Premise: A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home.
Relic, the feature debut from writer/director Natalie Erika James, takes the fragility and fear of caring for a mentally ailing loved one and packages it into an overall enticing thriller with the effectiveness and confidence of a seasoned filmmaker. By focusing on the struggles of caring for a relative, Relic allows its audience to grow attached to its characters before suddenly ratcheting up the tension and suspense in more conventional ways. And although James deftly guides the audience through the family drama at Relic‘s center, the conventional feel of the climax does leave a bit to be desired before successfully ending the film on a disturbing and thought-provoking note.
Premise: A Democratic strategist helps a retired veteran run for mayor in a small, conservative Midwest town.
By transposing a high stakes political arena onto a small town rural America setting, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible takes a relatively low key approach to its ribbing of the world of campaign finance. It is not simply a “fish out of water” story. Nor does it attempt to romanticize the quaint small town it occupies. Instead, Stewart uses this juxtaposition to call attention to the absurdity of campaign fundraising in a fairly unique manner. And although the approach is surprisingly refreshing in this era of fourth wall breaking Adam McKay political and socio-economic commentary films, Irresistible falters a bit on the road to its message.
Premise: A pilot’s aircraft is hijacked by terrorists.
Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 is a tense and claustrophobic thriller about an airplane hijacking and the pilot’s efforts to keep control and guide the passengers to safety. Taking place almost entirely within the cockpit, 7500 quickly becomes a showcase of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ability to command the screen with an intense and introspective performance. It is also an exercise in low-budget filmmaking and storytelling that utilizes limited set space.
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Premise: The owner of a coal mining operation, falsely imprisoned for fratricide, takes a drug to make him invisible, despite its side effect: gradual madness.
Nine years after Dr. John Griffin’s invisible rampage depicted in 1933’s The Invisible Man, his brother, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), helps his friend escape the gallows with an experimental drug that turns him invisible. Once Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) escapes, he sets off to find the person who murdered his brother while he waits for Frank to develop an antidote for the invisibility. The Invisible Man Returns is noteworthy for the improvements to the visual effects that nine years afforded the production.
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.