Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 30

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

In Japan, Toho was creating pop culture icons with their rubber suits and miniature sets. In America, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations were revolutionizing special effects. The UK, meanwhile, was trailing behind, their genre exports mostly being of the Hammer variety. With all this global giant monster action, maybe Britain was feeling left out. In hopes of filling the kaiju-shaped hole in their collective hearts, “The Giant Behemoth” rolled into production. Known by the less repetitive title of “Behemoth the Sea Monster” in its home country, the film enlisted experienced monster makers like Willis O’Brien, in one of his last credits, and Eugen Lourie, director of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which “Behemoth” bares more then a passing resemblance to.

The film begins with an alarmist speech about the danger of nuclear energy from American professor Steve Karnes, our hero. Meanwhile, an Irish fisherman is struck dead on the beach by a sudden blast of radiation. With his dying breath, he says one word: “Behemoth.” Dead fish, poisoned by radiation, continue to wash on beaches all over the country, crippling the local fishing industry. Karnes and a British professor named Bickford are on the trail of the mystery. After a few more bodies pile up, the scientists realize the culprit is a giant, aquatic dinosaur that emits radioactive waves. The cities are evacuated but it doesn’t stop from the enormous creature from attacking London.

As originally conceived, “The Giant Behemoth” wasn’t even to feature a dinosaur. The monster was going to be a radioactive blob. Signs of this remain in the finished film. A mysterious glob of glowing slime is found on the beach. The scientist heroes spend a lot of time studying the dead fish left in the monster’s wake. All of this is done before it’s even hinted that the monster is a dinosaur. It’s more then half-way through the movie before we get our first glimpse at the Behemoth, a ridged neck poking out of the water. A significant amount of time passes before the Giant appears again. The film’s heroes, as played by Gene Evans and Andre Morell, are slightly on the bland side. Any viewer going in will know what the monster is, robbing the mystery of any suspense. Watchers of “The Giant Behemoth” will have to be patient.

That viewers might click off halfway through is a shame because, once the monster finally surfaces, he’s a fairly captivating creation. Design wise, the Behemoth is not particularly creative. He’s basically a brontosaurus with small horns running down his neck and back. However, the monster moves fantastically, with a genuinely eerie life-like gait. The scenes of city destruction are extremely well done. The Behemoth’s first major action is to destroy a ferry in the Thames, overturning the boat, trapping the fleeing passengers inside. When the Behemoth turns on London, he marches through the streets, knocking over buildings. Surprisingly, the dinosaur’s radioactive powers aren’t shied away from. After being hit with the waves, the victims die covered in burns and tumors. Some are burned to a crisp suddenly and graphically. The camera, in extreme close-ups, focus on the fleeing citizens’ faces as they die. The Behemoth flattening London Bridge or tossing a tank into the ocean are memorable images. It takes its time but, once “The Giant Behemoth” gets to the damn monster action, it’s fantastic.

In its last act, “The Giant Behemoth” starts to show the debt it owes to “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” As in that film, the military can’t simply bomb the monster out of existence. In “Beast,” it was because the dinosaur carried ancient germs. In “Behemoth,” it’s because the monster’s radiation will be spread out more by aerial bombardment. As in “Beast,” the scientist heroes of the film decide to kill the monster by shooting it with a radiation-tipped missile. However, the underwater showdown in “Behemoth” can’t stand up to “Beast’s” Coney Island-set finale. The dinosaur is impressive but his death is underwhelming, perishing underwater without much fanfare. The film then wraps up on a grim note, with hordes of dead fish being reported in the U.S., hinting that another Behemoth is about to emerge.

So “The Giant Behemoth” is an inconsistent monster flick. The pacing is lopsided, with all the good stuff being shoved in the back. It’s grimmer then most Western examples of the genre, which lends it some novelty. Sadly, it’s one of the horror movies probably best enjoyed as a best-of reel then a feature. Two final notes: Eugene Lourie would have more luck creating an iconic giant monster for the UK with his next feature. Lastly, the title is not only repetitive but misleading, as the Biblical Behemoth was a land-based monster. I suppose “The Giant Leviathan” didn’t have the same ring to it… [6/10]

Critters 3 (1991)

By 1991, it was probably apparent to New Line that “Critters” was not going to become their next “Nightmare on Elm Street.” The movies might be reliable money makers but the Crites were never going to become pop culture icons on the same level as Freddy Krueger. Accordingly, and following the general direction of horror in the early nineties, the series went direct-to-video with its third entry.

The first two “Critters” blatantly emulated “Gremlins,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Critters 3” seems inspired by “Gremlins 2.” As in that film, the tiny terrors move out of the sticks and into the big city. Because of the low budget though, the Crites have to settle for a slum apartment building instead of a high-tech skyscraper. Anyway, a road trippin’ family, composed of a recently widowed dad, teenage daughter, and young son, stop by Grover’s Bend on their way to the city. There, the kids encounter Charlie who has now transitioned into a full-on survivalist/conspiracy freak, ever-ready for the Crites’ return. When he isn’t looking, I guess, some critters stowaway on the family’s trunk. Arriving at their grimy new apartment building, the family and the rest of the tenants have to compete with a new outbreak of the furballs from hell.

The third film in the series is notable for a few things. It continues the tight continuity of the last two films, Charlie the town drunk having now graduated to Burt Gummer-level monster-fightin’ badass. Secondly, it’s the only film in the series to be directed by a women: Kristine Peterson whose further directorial credits aren't very notable, sadly. The script was written by horror author David J. Schow. If you squint, you can see some of Schow’s reoccurring themes of family and past sins but I suspect this was mostly a work-for-hire gig. Most notoriously, it’s the film debut of Leonardo DiCaprio, a fact the DVD case proudly proclaims. Leo probably wasn’t happy to put this on his resume at the time but, honestly, he’s not bad. As far as unglamorous early roles go, it’s less embarrassing then, say, Brad Pitt in “Cutting Class.”

Aside from the limited setting, the low budget is evident in other ways too. Both previous films featured whole hordes of Crites. Part three only features five. The effects team still does fine work, as the critters are as expressive and memorable as before. Taking yet another cue from “Gremlins,” and maybe even “Jaws 2,” early on one of the Crites rolls through blench, dying his hair and burning his face. As the rules dictate, this guy immediately becomes the leader of the crew. We never discover if he has a name but I’m betting it’s something like Scar or Stripe. The monsters gain some new powers, like an ear-splitting shriek. Most amusingly, when rolled into a ball, they can now spin at high speeds before rocketing off. Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t get his Spin Dash until 1992, so the resemble is unintentional, but it didn’t go unnoticed by me.

The critters also act much goofier then before. While devouring a kitchen, they bust out a bag of flour, drumming in the powder. One Crite drinks a bottle of detergent, causing him to burp bubbles. Another gobbles a pot of pork and beans, resulting in monster farts. The little creatures even enact a pie fight with appropriately sized pies. The movie in general has a goofy streak. A horde of little monsters is bowled away by a trash can or thwacked with a mop. Since the Crites’ numbers are decreased, the script devotes time to thinking up creative ways to kill the monsters. One gets burned from the inside out after swallowing a flare. Another is cleaved in two by a giant meat cleaver. The best monster death involves a critter exploded via bottle rocket.

While it isn’t short on silly monster antics, “Critters 3” feels a little less inspired then the previous entries. The plot, involving a daughter still morning for her mother’s death and a father’s unwillingness to grieve, is routine stuff. The subplot cumulates in an especially ridiculous way, the little brother melodramatically falling off the roof. Aimee Brooks is actually fine in the part of the daughter but the script can’t make the character come alive. Some of the other characters in the apartment, like tough-gal telephone repair woman Marcia or the conspiracy theory grandpa, are more interesting. Leo’s relationship with his hard-ass dad is interestingly Oedipal, especially when the boy winds up being partially responsible for his father’s death. Try as it might, part three just can’t muster the same energy as the previous two.

Those looking for horror elements might be a bit disappointed. There’s some bloody biting and gnawing but few lethal kills. Most of the violence is inflicted on the monsters. Though not without its moments, “Critters 3” is a step down. The sequel was filmed back to back with the next year’s part four and, accordingly, ends on a cliffhanger, ready to send Charlie, the remaining Critters, and late-cameo Ugg back into space. We’ll see how that goes tomorrow. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Split Second

Michelle Johnson plays Liz, a classic femme-fatale working as a waitress in a lumberjack community. After fighting off a touchy customer, the local lumber boss spontaneously asks Liz to marry. At first, the not-easily-satisfied woman is happy with the arrangement. Quickly, however, boredom and frustration sets in, especially after Steve starts violently beating any of his workers that so-much as glance at her. Soon, a handsome wood-splitter rolls into town, catching the woman’s attention, who plans to play the men against each other.

