Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 30

The Student of Prague (1913)

As October comes to a close, and Halloween looms, I found myself looking over my list of films watched thus far. In a moment of confusion, I forget that I had watched the 1920’s version of “The Lost World” and came to the incorrect conclusion that I had yet to watch a silent horror film this season. Before I could correct myself, I set off looking for a voiceless flick. Looking over a list of notable silent horrors, I came upon the 1913 version of “The Student of Prague.” Starring “The Golem’s” Paul Wegener, the film is loosely adapted from the Poe story “William Wilson.” It is usually considered the first horror movie ever made.

Set in 1800s Prague, the story follows Balduin, the best fencer in the country and a rebel-rousing student, who has recently fallen on hard financial times. After rescuing a countess from a stream, Balduin falls in the love with the girl. However, he’s far too poor to even consider courting her. Enter a strange old man named Scapinelli, who offers Balduin 100,000 coins in exchange for anything in his room. The student immediately signs the paper only for the elderly gentleman to reveal himself as a demon and leave the room with Balduin’s reflection. The student’s attempt to woo the countess are made more difficult when that reflection, now ambulatory and with a mind of its own, sets about ruining the young man’s life.

As previously established, I like silent movies. Considering film is primarily a visual art form, movies that rely solely upon visuals almost seem purer then sound cinema. I usually don’t find the style of silent movies off-putting or confusing. However, “The Student of Prague” is an early silent movie. Discounting some Melies and Edison shorts, it might actually be the oldest movie I’ve ever watched. The cinematic art form was still developing. Thus, “The Student of Prague” is not always the most elegant feature. The film uses title cards sparingly, most of the dialogue going uninscribed. Despite featuring few intertitles, the movie still falls back on exposition. Balduin's skills as a fencer are never actually featured on-screen, only be referenced in dialogue. A key event has Balduin’s reflection killing a romantic rival the student promised to spare. This happens entirely off-screen! The only time some of the characters are identified is during the opening role call. This, combined with the faltering quality of the film print, frequently makes “The Student of Prague” difficult to follow. Despite only running 87 minutes, the movie is also one of the slowest paced silent films I’ve ever seen.

Though not necessarily easy to follow, “The Student of Prague” does have some effective moments. Though early in the movement’s lifespan, the film still has some beautiful, expressionistic scenery. Balduin’s apartment is set at rough, slanted angles, looking odd and off-center. A midnight rendezvous with his lover takes place in an old cemetery. The old tombstones intentionally do not look real. The obviously artificial set gives the film a creaky, spooky atmosphere. After an encounter with his wicked doppelganger, Balduin flees down the shadowy streets of Prague, seeming very small among the old city’s towering buildings. Wegener’s later film, “The Golem,” is much more effectively surreal but this one does feature just enough strange moments to push it into the category of “horror.”

Don’t be mistaken, “The Student of Prague” is marginally horror. It is, more often then not, a period melodrama that can be hard to swallow. One of Balduin’s earlier romantic conquest is a dancing girl. Despite showing little interest in the man, after he begins to pursue the Countess, she passes an incriminating letter along to her. Why? Jealousy? The film never elaborates on this. There are also long scenes of fox hunts, ball room dances, and people sitting around in empty rooms, pining. The stuff with the evil reflection is quite striking, and the ending is nicely downbeat, but far too much of “The Student of Prague” is a melodramatic slog.

Is “The Student of Prague” the first true horror movie? Even with a Satanic old man, a murderous doppelganger, and a Faustian bargain, the movie doesn’t truly fit the genre. I think “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” probably has a better claim on that title. The story has been remade several times, even during the silent era. A 1926 version starring Conrad Veidt seems to be better regarded. Maybe I should have watched that one instead… [5/10]

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

A while back I reviewed Charles B. Pierce’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I actually saw the movie even more recently then that, when Shout Factory gave the long out-of-print sorta’ classic a Blu-Ray release. That film, an odd mixture of docudrama and fictional retelling, had a predecessor. Pierce first tested out that very specific format with “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a quasi-documentary about the Fouke Monster of Fouke, Arkansas. It might be hard to believe this now but “The Legend of Boggy Creek” was a big hit in its day. An America gripped by Bigfoot fever saw the movie so many times that it went on to become the eleventh highest grossing film of the year! While the film is a true independent success story, outside of Bigfoot enthusiasts and horror fans, it’s not well remembered today.

The film claims to tell the true story of the Fouke Monster. Periodically, since the 1950s, the backwoods town of Fouke, Arkansas has been haunted by a mysterious monster roaming the woods and swamps. Covered in black hair, over six feet tall, and leaving three-toed foot prints, the monster has terrified and intrigued the people of the tiny town. The film combines voice-over narration, interviews with supposed witnesses, dramatic reenactments of the encounters, and local footage and music to create a film that’s not quite a fictional movie and not quite a documentary.

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” is pretty corny and cheesy, lacking the dread of Pierce’s later “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” While it never reaches the intensity of that film, “Boggy Creek” does occasionally summon up a folksy, Southern-fried creepiness. The very first scene has a little boy, the film’s narrator as a child, running across a golden field, frightened by a strange noise. Later, a family discovers a dead cat, scared to death by the monster. Probably the most blatantly frightening scene in the film has a young woman, napping on the couch, rudely awoken by the Bigfoot’s hairy arm, reaching through the window. The monster is only briefly glimpsed throughout the film. We mostly only see the creature only as a black shape, moving quietly through the woods. This proves surprisingly creepy, the film functioning well on the “less is more” principal. A Fouke monster that is a smelly Skunk Ape is much less frightening then a Fouke monster that is an ill-defined, shadowy figure. The most effective moment, for me anyway, were simple shots of the monster, seen only in the distance, crossing the swamplands.

