Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 1

Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988)

“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!” is a movie probably better known for its amazing title and incredibly catchy theme song then anything else. I’ll admit, those are the reason I own it. The original, which I reviewed several years ago, is a very silly parody of monster movies. It was obviously a low budget production and didn’t really have the budget or talent to make its premise work fully. Series creator John DeBello made one other movie after that film, something no one has seen called “Happy Hour,” before deciding to resurrect the Killer Tomatoes. With more money and experience, he made a more entertaining, slightly more focused, but no less silly sequel.

A whole decade has passed since the end of the Tomato Wars. In that time, tomatoes have been outlawed in America, forcing pizzeria owners to get creative. Little does anyone know that the true culprit behind the tomato uprising, Dr. Gangreen, has gone unpunished. He has continuing working with tomatoes. Now, with certain musical cues, he can transform tomatoes into whatever human forms he desires. The nephew of war hero Wilbur Finletter, Chad, works in his pizza shop. He becomes involved when he strikes up a relationship with Gangreen’s tomato-humanoid female servant, Tara. Together, they try and prevent another tomato uprising.

While the original “Killer Tomatoes” was focused on parodying disaster and monster movies, “Return” is a more general, goofball comedy. The film essentially has two different comedic moods. The first of which isn’t that different then a goofy teen sex comedy that is somehow rated PG. The movie, after all, opens with a fake trailer for a film called “Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach (And Take Their Tops Off.)” Chad and his best friend Matt, played by a pre-fame George Clooney, are preoccupied with getting laid. Matt tries all sorts of desperate schemes to get girls. Chad usually strikes out until Tara walks into pizza shop. A stereotypical busty blonde, Tara has been engineered to be an expert cook, cleaning lady, and sex coach. She’s also secretly a tomato. Contrasting the men’s obvious lust for her with her eccentric behavior is where a lot of the humor comes from. That the movie never gets anymore explicit then verbal references actually works in its favors. “Return of the Killer Tomatoes” has the heart of a naughty sex comedy but the mindset of a little kid, giving the comedy a certain charming innocence.

The other types of jokes the movie employs are more in keeping with the first film: Very silly sight gags. The villain’s lair is introduced as a mat-painting, instead of a set. He creates Rambo-esque super soldiers from the tomatoes but has them gardening and cooking. The mad scientist villain has his own Igor. Instead of a grotesque hunchback, he’s a would-be newscaster, with a thousand-watt smile and ambitions of stardom. That’s one of my favorite gags. Another joke, which might’ve influenced “Wayne’s World,” has the film running out of money. So the cast members resort to blatant product placement to prop the budget back up. Someone says this “isn’t a game,” before stepping in front of a giant scoreboard. A cutaway to what is obviously San Francisco is labeled “New York.” The film introduces F.T., a cute fuzzy tomatoes that has a habit of falling down stairs. One of the movie’s biggest laughs comes when F.T. leaps onto a live grenade. (There’s also a joke about the filmmaker’s selling F.T. plush toys. Disappointingly, these were not a real product.) It’s all very silly but “Return of the Killer Tomatoes” has enough amusing gags to keep the audience watching.

Helping the goofiness along is a game cast. John Astin, Gomez himself, plays Professor Gangreen. Astin has no problem acting goofy for a laugh. He also commits fully to the cartoon mad scientist bit, often delivering the absurd dialogue with a huge smile. Anthony Starke is appropriately nerdy as Chad. I doubt he put it on his resume but George Clooney is actually pretty amusing as Matt, balancing smarmy charm and sleazy horniness. Karen Mistal, as tomato humanoid Tara, is also on the film’s wavelength. There’s some extended call-backs to the first “Killer Tomatoes,” with parachute expert Wilbur Finletter and master of disguise Sam Smith both returning. Aside from a random appearance by Idi Amin, neither are that funny.

Like most comedies of this type, “Return of the Killer Tomatoes!” is too long. It’s 98 minutes, while films like this should never run over eighty. It definitely runs out of ideas by the end. Not all the gags work. Reoccurring jokes about yacht racing, tomato smuggling, or disgusting pizza toppings are pretty lame. However, there are definitely some inspired chuckles. Amazingly, the film would not only spawn two further sequels – “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back!” in 1990 and “Killer Tomatoes Eat France!” in  1991 – but also a Saturday morning cartoon show! Unsurprisingly, all of them would take more inspiration from this film then the original. [7/10]

13 Ghosts (1960)

Thank the five dollar movie bin for this one. Actually, it wasn’t even that much. It was marked down to three dollars. Talk about the right price! To me, the Halloween season and the horror films of William Castle go together like chocolate and peanut butter. I always try to sneak one in every year. The director’s balance of classy, cheesy, and spooky wasn’t always perfect. But it is always perfect for Halloween. Even though I remember not being too impressed with it, I kicked back and gave “13 Ghosts” a second chance.

Cyrus is a museum tour guide who has fallen on hard times. His wife, teenage daughter, and younger son are even at risk of having their furniture repossessed. Luck seems to shine on them when Cyrus inherits a mansion from his recently passed uncle, Zorba. Or maybe it isn’t luck. Uncle Zorba was an expert of the occult and even collected ghosts. 12 ghosts, including Zorba’s own, haunt the residence. Also inside the mansion is a hidden treasure and a greedy individual willing to kill to get it.

As I mentioned above, Castle’s films frequently walk a fine balance between hokey and creepy, all the while among a classic horror atmosphere. In “13 Ghosts,” the hokeiness outweighs the horror. “13 Ghosts” is basically the film equivalent of a spooky sound effects cassette. The mansion isn’t even that cobweb covered or dark. The ghosts are never much of a threat, possibly not even the primary threat. What scares are there are fairly cheap and easy. Two or three times, somebody is startled by a hand suddenly appearing on their shoulder. The subplot about a lost treasure is hopelessly silly. The film frequently focuses on Cyrus’ young son Buck, a precocious kid. This seems to indicate that “13 Ghosts” is a children’s film. And one that’s light-weight and lame most of the time.

