Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 10

Urban Legend (1998)

If one was to make a list of late nineties slasher franchises, it’s likely that the “Urban Legend” movies would rank a distant third behind “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Though successful enough to spawn a sequel or two, “Urban Legend” never reached the blockbuster status of its competitors. This may or may not be fair. On one hand, the series had the best premises of any of those films. On the other hand, none of them rise to the promise of that premise.

Someone is killing off the students at Pendleton University. Michelle is decapitated by a lurker in her backseat, despite a creepy gas station attendant's attempt to warn her. A boy is murdered in the woods outside his car, while a girl sits inside the vehicle. It doesn’t go unnoticed by the students that the murders are patterned after famous urban legends. Yet everyone is reluctant to believe Paul, a muckraking student journalist, who believes a serial killer may be at work. Before long, Natalie notices that the killer is targeting friends of her. How much longer will it be until Natalie herself becomes the victim of an urban legend?

My fascination with urban legends is something I’ve probably mentioned before. It’s not just the grisly quality of the legends that fascinate me but also how they serve as perfect summaries of our culture’s fears and anxieties. Concocting a killer who bases their murders off urban legends is such a brilliant idea, I’m surprised nobody did it before 1998. Despite its dynamite premise, “Urban Legend” is mostly just a typical slasher of its era. The team of attractive teenagers theorizing, investigating, and telling jokes are all too typical of the time. At one point, the killer calls a potential victim on the phone, immediately bringing “Scream” to mind. What also recalls “Scream” is the ending. After the killer reveals her identity, she goes on a long rant, detailing her personal motivation. (The movie never seems to notice that about half of the victims are unrelated to this motive.) The film’s lack of commitment to its central premise is illustrated in a long, mid-film sequence. The killer stalks a screaming, scantily-clad female victim through the college. The chase goes on for a while. What urban legend is this death scene meant to invoke? And since “I Know What You Did Last Summer” used the bad ass slicker and hook combo, the killer has to wear a goofy hooded coat to conceal their identity. There's a reason I've always called it the Abercrombie Killer.

“Urban Legend” gives a lot of lip service to its central idea. Many urban legends are referenced. The flashing headlights myth is a major plot point. Pendleton University has a legend of its own, about a massacre in one of the dorms. Disappointingly, this does not tie into the main plot. (The entire subplot involving a professor played by Robert Englund is an extended red herring.) Most of the murder scenes are patterned after legends. The opening scene faithfully recreates the Killer in the Backseat legend. A later moment successfully puts a horror movie spin on the Ankle Slasher myth. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these are the best scenes in the film. When “Urban Legend” puts its own spin on the myth, it falters. The “Don’t Turn on the Lights” sequence makes its protagonist look like an idiot. The Lover’s Lane scene is overly extended. The movie wimps out hard with the pop rocks and soda scene. The writer was clever enough to adapt several myths faithfully but not clever enough to put interesting variation on preexisting ones.

At least those damn sleuthing kids makes sense, given the subject matter. Alicia Witt is likable, with a slightly acidic wit, as final girl Natalie. There’s definitely a certain novelty to seeing Danielle Harris as the sexy goth girl roommate. Loretta Devine is funny as the security guard who wants to be Pam Grier. However, other cast members are less likable. Jared Leto is too smarmy as the male lead. Tara Reid mugs and shrieks in an obnoxious manner. Michael Rosenbaum does a lousy impersonation of Jaime Kennedy as Randy. Lastly, Rebecca Gayheart goes way over the top in her role. At least the film has the good sense to write cameos for Brad Dourif and Robert Englund, though both have thankless jobs.

“Urban Legend” has a great idea but ties it to an overly typical screenplay. The script follows all the expected beats of late nineties slasher flicks, right down to the “shock” ending. Still, the genre was huge at the time and even a mediocre example like this could earn decent box office. Of course “Urban Legend” has a following. It was a mildly popular movie from the nineties. Some people will naturally look back on it with fondness. This is a movie I would genuinely like to see remade, as its concept could still make for a clever, thrilling horror film. [5/10]

The Vampire (1957)
El vampiro

Mexican horror films are generally associated with masked wrestlers suplexing monsters into the ground. When anything else comes to mind, it’s usually campy insanity like “The Brainiac.” However, there’s a certain few that defend Mexican horror films for their atmospheric scenery. “The Vampire” was the first Mexican vampire movie and the first movie to show vampires with pointed incisors. Among those that take notice of such things, “El vampiro” seems to be regarded as one of the best Mexican horror movies.

Marta has been invited back to her childhood home by her uncle. She meets up with a doctor at the train station. They hitch a ride with a man hauling foreign dirt to a mansion near Marta’s home. She is dismayed to discover that the home is in disrepair and one of her aunt has died. The other aunt seemingly hasn’t aged. Aunt Eloise, it turns out, is a vampire, under the will of Mr. Duval. Duval’s vampiric brother is entombed under Marta’s home and the vampire intends to resurrect him.

It seems the Universal Monsters movies were a big influence on early Mexican horror. This is immediately obvious in “El vampiro.” Mr. Duval is actually the vampiric Count Lavud, a trick similar to what Count Alucard pulled in “Son of Dracula.” As in the classics, the vampires’ favorite alternate forms seem to be rubber bats. Mostly, “The Vampire” seeks to replicate the look and atmosphere of those movies. The film mostly takes place in old mansions and sparse forests, filled with cobwebs and dust. Heavy shadows feature throughout. One especially striking scene shows Count Lavud rising from his casket, walking down a dark hallway, and passing under a beam of moonlight. During its best moments, “El vampire” nicely captures the same sort of shadowy atmosphere those great classics have.

