Top Ten Disney Villains Songs

Like many other Halloween seasons, I’ve spotlighted some of the best villains to have graced the silver screen over the years.  I’ve been especially interested in examining the rogues gallery of Disney Animation in particular, mainly because these are the bad guys that I grew up watching as a child and they for me, and a lot of other children like me, left a major impression.  I was especially fortunate to have come of age during the heralded Disney Renaissance of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and with this new crop of instant classic animated features, we were also treated to a whole new group of iconic baddies.  That’s not to say the old timers were forgotten either; they just had more bad company.  But what really sets the Disney Villains apart from most other great movie villains is that they often come with their own theme song.  The Disney Villain songs are often among the best in the whole Disney Songbook.  And I’m sure that they are especially fun for the songwriters to pen, given that you can finally let loose and indulge the dark side a bit to bring some vitriol into the lyrics.  When at their best, a Disney Villain song can be operatic and foreboding but also at the same time subversively campy.  Over the years, Disney has collected quite a few great tunes that are perfect examples of this formula.  Not all of them have to be dark; quite a few are actually quite silly and fun to sing along to.  But what makes the great Villain songs iconic is in how it best sets up the persona of the villain.  It’s in these songs that we learn what makes these characters tick; what motivates them.  We also see how they view themselves, often with vanity and lack of self-awareness.  And the best villain songs are also the ones that firmly establishes these characters’ place within the story and why they will be such a major obstacle to our heroes.

For this article, I’m listing my choices for the Top Ten Disney Villain Songs.  For this, I’m not just limiting it to the canonical animated films; some of the other Disney properties small and large are eligible too, including animated films from other studios within the company.  The only rule is that it has to be a song original to the film that it is in.  What is interesting is that not every villain song is sung by the villain.  It can be sung about them by another character, and those count as well.  Unfortunately some of the greatest Disney villains like Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Lady Tremaine of Cinderella (1950) never get their own songs despite their respective movies being musicals.  And then there are others like Sher Khan from The Jungle Book (1967) and Jafar from Aladdin (1992) who do both get to sing, but only as a part of another character’s song.  There are quite a lot of villain songs to choose from, but what I picked here is what I think represents the best examples of what a Villain song should be, and how much importance it has in the grander history of Disney Animation.  So, let’s sit back and listen to the Top Ten Disney Villain songs.



Music and Lyrics by Don Raye and Gene de Paul; Sung by Bing Crosby

Here’s a case of a Villain song that’s sung about the said menace and not by him.  Honestly, how could he sing, he has no head.  What is interesting about the Headless Horseman song is that it was rarity for it’s time in Disney movies.  Villain songs weren’t a mainstay of Disney movies yet.  The Wicked Queen didn’t have a song in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), nor did any of the trio of villains in Pinocchio (1940).  But, as Walt Disney was beginning to reinvent his studio in the Post War years, he was much more inclined to make music an important feature in his story, even with the villainous characters.  The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) was the last of the package features of Disney’s post-war period; a cost saving measure that allowed Disney to release feature length films without having the expense of making feature length stories.  As the title would suggest, this film contained adaptations of the classic stories The Wind in the Willows (with it’s lead character Mr. Toad) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (with the character of Ichabod Crane).  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is one of the foundational texts of American Fiction literature, so it was going to be interesting to see how Disney would adapt this gothic tale in it’s own style.  When it comes to the iconic Headless Horseman himself, Disney did a pretty remarkable job in bringing him to life, because he is genuinely terrifying.  What helps to set up his memorable presence at the conclusion of this film is the song that establishes his terrifying mythology.  For a story set in colonial America and with a terrifying monster as it’s subject, it’s odd that the Disney songwriters would use contemporary swing music for the style of this song.  And yet it works.  It probably helps that one of America’s most iconic singers, Bing Crosby, was tasked with giving the tune it’s unique sound.  It’s got a catchy beat, but there is kind of a spooky undertone to the whole song which guides it and makes it work as a pretext to the ghostly Horseman we meet later.  This song is one I would see presented on Disney Channel Halloween specials all the time, so I especially associate it with this time of year.  So don’t try to figure out a plan, you can’t reason with a headless man.



Music by Frank Churchill; Lyrics by Ted Sears; Sung by Dorothy Compton, Mary Moder and Pinto Colvig

We of course can’t talk about Disney Villain songs without mentioning the original.   During the early 1930’s, Walt Disney helped to grow his burgeoning studio with a series of one-shot short cartoons to run alongside his enormously popular Mickey Mouse series.  These were called the Silly Symphonies.  They were short stories often centered around music, but also based on familiar fables and fairy tales.  These shorts were often more ambitious in their artistry, and it’s where Disney had his team experiment and refine the tools they would need to eventually make feature length films.  Without question, the most popular of these Silly Symphonies was a short based on the fable of The Three Little Pigs.  But even more famous than the short itself was the song that was written for it about it’s memorable antagonist, the Big Bad Wolf.  In another example of a song about a villain and not sung by him, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” is a very simple song about facing down the menace in front of you and staying strong, though with a sense of naivete.  The titular pigs first sing the song as a taunt, shirking off the danger of the wolf and devoting themselves to oblivious playtime.  But, as the wolf blows down both of the first pigs’ homes of straw and wood, they eventually escape to the third pig’s house of bricks.  Then they sing the song again but this time, it’s a song of defiance.  This resonated with audiences who were going through the Great Depression at the time.  As much as the Big Bad Wolf of the Depression was going to push them down, Americans were going to pick themselves up again.  “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” transcended it’s place in the story and became a rallying cry of resilience in a hard time for this country.  Because of that, it became Disney’s first ever chart topping hit.  It’s especially remarkable that a villain song would be the first tune to actually do that for the Disney Company, which of course would not be the last.  No matter how small or simple a villain song may be, if it connects with it’s audience, it can become a part of the culture itself.



Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman;  Sung by Keith David

One of the more recent classic villain songs comes from this noble attempt by Disney to restart up their traditional animation unit in an era of computer animation dominance.  Naturally, they turned to the formula that worked so well during the Renaissance years; classic fairy tales with Broadway sized musical numbers.  With The Princess and the Frog, they shook things up a bit, setting the famous fairy tale of the Frog Prince in 1920’s New Orleans, and centering around their first African American princess, named Tiana.  Because this was a New Orleans set story, naturally the music had to be jazz influenced.  Bringing over Pixar mainstay Randy Newman to write the score and songs, they found that unique Cajun country sound and worked it into every melody in this story, including of course for it’s Villain song.  The antagonist for this version of the story is a Voodoo practicing Witch Doctor and conman named Dr. Facilier, played with gusto by veteran actor Keith David.  He makes his grand entrance into the story by ensnaring Prince Naveen into making a devil’s bargain and thereby turning him into a frog.  And his introduction is of course through song.  The jazz influence is especially felt in this tune, feeling very much in the same class as the big band music of Cab Calloway.  The song “Friends on the Other Side” really does feel like a spiritual cousin to the jazz music of old time cartoons, like the Fleischer studios shorts that were often dark and creepy in their own way; which Calloway in fact contributed music to as well.  Keith David, who’s not really known as a singing performer, manages to belt out this complex song with remarkable skill.  The animation also does a great job of making this a big show stopping number, even working some of Cab Calloway’s swaying and strutting into Dr. Facilier’s dance moves.  With this, Disney showed that even though the Renaissance era formula was not as resilient as it once was they could still deliver a Villain song that stood up well with the best of them.



Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Sung by Carolina Gaitan, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, and Stephanie Beatriz

Is it possible to write a Villain song for a character that isn’t a villain.  Furthermore, is it possible to make that same song a record-breaking hit.  Well, that’s what actor and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda found out when he wrote this latest Disney mega-hit earworm.  In the story of Encanto, we follow the story of the magical Madrigal family.  They are a family celebrated for their gifts and are closely knit unit, but there is one part o f their family history that they wish to erase; the eldest son of the family, Bruno.  As we learn in the film, Bruno is not malevolent figure but rather misunderstood outcast who is sadly shunned by his own family for no good reason.  But, we learn that later on in the story after the Madrigal family air their grievances in this ensemble tune.  They each share their bad experiences that resulted after hearing the oracle like prophecies that Bruno gathered through his powers.  It all makes Bruno seem like this mischievous agent of chaos, but in reality it’s a projection of their own anxieties coming to the forefront and they are just scapegoating the messenger for making them miserable.  But, in the tradition of great Disney Villain songs, this song establishes a more foreboding tone and does so with one of the catchiest beat in a Disney movie in quite some time, thanks to the talents of the award winning Miranda.  This song became a surprise hit for Disney, even surpassing the record-breaking success of Frozen’s “Let it Go.”  Sure Disney can still make a hit song, but it rarely these days is it the film’s ‘villain” song and even much less a ensemble one at that.  But, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is that rare exception and it’s easy to see why.  It’s catchy, it sets the right tone, and it’s a great centerpiece to the message to the story, which is to not judge something on it’s surface level.  With all that it’s a hard thing to say no to Bruno, no, no.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman: Sung by Jessi Corti and Richard White

