Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 23

Rebirth of Mothra (1996)

Toho cooked up big business with the nineties Godzilla series. The highest grossing film in the Heisei Era was “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth.” Market research revealed that Mothra was the most popular kaiju among women. Obviously looking to cash in on the big bug’s popularity, after Godzilla bit the dust in 1995, Toho announced a new series of Mothra solo films. Despite Mothra having a wide appeal, the resulting “Rebirth of Mothra” films were all kid’s movies, meaning they aren't well-regarded in the kaiju fandom.

Nine year old Taiki has a difficult relationship with his younger sister, Wakaba. There mom has her hands full while their father is busy working for a land development company. That company is currently courting controversy for wanting to plow over an entire forest. After removing a strange seal from the ground, a dark fairy riding a small dragon enters their home. Named Belvera, the fairy desires the magical seal. A pair of good fairies, riding a chibi version of Mothra, appear to prevent Belvera from getting the seal. She does anyway and, with it, unleashes Desghidorah, a highly destructive kaiju. The good fairies call on the aging Mothra to save the day. Unfortunately, it’s not a enough and Mothra: Classic Variety dies. Just in time, Mothra Leo, the original Mothra’s son, hatches and heads off to save the world from Desghidorah.

“Rebirth of Mothra” is badly hampered by its kid-friendly focus. Taiki and Wakaba are not the most captivating protagonists. The two siblings snipe at each other, having yelling matches more then once. Taiki gets teased at school for caring about his sister at all. At one point, Wakaba says she hates her older brother. When the monster action begins, the film is constantly cutting away to the little kids, fleeing through the forest. One scene has them powering up the older Mothra by holding the magical seal and praying real hard. Another, real groan-worthy moment has Taiki telling his parents to believe in Mothra Leo, that the bug may seem small but he’s our only chance. Because this is a kid’s movie, there are no scenes of kaiju wrecking the city. Desghidorah’s rampage is kept exclusively to the forest. The military does not appear to challenge the monster. This is actually fine. However, was constantly focusing on a pair of bumbling news reporter the best substitute? The human subplot wraps up with a trite message about forgiving your siblings and how, even though brothers and sisters might fight, deep down they really love each other. There’s also a heavy-handed ecological message. After Desghidorah is defeated, the kids’ dad stares in sorrow at the destroyed forest. Instead of letting this somber message stand, Mothra Leo sprinkles fairy dust over the blast zone and everyone instantly regrows. Again, I know this is a kid’s film but that seems like a horrible cop-out.

“Rebirth of Mothra” also focuses heavily on the magical fairies. They appear early on and motivate the plot. Before the monsters even show up, the Elias sisters, Mola and Lora, are chattering about impending doom and unavoidable prophecies. Belvera is a fairly obnoxious villain. She’s never a real threat and treated widely as a joke. All three fairies have cutesy little steads. The good fairies ride around on Fairy Mothra. Meanwhile, Belvera rides on Garu Garu, a cute little dragon that is later revealed to be a robot, for some reason. Despite unleashing a monster that nearly destroys the Earth, Mola and Lora are very willing to forgive their bad sister. There’s a very long fight scene in the kids’ home, where the fairies fly around shooting lightening bolts at each other. It goes on forever. Since this is a “Mothra” flick, you’d expect the fairies to sing a song. However, were you expecting three songs? Each musical number stops the plot dead as the film seemingly becomes a music video.

What makes all of this all the more frustrating is that “Rebirth of Mothra” features some fantastic kaiju action. Desghidorah, continuing the tradition of cute kids’ entertainment with seriously threatening villains, is an intimidating creation. It’s huge, char-black, shoots actual fireballs of death, and cuts a very demonic figure. Mama Mothra looks fantastic as well, the puppet brought to life convincingly. When Mothra Leo, still as a larva, approaches the dragon, the good guy seems seriously out-matched. This holds true when Desghidorah picks the caterpillar up in its jaws, nearly tearing it apart. Mama Mothra has to die, of course. She carries her child out to sea, to safety, before expiring, and sinking beneath the waves. This scene actually got me a little misty-eyed, that’s how well its done. When Mothra Leo emerges as a moth, the action kicks into high gear. There’s a lot of laser beams being traded and some impressive explosions. Mothra’s finishing move, flying a circle around Desghidorah and firing a giant blast, is impressive.

The monster fight scenes are awesome. There’s no shortage of them either, as “Rebirth of Mothra” is action-packed. It’s also runs 108 minutes, which is way too long for a kid-centric kaiju flick. Nestled among the saccharine kiddie business and the goofy fairy scenes is some worthy kaiju battles. Whether or not they’re worth the wait is up to the viewer. [6/10]

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Wax dummies are creepy. They saunter right into the uncanny valley, even more-so then ventriloquist dummies or dolls. Those objects usually exaggerate the human form. Wax mannequins, meanwhile, mean to duplicate it perfectly. This makes them creepy as fuck. So it’s no shock that numerous horror films have meant to capitalize on that creepiness. “House of Wax” is obviously the most well-known example but that film is actually a remake of an even earlier film. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was thought to be lost for thirty years before a copy emerge in the sixties, so that new generations could enjoy the originator.

In 1920s France, a proud, genius wax sculptor shows off his museum to some very appreciative critics. The man has a deep personal relationship with his artwork, talking to his sculptures as if they were people. Immediately afterwards, the museum’s investor tells him they are loosing money. In order to regain the lost funds, he plans to burn down the museum and collect on the insurance. The sculptor is horrified by this and attempts to stop it. When he can’t, he stays behind inside the museum, watching his beloved creations burn. A decade later, a new wax museum opens in New York, operated by the same man, now calling himself Mr. Igor. Though confined to a wheelchair, and with horribly burnt hands, he still directs the wax museum. Meanwhile, bodies begin to disappear from the morgue. Hotshot reporter Florence Dempsey quickly suspects the two cases might be related.

“Mystery of the Wax Museum” has, undoubtedly, been overshadowed by its later remake. The remake follows the general outline of the original quite closely yet the two films are ultimately very different. As the title promises, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is more of a mystery. “House of Wax” focused more on the story’s morbid aspect while “Mystery” is more about characters sleuthing around, investigating leads and trying to unravel what’s happening. “House of Wax” focuses more on the mad sculptor and the girl he intends to turn into his new Marine Antoinette. The main character of the original, meanwhile, is the hotshot lady reporter on the case’s tail. The only time “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is a full blown horror flick is the scenes in the morgue and the very end.

What truly keeps “Mystery of the Wax Museum” afloat and makes it so charming is its cast. Glenda Farrell plays Florence Dempsey, the fast-talking, quick-thinking reporter at the film’s center. Florence is friggin’ awesome. She’s brass, fearless, heads straight into danger, and always has a snappy one-liner up her sleeve. Farrell’s flapper-attitude might not be for everyone but I was absolutely charmed by her. Building the film around her was a wise decision since she steals the whole show. She’s certainly more interesting then Fay Wray as Charlotte, the movie’s damsel in distress. Charlotte stands around, being desired by the various men in the plot. Igor wants to encase her in wax while Jim, her fiancé, just wants to marry her. Wray at least gives her famous lungs a work-out. While Vincent Price was obviously more memorable in the remake, Lionel Atwill isn’t bad in the same part. His mad proclamations concerning his art are quite entertaining.

Uncharacteristic for the time period, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was shot in color. Two-strip Technicolor to be exact. The color is washed-out and quite ugly by today’s standards, everything appearing in shades of sickly green or beige. As someone who loves the look and feel of horror films from 1930s, I still found a lot to like about the visual presentation. More then once, atmospheric shadows are thrown on the wall. There’s very little music, giving the entire picture an eerie, creaky feeling. I love the set of Igor’s laboratory, the winding staircase above the cauldron of wax or the harsh expressionistic angles of the room above. As the film was made in 1933, it predates the Production Code. So the film is saucier then you’d expect. Florance, at one point, asks a cop about his sex life. A minor character is identified as a junkie and bootlegging is a major plot point. All of this adds to the movie’s unique charm.

