Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 29

White Zombie (1932)

I’ve never seen “White Zombie” before. Does that surprise you? Considering how obsessed I am with horror films from the thirties, I don’t blame you for thinking I should have gotten to it sooner. The movie’s even in the public domain, really giving me no excuse for taking so long to catch up with it. Truthfully, when it comes to classic horror, I focus pretty heavily on the Universal Monsters, a category “White Zombie” falls just outside of. After getting my hands on the Kino Blu-Ray, of a far better quality then any of the public domain releases out there, I finally sat down to watch the flick.

The first film ever made to feature voodoo zombies, “White Zombie” follows a happy American couple traveling to Haiti. Madeleine and Neil are soon to be married on the plantation of Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s secret, however, is that he is in love with Madeleine. After he fails to seduce her on her wedding night, Beaumont becomes desperate. He seeks the service of Murder Legendre. Legendre is a voodoo master, stocking his mills with his subservient zombies, undead bodies he controls with his mind, eyes, and hands. Legendre poisons Madeleine, resurrecting her as a zombie for Beaumont. The man is unhappy with his zombified bride but, by then, it’s too late. Beaumont, Madeleine, and Neil are caught in Legendre’s dangerous web of deception and manipulation.

“White Zombie” was made right after Bela Lugosi’s star-making turn in “Dracula.” It’s a similar story. In both films, Lugosi plays a powerful, ominous foreigner with a mysterious sway over those people around him. Both films focus on Lugosi’s piercing eyes, to great effect. While Murder Legendre is not as iconic a villain as Dracula, the part plays to Lugosi’s strengths equally well. In some ways, Legendre is a better part then Dracula. He has more dialogue, giving Lugosi more of an oppretunity to stretch his sinister accent. While Dracula mostly manipulates those around him with steely gazes, Legendre is more openly controlling. With his smooth words but always-intimidating body language, he compels everyone around him. You imagine his mastery of voodoo is almost unnecessary. The man is Luciferian in his ability to get what he wants. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Legendre poisons Beaumont with the zombie powder. As the man succumbs, Lugosi mocks him. Later on, Beaumont’s brain falling to the drug, Lugosi continues to lord over him, in a cruel, practically scientific manner. If great horror movies are graded on the strengths of their villain, then “White Zombie” would grade awfully high.

What I truly love about horror films from this era are their unmistakeably quiet, monochromatic ambiance. Even the worst films of the era have a special charm I can’t overlook. “White Zombie” is packed full of incredibly, black-and-white atmosphere. As Neil and his fiancee ride through the Haitian countryside, Lugosi’s eyes loom over them. Later, Lugosi’s piercing stare glares out of a coffee cup, striking Madeleine dead. While Neil mopes in a bar, the shadows of the dancer appear on the wall, mocking his sad state. Murder and his zombies drag her casket of out the tomb, deep shadows encasing them in the tunnel. The second half of the film is primarily set in Legendre’s spooky old mansion. Man, what a set that is, full of gorgeous, gothic mood. Every inch of it is covered in cobwebs and shadows. Black shapes move on the wall, the zombies slowly roaming the halls. Vultures shriek from their perches, the ocean waves crashing outside. The black-and-white cinematography is full of expressionistic dread. Though it isn’t a Universal film, “White Zombie” occupies the same beguiling shadowland, chilling, dark, still, and rich in antiqued beauty.

The film also has no shortage of the melodrama you associate with cinema of the time. “White Zombie” does, after all, heavily feature a love triangle. Neil is a highly ineffectual hero. After his brand new wife dies, he spend the entire movie drunk and sad. He pretty much does nothing proactive throughout the rest of the plot. The day is saved by other characters. Madeleine, though played by the lovely Madge Bellamy, is almost literally a cipher. She spends the majority of the run time hypnotized, starring emptily with her huge eyes. Beaumont is a sad sack loser, pining for another man’s woman and ready to sink to icky depths to win her. The movie also throws in a preacher/detective, to help motivate the plot. This character is one of the film’s best, simply because he advances the story. It’s no wonder Lugosi’s Murder is the thing most people remember about the film. Even then, the romantic subplot has one indelible moment. As Neil mopes outside Legendre’s castle, Madeleine stands on the balcony. The film cuts between the two, the picture dissolving together, until both share the same screen. What an interestingly visual way to show the two’s connection.

