Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 25

Yet more pumpkins.
Saturday morning, I caught the last of the "Rebirth of Mothra" films at home. That evening, faithful movie watching pal and podcast co-host JD and myself ventured to the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, VA. There, horror host Mr. Lobo was presenting an all-night movie marathon called Dismember the Alamo. The line-up included "Night of the Creeps," "Halloween III," "The Monster Squad," and "Night of the Comet." (I didn't write a new review of "Halloween III" since I just reviewed it last year. I know there are lovers of it around here but I'm still not a fan. Sorry.) There were more to the festivities then just the movies though. Mr. Lobo smoozed for the crowd, telling jokes and talking along. There was a costume contest, judging those that dressed-up in the audience. A Shaun of the Dead cosplayer won even though my favorite was a clever Jack Torrance costume, that included a cardboard door around his head. Stacey Nelkin from "Halloween III" was there and a brief Q&A followed the movie. There was a game, where contestants had to toss beanbag "creeps" into a bucket, and shirts, DVDs, comics, and posters were given away.

One of my favorite things about going to the Alamo are the pre-shows. In-between each film, a reel of classic horror trailers were presented. Each one had a theme. One was a collection of "Don't!" movies, including "Don't Answer the Phone," "Don't Open the Door," and concluding with Edgar Wright's "Don't." Another set was of "blood" movies, giving us trailers for "Blood Beach," "Blood Orgy of the She-Devils" and more fun stuff. I enjoyed Mr. Lobo's antics but you can't overstate the fun of a good old fashion collection of bizarre and sleazy movie trailers. On with the reviews!

Rebirth of Mothra III (1998)
Mosura 3: Kingu Gidora raishu

Last time, I said that Toho clearly didn’t care what the kaiju otaku thought about their movies. Maybe not but the studio at least seemed aware of when they made a bad movie. After the lackluster response to “Rebirth of Mothra II,” the studio got their shit together for the third of the Heisei Mothra movies. “Rebirth of Mothra III” dials back the kid friendly angle a bit, beefs up the monster action and mythology, and wraps things up on a fairly decent note.

It also introduces a fan favorite enemy. King Ghidorah returns to Earth after millions of years. The kaiju was responsible for destroying the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. Now he’s back to do the same to humanity. He kidnaps the kids of Japan, putting them in a weird bio-bubble in the jungle. Mothra, his fairies in hand, shows up to save the day. However, the mystical moth is out-matched. Deciding to take the fight to Ghidorah, Mothra travels back in time to defeat the monster in the past when it’s weaker. Meanwhile, a trio of young siblings have to help the fairies, and humanity, survive in the present.

“Rebirth of Mothra III” smartly does two things. It raises the story’s stakes without removing the kid-friendly tone established in the previous flicks. Last time, the plot felt disconnected from the rest of the world. Whether or not Mothra stopped the monster or the kids made it out of the temple didn’t seem to have much effect on Earth. In part three, however, the entire fate of the planet is resting in Mothra’s insectoid claws. King Ghidorah kidnapping the kids also makes the movie seem like a decent riff on the “Gamera” formula. Mothra is the friend to all children and King Ghidorah is the enemy of all children. A lot of focus is given to the imprisoned kids and much attention is paid to whether or not Mothra can save the day. The tone is dark enough that you might wonder if he can do it.

Another big difference between this and the previous two “Rebirth of Mothra” flicks is that the audience is actually invested in the kids and the fairies. Holy shit. I know, right? The hero kid is the oldest of the three siblings. Shota is a bit of a misfit and a truant who frequently skips school to explore the near-by forest. When Ghidorah abducts all the children from the school, he’s the only one left, forcing him to save his siblings. He’s older and edgier then your usual “Rebirth of Mothra” protagonist, which helps. The fairies, meanwhile, are directly involved in the plot. Belvera and her sisters put their differences aside to stop Ghidorah. Apparently even the bad fairy draws the line at killing kids. There’s some business about stones that transforms the Elias’ tiny daggers into magical swords. I don’t care about that. However, it is nice that the fairies are directly involved in the story, trying to stop Ghidorah and helping Mothra out.

But what are we here for? The fuckin’ monster fights, that’s what. Part three ups the action considerably. Instead of just shooting lightening bolts at each, the monsters actually wrestle. Mothra and Ghidorah fly into each other. One notable moment has the dragon tossing the moth to the ground and stomping on it. More then once, Ghidorah seizes Mothra’s wings in his jaws, attempting to tear him apart. The battle in the past is the real highlight. First off, the Cretaceous form of Ghidorah is an individual take on the iconic kaiju villain. The form he’s in throughout most of the movie isn’t much different then the Heisei Ghidorah design seen in “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.” Cretaceous Ghidorah is thinner, more agile, and has a thornier armor. In the past, we see the dragon eating dinosaurs, which is cool, and the two monsters really beat the crap out of each other. Like last time, Mothra undergoes several transformation. At least they actually feed into the plot though. Leo turns into Light-Speed Mothra to travel back in time, Armored Mothra to survive being buried in lava, and Millieum Mothra after everything’s over. The monster fights are satisfying and fun, easily pleasing this kaiju nut.

