Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 25

Stoker (2013)

A few years back, it seemed like a wave of critically lauded Korean filmmakers were coming to America to reinvent the wheel. Instead, things kind of petered out, at least commercially. Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer” was mishandled by its distributor. Jee-woon Kim’s “The Last Stand” failed to connect with audiences. Out of the three, Chan-Wook Park’s “Stoker” probably got the best treatment. A gothic-tinged, dark psychological thriller like this was never going to be a big box office hit. Though some felt the film was disappointing compared to Park’s Korean films, many loved it. Including me, where the film became my favorite release of 2013. A few years later, how does it hold up?

On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, India Stoker’s father has died. Rejected by her emotionally distant mother and unpopular at school, India finds solace in an unexpected place. Her uncle Charlie, who she had never met before, moves into the sprawling, family house. At first, India isn’t sure what to make of this man. This man who takes a special interest in her, this man who is seducing her mother. Soon enough, India realizes that Uncle Charlie has something in common with her. Both have secrets. Both are capable of horrible things.

“Stoker” has got to be one of the darkest coming-of-age stories ever committed to film. It’s essentially a story about a young girl accepting her blood lust, coming into her own as a serial killer. Watching the heroine dig deeper into Uncle Charlie’s dark history is fascinating. The viewer often wonders which path India will choose. Will she ignore her homicidal tendencies or will she become evil? The film directly connects India’s murderous awakening with her sexual one, furthering casting the story as a dark subversion of becoming tales. Like any adolescent, she’s moving away from her parents, forging her own path. But India’s path is far more disturbing then what you’d expect. Mia Wasikowska is mesmerizing as India. She speaks volumes with her steely gaze.

“Stoker” is also a story about the rivalries within a family. Mother Evelyn barely tolerates her eccentric daughter. She dismisses her interests and shows no need to understand her daughter’s mood. In time, Evelyn comes to see India as a romantic rival. In a chilling monologue, Nicole Kidman generating a disturbing intensity, she wishes hell on the girl. Yet mother/daughter conflicts aren’t the only ones present in “Stoker.” In time, we learn the truth behind Uncle Charlie’s travels around the world. The reason India’s father never introduce her to her uncle is revealed in a shocking flashback. That initial, hideous crime was itself motivated by sibling rivalry. “Stoker” portrays family not as a warmth place where everyone accepts you. It’s the opposite, a cold grave eager to judge and reject you.

If the committed performances and twisted script don’t appeal to you, maybe “Stoker’s” incredible visual sense will catch your eye. Chan-Wook Park’s direction is spellbinding. The camera sweeps around the characters. A brilliant sequence, set at a piano, seamlessly passes around the room. As India reads through her uncle’s letters, the words and images pile up on screen. The editing is brilliant, cutting between the past and the present, giving both events meaning. Park also packs the film full of visual symbolism. As Uncle Charlie influences India, a spider crawls up her skirt. Nature documentaries, discussing the predatory habits of falcons, are always playing on TV, invoking the characters’ murderous impulse. Shoes are presented as symbols of maturity, India casting off childish penny loafers and slipping on high heels. Metronomes, sand castles, belts, ice cream, and blood sprayed flowers are just some of the ordinary objects the film invests with a deeper meaning.

It’s a ludicrous simplification but I’ve described “Stoker” as a darker, more grounded take on “The Addams Family,” if Gomez was dead, Mortica hated everyone, and Fester was mentoring Wednesday in the ways of bloodshed. The gothic mansion setting and Wasikowska’s black locks, framing her pale face, point towards the comparison. The title, meanwhile, suggest a story about vampires. A desire to kill passed on along bloodlines does sound a bit like vampires, doesn’t it? Most surprisingly, “Stoker” was written by television actor Wentworth Miller. (Miller also wrote a prequel called “Uncle Charlie” that has yet to be filmed.) Who would’ve thought that the guy from “Prison Break” could’ve written such an impressive film? [9/10]

Orca (1977)

The seventies and eighties were the golden years for overseas rip-offs of American blockbusters. Massive hits like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Alien,” “The Terminator,” and “E.T.” would produce multiple low budget, foreign-produced attempts to replicate their success. Few mega-movies would produce more copycats then “Jaws.” Maybe this was because a wild animal eating people in an isolated location was an easy premise to emulate. Of all these would-be “Jawses,” 1977’s “Orca” is probably the most polished. An oddball attempt to mash up an aquatic creature thriller with deeper emotions, the film has garnered a cult following among fish flick fanatics.

During a routine trip, Captain Nolan has a frightening encounter. One of his team members is nearly attacked by a great white shark. At the last moment, an orca swoops in and kills the shark. Afterwards, Nolan becomes fascinated with catching a killer whale. He recruits a marine biologist, Dr. Bedford, to help him in this mission. When he finally targets a killer whale, he strikes a female instead of the intended male. The porpoise is dragged aboard the ship, dying along with its unborn child. This enrages the whale’s mate. From that point on, the male orca begins to pursue Nolan. It murders his friends and destroys his business. He’s determined to ruin the man’s life, all in the name of revenge.

What elevates “Orca” above the many other “Jaws” rip-offs is how unapologetically romantic it is. The film opens with shots of the orca frolicking in the water with its mate. They leap joyously through the air, happy together. Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score, which is equal parts love ballad and sea shanty, plays against these scenes. When the female orca is killed, the death is protracted. The creature bleeds and screams. The image of its aborted fetus, falling from the body aboard the deck and washed away with a hose, is disturbingly graphic. The audience is meant to sympathize with the orca, Richard Harris’ fisherman being a villain protagonist. The capsule summery of “Orca” would be “Moby Dick” in reverse, with a whale on an endless quest of revenge against a man. Or, to put it more bluntly, it’s "Death Wish" but with an orca instead of Charles Bronson. It’s not the kind of premise you’re going to see anywhere else is what I’m saying.

“Orca” follows its oddball muse even when attempting to scare the audience. The obvious horror movie moments often border on unintentional humor. When a live orca is traded out for a crudely animatronic one, the audience can definitely tell. The whale blowing up Harris’ boat or tossing a car across the land is hard to swallow. So is the animal destroying a house on the dock, in order to bite the legs off the people inside. As funny as these moments can be, “Orca” still has a weird, raw power. The attack scenes are brutal, people being dragged under the water in the animal’s jaws, bleeding profusely. They kick and scream as they die. This is one pissed off porpoise and his vengeance is righteous, if often campy.

In order help sell this ridiculous movie with its ridiculous premise, some top shelf actors were reeled into appearing. Richard Harris was weirdly defensive of the movie, becoming offended whenever anyone would call it a “Jaws” rip-off. Harris’ performance nicely reaches from playful at story’s start, regretful over his own actions, to craven by the end, learning to hate the whale as much as it hates him. (This is despite the ironic element of Harris’ Nolan also have a dead wife and child, which doesn’t quite work.) Charlotte Rampling is also very serious as the marine biologist. The reoccurring voiceover she delivers is unnecessary and her proclamations of science facts about orcas are self-serious. Rampling, however, has several humane moments that ground the characters. Will Sampson has a few decent moments, even if his character is a fairly standard Indian sage part. Also watch out for supporting roles from Robert Carradine and Bo Derek, both of whom get eaten.

