Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 18

Space Amoeba (1970)
Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû / Yog, Monster from Space

“Space Amoeba” is the end of an era. The public’s enthusiasm for giant monster movies, experienced just a few years earlier, had started to wane. By the end of the sixties and the start of a new decade, kaiju movies were widely considered kid’s stuff. “Space Amoeba” would be the last film produced under the studio’s old star system. It would be the last giant monster movie the studio made with an A-budget. It was the first of the studio’s creature features made after the death of effects master Eiji Tsuburaya. It was even meant to be Ishiro Honda’s final science fiction film, though the studio would lure him back in 1975 to direct “Terror of MechaGodzilla.” Aside from the remaining Godzilla sequels, the film was the last monster movie Toho would produce in the Showa period. The movie seems especially old fashion now and; with its plot of adventurous journalists, superstitious islanders, alien invaders, and super-sized sea creatures; was likely considered a throw-back even in 1970.

The movie begins when an unmanned space probe is sent to study Jupiter. Along the way, the ship is possessed by an amorphous alien consciousness. Under the space amoeba’s control, the probe returns to Earth, crashing in the south sea. Meanwhile, a photojournalist is talked into photographing Seigai Island for a tourist company. Along with his girlfriend, a scientist, and a businessman of questionable scruples, he is challenged by the local tribe. They are fearful the old gods might be angered by modern man’s invasion. Their prophecy seemingly comes true when giant monsters, normal sea life grown to huge size, attack the island. The creatures have been possessed by the same space amoeba that came to Earth on the probe, the first step in its planned conquest of the planet.

“Space Amoeba” is fairly derivative of Toho’s other monster flicks. The island setting recalls “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” and “Son of Godzilla.” The adventurer reporter is a hero type used in many Godzilla movies, including the aforementioned “Son.” The island natives, dancing and chanting in hopes of fending off a local deity’s offense, goes all the way back to the original “Gojira” but was also seen in “Varan,” “Mothra,” and “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Akira Ifukube’s score recycles musical cues heard in the latter most films. The islander’s song will definitely sound familiar to kaiju faithfuls. The subplot, of greedy businessmen looking to capitalize on some unspoiled land, recalls the earliest Godzilla flicks of the sixties. The cast is full of familiar faces. Akira Kubo, Atsuko Takahashi, Yukiko Kobayashi, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya all had major roles in past Godzilla movies. Looked at from this perspective, “Space Amoeba” makes it seem like the studio was starting to run out of ideas.

Yet “Space Amoeba” does offer some humble joys of it own. It’s a most unconventional of alien invasion flick. There are no flying saucers or alien leaders in funny outfits making villainous proclamation. Instead, Yog, as it was named in the American dub, is a far more insidious threat. It has no true form, only appearing as a glowing, blue mist. It slithers into organic beings, taking control of their bodies. In the shape of cuttlefish, crabs, or turtles, they grow into giants. For humans, they are controlled by ominous voices, telling humanity of its impending enslavement. The film reminds me a little bit of “The Thing.” The alien’s powers are potentially disastrous but, lucky for the human race, it fell in an isolated area. Granted, the freezing Arctic is more frightening then a tropical island…

The interesting sci-fi angle isn’t what got butts in seats. “Space Amoeba” is aware of this. The movie’s opening credits are taken up by footage of the three monsters fighting and attacking, dramatically scored and cut. The film throws three monsters at the viewer for the price of one. The goofiest, most intimidating and by far the most memorable is Gezora. A giant kisslip cuttlefish, the kaiju doesn’t act much like an invertebrate. Instead, Gezora crudely crawls around on his tentacles, walking across the island like a normal person would. The animal’s eyes were located where the suit actor’s – stalwart Toho monster man Hauro Nakajima – kneecaps would be. So Gezora’s eyes are constantly bulging out at odd angles. Despite his appearance being borderline comical, the movie still makes Gezora work. His appearance is preceded by a glowing light through the water. His tentacles reach out and grab victims, tossing them through the air. A sequence where he wrecks the native village, smashing grass huts and attacking spear-throwing natives, is one of the best in the movie. Disappointingly, the movie kills off its best monster half-way through. Gezora is burned to death by the heroes, retreating to the ocean and expiring.

