Number Seventeen (1932)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various characters congregate in an old, abandoned house…

This is a film seriously lacking of oomph. Underwhelming and boring, it has the distinct feeling of having been made by a director whose mind is elsewhere. There’s a real absence of polish, for example, which is a vanishing rarity with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. We get poor, hammy performances throughout, some of which often feel like unrehearsed first takes. There’s a difficult-to-follow plot with bland, ill-defined characters (most of whom seem to be pretending to be someone else). The editing is jarring and clumsy. The score often bares little relation to the mood of the scene. It’s a *mess*.

The story begins when a man searches an empty house at night. He encounters first a homeless man and then a spirited young woman, each of whom have their own reasons for being there. Later, a group of criminals also shows up – and we eventually learn that the gang is using the house as part of a plan to steal a diamond necklace and escape via a nearby railway. But the storytelling is astonishingly scant and perfunctory. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. In Number Seventeen, it often feels like he’s removed the *interesting* bits.

With the events taking place in a spooky house at night, at least Hitch enjoys playing around with shadows and some tricksy lighting. There are a few arresting images and clever shots. The studio set is also quite elaborate and built on several levels, which allows for a fun stunt when two tied-up characters fall off a balcony and are left dangling in mid-air. But the travesty of a script insists on telling its convoluted and clichéd tale with no finesse or clarity at all. When you *can* understand what’s happening you often wish you hadn’t bothered.

In the last quarter of the film, the characters leave the house and Number Seventeen morphs into an action thriller involving trains, a Green Line bus and a ferry. At least the new energy creates some enjoyment. (Check out the charming Gerry Anderson-style model shots!) But there are still some head-scratching plot twists to come in the final scene. There aren’t many Alfred Hitchcock films you’re glad to see the back of. But this is one of them. The director himself later called Number Seventeen a disaster and ‘very cheap melodrama’, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Three bus passengers out of 10

NOTE: Clips from Number Seventeen were later seen in The ABC Murders (1991), the very best episode of ITV detective series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although the story takes place in 1936, a character called Alexander Bonaparte Cust spends an afternoon at the cinema and takes in Number Seventeen. He’s later accused of being a serial killer. It’s a toss-up which is the more traumatic experience.

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Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

For this review of Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero movies, I’m going to do something different. Rather than watch the movie, scribble a few notes, do some research and then type up a blog post at a later date, I’m going to write it as the DVD plays. I’ll note down observations as they occur to me. Aside from correcting typos, I won’t do any retrospective changes. Here goes…

The first scene is iPhone footage of Superman chatting to some kids. I now remember that he died in the previous mash-up film, 2016’s beyond turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh, we’ve now cut to the present day and there’s a discarded newspaper with the headline ‘Superman is dead’. Given that Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is front and centre on the DVD cover, I’m gonna guess that the character’s Jesus metaphor will extend to a resurrection.

Now a criminal is fighting Batman on a roof. It’s dark and there’s steam everywhere, a visual palette that makes me wish I were watching the Tim Burton Batman. Or Gotham. Have you seen Gotham? The TV show? It’s *amazing* – it’s the best-looking show on television, so beautifully shot and designed, and the characters are all brilliantly macabre and theatrical.

Oh, shit. My mind wandered already. Back to the film. Now Batman is fighting some strange, buzzy, giant-insect thing. His butler, Alfred, is back at HQ and looking at screens like he’s Chloe in 24. He says he has ‘Luthor’s notes’, which are full of a repeating pattern of three boxes. On other screens, there are photos of four characters, including Wonder Woman.

A song has started: a quirky, Scandinavian-sounding woman sings over a piano as we see music-video-style shots of the world mourning Superman. Poor Lois Lane lies in a double bed all alone. Clark Kent’s mum moves out of her house. A newspaper front page links the made-up-for-a-film death of Superman to the real-life deaths of David Bowie and Prince. ‘Did they return to their planet?’ it asks crassly.

CRIME! In slow motion, some twat kicks over a crate of oranges outside a shop. It seems the world is a worse place now that Superman’s gone!

Joss Whedon’s name is in the writing credits. (I knew it would be. He was brought in to tweak the script then took over directing the film when Zack Synder had to leave for personal reasons.) This is reassuring. I bet the humour will work really well…

Now we’re in London. We swoop past the Shard! Tower Bridge has a huge black flag with Superman’s S logo on it! There’s St Paul’s Cathedral! A well-dressed gang break into a building and it’s a well-staged sequence. The music’s fun, the shots are bold. Oh, now it’s got a bit silly: Wonder Woman is across the street. In full cosplay outfit. Standing on top of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey. How did she get up there? WHY is she up there? Now she’s suddenly inside the building, using her lasso of truth to find out that the men are terrorists.

Oh, fuck off, Hollywood. A British criminal committing a crime in the bloody City of London has just said ‘four city blocks’ are about to be destroyed. Not everyone talks like an American!

