Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 2

The Human Vapor (1960)
Gasu ningen dai 1 gô

I used to confuse “The Human Vapor” and “The H-Man” because the two have vaguely similar titles and premises. (And also because I’m occasionally dumb.) However, this confusion is appropriate. The two films compliment each other. Both films feature villains that are shape-shifters. Both are interesting genre hybrids, fusing horror, sci-fi, and mystery together. While the two films compliment each other to a degree, they ultimately have very different tones. “The H-Man” is jazzy and pulpy. “The Human Vapor,” meanwhile, is more somber and melodramatic.

The story begins with a mysterious bank robbery, the robber shooting a guard, leading the police on a car chase, and then seemingly disappearing into thin air. The case, and the further robberies that follow, leave Detective Okamoto and the Tokyo police baffled. A traditional dancer is soon found using the money from the robberies to fund her recital, despite claiming ignorance of the crimes. After she’s taken into custody, the Human Vapor reveals himself as former librarian Mizuno, who gained the ability to morph into a gas from a scientific experiment. Not only is he willing to steal to help the woman he loves, he’s more than willing to kill anyone who gets in his way.

The opening credits of “The Human Vapor” create a strong sense of mystery and intrigue. The film begins with gunfire shot directly at the viewer. We then follow a long tracking shot of the doors and bars of the bank vault seemingly opening by themselves. The first half-hour of the film is focused squarely on the investigation. Detective Okamoto trades tips with his reporter girlfriend Kyoko. They, slowly, trail the dancer in a car. He follows tips, hanging out in a library and watching a guy eat some bread. The police sit around in a circle, discussing the clues and facts of the strange case. There are a few false starts, like when random thugs call the newspaper, pretending to be the Human Vapor. These early scenes drag a bit, causing “The Human Vapor” to get off to a slow start.

However, the movie picks up considerable steam once its titular villain floats on-screen. “The Human Vapor” is probably the scariest film Ishiro Honda has directed since the original “Godzilla.” We only catch a glimpse of the Human Vapor as he descends on a screaming, frightened bank guard. The effect of a cloud of blue smoke encircling his victims is a bit hokey but the actor’s screaming, anguished deaths still proves unsettling. An impressive special effect the film repeats is Mizuno’s clothes either falling apart or filling back up as he phases in or out of them. One notable moment has him only partially turning into a vapor, becoming thin enough to fit between the bars of a prison cell. It’s a simple effect done with wires, which thankfully aren’t visible, but still proves to be surprisingly eerie.

What “The Human Vapor” most reminds me of is a classic gothic romance. Dave Sindelar compared the film to “Phantom of the Opera,” which is apt and a likely inspiration. Mizuno is an unrepentant monster, referring to himself as above humanity a few times, showing no remorse for his victims, and even laughing manically at the police’s attempt to stop him. Ultimately though, all of his actions are motivated by love. The woman of his dreams is Fujichiyo Kasuga, a traditional Noh dancer. Her family has fallen on hard times, leaving her unable to continue her profession. The police eventually use Fujichiyo to lure the killer out. The romance is chaste and Fujichiyo seems ambivalent about her boyfriend’s actions. On the contrary, Mizuno’s love for Fujichiyo drives everything he does. The climax of the film has the Human Vapor watching his beloved in her finest hour, performing on-stage. In a moment obviously reminiscent of “Phantom,” when a rude journalist mocks the performance, Mizuno emerges to kill the man. The finale of the film is shocking, ballsy, and surprising, featuring noble sacrifice and a huge explosion. I was enjoying the film up to that point but that ending, and the final image of the dying Human Vapor crawling out of the flames, pushes the entire story up to another level. The movie is elevated from a simple sci-fi/horror story to something more mythic and grand.

Honda’s films didn’t frequently feature traditional Japanese art and the focus “The Human Vapor” has on Noh gives it a unique feeling. The performances are strong. Tatsuya Mihashi is likeable as Okamoto and has good chemistry with Keiko Sata as the feisty reporter Kyoko. Kaoru Yachigusa, who also played other-worldly villains in “The Mysterians” and “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” is interesting as Mizuno, projecting an alienated inhumanity while remaining sympathetic. Kaoru Yachigusa has less to work with as Fujichiyo but shows an astonishing amount of emotion merely with her face and body language. I even like the production design, especially the strange machine that turns Mizuno into the Vapor Man.

