Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 5

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

When so many of the horror sequels that Universal cranked out in the forties were strictly formula, you have to admire “The Creature Walks Among Us” for going in a radically different direction. The film begins like the previous sequel, with a crew of scientist looking to capture the Gillman. (Though set in the Everglades instead of the Amazon.) “Walks Among Us” takes a hard turn when the Creature is doused in gasoline and set on fire. The third degree burns all over his body forces a biological change. Suddenly, the Gillman is more Man then Gill. Thinking cynically, you can imagine Universal demanded this story change, so as to cut down on costly underwater photography. Maybe so. Either way, it’s an interesting direction to take the series.

“The Creature Walks Among Us” is also distinctive for focusing far more on the personal lives of its human characters then either of the previous films. The expedition is spearheaded by Dr. Richard Barton, a scientist obsessed with evolution, man’s destiny and, oddly, space travel. Barton is also a massive prick, probably the most despicable character in all of the Universal canon. He is deeply possessive of his wife Marcia, emotionally abusing her. Poor Marcia can’t catch a break either because Jed, a hunk of meat dude that bums along with the expedition, repeatedly, aggressively hits on her. Despite constantly telling Jed to go away, his advances still inflames Barton’s insane jealousy. Stepping into this emotional upheaval is Dr. Thompson Morgan, Rex Reason’s mostly indistinct hero, and, of course, the Creature.

“Walks Among Us” is also, easily, the slowest paced of the “Creature” films. The monster doesn’t appear until the seventeen minute mark. During the required diving sequence, he just hangs around, watching Leigh Snowden give Julie Adams a run for her money in her own clinging, white swimsuit. There’s only one proper attack scene, where the Creature climbs onto a rowboat. After being set on fire, he spends a lot of time laying in bed, wrapped head-to-toe in bandages. It’s almost comical when the monster pulls free of his restraints only to pass out again. The Creature’s physiology is completely changed. His original form was lithe and agile. The new version is stocky and lumbering. Not to mention decked out in a goofy Nehru body suit.

The Creature is more sympathetic then ever, which might be explain why his body count is dramatically lower then in previous films. After his transformation, he looses his gills and thus his ability to survive under water. An attempted seaside escape forces the hero to rescue the monster! Gill-less-man spends the second half of the picture standing around, watching the human cast aggravate each other. Dr. Barton is unequivocally the villain of the piece. Snowden’s Marcia is deeply sympathetic, trapped in a marriage to a total asshole. Times where obviously a-changin’ by 1956, since I can imagine a film even two years older showing a husband as abusive, a wife as distressed, and a woman as unwilling to take a man’s attention.

The movie attempts some real themes, showing that a creature isn’t necessarily a monster and a monster isn’t necessarily a creature. By the time the monster escapes his prison and finally puts Dr. Barton down, it’s deeply satisfying. Asshat had it coming. Still, I wish the film had focused on the relationship between the monster and the maiden more. Rex Reason is fine as the stock scientist hero and has decent chemistry with Snowden. However, the Creature’s climatic revenge would have been even more meaningful if Snowden connected with the monster like Julie Adams did. Oh well. The film should be commended for trying.

In more ways then one. “Walks Among Us” has an amazing final scene. After escaping, the newly reformed Gillman walks towards the ocean. Plaintively, he stares out over the waters, his old home, one he can’t return to. Covered with still bleeding gunshot wounds, he marches forward anyway. I suppose his final fate is left up in the air, probably to make way for more sequels that never came, but the message is clear. There’s no place for someone like him in this mixed-up, crazy world. His heart breaks over not being able to swim again. Surprisingly deep stuff for a 1950s creature feature. Yes, “The Creature Walks Among Us’ is low on monster action and sometimes drags. It’s still an admirably ambitious effort. [7/10]

Castle Freak (1995)

Remember when I said even Full Moon’s most polished efforts were guilty pleasures at best? I take it back. “Castle Freak” is a genuinely good movie. Inspired by “The Outsider,” probably my favorite Lovecraft story, the film is also my favorite Stuart Gordon film and, bar none, the classiest thing Charles Band has ever produced. (Somewhat ironically, since Full Moon Entertainment was slowly decomposing at the time.)

“Castle Freak,” despite its exploitative title, has its roots in deep themes of family, forgiveness, responsibility, cruelty, and love. A family inherits a castle in Italy. Deep in the bowels of the castle is a man kept imprisoned for forty years, starved, castrated, and routinely tortured by his mother. But the castle isn’t the only thing with a secret. The Reilly family is slowly coming apart, after alcoholic father John wrecked the family car, killing their youngest son, and blinding their teenage daughter. Mother Susan hasn't been able to forgive him and, it’s made clear quickly, John has never quite forgiven himself. The two story lines slowly come together, the emaciated, twisted Giorgio a dark mirror, reflecting back the family’s darkest impulses.

