Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 1

Battle in Outer Space (1959) 
Uchû daisensô

Strangely, Toho never had much interest in sequelizing many of their sci-fi/monster films, aside from the extensive Godzilla series and the crossovers there-in. However, it would seem that “The Mysterians” was either popular enough or especially well-liked at Toho that a sequel was made. Sort of. You need a sharp ear to notice the connections between that film and “Battle in Outer Space.” The two returning characters, damsel-in-distress Etsuko and elderly scientist Prof. Adachi, are played by different actors. Since both films concern an alien invasion, it seems odd that the events of “The Mysterians” are never mentioned during this one. The connections are more thematic, this film forming the middle of a trilogy of space films which would conclude with 1962’s “Gorath.” (Unless you consider 1977’s “The War in Space” a belated member of the series, making it a thematic tetralogy.)

Set in the far flung future year of 1964, space travel technology has advanced significantly. A fully manned space station orbiting the Earth is mysteriously destroyed by alien flying saucers. This, along with an Iranian delegate being psychically controlled, prompts Earth’s nations into action. American and Japanese astronauts travel to the moon, discovering an alien base there, ready to invade. Even this only dissuades the invading Natarls. Soon, Earth is locked in aerial combat against the flying saucers, the aliens destroying the cities of man with their fearsome gravity ray.

I had never heard much about “Battle in Outer Space” before watching it. This is probably because, unlike most of Toho’s genre flicks, it doesn’t feature a giant monster. The film is pure sci-fi, not truly qualifying for Six Weeks of Halloween viewing. The real reason I suspect “Battle in Outer Space” isn’t talked about much is because it’s not particularly good. The characters are thin-as-can-be archetypes. The script follows a simplified construction. Many scenes are focused on the in-and-outs of space travel. However, the science is predictably out of date, especially when moving in gravity is concerned.

The star of “Battle in Outer Space” isn’t any of the actors. Instead, the film belongs to Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects. The movie is packed full of miniatures, space ships on wires, and advanced weaponry. The distinctive disc-shaped flying saucers of “The Mysterians” return here, making an impression. A notable moment is when the rockets land on the moon, flipping through the air like an intergalactic ballet. Once on the moon, the heroes navigate the lunar surface in goofy looking moon buses that double as hover crafts until they reach the Natarl base, a round structure covered with glowing lights and rotating doodads.

Tsuburaya’s effects truly come to the forefront in the final act. The forces of Earth confront the Nartal head-on. Rocket-powered jets fly into orbit around Earth. The jets trading fire with the flying saucers are chaotic in a good way, laser beams flashing everywhere. The sequence blatantly brings World War II dog fights to mind, Japan re-glorifying their wartime air force in a sci-fi setting. Despite the Earth forces’ efforts, several alien vessels arrive on the planet. The destruction they reap is the film’s highlight. A stray “space torpedo” explodes a massive portion of New York City. The gravity ray devastates the Golden Gate Bridge and Tokyo. In a spectacular effect, whole blocks of miniature cities are broken apart and sucked into the air. The aliens are defeated by a fancy new heat cannon, the mothership going up in a huge fireball. The film never stops to consider the countless lives surely lost. That’s not where its mind is. “Battle in Outer Space” is an effects flick first and foremost.

I suppose the extensive city destruction squeezes the film into marginal horror. There are a few other bits that push the movie into our beloved genre. The aliens can possess humans psychically, recalling “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” My favorite element of the film involves astronaut Iwomura being abducted by the invaders. They implant thoughts into his brain, constantly telling him to undermine the mission. One of the best human-focused moments in the film is Iwomura, compelled by the Natarl’s voice, chewing his way out of his restraints. After successfully destroying one of the rockets, Iwomura has a change of heart. Free of the alien’s mind control, he makes a final stand against the Natarl, allowing his friends to escape at the expense of his own life. This is one of the few times in the film when the human cast expands pass thin stereotypes into compelling characters. The heroes are so uninvolving that the script doesn’t even have them in the middle of the last act’s action. Ichiro and Etsuko watch the military repel the alien forces from the safety of a fortified bunker.

