Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 2, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 2

JD and I are at Monster-Mania 32 tonight and tomorrow. These reviews are coming straight from my hotel room. That's the up-side. The down-side is there probably won't be any update Saturday. However, when I get back home, expect a podcast, a full-length blog report, and lots of picture. See you on the other side!

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Today, the current wave of American found footage horror movies is finally beginning to sputter out. Back in 2010, this was still going strong. While there was still lots of bullshit, occasionally something clever would sneak out. “The Last Exorcism” did pretty well for itself upon release and receive quite a bit of critical praise, as far as these things go. When I saw it that year, I was surprised and impressed by the film. At least until the last ten minutes, when everyone seems to agree that the film takes a hard, dispiriting turn. Re-watching the film now, and knowing how it ends, how has my opinion changed or stayed the same?

Cotton Marcus is a preacher on the Evangelical circuit who has become quite popular, making a name for himself with his enthusiastic performances. And “performances” is all they are. Marcus is disenfranchised with religion. Despite having performed exorcisms all his life, he no longer believes in demons, the devil, or Hell. He invites a documentary crew to follow him on what he promises will be his last exorcism. He will show them all the tricks of the trade, all the elaborate props and gags he uses to put on a convincing show. However, this exorcism isn’t like the others. Nell, a teenage girl from the deeply religious and sheltered Sweetzer family, acts in genuinely unnerving ways. Cotton finds faith and reason colliding, uncertain what to believe.

“The Last Exorcism” is less a “found footage” movie then it is a “mockumentry.” For most of its run time, director Daniel Stamm and his team does a good job of replicating the look of a documentary. The most compelling scenes in the film takes us behind the scenes of Cotton’s act. We watch the exorcism as it happens. The camera cuts between the theatrics of the act itself and Cotton showing us how it’s done. We see him rig the room with wires and speakers. We see him insert a black powder capsule into a crucifix, so it smokes. It’s all pretty clever and, more importantly, thoughtful. It’s not just Patrick Fabian’s hugely likable lead performance, though that helps a lot. It’s how the movie deconstructs the usual elements we see in exorcisms, fictional or otherwise. The film is calm and logical in its approach.

Of course, this is a horror film. As it progresses, we see that Nell Sweetzer’s condition is far worst then thought. She goes into strange trances. She wanders into Cotton’s hotel room. When the female director tries to calm her, Nell begins to kiss and touch her. One especially unnerving sequence has her stealing the camera as the others sleep and beating a cat to death with it. (That moment is disturbing enough that I really don’t know how the film got a PG-13 rating.) Ashley Bell is essentially playing two roles. There’s Nell, the sweet teenage girl who charms the audience with her naivety. And then there’s Nell when she’s acting possessed, sweaty, blurry eyed, and visibly unhinged.

Yet something I notice on this rewatch caught my attention. A character asks Nell if she’s lying about something. She says she isn’t. But watch her face. There’s a stone-faced belief in her words, an overcompensation, the kind of face people put on when lying. Throughout the film, Nell acts the way you’d expect a possessed girl to act. She bends her body at odd angles, making ugly cracking noises. She tries to drown a baby doll. One moment has her glaring from a corner of her room like an owl, before she scurries across the floor like a rat. The reason for this is because she is acting. The film’s phenomenal climax takes place in the barn, when Cotton confronts Nell. He is beginning to wonder if she truly is possessed, due to her increasingly unsettling behavior. Yet then the reveal comes, when Nell calls a blowjob a “blowing job,” he realizes the truth. She’s acting like this because she is expected to. This is what a naïve teenage girl thinks someone possessed acts like. The root of her problem is shame over having sex. Because of her deeply religious upbringing, this is how she processes her natural sexual desires. “The Last Exorcism” makes a bold statement. There are no demons, only shame, guilt, desire, repression, and the power of belief.

