Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 20

One Hour Photo (2002)

When Robin Williams passed away last year, a cry of mourning erupted from the internet. Williams, the definitive pop culture comedian for a whole generation of people, had killed himself. That someone who always seemed so energetic and effervescent could take their own life was a shock for a lot of people. Not me. There had always been a darkness to Williams, the inevitable lows to his manic highs. On screen, he was usually a cut-up. Occasionally, he would acknowledge that simmering sadness inside him with dramatic roles like “Good Will Hunting” or “Insomnia.” The most frightening of the thrillers Williams starred in was 2002’s “One Hour Photo.”

Sy Perrish is the senior worker behind the one hour photo stand at the local SavMart. Sy prides himself upon his work, as he creates vibrant, colorful photographs of people’s treasured memories. When one family, the Yorkins, come into the shop, he always goes out of his way to make polite conversation. Sy has watched Nina and Will’s marriage develop. He’s watched their son, Jake, grow up. The seemingly ideal family fills a hole in Sy’s lonely, sad heart. He collects photos of the Yorkins, making extra prints for himself. He fantasizes about a life with the family. And when he discovers that the Yorkins are less then ideal, Sy begins to contemplate committing violent acts.

Sy may be the most painfully lonely and sad character Robin Williams ever played. He has nothing in his life. He spends all day under sickly fluorescent lights before returning to an empty apartment. This is why his job is so important to him, why he places so much value on developing people’s photos. (It’s slightly ironic that the professional Sy takes such pride in, developing physical film, would be rendered totally obsolescent only a few years after the movie’s release.) During his voice-over narration, Sy acknowledges that photographs don’t honestly represent someone’s life. Pictures are of people’s happy moments, not their sad or traumatic moments. Yet Sy has difficulty understand that when it comes to the Yorkins. The saddest moments in the film are when Sy fantasizes about being part of the Yorkins’ family. About hanging out in the home by himself, chilling on the coach, or being there on a joyful Christmas morning. Except for young Jake who senses Sy’s sadness, the family doesn’t think about Sy much at all. He loves them dearly, in an obsessed, distant way, but he means nothing to them. Williams suppresses his usual hyper energy. The character’s ordinary quality emphasizes his deep loneliness, Williams’ deep blue eyes showing a quiet depression. It’s such an achingly sad, utterly human, and touching performance, one of the actor’s all time best.

“One Hour Photo” was basically the feature debut of Mark Romanek, a super-star music video director. Romanek’s detail-oriented style is well-suited to the film. Fittingly, many sequences are shot as if they’re photographs. Many scenes are purposely picturesque. Like Sy and Jake walking towards his home, through a tunnel of trees, the grass littered with autumn leaves. Or Jake standing outside his bedroom, tearfully listening to his parents argue. The scenes of Sy’s time at home or work are always shot in swallow, muted colors. The scenes of the Yorkins home are shot with bright, warm colors. Romanek doesn’t rely too much on stylish tricks. There’s a long zoom into the mechanisms of a camera and a number of dolly shots. His commitment to tying the entire film into its themes sometimes leads to on-the-nose symbolism. Sy has a nightmare where he bleeds from the eyes, as if in reaction to the awful things he’s seen. As he’s about to set out on his crazy plan, he glances over to a galloping coin-operated horse toy. Usually, Romanek is smart enough to let his performers work honestly inside a beautifully composed scene.

“One Hour Photo” may seem like an odd choice for my Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon. It’s the most slow burn of thrillers, functioning on character development and Williams’ extraordinary performance for most of its run time. As his life falls apart, he displays more disturbing behavior. He yells at a photo equipment repair man. He explodes at his boss while being fired. Afterwards, he snaps pictures of his boss’ daughters, while talking about the hunting-oriented origins of the word ‘snapshot.’ The slowly cooking pot of suspense boils over in the last act. In a series of meticulous manipulations, Sy confronts Will and his mistress in their hotel room, sexually violating both without laying a finger on them. It’s a stark, unnerving sequence, honestly earning the movie the label of horror film. The scene leaves the audience shaken.

