Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 24

Them (2006)

“Home invasion” is a term I’ve heard since I was a kid. At some point in the mid-2000s, suddenly it was on the lips of all the newscasters. For a brief period, about six or seven years ago, it seems the home invasion was the most terrifying crime we as a culture could imagine. Either feeding into or as a result of this fear, there was a series of grisly horror/thrillers about that very topic. Movies like “Inside,” the remake of “Funny Games,” and “The Strangers” all came within months of each other. Possibly starting off this trend is “Them,” “Ils” in its native language. The French horror film established the formula many of these movies would follow. Upon release, it received a heap of praise. In the years since, the film has receded from horror fans’ memories. Since I always work at my own pace, I’m just now getting around to “Them” after everyone else has stopped talking about it.

Clementine and Lucas are a young married couple. She is a school teacher and he’s a would-be writer. The two live in a massive home out in the French countryside. It’s just the two of them and a dog neither seems especially attached to. The couple’s peaceful lives are disturbed one dark night. Intruders break into their house in the middle of the night, leaving odd phone calls, cutting the power, and slowly attacking them both. Uncertain of who or even what their attackers are, the two have to survive.

“Ils” earns a lot of good will with its chilling opening scene. A mother and daughter, speaking Romanian, drive down an isolated road. The mother swerves to avoid someone in the middle of the road, striking a telephone pole. The vehicle won’t start and she goes out to investigate. The mother vanishes, leaving the daughter alone to fumble with her broken cellphone, attempting to start the vehicle. This opening is a masterwork in how to build tension and unease. The silence is routinely interrupted by sudden noise, the camera closing in on the isolated person. It’s the entire movie in seconds and “Ils” never quite reaches that fever-pitch of intensity ever again. It comes close. The wife exploring the unfinished basement of the house comes close to scary. A sequence near the end, where the husband chases the intruders through an underground tunnel, his flickering lighter providing the only light, is the second best part of the film. “Ils” frequently has an unnerving atmosphere but during these handful of moments, it becomes genuinely frightening.

The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its setting. Anyone who has spent time in a big house in the middle of nowhere knows the feeling. The sense of unease, knowing there’s no one to help for miles, the fear over how easy it would be for someone to attack. “Ills” illustrates this fear in two sequences. Twice, someone screams from the side of the road. After a vehicle passes, they’re gone, silenced by their attackers. Lucas and Clementine’s cavernous home is a good setting for a horror film. The house is so big, full of similarly-looking hallways, that it seems impossible not to get lost in it. When the protagonists start running through the darkened hallways, pursued by their mysterious attackers, you begin to wonder why anyone would buy a place like this.

An opening title card states that “Them” is based on a true story. At the end, another series of statement follows up on this, showing a police report. None of this is true, of course. Instead, like many horror films before it, “Them” claims to be based on true events order to seem more real. Everything that happens in the film is chillingly plausible. The direction is relatively stripped down, only allowing for a few stylistic flourishes. The sound design is restrained, with relatively little music. Mostly, the attempts at verisimilitude come through the actors. Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen both give naturalistic performances as the husband and wife. Their chemistry is laid-back but believable. The characters are thinly sketched, which makes them either blank slates an audience can easily relate to or entirely dull. Mostly, “Them” wants to capture the feeling of a news report. Instead, it feels like a movie. Which is fine, even if that runs counter to the filmmakers’ goals.

The movie keeps the exact nature of the attackers obscure throughout most of its brief 78 minute run time. At times, the movie teases the possibility that they may be supernatural. The intruders are kept in shadow, looking like an undefined black shape. They appear and disappear with ease. Strange, animal-like noises accompany them. The reveal comes soon enough though. The attackers are revealed to be children, clad in black hoodies. A possibly cheap trick, the film uses the reveal to chilling affect during a few scenes. Such as when the boys are holding Clementine down, attacking her in a way that’s heavily implied to be sexual. Or when the one boy, pretending to be helpful, turns on the couple. Lastly, the film’s final image, of the kids emerging from the forest and cheerfully jumping on a school bus, sure was creepy. It’s likely most will know the twist going into “Them” but the movie makes it work.

The opening scene of “Ils” is so frightening that the rest of the movie kind of pales in comparison. I honestly wonder if it would’ve worked better as a short. The film that follows is still good though, full of grim intensity and several suspenseful moments. Its' chilling finale will certainly leave an impression on viewers. The movie is short too, only a little over an hour, so you won’t waste any time watching it. The directors would be scooped up by Hollywood, make that crappy remake of “The Eye,” and haven’t done much since then. Isn’t that the way it always is? The impact of “Them” has softened some over the years but it still holds up well as a well made, and occasionally terrifying, horror film. [8/10]

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

Among the vintage Movie Macabre DVDs I’m watching this season was one episode from the 2011 version of the show. In case you didn’t know, Cassandra Peterson revived Movie Macabre for a nationally syndicated new season a few years back. Since the movie packages that made horror host programs possible back in the day no longer exists, this new version of Movie Macabre had to subsist on public domain flicks. Among the usual suspects was “Don’t Look in the Basement,” a low budget horror oddity from 1973.

At a secluded mental institution, the doctor’s unorthodox methods allow the disturbed patients to roam free. This goes horribly wrong when some of the inmates murder a nurse. The nurse’s replacement, a young woman named Charlotte, arrives soon afterwards. Charlotte soon realizes how disturbed the asylum residents are. Soon afterwards, she realizes the head nurse may not be what she appears to be.

