Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 20th

Throughout movie history, a number of films have produced immediate, intense reactions in their audiences. Legend has it that "The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station" sent early cinema goers fleeing, for fear an actual train was about to plow through the wall. "L'Age d'Or" so offended some audience members in 1930, that they threw ink at the screen and rioted in the lobby. Naturally, many horror films over the years have supposedly produce anxiety attacks, vomiting, serious psychology effects, and even death in some viewers. This has led to a number of narratives about horror films that are literally cursed, movies that reap minds and destroy souls. Books like "Ancient Images" and "Flicker" touch on the topic, as do films like "Cigarette Burns" and "Fury of the Demon." Last year brought us "Antrum," which was especially committed to its gimmick. Not only is it a story about a cursed movie, it actually shows us the supposedly bewitched motion picture.

"Antrum" begins with a documentary segment, laying out the history of the eponymous film. A horror film from 1979, supposedly every festival director who rejected the movie died suddenly. Audiences who witnessed the film either went mad or burst into flame. After some build-up, we are presented with "Antrum" itself. The film depicts a little boy, Nathan, who is having nightmares about Hell after his dog is euthanized. In hopes of conquering this, his older sister Oralee takes him to a forest - where many people have committed suicide - to dig a hole into Hell, to rescue his canine friend's soul. She draws up a book full of occult symbols and performs made-up rituals. Even though it's all a lie, Nathan really does start to see demons. Soon, the brother and sister are lost in a hellish prison of their own making.

Directors David Amito and Michael Laicini must be commended for their efforts to create an unsettling atmosphere. "Antrum" really does make the viewer feel uncomfortable. The film's sound design is truly unnerving, full of quivering noises, barely audible whispers, and off-putting audio ambiance that can't be quite identified. (This is in contrast to a musical score that's actually quite pretty.) This determination to be creepy extends to the visual design of the film. "Antrum" is littered with not-quite subliminal messages, pentagrams and occult symbols and hidden messages flashing on-screen for fractions of a second. Static-faced demons will appear and stare directly at you for far too long. Moreover, "Antrum" is a movie that delights in fucking with its audience. The characters have seemingly escaped their personal Hell... Only to immediately return to it. The movie ends on about as happy a note as a story like this could wrap up on, only for it to start back up again with an additional, mean-spirited conclusion. The audio, visual, and narrative distortion on display here succeed in creeping you out. 

While the stylistic construction of "Antrum" is by far its most notable feature, the movie works for other reasons too. The filmmakers litter their movie with narrative symbols as well, references to Japan's suicide forest, demonology, Dante, and Greek mythology. Centering the story around the death of a dog is a bold touch, as this is usually a child's first experience with death. It's a loss of innocence, in a way, which the movie emphasizes when we find out why Nathan's dog was put down. This also creates a theme of child-like perception. Nathan and Oralee trudge up real demons and wander into Hell because the boy believes it to be so. Children at that age are still learning to differentiate reality from fiction, dreams from the real world, and "Antrum" taps into that. Moreover, the bound between the siblings creates an emotional in for the film. Oralee cares for her brother. That's why she's doing this. The audience learns to care too. 

If there's any element of "Antrum" that doesn't work one hundred percent, it's the framing device. The disclaimer that plays before the "Antrum" segments does ramp the viewer up. The longer mockumentary segment adds some interesting metafictional lore but is largely unneeded. The post-script even explains some of what we just saw, which was an unnecessary addition. If the "Antrum" film-within-the-film was presented on its own, it would be just as effective. Amito and Laicini do a better job than most of replicating what a regional movie from 1979 would look and feel like. The wash-out colors, scratchy film grain, lo-fi special effects, and just slightly awkward acting feel well within the realm of that time and place. 

The commitment to verisimilitude certainly helps "Antrum" more effectively achieve its goals. About the only elements that stick out are the snuff-film style inserts - which we've seen done a hundred times before - and a pair of deranged backwoods hicks that wander in and out of the story a few times. While flawed, "Antrum" is definitely a spooky viewing experience, with plenty of sights and sounds designed to unsettle. Amito and Laicini clearly know how to creep you out and obviously have a bead on storytelling too. I'll be intrigued to see what they cook up next. By the way, since "Antrum" threatens to kill anyone who watches it, I guess I should clarify that I'm still alive as of this moment. If I don't update the blog tomorrow, just assume Astaroth came to claim me. [8/10]

After watching Jack Sholder's superior "Wishmaster" sequel the other day, I got a hanker to check out another, earlier effort of his. Sholder began his career with "Alone in the Dark," which wasn't much more than a standard slasher flick but somehow attracted several beloved character actors. It was also one of the first in-house productions at New Line Cinema, which is probably how Sholder got the "Nightmare on Elm Street 2" gig. While widely misunderstood at the time, "Elm Street 2" clearly marked Sholder as a rising talent. Next, he would move on to an even bigger horror/sci-fi/action mash-up from New Line. "The Hidden" opened in 1987 to pretty good box office and better reviews, eventually becoming a well-liked cult classic as the years went on.

A seemingly normal man suddenly goes on a murderous rampage through L.A., robbing banks, stealing cars, and murdering on a whim. Detective Thomas Beck is part of the team who subdues the man in a shoot-out. A mysterious FBI agent known as Agent Gallagher arrives, being paired with Beck and insisting on investigating this case. While the perp is seemingly dying in the hospital, an alien lifeform crawls out of his body and into the next available human, so he can continue his crime spree. Beck and Gallagher track the bizarre killer, Beck quickly learning that something unusual is going on here... And also discovering that his partner not only has a personal connection to the killer but also isn't from Earth either.

"The Hidden" is basically a buddy cop movie and doesn't stray too far from the established formula. Beck is the classic cowboy cop type, who is even introduced by a groaning police chief. His actions are sometimes extreme but, damn it, he gets results. Gallagher is more by the book, with a stiff and occasionally awkward personality. Their personal lives also contrast in interesting ways. Beck has a devoted wife and adorable daughter, while Gallagher is lonely with, obviously, some big secrets. By the end, of course, both men learn to respect each other as they track the bad guy together. What elevates the material are two strong lead performances. Michael Nouri has a certain appealing gruffness as Beck, making a likable action hero. Kyle MacLachlan, a few years before playing another eccentric FBI agent, is appropriately alien. MacLachlan manages to find the humanity in a literal alien, bringing a surprising amount of emotion to the role.

If the cast is what makes "The Hidden" a little more interesting, the action sequence are what keeps the viewer watching. The film opens with a massive car chase, that incurs a lot of collateral damage and goes on for a surprisingly long time. The movie never quite tops that opening but features plenty of explosive action afterwards. A shoot-out atop a strip club is pretty cool while another fight in the police station climaxes with a random rocket launcher. Though he mostly handled low budget action flicks, Sholder does an excellent job with the action sequences. He keeps things intimate enough that you never loose sights of the people but knows when to focuses on the explosions or the spinning wheels. Sholder does throw in some tacky slow-mo but that scene involves a flamethrower, so I can excuse it. 

