Sunday, October 20, 2013

Horror Fest VIII (Day Three): The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and John Dies at the End

 "Even a man who is pure of heart
     and says his prayers by night
         may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
            and the autumn moon is bright"

 That's the poem uttered three times in the first twenty minutes of The Wolf Man, so that audiences won't forget that the movie they came to see (The Wolf Man) is about a man who becomes a wolf. The man in question is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) although you wouldn't know that from the opening credits, which bill Chaney as "The Wolf Man." I must imagine that when The Wolf Man ran on television during the 1950s and 60s that its opening looked familiar to children: title cards introducing the characters play over a brief clip of them from some point in the film, a template of sorts for most TV sitcoms and many dramas.

 Back to the poem for a moment, because the one takeaway I had from watching The Wolf Man this time is that Lawrence Talbot isn't really a man who is "pure of heart" at all. In fact, he's kind of sleazy: not only does he use his father's telescope to spy on Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but he then uses that information while in her father's pawn shop to put the moves on her. He gives her some business about being psychic, but even when he eventually comes clean about how he knew about her earrings, it's still in an unrepentantly smarmy fashion. It's no wonder that she doesn't want to go with him to the gypsy camp and brings along her friend Jenny (Fay Helm).

 It's a good thing that Talbot buys a cane with a silver wolf's head, because the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) is hiding a secret: her son, Bela (Bela Lugosi) is a Dracula... no, wait. That's not right. He's also a wolf man, and while reading Jenny's fortune, Bela realizes she's his next victim. He sends Jenny away, but she can't run fast enough and he attacks her in wolf form (more like German Shepherd form, but you get the idea) and Talbot is injured while killing said wolf with his cane.

 I'm being a little unkind to The Wolf Man, one of the Universal Classic Monster movies that I was always the fondest of, and I do feel bad about that. I had always remembered Lawrence Talbot as something of a tragic figure, something that continued as long as Chaney reprises the role in various quasi-sequels (House of Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein), but it's hard to feel too sympathetic about a guy who clearly doesn't care that Gwen already has a boyfriend and who behaves in such an underhanded way when he meets her. Perhaps it's supposed to be charming, but when he reveals that he has a telescope and she says "from now on I'll be sure to draw the curtains" and he tells her not to, that's just creepy.

 Talbot is more sympathetic in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, to be sure; after having been killed by his father (Claude Rains, the Invisible Man himself), Lawrence is placed in the family mausoleum, where he at least has peace (as promised by Maleva upon his death). That is, until the two graverobbers show up and break in, looking for jewels. They open Lawrence's coffin and move some of the wolfsbane so they can take his ring (but not before saying the poem for people who might not remember) but seeing as it is a full moon, after all, it's hard to keep a dead werewolf down...

 Revived and apparently immortal, Talbot is found in Cardiff and taken to a nearby hospital with head trauma (the cane wound that killed him) and he's patched up by Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) while the authorities try to figure out who their mystery man is. Lawrence Talbot has been dead for four years, so the man in the hospital can't possibly be who he claims he is. And the following night a police officer is murdered by a wolf, something that Talbot seems to know about.

 In The Wolf Man, Sir John Talbot and the authorities regard Lawrence's claims of being "dangerous" as an illness of the mind, but Dr. Mannering seems much more willing to accept his "affliction," although there's quite a while between when they are together in the story. Lawrence leaves the hospital (and Wales) to track down Maleva and find a way to die. He has no interest in being cured, only in no longer living - which is fair, considering that he was dead.

 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man opens the scope of the first film considerably, and by necessity. Maleva is not only somewhere in Europe, but she's also nowhere near where the two of them need to be in order to help Lawrence. Maleva has heard of a man, named Frankenstein, who might be able to help Talbot, so they travel to Vasaria, the (fictional) home nation of the Frankenstein family, only to find that Ludwig Frankenstein is dead and that the burnt down castle has been abandoned.

 The person I was watching Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man with had not seen Ghost of Frankenstein, which caused a bit of a conundrum here, because until Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Illona Massey) mentions that the experiments killed her father AND her grandfather, it's not stated in the film which Frankenstein is dead when Talbot arrives. As this is a sequel to both The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein, it's a good idea to be caught up on both series. (They do play it a bit fast and loose with chronology, though: in The Wolf Man you can clearly see cars driving around town, but by Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man either there are no cars in Eastern Europe and Cardiff or Lawrence was dead for four years and traveled backwards in time. By the same token they have a hydroelectric dam in Vasaria - they mention that it powers the equipment in the castle - so it's anybody's guess)

 At any rate, Talbot finds Frankenstein's monster (Bela Lugosi) frozen in ice and thaws him / it out in the hopes of finding some way to end his existence, and ultimately decides to contact the only surviving Frankenstein (Massey) to see if she can help him. The Baroness is not a scientist and wants nothing to do with the family, but during the Vasarian equivalent of Oktoberfest, Dr. Mannering finds Talbot and the merry band settle in at the castle to see if energy can be drained from Talbot and the monster, finally killing both of them.

