Side Jobs and Brief Cases – Two Short Story Collections from The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

These two books are each a group of short stories that Jim Butcher has collected.  Side Jobs was published in 2010 and Brief Cases was published in 2018.  In each case Butcher collected the stories that had been published in anthologies then added a new novella at the end.  And obviously the differences in subject matter and tone in the collections match up with the where they fit in the chronology of the Dresden Files at the time they were written.  But just as with the overall series the “feel” of the stories and especially the character of Harry himself is surprisingly consistent.  He is as always, a wise-cracking, annoying defender of the human world against the forces of the various supernatural creatures he opposes.  He battles White, Red and Black Court vampires, ghosts, sorcerers, werewolves, faeries and other folklore creatures.  Harry is always a little too lefty and feminist for my complete stamp of approval but Butcher writes a very good story and I have been reading these books for a very long time and even when some lefty cultural stance annoys me, I still read and enjoy the story.  And these stories are no exception.  Some character or some comment from Harry will annoy me but I’ll still read and enjoy each story.

The stories are self-sufficient and can be read alone without the need to jump into the next one.  And because the stories were written for various anthologies some of them have oddball plots that were picked to fit in to some overarching theme.  Like in Brief Cases there is a western story called “A Fistful of Warlocks” that was written for an anthology called “Straight Outta Tombstone.”  And likewise for other stories that had themes relating to weddings or relationships or even beer or baseball.  But even the stories that you would think would be just a throwaway Butcher puts in the work and makes the story hang together.  And in these short stories sometimes Harry isn’t even the narrator.  Thomas Raith, John Marcone, Karrin Murphy and even Molly Carpenter each narrate a story.   And especially in the case of Thomas and Marcone I think these add a lot of interest to the story because of the very different point of view of these characters from Harry.

Just as with the rest of the Dresden Files these books cannot be enjoyed unless you already have read the first few books about Harry.  But it is good to know that Jim Butcher takes the time to make even his short stories worth reading.

On Killing Off Fictional Family

I’m working on a fantasy story.  And I’m at the point in the origin phase where the protagonist needs a crisis to propel him into a new and horrible life.  And I’m wavering between some deus ex machina scooping him out of his normal life or a horrible injustice killing off one or more of his family.

And the funny thing is I feel bad about killing off his kin.  I mean, they’re good people and they’ve never done anything to me and all things being equal I might need them later.  So, I’m vacillating and trying to thread the needle.  Can I just kill off his father?  But I kind of need him for later.  How about his mother?  The murder of his mother would be a great catalyst.  There’s guilt and rage and despair and hunger for revenge and all sorts of mixed emotions.  That could work well.  But it feels like a cheap trick.

I could kill off his newlywed sister.  It’s going to happen at the wedding reception anyway.  But that’s even more conflicted.  There’s the bride groom and the other sisters and then the parents won’t be distracted by one of them dying so the protagonist will be dealing with all kinds of messy emotional baggage.  Everyone will be whining for a hundred pages and I don’t need that.

I’m planning some kind of mob hit.  I’m undecided between a shotgun blast coming out of the reception or a bomb thrown through the window.  Either way it’s not ideal.  Very messy.  Definitely not the beautiful death.

So, as you can see there won’t be any easy way to write this.  All kinds of angst and messy follow-on consequences.  But let’s face it, murdered family has been a great plot device since Cain killed Abel.  I’m already trying to work my way through a father with conflicted feelings about the son whom he loves but who is responsible for the death of his wife.  That’s got all kinds of possibilities.  As I said I need the father around later and his grudging cooperation in some plot devices would add a nice amount of resistance to some scenes that would otherwise lose all tension.

So, she has to go.  But I am grateful for her part up to this point and I will give her a nice close-up scene before the finale.  She’ll get to talk to her son and they will share something personal before I finish her off.  Then she’ll upstage her oldest daughter’s wedding.  What mother could ask for more than that?

So, as you can see, for me the characters in my story take on a life of their own and I have to think carefully before I bring anyone in.  The butterfly effect is in full effect and especially when my character has a very long-life span, I have to be careful about cutting off all descendants of present characters because I might need their grandchildren or even great grandchildren at some point.

And finally, this action is meant to cut off his normal life and send him forward into a future where many of his actions are going to appear to him to be pretty evil.  To make that happen I’ll need something to disorient his moral compass.  The random brutal death of someone who symbolizes normalcy and happiness to him is just about right.  Add in a feeling that he is culpable in the death and I think I can work that into a tragic figure.  Will Shakespeare, hold my beer.

