26 May 2018

Gothic Adaptations and Literary Mysteries

Gothic Adaptations and Literary Mysteries
by Kristin Battestella

Although some of these contemporary movies and miniseries based on books are better than others are, the literary adaptations herein exude plenty of gothic atmosphere, mood, and mystery.

The Limehouse Golem – Sublime frocks, décor, carriages, and top hats accent the 1880 bodies in the bed, poisoned cordials, and bloody riddles opening this 2016 serial killer about Londontown adapted by Jane Goldman (X:Men: First Class) from the Peter Ackroyd novel. Red gore, orange lighting, and green hues befitting the title join pink and gold dance halls, sing songs, and theatrical cross dressing as Bill Nighy's (Underworld) Inspector Kildare avoids the sensational headlines and public bloodlust in favor of handwriting analysis and murderous journals. Messy footprints, missing police reports, and polluted crime scenes don't need any modern stylistic intrusions – the intercut discovery mixed with on stage recountings of the kills, disjointed past and present point of views, and non-linear editing are unnecessary. Fast moving abusive childhood flashbacks within murder trials when we've hardly met everybody make the focus of the story unclear, the assistant constable repeats everything the inspector already knows just for redundant audience exposition, and the gay comments about Kildare are useless. Famous names, library clues, dance hall girls, jealous playwrights, and life imitating art plays let the evidence speak for itself, piecing together the case with scribble in the book margins, secondhand shop keeper connections, and inspector deduction. Distorted voiceovers, violent slicings, backstage nudity, accidents on theater stairs, and religious undercurrents set off the deceased's recounting of the crimes in fantasy-esque flashbacks repeated with each suspect as the killer. These brutal horror reenactments compete with the song and dance flashbacks, but they also help blur the investigation as important details aren't shared with the kangaroo trials, distracting the audience as information is given and taken for shock value or cinematic reasons when key evidence, set ups, and relationships would be obvious if anyone but Kildare was paying attention. The persons of interest, backstage investigations, play clues, deflection, and one on one interviews are better once the flashbacks stop and the real time case proceeds. There must be a reason why the crimes have stopped – what we need to know is given in the opening scene – and all the back and forth delaying belies viewers into how little time has passed and why the police are unaware the killer hasn't struck again. Longtime viewers of British period mysteries may see through this faulty veneer with padding misinformation and meandering backstory in need of tighter direction rather than style over substance. Fortunately, there's an interesting mystery, multiple suspects, numerous kills, and suspicious ties between them as the execution order counts down to the finish. The infamous show must go on no matter how many people die for it, and this is fun for fans of Steampunk style mysteries.

Rebecca – Artistic ingenue Emilia Fox (Merlin) – companion to wealthy gossip Faye Dunaway (Don Juan DeMarco) – is smitten by the suave yet mysterious Charles Dance (Bleak House) in this 1997 three hour Masterpiece adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. Sublime style, flapper headbands, candlelight, and long stem cigarettes add to the whirlwind 1927 Riviera's scenic drives, classic convertibles, and charming hats. Unlike the immediately gothic gray scale of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version, vivid color and visual depth layer this initially idyllic romance. Our unusual couple have each been shy, lonely, and sad, but Maxim de Winter admires this young lady's innocence and honesty compared to the gilded aristocracy. Picnics, boat rides, a silly girl, a foolish old man – can they make a go of their differences? The dangerous curves and perilous drives suggest something slightly sinister brewing amid glimpses of the unforgettable and beloved by all Rebecca. It's been a year since her death, yet everyone must remind Maxim of his late wife upon this surprising second marriage. The newlyweds return to the lovely English gardens and proper decorum at Manderley, the estate where the Emmy winning Diana Rigg's (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers won't let go of the first Mrs. DeWinter's memory. The household reception is awkward and chilly – the coastal brightness turns darker thanks to shadow schemes, lighting changes, and the looming silhouettes of both Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Despite being a large estate with a west wing facing the sea, the hefty staircases, huge windows, and great fireplace feel congested, closing in on the new, nervous Mrs. as she gets lost wandering the shuttered parts of the house, breaks priceless statues, and hangs her head like an admonished little girl. She doesn't fit into the upper class routine, but the brooding, often misunderstood Maxim doesn't want her to become like those other cruel, aristocratic dames. Everyone is so heavy handed, formal, and not just unhelpful but resentful of how unlike Rebecca she is, and the couple regrets returning home to the rocky cliffs, beach side cottages, and distrustful staff. Crazy hermits, past gossip, vogue cousins too close for comfort, recreating previous fancy dress balls, and one big costuming faux pas strain the relationship further, but she can't exactly ask her new husband about why the pieces on how Rebecca drowned aren't coming together. Her room is still kept as is, almost in worship where our devoted housekeeper can express her creepy vicarious and pathetic intimacy, re-enacting brushing her madam's hair and laying out her perfumed night gown. Was Rebecca really so perfect? If she wasn't would anybody actually say so? Her presence is overwhelming – not because of any actually supernatural mood or ghost, but because the obsessed Mrs. Danvers won't let anyone forget, placing the fanatical pressures of her devotion on the second Mrs. de Winter. Foreboding strings add more ominous, however the suspense is certainly helped by Maxim's not coming clean on his life with Rebecca at the start. While some scenes are very similar to Hitchcock's vision, this is also closer to the novel, and even if you've seen other adaptations, viewers are swept up in wondering how the secrets will play out in the finale. Fog, vintage boats, watery evidence, mistaken identities, inquests – the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's life and death come to light, but our servant oversteps her bounds with cruelty, jealousy, and bullying suicidal whispers just to assure the Rebecca everyone thought they knew and loved won't die. Though more romantic than true crime, the fresh love and warped liaisons are told swift and honestly as the scandalous true colors are revealed with fainting spells, medical discoveries, fiery rescues, and kisses in the rain. Indeed all the gothic staples are here with period mood and performances to match.

Split Opinion

The Moonstone – This five part 2016 series based on the Wilkie Collins novel opens with funerals, church bells, top hats, and tombstones before gloomy Yorkshire estates and a family cursed to unhappiness thanks to the eponymous plundering. Flashbacks to the pleasant year before recount the colorful gowns, piano music, painting, kissing cousins, and birthday gifts. There are, however, prowlers, suspicious visitors, dangerous beaches, melodramatic maids, rival suitors, and awkward dinners. This was not the day to quit tobacco! One and all pass around the diamond – broadcasting its whereabouts before immediately suspecting the “gibberish speaking” foreigners among them of its theft. The hysterical birthday girl doesn't want a public scandal, refusing to speak with the police who bungle the case with a contaminated scene thanks to a meddling maid made obvious by the ominous music. Men are worried about rectifying their reputations over the lost gem, but one wonders why they go through the trouble when the lady herself impedes them amid nonsensical red herrings, cluttered pacing, spliced editing, and foreboding fake outs. The revisiting flashbacks and present conjecture interrupt the tension with coming and going scenes or up and down stairs transitions stalling the seeking of clues while questionable colonial aspects, off humor, and poor acting parodies the deduction with overly pompous, long winded dialogue, and faux sophistication. London to Yorkshire travel looks instantaneous, and timeline breaks should bookend episodes only instead of deflecting the mystery. A ham-fisted superintendent, busybody relations, and back and forth blaming contests hinder the case further with stupid snobbery. Itemized prophecies with clues, convoluted letters, second hand evidence, and missing people string the messy in the wrong direction. The meandering points of view and uneven framing don't build characters or suspense, and viewers already have precious little sympathy since our supposedly so in love cousin so adamant about the girl and resolving the theft up and left for an entire year. Timely deaths, mysterious wills, suspicious marriage proposals, and coastal rescues finally provide something incriminating halfway thru Episode Four as love sick letters recount how the subservient people of the house were lost amid all the upper class hullabaloo. Eyewitness unreliability and laudanum stupor add to the painting clues and prospective motives while secret passages and potential suicides culminate in jeweler trades, bank stakeouts, and bodies at the hotel. Although this comes together in the last half hour, the presentation continually goes back to the night of the crime where it never should have left all the action in the first place. Characters themselves ask how they are always back where they started, but the insipid performances can't disguise the Twelve Days of Christmas cumulative – each hour adds a superfluous person who knows what happened then who travels to read a letter revealing what happened the Monday after the Wednesday that the moonstone was stolen. Such treading tires impedes the game afoot, and there's never a sense that anyone is closer to solving the mystery. This is fine for audiences who like period piece whodunits, yet such an audience is already well versed enough to be frustrated by this piecemeal structure. The series is twice as long as it should be when a streamlined, feature length design would have sufficed. ¯\_()_/¯


