Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 21

Evil of Dracula (1974)
Chi o suu bara / Bloodsucking Rose

Japanese genre films are usually cranked out on a yearly basis. Anytime there’s a break of a year or more, you always wondered. I don’t know why “Evil of Dracula” was produced two years after “Lake of Dracula,” Michio Yamamoto’s previous vampire film. That “Evil” would wind up being the last in the series, and the last feature film Yamamoto would direct for that matter, suggests that Japan’s interest in Western style bloodsucker flicks had dried up. It’s usually considered the weakness entry in the Bloodthirsty trilogy as well. I’ll be the judge of that.

The psychology teacher at an all-girls school, Dr. Shiraki, has noticed some strange things. The night of his arrival, he stays at the home of the academy’s principal. That night, Shiraki discovers two strange, pale women in the basement, blood running down the one’s neck. Instead of fleeing like a reasonable person, Shiraki continues on to the school. He quickly befriends a trio of girls, Kumi, Kyoko, and Yukiko. Strange things begin to befall the girls. A man comes for them at night, biting their necks, turning them into undead slaves. Shiraki tries to protect the girls while uncovering the secret of the vampire, the school’s principal, and how he connects to an ancient legend in the area.

“Evil of Dracula” is sexier and bloodier then Yamamoto’s preceding vampire films. The vampire villain makes a habit of biting his female victims on the breasts. Early on, we see a lady vampire, her nipples visibly poking through her night gown. Unlike the first and second film, this one focuses heavily on weeping wounds and dripping blood. The most graphic sequence in the film involves the vampire’s bride laying the nude body of a girl on a table. She stabs her in the neck, blood spraying all over the girl’s body and the room. After draining the girl, the vampire apparently cuts off her face and wears it, though the actual skinning is left off-screen. Despite seemingly being gratuitous, the graphic content plays in the trilogy’s overarching themes. In “Lake of Dracula,” the vampire was a symbol of unrestrained sexuality, a threat to the chaste, nervous heroine. Here, the vampire is an authority figure at a school, preying on his female students. The biting scenes bring to mind seductions or, in one case, flat-out sexual assault. Maybe adding more gore and sexing it up were just ways to attract audiences but at least it’s consistent with the other films.

The focus on gore and nudity means “Evil of Dracula” is not as atmospheric as the other flicks. However, it does have its moments. The best scene in the film involves Shiraki’s one faculty friend telling him about the local legend. During the days when Christianity was banned in Japan, a missionary sneaked into the country. When he was found, he was tortured and forced to renounce his faith. Sent to walk the desert (Japan has deserts?), he was eventually forced to drink his own blood to survive. Now a vampire, he kidnapped a teenage girl from the near-by village, taking her as his bride. This sequence is shown in flashback, a Caucasian man wandering the desert in glorious wide-shots. It’s an interesting origin for a vampire and a good twist on the lore. There are other expressionistic touches. After being bitten, a white rose the girl owns turns red. A vampire is photographed biting a victim. After the photo is developed, the woman is seen by herself.

However, “Evil of Dracula” is a lot slower then the already deliberately paced “Lake of Dracula.” There’s a lot of sleuthing and scenes of nobody believing our hero. The teenage girls are all claimed until only the teacher’s love interest, Kumi, is left untouched. After seventy minutes of slowness, the film finally picks up some. A lightening storm crashes outside when Shiraki confronts the vampiric principal in his lair. Another intense fight scene ensues, the vampire tossing the hapless human through windows and banisters. This time, the vampire is dispatched when a red hot fire poker is shoved through his chest, a gory, exciting set piece. As he is struck dead, his bride falls to the floor too. As they die, their hair turns white. Their skin melts away, until both are only skeletons. With their dying breathes, the two vampires reach out and hold hands, suggesting that even the most monstrous creatures are capable of love.

Even if it’s not as creepy or exciting, “Evil” is as well-shot as the other films in the trilogy. One shot of a vampire bride leading someone through the woods, the night foggy and dark, is quite lovely. The cast remains solid. Toshio Kurosawa is a likable hero. The chemistry he has with Mariko Mochizuki is strong enough for the viewer to overlook how creepy it is that a teacher is dating his student. The only returning cast member from “Lake of Dracula” is Shin Kishida. Though the character is different, he plays both vampires in a similar manner. Both are silent, imposing, and wear a bitching black cape. Riichiro Manabe’s score is definitely the weakest of his scores, as its focuses too much on noisy experimentation The music is generally shrill.