“House of Wax” is a smoother and better constructed then “Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Yet I’m a fan of the original and would put them on about equal footing. Mostly thanks to the unique feel early horror films have and the boundless charm of Glenda Farrell. [7/10]

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Trick or Treat

So here’s something I decided to watch totally on whim. After watching all the Ninja Turtles movies this summer, and binging on kaiju flicks this autumn, I wanted to give another childhood favorite a look. I completely understand anyone without a nostalgic connection to it finding the “Power Rangers” franchise completely tedious. It is really stupid and incredibly repetitive. In “Trick or Treat,” Kimberly becomes a contestant on a Halloween-themed game show, seemingly shot on the same juice bar set where half the show takes place. Resident idiot bullies Bulk and Skull are her competitor, which goes about as well as you’d expect. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the monster action of the week. Rita Repulsa sends down a creature called the Pumpkin Rapper, a pumpkin-headed monster who performs the cheesiest, worst raps you can imagine.

Like I said, “Power Rangers” can be hard to stomach from an adult perspective. The non-Ranger stuff in the juice bar is lowest common denominator, shitty kid’s stuff. Bulk and Skull are embarrassing creations. They’re supposed to be bullies but are so stupefyingly dumb, that I can’t imagine them being a threat to anyone. The non-action sequences have a cheesy moral about learning to loose with grace, which is as forced in as you’d expect. The conclusion, where Bulk and Skull loose the car they won, is mind-numbingly dumb. The Rangers sequences are a little easier to tolerate. You’ve got Japanese actors in goofy spandex beating up other goofballs in spandex. The Pumpkin Rapper is a really ridiculous creation. The suit looks pretty cool but the rap premise pushes it into true camp territory. Especially when the Rangers force the monster out by performing their own shitty rap. Disappointingly, there’s no Megazord action as the Rangers actually defeat the monsters with their guns and stuff. I have no idea how to rate “Trick or Treat.” If it wasn’t something I had a vague personal connection to, I’d probably find it totally insufferable. But then again… Jack o’Lantern monster! Shit, is this how my parents felt back in the day? [6/10]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 22

House (1977)

Nobody in America had heard of “Hausu” until a few years back. When you said “House,” everyone thought of the William Katt movie or the TV show. An art house re-release and a Criterion DVD quickly brought “Hausu” to the forefront of avant garde cinema. Unlike most films you associate with the term “avant garde,” it is highly energetic. It’s a film that must be seen to be believed. To see it is to experience a film that makes the work of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky look coherent and calm in comparison. It is also, perhaps, the most Japanese thing ever created.

You might not know from watching it but “Hausu” actually has a very straight-forward story. Gorgeous' father, several years after her mother’s death, is remarrying. This enrages the selfish, spoiled teenage girl. Six friends had planned on going on a trip with their teacher but he has to canceled. Instead, they join Gorgeous at her Auntie’s home. Unbeknownst to the schoolgirls, Gorgeous' Auntie is a ghost, powered by a demonic white cat. Her house comes to life, devouring each of the girls, the old aunt’s age rejuvenating with each causality. The story is simple enough. It’s the execution that makes “Hausu” unlike any other movie ever made.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi has made many films but “House” is the only one to receive wide exposure in the U.S. So I have no idea if his other movies are this fucking weird. “Hausu” is up-front with its unusual style. The film begins with a cartoon logo before transitioning to a shot of one of the girls posing like a ghost. This seems to be mocking typical haunted house movies, which “House” most definitely is not. The skies are bright red and obviously artificial. Repeatedly, the movie draws attention to the fakeness of its sets. A train, brought to life through animation, leaves the station. Inside, the girls wave to the rainbow in the sky, which looks like it was drawn by a grade-schooler. The camera irises in and out on objects repeatedly. The scene splits in two or swirls around during transitions. Slow motion and erratic cutting is utilized repeatedly. At one point, the camera follows a girl’s blinking eyes. At another, it bounces back and forth, in tune with a metronome. Several flashbacks are saturated in purples or reds. We watch from a watermelon’s perspective as it is lowered into a well. One jarring cut has a man eating noodles enter the scene suddenly, soon accompanied by his talking pet bear. Keep in mind, none of these creative choices are related to the weird shit happening in the story. “Hausu” was directed, edited, and composed by a madman.

Aside from its bonkers creative style, “Hausu” distinguishes itself from other haunted house movies by making everything in the house a threat. Most of the danger is signaled when the white cat’s eyes flash green. When this happens, craziness is soon to follow. The watermelon in the well is replaced with a decapitated head. The head floats through the air, vomits blood, and bites one of the other girl’s on the ass. Later, a girl is attacked by floating pillows and bed sheets. Even later, the same girl is found inside a clock, bright red blood oozing from its gears. Floating logs attack one girl, tearing off her skirt. Near the end, that same girl is devoured by a lamp shade, her dismembered legs spastically kicking through the room. Another one of the girls is claimed by a mason jar with sharp teeth. The house’s walls and windows go nuts, seemingly laughing. A random mummy appears. A giant face, or just its eyes or lips, float through a room. Maybe the most notorious moment in “Hausu” has a piano coming to life and eating its player. Her fingers are snapped off, which she doesn’t seem to mind. Her friend goes crossed-eyed, a skeleton dances, and Melody is sucked into the piano. Her limbs twitch wildly as they're crunched. Her naked, dismembered body floats over the piano and comments on how naughty it is being. This is only a fraction of the crazy shit you’re going to see in “House.”

A movie like this might be difficult to follow. Luckily, the characters center us. Each one of the girls is named after their defining characteristic. Gorgeous is defined by her good looks. The house consumes her when she looks in a mirror, her face cracking apart as punishment for her vanity. Fantasy is frequently lost in her own mind. One moment has her fantasizing about the teacher rescuing her, swooping in on a white horse. The sequence is edited like a movie trailer. Prof is the smart one. You can tell because she reads books and wears glasses. Sweet is, well, sweet. She cleans house and takes care of everyone. Mac is obsessed with food and is always snacking. (Her name comes from stomach and also, I suspect, “Big Mac.”) Her friends say she’s fat but she looks the same size as the rest of them to me. Melody’s specialty is music. She’s the one who gets eaten by the piano. My favorite of the girls is Kung-Fu. A martial art expert, every time she leaps into action, an upbeat musical sting plays. She dives dramatically through the air. She fights a chandelier, a telephone, a door, a wall, shoes, the aforementioned mummy, and Gorgeous after she becomes a ghost. She also looses more and more clothing as the story progresses. At one point, she poses with a parasol, a sequence that makes me laugh like crazy even if I do not understand it.

Then there’s the weird shit in the movie that has seemingly nothing to do with anything. The teacher attempts to rescue the girls at the end. On the way to the house, he’s stopped by the man selling watermelons. The man turns into a cartoon skeleton. The teacher flees to his car, screaming about bananas. The next day, he has transformed into a pile of bananas. Earlier in the movie, he fell into a bucket and, via stop motion animation, rides the bucket down the street. Among the insanity, there are singular moments of odd beauty. After the house eats a few of the girls, Auntie begins to dance. She disappears into a refrigerator before reappearing in the rafters, doing an odd dance. She munches on a hand, drops goldfish into their bowl, and is joined by a dancing skeleton. The white cat leaps onto the piano, its meows playing in tune to the song. At one point, Gorgeous walks through the fog-strewn garden, juggling white balls of light. I have no idea why these scenes are in the movie but they’re memorable nevertheless.

