Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 26

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Can you believe I’ve never seen this movie before? “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is one of the definitive fifties monster movies. The title has been referenced and mock countless times over the decades. “I Was a Teenage __” is a common snowclone used by subsequent horror films and TV sitcom titles. The film seems to encapsulate the campy quality of B-films of that era and also remains an object of boomer nostalgia. You’d think I would’ve gotten to it sooner, right? Yet the old monster movies I saw as a kid were largely dependent on what got shown on TV. I guess this one didn’t get shown that often. The film was originally released on a double bill with “Invasion of the Saucer Men,” which I’ve already reviewed this October. It seems appropriate to finally get to this one.

Tony is a troubled teenager. He has a hair-trigger temper, the smallest things sending him flying off the handle. This has gotten him in plenty of trouble recently, despite the best efforts of his understanding father and squeaky-clean girlfriend Arlene. Tony seeks the help of Dr. Brandon, an experimental psychologist. Obsessed with man progression from savage to civilized, Brandon injects Tony with a secret serum and hypnotizes him. Now, every time he hears a bell ring, Tony backslides on the evolutionary spectrum, becoming a teenage werewolf. This only increases his angst.

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” was one of American International Picture’s most successful releases. From a business perspective, it makes total sense. Inspired by the success of 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” films about angsty teenage delinquents were dominating the drive-in circuit. Monster movies, meanwhile, were always consistent money-makers. So combining the two makes sound sense. As a teen angst film, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is better then you’d think. Tony seems to be a kid with a genuine rage problem. He’s introduced in the middle of a fist fight that is way more intense then a schoolyard scuffle should ever be. After his dad leaves him at home, he’s so distraught that he breaks shit in the kitchen. When he beats the crap out of a friend due to a harmless Halloween prank, even Tony realizes he needs help. Michael Landon actually does a good job as the conflicted teenager. Even his own emotions confuse him. He doesn’t understand why he’s so angry. As silly and overheated as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” can get, Landon’s performance roots the movie in some honest emotion.

As a werewolf movie, the film thinks up a unique origin for its lycantrophic threat. Like the previous year’s “The Werewolf,” the monster is created through mad science. As an added gimmick, the transformation is triggered through hypnotism. As far as the werewolf design is concerned, the film wouldn’t win any awards for creativity. The teenage werewolf looks like a cross between Chaney’s the Wolfman and the Werewolf of London. The design is well utilized though. The last act, when the monster has rabid foam dripping from his jaws, is certainly neat. Aside from that catchy title, the image of a werewolf in a letterman jacket is the film’s most enduring contribution to pop culture. As a pulp monster thriller, the movie delivers the goods. The werewolf stalking a shapely female gymnast works nicely. The second half of the story is devoted to a man-hunt for the beast. I admire the movie’s focus. It usually takes longer for the townsfolk in a monster movie to realize something is up. Hell, Tony even fights a German Sheppard in one scene. Considering its low budget, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” has a good balance of monster movie madness.

It’s always interesting to note how juvenile delinquent movies treat the adults in the film. The cops tracking the werewolf are sympathetic. I like how the cops and reporters openly acknowledging that they are hunting a werewolf. Tony’s Dad seems caring but his busy work schedule means he’s not emotionally available for his boy. Arlene’s parents seem ready to judge the boy as a trouble-maker. The mad scientist at the story’s center is entirely ambivalent to his patient’s suffering. Even his lab partner’s pleas for reason are ignored. The movie tacks on a ridiculous “Man shouldn’t meddle in God’s domain!” moral. Considering the movie concerns itself with the why adults judge and abuse teens, maybe the moral should’ve been “Teens are people too.”

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is a pretty good drive-in monster flick. The performances are above average, the effects are solid, and the script is a little deeper then you’d expect. AIP hedged their bets with this one and it really paid off. Heck, the movie even includes a swinging rock-n-roll song-and-dance number! No wonder it’s an object of nostalgia. I’m really surprised the movie didn’t get a remake when all the other fifties classics were getting remade. Is the title just too goofy? A remake could truly explore some of the dark ideas this fun and campy creature feature can only hint at. [7/10]

The Puppet Masters (1994)

Robert Heinlein may be a wonderful writer but I doubt I’ll ever experience his work firsthand. Let me put it this way: A family member I can’t stand has an almost evangelical fidelity to Heinlein. He espouses the author’s political beliefs frequently and constantly praises his work. Despite this, you can’t deny the author’s influence on science fiction. He seemingly invented robot battle suits in “Starship Troopers.” His 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters” codified the Brain Slug style alien. The story was an obvious influence on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and parasitic puppeteers would crop up in everything from “Animorphs” to “Futurama.” When the story was made in a movie in the early nineties, following a troubled production, it was overshadowed by the stories influenced by the original book.