The other monsters are less visually compelling and entertaining but aren’t without their charms. Ganime, a giant rubble crab, is probably the least impressive of the film. He shows up, cracks a few buildings, tumbles off a hill, and gets blown up. Without explanation, the giant crab appears again at the need. Kameba, meanwhile, is a huge mata mata turtle. Like the real animal, he can extend his neck out very far. Though the motion is somewhat mechanical, it is fun to see the turtle’s head shoot out at super-speed. After Yog is defeated by his weakness – supersonic sound, for those keeping track – the two kaiju go at each other, giving the movie it’s required giant monster fight. There’s some fun stuff here, the crab flipping the turtle over its back. The two monsters plummet into a volcano together, along with the Yog-controlled human, which makes for a fitting ending. It feels very classical.

“Space Amoeba” is not the disaster I’ve heard it is. It’s fairly minor, filled with familiar story beats. However, if you’re looking for campy monster action, it’s action-packed and lots of fun. As the last kaiju film of the sixties, kind of, it’s not the most impressive finale. Taken on its own, it’s a good time. [7/10]

Phantasm (1979)

“Phantasm” is the ultimate cult horror series. That’s a loaded statement. “Evil Dead” has had a wider reach. “Re-Animator” is more critically praised. Only “Phantasm,” however, has the winning combination of being most beloved by its fans, maintaining one man’s vision, and never loosing its low-budget, home-made weirdness. The sinister Tall Man, persistent silver orbs, and ice cream man action hero have never crossed-over much with the mainstream either, keeping “Phantasm” well within the realm of cultishly adored horror fandom.

“Phantasm” focuses on two brothers, twenty-something Jody and his little brother Mike, and their best friend Reggie, the local ice cream man. After the sudden death of a mutual friend, curious Mike begins to notice some strange things going on at the local mortuary. The graveyard is watched over by a tall, gray-haired man, silent and scowling. Bizarre hood figures creep around the bushes at night. A floating silver orb, armed with a blood-sucking drill and stabbing prongs, flies through the funeral home’s hallways. The boy has stumbled upon a terrifying secret from beyond, dragging his brother into it. Now, all three must face the wrath of the Tall Man.

There’s a lot going on inside “Phantasm” but it’s primarily an especially dark coming-of-age story. Mike is on the cusp of adulthood. His and Jody’s parents died in a car crash not that long ago and the boy is still recovering. Jody is eager to leave his small town, to see the rest of the world from the front seat of his supped-up Cuda. In one especially poignant scene, Mike runs behind his older brother, always trailing behind. Everyone Mike cares about has left him. And, soon enough, Jody will leave him too. There’s the issue of sex too. “Phantasm” begins with a young couple fucking in a cemetery, an ironic juxtaposition of eros and thanatos. After the sex is done, the man is stabbed to death by the woman. Later, Mike spies on Jody as he goes down on the same woman in the same graveyard, interrupting the two before they can finish. As befitting a boy in that age-group, sex is still a mysterious thing to Mike. He’s both intrigued and terrified. Sex represents maturity. And maturity, inevitably, leads to death.

Which raises the second, most pressing issue on “Phantasm’s” mind. Most every horror movie ever is secretly about a fear of death. “Phantasm” tackles that shit head-on. Don Coscarelli has been open about the movie being inspired by Western countries’ odd burial rituals. We give the bodies of our loved ones to strangers who take them into obscured rooms, doing who-knows-what to them. “Phantasm” plays on these anxieties directly. The Tall Man just doesn’t embalm dead bodies, he shrinks them down into hooded dwarves, slave-labor for his alien dimension. This is only the starting point for the film’s deeper discussion about death. The Tall Man is inescapable. Like Michael Myers in “Halloween,” he usually walks at a calm pace. He has no need to run. Death is going to catch up with all of us eventually. The final scene reveals that Jody has died. In the final seconds, the Tall Man appears again, dragging Mike to his death from behind a mirror. Death is unavoidable and unstoppable. And has there ever been a better symbol of the inevitably of our mortality then Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man? An imposing, towering old man, with a wisp of white hair on his head, a scowling, perpetually angry face and a booming voice. He’d rightfully become a horror icon.

