Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 20

Revenge (2017)

Here in 2018, no exploitation genre is more disreputable than the rape-and-revenge movie. We, as a culture, are a lot more sensitive to the trauma women feel when assaulted. Trivializing this serious real world issue, by making a movie that have things both ways, letting a victim murder their assaulters but also reveling in a salacious rape, will earn a filmmaker a lot of hate. However, in 2017, this nastiest of grindhouse genre has gotten a new entry. “Revenge,” a French/American co-production, hit the festival circuit a year ago. Since then, it's picked up quite a few rave reviews. Now, the movie is streaming exclusively on Shudder, where horror fans of all sorts can check it out and see for themselves.

French politician Richard is having an affair with Jen, a young American girl who hopes to make it to L.A. and become a star. Richard has flown Jen out to his isolated vacation home in the middle of the desert. Every year, Richard travels out here with two friends, Stan and Dimitri, for a  hunting trip. After a night of partying, Jen is left alone in the house with the other two guys. Stan rapes her, while Dimitri lets it happens. When Richard is informed about this, he offers to fly Jen out to America. When she refuses, he pushes her off a cliff. But she survives. Though impaled, burned, and bloodied, Jen will have her revenge.

For some reason, I just assumed a guy directed “Revenge.” It's, perhaps, an easy mistake to make. In the first act, the movie is full of lingering shots of actress Matilda Lutz' body. She wears a thong, a tiny mini-skirt, clinging panties, and spends most of the movie in her underwear. The movie fixates on her ass and legs. It made me a little uncomfortable that a film was so blatantly sexualizing a soon-to-be rape victim. After learning a woman, Coralie Fargeat, directed the film, these shots suddenly meant something very different. “Revenge” is interrogating the male gaze, I think. The viewer is put into the same place as the film's men, seeing Jen as just a sexual object, before increasingly turning the tables on us. This is made all the apparent in the finale, where Richard stripes nude and is treated to similarly leering shots.

Fargeat's strength as a cinematic visualist becomes all-the-more apparent as “Revenge” goes on. This is an incredible looking movie. The flat desert landscape becomes a canvas for Fargeat to paint her increasingly bloody pictures. The black nights and still water make for some especially striking images. Half-way through the story, Jen ingests some peyote which leads to an especially wild sequence. Squirming maggots, a bloated corpses, and other wild colors quickly bursts across the screen. Fargeat's direction is such that even a simple image, like Richard riding his motorcycle through the dark, can become compelling. Especially when combined with Robin Coudert's throbbing electronic score.

“Revenge's” status as a horror movie is probably debatable. It likely belongs more to the thriller genre, since it features no supernatural element and seems devoted more to action than gruesomeness. However, it is certainly a gory movie. There's several exploding heads, via a nightmare sequence. A spellbinding moment involves Jen removing the tree limb from her gut and cauterizing the wound. If that doesn't make you squirm, maybe an extended sequence devoting to digging a shard of glass out of a foot will. However, the movie totally outdoes itself with that finale. Directed in long takes, and scored to the mindless chatter of a home-shopping network, Jen and the nude Richard chase each other through the house. He is wounded and blood spills, oozes, or is rubbed absolutely everywhere. It's an amazingly graphic and hugely intense sequence that keeps building. It certainly ends the movie on a hell of a note.

The film's cast is quite adapt. Matilda Lutz is steely and determined. Kevin Janssens reveals more of his disturbing side as the film progresses. Vincent Colombe captures the disgusting sleaze bag role well. I wasn't too sure what to think of “Revenge” at first but it won me over by the end. The film's impressive visual style goes a long way. That last act is absolutely fantastic. I think this is a movie people will be talking about for a while, for the way it subverts the expectations of the rape/revenge genre and turns the exploitation movie on its head. [7/10]

Spookies (1986)

Cult movies, especially in the horror genre, come to be through many roads. Usually, a movie is too off-beat for mainstream audiences but finds a die-hard following through home video or the internet. Sometimes, a movie is so bad, that people are attracted to it for its “so-bad-it's-good” value. (And, frequently, people start to genuinely like the movie after making fun of it for so long.) Sometimes, however, a movie becomes a cult item because it's genuinely strange. A baffling viewing experience, it must be watched and re-watch to decipher what it even is. “Spookies” manages to combine all three of these scenarios. Despite never being released on DVD, the movie has a small but loyal following of nuts who appreciate what a truly odd motion picture it is.

In a stately manner, a mysterious warlock named Kreon waits. He keeps his undead wife in a casket, feeding her the souls of unlucky passer-bys. Luckily, a few wander into the house on that night. A boy named Billy flees from his home because his parents forget his birthday. Two separate set of motorists take a detour and decide the spooky old mansion is the ideal setting for a party. After messing with a creepy ouija board, a hoard of demons, monsters, freaks, and weirdos are summoned. Chasing the mixed company through the house, the guests are picked off by the increasingly strange creatures.

It's been suggested before that the story behind “Spookies” is probably more interesting than the actual film. The short version is this: Two inexperienced directors were hired to make a monster movie, entitled “Twisted Souls.” During the editing process, the not-quite-complete film was taken away from the directors. A separate filmmaker was then brought in to shoot thirty totally unrelated minutes, creating a feature length run time. This patchwork job is fairly obvious in the final product. The story line involving the sorcerer, his wife, and the dearly departed Billy never really interacts with the plot about the kids sneaking into the house. This results in a totally unrelated ending, as Kreon's bride attempts to escape his grasp, the main plot forgotten. The attempts to bolt the two unrelated stories together are quite funny. At one point, Kreon's were-cat side-kick stalks the teens through the mansion. Yet he mostly just lingers, watching behind a door or through a window, never actually striking.

The result is a movie that borders on the incoherent. Even if “Twisted Souls” had been finished as intended, there's reason to suspect the original product was not exactly seamless either. “Spookies” is mostly composed of kids wandering around the house and being killed by a litany of bizarre monsters. The thin wisp of a plot involves a gnarly ouija board, not exactly a novel concept. The teens themselves are pretty weird too. There's an asshole boyfriend, who starts a fight for no reason. Strangest is the film's comic relief, a would-be comic who carries a hand puppet with him everywhere. (He also wears a t-shirt with a picture of himself and the puppet on it.) At least the A-story makes more sense than the additional footage. Apparently Kreon's Winona Ryder-looking wife gave birth to weirdo zombies while she was sleeping. There's a twelve year old son, dressed as one of the Jawas from “Phantasm,” and a conclusion loaded with pasty faced zombies. It's all very weird and doesn't make a lick of sense.

Some truly bizarre monsters lurch on-screen throughout “Spookies'” 85 minute run tine. There's that were-cat, who has a hook hand and dresses like he's in Adam and the Ants. The “Twisted Souls” footage includes a ouija-ghoul with a split-open head. An eel monster with entangling tentacles shoots waves that melts people, via stop-motion animation. There's a slimy Fiji mermaid that looks inspired by “Ghoulies.” Possibly based on Japan's Jorogumo legend, an Asian woman lures the comic relief to his death before turning into a grotesque spider monster. The most infamous moment involves a small army of muck men who fart as they move, supposedly inserted at the insistence of a producer with a fecal fetish. But my favorite monster is the bitchin' looking Grim Reaper who appears near the end. He swings his scythe around, get throws off the roof, and explodes like a ton of TNT. He's awesome.