The zombies are still, moving stiffly, their faces blank and painted black-and-white. They’re classic movie monsters and, though they don’t eat brains or human flesh, it’s not hard to draw a line between these zombies and Romero’s zombies. “White Zombie” is surprisingly free of sociological subtext. None of Murder’s zombies are black, defusing any attempt at a slavery metaphor. There’s actually few black characters in the film. I suppose a racial reading is still possible, if you’re willing to ignore the total lack of racial elements in the film. Instead, “White Zombie” follows many of the troupes of gothic literature. With its love triangle, unrequited passion, comic relief sidekicks, sinister villain, and dusty mansions, it fits in perfectly.

“White Zombie” was directed by Victor Halperin, who later made “Supernatural” which I reviewed last Halloween. “White Zombie” has all of that film’s strength and none of its weaknesses. It has a great villain, one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances, and some unforgettable classic horror ambiance. Predictably, I loved it and should have seen it sooner. [8/10]

Silent Rage (1982)

In the days before he was an internet meme, and a politically conservative religious fanatic, Chuck Norris was one of the better low budget action stars. Seriously, I know we think of his movies are cheesy and hilariously shitty, but I’ll take an early Chuck over modern Seagal. It might be even harder to believe but “Silent Rage” was actually something of a breakthrough for Mr. Norris. It was his first film produced by a major studio, in this case Columbia. The film is a truly unexpected genre hybrid too. Wikipedia list it as a "romance/action/science-fiction/horror movie" and even that doesn’t encompass every genre “Silent Rage” implements.

Set in a small Texan town, the film opens with John Kirby. Kirby is incredibly stressed. Screaming kids and an obnoxious landlord pushes him over the edge. Kirby grabs an axe and starts killin’. Enter: Chuck Norris, this time as sheriff (and martial arts expert) Dan Stevens. Kirby is shot in the fray, near death, and rushed to the hospital. There, irresponsible scientists pump the dying psychopath full of an experimental drug that heals any wounds in seconds. Kirby is rendered silent but still rage-filled. Turns out, turning a violent psycho into an unstoppable superhuman was poor planning. Can even Chuck Norris stop him?

“Silent Rage” is essentially a mash-up of a cheesy eighties action movie and a slasher film. How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a slasher flick? Pretty solid, I must say. Unlike most slashers, who can survive grievous injury just because the plot says so, John Kirby explicitly has a Wolverine-style healing factor. Kirby stalks the home of his former shrink, played by a grossly overqualified Ron Silver. The stalking scene generates some decent suspense, with its “Halloween”-style POVs and pulsing synth score. When the violence comes, it can be unexpectedly brutal. The best bit is when Kirby kills Silver’s wife. He appears behind a door, slamming her head suddenly into the wall. Naturally, Chuck’s love interest then finds the dead bodies, hidden in just the right places to give the girl a shock. Later, the movie moves the action to a hospital, always a good setting for a slasher flick. Kirby stalking William Finley’s character through shadowy hallway, ending with Finley getting a syringe in the neck, has just the right feel fans of eighties slashers love. “Silent Rage” isn’t super-gory either, making it a good pick for newcomers to the subgenre.

