Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 25

Rodan (1956)
Sora no daikaiju Radon / Rodan! The Flying Monster!

After the success of the first two “Godzilla” movies, Japan had officially entered the Age of the Kaiju. “Godzilla Raids Again,” while still popular, was not as big of a hit as its predecessor. Toho put their star monster in cold storage for seven years and turned their attention to creating a new giant monster. “Rodan” has many things in common with the original “Gojira.” Both revolve around a giant dinosaur, awoken and mutated by nuclear test, rampaging across Japan. However, there are a few important differences. “Rodan” was the first kaiju movie filmed in color. More pressingly, Rodan was the first giant monster to fly, presenting effects master Eiji Tsubaraya with a new set of challenges.

The film opens in the small mining town of Kitamatsu. Two men disappear following a mine shaft flood, greatly concerning Kiyo, the sister of one of the disappeared miners, and her fiancé Shigeru. Not long after that, sliced up bodies begin to wash out of the mine. A giant insect with razor sharp claws quickly emerges. The car-sized larva turns out to be only the beginning. An earthquake unearths Rodan, a giant pteranodon. The flying creature strikes the world into terror even before he attacks Japan. Rodan isn’t alone, though, and is soon joined by a mate. Can the military stop the two monsters before they breed?

Toho’s kaiju flicks are generally thought of as non-stop monster bashes. In truth, the early films always took their time with revealing their star creatures. “Rodan” is especially deliberately paced. The first half of the film is focused exclusively on the Meganulon, the giant larvae terrorizing the mineshafts. There’s no hint that a giant, flying dinosaur is going to be the primary threat of the film in these early scenes. When Rodan does fly into focus, he’s steeped in mystery, seen only as a briefly glimpsed, speeding shape. A few jets are destroyed and newscasters the world over report on sightings of the strange creatures. Rodan isn’t revealed in full until over an hour in. It’s an interesting choice, and one that successfully builds up the monster as a threat. But fidgety viewers might find their patience tested.

However, once Rodan finally appears, he’s an impressive sight. The monster, flying at supersonic speeds, leads the Japanese air force on an intense chase through the sky. The chase concludes with the pteranodon being shot down into a river. Rodan emerges, flapping his wings, the first good look the audience gets at him. The camera focuses on the people evacuating Fukuoka and the military marching in. It’s a common sight in Toho’s sci-fi films but, for some reason, it builds more tension here. Rodan, releasing its eerie screech, beats his wings over the city, blowing over trains, cars, tanks, and buildings. Depending on the quality of the print you’re watching, the wires holding Rodan or the jets aloft can be more visible. Which isn’t really Tsuburiya’s fault. Rodan, generally, looks better here then he would in his somewhat awkward future appearances. Being filmed in color, the movie does not create the same sense of stark horror as “Godzilla” did, save for one long shot of the burning city. But as destruction porn for monster junkies? Yeah, it’s good stuff.

One of the best sequences in the film occurs about halfway through. Shigeru, after being struck with amnesia, suddenly remembers what he saw in the mine. He remembers seeing Rodan hatching from its egg. The baby Rodan is kind of cute but, more importantly, easily eats the Meganulon, the primary threat for the first half of the film. This sets up the creatures as a serious adversary but also makes it clear that Rodan is a simple animal, not just a murderous monster. The late film appearance of the second Rodan is a weakness in the script, the creature coming out of nowhere. Without it though, the final images of “Rodan” wouldn’t be as powerful as they are. The two pteranodons are cornered in their nest at Mount Aso. The military bombards both dinosaurs with missiles, until the volcano erupts. One Rodan is caught in the lava, burning to death. Its mate joins it in death, choosing to die with its companion. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s mournful score, the audience feels for the kaiju as they die. As in all great monster films, the mighty beast incur both fear and sympathy.

“Rodan” is mostly free of the subtext that powered “Godzilla.” During one brief scene, the film’s scientist hero, played by Toho regular Akihiko Hirata, theorizes that nuclear testing might have awoken Rodan. The scene is shot in a quiet, still manner, more somber then the rest of the film. Besides that moment, “Rodan” is a fairly typical giant monster flick. Another cue it takes from “Godzilla” is the romantic subplot. However, it doesn’t handle it as well. Shigeru is seemingly the film’s main character but he disappears for long stretches of the run time. Kiyo, his fiancé, has to struggle through his amnesia. This is hardly the focus of the film though. The film tries to incorporate the two lovers into the finale but this mostly amounts to them standing back and watching the action. “Rodan” does not have the strongest constructed screenplay of Toho’s monster films.

