Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 28, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 28

Deranged (1974)
Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile

There are few crimes more fascinating in American history then those committed by Ed Gein. Double murderer, grave robber, and all around ghoul, Gein has proved irresistible to horror writers. Maybe it’s because his antics were uniquely gruesome, his behavior truly pathological, and his psychosis so perfectly demented. Gein has inspired some of cinema’s most unnerving serial killers, despite not classifying as a serial killer himself. The same year Leatherface’s chainsaw roared on-screen, another film based on Gein appeared in movie theaters. “Deranged” is frequently overlooked but may be the movie that most accurately captures Gein’s madness.

In his small Wisconsin home town, not many people notice Ezra Cobb. He’s a quiet man who keeps to himself and his only friends are his neighbors. Ezra is devoted to his elderly mother, a religious puritan who often expounded on the evils of drink, women, and sex. But mama has been dead for a while now. Ezra misses her. So much he digs her up, reconstructing her body with pieces from other corpses. Soon, the dead bodies he uncovers and desecrates aren’t enough to satisfy Cobb’s deviant desires.

Ezra Cobb is played by Roberts Blossom, who is known to a whole generation as the kindly if outwardly-creepy neighbor in “Home Alone.” Blossom gives one of the most singularly weird performances I’ve ever seen. He stares with his clear blue eyes, rarely blinking. His body language is stiff and mechanical, as if Ezra doesn’t entirely know how to act like a human being. He speaks in short, abbreviated sentences. The combination of his body language and facial expressions makes Cobb a truly unnerving character. This is most obvious when Ezra has to interact with normal people, his off-putting behavior showing stronger in contrast. Yet Blossom’s Cobb isn’t just incredibly weird. The character displays a quiet cunning, lying his way out of situations and plotting ways to capture his victims. The moments when he talks to his deceased mother or tries to have a romantic evening with his latest capture, Blossom’s performance really shines. It would have been easy to turn Cobb into a cartoon. Blossom makes him a fully formed human being, without minimizing his bizarre behavior.

What most impresses me about “Deranged” is how fully it takes us into the disturbing world of Ezra Cobb. Or, more accurately, Ed Gein. The parallels are obvious. Ezra’s nickname, “Ez,” even sounds a lot like “Ed.” Much of the film is set inside Cobb’s farmhouse. We see him casually decorate with skulls or bones. He cuts face-masks off of old corpses. He makes a drum and drumstick from bones and flesh. The pacing doesn’t have much forward-momentum, the film functioning primarily as a character study. The movie only explores Cobb’s motivations slightly. The effect his mother’s beliefs had on him are established but his specific obsession with dead flesh is taken as it is. “Deranged” is a relaxed, sometimes naturalistic, exploration of a sick man’s disturbing world.

Surprisingly, “Deranged” is not as sensationalistic as its subtitle, “Confessions of a Necrophile,” would lead you to believe. Honestly, it’s most disturbing scene is not Cobb’s murders but his mother’s death, as she bleeds into her pea soup. Gein’s infamous skin suit only puts in one brief appearance though it’s a very memorable one. A lengthy sequence in the film shows him capturing a female victim and taking her home. (And, yes, the woman is in her underwear for the entire scene.) However, the film is more focused on her reaction to Ezra’s weird life then her suffering or eventual death. Truthfully, “Deranged” goes off the rails a little when it starts to focus on Cobb’s/Gein’s murders. The details of the last girl’s murder, her naked body strung up and bled out, are played more for stark horror then cheap thrills. The last act is slightly protracted, as his latest victim escapes and sends him on a chase through the woods. This, combined with the movie’s sudden ending, suggests the writers maybe ran out of ideas.

