Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 23

Clownhouse (1989)

It's impossible to talk about “Clownhouse” without discussing the disturbing case of director Victor Salva. Salva was a promising, young filmmaker snatched up by Francis Ford Copella. He was given a small budget to produce his debut feature, “Clownhouse.” The film received good reviews on the festival circuit. Soon afterwards, however, Salva was convicted of molesting the movie's young star. He even recorded one of the assaults. Salva would be sentenced to three years but only serve fifteen months. Since being released, he's continued to make films, including the successful “Jeepers Creepers” franchise. Knowing this, watching “Clownhouse” becomes an uncomfortable experience. Is it possible to separate the film's merits from the crimes its director perpetrated on its star?

The film concerns three brothers. Casey is the youngest and has an intense phobia of clowns. His older brother, Randy, often torments Casey over this. The middle brother, Geoffrey, is a little more sympathetic. One fateful night, the three brothers are left home alone by their parents. In order to pass the time, Randy and Geoffrey take Casey to the circus. There, the boy has a frightening encounter with a circus clown. Later that night, a group of lunatics escape from a mental institute. They attack and kill the circus clowns, taking their costumes. The maniacs follow Casey back to his house, proceeding to hunt and torment the boys throughout the night.

Looking at “Clownhouse” strictly from an artistic perspective, it's an effective horror film. The film sustains a surprising amount of tension during its first half. After about a half-hour of set-up, we are greeted to long scenes of the clowns stalking their victims. There's a simple trick here that makes these scenes intense. The boys don't know the clowns are near-by. So there's extended moments of the brothers being watched by the clowns, unaware that they're being observed. A really solid scene has the clowns walking down a hallway towards one brother, only for them to vanish again in a blink. Lights blink in the attic, a running clown briefly visible in the background. Later, we spot clowns hiding behind racks of clothes in a closest. Or peering through a slightly ajar door. These are creepy images and “Clownhouse” utilizes them to ratchet up the tension.

These moments of long, sustained tension eventually build towards a frightening release. “Clownhouse” has been referred to as a slasher film but there's little gore in the movie. When the clown attacks happen, the film continues its focus on tension. The clowns never pick up a bladed weapon. One victim has his neck broken, after a theatrical build-up. Another is killed off-screen, his body dropping out of a closest. Otherwise, the attack scenes are devoted to clown's leaping out of doorways and hallways. “Clownhouse” really mines the unnerving quality of the clown for all its worth. I have no fear of clowns but a madly grinning, painting face suddenly peering from the darkness is startling. The attack scenes are fiercely directed, especially in the final act, where Cheezo the Clown has Casey pinned under a table.

“Clownhouse” does have a good cast. Nathan Forrest Winters gives a naturalistic performance as Casey, striking the viewer as a normal kid, overwhelmed by his fears. (Though it's very difficult to judge Winters' performance, knowing what the director did to him.) Brian McHugh is similarly likable as middle brother, Geoffrey. McHugh brings a slightly nerdy edge to the character, making him seem more grounded. Future star Sam Rockwell appears as Randy, the asshole older brother. Randy is unquestionably a bully but Rockwell sneaks in a few hints that he does actually love his younger brothers. The actor Michael Jerome West, credited simply as “Tree” for some reason, is deeply creepy as Cheezo the Clown. Using just his body language, Tree creates an effectively unnerving horror villain.

“Clownhouse” puts me in a really weird place, as a horror fan. On one hand, I want to recommend it as an effectively tense horror/thriller. On the other hand, it's impossible not to feel Victor Salva's pedophilic instincts in the film. Aside from the general plot of young kids being stalked by older men, there's multiple scenes of the three boys in their underwear, changing, or bathing. So I've answered my opening question: It is impossible to separate the film's artistic value from the disgusting acts its filmmaker committed during production. (If you must know, I downloaded a copy off a sketchy streaming site, so at least Salva didn't profit from me watching his movie.) In some alternate universe, where Victor Salva isn't a literal child molester, “Clownhouse” is a pretty good horror flick. In our world, I really don't know how the hell to rate it and will refrain from doing so. [-/10]

The Curse (1987)

I've probably mentioned it before. During my college years, I really got into obscure eighties horror, even more so than before. During that time, Youtube was still pretty new and packed with illegal uploads of all sorts of movies. In our 4K, HD world, it's hard to believe I once watched so many movies in 360 pixels, cut into ten minute segments. However, I found a lot of films I probably never would've seen otherwise this way. Such as “The Curse.” Among the channels I subscribed too, one I trusted so implicitly that I watched everything he uploaded, regardless of whether I had heard of it before. While watching “The Curse” back then, I realized the movie was an adaptation of Lovecraft's “The Colour Out of Space.” The film was also produced by Lucio Fulci and directed by David Keith, of all people. This makes it a uniquely eighties take on Providence's scribe of the strange.

Something has happened on the Crane family farm. In the middle of the night, a meteor crashes into their field. Within the next few days, the strange, glowing stone shrinks until it's nothing. After that, the family's crops begin to flourish. However, the fruit and vegetables are rotten inside. The animals begin to go mad. Soon enough, the family members are infected, slowly changing into half-human monsters. The meteor brought some pathogen from space and it has seeped into the well water. If it's not stopped soon, the entire town may be in trouble.

“The Curse” has been referred to by other writers as “cheesy,” which is not an inaccurate description. Most of the characters in the film are broad redneck stereotypes. The oldest Crane sibling, Cyrus, is an especially ridiculous character. He's a honking, farting, guffawing nincompoop. The majority of the performances are on this level. The various scenes of animals attacking, driven mad by the intergalactic infection, tend to be goofy. A horse attack is especially laughable. Yet, within its goofy atmosphere, “The Curse” occasionally touches upon a seriously gross image. Such as a half-eaten apple full of squirming worms or a tomato spurting a tidal wave of brown slime. One of the nastiest scenes involves a cow rotted from the inside out, rancid flesh and bugs exploding from its body. This stuff is not sophisticated but it's effectively nasty, hitting the viewer in their visceral gut.

Despite making his directorial debut with a down-and-dirty horror film, David Keith's ambitions were pretty high for “The Curse.” The film is not just a portrait of a redneck family, infected by alien pathogens, but actually looks at the entire community. We meet a man who is buying up many of the local farms, selling the property to developers. Francis Crane is cheating on her husband with the hunky farm hand, a subplot that barely comes up. The doctor next door, interested in helping the Cranes, is ostensibly the hero of the film. We also meet a local government official, who is also having an affair. Most of these subplots were probably not necessary, especially considering the film's brief 92 minute run time. However, it does give us a nice view of the surrounding area, making the movie a little more interested than it would've been otherwise.

“The Curse” is more faithful to “The Colour Out of Space” than “Die, Monster, Die!” was. The farm setting, backwoods half-wits, the meteor shrinking into nothingness, and giant but rotted vegetables are maintained. Most of the author's cosmic elements are ditched, such as the intelligent alien color beyond human comprehension. However, “The Curse” does touch upon some of H.P.'s themes, in an odd way. Nathan Crane is a religious fanatic, often praising God and cursing his family to damnation. When the curse befalls their animals and crops, Nathan initially blames his children for bringing this on them. Later, he decides this must be God's will. Yet the effects of the meteor are clearly a science-fiction threat, disconnected from religion. “The Curse,” if it was less trashy, could've been a story about Christian fanaticism meeting Lovecraftian horror.

The cast is pretty hammy, all things considered. The effects are not the best, the Crane family turning into pasty-faced ghouls. The ending goes on way too long, the movie attempting to wrap up too many subplots in too little time. Still, I sort of liked “The Curse.” Weirdly, the movie would spawn three in-name-only sequels. I've seen the second, “Curse II: The Bite,” which involves snakes, more body horror, Jill Schoelen, and something about an Amish family. I haven't seen the others, none of which are discussed much. The original is sort of worth seeing though, as a grimy and slightly dumb take on one of Lovecraft's best stories. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Sounds Like

As I said yesterday, I found most of the new additions during “Masters of Horror” season two to be questionable masters, at best. Yet I soundly approved of one name. After the terrifying “Session 9” and the effectively grim “The Machinist,” Brad Anderson seemed to earn that title. (Disappointingly, Anderson's subsequent genre work has been very forgettable.) Anderson would direct “Sounds Like.” The episode concerns Larry Pearce, a man with hypersensitive hearing. Usually he can ignore this troubling ability. Sometimes, like at his job as an call monitor at an I.T. call center, it even comes in handy. However, Pearce is still haunted by the death of his young son. In-between his inconsiderate wife and stressful job, Pearce's super-hearing goes into overdrive. Soon after that, his grip on sanity starts to slip.