Proof that not all Villain songs need to be dark and menacing.  Like this one, it can be a fun, foot tapping romp of a song.  We don’t see the darker, murderous aspects of Gaston’s character until the latter half of the movie.  Up to this song, Gaston is just a town jock who mistakenly believes that he’s the right person for the most beautiful girl in town; our heroine Belle.  After being rejected by her, Gaston sulks in his tavern, and is only uplifted once his lackey LeFou begins to sing his praises.  The whole song basically one big ego trip for the villain, but like all the other songs in the movie, it’s exceptionally catchy and well-written.  You really have to admire the creativity on lyricist Howard Ashman’s part to fill so many funny lines into every part of the song.  It’s especially a special trick to work the word expectorating into a song, but he managed to do it.  And I’m sure everyone has repeated the most laugh out loud line, “Every last inch of me is covered with hair.”  Still, the song does a good job of establishing Gaston as a foe worth fearing.  He’s vain and he’s strong, which is a dangerous match.  After the light hearted part of the song finishes, the movie takes a turn when Belle’s father warns of her imprisonment in the Beast’s castle, coming across as a raving lunatic in that tavern setting.  After Maurice is kicked out, Gaston begins to contemplate a plot to incarcerate the old man as ransom for Belle’s affections, and the song starts up again with a whole different context to Gaston’s character in it’s reprise.  This is a perfect example of character building within a villains song, where a villain’s true nature emerges through how the song is used as part of the story.  Before we see Gaston as a local town hero; afterwards we see him as the schemer he really is.  Even still, it remains that rare jovial villains song, and a perfect fit for the character himself.  Broadway performer Richard White does an especially great job of belting out this song with the gusto that a blowhard like Gaston would want to be heard with.  In the pantheon of memorable Disney villain song performances, no one sings as hard as Gaston.



Music and Lyrics by Danny Elfman; Sung by Ken Page

Looking outside the canonical Disney animated films for a moment, there is one unmistakable classic villain song from this stop-motion film about the collision of two holidays.  From the mind of Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a story about the denizens of Halloweentown, a community of creatures associated with the holiday, who all decide that they want to participate in Christmas time as well, all spear-headed by their ruler the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington.  Though scary on the outside, the citizens of Halloweentown are not mean spirited and cruel.  That is except for the boogie man who has been exiled out of town, Oogie Boogie.  When Jack Skellington believes he has granted Santa Claus an overdue holiday of his own, he in actuality has sent him off to be tortured by the malicious Oogie in his underground dungeon.  Oogie Boogie is a very minor character in the story overall, appearing for the first time very late in the film, but boy does he make the most of his limited screen time.  Composer Danny Elfman’s score for the film is distinctly within his style, similar to the work he had done for other Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1989), only now as a full blown musical.  And though the Elfman sound is present in every song, he still manages to experiment a little with style, especially when it comes to Oogie Boogie.  Given the giant sack of bugs’ proclivity towards gambling, Elfman gave his song a speak-easy jazz club sound, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  It also helps that St. Louis-bred Broadway performer Ken Page gives a boisterous performance as the character, very similar to the Cab Calloway sound that Dr. Facilier was also inspired by.  Of the songs that Danny Elfman wrote for the film, you’d have to imagine that this was one of the more fun ones to write.  And for a villain with very little to do in the movie as a whole, you couldn’t have asked for a better villain’s song to announce his presence in the grandest way possible.



Music and Lyrics by Mel Leven; Sung by Bill Lee

The classic 101 Dalmatians is not a musical, but it still contains two original songs.  One of those songs just happens to be about the movie’s iconic villainess, Cruella De Vil, and naturally just like it’s subject, it is one of Disney’s all time greats.  Another one of those songs that’s about the villain and not sung by her, “Cruella De Vil” is a great example of using a song to establish everything that makes your villain as memorably mean as they can be.  Worked into the story by the fact that the titular Dalmatians’ owner, Roger Radcliffe, is a songwriter by trade, this song is a perfect accompaniment for the scene that introduces Cruella into the movie in a memorable way.  Roger makes no illusion about his distaste for Cruella through all the devious, venomous lyrics of his impromptu song, probably as a means of teasing his beloved wife Anita who is still associated with the fashion diva, but the subject matter does manage to live up to song that’s about her.  The introduction scene has the song as bookends to Cruella’s introduction, with the melody playing throughout, and it’s one of the great Disney villain intros of all time.  Cruella flies through the scene in a smoke filled fury, like a hurricane sweeping through the Radcliffe home and it perfectly establishes her chaotic nature right away.  And with the song there as part of that scene, the character and her tune are linked forever.  It’s a nice representation of post-War British pop music as well, the kind of sound that would define the culture of that period before Beatle-mania would shake things up again.  Even so many years after it was first heard, this song is still a favorite, often re-mixed and performed anew by musicians and singers of all ages.  Cruella De Vil is a character that remains one of the all time great Disney villains and it’s fitting that the song that follows her legend around also remains popular to this day.



Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Sung by Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings

The Lion King has one of the most iconic and ground-breaking musical scores of any Disney film, so it’s only natural that it’s villain’s song would be among the best too.  Scar, the power-hungry uncle of our main hero Simba, is certainly one of the darker villains in the Disney canon.  It’s not exactly easy to write a song for a character whom we know has murder as an intent in his master plan.  You can’t make the song too entertaining because it might make the character too likable.  In the movie, they manage to give the right tone to Scar’s villain song, “Be Prepared.”  It’s catchy, but also foreboding.  You can’t really get much darker than bringing in fascist style imagery as Scar’s army of hyenas march past him like it’s out of a Leni Riefenstahl film.  But it works perfectly in establishing just how much of a threat Scar would be as a king.  Elton John and Tim Rice do a perfect job of making the style of a villain’s song work in the African-influenced sound of the entire film’s score, especially with the percussion beat.  They are also not afraid to bring a little bit of camp into Scar’s performance of the song as well; this is a Disney villain song after all.  It is also a song that is perfectly matched with the vocal performance of Jeremy Irons in the role of Scar.  The actor is a talented singer, but he’s not really known that well for that talent as an actor.  Here, he was allowed to show how much rhythm he could get out of that natural gravelly voice of his, and it’s perfectly attuned to this type of song.  It’s especially effective the way he growls out the title “Be Prepared” in the way a lion would roar it.  Unfortunately, Iron’s range couldn’t quite hit the high notes in the final part of the song, so veteran voice actor Jim Cummings (who also played the hyena Ed in the film) was called upon to match Irons performance as best as he could to complete the song.  It’s honestly pretty seamless, and I didn’t even know that the voices change in the song until many years later.  In the movie, the staging also reaches very Broadway levels of spectacle, with the green glow of the geysers giving the whole number an eerie feel.  It’s a great match of voice, music and staging put together for one of the quintessential Disney villain songs in the whole songbook.  So, be prepared for this classic to be talked about for a long time.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Sung by Tony Jay

By far and by a mile this is the darkest villain song Disney has ever had in one of their films, and probably the darkest in the songbook as a whole.  It’s only fitting that it comes from one of Disney’s darkest villains; Judge Claude Frollo.  For a lot of people, it seemed like a fool’s errand to try to take Victor Hugo’s medieval gothic tale and turn it into a musical with a happy ending.  But Disney managed to do their best with it, and still maintain some of the book’s darker elements in tact.  Frollo is the one character that feels most aligned with the original tone of the novel in this adaptation, and remarkably the team of Menken and Schwartz were able to give him a song that fit with his character.  The pious, unforgiving and deviously minded tyrant is certainly not an easy character to write for, so what do you have him singing about.  What Menken and Schwartz stumbled upon was a crisis of faith that roils inside of the character, as he believes he is doing God’s work on Earth, and yet he lusts for a woman who is from the gypsy race that he has deemed to be unholy in the eyes of God.  In the movie, we see his inner turmoil boil over into some heavy demonic imagery as faceless red robed figures encircle him in a dark room illuminated by fire.  This haunting imagery goes beyond what we’ve seen in most other Disney movies, descending into a really gothic and macabre vision of what Frollo’s hellscape may be like.  “Hellfire” really stands out as a song not just for that kind of imagery, but also for the tour de force vocal performance of Tony Jay.  The veteran voice actor manages to achieve remarkable range with that deep baritone of his, even hitting that killer of a high note at the end.  His vocal performance as Frollo beforehand was already an iconic one for a Disney villain, but this villain song takes him immediately into legendary status.  You can tell that the filmmakers were really testing their boundaries with this villain song, and they probably ended up being surprised by just how far the Disney execs actually let them go.  And like all the best Villain songs, it firmly establishes the soul of the character it’s about, and with Frollo we really reach as close to the depths of darkness as Disney has ever gone before.  “Hellfire” is Disney at it’s very darkest, and that is something that truly makes it’s presence in this movie, and as part of the Disney songbook as a whole, truly iconic.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Pat Carroll

If you are looking for just that one song that encapsulates every that is great about a villain song, look no further than the one that comes from the dastardly sea witch, Ursula.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” has it all; a great melody, genius lyrics, a killer vocal performance and an important place with the story it’s a part of.  This really is the gold standard of great Disney villain songs, and it’s fitting that it came as part of the movie that helped to launch the Disney Renaissance.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had refined their talents on Broadway before coming to Disney, but even before that they belonged to the same Baltimore area art scene that produced the likes of edgy, maverick filmmaker John Waters.  And by being in that circle, they became friends with drag performer Divine, who would end up being a major influence on the character of Ursula.  While Ashman was writing the lyrics to this song, I wonder if he was imagining how Divine would look singing this same tune on stage.  Divine passed away before the movie completed, so she never got that opportunity, but this tribute does live on.  Not only is is operatic and Broadway like in it’s sound, but you can hear Menken and Ashman working a bit of burlesque into the song as well, which is perfectly suited for a show off character like Ursula.  But what really makes this song iconic is the vocal performance by the late, great Pat Carroll.  The actress and comedian was not a natural singer, but you wouldn’t know that by the absolute commitment she brings to her performance here, much of which she imitated from Ashman’s own rendition in his demo tape, including the ad-libs like “innit.”  But what is amazing is how the song goes from quiet and sultry in the beginning to big and operatic by the end, and Pat does not miss a beat.  It’s a song that like all the others in the movie The Little Mermaid announces that Disney is back with a vengeance.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” remains a popular tune 30 years later, and it’s a special favorite for drag performers who understand the song’s history and inspiration behind it.  And it of course does what all the best villains song do; shine a spotlight on it’s villain.  Ursula is obviously the kind of villain who deserves the best, and it didn’t cost much; just a voice.

