Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 15

Blacula (1972)

“Blacula” is a movie probably more notorious then widely seen. When people think about the low budget campiness of seventies blaxploitation flicks, “Blacula” usually comes to mind pretty quickly. The title is goofy, though undeniably catchy. The trailer, which declares the title character to be “Dracula’s soul brother,” is obviously of its time. The premise – what if the vampire was black, you guys? – seems reductive. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss “Blacula” as a silly artifact of the seventies. The movie certainly isn’t above its low budget roots or occasional burst of funkiness. However, if you look beneath the surface, you may be surprised by “Blacula.”

In 1780, Count Dracula meets with Prince Mamuwalde of Africa and his beautiful wife Luva. The prince is there to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Dracula, in addition to being a bloodsucking monster, is also a racist. He laughs off Mamuwalde’s request, bites the Prince, entombs him, captures his bride, and dubs him “Blacula.” 192 years later, Mamuwalde’s casket is bought by a pair of interior decorators and shipped off to L.A. Blacula awakens, seeking blood. He also seeks his lost love, who has seemingly been resurrected as a woman named Tina.

Horror movies have often been popular among black, urban audiences. I’m probably not qualified to say why but I’ll take a swing at it anyway. Back in the seventies, maybe marginalized black audiences sympathized with cinematic monsters, who fought against a system that rejected and persecuted them. “Blacula” seems to literialize this. Its main character is both a monster and a black man. The film willingly partakes in classic horror imagery. Blacula is both urban and urbane, wearing flowing capes and fancy suits. Other vampires wear corpse paint and hoods. The script makes the comparison, not too subtly, that white society treated black people as if they were monsters. If “Blacula” is about the black man as monster, it’s also about the monster as hero. The last act of the movie is devoted to Mamuwalde dispatching a fleet of white police officer. I have no doubt that certain audiences cheered at this. Though a killer, Blacula is undoubtedly the hero of his own movie. He is motivated by love and his character arc is ultimately tragic.

In the modern age, the vampire is so established as a romantic figure that it’s unusual when they aren’t portrayed as such. This style was less popular in 1972, making “Blacula” both very much of its time but also ahead of it. Mamuwalde is undeniably a romantic figure. He charms Tina and, early into their relationship, boldly tells her his secret. (That she’s not off-put by it at all shows that, maybe, women have always thought vampires were hot.) The two soon fall into bed together. When Tina is killed, Mamuwalde’s roaring rampage of revenge is totally justified. William Marshall – the definitive example of a classically trained actor finding work in lowbrow blaxploitaiton – imbues the part with dignity, grace, humor, class, and an innate respect. “Blacula’s” treatment of the vampire as an epidemic, quickly spreading, is pretty modern too. A recently turned vampire thawing out of a refrigerated morgue cabinet is another clever element. While acknowledging the past, the movie endeavors to move the vampire archetype into the future.

When focused on the romance between Mamuwalde and Tina, “Blacula” is captivating. Marshall has fine chemistry with the gorgeous Vonetta McGee. Marshall is also great at illustrating Mamuwalde’s pull between being a respected nobleman and a fearsome bloodsucker. However, this story doesn’t occupy “Blacula” all by itself. A major subplot has Dr. Gordon Thomas, the boyfriend of Tina’s best friend, investigating the vampire murders. Against the apathetic white police force, he has to solve the undead invasion. The amazingly named Thalmus Rasulala isn’t bad in the role. There’s even a few funny scenes, like when he’s flirting with his girlfriend. However, the character is a snore, the most indistinct of Van Helsing types. The entire subplot is routine. When you’re here to see the badass vampire tear stuff up, watching the boring heroes try and stop him really drags the movie down.

Still, “Blacula” offers far more then you’d expect from a movie with its title and premise. The film grossed over a million dollars in 1972 money, a resounding success for a B-movie. In addition to a sequel, “Blacula” beget a number of imitators, other blaxploitation/monster movie mash-ups. Titles like “Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde,” “The Zombies of Sugar Hill,” or the inevitable “Blackenstein” would follow, none of them quite capturing the odd dignity of this one. It’s the rare movie that delivers cheap exploitation thrills and some high-minded discussion. This makes “Blacula” kind of perfect for the Halloween season. [7/10]

Valentine (2001)

Okay, I know this one is more then a little out of season but you can’t discuss the post-“Scream” slasher boom without getting to “Valentine.” By 2001, the slash revival had started to run out of steam. The “Scream” trilogy was over and even “Scary Movie” was out by this point. A new wave of indie horror and a nastier breed of retro-leaning fare was just over the horizon. The cycle of self-awareness had circled back around. With a few stylistic changes, “Valentine” would fit right in with the typical eighties fare. For all these reasons and more, it was the last slasher film of this type released by a mainstream studio.