At least, that’s the point it seems to be making. If you shut the movie off at the hour and fourteen minute mark, you have a surprisingly powerful horror picture that has some serious thoughts on its mind. Watched this way, the movie ends with Nell, her father, and their local preacher kneeling in prayer, showing how faith can bring people together and heal. However, the characters circle back to the farm. As they return, the house is empty and covered with Satanic symbols. They follow noise into the woods were they see a demonic ritual in progress, men in black hoods pulling a shapeless creatures from Nell’s body. The movie’s internal logic makes a sharp 360 turn. There’s some lame bullshit, about Cotton regaining his faith as he sees definitive proof of the devil. There’s shock, gore, blaring music and an overdone sound design. It’s all very typical and runs counter to everything the rest of the movie did up to that point.

If the film had more ambiguity up to that point – if it was undecided on whether demonic possession is possible – maybe that ending would be less of a slap in the face. Instead, it’s a hugely compelling film about what belief can and can’t do that becomes a lame found footage horror flick at the end. Which is a bummer. If the writers or director had stuck to their guns, it could’ve been an unexpected classic. [7/10]

The Gingerdead Man (2005)

There was a time when the Full Moon Productions brand name meant something. Not much but something. Back in the early nineties, the company’s “Puppet Master” and “Subspecies” - not to mention many quality stand alone pictures – provided decent entertainment to horror fans young and old. The early nineties were a long time ago. Since the turn of the century, Charles Band and his cohorts have been tossing together tiny budgets to make ridiculously cheap, barely functioning movies with little care or effort. Somehow, the company has continued to struggle along, a new movie stumbling out every year or so. In these sad twilight years, “The Gingerdead Man” is what counts as an on-going Full Moon franchise.

The film opens with serial killer Millard Findlemeyer in the middle of massacring the occupants of a road-side diner. Despite murdering her brother and father, Millard spares young Sarah’s life. After Findlemeyer is captured and executed, Sarah opens a bakery. Findlemeyer’s witch mother sends the killer’s ashes to Sarah’s bakery. Her idiot employee adds the ashes to the gingerbread mix, which is then baked into a large gingerbread man. Through this combination of witchcraft and baked goods, Findlemeyer is resurrected as the Gingerdead Man. The murderous cookie sets his gumdrop eyes on taking revenge on Sarah.

“The Gingerdead Man” isn’t good. Obviously. Weirdly, the insipid screenplay, brainless premise, or bottom-of-the-barrel production values aren’t the worst part. Instead, the most irritating aspect of the movie is its awful cast and incredibly unlikable characters. Robin Sydney – who has the dubious distinction of being a New Full Moon regular – seems to have a complete lack of confidence in the screenplay. She gives both too much and too little. Her employees includes Brick,  played Jonathan Chase. The character has an annoying obsession with pro-wrestling and grates on the viewer every time he’s on-screen. Her other employee is Daniela Melgoza’s Julia, an embarrassing Hispanic stereotype. A subplot involves a businessman trying to buy out Sarah’s business. Played by Larry Cedar, the character is an indistinct redneck cliché. His daughter and her ex-con boyfriend also show up. The daughter is played by Alexia Aleman who gives a frankly terrible performance as the obnoxious character. It’s bad. All of the actors are bad.

The most insulting thing about “The Gingerdead Man” is how ludicrously cheap it is. Look, I watch a lot of low budget movies. Low or non-existent production values don’t bother me. What’s insulting is how little care was taken with “The Gingerdead Man.” The entire movie is set within the bakery, a small building with only a few rooms in it. The gore effects, of which there are very few, are composed entirely of very fake-looking blood and a few severed limbs. The style of shooting is stationary and dull. Charles Band has been doing this for three decades. You’d think he’d be better at making a cheap movie look… Less cheap. I don’t resent “The Gingerdead Man” for being made with six dollars. I resent so little effort being put into it.

