Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 28

The H-Man (1958)
Bijo to ekitai ningen

By 1958, Toho’s first wave of sci-fi/monster movies was still going strong. Perhaps, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubureya wanted to try something different. “The H-Man” features a slimy, gelatinous monster that dissolved its victims upon contact. Though obviously indebted to “The Blob,” Honda and crew put a distinctly Toho style mark on the killer space-slime premise.

The story begins when Misaki, a low-level Yakuza member, disappears mysteriously during a drug drop, only leaving his wet clothes behind. Turns out Misaki was a very wanted man. The police, led by Inspector Tominaga, want to get to the bottom of the drug-deal and his odd vanishing. His girlfriend, lounge singer Chikako Arai, is worried about what’s happened to him. The mob, meanwhile, just want to know where the drugs went. Oddest of all, scientist Masada believes a new organism, mutated by H-bomb test, might be responsible for Misaki’s death. He’s right, of course, and soon Tokyo has to deal with a new problem… The H-Man!

Toho’s monster movies were rarely straight-up horror films. And I love them for that. There’s a certain experimentation to their kaiju flicks. Beyond the guarantee that there will be a monster in the movie, you never know exactly what you’ll get. “The H-Man” weaves a killer blob plot in with a mystery-gangster script. That’s three genres for the price of one! Tominaga and his team investigate leads, sleuthing around Arai’s apartment, the night club, and into dark corners, occasionally uncovering a dead body. The audience doesn’t have a good idea of what’s happening at first, keeping the premise mysterious. Aside from gangsters doing gangster shit, like pulling guns on people or sneaking around, numerous scenes take place in a sleazy nightclub. Go-go dancers in barely-there bikinis shimmy and shake, marking “The H-Man” as edgier than its predecessors. A car chase, awkwardly framed from the backseat, gets tossed in too. When the origin of the monsters are revealed, it leads to scientists hanging out in labs, dryly dissolving frogs, adding an extra-layer of sci-fi. In other words, “The H-Man” is a delightfully diverse movie, throwing all sorts of fun ingredients into the mix.

There’s still room for horror, however. The audience gets our first good look at the titular monsters during a flashback. Two sailors, both badly burned, relate a story. They climbed aboard a derelict ship. Inside, they found empty sets of clothing scattered on the floor. Soon enough, the green slime leaks down from the ceiling, melting whole men into nothing in seconds. Deadly goop crawling on innocent victims is certainly horrific while the shadowy ship provides plenty of atmosphere. The final image during the sequence, the glowing H-Men stepping off the empty boat, is memorably eerie. Later scenes feature surprisingly gory special effects, the blob monsters graphically devouring whole victims on-screen. The finale has the heroine forced through the sewers at gun point, the creeping H-Men always around the corners. While it never quite gets scares, the movie is creepy enough to satisfy this monster kid.

Another component of the film’s success is its likable cast, full of Toho veterans. Akihiko Hirata, Serizawa himself, shows up for the third time this week. His dashing good looks and effortless charm suits him well as the heroic detective. Kenji Sahara; his third appearance this six weeks; has the meatier part as Dr. Masada. Masada is a concerned scientist, worried about the radioactive monsters, but his concern is rooted in empathy, not bland heroics. He works especially well once he develops feelings for Arai, trying to rescue her from the villainous gangster. Yumi Shirakawa is still lovely to look at and gets to stretch her range a bit. Arai is mostly a damsel in distress but at least is a little more proactive. Haruo Nakajima is on hand, once again. He plays the monster, naturally, in their briefly glimpsed humanoid phases. However, we also get to see his face for once, as the H-Man’s second on-screen victim. That’s a nice surprise.

“The H-Man” is very different from Toho’s other creature features in some ways. In other ways, it’s very typical. Masaru Sato contributes another jazzy score. The blobs are the result of nuclear testing, like always. As usual, the monster shows up at the end to kill off the far more despicable human villain. The shapeless H-Men don’t generate much sympathy, save for the final shot of them crowding together as the sewers go up in flames. As a seemingly large portion of Tokyo burns down, a character monologues about how more H-Men might appear. This recalls the end of “Gojira” but it seems more like a blatant sequel hook this time. Surprisingly, a sequel was never made. However, according to Wikizilla, this film does form the first part of a thematic “mutant” trilogy, along with the perpetually out-of-print “The Human Vapor” and “The Secret of the Telegian,” a movie so obscure I have never heard of it before this very moment. [7/10]

Critters (1986)

“Gremlins” was a big hit. You wouldn’t expect a film that simultaneously quirky and mean-spirited to become one of the defining smashes of the eighties, but it was. Maybe it was the combination of ever-green Spielberg-ian sap and slimy creature effects, which audiences still had a taste for at the time. Maybe it was because the merchandising machine slapped Gizmo’s face on everything. Any blockbuster is bound to spawn imitators but “Gremlins” seemed especially irresistible to rip-off artists. The most beloved of these would-be little monster epics is “Critters.”