If you're watching “Spookies” and expecting a coherent story, you'll be disappointed. It definitely doesn't provide that. However, as an extended effects reel, it's pretty damn interesting. The combination of a collection of increasingly weirder monsters, some amusingly dopey teen protagonists, and a totally bonkers framing act makes “Spookies” a frequently baffling but nevertheless entertaining experience. The film was frequently shown on USA Network's “Saturday Nightmares” block back in the day, which is probably the ideal way to see it. The VHSPS bootleg disc I have is pretty good too though. [7/10]

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III

Much like an undead ghoul, “The Simpsons” refuses to die, no matter how hard we try to kill it. Even their annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween specials produce exhausting results these days. However, you still can't argue with the classics. “Treehouse of Horror III,” from season four, is certainly among the show's most iconic Halloween specials. Following the Hitchcock-inspired opening, which is amusingly meta, we're introduced to our framing device. When Homer ruins the kid's Halloween party, the family resorts to telling ghost stories. Lisa's tale, “Clown Without Pity,” involves a murderous Krusty the Clown doll. Grandpa delivers “King Homer,” a “King Kong” parody. Bart wraps things up with “Dial Z for Zombie,” about the undead taking over Springfield.

Each of “Treehouse of Horror III's” segments are a classic. “Clown Without Pity,” another “Twilight Zone” parody, is probably my favorite. It contains one of the greatest comedic exchanges in television history, involving frogurt. Homer's reaction to the doll's attempt to kill him get increasingly wacky, climaxing with an attempted harpooning in the bathtub. The doll's interaction with his intended victim, such as when he insists his pull-string gets pulled again or is disabled by smelly socks, are hilarious. The segment's denouncement is hilariously blunt and sudden, while the epilogue wraps things up with a sitcom-style heart-shaped iris out. I also love little gags, like Grampa Simpson's rantings about the government or wanting attention.

“King Homer” is apparently a favorite of Matt Groening's, though I think it's the weakest of this batch. Which means it's still pretty damn funny. As a parody of “King Kong,” it's very obvious. However, there are some nice gags, like Burns' reaction to the gas bomb. Or the show recreating the shots of the famous King Kong head prop with Homer. I do like the ways King Homer eats various people or plays with Marge's hair. Mostly, this segment is funny for its absurd moments. Blink-and-miss-them gags involving Dick Cavett or the chubbiest kick-line in town made me laugh. Mr. Burns, in the Carl Denham part, provides numerous hilarious one-liners about ethnic comedy, Al Joelson, and dreading the reviews.

Similarly, “Dial Z for Zombie's” zombie gags aren't as funny as the smaller moments. Bart wearing “Thriller” as a hat while summoning the dead or the absurd string of pop culture references that make up the spells are hysterical. As is Homer's reaction to learning the news of the zombie outbreak. Little bits of dialogue, about the chapters in the occult book or Waldo not trying anymore, are among the episode's biggest laughs. Still, the zombie shenanigans are amusing. Classic bits about Seymour eating Martin's brain, confusion among zombie John Smiths, zombie Flanders, and zombie Shakespeare are well regarded for a reason.

Season four of “The Simpsons” is loaded with all-timers: “Kamp Krusty,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Mr. Plow,” “New Kid on the Block,” “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” and probably some others I could mention. Among that company, “Treehosue of Horror III” pales a bit. However, it is still a really good time and certainly makes for fantastic seasonal viewing. And, hey, where else on TV in 1992 were you going to see a reference to “Terror at the Red Wolf Inn?” [7/10]

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

In 1928, there were two adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” and both are considered landmarks in silent cinema. The first of which was made in France by influential critic-turned-filmmaker Jean Epstein. The second is an American short directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. The short is a very loose adaptation of Poe's story. It focuses on Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline. She appears to die of a mysterious illness. He buries her. There's an odd visitor to their home. She comes back from the grave, insane but very much alive. The story is told with no intertitles and in an avant-garde manner.

Watson and Webber's “The Fall of the House of Usher” is primarily a visual experiment and should be taken as such. The short is overwhelming with expressionistic atmosphere. The begins with the house looming in the distance as a pointed, abstract shape. The interior of the house is composed entirely of slanted angles. Long, triangular doorways and walls surround the characters. The shadows of banisters stretch up the walls into long shadows. Soon, they are accompanied by a shadowy hammer beating into the characters. Endless staircases sprout towards the heavens. Even the regular doors are decorated with conceptual shapes. As Roderick falls deeper into madness, the house becomes blockier and stranger looking. Watson and Webber's “The Fall of the House of Usher” follows the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” into an expressionistic nightmare of gloomy dread.

The short largely sacrifices story in favor of its visuals. Prism effects are used throughout. The pages of a book, an umbrella, staircases, and other objects are repeated and refracted on the screen. Another tool implemented here are sea-sick, wavy effects, stretching and distorting the image. Sometimes, the short's surreal images become especially unusual. Pitch black hands, and apparently just the hands, serve the siblings dinner. Madeline falls ill seemingly because a casket appears under a server trey, the image of which continues to haunt her. A shadowy top hat floats around a room. Words leap off the pages of a book and swell in mid-air. This dream-like approach eventually becomes far too abstract, loosing the story, and causing this thirteen minute short to drag.

Still, when this version of “House of Usher” works, it's a gorgeous and very creepy film. As a distillation of Poe's themes, it's especially interesting. It's avant garde approach would be insufferable at feature length but, as a short, it's fairly effective. [7/10]

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 19

Apostle (2018)

Gareth Evans is a Welsh guy who, in 2008, started making Indonesian action movies with a total bad-ass named Iko Uwais. Their second film, “The Raid: Redemption,” became an international cult phenomenon by being the most brutal, bone-breaking action movie of the last ten years. They also made an awesome sequel together. As fantastic as Evans' action movies are, it's apparent that horror is also a genre he loves. His first film, the little seen “Footsteps,” sounds like it borders the genre. He contributed the break-out segment in “V/H/S/2.” When news of Evans' latest arrived, it sounded like another spine-crunching action flick. Dan Stevens rescues his sister from a cult? Lots of opportunities for punching there. Once the trailer for “Apostle” premiered, it became apparent that the film was Evans finally fulfilling his love for the horror genre.

Thomas Richardson was once a missionary. Following a disaster trip to China during the Boxer Rebellion, he lost his faith. The love of his sister, Jennifer, is the only thing that gives him hope. When Jennifer is kidnapped and held for ransom by a cult, operating on a Welsh island, Thomas volunteers to rescue her. The society on the island is led by a prophet named Malcolm Howe. As Thomas attempts to fit in with the cult, he discovers many strange things about them. They worship a goddess. They make blood sacrifice every night. Odd tunnels run underneath the homes. Upon discovering his sister is still alive, Thomas will go on the run and be thrown even further into the bizarre things happening behind-the-scenes on the island.

“Apostle's” setting, a spooky village on an isolated island in the late 1800s, goes a long way. From the minute Thomas arrives, you can tell there's definitely something weird going on here. This, combined with the odd and foreboding musical score, treats an unsettling atmosphere from the beginning. At the same time, this tone also creates an intentionally vague story. Not a lot is explained, leading to some minor confusion to even an observant viewer. “Apostle” also has a few too many characters and subplots. They're hard to keep track of after a while. Eventually, an element of conspiracy and in-fighting is inserted into the story as well. Though “Apostle” has spooky ambiance in spades, it's not the clearest viewing experience, right down to its ambiguous ending.

Having said that, when “Apostle” goes for in-your-face horror, it's hugely successful. A sequence where Thomas is crawling through the island's filthy sewers is claustrophobic to being with. It then ends with a startling and disturbing chase. A ritualistic execution half-way through makes the audience squirm, the incredibly uncomfortable gore being paired with nasty sound effects and people standing in creepy, occultic robes. This proceeds a later horrific scene, where a bizarre monster attacks Thomas and fingers are shoved into the nastiest looking meat-grinder I've ever seen. Evans brings this disturbingly potent strength for intense images even to non-supernatural sequence, such as the visceral flashback that explains Thomas' scars.

