Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 21, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 21

Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)

As a kid, my mother would never let me rent any of the Ernest movies because she thought they were “too stupid.” Unlike a lot of “too stupid” things that my mother blocked from me, like “Ren and Stimpy,” there’s nothing morally objectionable about the Ernest series. Yes, they are dumb but they are about as kid friendly as you can get. I didn’t see “Ernest Scared Stupid” until it had already acquired a reputation as some sort of ironic, nostalgic cult favorite. It’s not too surprising that “Ernest Scared Stupid” would acquire a following, with the way it mixes a light horror atmosphere, kid movie troupes, and ridiculous physical comedy.

One hundred years ago, the residents of Briarville, Missouri buried the evil troll lord Trantor under an oak tree. As he was being sealed up, Trantor cursed the man who defeated him. His ancestors would grow increasingly stupid. The most recent ancestor is idiot man-child Ernest P. Worrell. While building a tree house for his young friends on Halloween Eve, Ernest accidentally unleashes Trantor. The troll sneaks through town, turning children into wooden dolls, in order to power the birth of his own troll brood. Teaming up with an eccentric old woman, Ernest becomes the unlikely hero of the town, fighting against the troll army.

A reason “Ernest Scared Stupid” continues to appeal to college stoners is that it’s not merely a Halloween-themed kid’s comedy but an actual horror movie for kids. With a few adjustments, it’s easy to imagine the film as a straight-up horror movie. Like a slasher villain, Trantor pursues his victims, picking them off one-by-one. One surprisingly spooky segment has the troll appearing suddenly in a little girl’s bed, attacking her. The troll can also assume his victim’s voices, which is also mildly creepy. Consider the way the monster targets children, abducting them off dark streets. Their parents wonder the next day where they are, frightened and concerned. It’s difficult not to see the troll as a metaphorical child molester. The trolls are given the goofy weakness of milk. But consider this: Milk is directly addressed as a symbol of motherhood, via the unspoken connection of breast milk. So it’s kind of like a kid-friendly version of “Rawhead Rex,” with a masculine monster being defeated by a feminine symbol. Some critics at the time wondered if the film was too scary for kids. I don’t buy that, as the Chiodo Brothers-designed trolls are too goofy looking to be unnerving. However, the movie has a surprising amount of meat on its bones for horror fans.

I can see how Ernest P. Worrell’s antics could grate on a parent. However, the movie is surprisingly funny at times. Jim Varney was a talented physical performer, with the ability to stretch his face and voice in all sorts of amusing ways. A reoccurring gag has Varney assuming different characters in quick-cut montages. There’s another gag about the local department store owner, willing to sell someone anything they want for a marked-up price. Though mad cap, these scenes generate some chuckles. The script is surprisingly willing to embrace the absurd, Varney delivering ridiculous dialogue through his husky voiced persona. Sometimes though, goofiness transcends all age brackets. When Ernest is fighting the troll in the back of his truck, trading silly barbs, while his dog drives… Look, I’m not made of stone, you guys. That shit is funny. It’s not sophisticated or anything. Yet Jim Varney was a hugely amiable comedic presence and the script has a decent balance of plain ol’ dumb and knowingly ridiculous.

The kids’ movie stuff can be a bit tedious. Austin Nagler as Kenny is too gee-whiz-aw-shucks. The kids in general are a little too sickeningly sweet. There’s an uninspired subplot about a bully pushing Kenny around. Naturally, he learns a lesson before the end. There’s another lesson about the unconditional love of a child that doesn’t amount too much. Some of Ernest’s antics veer a little too obnoxiously kiddy, such as him setting up a trap for trolls or being stuck in his own garbage truck. (Even then, there’s a weird gag about him talking to a baby doll.) Circular dialogue about the Bosnian and Ottoman Army is inexplicable. The last act, when Ernest and Kenny are blasting the trolls with milk, goes on way too long. Though only running 91 minutes, that still feels a little long for this kind of material.

Though definitely a kid’s flick, the humor is wacky enough to appeal to everyone. The horror elements, though obviously tame, are strong enough to catch genre fans’ attentions. The effects are pretty good, Eartha Kitt has an amusing supporting part, and the movie is reasonably well-made. The opening credits were interesting enough to receive an Art of the Title page. So I’m not alone, people like this one. My mother wasn't exactly right about this one. Oh, it's stupid all right. But I don't think its too stupid. It's just the right amount of stupid. [7/10]

Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973)

I have a couple of blind spots in my horror fandom education. I’ve never been able to get into Italian cannibal flicks. I haven’t explored giallo much beyond the most famous examples. I don’t know much about Mexican horror. And then there’s Spanish horror, specifically the films of Paul Naschy. Though Naschy’s films are frequently criticized for their low production values, he definitely has a following as a monster movie auteurs. I’ve never seen a single one of his movies before. Among the “Movie Macabre” DVDs I’m watching this season is an episode devoted to “Count Dracula’s Great Love.” In addition to being Naschy’s stab at Dracula, it also seems to be regarded as one of his better works. Sounds like a good place to start.

A carriage of five people, four young women and one doctor, ride through the treacherous Borgo Pass. The doctor explains to them about the local legend of Dracula and the near-by asylum owned Dr. Marlowe. Soon, the carriage looses a wheel and the driver is kicked to death by the horse. The group has to take shelter in Dr. Marlowe’s home. Unbeknownst to them, Marlowe is actually Count Dracula himself. The Count is hoping to complete an arcane ritual to resurrect his daughter. In order to do so, he must make some female vampire servants, collect the blood of a virgin, and… Have a mortal woman willingly fall in love with him.

