Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 19, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 19

The Lost World (1925)

Most probably assume the kaiju genre began with Godzilla. If you define the genre as guys in rubber suits wrecking miniature sets, it more-or-less did. If you define the genre as giant monsters stomping cities, it’s much older, older then even Kong. That classic film, with its plot of a great animal brought from a lost world to the modern world and Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, wouldn’t have happened without 1925’s “The Lost World,” a silent era adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal science-fiction adventure.

Despite being adapted and ripped-off countless times over the years, I don’t think the story is that well-known. Set in turn-of-the-century London, the film follows Dr. Challenger, a fiery scientist being laughed at by his peers for his stories of still-living dinosaurs. This story is from Maple White, an explorer who claimed to discover dinosaurs atop a huge plateau in Venezuela. White’s daughter, Paula, hopes Challenger can get a trip to the plateau sponsored, in hopes of rescuing her lost father. Eventually, the money comes through, after news reporter Edward Malone, sportsman John Roxton, and Professor Summerlee latch themselves to Challenger’s crazy ideas. Atop the plateau they, of course, discover a bunch of friggin’ dinosaurs.

I find something comforting about silent cinema. The audible hum of the reel, the color-correction of the film, the shadowy footage of the movies themselves. All of this is incredibly tactile, giving silent films a unique grit and appeal. “The Lost World” features plenty of the trademarks you associated with the format. There’s a pinch of romantic melodrama. Malone journeys to the plateau just to impress his off-screen fiancĂ©. Naturally, he falls for Paula and the two swear their loves to each other. The comic relief can be quite broad. When Challenger finds out Malone is a reporter, he punches the boy, the two rolling down the stairs of his apartment. Unfortunately, there’s a buffoonish man-servant in black face who speaks in embarrassingly broken English. Many of the characters aren’t very interesting but I found the determined, argumentative Challenger to be really interesting and charming.

The opening scenes set in London are a bit dry. Things pick up considerably once the characters get to the titular lost world. The plateau, a thin black shape reaching up into the sky, makes for a highly memorable image. A reoccurring adversary of the film is a demonic-looking ape man that pester the heroes a few times. The ape man’s make-up brings Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde to mind.

But we’re here for the dinosaurs. The first dinosaur seen, a flying pterodactyl, flaps on-screen unceremoniously, suddenly spied from the ground. The stop-motion effects are crude now but were considered mind-blowingly realistic at the time. Some have aged better then others. A few shots, such as a pair of Allosauruses dueling, are choppy and unconvincing. Others, however, are still impressive. The close-ups on the dinosaur’s faces show an incredible amount of expression and character. The T-Rex flaps his jaws and whips his tail. The Brontosaurus sneers aggressively. The fight between the two biggest dinosaurs ends with another unforgettable sight, the bronto falling from the top of the plateau. Other memorable moments include a family of Triceratops fighting off a predator and a nest of freshly hatched dinos caught in the path of an erupting volcano.

What truly makes “The Lost World” a predecessor to the Japanese kaiju flicks is its final act. We don’t see the brontosaurus carried back to London, the shipment happening off-screen. Heck, we don’t even see it escape captivity, another character explaining this. However, we do see the dinosaur rampage through his new location. The brontosaurus menaces a fleeing woman with the claws on his feet. He sniffs a lantern, is shocked by its heat, and smashes a store front in retaliation. The dino attack is ultimately a small moment of the film, tucked in at the very end. However, it’s undoubtedly the best part of “The Lost World.” The dinosaur gets away too. It waddles onto London Bridge, only for the landmark to collapse under its wait. As the Brontosaur wades back home, Dr. Challenger sadly watches it go, dismayed that his scientific discovery has gotten away.

“The Lost World” probably would not be a good first choice for an inexperienced silent film watcher. The film lacks the intense black-and-white atmosphere of the Expressionistic films of Germany or the early Universal monster movies. It also relies a bit too much on title cards, creating a creaky effect. The public domain release I have is scored to a rendition of “Swan Lake,” making the dinosaur battles unintentional, and humorous, ballets. These things didn’t stop the movie from being a huge hit in its day, grossing 1.3 million in 1925 dollars. Though slightly awkward, its influence on future films is undeniable and is a good time for experienced dinosaur and monster movie fans. [7/10]

Return of the Living Dead II (1988)

At the start of last year’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon, I watched the original “Return of the Living Dead” which is a great movie to open any horror marathon with. Considering this, it seemed logical to open this year’s Blog-a-Thon with the sequels to that film. I hadn’t seen “Return of the Living Dead II” in years but remembered not caring for it. That’s the general consensus but the sequel does have some defenders. Either way, nothing says Halloween like new wave zombies.

“Return of the Living Dead II” is one of those sequels that function on the “More of the same!” principal. The sequel is blatantly derivative of the original. Both begin with barrels of Trioxin being displaced. In both, an innocent party stumbles upon the gas, accidentally releasing it. In both, the gas wafts over a near-by graveyard, resurrecting the cemetery’s entire population. The film even brings back Thom Mathews and James Karen. Despite playing different characters, they have the exact same character arcs. They are normal humans who, after being exposed to the Trioxin, slowly and painfully transform into zombies. Despite patterning itself so closely after the first film, “Return of the Living Dead II’ does not reference the zombie outbreak in Louisville at all. The affect of the gas is quite different too, with these zombies being slower and more vocal. All of this points to a lazily written screenplay.

