Hellboy II: The Golden Army

December 3, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army(2008); Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Hellboy II represents a watershed in the filmmaking career of director Guillermo Del Toro. For years he has moved between the more personal, mystical fairy tales of children attempting to navigate the adult world in times of great crisis or loss such as in Cronos or Devil’s Backbone and the pure action/adventure of Blade II or even the often forgotten Mimic. While Pan’s Labyrinth indicated a new direction for Guillermo Del Toro in both the scope of visual storytelling and exploring in fantastical detail worlds that coexist alongside the human world, it is with Hellboy II that his vision becomes fully realized and these two aspects of his films are brought together to create a story that is magical in a way that most films are not able to achieve.

 This world of elves, trolls, tree monsters, and other mythical creatures is one that has existed countless times in books and film and  Guillermo Del Toro uses some well tried conventions of fantasy stories such as the epic battle and retelling of the legend of King Balor, Prince Nuada, and the Golden Army that begins the film.  What is exciting about Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking though is that he takes these conventions of the genre and creates something that we are both in awe of and  strangely familiar with. There is a sincerity of purpose in the telling of the story as well as a wonderful understanding of how a fantasy film is supposed to look and feel for the audience. The characters are not lofty or exaggerated, even by comic book standards, but flawed in very human terms. We can appreciate them for this and it adds a dimension to the story that is rarely seen in action films.

Guillermo Del Toro is certainly not a melodramatic director but he is very sentimental both for his characters and in his style of filmmaking. He gives his characters moments where they are able to reveal themselves without seeming out of place and while Hellboy II is an action picture, it is one with a great deal of mythology and influences layered beneath the fight sequences, love stories, and comic relief that populates the film’s swiftly moving plot. One of the most difficult challenges in a sequel is to continue developing familiar characters while still making a film that stands on its own. Guillermo Del Toro does not rely on bringing back old characters to add excitement to the movie but there is that “picked up where we left off feeling” which serves the movie well. In fact, he also brings in new characters such as Johann Kraus voiced by Seth MacFarlane, who lives in a mechanical suit apparatus constructed by Hellboy’s adoptive father as well as Prince Nuada’s twin sister Princess Nuala who brings a very interesting aspect to the story.

Hellboy II represents a new direction for what action films can accomplish as much as The Dark Knight pushed the boundaries of how the comic book hero was potrayed on film. Masterpieces? Certainly not. Great Genre filmmaking? There is no doubt. What is most clear with Hellboy II is that Guillermo Del Toro is gradually building a body of work that embodies the fantasy genres’ best aspects and modern fairy tales which entertain as well as find their way to the heart of something more substantial and meaningful then just flashy action sequences, quick moving plots, and snappy dialogue.

Charles Jacob;  vanheck123@hotmail.com

Scream, Blacula, Scream(1973). Dir. Bob Kelljan; MGM DVD (2004)

Scream, Blacula, Scream is certainly a product of its time. I strongly doubt that you would see a movie like this made today, although, Vampire In Brooklyn and Bones come to mind as direct descendants of this movie and the original which this sequel is based, Blacula. For better or worse, Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Screamare some of the first black horror movies and whether or not you consider these films or the other titles in the so-called “blaxploitation” genre good film making, they are a significant portion of American film history that cannot be ignored or simply brushed off as dated.

In some ways, the historical context of this film and the story behind the studio that made Scream, Blacula, Scream, American International Pictures and executive producer/founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, could eclipse the films that this studio released through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Besides giving directing jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, and virtually starting the careers of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, AIP was also one of the leading genre studios in the United States during this time, specializing in horror, action, and in the 1970’s, “blaxploitation.” While Arkoff and AIP tapped into African American viewers and brought them into theatres in a way that no other studio had done or has done since, in hindsight, one can also see the damage this did to black movie actors and actresses in a system that still offered them limited and stereotyped roles.

It is important to have that in the back of your mind while you are watching Scream, Blacula, Scream, not because this is a poignant commentary on race or a really strong story in itself, but because a “blaxploitation” movie is often taken as a fun, cultural novelty that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even if this picture was intended to be nothing but entertainment, the performance of actor William Marshall alone saves it from that. A Broadway and Shakespeare trained actor, William Marshall conveys such a deep sense of anguish and longing as he pursues Pam Grier’s character Lisa in an effort to free himself from the curse of being a vampire. The story itself is very thin and does not quite come together the way it should but William Marshall’s presence really carries the film.