If you look pass the craziness, “House” seems to be saying something about Japanese society. Auntie became a ghost when her lover was drafted in World War II and dies. (This information is given to us in a silent movie-style flashback.) In the present day, the Aunt is an old woman, confined to a wheelchair. As the young, vibrant teenage girls arrive at her house, she literally eats them one by one, adsorbing their life force. Gorgeous, meanwhile, seems to become a ghostly clone of her late mother. The women of the past are tied to traditional roles as wives and mothers. The women of the future, meanwhile, can be anything, like musicians, kung-fu experts, or even fat! In “Hausu,” the restrictive paths of tradition come to literal life, killing off the girls that dare question the roles society has chosen for them. Or, maybe, it’s all a bunch of dada bullshit and I’m reading too much into it. Either could be true.

Oh yeah, and a whole room fills full of blood too. If this review came off as me just summarizing the crazy crap that happens in “Hausu,” I apologize. There’s really no other way to respond to this movie. Is it a good movie? If by “good” you mean completely unique and utterly demented then, yes, it is a good movie. Most movies have one good idea. “Hausu” has about a thousand. It’s not really coherent but it is mesmerizing in its audacity and bat-shit craziness. Watch it and be amazed, baffled, and inspired. [8/10]

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

“Bubba Ho-Tep” was a movie I knew I had to see as soon as I read about. The premise was too bizarre to be missed. Elderly Elvis versus a soul-sucking mummy? And starring Ash himself, Bruce Campbell? There was no way I was missing this. When I did see the movie, upon its DVD release some time later, I was surprised by how touching and sincere it was. This wasn’t a “Sharknado”-style fake-camp product cynical of its viewers. It was real movie with things to say about the human condition. In the years since then, “Bubba Ho-Tep” has remained a favorite even if its faded from movie fans’ minds a bit.

“Bubba Ho-Tep” is, indeed, about a geriatric Elvis fighting an evil mummy. In the seventies, sick of the empty joys of fame, Elvis Aaron Presley switched places with the best Elvis impersonator in the world. Not long afterwards, the imposter Elvis died of a drug overdose, leaving the real deal with a case of mistaken identity. Now an old man, his mobility stymied by a broken hip, the King resides at a Texas nursing home. He discovers that an ancient mummy, landed in that area through equally unlikely circumstances, is killing the residents of the home, sucking their souls out their assholes, and shitting them down the communal toilet. Teaming up with an elderly black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy, Elvis has to take care of business.

There’s a lot to love about “Bubba Ho-Tep” but its most charming attribute is the lead performance. Bruce Campbell has never been lauded for his acting chops. The dude can take a hit and spew a one-liner like nobody’s business. As far as dramatic range goes, his has always assumed to be limited. Here, he gives a four-dimensional performance. Campbell manages to imbue a monologue about the growth on the end of Elvis’ dick with a certain meloncholey. He’s an old man, at the end of his life, burdened by years of regrets. The heavy make-up he’s under doesn’t dissuade his expressive abilities any. The actor maintains a pitch-perfect impersonation of the character throughout the whole film. Amazingly, he never stoops to parody, instead playing Elvis as a fully formed human being. It helps that Campbell has amazing support from Ossie Davis, a lauded thespian who speaks utterly ridiculous dialogue here in a totally straight manner. Both Campbell and Davis are amazing and I’m certain “Bubba Ho-Tep” wouldn’t have worked at all without their committed performances.

They don’t make a lot of movies about old people. We like to see young, attractive, pretty people in our motion pictures. In “Bubba Ho-Tep,” the elderly are hidden away so as not to bother anyone. After they pass, their bodies are not treated with any dignity or respect. At one point, a corpse is dropped on the ground by the careless orderlies. When Elvis’ roommate finally dies, his daughter seems totally disinterested in the man’s life, willfully throwing away his possessions without a moment’s notice. Presley's interior monologue states these themes bluntly. When the same girl bends over, giving the old man a clear view of her underwear, it’s because he is a complete non-entity to her. That’s part of the cruel joke of “Bubba Ho-Tep.” The mummy is targeting the elderly because no one notices, or cares, when they die. Because they’re slow, easy prey. Considering the nursing home is full of American legends like Elvis, JFK, or the Lone Ranger, it’s a pretty biting indictment about how the elderly are treated.

Yet “Bubba Ho-Tep” is also about those legends having one last adventure. When the mummy kills its victims, their souls are lost forever. Protecting his fellow rest home occupants gives Elvis a renewed purpose in life. Like a lot of things in the film, this is frankly illustrated. At story’s start, Elvis hasn’t had an erection in two decades. After frying a giant scarab on a space-heater, his soldier stands up at attention again, much to the shock of his nurse. Elvis and Jack formulating a plan against the creature isn’t played like a serious life or death scenario. (Though it is.) Instead, it’s like two old guys, rediscovering a zest to life for the first time in forever. The image of Elvis, his white jumpsuit stretched over his bloated body, lurching down a hallway against a walker triumphantly is funny. It’s also honest. As outwardly comical as their appearance might be, these guys are on a heroic quest. Maybe the film’s greatest strength is that it approaches its utterly ridiculous subject matter with abject sincerity. The ending, when the King realizes his time on this Earth is up, and how the universe responds, is genuinely touching.

For such a tiny film, “Bubba Ho-Tep” also strings along a surprisingly deep mythology. Through a brief, visual flashback, we learn that the mummy wasn’t even respected in his day. Like Jack or Elvis, he’s a fallen idol too, a once-important figure that is now forgotten and ridiculed. His visual presentation points to this as well. The mummy does not wear a regal Egyptian head dress but a gaudy, dime-store cowboy get-up. The fates of Elvis and JFK brilliantly twist American legend. The contract that would have allowed Elvis to switch places again with the real deal is destroyed in a sudden trailer fire. JFK was dyed black, the hole in his head filled with sand. It’s implied in the film that neither man are who they claim to be. That impersonator Sebastian Haft fell into a coma and awoke confused, believing himself to be the real Elvis and concocting a wacky story to justify this. That Jack is just a crazy, old man. You can choose to see the movie that way. It’s open to interpretation. Speaking strictly for myself, I believe both men are the real deal. The film means a lot more if they are.

“Bubba Ho-Tep” is another movie I could go on about forever. I haven’t even mentioned Tyler Bates’ beautiful score, Coscarelli’s simple but stylish direction, or the ribald humor and frank dialogue – a trademark of writer Jon R. Lansdale – that is organically incorporated into the film. It’s a surprising deep motion picture, especially considering its outward appearance. That’s appropriate though. People misjudged the characters in the film as well, discounting their real human thoughts because of their goofy appearances. [9/10]

There Are Monsters (2008)

I first read about “There Are Monsters” on a list of terrifying horror shorts freely available on the internet. I’ll be the judge of that! Set on a snowy Canadian day, a man goes to the store to get some ice cream for his wife. The woman at the store acts strangely, has an implacably wide smile, and her fingers are covered in blood. Friends come over for a party later that night, each one reporting similarly strange encounters. The man then notices that his wife is acting strange too.

First off, “There Are Monsters” isn’t terrifying. The camera is constantly moving which is distracting and annoying. Several times, the photography goes out of focus. Meanwhile, the dialogue is unnaturally vulgar and frequently overdone. During the ten minute run time, we never get a bead on any of the characters. The encounter with the odd woman at the store manages to build some unnerving energy. I like the subtle hints dropped in the background, little tidbits about the Large Hadron Collider and astronauts going crazy in space. The ending of “There Are Monsters” is especially lame. Nothing is revealed or resolved and any tension the film manages to build is sacrificed for a lame jump scare. You have my permission to skip this one. [5/10]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 21

Evil of Dracula (1974)
Chi o suu bara / Bloodsucking Rose

Japanese genre films are usually cranked out on a yearly basis. Anytime there’s a break of a year or more, you always wondered. I don’t know why “Evil of Dracula” was produced two years after “Lake of Dracula,” Michio Yamamoto’s previous vampire film. That “Evil” would wind up being the last in the series, and the last feature film Yamamoto would direct for that matter, suggests that Japan’s interest in Western style bloodsucker flicks had dried up. It’s usually considered the weakness entry in the Bloodthirsty trilogy as well. I’ll be the judge of that.

