film criticism



USA, 2010


The intention was that it would be different. Nothing makes the powerful within Universal Studios gnash their teeth more than remembering how the small time British stole the Dracula and Frankenstein monsters that Universal Studios had blessed with movie fame in the 40s.  Twenty years later British thieves presented the monsters as their own brand and persisted through decades of profit making success.  The imitated decided to imitate the imitators.  Universal would remake their 1941 hit The Wolfman and simultaneously prepare a couple of sequels. Joe Johnson met the moneymen who had vengeance in their hearts and he was hired to direct.  Johnson knew how to integrate special effects because creating them was how he first earned his living.  His previous films had also enjoyed significant commercial success.   And just in case anybody would suspect cheap motives the producers would recruit classy actors and the film would be introduced with the original Universal logo, more a badge of pride than an advertisement.

But life is not fair. The Wolfman cost $150m to produce but critics thought the remake uninspired and audiences preferred other films in other cinemas.  Horror fans and cineastes were disappointed but nowhere near as much as the moneymen in Universal who had expected to build a bigger and better gravy train than that steered by cheapskate Hammer Film Productions. The top men at Universal remembered those pathetic British efforts and cardboard sets and lousy matte shots.  Somehow across the Atlantic serious money had been earned.

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Before he directed The Wolfman Joe Johnson had made one decent movie.  It also had a good title, October Sky.  This was a heartfelt biography of a working class young man who became a physicist.  The end of the movie dries the throat and inspires thought about social class and its consequences.  The rest of the time Johnson has produced nothing more than popcorn for the eyes.  It has earned him a more than comfortable living. These films have revealed logistical command but been short on real flair.  The nostalgia in the inoffensive Captain America, though, has attracted some fans.   In retrospect it is obvious.  Joe Johnson had spent too much time reading comic books and getting rich at the Walt Disney Company to ever make a success of a confused lycanthrope.   Horror requires paranoia and dark skies. It is present in The Wolfman but Johnson is at his best creating adventure under American sunshine.  October Sky is a fine sensitive film but it examines success.  Nothing could be further from Gothic fatalism than the optimism of practical technicians.  And nothing in horror represents fatalism as well as the werewolf.  He is the equivalent of the doomed hero in film noir.  One bite and you are finished.  Even unscrupulous vampires sometimes get a second chance.


In The Wolfman the monster creates mayhem when it runs riot across London.  The sets and special effects are a tribute to skilled effort and hard cash.  Yet it is difficult not to imagine Mary Poppins landing on the shoulder of the werewolf and pushing the end of her umbrella through his chest.  It is that kind of artificial London.  Indeed, Mary Poppins is the darker film. Her songs and jokes may be fun but Ms Poppins understood the punishing side of existence. She warned the family about how lives can be wasted earning cash.  The best Joe Johnson can manage in The Wolfman is to remind us not to be bitten by a wolf. The Disney feel of the picture means that the violence, when it does occur, is risible.  The legend of the werewolf is gloom laden.   Violence that is not taken seriously undermines the suspense and drama and even the poignant romance.

Novels are different from movies.  Much of the fiction we read is written by the uninspired and the dim witted.  It has to be that way. Publishing is an industry that needs product in order to make money.   Exceptions always exist but accomplished rather than successful novels are not written by the talentless.  Movies contain many elements and demand effort from an army of contributors and each has specialist skills.  Sometimes the talentless can produce classics and the gifted embarrass us with duds. The Wolfman neither has sufficient terror nor romance to be great but somewhere in there amongst its not always obvious objectives there is accomplishment that has to be acknowledged.   The film is not unlikeable. The contribution of the actors is important.   Benicio Del Toro has eyes that always look ready to leak tears, and Emily Blunt appears to be an independent spirit and a woman who would find it impossible to lie.  Anthony Hopkins has seasoned as well as an Iberian ham and, true, he can leave a similar aftertaste but he does have a physical presence. His characterisation in The Wolfman is eccentric and a little daft but it adds grit.


If the creation of London is misjudged, the, shadowed streets and urban comfort in brightly lit rooms remain impressive.  In The Wolfman there is a strong sense of Victorian luxury and the comfort that it brought to the privileged.  The Tower Bridge in the movie is more spectacular than the one that exists.  The British landscape consists of both real scenes from Derbyshire and Wiltshire and fake shots of mist and sunsets but these elements do not clash.  No attempt is made to exaggerate the scenic splendours with higher hills than normal.  Instead we see endless moorland and out of reach boundaries.  Some of the images in The Wolfman deserve to be retained as still photographs. The moment when Anthony Hopkins uses his lantern to inspect the detail on the tomb of his wife is fabulous, as is the scene on the side of the Thames when Del Toro recovers from his transfiguration.  Inspector Aberline is added to the plot.  Those who worry about whether the failure to identify Jack The Ripper weakened the London detective can be consoled by knowing that in The Wolfman the policeman has acquired the skills of a horse rider and a marksman.  This is not uninteresting but again it adds to the Mary Poppins dimension that weakens the film. Neither can it be a coincidence that the love of the Wolfman, Emily Blunt, has been selected to play Mary Poppins in the new version.

