Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 22, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 22

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Considering how successful “King Kong” was, it’s not surprising that those involved wanted to recreate that magic. Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper both continued to work but neither made another project as popular as “Kong.” Willis O’Brien, meanwhile, barely worked in the years after “Kong.” So, in 1948, the trio got back together to make another movie about a giant ape. “Mighty Joe Young” resembles “Kong” in some ways. Both are about giant apes brought from the jungle to the city, where they precede to cause chaos. However, the movies are very different. Joe is only slightly bigger then an average gorilla. He never fatally harms anyone and is only violent when provoked. While “Kong” was a lost world adventure and a horror film, “Joe” is a light-hearted drama. In addition to introducing the world to another big ape, the film was also the first effects job of Ray Harryhausen, an admirer of O’Brien, who would go on to become the greatest stop-motion artist to ever live.

The story begins with a little girl, living with her father on a ranch in darkest Africa. From two native tribesman, she buys a baby gorilla. In twelve years, that gorilla, who the girl names “Joe,” grows up to be twelve feet tall. When a businessman heads to Africa looking for animals for his new jungle-themed night club, he encounters Joe and Jill, now a lovely young woman. He talks the girl and her gorilla into coming back to America with him and performing in his club. What starts out as an exciting oppretunity soon turns into a humiliating ordeal. It’s not long before Jill and Joe both want to return to Africa.

Even though he was a killer, people really responded to Kong. So it makes sense to make Joe an innocent and a hero. There are no real villains in “Mighty Joe Young.” Max O’Hara is a shyster and a liar, manipulating Jill more then once, but he puts his own career on the line to help Joe escape execution. The closest the film has to a villain are a trio of drunks who share their booze with the gorilla, prompting his rampage through the night club. There’s a lot of goofy comedy in the film. Joe swings Max off of his horse, baffling the old man. Max’s cowardliness is played for laughs a few times. Joe himself is a source of humor, though the film never sinks to the cartoony depths of “Son of Kong.” He spits at his pursuers out of the back of a truck, just to name one example. The film also has its share of melodrama. After he destroys the club, Joe is ordered to be killed, leading to a lot of hand-wringling and weeping from Jill. The romance between Jill and Gregg, Ben Johnson’s cowboy hero, is more natural then the romance in “King Kong” but its still more for the benefit of the script then the characters. A number of contrivances occur during the last act. Joe happens by a burning orphanage during his escape, allowing the gorilla to prove himself a hero and clear his name.

The script is simplistic but sweet-natured. The true star of “Mighty Joe Young” is its special effects. Stop-motion had come a long way in the decade since “Kong.” Joe looks more like a real gorilla Kong, having a more plausible posture and design. He looks totally like a great ape save for his human-like eyes, allowing him a greater range of expression. And Joe is expressive. He repeatedly punches the ground when frustrated, a trick Harryhausen picked up from the original “Kong.” His scenes in captivity, where he mills around a small cell, conveys real sadness for the gorilla. There’s a comedic edge to his frustration, which the film plays up. Joe’s movement is fluid and life-like. He’s a fully formed character with a rich personality. As fantastic as O’Brien’s work on the original “Kong” and its sequel were, Harryhausen’s work on “Joe” surpasses it. The only effects in the film that fail are when Joe has to interact with real people, which can sometimes be awkward.

“Mighty Joe Young” isn’t short on thrilling action either. Joe’s early confrontation with the cowboys in the African jungle features numerous lassos tossed around the ape’s neck and has him tossing several men off their horses. The scene also recalls the later cowboys vs. dinosaurs epic, “The Valley of Gwangi,” which O’Brien conceived and Harryhausen eventually made. Joe’s rampage through the night club is beautifully executed. The ape fights off a pack of lions, punching the creatures to death before throwing them around. He swings from a vine, the camera following him as he sails over the crowd. He tosses the instruments out of the orchestra pit and knocks over a fake tree. The finale of the film is a bit overheated. Joe climbs up and down the burning building, rescuing Jill. He returns to the building to save a baby. After getting the kid out of the blazing home, he rescues the baby a second time, shielding it from the crumbling wreckage. It might be contrived from a story perspective but it is beautifully realized from an effects perspective.