All of that sounds cool but probably not too much like a horror movie. "The Hidden," however, definitely throws in enough gooey special effects to qualify. The insidious invader is a slimy, slug-like monster that slithers in and out of people's bodies. It's a versatile premise, the monster transferring itself from several men, to a stripper (which results in a few predictable, but amusing, moments) and even a dog. The shoot-outs feature plenty of big squibs, with the last act really focusing on the killer systematically blowing away people What's especially novel about "The Hidden" is its alien invader has no grander ambitions. He has not come to our world to conquer it or steal our resources or anything like that. He's simply an intergalactic psychopath who thinks murder and destruction are fun.

The action theatrics and special effects are probably what accounted for "The Hidden's" box office take in 1987. The surprisingly sweet friendship at its center, and MacLachlan's growing cult following, is probably where its fan following emerged from. (The movie also has a pretty bitchin' alt-rock soundtrack, which surely didn't hurt any.) The film would eventually spawn a very mediocre direct-to-video sequel, which wrote around the original's ending in the most half-assed of ways. As for Sholder, he would next make a Lou Diamond Philips/Kiefer Sutherland buddy cop flick, which flopped pretty hard. Since then, he's largely done television. Which is a shame, cause I feel like his early pictures show that Sholder clearly had the chops for bigger, better things. As it is, "The Hidden" is a totally solid, highly entertaining genre fusion. [7/10]

Night Visions: Dead Air / Renovations 

I’ve crossed paths with “Night Visions” before, a genre anthology that ran for one season on Fox in 2001, before and found it pretty lacking. However, the show has its defenders and I figured now is the time of year to give it a second shot. Henry Rollins introduces two stories each episode. “Dead Air” follows an obnoxious deejay who, on a dark and stormy night, is accepting spooky stories from callers. A frightened sorority girl calls him up and begins to relate the strange things happening to her. Soon, the deejay is experiencing similar events. In “Renovations,” a young married couple move into a fixer-upper. The guy is a recovering alcoholic and the ghosts that live in the home, the victims of a murder that occurred thirty years earlier, are soon influencing him to behave badly again. 

"Dead Air" is the highest rated episode of "Night Visions" on IMDb and it's definitely the best episode of the show I've seen so far. Lou Diamond Philips is definitely smarmy and annoying as the deejay. Yet Philips is also a talented and appealing actor, making the guy entertaining to watch, if not likable. Director Jefery Levy makes the most of the radio station setting, especially in a sequence that focuses on Philips' face as his office chair rotates around. Or a mildly tense moment where Philips searches the building, while "I Think We're Alone Now" plays behind him. As with every episode of "Night Visions," the writing is extremely obvious. Both the deejay and the girl on the phone should've removed themselves from danger long before things got that serious. The story ends with a very silly special ability being revealed. Yet at least "Dead Air" is kind of spooky, for a few minutes here and there. 

The second segment, "Renovations," is weaker than the first. From the opening minutes, it's extremely easier to figure out where this narrative is headed. Even the meaning behind the protagonist's reoccurring nightmares - colorful balls spinning through space - is easy to decipher. The bad vibes in the home changes the husband's personality too quickly. The depiction of the haunting, the ghost of a burly man barking orders, is more goofy than scary. Since "Night Visions" was a show that did not trust its viewers, the ghost flatly explains what's happening in the last scene. Which is redundant, as the entire point of Henry Rollins' host segments - delivered in an overly macho, hilariously gruff manner - is to reiterate the story's themes. "Dead Air" is halfway decent, "Renovations" is mostly bad, and my largely negative opinion of "Night Visions" remains unchanged. [5/10]

Since I’m watching so many “shocking” shorts this Halloween season, I figured I might as well dive into what might be, aside from “Aftermath” or “Blood of the Beasts,” horror-dom’s most notoriously grisly short film. Douglas Buck’s “Cutting Moments” concerns Sarah and Patrick, a married couple living in the suburbs. Recently, there has been an unnamed — but heavily implied — trauma revolving around their son, Joey. Husband and wife are no longer communicating. Emotionally numb, Sarah attempts to reach out to her husband sexually. When this doesn’t work, she tries another method of connection... A very bloody one. 

Narratively, “Cutting Moments” doesn’t touch on anything that hasn’t been discussed before. The ennui of white suburban existence is well documented. Buck’s examination of upper-middle-class disaffection surely shares a common ancestor with the work of Todd Solondz or Alan Ball. Yet something must be said for Buck’s unnervingly still presentation. The first half of “Cutting Moments” is stifling. Sarah, Patrick, and Joey barely talk with each other. Every conversation is cut short. There’s an ever-present tension behind each awkward interaction the characters share. Buck’s sound design is sparse and the use of music is minimal. He lingers on the banal set dressing, like Joey’s Power Rangers dolls, a World’s Best Dad mug, or the mindless chatter of a baseball game. “Cutting Moments” does everything it can to draw us into its depiction of suburban hell. 

The film obviously has a degree of film school pretensions. This is most evident in the way Buck draws attention to the cutting of hedges or vegetables — more mundane cutting moments than the ones we’ll be presented with later. Or an overwrought scene of Sarah staring, forlorn, at her wedding picture. The acting is hard to read. I can’t tell if Nina Ray and Gary Betsworth, as Sarah and Patrick, are stiff performers or if they are accurately depicting people who are dead inside. Either way, the first half of “Cutting Moments” is so uncomfortable as to be almost unwatchable.

And then... the violence begins. “Cutting Moments’” gore is not as explicit as I had been led to believe. Buck leaves some acts of self-mutilation off-screen. Which points to the gore not merely being an act of shock value. For Sarah, it’s about feeling something — anything — again. For Patrick, it’s an act of self-flagellation, punishment for his crimes as a father. In the bloody coupling, husband and wife reconnect. They look at each other with feelings of love, compassion, and lust once again. The music swells. It worked on this viewer. The gore effects — supervised by Tom Savini, who called the film the sickest he’d ever seen — make you cringe. Yet there’s catharsis in the self-destruction. Buck’s final images, contrasting happy family photos with crime scene post-mortems, makes his point of suburban destruction most astute. “Cutting Moments” is certainly effective. There’s art in its bloodshed, even if it is a bit self-conscious. It probably says a lot about me that I found the early scenes far more excruciating than the grisly climax. [7/10]

Monday, October 19, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 19th

As I said previously, “Tales from the Darkside” ran for four years without being especially popular or achieving widespread critical acclaim. Which might make you wonder why, almost two years after the series ended, producer Richard P. Rubinstein decided to create a movie spin-off. One can guess. “Tales from the Darkside” was initially intended as a “Creepshow” series but the branding was dropped, as Warner Brothers owned the name. “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie” features stories from Stephen King and George Romero. It was also directed by John Harrison, “Creepshow’s” composers. It’s not too much of an assumption that “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie” was Rubinstein’s way of creating “Creepshow 3” without paying anything to Warner Brothers. Tom Savini would later more-or-less confirm this and fans have happily accepted this movie as the proper conclusion to the “Creepshow” trilogy.