What is seemingly a small meteor crashes in a rural town in Iowa. Inside are parasitic alien creatures. They attach themselves to their victims’ brains, completely taking control of the host’s body. They multiply within hours. Sharing a hive mind, the invaders intend on conquering Earth. An elite government agency, designed to protect Earth from extraterrestrials, is on the case. However, the creatures are an insidious threat, difficult to contain and capture. Soon, the agents are uncertain who they can trust.

Heinlein’s novel is apparently a much bigger story, set in a post-apocalyptic future with space ship battles and a plot to defeat the aliens via mass nudity. The film version of “The Puppet Masters” narrows the story down considerably. The movie is a ground view of an alien invasion. We see the first victims taken over, a trio of farm boys. They spread the parasites to their parents and to the other people in town. Soon, the invasion is rolling along. Agents within the organization are compromised. The creatures attempt to take over the president. The soldiers sent to control the aliens are controlled by them. Containment is the military’s top priority in “The Puppet Masters.” The film repeatedly emphasizes how easy it would be for the invasion to grow to uncontrollable size. Though purists will likely complain, limiting the invasion to one small town instead of the world gives “The Puppet Masters” an urgency that I like.

Befitting a studio film from the early nineties, “The Puppet Masters” features some fantastic creature effects. The titular invaders look like the combination of a manta ray and a lamprey. Their leather wings flap helplessly. With their gooey, gross appendage, they shoot their impaling brain-spears. The movie devotes a lot of screen time to the creatures’ physiology. They identify each other by touching their natural antennas. As a hive mind, they don’t understand the concept of individuality. The monsters can contract into a pod-like form, making them easy to ship and spread. An interesting moment has the parasites being attached to chimps, which shows their tactics work even on a primitive level. Early on, we’re shown the Puppet Masters in action so they’re not just a conceptual threat. They’re a physical one. Honestly, the feature does a good job of emphasizing how dangerous the monsters are. They’re slimy and diminutive but no less dangerous.

“The Puppet Masters” doesn’t waste too much time getting to the point. Before the opening credits end, the heroes are investigating the crash site. Not long after that, they get their first look at the parasites up close. There are chase scenes, both on foot and in cars. Shots are fired. The brain slugs give their hosts super-strength, which leads to more then a few close-quarter fight scenes. The most exploitative moment, perhaps, has an infected half-naked woman leaping through a window and speeding away in a car. Those hoping for an intellectual sci-fi flick may be disappointed to read that “The Puppet Masters” ends with shoot-outs and explosions. I’m okay with this, though. The movie is a quick-paced, pulpy sci-fi action/thriller. The movie does make time for plenty of science, with stern characters in lab coats discussing the nature of the invaders. On the other hand, it climaxes inside a spinning helicopter.

“The Puppet Masters” is obviously indebted to other, better sci-fi flicks. The cast is uneven. Eric Thal is a bit wooden and Julie Warner should’ve been given more to do. Donald Sutherland is too dry as the leader of the secret division, though he gets a few moments. Reliable character actors like Yaphet Kotto and Richard Belzer are stuck in do-nothing bit parts. Honestly, it’s up to Keith David and Will Patton to enliven their roles, which they have no issue doing. I suppose it’s not terribly memorable. However, it makes for decent low-expectation late night viewing. And there’s enough slimy monster effects and tense moments for it to work in October too. [7/10]

Killer Kart (2012)

After spending a large portion of the Six Weeks watching horror movies with bizarre or impractical threats, I come to “Killer Kart,” a short film parody of that very topic. Cass is a finishing up her first day as store manager in her shopping center. She doesn’t notice it at first but something strange is going on. The building looses power. The phone stops working. A single shopping cart rolls into the store. When she returns from a bathroom break, she finds her co-workers panicking and covered in blood. That shopping cart is tired of being pushed around and has decided to go on a rampage. Will any one survive the night?

In just fourteen minutes, “Killer Kart” does a great job of capturing the tone of eighties monster movies. It basically takes a typical creature feature script and cuts out the long middle, leaving only the beginning and the ending. And adding a whole bunch of absurdity. The short has a clever way of presenting the killer shopping cart. We see the bloody, screaming victims before we see the Killer Kart. This leaves the audience wondering how an animated shopping cart can hurt anyone, which is exactly the joke. The short joyfully ramps up the gore of eighties horror flicks. The Kart tosses a decapitated head at a car and chomps someone in half, for two examples. Christine Rodriguez is extremely likable as Cass. By the end, when she’s fighting off the aluminum monster, she has become a creditable horror heroine. The short actually does a good job of establishing the humanity of its cast. I also really like Ray Bouchard as Hale, the guy way too old to work at a grocery store. He’s the only actor who winks at the camera, and the script lets him earn it. Otherwise, “Killer Kart” plays its ridiculous idea totally straight. That’s the way you do it. [8/10]

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