Wonder Woman to the rescue. She beats everyone up. She dodges bullets. She pushes a hostage out of the way of a speeding bullet. She throws the bomb so high in the air it smashes through the ceiling and explodes in mid-air. What a load of laws-of-physics-flaunting horseshit.

Now Bruce Wayne is in… Iceland, I guess? He’s in a town looking for a ‘stranger’ who brings fish when the locals are hungry. The one guy who answers in English is on the DVD cover. He’s Aquaman. Bruce tells Aquaman that he’s building an alliance to defend the world (and presumably reckons that some bloke he’s never met will be more useful than the private army Bruce could easily afford to fund).

Later, on Bruce’s private jet, he’s discussing the plot (if you can call it that) with Alfred. Jeremy Irons is bringing new meaning to the phrase phoning it in. Alfred has been researching another potential recruit: Barry Allen of Central City. He’s ‘completely off the grid’ but they also know he regularly visits his father in prison. How is that completely off the grid, then? There’s also mention of another guy – Victor Stone, genius IQ, football scholar… and dead. Er, why are they interested, then?

When Alfred mentions Diana (aka Wonder Woman), Bruce bristles. He fancies her. Of course he does. Now Alfred’s made a smarmy reference to a better Batman film by sarcastically mentioning ‘exploding wind-up penguins’. Oh, piss off.

The storytelling in this movie is absolutely atrocious. Information is just dropped into scenes with no context or justification or finesse or meaning or impact on character.

Here’s a bit of humour. Barry Allen can move so fast it’s imperceptible. Kinda like Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Now I wish I were watching X-Men: Days of Future Past instead of this. In his first scene Barry draws glasses and a moustache on a bully’s face. Sides. Splitting.

With Barry introduced, we move onto the next member of the team: Victor. He’s part-man, part-machine, and clearly not-dead. He was injured in an accident and his scientist father rebuilt him (as you do). He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. (A microchip, am I right, guys?!)

Jesus, where are we now? This film has ADHD. We’re cutting around all over the shop. Oh, I see – we’re on Diana’s home island with the Amazons. They have a magical box (no sniggering at the back), which is ‘awakening’. It glows, it explodes. They point arrows at it. Then a huge, hulking CGI creature arrives via a portal or something. ‘Steppenwolf,’ says one of the bland Amazons. Cheers, love! Saves me looking up his name on Wikipedia. He’s been searching for the box. Lots of the alien insect creatures follow through the portal and we’re into one of those CG-heavy action scenes that makes you think filmmakers are now deliberately aping computer games in an attempt to please Millennials. The Amazon leader does a runner with the box but Steppenwolf gets his motor running and heads out on the highway. He chases and steals the box.

‘We have to light the ancient warning fire,’ she says once Steppenwolf has left.

‘The fire has not burned for 5000 years,’ replies another bland Amazon. ‘Men won’t know what it means.’

‘Men won’t. She will.’

I’m now reminded of The Lord of the Rings’ wonderful warning-fires sequence. It’d be wrong to switch off this garbage and watch that instead, wouldn’t it?

Cut to Diana at her day job in a museum. The sound on the nearby telly magically rises and a hysterical BBC news reporter blathers on about a fire somewhere in the world. Diana knows what this means…

And now we’re with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Amy Adams must have the worst agent in Hollywood. She was really good in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, then couldn’t get another job for love nor money. Now she’s trapped in this DC contract and is given perfunctory, badly written scenes like this one where she and Clark’s mum fail the Bechdel test.

Diana’s come to visit Bruce. She’s just made a passing reference to the Chris Pine character from her solo film, and I now wish I were watching that instead. Or any other Chris Pine movie. I love the Star Treks he’s in. Yes, all three of them. And Unstoppable is an amazing film. It’s essentially one 90-minute action scene but is also great fun and-

Fuck! Got distracted again. Diana is now telling Bruce who Steppenwolf is. Via grimy, CGI flashbacks. To cut an underdeveloped story short he’s a powerful bad guy who wants the Mother Boxes, three mystical cubes that contain nebulous but enormous power. There’s a common problem with these kinds of films: they misunderstand how a MacGuffin works. (I’ve paused the DVD while I make this point.) A MacGuffin – the term was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – is an object or idea in a story that motivates the characters but is essentially unimportant to the viewer. In a heist movie, it’s the money in the vault. In a Indiana Jones film, it’s the ancient relic. But in many superhero films the MacGuffin is so ridiculously bizarre or maddeningly vague you stop caring that the characters care. A MacGuffin shouldn’t need explaining. *Because it’s not important.* In Reservoir Dogs, there isn’t a big long sequence exploring why a gang of criminals want to steal some jewels; we just understand that they’re valuable. It’s how the MacGuffin affects the characters that counts. In Justice League, the Mother Boxes have no psychological impact on our characters at all.

Press play. Bloody hell, I’m only half an hour in. I need to stop commenting on everything I think of.