In a framing device that mashes up “Hansel and Gretel” and “Arabian Nights,” a woman prepares to cook and eat a captured child. To delay his execution, he reads stories to her from a book of macabre tales. “Lot 249” concerns an anthropology student cheated out of a scholarship by a competitor and his sister. At auction, he buys a sarcophagus containing a mummy, which he reanimates with a magic scroll and sends after his enemies. In “The Cat from Hell,” the sickly head of a pharmaceutical company hires a hit man. The assassin is tasked with killing the seemingly indestructible cat that is haunting the family. In “Lover’s Vow,” a down-on-his-luck artist witnesses a gargoyle committing a grisly murder. The gargoyle spares his life as long as he promises not to tell anyone what he’s seen. Not long afterwards, he meets the woman of his dream and the two fall in love... But the events of that night still haunt him.

If a rampaging mummy story seems out-of-place for 1990, that’s because “Lot 249” is adapted from an Arthur Conan Doyle story. Much like “Creepshow 2’s” “Old Chief Wood’n’head,” this is essentially a slasher story where the inhuman killer’s murders fit a theme. This time, it’s Egyptian mummification rituals being performed on very living individuals. Harrison’s direction is moody, creating enough suspense during the stalking scenes... While also shooting around the lumbering nature of its mummified antagonist. The story lampshades that often-noticed limitation of the mummy genre, pointing out that a 10,000 year old shambling corpse would be pretty easy to outmaneuver. It’s a smart bit of gruesome horror further elevated by a great cast. Steve Buscemi is perfect as the nerdy, vengeful Bellingham. Christian Slater shows his relatable side as the story is de-facto hero, before revealing a classically Slater-esque unhinged side. It is funny seeing a young Julianne Moore as a petty, rich girl sister though. 

“The Cat from Hell,” adapted by George Romero from a Stephen King story, continues that theme of supernatural vengeance. Harrison’s direction is even more atmospheric here, making the oppressively dark mansion setting as spooky as possible. There’s an off-beat humor to the story of a seemingly normal cat repeatedly besting a mob hit man. At the same time, the segment plays off of that certain unearthly quality any cat owner is familiar with. Romero/King sneak in some social commentary too, making sure the rich family is properly decadent, greedy and deserving of supernatural comeuppance. The story climaxes with a creatively grotesque burst of gory special effects. David Johansen has a nice, stylized energy as the hit man while William Hickey is, naturally, ideally cast as a wheezing, decrepit old millionaire.

While the first two stories have a dark humor to them, “Lovers’ Vow” — a Michael McDowell original — is a relatively straight-forward tale of monsters and romance. The gargoyle design is really cool, a beautifully realized elaborate puppet. While James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong have little screen time together before their characters fall in love, there’s still a believable passion to their relationship. The chemistry between the performances — Remar’s sweaty desperation, Chong’s natural grace — sell that. The twist ending is easy to anticipate. However, the film successfully plays it as an inevitable outcome, a cruel turn of fate that was impossible to avoid. This creates a fittingly gothic sense of tragedy, aided by the addition of pathetically weeping gargoyle babies. “Lovers’ Vow” plays like a modern update of a classic myth, ending the film on a strong note. 

By the way, the framing device is also delightful. Debbie Harry is amusing as the modern day, suburban witch who considers the evisceration of a child as mundane as preparing a Thanksgiving turkey. Matthew Lawrence has the kind of childish energy you can root for. The epilogue has the same combination of graphic violence, poetic justice, and ironic humor that drives most of the film. The film made some money at the box office, though critics largely dismissed it as just another Stephen King movie. A sequel, featuring more King as well as Robert Bloch, was planned but never came to be. Nowadays, “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie” enjoys a reputation as a minor cult classic. It’s a trio of enjoyable, well-made creature features that doesn’t match the original “Creepshow” but is probably better than the second one. [7/10]

Sometime in 2005, some jokers called Taurus Entertainment Company somehow wrangled the rights to several of George Romero's films. As far as I can tell, this company functioned largely as a production house for the work of filmmakers Ana Clavell and James Glenn Dudelson. In 2005, they acquired the rights to "Day of the Dead" and quickly made a shitty, in-name-only sequel subtitled "Contagium." The next year, the two would create a shitty, in-name-only shitty to "Creepshow." "Creepshow 3" was released on straight-to-DVD shortly afterwards, where it was rejected by "Creepshow" fans and scorned by the few critics who chose to review it.

"Creepshow 3" disregards the comic book framing device of the first two films, instead telling interwoven stories bizarrely connected by a hot dog cart. In "Alice," a teenage girl's life changes in bizarre ways every time her dad presses a button on a new remote control. "The Radio" is about a man who buys a busted radio from a street vendor. A female voice from the radio begins to give him advice and commands, soon compelling him to murder. "Call Girl" features a teenage boy who orders an internet prostitute, unaware that she's a serial killer. "Professor's Wife" sees two robotics students invited to the home of their professor to meet his new wife, whom they can't believe is actually human. Lastly, "Haunted Dog" revolves around an asshole doctor who buys a homeless man a tainted hot dog, only for him to die afterwards. He is haunted by the bum's spirit. 

As you might've guessed, "Creepshow 3" has very little to do with the previous "Creepshow" movies. An extremely ugly, loud, and cheap looking animated sequence opens the film. There's transitions between the segments that are sort of animated. Otherwise, the comic book gimmick from the originals does not appear. This really only makes it apparent how cheap and shitty the film is. The entire movie looks like it was shot within two or three areas or sets. The visual design is flat. The acting is exclusively awkward, stilted, or broad. The special effects are either shitty CGI or the fakest looking blood. The jokes do not have punchlines but are just vague acts of energy-free goofiness. The obsession with hot dogs - which appear in every segment - is truly baffling. Everything about the film screams that it was cheap or poorly made.

"Creepshow 3" isn't merely a bad movie, it's an annoying movie. This is largely because all of its characters are awful and obnoxious. Alice is introduced yacking loudly on a cell phone. Her family heaps either abuse or idiocy on her. The college boys in "The Professor's Wife" act like complete imbeciles, while the professor himself is an utterly cartoonish character. The doctor at the center of "Haunted Dog" is a massive asshole, who says hateful things to everyone around him when he's not abusing drugs. The murderous call girl is loudly harassed by ranting homeless people. Jerry, the protagonist in "The Radio," is maybe the only character that isn't totally despicable, which is probably why that's the most tolerable segment. On the other hand, "The Radio" fills its supporting cast with screaming street vendors, screaming pimps, screaming drug addicts, and screaming prostitutes. Most of the female characters in "Creepshow 3" are prostitutes, by the way. 