As wacky as “Orca” is in its finished form, it could’ve been crazier. Producer Dino de Laurentis originally wanted the titular creature to walk on land. Now that would’ve been something! A deeply quirky variation on the “Jaws” formula, “Orca” is a lot of fun. How often does a movie attempt to get you to sympathize with a whale, much less a killer one? That everyone involved takes the silly premise entirely serious results in a campy but undeniably earnest motion picture. The combination results in a film that makes you laugh and is also kind of touching. And what more could you ask for from a killer fish movie? [7/10]

Sugar Hill (1974)

After the success of “Blacula,” A.I.P. watched other blaxploitation/horror combos pop up. There were more black vampires, your black Frankensteins, your black Exorcists. After wringing the last drop of blood out of Blacula, American International Pictures decided to put the blaxploitation spin on another horror archetype: The zombie. Instead of tackling the flesh-eating ghouls of “Night of the Living Dead” – which George Romero would kind of  do four years later – director Paul Maslansky and writer Tim Kelly would draw inspiration from Haitian legends of voodoo zombies. The film would mostly be overlooked, lacking the catchy titles of other blaxploitation horror mash-ups, but has developed a small cult following.

Langston and Diana Hill own a nightclub together, where voodoo themed dance numbers are performed every night. Langston has nicknamed Diana “Sugar,” due to her sweetness. Gangsters, scooping up other local businesses, insist on buying Langston’s club. When he refuses, they beat the man to death. Enraged and ready for revenge, Sugar Hill seeks out the help of a voodoo priestess named Mama Maitresse. They summon voodoo god Baron Samedi who grants Sugar an army of glassy eyed, machete wielding zombies. Using these minion, she sets out to exterminate the men who murdered her husband.

“Sugar Hill” has many similarities to another AIP blaxploitaiton hit, the previous year’s “Coffy.” A murdered loved one forces a woman into revenge against organized crime, using her sexuality and wits as a weapon. Both devote a scene to a cat fight between the lead and the gangster’s shapely moll. Marki Bey even slightly resembles Pam Grier. Beyond this blatant and likely emulation, “Sugar Hill” happily doubles down on blaxploitation clichés. The white mobsters are openly and gratuitously racist. The script is full of ridiculous slang, Sugar often referring to her tormentors as “honks.” There’s an ineffective police detective chasing after the zombies, buffoonish gangsters, hilariously dated costumes, and a funky theme song. About the only thing missing is some drug references and an inner city setting, as the film takes place in not-quite urban Louisiana. (And was filmed in Texas.)

For all its campiness, “Sugar Hill” does summon up a spooky, horror atmosphere. The zombies have an odd design. Silver reflective ping pong balls cover their eyes. Dark lines are painted on their bodies. Cobwebs cling to their heads and necks. Sometimes they smile, in homicidal glee, but usually they stare blankly, stiffly swinging their machetes. When the zombies, revived corpses of slaves, rise from their mass graves, thunder strikes and a storm churns. The final features the villain being stalked through an empty house by the zombies, a mildly tense sequence made better by some shadowy ambiance. Though Sugar Hill usually lets her minions do the heavy lifting, occasionally she does the killing. A notable scene has her slowly torturing a thug to death with a voodoo doll. As cheap and cheesy as “Sugar Hill” can be, it still possesses a hokey power.

The performances range from surprisingly charismatic to totally ridiculous. Marki Bey is not the natural talent Pam Grier is, as some of her line-readings are awkward. However, she does occasionally summon up some emotion. If nothing else, she’s a compelling presence. Don Pedro Colley, as Baron Samedi, is likely the high-light of the film. He hams it up gloriously as the voodoo god, laughing uproariously all throughout the film. Robert Quarry, previously of the “Count Yorga” duology, plays the head mobster, Morgan. While Quarry was a decent vampire, he seems out of his element here. You can tell how uncomfortable the actor was with the slur filled dialogue. Betty Anne Rees probably gives the worst performance, shrieking ridiculous as Quarry’s girlfriend. Most of the bit players are really stiff.

As well loved as the blaxploitation horror cycle was, it was actually fairly short lived. “Sugar Hill” was one of the last notable entries to emerge from the fad. The film may actually be ideal Halloween viewing. It has the right balance of spookiness and campiness, all tied together by a funky soundtrack and a delightfully dated aesthetic. Though not as good as “Blacula,” it’s slightly better then “Scream Blacula Scream” and still miles above stuff like “Blackenstein.” Assuming you’re not too much of a jive turkey, give it a look. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Reptilian

Presumably because the writers had exhausted all other ideas, the final episode of “Lost Tapes” is entirely devoted to David Icke’s reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories. Teenagers are disappearing all over New York City. A pair of detectives trace the disappearances to a series of exclusive parties going down in abandoned subway tunnels. They infiltrate such a shindig, recording events with hidden cameras. What they discover are tunnels painted with odd symbols and guarded by intimidating men in hoods. As they dig further, they discover human bodies hanging in food lockers and reptilian, possible extraterrestrial, monsters disguised as people.

A reportedly educational network like Animal Planet broadcasting an ode to the kookiest conspiracy theory is deeply irresponsible. Supposed experts, with a straight face, talk about how the reptilians come from other worlds or dimensions. How they drink human blood and have infiltrated all corners of Earthly politics. The episode itself downplays the conspiracy element in favor of robed snake men suffocating people with saran wrap. The underground setting is mildly atmospheric. Most of the episode being shot in night vision actually adds to the spooky, subterranean ambiance. There’s a decent jump scare, involving a dead body on a hook swinging into view. The monsters themselves are deeply lame though. Guys in monk hoods don’t make for great creature designs. Occasionally, we see their slit eyes or scaly skin but it doesn’t count for much. As usual, the monsters work better when kept off screen. A flash of a swishing lizard’s tail or some gooey slime dripping from the ceiling are far creepier. Though it has some fun ideas, far too much of “Reptilian” is devoted to people wandering around industrial tunnels. [4/10]

Thus concludes my coverage of “Lost Tapes.” Rewatching the entire series in so short a period really emphasizes the show’s flaws. “Lost Tapes” was rarely good. Usually, it was cheaply produced, badly written, and poorly edited. The acting and characters were almost always awful. Despite that, I still love the premise. A weekly found footage show with a cryptozoology bent is a neat idea. It was never gold star television and most of the episodes were terrible. Occasionally, “Lost Tapes” produced a decent half-hour, creating pulpy, goofy, but entertaining mini monster movies.

I’m curious about what monsters a potential fourth season would have showcased. There almost certainly would’ve been a Slender Man episode. It would’ve been neat to see the show take on personal favorites like the Flatwoods Monster, Mokele-mbembe, or the Goatman. It wasn’t meant to be, as continued public indifference led Animal Planet to end the series. Considering the track record, these potential episodes probably wouldn’t have been good either. Despite its lack of quality, “Lost Tapes” was too much of a television misfit for me not to love it, just a little bit.

Woodhouse (2014)

After watching thirty four episodes of “Lost Tapes,” I figure there’s room for one more take on the topic of cryptozoology. “Woodhouse,” a British short film from 2013, takes place in the late seventies. After a little girl’s pet cat runs away into South East London’s Woodhouse Nature Reserve, she goes searching for him. After spending hours in the thick woods, she claims to have been stalked by a monster. This report makes it back to the school intendent, who develops a passion for the creature. The story reaches a local newspaper reporter. The supposed sighting attracts the attention of monster experts and parapsychologists. Eventually, the superintendent is accused of faking the whole thing, especially after his story is raked over the coals by a skeptical magazine. The populace moves on and the Woodhouse Monster is forgotten. By most people.

