Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 26

The Day of the Triffids (1963)

Anybody who has done the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” midnight experience will be familiar with the quote “What the fuck is a Triffid?” Fans of British sci-fi can answer that question easily. “Day of the Triffids,” both John Wyndham’s original book and the 1963 film adaptation, are considered classics on that side of the Atlantic. The story is so beloved that it’s been adapted multiple times since then, both on screen and on radio. To American ears, ‘triffid’ is just a silly word. So what the fuck is a triffid? It’s a large, crawling plant monster armed with a stinging tendril that eats human flesh. That such a weird monster could become an icon in Britain but remain obscure in America shows the different sensibilities between the two countries’ horror fans.

The world is excited by the announcement that a colorful meteor shower is going to light up the night sky. Hundreds gather to watch the spectacular light show. It’s something that Bill, a sailor who is recovering from a sight-impairing accident, can’t enjoy. Bill’s stay in the hospital ends up saving him. The glare of the meteors blind everyone who looks at them, plunging the world into massive chaos. Worst then that, the meteors bring the Triffids with them. The deadly plants quickly begin to attack the blind populace. Bill soon discovers other individuals still able to see, attempting to survive a far deadlier world.

Most movies would be satisfied with only a global plague of blindness or killer plant monsters alone. “Day of the Triffids” feels the need to toss in both. In the novel, the two events aren’t even correlated. In Wyndham’s book, the killer triffids are a domesticated plant species, possibly engineered by Soviet scientists. The worldwide blindness only provides the oppretunity for them to take over. Though purists complain about this difference, I think making the triffids a result of the meteor storm makes way more sense. Further conflicting matters is that “Day of the Triffids” is far more effective when focusing on the blinded world. Bill awaking in a deserted hospital is an eerie sight. Similarly uncanny is the heroes traveling through empty, abandoned streets. One scene at a crowded, confused train station climaxes with the train crashing, people groping about in pain. Later, some rowdy convicts invade the sanctuary Bill and his friends have founded. They make the women dance and assault many more off-screen. These scenes convey a proper sense of panic. The movie does a good job of showing how dangerous and frightening a world suddenly without sight would be. It honestly makes you wonder why the plant monsters were needed at all.

So about the triffids… I suspect John Wyndham started with the idea of venom-whipping, flesh-eating vegetables before realizing only a sightless planet could be threatened by such a thing. The triffids move incredibly slowly, lumbering forward on four stubby root-like legs. Even their poison-dipped tendril whips have short ranges. They have no real intelligence, only moving towards sound. Because blinding the entire planet wasn’t enough, some of the movie’s characters are incredibly dumb. It takes Bill the entire film to realize triffids, being fauna, burn very easily. The film’s presentation of triffids doesn’t help matters. The camera zoom in on the creature’s faces, the musical score blaring. The plant beasts are played by men in suits, which is all too obvious in a few shots. It’s all slightly goofy. Despite this, the triffids are still occasionally an effective movie monster. They make a creepy buzzing noise. The image of the triffids shuffling out of the fog is spooky enough. Like the modern zombie, the triffids only become truly dangerous when in huge packs. The plants bursting through the wall, descending on the flailing people inside, is a genuinely intense sight. Compared to another icon of British sci-fi – the even more ridiculous, equally immobile Daleks – the triffids come off even better.

In addition to favoring ridiculous titles – other stories of his include “Chocky,” “The Midwich Cuckoos,” and “Jizzle” – John Wyndham is also widely credited with popularizing the cozy catastrophe. The plague of blindness allows Bill and the little girl he befriends to travel the world. Within the span of the film, he drives his car from Great Britain to France and Spain. I guess traffic wouldn’t be a problem in a world where no one can see. In France, he finds a pleasant country mansion occupied by beautiful women. There, he begins a daily routine of farming and foraging. This seems surprisingly nice. If it wasn’t for the rampaging convicts, Bill and company could have lived there for a while. Later, the group finds a similar home in the Spanish countryside, where they can make coffee and listen to the radio. After an electric fence is set up, the triffids don’t even pose that much of a threat. This shows that end-of-the-world stories have always allowed for a certain amount of wish fulfillment. We don’t want to see society collapse but there’s something tantalizing about starting over and leaving all the complications of the modern world behind.

