Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Boris Karloff as James Lee Wong...

The Boris Karloff Blogathon started on Monday at the Frankensteinia website and there have already been loads of cool and interesting blog posts about the horror legend's work. It's amazing how diverse the posts are too and though I'm sure there will be overlaps no one really seems to be covering the same ground. You can check out the full list on the Frankensteinia blog here. I tried to get my entry finished over the weekend but being halfway through the second draft of a new script at the the same time it took a little longer than planned. Anyway, got it done in the end so here goes:

Boris Karloff as James Lee Wong

When I think of Boris Karloff the first film that always comes to mind is Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) in which he played a version of himself as an aging horror icon who is forced to confront a real life monster. It's one of the few occasions in which Karloff got to play the hero rather than the villain and I decided that this was the Karloff I wanted to write about. This led me to a series of films in which Karloff consistently played the hero as Chinese detective James Lee Wong.

I originally intended to cover what I now know to be the final two films in the series, The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die, as I already owned them on DVD as part of a triple bill along with another Karloff film, The Ape. When I discovered Karloff played Wong in a total of five films and that all were available to watch at Internet Archive I decided to cover the whole series. If you are interested in seeing any of the films I've linked the titles to their IMDB pages and there is a link to the Internet Archive video at the top of each IMDB entry.

The character of James Lee Wong started life in a series of short stories written by journalist and author Hugh Wiley in the 1930s. They were first printed in Collier’s magazine and later collected in the book Murder by the Dozen. There is an excellent summary of the stories from thrillingdetective.com here. Karloff played Wong in five of the six Monogram films, with Asian-American actor Keye Luke taking over in the sixth film. I haven’t talked about that final film here as it’s not particularly relevant to Karloff but I’m intending to watch it for comparison’s sake and will post something about it here in the next couple of weeks.

What I’ve written below is a kind of review of each film while tracking the overall progress of the series and comparing the films to each other as I go along. It's not completely spoiler free although I’ve tried my best to avoid plot twists, but as mentioned above you can watch the films right now if you would rather see them first. Despite owning the final two films in the series I had never actually watched them until a couple of days ago so these are my thoughts having seen each one for the first time.

After setting up corruption in a chemical manufacturing company, the first film introduces us to Mr. Wong with a classic detective genre entrance – a soon to be murdered man comes to Wong to ask for help. It’s not clear from this introduction what Wong actually does for a living. He doesn’t appear to charge for his services and we later discover that the police know who he is and are happy to have him around but he’s not on their payroll. He seems to be of the Sherlock Holmes consulting detective variety rather than a Chandler-esque snooper for hire but this is not clarified (not until later in the series anyway).

When the man is eventually killed, Wong is presented with a puzzle. The victim was in his office at the time, the door was locked and several witnesses were outside. To make matters more confusing the police who arrived seconds before the incident was discovered saw the victim standing at the window, still alive. It’s an intriguing mystery and a good challenge to establish Wong’s detective skills.

Once the plot gets moving there is only one real glimpse into Wong’s past in the film – Wong visits an old friend at a university who mentions that they studied at Oxford together (which also helps explain Karloff’s accent). The friend also points out that he is always happy to help out with Wong’s ‘experiments’ which suggests he has done this a few times before. Other than that, very little is revealed about who Wong is and in fact he doesn’t really appear in the film all that much. The screen time is for the most part shared between the numerous plotting suspects and a representative of the police, the overworked Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers, shown here on the right).

The scene that best sums up Wong’s presence in the film is the one in which he arrives at the house of one of the suspects and waits around long enough to be invited to stay for drinks as one by one the other major suspects arrive. As the ensuing scene plays out, Wong lurks in the background watching events unfold almost from the same position as the audience.

Later he takes a more active role, sneaking into offices and apartments late at night, but his real skill seems to be more to do with scientific experimentation. There is an element of the film that is reminiscent of current police procedural dramas, such as a scene in which Wong reconstructs a gas grenade from a shard of glass, and a surreal scene in which a suspect is subjected to a formal ‘sanity’ test.

Although occasionally slow-moving the film does still hold up surprisingly well and when Wong finally reveals the murderer and the method it really is worth the wait. As for Karloff he plays Wong as a likable, dignified gentleman but also manages to inject the character with just enough mystery and eccentricity to make him interesting.