It seems realism, not exploitation, was the goal of “Deranged.” Occasionally, a reporter will appear and address the audience directly. Sometimes, the movie even plays its’ subject for grim laughs. When Cobb attempts to romantically court an eccentric woman, and she puts on a séance, “Deranged” becomes a weird comedy of sorts. All of this eventually combines to make “Deranged’s” overall tone even stranger. Unlike later attempts to tell Ed Gein’s story, like the melodramatic “In the Light of the Moon” or the grimy “Butcher of Plainfield,” “Deranged” is honest, weird, unnerving, genuinely horrific, and headlined by an unforgettable performance. See it! [8/10]

The Creeping Terror (1964)

I’ve been open about my love for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” over the years. Just look at Halloweens of years past. Any time I review a film lampooned on the show, I usually embed clips from the MST3k version below. While I understand some being bitter about the show birthing a culture of people who snark over all movies, whether they deserve them or not, you can’t deny MST3k’s contributions to the world. Firstly, it’s brought some truly bizarre film oddities to the public’s attention. The giddy heights of the Showa “Gamera” films, the real underground strangeness of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” or the trashy hilarity of “Mitchell” may have been forgotten without the show. Take, for example, “The Creeping Terror.” The film is equal parts schlock fest, microbudget weirdness, and cinematic endurance test, the kind of shit midnight movie marathons are made of.

It’s tempting to say the behind-the-scenes story of “The Creeping Terror” is more interesting than the actual movie. Reading about how the extraordinarily named director/producer/star Vic Savage scammed investors out of money to make his weirdo monster movie sounds like a good story. Until someone makes an “Ed Wood”-style epic about Savage’s life, we’ll just have to discuss “The Creeping Terror” instead. Anyway: Somewhere in California, a spaceship lands. Inside are two alien creatures, slow moving mounds of flesh that devour whoever they come across. One escapes and goes on a rampage through town. Meanwhile, the local cops and military attempt to figure out why the aliens are there and stop any more people from being eaten.

Oh look, a model.
“The Creeping Terror” is most famous for its hilariously ineffective monster. Though the title may have exaggerated the “terror” part plenty, the monster certainly is creeping. The creature moves very slowly. The only reason it catches anybody is because its’ victims are hideously stupid. They usually sit still and scream mindlessly while the monster waddles onto them. The Terror is such a weird creation too. Stock sound effects of lions roaring play whenever it’s on-screen. When it engulfs people, weird swallowing noises are heard. Some have suggested that Vic Savage had a vore fetish. That would certainly explain why the female victims’ kicking legs are so heavily focused on as the Terror pulls them into its throat. Mostly, the Creeping Terror is a ridiculously bad monster. The design is awkward, a tentacle-covered stock atop an indistinguishable mound. When it overturns cars, the monster unfortunately looks like it's humping the vehicles. The creature primarily targets necking teenagers, showing how hacky and lazy the script was.

“The Creeping Terror” was a true independent film, made far outside of the studio system. While this resulted in lots of bad acting and super-sloppy writing, it mostly left us with a movie that doesn’t function like movies are supposed to. All the sound was dubbed in later. This means an omniscient narrator explains most everything that happens. He even, dryly and hilariously, details a friendship dissolving after one of two guys gets married. The music is excruciating. When it’s not organ music that is both stock and melodramatic, it’s irritating electronic chatter. My favorite example of “The Creeping Terror’s” anti-movie behavior occurs when the monster attacks a dance hall. While women are awkwardly gobbled up by the creature, two guys get into a fist fight in the background, seemingly unaware of the attacking monster that’s right over there! The scene – nay, the entire movie – was clearly edited by someone who knew nothing about editing movies.

“The Creeping Terror” is built upon a foundation of bafflement, unintentional hilarity, and crushing boredom. The baffling aspect emerges from the bizarre, unprofessional composition of the movie. I’m talking the music, narration, and shotgun editing. The hilarity mostly emerges from the terrible acting. A dubbed woman screams, unconvincingly, “OH GOD!” A fat man stumbles through a forest, searching for his son, the actor clearly confused. Characters frequently do not move while the monster slowly approaches them. The woman hanging her laundry, not seeing the creature right in front of her, is my favorite. Or how about a troop of soldiers cluelessly standing still while the beast crawls atop them? As for the boredom, there’s plenty of that too. The Terror rolling and crushing the cars at Lover’s Lane goes on for way too long. A subplot about a scientist wanting to learn from the creature is hopelessly tacked on. After the first Terror is exploded by a grenade tossed from off-screen, there’s a long scene of the scientist driving to the rocket site. There’s a tortuously long denouncement, as the nature of the Creeping Terror is slowly explained to the audience.

