Thursday, October 8, 2020

A LEGO Treat for Frankenstein Fans

I'm always excited when my two obsessions - LEGO and classic movies - overlap, and when they do it's usually related to classic horror. This year LEGO has added something especially fun in time for Halloween, a new Brickheadz set for an official Universal Frankenstein! Fans are hoping that more licensed Universal monster characters will follow, but right now we just have the iconic creature first played on the big screen by Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 film. 

The Brickheadz line has been very popular the last few years, running about $10 for a set that builds one character with an oversized head. Licensed characters have been especially plentiful, including lots of Star Wars figures, but seasonal ones like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have also been frequent additions to the lineup. Frankenstein's monster is a delightful new part of this series, rendered in shades of gray and black to better reflect the image of the Universal version of the character. If you're not into complex builds, don't worry; the Brickheadz take just a few minutes to assemble and make perfect cubicle or desk adornments and will also fit neatly onto a display shelf with your other classic horror collectibles. The box art is also wonderful, with Karloff's version of the creature prominently featured.

Over the years LEGO has released a number of sets and themes with obvious ties to classic horror, and they've always been fun, but this new, official connection with Universal makes me hope that we will see even more Brickheadz and minifigure scale sets in 2021. Right now the Hidden Side theme is my favorite collection of sets because of the spooky atmosphere and ghost figures, but a Dracula's Castle set would be a dream come true (it should have armadillos, of course, just to be extra faithful to the film). If and when LEGO releases information about upcoming Universal Monster sets, I'll be sure to let you know about it here on the blog!

If you want your own Frankenstein Brickheadz, you can find him on the LEGO Shop at Home website for $9.99. I don't have a LEGO store nearby, and with COVID it's difficult to travel to the closest one in the next state over, so I don't know if you can find the set at LEGO Stores, although I assume that you can if you have one near you. If you visit the website, be sure to check out the other fun Halloween items, including the Hidden Side theme and the gorgeous (but so expensive) Haunted House exclusive set.

Related Posts:

10 Classic Movies Directed by James Whale


LEGO Monster Fighters: Making AFOL Dreams Come True 

Die Toten Reiten Schnell

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THEATER OF BLOOD (1973)

As gruesome as its murders are, Theater of Blood (1973) belongs much more to the genre of pitch black comedy than horror, given the gloriously ludicrous nature of the whole picture, but it's a dark comedy whose best jokes can only be appreciated by those with a knowledge of Shakespeare that goes well beyond the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet musing to Yorick's skull. For English literature majors whose tastes also run to absurd horror comedy and Vincent Price, Theater of Blood is basically a perfect film, and since I'm squarely in that demographic I have nothing but praise to offer for this weird, wonderful gem from director Douglas Hickox and screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell. It's a good thing, too, since I wouldn't want the vengeful spirit of Edward Lionheart to come after me for trashing his performance.

Vincent Price plays Lionheart, a demented Shakespearean actor who returns after his apparent suicide to exact revenge on the theater critics who panned his acting and denied him their highest prize. Aided by a group of meth addled homeless people and a mysterious sidekick, Lionheart lures his detractors to suitably Shakespearean fates that recreate scenes from the plays in his final performance season. As each new murder occurs, the surviving critics become more and more anxious about their own safety, but the London police seem utterly unable to protect them from Lionheart's grisly schemes. Meanwhile, Lionheart's daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg), claims that her father is really dead and protests her ignorance of the crimes to the police and the head critic, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), the only one of the bunch who seems to acknowledge some karmic justice at work in Lionheart's actions.

Price is the main attraction throughout, but several of the supporting performances are also memorable, especially Diana Rigg as Lionheart's loyal daughter. She never exhibits the hammy lunacy that Lionheart revels in, but Edwina's sang froid proves to be just as unnerving in its own way, especially as the third act reveals its barely hidden secrets. Ian Hendry is the most significant of the critics, partly because Devlin lives longer than the others and thus gets more screen time, but Robert Morley is absolutely scene stealing as the gluttonous dog lover Meredith Merridew, who dies in a truly bizarre recreation of the most bizarre of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus. Also noteworthy is Jack Hawkins in one of his final screen appearances as Solomon Psaltery, whom Lionheart tricks into strangling his wife (Diana Dors) in a jealous rage, just like the murder of Desdemona in Othello. Most of the other victims die too quickly to have that much to do, but fans of classic British films will appreciate the presence of Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne (who would become Price's third wife), Robert Coote, Michael Hordern, and Arthur Lowe, as well as Milo O'Shea as the baffled police inspector.

