Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 30

The Student of Prague (1913)

As October comes to a close, and Halloween looms, I found myself looking over my list of films watched thus far. In a moment of confusion, I forget that I had watched the 1920’s version of “The Lost World” and came to the incorrect conclusion that I had yet to watch a silent horror film this season. Before I could correct myself, I set off looking for a voiceless flick. Looking over a list of notable silent horrors, I came upon the 1913 version of “The Student of Prague.” Starring “The Golem’s” Paul Wegener, the film is loosely adapted from the Poe story “William Wilson.” It is usually considered the first horror movie ever made.

Set in 1800s Prague, the story follows Balduin, the best fencer in the country and a rebel-rousing student, who has recently fallen on hard financial times. After rescuing a countess from a stream, Balduin falls in the love with the girl. However, he’s far too poor to even consider courting her. Enter a strange old man named Scapinelli, who offers Balduin 100,000 coins in exchange for anything in his room. The student immediately signs the paper only for the elderly gentleman to reveal himself as a demon and leave the room with Balduin’s reflection. The student’s attempt to woo the countess are made more difficult when that reflection, now ambulatory and with a mind of its own, sets about ruining the young man’s life.

As previously established, I like silent movies. Considering film is primarily a visual art form, movies that rely solely upon visuals almost seem purer then sound cinema. I usually don’t find the style of silent movies off-putting or confusing. However, “The Student of Prague” is an early silent movie. Discounting some Melies and Edison shorts, it might actually be the oldest movie I’ve ever watched. The cinematic art form was still developing. Thus, “The Student of Prague” is not always the most elegant feature. The film uses title cards sparingly, most of the dialogue going uninscribed. Despite featuring few intertitles, the movie still falls back on exposition. Balduin's skills as a fencer are never actually featured on-screen, only be referenced in dialogue. A key event has Balduin’s reflection killing a romantic rival the student promised to spare. This happens entirely off-screen! The only time some of the characters are identified is during the opening role call. This, combined with the faltering quality of the film print, frequently makes “The Student of Prague” difficult to follow. Despite only running 87 minutes, the movie is also one of the slowest paced silent films I’ve ever seen.

Though not necessarily easy to follow, “The Student of Prague” does have some effective moments. Though early in the movement’s lifespan, the film still has some beautiful, expressionistic scenery. Balduin’s apartment is set at rough, slanted angles, looking odd and off-center. A midnight rendezvous with his lover takes place in an old cemetery. The old tombstones intentionally do not look real. The obviously artificial set gives the film a creaky, spooky atmosphere. After an encounter with his wicked doppelganger, Balduin flees down the shadowy streets of Prague, seeming very small among the old city’s towering buildings. Wegener’s later film, “The Golem,” is much more effectively surreal but this one does feature just enough strange moments to push it into the category of “horror.”

Don’t be mistaken, “The Student of Prague” is marginally horror. It is, more often then not, a period melodrama that can be hard to swallow. One of Balduin’s earlier romantic conquest is a dancing girl. Despite showing little interest in the man, after he begins to pursue the Countess, she passes an incriminating letter along to her. Why? Jealousy? The film never elaborates on this. There are also long scenes of fox hunts, ball room dances, and people sitting around in empty rooms, pining. The stuff with the evil reflection is quite striking, and the ending is nicely downbeat, but far too much of “The Student of Prague” is a melodramatic slog.

Is “The Student of Prague” the first true horror movie? Even with a Satanic old man, a murderous doppelganger, and a Faustian bargain, the movie doesn’t truly fit the genre. I think “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” probably has a better claim on that title. The story has been remade several times, even during the silent era. A 1926 version starring Conrad Veidt seems to be better regarded. Maybe I should have watched that one instead… [5/10]

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

A while back I reviewed Charles B. Pierce’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I actually saw the movie even more recently then that, when Shout Factory gave the long out-of-print sorta’ classic a Blu-Ray release. That film, an odd mixture of docudrama and fictional retelling, had a predecessor. Pierce first tested out that very specific format with “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a quasi-documentary about the Fouke Monster of Fouke, Arkansas. It might be hard to believe this now but “The Legend of Boggy Creek” was a big hit in its day. An America gripped by Bigfoot fever saw the movie so many times that it went on to become the eleventh highest grossing film of the year! While the film is a true independent success story, outside of Bigfoot enthusiasts and horror fans, it’s not well remembered today.

The film claims to tell the true story of the Fouke Monster. Periodically, since the 1950s, the backwoods town of Fouke, Arkansas has been haunted by a mysterious monster roaming the woods and swamps. Covered in black hair, over six feet tall, and leaving three-toed foot prints, the monster has terrified and intrigued the people of the tiny town. The film combines voice-over narration, interviews with supposed witnesses, dramatic reenactments of the encounters, and local footage and music to create a film that’s not quite a fictional movie and not quite a documentary.

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” is pretty corny and cheesy, lacking the dread of Pierce’s later “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” While it never reaches the intensity of that film, “Boggy Creek” does occasionally summon up a folksy, Southern-fried creepiness. The very first scene has a little boy, the film’s narrator as a child, running across a golden field, frightened by a strange noise. Later, a family discovers a dead cat, scared to death by the monster. Probably the most blatantly frightening scene in the film has a young woman, napping on the couch, rudely awoken by the Bigfoot’s hairy arm, reaching through the window. The monster is only briefly glimpsed throughout the film. We mostly only see the creature only as a black shape, moving quietly through the woods. This proves surprisingly creepy, the film functioning well on the “less is more” principal. A Fouke monster that is a smelly Skunk Ape is much less frightening then a Fouke monster that is an ill-defined, shadowy figure. The most effective moment, for me anyway, were simple shots of the monster, seen only in the distance, crossing the swamplands.

Despite a handful of decent moments, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” is gripped by camp. All of the actors in the film are amateurs. This is readily apparent. All of the performances in the film are either broad or flat. Many of the monster witnesses play themselves. Their hillbilly personae do little to dispel Fouke as a backwoods town full of drunk rednecks. The film’s climax, in which a man is attacked by the monster while in an outhouse, is sure to generate giggles today. The man fleeing through the woods, his pants halfway down his ass, is especially funny. The narration is frequently overdone, most obviously in a sequence detailing how even the police dogs were too scared to pursue the creature. The cherry on the goofball redneck sundae are the two incredibly silly folk songs played throughout the movie. The first is a ballad describing how the Fouke monster is actually quite lonely, being the last of his kind. The second is devoted to witness Travis Crabtree, an ode to his fishing trips and long days wandering the woods outside his home.

By filming on location and with the people who were actually there, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” does capture a certain degree of local color. One of the creature’s witnesses can’t move very fast, having injured his leg in a hunting trip. Imagine a “Boggy Creek” without the monster and you’d probably get a movie very similar to Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida,” a film about how people pass the time in a tiny, Southern town. It’s apparent the small town was a point of fascination for Pierce. Both “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” have a nostalgic longing for the simple small town, both portraying the central locations as rustic, relaxed, wholesome places. In “Sundown,” that creates an ironic quality when the gruesome murders begin to take place. In “Boggy Creek,” however, it makes the film more of a love letter to the local residents and their strange stories. (That most of the movie’s “true story” is demonstratively bullshit doesn’t seem to matter much.)

