use out of the hefty production infrastructure such movies saddled him with. But this motif also sits comfortably with his long interest in ghost-in-the-machine narratives: the arrant mechanism that throws a plan, a great project, into disarray, the unknowable human factor in the coolly organised system, is apparent even in the psychological horror of The Body Snatcher (1945). Something like a techno-fetishism is inherent here in the lingering scene in which Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) surveys his newly-refitted former home, the Enterprise, with almost erotic longing; later, the film inverts the motif by substituting the distractingly beautiful ship’s navigator Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta, certainly the sexiest bald woman in the history of cinema, although her performance is only adequate, and her subsequent life was rather tragic) for an even more distractingly dressed roboticised replica; and the very conclusion involves the creation of a new life-form through the irreducible blending of the organic and the technological. The Enterprise is at first jittery to the point of being deadly: a transporter accident kills two officers, and a later engine imbalance creates a wormhole that nearly sends the ship careening into an asteroid. Kirk’s usual instinctive sense of how to deal with problems is failing him in his need to push events. He needs Spock, interlocutor of the human and alien, inspecifically spiritual and archly scientific, to solve the problem.

Spock himself is introduced in an atmospheric sequence on Vulcan in which the intrusion of the alien vessel into his consciousness defeats his efforts to totally purge emotion amongst the stygian, titan-littered landscape of his homeland, looking for all the world like a lost character from Kung Fu. His standing between the sentient yet totally insensitive alien, which calls itself V’ger, and the reactive, intransigent Kirk presents another enigma at first, in his detachment and overriding need to reach the alien, suggesting the possibility to Kirk and McCoy that his desire to meet V’ger, which exists as a proof of an ultimate logic, might supersede loyalty to the crew. An interesting note Wise attempts to sustain is the initial failure of the comradeship associated with the familiar characters and the new personnel on board exacerbates a brittle, alienated tension. If it’s a homecoming for the crew of the Enterprise, there are initial signs the family has turned dysfunctional. Shatner’s performance, much more terse and guarded than usual, sets the scene for this, and Nimoy’s distanced, craggy severity extends it most effectively.

Yet Spock's journey brings him to a point of recognising the necessity of fellowship and emotion as the values that makes existence bearable, by mind-melding with the alien and learning of its desolate, existential crisis in being a living entity without any capacity for life. V’ger reveals itself to be an expression of yearning: the very core of the massive craft proves to be a paltry ancient piece of technology, a Voyager space probe sent out by Earth to collect data, transformed by a distant, purely mechanical civilisation into a gigantic, super-sophisticated galactic rover that’s become sentient purely by experience, and yet one which cannot escape its basic programming, so its return to Earth is a search for its Creator. Unable to recognise humans as life like itself, proposes to annihilate all such entities to free what it supposes its Creator to be from their rule. It would be a mistake to characterise where all this leads as profound, as it’s all wrapped up in that kind of all’s-well-that-ends-well homily that defined the series, but it does at least keep at its heart a vital sense of curiosity and iridescent possibility. The climactic images of Decker and Ilia entwined by jism-like plasma, transforming along with V’ger through a new kind of sex act into a supra-cyborg that transcends all previous concepts, possesses a kinky, poetic, epic lustre that no entry in the series later dared.

As a story, and a way of telling a story, Star Trek – The Motion Picture bears innate relationship to narrative progression of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and especially The Andromeda Strain as a threat is investigated with cool yet fraying interest by intelligent minds, and the threat proves, if not illusory, but partly misunderstood, and acts of apocalyptic destruction have to be forestalled. Wise therefore brought a coherent sensibility to the handful of science-fiction films he made. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is hard to ignore, too. His stately pacing here, so often criticised for slowness, nonetheless attempts to carefully condition a sense of space as mystery, as an expanse of awe and unknowable truth, and an understated yet grandiose kind of tension builds as the film, and the Enterprise, near their destination: Wise’s grip on spectacle is hypnotic in the scenes in which the Enterprise enters and explores the interior of V'ger. That Wise's sensibility meshed with Roddenberry’s in this regard, too, is fortuitous: for both men, the idea, and act, of solving a mystery was inherently intriguing, and the act of emotive rationality finally paramount. The lusher, jauntier, more mythic but less awesome sensibility that Nicholas Meyer and Nimoy brought to their subsequent instalments was more flat-out enjoyable, but finally less intriguing.

