Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 30

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
This is pretty much the DVD release of the year for me. As you know, I’m a classic horror aficionado, particularly of the Universal cycle. While “Island of Lost Souls” was actually a Paramount production, Universal owns it and it was released as a part of the Universal Monsters video series in the early nineties. The film is widely regarded as a classic of the genre but its been unavailable for a long time. It’s never gotten a DVD release and TV airings are rare. I had hoped for a long time that “Island of Lost Souls” would be shuffled onto one of the classic horror sets Universal was releasing almost ever year there for a while and figured that would be the best release we’d ever get. So when Criterion announced that the film was coming out, I got pretty excited. I was eagerly counting down the days for its release. So much so that when Amazon said it wouldn’t be at my house until November 2, after the end of my Halloween viewing, I was pretty disappointed. Luckily it arrived in time.

So, anyway, this movie’s a masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film so good that it makes you kind of mad that you haven’t seen it before? There are a couple big differences between golden age Paramount horror and Universal that I’ve noticed. As I pointed out earlier, Paramount’s cinematography is generally more expressive then the stagey, silent film style Universal had. The movie has a lot more dollying and some very creative staging, including a fantastic shot seen entirely in the reflection of a lake. But the movie stands besides the Universal films because of its wonderful use of shadows. In at least two scenes, fleeing characters shadows are cast on the wall behind them, looming large. Early fog filled boat sequences also recall the Universal films of the same era. Over all, the titular island is a deeply atmospheric place. The print restoration is incredible. On DVD, the film practically looks brand new.

Secondly, Paramount’s pre-code output was very daring, pushing the envelope on sex and especially violence. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” featured sexuality and sexual sadism as a major theme and “Island of Lost Souls” follows suit. A major subplot involves Dr. Moreau’s intention to mate Parker with the seductive Lota the Panther Woman, his most perfect creation. Parker nearly goes through with it too, charmed by Lota's raw animal sensuality, before realizing that this attractive young lady isn’t exactly human. As soon as Parker’s fiancé Ruth arrives on the island, the Beast-Men eye her hungrily and it’s not long, with a little prodding from Dr. Moreau, before one of the animal men attempts to have his way with her. And the movie’s hideously violent. As in the book, there's a preoccupation with vivisection here. A scene where Dr. Moreau calmly uncovers a recently performed-on animal man, still bloody and screaming, is particularly unflinching. It’s not really the level of violence that makes the movie unsettling so much as it’s the stifling mood of cruelty that hangs over the entire film. “Island of Lost Souls” is a movie practically about the politics of cruelty, of control, and oppression. When Dr. Moreau’s creations inevitably revolt and destroy him, it’s not shown so much as evil being overthrown, as the cycle of violence starting over again. The movie ends in flames and deafening screams of agony. “Island of the Lost Souls” is one of the most oppressively nihilistic horror films of the 1930s.

Charles Loughton is unsettlingly good as Dr. Moreau. He rules over his island with an iron fist. He considers himself a god to his animal-men creations. Though relatively soft-spoken, Loughton’s Moreau is always plotting. You can see the evil wheels turning in his head. But what’s really frightening about the character and the performance is that Moreau is completely self-justified in his sadism. When our shipwrecked sailor claims his vivisection of live creatures is cruel, he waves him off. “Don’t bother me with such petty horrors.” This is a man that can justify anything in the name of science. As portrayed here, Dr. Moreau might be the most devious and sadistic of any of the golden age horror villains. (Rivaled perhaps only by Lionel Atwill in the similarly grisly “Murders in the Zoo.”) Kathleen Burke, though naturalistic and untrained, suits her role of the Panther Woman extremely well. Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law and the eventual leader of the Animal-Men, gives a tortured, passionate performance. I’ll say it’s a better performance then his Dracula.