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” spawned a cottage industry of pseudo-documentaries about Bigfoot and Yetis, helping to feed the appetite this country had in the early seventies for all things Bigfoot. It’s hard to believe that movies like “The Mysterious Monsters” or “Bigfoot: Man Or Beast?” got theatrical releases back in the day. Moreover, there’s a tangled web of “Boggy Creek” sequels and remakes. “Return to Boggy Creek,” an unofficial sequel made without Pierce’s involvement, was released in 1977. A few years later in 1985, Charles B. Pierce rebuked that film with his own sequel, “Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues.” That one was, famously, featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” "The Legacy of Boggy Creek," a pseudo-official remake, came in 2011 while 2010’s “Boggy Creek” is an unrelated and otherwise generic Sasquatch-ploitation flick. Boy, that got complicated quickly, didn’t it? Who would have thought such a humble film would birth such a long-lasting legacy? [6/10]

Gehara: The Dark and the Long-Haired Monster (2009)
Chohatsu Daikaiju Gehara

Okay, when I said I was done with kaiju movies for the year, I lied. After hearing about “Gehara,” a twenty minute made-for-television monster flick, I just had to see it. The film begins, like so many of them do, with a fishing boat attacked by a strange creation. The lone survivor, half mad, seems terrified of hair. Though the destruction is initially blamed on an Umi-Bozu, the true culprit soon emerges: Gehara, a giant monster covered in long, black hair. The monster is soon marching on Japan, its hair giving off a deadly gas. The government cooks up a crazy plot to stop the monster while a group of rural monks worship the critter. Can anything stop Gehara?

Despite only being twenty minutes long, “Gehara” is a perfect parody of Showa Eiga kaiju films. Gehara, on paper, sounds like a fairly ridiculous creation. A monster whose main power comes from its long hair does not sound particularly intimidating. However, the film approaches the premise with a totally straight face. A scientist constantly delivers grave warnings about the monster. A crazy general deploys a wacky weapon to stop the monster. A journalist investigates a religious order that seems to blame the monster’s reemergence on mankind’s mistreatment of the planet. The movie blatantly references the original “Gojira,” with an Akira Ifukube-inspired score and a ending that features a man talking about how another Gehara could surface if mankind doesn’t stop abusing the planet. At least, that seems like the ending. In its final minutes, “Gehara” tacks on a pitch-perfect reference to “Monster Zero” and ends with a trailer for its own, even crazier seeming (and, sadly, as yet unrealized) sequel. Even the outwardly funny parts of “Gehara,” like teenagers trying to get the attention of a news reporter, are a bit more subtle then expected.

Even though it’s a spoof of the genre, “Gehara” is still a pretty cool monster movie. At only twenty minutes long, “Gehara” packs in plenty of kaiju action. The monster appears to be brought to life through puppetry and looks fantastic. He’s reptilian but the long scarf of hair makes it appear more greasy and mysterious. His design might be intentionally goofy but the creature is brought to life fantastically. The building smashing and military battles are also quite convincingly done. There’s a little shaky cam present, probably to cover up the seams of a low budget production.

“Gehara” manages to be both a hilarious parody of the genre and a perfectly executed example of it. As you’d probably expect for an obscure television production, the film doesn’t have any sort of official stateside distribution. However, the Japanese Blu-Ray is region free, so feel free to import this sucker. I know I will. Hell, apparently there’s already a toy of Gehara too! Would I watch that sequel? You bet your ass I would watch that sequel. [9/10]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 29

White Zombie (1932)

I’ve never seen “White Zombie” before. Does that surprise you? Considering how obsessed I am with horror films from the thirties, I don’t blame you for thinking I should have gotten to it sooner. The movie’s even in the public domain, really giving me no excuse for taking so long to catch up with it. Truthfully, when it comes to classic horror, I focus pretty heavily on the Universal Monsters, a category “White Zombie” falls just outside of. After getting my hands on the Kino Blu-Ray, of a far better quality then any of the public domain releases out there, I finally sat down to watch the flick.

The first film ever made to feature voodoo zombies, “White Zombie” follows a happy American couple traveling to Haiti. Madeleine and Neil are soon to be married on the plantation of Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s secret, however, is that he is in love with Madeleine. After he fails to seduce her on her wedding night, Beaumont becomes desperate. He seeks the service of Murder Legendre. Legendre is a voodoo master, stocking his mills with his subservient zombies, undead bodies he controls with his mind, eyes, and hands. Legendre poisons Madeleine, resurrecting her as a zombie for Beaumont. The man is unhappy with his zombified bride but, by then, it’s too late. Beaumont, Madeleine, and Neil are caught in Legendre’s dangerous web of deception and manipulation.

“White Zombie” was made right after Bela Lugosi’s star-making turn in “Dracula.” It’s a similar story. In both films, Lugosi plays a powerful, ominous foreigner with a mysterious sway over those people around him. Both films focus on Lugosi’s piercing eyes, to great effect. While Murder Legendre is not as iconic a villain as Dracula, the part plays to Lugosi’s strengths equally well. In some ways, Legendre is a better part then Dracula. He has more dialogue, giving Lugosi more of an oppretunity to stretch his sinister accent. While Dracula mostly manipulates those around him with steely gazes, Legendre is more openly controlling. With his smooth words but always-intimidating body language, he compels everyone around him. You imagine his mastery of voodoo is almost unnecessary. The man is Luciferian in his ability to get what he wants. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Legendre poisons Beaumont with the zombie powder. As the man succumbs, Lugosi mocks him. Later on, Beaumont’s brain falling to the drug, Lugosi continues to lord over him, in a cruel, practically scientific manner. If great horror movies are graded on the strengths of their villain, then “White Zombie” would grade awfully high.

What I truly love about horror films from this era are their unmistakeably quiet, monochromatic ambiance. Even the worst films of the era have a special charm I can’t overlook. “White Zombie” is packed full of incredibly, black-and-white atmosphere. As Neil and his fiancee ride through the Haitian countryside, Lugosi’s eyes loom over them. Later, Lugosi’s piercing stare glares out of a coffee cup, striking Madeleine dead. While Neil mopes in a bar, the shadows of the dancer appear on the wall, mocking his sad state. Murder and his zombies drag her casket of out the tomb, deep shadows encasing them in the tunnel. The second half of the film is primarily set in Legendre’s spooky old mansion. Man, what a set that is, full of gorgeous, gothic mood. Every inch of it is covered in cobwebs and shadows. Black shapes move on the wall, the zombies slowly roaming the halls. Vultures shriek from their perches, the ocean waves crashing outside. The black-and-white cinematography is full of expressionistic dread. Though it isn’t a Universal film, “White Zombie” occupies the same beguiling shadowland, chilling, dark, still, and rich in antiqued beauty.

The film also has no shortage of the melodrama you associate with cinema of the time. “White Zombie” does, after all, heavily feature a love triangle. Neil is a highly ineffectual hero. After his brand new wife dies, he spend the entire movie drunk and sad. He pretty much does nothing proactive throughout the rest of the plot. The day is saved by other characters. Madeleine, though played by the lovely Madge Bellamy, is almost literally a cipher. She spends the majority of the run time hypnotized, starring emptily with her huge eyes. Beaumont is a sad sack loser, pining for another man’s woman and ready to sink to icky depths to win her. The movie also throws in a preacher/detective, to help motivate the plot. This character is one of the film’s best, simply because he advances the story. It’s no wonder Lugosi’s Murder is the thing most people remember about the film. Even then, the romantic subplot has one indelible moment. As Neil mopes outside Legendre’s castle, Madeleine stands on the balcony. The film cuts between the two, the picture dissolving together, until both share the same screen. What an interestingly visual way to show the two’s connection.

The zombies are still, moving stiffly, their faces blank and painted black-and-white. They’re classic movie monsters and, though they don’t eat brains or human flesh, it’s not hard to draw a line between these zombies and Romero’s zombies. “White Zombie” is surprisingly free of sociological subtext. None of Murder’s zombies are black, defusing any attempt at a slavery metaphor. There’s actually few black characters in the film. I suppose a racial reading is still possible, if you’re willing to ignore the total lack of racial elements in the film. Instead, “White Zombie” follows many of the troupes of gothic literature. With its love triangle, unrequited passion, comic relief sidekicks, sinister villain, and dusty mansions, it fits in perfectly.