Battle Ground – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Spoiler Alert.  All my reviews are spoilers.  If you wan to avoid them go down to the end and just read my recommendation.

For anyone coming to this review without any background to the Dresden Files, Battle Ground is I believe the seventeenth book of that series.  Jim Butcher has created quite a complicated and very entertaining world that centers on a Chicago that is embedded in a reality that has several kinds of vampires, two faery realms, werewolves, sasquatches, Norse mythological characters, Knights of the Cross, Fallen Angels and wizards.  And in particular Harry Dresden is the extremely conflicted and always wise-cracking Wizard of Chicago.  If you want to delve into the series, I guess it would be much more sensible and fun to start at book one but to each his own.

Battle Ground is the conclusion of the story arc begun in the previous book, Peace Talks.  And for all intents and purposes this book is taken up by the Battle of Chicago.  A really angry Titan named Ethniu has decided to destroy Chicago as a way to turn the human world against the supernatural groups that were parties to the “Unseelie Accords” that acted as a council to ensure that humans do not discover the hidden creatures all around them.

Along with her amphibious allies the Fomor who have a settlement under Lake Michigan they attack the city and with the power of the “Eye,” that Ethniu wields, they begin destroying the city and killing the population.  Standing against this systematic destruction and murder of Chicago is Harry and his allies.  I won’t say friends because many of them fear and/or hate him.  He has an Italian American mobster turned supernatural power broker named Marcone providing significant infrastructure, manpower and significant strategic support.  He has his current boss the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab the Winter Queen, providing her troops and her own very considerable magical powers.  There are Harry’s nominal brothers in arms, the White Council of Wizards that are always right at the edge of expelling him for all the unorthodox and insubordinate actions he takes.  This includes his grandfather Ebenezar McCoy who is more or less the head of the Council and who always seem on the edge of either throttling Harry or apologizing to him.  There are the Knights of the Cross who are Harry’s friends and possess power that can stand against the evil that the enemy represent but even with these allies Harry and his friends are hopelessly overmatched.

But Harry has one ace in the hole.  He has a magical resource that if he can lure the Titan to a certain spot would allow him to capture her permanently.  But in order to do that Ethniu would have to be lured in by targets that she wanted to destroy and the destruction that she would accomplish would be ruinous.  And that is what the book is about.  As Harry and his allies go block by block saving civilians and battling monsters the Titan levels the city skyscrapers on her way to confronting Mab and the other powerful leaders.  And it’s a long book, over four hundred pages and the overwhelming majority of the book is this battle.

If you’re a fan of the series, and obviously if you’re still reading at book seventeen then you are, you will like this book a lot.  Sure, there are parts of the battle that seem kind of repetitive or at least maybe overkill.  And I have never been a big fan of Harry’s romantic attachment to Karren Murphy.  For whatever reason it never seems to keep my interest.  And there are a few scenes where some of the characters sound a little too touchy feely with too much “I’m here for you,” and all that.  But there is plenty on the battle side and on the personal side of this story to satisfy fans of the books.  Some questions from Peace Talks get answered and some things that were left hanging remain that way.  Some old friends and enemies die.  Others change their relation to Harry and further complicate his life.  And some characters that do not have a major part in the action still provide a needed presence.  I always enjoy the character of Michael Carpenter.  He’s the retired Knight of the Cross who is probably the most grounded character in the series and also provides sanctuary for Harry’s young daughter when horrible things come looking for Harry.  And Harry reaches a kind of crossroads with respect to his stature in the supernatural world.  He is now a heavy hitter and has gained respect and even some wisdom.

What can I say?  You’re going to like most of this book. And there will be few things that you won’t care for.  But if you’re a Dresden fan you will have to read it.

Peace Talks – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Back in 2018 I did a review of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series.  In that review I enthusiastically recommended the series but noted that the last installment was released back in 2014.  This year Butcher published the sixteenth and seventeenth volumes in the series, “Peace Talks” and “Battle Ground.”  Somewhat unusually these two books comprise a single story.  So that means that the ending of Peace Talks is a great big “to be continued” notice.  Normally that would be extremely annoying but because the two books were released back to back it’s tolerable.  Another unusual situation is the fact that I haven’t read a Dresden Files book in several years.  For that reason, I’m having trouble deciding if the “voice” of Harry in the book is the same as it used to be.  I’m going to say that it isn’t the same.  Part of this may have to do with the changes in Harry’s status since his last story.  Now he is the “Knight” for Mab the dangerous Winter Queen and also the father of a young girl, Maggie.  I’ll have to go back to the previous book but I believe they have tamed down Harry quite a bit.