Compared to most “Masters of Horror” episodes, which tend to focus on gory special effects, “Sounds Like” is a more psychological episode. There's very little violence and most of the horrifying stuff happens inside the main character's head. (Or ear canals, as it were.) It's primarily a character study of a man grappling with grief. Larry refuses to let his wife re-paint their dead son's bedroom, leaving it the way it was when the boy died. When the same wife suspect she's pregnant, Larry is offended that she would ever want to replace their deceased son. He frequently visits the boy's grave, fondly recalling their trips to a local lake to race toy boats. In one scene, he speaks to a younger co-worker, imagining the man as his little boy. In fact, “Sounds Like's” depiction of grief is so raw, that it's almost difficult to watch. Chris Bauer's performance rotates between quiet disconnection and fiery rage. Without going for melodrama, the film solemnly depicts the boy's dying days and Larry's inability to move on.

The super-hearing aspect of the story may seem disconnected from this element. Yet “Sounds Like” incorporates Larry's overly sensitive hearing as a measuring stick for his stress level. When he's dealing with things, his hearing is normal, peaceful even. When emotions start to boil over, the slightest sound can be insufferable. “Sound Like” does a great job of making noise unnerving. Raindrops on a windshield sound like bombs falling. A sleeping person's eyeball, fluttering against their closed eyelid, makes a disgusting squishing noise. A buzzing fly on a window sounds like a hurricane. Eventually, Larry can't even hear speech anymore, people's words obscured by the sound of their tongues swishing in their saliva. If you're sometimes sensitive to noise, “Sounds Like” is a very effective horror movie. It successfully makes the somewhat benign premise of “super hearing” into a nightmarish situation. This, combined with its strong emotional content, makes it easily one of the series' best episodes. [9/10]

Perversions of Science: The Exile

“Perversions of Science” finally starts to pick up some in its fourth episode. “The Exile” begins in some far-flung future society where most crime has been eliminated. This seemingly utopian world is interrupted by a sadistic serial killer, a would-be scientist obsess with racial purity. He is caught and imprisoned. Since the death penalty has been outlawed, the authorities attempt to reprogram him. The warden, Dr. Nordoff, becomes especially interested in the mad killer. Despite their best efforts, the man's violent and obsessive tendencies remain unchanged. The authorities decide to exile him instead.

“The Exile” has a better pedigree than most “Perversions of Science” episodes. Splatterpunk pioneer David J. Schow wrote the script while William Malone directs. Malone's somewhat obnoxious visual style is restrained, save for one colorful nightmare. Instead, the episode is mostly about three cult icons hamming it up delightfully. Jeffrey Combs plays the serial killer. He's in full-on Herbert West mode when ranting at his victims. When playing off other actors, Combs' enjoyably plays up his nihilistic side. He swears, sweats, and makes being a huge asshole look very amusing. David Warner plays Dr. Nordoff as a cold, authoritarian voice. This makes him an ideal foil to the blustering Combs. Watching Warner grow more tired of his bullshit is great. Lastly, Ron Perlman appears as Combs' cell mate, a coldly practical criminal. The ending is utterly ridiculous and borderline offensive but, I'll admit, it totally caught me off-guard. “The Exile” is, thus far, the best episode of this series. [7/10]

Friday, September 22, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 22

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

American International Pictures made at least seven films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, more if you count the films that took Poe's titles and attached them to unrelated stories. The studio's attempt to launch a long-running series of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations was less successful. Their effort would produce only three adaptations over the course of eight years. The final Lovecraft film from the studio was 1970's “The Dunwich Horror.” Director Daniel Heller would return from “Die, Monster, Die!” The result is one of the weirder Lovecraft movies, coming at a time when the horror genre – and A.I.P's approach to it – was changing.

Inside the library at Miskatonic University, located in Arkham, Massachusetts, resides the Necronomicon. The notorious tome supposedly contains spells and rites that can summon the Old Ones – ancient gods who ruled Earth before man – back to our level of reality. Wilbur Whateley has a particular interest in the book. His family has a long history of witchcraft. Wilbur's grandfather was a warlock, lynched by angry villagers. His father claims Wilbur has a brother, though no evidence exists of this. Local college student, Nancy Wagner, is strangely attracted to Wilbur. After stealing the Necronomicon, Whateley seduces Nancy into his cult, ready to return Yog-Sothoth back to Earth.

Though based on a story written in 1928, “The Dunwich Horror” was clearly inspired by “Rosemary's Baby.” Lovecraft's Old Ones are name-dropped frequently, with Yog-Sothoth being mentioned probably a hundred times. Yet the tone is explicitly sacrilegious, pointing out how the Old Ones are pagan deities, summoned by occult rituals. Pregnancy is a reoccurring image. The movie begins with a strange birth, the opening credits feature weird baby imagery, and then ends with a demonic conception. Satanism isn't the only trendy topic incorporated into the story. 1970's “The Dunwich Horror” is heavy on psychedelic shenanigans. Nancy has visions of hairy, naked hippies attacking her. Trippy colors and quick cuts appear throughout. The movie is characterized by an off-center, slightly dreamy tone. It's an odd approach to Lovecraft but one that works well. “The Dunwich Horror” is certainly memorable.

Adding to this late sixties atmosphere are the clearly stoned performances. Dean Stockwell, not quite recognizable with a beard and long hair, plays Wilbur Whateley. The cinematic Whateley lacks the literary Wilbur's chimerical physique but is no less weird. Stockwell states most of his dialogue in a flat monotone. He spent the entire movie starring with wide, wild eyes. It's an odd, off-putting performance that kind of works, given the character. What doesn't work is Nancy's inexplicable attraction to Wilbur. Why a normal girl like her would be interested in an obvious weirdo like Wilbur is mysterious. Sandra Dee is fine in the part but the character is often a non-entity, reduced into a passive role for most of the story.

Like I said, Lovecraft and psychedelia doesn't seem like an ideal combination but “The Dunwich Horror” ends up making it work. Mostly when it comes to the titular horror, Wilbur's locked-up brother. The glimpse we get of the monster are unimpressive, appearing to be a pulsating beach ball covered with rubber snakes. Instead of directly showing the monster, the film often takes the creature's perspective. Shifting, searing colors overtake the movie. People flee in terror from the unseen threat, its presence affecting the area around them. It's a surprisingly effective, if somewhat campy, way to depict Lovecraft's indescribable monstrosity on-screen. The movie's other explicit horror elements – Sandra Dee strapped to a stone altar, Stockwell shooting lightening from his magic rings – are equally campy but also fun in their own way.

Another element I like about “The Dunwich Horror” is Les Baxter's spooky score. Baxter combines a memorable melody, sparse but clear, with mounting electronic noise. The first time I saw “The Dunwich Horror,” on TV and late at night, I found it somewhat creepy but also slightly off-putting. I've seen it a few other times, liking it more every time. The campy elements are still evident, such as a goofy fight scene Stockwell has with a guard as Miskatonic University. However, this stuff is more appealing to me now. Though far from an ideal adaptation, it's a fun horror picture in its own right. Another adaptation came in 2009, which starred Jeffrey Combs and... Dean Stockwell. I wonder if it's worth seeing? [7/10]

Blood Harvest (1987)

Like many other nerds, I became a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic at a young age. As a teenager, I explored beyond Yankovic into further avenues of weird music. I discovered the perverse songs of Barnes & Barnes, the insane rantings of Wild Man Fischer, and the peculiar stylings of Tiny Tim. Born Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim is best known for his ukulele-assisted novelty hit “Tiptope Through the Tulips” and his stunt marriage to Miss Vicki on the Tonight Show. However, Tim's deeper discography shows a phenomenal vocal range and a surreal sense of humor. And if you doubt his commitment to his craft, consider that he died on stage. Anyway, Tim brought his unique abilities to a handful of films. His only lead role, however, was the 1987 horror film, “Blood Harvest.”

“Blood Harvest” revolves around Jill. After spending some time at college, and gaining a fiance while there, she is returning home. Her family is controversial in her home town, as they own the bank responsible for a number of local farms being forced to foreclose. Back home, Jill is reunited with an old childhood friend. Gary lost his parents at a young age, forcing him to take care of his mentally ill older brother, Mervin. Mervin has a child-like worldview and likes to dress up as a clown, calling himself the Magnificent Mervo. Soon afterwards, friends of Jill's begin to disappear. Is Mervo, the lovelorn Gary, or someone else to blame for the murders?

“Blood Harvest” is likely to be enjoyed by two audiences: Fans of scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel eighties horror and hardcore Tiny Tim aficionados. The latter audience is likely to get the most out of “Blood Harvest.” Whenever Tim is on-screen, the movie is taken over by a strange, unnerving energy. As the Magnificent Mervo, Tiny Tim is genuinely unsettling. He's perfectly cast as an off-putting man-child, prone to sitting on porch swings at night and appearing outside windows suddenly. The sight of Tim's wide, weird face, smeared with grease-paint, is probably unsettling enough for most people. Add him slobbering through the Lord's prayer and crying over pictures of dead pigs for further creep factor. It seems to me that Tim is just playing a greasier, clown-ier version of himself.  Which just happens to translate to a slightly sympathetic and really freaky horror character.

Aside from Tiny Tim's unique screen presence, not a whole lot else happens in “Blood Harvest.” There's attempt to pad the movie out with various subplots, such as a group of paintballers in the woods or the locals being angry at Jill's family. All of these storylines vanish by the half-way point. Instead, most of the film is devoted to leading lady Itonia Salchek – this is her only film appearance – lounging around the house. About a third of the film takes place on her bed, to the point where her teddy bear and the “Commando” poster on the wall probably deserve credits. Salchek is either nude or in her underwear for many of her scenes. This is one component of the film's sleazy elements. There's also some heavy petting, some light bondage, and an attempted rape scene.

“Blood Harvest” was directed by Bill Rebane, previously of “The Giant Spider Invasion” and “Monster-a-Go-Go.” The film is slightly more competent than those garbage classics but not by much. “Blood Harvest's” attempts at being a slasher film are fairly anemic. There are no real kill scenes. The killer abducts his victims, strings them up in the barn, and slashes their throats. This happens repeatedly, so there's no novel murder scenes. What gore we do see is watery and unconvincing. The film's climax involves the identities and motivations being revealed, none of them surprising. The showdown between the heroine and the killer goes on too long before deflating suddenly.

“Blood Harvest” is plenty trashy but doesn't deliver the kind of trashy thrills you might be expecting. No, the movie does not feature Tiny Tim murdering teenagers while wearing slimy clown make-up. There's actually very little killer clown action in “Blood Harvest.” The movie remains a Wisconsin-produced oddity, equal parts tedious and sleazy. The version on the DVD is supposedly the director's cut, featuring the similarly uninspired title of “Nightmare,” but I doubt some great creative vision was stymied by producers. Whatever you call the film, it's occasionally inspired insanity but is mostly a bore. [4/10]

Masters of Horror: The V Word

One of the reasons “Masters of Horror: Season Two” disappointed me was the new directors brought onto the series. Referring to some of these guys as “masters” strained believably. Such as Ernest Dickerson. Sure, “Demon Knight” and “Bones” are fun but I wouldn't call them masterpieces. Anyway, “The V Word” follows two teenage boys: Justin and Kerry. Justin is feuding with his dad, who recently left his mother and little sister for another woman. Bored, the two decide to sneak into the local funeral home to look at the body of a dead classmate. What they find instead is Mr. Chaney, a predatory vampire who preys on teenage boys. Both Justin and Kerry are bitten, transforming into vampires, forced to deal with their new attributes.

When first watching it, I found “The V Word” to be mediocre. On second viewing, it holds up better. The first half of the episode is devoted to the teens exploring the funeral home. There's not much to this but it works well, boiling with a quiet tension and some shadowy atmosphere. When the vampire stuff appears, Dickerson throws in some effectively grisly gore. These vampires don't leave two discreet holes. Instead, they tear people's throats out. Upon awakening as a vampire, Kerry attempts to drink water, the liquid spilling out of his neck. The young cast, Arjay Smith as Kerry and Branden Nadon as Justin, have an amusingly bro-tastic chemistry. Michael Ironside is fittingly sinister as Mr. Chaney, even if his status as a sexual predator is barely commented on.

Sadly, the second half of “The V Word” is less interesting. After the boys are bitten, the episode focuses on their transformation into vampires. Justin's mom doesn't notice how odd he's acting. He wanders around in a daze. Kerry forces a conflict between Justin as his dad, which plays out in a deeply anti-climatic fashion. By the time we get to the confrontation with Mr. Chaney, “The V Word” is focusing on standard heroics. One of the boys even dies heroically in a Christ pose. That's another example of how “The V Word's” references are a little too on the nose. Dickerson piles on some obvious classic horror throwbacks: Mr. Chaney's name, a “Nosferatu”-style shadow, an appearance from Bela Lugosi, a direct quotation of “Dracula.” It's all too on the nose. So “The V Word” was very nearly a decent hour but doesn't quite hit the mark. [5/10]

Perversions of Science: Boxed In

This is not my first attempt to watch “Perversions of Science.” Several years back, after finding all the episodes on the internet, I decided to give the show a shot. After “Boxed In,” I gave up on that endeavor. The episode begins on a dilapidated space cruiser. There's only two inhabitants: A decorated war veteran and Emmy, a horny sex robot he won in a card game. The pilot is faithful to his fiance back on Earth though, resisting the sex-droid's frequent advances. After the war is over, he returns to Earth and reunites with his fiance. However, her controlling Admiral father has outfitted her with a high-tech chastity belt. Sexually frustrated beyond belief, the pilot takes Emmy up on her offers. Naturally, something goes wrong.

“Boxed In” is a truly dire sci-fi sex farce. The central gag occurs midway through. After finally deciding to have sex with Emmy, the robot shuts down out of jealousy over the unnamed pilot's fiance. The man is still, um, inside her when this happens. Meaning he has a naked female torso attached to his crotch. This leads to some sigh-inducing slap stick. Misogyny runs through this one, in-between the bitchy sex droid (a woman who is literally an object and frequently reduced to pieces) and the brainless fiance. The gags are simply too stupid to entertain. The episode features pathetic special effects too, as Emmy continues to talk after being decapitated thanks to lousy digital effects. Kevin Polalck tries to get laughs in the lead but it's no use. William Shater directed this, casts himself as the hammy admiral, features his daughter as the fiance, and references “Star Trek” in the opening minutes. I'm hoping this is the low point of “Perversions of Science” and not the precedence for the rest of the series. [3/10]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 21

IT (2017)

A new cinematic version of Stephen King's “IT” has been floated – if you'll excuse the pun – for quite a while now. In 2009, right off the success of season one of “True Detective,” Cary Fukunaga was going to direct a two-part adaptation of the story. Unlike most other two-part book-to-movie deals, this one made sense. King's book is notoriously long and takes place over two time periods anyway. Kukunaga would eventually exit the project, which is one reason why it's taken until 2017 for this movie to get made. “Mama's” Andres Muschietti would direct the film instead. The new “IT” would quickly become the horror event of the Halloween season. People have flocked to “IT” in droves, making the film one of the biggest in the genre ever. I had doubts though. The trailer made the new movie look like a collection jump scares, that hammered the creepy clown note way too hard. So how does “IT” stand up?

The new “IT” updates the setting. Now, the year is 1989. The story is still set in the town of Derry, Maine. The city is gripped by a killing spree targeting children, seemingly centered around the sewer system. The latest victim is Georgie Denbrough. His older brother, Bill who has a stutter, is traumatized by Georgie's death. In his grief, Bill quickly gathers a new group of friends. They're all outcasts and affectionately name themselves the Losers Club. Together, they realize they've all seen weird stuff. In particular, they've all encountered a frightening clown. Soon, the Losers Club make plans to fight against It.

After finishing reading the book a few days before seeing the new movie, I wondered if any cinematic adaptation could do King's tome justice. King covers the entire history of Derry, provides extensive backstories for all the main characters (including the titular entity), and eventually extends into cosmic territory, pass the edges of the macroverse.  Muschietti's film ultimately does what an adaptation is supposed to do. It's more faithful to the book's spirit than its actual plot. Much of the narrative mechanics are different. However, the key events – the apocalyptic rock fight, the house on Neibolt street, the blood in Beverly's drain – are maintained. The film covers Derry's extensive history better than the 1990 television film did. Many elements are changed but 2017's “IT” nails the important stuff. You get a sense of the town, of who the Losers are, and the enormity of the evil they're up against.