Another weird thing “Day of the Triffids” does is add a completely unrelated subplot. While Howard Keel and friends survive on the mainland, Janette Scott and her alcoholic scientist husband hang out in a lighthouse. They are also beset by triffids. One manages to sneak inside the lighthouse when no one is looking, an impressive feat for such a slow-moving creature. Scott has got a hell of a scream, which she uses several times. Kieron Moore as her husband is way too prickly to be likable. Their conflict doesn’t generate much interest. When a horde of triffids invade the lighthouse is the only time the subplot gets very interesting. It never connects with the rest of the story, which makes its inclusion rather perplexing. Until the very end, when the scientist starts blasting the plants with a salt water hose. This turns out to be the monsters’ weakness, the news spreading quickly and the catastrophe ending. Yeah, the movie pulls that resolution out of nowhere. A more vague, apocalyptic solution would’ve been preferable, especially since most of the planet’s population is still blind.

The somewhat goofy monsters and the occasional bullshit revelation aside, “Day of the Triffids” is fairly successful. As a post-apocalyptic story, it works very well. As a contrived monster movie, it’s sometimes still effective, despite itself. The cast is a bit dull, the musical score overdone, and the script is contrived. Still, it worked for me more often then not. And at least I now know what the fuck a triffid is. [7/10]

The Alligator People (1959)

I’ve got a memory about “The Alligator People.” As a twelve year old, I suddenly fell in love with the original version of “The Fly.” Not long before, 20th Century Fox reissued that movie on DVD and VHS, as part of a package of late fifties/early sixties sci-fi. Also included in that selection was “The Alligator People.” The movie has always stuck in my mind and so did that poster image of an alligator-headed man. Further keeping my interest was the movie’s reputation as the most minor of minor classics. Well, a decade later, I’ve finally gotten a chance to see “The Alligator People.”

Paul and Joyce are a newly married couple, heading off to their honeymoon. That’s when Paul gets a mysterious phone call and suddenly disappears. For years afterwards, Joyce looks for her husband. This journey takes her to Paul’s childhood home in the alligator-infested swamps of New Orleans. Strange experiments are seemingly going on in the house. Hooded men are paroled around secret rooms. A man with a terrible skin condition sneaks in to play the piano at night. The hooked-handed groundskeeper gets increasingly creepy. Joyce soon realizes that Paul is still around, the result of Dr. Sinclair’s unnatural experiments.

That I would see “The Alligator People” because of “The Fly” is appropriate. The film was cheaply, quickly produced to fill out a double bill top-lined by “Return of the Fly.” The two movies share a few similarities. Both feature men transformed into half-animal monsters by strange experiments. Most importantly, both are monster movie romances of sorts. Beverly Garland is so devoted that she searches for her husband for years. When she discovers he’s a half-human, half-alligator monster, she continues to love him. Mostly, “The Alligator People” is characterized by some Southern gothic melodrama. Among the dilapidated swamp mansion, the house’s owner prevents Garland from leaving her room. Garland leaves the house in a rainstorm, stumbling over alligators. Lon Chaney’s gator-hating Cajun drags her into his hut, attempting to put the moves on her. Chaney’s unhinged performance provides plenty of entertainment value to the flick. This overheated writing adds to the fun of the movie.

Here’s another thing “The Alligator People” has in common with “The Fly:” Both are early examples of the body-horror genre. Paul’s transformation starts with green scales spreading on his face. Paul’s agony is made obvious by his strangled voice. Other alligator people have a similar effect. In order to hide their appearances, the deformed men wear concealing white hoods with flat fronts, an oddly memorable choice. For that matter, the mutants being ushered in and out of secret rooms reminds me of “Curse of the Fly.” The film’s bayou setting also contributes some sweaty atmosphere. The actors interacting so clearly with real life alligators – even if a few have obvious ties around their jaws – is fun too.

