Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 30

The Comedy of Terrors (1964)

Obviously “The Raven” was a success for AIP. Hollywood being the only place where the phrase “lightning never strikes twice” is unknown, the next year much of the same talent was assembled for another horror-farce. Price, Lorre, Karloff, and screenwriter Richard Matheson all returned, with the added bonus of Basil Rathbone. Director Roger Corman traded with Jacques Tourneur, himself no slouch when it comes to gothic horror. “The Comedy of Terrors” wasn’t as successful as “The Raven,” not quite clicking with audiences, but fans of all involved should give it a look.

Waldo Trumbull is a mortician who, when times are low, decides to create some business himself. With the help of lock-picker and escaped criminal Felix Gillie, Trumbull sneaks into the homes of wealthy locals, kills them, and then buries them. Things are complicated by his young wife, would-be opera singer Amaryllis, and his father-in-law, the absent-minded Amos. Waldo and Felix’s latest mark, who happens to be their eccentric landlord, also has the unfortunate tendency to not stay dead.

As in “The Raven,” the joys of “The Comedy of Terrors” come from watching its cast do their thing. The parts are written for the actor’s established personas. Vincent Price plays an unrepentant alcoholic asshole who belittles everyone around him, mostly his wife and his partner. The character would be utterly despicable if played by anyone else. Price makes him hilarious. Peter Lorre’s Felix is a sad sack who is often shit on by life. Ironically, the legit businessman is the jerk while the thief is a nice guy. Watching the two play off each other is delightful. Karloff’s role as a doddering old man allows the horror legend to stretch his comedic muscles. The scene where he gives a meandering eulogy is a high-light. Basil Rathbone’s character is obsessed with Shakespeare and spends most of his screen time quoting “Macbeth.” Rathbone obviously has a ball quoting the Bard when he isn’t leaping around with axes or swords. I even like the lovely Joyce Jameson as the tone-deaf daughter, who is on equal ground with her male co-stars.

“The Comedy of Terrors” does a good job of balancing broad, goofball humor and more subtle wordplay. The zany stuff is up-front. The film begins with Price and Lorre dumping a body out of a casket and burying it again in fast motion. Whenever Jameson hits a high note, glass breaks, shelves shake, and animals run. While sneaking into a house, Lorre knocks over a series of statues, domino-style, and tumbles off a roof. All of this is loads of fun but the word-play may prove more amusing. Price’s reaction to Rathbone’s quoting the “Sound and Fury” monologue got a big chuckle from me. Lorre’s lament about how he shouldn’t have broken out of prison is good too. So is the on-going joke about how to pronounce Waldo’s last name. The film keeps the gags, of both the high and low quality, coming quick, leading to plenty of laughs on the viewer’s end.

Roger Corman’s Poe films were frequently handsome looking. Jacques Tourneur had been doing it longer. “The Comedy of Terrors” is dripping with gothic atmosphere. Heavy fog hangs over the whole movie. Shadows are employed frequently. The sets are all grey, dusty, and heavy with classic horror trappings. Aside from the constant “Macbeth” references, the title is taken from Shakespeare too. One source I’ve read says the whole film was written in iambic perimeter. I’m not sure if that’s true but the dialogue in “The Comedy of Terrors” frequently has a nice poetic quality to it. The film is about as classy as a movie about murdering morticians could be.

Though it brushes up against being too wacky for its own good, “The Comedy of Terror” is still a very entertaining watch. Richard Matheson had planned for a third horror/comedy with the same cast, that also would’ve tossed in Tallulah Bankhead. Sadly, the disappointing box office for “The Comedy of Terrors” paired with Karloff and Rathbone’s declining health sank that possibility. (Though if you count “The Black Cat” segment in “Tales of Terror,” there’s already a trilogy of sorts here.) Not much more then a footnote, the film is still lots of fun with the right atmosphere or the right crowd. [7/10]

The Stuff (1985)

In the early years of horror, ridiculous horror movie threats were always presented at face value. Even as recently as 1972, as presented in yesterday’s review of “Night of the Lepus,” a movie was willing to play an absurd monster movie totally straight. In the modern age, parody horror films starring silly creatures and unlikely adversaries are practically a cottage industry. There’s at least one a year, ranging from the meta-satire of “Rubber” to the full-blown gaggery of “Trail of the Screaming Forehead.” Positioned somewhere between these two ages is “The Stuff,” Larry Cohen’s movie about killer dessert. It’s a film that chuckles at itself at times, while also presenting its odd premise for horror at other times.

In the frozen north, some miners stumble upon a strange, fluffy white substance bubbling up from the ground. For some God forsaken reason, he shoves it in his mouth, deciding it’s a delicious treat. Soon, the substance is bought by a dessert company, packaged, and sold all over the world as the Stuff. It becomes an immediate success. The ice cream companies hire corporate spy Mo Rutherford to investigate. He discovers that the Stuff is actually a dangerous compound, addictive, that takes over the bodies of its addicts. It’s also an intelligent creature, seemingly plotting global domination.

Larry Cohen has made a career out of taking cheap, exploitative premises and turning them into something subversive. This is the man who made a killer baby a minor horror classic and turned a film that was a sensationalistic title first into a clever, sci-fi conspiracy thriller. On the surface, “The Stuff” is just about a killer dessert. Dig a little beneath the surface and it’s easy to see it as a satire of the tobacco industry. The corporations in “The Stuff” sell a product that kills people. They know it kills people. The profits are so great that they don’t care. Lucky for them, the product is also addictive, bringing in new customers for everyone it finishes off. Cohen’s satire is sometimes a bit too indecisive. By making the Stuff ambulatory, and implying that the product itself is the mastermind of the scheme, it lets the corporations off the hook. The film is a bit too flippant to be sharp satire, jokey elements frequently appearing in the script. Cohen’s opinion on corporate masters is clear, especially in the ending were they get a taste of their own medicine. Yet the film never makes a focused, understood statement about its subject.