When brought to America, “The Human Vapor” was significantly recut and lost ten minutes of footage. The story is re-framed from Mizuno’s perspective, telling the tale as an extended flashback. A young James Hong dubbed the character and his extensive voice-over frequently becomes distracting. This approach removes all of the mystery and spoon-feeds the audience the plot. The dubbing isn’t very good and Kunio Miyauchi’s evocative score is replaced with stock music. Stock footage of Tokyo is inserted a few times. Despite these issues, this version of the film became a monster kid favorite through repeated television showings. The movie is unavailable in the states as the rights-holder, MGM, refuses to release it. (There must be some legal issue keeping it shelved, since the movie would have been a perfect addition to the company’s old Midnight Movie line.) Luckily, my grey market release includes both versions, a gorgeous copy ripped from a Japanese DVD and a scratchy, miscolored, and badly mixed copy of the dub. I was happily surprised by “The Human Vapor” and can now confirm its status as an out-of-print classic. [8/10]

Silver Bullet (1985)

When I was a young kid, my teenage sister was going through a Stephen King phase. The bookshelves of her room was lined with paperback copies of his books. A lot of King’s books fascinated and frightened me at the time. One that really caught my attention was the Bernie Wrightson illustrated “Cycle of the Werewolf,” mostly because of the moody, gory pictures. It would be years before I finally got around to seeing “Silver Bullet,” the film adaptation by King himself. Upon release, “Silver Bullet” wasn’t that well received. However, over the years, and multiple sleepover rentals, the film has developed a cult following.

Set in the mid-seventies (that looks a lot like the mid-eighties) and told in flashback, the film follows Marty, a paralytic boy confined to a wheelchair. Marty doesn’t get along the best with his older sister, Jane. However, he’s best friends with his Uncle Red. Maybe because Red re-builds his wheelchair into a bad ass motorcycle-type thing. However, Red’s alcoholism and womanizing has made him something of the black sheep of the family. The family drama is pushed to the backburner as strange murders begin to happen in Tarker’s Mill. Every time there’s a full moon, another body is found mutilated. In time, Marty discovers the werewolf’s identity, causing the monster to come after him.

Seeing as how King actually wrote the movie, in addition to it merely being based off one of his books, “Silver Bullets” is awashed in his trademarks. Aside from the Maine setting, which more or less goes without saying, the film’s continues a story arc similar to “The Body,” of a young boy on the cusp of adulthood having a terrifying adventure. There are shades of “The Shining,” with a wholesome family being threatened by an evil force. The small town setting is something the movie takes full advantage of. Many scenes are focused on the rowdy local boys down at the bar or the town sheriff attempting to hold back a wave of vigilante justice. There’s a lot of local color, in the form of Lawrence Tierney’s bartender and his baseball, which has the phrase “The Peacekeeper” written on. At the story’s center is a surprisingly sweet story of familial acceptance and love. Red and Marty bound because both are outsiders, Red because of his hellraising behavior and Marty because of his condition. Through the adventure with the werewolf, Marty and his sister grow closer together while Red learns to value his family even more.

However, the real reason I think people remember “Silver Bullet” is for its healthy doses of unintentional camp. On the page, when left up to the viewer’s imagination, a motorized wheelchair probably doesn’t sound that goofy. On-screen, when faced with the reality of Corey Haim hooting and hollering behind the wheel of a motorcycle/wheel chair hybrid, the viewer can’t help but laugh. King’s sometimes exaggerated dialogue certainly sounds less silly on the page. When you have actors speaking lines about “making lemonade” in their pants, especially during an otherwise serious werewolf hunting scene, the effect is humorous. Humor of the (probably) intentional variety comes courtesy of Gary Busey. Before becoming a walking punch line, Busey was the sort of actor reliable for colorful, memorable performances like this one. According to IMDb, large portions of his dialogue was ab-libed, which is not surprising to read. Corey Haim’s gee-whiz performance, meanwhile, contributes a fine layer of cheese to the film.

Despite all its eighties-style camp, “Silver Bullet” still has some effective horror sequences. The film opens with a drunken man walking the railways, only for his head to be suddenly severed from his body from one mighty werewolf strike. A suicidal woman is attacked in her bedroom by the wolf, the beast savagely slashing her back over and over again. My favorite kill in the movie involves a redneck checking his shed for strange sounds. The werewolf pulls him down through the floor boards, impaling the man on the splintered wood. The most memorable sequence in the film is actually a dream sequence. King’s distrust of religion appears again when the identity of the werewolf is revealed as the town preacher, played by Everett McGill of “Twin Peaks” and “People Under the Stairs” fame. He has a vivid nightmare where everyone in town, gathered inside the church, transforms into werewolves. The scene feels like something out of an EC comic book, with its bold colors and hyper tone. The finale, where the werewolf confronts Uncle Red and the kids, works decently, with the wolf suddenly leaping through a wolf creating a decent jump scare. This is despite a werewolf design, from Carlo Rambaldi, that might be one of the most generic werewolves ever put to screen. He looks more like a bear then a wolf.