Crazy people are frequently portrayed on-screen, even outside of the horror genre. Too often, the eccentricities of the mentally ill are made overly cute or funny. “Don’t Look in the Basement” is not cute and not that funny. It’s collection of lunatics seem genuinely unhinged. It’s not so much the writing. The mental patients are basically reduced to gimmicks. There’s a man who thinks he’s a judge, a man-child obsessed with popsicles, a creepy old woman, a nymphomaniac, a woman who thinks a baby doll is alive, a shell-shocked solider, and a guy with a bad haircut. It is the actor’s performances that seem unhinged. Gene Ross sweats and glares as Judge. Bill McGhee sputters in a truly odd way as the man-child. Betty Chandler seems truly desperate and unhinged as the nympho. The old woman is really creepy. Everyone sweats and bares their teeth a lot. If the filmmaker wanted audiences to feel like they just wandered into a real nut house, he succeeded.

Befitting a low budget horror film from the early seventies, “Don’t Look in the Basement” has its fair share of sleaziness. The nymphomaniac takes her top off whenever possible. (Amusingly, this is hastily censored in the Elvira version. I guess on TV you can show all the cleavage you want but actual boobs aren’t allowed.) A moment that is a bit funny but also slightly unnerving occurs when the nympho corners a telephone repairmen in a closest. Yep, there’s a woman-on-man rape in this movie and it’s not played for laughs, not intentional ones anyway. Aside from the actual sex and nudity, there’s a general air of unpleasantness about the film. Like any good grindhouse flick, “Don’t Look in the Basement” feels like it could become a snuff film at any moment. Yes, I mean that as a compliment.

It helps that the film is not an entirely artless bit of cheap exploitation. It’s both cheap and exploitative but not artless, you see. Director S.F. Brownrigg has something of a visual sense. He makes good use of close-ups, frequently cutting to his actors’ deranged faces. The cramped location helps up the tension and air of unease as well. One clever shot at the end foregrounds an unconscious head while a crazy person lurks in the background. As mentioned above, the performances of the insane people are effectively naturalistic. I also like Rosie Holotik as Charlotte, the endangered nurse. Her performance reminds me of Marilyn Burns in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Both panic really well and have a girl-next-door likability to them.

“Don’t Look in the Basement” is the good kind of crazy. Though obviously a down, dirty, and cheap flick, it’s successful in what it sets out to do. Not quite scary but queasy enough that you feel a little greasy afterwards, it’s ideal grindhouse/drive-in material. The film even has enough of a following that a sequel, directed by the original director’s son, is currently in production. The movie pairs well with the Elvira’s segments, which tell some cheesy jokes and gently pokes fun at the flick. For the record, 2011 Elvira is just as hot as 1985 Elvira. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: People Who Live in Brass Hearses

Whenever an ice cream man appears in pop culture, there’s about a fifty percent chance they’ll be evil. Three others I can think off of the top of my head include a mob hitman, a child molester, and an evil clown. “People Who Live in Brass Hearses” doesn’t do much to shake up this preconception. Billy is a former ice cream man who just got of prison. With the help of his idiot man-child brother Virgil, he plans to rob the ice cream distribution center. Virgil’s shenanigans cause the plan to go awry. When they target Mr. Byrd, the ice cream truck driver that convicted Billy, things get even worst.

Like many “Tales” episodes, “People Who Live in Brass Hearses” does not have a cutting edge script. It’s easy to see from the beginning that the brothers’ schemes are going to go horribly wrong. What makes the episode fun is its performances. Bill Paxton plays Billy, bringing lots of greasy, white trash charm to the part. This is Paxton at full force, playing an unhinged crook who oozes sleaziness. Brad Dourif, meanwhile, plays Virgil. The character’s murderous habits are nothing new to Dourif. Yet he instills a weird innocence into the idiot killer, making him weirdly charming. When he does brutally kill people, it seems like an honest mistake on the kid’s behalf. The episode has a last minute twist which is really weird and rather grotesque, adding a nice level of nasty fun to the story. Russell Mulcahy’s direction is purposely ridiculous, with goofy music emphasizing the silliness of the script. The wrap-around segments feature an unexplained football motif, which allows plenty of puns for the Cryptkeeper. [7/10]

So Weird: Voodoo

At the very least, the Philips family is back on the road. While in Louisiana, they stop by and visit some old friends of Annie. Sally and her family are from Jamaica. Molly is there to perform a concert which will raise funds so Sally’s older brother can go to medical school. Soon, Molly and Annie both begin to experience strange things, like a fiery nightmare or the sensation of being drowned. Annie quickly realizes that voodoo may be involved and suspects the spooky woman who lives next door.

“Voodoo” is the first episode in season three that actually tries to be scary. It doesn’t succeed but it tries. The characters are in actual danger. Molly and Annie wake up in the middle of the night, both imagining that their room is on fire. Later, both are overwhelmed by the feeling of drowning. The latter sequence, with its shot of Alexz Johnson’s head diving underwater, generates some mild tension. However, some ill-timed special effects still prevent the episode from really working. The voodoo doll has silly, glowing red eyes. When the doll is dangled out a window, both Annie and Molly feel like they're falling. This is illustrated by Annie seeing a black void at the bottom of the steps and Molly seeing a cliff at the edge of the stage, both overwrought moments. The reveal of who is responsible can be guessed without too much difficulty, as the spooky lady next door is obviously a red herring. The reason why, and the reason why both Annie and Molly are effected, is more interesting. I also like this episode’s song, “What You Do,” even if it ties into the show’s subject far too neatly. This is probably my favorite episode of “So Weird” season three so far, as they’re no thuddingly dumb moments and some heart and thought is put into the story. [6/10]

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