Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales from the Crypt: Werewolf Concerto

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

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

Das Clown (1999)

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantasm II (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales from the Crypt: Strung Along

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

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

So Weird: Twin

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

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

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

Halloween 2014: October 18

Space Amoeba (1970)
Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû / Yog, Monster from Space

“Space Amoeba” is the end of an era. The public’s enthusiasm for giant monster movies, experienced just a few years earlier, had started to wane. By the end of the sixties and the start of a new decade, kaiju movies were widely considered kid’s stuff. “Space Amoeba” would be the last film produced under the studio’s old star system. It would be the last giant monster movie the studio made with an A-budget. It was the first of the studio’s creature features made after the death of effects master Eiji Tsuburaya. It was even meant to be Ishiro Honda’s final science fiction film, though the studio would lure him back in 1975 to direct “Terror of MechaGodzilla.” Aside from the remaining Godzilla sequels, the film was the last monster movie Toho would produce in the Showa period. The movie seems especially old fashion now and; with its plot of adventurous journalists, superstitious islanders, alien invaders, and super-sized sea creatures; was likely considered a throw-back even in 1970.

The movie begins when an unmanned space probe is sent to study Jupiter. Along the way, the ship is possessed by an amorphous alien consciousness. Under the space amoeba’s control, the probe returns to Earth, crashing in the south sea. Meanwhile, a photojournalist is talked into photographing Seigai Island for a tourist company. Along with his girlfriend, a scientist, and a businessman of questionable scruples, he is challenged by the local tribe. They are fearful the old gods might be angered by modern man’s invasion. Their prophecy seemingly comes true when giant monsters, normal sea life grown to huge size, attack the island. The creatures have been possessed by the same space amoeba that came to Earth on the probe, the first step in its planned conquest of the planet.

“Space Amoeba” is fairly derivative of Toho’s other monster flicks. The island setting recalls “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” and “Son of Godzilla.” The adventurer reporter is a hero type used in many Godzilla movies, including the aforementioned “Son.” The island natives, dancing and chanting in hopes of fending off a local deity’s offense, goes all the way back to the original “Gojira” but was also seen in “Varan,” “Mothra,” and “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Akira Ifukube’s score recycles musical cues heard in the latter most films. The islander’s song will definitely sound familiar to kaiju faithfuls. The subplot, of greedy businessmen looking to capitalize on some unspoiled land, recalls the earliest Godzilla flicks of the sixties. The cast is full of familiar faces. Akira Kubo, Atsuko Takahashi, Yukiko Kobayashi, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya all had major roles in past Godzilla movies. Looked at from this perspective, “Space Amoeba” makes it seem like the studio was starting to run out of ideas.

Yet “Space Amoeba” does offer some humble joys of it own. It’s a most unconventional of alien invasion flick. There are no flying saucers or alien leaders in funny outfits making villainous proclamation. Instead, Yog, as it was named in the American dub, is a far more insidious threat. It has no true form, only appearing as a glowing, blue mist. It slithers into organic beings, taking control of their bodies. In the shape of cuttlefish, crabs, or turtles, they grow into giants. For humans, they are controlled by ominous voices, telling humanity of its impending enslavement. The film reminds me a little bit of “The Thing.” The alien’s powers are potentially disastrous but, lucky for the human race, it fell in an isolated area. Granted, the freezing Arctic is more frightening then a tropical island…

The interesting sci-fi angle isn’t what got butts in seats. “Space Amoeba” is aware of this. The movie’s opening credits are taken up by footage of the three monsters fighting and attacking, dramatically scored and cut. The film throws three monsters at the viewer for the price of one. The goofiest, most intimidating and by far the most memorable is Gezora. A giant kisslip cuttlefish, the kaiju doesn’t act much like an invertebrate. Instead, Gezora crudely crawls around on his tentacles, walking across the island like a normal person would. The animal’s eyes were located where the suit actor’s – stalwart Toho monster man Hauro Nakajima – kneecaps would be. So Gezora’s eyes are constantly bulging out at odd angles. Despite his appearance being borderline comical, the movie still makes Gezora work. His appearance is preceded by a glowing light through the water. His tentacles reach out and grab victims, tossing them through the air. A sequence where he wrecks the native village, smashing grass huts and attacking spear-throwing natives, is one of the best in the movie. Disappointingly, the movie kills off its best monster half-way through. Gezora is burned to death by the heroes, retreating to the ocean and expiring.

The other monsters are less visually compelling and entertaining but aren’t without their charms. Ganime, a giant rubble crab, is probably the least impressive of the film. He shows up, cracks a few buildings, tumbles off a hill, and gets blown up. Without explanation, the giant crab appears again at the need. Kameba, meanwhile, is a huge mata mata turtle. Like the real animal, he can extend his neck out very far. Though the motion is somewhat mechanical, it is fun to see the turtle’s head shoot out at super-speed. After Yog is defeated by his weakness – supersonic sound, for those keeping track – the two kaiju go at each other, giving the movie it’s required giant monster fight. There’s some fun stuff here, the crab flipping the turtle over its back. The two monsters plummet into a volcano together, along with the Yog-controlled human, which makes for a fitting ending. It feels very classical.

