Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 74: Haunting Tales

It's still (technically) the last day of September as I write this, according to Blogger's weird time algorithms. This actually went up yesterday but obviously I've been busy with other stuff.

Anyway, here's another episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. As October is nearly here, and Halloween is creeping ever closer, Mr. Mash and I decided to devote an episode to allegedly "true" ghost stories. (Well, with the exception of one, which is obviously fictional.) I'm a skeptic, he's a believer, and we spend most of the episode arguing about stuff. Regardless of which side of that particular debate you fall on, hopefully our bickering makes for good listening.

Halloween 2015: September 30

The Comedy of Terrors (1964)

Obviously “The Raven” was a success for AIP. Hollywood being the only place where the phrase “lightning never strikes twice” is unknown, the next year much of the same talent was assembled for another horror-farce. Price, Lorre, Karloff, and screenwriter Richard Matheson all returned, with the added bonus of Basil Rathbone. Director Roger Corman traded with Jacques Tourneur, himself no slouch when it comes to gothic horror. “The Comedy of Terrors” wasn’t as successful as “The Raven,” not quite clicking with audiences, but fans of all involved should give it a look.

Waldo Trumbull is a mortician who, when times are low, decides to create some business himself. With the help of lock-picker and escaped criminal Felix Gillie, Trumbull sneaks into the homes of wealthy locals, kills them, and then buries them. Things are complicated by his young wife, would-be opera singer Amaryllis, and his father-in-law, the absent-minded Amos. Waldo and Felix’s latest mark, who happens to be their eccentric landlord, also has the unfortunate tendency to not stay dead.

As in “The Raven,” the joys of “The Comedy of Terrors” come from watching its cast do their thing. The parts are written for the actor’s established personas. Vincent Price plays an unrepentant alcoholic asshole who belittles everyone around him, mostly his wife and his partner. The character would be utterly despicable if played by anyone else. Price makes him hilarious. Peter Lorre’s Felix is a sad sack who is often shit on by life. Ironically, the legit businessman is the jerk while the thief is a nice guy. Watching the two play off each other is delightful. Karloff’s role as a doddering old man allows the horror legend to stretch his comedic muscles. The scene where he gives a meandering eulogy is a high-light. Basil Rathbone’s character is obsessed with Shakespeare and spends most of his screen time quoting “Macbeth.” Rathbone obviously has a ball quoting the Bard when he isn’t leaping around with axes or swords. I even like the lovely Joyce Jameson as the tone-deaf daughter, who is on equal ground with her male co-stars.

“The Comedy of Terrors” does a good job of balancing broad, goofball humor and more subtle wordplay. The zany stuff is up-front. The film begins with Price and Lorre dumping a body out of a casket and burying it again in fast motion. Whenever Jameson hits a high note, glass breaks, shelves shake, and animals run. While sneaking into a house, Lorre knocks over a series of statues, domino-style, and tumbles off a roof. All of this is loads of fun but the word-play may prove more amusing. Price’s reaction to Rathbone’s quoting the “Sound and Fury” monologue got a big chuckle from me. Lorre’s lament about how he shouldn’t have broken out of prison is good too. So is the on-going joke about how to pronounce Waldo’s last name. The film keeps the gags, of both the high and low quality, coming quick, leading to plenty of laughs on the viewer’s end.

Roger Corman’s Poe films were frequently handsome looking. Jacques Tourneur had been doing it longer. “The Comedy of Terrors” is dripping with gothic atmosphere. Heavy fog hangs over the whole movie. Shadows are employed frequently. The sets are all grey, dusty, and heavy with classic horror trappings. Aside from the constant “Macbeth” references, the title is taken from Shakespeare too. One source I’ve read says the whole film was written in iambic perimeter. I’m not sure if that’s true but the dialogue in “The Comedy of Terrors” frequently has a nice poetic quality to it. The film is about as classy as a movie about murdering morticians could be.

Though it brushes up against being too wacky for its own good, “The Comedy of Terror” is still a very entertaining watch. Richard Matheson had planned for a third horror/comedy with the same cast, that also would’ve tossed in Tallulah Bankhead. Sadly, the disappointing box office for “The Comedy of Terrors” paired with Karloff and Rathbone’s declining health sank that possibility. (Though if you count “The Black Cat” segment in “Tales of Terror,” there’s already a trilogy of sorts here.) Not much more then a footnote, the film is still lots of fun with the right atmosphere or the right crowd. [7/10]

The Stuff (1985)

In the early years of horror, ridiculous horror movie threats were always presented at face value. Even as recently as 1972, as presented in yesterday’s review of “Night of the Lepus,” a movie was willing to play an absurd monster movie totally straight. In the modern age, parody horror films starring silly creatures and unlikely adversaries are practically a cottage industry. There’s at least one a year, ranging from the meta-satire of “Rubber” to the full-blown gaggery of “Trail of the Screaming Forehead.” Positioned somewhere between these two ages is “The Stuff,” Larry Cohen’s movie about killer dessert. It’s a film that chuckles at itself at times, while also presenting its odd premise for horror at other times.

In the frozen north, some miners stumble upon a strange, fluffy white substance bubbling up from the ground. For some God forsaken reason, he shoves it in his mouth, deciding it’s a delicious treat. Soon, the substance is bought by a dessert company, packaged, and sold all over the world as the Stuff. It becomes an immediate success. The ice cream companies hire corporate spy Mo Rutherford to investigate. He discovers that the Stuff is actually a dangerous compound, addictive, that takes over the bodies of its addicts. It’s also an intelligent creature, seemingly plotting global domination.

Larry Cohen has made a career out of taking cheap, exploitative premises and turning them into something subversive. This is the man who made a killer baby a minor horror classic and turned a film that was a sensationalistic title first into a clever, sci-fi conspiracy thriller. On the surface, “The Stuff” is just about a killer dessert. Dig a little beneath the surface and it’s easy to see it as a satire of the tobacco industry. The corporations in “The Stuff” sell a product that kills people. They know it kills people. The profits are so great that they don’t care. Lucky for them, the product is also addictive, bringing in new customers for everyone it finishes off. Cohen’s satire is sometimes a bit too indecisive. By making the Stuff ambulatory, and implying that the product itself is the mastermind of the scheme, it lets the corporations off the hook. The film is a bit too flippant to be sharp satire, jokey elements frequently appearing in the script. Cohen’s opinion on corporate masters is clear, especially in the ending were they get a taste of their own medicine. Yet the film never makes a focused, understood statement about its subject.

As an oddball comedy, “The Stuff” works better. There are many odd, funny touches. Most of them come from the performances. Cohen regular Michael Moriarty treats acting like off-beat performance art. He constantly reminds people of the goofy origin behind his nickname “Mo.” Moriarty struts and bullshits his way through the movie, creating an unique, memorable role. Or how about the little boy whose family forces him to eat the Stuff? Or a minor character named “Chocolate Chip?” The silliest part of “The Stuff,” aside from the titular substance, is Paul Sorvino’s role. Playing an extremist militant general, Sorvino is talked into helping the heroes by being told the Stuffies are filthy communist. Though this subplot is funny, it comes out of nowhere and seems at odd with the movie’s anti-corporate message. That last minute introduction also turns “The Stuff” in an unlikely action film, with good guys gunning down bad guys.

“The Stuff” knows that its premise is ridiculous. This is why there’s an edge of satire to the movie. A white, fluffy, creamy dessert is no one’s idea of an insidious evil. Yet, at times, “The Stuff” acts like a serious horror movie. The Stuffies, people who have been entirely taken over by the Stuff, are genuinely a grotesque threat. Their bodies break apart like zombies. Their jaws open in a rubbery, weirdly creepy way. Sometimes, the Stuff billows up out of their throats. The weirdest moment is when the movie does this with a dog. Sometimes, the Stuff itself is the threat. The ice cream-like substance can move on itself. In three instances, the Stuff floods into an area, attacking people. It crawls up walls, across factory floors, and inside radio stations. Though clearly joking, these scenes are still mildly creepy. The use of a spinning room or clever stop-motion effects insures that.

Though its premise is irresistible, “The Stuff” doesn’t entirely work. The tone is indecisive, slingshoting between straight horror, horror parody, satire, oddball comedy, and even action movie thrills. The cast and special effects are very likable. The movie is definitely getting at something. Yet the whole thing isn’t exactly focused enough to work entirely. I’m sad to say I can get enough of the Stuff. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Oil’s Well That Ends Well

I wish “Tales from the Crypt” would stop trying to do these extended double-cross episodes. Gina is a feminist con-woman who has recently partnered with grave-digger Jerry. The two concoct a plot to rip off a group of wealthy businessmen. They make up a story about oil being beneath a local graveyard and get the men to invest all their cash. However, there’s no honor among thieves and no one in the world of “Tales from the Crypt” is up-front with their alliances.

