Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 11

Daimajin (1966)
Majin the Monster of Terror

1966 was the peak of the Kaiju Boom, when a record six movies featuring giant monsters were unleashed on the public all in the same year. The seventh entry in the “Godzilla” series and the second entry in the “Gamera” series came that year, along with the Gargantuas and all three Daimajin movies. Produced by Daiei, the studio that brought us Gamera and Zatoichi, the Daimajin series combines elements of the company’s two biggest series. Just when you thought kaiju movies couldn’t get more Japanese, the Daimajin trilogy has samurais fighting a giant monster and sets the whole thing in the country’s feudal past.

Set in medieval Japan, “Daimajin” takes place in village overseen by an ominous god, a huge stone samurai known as the Majin. The town is ruled over by a kindly samurai lord. Until, one evening, his treacherous chamberlain betrays him, murdering the man and his wife. A samurai loyal to the lord sneaks the man’s son and daughter out. Growing up in an obscure shrine, and watched over by the resident maiden, the two heirs watch as the chamberlain leads the village into slavery and misery. The boy and the samurai return, hoping to dethrone the cruel lord. It’s not enough, forcing the daughter to call upon the vengeful spirit of cruel, dread Daimajin.

“Daimajin” isn’t for everybody. They’re not even for every monster fan. The film takes its time getting to the good stuff. For the first hour of its eighty-five minute run time, “Daimaijin” is a straight-up samurai movie and not even a particularly action-packed one. Katanas are drawn and sword fights ensue. Men in armor and on horses follow in pursuit. However, there’s not an awful lot of swordplay. “Daimajin” mostly plays like a period melodrama. We see the cruelty the innocent townsfolk have to put up with, as they are enslaved for cheap labor. We see the wicked lord of the town savagely murder an old woman, cutting her down with his sword. He makes an example of the returning samurai by stringing him by his ankles. When the son returns, he is literally crucified, strung up on a cross in the middle of town. In-between these scenes are long sequences of the daughter and a little boy she befriends wringing their hands, worrying about what will happen and what to do. It’s all fairly easy to watch but, those in search of a monster movie, might have their patience tested.

If disappointed horror fans turn “Daimajin” off half-way through, they’ll miss out. In the last half-hour, the mighty Daimajin is awoken. His first course of business is open a huge crack in the ground, swallowing up a horde of men with gold fire. He then removes his plain stone mask, revealing the ugly face of an oni underneath. Shit just got real. The last act of “Daimajin” is fully captivating stuff. The stone samurai marches into town, smashing the buildings in his path. The soldiers attempt to wrap him in chains but he easily tears them away. Cannonballs and spears bounce off of him. He stomps people into the ground or mashes them against walls. When Daimajin finds the treacherous samurai lord, he yanks him out of a building before literally nailing him to a cross. Even this isn’t enough to satisfy the god’s rage, as he continues to destroy the town, before the tears of a maiden soothes his anger.

Daimajin is smaller then most kaiju, only coming in at about twenty feet. This, weirdly, makes him seem more plausible. Despite being smaller then you’d expect, the movie successfully sells the monster as an intimidating force. We hear each of his massive footsteps, the noise reverberating through the town. His appearance is proceeded by an ominous storm cloud blowing in. He’s also shot from low angles, making him appear even bigger. Fog and smoke accompany him. Interestingly, the only part of Daimajin’s face that is truly expressive are his eyes, which manage to express contempt simply by moving around. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s ominous score, Daimajin comes off as a truly frightening force, an unstoppable, and not easily pleased, physical god, punishing all he deems unworthy.

From a technical perspective, “Daimajin” looks good. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda knows how to stage a dramatic sequence and provides plenty of atmosphere. The best performance in the film belongs to Ryutaro Gomi as Samanosuke, the bad guy. His villainous proclamations are quite entertaining to watch. The sequence where he matches wits with Otome Tsukimiya as the old shrine maiden is impressive. His denouncements of superstition are furiously expressed and make his eventual fate all the more ironic. The rest of the cast is less notable, with Miwa Takada, Yoshihiko Aoyama, and Jun Fujimaki all being blandly heroic as the trio of protagonists.