“Split Second” has good pedigree behind the camera. The episode was written by experienced horror/TV writer Richard Christian Matheson and directed by Russell Mulcahy, who directed “Highlander,” one of my all-time favorite films. Mulcahy’s direction is, as expected, music video smooth, especially the steamy love scene later in the episode. As the ever-observant Kernunrex pointed out, Matheson’s script is dripping with gay subtext. All is peaceful with the burly lumberjacks, until the venomous woman enters their lives. Liz tries to seduce Ted, the new kid in the woods, which seems to confuse the boy. After being blinded by the raging Steve, the other lumberjacks hand Ted a phallic chainsaw and encourage him to murder the woman. Along with all the lingering shots of sweaty working men, “Split Second” is the most (unintentionally?) homoerotic episode of “Tales” ever. Michelle Johnson has fun with the slinky dialogue she’s given and certainly looks good. Stuntman and film heavy Brion James hams it up as the possessive boss. Though not the most atmospheric episode, “Split Second” is nicely representative of everything “Tales from the Crypt” is about. [7/10]

So Weird: Banshee

“Banshee” is another “So Weird” episode that made an impression on me as a young viewer. Molly and the kids go to visit her parents, both Irish immigrants. While Fiona’s grandfather is warm to the kids, he has always had a distant relationship with his own daughter. The grandfather is also in poor health. When Fiona sees a banshee, that ancient foreteller of death, floating over her sleeping grandfather, she assumes the worst. Soon, the young girl is bargaining with the spirit over her grandfather’s life.

As with the best episodes of the series, “Banshee” packs some strong emotion into its brief, twenty minute run time. The relationship between Molly and her father is the backbone of the episode. Considering it has to summarize a life-long relationship between father and daughter, it does a lot with a little. Terence Kelly is great in the part and he has a believable rapport with Mackenzie Philips. That storyline builds to an emotional scene where Molly sings a song she has written for her father. The melody has stuck with me for years which means it was great to finally revisit it. Meanwhile, Fiona goes looking for the banshee and finds it. It says a lot of Cara Delizia’s skills as an actress that she pulls off being both terrified and defiant. If her performance wasn’t as good, the finale of the episode, where she essentially talks the banshee and the great beyond into sparring her grandfather, wouldn’t be believable at all. "Banshee" reaches for a lot of emotion and can't quite reach it all. However, it's an incredibly strong episode of "So Weird." [7/10]

Bangers n' Mash 50: The Living Dead

October is always a busy month for me. I look forward to the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon all year but squeezing in two or three movies a day and writing decent sized reviews of them for the blog can take up a lot of time. And now, I'm working on the Bangers n' Mash Show throughout the month too. Sure, we could just record an episode and slap it up on the internet. But that's not how I work. Each episode, depending on length, can be somewhere between a twelve to twenty hour investment. That's why it takes me so long to get them out. (And, keep in mind, I also work a full time job and have various other personal commitments to attend to.)

So I suppose it's impressive that the Bangers n' Mash Show has made it to fifty episodes. Over the last year, they've even been coming out on a semi-regular basis! Anyway, this newest episode is about zombie movies, a topic that's been requested a few times. For brevity's sake, we decided to limit it to the living dead films of George A. Romero and the various related remakes and spin-offs. Here's to fifty more, I guess.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 29

Varan the Unbelievable (1958)
Daikaiju Baran

“Godzilla” was the break-out film for Toho in America. Not only did it make giant rubber monsters popular in Japan, it immediately crystallized what a “Japanese monster movie” was to people in the west. The success of the American cut of “Godzilla” piqued Toho’s interest. The studio decided to collaborate with a U.S. studio to make another kaiju movie. The American backers ending up leaving the project prematurely but the Japanese studio went ahead with “Varan” anyway.

When a rare breed of butterfly is discovered in the heavily forested valley, referred to as the “Tibet of Japan,” a university sends some scientists to investigate. There, they find superstitious villagers who worship an angry god named Baradagi. The native’s warnings seem to come true when the explorers are buried in a landfall. The deaths cause journalists to investigate further. This only succeeds in pissing off Varan, a giant, reptilian monster that lives in the lake. The military comes in but can’t kill the beast. Surprisingly, Varan can fly and, like all kaiju must, heads for Tokyo.

Varan is one of Toho’s least-loved kaiju, not appearing again until a blink-and-miss-it cameo in “Destroy All Monsters.” On one level, this seems deserved. Varan doesn’t breathe any fire or have any special abilities. He’s just a giant lizard. However, the design is fairly dynamic. Tsuburaya did a good job of distinguishing the monster from Toho’s similar creatures. Varan is briefly described as a dinosaur. However, he more resembles a huge monitor lizard. The rows of barbs down his back are a nice touch and his face is, arguably, more expressive then Godzilla or Rodan where at the time. Varan looks fairly neat but other aspects of the creature are less smooth. When crawling around on all fours, he looks fine. However, several times in the film, Varan shambles onto his hind legs, which looks incredibly silly. The monster flies via a membrane between his arms and legs. It’s seems unlikely that an animal the size of Varan could possibly glide, much less at supersonic speeds. In general, the monster lacks the personality, and doesn’t generate the pathos of, Godzilla or Rodan.

“Varan” is, at least, an action packed monster mash. Not long after surfacing, the monster wrecks the native village. He tosses the huts and homes into the air, smashing what he doesn’t grab with his tail. It’s an impressive sequence and, disappointingly, the film’s highlight. The various confrontations with the military all fall a little flat. There’s very little tank and truck crushing when the army confronts the monster in the jungle. A long sequence has Varan pulling into Tokyo by the bay. Bomber planes swoop over head and battle cruiser drop death charges but Varan never truly stomps the ships. (Though there is a cool shot of the monster hanging out underwater while the death charges go off around him.) When Varan reaches the mainland, he mostly sticks to wrecking an airport. The monster smashing the big building is fun but that’s about where his rampage ends. Varan’s defeat is a bummer too, as the waddling lizard swallows a bomb, gets a tummy ache, and shambles back into the ocean to die. “Varan” is definitely focused on the beast but it feels considerably less epic then Toho’s other monster fests.

Here’s an unexpected inversions. A lot of people watch Japanese monster movies and wish there would be more focused on the kaiju and less focus on the humans. “Varan” does just that and, you know what? It doesn’t work. Turns out having interesting human protagonists makes the movie involving. Akihiko Hirata shows up in a role very similar to his part in “Rodan,” as the scientist who cooks up the scheme to kill the beast. The heroes of the film, I guess, are Kenji and Yuriko, two journalists whose professional rivalry develops into something like a romance. Kenji bravely drives an explosives packed truck into the monster but, otherwise, there’s very little reason to be invested in the human heroes. “Varan” also features Koreya Senda as the stately professor, giving the flattest and most bored performance I’ve ever seen in a Japanese film. The dude is monotone, like he was trying to win an Asian Ben Stein sound-alike contest.

If there’s anything about truly interesting about “Varan,” it’s how different it is from some of the studio’s other monster flicks. “Varan” is not brought to life through radiation. Instead, his origin is strictly mythological. The primitive villagers worship him as a god. Like a god, his rampage is spurned on by moderners invading his kingdom. There is a thread running through the film that I’ve noticed in many Japanese science fiction films: The struggle between the country’s traditional past and its modernized future. Unusually, the film comes down favorably on the side of tomorrow. The giant monster represents the past as something superstitious and fearful. His defeat at the hand of scientific thinking is like the haunted demons of yesterday being vanished by a more logical age. It’s a really interesting angle to approach a kaiju movie from and it’s a bummer that “Varan” doesn’t do more with it.

Though initially conceived as an American co-production, it would take another four years before Varan reached Western shores. The U.S. cut removes all the original footage of Japanese people, replacing it with some tedious scenes of American military man Myron Healy and his romance with Anna, a Japanese woman. These sequences really do not help a movie that already had pacing problems to begin with. It’s one of the most extensive butcherings of a foreign film that I’ve ever seen. There are elements of “Varan the Unbelievable” that are interesting but it’s clear that Ishiro Honda's heart wasn’t in this one. Now we know why Varan’s remains one of the studio’s rarest creations. [5/10]

Critters 2 (1988)

The original “Critters” was a reasonable success for New Line and, even at the time, was considered one of the better “Gremlins” rip-offs. The studio, still high on the success of the various “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels, was probably eager to launch another horror franchise. Thus “Critters 2” got the greenlight, rolling out two years later like one of its furry creatures.

Picking not long after the original, Brad Brown returns to his home town of Grover’s Bend for the first time in a while, visiting his vegetarian grandmother. The Brown family have become notorious locally, the incident of the first “Critters” film already passing into local legend. Desperate for a story, and not interest in writing about the town wide Easter egg hunt, a cute girl from the newspaper begins to pursue Brad. Like clockwork, the remaining Crite eggs from the first movie are found and hatch, unleashing more miniature monster mayhem. The bounty hunters from space are back too.

