Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 28

The Church (1989)

I’m a big fan of “StageFright,” the first proper horror film Michele Soavi made, and an even bigger fan of “Cemetery Man,” his last credit before working exclusively in Italian televison. Weirdly, I’ve never seen the two religious horror films Soavi made in-between those features. The Six Weeks of Halloween is for correcting oversights like this. “The Church” was the first time Soavi collaborated on a screenplay with Dario Argento, the filmmaker he had acted or assistant directed under many times before. “The Church” would prove to be Soavi’s break-out hit, marking him as the proper heir to Argento’s throne as the Italian master of visually innovative, poetic, and viscerally gruesome horror. Conceived as the third film in the “Demons” series – one of at least three movies claiming that title – the film was released as a stand-alone story at least in Italy and the States. I probably should’ve seen it way before now.

In the center of a modern German city stands a massive, ancient, elaborate cathedral. Hundreds of years ago, the church was built upon a mass grave of innocent people murdered as witches. The church’s new librarian looks into the building’s history, when not pursuing a romance with the female archaeologist excavating the place. He uncovers a strange crypt in the church’s basement. When he breaks the seal, he is overcome by a demonic force. Soon, the same Satanic influence begins to affect everyone inside the church. When the sacristan brutally kills himself, his blood activates an old mechanism which locks the place’s only exit. Now, a group of normal people are trapped inside the church with very old and very evil forces.

The reason Soavi was the logical successor to Argento’s title is that both filmmakers share a unique visual sense. “The Church” is full of moments that are equally poetic, kinetic, or gruesome. After the extended opening, the camera rushes up from the underground cross, through the floors of the church, onto its main floor. When Evan is overcome by the demonic force, he pulls his own heart out, holding it above a blood red sky. The camera then speeds through the city’s streets, coming to the girlfriend’s home. The film’s deft touch for gory spectacle manifests when an old woman bangs her husband’s decapitated head against a bell. Or a man impales himself on a jack hammer, an extended and brutal scene. Or a priest falls from a balcony, landing on a pointed spire below. Or a woman has her head smashed against a speeding train. Mostly, “The Church” is full of creepy, unsettling imagery. A demonic goat appears outside a widow. Later, the same monster slowly makes love with a hypnotized woman. A biker’s girlfriend appears nude, wrapped in the arms of a winged demon. Piles of muddy, bloody bodies emerge from the cathedrals’ bowels. These unnerving images lend “The Church” a strange, creeping sense of unease. The movie is genuinely spooky for most of its run time.

This is despite a script that can best be described as scatterbrained. “The Church’s” story barely makes any sense. It basically boils down to the bad juju in the church making all sorts of weird, creepy shit happen. A major problem with the movie is that there’s no defined protagonist. At first, Evan the new librarian seems to be the main character. The movie even devotes time to his romance with Lisa. On the other hand, Evan is the first person to become possessed and disappears for the rest of the movie. Hugh Quarshie’s heroic priest gets top billing and resolves the story. However, he doesn’t do much besides that. The sacristan’s daughter may be the main character. We follow her for most of the run time. Asia Argento, even at only fourteen years old, is still the most captivating actor in the movie. Yet she never drives the plot, merely reacting to it. In the second half, there’s over a dozen people in the church. There’s a biker, his girlfriend, a bride and her wedding party, a teacher, her students, an elderly couple, the priests, and probably a few others. Time is split between each of them, leading to a lack of focus just when “The Church” is truly ramping up.

Italy is, obviously, the most Catholic country in the world. Weirdly, you don’t see more Italian horror films commenting on Catholicism. “The Church,” however, breaks this trend. The movie begins with a clan of Christian knights massacring an entire village of people with little reasoning. The cruelties and indignities of the Catholic Church inform the backbone of the film. Many people have been tortured and persecuted in the name of God. The exact source of the evil in “The Church” is never outright stated. However, it’s implied that the demonic forces come not from the supposed witches but instead from the cruelty inflicted on them by the church. “The Church” seems more then willing to use classic Catholic imagery in an effort to unnerve. The demons and monsters seem inspired by bizarre, medieval frescoes of demons and the devil. Hooded men, standing around and chanting, take on a sinister quality even before the weird shit starts happening. “The Church” acknowledges that Catholicism is kind of weird and then twists the religion into startling, strange, unnerving directions.