None of the “Rebirth of Mothra” movies are great. None of them even remotely approach the quality of the Heisei Godzilla series. However, part three is the one that comes the closest. It has the least cutesy nonsense, even though there are still plenty of kids and musical numbers, and the most focused storyline. Thankfully, there is no overdone moral message this time, which also helps. I doubt this is a series I’ll revisit much but at least part three gives me a valid reason for owning the shiny new Sony Blu-rays. [6/10]

Night of the Creeps (1986)

I considered opening this review with the phrase, “Fred Dekker is the most under-appreciated horror director ever.” This, however, isn’t true. The two horror films Fred Dekker made are genuine cult classics and widely beloved by thousands of fans. It’s not that Dekker is obscure. He just doesn’t work enough. It’s proof that cult cache doesn’t count for much in Hollywood, even though everyone loves “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad.” Maybe it’s a miracle that a project as offbeat as “Night of the Creeps” got made in the first place. Considering the movie wasn’t a hit originally, maybe it’s a miracle that Dekker made as few films as he did.

The film immediately asks an audience to accept a lot. We begin with aliens running around a ship, pursuing another alien. That alien drops a tube out of the ship, which lands on Earth in the 1950s. In a black-and-white opening scene, we see a necking couple. The man of the group discovers the tube, a black slug flying into his mouth. The girl, meanwhile, is hacked to death by an escaped mental patient with an axe. Thirty years later, we meet Chris and J.C., a pair of nerdy college kids trying to score with chicks and win some popularity. A pledge prank gone horribly wrong results in the same boy from the opening being awoken from cryogenic sleep. More black slugs explode out of his skull, reviving anyone they encounter as undead zombies. Now Chris and J.C., teaming up with an eccentric detective, have to team up and save the campus. Oh yeah, and the world too.

Before the movie started, Mr. Lobo said the film threw everything at the audience: Aliens, axe murders, college comedy, zombies, and hard-boiled cops. This is true. Dekker obviously just stitched a bunch of things he loves together into some sort of coherent whole. This also proves that the director was ahead of his time, considering Quentin Tarrantino would have huge success doing the same thing the next decade. “Night of the Creeps” is filled with references to horror classics past. The film is actually a loose remake of “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” what with the zombies being controlled and motivated by aliens. (The script skips the Solaranite, though.) The movie even acknowledges this connection, by having “Plan 9” play on a TV at one point. Most of the characters are named after noted genre filmmakers. George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, James Camerson, David Cronenberg, John Landis, Sam Raimi, and Steve Miner are all name-dropped. The college is named after Roger Corman. Hell, even the cat is named after Stuart Gordan. Dekker never pushes the referential tone too far, making the in-jokes never more then a fun time for hardcore watchers. There are elements of a slasher, when the axe-wielding maniac comes into focus. The ins-and-outs of Chris and J.C.’s friendship, the relationship with Cindy, and the fraternity recalls “Animal House” and countless other college comedies. The movie becomes a full-blown zombie flick at the end and even throws in a little “Evil Dead” when power tools are utilized. Basically, there’s something for everyone here and the whole package is wrapped up in fifties drive-in nostalgia.

However, the lovable cast of characters is the real reason the movie endures. The friendship between Chris and J.C. is gracefully realized. The movie never lets J.C.’s crutches define him as a character while acknowledging how the disability affects his life. Little moments characterize how realistic the friendship is. The two resolve an argument with kind words and a pillow fight. When Chris wins over Cindy, he secretly make a triumphant fist to J.C., who returns the gesture. Their dorm room is littered with little mementos and trinkets, small details that build on their personalities. J.C.’s death provides an unexpected amount of pathos in the middle of the movie. The note he leaves for Chris, describing how the slugs taking over his brain allowed him to walk for the first time, is touching. Jason Lively and Steve Marshall are both great in their roles.

Though many other films helped, I think “Creeps” is responsible for the cult of Tom Atkins. Detective Cameron is a weirdly nuanced guy. He puts on the act of a hard-boiled detective, croaking his catchphrase “Thrill me!” so often that it becomes a joke. A later tagline, “It’s Miller time!” is such a non sequitur that I’m sure the movie was simultaneously embracing and mocking the entire concept of pithy one-liners. His apartment is littered with pulp magazines and old mystery novels. It’s clear that this is just a persona he adopts to cover up his inner pain. The death of his high school sweetheart, and what he did about it, clearly haunts the guy. This is best displayed during a monologue, fantastically delivered by Atkins. It’s a testament to the movie’s quality that Cameron is both a real, flawed character and a B-movie bad ass, blasting zombies to pieces. I also like Jill Whitlow as Cindy a lot, defining the character as more then a screaming damsel but making it believable when she picks up a flame thrower. About the only negative thing I can say about the cast is why didn’t Billy “King of the Assholes” Zabka play the Bradster? Missed oppretunity there.