“Space Amoeba” is not the disaster I’ve heard it is. It’s fairly minor, filled with familiar story beats. However, if you’re looking for campy monster action, it’s action-packed and lots of fun. As the last kaiju film of the sixties, kind of, it’s not the most impressive finale. Taken on its own, it’s a good time. [7/10]

Phantasm (1979)

“Phantasm” is the ultimate cult horror series. That’s a loaded statement. “Evil Dead” has had a wider reach. “Re-Animator” is more critically praised. Only “Phantasm,” however, has the winning combination of being most beloved by its fans, maintaining one man’s vision, and never loosing its low-budget, home-made weirdness. The sinister Tall Man, persistent silver orbs, and ice cream man action hero have never crossed-over much with the mainstream either, keeping “Phantasm” well within the realm of cultishly adored horror fandom.

“Phantasm” focuses on two brothers, twenty-something Jody and his little brother Mike, and their best friend Reggie, the local ice cream man. After the sudden death of a mutual friend, curious Mike begins to notice some strange things going on at the local mortuary. The graveyard is watched over by a tall, gray-haired man, silent and scowling. Bizarre hood figures creep around the bushes at night. A floating silver orb, armed with a blood-sucking drill and stabbing prongs, flies through the funeral home’s hallways. The boy has stumbled upon a terrifying secret from beyond, dragging his brother into it. Now, all three must face the wrath of the Tall Man.

There’s a lot going on inside “Phantasm” but it’s primarily an especially dark coming-of-age story. Mike is on the cusp of adulthood. His and Jody’s parents died in a car crash not that long ago and the boy is still recovering. Jody is eager to leave his small town, to see the rest of the world from the front seat of his supped-up Cuda. In one especially poignant scene, Mike runs behind his older brother, always trailing behind. Everyone Mike cares about has left him. And, soon enough, Jody will leave him too. There’s the issue of sex too. “Phantasm” begins with a young couple fucking in a cemetery, an ironic juxtaposition of eros and thanatos. After the sex is done, the man is stabbed to death by the woman. Later, Mike spies on Jody as he goes down on the same woman in the same graveyard, interrupting the two before they can finish. As befitting a boy in that age-group, sex is still a mysterious thing to Mike. He’s both intrigued and terrified. Sex represents maturity. And maturity, inevitably, leads to death.

Which raises the second, most pressing issue on “Phantasm’s” mind. Most every horror movie ever is secretly about a fear of death. “Phantasm” tackles that shit head-on. Don Coscarelli has been open about the movie being inspired by Western countries’ odd burial rituals. We give the bodies of our loved ones to strangers who take them into obscured rooms, doing who-knows-what to them. “Phantasm” plays on these anxieties directly. The Tall Man just doesn’t embalm dead bodies, he shrinks them down into hooded dwarves, slave-labor for his alien dimension. This is only the starting point for the film’s deeper discussion about death. The Tall Man is inescapable. Like Michael Myers in “Halloween,” he usually walks at a calm pace. He has no need to run. Death is going to catch up with all of us eventually. The final scene reveals that Jody has died. In the final seconds, the Tall Man appears again, dragging Mike to his death from behind a mirror. Death is unavoidable and unstoppable. And has there ever been a better symbol of the inevitably of our mortality then Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man? An imposing, towering old man, with a wisp of white hair on his head, a scowling, perpetually angry face and a booming voice. He’d rightfully become a horror icon.

Despite the heavy themes “Phantasm” tackles, the movie also has a youthful energy. Most horror movies would make a whole feature out of Mike trying to convince his brother that something strange is happening, In “Phantasm,” all Jody has to see is a twitching finger in a box full of mustard. From there on, “Phantasm” is a kooky, boy’s adventure flick. Mike sneaks into Morningside Cemetery, hides in a casket, and avoids being caught by the Tall Man. The brothers leap in Jody’s Cuda together, shooting down an evil, self-propelled car with a shotgun. When Jody locks his little brother in his bedroom, hoping to protect him, Mike straps a bullet to a hammer, cracking the door open with a tiny explosive. There’s lots of stuff like that in “Phantasm,” two guys getting into a crazy adventure and surviving just by the skin of their teeth, through pure ingenuity. That there’s no major female characters in the movie is relevant too. This isn’t “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th,” that follow a panicked, screaming girl. “Phantasm” is more macho then that, showing normal dudes getting in deep shit. Big guns, fast cars, male bonding, and scary monsters.

Yet when it’s scary, it’s frequently terrifying. Mike being pursued by the hooded dwarves is effectively creepy, playing on common fears of unseen things lurking outside. The first appearance of the sentinel orb has gone down in horror history as a classic moment. Because, of course, it’s awesome. The orb is such a novel creation that I’m surprised Coscarelli thought of it first. When the sphere slams into the random caretaker’s head, drilling his face, blood pouring out the opposite end, no one saw that coming in 1979. Two of the few female characters being abducted out of their cars on a foggy night are quite spooky. The final minutes of the film really pump up the suspense. Mike runs from the Tall Man, being doggedly pursued by the implacable man, the ominous theme music playing throughout. Images appear out of the night, attempting to frighten Mike into submission. The Lavender Lady stands behind some branches, wielding her knife. Tomb stones rise from the ground, foreshadowing everyone’s fate. And the Tall Man is never far behind. The loose plot runs on dream logic, creating the tone of a nightmare. This is most clear during two nightmare sequences. Mike awakes in his bed, in a graveyard, the Tall Man looming over him. Jody wakes up in the mortuary, the Tall Man slowly approaching down the hallway, his footsteps echoing. Eerie stuff.