In just eight minutes, “Woodhouse” shows how the cryptozoology phenomenon is born, grows, stagnates, and finally dies. All dryly narrated by Edmund Dehn, creating the feel of a nature documentary, “Woodhouse” suggests that people choose to believe in monsters because it makes their lives a little more magical. It acknowledges the existence of crackery and hoaxes, with the spirit photographer being an admitted faker. (Though one who’s faking was based in sorrow and loss.) The little girl who started the rumor supposes she might not have seen anything. It also leaves room for sincerity, as the superintendent insists throughout the entire short that the creature is real. The short itself never reveals whether the Woodhouse Monster is real or not, ending on an ambiguous note. Over its short run time, it says so much about why some people chase Bigfeet and Mothmen while daftly displaying how a legend can spread. It’s certainly way more insightful then “Lost Tapes” ever was. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 24

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Urban legends have inspired a number of horror films, ranging in quality from the creative heights of “Candyman” to the dubious lows of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Somewhere in the wide expanse between those two poles is “When a Stranger Calls.” Director Fred Walton previously made a short called “The Sitter,” a direct adaptation of the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs. (The earlier “Black Christmas” also drew from this legend.) The short was successful enough that Walton built a whole film around it, the first fifteen minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” functioning as a shot-for-shot remake. The direction the feature goes in after that is divisive, though the picture has earned a reputation as a cult classic.

Teenager Jill takes a job babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis. She doesn’t think much of it at first. Until she begins receiving ominous phone calls, a man asking her to check on the children. Growing more terrified, Jill eventually calls the cops. They determined that the man is already in the house, having brutally murdered the children with his bare hands. Seven years later, the killer escapes the mental hospital he was placed in. A private detective is on his tail but the psycho proves difficult to track. Jill has moved on with her life, getting married and having kids. But the past isn’t done with her. Soon, her own children are in peril.

The opening sequence of “When a Stranger Calls” is rightfully lauded. It follows the urban legend beat for beat yet remains thrilling. The filmmaker establishes a sense of normalcy first, making the home Jill will be staying at seem comfy. He slowly subverts this, with the first call shattering the good mood. From there, the film grows more ominous. Walton tucks his camera in odd place, like inside the chamber of a grandfather clock. He emphasizes how dark and quiet the house is. The unnerving musical score hints at the killer’s presence with a long note, that builds from quiet to deafening. Carol Kane is perfectly cast as the girl next door, who grows increasingly closer to panicking. When the killer is revealed, he does so by casting his shadow down a staircase. It’s a brilliant exercise in building suspense, in putting the audience at unease by creating an atmosphere of mounting dread.

Everybody loves the opening scene. It’s the rest of the movie people have problems with. Instead of directly following the aftermath of the killings, the script makes the odd decision of jumping seven years into the future. Obvious horror is left behind in favor of something a little more obtuse: A story of a detective chasing a killer. The film splits time between Charles Durning’s John Clifford, hunting the madman, and Tony Beckley as Curt Duncan, the killer. Durning is absolutely captivating, as he always was, as the detective. Watching him track down leads, talking to a homeless man, Duncan’s former doctor, or an old police pal, are entertaining. The few times the two interact, such as a relatively tense chase through a homeless shelter, are effective. It’s good but probably not what people were expecting after the opening. Walton was directly inspired by “Halloween” but created far more down to Earth versions of Dr. Loomis and Michael Myers.

The killer is set up as a ruthless psycho, characters speaking in hushed tones about what he did to the Mandrakis children. Yet the script takes a sympathetic approach to Duncan. He’s homeless. He has no friends and his attempts to reach out to people, such as a woman at a bar, go spectacularly wrong. Tony Beckley, who was terminally ill at the time and would pass away soon after filming finished, plays Duncan as a sad eyed transient, unable to fit in anywhere. He’s also completely nuts, muttering to himself and starring madly. This is best displayed in a scene where a nude Beckley cowers on a bathroom floor, caught up in a traumatizing memory. This dual approach – grounded but dangerous – makes the character compelling without stripping him of his threatening factor. His stalking scenes, tracking a woman through the streets or returning to haunt Jill, are still effectively intense. The ending manages to recaptured some of the thrills of the beginning.

Ultimately, I enjoy how “When a Stranger Calls” mixes things up. It begins as a standard late seventies stalker thriller, mutates into a detective story, and circles back around to horror by the end. But the first fifteen minutes are undeniably the most memorable part. I’m not surprised that the 2006 remake would focus solely on that element, to reportedly tedious results. Walton would also create a mediocre television sequel in 1993, which somehow roped Carol Kane and Charles Durning into returning. Neither succeeded in recapturing the late night spookiness of the original, a daring and well orchestrated film. [7/10]

The Mafu Cage (1978)

How about a Carol Kane double feature? The same list that introduced me to “The Velvet Vampire” also introduced me to “The Mafu Cage,” a film I had never heard of before. Which is surprising, as the flick sounded deeply weird and right up my alley. Based on a play, the picture has been overlooked for years. Too psychological to appeal to most horror fans but too mentally disturbed for mainstream critics, the film was never going to be a commercial hit. It’s very nearly a cult classic, a point of fascination for those who have seen it but not well known enough to truly have a following.

Ellen and Sissy are two sisters with a non-traditional relationship. Sissy is obsessed with her late father, a biologist who specialized in African animals and cultures. She decorates the house with African art and often covers herself in face-paint. Ellen tries to live a normal life but is mostly her sister’s caretaker. (And occasional lover.) A particular point of obsession for Sissy is Mafu. A pet ape kept in a cage, Sissy loves Mafu until she looses her temper and beats the animal to death. Afterwards, she gets another pet ape, which becomes the new Mafu. As Ellen’s desire for a normal life grows stronger, Sissy becomes more violent. Apes won’t be the only thing locked up in Mafu’s cage.

“The Mafu Cage” is built around two extremely strong performances. Lee Grant plays up Ellen’s conflict. She loves her sister. Yet she’s growing frustrated with Sissy’s wild mood swings. A potential boyfriend is her opportunity for a normal life. Grant is great but the film belongs to Carol Kane. Kane’s high-pitched voice and wide eyes makes her an ideal pick for an arrested woman-child. When excited, she dances, squeaks, and giggles. When angry, she lashes out violently. Kane maintains several reoccurring quirk. Beyond the obsession with Mafu and Daddy, Sissy’s favorite insult is “Dumb shit!” Kane’s performance is disturbing, playing a grown woman acting like a child. Yet she also finds Sissy’s emotional center. She’s sick, not evil. Her interior world has its own rules that we may not understand but they make perfect sense to Sissy. Or, at least, they do until that fiery rage – based in loneliness and frustration – boils out of control.

“The Mafu Cage” takes you into the sister’s odd world, which is a fully formed if deeply disturbed place. Sissy’s preoccupation with African culture has raised some modern eyebrows. She decorates with statues, artwork, and fake trees. Tribal music constantly plays. Mafu is her biggest point of obsession, as she treats the monkey like a living stuffed animal. She wears tribal face point and eventually dons brown face. This makes the viewer uncomfortable but I suspect that was the intention. The sister’s sexual couplings also make the viewer squirm. More so because the film refuses to judge the sisters for their incestuous relationship. There’s a delicate balance to their world and when Ellen expresses interest in another person, it throws that balance off. Not all of these elements hang together, as the sexual aspect is underdeveloped. Yet the sisters’ world is compellingly weird.

