Thursday, August 30, 2012

LET'S GET HAMMER'D: The Brides of Dracula

The Brides of Dracula
Director: Terence Fisher
Year 1960
The Brides of Dracula is a fantastic Hammer horror film that marks the studios first return to the world of the blood sucking vampires after their smash hit Horror of Dracula with Christopher Lee. Though Lee is sadly missing in this entry, the atmosphere and unsettling gothic nature of the movie is top notch and fully intact, making for an outstanding continuation of Dr. Van Helsing’s endless struggle in ridding the world of the vampire curse. With an exceptional cast and a visual quality that only Hammer Productions can deliver, The Brides of Dracula is a highly enjoyable and classically filmed story that captures you right from the start as it guides you down a twisted path filled with danger, death, and undead delights.
The film follows a young woman by the name of Marianne Danielle, whose first trip to her new teaching job at a school for girls in the middle of the wilderness, turns out to be more than she bargained for. After being stranded at a local inn by her spooked carriage driver, Marianne gets an unexpected visit from a wealthy recluse named Baroness Meinster, a woman who lives like an outcast in her castle estate atop the mountainside. The Baroness invites her to stay with her for the night, for she is lonely being the only one besides her trusted servant to inhabit the house. Accepting the gracious offer, Marianne arrives at the lavish estate only to come into contact with a strange young man who is being kept under lock and key in a hidden area of the castle. Feeling sorry for the unfortunate soul, Marianne manages to steal the key to his shackles from Baroness Meinster and hastily sets him free, only realizing much later that she may have in fact unleashed the most dangerous creature the world has ever known. As fortune has it, Dr. Van Helsing, a specialist in this sort of obscure field, is passing through town. Could he be the key in bringing down this resurrected plague upon the people of this humble Transylvanian town? You better believe it! Get your wooden stakes and crucifixions out, because this is going to be one hell of a bloody good time.

Peter Cushing plays the role of Van Helsing, a professional vampire hunter and all around great guy. Even though Cushing doesn’t show his face until almost halfway through the movie, once he presents himself he owns ever bit of scenery he appears in. As usual, his commanding presence begs for attention and the contemplative way in which he handles each situation he finds himself in, is so thoughtful and theatrical that you can’t help but to be swept up in the uncanny nature of it all. If there was any one man that encapsulated the kind of classic vibe that these Hammer productions defined, then Peter Cushing would be that guy. With his gaunt figure and distinct features, Cushing made the perfect Van Helsing, and he continued in this tradition for four of Hammer’s most memorable vampire outings. In this particular feature, Cushing puts on a smashing performance as he throws some new twists to the genre and rules to the lore, when we witness him being bit for the first time and then tending to the wound by cauterizing it and dousing it in holy water. There is also a great bit of disposition about the history of vampirism and the ins and outs of how to destroy one, told eloquently by Peter Cushing in the most serious and respectable of deliveries. Cushing indeed makes this film a marvel to behold and his acting is, as usual, remarkable.
Even though Cushing dominates the movie when he is finally introduced, there is still a good deal of colorful characters to liven up the rest of the film’s run time. Yvonne Monlaur plays the role of Marianne Danielle the endangered teacher who unwittingly unleashes the vampire menace upon the town. While she looks consistently stunning in the various and extravagant period outfits, Yvonne doesn’t really have much to do story-wise after letting the antagonist of the film loose. Once that happens, she is resorted to countless instances of looking shocked and scared out of her mind, with little to no redeeming value other than she looks absolutely fabulous while doing it. But hey why am I complaining? This is a Hammer horror film and even though she plays little more than window dressing, Yvonne Monlaur hits the formulaic mark when it comes to Hammer beauties, and for that I’m tremendously appreciative.

