#138 Bigger Than Life

Watched: October 4 2017

Director: Nicholas Ray

Starring: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Robert F. Simon, Walter Matthau

Year: 1956

Runtime: 1h 35min

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School’s out for Easter. What a dream! Though not for teacher Ed Avery (Mason), who suffers stomach pains and is on his way to his second job as a cab dispatcher. Despite his clear discomfort and his rush to get to his second, secret, job, he takes the time to give a student a break and to play matchmaker for a couple of colleagues. An all round good guy!

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Pictured: every teacher’s face at vacation time

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After a dinner party, Ed collapses and his wife Lou (Rush) and BFF Wally (Matthau) get him to the hospital. The doctors run a series of tests, including a very cool and quite possibly cancer-inducing X-Ray with barium, and are discouraged by what they find. Without treatment, Ed has less than a year to live.

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A life span further reduced by the liberal helpings of barium and x-radiation

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The only treatment found to be somewhat effective is the newly discovered (possibly?) hormone cortisone, but it can have serious side-effects. After weeks of experimenting, a proper dosage is found, and Ed is sent back home with a few weeks’ supply of cortisone pills.

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Ed’s medication gives him a new appreciation for fancy clothes and shopping sprees. There’s a chance we may have too much cortisone in our systems…

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In time, Lou starts noticing some changes in her husband’s personality. He is more adventurous and spontaneous, but less sensible and responsible. He is energetic and manic with terrible mood swings and occasional tremors.

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There’s always a possibility he is possessed, according to the mirror

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As Ed’s solution is to up his cortisone intake, his new personality traits develop into full blown delusions of grandeur, complete with a new tyrannical approach to family life.

 

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Even his shadow gets in on the action, looming threateningly over his young son Richie

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Bigger Than Life is very dramatic, and Ed’s development throughout the film goes from one extreme to the next. We loved the X-Ray/barium scene, the dramatic crescendo of the ending, the shadows and the general craziness. It may not be a film we’ll rewatch over and over again, but it is definitely worth watching once.

What we learned: Teachers owe it to themselves to be sick on school days – not during vacation. Word! Also, stick to the prescribed dosage.

Next time: Forbidden Planet (1956)

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#128 Diabolique/Les diaboliques

Watched: August 7 2017

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 57min

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Christina Delassalle (Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Signoret) are colleagues at a boarding school for boys somewhere in France, but that’s not all they have in common. They are also involved with the same man – Christina’s tyrannical bastard of a husband Michel (Meurisse).

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“It’s always more fun to share with everyone”

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Michel does not only mistreat his poorly (but wealthy) wife – he is also abusive to his mistress and the children in the school. Fed up with him, Nicole concocts a murderous plan to rid the two women of their shared lover. Christina is hesitant at first, but after her husband humiliates her and rapes her, she has finally been pushed too far.

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Not what most men have in mind when they picture being bathed by two women

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They go through with their plan, but the already mentally and physically fragile wife is quickly deteriorating from the stress and the guilt. Then, the body disappears, freaky stuff starts happening and things turn creepy.

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Artist’s representation of us watching this film

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Diabolique is very, very creepy and suspenseful. Michel is extremely unlikable and we’ve never wanted two people to get away with murder more than in this case. This film kept us guessing to the end (although we had a theory which turned out to be spot on) and there are a lot of exciting twists and turns in the plot.

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The look of a woman mentally preparing for murder

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We won’t say much more as we do not want to spoil this gem for anyone, but if you haven’t seen it, it should go to the top of your to-watch list. So good.

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What we learned: If you’re going to murder someone, make sure you know how to play it cool.

Next time: It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

#102 Sunset Boulevard

Watched: April 30 2017

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton

Year: 1950

Runtime: 1h 50min

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Thematically linked to All About Eve, though centred on Hollywood rather than Broadway, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of broke screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) and former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Swanson), who embark on a strange and ill-fated relationship when he accidentally seeks refuge in her decrepit Hollywood mansion on the day of her chimp’s funeral.

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No, we did not make that up.

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When Norma learns that Joe is a writer, she asks him to read through and rewrite her script for her epic comeback Salome and, being down on his luck and about to return home to take an office job, Joe agrees and moves into the faded star’s equally faded mansion.

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Despite the state of the mansion, the floors are waxed to perfection and the quartet has been polished for the occasion

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Joe soon gets used to the lifestyle offered to him by the delusional Norma. Even though he understands that her aspirations to return to the screen are completely unrealistic and he knows that to the outside world she’s a has-been, he, like Norma’s creepy butler Max (von Stroheim), plays along and feeds into her false sense of relevance.