Helping matters greatly is the exceptional cast. Each actor playing the Losers is perfectly cast. They're all so good that it's hard to pick a favorite. Jaeden Lieberher captures Bill Denbourgh's personality, showing the vulnerability his stutter causes but the innate leadership skills the other see in him. Jeremy Ray Taylor is great as Ben Hanscom, showing the big boy's intelligence without underselling his loner status. Jack Dylan Grazer expands past Eddie Kaspbrak's hypochondria to create a more active character. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably come down to Sophia Lillis as Beverly or Finn Wolfhard as Richie. Lillis nails the tough resourcefulness central to Beverly Marsh's personality, while hinting at the girlishness that makes the young boys love her. Wolfhard, meanwhile, is hilarious as Richie Tozier. Wolfhard's Richie gets off a lot of good ones, capturing the character's smart ass appeal that covers a greater vulnerability.

The new film's cast is a hands-down improvement over the 1990 version in every department except for one. Bill Skarsgard is good as our new Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He's suitably creepy while capturing the utter joy It feels at frightening children. He's just not as good as Tim Curry was. Curry was so delightfully wicked in the part. Skarsgard, meanwhile, plays it a little straighter. He also relies on the overdone creepy clown make-up a little too much. I still find some of the design choices a little confusing. The turn-of-the-century clothes make sense in story but look odd in execution. I also think the new Pennywise is too outwardly creepy, negating the disguise's point as one meant to attract kids.

The trailers made me fear that the new “IT” would lean too heavily on jump scares. Muschietti's film does feature many of the marks of modern studio horror. It has that slick but dusty look. There's quite a lot of CGI and not all it incorporated organically. Muschietti's direction is a bit too mannered at time, incorporating distracting dutch angles and other tricks. And, yes, they're are plenty of jump scares. However, “IT” is a surprisingly fun horror movie. The scares scenes are sudden and go for the throat. They're also balanced with a lot of humor and heart. The “kids on an adventure” feeling the book featured is nicely represented in this adaptation, blending well with the more overtly scary moments. After watching “IT,” I felt the same way I do when stepping out of a good carnival funhouse. Elated but excited, creeped out but comfortable.

I do have a few complaints about the film. Out of the seven Losers, Wyatt Oleff's Stanley and Chosen Jacobs' Mike get the short end of the stick. Jacobs' Mike gets it the worst, as his defining characteristic in the book is transferred to another character. My biggest issue concerns a decision made in the last act. Beverly, one of the film's strongest characters up to that point, is reduced to a damsel in distress. Overall, the climax is a bit underwhelming, the initial defeat of Pennywise happening a little too easily in the new film. Most of my other complaints boil down to nitpicks. I wish the Barrens, a huge part of the book, played a larger role in the film. The classic horror references in the book are gone, which makes sense given the shift in setting. But I still sort of miss them.

Still, the new “IT” turned out really well. It's a smooth adaptation with a fantastic cast. Moreover, I was surprised at how fun this particular horror picture turned out to be. During a time when the horror genre veers towards the grim, I certainly didn't expect a glossy studio picture – about a child-eating monster, no less – to be this fleet-footed and entertaining. “IT” concludes with a title screen declaring itself “Chapter One,” essentially promising chapter two. Considering the huge box office, that's sure to come. Hopefully, the filmmakers intentionally saved the book's more far-out material for the second movie, which I am now actually pretty hyped for. [7/10]

The Shuttered Room (1967)

“The Shuttered Room” is usually included on any list of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. However, that's a bit of a cheat. The short story of the same name was actually written by August Derleth. Derleth was a pen pal and frequent collaborator of Lovecraft's. As his literary executor, Derleth can be thanked for keeping Lovecraft's work in print. Yet Derleth has also been criticized for making his own contributions to H.P.'s cosmology. He wrote “The Shuttered Room” based on notes by Lovecraft but most consider the story 100% Derleth. Despite that, Lovecraft's name is frequently attached to this film, hence its coverage here.

As a child, Susannah Kelton grew up on the island of Dunwich, in the New England countryside. Her family moved away when she was young. Now, after marrying a man much older than her, Susannah has been invited back to the island. A recently dead aunt has left the family mill in her position. Susannah and her husband, Mike, find they are unwelcomed here. The locals are hostile, attacking Mike and sexually harnessing Susannah. Meanwhile, it soon becomes apparent to Susannah that the family mill hides a dark secret. How does the shuttered room in the building's attic connect to her traumatic childhood memories?

The first thing I noticed about “The Shuttered Room” is how it sounds. Basil Kirchin provides the film with an eclectic jazz soundtrack. Many of the film's scenes are scored to frantic drumming and hot saxophones. This is an odd choice for a horror movie, often robbing scenes of potential tension and irritating the audience. It's not the only annoying thing about the movie. The sound design is equally shrill. The movie's soundscape is full of continuously blaring car horns, shrill shrieks, and obnoxious shouting. This ear-rending sound mixes with content that is often cheesy. In-between the exaggerated  redneck villains and Gig Young's tendency towards using karate chops, the audience is more likely to laugh than scream.

In fact, depraved backwoods shenanigans makes up too much of “The Shuttered Room.” If it wasn't released four years earlier, I would accuse it of ripping off “Straw Dogs.” Both films focus on city folk being menaced in the country side. In both, the wife is constantly sexually harassed by one man in particular. Oliver Reed hams it up as Ethan, the central villain. In one scene, he literally licks Susan's ear. Reed's performance drips with danger. Yet the movie is weirdly guarded with its subject matter. For every scene of Reed nearly raping Susannah, we get another scene of goofy rednecks throwing nets on people. (There's another connection of sorts between the films. “Straw Dogs” is set in the English countryside. “The Shuttered Room” is set in Lovecraft's Dunwich. However, the movie was shot in England, with many of the actors playing the country folk being English, putting on American accents.)

Lovecraft's writings are full of inbred hillbillies, communing with sinister forces from beyond. Yet “The Shuttered Room” ends up barely feeling like a Lovecraft story. Derleth's text included explicit connections to Lovecraft's mythology, such a half-human frog-monster locked in the attic. The cinematic “Shuttered Room” ditches all of this stuff. Instead, the titular room includes an insane, slightly deformed but otherwise very human prisoner. It's easy to predict the connection Susannah has to this person. That “The Shuttered Room” saves this reveal for the final act makes much of the movie feel like tedious waiting. When the door is finally opened, and the monster released, you're left wondering if that's it. The blunt conclusion that follows does nothing to resolve this dissatisfaction.

So that's why “The Shuttered Room” is rarely discussed when talking about beloved Lovecraft adaptations. Normally, I'd say the filmmakers wanted to make a different kind of story and attached a popular author to the movie in hopes of boosting its profile. Yet was Lovecraft really that big a name in 1967? I doubt it, which makes the reasons why “The Shuttered Room” turned out how it did deeply mysterious. Why bother adapting this story if you were going to remove all the cool parts? Reed's performance is disturbingly sleazy but, otherwise, there's little reason to check out this annoying and boring backwoods thriller. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Family

During season one of “Masters of Horror,” John Landis might have seemed a little out of place, having directed only two or three horror movies. Yet his episode, “Deer Woman,” proved to be a season highlight. So I eagerly anticipated his next installment, “Family.” The episode follows Harold. He's a happy family man, with a wife and young daughter, living in the suburbs. But there's a problem: Harold's family is dead. He's actually a serial killer, who strips his victims' bodies down to the bones, propping up their skeletons and imagining personalities for them. Harold finds himself fascinated with his new neighbors, a young married couple. His perfect family is broken up as Harold becomes obsessed with Cecelia, the wife. But all is not as it seems.

As a peek into an especially whimsical serial killer's head, “Family” works pretty well. Harold kills not out of twisted sexual desires (though there's a little of that) or because voices tell him to. (Though there's a little of that too.) Instead, he kills to preserve a sense of internal normalcy. His fake family makes him happy. It gives him a wife that understands him, a daughter that looks up to him, and parents that advise him. It's a weirdly comfy world, even if its full of skeletons reading the Weekly World News. The audience is oddly on Harold's side, as he stalks his neighbors, plotting to kill them both. Watching his perfect inner life fall apart, developing strife with his skeleton wife, is oddly effecting. You feel bad for this guy, even if he's an unrepentant killer. George Wendt's performance is perfect for this, as his jolly appearance hides the character's sinister intentions.