The second film opens with the acquisition of a rare and supposedly cursed Oriental jewel and the subsequent murder of its new owner. As a friend of the family Mr. Wong is called in to investigate.

William Nigh directed all five of the Karloff Wong films, but they were not all written by the same screenwriter. This goes someway to explaining the noticeable shift in tone between the first two films. Houston Branch’s screenplay for Mr Wong, Detective had a sense of playfulness that seems missing from this film, most evident in the change to the character of Captain Street. In Branch’s script Street was a stressed policeman convinced he was on the right track and exasperated when Wong was proven correct. He had a comedy sidekick and a feisty fiancĂ©e, both of whom provided an opportunity for some witty exchanges.

In Scott Darling’s screenplay for The Mystery of Mr. Wong, Street has been simplified to an all round basic lawman figure – coming in at the last moment to arrest whoever Wong tells him to arrest. Although played by the same actor he’s presented as a much less interesting character and the missing interplay with Wong from the first film leaves a big hole.

That hole is partially filled by the introduction of a new ally, Professor Janney played by Holmes Herbert. Janney is an academic equal to Wong in intelligence and experience who later becomes integral to the story. It is even suggested that Wong, Janney and Street have a history of solving cases together and the relationship between Wong and Janney becomes the most interesting element of the film. However, it is Wong who does most of the detective work and this aspect expands on some of the sequences set up in the first film.

There is again some real policework on display with one scene going into an interesting amount of detail about the work of a ballistics specialist – a scene that would not look at all out of place in today's CSI. Wong does a certain amount of experimentation of his own and also a lot more prowling around at night, which almost costs him his life in one scene. ‘It’s perfectly alright,’ he says cheerfully after surviving being shot at, ‘He missed.’

As in the first film Wong manages to assemble the suspects in his own home for the big reveal and when the reveal comes it is a good one. The final moment between Wong and the murderer is surprisingly moving and gives Karloff a chance to add some real depth to the character.

In the third film in the series Mr. Wong is visited by a Chinese princess who comes to him for help only to be murdered in his home before he can talk to her. Wong again teams up with Captain Street and a new character, reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) to track down the murderer in an investigation that leads him to Chinatown. Interestingly, the princess is played by Lotus Long who played a maid in Mystery and was also killed in that film (she also plays a character in the sixth film, Phantom of Chinatown, and I’d like to think she makes it through that one alive although her track record would suggest otherwise).

The third film was again written by Scott Darling so it is surprising how similar the script is to that of Houston Branch’s first film in the series. There is much more to enjoy in the dialogue and characters in this film and while we learn nothing new about Wong he does seem more involved in the story this time. The investigation also takes place across several different locations and feels more complex and ambitious as a result.

Reynolds is a welcome addition to the cast and though the wise-cracking female reporter was an often used archetype at the time she still comes across as a refreshingly bold and proactive character. At one point she even saves Wong’s life, then rushes to the nearest phone to make sure that the fact is mentioned in the ensuing news coverage. Her character is made more likable by her witty and often antagonistic clashes with Captain Street that are reminiscent of his relationship with his fiancee in the first film. The advantage of this is that it adds some moments of lightness that the previous film badly needed and makes Street a much more rounded and interesting character. He even loses his temper with Wong at one point rather than going along with everything he says as he did in Mystery.

One thing that becomes apparent from watching the first three films is that the elements of Chinese culture present in the story become more prevalent with each entry. In the first film Wong is the only Chinese character except for his servant, but in the second film there are more secondary Chinese characters along with a plot that concerns the Chinese government. In the third film Wong spends much of the first half in Chinatown interviewing Chinese suspects and the local Tong leader (Tongs were secret societies formed by Chinese-American immigrants). It may be a coincidence but there does seem to be an increase in confidence about delving into Chinese culture and having more genuine Chinese performers onscreen over the course of the films.

On a side note the film also features a brief appearance from Angelo Rossitto – one of the most famous and prolific dwarf actors of the time who is probably most recognisable from Tod Browning’s Freaks. Here he is given little to do except sport a sinister moustache and mime a lot, but his role does become integral to the plot (he also turns up as a newsboy in the montage that opens the fifth film Doomed to Die).