Labyrinth – Christopher Smith (Black Death) directs medieval heroine Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), bad girl Katie McGrath (Merlin), Malfoy in a greasy wig Tom Felton (Harry Potter), gigolo writer never seen writing Sebastian Stan (Avengers: Infinity War), annoying creep Emun Elliot (The Paradise), and the under utilized John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) in this 2012 two-parter based upon the Kate Mosse book. Opening scrolls set the 1209 Carcassonne scene with Catharism sects, reincarnation, and Holy Grail secrets before contemporary archaeology digs and caves with ancient writings. Although the men's armor looks cheap, the medieval costumes have the right silhouette – healers, herbs, and woodwork create period detail while scenic bridges, horses, and country beauty belie ominous bodies in the river, missing fingers, and mysterious books. Unfortunately, this telling of two tales at once is immediately confusing with lookalike sisters both introduced in sex scenes with the same man and a modern woman who takes on this archaeology thing after a bad break up, goes into a cave during an earthquake, and is rightfully chastised for her amateur contamination of the site. While a book can go back and forth per chapter, this television film juggles too much. The Old Speaketh is try hard and everybody in France speaks unaccented English as crusader persecutions are intercut with good cop/bad cop interrogations. Secret brotherhood meetings, double crossing contacts, another corporate woman introduced with a nooner – we're still meeting everybody an hour into the story thanks to the spliced presentation. Longer scenes building tension between the sisters, car accident shockers, and hooded rituals with candles and daggers better show the medieval past and present, and the two parts should have had all the past action naturally building to the present intrigue. Why tell in a current research montage when we can see that past suspense? The uneven structure cheats with women from different times in the same frame or place just for visual effect, delaying the storytelling with attempted edgy. Hot guys in the pool, iPod mentions – leave your number by typing it into some man's phone, is that for real? – and forced chemistry aren't as interesting as a Book of Potions or religious protectors. Secret society bad guys chase something so important one moment only to call it an irrelevant loose end the next, people with answers go unutilized, and clues are waiting in an inherited house but nobody goes there. A righteous thug with a silencer shooting people for not going to confession and information easily given that should have come sooner are too convenient as neither past nor present is primary thanks to no sense of danger and the thin women's tropes such as the one-dimensional illegitimate naked bad girl scorned threatening a man with cries of rape. It's also tough to enjoy the trebuchets, sieges, fire, and cemeteries when all the miscast, messy, mansplaining men are so weak in battle. Although the opening scenes suggest a mystical connection, there is no point to these separate stories being told in parallel. Neither receives the attention it deserves, leaving the medieval hollow despite serious topics and the present lacking an intelligent mystery that doesn't know its audience. While the men in such adventures can handle the Holy Grail, reincarnation, immortality, and get the girl; with women the medieval must be all jealous affairs and a soap opera sappy choice between a lover or the greatest religious and archaeology discovery ever. Boo!

18 May 2018

Women in Perilous Places

Women in Perilous Places
by Kristin Battestella

Horror loves nothing more than placing women in danger. Will the girl power be bound by the usual horror cliches or can the ladies from this semi-recent trio of scares overcome the natural disasters, perilous places, and island risks?


Creep – Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) and the delightfully disturbing Sean Harris (Prometheus) anchor writer and director Christopher Smith's (Black Death) 2004 Tube terror amid slippery sewer tunnels and panning flashlights with surprising reveals. Although long credits, a prologue scare, and a colorful party create several restarts, there's already an innate sense of danger with a pretty woman left on the platform alone late at night. She's locked in the station – gates across the doors, still escalators, empty ticket booths. Mysterious echoes, screams, hidden panels, and underground access build fear as disappearances, rats, and maze-like corridors add to the harassment and assaults. Claustrophobic surroundings and confined movements lead to apparent safety on the next train, but the homeless alcoves and search for the control room are to no avail. There's nowhere to run, but security camera flashes and fuzzy black and white footage breaking the solitary point of view emphasize the uh ohs while gory slashes and terrible lashes heard on the speakers create red blood trails across white floor tiles. Panic and heavy breathing are enough without brief herky jerky running camera perspectives thanks to high voltage passageways, chases on the train tracks, ladder climbs, and nasty swims with bodies in the water. The gray claws, amphibian slender, and deformed scaly of our subterranean culprit are well done with the greenish hues and underwater cages contrasting bright flashlight beams. It's cold and dirty in this old medical station – harpoons, dolphin sounds, and specimens in jars accent the gruesome with hints of procedures gone wrong, playing doctor, and bone saws. While mostly what you don't see horror rather than torture porn, some audiences expecting a scary explanation may not like the slightly fantastic turn. A lack of subtitles can make the assorted accents difficult, and background answers storyboarded but not filmed would have helped deepen the statements on sex, drugs, abortion, and homelessness. At times, the tunnel pursuits become a house of horrors room to room with assorted scary themes, and internal logic bends as needed. Couldn't she use her lighter to set off a sprinkler or cause fiery damage to call for help? Why doesn't she initially utilize emergency call boxes and cameras that are apparently everywhere? Fortunately, that skewed realism taps into the ugly visage and unlikable bitchy at work with doubts about the mimicry and where the audience's sympathy should lie.