Anyone who has seen “The Raid” films knows that Gareth Evans is an expert in full throttle action scenes. While “Apostle” is a very different kind of film, devoted more to watching creepy shit unfold, it still features some face-smashing action sequences. A British spy attacking in the church begins with frenzied movement and ends suddenly, with a multiple spear impalement. Later, Thomas escapes capture by similarly impaling an enemy. A fist fight between a younger boy and an older man smashes through their entire cabin, bodies tossed back and forth and straight razors being dragged slowly across skin. Evans' photography stays focused on the action even as the scenery swirls around them, creating a highly energetic and vicious storm of cinematic violence. There's only a fraction of the action we saw in “The Raid” in “Apostle” but those bursts of velocity sure are needed.

After kicking much ass in “The Guest,” Dan Stevens has mostly appeared in rom-coms and Disney movies. Stevens spends much of “Apostle” brooding and growling, being in a paranoid state due to fear of being discovered. When he's unleashed though, Stevens proves, once again, that he's one of the film industry's most underrated action stars. (I hold out hope he'll be our next Bond.) Michael Sheen is also very good as Malcolm Howe. When speaking from the pulpit, he's a confident and charismatic leader. In private, he expresses more doubt about the situation he's found himself in. I also liked Kristine Froseth as the teenage girl at the center of one of the film's abbreviated subplots. Her youthful energy is positive and upbeat.

So “Apostle” is a bit of a mixed affair. Story wise, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as I hoped. Yet when the movie pauses to introduce some hard horror imagery, it's truly impressive stuff. Evans' ability to create unforgettable violence still makes him one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working right now. “Apostle' is a little too impressed with this own folk horror vibes to be totally satisfying. However, I can't argue with a movie that features so many freaky moments. And you've got to love that Netflix is bringing niche-y stuff like this to a wide audience. [7/10]

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Through some bizarre happenstance, I have never reviewed an Edward D. Wood Jr. movie before. I've reviewed the movie about him but never one of the films he actually directed. For years, Wood was considered one of the worst filmmakers ever made. With the dawning of the internet, most film fans know that there were many directors who consistently made far worst films. Wood's movies might've had incompetent special effects and strung-together stories but they are rarely boring. The trash auteur's surreal dialogue and bizarre digressions suggest a fascinating, if unconventional, talent. While I hope to get to Wood's most iconic work of accidental weirdo art later in the month, tonight I decided to give “Bride of the Monster” a spin.

People are disappearing in the marsh around the old Willow House. A monster is supposedly to blame. Thought to be haunted, a new resident has recently moved in. Dr. Vornoff is a disgraced mad scientist from an undisclosed European country, determined to use radiation to create a race of atomic supermen. He is assisted by Lobo, a silent and monstrous man with a gentle heart. A giant octopus in the lake has him dispose of his enemies. Janet, a reporter from a near-by paper, is determined to get to the button of this monster business. Instead, she gets captured and hypnotized by Vornoff.

What's most fascinating about “Bride of the Monster” is the way it mashes together classic horror and atomic age sci-fi concepts. It features a spooky old house, littered with cobwebs. There's a secret passageway in the fireplace, leading to a laboratory full of sparking technology. The mad scientist performs hypnotism and has an Igor-style henchman. Alongside these gothic horror trappings are stuff that would've been considered more modern in 1955. There's a free-floating  anxiety over atomic power in the air, Vornoff using radiation for evil purposes. Stock footage of an octopus and a big rubber prop stand in for a flashier giant monster. This is capped off with a random mushroom cloud. Watching Ed Wood, no matter how incompetently, attempt to sympathize older and newer genre elements. 

What makes “Bride of the Monster” even more entertaining, of course, are the idiosyncrasies that mark it as an Ed Wood movie. At 70,000 dollars, this was actually among Wood's more expensive productions. Despite that, the laboratory set still looks like it's made of cardboard. The giant octopus, when not played by documentary footage, obviously doesn't move. The rolling boulder at the end looks fake as can be. Bela Lugois is traded out for an unconvincing stunt double at one point. Yet these barebone production values add to the film's charm, making it feel like a small town production, made by people with more dreams than money. Wood also brings his trademark oddball dialogue tot he film. A monologue about how the swamp is made for death is fascinating. An attempt at catty dialogue between women or a smart alack secretary comes off as hilarious.

Of course, the centerpiece of the film, especially in the weirdo dialogue department, is Bela Lugosi's monologue about having no home. We all know that the horror legend was a down-on-his-luck drug addict by this point in his career. Fittingly, Bela looks frail and ill. Yet there's still some magic in the old guy. As absurd as that monologue is, Lugois add some power to it. When vamping around the laboratory, he still displays that talent for hammy declaration of villainy. He also has the oddest form of chemistry with Tor Johnson's Lobo. Tor has no dialogue, aside from scream, and his attempts at acting are awkward. Yet there's an odd charm to the guy, with his enormous frame and mad eyes. Especially when Wood gives Lobo his fetish for angora sweaters.

Yeah, it's ridiculous and hilarious and obviously not by design. At this point, my enjoyment of Ed Wood's films come as much from genuinely appreciation of their low budget charms as it does ironic laughs at their expense. “Bride of the Monster” rolls along quickly, being only a little over an hour. Something nutty or silly or fun is happening on-screen at every point. It's a comfortable slice of old school horror hokum. A brisk October night, when paired with some Mothman beer and monster tacos, is the ideal environment to be seduced by “Bride of the Monster's” particular charms. [7/10]

Roseanne: Trick or Treat

Boy, I sure picked a good time to start including “Roseanne” episodes in my Halloween marathons. Months after a racist Twitter tirade got her fired, and a few days after her show moved on without her, here I am revisiting “Trick or Treat.” It's a classic Halloween episode from the show's third season. The show's A-plot has Roseanne and Jackie getting stranded at a bar on October 31st.  Rosie's costume is of a male trucker and she easily fits in with the macho guys at the bar. Meanwhile, Dan, Becky, and Darlene participate in a local haunted attraction. Dan becomes concern when D.J. decides he to trick-or-treat as a witch this year.

The A-plot of “Trick or Treat” is hilarious, timely, and insightful. We'll be getting to it in just a minute. Because the B-plot of this episode is where its Halloween atmosphere truly shines. The Connors' costumes are next-level stuff. Dan goes as all Three Stooges, Moe and Larry's heads on his shoulders. Becky dresses as a prom queen, half of her body mutilated and burned. My favorite is Darlene's outfit, a fake arm allowing her to puppet a demonic baby bursting from her abdomen.  Sara Gilbert's delivery when puppeting the critter is hilarious and adorable. Halloween theatrics like this could not be more pleasing to me.

The Roseanne plot is good too. It helps that the simple make-up that turns her into a man is so convincing. Watching her interact with the sexist jockos at the bar, and eventually deflate their macho posturing, certainly provides some smart and piercing laughs. Seeing Jackie's embarrassment at her sister's antics is funny. When a mutual friend wanders into the bar, and also mistakes Roseanne for a man, gets maybe the biggest laugh of the half-hour. If it's not that, it's the sequence where Roseanne deciphers urinal etiquette. The points the episode make still stand. I'd like to think dudes are more sophisticated now, even in landlocked hellholes like Landford, but I'm sure the casual sexism depicted here still goes down all the time. Over all, it's a classic episode, full of amazing Halloween ambiance and lots of laughs. [8/10]

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham (2015)

Here's another short the internet recommended to me. “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” follows a prisoner undergoing a newly introduced punishment. Bingham, a rapist and murderer, is to have his body slowly amputated. His surviving family signs off on each limb or body part he has removed. He's marched into school and treated as an example, a warning to disobedient children of what could happen to them. As his body is slowly whittled away, Willie is forced to consider his situation in silence.

“The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” is a not too sublte indictment of the prison system. As Willie has his organs removed, it's mentioned in passing that prisoners provide a number of organ transplant in the film's world. This is mentioned as a side effect of the increasingly privatized prison system. We aren't harvesting prisoners for organs – yet anyway – but we do use them for slave labor. The ways the system dehumanizes the criminals its suppose to rehabilitate is obviously the target of Matthew Richards' short. As more of Willie is cut away, his mental state starts to break. He is transformed from a human being into an object.

