Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 13

Wrath of Daimajin (1966)
Daimajin ikaru / The Return of Giant Majin

In my review of the first “Daimajin” movie, I said that samurai movies and giant monster movies are both niche interests here in America and I can’t imagine a film that combines those two genres having much wide appeal. The people of Japan, however, apparently enjoyed it. Only three months after the release of the first film, a sequel was rushed out. Known in Japan as “Wrath of Daimajin,” the film is, confusingly, sometimes referred to as “Return of Daimajin” which is also an alternate title for the third entry in the series. When I was first learning about the films, this was a source of endless confusion for me. Even IMDb is confused, switching the poster art and taglines for the two movies.

We return again to the time of feudal Japan, when warring samurai lords ruled the land. Villagers frequently escape from a kingdom ruled by a cruel lord, who uses his citizens are free slave labor and forces high taxes upon them. The put-upon commoners flee to a peaceful, friendly near-by kingdom, which is currently celebrating a wedding. This pisses off the bad guy majorly. Retaliating, he sends a squad of samurai into the kingdom to murder the princess’s father, kidnaps her brother and fiancé, and rule over the twin communities. What the cruel lord doesn’t know about is the giant stone idol that watches over the villages from his island temple. Soon, the mighty, terrible Daimajin is enraged once again, striking out in anger against those that oppose him.

It has been said that every Daimajin movie has the same plot. Is this true? It’s fair to say that each film seemingly follows a similar outline. In both films, an idyllic village is subjugated by a cruel samurai lord. In both, the main villain dismisses the belief in Daimajin, considering it only to be superstition. After about an hour of period melodrama, he’s proven wrong. A weeping maiden implores the angry god to rise again. After destroying the guy’s fortress, Daimajin takes out the main baddie in some elaborate fashion. In both movies, the lord’s soldiers attempt to restrain the stone monster with chains which, uh, doesn’t work. Both movies feature prominent crucifixion imagery. In both entries, after fulfilling his vengeance, Daimajin disappears in some spectacular fashion, crumbling to stone in the first film and dissolving into water in the second. I haven’t seen part three yet but I’m expecting it to maintain this formula.

So how is “Wrath of Daimajin” different then the original “Daimajin?” In the first film, the villain’s sin was treachery, a cruel chamberlain betraying and killing his lord. In the second film, the villain’s primary sin is imperialism, as he invades and imposes upon a neighboring kingdom. Last time, the heroes were brother and sister on the run from the baddie. This time, there are a newly married husband and wife, avoiding detection by a different villain for different reasons. Last time, the shrine maiden and the heroine were different characters. This time, the movie saves time by making them the same character. Ultimately, “Wrath” is focused more on samurai action and medieval melodrama. There are numerous scenes of swordplay, some of them quite diverting. One sequence I rather like has the male heroes fighting off an army by themselves.

“Wrath of Daimajin” also seems to take longer to get to the action. Kaiju fans will be waiting a long time for the stone samurai to march on-screen and start fucking shit up. Earlier, the evil forces actually blow up the statue, causing his head to fly through the air. However, after the princess is strung up on a cross, her tearful pleas stir Daimajin awake. Then things get really good. The water boils around Daimajin as he rises up from the depths. He then parts the seas, Moses-style, and walks onto land. Daimajin pushes down a stone wall and swipes his hand through a fortress wall, bullets bouncing off him the whole time. At one point, the mooks attempt to hold him back with grappling hooks. Daimajin turns this around, tearing down whole buildings with the chains instead. A huge cache of explosions accomplishes nothing but pissing the monster off more.

As it was last time, half of the joy comes from how the character is presented. Once again, Daimajin is shot mostly from low angles, emphasizing his size and power. His foot steps reverberate through the air. One impressive moment has the enemy fleet hearing the golem’s approach miles away simply from his stomping foot steps. The weather turns stormy when Daimajin appears, ominous clouds blocking out the sun. A dusty wind follows him everywhere. Akira Ifukube contributes another intense score, further selling the monster’s immense power.  The wicked idol even gains some crazy super powers. He stuns with a look, seemingly controls the weather, and shoots fire from his eyes. This leads to the spectacular ending. The bad guy tries to escape on a boat. Daimajin simply wades into the water and sets the boat ablaze. Climbing into the sails and railing, the villain is ensnared in the ropes, causing him to painfully burn to death. Man, Daimajin does not mess around…