Diana says that, thousands of years ago, various races – Amazons, men, gods – came together to form an alliance to defeat Steppenwolf. The Mother Boxes were then split up to hide them. “One was entrusted to the Amazons,” says Diana in voiceover. “One to the Atlanteans… The box of men was buried in secret.” This script REALLY has a hard-on for The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

Bruce and Diana’s recruitment scheme continues. Bruce finds Barry in an abandoned building – it’s now clear that Barry is this film’s comic relief. His dialogue feels like it’s from a different movie; it’s more like the tone in Marvel’s Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of it’s amusing, but it’s mostly tiresome. It’s far from breezy wit. This comedy feels plastered on top of someone else’s script. (Rumour has it extensive reshoots were ordered to make the film funnier.)

Meanwhile, Diana seeks out Victor. He knows that she’s Wonder Woman and that Bruce is Batman. How? Fuck knows. And also meanwhile, Aquaman swims down to the bottom of the ocean. One of the boxes is there and bad guys arrive to steal it. How did they know it was there? Fuck knows.

Now, I’m not a comic-book fan. I love movies based on them, but actual comic books themselves? Nope, not for me. So I may be very wide off the mark here. But it strikes me that one of the reasons this storytelling doesn’t work is that aping a comic book too closely. Scenes are short. Information is summarised succinctly and then we move on. Emotion and humour are faded up and down like sound effects rather than feeling integral to the characters and situations. Seemingly important characters pop up with no explanation then vanish from the story just as quickly. There’s no movie-like development, growth, progression or pacing.

I’m banging on now. Let’s cover the next few scenes with just one-line comments. JK Simmons has turned up as Detective Jim Gordon. There’s a shameless shot of Gal Gadot’s arse. Steppenwolf has taken hostages including Victor’s dad, who’s played by Miles Dyson from Terminator 2. (I now wish I were watching Terminator 2. But I always wish that.) Batman, Wonder Woman, Victor (aka Cyborg, I think) and Barry (aka The Flash) save the hostages with relative ease. They don’t break a sweat. I bet the CGI team had to pull a few all-nighters, though. Oh, and Aquaman shows up. He helps by controlling water or something.

Right, so now Steppenwolf has two of the Mother Boxes but needs the third – the one entrusted to men. And Victor has that one. It had ended up at the lab where Vic’s dad works. Ooh, here’s a bit of inter-team drama. Bruce wants to use the Mother Box to revive Superman from the dead. (Barry mentions Pet Semetary – good gag.) Diana says it’s a bad idea and rows with Bruce. He cruelly – but accurately – calls her out for spending a century doing bugger all to help innocent people. At least the scenes are *about* something now, but we’re also into that slow middle phase of a superhero movie where people in the cinema start going for a wee.

Barry and Victor dig up Clark Kent’s body, then the whole team go to the alien ship from Man of Steel and, thanks to some bullshit science, resurrect him. But Superman is pissed: with his shirt off to please certain fans, he fights his former colleagues. He’s especially angry at Batman. Ungrateful twat. But he calms down when Lois Lane appears on the scene and the pair leave together. But – oh no! – Steppenwolf has sneaked in and stolen the third Mother Box! Cripes! He has them all now! Which is bad!

Diana’s not too concerned, though. ‘So we find them,’ she says. ‘If the boxes are even close to each other, there is going to be some kind of energy surge.’ Seriously, that’s a line of dialogue she actually says. I know the global geek concensus is that Diana Prince is a marvellous character and a great role model for women of all ages and that Gal Gadot is a goddess of imperishable magnificence and all that. But I’m really bored of the character being flawless. Her enjoyable solo film gave her a bit of depth, but in these crossover events she has to the perfectly beautiful, unflappable know-it-all who can do anything. Surely characters are only interesting if they have to overcome things.

Next we get another lame attempt at comedy when Batman nervously asks Aquaman if he talks to fish. “The water does the talking,” says Aquaman like that means something.

So, let’s be clear. The worst, most powerful villain in the history of villains now has all three of the plot devices he needs to destroy the whole world. So do the Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg leap into action? No, they skulk around and discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, Superman is being cheered up by Lois – the scene is meant to be touching, but once you twig that this is the footage where Henry Cavill’s moustache has been digitally removed because he’d grown one for another film, you just can’t stop staring at his rubbery top lip.

We’re approaching the climax now (I hope). Our team are aboard a huge, technologically advanced cargo plane, heading for a nuclear power plant in northern Russia. The plane reminds me of the equivalent craft in the Avengers movies, and I now wish I were watching those films instead. Justice League makes the weakest of that series (Thor: The Dark World?) seem positively masterful. At its worst, the Marvel series always has a basic storytelling competency that’s woefully absent here.

Right, the home straight now. A big long action sequence that feels depressingly artificial. As is often the case with these kinds of third acts, there’s no heft or consequence to anything. No real threat or suspense. It’s just actors and stunt performers matted into CGI. Our characters fight the bad guys. There are occasional gags involving Barry. Jeremy Irons radios in with exposition. Superman shows up, looking all smug. (The music quotes the John Williams theme from 1978 – nice touch!)