The film is a far more serious affair then the previous Gordon/Lovecraft collaborations. “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” are great in their own ways but “Castle Freak” is a much richer film. It’s also far scarier. Gordon had previously displayed a strong handle of atmosphere on “Dolls.” Here, he graduates to full shadows expert. The final act, where Giorgio stalks mother and daughter through the castle, each hiding in deep shadows, is intense and sustained. The blind daughter is an inventive device, allowing the villain to creep around her undetected. The castle is an excellent location, of course, which helps. It’s definitely the most frightening film on the director’s resume.

It also delivers on the gross-outs. Gordon had, perhaps unfairly, received a reputation as a gore-meister following “Re-Animator.” There’s always more to his films then that but, honestly, “Castle Freak” delivers some nauseating gore effects. A cat being pulled back through a trap door is an early, unnerving moment. Bones crack and flesh rips as a thumb is gnawed off. The most notorious moment involves the titular freak’s encounter with a prostitute. In what is probably a homage to Lucio Fulci, deranged Giorgio attempts to recreate an earlier rendezvous. It’s a disturbing, memorable moment that skillfully combines twisted gore and protracted thrills. The make-up design for Giorgio is impressively unnerving as well. He looks truly starved and tortured. Odds are this movie will show you far more eunuch bits then you ever desired to see.

The performances truly anchor the film. Jeffrey Combs frequently trots out his Herbert West personality without acting much while Barbara Crampton is usually confined to indistinct scream queen roles. Combs shows no ego as the alcoholic John. He sweats and cries, frantic, a man at the end of his rope. He is pulled between his frustrated libido, his persisting guilt over his son’s death, and his own guilt over refusing to take responsibility for it. It’s a career-best performance for Combs. Similarly, Crampton blows the roofs off. She marks a strong figure against Jeffrey, her grief translating as anger, not self-pity. As the blind Rebecca, Jessica Dollarhide conveys the blindness well, if not the character’s panic. It is disappointing that she would disappear from acting after this. Jonathan Fuller no doubt had the most difficult performance, under extensive make-up and without his voice. He makes Giorgio far more then just a hideous villain but a sympathetic being. “Castle Freak” is a world where monsters aren’t born, but made.

For once, the fisticuffs endings doesn’t feel awkward, a natural evolution of the characters and themes. The final scene, powered by Richard Band’s typically excellent, mournful score, conveys a poetic sense of sadness and resolution. “Castle Freak” is fantastic all around, a true hidden gem. If you’re a Combs or Gordon fan, you’ve probably already seen it but I think it’s essential viewing for any horror fan. [9/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “The Switch

“The Switch” is the dumbest episodes of “Tales from the Crypt” ever, which is really saying something. The story is essentially a childish version of “Seconds.” An elderly millionaire, played by the perpetually old William Hickey, is in love with Kelly Preston during her peak hotness. In order to win over his object of desire, Hickey pays a mad scientist to switch his face with a young stud’s. Since a young face on an old body is hella’ disturbing, the millionaire has to go back, paying even more, to get a studly torso. The body transplants continue up until the thuddingly stupid twist ending.

“The Switch” is only one of two times the Crypt Keeper interacted with a human being during his host segments. Arnold friggin’ Schwarzenegger directed the episode and stops by during the opening to swap weight-lifting pun. Schwarzenegger’s direction is serviceable, if cheesy at times. Ah-nuld really likes those dramatic crash-zooms. Hickey is clueless in the lead role. Preston contributes nothing to her supporting role while Roy Brocksmith is over-the-top goofy as the resident mad scientist. Save for a tank full of heads, “The Switch” is low on horror content. The second season gets better from here. Hopefully. [4/10]

So Weird: “Simplicity

After two very good episodes back-to-back, “So Weird” swings back to kid’s show silliness. Molly is worried that a wildly successful jingle she wrote for a software giant two years ago is going to affect her creditability. When they ride into the town where the corporate HQ is located, they find that all technology more advanced then light bulbs no longer functions. Also, the CEO of the company has gone totally bonkers.

The cause of the electronic blackouts? Gremlins. No, not those gremlins. The gremlins of “So Weird” are nearly invisible entities that hate technology (Reasonable) and wear top hats and spats. (Not so reasonable.) As ridiculously silly as that is, the business with the CEO is worse. He sings, dances, self-harms, and throws childish temper-tantrums. It’s totally divorced of realism. Jack’s skepticism in the face of this episode’s events is similarly hard to swallow. The conclusion is thrown together and the moral confused. Once again, the central cast holds things together. Mackenzie Philips seems suitably embarrassed, Patrick Levis continues to have great chemistry with his co-stars, and Cara DeLizia again sells silly material with her boundless enthusiasm. In the episode’s defense, those jingles are insanely catchy. [5/10]


Kernunrex said...

You must have gotten the UK blu of Castle Freak + Evil Clergyman recently like me. Still need to watch EC. Love Freak, though. I can't say it's my favorite Gordon film (Dagon), but it's up there. The one and only Full Moon action figure I bought as a youth was not a killer puppet, but good old Giorgio.

Bonehead XL said...

Nah, I got the R1 blu-discs of both, straight from Charlie Band's table at the con. Since both are Full Moon Blu-Rays, they look more like good DVD copies. (Which makes sense, since their DVDs usually look like laserdiscs.)