Each episode of “Tales” only has a half-hour to tell its story. Any time the show has tried to do a story about a large group of people playing each other, it almost never works. Half of the cast in “Oil’s Well That Ends Well” goes undeveloped. Rory Calhoun – in his third appearance this Halloween season – is reduced to a cameo and many of the other performers aren’t much more. There’s not much time to wonder who is back-stabbing who. All the double-crosses and betrayals are explained in short bursts. Aside from the graveyard setting, there’s not much horror content in this one either. The episode works the best when focusing on Lou Diamond Philips and Priscilla Presley’s sleazy romance, as both actors do well. The ending is also pretty satisfying and wraps the story up neatly. John Kassir appears in front of the camera here, which the Crypt Keeper happily points out. I’ll admit, it is amusing when Kassir slips in the Crypt Keeper laugh while in-character as someone else. [5/10]

So Weird: Beeing There

From its title on down, “Beeing There” is an episode built around lame puns. The Philips tour bus is stopped by a giant swarm of bees, Ned burning out the brakes stopping in time. This necessitates a stop in the near-by town of Hiveburg. Annie immediately notices how strangely the people in the town act. They buzz like bees, eat flowers, treat their female mayor like a queen, and savor honey. When Cary litters, he’s locked up in a jail cell, plastered against the wall with a natural resin. It’s up to Annie, once again, to save the day.

“Beeing There” is actually slightly better then its “town of humanoid bees” premise would lead you to suspect. Oh, it’s still plenty dumb. All the actors playing the bee people horribly over do it, Angela Gann as the Mayor especially. The episode nails home its premise as bluntly as possible. The townsfolk swarm around honey, decorate their buildings with honey-comb patterns, and buzz through town in orderly lines. Annie, once again, is painted as the wonderful hero, figuring everything out before everyone else. However, the episode is better when focused on the other cast members. Mackenzie Phillips, Eric Lively, and Dave Ward have some fun freaking out at the weirdness around them. The episode’s final image, of one bee staying human while the others return to their insect forms, is mildly poetic. I also like Camille Sullivan as the sole bee-person who doesn’t act crazy. She’s a cutey. The episode, meanwhile, is pretty typical of “So Weird’s” third season. [5/10]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 29

Night of the Lepus (1972)

In the history of cinema, few other horror movies have had a more miscalculated threat than “Night of the Lepus.” Yes, my friends, this is the movie about giant killer bunny rabbits. There are few animals more associated with being cute, fluffy, soft, and harmless then the rabbit. Even that word, “bunny,” is cute and unassuming. If someone attempted to make a movie about giant killer rabbits today, it would certainly be campy, tongue-in-cheek parody. But this was 1972 and irony hadn’t been invented yet. Despite the source material, an Australian novel called “Year of the Angry Rabbit,” playing the obvious ridiculous premise for laughs, “Night of the Lepus” is utterly sincere. Apparently, at no point during production, did anyone realize that it is impossible to make bunnies scary. Someone got the memo at some point though, as the movie’s entire marketing campaign was based around disguising what the central threat was! Maybe they should have led with the giant rabbits, as the movie’s preposterous premise has given it an undeniable notoriety over the years.

A drought in the Midwest has caused hordes of hungry jack rabbits to emerge and decimate local farms. Animal expert Roy Bennett is brought onto the case, along with his wife Gerry and their shrieking daughter Amanda. Roy quickly comes up with a solution to the rabbit problem: Hormone injections that make the bunnies less rapid breeders. Unfortunately, Amanda switches the males and females in their cages. The hormones make the rabbits grow to enormous size. The now massive rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. The giant rodents terrorize the town, attacking and killing all in their ways. Can the local police think up a solution in time?

Some laughable horror movies could have been better if more time and money had allocated for their special effects or shooting. “Night of the Lepus,” meanwhile, never could have been an effective horror movie. Giant killer rabbits is an inherently goofy premise. The movie tries. In Australia, rabbits are indeed a serious farmer’s pests. The movie acknowledges this. The film is surprisingly gory, as the rabbits bloodily tear people’s faces and rip their limbs apart. The movie even repeatedly shows us the bunnies’ huge front teeth. Ultimately, the execution doesn’t help matters. The movie’s special effects are composed of normal sized rabbits running through miniature sets in slow motion. This just emphasizes how cute, fluffy, and fuzzy real bunnies are. Even more laughable is when people in utterly unconvincing rabbit suits are featured in the close-ups.

The central premise and the special effects are hilarious. But lots of crappy movies have those things. What makes “Night of the Lepus” truly special is its utterly straight-faced execution. The strange, trippy score plays over the extended scenes of the rabbits running through the town in slow motion. The effect is as odd as it is hilarious. (Maybe that’s why clips from the movie were briefly glimpsed in “The Matrix.”) The heroes of the movie are all as straight-laced as can be. In that regard, “Night of the Lepus” is a throwback to fifties’ creature features. The heroes are all stately authority figures and older white men. Getting such professional men to deliver dialogue about killer rabbits is funny, to say the least. A cop standing in a drive-in theater, warning people about the in-coming swarm of fluffy-tailed death, is the comedic high-light of the film. This is what a lot of ironic parodies of goofball horror films overlook. Silly monsters are much funnier when everyone takes them entirely seriously.

Another aspect that links “Night of the Lepus” with the monster movies of decades before is its cast. It’s kind of impressive that such a silly script was able to attract so many recognizable faces. Stuart Whitman, as Dr. Bennett, wasn’t exactly a star but he was a character actor with hundreds of credits. No less an iconic scream queen then Janet Leigh plays his wife. Leigh gets plenty of opportunities to work out that famous scream. Rory Calhoun, a pretty big name at one point in time, plays the tough guy farmhand. Calhoun brings a certain rugged charm to his part and the movie should’ve utilized him more. DeForest Kelley, Bones McCoy himself, sports a super-seventies mustache as a friend of the doctor. Hearing Kelley’s immediately recognizable and respectful voice discuss killer rabbits produces lots of deadpan laughs. Another veteran cowboy actor, Paul Fix, plays the town sheriff. Though nobody cracks a smile, Fix comes the closest during his ridiculous dialogue. Like I said, every performance is one-hundred percent serious. The only actor I don’t enjoy is Melanie Fullerton as the daughter. She spends most of her screen time screaming and, yes, it is annoying.

This is how serious “Night of the Lepus” is. The movie even adds some weighty themes to its goofy story. An especially dry opening scene, of a news reporter telling us about rabbit plagues from all over the world, sets up the theme of limited resources. At one point, the Lepus descend on a cattle farm, devouring an entire stampede of cows in minutes. The rabbits seem to symbolize an ever-growing populace that is out of control, tearing through the world’s supply of food without care. After the opening credits, Calhoun’s horse gets its foot caught in a rabbit hole, suggesting the (attempted) sinister quality the bunnies will soon take on. There’s even an ecological edge to the movie. An early scene shows farmers caroling rabbits to their deaths. This scene is mirrored at the end, when the embiggened bunnies are fried on an electrified railroad. There are longer scenes of the rabbits being shot, blood splattering from their bodies. Maybe it’s just because the Lepus are played by real bunnies. Though giant, they’re just animals. You feel a little sorry for them.

Once again, any attempts to imbue the film with serious themes is undone by the absurd concept. The combination of a stone-faced execution and a completely silly idea is what makes “Night of the Lepus” such a good time. In fact, “Night of the Lepus” may be the platonic idea of a good-bad movie. It’s pretty short, running under an hour and a half. You’ll laugh consistently, as something silly happens every couple of minutes. For all its massive mistakes, “Night of the Lepus” is competently put together, well shot, with professional actors and interesting music. I guess what I’m saying is, if you see one movie about giant killer rabbits, see this one! [7/10]

The Raven (1963)

By 1963, the Poe Cycle was still going strong. The combination of Edgar Allen Poe, star Vincent Price, director Roger Corman, screenwriter Richard Matheson, and musician Les Baxter continued to sell tickets. In 1962, the group made “Tales of Terror,” a trio of Poe short stories. Among those shorts was a farcical adaptation of “The Black Cat,” starring Price and Peter Lorre. Clearly, Corman enjoyed this combination. The next year he would release “The Raven,” a feature length Poe-inspired comedy that would also star Price and Lorre. For bonus points, the movie would toss in past screen legend Boris Karloff and future screen legend Jack Nicholson.

Dr. Craven is a wizard who recently loss his beloved wife, Lenore. He’s also struggling with his daughter, Estelle, blooming into a beautiful young woman. One night, a mysterious talking raven flies into Craven’s home. The raven is actually Dr. Bedlo, a lower ranking wizard turned into a bird by the duplicitous Dr. Scarabus. Dr. Scarabus has unfinished business with Craven, being the rival of Craven’s late father. It also turns out, Lenore faked her death and married Scarabus. The whole group ends up at Scarabus’ castle, where the wizards duel for control of each others' magic.