But they win, obviously. We then get the usual wrap-up scenes that point the way to more sequels. Oh, and there’s a tiny, one-shot scene filmed outside the British Museum.

Well, we’re near the end now, so can I sum up Justice League?

It was awful. Really crummy. I suppose it was slightly less awful than Batman v Superman. It was certainly more colourful to look at, lighter in tone, quite a bit shorter and slightly less boring. But it was still a dreadful movie.

Three snack holes out of 10

Oh, I forgot there’d be post-credits scenes. The first one’s quite funny: a dick-measuring contest between Superman and the Flash over who can run faster. Then, after a further 387 minutes of credits, Lex Luthor returns. Oh good.

Demons (2009)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a spin-off, really. This short-lived TV series – one of ITV’s responses to the BBC’s Doctor Who – tells the story of teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke). He’s the last descendant of the famous vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who was actually a real person and not just a character in Bram Stoker’s book. Because of this lineage, Luke has a duty to ‘smite’ the various ‘half-life’ creatures (vampires, demons, harpies, etc) who live unseen in London. Luke learns all this from his American godfather, Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister), who explains the mythology and guides him in the fight. He also introduces Luke to another person who was dramatised in Stoker’s novel: Mina Harker (a haughty, humourless Zoe Tapper), who looks about 30 but is immortal due to being infected by Count Dracula’s blood in the 1890s. She’s now a famous pianist, blind, and has a visionary sixth sense. In the first episode, Luke’s sarcy friend Ruby (Holliday Grainger) also gets caught up in proceedings and joins the team; she fancies Luke but he doesn’t realise. Later on, there’s another explicit connection to Bram Stoker when Mina’s son, Quincey, shows up. He was born near the end of the novel but is now a murderous vampire.

Best performance: Not this show’s strength, acting. The regulars can’t bring any life to the scripts, while guest stars such as Mackenzie Crook, Richard Wilson and Kevin McNally are often in League of Gentlemen-style make-up that encourages comedic playing. Philip Glenister is especially disappointing. Galvin was written as a Texan, but the actor opts for a soft, generic American accent and you can see the lack of conviction behind his eyes.

Best episode: Probably episode four, Suckers, which features some heavy connections to the book Dracula. We see flashbacks to a younger Mina during the First World War (when she deliberately turned her ill son into a vampire to save his life), while Luke is given a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. He can’t be arsed to read it, though, so Ruby does it for him. When she reaches the final page she realises that Quincey is Mina’s son… but never mentions that another character called Quincey, who the son was named after, features in the novel from page 57 onwards.

Review: No one sets out to make a bad television series, but this is really, really crummy. It’s a British photocopy of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a young hero having to juggle school with secretly fighting demonic monsters. (He also has a foreign mentor called Rupert G and a mum who doesn’t know what’s going on; can call on the help of a sexy immortal; and uses a library as a base of operations. Joss Whedon is owed royalties.) But Demons feels like a series made by people who neither understand nor have a passion for the genre. Shows as good as Buffy support their strangeness and mythologies with strong characters, genuine emotion and a balance of action, drama and humour. But here there’s never any sense of the stories or the characters or the situations existing organically. Everything feels mechanical and soulless and hackneyed. It’s all effect, no cause. (Oh, and the fight scenes are often rubbish.)