Lisa is the member of a Voodoo cult whose leader has just died. The opening scene shows a power struggle within the cult(with a lot of jive talkin’) and then shows Richard Lawson’s character, Willis, collecting Bones from a voodoo man and bringing them to life in the form of Blacula. Willis thinks that he is going to control Blacula and have him get rid of Lisa so that he can take over the cult, but instead, Blacula turns him into a vampire and begins to collect his own army of the undead. Blacula wanders through Los Angeles causing death and mayhem until Don Mitchell’s character Justin and the police department begin investigating and become convinced that they are really dealing with vampires.

The back story from the first film is that Mamulwalde was an African Prince bitten by a vampire and he became one. In this film, he believes that he can find a cure through Lisa and her voodoo practices after meeting her at a party and being enraptured by her. The last portion of the movie becomes intercutting scenes of Lisa trying to exorcise the vampire out of Mamulwalde and the police facing off with his vampire army. There is plenty of screaming from the female actresses, even from Pam Grier who usually had stronger roles. She is always the strong female character who fights against the bad guys, but here she seems a little more relegated to Mamuwalde’s love interest and hanging onto Justin. She is supposed to be a voodoo woman who has not quite discovered the full extent of her power but that is really not conveyed that well in the story.

While this is an interesting modern take on the Dracula legend, and there are several suggestive scenes in the movie which play with the idea of vampirism as a sexual experience, some of the story also feels a little incongruous with the atmosphere of the story. What is wonderful to watch is that the film makers did not try to reign in the expressiveness of William Marshall’s performance. He really does steal the entire film. He even gets the best lines in the film, which he delivers in his rich and booming voice(a baritone that resonates and deeply with emotion the same way that James Earl Jones’ does). Even when the dialogue seems interjected with statements that come across as calculated to resonate with the audience, Marshall delivers them in a way that adds emotional impact and meaning.  For a “wham, bam, thank you mam” picture, Scream Blacula Scream has some wonderful moments that come from Marshall’s commanding performance.

Up Next For the November Movie Series Director Sergei Bodrov explores the life of Ghengis Khan in the epic, Mongol.

charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

The Haunted Strangler(1958); Dir. Robert Day. Criterion Collection DVD(2007)

I cannot say that I had very high expectations for this movie but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story and film making despite a somewhat convoluted plot and some overeager acting. It would be easy to classify The Haunted Strangler as a B-movie horror picture and dismiss it as having a limited scope and all the trappings of its genre. However, that would be overlooking the wonderful performance that Boris Karloff gives as the social reformer/novelist James Rankin who sets out to prove the innocence of the man hanged for being The “Haymarket Strangler” twenty years ago. Karloff’s performance plays on the contrast between the polite and compassionate English gentleman and the murderous monster that literally paralyzes Rankin when he grasps the ominous surgeon’s scalpel which appears throughout the movie as a symbol of terror.

Boris Karloff makes the transition from gentleman to monster with the ease of an actor who is greatly skilled at tapping into the dark recesses of human nature while at the same time remaining sympathetic and vulnerable. What is impressive is that Karloff is able to convey this transition with virtually no makeup and you really feel like you are watching a monster emerge out of this character. There is a scene at the end of the film where Rankin is strangling his daugther Lily and he suddenly comes out of his trance like paralysis and realizes what he is doing. The pitiful look and anguish he conveys is very moving and captures the torment that Rankin feels as he is trapped between these two personas. The fact that no one wants to believe him until it is too late makes his torment all the more palpable and even early on in the film when Rankin is following the trail of the mysterious Dr. Tenent there are cues from Rankin that he might be onto something that could be a horrible truth.

Where the problems in the film seem to arise is from the unclear nature of the “Haymarket Strangler” and his origins. It is never clear whether the knife that keeps disappearing and reappearing in the film has some curse on it that makes the person holding it kill or if holding the knife triggers some psychotic response in the form of murderous impulses and paralysis. What the actual nature of the evil is never really gets defined and that makes it a little hard to keep up with and takes away from the impact of some of the scenes. There is one scene between James and his wife Barbara that reveals where James Rankin came from but this comes so late in the film that rather than moving the story along, it seems to confuse it and leaves the viewer even more unclear of what the “Haymarket Strangler” is supposed to be. It is never really clear if the murderer is supposed to be a split personality or a force of supernatural possession or some strange mixture of the two but it does feel like the film makers can’t decide which it is and this makes things a little muddled as the story plays out.