 The villagers are, understandably, weary of any activity involving a Frankenstein. They have good reason to be, as Mannering can't help but try to bring the monster back to full strength. Lucky for him (and us), they choose to experiment during a full moon. Well, that's a little fuzzy. I'm not sure if it's a full moon or if the experiment causes Talbot to turn into the Wolf Man (which Chaney is again billed as), but what's important is that the monster smackdown ensues to close out the film. How the Baroness and Dr. Mannering (and, I'm hoping, Maleva) manage to escape the exploding dam above the castle is a manner of movie convenience, but the two monsters presumably perish in the ensuing flood - as would everyone in the village below.

 Interesting tidbit time: Bela Lugosi and Patric Knowles appear in both The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, albeit playing different roles each time. Ilona Massey, who plays Elsa Frankenstein, replaces Evelyn Ankers, who played Elsa in Ghost of Frankenstein, because it might be a little weird for the woman who played Gwen Conliffe to also be Baroness Frankenstein. All of the monster (Lugosi)'s dialogue was cut from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which makes it tricky to understand why it walks arms outstretched. The reason? In Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster is blind as a result of receiving Ygor (Lugosi again)'s brain. Vasaria, is, by the way, a post-World War II replacement for Germany, where the original Frankenstein was set, created by writer Curt Siodmak.


 Finally we come to John Dies at the End, the best possible adaptation of David Wong's novel that Don Coscarelli could make with the budget he had. That's not a knock on the movie, because I can't imagine it would be easy to faithfully adapt that book considering how many crazy, outlandish, and disgusting moments are on nearly every page. Without the money to clear the many songs mentioned in the book, or to include Fred Durst, or to even be able to include the section in Vegas (it should happen instead of going straight to the mall, for those who have only seen the movie), let alone what happens AFTER David and John come back from the dimension Korrok originates from, it's impressive how close to the book John Dies at the End is. The first hour or so picks up all of the major beats with only a few omissions (where David works, Amy's brother, and some of the names of characters in the film).

 As much as I want to resist the temptation to compare the book to the movie, it tends to happen without trying. So many people I know read John Dies at the End (how can you not when someone describes it as "GrossBusters"?) and while I'm glad that the movie works for audiences who haven't read it, I have no idea how it would play if I didn't know where the story was going. It's a collection of some of the stranger moments you'll ever see onscreen. I am impressed that Coscarelli turned what is an episodic structure in the book and made it more streamlined (mostly by dropping some of the detours) even if the ending is... abrupt.

 I would imagine even if you hadn't read the book, the sudden leap from "things from another dimension that invade people and cause them to explode" to "welcome to the dimension of Korrok" must be a little jarring, even in a film where a guy's mustache flies off and attacks our hero. The last section of the film happens so quickly and is so packed with exposition that I'm kind of impressed it works at all. The coda during the credits eases things a bit, and the resolution to Arnie's frame story is surprisingly bittersweet for a movie so ready to shrug off the bizarre with "what's next?"

 And yes, it still plays well the third time. I suspect it will the fourth, fifth, and so on, to boot. John Dies at the End may not be the level of "cult" film of Coscarelli's Phantasm series or as beloved as Bubba Ho-Tep, but I suspect that it will grow an audience for a long time on home video. It's just a shame that Coscarelli killed one major character, making a This Book is Full of Spiders adaptation very, very difficult, if not out right impossible. Then again, if they ran out of money for the spiders scene in John Dies at the End and had to animate it, there's probably no chance you could make This Book is Full of Spiders into a movie (the scope is considerably larger). But read both books, if you haven't. It isn't going to hurt the movie one bit.

 Horror Fest VIII has come to a close, and I'll tell you it's been a good year for the Cap'n and Fests. Bad Movie Night was a blast, Summer Fest 5 had some great moments, and Horror Fest VIII may be my favorite to date, rivaling only III and V. I'm looking forward to next year - I hope you are too.

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