“White Zombie” was directed by Victor Halperin, who later made “Supernatural” which I reviewed last Halloween. “White Zombie” has all of that film’s strength and none of its weaknesses. It has a great villain, one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances, and some unforgettable classic horror ambiance. Predictably, I loved it and should have seen it sooner. [8/10]

Silent Rage (1982)

In the days before he was an internet meme, and a politically conservative religious fanatic, Chuck Norris was one of the better low budget action stars. Seriously, I know we think of his movies are cheesy and hilariously shitty, but I’ll take an early Chuck over modern Seagal. It might be even harder to believe but “Silent Rage” was actually something of a breakthrough for Mr. Norris. It was his first film produced by a major studio, in this case Columbia. The film is a truly unexpected genre hybrid too. Wikipedia list it as a "romance/action/science-fiction/horror movie" and even that doesn’t encompass every genre “Silent Rage” implements.

Set in a small Texan town, the film opens with John Kirby. Kirby is incredibly stressed. Screaming kids and an obnoxious landlord pushes him over the edge. Kirby grabs an axe and starts killin’. Enter: Chuck Norris, this time as sheriff (and martial arts expert) Dan Stevens. Kirby is shot in the fray, near death, and rushed to the hospital. There, irresponsible scientists pump the dying psychopath full of an experimental drug that heals any wounds in seconds. Kirby is rendered silent but still rage-filled. Turns out, turning a violent psycho into an unstoppable superhuman was poor planning. Can even Chuck Norris stop him?

“Silent Rage” is essentially a mash-up of a cheesy eighties action movie and a slasher film. How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a slasher flick? Pretty solid, I must say. Unlike most slashers, who can survive grievous injury just because the plot says so, John Kirby explicitly has a Wolverine-style healing factor. Kirby stalks the home of his former shrink, played by a grossly overqualified Ron Silver. The stalking scene generates some decent suspense, with its “Halloween”-style POVs and pulsing synth score. When the violence comes, it can be unexpectedly brutal. The best bit is when Kirby kills Silver’s wife. He appears behind a door, slamming her head suddenly into the wall. Naturally, Chuck’s love interest then finds the dead bodies, hidden in just the right places to give the girl a shock. Later, the movie moves the action to a hospital, always a good setting for a slasher flick. Kirby stalking William Finley’s character through shadowy hallway, ending with Finley getting a syringe in the neck, has just the right feel fans of eighties slashers love. “Silent Rage” isn’t super-gory either, making it a good pick for newcomers to the subgenre.

How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a Chuck Norris movie? Even better. The opening fight between Norris and Kirby, before he becomes superhuman, makes good use of wall-kicking and a random board. Midway through the film, Chuck enters a bar occupied by a ridiculously campy biker gang. This is probably the action high-light of “Silent Rage.” Chuck snaps a pool cue in two, roundhouse kicks a dude, slides another mook across the bar, and generally punches and kicks the shit out of everyone around him. The scene climaxes with the lead biker attempting to ride his bike out the bar. Chuck knocks the guy off his bike, sending the unmanned motorcycle through the window. All in glorious slow-motion, of course. “Silent Rage” builds up to the rematch between Chuck and Kirby. After shooting the guy out a hospital window, running him over with his truck, and blowing him up, the two face off in a forest clearing. There’s plenty of neck-holds, body slams, punches, and slow-motion kicks to the face. Because Kirby is literally unstoppable, Chuck seems outmatched for the first time in his career, lending the fight a special, desperate energy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an eighties action/horror movie without a bunch of other stupid bullshit. The comic relief and romantic subplot adds the perfect extra layer of cheese to “Silent Rage.” Chuck’s sidekick is an incompetent, overweight deputy named Charlie. Charlie almost shoots his boss in an earlier scene. While Chuck is beating the shit out of the biker gang, Charlie sits in his car, talking about titties over the CB radio. Charlie was intended to be funny but is so deplorably stupid that it comes around on the other side as unintentionally funny. The romance, meanwhile, is also a laugh riot. The film crash cuts from Norris’ love interest saying she won’t sleep with him to… The two in bed together, post-coitus. A lengthy romantic montage has the two rolling in bed, swinging in a hammock, and eating out of a fruit basket together. As ridiculous as these scenes are, they make good use of Norris’ relaxed, easy-going charisma.

I love eighties action movies. I love eighties slasher movie. Naturally, I kind of love “Silent Rage.” Maybe the genre mash-up works where others fail because the two genres exist separately in the movie. The slasher appears, stalks and kills. Chuck Norris beats up random dudes or macks on his love interest. Only during the very beginning and the last act do the two intermingle. The balance works in the film’s favor. Add a really solid supporting cast full of great character actors, some amusing camp, and a slow-motion fall into a well, and you’ve got a minor cheese classic. [7/10]

Cloverfield (2008)

“Cloverfield” made a splash in ‘07. Its teaser trailer was attached to “Transformers,” the biggest movie of that summer. The evocative teaser, presented without title or further information, got people talking. Some thought the mysterious film was a stealth Godzilla reboot. One vocal minority was convinced it was a live-action Voltron movie. I, personally, was hoping for Cthulhu. “Cloverfield” wound up not being any of those things but J. J. Abrams’ “mystery box” advertising got people in the theaters anyway. The film’s found-footage angle also paved the way for the subgenre’s popular revival. Six years later, now that found footage and Abrams’ style are both played out, how does “Cloverfield” hold up?

If nothing else, “Cloverfield” remains an intense thriller. The film’s opening twenty minutes establishes the normality of the setting. The sequence goes on long enough that, when the monster attacks, the audience is as surprised as the cast is. The found footage aspect is a gimmick, through and through. The film’s continued justification for it, Hud insisting that people will want to know what happened, stretches credibility. However, the gimmick adds an “on-the-ground” perspective to what happens, a kaiju film seen from the puny humans’ perspective. The presentation captures a real sense of panic and fear. The characters crouching in a shop as smokes, noise, and chaos billows outside has a real effect on me. Similarly intense moments involve the military’s attempt to combat the monster, a walk through a collapsing building, the cast fleeing as the creature destroys the next block, and the final fall from a helicopter. Many films have used the found footage angle in an attempt to create realistic panic but “Cloverfield” stands above the pack in that regard.

Aside from effective thrills, the sequences of urban destruction and falling buildings accomplish something else. As the Large Scale Aggressor surfaces in New York, explosions gripping the city, a minor character asks “Is it another terrorist attack?” “Cloverfield”  is patently designed to remind viewers of September 11th. The post-destruction scenes, showing the burning ruins of the city, are chilling because of this. The monster knocking over skyscrapers, huge clouds of smoke and debris filling the area, are obviously patterned after what happened on that awful day. Clover’s first action is to decapitate the Statue of Liberty, striking down an American icon, one representative of our country’s ideals. This identifies the monster with the terrorists, striking at the heart of the country. Is using a real-life tragedy to add intensity to your monster movie in poor taste? Some people think so. The original “Godzilla” was an extended metaphor for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, that film worked more as a nightmarish fable. “Cloverfield” is committed to verisimilitude. Horror movies usually help audiences digest real life horror through genre subtext. Abrams and Reeves’ film mostly skips pass subtext and goes right for the throat. “Cloverfield” is about ordinary life being interrupted by massive, unpredictable tragedy.

The moments focused on Clover’s rampage are the film at its most intense and frightening. “Cloverfield” runs at a brief 86 minutes, including about ten minutes of credits. Even a run time that short can’t be filled completely with visceral, horrifying attacks. Instead, “Cloverfield” has to shake it up. The opening scene, Rob’s going-away party, goes on a little too long. It skirts dangerously close to “Twenty Minutes with Jerks” territory. The most tedious bit is a jog through the empty subways. In the tunnels, the quartet is chased by the parasites that fell off the larger monster. It’s a moment that belongs in a more typical monster movie, far too typical to generate much tension. The scenes between attacks, like a stop-over in an army base or the characters mending wounds, really drag the tension down. Luckily, the monster reappears, bringing the thrills back for the last act.