“Critters 2” tells a slightly bigger story then its predecessor with somewhat edgier content. Instead of being largely confined to a farm house, “Critters 2” instead takes place over a whole town. A far larger group of people are threatened by the fatal furballs with more collateral damage, this time including two exploding buildings. The slightly higher budget is obvious in the Crites themselves. The puppets are far more expressive and detailed, some Crites having different designs and more active faces, with more screen-time.

The second “Critters” is also a little gorier then the first. The small monsters’ first victim is a man standing atop a wooden stool. When the critters chew through the legs, he falls to the floor. Later on, we see his bloodied, chewed-up body. Memorably, a man in a bunny suit is attacked, leaping through a church window in his death throes. After the Crites roll together into a giant ball, they strip a man down to the bloody bones in seconds. More surprising then the gore is the nudity. One of the shape-shifting bounty hunters assumes the form of a Playboy centerfold, right down to the staple in the center. However, the alien doesn’t morph clothes to go along with the new form, leaving the women briefly nude. The violence is well within PG-13 standards but the bare breasts, comical and fleetingly glimpsed as they are, weren’t expected.

Despite its edgier content, “Critters 2” is actually goofier then the first entry. The Crites act even more like Gremlins then before. Their chattering language from the first film is traded out for something that sounds more like garbled English. The movie seems to call attention to the similarities when the Crites munch on some power lines. The monsters go nuts in a fast food joint, chowing down on burgers and fries, recalling the movie theater scene from “Gremlins.” Overall, the Critters are given more personality. One is pissed-off by granny’s veggies-filled fridge. Another gets the top of his hair shot off, discovering he likes the bald look. A Crite is cooked in a deep fryer and, the best gag in the movie, one bites onto a moving tire, refusing to let go. The goofiness extends to the human cast, with Eddie Deezen having a very Eddie Deezen-type role and a cute shout-out to New Line’s other horror franchise.

Having such close continuity with the first film is another one of the film’s attributes. Scott Grimes, sporting a hideous mullet, graduates decently to leading man, his character being lovably nerdy enough to support the film. Don Keith Opper, less annoying this time, returns along with Terrence Mann, who, amusingly, seems to have dropped out half-way through filming. The only down side is Barry Corbin has to fill E. Emmet Walsh’s shoes as the grouchy former sheriff, something the likable actor isn’t quite up to. Liane Curtis and the ever-reliable Lin Shaye are nice additions to the “Critters” universe though, Curtis being charming and Shaye carrying her part with good humor.

Self-proclaimed Master of Horror Mick Garris made his feature debut with this film. It’s the kind of unassuming, low stakes flick that is actually Garris’ specialty. Garris makes good use of the Easter setting, and genuinely is on the right goofy-fun wavelength. More surprising is the writing credit from David Twohy, future scribe of blockbusters like “The Fugitive,” “G.I. Jane,” and, uh, “Waterworld.” Everyone’s got to start somewhere, I guess. “Critters 2” isn’t high art but, as far as eighties horror sequels few people demanded go, is amiable enough. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Mournin’ Mess

“Mournin Mess” is the sleaziest episode of “Tales from the Crypt” in a while. Steven “That Guy from ‘Wings’” Weber plays our deeply unlikable protagonists, a womanizing alcoholic who occasionally does journalism. With his boss ready to fire him and his landlord ready to evict him, he pursues one last desperate story: A local charity organization devoted to providing proper burial for the homeless. Considering some maniac is murdering homeless people, the organization has its work cut for it. However, as he digs deeper into both stories, our hero discovers the two might be connected.

I’ve always found Steven Weber to be slightly off-putting and “Mournin’ Mess” exploits this fully. The guy is first introduced kicking a shapely blonde out of his apartment. His idea of a fancy date is swilling booze from Styrofoam cups and sharing a dirty hamburger in his dusty apartment. The dude is a sleazebag. The rest of the episode builds on this. The sequences revolving around the homeless people are appropriately gritty. The episode telegraphs its twist ending fairly early in advance, by focusing on the charity's significant acronym and having the female press speaker make cracks about people being “good enough to eat.” Yet the final third still satisfies. The image of a door in place of a coffin is memorable, as is Weber awakening in a coffin in the middle of a set dinning table. The ghoul make-up is simplistic but effective. There was potential in “Mournin’ Mess” to comment on a number of social issues, from homelessness to the way corporate charities sometimes mask more greed. But this is “Tales from the Crypt,” so the episode settles for sleaziness and gory irony. Assuming you’re in the mood for it, there’s nothing wrong with that either. [7/10]

So Weird: OOPA

Something likable about “So Weird” is that it didn’t always deal with the obvious supernatural topics that every other show like it did. “OOPA,” standing for “out of place artifact,” has the Philips family staying in a cheesy, Amazon-themed restaurant. There, they run into Tad Raxall, the eccentric computer magnet from “Simplicity.” In near-by Langley, the government has had him working on a mysterious object, an ancient artifact that looks like a cheese wheel. After sneaking in and looking at it, Fiona quickly deduces that the object is some sort of magical computer. A little more digging reveals that the cheese wheel might even be from Atlantis.

Out of place artifacts are easily explainable phenomenons and “So Weird” doesn’t help its case by bringing Atlantis into things. The strength of “OOPA” doesn’t lie in its gimmick but in its characters and their relationships. Garwin Sanford’s overcooked performance as Tad nearly destroyed “Simplicity” The character is better utilized here. Though still exaggerated, Tad’s unrequited crush on Molly provides him with some humanity. A surprisingly quiet moment comes when Molly sings “More Like a River” for him, the camera effectively cutting between their date and Fi and Cary examining the OOPA again. Building the episode around the characters was a smart decision since there’s not much to the central mystery. Fi and the other kids have plenty to do but this is a rare, Molly-focused episode of “So Weird.” Mackenzie Philips, once again, proves herself to be a stronger actress then you would have guessed from her past work. I honestly can’t remember if the business with the cheese wheel was ever followed up on in a future episode. I guess I’ll find out in time. [7/10]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 28

The H-Man (1958)
Bijo to ekitai ningen

By 1958, Toho’s first wave of sci-fi/monster movies was still going strong. Perhaps, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubureya wanted to try something different. “The H-Man” features a slimy, gelatinous monster that dissolved its victims upon contact. Though obviously indebted to “The Blob,” Honda and crew put a distinctly Toho style mark on the killer space-slime premise.

The story begins when Misaki, a low-level Yakuza member, disappears mysteriously during a drug drop, only leaving his wet clothes behind. Turns out Misaki was a very wanted man. The police, led by Inspector Tominaga, want to get to the bottom of the drug-deal and his odd vanishing. His girlfriend, lounge singer Chikako Arai, is worried about what’s happened to him. The mob, meanwhile, just want to know where the drugs went. Oddest of all, scientist Masada believes a new organism, mutated by H-bomb test, might be responsible for Misaki’s death. He’s right, of course, and soon Tokyo has to deal with a new problem… The H-Man!

Toho’s monster movies were rarely straight-up horror films. And I love them for that. There’s a certain experimentation to their kaiju flicks. Beyond the guarantee that there will be a monster in the movie, you never know exactly what you’ll get. “The H-Man” weaves a killer blob plot in with a mystery-gangster script. That’s three genres for the price of one! Tominaga and his team investigate leads, sleuthing around Arai’s apartment, the night club, and into dark corners, occasionally uncovering a dead body. The audience doesn’t have a good idea of what’s happening at first, keeping the premise mysterious. Aside from gangsters doing gangster shit, like pulling guns on people or sneaking around, numerous scenes take place in a sleazy nightclub. Go-go dancers in barely-there bikinis shimmy and shake, marking “The H-Man” as edgier than its predecessors. A car chase, awkwardly framed from the backseat, gets tossed in too. When the origin of the monsters are revealed, it leads to scientists hanging out in labs, dryly dissolving frogs, adding an extra-layer of sci-fi. In other words, “The H-Man” is a delightfully diverse movie, throwing all sorts of fun ingredients into the mix.

There’s still room for horror, however. The audience gets our first good look at the titular monsters during a flashback. Two sailors, both badly burned, relate a story. They climbed aboard a derelict ship. Inside, they found empty sets of clothing scattered on the floor. Soon enough, the green slime leaks down from the ceiling, melting whole men into nothing in seconds. Deadly goop crawling on innocent victims is certainly horrific while the shadowy ship provides plenty of atmosphere. The final image during the sequence, the glowing H-Men stepping off the empty boat, is memorably eerie. Later scenes feature surprisingly gory special effects, the blob monsters graphically devouring whole victims on-screen. The finale has the heroine forced through the sewers at gun point, the creeping H-Men always around the corners. While it never quite gets scares, the movie is creepy enough to satisfy this monster kid.

