Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 23

Rebirth of Mothra (1996)

Toho cooked up big business with the nineties Godzilla series. The highest grossing film in the Heisei Era was “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth.” Market research revealed that Mothra was the most popular kaiju among women. Obviously looking to cash in on the big bug’s popularity, after Godzilla bit the dust in 1995, Toho announced a new series of Mothra solo films. Despite Mothra having a wide appeal, the resulting “Rebirth of Mothra” films were all kid’s movies, meaning they aren't well-regarded in the kaiju fandom.

Nine year old Taiki has a difficult relationship with his younger sister, Wakaba. There mom has her hands full while their father is busy working for a land development company. That company is currently courting controversy for wanting to plow over an entire forest. After removing a strange seal from the ground, a dark fairy riding a small dragon enters their home. Named Belvera, the fairy desires the magical seal. A pair of good fairies, riding a chibi version of Mothra, appear to prevent Belvera from getting the seal. She does anyway and, with it, unleashes Desghidorah, a highly destructive kaiju. The good fairies call on the aging Mothra to save the day. Unfortunately, it’s not a enough and Mothra: Classic Variety dies. Just in time, Mothra Leo, the original Mothra’s son, hatches and heads off to save the world from Desghidorah.

“Rebirth of Mothra” is badly hampered by its kid-friendly focus. Taiki and Wakaba are not the most captivating protagonists. The two siblings snipe at each other, having yelling matches more then once. Taiki gets teased at school for caring about his sister at all. At one point, Wakaba says she hates her older brother. When the monster action begins, the film is constantly cutting away to the little kids, fleeing through the forest. One scene has them powering up the older Mothra by holding the magical seal and praying real hard. Another, real groan-worthy moment has Taiki telling his parents to believe in Mothra Leo, that the bug may seem small but he’s our only chance. Because this is a kid’s movie, there are no scenes of kaiju wrecking the city. Desghidorah’s rampage is kept exclusively to the forest. The military does not appear to challenge the monster. This is actually fine. However, was constantly focusing on a pair of bumbling news reporter the best substitute? The human subplot wraps up with a trite message about forgiving your siblings and how, even though brothers and sisters might fight, deep down they really love each other. There’s also a heavy-handed ecological message. After Desghidorah is defeated, the kids’ dad stares in sorrow at the destroyed forest. Instead of letting this somber message stand, Mothra Leo sprinkles fairy dust over the blast zone and everyone instantly regrows. Again, I know this is a kid’s film but that seems like a horrible cop-out.

“Rebirth of Mothra” also focuses heavily on the magical fairies. They appear early on and motivate the plot. Before the monsters even show up, the Elias sisters, Mola and Lora, are chattering about impending doom and unavoidable prophecies. Belvera is a fairly obnoxious villain. She’s never a real threat and treated widely as a joke. All three fairies have cutesy little steads. The good fairies ride around on Fairy Mothra. Meanwhile, Belvera rides on Garu Garu, a cute little dragon that is later revealed to be a robot, for some reason. Despite unleashing a monster that nearly destroys the Earth, Mola and Lora are very willing to forgive their bad sister. There’s a very long fight scene in the kids’ home, where the fairies fly around shooting lightening bolts at each other. It goes on forever. Since this is a “Mothra” flick, you’d expect the fairies to sing a song. However, were you expecting three songs? Each musical number stops the plot dead as the film seemingly becomes a music video.

What makes all of this all the more frustrating is that “Rebirth of Mothra” features some fantastic kaiju action. Desghidorah, continuing the tradition of cute kids’ entertainment with seriously threatening villains, is an intimidating creation. It’s huge, char-black, shoots actual fireballs of death, and cuts a very demonic figure. Mama Mothra looks fantastic as well, the puppet brought to life convincingly. When Mothra Leo, still as a larva, approaches the dragon, the good guy seems seriously out-matched. This holds true when Desghidorah picks the caterpillar up in its jaws, nearly tearing it apart. Mama Mothra has to die, of course. She carries her child out to sea, to safety, before expiring, and sinking beneath the waves. This scene actually got me a little misty-eyed, that’s how well its done. When Mothra Leo emerges as a moth, the action kicks into high gear. There’s a lot of laser beams being traded and some impressive explosions. Mothra’s finishing move, flying a circle around Desghidorah and firing a giant blast, is impressive.

The monster fight scenes are awesome. There’s no shortage of them either, as “Rebirth of Mothra” is action-packed. It’s also runs 108 minutes, which is way too long for a kid-centric kaiju flick. Nestled among the saccharine kiddie business and the goofy fairy scenes is some worthy kaiju battles. Whether or not they’re worth the wait is up to the viewer. [6/10]

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Wax dummies are creepy. They saunter right into the uncanny valley, even more-so then ventriloquist dummies or dolls. Those objects usually exaggerate the human form. Wax mannequins, meanwhile, mean to duplicate it perfectly. This makes them creepy as fuck. So it’s no shock that numerous horror films have meant to capitalize on that creepiness. “House of Wax” is obviously the most well-known example but that film is actually a remake of an even earlier film. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was thought to be lost for thirty years before a copy emerge in the sixties, so that new generations could enjoy the originator.

