Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 28

The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008)
Girara no gyakushû: Tôya-ko Samitto kikiippatsu

After forty-three years of silence, the last kaiju anybody expected to make a come-back did just that. Guilala, the lovably laughable monster star of “The X from Outer Space,” was to appear in a new film. The belated sequel, verbosely entitled by “The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit,” was directed by Minoru Kawasaki. Kawasaki is a low-budget Japanese filmmaker known for bizarre comedies like “The Calamari Wrestler,” “Executive Koala,” and “The Rug Cop.” (The first two feature human-sized animals attempting to fit in with the regular population. The latter is about a cop that fights crime with his toupee.) As you’d expect, Kawasaki brought his peculiar sense of humor to Guilala’s return.

As the title expounds, the film is set at the 34th G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan. The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the US gather in one place, bickering about various global issues. During the summit, a Chinese Mars probe crashes in Sapporo, bringing with it a bizarre space spore. Guilala has returned to Earth. While the monster wrecks havoc, the leaders of the world think up ineffectual plots to stop the monster. Meanwhile, two reporters investigate a local shrine devoted to a deity named Take-Majin, which might be the only hope to stop Guilala’s rampage.

“Attack the G8 Summit,” perhaps unsurprisingly, focuses a large percent of its run time on broadly spoofing world politics. The leader of each country is filtered down to only their most easily parodied aspects. The U.S. President is a blow-hard, obsessed with striking first with military might and is none too bright. The French prime minister spends the entire movie trying to put the moves on his pretty, Japanese translator. The German leader is the only woman present and seems most preoccupied with disproving sexist presumptions. Russia’s president is a big asshole, greatly interested in taking over other countries. Italy’s president is the most ridiculous caricature, who mostly boasts about Roman history and talks about Pizza. The P.M. of Great Britain doesn’t do a lot and, hilariously, the actor doesn’t even attempt a British accent. The guy playing the Canadian representative at least puts on a Quebec accent. The various plots to stop the monster all play up cultural stereotypes as well. The U.S. attacks with missiles and bombs. Russia poisons the monsters. Germany tries to kill Guilala with, ugh, poison gas. Italy falls back on Ancient Roman strategy. Britain’s attempt involves mass censorship. All of this is incredibly silly, simplistic, and relatively listless. Monster fans will want to fast-forward through many scenes.

However, some of the goofy comedy in “The Monster X Strikes Back” works. The Japanese prime minister suffers from stomach cramps, an amusingly random element. Midway through the film, he is replaced with another Japanese man in a bad wig. Later on, this man reveals his true identity: Kim Jong-Il! The translators are actually North Korean assassins, each one laughing with a high-pitch trill. He uses the monster’s attack as a chance to take over the world. If the movie was going to parody global politics, it should have followed in this irrelevant fashion. A funny reoccurring gag has a banner being replaced every time a new plan is implemented to stop Guilala, which is often. Lastly, the heroic kaiju, Take-Majin, is patterned after Japanese actor Beat Takeshi. In the North, Takeshi is best known for violent crime thrillers like “Sonatine” or “Violent Cop.” In Japan, however, Takeshi is best known for his comedies. I’m sure the film contains numerous references to Takeshi’s career and style that went over my head. Takeshi’s presence in the film would be roughly equivalent to a giant gold Jim Carrey appearing to save the day in the next “Pacific Rim” movie. It’s a good sign of how unorthodox a kaiju film “The Monster X Strikes Back” is.

And what about those giant monsters? “Attack the G8 Summit” is, in some ways, an affectionate parody of kaiju flicks. The score is an obvious riff on Akira Ifukube. The opening credits play against close-ups of the monsters, a likely reference to “GMK.” There’s some lovably bizarre moments, like Guilala performing an impromptu ballet or Take-Majin stopping a nuclear missile with his ass. Once the climatic monster battle finally happens, it’s fairly entertaining. However, most of Guilala’s rampage through Sapporo is made up of stock footage from the original “The X from Outer Space.” This is disappointing, especially since the movie in no way attempts to disguise this. The film grain is notably different and the suits even look different. 1966’s Guilala is less colorful and lacks the bright red nails and tail. An obvious indicator of how low the film’s budget was is the huge tear in the Guilala suit. Again, the movie never attempts to cover this up.