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That’s not all he feeds into if you get our drift… He’s a kept man, is what we’re saying.

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As Norma’s delusion of grandeur increases, Joe’s satisfaction with his life of leisure decreases, and he starts working on the side with Betty Schaefer (Olson) with whom he collaborates on an original screenplay. Norma starts to suspect that her boytoy is getting some on the side, and she is not happy…

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“I let him watch my movies with me and this is how he repays me?!?”

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Now, this film is a classic for a reason. It’s endlessly quotable with a Gothic setting and extremely memorable characters, in particular the unstable, possessive, explosive, toxic and fabulous Norma Desmond. Even our old favourite Buster Keaton makes an appearance, as do old-timey stars Hedda Hopper, H.B. Warner, Anna Q. Nilsson and, famously, Cecil B. DeMille.

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Guess who’s ready for her close-up…

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Sunset Boulevard is a sort of Gothic Film Noir and we loved it completely. It’s one of those films you’ve seen parodied, referenced and referred to, and heard quoted, so many times that you start thinking you’ve actually seen it, but in our case that turned out to be false (for some reason, although this is right up our alley). There’s madness, love, satire and men who (once again) feel they need to make hard decisions for women who love them, without giving them the unbiased facts and letting them choose for themselves. Loved, loved, loved it.

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Ah – Buster. We still love you dearly.

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What we learned: Great stars have great pride.

Next time: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

#89 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Watched: March 7 2017

Director: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

Year: 1948

Runtime: 2h 6min

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Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) is down on his luck, roaming around Mexico without a penny to his name. After finally being paid by a scam artist he worked for (a beating proved necessary to get the money he was owed), he teams up with Bob Curtin (Holt) and old prospector Howard (Huston) to dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

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If you came to this film looking for a 1940s Brokeback Mountain you’ll be sorely disappointed. Despite the tension, the clothes stay on at all times.

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They head up into the mountains and within a few minutes of run time (though several days for the characters) they strike it rich. Setting up their operation, Howard warns the newcomers about the effects of gold on a man, but Dobbs shrugs it off, stating that he will never be corrupted. He could not possibly be more wrong.

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This perpetual scowl on his face is not the look of a man indifferent to the prospect of wealth

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The three gold diggers stay in the mountains for the better part of a year, and the tension and distrust between them grow exponentially in that time. When a fourth man shows up intent on joining their operation, they unite for a short while in the face of a common enemy, but their comradery does not last once the threat is gone. With each of them, especially Dobbs, growing concerned with the intentions of the others, they are soon fighting for their lives against both the elements and each other.

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And bandidos. They also fight bandidos.

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, as our DVD cover says, El Tesoro de Sierra Madre – thank you, Amazon Marketplace) is the first Western on the list and we loved it. There are saloon fights, shoot outs, bandidos, treacherous nature and friends, Indians, and Federales, and it’s tense, dark and dirty. There’s a lot of foreshadowing going on, so from the start you can make fairly educated guesses as to what will happen, but that doesn’t take anything away from the viewing experience. It’s a great watch, and we do love it when Humphrey Bogart plays slightly more villainous characters.

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Let’s just think back on the time before it all went wrong, shall we…

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What we learned: Gold will poison a man’s mind and heart.

Next time: Caught (1949)

#88 The Red Shoes

Watched: March 6 2017

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

Year: 1948

Runtime: 2h 14min

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Victoria Page (Shearer) is a young, ambitious ballet dancer who, after a party, is invited by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to try out for his company. At the same time, young composer Julian Craster (Goring) gets a job with the same company coaching the orchestra. As Vicky rises to be the new prima ballerina (after the old one got married), Julian also rises through the ranks as a composer. The culmination of both their work is a new ballet, The Red Shoes, based on H. C. Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Julian composes while Vicky dances the lead.

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While the others work, Lermontov does his very best impression of a creepy old man

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The ballet is a great success, and its two rising stars fall in love, something Lermontov is none too happy about. He fires Julian, and Vicky, though torn, decides to go with her boyfriend. She marries him and he starts composing operas, also to great success. However, despite her meteoric rise to fame in Lermontov’s ballet, Vicky spends the following year out of work.

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We strongly suspect Julian didn’t like other men’s hands this close to his wife’s hoo-ha..

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Next season, Vicky goes back to Monte Carlo on holiday with her aristocratic aunt and runs into Lermontov again. He convinces her to dance The Red Shoes once more, but on the night of the performance, Julian comes and demands his wife choose between him and the ballet. Crazed (or possessed?) by this ultimatum, Vicky loses her mind and her control, just like the protagonist in Anderson’s fairy tale.