So what does that leave us with?  The fleeting, dubious joys of the Gingerdead Man himself. Band somehow talked Gary Busey into being in the movie. Busey’s inspired lunacy has livened up crappy movies before. Unfortunately, Busey himself is only on-screen for the very first scene. Afterwards, Busey only provides a bored voice-over as the Gingerdead Man goes about his business. The puppet is very cheap and not on-screen that often. Mostly, you see his mouth move a little. You’d think watching an animated, demonic cookie murder people would provide some goofy, cheap thrills. Instead, the film is mostly boring, devoted to the characters arguing while Busey’s cookie wanders around the shop. The only scene that made me laugh, intentionally or otherwise, was when the Gingerdead Man trash-talks a rat. That’s it. It’s lame.

Despite being dully crappy and crappily dull, “The Gingerdead Man” obviously made Band and his cohorts some money. He has produced two sequels for the film, “Passion of the Crust” and “Saturday Night Cleaver,” as well as a versus film with the equally dubious “Evil Bong” series. None of those even got Gary Busey back, reducing the star power to zero. There was a time when I would’ve said “Full Moon can do better then this.” But stupid, lazy efforts like this prove that Charles Band’s days of giving a shit have long since passed. [3/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Till Death Do We Part

I’m slightly disappointed that, for its season five finale, “Tales from the Crypt” opted for a straight-up crime story, instead of something horror related. Lucy is a waitress in a mob-owned bar. She begins a passionate affair with Johnny. The only problem is that Johnny is the kept boy of the female mob boss who owns the place. One of Johnny and Lucy’s private rendezvous is interrupted and the girl witnesses a mob hit. Now, she’s being dragged out of a car, guns point at her by hitmen. Facing down death, Lucy yells for Johnny to save her.

Spoiler alert for a nearly 22 year old episode of television: “Till Death Do We Part” is a variation on “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The episode, rather cleverly, cuts between the current events and what led up to them. The story begins rooted in grisly reality. The hitmen, played by Robert Picardo and an especially greasy Frank Stallone, listen to a baseball game on the radio. Picardo’s hitman likes Lucy’s dress and makes her stripe, so he can bring them back to his daughter. Stallone, meanwhile, jokes around while hacking up another body. You can tell when things shift to Lucy’s fantasy. Johnny rescues her, blowing away everyone else. They hunt down the other mobsters, the episode exploding into a genuinely exciting action sequence. The script isn’t sure how to feel about Lucy though, as she betrays Johnny in her dying fantasy. I guess in “Crypt,” everyone deserves what they get. Still, it is an interesting episode. I’m especially impressed by how John Stamos makes a convincing action hero. Overall, it’s a solid way to wrap up the season. [7/10]

So Weird: Snapshot

Here’s another “So Weird” episode that reminds me of a “Goosebumps” episode. Both shows apparently tackled sinister cameras. While stopping through an odd town, the residents of the Philips tour bus notices that everyone in town acts like an asshole. Annie soon realizes this is link to the local photographer. Apparently, she has a camera that steals people’s soul. Soon, Jack, Molly and Cary have their pictures snapped. Once again, it’s up to Annie to figure out if their humanity can be returned.

Cameras stealing people’s souls is a well-known enough concept that “So Weird” basing an episode around it is sound. It is the effect the soul-stealing has that makes “Snapshot” embarrassing. People suddenly being rendered soulless turns them into childish assholes. They play obnoxious pranks on people, steal, cheat, and are all awful at lying. This results in a lot of shrill, annoying comedic scenes. There’s no threat or fear in this one. Another overdone element is how Annie discovers something supernatural is happening. The people in the photos scream for help, a ridiculous touch. The only interesting thing about “Snapshot” is the ending, where it’s revealed that the photographer herself got zapped by her own soul-stealing episode. Okay, this bit of trivia is interesting: Melissa Joan Hart directed the episode, which is why her little sister plays the one member of town who still has their soul. Disney was proud enough of this fact that they created a special promo announcing it. [4/10]

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