The subplot involving the reporter protagonist is disposable. The build-up to Take-Majin’s reveal gets tedious fast. You will get tired of hearing the song and dance used to summon him. The movie never references the events of “The X from Outer Space.” There are a handful of meta references. A Japanese boy names the monsters, a kaiju otaku mentions he would have preferred Baragon or Varan’s return, and a SD Guilala toy is used by the military. Touches like this make me wander if the movie is more remake then sequel. Guilala is a monster with potential. His goofy appearance probably would have lend itself well to an intentional parody. Guilala’s best appearance is still that job agency commercial. [5/10]

Cujo (1983)

When it comes to Stephen King adaptations, there’s the top tier. The untouchably great stuff: “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Misery,” a few, rare others. Next, you’ve got your pretty good King-derived films, like “Christine” or “The Dead Zone.” Then there’s pretty much everything else, in varying degrees of quality, ranging from “decent,” "guilty pleasure,” “forgettable,” to “flat-out terrible.” Despite being one of his most famous creations, “Cujo” is not a film adaptation mentioned frequently. It was well liked in its day, has a following now, but no one much talks about it anymore. This isn’t fair, in my opinion. While I’m hesitant to say it's top tier King, it might just be on the borderline between the two highest categories.

The Trenton family is in a state of transition. Young son Tad is afraid of monsters in his closest. Father Vic, an advertising exec, is having a work related crisis, the cereal he create an ad campaign for suddenly producing FrankenBerry stool. Mom Donna, meanwhile, is having an affair with the town’s stud… An affair she’s seriously starting to regret, as the man is emotionally unstable. While Vic is on a business trip, Donna and Tad takes the sputtering, old car to a local mechanic. In the middle of this, enters Cujo, a rabid, murderous Saint Bernard. The car stalls in the mechanic’s yard, Donna and Tad trapped inside during a heat wave by the mad dog.

It’s interesting to note that, for its first hour, “Cujo” isn’t much of a horror film. Instead, it’s a slow paced family drama. We see Vic bonding with his son, helping him overcome his fear of monsters. While father is frustrated with the vehicle, and beginning to suspect his wife’s infidelity, he puts his son on his knee and has a touching heart-to-heart. He runs to his father, excited, when he comes unexpectedly to pick him up from summer camp. Donna and Tad sing songs together, the two obviously being close. The relationship between parents and children is realistic, fraught with occasional frustration, but usually sweet and understanding. Though the script was probably eager to get to the killer dog, “Cujo” probably would have benefited from focusing more on Donna’s motivation for cheating on her husband. It’s clear that Steve Kemp is a creep and Donna herself wonders why she’d cheat on her happy family with such a sleazebag. More frustratingly, that subplot never pays off. You keep expecting the dog to kill Kemp. It never happens.

When Cujo becomes the focus of the story, the movie changes suddenly. This is intentional. While Donna parks the car outside Joe Camber’s house, Cujo leaps up to the window, barking loudly and fiercely. It’s one of those iconic jump scares in horror history. Tad screams about the boogeyman in his closest, Donna’s unreassuring cries that it’s “just a doggy” falling on deaf ears. Amazingly, every time Cujo goes on the attack, the film summons the same visceral, terrifying quality. The dog leaps on window, barking incessantly. When the phone rings, Cujo goes nuts. He headbutts a door, nearly overturning the car. He shatters a window, tears off a door handle, and sticks his slobbering maul through the cracked door. Donna’s attempt to escape the humid car has Cujo leaping on her, clawing and biting her. It’s such a viscous attack that I don’t know how she survives. The camera spins inside, Tad crying, Donna traumatized. Many scenes build a quiet silent just by having Cujo slightly out-frame, watching. The film’s overwhelming sound design, frightening visual sense, and smart deployment of claustrophobia and the summer heat makes each of these attacks as terrifying as the last.