I guess the filmmakers behind "Creepshow 3" were trying to capture that E.C. Comics feel, of bad people being punished. Yet they misunderstood that those comics had a sense of cosmic justice, of artful humor, to their horror stories. "Creepshow 3" is mostly just bad people, doing bad things, and senseless shit happening to them for no reason. The film's idea of horror is especially nonsensical. There's barely an explanation for Alice's ordeal, the girl eventually turning into a tumor-covered monster. The ironic "twist" at the end of "The Radio" is needlessly cruel. The gore in "The Professor's Wife" is trying to be funny but, with the way it focuses on objectifying its dead and dismembered woman, it only comes off as being sexist. "Haunted Dog's" vision of a dead bum puking up or yanking a hot dog from his stomach isn't just gross. It's meaningless.

Everything about "Creepshow 3" suggest it was a shitty horror anthology that, somehow, managed to get attached to an iconic series. Dudelson has continued to cash-in on his rights to "Day of the Dead," producing a shitty remake, a reboot nobody saw, and now apparently a TV adaptation of some sort. His attempts to cash-in on "Creepshow" have, thankfully, been less numerous. There was a failed web-series adaptation in 2008. Dundelson seemingly has some involvement with Shudder's "Creepshow" series but, thankfully, has had no say on its creative content. When discussing the "Creepshow" films with a friend recently, he was surprised that a third entry existed. I suspect that many otherwise knowledgeable horror fans are unaware of this movie's existence. Which is probably for the best, as "Creepshow 3" is a largely wretched experience. [2/10]

Welcome to Paradox: Acute Triangle

When putting together my list of anthology shows to sample this October, I was mostly picking programs I had seen a little of or which were extremely well-regarded. The more obscure series were usually chosen because I had heard a little bit about them and couldn't help but be curious. "Welcome to Paradox" is definitely the most obscure show I'll be talking about this month. Each week, a different story from the near-future Utopian city of Paradox Betaville would be presented, toying with another well-known science-fiction premise. The series aired on the Sci-Fi Channel for fourteen episodes in 1998, where it attracted few viewers and no critical attention. The only reason I've heard of it is because I saw a promo while going through a collection of old Sci-Fi Channel commercials recently. (Because I have very exciting hobbies.) Since the show is obviously more sci-fi than horror, I probably didn't have to throw it in but, for whatever reason, "Welcome to Paradox" is streaming for free across various platforms. So why not?

"Acute Triangle" revolves around Ardley Mendoza, a fabulously wealthy man, and his wife, Aura, a successful fashion photographer. The Mendoza marriage has been falling apart for years, the two long since growing distant from each other. As revenge for Aura having an affair, Ardley purchases a "biorobe." That's a genetically engineered robot/clone, usually modeled after some sort of celebrity. When Aura first meets the biorobe, named Dorothy, she's stunned. Ardley quickly grows attached to Dorothy, signaling to his wife that the marriage might as well be over. But the biorobe has plans of her own. 

Out of "Welcome to Paradox's" episode, I decided to give "Acute Triangle" a watch because of its cast. Aura is played by cult favorite actress Alice Krige while Mackenzie Gray, a underrated character actor I got to interview a while ago, plays Ardley. While it's wonderful to see both performers, "Acute Triangle" is mostly pretty dorky. The futuristic lingo and fashion cooked up for the episode are deeply silly. The script can't just call simple concepts like clones or drugs what they are, instead inventing goofy faux-futuristic names for them. Everybody wears lots of billowing robes. The story is as lackluster as the world-building. The married couple resent each other yet we never really learn why. Similarly, Ardley is repeatedly described as misanthropic but still falls in love with the biorobe. The script may be saying something about how some men only want their own opinions parroted back at them. Any insight is complicated by the wife's cold personality and a disappointing ending that forces some big character changes out of nowhere. Krige and Gray are talented performers but they can't overcome the awkward writing. If the rest of "Welcome to Paradox" is this unimpressive, I'd probably won't bother with anymore of it. [5/10]

The “shock” movie is not much younger than cinema itself, easily dating back to the silent era. People have surely been putting shocking images on celluloid since its invention. I suppose “The Execution of Mary Stuart” from 1895 surely qualifies as “shocking.” (Though maybe not as a “movie.”) Yet, as far as I can tell, the first movie designed specifically to piss people off is 1929’s “Un chien andalou.” Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali created the 17 minute long film specifically to shock and annoy the bourgeois intellectual crowd of the day. “Un chien andalou” is a plotless series of sometimes violent, frequently perverse, and always surreal images intentionally meant to defy all explanation. 

“Un chien andalou” qualifies as a horror movie largely because of those violent, perverse acts. Its opening assault, of Bunuel slicing a woman’s eye open after seeing a cloud pass before the moon, can still shock and upset the unprepared. A woman pokes at a severed hand before being run over by a car. A man fondles a woman’s body, imaging he’s groping her tits and ass while drooling like a zombie. Ants crawl from a hole in the palm of a hand. Dead, rotting donkeys put in a surprise appearance. The final image of the film is its male and female leads, buried in the sand, seemingly dead. “Un chien andalou” is filled with violent, sexual imagery. This is as much a brick thrown through a window as it is a movie. (Bunuel was aghast that the bourgeoisie he meant to insult loved the film.)

Surrealism, of course, was not a new idea in 1929. It arose out of the horrors of World War I, dream-like images being the only reasonable response to modernized bloodshed. Surrealist cinema wasn’t even new. However, “Un chien andalou’s” defiance of meaning was new. Bunuel and Dalí assured every cultural critic of the time that no deeper meaning was meant behind the film’s outrageous images. Instead, “Un chien andalou” is a game of free association dream logic. An ant-filled hole in a hand becomes a woman’s armpit hair, which becomes a sea urchin. These idea reappear throughout the film. As in a dream, time and place is meaningless. Title cards leap around in time — “Around three in the morning,” “Sixteen years ago” — while the location outside the building shifts from a street, to a field, to the beach. “Un chien andalou” accurately captures the pacing of a dream, everything within always changing.