Though obviously the weakest of the three films, there’s still some interesting stuff going on inside “Evil of Dracula.” All three of Yamamoto’s films are intriguing for bringing such a distinctly Eastern sensibility to usually Western material. None of them are like your typical vampire flick and each one contains something special. The films aren’t widely available in the U.S. but I’d say each one is well worth tracking down. [6/10]

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)

I like Don Coscarelli. Obviously, the guy’s style and creativity is what powers the “Phantasm” series and makes it so much fun. Another side of the same card is that, re-watching the entire series, it has become clear that the guy is making it up as he goes along. Even though part three ended on a cliffhanger, and resolved very little, the director admitted that he was out of ideas. When “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” did roll into production, only four years later, it seemed mostly motivated by Coscarelli discovering some unused footage from the original. I can’t remembered if “Oblivion” (Or “OblIVion, if you insist.) was advertised as the final film or not. If it was, I bet fans were pissed off.

“Phantasm IV: Oblivion” essentially tells two stories, running side-by-side. Following the events of “Lord of the Dead,” Mike and Jody flee into the desert, the boy unsure of his destiny. Once he’s in the middle of nowhere, the Tall Man confronts Mike, seemingly insistent upon rearing him as his protegee. Mike resists this, despite the beckoning of his back-from-the-grave brother. Meanwhile, the Tall Man lets Reggie live, following his seemingly final fate at the end of part three. The ice cream man heads into the desert too, exploring the wasteland. Pursued by the Tall Man’s forces, he attempts to rescue his friends and stay alive.

The duel plots of “Phantasm IV” are seemingly there to please fans of the low-key horror of the original “Phantasm” and fans of the crazy action of the sequels. Of the two story lines, Reggie on the road is outwardly the most entertaining. Reggie Bannister developed, nicely, into a middle-aged, atypical action hero. An early wrestling match with a demonic road cop is surprisingly physical, with Reg being beaten brutally by the monster before it goes up in flames. As is expected by now, Reg also picks a babe up on the road. His attempts to sleep with her are rebuffed once again, providing some decent laughs. And because this is “Phantasm,” that babe turns out to be a Tall Man sleeper agent, packing sentinel spheres in her breasts. The scuffle in the hotel room, where Reg fights off two spheres at the risk of his limbs, is entertaining and visceral. In the last act, when Reggie loads his quad-barrel shotgun and slips on his ice cream vendor suit again, is pure fanservice. Watching the guy blasts dwarf monsters again is so worth it. Bannister is clearly having a ball.

However, the second part of “Oblivion” provides some interesting things too. Isolated in the desert, Mike begins to search his memories, grappling with his newly-discovered status as an otherworldly being. These sequences are where the long, lost scenes from the original are utilized. It’s a bit hard to wander where some of them would have fit in. Yet they’re fascinating anyway. We see the Tall Man arrive in Mike and Jody’s small town for the first time. An especially mean touch is that the evil mortician runs over a poor little dog. We see the Tall Man strung up in a improvised noose, dangling from a tree. He temps Mike into cutting him down, which fits in with the film’s overall conflict. The final scene of Mike and Reg riding down the street in his ice cream truck, towards an uncertain future, was amazingly prescient too. I’m still not a fan of Mike actually being from the same dimension as the Tall Man. The scenes of him testing his psychic powers or writing up his will aren’t the most compelling. Yet I appreciate Coscarelli’s attempt to recapture the more dream-like tone of the original film.

Most tantalizing for “Phantasm” phanatics is some of the long-awaiting answers “Oblivion” provides to some of the series’ long-lingering questions. We discover that Jody’s sudden appearance was not through his own will. Turns out, he’s a servant of the Tall Man too. He was brought back by the villain to help further direct the events of the plot. It’s a rickety retcon but one I’m willing to go along with. The best part is that “Oblivion” gives the Tall Man a definitive origin. Turns out, he started life as Jedidiah Morningside, a humble, Civil War mortician. Fascinated by science, Morningside built a crude, dimensional gateway. The old man step through and… The Tall Man returned. It’s about as vague an origin as the series could have provided but I like it. It’s in keeping with the franchise’s style. It gives us an idea of what happened without explaining everything in clear detail. Seems right.