The film begins in space, with a jailbreak aboard a high-tech alien prison. A group of veracious monsters called Crites have escaped and are headed towards Earth. They land in a small town in Kansas, eating the local livestock and local townsfolk. The Critters quickly converge on the Brown family ranch. Luckily for them, a pair of alien bounty hunters are on the Crites’ trail. But will they arrive in time?

Via Wikipedia, the film’s director/co-writer denies “Critters” being a rip-off of “Gremlins.” I call bullshit. The film is belatedly beholden to Joe Dante’s flick. The premise, “little monsters unleashed on a small town,” is identical. The Critters have high-pitched giggles, just like the Gremlins. Both breeds also disrupt electronics. Despite being killers, both types of monsters are animated goofballs. One Crite, when set on-fire, rolls into a toilet. Later on, one of the beasties bites the head off an E.T. doll, a jokey reference to Dee Wallace’s biggest hit. Both films feature a small family at the center of the chaos. Both films climax with a building exploding. Both balance comedy and horror. The similarities are undeniable.

Despite being a blatant rip-off, “Critters” does try to distinguish itself from its more popular rival. The Capra-esque, New England town of Kingston Falls is switched out for mid-western, rural Grover’s Bend. The lower budget forces the little monsters’ rampage to one home. Much attention is given to the film’s sci-fi elements. We spend a lot of time on the space prison, hanging out with its slug-like warden. The faceless alien bounty hunters take on human form, one of them stealing the face of an Earthly pop star. The hunters arrive in town not long after the Crites. However, they spend most of their time wandering around, creating chaos and engaging in “fish-out-of-water” shenanigans. Moments like this, when the aliens bungle around a church meeting or a bowling alley, honestly go on too long. It’s clear that the script delays the characters simply because the movie will end when they arrive at the farm house.

“Critters” has two major attributes that make it a likable eighties creature features. The Crates themselves are amusing creations. The Chiodo Brothers-designed Critters split the difference between Gizmo and Stripes. They’re fuzzy and furry but also have red eyes, sharp teeth, scaly skin, and shooting spines. To make quick getaways, they roll into balls, humorously bouncing down stairs. While the Gremlins spoke in garbled broken English, the Crates’ chattering is subtitled. This pays off fantastically when one is exploded by a shotgun, forcing a blunt response from his partner. Earlier, a Critter swallows a firecracker, humorously keeling over. The design are symmetrical and likable while the effects hold up well. While the violence stays within PG-13 boundaries, it’s surprising how much red stuff the Crates spill when gnawing on their victims.

Another thing “Critters” has in its favor is its cast. Dee Wallace plays another horror movie matriarch. The part plays to her strengths. She gets to panic when making eye-contact with the monsters, when getting a poisonous barb to the neck, or when the family is under siege in the bedroom. However, she also picks up a shotgun later, blasting away the monsters. That’s awesome. M. Emmet Walsh is amusing as the clueless cop, especially when he’s faced with the Critters first-hand. Scott Grimes, as precocious teenage son Brad, nudges just up against annoying. His best friend, Don Opper as the town drunk and Faulknerian man-child Charlie, leaps pass that line. Also notable is Mr. William Zane as the daughter’s ill-fated boyfriend, one of the Crites few on-screen victims.

“Critters” is too goofy to go for real scares. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try. A tense walk down a hallway tries at suspense as does the late-period attack from a jumbo-sized Crite. Ultimately, “Critters” is mostly silly monster antics and goofball sci-fi. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s not as good as “Gremlins” but is endearing in its own way. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Undertaking Palor

“Undertaking Palor” seems to be “Tales from the Crypt’s” contribution to the sub-genre that includes “The Goonies” and “The Monster Squad.” A group of teen boys, all in the twelve-to-fourteen range, are united by their love of horror movies. Jess is the tough guy leader of the team, Norm is frequently mocked husky one, Aaron is the horny one, and Josh is the Asian kid with a camera, who fancies himself a movie maker. The quartet breaks into the local mortuary and spies the town undertaker being a creepy weirdo. Later that evening, Josh’s father dies from mysterious circumstances. The kids quickly realizes the undertaker and the town pharmacist are conspiring to murder innocent people and swap the insurance money. Looks like a job for the Monster Squa… I mean, four random young boys.