Still Decent

A Lonely Place to Die – Beautiful but perilous vistas, thunder, and misty but dangerous mountains – a risky place to whip out the camera! – open this 2011 hikers meet kidnappers parable starring Melissa George (Triangle), Alec Newman (Dune), and Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey). Eagles and aerial views quickly degrade into mistakes, hanging frights, and upside down frames. Ropes, gear, risk – people cause disaster among the otherwise still, respected beauty where they aren't supposed to be resulting in cuts, scrapes, and falls. Weather interferes with their plans to climb the next killer facade, but wishing one could paint the lovely forest and rocky scenery uncovers mysterious echoes from an ominous pipe and a trapped little girl. The hikers split up – several take the longer, safer route back to the nearby town – however there's a more difficult path called Devil's Drop that one couple brave climbing to reach help faster. Unfortunately, short ropes and sabotaged equipment create shocking drops and fatal cliffs. They aren't wearing helmets so we can see the heroics, but no gloves against the sharp rocks, rough trees, and burning ropes, well that's as dumb as not having a satellite phone. Unnecessary fake out dreams, annoying shaky cams, and distorted points of view detract from both the natural scary and the mystery of who else may be out there – fear on people's faces is always more powerful than effects created for the audience. Guys with guns encountering more crazed men all in black with yet more kidnappers in pursuit also break the isolated situation too early. Unknowns snipers would better layer the environmental fears, raging river perils, terrain chases, and gunshots. Attacks from an unseen culprit are much more terrifying than knowing what poor shots they are even up close and with scopes. Injuries, screams, thuds, and broken limbs provide real menace, and we really shouldn't have met the killers until they are over the victims asking them how much the price of their nobility hurts or what good compassion did for them today. Although double crossing criminals playing the mysteries too soon compromises the good scares and surprise fatalities, fiery sunset festivals progress the mountain isolation to a ritual village suspicious. Fireworks and parades mingle with hog masks and alley chases – again suggesting people are where they shouldn't be as the hiking dangers become congested public confrontations. While the crooks' conspiracies get a tad ridiculous when innocent bystanders are killed in plain sight, this is a unique natural horrors cum kidnapping thriller remaining tense and entertaining despite some of those shout at the TV flaws.

A Split Decision

Black Rock – Childhood friends Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and Lake Bell (Boston Legal) revisit a Maine island with co-star/director Katie Aselton (The League) in this 2012 survival tale from writer Mark Duplass (of the 2014 Creep). Hip music, packing inventories, and crass jokes join the scenic drive to the horrors, but one has invited the other two ladies without telling each one, lies about having cancer, and admits she wants an we're all dying anyway last hurrah. Fortunately, the speedboat, cold water, and barren coast are already chilling as the women revisit a childhood map with old forts and time capsules. There are no distinguishing characteristics such as jobs or even last names, but it's easy to see why the two similar brunettes dislike each other – none of them really seem like friends but they go along with their pushy blonde leader anyway. Despite tough hiking and mosquito complaints one brunette can't get over the other sleeping with her douche boyfriend six years ago. They shout and nearly come to blows as the blonde between them insists she isn't taking sides just as she confers with one and not the other. Instead of discussing their problems, the conversation is of men and childhood lesbian crushes amid try hard cursing every other word. Of course, there are three suspicious dishonorably discharged soldiers turned hunters on this island and the women are obviously their game. Fireside flirtations with drunken blow job talk reveal the once shy brunette as a tease liking attention who thinks a make out session will suffice. Unfortunately, these guys don't play by the rules or take no for an answer, and assault becomes a typical plot point as each trio falls into bullying peer pressure from its strong arming leader. Our sexually dominate alpha male has a meek black follower and his white pal is perhaps so in love with his commander that he is impotent without the rifle he uses against the women. Rather than exploring catty women snapping in the isolated horror, men hit and bind them while the helpless girls say they fear rape – putting the sexual violence back in the minds of the weak trying to prove they are real men. Though directed by a woman with an understanding of shit men, this is written by her husband as a male fantasy. These women are called cunt slut bitch and said to be getting their deserve symbolic impalings and kicks in the crotch for denying the superior war-fighting male his pleasure. Graphic gunshots, action filming, and chases in the woods are well done, and up close camerawork draws in the fear or intimidation. However, the mixed message on whether the violent men or the teasing woman is at fault takes away from the tense women's point of view. The jealous blonde insists they can't escape and dislikes her previously at odds pals working together when they don't need her cowardly to fight back – which becomes more male viewer titillation as the lookalikes strip off their wet clothes. Panties and all in the itchy woods with killer men in pursuit! The brash gal with the masculine nickname quivers as her once meek pal slaps her, and the cheek to cheek, heavy breathing, and hair pulling is almost sex scene coy. They walk around in the woods naked, bonding while making spears, yet for all the girl power, this becomes less about defending oneself over an assault and more about two women psyching each other up to slit a guy's throat. Instead of a horror movie by women, for women, this becomes a bizarre he said, she said. It's worth a viewing discussion, but it skews toward male tropes disguised as a women's piece.