Other elements of “Family” don't work as well. The graphic gore – bodies dissolving in acid, a face split by a hammer – feel mean-spirited, at odds with the quasi-comic tone. The twist ending is easy to predict. In fact, the scenes involving the neighbors drag the episode down a bit. It's not the performers' fault, as Meredith Monroe and Matt “The Middleman” Keeslar, are fine in the parts. Landis' directorial flourishes, which include a CGI zoom into a larynx, are distracting. Still, “Family” is a solid hour. It probably would've stretch the material a little thin but “Family” could've supported a feature length run time. Wendt's performance is fantastic and Harold's worldview, antisocial as it might be, is fascinating. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: Anatomy Lesson

“Perversions of Science's” second episode, “Anatomy Lesson,” is another story that is equal parts horror and sci-fi. The episode follows Billy, the son of the town coroner. His father frequently examines the bodies of a local serial killer's victims. (The victims are mostly criminals and scumbags.) Soon, Billy develops a fascination with dead bodies, deriving sexual satisfaction from cutting living flesh. He mostly preys on animals but is eager to move on to people. He seemingly gets his chance when a hot date is interrupted by a homeless man, someone Billy has encounter from time to time. However, the hunter quickly becomes the hunted.

As an examination of a young psychopath, slowly getting to know his desire for murder, “Anatomy Lesson” is mildly captivating. Jeremy London's performance is solid, as he shows no attempt to make this nasty character likable. The script clearly links his sex drive with his murder drive, without overexplaining things. The last minute shift into hard sci-fi, involving robot vigilantes and alien overlords, is sudden. A major character's true identity is revealed in a corny way. References to other historical serial killer are heavy handed. The special effects are underwhelming, involving a robot that is clearly a puppet and a giant CGI flying saucer. “Anatomy Lesson” ultimately feels like two stories, a gritty tale about a budding serial killer and a sci-fi story about aliens policing Earth, awkwardly fused together. Chrome's puns are a little better this time, as they actually relate to the story and aren't just thoughtlessly sexual. [6/10]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 20

IT (1990)

Whatever the origins of the killer clown, one of the most popular modern horror archetypes, Stephen King certainly has to answer for a lot of it. His 1986 novel is a sprawling masterpiece that covers a lot of ground. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, however, is the only thing most people remember about “It.” The mini-series adaptation, first aired on ABC  in 1990, may be the primary reason for this. Producers originally intended the mini-series to run for ten hours, with George Romero directing. When “It” actually rolled into production, the run time had been cut down to three, with Tommy Lee Wallace of “Halloween III” and “Fright Night II” directing. Despite that considerable step down in talent, “It” made Pennywise into a horror icon and remains a nostalgic favorite.

The killings in Derry have started again. The small Maine town is caught up in a cycle. Every thirty years, children begin to die. After a huge outburst of violence, the murders stop... Only to start again three decades later. In the late fifties, a group of eleven year old youths – calling themselves the Losers Club – confronted the force behind the killings directly. Mostly appearing as a malevolent clown, It is actually an ancient entity older than any of them, that can take the shape of your worst fears. They thought they killed it back then. But, now, It has returned. The Losers Club reconvene in Derry, uncertain if they can survive another encounter with It.

I would not envy anybody adapting King's “It.” First off, it's a door stopper that runs over a thousand pages. Even the prospect of shoving all that into a three hour run time is daunting. Some of screenwriter Lawrence Cohen's decisions were strictly pragmatic. Most of King's backstory, for the characters and the town of Derry, and nearly all the subplots are clip out. The two halves are wildly condensed. Different adventures are combined or switched around. Of course, there are budgetary decisions too. The sprawling sewer tunnels and underground caverns are replaced with an underwhelming filtration plant. The titular entity spends most of the film as the clown, removing the wilder transformations. And the cosmic conclusion is entirely excised. Ultimately, maybe thirty percent of King's book made it into the mini-series. The result is not the most satisfying adaptation. In fact, this “It” feels practically anemic.

An entire generation of nineties kids have talked about how “It” traumatized them. I remember this too, watching the movie from under a blanket, being too freaked out to even look at it. To adult eyes, Wallace's “It” comes off as deeply corny. Many of the horrific sequences – most of them added for the film – are less than frightening. An encounter between Eddie and Pennywise in the school shower is deeply silly. The creature design for It's final form – an alien spider – is neat. However, the effects are stiff. There was something cathartic on the page about the Losers beating the Spider to death with their bare hands. On-screen, it's deeply anticlimatic. But Henry Bowers gets it the worst. King's frightening young psychopath is changed into a generic, deeply unthreatening greaser kid. The fate of him and his friends, sucked into a pipe and hair turned white, are laughable. The electronic score is largely cheesy too.

Having said that, Wallace's film occasionally touches upon a creepy image. Beverly's vision of blood bubbling up from the sink is one of the few moments from the book that are largely unaltered, to the film's benefit. In fact, blood bursting into the air provides some of “It's” best moments. When a balloon splatters blood all over Richie, while he sits in the library as an adult, that makes for a decent shock. A sequence set in a Chinese restaurant, where every fortune cookie holds a gruesome surprise, works pretty well even with some shaky special effects. Another encounter from the adult years, where Beverly comes face-to-face with a ghoulish old lady, works pretty well. In fact, "It" is probably at its scariest when hewing the closest to King's text.

Of course, none of this is the real reason people recall “It” so fondly. It all comes down to Tim Curry as Pennywise. Roddy McDowell and Malcolm McDowell were both considered for the part and either surely would've done a good job. But Curry's evil clown is on a whole other level. The clown persona allows Curry to ham it up as much as he wants, which is hugely enjoyable on its own. However, Curry maintains a sinister edge even when being jovial. He understands that Pennywise is someone that enjoys frightening children and relishes it. In fact – with his big smile, wicked laugh, and deeply unnerving delivery – Curry's Pennywise may be creepier than King's. On the page, Pennywise is merely one of It's many faces. In the film, he's the main attraction.

The rest of the cast is more varied. None of the Losers, as kids, are especially well cast. Seth Green's young Richie is incredibly annoying. Ben Heller's Stan Uris is so distant from the literal Stan that he reads like a totally different character. Emily Perkins as young Bev and Brandon Crane as young Ben are better performers but have a similar problem. Many of the adult losers are simply miscast. Harry Anderson as adult Richie mugs furiously but can't seem to shed his comedic side in the more serious scenes. (The mini-series makes Richie a successful stand-up, instead of a deejay. Which makes sense, except his material is so bad, you can't believe he'd ever be popular.) John Ritter is also a really poor choice for adult Ben, being too cuddly and not nearly stoic enough. Annette O'Toole is a solid choice for adult Beverly but isn't given nearly enough to do.

Ultimately, I suspect nostalgia does play a big role in the fondness displayed for “It.” Tim Curry's Pennywise has become beloved and widely referenced for a reason. He's brilliant and easily the highlight of the film. While watching as a kid, he's utterly terrifying and that clearly imprinted on a whole generation of kids. The mini-series around him is less impressive. Especially when compared to King's epic novel, Tommy Lee Wallace's adaptation can't help but pale. Lack of budget, lack of time, and lack of vision lead to a forgettable mini-series with a simply unforgettable villain. [6/10]

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

“Die, Monster, Die!” might have been the first piece of Lovecraftian fiction I was ever exposed too. I caught the movie on AMC's Friday night creep show when I was a budding horror fan. At the time, I had no idea who H.P. Lovecraft was, though I would soon discover. I remember the film being campy and spooky in the way I had come to expect from American International Pictures classics. As an adult, I now know that the movie was the second Lovecraft adaptation A.I.P. produced, following “The Haunted Palace.” Newcomer filmmaker Daniel Haller would take over the director's chair from Roger Corman. Though not quite a classic, the film does have a certain notoriety, mostly do to its memorably outrageous title and the presence of an elderly Boris Karloff.

The film is inspired by “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft's best short stories, though it leaves little of the source material. The setting is moved from New England to old England, firstly. Secondly, the farm house location is switched for a gothic mansion. Naturally, a female love interest and more monsters are added to the tale. The titular color is reduced to a plot device. Instead, the film follows Stephen Reinhart, who has come to England to retrieve his young girlfriend. That girl, Susan Witley, is living in her family's old house. Her father is confined to a wheelchair. Her mother is ill, staying in her room. Soon, Stephen and Susan discover that the mansion holds a strange, horrible secret. One that comes from beyond the stars.