The plot is perhaps the weakest element of Mr Wong in Chinatown. The previous two films were enhanced by the endings with the reveal coming as an unexpected but effectively crafted surprise both times. In this film the reveal is rather a let down and Wong’s admission that he made a wild guess at the last minute actually comes across as just that rather than the excuses of a modest genius. Tied up up in the back of a car Wong quite literally takes a back seat in the third act of the film and it is left to Street and Bobbie to save the day.

Overall there is much about the third film in the series that shows development and improvement over the previous two. It is clear that Nigh and Darling recognised the elements of the first film that worked as the restoration of Street’s forever frustrated personality and the addition of a female sidekick clearly demonstrate. But while the series does seem to have hit its stride where the characters, pace and structure are concerned the plot itself just isn’t strong enough to elevate this film above the level of the previous two.

This time Wong volunteers his services when a colleague and friend of Captain Street is murdered. Wong unravels a smuggling scheme involving a suspicious night-club owner, a cheap jewelry store holding some high-class stock and a hotel manager in his most complex mystery so far.

Scott Darling is again the writer on this film, although George Waggner is also credited for adapting the source material. The plot seems the most ambitious of the series in terms of the different suspects and subplots involved. Much of the film centres around the doomed relationship between the jewelry store owner’s son and one of the night-club’s employees which ends in an incredibly convoluted murder.

Aside from a brief visit to a jewelry expert in Chinatown the growing Chinese presence in the films comes to an end here. However there is an interesting bit of information about Wong’s involvement with the police. Street makes it clear to Wong that on this occasion he cannot involve him in an official capacity. Wong then explains, mostly for our benefit, that so far he has only been called in on cases where there has been an Oriental link. It seems odd that the filmmakers decided this exposition was required in the fourth film of the series, especially as Wong’s unofficial involvement never comes up again in the story. At the same time, it is nice to get some clarification on the matter.

Marjorie Reynolds returns as Bobbie Logan and her heated exchanges with Street are some of the highlights of the film. She also saves the day again at the end of the film - Wong has a habit of unmasking the criminal when there is no one else around which often results in the murderer pointing a gun at him. But it’s Grant Withers as Captain Street who steals the show as (with the exception of Mystery) his general anger seems to increase at least 100% with each entry in the series leading to some amusing outbursts.

Sadly missing from The Fatal Hour are any of the procedural moments that seemed to characterise the first film but become less and less prevalent. The main focus here seems to be the partnership of Wong and Street who work together as a team more effectively than in the previous films.

While the plot is not as strong as that of the first film and the twist nowhere near as thrilling as that of the second, The Fatal Hour is certainly the most accomplished of the series. The trio of Wong, Street and Bobbie seems so perfectly suited to the series that it’s hard to imagine all three not being present in the previous films. The only drawback of this is that Wong’s character seems to have been sidelined with none of the mystery and eccentricity that Karloff played on so successfully in the first two films.

This time the case comes from Bobbie who calls Wong in to help clear the name of her friend’s fiancĂ© when he is arrested for murder. Street is convinced the young man is the culprit but Wong has other ideas and unravels a mystery involving rival shipping firms, a smuggling operation (again) and an alcoholic chauffeur, taking a bullet in the process.

It comes as a surprise to find the two writers of this film are completely new to the series with Michel Jacoby taking the main credit based on a story from Ralph Gilbert Bettinson. Despite the new talent onboard there is no great shift in the style of film which was certainly noticeable in the change of writers between the first two films. Instead, Doomed to Die manages to include all the elements that have come to characterise the series and is perhaps the best of the films overall as a result.

By this point the pattern seems to be that Wong will be fairly proactive in the first two thirds of the film, then disappear in the last third only to turn up right at the end to deliver his verdict. There is certainly more action in those first two thirds this time than in previous films – there is even a thrilling car chase at one point although it’s hard to be sure whether the footage was specifically shot for this film or borrowed from something else. Wong is shot in the arm and there is a good scene with him complaining about having to have the wound seen to – a nice callback to his cheerful reaction at being shot at in Mystery.