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Still, credit has to be given to Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote the script. Not everything is perfect, and none of the main actors make the whole journey back to the 19th Century.  Walker avoids howling anachronisms but his dialogue somehow echoes modern colloquialisms. While he retains much of the original plot his additions enrich the textual themes within the story.  The werewolf Lawrence Talbot is now an American actor. More than one reference is made to acting.   Inspector Abberline, understandably desperate to identify the killer, wonders what is inside the head of a man who has played murderers like Macbeth and Othello.  Sir John Talbot tells his thespian son, ‘You’re not the only one in the family that can act.’   The inference is that acting and the responsibility of impersonation will leave a performer with the sinister presence of others in his or her identity.


Changes are also made to the original roles of the father of the werewolf and the woman he loves.   With the help of well-bred Emily Blunt the devoted Gwen moves up the social scale.  It enables her to be more independent and spirited.   Sir John is a much darker character than in the original 1941 film, and this facilitates a more complex Oedipal tale.   Rather than the emphasis being on sexuality as it is in An American Werewolf In London the savage animalism of the werewolf instead enables Lawrence to commit the act that many sons must at some point undertake. This is the destruction of the father, the brute that has ruined the mother adored by the son.  The Greek myth fits the werewolf legend rather well. The sexual elements identified by Freud are not emphasised but there is phallic significance in the walking stick that is left in the railway carriage by Max von Sydow near the beginning of the film. The scene was so brief and inconsequential to the plot it was cut from the original theatrical release. Von Sydow, though, was hired for a reason. The presence of the Bergman stalwart connects our subconscious to the agonised frustrations expressed in 60s sexualised Swedish cinema.


The talented actors Anthony Sher and Brian Glover were hired to represent what was available to support the mentally ill in the 19th Century.  Both overact and ensure that The Wolfman for all its knowingness tips into failure. Glover is obliged to be sadistic and charmless. It is not in his nature, and he is not convincing.  Anthony Sher is either off his head or too inspired by the Mary Poppins London backdrop.  A more subtle and restrained performance would have revealed a savage approach to mental illness taken by a rational man.  But if the recreation of the 19th Century British approach to healthcare is wild and extreme, it will do no harm if The Wolfman reminds us of the primitive alternatives being planned for the NHS by the present Government and its oligarchical amigos.   There could be more howling at the moon before we are finished.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.











MEXICO, 2015

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Even before it was butchered by an inept English translation the title was terrible. Los Mismos would have been a better effort at a handle but something must happen to Castilian Spanish in South America. Los Parecidos was described as a distressingly familiar film by one critic. Homage is important to both the style and plot, but there cannot be many films as nutty as Los Parecidos. Although packed with references to horror movies and The Twilight Zone there is something singular about this Mexican movie.  The famous Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said that a film should begin with an earthquake and build to a climax. Los Parecidos begins with a thunderstorm and the arrival of two hysterical passengers in an almost empty bus station. The arrow aimed at the climax, though, misses the target. Sam Goldwyn would not have approved. It is clear that director Isaac Ezban intends Los Parecidos to amuse and scare. Not everyone will think he succeeds. For those who relish modest gore and knowing silliness the playful absurdity of Los Parecidos will have appeal. Some of the ideas deserve applause. The scenes are played straight but fast and with comic timing.  Horror fans can have an odd sense of comedy, which is why Los Parecidos has collected devotees. Comedy is at its best exploiting desperation and not the desolation that exists in this Mexican bus station, and that is a weakness in the film, but the insistent silliness of Los Parecidos cannot be begrudged.


The waiting passengers endure terror for two reasons.   The bus will not turn up because of the torrential downpour outside the bus station, and everyone including the women will grow a beard and look the same. The person everyone looks like is Ulises played by actor Gustavo Sánchez Parra.   Ulises is anxious about his wife who is in hospital and giving birth.  Irene is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital.  Gertrudis already has a son.  These three people are particularly distraught. The rest are just moody, strange and cantankerous.  The beard of Ulises makes him, and everyone else of course, look like Sam Phillips the record producer in Memphis that helped Elvis Presley create rockabilly.  This may be more than a coincidence because Los Parecidos exists as a reminder of how Mexico and the USA share iconography.  The remote setting in the film looks like somewhere from rural Texas.  Los Parecidos has an odd rock and roll edge.

The neat trick in the film is that the terror that haunts the people in the bus station is not that terrifying. Rain downpours stop at some point, and beards can be shaved.  All the people need to do is settle down, have some patience and apply a little thought. The thinking and conversation that occur do not help. Instead, violence becomes epidemic. In Los Parecidos sympathy and support for the plight of others rarely last more than an instant, and paranoia and resentment affect everyone. For the viewer it means having to observe relentless and often mindless hysteria. Bewildered by the hair that has grown on her face the bathroom attendant attacks her beard with a knife until her face is ripped to shreds, the bathroom is covered in blood and her body has had enough.   The reaction is extreme but it is a very thick beard. Outside the bathroom the waiting passengers search for a plausible suspect that carries the beard-inducing virus.   Irene tries more than the others to be reasonable but no one emerges with credit.  The accusations come thick and fast.