An object, it's repeatedly stated, that's put on display. Willie being sent to schools, and used as a warning, is perhaps the most pointed element of the short. It's clear that Bingham's punishment has no effect on the juvenile delinquents he's suppose to be dissuading. It's more of a public form of humiliation, turning the man into a circus freak, an ineffective tool used by an uncaring system. Even after he becomes nothing but a faceless, voiceless torso, this public display – the government using the misery it causes as just another assets – continues.

The acting is strong, especially from narrator Gregory J. Fryer. Matthew Richards' quasi-documentary style is well suited to the short's presentation. “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” is a disturbing condemnation of a society all to eager to forget that imprisoned criminals, no matter their crime, are still human beings deserving of mercy. [7/10]

Friday, October 19, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 18

Manhunter (1986)

Last year, I read Thomas Harris' “Red Dragon,” after buying it from a closing book store probably ten years prior. Though Hannibal Lecter has been a cultural icon for a long time, I had never actually read any of Harris' original books. The literary “Red Dragon” definitely belongs to the airport read genre but was, nevertheless, pretty damn effective. It's easy to see why Lecter, Will Graham, and Francis Dollarhyde would prove irresistible to filmmakers. Infamously,  six years before “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the Oscars, Michael Mann adapted “Red Dragon” as “Manhunter.” You've heard all the tired takes about how this film's approach to Harris' famous characters differs from the better known, later version. At this point, “Manhunter” is established as a film nerd favorite, having grown from the underrated and underseen prototype to a cultishly beloved masterpiece in its own right.

Will Graham is retired. After working as a profiler for the FBI, and barely surviving an encounter with notorious cannibal killer Hannibal Lecktor, the mental strain of the job got to be too much. That's when FBI supervisor Jack Crawford asks him to come back. A serial killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy by the press, is murdering families. Graham is reluctantly drawn back into the game. He meets with Lecktor, who is communicating with the Tooth Fairy, and inspects the scenes of the murders. Attempts to capture the killer fail and Graham's own family is endangered. Graham must go inside the mind of the madman if he hopes to stop him before he kills again.

What makes Thomas Harris' cop-vs-killer thrillers so compelling is how pathological they are. Francis Dollarhyde is driven by more obsessions than seems possible. He fixates on mirrors, William Blake's “The Great Red Dragon,” his own facial deformity, the act of watching his victims, and the full moon. Will Graham is similarly vexed by thoughts he can barely controlled, pulled into solving the mystery because he has to. This same sort of neurotic need is applied to the police procedural element of the story. We see evidence being gathered and studied in labs. Every step of the FBI's plan to capture the killer is detailed, shown being formulated. Lecktor contacting the outside world through a hacked phone is shown in meticulous detail. Harris' novel is built upon this stuff and Mann's film shares many of these feelings.

“Manhunter” is also a movie build around that old chestnut about how cop and criminal share many of the same desires, how both seek power and control. Mann's film provides a more than superficial take on this idea. Will Graham sees the world the same way the deranged killers do, allowing him the unique insight that makes him so good at his job. This takes a terrible toll on his mental health, which his family is all to aware of. (And shown brilliantly during the supermarket set scene where he explains his breakdown to his step-son.) Will dominates the first half, Francis Dollarhyde staying off-screen for a long time. In the second half, Dollarhyde takes over the film. Mann then shows the sad, isolated world the killer lives in, the brief hope a romance with a blind woman gives. This makes it clear how similar he is to Will Graham. Both are tortured by their compulsions. Dollarhyde must kill to satisfy his, while Graham's conveniently serve the law.

Michael Mann's particular directorial style has won him a passionate fan following. The neon aesthetic that made “Miami Vice” a hit is certainly visible here but it's bent into a more opulent, gothic direction. Shots of Graham walking through a courtyard of Dollarhyde's lover standing with a friend in her doorway combine both that eighties glow with a grander form of theatrics. There's even a warm, sensual quality to Mann's direction. The throbbing electronic musical score, and a number of practically erotic songs from Shriekback, further emphasize this intimate feeling. Yet there's also an immense energy to Mann's work. His camera often glides through scenes. These two approaches combine in the finale. Set to the blazing sounds of “Inna Gadda Da Vida,” Mann deploys multiple tricks – slow-mo, stylized editing – to make the finale hit with as much impact as possible. It totally works and “Manhunter's” finale is spellbinding.

Three fantastic performances anchor the film. William Petersen plays Will Graham as a deeply tortured man, who carries the mental toll of his work on his face. He is mostly quiet when with his family, not wanting to weigh them down with his problems. Only when he works, when he studies the killer's methods and tries to see through their eyes, does he seem truly energized. Tom Noonan as Dollarhyde is terrifying, when waxing poetically on his transformation or stalking his prey. Yet he's also deeply sympathetic, ruined by shyness and abuse that is only hinted at. Lastly, Brian Cox appears as the first cinematic Hannibal Lecter. (Spelled Lecktor here.) Cox's take on Hannibal the Cannibal is cold, detached, and chilling in his psychosis. As in Harris' book, Lecktor only plays a small role in the film. As in the book, he certainly makes an impression on the viewer.

Combining horror, neo-noir, and action elements, Mann turned “Manhunter” into an intoxicating experience. Disturbing, thrilling, and exciting, the movie still holds up fantastically to this day. Comparing it to “Silence of the Lambs” is silly, since both movies are so different, but they are perhaps of equal greatness. Of course, the film would receive a deeply inferior remake with Anthony Hopkins many years later. It's a bummer that Brett Ratner's “Red Dragon” was so lame because a lot of fascinating stuff from Harris' book didn't make it into Mann's movie. Maybe that “Hannibal” television series utilized that material better? [9/10]

Mama (2013)

When the trailers for “Mama” debuted in 2013, I didn't think much of it. The film looked like another disposable, PG-13 horror movie about a vengeful ghost, dumped into theaters in the dead of winter. Really, Jessica Chastain in a short goth wig was the only thing abut the movie that truly caught my attention. The film's critical and fan reaction was slightly more positive than movies of this sort usually receive but I remained skeptical. Not even a gleeful recommendation from Guillermo del Toro was enough to change my mind. However, in the aftermath of director Andy Muschietti actually doing a pretty good job with “It” last year, I decided to give his “Mama” a look after all. Maybe the low expectations helped because I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

A banker name Jeffrey has a breakdown, murdering his coworkers and wife. He grabs his two daughters, three year old Victoria and year old Lily, and drives into the Northern Virginia woods. His plans to kill his daughters and himself are interrupted by a supernatural intruder. Several years later, the girls are found, feral but still alive. Jeffrey's brother, Lucas, chooses to adopt the girls. This is not well received by his girlfriend, punk rocker Annabel. The girls are mentally scarred by their time in the woods... Because they weren't alone. A feminine spectre, which they call Mama, was taking care of them. The ghost adopted the girls. And she has no intention of letting them go. Annabel must uncover the mystery in time if she hopes to rescue Victoria and Lily.

There's no getting around one big factor. “Mama” is a movie full of jump scares and CGI. Muschietti utilized these same tools with “It,” albeit more effectively. The titular ghost is a creaky, shriek-y computer generated creature that herk-jerks around like a professional contortionist. Surprisingly, the movie has little fear about showing its monster off, revealing it early and often. Frequently, Mama leaps out of the shadows, grasping with her spindly claws, accompanied by loud noises or music. However, “Mama” seasons its teenage audience friendly loud scares with some decent atmosphere. The movie is surprisingly pretty, full of cool blues and picturesque locations. Muschietti uses color correction and CGI to create an artificial, almost dream-like tone.