“Die, Monster Die!” isn't the most sophisticated movie but I found myself enjoying it. The movie openly participates in an older style of horror atmosphere. By shifting the story's location, Lovecraft's backwoods mutations take on a more gothic air. The film's mansion setting is well utilized. It's full of darkly hallways, spooky old portraits, and dusty trinkets from a decade or more ago. In this effectively creepy location, a classical breed of chills are deployed. Strange figures are half-seen through windows or bedroom curtains. Old family curses are whispered about. There's a boarded-up room that everyone is forbid from entering. A spooky old battle axe, the kind a classical executioner might carry, even puts in an appearance. It's pretty hooky but admittedly catnip for a classic horror fanatic like myself.

“Die, Monster, Die!” is so heavy on this more quint brand of horror that the Lovecraftian elements aren't immediately evident. Slowly, they emerge. A key sequence involves Steve and Susan entering a forbidden green house. Inside, they find giant vegetables – one of the few holdovers from the original story – and grotesquely mutated animals. These creatures are so deformed that you can't even recognize what they once were. Humans are similarly effected. In the last reel, Susan's mother is revealed. Her face has distorted, sprouting bleeding sores. This kind of proto-body horror makes up much of Lovecraft's original story. There are other elements too. The senior Witley feels cursed by an ancient family bloodline, recalling “Charles Dexter Ward.” There's also a green glowing light underground, which at least hints at the subterranean terrors Howard Philips wrote about.

These two separate techniques of horror play out mostly in separate sequences. And to the benefit of the film. When “Die, Monster, Die!” attempts to link its drippy horror setting with its Lovecraftian roots, the result is a stuntman running around with silver paint on his face. In the last act, Boris Karloff's character gets a mega-dose of the mutation causing radiation. An obviously different actor then takes over, attacking Nick Adams while wearing aluminum foil-looking make-up and glowing green. It's a silly ending to a somewhat silly movie but one that jives badly. Especially since it takes Karloff out of the picture. Karloff's ominous performance is another highlight of “Die, Monster, Die!” He's a bit more memorable than Adams in the hero role and Suzan Farmer as the screaming damsel, both of whom are just adequate.

I actually enjoy “Die, Monster, Die!” more now than when I was a kid. I guess my appreciation for this brand of nonsense has increased with age. It's not an especially accurate Lovecraft adaptation and is fairly goofy overall. However, this movie still hits enough of my sweet spots to recommend it. I'm certainly not the only fan, as there are several songs and bands named for the film. A.I.P., by the way, originally released this on a double feature with Mario Bava's “Planet of the Vampires.” I bet that was a fun show to catch at the local drive-in. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing

Last year, I reviewed season one of “Masters of Horror.” Back in high school, when my horror fandom was really starting to burn bright, the show was appointment television for me. So revisiting that first season was a source of nostalgia, even if the episodes varied in quality. I have fewer fond memories of season two. By the time the second season started, I was no longer speaking to my father, the only person in my family who had Showtime. So I didn't see season two during its first run. As a youngster, I also though the second season's line-up of directors was disappointing. Now, however, I have another reason to continue watching this show. These unique filmmakers are starting to die off. The first episode of “Masters of Horror's” second season, “The Damned Thing,” is from the recently late Tobe Hooper. I have to watch this show now, to pay tribute to this now-gone filmmaker.

“The Damned Thing” is loosely based off the Ambrose Bierce story of the same name. Very loosely, it must be said. The film begins in the eighties, when Kevin Reddle was only a boy. His father went insane on his fortieth birthday, killing his mother and attempting to kill Kevin. Afterwards, the man was torn apart by an invisible force. Now, Kevin is approaching his own fortieth birthday. He's now the sheriff in his small town, currently separated from his wife and son. Reddle has a dark feeling that the damned thing is about to return. He's right. An evil force bubbles up from the ground, driving the townsfolk insane, causing them to murder one another.

“The Damned Thing” is a pretty good example of Tobe Hooper's unique strengths and myriad flaws as a filmmaker. Look at the scenes were the invisible monster, the titular damned thing, attacks and forces others to attack. Hooper employs some startlingly gory special effects. A man's chest is torn open, his intestines yanked out, before his body levitates into the air. An effective scene has a man beating himself to death with a claw hammer. Another surprising moment has the sheriff attempting to rescue a teenage girl from a car crash. All he succeeds in doing is tearing her legs off, which come apart with a sickening sound. Yet these moments also feature some tacky direction from Hooper. The camera seizes wildly during the attacks, with gratuitous shaky-cam. For some reason, a stock sound effect monster roar is used to signals the damned thing's presence. That's annoying, especially since it's replayed repeatedly.

The script, provided by Richard Christian Matheson, is also a mixed bag. The damned thing manifesting as oil, the hate and violence literally bubbling up from the ground, is a clever touch. (Even if the CGI used in the last scene could've used some work.) Some of the interactions in the town, like Ted Raimi's Catholic priest turning a gun on a mouthy confession, are darkly humorous. Yet Matheson's script also saddles the main character with a distracting voiceover. That narration blandly explains too much of the story. You can see this dynamic in the cast too. Sean Patrick Flannery is decent in the lead. Brenden Fletcher is amusing as the deputy who dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Yet other performances are less certain. Marisa Coughlan is tone-deaf as the wife, especially in the scenes where the damned thing begins to influence her.

Ultimately, “Masters of Horror: Season Two” gets off to a shaky start. I remember too much of the second season having a similar problem. The artful bits stand alongside more awkward stuff, like that needlessly nihilistic ending. As a Tobe Hooper film, “The Damned Thing” is set in his native Texas and features some of the frenzied insanity common to his work. It's also sadly typical of Hooper's sloppy later work. Still, even if he made some mediocre-to-terrible films, I am going to miss Tobe Hooper. The horror genre absolutely wouldn't be the same without him. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Dream of Doom

Over the last four Halloweens, I watched all of “Tales from the Crypt.” The show was frequently formulaic yet I loved it. It was also a big hit for HBO, who was only beginning to move into original television at the time. Unsurprisingly, after its healthy seven year run, the network wasn't ready to give up on the idea of an E.C. Comics-based anthology series. In 1997, the same producers would re-team for a follow-up. While “Tales from the Crypt” was based on E.C.'s horror comics, “Perversions of Science” would be based on E.C.'s science fiction comics. Instead of a jokey puppet Cryptkeeper, the show was hosted by a sexy CGI gynoid named Chrome. Despite having so much going for it, “Perversions of Science” would not repeat “Tales'” success. It would end after one season. Though ostensibly a sci-fi show, the stories crossed over into the horrific often enough to make it fitting viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween.

That's very evident in the sole premiere episode. “Dream of Doom” is more-or-less straight-up psychological horror. The story concerns Arthur Bristol, a forty-something college professor. Bristol visits a psychologist, claiming that he can't wake up. He believes himself to be stuck in a dream. Every time he awakes, he simply finds himself in another dream. Faces reappear throughout his fantasies. A woman who is sometimes his doctor and sometimes his wife. Or a comely young lady who is sometimes his student and sometimes his girlfriend. Arthur becomes desperate to break this cycle and begins considering violent options.

“Dream of Doom” was directed by Walter Hill, who also directed “Tales from the Crypt's” first episode. This isn't a classic on the level of “The Man Who Was Death” though. The script, from future blockbuster scribe David Goyer, is intentionally scattered. The premise, of endless dreams cycling into each other, leaves little room for narrative coherence. So we get a collection of scenarios. Some of them, like Arthur awakening inside a seedy strip club or a shrink's office, are kind of interesting. The segments play joyfully with Freudian implications. Such as the same woman appearing as his wife in one dream, and his daughter in another. The sexy females also show up as Marylin Monroe-style muses, cooing unhelpful secrets. Yet the constantly shifting story never comes together into a solid whole. “Dream of Doom” is essentially a half-hour of unfinished situations, occasionally building on each other but too often simply existing side-by-side.

Just like “Crypt,” recognizable actors appeared in “Perversions of Science.” This one stars Keith Carradine, Lolita Davidovich, and Adam Arkin. Sadly, the script didn't give anyone much to work with. As a show, “Perversions of Science” is already less charming than “Tales from the Crypt.” Chrome's slinky double entendres are less endearing than the Crypt Keeper's puns. Her CGI appearance is also way less expressive than the old Crypt Keeper puppet. Danny Elfman's boozy jazz theme song is pretty cool though. I'm hoping the show will get better before I finish with its ten episode run but I'm not really expecting that. [5/10]

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 19

Vampyr (1931)

Since 2012, I've been beginning my Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-thon with a silent horror movie. This just feels right to me, beginning my six week long journey by going back to the genre's roots. Yet, over the last five years, I've watched most of the notable silent horror movies. Tradition is important to me, as you know, and I didn't want to break this one. So 2017's Blog-a-thon begins with a mostly silent horror movie. “Vampyr” was the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer's follow-up to his 1928 classic, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It's amusing to note that Dreyer decided to make a vampire movie due to the popularity of the “Dracula” Broadway play, which would bring Bela Lugosi to fame. “Vampyr” was a difficult production and not well received in 1931. Since then, it's developed a reputation as one of the greats.

