‘Freelance’ fails at every turn; Eight great Universal horrors ranked

John Cena and Alison Brie in Freelance (Rom3 Limited)

How “Freelance,” the latest John Cena movie, escaped being a straight-to-streaming release, I’ll likely never know, but it has to be a more interesting story than this lame action comedy.

That’s a shame, too, because I like Cena as well as his co-stars Alison Brie, Alice Eve, and Christian Slater, but they are slumming in this picture that casts Cena as former Army Special Forces operative, who takes a job working security for Brie’s character Claire, a disgraced journalist, who is on assignment to interview the president of fictional nation Paldonia, when a coup breaks out in the middle of the interview.

Of course Cena’s Mason Pettits and Claire go on the run in the jungle with the president and all manner of hijinks ensue. The movie reminds me a bit of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Commando” or one of a number of Chuck Norris’ “Missing in Action” flicks from the 1980s, except played for jokes.

The jokes don’t help, particularly the running one about how petite the massive former wrestler Cena is as Pettits.

The movie has some decent action pieces, but director Pierre Morel undercuts them with unnecessary comic relief. The best humor in the action movie stems from character first instead of circumstances, but this movie is little more than a stream of circumstances. There’s no real story beyond the initial setup.

Cena and Brie have very little chemistry, which I guess works because being with Brie just makes Cena’s character realize he is still in love with his estranged wife (Eve).

Had I caught this movie late one night on cable, it might have been useful for putting me to sleep, but otherwise movies like this are just annoying. Cena, Brie, and Eve aren’t exactly stars but there has to be better roles for them than this.

(R) 1 hr. 48 min.
Grade: D

New in Local Theaters – Oct. 27, 2023

  • Dicks: The Musical (R) 1 hr. 26 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square)
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s (PG-13) 1 hr. 50 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle Hills, Rogers Towne, Skylight)
  • Freelance (R) 1 hr. 48 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle Hills)
  • After Death (PG-13) 2 hr. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle Hills)
  • Inspector Sun (PG) 1 hr. 28 min. (trailer)
    Malco Pinnacle Hills)

Classic Corner: Universal’s Great Eight Monster Movies

Halloween is almost upon us and cable TV and streamers are filled with tons of spooky and scary movies to set the right mood for the season. Now is as good a time as any to list my eight favorite movies from Universal Pictures’ vault of horror.

To fans of more graphic and modern horror, these movies might seem quaint, and I’ll admit that they are, but if you give them a chance, they still have a certain magic to them, if only to show you the genesis of cinematic horror in the talking age of movies.

To some, these and the other 30 or so films that make up Universal Monsters’ catalogue are classics, and everyone has their favorites. I consider each of these movies great, and could totally understand someone ranking them differently. I argued with myself in putting this list together.

8. The Invisible Man (1933)

On the heels of his success with 1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1932’s “The Old Dark House,” director James Whale fashioned another horror classic by adapting H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” for the cinema in 1933.

It’s the story of a a brilliant research scientist Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) who is driven mad after experimenting with a drug called “monocane.” However, the monocane not only drives Griffin mad, but it also turns him invisible.

Rains, who was struggling as a stage performer in New York during the height of the Great Depression when cast, gives a manic and daft performance as Griffin that set him on his way to being one of the most respected character actors during the glory days of Hollywood.

Rains went on to play key supporting roles in such classics as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), “The Wolf Man (1941), “Casablanca” (1942), “Notorious” (1946), “Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), but “The Invisible Man” stands out as perhaps his best leading role.

As memorable as Rains is, the film’s special effects are the star. Incredibly, they stand up to scrutiny 90 years later.

The scene where Rains gleefully first removes the bandages from his face must have shocked audiences in the 1930s. Modern film fans have seen a similar effect repeated dozens of times since, but the camerawork and effects in the original are still thrilling.

As with most of Whale’s horror movies, the director adds in a dose of humor. Fans of “The Bride of Frankenstein” will notice Una O’Connor as the innkeeper. Universal horror journeyman Dwight Frye, who had roles in “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man ” and others, shows up here as a reporter.

Walter Brennan and John Carradine also have small roles in the movie before going on to better character roles in scores of films.

7. The Mummy (1932)

“The Mummy” went into production quickly after Universal discovered it had tapped into a goldmine with 1931’s Valentine’s release of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein’s” unearthing later that winter.

Karloff’s performance as the creature in “Frankenstein” vaulted the once starving actor to star status. Karloff had played supporting roles in dozens of silent films prior to donning the make-up crafted by Jack Pierce that made him a star.

“Frankenstein” put Karloff at the front of the breadline for every horror part — even ahead of Bela Lugosi after his success in “Dracula.” — because Karloff proved to be so emotive in the make-up and he was easier to work with.

The somewhat recent Egyptian archaeological finds of the 1920s and the fascination with them made the Mummy a sure-fire character for adaptation to the silver screen by Universal.

