Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Halloween 2014: September 24
Half Human (1955)
Ju jin yuki otoko
“Half Human” is a film I’ve read about for years but never expected to actually see. In Japan, the film has been recalled from public viewing due to its insensitive portrayal of aboriginal Japanese people. In America, the only version of the film that has ever been released is heavily edited, cut down from 93 minutes to 65, and features hastily inserted new scenes of John Carradine. Even that cut is hard to find today, as the VHS release is way out-of-print. So imagine my surprise when I found a DVD bootleg of the original Japanese cut of “Half Human” on a dealer’s table at Monster Bash this past summer. Having seen the rare film now, I’m glad it’s not something I spent years trying to track down.
“Half Human” is part of a wave of films in the fifties about the Abominable Snowman. The story concerns a group of young people heading to the snowy mountains of Japan for a winter vacation. Following an avalanche, one of their friends vanishes. The only sign of his disappearance are giant footsteps in the snow and a tuff of unidentified hair. The group returns to the mountains that summer to find their lost friend but also the strange animal that took him. The group comes in conflict with the local natives, who worship the yeti as a god, and a group of hunters also after the animals.
The only time “Half Human” becomes truly captivating is when the focus is on the monster. Though he doesn’t appear for nearly an hour, the film isn’t shy with its resident kaiju. In an impressively atmospheric scene, the yeti appears outside the tent of Momoko Kochi’s heroine. Interested by her beauty, the beast reaches through the tent to caress her face. A large chunk of the film is focused on the opportunistic hunters capturing the monster. This is probably the best part of “Half Human.” The hunters corner the yeti, gas it, and toss the creature in a truck. As the yeti’s son tries to rescue it, the hunters shoot the little bigfoot, enraging the adult. The monster goes on a rampage, killing the hunters, and destroying the Anui village. Despite these actions, the yeti is not a senseless monster. By the end, the heroes find the bigfoot’s cave. Inside, they discover the remains of their missing friend and realize the monster protected the man, attempting to nurse him back to health. While the film isn’t as successful at endearing both fear and sympathy from its main beast as Ishiro Honda’s other kaiju films, “Half Human” still earns points for trying.
My copy of “Half Human” is scratchy, dark, and features tracking lines at the top of the print. Even conditions as bad as this can’t disguise Ishiro Honda’s visual sense. The whistling winter wind provides some decent atmosphere. The brief scenes of people confined to a small cabin while a storm rages outside suggest a much scarier film. Honda does create some memorable images. Akira Takarada dangling off a cliff by a rope, hungry birds pecking at his face, is a fantastic moment. The yeti’s cave is a fantastically realized set and its rough angles have almost an expressionistic angle to them. Perhaps if a clearer print of “Half Human” ever surfaces, we’ll be able to appreciate the film’s visual design more.
Night of the Demons 2 (1994)
The early nineties were a magical time. Video stores were at the peak of their popularity. During this time period, a film being popular on home video was enough to justify a sequel. This was before the video camera boom, when quickly shot Z-grade flicks started to flood the shelves. Despite going direct-to-video, films could still boast decent production values. Thus “Night of the Demons,” on the strength of rental sales, was to belatedly become a horror franchise without loosing any of its demonic shine.
In the years since the original film, the legend of Hull House has only grown. The events of Halloween night, 1988, have become the stuff of urban myth. The students of St. Rita’s Academy, a near-by Catholic school, are especially aware of this. Shy, bullied Mouse is even Angela’s sister, a fact that still haunts her. Most of the St. Rita students aren’t worried about demons though, save would-be demonologist Perry. They’re more preoccupied with getting laid, especially bad girl Sheryl. After getting banned from the school-sanctioned Halloween dance, Sheryl invites her friends (and Mouse) over to a different Halloween party at Hull House. Their mock-Satanic shenanigans reawakens Angela and, using a nifty loophole, the demonic hostess escapes the old building, releasing her evil on the Catholic school.