The movie’s low budget creativity shines through constantly. Reggie Bannister is an ice cream man who winds up hulling a dead body in his truck. The gate to the Tall Man’s world is like a tuning fork, which Reggie picks up on. After calming the gate, the house disappears into a blur of color. The film is powered by Coscarelli’s limitless imagination, which usually works in its favor. I still don’t know about the weird, monster bug that grows out of the Tall Man’s fingers. It’s definitely the least convincing special effect in the film. The script was conceived in a short, burst of creativity which accounts for the film’s far-out ideas but also its sometimes slapdash plot progression. The perils of low budget film making are most obvious in the sometimes ropey acting. Bill Thornbury, especially, is frequently flat. Most everyone’s line-reading can be dull from time to time.

There are flaws but I’ve always been annoyed when people say “Phantasm” is campy or funny. Maybe it is at times but the film is so effective as a horror film and is such a pure blast of creativity. The film was destined to become a cult classic and lead a number of sequels. [9/10]

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

For a while there, I was making a yearly habit of seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at our local Apollo Theater around Halloween time. However, I found my interest in the show waning a bit in 2012 and began to wonder if this was a trip worth taking every October. JD and I skipped “Rocky” last year but this year, I decided to give it another shot. It helped that a whole crowd of friends was coming along with us, many of them doing this for their first time. As someone who has seen the movie many times, newcomers being humiliated on-screen and reacting to the stage show is more entertaining then the film.

The shadow cast provides a level of unpredictability that makes the midnight screenings worth attending. This year’s was a mixed bag. The Janet this year was fantastic, tossing her blonde wig off during the floor show. I think the Rocky was the same performer we saw back in 2012 and just as enthusiastic. The Frank, meanwhile, was overly hammy, doing a lot of distracting dance moves. JD said he was trying to “out-Curry Tim Curry” which is, of course, impossible. Many of the other shadow cast members clearly did not know their lines, glancing back at the screen repeatedly. Yet, overall, they did a decent job. The crowd was into it, with far more people dressing up then in previous years. A chorus of die-hard fans sat at the front of the theater, having clearly memorized all the call-back lines, including many I had never heard before. At one point, my row was covered with toilet paper, rice, and toast crumbs. My energy didn’t flag like in year’s past, my spirits staying high with lots of singing and dancing. It helped that my companions were clearly having a good time. I had a good contact high going by the time the movie let out.

Where do these crowds come from? It’s a common misconception among the general public that it is and that the crowds gather every October to mock the movie. People in the crowd do mock the movie, that’s for sure, but that’s not why they show up multiple times a year. Hardcore followers connect to something inside “Rocky Horror.” It’s been said that misfits and outsiders are attracted to the movie’s camp frankness. The film itself seems split on this issue. The wanton debauchery of Frank and the Transylvanians is celebrated. Yet it’s also punished, as most everyone except the squares end up dead by the end. Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott are clearly left exhausted and diminished by their encounter, their innocent world shattered apart. This loss of innocence isn’t a good thing either. Despite being a landmark example of queer cinema, “Rocky Horror” doesn’t seem to have a very good opinion of actually accepting one’s sexuality.

And then there’s the issue of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the film’s villain/primary protagonist. The crowd loves Frank and that devotion immediately made Tim Curry a cult superstar. Yet Frank is not a good person. He casually murders Eddie. He manipulates everyone around him, forcing others to his whim without considering them at all. He clearly doesn’t care about other people. After a whole movie of abusing, killing, and screwing with everyone around him, he sings a song about how misunderstood he is. He’s such a textbook narcissistic sociopath that the only person who can clearly please him is an artificial man made just to do that. Maybe this is something that bothers “Rocky Horror” detractors yet it’s not really too different from the way slasher fans idolize Freddy or Jason. Frank is charismatic and gets some of the movie’s best song. The image of an omni-sexual Tim Curry strutting in lingerie has become the film’s iconic image for a reason. Despite this, the movie comes down pretty hard on Frank. He’s misunderstood, maybe, but he’s a misunderstood asshole and gets the death scene he deserves. The film can’t quite nail the tragic story arc it’s aiming for, even with Curry giving it all.

That doesn’t answer the question of whether or not “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a bad movie. The script is pretty shaky, especially the middle act where people are wandering around the mansion, having random encounters. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about the film. The production design is impressive, the set inside Frank’s manor being beautifully realized. Many of the cast members are perfect. You can’t take your eyes off Tim Curry, who dominates the entire film. Richard O’Brian, Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell had all played their characters on stage and inhabit their roles here. Barry Boswick is the movie’s secret weapon, as the film’s humor wouldn’t work at without his dead-pan delivery. Susan Sarandon, too, is committed to the movie’s camp style. The same can be said of Charles Gray or Jonathan Adams. Even Peter Hinwood, whose performance is utterly flat, is actually perfect for the part of clueless, inhuman Rocky. The soundtrack is awesome too. “The Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite” are obviously classics but I think I prefer the nostalgic “Midnight Double Feature,” the subtle meloncholey of “There’s a Light,” or the surf-rock doo-wop of “Eddie’s Teddy.” To call “Rocky Horror” bad is to mistake its intentional aesthetic for incompetence. No film this calculated in its intentions was made without skill.

I came away from 2014’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience with a renewed appreciation for the film. I know it’s not for everybody and I know a lot of people hate it. That’s fine. The movie can be off-putting to those not on its wavelength. A pop culture phenomenon like this doesn’t last for forty years without having some value. It’s the prime cult classic of the modern age and, when experienced while in the proper mood, can be a pretty good time. [8/10]

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 17

King Kong Escapes (1967)

It’s a popular anecdote that, when “King Kong vs. Godzilla” came out, Kong was the more popular monster. I have no idea if that was still true by 1967 but I suspect it wasn’t. By that point, Godzilla was on his eighth film. This was only Kong’s fourth or so. The reason Toho waited five years to capitalize on that picture’s success probably has to do with legal issues. When a new solo Kong adventure rolled out, it wasn’t a sequel to “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Instead, “King Kong Escapes” is a loose adaptation of the forgotten Rankin/Bass cartoon series that was airing around the same time.