In 1920s France, a proud, genius wax sculptor shows off his museum to some very appreciative critics. The man has a deep personal relationship with his artwork, talking to his sculptures as if they were people. Immediately afterwards, the museum’s investor tells him they are loosing money. In order to regain the lost funds, he plans to burn down the museum and collect on the insurance. The sculptor is horrified by this and attempts to stop it. When he can’t, he stays behind inside the museum, watching his beloved creations burn. A decade later, a new wax museum opens in New York, operated by the same man, now calling himself Mr. Igor. Though confined to a wheelchair, and with horribly burnt hands, he still directs the wax museum. Meanwhile, bodies begin to disappear from the morgue. Hotshot reporter Florence Dempsey quickly suspects the two cases might be related.

“Mystery of the Wax Museum” has, undoubtedly, been overshadowed by its later remake. The remake follows the general outline of the original quite closely yet the two films are ultimately very different. As the title promises, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is more of a mystery. “House of Wax” focused more on the story’s morbid aspect while “Mystery” is more about characters sleuthing around, investigating leads and trying to unravel what’s happening. “House of Wax” focuses more on the mad sculptor and the girl he intends to turn into his new Marine Antoinette. The main character of the original, meanwhile, is the hotshot lady reporter on the case’s tail. The only time “Mystery of the Wax Museum” is a full blown horror flick is the scenes in the morgue and the very end.

What truly keeps “Mystery of the Wax Museum” afloat and makes it so charming is its cast. Glenda Farrell plays Florence Dempsey, the fast-talking, quick-thinking reporter at the film’s center. Florence is friggin’ awesome. She’s brass, fearless, heads straight into danger, and always has a snappy one-liner up her sleeve. Farrell’s flapper-attitude might not be for everyone but I was absolutely charmed by her. Building the film around her was a wise decision since she steals the whole show. She’s certainly more interesting then Fay Wray as Charlotte, the movie’s damsel in distress. Charlotte stands around, being desired by the various men in the plot. Igor wants to encase her in wax while Jim, her fiancĂ©, just wants to marry her. Wray at least gives her famous lungs a work-out. While Vincent Price was obviously more memorable in the remake, Lionel Atwill isn’t bad in the same part. His mad proclamations concerning his art are quite entertaining.

Uncharacteristic for the time period, “Mystery of the Wax Museum” was shot in color. Two-strip Technicolor to be exact. The color is washed-out and quite ugly by today’s standards, everything appearing in shades of sickly green or beige. As someone who loves the look and feel of horror films from 1930s, I still found a lot to like about the visual presentation. More then once, atmospheric shadows are thrown on the wall. There’s very little music, giving the entire picture an eerie, creaky feeling. I love the set of Igor’s laboratory, the winding staircase above the cauldron of wax or the harsh expressionistic angles of the room above. As the film was made in 1933, it predates the Production Code. So the film is saucier then you’d expect. Florance, at one point, asks a cop about his sex life. A minor character is identified as a junkie and bootlegging is a major plot point. All of this adds to the movie’s unique charm.

“House of Wax” is a smoother and better constructed then “Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Yet I’m a fan of the original and would put them on about equal footing. Mostly thanks to the unique feel early horror films have and the boundless charm of Glenda Farrell. [7/10]

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Trick or Treat

So here’s something I decided to watch totally on whim. After watching all the Ninja Turtles movies this summer, and binging on kaiju flicks this autumn, I wanted to give another childhood favorite a look. I completely understand anyone without a nostalgic connection to it finding the “Power Rangers” franchise completely tedious. It is really stupid and incredibly repetitive. In “Trick or Treat,” Kimberly becomes a contestant on a Halloween-themed game show, seemingly shot on the same juice bar set where half the show takes place. Resident idiot bullies Bulk and Skull are her competitor, which goes about as well as you’d expect. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the monster action of the week. Rita Repulsa sends down a creature called the Pumpkin Rapper, a pumpkin-headed monster who performs the cheesiest, worst raps you can imagine.

Like I said, “Power Rangers” can be hard to stomach from an adult perspective. The non-Ranger stuff in the juice bar is lowest common denominator, shitty kid’s stuff. Bulk and Skull are embarrassing creations. They’re supposed to be bullies but are so stupefyingly dumb, that I can’t imagine them being a threat to anyone. The non-action sequences have a cheesy moral about learning to loose with grace, which is as forced in as you’d expect. The conclusion, where Bulk and Skull loose the car they won, is mind-numbingly dumb. The Rangers sequences are a little easier to tolerate. You’ve got Japanese actors in goofy spandex beating up other goofballs in spandex. The Pumpkin Rapper is a really ridiculous creation. The suit looks pretty cool but the rap premise pushes it into true camp territory. Especially when the Rangers force the monster out by performing their own shitty rap. Disappointingly, there’s no Megazord action as the Rangers actually defeat the monsters with their guns and stuff. I have no idea how to rate “Trick or Treat.” If it wasn’t something I had a vague personal connection to, I’d probably find it totally insufferable. But then again… Jack o’Lantern monster! Shit, is this how my parents felt back in the day? [6/10]

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