“Cujo” the movie ditches the implied supernatural elements of King’s book. The dog isn’t possessed by the spirit of the serial killer from “The Dead Zone,” obviously. However, “Cujo” remains a monster movie of sorts. A rabid dog, no matter how big and strong, probably doesn’t fit most definitions of the word “monster.” But think about it. Cujo is certainly fearsome, a floating presence of dread and fear. He’s monstrous looking. The dog starts out caked in slobber. Yellow pus runs from his eyes, mud and grime covering his coat. After ramming the car door, blood smears his face. As horrifying as Cujo is, he fits another classic monster criterion. He generates both fear and sympathy. After all, he’s just a dog, an innocent animal. When he first appears, he’s a fluffy, friendly, sweet, family dog. He’s introduced playfully chasing a rabbit, before the rabies-carrying bat bites him, starting the plot rolling. As Cujo’s mind and body degrades, a pathetic element arises. Though the film mines Cujo’s appearance and attitude for as much horror as possible, you can’t overlook that he’s a suffering animal. It adds an extra layer to the film.

“Cujo” is further bolstered by an excellent lead performance from Dee Wallace. She spends most of the film in a state of constant panic, her ability never faltering. Danny Pintauro is naturalistic as Tad. Daniel Hugh Kelly and Christopher Stone probably could have been given more to do. if “Cujo” has any obvious flaw, it’s that the audience has to accept some contrivances in the story. The mechanic’s wife and son have gone on a sudden vacation. Cujo kills everyone in the house before Donna gets there. The car breaks down exactly when there at the dog’s doorstep. The mailman doesn’t come because the mechanic has lost his mailing permit. The cop sent to investigate is also taken down by the ravenous dog. Donna just happens to find a gun when Cujo leaps through the kitchen window. Some of this has an element of “The worst thing happening at the worst time,” which is fine. Some of it makes the audience roll their eyes a bit.

Luckily, the rest of “Cujo” is so damn scary that you can overlook most of these problems. It’s a film that milks every frightening moment out of its unlikely premise. It turns a beloved family pet into an unstoppable force of nature. It plays with panic and deep seated fears. Director Lewis Teague formally made “Alligator” and would return to King with the equally underrated “Cat’s Eye.” “Cujo,” however, is his best film and shouldn’t be overlooked as a classic of eighties suspense. [8/10]

The Muppet Show: Vincent Price

Here’s the real reason I’m watching an oddball thing. I found myself with a little extra time during my nightly movie watching. So, looking for something short to watch, I realized I owned the first season of “The Muppet Show.” After the intensity of “Cujo,” I wanted to watch something light. And, hey, I haven’t seen Vincent Price this Halloween season. So I popped in the disk.

Your enjoyment of “The Muppet Show” will depend on your tolerance for seventies variety shows, an admittedly stone-dead genre. “The Muppet Show” always mixed delightful wordplay, wacky physical comic, and an anarchic sense of humor with lame puns, flat skits, and overlong musical numbers. The Vincent Price-hosted episode has plenty of all of the above. The reoccurring gags about talking houses or Sam the Eagle presenting Wayne and Wanda are groan-worthy. The worst bit is a skit where Vincent Price plays a guest mysteriously arriving at a spooky castle, owned by Fonzie and Gonzo. The punchline depends on an ancient pop culture reference, sure to confuse modern viewers. Price is better deployed during funny sketches involving a cooking show panel and how to play a vampire. (Ironic, of course, since Price only played a vampire once, late in his career.) An all-muppet skit involving furniture turning into flesh-eating monsters is another high-light. The musical numbers, involving singing ghost and monster cannibalism, are better then average. The back stage shenanigans, this time featuring a three-headed critter, probably won’t entertain everyone but I liked them.

That Price would show up on “The Muppet Show” was inevitable. The show already had a Price-inspired muppet, who is featured here. Secondly, Price would show up in anything in the seventies. After "The Brady Bunch" cursed Tiki episode, the Muppets were probably considered a big step up. It’s weird that the muppet characters continue to endear but the original show’s format probably won’t appeal to most modern viewers. I’m touch and go on the series but Price certainly had a good time on it and the show made good use of his talents. [7/10]

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