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Hammer Films: “Horror of Dracula” (1958)

Christopher Lee Dracula

Christopher Lee didn’t have much to do as the Creature in “The Curse of Frankenstein” since Peter Cushing as Baron Victor von Frankenstein was the true monster of the film, but now that Hammer Films was undertaking Bram Stoker’s novel, Lee was going to at least have some lines. Lee and Cushing worked with the same director, Terence Fisher, at the helm.

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssan) infiltrates Count Dracula’s castle by posing as a librarian. This opening sequence is the only time that Dracula speaks in the entire film. Harker is soon revealed to be a vampire slayer in this adaptation, a protégé of Dr. Van Helsing. Harker is bitten by Dracula’s bride (he only has one in this version), but is sure to destroy the bride before he loses his humanity. Dracula goes in search of a new bride, targeting Harker’s fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh). Dr. Van Helsing arrives at the castle and puts Harker out of his misery, then joins the other characters for the remainder of film, trying his best to protect Lucy despite the ire he draws from her family.

Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) is the brother of Lucy as appose to her suitor as he was in the novel, and Mina (Melissa Stribling) is Arthur’s wife as appose to Jonathan’s fiancé. R.M. Renfield was left out of the film altogether. Lucy is eventually turned into a vampire, so Arthur becomes Van Helsing’s new assistant. Lucy as a vampire might be more chilling than even Dracula. Dr. Van Helsing drives a stake through her heart, then waits for Dracula to make his next move. Little does he know that Dracula has taken up residence in the cellar of Arthur and Mina’s home.

Dracula sets his eyes on Mina and takes her back to his castle. Van Helsing and Arthur give chase. Dracula buries Mina alive, then is pursued into the castle by Van Helsing. The conflict ends when Van Helsing rips the drapes off of a window and Dracula is disintegrated by sunlight. Arthur dug up Mina just in the nick of time and the curse was broken.

Only Peter Cushing returned for the first sequel, “Brides of Dracula,” which was a very misleading title as the alluring female vampires in the film had no connection to Count Dracula. Christopher Lee returned for “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” which was like a precursor to “slasher” movies in its approach as two couples were stranded at his castle and got killed off by a silent killer. Lee played the part mute because he was displeased with his dialogue in the script. “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” was clever in that Dracula was inadvertently resurrected by an exorcism gone wrong and an atheist ends up being the one who must vanquish the evil count. Lee and Cushing were reunited as Dracula and Van Helsing in “Dracula 1972 A.D.”


Batman: The Joel Schumacher Years

Batman Forever

“Batman Forever” (1995)
Directed by Joel Schumacher,
Starring Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne / Batman,
Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent / Two-Face,
Jim Carrey as Edward Nigma / The Riddler,
Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian,
Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson / Robin,
Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon,
& Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth

As a response to the highly controversial and overly morose “Batman Returns,” Warner Brothers produced “Batman Forever,” a flashy popcorn movie with Joel Schumacher at the helm. Tim Burton was the executive producer, but I have an inkling that he didn’t have too much creative input. Audiences looked to past Joel Schumacher films such as “The Lost Boys” and “Flatliners” for reasons to be optimistic. Before there was IMDB, you would scope the posters in theaters to see which movies were “coming soon.” The teaser poster of “Batman Forever” was ingenious. The Batman logo was surrounded by a question mark. You knew that The Dark Knight was returning to the cinemas and that he would have to contend with The Riddler. Any questions?

Val Kilmer took over as Bruce Wayne / Batman. His interpretation of Bruce was closer to the comics than Michael Keaton’s in that he portrayed a brooding and lonely orphan who knew to always keep up his public image as a dashing playboy. Bruce Wayne was a recluse in the two Tim Burton movies, but in Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City, Bruce is the toast of the town. Conversely, Val Kilmer’s Batman was lacking in my opinion. He didn’t really seem like a “Dark Knight,” especially when comparing him to Michael Keaton. Once the cape and cowl went on, Val Kilmer came across as a generic Saturday morning cartoon superhero. It’s a good thing that he’d already played Doc Holiday to perfection in “Tombstone” and built up a lot of goodwill. I’m not going to comment on the nipples or enlarged codpieces that defined the Batman and Robin costumes in this flick. Enough had been said and written about over the years in regards to bat-nipples.