The way the violence plays out is also an interesting aspect of the film. While it is not overly graphic it is very unsettling the way the camera alternates between close-ups of the victim being strangled and the contorted face of the murderer. These scenes use the point of view shots very effectively to heighten the atmosphere of the killings. Some of the best scenes are those where Rankin lurks in the shadows watching his victim, as he does when he is at the dancehall. The dark presence and heavy breathing establish an unsettling apprehension of what is to come even when it is predictable. Some of the predictability comes from the fact that the story seems to take a lot of cues from the Jack The Ripper story.

Since it is a Criterion disc, there are some great features that are worth watching along with the movie. One is a series of taped interviews with cast and crew of the film talking about the experience of working on the movie and about working with Boris Karloff. It is very interesting to hear about Karloff and how kind of a man he was. Another feature of interest are original radio spots for The Haunted Strangler along with the double billing of the film with Fiend Without A Face. A few of the radio spots feature Boris Karloff and it is really interesting to listen to since they don’t do that type of promotion anymore. From a historical point of view, the features are really very interesting. Being an early example of a slasher film makes this movie very interesting but it also avoids being just a curiosity, mostly due to Boris Karloff’s performance.  

Well, this is not related to the movie at all but here is a link to Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Something fun for halloween!

http://www.quickstopentertainment.com/2008/10/30/halloween-havoc-2008-stan-lee-presents-the-raven/

Up Next The October Horror Movie gets a little funky with William Marshall and Pam Grier in 1973’s Scream, Blacula, Scream!

Charles;

vanheck123@hotmail.com

Black Sunday(U.S. Title) or The Mask of Satan(1960); Dir. Mario Bava. Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

There are movies that elicit such a strong emotional response that trying to relate to them on any other level proves to be very difficult. Sometimes it is good to gain some distance from a film before allowing an opinion to really take shape and crystallize. But often there are movies which cause an immediate response  and I think that this was the case when I was watching Black Sunday. I found myself haunted by the imagery and poetic dreaminess of Mario Bava’s cinematography and storytelling. The images of the forest and old ruins where Princess Asa and the Prince were put to death and buried after being found guilty of witchcraft and serving the devil come to life in the rich black and white tones which emphasize shadow and fog.

In the later parts of the film the Prince, awakened from the dead to bring vengeance on the family that murdered him and as he looms out of the darkness and wanders through the eerie castle where the present day Vajda family lives oppressed by the curse that had been placed on them two centuries before, the haunting presence of the Princess Asa is almost subconsciously drifting through the film. We are given brief shots of her lying in her coffin which was disturbed by Dr. Andre Gorobec and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan who at first do not pay attention to the superstitions of this Eastern European town they are passing through on their way to Moscow. Even though it is not till the end of the film that she becomes a dominant aspect of the story, Mario Bava conveys her hold over the characters through beautifully constructed atmospheric details.

The haunting imagery of the movie plays wonderfully with the performances of Barbara Steele as both the Princess Asa and the girl Katia Vajda who happens to look just like Asa, Prince Vajda who is tortured by his family’s past, and Prince Constantine who finds himself dragged down by the curse which plagues his family. They are as dark and mysterious as the scenery that surrounds them and Mario Bava’s camerwork really brings out the turmoil that stalks them and shows how Dr. Gorobec and Dr. Kruvajan are gradually drawn into horror that has a hold over these people. The entire story plays out as poetically as a Shakespearean tragedy as it shows the ruin of these characters and their inability to prevent this oncoming doom. Of course, Black Sunday ends more like a Shakespearean comedy with an element of sadness and loss, but this comes more as a relief after such an oppressively dark film rather than feeling forced or contrived.

While every shot pays special attention to the broad spectrum of shadow that black and white film making offers, it also emphasizes the supernatural elements of the story which Mario Bava shows through violent storms, wind, and primal elements which denote impending evil. However, it is not a story about good vs. evil in the traditional sense. Two highly educated and scientific doctors who are not able to understand supernatural phenomenon and dismiss everything as superstition are inept at confronting evil when they come face to face with it. In fact Dr. Kruvajan is seduced by it and becomes a servant to it. Other characters in the story, such as the Vajda family, are not good or bad, they simply exist as people who face retribution. There are many aspects of this film that are played as a simple revenge story but it is interesting and very effective how Mario Bava turns the people who are seeking revenge into the villains of the story and brings to the forefront many of the themes that work on a much deeper level in the film.

Up Next The October Horror Movie Series fights a different kind of vampire in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers co-production of Peter Cushing in The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires.

Charles Jacob;

vanheck123@hotmail.com