Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 23

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Though it would not exist without “King Kong,” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” is the unheralded grandparent of the entire kaiju genre. Despite being most well-known these days among classic monster fans, the film’s influence has been far and wide. “Godzilla” was practically a remake of this film. Both movies concern a giant dinosaur awoken by nuclear testing. Both creatures attack boats before emerging in a major city and wreaking havoc. Both end with the monster being killed by a cooked-up scientific device. Most every atomic age creature feature to follow owed “The Beast” something.

Though inspired by a beautifully meloncholey Ray Bradbury story, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” takes a surprisingly scientific approach to its monster. The film follows Thomas Nesbitt, a scientist of unspecified European origin. After a massive nuclear test in the Arctic, Nesbitt swears he sees a giant dinosaur thawed out of the ice. He spends a good portion of the film trying to convince others that he’s not crazy. Doctors and military officials think he had a moment of dementia, a paleontologist demands extraordinary proof for these extraordinary claims, and even a boat captain that survived an attack from the monster refuses to talk to him. As the beast swims closer inland, destroying more boats, Nesbitt convinces the paleontologist and his attractive young assistant. They identify the beast as the Rhedosaurus, a fictional dinosaur far bigger then any actual breed. After the Rhedosaurus tears up New York City, the scientists discover that the ancient monster carries ancient germs with it. This story development is done strictly so that can’t just nuke the monster but it also seems perfectly possible. By basing its story around scientific inquiry, the film makes its implausible premise far more believable.

It helps that the Beast is an impressive creation. As a special effect, the monster is fully convincing. I’ve always read that the Rhedosaurus was designed as a combination of a T-Rex and a Brontosaurus, making it a fearsome head on a stocky body. However, there’s something serpentine about the dinosaur’s movement. Its tail swishes back and forth. Its forked tongue darts in and out of its mouth. Two huge fangs stick out of its jaws. The monster moves with a weight and personality like all of Harryhausen’s creations. It’s not the most impressive dinosaur Harryhausen would make, as the Beast’s interactions with buildings can be a bit awkward. It’s still magnificent monster. The Beast lacks most of the melancholic heart that Bradbury brought to the original story. Save for the very end, when it dies in agony among a burning roller coaster. Its death cries are mournful and the audience feels a pang of sympathy for the monster as it slumps to the ground, breathing its final breathes.

Great creature effects alone do not a classic make. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” features some thrilling and wonderfully executed sequences. The movie holds off on giving the viewer a clear look at the Beast, at first anyway. We only see its flank as it walks out of the ice or a quick glimpse at its head as it pulls a boat down. In the only sequence taken from Bradbury’s story, we see the Rhedosaurus surface on the beach, its body only seen in silhouette as it tears down the light house. A fantastic sequence has the paleontologist sinking underwater in a diving bell and watching as the dinosaur slowly approaches him, its massive jaws wide open. The attack on Manhattan has some notable moments, like the Rhedosaurus biting a brave beat cop in half or thrashing a car in its jaws. The climatic battle among the Coney Island amusement park has the Beast tearing through a roller coaster. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” works fantastically as a sci-fi monster thriller.

Another helpful element is the film’s likable human cast. Since he spends most of the film asserting his intelligence against claims of insanity, Paul Christian’s Dr. Nesbitt avoids the usual traps that face bland, scientist hero in movies like this. Paula Reymond plays Lee, his love interest. Lee is smart and never becomes a screaming damsel in distress. The two’s romance grows naturally out of their shared interests. The two actors also have great chemistry together. Cecil Kellaway also has a lot of fun as Professor Thurgood Elson, the eccentric paleontologist that rejects Nesbitt’s claims before coming around to them. Elson constantly talks about his forthcoming vacation, the first one he’s taken in thirty years. Even as he’s about to be eaten by a dinosaur, the Professor remains enthusiastic about discovery and science.

