Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 11

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

In the seventh grade, I read “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell in English class. It was part of a lesson designed to teach us the dramatic components of a narrative. Rising action, the climax, all that jazz. I had never read the story before but I immediately recognized its plot. A lone madman hunting humans for sport has become one of the most imitated and referenced story tropes of all time. There have been so many official and unofficial adaptations of the tale and hundreds more heavily influenced by it. Depending on which approach the filmmaker takes, the presentations range from hard horror to social satire to over-the-top action. Sometimes the hunter is even an alien! Yet one version came before all the others. 1932’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was made by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian Cooper, the guys behind “King Kong.” Not only do both movies feature Fay Wray, they were even shot on the same sets. How does the original “Game” play, in the wake of all its remakes and imitators?

Bob is a world renown big game hunter, traveling back to the States from a hunting trip in South America. The boat capsizes on a perilous reef, causing the boilers to explode. Everyone dies except for Bob, who washes ashore on a small, near-by island. The resident of the island is Count Zaroff, a Cossack refugee and experienced hunter. Zaroff welcomes Bob, introducing him to the other guests on the island, a brother and sister. Soon, it becomes apparent that Zaroff is not as welcoming as he seems. In fact, the Count is hunting men for sport. And Bob is the next prey in line.

“The Most Dangerous Game” is a relatively faithful adaptation of its source material. The ending has more action. Because this was the thirties, a love interest and some goofy comic relief are added. (That would be a screaming, sexy if slightly useless Fay Wray and a boozy, much too broad Robert Armstrong.) As the hero, Joel McCrea is lantern-jawed and capably tough without loosing his humanity. Most importantly, Schoedsack’s film maintains the fascinating qualities of the villain. Zaroff is an almost archetypal bad guy. He has an exotic name and a foreboding, foreign accent. He has a collection of henchmen, including a mute brute with a deformed face. Zaroff makes long-winded speeches about his evil plan, about how he decided to hunt man for thrills. He has the gimmick of hunting his victims with an African bow-and-arrow, at least at first. Even his island lair recalls future supervillains. Leslie Banks plays Zaroff with a lot of villainous zeal. He chews up the scenery, clearly having a ball, while allowing each of Zaroff’s lines to drip with evil intent. As a prototype for countless future bad guys, it’s a great start.

“The Most Dangerous Game” has an economical run time of 63 minutes. For more then half of that run time, it’s a suitably thrilling chase movie. In the daylight hours, Bob and his love interest think up ways to outsmart Zaroff. At night, he goes after them, usually seeing through their traps with ease. The film slowly builds tension, as the strategies of the heroes and villains are outlined. The action peaks during a very tense chase through the island’s swamp. The foggy atmosphere goes a long way. So does the clever shooting. One scene I really like takes a first person perspective as the characters run through the underbrush, the foliage sliding into their faces. McCrea manages to take out a few of Zaroff’s men before an astonishing tense stand-off on a waterfall. The music is not unique for its time but is intense enough to keep this well-oiled thrill machine running.

It’s debatable whether or not “The Most Dangerous Game” is truly a horror movie. There’s nothing supernatural about it and the movie operates more for thrills then shocks. However, some of its content pushes the movie towards the edge of the genre. The film has some pre-code grisliness. Zaroff keeps the heads of his victims mounted on a wall, their skin mummified, their visages ghastly. One of Zaroff’s men is impaled in full view. The finale features at least two explicit stabbings. Beyond that, “The Most Dangerous Game” possesses a misty, fog-drenched atmosphere. Zaroff’s ominous castle, including a creepy door-knocking, wouldn’t be out of place in any thirties horror movie. For those curious, “King Kong” fans will recognize a few of the sets. In particular, a large log lying across a gorge will look very familiar.

“The Most Dangerous Game” holds very well against the countless films that copied it. Perhaps it’s notable that, out of all the various versions of the plot to appear, this is the only one that actually follows Connell’s story. The capable cast, speedy pacing, exciting action, and pleasantly fog-drenched atmosphere makes the film as thrilling today as it was back in 1932. While it doesn’t quite stack up against the ground-breaking “King Kong,” the film is fantastically entertaining in its own right. [8/10]

Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000)

Compared to the massive grosses of the “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” movies, “Urban Legend’s” box office take was modest. However, 72 million is still nothing to sneeze at. So “Urban Legend 2” rolled into production. Given the rather presumptuous title of “Urban Legends” and handed the unnecessary subtitle of “Final Cut,” the sequel received only a fraction of the original’s success. Around the same time, the world’s interest in post-modern murder-fests was beginning to dry up.

The daughter of a famous documentary filmmaker, Amy Mayfield is unable to think up a decent premise for her thesis film. Inspiration strikes when she hitches a ride with a campus security guard, who relates a tale of a serial killer copying urban legends. However, production on her student film is fraught with tragedy. A good friend commits suicide. Next, a stranger in a fencing mask begins to murder her crew members and friends. A few of these deaths are also patterned after urban legends.