Three scenes filmed at Highgate Cemetery out of 10

Dracula (BBC1, 28 December 2006, Bill Eagles)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s 1899, which is a little later than in the novel. The locations include the fictional Castle Holmwood and the genuine graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby; the fictional Westenra House and the genuine Harley Street, Chelsea and Highgate Cemetery in London; and the fictional Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? This TV version of Stoker’s novel is another one of those vaguely faithful adaptations that nevertheless makes many changes.
* For a start, the first character we meet – in a spooky prologue – is Abraham Van Helsing (David Suchet). He doesn’t appear in the book until nearly a third of the way in.
* The lead character here is a secondary character in the novel. Arthur, aka Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens), is a wet fish who quotes poetry at girlfriend Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles). Nevertheless she agrees to marry him.
* This disappoints Arthur’s pal John Seward (Tom Burke), who fancies Lucy too. The novel’s third suitor, the American Quincy Morris, has been dropped.
* Arthur then travels to his childhood home, Whitby, to see his insane, dying father. He also learns that the syphilis-related condition that soon kills his dad is hereditary… (Why Arthur was being called Lord Holmwood while his father was still alive is not addressed. In the novel, his father is not insane and dies ‘off stage’.)
* A month later, looking for a cure, Arthur visits a mysterious man called Singleton (Donald Sumpter). Together they plot to bring a “magician” to England so he can use his knowledge of blood transfusions to cure Arthur…. The character of Singleton was created for this film. Being Dracula’s ally in the UK, he takes the place of the lunatic Renfield from the novel.
* We then meet Lucy’s friends Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) and Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonadis). Jonathan is a newly qualified solicitor who’s soon given a job. He’s told that a client called Mr Singleton has an associate on the continent who wants to buy some London property, so Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the secretive nobleman Count Dracula (Marc Warren). He looks very old – a detail from the novel that’s almost always abandoned in adaptations – and insists that Jonathan stays longer than planned. We get the usual scenes of Harker being trapped in a scary castle and being unnerved by his host’s demeanour, but in a break from the book’s plot he’s then killed rather than escapes.
* Cut back to England, and Arthur and Lucy are getting married in the rain. Lucy’s joy is short-lived, though, because Arthur chooses to go off with Singleton rather than be with her on their wedding night. This lack of interest in sex makes John suspicious so he tails Arthur, who takes part in a bizarre religious ceremony.
* Meanwhile, Dracula is travelling to Britain on board a ship called the Demeter.
* The next day, Arthur sheepishly turns up in Whitby and gives Lucy a necklace. She responds by grabbing his crotch, but he resists because of his secret syphilis.
* The Demeter beaches at Whitby, but the crew have vanished and Jonathan’s corpse is aboard. The only cargo is a box of earth. Lucy and an in-mourning Mina soon encounter Dracula, who now looks younger and doesn’t have an issue with daylight. Arthur is angry that they’ve all become friends and demands that Dracula does what he was brought to England for: cure Arthur. But the vampire openly says he’s more interested in the women of the house.
* We’re told that Dracula is 900 years old (it’s quite refreshing that no connection is made to Vlad the Impaler) then see that he can transform into a bat.
* During the night, Dracula uses his hypnotic vampire abilities to sexually abuse Lucy while Arthur sleeps in the same bed. He forces her to feed from his chest.
* Lucy subsequently falls ill, so Arthur calls in medical doctor John. He says she needs a blood transfusion, but it doesn’t work and she dies. She’s buried in Highgate Cemetery, which also features in the novel (if disguised with a fake name).
* Now that Dracula is in the UK and feeding, he doesn’t need acolyte Singleton any more so kills him. John, still on the case of what the fuck is going on, finds the corpse in a room full of ritualistic paraphernalia then searches the cellar underneath. There he encounters Abraham Van Helsing, a gibbering lunatic who’s been imprisoned because he knows a lot about Dracula. (He dodged death because he has a crucifix round his neck.)
* Van Helsing explains that Singleton and Arthur are part of the Brotherhood of the Undead, a cult who arranges for vampires such as Dracula to come to Britain. John then travels back to Whitby to confront Arthur.
* Dracula, meanwhile, targets Mina in London.
* Having cleaned up both his clothes and his mind, Van Helsing tells Arthur and John that they must view Lucy’s corpse. They creep into her crypt at night and find the coffin empty. Luce then appears standing behind them; she’s a vampire so attacks her husband and taunts John. Arthur must stake her. As he does so, we see that elsewhere Dracula is simultaneously hurt.
* The men find the Count at the Brotherhood’s HQ. He murders Arthur – by twisting his head off! Then Van Helsing distracts the vampire with some Christian rhetoric (which is very reminiscent of dialogue from The Exorcist) so that John can stake him. Dracula dies.
* In the final shot, we see a seemingly resurrected Dracula living rough on the streets of London…

Best performance: David Suchet as Van Helsing. It’s little more than a cameo – like a big famous actor showing up for a day’s work on a low-budget movie – but at least it’s an interesting performance.

Best bit: How good Sophia Myles looks in a nightgown.

Review: One of the jewels in the crown of the BBC’s Christmas schedule in 2006, this 90-minute TV movie falls very flat indeed. It has no life to it; no blood coursing through its veins. By shuffling the book’s plot, it also leads to some odd storytelling. Arthur is the lead character, but is quite unlikable and selfish. The focus then shifts to Jonathan, who meets Dracula barely a few minutes after being introduced and is killed off very quickly. The script also changes the motivations of several characters, notably Arthur. The story is now about his hubris, rather than the savagery of Count Dracula. Admittedly, it’s an interesting idea that Dracula targets our group of characters because one of them made a deal with the devil. In the novel, he more or less picks them at random. But the biggest problem with this film is a general sense of going through the motions. The cast lack energy, the script lacks distinction, and the direction is boring. It’s very difficult to care about anything that’s happening. There’s also precious little discussion of vampirism; it’s just assumed that every character and every viewer knows all about it. As BBC adaptations go, this is not a patch on the 1977 effort.

Three garden parties out of 10

Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Lovebirds Mickey and Mallory Knox go on a three-week, 52-victim killing spree…

What does QT do? Tarantino’s draft of Natural Born Killers, based on an earlier script by his pal Roger Avary, ended up in the hands of director Oliver Stone. Stone heavily rewrote it with colleagues David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, leaving Quentin with just a ‘Story by’ credit. Tarantino wasn’t involved during production.

