Friday, April 14, 2017

Director Run-Through - James Whale

Well, we're back now and it's time for a new effort today, and this one is one I'm a little proud of in sharing here. Today's entry is going to be a director run-through for one of the founding fathers of the genre as he is perhaps one of the more important directors in the shaping of the genre even if he's not as prolific as some may like. Today, we're looking at the legendary James Whale.


So, why are we looking at Whale today? Several reasons, the first being that the nature of this blog allows me to look at the history of the genre from the beginning to today (so long as it's not Silent) and Mr. Whale here is perhaps one of the singular faces defining the history of what came after. Second, he only has four credible horror titles to his resume so this won't be a taxing read on you or as strenuous as it was for me to write up as the last two episodes on this blog were so a nice, breezy effort like this where it's light but I'm still providing content might be perfect to cleanse the palette after a brief break last week. Lastly, perhaps my all-time favorite podcast, The HorrorCast, have been producing incredibly high-quality discussions this year on Universal's monster movies which has included James Whale amongst their work, yet there are a few films of his that haven't been covered so this might fill in some of the gaps in their coverage.

With that out of the way, let's learn a little more about our selected individual here with a special biography:

James Whale was an English film director, theater director and actor. He is best remembered for his four classic horror films: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale also directed films in other genres, including what is considered the definitive film version of the musical Show Boat (1936).
In 1931, Universal Studios signed Whale to a five-year contract and his first project was Waterloo Bridge. Based on the Broadway play by Robert E. Sherwood, the film stars Mae Clarke.
Also in 1931, Universal chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. offered Whale his choice of any property the studio owned. Whale chose Frankenstein, mostly because none of Universal's other properties particularly interested him and he wanted to make something other than a war picture.
In 1933, Whale directed The Invisible Man (1933). Shot from a script approved by H. G. Wells, the film was a blended horror with humor and confounding visual effects. It was critically acclaimed, with The New York Times listing it as one of the ten best films of the year, and broke box-office records in cities across America. So highly regarded was the film that France, which restricted the number of theaters in which undubbed American films could play, granted it a special waiver because of its "extraordinary artistic merit".
Also in 1933, Whale directed the romantic comedy By Candlelight (1933) instead of a sequel to Frankenstein as he feared being pigeonholed as a horror director even though he eventually relented with the masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Bride hearkened back to an episode from Mary Shelley's original novel in which the Monster promises to leave Frankenstein and humanity alone if Frankenstein makes him a mate. He does, but the mate is repelled by the monster who then, setting Frankenstein and his wife free to live, chooses to destroy himself and his "bride." The film was a critical and box office success.
He committed suicide by drowning himself in his Pacific Palisades swimming pool on 29 May 1957 at the age of 67. He left a suicide note, which Lewis withheld until shortly before his own death decades later. Because the note was suppressed, the death was initially ruled accidental.-credit:IMDb

Now, that biography did indeed spoil the contents of the films in the post but that doesn't mean we can't take a look at each of these:

Frankenstein


Frankly, this still one of the more important and impressive films in the genre. Though not the first adaptation of the classic story, this one still retains its power with the legendary resurrection scene that comes off as incredibly exciting even before the creature stirs beneath the sheets which is still one of the most visually-arresting and chilling scenes in the genre. Taking plenty of advantage of the opulent Gothic sets, they're filled with all manners of electronic gadgets and plenty of fanciful equipment which really bring out the grand nature of the location as the second half goes into the great scenes of them attempting to control it in the laboratory which proves incredibly difficult with his violent tendencies and begins lashing out at them forcing their need to dispose of it before it escapes. There's plenty of fun to be had here with the creature loose in the countryside generating more solid fun with the legendary sequence of it with the little girl and finally appearing at the house during the wedding which is another great and truly fun sequence. Finally, the action-packed spectacle that is the finale is one of the best in the genre with its full-scale hunting of the creature leading to the big battle at the windmill where not only is there the torch-wielding mob to contend with but also the brawling of the doctor that makes for a rather spectacular finish needed in this kind of movie. Though it gets a little slow at places with the final half with the atrocious dance number and lack of creature scenes featured, there's a lot to really like in this one. (10/10)


