Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 28

The Prophecy (1995)
Here’s an example of overheated schlock that would probably be completely unwatchable, or at least unlikable, if not for its cast. And what a grossly overqualified cast it is. The pay must have been phenomenal because the majority of the actors are far above the material.

“The Prophecy” details a war in heaven and the humans caught in-between the warring factions of angels. The idea of angels being jealous of God’s love for humanity and people’s possession of souls is an interesting idea, in the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” mode, as is exploring angels as morally ambiguous characters. The movie is gleefully blasphemous too, recasting Archangel Gabriel, a righteous figure by most accounts, as a ruthless cartoon supervillain and even having Satan more-or-less save the day. And God is silent in all of this too! Over all, apocryphal Christian mythology is a great place for a genre film to start.

However, the film uses these potentially daring concepts in services of a potboiler chase plot. Its clichéd story includes a Catholic cop who has lost his faith, the unstoppable horror antagonist, a prophecy about the end of the world, magical American Indians, and a possessed child who says creepy, inappropriate things. The Christian concepts are used strictly as plot points and devices, and the film doesn’t seriously explore any of the philosophical implications its plot raises. The director brings all the flash and style of a secondhand Segal flick. The straight-out-of-the-nineties-era-Skinnemax electronic score drives the film towards its puzzling narration-provided moral. (Something about not understanding God’s plan. It doesn’t really make any sense.) Worse yet, the movie is completely convinced its plot and ideas are original and ingenious, treating the material in an extremely self-serious manner. The movie is humorless…

Except for one thing: Christopher Walken. This man single-handedly makes “The Prophecy” worth watching. Dressed like a door-to-door Bible salesman, his black hair slicked back, and swaggering like a Southern Baptist televangelist, Walken sinks his teeth into every juicy, hammy line. I suspect much of his dialogue was improvised, as Walken’s humorous quipping is far more clever then anything else in the script. Great moments in Walken: The back forth he has with his undead slaves, especially during the grave digging scene; hamming it up as he sets Eric Stoltz’ face on fire and generally tortures the guy, relating how he is responsible for shushing every human at birth, sharing breath mints and his trumpet with a gaggle of school kids, his monologue about how humanity can never understand the motivation of an angel, walking into a hospital and forcing a random nurse to sleep, a hilarious scene where he selects his next zombie servant among the terminal ward, passive-aggressively badgering a waitress at a diner, flying through the windshield of a pick-up truck and becoming increasingly pissed-off, etc. Basically, if you love to watch Christopher Walken just get his Walken all over things, this movie is worth seeking out.

Like I said, the cast is incredible in this thing. The Weinsteins must have gotten this script and “Pulp Fiction” in some sort of two-for-one bargain because, aside from Walken, it also features Eric Stoltz and Amanda Plummer. Indispensable character actor Elias Koteas plays the faith-lapsed cop. It’s a hoary cliché of a part, but Koteas does his best with the material and makes for an easily watched lead. Virginia Madsen has certainly appeared in her fair share of schlock but, Christ, she’s an Oscar nominated actress. Her part as the school teacher drawn up in the chase is the flimsiest role in a film full of ‘em. I don’t know what she saw in a part as hopelessly thin as this (The paycheck, probably) but she certainly makes it go down easier. Eric Stoltz is at his best here when beating the shit out of people, but his interaction with the little girl Mary is good. Amanda Plummer is highly amusing as a dying-dead-dying-again ghoul, playing miserable in a very funny way. Steve Hytner delivers some brisk comic relief as a chatty mortician. And attempting to out-ham Walken, and almost succeeding, is a pre-“Lords of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen as the Devil himself. Glowering, cackling, and delivering every line in a horse, sarcastic whisper, Mortensen makes a character that is essentially a walking deus-ex-machina and exposition dropper very entertaining. I love the scenes where he describes Hell as being open “even on Christmas,” mocks Koteas’ praying habits, and tries to pursue the heroes over the dark side while snacking on Walken’s recently removed heart. If Walken makes the movie worth watching, then Mortensen makes it worth watching until the end.

