Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 21

The Son of Kong (1933)

“King Kong” was a massive hit and remains one of the most iconic films ever made. It’s not surprising that a film that huge would spawn a sequel. However, “The Son of Kong” is a fascinating example of a sequel to a very popular and successful film that no one remembers or talks about. Before the internet came along, I didn’t know there was a sequel to “King Kong.” I bet I’m not alone in that. There’s a good reason “Son of Kong” is so obscure, especially when compared to the iconic original: It’s not a particularly good movie. It is, in many ways, the textbook definition of a cheapy sequel, quickly churned out to capitalize on the first film’s success. How quickly? “The Son of Kong” came out nine months after the original.

“Son of Kong” at least begins with an interesting idea. A month after Kong’s rampage through Manhattan, Carl Denham is broke, sued into poverty by a number of lawsuits and pursued doggedly by the courts. That seems realistic. Anyway, in order to get away from his legal troubles, Denham jumps back on a ship and heads for work in the Orient. He doesn’t find any. Instead, he finds some monkeys, the angry Norwegian sailor who originally sold him the map to Skull Island, and a charming girl who sings and plays guitar. Some stuff happens, involving murder, drunken promises of treasure, and a communist revolt among the sailors. It’s not long before Denham, the girl, the Norwegian, and some other people find their way back to Skull Island. In addition to the expected dinosaurs, the crew stumbles upon a juvenile, albino giant ape, the friendlier, goofier off-spring of King Kong.

“Son of Kong” drops all the characters from the first film except for Denham, essentially making the movie about him. Denham at least seems to feel a molecule of guilt over what he did in the first film. Not enough to actually face a jury for his crimes but enough that he mentions feeling bad about what happened to Kong. By befriending the Little Kong, saving its life, and having his life saved by the gorilla in turn, Denham learns some humility. Sadly, the script is too short-sighted. The film ends with Denham and his pals discovering some secret treasure on Skull Island and returning to America with a fortune in diamonds, enough to pay off his debts and live comfortably. This negates any character development Denham undergoes in the film. He enters the movie a cad and exits the movie a cad.

Despite only being 69 minutes long, “The Son of Kong” takes a long time getting to the gorilla. More then half of the run time is spent in the Asian port city of Dakang. The film’s heroine, credited as Hilda but referred to in the film as Helene, is sort of interesting. She’s less of a screaming damsel then Fay Wray. She sneaks onto Denham’s ship and stands up to the asshole Norwegian who murdered her dad. However, the long scenes of her playing guitar, chatting with Denham, or dancing with some monkeys are likely to bore viewers expecting a monster mash. The Son of Kong doesn’t wander on-screen until the 47-minute mark.

The Little Kong is problematic in some ways. He’s deliberately cuter then his dad. The gorilla’s facial expression is cartoonish and cutesy. After hitting his head on a rock, his eyes spin around like a cartoon character. All that’s missing are the circling birds. He immediately befriends the humans too, making Kong Jr. about as defanged as a giant killer gorilla can be.

All of this is a shame because “Son of Kong” does feature some phenomenal stop-motion effects. The smaller Kong is as vividly brought to life as his father. An extended wrestling match between the ape and a giant cave bear is a high-light, with its choke-holds and grappling. The climax of the film involves Kong Jr. fighting a dragon-like dinosaur Wikipedia identifies as a nothosaur. I especially like how the dinosaur tries to strangle the ape with its tail. Other dinosaurs are present too, like a fantastically realized Styracosaurus or an especially vicious looking Plesiosaurus which finishes off the human villain.

“The Son of Kong’ ends with Skull Island being destroyed in an earthquake and sinking beneath the waves. It’s the sort of ending that would have made further sequels difficult to make. This is probably a good thing. The film does feature some decent monster fights and has a fun leading lady in the form of Helen Mack. However, the title character is way too humanized, the script is as generic as possible, and the movie is terribly paced. No wonder no one remembers it. [5/10]

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

By the time he directed “A Bucket of Blood,” Roger Corman had already made 22 films. He had directed westerns, crime stories, teen flicks, but was most well known for his horror movies. He had worked in the genre enough that doing another straight thriller didn’t interest him. Written in one day and filmed in five, “A Bucket of Blood” is a blackly comedic riff on the beatnik culture and artistic aspirations.