While “Oblivion” finally clarifies some long-standing issues, other parts of it are more frustrating. We still don’t know what Mike is exactly. Did he always have a sentinel for a brain? Or did he undergo a change in the gap between sequels? Why exactly is the Tall Man still pursuing him? Why did the villains’ goal seemingly shift at some point? Most pressingly, what does all of this mean? The most frustrating part of “Oblivion” is it’s ending. Jody is, finally, definitively, dead. Mike’s attempt to use his powers to stop the Tall Man doesn’t work. (Because of course it doesn’t.) The villain strikes a killing blow, yanking the gold sphere out of Mike’s head and leaving him for dead. Reggie heads through the dimensional fork, pursuing the villain and hoping to save his friends. Once again, the story ends on a cliffhanger. It’s not satisfying or beguiling. Mostly, it’s just annoying.

For many years, it was assumed that non-ending was the last we’d see of the world of “Phantasm.” Considering how up there in age he’s getting, there was always this lingering fear that Angus Scrimm would die before a fifth film got made. And then, last year, out of nowhere, came the announcement of “Phantasm V: Ravager.” I’m keeping my expectations measured. The film was shot quickly, cheaply, and without Coscarelli behind the camera. Surely, at this point, the filmmakers realize this is there last shot at a “Phantasm” movie and will wrap things up. Or, maybe, something less definitive would be more in keeping with the series’ style. It’s hard to say. Until we know for sure, “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” is an interesting but frustrating entry in the series. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Curiosity Killed

“Curiosity Killed” is another mean-spirited episode of “Tales from the Crypt” that probably wouldn’t work without its great cast. A bickering old married couple, along with their better adjusted friends, head out on an ill-conceived camping trip. While Cynthia and Jack snipe at each other, Harry and Lucille dig up a secret in the swamp. Lucille’s dad, it turns out, was a voodoo priest who discovered the secret to eternal youth. A strange plant, when harvested from a corpse and grown in the moonlight, produces a youth-restoring sap. At first, Jack seems keen on sharing it with his long-suffering wife. Then he changes his mind, determined to spite Cynthia again. Revenge, and ironic punishment, ensues.

As I said, “Curiosity Killed” is a nasty half-hour of television. The elderly couple bicker, viciously yelling at each other. At first, especially when their screaming overlaps, this is kind of funny. After a while, it becomes annoying. The characters are so hateful to each other that there’s not a lot for the audience to like. The way the story plays out, with Cynthia poisoning the others, drinking the youth potion, and then being mauled to death by a dog, is fairly ugly. The lead female, hateful though she may be, is seemingly being punished for regaining her beauty. However, the cast helps a lot. Margot Kidder, buried under a heaping load of old age make-up, convincingly plays a bitchy old woman. Kevin McCarthey is very entertaining, the actor’s usual glee shining through his nasty behavior. “Curiosity Killed” is a bit of a sour note to end the otherwise decent season four on. This’ll be the last of the Crypt Keeper I’ll see this Halloween which is a bummer. I like the guy. [5/10]

2 A.M.: The Smiling Man (2013)

I still don’t know how to feel about the concept of “creepypastas.” Crowd-sourcing horror stories to the internet has produce a lot of crap and some pretty stupid subcultures. However, there have been some gems in all the debris. “2AM” is adapted from such a story called “The Smiling Man,” which was supposedly based on a true story. A man walks home through his dark neighborhood in the middle of the night. Walking down the sidewalk, he sees a strange man, dragging his heels across the concrete, with a huge smile on his face. At first, he laughs the stranger off. However, when the Smiling Man runs after him, the encounter becomes frightening.

“2AM” is real short, clocking in at just under five minutes. That’s the right time for a simple, creepy story. The short plays on real life fears and its easy to put yourself in the position of the main character. I mean, what would you do if some weirdo started running after you on a dark street? The movie captures the panic of that moment well. The sound design, especially the Smiling Man scratching his shoes across the street, is very well done. I really like how, after the protagonist turns his back on the stranger, we hear his feet quickly running towards him. There’s some distracting shaky cam in the middle section, the music is heavy-handed, and the ending is slightly goofy. That said, “2AM” is well done and generates some decent chills. [7/10]

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

If one thing worries me about P5, it's that it may not have as great of an ending for the series as P4. Yep, I love it. It's what Phantasm is all about: unresolved mystery and enduring friendship.