The psychology teacher at an all-girls school, Dr. Shiraki, has noticed some strange things. The night of his arrival, he stays at the home of the academy’s principal. That night, Shiraki discovers two strange, pale women in the basement, blood running down the one’s neck. Instead of fleeing like a reasonable person, Shiraki continues on to the school. He quickly befriends a trio of girls, Kumi, Kyoko, and Yukiko. Strange things begin to befall the girls. A man comes for them at night, biting their necks, turning them into undead slaves. Shiraki tries to protect the girls while uncovering the secret of the vampire, the school’s principal, and how he connects to an ancient legend in the area.

“Evil of Dracula” is sexier and bloodier then Yamamoto’s preceding vampire films. The vampire villain makes a habit of biting his female victims on the breasts. Early on, we see a lady vampire, her nipples visibly poking through her night gown. Unlike the first and second film, this one focuses heavily on weeping wounds and dripping blood. The most graphic sequence in the film involves the vampire’s bride laying the nude body of a girl on a table. She stabs her in the neck, blood spraying all over the girl’s body and the room. After draining the girl, the vampire apparently cuts off her face and wears it, though the actual skinning is left off-screen. Despite seemingly being gratuitous, the graphic content plays in the trilogy’s overarching themes. In “Lake of Dracula,” the vampire was a symbol of unrestrained sexuality, a threat to the chaste, nervous heroine. Here, the vampire is an authority figure at a school, preying on his female students. The biting scenes bring to mind seductions or, in one case, flat-out sexual assault. Maybe adding more gore and sexing it up were just ways to attract audiences but at least it’s consistent with the other films.

The focus on gore and nudity means “Evil of Dracula” is not as atmospheric as the other flicks. However, it does have its moments. The best scene in the film involves Shiraki’s one faculty friend telling him about the local legend. During the days when Christianity was banned in Japan, a missionary sneaked into the country. When he was found, he was tortured and forced to renounce his faith. Sent to walk the desert (Japan has deserts?), he was eventually forced to drink his own blood to survive. Now a vampire, he kidnapped a teenage girl from the near-by village, taking her as his bride. This sequence is shown in flashback, a Caucasian man wandering the desert in glorious wide-shots. It’s an interesting origin for a vampire and a good twist on the lore. There are other expressionistic touches. After being bitten, a white rose the girl owns turns red. A vampire is photographed biting a victim. After the photo is developed, the woman is seen by herself.

However, “Evil of Dracula” is a lot slower then the already deliberately paced “Lake of Dracula.” There’s a lot of sleuthing and scenes of nobody believing our hero. The teenage girls are all claimed until only the teacher’s love interest, Kumi, is left untouched. After seventy minutes of slowness, the film finally picks up some. A lightening storm crashes outside when Shiraki confronts the vampiric principal in his lair. Another intense fight scene ensues, the vampire tossing the hapless human through windows and banisters. This time, the vampire is dispatched when a red hot fire poker is shoved through his chest, a gory, exciting set piece. As he is struck dead, his bride falls to the floor too. As they die, their hair turns white. Their skin melts away, until both are only skeletons. With their dying breathes, the two vampires reach out and hold hands, suggesting that even the most monstrous creatures are capable of love.

Even if it’s not as creepy or exciting, “Evil” is as well-shot as the other films in the trilogy. One shot of a vampire bride leading someone through the woods, the night foggy and dark, is quite lovely. The cast remains solid. Toshio Kurosawa is a likable hero. The chemistry he has with Mariko Mochizuki is strong enough for the viewer to overlook how creepy it is that a teacher is dating his student. The only returning cast member from “Lake of Dracula” is Shin Kishida. Though the character is different, he plays both vampires in a similar manner. Both are silent, imposing, and wear a bitching black cape. Riichiro Manabe’s score is definitely the weakest of his scores, as its focuses too much on noisy experimentation The music is generally shrill.

Though obviously the weakest of the three films, there’s still some interesting stuff going on inside “Evil of Dracula.” All three of Yamamoto’s films are intriguing for bringing such a distinctly Eastern sensibility to usually Western material. None of them are like your typical vampire flick and each one contains something special. The films aren’t widely available in the U.S. but I’d say each one is well worth tracking down. [6/10]

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

I like Don Coscarelli. Obviously, the guy’s style and creativity is what powers the “Phantasm” series and makes it so much fun. Another side of the same card is that, re-watching the entire series, it has become clear that the guy is making it up as he goes along. Even though part three ended on a cliffhanger, and resolved very little, the director admitted that he was out of ideas. When “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” did roll into production, only four years later, it seemed mostly motivated by Coscarelli discovering some unused footage from the original. I can’t remembered if “Oblivion” (Or “OblIVion, if you insist.) was advertised as the final film or not. If it was, I bet fans were pissed off.

“Phantasm IV: Oblivion” essentially tells two stories, running side-by-side. Following the events of “Lord of the Dead,” Mike and Jody flee into the desert, the boy unsure of his destiny. Once he’s in the middle of nowhere, the Tall Man confronts Mike, seemingly insistent upon rearing him as his protegee. Mike resists this, despite the beckoning of his back-from-the-grave brother. Meanwhile, the Tall Man lets Reggie live, following his seemingly final fate at the end of part three. The ice cream man heads into the desert too, exploring the wasteland. Pursued by the Tall Man’s forces, he attempts to rescue his friends and stay alive.

The duel plots of “Phantasm IV” are seemingly there to please fans of the low-key horror of the original “Phantasm” and fans of the crazy action of the sequels. Of the two story lines, Reggie on the road is outwardly the most entertaining. Reggie Bannister developed, nicely, into a middle-aged, atypical action hero. An early wrestling match with a demonic road cop is surprisingly physical, with Reg being beaten brutally by the monster before it goes up in flames. As is expected by now, Reg also picks a babe up on the road. His attempts to sleep with her are rebuffed once again, providing some decent laughs. And because this is “Phantasm,” that babe turns out to be a Tall Man sleeper agent, packing sentinel spheres in her breasts. The scuffle in the hotel room, where Reg fights off two spheres at the risk of his limbs, is entertaining and visceral. In the last act, when Reggie loads his quad-barrel shotgun and slips on his ice cream vendor suit again, is pure fanservice. Watching the guy blasts dwarf monsters again is so worth it. Bannister is clearly having a ball.

However, the second part of “Oblivion” provides some interesting things too. Isolated in the desert, Mike begins to search his memories, grappling with his newly-discovered status as an otherworldly being. These sequences are where the long, lost scenes from the original are utilized. It’s a bit hard to wander where some of them would have fit in. Yet they’re fascinating anyway. We see the Tall Man arrive in Mike and Jody’s small town for the first time. An especially mean touch is that the evil mortician runs over a poor little dog. We see the Tall Man strung up in a improvised noose, dangling from a tree. He temps Mike into cutting him down, which fits in with the film’s overall conflict. The final scene of Mike and Reg riding down the street in his ice cream truck, towards an uncertain future, was amazingly prescient too. I’m still not a fan of Mike actually being from the same dimension as the Tall Man. The scenes of him testing his psychic powers or writing up his will aren’t the most compelling. Yet I appreciate Coscarelli’s attempt to recapture the more dream-like tone of the original film.

Most tantalizing for “Phantasm” phanatics is some of the long-awaiting answers “Oblivion” provides to some of the series’ long-lingering questions. We discover that Jody’s sudden appearance was not through his own will. Turns out, he’s a servant of the Tall Man too. He was brought back by the villain to help further direct the events of the plot. It’s a rickety retcon but one I’m willing to go along with. The best part is that “Oblivion” gives the Tall Man a definitive origin. Turns out, he started life as Jedidiah Morningside, a humble, Civil War mortician. Fascinated by science, Morningside built a crude, dimensional gateway. The old man step through and… The Tall Man returned. It’s about as vague an origin as the series could have provided but I like it. It’s in keeping with the franchise’s style. It gives us an idea of what happened without explaining everything in clear detail. Seems right.