As much as Bunuel insisted there was no deeper meaning to “Un chien andalou,” certain feelings are invoked. There’s a raw, emotional passion to these scenarios. The woman on the street cradles the severed hand like it’s a beloved possession. Sexual frustration clearly motivates the man in the apartment, as he chases the object of his desire. Bugs spewing from his hand or he drags pianos weighed down with unusual cargo is a manifestation of his ugly, masculine, overwhelming passion. Even in 1929, that kind of desperate, demanding cries for sexual satisfaction was not well-received by women. A man on a bike wears a nun’s habit, which another man later throws away. (The woman, meanwhile, seems more interested in the crossdresser than the lusty groper.) “Un chien andalou’s” attempt to shock the standards of the day, by being boldly sexual and sarcastic towards religion, makes it a time capsule of the emotional frustrations of that age

“Un chien andalou” is also pretty funny. By trying to put a dream to film, Bunuel and Dalí created cinema’s first shitpost. The playful way the film discards narrative conventions is doubtlessly amusing, the pure random quality of its images making you laugh. The accompanying music, chosen specifically by Bunuel, is an upbeat tango, which further points towards the filmmakers’ irrelevant intentions. Ironically, “Un chien andalou’s” lack of meaning makes it easy to reinterpret. It is, simultaneously, a nightmarish horror film, an artsy-fartsy mood piece, and a smart-ass prank. No wonder it appealed to me so much as an edgy teenager, who frequently inflicted it on friends and dates. I’m sure I wasn’t the only obnoxious kid who did that. [9/10]

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 18th

Given “Creepshow’s” surprise box office success, a sequel seemed a natural idea. This was, after all, the eighties, when all sorts of horror movies became franchises. There were many issues of the E.C. horror comics, so why not more “issues” of “Creepshow?” Stephen King would lend his name to the sequel, even though only one segment was inspired by his writing. George A. Romero would pen the script but handed directorial duties over to Michael Gornick, the first film’s cinematographer. Though not as successful as the original, “Creepshow 2” would still become a favorite among horror fans.

A smaller budget than the first means the Creep only tells three stories, this time. In “Old Chief Wood’n’head,” the owner of a hardware store faces hard times. After the leader of the local Indian tribe asks him to watch over some sacred jewels, a gang - led by a vain member of the same tribe - breaks in, steals the treasure, and kills the old man. The wooden cigar store Indian out front comes to life and seeks revenge. In “The Raft,” a group of teenagers seek out an isolated lake. They soon discover a flesh-eating oil slick monster resides there, forcing them to take shelter on a solitary raft. In “The Hitch-Hiker,” a woman drives home from an extramarital affair. Along the highway, she hits a black hitchhiker. Though she thinks she got away with the crime, the increasingly bloody corpse of the man refuses to leave her alone.

I’ve seen some say every segment in “Creepshow 2” is problematic, which is somewhat true. “Old Chief Wood’n’head” is not the most sensitive portrayal of indigenous people. You can tell Romero was aware of this. In order to counteract the troublesome image of the cigar store Indian, he made one of the villains Native American. In order to counteract that negative portrayal, he made a local tribesman a sympathetic character. Which is also a patronizing cliche. If you can get past that — I don’t blame you if you can’t — “Old Chief Wood’n’head” is an entertaining bit of E.C. Comics style revenge. It’s basically a slasher film, each gang member being gorily killed off in ways based around Native American iconography. The make-up that bring the Chief to life are subtly effective. Gorlick’s visuals are moody and the performances — especially Holt McCallany as the narcissistic gang leader — are entertaining. Romero does a good job of copying the Stephen King technique of using colorful traits to quickly establish a character’s personality. 

“The Raft” is generally regarded as the highlight of “Creepshow 2,” and even it features an unnecessary and sleazy sequence of groping. If you can look past that, “The Raft” is a highly entertaining horror story. The novelty of its monster goes a long way. A sentiment corrosive liquid, that can ooze through the gaps in a raft, forces the teen protagonists into an increasingly tight space, upping the tension. The gory special effects are equally inspired. The image of flesh-and-bone melting as it’s dragged into the water is nightmare inducing. The characters are horny dumb-asses but vague enough that you can project your own personality onto them, making you wonder how you’d fair in this precarious scenario. The ending is a cruel punchline, befitting the comic book atmosphere. 

“The Hitch-Hiker” is probably the weakest of the film’s segments, owing to how simple it is. It’s basically the same joke, of the hitchhiker reappearing to haunt the driver, repeated over and over. Credit where it’s due, Gorlick manages to make the hitchhiker’s reappearances startling every time. The oft-repeated line — “Thanks for the ride, last!” — is an amusing comedic touch, continuing the goofy horror/comedy tone seen in the first “Creepshow.” The increasingly decayed look of the man is a cool, gory surprise. It’s the least politically incorrect segment in the film, as a disadvantaged black man gets his revenge on a careless white woman. But it also uses the image of a Scary Black Person for easy chills. 

The framing device for “Creepshow 2” isn’t as likable as the first one’s either. The decision to portray them in sub-Don Bluth animation was questionable. Changing the Creep from a rotting corpse (and animatronic puppet) to a gonad-chinned old man wasn’t wise, even if Ron Silver’s vocal performance is entertainingly hammy. Still, despite its many flaws, “Creepshow 2” is a fun, spooky time at the movies. While the first is obviously scarier and stronger, I seem to recall meeting a lot of fans of “The Raft” and “Thanks for the ride, lady” in the early days of my horror fandom. [7/10]

I like to think of the sixties as the decade that dragged the horror genre out of the gothic age and into the modern era once and for all. That Freudian psycho killers and flesh-eating zombies dominated the decade. The truth is, gothic horror flourished in the early sixties. Hammer was still doing its thing, getting progressively bloodier. Roger Corman's Poe Cycle was influential and popular. In Italy, the success of “Black Sunday” spurned a whole movement of imitative films, a number of which also starred Barbara Steele. Such as “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” from 1964. Like many of Steele's horror credits from this time, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” gained a cult following of its own.

In the 1880s, Dr. Hichcock is a respected surgeon. However, he has a dark secret: He's a necrophile. He sedates his wife, Margaret, into a corpse-like state with anesthetics. However, one night he gives her too much and she dies. Fifteen years later, Hichcock marries a new woman, Cynthia. As he takes her home, she is surrounded by reminders of Margaret. Soon, Cynthia begins to suspect that Margaret's ghost still haunts the mansion. Skulls appear in her bed, she sees and hears strange things, while her husband acts oddly. The truth, Cynthia will discover, is far more horrifying.

Anybody who has seen their share of classic horror movies will recognize a lot of what happens in “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.” From the minute Cynthia arrives in Dr. Hichcock's mansion, it's apparent someone is trying to gaslight her. Portraits of Margaret are prominently displayed, despite her being dead for fifteen years. The constant references to her husband's ex-wife, how her memory still lives despite being dead, brings “Rebecca” to mind. Cynthia is a mess of nerves pretty much from the start. An intrusive family maid, whispered voices, a spring-loaded cat, screaming skulls, and plumes of fog increase her anxiety. There's a secret passageway, hidden tombs, and maidens in white gowns descending the staircase with candelabras. “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” is essentially a compilation of well-worn gothic horror cliches.

Obviously, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” is derivative. But who cares, because the movie is also gorgeous. While many films of this ilk are in moody black-and-white, this one was filmed in vibrant Technicolor. This doesn't keep “Hichcock” from dripping with absolutely delicious atmosphere. The mansion is inundated in cob-webs, dusty corridors, and ominous portraits. The moment devoted to Cynthia wandering through the fog is wonderfully foreboding. When she actually enters the secret underground tunnel, the camera remains tight on her face, lit only by the candles. It's amazing. Director Riccardo Freda collaborated previously collaborated with Mario Bava and “Hichcock” sometimes features Bava-esque streaks of color. Such as a nightmarish sequence of Cynthia awakening to her husband looming above her bed, his face distorted and awash in orange light. 

