Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 16, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 16

The War of the Worlds (1953)

There was a brief period of time, around when I was eleven years old, when I was obsessed with “War of the Worlds.” I had recently read H.G. Wells’ original novel, taken from a yard sale bought box of classic literature, and fell in love with it. I recall listening to a CD of Orson Welles’ notorious radio adaptation during a long car trip, being riveted by it. I even gave Jeff Waynes’ prog-rock concept album version a few spins. Weirdly, I came to the 1953 film adaptation surprisingly late, not catching it until years later on TV. Though younger me was critical of the story changes, I still loved the movie. There have been multiple film versions of Wells’ novel since then, ranging from the high profile to the extremely low budget. Yet none have managed to exactly top this one.

“Across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Sometime after the end of World War II, a mysterious comet crashes down in rural California. At first, the locals are curious. Among them are nuclear physicist Clayton Forester and a young woman named Sylvia. Soon, a death ray rises from the capsule, eliminating all who approaches it. Floating warships arise and began an invasion. Earth is powerless against the Martian forces. Clayton and Sylvia attempt to survive the war of the worlds, as mankind hopelessly devises a way to defeat the invaders.

Director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal loosely adapted Wells’ story. The first half follows the book, to a degree, before going off in its own direction. What Haskin and Pal mostly do is update the story to the then-modern day. The film takes place in the same idealized American small town as a hundred other fifties sci-fi movies. There is a deliberate focus on the quint, pleasant life of the town. As if to draw attention to what will soon be lost. That focus on the puny humans is something seen all throughout “War of the Worlds” and one of its greatest strengths. The town parson, Sylvia’s uncle, approaches the death ray while praying, bravely confronting death. Sylvia, in response, cries out for him. Even in the middle of a crisis, Clayton and the girl find time for a home-cooked meal, while hiding out from the Martians. In the last act, as society collapses, the film focuses on Forester attempting to reunite with the woman he loves. As the building around them collapses, they hold each other in what could be their final moments. It’s surprisingly touching, sophisticated stuff. It roots this cosmic story of alien invasion in a very real and human place.

However, what most people are going to remember about “War of the Worlds” are the Martian war machines. To eyes in 2015, the special effects may look dated. On DVD, we can see the wires attached to the saucers as they emerge from the capsule. Back in 1953, the effects were ground-breaking. Pal’s film is one of the earliest alien invasion films and easily the most influential. Though the effects may not have aged the best, you can still admire the production design. The manta ray shaped saucers, in chrome blue with glowing green highlights, were immediately iconic. Extending from the ship are parascoping arms, the heat rays attached at the top. The weapon looks like a starring eye, dispassionate, cruel, and judgmental. That it shoots a colorful death ray is almost unnecessary. Maybe the most impressive scene is a flowing shot, taken from the perspective of an airplane. The flying machines approach near by, the plane flying over the countryside. It’s an effective, almost frightening sequence, surprisingly visceral and immediate.

Some of you might be wondering why I’m covering “The War of the Worlds,” a landmark science fiction, during my Halloween horror marathon. There’s no doubt in my mind that “War of the Worlds” has plenty of horrific elements. The Martian weapons cause men to burst into flames. There’s a genuine, unnerving panic to the early scenes of the saucers emerging and attacking people. A stand-out segment occurs when the Martians enter the house Forester and Sylvia are hiding in. A camera on a telescoping arm precedes them, its appearance sudden, the doctor striking it with an axe. Afterwards, we get a fleeting glimpse of the Martian themselves. A three-fingered hand touches down on the girl’s shoulder. (The suckers on the end of the fingers seems to imply an element left out of the film: That the Martians drink human blood.) She screams as the alien’s visage, the rubber monster then fleeing the house. This is an almost classical horror sequence, the monster and the girl bumping into each in a darkened room. The later scenes, when the invading forces have crushed the world’s military and the cities are in ruin, also pushes the film into the realm of apocalyptic horror. Though it’s no doubt an important sci-fi movie, it’s not too far to consider “War of the Worlds’ an important horror movie too.