Despite a handful of decent moments, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” is gripped by camp. All of the actors in the film are amateurs. This is readily apparent. All of the performances in the film are either broad or flat. Many of the monster witnesses play themselves. Their hillbilly personae do little to dispel Fouke as a backwoods town full of drunk rednecks. The film’s climax, in which a man is attacked by the monster while in an outhouse, is sure to generate giggles today. The man fleeing through the woods, his pants halfway down his ass, is especially funny. The narration is frequently overdone, most obviously in a sequence detailing how even the police dogs were too scared to pursue the creature. The cherry on the goofball redneck sundae are the two incredibly silly folk songs played throughout the movie. The first is a ballad describing how the Fouke monster is actually quite lonely, being the last of his kind. The second is devoted to witness Travis Crabtree, an ode to his fishing trips and long days wandering the woods outside his home.

By filming on location and with the people who were actually there, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” does capture a certain degree of local color. One of the creature’s witnesses can’t move very fast, having injured his leg in a hunting trip. Imagine a “Boggy Creek” without the monster and you’d probably get a movie very similar to Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida,” a film about how people pass the time in a tiny, Southern town. It’s apparent the small town was a point of fascination for Pierce. Both “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” have a nostalgic longing for the simple small town, both portraying the central locations as rustic, relaxed, wholesome places. In “Sundown,” that creates an ironic quality when the gruesome murders begin to take place. In “Boggy Creek,” however, it makes the film more of a love letter to the local residents and their strange stories. (That most of the movie’s “true story” is demonstratively bullshit doesn’t seem to matter much.)

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” spawned a cottage industry of pseudo-documentaries about Bigfoot and Yetis, helping to feed the appetite this country had in the early seventies for all things Bigfoot. It’s hard to believe that movies like “The Mysterious Monsters” or “Bigfoot: Man Or Beast?” got theatrical releases back in the day. Moreover, there’s a tangled web of “Boggy Creek” sequels and remakes. “Return to Boggy Creek,” an unofficial sequel made without Pierce’s involvement, was released in 1977. A few years later in 1985, Charles B. Pierce rebuked that film with his own sequel, “Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues.” That one was, famously, featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” "The Legacy of Boggy Creek," a pseudo-official remake, came in 2011 while 2010’s “Boggy Creek” is an unrelated and otherwise generic Sasquatch-ploitation flick. Boy, that got complicated quickly, didn’t it? Who would have thought such a humble film would birth such a long-lasting legacy? [6/10]

Gehara: The Dark and Long-Haired Monster (2009)
Chohatsu Daikaiju Gehara

Okay, when I said I was done with kaiju movies for the year, I lied. After hearing about “Gehara,” a twenty minute made-for-television monster flick, I just had to see it. The film begins, like so many of them do, with a fishing boat attacked by a strange creation. The lone survivor, half mad, seems terrified of hair. Though the destruction is initially blamed on an Umi-Bozu, the true culprit soon emerges: Gehara, a giant monster covered in long, black hair. The monster is soon marching on Japan, its hair giving off a deadly gas. The government cooks up a crazy plot to stop the monster while a group of rural monks worship the critter. Can anything stop Gehara?

Despite only being twenty minutes long, “Gehara” is a perfect parody of Showa Eiga kaiju films. Gehara, on paper, sounds like a fairly ridiculous creation. A monster whose main power comes from its long hair does not sound particularly intimidating. However, the film approaches the premise with a totally straight face. A scientist constantly delivers grave warnings about the monster. A crazy general deploys a wacky weapon to stop the monster. A journalist investigates a religious order that seems to blame the monster’s reemergence on mankind’s mistreatment of the planet. The movie blatantly references the original “Gojira,” with an Akira Ifukube-inspired score and a ending that features a man talking about how another Gehara could surface if mankind doesn’t stop abusing the planet. At least, that seems like the ending. In its final minutes, “Gehara” tacks on a pitch-perfect reference to “Monster Zero” and ends with a trailer for its own, even crazier seeming (and, sadly, as yet unrealized) sequel. Even the outwardly funny parts of “Gehara,” like teenagers trying to get the attention of a news reporter, are a bit more subtle then expected.

Even though it’s a spoof of the genre, “Gehara” is still a pretty cool monster movie. At only twenty minutes long, “Gehara” packs in plenty of kaiju action. The monster appears to be brought to life through puppetry and looks fantastic. He’s reptilian but the long scarf of hair makes it appear more greasy and mysterious. His design might be intentionally goofy but the creature is brought to life fantastically. The building smashing and military battles are also quite convincingly done. There’s a little shaky cam present, probably to cover up the seams of a low budget production.

“Gehara” manages to be both a hilarious parody of the genre and a perfectly executed example of it. As you’d probably expect for an obscure television production, the film doesn’t have any sort of official stateside distribution. However, the Japanese Blu-Ray is region free, so feel free to import this sucker. I know I will. Hell, apparently there’s already a toy of Gehara too! Would I watch that sequel? You bet your ass I would watch that sequel. [9/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Wow! Would love more "Geharha"!