“The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” deserves its status as an influential genre classic. It’s intelligently written, features great special effects, and has plenty of personality. The Rhedosaurus is rightfully beloved, even more-so for a monster that would never appear on-screen again. I consider myself a fan. [7/10]

Night of the Demons (1988)

When you’ve been inside the horror fandom as long as I have, it becomes difficult to judge how popular a movie is. Was “Night of the Demons” genuinely popular back in its day? Or has it always been more of a cult classic? The original has enough vocal supporters these day that the film has been elevated to the status of eighties horror classic. When it comes to eighties horror franchises with killers named Angela, I’ve always been more partial to the other one. However, my podcast co-host and movie-watching BFF JD prefers this Angela. For the sake of fairness, I’ll be watching and reviewing all of the “Night of the Demons” films.

Set on Halloween night, the film concerns a group of teenagers gathering for a party. Organized by goth girl Angela and her slutty friend Suzanne, the party gathers together a divergent group of youths, including good girl Helen. The location Angela chooses is Hull House, an abandoned funeral home that abounds with local legends. Turns out at some of the legends are true. During an innocent Halloween party game, Angela summons up a demon, leading to herself and her friends being possessed by evil spirits. Carnage breaks out in the haunted building.

I can’t speak for the rest of the film’s fans but the thing that really interests me about “Night of the Demons” is how it combines a bunch of different horror sub-genres. The general set-up, of a bunch of horny teens isolated in one location and picked off by an evil force, recalls the slasher. The story intentionally invokes the ideas of the haunted house genre, with its spooky location and the legends surrounding it. The film’s central gimmick is one of demonic possession, with ancient demons taking control of the teens’ bodies. However, the possession is spread like a virus, through violence and physical contact. After being killed, the teens rise again as demons. This links the movie with the zombie concept. This oddball meshing of genre recalls another classic of eighties horror, “The Evil Dead.” The film seems to even signal this influence when a killer, severed arm shows up.

For a down-and-dirty splatter flick, “Night of the Demons” cooks up a surprisingly complex mythology. The Hull House was once home to a coroner, who went insane and killed his family. Before that, the local Indian tribes considered the land cursed. An underground stream flows around the house, which keeps the demons locked inside. These aren’t new ideas but the film goes the extra distance of building up its own urban legend. Moreover, the Hull House set creates some decent, spooky atmosphere. The broken down hallways and rooms look appropriately creaky and dusty. The caskets, the crematorium, and the wall surrounding the home are all nice touches too. A lot of time and effort was put into making “Night of the Demons” look good and seem interesting.

Then again, there is that gore. The movie takes its time setting up premise and characters. It’s not until the halfway point that all hell breaks loose. Some of the kills are simple, like a snapped neck or a character tossed out a window, impaled on some wreckage. Others are wetter, like a couple smashed to death in a casket or a guy having his eyes gouged out. If there’s anything to criticize “Night of the Demons” for, it’s the somewhat uninspired monster make-up. The possessed teens have yellow eyes, fanged teeth, and discolored skin. More distracting is the growly, demonic voices each demon has, which comes off as super cheesy. For those interested, the film delivers on the T&A we associated with eighties horror, with plenty of female nudity and sex. Sometimes, the film combines the sex and the horror, such as the infamous scene where Linnea Quigley inserts a tube of lipstick into a nipple.

For all its horror and atmosphere, the cult of “Night of the Demons” is probably most attributed to its quirky collection of characters. Goth girl Angela is not your typical horror villainess and is well-played by Mimi Kinkade. Fat punk kid Stooge gets most of the oddball lines, like “Eat a bowl of fuck!” It’s notable that the guy who seems like the film’s hero, Helen’s boyfriend Jay, turns out to be a sleazy asshole. Meanwhile, the guy who appears to be the sleazy asshole, Sal, turns out to be braver and truer then the apparent nice guy. Also notable, black guy Roger makes it to the end. The offbeat humor of “Night of the Demons” is best illustrated in the mean-spirited non-sequiturs that open and close the films. A nasty old man plans to give out razor-blade packed apples to trick r’ treaters. The next morning, his wife bakes those apples into a pie and feeds them to her husband, his throat bursting open from the razors. These scenes have nothing to do with the rest of the movie but their presence is greatly appreciated.

