The Mummy, the remake and the re-imagining

The Mummy, 1931Nineteen thirty-two. The year Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, was published. The Great Depression was at its worst. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Pres. Herbert Hoover to become the American president in a landslide win. Gandhi went on a hunger strike. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty-four-year-old Paul von Hindenburg was re-elected president in April, defeating Adolf Hitler. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the first scifi radio show was first aired. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington all had hit songs.

And in 1932 Boris Karloff starred in the Universal Picture’s film, The Mummy. It was a dark, brooding film shot in black and white, rich in noir-ish shadows and implied threat. It was inspired in part by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the alleged curse that carried (spoiler alert: it didn’t) – the opening of the tomb was a worldwide pop culture event even a decade later – and also possibly by a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Ring of Thoth (1890).

But oddly enough, it was also a love story, one that stretched out through millennia. The iconic mummy costume – therefore the monster – is seen only for a short time at the start of the film, making it less visually scary than some films in the genre. Karloff, shorn of his wrappings, plays a newly-resurrected human – still pretty creepy in a restrained, almost gentlemanly way. And yet there’s a certain sympathy in the movie for the monster who remains in love. Roger Ebert even called his performance “poignant.”

The 1932 version, seen today, is far from scary, and more artistic than you might expect from a monster movie. The monster-into-man transition turns it into more of a suspense thriller than fright film. Universal came back with more traditional monster roles for the mummy in a series of low-budget remakes in the 1940s (most starring Lon Chaney Jr), but they failed to win over audiences or reviewers.

Universal had had significant successes with its first two monster films, both released in 1931: Frankenstein (also starring Karloff) and Dracula. These two would go on to spawn several sequels, but The Mummy never had a real sequel, although several “re-imagined” Mummy films would be made from 1940 through to the 1970s. Other monsters would join the party in the subsequent years: The Invisible Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and many more.
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Shin Godzilla: the reboot

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, of all the Godzilla films I’ve watched, I can recall the exact details of few. I cannot remember, just by looking at the title, which monsters were battling which. I need to look at the slipcase cover to see a picture to remind me which foe Godzilla was battling this time. Or foes, because there’s often more than one. In many ways, I prefer the original premise: a single Godzilla versus the world rather than Godzilla versus other monsters. Easier to keep track of the players that way. But that hasn’t happened in a Godzilla film since 1984. Until now, that is (I trust you have already read part one of this article).

Shin Godzilla posterIn my previous post I wrote about the original Godzilla film, Toho’s 1954 Gojira. This post is about the last (or rather, the latest, not including the recent anime release) film in the franchise.

Toho Studio’s Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) rebooted the series once more after a 12-year hiatus, again returning to the root story to start afresh. It quickly proved the highest-grossing Japanese film in the series and received critical acclaim in Japan when it was released. It even won Picture of the Year and six other awards from the Japanese film academy.

It didn’t fare as well in the west, where many critics were lukewarm and some even hostile. Indiewire called it Godzilla’s “weirdest movie ever” although it recognized it as “a story about the logistics of dealing with an unimaginable disaster, and how the infrastructure of our society is the last line of defense we have in the face of a real crisis.” Empire magazine called it, “A sometimes shonky mix of puppetry, model-work and performance capture, the creature is still awe-inspiring in its size and city-stomping, skyscraper-roasting fury. Sadly, it also wears itself out quickly and then goes to sleep for an hour.”

That last is mightily unfair, but predictable in a Western review, because the film switches from action to character and theme development, something many North American viewers either dislike or misunderstand (perhaps the days when critics gushed over non-action (aka art) flicks like My Dinner with Andre may be well past us, or maybe it’s just a new generation of online critics who think Bruce Willis or Jason Statham have to be in a film to make it worth watching). But that development is core to Shin Godzilla because it’s not just a monster movie. It’s a subtle political satire and commentary, too.

Okay, maybe not so subtle, but it’s not an in-your-face satire like The Thick of It.
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War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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Gojira, the original kaiju

At the end of most Godzilla films, the audience is led to believe the giant reptile has finally been killed off. Blown up, defeated by another monster, killed by technology, sunk to the bottom of the ocean or suffered some similar fate. And yet there he*** is, hale and hearty in the next film, rampaging through Japan once again, and facing yet another kaiju (giant monster) – or often several. After 32 films, Godzilla still comes back. And so do I.*

I was thinking about Godzilla this week, today in particular. This is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. My grandfather was there, and was injured in the blast. Seeing images of the city after the event made me think of images of Hiroshima, and that in turn made me think about Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. I imagined Godzilla stomping through the low-rise Halifax, a century ago. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

director Ishirô Honda on the set of 1954's GodzillaIt began in 1954 with Gojira, the original black-and-white Godzilla movie and still one of the (if not the) best. Film number 32, the animated Godzilla Monster Planet, was released in November, 2017, making this the longest-running film franchise in history.

Gojira was an early tokukatsu film – special effects – that features suitmation (also called suitamation) or actors wearing suits, rather than stop motion, claymation, puppets or CGI. It’s not unique to Japan, but certainly mastered there.

Gojira – the creation of Tomoyuki Tanaka with writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, director Ishiro Honda, and special-effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya – was originally produced as a metaphor for Japanese fears about an uncertain, post-Hiroshima future and where science might lead us without moral restraint. Honda had been a soldier in the war and seen Hiroshima after the bomb, first hand, in 1946.

The film itself was an allegory about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation: the monster himself represented both the bomb and its effects. It was, like Kurosawa’s later 1955 film, I Live in Fear, about Japan’s national “atomophobia,” although not always directly. Godzilla is more than a film monster; he (it) becomes the symbol of Japan’s fate, raising the philosophical question whether Japan deserves his wrath because of its wartime aggression.

As Tim Martin wrote in The Telegraph, it was, “…a sober allegory of a film with ambitions as large as its thrice-normal budget, designed to shock and horrify an adult audience.” The original film still has some of that power.

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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Kong and his films

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island is the 19th movie in my collection about apes.* Or at least ape-ish creatures (not including those about cave people or yetis). We watched the recently-released Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, even devouring all of the special features on the second disc.

I give Kong: Skull Island second place in the great ape/Kong pantheon because it’s well done, fun, action-packed, and not nearly as bloated as Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Despite some lukewarm or critical reviews, it’s worth watching and collecting if your taste are in any way similar to mine. Films of this ilk are meant to be entertainment, not art. And this one succeeds well in being that. Plus it has some of the best natural scenery in any film I’ve ever seen (Vietnam, in particular).

The main list of my ape films includes the original, 1933 King Kong; still my favourite of the genre, despite some uncomfortably racist bits. And I will admit that the original movie doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always consistent. But it’s fun and was the first big, commercial stop-frame animation film. If you’ve never watched it, you really should. Try to find a copy with the cut scenes restored. And certainly see it before you watch the latest Kong film, so you have the proper context. (For me, it’s also nostalgia: I first saw the film on TV in the 1950s).

A few of the rest of the oldies in my collection are remakes or semi-sequels (not necessarily following in story sequence from the original; sometimes with its own story arc). Some are clumsy mixes of the Tarzan motif and King Kong. Some were “inspired” by (or simply rip-offs of) the original King Kong but not necessarily related in story or mythos. Many rode on its coattails and on the popular (and commercially profitable) fascination with apes and monsters that rose from Kong, Tarzan and all the monster films that were released in the 1930s and later.
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