“The Old Dark House” and the Simple Pleasures of a Classic Scary Movie

When a buddy asked if I wanted to see the classic, pre-code, James Whale directed haunted house pic The Old Dark House (Universal, 1932) on the big screen, I jumped at the chance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any of the classic Universal horror films from the 1930s on the big screen, so this was a rare opportunity to see a James Whale pic the way it was intended to be seen.

The film stars Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton among others as hapless voyagers who take shelter in a large and scary looking house for the night after a relentless rain storm washes out the nearby roads. Boris Karloff (in some seriously creepy makeup) terrifyingly answers the door which sets off a 24-hour period of one bizarre event after the other (memo to me–never go up the staircase in one of these haunted houses…better yet, don’t go into the house at all).

The film was released the year after the wildly successful screen retelling of Frankenstein (1931), also directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, and was initially a disappointment at the box office. According to an informative article on TCM.com, “After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 – unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale’s protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era’s more insistently unique directors.”

One other interesting bit of trivia from the TCM.com article–“When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart’s amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997).”

Mostly what was fun for me was seeing an incredibly cheesy yet creepy film in glorious black and white on the big screen. I typically stay away from most modern horror pics, but seeing this film provided an insight at the simple, basic pleasures of watching a scary movie in a theater—the collective jumps, screams, and dread; the wincing when bad things happen or are about to happen; and the cheers and relief when the evil threat has been defeated (or when you think it has been…). James Whale definitely knew how to direct a good horror pic, Boris Karloff definitely knew how to act in one, and The Old Dark House made for some simple, scary Halloween season fun at the movies.

(And I’m still holding out for a big screen double feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein…someday.)

A big thanks and shoutout to the Cohen Media Group for the beautiful 4K restoration of the film and to the Salt Lake Film Society for their cool “Tower of Terror” Halloween programming at the Tower Theatre again this year.

And check out this cool poster art (I believe this is the U.S. theatrical release one-sheet, but I’m not 100% certain).

All images ©️ Universal Pictures/Cohen Media Group

Review: “First Man”

La La Land director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling have teamed up again for a completely different type of film–this time, it’s the very personal journey of astronaut Neil Armstrong and the U.S.A.’s first manned mission to the moon.

First Man (Universal Pictures, 2018) focuses on the decade leading up to the historic NASA Apollo 11 flight in 1969 where Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) became the first man to walk on the moon. Told primarily through Armstrong’s point of view (the film is based on the authorized biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen), the story shows first-hand the sacrifices, the dangers, the successes, and the extreme personal costs of being a part of  the “space race” in the 1960s.

I’ve heard comments about how slow the film is, and it’s true. If you’re expecting an epic, fast paced, feel good film, this isn’t it. Instead, Damien Chazelle and team give us a methodical and cerebral experience in an attempt to personalize what it must have been like to live through this. Armstrong and his wife Janet (expertly played by Claire Foy) both sacrifice a lot as Neil and the NASA team pursue this incredibly lofty and challenging goal, and the film made me, well, feel it.

The film also makes you feel the physical turbulence of traveling through the earth’s atmosphere into outer space, so much so that it’s made some movie goers feel ill. So, be aware of that if you’ve got a tendency towards motion sickness. Personally, I only felt awe and exhilaration in experiencing what it might have been like being on one of the NASA Apollo spaceships. 

Probably what I liked most about First Man is just that–it made me feel something. As a movie goer, I felt the high stakes of the mission, the physical challenges, the emotional battles, and, ultimately, an interpretation of what it feels like to truly walk on the moon.

First Man is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.”

My score: 5 out of 5 stars

As an added bonus, here’s an official trailer for the film.

All images ©️ Universal Pictures

“Jurassic Park” Turns 25

Can you even believe it’s been 25 years since the original Jurassic Park (Universal, 1993) hit the big screen for the first time?