“Cloverfield” is an nontraditional kaiju movie, obviously. However, cute references to the genre’s past are sprinkled throughout, including split-second glimpses of Kong, the Beast, and Them. The only music in the film plays over the end credits, a gorgeous homage to Akira Ifukubi. What most connects “Cloverfield” to its predecessors is its’ monster. Clover doesn’t resemble the kaiju of yore much, being another one of Neville Page’s hairless monkey-spiders. Instead, the creature’s behavior is what connects it to the past. Clover isn’t a malicious attacker. The monster is simply lost, scared, trying to navigate a world that wasn’t made for it. Like Godzilla, he’s a force of nature. Similarly, late in the film, we watch from above as the beast is pelted with bombs and missiles, crying out in agony. Clover is terrifying but not beyond sympathy. It is unlikely to go down in history as one of the greats. However, the critter isn’t without personality. In the right light, he’s even sort of cute, with its big eyes and gangly limbs.

At first, the human cast of “Cloverfield” might come off as unlikable. Rob’s determination to find Beth in the wreckage of the city, pulling his friends along with him, pushes the character into aggravating territory. Michael Stahl-David and the perpetually flat Odette Yustman certainly don’t have the right kind of chemistry to sell the romance. However, the writing is decent enough that the audience sort of cares. More likable is Hud, the man behind the camera. His name is a lame pun and some of his behavior borders obnoxious. However, his off-hand comments and glib sense of humor provides some nice levity during the movie’s more intense moments. Lizzy Caplan is underserved by the plot, and exits too soon, but her sarcastic way of speech is as charming as ever. The presentation is ultimately more important then the cast.

J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film. However, his method informs the whole movie. We never learn what Clover is, where it comes from, or what awoke it. The viral ad campaign and expanded universe provides oblique answers, something about a fallen satellite and a Japanese soft drink company. The proposed sequel probably would have provided more concrete answers. However, Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard are busy with other stuff. It’s just as well, as I can’t foresee “Cloverfield” lending itself to a franchise well. As a stand alone film, it can be incredibly scary and surprisingly powerful while still functioning as a solid monster movie. [7/10]

So concludes 2014’s KAIJU-THON. As with any cinematic journey of this size, I end it with a whole new batch of things I want to see. I was unable to procure copies of Toho’s submarine duology – “Atragon” and “Latitude Zero” – which means I just came up short on seeing all of Ishiro Honda’s science fiction films. What about the King Kong remakes and rip-offs? What of oddball imports like “Yonggary,” “Pulgasari,” and “Reptilicus?” Where do “Big Man Japan” and “Death Kappa” fit into God(zilla)’s grand design? The journey never truly ends. Will next Halloween be devoted to another KAIJU-THON? Probably not. However, expect a giant monster movie or two to sneak into my seasonal viewing from now on.

Halloween 2014: October 28

The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008)
Girara no gyakushû: Tôya-ko Samitto kikiippatsu

After forty-three years of silence, the last kaiju anybody expected to make a come-back did just that. Guilala, the lovably laughable monster star of “The X from Outer Space,” was to appear in a new film. The belated sequel, verbosely entitled by “The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit,” was directed by Minoru Kawasaki. Kawasaki is a low-budget Japanese filmmaker known for bizarre comedies like “The Calamari Wrestler,” “Executive Koala,” and “The Rug Cop.” (The first two feature human-sized animals attempting to fit in with the regular population. The latter is about a cop that fights crime with his toupee.) As you’d expect, Kawasaki brought his peculiar sense of humor to Guilala’s return.

As the title expounds, the film is set at the 34th G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan. The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the US gather in one place, bickering about various global issues. During the summit, a Chinese Mars probe crashes in Sapporo, bringing with it a bizarre space spore. Guilala has returned to Earth. While the monster wrecks havoc, the leaders of the world think up ineffectual plots to stop the monster. Meanwhile, two reporters investigate a local shrine devoted to a deity named Take-Majin, which might be the only hope to stop Guilala’s rampage.

“Attack the G8 Summit,” perhaps unsurprisingly, focuses a large percent of its run time on broadly spoofing world politics. The leader of each country is filtered down to only their most easily parodied aspects. The U.S. President is a blow-hard, obsessed with striking first with military might and is none too bright. The French prime minister spends the entire movie trying to put the moves on his pretty, Japanese translator. The German leader is the only woman present and seems most preoccupied with disproving sexist presumptions. Russia’s president is a big asshole, greatly interested in taking over other countries. Italy’s president is the most ridiculous caricature, who mostly boasts about Roman history and talks about Pizza. The P.M. of Great Britain doesn’t do a lot and, hilariously, the actor doesn’t even attempt a British accent. The guy playing the Canadian representative at least puts on a Quebec accent. The various plots to stop the monster all play up cultural stereotypes as well. The U.S. attacks with missiles and bombs. Russia poisons the monsters. Germany tries to kill Guilala with, ugh, poison gas. Italy falls back on Ancient Roman strategy. Britain’s attempt involves mass censorship. All of this is incredibly silly, simplistic, and relatively listless. Monster fans will want to fast-forward through many scenes.

However, some of the goofy comedy in “The Monster X Strikes Back” works. The Japanese prime minister suffers from stomach cramps, an amusingly random element. Midway through the film, he is replaced with another Japanese man in a bad wig. Later on, this man reveals his true identity: Kim Jong-Il! The translators are actually North Korean assassins, each one laughing with a high-pitch trill. He uses the monster’s attack as a chance to take over the world. If the movie was going to parody global politics, it should have followed in this irrelevant fashion. A funny reoccurring gag has a banner being replaced every time a new plan is implemented to stop Guilala, which is often. Lastly, the heroic kaiju, Take-Majin, is patterned after Japanese actor Beat Takeshi. In the North, Takeshi is best known for violent crime thrillers like “Sonatine” or “Violent Cop.” In Japan, however, Takeshi is best known for his comedies. I’m sure the film contains numerous references to Takeshi’s career and style that went over my head. Takeshi’s presence in the film would be roughly equivalent to a giant gold Jim Carrey appearing to save the day in the next “Pacific Rim” movie. It’s a good sign of how unorthodox a kaiju film “The Monster X Strikes Back” is.

And what about those giant monsters? “Attack the G8 Summit” is, in some ways, an affectionate parody of kaiju flicks. The score is an obvious riff on Akira Ifukube. The opening credits play against close-ups of the monsters, a likely reference to “GMK.” There’s some lovably bizarre moments, like Guilala performing an impromptu ballet or Take-Majin stopping a nuclear missile with his ass. Once the climatic monster battle finally happens, it’s fairly entertaining. However, most of Guilala’s rampage through Sapporo is made up of stock footage from the original “The X from Outer Space.” This is disappointing, especially since the movie in no way attempts to disguise this. The film grain is notably different and the suits even look different. 1966’s Guilala is less colorful and lacks the bright red nails and tail. An obvious indicator of how low the film’s budget was is the huge tear in the Guilala suit. Again, the movie never attempts to cover this up.

The subplot involving the reporter protagonist is disposable. The build-up to Take-Majin’s reveal gets tedious fast. You will get tired of hearing the song and dance used to summon him. The movie never references the events of “The X from Outer Space.” There are a handful of meta references. A Japanese boy names the monsters, a kaiju otaku mentions he would have preferred Baragon or Varan’s return, and a SD Guilala toy is used by the military. Touches like this make me wander if the movie is more remake then sequel. Guilala is a monster with potential. His goofy appearance probably would have lend itself well to an intentional parody. Guilala’s best appearance is still that job agency commercial. [5/10]

Cujo (1983)

When it comes to Stephen King adaptations, there’s the top tier. The untouchably great stuff: “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Misery,” a few, rare others. Next, you’ve got your pretty good King-derived films, like “Christine” or “The Dead Zone.” Then there’s pretty much everything else, in varying degrees of quality, ranging from “decent,” "guilty pleasure,” “forgettable,” to “flat-out terrible.” Despite being one of his most famous creations, “Cujo” is not a film adaptation mentioned frequently. It was well liked in its day, has a following now, but no one much talks about it anymore. This isn’t fair, in my opinion. While I’m hesitant to say it's top tier King, it might just be on the borderline between the two highest categories.