The first “Return” was a horror-comedy and a hilarious one at that. The sequel copies this aspect too but, like everything else, it half-asses it. In the original, the zombies were funny because of how their behavior contrasted with the rest of the movie. This allowed the zombies be funny without robbing them of their scare factor. In part 2, the zombies are undead goofballs. A secretary zombie puts her glasses on after pulling herself out of her grave. One zombie gets repeatedly stepped on while attempting to surface. A decapitated head is stabbed with a screwdriver, causing it to usher some lame one-liners. The bad joke cracking head returns for the final scene too. By the time a zombie in a “Thriller” jacket shambles on-screen, I was screaming "END IT!” There’s far too much silly undead shenanigans in this one.

The movie’s painfully unfunny humor seems to be a result of its new kid-friendly direction. Making a kid-friendly zombie movie sounds like an awful idea and, in execution, it mostly is. One of the main characters is Jesse, a tween kid who reads comics and gets bullied. His primary bully eventually becomes a zombie, leading to a climatic showdown between the two kids. Trying to do the “Monster Squad” thing with zombies is a horribly inappropriate idea but not necessarily a terrible one. Mostly, it’s the shrill, obnoxious way the movie handles it. Jesse gets out of too many scraps he should have been eaten in. To make it clear how little the writers respected the original, early on Jesse shoves the Tar Man, the MVP of the first film, into a river. That’s the Tar Man’s sole appearance in the film too.

“Return” part 1 applied prime eighties special effects to the zombie genre, creating some fantastic looking ghouls. The quality of effects in part 2 decline sharply. The zombie’s all have similarly constructed faces, with broad foreheads and angular chins. Unlike the varied zombies in the first, all of these guys wear tattered suits. There are a few attempts to add personalities to the undead masses. One zombie has worms squirming in its face. Another gets its jaw torn off, causing a tongue to lob around. However, the special effects are more rubbery and cartoonish looking then last time. The gore is also stepped way back. I think there’s only one on-screen brain munching. What the hell kind of crime is that? The zombie behavior is also different this time around too. They all shamble, instead of running, and they have a bizarre, previously unmentioned weakness to electricity.

Bringing back Thom Mathews and James Karen was a blatant attempt to appeal to fans. Especially since they’re stuck in a similar situation. Karen’s Ed is no Frank though. He gets religion after being gassed, pleading and whining for divine forgiveness. Thom’s Joey undergoes the exact same scenario as part 1’s Freddy. The only difference this time is that he’s more successful in eating his girlfriend’s brain. Disappointingly, both characters are suddenly dropped before the last act. The little boy’s older sister and a random hunky cable man are the primary heroes. The town doctor is annoying, even if he gets to toss brains to the zombie hordes. The characters here are bland at best and obnoxious at worst.

“Return of the Living Dead II” is not a good sequel. The film’s attempts at humor are dangerously unfunny. The characters are not endearing. It comes off like a lamer rip-off of the fantastic original. Amazingly, the attempt to make the sequel kid-friendly paid off, at least in my home town. My local video store stocked this one in the Kid’s Section, right next to the Disney tapes and “The Never-Ending Story.” The people who ran my local video store were dumb. So is this movie. [4/10]

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

I can’t imagine there was much of a demand for a new “Return of the Living Dead” movie in 1993, especially since part 2 sucked and the eighties’ horror boom had dried up by then. For whatever reason, the living dead returned for a third time. Directed by Brian Yunza, an eccentric but inconsistent talent, the third flick jettisoned comedy in favor of supernatural-tinged romantic tragedy. This made the movie a cult hit in its day and, weirdly, predicted the post-“Twilight” obsession with love stories featuring monsters and ghoulies. Who would’ve guessed that the first “sexy zombie” movie came out in 1993.

In the years since part two, the military still hasn’t figured out how to destroy the Trioxin gas or the indestructible zombies it creates. As military institutions are prone to do in movies like this, they decide to turn them into weapons. The freeze guns they’ve cooked up still aren’t very good at stopping the undead. The teenage son of Col. Reynolds, Curt, and his hot girlfriend Julie sneak into his dad’s place of work, seemingly because they think it’ll be cool. There, they witness the Trioxin experiment. Later that night, Curt crashes his motorcycle, Julie dying in the collision. The heart-broken teen drags his dead girlfriend back to the laboratory, reviving her with the gas. The kid’s attempt to bring his girl back results in another zombie outbreak and certainly puts a cramp in Curt and Julie’s love lives.