Another component of the film’s success is its likable cast, full of Toho veterans. Akihiko Hirata, Serizawa himself, shows up for the third time this week. His dashing good looks and effortless charm suits him well as the heroic detective. Kenji Sahara; his third appearance this six weeks; has the meatier part as Dr. Masada. Masada is a concerned scientist, worried about the radioactive monsters, but his concern is rooted in empathy, not bland heroics. He works especially well once he develops feelings for Arai, trying to rescue her from the villainous gangster. Yumi Shirakawa is still lovely to look at and gets to stretch her range a bit. Arai is mostly a damsel in distress but at least is a little more proactive. Haruo Nakajima is on hand, once again. He plays the monster, naturally, in their briefly glimpsed humanoid phases. However, we also get to see his face for once, as the H-Man’s second on-screen victim. That’s a nice surprise.

“The H-Man” is very different from Toho’s other creature features in some ways. In other ways, it’s very typical. Masaru Sato contributes another jazzy score. The blobs are the result of nuclear testing, like always. As usual, the monster shows up at the end to kill off the far more despicable human villain. The shapeless H-Men don’t generate much sympathy, save for the final shot of them crowding together as the sewers go up in flames. As a seemingly large portion of Tokyo burns down, a character monologues about how more H-Men might appear. This recalls the end of “Gojira” but it seems more like a blatant sequel hook this time. Surprisingly, a sequel was never made. However, according to Wikizilla, this film does form the first part of a thematic “mutant” trilogy, along with the perpetually out-of-print “The Human Vapor” and “The Secret of the Telegian,” a movie so obscure I have never heard of it before this very moment. [7/10]

Critters (1986)

“Gremlins” was a big hit. You wouldn’t expect a film that simultaneously quirky and mean-spirited to become one of the defining smashes of the eighties, but it was. Maybe it was the combination of ever-green Spielberg-ian sap and slimy creature effects, which audiences still had a taste for at the time. Maybe it was because the merchandising machine slapped Gizmo’s face on everything. Any blockbuster is bound to spawn imitators but “Gremlins” seemed especially irresistible to rip-off artists. The most beloved of these would-be little monster epics is “Critters.”

The film begins in space, with a jailbreak aboard a high-tech alien prison. A group of veracious monsters called Crites have escaped and are headed towards Earth. They land in a small town in Kansas, eating the local livestock and local townsfolk. The Critters quickly converge on the Brown family ranch. Luckily for them, a pair of alien bounty hunters are on the Crites’ trail. But will they arrive in time?

Via Wikipedia, the film’s director/co-writer denies “Critters” being a rip-off of “Gremlins.” I call bullshit. The film is belatedly beholden to Joe Dante’s flick. The premise, “little monsters unleashed on a small town,” is identical. The Critters have high-pitched giggles, just like the Gremlins. Both breeds also disrupt electronics. Despite being killers, both types of monsters are animated goofballs. One Crite, when set on-fire, rolls into a toilet. Later on, one of the beasties bites the head off an E.T. doll, a jokey reference to Dee Wallace’s biggest hit. Both films feature a small family at the center of the chaos. Both films climax with a building exploding. Both balance comedy and horror. The similarities are undeniable.

Despite being a blatant rip-off, “Critters” does try to distinguish itself from its more popular rival. The Capra-esque, New England town of Kingston Falls is switched out for mid-western, rural Grover’s Bend. The lower budget forces the little monsters’ rampage to one home. Much attention is given to the film’s sci-fi elements. We spend a lot of time on the space prison, hanging out with its slug-like warden. The faceless alien bounty hunters take on human form, one of them stealing the face of an Earthly pop star. The hunters arrive in town not long after the Crites. However, they spend most of their time wandering around, creating chaos and engaging in “fish-out-of-water” shenanigans. Moments like this, when the aliens bungle around a church meeting or a bowling alley, honestly go on too long. It’s clear that the script delays the characters simply because the movie will end when they arrive at the farm house.

“Critters” has two major attributes that make it a likable eighties creature features. The Crates themselves are amusing creations. The Chiodo Brothers-designed Critters split the difference between Gizmo and Stripes. They’re fuzzy and furry but also have red eyes, sharp teeth, scaly skin, and shooting spines. To make quick getaways, they roll into balls, humorously bouncing down stairs. While the Gremlins spoke in garbled broken English, the Crates’ chattering is subtitled. This pays off fantastically when one is exploded by a shotgun, forcing a blunt response from his partner. Earlier, a Critter swallows a firecracker, humorously keeling over. The design are symmetrical and likable while the effects hold up well. While the violence stays within PG-13 boundaries, it’s surprising how much red stuff the Crates spill when gnawing on their victims.

Another thing “Critters” has in its favor is its cast. Dee Wallace plays another horror movie matriarch. The part plays to her strengths. She gets to panic when making eye-contact with the monsters, when getting a poisonous barb to the neck, or when the family is under siege in the bedroom. However, she also picks up a shotgun later, blasting away the monsters. That’s awesome. M. Emmet Walsh is amusing as the clueless cop, especially when he’s faced with the Critters first-hand. Scott Grimes, as precocious teenage son Brad, nudges just up against annoying. His best friend, Don Opper as the town drunk and Faulknerian man-child Charlie, leaps pass that line. Also notable is Mr. William Zane as the daughter’s ill-fated boyfriend, one of the Crites few on-screen victims.

“Critters” is too goofy to go for real scares. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try. A tense walk down a hallway tries at suspense as does the late-period attack from a jumbo-sized Crite. Ultimately, “Critters” is mostly silly monster antics and goofball sci-fi. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s not as good as “Gremlins” but is endearing in its own way. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Undertaking Palor

“Undertaking Palor” seems to be “Tales from the Crypt’s” contribution to the sub-genre that includes “The Goonies” and “The Monster Squad.” A group of teen boys, all in the twelve-to-fourteen range, are united by their love of horror movies. Jess is the tough guy leader of the team, Norm is frequently mocked husky one, Aaron is the horny one, and Josh is the Asian kid with a camera, who fancies himself a movie maker. The quartet breaks into the local mortuary and spies the town undertaker being a creepy weirdo. Later that evening, Josh’s father dies from mysterious circumstances. The kids quickly realizes the undertaker and the town pharmacist are conspiring to murder innocent people and swap the insurance money. Looks like a job for the Monster Squa… I mean, four random young boys.

The “Goonies’ vibe “Undertaking Palor” puts out is doubtlessly deliberate. Firstly, Jonathan Quan appears in both. Secondly, the film begins with the kids leaving a theater playing Richard Donner movies, who you’ll notice also directed “The Goonies.” The kids-on-an-adventure story is really a lot of fun. The four boys have great chemistry together and each act their age, with the right amount of teasing, joking, and vulgar name-calling. Each of the actors are well cast, especially Scotts Fuits as Norm and Jason Marsden as Jess. (Jonathan Quan, meanwhile, seems relieved not to have to speak with an Asian lisp.) Also a lot of fun is John Glover, as the villainous Undertaker. Glover goes way over the top, as is his style. He bashes dead bodies in the face with a hammer, talks to the bodies, dances around the room, and munches on pizza while embalming corpses. A bigger then life comic book villain is a perfect choice for this sort of colorful story. The latter half of the episode is shot through the kids’ cameras, making this something of an early example of a found footage flick. The way the kids disposed of the bad guy at the end is awfully violent and maybe in poor taste. However, it’s all in good fun. “Undertaking Palor” is probably one of the most purely entertaining episodes of “Tales from the Crypt.” It’s one of the few stories from the show that easily could have been expanded into a feature. As an additional plus, the Crypt Keeper is extra animated and energetic in the host segments. [8/10]

So Weird: Second Generation

“Second Generation” touches upon something rarely mentioned in “So Weird:” Romance. While Molly prepares for a new concert, a strange boy named Ryan asked to meet Fiona. Aware of her through her website, Ryan actually has no interest in the paranormal. Instead, he bonds with Fiona over their mutual status as children missing parents – in Ryan’s case, his mother. As the two youths get closer, Fi digs into the boy’s past, noticing some inconsistencies, and realizes that Ryan’s scientist father is hiding something.