Eventually, “The Mafu Cage” descends into violence. When Sissy lashes out at her monkeys, it’s disturbing. The film reaches a sickening frenzy as she whips an orangutan with a chain. Someone attempting to enter Sissy’s world doesn’t end well. Once a human is locked up in Mafu’s cage, the viewer’s stomach sinks. Something bad is going to happen. And indeed it does, the violence coming suddenly, abruptly. Since the viewer is invested in Sissy and Ellen’s lives, watching their relationship fall apart is troubling. The ending is tragic but feels inevitable. These aren’t the usual kind of shocks but they linger in the viewer’s mind.

“The Mafu Cage” is a strange one, for sure. It doesn’t quite escape its stage roots. However, it’s ultimately disturbing and memorable, primarily thanks to Kane’s unforgettable performance. This as director Karen Arthur’s second feature and she would go onto a long career in television. (Her second best known film is probably “The Rape of Richard Beck,” a movie-of-the-week starring Richard Crenna with a self-explanatory title.) Since it was deeply noncommercial, “The Mafu Cage” was re-titled in some theaters "Don’t Ring the Doorbell," an exploitation movie title that most assuredly did not prepare viewers for what was to come. [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Beast of Bray Road

Season three’s werewolf themed episode is “Beast of Bray Road,” about Wisconsin’s wolf-headed state cryptid. Deep within the woods of a Wisconsin is a violent militia group, made up of paranoid gun nuts. They are led by Brian Cavanaugh, who has decided to give a rare interview to reporter Randal Steiner. Randal’s cameraman, of course, tags along. Just as the interview is about to get underway, the compound is attacked by something. Cavanaugh is convinced the government has finally come for his guns. In truth, the Beast of Bray Road is behind the attacks.

The big joke of “Beast of Bray Road” is that, despite clinging to their firearms, the militia can’t even fight off a quasi-werewolf. The gang’s paranoia brings them down. Cavanaugh sees government spies everywhere. The others are quick to blame each other. As someone who finds the entire militia movement to be full of shit, it’s a criticism I appreciate. As a monster movie, “Beast of Bray Road” features one or two nice moments. Such as when the creature creeps behind an unaware victim, noticeable in the background. The attacks are a little melodramatic, especially the last one, but do summon up a certain amount of frenzied tension. Taymour Ghazi, the actor playing Bryan Cavanaugh, is extremely hammy. Considering the way Alex Jones acts, I can’t really hold that against Ghazi. The episode has some flaws typical of “Lost Tapes” – weak monster make-up, superficial expert interviews, too many night vision scenes – but this is still a better episode. [6/10]

The Chickening (2016)

Here’s a short film that was making the rounds on the internet a few months back. It’s an extremely obnoxious parody/remix of “The Shining,” cut down to three minutes. In “The Chickening,” the Overlook Hotel has been replaced with a fried chicken restaurant/theme park. Danny now has the face of a middle age man. Tony is now a sentient, foul-mouthed finger with five o’clock shadow and a hat. Halloran is a green skinned alien. Wendy’s eyeballs look in different directions. Jack is transforming into a giant chicken. Booze has been replaced with hot sauce. It’s bizarre and in-your-face weird.

Obviously, this kind of abrasive nonsense is an acquired taste. Either you’ll love it or hate it. For me, “The Chickening” has got to be the longest five minutes of my life. Beneath the aggressive weirdness are extremely pedestrian jokes. Such as fart sounds, potshots at fast food and fast food employees, lots of profanity, poop jokes, gratuitous naked men, and lines about women making sandwiches. It doesn’t comment on “The Shining” in anyway, simply using the classic film as a clotheslines to string its gags on. The visual and audio sense is obnoxious, with lots of loud sounds, bright colors, and flashing images. Among the roughly ten thousand jokes in the short, only two made me laugh. That would be the Grady Sisters greeting Danny with a techno song and “Redrum” becoming “Regrub.” (“Burger” backwards, in keeping with the fast food theme.) It’s deeply crass and juvenile internet shenanigans with an extra layer of obnoxious weirdness on top, creating an incredibly annoying experience. But that was the creators’ goal, which means they won and I lost. [4/10]

Monday, October 24, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 23

You’re Next (2011)

Back in 2013, I barely knew who Adam Wingard was. “A Horrible Way to Die” had been recommended to me a few times but I still haven’t caught up with it. I had seen the first “V/H/S” but Wingard’s framing device was one of the less memorable parts of that anthology. The advertising campaign for “You’re Next” made it look like another dreary home invasion flick. In other words, I went into the film with few expectations. Which may be the best way to watch it, as “You’re Next” delights in upturning audience expectations. Now, I’m a big fan of Adam Wingard, considering him our post-modern John Carpenter. That transformation began here.

Crispin rides to a family dinner, built around celebrating his parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. His Australian girlfriend Erin tags along. Once they arrive at the family mansion, Erin sees firsthand how dysfunctional Crispin’s family is. His brothers, Drake and Felix, clearly resent him, often getting into arguments. His sister, Aimee, is clearly the favored child. Mom is wrecked with anxiety, popping multiple pills. Family squabbling is interrupted when a crossbow bolt crashes through a window, killing Aimee’s boyfriend. Three men in animal mask enter the home, attacking and killing the family. But Erin gives them something they didn’t expect.

The home invasion flick was fairly played out by 2013, when “You’re Next” finally received a wide release. The likes of “Funny Games,” “The Strangers,” and “The Purge” had already come and gone. “You’re Next” plays out like a standard member of the subgenre, Wingard adding a little more slasher for seasoning. The first attack scene builds nicely, only one person noticing something outside before receiving an arrow to the forehead. There’s some other clever gags, like a length of razor wire strung outside a door, waiting for someone to run into it. The slasher elements emerge from the attackers wearing distinctive mask, a nice touch. A machete and axe come into place, utilized in bloody throat slittings and head smashing. Wingard’s visual design is a bit shaky, an attempt to build tension that doesn’t quite work.

Had “You’re Next” continued down this path, it would’ve been a decently constructed but widely uninteresting flick. Screenwriter Simon Barrett has other plans. Erin, it turns out, isn’t your typical final girl. She was raised by survivalists and is totally prepared for an attack like this. She knows exactly what to do, guarding perimeters and handling wounds. She brutally dispatched one of the men, cracking his knee and then his head with a meat tenderizer. She lays traps for the men, nails through boards and axes on door handles. She leaps through windows, stabs through eyes and clobbers with bricks. “You’re Next” ends in righteous bloodshed, Erin turning the tables on the masterminds with gory results. A blender is used fantastically. Sharni Vinson is amazingly self-assured in the part, brilliantly switching between an ordinary person to an experienced ass-kicker. 

Most home invasion stories pride themselves on giving their attackers no motivation, making the killings a random crime. That’s pretty scary – and well utilized in films like “The Strangers” and “Them” – but “You’re Next” continues to subvert expectations. There’s nothing random about this invasion. The night of the family dinner, Crispin and his brother Drake begin arguing. The familial resentment bubbles to the surface. Wingard’s film circles back around to this point by the end. Yes, the masked men have been hired by the youngest brother to take out his parents and siblings, in order to receive an inheritance. “Family drives you crazy” seems to be the message here.