“Rodan” is mostly a re-trend of “Godzilla” but, as far as re-trends go, it’s a fairly successful one. Ishiro Honda’s direction is solid. Ifukube’s score is rousing, sinister, sad, and manages to make a bird’s egg hatching unnerving. The monster effects are cool and sure to please fans. Rewatching the film, I wonder if it would have been spookier in black-and-white. Perhaps Honda was still learning how to make color effective. Or maybe “Rodan” is the light-weight creature feature it was meant to be. [7/10]

Night of the Demons 3 (1997)

You’d expect all of the “Night of the Demons” films to have been quickly released over a short period. In actuality, there was a decent amount of time between each entry, placing each film in a different era of horror. The first came during the last wave of great, eighties creature features. The second, six years later, was released during the peak of popularity for video stores. By 1997, when “Night of the Demons 3” was released, horror had changed again. The cheap thrills of the “Night of the Demons” series was starting to seem rusty. An attempt to make the series edgier resulted in a wildly different tone and a film less likable then the previous two.

Original creator Kevin S. Tenney returned to write “Night of the Demons 3.” Perhaps sensing that the “teens throw a party at Hull House” plot line wouldn’t work a third time, he cooked up a different sort of story. On Halloween night, a group of teens are driving around in their van, looking for a way to pass their night. After picking up a pair of teenage girls, they stop by a gas station to buy some beer with a fake ID. This quickly goes wrong, guns are pulled, a cop is blown through a window, and one of the teens is shot. Looking for a place to hide, the troubled teens shack up in Hull House. As on every Halloween night since 1988, Angela is waiting…

“Night of the Demons 3” isn’t funny. Any attempt at humor amounts to a few bad puns from Angela and some yo-mama jokes. Instead of the off-beat humor featured in the first two films, part three goes the darker and grittier route. The batch of teens this time around are largely an unpleasant collection of characters. Ringleader Vince is a major asswipe, being the one who pulls the gun on the cops earlier and remaining that antagonistic throughout. His girlfriend Lois is a budding sadist, getting a little too excited by the violence going on around her. Orson is desperate for the approval of his scumbag friends. Black guy Reggie is too fond of cracking bad jokes. You wonder why half-way decent final guy Nick even hangs out with them. Moreover, the third entry is sexier then the already-pretty-sexy previous entries. There are multiple sex scenes but they all have a greasy, sleazy edge. Even after Lois has her hand turned into a snake, she goes in for a little self-pleasure. “Night of the Demons 3” ditches the fun exploitation of the previous films in favor of something harder edged and nastier.

This might not be a problem if the kills were at least fun. At one point, Angela shoves her tongue all the way through a guy’s head, two years after “Species” did the exact same thing. One victim is run over by a van while another has his heart ripped out in an uninspired manner. The gore in the film is generally uninteresting. It’s also hampered by some bad early CGI. For some unknown reason, there’s now a swirly, computer-generated portal everyone passes through when leaving Hull House. A throwing star early on is created through lousy CGI too. Hull House pictured here looks nothing like the sets from previous film, which is even more embarrassing when stock footage from the first movie is employed more then once.

Part three generally lacks the creativity and energy that characterized the other films in the series. The girl dressed in a cat suit for Halloween gets turned into a cat. The girl with a snake hand-puppet on has her hand turned into a snake. The guy wearing a demon mask is turned into a literal demon. You get the idea. You know things are bad when the best moment in the film is when Angela literally sucks the bullets out of a gun. The cast is weak, too. Final girl Holly, played by Stephanie Bauder, is bland as can be. Patricia Rodriguez as her best friend Abbie quickly falls into the lame soothsayer role. Kristen Holden-Ried as obnoxious asshole Vince definitely gives the worst performance in the film. I kind of like Viasta Vrana as the magic trick obsessed police lieutenant but even he spends most of the film driving around in circles.