Sadly, it’s not all sprawling gothic manors and rubber bats. “The Vampire” is hassled with an overly contrived plot and loads of melodrama. There’s a lot of secrets in Marta’s house, about her supposedly dead aunt, the vampire’s tomb, and the doctor’s true purpose. The film has the habit of giving characters’ ungainly monologues. Shortly after his introduction, the Count talks at length about his motivation and secret plan. When the aunt is revealed to still be alive, she too goes on about her life and ideas. The attempted romance between Marta and the doctor is hopelessly awkward. His idea of flirting is tell her she looks pretty when she cries and that he’ll sneak into her room at night if she doesn’t lock her door. There’s so many characters and subplots in the film that, by the end, they’ve all piled up. “El vampiro” has a messy climax, the film attempting to tie together all these characters and plots while still resolving the main story line. Another problem is the score, which blares loudly and melodramatically throughout the film.

Still, there’s a certain odd power to the movie. The Mexican setting changes the context of the vampire legend. Mexico was a deeply Catholic country. Thus, the symbol of the crucifix is gifted with deeper meaning. Mexico is also a poor country. The vampire count is played by the tall, lean German Robles. Robles gives the vampire an air of aristocratic refinement. In one scene, he swoops off a wagon and attacks a young peasant boy, draining him dry. Marta weeps at how overgrown her childhood home has become. The way the conversation is framed, she might as well be talking about her country. Here, the vampire becomes a symbol of the decadent rich, happily sucking the lifeblood of the poor in order to make themselves more rich and powerful.

“The Vampire” doesn’t entirely work. Its plot is a tangled mess, its music is overdone, and its performances don’t always work. However, it’s still a really interesting film. What I really like about foreign horror films about traditionally Western archetypes is how they re-contextualize these famous legends for different cultures. “El vampiro” definitely does this. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel, “The Casket of the Vampire,” and made German Robles a horror icon in his own country. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Pit

Let’s travel back to the early nineties when mixed martial arts was still considered a seedy, dangerous, underground thing. Felix Johnson and Aaron Scott are two of the top fighters in the industry. After a brutal match, the two have fought to a standstill. Scott and Johnson are rivals in the ring but, in their personal lives, they’re friendly. It’s their wives, Andrea and Aubrey, that hate each other. They take every oppretunity to snipe at one another. Now, the wives have the two men positioning for the same star-making movie role. At this point, a Vegas fight promoter introduces an interesting idea to the couples…

“The Pit” has a funny idea at its center: That these two tough guys are totally hen-pecked by their domineering wives. As is usually the case with “Tales,” the story is easy to predict. It’s the performances that make it fun. Mark Dacasco, the thinking man’s Don “The Dragon” Wilson, plays Felix and shows some decent comedic chops. Stoney Jackson is equally funny as Aaron. Mostly, Debbe Dunning and Marjean Holden shine as the crazy wives. Holden never broke out of bit parts, despite showing a lot of venomous talent here. Dunning, best known as a “Home Improvement” girl or maybe the naked chick in “Leprechaun 4,” shows some amusing abilities of her own. The appeal of the episode certainly isn’t the fight scenes, which are shot like an episode of “WMAC Masters.” The twist ending is a funny and satisfying riff on the situation.

One last thing. The Crypt Keeper framing device has a Christmas theme, which the episode lacks. This was done to promote “Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas,” the “Tales from the Crypt” Christmas album. That is twelve tracks of morbid and tasteless versions of traditional Christmas carols, all sung by John Kassir. Yes, this is a real thing that existed. And, yes, I own it. It’s stupidly glorious and gloriously stupid. Anyway, “The Pit” gets a [7/10].

So Weird: Widow’s Walk

“Widow’s Walk” is not the worst episode of “So Weird” but it may be the least eventful. Molly, Cary, Jack, and Annie are spending some time at a sea-front home while Ned and Melina are on their anniversary trip. (This explains they where in the last episode.) While there, Annie notices the strange old woman next door, who puts out a lantern every night and cries for someone named William. Turns out William was the woman’s late husband and, in her senility, she believes he’ll come back to her. Meanwhile, Annie is beginning to resent that the slightly older Jack and Cary can go out and drink and/or drive. She gets her wish granted in the least pleasant way when she switches bodies with the old woman.

The majority of “Widow’s Walk” is devoted to Alexz Johnson wandering around an empty house in horribly unconvincing old age make-up. The climax of the episode comes when she falls over. Which may be terrifying for an elderly person but isn’t very exciting to watch. (And then that stupid spirit panther shows up to save her, solidifying its status as a lame deus ex machine.) “Widow’s Walk” is “So Weird” in lesson mode. Annie wants to grow up faster so she can do more fun shit. When she suddenly ages sixty years in a day, she learns the value of being young. Weirdly, this moral doesn’t really connect to the story of an old woman yearning for her dead husband. Old “So Weird” probably could’ve spun that story into a lesson about mourning and loss. New “So Weird” just lets it sit there, confused and disconnected. And then throws in a spirit panther and a CGI ghost. I think even the cast is starting to notice, as Mackenzie Philips has looked increasingly annoyed over these last few episodes. [5/10]

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