Fiona has never had a proper love interest before. “So Weird” isn’t that type of show. Fi isn’t a boy-crazy teenage girl and the series reflects that. So giving her a potential boyfriend is a sensitive issue. The show handles it fairly well. It’s funny that Ryan is a skeptical, scientific person, contrasting the two teen’s interests. Instead, the two bond over more emotional issues. Ryan’s deceased mother drives the mystery at hand. The teen’s courtship is fumbly, nervous, but laced with emotional truth. Cara DeLizia doesn’t overdo it, keeping Fiona’s personality intact while still making it clear that attention from a handsome young man is exciting for her. Kevin Zegers is decent as Ryan and the two play off of each other nicely. The episode’s science fiction content takes a back seat. The episode’s gimmick? Cloning. Ryan is actually a clone of his father. Once again, the show defuses its dramatic situation in a surprisingly even-handed way. Ryan’s dad isn’t a mad scientist. Instead, his experiments are rooted in heartbreak and loss. The resolution is slightly clumsy, as a lot of information is quickly dumped on the audience. However, “Second Generation” is good where it counts and successfully introduces a love interest for Fi that I don’t totally hate. (Though I wish Molly would be given some new songs. I’m real tired of hearing “She Sells.”) [7/10]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 27

The Giant Claw (1957)

Today, I’ll be taking a break from Toho’s fantastic kaiju flicks and heading back to the world of American made fifties B-movies. There are many ridiculous rubber monster movies I’ve never gotten to, like “From Hell It Came,” “It Conquered the World,” and other movies with the word "it" in the title. Tonight, I’m checking “The Giant Claw” off my list, one of the most notorious monster movies. Why is it notorious? Because the title creature is, perhaps, the goofiest looking monster in the entirety of classic genre cinema. How goofy is it? The producers of the film were too embarrassed to put the monster's face on the poster.

The film begins above the Arctic Circle, where scientist are running radar test on a new plane. While in the sky, the pilot sees a bizarre UFO. His superiors laugh at his claims and take him off the mission. However, others soon begin to see the strange beast, a huge bird that might be from local mythology (But is actually from outer space.) In time, the Giant Claw is destroying jets, attacking cities, and killing people. The enormous bird isn’t easy to kill either as, get this, the creature is protected by a shield of anti-matter. What is the Earth to do?

“The Giant Claw” takes some time in revealing its title monster. At first, the creature is only seen in glimpses, a huge, blurry shape spotted from the cockpit. The way the movie holds off on showing the flying monster reminded a lot of “Rodan,” a movie this one superficially resembles. However, it soon becomes clear that the creature was kept off-screen not to build suspense… But because the puppet is ridiculous looking. Take a look at this damn thing. What the hell? Let’s count the flaws here. The creature has a long, scrawny neck that leads up to a goofy, slopping snot with huge nostrils. The mouth is less like a beak and more like a raw jaw, with jagged teeth sticking out. The eyes are bulging and seemingly, randomly placed on its head. Spindly chicken legs are curled up under its fluffy, spherical body. The wings are ratty and unconvincing. The Giant Claw is topped off with a friggin’ Mohawk, a row of vertical feathers growing out of its head. The puppet combines the least appealing aspects of turkeys, ostriches and buzzards. It’s ugly, cartoonish, and wholly laughable.

But you probably all ready knew that. What about the other hilarious shit in this movie? It’s tempting to say that the movie wrote around the horrible prop by giving the monster ridiculous abilities. However, we happen to know that the special effects for the film were done long after the script was written. So, for some reason, this giant bird has an invisible shield of anti-matter that cloaks it from radar and makes it impervious to projectile weapons. How or why this is possible isn’t important. Amazingly, the Giant Claw isn’t atomic in origin but rather from outer freakin’ space. Imagine what the home world of the Giant Claw must look like. The funniest sequence in the film involves the hero and his girlfriend driving along a road. Behind them, a group of hot-rodding teens speed by. The teens yell about the hero being “square” and repeatedly call him “Daddy-o!” And then the Anti-Matter Space Buzzard swoops down and eats them. Goofball moments like this makes it seem like “The Giant Claw” is aware of its own ridiculousness.

The uproarious monster upstages every other problem the film has. Bored sounding narration pipes in several times. The way the hero devises how to defeat the beast involves blowing himself up intentionally, which seems like bad planning. Despite its many, many flaws, there’s something likable about “The Giant Claw.” The hero, played by Jeff Morrow, is interesting enough. He has decent chemistry with Mara Corday as his love interest. The two swap fast-paced dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a forties screwball comedy. Amazingly, the movie actually suggests what would happen if a giant monster attacked America. Business would freeze, martial law would be enforced, and everyone would be afraid to leave their home. Though most of the miniature effects are laughable, the city destruction at the end is weirdly creditable. (And I’m not talking about the blatant stock footage from “Earth vs. the Flying Saucer.”)

That’s the difference between “The Giant Claw” and the shitty B-movies of today. It’s easy to make fun of the film but, with a better designed central threat and a slightly stronger script, you can imagine this movie actually being pretty good. Instead, the monster is utterly preposterous and far too much of the film is devoted to people standing around in rooms and talking. If you’re looking to have a bad movie night, pop in “The Giant Claw.” The laughs will be as big as a battleship. [7/10]

Graveyard Shift (1990)

As far killer animal movies go, killer rat movies always made the most sense to me. Rats carry disease, they eat anything, some of them are as big as cats, and odds are good there’s one somewhere in your house right now. Some dirty pro-rat propagandists claim they make good pets but I don’t believe them. I went in “Gravegard Shift” knowing it was considered a lesser Stephen King adaptations. However, the movie was in a cheapie three pack with two other King adaptations. Three movies for ten bucks and one of them is a killer rat movie? I couldn’t resist.

The film follows a drifter from West Virgina who has drifted up to a small Maine town, of course. Looking for work, he winds up at a rat infested textile mill, next to an old graveyard. The mill is dangerously hot and lorded over by a real asshole named Warwick. Zoning committees getting on his tail, Warwick recruits a bunch of guys, including hero Hall, to clean out the dilapidated sub-basement. It’s dangerous work, not just because of the ruined, flooded basement, but because a giant rat monster lives under the factory and has started killing unsuspecting workers.

“Graveyard Shift” has a fairly scatter-shot screenplay but it does have a few things going in its favor. It’s notable that there aren’t any name actors in the film. Instead, the cast is full of experienced character actors doing their thing. David Andrews is a fairly nondescript protagonist but solid enough as a lead. He has decent chemistry with the likable Kelly Wolf. Stephen Macht, otherwise known as the dad from “The Monster Squad,” speaks with a bizarre New England accent. He huffs, fumes, beats people, and generally goes far over the top. Vic Polizos goes nuts too, screaming like Rambo when spraying rats with a fire hose. Andrew Divoff, the future Wish Master, gets a great death scene. Better then all the rest is Brad Dourif as the seriously unhinged rat exterminator. Arguably, the film peaks early when Dourif - his eyes intense, his face coated with flop-sweat - growls a monologue about the Viet Cong torturing American POW with rats. Dourif actually contributes little to the plot, mostly existing to pad the body count, but his typically unhinged performance is doubtlessly the highlight of the film.

“Graveyard Shift” might also have something deeper on its mind then crazy actors being chomped on by a rat-monster. The people employed at the mill work there because they have few other options. It’s a miserable job, with terrible hours and in intense heat. The boss promises his workers a tiny raise if they help him clean out the basements, an even shittier job. The rats in the factory are representative of both of the workers and their employees. They’re just trying to survive and are crapped on by everyone above, like the rats. The boss, however, is figuratively a “rat,” blackmailing and backbiting those around him into servitude. At first, I was wondering if Warwick and the rat monster might actually be one and the same, in a werewolf-style twist. Most of the people who die crossed him first. Each time an employee dies, the boss, dispassionately, slips a new “help wanted” sign on the door. Disappointingly, the movie doesn’t follow up on this.

In truth, any blue collar subtext “Graveyard Shift” is forgotten by the bonkers last act. After digging into the sub-basement, the remaining survivors fall into an underground cavern. They land on a huge pile of human bones. The remnants of a building stand in the middle of cave, surrounded by rotting wood and shallow puddles. Warwick goes totally nuts, becoming a murderous villain. It’s hinted at throughout the film, a wing or a tail visible, but at this point the audience gets a clear view at the movie’s monster. The creature seems to combine the grossest attributes of both rats and bats. It has the bat’s transparent wings, blind eyes, and large ears. It has the rat’s nude tail and grey, slimy body. As a special effect, the monster moves a little awkwardly. As a monster, it’s still pretty cool looking.

It’s a bit disappointing that “Graveyard Shift” had the potential to be something better then it was. The sets are extremely well-lit and atmospheric. A scene that has Dourif exploring the near-by graveyard works really well. The script is poorly structured, lurching into a finale awkwardly and never addressing a few important plot points. The movie could have gone in either directly, committing to being a blue collar horror-fable or a nutty monster movie. Instead, it’s stuck between the two extremes, making it interestingly odd but not quite fulfilling. [6/10]

So Weird: Werewolf

It’s nice to see that “So Weird” is going to put its stamp on some classic monster concepts. While spending some time with a family of friends, Fiona befriends the couple’s adopted daughter, Laura. She has the enthusiasm normal to a girl that age but something seems off about her. Meanwhile, at night, a strange creature has been spotted killing the town’s livestock. When Fi finds a press-on nail in one of the footsteps left by the creature, she puts two and two together. Now that she knows Laura is a werewolf, what should she do about it?