Moreover, some of those jump scares work pretty well. Associating Mama with decay was a good decision, as the ghosts is proceeded by a black mold like substance. She has a habit of phasing down through the ground, only her ratty hair floating up above the surface. That's a decently unnerving, unusual sight. Another clever bit is an attack in a dark room, the ghost ripping a man apart illuminated only by a flashing camera bulb. Though the CGI isn't super convincing, a rotting ghost lady who bends her body at odd angles makes for a thoroughly creepy villain. (Considering Murschetti inserted a creepy, thin woman into “It,” I'm going to say this is a personal phobia of his.) The ghost's origin are explained through nightmare sequences, shot in a first-person perspective, that are surprisingly effective. My favorite moment in the film concerns Annabel assuming one of the girls is in their bedroom before we find out that girl is actually downstairs. That's a quieter brand of spooky and one the film probably should've leaned on more.

What really surprised me about “Mama” is that it's actually a little deeper than your typical studio spook show. The theme of motherhood is introduced early on. Anabel's first scene has her being relieved with a pregnancy test coming up negative. She's reluctant to accept the kids, in contrast with their clingy, supernatural mother. By the end, she's won over by the girls, choosing to love them. I don't know if I totally dig that aspect, as it correlates a woman's worth a little too much with her willingness to become a mom. However, I do like that the titular ghost is treated fairly sympathetically. Mama is a figure of fear but is pathetic too, a mad woman desperate to love something and be loved in return. She even gets a happy ending of sorts, a truly surprising conclusion. (Helping matters is the strong cast, as the young actresses make the little girls genuinely lovable.)

Something that really appealed to me, personally, was that the film seems to draw some inspiration from a local legend. The story is set in the fictional Clifton Forge, Virginia, which is a very similar name to Clifton, VA. Considering the role a spooky train-overpass bridge and a mental institution play in Mama's backstory, it seems likely to me that the film was partially inspired by the legend of the Bunnyman Bridge. Some of the flourishes the filmmakers add to the myth – like the role of butterflies – are inspired in their own right. I guess the filmmakers decided a spindly, corpse-like ghost woman was scarier then an axe-wielding lunatic in a rabbit costume. “Mama” doesn't rise above its status as a PG-13 jump scare-fest. However, it's a more sophisticated film then I expected, with a script that has some genuine intelligence and heart to it, as well a director with a strong visual sense. [7/10]

Mamá (2008)

Thanks to the internet, spooky horror shorts can now go viral, convincing producers and studios to fund feature versions. Before “Lights Out” and “They Hear It” followed the exact same path, “Mama” started the trend. Andy Muschietti's original “Mamá” – note the accent mark – is a three minute long short. It's told from the perspective of two girls, one waking the other after being told their mother is home. As the camera follows them through the house, we the viewer soon learn that their Mama is actually a twitchy ghost lady. Muschietti would recreate several shots from the short in the feature., though the premise obviously underwent a lot of changes between here and there.

“Mamá” scared Guillermo del Toro so much, that he agreed to produced the feature adaptation. Which is honestly hard to believe. The short “Mamá” is hokey as shit. Okay, the entire film being one quasi-long take – it's pretty easy to see where cuts could've been hidden – was clever. So is shooting it at the same height and position of its young protagonists. The girl's mother being an angry wraith might've been a nice shock, if the subsequent feature adaptation hadn't completely ruined that surprise. While Muschietti's form is strong, the titular entity simply isn't scary here. It's a hazy CGI image that leaps towards the viewer in a way reminiscent of Youtube screamer videos. And the entire short is building towards that jump scare. That an even half-way decent feature, not to mention Muschietti's promising career, sprung from such an uninspired short is very surprising. Unlike “Lights Out,” which lost a lot by getting longer, “Mamá” is an example of an underwhelming short film being turned into an alright feature. [5/10]

Wolf Creek: Return

The final episode of “Wolf Creek: Season Two” returns to Mick Taylor's lair for the first time since the original films. Rebecca and Brian arrive at the killer's home, a re-purposed old mining camp, unaware that he's following them. Rebecca heads into the labyrinth underground tunnels, searching for her husband and Kelly. Brian stays above ground, finding fuel for the truck. When Mick catches up with them, all hell breaks loose. Becca finds the others but at the cost of injuring her foot. Brian reveals himself to be an even bigger bastard than previously assumed. Mick continues to play sadistic games with all of them.

“Return” is a fairly tense hour of television. Mick's underground lair is a claustrophobic setting, made more so by the way the camera follows Rebecca's face as she searches through the tunnels. The scene where she steps on a strip of nails is cringe-inducing. Besides the setting, the episode hearkens back to the original film, in that it's mostly a cat-and-mouse chase between Mick and his prey. Long stretches of time and spend arguing and battering.

However, “Return” mostly left me with some pretty mixed feelings. The reveal about Brian is kind of dumb, considering the way he's been acting throughout most of the season. (His death is probably the most satisfying murder on the show, I'll give it that.) The way Nina is tossed away without much emphasis is disappointing. The pyrotechnic filled climax is a nice touch but it proceeds an ending that feels a bit like a shrug. Kelly, my favorite character of the season, gets away but her final fate is left a bit ambiguous. A post-credit scene gives us some hope but, even then, Mick Taylor is mostly triumphant.

This certainly fits in with the brutal tone established by the first “Wolf Creek” film. However, film and TV are very different mediums. In most movies, you're only spending two hours or so with the characters. In a TV show, you're spending many hours with them, meaning you get much more attached to them. In this context, the environmental fatalism inherit to the series plays much differently. It feels a bit like the showrunners were just being needlessly cruel and, I suppose, that was intentional. Of course, we all know the real reason why Mick Taylor is left alive: So they can make that third film Greg McLean occasionally talks about or another season of television. Considering John Jarratt is going to trail soon, it's entirely possible those sequels will never materialize. Meaning season two of “Wolf Creek” ends on a downbeat note for all the wrong reasons.

That “Wolf Creek” ends in such an unsatisfying place is disappointing. Over all, season two was a big improvement over the first. The cast was much more likable. The pacing was stronger. The writing was generally improved. Mick is just as cruel and oddly charming as ever, while he was provided with an entire bus full of worthy adversaries. Season one had a better theme song, as I much preferred the creepy take on “Who Killed Cock Robin?” over the slowed-down acoustic cover of “Down Under,” but the second season set out to resolve a lot of the first season's flaws. If only it had a better ending... [Return: 6/10] [Wolf Creek – Season 2: 7/10]

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 17

Slender Man (2018)

When it first started making the rounds in 2009, I really did think Slender Man was scary. Those black and white Photoshops images were very creepy. The lore that quickly built up around the character was all about invading your privacy, creating paranoia, and blurring the line between fiction and reality. It was effective stuff. I even briefly really got into “Marble Hornets,” an internet series that maybe hasn't aged the best. I actually had a few nightmares about it. When the big budget “Slender Man” movie hit theaters last August, the entire concept had long since jumped the shark. I blame that compute game for turning a freaky creepypasta into an overexposed meme. The studio-made film isn't even the first one inspired by the internet urban legend, though it is the first to be officially approved by the creature's creator.

A group of four high school friends – Hallie, Wren, Chloe, and Katie – are trying to kill some time on a boring weekend. They hear that a group of male friends, including the boy Hallie likes, are trying to summon the Slender Man. Not wanting to be outdone, the girls look up an internet video said to draw the faceless, tentacled, black-suit wearing entity your way. The girls are spooked by the video but don't think much of it. That is until Katie disappears a few weeks later. Finding Katie's laptop, Wren discovers that the girl became obsessed with the legendary creature before she vanished. Soon, the remaining friends are also being targeted by Ol' Spaghetti Arms.

