Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Sugarplum Visions: Memories of Childhood Christmas Gifts


The image above, was the quintessential, be-all end-all for many of us as kids growing up. The sight of a brightly decorated Christmas tree, with wrapped presents underneath it. The very sight of that tree, heralded excitement, knowing that presents would soon be underneath it. And seeing those colorful wrapped gifts, heralded "Sugarplum Visions" of what could possibly be inside. That was half of the fun, in some ways, not knowing what they were, but looking at them endlessly, or sometimes even managing to sneak a feel, or a shake, trying to figure out what they MIGHT be.

For me personally, as I've recounted in the past, Christmastime was pure magic for me. I had a fairly lonely childhood, being raised by an overprotective grandmother as an only child, home-schooled, with few friends. But no matter what, when the Holidays rolled around, I was filled with wonder. That last three month block of the year was my absolute favorite. October brought the spooky wonderment of Halloween. November brought the tasty goodness of Thanksgiving, and every few years even on the same day, my birthday. And of course, December brought the mystical joys of Christmas, and to a lesser extent New Years Eve. But as much as I loved all those other times, as much as I got exited for my birthday and the presents that would bring, I honestly got even more excited for Christmas, just because of the entire ambiance of it all.

The often unappreciated step-brother of wrapped presents.

Before I dive in to what this piece is REALLY about (the presents), I felt I should take a moment to give some respect and due appreciation to the phenomenon known as "Christmas Stockings". I'd imagine not ALL families do this, but if you were anything like me, there were stockings we'd drag out every year, that looked a bit like the picture above, except with hand-made names on each, including one that said "Jesse", for my little self. While the wrapped gifts were the main event, the stocking was the appetizer. And as is traditional, mine would typically be filled with various candies like Hershey's Kisses, or those little assorted Hershey bars, or candy canes, and other things, such as sometimes smaller toys, or baseball cards, things like that. I don't know how you did your Christmas, but in my childhood experience, we always did the stockings first, to whet the appetite (and build that anticipation), I suppose. 

Good ol' Fisher Price.

Now of course, Christmas itself is HARDLY all about the presents. Even for me, as a child growing up, it was very much about the entire package: the candy, the tree, the lights, the music, the TV specials, the general feelings that come with the season, and the high-minded ideals like "Peace on Earth" and the spirit of giving. But this particular piece, is focusing on what most kids cared about most: the gifts. The earliest specific gift that I can very vaguely remember getting, as I assume it was a Christmas gift, was a Fisher Price playset that was essentially what you see above: a zoo. Some of my earliest memories, are of living in San Diego as a toddler, ages 2 and 3, and taking trips to Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. This set was not an OFFICIAL San Diego Zoo product, but in my child mind, I always associated it as being such.

Bring on the dinos!

As I've related in past articles, as a child, before I became more of an all-around MONSTER nut in the early 90s, growing up in the 80s, I was an absolute dinosaur nut. I don't remember exactly what age this all started, but it was pretty early on. Certainly full-bore by the time I was in Kindergarten. For a poor kid, I still had an extensive amount of dinosaur stuff: various books, coloring books, t-shirts, a dinosaur blanket of some sort, and of course, cheap plastic toys! I cannot honestly remember specific dino toys that I got on Christmas, but I know as big of a nut as I was during that age range, I MUST have gotten several. 

Whether I got it as an Xmas toy or not, the one that sticks out most in my mind, was a generic, kinda fat looking little gray T-Rex toy, with stubby ass little arms, which I named "Dino". This was my TOP favorite toy for some reason as a little kid, and I carried it around with me everywhere. It was in a very real way, the precursor to what would later in life become my "thinking pencils", as I would hold onto it as I ran or paced around, thinking and daydreaming. At some point, because I used to play with him extensively, poor ol "Dino" got all sorts of wear and tear, including losing one of his stubby arms. But I still loved him, and among many other childhood things, I honestly wish I still had him to this day, just to have, and keep on display somewhere. Until I later got obsessed with Godzilla and video games and the X-Men, things like that, "Dino" was my #1 toy, and as sad as it may sound, in some ways my "best friend". 

                                                 Duplos, too big for kids to choke on.

That big ol' Bucket o Legos!

Another toy I'm certain I got on some Xmas or other, were of course Lego blocks. But BEFORE I got Lego blocks, around the age of I'm assuming 4 years old, I got Duplo blocks first. Duplos are basically giant Legos, that kids can't choke themselves on like idiots. Duplos were something I had a lot of fun with as a toddler, I'm sure. But the REAL fun started within the next few years, as I got old enough to have actual Lego blocks instead. I acquired several specific Lego sets over the years, the ones that come with specific pieces that you build a specific thing out of, like a race car, or a spaceship, some of which I'm certain I got as Christmas gifts.. And don't get me wrong, some of those were awesome.

BUT, hands down, the most fun I ever had with Legos, were just using random pieces, and my imagination, to try and build just whatever came to mind, within my limited means. One year, let's say when I was probably around 6 or 7, I got a big old bucket of Legos, very similar to what you see above. Except that somehow I also had a much bigger, thinner "ground" piece, and a lot of tree and flower pieces. I used to try and build houses, or a castle, or whatever. There weren't enough pieces in that one bucket, or even adding stuff from those specific sets, to REALLY go wild. But it was more than enough to take up hours of my time. 

Good ol' 80s robots.

Oh's Mouse Trap.

Holiday Oddities.