Allan Gray has been wandering through the small villages of Europe, looking for knowledge on the occult. He comes to the small French community of Courtempierre. He rents a room at the local inn. That night, a strange man enters his room, leaves behind a parcel, and tells Gray to open it upon his death. The next day, Gray sees the old man die at a near-by manor. The daughter of the manor's family is gravely ill. She has bite-marks – two pinpricks – on her neck. Gray then reads the book the old man left him, realizing it's a tome about vampires. He soon realizes that a vampire is responsible for the girl's sickness. And that someone in the town is under the vampire's control.

I first saw “Vampyr” on television year ago, late at night. I was drifting in and out of sleep at the time. Watching the film fully awake, my impression hasn't changed much. A dream-like atmosphere informs the entire motion picture. Early on, Allan Gray sleeps several times throughout the movie. He frequently sees shadows. While exploring an empty castle, he sees shadows dance along the wall, nobody casting them. A subtle but impressive segment shows the shadow of a solider with a peg leg, moving without him. His dreams are of death. Upon arriving at the inn, Allan spots an old man with a scythe. He later has a vivid dream of a moving skeleton, appearing in his bedroom. This builds towards the film's most  memorable sequence: A nightmare where Allan dies, is placed in a casket, and carried through town. Dreyer shoots this scene from the corpse's prospective, placing the audience inside the coffin and looking out through wide-open eyes.

All of the above might be chilling but it doesn't have much to do with vampires. “Vampyr” is stubbornly disinterested in typical vampire movie tropes. Maybe it's because the rules of the subgenre were only beginning to be codified but “Vampyr” approaches the vampire with a decidedly old world style. The vampire is not a suave foreigner or a sexy temptress. Instead, it's a decrepit old woman. Her hypnotized slave, the town doctor, does most of the actual work. We see less of the actual vampire and more of her victim. The ailing young woman aligns the vampire with disease and plague. All of this, the bloodsucker being elderly and weak, slowly draining her victim's life, makes the titular vampyr represent death and decay. This is very different take on the undead creature than the version that would emerge throughout the next few decades.

“Vampyr” was Dreyer's first sound feature, made when the technology was still new. The movie was shot in three different languages: German, French and English. Due to these challenges, “Vampyr” features very little dialogue. In fact, most of the movie's information is deliver via title cards and close-up of book pages. This results in a sound feature that feels like a silent movie. It's also pretty awkward. The film is achingly slow at times. Some sound sequences, like the last scene in a mill, are deafeningly noisy. Other moments are incredibly silent. Sometimes, the music doesn't synch up with the events, stopping and starting suddenly. “Vampyr” is beautifully dream-like sometimes. Other times, it's like listening to someone else describing their dream, a less exciting procedure.

It's hard for me to call “Vampyr” one of the greatest horror films of all time. For me, it can't compare to the movies Universal Studios were making at the same time. However, it's definitely an interesting movie. Some of its imagery is absolutely chilling and Dreyer mostly succeeded in making a movie that unfolded like a strange nightmare. Yet it's clear that the director was only beginning to adapt to the new technology at his disposal. The result is a movie that is intermittently great but also occasionally tedious. If nothing else, it's a unique take on the vampire legend. [6.5/10]

The Haunted Palace (1963)

In 2017, H.P. Lovecraft is a cottage industry. There's hundred of movies, comics, video games, tabletop games, toys and Azathoth knows what else inspired by the author's stories. Lovecraft is widely recognized as one of the most influential writers of the last century. It wasn't always that way. By 1963, Roger Corman was six films into his cycle of popular, Vincent Price-starring Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Corman decided to adapt Lovecraft stories next and began work on a version of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Yet Lovecraft was considered too obscure in 1963. The film was re-titled “The Haunted Palace,” with Price reading a line from the poem at the end, in an attempt to trick people into thinking this was part of the Poe Cycle. Despite the subterfuge, “The Haunted Palace” is still the first cinematic adaptation of Howard Philip Lovecraft's writing.

In 1765 in the town of Arkham, Joseph Curwen is suspected of being a warlock and burned at the stake. Before dying, Curwen curses the town and threatens his return. One hundred years later, Charles Dexter Ward and his wife arrive in Arkham. They have inherited the old family palace. Inside, Ward's eyes fall upon the portrait of Joseph Curwen, realizing they look identical. From there on, the spirit of Curwen begins to inhabit Ward's body. Resurrected, the warlock goes about his plans, getting revenge on the town, reviving the corpse of his wife, performing evil spells, and attempting to raise an Old One from underneath the palace.

Tricking audiences into thinking “The Haunted Palace” was a Poe adaptation was sneaky but not entirely underhanded. Visually, the film resembles the Poe films Corman made. It has the same rich colors, gothic sets, and period costumes. Moreover, the film employs a similar style of horror. “The Haunted Palace” generates creeps with heavy fog and an uneasy atmosphere. The shots of fog-strewn Arkham certainly have a spooky power to them. There's a classical atmosphere to Ward's mind being invaded by his ancestor. Corman, however, hints at Lovecraftian horror. Hiding in the town are deformed humans, such as a little girl with no eyes or a man with a warped face. A sequence where Dexter and his wife are surrounded by the mutated humans is genuinely eerie. C'thulhu and Yog-Sothoth get name-dropped and we get a glimpse at a fishy, inhumane creature in a pit. It still feels more like Poe than Lovecraft but it is interesting.

“The Haunted Palace” presents an interesting opportunity for Vincent Price. He's essentially playing two characters in the same body. As Charles Dexter Ward, Price employs all his good-natured charm. He seems like a loving husband and a gregarious fellow. As Joseph Curwen, Price is devious. He's genuinely chilling, Luciferian in his plotting and evil intent. It's one of Price's most cheerless and evil characters. Price is surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Lon Chaney Jr., in his only film with Corman, appears as Curwen's assistant. It's the kind of undistinguished man-servant role Chaney played frequently in the twilight of his career. Despite that, Chaney still generates some chills with his drooping eye-sockets and sickly appearance. Debra Paget and Cathie Merchant are lovely as the female leads while Corman peppers the rest of the cast with recognizable character actors, like Frank Maxwell, Elisha Cook Jr., and Leo Gordon.

“The Haunted Palace” essentially gets by on its spooky atmosphere and strong cast. Which is good, as the screenplay is a mess. Joseph Curwen's goals seem to shift from scene to scene. First, he only desires to take his descendant's body. Later, he decides to take bloody revenge on the descendants of his tormentors. Next, he's trying to bring his dead girlfriend back to life or raise a fish monster from a pit in the dungeon. How the groups of deformed humans tie in with Curwen's curse on the town is never explained. We just have to assume he's responsible for him. Characters disappear at key moments, such as Lon Chaney's Simon vanishing mysteriously before the conclusion. Most of this stuff was added by Corman and does not appear in Lovecraft's original story. So we know who to blame for the nonsensical digressions.

Still, Vincent Price as a creepy villain, the early examples of body horror, and a shit-ton of fog go a long ways. It's not as direct an adaptation as later Lovecraft films but you can see Corman filtering some of H.P.'s ideas through the lens he brought to the Poe pictures. And, you know, technically the palace in the film is pretty haunted, so the title isn't a lie. I would never presume what H.P. Lovecraft would've thought but, considering how he idolized Poe, I wonder if he would've been flattered by their works being connected like this. [7/10]

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Once upon a time, an awesome title was all a horror movie needed to get funded. Surely one of the genre's greatest titles is “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” The film was a passion project of the Chiodo Brothers, a trio of brothers who have a long career in special effects and stop-motion work. Due to its outrageous title, which sums up its outrageous premise, the film would immediately attract a cult following. I mean, what self-respecting horror fan wouldn't seek out a movie actually called “Killer Klowns from Outer Space?” I received the film, years ago, as a gift from a cousin who always gave me quote-unquote bad movies for Christmas. The joke was on him. I think “Killer Klowns” is great!