“The Alligator People” ambles along at a pleasant pace, if a bit slowly. In the end, Paul stands under the radioactive lights that create the alligator people in the first place. That’s when Lon Chaney storms in, incredibly drunk. (His character is drunk too.) He punches out the scientist and wrecks the control panel. Now, Paul’s transformation continues unabated. He transforms into a real Alligator Man, the head of an alligator on scaly human shoulders. At this point, “The Alligator People” transforms from comfy classic horror picture to lovably silly creature feature. Chaney dies via accidental hook electrocution. The monster effects are not convincing. The alligator mouth moves stiffly. The scales on his chest appear to be a rubber shirt the actor is wearing, as it clearly creases at the elbow. Now a monster, Paul wrestles with a real gator before sinking into quicksand, Beverly Garland screaming her lungs out. Wow. What an ending!

“The Alligator People” is a perfect piece of fluffy monster movie action. Its overheated story, melodramatic performances, mad scientist thrills, black-and-white atmosphere, and crunchy creature effects are bound to appeal to any monster kid. It’s a must for Lon Chaney fans and a high-light of his later years. Beverly Garland fans will probably consider it essential as well. And classic monster movie fans who don’t expect much will likely get a kick out of it. I sure did! [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: House of Horror

Every year, it seems like you hear about some fraternity hazing or pledge ritual gone horribly wrong. “House of Horror” is an episode about such an incident. Les Wilton is a fraternity jack-ass who lords over the new pledges. He has them perform humiliating duties like scrubbing the frat house floor in their underwear or lick dogshit from his boots. The ultimate pledge ritual is a tour through a haunted house. The axe-wielding ghost of a coughing old man is said to reside in there, swinging his blade at anyone who approaches. It’s all a hoax, of course, generated by the frat boys. But then strange things begin to happen and the horror may be real.

“House of Horror” has got a dynamite premise. Who wouldn’t want to see some obnoxious frat boy assholes murdered by an axe-wielding ghost? However, the one tries to pack in too many ideas. There are more characters then your usual “Tales” episode. Aside from Les, a massive asshole convincingly brought to life by Kevin Dillon, and Waters, the nerdy hero played by Keith Coogan, none of the characters get much development. This is despite notable talent in the cast, like Michael DeLuise, Jason London, or self-aggravating nerd icon Wil Wheaton. The haunted house, which is a captivating place from what we see, is mostly seen from the outside. There’s another subplot about a sorority, lead babe Mona taking bets on who will make it out of the house. This pays off at the end but mostly distracts from the main story. Director Bob Gale – better known as Robert Zemeckis’ writing partner – has some visual flare but other scenes are rather flat. He wouldn’t direct much after this. Mostly, “House of Horror” should’ve been a simple story of nerds taking revenge on their frat boy torturer. Instead, it goes in another less satisfying direction. [6/10]

So Weird: Rewind

The Philips family tour bus stops into an old recording studio, famous for being the place where many famous musicians recorded their last songs. While there, inspiration strikes Annie. She quickly writes a song and, with encouragement from Molly, decides to record it. The studio manager has a daughter, a musical prodigy who can seemingly play any instrument by ear. When musicians come into the studio, they loose their musical abilities while the daughter gains another. Could something fishy be going on here? And is Annie’s voice next?

“Rewind” is another episode devoted to boosting Annie. Alexz Johnson’s real aspirations as a pop star resurface. A long sequence is devoted to her singing. The other characters compliment her voice and song writing, despite “Never Give Up” being a generic pop song. (I guess Alexz’ voice is okay though it’s not especially distinctive.) Annie’s myth-arc is delved into. We discover a magical black panther protects her, which possibly steams from witnessing a native ritual while in the Amazon. This subplot is forced in, barely connecting with the rest of the story. Screen time is sacrificed for this, which means many elements of the main plot go unexplained. How can the mother steal people’s abilities? How can the daughter absorb them? Is the equipment magical or are they witches? We never find out. That the main story goes undeveloped is disappointing since Britt Irvin, as the daughter, has talent and energy. Once again, the more “So Weird” works to make Annie interesting, the less compelling she becomes. [4/10]

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