“The Raven” keeps things light and silly. In 1963, I bet the main attraction was the talent assembled. This continues to be the case in 2015. Seeing horror legends Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre all together on-screen is a treat. Price’s charm is cranked all the way up. As the villain, Karloff plays menacing while maintaining his pleasant smile. Lorre has the most fun as the angry, alcoholic wizard, frequently shouting amusing things. Hazel Court had previously appeared in “The Premature Burial” and “Curse of Frankenstein,” already on her way to becoming an iconic scream queen. She has fun as the duplicitous Lenore and looks ravishing to boot. Jack Nicholson is, of course, the son of James Nicholson, the film’s producer. An early role for Nicholson, Jack displays some of the rascally charm that would soon make him a superstar.

Based on the pedigree of the author and the cast, “The Raven” was sold as a straight-up horror film. This was amazingly misleading. “The Raven” isn’t even a horror-comedy. Instead, it’s a cross between a goofy comedy and a dark fantasy. This is implemented early on when Lorre’s raven caws “How the hell should I know?” The sight gags are fairly silly, such as Lorre being caught between human and bird, turned into raspberry jam, or Nicholson being taken control of by the villain. Most Poe movies play the lost love for tragedy but “The Raven’s” scheming Lenore is a knowing subversion of this troupe. Baxter’s score is very goofy, always informing the audience that this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Even a talking corpse is mostly played for chuckles. Though the material is fairly light, the charms of the actors keeps it fun.

The charm of the cast and the script’s light approach to the supernatural come together in the climax. The finale is a wizard’s duel between Price and Karloff. Sitting in chairs, the two toss magic at each other. This takes the form of rubber snakes, rubber bats, and flashing lights. Most amusing is when the two float in the air, Price impishly smiling as he gets the upper-hand on Karloff. Twice, one wizard fakes the other out, a dead body being filled with birds or bird seed. The special effects look pretty silly now but that just adds to the charm. That the two actors appear to be having so much fun is even more impressive when you know how miserable they both were. Price dislike the wires needed for the floating scenes while Karloff’s declining health was catching up with him.

“The Raven” is about as minor as you can get. The script is light-weight. The comedy is broad and silly. Yet it’s still a really good time, full of plenty of goofy laughs and an amazing cast having a ball bouncing lines off each other. It is essential viewing for fans of Price and Karloff. Classic horror fans and monster kids will certainly get a kick out of it. I know I do. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Came the Dawn

“Tales from the Crypt” has done so many episodes about cheaters and infidelity that it now seems to be commenting on it. In “Came the Dawn,” a sleazy rich guy drives through a thunderstorm. He sees an attractive woman by the side of the road, her truck broken down. Taking her in, the two drive to the man’s isolated cabin. Obviously hoping to get laid, the man puts the romantic moves on her. The woman, however, has other plans. How does this connect to the woman murdered in the opening scene?

All of “Came the Dawn” is concerned with infidelity. Brooke Shields’ Norma has just fled from a cheating spouse, stealing his truck in the process. Upon seeing women’s underwear in the room upstairs, she believes that Perry King’s seemingly kind Roger is a cheater too. Both characters are hiding something. Shields puts on a veil of sexiness, pretending to be interest in King’s advances. King, meanwhile, minces slightly, claiming to be interested in “strong women.” That’s when the hammer comes down on the twist ending: Roger doesn’t have a jealous wife. He has a murderous alternate personality that just happens to be female. It’s a mean-spirited ending, somehow both sexist and trans-phobic, that severs any of the story’s interesting subtext. Director Uli Edel, director of depressing German films and trashy American television, at least contributes some moody visuals. Overall though, “Came the Dawn” is an uneven, unfocused episode of “Tales.” [5/10]

So Weird: Earth 101

Fiona may not be on “So Weird” anymore but her shadow still hangs over the show. The Philips tour bus is headed home to Hope Springs for Thanksgiving. Molly promised Fiona she’d be home for the day. Annie, meanwhile, misses her own family. That’s when a pair of obnoxious, hugely powerful aliens shows up. Using their magical abilities, they delay the family from arriving in time. The tour bus breaks down and refuses to be fixed, just over the hill from Fiona. While Molly and the others try to make it home in time, the aliens coldly observe.

“Earth 101” is a typically dumb season three episode. The aliens are obnoxious plot devices, with loosely defined, nearly infinite abilities. The actors – Michelle Harrison and Courtenay J. Stevens – are both awful, stiffly delivering lame dialogue. The episode has the most obvious of morals. Yes, writers, we know that family is the true reason for Thanksgiving. It takes the aliens thirty whole minutes to figure that out. The episode even throws in some stupid bullshit about that stupid bullshit spirit panther. However, there is a kernel of heart here. The episode isn’t really even about Annie. Molly drives the plot and her desire to be home with her daughter provides the episode’s sole strength. (Despite what IMDb will tell you, Cara DeLizia isn’t in the episode. When Fi appears, it’s via a body double and an obviously pre-recorded sound bit.)  “Earth 101” is definitely lame though at least there’s no musical numbers. Though, seriously, season three got a Thanksgiving episode but not a Halloween episode? What the hell? [4/10]

Monday, September 28, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 28

Deranged (1974)
Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile

There are few crimes more fascinating in American history then those committed by Ed Gein. Double murderer, grave robber, and all around ghoul, Gein has proved irresistible to horror writers. Maybe it’s because his antics were uniquely gruesome, his behavior truly pathological, and his psychosis so perfectly demented. Gein has inspired some of cinema’s most unnerving serial killers, despite not classifying as a serial killer himself. The same year Leatherface’s chainsaw roared on-screen, another film based on Gein appeared in movie theaters. “Deranged” is frequently overlooked but may be the movie that most accurately captures Gein’s madness.

In his small Wisconsin home town, not many people notice Ezra Cobb. He’s a quiet man who keeps to himself and his only friends are his neighbors. Ezra is devoted to his elderly mother, a religious puritan who often expounded on the evils of drink, women, and sex. But mama has been dead for a while now. Ezra misses her. So much he digs her up, reconstructing her body with pieces from other corpses. Soon, the dead bodies he uncovers and desecrates aren’t enough to satisfy Cobb’s deviant desires.

Ezra Cobb is played by Roberts Blossom, who is known to a whole generation as the kindly if outwardly-creepy neighbor in “Home Alone.” Blossom gives one of the most singularly weird performances I’ve ever seen. He stares with his clear blue eyes, rarely blinking. His body language is stiff and mechanical, as if Ezra doesn’t entirely know how to act like a human being. He speaks in short, abbreviated sentences. The combination of his body language and facial expressions makes Cobb a truly unnerving character. This is most obvious when Ezra has to interact with normal people, his off-putting behavior showing stronger in contrast. Yet Blossom’s Cobb isn’t just incredibly weird. The character displays a quiet cunning, lying his way out of situations and plotting ways to capture his victims. The moments when he talks to his deceased mother or tries to have a romantic evening with his latest capture, Blossom’s performance really shines. It would have been easy to turn Cobb into a cartoon. Blossom makes him a fully formed human being, without minimizing his bizarre behavior.

What most impresses me about “Deranged” is how fully it takes us into the disturbing world of Ezra Cobb. Or, more accurately, Ed Gein. The parallels are obvious. Ezra’s nickname, “Ez,” even sounds a lot like “Ed.” Much of the film is set inside Cobb’s farmhouse. We see him casually decorate with skulls or bones. He cuts face-masks off of old corpses. He makes a drum and drumstick from bones and flesh. The pacing doesn’t have much forward-momentum, the film functioning primarily as a character study. The movie only explores Cobb’s motivations slightly. The effect his mother’s beliefs had on him are established but his specific obsession with dead flesh is taken as it is. “Deranged” is a relaxed, sometimes naturalistic, exploration of a sick man’s disturbing world.

Surprisingly, “Deranged” is not as sensationalistic as its subtitle, “Confessions of a Necrophile,” would lead you to believe. Honestly, it’s most disturbing scene is not Cobb’s murders but his mother’s death, as she bleeds into her pea soup. Gein’s infamous skin suit only puts in one brief appearance though it’s a very memorable one. A lengthy sequence in the film shows him capturing a female victim and taking her home. (And, yes, the woman is in her underwear for the entire scene.) However, the film is more focused on her reaction to Ezra’s weird life then her suffering or eventual death. Truthfully, “Deranged” goes off the rails a little when it starts to focus on Cobb’s/Gein’s murders. The details of the last girl’s murder, her naked body strung up and bled out, are played more for stark horror then cheap thrills. The last act is slightly protracted, as his latest victim escapes and sends him on a chase through the woods. This, combined with the movie’s sudden ending, suggests the writers maybe ran out of ideas.

