Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 23

Uzumaki (2000)

Though a distinction likely meaningless to most people, Junji Ito is the reigning king in horror manga. His manga include the Lovecraft-influenced “Gyo,” which received an anime adaptation in 2012, and “Tomie,” a comic about an undying seductress which has spawned a long-running film series. Here in the West, his best known work is probably “Uzumaki.” This isn’t because the manga is widely read. It’s not. Instead, “Uzumaki’s” film adaptation gained attention during the early-2000s rush of interest in Asian horror films. At the time, it stood out among hundreds of films about dark-haired ghost girls. Today, “Uzumaki” still stands out for its strangeness and unnerving power.

Set in a rural Japanese village, the film follows a teenage girl named Kirie. Kirie’s concerns are humble at first. She struggles with school work. The boy she likes, a childhood friend, wants to elope. Another boy aggressively hits on her. She still thinks about her dead mother from time to time. These worries seem small compare to what happens next. The village develops an obsession with spirals. Some begin to worship spirals, twisting objects and even their own bodies into the shape. Others become terrified of the spirals, mutilating their bodies rid themselves of the round shape. As the entire village goes mad, only Kirie and her boyfriend seem immune.

From the beginning, “Uzumaki’ presents a world where things feel… Wrong. A green, sea-sick visual palette dominates the movie. The direction is exaggerated from the beginning. When Kirie’s stalker appears, the camera spins around him. Circular burns appear suddenly, for seconds, as if the negative is melting. Occasionally, CGI is used to stretch human features. Sped-up footage, crash-zooms, stop-motion, and dramatic angles are employed. These measures aren’t distracting. Instead, they contribute to “Uzumaki’s” genuinely unnerving tone. From the beginning, something feels wrong with the town. Subconscious spirals are sneaked into multiple scenes. Characters act strangely. Even before the truly crazy shit happens, the town feels otherworldly. I’ve heard “Uzumaki” described as Lynchian. It’s not an undeserved comparison. Like the work of that director, the film frequently feels like a nightmare caught on-screen, absurd and disturbing.

“Uzumaki,” if nothing else, creates some impressive images. The first sign of the impending spiral-related madness occurs when a man obsesses over a spinning pottery wheel. As he stares at it, the camera does at well. Soon, the same man shoves himself into a washing machine, tying his body into a spiral. This gory sight is left unseen. Instead, we merely see Kirie scream and retreat from the washing machine. A boy tosses himself from the top of a spiral staircase, smiling as his brains splatter on the floor. A spiral forms out of the clouds, spiraling downward. Kirie’s stalker leaps in front of a moving vehicle, his body mangled in the wheels, spiraling around the tires. One woman becomes so disturbed by the natural spirals of her fingerprints, she gnaws her finger’s off. Later, her dead husband’s face appears, his tongue tied in a spiral. He convinces her to kill herself, the camera freaking out around her. By the last third, the movie tosses in a girl with giant spirals in her hair or a boy twisting his body around. The last few minutes are nothing but still photos of people twisted into spiral shapes, eerie music playing. It’s freaky.

Like a lot of J-Horror, “Uzumaki” has a relaxed pacing. The film unfolds like a slowly lingering nightmare. This isn’t a bad thing. What is less good is the slap shot focus that comes with it. There’s not much forward-momentum in “Uzumaki.”  A subplot about a reporter investigating the strangeness in the town doesn’t go much of anywhere. Also featured is a teased boy at the school who seems to be changing into a snail. This is featured in one scene before being dropped. The end randomly tosses out that people in the town are morphing into giant snails. You’d think this would have been focused on more. Luckily, the movie has the central performances of Eriko Hatsune as Kirie and Fhi Fan as her boyfriend to center it. Without the disarmingly vulnerable Hatsune or the strangely compelling Fan, the movie would be nothing but a collection of memorable sight gags.

Those who like their horror movies with neat explanation won’t be satisfied by “Uzumaki.” If you like your horror to be more unnerving then visceral, with a heaping helping of ambiguity, you may do well by “Uzumaki.” Though it never quite comes together, the film certainly has a strange atmosphere, one that slowly creeps up on the viewer and unnerves them over time. The lingering power of “Uzumaki” is best exemplified by how many natural spirals I’ve noticed in the room around me while I’ve been writing this review. The ability to take an everyday object and make it sinister… That’s what good horror does. [8/10]

Monstroid (1980)

Out of the Movie Macabre DVDs JD loaned me, three are double feature sets taken from the original eighties run. Of these movies, I’ve seen two before, “Blue Sunshine” and “Gamera: Super Monster.” I reviewed “Gamera: Super Monster” last March. I’ll get to “Blue Sunshine” whenever I do a Jeff Lieberman retrospective. The point of this rambling introduction is: There was one movie left in the Movie Macabre set that I hadn’t seen. I wasn’t intentionally putting off watching “Monstroid” but a part of me suspected it would be a stinker. Boy, was I right. “Monstroid,” alternatively known as “Monster” or “It Came from the Lake,” may be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.

In an obscure Colombian village, a monster rises from the lake and kills a local woman’s husband. The villagers, including a superstitious preacher, marked the woman as a witch and force her out of town. Anyhoo, years later a U.S. cement company builds a factory by the lake. The pollution rouses the monster from its slumber again. The company sends a troubleshooter to investigate the strangeness. Once there, he meets an activist protesting the factory, a pair of kid investigators, a television reporter, a female helicopter pilot, and some other unimportant people.

