Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 30

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

In Japan, Toho was creating pop culture icons with their rubber suits and miniature sets. In America, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations were revolutionizing special effects. The UK, meanwhile, was trailing behind, their genre exports mostly being of the Hammer variety. With all this global giant monster action, maybe Britain was feeling left out. In hopes of filling the kaiju-shaped hole in their collective hearts, “The Giant Behemoth” rolled into production. Known by the less repetitive title of “Behemoth the Sea Monster” in its home country, the film enlisted experienced monster makers like Willis O’Brien, in one of his last credits, and Eugen Lourie, director of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which “Behemoth” bares more then a passing resemblance to.

The film begins with an alarmist speech about the danger of nuclear energy from American professor Steve Karnes, our hero. Meanwhile, an Irish fisherman is struck dead on the beach by a sudden blast of radiation. With his dying breath, he says one word: “Behemoth.” Dead fish, poisoned by radiation, continue to wash on beaches all over the country, crippling the local fishing industry. Karnes and a British professor named Bickford are on the trail of the mystery. After a few more bodies pile up, the scientists realize the culprit is a giant, aquatic dinosaur that emits radioactive waves. The cities are evacuated but it doesn’t stop from the enormous creature from attacking London.

As originally conceived, “The Giant Behemoth” wasn’t even to feature a dinosaur. The monster was going to be a radioactive blob. Signs of this remain in the finished film. A mysterious glob of glowing slime is found on the beach. The scientist heroes spend a lot of time studying the dead fish left in the monster’s wake. All of this is done before it’s even hinted that the monster is a dinosaur. It’s more then half-way through the movie before we get our first glimpse at the Behemoth, a ridged neck poking out of the water. A significant amount of time passes before the Giant appears again. The film’s heroes, as played by Gene Evans and Andre Morell, are slightly on the bland side. Any viewer going in will know what the monster is, robbing the mystery of any suspense. Watchers of “The Giant Behemoth” will have to be patient.

That viewers might click off halfway through is a shame because, once the monster finally surfaces, he’s a fairly captivating creation. Design wise, the Behemoth is not particularly creative. He’s basically a brontosaurus with small horns running down his neck and back. However, the monster moves fantastically, with a genuinely eerie life-like gait. The scenes of city destruction are extremely well done. The Behemoth’s first major action is to destroy a ferry in the Thames, overturning the boat, trapping the fleeing passengers inside. When the Behemoth turns on London, he marches through the streets, knocking over buildings. Surprisingly, the dinosaur’s radioactive powers aren’t shied away from. After being hit with the waves, the victims die covered in burns and tumors. Some are burned to a crisp suddenly and graphically. The camera, in extreme close-ups, focus on the fleeing citizens’ faces as they die. The Behemoth flattening London Bridge or tossing a tank into the ocean are memorable images. It takes its time but, once “The Giant Behemoth” gets to the damn monster action, it’s fantastic.

In its last act, “The Giant Behemoth” starts to show the debt it owes to “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” As in that film, the military can’t simply bomb the monster out of existence. In “Beast,” it was because the dinosaur carried ancient germs. In “Behemoth,” it’s because the monster’s radiation will be spread out more by aerial bombardment. As in “Beast,” the scientist heroes of the film decide to kill the monster by shooting it with a radiation-tipped missile. However, the underwater showdown in “Behemoth” can’t stand up to “Beast’s” Coney Island-set finale. The dinosaur is impressive but his death is underwhelming, perishing underwater without much fanfare. The film then wraps up on a grim note, with hordes of dead fish being reported in the U.S., hinting that another Behemoth is about to emerge.