Otherwise it’s business as usual – Bobbie and Street spend the film getting on each others' nerves and steal every scene they’re in together, Wong gets a few scenes prowling around in dark rooms, and there is a welcome return for the police procedural scene when Wong requests an infrared photograph be taken of a burnt note. Also, the plot lives up to the quality of the first two films and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

If there’s a problem with Doomed to Die, it’s that Wong is again sidelined and becomes almost a secondary character to Bobbie and Street. Although this is a classic formula (the eccentric detective and his bickering assistants) that is still often used today the casualty here is Karloff’s character. In the first film in the series Wong’s character seemed just as much of a mystery as the murders he was investigating, but this element is never really explored after the second film thus limiting the character and Karloff's performance.

That said, Doomed to Die is the most accomplished film in the series and shows that with the combination of Wong, Bobbie and Street along with the best of the mystery elements of the previous films the filmmakers hit upon a winning formula. Unfortunately of the three actors playing those characters only Grant Withers would go on to appear in the final film of the series.

Final thoughts...

There is a clear division in the series between the first two films and the last three, when Marjorie Reynolds becomes a regular as Bobbie Logan. What is probably clear from the above is that it is the chemistry between Reynolds and Withers along with the dialogue between their characters that really makes those later films work. The problem is that Wong as a character fades into the background as a result. He may be referred to throughout, he always comes up with the answers at the end of the film but ultimately that's all he seems to be there for.

The transition is clear in the stories themselves - in the first three films the cases are either brought to Wong directly or in the case of the second film it relates personally to him. By Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die the cases relate to friends of Captain Street and Bobbie Logan respectively. In story structure terms, these later films treat Wong more as an ally to the protagonist, rather than being the actual protagonist himself. He becomes a secondary character.

The key to understanding this is the second film in the series, The Mystery of Mr Wong. While it is in some ways the most limited film in terms of the plot, it is also the one that shows the most potential for the character and most easily demonstrates Karloff's versatility and professionalism. This is partly because Captain Street is genuinely a secondary character in this film (and oddly seems to have had his personality removed) but mostly it works because of Karloff's take on a detective investigating a case that he is perhaps too close to. When the killer is unveiled at the end of the film the sorrow in Karloff's performance is, just for a moment, profoundly moving. It is that moment that makes the film work and it is the same glint of humanity that he allowed to peek through the make-up of so many of his monsters.

Ultimately that was Karloff's great talent - that no matter the layers of make-up and madness in the characters he portrayed he would always allow that glimmer of humanity to shine through. With Mr Wong he shows us that the principle is not limited to monsters and even when the mask is made of eccentricity and caricature there is still someone just like us behind it all.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Friday 13th Part 3 in 3D...

So last night Channel 4 showed Friday 13th Part 3 in actual 3D and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought it would.

I have a bit of a history with this film. It was the first slasher film I ever saw at a time when I was far too young to watch it really. It gave me nightmares about Jason smashing through my bedroom window. A few years later when I was at university some friends and I watched the first four parts of the series over a few weeks. Watching it as an adult I realised a) when you watch the films consecutively the formula starts to wear a bit thin by Part 3, b) they'd even resorted to re-using most of the set-pieces from Part 1 and c) there was an awful lot of people waving things in the camera which obviously doesn't work in 2D. But I was always curious as to how well it would work in 3D.

In 3D it really does work. Well, as much as old school 3D can work - it's blurry and a bit messy, but you get the idea. I was surprised to discover that this actually makes the film awesome. The 3D gimmick bits become the highlight of the film and this film is full of them. There are people juggling into camera, yo-yos, popcorn, eyeballs (my personal favourite) and an awful lot of sticks being waved in your face. And there is an awesome moment at the end when Jason walks right into camera waving his arms at you.

I know people are undecided about 3D and I can't really get into that debate because I'm still yet to see any recent 3D films. But this was something different. It felt like watching a classic film the way it was originally intended - like going to a silent film screening with someone playing live music on a piano. I really enjoyed it, and if anyone in the UK wants to see it you have another chance tonight. All the details are here.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The Broken...