We only get one look at the Nartarl in the film. The aliens are smaller then humans and run around in constraining space suits. The species confronting the film’s heroine in a lunar cave is another one of the movie’s memorable images. Otherwise, the movie is more focused on the armies of the world uniting in the face of the invasion. Ishiro Honda’s favorite theme has never been more evident. Akira Ifukube’s score doesn’t measure up to his previous work. He even recycles the military march from “Godzilla,” which is rather out-of-place here. As an effects reel for Tsuburaya, “Battle in Outer Space” is fantastic. As a real movie, it’s a bit dull. As out of place as Moguera was in “The Mysterians,” I think he proves that Toho’s sci-fi flicks are better when they have giant monsters in them. [5/10]

Critters 4 (1992)

Usually, when a horror franchise heads space, it’s a sign that a series has crossed that point where viewers can no longer take it seriously, the mystical shark jumping moment. “Hellraiser: Bloodline” was the last theatrically released “Hellraiser” film. “Jason X” is one of the more widely derided entries in that franchise. (Though I like it.) The “Critters” franchise, however, always had science fiction elements. The Crites are aliens, not Earthly monsters. Space ships have been around since the beginning. So moving the series into outer space isn’t a wholly ridiculous idea.

Picking up right where part three left off, befitting sequels shot back-to-back, “Critters 4” begins with Charlie putting the remaining Crite eggs into a space capsule. Trapped inside, Charlie is lifted into space with the monsters. The capsule drifts through space for fifty years, eventually being picked up by a space freighter and carried to an abandoned space station. Charlie awakens light-years away from Earth in to a futuristic world he’s not familiar with. Unfortunately, the Crites survived the trip. Taking advantage of the station’s ducts and tunnels, the Crites pick the crew off one by one, planning to birth a new group of critters.

There’s one major disadvantage to “Critters 4’s” sci-fi setting. Like its predecessor, this went direct-to-video, meaning the budget was probably low. Since the entire film is set on a futuristic space ship, a large portion of the already meager budget went to the production design. This meant less money to spend on creature effects. “Critters 4” ends up being a Critters movie with very little of the Critters. The titular monsters don’t even appear until about a half-hour in. There are only two genuine attack scenes, with the furballs showing up three or four more times on camera. Compared to the monster-fest the last two films were, this is bound to disappoint fans.

The movie tries to make those moments count. Two newborn Crites fly down a victim’s throat, eating him from the inside out. The second attack has the Critters being stealthier then usual. They lock a guy in, leaping out of the walls at him, biting at his back and throat. The white of the walls and floors contrasts quite nicely with the blood. Some POV shots create a bit of intensity. However, there’s only two Crites for most of the run time, even fewer then part three’s five. When more finally appear, they gang up on the space marines… Off-screen. The monsters don’t even get a proper death scene. As in the original “Alien,” the ship self-destructs, taking the Critters with them. Kind of a disappointing way for the monsters to go out.

We still get one or two fun moment. Like last time, the lead Crite gets a distinguishing feature. The male Crite gets his hair burnt off early, leaving him bald on top, recalling a gag from part two. He gets a memorable death scene, frozen with some ultra-cold fluid. What I can only assume is the female is shot down by Charlie with a .44 hand gun, which is a fun touch. We see a newborn Crite, hairless and kind-of cute, grow to maturity in seconds. All of this is more fun then the film’s more serious elements, like Terence Mann’s Ugg becoming a huge asshole or the Mexican stand-off the story concludes with.

“Critters 4” is actually too serious overall, especially compared to the goofy previous flicks. The first half-hour of the movie is focused on the relationship between the crew members, most of which are antagonistic. When the comic relief does come, it isn’t from the Crites acting like goofballs but from a malfunctioning computer. Maybe some of the movie’s money went to the cast, which is full of veteran horror actors. Anders Hove, Radu himself, is the asshole captain, who is way too nasty to be likable. Brad Dourif has a rare heroic role as the ship’s sort-of nerdy surrogate father. Eric DaRe plays a role very similar to “Twin Peaks’” Leo, an opportunistic asshole. Doubtlessly the biggest name in the cast is Angela Bassett, just a year away from her Oscar-nominated turn in “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Considering her break-out role in “Boyz in the Hood” had already come, I’m not sure why Bassett would be messing around with a movie like this. Her talent is underserved in the part, playing a mostly undefined tough girl. Even the disembodied computer voice is played by an established genre actor. Former Bond girl and Hammer babe Martine Beswick provides the sarcastic, dry voice-over.