Like nearly every Kong movie, the film begins with people arriving on an island. This time, it’s a group of U.N.-sanctioned explorers looking for oil. The soldiers don’t find oil on Mondo Island. Instead, they find Kong. Meanwhile, a mad scientist named Dr. Who has built a robotic Kong to dig up plutonium in the Arctic. When Mechani-Kong breaks down, Dr. Who’s dragon lady financier demands he track down the real thing to continue the digging. The three heroes are dragged along. It’s not long before Kong and his mechanical double are battling in the middle of Tokyo.

That “King Kong Escapes” was adapted from a cartoon is not surprising. The plot is incredibly childish. Turns out, flesh and blood gorillas are better at digging up plutonium then robotic ones. I question the logic of this conclusion. Dr. Who, at first, intends to capture Susan because Kong listens to her. Not long after that, he reveals a device that can hypnotize Kong. So why did he capture the woman and her comrades? Dr. Who’s exploits are financed by the mysterious Madame X, presumably so he’ll make nuclear weapons for her unnamed country. (I think she’s supposed to be from one of the Koreas. You know, the communist one.) Before the end, Madame X withdraws her support. Dr. Who continues to pursue Kong anyway even though he has no reason to. How goofy is the movie? A giant gorilla immediately recognizing his robot copy is the least absurd element.

Usually, the monster action redeems films of this sort. “King Kong Escapes” starts strong but eventually disappoints. Not long after walking onto the island, Susan is menaced by Gorosaurus. Awoken by an attractive blonde’s screams, Kong leaps into action. The fight with Gorosaurus is a blast, the dinosaur drop-kicking Kong through the jungle, the ape bounding around. Befitting the big ape, he splits the dinosaur’s jaw open. The action continues as Kong fights off a sea serpent, once again saving Susan. Kong immediately falling for the girl is one thing. The ape taking orders from her after only a minute strains believability, even for a movie like this.

Unfortunately, the kaiju wrasslin’ takes a back seat during the middle section. Kong is captured by Who, makes one failed mining attempt, and spends too much time locked up. The focus shifts to the villain and the heroes. Dr. Who is a straight-up supervillain, even wearing a cape. His underground lair and army of identically uniformed henchmen recalls a Bond villain. The whole movie has heavy Bond elements. Susan and Jiro are placed in a death trap, a quickly freezing room. Madame X attempts to seduce Carl with fancy clothes and fine wine. It doesn’t work, the hero instead turning the she-devil good. Since this is a kid’s flick, he doesn’t fuck goodness into her like Bond would. A simple kiss suffices. The movie openly invites the Bond connection since Mie Hama previously co-starred in “You Only Live Twice” just earlier that year.

As the title promises, King Kong eventually escapes Dr. Who’s clutches. Instead of delivering a rocking finale, the movie lurches into a weak last act. Kong swims to Tokyo, Mechani-Kong not far behind. Instead of crushing some JSDF tanks, Kong steps back, blinded by the bright lights. Bright lights turn out to be Kong’s weakness. Mechani-Kong continually blinds the beast with headlights, a lame Achilles' heel for sure. Fulfilling Kong movie expectations, the gorillas scale a tall structure - Tokyo Tower this time - a beautiful woman in hand. The main reason the finale disappoints is because Kong doesn’t dispatch his double. Instead, Madame X wrecks Dr. Who’s control room, Mechani-Kong plummeting from the tower to his doom.

In the final minutes, Who flees Japan, still determined to capture the big monkey. Upon catching up with Who, Kong, if you’ll excuse the pun, goes ape-shit. The great gorilla crushes the villain’s boat, tearing the propeller off, smashing the smoke stacks with it. After Kong has been an unabashed good guy throughout most of the run time, it’s surprising to see him cut loose in such a violent manner. It is also, not coincidentally, the most satisfying action in the film.

Eisei Amamoto hams it up as Dr. Who. In the American version, the only commercially available version, he’s dubbed by Paul Frees, using the exact same voice he used as the Burgermeister. Mie Hama has fun playing the villainous seductress. Unfortunately, Akira Takarada isn’t given much to do and leading man Rhodes Reason is a bore. Despite speaking English, Linda Miller was shrilly dubbed by Julie Bennett. You will get tired of hearing her shout “Kong!” Akira Ifukube contributes a beautiful score, its sweeping romantic themes at odds with the goofy shit happening on-screen. “King Kong Escapes” is a middling affair, one of Toho’s least endearing kaiju flicks. [5/10]

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Stephen King’s books are very successful. Movies based on Stephen King’s books have been, in general, successful. Movies Stephen King have had a direct hand in creating, meanwhile, have resulted in “Maximum Overdrive,” the crappy version of “The Shining” nobody cares about, and “Sleepwalkers.” “Sleepwalkers” has the sort of premise you’d expect from King’s cocaine years but was, amazingly, made in the early nineties, after he kicked the habit. It was also directed by Mick Garris, a man who has made many not-that-great movies out of Stephen King’s books and stories. I guess what I’m saying is, going into this one, I kept my expectations low.