Walter Paisley is a dork and a loser. Working as a busboy in a coffee house, Walter is bossed around by the café’s owner and desperate for the approval of the poets and beats that hang around the place all day. The closest things to friends he has is his nosy landlady and the nice girl at the coffee house, whom he harbors an unrequited crush on. After accidentally stabbing his landlady’s cat, he strikes upon the idea of covering the cat’s corpse in clay and selling it as a statue. He winds up killing an obnoxious narc and doing the same with his body. Walter’s “sculptures” catch the attention of the artist types, who heap praise on his creations. Walter has fame and attention. Unfortunately, he also has to keep killing in order to produce more artwork.

“A Bucket of Blood” is doubtlessly best remembered for Dick Miller’s lead performance.  Already an experienced character actor, Miller was usually cast as tough guys. Walter Paisley is very different from his usual roles. Miller subdues his naturally harsh voice, affecting a soft falsetto. He gives Paisley a slouched posture, visually suggesting the character’s lack of confidence. Walter perfectly memorizes the head beatnik’s poetry which only causes the cool kids to mock him more. The character’s perpetual outsider status makes him deeply sympathetic. Even after he starts killing, Paisley remains relatable. Despite everyone loving his work and praising him as a great artist, he is still wracked with self-doubt. He kills because he’s afraid his admirers will stop loving him. At least one murder, the strangling of a sexy model played by Judy Bamber, is spurned by the victim picking on Walter. The character’s transformation from spineless nerd to cold-blooded killer and then egotistical artist progresses too quickly. Yet Miller still makes Paisley an incredibly different sort of horror protagonist and deeply lovable.

“A Bucket of Blood” is also valuable as a satire of the art scene during the late fifties. The beatniks in the café are highly pretentious. The ringleader of the hipsters, Julian Burton’s Maxwell, spouts confused, senseless prose. What he says in causal conversation is even dopier and aggravatingly self-serious. Walter’s sculptures are simplistic. Crowds of art enthusiasts going ga-ga over a clay cat with a knife stuck in it is ridiculous… And completely realistic. That it takes the entire film for the beatniks to realize the sculptures are dead bodies slathered in clay is either intentionally absurd or a result of the movie being written in one day. Either way, these stabs at satire are certainly more entertaining then the silly, comic relief beatniks who are clearly, always high on something.

As a horror film, “A Bucket of Blood” is obviously beholden to “House of Wax.” The plot of hiding dead bodies in plain sight as pieces-de-arte was nothing new, even at the time. However, the film still has a darkly humorous but grisly edge that makes it stand-out. Walter’s sculptures, especially the Murdered Man with the split face and agonized expression, are frequently unnerving in a cartoonish way. How Walter picks off his victims, hunting them down one by one, makes the film something of a proto-slasher. Corman’s direction is in the film noir style. As Walter chases the object of his affection down the street, black shadows pass over them. Probably the moodiest encounter comes when Walter pushes a random carpenter into his own saw. The scene focuses on the man’s suffering, drawling attention to the blade as it spins closer to his neck. The only horror element that isn’t successful is at the very end, when Walter is haunted by the ghostly voices of his victims. It’s a fairly cliched conclusion and one that is introduced hastily and developed poorly. Walter might be a killer and a dweeb but there’s few signs that he’s genuinely crazy.

“A Bucket of Blood” is a true cult classic, enough so that Dick Miller has reprised the role of Walter Paisley repeatedly over the years. It’s a good transitional film from Roger Corman’s early years of undistinguished schlock to the later, Poe adaptations that would widely make his name. Like its sibling film “Little Shop of Horrors,” “A Bucket of Blood” is in the public domain and can be watched just about anywhere. So you’ve got no excuse if you haven’t seen it. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Carrion Death

Despite the title, only some episodes of “Tales from the Crypt” were actually adapted from EC’s horror comics. Quite a few came from the company’s crime comics. “Carrion Death” is one of those episodes and, rather cleverly, begins as a crime story before developing a morbid side. The episode has a great narrative hook. A remorseless criminal, a murderer and a bank robber, thinks he’s made it away after his latest heist. However, a motorcycle cop is on his trail. Before the bank robber kills the cop, he handcuffs himself to the criminal, forcing the bad man to drag a dead body across the desert.

