Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 20

The House of the Devil (2009)

Can you believe it's already been six years since “mumblegore” happened? I always objected to the term, hastily applied to the films of Ti West, Adam Wingard, and other directors from Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix production company. The films obviously owed way more to horror from the seventies and eighties than the ponderous mumblecore movement. It’s not like retro-leaning horror was new in 2009. Intentional imitation of eighties classic was the defining style for indie horror before then and continues to be. But if you’re willing to accept “mumblegore” as a genuine movement, “The House of the Devil” seems to be the film that popularized it.

“House of the Devil’s” plot is so minimalistic to the point of almost being nonexistent. Samantha is a college student who doesn’t have the money to pay for the nice apartment she’s moving into soon. Desperate for cash, she takes a babysitting job. When she arrives, Mr. Ulman tells her she’s not sitting a baby but his elderly mother. Despite this sending up a red flag, she stays. Samantha really needs that 400 dollars. Unfortunately for her, she just made herself a target for a Satanic ritual, coinciding with that night’s lunar eclipse.

As I said earlier, many horror films have been made in the last decade that court horror fans by intentionally recalling the classics of the seventies and eighties. “House of the Devil” tries harder than most. Ti West actually shot the movie on 16mm, lending the film murkier colors and a visible grain. He imitates the style of the time, with rushed zooms, slightly off-center framing, and freeze frames. Like all these retro-style horror indies, the film has a throwback soundtrack. Unlike most movies, which settle for some synth and call it a day, Jeff Grace’s score is heavier on Henry Manfredini-esque shrieking strings and creepy dissonance. Most obviously, the movie is set in the early eighties. Samantha’s best friend has a feathered perm. The heroine listens to a Walkman frequently, while wearing hip-hugger jeans. The Fixx, Thomas Dolby, and Greg Kihn all feature on the soundtrack. The story is set among the Satanic Panic, which its’ “this is totally based on a true story, guys” title card references. In short, Ti West doesn’t just give lip-service to the time period. He actually tries.

Mostly, the movie recalls horror films of that time period with its’ incredibly laid-back pacing. Not very much happens in “The House of the Devil.” A middle section is devoted entirely to Samantha hanging out in the house. She watches TV, munches on a candy bar, orders pizza, fiddles with the pool table and tries on a pair of comical glasses. One of the most lively moments in the movie comes during her impromptu dance number to “One Things Leads to Another.” In other words, she’s a bored teenage girl trying to kill some time. By sending the audience so literally on that quest, the film recognizes that its’ going to alienate some viewers. Watching the movie in the middle of the night maybe isn’t advisable, as it almost put me to sleep last time I tried it.

What Ti West is going for is the slow burn. “House of the Devil” has big thrills. A sudden gunshot to the head, attackers suddenly appearing in a home, or the extended Satanic ritual aren’t subtle in the least. The film even employs some cheap jump scares, such as when Sam’s quiet evening is disrupted by the door bell. These come in short bursts. They are sudden, violent intrusions. Instead, the movie sets out to capture the feeling of being in a big, quiet, strange house. It mostly captures that eeriness. The audience, and Samantha too, know something bad is going to happen. Mr. Ulman is off-putting enough to broadcast that. You’re supposed to wait in suspense, knowing it could happen at any minute. West’s direction is a little too laid back to perfectly maintain that. The film straddles the line between “boring” and “tense’ too finely. Yet he pulls it off often enough that it works in the movie’s favor. (West would largely perfect this style with his next movie, “The Innkeepers.”)

The cast is very likable. Jocelin Donahue is the perfect definition of an every-girl. Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov are typically eccentric as the Ulmans. The climax leans on the hand-held shakiness a little too much but that final scene packs a punch. With its’ mixture of slow burn spookiness, retro style, and surprising burst of gore, “The House of the Devil” is well-suited to the Halloween season. Its theatrical release date was October 30th of that year, to further the connection. This is somewhat ironically since the movie is actually set during the winter. You could call it a “love it or hate it” deal. Except I don’t love it, I just like it. And that’s fine. [7/10]

Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974)
Terror! Il castello delle donne maledette

Back in August, the Bangers n’ Mash Show – the Youtube podcast thing I co-host – did an episode devoted to horror hosts. In order to prepare for that show, my co-host loaned me a handful of his Elvira’s Movie Macabre DVDs. But life intervenes and sometimes you don’t have time to watch a bunch of movies. Now that the Halloween season is upon us, it seems like the ideal time to crack those Elvira DVDs back open. The first one to catch my eye is “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks.” I remember reading the title in my early internet days and it’s always stuck with me. A whole castle of Frankenstein-approved freaks? How can you go wrong with that? Pretty easily, it turns out.