So it has a slow start and is unlikely to appeal to everyone. I’m not sure how many people are interested enough in both samurai movies and giant monster movies to watch a film that is essentially both. But, man, that last half-hour. When “Daimajin” delivers, it creates some of the most evocative and intense daikaiju action put on screen since the original “Gojira.” It’s certainly not what you’d expect from the studio that brought you “Gamera,” at the very least. [7/10]

Ghoulies (1985)

To the hardcore horror crowd, Charles Band occupies a tier somewhere between Roger Corman and William Castle, more a promoter then filmmaker. Many of the films he produced in the eighties under his Empire Pictures banner are cult classics. The films of Full Moon Entertainment, made in the early nineties, are beloved mostly for nostalgic reasons. Nowadays, Full Moon is a pale shadow of itself, producing ultra-cheap sequels designed to cash in on nostalgia and dwindling fan good will. Back in 1984, however, Empire was still going strong. “Gremlins” had caught the public’s collective imagination. Sensing an oppretunity, Band retooled a pre-existing script to give a band of slimy, small monsters a bigger role. Rushed out a year later, “Ghoulies” has the dubious distinction of being the first “Gremlins” rip-off to hit the market.

“Ghoulies” begins with a Satanic ritual done by ominous dudes in robes around a pentagram. A baby, the intended sacrifice, is smuggled away, pissing off the warlock at the head of the demonic procession. Flash-forward a decade or so later, that baby is now an adult named Jonathan. He moves into his childhood home, a creepy mansion, with his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to her, forces from beyond call to Jonathan, causing him to take up Satanic magic as a hobby. A collection of nasty little monsters are summoned, Jonathan’s warlock dad is resurrected, and weird shit generally befalls the couple and their friends.

“Ghoulies” has a truly scatter-shot screenplay. It is, essentially, a collection of mostly unrelated horror movie ideas. The titular ghouls play a fairly small role in the proceedings. The film is mostly concerned with Jonathan doing a shitty job of resisting his Satanic birthright. What begins with drawling a pentagram in the basement soon escalates to him in a robe, swinging around a pitchfork. His eyes glow green, he brainwashes his girlfriend, and their friends are offered up as sacrifices. This would probably be enough of a premise for most any other horror movie, but “Ghoulies” is just getting started. Jonathan’s dad, the evil sorcerer seen at the beginning of the film, is resurrected from the grave and picks off a few victims, using his evil magic. During a ritual, a pair of dwarves are summon. Named Grizzel and Greedigut, they finished each other sentences and bash ghoulies on the head with mallets without contributing much to the overall plot. “Ghoulies” also throws in a creepy clown doll (proving that Charles Band saw "Poltergeist" too), a selection of stoned teens, and a heroic wizard named Wolfgang, played by Jack Nance. Despite narrating the film, Wolfgang never actually interacts with any one else in the movie until the very end. He isn’t much more then a bald-faced plot device, thrown in to resolve stuff at the last minute.

Despite a borderline nonsensical screenplay, “Ghoulies” does feature some humble pleasures. First and foremost are its truly bizarre characters. Jonathan, as played by Peter Liapis, starts out as incredibly bland and returns to it by the end. However, as soon as he turns to the dark side, he goes gleefully nuts. Rebecca, the suffering girlfriend played Lisa Pelikan, spends most of the movie unconscious, totally unaware of the weird shit around her. No, I’m talking about the two’s oddball gathering of friends. Mark talks in a scratchy demon voice, referring to this alternate personality as “Toad Boy.” Dick, played by the improbably named Keith Joe Dick, refers to himself in third person and successfully seduces every woman around him, despite being a colossal asshole. Mike and Eddie are stoned out of their minds, do spasmodic dances on the floor, and ride around on dirt bikes. When this strange group are put in blindfolds or white robes and sacrificed to demons, “Ghoulies’” weird streak becomes irresistible.

And then there’s the monsters. The Ghoulies contribute little to the plot. I think they only attack two people? Mostly, they just hang around, being the best set-dressing you could ask for. They come in four varieties: Cat ghoulie, rat ghoulie, monkey ghoulie, and scaly, green ghoulie. That last one provides the iconic poster image, though he lacks the suspenders and blue shirt. Other notable monsters include the aforementioned clown doll, that contains a slimy monster inside, and the undead sorcerer, who strangles a guy with his tongue. Provided by monster maker John Carl Buechler, “Ghoulies” offers plenty of slimy, rubbery eighties creature effects.