Although I am a fan of horror films it's quite rare that I see a horror film that I actually like. What I like is fairly specific: I like grown-up horror films in which bad things happen to adults rather than teenagers (this is honestly something I've always preferred and isn't just a sign of getting older). I like horror films that take the genre seriously - there's nothing scary about post-modern irony and over-the-top gore. And though it's not essential I prefer supernatural horror films to those based in reality. I know people say the idea that the person who lives nextdoor could be a psycho is scarier than something as unrealistic as people coming back from the dead, but I've never felt like that. I enjoy the fact that supernatural horror films make me terrified of something I know doesn't exist, and I find the unknown way scarier than the fact that the human mind goes a bit loopy sometimes. As much as I like Rob Zombie as an artist, I don't care who Michael Myers is behind the mask - as soon as any of those horror movie icons take the mask off they're just normal crazy people and there's nothing scary about that. Not for me anyway.

So last night I watched The Broken and while it's not a perfect film it does tick all of the boxes on my list of requirements. It is a film about grown-ups, it takes itself very seriously, we are told very little about the antagonist and it does not have a twist ending where we discover the main character is a bit loony. It doesn't always work - occasionally the suspense crosses the line and becomes tedious, it's quite derivative and there are a couple of unnecessary moments of gore (which I suspect were inserted on the insistence of some executive or investor somewhere who wanted some blood for the trailer). But for the most part it's 90 minutes of creepiness that for me came to a much better conclusion than I expected. Lena Heady and Richard Jenkins are both excellent and something about their relationship reminded me of Ashley Laurence and Andrew Robinson in Hellraiser. If you like atmospheric horror films like Repulsion or Prince of Darkness then this is definitely a film for you. If you liked any of the recent slasher remakes then don't bother.

Monday, 9 November 2009


This is me after a twelve-hour writing day on Saturday:

For some reason I've never been able to find a writing routine that I can stick to.

Some weekends I get up early (early meaning 10am on a Saturday) and work through the day, and occasionally into the evening like this weekend. Sometimes that won't work at all and I'll either end up staring at a blank page until lunchtime until I give up or I'll just start in the evening. Weekday evenings are the same - sometimes I'll start as early as 7.30pm, sometimes I'll decide I'm not going to do any writing, then get the urge at midnight and do a couple of hours until 2am (recently this has been happening a lot). Some weekdays I'll find writing after a day at work unbearable and I'll put everything off until the weekend. Some weekends I'll find the idea of spending all of my free time writing unbearable and put it off until the weekday evenings.

The difficulty I find is deciding on what kind of routine to go with on a particular day. On Saturday I kept meaning to stop, but never reached a point where I actually wanted to. On Sunday I realised I wasn't in any kind of mood for writing and spent the day watching action films instead, which I justified by calling it research (and to a point it was). Then I went to the pub.

Other things that happened this weekend - I watched these films (mostly on Sunday when I gave up writing): Lakeview Terrace (not bad, Patrick Wilson is awesome), Yes Man (doesn't really work as a film, and Jim Carrey romancing Zooey Deschanel is creepy, but interesting enough to keep me awake at 2 in the morning), The Wave (awesome, but I made the mistake of watching the alternate ending straight after I watched the film, thus confusing my perceptions), Best of the Best 2 (surprised me by not being awful, excellent genre cast and a tight script - enjoyed it much more than I thought I would), Rumble in Hong Kong (had to watch on fastforward due to bad dubbing and a terrible transfer), Supercop (pretends it's a film about Michelle Yeoh being a Supercop but actually she doesn't get to do all that much), and The Streetfighter (which was awesome and I can't believe I waited this long to watch it).

I also found out what it's like to be in your own Twilight Zone episode by visiting my local supermarket half an hour before closing (which through bad planning I ending up doing two nights in a row). So presumably because it was late, cold and miserable the local high street was looking pretty desolate at 9.30pm and I seemed to be the only person venturing out at that time. When I got to the shop it looked like half the lights were turned out and there was no one inside. I stood there for a moment wondering if it was closed, staring at the opening times, checking my watch, questioning my sanity and so on, then gingerly stepped close enough for the doors to open. Inside it was silent and empty. There were staff members around stacking shelves - I kept expecting them to tell me they were closed. But they just ignored me. It's a very odd feeling to be the only customer in a huge shop with half the lights turned out and the only other human beings acting like you're not there. It reminded me of the scariest Twilight Zone episode I ever saw where a woman goes into a department store seconds before closing and is terrorised by the mannequins, before turning into one herself:

Friday, 6 November 2009

Hit the Big Time LA screening...