From the moment the trailer hit theaters, it was immediately apparent what kind of horror movie this is. I'm talking typical PG-13, mall horror bullshit. “Slender Man” does not defy expectations. There's plenty of jump scares, of images emerging on-screen suddenly, accompanied by loud shrieks on the soundtrack. When that's not happening, the film loads up with CGI silliness. The titular character is not convincingly brought to life, looking plastic-y and fake. An encounter in a library, that concludes with Joey King getting her face removed, is laughable. Director Sylvian White, previously of “Stomp the Yard” and “I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer,” throws in more goofy imagery as the movie goes on. Such as a make-out session degrading into spasmodic head-shaking, a ridiculous pregnancy-invoking nightmare, or a random shot of one of the girls buried in dirt, arms twitching around. By the time the heroine comes face-to-face with the monster in the last act, the movie has already descended into unintentional comedy.

The movie is dumb and quite silly. However, it does attempt to touch upon what made Slender Man interesting in the first place. I've always interrupted the character as a metaphor for millennial paranoia about the surveillance state and how internet social pressures have become inescapable. Because, see, he's always watching and worms into your head. Keeping with this idea, the girls first become exposed to the entity thanks to the internet. Katie descent into obsessive behavior goes hand-in-hand with her spending more time on weird internet forums. The film takes this idea to its silliest conclusion when Slender Mans communicates with the girls via their smart phones. The movie also touches upon the character's deeper lore, by linking him with shadow people, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and other fairy tales. However, this is simply a(n ultimately abandoned plot point) and not commentary on the way archetypes of child-snatching beings that hang out in the forest have evolved over the centuries.

By the time “Slender Man” ended, I was definitely tired of how stupid it was. However, the earlier scenes are a little more likable. The four girls have a nice chemistry together. After Katie's disappearance, the scenes of Hallie, Wren, and Chloe trying to untangle what happen have a mildly fun teen detective feeling. The young cast is fairly likable. In-between this, “The Conjuring,” and “Wish Upon,” Joey King is quickly becoming the go-to scream queen for underachieving studio horror films. That's probably because she has an easy-going charm and is very talented at acting panicked. Julia Goldini Telles, a stand-out performer from “Bunheads,” has a similarly sardonic charm. Her abilities are deeply underused here but the actress manages to create a likable protagonist, even if the script doesn't.

“Slender Man” ends on a total shrug too, by the way. After that hysterical climax, packed with horrifically fake special effects, the movie more-or-less just ends. That the film is so typically bad is unsurprising but still disappointing. I think a quality horror film could still be made about the Slender Man, even if the idea is way past its expiration date. And there is the possibly we might get more of these things. Despite little promotion, probably because Screen Gems wanted to distance itself from the real life tragedy the meme has inspired, the film still turned a decent profit this past summer. Then again, maybe it's for the best if creepypasta movies don't become the next Hollywood horror trend. I really don't want to see a “Jeff the Killer” movie clogging up the multiplexes. [4/10]

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Why are scarecrows spooky? The easy answer is the same reason why dolls, dummies, mannequins, and robots are spooky. They have a humanoid shape, they look like something that's alive, but they ultimately aren't. However subtly and subconsciously, these objects remind us of corpses. Scarecrows have extra elements that make them unnerving. By their nature, they usually appear in rural settings. This brings being in an isolated location to mind, being alone and away from safety. They also have the word “scare” right there in their name. The concept of a homicidal scarecrow is one horror movies have touch on from time to time, to varying degrees of success. As far as I can tell, the first horror movie to deal with this subject is “Dark Night of the Scarecrow.” Considering its influence, it might be surprising to hear this was a TV movie. It premiered on CBS on October 24, back in 1981.

Bubba Ritter is mentally disabled. Though in his thirties, he has the mind of a child. Subsequently, his best friend is Marylee, a little girl. Local postman Otis, and his posse of good old boys, have been waiting for Bubba to harm Marylee. When the girl is attacked by a dog, seemingly killed, the lynch mob have their chance. Bubba hides inside the farm's scarecrow but is still found and killed. Only afterwards do Otis and the others learn that Marylee is fine. They are not charged with murder. In the following nights, Otis and his friends begin to see the same scarecrow, now stuffed with straw, in their yards. After that, they begin to die mysteriously. Is someone avenging Bubba Ritter or has the man returned from the grave, in the guises of the scarecrow?

Despite its humble television roots, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” maintains a spooky atmosphere throughout. While the title is singular, there are in fact many dark nights contained in this movie. The film's characters are guilty men, so many of the smallest incidents become foreboding omens. Such as Otis talking to the little girl at a Halloween party, her informing him that she know what he did. Or, of course, a scarecrow that wasn't there before appearing in a field. Director Frank De Felitta does not let the limitations of the TV format hold him back. The editing is stark and sudden, adding to the unnerving atmosphere. This often builds towards genuine suspense, such as a surprising scene where Otis confronts Bubba's mother.

I've seen “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” described as a slasher movie of sorts, which is slightly misleading. The film operates with more ambiguity than that particular sub-genre usually does. However, Bubba's attackers are killed off, one by one. The film does a nice job of foreshadowing each particular demise. Harliss is shown, early on, working with a wood chipper. This is the same device that kills him, in a tense sequence featuring him dangling off a light above the whirling machine. Philby has a grain silo on his property, which he ends up suffocating inside. Being made for television, there's no gore. Instead, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” builds up to these implied acts of violence. Via a chain rattling in the wind or a suspenseful chase through a pumpkin patch.

The film isn't just set in the South because that's where farms and, subsequently, scarecrows are found. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is a movie about small town hypocrisy. Bubba has never harmed anyone but, from the beginning, Otis and his gang are looking for an excuse to kill him. This is simply because he's different. Yet there might be another reason Otis hates Bubba so much. It's heavily implied the mailman may be a predatory pedophile, exactly the thing he accused the gentle Bubba of. Thus, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is about respectable people hiding dark secrets and those that seem strange being upstanding individuals.

The telefilm also has an excellent cast. Larry Drake, a few years before playing a similar part on “L.A. Law” (and many more years before his villainous roles in “Darkman” and “Dr. Giggles”), plays Bubba. He perfectly captures the innocence of the character. The scenes devoted to Bubba, confused and terrified, asking his mother what he should do, are heartbreaking. Similarly sad is the sequence where Jocelyn Brando as Bubba's mother tries to explain to Marylee that her friend is dead. Charles Durning, one of my favorite character actors, plays Otis. Durning certainly makes the mailman a despicable scumbag, especially when he celebrates winning the court case by getting fried chicken. Yet Durning is compelling enough that you don't mind watching him, especially since he's basically the star of the film.

“Dark Night of the Scarecrow” also makes ideal October viewing, as its set around Halloween and concludes in a pumpkin patch. The series of final images are a chilling way to go out. The film was out-of-print for many years, given it the reputation of a missing classic. A really nice DVD restoration finally arrived in 2010 and that disc can still be found for a decent price. Though there have been a few other decent killer scarecrow thrillers over the years – “Scarecrows” is pretty good and the similarly entitled “Night of the Scarecrow” has its moments – “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is definitely still the peak of this odd little subgenre. [9/10]

Wolf Creek: Shelter

The previous episode of “Wolf Creek” ended with the tourists coming upon an old mining base. In “Shelter,” we discover that it's home to a family: Old miner Spence, his wife, and their son, which shares a name with Rebecca's missing husband. Nina receives treatment for her snake bite and the group of four believe that they are safe for a moment. It's not long before Mick, who has Kelly captured at his home, arrives though. He quickly kills Spence and his family. The tourists cook up a plan. Rebecca and Brian will steal Mick's truck while Oskar and Nina will take the other vehicle at the location. Things do not exactly go according to plan.

After several episodes of being chased, “Shelter” does give our cast of heroes a little room to breathe. This leads to some conversation. Rebecca telling Brian how the life in her marriage went out is compelling. Spence discussing with Oskar how he believes the Wolf Creek crater actually drives people crazy is less-so. As nice as it is to see our heroes unwind, Nina is here to remind them of what they've lost. The woman is still clearly shaken by the murder of her daughter and spends most of the episode in a catatonic state.