So, there you have the ten best Disney villain songs in my own opinion.  I definitely tried to weigh how much each song meant to the films they come from, and how well they stand out in the whole history of the Disney songbook.  It’s surprising to see how some songs from the early days of Disney still resonate so many years later.  The song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” is not just an icon of Disney movies, but of the culture as well, as it became a rally cry for Depression effected Americans.  The songs for Cruella De Vil and the Headless Horseman have also withstood the test of time, with the Headless Horseman song even being a Disney Halloween staple.  But of course, it’s the Renaissance era songs that resonate the most, as the Broadway influence became much more intertwined with the music of Disney Animation.  Ursula, Gaston, Scar and Frollo have each been elevated in the Disney rogues gallery not just by their dark deeds but also by these iconic songs that shine a spotlight on them within the story.  It’s just too bad that as Disney has moved away from the musical formula, it has also made the Villains song less of a presence as well.  I think one of the reasons “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became such a big hit as it was may have been due to the drought of memorable villain songs that had come before it.  There are other interesting villain songs that I left out of my list, like “The Elegant Captain Hook” from Peter Pan (1953), “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and “Shiny” from Moana (2016), and Disney has produced many other spooky themed song that don’t necessarily categorized as a villain song, like the Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”  Needless to say, Villain songs are a valuable category all to themselves in the great Disney songbook, and these tunes are especially popular during this spooky time of year.  I hope you found my choices interesting and well placed.  I hope some of your favorites are here as well.  So, have a festive Halloween this year and like the tunes sung on this list put a little spell on you.

Black Adam – Review

DC comics is well known for it’s collection of Super Heroes, but it can be said that they are just as well known for it’s rogues gallery of dastardly villains as well.  As often as we talk about Batman, Superman, and Aquaman we are just as likely to be talking about the Joker, Lex Luthor and Black Manta respectively.  In general, this is because DC Comics has been just as good at making their villains interesting characters as they do with their heroes.  And because of the complexity of character development that have put into their comic books over the years, they have managed to create characters that straddle the line between hero and villain.  These anti-heroes also share a special place within the DC pantheon.  Too dark and violent to be considered a hero, but not quite evil enough to be considered a villain.  The character within DC comics that probably embodies this type of personality the best is Black Adam.  Making his first appearance in 1945, Black Adam initially started off as the main antagonist to the DC super hero Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam.  Embodying the same power set as Shazam, Black Adam uses his nearly god-like abilities in a far more morally degenerate way; often having no objection to killing his enemies or anyone else who gets in his way.  This runs contrary to the heroes of the DC universe, who make it their duty to protect the innocent.  Black Adam often falls on the dark side when doing battle against Shazam or many other super heroes, but when something far more dangerous threatens his world, he will put aside his grievances and assist in saving the world as well.  Through his nearly 80 years in the comics, he has remained a very complex character and has become a favorite amongst comic book readers.  However, until now he has yet to be featured on the big screen.

Enter Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is bringing to life the classic comic book anti-hero on the big screen for the first time.  This has actually been a passion project for the wrestler turned actor.  He’s been in talks with Warner Brothers and DC to make a Black Adam film for over 15 years.  Even before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dwayne Johnson has been eyeing this role for himself.  A lot of things have put the project into limbo many times over the years, often due to change over and restructuring going on at Warner Brothers.  This movie, now that it is finally complete, comes again at yet another crossroads in the drama that is Warner Brothers history.  With the merger between WB Pictures and Discovery Entertainment, the new regime has been ruthlessly cost cutting across the empire in order to secure year end tax breaks, and DC falls into that turmoil as well.  Just a couple months ago, the entertainment world was stunned by the news that a $90 million Batgirl film was getting cancelled without ever seeing the light of day as a measure of the new Warner executives drive to get a tax write-off.  In addition, many of the upcoming Warner Brothers projects still in development were pushed back significantly; almost a full year for the Aquaman sequel.  Even amidst all this, the Black Adam (2022) premiere date stood firm, and it seemed like this would be DC’s one and only hope to deliver for the back end of this year.  Of course, it helps that Dwayne Johnson in those 15 years has become one of the biggest box office draws in the worldwide market, which bodes well for Black Adam.  And considering this is a passion project of his, you’d hope that he’s going to give a bit more to this performance than many of his other roles.  The question is, can Black Adam deliver on the same level of the titans of the DC universe?  Can Dwayne Johnson make a heroic stand for DC at this tumultuous time in it’s history on the shoulders of this iconic anti-hero?

The story is set in the fictional middle eastern kingdom of Khandaq.  Legends speak of a hero who protected the kingdom from mad king who sought to use the power of demons to rule with ultimate power.  The hero, Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) confronted the king, who forged a crown with demonic power called the Crown of Sabbac, and stopped him before the king could wield it’s dark magic. However, after defeating the king, Teth-Adam vanished without a trace.  Nearly 5,000 years later in modern day, the kingdom of Khandaq is occupied by foreign interests who are robbing the small nation of it’s natural resources.  A brave archaeologist named Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shani) believes she may have found the hiding place of the Crown of Sabbac.  With fellow archaeologist Ismael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari) and her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), she discovers the cave that house the crown and manages to retrieve it.  However, something else is trapped within that cave.  After being ambushed by the criminal organization Intergang, which is one of the occupying powers in Khandaq, Adrianna reads the spells carved into the floor of the cave temple.  Suddenly, a robed man in black appears and effortlessly destroys the whole troop of Intergang soldiers.  Adrianna and Karim manage to escape, but they end up running into the robed man, later learning that he is Teth-Adam reawakened.  They try to help him out, and Adrianna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) becomes immediately attached to what he thinks is his country’s own super hero, even giving him the name Black Adam.  But, the re-awakening of Black Adam also alerts a watchdog group of super heroes known as the Justice Society of America.  The JSA includes the winged hero Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the mystical sorcerer Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the wind-controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).  Their goal is to stop Black Adam before he has a chance to cause immense damage with his still unchecked powers.  But their adversarial confrontation may have to wait as they are forced to align their strength in order to keep the Crown of Sabbac out of the wrong hands.

As far as DC movies have gone in this era of the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU), my opinions have strangely gone against the grain with the general consensus.  Sure, I love the movies that everybody loves like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) and the first Wonder Woman (2017), and hated the movies that everyone hated like the original Justice League (2017).  Those were never controversial opinions.  But, there have been a few of my reviews that didn’t match up with everyone else’s; contrary opinions that I actually still stand by.  I did not like the first Aquaman (2018), which everyone seemed to love but me, and I ended up liking Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) quite a bit, which I found myself being well in the minority on.  So, where do I fall on Black Adam?  Well, it’s not by any means the worst film in the DCEU; not by a long shot.  But, it is far from being among the best films either.  It is a very middle of the road film, for good and bad.  Let me get the bad out of the way first.  The movie is very rushed and unfocused, and seemingly uninterested in filling in detail to important things like character development and coherent plot.  A well-written movie this is not.  I think the thing that is going to upset most audiences is the fact that the movie packs in a whole bunch of different things, but never gives them enough time to really sink in; favoring spectacle above all else.  Characters are introduced with backstories only hinted at but never truly explored.  I think the writers wanted to cram in a whole bunch of DC comic book lore just because they could, but it distracts away from the fact that this is a Black Adam movie first and foremost.  Black Adam’s story is drowned out by so many different plot elements thrown into this movie’s 2 hour runtime.  What’s more, the JSA gets especially short-changed with very little time devoted to their character development.  If you are fans of the individual heroes of the JSA, and have been waiting years to finally see them on the big screen, you may come away very disappointed, because they are little more than plot devices here.

