Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 19

Vampire Doll (1970)
Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô / Legacy of Dracula

By the start of the seventies, the Kaiju Boom had finally burnt out. Gamera would struggle on for one more film and the Godzilla series would continue until 1975. Otherwise, giant monsters had worn out their welcome. It was in this environment that Toho decided to take a chance on a different kind of monster movie. “Vampire Doll,” or “Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll” as the original title translates, is the first of three vampire films the otherwise-non-prolific Michio Yamamoto would direct for Toho. All three films are rare and obscure in the States, which meant I went into this one with zero expectations or preconceived notions.

Kazuhiko travels to the Japanese countryside to visit his fiancee Yuko. Upon arriving at her mother’s large, dilapidated mansion, Kazuhiko is informed that Yuko recently died in a car crash. He disappears for weeks afterwards, causing his sister Keiko and her fiancé Hiroshi to travel to the same mansion and investigate. It quickly becomes apparent that Yuko is not dead, not quite, and this is only the first of many dark secrets her family is hiding. As the undead girl stacks up victims, Keiko and Hiroshi try to get the bottom of the Kazuhiko’s disappearance and the mystery of Yuko’s resurrection.

“Vampire Doll” is really interesting as it’s a Japanese take on a traditionally Western type of horror film. The film, in many ways, resembles an “old dark house” movie. Kazuhiko arrives at the mansion in the middle of a thunder storm. Most of the story takes place in the mansion and the film doesn’t resist bathing the angles in shadows and cobwebs. A great deal of the plot revolves around people snooping into family secrets, much to the resentment of the family themselves. A very effective moment has Hiroshi approaching a locked basement door, stepping through a thin staircase. Ms. Nonomura stops him and locks the door behind them. The forbidden door, hiding a horrible secret, is another classic horror trademark. The family includes a deaf-mute man-servant named Genzo, a decision that recalls both Ygor and Dr. Orloff. Most effectively, the film has spooky fog wafting over a wet forest. The atmosphere and color of the film recalls both Hammer and AIP.

Despite being patterned in many way after classic Gothic horror films, “Vampire Doll” still maintains much of its Japanese roots. Yuko, the doll of the title, is referred to as a vampire a few times. Yet she doesn’t act much like one. She attacks her victims’ necks not to drink blood but because, as a child, she was obsessed with a scar on her mother’s neck. Instead, Yuko’s appearance is obviously patterned after the traditional Japanese onyro, putting her in league with Kaidan and Sadako. She has all the indicators: The pale face, the white funeral gown, the obscuring black hair, the unearthly movements, and a motivation based in the injustices suffered in life. The main theme of the film is one of familial shame and secrets. That’s not a uniquely Japanese topic but it does, it seems to me, speak to the country’s cultural identity.

“Vampire Doll” builds an old-timey spooky atmosphere, which allows it to pull off a number of creepy and even scary scenes. The tone is set early on when Kazuhiko first arrives at the castle. He peeks through a keyhole, seeing Yuko moving in a rocking chair before she vanishes. One of the eeriest shots in the movie is when he looks out the window and sees the undead vampire doll saunter across the foggy, grassy yard. That sequence has a shock ending, when Kazuhiko embraces his lover, only for her to plunge a knife into her back. In the process of uncovering the mystery, Hiroshi digs up Yuko’s grave. When the coffin lid is pushed aside, a literal doll leaps out, which provides a solid jump scare. During the day, Keiko and Hiroshi visit the town doctor who tells a spooky ghost story from the war, a moment that proves creepy by just focusing on the actor’s face and voice. Yuko’s implacable nature makes her a genuinely unnerving horror villain. She appears over people’s shoulders or behind doors. In the only moment of explicit gore in the few, she leaps towards a victim in a jittery, unearthly manner, and slits his throat, which leads to an operatic spray of blood.

Providing much of the film’s spooky tone is Riichiro Manabe’s score. The reoccurring theme makes great use of the harpsichord. “Vampire Doll” is also a good looking film and director Yamamoto smartly centers faces or axe blades directly at the viewer. One moment has a woman in bed seemingly floating in darkness. The cast is solid. Kayo Matsuo plays Keiko. Despite being a helpless victim that is tossed around by the plot, Matsuo remains likable and sympathetic. Yoko Minakaze is frosty and creepy as Ms. Nonomura, the mysterious matriarch most of the plot centers around. Akira Nakao is likable as hero Hiroshi and the beautiful Yukiko Kobayashi, last seen in “Destroy All Monsters” and “Space Amoeba,” is suitably uncanny as the undead Yuko.