The Beast Men are fantastic creations. Though the make-ups, composed mostly of hair glued to face, is primitive, it’s incredibly effective. The low-key make-up is actually one of the things that work very well for the film, since it makes it seem plausible. Unlike the Universal monster movies that featured supernatural, fantastical creatures, “Island of the Lost Souls” has creatures that seem oddly possible. So not only is the film grisly, disturbing, and actively concerned with hot button concepts of bestially, evolution, misintegration, racism, fascism, torture, sadism, and cruelty, but it seems like it can actually happen too. Now that the film’s finally been released on DVD, perhaps this classic can be rediscovered by a new generation of classic horror fans and film watchers. (9/10)

Slither (2006)
Pretty much the closest thing we have to a modern “Evil Dead 2.” This is a horror-comedy that is just massively entertaining. It’s a shame the film bombed. It should have transformed Nathan Fillian into a modern matinee idol. At the very least, he could have so easily been the new Bruce Campbell. Instead, he’s doing some cop show… Sigh. The movie seemed to have stunted James Gunn’s career some as well, since it took the admittedly excellent “Super” a long time to get made. In an alternate time line, “Slither” was a big hit and James Gunn has since pleased us all with many more funny, twisted, endlessly entertaining pictures.

The movie has got crazy worm things, acid-spitting space zombies, great gore effects, a woman growing up into a giant ball of flesh and then exploding, and mixes body horror, sci-fi, redneck, zombie, and eighties creature feature tropes extremely well. The creature effects are phenomenal and Grant Grant, in his slug form, is one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And there’s some fantastically quotable dialogue here. (Even the DVD special features are highly quotable. “I’m Bill Pardy,” indeed.) But there’s more here then just all that and Nathan Fillian mugging it up. The central love story(?) between Starla and Grant Grant provides the movie with a heart. Despite being a marriage of convenience for her, Grant is crazy about her and she really does feel something for him. Michael Rooker really does give a good performance. I especially like the scene where he has to pull himself away from her, holding back his evil alien tentacles' need to impregnate her with his space seed.

I don’t really have a lot to say about “Slither.” The movie more or less speaks for itself. It’s a great flick for horror fans. (9/10)
Them! (1954)
Ah, the movie that kicked off the giant bug craze of the fifties. And I’d argue that’s its more or less the only really good one, at least out of the stuff I’ve seen. (“Tarantula” isn’t bad though.) I’ve always dug this film since I was a little kid. While the giant ants may very well be scientific impossibilities, they are honestly pretty real looking. They’re pretty effective special effects. I think, in a weird way, the film predicted the sci-fi special effects action extravaganza that flood the theaters every summer. The scene of a cop taking a machine gun to one of the giant ants feels a lot like the 1954 equivalent of Michael Bay. Despite lying more over to the sci-fi/action side of the horror scale, the film still has it’s effective horror moments. The little girl screaming out the film’s title is a pretty memorable scene, as is the ants attack on the police outpost. Good stuff.

The movie plays a lot like a mystery throughout its run time. James Arness, Joan Weldon, and Edmund “Santa Claus” Gwenn form kind of a central power trio, as they follow leads and clues, trying to find the latest ant colony. I especially like the scene of three spelunking down into the ant colony, stepping over the dead giant ants. Weldon ordering everyone to get out of the colony immediately is a good moment. The final military invasion of the new ant colony, formed in the city sewer systems, is an intense sequence and nicely plays up the cramp quarters.

What has really made the movie endure and elevates it above the copy-cats that would follow are the numerous quirky elements in the film. Edmund Gwenn plays his scientist as a knowledgeable but somewhat absent minded man. The scene of him fumbling CB terminology is cute and funny. Future Davey Crocket Fess Parker has a memorable small role as a fighter pilot claiming adamantly he’s not insane. Even more entertaining is the very active, and very funny, drunk that provides the final clue needed to find the ants. Overall, the film is intelligent, witty, funny, and also a bit scary. (8/10)


Kernunrex said...

Hmm -- I need to watch Slither again, it seems. Here's what I wrote in my review database:

There's a lot to admire in this Living Dead/Blob/Body Snatchers mishmash, but it just wasn't as fun as the TV commercials had lead me to believe.

I really wanted to like it, but it just didn't quite do it for me. I think I was expecting it to be more Troma-esque, I guess, with goo at every turn.

Bonehead XL said...

Yeah, it's not Troma-crazy. It's definitely a studio film. But it's pretty lovable.

Have you seen "Super" yet? It's more James Gunn unleaded. Not quite Troma-nuts, but close.

Kernunrex said...

My friend has Super and loves it, so I'll be borrowing it soon. Sounds good and bugnuts.