As an oddball comedy, “The Stuff” works better. There are many odd, funny touches. Most of them come from the performances. Cohen regular Michael Moriarty treats acting like off-beat performance art. He constantly reminds people of the goofy origin behind his nickname “Mo.” Moriarty struts and bullshits his way through the movie, creating an unique, memorable role. Or how about the little boy whose family forces him to eat the Stuff? Or a minor character named “Chocolate Chip?” The silliest part of “The Stuff,” aside from the titular substance, is Paul Sorvino’s role. Playing an extremist militant general, Sorvino is talked into helping the heroes by being told the Stuffies are filthy communist. Though this subplot is funny, it comes out of nowhere and seems at odd with the movie’s anti-corporate message. That last minute introduction also turns “The Stuff” in an unlikely action film, with good guys gunning down bad guys.

“The Stuff” knows that its premise is ridiculous. This is why there’s an edge of satire to the movie. A white, fluffy, creamy dessert is no one’s idea of an insidious evil. Yet, at times, “The Stuff” acts like a serious horror movie. The Stuffies, people who have been entirely taken over by the Stuff, are genuinely a grotesque threat. Their bodies break apart like zombies. Their jaws open in a rubbery, weirdly creepy way. Sometimes, the Stuff billows up out of their throats. The weirdest moment is when the movie does this with a dog. Sometimes, the Stuff itself is the threat. The ice cream-like substance can move on itself. In three instances, the Stuff floods into an area, attacking people. It crawls up walls, across factory floors, and inside radio stations. Though clearly joking, these scenes are still mildly creepy. The use of a spinning room or clever stop-motion effects insures that.

Though its premise is irresistible, “The Stuff” doesn’t entirely work. The tone is indecisive, slingshoting between straight horror, horror parody, satire, oddball comedy, and even action movie thrills. The cast and special effects are very likable. The movie is definitely getting at something. Yet the whole thing isn’t exactly focused enough to work entirely. I’m sad to say I can get enough of the Stuff. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Oil’s Well That Ends Well

I wish “Tales from the Crypt” would stop trying to do these extended double-cross episodes. Gina is a feminist con-woman who has recently partnered with grave-digger Jerry. The two concoct a plot to rip off a group of wealthy businessmen. They make up a story about oil being beneath a local graveyard and get the men to invest all their cash. However, there’s no honor among thieves and no one in the world of “Tales from the Crypt” is up-front with their alliances.

Each episode of “Tales” only has a half-hour to tell its story. Any time the show has tried to do a story about a large group of people playing each other, it almost never works. Half of the cast in “Oil’s Well That Ends Well” goes undeveloped. Rory Calhoun – in his third appearance this Halloween season – is reduced to a cameo and many of the other performers aren’t much more. There’s not much time to wonder who is back-stabbing who. All the double-crosses and betrayals are explained in short bursts. Aside from the graveyard setting, there’s not much horror content in this one either. The episode works the best when focusing on Lou Diamond Philips and Priscilla Presley’s sleazy romance, as both actors do well. The ending is also pretty satisfying and wraps the story up neatly. John Kassir appears in front of the camera here, which the Crypt Keeper happily points out. I’ll admit, it is amusing when Kassir slips in the Crypt Keeper laugh while in-character as someone else. [5/10]

So Weird: Beeing There

From its title on down, “Beeing There” is an episode built around lame puns. The Philips tour bus is stopped by a giant swarm of bees, Ned burning out the brakes stopping in time. This necessitates a stop in the near-by town of Hiveburg. Annie immediately notices how strangely the people in the town act. They buzz like bees, eat flowers, treat their female mayor like a queen, and savor honey. When Cary litters, he’s locked up in a jail cell, plastered against the wall with a natural resin. It’s up to Annie, once again, to save the day.

“Beeing There” is actually slightly better then its “town of humanoid bees” premise would lead you to suspect. Oh, it’s still plenty dumb. All the actors playing the bee people horribly over do it, Angela Gann as the Mayor especially. The episode nails home its premise as bluntly as possible. The townsfolk swarm around honey, decorate their buildings with honey-comb patterns, and buzz through town in orderly lines. Annie, once again, is painted as the wonderful hero, figuring everything out before everyone else. However, the episode is better when focused on the other cast members. Mackenzie Phillips, Eric Lively, and Dave Ward have some fun freaking out at the weirdness around them. The episode’s final image, of one bee staying human while the others return to their insect forms, is mildly poetic. I also like Camille Sullivan as the sole bee-person who doesn’t act crazy. She’s a cutey. The episode, meanwhile, is pretty typical of “So Weird’s” third season. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I don't care if "The Stuff" is a metaphor for crass consumerism, relentless advertising, the world's dependency on oil, chemical addiction, or drug addiction. Whatever. I see it as a movie about a guy who starts eating tasty goop that bubbles up from underground and decides to try and make a few bucks. It seems everyone wants to read some greater statement into it, but the only fact that matters is that "The Stuff" is not a good movie.

I like a "good" bad movie as much as the next guy, but this was too disjointed and poorly done for me to enjoy. (2/10)