Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 29

Varan the Unbelievable (1958)
Daikaiju Baran

“Godzilla” was the break-out film for Toho in America. Not only did it make giant rubber monsters popular in Japan, it immediately crystallized what a “Japanese monster movie” was to people in the west. The success of the American cut of “Godzilla” piqued Toho’s interest. The studio decided to collaborate with a U.S. studio to make another kaiju movie. The American backers ending up leaving the project prematurely but the Japanese studio went ahead with “Varan” anyway.

When a rare breed of butterfly is discovered in the heavily forested valley, referred to as the “Tibet of Japan,” a university sends some scientists to investigate. There, they find superstitious villagers who worship an angry god named Baradagi. The native’s warnings seem to come true when the explorers are buried in a landfall. The deaths cause journalists to investigate further. This only succeeds in pissing off Varan, a giant, reptilian monster that lives in the lake. The military comes in but can’t kill the beast. Surprisingly, Varan can fly and, like all kaiju must, heads for Tokyo.

Varan is one of Toho’s least-loved kaiju, not appearing again until a blink-and-miss-it cameo in “Destroy All Monsters.” On one level, this seems deserved. Varan doesn’t breathe any fire or have any special abilities. He’s just a giant lizard. However, the design is fairly dynamic. Tsuburaya did a good job of distinguishing the monster from Toho’s similar creatures. Varan is briefly described as a dinosaur. However, he more resembles a huge monitor lizard. The rows of barbs down his back are a nice touch and his face is, arguably, more expressive then Godzilla or Rodan where at the time. Varan looks fairly neat but other aspects of the creature are less smooth. When crawling around on all fours, he looks fine. However, several times in the film, Varan shambles onto his hind legs, which looks incredibly silly. The monster flies via a membrane between his arms and legs. It’s seems unlikely that an animal the size of Varan could possibly glide, much less at supersonic speeds. In general, the monster lacks the personality, and doesn’t generate the pathos of, Godzilla or Rodan.

“Varan” is, at least, an action packed monster mash. Not long after surfacing, the monster wrecks the native village. He tosses the huts and homes into the air, smashing what he doesn’t grab with his tail. It’s an impressive sequence and, disappointingly, the film’s highlight. The various confrontations with the military all fall a little flat. There’s very little tank and truck crushing when the army confronts the monster in the jungle. A long sequence has Varan pulling into Tokyo by the bay. Bomber planes swoop over head and battle cruiser drop death charges but Varan never truly stomps the ships. (Though there is a cool shot of the monster hanging out underwater while the death charges go off around him.) When Varan reaches the mainland, he mostly sticks to wrecking an airport. The monster smashing the big building is fun but that’s about where his rampage ends. Varan’s defeat is a bummer too, as the waddling lizard swallows a bomb, gets a tummy ache, and shambles back into the ocean to die. “Varan” is definitely focused on the beast but it feels considerably less epic then Toho’s other monster fests.

Here’s an unexpected inversions. A lot of people watch Japanese monster movies and wish there would be more focused on the kaiju and less focus on the humans. “Varan” does just that and, you know what? It doesn’t work. Turns out having interesting human protagonists makes the movie involving. Akihiko Hirata shows up in a role very similar to his part in “Rodan,” as the scientist who cooks up the scheme to kill the beast. The heroes of the film, I guess, are Kenji and Yuriko, two journalists whose professional rivalry develops into something like a romance. Kenji bravely drives an explosives packed truck into the monster but, otherwise, there’s very little reason to be invested in the human heroes. “Varan” also features Koreya Senda as the stately professor, giving the flattest and most bored performance I’ve ever seen in a Japanese film. The dude is monotone, like he was trying to win an Asian Ben Stein sound-alike contest.

If there’s anything about truly interesting about “Varan,” it’s how different it is from some of the studio’s other monster flicks. “Varan” is not brought to life through radiation. Instead, his origin is strictly mythological. The primitive villagers worship him as a god. Like a god, his rampage is spurned on by moderners invading his kingdom. There is a thread running through the film that I’ve noticed in many Japanese science fiction films: The struggle between the country’s traditional past and its modernized future. Unusually, the film comes down favorably on the side of tomorrow. The giant monster represents the past as something superstitious and fearful. His defeat at the hand of scientific thinking is like the haunted demons of yesterday being vanished by a more logical age. It’s a really interesting angle to approach a kaiju movie from and it’s a bummer that “Varan” doesn’t do more with it.