15 May 2018

Witches and Bayous, Oh My!

Witches and Bayous, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

This trio of somewhat obscure retro pictures has the spooky mood, atmospheric locales, and bemusing magic needed for a little late night enchantment. 


Mark of the Witch – A noose, mud, frock coats, and ye olde speaketh set the scene for this 1970 tale of 300 year old witches and revenge on a Texas college campus, oh yes. Certainly there are bemusing production values – false eyelashes on the witch, modern dental work seen in her over exaggerated delivery, more bad acting, and super windblown curses amid lengthy filler credits, off key folk tunes, uneven sound, and cutting corners close camera work that's just too up close. Fortunately, more natural conversations are casual fun alongside occult books, superstition and psychology studies, and 'spook seminars' recounting how those who exorcised and persecuted witches ended up suffering horribly themselves. Not to mention there's a professor descended of those originally cursed who knows more than he's saying. Colorful fashions, pigtails, and cigarettes add nostalgia as far out dudes play the sitar and ask hip chicks about their zodiac signs. Palm readings and Ouija boards lead to messing with a black magic tome and laughing at spells with belladonna and bat's wings. They can substitute some dried rosemary for the fresh sprig in the recipe, right? Invocations, witch's runes, candles, and wine goblets create an eerie ritual mood along with storms, possessions, and high priestess warnings. Things get slow when the embodied witch learns about our world – the telephone and coffee percolator are explained before campus tours and unnecessary music montages. And look at those classic station wagon ambulances! The men argue about ordering more books so they can learn how to excise the witch's spirit from the coed, but she's getting down with the fiery spells, demon summonings, and luring boys to the grove at midnight for some satanic saucy. Again, some action is laughable thanks to bizarre, poorly edited make out scenes and a certain tame to the potions, pompous explanations, repetitive rites, and psychedelic light show driving out of the evil spirit. There isn't a whole lot to the actual revenge, yet eerie sound effects keep the cackling, daggers, and automatic writing interesting. This could have been totally terrible but the good premise doesn't go far enough, either. Though neither stellar nor scary, this is both bemusing and creepy for a late night viewing if you can take the bad with the good. 

Necromancy – Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight) and Pamela Franklin (Satan's School for Girls) star in this 1972 oddity also later known as The Witching with varying editing and runtimes. Hospital room scares and dead baby traumas restart the tale several times when an unsettled bedroom says everything needed before the husband's job transfer to an isolated town called Lilith. His new boss is occult obsessed and insists his dead son is only resting, but our wife doesn't believe in life for a life rituals reviving the dead. The town name, however, gives her the creeps – as does talk of her having potential gifts thanks to being born with a veil. Although the outdoor filming is super bright, retro phones and a packed station wagon add to the desert drives, dangerous curves, and explosive accidents. A doll from the wreckage has fingernail clippings in its pocket O_o and the sense of bizarre increases with nearby funerals, dead children in coffins, burning at the stake flashes, disappearances, and tombstones. Older, castle-like décor – trophy heads, demonic imagery, magic tomes – pepper the spooky Victorian homes alongside women both seventies carefree yet medieval inspired with old fashioned names. There are however no children in town, pregnant women have to leave, and our couple moves into the same place as the recently, mysteriously departed. These devil worshiping townsfolk in white robes prefer hiding in the past with time stopped and have no interest in the present thanks to goblets filled with bitter red liquid, astrology, ESP, and tarot. It's awkward when you invite someone new to a party and ask them to join your coven! Mismatched fade ins, crosscuts, zooms, and askew angles accent the hazy rituals, devilish lovers, and brief nudity. However, such editing both adds to the eerie and allows for more weird while making it look like creepy, lecherous, self-proclaimed magician Welles filmed his asides separately. He's upfront about the occult, terrifying yet luring the Mrs. as the messy visions, wolves, and injuries increase. Freaky basements, rats, seduction, voodoo dolls, dead bodies, bats – is what she's seeing real? Have any of these encounters actually happened? Despite shades of The Wicker Man foreshadowing, it takes a bit too long to get a clue even as the poison mushrooms, skeletons, and rituals gone wrong become more bizarre. Fortunately, there are some fun twists to keep the somewhat obvious and slightly nonsensical warped entertaining.

