Scary Movie (2000)

Scary Movie (2000)

No mercy. No shame. No sequel.

A group of none-too-bright teenagers are stalked by a masked killer who wants them dead because of their involvement in a car accident that happened last Halloween. The kids are also being stalked by a television news reporter determined to get the story. One by one, the young friends are dispatched in a grisly and ridiculous fashion.

 

First watching Scary Movie upon its release around fifteen years ago, I was scathing in my review, criticising its consistent use of crude gags to lampoon the 90s teen horror fad rather than sophisticated spoofing. However, having then sat through progressively worse sequels and a raft of similarly-themed pop-culture parodies like Meet the Spartans, I decided to check it out and see if was as bad as I remembered it. Whether it’s maturity through age or the fact that there doesn’t seem to be too many decent comedies being anymore but I actually liked Scary Movie this time around. Sure it’s still got its fair share of bottom-of-the-barrel toilet jokes but there’s so many jokes I missed first time that you’ll have so much to process by the time it’s finished, it will all depend on what frame of mind you were in. Feeling daft, then the bad taste will rise to the top. Feeling more relaxed and you’ll enjoy the cleverer jokes.

To talk about a plot in a film like Scary Movie is pushing it. It follows the same story as Scream, of a group of friends being tormented by a masked killer, but that’s about where the similarities lie. Basically the story derails and detours so many times, depending on what films the writers wanted to spoof next, so it’s best to sit back and wait for the jokes to fly. Some of the jokes will be dead-on-arrival (basically anything that the irritating Shorty, played by Marlon Wayans, says is just not funny in the slightest), some will depend on your mood and others require more thought. There’s dick jokes, fart jokes, poop jokes and sex jokes to pander to the lowest denominators but then for every one of these, there’s a witty one-liner, a clever in-joke or a subtle dig at another film. It’s the scattergun approach that worked well for Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker with the likes of Airplane! and The Naked Gun though the offensive content has been upped dramatically since those days. I’d be hard-pressed to say that half of the jokes work but the fact that there are hundreds of jokes means that the hit rate is still pretty good by the end of the film.

The bulk of the gags come at the expense of Scream. It’s easy to see why: Craven’s classic teen slasher is ripe for the picking with its infamous masked villain, copious plot twists and genuinely tense moments ready to be laughed at. Ironically, Scream itself was a parody of slasher films, with numerous in-jokes and clichés aimed towards an audience who knew the genre well. As a result, Scary Movie can only take these in-jokes and clichés and do daft things with them rather than clever spoofing. Sometimes, Scary Movie just replays entire scenes out from Scream without doing much with them, making the idea of this being a spoof rather a null point, particularly the copycat finale where it seems that the writers ran out of jokes or another scene in which one character actually says “didn’t this happen in some film?” to which the reply is “Scream.” Yes, we know that you’re spoofing Scream but you don’t need to explicitly tell us.

On the occasion when it does something different, the results are funny. A parody of Scream 2’s murder in the theatre provides plenty of amusement as the victim’s constant chatting through the film leads to the rest of the audience taking matters into their own hands before the killer has chance. The I Know What You Did Last Summer spoof is also decent, if played out a little too long. The pop-culture references are rife throughout the film. If it isn’t getting the likes of Carmen Electra to poke fun of herself, it’s throwing in Matrix gags, parading brand names around like they were part of the sponsorship deals, cementing itself in a specific time with the ‘Wazzup’ Budweiser commercial rip, scenes which echo The Blair Witch Project or bizarre references like The Usual Suspects, Basic Instinct and Amistad (though this bit was pretty funny).

Likeable Anna Faris got her big screen break with this one and she plays the lead female role though, as this is an ensemble piece, she’s not the constant focus. Faris has a natural ability for deadpan and attract empathy from the audience when something goes wrong, making her a lovable oaf much in the fashion that Leslie Nielsen played his Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun films. Shannon Elizabeth solidified her status as one of the early 00s most searched for actresses with this and American Pie. As stated, Marlon Wayans is one of the most annoying men on the planet and his scenes are painful to sit through. Thankfully his brother Shawn Wayans is much better, playing the part of ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay?’ Ray with some great delivery. Final note must to go to the underrated Kurt Fuller who plays the Sheriff. Fuller is one of those faces you see pop up in all sorts of things from Ghostbusters II to Wayne’s World as snooty businessmen or slimy executives. His timing is perfect in this, especially during the scene in which he’s asking Cindy to look at some photos in the police station – only the photos aren’t of perpetrators but of him in raunchy poses!