While “Oblivion” finally clarifies some long-standing issues, other parts of it are more frustrating. We still don’t know what Mike is exactly. Did he always have a sentinel for a brain? Or did he undergo a change in the gap between sequels? Why exactly is the Tall Man still pursuing him? Why did the villains’ goal seemingly shift at some point? Most pressingly, what does all of this mean? The most frustrating part of “Oblivion” is it’s ending. Jody is, finally, definitively, dead. Mike’s attempt to use his powers to stop the Tall Man doesn’t work. (Because of course it doesn’t.) The villain strikes a killing blow, yanking the gold sphere out of Mike’s head and leaving him for dead. Reggie heads through the dimensional fork, pursuing the villain and hoping to save his friends. Once again, the story ends on a cliffhanger. It’s not satisfying or beguiling. Mostly, it’s just annoying.

For many years, it was assumed that non-ending was the last we’d see of the world of “Phantasm.” Considering how up there in age he’s getting, there was always this lingering fear that Angus Scrimm would die before a fifth film got made. And then, last year, out of nowhere, came the announcement of “Phantasm V: Ravager.” I’m keeping my expectations measured. The film was shot quickly, cheaply, and without Coscarelli behind the camera. Surely, at this point, the filmmakers realize this is there last shot at a “Phantasm” movie and will wrap things up. Or, maybe, something less definitive would be more in keeping with the series’ style. It’s hard to say. Until we know for sure, “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” is an interesting but frustrating entry in the series. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Curiosity Killed

“Curiosity Killed” is another mean-spirited episode of “Tales from the Crypt” that probably wouldn’t work without its great cast. A bickering old married couple, along with their better adjusted friends, head out on an ill-conceived camping trip. While Cynthia and Jack snipe at each other, Harry and Lucille dig up a secret in the swamp. Lucille’s dad, it turns out, was a voodoo priest who discovered the secret to eternal youth. A strange plant, when harvested from a corpse and grown in the moonlight, produces a youth-restoring sap. At first, Jack seems keen on sharing it with his long-suffering wife. Then he changes his mind, determined to spite Cynthia again. Revenge, and ironic punishment, ensues.

As I said, “Curiosity Killed” is a nasty half-hour of television. The elderly couple bicker, viciously yelling at each other. At first, especially when their screaming overlaps, this is kind of funny. After a while, it becomes annoying. The characters are so hateful to each other that there’s not a lot for the audience to like. The way the story plays out, with Cynthia poisoning the others, drinking the youth potion, and then being mauled to death by a dog, is fairly ugly. The lead female, hateful though she may be, is seemingly being punished for regaining her beauty. However, the cast helps a lot. Margot Kidder, buried under a heaping load of old age make-up, convincingly plays a bitchy old woman. Kevin McCarthey is very entertaining, the actor’s usual glee shining through his nasty behavior. “Curiosity Killed” is a bit of a sour note to end the otherwise decent season four on. This’ll be the last of the Crypt Keeper I’ll see this Halloween which is a bummer. I like the guy. [5/10]

2 A.M.: The Smiling Man (2013)

I still don’t know how to feel about the concept of “creepypastas.” Crowd-sourcing horror stories to the internet has produce a lot of crap and some pretty stupid subcultures. However, there have been some gems in all the debris. “2AM” is adapted from such a story called “The Smiling Man,” which was supposedly based on a true story. A man walks home through his dark neighborhood in the middle of the night. Walking down the sidewalk, he sees a strange man, dragging his heels across the concrete, with a huge smile on his face. At first, he laughs the stranger off. However, when the Smiling Man runs after him, the encounter becomes frightening.

“2AM” is real short, clocking in at just under five minutes. That’s the right time for a simple, creepy story. The short plays on real life fears and its easy to put yourself in the position of the main character. I mean, what would you do if some weirdo started running after you on a dark street? The movie captures the panic of that moment well. The sound design, especially the Smiling Man scratching his shoes across the street, is very well done. I really like how, after the protagonist turns his back on the stranger, we hear his feet quickly running towards him. There’s some distracting shaky cam in the middle section, the music is heavy-handed, and the ending is slightly goofy. That said, “2AM” is well done and generates some decent chills. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 20

Lake of Dracula (1971)
Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me / Bloodthirsty Eyes

“Vampire Doll” obviously must have been a success of some kind because, a year later, Toho gave the go-ahead for Michio Yamamoto to make another vampire movie. Unlike the first film in his Bloodthirsty Trilogy, “Lake of Dracula” received some sort of release in the United States, owning perhaps to the marquee name in its title. Despite what that title might make you think, the film is as unusual a vampire movie as the director’s last stab at the subgenre was.

Akiko seems to be doing all right in her life. She has a nice lake-side home with her doctor boyfriend Saeki and her sister Natusko. However, after a strange man moves into the other house on the lake, things get weird for Akiko. She suffers from repressed memories of a traumatic event from her childhood. The image of yellow glowing eyes haunt her. A formally friendly old man attacks her. Finally, her sister begins to act oddly. After a dead girl with bites on her neck shows up at the hospital, Saeki begins to put two and two together. Akiko is being hunted by a vampire, the same vampire that has pursued her since childhood.

“Lake of Dracula’s” title probably makes you think it’ll be a Japanese take on Hammer’s various Dracula movies. It’s not. Instead, the movie “Lake of Dracula” most resembles is “Rosemary’s Baby.” Akiko is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She suspects her sister is trying to seduce her boyfriend. Natusko’s increasingly erratic behavior seems to confirm this. While Akiko, in a panic, calls Saeki on the phone, Natusko tries to brush the event off as nothing. She jumps at every noise. An effective sequence has the wind blowing open a window, the noise clattering throughout the whole house. She wakes up in the middle of the night, wandering around an empty house, which is surprisingly eerie. As in “Rosemary,” nobody believes her at first. She quickly comes to the conclusion that she must be going crazy. Years of repressed fears and anxieties bubble to the surface and she begins to crack up. This first half of “Lake of Dracula” is the film’s most effective, as it plays on common fears and creates some nicely spooky atmosphere.

However, the film eventually moves into a less satisfying second half. Saeki comes around to believing his girlfriend’s crazy stories. After an encounter with a vampire, he quickly accepts the supernatural events. He takes the girl back to the hospital and quickly puts her in a hypnotic state. Under a trance, she explains the traumatic memory at the film’s core, about how she encountered the same vampire as a child. The tone is flat and the dialogue is full of exposition. The couple decides to head back to Akiko’s childhood home and track down the strange house. To suddenly uproot the story from one location to another is jarring. Once at the dilapidated mansion, they find a journal that explains all the back story in one curt, tidy sequence. An over-reliance on exposition was one of the weaknesses of “Vampire Doll” and it obviously carried over to this film as well.

It’s hard to say if vampire fans will dig “Lake of Dracula” or not. The film is a bit short on neck-biting and stakings. However, I personally found a lot to like on this front. Once again, the vampires heavily resemble classical Japanese ghosts. All of the female vampires in the film wear willowy white gowns, have long black hair, and white faces. It’s eventually revealed that the antagonistic vampire isn’t actually Dracula but rather a descendent of him. Like the famous Count, the vampire has an affinity for black formal wear and a sway over women. One notable sequence has him calling Natusko out of her home and biting her neck. In another, he calls a recently turned corpse out of a hospital, a simple moment that is elevated by its spooky direction. The finale is the most traditionally vampire-movie-like sequence in the film. The descendent of Dracula corners Saikei and Akiko in his old mansion, determined to finally claim the girl as his own. A surprisingly brutal struggle ensues, the vampire throwing the boyfriend around with ease. The way the bloodsucker is dispatched is gnarly too. Tumbling over a banister, impaled through the heart, he writhes in agony, snarling directly at the camera for several minutes before dying.