The Trenton family is in a state of transition. Young son Tad is afraid of monsters in his closest. Father Vic, an advertising exec, is having a work related crisis, the cereal he create an ad campaign for suddenly producing FrankenBerry stool. Mom Donna, meanwhile, is having an affair with the town’s stud… An affair she’s seriously starting to regret, as the man is emotionally unstable. While Vic is on a business trip, Donna and Tad takes the sputtering, old car to a local mechanic. In the middle of this, enters Cujo, a rabid, murderous Saint Bernard. The car stalls in the mechanic’s yard, Donna and Tad trapped inside during a heat wave by the mad dog.

It’s interesting to note that, for its first hour, “Cujo” isn’t much of a horror film. Instead, it’s a slow paced family drama. We see Vic bonding with his son, helping him overcome his fear of monsters. While father is frustrated with the vehicle, and beginning to suspect his wife’s infidelity, he puts his son on his knee and has a touching heart-to-heart. He runs to his father, excited, when he comes unexpectedly to pick him up from summer camp. Donna and Tad sing songs together, the two obviously being close. The relationship between parents and children is realistic, fraught with occasional frustration, but usually sweet and understanding. Though the script was probably eager to get to the killer dog, “Cujo” probably would have benefited from focusing more on Donna’s motivation for cheating on her husband. It’s clear that Steve Kemp is a creep and Donna herself wonders why she’d cheat on her happy family with such a sleazebag. More frustratingly, that subplot never pays off. You keep expecting the dog to kill Kemp. It never happens.

When Cujo becomes the focus of the story, the movie changes suddenly. This is intentional. While Donna parks the car outside Joe Camber’s house, Cujo leaps up to the window, barking loudly and fiercely. It’s one of those iconic jump scares in horror history. Tad screams about the boogeyman in his closest, Donna’s unreassuring cries that it’s “just a doggy” falling on deaf ears. Amazingly, every time Cujo goes on the attack, the film summons the same visceral, terrifying quality. The dog leaps on window, barking incessantly. When the phone rings, Cujo goes nuts. He headbutts a door, nearly overturning the car. He shatters a window, tears off a door handle, and sticks his slobbering maul through the cracked door. Donna’s attempt to escape the humid car has Cujo leaping on her, clawing and biting her. It’s such a viscous attack that I don’t know how she survives. The camera spins inside, Tad crying, Donna traumatized. Many scenes build a quiet silent just by having Cujo slightly out-frame, watching. The film’s overwhelming sound design, frightening visual sense, and smart deployment of claustrophobia and the summer heat makes each of these attacks as terrifying as the last.

“Cujo” the movie ditches the implied supernatural elements of King’s book. The dog isn’t possessed by the spirit of the serial killer from “The Dead Zone,” obviously. However, “Cujo” remains a monster movie of sorts. A rabid dog, no matter how big and strong, probably doesn’t fit most definitions of the word “monster.” But think about it. Cujo is certainly fearsome, a floating presence of dread and fear. He’s monstrous looking. The dog starts out caked in slobber. Yellow pus runs from his eyes, mud and grime covering his coat. After ramming the car door, blood smears his face. As horrifying as Cujo is, he fits another classic monster criterion. He generates both fear and sympathy. After all, he’s just a dog, an innocent animal. When he first appears, he’s a fluffy, friendly, sweet, family dog. He’s introduced playfully chasing a rabbit, before the rabies-carrying bat bites him, starting the plot rolling. As Cujo’s mind and body degrades, a pathetic element arises. Though the film mines Cujo’s appearance and attitude for as much horror as possible, you can’t overlook that he’s a suffering animal. It adds an extra layer to the film.

“Cujo” is further bolstered by an excellent lead performance from Dee Wallace. She spends most of the film in a state of constant panic, her ability never faltering. Danny Pintauro is naturalistic as Tad. Daniel Hugh Kelly and Christopher Stone probably could have been given more to do. if “Cujo” has any obvious flaw, it’s that the audience has to accept some contrivances in the story. The mechanic’s wife and son have gone on a sudden vacation. Cujo kills everyone in the house before Donna gets there. The car breaks down exactly when there at the dog’s doorstep. The mailman doesn’t come because the mechanic has lost his mailing permit. The cop sent to investigate is also taken down by the ravenous dog. Donna just happens to find a gun when Cujo leaps through the kitchen window. Some of this has an element of “The worst thing happening at the worst time,” which is fine. Some of it makes the audience roll their eyes a bit.

Luckily, the rest of “Cujo” is so damn scary that you can overlook most of these problems. It’s a film that milks every frightening moment out of its unlikely premise. It turns a beloved family pet into an unstoppable force of nature. It plays with panic and deep seated fears. Director Lewis Teague formally made “Alligator” and would return to King with the equally underrated “Cat’s Eye.” “Cujo,” however, is his best film and shouldn’t be overlooked as a classic of eighties suspense. [8/10]

The Muppet Show: Vincent Price

Here’s the real reason I’m watching an oddball thing. I found myself with a little extra time during my nightly movie watching. So, looking for something short to watch, I realized I owned the first season of “The Muppet Show.” After the intensity of “Cujo,” I wanted to watch something light. And, hey, I haven’t seen Vincent Price this Halloween season. So I popped in the disk.

Your enjoyment of “The Muppet Show” will depend on your tolerance for seventies variety shows, an admittedly stone-dead genre. “The Muppet Show” always mixed delightful wordplay, wacky physical comic, and an anarchic sense of humor with lame puns, flat skits, and overlong musical numbers. The Vincent Price-hosted episode has plenty of all of the above. The reoccurring gags about talking houses or Sam the Eagle presenting Wayne and Wanda are groan-worthy. The worst bit is a skit where Vincent Price plays a guest mysteriously arriving at a spooky castle, owned by Fonzie and Gonzo. The punchline depends on an ancient pop culture reference, sure to confuse modern viewers. Price is better deployed during funny sketches involving a cooking show panel and how to play a vampire. (Ironic, of course, since Price only played a vampire once, late in his career.) An all-muppet skit involving furniture turning into flesh-eating monsters is another high-light. The musical numbers, involving singing ghost and monster cannibalism, are better then average. The back stage shenanigans, this time featuring a three-headed critter, probably won’t entertain everyone but I liked them.

That Price would show up on “The Muppet Show” was inevitable. The show already had a Price-inspired muppet, who is featured here. Secondly, Price would show up in anything in the seventies. After "The Brady Bunch" cursed Tiki episode, the Muppets were probably considered a big step up. It’s weird that the muppet characters continue to endear but the original show’s format probably won’t appeal to most modern viewers. I’m touch and go on the series but Price certainly had a good time on it and the show made good use of his talents. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 27

The Host (2006)

The boom of interest in Korean cinema in the mid-naughties was an especially cool movie fandom moment. Because I was there. I jumped on “Oldboy” as soon as I could. I was lucky enough to catch “I Saw the Devil” in the theaters. And “The Host” was something I put my hands on as soon as it hit the internet. All of these directors have broken into the mainstream film scene, to varying degrees of success. Joon-ho Bong’s most recent film, “Snowpiercer,” is one of the most talked about movies of the year. But “The Host” is the movie that brought him to global audiences’ attention. It’s an energetic twist on the kaiju genre that is hilarious and frightening in equal measures.

The impetus of the story is almost a throw-back to ecological horror films of the 1970s. An uncaring American general orders a Korean doctor to pour dangerous chemistry down the sink, which drain into the Han River. Years later, infected fish have morphed into a dangerous creature the size of a tank. The Park family, who own a food stand by the river, are part of a group of witnesses who see the monster surface. The youngest member of the Park family, daughter Hyun-seo, is abducted by the creature, taken back to its sewer lair. The government claims the monster is spreading an untreatable new virus, which throws the country into panic. In this environment, the dysfunctional Park family have to work together, and escape the government’s eye, to save Hyun-seo before the Host eats her.