Paul Naschy seemed to have been a big monster kid at heart. His most famous character was a wolfman very much in the Lon Chaney mold. Aside from Dracula, he also played Frankenstein, a mummy, and a hunchback. “Count Dracula’s Great Love” certainly owes a lot to Hammer Studios. The actresses wear elegant dresses and nightgowns with plunging necklines. The locations are creaky castles at night, colorful forests, and vaguely European villages. Considering he was working with less money, Naschy does a good job of replicating the Hammer look. There’s a certain moodiness to the movie that I like. Director Javier Aguirre occasionally creates a memorable shot. One that sticks out to me is one of the girls fleeing through a tunnel, shot in spooky blacks and blues. A sexy dream sequence is shown in inverted colors. Naschy and his director had a solid grasp on the gothic horror look. The movie manages to make people wandering dark halls with candlesticks sort of creepy. An especially clever moment has Dracula and his great love's mingling reflected in a mirror, minus the Count.

Though his heart clearly belonged to the classic horror flicks of years past, Paul Naschy also wasn’t above giving the audience what they wanted. “Count Dracula’s Great Love” features plenty of T&A. The film rarely misses an oppretunity to get one of its female stars naked. Dracula seduces one girl, leading to a fairly steamy sex scene. There’s at least two more love scenes, both as explicit as this one. At one point, the women take a nude dip in a pool, swimming around and showing off. At one point, the lady vampires capture a young village girl. They strip her nude, biting and sucking her blood. “Count Dracula’s Great Love” is also far more violent then any classic horror movie. The vampires’ bites always leave a trail of blood. In the opening scene, a robber gets a hook in the face. The sacrificial virgin is whipped repeatedly before being bled over a grave. The sex and gore makes the movie half classic horror riff and half sleazy exploitation flick.

In her host segments, Elvira refers to the movie as a turkey and generally doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of it. While I generally like the film, it’s not the most spotless production. The movie was obviously made very cheaply. The sets are limited. The cast is small. The Movie Macabre version is dubbed and rather badly too. The filmmaker clearly knew how to handle a low budget and it doesn’t affect the movie too much. The cheesiness, however, is a little harder to swallow. The movie opens with a heaping helping of exposition, about Dracula and the doctor. The plot bends and twists, going off in different directions without much concern for coherence. By the end, the film seems to have abandoned regular dialogue. Dracula communicates mostly in voice-over. One moment that reminds me a lot of the cinema of Jean Rollin has the Dracula’s vampire brides leaping onto a fence, which was obviously achieved by rolling the footage backwards. If you’re looking for some silliness with your monster movie, “Count Dracula’s Great Love” has that too.

While I don’t plan to immediately run out and buy every Paul Naschy film, I enjoyed “Count Dracula’s Great Love.” Naschy and his team’s obvious respect for the troupes of classic horror go a long way. While the “Dracula searching for his true love” angle never truly succeeds, it certainly brings a unique edge to the material. As for the Elvira segments, there’s a cute cooking show skit midway through. Cassandra Peterson’s quips and one-liners are mildly amusing, even if she didn’t seem to like the movie much. In short, this was a good time. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: As Ye Sow

With its second season five episode, “Tales from the Crypt” returns to its favorite subject: Infidelity! Leo’s devoutly Catholic wife refuses to have sex with him. Because of this, he’s convinced she must be cheating on him. When his first private detective fails to tell him what he wants to hear, Leo sneaks out an even sleazier P.I. This guy convinces Leo that, not only is his wife cheating on him, she’s cheating on him with her priest! Driven by his own paranoia and enraged with jealousy, he seeks out desperate measures.

Plot wise, there’s nothing in “As Ye Sow” that we haven’t seen before. The plot has a lot in common with season two’s “Three’s A Crowd,” just for one. The plot of a man driven to murder by his wife’s suspected infidelity is routine around these part. What makes the episode worth seeing is Hector Elizondo’s unhinged performance. He sweats, fumes, shouts, and grimaces uncontrollably. His imaginings of his wife’s sex life are lurid enough to drive him up the wall. This is mostly Hector’s show, as the other actors aren’t given much to do. Adam West’s part is basically a cameo. Miguel Ferrer’s part is a cameo, uncredited even. There are other things to like about the episode. Kyle MacLachlan’s direction is stylish, matching the overheated protagonist’s fevered mind. I genuinely didn’t see the twist ending coming and it puts a strong exclamation point on the episode’s end. I also enjoyed the Crypt Keeper’s good-nature jab at Howard Stern in the wrap-around sequences. It’s a good, not great, episode but strongly representative of how entertaining this show could be. [7/10]

So Weird: Talking Board

Despite Molly’s daughter, Jack’s sister, and Clu’s childhood friend moving away, things seem to be acclimating in the Philips household. Annie has moved into Fiona’s room and everyone seems to be adapting to her presence. A friend of Annie’s brings a talking board – better known as a Ouija board or ghost board – over. The girls are only messing around but the board game seems to be delivering genuine predictions. When they start to come true the next day at school, Annie gets freaked out.

Disney wanted lowered stakes for season three of “So Weird” and they got ‘em. When Annie asks about her first day at school, the board quizzically tells her “Chad.” This isn’t a person’s name but instead the name of the country she gets assigned to do a report on. The complete sincerity with which the episode treats this revelation is hilarious. Later, the board predicts which classroom she’ll be in. Oh no! The most dramatic thing that happens is when the talking board tells Annie a disaster at school is coming. This ends up being a collapsing set of bleachers, which seems unlikely to seriously hurt anyone. The script is silly, melodramatic, and overblown. Alexz Johnson still can’t fill Cara DeLizia’s shoes, as her wide-eyed performance lacks Cara’s pathos. The episode also lays the foundation for Annie’s stupid myth arc, something about a mystical panther spirit guardian. Who cares. If this is an example of what season three is like, this is going to be rough. [5/10] 

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