You can’t fault the fourth film for being ambitious. I’m not even bothered by the more serious direction it goes in. However, the low energy, improper pacing, and lack of the star attractions are flaws. The “Critters” series started out as undemanding, comfy creature feature snack food before eventually becoming mediocre. But two out of four isn’t bad and it’s a better track record then you’d expect. When’s the remake coming? [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Deadline

“Deadline” is an interesting example of a “Tales from the Crypt” episode that doesn’t feature a lot of explicit horror elements but still feels darker then most of the series. Richard Jordan plays Charlie, another alcoholic reporter who is hard on his luck. He’s low on cash and desperate for a story. After quitting booze, Charlie’s editor promises him one more chance providing he can find him a juicy murder story. Leads being hard to find, Charlie begins to consider providing the murders he reports on.

“Deadline” trades in similar story types to “Mournin’ Mess.” However, while that episode played the hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ journalist character for cheap thrills, “Deadline’s” approach is more psychological. The episode focuses on Jordan’s deteriorating mental state. He develops a relationship with a not-hooker named Vicki, who is insistent on keeping things casual between them. Charlie insist he doesn’t mind this agreement but you can tell he feels a deeper connection with the woman. Similarly, his decision to quit drinking is clearly more of a defense mechanism then an honest effort. The first half of “Deadline” isn’t anything special but Jordan’s performance is captivating. However, the episode takes a darker, disturbing turn at its end. While stifling his desire to drink at an all-night diner, Charlie witnesses a murder. The camera focuses on Jordan’s face while special guest killer Jon Polito strangles his wife just off-screen. This proves weirdly creepy. What happens next isn’t too hard to guess but the script sells it with a gritty determination, leading to one of the more unnerving “Crypt” endings I’ve seen. The episode throws in some “Caligari”-style architecture at the very end, seemingly to justify the story’s appearance on a horror show. Turns out, that wasn’t necessary. “Deadline” is more psychologically disturbing then a hundred undead ghouls. [8/10]

So Weird: Strange Geometry

The season two strong streak for “So Weird” continues with the spooky, personal “Strange Geometry.” The Philips family is in London to record Molly’s music video. The video is directed by an old musician friends of Molly’s while the video is being shot in a creepy abandoned hotel. While there, Fiona discovers that the building’s architect was an eccentric man obsessed with the paranormal, who incorporated the Fibonacci sequence into all his designs, believing this could create a portal to the other side. As Fi digs deeper into the mystery, and walks further into the eerie building, she finds out the old man succeeded.

“Strange Geometry” is the first episode of “So Weird” to actually creep me out a little. While exploring the old building, strange things continue to happen just over Fiona’s shoulders. Faces and hands push through the wall. The word “HELP” appears on a dusty mirror. She spills her drink, another message appearing there. While the CGI ghost faces haven’t age well, the show still makes them surprisingly spooky. The episode concludes with Fiona discovering a secret room shaped like a nautilus shell, the portal to the spirit world inside. The effects are low-fi. The portal is basically represented as white sheets hung over a sparse, wooden set. The episode’s finale is a confrontation between Fi and the creepy architect. He makes it clear that all of this was pulled off just to help himself, which doesn’t make Fiona happy. However, he temps the girl by telling her he can contact anyone on the other side. Fi refuses the guy, naturally, and destroys his fragile portal. The finale is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, it directly involves Molly in the supernatural action, though she still walks away disbelieving. Lastly, the episode’s final few minutes confirm what “So Weird” viewers have probably suspected by this point. During a heart-to-heart between mother and daughter, Molly tells her daughter that her father died pursuing a similar interest in the paranormal. This is how much guts “So Weird” had for a Disney Channel Show. This episode ends with its heroine weeping uncontrollably into a pillow, heart-broken and angry. While “Strange Geometry” isn’t the highest tech episode of “So Weird,” it’s emotional and creepy. It would give a first-comer viewer a good idea of what the show is like. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I've never seen "Battle In Outer Space". It looks action packed but I'm sure it's not. Cool looking miniatures, though.