Friday, June 15, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part II

The past movie marathon was a bit heavy on the '50s movies, although I also saw at least one movie from the '30s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. The '40s and the '60s simply weren't a good time for the genres of movies I'm interested in. Here are a couple non-'50s films.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Probably the best film I saw during this marathon, this early '30s horror movie is based on H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. Although the filmmakers' took a few liberties with the plot, the film is surprisingly faithful to the novel compared to other adaptations from the same period such as Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931). It's also surprising how much more violent and disturbing '30s films could be compared to movies from the '40s and '50s. In fact, the film was banned in Britain until 1958.

After his ship goes down, Edward Parker is rescued by a vessel carrying a load of wild animals bound for the private island of Dr. Moreau. In return for defending Moreau's misshapen servant from the ship's short-tempered captain, Parker gets dumped onto Moreau's yacht, which has arrived to pick up the animals. Upon arriving at the island, Parker quickly notices that it's inhabited by odd, even bestial "natives". Although Moreau promises to take him back to civilization, the doctor's yacht becomes "mysteriously" damaged. While other arrangements are supposedly being made, Moreau encourages Lota, the lone woman on the island, to interact with Parker.

It isn't long before Parker discovers that the natives aren't human at all; all of them were originally animals that were surgically transformed by Moreau in his "House of Pain". The lot are kept civil through threats and constant repetition of "The Law". While trying to find a way off the island and away from Moreau's inhuman experiments, Parker starts to have romantic feelings for Lota. What our hero doesn't know is that Lota is referred to as "The Panther Woman" in the film's opening credits and that the doctor has high hopes that his latest experiment will prove to be indistinguishable from a natural-born human in all respects.

Island of Lost Souls is one of the better movies of the decade. It's well-paced, its cinematography is dynamic and striking for a film from the '30s, and it features an excellent cast. Dr. Moreau is the perfect mad scientist in that he's not insane, but is entirely rational and logical in the execution of an insane work. His delivery of lines such as "Do you know what it means to feel like God" is spot on. That particular line was also one of multiple reasons why Britain's censors repeatedly refused to certify the film. Other reasons included (non-graphic) scenes of animal experimentation as well as the doctor's express belief that the true test of the success of his experiments will be whether or not one of his creations can successfully mate with a human being. Like I said, '30s films were often a lot more disturbing than films made 20 years later.

In a hilarious case of false advertising, the movie poster depicts Lota in a seductive pose and with, um... strategically placed hair, and claims that she "lured men on-- only to destroy them body and soul!" In reality, Lota is an extremely sympathetic character who actually rescues the hero at the cost of her own life. Additionally, Bela Lugosi's name is listed with those of the main actors. Much to my surprise, Lugosi doesn't play Dr. Moreau (Moreau is played by Charles Laughton, who probably does a better job than Lugosi would have) but is instead the "Sayer of the Law". He has only a few minutes of screen time and is so covered in makeup and fake hair that he's identifiable only by his voice and eyes. And yes, the camera does the mandatory closeup on Lugosi's eyes, although he doesn't hypnotize anyone with them.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
I started reading the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes a few weeks ago and decided to add the movie to the most recent marathon. Although the novel's author, Ray Bradbury, wrote the film's screenplay, the movie isn't quite as good as the book. Ironically, Bradbury died while I was in the middle of the novel and only a few days after I had seen the film.

When Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show arrives on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of the night, the townsfolk find themselves strangely attracted to the carnival. However, young Jim Nightshade, his best friend William Halloway, and Will's relatively elderly father, Charles Halloway, quickly realize that something isn't right. Not only are Mr. Dark and his entourage distinctly menacing, but within the first day of the carnival's arrival, various locals who seem to live in the past go missing and new additions to the carnival's freak show mysteriously appear. One of the oddest occurrences is witnessed by Jim and Will, who watch as carnival member Mr. Cooger takes a late night ride on a backwards-running carousel and becomes younger with each rotation. When the two boys come across Mr. Dark's interrogation of the local storm-sensing lightning rod salesman, Dark and company realize that Jim and Will are a threat to their diabolical operation. It's up to Will's father to save his son and his friend from the carnival which, as revealed by an old journal, rises up every few decades to prey on the town.

Something Wicked This Way Comes isn't a bad movie, but it could have been a lot better. It falls short in odd ways that seem to be artifacts of its transfer from the printed page to the screen. Its plot is relatively close to that of the book (although a number of understandable changes are made to simplify the special effects and to keep the movie's length to about an hour and a half), but a few alterations and missing elements ensure that it isn't quite as good as the novel it's based on.

The first problem is that the movie haphazardly uses some of the more memorable and striking scenes from the book (e.g., the backwards-running carousel, the Dust Witch's use of magic against Jim and Will) in ways that make little sense in the context of the film. In the book the carousel has an important function; it's not only used to allow Mr. Cooger to impersonate a teacher's young nephew, but it's also used to tempt those townsfolk who want to become younger (e.g., the teacher herself) or older (Jim Nightshade). Since the carnival's not in the business of giving you what you actually want, the teacher is reduced to a helpless little girl. In the movie, the teacher does become young again, but it happens while she's looking in a mirror, not while riding the carousel. And except for a brief mention of Jim wanting to become older, the film's carousel doesn't come into play again until the climatic final sequence (which is admittedly pretty cool). Another sequence from the book involves the Dust Witch using her magic to attempt to find where Jim and Will live. Apparently it was believed that the movie should involve a similar scene, but all the Witch's magic does in the movie is give the boys intense nightmares, which does nothing to help the carnival locate or stop the troublemakers. Since the movie's version of these scenes have been bereft of the meaning and purpose they had in the novel, it's not obvious why they're even included and might even be confusing for viewers who aren't familiar with the source material.

The second problem is the fact that the child actors can't portray the depth and complexity of their literary counterparts. For example, the novel's Jim Nightshade is depicted as a child who has seen too much of the world and is becoming more withdrawn with each passing year. He desperately wants to leave childhood and the smothering attentions of his single mother behind and is drawn by the mystery of the carnival and the potential of the carousel to allow him to immediately achieve physical maturity. Thus, Jim's behavior, motivations, and inner-conflict in the novel are perfectly understandable. The film's Jim Nightshade also wants to use the carousel to age himself, but his motivations are unclear. The film character shows none of the world-weariness or unhealthy attraction to mystery, nor does his behavior suggest that Mr. Dark's promise of "Nightshade's and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show" would tempt him.

While I've criticized the film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes, it's possibly because the movie's errors become much more obvious after reading the novel. On the plus side, the movie's adult actors do a very good job. Since the young actors can't fully carry the story as the novel's characters do, Will's father, Charles Halloway, is given a much bigger role. Fortunately, Jason Robard is excellent in the role as a man who feels much too old to be the father of a 13 year old boy and who now has to save him from the physical embodiment of evil. Additionally, Jonathan Pryce is well cast as Mr. Dark. Rather than attempt the bombast of the novel's character, Pryce aims for quiet menace. Nowadays Pryce is better known for playing Governor Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It's funny how the same quiet voice and small smile he uses as the foppish governor can be twisted into something so threatening.

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