Theater of Blood goes all in on its Shakespearean theme, loading little jokes and references into the names of both people and places, but since the murders hinge on specific scenes from the plays it's more important to know those than to know why the derelict theater is named the Burbage (for Richard Burbage, the Elizabethan actor) or that Edwina's disguise is a nod to the popularity of the "breeches roles" in the Bard's canon. The movie doesn't content itself with the most familiar and frequently performed plays, choosing instead to depict scenes from Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Henry VI, Part One, and Titus Andronicus as well as more popular works like Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice. Aside from the Titus Andronicus murder, the most entertaining of the lot might well be the drowning of Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) in the vat of wine, mainly because it was Vincent Price himself who met the same end when he played the Duke of Clarence in the 1939 film, Tower of London, as well as then playing Richard III in Roger Corman's 1962 remake, also called Tower of London. That's a lot of meta-humor packed into a single segment of the movie, but it's the kind of thing that becomes possible thanks to Price's long career and penchant for both period dramas and campy horror roles. (Do take a moment to enjoy the prominent placement of the name "Clarence" over the door of the shop where the wine tasting occurs.) The ending reworks the father and daughter pathos of King Lear with Edwina as a rather ironic Cordelia but Lionheart very much in the right mode as the mad monarch, although Lear hadn't committed a series of inventively ghoulish murders as part of his particular brand of insanity. I won't say that Lionheart is more sinned against than sinning, but he, like Lear, probably would.

If skewed Shakespeare suits your taste in films, try pairing Theater of Blood with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990), Scotland, Pa. (2001), or the memorably terrifying Throne of Blood (1957), which is Akira Kurasawa's Japanese interpretation of Macbeth. For more murderous obsessions let loose, check out Fade to Black (1980), in which classic movies serve as the subject of the killer's fixation. Vincent Price's career spanned more than fifty years, but for other horror films from the early 70s try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), or Madhouse (1974). Dame Diana Rigg, who died in September of 2020, is particularly remembered for her iconic roles in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and the TV series, The Avengers (1965-1968), but I'm personally very fond of her in The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and the delightfully droll series, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries (1998-2000).

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

 The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is another of Roger Corman's loose adaptations of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price in the starring role, this time as the debauched and heartless Prince Prospero, a ruler who holds lavish parties while his people die of a horrific plague. Like most of the Poe films it takes many liberties with the source material and also incorporates the characters and plot from another Poe story, "Hop-Frog," but its deviations don't detract from its delights as a film. Lurid, lavish, and full of the usual Corman elements, it's a grim but entertaining morality tale that depicts the just desserts meted out to cruel and uncaring oligarchs who foolishly believe themselves to be immune to the afflictions that stalk their subjects.

Price is in high villain style as the sadistic Prospero, who shuts himself and his cronies off from the plague stricken countryside for a massive party inside the safety of the castle walls. He abducts a beautiful young village girl, Francesca (Jane Asher), with the intention of corrupting her innocence and seducing her into the service of Satan, and he uses her captured father (Nigel Green) and lover (David Weston) as leverage to keep her by his side. Prospero's jealous lady, Juliana (Hazel Court), dares the ultimate sacrifices to Satan to ensure her own position with the prince, even as the gathered nobles drink and debase themselves throughout the castle. Little does Prospero guess that a mysterious red robed figure is slowly but surely bringing doom to the revelers.

The romantic plot involving Francesca and her intended, Gino, delays the fate that awaits the corrupted court, but there's never any doubt about the ending of this tale. We only wonder whether Francesca and Gino, along with Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and the diminutive dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw), will escape the punishment so richly deserved by the rest. The personified Red Death opens the film with the promise of liberation for the people, but it's soon clear that liberation from Prospero might also mean liberation from life. Plagues, as we know, aren't very precise when it comes to such matters. The build up, then, is more about how much the story can make us anticipate and enjoy Prospero's downfall; we see him burn the village, murder the people, humiliate his courtiers, and even murder his followers when the mood strikes him. He is utterly faithless and without redeeming qualities of any kind. He delights in the suffering and debasement of others but believes himself untouchable. Thus, when the third act finally arrives, we have to cheer as Prospero first glimpses that flash of forbidden red in the midst of the masquerade.

Price, of course, makes for a delightfully satisfying villain, by turns preening and predatory in his sumptuous robes. Prospero is one of his more serious horror heavies, neither hysterical nor ludicrous, but very much in his comfort zone during this period of his career. Hazel Court makes a solid costar as the increasingly desperate Juliana, although she spends a lot of her screen time staring at Prospero or his Satanic altar, but Jane Asher seems a bit dazed as Francesca, which might be intentional but drains her of the ability to express the horror and disgust one might expect her to show. The bad dubbing for Verina Greenlaw undermines the pathos of her big scene with Skip Martin as Esmeralda and Hop Toad plan their escape, but Martin has some very good moments with Patrick Magee as the secondary villain, Alfredo.In fact, Hop Toad's revenge on Alfredo might be the most shocking scene of the picture, especially if you haven't read Poe's story. 

You might make a double feature of The Masque of the Red Death with Vincent Price's other 1964 movie about a plague, The Last Man on Earth, which has been remade several times. For more of Corman's Poe films with Price, see House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). You can get a look at Price's early excursions into the horror genre with Dragonwyck (1946), House of Wax (1953), and The Fly (1958), or catch scream queen Hazel Court in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Premature Burial (1962), and The Raven (1963). For more classic movies about plagues, see The Seventh Seal (1957) or Vampire Circus (1972), or branch into different territory with the yellow fever outbreak in Jezebel (1938).