Kevin Tenney, who previously directed “Witchboard,” delivers some slick visuals, like POV shots swooping up from the basement or a slow-motion fall from the roof. The soundtrack includes some solid eighties new wave and metal, like “Computer Date” and “The Beast Inside.” Bauhaus’ “Stigmata Martyr” is fantastically used during Angela’s spooky demon-summoning dance, the song lending the scene a truly satanic feel. “Night of the Demons” is never really scary but is still packed with a lot of fun, goofy, gooey stuff. It’s no “Sleepaway Camp II” but I can dig it. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Abra Cadaver

Say what you will about “Tales from the Crypt” but it’s a rare episode that doesn’t play its premise to the fullest. “Abra Cadaver” is determined to show death from the perspective of a corpse. A pair of doctor brothers have a falling-out following a cruel prank that costs the older brother his surgical career. A year later, out of revenge, the older brother poisons the youngster, in order to prove his theory that the mind stays alive for several days after the heart stops beating. Now trapped in his own body, the brother has to helplessly watch as he is put through the usual postmortem rituals.

Telling the whole episode from the perspective of a cadaver is a clever idea. In execution, what this means is long scenes of Tony Goldwyn speaking in voice over as other characters drive the plot. Why this is mostly successful, it does lead to some awkwardness, as Goldwyn can’t make all of the dialogue he’s given work. Beau Bridges is the top-billed name and does some decent work playing the episode’s villain. The flashback opening is in black-and-white, an interesting choice, and provides this episode with its required female nudity. “Abra Cadaver” has a double twist ending. The first one the audience sees coming while the second, which ends the episode on an especially gruesome note, is less expected. Though not as funny or dark as the best of “Tales, “Abra Cadaver” is still a solid half-hour. [7/10]

So Weird:  Nightmare

“Nightmare” is another “So Weird” episode where I forgot every about it save for once detail, in this case it’s ending. The episode has the Philips bus visiting manager Irene’s sister. While staying at their home, Jack begins to experience vivid nightmares. He’s surprised to learn that Fioan and Clu are having these dreams too. Even weirder is when Irene’s nephew wanders into the dreams. The nightmares seem to revolve around the young boy and, within them, he’s pursued by a predatory black shape.

As another Paul Lynch-directed episode, “Nightmare” looks pretty good. The nightmare sequences all take place on brightly colored sets with warped, odd angles. Lynch has a solid enough handle on atmosphere that, even if the sequences don’t feel dream-like, they keep a decent pace. There’s enough goofiness in these scenes that a lot of the potential horror looses its edge, especially once Clu enters the scene. The special effects that bring the monster to life aren’t the best either, the creature appearing as a badly-matted black swirl. The most effective scenes are those revolving around Jack’s fears, where he relives his father’s funeral and final days. The moment where Jack and Fi cry on each other’s shoulders is genuinely touching. The twist ending isn’t foreshadowed so much that the audience guesses it but just enough that it makes sense. The ending, along with Jack’s memories of his late father, roots the episode’s horror elements in real world concerns. Moments like these are what elevated “So Weird” above other supernatural-themed kid’s show of the day. [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

The prehistoric menace in "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" has to be counted as one of Ray Harryhausen's greatest creations. This movie is considered a Sci-Fi classic and it deserves that praise.

One of the hard things about watching almost any classic Sci-Fi movie is the long wait before you actually get to see the monster. That, however, is not the case in this movie. Ten minutes in, the beast is encountered in a pretty neat scene that takes place in the Arctic. There is also a great scene at a lighthouse and of course, the sequences in New York are wonderful stop-motion treats.

The thing I've always enjoyed about this movie is that the beast is so wild. It doesn't smash and destroy everything in sight. Instead, it does what I imagine any animal would actually do if turned loose onto city streets. The beast itself is disposed of rather simply, but that adds to the movie's charm.

The biggest problem here is that a respected scientist reports that he's seen a prehistoric monster. His report is routinely dismissed by a hospital psychiatrist, his friend who is a military officer and the world's leading paleontologist. I thought this guy was a respected scientist? Everyone except a love interest simply dismisses his report as a hallucination or shock induced.

I've read that this movie influenced the original "Godzilla" film and I can easily see that as being a fact.

Kernunrex said...

Night of the Demons is a little gem I didn't discover until a few years ago. I'm always partial to horror movies set on Halloween itself and involving Halloween parties, with bonus points if it was made in the 1980s. Been meaning to check out part 2 to see if it's any good. Maybe this season?