Spence and his family, though they only have a few scenes, are likable enough that you're annoyed when Mick kills them, literally minutes after they are introduced. Setting up new characters just to hastily wipe them out is a bad habit this show has developed. Still, the scenes of the killer stalking his prey through the old mining camp are decently suspenseful. The sequence where Rebecca discovers several dead bodies, before nearly attacking her friends, is well done. There's also some humor added here. While Mick is locked in a shed, Brian is sent to distract. The psychologist attempts to break through the killer's psychotic shell, resulting in some very funny banter.

The penultimate episode of season two ultimately ends in a dark place. Rebecca and Brian get away but are unaware that Mick is hot on their trail. The show definitely kills off one of the season's best characters while flirting with killing my personal fave. (There's also shades of sexual violence here, which are even more distasteful with John Jarret facing criminal charges.) Still, it's an improvement over “Singing,” suggesting “Wolf Creek's” second season may be back on track. [7/10]

Possibly in Michigan (1983)

What is “Possibly in Michigan?” It's an extremely weird short film from 1983 that started getting passed around the internet a few years back. (I didn't hear about it until earlier this year.) Various sources described the plot as “two women are chased through a shopping mall by a cannibal.” But that doesn't really prepare you for the actual short. “Possibly in Michigan” does indeed follow two women, Sharon and Janice, who meet in a mall and are followed home by a predatory man. Odd images interrupt the film: men in animal masks, Sharon laying in a bed of roses, photographs of corpses, worms wiggling around. Cannibalism does seem to be a theme and the film ends with flesh being ripped from the bone. The eleven minute short is also largely sung, the sing-songy dialogue accompanied by tinny Casio keyboard melodies.

“Possibly in Michigan” is obviously an art piece. It's a baffling experience, quickly prompting questions of what it means. I can't be entirely sure and many of its images seemed to be weird-for-weirdness' sake. However, some coherent ideas do emerge. This is obviously a film about consumption. Shopping at the mall is directly connected with eating and sex. The women are looking at perfume, to attract a mate. That mate, a guy apparently named Arthur, wants to literally eat them. He's compared to the Big Bad Wolf. When the act of cannibalism finally goes down, the participants are naked. All these hungry desires, desperate to be filled, characterize the film. The film was also created by a woman, Cecelia Condit, which brings an interesting layer to how the female heroes violently reject their male suitor. “Possibly in Michigan” does seem to be criticize the masculine tendency to associate with love and sex with violence, as the killer say he attacks “for love.”

You can say all this stuff but it doesn't really give credit to what a baffling experience “Possibly in Michigan” is. Scoring the entire film to cheap new wave music, and having most of the dialogue be sung, immediately creates a surreal feeling. The frequent cuts to possibly unrelated images, like Janice posing with a gun or walking a dog, makes this a disorientating experience. Many of the images put on-screen here are bizarre and unforgettable. Such as Sharon dancing with a whole room of men wearing rubber animal masks. Or the masked man skipping across the road like some sort of spectre.

Is it a horror movie? The mask Arthur wears, with its bulging eyes and mouth permanently fixed in a hungry grimace, is definitely creepy. So is the way he constantly pursues the women. The cannibalism element, symbolic though it may be, is obviously pretty morbid. The music is usually upbeat but the lyrics continue the predatory themes, of hunter and prey. I still don't know exactly what the hell “Possibly in Michigan” is. I do know I had to immediately rewatch it after seeing it once. I will probably have to revisit it again soon, inflicting it on my friends. It's a confounding but fascinating experience in artsy-fartsy weirdness that is humorous enough to keep from being pretentious. [8/10]

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 16

Victor Crowley (2017)

While slasher franchises rarely end for good, “Hatchet III” mostly wrapped up that particular series. The quest to bring Victor Crowley's curse to an end, to kill the unkillable ghost, seemed to be complete. 2017 marked the tenth anniversary of the original “Hatchet,” because we're all old and will be dead soon. Fans arrived at what they thought was a screening of the original film, only to be greeted with a surprise. They were actually shown a brand new sequel, entitled “Victor Crowley,” filmed in secret and to be released later in the year. It was a pretty great tactic to drum up interest in a series most people assumed was over, once again displaying Adam Green's marketing savvy. Once released to the general public, “Victor Crowley” received a warm reception among fans of these hatchet-faced murder-fests.

The first three films took place on subsequent nights. So when “Victor Crowley” jumps ahead ten years, it's actually taking place in 2017, the year the sequel was released. In the time in-between, Andrew Yong has written a book about his experience, being the only survivor of the three day long massacre. (Though many people suspect he was the actual murderer.) A group of young filmmakers, obsessed with the Crowley legend, travel to Honey Island Swamp to film a movie about the killings. At the same time, Yong has agreed to appear on a true crime show. His plane happens to crash in the swamp that same night, killing the pilots and injuring the passengers. The young filmmakers arrive to rescue Andrew and the other, unaware that they have accidentally resurrected Crowley.

The “Hatchet” films have always been low budget affairs, most of the money obviously going to the gore effects. “Victor Crowley,” however, seems to be the cheapest production yet. Long stretches of the movie are confined to the water-logged airplane set. The gore in the film is the least convincing yet. The scenes of Crowley tearing off limbs or chomping off heads are unimpressive, obviously fake limbs being ripped away while too-bright fake blood spurts out. I will give Adam Green one thing. “Victor Crowley” is better shot than his previous “Hatchet” movies, the swamp looking more atmospheric, even if the movie is obviously cheaper overall. His script, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Victor Crowley is literally brought back to life by a Youtube video.

What really makes “Victor Crowley” disappointing is its slipshod screenplay. The film seems especially disinterested in Crowley's victims this time. The youthful filmmakers, seemingly the protagonists, are offed early on. One semi-major character is killed at the end, almost as an afterthought. With little else to motivate the story, the film relies on crude shock humor. Even by this series' standards, the jokes are obnoxiously crass. At a book signing, an overweight man asks Andrew to sign his penis, the full frontal male nudity lingered on. There's transphobic and homophobic jokes. Women seem to get it the worst. In-between the unscrupulous publicist, the extremely mean-spirited ex-wife, and the sarcastic college student, the film seems to take too much delight in making women bitches and then messily executing them. And, as always, there's just so much edgy profanity.

Also hinting at “Victor Crowley's” lower budget is the lack of recognizable cult stars in the cast. Aside from Kane Hodder, of course, who has now played Victor as many times as Jason. “Sleepaway Camp's” Felissa Rose appears as a duplicitous publicist with an obnoxious Jersey accent. Troma regular Tiffany Shepis has a small supporting part. Jonah Ray appears as the opening kill. Tony Todd and Danielle Harris have cameos. Otherwise, the cast is occupied with hard-working but mostly unknown character actors. Dave Sheridan is alternatively annoying and endearing as an overeager, would-be actor. Laura Ortiz, previously from Green's “Holliston” TV series, might've been likable as Rose if she wasn't given such atrocious dialogue. Parry Shen is mildly amusing as Andrew but elevating him to leading man status stretches his talent to the breaking point.

You'd think, with it being the big anniversary movie, Adam Green and company would've cooked up something special for “Victor Crowley.” Instead, it's more of the same. I suspect the film wasn't just shot in secret but written quickly as well. The characters are sketchier than ever before. The plot is slapped together. The production values are low. It has all the signs of being a somewhat desperate attempt to continue the series pass its logical end point. There's a mid-credits teaser, setting up the possibility of a fifth film. I suspect inertia and Green's continued enthusiasm will push that through eventually. I'm finding myself genuinely wishing they would let this one go. The “Hatchet” movies have been fun, from time to time, but this lackluster sequel suggests Victor Crowley should have stayed dead. [5/10]

Satan's Triangle (1975)

After watching “Trilogy of Terror” recently, I'm finding myself craving more vintage horror TV movies. “Satan's Triangle” is one I've heard about for years. The ABC Movie of the Week for January 14th of 1975, it combined two seventies supernatural fads. Devil movies were still pretty hot, with “The Omen” arriving the next year. The Bermuda Triangle was also a frequent target of fascination at the time. (An example: “In Search Of..” would debut two years after this movie, the Triangle coming up as soon as the fourth episode.) It doesn't have the cult following of Dan Curtis' output or the name recognition of “Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.” However, it would seem the film still traumatized those who were young when it originally aired.