At a six grade Valentine's Day dance, a nerdy kid named Jeremy is rejected by every girl he asks to dance. When he finally gets a female’s attention, the evening goes horribly wrong, the boy being humiliated in the process. A decade later, all those girls are now hot twenty somethings with exciting love lives. They’ve forgotten Jeremy. He hasn’t forgotten them. The women each receive threatening Valentine cards in the mail. Soon afterwards, a man in a cupid mask tracks and attack them, dispatching each in bloody ways. This Valentine's Day, hearts aren’t the only things that will be broken…

“Valentine” dispenses with the meta-commentary of “Scream” or even the references to urban legends found in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” or “Urban Legend.” (The latter shares a director with this film.) It’s almost a throwback to pre-“Scream” slash-fests. The unblinking cupid mask provides the killer with a cool, creepy appearance. An event in the past triggers the killings years later. The murders happen around a holiday. The killer walks slowly while chasing victims. The film is a straight-up who-dun-it. Really, the focus is more on the killings, rather then making any sort of point about them. “Valentine” is such a straight example of the genre, it borders on parody. The characters are broad and ridiculous. The melodrama of their love lives are seriously overheated. The movie’s tone slingshots between silly soap opera antics and deathly serious mayhem. If you squint, you can even see deliberate references to golden age classics like “Alone in the Dark” or “The Slumber Party Massacre.” For all the rock songs on the soundtrack, even the score is straight-up lumbering strings.

Don’t mistake this for an intentional throwback though. “Valentine’ is an obvious relic of its own time, as well. The direction is music video slick, with nary a fleck of grit. The fashion, music, and general tone all clearly mark this as a product of 2001. Mostly, it’s the gorgeous cast of gorgeous people that stands out. Marley Shelton is what passes for quirky here. Yes, she’s got those owl eyes but she’s still fucking beautiful. Denise Richards, at her most exotic and enticing, is the best friend. David Boreanaz is far from a believable recovering alcoholic. Katherine Heigl wears a tank-top in a morgue locker, for shits’ sake. Despite the L.A.-itis of the cast, the characters are still sort of likable. Shelton brings the same charm and eccentricity she gifts every role with to the indistinct hero part. Jessica Capshaw is delightfully bitchy as rich girl Dorothy. Even Richards, hardly a grand actress, has some fun with her part. Everyone is smirking through the script, seemingly aware of how thin and far-fetched these characters are. The cast is in on the fun.

“Valentine,” truthfully, is about the stalk and slash sequences. The gore is still tame by the standards of what came before and after. By the standards of other turn-of-the-millennium studio slashers, “Valnetine” comes off as especially gory and brutal. There’s a long stalking scene in a morgue, which actually builds some okay tension. A cool moment has a victim shot off a railing with arrows. A woman is tossed through a glass shower door and impaled on the shards. The best murder befalls Richards. It combines hot tub suffocation, power drill stabbing, and electrocution. Given the motivation, the killer is very pissed off and brings that anger to the murder scenes. Considering most of the victims are women, that adds another nasty edge to the film.  (The killer was also humiliated by boys but he doesn't feel the need to hunt and kill them.) Don’t get too excited. “Valentine” still fails the exploitation test, by leaving out the sex and nudity. Still, compared to the wimpy horror that dominated the genre at the time, “Valentine” is superiorly bloody. The killer’s main gimmick is that he bleeds, for goodness’ sake!

I guess you have to be on a particular wavelength to enjoy “Valentine.” It’s not going to dethrone “My Bloody Valentine” as the best slasher based around that holiday. It’s not even as good as the “My Bloody Valentine” remake, though it may be a little more honest. The final image is clever and cruelly ironic enough to suggest that all of “Valentine” is meant to be a piss-take. I’d believe it. Simultaneously fun and nasty, modern and retro, too serious and too flippant, “Valentine” is likely to appeal to sicko slasher devotees like you and me the most. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight

I’m not sure whose idea it was to expand the “Tales from the Crypt” brand name into theatrical films. A “Tales from the Crypt” movie, in some ways, seems to misunderstand the show’s appeal. The simple, ghoulish morality tales the series specialized in were easily digested at a half-hour. At feature length, such a story might grate. “Demon Knight,” and all the other proposed “Tales” movies, weren’t even based on stories from classic EC horror comics, negating the central gimmick. The series already had the production values, stars, and edgy content of a movie. Seemingly the only point was to attach a successful name to horror scripts that would otherwise be ignored. “Demon Knight” was a screenplay that had been kicked around since the eighties, passing through names like Tom Holland, Mary Lambert, and Full Moon Productions. Despite having so many points against it, “Demon Knight’ has developed a cult following even outside of “Crypt” fans.