If you haven’t read the earlier books then you don’t want to jump into the series at volume sixteen.  Read my review of the series and decide if you want to start up with this very long but very good urban fantasy series.  If you have read the earlier volumes then I’ll report that the series is shaping up to be just as chaotic and crazy as ever.  As is Butcher’s way, the story starts out with an existential crisis developing in Harry’s life and then blossoms into the apocalypse.  Whenever something really bad happens the scramble to avoid catastrophe leads to a crisis that is orders of magnitude worse.  I will say that the pacing of the initial crisis seemed a little slow in spots based on my memory of how Butcher did these things.  And maybe that has to do with this being a two-book story.  But by the end of the book things were falling apart very nicely and Harry was right in his sweet spot, trying to save the world without any reasonable hope of even saving himself.  All his enemies were his only possible allies and all of his friends were alienated and hostile.  I won’t throw in any spoilers.  All the old characters are back and we see some of the damage done in the last book is still haunting the characters here.  Murph is seriously injured in a leg and arm.  She is no longer with Chicago PD and is awaiting additional surgeries and rehab to partially recover from her injuries.  Molly Carpenter is now the Winter Lady, Mab’s lieutenant and she has used her connections to provide Harry and his daughter with a home.  It is an apartment that is contained within a sort of embassy building owned and run by the Svartalves (dark elves) who are very serious about security.  This was necessary because in the last book the Red House Vampires finally burned Harry’s crummy home to the ground.  And his Volkswagen Bug was also finished off.  Now he’s driving a reconditioned and ancient hearse that he calls the Munstermobile.

I will say that the annoyance of having the book end in the middle of the story is acceptable because having Harry back is worth it.  I expect really good things from Battle Ground and if you’re a Dresden Files fan you have no choice but to jump in and enjoy the wreckage that Harry drags in his wake.  Highly recommended.

Kung Fu Hustle – A Movie Review

I’m not normally a martial arts movie afficionado but an old friend was staying at “The Compound” and he took advantage of a Netflix account to watch quite a few of them.  One of those films was a movie from 2004 called Kung Fu Hustle and because of the fantasy aspects of the film I decided I could stretch a definition and do a review here.

First of all, this movie is in Chinese with subtitles.  As far as a genre I guess you could call it a martial arts fantasy comedy.  So, if any of those categories aren’t for you then you should skip this movie.  Stephen Chow is the producer, director, writer and star.

It is 1930’s Shanghai.  Chow plays Sing, a young man who has become disillusioned with the world because of his attempt as a child to defend a poor mute girl named Fong from some bullies.  He tried  using the Buddhist Palm fighting style that he had learned by reading a pamphlet that he bought from a beggar.  But he was beaten badly and because of this experience when he grows up he decides to turn to a life of crime.  He attempts to shake down some poor people by telling them he is part of the dreaded Axe Gang that rules the city through violence and terror.  When the peasants beat him up instead, he signals for the real Axe Gang and an epic battle ensues between the scores of Axe gangsters and the poor people of Pig Sty Alley.  As it turns out three of the peasants are coincidentally kung fu masters.  Behind their leadership the peasants defeat the gang.

Now Sum, the leader of the gang captures Sing and promises to kill him after the gang war is completed for causing such a terrible rout of his men.  But by some mysterious skill Sing escapes.  Meanwhile Sum hires two magical harp players.  Apparently, their music generates flying knives and using these they kill the three kung fu masters.  Now we meet up with two of the comic characters of Pig Sty Alley, the Landlord and his shrewish wife.  They also turn out to be kung fu masters and they avenge the slain men and defeat the harpists.

Meanwhile Sum decides that Sing can be a valuable tool because of his abilities as an escape artist.  He hires him to free a man called the Beast from an insane asylum.  He does this and, of course, the Beast is a kung fu master and a dangerous lunatic.  He attacks the Landlord and Landlady and fights them to a draw.  Sum orders Sing to help the Beast kill the husband and wife but Sing has a change of heart and attacks the Beast.  The Beast pummels the young man to a pulp and the Landlord flees with his wife and Sing’s unconscious body.