“Werewolf” is probably the scariest episode of the series thus far. In order to confirm her theory, and prove she’s not crazy to Jack and Cary, Fiona and the boys wander into the woods after dark. Soon enough, they are pursued by the wolf. The episode never actually shows the werewolf. Instead, it falls back on what I call “monster-o-vision,” swooshing point-of-view cameras with a funny color filter added on. Unlike in season one episode “Strangeling,” this proves weirdly effective. Fiona, Jack, and Cary seemed genuinely panicked and just avoid getting attacked by the monster more then once. I can imagine this episode giving really young viewers nightmares at the time which, ironically, makes it a better Halloween episode then yesterday’s actual Halloween episode.

Aside from its thrills, “Werewolf” is also surprisingly emotion. Laura asking to sleep in Fiona’s bed because she’s scared sets up her emotional vulnerability. After chasing her around as a wolf, Laura reverts back to a scared little girl on the tour bus, having a heart-to-heart with Fiona as the sun comes up. Instead of her parents and the townsfolk being frightened, they all band together around the girl, accepting her and determined to help her. Which is actually rather touching. Imagine that, an episode of an old kid’s show that is funny, scary, sweet, and creates a moral about accepting people who are different without being trite. See, I told you “So Weird” was a good show. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Easel Kill Ya

“Easel Kill Ya” doesn’t have the most original premise, even for a “Tales from the Crypt” episode. A hard-on-his-luck painter, and recovering alcoholic, hasn’t sold a painting in a while and the bill collectors are starting to call. He meets a nice young girl who likes him at an A.A. meeting but even that doesn’t inspire his creative juices again. Inspiration does strike, however, when he accidentally murders a vagrant outside his apartment. After that, he murders someone, snaps a photo of the corpse, and then paints with the victim’s blood. His work catches the attention of a morbid millionaire but Jack doesn’t know how much longer he can keep this up.

Like I said, “Easel Kill Ya” is a story that has been told before, in H.G.L.’s “Color Me Blood Red” and “A Bucket of Blood,” which I reviewed earlier this season. The episode is mostly worth watching for two reasons. Tim Roth gives a delightfully nasty portrayal as Jack. The dude is so sleazy that you wonder why he hasn’t murdered before. He’s creepy enough that you can’t imagine the romantic subplot going well. The girl probably would have run out on him long before she discovered his collection of snuff photos. There’s some solid gore, like when an old lady gets impaled on a pair of hedge clippers, and a steamy sex scene. I’ll admit I didn’t see the final twist coming, even though I probably should have. I bet Tim Roth fans will get a real kick out of “Easel Kill Ya,” a not-spectacular but still entertaining tale. [7/10]

Friday, September 26, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 26

The Mysterians (1957)
Chikyû Bôeigun / Earth Defense Force

By ‘57, the alien invasion genre was well established in America, clichés about flying saucers and little green men already ingrained in the popular culture. I guess it took Japan a while to catch up. “The Mysterians” came close to claiming the title of Japan’s first technicolor sci-fi extravaganza. Sneaky Daiei beat it by a year, with their “Warning from Space.” Either way, “The Mysterians” was still an event. It was the first film ever shot in the studio’s trademark TohoScope technology. Further more, it was the first time the alien invasion genre and the kaiju genre were intermingled, the Mysterians followed by the Xiliens, the Kilaaks, and who knows how many others.

The film begins with a scenic festival on one of the tinier Japanese islands, men and women clad in kimonos, watching traditional dances. The celebration is interrupted when a fire tears through the village. Not long after that, a giant robot drills itself way out of the Japanese countryside, attacking the military. The Mysterians, aliens from an undiscovered planet between Mars and Jupiter, have invaded Earth, their underground lair already in place. At first, their demands seem somewhat reasonable. Several kilometers of territory, some human women to repopulate their species with. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Mysterians do not come in peace. The armies of the world fight back, the aliens repelling their forces.

“The Mysterians” seems to owe a debt to “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The Mysterians’ home world was destroyed by a nuclear war. Their arrival is laced with warnings about the H-bomb and how we must not destroy ourselves like they did. However, the film’s anti-nuclear theme is more general and not incorporated into most of the story. “The Mysterians,” instead, carries on Ishiro Honda’s preferred theme of world unity. The nations of the world work together to fight the alien invaders. The film ultimately takes place in the idealized world of fifties sci-fi, where people learn to put their petty differences behind them and human ingenuity beats back a greater foe.

The titular aliens prove memorable. They wear color coded outfits, bobble-headed helmets, huge belt/holster combos, and silky capes. The pastel colored uniforms would, doubtlessly, be an influence on later Japanese pop culture. Compare the Mysterians to the cast of Goranger, for example. We never get a good look at their faces, which makes their story of nuclear mutation more implied then explicit. Their method of invasion is what’s really interesting. They show up, make a few small demands, but nothing too outrageous. However, the Mysterians aren’t interested in peaceful co-existence, only tyrannical rule. They intend to enforce their laws over the Earth in time. It’s an intriguing story, themes of imperialism bubbling just below the surface. Is it too much to imagine the Mysterians as Nazis and the Earth as Poland?

“The Mysterians” was originally conceived as only a story about visitors from the stars. The finished product, mostly, conforms to that vision. However, after the massive success of “Godzilla” and “Rodan,” producer Tomiyuka Tanaka demanded a giant monster be inserted into the movie. Enter: Moguera, the giant samurai mole robot. The kaiju’s hasty insertion into the story is fairly obvious. Moguera drills his way out of a mountain within the first twenty minutes. He confronts the military and blows up some soldiers with his laser eyes, before being downed by an exploding bridge. That’s pretty much it for the robot, save an embarrassing appearance late in the film. What’s sillier about the mech’s design?  Its needle nose or sunglasses eyes? The serrated fin down its back or the lagging tail? The giant skirt or lime green legs? My money is on the twiddling antenna attached to its head. Moguera is slow and clumsy, Haruo Nakajima not providing much personality to the character. However, the robot’s attack is still one of the best sequences in a good film, mostly thanks to Akira Ifukubi’s propulsive score and the blazing pyrotechnics. Just as the scene gets really good, Moguera stumbles over a bridge, falling over dead. No wonder the guy didn’t show up again until 1994.

Akihiko Hirata plays another avuncular scientist. His Ryoichi discovers Mysterion and, at first, appears to be in league with the aliens. It doesn’t help his case that he seems all too willing to dump his girlfriend. However, Ryoichi is more complicated then that, mostly joining up with the invaders because, unlike the rest of Earth, they actually acknowledge his research. When he realizes they’re no good, he turns on them, Hirata sacrificing himself once again to stop their forces. Kenji Sahara is less interesting as the film’s hero, as he’s not given a lot to do. Heroines Yumi Shirakawa and Momoko Kochi look very nice but neither are much more then damsel in distress, rather literally when they’re randomly abducted by horny aliens in the last reel. The always notable Takashi Shimura shows up as another elder statesman type, doing his thing.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call “The Mysterians” a horror movie. Aside from Moguera’s brief appearance, it’s barely a kaiju flick. However, the movie frequently aired on late night creature feature shows back in the day, making it another monster kid favorite. It’s not as much fun as Toho’s other genre classics but I found plenty to enjoy here nevertheless. [7/10]

Night of the Demons (2009)

“Night of the Demons” struck me as an odd candidate for a remake. It’s not like the series has much name recognition to non-devotees to eighties horror flicks. Presumably, this one got greenlit during the same remake-mania that led to new versions of quasi-obscurities like “My Bloody Valentine” and “Aprils Fool Days.”  Like the latter film, it winded up going straight to home media, where it was ignored by most everyone, including fans of the original.

Since “teenagers throw a party in a haunted house” is apparently too quint a premise for modern audiences, this remake adds a bunch of extra shit to the “Night of the Demons” set-up. The location shifts to New Orleans, which is only like the second or third most overused setting for a horror film. Angela is no longer a teenager but now an adult who makes a business of throwing parties. For the location for her wild Halloween night party, she chooses Broussard House, one of those old Louisianian mansions with a long history of bad juju. After the cops show up, most everyone leaves save for Angela’s closest friends. After stumbling into a hidden room full of ancient skeletons, the party-goers slowly become possessed by evil spirits, as it was in 1988, as it was in 2009.