The performances are strong. Midori Fujita anchors the whole film, properly conveying panic and fear. Choei and Takahasi is strong and likable as the heroic doctor. Shin Kishida is suitably imposing and implacable as the vamp. Riichiro Manabe’s score is very different from his work on “Vampire Doll.” It’s less gothic and more funky, with a scattering bass-line and some discordant noise. It still helps develop the film’s uneasy mood. Also unlike “Vampire Doll,” “Lake of Dracula’ is hampered by some moments of unintentional camp. The fashion and wall paper are very characteristic of 1971 and liable to generate some giggles. While driving to the hospital, a vampire leaps out from the backseat to strangle Saeki. What could have been an intense sequence is ruined when Saeki, through his choking, says “You’re making it difficult to drive!” Probably not what most people would say when under attack. A bolt of lightening dispatches the vamp too, which is overly easy and obvious.

While I prefer “Vampire Doll” overall, I still liked “Lake of Dracula.” Yamamoto’s films continue to have a nice mixture of traditional vampire theatrics with a distinctly Japanese tone. They’re moody, creepy, and atmospheric, with unique music and an interesting focus on women. After a month of giant monster movies, they’re a nice change of pace. [7/10]

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

“Phantasm II” failed to light the box office on fire, befitting a series beloved by its followers but somewhat obscure by mainstream standards. Despite that setback, Don Coscarelli was still able to scrap together enough funds for a third one, this time only coming four years after the last one. Universal Studios had no active involvement in the third film, allowing Don to do whatever he wanted, but agreed to distribute it. Even then, they managed to screw over the movie, shelving for over a year before crapping it out on VHS. Naturally, “Phantasm” phans tracked it down anyway. They’re a faithful lot.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” picks up right where part two left off. Reggie catches up with the hearse, just in time to watch it explode. Mike survives the crash but his love interest didn’t. Mike slips into a coma for several years, watched over by Reg. In his dreams, he encounters Jody… and the Tall Man. After waking up from his coma, the Tall Man steals Mike away, leading Reggie back on the road. Passing through several towns decimated by the cosmic villain, Reggie picks up a young kid, a street-smart tough chick, and Jody, alive once again and living on as a flying orb.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” is most notable for expanding the mythology. In the years since the second film, the Tall Man has continued to sweep through small towns, cleaning out their cemeteries and wiping out anyone who gets in his way. The world at large continues to function while the countryside is approaching post-apocalyptic conditions. We learn more about the Tall Man’s minions. The spheres have tiny brains in them, cut out of the dwarves. The Tall Man, meanwhile, has a sphere for a brain. We learn that the series’ villain can survive death simply by transferring his consciousness to another body. The implication from the second film, that the Tall Man is essentially Cthulhu in a human suit, seems to have been confirmed. The Tall Man’s weakness to extreme cold is also mentioned for the first time since the original. The third film also brings Jody back, despite the character dying in 1979. His spirit has lived on in the world of dreams and somehow he crosses over, in the form of a black killer sphere. Meanwhile, we learn why the Tall Man has been pursuing Mike. There’s something special about the boy, something that makes him not quite human. I’m not sure if I like those last two plot points but, either way, the third film finally builds the stream-of-consciousness rantings of the “Phantasm” series into some sort of cohesive whole.

Mostly, though, “Phantasm III” emulates the action/comedy tone of the previous film. “Lord of the Dead” begins with Reggie exploding a lurker’s head with his quad-barrel shotgun before shooting three more out of a tree. For much of its run time, the film is a chase story, Reggie on the road looking for Mike, picking up new friends, and trying to stay one step ahead of the Tall Man. In the last act, it becomes a reverse siege picture, Reg and company taking the fight to the bad guy. There’s plenty of crazy action in the film. Zombies leap across moving cars, grabbing at Mike before he unloads a gun in the undead creature’s face, causing it to roll under the wheels of the other vehicles. This leads into the craziest stunt in the film, the hearse hitting a rock, leaping into the air, doing an insane four spins, and crashing to the ground. There’s lots of gun play, nun-chuck fights with the zombies,and several exploding spheres. The budget is obviously much smaller then part two but Coscarelli still piles on the set-pieces. The tone remains light with a lot of humor. Reggie’s repeated attempts to get in Rocky’s pants are quite funny, as are his near-misses with death. There’s a lot of one-liners and over-the-top action but not a single scare. This is probably fine for fans of the second film but those looking for the ominous chills of the original might be a bit disappointed.

A lack of money has never held back Don Coscarelli’s trademark creativity. “Lord of the Dead” features plenty of the low-budget gadgetry and ingenuity we associate with the series. This mostly comes from the character of Tim, the tag-along kid this film introduces. In order to fight off bandits, he has rigged out his house with a number of body traps. A clown doll, covered with knives, falls from the ceiling. Tim sneaks through the house using various secret passageways. My favorite moment involves him throwing a Frisbee covered with razor blades, perfect for slicing bad guys’ throats. In a sequence recalling the original, the Tall Man has his hands chopped off. The severed limbs transform into scurrying little monsters which have to be stomped or stabbed. There’s a lot of fun to be had when you’ve got zombies getting slammed in the head with nun-chucks or flying golden spheres smashing through windows.

I’m a fan of the new additions to the cast. Kevin Connors could have been annoying as Tim but the character is hardy and tough enough not to be a nuisance. Gloria Lynne Henry is another stand-out as Rocky, the tough girl that joins Reggie’s quest. Again, the character could have been cheap or thin. Instead, Henry has a lot of fun in the part, making Rocky a convincing action heroine. The back-and-forth she has with Reggie pays off really well during the film’s required sex scene. This time, the script acknowledges out ridiculous it is that a bald, middle-age man like Reggie Bannister is scoring with babes much younger then him.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” is frustrating some times. The resolution is overly oblique and doesn’t resolve very much. We’re left with a lot unanswered questions. Still, when “Phantasm III” goes for action and goofball fun, it’s an entertaining time. It might not be the most stable sequel but “Phantasm” faithfuls are likely to have a good time with it. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Werewolf Concerto

“Werewolf Concerto” is “Tales from the Crypt” putting their stamp on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Vacationers at a forest-bound hotel are being threatened by a werewolf. The owner of the inn assures the patrons that they have nothing to worry about. A werewolf hunter has been brought in to pick off the dangerous creatures. The twist is the owner refuses to reveal who the owner is. We follow Lokai, a stylish gentleman whom we assume to be the werewolf hunter.

“Werewolf Concerto” has got a solid cast, which is its primary attribute. Timothy Dalton, still solidly in James Bond mode, has a good time as Lokai. He seduces ladies, wields a gun, drops one-liners, and shoots a bad guy in the head. Dennis Farina is cast against type as the slightly feminine inn owner. Reginald VelJohnson, Carl Winslow himself, plays one of the red herrings in the inn. And that’s one of the problems with “Werewolf Concerto.” In a novel or feature film, there’s time to develop character motivations or false starts. A half-hour episode of television does not have that luxury. The other cast members at the cabin don’t have much personality or purpose to the story. It truly seems like there were just thrown in for the heck of it. The werewolf stuff is pretty cool, including a decent throat slashing and a girl having her face smashed into a piano. The true identity of the werewolf is easy to guess and the episode’s twist ending is actually taken form an earlier “Tales” episode, season two’s “The Secret.” “Werewolf Concerto” starts off strong enough but, in the long run, doesn’t satisfy. [5/10]

Das Clown (1999)

“Das Clown” is a short with a really wacky set-up. The story is presented as a slide-show. We the audience see still photographs accompanied by a voice over, sound effects, and music. “Das Clown” tells the story of an old man, running an antique store, and the creepy clown doll he befriends. Words from a tome of eldritch lore brings Sparkles the doll to life, causing the clown doll to go on a killing spree. After the nice old man in the shop is killed, a local cop investigates, leading to a very unexpected ending.

