Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 27

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Another part two beloved in the slasher fan community that I’ve never been impressed with. I had always regarded it as a cheap cash-in and retrend of the first, with some elements blatantly swiped from superior proto-slashers like “Twitch of the Death Nerve” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I’ve always felt that the franchise really didn’t find its strength until Jason found his trademark mask. (The point when some people think the franchise lost its spark.) Obviously opinions differ. But it had been a long time since I had seen “Friday the 13th Part II” and I decided to give it a fair chance. After all, the slasher genre, more so then any other horror subset, is built primarily on formula and stealing from better movies.

The first thing I immediately noticed about the film this time around is Steve Miner was a director who could build up a set piece. The long, drawn out scenes of characters going about their business in silence, waiting for something to jump out at them loudly, is and was a cliché, even in 1981. But Miner makes it works. (It’s a good thing too, because this film is loaded with jump scares. If there is such a thing as the cheap jump scare, I suppose these are expensive jump scares?) The reason the camera lingers seems to come more out of a legitimate interest in atmosphere and building tension as opposed to just stocking up for the next shock. Dare I say, the way the camera patiently watches is almost naturalistic and artful.

Anyway, the point is: The opening sequence is great. The very first shot is of a little boy’s feet splashing in a puddle, who is then called inside by his mother. Immediately following, the boots of Jason Voorhees (who, of course, audiences in 1981 wouldn’t have recognized or related to) splashes through the same puddle. This image phrases the first film's hook visually: The safety of childhood, for example summer camp, being invaded and violated by malevolent forces. (I’m probably reading too much in to it.) The camera voyeuristically watches Alice, the original film’s sole survivor, already subconsciously invading her privacy while suggesting the killer’s presence, another trick swiped from the Italians. Alice is all ready living in a violated world, haunted by the memories of her long night at Camp Blood, which the movie helpfully recounts for newcomers, and nagged by a mother who is worried about her but Alice regards as a nuisance. The mother is an important figure in this franchise’s mythology, an idea blatantly taken from “Psycho,” and Alice’s trouble with her own mom seems to foreshadow the decapitated head of another mother in her fridge. Anyway, THE POINT IS: I like the scenes of Alice milling about in her home, oblivious to the danger about to pounce on her. It works and builds atmosphere. The Spring-Loaded Cat that is thrown through her window is a bit much but the movie, like good porn, builds successfully to the money shot: Alice finding Mrs. Voorhees’ still squishy head in her fridge and then getting an ice pick buried in her temple. The jumping kitty watches the violence, licking its lips. If Steve Miner is as smart as I’m beginning to think he possibly could be, could this image be a metatextual comment on the audience’s own hunger for carnage? Is it possible that a franchise as brainless, vulgar, and unapologetically derivative as “Friday the 13th” has really been biting the hand that feeds it as early as part two? As the proceeding film demonstrates, probably not, most definitely not, but its fun to think so.

All of this suggests that the movie is a lot better then it really is. Because, let’s face it, this isn’t high art, this is “Friday the 13th.” Once we get back to the summer camp, we are immediately introduced to a disposable cast of interchangeable twenty-somethings-playing-teens. None of these characters have any fucking personality. There’s an obnoxious pranksters who brings a real spear to camp for some stupid fucking reason. There’s a paraplegic jock and the girl who wishes to bone him and a couple defined solely by their desire to bone, all vague character sketches at best. As for the rest, who the hell knows and/or cares? The movie establishes its crass streak around this time too, with menstruation jokes and a protracted shot of one of the mindless babe’s (admittedly very nice) ass straining to explode out of her Daisy Dukes. A very gross dead dog carcass is found too. (And Kane Hodder said Jason doesn’t kill dogs…) The sequels had the audience’s affection for Jason to fall back on and usually took the time to at least designated stereotypes to his victims. I’m completely indifferent to this cast of indistinct knobs. Final girl Ginny is well-regard in the fandom and far from the virginal stereotype, since she’s got a grabby boyfriend, but even she’s thinly defined at best. Her only real character moment is when she questions and discusses Jason’s motivation during a buddy-buddy bar drinking spree and her only real trait is feisty determination in the face of death. I suppose this is a decent start for the nascent slasher franchise, but Amy Steel isn’t Jamie Lee and Ginny isn’t Laurie Strode.