While Yvonne’s character serves nothing more than pushing the story along into far more interesting territory, there are a few standout actors who pick up the ball and run with it. Martita Hunt plays the role of Baroness Meinster, a jaded and mysterious individual that is haunted by her past and doomed to be trapped in it. Martita does a marvelous job in giving the audience a character to question and second guess. We aren’t quite sure of her intentions early on, but when we are finally revealed to her plight we come to sympathize with her and relate to her sorrow. As the Baroness, Martita does an excellent job and though her role is not substantially long, she does wonders with it. David Peel takes on the role of the creature of the night in this story, giving a dual performance that is both hideous and charming. Like all great classically presented vampires, there is a duality to his role. He is both savage and graceful, and Peel presents these qualities in a subtle sense that never seems too brash or convoluted. He may not be as pitch perfect as Christopher Lee, but he makes a formidable opponent for Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Last but not least is the role of Greta the servant, played by Freda Jackson. Like Peel’s contributions to the film, she also has a dual purpose. When we first meet her she is sensible, yet haunted by an unknown past, but when the shit really begins hitting the fan, she spirals downhill as she quickly changes into a mad woman who is hell bent on following her master to the ends of the earth. Freda’s performance is wild to say the least and I appreciated the wackiness that she brought to the production.
As you can guess, with a cast as diverse and genuine as this, you’re bound to get some great moments and this film is just filled to the brim with them. One in particular is when Freda Jackson’s Greta is being watched by Peter Cushing. When we see her she is wailing like a mad-woman and talking to the earthen dirt by a gravestone. As she maniacally beckons to the body below, a hand begins to rise from beneath the ground, setting Greta into a cackling pitch of laughter and praise. It’s a creepy scene and one that is highly successful because of the reactions of both Peter Cushing and the deliciously demented Freda Jackson. Another aspect of this scene and a staple for this entire film is the atmosphere is just top notch in its foreboding presence and visual panache. In the very definition of gothic splendor, the production is bathed in a translucent moon-filled light that covers the scenery in a mournful tone that just amps up the creep factor of the production. This should come as no surprise seeing that this is what Hammer horror films are known for, but with The Brides of Dracula it’s the little moments filled with pungent atmosphere that really sells the story as a frightfully enjoyable tale.

The Brides of Dracula is a superb continuation of Van Helsing’s adventures into the world of the occult and damned, and Peter Cushing excels as the dedicated vampire hunter. With his iconic look and aforementioned regality, Cushing solidifies his stance as the ultimate thespian and all around classy guy. Aided in his efforts, is an equally prepared cast that though doesn’t shine as brightly as the seasoned actor, still manage to bring a substantial amount of heft to the quality of the story. David Peel especially gives it his all in trying to fill in the larger than life boots of Christopher Lee.
When it comes to atmosphere you need only look to one of the countless efforts that Hammer Productions has churned out over the years, and The Brides of Dracula is right up there with the best of them. With a haunting tone throughout and a melancholy outlook shared between much of the cast of inflicted characters, this film transcends into a dark and haunting realm which can only be captured by this outstanding production house and the definitive actors that can call it home. If you’re in need for a refreshers course on the validity of Hammer and their many contributions to the cinema landscape, then I suggest you pop this classic tale in and enjoy the lush gothic presentation of it all. You won’t be disappointed. The Brides of Dracula is…..

Glory be! What a pair of mutton chops!

If I threaten to jump, do you think they'll give me more to do in this film?

Greta's got a funny feeling about this chick.

Get used to this expression, because you're going to see it a lot.

You really think you're something else with those ridiculous mutton chops.

Even the corpses in Hammer films have great cleavage.

Cushing's good. Cu-Cushing's real good!

Is this piss? It smells a lot like piss.... I think it's piss.

Check out these freaks.

Probably one of the happiest entrances in the history of cinema. Hello there.

Damn! This vampire is one of those close talkers.

Van Helsing, you're cold as hell.

I can't believe you made me drink piss.

What's wrong Marianne? Did you wet the bed again?


Van Helsing doesn't mess around. The dude's CRAZY!

This is battery acid you slime! Well, it's actually holy water, but you're still slime.

We don't need no water let the mother fucker burn!

Burn in hell you evil windmill!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

HERE'S JACKIE!: Battle Creek Brawl

Battle Creek Brawl
Director: Robert Clouse
Year 1980
Battle Creek Brawl is a ridiculously underappreciated Jackie Chan film which is mostly known for being the legendary action star’s first attempt at breaking out on to the US cinema scene. Packed to the gills with explosive action, memorable characters, and a young and fierce Jackie Chan filled with piss and vinegar, the movie sets the stage for a roll licking brawl that never ceases to entertain. With its charming 1930’s setting and its playful atmosphere, Battle Creek Brawl is a film that sadly slipped by the public’s eye without a notice, but it really is a movie that you need to see for yourself especially if you are a hardcore Jackie Chan fan. Let’s face it, the guy is a living legend and this film showcases him in a fun and extremely charming light. Get to brawling Jackie!
The film follows a young Asian American martial artist named Jerry Kwan, who after defending his families’ place of business from a gang of mobsters who want their protection money, Jerry is flung into a series of events that allow him to show off his prowess as a seasoned fighter. With his brother’s fiancé kidnapped by the mob, Jerry is forced by the gangsters to enter a brutal bare-knuckle fighting tournament called Battle Creek Brawl where larger than life muscle-bound men fight to the last man standing. The bouts are savage and Jerry is extremely out weighed by his competitors, but fight after fight Jerry proves that he has what it takes to bring down the largest of foes. Will he make it to the final round and satisfy the mobs wishes or will he find another way to thwart their plans? Either way it’s going to be one hell of a show!

Jackie Chan of course plays the role of Jerry Kwan, the Chinese martial artist living in 1930’s America. The role seems tailor made for Chan as he has taken on a great deal of period action films throughout his long spanning career and with Battle Creek Brawl, it seems to be the precursor for what would come to be some of his most entertaining and adventurous movies. From his work on the Project A series, to Mr. Canton and Lady Rose, and to an extent his performances in both the Shanghai flicks and Around the World in 80 Days, it would appear that Jackie loves mixing it up in these stylistic time periods and is drawn to the wonder of the world during those eras. With Battle Creek Brawl, he gives an outstanding performance as the underdog of the story, making you believe that he can take on anything, even the gargantuan behemoths that he finds himself battling once the competition sparks to life. Though this film isn’t as explosive as Jackie’s other Hong Kong productions, it still packs quite a punch and Chan is especially charismatic in this role. It’s too bad that American audiences weren’t ready for Jackie’s style of action mixed with comedy, because he does a tremendous job in this movie and the film overall is an absolute blast.
Another asset of the production is the abundance of outstandingly great characters for Jackie’s Jerry to interact with. Makoto Iwamatsu, simply known as Mako, plays the role of Jerry’s mentor Herbert. The seasoned character actor does an amazing job with the role and he’s able to keep up with Jackie’s kinetic style and comedic flair, providing some very memorable moments that make quite an impact on the heart of the film. To my knowledge this is the first and only time that Mako and Jackie have appeared together in a film and the combination and chemistry between the two is electric. Kristine DeBell plays the role of Jackie’s girlfriend Nancy, and she does a bang up job too, but sadly she doesn’t really have much to do in the film other than look cute and cheer Jackie along. I should not though that she does get a chance to get down and dirty when she performs in a roller derby style race which allows her to show her toughness and fortitude.
When it comes to the bad guys of the film, there’s no shortage of them that’s for sure. From the mobsters to the brawl competitors, this movie is jam-packed with outrageous heels that range from seriously evil to ridiculously cartoonish. H.B. Haggerty takes the cake as Kiss, the deadly fighter that bear-hugs his opponents to death before he kisses them goodnight. Haggerty is a hoot in this flick, and the professional wrestler turned character actor hams it up for the cameras as he delights in every punch to the face he gives out. The rest of the memorable fighting cast consists of Stephan Merjanian who plays the Moroccan a thick bodied psycho in a cape, Earl Maynard who plays the dancing Jamaican fighter with the sweetest of moves, Sonny Barnes who portrays the tougher than nails Iron Head Johnson, and Ron Max who plays the dual knife-wielding mobster Leggetti. Each of these guys brings a unique look and style to the film and their wild nature is just infectious once they let loose within the movie.