One of the more endearingly elements of the original “Night” was its quirky cast of characters. Part two continues this tradition. Bibi, as played by Cristi Harris, appears to be a virginal good girl. That is, until she jumps into bed with her boyfriend Johnny, leading to a genuinely erotic love scene. Mouse could have been an annoying distressed damsel. Instead, Merle Kennedy makes her endearing. A brief scene between her and Angela establishes that the two sisters loved each other once. Perry is an obsessed demonologist, which makes him a decent horror hero and an atypical priest in training. Prankster Z-boy is loud but fun, as is nasty Sheryl, played by the voluptuous Zoe Trilling. Even Rick and Terri, who aren’t defined much beyond “horny guy” and “goofy girl,” are fun to be around. The Catholic Church comes off surprisingly well here. Father Bob is a practical priest, dismissing superstition and generally being a relaxed, laid-back guy. The best character in the film is Sister Gloria. At first, she appears to be your usual strict nun type. Then we catch her in her bedroom, pantomiming sword play with a ruler. By the end of the film, she’s swinging rosary beads around like nun-chucks, shooting super-soakers full of holy water, and surviving decapitation. Jennifer Rhodes has a lot of fun in the part.
If you’re in the mood for campy eighties horror fun, “Nights of the Demons 2” delivers. It’s not as fresh as the original. Hull House doesn’t look at atmospheric. Stock footage from the first movie is briefly used. Brian Trenchard-Smith’s direction is more workman-like then Kevin Tenney’s expressive direction on the first film. But the movie piles it on where it matters, creating a sequel that is as wildly entertaining as the first. [7/10]
The stories told on “Tales from the Crypt” usually revolve around betrayal. “Top Billing” takes a break from double-crosses and philandering spouses in favor of something else. Barry Blye is an actor but can’t get any work, due to his homely looks and bad attitude. He’s especially bitter about loosing out to professional rival Winton Robbins. After loosing his agent, his apartment, and his girlfriend, he goes on one more desperate audition. He finds an eccentric production of “Hamlet,” run by a control-freak director. When he even looses that part to Winton, Barry goes over the edge, turning to murder. As always happens in the “Crypt,” things aren’t what they appear to be and the bad guy gets his comeuppance.
“Top Billing” has the benefit of one of the best cast to ever appear in a “Tales from the Crypt” episode. Jon Lovitz is perfectly cast as Barry, allowing him to indulge his talent for self-loathing and irritated sarcasm. Bruce Boxleitner, still in the handsome leading man phase of his career, does well as the smug Winton. Paul Benedict vamps it up as usual as the director’s assistant. Most importantly is John Astin, Gomez himself, as the eccentric director, melodramatically speaking Shakespeare and generally reaching for the heavens in his effortlessly entertaining fashion. Heck, the episode even got Sandra Bernhard and Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher for one scene bit parts. The episode’s dark wit shows itself in the genuinely clever twist ending, which plays off our expectations for “Hamlet” productions. The final image shows Barry being unwanted even in death. As directed by Todd Holland, an expert at these sort of funny horror stories, “Top Billing” might be one of the best “Tales” or at least one of the most entertaining. [8/10]
When crop circles are so thoroughly debunked these days, it’s hard to remember that they were considered a serious phenomenon back in the day. “Listen” has the Philips tour bus in the Midwest for a Farm Aid style charity concert. Fiona immediately notices that the locals are acting strangely and seem to know what everyone is thinking. Soon enough, Fi discovers that there have been multiple crop circles in the local wheat fields. And the townspeople make their bakery products from that wheat. After eating the local baked goods for a few days, the families on the tour bus begin to feel the effects first hand.
The best thing about “Listen” is actually its subplot. For the last few episodes, there’s been some tension with Cary not telling his mom that he has dropped out of college. Because of the temporary ESP gifted from magical wheat, Irene learns what her son has been keeping from her. The main plot is a little overcooked. Fiona and Jack walking into a crop circle in the middle of a field makes for a memorable image. The siblings being pursued by one of the townsfolk on a tractor, him sending ominous thoughts their way the whole time, is silly. A lot of attention is given to special guest stars SheDaisy, which does a fantastic job of dating this episode to a very specific time and place. The finale tries to root the business with the magic wheat in some sort of humanity but it can’t pull it off. The last scene basically has Fiona giving her version of a “Keep watching the skies!” speech. “Listen” has a few interesting ideas but it’s probably one of the cheesier episodes of “So Weird.” [5/10]