The visual effects of this movie are also a mixed bag.  In some instances, there are some pretty good visual effects in this movie.  The body swap effect that makes a de-powered Black Adam look like an average sized man is pretty convincing.  I never thought it looked weird seeing Dwayne Johnson’s head on an average built body, and the effect is actually pretty effective.  The moments when we see Doctor Fate’s power in full effect are also pretty imaginative.  I can tell that the effects team behind the movie were trying hard to differentiate how Doctor Fate’s powers would look compared to Marvel’s Doctor Strange, considering the similarities between the two.  Watching the movie, I feel like they were able to make it just different enough to where I don’t think they were doing a copy and paste of the effects in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), though there were a couple that were borderline.  The same cannot be said however with the super hero powers of Cyclone and Atom Smasher.  Cyclone’s whirlwind power is so weirdly conceived that I had no idea what she was able to do and how she was able to do it.  She just floats around with multi-colored smoke and spins really fast, which I guess the effects artists thought would look cool in slow motion, but instead it just looks cartoonish in a bad way.  And speaking of distractingly cartoonish, whenever Atom Smasher grows to his giant size, he stops looking realistic and becomes essentially a walking-talking special effect.  In this regard, it has a negative comparison to a similar effect found in the Marvel universe.  Whenever Ant-Man would do the same size change, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), those movies made his presence within the scene feel believable.  Not once in this movie did I feel like it worked to the same degree, and it’s one of the most glaringly subpar visual effects in a movie that goes back and forth between the believable and the unbelievable.

So, what is good in this movie?  Well, despite working with a very poorly written script, the cast of this movie actually does a pretty good job with what they have to work with.  First and foremost, Dwayne Johnson does not disappoint as the titular anti-hero.  It took him 15 years to make this movie a reality, so you know he was going to pour a lot more effort into his performance here.  You can tell that the years of researching and rehearsing the essence of Black Adam paid off, and Dwayne Johnson captures the character perfectly.  Naturally, being the main character, he gets the lion’s share of the character development in the film, and I appreciated how well he built the layers of this character into his on screen persona.  You honestly have no idea which way this character is going to fall; either to the side of good or the side of evil, and I think that’s a testament to how composed Johnson was able to make the character.  He keeps the character an enigma until the very end, and even still after he has helped save the day, he’s remains a character with ambiguous moral backbone.  I also appreciated what the actors playing the JSA bring to their roles, as bare bones as they may be.  Aldis Hodge especially shines as Hawkman.  His character is paper thin on the page, but Hodge brings emotional weight to his performance which helps to elevate the character throughout the film.  His performance is so could that you wish he was given a movie of his own instead of being shoehorned into a Black Adam origin story.  Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate also warranted a movie’s worth of development too, but Brosnan likewise makes the most of his brief screen time.  His contribution to the climatic battle is especially awe inspiring, and it makes me happy that they brought in an actor of Brosnan’s caliber in to bring this iconic character to life.  And though they have even less impact on the story, Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are likable enough as their respective characters.  The remainder of the cast are pretty forgettable largely, and the movie suffers from have a very weak villain; one that pretty much here as an afterthought.  Still, where it mattered the most, they did get the character of Black Adam right, and that is a testament to a movie star who took the role seriously and was determined to not mess it up for the sake of the fans.  If anything, hopefully this movie will establish the character as an important part of the DCEU moving forward, because it would be worth it to see Dwayne Johnson in this role again.

Apart from the performances, what else is there to keep the movie from becoming an incoherent disaster?  There are action sequences that do work, and I do have to say that the movie does finally gain some footing in it’s latter half.  The movie, when it’s languishing in it’s exposition heavy first half, can be a pretty heavy slog to get through.  Even the early action sequences, featuring some Zack Snyder-esque slow-mo, feel fairly derivative and uninspiring.  But, as Black Adam and the JSA begin to clash about half-way through the movie, the film begins to find some life.  There is an exciting high-speed chase through the streets of Khandaq, where future-tech hover bikes and Black Adam are literally crisscrossing at the speed of a bullet in the air, and it is an action sequence that is actually well staged and feels unlike any other action sequence I’ve seen in a super hero movie before.  The action sequences also balance out the darker elements of the movie with just the right amount of humor.  There is a running gag where Black Adam tries to deliver a witty catch phrase but ends up killing his adversaries too quickly for them to hear it that actually gets a laugh.  The final battle scene, even though it’s up against a rather throw away villain, is also well done, and it does a fairly passable job of making the stakes in the moment feel pretty dire.  The only thing that could have been better handled with these action scenes is if they didn’t make up such a large part of the story as a whole.  There really is too much focus put on spectacle in this movie, with no time at all given to let the story breath and introduce more character building moments.  Instead, the movie just jumps from one set piece to the other, and it makes the whole movie feel like a mess as a result.  A lot of stuff is going on to be sure, but you the audience are given little reason to care, unless you are coming to the movie with a lot of prerequisite knowledge of DC lore as a whole.  You may know these character from the comics and various other media, and the movie probably hopes you already know them well enough too, but it ends up leaving the average fan with little to latch onto because the movie never gives us enough explanation about anything in the movie; not the characters, not the plot details, nor the world these characters live in either.  It’s a movie meant for fans, pure and simple, and even there it seems to take the fandom for granted.

So, was it worth the long wait to finally see Dwayne Johnson play Black Adam on the big screen.  It’s going to depend for a lot of different people, but ultimately it’s a fine performance in a movie that honestly falls short of reaching it’s goal.  Dwayne Johnson is the ideal actor to play this role, and I’m happy that after 15 years he finally got his wish granted.  The movie, however, is created more as an afterthought.  It’s by no means an absolute disaster.  There are good to great performances throughout, and the occasional battle sequence that is fun to watch.  But the lack of any detail in the story and the character development ends up making this movie feel pretty hollow as a whole.  The JSA especially feels wasted here, and it might have been better if they were either left out of the movie completely, or were reduced to just one or two characters.  I think it would’ve worked better if Cyclone and Atom Smasher had been left out of the movie, and that it was just Hawkman and Doctor Fate facing off against Black Adam.  At least then there would have been more time to develop those characters and give them the screen time that those iconic characters deserve.  These are characters deserving of their own movies, and the actors playing them are giving it their all.  It’s a problem with many of the DCEU films, where they try to pack too much into their movies, probably due to the worry that the films may never do well enough to warrant a sequel.  I will say that this was one of my biggest problems with Aquaman, where it felt like they were trying to tell every Aquaman story ever written in one movie.  It was way too overwhelming in that movie, and it’s a problem here in Black Adam too, though I feel it fares a bit better.  Between my controversial picks of a negative review of Aquaman and a positive review of Wonder Woman 1984, I’d say that Black Adam skews closer to the failure of Aquaman, but is only redeemed with better battle scenes and a better rounded cast.  I’m sure we’ll see more of Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam, and the mid-credits scene hints at a very exciting future ahead.  I just wish his place in the DCEU’s big master plan was laid on a much stronger foundation.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Mummy 1999 vs. The Mummy 2017

It’s interesting to look at the placement of the Mummy within the context of the movie monster pantheon.  Unlike it’s fellow monsters, the specter of the Mummy does not come from a literary source or folkloric tales.  Instead, he (or in some cases she) is a monster pulled right from the headlines of the day.  In 1922, around the golden age of silent cinema, renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter made an astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  His archeological dig uncovered the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun.  Before this discovery, the world was already well aware of ancient tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the practice of mummification.  But what made the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb so monumental was the fact that it was left untouched for thousands of years.  Left undiscovered by grave robbers and unspoiled by the elements of the Sahara Desert, King Tut’s tomb was a treasure trove for archeology and the best record yet of how the Egyptian people prepared their dead for the afterlife.  But, just as much as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb captured the imagination of the world, so did the aftermath.  In the years following the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, several people involved in the discovery would die of mysterious causes.  Of course, the deaths once investigated have shown to have easy explanations, including pre-existing ailments that preceded the discovery of the tomb.  But, it was still suspicious enough at the time to lead people to believe that the Tomb of King Tut was cursed.  The idea of the curse continued to flame through the popular imagination, with even a renowned author like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame even giving credence to the idea.  This of course led Hollywood to pick up on the idea of Egyptian curses as concept to exploit in their films.  But they of course would imagine something far more physically iconic that a phantom curse silently poisoning those who have disturbed the tombs of the kings.  They would imagine the curse of the pharaohs as the dead literally coming back to live to seek revenge on the living.  And thus, we saw the emergence of Mummies as a monster within the movies.

Typically, when we think of a mummy as a movie monster, we think of a figure wrapped head to toe in burial cloths.  It’s pretty much how we see the mummified remains unearthed after thousands of years.  The impression of a person wrapped in tightly in a lying position, placed in a stone sarcophagus ornamented with gold and jewels and an artistic rendering of the person inside.  But, in the movies, the haunting image of a corpse come to life made that already foreboding image of mummified remains even spookier.  The movie that really cemented the image of a mummy as a cinematic monster was the 1932 film The Mummy.  Made by the masters of Hollywood horror, Universal Studios, The Mummy (1932) defined what would eventually be the iconic lore behind the Mummy and his curse on the big screen.  The film brought the actor responsible for bringing Frankenstein’s monster to life a year prior, Boris Karloff, but as Hollywood would see, Karloff would not repeat the same tricks he used for creating the other vocally impaired creature.  Playing the Imhotep, the mummy of the film is not a mindless monster but rather a sophisticated high priest seeking a lost love, or what he thinks is the re-incarnation of his lost love.  Karloff, though playing an Egyptian high priest, tapped more into his English sensibilities to play the Mummy here.  Still, Karloff distinctive facial features translated well into the spooky personage of the walking dead.  And with some still impressive make-up work, he presents a version of the mummy that still elicits scares, showing us the corrupted flesh that lies underneath those decaying cloth scarves.  Karloff’s original is still the archetype for all movie mummies that followed.  And like with Frankenstein, it’s not uncommon to hear a mummy speak with a classy British accent as a nod to Boris.  But over the years, many filmmakers have tried to put their own spin on the Mummy; with many attempts hoping to make the creature scarier and sinister.  Universal Studios of course have done their part too, bringing the character back multiple times in order to breathe new life into this legacy monster in their studio.  Two noteworthy attempts at reviving the Mummy on the big screen stand out, mainly due to the things they get right about the character and it’s legacy, and what they get wrong.  To see how the Mummy stacks up in different eras of a studio’s history, let’s take a look at the big differences between The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy (2017).

“I only gamble with my life, never my money.”

In the late 90’s, the digital revolution was beginning to become a dominant force in filmmaking.  Thanks to computer animation technology, movie studios were able to be unbound when it came to making the impossible look real.  Movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998) were pushing the limit of what could be done on the big screen when it comes to thrilling action.  In the midst of all this, writer and director Stephen Sommers came to Universal with a pitch to reboot their Mummy franchise.  It was perfect timing because Universal could see the potential for using CGI technology to bring as creature like the mummy to life like never before.  Instead of an actor under layers of make-up, this mummy could instead look like an actual rotting corpse brought to life; accomplishing what filmmakers in the past could only dream of doing in bringing these creatures to life.  But, what was interesting about Sommers approach to the story was that while it was using the latest in cinematic technologies, his film was also gesturing to the past.  The 1999 Mummy very much is a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood, mainly in it’s characterizations and dialogue.  Far less scary and more of a swashbuckling action adventure.  You can easily see any of the characters in the movie being played by cinematic icons of the past; swap out Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz with Tyrone Power or Deborah Kerr and the movie would still feel the same.  The performances are cornball but earnest and the dialogue cheesy but pleasing, and 1999’s Mummy would find it’s place easily within the company of Hollywood classics like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Gunga Din (1939), and even the original 1932 Mummy.  It’s the CGI effects that set it apart, with some effects that hold up well over the years while others don’t.  Even still, the movie still has it’s fans over 20 years later, and it was a strong hit upon release, leading to two sequels in 2002 and 2007.  Still, like the original movie it took it’s lead from, 1999’s The Mummy was a product of it’s time and Universal wanted to keep it’s stable of movie monsters in line with the changing times.  So, another reboot came on the horizon.

“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

In 2017, Universal was looking to bring not just their movie Mummy back to the silver screen, but all of their monsters as well.  While they were planning this, another cinematic factor was coming into play.  The Walt Disney Company was enjoying enormous success with their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-film franchise built upon each movie having a connection to a grander narrative.  This led to other studios wanting to establish cinematic universes of their own to exploit.  Naturally, Universal looked at their classic stable of movie monsters as their entry point into their new cinematic market.  They would take their stable of monsters, build new franchises around them, and sell audiences on the idea that all these characters would combine together just like Marvel was doing with theirs.  They would call this the “Dark Universe,” and Universal was eager to exploit their master plan.  In a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, Universal’s Dark Universe tried a bit too hard to get people excited for this new phase in their movie monster legacy.  They announced plans for new films centered on Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and of course the Mummy.  Going even further, they even announced casting choices for their various franchises, which included Johnny Depp as the new Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as the Wolf Man, and Tom Cruise as the hero of their Mummy franchise.  It was all very ambitious, but there was one problem; they needed a movie to prove themselves first.  The first planned movie to launch this Dark Universe fell on The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the titular villain.  Your ambitious plans for a cinematic universe are only as strong as the foundation that you build it upon, and 2017’s The Mummy is no Iron Man (2008).  It barely even is a Mummy movie, choosing instead to be a film derivative of so many other films and completely lacking in it’s own identity.  It’s just more or less a film formed out of a studio mandate and nothing more.  Suffice to say, the Dark Universe withered away quickly on the box office failure of The Mummy, making it a rare misfire for Tom Cruise as well.  All the planned Dark Universe films were scrapped and the actors were released from their commitments.  Now the Dark Universe stands as a cautionary tale of mismanaged studio hype, and it’s unfortunate that the sacrificial lamb that made Universal learn that lesson had to be the Mummy.

There is no doubt that 1999 The Mummy is the vastly superior film, but it’s interesting to see how the two stack up to each other, particularly in how it carries on the legacy of it’s titular monster.  Let’s take the depictions of the Mummy itself.  In this case, the 2017 version fares a bit better in comparison.  The movie does stir things up a bit in an interesting way by gender swapping the Mummy creature.  Instead of the rotting, cloth wrapped walking corpse found in other mummy movies, the character in the 2017 film brings a far more ghostly presence as the creature.  Pale skinned and covered in hieroglyphic tattoos, this is a very different mummy than what we’re used to, on top of being female.  Sofia Boutella’s background as a trained dancer also helps with her physicality in the role, as she contorts her body in unnatural ways.  I also give the movie credit for casting an actress of North African descent in the role as opposed to white European like past versions, although she Algerian and not Egyptian.  Still, her character is pretty limited in the film, which favors over-produced action in place of actual scares.  There is a neat visual with her eyes, as they divide into two pupils, but that’s about the extant of the creepiness with the character.  In the 1999 version however, there is more of an effort to make the Mummy appear more scary.  Though the CGI looks dated now, the effects were ground-breaking at the time in making the Mummy in his most rotten form look real and believable.  The most eerie version of the mummy appears later in the film, when he is halfway through his transformation back to his original self; with flesh on some parts of the body but not others.  In a sense, the character becomes less scary as he becomes more human, with actor Arnold Vosloo perhaps being too handsome a figure to be believably menacing.  At least there was a bit more menace in Sofia Boutella’s Mummy even as she appeared more human.  The general result is that while the physical, human Mummy in the 2017 version is still unique, the 1999 version that appears through the help of primitive CGI still feels closer to what the character should be, and perhaps shows the ideal way to portray the character overall; the one furthest away from looking human like as possible.

“Death is only the beginning.”

One of the biggest assets that the 1999 version has is that the story never takes itself too seriously.  It is a movie that understands what it needs to be and has fun with that.  The throwback to classic Hollywood storytelling is easy to get across to the viewer; with the characters not just dealing with the threat of the Mummy, but also finding themselves in pursuit of the classic Hollywood tool known as the MacGuffin. In this case, it’s the Book of the Living, a spell book that is key to Imhotep’s quest of unlocking his immortality.   In the midst of fighting the Mummy, there is romance and slapstick humor abound, much in the same way old Hollywood adventures would give audiences a little bit of everything in their movies.  You can see a lot of influence that 1999’s The Mummy had in revitalizing the swash-buckling adventure film, eventually leading to like-minded movies in the next decade like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.  But what ultimately makes the story work is that it knows what it wants to be.  The same cannot be said about the 2017 version.  That version of The Mummy is merely meant to be a cog in the gears of a much bigger machine, which ironically never managed to be built.  It especially gets frustrating in the movie when the character of Dr. Jekyll is introduced into the story, played by Russell Crowe.  He brings the Mummy as well as Tom Cruise’s character Nick Morton to his laboratory, where Easter eggs alluding to other monsters are found everywhere.  It’s here where the goal of the movie becomes so blatant and transparent.  This is a movie meant for no other reason than to set up other movies.  The thing that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe work so well is the fact that most of their movies are able to stand on their own outside of their place within the greater continuity of the the MCU.  Because The Mummy (2017) lacks it’s own identity, it’s use of Easter eggs and future foreshadowing just feels like the cheap gimmick that it is , and just further illustrates the outright failure that the Dark Universe was.  What’s even more insulting is that The Mummy (2017) just outright steals moments from better movies.  Throughout the film, Tom Cruise’s Nick is haunted by the ghost of his dead comrade, played by Jake Johnson.  The scenes where he communicates to Nick what is happening to him, while appearing as a half rotting talking corpse, is stolen directly from similar moments in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Audiences know when they are being cheated and pandered to, and 2017’s Mummy is a clear example of a studio mistakenly thinking that the gimmick will carry the film through on it’s own.

One other thing that you can see working against the 2017 Mummy is the fact that it doesn’t have faith in the strength of it’s own titular character.  The movie first and foremost focuses on Tom Cruise’s character, and Cruise very much looks lost in this film.  The normally charismatic box office powerhouse just looks lost in this role, giving his character Nick zero personality.  What’s even more frustrating is that it seems like the movie was treating his journey here like a superhero origin story because (not that you guys would care for spoilers for a movie like this) by the end of the movie, he somehow ends up with the powers of the Mummy, which you would presume would factor in more in future films that were planned.  And though Cruise can play action heroes that are worth rooting for, from Ethan Hunt to Maverick, his Nick is so devoid of redeemable qualities in the film that you honestly don’t care if he lives or dies by the end.  He is a mercenary who becomes cursed because he sought to enrich himself out of raiding an ancient tomb, and honestly he’s the kind of person who deserves the bad fortune that comes his way.  He’s no Iron Man, Captain America, or Batman for that matter, whose origins involve personal growth as they accept their responsibilities as super heroes.  Tom Cruise could play that kind of character, but the movie never allows for that kind of growth, because it’s far more interested in franchise building.  By contrast, 1999’s The Mummy fares better with their characters by keeping it simple.  The main hero and heroine are simple archetypes and are dependent on the actors playing them to fill out that personality.  Thankfully the parts are well cast.  Brendan Fraser perfectly fills the role of the affable, dashing hero Rick O’Connell, whose just got the right balance of roguish swagger and cheeky buffoonery.  Rachel Weisz perfectly compliments this as the resourceful, bookworm Evelyn Carnahan; the lady you can rely upon to explain all the lore to the audience in an informative way, while at the same time holding her own in the thick of a fight.  They are not deep characterizations, but the movie doesn’t require them to be.  All they need to be is likable, and worth rooting for, and the movie does this well by emphasizing the chemistry between the characters and endearing us to them through humor and harrowing action.  It also helps that Fraser and Weisz look at home in a throwback style movie like this one.  You could easily see their same performances working in a movie 40-50 years prior to this one.  In contrast, the 2017 Mummy feels even more like a cheat, because it took one of the most charismatic actors ever in Hollywood, and made him absolutely boring as a result in their movie.

“Sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster.”

I think that the one thing that both movies fall short on in the long run is that they failed to make the Mummy into a scary force within their stories.  The classic monster movies of the past did a brilliant job of scaring audiences with perfectly spooky atmosphere and ambitious monster make-up and effects for their time.  One thing that we learned from these Mummy reboots in the digital era is that CGI does not make mummies any scarier.  To 1999’s Mummy’s credit, it did at least try.  The largely decayed mummy in that film does look like what a scary version of this is supposed to be, and is only undermined by the limitations of computer animation at the time.  While the 2017 mummy is unique, the last thing you can call it is scary.  One would hope that a bolder horror filmmaker out there can figure out a better way to create a realistic looking mummy that does manage to scare it’s audience.  It could be done, but it’s likely going to come from an outsider attempt and far less likely to come out of Hollywood.  The Mummy movies we are more familiar with from the movie industry tend to be more in the realm of action adventure and less from the realm of horror.  It probably has to do with the limitations of characterization when it comes to the Mummy itself.  Most of these movies focus more on the human characters either hunting down the mummy or being hunted by it.  From the two movies contrasted here, the 1999 film better understood the assignment.  It’s not trying to scare it’s audience, but rather bring new life into an old cinematic property while still appealing to a broad audience; and in that regards it succeeded handsomely.  The 2017 Mummy was just a blatant cash grab and nothing more, wasting the talents of not just those involved in the movie, but of all the people who placed their bets on that failed Dark Universe master plan.  But, if you want to experience a movie that genuinely captures the spooky aura of a Mummy adventure done right, watch the original 1932 version starring Boris Karloff.  It may be quaint by today’s standards of horror, but it does the best job of capturing the atmosphere of what this kind of movie is supposed to be, and Karloff’s take on the character is appropriately menacing.  A mummy movie doesn’t necessarily need to be spooky, but it does help if the creature at it’s center is chilling enough put him in the same league with other iconic movie monsters.

“For the record, if I don’t make it out of here, don’t put me down for mummification.”


Amsterdam – Review

The movies of David O. Russell can best be summed up as a mixed bag.  For the most part, he has delivered a track record that is more on the good side than the bad.  But when he misses, he misses spectacularly.  Mainly, he is a director that swings very hard for the fences, and that can sometimes lead to decisions that may end up working as a detriment to his films.  One of the most noteworthy cases of his roller coaster style of directing shifting from film to film was in 2004, when he made the movie I Heart Huckabees, a movie that very much missed with both audiences and critics, mainly due to it’s self-indulgent nature, and this was coming off of a movie that won him universal acclaim as a director; the Iraq War dark comedy Three Kings (1999).  The lows of I Heart Huckabees eventually led to another high, with the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010).  And for a while, he enjoyed a decade of relatively successful hits afterwards, with The Fighter being followed-up with Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), but even that string came to a halt with the underwhelming Joy (2015).  There’s no doubting that David O. Russell is a filmmaker with considerable talent, but sometimes he can be his own worst enemy too.  He has notoriously battled with actors on his sets.  He got into a physical fight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings and a tape of him shouting obscenities at actress Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees leaked to the public, casting a very negative image on the director.  And yet, he still manages to be one of the most in demand filmmakers in the business, probably due to the fact that he can on occasion deliver a massive critical hit for a studio.  It’s possible that the reputation that follows him around is the reason why he takes long breaks in between projects.  It’s been 7 years since his last theatrical film (Joy) and to make his return he has put together what may be his most ambitious film to date.

Amsterdam has one of the most stacked casts in recent memory, with even small parts being filled by A-list talent.  He reunites again with Christian Bale, making his third David O. Russell movie after The Fighter and American Hustle.  Joining him are co-stars John David Washington and Margot Robbie, as well as a dozen other recognizable faces from Mike Myers to Taylor Swift.  But what is interesting here is that Russell, who typically works with contemporary storylines, is going way back in time for this period piece.  The furthest that he went back in time before was the 1970’s with American Hustle, which didn’t seem too alien a time for him to plant his sardonic style within.  But now he’s taking it into a time period nearly a century ago.  If balanced well, it could work, but as I’ve said, he’s got a track record that can verge either way.  Still, the movie comes as the Awards season starts to heat up, and a star studded epic with high production values is something that movie studios are always happy to put their money behind.  The fact that he has delivered multiple performances to Oscar wins and even more to a nomination, it’s easy to see why so many actors are more than happy to jump on board his films, though some may end regretting it later.  Amsterdam sees Russell return after a long hiatus and with a pedigree of talent on his side that is far grander than anything else he has made in the past.  The only question is, are we getting peak David O. Russell in this roller coaster of his film career, or are we heading into another treacherous valley.

The movie covers over 20 years of the lives of a group of misfit friends in the tumultuous early 20th century.  During World War I, Lt. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is put in command of a regiment of mostly black soldiers after many other officers had refused the role.  During battle, he builds a close friendship with one of the soldiers, Harold Woodman (John David Washington).  The two end up in an army hospital together after being hit by a shrapnel bomb, with Burt even losing an eye.  There they meet a nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who not only helps them get back to good health, but forms a deeper and sometimes romantic relationship with the duo.  The three form a pact to protect one another and they move to Amsterdam to live a carefree Bohemian life.  But, Burt is called back home to New York where he wants to return to his upper class wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and his medical practice.  After a couple years of practicing medicine for veterans in alleyways and drinking himself into the gutter, Burt eventually reconnects with Harold, who tells him that Valerie left him behind without a trace.  The two rekindle their friendship and begin working together, with Harold now practicing law.  However, their quiet life is disrupted when they learn that their commanding general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) has died, and his daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) suspects murder.  What follows is a journey down a rabbit hole of conspiracy involving a bird watching society run by British glass salesman Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and his American associate Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) who both may be spies for their respective governments, a wealthy but suspicious couple Tom and Libby (Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy), and a retired General who has turned into a popular orator for Veteran’s rights named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro), who may be the target of a fascist organization.  Despite being clueless about what they are getting into, the friends are determined to get to the bottom of this wild conspiracy gearing to attack the very fundamental pillars of democracy in America.

As you can see, this is a loaded movie with a lot of puzzle pieces involved and even more familiar faces that I didn’t even mention yet.  One would think that with a plot this dense and an all-star cast this massive that it may fall out of the grasp of the director to reign it all in.  And sadly, that’s the case with Amsterdam.  This is definitely one of the lesser David O. Russell movies.  I wouldn’t go as far to say that it is the worst film that Russell has made (I Heart Huckabees takes that crown easily) but it is definitely a frustrating movie to watch.  What’s most disappointing with this movie is that you can see all the elements of a really good movie there, but the pieces don’t fit together well at all in the way that Russell has set them up.  Tonal shifts are a major problem with the flow of this movie.  You can’t tell if David Russell wants this to be a raucous comedy or a taught political thriller.  It seems like he wants to have it both ways and it really undermines the flow of the film.  The movie has scenes individually that are well shot, acted and paced, but they’ll conflict with the scene that follows after or before.  It’s like he wrote a bunch of scenes separately then threw them in a hat and picked the order of his movie randomly.  Yes, there is a through-line, but you’ll be in the position of having to re-center yourself from scene to scene as there are so many tonal and plot shifts back and forth.  There is a story in there, and one that is deserving of telling, but Russell’s style gets in the way, favoring quippy dialogue to motivate the flow of the movie rather than a sense of building tension.  By the end of the movie, the big climatic revelations just feel hollow, because Russell hasn’t given the weight of the situation the time to build to make it more shocking.