Whilst, then, it’s a better film than it generally gets credit for, and an eminently entertaining one, Star Trek – The Motion Picture still fails to work at maximum capacity. The structure doesn’t allow much space to explore the dynamics of a group of once-inseparable comrades rediscovering their vital relationship, and the newer characters don't get much space either. The stiff distractedness of the early scenes is compounded by weirdly uneven special effects by Douglas Trumbull. There's a distinct whiff of unintentional camp value in the scenes where Decker tries to reach the buried human remnant in Ilia’s double, who's returned to the ship wearing a mini-skirt bathrobe and glass slippers, and the "special guest star" nature of his and Khambatta's roles suggests something akin to The Love Boat in Space. Not helping is the drab look of the film, like the amusingly hideous unisex costuming. Many members of the old cast, like Walter Koenig’s Chekhov and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura, were kept virtually in dry dock for the duration. Ironically, the film really only hits its stride when it comes to a halt before the great enigma of V’ger. Jerry Goldsmith's superb music score, the main theme of which was later recycled for The Next Generation, does on the other hand invest the film with great resonance.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Crazy Heart (2009)

Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for this film and lord knows I can’t hold it against him. He’s quietly excellent in the role of Otis ‘Bad’ Blake, a near-terminally exhausted, barely functional Country and Western artist who’s still a legend for many but whose wayward life has reduced him to a shambling, alcoholic jerkwad stuck playing in bowling alleys and obscure bars across the American West. With his ailing gait, protruding paunch, slovenly yet efficient mannerisms and grouchy, clueless, no-way-out stoicism, he presents the physical traits of a man who’s just smart enough to know what a walking cliché he is and can still puncture his self-imposed bubble of wounded-lion pride when he knows it’s necessary. Bridges thus pulls off a truly coherent, convincing performance, always within the terms of his own discursive, unforced style of acting. Not many other actors could move with as little self-consciousness from Iron Man’s smooth villainy to this ramshackle titan.

He’s not alone in this: equally good are Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean Craddock, the still-young but already worldly wise journalist he meets and has an affair with against her better judgement, and Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a now hugely successful but still definably decent, grateful protégé of Bad’s who’s carefully, quietly determined not to repeat any of his mentor’s mistakes and to pay back the favours of a former life. Bridges’ and Farrell’s core scene together is a superb example of what two excellent actors can do with scant material, a little opera of sidewards, embarrassed glances, inspecific gazes, tossed-off epigrams of personality and haikus of meaning passing between them. Bridges and Gyllenhaal make a surprisingly sexy couple, his grizzled but charming hopelessness striking sparks off her tendency to become fascinated and attracted to precisely what she knows she stay a mile away from.

It’s a pity that the film around them is such a slow slog to nowhere. Director Scott Cooper gives his cast a lot of breathing room, and the luck he had in landing such actors is not to be underemphasised. Full of appreciable little details, from Bad accidentally drawing three cigarettes out of a packet with his mouth, to dicking about with sound engineers and contending with pick-up bands, Crazy Heart does channel, chiefly during its first half, a properly flaky texture and ragged sense of a peripatetic man’s excruciating lifestyle at an age when the wear’s starting to tell and he can’t yet admit it. Cooper also displays a reasonably authentic sense of the music scene’s niggling minutiae. Automatically evoking Tender Mercies as an Oscar-grab vehicle for an aging actor to display grit and gravitas in playing a honkytonk hero fumbling his way out of a downward spiral (and Robert Duvall even turns up as Bad’s best bud bar owner), Crazy Heart, finally can’t think of a way to deepen and specify its dramatic form without taking a long road through second-hand scenes and uninspired redemptive shtick, with a glum, finally rather off-putting process of kicking Bad just enough to make him wise up and not enough to make him want to jam his truck into a river. Reawakening in these sorts of films always demands humiliating a man and taking away the few things that make his life, and the film, entertaining. The screenplay, penned by Cooper from Thomas Cobb's '80s novel, proves, on examination, rather shallow. Virtually nothing about Bad’s life and background is revealed, and the final crisis that sunders his and Jean’s relationship is more than a little forced both in tone and reaction. Bad's problem with alcohol is presented as the root of his troubles, and yet to what degree it was cause of or result of a life lived on the road, locked within the merciless exigencies of creativity and performing, is a question the film doesn't try to deal with at all, and the psychology of the piece remains therefore very limited.