Though initially conceived as an American co-production, it would take another four years before Varan reached Western shores. The U.S. cut removes all the original footage of Japanese people, replacing it with some tedious scenes of American military man Myron Healy and his romance with Anna, a Japanese woman. These sequences really do not help a movie that already had pacing problems to begin with. It’s one of the most extensive butcherings of a foreign film that I’ve ever seen. There are elements of “Varan the Unbelievable” that are interesting but it’s clear that Ishiro Honda's heart wasn’t in this one. Now we know why Varan’s remains one of the studio’s rarest creations. [5/10]

Critters 2 (1988)

The original “Critters” was a reasonable success for New Line and, even at the time, was considered one of the better “Gremlins” rip-offs. The studio, still high on the success of the various “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels, was probably eager to launch another horror franchise. Thus “Critters 2” got the greenlight, rolling out two years later like one of its furry creatures.

Picking not long after the original, Brad Brown returns to his home town of Grover’s Bend for the first time in a while, visiting his vegetarian grandmother. The Brown family have become notorious locally, the incident of the first “Critters” film already passing into local legend. Desperate for a story, and not interest in writing about the town wide Easter egg hunt, a cute girl from the newspaper begins to pursue Brad. Like clockwork, the remaining Crite eggs from the first movie are found and hatch, unleashing more miniature monster mayhem. The bounty hunters from space are back too.

“Critters 2” tells a slightly bigger story then its predecessor with somewhat edgier content. Instead of being largely confined to a farm house, “Critters 2” instead takes place over a whole town. A far larger group of people are threatened by the fatal furballs with more collateral damage, this time including two exploding buildings. The slightly higher budget is obvious in the Crites themselves. The puppets are far more expressive and detailed, some Crites having different designs and more active faces, with more screen-time.

The second “Critters” is also a little gorier then the first. The small monsters’ first victim is a man standing atop a wooden stool. When the critters chew through the legs, he falls to the floor. Later on, we see his bloodied, chewed-up body. Memorably, a man in a bunny suit is attacked, leaping through a church window in his death throes. After the Crites roll together into a giant ball, they strip a man down to the bloody bones in seconds. More surprising then the gore is the nudity. One of the shape-shifting bounty hunters assumes the form of a Playboy centerfold, right down to the staple in the center. However, the alien doesn’t morph clothes to go along with the new form, leaving the women briefly nude. The violence is well within PG-13 standards but the bare breasts, comical and fleetingly glimpsed as they are, weren’t expected.

Despite its edgier content, “Critters 2” is actually goofier then the first entry. The Crites act even more like Gremlins then before. Their chattering language from the first film is traded out for something that sounds more like garbled English. The movie seems to call attention to the similarities when the Crites munch on some power lines. The monsters go nuts in a fast food joint, chowing down on burgers and fries, recalling the movie theater scene from “Gremlins.” Overall, the Critters are given more personality. One is pissed-off by granny’s veggies-filled fridge. Another gets the top of his hair shot off, discovering he likes the bald look. A Crite is cooked in a deep fryer and, the best gag in the movie, one bites onto a moving tire, refusing to let go. The goofiness extends to the human cast, with Eddie Deezen having a very Eddie Deezen-type role and a cute shout-out to New Line’s other horror franchise.

Having such close continuity with the first film is another one of the film’s attributes. Scott Grimes, sporting a hideous mullet, graduates decently to leading man, his character being lovably nerdy enough to support the film. Don Keith Opper, less annoying this time, returns along with Terrence Mann, who, amusingly, seems to have dropped out half-way through filming. The only down side is Barry Corbin has to fill E. Emmet Walsh’s shoes as the grouchy former sheriff, something the likable actor isn’t quite up to. Liane Curtis and the ever-reliable Lin Shaye are nice additions to the “Critters” universe though, Curtis being charming and Shaye carrying her part with good humor.