It seems realism, not exploitation, was the goal of “Deranged.” Occasionally, a reporter will appear and address the audience directly. Sometimes, the movie even plays its’ subject for grim laughs. When Cobb attempts to romantically court an eccentric woman, and she puts on a séance, “Deranged” becomes a weird comedy of sorts. All of this eventually combines to make “Deranged’s” overall tone even stranger. Unlike later attempts to tell Ed Gein’s story, like the melodramatic “In the Light of the Moon” or the grimy “Butcher of Plainfield,” “Deranged” is honest, weird, unnerving, genuinely horrific, and headlined by an unforgettable performance. See it! [8/10]

The Creeping Terror (1964)

I’ve been open about my love for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” over the years. Just look at Halloweens of years past. Any time I review a film lampooned on the show, I usually embed clips from the MST3k version below. While I understand some being bitter about the show birthing a culture of people who snark over all movies, whether they deserve them or not, you can’t deny MST3k’s contributions to the world. Firstly, it’s brought some truly bizarre film oddities to the public’s attention. The giddy heights of the Showa “Gamera” films, the real underground strangeness of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” or the trashy hilarity of “Mitchell” may have been forgotten without the show. Take, for example, “The Creeping Terror.” The film is equal parts schlock fest, microbudget weirdness, and cinematic endurance test, the kind of shit midnight movie marathons are made of.

It’s tempting to say the behind-the-scenes story of “The Creeping Terror” is more interesting than the actual movie. Reading about how the extraordinarily named director/producer/star Vic Savage scammed investors out of money to make his weirdo monster movie sounds like a good story. Until someone makes an “Ed Wood”-style epic about Savage’s life, we’ll just have to discuss “The Creeping Terror” instead. Anyway: Somewhere in California, a spaceship lands. Inside are two alien creatures, slow moving mounds of flesh that devour whoever they come across. One escapes and goes on a rampage through town. Meanwhile, the local cops and military attempt to figure out why the aliens are there and stop any more people from being eaten.

Oh look, a model.
“The Creeping Terror” is most famous for its hilariously ineffective monster. Though the title may have exaggerated the “terror” part plenty, the monster certainly is creeping. The creature moves very slowly. The only reason it catches anybody is because its’ victims are hideously stupid. They usually sit still and scream mindlessly while the monster waddles onto them. The Terror is such a weird creation too. Stock sound effects of lions roaring play whenever it’s on-screen. When it engulfs people, weird swallowing noises are heard. Some have suggested that Vic Savage had a vore fetish. That would certainly explain why the female victims’ kicking legs are so heavily focused on as the Terror pulls them into its throat. Mostly, the Creeping Terror is a ridiculously bad monster. The design is awkward, a tentacle-covered stock atop an indistinguishable mound. When it overturns cars, the monster unfortunately looks like it's humping the vehicles. The creature primarily targets necking teenagers, showing how hacky and lazy the script was.

“The Creeping Terror” was a true independent film, made far outside of the studio system. While this resulted in lots of bad acting and super-sloppy writing, it mostly left us with a movie that doesn’t function like movies are supposed to. All the sound was dubbed in later. This means an omniscient narrator explains most everything that happens. He even, dryly and hilariously, details a friendship dissolving after one of two guys gets married. The music is excruciating. When it’s not organ music that is both stock and melodramatic, it’s irritating electronic chatter. My favorite example of “The Creeping Terror’s” anti-movie behavior occurs when the monster attacks a dance hall. While women are awkwardly gobbled up by the creature, two guys get into a fist fight in the background, seemingly unaware of the attacking monster that’s right over there! The scene – nay, the entire movie – was clearly edited by someone who knew nothing about editing movies.

“The Creeping Terror” is built upon a foundation of bafflement, unintentional hilarity, and crushing boredom. The baffling aspect emerges from the bizarre, unprofessional composition of the movie. I’m talking the music, narration, and shotgun editing. The hilarity mostly emerges from the terrible acting. A dubbed woman screams, unconvincingly, “OH GOD!” A fat man stumbles through a forest, searching for his son, the actor clearly confused. Characters frequently do not move while the monster slowly approaches them. The woman hanging her laundry, not seeing the creature right in front of her, is my favorite. Or how about a troop of soldiers cluelessly standing still while the beast crawls atop them? As for the boredom, there’s plenty of that too. The Terror rolling and crushing the cars at Lover’s Lane goes on for way too long. A subplot about a scientist wanting to learn from the creature is hopelessly tacked on. After the first Terror is exploded by a grenade tossed from off-screen, there’s a long scene of the scientist driving to the rocket site. There’s a tortuously long denouncement, as the nature of the Creeping Terror is slowly explained to the audience.

Despite the potentially snore-inducing scenes, “The Creeping Terror” is barely over an hour. That’s not quite enough time for a viewer to become truly bored or irritated. In fact, “The Creeping Terror” is a great example of a movie so inept, it becomes entertaining. The concept is weird enough and the execution hazardous enough that the viewer is frequently amused. It definitely doesn’t deserve the highest compliment you can pay a regionally produced crappy horror movie. “The Creeping Terror” never becomes accidental outsider art. But it’s less boring then “Manos: The Hands of Hate” and more interesting then “The Blood Waters of Dr. Z.” The MST3k episode it inspired is also funnier then either. So it has that going for it, which is good. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Creep Course

Every horror TV show has to take a crack at the mummy, the most inglorious of horror archetypes. I know “Kolchak” and “Amazing Stories” tried their hands. (“Tales from the Darkside” waited until the movie.) “Tales from the Crypt” even featured a mummy before, in season two’s “Lower Berth.” Anyway, “Creep Course” follows an asshole archaeology professor who is ready to flunk a football player, Reggie, from his class. In hopes of passing, Reggie tries to seduce the class’ brainiest member, Stella. When that doesn’t work, he convinces her to go to the professor’s house so he can steal the notes. Instead, the professor has a mummy in his basement that he’s planning on sacrificing Stella too. The girl ends up being smarter then either of her male captors.

I really like “Creep Course” and it has little to do with the episode. The lead actress is a babe. The show Velmas Nina Siemaszko up with glasses and dowdy clothes. She appears powerless around Reggie. When he plants a kiss on her, the look of confusion and pure bliss on her face is enchanting. In this guise, she’s adorable. By the episode’s end, Siemaszko wears a revealing Egyptian priestess out-fit which is beyond flattering on her. Both of these outfits happen to hit sweet spots for me. Aside from the ravishing actress, the episode is good in other ways. Jeffrey Jones is delightfully villainous as the professor. The mummy affects are nicely done. Both of the men turning on Stella is a nice touch. There’s some nice gore, involving poison and brain probes. The episode is the sole directorial credit of screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who has an excellent resume. How Stella gets revenge on her attackers is nicely done, though the final reveal is awfully silly. In short, “Creep Course” is a totally satisfying “Tales” episode elevated by fine performers. That last sentence may have a double meaning. [8/10]

So Weird: Carnival

A sinister carnival or circus is another troupe nearly every horror series covers at some point. In “Carnival,” the Philips tour bus stops by a carnival on their trip across the country. There, Molly talks Annie into singing on stage during the talent contest. This attracts the attention of Jonas, the carnival’s disturbed proprietor. When Annie refuses to willingly join Jonas’ traveling show, he uses the magic mirrors in the fun house to transform the rest of the cast into circus attractions.

This is how far “So Weird” has degraded in its third season. “Carnival” feels more like a “Goosebumps” episode then anything else. The villain frequently turns to talk into mirrors, his reflection speaking back to him. Why? No explanation is given. His motivation, of needing a star attraction for his show, is super-limp. Duncan Fraiser really overdoes it as Jonas. The horrors inflicted on Annie’s friends by the magic mirrors are mostly goofy. Cary is turned into an animal-skin wearing Wildman. Jack is turned into a cross-dressing fortune teller. Ned is a miniature strongman, Irene a hot coals dancer. Only Molly’s fate as a melting human candle is at all horrific. The way Annie figures out how to defeat the villain is too simple. The worst thing about “Carnival” is a painfully long sequence devoted to Annie singing that brings the pacing to a thundering halt. Spooky carnivals are usually a good setting for horror stories but “Carnival” squanders it with kids-glove writing and an overdone musical number. [4/10]

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 27

Motel Hell (1980)

I swear I don’t have a weird personal connection to every movie I review. Yet, here we are again. “Motel Hell” will always stick in my mind for two different reasons. Firstly, I can recall seeing a clip of the movie as a kid, probably during a promo for MonsterVision. It was the scene of Farmer Vincent stepping out of the butcher shop, chainsaw in hand and bloody pig head on his shoulder. That image didn’t scare me exactly but it definitely stuck with me as gruesomely unnerving. Years later, I would discover that my grandfather – who passed before I was born – loved “Motel Hell,” considering it his favorite horror movie. While I wouldn’t go that far, the movie’s oddball sense of humor has definitely made it a cult favorite.

