Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 6

The Secret of the Telegian (1960)

Just the other day, I was talking about how “The Secret of the Telegian” was so obscure that even a hardened genre nerd like myself had never heard of it before. Over the weekend, through a means whose legality I won’t discuss, I acquired a copy. Why is the film so overlooked? Is it because it doesn’t feature a giant monster? Or because Jun Fukuda, the man who would replace Ishiro Honda as the main director of the Godzilla series, directed it instead of the better known Honda? The most likely reason is that “The Secret of the Telegian” never received a theatrical release, going straight to television after its U.S. distributor preemptively went bankrupt. Subsequently, an American DVD release has never followed. Like the other films in Toho’s “mutant” trilogy, it deftly combines horror, science fiction, and mystery in interesting ways.

The film begins with a mysterious murder in a carnival tunnel of horror. A man is stabbed to death with a bayonet, the killer leaving behind a military dog tag and seemingly vanishing. A science reporter and a police detective team up to solve the military. After the owners of a night club is similarly attacked, the mystery begins to reveal itself. During the war, they betrayed a soldier named Tsudo, leaving him to die in a mine shaft. Now, fourteen years later, the man has returned, using a teleportion machine to enact his vengeance.

Continuing the trend set by “The H-Man,” “The Secret of the Telegian” is more violent and sexier then the giant monster movies Toho were making at the same time. As in that film, sequences are set in a night club with burlesque dancer. (It’s a military themed club, with the waitresses in sailor suits and the bouncers dressed as soldiers. Which is a nice touch.) This one features an exotic dancer covered head to toe in metallic gold paint, a full four years before “Goldfinger.” Later on, the movie even briefly features a photo of a nude pin-up! The film is gorier then expected too, with the Telegian stabbing his victims to death, their wounds bloody and in full viewer of the audience.

Despite the relative explicitness of the material, “The Secret of the Telegian” doesn’t lack scares or thrills. All of the attack scenes build suspense nicely, teasing out the killer’s appearance for as long as possible. One elaborate sequence has the Telegian distracting the cops by delivering a large crate to the residence. Inside, the murderer replaces one of the cops. The real officer’s body falls from behind the curtain when the Telegian turns and reveals himself to his victim, laughing maniacally. Yet the best sequence in the movie comes early, after Tsudo appears in the nightclub office, in full military garb, stabbing one of the cowardly owners with the bayonet. Teleportation doesn’t sound like a great gimmick for a horror movie but “The Secret of the Telegian” proves otherwise.

There’s something interesting not-quite-beneath the surface in “The Secret of the Telegian” too. The origin of Tsudo’s anger is revealed about halfway through. On the day Japan lost the Second World War, a unit was assigned with transporting a scientist, and his research into teleportation, to safety. Instead, the troops filled the boxes with gold bars, intending to keep it for themselves. Tsudo objects to this, saying that, even after the war, the gold belongs to the people. In retaliation, the other troops stab him, shoot him, and leave him for dead inside the collapsing mine. Seen through this lens, the film becomes another science fiction film covertly about sorting out Japan’s post-war history. Tsudo’s victims are greedy criminals, betraying the honor of their ranks. Tsudo, meanwhile, holds fast to his principals, representing what his position stands for. (That the film’s anti-hero was a lowly lance corporal and his victims are higher ranking officers surely wasn’t a mistake either.) Yet Tsudo is still a villainous murderer, his mind broken by the events of the war. “The Secret of the Telegian” cast doubt on Japan’s aggressive past while still honoring and respecting the soldiers who fought in the war.

Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla films were characterized by jazzier direction, which he also displays here. Dutch angles, crash-zooms, and long pans are employed repeatedly. The cast is full of Toho regulars. Akihiko Hirata plays another super-cool, slick detective. Koji Tsuruta is also good as the more down-to-Earth Kirioka, the reporter. He has solid chemistry with Yumi Shirakawa, playing another love interest. Tadao Nakamaru gives my favorite performance as the sinister Tsudo, the titular Telegian, frequently punctuating his statement with villainous laughter. Sei Ikeno’s score is nothing special but contains some decent moments. His music, and the whole film in general, really reminds me of the monster movies of the forties. The villain revealing a scarred face in the last reel also recalls “Phantom of the Opera,” “House of Wax,” and other classics.

The script gets a bit convoluted around the middle, as some overly complex sleuthing ensues. However, the ending, which features the villain being hoisted by his own petard, is equally as affecting as “The Human Vapor's.” I’ve come out a big fan of Toho’s mutant trilogy, as each film has its own funky energy, intimidating villains, and unusual gimmicks. They stand out from the rest of the genre films of the late fifties/early sixties while paying homage to what came before. “The Secret of the Telegian” is the weakest of the three but all of them are well-worth tracking down and checking out. [7/10]

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

I like all of Guillermo del Toro’s movies. Even “Mimic,” a production so fraught that the director has referred to it as the worst time period of his life. After that troubled experience, he returned to his roots with “The Devil’s Backbone.” His Hollywood movies are fantastic entertainment and no del Toro production is without his distinctive stamp. However, the guy’s Spanish-language films are more contemplative and personal than his English-language work. Until he makes a fourth Spanish film, “Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” form a loose trilogy of dark fairy tales, each thematically connected to the others by themes of childhood and innocent children confronted with frightening, adult worlds.

Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the film is set at an isolated orphanage. Carlos is left there by his guardians, who are revolutionaries fleeing Franco’s fascist forces. Those that run the orphanage, Dr. Casares and the one-legged Carmen, are also helping out the Republic forces. Carlos does not immediately get along with the other boys his age but eventually wins their respect… Especially after he notices the ghost haunting the building, who appears to be a boy their age and has whispered, grave warnings of bad things to come.

Like “Cronos” before it, “The Devil’s Backbone” is a complex film about many different things. Most pressing to the concerns of this blog, “The Devil’s Backbone” is a ghost story. The film generates genuine suspense from the supernatural encounters. The first fleeting glimpse of the ghost comes when his shadow is cast on the sheet of a bed, disappearing when the sheet is cast away. One of the creepiest moments in the film is when the ghost appears over a shoulder, slowly approaching. Even more frightening is when Carlos barely escapes a room as the spirit approaches him. Santi is a fantastic creation. His pale skin and black eyes recall the ghost girls of modern Japanese horror cinema, an intentional reference. Cracks run down his face like a shattered doll, representing his status as a soiled innocent thing. His skin is partially translucent, his skeleton visible at times. Tear drops of moisture float around his body, hinting at his watery grave and a deeper sorrow. My favorite element of the ghost is that blood plumes from the wound on his head as red smoke, a bright ribbon dancing through the darkness around him.

Of course, because this is a Guillermo del Toro, the ghost, the monster, is not evil. Instead, the villain of the film is very human. The spectre of the Civil War hangs over the entire film. The bomb lodged in the orphanage’s patio is representative of several things. The opening narration defines a ghost as “something that looks alive but is dead” which applies to both Santi and the bomb. It’s also the ever-present reminder that war is just around the corner. Despite the Civil War being such an important part of the film, it is decidedly kept off-screen. The true villain of the film is Jacinto, an orphan who has grown into the man and works at the home. He doesn’t align himself with either the fascists or republic cause. He is, instead, motivated by greed, seeking the gold in the orphanage’s vault. And pain. Jacinto is rejected by both the women in his life, the older women that he services sexually and the younger Conchita that he courts throughout. Faced with rejection, he ignites a pile of gasoline, exploding the orphanage and killing most of its inhabitants. Jacinto is so feckless that he does not budge at murdering his lovers or children. He becomes a very personal representation of fascism: A person who crushes everyone around him for his own personal wants. Yet Jacinto is, ultimately, a hurt child. The film takes great pain to show that Santi’s murder was completely accidental.

Yet “The Devil’s Backbone” is even more than a mash-up of a ghost story and a war film. The film is also a great example of the boys’ adventure genre. When he first arrives at the orphanage, Carlos is not accepted by his peers. They tease him, steal his comic books, and play pranks on him. However, all the kids are outsiders and misfits and Carlos is accepted into their ranks eventually. A lot of time is focused on the boys bounding. One of my favorite scenes is just the group sitting around, swapping stories and dirty drawings. As events become more severe, and the situation becomes more serious, the boys are forced to grow up very quickly. They plot out how to escape their captors, which easily reminds me of other boys’ adventures stories. Earlier in the film, a history lesson focused on cavemen working together to a stab a mammoth to death with spears. This image is darkly reprised at the climax. Armed with sharpened sticks, the boys attack Jacinto, stabbing his body in grisly, cringe-inducing ways. Unity and forged friendships is a theme del Toro has repeatedly revisited throughout his career. In “The Devil’s Backbone,” it is underlined with a sense of meloncholey. The boys conquer their foe but have lost their innocence in the process. Limping off into the desert in the final scene, it’s clear that their hardships are far from over.

During that wonderful opening monologue, a ghost is also compared to an insect trapped in amber. That line informs that film’s entire visual sense. Like in “Night of the Hunter,” Santi’s body floats at the bottom of a pool inside the school. The water is rusted and yellow, so the ghost literally becomes like a bug preserved in amber. del Toro has never been shy about his love for things floating, preserved, in jars. One such scene has Dr. Casares showing Carlos a collection of pickled punks, each born with spinial bifida, a condition nicknamed “the devil’s backbone.” del Toro’s fascination with clockwork machinery is most obvious in Carmen’s false leg, an elaborate device that is later shown to contain a secret, one of the film’s most clever moments.

“The Devil’s Backbone’ is probably also del Toro’s prettiest film. On the wonderfully conversational commentary on the Criterion Blu-ray, the director refers to the film as his western. This is accurate, as the film is full of sweeping, wide-screen shots of the Spanish countryside. The orphanage set is also fantastically realized, the building full of gothic arches. Tying the visual sense together is Javier Navarrete’s elegant, aching score.

Moments like this make me wish I could time travel. I could go on and on about “The Devil’s Backbone,” which is a fantastically layered and complex film full of many things worth discussing. I haven’t even gotten to the actors yet, all of whom are fantastic. Yet I try to keep these Halloween reviews at least sort of brief. If this was a proper Director’s Record Card review, I could ramble on for pages about the film. But I already wrote a shitty Report Card review of this movie years ago. And if I stop to rewrite one of my previous Report Cards, I’ll be starting down a slippery slope that will result in me getting even less done than usual. So I’ll stop here. Maybe in a few years, I can revisit the film again and find even more things to say about. Because I know I easily could. [9/10]

Tales from the Crypt: None but the Lonely Heart

As with season three’s opener, “Loved to Death,” season four begins with an episode about people looking for love in all the wrong places. In “None but the Lonely Heart,” a man finds rich old ladies, marries them, and then kills them for their fortunes, operating as whatever the male equivalent of a black widow would be. He then siphons his ill-gotten funds into shady business deals. With the government breathing down his neck, he seeks out a new rich old lady. This being “Tales from the Crypt,” things quickly get bloody, the bad guys do bad things, and then receives a suitably ironic punishment for his misdeeds.

“None but the Lonely Heart” continues the “Crypt” tradition of the series’ famous producers getting their more-famous actor friends directorial gigs. The episode is directed by Tom Hanks, only a year before winning his first Oscar for “Philadelphia” and becoming one of the most beloved actors in America. The episode also continues the “Crypt” tradition of the season premieres not being very good. There’s very little story to “Lonely Heart.” After winning the heart of the latest old lady, the serial killer anti-hero sets about offing anyone who gets in his way. The show degrades into the most routine slasher possible. His business partner has his neck tie stuffed in a paper shredder, a matchmaker (Played by Hanks himself) is shoved through a TV, the woman’s butler is smothered with a pillow, and a gravedigger has his head chopped off with a shovel. Treat Williams is sleazy and smug, doing the part justice without making him entertaining to watch. The best performance in the episode belongs to Henry Gibson as the butler, doing his usual “stuck-up but nervous” schtick extremely well. The worst performance belongs to Sugar Ray Leonard as the gravedigger, who awkwardly stammers through his brief scene. The best thing about “None but the Lonely Heart” is its ending, which features the sort of vengeance-seeking undead ghouls you expect from “Tales.” A shame that you see it coming a mile away. Though the novelty of seeing Tom Hanks direct such a mean-spirited story takes the episode a ways, it ultimately can’t carry it all the way to being satisfying. [5/10]

So Weird: Destiny

“Destiny” returns to some themes previously discussed on “So Weird.” The tour bus passes a strange light on the road one night, which Fiona immediately recognizes as Bricriu, the villainous spirit from the season one finale, “Will O’ the Wisp.” This time, the Irish fae possesses Molly and tricks Fi into keeping her body for a 48 hour period. The spirit is there seemingly to keep Fiona from contacting a mechanic with some connection to her father. Tom Martinez pulled Fiona’s father from his crashed car and, since then, has been suffering from prophetic visions of a fiery death.

“Destiny” is another episode that has to balance a serious, emotional story with broad comedy and some network mandated tie-in marketing. Bricriu’s reappearance builds into “So Weird’s” developing myth arc. Fiona discovers that her father was dead before the car crash and that entities on the other side are responsible. The show also contains a good performance from August Schellenberg, as the emotionally traumatized Martinez. The finale, where he faces his fear and saves Fiona and Molly, is touching and affective. Meanwhile, Bricriu showing up again allows another “So Weird” cast member the chance to give an over-the-top, goofy performance. This time, Mackenzie Phillips leaps around, sings nonsense songs, pops up in silly outfits, and sports a slipping, not-convincing accent. The ridiculous performance distracts from the serious points the episode makes. Meanwhile, “Destiny” features a prominent role for The Moffatts, a flash-in-the-pan boy band of the time whose hit, “Misery,” may sound vaguely familiar to people who were there at the time. The band surely appeared at the insistence of Disney Channel top brass. These negative qualities put a mark on what otherwise would have been a strong episode. [6/10] 

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I just noticed that I'd seen "The Devil's Backbone" and remember it well but I never jotted down my thoughts about it. I'll just say that I agreed with much of what you wrote. (8/10)