Somehow the tremendous beating triggers some kind of magical transformation in Sing and he not only completely regenerates but acquires the skills of, you guessed it, a Buddhist Palm kung fu master!  He squares off against the entire Axe Gang and the Beast.  After a titanic battle that involves flying through the sky and invisible forces that can knock down buildings, he defeats the Beast who then begs to be allowed to be Sing’s pupil.  Finally, in the last scene Sing meets up with Fong who is now an ice cream seller and I guess they live happily ever after.

You’ll probably say this is a ridiculous plot and it is.  But the action scenes are very well done, the comedy is funny and the story keeps your attention.  The martial arts scenes are somewhat reminiscent of the choreographed fight scenes in the Matrix.  If you aren’t completely opposed to a movie in this genre then I’d highly recommend you give this one a look.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like.  TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books.  Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.

Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland.  I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before.  I’d never heard of Galland before this book.  So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past.  The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation.  The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category.  On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy.  The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character.  And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics.  And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies.  And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies.  Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA.  And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there.  And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either.  So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.

Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic.  Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time.  And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft.  And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it.  And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).

From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with.  He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch.  Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O.  Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe.  And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.

The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations.  The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.

Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms.  The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate.  Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive.  This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book.  Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.

My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable.  The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot.  So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 7 – The Lesser Works and A Final Verdict

Re-posted from October 2017

The follow-on episodes to each of the primary monster movies vary in quality but the one given is that anything with a title that begins with “Abbott and Costello Meet …” isn’t going to be scary.  It could be funny, but definitely not scary.

Sort of in a class by itself is the first sequel to Frankenstein, “The Bride of Frankenstein.”  This movie has a lot of interesting things going on.  The actors who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster in the first film reprise their roles here (Colin Clive and Boris Karloff).  The script is leavened with a little humor.  Some scenes add some human interest to the Monster’s otherwise predictable behavior of grabbing people and things and tossing them about.  One of the best known of these is the Blind Man Scene.  The Monster escapes from his enemies.  He’s been shot and is on the run.  He wanders into the cottage of a blind man who welcomes him and treats him with kindness.  The Monster is sheltered and his wounds treated.  The blind man teaches him to speak and introduces him to bread and wine and even the pleasure of a good cigar.  And he learns what music is and he calls the Blind Man friend.  Of course, inevitably, reality strikes back and a couple of hunters show up at the Blind Man’s cottage and tell the blind man he’s living with a monster.  And somehow, they manage to burn down the cottage before fleeing from the Monster.

Standouts performances in the movie are Dr. Praetorius and Minnie, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s Housekeeper.  Dr. Praetorius is a competing mad scientist who has also dabbled in the creation of human life and wants to convince Dr. Frankenstein to create a woman.  Minnie is an almost Shakespearean character who combines the qualities of busybody and wise fool with the ability shriek like an air raid siren.

 

The Monster meets Dr. Praetorius while he is selecting body parts for the Monster’s bride in the catacombs beneath the graveyard.  The Dr. offers him wine and a cigar and they become quite chummy.  So much so that the Monster becomes Praetorius’ henchman in a plan to kidnap Elizabeth to force Dr. Frankenstein to complete the Bride project.

 

Appended to the story is a foreword that portrays Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the Frankenstein authoress (his wife Mary) discussing the story on a stormy night and segueing to the creation of a mate for the Monster.  Interestingly, they cast the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, to play both Mary and the Monster’s mate.

 

The final scene where we see the meeting between the Monster and his prospective bride the atmosphere is bizarre and overwrought to say the least.  Suffice it to say that Monster love does not conquer all.  The spurned monster decides to blow up the laboratory taking himself, Dr. Praetorius and the Bride “to kingdom come.”  But interestingly, he decides to spare Dr. and Mrs Frankenstein.  So, once again, the producers decided that a non-literary happy ending was the way to go.  Assuming that they realized they would need descendants of Dr. Frankenstein to allow for further sequels I guess you could say this decision was at least monetarily warranted.  Artistically, maybe not.  It is pretty much acknowledged that the quality of the Frankenstein sequels after the “The Bride” falls off almost asymptotically.  The next installment “The Son of Frankenstein” has a few good moments that mostly don’t involve the Monster but otherwise is mediocre.  After that the rest of the series is almost unwatchable.

 

And unwatchable is how I would describe the rest of the sequels and reboots that fill out the Universal Classic Monster movies.  The later installments of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy series are very poor indeed.  The Mummy series was not continued after the original film but instead rebooted with the new Mummy character identified as Kharis played by our old friend the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr.  In these later movies, the Mummy is never given any personality but mutely wanders through each of the movies of this series wrapped in his bandages and chasing ponderously after the protagonists who are murdered one by one for possessing the Scroll of Thoth (or whatever they called it in the later series).  I think in the last of the series I remember he is somehow or other running around the bayous of Louisiana hunting the scroll and its owners.  In the last scene, he is seen plodding into the swamp until he is lost to sight under the muddy water, apparently ending his undead life far from the deserts of Egypt as a soggy meal for alligators and crawfish.  A fitting end.