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Ah – innocence ruined by the lure of passion. It’s like the fairy tale reflects the fate of the innocent ballerina…

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It’s clear that Lermontov is supposed to be some sort of parallel to the shoe maker in the fairy tale, but honestly, he’s not the devil here. He encourages her ambition – an ambition that comes from her, not any outside force. Sure, his encouragement comes from mainly selfish reasons, and he may have some ulterior motive of his own, but at least he want her to follow her passion. Julian seems to think she should be content being the wife and muse of a talented composer, despite her own obvious talent which she is unable to develop once they leave the company. In our opinion, Julian is the bad guy here.

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It doesn’t help our impression that he shows up for her performance¬† wearing something very close to a Nazi outfit and goes straight for the boobs

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This film is spectacular and definitely a new favourite of ours. It’s an intriguing story with great, often eccentric, characters (we particularly love the other members of the ballet company), gorgeous costumes and breathtaking dancing. The performance of The Red Shoes – a ballet within the film – is wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of the Berkeley musicals from the ’30s, beautifully incorporating cinematic effects with amazing dancing to tell the story.

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We’re quite certain that the audience cannot be replaced by an ocean in a real live performance.

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It seems to us that women’s ambition is a dangerous thing (in which case Lermontov is the devil), although we’re not sure for whom. Is it scary for the men who lose control over them, or for the (fragile) women who will crack under the pressure of trying to balance a traditional role (doting wife and house maker) with a professional career? Possibly both, but it seems like women tend to pay the price – especially in morality tales and fiction (let’s not even go into the sexual undertones of this film and, indeed, the fairy tale on which it’s based).

What we learned: A happy and full life should have room for love and ambition. To have to choose is unfair (especially when it’s one gender asking the other to choose while they themselves can have it all..). Also, things haven’t changed much for ballerinas in the last 7 decades, judging from the parallels between this film and Black Swan (2010).

Next time: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

#79 Black Narcissus

Watched: January 28 2017

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Judith Furse, Jenny Laird, Sabu, Jean Simmons

Year: 1947

Runtime: 1h 40min

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Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is tasked with starting a convent high up in the Himalayas. To aid in her quest, she is offered four companions; Briony the Strong (Furse), Philippa the Gardener (Robson), Blanche (aka Honey) the Sweet (Laird), and Ruth the Difficult (Byron). Together, they travel to the great unknown to start a school and a hospital for the locals.

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Luckily for them, nothing ever goes wrong when a group of people are stranded in a remote, albeit beautiful, location

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They quickly establish a school where they teach children about guns, and a hospital where they treat people who are sick, but not too sick. With the help of government agent Mr Dean (Farrar) and the local General (which is apparently a code name for royalty), who pays locals to visit the convent, the nuns flourish, at least for a while. They also take in a young local girl, Kanchi (Simmons), who has been hitting hard on Mr Dean with no luck.

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It’s hard to be the only eligible bachelor in the area. He needs help controlling the urges of the women crossing his path.

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When the Young General (Sabu – an actual Indian) comes to learn, the sisters are sceptical about admitting a man into their midst, but they eventually let him join their lessons, which Kanchi is thrilled about.

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She quite literally throws herself at his feet

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As the film progresses, all the nuns experience changes. Sister Philippa has a crisis of faith and ends up planting flowers instead of the vegetables she’s supposed to be growing for the convent. Sister Clodagh keeps having flashbacks to her life prior to life as a nun, reliving her past relationship back in Ireland with a man she thought she would marry. Sisters Blanche and Briony have to make some tough choices in regards to a sick infant, one which has consequences for all the nuns. However, sister Ruth’s break from reality is the most intense and sinister, which makes the last 20 minutes of the film play more like a horror film than the melodrama of the first hour.

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This is what happens when you question your choice of celibacy

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Ruth falls in love (or lust) with Mr Dean, and she becomes insanely jealous of Clodagh as she suspects (rightly or not) that the Sister Superior feels the same way. While the nuns blame the clear air and the water of their new home for their new emotions, it is quite possible that the convent itself might be partly to blame. We learn early on that the palace used to be a House of Women – a house for concubines and wives of the royals, and it seems the women go mad with lust and desire, in some form or another, in this building.

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Some go madder than others

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We enjoyed this film a lot. We have to admit that for the first 50 minutes we were not entirely sure what the point was – why was this film made? Beautiful as it was, it didn’t seem to be going clearly in any one direction. However, everything comes together in the last half. It is a strange and bizarre film, but we loved it nonetheless. Ruth’s transformation is wonderfully creepy and the endless drumming towards the end of the film are very reminiscent of I Walked with a Zombie, which adds to the feeling of horror of the last half hour. If you’re up for something weird and unusual, you should check out Black Narcissus. It’s quite the experience.