You can’t call “Ghoulies” a good movie in any sense of the world. It barely has a plot and it’s obvious the people making it had no clear vision in mind. However, I’m not shocked that it’s become monster movie comfort food for fans of eighties horror. A movie this narratively incompetent but suitably well-made in every other regard just wouldn’t get made today. And, hey, it’s only 78 minutes long, so at least it’s over soon. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: What’s Cookin’

You’d think cannibalism is a topic “Tales from the Crypt” would have gotten to sooner. Fred and Erma aren’t having much success with their all-squid seafood restaurant. Customers are at an all-time low, Fred’s sole employee is trying to steal Erma from him, and the sleazy landlord is breathing down their necks. All that changes when Fred comes in and finds steak in the freezer. The restaurant can’t keep the meat on the shelf and, suddenly, dinners are flooding in. Fred soon discovers why. That one employee has stocked the meat locker with the most taboo of all ingredients: Human flesh, provided by said sleazy landlord. And what happens when the supply runs out?

“What’s Cookin’” might feature the first actor cast for the sake of a pun. Meat Loaf, “Bat Out of Hell” rocker and the man who would do anything for love (but not that), plays the landlord. Meat spends most of his brief run time chopped up and on a hook. When he isn’t dead, Mr. Loaf actually gives a fun performance. The cast in “What’s Cookin’” is strong in general. Christopher Reeves plays with his all-American image, hiding a temper and an eventual wiliness to murder behind those boy scout good looks. Bess Armstrong is charming and energetic as his wife. The episode also has a good villain, with Judd Nelson playing the creep busboy who starts the cannibalism ball rolling but soon realizes he bit off more then he could chew. (Sorry.) The entertaining cast holds up a predictable script. Even it’s predictable, it is nice to see some lead characters on “Tales” you can actually root for. The ending, which features a cop being an accomplice to murder, is delightfully mean-spirited. It’s not one of the best but, if you’ve got a taste for it (Sorry again), “What’s Cookin’” is a fine half-hour of television. [7/10]

So Weird: Fathom

In season two, “So Weird” was obviously ready to mix things up. “Fathom” is another episode focused on Molly, with Fiona taking the backseat yet again. While performing in Canada, a strange, very intense man comes up to Molly after the show. She is intrigued and goes out on a date with him. While at an aquarium, the man charms Molly with his intuitive explanations of sea life. He then gifts Molly would a huge-ass pearl, something that would impress any one. Jack, however, is skeptical. He finds the guy off-putting and is unnerved by his mother’s sudden interest in him. After borrowing Fi’s computer, he looks the man up but can’t find any record of him. What he does find is the legend of a merman with the exact same name…

“Fathom” tells the usual story you associate with mermaids. The person from the sea falls in love with a land-dweller but they are kept apart by circumstance. Interestingly, “So Weird” flips it around, making the mermaid a merman. As I’ve mentioned before, romance is not a topic “So Weird” handled often. Molly is usually defined by her status as a widow and her inability to get over her husband's death. “Fathom” has her flung into a hot, heavy relationship. (Or as hot and heavy as a Disney Show can get.) Mackenzie Philips gives another underrated performance and successfully sells Molly’s end of the relationship. This is good since Rick Ravanello as Lal is quite off-putting. Jack’s reaction to the man seems more plausible, truthfully, as Lal speaks in an odd way and seems to want to move things fast. On the same level, Jack’s reaction is the same thing most sons raised by single mothers go through. No matter how great Lal had been, he could never replace Jack’s long-gone father. It’s an interesting angle and one I wish “Fathom” explored more. The story is rushed, as this is a half-hour kid’s show, so there’s not much time to develop Molly and Lal’s relationship. This makes him asking her to return to the sea with him at the end seem a bit far-fetched. Still, I admire the show for taking the story in such an earnest mood and bringing typically strong performances along with it. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

It's unbelievable that this entire trilogy was released in 1966. I bought the Blu-Ray release of all three movies and the picture quality is pretty nice for a mid-Sixties release of old Japanese monster flicks.

While the diamajin plays an integral role in this first film, it doesn't make a move until the last 15 minutes. But that's okay because the movie builds and builds thanks to a engaging story of a warlord who overthrows a peaceful king. The daimajin finally exacts his revenge and it is very satisfying because the story paints the warlord as about as evil of a character as I can remember. The whole think is very predictable but it's a lot of fun once the statue comes to life.(6/10)