Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 20

Lake of Dracula (1971)
Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me / Bloodthirsty Eyes

“Vampire Doll” obviously must have been a success of some kind because, a year later, Toho gave the go-ahead for Michio Yamamoto to make another vampire movie. Unlike the first film in his Bloodthirsty Trilogy, “Lake of Dracula” received some sort of release in the United States, owning perhaps to the marquee name in its title. Despite what that title might make you think, the film is as unusual a vampire movie as the director’s last stab at the subgenre was.

Akiko seems to be doing all right in her life. She has a nice lake-side home with her doctor boyfriend Saeki and her sister Natusko. However, after a strange man moves into the other house on the lake, things get weird for Akiko. She suffers from repressed memories of a traumatic event from her childhood. The image of yellow glowing eyes haunt her. A formally friendly old man attacks her. Finally, her sister begins to act oddly. After a dead girl with bites on her neck shows up at the hospital, Saeki begins to put two and two together. Akiko is being hunted by a vampire, the same vampire that has pursued her since childhood.

“Lake of Dracula’s” title probably makes you think it’ll be a Japanese take on Hammer’s various Dracula movies. It’s not. Instead, the movie “Lake of Dracula” most resembles is “Rosemary’s Baby.” Akiko is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She suspects her sister is trying to seduce her boyfriend. Natusko’s increasingly erratic behavior seems to confirm this. While Akiko, in a panic, calls Saeki on the phone, Natusko tries to brush the event off as nothing. She jumps at every noise. An effective sequence has the wind blowing open a window, the noise clattering throughout the whole house. She wakes up in the middle of the night, wandering around an empty house, which is surprisingly eerie. As in “Rosemary,” nobody believes her at first. She quickly comes to the conclusion that she must be going crazy. Years of repressed fears and anxieties bubble to the surface and she begins to crack up. This first half of “Lake of Dracula” is the film’s most effective, as it plays on common fears and creates some nicely spooky atmosphere.

However, the film eventually moves into a less satisfying second half. Saeki comes around to believing his girlfriend’s crazy stories. After an encounter with a vampire, he quickly accepts the supernatural events. He takes the girl back to the hospital and quickly puts her in a hypnotic state. Under a trance, she explains the traumatic memory at the film’s core, about how she encountered the same vampire as a child. The tone is flat and the dialogue is full of exposition. The couple decides to head back to Akiko’s childhood home and track down the strange house. To suddenly uproot the story from one location to another is jarring. Once at the dilapidated mansion, they find a journal that explains all the back story in one curt, tidy sequence. An over-reliance on exposition was one of the weaknesses of “Vampire Doll” and it obviously carried over to this film as well.

It’s hard to say if vampire fans will dig “Lake of Dracula” or not. The film is a bit short on neck-biting and stakings. However, I personally found a lot to like on this front. Once again, the vampires heavily resemble classical Japanese ghosts. All of the female vampires in the film wear willowy white gowns, have long black hair, and white faces. It’s eventually revealed that the antagonistic vampire isn’t actually Dracula but rather a descendent of him. Like the famous Count, the vampire has an affinity for black formal wear and a sway over women. One notable sequence has him calling Natusko out of her home and biting her neck. In another, he calls a recently turned corpse out of a hospital, a simple moment that is elevated by its spooky direction. The finale is the most traditionally vampire-movie-like sequence in the film. The descendent of Dracula corners Saikei and Akiko in his old mansion, determined to finally claim the girl as his own. A surprisingly brutal struggle ensues, the vampire throwing the boyfriend around with ease. The way the bloodsucker is dispatched is gnarly too. Tumbling over a banister, impaled through the heart, he writhes in agony, snarling directly at the camera for several minutes before dying.

The performances are strong. Midori Fujita anchors the whole film, properly conveying panic and fear. Choei and Takahasi is strong and likable as the heroic doctor. Shin Kishida is suitably imposing and implacable as the vamp. Riichiro Manabe’s score is very different from his work on “Vampire Doll.” It’s less gothic and more funky, with a scattering bass-line and some discordant noise. It still helps develop the film’s uneasy mood. Also unlike “Vampire Doll,” “Lake of Dracula’ is hampered by some moments of unintentional camp. The fashion and wall paper are very characteristic of 1971 and liable to generate some giggles. While driving to the hospital, a vampire leaps out from the backseat to strangle Saeki. What could have been an intense sequence is ruined when Saeki, through his choking, says “You’re making it difficult to drive!” Probably not what most people would say when under attack. A bolt of lightening dispatches the vamp too, which is overly easy and obvious.

