Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 19, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 19

Maggie (2015)

“Maggie” is a project that’s been floating around for a while. I first became aware of it when Chloe Moretz was briefly attached to play the titular character. On the heels of Irish indie “Colin,” “Maggie” was also described as a zombie movie from the perspective of a zombie. At some point, Moretz was traded for Abigail Breslin. More importantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the cast as Maggie’s dad. Following this, something rare happened. I was actually rooting for a small indie film to be dumbed down into a stupid action move. Imagine Arnold blasting hordes of zombies, “Commando”-style. By the time the trailers hit, it was apparent that “Maggie” wasn’t that kind of film. Instead, this was obviously a low-key character study, Schwarzenegger in a sensitive mood and the zombie genre being exploited for drama, instead of cheap thrills.

“Maggie” is set towards the end of the zombie apocalypse. Through quarantines and curfews, the government has mostly contained the outbreak in the city. The countryside is a different matter. Wade Vogel is a simple farmer and a widower. His daughter, Maggie, disappeared into the city weeks ago. When he finds her, she has been bitten by a zombie. Now, Wade must watch as his daughter slowly succumbs to the virus, transforming into an inhuman monster before his eyes.

I have expounded on my appreciation for Arnold Schwarzenegger many times before. Arnold’s films have a weird way of reflecting on his life. In his autobiography, he refers to the affair that broke up his marriage, the betrayal of his family’s trust in him, as the biggest mistake of his life. Schwarzenegger has played a family man on-screen before, in many of his later nineties films. In “Maggie,” he’s a family man who is loosing his family. Arnold does not blow anything up, quip pithy one-liners, or show off his buffness in “Maggie.” (Amusingly, another character in the film says “I’ll be back,” not Arnold.) Instead, he’s an old man, a life time of decisions and loss weighing heavily on his wrinkled brow. With his wife gone, his daughter is the only connection to his former, happy life. Watching her condition worsen weighs heavily on his mind. Most of the film is devoted to Wade debating about what to do with his sick daughter. Schwarzenegger invest fully in the performance, carrying huge amounts of sadness on his stern shoulders.

“Maggie” isn’t just a subversion of what you expect from a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s also approaches the zombie genre from a different direction. There are no mass chow-downs, torn-out guts, or hordes of moaning undead. Instead, the film exploits the zombie for body horror. Watching the disease take over Maggie’s body is truly horrifying. The bite wound on her arm turns a deep black color. Black veins grow all throughout her body. Her thumb turns black one night, causing her to chop it off the next day. Cataracts grow over her eyes, her skin becomes paler and sickly. Abigail Breslin in excellent in the part, the character maintaining her strength even as she grows worse. When you’re so use to seeing gut munching and flesh gnawing, it’s interesting to see a zombie film tackle a far more personal, if no less visceral, brand of horror.

“Maggie” is not an upbeat movie. It’s maudlin, slow, and depressing. The film is basically about accepting the death of a loved one. At one point, Maggie meets another infected boy. Later, the boy’s father has him taken by armed soldiers, shipped off to quarantine. The film mines some decent tension about what Wade is going to do. When two local cops show up at the farm, asking for the girl, leads to a suspenseful scuffle. A doctor tells him about the hellish conditions in quarantines, giving Wade the option of slowly watching his daughter turn or finishing her with a gun shot. It’s not hard to reimagine this situation as a child debating over what to do with a bed-ridden, sick parent. At one point, Maggie comes upon an injured animal, putting it out of its misery, seemingly foreshadowing her own fate. The final scenes of “Maggie” seems to emphasize this. Up until the end, the movie is about Wade and Maggie and the peace or conflicts they encounter.