About the only interesting thing “Night of the Demons 3” does is showing what happens when a demon tries to cross the underwater stream. The film then wraps up with an unpromising sequel hook, the characters promising to return every year. This wasn’t to be. Even Mimi Kinkade seems kind of bored. “Night of the Demons 3” is uninspired and a bit of a chore to get through. It’s, sadly, representative of what direct-to-video horror was like around 1997. Angela deserved better. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Dead Wait

Like “Carrion Death,” “Dead Wait” is another episode that easily could have fit into either EC’s horror or crime comics, before grislier elements grow into the story. The episode follows red-headed thief, nicknamed “Red” for obvious reasons. After killing his partner, he heads to Haiti, a country about to be torn apart by revolution. There he befriends a local millionaire, dying from parasites, with plans to steal the man’s rare black pearl. He also has his eyes on the millionaire’s mistress. Meanwhile, the voodoo priestess of the house takes her own interest in Red.

“Dead Wait” is another “Tales” episode with a great cast. James Remar is perfectly cast as the slimy, opportunistic Red, the kind of part Remar has played plenty of times over the years. John Rhys-Davis gets to have a little more fun then usual as the dying Duval, laughing off the in-coming war. Even secret horror fan Whoopi Goldberg, which seems like stunt-casting, does a decent job as the voodoo priestess. (Vanity, on the other hand, doesn’t impress. Though her enthusiastic sex scene isn’t to be missed.) Though mostly a twisty story of back-stabbing and double-crossing, “Dead Wait” gets nicely gory by the end of the episode. Rhys-Davis swallows the black pearl to sneak it out of the country. In response, Remar shoots him and cuts open his gut, squeezing the pearl out of his intestine. There’s a catch though: Duval is dying from intestinal worms, which adds an extra gross layer. Most viewers will see the twist ending coming but, like all “Tales” ending, seeing the bad guy punished is fairly satisfying. The host segments are fun too, as Whoopi joins the Crypt Keeper and pokes fun at her own image. Over all, “Dead Wait” is a fun one. [7/10]

So Weird: Mutiny

“So Weird” has done the possessing spirit plot line before, in season one’s “Will O’ the Wisp.” “Mutiny” puts a decent spin on it though. While on a town on the beach, Fi, Jack, Cary, and Clu are left on the bus with Ned while their moms are in L.A. Combing the beach, Fi finds a piece of driftwood inscribed with a strange symbol. Clu gives the wood to his dad, after discovering he’s been accepted into college. After holding the wood, Ned begins to act strangely, violent and authoritative.

“Mutiny” is an episode with amazingly low stakes. However, the presentation ends up helping a lot. Throughout the episode, any time someone holds the driftwood, they get a flash of past events: A first-person perspective of a man holding onto a wooden door as the room around him floods with water. It’s not too hard to figure out that Ned is possessed by the spirit of a dead sea captain. This information is revealed to the audience during a monologue from guest star Ken Pogue, as the curator of the local seaside museum. The speech is shown over the flashback footage and images of a painting of a crashed ship. It’s surprisingly effective. Possessed Ned treating a tour bus like it’s a ship is a bit silly but Dave “Squatch” Ward gives a good performance, especially when he’s locked in a room by the kids. The emotional heart of the episode comes when non-possessed Ned finds out his son has gotten into the college. Though he’s proud of Clu, he’s also going to miss his kid. After the supernatural plot is resolved, this subplot comes back into focus, leading to a good moment. Even though it’s not the first episode of season two to have explicit horror elements, “Mutiny” is the first really effectively spooky episode of the season. The results are a bit shaky but the show successfully captures the feeling of a sea-side ghost story. [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

"Rodan" was kind of a surprise because it was very serious, not unlike the original "Gojira". There is an atomic warning here and there are city-in-flames shots that no doubt recall the atomic blasts of WWII.

There are some fantastic effects with miniatures. Rodan's attack of the city is pretty effective and I could have sworn an actual bridge was blown down, the model looked that good.

On the negative side, there were endless shots of what I think were vapor trails from Rodan in flight and the final scene which features the bombing of Rodan's lair goes on for far too long. That final scene does deliver a respectful end to Rodan, though. I was surprised at how well it was done.

whitsbrain said...

...and let me give "Rodan" a 6/10.