The performances are likable, especially Terry Moore as the girl and Robert Armstrong as O’Hara, playing more-or-less a softer version of Carl Denham. The movie is really likable and sweet, making for a fun 90-minute viewing. “Mighty Joe Young” wasn’t successful in its day but quickly became a monster kid favorite. This is ironic since you can’t call the movie a horror film at all. However, its beastly outsider protagonist and fantastic effects are bound to appeal to the same audience. [7/10]

The Bad Seed (1956)

A few years ago I purchased a book called “101 Horror Movies to See Before You Die.” I think I’ve mentioned it before. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know but is, nevertheless, a fairly entertaining read. Despite being an experienced horror fan, there are a still a few titles mentioned in the book that I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet. On that list, which I’m always working to make shorter, was “The Bad Seed.” Having seen the movie now, I’m wouldn’t classified it as horror but as a family drama with elements of the thriller genre. Despite not being a true horror flick, “The Bad Seed’s” influence on the genre can’t be overstated. Every killer kid movie that came after owes it something. Malachai, Mikey, or the cast of “Bloody Birthday” wouldn’t have come around without Rhoda.

“The Bad Seed” is, also, undeniably steeped in melodrama. Though based off the novel by William March, the film is more directly inspired by Maxwell Anderson’s stage adaptation. The story, about a mother who comes to realize her eight year old daughter is a sociopath and a murderer, exists in the exaggerated, heightened world of the theatre. Most of the dialogue in the film is unbelievably overdone. Words like “adroit,” “excelsior,” and “mongoloid” are dropped in casual conversation. Nobody who has ever lived has talked like this. The story takes place in the ultra-WASP-y world of the mid-fifties upper-middle class. Accordingly, the characters have hilariously WASP-y names like Hortense Daigle, Monica Breedlove, Emory Wages, Reginald Tasker, and Clauida Fern. 

The melodramatic content is rooted to the film’s origins as a stage play. Something the movie constantly goes out of its way to remind you of. Director Marvyn LeRoy shoots in an incredibly flat manner. Characters enter from one side of the set, talk in the middle, and exit on the other side. Actors monologue in the room, the action rarely leaving the house. The camera isn’t exactly stationary but the framing is always incredibly pedestrian. The direction is so flat that an occasional slow zoom on a door handle or a close-up on the mother’s face comes as a huge shock.

The stage-like framing and overcooked writing meets at the performances. The movie maintains as much of the Broadway play’s cast as possible. Nancy Kelly plays Christine, Rhoda’s concerned mother. Kelly reaches for the emotional rafters, weeping, shouting, and exposition-ing, the unnatural dialogue sounding especially ungainly coming out of her mouth. As the script goes on, and Christine’s situation becomes more dire, Kelly’s acting becomes more ridiculously overwrought. Other actors in the film are similarly theatrical. Henry Jones play LeRoy Jessup, the groundskeeper who continually antagonizes Rhoda until she finally kills him. Jones plays the character with an odd Southern accent, somewhere between Georgia, Louisiana, and mentally disabled. He spits every ridiculous line of dialogue, hamming and gesticulating the whole time. Evelyn Varden, as the overly friendly landlord and armchair psychologist, gets the most ham-fisted dialogue. It’s hard to tell if Varden is giving a good performance or not since she’s saddled with such impossible dialogue.

Many of these elements are problematic. However, the movie obviously exists on its on artificial level of reality. In time, if you’re willing to go along with it, you can start to get into the story’s groove. A few things help. The only performance that has the right amount of artifice is Patty McCormick as Rhoda. Kids are naturally kind of selfish so Rhoda’s behavior doesn’t seem concerning at first. However, her unerringly polite demeanor is a mask, hiding her sociopathic tendencies. Rhoda’s murders aren’t motivated by complex psychological quirks or convoluted modis operandi. Instead, she’s a selfish child who wants what she wants when she wants it. She thinks she’s perfect so she deserves the perfect penmanship medal. She wanted the old woman’s snow globe so she pushed her down the stairs. The brilliance of Rhoda as a character lies in the fact that she extends the desire for immediate gratification most children have to its natural, frightening conclusion. McCormick’s performance is artificial but that’s because Rhoda is acting too, hiding her psychotic desires beneath a mask of civility.

At the core of “The Bad Seed” is a fairly captivating premise: A mother who loves her child but can no longer deny that she’s a killer who will kill again. However, the film is more concerned with the old question of nature vs. nurture, whether or not a psychopath is born or raised. Instead of suggesting that some people are just born without the moral empathy most have, the movie asserts that evil is hereditary. An absurd plot twist mid-way through reveals that Rhoda is evil because she’s the granddaughter of a killer. That her mother was adopted. Her father was covering the case of a famous female murderer and, more-or-less, kidnapped her, raising her as his own. This plot development is not only contrived but also really lets the characters off the hook. It’s not some unperceivable flaw on Christine’s behalf that made Rhoda pure evil. It's bad genetics, passed down from a serial poisoner grandmother.

