Premise: A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses.
In concept, Vivarium (Latin for “place for life”) has all the makings of a mind-bending sci-fi thriller that should be rich with character development and social commentary. The film features an ominous set design showcasing an empty and endless housing development in which the film’s protagonists become trapped. It’s an idyllic, yet monstrous prison of suburbia and the only inkling of hope they have toward being released is to raise a bizarre alien child that appears in a box on the street.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Premise: One of the sons of Frankenstein finds his father’s monster in a coma and revives him, only to find out he is controlled by Ygor who is bent on revenge.
Son of Frankenstein finds Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) traveling to the village in which his father’s monster wreaked havoc many years after the tragic events transpired. The young baron brings his bride Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to the Frankenstein castle where Wolf is set to collect his inheritance. In the village, the Frankensteins are met with hostility while, in the castle, the Frankenstein patriarch faces off with the heavy shadow of his father’s legacy.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Premise: Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska seeks the aid of a noted psychiatrist, hoping to free herself of a mysterious evil influence.
The Universal Monsters’ second direct sequel, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, takes a different approach than Bride of Frankenstein before it. Like Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter begins immediately after the events of its predecessor. However, there is no retconning to be found here. Dracula is dead. Long live Dracula. This sequel examines the fallout of the events of the first film through Van Helsing’s (Edward Van Sloan) interactions with the law and the introduction of Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is seemingly possessed by the re-deceased Dracula.
Werewolf of London (1935)
Premise: The juice of a rare Tibetan flower is the only thing that keeps Dr. Glendon from turning into a werewolf during a full moon.
Though it underperformed commercially compared to the success of The Wolf Man six years later, 1935’s Werewolf of London has the distinction of helping to create much of the mythology that is still associated with werewolves today. Prior to the film, transforming into a werewolf involved witchcraft, did not involve a full moon, and bites were not transformative to humans. Thus the legacy of Werewolf of London is indelible even if the film itself is slightly uneven and muddled with too many protagonists.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Premise: Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate.
The first direct sequel in the Universal Classic Monsters chronology is also the final one to be helmed by James Whale (after Frankenstein and The Invisible Man). Bride of Frankenstein is replete with themes of creation and destruction amidst subtext involving identity politics, nature vs nurture, and a healthy of dose of homosexual undercurrents thrown in for good measure. The film builds upon what was previously established in Frankenstein by introducing a more menacing mad scientist character and further humanizing Boris Karloff’s monster. It also pays homage to the woman who created the monster and brings some light religious commentary to the forefront as well.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Premise: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.
A man enters an inn, demands privacy, and works tirelessly at mysterious experiments. He’s isolated, agitated, and slowly growing more and more insane. Also, he’s invisible. The Invisible Man is the mind-blowing journey of a man overcome with the conflicting feelings of the power he has gained and the longing to come back to the one he loves. It’s a mad scientist motif that drives a narrative more and more toward an ending that may not be as redemptive or emotionally satisfying as one might expect. With a powerful lead performance by Claude Rains and spectacular visual effects, The Invisible Man leans into its mad scientist’s descent as it leads to a thrilling conclusion.
The Mummy (1932)
Premise: A resurrected Egyptian mummy stalks a beautiful woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his lover and bride.
A year after making his mark as the monster in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff cemented his icon status with his portrayal of Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy. Despite having a plot that is heavily borrowed from Dracula, The Mummy showcases Karloff’s strength and range as an actor behind it. The film also features an exotic Egyptian locale and set design that is noticeably different from the Gothic horror of Dracula or the villages of Frankenstein. More importantly, The Mummy has tense atmosphere and a sense of grandeur to its monster that keeps it from simply being a rip-off of Dracula.
Premise: An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.
James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was released in the same calendar year as Dracula. Together, the two films kicked off the Universal Monsters’ reign in cinemas. While both are similar in their Gothic horror aesthetics, Frankenstein infuses its monster with a science fiction hue to great effect. The scientific and moral concepts at the heart of Frankenstein help enhance the wonderful characterization and tragedy-laden arc of the film’s titular character and his complicated monster.