Notable characters:
* Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Wilson Knox (Juliette Lewis) are the couple at the heart of the story. They meet when he shows up at her house delivering meat, and they soon kill her parents and go on the run. They become media darlings, though Mickey is disappointed that the TV show covering them gets lower ratings than a Charles Manson special. As with True Romance, this film is about a couple who are so in love they don’t care about anyone else. But unlike Clarence and Alabama, Mickey and Mallory are total wackos. Harrelson and Lewis certainly don’t hold back in their performances.
* Ed Wilson (Roger Dangerfield) and Mrs Wilson (Edie McClurg) are Mallory’s parents, who we see in a sequence presented as a 1960s-style studio sitcom. Ed is a slobbering monster who abuses Mallory, and her brother, Kevin (Ross Malinger), is actually her son. Mrs Wilson is played by Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
* Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) is a TV journalist on a current-affairs show called American Maniacs (‘Hosted by Wayne Gale, written by Wayne Gale, produced and directed by Wayne Gale’). It sensationalises Mickey and Mallory’s crimes and features staged reconstructions of them killing people. Gale has a mullet and possibly an Australian accent (it’s very hard to tell).
* Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is the corrupt, prostituting-killing cop on the trail of the Knoxes. After he catches them he writes a book about it.
* Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) runs the prison that features in the film’s third act. He has a 1970s suit and a 1970s tache. Jones hams it up something rotten.

Returning actors: Tom Sizemore had also played a cop in True Romance. Stand-up comedian Steven Wright, who’d voiced K-Billy in Reservoir Dogs, has a small role here as an expert interviewed on Gale’s TV show.

Music: It’s almost non-stop. There are tracks playing for virtually the entire film. Incidental cues tend to be overblown and melodramatic, while the best use of a pre-existing song is Rage Against The Machine’s Bombtrack. A scene is really well timed to its murmuring bass riff.

Time shifts and chapters: We start with Mickey and Mallory already on the rampage – a newspaper headline tells us they’re just killed six teenagers – then 10 minutes into the film we cut back and learn how the couple met and fell in love. Later on, after Mickey and Mallory have been arrested, there’s a jump to a year later.

Connections: According to Tarantino, the cop Jack Scagnetti is meant to be the brother of Mr Blonde’s unseen parole officer in Reservoir Dogs.

Review: Here’s a sample of the cinematic techniques used in this movie – slow motion, sped-up footage, off-kilter camera angles, point-of-view shots, shots played in reverse, black-and-white shots cut into colour scenes, colour-tinted shots, negative images, film scratches, videotape footage, Super-8 footage, 16mm footage, CCTV footage, stock footage, animation, on-screen captions, subtitles projected onto actors’ bodies, clips from commercials, disorientating editing, obvious rear-projection, an entire sequence presented as if from an old studio sitcom (laughter track and all) and segments from a TV news show. It’s *exhausting*. Early on, you subconsciously expect the film to calm down, but it’s constantly gimmicky and tricksy. And with no variety or nuance, it becomes very boring very quickly. The second quarter, in which the Knoxes meet a Native American who gives them hallucinogens, is especially tedious. Yes, there’s satire going on – the journalists are ruthless, the authority figures have no morals, the public is entertained by mass murder, everyone’s a moron – but it’s like a drunk pontificating in a pub. Even if the points are valid, you just want the ranting to stop. Every now and again there are flashes of Tarantino dialogue or wit, but then comes along more ultraviolence, brutality, incest, torture, vulgarity… A mess.

Three prison riots out of 10

House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C Kenton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Somewhere vaguely European, maybe around the turn of the nineteenth century. This is an entry in Universal Pictures’ series of horror movies all set in the same continuity, so we’re not too far away from what had been established.

Faithful to the novel? No. Dr Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) and sidekick Daniel (J Carrol Naish) escape from prison and seek revenge on Bürgermeister Hussman, the guy who imprisoned Niemann. Along the way they murder a travelling showman and take his place – the show includes an exhibit of the bones of Count Dracula. So Niemann resurrects Dracula (John Carradine), who does his bidding. The vampire seduces a woman called Rita (Anne Gwynne) and murders Hussman (Sig Ruman). Niemann then exposes the count to sunlight, killing him. The story continues without any Dracula-related-ness. The doctor ends up in Castle Frankenstein and finds both Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) frozen in ice.

Best performance: Elena Verdugo’s not too bad as Ilonka, a gypsy girl who gets dragged along with the story and forms a love triangle with Daniel and Talbot the Wolf Man.

Best bit: The opening in the prison.

Review: Well, it’s not very good, sadly. It starts off spookily enough, with dramatically lit scenes and plenty of foreboding. But you soon realise the plot is just an excuse for dragging classic monsters into the same story. It gets sillier – and more boring – the longer it goes on.

Three stinky, slimy dungeons out of 10

Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness (2004, Darrell Roodt)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The year 3000. Deep space, on board a ship called the Demeter that’s been found drifting in the Carpathian System.