Once all that set-up bullshit is out of the way, night falls and the movie gets down to its purpose. Our final girl and her boyfriend are removed from the setting. Exploitation reigns as people get naked, show off their gross tan lines, have sex, and think about having sex. And then the movie can go about whittling down its cast. Any time a character is left alone, you now their time has come. Very few of the death scenes, the foundation upon which the entire franchise would eventually rest, are memorable. A guy hanging upside down in a noose becoming a victim is a good idea but undermined by soft special effects and some fake looking blood. The wheelchair jock getting a faceful of machete and rolling back down some steps is cool, but unoriginal. The best death scene, the double impalement of the aardvarking couple, is, as I said, a total rip-off of Bava. I didn’t even remember how Terry, who is apparently the skinny dipper in the short-shorts, got killed and had to look it up just now. The elaborate executions Jason would engineer as soon as part three are nowhere to be seen here. He seems content to solemnly stab and slash throats, with little energy or interest. Crazy Ralph, another holdover from part one, and a random cop pad out the body count further. At least the movie goes about its business briskly. Everyone’s dead and we’ve rolled around to the third act before you know it.

And somewhere in the middle of all this tedium, we get moments of visual spark. Vickie, that’s the chick who wanted to pork Wheelchair Jock, has a great death scene and it’s completely without blood. Looking for the horny couple who were her friends I guess, she instead finds Jason hiding under the bed sheets. It’s the first clear look we get at Baghead Jason and it’s a fitting introduction. Slowly, he pulls a knife and corners the girl. The camera focuses on the blade as he slowly approaches her panicked face, her screams building. It’s an intense, sadistic moment of cruel horror. There are other occasional sparks. We see Jason drag one of his victims down the stairs, the camera focusing on her feet as they fall from step to step, in a surprising moment of stark horror. The movie needed more flashes like that.

Anyway, once Ginny and Paul, that’s her boyfriend, make it back to the camp, the movie stops sucking and gets good again. The first film paused its last act chase with occasional safe spots but part 2 is unrelenting. Poor Ginny is pursued for a very long time. Jason was obviously still learning the ropes here and I like how she occasionally outwits and outmatches him. It’s here that I begin to understand the affection for Amy Steel. Ginny does the standard amount of running and hiding, including another unnecessarily gross moment of bladder betrayal, but mostly she fights, fights with tooth, nail, and even chainsaw. The big, dumb, loud score pounds away during the chase scenes and stops during the soft scenes, preparing us for Jason to stick his hand through the window or a pitchfork through a door. These jump scenes are oddly effective though. Like I said, Miner knows how to play the waiting game just as well as he knows how to play the jumping game. The image of Jason running towards Ginny, as glimpsed through a window, is also oddly memorable. The finale, where Ginny confuses Jason with a sweater and then he goes down like a total bitch from the kind of shoulder wound that wouldn’t even faze Part Four’s Jason, is a total cheat but, what the hell, it works. If nothing else, it shows our final girl as more resourceful then the rest. The final jump scene, a moment first employed by “Carrie’ and then every other horror movie afterward, is unnecessary and also doesn’t make any fucking sense but, whatever, it was standard issue even in 1981. Let’s look at Jason’s make-up and throw our popcorn out of our laps!

“Friday the 13th Part II” is undeniably sloppy. The merry prankster character disappears without reason midway through the film. (Not that anybody missed him.) Just where the hell was Jason hiding? I always assumed the death of his mother prompted some sort of supernatural resurrection but, nope, the movie makes it clear that he was just hiding out in the woods for thirty years. How come he never attempt to contact Mom, who was obviously around? How come he never killed before? And, most importantly, how come none of the people living or working around the lake noticed before? Jason’s behavior is obviously inconsistent throughout the series but it’s inconsistent throughout the film itself. Why did he kill the cop? Why does he spend so much time watching when he could have just been killing right from the get-go? And how the hell does Ginny’s little gambit at the end even succeeds? Jason’s might be murderous but there’s no evidence to suggest that’s he’s delusional. Aside from all the other indicators, like the shitty writing, there’s time when it’s very obvious this sequel was rushed into production with little thought for quality or logic.

But, what the hell, I don’t hate the movie. All of my criticism stands but there are moments when it’s undeniably effective, like the badass opening scene. Eventually, Paramount would ramp “Friday the 13th” up into a tight cheap-thrills-delivery machine, churning out back-to-back series best with Part 3 and 4 and later 6 and 7. Part 2 represents the series, as a series and not a stand alone film, at its earliest and shakiest. It’s messy, it’s stupid, it’s unreasonable, it’s ultimately not very good, but I’m beginning to maybe see what seemingly everyone else sees in this one. And, fuck, who doesn’t love Muffin the dog's completely inexplicable cameo appearance at the end? Also: Holy cock, did I really just ramble on about this goddamn movie for over three pages? I need to reconsider my life decisions. (6/10)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)The ultimate classic in paranoid horror. I really don’t have a whole lot to say about this one because I was kind of dozing while watching it. Which is appropriate, considering what happens to the characters in this film when they sleep. So here’s some disorganized thoughts about 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

- Kevin McCarthy gives a really good performance. I love the way he gets increasingly more panicked as the film progresses, climaxing during the brilliant, iconic, amazing, one of my all time favorite scenes in movie history, shots of him screaming at people on the highway. He correctly illustrates what high stress and a lack of sleep will do to a person. But, even when at other volumes besides screamingly insane, he’s good. It’s really easy to tell why this guy is such a pillar of his community. There’s not much to the supporting cast, but I like Dana Wynter.