As I mentioned, everyone in Gotham City is entranced with Bruce Wayne, none more so than Edward Nigma, an underappreciated and somewhat unhinged technician employed by Wayne Enterprises. This was during the height of Jim Carrey-Mania. He had three massive hits in 1994, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” and “Dumb & Dumber.” Some have complained that he wasn’t menacing like Frank Gorshin was as The Riddler back on the 1960s TV series, but I think that Jim Carrey gave a decent performance. I surely preferred him to Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent / Two-Face. Whether Jones was trying to emulate Jack Nicholson’s Joker or he was fearful of being upstaged by Jim Carrey’s Riddler, he gave an uninspiring and cackling performance as Gotham’s disgraced D.A., with none of the pathos associated with the character. During promotional interviews, Tommy Lee Jones spoke of Jekyll & Hyde, but I saw none of that influence in his portrayal of Two-Face.

Tim Burton’s Bat-films are more highly thought of nowadays than Joel Schumacher’s glorified toy commercials, but back in 1995, audiences were digging “Batman Forever.” It was probably the second highest grossing film of 1995 (“Toy Story” being number one). Val Kilmer was a heartthrob for the ladies and Jim Carrey was becoming a mega star. So was Nicole Kidman, who circa 1995 was just about the most attractive woman in Hollywood. She played Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian. It’s hard to come up with a word that properly described her beauty at the time. Elegant? Radiant? Exquisite? I’ll go with exquisite. Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Nicole Kidman. Batman sure has a things for blondes back then.

What is there to say about Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson / Robin? The boy wonder had to be brought into the film series at some point. Yes, Chris O’Donnell was too old to be adopted by Bruce Wayne, but that was the 90210 trend in the early to mid-1990s. Twenty something actors cast as teenagers, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.

So, is Joel Schumacher history’s greatest monster as was stated on “Robot Chicken?” He turned Gotham City into a giant techno inspired nightclub with strobe lights in every direction. I guess it all boils down to personal preference. Myself, I prefer the Michael Keaton batmobile much more than the one in “Batman Forever.” I also prefer Danny Elfman’s score to Elliot Goldenthal’s. “Batman Forever” is entertaining, but was never my cup of tea even though Jim Carrey and Nicole Kidman elevated their star status by appearing in this movie.

Batman & Robin

“Batman & Robin” (1997)
Directed by Joel Schumacher,
Starring George Clooney as Bruce Wayne / Batman,
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Victor Fries / Mr. Freeze,
Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson / Robin,
Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley / Poison Ivy,
Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl,
Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon,
& Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth

Yikes. Criticizing “Batman & Robin” is such commonplace, especially on the internet, that there’s virtually nothing negative left to say. I’ll just do my best to find some new and exciting ways to bash this piece of crap… This insult to the Batman mythos. I went easy on Joel Schumacher when it came to “Batman Forever,” but he’s left me with no choice this time around.

This movie never even remotely took itself seriously. There were far too many failed attempts at humor. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze had 23 (by my count) lines of dialogue which were ice related puns!!! And I don’t know what was going on with the production design. The Mr. Freeze suit looked utterly ridiculous. A real clunky mess. I guess that Uma Thurman was so-so as Poison Ivy, or at least she was no worse than the other cast members.

George Clooney, who is now a huge star, was quite simply miscast. Sorry. He’s fine as a billionaire playboy, the part he was born to play, but he was a lackluster Bruce Wayne and there was no attempt made whatsoever to effectively portray The Dark Knight. His Batman was nothing more than George Clooney in a cape and cowl. This movie is filled with borderline unwatchable action sequences like the batmobile driving across a giant statue of a naked man. The animated “Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero,” which was released on VHS around the same time, had more substance to it than this live action atrocity.

Akiva Goldsman, co-writer of “Batman Forever,” penned the screenplay of “Batman & Robin” on his own. This movie actually had a screenplay? Well, an uninspired one to say the least. Speaking of uninspired, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl was what is known as uninspired casting. She wasn’t even Jim Gordon’s daughter. And don’t even get me started on the characterization of Bane. Since when is Bane a grunting simpleton? He’s suppose to be a Latin Hannibal Lecter, jacked up on steroids.

Commissioner Gordon, played by Pat Hingle, never had too much to do in this Burton / Schumacher series. He and Michael Gough were the only actors to appear in all four of the films. In “Batman & Robin,” Commissioner Gordon was made into a complete and utter buffoon, though Michael Gough had some nice moments. Bruce sitting beside the deathbed of Alfred was the only redeeming scene in this film. It’s only fair that I point out something positive.

Back to the negative. There was a motorcycle race with Coolio as the emcee. Give me a break. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson bicker like an old married couple. I guess that’s reasonable since Bruce has created a surrogate family for himself and families will have their disagreements and argue from time to time. I cannot, however, defend those silver suits and a bat-zamboni? Why would Batman have ever constructed a zamboni? I can understand all his other bat-vehicles, but a zamboni? And what’s with the silver suits? Were they special anti-freeze suits? Give me one damn line of dialogue to justify these new suits.