Faithful to the novel? No, although there are some deliberate echoes. The plot sees the crew of a salvage space ship called Mother III board a large derelict (which seems to be Soviet for some reason). The leader of the team is Abraham Van Helsing (Casper Van Dien), while his five-strong crew include characters called Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby), who’s a tech guy in a wheelchair, and navigator Mina Murray (Alexandra Kamp). Away from the source material, Coolio plays a guy obsessed with getting high on dope. The characters soon find the skeleton of the captain, which is tied to a chair in an echo of the sea captain from the book. The captain is played by Udo Kier from 1974’s Blood for Dracula and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. We see his log entries from 50 years previously, but the characters don’t. After a lot of wandering about, Count Orlock (aka Dracula) shows up. He’s the last of the vampires and has been woken up by the Mother III crew. Our heroes have never heard of vampires, so have to Google the concept. An on-screen history of the mythology includes mention of Lord Ruthven (from the 1819 short story The Vampyre), the original Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s book and the lead character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871-72 novella Carmilla.

Best performance: No one’s any good. Erika Eleniak at least wears a tight vest and leather trousers as Aurora. The character is later revealed to be a robot on a covert mission, sorta like Ash in Alien. However, rather than go psycho, her twist is that she used to be a ‘pleasure bot’… and at the end she offers Tiny Lister’s character some free sex. So the film can add misogyny to its many flaws.

Best bit: Um. Let’s see. Er. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Review: This low-budget Alien rip-off was released on DVD in 2004, and it’s shot like a TV show, with ‘drama’ done in big fat close-ups. It’s not scary or especially violent; the dialogue is crass; the performances are awful; and the action is very poor. It’s all so incredibly shallow. No one seems that bothered about what’s going on, or that their colleagues are getting killed. Dross but it passed the time.

Three moon cycles out of 10

Omen IV: The Awakening (Fox, 20 May 1991, Jorge Montesi and Dominque Othenin-Girard)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

US Congressman Gene York (Michael Woods) and wife Karen (Faye Grant) adopt a baby girl from an orphanage, but as Delia (Asia Vieria) grows up a number of strange deaths begin to occur…

Best performance: Michael Lerner shows up in the second half as a private eye called Earl Knight. The actor refers to his character as a ‘low-rent Columbo’ on the DVD extras, and that’s not far off. He’s fun and has a lot more life to him than anyone else. That is, until…

Best death: Moments after posting some vital information to Karen, Earl is looking in some shop windows. He sees a toy crane, then a small model of the Nativity scene. He has a vision of the baby Jesus turning evil and starts to panic. In a cut, it’s suddenly raining and a dazed Earl stumbles through the town. He then has a vision of macabre, ghostly people singing the incidental music to him. Meanwhile, a crane on a nearby construction site swings a wrecking ball into action. Earl is clutching his heart and sweating, but comes to a rest outside the building site. He begins to calm down. However, in the background the enormous crane is silently turning towards him. The wrecking ball gains momentum, smashes through an office, and – in a super-slo-mo POV shot – heads directly for Earl…

Pilot: Fox had another attempt at The Omen on TV in 1995. A one-off episode staring William Sadler, Brett Cullen and Chelsea Fields was broadcast on 8 September. Richard Donner, the director of the original movie, put his name to it as executive producer – but quickly denounced the episode as garbage. A series didn’t follow.

Review: “I’ve got an idea,” some executive at the Fox network must have said. “Let’s take the Omen franchise and turn it into a lacklustre TV movie!” Almost everything in this film reeks of daytime-soap dreariness. The story heads down a predictable road – Delia starts to act oddly, threats to her are killed off, we find out she’s the daughter of Damien Thorn – and it’s very hard to care about anything that happens. It doesn’t help that the cast is largely bland and the film was clearly shot on a budget. (Despite the story being set in Virginia, it was filmed in Vancouver – so even though the events take place over a long period, it’s *always* wintery!) The script also references a large number of non-Catholic beliefs – Native American culture, tarot, auras, healing crystals, general New Age mysticism, cults – but never uses them for anything interesting. This general lack of attack might be because of a troubled shoot: the producer wasn’t happy with the first director so replaced him halfway through. In the film’s favour, the switcheroo plot twist – that Delia is actually a bodyguard and the Antichrist is Karen’s newborn son – is inventive and works well. But overall this is rotten.

Three snakes out of 10

Blade: Trinity (2004, David S Goyer)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern day. A brief prologue is set in the Syrian desert, then the bulk of the film takes place in an unspecified US city.

Faithful to the novel? Dracula is the villain of the piece, though he’s only loosely related to Bram Stoker’s character. At the start of the story, a group of vampires find him buried in the Middle East. He’s initially a monster, but once he’s fed he starts to look human (and is played by Dominic Purcell). “No one really knows” his origins, we’re told. But we’re also told that he’s ancient, from Sumaria, was the original vampire, and has never evolved. Dracula is just one name he’s had; he now prefers Drake. He can also walk about in daylight and change his appearance. All vampires burn away to dust when killed, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Two vampire hunters have the surname Whistler – as does a notably similar character in a key episode of Buffy. The Blade comic-book series used the name first.) A vampire-hunter called Blade (Wesley Snipes) gets involved with a team who want to track down Dracula and use his DNA to destroy other vamps (one is played by Ryan Reynolds, another by Jessica Biel). They call themselves the Nightstalkers.