Cooper’s filmmaking provokes mixed feelings: adopting a laid-back, stand-offish shooting style that drinks in panoramic landscape shots and lets his cast do their thing without the camera jammed in their faces, he does create a suitably meditative space for both collapse and renewal to take place, infused with a sense of the natural environment that is both enemy (in scale, for the effort of driving back and forth across the country is helping him to fray faster) and irreducible ally (in its evocations and beauty, intrinsic to the music Bad writes). And yet it finally retreats into some truly facile depictions of rehabilitation, which only requires some circle confessional, smiling coaches, and energetic old pals to advise you. Scene set-ups and storytelling flow are lazy to a finally wearying extreme. Where the film might have been transcendent infused with a dash of mythic scale or bewildered distance (a la Wim Wenders), Cooper’s method is finally literal to the point of tedium. This does not help the finally far too obvious storyline, and the cumulative effect doesn’t really feel worth the effort of waiting for it play out. One line of Bad’s, which proves a little self-congratulatory on the filmmakers’ part, observes that good songs always sound like you’ve heard them before, but Crazy Heart really is a song you have heard before, and better.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Hardly met with universal appreciation by fans and supporters of crepuscular auteur George A. Romero, this nonetheless struck me as his effortlessly his best film since Monkey Shines (1988). Diary of the Dead doesn’t entirely recapture the relentless magic of his great original “Dead” trilogy, but it does restore the thematic and narrative drive, ghoulish humour, and cold evocation of crisis and fate that defined his best works to a surprising extent, and it’s a significant step forward from the flat and dutiful Land of the Dead (2005). Commencing with the appropriately self-satirising touch of a group of young student filmmakers engaged in making a mummy film under the supervision of their mordant, tippling Etonian film professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), Romero throws this collective into the midst of the initial onslaught of the zombies, and they flee from their college in Pittsburgh across rural Pennsylvania in a Winnebago. Director Jason Creed (Josh Close) dedicates himself to documenting the ensuing events in what he thinks is necessary detachment from reality, inspiring the resentment and contempt of his fellows and his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan). New Yorker make-up man Tony (Shawn Roberts) inspires equal outrage when his refusal to believe in the apparent situation helps inspire their Winnebago’s driver, Mary (Tatiana Maslany), to commit suicide, in thinking she might just have run down several living people under the impression they were the living dead.

The asocial ruthlessness of Romero’s defining works is, then, sharpened to a new point, but with a balancing sense of moral imperative to leaven the cynicism. This classic trait of Romero grazes against a more antic, mocking, gore-comic and crowd-pleasing sense of humour than he once offered, and the mixture of this with much more heavy-handed social commentary, is distinctly less integral. The failure of the disparate impulses to entirely gel is what generally holds the film back, but at the same time, it doesn’t descend into a comedic freak-show of the likes of Bruiser (2000), and it plants seeds of disquiet and menace that don’t entirely germinate until after it’s over. It helps that the overt humour is often very funny and even occasionally inspired and desolating in final effect, like the group’s encounter with a deaf and dumb Amish man (R.D. Reid) who’s approach to dealing with the zombies includes dynamite and a scythe, which he finishes up driving through his own skull to take out a creature that's assaulting him, and the professor’s prowess with a bow and arrow proving startlingly keen. I also particularly like how Romero interpolates radio broadcasts from Night of the Living Dead (1968) to confirm the concurrency of events.

On the road the crew encounter thieving national guardsmen who have readily, happily abandoned their social responsibility, and a collective of black folk who, suddenly left to run things, sensibly stockpile and jealously defend supplies and weapons. Romero’s questioning bent feels out the edges of ethical problems, refusing to let the audience off the hook in likening the reactions of the living to the perverted facsimiles of the living to non-generic situations. The very close presents the spectacle of rednecks indulging their fantasies by blowing apart zombie women. Technically, it’s fascinating and extremely well-done, with excellent, judicious special effects and make-up that do seem to present the most amazing violence captured with apparently unblinking precision by the camera. The opening, in the guise of a news broadcast, offers context that references Dawn of the Dead’s start in a tenement slum, and establishes Romero’s evolving theme of a corrupting body politic, commencing with the infection of the bottom of the social ladder and working its way to the top: the final segment takes place in the huge mansion belonging to the family of Ridley (Philip Riccio), who was playing Jason’s mummy monster and finishes up living the role, and the remnants of the cast finally lock themselves away from the troubles of the world in that house's capacious panic room.