Even though it’s only four years old, “Night of the Demons ‘09” reeks badly of turn-of-the-century generic horror movie style. This is not surprising, as the film was created by director/writer team Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson, the same team that made generic turn-of-the-century horror movies like “Autopsy,” “Toolbox Murders,” “Mother of Tears,” and other shit. The simple teenagers of the eighties are now twenty-something adults, played by gorgeous Hollywood actors and also Edward Furlong. The goth and punk-rock energy of the original has been filed away in favor of flashy debauchery. The characters all swear a lot. The movie has its share of cheap jump scares and gross-out antics. Faces and limbs do that annoying “Jacob’s Ladder” shaking thing. Monsters climb on walls and scoot around at super speed. The visual palette and direction aren’t very interesting. The movie’s attempts at humor are smarmy, vulgar and self-serving.

One of the things I liked about the original “Night” was its simple but elegant mythology. Gierasch and Anderson, naturally, complicate this too. Bad shit just happened at Hull House. At Broussard House, the demons were kicked out of hell for being too fucking evil. Some ill-defined loophole allows the demons to possess living humans and bring about hell on Earth. Despite needing their victims to be alive, the demons still go about killing people. Also, for some reason, they can’t leave the house. This is all the work of the home’s original owners in the 1920s. All of this information is unceremoniously dumped on the viewer during an exposition-heavy sequence in the middle of the movie. What, an underground stream was too easy for you people?

Broussard House lacks all the atmosphere of moody, dilapidated Hull House. The writers clearly did not have enough material for a feature length film. The middle section of the movie has the protagonists locked in a safe room in the mansions, with the demons mocking them from outside. The movie quickly sets into a cycle of the demons tricking the humans out of the protected room before the heroes get away and run back to safety. There’s little of the eccentricity that highlighted the 1988 version's cast. Final girl Maddie has two friends, both of which are undefined sexy kitty. They’re so interchangeable that the girls wear the same Halloween costume. Shannon Elizabeth’s Angela is a generic sexy villain with none of the charm of Mimi Kinkade’s spooky goth girl. Edward Furlong plays a drug dealer on some sort of redemption arc. The final girl makes an incredibly trite transformation into a shotgun wielding badass in the last act. The movie attempts to be funny but mostly falls back on crass language and gay panic jokes.

There’s not much to recommend about “Night of the Demons ‘09” but there are a handful of things I like about it. Most of the make-up effects are practical in nature. Angela’s design is kind of cool, with big looping horns growing out of her head. There’s some decent gore, with a full face ripping being the most notable example. The flashbacks to the 1920s are all done as a silent movie, which is neat. The movie doesn’t skimp on the T&A, though whether or not the, ahem, enhanced actresses of this version appeal to you is a matter of opinion. There’s some fun call-backs to the first film, like a cute cameo from Linnea Quigley. As in the original, the soundtrack is pretty good, though it’s definitely lacking the Bauhaus.

There’s not much of the lovable characters, quotable dialogue, or creative energy that made the original so beloved in this remake. I don’t hate the 2009 version of “Night of the Demons” so much as I am completely indifferent to it. The original was a fun horror gem while the remake offers nothing that can’t be seen in a thousand other movies. Can it go and eat a bowl of fuck? Yeah, sure, it can go ahead and eat some fucks. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Reluctant Vampire

Ah, “Tales from the Crypt” is in a goofy mood. “The Reluctant Vampire” is exactly the type of story you think it is. Donald Longtooth is a vampire that doesn’t care much for killing. Instead, he fills his need for blood by working as a night watchman at a blood bank, sipping from the supply when no one’s looking. The bank’s secretary, Sally, develops feeling for Donald while trying to avoid her sleazy boss’s advances. Donald finds it difficult to return the girl’s affection without his teeth popping out. When Donald finally does kill, targeting only criminals and scumbags and putting some of the blood back in the bank, he attracts the attention of the local vampire hunter, Rupert Van Helsing.

“The Reluctant Vampire” is mostly a series of goofy vampire-related sight gags. Donald awakes to an alarm clock and pops in fanged dentures. His coffin then folds up into the wall like a Murphy bed. His best friend is a rat named Leopold. Before draining his victims, he asks them a long list of blood-related questions. The broadest gag comes when Donald drains a street thug, pumping the blood in a bottle. He has to leap on the body’s chest to get all the blood out. As silly as the script is, a strong cast helps. Malcolm McDowell gets a rare oppretunity to show off his goofy side, which goes well. When Michael Berryman plays so many villains and weirdos, its nice to see him as the heroic Van Helsing here. George Wendt is fun as the asshole blood bank owner and Paul Gleason does a spin on his usual “grouchy authority figure” role. This one is about as minor as an episode can get but is worth a decent laugh or two. [7/10]

So Weird: Boo

Yea, a Halloween episode! On Halloween day, the tour bus rolls into a town with a large Celtic population that seemingly knows nothing about the holiday. This is a-okay with Fiona, who thinks Halloween trivializes her serious interests. (Jack and Cary, rightfully, mock her for this.) After night falls, the spirits of the dead roam the town. Fi meets up with an eccentric man who, as part of a ritual to prosper the town, spent a year among the dead. Eager to return to the world of the living, he plans to make the Philips family his replacements.

A prominent name you might notice in the opening credits of “So Weird” is, among the producers, Henry Winkler. The former Fonz walks on screen as Fergus McGarrity, the man among the dead. He gives an embarrassingly silly performance, mugging it up furiously and flailing around in obnoxious displays of physical comedy. It’s a shame that Winkler’s performance is so distracting because, otherwise, “Boo” probably would have been a lot of fun. Knowing that Fiona dislikes Halloween sets her up for, inevitably, learning to love the holiday. There’s some decent seasonal flavor in this episode, what with the decorations and the pale-faced ghouls wandering around. The plot is nothing special but the resolution, which involves the whole Philips family dressing up, is fun enough. I had high hopes for a “So Weird” Halloween episode and it falls short of my expectations but I still can’t hate this show. [6/10]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 25

Rodan (1956)
Sora no daikaiju Radon / Rodan! The Flying Monster!

After the success of the first two “Godzilla” movies, Japan had officially entered the Age of the Kaiju. “Godzilla Raids Again,” while still popular, was not as big of a hit as its predecessor. Toho put their star monster in cold storage for seven years and turned their attention to creating a new giant monster. “Rodan” has many things in common with the original “Gojira.” Both revolve around a giant dinosaur, awoken and mutated by nuclear test, rampaging across Japan. However, there are a few important differences. “Rodan” was the first kaiju movie filmed in color. More pressingly, Rodan was the first giant monster to fly, presenting effects master Eiji Tsubaraya with a new set of challenges.

The film opens in the small mining town of Kitamatsu. Two men disappear following a mine shaft flood, greatly concerning Kiyo, the sister of one of the disappeared miners, and her fiancé Shigeru. Not long after that, sliced up bodies begin to wash out of the mine. A giant insect with razor sharp claws quickly emerges. The car-sized larva turns out to be only the beginning. An earthquake unearths Rodan, a giant pteranodon. The flying creature strikes the world into terror even before he attacks Japan. Rodan isn’t alone, though, and is soon joined by a mate. Can the military stop the two monsters before they breed?

Toho’s kaiju flicks are generally thought of as non-stop monster bashes. In truth, the early films always took their time with revealing their star creatures. “Rodan” is especially deliberately paced. The first half of the film is focused exclusively on the Meganulon, the giant larvae terrorizing the mineshafts. There’s no hint that a giant, flying dinosaur is going to be the primary threat of the film in these early scenes. When Rodan does fly into focus, he’s steeped in mystery, seen only as a briefly glimpsed, speeding shape. A few jets are destroyed and newscasters the world over report on sightings of the strange creatures. Rodan isn’t revealed in full until over an hour in. It’s an interesting choice, and one that successfully builds up the monster as a threat. But fidgety viewers might find their patience tested.

However, once Rodan finally appears, he’s an impressive sight. The monster, flying at supersonic speeds, leads the Japanese air force on an intense chase through the sky. The chase concludes with the pteranodon being shot down into a river. Rodan emerges, flapping his wings, the first good look the audience gets at him. The camera focuses on the people evacuating Fukuoka and the military marching in. It’s a common sight in Toho’s sci-fi films but, for some reason, it builds more tension here. Rodan, releasing its eerie screech, beats his wings over the city, blowing over trains, cars, tanks, and buildings. Depending on the quality of the print you’re watching, the wires holding Rodan or the jets aloft can be more visible. Which isn’t really Tsuburiya’s fault. Rodan, generally, looks better here then he would in his somewhat awkward future appearances. Being filmed in color, the movie does not create the same sense of stark horror as “Godzilla” did, save for one long shot of the burning city. But as destruction porn for monster junkies? Yeah, it’s good stuff.