It takes all kind of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters. Vincent and his sister Ida supplement their just-scraping-by hotel business by selling Vincent’s trademark smoked meats. His sausage, beef jerky, and barbecue are so popular that people come from miles around to try it. What everyone doesn’t know is that there’s a secret ingredient in the farmer’s food… People! Vincent kills ne'er-do-wells from the near-by freeway and cooks them into his ever-popular exports. This is going fine for Vince and Ida – even their cop brother is entirely unawares – until Vince becomes infatuated with one of his female victims, throwing off the motel’s delicate balance.

The backwoods cannibal was already a staple of the horror genre by 1980, thanks to the iconic success of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes.” The idea was well-known enough that a piss-take of the subgenre came into existence. Though it comes close, “Motel Hell” never entirely plays it straight. Unlike Leatherface or Jupiter’s brood, Farmer Vincent is genial and welcoming to everyone, serving slaughter with a smile. Though never explicitly said to be inbred, Ida certainly looks like she might be and it’s implied she’s romantically attracted to her brother. Everyone’s love of Vincent’s meats is played for goofball laughs, instead of horror. One scene has Ida hiding a bloody tub full of fingers from the unassuming girl. Giggles coexist with gruesomeness in “Motel Hell,” quite amicably.

And the film certainly has its’ fair share of gruesomeness. Vincent does not murder his ingredients immediately. He, instead, slits their vocal cords and buries them up to their necks, allowing the meat to become tender. The noises the victims make, which sounds like a straw slurping at the bottom of a milkshake, is definitely weird and off-putting. They are kept in a “garden,” burlap sacks over their hissing necks. Near the end, the victims dig themselves up and go on a rampage, zombie movie-style. Coming at the beginning of the first wave of American slasher flicks, the movie’s gore isn’t exactly inconsequential. Whole arms and legs are shoved into meat grinders, heads are chopped, and bloody hatchets are employed. That climatic image, of Vincent with the chainsaw and the pig head, is indeed one of the most unnerving mask an eighties horror killer would ever wear. No wonder lesser disciples, from “Saw” to “Manhunt,” would rip it off.

Yet “Motel Hell” keeps the tone light. Absurd elements are sprinkled throughout. Vincent’s victims are often ridiculous. First-off, we see a totally over-the-top punk band fall to his trap. An extended sequence is devoted to the two kinky swingers who come to the hotel, expecting Vincent and Ida to join in their deprived antics. The couple is into everything, including S&M, bondage, cross-dressing, bestiality, and Sonny Bono mustaches. Before snapping the ingredients' necks with ropes attached to a tractor, Vincent and Ida hypnotize the victims with flashing lights and soothing music. One scene has Vincent confessing how his murderous antics allow him to exercise his creativity. His final line is a punchline to a long running joke throughout the film. “Motel Hell” veers just up against parody, treading the “dark comedy” line very carefully.

The romantic subplot of “Motel Hell” never quite works. Even if he did rescue her life, it seems unlikely that a vivacious young lady like Terry, played by the frequently nude Nina Axelrod, would fall for a considerably older man like Vincent. More confusing, she obviously has feelings for Sheriff Bruce, Vincent’s heroic and boring brother. Then again, without the subplot we wouldn’t have gotten that delightfully scene of Ida attempting to drown the girl while they’re out inner-tubing. Or Wolfman Jack’s extended cameo as a televangelist who is not as virtuous as he appears. Despite a sometimes shaky script, Rory Calhoun holds the entire movie together. Calhoun’s easy-going attitude and ever-present smile makes Vincent seem incredibly friendly, in spite of his murderous ways. Even while tying up the kinky couple, and knocking them out with sleeping gas, he remains charming. Nancy Parson is also amusing as Ida, never afraid to play the part for maximum grotesque gallows’ humor.

Funny, quirky, gory, and the right kind of sick, “Motel Hell” would naturally attract a cult audience, thanks to late night cable screenings and frequent VHS rentals. Stumbling upon the movie in the middle of the night on an obscure movie channel is probably the ideal way to watch it. A remake was announced at one point but has since been abandoned. This is for the best, as I can’t imagine the movie’s delicate mixture of gruesome gore and sick humor making it out of the studio system intact. Instead, kick back with the original and a packet of beef jerky. Because meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat. [8/10]

The Killer Shrews (1959)

In the long timeline of unlikely film adversaries, “The Killer Shrews” occupies a special place. Reimagining shrews – small fuzzy garden pests – as movie monsters is a terrible idea but not an inconceivable one. Shrews really do have to eat more then their body weight everyday. Some species of shrew are venomous, which is a genuinely weird fact. Though everyone agrees that its premise was a bad idea, “The Killer Shrews” is mostly remembered for its underachieving special effects. The movie is also in the public domain, making it a regular presence on horror host shows. Which is how a movie that otherwise would’ve been obscure remains a well-known point of derision for monster kids everywhere.

Captain Thomas Sherman delivers supplies to a small island in the middle of the ocean. The supplies are for Dr. Cragis, a scientist working on shrinking humans in order to decrease food consumption. Also on the island is Cragis’ daughter, her asshole fiancé, a research partner, and some other people. The result of Cragis’ experiments has caused shrews, common creatures, to grow to the size of wolves. When a hurricane blows in, the group is stranded on the island. And the killer shrews are hungry.

“The Killer Shrews” is barely over an hour but feels much longer then that. Obviously a low-budget film, the filmmakers didn’t even have the funds to make an entire movie about killer shrews. So instead, large portions of this low budget monster movie are a closed room drama. The group of people hang out in the house, drinking alcohol. They argue among themselves. Jerry, Ann’s fiancé, is a total jerk-wad. Ann is immediately attracted to Captain Sherman, which inflames Jerry’s rage. Dr. Cragis details his experiments, showing himself to clearly be mad. A few of the other characters trade tense glances. The cast mostly features TV vets – like future “Dukes of Hazzard” sheriff James Best and “Gunsmoke” regular Ken Curtis – and B-movie actors, like model Ingrid Goude. None of them have much presence, chemistry, or character development, making these early scenes a real drag.

Once the Killer Shrews scamper on-screen, things get a little more amusing. What the film is truly famous for is the questionable methods used to create the Killer Shrews. In close-ups, the shrews are brought to life via mangy hand puppets. At least the puppets are sort of grotesque, with their bulging eyes and extended fangs. In long shots, the Killer Shrews are less convincing. In short, they’re dogs dressed in ratty carpets. They never look like anything other then dogs in ratty carpets. Adding to the oddness is the sounds the critters make, which sounds like car wheels skidding on the freeway. The titular creatures look ridiculous but, like any good B-movie, “The Killer Shrews” just rolls with it. They’re ridiculous threats, even when given venomous saliva, the ability to scratch through walls, and deadly pack-hunting skills.

Despite its reputation as a “so bad, it’s good” classic, “The Killer Shrews” is mostly just boring for most of its run time. Watching the characters argue in a small building or threat about the shrews outside doesn’t make many laughs. The shrews are funny to look at but only the first time you see them. As the film goes on, the melodrama gets more high-strung. Jerry becomes even more of an exaggerated ass wipe, setting himself up for his own demise. The characters start to yell at and belittle each other more, which is usually funny. The solution they come up with to get off the island is truly baffling. The gang welds a series of metal barrels together, crawling under them, and waddles off the island. Well, that’s a unique solution to a problem.

After a lot of boredom, “The Killer Shrews” eventually evolves into a source of unintentional laughter. If the film hadn’t been shown on TV so much over the years, I suspect it would have been forgotten by all but the most die hard monster fanatics. Instead, “The Killer Shrews” is regarded as a minor cult classic. And I guess that’s fair, since those goofy shrews are kind of endearing. The movie even spawned a fifty year later sequel, which traded out dogs in fur coats for really crappy CGI, and somehow got Bruce Davidson to star in it. What a world we live in, with such shrews in it. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Well Cooked Hams

In the world of “Tales from the Crypt,” theatrical performers like magician or clowns are rarely benign and anyone is willing to kill to get ahead, whether it’s financially, professionally, or romantically. Back in the late 1800s, Miles is a floundering stage magician. He is unable to master his magic tricks, despite killing his former mentor for his secrets. Another magician comes into town, the mysteriously accented Kraygen, with an offer to teach Miles’ his best trick. The Box of Death involves a locked box, swinging blades, and a bucket of acid. Soon, Miles kills Kraygen for his secrets too. Naturally, not all is as it seems.