The fat’s long since been trimmed off the group and those who are left have proven themselves capable at least as survivors and in the case of Maxwell, a warrior of an old and intelligent breed. Romero takes a couple of neat pot-shots at the modern school of zombie flick (“Dead things don’t move fast!”) whilst referencing his own famous ploys. Debra’s desire to get back to her family, which becomes something of a shining beacon for all the crew in the seeming promise of the nuclear family still being intact and welcoming, meets the inevitable, grim spectacle of her father being eaten by her mother and her younger brother trying to gnaw her head off before Maxwell gets him with a well-aimed arrow. The structuring lets the overall project down a bit: the last third, whilst darkening and deepening all the while, stumbles at a few turns. A late scene in which Jason’s leading lady, a brassy Texan girl, Tracy (Amy Lalonde), who finds herself acting out in essence the same schlock-horror situation she was for the movie within the movie, up to and including the exploitable moment of having her breasts bared, and the director still doing his own job but for a vastly different reason, is funny and gripping all at once, but the relative casualness of the tone cuts against the grain of the film’s increasing sense of threat and horror. But Romero's point, that the process of filmmaking can be in itself parasitic and violent, is surprisingly self-critical and convincing.

Whilst Romero’s approach is more distinctly stolid, lacking the visceral intensity of the likes of Rec/Quarantine, which of course owe much to Romero in the first place, Diary stands up with De Palma’s Redacted for asking more probing questions of the rhetorical nature of the first-person film style, and the relevance of the characterisations and the sense of impending apocalypse are finally more satisfying than Cloverfield. Like Rec, it presents a case for the necessity of documenting the truth at the cost of moral initiative, but it also relentlessly criticises that tendency, skewering the Darwinian behaviour of documentary and news filmmakers in letting harsh misery play out before their lenses without feeling a need to engage. The film's open-ended conclusion deliberately deconstructs the assurances of its voice-over and the entire motivating story of attempting to build a coherent sense of a world going mad: no amount of telling the truth, finally, actually changes it, and that can be, in contradictory fashion, a deeply unsatisfying thing. The acting is of a surprisingly high standard for such an unknown cast, especially Wentworth, whose mirror monologue towards the end is both a fine moment for his character and also a commentary on the film that works better than Romero’s other, more literalised pronouncements, provided chiefly by Debra who’s taken on the task of turning Jason’s project into an effective unit for the benefit of the world, after Jason throws his life away in a pointless gesture - another classic Romero touch. In spite of its shortcomings, Diary is a sign that the man who is possibly the most famous living proponent of the Horror genre still has some tricks up his sleeve.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

The first Universal Frankenstein film not to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster was a test-case for fresh-minted genre hero Lon Chaney Jnr and his star-maker producer George Waggner, who had provided Chaney with his hit The Wolf Man. Whilst Waggner had momentarily reinvigorated Universal’s chillers with that terrific werewolf flick, The Ghost of Frankenstein, on the other hand, represented a series clearly declining in ambition and scale, and, whilst offering in itself an attempt to bring the series to a satisfying close, pointed the way forward to the degraded last few entries. Here the drama shifts locale from the village of Frankenstein to the equally imaginary town of Vasaria, where Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the second son of the infamous Baron, has set himself up as a respected brain surgeon and manager of the mentally ill. One of the simultaneously amusing and interesting qualities of the Universal Frankenstein films was in how they attempted, somewhat haphazardly, to maintain continuity. Here, the film tries hard to take up where Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939) left off: the opening scenes even manage to dig up several of the actors from the previous entry to repeat roles in a meeting of the Frankenstein town council, even though their characters had been killed. Now there’s a legislative body I’d like to sit on. And yet the transfer of locale from Frankenstein to Vasaria suggests a desire to de-specify the setting, after Lee had brought in an edge of distinctly Germanic, proto-fascist chic to Son, in evoking a correlation between social hysteria, rampant science, repressive officials and rampaging monsters. Nobody wanted the mess of real war getting in the road of their by now cozy monster movies.

Misshapen shepherd-cum-master criminal Ygor (Béla Lugosi), having improbably recovered from the bullets Basil Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein fired into him at the climax of the previous film, is haunting the ruins of the since-abandoned and ruined family castle. The townsfolk, outraged that’s he’s still alive, and paranoid about the Monster’s return, decide to do what they do best – a little homunculus lynching. They commence hurling dynamite into the ruins, almost killing Ygor, but instead shattering the since solidified sulphur pit into which the Monster had previously tumbled. Of course, he’s uncovered by the blasts, revived, and Ygor helps him escape, whereupon a bolt of lightning partly restores the Monster’s nimbleness better than a bottle of Gatorade.