“The Host” opens with a strong exclamation point of a sequence. The monster is first seen hanging from the bottom of the bridge by his tail, like a bat. The creature moves in a unique manner, swinging by its tail, head over feet, to get around. When it surfaces on the coast, attacking the tourists, “The Host” shifts into high gear. The attack scene is very intense, being shot in an intimate fashion. The monster leaps out of nowhere, a peaceful day being interrupted by pure horror. My favorite shot has a woman, distracted by her headphones, being trampled by the monster, her face grabbed by its foot. This opening scene helps established the way “The Host” mixes genre. The monster is terrifying and the way it attacks is fearsome. However, there’s a wild sense of adventure when the film’s heroes begin to fight back, striking the creature with the concrete foundation of a road sign. Later scenes, especially of the daughter trying to escape the Host’s lair, are more flat-out frightening, focused on the terror of the characters and the threat the monster poses. The Host itself is a memorable creation. Though a few years old, the CGI effects hold up. The monster’s design is asymmetrical, making it seem like a true mutation. The dangling extra tails and tumorous masses growing on their faces distinguish the beast from your usual “cool” movie monster designs.

The monster is impressive and the attack scenes show Bong to be a talented horror filmmaker. What makes “The Host” truly captivating though is its lovable cast of characters. “The Host,” more then anything else, is about the bound of family. The Park clan is not the happiest family. Oldest son Gang-du is considered a nincompoop by the rest of the family and his eccentric behavior doesn’t really challenge that assumption. Nam-joo is a nationally recognized archer who, at the film’s begin, fouls a major competition, settling for a bronze medal. Younger brother Nam-il is an unemployed college grad with a drinking problem. Father Hee-bong tries to keep the peace between the siblings but doesn’t always succeed. Gang-du’s daughter, Hyung-seo, is the jewel of the family and beloved by everyone. When she disappears, the entire group bands together to rescue her, putting aside their many differences. Amusingly, the movie never downplays the family’s dysfunctions. They may be united but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy. The siblings’ bickering gives the characters a sense of history, providing plenty of opportunities for humor and pathos. More importantly, the family feels incredibly real. They’re lovable and fully formed characters.

“The Host” is very much a horror/comedy and Ji-hoon Bong, as a director, has a perfect grasp on tone. After the titular monster abducts Hyun-seo, the family gathers at an in-door shrine for victims of the attack, Hyun-seo assumed to be among them. Nam-joo brings the girl her bronze metal, which causes the entire family to collapse into weeping. At first, it’s deeply sad. And then, as it goes on, it becomes sort of funny. As they continue, the brothers begin to argue and fight, really ratcheting the humor up. In a minute, the film has bridge the gap between sorrow and humor. A similar balance of tone continues throughout. While Hee-bong attempts to buy some fake uniforms, to help sneak out of the quarantined area, brother and sisters snipe at a TV broadcast. While the three kids drift into sleep, the father tells the other siblings not to be so hard on their oldest brother, a moment that swiftly combines both comedy and drama. After the Parks are marked as federal fugitives, Nam-il attempts to track down the cell phone Hyung-seo called them on earlier. The people he thinks are there to help him are actually plotting to turn him in and split the reward. It’s a funny realization, equally thrilling – because you want Nam-il to escape – and funny because the situation is so grimly realistic and humorously deployed.

There’s also a strong layer of social commentary in “The Host.” The film was made in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak that affected China in 2003. As a deliberate reference to that event, people on the street wear surgical masks, worried that the Host’s virus could be anywhere. One moment, both biting and satirical, has a group of people standing on a sidewalk, waiting for a bus. On a near-by TV, a news report mentions that symptoms of the disease are similar to that of the common cold. Right on cue, an old man coughs and hacks into the street. A bus speeds by, tossing the water onto everyone standing there. The references to real life panics become commentary when its revealed the the entire thing was made up. The monster never carried any sort of disease. There was never an outbreak. The quarantine and martial laws were enacted for nothing. In the final scene, the government is prepared to spray a deadly chemical into the river, in hopes of killing the monster. Keep in mind, strange chemicals being dumped into the water is what created the creature in the first place. Right now, many people in the US are freaking out about Ebola, making “The Host” even more prescient and relevant.

“The Host,” like a lot of the hot Korean import at the time, was one of the rare films that lived up to the hype. The movie is hysterically funny, touching, and scary in equal measures. The monster is a unique creation, the characters are immediately lovable, and the performances all fantastic. A sequel has been planned for a while, as well as a North American remake, but neither have surfaced thus far. I’m not sure I’d like to see either, as ‘The Host” stand fantastically on its own. [9/10]

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

I’ve talk before about this interesting time period in horror history. During the mid-nineties, thanks to the unprecedented success of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” studios started making horror movies for grown-ups, with R-ratings, big budgets, serious talent behind and in front of the camera, and usually adapted from literary source material. It was a short-lived movement and one I honestly wished could have lasted longer. After Dracula, what’s the next classic monster story? Frankenstein, of course. Though not quite on the level of Francis Ford Coppola, Kenneth Branagh had already made a name for himself with his Shakespearean adaptations

Like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Branagh’s Frankenstein declares its fidelity to the source material by plopping the original author’s name above the title. Unlike Coppola’s Dracula, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” actually hews fairly closely to the source material. Victor Frankenstein is found on the ice by an Arctic exploration team, hysterical and near death. In his final hours, he relates his life story. He talks about his childhood in Bavaria, of his life long relationship with his love Elizabeth. Of how he became fascinated with conquering death after his mother’s unexpected passing. While in college, he refines his theory of creating life from dead material, of stitching together a new human. The movie includes Victor rejecting the monster after its birth and the creature coming to live secretly with a blind man and his family. As in Shelley’s text, the creation comes to hate his father, plots revenge, talks to him in an icy cave, demands he makes him a mate, and, when he doesn’t, seriously puts a damper on Victor’s honeymoon celebration.

This monster kid was really disappointed in this “Frankenstein” when it hit video in 1995. I was well acquainted with the classic Universal Frankenstein and excited for an updated, big budget version of the story. Branagh’s “Frankenstein,” however, is more of a costume drama then a horror film. The film focuses heavily on Victor’s formative years. There are sweeping, picturesque shots of Victor, Elizabeth, and his little brother running through the Alps, preparing an experiment. Long sequences are devoted to Frankenstein’s college years, to him butting heads with his professors, to him finally deciding to create his monster. The romance between Victor and Elizabeth is elaborated on as well. There are a number of tedious scenes focusing on their relationship. One especially groan-worthy scene is when she threatens to leave him because he’s just too devoted to science, maaaaan. The subplot accumulate in an absolutely ridiculous wedding night love scene that is practically a bodice-ripper novel brought to screen. There’s even a ballroom dancing sequence! None of this surprises me today, now that I know who Kennith Branagh is. Naturally, a horror movie from a director best known for costume dramas would resemble a costume drama more then it would a horror movie.

Fine. I can accept that. This is the fancy, prestige picture version of Frankenstein. What I can’t accept is Robert DeNiro as Frankenstein’s Monster. On paper, it probably seemed fine. DeNiro has played many intimidating figures throughout his career. He’s the Greatest Actor of Our Generation, right? Why can’t that guy play Frankenstein? A pretty big reason is that his traditional tough guy Italian-American accent seems woefully out of place in 1700s Bavaria. It seems especially ridiculous coming out of the mouth of Frankenstein’s Monster. The scenes were the creation has to deliver long monologues about his inner thoughts draw attention to this weakness. I’m not a fan of the make-up design. The curving sutures emphasizes the natural shape of DeNiro’s face, making sure the monster looks less like Frankenstein and more like Robert DeNiro.

The rest of the cast is similarly uneven. Ian Holm could play this kind of role in his sleep. The veteran actor is underserved as Frankenstein’s dad. It’s fun to see John Cleese in a more dramatic role, even if the part is just a variation on the snooty professor type he’s played plenty of times before. Helena Bonham Carter’s role exacerbates everything that’s irritating about her as a performer. She’s simpering, irritating, and demanding. You really can’t wait for her to get her heart ripped out. Kennith Branagh’s performance is rather overwrought at times, though more serviceable at others. He seems a little stuck on the idea of playing Frankenstein like a rock star. Branagh’s direction is more solid. The camera moves excitedly, frantically, throughout, providing this stale costume drama some decent energy. The dude sure as hell also knows how to pace a movie. Despite being over two hours long, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” flies by. I wish Branagh had worked to invoke classic horror atmosphere a little more though. The only really cool set in the movie is a big, ivory staircase in the Frankenstein estate. That’s cool.

Something else I do like about “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien” is it acknowledges Victor’s biggest character flaw. Many previous readings and adaptations have emphasize Frankenstein’s hubris, that he would dare create life when that is the sole domain of God. This version recognizes that Frankenstein’s crime is not his hubris but the fact that he’s a massive cock. Literally minutes after creating the monster, he abandons it. If he had just taken responsibility for his actions like a grown-up, instead of running away because his baby was kind of ugly, none of this would have happened to him. The monster tells Victor that, if he doesn’t make him a mate, he’s going to kill his girlfriend. Victor doesn’t do that, ditching his responsibilities once again. So the monster kills his girlfriend. Like he said he was going to. Duh. Only then does Victor attempt to create a female monster and its strictly for his own selfish needs. He resurrects Elizabeth, right in front of his monster, and teaches the newly made femme-creature to love him. This really pisses the monster off. By sticking so closely to the source material, Branagh’s film makes it clear the monster is the story’s (anti-)hero while Victor is the villain, a simpering jackass who brings all his trouble on himself.

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is far from a satisfying film. There are certain positive attributes to it. It looks nice, if nothing else. However, most of the actors is miscasted and it’s not the “Frankenstein” most horror fans are going to reach for. We’ve got plenty of other options in that department. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” ranks distantly from a number of superior adaptations. [6/10]

The Hook of Woodland Heights (1990)

I’ve been fascinated by urban legends all my life. My love of horror is definitely linked to this interest. If I ever get a hair up my butt and want to pursue a college degree with zero real world application, folklorist is what I’d pick. Anyway, my interest in urban legends, especially that perennial tale “The Hook,” has led me to check out a number of crappy horror movies. Sitting atop that pile of crap is “The Hook of Woodland Heights,” a micro-budget, shot-on-video short made in the late eighties and released in the early nineties. To give you an idea of the movie’s quality, it is usually paired on VHS with another short called “Attack of the Killer Refrigerator.”

The plot is adapts the legend of the Hook closely, to a degree. Two teenage lovers drive off to a cabin, isolated in the woods, with plans to get laid. Meanwhile, a one-armed maniac escapes a mental hospital, killing two interns in the process. Since you can’t fill even forty minutes with that story, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” adds other stuff. The madman kills a dog and steals a barbecue fork from a porch, bending it into a hook and stabbing it into his stump. The teens continue to neck, the girl asking the boy to stop repeatedly. The Hook murders some kids playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard. The teens make out some more. A friend shows up, startles them, wanders off, and gets killed by the Hook. The boyfriend leaves the car, karate fights the Hook and then gets stabbed in the dick. Finally, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” becomes a chase scene in its final minute, the hook-handed killer chasing the girl into a neighborhood.

To enjoy “The Hook of Woodland Heights,” you’re going to need a high tolerance for shot-on-video tomfoolery. The movie is super cheap, obviously. Even though the Hook story is always told at night, the filmmakers realized they didn’t have the budget for lighting rigs, so the whole movie takes place during the day. The killer has white paint spread on his face for some reason. The movie is padded out with long scenes of the teens necking, driving somewhere, or the Hook wandering the forest. The soundtrack is composed solely of hyper-cheesy hair metal. The gore is composed entirely of fake intestines tossed on shirts and some coughed up blood pellets. The acting is cartoony. From any critical perspective, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is not a good movie. That’s not why we watch films like this. Instead, we watch for the weird, home-made quality of the short. We watch for friends having a goofy good time on-camera. We watch for silly, low-budget takes on popular horror troupes. In this regard, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is a rousing success. The short attempts some intentionally funny splatstick gore. The Hook kills someone with a clipboard, for example. However, the film’s unintentional humor is far funnier. If you’ve got a stomach for Bleeding Skull-style, video-horror-trash, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is an easy recommendation. [7/10]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 26

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

I’m not sure what inspired Disney to remake “Mighty Joe Young” in the late nineties. The original was known, and well-liked in certain circles, but not quite a universally beloved classic. The same year, Godzilla got a long-simmering remake of sorts. Maybe remakes of classic ‘50s monster flicks were expected to become the next big trend in Hollywood. As we all know now, TriStar’s “Godzilla” was a huge disappointment. 1998’s “Mighty Joe Young” was a box office dud too. Honestly, the film’s not horror at all, which might make you wonder why I’m reviewing it on the week of Halloween, especially since I’ve pointedly skip the various King Kong remakes. The honest truth? I got it out of a K-Mart five dollar dump bin. There, that’s my terrible secret.

The remake updates the original’s story to the modern day. In the wilds of Africa, Jill Young is living with her mother, a zoologist studying gorillas. Jill has already befriended Joe, an abnormally large baby gorilla. When both of their mothers are killed by poachers, Jill and Joe’s bound grows stronger. Twenty years later, Joe has grown up to be the size of an elephant. The original’s nightclub owner is switched out for a wildlife refugee director, who entices Jill to bring the big ape to America, in hopes of keeping him safe. Joe makes the news, naturally, drawing the attention of a vengeful poacher.

Much as monster fans love it, stop-motion animation effects weren’t going to fly in 1998. The remake of “Mighty Joe Young” brings the gorilla to life mostly through animatronic suits. Joe is immediately recognizable as the work of Rick Baker and his team, comparable to his similar work in “Gorillas in the Mist” and other films. The creature work is excellent. Joe is expressive and always seems real. Occasionally, Baker’s great work is traded out for some CGI which has, as you’d expect, hasn’t aged well. More importantly, Joe remains a full-blown character. He gets sad, scared, angry, curious, and remorseful. A favorite moment of mine has the gorilla waving at a little boy he passes while in transport. The ape has a lot of personality. Instead of rampaging through a night club, the movie upgrades the finale to Hollywood. Joe sits on a blaring car, a moment prominently featured in the trailers, and climbs Grauman’s Chinese Theater. You can tell “Tremors” director Ron Underwood and his team were fans of the original as Joe is treated with a proper amount of awe, affection and respect. (Also, Ray Harryhausen and Terry Moore have a super cute cameo.)

The remake leads with a pair of solid actors. Charlize Theron had yet to define herself as a leading lady yet, her Best Actress Oscar several years off. This film was actually her first top-billed performance. Theron is good, a few flat line readings aside. Jill in this version is much more proactive and tough. The romance in the original was fairly routine which the remake attempts to correct. Bill Paxton is an improvement over Ben Johnson’s Gregg. While Johnson was mostly an undefined cowboy type, Paxton plays the character as an impassioned defender of wildlife. He has a charming, rogue-ish quality to him that plays to Paxton’s strength as a performer. Theron and Paxton have decent chemistry together. Yet the romantic subplot is still mostly put into the film for its own sake.

