Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 29

Night of the Lepus (1972)

In the history of cinema, few other horror movies have had a more miscalculated threat than “Night of the Lepus.” Yes, my friends, this is the movie about giant killer bunny rabbits. There are few animals more associated with being cute, fluffy, soft, and harmless then the rabbit. Even that word, “bunny,” is cute and unassuming. If someone attempted to make a movie about giant killer rabbits today, it would certainly be campy, tongue-in-cheek parody. But this was 1972 and irony hadn’t been invented yet. Despite the source material, an Australian novel called “Year of the Angry Rabbit,” playing the obvious ridiculous premise for laughs, “Night of the Lepus” is utterly sincere. Apparently, at no point during production, did anyone realize that it is impossible to make bunnies scary. Someone got the memo at some point though, as the movie’s entire marketing campaign was based around disguising what the central threat was! Maybe they should have led with the giant rabbits, as the movie’s preposterous premise has given it an undeniable notoriety over the years.

A drought in the Midwest has caused hordes of hungry jack rabbits to emerge and decimate local farms. Animal expert Roy Bennett is brought onto the case, along with his wife Gerry and their shrieking daughter Amanda. Roy quickly comes up with a solution to the rabbit problem: Hormone injections that make the bunnies less rapid breeders. Unfortunately, Amanda switches the males and females in their cages. The hormones make the rabbits grow to enormous size. The now massive rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. The giant rodents terrorize the town, attacking and killing all in their ways. Can the local police think up a solution in time?

Some laughable horror movies could have been better if more time and money had allocated for their special effects or shooting. “Night of the Lepus,” meanwhile, never could have been an effective horror movie. Giant killer rabbits is an inherently goofy premise. The movie tries. In Australia, rabbits are indeed a serious farmer’s pests. The movie acknowledges this. The film is surprisingly gory, as the rabbits bloodily tear people’s faces and rip their limbs apart. The movie even repeatedly shows us the bunnies’ huge front teeth. Ultimately, the execution doesn’t help matters. The movie’s special effects are composed of normal sized rabbits running through miniature sets in slow motion. This just emphasizes how cute, fluffy, and fuzzy real bunnies are. Even more laughable is when people in utterly unconvincing rabbit suits are featured in the close-ups.

The central premise and the special effects are hilarious. But lots of crappy movies have those things. What makes “Night of the Lepus” truly special is its utterly straight-faced execution. The strange, trippy score plays over the extended scenes of the rabbits running through the town in slow motion. The effect is as odd as it is hilarious. (Maybe that’s why clips from the movie were briefly glimpsed in “The Matrix.”) The heroes of the movie are all as straight-laced as can be. In that regard, “Night of the Lepus” is a throwback to fifties’ creature features. The heroes are all stately authority figures and older white men. Getting such professional men to deliver dialogue about killer rabbits is funny, to say the least. A cop standing in a drive-in theater, warning people about the in-coming swarm of fluffy-tailed death, is the comedic high-light of the film. This is what a lot of ironic parodies of goofball horror films overlook. Silly monsters are much funnier when everyone takes them entirely seriously.

Another aspect that links “Night of the Lepus” with the monster movies of decades before is its cast. It’s kind of impressive that such a silly script was able to attract so many recognizable faces. Stuart Whitman, as Dr. Bennett, wasn’t exactly a star but he was a character actor with hundreds of credits. No less an iconic scream queen then Janet Leigh plays his wife. Leigh gets plenty of opportunities to work out that famous scream. Rory Calhoun, a pretty big name at one point in time, plays the tough guy farmhand. Calhoun brings a certain rugged charm to his part and the movie should’ve utilized him more. DeForest Kelley, Bones McCoy himself, sports a super-seventies mustache as a friend of the doctor. Hearing Kelley’s immediately recognizable and respectful voice discuss killer rabbits produces lots of deadpan laughs. Another veteran cowboy actor, Paul Fix, plays the town sheriff. Though nobody cracks a smile, Fix comes the closest during his ridiculous dialogue. Like I said, every performance is one-hundred percent serious. The only actor I don’t enjoy is Melanie Fullerton as the daughter. She spends most of her screen time screaming and, yes, it is annoying.