Of course I got various assorted random things over my childhood Christmases as well. I got a couple of different battery-operated Robot Toys, which were neat because they moved around and lit up, or even made noises. I got card or board games, I'm sure, such as Uno, or Mouse Trap. You remember Mouse Trap, right? It's that game with all the crazy pieces, that it turns out is FAR more fun to put together, than it is to actually play the game and spring the "trap". And then there were SUPER random things, such as the late 80s oddity known as "Rodney Reindeer". I'm not even sure of the history or story behind Rodney, but I know it was what you see above, and I had most of those pictured. Cool little guys, that again, I wish I still had. But also super random. Must've been a fad like one year, and then gone. 

All aboard!

Now as a little kid, again probably around 4 or 5 years old, I know that I got what was probably a fairly cheap, battery operated train set. Have no idea if it was name brand or not, as we were fairly poor. But I probably still loved it, because it moved. Later in life, I'm guessing about Christmas 1988 or 89, I got an actual, honest to goodness Lionel brand train set, and THAT thing was pretty cool. It was nothing likely as fancy, and certainly not as expensive, as what is shown above. It was simple, pretty basic, a couple of different layouts you could set up the track as, several cars, and an on switch. But it was a neat present. Even though I wasn't SUPER into trains, I do remember thumbing through the Lionel catalogue, and daydreaming about having fancier, far more elaborate train set ups. 

With FULL Battle Accessories!

Deinonychus was cool, before anyone knew what the hell a Veloceraptor was.

Just your average hang-gliding setup.

The villainous Rasp, aboard his fearsome Pteranodon.

Circling back around to dinosaurs for a moment, pictured above are relics of a late 80s phenomenon known as "Dino Riders". As part of the VERY 80s phenomenon of having cartoons with toy lines, Marvel actually produced this particular venture. There was a one-season cartoon series, that was actually quite serious for an 80s kids show at the time. I myself had a coloring book telling the Dino Riders story. And of course, the toys. Now precisely WHAT toys I had, is a little fuzzy. I know I didn't have too many, and certainly not the big, cool ass ones like Rulon leader Krulos, riding his giant battle T-Rex. But I DO know for a fact that I 100% had Rasp, the snake dude pictured above, complete with his decked-out Pteranadon, who had a button in its back, which would make the wings flap.

Where it gets fuzzier, are the other pictures figures. Because on the one hand, I definitely remember having the Deinonychus toy, as outside of T-Rex he was my fav. dino as a kid. But I don't have strong memories of having that Rider. Meanwhile I also KNOW that I had Llahd, the blonde kid Rider, and the hang-glider setup seems familiar, but I have less strong memories of having that Pteradactyl. But, thing is, obviously, if I remember Llahd, and I remember that Deino, I MUST have had the rest of that stuff, right? Either way, Dino Riders was a very cool, but short lived phenomenon. What I REALLY wish, however, is that the OTHER action-based late 80s dinosaur show I loved FAR more, Dinosaucers, had had a toy line. I would have ate it up.  

Look at those sweet ass cars.

Not quite what I had.

M-m-m-MICRO Machines!

Similar to trains, I was never (and am still not) HUGE into cars. But of course some of the earliest toys  I remember having, were little toy cars. And chief among those, were Hot Wheels. In fact I'm sure that I got some of the Hot Wheels I had, from that very McDonald's promotion pictured. I know for a fact I got that weird drag racer type car from there. But one of the VERY few things I still have from my childhood, somehow, are two plastic cases mostly full of old Hot Wheels cars. So I clearly had enough of them over the years, to fill two cases. I also have vivid memories of having some kind of "Gas Station" playset that I used my Hot Wheels (and other toys like Monster in My Pocket) with. It wasn't THAT playset, I don't think, but it was very similar, with two stories, a garage, a store, etc.

Coming out in the late 80s, while I remember them being more of a 90s thing, I also got at least a handful of Micro Machines. You remember those old commercials, with fast-talking John Maschitta Jr? They made Micro Machines sound SO cool, and I got myself a pack or two in my day. Nothing specific, no specific cars, really stand out in my memory, and I sadly no longer have them. But they were a very neat thing back in their day. Look up one of those commercials sometime, they're hilarious.




This cute little guy.

THESE dudes.


Now we're getting down to the "REAL shit", some of my top most loved and remembered Xmas gifts. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog, and the Retro Revelations brand in general, knows that I love Godzilla. Hell, he's my unofficial mascot! You would think, as huge of a G-fan as I was in my late childhood/pre-teen years, that I would have had a lot more Godzilla type toys. But nope. Largely due to the fact that, frankly, by the time I was into Godzilla, he just wasn't a popular entity in the states at that time. I mean I don't think there were ever a LOT of Godzilla toys, but there were like NONE when I was a kid, really.

The lone exceptions, were what you see above. The first, is a little rubber Godzilla clip, essentially. In the late 80s/early 90s, these kinds of clip dolls/toys were pretty popular. All kinds of stuff, from Mickey Mouse to Garfield to Bart Simpson, etc., with clip arms that you could use to have them hang from things like curtains, or whatever. Well somewhere, I don't remember where, we found this very generic "Godzilla" one, and naturally I HAD to have it, as it was the only Godzilla type toy I had ever seen, anywhere. I DO still actually have Clip Godzilla, as one of the few things I somehow managed to hold onto.

As for the other dudes, growing up, my Aunt Maggie, who lives on the East Coast (I lived on the West Coast), would send us these big, HEAVILY taped packages every year for Christmas, with all kinds of stuff inside. I always looked forward to her packages, because there was always something neat stowed away in there for me. Well one year, coming as a total surprise, I got these two 1-foot or so figures, of which I had no idea they even existed. They must have been something she found in a Goodwill or something somewhere, and knowing I loved Godzilla, she got them for me. Doing research as an adult, it seems they were made by a Taiwanese or somesuch company called Dor Mei, which made knock-off generic "Godzilla" type toys, among other things. Neither one of them was really "Godzilla", or any of his other monsters for that matter. But I still thought they were hella cool, and again, something I REALLY wish I still had.