“Sleepwalkers” begins with some made-up bullshit about sleepwalkers, cat-like monsters and precursors to vampires, that feed on the souls of virgins and are also, oddly, frightened of cats. The film follows what might be the last two sleepwalkers in existence. Charles and Mary Brady are an incestuous mother/son duo who are always on the run, fleeing from town to town after claiming another victim. After settling into a small Indiana town, Charles has his eye on Tanya, a virginal girl he goes to school with. When his mother’s appetite for souls grows stronger, Charlie has to pursue the girl more viciously.

The only thing “Sleepwalkers” really has going for it is its monsters. There aren’t many were-cats in fiction in general and even fewer on screen. Instead of pulling its titular creatures from some mythology somewhere, it makes up its own damn monsters. The Sleepwalkers are shape-shifter, able to assume human form. They have a number of powers beyond a human’s ability. In addition to the typical super strength, they can cast illusions, making themselves invisible or changing the appearances of things. However, there are faults in their powers. Mirrors show their true faces.  Despite being cat-people themselves, the only thing that can seemingly kill a sleepwalker are the claws of a cat. Apparently, a cat’s scratch causes their skin to burst into flames. Cats instinctively pick up on their monstrous qualities. Every home Charles and Mary travel too always has a fleet of pussycats waiting outside. In addition to all of this, the sleepwalkers are pretty cool looking monsters too. The effects are a bit rubbery, the faces’ inexpressive. However, the designs pick up on the eerie qualities of cats. The eyes are black and beady, the ears are back, and the skin is pale and filled with wrinkles.

“Sleepwalkers” is most valuable as a trashy horror movie. And, oh man, is it trashy. This is a film that opens with a cat leaping out from behind a closed door. The focus on the Brady’s incestuous relationship is strictly sensationalist, with close-ups on their flicking tongues and sweaty, entwined bodies. The gore in the movie is explosive and comes often. Glen Shaddix gets his hand torn off, blood splattering on the inside of a windshield. A ridiculous car chase follows, the fleeing Charles pursued by Dan Martin’s Andy. Andy is a black deputy who carries his cat everywhere, plays games with him while on the road, and makes up vulgar, nonsense songs. (That last one is a very King-esque touch.) The film seems obsessed with using non-traditional objects as stabbing weapons. A pencil is stabbed in an ear, heads are bashed with a camera and a flower vase, a man is impaled on fence rows and, most infamously, someone is killed with a corn cob. When Charles turns into a cat person in front of Tanya, he starts spouting cheesy one-liners. The best scene in the movie comes when Mary takes the fight to Tanya’s parents, decimating a fleet of cops, tearing Ron Perlman’s arm off. The violence is so excessive that I wonder if King didn’t write the movie as a parody of trashy eighties splatter flicks.

Most of the performances are keeping in this tone. Brian Krause is broad and ugly as Charles, really overdoing it in several key moments. Madchen Amick is a screaming damsel in distress, doing little to distinguish the part. Most of the cops are goofy too, like Jim Haynie, Ron Perlman, or the aforementioned Dan Martin. Glenn Shadix hams it up as the English professor who exists just to pad the body count and whose disappearance is never brought up. As he usually does, Mick Garris fills out the bit parts with cameos from other horror directors. This film’s lot includes John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and King himself in a very showy part. Sandwiched between all this ridiculousness is Alice Krige as Mary. Krige’s performance is one hundred percent sincere. She invests the part with a pure power and a steely beauty. She is determined and passionate yet also vulnerable, tearing up over her son’s fate. It’s the sort of part Krige usually plays, a villainous and sexual older woman, and she’s excellent each time. Her acting deserves a better movie.

The score is loud and abrasive but, before the end credits roll, Garris turns his camera towards an army of cats fleeing a burning yard while Enya’s haunting “Boadicea” plays on the soundtrack. If “Sleepwalkers” had a hundred more images like that, it would’ve been a classic. As it is, the movie can’t quite rise to the level of gory guilty pleasure. It’s a bit too minor and dumb even for that. Imagine what a young Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi could have done with corn murder and cat people. In the hands of Mick Garris, it’s goofy and forgettable. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Split Personality

Sometimes, the perfect actor comes across the perfect material for him. Has any one person been better suited to the vulgarian charms of “Tales from the Crypt” then proud vulgarian Joe Pesci? And he got a good script too, from reliable monster kid scribe Fred Dekker. In “Split Personality,” Jack, a gambler and con artist with a fetish for the number two, comes across his version of heaven: A pair of single, hot twins with a massive fortune to split. Despite Pesci playing a typical Pesci character – a slimy, sleazy schemer – the girls take a liking to him. While in the bed of a Las Vegas hooker, Jack hits upon the perfect con. He’ll pretend to have a twin himself, cooking up a bullshit story about how the two are never in the country at the same time, and seduce and marry both girls. His millions are seemingly secure until the twins stumble upon the truth.

