Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 27

The Others (2001)

After the break-out success of “The Sixth Sense,” it seemed like classy ghost stories were going to be the defining cinematic horror style of the new decade. This trend turned out to be fairly short lived, a harsher form of horror emerging shortly afterwards. Before that happened, we got a few interesting movies. Such as “The Others.” The film was even sold as “from the creators of “The Sixth Sense,”” presumably because “from the director of “Tesis”” didn’t carry the same commercial appeal. Unusual for a horror film, “The Others” received many awards, winning Goyas and being nominated for BAFTAs and a Golden Globe. A decade later, how does it hold up?

Grace lives alone in a large house on the fog-choked island of Jersey. Her children, Anne and Nicolas, suffer from a rare allergy to light, forcing the home’s curtains to be drawn at all hours. Her husband disappeared in World War II and Grace has given up hope that he’ll ever come home. The quiet life the three live is interrupted when a trio of house keepers come to the island. Anne talks about seeing a ghostly little boy and old woman in her room. Grace is dismissive of her daughter’s claims at first but, soon, begins seeing and feeling odd things herself. She soon realizes that their home is haunted, that there are intruders about.

The best ghost stories understand that ghosts are just a reflection of the feelings and thoughts of the living. In “The Others,” the family is plenty disturbed even before the haunting begins in earnest. Grace keeps a very tight grip on her home, regulating everything that her children does and everything that goes on in house. When the housekeepers are introduced, she goes through every room, informing them of the place’s history. Grace is a devoutly religious woman, forcing her kids to study the Bible and religious text at all times. When her kids ask reasonable questions about the world, she usually yells at them. It’s obvious that these probing questions just make the fragile Grace uncomfortable. Her religious beliefs are just one thing she possesses, in order to hold her delicate world together. Nicole Kidman is so tightly wound, her performance incredibly controlled. Every twitch and small gesture gives the impression of a woman on the edge of breaking apart, barely holding herself together.

“The Others” is obviously in the tradition of “The Innocents” and many other English ghost stories. The home is introduced nearly lost amid the clouds of fog. The entire movie is bathed in fog, casting a gloomy atmosphere over the whole story. The creepiness of the constantly dark, nearly empty home is emphasized throughout. The amazing production design and Alexandro Amenabar’s incredibly patient direction establishes a spooky tone of creeping dread early on. When “The Others” goes for outright scares, it tends to be more subtle about things. A creaking door or a room full of white sheets are the kind of scares that define the film’s first half. Even the bolder sequences are more calculated. The sequence of Grace’s daughter seemingly being replaced with an old woman was all over the trailers and TV spots. The movie’s climax begins with the family waking up to all the curtains being torn down. Yet “The Others” earns the bigger scares. It’s an extremely focused, beautifully orchestrated exercise in atmosphere. Anyone who loves foggy old horror movies are likely to be impressed by it.

Like “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others” has a twist ending that completely re-contextualizes the entire story that came before. It’s not too difficult to guess, even if you’ve never seen the movie before. The film features plenty of foreshadowing, such as the mysterious groundskeeper covering up a tombstone. Or the unusual nature of the fog surrounding the home, a seemingly inescapable wall that surrounds the property. Spoiler alert for a fourteen year old movie: Grace and her children are the ghosts. The spectres they keep seeing are actually the current, living residents of the home. However, this twist isn’t just a cheap attempt to catch the audience off-guard. “The Others” is about people’s inability to let go of the past. When her husband reappears in the fog, he quickly leaves again. Grace holds tight to the home, determined to keep her tiny world exactly as she wants it. The reveal builds to a sense of emotional catharsis. We learn the details of how Grace and her children became ghosts. In these moments, “The Others” becomes a sad tragedy, a sorrowful ghost story told from the perspective of the ghosts.

Amenabar reaches for scares he can’t quite get in “The Others.” Instead, the film is built entirely on its wonderful atmosphere and its strong lead performance. It’s a visually gorgeous film, with a slowly turning script that is rooted in real feelings. Finally, it makes fantastic October viewing. Tucking in with a movie like this, bathed in fog and a slowly creeping sense of dread, puts me in the perfect Halloween mood. Maybe it will for you too. [8/10]

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

These days, Sweeney Todd is best known as the singing revenge killer of Stephen Sondheim’s musical stage play or Tim Burton’s film adaptation. It wasn’t always that way. Beginning life as a penny dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls,” the story was soon adapted into a stage play. Like many other horror stories, the play claimed to be based on true events in order to add verisimilitude to its tale. Despite this being a blatant lie, many people believed it, turning Sweeney Todd into an urban legend. A story this grisly, with that much murder and intrigue, was doubtlessly going to attract the attention of filmmakers. The 1936 version of “Sweeney Todd” isn’t even the earliest film adaptation. There were two prior movies during the silent era. Yet the ’36 movie would really connect with people and prove a vital source of inspiration for Sondheim’s musical.