Hard but fun.

Totally Radical!

Fun...if you have friends.

Now we get down to what you might call the "Main Event" of this piece. Obviously, I had a great love and appreciation for most of the presents, certainly the FUN ones, that I got during my childhood. The cars, the dinosaurs, the Legos, the random occasional robot, you name it. But when I got my Nintendo Entertainment System in late 1990, all bets were off. As much as I was (or would become) obsessed with things like Godzilla or other monster movies, or Fantasy/Tolkien type stuff, or Goosebumps books, or superhero cartoons like the X-Men or Spider-Man, once I got my very own NES, everything paled in comparison. Not unlike other kids growing up I'm sure, video games were from then on, always, ALWAYS my top most desired gifts.

So that same aunt, a year or so later, surprised me with what I'm sure was another thrift store pick-up. This time in the form of two random NES games, both of which happened to be published by the great Data East, both of which were (very decent) ports of arcade games I had, at that age, never heard of. I feel like this was a Christmas where I didn't get any other video games, so the fact that Aunt Maggie hooked me up with not one, but two, was pretty bad ass. And, as it turned out, NEITHER of them sucked! In fact, both of them are rather fun games, and while a bit hard, I eventually put in the time and was able to beat them both. As for Spy vs. Spy, I DO believe this was another Xmas gift from that same aunt, just on a different year. Either way, it was still cool to get, though in all fairness, Spy vs. Spy is not as fun or good in general as Kid Niki or Breakthru were. And it was really meant to be a 2-player game. Playing without a friend, against that bastard computer, lost its charm after a bit. 

What's up, Doc?

Speaking of Doc.

THE best NES controllers.

THE best, IMO, game ever crafted.

I have shared this particular Christmas story many times, in various mediums, including the RR Youtube channel. But it was so great, so epic, that it deserves repeating. For Christmas 1990, just a few short months after I had first gotten my NES, I received a package gift that will forever stand in my memory as the coolest/most exciting Christmas present I ever received. There it was, this mysterious, unwrapped, plain brown box. I honestly had zero idea what was inside. But when I opened it, you could easily have played that stereotypical "HALLELUJAH" song, like right out of a movie. Within this plane ass box, sat not one, but THREE NES games, and two controllers to boot. 

In point of fact, as I was opening the box, I couldn't tell how many games were in there. All I know is I must have seen either Dr. Mario or Bugs Bunny first, both games we had already rented. And I thought that was pretty cool. I was happy. And then I see another game, whichever of those two wasn't first. And I got happier. But then my eyes REALLY lit up, as I remember it, Mario 3 was hidden further down, probably on purpose. When I saw THAT bad boy, my eyes lit the fuck up, let me tell you! I had very briefly experienced SMB3 at an aunt's house earlier in the year, and embarrassingly, I actually barely played it, because the map felt awkward to me. I spent more time with my first TRUE gaming love, Super Mario Bros. 1, which I had been playing the ever-living shit out of in the months before Christmas. But having a real chance to play SMB3 again, I was absolutely beside myself. Let me make it clear, that Super Mario Bros. 1 IS the game that made me fall in love with gaming, it's the game that turned what had always been a fascination with video games, into a full blown childhood obsession. And to this day I love SMB1, I always will, it's a fantastic, timeless classic. BUT, when I really got to dig my mits into SMB3? It was game over, it was instantly my favorite game, that I played a ridiculous amount over the next several years, and to this day it remains my favorite game of all time.

As for the controllers, while an afterthought, even then, they bear mentioning. They were Sansui Joycard controllers. Yes, a very odd, very Japanese name for them. And I don't know, my grandmother must have seen them in the Finger Hut catalogue or something, otherwise where would she find something like that. I'm not even sure why she got two. But they were awesome, and instantly became my favorite controller. They were modeled very much after the Japanese Famicom controllers, with more comfortable, rounded edges. They also included a headphone jack, so you could listen to your games without annoying people. And most importantly, they had rapid-fire switches, to enhance that gaming experience!

Now you[re playing with power. PORTABLE power.

Still the best Zelda game, to me.

Last but hardly not least, were the last video game related, and probably anything related, Christmas gifts I remember getting while my grandmother was still alive. So essentially the last Xmas gifts from my childhood, before I hit my teens and life changed a lot. As stated, that "Mystery Box" with Mario 3 and Co. in it, was THE coolest, most exciting gift I ever got as a kid. But perhaps a close second, was Xmas 1993, when I received my very own Game Boy. 

For a little bit of background, before my 12th birthday that year, one fine fall afternoon, I had been playing, you guessed it, Super Mario Bros. 3. I was playing it when my grandmother went to go take a nap. And unfortunately for yours truly, I was also STILL playing it when she got back up, a good 2-3 hours later. Why had I been playing so long, you ask? Well, it was simple really, I beat the game, and because I had never bothered/been able to beforehand, I decided I wanted to beat it through a SECOND time, with all of those P-Wings in tow. I was curious to see if you got ANY sort of different ending if you beat it twice. The answer was big, fat, disappointing no. But then, in one of my less smart childhood decisions, I decided, being bored, that I would for no actual good reason whatsoever, KEEP playing it for awhile, a third loop through. If I had been smarter, I would have turned that shit off after my "Second Loop Experiment" was done. If I had, my grandmother would have still been laying down, and I would have been just fine. But instead, she got up, asked if I'd been playing the entire time she was asleep, to which I stupidly said yes. And she flew off the handle, as she so often (and irrationally) did, and in true Grandma fashion, she grounded me from video playing Nintendo for TWO whole months.

