Vampires are everywhere these days. There are the Romeo and Juliet-style stories of Twilight and the steamier True Blood as well as the love triangle of the CW’s Vampire Diaries. And now there is “Cirque Du Freak,” based on the best-selling series of YA novels by Darren Shan, who shares his name with the title character.
I think it is because in this open-minded and permissive era it is hard to find a reason to keep an ordinary romantic couple apart. In the old days, parental disapproval, not having enough money, or societies’ strictures could fuel an entire movie until the happily-ever after ending. But these days it is difficult to create narrative tension to keep a couple separate for 10 minutes, much less two hours. That may be great for society, but it is tough on story-tellers. And so in order to get transgressive, a bit of cross-species romance seasoned with the risk of death and the prospect of an unleashed id can make a story very captivating.
Teenager Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) feels that his life is just fine. He gets good grades. Kids at school like him. His parents are proud of him. He has a life-long best friend named Steve (Josh Hutcherson of “Bridge to Terabithia”), who is restless and unhappy.
Darren does not want to admit that he also has his restless moments and is not always comfortable being what Steve calls “perfect boy.” Darren wants to make sure we understand that he is no longer close to a former friend who has become “a freak,” meaning that he does not dress like an ad for a soft drink. He is not sure that he will be satisfied with what his parents tell him is “the path to a happy, productive life: College! Job! Family! And one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be yelling at a teenager of your own.”
And there’s Darren’s lifelong fascination with spiders, not studying them, more communing with them. Steve is obsessed with vampires and dreams of becoming one himself. They pick up a mysterious flier about a freak show and sneak out to see it. When Darren steals a poisonous spider and it bites Steve, Darren agrees to give up his life as a human to become the vampire’s assistant in exchange for the antidote.
It makes some changes to the story in the book series but it is true to the tone — a nice combination of teenage angst and outrageous grotesquery, with the implicit recognition that sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. Massoglia and Hutcherson come across as bland at times, but then they are sharing the screen with a snake-boy and a lady who not only has a beard but is the mesmerizing Salma Hayek. The story can be exposition-heavy as it lays the foundation for the next episodes in the series by starting up a war between two vampire factions. But it benefits from small details around the edges that attest to the fully-realized world of the novels. It balances the scary moments with humor. And it has good guy and bad guy vampires, a rock music-loving snake boy (Patrick Fugit, one of the film’s highlights), a woman whose limbs regenerate, a super-tall guy who kind of looks like Edgar Allen Poe, and a world of freaks that knows how to make the Cirque feel like home.
Curious George and his friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, have a new adventure in a straight-to-DVD feature-length movie, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey, available on March 2. I got to talk to director Norton Virgien about what has kept the little monkey so popular for nearly seventy years and what it was like to (try to) direct Jerry Lewis.
What has kept Curious George so endearing to children over four generations?
We all love the characters because when you see something in the characters that you recognize in your family and friends, that makes an instant connection, doesn’t it?
I think children identify with his curiosity and get a kick out of his getting into trouble. And they like the way he is protected by the Man in the Yellow Hat.
Thinking about all the generations of families that have passed that book from parent to kid, it’s daunting. I would be very disappointed if we did something with an iconic character that people thought was off tone. Even though there was an earlier Curious George movie, we went back to the books and reread them all and noticed right away that the character was a little more mischief-prone and rambunctious than he was in the movie, were he was very very young. His curiosity was like a very little child seeing things for the first time. In our version, we let him grow up just a little bit and get a little closer in spirit to the character in the books. He thinks he’s at home in the world and knows his way around the city and that he’s pretty sharp. But we instantly find out that he still has a lot to learn. And that’s the spirit of the books. He’s one step back closer to that original character, which I’m proud of.
How do you direct Jerry Lewis? People have tried for decades and I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded!
We tailored the character to him. When we had the opportunity to work with him, we fond a part that was just the right spice in the middle of our story, when we needed to pick up the energy, and so he is this curmudgeonly character. Except for encouraging him to be his comedic self and let the Jerry Lewis persona come through, we sat back and enjoyed his performance. I wasn’t going to say to him, “Mr. Lewis, let’s revert to our childhood self.”
I think he’s already there!
He was so fun, though! And we got to travel to Las Vegas, which his where he lives.
The other legendary person we got to work with was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. It was stunning for me as someone who grew up with that music, that he was excited about Curious George and wanted to do a song for us.
What did you tell him you were hoping for from the music?