A unique presentation gives “Das Clown” an edge over other horror shorts. The beeping and clicking of the slide machine become annoying after a while but the style, nevertheless, makes the short unlike anything else. It’s a good example of a storytelling gimmick that would become tedious in a feature but works just fine for an eight minute short. The story is goofy, gory, twisted, and funny, as the German accented clown doll murders people in exaggerated, creative, and obviously ridiculous ways. The narration, provided by John Popper of Blues Travelers fame for some reason, contrasts nicely with what’s happening on-screen. Popper’s voice is folksy and kind while the movie is anything but. There’s just enough twisted humor, like Sparkles’ bubblegum pink blood or the back story behind a violin, to keep things going at a funny, sick speed. The twist ending is also a hoot and probably the last thing you’d see coming. The music is also surprisingly good considering this is a brief short. It’s disappointing that director Tom E. Brown never went on to do much, as he showed a lot of promise. I wouldn’t suggest expanding “Das Clown” into a feature but I would kind-of like to see the further adventures of Sparkles the Clown. [7/10]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 19

Vampire Doll (1970)
Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô / Legacy of Dracula

By the start of the seventies, the Kaiju Boom had finally burnt out. Gamera would struggle on for one more film and the Godzilla series would continue until 1975. Otherwise, giant monsters had worn out their welcome. It was in this environment that Toho decided to take a chance on a different kind of monster movie. “Vampire Doll,” or “Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll” as the original title translates, is the first of three vampire films the otherwise-non-prolific Michio Yamamoto would direct for Toho. All three films are rare and obscure in the States, which meant I went into this one with zero expectations or preconceived notions.

Kazuhiko travels to the Japanese countryside to visit his fiancee Yuko. Upon arriving at her mother’s large, dilapidated mansion, Kazuhiko is informed that Yuko recently died in a car crash. He disappears for weeks afterwards, causing his sister Keiko and her fiancé Hiroshi to travel to the same mansion and investigate. It quickly becomes apparent that Yuko is not dead, not quite, and this is only the first of many dark secrets her family is hiding. As the undead girl stacks up victims, Keiko and Hiroshi try to get the bottom of the Kazuhiko’s disappearance and the mystery of Yuko’s resurrection.

“Vampire Doll” is really interesting as it’s a Japanese take on a traditionally Western type of horror film. The film, in many ways, resembles an “old dark house” movie. Kazuhiko arrives at the mansion in the middle of a thunder storm. Most of the story takes place in the mansion and the film doesn’t resist bathing the angles in shadows and cobwebs. A great deal of the plot revolves around people snooping into family secrets, much to the resentment of the family themselves. A very effective moment has Hiroshi approaching a locked basement door, stepping through a thin staircase. Ms. Nonomura stops him and locks the door behind them. The forbidden door, hiding a horrible secret, is another classic horror trademark. The family includes a deaf-mute man-servant named Genzo, a decision that recalls both Ygor and Dr. Orloff. Most effectively, the film has spooky fog wafting over a wet forest. The atmosphere and color of the film recalls both Hammer and AIP.

Despite being patterned in many way after classic Gothic horror films, “Vampire Doll” still maintains much of its Japanese roots. Yuko, the doll of the title, is referred to as a vampire a few times. Yet she doesn’t act much like one. She attacks her victims’ necks not to drink blood but because, as a child, she was obsessed with a scar on her mother’s neck. Instead, Yuko’s appearance is obviously patterned after the traditional Japanese onyro, putting her in league with Kaidan and Sadako. She has all the indicators: The pale face, the white funeral gown, the obscuring black hair, the unearthly movements, and a motivation based in the injustices suffered in life. The main theme of the film is one of familial shame and secrets. That’s not a uniquely Japanese topic but it does, it seems to me, speak to the country’s cultural identity.

“Vampire Doll” builds an old-timey spooky atmosphere, which allows it to pull off a number of creepy and even scary scenes. The tone is set early on when Kazuhiko first arrives at the castle. He peeks through a keyhole, seeing Yuko moving in a rocking chair before she vanishes. One of the eeriest shots in the movie is when he looks out the window and sees the undead vampire doll saunter across the foggy, grassy yard. That sequence has a shock ending, when Kazuhiko embraces his lover, only for her to plunge a knife into her back. In the process of uncovering the mystery, Hiroshi digs up Yuko’s grave. When the coffin lid is pushed aside, a literal doll leaps out, which provides a solid jump scare. During the day, Keiko and Hiroshi visit the town doctor who tells a spooky ghost story from the war, a moment that proves creepy by just focusing on the actor’s face and voice. Yuko’s implacable nature makes her a genuinely unnerving horror villain. She appears over people’s shoulders or behind doors. In the only moment of explicit gore in the few, she leaps towards a victim in a jittery, unearthly manner, and slits his throat, which leads to an operatic spray of blood.

Providing much of the film’s spooky tone is Riichiro Manabe’s score. The reoccurring theme makes great use of the harpsichord. “Vampire Doll” is also a good looking film and director Yamamoto smartly centers faces or axe blades directly at the viewer. One moment has a woman in bed seemingly floating in darkness. The cast is solid. Kayo Matsuo plays Keiko. Despite being a helpless victim that is tossed around by the plot, Matsuo remains likable and sympathetic. Yoko Minakaze is frosty and creepy as Ms. Nonomura, the mysterious matriarch most of the plot centers around. Akira Nakao is likable as hero Hiroshi and the beautiful Yukiko Kobayashi, last seen in “Destroy All Monsters” and “Space Amoeba,” is suitably uncanny as the undead Yuko.

My only gripe with “Vampire Doll” is the way it resolves its supernatural plot. Hypnotism is awkwardly inserted and a character previously assumed minor becomes a major part of the back story. However, like many great Japanese horror films, the story wraps up on an ambiguous, poetic, and oddly beautiful note. According to IMDb, the film was released in the US in 1971 in a longer 85 minute cut. I have no idea where to find this version as the original 71 minute Japanese version is quite rare to begin with. If you get the chance though, I highly recommend seeking this one out. Its low-key spookiness and old-school gothic trappings make it perfect Halloween viewing. [7/10]

Phantasm II (1988)

“Phantasm” was a decent sized indie hit in its day, gaining a vocal following and introducing an iconic villain. Despite coming right before the huge wave of American horror films seen in the eighties, “Phantasm” wasn’t immediately picked up for a series of sequels. Nearly a decade passed before “Phantasm II” materialized. Don Coscarelli convinced Universal to back the film, gaining a budget eight times larger then the first, allowing him to make a bigger, more elaborate movie.

The film begins with a flashback, establishing what exactly happened that night eight years earlier. Reggie rescued Mike from the Tall Man and blew up their house, saving them from the entity’s diminutive minions. Afterwards, Mike wound up in a mental institution, where he developed a psychic connection to a blonde girl he’s never met before. After getting out, Mike and Reggie team up again. The set out on the road together, hoping to hunt down the Tall Man, prevent him from taking over another town, and rescuing the literal girl of Mike’s dram.

“Phantasm II” pumps up the action of the original considerably. Within the first fifteen minutes, the movie features two exploding houses, in contrast to the first’s zero exploding houses. There’s another car chase but this one has a car flipping over a rock, through the air, and crashing up-side down. Then it explodes, after a dramatic sequence of fire catching from a leak of gasoline. Doors are chainsawed through, multiple dwarves are blasted, and flame is thrown. The movie’s crazy action theatrics peak with the chainsaw duel in the last act. One of the Tall Man’s human henchmen, a gas-masked wearing gravedigger, corners Reg in the basement. Reggie picks up his own chainsaw, prompting the digger to pull an even bigger saw off the shelf. In-between the blades crashing and sparking, you’ve got Reg making a dramatic, crotch-first leap over one of the spinning blades. “Phantasm II’ takes the “Evil Dead II’ approach to the sequelizing a horror movie, exploding a small horror story into a crazy action flick. Since “Phantasm” already had some crazy action in it, this is an even better fit for this series.