To kid me, that was a prison sentence. It was devastating. Never mind that the VERY same day she pronounced sentence, we went to Wal-Mart and she bought me Mario Teaches Typing for PC. She DIDN'T want me talking about goddamn Mario for two months, mind you. But she DID like the idea of an educational game. Unrelated, at some point I eventually also got Mario is Missing on PC. However, on that SAME awful trip to Wal-Mart, I learned by seeing it through the clear blue plastic bag, that she was returning one of my birthday gifts: a copy of Kirby's Adventure, which I had rented once and adored. I was DOUBLE devastated to learn that. I could hardly have been more miserable at the time. She DID allow me to play NES with my friends on my birthday for a couple of hours, and as it turned out, Harold's family got me a copy of Super Mario Bros. 2. She ALSO still got me a cool "Nintendo Chair", even though she was sicking of hearing about Nintendo. 

A really fantastic expansion of a classic.

SUCH a great, truly unappreciated entry in the franchise.

Anyway, with all that in mind, my grounding was over by Christmas, for sure. And that's a good thing, because she ALSO still wound up getting me a Game Boy, and at least a few of initial games. Even though she was sick of hearing about Nintendo. So Xmas 93, I got a Game Boy, packed in with Tetris, which much like Dr. Mario she herself played WAY too much. And I also got, at least, Kirby's Pinball Land, and Zelda: Link's Awakening, which is still my favorite Zelda game to this day. 

Where it gets a bit fuzzy, is precisely WHEN I got the other GB games I owned, because all told, I only had six of them. The others were Wario Land, and as pictures, a bad ass 100 level Donkey Kong remake, and Mega Man V, which is my 2nd favorite MM game behind Mega Man 2 on NES. But here's the thing. All three of those games came out at various points in 1994. And Mega Man specifically, according to the internet, didn't come out until September of 94. Which really throws a monkey wrench in my memories. Because for years, I've remembered it that the last video game gift that my grandmother got me while she was still alive, was The Jungle Book on NES, for my 13th birthday in 1994. Which by the way, was a bit of a letdown. But since she DID get me Mega Man, and I DIDN'T get it for my birthday, that leads me to believe that I HAD to have gotten it for Xmas 1994. There's no other logical explanation, because I know for sure I didn't get any new games from her in 1995.

So, memory fuckery aside, yes, my last two Christmases then, were filled with Game Boy goodness, as I imagine I probably got both Mega Man and Warioland for Xmas. I didn't have many Game Boy games, but I'm proud to say none of those I did own, sucked. They were all QUITE good in fact, and I enjoyed them all, and played them all, quite a bit. I will point out, however, that I didn't actually play my GB "on the go" very much, mainly because the screen was so damn DARK without a direct light source. To that end, both for me and for her Tetris addiction, my grandmother eventually got me a "Light Boy" attachment, which was both a light for the screen, as well as a big bulky magnifier for the screen. I would sit in my bean bag chair in the corner of my room, with the GB plugged in, and play that thing with the "Light Boy", sometimes for hours. Which to me was a major win, because I had originally wanted to put the NES in my room, and wasn't allowed to. So getting to play games in my room finally, was great! Funny side note about the "Light Boy" though. I also got a Game Genie for GB, and both peripherals attached to the top of the system, in the game slot. So you could ONLY use either the Game Genie, or the LB. You could either use cool cheats, or actually SEE the screen, your choice. 





So that's it for my Christmas Gift memories. There were likely other cool things I got as a kid, but frankly I can't really remember them, or they weren't that important to bring up. I hit on all the big and landmark ones, for sure. 2020 has been a real garage year for pretty much the entire planet. I hope that all of you have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and here's hoping we ALL have a MUCH better New Year! 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Bela Lugosi: The Ultimate Dracula


The character of the vampire lord, Count Dracula, as made famous by Irish author Bram Stoker, is one of the most recognized and iconic figures in not just horror fiction, but ALL of popular fiction. There are very few people in the "developed world" today, I'd wager, who didn't at least have a general passing knowledge of who Dracula is. He's been depicted in everything from serious works of art, to toys, to comics, to cartoons and even sketch comedy. But the medium in which he became most famous, naturally, was film. 

There have been many, MANY depictions of Dracula in film, by some counts, the character has made over 200 film appearances, allegedly second only to Sherlock Holmes. But again, I would wager that more people, especially young people, know who Dracula is, than even the great detective. Narrowing it down a bit, there have been, at the LEAST, around or probably over 40 films made that center around the character of Dracula more specifically, most of them direct adaptations, of some manner or other, of Stoker's original novel. But while several of those film depictions of the Count have been quite memorable, some even iconic, there is one who, I think it's completely fair to say, stands head and shoulders above all the rest.

Lugosi in the original Broadway play.

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, otherwise known as Bela Lugosi, was born on October 20th, 1882, in Lugos Austria-Hungary, what is now known as Lugoj, Romania. Meaning that, ironically, the man who would go on to become synonymous with the character of Dracula, was originally from the same basic land that was also home to the Count's native Transylvania. Lugosi dropped out of school at age 12 (something not at all uncommon in those days), and began his acting career in the very early 1900s. After years acting in stage plays in Hungary and elsewhere, he got his first silent film role in 1917. He went on to act in several Hungarian and then German films, before finally leaving Europe for political reasons, to immigrate to the United States in 1920. After living and working in the States for many years, both as a laborer and immigrant actor, by 1931 he finally became a naturalized citizen. 