I had a song I’d loved as a child called California Sun in mind for the moment when Curious George decides to go to California. It just fit that moment perfectly. Most people thought of that as a Beach Boys song. But it’s by the Rivieras. Somewhere along the line someone in our brain trust thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get a Beach Boy to sing that song?” And Brian actually added a new melodic break in the middle and it was really fun to see him at work. If there’s one person who really understands California music, it’s Brian. He understood what we wanted better than we could have told him. But he was extremely engaging and friendly and wanted to know each of our favorite Beach Boys songs. A very sweet man!
And Matt Lauer is in the movie, playing a newscaster!
Matt was great. Matt plays Matt Lauer perfectly and was such a good sport about it.
And another of my favorites, Tim Curry is in the film.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on several projects. Animators look to the voice actors for inspiration and energy. He is such a high energy performer and so unabashed in pushing the part in whatever direction he needs to go that he pushes the animators too. His animation is among the most expressive which has a lot to do with Tim.
What did you do to keep the film consistent with the illustrations from the books?
The animators in the first movie really did a good job with their interpretation of the original art, the purity and sense of color and it added filmic treatment to give it depth. We took that as a wonderful starting point and built on that.
What age range to you try to appeal to?
The richest way to enjoy family entertainment is with the whole family. We want to make a movie that has a lot for parents and kids to laugh at together.
What inspires you?
What inspires me about doing family entertainment is the thought that each of these films we are doing will be the first movie someone falls in love with. Our audience is so open and available to us. If we put meaning and heart and fun into the film, we’re going to touch that fresh audience in a special way. That’s an honor and a responsibility and not to be taken lightly either.
Frederick C. Weibel, Jr. is the author of Edison’s Frankenstein, a tribute to an extraordinary film that was considered lost for decades.
What is it about the Frankenstein story that makes it so enduringly compelling?
Frankenstein is so filled with universal questions and truths. It’s a moral tale about how our actions have repercussions that we never considered. And that we are responsible for those consequences that can cascade and destroy us. Frankenstein creates a creature, brings it to life and then realizes that he has made a great mistake, and abandons it, leaving it to its own devices, hoping it will die. It doesn’t. Eventually the creature learns how to survive and realizes the he is so hideously ugly that it can never associate with human kind. The monster tracks Frankenstein down and revenge kills all his friends and family, forcing Frankenstein to pursue it to the ends of the earth, and his own destruction. The moral parable can be applied to almost any situation and is open enough to be interpreted many different ways.
Why did Edison studios choose that story as one of its first productions?
The Edison Studios had been making films since 1896. By 1910 they had evolved quite a bit and desired to make motion pictures that were “photoplays”, filmed versions of plays. They developed and applied a scientific method to film making as Edison had done with all of his experiments and products. There had been some complaints from distributors that Edison pictures were too American for foreign audiences. The studio bosses tried taking a different approach to put out well known public domain stories that would appeal to global sensibilities. They used a photo from “Frankenstein” to be on their first British catalog and had the titles translated into many different languages.
What were some of the most challenging elements of the story to film?
The biggest challenge was to condense the story down to 15 mins. in a cinematic fashion. J. Searle Dawley the producer / director wrote the scenario using elements from the book and play versions that would most stand out. He realized that trick photography could be used on the creation scenes to accomplish things not able to be done on stage that would thrill the audience and sell the picture.
How was the story edited/censored to make it acceptable to audiences of the time?
There was no post-censorship on the film but the producer had to follow the moral standards that were demanded by the Studio heads and Mr. Edison. The catalog says that all the ‘repulsive’ elements of the story were eliminated; the murders, etc., to make the film acceptable to any audience. The film also had to have a ‘happy ending” where Frankenstein realizes his mistake and eliminates the evil he has created and that love cleanses his soul from the pursuit of un-natural science over things which should be left to God.
How does it differ from later re-tellings?
Mainly in the creation of the monster. The creature is not made of a collection of corpse parts but rather formed from a gathering of chemicals mixed and set afire in a large caldron. We see a skeleton appear and the flesh start to creep across the bones. The monster shows life and movement even before it is finished. The creature also has a huge head of long wild hair that is quite a fright wig as described in the novel.
There are some scenes from the novel that were never re-done in future versions, such as when the creature peers at Frankenstein from the bed curtains. There is more of a connection between Frankenstein and the monster who argue with each other as in the book. Yes, the monster talks and is more confused than murderous.
Who were the performers and what were their backgrounds?