Like I said, Pesci is perfectly suited to this material. In the cartoon world of “Tales,” the actor can be as big, bold, brash, and foul-mouthed as he wants. He rips into it, playing the ultimate scumbag and sleazy double-dealer. I like the way Jack thinks on his feet, immediately pulling knowledge of architecture out of his ass when he realizes the twins are the daughters of a famous architect. Pesci being an actor of limited range, he doesn’t stretch himself much to play his “fake” twin. In any other show, the audience would never buy anyone could believe his con. It flies in the “Crypt” though. Jacquline and Kirsten Citron play the twins. Both are beautiful and always talk with a slinky, sex kitten purr. When the twins, inevitably, turn homicidal, that purr becomes creepy. “Split Personality’ is also notable as the sole directorial credit of mega-producer Joel Silver. Silver’s work is competent and non-intrusive. The episode makes good use of color and close-ups. The final image is classic “Crypt” and looks like it was pulled straight from the comic page. There have been better “Tales” but “Split Personality” might be one of the most satisfying. [8/10]

So Weird: Transplant

“So Weird” did a good thing in bringing back Mackenzie Gray as John Kane, last seen in “Strange Geometry.” The hard living Kane has recently undergone a full-blown heart transplant. The tour bus stops by his house in hopes of talking him into playing on Molly’s new album. He refuses and, quickly, Fiona notices that John’s personality has completely altered. He’s lost all interest in music and is acting erratic. Fi soon discovers that he’s developed a passionate interest in aliens and UFOs. A more shocking discovery comes when Fi finds that Kane is cobbling together a device to communicate with extraterrestrials, the same aliens that have some connection to his new heart.

Gray’s role in “Strange Geometry” was brief but he made an impression. The show cooked up a juicy part for the veteran television and voice actor in this one. Gray gets to play nervous, frantic, excited, frightened, and stressed out. It’s a fully formed performance and plays to the actor’s strengths. Gray’s performance is the key to “Transplant,” another “So Weird” episode that grounds its far-out by making the concepts personal to its characters. Kane hasn’t just developed an obsession with aliens, he’s lost the ability to make music. It’s like his entire personality has shifted. The episode is ultimately less about connecting with UFOs and more about learning to survive a huge change in your life. The ending cements this. It’s not a big flashy effects sequence. Instead, John finds the wife of the man who gave him his new heart, realizing the connection and coming to grips with it. It’s nice to see Jack and Fi working together, instead of against other, for once. “Transplant” is not mind-blowing but is devoted to a great guest performance and features the strong writing and acting that characterized “So Weird.” [7/10]

Friday, October 17, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 16

Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967)
Daikyojû Gappa / Monster from a Prehistoric Planet

As 1967 rolled on, like a giant monster lumbering through a city, so did the Kaiju Boom. A month after Shochiku unleashed Guilala on the world, another major Japanese studio tried their hand at this giant monster thing. Nikkatsu Corporation has the distinction of being Japan’s oldest film studio. By 1967, the studio was beginning to fall on hard times and, only a few years later, would specialized in softcore pornography. “Gappa the Triphibian Monster” was not only their somewhat-late-in-the-game attempt to ride the wave of interest in the kaiju genre. It was also an attempt to create an international hit. The company wanted to make a film that would play well overseas and, supposedly, the only Japanese films American distributors were interested in were giant monster flicks. Thus, “Gappa” was hatched.

“Gappa’s” plot is boldly derivative of other giant monster movies, curbing generously from “Gorgo” and “King Kong,” with a pinch of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” thrown in as well. The plot concerns an amusement park, the some-what naively named Playmate Land, sending a team of explorers to an unexplored South Seas island, in hopes of collecting rare animals. What the explorers find there is a fearful native tribe who worship a being called Gappa. Crawling though a cave under a volcano, the scientists discover an egg, out of which hatches a funny creature. The monster is taken back home and studied. Turns out the baby Gappa wasn’t alone. Its kidnapping enrages the monster’s parents, a giant-sized mother and father, who fly to Japan and wreck havoc on the cities of man. Despite scientists’ warnings, the greedy amusement park owner refuses to return the baby, leading to yet more destruction.

“Gappa” is so flagrantly derivative that many sources claim the film is an intentional parody of the genre. However, there’s little evidence in the movie itself to suggest this. The native islanders are so stereotypical that it pushes towards parody. When the Gappa couple first surface in Tokyo, the mother is carrying an octopus in its beak, which is a cute touch. However, the rest of “Gappa” is played totally straight. The characters are a generic lot. The heroes of the film are bland explorer type Hiroshi, even blander scientist Dr. Tonooka, and female journalist Itoko. A completely routine love triangle forms between the three, which is gratuitously inserted into one scene on a beach. Also included is a little kid that bonds with the monster. “Gappa” was released the same year as “Gamera vs. Gyaos,” the first in that series to turn Gamera into a Friend to All Children, so it’s unlikely that was an influence. Instead, the relationship between native kid Saki and the baby Gappa is straight out of “Gorgo.” The monster and the kid even wave to each other, as in that film.

The long scenes set on the boat before everyone arrives on the island drag. The scenes of the explorers interacting with the island natives also drag. Itoko is an especially problematic character. While in the Gappa’s cave, Hiroshi tells her she’s better suited to stay at home and raise babies. By the end of the film, she comes around to agree with him! Family is an awkward theme throughout the entire film. The villain of the film, the greedy Mr. Funazu, has a precocious daughter. Some time ago, her mother passed away and the little girl is eager to find another. In the final scene, watching the parent Gappas being reunited with their baby, moves the father to take his daughter’s hand, symbolizing their bond as a family being renewed. It’s an interesting theme to base a giant monster movie around but handed in a clumsy, and especially un-P.C., manner.

The special effects in “Gappa” are serviceable but not spectacular. The Gappa design is interesting mostly because it’s blatantly avian when most kaijus are reptilian in nature. The bird-like head is cool, especially the crown of horns growing out of the back. However, the bodies are rubbery, the wings are very rubbery, and the monsters move slowly and clumsily. The baby Gappa has forward-facing eyes, presumably to make it more expressive and “cuter,” which honestly makes it creepier. I’ve watched so many Japanese monster movies this season that the scenes of city destruction are starting to blend together. The collateral damage is uninspired. Some tanks get melt, a bridge gets knocked over, and Atami Castle gets crushed once again.