 

It’s hard to review a film like Scary Movie because of the sheer content of it. For everyone who hates one set of jokes, there’ll be someone else who hates another set. The bottom line is that you will need to have seen the main films that this spoofs in order to get the most out of it. If you’re prepared to sit through a lot of crude jokes to get really funny material, then you’ll be in for a treat. Likewise, if you feel the subtle humour doesn’t do it for you, there’ll be another bodily fluid joke along in a few minutes. There’s something here for everyone and that’s not exactly a bad thing. Hardly a classic spoof and definitely a product of its time (which makes me feel really old!) but still worth a look.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER! WOLF MAN! DRACULA! HUNCHBACK! MAD DOCTOR!

A freak accident allows Dr Niemann, a follower of Dr Frankenstein, to escape from prison along with his hunchback assistant. Killing and then assuming the place of the owner of a chamber of horrors sideshow, Niemann is shocked to realise that the exhibit contains the skeleton remains of Count Dracula. Reviving Dracula to kill those who imprisoned him in the first place, Niemann then discovers the frozen bodies of the Wolfman, Larry Talbot, and the Frankenstein monster. Promising Talbot he would rid him of his curse if he helped him find Frankenstein’s notes and continue his work, it isn’t long before Niemann encounters problems with his old enemies.

 

House of Frankenstein was the penultimate Universal monster mash (not including the comedy romp with Abbott and Costello in 1948) and it’s clear to see that the studio was running out of steam with their respective franchises. Pitting two of them off against each other in the previous entry Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the studio beat the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon by decades by acknowledging that two or more of their famous characters inhabited the same universe. The film worked well to combine the two monsters and it was a success so it was inevitable that Universal would continue the trend, adding further monsters to the mix. In doing so, they’ve watered down the formula and, far from being a battle royal of epic proportions featuring the pillars of the horror genre, House of Frankenstein turns into something of an epic mess.

The three classic monsters have all seen far better days and it’s a shame to see how shabby they are treated here. Dracula has become a stereotype of himself, all cape-wearing, wide-eyed, hypnotic and well-mannered rather than a ravenous, hissing sexual monster. The Frankenstein monster, far from the pitiful, pathetic creature of the original Frankenstein, is now just a lumbering brute who walks with his hands stretched out in front of him. The Wolf Man comes out the best but that’s purely because it’s the same actor, Lon Chaney Jr, portraying him and so there’s at least a sense of cohesion between the films. His character hasn’t shown any progression though and is still in the same self-pitying, tormented position as he was in The Wolf Man years earlier. The poor chap just can’t catch a break and desperately falls in with the dangerous Niemann who provides him with false promises.

The main problem with House of Frankenstein isn’t the portrayal of the monsters, it’s that although the film advertises the plot to feature all of the famous monsters going at each other at the same time, the reality is very different and the film is almost split into episodes dealing with the individual monsters. Dracula is first up and his standalone appearance in the first twenty minutes means that he doesn’t interact with either the Wolf Man or Frankenstein monster. The second part of the film focuses on Niemann’s efforts to deal with the Wolf Man and Frankenstein monster. The Wolf Man is the main focus here and then the monster finally comes into play in the final ten minutes or so. It’s all a very disjointed narrative and something which clearly shows the desperation to which the writers tried to crowbar every monster into the film.

At seventy minutes, the film isn’t overly long and so needs every moment that it can to give the monsters enough time to make an impression. But even with this length, the film does feel like gross padding on many occasions and the split narrative really doesn’t help. Thankfully Boris Karloff’s Niemann does anchor the film and he’s the central component to which the monsters rotate around. Karloff, returning to the series after previously portraying the monster, is in malicious form as the well-mannered but clearly insane doctor. He runs away with the film and his performance certainly adds an extra relish to proceedings.

