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The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Better than its reputation
Snobby reviewers frequently deride Ghost of Frankenstein as the beginning of the decline in quality for the classic Universal horror films, emphasizing the decreased budget, lackluster script, and the lack of Boris Karloff as the monster. Categorically, this film gets unjustly bundled with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. However, while it's not up the quality of the films that preceded it, Ghost of Frankenstein is much better than any of its successors, and it has moments that are as good as any in the series. Bela Lugosi shines in the second installment of his greatest role, the demented, broken-necked Ygor, maintaining his tenuous control over the monster. While still a deviant schemer, Ygor is more three dimensional in this film than in Son of Frankenstein. For instance, he shows compassion for the child Cloestine when the monster indicates he wants her brain. Lon Chaney Jr. is no Karloff, but his massive, imposing version of the monster gave this viewer a shudder at one point, the first time the Frankenstein monster has scared me since I was seven years old! The sympathetic scenes when the monster befriends Cloestine are all the more interesting for the contrast with Chaney's unreadable, statuesque visage. In both Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, it was hinted that the monster--a child himself in one sense--is drawn to children as potential friends. This film is the first to really develop this theme. The scene where the monster retrieves Cloestine's ball is as good as Universal horror gets, especially accompanied as it is by Hans J. Slater's beautiful music score. The score is a tragically overlooked aspect of this film. Next to Franz Waxman's score for Bride of Frankenstein, Slater's score may be the best of any Universal horror film. The script is at times touching, but at times pedestrian. However, director Erle C. Kenton does a laudable job with what he's given. The cinematography is chillingly atmospheric and makes effective, menacing use of shadow. Also to the script's credit, this is the first film to address the obvious solution to the monster's problems: since the real problem is his criminal brain, why not simply give him a normal one? Colin Clive and Basil Rathbone could have done this at any time, but it never occurred to them. Some elements of this film prefigure the Hammer horror series by fifteen years or more: the underground cells for lunatics, all the talk of brain transplants, etc. The last 5 minutes are very effective and made a lasting impression on me as a child, an effect undiminished by the years. All in all, Ghost of Frankenstein is a must see for any classic horror fan.
Casper Meets Wendy (1998)
What a surprise! Fun, fun, fun!
I rented this for my four-year-old son from our local public library. As the third Casper film, and a direct-to-video release (the only advertising I remember was on cereal boxes), I wasn't expecting much from this little venture, but I was delightfully surprised. I actually sat and watched the whole thing, and the climax is quite suspenseful. A great cast, some witty writing, and fine performances by George Hamilton as the villainous arch-warlock Desmond Spellman (am I the only one who thinks this is a dig at Aaron Spelling?), Richard Moll, Vincent Schiavelliand the three adult witches, Shelly Duval, Teri Garr and Cathy Moriarty. The CGI ghosts are well done.
But the biggest surprise of all is Hilary Duff's sparkling performance as Wendy. Based on all the ditzy teen idol crap she did later-- rolling her eyes and huffing every thirty seconds as "Lizzy McGuire" and singing those plastic pop tunes--I expected her to just float around on her broom and look cute. But this is the best acting I've ever seen her do. I can hardly believe it's the same person. She's a delightful little bundle of energy, delivers her lines intelligently, and really works her little duff off (sorry, couldn't resist that). It's a shame her career took such an airhead direction. This video shows she was capable of better things, but she's already being forgotten.
One caution: The ending, with the swirling "Mystic Abyss", when it seems like Wendy might actually be a gonner, as well as the "possession" scenes might be a little too much for some preschoolers.