The “Goonies’ vibe “Undertaking Palor” puts out is doubtlessly deliberate. Firstly, Jonathan Quan appears in both. Secondly, the film begins with the kids leaving a theater playing Richard Donner movies, who you’ll notice also directed “The Goonies.” The kids-on-an-adventure story is really a lot of fun. The four boys have great chemistry together and each act their age, with the right amount of teasing, joking, and vulgar name-calling. Each of the actors are well cast, especially Scotts Fuits as Norm and Jason Marsden as Jess. (Jonathan Quan, meanwhile, seems relieved not to have to speak with an Asian lisp.) Also a lot of fun is John Glover, as the villainous Undertaker. Glover goes way over the top, as is his style. He bashes dead bodies in the face with a hammer, talks to the bodies, dances around the room, and munches on pizza while embalming corpses. A bigger then life comic book villain is a perfect choice for this sort of colorful story. The latter half of the episode is shot through the kids’ cameras, making this something of an early example of a found footage flick. The way the kids disposed of the bad guy at the end is awfully violent and maybe in poor taste. However, it’s all in good fun. “Undertaking Palor” is probably one of the most purely entertaining episodes of “Tales from the Crypt.” It’s one of the few stories from the show that easily could have been expanded into a feature. As an additional plus, the Crypt Keeper is extra animated and energetic in the host segments. [8/10]

So Weird: Second Generation

“Second Generation” touches upon something rarely mentioned in “So Weird:” Romance. While Molly prepares for a new concert, a strange boy named Ryan asked to meet Fiona. Aware of her through her website, Ryan actually has no interest in the paranormal. Instead, he bonds with Fiona over their mutual status as children missing parents – in Ryan’s case, his mother. As the two youths get closer, Fi digs into the boy’s past, noticing some inconsistencies, and realizes that Ryan’s scientist father is hiding something.

Fiona has never had a proper love interest before. “So Weird” isn’t that type of show. Fi isn’t a boy-crazy teenage girl and the series reflects that. So giving her a potential boyfriend is a sensitive issue. The show handles it fairly well. It’s funny that Ryan is a skeptical, scientific person, contrasting the two teen’s interests. Instead, the two bond over more emotional issues. Ryan’s deceased mother drives the mystery at hand. The teen’s courtship is fumbly, nervous, but laced with emotional truth. Cara DeLizia doesn’t overdo it, keeping Fiona’s personality intact while still making it clear that attention from a handsome young man is exciting for her. Kevin Zegers is decent as Ryan and the two play off of each other nicely. The episode’s science fiction content takes a back seat. The episode’s gimmick? Cloning. Ryan is actually a clone of his father. Once again, the show defuses its dramatic situation in a surprisingly even-handed way. Ryan’s dad isn’t a mad scientist. Instead, his experiments are rooted in heartbreak and loss. The resolution is slightly clumsy, as a lot of information is quickly dumped on the audience. However, “Second Generation” is good where it counts and successfully introduces a love interest for Fi that I don’t totally hate. (Though I wish Molly would be given some new songs. I’m real tired of hearing “She Sells.”) [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

What a strange old flick "The H-Man" is. This ain't no Godzilla. I thought this was going to be a Sci-Fi, dangers-of-radiation tale, which it was...sort of, but it actually turned into more of a horror story.

This is definitely a different Japanese film that takes a lot of patience to sit through. Unfortunately, that patience isn't really rewarded when the movie reaches its conclusion. The melting effect is pretty neat, though. I'll give it an extra nod for that. (3/10)

"Critters" is one of those movies that you just sit back and chuckle at. And you don't laugh because it's bad or funny, its just got a goofy, campy charm that you can't help but smile at. The simple way in which the special effects are executed, the basic story of a family terrorized by little furry smart-asses from's all good. But it's far from great or even very good. "Critters" is just an enjoyable little romp. It's a movie that would never be made today without being turned into heartless CGI-fest. (6/10)

Bonehead XL said...

"Little furry smart-asses from space" is probably the best way I've heard to describe "Critters."