 

So, what’s the verdict?  Is the Universal Classic Monster series a worthwhile cinematic collection or an embalmed thing that is only noteworthy as a museum piece to be fussed over by academics and fanatics?  I vote worthwhile.  Granted the movies are antique and the audience surely won’t be scared in the same way your great grandparents were.  But the movies still provide the fantasy experience that they originally were designed for.  In the same way, a nursery rhyme can still charm children who have never seen lambs and cows and ducks except on a screen so these movies give an archetypal experience of the dark fantasy world they are meant to represent.  Dracula is the evil seducer of young innocents.  Frankenstein’s Monster is the raging step-child of God.  The Mummy is a Promethean character punished forever for attempting to preempt the prerogatives of the gods.  Each of these movies is an outdated but enjoyable attempt to entertain an audience with a passion play of what happens when humans are juxtaposed with the darker side of the fantastic.  And because of the gap in time since they were made I think that the best audience for enjoying these films are kids.  I’d say 9 to 11 is about the optimal age group for maximum effect.  That age is old enough not to be scared by the images but not old enough to be jaded by modern movie magic.  And come to think of it, I think that’s how old I was when I thought these movies were great fun.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 6 – The Invisible Man

Re-posted from October 2017

The Invisible Man, to be pedantically precise, is not a monster movie but a science fiction story.  H.G. Wells’ tale of a scientist who develops a technique to render the human body (his own) invisible is not really monstrous in a physical sense but because the technique drives the inventor insane we are back in the neighborhood of the Mad Scientist.  And since Dr. Frankenstein is then brought to mind we can shoehorn this science fiction story into the genre.  Claude Rains (the Wolfman’s father from an earlier chapter of this review) is the Invisible Man.  Or rather Claude Rains voice is the star of the movie, since until the very last scene we can’t see his face.  But it’s a very good voice.  And since often we can’t exactly tell what he’s doing he spends a fair amount of time telegraphing his actions to help us guess what his actions are that the other characters are pantomiming around.  And he’s an active fellow.  He kills a few people with his bare (invisible) hands.  He bludgeons some others and he goes in for some mass murder via railway sabotage.  He ends up a rather unsavory fellow.  But somehow there remains a somewhat sympathetic core to the character.  Based on the people who still try to help him he must have been a good man before his descent into madness.  Therefore, we can look at him as a victim of his own scientific curiosity.

All that aside, it’s a fun movie.  The scientific intelligence, megalomania and irritable persona of the Invisible Man is juxtaposed against the plodding mediocrity, skeptical common sense and parochial outlook of the English villagers and local constables who are dumbfounded and unbelieving as to the true cause of the strange goings on.  Whenever they declare the inexplicable events a hoax the Invisible Man steps in and gives them a painful (and sometimes fatal) object lesson in his reality.

In the thick of these goings on is my favorite supporting character Una O’Connor as the Innkeeper’s wife.  She is a wonderfully shrewish landlady whose suspicious and unkind treatment of the Invisible Man throws him off the deep end.  She possesses the most remarkable shrieking scream ever recorded on film.  She is a national treasure of sorts.  And as a tie-in she plays Dr. Frankenstein’s housekeeper in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” another movie where she chews up the scenery and shrieks a blue streak.

Of course, by the end of the movie and after murdering so many innocent people, the Invisible Man has lost almost all of the audience’s sympathy so that it seems just that he should pay the price for his crimes.  But he is allowed the touching death scene where he regains his humanity and seemingly his sanity.

So, to reiterate, this is not a monster movie but there is a Mad Scientist and several of our old friends from earlier Universal Monster Movies do show up.  It’s basically a tour de force for Claude Rains (or rather his voice). I give it my seal of approval.  Good stuff.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 3 – Frankenstein

Re-posted from October 2017

If Dracula is the King of Monsters, monster royalty as it were, then Frankenstein is the People’s Monster, the Monster of the Proletariat.  Everything about him is working class.  He is outsized and strong to make him an able worker.  His clothing is a workman’s suit.  He is dull, brutish, inarticulate and ugly.  He recognizes beauty and strives after it but is rejected by the beautiful people and chased away.  He is the ultimate step-son.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s creation as the ultimate act of human hubris, to pretend to be God.  And the Monster punishes Dr. Frankenstein for putting him through Hell.