Despite some plotting problems, “The Church” is hugely successful as a creepy, visual horror show. Soavi inflicts some truly strange and eerie imagery on the audience. The film cultivates an unnerving atmosphere that never truly lets up. It’s also full of inventive slaughter and sleazy nudity, if those are the things you’re looking for. Truthfully, the only horror fans likely to be disappointed in “The Church” are those that demand constant coherence and logic from their movies. And if you’re an Italian horror fan, you probably aren’t too invested in those things, anyway. [8/10]

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

When I was reading Fangoria as a teenager, they had this thing called the Chainsaw Awards. Basically, the fans would vote for what they considered the best horror films from the past year. (It was an inspiration for own silly genre award show, the Phantom Awards.) Apparently, horror fans have always felt the need to give fake awards to movies they like. Back in 1959, Famous Monsters magazine – the prototype for all horror mags – awarded “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” the Shock Award. The makers of the film were so proud of this achievement that they slapped the award right there on the poster. Though obscure even by monster kid standards, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” does have a minor cult following.

Piedras Blancas is a real place, a seaside outpost near the California town of San Simeon. The location is most famous for its light house. In “The Monster of Piedras Blancas,” the town is a sleepy location full of normal people, going about their lives. Like lighthouse keeper Sturges or his comely daughter Lucy. However, the town is shocked when headless bodies are discovered along the coast. It turns out the caves around Piedras Blancas are home to an inhuman, reptilian monster. Now, the creature has developed a hobby of collecting people’s heads. How is the lonely lighthouse keeper connected to the deadly beast?

“The Monster of Piedras Blancas” was a low budget independent monster movie, made primarily by craftsman and workers recently laid off by Universal Studios. Accordingly, the movie resembles many late period Universal sci-fi or monster movies. Like “The Monolith Monsters,” the small town setting proves charming. Piedras Blancas is a place where everyone shops at the same small store. The only place to go at nights is the local bar and the neighborhood priest is on a first name basis with everyone. Moreover, the movie cooks up a cute mythology for its titular critter. Like the Gill-man, the monster is said to be a remnant survivor of a long since extinct species. Real diplovertebrons were crocodile-like amphibians, while the movie’s monster is a pig-faced monster man. All throughout the film, legends of the monster are traded. Nobody believes them at first but, naturally, the creature soon proves itself real. Silly quasi-science and hokey small town settings might put some viewers off. I find them fun.

Like a lot of indie horror flicks of the time, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” features some oddball characters. Most notable is Kochek, the eccentric storekeeper. He keeps talking about the monster, annoying everyone with the lore, until the monster finally comes for him. (Kochek sounds a lot like Kolchak and his constant talk of monsters amused me.) John Harmon plays the lonely lighthouse keeper, whose only friend in the world is his dog and his daughter. Harmon is somewhat gruff but secretly has a compassionate heart. I also like Forrest Lewis as the town’s constable, who is more confused then disturbed by the monster’s grisly murders. He’s also tough enough to survive an up-close encounter with the beast. There’s even a little dark humor, like when a funeral for two of the monster’s victims is interrupted by news of the monster’s latest murder. Not all the performances are fun. Les Tremayne is a snore as the boring scientist hero. Jeanne Carmen, as screaming damsel Lucy, was likely cast more for her looks then her acting abilities.

The setting is comfy and the performances are mostly neat. Yet the monster obviously steals the show. The creature suit was designed by Jack Kevan, who worked on many Universal B-flicks of the time. Apparently, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” utilized left-over pieces from “This Island Earth” and “The Mole People!” Yet it’s an appealing design, with his hog-like snout, canine-esque jaws, and barely visible devil horns. The monster is even slightly sympathetic, as we learn it is killing only because its regular food supply was cut off. Notably, the film is far gorier then you’d expect from 1959. Decapitation is the Monster’s preferred method of killing and bloody, severed heads put in multiple appearances. The whole thing ends with a shoot-out at that famous lighthouse.