You could say “Carrion Death” is a two man show but, since one of those men is dead for half the run time, it’s really not. Mostly the episode is about Kyle MacLachlan hamming it up as an awful sociopath. He complains about “only mutilating those girls after they were dead.” He dances with the dead cop, using the body as a shield during a dust storm, and has casual conversations with the corpse. The episode is fairly action-packed, featuring a motorcycle crashing into a car, a fist fight in an empty building, and lots of tumbling down rocks. As a symbol of his impending doom, a vulture follows the crook all through the desert, an interesting story element that really pays off at the end. “Carrion Death” is an above average “Tales” episode, featuring a hilariously entertaining performance and some neat story turns. The episode also has the Crypt Keeper on a motorcycle, which is always fun. [8/10]

So Weird: Drive

Seemingly to make up for his small role in the previous episode, “Drive” is built around Jack, Fi’s older brother. Jack is just of driving age and, along with older friend Clu, talks Molly into buying him a car. The car seems to have a mind of its own, which Fiona quickly notices, leading her on a mystery. The haunted car has plans of its own, ruining Jack’s driver’s test.

Right from the opening credits, I got a good feeling about “Drive.” First off, the episode was directed by Paul Lynch, of “Prom Night” and “Humongous” fame, who also directed “Angel,” one of season one’s best episodes. I’ve also always had a soft spot for haunted car stories. The episode never tops the creepy opening, which features the car attempting to escape its garage. The self-propelled vehicle here is not of the murderous variety. So “Drive” is a goofy, light-hearted episode, mostly revolving around Jack scaring the crap out of his driving instructor which is amusing enough. The central premise, of an inanimate object feeling guilt, is also fairly ridiculous. But, once again, the strong cast keeps the show afloat. Dave “Squatch” Ward gets some good moments and the script makes the most of the chemistry between Patrick Levis and Erik von Detten. I don’t think “Drive” is going to convert a skeptic into a “So Weird” faithful but it’s a fun half-hour nevertheless. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I have absolutely loved "King Kong" since I first saw it as a boy. I remember owning an old paperback book about movie monsters. There were many pages dedicated to "King Kong", but just a couple of paragraphs and a single photo that spoke to its follow up, "Son Of Kong". It was exciting to know that there was another movie out there that expanded on the wonderful adventures on Skull Island.

As a kid growing up in a rural area, we had 3 channels that our old black and white TV could tune in. One of the stations would show a Science Fiction/Fantasy movie on Thursday afternoons, and man, did I love Thursday afternoons. I'd get off the school bus, run in the house and sit myself down in front of the TV. Many times, my Grandmother would be there to watch with me, in case something got a little too scary. The Thursday afternoon movie was where I first saw "The Fly", "The Blob" and of course, "King Kong". I recall wanting to see "Son Of Kong" in the worst way, but never being lucky enough to catch it.

As time passed, I lost interest in movie monsters for a while, replacing them with rock music, cars and girls. And it's funny now that I've been married with teenagers of my own, I've gotten back the time to recall old favorites and discover the never before-seens. A number of years ago, I purchased the "King Kong" Collector's Edition on DVD. This particular edition has a couple of intriguing extras, "Mighty Joe Young" and "Son Of Kong".

I recently remembered that old book with the photo of Baby Kong standing in the temple doorway and I dug up that "Son Of Kong" DVD. It took me 40 years after first reading of the movie to actually get around to watching it.

Carl Denham was a greedy, manipulative blowhard in the first Kong. The character has always been very unappealing, but to my surprise "Son Of Kong" redeems him. Somehow I felt sympathetic and the kindness that he showed to Helene and Baby Kong was endearing. Helene was a sweet character and gave the movie an even bigger heart. Baby Kong was a funny creation and I cannot believe the personality that Willis O'Brien brought to the Kongs.

The ending earthquake was sudden but I'll give it this, it was spectacular. I marveled at the detailed special effects. If the story had continued, there's no doubt that Denham and Helene would be headed for trouble, which they surely would narrowly escape. Denham has that way about him.