While I prefer “Vampire Doll” overall, I still liked “Lake of Dracula.” Yamamoto’s films continue to have a nice mixture of traditional vampire theatrics with a distinctly Japanese tone. They’re moody, creepy, and atmospheric, with unique music and an interesting focus on women. After a month of giant monster movies, they’re a nice change of pace. [7/10]

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)

“Phantasm II” failed to light the box office on fire, befitting a series beloved by its followers but somewhat obscure by mainstream standards. Despite that setback, Don Coscarelli was still able to scrap together enough funds for a third one, this time only coming four years after the last one. Universal Studios had no active involvement in the third film, allowing Don to do whatever he wanted, but agreed to distribute it. Even then, they managed to screw over the movie, shelving for over a year before crapping it out on VHS. Naturally, “Phantasm” phans tracked it down anyway. They’re a faithful lot.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” picks up right where part two left off. Reggie catches up with the hearse, just in time to watch it explode. Mike survives the crash but his love interest didn’t. Mike slips into a coma for several years, watched over by Reg. In his dreams, he encounters Jody… and the Tall Man. After waking up from his coma, the Tall Man steals Mike away, leading Reggie back on the road. Passing through several towns decimated by the cosmic villain, Reggie picks up a young kid, a street-smart tough chick, and Jody, alive once again and living on as a flying orb.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” is most notable for expanding the mythology. In the years since the second film, the Tall Man has continued to sweep through small towns, cleaning out their cemeteries and wiping out anyone who gets in his way. The world at large continues to function while the countryside is approaching post-apocalyptic conditions. We learn more about the Tall Man’s minions. The spheres have tiny brains in them, cut out of the dwarves. The Tall Man, meanwhile, has a sphere for a brain. We learn that the series’ villain can survive death simply by transferring his consciousness to another body. The implication from the second film, that the Tall Man is essentially Cthulhu in a human suit, seems to have been confirmed. The Tall Man’s weakness to extreme cold is also mentioned for the first time since the original. The third film also brings Jody back, despite the character dying in 1979. His spirit has lived on in the world of dreams and somehow he crosses over, in the form of a black killer sphere. Meanwhile, we learn why the Tall Man has been pursuing Mike. There’s something special about the boy, something that makes him not quite human. I’m not sure if I like those last two plot points but, either way, the third film finally builds the stream-of-consciousness rantings of the “Phantasm” series into some sort of cohesive whole.

Mostly, though, “Phantasm III” emulates the action/comedy tone of the previous film. “Lord of the Dead” begins with Reggie exploding a lurker’s head with his quad-barrel shotgun before shooting three more out of a tree. For much of its run time, the film is a chase story, Reggie on the road looking for Mike, picking up new friends, and trying to stay one step ahead of the Tall Man. In the last act, it becomes a reverse siege picture, Reg and company taking the fight to the bad guy. There’s plenty of crazy action in the film. Zombies leap across moving cars, grabbing at Mike before he unloads a gun in the undead creature’s face, causing it to roll under the wheels of the other vehicles. This leads into the craziest stunt in the film, the hearse hitting a rock, leaping into the air, doing an insane four spins, and crashing to the ground. There’s lots of gun play, nun-chuck fights with the zombies,and several exploding spheres. The budget is obviously much smaller then part two but Coscarelli still piles on the set-pieces. The tone remains light with a lot of humor. Reggie’s repeated attempts to get in Rocky’s pants are quite funny, as are his near-misses with death. There’s a lot of one-liners and over-the-top action but not a single scare. This is probably fine for fans of the second film but those looking for the ominous chills of the original might be a bit disappointed.

A lack of money has never held back Don Coscarelli’s trademark creativity. “Lord of the Dead” features plenty of the low-budget gadgetry and ingenuity we associate with the series. This mostly comes from the character of Tim, the tag-along kid this film introduces. In order to fight off bandits, he has rigged out his house with a number of body traps. A clown doll, covered with knives, falls from the ceiling. Tim sneaks through the house using various secret passageways. My favorite moment involves him throwing a Frisbee covered with razor blades, perfect for slicing bad guys’ throats. In a sequence recalling the original, the Tall Man has his hands chopped off. The severed limbs transform into scurrying little monsters which have to be stomped or stabbed. There’s a lot of fun to be had when you’ve got zombies getting slammed in the head with nun-chucks or flying golden spheres smashing through windows.