“Night of the Creeps” builds quite successfully to an awesome final act. The movie operates on witty comedy and flashes of gruesome horror for most of its run time. For the big finale, the movie has a horde of creep-ified zombies laying siege to the sorority house. The film then front-loads with zombies getting their heads blow open and the rest of them getting set on fire from a flamethrower. My favorite bit, and a favorite of many others I suspect, is when Chris and Cindy lock themselves in a tool shed. Grabbing up a lawnmower, they fight back. Atkins gets to overact, plug some creeps, and the camera spins. Then the whole thing goes up in a massive fireball. Awesome. Depending on which version you’re watching, the movie either ends with a callback to the aliens or a fun house jump scare. I like both.

If there weren’t so many other candidates for the title, I’d declare “Night of the Creeps” the ultimate eighties horror/comedy. The movie certainly packs in plenty of everything I love about the genre. You could even say that it, ahem, thrills me. [9/10]

The Monster Squad (1987)

“Night of the Creeps” is a hell of a first act to follow. I’m referring to both Fred Dekker’s career and to the movie marathon I attended. Somehow, with the help of iconic scribe Shane Black, the director topped himself with his second feature. I love “The Monster Squad” and have raved aboutit  a few times before on this blog. Because I have seen the movie a zillion times, I was a little disappointed that it replaced “Evilspeak,” which I’ve never seen, on the Dismember the Alamo bill. This is kind of a silly thing to say though. Every time I see “The Monster Squad” my love of it is reaffirmed. This movie is a blast from beginning to end.

“The Monster Squad” is set in a classical American small town during that magical time – the late eighties – when pre-teen kids were still obsessed with classic monster movies. Best friends Shawn and Patrick form a club about those movies, along with overweight Horace, younger Eugene, cool kid Ruby, and Shawn’s noisy little sister Phoebe. Unexpectedly, the Monster Squad’s interests become relevant to saving the world. As often happens in fiction, the planets align, and good and evil struggle for control. Sensing he has an advantage, and seeking a magical amulet, Dracula recruits the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein's Monster. Being a gentle soul, Frankenstein should joins up with the kids. The Monster Squad has to scrap together all the tools a ten-year old can find, including a helpful book and an old Scary German Guy, and prevent Drac from plunging the world into darkness.

Rewatching “The Monster Squad” many times over the years, it’s become apparent to me that every awesome idea the writers had during the screenwriting process made it into the final product. Ever wonder if Wolfman had nards? Congratulations, now you know. Want to see a werewolf blown up in midair and then have him reassemble himself? Look at that, there it is. Dracula getting burned with a garlic pizza? The mummy being unraveled? The Gillman eating a Twinkie? One of Drac’s brides getting crossbowed in the chest? Frankenstein throwing Dracula onto a fence post? All of it and more is in “The Monster Squad.” And it’s not like the monsters are the only ones that do awesome shit. The kids are not peripheral to the action in “The Monster Squad.” They are the heroes. They’re the ones blasting the monsters and saving the world.

Part of that is the reason why certain viewers respond so strongly to the film. (And why it should have been a bigger hit in its day.) “The Monster Squad” is told from the perspective of the pre-teen lot. So it’s got all the stuff kids that age likes. In addition to the obvious appeal of the monsters, there’s wacky comedy, instantly memorable dialogue, bikes, fast cars, cute girls (though they aren’t the focus), and big explosions. The movie’s view of what’s cool is childish enough – and I mean this in a good way – that the kid in the leather jackets and penny loafers is the cool one, like some sort of Fonzie throwback. Because “The Monster Squad” accurately reflects the world of its protagonists, things aren’t always cute and fun either way. Horace is bullied relentlessly and even his friends call him “Fat Kid.” In a move that’s deeply un-P.C. by modern standards, “homo” and “fag” are used pretty loosely. I don’t know how it is now but, when I was in middle school, that’s what twelve year olds talked like. Yet “Monster Squad” is also a fantasy, so the bullies get punished and Horace proves himself a bad ass.