The title of “Well Cooked Hams” is appropriate. This is another “Tales” episode devoted to two hammy actors going head-to-head. Billy Zane, with a ridiculous mustache, plays up all his most unsympathetic attributes, creating a character that is definitely fun to hate. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen has three chances to ham it up, as three different characters. It’s certainly amusing to hear Sheen croak Krayden’s cartoonish German accent. The overheated world of stage magic is well suited to “Tales,” as dramatic reveals and garish production designs appear in both. The script is nothing unexpected. Once again, the bad guy does bad and gets his just desserts. Underrated Bond girl Maryam d’Abo looks great as the magicians’ assistant but isn’t given much else to do. The episode certainly will entertain those who enjoy the “Tales from the Crypt” formula. Part of that formula is the Cryptkeeper cracking silly jokes about learning French, which is always welcomed. [7/10]

So Weird: Exit 13

I’m kind of surprised “So Weird” is just now getting to the “Groundhog Day” story line. While traveling towards Niagara Falls, the Philips family pauses their trip at an unusual rest stop. There, the odd shop-owner sells Annie a strange rock connected to the local American Indian tribe. Once the rock is in her possession, Annie notices that the day keeps repeating. They pull into the same rest stop. Molly’s trash bag splits open every time. Jack spills soda on him. Cary is nearly run over by the tour bus. Only after looking at the strange symbols on the stone does Annie begin to unravel the mystery.

“Exit 13” benefits from being another episode that never tries to scare. (That stupid spirit panther is nowhere to be seen either, which also helps.) The premise is fairly hacky, as every supernatural TV show has to try its hand at the time loop concept. The magic stone is a fairly ridiculous plot device. It moves around on its own, for no defined reason. Annie, and only Annie, can hear the associated spirit cry out. The stone is supposed to an Indian artifact but the carving upon it looks like something a kindergartner would draw. How the mystery is resolved is fairly ridiculous, Annie finding the other half of the stone in a very obvious place. Timothy Webber as Ziegler, the shop owner, gives an overdone performance. However, there are some minor pleasures to “Exit 13” Cary almost being run over every ten minutes provides some decent suspense to the last act. Annie looking up the needed information on the internet is dumb but also in-keeping with the show’s spirit. In fact, it really feels like it’s been too long since someone has looked something up on the internet. This also allows for another text-only cameo from Fiona, for all that’s worth. So it’s not a great episode but, as far as season three goes, I’ll take it. [6.5/10]

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 26

The Day of the Triffids (1963)

Anybody who has done the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” midnight experience will be familiar with the quote “What the fuck is a Triffid?” Fans of British sci-fi can answer that question easily. “Day of the Triffids,” both John Wyndham’s original book and the 1963 film adaptation, are considered classics on that side of the Atlantic. The story is so beloved that it’s been adapted multiple times since then, both on screen and on radio. To American ears, ‘triffid’ is just a silly word. So what the fuck is a triffid? It’s a large, crawling plant monster armed with a stinging tendril that eats human flesh. That such a weird monster could become an icon in Britain but remain obscure in America shows the different sensibilities between the two countries’ horror fans.

The world is excited by the announcement that a colorful meteor shower is going to light up the night sky. Hundreds gather to watch the spectacular light show. It’s something that Bill, a sailor who is recovering from a sight-impairing accident, can’t enjoy. Bill’s stay in the hospital ends up saving him. The glare of the meteors blind everyone who looks at them, plunging the world into massive chaos. Worst then that, the meteors bring the Triffids with them. The deadly plants quickly begin to attack the blind populace. Bill soon discovers other individuals still able to see, attempting to survive a far deadlier world.

Most movies would be satisfied with only a global plague of blindness or killer plant monsters alone. “Day of the Triffids” feels the need to toss in both. In the novel, the two events aren’t even correlated. In Wyndham’s book, the killer triffids are a domesticated plant species, possibly engineered by Soviet scientists. The worldwide blindness only provides the oppretunity for them to take over. Though purists complain about this difference, I think making the triffids a result of the meteor storm makes way more sense. Further conflicting matters is that “Day of the Triffids” is far more effective when focusing on the blinded world. Bill awaking in a deserted hospital is an eerie sight. Similarly uncanny is the heroes traveling through empty, abandoned streets. One scene at a crowded, confused train station climaxes with the train crashing, people groping about in pain. Later, some rowdy convicts invade the sanctuary Bill and his friends have founded. They make the women dance and assault many more off-screen. These scenes convey a proper sense of panic. The movie does a good job of showing how dangerous and frightening a world suddenly without sight would be. It honestly makes you wonder why the plant monsters were needed at all.

So about the triffids… I suspect John Wyndham started with the idea of venom-whipping, flesh-eating vegetables before realizing only a sightless planet could be threatened by such a thing. The triffids move incredibly slowly, lumbering forward on four stubby root-like legs. Even their poison-dipped tendril whips have short ranges. They have no real intelligence, only moving towards sound. Because blinding the entire planet wasn’t enough, some of the movie’s characters are incredibly dumb. It takes Bill the entire film to realize triffids, being fauna, burn very easily. The film’s presentation of triffids doesn’t help matters. The camera zoom in on the creature’s faces, the musical score blaring. The plant beasts are played by men in suits, which is all too obvious in a few shots. It’s all slightly goofy. Despite this, the triffids are still occasionally an effective movie monster. They make a creepy buzzing noise. The image of the triffids shuffling out of the fog is spooky enough. Like the modern zombie, the triffids only become truly dangerous when in huge packs. The plants bursting through the wall, descending on the flailing people inside, is a genuinely intense sight. Compared to another icon of British sci-fi – the even more ridiculous, equally immobile Daleks – the triffids come off even better.

In addition to favoring ridiculous titles – other stories of his include “Chocky,” “The Midwich Cuckoos,” and “Jizzle” – John Wyndham is also widely credited with popularizing the cozy catastrophe. The plague of blindness allows Bill and the little girl he befriends to travel the world. Within the span of the film, he drives his car from Great Britain to France and Spain. I guess traffic wouldn’t be a problem in a world where no one can see. In France, he finds a pleasant country mansion occupied by beautiful women. There, he begins a daily routine of farming and foraging. This seems surprisingly nice. If it wasn’t for the rampaging convicts, Bill and company could have lived there for a while. Later, the group finds a similar home in the Spanish countryside, where they can make coffee and listen to the radio. After an electric fence is set up, the triffids don’t even pose that much of a threat. This shows that end-of-the-world stories have always allowed for a certain amount of wish fulfillment. We don’t want to see society collapse but there’s something tantalizing about starting over and leaving all the complications of the modern world behind.

Another weird thing “Day of the Triffids” does is add a completely unrelated subplot. While Howard Keel and friends survive on the mainland, Janette Scott and her alcoholic scientist husband hang out in a lighthouse. They are also beset by triffids. One manages to sneak inside the lighthouse when no one is looking, an impressive feat for such a slow-moving creature. Scott has got a hell of a scream, which she uses several times. Kieron Moore as her husband is way too prickly to be likable. Their conflict doesn’t generate much interest. When a horde of triffids invade the lighthouse is the only time the subplot gets very interesting. It never connects with the rest of the story, which makes its inclusion rather perplexing. Until the very end, when the scientist starts blasting the plants with a salt water hose. This turns out to be the monsters’ weakness, the news spreading quickly and the catastrophe ending. Yeah, the movie pulls that resolution out of nowhere. A more vague, apocalyptic solution would’ve been preferable, especially since most of the planet’s population is still blind.

The somewhat goofy monsters and the occasional bullshit revelation aside, “Day of the Triffids” is fairly successful. As a post-apocalyptic story, it works very well. As a contrived monster movie, it’s sometimes still effective, despite itself. The cast is a bit dull, the musical score overdone, and the script is contrived. Still, it worked for me more often then not. And at least I now know what the fuck a triffid is. [7/10]

The Alligator People (1959)

I’ve got a memory about “The Alligator People.” As a twelve year old, I suddenly fell in love with the original version of “The Fly.” Not long before, 20th Century Fox reissued that movie on DVD and VHS, as part of a package of late fifties/early sixties sci-fi. Also included in that selection was “The Alligator People.” The movie has always stuck in my mind and so did that poster image of an alligator-headed man. Further keeping my interest was the movie’s reputation as the most minor of minor classics. Well, a decade later, I’ve finally gotten a chance to see “The Alligator People.”

Paul and Joyce are a newly married couple, heading off to their honeymoon. That’s when Paul gets a mysterious phone call and suddenly disappears. For years afterwards, Joyce looks for her husband. This journey takes her to Paul’s childhood home in the alligator-infested swamps of New Orleans. Strange experiments are seemingly going on in the house. Hooded men are paroled around secret rooms. A man with a terrible skin condition sneaks in to play the piano at night. The hooked-handed groundskeeper gets increasingly creepy. Joyce soon realizes that Paul is still around, the result of Dr. Sinclair’s unnatural experiments.