In Victorian England, there lives a barber named Sweeney Todd. Working near the docks, he invites unwashed and unshaved sailors into his shop. It’s the riches the men bring from distant lands that interest Todd. He pulls a lever in his shop, dropping the men out of their chair into the basement below, cracking their skulls or breaking their necks. In case they aren’t dead, Todd slashes their throats with his straight razor. His neighbor and partner in crime then bakes the dead bodies into her meat pies. It’s a good con but Todd sees an end to his toiling. He plans to marry the young daughter of a rich lord. The girl and her boyfriend have different ideas, which puts them both in the path of Sweeney’s razor.

“The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” directly adapts the original pulp serial, even including the titular string of pearls. As such, the story is awash in melodrama. Unlike later versions, Todd’s sole motivation is greed. He kills for the cash and pursues Joanna for the same reason. Sweeney is nothing but a wicked villain in this telling. Despite that, Todd’s interest in Joanna creates a love triangle with her boyfriend Mark. Her father, naturally, doesn’t approve of Mark despite his pure heart. There’s plenty of blackmail and betrayal. Todd manipulates Joanna’s dad and blackmails Mrs. Lovett into being his accomplish. Lovett, in turn, betrays Todd, allowing Mark to escape the basement. The fence Todd sells his stolen goods to tries to turn him in, another example of betrayal. As Todd’s goals close in, two different people go undercover in disguise in order to expose him. The film engages in so many melodrama clichés that it, at times, plays like a parody of the genre.

Truthfully, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” seems to downplay the story’s horror elements. Perhaps due to censorship, the cannibalism is barely mentioned. Only once do we see someone munching on Mrs. Lovett’s famous meat pies. That they are made with human flesh is more implied then anything else. We only see Sweeney take his razor to someone’s throat once. For a story about a notorious serial killer, there’s surprisingly little death in it. The body count maxes out at three and that includes the villain’s demise. Truthfully, the movie’s most macabre element is its titular murderer. Tod Slaughter goes way over-the-top as Sweeney. Every other line out of his mouth is a barber pun about murder. He makes references to “polishing people off” so often that it becomes a joke. He constantly says mean things to Toby, his young assistant, making it clear that he’s willing to kill the boy at any point. The character is so obviously evil that I can’t believe it takes a whole movie for people to figure out he’s a murderer. When Slaughter dons a cape at the end, Sweeney Todd has made a complete transformation into a cartoonish super villain. Slaughter’s performance, though ridiculous, is at least entertaining.

The film is so indebted to melodrama troupes that it even devotes some time to Mark’s adventures abroad. There’s a baffling sequence of the sailor aboard his ship, chatting with other men. This segues into a brief scene in Africa, the men warring with native tribes there. I’m not sure what this has to do with the main plot. Naturally, there are long scenes devoted to Joanna and Mark’s romance. When the lovers reunited in the last act, the film pauses so they can declare their feelings for each other. Even though Todd is pursuing the girl strictly for her dad’s money, that subplot still gets some extended screen time. At times, the murder and mayhem seems secondary to the film’s actual goals.

I’ve seen enough films from this era that I’m usually immune to the conventions of the time. A certain amount of romantic melodrama and goofy comic relief is to be expected. Yet “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” definitely needed more throat slashing and pies made of people. Tod Slaughter’s performance as the titular madman provides some goofy entertainment but the film is, overall, too restrained and distracted. It is seemingly in the public domain, meaning many prints of varying awfulness can be found all over the internet. [5/10]

Pulgasari (1985)

I have little doubt that the true story behind “Pulgasari” is more interesting then the actual movie. If you’re reading this, you probably know it already. Kim Jong-Il was determined to create a North Korean film industry. In an effort to do this, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his starlet wife Choi Eun-hee. “Pulgasari” would be the last movie the filmmaker would make while under the dictator’s thumb. A great fan of Godzilla movies, Kim Jong-Il forced the director to make a kaiju epic that would double as communist propaganda. He even got many of Toho’s special effect experts, including Heisei Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma, to work on the film. Not long after the release of “Pulgasari,” the director and his wife would successfully escape North Korea. Thus, “Pulgasari” is a kaiju flick with the strangest backstory ever. The only other country where the film was officially released was Japan, where it has garnered a “so bad, it’s good” reputation among kaiju fans. Is this reputation deserved?