Self-proclaimed Master of Horror Mick Garris made his feature debut with this film. It’s the kind of unassuming, low stakes flick that is actually Garris’ specialty. Garris makes good use of the Easter setting, and genuinely is on the right goofy-fun wavelength. More surprising is the writing credit from David Twohy, future scribe of blockbusters like “The Fugitive,” “G.I. Jane,” and, uh, “Waterworld.” Everyone’s got to start somewhere, I guess. “Critters 2” isn’t high art but, as far as eighties horror sequels few people demanded go, is amiable enough. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Mournin’ Mess

“Mournin Mess” is the sleaziest episode of “Tales from the Crypt” in a while. Steven “That Guy from ‘Wings’” Weber plays our deeply unlikable protagonists, a womanizing alcoholic who occasionally does journalism. With his boss ready to fire him and his landlord ready to evict him, he pursues one last desperate story: A local charity organization devoted to providing proper burial for the homeless. Considering some maniac is murdering homeless people, the organization has its work cut for it. However, as he digs deeper into both stories, our hero discovers the two might be connected.

I’ve always found Steven Weber to be slightly off-putting and “Mournin’ Mess” exploits this fully. The guy is first introduced kicking a shapely blonde out of his apartment. His idea of a fancy date is swilling booze from Styrofoam cups and sharing a dirty hamburger in his dusty apartment. The dude is a sleazebag. The rest of the episode builds on this. The sequences revolving around the homeless people are appropriately gritty. The episode telegraphs its twist ending fairly early in advance, by focusing on the charity's significant acronym and having the female press speaker make cracks about people being “good enough to eat.” Yet the final third still satisfies. The image of a door in place of a coffin is memorable, as is Weber awakening in a coffin in the middle of a set dinning table. The ghoul make-up is simplistic but effective. There was potential in “Mournin’ Mess” to comment on a number of social issues, from homelessness to the way corporate charities sometimes mask more greed. But this is “Tales from the Crypt,” so the episode settles for sleaziness and gory irony. Assuming you’re in the mood for it, there’s nothing wrong with that either. [7/10]

So Weird: OOPA

Something likable about “So Weird” is that it didn’t always deal with the obvious supernatural topics that every other show like it did. “OOPA,” standing for “out of place artifact,” has the Philips family staying in a cheesy, Amazon-themed restaurant. There, they run into Tad Raxall, the eccentric computer magnet from “Simplicity.” In near-by Langley, the government has had him working on a mysterious object, an ancient artifact that looks like a cheese wheel. After sneaking in and looking at it, Fiona quickly deduces that the object is some sort of magical computer. A little more digging reveals that the cheese wheel might even be from Atlantis.

Out of place artifacts are easily explainable phenomenons and “So Weird” doesn’t help its case by bringing Atlantis into things. The strength of “OOPA” doesn’t lie in its gimmick but in its characters and their relationships. Garwin Sanford’s overcooked performance as Tad nearly destroyed “Simplicity” The character is better utilized here. Though still exaggerated, Tad’s unrequited crush on Molly provides him with some humanity. A surprisingly quiet moment comes when Molly sings “More Like a River” for him, the camera effectively cutting between their date and Fi and Cary examining the OOPA again. Building the episode around the characters was a smart decision since there’s not much to the central mystery. Fi and the other kids have plenty to do but this is a rare, Molly-focused episode of “So Weird.” Mackenzie Philips, once again, proves herself to be a stronger actress then you would have guessed from her past work. I honestly can’t remember if the business with the cheese wheel was ever followed up on in a future episode. I guess I’ll find out in time. [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

I just saw this a couple of weeks ago for the first time. I always write a little review of the movies I watch and post them to Letterboxd and a site called I've been posting them here with practically no edits and I'm enjoying how the stuff I've written intersects with your much more insightful thoughts.

By the way, your working this "Halloween 2014" thing like clock. I check Feedly everyday and boom!, there's your next blog entry. Pretty cool. Anyway...

This 1958 black and white Kaiju flick by Ishiro Honda largely consists of the military's numerous attempts to kill Varan. The monster doesn't destroy a whole lot though, and there's not any city smashing to speak of.

The Varan costume looks good when it walks on all fours but kind of dumb in flight. Some of the miniatures are cool and endearing with their visible strings and wobbly motions.

This has many of the tropes you'd expect from an early giant monster flick. (5/10)

Bonehead XL said...

I will probably fall behind on the updates eventually. I usually do. But, yeah, right now things are going well.

And thank you for commenting so much. It's given me extra incentive to get these out.

whitsbrain said...

It's your blog. So you can fall behind all you want. I mean, what do we expect for free? ;-)

I love getting feedback on the podcast that I help with so I know how good that is. Plus you do a great job.