You don't need me to provide a plot synopsis for this film. The title tells you everything you need to know. But I'll go ahead anyway: The town of Crescent Cove is about to get some unexpected visitors. Invaders from another world have landed in the forest. These invaders are clowns – or klowns, if you prefer – but they don't want to make people laugh. Instead, they are here to drink our blood. Teenage couple Mike and Debbie stumble upon the klowns' ship but no one believes them. Soon, the killer klowns are enacting their particular breed of chaos all throughout Crescent Cove.

Most movies about killer clowns are simply content to dress a homicidal lunatic up in colorful greasepaint, big shoes, and baggy pants. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” however, extends its absurd premise to its logical extreme. This is best displayed in the scene where the clowns throw acidic cream pies at a security guard. As he's melted into a slushy pile of whipped cream, a klown places a giant cherry atop the corpse. This commitment to premise is seen in every facet of the film. The klowns track victims with a balloon animal bloodhound. They travel in a spaceship shaped like a big top. (Which later reveals itself to be a literal spinning top.) They fire bloodsucking popcorn from colorful guns. They web their victims up in cotton candy. Amusingly, they suck the blood through a wacky bendy straw. Traditional clown-like antics inform everything the film's antagonists do.

Of course, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” never attempts to be a serious horror film. In fact, the movie is an affectionate parody of fifties creature features. Plot wise, it resembles “The Blob” quite a bit. The film begins with an old man uncovering the arrived aliens. Later, a group of teenagers discover the extraterrestrial threat. However, the local police refuses to believe them until its too late. Being a comedy, “Killer Klowns” exaggerate these characters. The old man is now a goofball, paling around with a basset hound named “Pooh Bear.” The town sheriff, played perfectly by John Vernon, is a massive asshole who antagonizes everyone around him. He outright ignores emergency calls after a while. (Fittingly, he gets the most gruesome death in the film.) The parody elements tend to be the movie's funniest. It's more straight-ahead comedic touches – such as a pair of perpetually horny guys who have rented an ice cream truck in a bid to pick up women – are less amusing.

Despite obviously being a ridiculous comedy, some people really are scared by “Killer Klowns.” To a genuine coulrophobe, I guess this movie would be terrifying. With their background being in special effects, the creature designs are likably grotesque. The clown's faces are wrinkled grimaces, with disturbingly wide grins and wild, spiraling eyes. Every aspect of the production design is quite good, truthfully. The circus tent space ship looks amazing, with colorfully slanting hallways. The various clown cars and laser blasters are inventively designed. Even the more elaborate special effects – such as a deadly shadow puppet show or the climatic appearance of Klownzilla – are brought to life brilliantly. The movie was only made for two million dollars but the Chiodos stretch that small budget as far as it could, creating a fantastic looking feature.

“Killer Klowns from Outer Space” has cult appeal on another level. The movie's theme song is provided by pop-punk band the Dickies. Their title track, with its demented calliope melody, perfectly suits the film. John Massari's score takes a few cues from the Dickies' song, providing a memorable electronic riff throughout the film. “Killer Klowns” is a fantastically entertaining horror parody, with awesome creature effects and an ideal sense of humor about its self. The directors have been trying to get a sequel, known as “Return of the Killer Klowns in 3D,” made for three decades. I'm doubtful that part two will ever surface and it almost doesn't need too. The original stands on its own as an awesomely goofy eighties creature feature. [8/10]

The Void (2017)

There's so much exciting talent in the indie horror scene today that it's hard to keep up. A group of filmmakers I feel like I came late to are the Astron-6 guys. Composed of five Hollywood make-up experts, the team began cranking out bizarre, comedic genre homages in 2007. The gang moved into feature films with 2011's “Man-Borg.” They've since made movies like “Father's Day,” “The Editor,” and one of the best segments in “The ABCs of Death 2.” Their work is designed to appeal to horror weirdos, full of graphic gore and oddball humor. Last year, Astron-6 decided to ditch the humor and take a stab at a serious horror movie. “The Void” was released earlier this year and, among the horror weirdos I ran with, was heavily discussed. Well, Halloween has started so it's time for me to finally watch this one.

Small town deputy, Daniel Carter, is busy recovering from the end of his marriage, after his wife, Alison, lost their child. What he thinks is going to be a quiet night changes when he spots a man crawling alongside the road. An apparent drug addict, he takes the man to the hospital where Alison works. Turns out, the man is fleeing a strange cult. Two men, Vincent and Simon, arrive at the hospital with guns and axes. They've been hunting this cult. And with good reason. The cultists are opening portals to a horrifying dimension. Strange monstrosities are slithering through into our world, mutating people into deformed creatures.

Despite being made by the same people, “The Void” ditches the Astron-6 branding. This is likely because the movie doesn't have their usual madcap sense of humor. Instead, “The Void” is a grim horror picture, concerning themes of overcoming loss. (All the major characters have lost a love one: The sheriff and his wife lost their unborn child. The redneck hunter lost his daughter. The villainous doctor's daughter died recently.) Yet the change in tone doesn't mean the filmmakers are done paying homage to their influences. “The Void” is obviously beholden to John Carpenter. The story is highly reminiscent of “Prince of Darkness.” The squirming body-horror recalls “The Thing,” the inter-dimensional monsters hearken back to “In the Mouth of Madness,” and the siege story is inspired by “Assault on Precinct 13.” Floating throughout the film are other callbacks, including “Hellraiser” and Lucio Fulci's “The Beyond.” “The Void” is clearly pitched to the same audience as Astron-6's other films.

What is likely to attract horror fans to “The Void” the most are the film's considerable practical creature effects. The monsters in the film are impressively creepy. Tentacles flop from a corpse's eye sockets. Soon, it grows into a pulsing mass of body horror, arms reaching from a massive tumor. Later, dismembered dead bodies in a basement shambles to life. These guys are fresher than zombies. They are, instead, twitching corpses kept alive by some insidious force. A pregnant woman is encircled by tentacles, pumping strange fluids from one place to the next. Later, a flayed man – there's your “Hellraiser” homage – opens a portal. A huge monster, similar to a bull but made of twisted human bodies, rampages on-screen for the climax. All of these hideous monsters are brought to life with good old fashion latex and rubber. The filmmakers know exactly how to deploy gross, gruesome, squirming monsters like this. The creature effects in “The Void” are effectively disturbing.

The film has no shortage of creepy, grotesque imagery. The hooded cultist, in white robes with black triangle shapes on their faces, are unnerving sight. As the film goes on, a tense and nervous energy overtakes the proceedings. There's a problem though. “The Void” is pretty thin gruel on the character and story side of things. The cast is large and full of unknowns. None of the characters are especially memorable. Some of them, such as the man hunting the cultists, are actively abrasive. The plot also does not progress in a straight line. The film cuts back and forth between the characters frequently, keeping the flow of the story choppy. Ultimately, you never quite care about who lives and dies. The plot feels more like a delivery system for fucked-up horror sequences than any sort of actual story.

Just as a visceral experience, “The Void” is worth seeking out. The extraordinary special effects prove that. Yet I wish the screenplay had as much meat on its bones as the Lovecraftian abominations in the film do. Still, I'm not surprised that the film was well received in the horror community. I imagine its cult following will only grow with time. However, I hope the Astron-6 crew put as much effort into their story and characters next time as they do their propensity for freaky horror sequences. [7/10]

The Cop Cam (2016)

When it comes to short horror films, less is usually more. “The Cop Cam” isn't quite three minutes long. It's plot is minimal. Told from the perspective of a police officer's body cam, it's about a cop who has to enter a dilapidated building, presumably to check on some sort of disturbance. He hears and sees some strange things before being attacked by a mostly obscured humanoid figure. Dialogue is minimal. Most of the sounds are chatter from the police scanner. No explanation is provided for what the cop encounters. That's pretty much all there is to it. Yet “The Cop Cam” is surprisingly effective.

Director Isaac Rodriguez shows a strong grasp on setting and sound design. From the moment the cop enters the building, the audience is watching every corner of the spooky house. We're left wondering if a shadow moving on the wall was something paranormal or nothing. We get fleeting glimpses of the apparition, or whatever it is, before the big confrontation. The police radio noises create an unnerving atmosphere, immediately putting the viewer at ill ease. The first-person perspective puts us in the main character's seat, making his frightening trip more visceral. (Rodriguez also, cleverly, uses the static and video distortion common to small cameras to conceal the short's few cuts.) “The Cop Cam,” like a lot of horror shorts that are popular on the internet, is simply building up to a jump scare. But it's a pretty good one. Over all, “The Cop Cam' is a very well assembled two minutes and fifteen seconds. [7/10]