And the  most frustrating part is that it’s a story that really deserved to be told.  It’s plot involves the characters uncovering a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States and replace it with a fascist one; a tact that had proven effective in that time with Italy and Germany.  Not exactly new, but in Amsterdam, you see how fascist powers are given backing by corporate interests in America, which is a story that sadly remains relevant even today.  There are some connections there that I see Russell trying to get at, but the message just gets drowned out by all the other nonsense in the movie.  Any scene where we see the characters putting together the pieces of the conspiracy in an interesting way will then be followed-up by another scene where Christian Bale’s Burt will collapse to the floor at the most inconvenient moment due to the hard drugs he is experimenting with.  It can be funny, but it’s placement in the story clashes to much with the rest and breaks any momentum built up for the story.  The movie also has one of my least favorite screenwriting tools, and one that I think shows Russell’s weakness as a writer.  That tool being where a character monologues their entire backstory to the audience.  It’s a sign of lazy screenwriting, because it’s forcing development on a character rather than letting that build through the plot of the movie itself.  One such scene is delivered by Christian Bale in such an awkward way early in the movie; like he is just reading strictly from the character bio.  There’s a lot of scenes like that in Amsterdam, where characters catch up the audience on the plot by explaining what’s happening in monologues.  It shows that Russell has too much plot to detail, and he is impatient getting to it.  His strength primarily rests with character interactions, which there are scenes in the movie where Russell writes clever back and forth with the different characters.  But he builds up those moments in sacrifice of moments that drive the plot forward.  That’s why there is a lot of talking in this movie and not a whole lot of action; because David O. Russell is focusing on his strengths here in detriment to everything else.

The performances of the actors in the movie also reveals a rift between the two kinds of movies that Russell is trying to tell with Amsterdam.  Christian Bale is definitely trying to do character work in this movie, while John David Washington and Margot Robbie more or less playing things straight.  That ends up making the movie feel schizophrenic, because Bale’s flashy performance clashes with everything else in the movie.  That being said, I do think Christian Bale is the best part of the movie, because he at least is doing something to bring the film to life.  If only the rest of the film was on the same page; I would’ve appreciated the movie more if it was as quirky as Bale’s Burt.  I do like how he works the battle scars and glass eyeball into his character’s posture and facial expressions.  If anything, I think the character of Burt embodies more of the tone that David O. Russell was trying to attempt.  The remaining performances seem a little lost in comparison, though Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy do a pretty good job of reaching Bale’s oddball level, with perfect parodies of the idle rich in their performances.  The biggest disappointments are Washington and Robbie.  We know how talented these actors are, but they bring none of that charisma into this film and have even less chemistry with one another.  One of the other big problems with a large star-studded cast like this is that you get distracted by all the familiar faces.  Some of them successfully disappear into their roles, including an unrecognizable Timothy Oliphant as a hitman.  But others like Taylor Swift and Chris Rock become a distraction because they just play their characters much like their own personas, and it feels really out of place in this period setting.  I don’t know if Russell intended for a star studded cast as packed as this one, or if it was forced upon him by the studio, but it’s clear that he does not spread out his attention evenly to all of them, and the movie ends up wasting a whole lot of big names in meaningless roles.

But, the movie does have saving graces about it and it’s largely found in the visuals.  The movie was shot by three time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who brings a beautiful filmic quality to the movie.  He gives the movie a nice earthy glow that feels very appropriate for the time period that the film is set in.  In particular, he captures some very well composed close-ups of the actors.  Sometimes the close-ups have an uncomfortable feeling about them, with the actors looking right down the barrel of the lens of the camera, which helps to build up some of the tension of the movie.  Where the script lets down the story so much the visuals help to pick the movie up again.  Apart from the beautiful cinematography, the movie also does a fantastic job with period details.  It does a great job of invoking the time period, with the grimy streets of Depression Era New York City to the pristine Victorian era mansions that many of the story’s elites occupy.  The only downside is that Russell’s unfocused vision doesn’t allow for too much time to soak up the atmosphere of these settings.  You can really see the work and care that was put into the crafting of the costumes, the sets, and the on location shoots.  It feels timeless, but Russell’s direction is not.  He is very much a contemporary filmmaker, better equipped to tell personal everyman stories in modern or recent society.  The trouble with period films is that it takes a lot of work to make the past come alive again, and ultimately it falls on the skill of the director to make us believe in the this dramatization of the past.  For Russell’s sake, he should be happy that his unfocused vision is at least pleasing to the eye, which helps to make it at the very least watchable and at times very entertaining.

For David O. Russell’s career in total so far, you can’t help but feel disappointed in a movie like Amsterdam.  So much talent is involved behind the camera and in front of it; many whom you could say are at the tops of their fields.  And yet, it’s all wasted for a movie that barely functions as a narrative.  The grasp of what David O. Russell is trying to say in this movie (which is the threat of rising fascism in the free world, sponsored by multi-national corporations) get lost in the detours into absurdity that Russell seems to like putting into his movies.  You would think after a long hiatus that Russell would have crafted a more balanced piece, but in the end it seems like he has lost some of that creativity over time.  Still, you could do worst, and it is admirable that a filmmaker like Russell swings as hard as he can, even if it leads to a strike or an easy  flyball out.  I still think Russell is a talented filmmaker; it’s just that Amsterdam is the wrong vehicle for him to work with.  The performances are mixed, the script is a meandering mess, the cinematography is strong but could have been better served with a more cohesive narrative.  I think if the movie had just Christian Bale’s eccentric performance at it’s center, it could have been something more than what we got.  It’s frustrating to sit through, but at the same time not unwatchable.  Some people in my theater quite enjoyed it, but there was clearly not enough laughs to justify the goofier tones in scenes throughout the rest of the movie.  Hopefully for David O. Russell  takes on another project after this  that better plays to his strengths.  For now, Amsterdam is a movie that cannot rise to the ambition that it’s director was hoping to get out of it.  It’s epic, but also hollow; an exercise more in period film aesthetics rather than the taught conspiracy suspense thriller that it should maybe aim better for.  Still, it’s good to know that David O. Russell is still a risk taker, and some of his cinematic choices in Amsterdam bear fruit of that.  Time will tell if he’s able to return to a  worthwhile project where he is able to deliver cinematically in a sense different than how Amsterdam landed.

Rating: 5/10

Keep Them Scary – The Evolution of Scary Monsters in the Movies

The time for scary movies is upon us once again as we enter the ever expanding seasonal reach of Halloween.  Naturally the cinemas are gearing up their roll out of haunting new scary movies, but this is also a time when people return to their favorites for a good frightening re-watch.  And throughout the history of movies, cinema has developed so many different flavors of horror movies to satisfy audiences of all types.  There’s your usual monster movie subgenre, as well as haunted house tales, stalker movies, psychological horror as well as gruesome body horror.  There’s also plenty of crossover with other types of genres like science fiction and action adventure, and in some cases comedy as well.  But there is no doubt that the best horror movies out there are judged primarily on how well they are able to scare an audience.  A horror movie doesn’t always need to make it’s audience scream with fright; it can achieve the same feeling of terror with just a pervasive atmosphere of terror.  For the most part horror movies need to do their best to firmly establish the level of threat that the evil threat in their movie poses.  The greater the threat, the scarier the horror element will be.  That’s why so many horror movies put so much work into making the embodiment of terror in their movies effectively creepy and terrifying.  It doesn’t always work out sometimes.  Sometimes the threat in these movies is either limited due to budget constraints or is either lazily assembled.  Which is what separates the classic horror movies from the forgettable ones.  All of the great horror movies have that one thing in common; a truly unforgettable monster at it’s center.  Sometimes these monsters can elevate the movie they inhabit if they are iconic enough.  Since horror on the big screen began, there has been a never-ending challenge given to filmmakers to try to one up the level of terror in their movies by making increasingly terrifying monsters, and over time this has led to some rather interesting ideas added to the pantheon of horror movie classics and a fascinating progression of increasing terror upon audiences over the years.

In the early silent days when filmmakers were testing the boundaries of what their craft could accomplish, people quickly realized that some of the best reactions they could get from their artform was in scaring their audience.  Look back at one of the earliest pieces of film from the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, a train arriving at a station.  To audiences seeing this for the first it was reported that many of them ducked and screamed in the screening rooms because they thought that a real train was heading for them, not realizing that all they were looking at was film projecting through light.  Quickly, people realized that terror was an effective way to engage an audience reaction, because people kept coming back to experience that sensation again, knowing that they were perfectly safe in the end.  There are quite a few examples of horror in early cinema, as the smoke and mirrors tricks of the macabre lent themselves perfectly to the art of cinema.  Though primitive as many of those early horror films are, they still carry an eerie aesthetic that still chills over a hundred years later.  However, towards the late stages of silent cinema, the artform progressed to a point where filmmakers could indeed bring truly terrifying imagery to the big screen.  Some European filmmakers like Benjamin Christiansen and F.W. Murnau developed dynamic uses of light and trick photography to make the contrast between the light and dark on screen all the more eerie.  But, at the same time, they brought more terrifying monsters to the big screen; many which had their roots in European folklore.  These moved beyond the simple ghosts and ghouls of early cinema.  Now the movies were inhabited by witches, demons, and of course vampires.  Now 100 years later, the first truly recognized vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau, still is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and that is in large part to it’s unflinching and vividly imagined vampire at it’s center; the terrifying Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck.  It’s here that we see the monster itself become the star attraction of the movie, and his legacy would lead to another generation of iconic movie monsters that still have a presence in cinema today.