Doctor Frankenstein, who is a count here instead of a baron, is up to his old tricks again. He is digging up dead bodies and attempting to bring them back to life. Among his staff are a hunchback, a perverse dwarf, and an otherwise normal dude named Igor. Meanwhile, an extant colony of Neanderthal men lives near-by. One is beaten to death by the locals and Frankenstein sets his eyes on reviving him. The other befriends the dwarf after his deviant behavior gets him ousted from the castle. Meanwhile, the count’s comely daughter, her lover, one of her friends, and more people also flock around the castle.

If the scrambled plot description didn’t make it clear, “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks” is a bit incoherent. The creation of the doctor’s monster takes a back seat for most of the movie. If anything, the script seems most focused on the dwarf and his new caveman friend. The dwarf names the caveman Ook and a long scene is devoted to them eating meat together. Why are their Neanderthals in a Frankenstein movie? That’s a good question! The monster has a crush on Frankenstein’s girlfriend. This is an irrelevant plot point until it isn’t, at the very end. Similarly sloppy are the townsfolk, who spend the whole movie suspecting the doctor of villainous things. Only at the end do they actually do anything about it. The movie even devotes a portion of its run time to the hunchback assistant’s love life! Turns out his girlfriend likes to be slapped around a little. The focus on the character’s sex lives frequently makes the movie feel like a bad soap opera. Mostly, the story is a collection of unrelated plot points, randomly colliding at different times throughout the movie.

“Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks” seems to exist primarily for exploitation’s sake. Being an Italian horror film from the seventies, there’s quite a bit of nudity and sex. The perverted dwarf is, naturally, a voyeur. He spies on the count’s daughter as she slips into a bath. Inside a cave – about half the movie takes place inside various caves – is a natural hot spring. Naturally, Frankenstein’s daughter and love interest go for a nude dip in the water, as observed by the dwarf. The dwarf’s perversion includes necrophilia, as he molests a corpse in the first scene, and rape, as he abducts a village girl just to fondle her. Another one of the doctor’s assistants dismisses the dwarf for his behavior. However, the other assistant is just as naughty. He spies on the daughter as she has sweaty, lusty sex with her boyfriend. Considering there’s very little violence in the film, I think the T&A really was the selling point here.

This poster is way cooler than anything that happens in the movie.
Unless you’re looking for an especially sleazy Italian monster pic, there’s little to recommend about “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks.” The film actually has a decent cast, as far as these things go. Rossano Brazzi plays the doctor, spending most of the movie writing in a journal. Michael Dunn, best known for playing Dr. Loveless on the original “Wild Wild West,” is the dirty dwarf. His wide-eyed performance shows he put some thought into the movie, which was released a year after Dunn’s death. Spaghetti western actor Gordon Mitchell plays Igor but contributes nothing to the movie. The film also features a fight between Frankenstein’s Monster and a caveman which is worth something, I guess. The musical score is also really bizarre, as the caveman’s theme sounds like a symphony of farts.

Out of the Movie Macabre episodes I’ve seen, Elvira can vary from irritating to amusing. When the movie is good, her skits can be distracting. When the movie is bad, her bits can greatly improve the viewing experience. A movie like “Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks” definitely needs Elvira’s wise cracks to make it watchable. This episode’s reoccurring gag about building the perfect man got a chuckle out of me. As for the movie itself, it seems to have some fans among trash-horror fans. I’m a genuine fan of Bleeding Skull-style insanity but, come on guys, this one is just a mess. [3/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Death of Some Salesman

Just hearing the “Tales from the Crypt” theme music and watching that incredible opening immediately gets me in the Halloween mood. In the season five premiere, Judd Campbell is the sleaziest of con artist, who cheats recent widows out of their savings with a phony cemetery plot scheme. Campbell thinks he's struck a gold mine when he comes to the Brackett house, home to a redneck brood that is seemingly loaded. Turns out, the Bracketts are backwoods rednecks of the murderous variety and turn the tables on Judd. His best bet at surviving is seducing Winona, the family’s grotesque daughter.

