Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 11

The War Game (1965)
A different kind of horror movie. Though the threat of Cold War nuclear annihilation is a fear mostly belonging to the previous generation, growing up as a teenager in the post-9/11 world certainly created its own paranoia that my normal, simple life could be vastly disrupted and destroyed any minute now by international forces beyond my control. As a kid I was obsessed with the end of the world and nuclear war anyway, mostly because of my Dad showing me “The Day After” at far too young an age.

Anyway, “The War Game” did it first. (And better.) The story behind the film, how it was created for the BBC but ultimately banned from television and then went on to somehow win the Best Documentary Oscar that year, despite being a film composed entirely of dramatic reenactments of hypothetical scenarios (In other words, completely fictional), is well-known.

Though the movie threatens to go over into camp in a few scenes, such as the flaming living room sequence, the sterile, withdrawn documentary style and impassionate narration keeps the film grounded. What’s really interesting here is once the film moves on from the initial bomb strike to the aftermath. The majority of films about this subject seem to focus on small groups surviving in the desolation, or society immediately breaking down into tribes of crazed cannibals. Here the break-down of society works much slower. The government and police force continue to exist, even in the face of the dead, the severely burnt, the insane, and eventual food riots. The sights of whole crowds of people burnt char black or cops terminating the suffering and dragging the dead to piles, are quite harrowing. The movie is disquieting, especially since it doesn’t even pretend to suggest that any sort of happy ending is possible. (I wonder if this film influenced the nihilistic sci-fi of the seventies.) While I usually don’t believe in altering films after the fact, a newly added postscript briefly discussing how there’s even more nuclear weapons in the world now and how, even though nobody talks about it much, a disaster as displayed in this film is still very much possible, would be an appropriate addition. This is the first Peter Watkins film I’ve seen. He seems to be a pretty interesting filmmaker. “Punishment Park” is now on my list of stuff to see. (8/10)

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)
Many classic horror fans love the sci-fi/horror creature feature/giant bug movies from the 1950s. (Probably due to nostalgia, since these types of movies use to be the bread and butter of Friday night monster shows. You know, back when those existed.) While I certainly don’t dislike the subgenre (And I love a few of the individual films), it’s never resonated with me as strongly. The heroes of these films are often military men or scientists (unless it’s one of the movies were the scientist are tampering in God’s domain.) or other similar voices of authority. Compared to the monsters, victims, and mad scientists of the 1930/40s Golden Age, I can’t really relate as much. That’s my main problem with “The Monster That Challenged the World.” Not only are its heroes all stationed on a military base, its main character is a boring hard-ass middle age guy.

The most interesting characters in the film are the least featured: The mother who has to deal with her rebellious daughter and then the death of said daughter, the highly eccentric bookkeeper, or the morgue attendant who keeps sandwiches in the cold lockers. The title monsters are also giant killer sea mollusks. While the creature effects are honestly quite good, it’s hard to get over the fact that we’re essentially fighting slugs here. The monster(s) don’t exactly challenge the world either, though I suppose “The Monsters That Challenged the Salton Sea and its General Surrounding Areas” isn’t as catchy a title.

An egg containing one of the monsters is captured early on and kept in the laboratory, waiting for the last act when it can be revived and menace an isolated woman. This is forgivable, the kind of genre conventions one comes to accept. However, one of the characters being directly responsible for releasing the monster (In this case, a little girl wanting to warm up some bunny rabbits) is less forgivable. The movie is pretty fast-paced and never drags, even if the monsters aren’t actually on-screen much. But I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one. (5/10)

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
Fate was clearly conspiring to get me to watch this movie. Two separate people mentioned Cassandra Peterson’s trademark character to me within 24 hours of each other and, look at that, the movie’s right there on Netflix Instant. To tell you the truth, the peak of Elvira’s popularity was a bit before my time and we never got her show down in my part of the country. But, as a fan of both horror movies and cleavage, her act is tailor-made for me.

The movie is a pretty entertaining little piece of goof-ball comedy. The story, of a wacky outsider coming into a strait-lace town of squares and shaking things up is pretty standard eighties screwball comedy. (Even older then that, honestly.) The movie does shake things up with a witchcraft subplot, a snake hand puppet in a casserole pot, and bits taken straight from Elvira’s show. (And some “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” too.) Though her gimmick might seem pretty simple, Peterson really does have a way with a one-liner and sharp comedic timing. It’s sort of a shame that a character as arguably one-note as Elvira has dominated her career. Born thirty years earlier, she could have been a vaudeville superstar.

As for the film itself, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” knows who its central audience is. Aside from all the blatant fanservice and lecherous lingering shots of Peterson’s body, the movie is a breezy little slapstick comedy full of plenty of quick gags, including everything from punk-rock poodles to random Rambo references. As the movie’s supernatural plot comes to a resolution at the end, the movie looses some steam, but it makes up for a lot with the closing Vegas show tune. The movie’s certainly not very smart, it’s fair to say it’s pretty dumb, but it’s a ready made guilty pleasure if I’ve ever seen one. (7/10)

Deranged (1974)
Though he’s inspired many films, books, and rock albums, very few productions actually set out to accurately adapted the life, times, and deaths of Ed Gein. Though “Deranged” certainly takes its fair share of liberties, it sticks to the facts far more then similar takes on the story do. Written and co-directed by Alan Oamsley of “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” fame, the film has an odd framing device. A reporter pops into the film at pivotal moments, explaining certain details. While he never interacts with the action, he does stand in the shot, as if he was there.

Considering the nasty details of the real life case, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. The opening scene has Ezra Cobb, our Gein surrogate, forcing his dying mother to eat spoonfuls of pea soup, that are soon filled with blood. The somewhat disturbing opening jives with the rest of the film, which is practically a full-fledged comedy. Most of the humor derives from Robert Blossoms’ lead performance. Best known as the creepy old man next door in the original “Home Alone,” and who just passed away recently, Blossoms is likablely kooky. His eyes stare ahead unfocused while he mutters, stutters, and generally wanders around, acting as if he’s in another universe. Blossoms seems legitimately disturbed. There are other blatantly comical elements, like an old fat woman prone to séances or the way his friends laugh off Ezra’s insanity, completely unaware of the lunatic in their midst.

Despite the countless grindhouses and drive-ins it undoubtedly played in, “Deranged” actually shies away from Gein’s oddest tendencies. While there’s plenty of grave robbing, Cobb never actually wears a skin-suit stitched together from dead flesh and Gein’s necrophilic-transvestitism is hardly touched on. The first murder doesn’t occur until after the one hour point. These aren’t negatives. The film takes its time and seems more interested in exploring Gein’s odd world then indulging in his depravity. I much prefer it over the later, ostensibly more accurate “In the Light of the Moon,” if for no other reason then this movie doesn’t feature the spectre of Gein’s dead mother commanding him to kill. “Deranged” is odd enough, sick enough, and well made enough to be actually earn the title of cult classic. (7/10)

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