Carrying on from the European masters, Hollywood themselves began to delve into more horror themselves.  And no place made a better effort at scaring their audiences than Universal Pictures.  Universal really became a power player in Hollywood primarily on the backs of their stable of memorable monsters.  One of the interesting things they were able to do which their European counterparts could not was secure the film rights to famous monsters of literature.  Murnau had to change the name of his titular vampire because the Bram Stoker estate wouldn’t grant him the right to use the name Dracula in his film, despite the fact that he was telling the same exact story.  But, Universal Pictures was granted the right and they were the first to officially introduce Dracula to the big screen.  Though Universal had done well in it’s early years with monsters brought to life by the “man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, it was in the early talkies that they cemented their reputation as the masters of horror, and they did so with two particular films that are still considered masterpieces to this day.  In 1931, filmmakers Tod Browning and James Whale brought the horror icons Dracula and Frankenstein to vivid life in their respective films.  These films took heavy inspiration from the German Expressionist techniques introduced in the late Silent Era, but they brought a unique Hollywood spectacle element to them as well.  The still young Universal backlot grew by leaps and bounds as they built more soundstages to house the enormous castle sets to make not just these monsters larger than life, but the settings in which their movies take place as well.  But it wasn’t just the craft behind the creations of these monsters that made them so memorable, it was the actors performing the parts as well.  One can’t imagine a more iconic Count Dracula than Bela Lugosi, or a more imposing Frankenstein than Boris Karloff.  Even to this day, depictions of Count Dracula always include a Hungarian accent, because that’s what Lugosi brought to the character.  You may even see depictions of Frankenstein with a refined British accent, which is often a nod to Karloff’s real voice.  And though the movies themselves may seem quaint in comparison today, there is still a strong sense of eeriness that still carries over so many years later that keeps these classic horror flick relevant so many years later.

Though Universal moved beyond just a being factory of horror movies from it’s early years, they nevertheless still maintained it as a cornerstone of their business.  This was true in the post-War years as well, as they continued to contribute even more memorable monsters to their roster.  Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced yet another unique monster to the Universal stable, one that was less humanoid and more alien, which made him a perfect iconic monster for a whole new era in filmmaking.  The 1950’s became the Space Age era, where monsters no longer descended from dark castles or out of dark alleyways, but instead were coming to us from outer space.  This was period when Aliens became the new iconic monsters of cinema.  The benefit of using alien lifeforms as the monstrous threat to mankind in the movies of this era was that their was limited creativity in depicting these new monsters.  You could be as realistic or surreal as you wanted in imagining these alien threats.  You can definitely see the creativity of filmmakers in making aliens that were very abstract in design, like in the classic 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.  There were also scary alien creatures that had human like traits that still managed to terrify, like The Thing From Another World (1951), a creature that would inspire other memorable monsters in the years ahead.  This was also the Atomic age, as fears of what radioactivity was capable of led to a whole variety of terrifying new monsters.  This included giant sized versions of normally small creatures like the giant ants from Them (1954) or giant spiders in Tarantula (1955).  This was also the era when the B-movie craze erupted, so a lot of weird creatures started to inhabit the silver screen, often coming off as more cheesy than terrifying.  What you definitely saw in this generation was a redefining of what kinds of monsters could be seen that would terrify general audiences, and it would be evolution that again would change with the times.

During the Vietnam years, attitudes towards what was scary to audiences changed significantly.  The out of this world monsters of the Space Age years fell away as horrors became far more grounded and human in scale.  We were witnessing terrible atrocities on a regular basis from the coverage of the war in Vietnam, and were confronting the fact that human beings alone could be capable of unbelievable evil.  So, worrying about ghosts, vampires, and aliens became less appealing to audiences in those years, as real life became scarier.  But, horror adapted to these attitudes and a new crop of movie monsters began to emerge; ones that were much more human than before.  The late 60’s and early 70’s gave us the beginnings of the slasher era.  From these years, we got serial killers who preyed on victims from the shadows and terrorized communities in the dark of knight.  These new monsters often were killers hiding behind a mask; human and yet faceless terrors.  Some of the most famous movie monsters to emerge from this time were icons like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980).  These characters were initially not supernatural beings, but rather imposing humans bent on destruction, with a lust for killing their victims in the most gruesome way possible.  These kinds of monsters brought a far more chilling identity to horror because it brought the sense of terror closer to home.  These were the kinds of monsters that could be lurking around in your very own neighborhood, which had a chilling effect on audiences at the time.  These kinds of movies brought out much of the anxieties of a population far more conscious of the evils within a society, and making movie monsters far more grounded and real was a reflection of how society was changing in that time.  Of course, as eras shifted once again, even these monsters would become larger than life as a whole new set of tools became available to horror filmmakers.

The 1980’s saw an explosion in new types of visual effects techniques, and those found it’s way into the horror genre as well.  You saw more realistic creature effects, like those from the ground-breaking Stan Winston studio.  Stan Winston even reimagined terrifying monsters of past cinema, like the terrifying “Thing” from John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 50’s classic, entitled simply The Thing (1982), as well as a monstrous make-over of slasher icon Jason Voorhees.  You also saw creature make-up make great advances in those years, as artists like Rick Baker came into their own.  Baker of course re-imagined a horror icon like the Wolf Man and brought him to even more realistic life with his award winning work in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  In general, there became a far bigger effort to take all the elements of horror from the past and re-invent them again with more advanced visual effects.  For the most part, it worked spectacularly well.  Many of the horror movies of this era still manage to terrify.  The Tobe Hopper directed, Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982) brought back the haunted house concept in a big way, with one of the most terrifying depictions of spectral activity ever brought to the silver screen.  The sci-fi horror genre even got a major boost from the new technologies of the day, with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) putting terrifying new spins on aliens and robots as iconic cinema monsters.  And, as CGI matured in those same years, filmmakers began to have another tool set to imagine gore and terror on levels that practical effects wouldn’t have allowed in the past.  For many this was a boom for horror filmmaking, as there became less constraints on how far one could go in making monsters more fantastic than ever and the horror they inflict far more grotesque than ever.  But, a certain segment of the audience also made it be known that they wanted their horror to feel less big and far closer to what it should honestly be; personal and up close.

In more recent years, there has been a move toward making movie monsters less tactile and more ethereal.  For many, the less we see of the monster, the more terrifying it becomes.  Some brilliant examples of this in recent years has been in movies like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014).  These movies brilliantly withhold showing their central monsters, to the point where a monster is only merely suggested and not seen fully.  The terror is not in how scary the monster looks like, but rather in the sense that it’s omnipresent in the atmosphere of the story; that feeling that it is always lurking around and could strike at any moment.  That feeling of unease is where the true terror in the movie comes from.  The movies are able to make that work by playing around with sounds in The Babadook or with camera POV in It Follows, so that we are never feeling robbed of not seeing the monster, because of the effective amount of terror built up around fearing that it’s always nearby.  There are other films that manage to effectively show us their monsters by using them sparingly.  James Wan has managed to successfully build his career around expertly crafted movies that show us terrifying images at just the right moment.  His films like Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and most recently Malignant (2021) all manage to work effectively by using atmosphere to build the terror within the movie and withholding a full glimpse of the monsters within it until they are absolutely needed.  There’s also been a move towards more Avant Garde horror, thanks to studios like A24, where some of the old tricks of classic horror seem to be in favor again.  We are also getting horror that is far more human, with the terror that we do to each other becoming far more prevalent in the kinds of horror stories we tell.  The death cult in Ari Aster’s Midsommer (2019) being a strong recent example, or a dance troupe’s party gone horribly wrong in Gasper Noe’s Climax (2018).  Those are some prime examples of horror movies that don’t normally look like horror movies still manage to have the power to terrify, just through the horror we do to each other.  What it really shows us is that throughout the history of cinema, there is an increasingly changing definition of what constitutes a movie monster, and it’s one that will likely change in the years to come.

The great thing is that even as attitudes towards what is scary changes, it still doesn’t diminish what has come before.  People still value the horror icons of the past, and a few of them still have the power to scare so many decades later.  Certainly the Universal Monster movies remain popular and are still an essential institution of this time of year.  The great thing is that with changing standards of horror over time, some things that were once old can become new again, if delivered with the right amount of skill.  We’ve seen new re-imaginings of the story of Dracula over the years, with many depictions moving in a different direction than the original Bela Lugosi version.  Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a particularly memorable version, with Gary Oldman doing a spin on the Count that feels very different from the classic version that we know.  There are bad ways of revitalizing these characters too.  Universal’s embarrassing attempt of doing a Marvel style cinematic universe with their stable of monsters, named the Dark Universe, fizzled out pretty quickly after the notorious flop that was The Mummy (2017), starring Tom Cruise.  But, a couple years later, Universal did manage to revitalize one of their monsters successfully with the update to The Invisible Man (2020) which they partnered with Blumhouse to make.  The Blumhouse approach, smaller and more personal in scale, proved to work much better for re-imagining this famous H.G. Wells creation for the big screen, and one would hope that Universal considers doing the same with their other famous movie monsters.  Great monsters don’t fade into obscurity as we’ve seen throughout the history of cinema; they manage to endure and advance with the times.  Even Nosferatu, a character whose only existence is due to a filmmaker not being able to use the name Dracula in his movie, has been given more than one extra lives on the big screen; first in a Werner Herzog remake from 1979, and soon once again in upcoming re-imagining from The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers.  We don’t forget these movie monsters; we add to their ranks.  People love to be frightened in the right kind of setting that is a movie theater, and it’s a great thing that filmmakers are finding new ways to invoke that sense of terror, even with monsters that we are all too familiar with.  So, as we begin this Halloween season in earnest, remember how important these iconic monsters have been to the history of cinema as a whole, and hopefully take into consideration new ways to make them retain their terrifying presence as we re-tell their stories for new generations.