One of the best sequences in the film occurs about halfway through. Shigeru, after being struck with amnesia, suddenly remembers what he saw in the mine. He remembers seeing Rodan hatching from its egg. The baby Rodan is kind of cute but, more importantly, easily eats the Meganulon, the primary threat for the first half of the film. This sets up the creatures as a serious adversary but also makes it clear that Rodan is a simple animal, not just a murderous monster. The late film appearance of the second Rodan is a weakness in the script, the creature coming out of nowhere. Without it though, the final images of “Rodan” wouldn’t be as powerful as they are. The two pteranodons are cornered in their nest at Mount Aso. The military bombards both dinosaurs with missiles, until the volcano erupts. One Rodan is caught in the lava, burning to death. Its mate joins it in death, choosing to die with its companion. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s mournful score, the audience feels for the kaiju as they die. As in all great monster films, the mighty beast incur both fear and sympathy.

“Rodan” is mostly free of the subtext that powered “Godzilla.” During one brief scene, the film’s scientist hero, played by Toho regular Akihiko Hirata, theorizes that nuclear testing might have awoken Rodan. The scene is shot in a quiet, still manner, more somber then the rest of the film. Besides that moment, “Rodan” is a fairly typical giant monster flick. Another cue it takes from “Godzilla” is the romantic subplot. However, it doesn’t handle it as well. Shigeru is seemingly the film’s main character but he disappears for long stretches of the run time. Kiyo, his fiancé, has to struggle through his amnesia. This is hardly the focus of the film though. The film tries to incorporate the two lovers into the finale but this mostly amounts to them standing back and watching the action. “Rodan” does not have the strongest constructed screenplay of Toho’s monster films.

“Rodan” is mostly a re-trend of “Godzilla” but, as far as re-trends go, it’s a fairly successful one. Ishiro Honda’s direction is solid. Ifukube’s score is rousing, sinister, sad, and manages to make a bird’s egg hatching unnerving. The monster effects are cool and sure to please fans. Rewatching the film, I wonder if it would have been spookier in black-and-white. Perhaps Honda was still learning how to make color effective. Or maybe “Rodan” is the light-weight creature feature it was meant to be. [7/10]

Night of the Demons 3 (1997)

You’d expect all of the “Night of the Demons” films to have been quickly released over a short period. In actuality, there was a decent amount of time between each entry, placing each film in a different era of horror. The first came during the last wave of great, eighties creature features. The second, six years later, was released during the peak of popularity for video stores. By 1997, when “Night of the Demons 3” was released, horror had changed again. The cheap thrills of the “Night of the Demons” series was starting to seem rusty. An attempt to make the series edgier resulted in a wildly different tone and a film less likable then the previous two.

Original creator Kevin S. Tenney returned to write “Night of the Demons 3.” Perhaps sensing that the “teens throw a party at Hull House” plot line wouldn’t work a third time, he cooked up a different sort of story. On Halloween night, a group of teens are driving around in their van, looking for a way to pass their night. After picking up a pair of teenage girls, they stop by a gas station to buy some beer with a fake ID. This quickly goes wrong, guns are pulled, a cop is blown through a window, and one of the teens is shot. Looking for a place to hide, the troubled teens shack up in Hull House. As on every Halloween night since 1988, Angela is waiting…

“Night of the Demons 3” isn’t funny. Any attempt at humor amounts to a few bad puns from Angela and some yo-mama jokes. Instead of the off-beat humor featured in the first two films, part three goes the darker and grittier route. The batch of teens this time around are largely an unpleasant collection of characters. Ringleader Vince is a major asswipe, being the one who pulls the gun on the cops earlier and remaining that antagonistic throughout. His girlfriend Lois is a budding sadist, getting a little too excited by the violence going on around her. Orson is desperate for the approval of his scumbag friends. Black guy Reggie is too fond of cracking bad jokes. You wonder why half-way decent final guy Nick even hangs out with them. Moreover, the third entry is sexier then the already-pretty-sexy previous entries. There are multiple sex scenes but they all have a greasy, sleazy edge. Even after Lois has her hand turned into a snake, she goes in for a little self-pleasure. “Night of the Demons 3” ditches the fun exploitation of the previous films in favor of something harder edged and nastier.

This might not be a problem if the kills were at least fun. At one point, Angela shoves her tongue all the way through a guy’s head, two years after “Species” did the exact same thing. One victim is run over by a van while another has his heart ripped out in an uninspired manner. The gore in the film is generally uninteresting. It’s also hampered by some bad early CGI. For some unknown reason, there’s now a swirly, computer-generated portal everyone passes through when leaving Hull House. A throwing star early on is created through lousy CGI too. Hull House pictured here looks nothing like the sets from previous film, which is even more embarrassing when stock footage from the first movie is employed more then once.

Part three generally lacks the creativity and energy that characterized the other films in the series. The girl dressed in a cat suit for Halloween gets turned into a cat. The girl with a snake hand-puppet on has her hand turned into a snake. The guy wearing a demon mask is turned into a literal demon. You get the idea. You know things are bad when the best moment in the film is when Angela literally sucks the bullets out of a gun. The cast is weak, too. Final girl Holly, played by Stephanie Bauder, is bland as can be. Patricia Rodriguez as her best friend Abbie quickly falls into the lame soothsayer role. Kristen Holden-Ried as obnoxious asshole Vince definitely gives the worst performance in the film. I kind of like Viasta Vrana as the magic trick obsessed police lieutenant but even he spends most of the film driving around in circles.

About the only interesting thing “Night of the Demons 3” does is showing what happens when a demon tries to cross the underwater stream. The film then wraps up with an unpromising sequel hook, the characters promising to return every year. This wasn’t to be. Even Mimi Kinkade seems kind of bored. “Night of the Demons 3” is uninspired and a bit of a chore to get through. It’s, sadly, representative of what direct-to-video horror was like around 1997. Angela deserved better. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Dead Wait

Like “Carrion Death,” “Dead Wait” is another episode that easily could have fit into either EC’s horror or crime comics, before grislier elements grow into the story. The episode follows red-headed thief, nicknamed “Red” for obvious reasons. After killing his partner, he heads to Haiti, a country about to be torn apart by revolution. There he befriends a local millionaire, dying from parasites, with plans to steal the man’s rare black pearl. He also has his eyes on the millionaire’s mistress. Meanwhile, the voodoo priestess of the house takes her own interest in Red.

“Dead Wait” is another “Tales” episode with a great cast. James Remar is perfectly cast as the slimy, opportunistic Red, the kind of part Remar has played plenty of times over the years. John Rhys-Davis gets to have a little more fun then usual as the dying Duval, laughing off the in-coming war. Even secret horror fan Whoopi Goldberg, which seems like stunt-casting, does a decent job as the voodoo priestess. (Vanity, on the other hand, doesn’t impress. Though her enthusiastic sex scene isn’t to be missed.) Though mostly a twisty story of back-stabbing and double-crossing, “Dead Wait” gets nicely gory by the end of the episode. Rhys-Davis swallows the black pearl to sneak it out of the country. In response, Remar shoots him and cuts open his gut, squeezing the pearl out of his intestine. There’s a catch though: Duval is dying from intestinal worms, which adds an extra gross layer. Most viewers will see the twist ending coming but, like all “Tales” ending, seeing the bad guy punished is fairly satisfying. The host segments are fun too, as Whoopi joins the Crypt Keeper and pokes fun at her own image. Over all, “Dead Wait” is a fun one. [7/10]

So Weird: Mutiny

“So Weird” has done the possessing spirit plot line before, in season one’s “Will O’ the Wisp.” “Mutiny” puts a decent spin on it though. While on a town on the beach, Fi, Jack, Cary, and Clu are left on the bus with Ned while their moms are in L.A. Combing the beach, Fi finds a piece of driftwood inscribed with a strange symbol. Clu gives the wood to his dad, after discovering he’s been accepted into college. After holding the wood, Ned begins to act strangely, violent and authoritative.

“Mutiny” is an episode with amazingly low stakes. However, the presentation ends up helping a lot. Throughout the episode, any time someone holds the driftwood, they get a flash of past events: A first-person perspective of a man holding onto a wooden door as the room around him floods with water. It’s not too hard to figure out that Ned is possessed by the spirit of a dead sea captain. This information is revealed to the audience during a monologue from guest star Ken Pogue, as the curator of the local seaside museum. The speech is shown over the flashback footage and images of a painting of a crashed ship. It’s surprisingly effective. Possessed Ned treating a tour bus like it’s a ship is a bit silly but Dave “Squatch” Ward gives a good performance, especially when he’s locked in a room by the kids. The emotional heart of the episode comes when non-possessed Ned finds out his son has gotten into the college. Though he’s proud of Clu, he’s also going to miss his kid. After the supernatural plot is resolved, this subplot comes back into focus, leading to a good moment. Even though it’s not the first episode of season two to have explicit horror elements, “Mutiny” is the first really effectively spooky episode of the season. The results are a bit shaky but the show successfully captures the feeling of a sea-side ghost story. [7/10]