“One Hour Photo” isn’t perfect. In the final minutes, why Sy is such a disturbed person is revealed, in an overly blunt and simple conclusion. The film sometimes lays its themes out too neatly, especially when quoting Deepak Chopra. Michael Vartan and Erin Daniels give underwritten performances as Will and his mistress. The narrative frequently feels as if it’s spinning its wheels, delaying the inevitable conclusion. Yet every time I watch the film, I’m deeply affected by it. Robin Williams gives a powerful performance and the movie tells a sad, emotional, and unnerving story. [8/10]

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

The alien invasion films of the fifties gifted us with many iconic images: The war machines emerging from the capsule in “War of the Worlds,” the big brain and goggles eyes of “This Island Earth’s” Metaluna Mutant, the Martian Overlord in his glass dome from “Invaders from Mars.” Yet few made a bigger impact then “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” The images of stop-motion UFOs, floating over Washington D.C., accompanied by a bizarre humming noise, has appeared in countless documentaries and programs about genre cinema or UFO sightings. Ray Harryhausen gifted the world with countless, brilliant stop-motion creations over his career. With the possible exception of the skeletons from “Jason and the Argonauts,” none seem as beloved or wide reaching as the titular threat from “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.”

Project Skyhook, a government aerospace program to launch satellites into outer space, has run into some problems. Something is shooting the satellites down before the scientists can even make contact with them. Dr. Russell Marvin and his wife Carol, daughter of a general at the base, are especially affected by this. While approaching the base, the two spot a flying saucer in the sky above them. Soon, a flying saucer touches down on the base. Shots are fired, the invaders exploding the human artillery with laser beams, and the General is abducted. Soon, the pilots of the saucers make their intentions known to the Earth men. If Earth does not cooperate with them, our cities will destroyed.

Horror fans like me sometimes get funny looks when we say that movies like this are escapist entertainment for us. Why would watching flying saucers level Earth cities be comforting? There’s a simple answer to that question. Yes, cities are destroyed and people die in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” The movie also features reasonable scientist heroes. They're affiliated with the U.S. government, know what the hell they’re doing and successfully save the day. After the first attack, Hugh Marlowe’s Dr. Marvin contacts the extraterrestrials. Within their ship, he has an all-things-considered civil conversation with them. When it’s clear that the saucernauts can’t be placated and intend to destroy our world, he immediately sets out to find a way to defeat them. After discovering the invaders are sensitive to sound, he organizes a council to whip up a hyper-sonic gun that will disable them. That’s the fantasy, that any government could be that organized when dealing with a threat as serious as alien invaders. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor have incredible chemistry as the Marvins. The early scenes of them kissing and flirting signals that “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” is going to be a likable, fun time.

As likable as the cast is and as cleanly written as the script is, what people really remember about “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” are the special effects. Ray Harryhausen usually brought monsters or dinosaurs to life. Mechanical creations were seemingly out of his wheelhouse. I say “seemingly” because the flying saucers are amazing looking. Unlike most cinematic UFOs, the saucers are not detail lacking pie pans. There’s a stationary dome in the center of the saucer, surrounded by a spinning, slotted vanes. A smooth tube emerges from the ship’s bottom when the saucers land. From the same opening, pointed antennas emerge to blast people with death rays. The saucers make a peculiar humming noise as they float through the air. Harryhausen gifts the saucers with a surprising amount of character, with the ways they tilt or move. The actual aliens were likely inspired by Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” They wear smoothed, grey suits topped with oblong domes. From their knobby hands, they shoot waves that dissolve rifles right out of soldiers’ hands. When the helmets are removed, the aliens look like classical big-headed saucermen.