Judging a movie’s reception by its IMDb message board is always a mistake. If it’s anything to go by, plenty of people where expecting Arnie to murder a crap ton of zombies. And, yeah, that probably would have been a lot of fun. It certainly would have been more fun then the depressing “Maggie.” Yet there’s also something worth admiring about a film that cast the world’s biggest action hero as a bereaved father. The film is certainly effective, a sad and touching story of sickness and familial love. [7/10]

Target Earth (1954)

The most unlikely of themes have emerged for this year’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon: Movies about individuals unknowingly thrusts into apocalyptic situations, while slow-moving extraterrestrials threaten them. Turns out, yesterday’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” is practically a remake of an earlier film, 1954’s “Target Earth.” Both take place in a city that is suddenly empty. Both focus on the handful of survivors. In both, the event is the work of slow moving robotic invaders. Made a decade earlier, “Target Earth” is far more entrenched in the clichés and conventions of fifties sci-fi then the edgier, later film.

Following an argument with her husband, Nora takes some sleeping pills, never intending to wake up. When she awakens, the entire city of Chicago has seemingly been emptied. She meets up with a handful of other survivors, like brawny Frank and partying couple Vicki and Jim. Soon, the group realizes who is responsible for the suddenly vacated city. An army of robots from Venus has invaded the city, with plans to wipe humanity out. While the few remaining people in the city attempt to survive, the military outside searches for ways to defeat the machines.

This is the third movie I’ve watched this season to heavily feature someone wandering a nearly empty city. What the odds. I swear I didn’t plan that. Unlike the empty British village of “The Earth Dies Screaming” or the panicked city of “Day of the Triffids,” the abandoned streets of Chicago in “Target Earth” is even more chilling. The opening scene is mostly quiet, with little music, as the female lead awakens, silently slips on her clothes, and explores the empty city. Since Chicago is a city usually full of life, seeing it so deserted is creepy. Unfortunately, “Target Earth” makes the city seem too deserted. When the Venusian robots do appear, it’s always one at a time. It seems like less of an invasion army and more like one or two stray soldiers.

Once its cast of characters is gathered together, “Target Earth” falls into a similar pattern. First, Nora meets Frank, played by fifties sci-fi stalwart Richard Denning. Next, the two run into Vicki and Jim, a care-free couple who see the apocalypse as an oppretunity to get wasted. The movie even throws in a human villain, in the form of Robert Roark’s psychotic Davis. A huge portion of “Target Earth’s” middle section is devoted to this group hanging out in an empty apartment. They’re a decently entertaining collection of characters. Kathleen Crowley is both beautiful and fragile, a compelling damsel. Denning is fun to watch as a more down-to-earth hero. Virgina Grey and Richard Reeves are both amusing as the drunken couple. That’s fine. However, focusing so much energy on what’s happening between these guys, when there are killer robots outside, seems like misused time. I like the characters and even I would prefer to see the Venusian death machines.

That’s the instinct anyway. But therein lies another problem with “Target Earth.” The robots are kind of lame too. Visually, they’re not very distinct. They have screen-like heads, blocky shoulders and chests, and long pincher arms. Most amusingly, their legs are obviously made of industrial tubing, which is a comical sight. The machines can also shoot annihilating rays from their cyclopic eye, Gort-style. They don’t do that often though. Truthfully, the robots don’t do much of anything. One laugher of a scene has the robot slowly, awkwardly stumbling up a flight of stairs. Later, a blocked door delays one for several minutes. Though the design has become mildly famous among sci-fi dorks, the robots in “Target Earth” are an underwhelming presence. And, once again, only one appears at a given time.

Instead of focusing solely on survivors, “Target Earth” also focuses on the military trying to save the day. Unlike “The Earth Dies Screaming,” the invaders only take the city prisoner. Though there’s some sort of shield above the city, preventing planes from entering, the military are still able to capture a robot. What follows are a series of incredibly dry scenes of the military scientist practicing weapons on the robot, trying to discover its weakness. That weakness turns out to high frequency sounds that shatter the machines’ interior tubes. Basically, what this amounts to is a clumsy deus ex machina, the military rushing in with their secret weapon just when it’s needed. The scene seriously drags the movie down.

