Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 14

Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015)

Back in February, I watched and reviewed the “Tremors” movies. Full disclosure: I love this goofy, worm-filled franchise. The first three are nostalgic favorites of mine, re-watched countless times as a teenager, and I even really like the fourth one. So when “Tremors 5: Bloodlines” was announced, you’d think I’d be super excited for it, right? Not so. It wasn’t just the generic subtitle that concerned me. Or Jaime Kennedy’s co-starring role, for that matter. Neither S.S. Wilson or Brent Maddock, the men who created the series and oversaw every previous entry, were involved with this new one. Director Don Michael Paul’s previous credits did not fill me with a lot of confidence. Mostly, I just didn’t know if studios could still make fun, direct-to-video monster-fests. The movie doesn’t overcome these concerns.

In the years since “Tremors: The Series,” Burt Gummer has successfully confined the Graboids species to the North American continent. Or so he thinks. Filming on his new survivalist reality show is interrupted by news of an outbreak in South Africa. A larger, deadlier, prehistoric breed of Graboid and Ass-Blaster has been uncovered on the savannas. Burt and his new associate, Travis Welker, are hired to contain the beasts. As usual, the underground monsters have ways of surprising our heroes. Furthermore, Burt’s employees can’t be trusted either.

The secret weapon of the “Tremors” series, the reason people love these movies, has always been the characters. So it’s a disappointment that “Bloodlines” moves out of Perfection and leaves behind every character aside from Burt. Eleven years has passed and Michael Gross has aged a lot but he’s still game. Burt is as lively as ever. Watching him cackle with glee when trying out a new gun or monologuing to the camera in a mock-grim manner is still fun. Truthfully, just seeing the character again after such a long absence warms my heart. However, I wonder if “Bloodlines” could be more respectful of ol' Burt. There’s a few not-quite good natured jokes at his expense. One long scene has him locked in a cage. Under the African heat, he goes a little stir-crazy. The scene concludes with Gummer drinking his own urine and getting peed on by a lion. It’s an embarrassing moment, one that drags the entire movie down. It slightly undermines Burt’s credentials as a monster blastin’ badass, even if the rest of the film holds true to that vision.

Another charming evergreen element of the “Tremors” series has been the consistent monster designs. The Graboids, Shriekers, and Ass-Blasters were all cool looking. When brought to life with practical effects, they were convincing monsters. I’m sad to report that “Tremors 5” features no practical creature effects. This is an all CGI ride. Secondly, the movie focuses on a new breed of the creatures that is wildly different then what we’re used to. The Ass-Blasters' tri-segmented mouth is discarded in favor of an uninspired, vagina dentata deal. Its squatter body, backwards facing legs, and raptor claws aren’t very inspired either. It doesn’t help that the Ass-Blaster takes up most of the movie. When the Graboid finally shows up, it too has been widely redesigned. It’s prehensile tongues can now detach, slithering around like weird cobras. The Graboids are craggier, with more visible bones and muscles. For some reason, they spin through the air while jumping. And there’s no Shriekers in the film at all. Overall, the monster aspect is far less charming then in previous movies.

The “Tremors” series has a formula all its own. Each movie introduces a new monster. Burt prepares for one type of creatures only to be woefully unprepared for a different type. The rules of new creature are quickly established and the survivors use this information against the monsters. The beasties die in spectacular ways. “Bloodlines” doesn’t deviant from this established outline too much. Minor events referenced in the first act, like motorcycles, lightening storms, or electric shocks, become important at the end. Mostly, it’s that new character that changes thing. Jaime Kennedy, washed-up stand-up and former Randy, is an odd choice for a motorcycle riding, business savvy cool guy. Kennedy actually seems partially aware of this, subverting the character’s conceived coolness. He has okay chemistry with Gross, even if his constant name-calling gets old. The exact details of the relationship between the two characters is easy to guess, as the movie foreshadows it heavily. (The subtitle gives it away too.)