My only gripe with “Vampire Doll” is the way it resolves its supernatural plot. Hypnotism is awkwardly inserted and a character previously assumed minor becomes a major part of the back story. However, like many great Japanese horror films, the story wraps up on an ambiguous, poetic, and oddly beautiful note. According to IMDb, the film was released in the US in 1971 in a longer 85 minute cut. I have no idea where to find this version as the original 71 minute Japanese version is quite rare to begin with. If you get the chance though, I highly recommend seeking this one out. Its low-key spookiness and old-school gothic trappings make it perfect Halloween viewing. [7/10]

Phantasm II (1988)

“Phantasm” was a decent sized indie hit in its day, gaining a vocal following and introducing an iconic villain. Despite coming right before the huge wave of American horror films seen in the eighties, “Phantasm” wasn’t immediately picked up for a series of sequels. Nearly a decade passed before “Phantasm II” materialized. Don Coscarelli convinced Universal to back the film, gaining a budget eight times larger then the first, allowing him to make a bigger, more elaborate movie.

The film begins with a flashback, establishing what exactly happened that night eight years earlier. Reggie rescued Mike from the Tall Man and blew up their house, saving them from the entity’s diminutive minions. Afterwards, Mike wound up in a mental institution, where he developed a psychic connection to a blonde girl he’s never met before. After getting out, Mike and Reggie team up again. The set out on the road together, hoping to hunt down the Tall Man, prevent him from taking over another town, and rescuing the literal girl of Mike’s dram.

“Phantasm II” pumps up the action of the original considerably. Within the first fifteen minutes, the movie features two exploding houses, in contrast to the first’s zero exploding houses. There’s another car chase but this one has a car flipping over a rock, through the air, and crashing up-side down. Then it explodes, after a dramatic sequence of fire catching from a leak of gasoline. Doors are chainsawed through, multiple dwarves are blasted, and flame is thrown. The movie’s crazy action theatrics peak with the chainsaw duel in the last act. One of the Tall Man’s human henchmen, a gas-masked wearing gravedigger, corners Reg in the basement. Reggie picks up his own chainsaw, prompting the digger to pull an even bigger saw off the shelf. In-between the blades crashing and sparking, you’ve got Reg making a dramatic, crotch-first leap over one of the spinning blades. “Phantasm II’ takes the “Evil Dead II’ approach to the sequelizing a horror movie, exploding a small horror story into a crazy action flick. Since “Phantasm” already had some crazy action in it, this is an even better fit for this series.

Working with a studio budget allows Coscarelli to take his natural creativity to even bigger places. Before heading out on the road, Mike and Reggie break into a hardware store. They load up on tools, cobbling together some improvised weapons. Reggie builds his infamous quadruple shotgun, welding two separate guns together. Mike builds a flamethrower from a blowtorch and some gas cans. Naturally, both weapons are used on nasty bad guys. Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Phantasm” movie without the flying, killer spheres. The classic variety returns. The sequel even recreates the head-drilling scene from the first film. However, the sentinel spheres gain some new tricks. One has a tiny saw blade, perfect for slicing off ears. The star of the show, however, is the golden sphere. It’s powerful enough to smash through doors, in one of my favorite shots. A whirling, round blades extend out. Those are utilized to eat through an unfortunate henchman, digging upward through his stomach and out his mouth. The sphere is even equipped with a friggin’ laser beam. Coscarelli’s creatively boosts the gore too. A nasty creature emerges from the spine of a girl, speaking in the Tall Man’s voice. The iconic villain is given an iconic send-off, pumped full of acid-soaked embalming fluid, melting from the inside-out. Cool stuff.

The first “Phantasm” didn’t feature many female characters, which reflected it’s intentionally adolescent mind-set. “Phantasm II,” however, gives Mike and Reggie both love interests. Liz, played by Paula Irvine, is the girl that shares a psychic connection with Mike. Disappointingly, Liz and Mike aren’t in the same place for most of the film. When the audience would rather be seeing Mike and Reg’s awesome adventures on the road, the film cuts away to Liz dealing with the Tall Man taking over her town. It’s not as compelling. Splitting the story in two like that also affects the movie’s pacing. Even after the guys pick up Liz, she continues to be an ineffective damsel in distress. During the awesome chainsaw duel, even then the film cuts away to the girl. The other love interest fits into the story a little more organically. The oddly named Alchemy is a babe picked up on the side of the road. She immediately falls for Reggie, leading to a purposely absurd sex scene. I fairly certain Don write that one as a favor to his friend. In keeping with the “Phantasm” series’ boys-club tone, Alchemy ends up being a double-agent for the Tall Man, proving that a big budget couldn’t get this tiger to change its stripes.

“Phantasm II” revisits most of the iconic imagery from the first film. The balls are back, the dwarves are back, the white room full of crates and a tuning fork are back, even the Hemicuda is back. The Tall Man has slightly more screen time then the first time around. His appearances run a similar course. He acts ominous during a funeral, appears suddenly behind a window, lifts people into the air by their collars, and shows up at the end to pull the heroes through a glass surface. Angus Scrimm is as ominous as before and the sequel certainly helped the character’s continued evolution into a fan favorite. Despite reprising most everything everyone loved about the first one, “Phantasm II” has none of the scares of the original. It lacks the first’s dream-like tone and surreal asides.