Like Wingard’s later films, “You’re Next” has a retro leaning score. That is when “Looking For the Magic” by the Dwight Twilley Band isn’t playing, an awfully catchy pop song that plays throughout the movie. Wingard fills the film with his director friends, giving Larry Fessenden, Ti West, and Joe Swanberg supporting parts. The film’s gory thrills combine smoothly with a sick sense of humor, leading to a highly entertaining effort. That sarcastic streak continues right up to the end, concluding the film on a darkly comedic note. This genre shift wasn’t a hit with everyone. The film wasn’t very popular with audiences, who were perhaps expecting a more traditional flick. (Though it still easily recouped its million dollar budget.) Horror fans who can think on their feet, however, got a kick out of this one. [8/10]

Robin Redbreast (1970)

Here’s another recommendation I owe my buddies on Letterboxd. Sometimes a title I’ve never even heard of crosses my dashboard. One such title was “Robin Redbreast.” Apparently, the film was the first in a series of televised plays broadcast on the BBC. Called “Play for Today,” the series ran for about fourteen years, 39 films in total being produced. That sounds awfully stodgy but some surprisingly cutting edge script passed through the show, such as the work of Alan Clarke. I knew almost nothing about “Robin Redbreast” – other then it dealt with pagan rituals and had a spooky atmosphere – but onto the Halloween watch list it went.

Norah Palmer, a middle age script editor living in London, has recently ended a long term relationship with her boyfriend. Hoping to clear her head, she rents a cottage in rural England. Once there, she finds the village less inviting then she hoped. The neighbors are nosy, including her bossy housekeeper and a local archeologist who talks too much. She also meets Rob, an eccentric young man that catches her eye. Eventually, the two couple and Norah becomes pregnant. As her pregnancy progresses, coincidences prevent Norah from leaving the village. She begins to suspect something sinister has plans for her and her baby.

“Robin Redbreast” plays out like a low-key, rural, and very British version of “Rosemary’s Baby.” It trades in many of the same emotions. At first, Norah dismisses the strange things that have happened. They seem innocuous. A bird flying into her house, the rain guard coming off the roof, someone knocking her young lover unconscious. However, as more occurrences happen, a conspiracy seemingly emerges, with the goal of keeping her where she is. Norah doubts herself, blaming her fear on paranoia. By the time she realizes a cult is manipulating her, it’s too late. The script having her voice her thoughts shows the film’s roots as a stage play but Anna Cropper, grounded but nervous, makes up for the flaws.

Unlike Rosemary, Norah is a thoroughly modern woman. She’s a single woman, with no interest in marriage or children. She’s not beholden to a man and keeps contraceptives around, should sex become a need. After a dull date, she tosses Rob out. It’s only after the bird frightens her that she changes her mind, letting him spend the night. When he discovers she’s pregnant, Rob insists Norah keeps the child. She reminds him that it’s her body, her baby, and she’ll do whatever she wants with it. When the housekeeper asks her to go to a church service, Norah reminds her she’s agnostic and not interested. The older woman strong-arms her to go anyway. By placing an independent woman in the center of a pagan ritual, “Robin Redbreast” illustrates the conflict between modern changes and the old ways. (Very old ways, since the pagan rituals are explicitly presented as the ones Christianity built upon.)

“Robin Redbreast” isn’t scary the way most horror films are. Instead, it relies totally on atmosphere to create its chills. There’s very little music. Instead, the wind blowing through the trees draws attention to Norah’s isolation. She comes across strange things in the forest, like a half marble in her garden or a partially nude Rob performing karate. She has nightmares, the day’s events replaying in eerie darkness. There’s some colorful direction, such as the camera twitching around to illustrate a bird’s eye view. The climax builds in tension, concluding with the starling sight of a man dropping down the chimney. No, it’s not Santa Claus, even if one of “Robin Redbreast’s” scenes is set at Christmas. It’s something creepier then that.

The film does have some stagey elements. There’s a number of scenes composed of people standing around and talking. The denouncement has a character flatly explaining events, which probably wasn’t necessary. “Robin Redbreast” also escapes these limitations at times, such as in the nightmare sequence or the genuinely eerie final image. It’s about as dry as you’d expect a British television production from the early seventies to be. But I still liked it, as the lead actress is good and there’s enough weird spookiness in it to satisfy. After all, I’m a sucker for anything that crossbreeds pagan rituals and modern beliefs so I was right to assume this would be up my aisle. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Q: The Serpent God

The Enigma Corporation make their final appearance on “Lost Tapes” and Aztec god Quetzalcoatl makes his second appearance this Halloween. A spate of ritualistic murders have occurred throughout Mexico City. The ancient Aztec symbol for 52 is left at each slaying. The police department bring in the Enigma Corporation to investigate. They quickly link the killings with the local criminal underground. They trace a drug lord to an abandoned train depot. What they discover there is a strange occult ritual, already in progress. The murders successfully summon the serpent god Quetzalcotal and its up to the Enigma Corporation to un-summon him.

Season 3 of “Lost Tapes” has been shameless about ripping off better known movies. “Poltergeist” was clearly inspired by “Paranormal Activity.” “Wendigo” was clearly inspired by “The Blair Witch Project.” And “Q: The Serpent God” is clearly inspired by “Q: The Winged Serpent.” Even the titles are practically identical! The similarities end there. No, there’s no nifty stop-motion monster roosting in the Chrysler Building. Instead, most of the episode is spent investigating the cult and sneaking into the warehouse. It’s fairly tedious stuff, especially since the actors sound incredibly bored. When Quetzalcoatl appears, it’s as an unconvincing puppet, mostly obscured in shadows. How the heroes defeat the monster – by shooting it a few times – is a major anti-climax. Even though the script mentions it, the educational segments don’t bring up the real death cults existing in the Mexican drug world. Instead, it focuses on properly sensationalized factoids about Aztec beliefs. [4/10]

Monster Problems (2015)

When filmmaker Adam Green isn’t creating movies like “Digging up the Marrow” and the “Hatchet” series, he keeps busy by pumping out short films for his ArieScope website. 2015’s Halloween short film was “Monster Problem.” The comedic short revolves around a kid, after a night of trick or treating, leaping into his bed for fear of monsters. He’s right to be afraid, as he has three different creatures occupying his bedroom. Luckily for him, the monsters tend to bicker among themselves, impending their ability to munch on him.

The funniest thing about “Monster Problems” is how it plays childhood beliefs about bedroom monsters totally straight. So, once the kid is under the covers, he’s untouchable. The grisly beasts are horrified by a simple nightlight. They are useless against parents. It’s a cute gag, seeing grotesque monsters stymied by such minor things. Even for a six minute short, Green packs in some other gags. The three monsters argue about the particularities of haunting kids. About who gets closest duty, which groans are scarier, if the bed wetter next door is worth eating instead. One of the monsters is named Julian, which amuses the other two, but he’s sensitive about it. The cast is quite good. Derek Mears adopts a goofy British accent as Vylgoth. Kelly Vrooman is nicely neurotic as Dorghast. Colton Dunn is appropriately sassy as Julian. “Monster Problems” ends on a cute gag too. It’s totally worth your six minutes. [7/10]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 22

The Innocents (1961)

The English ghost story is a tradition with a long and proud history. Maybe the best example of that genre, at least on film anyway, is “The Innocents.” Based off Henry James’ classic story, “The Turn of the Screw,” the film came out in 1961. Befitting the time, it represents an interesting half-way point between the classic horror of the previous three decades and the more explicit horror that would come to prominence in the sixties. It is a gothic ghost story in the truest sense. Yet its story, of sexual repression and spiritual corruption, point towards themes that would become important in the quickly changing world.

Miss Giddens, despite her youth and inexperienced, is hired to be the governess to two young children. Orphans, their rich uncle is far too preoccupied with his business ventures to care for the kids. Giddens quickly grows attached to sweet Flora and the mischievous Miles. Not long after coming to live on the estate, Giddens begins to see ghost-like figures. She learns that the previous governess committed suicide, following the death of her abusive boyfriend, Quint the valet. Giddens also notices the increasingly strange behavior of the children, beginning to fear that adult spirits are influencing and possessing their young minds.