Augustus Phillips, who plays Frankenstein was perhaps the most accomplished actor in the film at that time. He had appeared in many plays on Broadway and national touring companies for many years. Charles Ogle, who portrayed the monster, also had a lot of experience on the stage playing character roles and was considered a master of make-up. He eventually had the longest and most successful motion picture career working for Paramount through the 20s, with some of their most famous directors and stars. Ogle is probably now the most well known of all the actors because of “Frankenstein”. Mary Fuller who plays “the Sweetheart” became quite a sensation in 1914 when she stared in the series of sequential films of “What Happened To Mary” which initiated the serial craze, creating a whole new genre of chapter films. She rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity contests at the time. Her star faded in a few years as she couldn’t seem to adapt to feature films and withdrew from making movies all together in the late teens. She died in a mental institution in Washington, DC and is buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery.
Do you have any idea of how many people saw the film when it was first produced and what the reaction was?
“Frankenstein” was well distributed across the country, Europe and South America. It appeared in theaters from March until the late summer of 1910. I’ve found a few advertisements in a variety of newspapers and magazines and never a bad review. Quite the opposite, all of the reviews were very positive. It’s impossible to tell at this point just how many people may have seen it. Movie theaters ran it 3 or 4 days, as was the norm for the time, or even just one day. Others gave it special performances with full orchestras as the feature film of the evening in a vaudeville presentation. There are notices in newspapers of it booking in large and small cities; New York City, Salt Lake, Hartford, CN, Frederick, MD, Palestine,TX, etc. It had a very long run for an Edison film.
What made you want to research this film and where did you get your information?
I became fascinated with the film since 1963 when I saw a picture of the monster in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. In the early 90s I saw a clip of the creation sequence on cable TV so I started my search and tracked down the man who owned the only known print of it. The major amount of my research came from The Edison National Historic Site, The Museum of Modern Art who had many of the Edison Motion Picture Studio papers, The Library of Congress that had the copyright materials and magazine articles, and The Academy of Motion Pictures that had a lot of information on the actors. Just last year a lot of old newspapers had been scanned and put up on the web. I was able to access a lot of material from that.
It was long considered to be a lost film. How was it discovered?
Mr. Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, WI bought a bag of old films from a fellow collector and friend of his, Herman Schmidt for $25 in the late ’50s. Neither one of them had any idea of its real value or historical significance. The film had shrunken a bit and when Dettlaff first ran it, the projector tore it pieces. He pieced it back together. In the 1970s he somehow learned of its rarity and did a semi-restoration job by copying it and photographing many of the frames for a storyboard. He contacted many of the film institutions around the country trying to sell it for $1,000,000. All of them just offered him a tax write-off. When the word got out that the film existed, he started licensing 2 min. clips of it for $2000 a pop. He made over $20,000 in this manner and decided that it was more lucrative doing this that releasing the whole thing which would be immediately ‘bootlegged’ due to it being out of copyright. Eventually in 2003 I helped convince him to release it on DVD.
How did the graphic novel adaptation come about?
I had a contract in the late 90s with a small publisher to print an earlier version of my book and a comic book version of the film. The company welched on both accounts and never returned my rare photos. Chris Yambar, a well known comic writer and publisher contacted me in 2002 about reviving the comic book idea and turning it into a 64 page graphic novel. He wanted me to provide an essay on the background of the Edison’s “Frankenstein” film and actors. I also sent him a copy of the film and many frame grabs and photos. Chris knew an excellent artist Rob Bihun and contracted him to do the drawing. Chris wrote a modern version of the film and storyboarded it. I just made a few suggestions and let them run wild with it. Rob’s artwork was astounding. They certainly knew what they were doing and filled in a lot blanks in the story. My version was just to stick to the original film and use the frame grabs to base my drawings for a style in the old EC horror comics of the 1950s. These guys were professionals and knew what would appeal to a modern buying public. So where it deviates from the film was due to that kind of approach. They did a fantastic job, much more exciting and better than what I could ever have achieved. The run quickly sold out and I think I have the only remaining copies. Chris was planning a hard cover reprint for the 100th anniversary. I hope it comes out.
LEGOÂ® comes to life in its first all-new feature-length DVD movie. Meet builder and explorer Clutch Powers and his team of LEGOÂ®experts as their adventure leads them from LEGOÂ® City to the Space Police prison planet to the medieval world of Ashlar where they must help the rightful heir to the King’s throne find the courage to regain the kingdom from the evil wizard Mallock the Malign.
I have one copy to give away to the first person to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with LEGO in the subject line. Good luck!
FTC-required disclosure: The DVD was provided by Universal Home Entertainment and all opinions expressed are my own.