Like all tales of gothic horror, the shadows on the surface of “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” represent the shadows of the character's twisted psyches. Hichcock being openly presented as a necrophile from the beginning is an interesting touch. That there are hidden passageways under his home is fitting, as he hides his sexual depravity under a veneer of respectability. His fellow physicians almost catch him several times, leering at corpses. This knowledge shades every interaction he has with Cynthia. The two share no level of intimacy, barely even kissing. Cynthia – played with the stunning wide-eyed beauty you expect of Barbara Steele – strikes the viewer as virginal. Thus, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” becomes a story of a naive young woman prayed upon by a predatory older man, who she is totally unprepared to pleased. It's all the more fitting that the ending, a swerve that actually caught me off-guard, has her truly becoming a victim at his hands. 

Supposedly, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” was filmed in a very short amount of time. Steele made the movie on a ten day break from filming Fellini's “8½.” Amusingly, Robert Flemyng, the respected British thespian who plays the titular character, was horrified when he discovered the movie was about necrophilia. The movie played in U.S. on a double-bill with “The Awful Dr. Orloff,” proving 1964 was a big year for wicked physicians with alliterative adjectives. Visually gorgeous, well acted, and with an interesting kinky streak, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” is a perfectly satisfying slice of gothic horror. (And, yes, I kept wanting to spell the title with an extra T through this entire review.) [7/10]

Ghost Stories (1997): Personal Demons

For whatever reason, the horror anthologies are especially appealing to cable channels. I guess it’s cheaper to pay different actors for one episode, than the same actors for many episodes. And stories of the macabre will always attract a certain audience. In 1997, Fox would purchase the formally Pat Robinson-run Family Channel and rebrand it Fox Family. They would drop all of the previous programming and bring an entirely new slate of shows, mostly made of animation. The network would also start running some edgier fair, probably in an attempt to distance itself from the channel’s conservative Christian roots. Such as a horror anthology series called “Ghost Stories,” which ran for 44 episodes from 1997 to 1998. Rip Torn — who ironically guest-starred in an episode of similarly entitled seventies anthology show “Ghost Story” — would serve as host. “Ghost Stories” is pretty much entirely forgotten today, except by genre enthusiasts such as myself.

“Personal Demons” is about Billy Thorpe, who once had a highly successful career but suffered a nervous breakdown. He claims an evil spirit named JD controls him. His social worker checks on him but JD goads him into murdering her. A new social worker, Kelly, is assigned his case. As another workaholic prone to burnout, she senses a kindred spirit in Billy. JD doesn’t want Billy to go back to a mental hospital. Once Kelly reaches out to him, the supernatural entity tries to talk the troubled young man into killing again.

“Ghost Stories” is obviously a low budget production. It’s mostly shot in nondescript locations. JD is not depicted as a ghostly spirit but simply as an actress standing in the shadows. The dialogue frequently contains awkward exposition. Billy’s supposed past as a Wall Street executive seems hard to believe and isn’t elaborate on much. The theme of young people pushing themselves so hard that they crack doesn’t connect with the supernatural storyline. JD manipulates Billy by telling him he’ll be lonely without her, not that he’ll be unsuccessful. Naturally, the episode raises the question of whether JD is a real demonic spirit or just a manifestation of Billy’s mental illness. This leads to a very easily predicted twist ending. 

As lackluster as “Personal Demons” is, I still sort of liked it. There’s a gritty intimacy to the low budget production. The cast has to deal with some seriously tin-eared dialogue and shallow characterization. Tony Hale, as the trouble Billy, and Nena Haley, as the social worker, still bring something to the part. The chase scene climax is mildly tense because you find yourself invested in the characters, even if the production values are meager and the writing is clumsy. Rip Torn’s narration is melodramatic but delivered with ominous gusto. I have no idea if the rest of “Ghost Stories” is any good but I enjoyed “Personal Demons” despite its many flaws. [6/10]

Will I have to turn in my cinephile card if I admit I've never seen a Buster Keaton movie before? I enjoy silent film but silent-era comedies are still something of a blind spot for me. 1921's "The Haunted House" isn't Keaton's best regarded short but it's the one I'm starting with. Keaton is far from the first comedian to star in a haunted house-themed slapstick comedy, where the "ghosts" are merely crooks in disguise. Harold Lloyd did the same set-up the year before, it was already old by that point, and would continue to be a much abused trope well into the sound era. I've said before that every notable comedy star or team did the "old dark house" premise at some point in their career and that's increasingly looking to be true.

In "The Haunted House," Keaton plays an unnamed bank teller. He's unaware that his boss is plotting to rob the bank, storing the pilfered cash in a near-by home and replacing the stolen money in the vault with counterfeits. They have dissuaded anybody from investigating further by convincing the town the house is haunted, with various spooky booby traps and ghostly disguises. Following a misunderstanding involving some glue, Keaton flees the bank and ends up in the house. (Along with a group of actors from a disastrous local performance of "Faust.")  There, he's faced with many unusual sights but eventually stumbles upon the criminal plot. 

Buster Keaton's reputation as a physical comedian certainly proceeds itself. The very first thing he does in this short is a pratfall, while exiting a taxi. Keaton displays an acrobat's precision in "The Haunted House." He leaps over the walls at the bank, dangles off a vault door, slips and slides all over a ramp. A long gag in the film's first half is devoted to glue on Keaton's hand, causing him and a succession of other people to get stuck to various things. It's not the sharpest gag but the pure gusto with which Keaton attacks the set-up makes it worth seeing. Keaton's character seems to be a wide-eyed innocent, who frequently acts naively but always with the best intentions. If I understand correctly, this was the stock character he played in most of his films. 

Once "The Haunted House" reaches the titular setting, it perks up considerably. You would think a staircase that descends into a ramp would be an easily exhausted gag. Keaton repeatedly finds new ways to make that particular prop funny, bouncing and sliding all over the stairs. An inspired sequence has him caught in a hallway, as various ghosts pass around him, prompting him to act as a crossing guard. The subplot about the "Faust" actors seems extraneous but pays off in a fantastic way. The haunted house setting allows for increasingly surreal gags, such as an inspired sequence where guys dressed as skeletons assembled a man like a mannequin. Keaton getting caught on a spinning platform escalates nicely. The short wraps up on a surprisingly spiritual note, which finally plays off the film's main running joke. "The Haunted House" is basically just Buster Keaton responding to a series of spooky set-ups but I was laughing consistently, so I think the film accomplished its goals.. [7/10]

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 17th

In a pop culture landscape that is so influenced by the E.C. horror comics of the fifties, George A. Romero and Stephen King were somehow the first people to do a proper pastiche of these stories. Before the “Tales from the Crypt” TV series or a hundred indie anthologies around the same vein, there was “Creepshow.” Romero and King both acknowledged the classic horror comics as influences, so it was fitting that they would create a feature length homage. “Creepshow” would quickly become one of those defining films for eighties horror fandom, with its blend of gory special effects and sick humor appealing to a particular brand of weirdo. Naturally, I count myself among that tribe.