“The Innocents” owes much to its power to the story’s ambiguity. This is one of the few films that truly supports the possibility that the supernatural activity is all in the protagonist’s head. Miss Giddens is a sexually repressed, proper English lady. At night, she tosses and turns, as if having dreams about desires she can’t face. When she hears the previous governess’ story, two people dying isn’t what upsets her. Instead, she’s disturbed that the couple was openly sexual, that they used “rooms by daylight as if they were dark woods.” That the children might have looked up to such people, that they might have been influenced by them, deeply unnerves Giddens. The ghosts, if they actually exist, boil just below the surface like Giddens’ repressed sexuality. And if they don’t exist, Giddens denying her basic human nature is driving her crazy.

Of course, children acting sexually is unnerving. The film’s title refers to the two kids and suggests the creeping possibility that they aren’t so innocent after all. The governess freaks out about seeing the kids whisper to each other. Miles leaves the house at night, walking in the garden. Flora dances alone on the dock while it rains. During a game of dress-up, the boy recites an unnerving poem. They lie and tell half-truths. One of the film’s most chilling sequence has the little boy giving the governess a kiss, which lingers on the lip longer then appropriate. If it’s true that the kids are possessed by the spirits of sadomasochistic adults, that’s disturbing. If not, this is actually normal kid behavior. Giddens’ paranoia is unduly emphasizing behavior typical for kids that age. Once again, it’s up to the viewer whether or not this is a story of ghostly possession or if “The Innocents” is merely giving us a peak at the secret lives of children.

These elements make “The Innocents” great. What makes the movie scary is its atmosphere. This is the film that made cinematographer Freddie Francis’ name, likely leading to him directing several horror films in the sixties and seventies. “The Innocents” looks like a high-contrast painting brought to life, existing in deep black and whites. Francis films the mansion setting like its another world, peering up through a spiral staircase or down a hallway. The photography combines with the genuinely haunting sound design – the reoccurring song the children sing is especially eerie – to create a perfect, ghostly atmosphere. When the ghosts appear, “The Innocents” captures a creeping tone of classical spookiness. Sometimes, the thrills are obvious, like a spectral face reaching through a window. Sometimes, they are calmer, like an unidentified figure appearing in the distant. By the end, “The Innocents'” psychological ambiguities combine with its more obvious, ghost story elements, creating an intense climax.

Deborah Kerr is excellent in the lead part, by the way. The child actors would make other notable genre appearances. Pamela Franklin would become a scream queen in her own right. Martin Stephens, meanwhile, would also appear in “Village of the Damned,” another classic of British horror. “The Innocents” would, surprisingly, be followed by a prequel. “The Nightcomers” cast Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beachum as the doomed valet and governess. Exploitation auteur Michael Winner took over for Jack Clayton. Which, by all accounts, might explain while that film is both more explicit and nowhere near as good as this one. Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” has been adapted several times since then but “The Innocents” remains the best cinematic version. [9/10]

The Relic (1997)

I’ve always thought of “The Relic” as the last of the dying breed. The film was a big budget, studio produced, R-rated monster movie, full of traditional creature effects. By the late nineties, such things were on their way out. CGI would take over for latex and puppetry. Studios would rarely invest major money in gory creature features, as the years went on. “The Relic” wasn’t a hit in its day, failing to recoup its budget. Yet the advertising campaign always stuck with me. When I got glimpses of the movie’s monster – a tusked lizard creature the size of a rhino – that stuck with me too. While “The Relic” is far from a classic, I’ve always felt it’s a bit on the underrated side.

Dr. Green, a biologist working the Chicago Museum of Natural History, receives a strange crate. Inside are seemingly ordinary leafs and a shattered a relic, a statue of a mythological monster called the Kothoga. Detective D’Agosta believes the crate is connected to a grisly murder that occurred on a cargo ship recently. Seemingly, the murders have resumed inside the museum. Around the same time, the museum is opening a new exhibit about ancient superstitious. Soon, the detective and the biologist discover that a strange creature is responsible, growing out of the contents of the crate.

A museum is a cool and rarely utilized setting for a horror film. “The Relic” makes the most of it. Peter Hyams, who made the film between “Sudden Death” and “End of Days,” creates a dark atmosphere. The dimly lit corridors of the museum are often spooky. The new superstition exhibit is inside a faux-cave set-up, through an entrance like a giant mouth. Even the public bathroom, under sickly fluorescent bulbs, become kind of eerie. Throughout this setting, “The Relic” engineers some successful chase scenes. Dr. Green is pursued by something, running through the new exhibit, eventually hiding in a bathroom. (This sequence has a neat, switch-a-roo denouncement.) The monster spends most of the film hiding in the tunnels below the museum, a shadowy location that is well used for similarly frenzied chase scenes.

The monster is, undoubtedly, the main attraction of “The Relic.” The Kogotha is mostly kept off-screen for first half. We only see a claw or quick flash of teeth. This is an effective way to build intrigue around the creature, making it’s slow reveal count more. The script calls it a chimera, the monster roughly being a mash-up of a tiger, a wolf, a gecko, and a stag beetle. (And, we discover later, human.) Mostly, I just see a giant reptilian beast with huge snapping jaws. One that likes to eat brains and snap off heads. A key sequence has the Kogotha tearing through a crowded room, removing heads and tossing people through glass. “The Relic” is unapologetically gory, showing the monster's grisly habits in detail. The Kogotha is brought to life with glorious practical effects, a giant monster prop interacting with real actors. Occasionally, Stan Winston’s excellent effects are traded out for unconvincing CGI, which is all too obvious and deeply disappointing.

“The Relic’s” large cast can be evenly split in two. There’s the main protagonists. Penelope Ann Miller is spunky as Dr. Green. She is defined just as much by how she studies the science behind the monster as she is by how fast she can run. Tom Sizemore, in an unexpected turn of events, is down-to-earth and likable as Detective D’Agosta. A reoccurring gag about his recent divorce, and the fate of his dog, is funny. The two have a nice chemistry together, making their scenes together a joy to watch. Sadly, that only accounts for some of “The Relic’s” cast. Long scenes are devoted to the people in the museum, alternatively running and hiding from the beast. Most of these characters are whiny and annoying. Splitting the audience’s attention between the two was a mistake. Any time the film cuts away to the crowds inside the museum’s atrium, we just want to get back to the characters we actually like.

Still, “The Relic” is a bloody good time for horror freaks. A film about a giant monster eating people was a throwback in 1997. This is doubly true in 2016. It’s a really cool monster too. What fan following the flick has seems to be because of the creature. There’s even been some toys and model kits of it, the ultimate sign of approval from monster kids. While the film built around that monster is not always compelling, it gets the job done. Fun performances from Miller and Sizemore help a lot. Light weight if a little too long, “The Relic” still goes down easily in the back half of October. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Wendigo

The wendigo is a fascinating mythological creature that is too often reduced to “generic American Indian monster.” “Lost Tapes” at least gets the cannibalism part right, even if they drop the ball on everything else. A quartet of college students go camping in the Appalachian woods. After a few days, they become lost. A few days more, they run out of food. A week later, something begins to kill the kids. Soon afterwards, a search party is assembled to find the students. The walk through the woods is recorded. They discover one of the students is still alive. They also uncover partially eaten human remains. The truth is soon revealed: One of the guys has become a wendigo, the cannibalistic spirit of Algonquian folklore.