The reviews almost over and I haven’t talked about the friggin’ monsters. A noted monster kid like Stan Winston getting a chance to redesign the classic monsters was probably a big deal. I’m a huge fan of the film’s version of the Gillman and the Mummy, both of which are fantastic updates. I think the Wolfman design is a bit awkward. I’ve never been in love with the way the head looked. The Frankenstein make-up perfectly straddles the line between being the classic design and being something new. Tom Noonan is great in the role, bringing out the giant’s gentle side without ever getting to syrupy. (Though the relationship with Phoebe comes close. I still like it.) Duncan Regehr really cuts an intimidating figure as Dracula, making the character an imposing, serious threat. I love just about every line of dialogue and joke in the movie. “Wolfman’s got nards!” clearly reigns supreme but there are little ones I dig too, like “Accident with power tools?” and “You looked!” The cast is evenly great, though Brent Chalem is my favorite. Fat Kid is who I was in middle school. The movie also doesn’t overlook the serious stuff, with Shawn’s parents dissolving marriage being an important plot point and a small reference to Scary German Guy’s history as a holocaust survivor.

At the screening, JD and I were Those Guys. We were quoting the movie, laughing and clapping at probably inappropriate volumes, and flashing thumbs-ups and clenched fist during the right moments. I’m not going to disguise my love for this movie, especially not during a midnight screening. It just further confirms that “The Monster Squad” is one of my favorite flicks. It’ll never happen but maybe Universal should look this one if they really want to reboot their classic characters. [9/10]

Night of the Comet (1984)

Out of all the films we saw last night, “Night of the Comet” is the one I’ve seen the least. I first saw it many years back, enjoyed it enough, but slightly wondered what the big deal was all about. Coming off an enthusiastic screening of “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad,” the film definitely seems like the weakest of the lot. But it’s still pretty good and has its own cult-y pleasures to give.

During the Christmas holiday, a comet approaches Earth. People all over the world gather around, looking up to the skies in excitement. What they don’t expect is that the comet’s tail will contact a deadly powder, that reduces most everyone to red ash and turns the survivors into deadly zombies. This fate befalls most of Los Angeles. Except for sisters Regina and Sam. Tough, resourceful Regina spent the night in a steel-plated projection booth with her sort-of boyfriend. Flighty cheerleader Sam, fighting with the girl’s step-mother, slept in a steel tool shed. Both survived the apocalypse and awaken to a different world. The post-Armageddon city is both fun and terrifying. However, things change when zombified ghouls show up, along with asshole government scientists with less then noble intentions.

I really like the central characters of “Night of the Comet.” Neither Regina or Sam are your usual, screaming teens. Both were trained by their merchant marine father, so both known their way around an Uzi. Both girls are tough enough to fight off a zombie, turn an old car into a test target, or get into a fire fight with a band of mutated raiders. The script doesn’t sacrifice their girlishness either though. Sam is every bit a bubbly cheerleader, spending half the film in her uniform. She reminiscences about boys and friends at school. Regina, meanwhile, is obsessed with getting the high score in Tempest and seems to have a weakness for hunky guys too. When both are feeling down, they go on a shopping spree at the mall. Catherine Mary Stewert and Kelli Maroney have a great chemistry together and easily carry the film. Even the smaller characters, like the two little kids the girls save at the end, are likable and memorable.

Like “Dawn of the Dead” or the later “Zombieland,” “Night of the Comet” also shows that the apocalypse can be fun. Characters race down the L.A. freeways, which are now completely empty. Samantha takes over the local radio station, turning herself into a make-shift D.J. She even admits that now no one has to worry about school, test, or cheer practice. Hector, the male hero of the film, swipes a flashy sports car and races around the city in it. Later on, a character notes that he has “about a hundred” fancy new cars. In this case, “Night of the Comet” plays like “The Omega Man” re-designed for teenage girls.

The film is quick to acknowledge that the apocalypse kind of sucks too. Everyone the characters know and love are dead and gone. Hector visits his family, finding no trace of them. The rape-y mall hooligans are certainly a negative. A whole movie probably could have been based around the teens surviving in the city. However, the film also throws in some asshole government scientists, which provides a plum role for a morally conflicted Mary Woronov. The last act is definitely the weakest part of the film. Trading an eerily empty L.A. for stale underground research lab was probably a budgetary choice but it lacks the same fun and tone. The climax is also a bit underwhelming, since it amounts to a few exploding cars and a wrestling match with a zombie.

I’ll admit, by the time “Night of the Comet” started, most every at the screening had baled. Even Mr. Lobo left before the movie started. I could tell the energy of the few remaining patrons – about ten by my count – was low. This film, with its slower pace and weak ending, probably wasn’t the best choice to end the night on. It’s still a good time and the film is propelled by some dynamite performances. [7/10]

Dismember the Alamo was the first time I've ever done an all-night horror marathon like this before. It was exhausting truthfully and my ass was ready to be out of the theater chairs by the time it was over. Yet a good time was still had by all. Hopefully, Mr. Lobo will be back at the Alamo next year. This would be a good yearly tradition.

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