Despite the heavy themes “Phantasm” tackles, the movie also has a youthful energy. Most horror movies would make a whole feature out of Mike trying to convince his brother that something strange is happening, In “Phantasm,” all Jody has to see is a twitching finger in a box full of mustard. From there on, “Phantasm” is a kooky, boy’s adventure flick. Mike sneaks into Morningside Cemetery, hides in a casket, and avoids being caught by the Tall Man. The brothers leap in Jody’s Cuda together, shooting down an evil, self-propelled car with a shotgun. When Jody locks his little brother in his bedroom, hoping to protect him, Mike straps a bullet to a hammer, cracking the door open with a tiny explosive. There’s lots of stuff like that in “Phantasm,” two guys getting into a crazy adventure and surviving just by the skin of their teeth, through pure ingenuity. That there’s no major female characters in the movie is relevant too. This isn’t “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th,” that follow a panicked, screaming girl. “Phantasm” is more macho then that, showing normal dudes getting in deep shit. Big guns, fast cars, male bonding, and scary monsters.

Yet when it’s scary, it’s frequently terrifying. Mike being pursued by the hooded dwarves is effectively creepy, playing on common fears of unseen things lurking outside. The first appearance of the sentinel orb has gone down in horror history as a classic moment. Because, of course, it’s awesome. The orb is such a novel creation that I’m surprised Coscarelli thought of it first. When the sphere slams into the random caretaker’s head, drilling his face, blood pouring out the opposite end, no one saw that coming in 1979. Two of the few female characters being abducted out of their cars on a foggy night are quite spooky. The final minutes of the film really pump up the suspense. Mike runs from the Tall Man, being doggedly pursued by the implacable man, the ominous theme music playing throughout. Images appear out of the night, attempting to frighten Mike into submission. The Lavender Lady stands behind some branches, wielding her knife. Tomb stones rise from the ground, foreshadowing everyone’s fate. And the Tall Man is never far behind. The loose plot runs on dream logic, creating the tone of a nightmare. This is most clear during two nightmare sequences. Mike awakes in his bed, in a graveyard, the Tall Man looming over him. Jody wakes up in the mortuary, the Tall Man slowly approaching down the hallway, his footsteps echoing. Eerie stuff.

The movie’s low budget creativity shines through constantly. Reggie Bannister is an ice cream man who winds up hulling a dead body in his truck. The gate to the Tall Man’s world is like a tuning fork, which Reggie picks up on. After calming the gate, the house disappears into a blur of color. The film is powered by Coscarelli’s limitless imagination, which usually works in its favor. I still don’t know about the weird, monster bug that grows out of the Tall Man’s fingers. It’s definitely the least convincing special effect in the film. The script was conceived in a short, burst of creativity which accounts for the film’s far-out ideas but also its sometimes slapdash plot progression. The perils of low budget film making are most obvious in the sometimes ropey acting. Bill Thornbury, especially, is frequently flat. Most everyone’s line-reading can be dull from time to time.

There are flaws but I’ve always been annoyed when people say “Phantasm” is campy or funny. Maybe it is at times but the film is so effective as a horror film and is such a pure blast of creativity. The film was destined to become a cult classic and lead a number of sequels. [9/10]

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

For a while there, I was making a yearly habit of seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at our local Apollo Theater around Halloween time. However, I found my interest in the show waning a bit in 2012 and began to wonder if this was a trip worth taking every October. JD and I skipped “Rocky” last year but this year, I decided to give it another shot. It helped that a whole crowd of friends was coming along with us, many of them doing this for their first time. As someone who has seen the movie many times, newcomers being humiliated on-screen and reacting to the stage show is more entertaining then the film.

The shadow cast provides a level of unpredictability that makes the midnight screenings worth attending. This year’s was a mixed bag. The Janet this year was fantastic, tossing her blonde wig off during the floor show. I think the Rocky was the same performer we saw back in 2012 and just as enthusiastic. The Frank, meanwhile, was overly hammy, doing a lot of distracting dance moves. JD said he was trying to “out-Curry Tim Curry” which is, of course, impossible. Many of the other shadow cast members clearly did not know their lines, glancing back at the screen repeatedly. Yet, overall, they did a decent job. The crowd was into it, with far more people dressing up then in previous years. A chorus of die-hard fans sat at the front of the theater, having clearly memorized all the call-back lines, including many I had never heard before. At one point, my row was covered with toilet paper, rice, and toast crumbs. My energy didn’t flag like in year’s past, my spirits staying high with lots of singing and dancing. It helped that my companions were clearly having a good time. I had a good contact high going by the time the movie let out.