Despite “Tremors” always having its worm-tongue firmly in cheek, “Bloodlines” feels a bit too much like a typical monster flick at times. There’s a new batch of characters, like a female doctor, her love interest, and a little girl. A long sequence has them menaced by the Ass-Blasters. It chases through the building’s kitchen, in a scene hopelessly reminiscent of “Jurassic Park.” Really, there’s nothing compelling about the new cast and the movie’s attempts at straight horror are underwhelming. Don Michael Paul’s direction frequently employs shaky-cam and crash zooms. This is most obvious when a pair of unimportant side characters are eaten by the worms. The focus is on their faces, the camera trembling, the actors screaming, blood spurting off-screen. That protracted, laughable moment is only one of the overdone action scenes in the movie.

To say I was disappointed in “Tremors 5” would suggest my expectations were high for it. They weren’t. In some ways, I found the movie to be mildly entertaining. Just watching Michael Gross blasting worms again has an undeniable amusement value. The script is occasionally funny. To its benefit, the movie is never boring. However, “Bloodlines” does seem to miss the appeal of these flicks, doesn’t totally respect the source material, and feels entirely too generic at times. I suppose we should all be thankful it’s a numbered sequel and a direct continuation, instead of a remake. Yet I’ll be far more likely to rewatch one through four before I ever re-visit this one. [5/10]

Cherry Falls (2000)

In high school, I had a huge crush on this sardonic, slightly gothy girl named Karen. Imagine a real life Daria and you're about half-way there. Despite my best efforts, we were never more then friends and I often suspected she secretly hated me. Anyway, she was fond of quoting the line “You loose your spiritual virginity when you realize your parents are bigger hypocrites then your friends.” It would be some time before I found out that quote was from “Cherry Falls.” The very definition of a post-“Scream” slasher, the film was low on gore, starred television-friendly actors, was slickly directed, and delivered a meta-twist on the slasher genre. Despite those generic qualities, “Cherry Falls” is better then you’d think.

Cherry Falls is a wholesome, seemingly safe small town in suburban Virginia. That sense of safety is shattered when a serial killer strikes. Instead of targeting the promiscuous, virgins are the killer’s targets. This especially concerns Sheriff Markan, whose innocent daughter Jody has just dumped her grabby boyfriend. The sheriff makes the hard decision to announce the killer’s M.O. The high school students, in response, plan a massive orgy. Jody, meanwhile, investigates her family’s past, discovering an awful secret, sending on a collision course with the murderer.

Eighties slasher were usually exploitation films, the gore and titillation being the selling points. The late nineties slasher were more focused on slick thrills then anything else. Rarely was either type of film actually about anything. “Cherry Falls,” however, has some things on its mind. Our culture sexualizes kids at younger and younger ages while reinforcing the value and perceived innocence of their virginity. Pop culture tells them to have sex while also telling them that they will be devalued if they do. That’s fucked up. “Cherry Falls” seems slightly aware of this hypocritical double standard. A major thread in the film concerns Jody discovering that her father has a checkered past. The script makes the clear distinction that spiritual maturity and sexual innocence are far from the same thing. The killer’s genuinely disturbing backstory – featuring rape and child abuse – shows a similar fixation on teenage sexuality and “innocence.” “Cherry Falls” isn’t quite smart enough to make any sort of point but these issues are definitely floating around inside the film’s cortex.

As a slasher film, “Cherry Falls” is pretty light on the red stuff. The movie frequently cuts away from the murder scenes, which I suspect was more of an artistic decision then a censorship one. Despite the lack of gore, “Cherry Falls” is still reasonably successful in the horror department. The killer is obviously a man cross-dressing as a woman but the long black hair, mini-skirt, and red nails is still a memorable look. The most intense sequence is when the killer chases the heroine through an empty high school. The rock score drains away some tension but the frenzied, up-close direction still allows the scene to build decently. After the killer’s identity is revealed, “Cherry Falls” develops a likable loopy side. After telling the heroes to split, one minor character receives an axe to the head. The murderer shows up at the orgy party, slicing through the kids even after they’ve done it. One amusing scene has the fleeing teens crowded onto a staircase, busting through the banister in their frenzy. The film definitely has a funny, stylish edge to it.