Anyone with any sense will assume that Los Parecidos has a political sub-text. The sacrifice of individuality and the aggression that we witness are a consequence of an authoritarian capitalist society.   Raise the stakes in a competitive society to ensure that survival is always at stake and winners will gorge on greed and the losers will scramble for scraps. Unaware that their lives are blighted by distorted rewards everyone will feel threatened by the others and feel compelled to attack rivals.  Inevitable envy is resented by those envied.

Throughout the film the news on the radio in the bus station mentions the Tlateloco massacre. This occurred in 1968.  Ten days before the Mexico Olympics began students in Mexico City staged a protest against the Government. The students felt that the money spent on the Olympics was extravagant and the oppression of farmers and labour unions excessive. Between 300 and 400 students were killed during the protest, and nearly 1500 were arrested. In a sane world the 1968 Mexican Olympics would have been cancelled. There was some indignation but most of it was restricted to the three African-American athletes who put single fists in the air.  Fans of athletics soon forgot the 300 dead students. All of this should confirm that Los Parecidos is a political film.


Director Isaac Ezban, though, is adamant. According to him he included the Tlateloco massacre reference to acknowledge Mexican movies of the sixties and the political context of those films. That loop in thinking is typical of what occurs in the film. What he said about the political context may be true or not but whatever he really thinks Ezban is determined to have fun, and some of it will be at our expense.   The joke, though, may be on him. The film he has produced may be a lot less flippant than he is. In his defence Ezban might argue that there is a lot more silliness than politics in Los Parecidos.

The music on the soundtrack is orchestral and relentless. It is at best a decent imitation of the music by Bernard Hermann, it does quote the Psycho soundtrack, or at worst an echo of the production line scores that accompanied B horror movies in the sixties. If it has an effect, it is to remind us of how persistent melodramatic musical exaggeration can soon be ignored by a viewer. Throughout the film the pitch does not vary. There is no shading between individual scenes. Like the rest of the film, this may be a sly and affectionate tribute to bad taste and thwarted imagination.

Rather than film Los Parecidos in widescreen black and white Isaac Ezban decided to desaturate colour film. It looks like black and white but it is not as sharp.   The claim is that it creates a dreamlike atmosphere. These days the demand for black and white film is minimal, and that makes it expensive. Desaturated colour film helps to keep costs under control. In certain scenes there are odd items that appear in pale colour, blue seats and the yellow raincoat of the child.  It is an effect and different but how it helps either the comedy or the tension is unclear. Black and white film facilitates both crisp images and exaggerated shadow and light. Desaturated colour film like the music in Los Parecidos offers little variation. It also undermines the tribute that is being paid to the past.


Fans of The Twilight Zone, though will not be disappointed. The idea behind the plot, the actual threat to the waiting passengers, is taken from a highly rated episode of The Twilight Zone called It’s A Good Life. The episode was aired in 1961. In that episode the consequences of the threat are more serious and terrifying but the action is gentler. It takes place in the social stability of suburban America and before a Mexican Government waged its ‘Ugly War’ and slaughtered 300 students. Back then we had an alternative view of both the past and the present, our fears about the future and our sense of humour were different. As used to happen in every Twilight Zone episode, there is a spoken introduction and summary to Los Parecidos. The narration at the beginning of the film is more successful than what occurs at the end.  The final narration is fanciful and the whimsy, in view of what happened in 1968 to 300 students, is odd.


Much of what happens in Los Parecidos consists of human beings trying to not only apportion but deflect blame. Each person at some point in the movie asserts that one of the others does not belong to the group. These assertions are not consistent, and the accusers are willing to accuse more than one person and for different reasons. In national politics such behaviour is often accompanied by the waving of a flag. Since Brexit there has been much flag waving in the UK and much pointing of fingers. Newspapers create scurrilous headlines about politicians not just having unacceptable opinions but about them meeting someone who possesses what are regarded as dangerous thoughts. Boris Johnson lectures the British people with a speech that says he can unite everyone providing we all agree with him.  The British economy flounders but those who like to quote depressing statistics are shouted down with lies. So far there has been mutual hatred and contempt but limited violence.  Unwelcome beards are under control but an outbreak of the ‘flu has made the NHS vulnerable. In Los Parecidos no one is able to help the others.  This, of course, has been the tragedy of much of the politics of South America.  Watch Los Parecidos and it is tempting to think Britain might share a similar tragedy.  We could become the Mexico of Europe, a bewildered and impoverished cousin that will eventually recognise with envy the more stable mainland  across the Channel.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.