A car chase occurs on a desert back road, one man pursuing another. The first man, Brayker, flees to a sleazy hotel in the desert, full of eccentric characters. The man after him is a mysterious figure who commands an army of demonic monsters, capable of possessing people. Brayker holds a vial full of Christ’s blood, which successfully repels the monsters. The container is actually a key. If the forces of Hell get their hands on it, the apocalypse will happen, Earth being plunged back into darkness. Now Brayker has to lead the ragtag team of people inside the hotel on a battle against the Demon Knight and save the world.

In some ways, “Demon Knight” maintains much of the “Tales from the Crypt” style. The movie begins with an extended version of the show’s traditional opening. The Crypt Keeper greets the audience with a goofy, pun-filled skit. “Demon Knight” even uses the same font in its opening credits that all of the “Tales” episode do. Otherwise, the movie ventures outside the show’s usual territory. “Demon Knight” has an epic perspective in mind. The plot details a prophecy, involving seven stars. The forces of good and evil are warring over the future of the world. The main character has lived for hundreds of years, part of a bloodline that goes all the way back to the crucifixion of Christ. Aside from the sex, gore, and monsters, there’s nothing in this story that fits the “Tales from the Crypt” formula. It’s not a bad plot. It’s even kind of fun. The battle to control the world playing out in the middle of nowhere is an interesting concept. You can imagine a director like John Carpenter spinning this pulpy yarn into something truly impressive. Filmmaker Ernest Dickerson isn’t even a third of the director Carpenter is but he does all right anyway.

The biggest pleasure of “Demon Knight” is its talented ensemble cast. There are plenty of recognized, beloved names here. William Sadler stars as Brayker, adapting well to the role of a stoic, western-style bad ass. Jada Pinkett is likably tough as Jeryline, who emerges as the unlikely hero of the film. Thomas Haden Church is amusing as a scumbag who tries to sell out humanity. Dick Miller is especially funny as the kindly old man whose fantasies involve an open bar and topless, busty women. Brenda Brakke is charming, and lovely, as the hooker with a heart of gold. It’s a good cast but one performer looms over all the rest. Billy Zane plays the Collector, the demonic master of temptation pursuing our heroes. Zane hams it up to glorious levels. He kicks off a cowboy hat, dances, serves drinks, speaks long chunks of dialogue in a crispy whisper, plays with his sunglasses, and shoots fire from his crotch. Zane gets all the movie’s best lines and most of its best scenes. Really, the movie is fun mostly because Zane is having such a ball.

“Demon Knight’ isn’t scary but, then again, most “Tales from the Crypt” episodes aren’t either. There are no rotting zombies or spurned lovers, the show’s trademarks. At the very least, the movie delivers on the grisly special effects. When people are possessed by the demonic spirit, they turn into slobbering monsters with glowing green eyes. My favorite transformation has the little boy unhinging his jaws, revealing an elongated tongue. The demons can only be killed by destroying their eyes. This leads to lots of exploding heads, tossing plenty of green slime all over the place. One of the screenwriters who worked on “Demon Knight” also wrote “Pumpkinhead.” This is probably just a coincidence but the monsters look a lot like Pumpkinhead. They have the same elongated domes, blunt faces, spindly limbs, arched feet, and hairless tails. The spacious attics and underground tunnels offer some minor effective atmosphere.

Released late into “Tales from the Crypt’s” sixth season, the movie didn’t do much to raise the show’s slipping profile. The box office performance was just okay, though apparently still good enough to justify another “Tales” feature. The soundtrack, a collection of hard-edged metal songs, might have been more popular then the movie it spawned from. Still, probably thanks to cable airings and VHS rentals, an audience has come to love this one. I’m still not sure if it really fits the “Tales from the Crypt” format but it’s a reasonably likable horror flick. [7/10]

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