Let’s get back to the Jackie aspects of the film, because there are many moments within the runtime of the movie for Chan to shine. For starters, let me address that this is not the fast paced Jackie that we are used to seeing in his Hong Kong efforts. He still is mighty fast, but the pace has been taken back a bit. Whether this is because Jackie is being directed under an American production or because he is not working with people who are not used to his kind of work ethic, I’m not sure, but you can tell that the fluid choreography that Jackie is known for his somewhat lacking in this entry. Be that as it may, the film still packs a punch and delivers some outstandingly iconic moments that are not to be missed. For instance, right from the start we are introduced to Chan’s character as he performs some gymnastics on top of a steel bridge. Then as the film cranks into gear with the introduction of the Big Brawl competition, we get to see Jackie go full force against some of the largest men that he’s ever come up against. These are muscle-bound behemoths and Jackie holds his own while doing his trademark combination of infused comedy and action. For me, the film’s scenario works and Jackie just shines in the role of the outsider.
What I also found rather refreshing with this early American Jackie production, is that it tends to focus on the comedic side of Jackie as a performer. Often at times when trying to break into the States, Jackie found that he was being type-cast as the replacement for Bruce Lee, and you can argue that this film was in fact a perfect example of producers trying to capture that Lee magic seeing that the director of the film was the same man to bring Enter the Dragon to the public’s eye, but when I view this film I see a Jackie Chan film through and through. It may not be the shining example of his style, but you can see the early workings of what would quickly become one of the most interesting methods of fusing action with comedy. To me this is what I crave when I want a Jackie Chan fix. I want a fun film filled with unparalleled action, inventive fight sequences, and a butt load of comedy sewn into every stitch of the production. That is exactly what we get with Battle Creek Brawl. It may not be the best example of Jackie’s unbelievable abilities, but it sure makes for an exceptional starter on what would soon blossom into a legendary career.

Battle Creek Brawl is a tremendously entertaining Jackie Chan film, which in my opinion stands the test of time in showcasing a cinematic effort that really is a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch. From the comedy aspects of the movie to the rough and tough brawl sequences, this film really has a wide breadth of things going for it, and you have to admit that it carries itself with a sure-fire energy that always keeps things interesting. There really is never a dull moment in the film and the amount of engaging characters on the screen at any given moment is an added plus in my book.
Jackie is absolutely outstanding in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the fighting ability that he puts on display. I’m referring mostly to the presence that he brings to this film. There is a charisma and liveliness to his performance that really affects the entire cast and you can tell even this early in his American debut that he would later be a force to be reckoned with within the cinema world. All in all, I’ve always had a soft spot for Battle Creek Brawl, because it just seems that the film has gotten an underserved bad rap and I’m just lucky that I can get such an extreme amount of enjoyment from a movie that is pretty much disregarded by the majority of Jackie Chan fans and martial arts enthusiasts. Regardless of the consensus, you should really give this film a chance. Like I said, it may not be one of Jackie’s crowning achievements, but the charm and class of this film is really top notch and the fun to be had with this crazy movie is immeasurable. Battle Creek Brawl is…..

Jackie get down from there you little monkey!

I find it hard to believe that anything can hurt
Jackie's head with that helmet of hair protecting it.

Jackie.... you card.

Man this dance audition is INTENSE!

Say Dr. Giggles sucks again..... I dare you!

Go Jackie! GO!

For a good time call Jackie Chan.

There's a weird old Chinese woman in the back seat. Can we keep her?

Well that is just precious.

Looks more like a pie-eating contest rather than a bare-knuckle brawl.

If you don't think Jackie is tough then stew on this for a while.
The guy laying on the ground use to be wearing white pants.

Damn! Haggerty must be starving!

Beware the power of the genie pants Jackie.

Some of these brawls get kind of out of hand.

What do you mean you forgot to bring my extra pair of underwear?

Stache, glorious Stache!

Whatever you do Jackie, don't let him hug you... or give you a kiss.

Damn Jackie, you look like a stone-cold killer!

You're the man Jackie!