Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 23, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 23

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

Let’s talk about killer hand movies. It’s a funny sort of subgenre, isn’t it? We’re about due for a new one. For a while there, we were getting one about once a decade. The sixties brought “The Crawling Hand.” The seventies had “And Now the Screaming Starts!” Oliver Stone made “The Hand” in the eighties. “Idle Hands” of the late nineties is the last major one I can think of. Obviously, Thing from “The Addams Family” is the most culturally significant example, though he’s not much of a killer. You wouldn’t think a disembodied hand would be that difficult of a threat to overcome. Yet the idea endures. As far as I can tell, “The Beast with Five Fingers” is the earliest film to be about such a subject. Written by classic horror scribe Curt Siodmak and starring Peter Lorre, it is the only horror film Warner Bros. would make in the forties.

In the Italian village of San Stefano lives Francis Ingram, a concert pianist rendered immobile and cantankerous with age. He harbors feelings for his live-in nurse, Julie. She is in love with Bruce Conrad, a would-be conman who also lives in the home. Among the other residents is Hilary Cummins, a strange man obsessed with the occult. When Ingram dies suddenly, from a fall down the stairs, his fortune is willed to Julie. Not long after his death, the mansion is haunted by the spirit of Ingram’s severed hand. It stalks and it kills, Francis’ rage seemingly extending from beyond the grave. Conrad, Julie, and a private investigator seek to undercover the truth before they become the hand’s next victims.

I’ve noted my devotion to the horror films Universal made in the thirties and forties. As I explore films from other companies made during the same time, I’ve grown to admire the efficiency of Universal’s films. “The Beast with Five Fingers” takes about a half-and-hour to get to the good stuff. The film conforms to the standards of the time, with love triangles, romantic banter, and broad comic relief. When “The Beast” gets down to business, it works very well. Sequences of the old home at night, haunted by a piano played by an unseen force, have that classic kind of spookiness I desire. Moments exploring an old crypt or the manor’s hidden rooms also appeal to me. The special effects used to bring the hand to life were quite sophisticated for their time. The sequences of the hand stalking its victims border on the comical yet still manage to work. The best scene in the film occurs when Lorre’s character sees the hand rising from a box. He chases it around the room, behind the book cases, until Lorre hammers a nail into it. If it had committed fully to its gothic horror roots, “The Beast” probably would’ve been amazing from start to finish.

As big a star as the hand is, Peter Lorre is the one who makes the film. Many scenes are devoted to Lorre loosing his shit. When the owners of the mansion threaten to take his books away, he shrieks in wild-eyed abandon. The sequence of him battling the hand has the actor reaching a fever pitch. When unconvinced of his own sanity, he pulls at his hair, screaming like a madman. It’s awesome. The rest of the cast isn’t bad. J. Carrol Naish puts on a ridiculous Italian accent as the detective. Robert Alda has some roguish charm, mixing up the standard hero role. Andrea King as Julie, though lovely, is a bit too sleepy. They’re not bad. But Lorre owns the film, scraping the heavens with his delightfully demented performance. Nobody did sweaty, unhinged insanity with as much panache as him.

When focused on the spookiness or Lorre hamming it up in magnificent ways, “The Beast with Five Fingers” is a joy. Unfortunately, this does not occupy the entire feature. Long scenes are devoted to Alda and King’s romance. Half the men in the film are pursuing King. The love interests pile up after a while. A subplot involves the people in the town being fearful of everyone who lives in the mansion. This never builds to much. There are mysteries at hand too. There’s a secret vault, which can only be opened with a particular combination. Naturally, there’s a lot of discussion about the old man’s wealth. Disappointingly, the film is not content with just being a monster movie. It has to cook up a logical solution to what has happened. There’s a lengthy denouncement, explaining every unusual event in the story. The true identity of the killer is very easy to guess. As fun as that can be, I kind of wish they had just stuck with the creeping hand.

“The Beast with Five Fingers,” even with that awesome title, is not quite the classic for the ages I was hoping for. When it focuses on the murderous hand, it is quite good. When it allows Lorre to go nuts, it’s awesome. Otherwise, it’s a bit too typical of the time and place. Still, classic horror fans won’t want it to crawl away. [7/10]

The Pool (2001)

By 2001, the slasher revival was pretty much over in the states. Obviously, foreign countries thought the trend was still worth exploiting. “The Pool” is a German production, with actors from the U.S., Scotland, Britain, the Czech Republic, Australia, and who knows where else. Obviously meant to cash in on the post-“Scream” wave of horror, the film came a little too late for that. It slipped onto DVD over here, noticed by no one. Hardcore horror fans don’t seem to have much to say about it. It doesn’t even have a review over at Hysteria Lives!, which is basically the database for these sort of things. Does “The Pool” deserve to be overlooked?

