Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 17

Invaders from Mars (1953)

“Invaders from Mars” is a movie I’ve heard about for years that I’ve somehow avoided seeing until now. A very long time ago, I can recall seeing a documentary about science fiction films. It featured a scene of a little boy banging on a glass dome, an alien creature inside. Some time after that, I read a book – probably by Daniel Cohen – that spoiled the ending. “Invaders from Mars” is one of those fifties genre flicks I had seemingly adsorbed through pop culture osmosis, without ever actually seeing it. After years of hearing about it, now the time has come for me to actually watch “Invaders from Mars.”

David MacClean is a young boy with a love and fascination with space, astronomy, and science. He gets this honestly from his dad, a scientist working at the near-by military base. After awaking in the middle of the night to look at a particular star through his telescope, he sees a spaceship land in the sand field behind his home. When his father goes to investigate, he returns the next morning, acting very strangely. David notices that his dad has a pin-prick on the back of his neck. He notices the same mark on other people in town, all of whom are also acting oddly. Soon, the boy begins to realize that an insidious Martian invasion of Earth has began and the mother-ship is buried in the sands outside his home.

I’ve read that many fans of “Invaders from Mars” first see it when they’re kids. I think seven-to-twelve is absolutely the best time to watch the film. Spoiler alert for a sixty year old movie: The last scene in “Invaders form Mars” reveals that the entire film has been a dream of David’s. In this context, the entire story becomes the paranoid nightmare of a little boy. His parents, who are nurturing and loving in the first scene, become cold, detached, and violent. The little girl who lives next door dies suddenly, murdered by the Martian overlords. To a child, the world of adults is mysterious. How much power and authority an adult has over a kid is especially frightening. “Invaders from Mars” seems designed to play on these fears, on the anxieties of a child. The film predates “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” by three years but plays on similar concerns. The Martians don’t invade in spaceships, as in the same year’s “War of the Worlds,” but with a slow, individual infiltration. Say it’s about communism all you want but loosing one’s identity, or a loved one loosing their identity, is probably the scariest thing most of us could imagine.

So “Invaders from Mars” is interesting. Unfortunately, it also has many long, slow stretches. After he realizes what is happening, David seeks out people who can help him. This eventually leads him to a child psychiatrist, played by Helena Carter. After some convincing, she buys into his story. Many of these sequences are long and flat, devoted to people standing around and talking. There is one crushingly protracted sequence where an astronomer explains his theories about Mars, how the Martians live underground and have a genetically engineered race of slaves called Mutants. (Emphasis on the last syllable.) Quite improbably, all of this turns out to be true. The doctor soon convinces some men from the local army base, leading to a full-scale assault on the Martian force. This leads to long montages of tanks riding around or generals tersely discussing a plan of action. Honestly, too much of “Invaders from Mars” is devoted to repetitive scenes of people going up to the sand and being sucked in.

I’m not putting down William Cameron Menzies’ direction. It’s actually quite clever at times. He frequently films scenes from low angles, replicating the way a child sees the world. This is especially notable during the sequences in the police station, where the hallways seem impossibly long. In the last act of the film, when the Martians are shown, the film truly reveals its odd, dream-like tone. The make-up effects are fairly cheesy. The Mutants are played by men in green, shaggy body-suits with bug-eyed, frowning masks. They move stiffly. As cheap as it is, in a weird way it still works. The Mutants look like the kind monsters a child would draw, adding to the effect. As for the Martian overlord, its design is rightfully iconic: A green head, wearing a helmet, with a few flailing tentacles, placed inside a glass sphere. I would’ve liked to have seen the Martian do more but he’s memorable nevertheless.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to “Invaders from Mars” if I had seen it as a child. If the film’s continued popularity among monster kids is any indication, children obviously pick up on the movie’s themes and ideas. The movie proved iconic enough to receive a remake in the eighties, during the same wave of fifties sci-fi remakes that gave us Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” and Russell’s “The Blob.” Though I don’t think the movie works entirely, there’s no doubt that “Invaders from Mars” is interesting. It’s probably a classic for a reason, I suppose. [6/10]

Blind Beast (1969)

“Blind Beast” is a film I had never even heard of until earlier this year when I watched a Youtube montage called “The Evolution of Horror Films.” The image featured in the video caught my eye and, after looking the movie up, I became intrigued. Released by Daiei Studio in 1969 – the same year the company made “Gamera vs. Guiron,” to give you some context – the film was part of the first wave of a particular type of Japanese movie. A combination of eroticism and violence, the pink film or roman porno would become more explicit and twisted going into the seventies. “Blind Beast” keeps most of the sex and gore off-screen but still manages to be unnerving in a psychological, visceral way.

Aki is a model who recently posed for a series of erotic pictorials, posing nude while wrapped in chains. Part of the gallery is a statue of her. While visiting the exhibition, she sees a blind man feeling up every inch of the statue. That same night, she invites a masseur up to her apartment who turns out to be the same man, Michio. With help from his mother, he kidnaps her, abducting her to his warehouse studio in the country. A sculptor, Michio has become obsessed with Aki, determined to replicate her body in clay. A psychological battle of wills starts between model and artist. Soon afterwards, both are pulled down into a world of sensation and twisted desire.

“Môjû” accomplishes a lot of things, changing focus and direction several times. At first, the movie struck me as a psycho-thriller along the lines of “Psycho,” “Peeping Tom,” or “The Collector.” All three appear to be an influence, until you realize the movie was based off a book written in the thirties. The relationship Michio has with his mother is dripping with Freudian weirdness. He states early on that he resents his parents, blaming them for his blindness. Later, he tells his mother he relies completely on her. Michio is something like a Norman Bates-style man-child, depended entirely on his mother. He’s a virgin and his lust for the girl already seems to have driven him half mad. One scene seemingly shows mother and son sleeping in the same bed, which certainly raises some questions. When he develops feelings for Aki, the mother becomes jealous and angry, attempting to pull the two apart. When the mother is killed in a struggle, it signals Michio descent into complete madness. “Blind Beast” is hard to predict though. This is only one portion of the film and the movie winds up going in other, bizarre directions.

Most of “Môjû” is devoted to Aki trying to outwit Michio. Because of his naïvete, Aki pretends to be sick or develop feelings for Michio, hoping to escape. This occupies most of the film and is thoroughly compelling, the audience wondering if the girl can escape the mad man’s grasp. She comes close a few times too. Like I said, the film drastically changes direction a few times. After his mother’s death, Michio rapes Aki and she falls in love with him. (Whether this is Stockholm Syndrome or just Japan’s fucked up gender politics, I’ll leave for you to decide.) As their relationship deepens, Aki becomes blind too and both become obsessed with sensation. Both performers, Eiji Funakoshi and Mako Midori, are captivating. They make both characters’ odd habits and the story’s unexpected shifts believable. Yasuzo Masumura – who is apparently considered an underrated auteur of the Japanese New Wave – brings an unnerving style to the film, which is helped along by the sparse, experimental musical score.

Michio is such a bizarre character. His blindness has led to an obsession with touching. The walls of his work studio are covered with sculpted arms, eyes, mouths, ears, noses, and breasts, seemingly representing the senses. Giant statues of naked woman sit in the center of the room. This is the perverse world “Blind Beast” inhabits. The last act is when the film’s erotic and horror elements become most apparent. Aki and Michio explore more perverse sexual antics, trying out bondage and sadism. By story’s end, they’re experimenting with self-mutilation. Like I said, there’s no blood on-screen and less nudity then that statement implies. Mostly, the audience only hears exaggerated sounds of slicing flesh. This is far more disturbing then any gore effects could ever be. The conclusion, which I won’t spoil, actually left me feeling slightly sea sick and unnerved. The film creates a truly deprived atmosphere. The script spins this into an indictment of hedonism but it seems like a natural extension of the story’s obsession with sensation and lust.

“Blind Beast” is way out-of-print on domestic DVD but can be found on the internet easily. It definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s a disturbing and odd movie that doesn’t fit neatly into either the horror or erotic thriller genre. The performances, direction, music, and writing combine to create an impactful movie. A loose and far more explicit sounding remake followed in 2001. It won’t be to everyone’s liking or style but I’m glad I seeked it out. If you like the weird, unnerving, or slightly kinky, you should seek it out too. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Comes the Dawn

Unrelated to the similarly titled season five episode “Came the Dawn,” “Comes the Dawn” instead might have been the inspiration for the “30 Days of Night” series. A former sergeant and colonel, Burrows and Parker, travel up to Alaska in the middle of a snow storm. They’re hunting bear and enlist Jeri, a woman solider that was part of Burrows’ unit. As the two head into an abandoned cabin, they don’t find bear. Instead, they discover a far more dangerous predator. Typically, the hunters soon become the hunted. The Alaskan winter isn’t helping them any either.

“Comes the Dawn” is tensely shot, most of it taking place in a cramped, snowbound cabin. Suggesting the coldness of the night, the episode is shot through a cool blue filter. With a small cast, it’s primarily about the three actors challenging each other. “Tales” veteran Michael Ironside plays Burrows, as hard-edged and convincing as the actor always is. Bruce Payne, a fellow “Highlander” villain, is nice as the more cowardly Parker. The unexpected MVP of the episode is Vivian Wu as Jeri. There have been lots of seductive, treacherous woman in “Tales from the Crypt” but few have as justified a motive as Wu’s Jeri. The episode is capped off with some nicely, gory monster effects. Yep, this is a vampire episode. In a nice change, the vamps hide out in giant, fleshy cocoons, hanging from beams. As I said earlier, if you’ve seen “30 Days of Night,” you can guess the twist ending. I’d argue this TV episode might use that idea better then the aforementioned movie did though. “Comes the Dawn” is a mean, lean “Tales” episode and a highlight of the sixth season, for sure. [7/10]

So Weird: The River

So this is the inglorious last episode of “So Weird:” A clip show. Annie receives a package sent by Ziegler, the man she left stranded in a time loop in “Exit 13.” Contained within is water from the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness from Greek mythology. A clumsy Clu splashes the Philips family with the water. Molly, Jack, Cary, and Clu are targeted by a specific type of amnesia. They suddenly have no idea who Annie is. Hours before Molly is scheduled to perform a concert, Annie has to remind everyone who she is.

There’s not very much to say about “The River.” Season two’s “Encore” utilized the clip show idea far more smartly, the clips merely playing out as memories over Molly’s music. “The River,” instead, has Annie reminding the characters of their previous adventures. Even as the series was ending, it continued to struggle with making Annie a vital character. Most of the important business of season three was wrapped up in “Annie’s Song,” the episode instead attempts to put an emotional bow on the story. Since there’s still a huge Fiona sized hole in the series’ heart, it just can’t pull it off. (The flashbacks to “Lightening Rod” only emphasizes how important Fiona was to the show and how missed she is.) “The River” ends with one of the most unconvincing declarations of love I’ve ever heard. Don’t worry, it’s not between Jack and Annie, though that’s hinted at. Instead, Molly fully accepts Annie as her surrogate daughter. Yeah, right. At least the final episode got all of the main cast back, in one form or another.

At the time “So Weird” aired, the Disney Channel had an episode number policy. No series would run longer then 65 episodes, which usually amounted to three seasons. The logic behind this was that the target audiences would have aged out of the show by that point. Thus, “So Weird” came to a premature end. If some cosmic alignment happened and Cara DeLizia could’ve returned, “The River” actually presents an ideal opening for the intended final season. With everyone affected by the magical water, Annie, spirit panthers, and pooping changeling babies are suddenly forgotten. Poof! No more season three! Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, “So Weird” was destined to be an often overlooked cult classic, that gave us two smart, touching seasons of kids’ television… And one underachieving season of kids’ television. I’m glad I revisited the show, warts and all. It’s been a fun trip these last three Halloweens, injecting a nice amount of nostalgia into the season. I've enjoyed this trip down memory lane and I'll miss it. [The River: 4/10] 
[So Weird: 8/10]

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