Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

"The Strangers" looks interesting. I'm adding it to my watch list. Thanks!