Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

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 biggest issue with “Jujin yuki otoko,” which translates to something like “Beast Man Snowman,” is its ghastly pacing. Far too much of the film is devoted to characters wandering the mountains and accompanying woods. The film has a large cast, composed of multiple groups of characters. You’d think the lethargic pacing would allow plenty of time to develop these cast members. Not really. Even after giving the obsessively detailed Wikipedia article a look, I’m still not sure who half of the characters were. At one point in “Half Human,” there’s three or four separate plot lines going on, the film haphazardly cutting between them. The business with the different search parties, the native village, and the cruel hunters quickly become difficult to keep track of.

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.

Separated by both cultures and decades, it’s interesting to watch “Half Human” and consider why the film is offensive. The mountain natives are a superstitious lot. The village elder forbids contact with the outside world. An order his beautiful granddaughter, Chika, disobeys. When her grandfather discovers this, the old man beats the girl while the villagers attempt to execute the outsider. They’re fearful, violent and unintelligent, rushing a man with a gun even after he demonstrates the weapon’s power. The aboriginals are physically ugly with implications of inbreeding and deformity. So it’s not hard to figure out why “Jujin yuki otoko” is considered politically incorrect in its home country. Imagine an American film that portrays American Indians as violent, inbred, and xenophobic. You get the idea.

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.

Masaru Sato’s musical score is forgettable and uninspired. The cast is so fractured that it’s hard for any one performer to stand out. Yet Toho fans will enjoy seeing Takarada and Kochi on-screen together again. Akemi Negishi probably gives the best performance as the lovely village girl. Negishi would have a small but memorable part in “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and would later appear in “Sex and Fury” and “Lady Snowblood.” The rarity of “Half Human” might make it irresistible to kaiju fans. Yet you should note the film is better known for being hard-to-find then for its story or skill. [5/10]

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.

The original “Night of the Demons” was sold as a slasher film, despite being a much weirder melding of genres. In particular, Angela was slapped on the poster and tape box, proclaimed as the next great horror villain. This was something of an odd move, considering Angela was nearly one of a whole pack of demons. “Night of the Demons 2” corrects these oversights. The sequel refocuses more on violent death scenes, giving the film more of a slashery film. Similarly, Angela becomes the central villain, dethroning the vague demonic force referenced in the first film. The sequel begins with Angela cracking puns and decapitating door-to-door Mormons, rather obviously putting her in the same mold as Freddy Krueger. Considering how much fun Amelia Kinkade is having in the part, I can’t blame them. “Night of the Demons 2” has a solid understanding of how to grow one horror movie into a horror movie series.

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.

“Fun” is the word of the day with “Night of the Demons 2.” The movie successfully expands on the original. Allowing Angela out of Hull House gives the character more to do, like crashing a Halloween party. The first film was hardly devoid of exploitation but the sequel ups the ante. In addition to the plethora of female breasts, demonic possession is passed along like an STD. There’s plenty of girl-on-girl kissing and even a naughty tentacle. There are hands reaching out of seats, hands reaching out of breasts, prominent demonic boners, and a demon bouncing his own head around like a basketball. Once splashed with holy water, the demons melt into slushy piles of gore. For its big finale, Angela transforms into a snake woman, attempting to strangle her sisters in her coils, at least before she explodes.

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]

Tales from the Crypt: Top Billing

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]

So Weird: Listen

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]

No comments: