Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 10

Before getting to tonight's review, I want to thank Kaedrin's Webblog for giving a shout-out to both Film Thoughts, the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon, and the Bangers n' Mash Show. I'm not use to seeing my own name in print so that was exciting in and off itself. I definitely recommend giving Kaedrin's site a look. On with the reviews.

The Land Unknown (1957)

“The Land Unknown” is a fairly standard take on the “Lost World” premise. Writers in the fifties clearly thought the various poles held all sorts of secrets. “The Deadly Mantis” thawed out of an Arctic iceberg. In this film, the Navy sends an expedition into the obscure reaches of Antarctica, searching for a previous lost expedition. Hero Hal Roberts, played by the improbably named Jock Mahoney, his love interest Maggie, and three other guys head out on a helicopter ride over the continent. The copter collides in mid-air with a pterodactyl, crash-landing the group in a volcanic crater unchanged since the Mesozoic era. The five have to learn to survive among dinosaurs and strange prehistoric plant life. But are they alone? (No, they’re not.)

Plot wise, “The Land Unknown” drags at times. The lead-up to the lost world is decent enough. However, once the group arrives there, things fall into a bad pattern of everyone setting out to explore, being interrupted by dinosaurs, before having to start over. This continues for about a half an hour before a plot is truly introduced. The lone survivor of the previous expedition intercedes and kidnaps the woman. There’s some fisticuffs but far more bargaining, with our heroes actually debating leaving the woman with what amounts to an attempted rapist. The escape from the prehistoric world is rather tepid. Strangely, the escape isn’t the film’s proper climax, but rather the helicopter running out of fuel and crashing right before they reach the ship. Despite presenting an opportunity for it, the villain still lives, seemingly forgiven for kidnapping the woman. The movie tries to spin this into some moral about living among beasts driving anyone crazy but can’t quite crack it.

That’s not the only atypical element. While the supporting cast is fairly indistinct, the two leads are surprisingly strong. Jock Mahoney comes dangerously close to being a dull hero type but a few intriguing script decisions prevent that. My favorite scene is when he tries to put on a brave face for the crew, convincing them they’re going to be rescue, even if the doubt is clear on his face. The movie actually does a decent job of portraying the crew’s hopelessness like when one of the supporting characters waste a flare, the gun not clearing the crater’s lips. Mahoney also has solid chemistry with Shawn Smith as his love interest. Smith is an interesting actress, another spunky Girl Friday that is disappointingly reduced to damsel in distress before the end. Henry Brandon seems to be striving for ambiguity as Hunter, the deranged survivor. The movie devotes time to his motives and mind-set, even if his actions seem to paint him as a clear villain. Either way, at least some thought was put into the characters.

But who cares about that? What are the monsters like, Zack? That’s a decidedly mixed bag. Universal seems to have spend some money on “The Land Unknown,” filming it in CinemaScope. Only some of that cash is up on the screen. The jungle sets are quite convincing, even when bathed in fog, and there are several impressive mat paintings. The killer plants are perhaps the most interesting creature. They entangle their prey with tentacle-like vines, before dropping the victim into an acidic maw. Surprisingly, the movie’s cute animal sidekick, a fuzzy lemur thing, is eaten by one of these plants!

Yes, yes, but what about the dinosaurs? That’s where things get dicey. The briefly glimpsed pterodactyls are neat enough. The climatic centerpiece of the film is a raft-bound battle with an Elasmosaurus. The sea serpent is stiff and puppet-like in its movement, with rotating fins, a googly-eyed head, and oversized fangs. Still, the creature has a goofy charm about it. I quite like the flaming spear shoved in the it’s mouth. The same can’t be said for the film’s T-Rex. Instead of opting for stop-motion animation or an advanced puppet, the Tyranosaurus is created through suitmation, that time-honored tradition of sticking a dude in a rubber suit. The T-Rex looks ridiculous, dragging its scientifically inaccurate tail on the ground, its oversized mouth opening far too wide. The creature moves so slowly and awkwardly that you can’t imagine it being a serious threat to anyone. (Though fighting the dinosaur off with the helicopter blades is a nice touch.) Finally, just for good measure, some old fashion slurpasaurs are thrown in. The movie calls the two monitor lizards stegosaurs but can’t even be bothered to glue cardboard fins on their backs. The lizards’ genuine fight to the death made this reptile-lover uncomfortable.