There are a few striking moments in “Gappa the Triphiban Monster.” The only energetic monster mayhem is when the two Gappas battle a fleet of jets, exploding the planes with their blue breath weapons. That scene is shot at askew angles. Rare moments stand out, like the Gappas flying in front of Mt. Fuji, emerging from a mountain, or teaching their child to fly at the airport. The Gappa family reunion is set to a sappy love song which winds up being weirdly affecting.

Like many of the Gamera films at the time, “Gappa” was released in America direct-to-television by AIP. It was originally aired under the inaccurate title of “Monster from a Prehistoric Planet.” This cut, like many of AIP’s dubs, has lapsed into the public domain. So the film is frequently found on cheap public domain sets. The DVD I have is from Tokyo Shock, a legit distributor of Japanese films. The DVD does include both the dub and the sub, and some rudimentary linear notes, but otherwise is not an impressive set. The picture quality has a fine film of greasy, waxiness to it, making some scenes dark and hard to follow. Oh well. It’s unlikely a good release of “Gappa” is ever forthcoming. And I’m not sure the film deserves it, as it’s about as generic as a kaiju flick can get. [5/10]

Troll 2 (1990)

For years, I was aware of the fact that a movie called “Troll 2” existed. Nearly every video store I frequented as a kid had a copy. I never gave it much thought. I wasn’t aware of the movie’s legendary status as a well spring of unintentional hilariousness. Even the review isn’t that passionate. I think the first time I heard it referenced as one of the worst ever was the notorious Something Awful review. Maybe that’s how it was with other people too. Some time after that was when people first started talking about “Troll 2.” Normally, when I watched a movie with a reputation like this one, I try and find something to defend about it. There’s no need to do that with “Troll 2.” It truly is as bizarre and hilarious as you’ve heard.

The focus is on the Waits family, especially youngest son Joshua, who is still visiting his Grandpa. Grandpa has been dead for six months. Joshua receives a stern warning from his Grandpa about goblins, evil creatures that turn people into vegetables and then eat them. The next day, the family heads to the small town of Nilbog, where they trade places with a rural family there. Immediately, Joshua realizes something is amiss in Nilbog, that the town is completely inhabited by goblins. It takes a while for his family to catch on but, soon, all of them are on the run from the nasty creatures.

I’m not going to regurgitate the often-mentioned fact about how “Troll 2” doesn’t feature any trolls. Or how Nilbog is, obviously, “goblin” spelled backwards. “Troll 2” is another entry in the long, Italian tradition of unofficial knock-off sequels. I’m not going to question that. What, I think, makes the film so notorious is its inexplicable acting and unbelievable dialogue. Every performance in the film is stilted, off-note, and deeply miscalculated. Michael Stephenson huffs and puffs every line, his face red and sweaty. George Hardy tries to disguise an odd accent while stumbling over the terrible lines he’s been given. Margo Perry is somnambulist as the mom. Connie Young is simultaneously wooden and thin, coughing her way through her dialogue. Yet Deborah Reed, as the film’s incredibly named villain Creedence Leonore Gielgud, gives a performance so broad, exaggerated, and cartoonish that it overshadows every off-beat note of terrible acting in the film. Even the bit players, like the town sheriff or the owner of the local shop, are acting on an entirely different level, somewhere far away from what could be called aesthetically “good.” How can you blame them, when the dialogue is unlike anything any person who has ever lived in the entire universe has spoken? There’s no point in quoting it because you’ve already heard it and also the written word can’t do it justice.

The most strikingly weird thing about this incredibly weird movie is its anti-vegetarian bias. I’ve known a few vegetarians in my life time and all are non-intrusive, normal people. Meanwhile, in “Troll 2,” vegetarians are portrayed as the most vile, despicable creatures to ever live. They literally force their dietary philosophy down others’ throat. There is no meat or animal-derived products anywhere in Nilbog. Instead, they apparently subsist solely on a weird, green slime, spread on everything. Hilariously, the film completely misunderstands what vegetarianism is. The goblins kill people, transforming humans into green, vegetable slurry and devouring it. Did the makers of the film understand that most vegetarians don’t eat meat because they don’t want to kill something? Improbable.

The film is filled with other bizarre eccentricities. Despite being a ghost, Grandpa Seth interacts quite freely with the other characters in the film. He chops a goblin’s hand off with an axe and sets another person on fire by calling down lightening from the heavens. When the goblins are defeated, by the family pressing their powers of goodness into the stone where they draw their power, they vomit green slime. There’s the bizarre subplot about the daughter’s boyfriend, who has a borderline homoerotic relationship with his best friends. Weirdly, he has to choose between his girl and his boys. Whether her family accepts him is depended solely upon him abandoning his buddies. For all the weird shit happening on-screen, the popcorn seduction scene tops it all. Creedence Leonore Gielgud sports an unflattering old librarian get-up throughout most of the film. Until she drops it, remaking herself as a scantily-clad sex symbol. She then seduces one of the male friends with a corn cob, the corn exploding into popcorn from their shared cobbing. Utterly unfathomable.

There are other ways in which this production is deficient. All the goblins are played by short actors, and sometimes normal-sized actors, in burlap sacks with the same three or four cheap Halloween masks on. The script is loosely constructed, to say the least, with a collection of characters wandering around, encountering the monsters. I actually sort of like the main synth theme, which is quite energetic. The film does repeat it several times though. The editing is usually sudden and jarring. Aside from the baffling acting and writing, the film is at least competently directed. You can always see and understand what’s going on, no matter how strange it is.