So a lot of my friends and colleagues are in LA at the moment for AFM and though I'm not sure I'd be of any use to them at all I do wish I was there, mainly because of this:

The background for anyone irregular followers is that as the finishing touches were being put to Ten Dead Men I was approached by JC Mac who plays Parker in the film about writing a spin-off featuring his character and his partner Garrett, played by Jason Lee Hyde. I agreed and sometime before Christmas 2007 I wrote a short film script - around 15 pages long. This was then taken out of my hands for a while and went through several rewrites before it came back to me (hence I share the writing credit).

The short started shooting in January 2008 while I started work on the feature, which I agreed to do on the basis that I would get sole writing credit (a drama documented here and here back when I used to refer to everyone I worked with by name). Back then it seemed like I'd been really lucky with independent films - Ten Dead Men had started shooting almost immediately after I finished writing the script and now I had a short that had already started filming in LA, Utah and Vegas. I went along to one of the UK shoots on the weekend in February 2008 that they wrapped shooting. I thought that would be it - another short in the can.

It is now November 2009 and the now 29 minute long short has finally been completed. That's around a year and a half in post-production. I don't know the full story, but I do know it's passed through the hands of a number of editors and has run into numerous problems in terms of the UK and US footage being shot in different formats - in other words technical problems that I have no idea about.

While all this was going I was writing the feature script, finishing the first draft in April 2008. I did another couple of drafts that year and a fourth earlier this year (I think it was this year anyway). This week I finished the fifth draft. Overall I'm really happy with it - it's my only all-out comedy script and is therefore a pretty valuable writing sample, and despite having rewritten it five times parts of it still make me laugh when I read through it. There's probably a rule somewhere about cutting the bits that make you, the writer, laugh but I have it on good authority that it made a few other people chuckle too so I think I'm safe.

Whether anything will happen with the feature from here I can't say - I don't even know how the short film turned out yet. But I am looking forward to seeing it and hope the LA screening goes well. If anyone reading this is based in LA and would like to go along feel free send me an e-mail and I'll give you the details. You can watch a brief promo for the short here.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Adventures in Poundland...

You have to read this.

There is an explanation provided, but to give you a little backstory my dad has become a scholar of Poundland and the odd things you can buy there. He has been documenting his findings on a website for the last two years.

Some time ago I was in the 99p Store in Brighton and found the 'Funny Thing' which I then presented to dad as an example of how much of a difference the penny makes.

And last month Andrea, Brothers Pete & Tim and I had a particularly profitable trip to a newly opened Poundland in Worthing, which is why I now have too many clowns on my desk. We sent the photos for comment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


The lack of posts is not due to a lack of things to post about - there's loads. It's just having the time to post them that I'm having trouble with.

This week I'm finishing off an old script (draft 5) and starting a whole new one (draft 1!). My deadline for both is next Wednesday. I've pretty much finished redrafting the old one, just want to do one more dialogue pass. I'm on page 11 of the brand new one. I have a lot of work to do.

Anyway, last weekend I was best man at my best friend's wedding (no reference to the film intended). It was an excellent day and my speech went down pretty well despite containing obscure references to vampire films. It was Halloween after all.

The party in the evening was fancy dress which was awesome.

This is Brother Pete preparing syringes of glowing stuff:

Andrea went as a Stepford Wife, complete with loose wires:

I went as Top Dollar from The Crow which in hindsight was a little obscure, plus I couldn't really pull off an authentic Michael Wincott voice:

We did eventually leave the Travelodge and made it to the party:

The bride and groom went as Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie from The Hunger and looked awesome:

Halloween parties are ace.

Last night we went to a Halloween themed Moviebar and Brother Pete showed In Case of Zombies, which I don't think I've posted about before so here it is:

Brother Pete would probably blog about this himself but he is busy editing/animating a music video which needs to be finished by the end of the month. Meanwhile, Andrea is busy doing NaNoWriMo. My flat is full of busy creative people.