I’ve never been one to dismiss a movie just because its low budget. Sometimes, locally produced horror movies can have their own charms, giving us a peak at life among the little people. True outsider cinema has its value. “Monstroid” could technically qualify as such. It was produced by nobodies in New Mexico. But “Monstroid” is barely a movie, guys. It’s a collection of characters, chattering about in their own subplots, rarely interacting. There’s long stretches of tedium, events happening with seemingly no effect on anything. The pacing is non-existent, the film feeling like hours. The quality is grainy, dark, hard to follow, with scratchy sound. There’s nothing much to recommend about “Monstroid.” It’s entirely artless.

Occasionally, a monster appears. There’s three or four monster attacks in “Monstroid,” spaced out sparingly over its 98 minute run time. For the first several attacks, the creature is barely visible. We only see a flash of a claw or a briefly glimpsed mouth as it chews on someone. It’s not until the last act when we finally get a good look at the creature. The monster is a stereotypical sea serpent. It’s green, with claws, a long neck, and snake-like eyes. About the only thing really memorable about the critter are a pair of long whiskers or something dangling over its jaws. These just make the creature look like a reptilian walrus. Considering what a low budget production “Monstroid” is, the monster is actually alright looking. I may be looking for bright spots here.

Once again, I revisit my theory that Elvira is a fun horror host during all right movies and absolutely essential during bad ones. Perhaps to contrast against the quality of the film, the skits are rather lively. John Paragon’s Breather calls in and tells a lame joke. Elvira gets struck by cardboard lightening bolts. She reads some fan mail, some of it more positive then others. She tossed pointers at the audience, literally. These are fun if goofy. Probably the most honest host segment is when, after cutting away from the film, Elvira is napping on the couch. I think even late-night perverts watching the show just to admire Cassandra Petersen’s assets fell asleep long before the movie was over.

As amusing as Petersen’s gags are, she can’t do much to salvage “Monstroid.” About the only thing entertaining about the film is that it claims to be based on a true story, despite taking place in a fictional town. No, there’s no explanation for why the movie is called “Monstroid.” The creature neither comes from an asteroid or has hemorrhoids. Movies with those log lines probably would have been more compelling. [2/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Food for Thought

There’s a reason the circus and traveling carnivals lend themselves so well to horror stories. It’s a weird place. “Food for Thought” is set in a disturbed big top. Zambini is a food-obsessed stage magician who abuses his wife. Connie wants to leave him but Zambini’s ability to literally control her thoughts makes that difficult. When she meets the hunky, friendly fire-breather, Connie thinks she’s found a way out. Zambini has different plans.

Reading potential subtext into a “Tales from the Crypt” episode is probably a dog’s errand. Yet this episode seems to liberalize a woman’s inability to walk away from an abusive man, with Zambini’s powers of persuasions. Mostly, the episode is about Ernie Hudson diving into sinister depths he rarely gets to explore. Though definitely overdoing it, Hudson is genuinely unnerving as the tyrannical stage magician. He’s definitely better then Joan Chen as the victim Connie, who is mostly defined by pathetic sadness. Like previous circus set “Tales,” “Food for Thought” has some fun with the setting. I especially like Phil Fondacaro as a friendly dwarf. One scene has him spying on the female conjoined twins while they’re in the shower, an interesting combination of titillation and special effects. Though not a classic, “Food for Thought” is a fun, twisted “Crypt” episode. The host segments feature the Crypt Keeper as a sadistic dentist performing on a less-then-willing patient, which makes for some sick fun. [7/10]

So Weird: Eddie’s Desk

Four episodes into season three and “So Weird” is still stuck in high school. While going into the school basement to find her new desk, Annie sees what appears to be a ghost. Throughout the next few days, weird things begin to happen around the school. Bullies begin to befall embarrassing feat. Annie soon discovers that the ghost she saw isn’t quite what it appears and may have a connection to the grumpy old janitor.

“Eddie’s Desk” is probably the best Annie episode of “So Weird” I’ve seen so far. But it’s still an Annie episode. The first scene mostly foregoes the narration that usually opens episodes. Annie catching a glimpse of the ghost is as spooky as a 15 year old Disney show gets. Annie investigating a mystery, getting a returned Clu to help, brought back memory of the Fiona years. (Fiona puts in a cameo of sorts, via an internet chat.) There’s still a lot of the cornball shit. The ghost targets bullies but in the cheesiest ways. One girl is stuck to a locker by a giant glob of gum. One bully gets splattered with mashed potatoes. Annie eventually discovers that Eddie isn’t a ghost but a doppelganger of the grouchy janitor. She realizes this after the janitor speaks about how crippled his childhood was by bullying. It’s an obvious way to make a point but still mildly effective. The conclusion is corny, Annie talking the school into honoring the janitor’s career which causes his doppelganger to fuse with him. But finally, I didn’t hate Alexz Johnson. Annie seems like a sincere character for the first time. Moreover, the episode ends with the Philips family getting back on the road. So at least we’ll be out of high school from here on. [6/10]

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