Except when it isn’t. Occasionally, that hokey quality becomes kind of charming. There’s three sequences that really stick out to me. The teenage daughter is menaced in her room by strange noises. The sequences climaxes with a ghoulish, if distinctly alive, intruder emerging from a closest. Another, less blatantly horrific scene is a quiet sequence of Cy exploring the house. Guided by a ghostly candle stick, he uncovers a canapé bed that collapses in on itself. There’s a fun, “old dark house” quality to this scene that I like. Finally, the required séance builds decently. Proceeded by a decently spooky moment of an Ouija planchette floating across the room, the séance concludes with Cy being possessed by the ominous ghost of his uncle.

Being a Castle film, “13 Ghosts” had a gimmick called “Illusion-o!” Each ticket was sold with a “Ghost Viewer,” a polarized red-and-blue pair of glasses. These are accompanied in the film by a pair of specialized glasses that make the ghosts visible, which is a cool looking prop. Likewise, the Ghost Viewers reportedly showed the ghost when you looked through the red and hid them when watched through the blue. (Continuing Castle’s reputation of being more of a hype-man then anything else, this was complete bullshit.)  It’s not as innovative as Percepto from “The Tingler” or the Punishment Poll from “Mr. Sardonicus.” However, it continues to show that Castle considered the fourth wall more a suggestion then a concrete concept. The audiences’ participation extended beyond merely watching the film.

Perhaps the main reason “13 Ghosts” isn’t particularly scary is because its titular spectres aren’t very impressive. The sequence of the ghost chef, who’s ridiculous mustache is still visible, executing the ghost of his unfaithful wife is accompanied by goofy, squawking sound effects. The appearance of the headless lion tamer and his spectral lion drags, not contributing much to the film. The headless man is obviously an actor in shoulder pads too. Uncle Zorba’s ghost is just the actor with a fright-mask on. Most of the ghosts are briefly glimpsed, appearing to be nothing but floating skeletons and cliched ghostly figures. The only really memorable ghost isn’t much of a ghost at all. Instead, it’s a giant, flaming wheel spinning through the air. I’m not much of a fan of the 2001 mall horror remake but at least it gave each of the ghosts a distinct personality.

The cast is a bit too squeaky clean to especially interesting. Charlie Herbert is borderline irritating as Buck. Martin Milner, better known for “Adam 12,” is equally boy-next-door-y as the lawyer who is not all he appears to be. The most entertaining actor is Margaret Hamilton as brilliantly named maid, Elaine Zacharides, which features plenty of jokey references to “Wizard of Oz.” Anyway, “13 Ghosts” isn’t without its moments but doesn’t make much of an impression either. It is better then the aforementioned remake, which is as much a relic of its own time as the original is. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Half-Way Horrible

Here’s another “Tales from the Crypt” episode that probably wouldn’t be notable if it wasn’t for the actors involved. Or one actor, that is. Robert Lassen is the head of a company about to launch a new, super-powerful food preservative. He received the formula for this preservative years ago in the Amazon rain forest. The tribe kept the formula a secret and would only hand it over to the Americans if they sacrificed one of their own. Years later, on the eve of the product's new release, Lassen’s friends are dying in gruesome ways. Lassen begins to suspect that Alex, the man he sacrificed, may have come back.

“Half-Way Horrible,” from a plot perspective, does some unexpected things. The super-powerful food preservative seems to be the plot’s main thrust. Instead, it’s unrelated to why people are dying. Turns out, there’s a voodoo curse on Lassen. This plot turn really comes out of nowhere and is messily resolved by a sudden appearance from Cheech Marin. (It does let the episode end on a classically gruesome “Tales from the Crypt” image.) However, it almost doesn’t matter. The episode is full of tough guy character actors – like Martin Kove and Costas Mandylor – but it stars Clancy Brown. Playing an entirely unsympathetic character, Brown grits his teeth and sweats it up. He decimates the scenery, playing an excellent asshole. Brown’s performance saves what is otherwise a weakly constructed episode. The wrap-around segments also feature the Crypt Keeper playing the “Tales from the Crypt” pinball machine, a wonderful real thing that actually exists. [7/10]

So Weird: Changeling

Molly, Cary, and some friends we’ve never met before go out for an evening on the town. Annie, Jack, and Clu are left to baby-sit the friends’ two infant kids. Unlucky for Annie and Clu, changelings happen to stop by on that night and switch out the baby boy for a changeling child. The creature proceeds to run amok. Jack spends most of the night unaware of what’s happen while Annie and Clu have to wrangle the bizarre baby.

“Changeling” is the worst episode of “So Weird” I’ve seen. The adult changelings are, for some reason, portrayed as hooded, wide-eyed figures that resemble Grey aliens. The little changeling is played by an awful looking puppet or a little person in baby pajamas. The changeling is obviously an inhuman creature which is not, you know, how changelings work. Most of the episode is devoted to incredibly broad slapstick, watching the baby run amok and Clu fall over. The most awful moment occurs when the changeling takes a huge dump in its diaper. After a plethora of fart noises, Annie and Clue walk into the room wearing hazmat suits. It’s bad. Worst of all is that “Changeling” actually has a sweet moment inside of it. Jack sings the baby to sleep with the same lullaby his father sang to him. Clu notes, this is the first time Jack has sung since his father’s death. Buried within some of the worst shit to happen to this series is a sweet, touching moment. It’s a shame about all the shit though. [3/10]

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