That I would see “The Alligator People” because of “The Fly” is appropriate. The film was cheaply, quickly produced to fill out a double bill top-lined by “Return of the Fly.” The two movies share a few similarities. Both feature men transformed into half-animal monsters by strange experiments. Most importantly, both are monster movie romances of sorts. Beverly Garland is so devoted that she searches for her husband for years. When she discovers he’s a half-human, half-alligator monster, she continues to love him. Mostly, “The Alligator People” is characterized by some Southern gothic melodrama. Among the dilapidated swamp mansion, the house’s owner prevents Garland from leaving her room. Garland leaves the house in a rainstorm, stumbling over alligators. Lon Chaney’s gator-hating Cajun drags her into his hut, attempting to put the moves on her. Chaney’s unhinged performance provides plenty of entertainment value to the flick. This overheated writing adds to the fun of the movie.

Here’s another thing “The Alligator People” has in common with “The Fly:” Both are early examples of the body-horror genre. Paul’s transformation starts with green scales spreading on his face. Paul’s agony is made obvious by his strangled voice. Other alligator people have a similar effect. In order to hide their appearances, the deformed men wear concealing white hoods with flat fronts, an oddly memorable choice. For that matter, the mutants being ushered in and out of secret rooms reminds me of “Curse of the Fly.” The film’s bayou setting also contributes some sweaty atmosphere. The actors interacting so clearly with real life alligators – even if a few have obvious ties around their jaws – is fun too.

“The Alligator People” ambles along at a pleasant pace, if a bit slowly. In the end, Paul stands under the radioactive lights that create the alligator people in the first place. That’s when Lon Chaney storms in, incredibly drunk. (His character is drunk too.) He punches out the scientist and wrecks the control panel. Now, Paul’s transformation continues unabated. He transforms into a real Alligator Man, the head of an alligator on scaly human shoulders. At this point, “The Alligator People” transforms from comfy classic horror picture to lovably silly creature feature. Chaney dies via accidental hook electrocution. The monster effects are not convincing. The alligator mouth moves stiffly. The scales on his chest appear to be a rubber shirt the actor is wearing, as it clearly creases at the elbow. Now a monster, Paul wrestles with a real gator before sinking into quicksand, Beverly Garland screaming her lungs out. Wow. What an ending!

“The Alligator People” is a perfect piece of fluffy monster movie action. Its overheated story, melodramatic performances, mad scientist thrills, black-and-white atmosphere, and crunchy creature effects are bound to appeal to any monster kid. It’s a must for Lon Chaney fans and a high-light of his later years. Beverly Garland fans will probably consider it essential as well. And classic monster movie fans who don’t expect much will likely get a kick out of it. I sure did! [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: House of Horror

Every year, it seems like you hear about some fraternity hazing or pledge ritual gone horribly wrong. “House of Horror” is an episode about such an incident. Les Wilton is a fraternity jack-ass who lords over the new pledges. He has them perform humiliating duties like scrubbing the frat house floor in their underwear or lick dogshit from his boots. The ultimate pledge ritual is a tour through a haunted house. The axe-wielding ghost of a coughing old man is said to reside in there, swinging his blade at anyone who approaches. It’s all a hoax, of course, generated by the frat boys. But then strange things begin to happen and the horror may be real.

“House of Horror” has got a dynamite premise. Who wouldn’t want to see some obnoxious frat boy assholes murdered by an axe-wielding ghost? However, the one tries to pack in too many ideas. There are more characters then your usual “Tales” episode. Aside from Les, a massive asshole convincingly brought to life by Kevin Dillon, and Waters, the nerdy hero played by Keith Coogan, none of the characters get much development. This is despite notable talent in the cast, like Michael DeLuise, Jason London, or self-aggravating nerd icon Wil Wheaton. The haunted house, which is a captivating place from what we see, is mostly seen from the outside. There’s another subplot about a sorority, lead babe Mona taking bets on who will make it out of the house. This pays off at the end but mostly distracts from the main story. Director Bob Gale – better known as Robert Zemeckis’ writing partner – has some visual flare but other scenes are rather flat. He wouldn’t direct much after this. Mostly, “House of Horror” should’ve been a simple story of nerds taking revenge on their frat boy torturer. Instead, it goes in another less satisfying direction. [6/10]

So Weird: Rewind

The Philips family tour bus stops into an old recording studio, famous for being the place where many famous musicians recorded their last songs. While there, inspiration strikes Annie. She quickly writes a song and, with encouragement from Molly, decides to record it. The studio manager has a daughter, a musical prodigy who can seemingly play any instrument by ear. When musicians come into the studio, they loose their musical abilities while the daughter gains another. Could something fishy be going on here? And is Annie’s voice next?

“Rewind” is another episode devoted to boosting Annie. Alexz Johnson’s real aspirations as a pop star resurface. A long sequence is devoted to her singing. The other characters compliment her voice and song writing, despite “Never Give Up” being a generic pop song. (I guess Alexz’ voice is okay though it’s not especially distinctive.) Annie’s myth-arc is delved into. We discover a magical black panther protects her, which possibly steams from witnessing a native ritual while in the Amazon. This subplot is forced in, barely connecting with the rest of the story. Screen time is sacrificed for this, which means many elements of the main plot go unexplained. How can the mother steal people’s abilities? How can the daughter absorb them? Is the equipment magical or are they witches? We never find out. That the main story goes undeveloped is disappointing since Britt Irvin, as the daughter, has talent and energy. Once again, the more “So Weird” works to make Annie interesting, the less compelling she becomes. [4/10]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 25

The Strangers (2008)

When “The Strangers” was released in 2007, it received divisive reviews. But not the usual type. Even the bad reviews seem to recognize that the movie was scary. Those who liked the film tend to find it extremely effective. I knew which camp I fell into. A teaser trailer I saw – which showed the vulnerabilities to intruders any normal house may have – was enough to give me nightmares. Others agreed with me. A female friend of mine, herself a hardened horror fan, said it was the only film to ever make her scream out loud in the theaters. Despite the praise, “The Strangers” hasn’t stuck around much in the public mind. Maybe it’s because it got lost among the other home invasion films of the time. Maybe it’s because that sequel still hasn’t gotten made. Enough time has passed since I last saw it that I wondered if “The Strangers” would still effect me the way it did the first time.

James and Kristen are a young couple whose happy night has just been ruined. Kristen shot down James’ proposal, forcing him to scuttle the rest of his planned romantic evening. The two retreat to his family lodge, uncertain of what they’ll do next. That’s when there’s a knock at the door in the middle of the night. A strange girl is there asking for a friend. Despite being told no, she returns. When she comes back, she is wearing a mask and accompanied by two other masked intruders. The trio terrorizes the couple throughout the night, toying with them for their own amusement.

Upon release, “The Strangers” was heavily compared to “Ils,” which is partially why I’m reviewing it today. Some figured the movie was a remake, official or otherwise. Some flat-out called it a rip-off. There’s no doubt that “The Strangers” has some things in common with “Them.” Both portray a young couple trapped in their own home, attacked by mysterious intruders. Both claim to be based on a completely fabricated “true” story. Beyond the general premise, both films trade in the isolation of a home at night. Before the titular strangers appear, there’s an eerie feeling to the location. Bryan Bertino’s direction is stark and naturalistic, creating an immediate sense of unease. Both movies play on the paranoia someone alone in a house feels. The safety of the home is routinely violated by the invaders. This is best emphasized in the poster art. Someone should feel safe in their own home yet there’s a mysterious figure right over their shoulder, violating all sense of personal safety. It’s a powerful vein to mine for horror.

“The Strangers” does a surprisingly good job of creating suspense and maintaining it. From the moment the first stranger appears on-screen, the film’s sense of unease continues to grow. The scene of a character walking down a long hallway generates some tension, as you’re not sure who will attack him first. Horror movies ironically using pop music has become something of a cliché but “The Strangers” uses it well. A skipping record creates some eerie suspense, while “Mama Tried” provides an odd energy to another moment. The film is smart enough to pay off these long sequences with effective jump scares or quick bursts of gore. The Man in the Mask appearing suddenly in a window, punctuated by a scream, or a shotgun blast to the face are the good kind of jump scares, providing natural crescendos to well thought-out sequences.

“The Strangers” uses various elements of the slasher. All three of the villains wear distinctive masks. They’re given catchy nicknames like “Dollface,” for the one in the anime mask, and “Pin-Up,” for the one in the Betty Boop-looking mask. (The male leader has the plainest mask and is, perhaps as a correlation, simply called Man in Mask.) They threaten their victims with bladed weapons. Despite this, there’s actually has very little slashing in “The Strangers.” Maybe we should propose a new term for it, the “stalker.” Instead of murdering people, the attackers mostly just fuck with their victims, playing with their pray. It’s revealed early that the Man in Mask already has access to the house. He’s simply toying with the protagonists throughout the film. They derive sadistic pleasure from this sick game. The penultimate scene reveals this, when their motive is clarified as “You were home.” This is a completely random crime and an intensely cruel one at that.