“The Land Unknown” is a bit uneven. Classic adventure fights will probably enjoy it. Dinosaur and monsters fan will probably be disappointed. Either audience might wind up checking their watches during the middle sections. Yet I can’t dislike the film entirely, primarily because of its interesting cast and a few writing quirks. Also, the poster artwork is friggin’ beautiful, featuring far cooler dinosaurs then those actually in the movie. [6/10]

Tourist Trap (1979)

Horror doesn’t have to be original to be good. “Tourist Trap” is boldly derivative of several classics of the genre and yet contains some truly startling, creepy imagery. Like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it follows a group of youths traveling through the American South, unaware of the terror they’re about to encounter. They find a creepy wax museum, like in “House of Wax,” and are soon stalked by a murderer with telekinetic powers, like in “Carrie,” and a split personality, like in “Psycho.”  Considering producer Charles Band, who I’m talking about a lot this fall, never met an idea he liked that wasn’t worth ripping off, this isn’t surprising. “Tourist Trap” is a prime example of an early slasher film. The killer wears a distinctive mask and offs his victims in creative manners. Of the three girls, two wear skin-tight tops and barely-there jean-shorts. The survivor wears a long dress that nearly covers her whole body. Molly seems much less interested in skinny dipping then her girlfriends and, most obviously, doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s the classical final girl, through and through. Even the killer admires her purity.

The success of “Tourist Trap” has little to do with its imitative story. Instead, the film mines the natural creepiness of mannequins to great effect while creating a surreal, blackly comedic tone. An early scene is a dozy. One of the girl’s boyfriends walks into an empty building. The audience has no idea what the film is about yet so when mannequins begin smashing through the windows, we’re caught off-guard. The mannequins proceed to laugh wickedly. One’s head falls off, its mouth flapping open on a hinge, a demonic laugh echoing out. This is a simple effect that is incredibly creepy for reasons I can’t quite explain. Objects fly out of a cabinet, a pipe clatters around on the floor, the victim yells for help, and the mannequins keep on laughing. When the pretty boy is struck dead, the scene falls silent, save for the sound of his blood dripping from the pipe. As far as horror movie opening statements go, “Tourist Trap” packs a great one.

There are other notable scare sequences. A seemingly unmoving mannequin leaping from a chair is a great jump-scare. Two victims, the viewer along with them, are forced to sit and watch as an innocent girl is tied down and suffocated by having plaster smeared over her face. It’s an intense, cruel, frightening moment, focusing on the girl’s agony more so then her impending demise. The screaming mannequin head appear again, tossed across the forest, the slack-jaw mouths hanging open again. I still don’t know why that’s so unnerving. This leads to a fantastic moment of the killer rising out of the water behind the final girl, ready to hold her down. More subtle moments involve mannequin eyes slowly moving, living actors among the still dolls, the figurines sighing in sing-song fashion. “Tourist Trap” knows all about the uncanny valley and the effect it can have on people. Those that suffer from pediophobia will want to stay clear of this one.

The film also has one of the more endearingly bizarre villains of seventies horror cinema. I’ve long been a Chuck Connors fan, since watching reruns of “Branded” with my grandfather as a little kid. His tall, imposing figure and stout chin got Mr. Connors many roles as heavies, cowboys, gangsters, and bad dudes. Mr. Slausen is bad too, of course, but in an altogether different way. When in his ‘sane’ personality, he tells deeply affecting stories about his long-gone wife. Even when describing how he murdered his wife, Connors maintains that folksy likability. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the benign Mr. Slausen and his psychotic “brother’ Davey are one person, especially since the film makes no attempt to hide Connors’ distinctive frame. When the two personalities start to cross over is when “Tourist Trap” gets truly weird. The towering, stocky Connors applying make-up, going on about how ‘pretty’ someone is, playing with dolls, makes for a strange effect. No scene is stranger then Slausen sharing a bowl of soup with one of his mannequins, a moment as comical as it is bizarre. Chuck Connors goes for it, clearly having the time of his life, giving the deranged Davey personality an exaggerated cartoon voice and having the sane Mr. Slausen walk with the limp. The look of glee on his face is visually obvious during several scenes.