The Old Dark House

Though this is definitely the weakest of the man's films, there's still a lot to like here. The grand Gothic manner is enjoyable in the set-up here as the layout of the house is incredibly chilling and creepy, the antics of the family come off as far more creepy than what would be found in a normal family makes the groups' initial appearance at the house seem better than expected and the fact that there are so many introductory elements found here from the classic trope of strangers stranded for the night being forced to stay at the creepy old house with the creepy family within. That alone is reason enough to get into this one before getting into the rather hilarious comedy featured throughout here, from the incredibly witty wordplay or the goofy situations that come about here which are quite genuinely funny and work so well together with the films' horror-based tone. It does get far more fun in the finale which gets the big burning-down-the-house routine, but its impact is lessened by the fact that much of what came before it comes off way too stilted and bland, a product of its source material origins being adapted from the stage play. That ends up hurting the film where it feels overly staged and stiff during the middle half which makes it somewhat dull in these spots but overall it's still got a lot to like. (8.75/10)


The Invisible Man

This is one of the greatest horror films of all time. One of the best parts about this one is the special effects which are absolutely amazing, especially when you take into consideration that they were virtually inventing methods of composite mattes in the film to make the invisible man truly come alive and real. The effects are used liberally, giving scenes showing a shirt running around seemingly by itself or more difficult ones showing him unwrapping the bandages in a mirror to inanimate objects being controlled by themselves and are still a remarkable achievement to the technical prowess of the effects. The effects are not only used to build suspense and inspire fear, they are used to create a few comic moments as well which makes for quite the fun time here as this provides some nice laughs along with the chills. The action works nicely here with some big set-pieces with the train accident, the car crash and the police ambush at the very end, while the different tactics to try to corral him are clever and quite inventive. There isn't a whole lot at all to dislike. The biggest issue here is that romance angle between the two here doesn't work at all as there isn't much chemistry at all, and it's a hard time understanding what she saw in him even before he became invisible. There's also the fact that he seems to be remarkably immune to the cold despite the fact that it is winter, and he is buck naked whenever he goes about invisible. It would have better to see that angle explored a bit more as well as the issues of food, sleep, and shelter. Aside from these relatively excusable problems, this is a real classic film with a lot to like about it. (9.5/10)


Bride of Frankenstein

This here was quite the exceptional sequel with so much to really like here. Much like the original, this one exploits the concepts of life and death only to a much greater degree here. The central scene in the hermits' cottage emphasizes this quite effectively with the monster able to show compassion and friendship despite not having any need for doing so based on previous experience, and the concept of this shows this off far better than anything possible out there to attempt this and offers a great side to him that wasn't possible before hand. While this here is quite fun enough as it is, the fact that there's such a plentiful amount of action here that gives this one such a fantastic pace as there's the absolutely spectacular opening that not only follows through on fixing the ending from the other film while generating the proper action to start this one nicely, the following chase through the woods gives this plenty of great shots showing the villagers forcing him through the area is really exciting as the halting chases are utterly enjoyable as he escapes several times leading to even more brawls and chasing, and the film's main centerpiece sequence with the encounter with the Bride at the finale. There's so much to really love with the intensity of the creature coming back to life matching the original and it lifting off the table elicits the same eerie chills, and with it again playing into the life and death there's absolutely crazy finale in the castle tower which is the explosive, frenzied spectacle of the whole place coming and burying everything inside which is rather fun. Alongside the fine monster makeup for both creatures, these here are what make this one hold up incredibly well. There's only one flaw here, which is that the Bride comes into play so late in the film and doesn't really do much that it seems almost like an afterthought as there's so little screen time that it doesn't have much to do beyond its appearance. This here is what really holds it back. (10/10)


And with that, thanks for joining us for this look at one of the more important directors of the genre. We'll see you next time.