In medieval Korea, the poor villagers suffer under the rule of a cruel lord. The lord demands the blacksmith make weapons for his army, using the villager’s pots and tools for material. When the blacksmith refuses, he is tortured and thrown in jail. The man’s family revolts against the lord, soon being captured themselves. With his last ounce of strength, the blacksmith sculpts a small creature out of rich. When his daughter accidentally bleeds on the sculpture, it springs to life. The creature is a Pulgasari, a mythological creature that eats iron. The more iron it eats, the larger and more powerful Pulgasari becomes. Aligned with the giant monster, the villagers lead a revolution against the warlord and his armies.

The titular monster of “Pulgasari” doesn’t appear until a half-hour into the movie. Before that, the film resembles a medieval drama and war movie. Parts of the film, devoted to the brave hero slashing away at enemy soldiers with his sword, reminded me of Chinese Wuxia cinema. So did the bits featuring rebels rolling rocks off a cliff, onto soldiers on horses. Quite a bit of screen time focuses on the cruelty of the lord against the innocent villagers. Even after the monster shows up, “Pulgasari” still closely resembles a war epic. There are long scenes of armored men fleeing the monster’s path while proud revolutionaries crowd around their kaiju pal. “Pulgasari” was obviously shot on artificial sets, shrouded in fog and odd colors. During its best moments, the film uses this to its advantage, creating a historical fantasy feeling. During its weaker moments, “Pulgasari” feels a bit tedious and marred in uninteresting melodrama.

As a kaiju movie, “Pulgasari” is still rather uneven, I’m afraid. The titular beasty begins life as only a few inches tall. After just a night of eating, it’s the size of a man. In a few days, the creature is truly a giant. The monster design, which is halfway between an ox and a dragon, is appealing. The effects are honestly better then you’d expect, as the monster’s face can be quite animated. Satsuma, already a veteran of suited performances, manages to gift Pulgasari with some personality. Setting a giant monster loose in a medieval setting is an interesting idea. However, “Pulgasari” is disappointingly short on mayhem. Too often, the film sets into a pattern. The film’s lead villain, the head general, thinks up some ridiculous scheme to defeat the monster. He lures it into a massive cage and sets it on fire. Or confuses it with a song and drops it into a pit, burying it under stones. Each time, Pulgasari escapes and drives back the army. Too much of “Pulgasari” is made up of enemy soldiers fleeing the monster. Not enough of the film features the kaiju smashing shit. He crashes some stone walls and buildings but mostly just stands around, looking intimidating.

Aside from being a monster movie and a historical fantasy, “Pulgasari” was also meant to function as North Korean propaganda. If nothing else, you’d think the movie would have a grasp on that. Truthfully, “Pulgasari” even seems a little confused on that front. The peasants revolting against the tyrannical lord certainly recalls the people’s revolution. It also recalls, in perhaps an ironic jab by the director by his captors, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea itself. After Pulgasari and his human allies crush the evil king, the film takes another weird turn. The monster continues to demand iron. He is eating the newly liberated village out of house and home. The people feel obligated to the monster but are fearful of its wrath. The film protagonist explicitly states the point of this extended epilogue. She says the monster's constant demand for iron will force more wars into existence. Ah, Pulgasari represents capitalism and the West! He liberates the peasants from their oppressors but then demands more and more, fueling a cycle of unending conflict. Still, considering “Pulgasari” was made by filmmakers coerced by a dictator, all its talk about people rebelling against tyrants comes off as awfully ironic.

“Pulgasari” isn’t exactly so-bad-it’s-good. There are definitely amusing moments. When the monster swallows a cannonball and then spits it back out, that made me laugh. Overall, I felt the film was a bit of a snore. Its monster is charming but he’s not given enough to do. As a kaiju flick, it’s far too short on destruction and building smashing. As a historical drama, it’s a bit flat. And the filmmaker seemed to be intentionally undermining its purpose as North Korean propaganda. So “Pulgasari” isn’t truly successful in any way. I have no doubt that the inevitable documentary or fictionalized retelling about its making will be far more interesting. [5/10]

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