Between the creative werewolf gore, an eccentric cast, and goofball kid-friendly shenanigans, “Silver Bullet” is a treat for fans of eighties creature features. The unique blending of camp and serious scares was something seemingly unique to that decade, as horror got more self-conscious as the years went on. The film is pulpier then other King adaptations too, which adds to the fun. It’s not going to dethrone “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Howling” for the title of best werewolf movie, but it’s worth a watch nevertheless. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Spoiled

How much you enjoy “Spoiled” will depend on your tolerance for crude sexual double entendres. A bored housewife has little joy in her life, aside from watching her trashy soap operas. Her scientist husband is obsessed with his research and frequently disappears for days. While at home, he toils away in his basement laboratory, working on a super-sedative that can make complex organ transplants possible. Eager to get her husband’s attention, and desperately horny, the wife dresses up in lingerie and throws herself at him. Nothing works. Instead of just divorcing him like a normal person would, she decides to get cable installed instead. Abiding by the rules that only exist in pornos and shows like this, the cable guy is a hunk and the housewife immediately begins an affair with him. Because this is “Tales from the Crypt,” the husband finds out and plots bloody revenge.

“Spoiled” is one of the dumber episodes of “Tales from the Crypt,” rivaling season two’s “The Switch,” my previous candidate for stupidest episode of the series. The plot is incredibly predictable and follows well-recognized stereotypes. About ninety percent of the episode is the cheesiest sort of word play. We cut from a steamy soap opera to the housewife and her friend moaning in excitement, I guess. We see the wife moving vigorously, before the camera pulls back, revealing her on an exercise bike. Her interaction with the cable man feature some really obvious jokes. One-liners about male/female adapters, cable boxes, screwdrivers, you get the idea. It’s all incredibly juvenile. Meanwhile, the husband might be the thinnest character in the show, a man so dumb that he can’t understand while his wife is frustrated. Honestly, I might be able to forgive that. The actors, Faye Grant and Anthony LaPaglia, are having a good time. However, the ending is inexcusably stupid. Most “Tales” like this would end in murder. Instead, “Spoiled” throws a groan-worthy ending at the viewer, and one that features some pretty shitty special effects too. “Spoiled” is probably the worst episode of “Tales from the Crypt” I’ve covered thus far. Which means it still got a laugh or two out of me but, overall, I can’t recommend it. [4/10]

So Weird: Fountain

A Christmas episode in October? You’ll have to bear with me on this one, Halloween faithfuls. “Fountain’s” premise sounds like holiday schlock on paper. While shopping for gifts in a busy mall, Fiona gets a case of the Christmas blues. She’s bummed out that, on Christmas night, she’s falling asleep on a tour bus, instead of at home. A mysterious guy named – sigh – Nick in the food court gives her a special hot chocolate. After drinking it, Fi’s consciousness spirals backwards through her own life, re-living Christmases from her past, slipping back three years every time.

“Fountain” has a premise that invites naked sentiment. The episode is certainly packed with adorable moments. Fi first jumps back only a few years into the past, when Ned still has long hair and she’s wearing a cute Christmas dress appropriate for a twelve year old but not a fifteen year old. After that, Cara DeLizia is traded out for a succession of younger actresses, playing Fi at six and three. At six, Clu falls in a bowl of eggnog and Cary gets his heart broken by a girl for the first time. At three, Fiona has a cold, from dancing in the snow. “Fountain” first starts to tug at the heartstrings during this moment. Little Fi spots her mom crying over a picture of her dad and, calling on wisdom literally beyond her years, ensures her mother that they’ll always have each other. Lastly, Fiona quantum leaps into the body of herself as an infant and experiences her father dancing with her as a baby. “Fountain” comes thiiiissss close to being mawkish, especially by naming its supernatural entity of the week Nick. (At least they skip the white beard.) However, it gets at the root of Christmas as a holiday, how the yearly tradition connects us with our past and loved ones lost and found. The show earns the emotion it aims for, which is not something you can say for most Christmas episodes. It’s certainly much better then you’d expect a holiday episode of a paranormal-based kid’s show to be. All right, back to Halloween now, unless this show does a St. Patrick's Day special or something next. [7/10]


Kernunrex said...

I've got the same soft spot for Silver Bullet as I do for The Goonies and Monster Squad. Being a kid in the '80s was rad!

Let's see, if I remember that SK multi-pack well enough, Dead Zone is next, I think? Best of the lot by a mile.

Bonehead XL said...

Pet Sematary, actually, which I'll be reviewing at some point this week.