How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a Chuck Norris movie? Even better. The opening fight between Norris and Kirby, before he becomes superhuman, makes good use of wall-kicking and a random board. Midway through the film, Chuck enters a bar occupied by a ridiculously campy biker gang. This is probably the action high-light of “Silent Rage.” Chuck snaps a pool cue in two, roundhouse kicks a dude, slides another mook across the bar, and generally punches and kicks the shit out of everyone around him. The scene climaxes with the lead biker attempting to ride his bike out the bar. Chuck knocks the guy off his bike, sending the unmanned motorcycle through the window. All in glorious slow-motion, of course. “Silent Rage” builds up to the rematch between Chuck and Kirby. After shooting the guy out a hospital window, running him over with his truck, and blowing him up, the two face off in a forest clearing. There’s plenty of neck-holds, body slams, punches, and slow-motion kicks to the face. Because Kirby is literally unstoppable, Chuck seems outmatched for the first time in his career, lending the fight a special, desperate energy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an eighties action/horror movie without a bunch of other stupid bullshit. The comic relief and romantic subplot adds the perfect extra layer of cheese to “Silent Rage.” Chuck’s sidekick is an incompetent, overweight deputy named Charlie. Charlie almost shoots his boss in an earlier scene. While Chuck is beating the shit out of the biker gang, Charlie sits in his car, talking about titties over the CB radio. Charlie was intended to be funny but is so deplorably stupid that it comes around on the other side as unintentionally funny. The romance, meanwhile, is also a laugh riot. The film crash cuts from Norris’ love interest saying she won’t sleep with him to… The two in bed together, post-coitus. A lengthy romantic montage has the two rolling in bed, swinging in a hammock, and eating out of a fruit basket together. As ridiculous as these scenes are, they make good use of Norris’ relaxed, easy-going charisma.

I love eighties action movies. I love eighties slasher movie. Naturally, I kind of love “Silent Rage.” Maybe the genre mash-up works where others fail because the two genres exist separately in the movie. The slasher appears, stalks and kills. Chuck Norris beats up random dudes or macks on his love interest. Only during the very beginning and the last act do the two intermingle. The balance works in the film’s favor. Add a really solid supporting cast full of great character actors, some amusing camp, and a slow-motion fall into a well, and you’ve got a minor cheese classic. [7/10]

Cloverfield (2008)

“Cloverfield” made a splash in ‘07. Its teaser trailer was attached to “Transformers,” the biggest movie of that summer. The evocative teaser, presented without title or further information, got people talking. Some thought the mysterious film was a stealth Godzilla reboot. One vocal minority was convinced it was a live-action Voltron movie. I, personally, was hoping for Cthulhu. “Cloverfield” wound up not being any of those things but J. J. Abrams’ “mystery box” advertising got people in the theaters anyway. The film’s found-footage angle also paved the way for the subgenre’s popular revival. Six years later, now that found footage and Abrams’ style are both played out, how does “Cloverfield” hold up?

If nothing else, “Cloverfield” remains an intense thriller. The film’s opening twenty minutes establishes the normality of the setting. The sequence goes on long enough that, when the monster attacks, the audience is as surprised as the cast is. The found footage aspect is a gimmick, through and through. The film’s continued justification for it, Hud insisting that people will want to know what happened, stretches credibility. However, the gimmick adds an “on-the-ground” perspective to what happens, a kaiju film seen from the puny humans’ perspective. The presentation captures a real sense of panic and fear. The characters crouching in a shop as smokes, noise, and chaos billows outside has a real effect on me. Similarly intense moments involve the military’s attempt to combat the monster, a walk through a collapsing building, the cast fleeing as the creature destroys the next block, and the final fall from a helicopter. Many films have used the found footage angle in an attempt to create realistic panic but “Cloverfield” stands above the pack in that regard.

Aside from effective thrills, the sequences of urban destruction and falling buildings accomplish something else. As the Large Scale Aggressor surfaces in New York, explosions gripping the city, a minor character asks “Is it another terrorist attack?” “Cloverfield”  is patently designed to remind viewers of September 11th. The post-destruction scenes, showing the burning ruins of the city, are chilling because of this. The monster knocking over skyscrapers, huge clouds of smoke and debris filling the area, are obviously patterned after what happened on that awful day. Clover’s first action is to decapitate the Statue of Liberty, striking down an American icon, one representative of our country’s ideals. This identifies the monster with the terrorists, striking at the heart of the country. Is using a real-life tragedy to add intensity to your monster movie in poor taste? Some people think so. The original “Godzilla” was an extended metaphor for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, that film worked more as a nightmarish fable. “Cloverfield” is committed to verisimilitude. Horror movies usually help audiences digest real life horror through genre subtext. Abrams and Reeves’ film mostly skips pass subtext and goes right for the throat. “Cloverfield” is about ordinary life being interrupted by massive, unpredictable tragedy.