Bizarrely, “The Prophecy” went on to spawn four sequels, all of them direct-to-video, two of which somehow manage to snag Christopher Walken. I guess he just really liked the character? I remember two being along the same lines as the first and three being just about unwatchable. (Walken’s part in it is very small.) Considering their lack of Chris, I never bothered with four or five. During the dried-up, dead nineties, I guess horror fans took what they could get and just about anything could blossom into a franchise. Despite all of the criticism above, “The Prophecy” really is rather entertaining, in spite of itself. Dock your brain, all of it, at the door. (7/10)

Ringu (1998)
I love urban legends. I can’t exactly say why but I suspect it has a lot to do with my interest in pop culture sociology, symbolism, and archetypes. The same drive that makes me want to obsessively collect as much information as possible on horror archetypes and icons, and indeed figuring out what even constitutes an archetype or icon, probably also drives me to read up on as many urban legends as possible and to postulate just what exactly they mean. American urban legends and Japanese urban legends both feature malevolent figures that trick and destroy people for little or no reason, often with elaborate back stories of their own. The big difference is the menacing figures in American modern folklore are more likely to be escaped mental patients, murderous gang members, or phantom cars, while the frightening figures of Japanese urban legends are often ghosts, spirits, and demons, many of which with their roots in mythology. (Obviously, America lacks a centralized mythological background. Our cities worry more about violent crime so of course that’s the background our stories drawl from. The ghosts in classical American urban legends tend to be more of the Vanishing Hitchhiker variety – less likely to violently mutilate you then just to freak you out with their mere existence.) But I digress. Many Japanese myths directly involve ancient spirits or ghosts directly interacting with modern technology or moving among modern cities, representing Japan’s position as a country indebted to tradition and a deep mythological history but also a country at the peak of scientific advancement and technological progress. And thus my long, meandering diatribe brings us to “Ringu.”

The opening sequence plays like an urban legend brought to life. On paper, the concept of a killer video tape sounds absurd but the film’s execution is straight-faced and creepy enough that it sells it. It successfully plays on the gullible, easily frightened part of your brain. The film shifts into a mystery, as Nanako Matsushima, a likable relatable lead, goes about trying to solve the enigma of the killer video tape. When he she finds the tape, the story takes another turn into to the undeniably creepy. And now the sleuthing continues but the stakes are much higher, and the film smartly continues to elevates. By the time we get to the island and the facts in the mystery are laid out… Well, getting all that information dumped on us doesn’t sound very fun, but the first part of the film is so successfully mysterious that the reveals feel like a proper pay-off. The climb down the well sequence proves to be an exciting, satisfying conclusion, but the screws aren’t done turning yet. The true climax, in which we get a real payoff to all this “You’ll die in one week” business, is one of the most disturbing, get-under-your-skin moments in horror history, in league with the shower sequence from “Psycho.” The movie then wraps up on a surprisingly mean-spirited note.

Perhaps the film’s story wouldn’t work at all if the movie wasn't so damn creepy. The movie doesn’t waste too much time before showing us the infamous video which is just as disturbing, unusual, and freakish as its reputation implies. Even before we see the creepy video, there’s a sense of dread hanging over the whole film. While the film doesn’t back away from the occasional jump scare, it’s more interested in building an unsettling horror atmosphere. The excellent sound design, which amplifies every creek while adding a great deal of odd, discordant noise, contributes to this greatly. Basically, “Ringu” is a film that commits to being as freaky and creepy as possible and, more or less, succeeds at this goal.

The film spawned sequels, remakes, and so many rip-offs that the ghost girl with the long black hair became as ubiquitous in Japan in the early 2000s as the slasher killer was during the American eighties. The American remake is generally considered as good as the original by most but not me! Like most American remakes of foreign films, its slicker, louder, less intelligent, and has less mystique. A lot of people say the Japanese original is confusing while the American version is more concise. I had the exact opposite reaction, finding the American remake convoluted and complicated. Yes, in Japan, most of the story revelations come from random psychic flashes and subconscious hints, but that somehow works more for me then the loose ends and tail eating featured in this country. If you have a choice between the two, always go with “Ringu” instead of “The Ring” (8/10)

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