The Witchmaker – The picture may be a little flat for this 1969 slow burn also called The Legend of Witch Hollow, but vintage swamp scenery, moody moss, weeping willows, shallow boats, and Louisiana cemeteries set off the bayou murders. Mellow music and swimming babes in white lingerie begat violent kills with ritual symbols, dripping blood, binding ropes, upside down hangings, and slit throats. The disturbing is done with very little, but eight women have been killed in last two years, thus intriguing a parapsychologist investigator and his team of sensitives, psychic students, and skeptical magazine writers. It's $21 for their three boat trips, supplies, and six people renting the no phone cabin for five days – I'll take it! Old townsfolk fear the culprits are immortal witches who need blood to stay young and warn the guests of snakes, quicksand, and gator-filled marshes. Early electrical equipment, radios, and technical talk on waves and magnetic fields balance the somewhat dry acting and thin dialogue as more bikini clad psychic women rub on the sunscreen while our ominous warlock watches. Although the nudity is relatively discreet with the skimpy suggestion doing more, the maniacal laughter and slow motion running while clutching the boobies is a bit hokey. Thankfully, lanterns, hidden rooms beneath the floor, underground tunnels, and satanic rituals sell the macabre. Crones with gross teeth and dominant spells must recruit these psychics to the coven for invigorating body and soul trades as the scientific talk gives way to candles, seances, chanting, and fog. Green lighting, red sheer dresses, and skimpy blue nighties are colorful spots among ominous witnessing, creepy statues, torches, and demonic altars. The investigating team buries victims amid out of control powers, hypnosis, and screams while the witches enjoy a little necking, decoy dames, knives, and fiery brandings. Granted, the male investigators are limp leads, just the facts fifties cops out of place compared to the ladies feeling more of the sixties Hammer lite. A third woman does nothing before being used as bait in the men's plan which goes awry of course. The raising of the coven is more entertaining – all kinds witches, warlocks, cool cats, and unique characters manifest for some wine, feasting, and whips for good measure. The red smoke, music, dancing, romance, and chases lead to a blood pact or two before one final romp in the mud. Overall, this remains tame, and the plot should have gotten to the more interesting coven action in the latter half sooner. However, the unpolished aesthetics and retro feeling keep this late night drive-in eerie fun.

03 May 2018

The Invisible Man (1958)

The Invisible Man is a Fun if Repetitive Spectacle
by Kristin Battestella

The 1958-59 H.G. Wells' Invisible Man television series boasts two thirteen episode seasons filled with invisible black and white trickery, mad science espionage, and continental intrigue for the radiated Dr. Peter Brady. While some of the half hour adventures are dated and derivative, there's a certain mid century science fiction charm to the driverless cars and early television special effects.

Due to an unpredictable side effect of his “refraction” science, Dr. Peter Brady is transformed lab coat and all in “Secret Experiment” and he doesn't know how to make himself visible again. Some of the colloquial invisible science dialogue is of its time and wooden, but government agencies want Brady's secrets – leading to quarantine suspense, stolen cover ups, and well filmed invisible escapes. Rather than be confined or take advantage of Brady insists on finding a cure, agreeing to continue on at Castle Hill Laboratories while joking that they won't see him at work. A reclusive and disfigured millionaire risks being a new test subject in “Behind the Mask,” and The Invisible Man is best when the stories focus on the experiments and gray morality at home. Powder from a lady's compact is handy in revealing our invisible quarry, and it's bemusing when people say they are glad to see Brady before stumbling to correct themselves. Occasionally, there's also no mid-air cigarette or other invisible scene indicator, forcing the audience to pay attention for a clue on The Invisible Man's location – a lingering focus on a blank wall or a longer emphasis on an empty chair. Under the bandages decoys and dangerous radiation provide top secret approvals and assassination attempts before the Season Two premiere “Point of Destruction” brimming with experimental fuel risks and airplane disasters. Radical science sabotage, snipers after Brady – when wounded, his blood trail reappears and faking his death may help catch the bad guys. More daring train escapes in “Death Cell” lead to unreliable witnesses, questionable doctors, straight jackets, and hidden photograph negatives before missing coworkers and destroyed files in “Flight into Darkness.” Brady demonstrates the unsafe implications of a new anti-gravity technology while government ministers and peace organizations argue over using it as a weapon, and The Invisible Man is almost ahead of its time with such ambiguous implications. Well filmed suspense, neighboring windows, and dangerous voyeurs invoke Alfred Hitchcock for “The Decoy” alongside decoded notes, kidnapped singers, and twin sister ruses. USO tours and American officers provide timely patriotic winks amid double decker buses, twin camera trickery, and invisible points of view for those speedboat chases.