Like any other modern found footage project, “Lost Tapes” owes a large debt to “The Blair Witch Project.” “Wendigo,” however, is the first episode that blatantly rips it off. The scenes of people wandering the woods, lost and confused, are condensed into a few minutes. The recorded scenes of people panicking, running, and discovering weird shit hanging in the trees are right out of “Blair Witch.” The episode ends with a character apologizing to a camera for what happens, a bold steal from that film. Aside from copying that highly influential film, “Wendigo” doesn’t offer much else. The monster is a guy with a deer skull on his head, which is underwhelming. Despite mostly being human, the wendigo makes an obnoxious screaming noise. There’s an attempt at a creepy moment, when the creature calls to the survivors with a human voice. But it’s no use. “Wendigo” is “Lost Tapes” in a lame mood. Not even the utterly earnest expert interview, which bring up Wendigo Psychosis despite the episode not utilizing this, can save this one. [4/10]

He Took His Skin Off for Me (2014)

Here’s another quasi-horror short that was making the rounds on the internet a while back, mostly thanks to its “what the fuck?” value. “He Took His Skin Off for Me” is exactly what it sounds like. A woman asks her boyfriend to remove his skin for her. He does so, hanging his dermus up in the closest like an old coat. He spends the rest of the short with his muscles and nerves exposed. At first, the woman is thrilled. Soon though, the realities of living without skin start to weigh on both of them.

“He Took His Skin Off for Me” is a story about how far one will go to please a lover. Most people don’t remove their skin to make a boy/girlfriend happy but people undoubtedly go to extreme lengths, sometimes, to meet a partner’s request. The short is narrated by Anna Maguire, who plays the girlfriend. She dryly, whimsically comments on the differences. About the blood stains constantly left around the house, meaning she has to scrub the floor and wash the sheets every day. The most effecting scene, for me, involves a dinner party. There, the skinless man tries to hide how uncomfortable the change has made him. By the short’s end, it becomes clear who is willing to sacrifice more, leading to a slightly disturbing conclusion.

Horror fans will be drawn to “He Took His Skin Off for Me” for its excellent special effects. No CGI is utilized, the skinless man brought to life strictly through make-up. The actor, Sebastian Armesto, has no problem expressing through the get-up. A skinless body walking around is a disturbing idea, countered by the short’s light-hearted tone. The brief sequences of peeling skin are fairly squirm inducing too. Between the great effects and the quietly considered script, “He Took His Skin Off for Me” is definitely worth the eleven minutes it’ll take to watch it. [7/10]

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 21

M (1931) 
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

After watching “Mad Love” the other day, I felt the need to revisit Peter Lorre’s star-making turn in “M.” Released in 1931 – the same year as “Dracula,” “Frankenstien,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – the film is generally considered the first ever to portray a serial killer. Though more properly described as a crime story, this marks it as hugely important to the horror genre. Director Fritz Lang, already a critically acclaimed filmmaker by ’31, referred to it as his favorite of his own films, pointing to the social criticism in the script. Like the dark streets of Lang’s expressionistic direction, “M” cast a long shadow over the entirety of cinema.

The city of Berlin is gripped with fear. Someone is abducting and murdering children, little girls. Eight have already been claimed. Fear over the killer drives the city into a hysteria. The police increase their patrols, which hampers the business of Berlin’s criminal underground. Incensed, the crooks launch their own man-hunt for the murderer. Eventually, he is found. His name is Hans Beckert and he is a paranoid, sick, pathetic man. Beckert is soon on the run from the cops, the criminals, and his own haunted memory.

“M” was Lang’s first sound film. Like many early talkies, “M” has long, silent stretches. A sequence devoted to the criminals filling their bar is one such example. Despite this, Lang often makes novel use of sound. The opening scene is still haunting. We follow the little girl as she plays with her friends, leaving school. We see Beckert’s shadow as he approaches her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Lang cuts between Beckert’s calm abduction of the child with her mother worrying at home. The scene ends with silence, the girl’s balloon floating away, caught in phone lines. Lang creates other striking, stark moments throughout the film. The director often assumes a roaming, voyeuristic point of view, watching the killer and others from afar. This creates a constant sense of unease, of watching and being watched. The black and white photography is gorgeous, rooted in the reality of 1930s Berlin yet also visually inventive, recalling Lang’s work on “Metropolis.”

“M” also shows how hysteria can grip an otherwise calm populace. As the man-hunt for the child killer grows more intense, the populace becomes more willing to pin the crime on anyone. A friendly game of cards comes to a sudden end when one man accuses the other of being the killer. A mob quickly descends on a gentleman innocently talking to a child on the street, shouting and attacking him. All the while, Hans Beckert continues his habit, unobserved by anyone.  The police’s investigation, which Lang portrays austerely as a grounded procedural, seems to only embolden the public’s frenzy more. The film keenly portrays how a crime can overtake a city, innocent people driven to violence by fear and paranoia.

The central plot of “M,” of criminals hunting another criminal, presents a further oppretunity for social criticism. The thieves, safe crackers, and other petty crooks say they’re disgusted by the murders. A notable scene has a shopkeeper explaining to a police officer how even the hardest criminal loves children. Yet the vile murders aren’t what force the criminal underground towards action. Instead, it’s their illegal enterprises being interrupted by the cops that upset them. In its final act, “M” presents a parody of the justice system. The thieves and murderers apprehend Beckert and stand him before a jury of other crooks. (Amusingly, it’s pointed out how these repeat offenders might as well be experts in the law.) The convicted is eager to point out the hypocrisy of being judged by other breakers of the law. “M” sharply condemns the self-righteous, those who believes themselves better then anyone.

In truth, “M” ultimately presents a message of mercy. Not only is Hans Beckert the first cinematic serial killer, he’s also the first sympathetic cinematic killer. Beckert can be calculating, such as when he sends a taunting letter to the press or when he easily convinces a child to trust him. Yet Lorre’s performance is mostly characterized by pulsing, deeply human insecurity. Beckert is always looking over his shoulder, sweating, eyes bulging, mad with paranoia. The way he’s doggedly pursue in the last half can’t help but court audience’s sympathies. The film’s powerful climax has Beckert pleading with the kangaroo court. In a shrieked, wild monologue, Hans screams about his uncontrollable urge to kill. How he hates his desires but is caught in an inescapable loop, murdering and then regretting his actions but killing again to escape the stress. Beckert is despicable but he’s also ill. “M’s” final, chilling scene makes it clear that, no matter what happens to the killer, nothing can bring the dead children back.

The police procedural scenes can be a bit dry. When the audience is most concerned with what’s happening to Beckert, Lang cuts away to long shots of the cop interrogating a witness. Critics in 1931 had a similar criticism, saying the film was a little long. The available version, for years, was cut by about ten minutes, likely clipping these scenes. For its flaws, “M” is still a staggering masterpiece, a powerful and insightful film that resonates even today. Lorre’s incredible performance, Lang’s atmospheric direction, and a sharp screenplay creates a film that has often been imitated but rarely been matched. [9/10]

Hunter’s Blood (1986)

Have I mentioned what a timid kid I was recently? Here’s another example. As a kid, my local Blockbuster kept the horror section right by the new releases. Often, I would take brief glances at the VHS boxes, hoping to catch sight of something that scared me. This is how much of a wimp I was: One look at the “Hunter’s Blood” artwork was enough for me to turn away. It’s not even an especially scary cover, is it? A bleeding body, sprawled on what I thought at the time was snow? (Turns out its water.) But something about it freaked me out. Naturally, when I saw that same cover art at the VHSPS booth at Monster-Mania, I had to pick it up. See what all the internal hubbub was about.