Since issues of “Tales from the Crypt” usually contained multiple stories, King and Romero pack “Creepshow” with five stories. “Father's Day” sees a murdered patriarch of a rich family rise from the grave to take revenge on his greedy inheritors. “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verill” has the titular country bumpkin discovering a strange meteor that causes an even stranger moss to grow on everything. In “Something to Tide You Over,” Richard Vickers cooks up an elaborate form of revenge on his adulterous wife and her lover. Yet the sadistic man soon learns turnabout is fair play. “The Crate” sees two college professors discovering a crate hidden in the university, uncovering the flesh-eating monster that lives inside. Finally, “They're Creeping Up on You” details Upson Pratt, a germophobe millionaire, at war with the cockroaches that seem to be invading his penthouse apartment. 

About a decade ago, spurned on by "Sin City," movies that replicate the colors and visual quirks of comic books became a brief fad. It's somewhat surprising to go back and see that George Romero did this first in the early eighties. Throughout “Creepshow,” moments are framed by comic book panels. Shocked faces are highlighted by colorful backdrops. Romero makes sure to include lots of bright, primary colors. It's not just the visual language of E.C. Comics that “Creepshow” so expertly recreates. King's screenplay features two tales of rotten corpses, spurned by injustices, returning from the grave. There's petty revenge, for infidelity and greed, as well as other types of comeuppance. King perfectly captures the tone, that twisted morality play feel, of those classic tales.

I can recall an interview where Romero actually credits E.C. Comics with teaching him that horror could be a medium for social commentary. On the surface, “Creepshow” may look like its all fun and ghouls but Romero's subversive politics run throughout. The Grantham are all idle rich, preoccupied with how to screw each other over in order to get a bigger slice of the pie. Though Nathan was no better than any of them, his grisly revenge acts as a judgement of all of them. Both the antagonist in “Something to Tide You Over” and “They're Creeping Up on You” are rich old white guys. Upson, the villain in the latter, is the most cruel of capitalist and blatantly racist. It's not too far of a leap to see the cockroaches that consume him as symbols of every person he stepped on, anybody he deemed undesirable. The anti-authoritarian attitudes even carry over into the framing device, that sees a put-upon son striking back at a tyrannical father. 

As smart and biting a movie as “Creepshow” is, it's also delightfully goofy. “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verrill” is “Creepshow” at its most comical. Stephen King's wide-eyed performance is hokey as can be, as his senseless yokel speaks exclusively in the kind of oddball folkisms King specializes. The fantasy situations Verrill imagines are even more exaggerated and cartoonish than the rest of the short. You can see “Creepshow's” prankish sense of humor in its other segments, where Hal Holbrook imagines being applauded for murdering his loud-mouthed wife. Or Leslie Nielsen's over-the-top screams as he faces down death. “Creepshow” maintains the same balance of cornball humor and gruesome horror that was present in the comic books, silly puns existing alongside rotting corpses.

Romero maintains that delicate equilibrium throughout, “Creepshow's” humor never draining its harshest horrors of their effectiveness. Even the silliest segment has a startlingly grim ending, as Jordy blows his moss-covered head off. “They're Creeping Up on You” ends with maybe the movie's most puke-worthy image, as cockroaches bursts from every hiding space... Including the human body. Yet “The Crate” remains my favorite segment. The furry crate monster – nicknamed “Fluffy” by Romero and Savini – is the film's scariest creature, with its yellow eyes and maw full of teeth. The way it tears its victims apart, with claws and jaws, is still viscerally brutal. There's something emblematic about the image of a monster hiding in a crate, victims being dragged into darkness towards a grisly fate. Not to mention the uncertain nature of the beast's origin peaks the viewer's curiosity. I love it.

Upon release, mainstream critics largely dismissed “Creepshow” as a lark. More than one wondered why respected fright-makers like Romero and King were wasting their time with material like this. Horror fans, meanwhile, immediately understood that the slightly campy, thoroughly gruesome tone were exactly what the director/writer were going for. Audiences came in, making “Creepshow” a surprise box office hit. Nowadays, it's an established cult classic. Romero's beautiful direction, a seriously stacked cast, Tom Savini's amazing special effects, and King's tongue-in-cheek script combine to make an ideal eighties frightfest. [9/10]

Even though it sucked, “Species III” must've sold well. Two years later, production would roll on a fourth installment in the horny alien franchise. While each previous sequel directly followed up on the film before it, the fourth “Species” would focus entirely on new characters. This is what we call a “soft” reboot. It's usually what happens when a studio wants to keep a franchise going, realizes the original premise is burnt out, but wants to avoid the stigma associated with a total continuity reset. You can see this change-in-direction in the decision to switch out a roman numeral for a subtitle. I've probably just put more thought into this right now than the producers of the “Species” franchise ever did. Anyway, “Species: The Awakening” would land on video store shelves in 2007. 

Miranda Hollander is a college professor, teaching mythology and literature at a prestigious university. She lives with her uncle Tom, a biologist. After a birthday celebration, Miranda collapses and is rushed to a hospital. There, she transforms into a monster and goes on a killing spree. Tom returns her to normal and the two head to Mexico. Miranda soon learns that she was one of the half-alien embryos created back in the nineties, injected with human hormones her whole life to keep her from turning into a monster. South of the border, they meet with Forbes, a former colleague of Tom's that has created a whole community of alien/human hybrids in Mexico. Miranda learns that she is at the end of her lifespan. Drastic measures are needed to save her. The experiment meant to keep her alive instead awakens her repressed desires. 

“The Awakening” is an attempt at a more character-driven “Species” movie. The film isn't about tracking and destroying a horny she-alien and, instead, makes her the main character. Miranda thinking herself totally normal, only to discover her true identity, is an interesting character arc. You can tell some actual thought was put into “The Awakening's” screenplay. However, the sequel eventually collapses into incoherence. Instead of focusing on Miranda's struggle to keep her humanity, she's simply reborn as a predator halfway through the movie. The reveal that there are multiple alien/human hybrids running around, under the radar, strains believably. There's too many minor supporting characters complicating the story. At this point, I can't remember the specific abilities and weaknesses of the “Species” aliens and the movies don't either, as the consistency across the sequels have totally dissolved by this point. (Though you assume Miranda was born from one of the frozen embryos seen in the first movie.) The script is simultaneously rushed, half-assed, and convoluted. 