Maybe the lack of scares is okay since “Phantasm II” is essentially the action movie version of the first film. He faced studio mandates, which doubtlessly had an effect on the final film, but Coscarelli maintained his distinctive voice and style. I’m not shocked that some fans prefer the supersized action and wild tone of the sequel to the chillier atmosphere of the first. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Strung Along

Creepy puppets and dolls are topics that “Tales from the Crypt” has handled before but I think “Strung Along” might be my favorite take the show did. A retired puppeteer, the man behind a “Howdy Doody” style TV show in the fifties, has since become a recluse. He has a lot of anxieties about his much younger wife and guards her social life closely. A note he receives in the mail about a revival television special has the old man resurrecting Cocoa the Clown, his trademark character. In order to work on the new show, he invites a young, special effects technician into his home. Of course, the old man’s relationship with his puppet is not as pure as it seems, Cocoa speaking to him when no one else is around. Because this is “Tales,” everyone has ulterior motives.

Here’s a funny bit of trivia. One of the main characters in “Strung Along” is an animatronics expert played by Zach Galligan. “Strung Along” was written and directed by Kevin Yagher, an animatronics expert who created, operated, and directed the Crypt Keeper sequences from the show’s beginning. Coincidence? I think not! The puppet aspect adds a fun gimmick to a typical “Crypt” story of infidelity and conniving spouses. The wife and the younger puppeteer are seeing each other and plotting against the old man. They cook up a crazy ploy to get the man to have a heart attack. It’s amazing the lengths people on this show go for some money. Zach Galligan is nicely cast, as his natural wholesome charm distracts from the character’s eventual betrayal. It’s great to see Donald O’Connor, a veteran of old Hollywood musicals, in a similarly meta-role as a passed-his-prime old man. “Strung Along” has the kind of ironic final twist viewers have come to expect from “Tales.” Yes, the puppet comes to life and gets to kill, the bad guys punished for their crimes. The final image nicely straddles the line between funny and creepy. “Strung Along” is another strong episode from “Crypt’s” overall strong fourth season. [7/10]

So Weird: Twin

“Twin,” the season two finale of “So Weird,” expands upon the show’s mythology. Molly is in New York to perform on a late night talk show. Fiona spends time with her aunt Rachel, her father’s twin sister. Fi notices that, in her sleep, her aunt’s hand twitches in her sleep. Placing in a pen in her hands, she writes strange symbols. An example of automatic writing, Fiona soon discovers the symbols are a secret code the twins invented as a child to communicate with each other. Fiona begins to suspect these are messages from her father. Following the clues to the roof of a near-by building, she makes a terrifying discovery.

Knowing it’s a season finale, “Twin” ups the show’s stakes considerably. Fiona’s life is put in genuine danger. The episode builds nicely. Molly is anxious about performing, as the show’s agent gets badgering her about Rick’s death. Iris Quinn is very good as Fi’s aunt and plays off her own nervousness nicely. The moment she realizes that Fiona is right, that she is writing secret messages from her dead brother, pays off well. The finale of the episode features some great moments and some not-so swell ones. While Fiona rides an elevator to the top of a skyscraper, Molly performs her song for the talk show. “Love is Broken” is obviously about Rick’s death but, the show points out, was written beforehand. Molly gets another bad feeling when she notices her daughter is gone from the audience. While on the roof of the building, ghost-like demons emerge from the wall and attempt to drop her off the side to her death. The effects were questionable back in 2000 and look even worst now. What happens next might stretch disbelief. Fi’s dad reappears from the afterlife to save his daughter. It’s a long way to go just to provide some emotional closure but, thanks mostly to Cara DeLizia’s performance and the show’s smart writing, “So Weird” makes it work. It’s a strong note to wrap up the season on. [7/10]

And it might as well be the end of the series too. Originally, season three was going to resolve all of the plot lines built up throughout the show’s run. The business with the aliens would have revealed its purpose, that the extraterrestrials have a plan for Fiona. The Philips family’s history of witchcraft and knighthood would have been explored more. The series was meant to conclude with Fiona entering Hell to rescue her father’s soul, finally conquering the dark powers pursuing her. This was not meant to be. One of two things happened first. The Disney Channel demanded a softer tone for the third season and Cara DeLizia left the series. Supposedly the two events were not related but I’ve never bought that. For the third season, Fiona, otherwise known as the main friggin’ character, was written out of the show. Alexz Johnson, a would-be pop princess with a stupid name, was brought on as a new main character named Annie, who had a routine destiny of her own - some bullshit involving a magical black panther - and would usually sing a shitty song every episode. All of the show’s mythology was dropped, making two seasons worth of build-up seem like wasted time. I remember hating the third season when it aired, hating that they wrote Fiona out of the show, and being really bummed out that the series essentially ended on a whimper. I’m done with “So Weird” for the year and I have no idea yet if I’ll continue to review the series next Halloween. I’d rather remember the show as the smart, subversive, well written and beautifully acted program it was. We’ll see. I guess we’ll known for sure in twelve months. As for now, “So Weird” gets a [8/10.] I’m so glad I revisited it.

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

I've always loved how P2 made the Tall Man and his scheme seem like a creeping disease, eating small towns in America that people had forgotten about. When the SHtF, I am *so* heading to a hardware store.