When focused on Clayton and Slyvia’s attempts to survive the Martian onslaught, “War of the Worlds” is hugely effective. When the film’s focus shifts to the world’s military leaders plotting ways to stop the invaders, it becomes less interesting. Scenes in a war room, of scientists and generals considering their next course of action, drags the pacing down. The last third of the film wanders a bit before coming to its conclusion. The Martians falling to common Earthly bacteria is the story’s well known twist. Wells meant it to be strictly ironic, that the mightiest invaders would be defeated by the smallest organisms. The film puts a blatantly religious spin on it. As the saucers approach, the survivors gather in a church, listening to what could be their last sermon. As the creatures die, a sickly hand crawling out of the downed space ship, church bells ring. People sing hymns. Mostly, this draws attention to what a blatant deus ex machina the ending is. Yet it also, admittedly, adds a mythic quality to the ending.

Though not effective for the entirety of its run time, “The War of the Worlds” is still an impressive accomplishment. The cast is likable, with Gene Barry and Ann Robison having solid chemistry with each other. Leith Stevens’ musical score provides a hummable, immediately recognizable main theme. Though special effects technology may have outrun it, and it may lack the ever important tripods, the original “War of the Worlds” still hasn’t been totally topped. It is the iconic film version of Wells’ story and a powerful, thrilling piece of filmmaking. [9/10]

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

“Blacula” was a successful film and, though some might be reluctant to declare it so, is definitely an enduring pop culture artifact. American International Picture, perhaps seeing the success the film’s imitators were having, knew they had to produce a sequel. With a title as nearly as awesome as the original, “Scream Blacula Scream” rolled out a year later. With a box office gross far lower then the first, the sequel has never been as well-regarded or remembered as the film that spawned it.

With the death of a respected voodoo priestess, a rivalry arises between her thuggish son and her adopted daughter, a powerful voodoo priestess in her own right. Hoping to get revenge on Lisa, Willis buys the bones of Prince Mamuwalbe, otherwise known as Blacula. Resurrected with black magic, the black prince stalks again. Blacula starts to sire other vampires, including Willis, creating a new plague of bloodsuckers. He also develops an interest in Lisa, attracted to the beautiful woman. Soon, the vampire begins to considers a way to end his eternal status as an undead creature.

Though definitely an inferior sequel, “Scream Blacula Scream” has two big pluses in its favor. William Marshall is back as the vampire prince. His resounding, powerful voice and innate sense of dignity and authority carries most of the film. Many of scenes in the film has Mamuwalde controlling people simply with his voice or a look. Few actors could pull this off but someone as powerful as Marshall easily handles it. Standing opposite Marshall is another reigning icon of blaxploitation, Pam Grier. Lisa is different from the irrepressibly strong women Grier usually plays. She’s timid, more intellectual. Pairing Marshall and Grier is the film’s only true masterstroke. Simple scenes of the two standing around, talking, are captivating just based on the strength of the performers. The film concludes with the two sitting around a table, Grier performing an exorcism. Their foreheads sweat, heads rolling back, the two moaning and shouting… It’s basically a sex scene without the sex, another clever element the troubled sequel delivers on.

When focusing on Mamuwalde and Lisa’s growing relationship, “Scream Blacula Scream” is alright. Like the first film though, it saddles itself with some distracting subplots. Instead of a black police officer investigating the vampire problem, the film has a former-police officer as the Van Helsing type. Don Mitchell’s Justin is fine, really. His scenes discussing African history with Blacula are fun. However, watching him figure out the vampire problem that we already know isn’t exactly compelling. Both films end with cops taking the fight to Blacula and being dispatched by the vampire. “Scream Blacula Scream” isn’t done, adding another story line. Mamuwalde turns Willis into a vampire after their first meeting. So the film has another vampire running around. Though Willis seemingly plots against Mamuwalde, this story line never comes to a head. It’s just another thing to distract from the characters the audience actually cares about.