Somewhere near Bermuda, the Coast Guard receives a distress call. Helicopter pilot Pagnolini and winchman Haig are deployed, venturing into the notorious triangle. They discover an adrift schooner. The deck of the boat is littered with corpses. The interior of the boat includes a seemingly floating body. Haig discovers only one survivor: A high-class escort named Eva. After the copter is struck by lightning, the winch malfunctions, stranding Haig and Eva on the boat until Pagnolini can return. While waiting, she tells him what happened. While on a fishing trip, the boat picked up a priest floating on some wreckage. Mysterious misfortune, attributed by the priest to the devil himself, soon befell everyone aboard. And the curse is ready to continue.

I never know what to expect from old TV horror movies. The best use their limited scope to their advantage. The worst are hokey bullshit. While “Satan's Triangle” has a few cheesy moments, mostly from odd photography effects when lightning strikes, it's otherwise a surprisingly eerie affair. The music score contains enough odd attributes to create a spooky atmosphere early on. The image of dead bodies on the boat, impaled on glass or dangling from the mast, are conveyed in a spooky way. Having the majority of the film be told in flashback adds to this foreboding feeling. By the time we get to the last act twist, a successfully unnerving tone has been built up. The climax kicks off with a genuinely creepy shot of someone smiling, leading into an ending that is downbeat and unsettling.

The Bermuda Triangle legend collapses under the smallest bit of scrutiny. The number of disappearances in the Triangle are no higher than in any other stretch of sea. “Satan's Triangle” even acknowledges the skeptical approach. After Eva explains her versions of events, Haig examines each of the mysterious deaths, finding a logical explanation for each of them. (Even the body seemingly hanging in the air, a weird death that plays out in an amusingly outrageous fashion.) The explanation “Satan's Triangle” cooks up for the weird things going in the Triangle is certainly more interesting than aliens or Atlantis or dimensional vortexes or whatever people are claiming these days. The devil himself terrorizing ocean-goers is more thrilling and novel than any of that stuff.

As was usual for seventies TV movies, “Satan's Triangle” features some slightly washed-up talent in the cast. Doug McClure stars as Haig, bringing a likable roguish quality to the film's hero. He has solid chemistry with Kim Novak. Novak plays Eva as someone slightly disconnected from reality, obviously traumatized by what she's seen, but still dripping with sensuality. Alejandro Rey has a booming voice which is well utilized as the priest, who often makes big sweeping statements about the crazy situation they're in. I also liked Michael Conrad as the helicopter pilot, a crotchety old man with a strict moral code. I wish the film used Ed Lauter a little more, who appears in a small supporting role.

I can totally see why kids in 1975 would've been spooked by “Satan's Triangle.” Its creepy events are largely left unexplained. The ending does not provide much catharsis for the viewer. Instead, it wraps up with a creepy feeling. This is probably the best Bermuda Triangle movie I've ever seen, as most stories dealing with this premise are of a poor quality. The film doesn't seem to have been officially released on DVD, at least not in Region 1. However, copies of decent quality are floating around Youtube. I suggest you check it out, if you're in the mood for a slightly cheesy but ultimately effective bit of mid-seventies spookiness. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Ghost Ship

The final episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper's” first season covers another lightly spooky horror trope I remember being weirdly prevalent when I was kid: A haunted ghost ship full of skeletal pirates. (As far as I can tell, this cliché wouldn't get a proper cinematic adaptation until Disney's “Pirates of the Caribbean” films kicked off.) Surfer dudes Ben and Mike take a yacht, belonging to Ben's dad, out for a joyride. The trip quickly goes wrong, the boat sinking after they skid over a patch of rocks. The two dudes are soon pick up by a mysterious galley. They are introduced to the ship's inhabitants: A crew of skeleton pirates, led by the viscous Redbeard. Soon, the guys are recruited into a mission to recover some missing gold.

“Ghost Ship” draws heavily from another early nineties artifact. Ben and Mike are essentially Bill and Ted. While Mike is Jamaican, with the required accent, Ben's voice actor is obviously attempting a Keanu Reeves impersonation. The premise – Bill and Ted vs. Ghost Pirates – is a fun one, that “Ghost Ship” utilizes fairly well. Seeing the two dudes keep their spirits up, no matter how perilous or crazy their adventure gets, is amusing. However, the episode is fairly low on horror content. The cackling skeletons are played for laughs and are easily dispatched. Only the look we get at Redbeard's rotting face is likely to scare the kiddies. The episode's moral, about how getting a job is better than being a slacker, is fairly forced in. Still, this one has its enjoyable moments. [6/10]

Going into “Tales from the Cryptkeeper,” I had no idea if I would enjoy it. While I love many of the kids cartoons of the nineties, plenty of them are awful as well. A Saturday morning version of “Tales from the Crypt” could easily have gone either way. I'm happy to say I mostly enjoyed the first season. While there were a few stinkers, the show did a really good job of maintaining the “Tales” style while leaving behind the R-rated elements. “Gone Fishin',” “Fare Tonight,” and “Grounds for Horror” all could have been easily rewritten into episodes of the main series but managed to be entertaining even in their sanitized form. I'm looking forward to covering the other two seasons next year, if the gods of Halloween are with me.

Wolf Creek: Singing

I was enjoying season two of “Wolf Creek” but it hits a serious snag with “Singing.” The story has split into several threads. Rebecca, Brian, Oskar and Nina continue their trek towards the Wolf Creek crater but encounter trouble, when Nina is bitten by a snake. Meanwhile, Steve and Kelly are separated. Steve is picked up by a pair of Aboriginal trackers. They know who Mick Taylor is and are soon attacked by him, leaving one dead and the other wounded. Kelly has managed to avoid being captured by the killer but, when Steve is grabbed instead, she has to intervene.

In “Singing,” season two of “Wolf Creek” does exactly what I was worried it was going to do. Brian mercy-killing Michelle becomes a source of drama between the four on-the-run tourists. Oskar and Brian end up getting into an argument, which quickly escalates into fisticuffs. Group in-fighting is among my most hated horror tropes. People arguing about petty bullshit when they should all focus on avoiding the serial killer after them is seriously annoying. The random snake bite seems like another contrived story move, to keep things dramatic and interesting during the season's fourth hour.

As annoying as the unnecessary in-fighting is, it is less baffling then the episode's sudden introduction of Aboriginal mysticism. Yes, I'm being serious. After one of the trackers is stabbed by Mick, a indigenous medicine man heals him. He then performs a magical chant, which seems to disable the killer. Not only does this play into worn-out stereotypes about Magical Indians, it also introduces an element of magic into an otherwise grounded-in-reality series. The show then discards this subplot minutes after it first appears. Making you wonder what the point of this confounding digression was.

Still, “Wolf Creek” has its pleasure even during a weaker episode like this. Kelly, expertly played by Laura Wheelwright, is quickly becoming my favorite character. She displays a tough and resourceful side in this episode, getting the drop on Mick. (If the show wasn't determined to stretch things out for six hours, the story easily could've ended there.) I also like Mick's interaction with the captured Steve, which ends in a nicely grisly fashion. Hopefully, season two quickly looses the narrative bloat so common to serialized television, that it has mostly avoided, in the next episode. [5/10]