Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 22

House (1977)

Nobody in America had heard of “Hausu” until a few years back. When you said “House,” everyone thought of the William Katt movie or the TV show. An art house re-release and a Criterion DVD quickly brought “Hausu” to the forefront of avant garde cinema. Unlike most films you associate with the term “avant garde,” it is highly energetic. It’s a film that must be seen to be believed. To see it is to experience a film that makes the work of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky look coherent and calm in comparison. It is also, perhaps, the most Japanese thing ever created.

You might not know from watching it but “Hausu” actually has a very straight-forward story. Gorgeous' father, several years after her mother’s death, is remarrying. This enrages the selfish, spoiled teenage girl. Six friends had planned on going on a trip with their teacher but he has to canceled. Instead, they join Gorgeous at her Auntie’s home. Unbeknownst to the schoolgirls, Gorgeous' Auntie is a ghost, powered by a demonic white cat. Her house comes to life, devouring each of the girls, the old aunt’s age rejuvenating with each causality. The story is simple enough. It’s the execution that makes “Hausu” unlike any other movie ever made.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi has made many films but “House” is the only one to receive wide exposure in the U.S. So I have no idea if his other movies are this fucking weird. “Hausu” is up-front with its unusual style. The film begins with a cartoon logo before transitioning to a shot of one of the girls posing like a ghost. This seems to be mocking typical haunted house movies, which “House” most definitely is not. The skies are bright red and obviously artificial. Repeatedly, the movie draws attention to the fakeness of its sets. A train, brought to life through animation, leaves the station. Inside, the girls wave to the rainbow in the sky, which looks like it was drawn by a grade-schooler. The camera irises in and out on objects repeatedly. The scene splits in two or swirls around during transitions. Slow motion and erratic cutting is utilized repeatedly. At one point, the camera follows a girl’s blinking eyes. At another, it bounces back and forth, in tune with a metronome. Several flashbacks are saturated in purples or reds. We watch from a watermelon’s perspective as it is lowered into a well. One jarring cut has a man eating noodles enter the scene suddenly, soon accompanied by his talking pet bear. Keep in mind, none of these creative choices are related to the weird shit happening in the story. “Hausu” was directed, edited, and composed by a madman.

Aside from its bonkers creative style, “Hausu” distinguishes itself from other haunted house movies by making everything in the house a threat. Most of the danger is signaled when the white cat’s eyes flash green. When this happens, craziness is soon to follow. The watermelon in the well is replaced with a decapitated head. The head floats through the air, vomits blood, and bites one of the other girl’s on the ass. Later, a girl is attacked by floating pillows and bed sheets. Even later, the same girl is found inside a clock, bright red blood oozing from its gears. Floating logs attack one girl, tearing off her skirt. Near the end, that same girl is devoured by a lamp shade, her dismembered legs spastically kicking through the room. Another one of the girls is claimed by a mason jar with sharp teeth. The house’s walls and windows go nuts, seemingly laughing. A random mummy appears. A giant face, or just its eyes or lips, float through a room. Maybe the most notorious moment in “Hausu” has a piano coming to life and eating its player. Her fingers are snapped off, which she doesn’t seem to mind. Her friend goes crossed-eyed, a skeleton dances, and Melody is sucked into the piano. Her limbs twitch wildly as they're crunched. Her naked, dismembered body floats over the piano and comments on how naughty it is being. This is only a fraction of the crazy shit you’re going to see in “House.”

A movie like this might be difficult to follow. Luckily, the characters center us. Each one of the girls is named after their defining characteristic. Gorgeous is defined by her good looks. The house consumes her when she looks in a mirror, her face cracking apart as punishment for her vanity. Fantasy is frequently lost in her own mind. One moment has her fantasizing about the teacher rescuing her, swooping in on a white horse. The sequence is edited like a movie trailer. Prof is the smart one. You can tell because she reads books and wears glasses. Sweet is, well, sweet. She cleans house and takes care of everyone. Mac is obsessed with food and is always snacking. (Her name comes from stomach and also, I suspect, “Big Mac.”) Her friends say she’s fat but she looks the same size as the rest of them to me. Melody’s specialty is music. She’s the one who gets eaten by the piano. My favorite of the girls is Kung-Fu. A martial art expert, every time she leaps into action, an upbeat musical sting plays. She dives dramatically through the air. She fights a chandelier, a telephone, a door, a wall, shoes, the aforementioned mummy, and Gorgeous after she becomes a ghost. She also looses more and more clothing as the story progresses. At one point, she poses with a parasol, a sequence that makes me laugh like crazy even if I do not understand it.