So that’s the short and long of it. “Target Earth” has got a great opening scene, a decent premise, and a likable cast. However, the movie’s inability to make its threat credible and a number of far too slow scenes keep it from being any better. Hopefully, this will be the last movie I watch this month that features robots decimating a whole city of people. I’m not sure I can take another variation on that formula. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: You, Murderer

“You, Murderer” is the most experimental episode of “Tales from the Crypt” likely ever made. It’s not the plot that stands out. The episode is about a successful ad executive who is secretly an on-the-run criminal who had plastic surgery to change his face. While at work, he receives a phone call from the woman he abandoned in his old life. Turns out this ex-wife and his best friend, the plastic surgeon who changed his face, plan to murder the man. They succeed and the episode is told from the perspective of his corpse, narrating events as they happen. This being “Tales from the Crypt,” the bad guys get theirs, in a nicely morbid and unexpected way.

It’s not just the first person perspective gimmick that distinguishes “You, Murderer.” The episode “stars” Humphrey Bogart, forty-eight years after the star's death. Series producer Robert Zemeckis directed the episode. Implementing the same digital technology he used in “Forrest Gump” (which is mocked in the Crypt Keeper wraparound segments), he inserted Bogey into the episode from beyond the grave. Confusingly, the episode references Bogart and his films several times. You can tell the technology was far from flawless. The first-person-perspective gimmick was obviously designed to hide Bogart’s face. The voice impersonator is not exactly convincing. When we do see Bogart, it’s in a mirror or reflective surface, his mouth moving only slightly more then a photograph would. So “You, Murderer” less stars Bogart then it stars half a dozen flashes of his face. Zemeckis is notorious for taking advantage of technology before it’s really ready. Look no further then those creepy motion capture movies for proof of that.

As an episode, “You, Murderer” features some fun supporting turns from John Lithgow, Isabella Rosellini, and Sherilyn Fenn. The script is typical “Tales” but that final twist is fun. Because he wasn’t done robbing the grave, the same technology is used to give Alfred Hitchcock a post-mortem cameo, a morbid move the filmmaker perhaps would’ve appreciated. Overall though, “You, Murderer” relies too much on voice over narration and its shaky visual gimmicks. An ambitious but not entirely successful way to wrap up season six. [6/10]

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

The very first Edgar Allan Poe story I ever read was “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Considering that first encounter was in an English textbook, I suspect it was that way for many people. Like every devotee of macabre fiction, Poe means a lot to me. For these reason, “The Tell-Tale Heart” remains a personal favorite. The story has been adapted to screen many times but the most respected film version appears to be this animated short, made in 1953 and nominated for the short feature Oscar that year. The short follows Poe’s plot precisely. A man is compelled to murder by an old man’s glaring eye. After burying the dead body under the floorboards, and foolishly inviting cops into his home, the deed is given away by the beating of the dead man’s heart that only the killer can hear.

Such fidelity to the source material is appreciated but not what makes “The Tell-Tale Heart” special. The animation is atmospheric and experimental. The people and places are shot through an expressionistic frame, reduced to harsh shapes extending up into the night sky. A man’s cuff links become a fluttering white mouth. When we’re introduced to the old man’s milky eye, a flash of images follow: A white tea kettle, more glaring eyes, and a full moon dissolving into a chewed away rock. The sequence devoted to the murder is especially spell-binding. A cascade of shadows give way to spinning, multi-colored sheets, climaxing in the newly dead man’s face. Afterwards, his bedroom seemingly explodes out into the darkness of the night. When the cops arrive, they’re shown as dark shapes with their own judging, constantly starring eyes. The beating of the hideous heart comes suddenly and quickly. Thumping strings appear on the soundtrack. Red spiral emanate from the floor boards. The film’s final image, a jaundiced hand slamming down on a jail cell door, certainly makes an impression.

Phenomenal animation isn’t the only reason “The Tell-Tale Heart” is regarded as a classic. James Mason contributes his refined voice as the manic narrator. The way he descends into screaming when the heart starts beating, and resumes a calm voice immediately afterwards, is wonderfully effective. Mason maintains a subtle nervous quality to his performance the entire time, always suggesting the jittering madness beneath the service. The combination of Mason’s performance and the frenzied animation successfully puts the audience’s in the moment with the story. When the attacker is nearly discovered, it actually creates quite a bit of suspense. Not bad for a sixty year old cartoon. “The Tell-Tale Heart” should definitely be seen by fans of Poe, animation, or thrilling story telling. [8/10]

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