Unlike the ego maniacs in the film adaptations, Dr. Peter Brady is a solid chap helping catch those who would abuse emerging science. He goes on secret missions when the country asks him, but Peter's frustrated over being unable to find a cure. He shaves before the mirror out of habit despite admitting it is a waste of time. Brady dislikes stifling security measures, so he often goes invisible at home when people spy in the window or treat him like an animal in the zoo. He laughs at the irony of people staring at him and makes jokes when they say they're happy to see him but occasionally also wishes they could indeed look on him. Peter doesn't want to be fixed up on dates with famous dames or relax at the theater in “Play to Kill,” for he'd rather be a hermit, shut himself in, and get some work done. Blackmail over celebrity hit and runs add to his notoriety, and though reluctant to wear his bandages, he chuckles at revealing himself as a headless man to scare people. His work is stolen in the Season One finale “Strange Partners,” but Brady's lured with a call about its recovery before being trapped by a vicious dog – one of the few times his being unseen doesn't help him. The personal and immediate dangers, however, fall away in favor of espionage and heroics. Instead of seeking his once most important cure, Brady is at times selfish, enjoying being the one who can save the day after the surprisingly graphic marketplace shootouts of “The Gun Runners.” A sassy intelligence dame asks for his help on an off the record mission, and he's a little smitten at her brash compared to all the helpless damsels he rescues. The invisible tag team cargo switches are a lot of fun, and the corrupt officials think it's her great right hook because they don't know Brady is doing the swinging! Such undercover chemistry actually would have made a great finale as Peter toasts his refraction heroics with a witty dame accepting of his condition. Of course, an actor is never seen in the role billed as The Invisible Man, but the uncredited voice actor Tim Turner apparently does the most work among several other fill-in actors. Not only was the unknown casting probably cheaper, but knowing the specific character or personality underneath the bandages was unfortunately secondary to the invisible wink and all the unseen trickery – unlike today where the allure would be in never seeing the famous face involved or having a different star under the bandages each week.

Often called “Dee,” Lisa Daniely (Doctor Who) as Brady's widowed sister Diane takes him into her home despite the adjustments – like bumping into him when he doesn't have on his overcoat. Although his family isn't there for themselves so much as to answer the phone as required or to help with a plan, Dee isn't afraid to wield a gun and take on the bad guys. When Peter says he's so angry he could kill, she insists he has his dinner first and demands he wear sunscreen invisible or not. It's a leap that this mild mannered housewife is apparently an incredibly resourceful catch all lady in disguise, but Dee pretends to be a reporter for information and remains a strong headed woman. She witnesses a man hiding stolen film in the lining of saucy puppeteer Hazel Court's (The Masque of the Red Death) coat in “The Mink Coat,” but her brother doesn't believe her despite obvious strong arming attacks and gunpoint threats. Deborah Watling (who also appeared on Doctor Who) as Brady's sassy and precocious niece Sally is cool with this invisible thing and fresh to those pesky reporters bothering her famous uncle. Although they probably didn't think anything of it then, her being in the bathroom with him is a little weird, and throwaway lines about him not wearing his invisible clothes inadvertently imply some awkward nakedness. I could almost do without her, but the entire family angle is dropped by the middle of the Second Season with just a few late appearances for Sally. It's obviously a money saving maneuver to have less regular cast, but the continental espionage of the week takes The Invisible Man away from the science fiction and personal elements that make the series unique as in “Picnic with Death” when a car accident with witnesses puts Brady's condition in the headlines. The family receives extra security, but Peter insists he's a human being not a government file. The invisibility causes more trouble at home as desperate reporters watch objects moving by themselves and try to get a picture as Brady helps one of Sally's friends prove her crooked step father is trying to kill his invalid wife. Sally's kidnapped in “Bank Raid,” too. There are consequences to The Invisible Man being famous with ransom notes and abandoned houses making the titular heists stronger because the action is personal. Of course, there's also some humor when poor Sally can't flag down any help because bystanders are more shocked at her driverless transportation!