Then there’s the weird shit in the movie that has seemingly nothing to do with anything. The teacher attempts to rescue the girls at the end. On the way to the house, he’s stopped by the man selling watermelons. The man turns into a cartoon skeleton. The teacher flees to his car, screaming about bananas. The next day, he has transformed into a pile of bananas. Earlier in the movie, he fell into a bucket and, via stop motion animation, rides the bucket down the street. Among the insanity, there are singular moments of odd beauty. After the house eats a few of the girls, Auntie begins to dance. She disappears into a refrigerator before reappearing in the rafters, doing an odd dance. She munches on a hand, drops goldfish into their bowl, and is joined by a dancing skeleton. The white cat leaps onto the piano, its meows playing in tune to the song. At one point, Gorgeous walks through the fog-strewn garden, juggling white balls of light. I have no idea why these scenes are in the movie but they’re memorable nevertheless.

If you look pass the craziness, “House” seems to be saying something about Japanese society. Auntie became a ghost when her lover was drafted in World War II and dies. (This information is given to us in a silent movie-style flashback.) In the present day, the Aunt is an old woman, confined to a wheelchair. As the young, vibrant teenage girls arrive at her house, she literally eats them one by one, adsorbing their life force. Gorgeous, meanwhile, seems to become a ghostly clone of her late mother. The women of the past are tied to traditional roles as wives and mothers. The women of the future, meanwhile, can be anything, like musicians, kung-fu experts, or even fat! In “Hausu,” the restrictive paths of tradition come to literal life, killing off the girls that dare question the roles society has chosen for them. Or, maybe, it’s all a bunch of dada bullshit and I’m reading too much into it. Either could be true.

Oh yeah, and a whole room fills full of blood too. If this review came off as me just summarizing the crazy crap that happens in “Hausu,” I apologize. There’s really no other way to respond to this movie. Is it a good movie? If by “good” you mean completely unique and utterly demented then, yes, it is a good movie. Most movies have one good idea. “Hausu” has about a thousand. It’s not really coherent but it is mesmerizing in its audacity and bat-shit craziness. Watch it and be amazed, baffled, and inspired. [8/10]

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

“Bubba Ho-Tep” was a movie I knew I had to see as soon as I read about. The premise was too bizarre to be missed. Elderly Elvis versus a soul-sucking mummy? And starring Ash himself, Bruce Campbell? There was no way I was missing this. When I did see the movie, upon its DVD release some time later, I was surprised by how touching and sincere it was. This wasn’t a “Sharknado”-style fake-camp product cynical of its viewers. It was real movie with things to say about the human condition. In the years since then, “Bubba Ho-Tep” has remained a favorite even if its faded from movie fans’ minds a bit.

“Bubba Ho-Tep” is, indeed, about a geriatric Elvis fighting an evil mummy. In the seventies, sick of the empty joys of fame, Elvis Aaron Presley switched places with the best Elvis impersonator in the world. Not long afterwards, the imposter Elvis died of a drug overdose, leaving the real deal with a case of mistaken identity. Now an old man, his mobility stymied by a broken hip, the King resides at a Texas nursing home. He discovers that an ancient mummy, landed in that area through equally unlikely circumstances, is killing the residents of the home, sucking their souls out their assholes, and shitting them down the communal toilet. Teaming up with an elderly black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy, Elvis has to take care of business.

There’s a lot to love about “Bubba Ho-Tep” but its most charming attribute is the lead performance. Bruce Campbell has never been lauded for his acting chops. The dude can take a hit and spew a one-liner like nobody’s business. As far as dramatic range goes, his has always assumed to be limited. Here, he gives a four-dimensional performance. Campbell manages to imbue a monologue about the growth on the end of Elvis’ dick with a certain meloncholey. He’s an old man, at the end of his life, burdened by years of regrets. The heavy make-up he’s under doesn’t dissuade his expressive abilities any. The actor maintains a pitch-perfect impersonation of the character throughout the whole film. Amazingly, he never stoops to parody, instead playing Elvis as a fully formed human being. It helps that Campbell has amazing support from Ossie Davis, a lauded thespian who speaks utterly ridiculous dialogue here in a totally straight manner. Both Campbell and Davis are amazing and I’m certain “Bubba Ho-Tep” wouldn’t have worked at all without their committed performances.