Plot wise, “Hunter’s Blood” owes an obvious debt to “Deliverance.” Five city boys drive off to the Arkansas country side for a weekend hunting trip. The group is composed of David, his father Rand, his uncle Al, Al’s son Ralph, and mutual friend Marty. Once there, some park rangers warn them that people have disappeared in these woods. Soon, the five stumble upon a poaching operation, selling illegally killed deer to a big burger company. They bust the deprived rednecks responsible but the poachers don’t stay captured for long. As the night goes on, the Yankees have to fight for their lives against the dangerous southerners.

“Hunter’s Blood’s” earliest scenes of manly bonding are deeply silly. There’s some torturous long character establishing scene, devoted to the guys driving around and talking. The city boys do everything possible to piss off the locals. Marty snaps pictures of a redneck as if he’s an animal in the zoo. They pick fights with a gang in a seedy bar. This leads to an utterly ridiculous pick-up truck chase. There’s even some banjo music on the soundtrack! Sillier still is the sequence devoted to the men passing a joint around the campfire, which concludes with a high-pitch helium voice. The protagonists aren’t much to write about though the cast is decent. Sam Bottoms is a standard hero type but Clu Gulager and Ken Swofford are entertaining as the older gentlemen.

Once the redneck crazies wander on-screen, “Hunter’s Blood” perks up considerably. They disturb the campfire, literally pissing on the men. They glower and spit, acting like Southern fried menaces. The film lines up a number of memorable character actors to play the degenerates. Lee de Broux, best known for bit parts in “RoboCop” and “Pumpkinhead,” plays the gang’s leader, relying on silent intimidation. Billy Drago appears as a character named Snake – of course he does – and brings a great deal of crazy-eyed glee to the part. Mickey Jones, who I recognizes from “Home Improvement,” is an especially gross redneck weirdo. Even Charles Cyphers and Billy Bob Thorton show up! Yet none of the villains make an impression like Bruce Glover. Playing One-Eye, so named because of his cataract covered left eye, Glover goes nuts. He screams, slobbers, glares, and acts totally demented, inhabiting the part of a deprived hillbilly psycho. It’s good to know Bruce’s kid got his knack for playing crazy from his dad.

“Hunter’s Blood” gets increasingly sleazy as it rolls along. What starts as a lightly comedic backwoods adventure evolves towards brain-dead action. After stumbling upon the poaching operation, one of the guys gets into a mud fight with Drago. Following this, the film takes a hard turn into bloody horror. The rednecks slit one park ranger lengthwise, leaving his body hanging from a tree. They decapitate the other, impaling his head on a stick. A shotgun blast practically decapitates one minor character. Someone is stabbed with deer antlers. Before the end, “Hunter’s Blood” even shovels in some greasy sleaze. In addition to the poaching and moonshining, we discover the backwoods criminal are also running a sex slavery ring. The hero’s girlfriend, reappearing randomly midway through the film, is nearly kidnapped by the slavers and threatened with rape. It’s a surprisingly grisly change but also makes “Hunter’s Blood” way more entertaining as it goes along.

I ended up having a good time with “Hunter’s Blood,” even if the film does little to break out of the clichés of the savage south subgenre. Aside from the general premise, the film has other aspects in common with “Deliverance.” A character is injured early on, dragged around by the others for the reminder of the story. Luckily, no one squeals like a pig. Mostly, catch this one for a few surprising moments of gore, an appealing greasy Southern setting, and a completely demented Bruce Glover performance. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Yeti

“Lost Tapes” was usually dumb but occasionally touched upon a clever idea. Any cryptozoology series will have to cover the Yeti eventually. Filming an entire episode on a snowy hill top was outside the low budget show’s limited means. So this is the work-around they cooked up. A billionaire explorer goes missing while climbing the Himalayan Mountains. However, his major discovery is found and shipped towards America aboard a cargo ship. A pair of journalists bribe a disgruntled dock worker and sneak aboard the ship before the next day’s press conference. They record their big scoop. What they find is a busted crate that obviously contained a living specimen. That live specimen – an exceedingly pissed off yeti – finds them next.

“Killer yeti on an empty cargo ship” is a premise with an undeniable pulpy appeal. “Yeti” makes good use of the claustrophobic setting. The dark interior of the ship, usually lit in bright red, helps build a tense environment. The characters being pursued through the tight corridors and winding tunnel by a huge, angry monster creates some thrills. That the Yeti is so ferocious makes him an even more viable threat. He tears a dude’s arm off, for one example. For once, the running and screaming filled finale pulls the viewer in. Making the protagonists journalists willing to break the law changes the context of the usual downbeat ending. For once, the characters arguably deserve to be torn apart by a monster. The documentary segments are devoted to rehashing the yeti mythology but at least the interviews stay on topic. [7/10]

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society – essentially an elaborate role-playing group – had a neat idea. They were going to adapt Lovecraft’s most popular and influential story to the screen. Yet the group didn’t intend to make a standard adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Instead, they imagined what an active filmmaker in 1926, the year Lovecraft wrote the story, might have done with the tale. Thus, 2005’s “The Call of Cthulhu” is presented as a silent two-reeler, the complete picture running fifteen minutes shy of an hour. While the effect is not entirely seamless, director Andrew Leman does an excellent job of capturing the tone and spirit of a silent film while paying due respects to Lovecraft’s work.

Being made by the faithful admirers at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the film is deeply fidelitous to the story. It maintains Lovecraft’s somewhat clumsy, flashback heavy plot structure. A narrator tells his story of uncovering his granduncle’s mad tales to a friend. A statue of a bizarre, octopus-headed creature reappears multiple times. This recollection spirals back to several different characters: An artist driven insane by a nightmares of a bizarre city, floating at sea. A police detective uncovering a strange cult in the New Orleans bayou, seemingly worshiping the same deity. Finally, a Norwegian sailor shares his terrifying encounter with the same city and the god-like entity that dwells there. Lovecraft’s text relies on the power of suggestion. Somehow, by turning H.P.’s long descriptions of eldritch things into black and white images, the filmmakers have maintained that same creeping sense of dread.

Andrew Leman and his team, for the most part, successfully replicate the look and feel of a silent film. Occasionally, the seams show. The short’s use of CGI is noticeable from time to time, especially in the shots of the shifting sleeping city or the swamp bound cultists. Yet the director nailed the black-and-white atmosphere. The scenes of a police carriage driving through the night streets or a countryman leading the detective to the cult’s bayou lair feature an impressive, foggy atmosphere. There are some inventive camera angles, involving people stepping through dark doorways or clerks stamping papers. Smartly, the filmmakers rely on “Dr. Caligari”-style expressionistic sets to portray the risen city of R’lyeh. This furthers the nightmare tone while adequately capturing Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean architecture.

While it’s hard to call something as intentionally stodgy as “Call of Cthulhu” scary, the short does feature some nicely spooky moments. The cult’s activity in the swamps rises to a frenzied, unnerving pace. Later, one of the cult member’s insane rantings to a police officer builds in intensity. The short regards the titular Elder God’s appearance correctly. Cthulhu is portrayed through some nifty – though probably too advanced for 1926 – stop motion animation. He remains mostly in the shadows, maintaining his mystery and sense of mind-shattering danger. “The Call of Cthulhu” is probably best enjoyed by hardcore Lovecraft fans but is still very well made, considering its more-or-less a fancy fan film. The HPLHS would try something similar several years later. Their feature adaption of “The Whisperer in Darkness” done in the style of a 1930s monster movie, wouldn’t be as successful. [8/10]