- The sequence where Larry Gates, after being replaced by the pods, talks about how nice thoughtless conformity can be is really successful. It actually makes having your individual soul stripped away by pods from space sound kind of inviting.

- Seems like a lot of movies based on the Body Snatchers premise makes the pod people cold, emotionless, and robotic. But not so here in the original. The pod people seem content, almost jovial at times. These aren’t soulless robots, these are creatures with a mission, determined to take over the world. And what better why to do that then with a smile? The threat is truly insidious. And, best yet, you never noticed the pods have won until it’s all ready too late. The paranoia really builds in the second half of the movie, when it becomes apparent that the people McCarthy thought he could trust have all ready been replaced.

- McCarthy and Wynter trying to blend in and then escape the compromised town is a fantastic situation, iconic for a reason. There’s something subtly sinister about the shots of pods being piled on trucks and shipped out of town. And what a way to build suspense! “Don’t show any emotion.” Has a better metaphor for subversives trying to hide in the crowd ever been written? And how their cover is blown is just as much a classic as anything else.
- The movie is widely regarded as sci-fi but, make no mistake, this is a horror movie too. The gooey creation of a pod person ranked high on the gross-out scale back in 1956. The detailless blank pod person prototype seems to have confronted concerns about the Unreal Valley fifty years before it really became an issue. Our protagonists hiding from the running crowds of attacking foes under flimsy floorboards is played for fantastic suspense. But the movie’s biggest shocker moment comes quietly, when McCarthy kisses Wynter and realizes she’s not the girl he fell in love with. It only takes a second, one slip up, to loose your entire personality and be taken over. Remember what I said about this being the best in paranoid horror?

- The opening and happy ending feel as tacked-on as they really are. McCarthy’s expositionary voice-over is also unnecessary and intrusive. Imagine if Don Siegal could have gotten away with the ending as originally planned. The studio added the epilogue because the ending was unsettling which, of course, was completely the point. I think it would have blown many a teenage mind in 1956 if, the last thing they saw before walking out of the theater, was Kevin McCarthy’s sweating, panicked face, screaming directly at them, “YOU’RE NEXT!” Which brings me to…

- So Don Siegal, the cast, and writers made it more then known over the years that they never intended the film to have any subtext. The majority of the film seems to support that theory, since it’s less about one specific group robbing us of our personalities, souls, and rights, then it is about the overwhelming power of conformity in general. I don't think the film and its premise would endure so much otherwise. But then there’s the scene where our hero looks out the window, down into the town square. A pod person stands before a crowd and dictates from a list all of the duties that need to be done today. This, to my sleep-deprived two AM brain anyway, seems to intentionally bring Communist Russia to mind. Maybe it’s just me…

While where here, I’ll just say I’m not a fan of the 1978 remake. The majority of people seem to prefer that version to the original but I found the self-absorbed seventies Me-Generation cast to be largely unlikeable. I do like the 1993 Abel Ferrara version however, with its icky body-horror-style pods and brutal anti-military themes. But the original is the version I saw first and one I’ve always liked the most. (9/10)

Psych: “This Episode Sucks”
The Halloween episodes of “Psych” are usually pretty good. Nothing has ever topped the slasher episode they did a few years back. That’s my favorite horror-related episode and my favorite episode from the show in general. But I would put this on par with the werewolf and haunted funhouse episodes from past Octobers. I like that the show focuses a little more on Lessiter’s human side, since that character so often exist to be nothing more then an exaggerated foil for Shawn. The love story he has here is legitimately sweet, even if the show takes it too far at the end. And, man, Kristy Swanson looks great! I didn’t even realize it was her at first. She manages to bring the “Deadly Friend” cuteness at times while also being “Buffy ‘91” hot at times too.

The presence of a former Buffy isn’t the only in-joke here. Corey Feldman shows up in a bit part and they even play “Cry Little Sister” when he first appears. Shawn and Gus spend a large portion of the episode dressed as Lestat and Blacula. (People keep mistaking Gus for Count Chocula. Is the character of Blacula really that obscure for the normals out there? I feel so disconnected at time.) There are a couple of great jokes made about garlic and holy water here, even if I feel Gus and Shawn’s vampire obsession is maybe taken a little too far over the top. I also like the scenes involving the black cat, which is quite amusing. The show also takes the effort to throw some fog in there too, just for the classic horror look.

Overall, a solid episode of a reliably goofy, fun show. It certainly won’t changed the opinions of anybody who think the show isn’t serious enough or that the main characters are annoying or overly quirky. But it’s a good show to watch with your Mom. (7/10)

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