Most of the criticism of 1998’s “Mighty Joe Young” have centered around the story’s Disneyfication. The remake doesn’t soften the story too much, as it was already pretty soft. However, it does add a big villain to the piece. Strasser, an evil poacher, gets his thumb bitten off by baby Joe before the opening credits. In the years after that, he’s become a seller of endangered animal parts. His process is fairly cartoonish. He convinces people with rare animals that he runs a preserve, before actually killing the animal and selling it. I don’t think that would be a sustainable business model. The guy is reintroduced talking about murdering a panda bear. How much more blatantly evil could you get? This plot development really seems forced in, especially as the film goes on. I don’t know if a big stand-off between Joe and the bad guy was necessary. The original “Joe” featured a fairly mawkish ending. This being Disney, the studio couldn’t help but play that up even more. Instead of saving babies from a burning orphanage, Joe rescues a kid from a collapsing Ferris wheel. The sequence is dramatically directed but the image of Joe, on the ground, near death, with Jill weeping above him, is rather overwrought. Considering how much more collateral damage Joe reaps in this version, I can’t foresee the ape surviving and returning to Africa, much less a new nature perverse being opened with money from charitable donations. Jill would be up to her eyeballs in lawsuits.

“Mighty Joe Young” is hyper inoffensive and, as a result, relatively forgettable. It’s a decent remake, as it expands and updates the story logically. However, it does so without bringing anything new to the table. The cast is likable, the effects are great, James Horner’s score is above average, but I’d be surprised if I remember anything about this remake in a year’s time. Stick with the original. [6/10]

Sick Girl (2007)

“Sick Girl” doesn’t make any friends with its opening scene. The movie begins with Izzy, its main character, covered in dirt and standing on the side of the road. After a school bus picks her up, a pair of Catholic school girls mock her and a possibly mentally disabled girl gawks at her. Izzy then punches out a nun and urinates on her. Next, she hitches a ride with a pair of obnoxious guys, abrasive punk music blaring from their radio. Izzy quickly slices the one’s throat, tracks down the school bus, and murders most everyone inside. “Sick Girl” is not a nice movie. It’s a splatterpunk novel put to film, most assuredly not for everyone, and will actively put off the majority of viewers.

Yet after that, “Sick Girl” falls into a weird balance. The post-opening scene has Izzy washing her bloody clothes, silent flashbacks to the earlier carnage playing in her head. She’s lives with her little brother Kevin, family friend Barney frequently stopping by. Their parents are gone. Izzy’s older brother Rusty, a marine, is overseas. Izzy sexually, romantically pines for Rusty, a feeling he didn’t reciprocate. In her free time, when not helping her family, she brutally murders and tortures anyone who irritates her. The scenes focused on Izzy’s relationship with her little brother and Barney are sincere. A moment where she tucks him into bed, teasing and tickling him, is genuinely sweet. The movie’s set around the holidays and a Christmas morning gift exchange is funny and soft as well. The reason “Sick Girl” works – maybe the only reason it works – is because the familial bond between the characters reads as real and well earned.

This counts for a lot since, when “Sick Girl” isn’t focused on a small family trying to survive in a rough world, it’s focused on hardcore torture and death. Izzy tracks down a trio of bullies harassing Kevin. All the kids are around eight years old. She forces the ringleader of the bullies to drawn the other kids in a river and chides him when he stabs one in the back. The surviving kid is taken back to the family stable, where Izzy strings him up, has a live rat chew on his face, and breaks his arms and legs. The most graphic scene in the movie comes when Izzy castrates the lone survivor of the opening murder. She strings the severed penis on a chain around her waist and rapes one of the virginal schoolgirls with it. It’s, uh, a rough moment. The gore effects are crude enough that it registers as shocks-for-shocks sake, instead of having any deeper purpose. Yet many of these gruesome moments are characterized by a blackly comedic tone. An obnoxiously saccharine pop song plays during the aforementioned castration/rape scene. When abducting the young bullies, Izzy makes an off-hand quip about pitch-forking someone. There’s a glib sarcasm to much of the slaughter, which certainly helps soften the blow.

Holding the movie together, in an odd way, is Leslie Andrews’ lead performance as Izzy. Andrews is about an unconventional a leading lady as you could ask for. With a boy’s haircut, a short stature, wide owl eyes, buckteeth, numerous tattoos, and a square body, she’s no one’s idea of a movie star. She’s an uneven actress, giving some of Izzy’s lengthy monologues a flat, self-serious reading. Andrews, however, has something even the best actors don’t always achieve: An unforgettable screen presence and a compelling nature that viewers can’t look away from. There’s an overwhelming intensity behind her huge, blue eyes. She gives Izzy an unpredictable edge. The girl really does act as if her whole world is crumbling, that you have no idea what she’ll do next. This is best displayed during an awkwardly funny sequence where Izzy is picked up by a driver. The guy says all the wrong things and comes very close to getting his throat slashed. That doesn’t happen though because the guy doesn’t offend Izzy’s interior morals. The moment is both suspenseful and weirdly funny. “Sick Girl” would probably not be worth watching without Andrews. She hasn’t worked a lot since this but she deserves a lengthy, character actress’ career.

“Sick Girl” is hard to like for other reasons beyond its self-aggravatingly gruesome content. The visual aesthetic is ugly. The colors are washed out. The sound design is grating, with an abrasive, throbbing electronic score. The plot is loose, without a lot of major events. The whole thing is only a little over an hour too, making it seem like there wasn’t much of a script to begin with. On his subsequent film, “House of the Wolf Man,” Eben McGarr proved that he has a strong command of visuals and style. (If not the ability to write a wholly compelling script.) So “Sick Girl’s” hideous look has to be intentional. The movie puts you in the ugly, bi-polar world of a mentally unstable serial killer. Izzy is, as the title indicates, sick. The movie around her follows suit.

Despite a mountain of reservations, I like “Sick Girl.” Eben McGarr is the truest of independent filmmakers, scrapping his tiny movies together with tiny amounts of money. The movie is undisciplined and obviously unpolished. Beneath the grime, there’s a strange heart and soul and a true understanding of the main character. It’s probably not a good date movie but patient, tolerant indie horror fans might want to give it a look. [7/10]

Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death

Every year around October, strictly for fun, I cut together a mix of commercials, trailers, short films, and horror movie and TV episode clips. Just for my friends and I. I call it my Halloween Megamix. Anyway, while looking for scary moments from horror television history to include, I learned about “The House That Bled to Death.” It’s an episode of the eighties British anthology series, “Hammer House of Horror.” The series was an attempt by the defunct Hammer Studio to extend their iconic brand into the then-modern age. Despite its brief run, the show maintains a following and even got a state-side DVD release.

The hour is a fairly typical haunted house story and almost definitely inspired by “The Amityville Horror.” A husband, wife, and their young daughter move into a new home, unaware of that the last man to live there murdered and dismembered his wife. Immediately, strange things begin to befall the family. A pair of rusty kukris are found in the home. The family cat dies mysteriously and gruesomely. The picture of her father that the daughter keeps on her bedside catches fire. Blood leaks from the plumbing. The stress takes its toll on the wife. Eventually, things are revealed to not be what they seem.

The reason “The House That Bled to Death” has been singled out from the other “Hammer House of Horror” episodes is one specific scene. In order to help the traumatized daughter settle into her new home, her parents throw a birthday party with all the other kids in the neighborhood. While the little kids are gathered around the table for cake, a pipe comes loose from the wall. After sputtering for a minute, blood pours from the pipe, dousing the mom and kids. It’s a shocking moment, gruesomely funny without sacrificing its horrifying qualities.

Does the rest of the episode lived up to that fantastic moment. Not really. There’s a lot of the typical haunted house shenanigans. The family doesn’t move out despite the horrifying things happening around them. The slow build is especially slow. The noisy neighbors play far too extended a role. The performances are fairly cheesy. Aside from the bleeding walls, “The Amityville Horror” was an influence in another way. Both are obvious metaphors for a new home nickel-and-diming a struggling family to death.

However, the twist ending seems to acknowledge the facts behind the Amityville case. Turns out, the entire thing was hoaxed by the family in order to make themselves rich from book and movie deals. It’s an utterly preposterous and unlikely ending but I still liked it. I’m not sure I have much interest to seeking out the rest of “Hammer House of Horror” but “The House That Bled to Death” is a decently entertaining episode, if one hobbled by the conventions of early eighties television. [7/10]