Lugosi's acting work in America started out in his native Hungarian, playing to immigrant crowds. His first English speaking role came in 1922, and for his first several English plays, he had to learn his lines phonetically, as he could not yet speak English very well. During the 20s, he also acted in several silent films, the first of which being J. Gordon Edwards' The Silent Command. But the role that would come to define his career, for better and for worse, fell into his lap in the late 20s. In the summer of 1927, he was approached to play the role of Count Dracula in a Broadway production, which would go on to be a smash hit, playing 261 times before embarking on a national tour that ended in California. 

A poster almost as iconic as the film's actor.

When Universal Pictures optioned the rights to the play and began production in 1930, as hard as it may be for many to imagine, and in spite his own lobbying for the role he felt was his, Lugosi was actually not the studio's first choice to portray the title role. After considering many other actors, in part because he lobbies hard and won them over, but also reportedly in part because he agreed to take the role for considerably less money than he could have commanded, Bela Lugosi did, however, win the role that so badly wanted to portray on the "silver screen". 

Spanish Dracula

Spanish Renfield

Spanish Van Helsing

In an unusual, but in those days not uncommon occurrence, Universal had two productions of Dracula filming at the same time. The more famous English production would film during the day, and then when they were done, the Spanish production would use the exact same sets at night. For many years, the Spanish version of the film was actually thought to be lost, though surviving prints were eventually found. It would seem that to many film historians and even some film buffs, this Spanish language film is considered "superior", mainly due to a few, in my opinion minor points. For one thing, the Spanish production apparently had the advantage of watching the English "dailies", watching their camera-work etc., and were able to try and improve upon it, such as the camera moving up the stairs to zoom in on Dracula when he first appears to Renfield. They also added a bit more "flair" in certain scenes, such as smoke rising from Dracula's coffin when he awakes, and things like that. Lastly, the Spanish film, for whatever reason, clocks in at nearly 20 minutes longer than the English version, which some feel gives the story a bit more room to breath, and a bit more time for character development. 

Personally, however, I reject the notion that the Spanish version is "superior". I absolutely recognize the longer running time, slightly more lavish special effects, and somewhat more complex camera-work. But to me, none of these things really "improve" the story itself to a significant degree. I think for what it was, especially considering it was made on a smaller budget than the English version, the Spanish film is well done, and a solid movie overall. But as far as I'm concerned, there really is no contest between the two, and I'll explain why. 

English Dracula

English Renfield

English Van Helsing

The English version has also been criticized by some critics retroactively, for being "too much like silent film". And I honestly, for the life of me, don't understand how this is a legitimate complaint. Director Todd Browning, though he left a lot of the actual filming to Director of Photography Karl Freund, was a successful director of silent films. He reportedly was never quite comfortable with sound films, and this being one of very first, it shows. But as far as I'm concerned, his silent era proclivities are not a hindrance to the movie, but rather, a strength. The film has a lot of silent moments, with hardly any music (which wasn't unusual for early sound films anyway), and a lot of long, still shots. To me, this lends to the creepy atmosphere, mood and tone of the story. The darkness, silence and stillness, lend the film, in my opinion, a much spookier and more menacing air, than the busier, more technically complex Spanish production. 

The acting in this movie, has also been described by some as basically being stage acting, which, again, I don't find any real fault in. For one thing, Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, had already played Dracula and Professor Van Helsing respectively, opposite one another hundreds of times in the play. Which, I might add, attributes itself both to their chemistry together on screen, working off of each other so very well. But it also explains, as far as I'm concerned, why they both seem so comfortable and natural in their roles. Because they had literally already played them to death. And really, I think along with what I personally consider more appropriate cinematography for the tone of the film, that the acting is really the shining strength that makes the English, not the Spanish version, the "superior" 1931 Dracula

Perfect in their roles.

While I have no wish to slight the acting job of the Spanish crew, to me at least, the acting in the English version of Dracula, is simply better. It's top tier, in all of the major roles, and even in some of the smaller ones. One such smaller role that really stands out, as a bit of valuable comic relief, is that of the Seward Sanitarium attendant, Martin, played Charles K. Gerrard. His thick, Cockney-esque accent, delivering humorous jabs in his interactions with the insane Renfield, are genuinely funny, and shine appropriately comedic light on the otherwise macabre nature of the man eating flies and spiders. Helen Chandler and David Manners also stand out, as the haunted Mina Seward, and her concerned, protective lover John Harker. 

But the three characters who truly steal the show, and carry the film, are appropriately the three biggest roles. First off, it should be mentioned that Dwight Frye was an incredible character actor of his era, bringing both capable physicality, and true dramatic chops to his roles. The role of Renfield, I think, is arguably the finest of his career, and certainly the most complex of the entire film. Renfield starts off a very decent, if somewhat simple, and good-natured, well meaning real estate solicitor, who was hired by Dracula to arrange for his purchase of the decrepit Carfax Abbey in England. But after Dracula gets control of him, becomes a man quite literally possessed, a tortured soul who hates and mourns what he is made to do, and what he has become, but is also thoroughly controlled by his cravings for "smaller lives" (flies, spiders and other bugs), and his fearful loyalty to his "master". 

Frye expresses such a fantastic range of emotions as this character, from well mannered and even joyful, to outright menacing and stark raving mad. And then of course there are his periods of solemn, remorseful sadness. By comparison, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield in the Spanish version, is convincingly manic and insane. But he also comes off, at least to me, as a bit TOO over the top with his craziness. Dwight Frye's performance, even at its most manic, just comes across as more subtle and menacing. He also, to me, feels like more of a conflicted character. All around, his performance is an absolute highlight to the film.