The legacy of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” is that it killed the franchise (for eight years). A fifth film, “Batman Triumphant,” was to have featured The Scarecrow as the main antagonist and possibly the return of The Joker. Those are my two favorite members of the Rogue’s Gallery and would’ve enjoyed seeing them in the same movie. “Batman Triumphant” was cancelled because of the negative response to “Batman & Robin.” From the ashes would rise Christopher Nolan to give us a new beginning to the Batman cinematic saga.

Batman: The Tim Burton Years

Batman '89

“Batman” (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton,
Starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne / Batman,
Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier / The Joker,
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale,
Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent,
Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon,
& Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth

Seeing Tim Burton’s “Batman” in the summer of 1989 while on vacation in Orlando, Florida is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. To this day, I don’t think that enough is said about just how clever the opening of this film is. A family, a boy and his parents, leave a theater and take a shortcut down an alley where they are accosted by two muggers. You immediately think “origin story,” but The Dark Knight is revealed to be watching this from a rooftop above. Nice.

Some say that this film does not stand the test of time. I will agree that the visuals have not aged well. This representation of Gotham City was created my mat paintings and miniatures, which were never meant to be viewed on an HD DVD or Blu-ray. The look of this film is reminiscent of a 1940s gangster movie. Pinstripe suits and tommy-guns. This was appropriate as Batman was created by Bob Kane in 1939 and I think this film holds up better than “Dick Tracy,” which was released in 1990 and had a similar blend of Depression Era comic strips and gangster flicks.

Tim Burton was criticized at the time for his decision to cast Michael Keaton, whom he had directed in “Beetlejuice,” as Bruce Wayne. Though not a physically imposing actor, Michael Keaton embodied the poignant and infuriated orphan aspects of Bruce Wayne’s psychosis, the manifestation of which is Gotham City’s embittered Dark Knight. Burton and Keaton choose to omit the playboy façade and presented Bruce Wayne as a recluse. I guess the only real drawback to such an approach was that it would not take too much deductive reasoning to realize that Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne WAS Batman if you were one of the few to share his company. Keaton, to the best of my knowledge, was also the originator of the “bat-voice.” Adam West, who I had the honor of seeing live with Burt Ward at New York Comic Con 2012, never differentiated between Bruce and Batman in his dialogue. Kevin Conroy, who I saw live at New York Comic Con in 2011 and 2012, Val Kilmer, and Christian Bale have all taken cues from Michael Keaton. George Clooney harkened back to Adam West, but without much success.

Batman remains is the shadows for much of this film. Meanwhile, Jack the Joker chews up the scenery. I’m not sure if I’m calling him “Jack” because the character was named Jack Napier or if it’s because Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime seems like his true personality with the volume turned all the way up. In the comics, there is no definitive origin story for The Joker. A few had attempted to garner sympathy for the character while another established his past as the Red Hood, a less successful criminal persona. Screenwriter Sam Hamm simplified matters by having Jack Napier as second-in-command of the Gotham City mafia. His transformation into The Joker was more cosmetic since he already had this very anti-social personality. Having Joker as a Mafioso also justifies having an unlimited supply of henchmen (or soldiers). Something that is not easily explained with other comic book villains. 1-800-HENCHMEN? After Heath Ledger’s amazing turn as The Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” audiences now consider Jack Nicholson quaint by comparison. That’s not really fair since the tone of the films were completely different. Jack Nicholson was a mob boss Joker while Heath Ledger was a domestic terrorist Joker. That is two distinctly different interpretations of the same comic book character.

Comic book aficionados take umbrage with the final two scenes of the second act, which were not written by Sam Hamm. I too have problems with these scenes, but for different reasons. My grievances have little to do with any contradictions to the source material. First, a flashback reveals a young Jack Napier was the murderer of Bruce’s parents. A big departure from the comics, but since this film was my introduction to the Batman mythos, I accepted it at face value. My real issue is that the flashback comes out of nowhere. It wasn’t set up at all. Earlier, Bruce is skimming through Jack Napier’s wrap sheet and a mugshot of the young Napier is visible for just a moment. Extend that scene for a few more moments, have Bruce examine the photo, then inform Alfred that this Napier fella seems familiar. Something simple like that would have sufficed. Is it at all possible that Bruce was hallucinating that The Joker murdered his parents? Is he making himself believe that he heard the killer ask, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?,” after hearing Joker speaks those words in Vicki Vale’s apartment? I’ve been told not to read too much into my theory as Tim Burton probably didn’t have anything that complex in mind.

Bruce then snaps out of his daze and discovers that Alfred has shown Vicki into the bat-cave. Many consider this to be an ultimate betrayal. No girls allowed in the bat-cave. I always found it curious that a pre-teen male acrobat wearing skintight booty shorts is permitted into the bat-cave, but not the vivacious Kim Basinger. My only issue with the scene is that Vicki and Bruce appear head over heels in love after only one date. A flaw common in many films.