So “The Giant Behemoth” is an inconsistent monster flick. The pacing is lopsided, with all the good stuff being shoved in the back. It’s grimmer then most Western examples of the genre, which lends it some novelty. Sadly, it’s one of the horror movies probably best enjoyed as a best-of reel then a feature. Two final notes: Eugene Lourie would have more luck creating an iconic giant monster for the UK with his next feature. Lastly, the title is not only repetitive but misleading, as the Biblical Behemoth was a land-based monster. I suppose “The Giant Leviathan” didn’t have the same ring to it… [6/10]

Critters 3 (1991)

By 1991, it was probably apparent to New Line that “Critters” was not going to become their next “Nightmare on Elm Street.” The movies might be reliable money makers but the Crites were never going to become pop culture icons on the same level as Freddy Krueger. Accordingly, and following the general direction of horror in the early nineties, the series went direct-to-video with its third entry.

The first two “Critters” blatantly emulated “Gremlins,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Critters 3” seems inspired by “Gremlins 2.” As in that film, the tiny terrors move out of the sticks and into the big city. Because of the low budget though, the Crites have to settle for a slum apartment building instead of a high-tech skyscraper. Anyway, a road trippin’ family, composed of a recently widowed dad, teenage daughter, and young son, stop by Grover’s Bend on their way to the city. There, the kids encounter Charlie who has now transitioned into a full-on survivalist/conspiracy freak, ever-ready for the Crites’ return. When he isn’t looking, I guess, some critters stowaway on the family’s trunk. Arriving at their grimy new apartment building, the family and the rest of the tenants have to compete with a new outbreak of the furballs from hell.

The third film in the series is notable for a few things. It continues the tight continuity of the last two films, Charlie the town drunk having now graduated to Burt Gummer-level monster-fightin’ badass. Secondly, it’s the only film in the series to be directed by a women: Kristine Peterson whose further directorial credits aren't very notable, sadly. The script was written by horror author David J. Schow. If you squint, you can see some of Schow’s reoccurring themes of family and past sins but I suspect this was mostly a work-for-hire gig. Most notoriously, it’s the film debut of Leonardo DiCaprio, a fact the DVD case proudly proclaims. Leo probably wasn’t happy to put this on his resume at the time but, honestly, he’s not bad. As far as unglamorous early roles go, it’s less embarrassing then, say, Brad Pitt in “Cutting Class.”

Aside from the limited setting, the low budget is evident in other ways too. Both previous films featured whole hordes of Crites. Part three only features five. The effects team still does fine work, as the critters are as expressive and memorable as before. Taking yet another cue from “Gremlins,” and maybe even “Jaws 2,” early on one of the Crites rolls through blench, dying his hair and burning his face. As the rules dictate, this guy immediately becomes the leader of the crew. We never discover if he has a name but I’m betting it’s something like Scar or Stripe. The monsters gain some new powers, like an ear-splitting shriek. Most amusingly, when rolled into a ball, they can now spin at high speeds before rocketing off. Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t get his Spin Dash until 1992, so the resemble is unintentional, but it didn’t go unnoticed by me.

The critters also act much goofier then before. While devouring a kitchen, they bust out a bag of flour, drumming in the powder. One Crite drinks a bottle of detergent, causing him to burp bubbles. Another gobbles a pot of pork and beans, resulting in monster farts. The little creatures even enact a pie fight with appropriately sized pies. The movie in general has a goofy streak. A horde of little monsters is bowled away by a trash can or thwacked with a mop. Since the Crites’ numbers are decreased, the script devotes time to thinking up creative ways to kill the monsters. One gets burned from the inside out after swallowing a flare. Another is cleaved in two by a giant meat cleaver. The best monster death involves a critter exploded via bottle rocket.

While it isn’t short on silly monster antics, “Critters 3” feels a little less inspired then the previous entries. The plot, involving a daughter still morning for her mother’s death and a father’s unwillingness to grieve, is routine stuff. The subplot cumulates in an especially ridiculous way, the little brother melodramatically falling off the roof. Aimee Brooks is actually fine in the part of the daughter but the script can’t make the character come alive. Some of the other characters in the apartment, like tough-gal telephone repair woman Marcia or the conspiracy theory grandpa, are more interesting. Leo’s relationship with his hard-ass dad is interestingly Oedipal, especially when the boy winds up being partially responsible for his father’s death. Try as it might, part three just can’t muster the same energy as the previous two.