I love how “Tales from the Crypt” got reasonably respected actors to appear in purposely sleazy material. “Death of Some Salesman” begins with an extend sex scene between Ed Begley Jr. and some naked actress. The episode has the ideal “Tales” balance of tongue-in-cheek humor, nasty gore, and bad people getting their comeuppance. Begley really gives a twofold performance, as he’s playing a deplorable conman and the kind outside appearance the conman puts up. Meanwhile, the episode brilliantly cast Tim Curry as every member of the Brackett family. Curry, the quintessential British ham, may seem oddly cast as a deprived hillbilly, much less three. Hidden under fantastically convincing make-up, he stretches his recognizable voice in different directions, creating three distinct characters. The daughter, with her hunchback and her hacking cough, allows Curry to go gleefully over-the-top. The episode is rather creatively directed by Gilbert Adler and is frequently funny, such as when Begley has to prove his “love” to Winona. You can see the ending coming a mile away but, then again, this is “Tales from the Crypt.” The slime balls always get what’s coming to them.

Also, don’t listen to those mean people on Tumblr, Crypt Keeper. Your puns are great! I especially love this episode’s Home Shopping Network style framing device. Imagine remaking this story in 2015. Would the salesman be an internet spam fraudster? [8/10]

So Weird: Lightning Rod

For the last two Halloween seasons, I’ve been watching “So Weird,” a Disney Channel drama about the paranormal. Back in the late nineties, I was a fan and found the first two seasons held up surprisingly well. For the third season, the show underwent an extensive retooling. Disney balked at the show’s dark tone and Cara DeLizia, the lead, exited the series. Annie, a new protagonist played by minor Canadian pop star Alexz Jonhson, was brought in. All on-going storylines were dropped and the show’s tone was considerably softened. Even as a kid, I remember hating the radical changes. I debated not continuing with “So Weird.” Like Fiona Philips though, curiosity has gotten the best of me. Will season three of “So Weird” be as bad as I remember? I guess I’ll find out.

Fiona and the rest of her family are back in their home town of Hope Springs, while Molly prepares for her next tour. Molly’s old pal Lisa and her teenage daughter Annie drop by. Fi and Annie immediately strike up a friend. Bricriu, the malevolent fey Fi has tangled with before, also reappears. Trapping the spirit on her computer, the fairy demands Fiona read a spell from her witch aunt’s book. When she refuses, Fi’s family transform into animals and objects, leaving the two girls to investigate.

“Lightning Rod” is in the awkward position of introducing a new lead character while writing out the previous one. The script goes out of its way to make Annie likable. She’s introduces as a ball of teenage energy. Her interest in music connects her with Molly. Her unexplained link to the paranormal connects her with Fi. She has incredible luck, an innate understanding of the esoteric coming to her. Alexz Johnson has some peppy energy but lacks the depth of Cara Delizia. Fi’s justification for dropping her intense interest in the supernatural is quickly shoved in at the episode’s end. The actor voicing Bricriu lays on an incredibly fake Irish accent. The episode’s threat – which has the rest of the cast turning into bunnies, ducks, or flowers – is pretty soft while also recalling “Shelter,” a previous episode. If this was one of the goofy middle season 2 episodes, “Lightning Rod” would probably fare fine. As a season premiere, it can’t support the baggage of writing out a major character while slotting in her replacement. [6/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I saw "The House of the Devil" back in 2011. I didn't like it. Here's what I wrote at the time...

I understand that this is supposed to be a clever tribute or throwback to the cult horrors of 1980's cinema. I see that most critics are praising its slow build-up of suspense and its sudden but brief payoff. I get it. But this movie is beyond slow. The first surprise takes over 30 minutes to happen and then the viewer waits another 40 minutes before the "babysitter" experiences any palpable fear.
The final 15 minutes are not really anything original, either, and features a final shot that frustrates even more.