Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 25

The Final Girls (2015)

My initial reaction to the announcement of “The Final Girls” was ambivalence. There have been so many jokey, meta takes on the slasher genre. We know all the rules: the virginal final girl, the masked and unstoppable killers, the crimes in the past, the isolated location, and the death of the teens who partake of drugs, sex, or assholery. It’s old hat. It didn’t help that, around the same time, an entirely different project entitled “Final Girl” – minus the plural and definite article – was also being prepped for release. (And now, “The Final Girls” is out on VOD while “Final Girl” is on DVD. Confusing, right?) When reviews of “The Final Girls” started to roll in, they were all very positive. In an October when “Crimson Peak” was supposed to be the horror event of the season, this indie comedy has become the celebrated belle of the ball. I’ll be the judge of that!

Amanda Cartwright is a struggling actress and single mom. In the eighties, she appeared in an infamous slasher flick called “Camp Bloodbath,” which remains her sole claim to fame. The close connection between Amanda and her daughter Max is shattered when Amanda dies in a car crash. Ten years later, a movie nerd friend of Max talks her into appearing at a midnight screening of “Camp Bloodbath.” A fire breaks out in the theater and, through some magical juju, Max and her friends end up inside the movie. The group has to survive the rules and limitations of the slasher film while Max bonds with the character played by her mother.

Like I said, there are really no more witty observations of the slasher genre left to be made. “The Final Girls” trots out many of the observed clichés. The teenage characters are all played by much older actors that fit the stock parts of the slut, the jock, the stoner, etc. What makes “The Final Girls” work is that its humor is more absurd. It’s not just built on making fun of slasher troupes. The characters are intentionally silly. The jock is a sex-crazed, posturing, ridiculous asshole. The slutty girl dresses exclusively in a tied-off shirt and jean shorts. Her exposed breasts summons the killers, which causes the cast to dress her in duct tape, oven mitts, and a life jacket. What is more clever is when “The Final Girls” comments on filmic, narrative concepts. When a flashback happens, sepia colors drip from the sky, the heroes carried along with the flashback. Later, a flashback is triggered to escape a dangerous situation. The titles and credits appear on-screen, characters interacting with them. The movie-world is filmed in the bright colors of eighties cinema, which is a nice touch. Mostly, the jokes are like are the silly dialogue and goofball character beats. “Is new wave real?,” for example. Or characters stumbling into their own booby traps.

“The Final Girls” is a funny, colorful riff on the “Friday the 13th” films specifically. This is all well and good. What makes the movie truly memorable is that it actually has heart. The opening scene between Max and Amanda quickly, effectively establishes the close relationship between the mother and daughter. When Max enters the movie-world, she decides to save her mother’s character. Though Amanda’s character Nancy is defined as “the shy girl with the guitar and the clip pad,” who looses her virginity and dies in the first half-hour, Max reaches out to her inner humanity. That’s an interesting thought, that even the minor characters have an inner-life. Max and Nancy have several heart-to-hearts, the daughter hoping she can carry her beloved mom’s character into the real world. However, Nancy has to fulfill her destiny so that Max can live up to her full potential. This is an interesting comment on how much a parent has to sacrifice for their child. Honestly, “The Final Girls” tugs at your heart strings a bit which definitely elevates it above its goofy comedy roots.

Lastly, “The Final Girls” has an incredibly game cast. I loved Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman as Max and her mom. They’re funny, charming, cute, and fully realized. After watching so many nineties slashers full of pretty actors, it’s a nice touch that “The Final Girls” is cast with people the look like real human beings. Alexander Ludwig is hunky but in a realistic, boy-next-door way. Alia Shawkat and Thomas Middleditch definitely don’t look like your typical movie stars. The cast is really amusing and solid. The film-within-the-film performers truly go for it. Adam DeVine is hilarious, improvising many of his goofy, ridiculous lines. Angela Trimbur’s mid-movie dance scene is hilariously silly. Tory N. Tompson dresses absurdly and has no problem acting equally silly. I also love the quirky, quasi-romance he forms with Shawkat’s character.

“The Final Girls” truly is a ball from beginning to end. My only issue with it is the rating: How can one make a truthful homage to the blood-and-guts and T&A soaked films of the eighties within a PG-13 rating? That’s a disappointment yet “The Final Girls” is good enough that you hardly notice. While I’m not ready to declare this movie the horror darling of the season, “The Final Girls” is really a lot of fun. Highly recommended! [8/10]

Strange Invaders (1983)

I’ve probably mentioned this before. Back in the day, I had an appointment every Friday night with “AMC’s efx.” A late night programming block hosted by Stan Winston, every week they would show two different special effects film. (Disappointingly, this did not always mean a sci-fi or horror movie. I remember tuning in one night and getting “The Enemy Below.” That was a bummer.) Anyhoo, one night they were showing Hammer’s “The Abominable Snowman” and “Strange Invaders,” two films I had never seen before. That same night, my mom’s then-boyfriend dragged me to a baseball game I had no interest in. He was one of those asinine pricks determined to foster an interest in sports in me. He promised me that I’d be home in time for the movie. That was before the game ran into ten extra innings. I still hate baseball. Good story, right? Anyway, I’m finally seeing “Strange Invaders.”