The moments focused on Clover’s rampage are the film at its most intense and frightening. “Cloverfield” runs at a brief 86 minutes, including about ten minutes of credits. Even a run time that short can’t be filled completely with visceral, horrifying attacks. Instead, “Cloverfield” has to shake it up. The opening scene, Rob’s going-away party, goes on a little too long. It skirts dangerously close to “Twenty Minutes with Jerks” territory. The most tedious bit is a jog through the empty subways. In the tunnels, the quartet is chased by the parasites that fell off the larger monster. It’s a moment that belongs in a more typical monster movie, far too typical to generate much tension. The scenes between attacks, like a stop-over in an army base or the characters mending wounds, really drag the tension down. Luckily, the monster reappears, bringing the thrills back for the last act.

“Cloverfield” is an nontraditional kaiju movie, obviously. However, cute references to the genre’s past are sprinkled throughout, including split-second glimpses of Kong, the Beast, and Them. The only music in the film plays over the end credits, a gorgeous homage to Akira Ifukubi. What most connects “Cloverfield” to its predecessors is its’ monster. Clover doesn’t resemble the kaiju of yore much, being another one of Neville Page’s hairless monkey-spiders. Instead, the creature’s behavior is what connects it to the past. Clover isn’t a malicious attacker. The monster is simply lost, scared, trying to navigate a world that wasn’t made for it. Like Godzilla, he’s a force of nature. Similarly, late in the film, we watch from above as the beast is pelted with bombs and missiles, crying out in agony. Clover is terrifying but not beyond sympathy. It is unlikely to go down in history as one of the greats. However, the critter isn’t without personality. In the right light, he’s even sort of cute, with its big eyes and gangly limbs.

At first, the human cast of “Cloverfield” might come off as unlikable. Rob’s determination to find Beth in the wreckage of the city, pulling his friends along with him, pushes the character into aggravating territory. Michael Stahl-David and the perpetually flat Odette Yustman certainly don’t have the right kind of chemistry to sell the romance. However, the writing is decent enough that the audience sort of cares. More likable is Hud, the man behind the camera. His name is a lame pun and some of his behavior borders obnoxious. However, his off-hand comments and glib sense of humor provides some nice levity during the movie’s more intense moments. Lizzy Caplan is underserved by the plot, and exits too soon, but her sarcastic way of speech is as charming as ever. The presentation is ultimately more important then the cast.

J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film. However, his method informs the whole movie. We never learn what Clover is, where it comes from, or what awoke it. The viral ad campaign and expanded universe provides oblique answers, something about a fallen satellite and a Japanese soft drink company. The proposed sequel probably would have provided more concrete answers. However, Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard are busy with other stuff. It’s just as well, as I can’t foresee “Cloverfield” lending itself to a franchise well. As a stand alone film, it can be incredibly scary and surprisingly powerful while still functioning as a solid monster movie. [7/10]

So concludes 2014’s KAIJU-THON. As with any cinematic journey of this size, I end it with a whole new batch of things I want to see. I was unable to procure copies of Toho’s submarine duology – “Atragon” and “Latitude Zero” – which means I just came up short on seeing all of Ishiro Honda’s science fiction films. What about the King Kong remakes and rip-offs? What of oddball imports like “Yonggary,” “Pulgasari,” and “Reptilicus?” Where do “Big Man Japan” and “Death Kappa” fit into God(zilla)’s grand design? The journey never truly ends. Will next Halloween be devoted to another KAIJU-THON? Probably not. However, expect a giant monster movie or two to sneak into my seasonal viewing from now on.

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