Where do these crowds come from? It’s a common misconception among the general public that it is and that the crowds gather every October to mock the movie. People in the crowd do mock the movie, that’s for sure, but that’s not why they show up multiple times a year. Hardcore followers connect to something inside “Rocky Horror.” It’s been said that misfits and outsiders are attracted to the movie’s camp frankness. The film itself seems split on this issue. The wanton debauchery of Frank and the Transylvanians is celebrated. Yet it’s also punished, as most everyone except the squares end up dead by the end. Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott are clearly left exhausted and diminished by their encounter, their innocent world shattered apart. This loss of innocence isn’t a good thing either. Despite being a landmark example of queer cinema, “Rocky Horror” doesn’t seem to have a very good opinion of actually accepting one’s sexuality.

And then there’s the issue of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the film’s villain/primary protagonist. The crowd loves Frank and that devotion immediately made Tim Curry a cult superstar. Yet Frank is not a good person. He casually murders Eddie. He manipulates everyone around him, forcing others to his whim without considering them at all. He clearly doesn’t care about other people. After a whole movie of abusing, killing, and screwing with everyone around him, he sings a song about how misunderstood he is. He’s such a textbook narcissistic sociopath that the only person who can clearly please him is an artificial man made just to do that. Maybe this is something that bothers “Rocky Horror” detractors yet it’s not really too different from the way slasher fans idolize Freddy or Jason. Frank is charismatic and gets some of the movie’s best song. The image of an omni-sexual Tim Curry strutting in lingerie has become the film’s iconic image for a reason. Despite this, the movie comes down pretty hard on Frank. He’s misunderstood, maybe, but he’s a misunderstood asshole and gets the death scene he deserves. The film can’t quite nail the tragic story arc it’s aiming for, even with Curry giving it all.

That doesn’t answer the question of whether or not “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a bad movie. The script is pretty shaky, especially the middle act where people are wandering around the mansion, having random encounters. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about the film. The production design is impressive, the set inside Frank’s manor being beautifully realized. Many of the cast members are perfect. You can’t take your eyes off Tim Curry, who dominates the entire film. Richard O’Brian, Patricia Quinn, and Little Nell had all played their characters on stage and inhabit their roles here. Barry Boswick is the movie’s secret weapon, as the film’s humor wouldn’t work at without his dead-pan delivery. Susan Sarandon, too, is committed to the movie’s camp style. The same can be said of Charles Gray or Jonathan Adams. Even Peter Hinwood, whose performance is utterly flat, is actually perfect for the part of clueless, inhuman Rocky. The soundtrack is awesome too. “The Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite” are obviously classics but I think I prefer the nostalgic “Midnight Double Feature,” the subtle meloncholey of “There’s a Light,” or the surf-rock doo-wop of “Eddie’s Teddy.” To call “Rocky Horror” bad is to mistake its intentional aesthetic for incompetence. No film this calculated in its intentions was made without skill.

I came away from 2014’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience with a renewed appreciation for the film. I know it’s not for everybody and I know a lot of people hate it. That’s fine. The movie can be off-putting to those not on its wavelength. A pop culture phenomenon like this doesn’t last for forty years without having some value. It’s the prime cult classic of the modern age and, when experienced while in the proper mood, can be a pretty good time. [8/10]


whitsbrain said...

Yes! I've never seen "Space Ameoba". That's another one to add to the watchlist.

I've seen "Phantasm" a number of times, and I just don't think it's a very good film. It makes no sense whatsoever. To this day I don't know if Mike dreamed the whole thing or not. I've never been able to figure it out (just like the majority of people who have seen it), but your thoughts about it being a simple story about Death is good enough for me.

The Tall Man and the Silver Sphere are what I think people enjoy about the movie. The characters of Mike, Jody and Reggie do the stupidest things throughout the entire run time...and just where again did the mine shaft come from?!? There are some pretty decent ideas sprinkled here and there but I think my fondness of "Phantasm" is rooted in its goofy, confusing charm. I really only think it's about a (5/10) to me.

Kernunrex said...

I'm insanely geeked for Phantasm V. The best bit about the original for me is its dreamlike quality. Coscarelli is not afraid with everything making perfect sense. He's going for a sensibility of a nightmare, where severed fingers can become bugs and the movie's main monster can walk down the street in daylight and still look scary.