The victimized girls aren’t as fascinating as their stalker but are memorable for different reasons. This was a Charles Band production, afterall, so of course there’s some exploitation. Future Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts looks spellbinding as Becky, clad in a low-cut, very tight tube top and itty-bitty cut-off shorts. As delicious as Roberts is, Robin Sherwood gives her a run for her money as Eillen, the other girl in a similar outfit. Jocelyn Jones, though much more conservatively dressed, is just as likable. When she is left alone with a shotgun, crying at every strange noise, you get a great sense of her vulnerability.

“Tourist Trap” goes off the rails at the end. There’s a surreal tone throughout but the ending goes straight-up into dream logic. It feels very much like the screenwriting couldn’t figure out how to end things. Never the less, “Tourist Trap” is still a delightfully weird, very creepy horror cult classic. Pino Dinaggio’s fantastic, fun house score helps establish that oddball tone, as does David Schmoeller’s atmospheric direction. It was the first of several great, quirky horror films Schmoller would make, including the similarly underrated “Crawlspace” and Full Moon franchise-starter “Puppet Master.” Stephen King raved about “Tourist Trap” in “Danse Macabre.” If you haven’t seen it yet, seek it out now. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “The Sacrifice

“The Sacrifice” brings season two’s winning streak to an end. It’s an episode that barely registers as horror. Instead, it’s pure noir. A femme fatale suckers an insurance agent into murdering her vulgar, gross husband. The method: Pushed over the balcony of his high rise apartment. Their plan is complicated when the guy’s boss, who happens to live in the next apartment building over, gets pictures of the death. Blackmail, (off-screen) deviant sex, and, naturally, betrayal and schemes resolved follow. Disappointingly, this is a “Tales” episode where the bad guys get away with it when you sincerely want to see them punished.

The story is predictable and dry. The twist ending is lame and makes little sense. The score is hokey, soft-jazz dribble. Kevin Kliner shows little personality in the lead. Kim Delaney is such an obvious femme fatale, you know there’s more to her plan. The only actor truly making an impression is Michael Ironside. Ironside has played a lot of villains but he seems to relish his role here, really biting into his slimy, manipulative dialogue. There’s a parrot who has been taught to say “pussy” thrown in too. Really, “The Sacrifice” is most for people who want to see Kim Delaney in steamy, though still-nudity free, sex scenes. On the plus side, the Crypt Keeper bookends are excellent, one involving a promiscuous goat, the other showing the Keeper trying out suicide. (And proving he still hasn’t hit his growth spurt.) [5/10]

So Weird: “Rebecca

I haven’t thought much about “So Weird” in the decade since it went off the air but the show obviously made an impression. “Rebecca,” in particular, is an episode I remember very clearly. It’s a rare Molly-focused episode. A girl Fi’s age who looks just like Molly's childhood friend Rebecca wanders back into their life. Rebecca, her best friend when she was a teenager, who disappeared mysteriously, leaving a hole in Molly’s heart. Naturally, this leads Fiona on a mystery, revealing a race of barely aging immortals.

But that’s not where the focus of the episode is. Mackenzie Philips might not be the best actress but she impresses here. She shares a heartfelt monologue with Jack, describing a life full of regret and loss. Getting to see mother and daughter sleuthing together is fun. However, a more bristling interaction later on, when Molly looses her cool with her daughter, is more touching. If “Rebecca” has a problem, it’s the title character. Nadia-Leigh Nascimento does okay but her motivation and emotional center winds up seeming rather shallow for someone who has lived over a thousand years. Still, “Rebecca’s” closing moments, in which Molly sings about her missing friend, is bound to speak to anyone who’s ever had a close friendship end bluntly and painfully. The lyrics are a little overwrought but the emotion is brutally honest. This episode shows what a dumb Disney Channel kid’s show could be capable of. [8.5/10]

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