With its’ brilliant construction and fantastic structure, “The Strangers” really should’ve been a new horror classic. If there wasn’t something holding it back. Kristen and James are played by Liv Taylor and Scott Speedman. Taylor and Speedman are both exceedingly flat. Taylor’s hushed dialogue and quivering panic aren’t very expressive. Speedman, meanwhile, is a huge piece of wood, unable to add much emotion at all to his dialogue. The characters also fall victim to Stupid Horror Character Syndrome. When in a vehicle, the Strangers corner them from both sides. Sure, someone is behind them in a bigger truck. But what about the attacker in front of them? They bail out of the car, instead of laying on the gas. Truthfully, both have plenty of opportunities to escape this scenario and none of them take it. In an attempt to make its protagonist seem like every men anyone can relate too, the script makes the heroes… Kind of dumb.

That serious flaw still isn’t enough to puncture the movie’s beautifully orchestrated tension. Though the script could be stronger, writer/director Bryan Bertino definitely shows a strong grasp on the elements of horror and intensity. The ending of “The Strangers” definitely sets up for a sequel, revealing a trickle of information about the attackers. There’s some sort of cult of personality thing going on there. “The Strangers 2” has been in and out development for seven years now and I’m not sure it’ll ever get made. Which is a shame, since with a little more polishing, the first film could’ve been truly great. A sequel would’ve provided that oppretunity. [8/10]

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

I can’t remember if I had heard of “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” before Patton Oswalt’s infamous bit about it. I’m thinking I had, since I remember silently chastising Patton for referring to the movie as “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People.” Either way, the film was the kind of true oddity that makes word-of-mouth spread quickly. “Death Bed” has its notoriety, no doubt. Yet it hasn’t been embraced to the degree of other so-bad-they’re-good classics like “Troll 2” or “Plan 9.” The film is even on another level then “Manos: Hands of Fate,” which is more of a cinematic endurance test then anything else. No, “Death Bed” is pure outsider cinema, an utterly inexplicable journey to the other end of madness.

To describe the plot of “Death Bed” is mostly superficial. The title, after all, tells you most everything you need to know. But I’ll do my best. Centuries ago, a horny demon made himself corporal so he could sleep with a desirable young woman. In order to better facilitate the coupling, the demon created a bed upon which the two could rut. Afterwards, the girl died and the demon cried. His demonic tears fell upon the bed, imbuing it with magical powers and an insatiable hunger. Through the years, any time someone has laid on the bed, it soon consumes them. Now residing in the basement of an old house, the bed somehow continues to find victims to devour.

“Death Bed’s” greatest value lies in its ability to make the audience shout in complete disbelief. The what-the-fuckery begins early. The film is narrated by a man hiding behind a painting, one of the Death Bed’s former victims who, for some reason, survives as a spirit trapped in his own drawing. When not eating people, the Death Bed audibly snores. The first victims we meet in the film are a pair of young people, looking to have sex. For some reason, a weird bed in the basement of a dilapidated mansion is their chosen spot. They bring along a fest – apples, wine, and fried chicken – and put that on the bed too. Watch as the Death Bed sucks this food inside it, where it is dissolved inside yellow liquid, while chewing and drinking sounds play on the soundtrack. The movie repeats this gag numerous times, the Bed even downing a bottle of Pepto Bismol at one point! The movie is mostly composed of these inscrutable eating sequences, scenes of people wandering around outside the house, and the narrator expounding drolly on the film’s bizarre mythology.

“Death Bed” not only features unbelievable strange scenes, it also has plenty of moments of absolute hilarity. Most of the laughs come during a lengthy sequence in the middle of the movie, where the narrator details the history of the Death Bed. Thus, we see bad seventies actors pretending to be turn-of-the-century people, having orgies and shagging on the bed. This is not sufficient for the movie, so the actors also voice their thoughts in voice-over. The funniest bits from this montage come when a priest slowly sinks into the bed, more confused then disturbed by what's happening. When some gangster gets eaten, he quietly, monotonously says “I’m being eaten!”

The film’s thinnest wisp of a plot involves three girls milling around the mansion. One of them is being sought by her brother. Anyway, the one girl lays on the bed only to be sucked in. She partially escapes, crawling out of the Death Bed’s maw. The scene of her crawling around on the floor, screaming and bleeding, goes on way too long. That is until one of the bed’s sheets come to life, grabbing her, and pulling her back in! When the surviving girl’s brother catches up with her, he unsuccessfully attempts to stab the bed. All this succeeds in doing is feeding his hands to the bed. Now the actor spends the rest of the film with bone-white skeleton hands sticking out of his sleeves! There’s a lengthy discussion about the bones falling apart. He even has a sex scene, skeleton hands still intact! Once again, I must say, what the fuck?

The Bleeding Skull experience wouldn’t be complete without oddly lyrical moments. “Death Bed” is never good, of course. It simply doesn’t exist on the same level as anything resembling a traditional movie. However, some of its moments are captivating for their oddness. The Death Bed, frustrated by its lack of victims, make the statues outside the house cry tears of blood. One of its victims in the past was a little girl. The only evidence we see of this is a teddy bear, bathed in the yellow juice, bleeding from the neck. After eating one of the women, her skull appears in the garden, roses sprouting from it. The Death Bed can also cause nightmares in those who sleep on it. In her dreams, the one girl is presented with a trey of cockroaches and told to eat them. There’s almost something mythic about the Death Bed’s origin story, describing a demon transforming from a wind to a man with red eyes. It’s not really art but I’m not sure what else to call it.

In conclusion, “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” is just as bizarre as you’ve heard. It’s not for casual film watchers. A movie like this could kill a normal person. It should only be seen by experienced fans of weirdo cinema. There’s no pacing, barely any plot, acting that can charitably be described as “stagy,” and music composed solely of shrieking synth noises. The movie was never released in its time, only being seen when it sneaked on to DVD in 2004. (And Blu-Ray last year, because sometimes God provides.) Even the director doesn’t remember making it. All I can assume is everyone involved during every stage of production was on some fabulous drugs. It’s the only explanation for something so indescribable being conceived, much less completed. Want to see something unlike anything else ever made? Seek out “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.” And then hope and pray that “Rape Stove: The Stove That Rapes” gets made someday. [5?/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Two for the Show

If “Tales from the Crypt” was a bingo game, “infidelity” is a box that would be filled almost every episode. David Paymer plays a husband who discovers that his wife is about to leave him, after revealing that she’s having an affair. Driven into a rage, he strangles and stabs her. The neighbors hear her dying scream and call the cops. The police officer investigates, seemingly unphased. As the husband continues to try to dispose of his wife’s corpse, including stuffing her dismembered body in a trunk and jumping on a train, the cop continues to hound him. He may or may not be on his trail.

“Two for the Show” has a lot of fun messing with audience expectations. How much Officer Fine knows at any given time is constantly in question. At some points, while bumping into the murderer at the train station or sharing dinner with him, you’re certain he knows what’s going on. Other times, like a casual conversation in the train car or the after-dinner babble, you think he’s off base. Watching Paymer sweating nervously under these questions is also a blast. Paymer is greasy enough to buy as a murderer but remains strangely funny and amusing. The way he constantly has to rearrange his plots, sinking the corpse in a bubble bath or dropping the stuffed trunk off the train, is also amusing to watch. The episode has fun holding off these revelations until the last minute, surprising audiences. What also surprises is the twist ending, which I genuinely didn’t see coming. In another shock, the bad guy gets away with his crime at the end! The solid performances and twisty script combine to make “Two for the Show” an especially compelling “Tales from the Crypt” episode. Plus the Crypt Keeper moon-lighting as a crappy stand-up comedian in the host segments? Solid gold. [8/10]

So Weird: Banglebye

“So Weird” returns to the “town with a secret” theme that it revisited so often in seasons one and two. The Philips tour bus drives into a town where the children are unerringly polite. All the kids have straight As at school. They don’t play often outside and, when they do, they let the other kids win. Mostly, the youth seem consumed by a video game called “Banglebye.” Jack and Clu succumb to the game’s wiles. Annie and Clu investigate, finding an old man and his sickly wife at the center of the story.

“Banglebye” isn’t an awful episode, as the terrible title would lead you to expect. Pairing Annie and Clu together as sleuthers is actually kind of fun. It’s not going for thrills or scares so it’s perfectly alright that the villain’s plan is so entirely mundane. That doesn’t stop the script from being hopelessly cornball. Turns out, the old man is a hypnotist and he incorporated those skills into the video game, hypnotizing the children into behaving like Ward Cleaver. (He apparently manufactures the games in his garage.) That’s rather soft and silly but the reasoning is even worst. His wife had a heart attack a few years ago and he doesn’t want any kids bothering her. The resulting paradise has made her incredibly bored. Gee whiz, how nice. The episode even resorts to the swirly eyes as a visual representation of being hypnotized. Alexz Johnson is honestly starting to grow on me but the qualities of scripts this season are still lame. “Banglebye” misunderstands video games, hypnotism, conformity and what constitutes an interesting TV episode. [5/10]