Best performance: Despite rotten dialogue, Ryan Reynolds is doing an okay job at being a smartarse.

Best bit: In a creepy scene, a blind character walks through a room unaware of the dead bodies at her feet.

Review: It starts with an arch voiceover telling us that previous movie versions of Dracula are full of shit. Well, vampire hunters in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This is the third film in the Blade series (and the only one to use Dracula). It assumes you’ve seen the first two, with only light reinforcement of the set-up and character history. It seems Blade is some kind of ‘hybrid’, but it’s never explained what that means exactly. The film really is a load of old nonsense. A huge amount of effort has gone into the action sequences and fight scenes, but areas such as character and story seem unimportant. It also has a leaden fetish about guns and weapons. One female vampire is said to have her fangs in her vagina – that gives you some idea of the tone.

Three powerful UV lasers out of 10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a prologue set in Transylvania in 1462. We then cut to London, 1897 (‘Four centuries later,’ a caption helpfully tells viewers with poor maths). The film is littered with mentions of dates, a way of echoing the novel’s use of diaries, letters and newspaper articles. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on his way to Castle Dracula on 25 May. On 30 May, diary entries from Harker, Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dr Seward (Richard E Grant) are read out as voiceover. We hear extracts from the log of the Demeter dated 27 June and 3 July. Having arrived in the UK, Dracula (Gary Oldman) rises from his coffin on 7 July. Harker’s finally escaped the castle by 12 August. On 17 September, he returns to London. And Harker’s diary tells us that he and his colleagues are chasing the count across Europe on 28 October.

Faithful to the novel? At the time of the film’s release, much publicity was made of it being an unusually unswerving adaptation of Stoker’s text. It is roughly the same story. However, *lots* of things have been changed, such as:

* Dracula actually is Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century psychopath who enjoyed torturing his enemies. Stoker certainly took inspiration from the historical figure when researching his novel, and Van Helsing suggests a connection between the two men – but this movie began a vogue for making it much more literal.

* Mina is the reincarnation of Vlad’s lost love, Elisabeta, who committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking Vlad had been killed. When he learns what she’s done, Vlad seemingly just decides to become immortal so he can avenge her death. (He blames God rather than the Turk who lied to her.)

* Once the story moves to the Victorian era, the role of Renfield (Tom Waits) has been changed: in this version he was a solicitor who visited Dracula and came back insane.

* Unlike the novel, the film presents events in chronological order, so Harker’s experiences at the castle are intercut with Mina and others back in Britain.

* Something that *is* faithful to the book is that when Harker first meets Dracula, the vampire appears to be elderly and only becomes visually younger as he feeds. It’s a detail that’s often ignored in adaptations. Oldman’s old-man make-up makes him look like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

* Dracula is buying 10 properties in London, not just Carfax Abbey.

* It’s possible Whitby is ignored. The Demeter lands at a seaside town with vertiginous headlands, but the rest of the UK action appears to all take place in London. Lucy’s mother is also absent from this version.

* Mina’s friendship with Lucy (Sadie Frost) is a touch more salacious: they get giggly while looking at sexually explicit drawings in a book, while they share a cheeky kiss at one point.

* Dracula can move around in the daytime.

* Newly arrived in London, Dracula spots Mina and recognises her as the reincarnation of Elisabeta. A newly invented subplot sees them then have an affair of sorts, which runs parallel to his pursuit of Lucy. The story’s chronology is rejigged significantly around this section.

* Dracula is often in the form of a wolf, and even becomes a big human/bat type monster.

* When under Dracula’s influence, Mina seduces Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He’s well up for the kiss-kiss, but pulls away when she tries to bite him.

* Mina kills Dracula.

Best performance: Richard E Grant is probably the best of a bad bunch, playing a half-klutzy, half-junkie Seward.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s more-sexual-than-usual encounter with the Brides (one of whom is Monica Bellucci).

Review: Francis Ford Coppola had impressive form when it came to making great cinema out of a potboiler novel. But the magic dust he sprinkled over The Godfather got blown away by a stiff breeze here. The movie certainly looks good, especially in inventive sequences such as the puppet-show-like flashbacks. There are plenty of impressively in-camera special effects. And the notion of Dracula’s shadow having a mind of its own is a neat idea that very nearly works. But this is a terrible film. The cast are appalling – most notably the horrendously miscast Keanu Reeves – while it gets thunderingly boring about halfway in. Ideas get set up then abandoned and there are also lots of jarring oddities, such as Victorian gentlemen not spotting that a woman’s breast is exposed, which make you question how firmly focused Coppola’s directorial eye was. The film also loses at least two marks for codifying the dreary cliché that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.

Three beheadings out of 10