Working with a studio budget allows Coscarelli to take his natural creativity to even bigger places. Before heading out on the road, Mike and Reggie break into a hardware store. They load up on tools, cobbling together some improvised weapons. Reggie builds his infamous quadruple shotgun, welding two separate guns together. Mike builds a flamethrower from a blowtorch and some gas cans. Naturally, both weapons are used on nasty bad guys. Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Phantasm” movie without the flying, killer spheres. The classic variety returns. The sequel even recreates the head-drilling scene from the first film. However, the sentinel spheres gain some new tricks. One has a tiny saw blade, perfect for slicing off ears. The star of the show, however, is the golden sphere. It’s powerful enough to smash through doors, in one of my favorite shots. A whirling, round blades extend out. Those are utilized to eat through an unfortunate henchman, digging upward through his stomach and out his mouth. The sphere is even equipped with a friggin’ laser beam. Coscarelli’s creatively boosts the gore too. A nasty creature emerges from the spine of a girl, speaking in the Tall Man’s voice. The iconic villain is given an iconic send-off, pumped full of acid-soaked embalming fluid, melting from the inside-out. Cool stuff.

The first “Phantasm” didn’t feature many female characters, which reflected it’s intentionally adolescent mind-set. “Phantasm II,” however, gives Mike and Reggie both love interests. Liz, played by Paula Irvine, is the girl that shares a psychic connection with Mike. Disappointingly, Liz and Mike aren’t in the same place for most of the film. When the audience would rather be seeing Mike and Reg’s awesome adventures on the road, the film cuts away to Liz dealing with the Tall Man taking over her town. It’s not as compelling. Splitting the story in two like that also affects the movie’s pacing. Even after the guys pick up Liz, she continues to be an ineffective damsel in distress. During the awesome chainsaw duel, even then the film cuts away to the girl. The other love interest fits into the story a little more organically. The oddly named Alchemy is a babe picked up on the side of the road. She immediately falls for Reggie, leading to a purposely absurd sex scene. I fairly certain Don write that one as a favor to his friend. In keeping with the “Phantasm” series’ boys-club tone, Alchemy ends up being a double-agent for the Tall Man, proving that a big budget couldn’t get this tiger to change its stripes.

“Phantasm II” revisits most of the iconic imagery from the first film. The balls are back, the dwarves are back, the white room full of crates and a tuning fork are back, even the Hemicuda is back. The Tall Man has slightly more screen time then the first time around. His appearances run a similar course. He acts ominous during a funeral, appears suddenly behind a window, lifts people into the air by their collars, and shows up at the end to pull the heroes through a glass surface. Angus Scrimm is as ominous as before and the sequel certainly helped the character’s continued evolution into a fan favorite. Despite reprising most everything everyone loved about the first one, “Phantasm II” has none of the scares of the original. It lacks the first’s dream-like tone and surreal asides.

Maybe the lack of scares is okay since “Phantasm II” is essentially the action movie version of the first film. He faced studio mandates, which doubtlessly had an effect on the final film, but Coscarelli maintained his distinctive voice and style. I’m not shocked that some fans prefer the supersized action and wild tone of the sequel to the chillier atmosphere of the first. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Strung Along

Creepy puppets and dolls are topics that “Tales from the Crypt” has handled before but I think “Strung Along” might be my favorite take the show did. A retired puppeteer, the man behind a “Howdy Doody” style TV show in the fifties, has since become a recluse. He has a lot of anxieties about his much younger wife and guards her social life closely. A note he receives in the mail about a revival television special has the old man resurrecting Cocoa the Clown, his trademark character. In order to work on the new show, he invites a young, special effects technician into his home. Of course, the old man’s relationship with his puppet is not as pure as it seems, Cocoa speaking to him when no one else is around. Because this is “Tales,” everyone has ulterior motives.

Here’s a funny bit of trivia. One of the main characters in “Strung Along” is an animatronics expert played by Zach Galligan. “Strung Along” was written and directed by Kevin Yagher, an animatronics expert who created, operated, and directed the Crypt Keeper sequences from the show’s beginning. Coincidence? I think not! The puppet aspect adds a fun gimmick to a typical “Crypt” story of infidelity and conniving spouses. The wife and the younger puppeteer are seeing each other and plotting against the old man. They cook up a crazy ploy to get the man to have a heart attack. It’s amazing the lengths people on this show go for some money. Zach Galligan is nicely cast, as his natural wholesome charm distracts from the character’s eventual betrayal. It’s great to see Donald O’Connor, a veteran of old Hollywood musicals, in a similarly meta-role as a passed-his-prime old man. “Strung Along” has the kind of ironic final twist viewers have come to expect from “Tales.” Yes, the puppet comes to life and gets to kill, the bad guys punished for their crimes. The final image nicely straddles the line between funny and creepy. “Strung Along” is another strong episode from “Crypt’s” overall strong fourth season. [7/10]

So Weird: Twin

“Twin,” the season two finale of “So Weird,” expands upon the show’s mythology. Molly is in New York to perform on a late night talk show. Fiona spends time with her aunt Rachel, her father’s twin sister. Fi notices that, in her sleep, her aunt’s hand twitches in her sleep. Placing in a pen in her hands, she writes strange symbols. An example of automatic writing, Fiona soon discovers the symbols are a secret code the twins invented as a child to communicate with each other. Fiona begins to suspect these are messages from her father. Following the clues to the roof of a near-by building, she makes a terrifying discovery.

Knowing it’s a season finale, “Twin” ups the show’s stakes considerably. Fiona’s life is put in genuine danger. The episode builds nicely. Molly is anxious about performing, as the show’s agent gets badgering her about Rick’s death. Iris Quinn is very good as Fi’s aunt and plays off her own nervousness nicely. The moment she realizes that Fiona is right, that she is writing secret messages from her dead brother, pays off well. The finale of the episode features some great moments and some not-so swell ones. While Fiona rides an elevator to the top of a skyscraper, Molly performs her song for the talk show. “Love is Broken” is obviously about Rick’s death but, the show points out, was written beforehand. Molly gets another bad feeling when she notices her daughter is gone from the audience. While on the roof of the building, ghost-like demons emerge from the wall and attempt to drop her off the side to her death. The effects were questionable back in 2000 and look even worst now. What happens next might stretch disbelief. Fi’s dad reappears from the afterlife to save his daughter. It’s a long way to go just to provide some emotional closure but, thanks mostly to Cara DeLizia’s performance and the show’s smart writing, “So Weird” makes it work. It’s a strong note to wrap up the season on. [7/10]

And it might as well be the end of the series too. Originally, season three was going to resolve all of the plot lines built up throughout the show’s run. The business with the aliens would have revealed its purpose, that the extraterrestrials have a plan for Fiona. The Philips family’s history of witchcraft and knighthood would have been explored more. The series was meant to conclude with Fiona entering Hell to rescue her father’s soul, finally conquering the dark powers pursuing her. This was not meant to be. One of two things happened first. The Disney Channel demanded a softer tone for the third season and Cara DeLizia left the series. Supposedly the two events were not related but I’ve never bought that. For the third season, Fiona, otherwise known as the main friggin’ character, was written out of the show. Alexz Johnson, a would-be pop princess with a stupid name, was brought on as a new main character named Annie, who had a routine destiny of her own - some bullshit involving a magical black panther - and would usually sing a shitty song every episode. All of the show’s mythology was dropped, making two seasons worth of build-up seem like wasted time. I remember hating the third season when it aired, hating that they wrote Fiona out of the show, and being really bummed out that the series essentially ended on a whimper. I’m done with “So Weird” for the year and I have no idea yet if I’ll continue to review the series next Halloween. I’d rather remember the show as the smart, subversive, well written and beautifully acted program it was. We’ll see. I guess we’ll known for sure in twelve months. As for now, “So Weird” gets a [8/10.] I’m so glad I revisited it.