Dracula descending.

The true "meat and potatoes" of the story, of course, is the mental chess game, and actual conflict, between the characters of Van Helsing, and Count Dracula himself. As stated before, I feel that Edward Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi were perfect for these roles, both because they had already made these roles their own on stage, but because their individual personas, acting idiosyncrasies, and even their accents, in Bela's case natural, were perfect. For his part, Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, is great to me, tied in my mind with Peter Cushing's portrayal of the character in the later Hammer films. He is all at once wise and very learned about supernatural and scientific matters, even a tad arrogant while also still coming off as politely humble. He is a charming and commanding presence, who garners the respect and often obedience of those he is trying to help, merely by his presence and personality. He is a self-assured, yet cautious hero, who would rather quietly observe, waiting for the right moment to strike, rather than rush in foolishly. He is a man of action, but only when the proper situation presents itself. 

Eduardo Arozamena, Van Helsing in the Spanish version, does a perfectly fine job in the role. In fact he shares some of the characteristics of the character as Van Sloan does. But at the same time, his Van Helsing also seems to bit more of a timid, even bumbling old man, at times even somewhat fearful of Dracula, something that Van Sloan's Professor never is. Whether he is faced with Renfield's madness and threats, or Dracula's brooding yet charming menace, Van Sloan's portrayal of the good doctor, never once bats an eye. Not that he isn't, perhaps, deep down fearful, but because he is confident that he knows how to deal with it.

Even in the iconic scene where they are alone together for the first time, and they both "lay their cards on the table", so to speak, and Dracula tries to mesmerize and control Van Helsing, he does now cower. He does, in fact, momentarily nearly fall under the Count's sway, so strong is the undead fiend's power, but Van Helsing's will proves to be quite strong, as he steadies himself, standing up straight and defying the vampire lord. Lugosi's Dracula expresses, more than once, genuine respect, perhaps even slight admiration for his new enemy. And because of Van Sloan's confident, wizened portrayal of the character, you can actually believe that he truly means it. His Van Helsing earned Dracula's begrudging respect, even though they fully, and openly, intend to destroy one another. 

Those haunting eyes.

As for the person we're really here to discuss, Lugosi as Count Dracula, if you've ever even seen but a small clip, or even just a picture of his performance, really speaks for itself. His exotic, charming yet sinister look, and his natural Hungarian accent, just lent themselves to the character. He isn't an immediately physically imposing figure, not someone who commands instant fright upon first seeing him. And yet, you can also immediately tell there is something more, something dangerous about this persona, and he is not someone you would want to meet alone, in the dark. By comparison, Carlos Villarías' Dracula in the Spanish version, while capably acted, both because of his general mannerisms, but also because of his quite frankly sometimes goofy looking facial expressions, comes across as a far less menacing, sometimes even comical vampire. Again, no offense to Carlos, but to all those who try to claim that the Spanish version is "superior", I don't think his portrayal holds even a small candle to Lugosi's.

Lugosi's Dracula is a monster, no doubt about it, but he is a monster who is not often given to recklessness or foolish chance. Much like his opposite, Van Helsing, he too is a very calculating mind, who plans much and risks little. Not because he is afraid, but because he is a mastermind who is always several steps ahead of most of his victims and enemies. He's a man who has had centuries to learn and hone and perfect his role as vile hunter of the living, and his mental command of the weaker-minded is pretty much unparalleled. He is still supernaturally strong, mentally powerful, and able to change his physical form, etc., just as most versions of the character are. But with Lugosi's portrayal, the characters strength lies more in his cunning, and almost sardonic charm. He's scary, but often more because of what he COULD do to you, or even make you do to yourself, than because of more graphic acts of intimidation or violence. 

Max Schreck's Count Orlok.

Christopher Lee's "Hammer" Dracula

Bela Lugosi's OG Dracula


I think in the minds of most film fans and historians (often little distinction between the two), there are really three main film portrayals of Count Dracula, that are the most memorable and iconic. They are pictured above. While in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, for legal reasons they had to rename the character Count Orlok, it is still meant to be Dracula. And in all blunt honesty, Max Schreck's incredible turn in that film, is hands down the creepiest. His character eschews any pretense at handsomeness or charm. He looks and acts like the monster he truly is, and his image and performance are no doubt the scariest, if we're talking about pure horror. 

As for Sir Christopher Lee, he played the character of Dracula probably more times, in both Hammer films and outside of that studio, than any other actor. His portrayal is unquestionably the most intimidating and certainly the most actively, visibly violent. But for all of his visual evocativeness, I must say, for all the times he played the character, Lee's Dracula also has the least "character" of the three. That definitely isn't a knock on him, as Lee was a great actor in his own right. But the combination of how he was directed, the scripts he was given (or sometimes chose to ignore), and his own personal choices in portraying the role, while his Dracula is absolutely fearsome, even "badass" as some would rightly say, you could also argue his Dracula has the least "to him", if that makes sense. If anything, he almost feels like more of an evil force, than he does a character.



That pose.


That expression.

That stare.