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What we learned: Europeans eat sausages wherever they go. Interpret that as you wish.

Next time: Brighton Rock (1947)

#65 Arsenic and Old Lace

Watched: December 14 2016

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massay, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander

Year: 1944

Runtime: 1h 58min

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Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster (Grant), against his convictions, is getting married to Elaine (Lane). While they get hitched, his sweet old murderous aunts (Hull & Adair) entertain his new father-in-law along with Teddy “Roosevelt” (Alexander), Mortimer’s insane brother. And the body of their latest victim.

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Murderous and adorable!

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On their way to their honeymoon, Mortimer and Elaine stop by Dark and Godless Brooklyn to greet their relatives, and Mortimer stumbles across the dead body in the window seat and panics. Naturally. He is then completely shocked to find that his lovable aunts committed the deed and not only this one! They have so far killed 12 men and had Teddy bury them in the cellar.

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“But… They looked so peaceful after we poisoned them. So relaxed. We can’t see that we’ve done anything wrong!”

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While Mortimer tries to sort out the mess and have Teddy institutionalized to take the blame (without serving prison time), another brother shows up to further complicate things. Jonathan (Massey) is also insane, but more in the I’ll-kill-you-and-everything-you’ve-ever-loved kind of way and not the bugle blowing, stair charging way of innocent Teddy. He also brings his own plastic surgeon, Dr Einstein (Lorre – who does not age!). Oh, and their very own body to be disposed of.

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Guess who was the inspiration for Einstein’s latest surgical miracle?

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Mortimer, as the only sane member of the family, desperately tries to make everything right while also protecting his more loveable relatives. And the results are very silly, very funny and also strangely suspenseful. Grant’s face is EVERYTHING in this film, and aunt Abby (Hull) is one of the most adorable murderers in history. Poor Lane doesn’t really get much to work with though, despite her being billed second on the poster (though, we realise, not the one we chose to go with for this blog..). She’s mainly there to serve as another complication for Grant and perhaps to represent sanity in this insane world.

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As if Cary Grant isn’t perfectly capable of representing sanity on his own!

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Arsenic and Old Lace is a silly and hilarious farce which we absolutely loved. The spinster sisters living together weren’t in any way a glimpse into our own futures at all! No sir. There’s no way we’ll ever be able to afford a house like that…

What we learned: Brooklyn is not part of U.S. proper. Also, inbreeding is never a good idea…

Next time: Double Indemnity (1944)

#39 Bride of Frankenstein

Watched: September 10 2016

Director: James Whale

Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, Valerie Hobson, Una O’Connor

Year: 1935

Runtime: 1h 15min

Liquids consumed: inordinate amounts of wine…

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Dr. Frankenstein learned absolutely nothing from the events of the first film and is back to repeat his past mistakes.

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“I nearly died myself, therefore no one can criticize me!”

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Both the good(?) doctor and his creation survived the burning windmill at the end of Frankenstein and they are back. The creation (KARLOFF! KARLOFF! KARLOFF!) doesn’t exactly redeem himself in the beginning, by killing both parents of the girl he inadvertently drowned in the first film.

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In his defense, he was probably still slightly agitated from all the burning people had been doing to him lately

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Again, the creature is captured, but no chains can bind him! He escapes into the woods where he eventually meets up with a lonely old blind man who takes care of him and treats his injuries.

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Pictured: one of the most beautiful meetings in cinema history

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The old hermit treats him like a person and teaches him humanity and compassion, something his creator failed to do. Of course, eventually angry villagers destroy his peace and he must once again go into hiding.

Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is nursed back to health by Elizabeth (Hobson). When he recovers, he swears off playing God for the foreseeable future. That is, until his old mentor Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger) comes calling and lures him back in.

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“Behold: the fruit of my loins; the tiny results of my seed!” “Wow! How did you do this?” “Ehm… Let’s not get into the details, shall we…”

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Pretorius befriends the creature and promises him a spouse. They convince (read: force) Frankenstein to assist them, and together the two scientists create a cultural icon (Lanchester).

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The inspiration for many a Halloween costume and gothic wet dream

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If you haven’t seen this one, we have no idea what you are waiting for. The cast is brilliant; the effects are very impressive (such as the tiny seed-people), the sets are wonderfully stylistic and the film is beautifully lit. Like the first installation in the Frankenstein series, the story is loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, but a lot of liberties are taken with the story and the characters. They try to pay tribute to the author though, by introducing Shelley with her trophy husband Percy Bysshe and their mutual friend Lord Byron in the beginning of the film, but here Mary sort of comes off as a silly little girl which doesn’t do her justice. Still, it’s a nice nod to the creator of it all (although it gave Sister the Oldest flashbacks to certain scenes in Gothic [1986]).