Premise: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.
1931’s Dracula, the beginning of the Universal Classic Monster films, is a work of stunning beauty and dread from the outset. The detail in the backdrops of the opening scenes is awe-inspiring and lends to an impressive scale and cinematography that has aged extremely well. Within the first few moments, we’re introduced to Count Dracula and his castle. Giant interior scenes are filled with broken staircases and cobwebs. The set design goes a long way in establishing tone and a sense of danger for every character who crosses Dracula’s path. Continue reading
The Invisible Man (2020)
Premise: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of one of Universal’s iconic monsters for the #MeToo era has its highs and lows. The Invisible Man takes the classic monster and makes him into a predatory, controlling, and abusive narcissistic sociopath. It’s a far cry from the mad scientist searching for a cure to his invisibility in the 1933 James Whale film. That’s not a bad thing, however, as Whannell creates a menacing and intrusive villain within the framework of a highly effective thriller. Unfortunately, the film ultimately falters in its depiction of the aftermath of abuse to the point where it becomes a bit reckless in its handling of the material.
Premise: Set in a suburban fantasy world, two teenage elf brothers embark on a quest to discover if there is still magic out there.
In telling the story of two disparate brothers on a time-sensitive quest to temporarily bring their father back to life, Pixar’s Onward recaptures some of the heart and soul of some of the studio’s earliest hits. Onward takes the classic “what if” template that makes Pixar films so magical and creates a charming epic suburban fantasy world plagued by modern technology and consumerism. Though the world building itself is just slightly lacking in the long run, there’s a hefty emotional weight to the story of Ian and Barley Lightfoot that harkens back to some of the studio’s most heartfelt films.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)
Premise: A teenage girl’s secret love letters are exposed and wreak havoc on her love life.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is Netflix’s charming teen romance film based on the first of Jenny Han’s trilogy of novels. In adapting the story to film, screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson pack the ethos of classic John Hughes films into a modern teen world. They do so in an earnest and unironic way that feels refreshing in an age of cynicism and satire. Guided by a pair of very charismatic young stars, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a romantic teen drama you won’t soon forget.
Troop Zero (2020)
Premise: In rural 1977 Georgia, a misfit girl dreams of life in outer space. When a competition offers her a chance to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, she recruits a makeshift troop of Birdie Scouts, forging friendships that last a lifetime.
Troop Zero is a well-meaning and sugary sweet story of accepting and celebrating who you are and finding that special community of people who will embrace your quirks and support you. Its focus is on Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace), who has recently lost her mother and finds comfort in looking to the stars. Her leadership in forming a troop so she can get her voice on NASA’s Golden Record is the film’s strongest asset. However, the rest of the troop members’ journeys don’t quite connect to hers, much to the detriment of the overall story.
Fantasy Island (2020)
Premise: The enigmatic Mr. Roarke makes the secret dreams of his lucky guests come true at a luxurious but remote tropical resort. But when the fantasies turn into nightmares, the guests have to solve the island’s mystery in order to escape with their lives.
Blumhouse’s reimagining of 70s & 80s television show Fantasy Island is at best a passable cheese fest depicting beautiful people in peril. At its worst (and sadly, most frequent), it’s the dull presentation of an uninspired thriller that’s more concerned with revealing its mystery than creating compelling characters.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Premise: After discovering a small, blue, fast hedgehog, a small-town police officer must help it defeat an evil genius who wants to do experiments on it.
Sonic the Hedgehog has finally raced its way into theaters after a highly publicized face lift in the visual effects department. Despite the publicity, however, Sonic is mostly dead on arrival. Aside from a few scant comedy beats and a delightfully over the top performance from Jim Carrey, Sonic the Hedgehog feels like a slapped together adaptation of a video game franchise for which no one seemed to be clamoring.