If “Troll 2” truly was the worst movie ever made, nobody would want to watch it. “Manos: Hands of Fate” has a similar reputation and that thing is impossible to sit through. “Troll 2,” meanwhile, it’s fairly easy to watch, endlessly quotable, and fascinating in its curiousness. The cult of “Troll 2” proves that incompetently made is not synonymous with a lack of entertainment value. Quality-wise, the movie is probably around a [4/10.] Entertainment-wise, the movie is probably around a [7/10.]

Best Worst Movie (2009)

Anyone who watches “Troll 2” will be repeatedly asking themselves, “How the hell did this get made?” What thought process went into putting these images on-screen? Writing that dialogue and having people say it in front of cameras? Was the movie even meant to be a horror film? All these questions demand answers. So a documentary about the making of “Troll 2” is a worthy proposition. “Best Worst Movie,” that movie, was directed by Michael Stephenson, the star of “Troll 2,” someone who obviously experienced these decisions up-front.

“Best Worst Movie” picks up twenty years after “Troll 2” was unleashed on the world, coming during the peak of the film’s cult fascination. It primarily focuses on George Hardy, who played the dad in the movie and now has a successful career as a dentist in his home town in Alabama. Most of the time, he lives a normal life, spending time with his daughter or doing things for the community. Sometimes, though, he’s invented to revival screenings of “Troll 2,” where he’s overwhelmed by the love people have for the one movie he ever starred in. “Best Worst Movie” tracks down most everyone else who was involved in “Troll 2,” seeing what they’ve been up to and how the movie’s reputation has affected their lives.

At least, that’s what “Best Worst Movie” is about some of the time. A large portion of the film, and most of the early scenes, focus on the cult following of “Troll 2.” It talks to people assembling parties based around the film, where folks watch it and yell their favorite lines. It travels to revival screenings, where the lines stretch around the block. It talks to the mega-fans that assemble those screenings and their love for the movie. It even tracks down people who create home-made “Troll 2” masks or make “Troll 2”-themed YouTube video. It’s not impossible to make a good documentary about fandom. However, having endless scenes of people talk about how much they like a movie can be tiring. By the time “Best Worst Movie” gets to the biggest “Troll 2” fan in Austria, you really have to wonder why you’re watching this.

“Best Worst Movie” is much more interesting when it focuses on George Hardy. Hardy has a lot of folksy charisma. It’s not surprising that the guy appears so beloved in his home town. He clearly loves interacting with people. The film’s best moments come from tracking the ups and downs of Hardy’s relationship with his sole, notorious role. At many of the revival screenings, George is happy to perform his most famous line and enthusiastically interacts with fans. He happily goes with Stephenson as they track down the other cast members. However, where fandom and reality intervene produces the most joyously awkward moments. When his small town is having a screening of “Troll 2,” George seemingly spends a whole day talking everyone around him into seeing it. The townsfolks’ reactions vary from bemusement to barely-veiled intolerance. After being treated like a rock star at revival screenings, George and Michael head to a memorabilia convention in the U.K. There, nobody has heard of “Troll 2.” They stand at their booth all day, alone, unsuccessfully trying to catch the attention of passer-bys. A Q&A panel attracts four or five uninterested patrons. The “Troll 2” guys also attend a hardcore horror convention. Watching George’s patience for the horror fandom slowly eroded over the course of a day is amusing, especially to someone like me who has been to a few. By the end of the day, he’s disgusted. (Naturally, the film only focuses on the people in elaborate cosplays or those with crazy punk-rock hairdos, not the fans in jeans and t-shirts.) By the end of the film, George returns to his normal life, working with patients or making protein drinks in the morning. He admits to being burned out on “Troll 2” but also admits he’d return for a sequel. Clearly, he’s come to terms with his alter-ego as the dad who yells about pissing on hospitality.

The film also tracks down other people who survived “Troll 2.” This produces some of the most interesting results. A visit to the home of Margo Prey, who played the mom, stretches on forever, much to the anger of her extremely frail mother. The film’s director, Claudio Fragasso, is extremely entertaining. He doesn’t agree with the general consensus that he made a bad movie. He stands by “Troll 2” to this day and doesn’t have time for anyone who would disparage it. At a Q&A with the actors from the film, he yells at them from the audience, telling them they remembered things wrong. He gives the impression of someone who is extremely difficult to work with but committed fully to his art, no matter how ill conceived it might be. Claudio’s attitude is he’s made over twenty movies and as recently as 2012. He’s living the dream and no one gets to tell him otherwise. That’s hard to argue with. By interviewing the bit-players and major stars of “Troll 2,” we get a good impression of what an odd production it must have been. Actors talk about being unable to change dialogue, about working with an Italian-speaking crew that didn’t speak any English, or the thrown-together costumes and production design. I honestly wish more of the movie was like that.

So “Best Worst Movie” is a movie torn in two. When focusing on the bizarre characters that made this bizarre movie, it’s fascinating. When providing brief behind-the-scenes nuggets, it’s even more-so. When attention turns to the super-fans and conventions, it seriously drags. Perhaps the story behind “Troll 2” would have better told as an hour-long DVD special feature, instead of a feature length doc. Either way, I wish Michael Stephenson luck in his career as a director. I really want to see “Destroy,” a movie he’s been trying to make for a while about a serial killer who thinks he’s a vampire slayer. That sounds cool. [6/10]