Charles Bigelow is an etymologist working at a community college in New York. His ex-wife shows up one night with their daughter. She drops the kid off and disappears, on a journey into the Midwest. Looking for his wife, Charles finds himself in the town of Centerville, Illinois. The town’s fashion is stuck in the fifties and they don’t welcome outsiders. He soon realizes the residents of the town are aliens. In order to get to the bottom of this, Charles teams up with a tabloid reporter and heads down a rabbit hole of alien conspiracy.

“Strange Invaders” was written and directed by Michael Laughlin. It was intended as the second part of a thematic trilogy, after 1981’s “Strange Behavior.” (Which I’ve also never seen.) Both films are apparently homages to 1950s genre cinema. Baby boomer nostalgia was probably pretty big at the time, as those kids would be in their thirties by then. “Strange Invaders” seems to be commenting, intentionally or not, on that nostalgia. The town of Centerville is stuck in the fifties. Yet that is never shown as a good thing. The people reject all outsiders. I wish “Strange Invaders” could’ve taken this further, maybe commenting on the racism and sexism of the time period. Instead, “Strange Invaders” leaves behind Centerville as a setting early on, the story spinning in odder directions. Still, it’s interesting that it tries.

Instead, “Strange Invaders” is an odd romantic/comedy full of sleuthing. Paul Le Mat is an unconventional leading man, mostly basically his face is incredibly off-putting looking. However, he’s still kind of charming. A nerdy bug expert is not your typical genre movie hero. Midway through the film, he teams up with Nancy Allen’s tabloid reporter. Allen plays nearly the same performance she would play in the next year’s “Not for Publication.” Nancy brings the same crackling charm to the part that she shows in everything. She has solid chemistry with Le Mat. The two are getting close only a few hours after meeting each other but, unlike how it usually works in movies, I actually kind of buy it here. The way the mystery evolves is convoluted, starting with Wallace Shawn getting zapped in the shower and leading up to Michael Lerner as a mental patient. Yet “Strange Invaders” keeps you guessing, if nothing else.

Like seemingly every other alien invasion movie I’ve watched this month, “Strange Invaders” is another variation on the body snatcher premise. However, the eighties version adds some gooey special effects. The aliens tear off their human skins, revealing bug-eyed extraterrestrial bodies underneath. Later, we see the invaders suck the essence out of people, causing the bodies to melt. For all its awesome latex monster effects, “Strange Invaders” tosses in an interesting last act twist: The invaders aren’t actually malevolent. They’re science researchers, not unlike Charles. After finishing their study, they leave the planet and return every person they’ve captured or replaced. This necessitates plenty of false leads. All the lightning beams and glowing balls of blue energy don’t really pan out. Still, the script provides a clever spin on the expected formula.

Unlike many of eighties take on fifties monster movies, “Strange Invaders” doesn’t have too much of a following. It’s not exactly a classic. The acting from some of the supporting players is a bit ropy. The plot twists and turns in some sloppy directions. A last minute focus on Charles’ daughter, which the aliens want to do something with, is a narrative dead-end. Still, fans of fifties sci-fi or eighties monster movies will probably enjoy it. Worth the wait? Sure! [7/10]

Eel Girl (2008)

Here’s another weirdo horror short the internet recommend I watch. “Eel Girl” feels less like a proper short film and more like a scene from a larger story. In a military research facility of some sort, a scientist is left alone with his work. He opens a door and unleashes a female creature, an aquatic humanoid of some fashion. He is drawn towards the Eel Girl, which is not a very good idea.

Some eel species really can unhinged their jaws and swallow huge objects whole. “Eel Girl” builds upon this idea to create a truly unnerving, uncomfortable image. This is just one image though and the film has little else to offer. It’s not quite six minute but “Eel Girl” still has to pad out its run time. There’s a long sequence of the scientist and the titular character glaring at each other though the glass while a super distracting electronic/dance score plays. The monster make-up, which was provided by WETA Workshops, are pretty good I suppose. The short is well-shot. Because the internet is such a weird place, “Eel Girl” tends to generate two divergent reactions. There are a handful of “reaction” videos on Youtube, of people watching the short in disgust or shock. On the other hand, the short also appeals to vore fetishests, people sexually aroused by the idea of being eaten alive. Having your work re-appropriated by creepy perverts: Now that’s terrifying! [6/10]

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