Ygor is inspired to take him to Ludwig, and tries to blackmail the good doctor into returning his hulking friend to full health. But the Monster makes a splash, as he often does, simply by walking into town: making friends with a tiny girl who calmly accepts him as a giant, he casually swats aside villagers who try to impede his effort to retrieve her ball from a rooftop. Ygor’s efforts to pressure the doctor result in one of his assistants being killed, so that Ludwig resolves to grant both the Monster’s wish for an end to his painful life and restore the young man’s by transplanting the dead man’s brain into the Monster’s undying frame. Ygor is at first upset that he’ll be losing a friend, but gets over that quickly when he realises he can convince Ludwig’s erratic but talented, embittered chief assistant Dr Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) into his own brain into the body instead. You just know that when you put Lugosi and Atwill together in the same room, no good’s going to come of it.

Director Erle C. Kenton was the new, relatively workaday ringmaster for this entry, as he would be again on House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). The frenzied opening scenes are the best in the film, with Ygor dodging blasts and trying to drop blocks of masonry on his tormentors, finally finding the monster whose wiggling fingers jut out of a lump of solid sulphur, with snappy editing and some neat stunts and explosions, before the staging settles down to a drab, limited functionalism. Gone is almost all sign of James Whale’s delirious Gothic and Lee’s monolithic Expressionism, in favour of the technically smooth but unambitious wartime studio style. If Lee’s film had certainly sped up the Monster’s transformation into a run of the mill ogre, it was far more sophisticated in design and dramatic shaping, and Rathbone’s tour-de-force of arch anxiety is swapped for Hardwicke’s far more restrained, rather haunted turn: his close-ups linger on the deep circles under his eyes, as if simply possessing the family association and trying to avoid the consequences of it has worn out his soul. The title is literalised – you don’t think we could leave it metaphoric or anything, do you? – when Ludwig is visited by his father’s ghost, or at least his own strung-out hallucination (the shade is played, unfortunately not by Colin Clive, who had died in 1937, but also by Hardwicke). Ludwig is convinced not to run away from his legacy by killing the Monster, but to try and make it work as it should have to begin with.

It’s a pity that Chaney’s lumbering, barely expressive performance is so banal: it really takes the spectacle of characterless, blank-faced, arm-jutting idiocy he provides here to appreciate just how beautiful Karloff’s mime work was. It was a few easy steps on to the brainless automaton of House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), and that's how the Universal Monster became remembered by those who had never glimpsed Karloff’s inspired performance in the first two films. Nonetheless, in the Monster's delight in the girl’s friendship, his overt social harassment for his disconcerting appearance, and his initial hopeful smile and then disappointed sibling rage when he spies Ludwig only for his theoretical brother to deny knowing who he is, the Monster is clearly rendered slightly more overtly sympathetic than in Son. This was thematically appropriate material for the series, and perhaps also was intended to play up Chaney’s repute for playing beleaguered everymen after Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Wolf Man. The drama of the piece moves inexorably towards putting this tortured non-man, whose only kinship is with children, to rest and giving someone else the chance to live forever through his body.

A subplot involving Ludwig’s daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) and her local policeman boyfriend Erik (Ralph Bellamy), who’s as obnoxious as all pushy do-gooders are in these films, only helps fill out the running time. Lugosi’s Ygor, a surprisingly inspired grotesque performance in the first go round, is given far less time to enliven proceedings. Nonetheless, in spite of all the film’s limitations, the script is actually quite solid and even admirable in its piling on of new twists to try and enliven a flagging formula. The film builds to a clever consummation in which Ygor gains his wish, his fierce Transylvanian lisp emerging from the Monster’s mouth in proclaiming his rebirth as a Titan - although it makes no sense why the Monster would now possess his voice. Only Bohmer’s miscalculation involving rejection of body parts – Ygor is a different blood type to the Monster, as Ludwig realises – limits this ungodly new hybrid’s potential, by sending him blind, and thus ripe for roasting in another yowling mob’s conflagration. As a sequel to three of the best Gothic horror films ever made, The Ghost of Frankenstein is rather puny. But by the general standard of the 1940s genre, apart from Val Lewton’s efforts, Ghost is actually of a reasonably high calibre, and a very entertaining 67 minutes.