With no popular novel to crib from, screenwriter John L. Balderston basically reworked the script from “Dracula,” just draping it with Egyptian iconography rather than central European and British.

The sets for “The Mummy” are gorgeous and highlighted by the sumptuous and chilling cinematography by Charles Stumar, and the rather stiff directing by Karl Freund.

The movie’s pace might be a step or three too slow for modern audiences, but the basic plot of the Mummy, who takes the name Ardeth Bey, trying to court a modern woman Helen (Zita Johann) whom he believes is actually his reincarnated lover Princess Ankh-Essen-Amun, is fairly solid for a supernatural horror flick. I mean love will make you do some pretty strange stuff.

While certainly atmospheric, the film wasn’t the hit that “Frankenstein” or “Dracula” was and did not spawn a direct sequel. Universal’s Mummy series of films in the 1940s played with the same ideas, but featured a different character, named Kharis. They were much cheaper B-list movies.

“The Mummy” might be a long watch for some, even with a run time of just 73 minutes, but the creepy atmosphere, excellent set design and fantastic make-up is a must-see for horror aficionados.

6. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” missed the hey days of the Universal Monster movie franchise in the 1930s and 1940s, but the film about an expedition to the Amazon River Basin that discovers an amphibian Gill Man, who might be the proverbial missing link, ranks among the best of the studio’s classic monster movies.

Hollywood put scores of rubber-suited monsters on the silver screen in the 1950s and early 1960s, but none were more iconic, scary, and cool than the Gill Man.

Two actors portrayed the Creature in the film. Ben Chapman, a 6-foot-5 stuntman, played the monster on land, while Ricou Browning, who later went on to direct, produce, and write, was the stuntman who portrayed the creature in the stunning underwater sequences.

Browning, who passed away in February, is revered for his underwater cinematography skills. He was instrumental in writing and directing the “Flipper” TV series and movies of the 1960s, and his work is notable in the underwater sequences of the James Bond film “Thunderball.” His latest screen credit was coordinating marine stunts for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” in 2010.

There are many fine underwater sequences in the film, but perhaps the best features Browning’s Gill Man swimming beneath the film’s female lead Julie Adams, who grew up in Blytheville, Ark., The monster mimics her swimming motions.

It’s a great sequence that’s reminiscent of scenes of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan swimming with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane in the 1930s Tarzan films.

The film is dated and definitely not scary by today’s standards, but it is a lot of fun if only for the striking design of the Gill Man costume and the underwater stunts by Browning.

5. Dracula (1931)

After “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” might be my favorite novel, but Universal’s adaptation of the stage play of “Dracula” is ranked this high on the list for one reason and one reason alone — the performance of Bela Lugosi as the Prince of Darkness.

Hollywood was still transitioning from silent pictures to talkies in early 1931 and it showed. Musical scores for movies had yet to become commonplace, and because audio recording equipment was still quite cumbersome, the movie directed by Tod Browning is really more like a filmed stage play than a motion picture.

That said, Lugosi’s performance was electric, and his phonetically delivered performance was mesmerizing. You can’t take your eyes off him when he is on the screen.

All the mannerisms that come to mind when one thinks of Dracula today originated with Lugosi in a performance that’s just eight years shy of being 100 years old.

It’s no wonder he was typecast as sinister characters for the rest of his career. As for the story itself, it has been more dynamically told in a half dozen other films since, but when we collectively think of Dracula or a vampire, Lugosi’s imprint remains immortal.

4. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

This is a controversial pick in this spot for some fans of the Universal Monsters. You see, the 1948 film killed, literally!

When I say it “killed,” I mean the spoof, which remains ridiculously funny, and was a box office hit. But it unfortunately drove a stake into the heart of the classic Universal Monster movies that were popular from 1931’s release of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” until the loosely organized cinematic universe ran out of juice with 1945’s “House of Dracula.”

When you start playing monsters as the butt of jokes, it’s hard for them to remain scary.

As an aside, while I recognize most classic horror-film fans lump Universal’s three Creature of the Black Lagoon movies from the 1950s into the same category with the studio’s Frankenstein-Dracula-Wolf-Man opus, I think there is a disconnect.

The Gillman is without a doubt a Universal Monster. Some would argue the best. However, the Creature trilogy doesn’t feature the thread of continuity that weaves through and binds the Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films together.

The Creature movies, to me, have more in common with Toho’s Godzilla series than Universal’s gothic-horror characters.

As for the film, Abbott and Costello’s characters Chick Young and Wilbur Grey are delivery men contracted to transport a couple of large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors. Unbeknownst to grumpy Chick and wide-eyed Wilbur, those crates contain the actual bodies of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange).

Dracula has come to Florida to meet with Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert). They conspire to steal Wilbur’s suggestible and compliant brain to place it into the Frankenstein’s Monster’s hulking body to make the creature more controllable.

However, Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, (Lon Chaney Jr.) has been chasing Dracula around the world to try and stop his nefarious plot. Talbot teams with Chick, Wilbur, and insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph) to try and stop Dracula and Mornay, and hijinks ensue.

While the move is silly, it actually features some of the most compelling monster action of all the Universal films, and if you ever wonder from which fount of inspiration the Scooby-Doo and Groovie Goolies cartoons of the late 1960s and early 1970s sprang, this movie is no doubt it.

The film features a truly tour-de-force performance by Costello as he is hounded by the Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster in three very funny bits interspaced throughout the movie.

I appreciate that the movie has fun with the monsters, but it never truly makes fun of them.

For fright fans, the movie is significant because it is only the second time Lugosi played Dracula in his career, although he did play vampires in a couple of other movies that were heavily based on his characterization of the Transylvanian count in the 1931 classic.

If you are thinking of introducing the Universal Monsters to younger kids, this is the perfect movie to use.

3. The Wolf Man (1941)

“The Wolf Man” might not be the best of the classic Universal horror pictures, but it’s close.

The story of Larry Talbot, who turns into a wolfish fiend when the full moon rises, is one of the most influential films on current pop culture.

Certainly, every subsequent movie featuring werewolves owes some debt to the 1941 classic that opened the same weekend that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, but the roots of today’s most popular films — Marvel movies — rest firmly in the Wolfman’s paws.

Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee, who filled the word balloons that surrounded all of that fabulous Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko art in the 1960s, was clearly a monster-movie fan, and in particular of the Wolf Man, as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.

Read characters like the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil and the pathos that underpins their heroic adventures were no doubt cribbed from the plight of Larry Talbot as conceived by journeyman screenwriter Curt Siodmak.

The major differentiating factor between Marvel super heroes and those published by DC Comics in the 1960s was that Lee and co-plotters/artists Kirby and Ditko grounded the Marvel characters with problems that stemmed not only from every-day life but also particular issues created by living double lives as superheroes.

This made Marvel characters hip, cool, and real compared to the stayed, single-note characterizations of DC characters of the same period. Lee, a huge movie buff, lifted this idea from Siodmak’s Wolf Man script. I’ll let you be the judge on whether he did it subconsciously or purposefully.

While the “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” films were very loose adaptations of novels, Siodmak, who fled Germany when the Nazis began to persecute Jewish people, came up with his Wolf Man lore on his own.

2. Frankenstein (1931)

Universal Studios’ 1931 adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s novel wasn’t the first time Frankenstein and his monster showed up on the silver screen, and it certainly wasn’t the last.

Thomas Edison actually produced the first Frankenstein flick way back in 1910, and eight years ago, 20th Century Fox unleashed “Victor Frankenstein,” which could be viewed as sort of a prequel to Universal’s original film.

However, director James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein” along with its 1935 sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein” are the best Frankenstein films because of the masterful performance of Boris Karloff as the misunderstood monster.

Whale’s direction and the set design on the two films set a spookily atmospheric tone with its nods to German Expressionism, and make-up artist Jack Pierce’s monster design is iconic, but it is Karloff who breaths life into the character, bringing a level of pathos and terror to the misbegotten creature that no other actor has achieved in dozens of films since.

Even the great Robert De Niro couldn’t escape Karloff’s shadow in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.”

Like Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, Karloff’s performance as the Frankenstein’s monster will stand the test of time.

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Few sequels match their originals and even fewer surpass them, but many feel “The Bride of Frankenstein” did both.

The movie is director James Whale’s masterpiece. He returned to direct after resisting for the better part of three years. Stars Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as the monster are also back in the movie that’s as much dark comedy as it is a horror film.

The plot goes back to Shelly’s novel and picks up ideas left out of the first film, such as the Bride, played by Elsa Lancaster, and the creature’s rough and tumble life in an all too harsh world.

In the novel, the monster learns much by observing a family, and Whale adapts and condenses them into a touching series of scenes in which a blind man befriends the monster and takes him into his home.

Mel Brooks, Peter Boyle, and Gene Hackman superbly spoofed those scenes in 1974’s “Young Frankenstein.”

The heroes of the production, though, are Una O’Conner and Ernest Thesiger. O’Conner gives a cackling, daffy performance as Minnie, a servant at Castle Frankenstein, who offers a bit of Shakespearian comic relief early in the movie.

The campy Thesiger chews scenery in the Faustian role of Dr. Pretorius, who tempts and later blackmails Henry into returning to his laboratory to create a mate for his monster.

Whale infused the entertaining film with underlying themes of loneliness and unrequited love that accentuate the movie’s many wonderful scenes.

It’s Whale’s best film and the trophy piece of all the Universal monster films produced in the 1930s and ’40s.