Composer Danny Elfman’s score for this film is iconic. His opening title march rivals John William’s theme for “Superman: The Movie.” The Prince songs are a bit more polarizing. The general consensus is that his musical contributions date the movie. For the record, there are only three songs of his played in their entirety. A few seconds of “Bat-Dance” are heard in the background of the establishing shot of Gotham. Prince is not prominently featured until The Joker ransacks the art museum and again when the parade is in full swing. Tim Burton does acknowledge that Prince’s sound captured the essence of The Joker. A romantic ballad by Prince plays during the closing credits, but only after Danny Elfman’s march finishes. A variation of Danny Elfman’s work would be used as the theme to “Batman: The Animated Series.” Tim Burton’s “Batman” is not unlike other childhood favorites such as “Gremlins” and “Ghostbusters.” A true product of the 1980s, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Batman Returns

“Batman Returns” (1992)
Directed by Tim Burton,
Starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne / Batman,
Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin,
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle / Catwoman,
Christopher Walken as Max Shreck,
Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon,
& Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth

I remember playing with “Batman Returns” toys which came with McDonald’s Happy Meals. At the time, I was unaware that this film was considered wildly inappropriate for someone my age. It didn’t dawn on me for years how bleak this movie actually is. Tim Burton, talented as he is, insured that Warner Brothers would never permit him to direct another Batman film. I mean, the opening sequence shows parents attempting to drown their baby at Christmas. Wow, that is dark.

Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, was not depicted as a crime boss with a nightclub, rather he was a vilely deranged circus freak, who had been discarded by his wealthy parents (Yes, that is Pee Wee Herman in a cameo as Oswald’s father). There were also liberties taken with Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Instead of being a master thief, she was a mousy secretary, murdered by her boss and resurrected by alley cats. Her following nervous breakdown alone is worth the price of admission. I thought incorporating the supernatural was a nice touch, but comic book aficionados have condemned Tim Burton for tampering with these iconic characters.

The Penguin runs for office just as Burgess Meredith had done on the 1960s TV series, but Burgess Meredith was never as distasteful as Danny DeVito was in this movie. Tim Burton has an inclination of using stitches as a visual cue, but never as effectively as he did with Michelle Pfeiffer’s skintight leather Catwoman costume. I recall she described herself as “yummy.” A true femme fatale.

Christopher Walken portrayed Max Shreck, a character not in the comics, but who was the driving force of the story. I think most people know that he was named after the star of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Max Shreck is Bruce Wayne’s rival in the boardroom, the man pulling the strings of The Penguin’s mayoral campaign, and he inadvertently creates Catwoman by pushing her out of a window. Apparently, Max Shreck took the place of Harvey Dent in the screenplay. Billy Dee Williams portrayed Gotham City‘s D.A. in the previous film and Tommy Lee Jones assumed the role of Two-Face in “Batman Forever,” but this film neglected to bridge the gap and show Harvey’s descent into villainy.

Robin, the boy wonder, was penciled in to appear this time around, but alas, he didn’t make the cut. The film was so cramped even without Robin that Michael Keaton, who receives top billing and plays the title character, had no more screentime than the other main characters. Batman and Catwoman did share a memorable “kiss.” I’m pretty sure that Michaels Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer were nominated for an MTV Movie Award for “Best Kiss,” but I can’t recall if they won and I refuse to look it up. This was the last time that Michael Keaton appeared as The Dark Knight. His departure was probably a combination of Tim Burton taking a backseat to Joel Schumacher on the next film and frustration over continuingly playing second fiddle to the villains.

I sometimes refer to “Batman Returns” as “The Nightmare Before Gotham” because the story takes place during the festive Christmas season. There is a macabre mood to this film without question, but there’s been too much griping about Batman taking lives in both Tim Burton movies. There was a body count, but it wasn’t cold blooded murder. I say it qualifies as abstract murder. The killing of a faceless enemy in the heat of battle. It’s not like Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne went all Frank Castle and was patrolling Gotham, wasting the bad guys with automatic weapons. The army of penguins were the most trigger happy characters in this movie, yet they were still compassionate enough to serve as the pallbearers for Oswald. Such a downbeat climax. Catwoman disappeared and it was hinted that she would return in a future sequel, but that never materialized. A Catwoman spin-off with Halle Berry was release in 2004 and it was atrociously bad.

Tim Burton’s unique style might not be everyone’s taste and some will argue that it just didn’t mesh with the Batman mythos, especially in this second outing, but he is an artist and unlike his immediate successor, cared more about the craft than monetary gain.