Rounding out “Cherry Falls” is an above-average cast. Brittany Murphy was, too frequently, cast as dumb blondes or blandly sexy characters over her short career. This film has her against type, as a dark-haired, somewhat snarky protagonist. A notable moment comes when her boyfriend rebuffs her sexual advances. Jody’s parents are played by Michael Biehn and Candy Clark. Clark is basically a cameo but Biehn actually has a surprisingly meaty role. The scene where he subtly encourages his daughter to sleep around is uncomfortable, funny, but weirdly sweet. Biehn has to balance guilt, concern, and fear in his part and does so well. I also like Jay Mohr as the eccentric school teacher. Keep your eyes open for small parts from recognizable faces like DJ Qualls and Michael Weston.

“Cherry Falls” doesn’t reinvent the wheel. I can see jaded horror fans dismissing it outright, for its lack of gore and willingness to partake in late nineties clichés. However, I find the film to be a lot more likable, funnier, and more thoughtful then the many similar films released around the same time. Weirdly, “Cherry Falls” never got a U.S. theatrical release but still found a following from home video rentals and TV screenings. I have to say, the movie deserves it. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Doctor of Horror

“Doctor of Horror” is one of the earliest “Tales” I can remember seeing, back when the show aired in an edited form on late night Fox. Richard and Charlie have recently been hired as security guards at a morgue. On their first night, they spot an eccentric doctor stealing a corpse. Dr. Orloff believes that the human soul is a physical gland and can be extracted from the body. The amoral Richard has no problem playing along with Orloff’s body snatching and surgery. The kindly Charlie, however, is disgusted by the experiments. When Orloff realizes that a soul can only be taken from a living body, Richard is soon indulging his desire for murder and vivisection. But neither expects what happens when a soul is successfully stolen.

“Doctor of Horror” holds up as an almost archetypal “Tales from the Crypt” episode. The story features macabre experiments, a psychopath, a grotesque zombie, and revenge from beyond the grave. The bad guys get what’s coming to them in especially grisly ways. Searching for a literal, physical soul is as good a motivation as any for a mad scientist. The performances are fun. Hank Azaria sports an exaggerated Pompadour. He sweats and rages in anger, a sociopath barely concerning his murderous fury. Travis Tritt, a once popular country western singer, adapts surprisingly well as the kindly, conflicted Charlie. Austin Pendleton is laid back in a funny way as the mad doctor. The episode also provides the oppretunity to see Ben Stein get his head bashed in. Larry Wilson’s direction is nicely energetic. He attaches his camera to the front of a moving gurney or peers up from well. The underground labs, crypts, and abandoned wells provide some nice spooky atmosphere. Aside from some unnecessary slow motion, it’s a good looking show. The dismembered zombie that shows up at the end has a novel, dripping design. The head is on backwards on a twisted, rotten body. The ending is especially ironic, even by the standards of this show. In short, “Doctor of Horror” is a classic “Crypt” episode. Even the Crypt Keeper’s barber-themed wraparounds are a blast. [8/10]

So Weird: Dead Ringer

The season nearly over, “So Weird” took the time to devote an entire episode to Jack. An old neighbor of the Philips family has recently passed away. Molly and Annie stop by and pick up a few things from the family yard sale. Among the items is a rotary telephone. Jack is shaken by the object. As a kid, he threw a ball through the neighbor's window and never confessed to the deed. The guilt still haunts him, years later. Soon, the old phone starts ringing. Jack hears the dead man’s voice and is attacked by strange images.

I actually remember seeing “Dead Ringer” as a kid. At the time, it’s horror struck me as so fangless and corny, that I realized “So Weird” had passed the point where it could ever be good again. That’s right, this was the moment the show jumped the shark. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Truthfully, “Dead Ringer” is sometimes better then the season that surrounds it. Yeah, it’s supernatural elements aren’t very frightening. Jack feeling guilty for something as minor as breaking a neighbor’s window stretches belief. The ghost’s form of revenge, like dropping golf balls on Jack’s head and making an eye appear in a window, aren’t very threatening. However, “Dead Ringer” is actually attempting to be scary. Moreover, the show is tackling a serious theme: Guilt. The ending, which is slightly confusing, suggests that owning up to one’s action is the best way to push pass them. Mostly, it’s nice to see Jack take the lead for an episode. Patrick Levis is more then talented enough to carry the episode. His panicked performance actually makes it worth watching. Oh, it’s far from the creepiest episode of the series. Yet it’s much better then I remember, showing that the troubled third season actually improved some in its latter half. [6.5/10]

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