But for my money, as a film fan, as a horror fan, as a fan of supernatural fiction in general, Bela Lugosi is, as the title of the article states: The Ultimate Dracula. His character is the prefect mixture, of just charming enough, just intimidating enough, and just sinister enough, that he is the complete total package as far as I'm concerned. There are good reasons why it is his portrayal and very image, that is most popularly and most infamously associated with the character. He made that role his own in a way that few actors ever accomplish in their entire career. And this was, on a professional note, both a boon and a curse to him as an actor. That one iconic role achieved him a kind of "immortality" that few ever achieve. But at the same time, being so associated with that role, along with his thick Hungarian accent, also caused Lugosi to become very typecast for the rest of his film career. A fact that he, rightly, hated. He loved the character, so much so that he was buried with the original cape when he passed away, something his family thought he would have liked. But he also hated what it did to his career, a career full of many other iconic roles and great turns. But he could never quite escape The Count, much like his victims in the story. 

Regardless of that unfortunate fact, the truth is, Lugosi was a fantastic actor, a reality that shines in his immortal performance as Count Dracula. The Spanish version made by Universal may well have been more "technically sound" in certain ways. But I hardly think those extra touches make it "superior", and as as stated, I feel that acting-wise, it is most certainly the inferior film. And there have surely been a great many adaptations of the story since 1931, which have been more lavish, more expensive, more technically impressive, etc., including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film, which featured Gary Oldman in a very strong performance. But I do not earnestly believe, out of all the films that have come since, or perhaps ever WILL come, that any of them are as simple, pure, and darkly, hauntingly beautiful, as Todd Browning's 1931 classic. That Dracula, as far as I'm concerned, is perfect, and is one of the few films I would give "5 Stars" to. 

Bela Lugosi IS Dracula, to entire generations of people, and deservedly so. If you've never seen the movie, I implore you, this Halloween Weekend, please do yourself a favor and watch it. It is a slow, often understated burn of a film. But it is never boring, always captivating, often creepy, and if you ask me, a pure delight to take in. I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Halloween, and stay safe out there!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Godzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster


In the last Godzilla Chronicles entry, we looked at the bizarre, childhood fantasy near-spinoff project known as Godzilla's Revenge, aka All Monsters Attack. But if you thought THAT film was odd, well then buckle in tight and hold onto your seats, because as the old saying goes, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" 

Even by the late 60s, Toho was beginning to feel that the Godzilla series, which had seen a new entry nearly every year since 1962, was beginning to get a bit stale. It was due in part to this, that I'm sure they were willing to allow Ishiro Honda to experiment as he did, with All Monsters Attack. This experimentation continued on the next Godzilla project, but in different ways. With Honda looking to scale back his filming (he actually wound up basically taking a break for a few years), Toho turned, surprisingly, to a new director, Yoshimitsu Banno. A man with very different ideas, and a new take on Godzilla in particular.

Fan art, representing the "trippy" nature of this film.

Banno's biggest conceptual theme that he wanted to build his contribution to Godzilla around, was the environment, and how it was being poisoned by pollution. He saw Japanese cities rife with horrible smoggy air, and Japanese coastlines foaming with crap that people threw into the water. All pretty terrible, disgusting, frightening stuff. And his idea was "Hey, what if this pollution came to life, and became a monster that attacked humanity?" To this end, he created the alien creature, Hedorah, an originally microscopic being from deep space, who came to Earth via a meteorite, and eventually started growing and mutating into an enormous, sludgy mess, after feeding on humanity's ample pollution.

 But clearly, Banno's vision didn't stop at having a strong environmental theme, something in and of itself that was used by several other filmmakers in the 1970s. Likely being a part of it himself, he also wanted to play to what he likely saw as a more "modern" Godzilla audience, one which represented the so-called "Hippy" counter-culture that was going strong at the time. To this end, "Hedorah" features, outside of a couple of major exceptions, a "hipper" young adult crowd at its core of human characters. There's a hip night club featuring "painted" dancers, and a woman singing about the environment. There are montages and animated segments that are VERY "60s". And late in the film there is even a moderately large gathering in the hills of young Japanese "Hippy" types, dancing around a fire and singing songs to...defeat Hedorah with positive vibes? But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

A true Godzilla fan.

Pictured above is die hard Godzilla fan, Ken Yano. His father, Dr. Toru Yano, a marine biologist, has been collecting odd samples from the sea lately, seemingly mutated sea-life, results of humanity's pollution. Ken's mother, Toshie, often acts as his assistant. After discovering a strange "tadpole", Ken accompanies his father to the beach, where he patiently waits while Dr. Yano goes diving to see if he can find traces of this "tadpole", as well as a mysterious sea monster that has appeared, sinking an oil tanker. 

Toru is attacked while underwater, by what turns out to be Hedorah in its early, aquatic form, badly burning his face. A small piece of the monster also attempts to attack Ken on the shore, but only manages to burn the boy's hand. Now fully aware of the existence of Hedorah, Dr. Yano tries to warn the public, using his own tragedy as a cautionary tale. Meanwhile Ken, apparently the world's biggest G-Fan, has a vision of Godzilla saving the world from Hedorah, and firmly believes in his heart that this will actually occur.

One of several odd animated segments, showing Hedorah feeding.

The creature's second form.

It isn't long before Hedorah is no longer satisfied with feeding on oil and pollution found in the ocean. It grows stronger, and metamorphoses into a more amphibious form, which allows it to come up on land, seeking out new kinds of human poison, such as the smoke stacks of factories. As it turns out, not only does the monster feed off of and grow stronger because of pollution, but it is also essentially composed of highly toxic, pollution sludge itself. So much so, that the slime and fumes from its body, are highly dangerous, even lethal, as evidenced by the Yanos' burns. 

But Hedorah becomes even more dangerous, when it displays the ability to shift between its more "frog-like" land form, and a deadly "flying saucer" form, in which it can fly, and pour out highly acidic, toxic exhaust, which is even shown to melt human beings right down to their bones. That alone is highly gruesome and unusual for the Godzilla series, and I'm sure may well have caused some controversy upon the film's 1971 release. But it also needs to be said, that regardless of what one might think of the movie itself, love it or hate it, the monster Hedorah is arguably the most unique ever conceived "daikaiju" the series has ever produced. And it was certainly very well realized by the special effects team for this movie as well. Not just Hedorah's unique, pollution-based nature, but also the fact that it shifts between so many different forms, and evolves throughout the story. If nothing else, Hedorah the monster itself, deserves major kudos for creativity and execution. 

Dreams DO come true!

True to little Ken's vision, Godzilla does indeed arrive in Japan, to show this new monstrosity what's up. Their initial battle goes Godzilla's way, as he basically hands "Frog Hedorah" its ass. But Hedorah doesn't stay defeated for long, consuming more pollution, and transforming once again, into its "Perfect Form", a more upright, bi-pedal form. In addition to this, he uses his "Flying Saucer" form to pepper Godzilla with toxins, and the "Big G" is actually wounded and somewhat defeated himself, to the horror of Ken and his adult friends, Yukio and Miki. 

All seems lost, and for some insane reason, Ken's parents let him go to the aforementioned "Hippy" party up near Mt. Fuji with Yukio and Miki, where a renewed, but equally hopeless battle between Godzilla and Hedorah breaks out. But, as it happens, Dr. Yano and his wife discover almost by accident, that the small Hedorah samples they had been studying, when dried out turn to brittle ash. Dr. Yano theorizes that if a large amount of electricity can be used to essentially "dry out" the giant pile of shit that Hedorah is, it too would become brittle and vulnerable, unlike its seemingly indestructible slime form, giving Godzilla a chance. The army, naturally, sets to work right away, setting up a giant electric trap for the monster, right nearby where the hippies happen to be partying. 




Godzilla lamenting the ignorance of man's polluting ways.


One of the ridiculous visuals in all of Godzilladom.

The battle between Godzilla and Hedorah doesn't go well at first, as Godzilla can't seem to harm the damn thing, and in return gets his eye and hands burnt, and then gets drown in sludge after being thrown into a small chasm. But all would not be lost, as the Yano's plan is put into action, and Big Slimy gets zapped with trillions of volts of juice. The monster's battle damages the apparatus before it can totally dry out Hedorah, but not before it makes the thing vulnerable (FINALLY) to Godzilla's attacks. 

Hedorah tries to flee after finding itself damaged, and as you can clearly see above, to keep hot on the trail of its flying form, Godzilla suddenly decides that HE can fly as well, in perhaps the most ridiculous way possible: by rocketing himself through the air via his atomic breath! This would be the first of several "one use/film only" abilities that Godzilla would conveniently discover, a trend through several of his 70s outings. It also happens to be one of the most comical looking Godzilla moments in the series' history, but it's damn entertaining. 

The awesome Criterion artwork.

Ultimately, the film didn't perform super well, probably in part because of its darker, more gruesome nature, but also probably because of its oddball "Hippy" sensibilities. Long-time Toho Godzilla producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, reportedly hated it, and allegedly banned Banno from ever directing another Godzilla film, claiming he had "ruined Godzilla". Banno himself was extremely pleased with the final product, and had a sequel planned that supposedly would have taken place in Africa, another unique choice in Toho films. This sequel never happened, however, as Jun Fukuda, director of 60s Godzilla island romps Godzilla vs The Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla, was brought back to direct the following three Godzilla films. 

As for myself, this is one of those Godzilla movies that I didn't get to see until I rented it sometime in my later teen years. I did have the opportunity to own it as a child, as ONE solitary time, I saw the cover for it at my local Walmart VHS rack. But that just so happened to be one time where, for whatever reason, my grandmother to my horror said "No". And thus, there went my ONE chance during my biggest, most fanatical Godzilla fandom phase, to be able to see it, and experience it as only a child/pre-teen can. I wish that I had been able to see it at that age, as surely I wish I had been able to see ALL the "Showa Era" films at that age, along with many other movies I missed out on. Because, quite frankly, before my teens, before depression and the horrible jaded bitterments of adulthood creep in to kill off childhood wonder, everything I experienced as a child, be it music, comics, literature, cartoons, shows, movies, you name it, everything was far more raw, and BIG and pronounced. Seeing these old movies as a kid, even the shittier ones, everything I took in at that age, was, looking back, experienced to the max, to its fullest extent. Versus the more numbed, jaded experiences one has as a "Grown Up". 

Would I have liked, or loved, Hedorah back then? I think so. I think I would have been mortified by the toxic burns and the poor people being melted by that vile Smog Monster. I was like that as a kid, even feeling bad when villains would die in media I watched. I still feel a bit that way as an adult, that little part of my childhood that has never fully submitted to exile. But yes, even though it's bizarre as hell, I think that Godzilla vs. Hedorah has some great moments, and I would have taken the environmental message VERY seriously as a kid. Hedorah is one of the most interesting monsters Toho ever produced, and at the end of the day, it's a GODZILLA movie, so I would have ate it up regardless (even though to be fair, I wasn't fully impressed by Godzilla's Revenge at that age). But this is a movie my grandmother should have gotten, and I should have been able to see back then, because I think I would have ultimately enjoyed it. 


Well, that's it for now, folks! I'll be back soon enough with a new Halloween-time article for you all. But for the time being, here is the full list of Godzilla Chronicles articles, if you've missed any:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

9. Son of Godzilla

10. Destroy All Monsters

11. All Monsters Attack