Overall, I’d say “Wrath of Daimajin” is slightly less satisfying then the preceding film. The monster action is just as impressive but not as fresh. The plot is more belabored and far more long-winded. However, those scenes of destruction really make up for a lot. It’s hard to resist a giant stone samurai that wrecks everything in sight and then sets a dude on fire. [6/10]

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991)

By 1991, Empire Pictures was no more. Charles Band had moved on to greener, puppet-filled pastures. Somewhere along the way, the rights to the “Ghoulies” series changed hands, winding up at Vestron Video. The new rights-holders obviously decided that the Ghoulies needed a third adventure. John Carl Buechler, who handled the creature effects for the first two movies, was going to direct this time. The result skipped a required theatrical release, going straight to the ever-profitable video market. I also think it’s notable to mention that “Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College” is only member in the series without an official, domestic DVD release. Make of that what you will.

As the helpful subtitle indicates, the third “Ghoulies” flick is set at a college. Back in the fifties, an underground press attempted to publish a comic book containing real Satanic verses. Instead, three nasty monsters were summoned. Four decades later, the same comic book is rediscovered, bringing a trio of Ghoulies back to our mortal plane. This goes unnoticed by the residents of the schools at first because the warring frats are performing Prank Week, a whole week devoted to seeing which fraternity can come up with better pranks. Inside this chaos, a mischievous gathering of tiny monsters aren’t even noticed at first. When the bodies start stacking up, that changes.

By this point, the “Ghoulies” series has abandoned any pretenses of being horror movies. “Ghoulies III” is, instead, devoted to incredibly pedestrian comedy. Most of the movie plays like the cheesiest, eighties college comedy you can imagine mashed up with a crude “Gremlins” rip-off. The obnoxious college movie shenanigans take up far too much time. In the opening minutes, we see a kissing couple ejected from a rocket-propelled park bench and a janitor loosing control of his mop. At a party scene, a couple has enthusiastic sex on exercise equipment while Jason Scott Lee tries to impress girls with his stereo set-up. A campus security guard and his weird obsession with his golf cart occupies a lot of screen time. There’s, of course, a panty raid scene as well as copious amounts of female nudity, pushing the previously PG-13-rated series into seriously sleazy territory. The plot is, essentially, the same slobs-vs.-snobs storyline every college comedy has ripped off from “Animal House.” The heroes want to have sloppy, goofball fun. (until the main guy has a crisis of conscious and starts taking his college career seriously. He’s forgets about it by the end.) The dean and stuck-up jocks oppose this idea and look to put an end to their cheap thrills. The only difference is, in “Ghoulies III,” the dean has a trio of little monsters to do his bidding.

Instead of having the silly comedy contrasts with more horrific monster antics, “Ghoulies III” turns its monster into even bigger sleazeballs. The worst part? The Ghoulies actually talk in this one. I don’t know why that bothers me so much but it does. Little monsters growling gibberish, I’m okay with. But actually speaking, especially when they exclusively talk in crude puns and lame catch-phrases, as they do here, is too much. The Ghoulies get involved in the sleazy frat boy activities. They dress in clothes, chug an entire fridge worth of booze, and oogle naked sorority girls. When they do kill, it’s mostly in cartoonish ways that stray far past believable. They strangle a woman with her own tongue, stretches a girl’s face out with a plunger in a gag blatantly stolen from “Phantom of the Paradise,” and stuff a dude down a toilet. This movie really runs with the toilet thing and features a lot of scatological humor. The Ghoulies even fart repeatedly. To add insult to injury, the Ghoulies’ numbers have been cut down from five to three. Only the Fish, Rat, and Cat Ghoulies return. (Though it is mildly amusing to hear Richard Kind and Bob Bergen’s voices coming out of the monster’s mangy faces.) It’s dire is the point I’m making.