I’m a fan of the new additions to the cast. Kevin Connors could have been annoying as Tim but the character is hardy and tough enough not to be a nuisance. Gloria Lynne Henry is another stand-out as Rocky, the tough girl that joins Reggie’s quest. Again, the character could have been cheap or thin. Instead, Henry has a lot of fun in the part, making Rocky a convincing action heroine. The back-and-forth she has with Reggie pays off really well during the film’s required sex scene. This time, the script acknowledges out ridiculous it is that a bald, middle-age man like Reggie Bannister is scoring with babes much younger then him.

“Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” is frustrating some times. The resolution is overly oblique and doesn’t resolve very much. We’re left with a lot unanswered questions. Still, when “Phantasm III” goes for action and goofball fun, it’s an entertaining time. It might not be the most stable sequel but “Phantasm” faithfuls are likely to have a good time with it. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Werewolf Concerto

“Werewolf Concerto” is “Tales from the Crypt” putting their stamp on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Vacationers at a forest-bound hotel are being threatened by a werewolf. The owner of the inn assures the patrons that they have nothing to worry about. A werewolf hunter has been brought in to pick off the dangerous creatures. The twist is the owner refuses to reveal who the owner is. We follow Lokai, a stylish gentleman whom we assume to be the werewolf hunter.

“Werewolf Concerto” has got a solid cast, which is its primary attribute. Timothy Dalton, still solidly in James Bond mode, has a good time as Lokai. He seduces ladies, wields a gun, drops one-liners, and shoots a bad guy in the head. Dennis Farina is cast against type as the slightly feminine inn owner. Reginald VelJohnson, Carl Winslow himself, plays one of the red herrings in the inn. And that’s one of the problems with “Werewolf Concerto.” In a novel or feature film, there’s time to develop character motivations or false starts. A half-hour episode of television does not have that luxury. The other cast members at the cabin don’t have much personality or purpose to the story. It truly seems like there were just thrown in for the heck of it. The werewolf stuff is pretty cool, including a decent throat slashing and a girl having her face smashed into a piano. The true identity of the werewolf is easy to guess and the episode’s twist ending is actually taken form an earlier “Tales” episode, season two’s “The Secret.” “Werewolf Concerto” starts off strong enough but, in the long run, doesn’t satisfy. [5/10]

Das Clown (1999)

“Das Clown” is a short with a really wacky set-up. The story is presented as a slide-show. We the audience see still photographs accompanied by a voice over, sound effects, and music. “Das Clown” tells the story of an old man, running an antique store, and the creepy clown doll he befriends. Words from a tome of eldritch lore brings Sparkles the doll to life, causing the clown doll to go on a killing spree. After the nice old man in the shop is killed, a local cop investigates, leading to a very unexpected ending.

A unique presentation gives “Das Clown” an edge over other horror shorts. The beeping and clicking of the slide machine become annoying after a while but the style, nevertheless, makes the short unlike anything else. It’s a good example of a storytelling gimmick that would become tedious in a feature but works just fine for an eight minute short. The story is goofy, gory, twisted, and funny, as the German accented clown doll murders people in exaggerated, creative, and obviously ridiculous ways. The narration, provided by John Popper of Blues Travelers fame for some reason, contrasts nicely with what’s happening on-screen. Popper’s voice is folksy and kind while the movie is anything but. There’s just enough twisted humor, like Sparkles’ bubblegum pink blood or the back story behind a violin, to keep things going at a funny, sick speed. The twist ending is also a hoot and probably the last thing you’d see coming. The music is also surprisingly good considering this is a brief short. It’s disappointing that director Tom E. Brown never went on to do much, as he showed a lot of promise. I wouldn’t suggest expanding “Das Clown” into a feature but I would kind-of like to see the further adventures of Sparkles the Clown. [7/10]


Kernunrex said...

P3 gets a lot of crap, but it's far better than its reputation as "the one with the annoying kid." Plus, real Mike returns and the mythology gets even weirder. Can't complain.

Ron_Maxwell said...

Re: Tom E. Brown