 

Either of the separate stories could have filled the entire film and it wouldn’t have made much difference. What we do get with House of Frankenstein is a muddled effort where you get a little taster of each of the monsters, not enough to really spoil them too much, and end up wanting more of them. It’s brisk entertainment, not the best or worst of Universal’s horror films, but definitely one of a defining era of team-ups which would set the benchmark for Toho and Godzilla and Marvel and it’s superheroes in years to come.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mysterious Island (1961)

Mysterious Island (1961)

A world beyond imagination! Adventure beyond belief!

During the siege of Richmond in American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison by overpowering the guard and flying off in a hot air balloon. In a terrible storm, they are carried miles off course and are eventually washed up on a remote Pacific island. Settling down to a life on the island, they are soon joined by two shipwrecked English women. Having to contend with the giant monsters that live on the island is one thing but the group soon realise that they share the island with the infamous Captain Nemo who is still plotting to rid humanity of war.

 

Mysterious Island was French writer Jules Verne’s follow-up to his acclaimed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time and one which has been turned into a number of films over the years, most famously with Disney’s 1954 live action version with Kirk Douglas and James Mason. Mysterious Island has also received a number of film adaptations though none have been truly revered like Disney’s version of Verne’s famous story. This 1961 version is arguably the most famous of the story, though it’s loosely based upon the book.

Mysterious Island actually works better when looked at as another Ray Harryhausen special effects showcase rather than a faithful adaptation of a book. That’s basically the draw here as Verne’s story is cherry picked for certain ideas and other elements are expanded to provide more of a spectacle. At least that was the theory. Mysterious Island is a decent timewaster but never fully manages to engage with its audience. It’s rather routine and episodic – a problem arises for the main characters, they have to solve it, they do and they move on to the next problem. There’s no real sense of overall story present, only that these characters have to escape off the island, and the various obstacles that they face are never anything more than mild diversions between achieving that goal. Captain Nemo doesn’t even turn up until the final third and seems to be more of an afterthought rather than a main focus.

What Mysterious Island lacks in true excitement and narrative, it makes up for in the special effects department. You can’t argue that some effort has gone in to making this film look good and Ray Harryhausen’s creatures look great, if lacking the real sense of awe and wonder that his more famous works have shown. The giant crab looks the most realistic and that’s because it was the real shell of a crab that he used for the armature. The battle with the survivors is enthralling and the animation and interaction between men and monster is superb. Sadly none of the other monsters ever come close to matching this. The dino-bird fight isn’t as good as it could have been as the monster looks a little daft, the underwater squid scene is something we have seen before and the giant bee, whilst looking good in its animated form, doesn’t do an awful lot.

Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack is excellent, providing a perfect accompaniment to the action, fantasy and mystery on the screen. This was Herrmann’s third collaboration with Ray Harryhausen and it shows how confident he was in bringing these fantasy worlds to life. Herrmann clearly borrowed some cues from this film and expanded upon them for his soundtrack to Jason and the Argonauts a couple of years later. The similarities are evident and whilst there’s no truly standout track here (unlike his classic Scherzo Macabre theme during the skeleton fight), the score certainly adds a lot to the action sequences and gives some of the fantasy and mystery elements a little more suspense.

As for the human cast, they always come second best in Harryhausen’s effects-driven films. The main characters are decent enough in their roles, if somewhat forgettable. Only Beth Rogan provides any sort of memorable impact but that’s only for her appearance in a man-made bikini that she dons when she washes up on the island. It was pretty risqué back in 1961! Late veteran actor Herbert Lom takes over the Captain Nemo role and, whilst he’s no James Mason, Lom does what he can with the role. His take is very much different: Nemo is older, less hostile to humans and more reasonable to deal with. It’s a shame that his elegant persona doesn’t arrive until late in the film, though he’s rather irrelevant to the overall story as it stands.

 

Mysterious Island provides solid fun without reinventing the genre. Due to the disjointed narrative, the film needs a regular injection of monsters to keep audience interest from going and it does that to various levels of success. Whilst the quality of the effects isn’t in doubt, it’s the manner in which they’re wheeled out that is the problem and the uneven flow of the film stops this from achieving a greater cult status.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