Those looking for horror elements might be a bit disappointed. There’s some bloody biting and gnawing but few lethal kills. Most of the violence is inflicted on the monsters. Though not without its moments, “Critters 3” is a step down. The sequel was filmed back to back with the next year’s part four and, accordingly, ends on a cliffhanger, ready to send Charlie, the remaining Critters, and late-cameo Ugg back into space. We’ll see how that goes tomorrow. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Split Second

Michelle Johnson plays Liz, a classic femme-fatale working as a waitress in a lumberjack community. After fighting off a touchy customer, the local lumber boss spontaneously asks Liz to marry. At first, the not-easily-satisfied woman is happy with the arrangement. Quickly, however, boredom and frustration sets in, especially after Steve starts violently beating any of his workers that so-much as glance at her. Soon, a handsome wood-splitter rolls into town, catching the woman’s attention, who plans to play the men against each other.

“Split Second” has good pedigree behind the camera. The episode was written by experienced horror/TV writer Richard Christian Matheson and directed by Russell Mulcahy, who directed “Highlander,” one of my all-time favorite films. Mulcahy’s direction is, as expected, music video smooth, especially the steamy love scene later in the episode. As the ever-observant Kernunrex pointed out, Matheson’s script is dripping with gay subtext. All is peaceful with the burly lumberjacks, until the venomous woman enters their lives. Liz tries to seduce Ted, the new kid in the woods, which seems to confuse the boy. After being blinded by the raging Steve, the other lumberjacks hand Ted a phallic chainsaw and encourage him to murder the woman. Along with all the lingering shots of sweaty working men, “Split Second” is the most (unintentionally?) homoerotic episode of “Tales” ever. Michelle Johnson has fun with the slinky dialogue she’s given and certainly looks good. Stuntman and film heavy Brion James hams it up as the possessive boss. Though not the most atmospheric episode, “Split Second” is nicely representative of everything “Tales from the Crypt” is about. [7/10]

So Weird: Banshee

“Banshee” is another “So Weird” episode that made an impression on me as a young viewer. Molly and the kids go to visit her parents, both Irish immigrants. While Fiona’s grandfather is warm to the kids, he has always had a distant relationship with his own daughter. The grandfather is also in poor health. When Fiona sees a banshee, that ancient foreteller of death, floating over her sleeping grandfather, she assumes the worst. Soon, the young girl is bargaining with the spirit over her grandfather’s life.

As with the best episodes of the series, “Banshee” packs some strong emotion into its brief, twenty minute run time. The relationship between Molly and her father is the backbone of the episode. Considering it has to summarize a life-long relationship between father and daughter, it does a lot with a little. Terence Kelly is great in the part and he has a believable rapport with Mackenzie Philips. That storyline builds to an emotional scene where Molly sings a song she has written for her father. The melody has stuck with me for years which means it was great to finally revisit it. Meanwhile, Fiona goes looking for the banshee and finds it. It says a lot of Cara Delizia’s skills as an actress that she pulls off being both terrified and defiant. If her performance wasn’t as good, the finale of the episode, where she essentially talks the banshee and the great beyond into sparring her grandfather, wouldn’t be believable at all. "Banshee" reaches for a lot of emotion and can't quite reach it all. However, it's an incredibly strong episode of "So Weird." [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I'm pretty sure that "The Giant Behemoth" is held in relatively high regard in classic Sci-Fi circles, but it didn't do much for me. It moved even slower than most of the other atomic-testing-creates-a-giant-monster flicks. The beast is not an impressive one, even for this stop-motion animation fan. The cast was comical except for Gene Evans who was solid in the lead. (4/10)