This is how serious “Night of the Lepus” is. The movie even adds some weighty themes to its goofy story. An especially dry opening scene, of a news reporter telling us about rabbit plagues from all over the world, sets up the theme of limited resources. At one point, the Lepus descend on a cattle farm, devouring an entire stampede of cows in minutes. The rabbits seem to symbolize an ever-growing populace that is out of control, tearing through the world’s supply of food without care. After the opening credits, Calhoun’s horse gets its foot caught in a rabbit hole, suggesting the (attempted) sinister quality the bunnies will soon take on. There’s even an ecological edge to the movie. An early scene shows farmers caroling rabbits to their deaths. This scene is mirrored at the end, when the embiggened bunnies are fried on an electrified railroad. There are longer scenes of the rabbits being shot, blood splattering from their bodies. Maybe it’s just because the Lepus are played by real bunnies. Though giant, they’re just animals. You feel a little sorry for them.

Once again, any attempts to imbue the film with serious themes is undone by the absurd concept. The combination of a stone-faced execution and a completely silly idea is what makes “Night of the Lepus” such a good time. In fact, “Night of the Lepus” may be the platonic idea of a good-bad movie. It’s pretty short, running under an hour and a half. You’ll laugh consistently, as something silly happens every couple of minutes. For all its massive mistakes, “Night of the Lepus” is competently put together, well shot, with professional actors and interesting music. I guess what I’m saying is, if you see one movie about giant killer rabbits, see this one! [7/10]

The Raven (1963)

By 1963, the Poe Cycle was still going strong. The combination of Edgar Allen Poe, star Vincent Price, director Roger Corman, screenwriter Richard Matheson, and musician Les Baxter continued to sell tickets. In 1962, the group made “Tales of Terror,” a trio of Poe short stories. Among those shorts was a farcical adaptation of “The Black Cat,” starring Price and Peter Lorre. Clearly, Corman enjoyed this combination. The next year he would release “The Raven,” a feature length Poe-inspired comedy that would also star Price and Lorre. For bonus points, the movie would toss in past screen legend Boris Karloff and future screen legend Jack Nicholson.

Dr. Craven is a wizard who recently loss his beloved wife, Lenore. He’s also struggling with his daughter, Estelle, blooming into a beautiful young woman. One night, a mysterious talking raven flies into Craven’s home. The raven is actually Dr. Bedlo, a lower ranking wizard turned into a bird by the duplicitous Dr. Scarabus. Dr. Scarabus has unfinished business with Craven, being the rival of Craven’s late father. It also turns out, Lenore faked her death and married Scarabus. The whole group ends up at Scarabus’ castle, where the wizards duel for control of each others' magic.

“The Raven” keeps things light and silly. In 1963, I bet the main attraction was the talent assembled. This continues to be the case in 2015. Seeing horror legends Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre all together on-screen is a treat. Price’s charm is cranked all the way up. As the villain, Karloff plays menacing while maintaining his pleasant smile. Lorre has the most fun as the angry, alcoholic wizard, frequently shouting amusing things. Hazel Court had previously appeared in “The Premature Burial” and “Curse of Frankenstein,” already on her way to becoming an iconic scream queen. She has fun as the duplicitous Lenore and looks ravishing to boot. Jack Nicholson is, of course, the son of James Nicholson, the film’s producer. An early role for Nicholson, Jack displays some of the rascally charm that would soon make him a superstar.

Based on the pedigree of the author and the cast, “The Raven” was sold as a straight-up horror film. This was amazingly misleading. “The Raven” isn’t even a horror-comedy. Instead, it’s a cross between a goofy comedy and a dark fantasy. This is implemented early on when Lorre’s raven caws “How the hell should I know?” The sight gags are fairly silly, such as Lorre being caught between human and bird, turned into raspberry jam, or Nicholson being taken control of by the villain. Most Poe movies play the lost love for tragedy but “The Raven’s” scheming Lenore is a knowing subversion of this troupe. Baxter’s score is very goofy, always informing the audience that this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Even a talking corpse is mostly played for chuckles. Though the material is fairly light, the charms of the actors keeps it fun.