Unfortunately, the of the time stereotypes happen early and often with brownface Arabs in “Crisis in the Desert.” There's no real attempt to clarify which agencies or military intelligence are recruiting Brady, either – random colonels use his undercover cover to thwart escaped agents or unfriendly regimes as needed amid generic thugs of the week thrashing themselves about in the invisible fisticuffs. Though originally a secret, everyone eventually knows about Brady. Nobody minds if he interferes in a local crime, a coup against cliche foreign powers, or goes vigilante versus enemy scientists. “The Locked Room” and “Shadow on the Screen” provide anti-government statements, fake accents, Russian sailors, scientist defections, and comrade interjections – if you've seen one of these international intrigue episodes, you've seen them all. It's not so memorable when episodes rely almost entirely on action sans dialogue and people we don't know. The white UK agents saving Cairo from heroin dealing Arabs in “Blind Justice” also misses the mark despite some surprisingly modern politic intrigue, the irony of a blind woman helping The Invisible Man, and future 007 guests Honor Blackman and Desmond Llewelyn. Speeding trains and con artists can't hide that “Jailbreak” has Brady helping yet another wrongly accused lady. He says he can't help everyone, but that's exactly what he does, and The Invisible Man should have chosen whether he was going to be a post-war hero fighting international enemies or just be an invisible mad scientist. Too many episodes become insert exotic locale here – although they were in Paris the show prior, Diane tells Peter she's due a holiday in “Odds Against Death.” They thwart a scientist gambling in the Alps with some invisible roulette tricks, but “The Vanishing Evidence” offers more faux accents and stolen secrets. These aren't all terrible episodes, but the humorous invisible moments are out of place amidst the anonymous action plots. The foreign checkpoints, SS-esque officers, and tortured writer held for exposing a country's terrors in “The Prize” could be an interesting, ahead of its time rescue, but it's lost in a sea of similar of their time episodes. When Brady is called in regarding the eponymous refraction experiments of “The White Rabbit,” it's just more fake accents and fascism. An enemy wanting an army of invisible men could be a great arc, but there's no defined fictitious country or rival scientist to battle. It's more drugs for “Man in Disguise” and Middle East ploys yet again in “Man in Power.” “The Rocket” has more titular secrets at risk over gambling before the malfunctioning weapon of “Shadow Bomb” and the atomic bomb parts in the “The Big Plot” finale. Despite frequent directors Pennington Richards (Interpol Calling), Peter Maxwell (A Country Practice), and Quentin Lawrence (The Ghosts of Motley Hall) and writing teams with Ian Stuart Black (Doctor Who); creator Ralph Smart (Secret Agent) seems most responsible for all the similar action hours and stock scripts. Maybe everyone wanted to add their own science or spy spins, but that leaves the series with no cohesive vision in too short a run.

Thankfully, Tudor manors, classic fifties décor, and cool convertibles add nostalgia alongside phone booths with horseshoe phones, old school newspaper headlines, brandy decanters, and vintage dressing gowns. Old fashioned nurses uniforms and classic constable styles invoke more British mood while flashbulb cameras, aviation photography, radio controls, and giant switchboard plugs set off the through the gun barrel camera visuals. Retro futuristic dials, buzzes, switches, and knobs hit home The Invisible Man's premise with lab coats, cages, and disappearing animal subjects. The bandages, gloves, fedora, and sunglasses create that memorable invisible silhouette, and the unwrapping old chroma key effects are still neat. Phone receivers hang in the air, papers flip on their own, gates open and close by themselves – all tricks for The Invisible Man's slight of hand, of course. There's something pleasant in these disappearing strings ruses. Today we take such in camera skills for granted as now we just motion capture the actor and CGI remove him from the frame. Where's the fun in that? Sound effects are also important as the camera follows unseen footsteps and other foleys itemize the invisible action. Certainly it's obvious all the dialogue is dubbed voiceovers and cast speaking opposite our doctor are usually filmed in a separate shot. However, the actions are well timed with actors moving in and out of the opening or closing doors in step with the invisible cues, and bravo to stunt personnel dealing with operator-less lawn mowers, no riders on the horse's back, and roadsters with nobody behind the wheel nor in the sidecar. Getting that full wine glass to dangle in the invisible air without spilling anything must have been tough!

The Invisible Man often has weak writing and a thin, aimless focus. The over-reliance on weekly bad guys and international espionage of the era can be tiring for sophisticated audiences today. The plots are often more action than personal man versus science fiction mistakes, but this series doesn't deserve to be obscure. H.G.Wells' Invisible Man is still an appealing what if experiment gone wrong with vintage invisible special effects, and it's a fun retro marathon for the whole family.