The stop motion mayhem of the last act is what really stuck with people. For the finale, the saucers fly over Washington D.C. Proving that blockbusters destroying notable landmarks is not a modern invention, the UFOs in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucer” target famous structures all around our capital. The Washington Monument is toppled by a saucer’s lips, crushing fleeing citizens. The saucers land on the front lawn of the White House which, otherwise and amazingly, escapes destruction. A saucer smashes through the windows of Union Station. Maybe the most famous image in the film comes when a downed saucer wobbles through the air before crashing into the dome of the Capitol building. Though Harryhausen’s creations are obviously not real, the effects are still amazingly convincing. “Earth vs. the Flying Saucer” has all the carnage of “Independence Day” but a third of the run time and with way more charm.

The cast is delightful, the screenplay is economically written, and the special effects are utterly mind-blowing. Harryhausen’s incredible work continues to define the pop culture image of the flying saucer. There are more insightful or more thrilling alien invasion films made before and after “Earth vs. the Flying Saucer.” Yet few are as purely entertaining. The film is a perfectly satisfying snack for monster kids. [7/10]

BlinkyTM (2011)

When “BlinkyTM” hit the internet a few years back, it made something of a splash. It had most everything people look for in a viral short. The special effects were surprisingly slick and the disturbing content lent the film a “We dare you to watch!” quality. The story is as follows: In the near future, most every home has a robot companion. Blinky is a brand name for a friendly seeming robot, that can clean, cook, and play with your kids. Deeply affected by his parents’ dissolving marriage, Alex asks for his own Blinky for Christmas. At first, the kid enjoys the robot’s company. Soon, he starts taking his frustration out on the robot. A programming error within the machine has unforeseen, horrifying consequences.

“BlinkyTM ” is not just an internet shock film. There’s a slow tension building throughout every second of the short’s 13 minutes. The household is disturbed, Alex’s parents fighting all the time. It’s clear that Blinky’s introduction will only delay the boy’s misery for so long. Within a montage, we see Alex and Blinky’s relationship sour from summer fun to frustrated violence. Max Records, otherwise known as the kid from “Where the Wild Things Are,” acts out in a way that makes his inner turmoil obvious. As the short goes on, Blinky becomes increasingly creepy, his fixed smile taking on a sinister quality. This is most obvious in a scene where he appears in the boy’s bedroom. When the violence comes, it’s not especially graphic. Instead, it’s the presentation that makes the gore disturbing, the shocking context of the act. It’s horrifying but also oddly tragic and seemingly inevitable.

There are other elements to “BlinkyTM ” that deepens the short. Despite the unnerving homicides he eventually commits, you still feel kind of bad for Blinky. One short scene has the machine and the boy walking down the street, passing another robotic slave. The two robots’ make overly long eye contact. Afterwards, the bags he’s carrying split, the groceries spilling out, and Alex leaves Blinky to clean it up. On TV, we see news report about newly introduced war robots or other malfunctioning machines. It’s clear that the film’s world is on the verge of a robotic uprising. And maybe it’s not undeserved. Some reviewers flat-out hate the kid and think his gruesome fate was justified. I relate to Alex, understanding that he’s a hurt boy unprepared to handle the pain of his parents’ divorce. Yet his treatment of Blinky is awful. He leaves the robot out in the rain for hours. He throws things at the machine, hits him with a bat. He gives intentionally conflicting orders to the servant, just so he can chastise him. Maybe that’s the moral of “BlinkyTM.”  No matter no much pain you may be going through, it’s still not an excuse to treat others like crap.

Even after he commits violence, Blinky remains cute and somehow innocent, which makes the bloody acts all the more stomach churning. I’ve probably said too much, as the short is surely more effective the less you know about it. Director Ruairi Robinson clearly has a strong visual sense, an ability to handle special effects, and a willingness to deliver grisly chills. After this, he made the feature “The Last Days on Mars,” which went by without much notice. Now, another internet short of his, called “The Leviathan,” has received a lot of attention. That’s being expanded into a feature but I kind of wonder if short films aren’t Robinson’s specialty. I suppose we’ll know after he becomes a notable name or sinks into obscurity. As for “BlinkyTM ,” it’s smart sci-fi, disturbing horror, and good film making. [8/10]

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