Like I said, “Return 3” isn’t funny like its predecessor. In fact, the film’s bleak earnestness is one of its best attributes. It still has more in common with the original then the overly goofy second entry. The lead characters are, once again, teenagers dressed in whatever fashion passed for “punk” in the early nineties. The love story between Curt and Julie is, on the surface, nothing special. It’s the typical troubled teen plot. Curt’s dad is an asshole and doesn’t approve of his son’s life-style. We don’t spend very much time with Curt and Julie before the zombie plot gets rolling. However, we spend just enough time that the audience buys their affection for one another. The actors, Mindy Clarke and J. Trevor Edmond, have great chemistry with each other. The way she crawls over him makes it seem like Clarke was genuinely into the guy. It’s a good thing the audience buys the love story, as it’s the motivator for the entire film. As Julie becomes a self-mutilating zombie, the film becomes about a decomposing relationship. The ending has Curt rejecting the world of his father to burn with his undead girlfriend, making the movie a horror take on “Romero and Juliet.”

Speaking of Julie Walker… The reason, I suspect, so many VHS copies of “Return of the Living Dead 3” were rented back in the day was because of the cover, which featured a pierced, punked-out, partially nude Mindy Clarke. The character brought something new to the well-established zombie genre. In the first movie, we learned that zombies eat brains to dull the pain of being dead. In this one, we learn that pain can force back the hunger for brains. In order to keep her craving under control, Julie self-medicates with self-mutilating, cutting and stabbing her body. The movie’s centerpiece, and poster-lending image, is at the half-way point. Left alone, Julie goes nuts, mutilating her entire body with nails, broken glass, and whatever is lying around. The film, doubtlessly, turned an entire generation of guys on to body modification, which is particularly mainstream now. Julie is still sexy, maybe even sexier, when skewered. Her look not only quickly became a fan favorite but added a new, kinky, sexy flavor to the zombie concept.

While the special effects aren’t as ground-breaking as the original’s were in 1985, the zombies in “Return of the Living Dead 3” are still pretty cool looking. This film’s version of the Tar Man is a semi-melted zombie, its head fused to its shoulder. Quickly, the zombie tears his head away from his shoulder, revealing its skull. Though clearly a puppet, it’s still a neat idea. There are other gooey, oddball ghouls in the film. In life, a man has his head torn off, dangling by his spine. Returned as a zombie, his head bops around on the bloody spine. One of the military attempts to weaponize the zombies has mechanic exo-skeletons attached to the undead flesh. The end features a primary character, now undead, outfitted with such a device. It’s a neat image, especially once parts of the flesh are blasted away with a shotgun, leaving only bloody meat. Though featuring far fewer zombies then the first two, the movie’s atmospheric ending, which has the zombies set loose in the military warehouse, is appropriately apocalyptic.

“Return of the Living Dead 3” is kooky, creative, and features a heart-felt romance. It has its weakness. The script construction is fairly weak, with a random batch of characters wandering around through the second act before solid structure returns at the end. Curt and Julie stumble into a number of stereotypical ethnic types. There’s an Asian shop owner and a gang of embarrassingly broad Mexican hoodlums. Soon, the two teen lovers wind up in the sewer, hanging out with an eccentric homeless man named Riverman. Though Basil Wallace gives it his all, Riverman is basically the horror movie version of a Magical Negro, saving the heroes multiple types and providing sage wisdom. The stern, military types that are the film’s villains aren’t much better.

After the stink-fest of “Return of the Living Dead II,” the third part comes off a lot better. I miss the humor. Besides the Trioxin gas, I feel the film doesn’t have much connection to the others in the series. Yunza and company certainly put their own take on the zombie genre and made a memorable cult film. Weird as it sounds, it’s hard to resist the siren call of a sexy zombie chick, even if her body is full of sharp points. [7/10]

Lights Out (2013)

Earlier this year, a few of the film websites I read daily posted about a new horror short, “Lights Out,” calling it everything from creepy to extremely scary. “I’ll be the judge of that!” I though to myself. The 3-minute short’s plot is as simple as can be: A woman alone in her home, getting ready for bed, notices a strange figure appears whenever she flicks the lights out.

A premise like that is probably built for cheap jumpscares. “Lights Out” features one, the nude figure leaping across the hallway with the flick of a switch and a loud trumpet on the soundtrack. Otherwise, the film focuses on using sound design to quickly, effectively build intensity. As the woman cowers in bed, she listens for sounds of foot steps in the hallway outside, for the click of the light switch, or the creak of the door. This builds up fantastically to the final sequence, which has her reaching out from under the safety of the covers to jiggle a malfunctioning plug back in place. The final image is quick but not jarring, instead allowing the audience to soak in the ghastliness of the image. So, my verdict on “Lights Out” is indeed a positive one. It plays on common fears to create a great spook-show and shows a lot of skill and discipline. [8/10]


Kernunrex said...

The apeman looks like Teen Wolf!

Even worse for RotlD2 is that the DVD release suffers from the dreaded music replacement curse. WB (probably wisely, considering how bad the film is) didn't want to pay for any Anthrax, Robert Palmer or Monster Mash, so it's filled with crappy generic rock.

whitsbrain said...

I saw "Lights Out" a few months ago. Scared the shite out of me! Effective? I'll say!