About the only thing “Ghoulies Go to College” has going for it is the performance of its main villain. Kevin McCarthey gets top-billing, as the only then-recognizable name in the cast. McCarthey brings an unexpected amount of joy to his role as the snooty dean. After getting a hold of the cursed comic book, and bossing the Ghoulies around, he develops a comedic villainous glee. He zaps the monsters back and forth from his office and grows more unhinged as the film progresses. In the last act, the dean fuses with the three creatures, becoming a part-man, part-monster demon. I can’t imagine why an experienced actor like McCarthey would be appearing in schlock like this but I’m glad he needed the paycheck. His good-natured goofiness is about the only charm the movie has.

I’m beginning to wonder why the “Ghoulies” series has a following. Are any of these movies good at all? One and two were cheap fun but far from classics. “Ghoulies III” is the pits and, supposedly, the next one is even worst. Ouch. Was the entire fan base inspired by that awesome poster? [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Showdown

Midway through season four, “Tales from the Crypt” would recycle the remaining two stories from “Two Fisted Tales” for some mid-season filler. “Showdown” is probably the “Two Fisted Tales” segment with the most horror content. A western gunslinger comes into town, shooting down another would-be challenger in the dust. Upon sitting in a saloon, he notices it is populated with his many victims, all returned from the grave. As the story progressed, the gunslinger realizes he’s dead too. He’s a ghost, haunting the old building which has, in the modern age, become a tourist attraction.

“Showdown” was directed by Richard Donner, who seems like exactly the type of filmmaker you’d expect to make a post-modern deconstruction of the gunslinger myth that doubles as a ghost story. The episode is moody and low-key. The camera lingers on the dusty setting, creating an atmosphere of sun-baked regrets. Neil Giuntoli gives a solid performance as Billy Quintaine, a gunslinger that has to come to grips with his troubled life. The confrontation between the shooter and his victims is a very EC Comics flavored moment. The climatic shoot-out that follows is dramatically directed. My favorite part of “Showdown” is when the setting leaps into the future. We see the gunslinger observe his modern day legacy as a legend and an excuse for people to buy trinkets and snap photos. We flash-back to his body in a casket, surrounded by his killers, posing for a morbid photograph. The episode even presents an afterlife for old cowboys, a posse riding across the desert sands forever. “Showdown” is not your typical “Crypt” affair. It’s far deeper and moodier then you’d expect. It says some interesting things about our modern world’s relationship with the legend of the Wild West. [7/10]

So Weird: Vampire

After tackling werewolves earlier in the season, it was inevitable that “So Weird” would do an episode about vampires. While driving through Milwaukee, Jack enthusiastically tells a studying Fiona about this new, online study group he’s joined. He takes his family to meet the local branch. Jack is excited but Fi finds something off-putting about the group. Her suspicion are well-placed. One of the members come to the Philips family’s hotel room, can’t enter the room unless invited in, drops a vile of blood, and disappears suddenly. Yep, the tutors are vampires. Fiona is concerned that Jack might be inducted into the bloodline next.

Up to this point, when “So Weird” has gone for scares, it has actually achieved them. “Werewolf” was unexpectedly intense and “Strange Geometry” was successfully creepy. “Vampire,” unfortunately, winds up being more goofy then frightening. It’s not just the premise of a world-wide study group organization run by vampires, which even a good show would have difficulty selling. The vampires, probably to meet Disney Channel censorship standards, are never seen drinking blood, barring their fangs, or turning into bats. What they do, instead, is talk in a cheesy, deep devil voice, float outside the bus, and have eyes that glow yellow. The episode even plays this for laughs, when one of the female vampires start talking about broken nails. David Paetkau certainly does well as Brent, the asshole leader of the vamps. I think the episode is building towards some sort of point about conformity and peer pressure but it never crystallizes. I do like that Jack’s relationship with Gabe, the girl he met all the way back in season one’s “Angel,” has continued to be an important plot point. The episode also throws in a sudden references to Fi’s dead dad, which is becoming a belabored point by now. “Vampire” is a rare misstep for “So Weird.” [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

This follows all of the same beats originally established by the first Daimajin film, but I like those beats, so this sequel was just as good to me. As you've pointed out, the stone god is bad ass!

This is going to be difficult for some viewers, especially those accustomed to stunts and explosions, to sit through. The whole movie is dependent on the anticipation and later enjoyment of the vengeance wrought by the giant stone warrior.