The combination of McCormick’s dynamite performance and an intriguing story mostly make up for the hopelessly awkward execution. And that fucking ending nearly sinks the whole ship. In the book and stage play, Rhoda gets away with it, her mother only successfully pulling off the suicide half of her “murder-suicide” decision. Such a nihilistic ending wouldn’t fly during the Hays Code era though. So Christine somehow survives a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Rhoda randomly goes out in a thunderstorm and is struck down by a stray lightening bolt. It’s incredibly unlikely and the most blatant of deus ex machinas. “The Bad Seed” is a classic more for its unforgettable antagonist and its daring premise. What seemed cutting edge in 1956 comes off as hopelessly hokey today. Maybe I should track down the 1985 TV version? (Though I’m glad Eli Roth’s proposed remake, which sounded deeply crass and shallow, didn’t get made.) [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Trap

When so many “Tales from the Crypt” episodes revolve around romantic betrayal and murder, it doesn’t take much to mix up the formula. In “The Trap,” an asshole looses his job, taking it out on his put-upon wife. When the bill-collectors start calling, the guy cooks up a scheme. He’ll fake his own death, with the help of his nebbish mortician brother, and cash in on his life insurance policy. He’ll disappear for a while, get some plastic surgery, and return to his wife. Once Lou is gone though, his wife realizes life is better without him and develops a relationship with his much nicer brother. “The Trap” ends up on the super-ironic twist of a man being convicted of his own murder.

One of the producers of “Tales” is Robert Zemeckis. You’ll notice his buddy, Michael J. Fox, directed this episode and has a prominent cameo as a public defender. “The Trap” follows the “Tales” formula of “asshole gets his just desserts, nice people prosper” pretty closely. You can see the twist coming but watching it unfold is fairly satisfying. This is mostly thanks to Bruce McGill’s over-the-top performance as the scumbag Lou. McGill really digs into playing a character with no positive attributes. Teri Garr also has fun as the wife and Bruno Kirby is nicely sympathetic as the bullied brother. Fox’s direction is energetic and episode rolls along at a quick pace. “The Trap” is fairly dumb, all things considered, but it makes for a fun enough half-hour. Also, the host segments have the Crypt Keeper making mortician puns, so the episode has got that going for it which is nice. [7/10]

So Weird: Siren

The cult following of “So Weird” is a small one but “Siren” seems to be one of the more notorious episodes, since it features a prominent role for Jewel Staite of “Firefly” fame. The Philips tour bus stops through a north-western musician’s town to pick up Clu’s previously unmentioned older brother, Cary. Cary quickly becomes enamored of a local singer named Callie, a young woman’s whose audience seems primarily composed of men. Callie is being managed by Evelyn, Molly’s old manager. Fiona notices Callie’s obsessed male fan base and quickly begins to suspect that she might be one of the sirens of Greek mythology.

“Siren” contains a fairly evocative metaphor for being a female pop star. Callie’s manager, Evelyn, doesn’t have any sort of magical hold over her. Instead, she’s merely blackmailing the siren, promising to reveal her secret, into being her client. The siren talks about how her male fans love her but only on a superficial level, being more in love with an idea of her then who she actually is. Molly, being a former young pop star herself (Shades of Mackenzie Philip’s actual life), takes an interest in the girl, seeing how easily her manager is manipulating her. Like a lot of good genre fiction, “Siren” uses its supernatural element as a symbol for something deeper. Jewel Staite’s performance is a bit overdone, as she can’t make all of her heavy dialogue work, and Cary’s sudden introduction is a bit surprising. But “Siren” is, thus far, the best episode of season two. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

"Mighty Joe Young" was a very good movie. Although not related to "King Kong" in terms of story or characters, its big ape themed action serves as a finale of sorts to a "Kong" trilogy. Along with "Son of Kong", it offers engaging characters and plenty of excitement on a much smaller scale than the incredible "King Kong".

The action in "Mighty Joe Young" is as plentiful as it was in the endearing "Son of Kong" and the effects are jaw-dropping when you take into account that this film was made seventy years ago.

The real appeal to me (other than Mighty Joe) is the Max O'Hara character. He's much easier to like than the cold and ruthless Carl Denham of "Kong Kong" but is not as endearing as the extremely softened Denham in "Son...".

It's a personal wish that today's movie watchers could get past the mindset that old movie = boring movie. They are missing out on adventurous, enjoyable movies like "Mighty Joe Young".