They don’t make a lot of movies about old people. We like to see young, attractive, pretty people in our motion pictures. In “Bubba Ho-Tep,” the elderly are hidden away so as not to bother anyone. After they pass, their bodies are not treated with any dignity or respect. At one point, a corpse is dropped on the ground by the careless orderlies. When Elvis’ roommate finally dies, his daughter seems totally disinterested in the man’s life, willfully throwing away his possessions without a moment’s notice. Presley's interior monologue states these themes bluntly. When the same girl bends over, giving the old man a clear view of her underwear, it’s because he is a complete non-entity to her. That’s part of the cruel joke of “Bubba Ho-Tep.” The mummy is targeting the elderly because no one notices, or cares, when they die. Because they’re slow, easy prey. Considering the nursing home is full of American legends like Elvis, JFK, or the Lone Ranger, it’s a pretty biting indictment about how the elderly are treated.

Yet “Bubba Ho-Tep” is also about those legends having one last adventure. When the mummy kills its victims, their souls are lost forever. Protecting his fellow rest home occupants gives Elvis a renewed purpose in life. Like a lot of things in the film, this is frankly illustrated. At story’s start, Elvis hasn’t had an erection in two decades. After frying a giant scarab on a space-heater, his soldier stands up at attention again, much to the shock of his nurse. Elvis and Jack formulating a plan against the creature isn’t played like a serious life or death scenario. (Though it is.) Instead, it’s like two old guys, rediscovering a zest to life for the first time in forever. The image of Elvis, his white jumpsuit stretched over his bloated body, lurching down a hallway against a walker triumphantly is funny. It’s also honest. As outwardly comical as their appearance might be, these guys are on a heroic quest. Maybe the film’s greatest strength is that it approaches its utterly ridiculous subject matter with abject sincerity. The ending, when the King realizes his time on this Earth is up, and how the universe responds, is genuinely touching.

For such a tiny film, “Bubba Ho-Tep” also strings along a surprisingly deep mythology. Through a brief, visual flashback, we learn that the mummy wasn’t even respected in his day. Like Jack or Elvis, he’s a fallen idol too, a once-important figure that is now forgotten and ridiculed. His visual presentation points to this as well. The mummy does not wear a regal Egyptian head dress but a gaudy, dime-store cowboy get-up. The fates of Elvis and JFK brilliantly twist American legend. The contract that would have allowed Elvis to switch places again with the real deal is destroyed in a sudden trailer fire. JFK was dyed black, the hole in his head filled with sand. It’s implied in the film that neither man are who they claim to be. That impersonator Sebastian Haft fell into a coma and awoke confused, believing himself to be the real Elvis and concocting a wacky story to justify this. That Jack is just a crazy, old man. You can choose to see the movie that way. It’s open to interpretation. Speaking strictly for myself, I believe both men are the real deal. The film means a lot more if they are.

“Bubba Ho-Tep” is another movie I could go on about forever. I haven’t even mentioned Tyler Bates’ beautiful score, Coscarelli’s simple but stylish direction, or the ribald humor and frank dialogue – a trademark of writer Jon R. Lansdale – that is organically incorporated into the film. It’s a surprising deep motion picture, especially considering its outward appearance. That’s appropriate though. People misjudged the characters in the film as well, discounting their real human thoughts because of their goofy appearances. [9/10]

There Are Monsters (2008)

I first read about “There Are Monsters” on a list of terrifying horror shorts freely available on the internet. I’ll be the judge of that! Set on a snowy Canadian day, a man goes to the store to get some ice cream for his wife. The woman at the store acts strangely, has an implacably wide smile, and her fingers are covered in blood. Friends come over for a party later that night, each one reporting similarly strange encounters. The man then notices that his wife is acting strange too.

First off, “There Are Monsters” isn’t terrifying. The camera is constantly moving which is distracting and annoying. Several times, the photography goes out of focus. Meanwhile, the dialogue is unnaturally vulgar and frequently overdone. During the ten minute run time, we never get a bead on any of the characters. The encounter with the odd woman at the store manages to build some unnerving energy. I like the subtle hints dropped in the background, little tidbits about the Large Hadron Collider and astronauts going crazy in space. The ending of “There Are Monsters” is especially lame. Nothing is revealed or resolved and any tension the film manages to build is sacrificed for a lame jump scare. You have my permission to skip this one. [5/10]

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