The main reason I was disappointed in “Urban Legend” was its failure to utilize that premise to the fullest. The sequel presented a chance to fix this. Instead, “Final Cut” goes in the opposite direction. The movie is even less interested in the urban legend concept. There are references to a few myths. “Final Cut” begins with a strong take on the kidney heist idea, ending with a gnarly decapitation. Amy’s film-within-the-film recreates “The Licked Hand” and “Screams at Midnight.” Beyond that, the movie seriously half-asses the Tunnel of Terror and snuff movie legends. It muddles the story of the first and doesn’t draw much attention to the latter. By its half-way point, “Final Cut” has totally abandoned the urban legend concept. Instead, it becomes a typical post-“Scream” stalk-and-slash flick, right down to the killer’s robed outfit and the contrived modus operandi.

The subtitle truly indicates the sequel’s direction. The story is within the world of film school. Much discussion is made of the student award, which is winkingly called the Hitchcock Award. There’s lots of discussion of filmmaking ideas. Much attention is paid to starving actors, assistant directors, make-up artists, and production assistants. The killer’s motivation is based around the struggles of getting a film deal. Basically, the script entirely replaces the urban legend gimmick with a super-meta filmmaking gimmick. The result is frequently suffocatingly self-aware. For example, the make-up effect artists criticized a real murder for not being gory enough. For some reason, seemingly everyone on campus is making a low-brow genre movie. Where’s the pretentious art flicks or movies about twenty-something romantic problems? Totally unrealistic. “Final Cut” basically learned the worst lesson possible from the “Scream” sequels.

Does “Urban Legends” satisfy the bare bones expectations of a slasher flick? The opening decapitation starts the film on a strong point. The other death scenes aren’t very impressive. A CGI-assisted electrocution is especially clumsy. The sleuthing scenes – by now a required element of the genre – goes to very silly places. The heroes basically look up the reveal on a computer. Many of the clichés are played straight. There’s the typical scene of the final girl finding the victims’ bodies. There’s at least two fake-out nightmare sequences. The drawn out chase scene between the heroine and the killer doesn’t generate much tension. Jennifer Morrison’s Amy is not a very compelling final girl. At one point, she stands back and essentially let’s the killer attack her friend. At least, the movie ditches the Abercromie Killer. The fencing helmet and black robe combo works slightly better, though it has no connection to the rest of the plot.

For that matter, “Urban Legends: Final Cut” is barely a sequel to “Urban Legend.” Loretta Devine’s security guard is the only reoccurring character, aside from an overly jokey cameo by Rebecca Gayheart. The sequel takes Devine’s charming Pam Grier-obsession too far. In short, “Final Cut” continues to squander the series’ potential while also cramming in as many routine slasher clichés as possible. It’s not egregiously bad but is usually boring and completely forgettable. No wonder audiences were getting sick of this shit. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Assassin

Here’s another episode I found myself enjoying a lot despite it not having many horror elements. Janet McKey appears to be the perfect housewife, catering to the every need of her wholesome husband, Jack. However, one day a mysterious woman appears in their house. Followed by two men, she claims that Jack is actually a former CIA assassin. After leaving the organization, he changed his name and face and shacked up with Janet. However, Janet is soon turning the tables on the hitmen.

I’m a fan of switch-a-roo stories like this, where the intended victim turns the table on their attackers. The slow reveal that the seemingly innocent housewife is a trained killer too works nicely. I also like how the episode slowly reveals a sexy side, especially with a seduction scene on a treadmill. Watching lead actresses Shelly Hack and Chelsea Field snipe at each other is loads of fun. Corey Feldman also contributes a bizarre performance, talking in a funny low voice with jittery body language. Martin von Haselberg’s direction is more dynamic then you’d expect from television, with some cool crash zooms. The twist ending is ridiculous, definitely politically incorrect by modern standards, but admittedly hits with a bang. That post-script scene is gruesome and funny too. For no particular reason, William Sadler reprises his role as the Reaper from “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” in the host segments. Which is awesome and the perfect topping on a very entertaining episode. [8/10]

So Weird: Babble

“Babble” has a genuinely sort of interesting premise. A new student arrives in Jack and Clu’s class. He has trouble reading, which makes him a target for bullying. Inside his pocket, he keeps a stone that his archaeologist uncle gave him. Turns out, the stone is the last remaining piece of the Biblical Tower of Babel. Whenever the kid rubs the stone, people around begin speaking in gibberish. It’s up to Annie and Jack, but mostly Jack, to unravel this mystery and set things right.

“Babble” has the clever idea of comparing the Tower of Babel story with dyslexia. I have dyslexia myself, so the premise hits rather close to home. The script has a solid grasp on the condition yet never feels like a “lesson” episode. The moral coexists nicely with the story. Molly’s random announcement that she is dyslexic comes out of nowhere but I like how her condition lead her towards music. “Babble” is mostly about Jack and the new kid, Annie taking a back seat. The emotional heart of the episode is Jack making friends with the awkward new student, which is rather sweet. The stakes are low but charmingly so. Having the stone glow every time its powers are activated is a touch too much. Yet “Babble” does what “So Weird’ used to do all the time. It ties in real life, personal feelings with a supernatural concept. Replace Annie with Fiona, and take out some of Clu’s goofy comic relief, and “Babble” easily could have stood among seasons one or two. [7/10]

No comments: