Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 18

Office Killer (1997)

In 1997, after the release of “Scream,” the Weinsteins’ Dimension Films was the hottest genre imprint any studio could ask for. Many films were released to cash in on Wes Craven’s meta-slasher’s success. I’ve talked about most of them already this October. One movie that sneaked out during this time was “Office Killer.” The sole directorial credit of acclaimed photographer Cindy Sherman, the film was barely released in theaters, made no money, and wasn’t well-liked by those few people who saw it. Nowadays, it's even tricky to find on DVD or online. You can’t call Sherman’s “Office Killer” a cult movie. Nobody cares about it. It’s an entirely overlooked film.

Dorine Douglas has worked as a copy-editor at Constant Consumer magazine for sixteen years. Her father, who died in a car crash when Dorine was a teenager, started the magazine. Despite this, Dorine is the outcast in the office. Her bosses belittle her, her employees ignore her. At home, her bed-ridden mother badgers her. When pay cuts happen, half the office being demoted to part-time workers, something inside Dorine quietly snaps. Suddenly, her co-workers start to disappear. Simultaneously, dead bodies take up residence in Dorine’s basement. Before long, she is loosing the ability to control her homicidal tendencies.

“Office Killer” is most effective as an odd, gloomy, slightly surreal character study. Dorine Douglas lives a very sad life. She waits on her elderly mother hand-and-feet but is entirely unappreciated. She has no friends. Her co-workers treat her with contempt, when they aren’t flat-out ignoring her. Her job is the only thing she has. The first death in “Office Killer” is an accident, the office bully electrocuting himself on a loose wire. After covering that up, Dorine finds it easy to kill again. The murders improve her life. She gets positive attention from her employers, stepping into positions occupied by her dead co-workers. She starts to make friends, her mood improving. At home, she’s happy, conversing with the corpses in her basement as if they’re family members. Playing Dorine is Carol Kane, the squeaky-voiced character actress who is more then capable of inhabiting the meek, sad character. You relate to Dorine so much that it’s easy to forgive the murders, because you want to see her happy. Even when she brutally attempts to strangle someone, you're on her side. When she really cuts loose at the end, shrieking in rage, you understand how much emotion she’s bottled up over the years. “Office Killer” never quite gels but Kane’s performance is funny, sad, and powerful.

The central joke of “Office Killer” is easy to grasp: What if the everyday tension between co-workers boiled over, awaking homicidal rage in somebody? Sherman and her writers – which apparently included Todd Haynes, who contributed “additional dialogue” – aren’t afraid to fill the office with unlikable characters. The second-billed Molly Ringwald plays Kim, an incredibly bitchy woman who bullies and insults Dorine. She’s also the first to notice that something unusual is happening. It’s funny to think that, in a more traditional horror film, Ringwald’s character would obviously be the hero. Barbara Sukowa is shrewish as the magazine’s owner. When she isn’t sucking cigarettes, she’s huffing on an inhaler. Michael Imperioli is the most outwardly abusive person employed there. Thankfully, he’s also the first to die, meaning the audience doesn’t have to listen to him. Dorine’s mom is played by Alice Drummond, better known as the librarian from “Ghostbusters.” Even she’s awful to the girl, sniping at her during every scene. It’s no wonder Dorine makes friends with Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Norah, as she’s the first person in the movie to be nice to her.

Given Cindy Sherman’s photography background, it’s not a shock that “Office Killer” looks good. Smooth pans through the office makes it feel like a natural, organic place. A few scenes are set in the office building at night, during a thunderstorm. The lightning shining through the drawn, manila blinds creates an oddly foreboding atmosphere. Dorine’s basement, a darkened room save for a dingy floor lamp and the glow of the TV set, has a similar feeling. As I’ve said, “Office Killer” is far from a typical slasher movie. However, when the violence happens, it can be surprisingly gory. A rotting body is taped up with duct tape, only to burst back open later. A man lies in a pool of blood on the office floor. The movie breaks a taboo respected even by horror movies, when it dispatches a pair of girl scouts. In its final third, when a living captive attempts to escape Dorine’s basement, the film resembles a normal horror movie for the first time. And it’s okay at it too, with a character pinned down in a tight corner and a knife being swung through the air.

Mostly, I like the movie because Carol Kane’s performance is wonderful. She’s sad, funny, sweet. When peering over her old lady glasses while someone suffers near-by, she’s even kind of scary. “Office Killer” reminded me a bit of “May,” which is probably while I liked it. The supporting characters are relatively cartoonish and the script feels half-baked at times. The tone, which dangles between dark comedy and introspective drama, never comes together. But because Kane is so totally compelling, none of it really matters. In this case, the star makes the movie. The sad, quirky air she brings to her part grounds the script and makes what otherwise would have been a forgettable affair worth watching. [7/10]

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

In the early sixties, horror was being pulled in two different directions. The atomic age style sci-fi monster movies that defined the previous decade where still hanging around. Meanwhile, Hammer’s increasingly gory gothic updates and the stark realism of “Psycho” was dragging the genre, kicking and screaming, into the present. “The Earth Dies Screaming” is an interesting film that illustrates this conflict rather clearly. The plot, of robotic invaders attempting to wipe out humanity, certainly screams of the fifties. Yet the tone, equal parts hopeless and ambiguous, points to the direction the genre would go in. Interestingly enough, the film was also directed by Terrence Fisher, the man who made many of Hammer’s most iconic hits.

A poison gas rains down on the British country side, killing most of the people in the area. In the nearest small town, a handful of survivors gather. Their petty bickering and arguing is interrupted when killer robots begin to march through the town. The machines can kill with a touch, their victims sometimes rising as blank-eyed zombies. Banding together, the survivors attempt to fight back, wondering if there is anyone else alive in the world.

Like many British sci-fi films from this era, “The Earth Dies Screaming” has rather slow pacing. This somehow ends up working in the movie’s favor. The slowness gifts the film with a certain creaky creepiness. The opening scene, of people falling dead to the ground following the gas attack, is surprisingly eerie. The robotic threats move very slowly too. However, there’s something undeniably spooky about the inhuman machines, marching stiffly through the empty streets. Their undead victims are even more off-putting. Unlike regular zombies, they have reflective, silver eyes. They also seem to appear at the most inconvenient times. Their starring, pupilless eyes are quite creepy. “The Earth Dies Screaming” is never exactly scary but it certainly produces plenty of quiet spookiness.

“The Earth Dies Screaming” only runs a little over an hour. While this means there aren’t many chances for things to drag, occasionally the movie wares on the audience’s patience. A troupe of the apocalypse survival genre is characters in tight locations arguing about petty, stupid things. It’s a seemingly inevitable convention I’ve never much cared for. At times, “The Earth Dies Screaming” does degrade into British actors arguing in rooms. One is a drunk who thinks the apocalypse is a good reason to keep drinking. There’s a young hood who frequently argues with the others, despite having a pregnant girlfriend. One of the women has an abusive husband, a huge asshole that stinks up the first half of the film. Hero Willard Park is so blandly heroic that he actually grates slightly. Luckily, the movie has the good sense to either kill its annoying characters off fairly quickly or to give them attitude adjustments.

“The Earth Dies Screaming” is surprisingly willing to get ambiguous. I’ve seen the movie listed as an alien invasion film. However, there’s no explanation for who is responsible for the fatal gas attacks. Where the killer robots came from, or what they’re motivations or objectives are, is never expounded on. The machines certainly never speak, being silent man killers. Why certain people survived is only hinted at. The climax of the film involves the survivors destroying a local broadcasting station. This disables the robots and suggests they may not even be alien in nature. Uncertain of both their fates and the fate of the world, the protagonists fly off into an unknown future. I wonder if Stephen King saw this movie. It certainly has a few things in common with “The Mist,” that ending included. All of this is far more bold and daring then you’d expect a sci-fi/monster flick from 1964 to be.

You can’t really call “The Earth Dies Screaming” a classic. it’s a bit too minor for that, running too short, it’s characters too thinly drawn. However, as a late night horror snack, it proves appropriately satisfying. There’s some creepy images, the robots are a memorably threat, and the movie’s ambiguous, chilly atmosphere is moderately successful. Terence Fisher’s work for Hammer is more memorable but his off-hand films continue to be quirky, interesting, and well-made. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: 99 & 44/100 Pure Horror

Boy, that title is a mouthful, isn’t it? The title is a reference to an old soap ad campaign, which is appropriate since the episode is about soap. Willa is the spoiled wife to the head of a soap corporation. She’s a former artist who designed the artwork on the soap’s boxes. When sales fall, the corporation wants new artwork on the box. Willa is not asked to redesign the box. Annoyed, and threatened with divorce when her husband finds out about the affair she’s having, she decides to kill him. How she disposes of the body comes back to haunt her in a very personal way.

“99 & 44/100 Pure Horror” is relatively typical of “Tales from the Crypt.” Someone does something bad, cheats on their spouse, commits murder, and receives a suitably ironic punishment for it. So what are the variations on the theme this time? Cristi Conaway is amusingly bitchy, not to mention gorgeous, as the treacherous wife. The episode gets some morbid comedy out of the scene where she hides her husband’s body from her clueless, meathead boyfriend. Bruce Davidson is also funny, soft and weak-willed, as the cheated-upon husband. “99 & 44/100 Pure Horror” is all about that final twist. In one of the most gruesome death scenes to ever grace the series, someone has their skin dissolved off by acid. The reason why is especially ridiculous. In addition to the gore, it includes the memorable image of an eyeball starring out of a bar of soap. So it’s a fairly unremarkable episode but those who have come to enjoy the dark humor and nasty violence of “Tales from the Crypt” will probably get a kick out of it. [7/10]

Kitchen Sink (1989)

Earlier this year, I discovered a website called “They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They?” An attempt to gather together the 1000 best horror films of all time, it’s added quite a few films to my watch list. Among them are a few shorts. “Kitchen Sink” begins with a woman cleaning out her sink. She finds a hair lodged in the drain. When tugged on, she pulls out an umbilical cord, attached to a hideous fetus like creature. After a bloody bath, the thing from the drain grows into a man covered with hair. The woman’s attempt to live with the man, even after she shaves off all the hair that covers it, do not go as planned.

If that plot synopsis didn’t make it clear, “Kitchen Sink” is a darkly surreal allegory of some sort. The visual tone seems inspired by “Eraserhead,” as both are shot in black-and-white and concern themselves with industrial machinery. It also seems likely that director Alison Maclean was inspired by David Cronenberg. (The film has some similarities with an early Cronenberg short called “From the Drain.”) What exactly it means is hard to figure out. Obviously, pulling the deformed fetus monster from the drain invokes images of birth. That the infant grows from a child to a lover in a day probably means something too. The conclusion, which has the newly grown man befalling a fate similar to how he was born, seems ripe with visual symbolism. What all this symbolism is pointing to, I don’t know.

If anything, I suspect “Kitchen Sink” is more of a mood piece then a coherent story. And the mood it seems to be aiming for is one of grimy disgust. Truthfully, “Kitchen Sink” is an unpleasant watch. The short is full of grody imagery like knotted hair, rusty water, dried blood, garbage bags, and thick black hair growing from skin. If the filmmaker’s goal was to create a visceral, disgusted reaction in the viewer, she succeeded. So I’m not sure how to rate “Kitchen Sink.” The production design is well done, the short is well made, the film definitely makes the viewer feel something, and it obviously has some deeper meaning. However, I didn’t get much of it and I definitely didn’t enjoy it. Then again, we watch horror movies to be disturbed, disgusted, and horrified. Mission accomplished? (Maclean would go on to make “Jesus’ Son,” a movie I had a much more positive reaction to.) [6/10]

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