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“I still love her… But we belong dead…”

What we learned: Dr. Pretorius must have won some sort of masturbation championship to create so much life from his seeds.

Next time: Top Hat (1935)

#36 The Scarlet Empress

Watched: September 9 2016

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Starring: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser

Year: 1934

Runtime: 1h 44min

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Innocent princess Sophia of Germany (Dietrich) has been chosen to marry Russia’s Grand Duke Peter (Jaffe) and is fetched from her German palace by the illegitimate offspring of Vlad Tepes and Titi Suru the Rock’n’Roll Wolf, Count Alexei (Lodge).

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“When in wolf form, father Vlad had certain…appetites… And once he found himself wandering into a Russian ballet musical. The rest is history.”

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Inexperienced and sheltered as she is, she naturally falls for the animalistic wolf-man before arriving in Russia, and falls for him doubly once she meets the “imbecilic royal halfwit” she is to marry. However, she is a woman of her word and keeps her promise to bring new blood into the Russian royal family (and about time too, judging by her husband).

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“She is so lucky to be marrying me!”

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Exposed to the harsh realities of life in the household of the Russian Empress (Dresser), the coldness of her arranged marriage, and Vlad Suru’s reputation as a Lothario (kind of like his fathers, we guess) the once innocent child becomes Catherine the Great, a seductive and intelligent ruler who will no longer be a pawn in other people’s power games. Instead, she’ll play her own.

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And she’ll play them in style

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This movie is epic in scope, violent and stunning, beautifully scored with themes from Wagner and Tchaikovsky among others (they’re the ones we could recognize anyway), and really well acted. The costumes, tableaux and sets are amazing (we love the grotesques everywhere in the castle), and there are so many huge, impressive scenes that you tend to wonder how much money was put into this production. We’re guessing a lot. But that is a conservative estimate – it may have been much more. The Scarlet Empress is an epic ride from start to finish, and we loved it!

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“How do you do, I’m Titi Suru, friendliest wolf you’ve met.”

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What we learned: rebound sex is an old, time honoured tradition.

Next time: Twentieth Century (1934)

#33 The Invisible Man

Watched: September 9 2016

Director: James Whale

Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Una O’Connor

Year: 1933

Runtime: 1h 11min

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A man (Rains) is walking through a snow storm. He has 1/2 mile left to go to civilization. Cut to the Lion’s Head pub, a local pub for local people – there’s nothing for our man there! Nevertheless, the stranger enters and demands a room and privacy. Inn keeper Jenny Hall (O’Connor) is so done with his shit even before he is installed in his new rooms.

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“A ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ never hurt anyone, mister! Coming in here with your demands and your bandages and your snow and you didn’t even shut the front door. Men!”

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Meanwhile, the stranger’s girlfriend Flora (Stuart) is worried about him being missing and confides in his colleague Dr Kemp (Harrigan), who promptly hits on her. Classy.

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“Out of sight, out of mind, eh? Eh?”

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The stranger, who we learn is scientist Jack Griffin, has managed to turn himself invisible and is working on a cure whilst also spiralling into madness brought on by one of the drugs in the invisibility cocktail. When the Halls finally move to evict their disruptive tenant, he throws a fit and shows off just how much of a bastard he is, assaulting the landlady and going on a bit of a spree.

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I mean, look at that adorable face! Who would possibly hurt her?

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After wreaking havoc on the small village, Griffin goes to see Kemp to enlist his help in creating an antidote and taking over the world. Not necessarily in that order. From that moment on things take a turn for the worse, and murder and mayhem ensue.

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“We’ll begin with a reign of terror” – actual line from the movie

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Despite being a horror film, this is as funny as it is scary. There’s some very entertaining slapstick (how could there not be, with a naked, invisible man with no boundries running around?), and some amazing secondary characters. Griffin himself is a megalomaniac, but it seems he has become that way after turning invisible, possibly because he is no longer confronted with himself in the mirror, or because he can now get away with pretty much anything. Or because of the “monocane” he’s injected himself with. No matter the reason, he’s kind of hilarious when he’s not running around killing people.

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“If I don’t even have a head, how can I be responsible for my actions?”

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This film has amazing performances, great humour and very impressive special effects and we recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it.

What we learned: Don’t meddle with things man is not supposed to know. Don’t do drugs of which you don’t know the full effects. Una O’Connor is amazing.

Next time: Dames (1934)