It doesn’t break any new ground. Truthfully, the film is proudly derivative of older, better movies. Monster fans don’t necessarily demand a lot. The creature looks cool, cool enough to warrant many model kits over the years. The black-and-white photography is nicely atmospheric. The setting is appealing. It’s unambitious but, watched late at night with a handful of popcorn, it certainly satisfies. [7/10]

Little Monsters (1989)

Kids do not have the most discriminating taste. They basically watch anything as long as it tickles some sort of primal pleasure center, usually via bright colors, loud comedy, or repetitive fantasy violence. If something does this especially well, kids will watch it over and over again. As a child, I had a dark, washed-out copy of “Little Monsters,” recorded from a rental tape. I watched the movie many times until the tape worn out. Weirdly, after a certain age, I didn’t return to “Little Monsters” much. Revisiting the flick as a grown-up, it’s the first time I’ve thought – much less watched – the movie in years.

Brian is a kid in the seven-to-ten range. He lives with his little brother Eric and his mom and dad. Eric is oblivious but Brian can see that his parents’ marriage is starting to crack apart. Not helping matters is someone getting up to mischief at night. Brian’s bike is wrecked and someone left ice cream in the pantry. Soon, Brian realizes that he has a monster living under his bed. The monster, named Maurice, is actually quite friendly. He introduces Brian to the underground world of monsters, where there are no bed times, kids can do whatever they want, and lots of manic fun can always be had. Of course, this comes with a price. Brian soon discovers not every monster is as friendly as Maurice.

Like I said, kids are easy to amuse. “Little Monsters” is definitely a kid’s movie. When Maurice first appears, he starts shouting and yelling rapidly, leaping around the room. The character stays in this mode throughout most of the film, Howie Mandel pushing his shtick to its extreme. When he pulls Brian into the monster world, yet more goofy, hyper shenanigans occur. “Little Monsters” is also fairly crass for a PG flick. There are fart jokes and multiple references to boogers and ear wax. One scene even has Maurice peeing in a bottle. There’s also a bit more profanity then you might expect. Like a kid’s movie, “Little Monsters” features the easily defined roles of the genre. Brian is the lazy-but-brilliant hero, there’s his tom girl love interest, nerdy friend, and the obnoxious bully. Still, “Little Monsters” is an eighties kid’s flick. That’s significant. The subplot about the parents breaking up informs most of the story. Eventually, a moral about growing up arises. I’m not saying it rises above its genre. The film is actually entirely typical of its time and place.

Watching as an adult, what I most liked about “Little Monsters” is its production design. The world of the monsters is mostly composed of rickety staircases, run down and damaged. The closer the characters get to the villain’s lair, the more surreal the place becomes. There’s even some “Caligari’-esque jagged landscapes. There’s a weird, desolate, and crowded look to the place. The entire dimension is shot through a reddish-brown color filter, creating an interestingly subterranean feeling. The monsters themselves are memorably weird. Maurice, just for one, dresses like a New Wave/Punk kid. Most of the monsters have blue skin, curving horns, or spots all over their bodies. One minor character has a head like a rotted pumpkin. Another appears to be an over-sized cockroach. None of the make-up will blow your mind but the creature designs have their own odd charm.

“Little Monsters” is loosely plotted. There’s not much drive to the story. The film mostly concern itself with Brian and Maurice getting into nasty fun. To show you how lackadaisical the plotting is, the villain Snik isn’t introduced until an hour into the movie. At some point, Brian doubts his monster friend’s habits and fears he may be turning into a monster himself. This plot point is mostly dropped by the end. In the last act, “Little Monsters” shows a surprising willingness to get weird and creepy. The villainous monsters kidnap Brian’s little brother. He goes and confronts the main baddie. The character is named Boy and dresses in a prep school uniform. At first, he appears relatively human but a closer inspection reveals gory flesh raising through his skin. Later, he tears his face off, revealing a monstrous visage underneath. His room is full of toys that spring to life and attack the kids. Not quickly though. Instead, the wicked teddy bears or toy tanks slowly move into place. Obviously meant to be a symbol of arrested development, Boy is definitely one of the weirdest and creepiest bad guys in eighties kid’s fiction.

Of course, the bad guys are vanquished and the heroes prevail. There’s a lot of goofy kid movie antics in the last act of “Little Monsters,” contrasting weirdly with the movie’s creepiness. The film is too long, at 101 minutes. This could have been solved easily is the overly long epilogue had been clipped down. I’m not sure if “Little Monsters” is a good movie. The script is sloppy, the characters are simplistic, the tone is inconsistent, and the performances are broad. I can see why it appealed to my younger self though, with its obnoxious humor and odd creature designs. Adult me doesn’t like it anywhere near as much but I do appreciate certain aspects of it. [6/10]

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