At a prestigious European prep school, classes have ended for the summer. Sara and Greg, and their group of ten friends, are all graduating. They decide to throw a huge graduation party that night. With the help of Marty, a lock-picker and thief, they break into a large, in-door water park. As they frolic in the pools, a machete-wielding murderer sneaks into the building. One by one, he picks the teens off. Could the killer be one of the group or is he an interloper?

The biggest problem with “The Pool” – or “Swimming Pool,” if you’re watching the film anywhere else in the world – is its cast. “The Pool” has twelve main characters. These aren’t nameless side characters introduced to pad out the body count. They each get their own subplots, most of them coupled off romantically. The worst part is that none of them are memorable. The cast is a generic lot of interchangeable, blandly attractive teenagers. I honestly couldn’t tell who was who most of the time. Worst yet, many of the teens are actively irritating. They’re all obnoxious, entitled rich brats. There’s a long stretch where two of the males beat up everyone they suspect of being the killer. An utterly routine subplot involves Greg cheating on Sara with Carmen, the Czech swimmer girl. (Yes, her diving abilities become important later.) There is some wasted potential here, as the cast includes two future stars. James McAvoy plays the sad sack who just got dumped by his middle class girlfriend, played by Isla Fisher. Fisher is easily the most sympathetic character but, because “The Pool” has its priories all fucked up, she is the first to die.

Part of the charm of eighties slasher flicks is their grit, grounding the story in a visible reality. Re-watch the original “Friday the 13th.” It’s sleazy as fuck. Nineties slasher flicks usually went in the opposite direction. They starred underwear models and looked like car commercials. “The Pool” is maybe the slickest slasher I’ve ever seen. All the bodies are hairless and all the abs are washboard. The first scene has the killer attacking a couple in a mansion. The smooth blue filters and occasional slow-motion let’s you know how commercial the whole movie will look. The first half is mostly devoted to pretty people drinking and hanging out in their swimsuits. It’s the kind of shit you could see on any episode of “The Real World.” Everyone drives an expensive sports car or a huge truck. I suspect much of “The Pool’s” budget was provided by product placement. Every time someone drinks a beer, the Heineken logo is prominently placed. The killer drives a Toyota truck. The camera makes sure you know it’s a Toyota. In short, “The Pool” is as slick, as insipidly flashy, as its watery location.

If “The Pool” is such a lame duck, why did I bother watching it at all? Because the killer looks really cool. Unlike most slashers, which opt for bulky, “The Pool’s” murderer is tall and lean. He wears a black shirt, leather pants, and those strappy boots that Goths love so much. On his face is a truly bitching skull mask. He wields a machete. In the film’s sole clever moment, the blade is inscribed with the phrase “Have a nice day!” Admittedly, “The Pool” is gorier and sexier then most films of its type. There’s plenty of blood, slashing, and stabbing. The best kill occurs when the machete blade is extended up into a water slide, just as a girl is coming down it. The identity of the killer is meaningless, as none of the characters register. His motive is utterly ridiculous and overheated. Still, he looks cool and that counts for something in this game.

I have little doubt that the European producers of “The Pool” meant to outdo their American counterparts. More supermodel actors! More blood! More nudity! More spiffy photography! More obnoxious rock music on the soundtrack! Excess is not always a good thing, not even in the horror genre. “The Pool” is utterly forgettable. The nineties slasher revival died the death it deserved. [5/10]

The Little Mermaid (2011)

If you’re wondering where I’m getting all these short films this year, before the Six Weeks started I googled “horror short films.” I found some list that recommended some of the stuff I’ll be watching over the next few days. “The Little Mermaid” was apparently part of a themed series done at the Vancouver Film School. The series reimagined fairy tales as horror stories. (Considering about half of the internet is devoted to reimaginings of the Disney Princesses now, this wasn’t a very novel idea.) This take on “The Little Mermaid” is set a in circus tent in a desolate forest landscape. Spectators watch dispassionately as the ringleader feeds a bathtub-bound mermaid a fish. After the small crowd leaves, the mermaid and the man have a confrontation.

There’s not a lot to “The Little Mermaid,” plot wise. The progression of the story is telegraphed from the first scene. You know the captured mermaid will have her revenge on the tormentor. About the only surprise comes in how she gets that revenge. It involves the mermaid’s siren song, an ability you think she would have used long before then. What is worth liking about “The Little Mermaid” is its production values. The establishing shot makes good use of green screen backgrounds. The color design of the circus tent is appropriately grimy. The creature make-up on the mermaid is well done. Interestingly, the film is almost entirely without dialogue. There’s not very much to “The Little Mermaid” but it’s not bad, for what it is. Director Nicholas Humphries has had a decent career, with many short films and a few features. That’s nice. [6/10]

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