Even if the plot eventually becomes blurry, the people making “The Awakening” were clearly trying a little harder than the team behind “Species III.” Director Nick Lyon has since gone on to make numerous films for the Asylum but he shows a consistent visual sense here. There's a lot of dramatic lighting, some neon colors, and a certain likable grunginess to the surroundings. It's not memorable but it looks a lot better than “Species III” did. Part four's cast is also far more committed than the actors in part three. Helena Mattsson, as Miranda, convincingly switches between wide-eyed innocent and predatory seductress. Ben Cross, as Tom, takes the material one hundred percent seriously and makes sure the audience recognizes all the conflict his character feels. Dominic Keating is amusingly slimy as Forbes, the horny mad scientist that drives the plot in the second half.

“Species: The Awakening” is also an improvement over the third film in another way. It features far more of the series' trademark monster action. There's two sexy femme-beasts running through the plot. Inevitably, the movie concludes with a high-kicking fight scene between them. And that's kind of cool. A gag involving a large stone cross crushing someone is mildly clever. There's some not-to-hot CGI in the film. Shotgun pellets and alien barbs fly through the air in slow-mo, while the male aliens produce grasping tentacles from their mouths. Yet the effects are mostly practical and look decent. Even if the elegance of H.R. Giger's original design are long lost in same-y looking latex and rubber. Lyon's action direction sometimes includes an annoying shakiness but “Species: The Awakening” seems to have a better idea of what fans want out of this franchise. 

You'll notice my positive notes here definitely classify as faint praise. “Species: The Awakening” is only good in comparison to the dreadful previous two installments. A plot that is both too ambitious and lazily slapdash is eventually lost in steamy sex scenes and gory monster fights. Intriguing ideas are present here, especially in Miranda's situation, but the movie shifts gears to focus on other shit instead. At this point, I'm just happy that the alien babes look relatively cool and have a semi-coherent fight scene. I don't know if Frank Mancuso Jr. was hopeful “The Awakening” would spawn further sequels, as the ending is fairly final. Either way, no new “Species” movie have been born in the years since. But I bet they remake the first one eventually. The premise of amorous alien she-babes is too commercial to resist for long. [5/10]

The Hunger: Sin Seer

Anthology shows continued to find a comfortable home on premium cable in the mid-nineties. A big hit for Showtime was “Red Shoe Diaries,” which presented a new tale of softcore sensuality every week. HBO, meanwhile, had solid success with “Tales from the Crypt.” “Tales” ended in 1996 and “Diaries” concluded in 1997. Perhaps seeking to satisfied the audiences of both deceased programs, Showtime created “The Hunger” later in '97. Much like the 1983 film it took its name from, the series would combine horror with eroticism. (Also, the pilot episode was directed by Tony Scott and vampires frequently showed up.) The first season was hosted by Terrance Stamp while the second season furthered the connection to the film by bringing David Bowie on as host. Naturally, I had to pick an episode from that season to review. 

Why I singled out “Sin Seer” should be obvious. The episode stars Brad Dourif as Manos, a man with a unique ability. Every time he looks into someone's eyes, he sees the worst sin they have ever committed. This ability broke up his marriage and has ruined his every day life. Seems like he can't walk down the street with bumping into a random person and catching sight of an affair or atrocity they committed. Manos now works in the morgue, as the dead are increasingly the only people he can peacefully be around. He seeks help from a shrink but refuses to look into his eyes, fearful of what he might see. Eventually, Manos has to confront his ability as well as his own sins. 

The opening sequence of “The Hunger” depicts random flashes of text, distorted faces, and machinery while harsh, industrial music plays. Bowie's host segments feature similarly obnoxious visual quirks, with lots of color filtering, loud sound effects, and sudden zooms. That annoying style extends into the episode itself. Manos' visions, which usually involve steamy sex, are jittery visually with grating sound design. There's not much to “Sin Seer's” story. Manos has multiple visions and angsts about his condition, before the inevitable revelations that conclude the episode. It's a potentially interesting premise but very little is done with it. Brad Dourif's performance, which is as entertainingly high-strung as you'd come to expect from him, is about all “Sin Seer” has going for it. Is the rest of “The Hunger” this lame? Bowie must've been really bored if he chose to devote his time to unremarkable schlock like this. [5/10]

Those that weren't there probably won't understand. In the mid-nineties, the Fox Network had a hit with a series of prime time documentaries about animal attacks. The “When Animals Attack” series was such examples of trashy, tabloid television that they became punchlines for years to come. As much as we all had fun mocking Fox for its garbage reality programming, it was far from the only broadcast network airing shock-umentaries at the time. Supernatural-themed documentaries of disputable credibility often crossed airways in the decade of my youth. In 1997, stand-up comic Richard Belzer decided to combine both trends with a satirical mock-umentary called “When Cars Attack.” Presumably because they had nothing better to show at the time, “When Cars Attack” would air on ABC in February of 1998.

“When Cars Attack” is presented as a serious documentary, combining real car chase/crash footage with staged auto-recreations. The special claims that automobiles literally have minds of their own. That they sometimes operate on their own, as revenge against neglectful or abusive human owners. It even invents an elaborate alternate history, where an evil(er) sibling of Henry Ford installed a mysterious device in cars that can cause them to act erratically. Belzer – who has a real life conspiracy theorist persona, after all – presents the facetious evidence with a completely straight face. If it wasn't for the obviously tongue-in-cheek disclaimers at the beginning and end of the program, and the sheer ridiculousness of its claims, “When Cars Attack” would probably be indistinguishable from hundreds of specials airing around the same time.

In fact, “When Cars Attack” is playing things so straight-laced, that much of the humor is lost. There are obvious jokes here. Such as the clarification that the section about Henry Ford's brother was based on “undocumented conjecture and myths.” (Or how “Mortimer Ford” was one of 44 sibling.) Or a sequence where footage is magnified 1000 times. However, “When Cars Attack” is mostly acting totally straight about its goofy, made-up bullshit. Comedic lines, about cars wanting to retire in Florida or motorcycles having inferiority complexes, race by so quickly that the audience can easily miss them. The special's best gags occur when totally normal footage – like drivers being dizzy after a race car spins through the air – are presented as evidence of extraordinary claims. “When Cars Attack” is very silly but doesn't have nearly enough actual jokes to be an effective parody of '90s shock-umentaries. Even if it's an otherwise pitch-perfect recreation of that style of television.

So why the hell am I talking about this for Halloween? “When Cars Attack” only aired once and was considered lost media for many years. In the years leading up to the special's re-emergence, I've read more than one account of someone watching it as a kid, taking it seriously, and being freaked out. After all, cars operating on their own and meaning people harm is a common horror movie trope. The premise “When Cars Attacks” is sarcastically presenting is certainly horrific enough, if you miss the humor. Once Belzer starts suggesting that full moons have an effect on automobile's “moods,” “When Cars Attack” graduates to full blown paranormal parody. Okay, it's a stretch. I was hoping “When Cars Attack” would be spookier than it was. Though not as funny as it could've been, the mere fact that something this bizarre was produced and aired in prime time makes this obscure special fascinating. How much money did ABC spend on this dumb prank? [6/10]