The Steven Spielberg-directed film, based on the 1990 novel by Michael Crichton (Crichton also co-wrote the screenplay with David Koepp), was a huge hit in 1993 and for good reason. With a compelling story, its marvelous use of both practical and digital special effects, a great cast, a brilliant soundtrack by John Williams, and an amazing crew, Jurassic Park was a movie thrill ride of the first order. 

The film has spurred multiple sequels, but none of them can match the creativity, craftsmanship, terror, and excitement of this first outing. 

Universal Pictures recently screened Jurassic Park again in theaters across the U.S.A. to celebrate its 25th anniversary. It was such a blast to revisit this film on the big screen. I enjoyed it just as much as I did back in the day. Wish you all were there, too.

The studio also held a contest for fans to send recreations of the film. Here’s a compilation of the best fan films, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Do yourself a favor and skip the lousy sequels and watch the original and still best–1993’s Jurassic Park.

All images ©️ Universal Pictures

“The Dark Crystal” Returns to the Big and Small Screen

Jim Henson’s 1982 ambitious fantasy puppet epic The Dark Crystal is enjoying a bit of a resurgence. A new Netflix prequel series has been announced along with a new 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital HD home release happening. To celebrate, Universal Pictures and The Jim Henson Company have also been screening the film in theaters across the U.S. in conjunction with Fathom Events. One more screening is happening on March 6.  I had the chance to go to one of these Fathom Events screenings last week and it was a trip to see this film again on the big screen.

The Dark Crystal is an original story and an elaborate mythology created by Henson and his team. It centers on the land of Thra which has been divided and desolate for hundreds of years due to a “cracking” of a giant Crystal that used to provide peace and balance. The broken Crystal caused a group named the UrSkeks to divide into two–the evil Skeksis and the good Mystics. A prophesy was made that a third group called the Gelfings would heal the Crystal and restore the land. The nasty Skeksis then decided to kill off all of the Gelfings so the prophecy wouldn’t take place.

Enter our heroes, two Gelfings named Jen (the one with the brown hair) and Kira (the blonde) and Kira’s dog-like creature Fizzgig. The two are the last known Gelfings in the land thanks to the Skeksis’ killing everyone else off. Can these two find the shard from the broken Crystal and restore the land of Thra? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!

Promotional photo with Jen, Kira, and Fizzgig (Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)

(On a side note, when I was doing a Google search to find an image of Jen and Kira, this pic came up with the caption “The Olsen twins do Dark Crystal cosplay at the last Met Gala.” Mean, but funny.)

Co-directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked with British fantasy artist Brian Froud on creating the unique and detailed aesthetic for the film (a great article about Brian Froud is here; he is also responsible for the look and design of another elaborate Henson fantasy– 1986’s Labyrinth). Here’s some Dark Crystal concept art by Brian Froud.

The Crystal Castle and the desolate land of Thra. Art by Brian Froud. (Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)
Concept art of a Mystic (one of the good guys). Art by Brian Froud. (Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)
Concept art for one of the Skeksis (the bad guys). Art by Brian Froud. (Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)

The Dark Crystal has an impressive mix of puppets and animatronics, all created by Jim Henson’s renowned Creature Shop. Jim Henson and Frank Oz decided early on that they didn’t want any humans populating this world, so this film only contains puppet characters. The film also is loaded with practical effects and miniatures. It’s truly a creative tour de force.

I love this shot of Frank Oz behind the camera (at least it looks like Frank Oz) and Jim Henson and Kathryn Mullen puppeteering Jen and Kira. (Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)

While The Dark Crystal is an admirable work, I can’t say that it’s my favorite film. The detailed fantasy aesthetic is remarkable, but just not necessarily my taste. Still, I really enjoyed marveling at all of the creative puppetry and impressive filmmaking that it took to bring this film to life. If you get a chance, check out The Dark Crystal on the big screen on March 6 (more info is at FathomEvents.com) or enjoy the new 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital HD release which will also be available on March 6.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

For all things Dark Crystal, make sure to check out the official website, too.

(Image ©️The Jim Henson Company)