Despite the potentially snore-inducing scenes, “The Creeping Terror” is barely over an hour. That’s not quite enough time for a viewer to become truly bored or irritated. In fact, “The Creeping Terror” is a great example of a movie so inept, it becomes entertaining. The concept is weird enough and the execution hazardous enough that the viewer is frequently amused. It definitely doesn’t deserve the highest compliment you can pay a regionally produced crappy horror movie. “The Creeping Terror” never becomes accidental outsider art. But it’s less boring then “Manos: The Hands of Hate” and more interesting then “The Blood Waters of Dr. Z.” The MST3k episode it inspired is also funnier then either. So it has that going for it, which is good. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Creep Course

Every horror TV show has to take a crack at the mummy, the most inglorious of horror archetypes. I know “Kolchak” and “Amazing Stories” tried their hands. (“Tales from the Darkside” waited until the movie.) “Tales from the Crypt” even featured a mummy before, in season two’s “Lower Berth.” Anyway, “Creep Course” follows an asshole archaeology professor who is ready to flunk a football player, Reggie, from his class. In hopes of passing, Reggie tries to seduce the class’ brainiest member, Stella. When that doesn’t work, he convinces her to go to the professor’s house so he can steal the notes. Instead, the professor has a mummy in his basement that he’s planning on sacrificing Stella too. The girl ends up being smarter then either of her male captors.

I really like “Creep Course” and it has little to do with the episode. The lead actress is a babe. The show Velmas Nina Siemaszko up with glasses and dowdy clothes. She appears powerless around Reggie. When he plants a kiss on her, the look of confusion and pure bliss on her face is enchanting. In this guise, she’s adorable. By the episode’s end, Siemaszko wears a revealing Egyptian priestess out-fit which is beyond flattering on her. Both of these outfits happen to hit sweet spots for me. Aside from the ravishing actress, the episode is good in other ways. Jeffrey Jones is delightfully villainous as the professor. The mummy affects are nicely done. Both of the men turning on Stella is a nice touch. There’s some nice gore, involving poison and brain probes. The episode is the sole directorial credit of screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who has an excellent resume. How Stella gets revenge on her attackers is nicely done, though the final reveal is awfully silly. In short, “Creep Course” is a totally satisfying “Tales” episode elevated by fine performers. That last sentence may have a double meaning. [8/10]

So Weird: Carnival

A sinister carnival or circus is another troupe nearly every horror series covers at some point. In “Carnival,” the Philips tour bus stops by a carnival on their trip across the country. There, Molly talks Annie into singing on stage during the talent contest. This attracts the attention of Jonas, the carnival’s disturbed proprietor. When Annie refuses to willingly join Jonas’ traveling show, he uses the magic mirrors in the fun house to transform the rest of the cast into circus attractions.

This is how far “So Weird” has degraded in its third season. “Carnival” feels more like a “Goosebumps” episode then anything else. The villain frequently turns to talk into mirrors, his reflection speaking back to him. Why? No explanation is given. His motivation, of needing a star attraction for his show, is super-limp. Duncan Fraiser really overdoes it as Jonas. The horrors inflicted on Annie’s friends by the magic mirrors are mostly goofy. Cary is turned into an animal-skin wearing Wildman. Jack is turned into a cross-dressing fortune teller. Ned is a miniature strongman, Irene a hot coals dancer. Only Molly’s fate as a melting human candle is at all horrific. The way Annie figures out how to defeat the villain is too simple. The worst thing about “Carnival” is a painfully long sequence devoted to Annie singing that brings the pacing to a thundering halt. Spooky carnivals are usually a good setting for horror stories but “Carnival” squanders it with kids-glove writing and an overdone musical number. [4/10]

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