The charm of the cast and the script’s light approach to the supernatural come together in the climax. The finale is a wizard’s duel between Price and Karloff. Sitting in chairs, the two toss magic at each other. This takes the form of rubber snakes, rubber bats, and flashing lights. Most amusing is when the two float in the air, Price impishly smiling as he gets the upper-hand on Karloff. Twice, one wizard fakes the other out, a dead body being filled with birds or bird seed. The special effects look pretty silly now but that just adds to the charm. That the two actors appear to be having so much fun is even more impressive when you know how miserable they both were. Price dislike the wires needed for the floating scenes while Karloff’s declining health was catching up with him.

“The Raven” is about as minor as you can get. The script is light-weight. The comedy is broad and silly. Yet it’s still a really good time, full of plenty of goofy laughs and an amazing cast having a ball bouncing lines off each other. It is essential viewing for fans of Price and Karloff. Classic horror fans and monster kids will certainly get a kick out of it. I know I do. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Came the Dawn

“Tales from the Crypt” has done so many episodes about cheaters and infidelity that it now seems to be commenting on it. In “Came the Dawn,” a sleazy rich guy drives through a thunderstorm. He sees an attractive woman by the side of the road, her truck broken down. Taking her in, the two drive to the man’s isolated cabin. Obviously hoping to get laid, the man puts the romantic moves on her. The woman, however, has other plans. How does this connect to the woman murdered in the opening scene?

All of “Came the Dawn” is concerned with infidelity. Brooke Shields’ Norma has just fled from a cheating spouse, stealing his truck in the process. Upon seeing women’s underwear in the room upstairs, she believes that Perry King’s seemingly kind Roger is a cheater too. Both characters are hiding something. Shields puts on a veil of sexiness, pretending to be interest in King’s advances. King, meanwhile, minces slightly, claiming to be interested in “strong women.” That’s when the hammer comes down on the twist ending: Roger doesn’t have a jealous wife. He has a murderous alternate personality that just happens to be female. It’s a mean-spirited ending, somehow both sexist and trans-phobic, that severs any of the story’s interesting subtext. Director Uli Edel, director of depressing German films and trashy American television, at least contributes some moody visuals. Overall though, “Came the Dawn” is an uneven, unfocused episode of “Tales.” [5/10]

So Weird: Earth 101

Fiona may not be on “So Weird” anymore but her shadow still hangs over the show. The Philips tour bus is headed home to Hope Springs for Thanksgiving. Molly promised Fiona she’d be home for the day. Annie, meanwhile, misses her own family. That’s when a pair of obnoxious, hugely powerful aliens shows up. Using their magical abilities, they delay the family from arriving in time. The tour bus breaks down and refuses to be fixed, just over the hill from Fiona. While Molly and the others try to make it home in time, the aliens coldly observe.

“Earth 101” is a typically dumb season three episode. The aliens are obnoxious plot devices, with loosely defined, nearly infinite abilities. The actors – Michelle Harrison and Courtenay J. Stevens – are both awful, stiffly delivering lame dialogue. The episode has the most obvious of morals. Yes, writers, we know that family is the true reason for Thanksgiving. It takes the aliens thirty whole minutes to figure that out. The episode even throws in some stupid bullshit about that stupid bullshit spirit panther. However, there is a kernel of heart here. The episode isn’t really even about Annie. Molly drives the plot and her desire to be home with her daughter provides the episode’s sole strength. (Despite what IMDb will tell you, Cara DeLizia isn’t in the episode. When Fi appears, it’s via a body double and an obviously pre-recorded sound bit.)  “Earth 101” is definitely lame though at least there’s no musical numbers. Though, seriously, season three got a Thanksgiving episode but not a Halloween episode? What the hell? [4/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

There's so much to scoff at here…where to start? I usually like B-grade Sci-Fi but this story is too bad to even see the humor in. Stuart Whitman is stiff as a board. Star Trek's DeForest Kelley goes through the motions as well. The giant rabbits always look like regular-sized rabbits running in a miniaturized set, which is what they were. In slow motion, no less. (2/10)