Okay, so that’s the meta-story, now let’s talk about the movie.

Universal released Frankenstein in 1931.  The cast is mostly contract character actors who appeared in most of the B-movies at Universal.  Even Dr. Frankenstein was played by a minor star Colin Clive.  And of course, the real star, the Monster is an anonymous question mark (?) in the opening credits.  Boris Karloff made his name with this movie.  And as opposed to Bela Lugosi’s eternal submergence into the part of Dracula, Karloff prospered as the go to monster player at Universal.

The story follows Dr. Frankenstein, first as he creates the Monster and later as the Monster attempts to destroy him.  During this we meet the doctor’s fiancée and his aged father “The Baron.”  And, of course, there is his lab assistant and part time grave robber Fritz.  The hunch-backed sadist (played by Dwight Frye, the same actor who was Renfield in Dracula by the way) is the archetype for every Igor act-alike henchman in every monster movie that ever followed.  And there are all those other memorable characters, the Burgomaster, little Maria the girl drowned in the pond, Maria’s father and of course Doctor Waldman played by Edward Van Sloan.  If you read the previous post in this series you may remember Van Sloan as the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing the scientist and vampire hunter.  In this movie unfortunately, he’s not quite as successful at monster eradication.  In perhaps the most inept example of obsessive compulsive behavior ever filmed, we witness Dr. Waldman bungle the job of monster euthanasia.  In the preceding scene the Monster, tired of being tormented by Fritz, hangs the hunch-back with a length of chain.  Drs. Waldman and Frankenstein immediately suss out the necessity of subduing the Monster before he carries forward this new policy of interpersonal simplification on them.  Working together they barely manage to tranquilize the Monster with a hypodermic before he could finish throttling Dr. Frankenstein with his bare hands.

Dr. Frankenstein, now convinced that his creature is too dangerous to live wants to put him down himself but his father and his fiancée arrive in time to interrupt the program.  Dr. Waldman convinces him to leave and assures him that the deed will be performed without delay.  So far so good, capable older scientist and biologist will dispatch the Monster with a good swift stroke to the carotid or the aorta or whatever, right?  Wrong.  We are about to witness film history.

The next scene opens on Dr. Waldman in operating room garb standing over the Monster lying on an operating table, seemingly unconscious.  Dr. Waldman fiddles with some scalpels, checks the Monster’s vitals and turns aside to make an entry in his journal!  I can’t recall the exact words but the paraphrase is something like, “sedation is becoming less and less effective, I must quickly euthanize him before he regains consciousness.”  Of course, as soon as he finishes this diary entry and turns back to the job at hand, the Monster awakes and breaks the good doctor’s neck.  What the hell!  I mean, come on!  Forget medical school, how did this guy get through middle school without a body guard?  Instead of putting him in charge of monster execution he should have been assigned to spittoon polishing back at the baronial estate of Papa Frankenstein.  What a loser.

Well, the story proceeds with the monster going on a killing spree that inexplicably leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s location.  The Monster arrives just in time to disrupt the wedding and harass but for some unknown reason not kill the doctor’s fiancée.  Roused by this threat to his planned for wedded bliss, Dr. Frankenstein joins the village mob and follows the Monster’s trail back to the obligatory windmill.  Here the tables turn and the Monster kicks his creator’s butt and tosses him off the top of the windmill.  One of the windmill’s vanes breaks his fall and he is transported back to the manor.  The incensed mob sets fire to the mill and the last we see of the Monster he is trapped under a falling beam and surrounded by flame.

Miraculously the doctor makes a complete recovery and in the last scene the household staff are drinking a toast with the Baron to “a Son of the House of Frankenstein.”  Looking at sequels as children, this toast seems to have been amply fulfilled.

So, what’s my conclusion?  It’s incredible fun.  With so many semi-comical characters it’s hard not to take the movie for what it’s meant to be a wild fantasy.  And in that guise, it succeeds.  It even somehow cobbles together a happy ending which completely ignores the actual ending of the book.  The fact that the main characters are obviously British but are supposed to be a German noble family is inexplicable.  The fact that there are no legal or personal repercussions from the Doctor’s creation murdering so many friends and neighbors is equally unexplained.  But taken as a fairy tale it works.  Silly, yes.  Enjoyable, sure.  See it if you haven’t already.