“Scream Blacula Scream” is occasionally effective as a horror film. Director Bob Kelljan creates some clever visuals. I like the ways the vampires swoop in on their victims. Kelljan’s direction is cramped and personal, focusing on the actor’s face in tight areas. This, every once in a while, generates some okay tension. Overall though, “Scream Blacula Scream” is not as well paced as its predecessor. Certain scenes drag and the plot lacks forward momentum. While the first “Blacula” obviously had something to say about race, the sequel doesn’t seem to have any social commentary in mind. At one point, Mamuwalde chastises a pair of black pimps for “making slaves of their sisters” but that’s just one scene. In the final scene, the main character rejects the name Mamuwalde and starts calling himself Blacula, seemingly accepting his fate as a monster. But this is said to another black man. Yes, the vampire clobbers some white cops but the sequels robs that image of any power. It’s merely imitating what worked the first time, to diminished returns.

“Scream Blacula Scream” gets a lot of mileage out of Marshall’s immense screen presence and Pam Grier’s undeniable charm. However, it’s awkwardly written, paced, and directed. It lacks the power and poetry of the original. Even the score, though still sufficiently funky, isn’t as exciting as the first film’s music. The sequel isn’t without its pleasure but you won’t exactly be screaming for it either. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: In the Groove

Is Miguel Ferrer the actor with the most “Tales from the Crypt” appearances? Seems like John Kassir is the only person on the show more often. Anyway, in “In the Groove,” Miguel plays Gary, a shock jock who hosts a sex-themed talk show. His ratings are in the toilet and the station owner, his sister, is eager to bury the program. When she insists on a co-host for the programmer, a mousy woman named Valerie, Gary is at first reluctant. However, the two have a spicy chemistry, making the show popular again. When Gary has an on-air breakdown, it gives his sister the excuse she needs to push him out. This being “Tales,” the two DJs then plot murder.

“In the Groove” is “Tales from the Crypt” seemingly taking a hack at the erotic thriller genre. The fantasy sequences Gary has while discussing sex with his co-hosts don’t feature any nudity. They do, however, have lots of moaning and husky whispers. Stylish though these scenes are, they aren’t the high-light of the episode. That belongs to Ferrer hamming it up. His character is unreasonably angry, bellowing and blustery the entire time. When he has his epic breakdown in the middle of the episode, it’s not a shock but rather an inevitability. Linda Doucett is likably mousy as Gary’s laid-back foil and I like how bitchy Wendie Malick is as the evil sister. The plot is more then willing to go in some Freudian directions. The way the episode goes, with the murder plot, is easy to guess. How that plays out is even more obvious. This is “Tales from the Crypt,” so betrayal and deception is expected. The script is routine but the cast – which includes a cameo from Slash, by the way – still makes “In the Groove” worth watching. [6/10]

So Weird: Annie’s Song

Oh boy, a whole episode devoted to that stupid spirit panther. The penultimate episode of “So Weird,” “Annie’s Song” finally digs into the character’s past after a whole season of foreshadowing. While on an Indian reservation, Annie encounters the tribe’s shaman. He immediately recognizes her as someone with a special guardian. Soon, the shaman is possessed by the spirit of Coyote. Coyote leads Annie into the forest on her own vision quest, where she’ll remember the details of her childhood and her first encounter with the panther.

I’ve made my feelings about Annie’s spirit panther well known. It’s dumb. It’s a lazy way for the writer’s to wrap up plots. The mysterious nature of the panther was an obvious way to make Annie seem interesting to disinterested viewers. So what’s the secret origin of the spirit panther? As a little girl in the Amazon, Annie wandered out into the jungle at night. She encountered a young boy who was about to be bitten by a snake. The snake bit her instead. Grateful for her sacrifice, the tribe’s chieftain insured that she would always be protected by the tribe’s spirit, a panther. It’s not the most inspired origin, partaking of the kind of new age, magic Indian nonsense the show is usually better than. The A-plot, involving native American spirits and magic, trades in the same sort of stereotypes. The stakes of the episode are very low, as the entire script is built around Annie’s flashback. There’s some bad CGI and the actor playing Coyote overacts. Further looking to annoy me, the episode concludes with a long scene of Annie singing some uninspired pop drivel. I mean, the episode isn’t terrible or anything. It’s just more of the dumb bullshit that sadly characterized season three. [5/10] 

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