Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 29

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Once again, I begin a review with a childhood anecdote. As a youngster, our VHS copy of “Buff the Vampire Slayer” frequently found its way into my VCR. I was such a fan that when Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed and cultishly beloved TV series premiered, I was generally dismissive of it. Judging by the commercials, the show seemed to lack the humor of the movie. It took years for me to warm up to the show. Of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy is the one most people love, the one upon which a cult following is built around. Joss Whedon, and accordingly some of his fans, are dismissive of the original movie. I’m taking a bold stance, you guys: It’s okay to like both and, some days, I even prefer this version.

Buffy is a L.A. teenager, a cheerleader, whose favorite hobby is wasting time at the mall with her equally vaporous friends. She’s seemingly unaware of the strange murders happening around the city. When an older man named Merrick appears to her, referring to her as the chosen one, all of that changes. Buffy soon discovers that she is the Slayer, a girl chosen by fate to slay vampires. Her destiny puts her on a collision course with Lothos, an especially powerful and evil vampire. Merrick endeavors to train her in time while Buffy struggles to balance monster fighting with a normal high school life.

After the TV version of “Buffy” found success and popularity, creator Joss Whedon would occasionally say not-so-nice things about this movie. About how his script was heavily rewritten and the finished film doesn’t represent his original vision. Okay, maybe. Yet the most memorable thing about 1992’s “Buffy” is its sarcastic, frequently hilarious dialogue. Like “Heathers” before it, the film creates intentionally exaggerated, silly and trendy slang for the teens, giving them their own language. Conversations about the environment or hairy old moles greatly amuse. The interaction between flighty, girlish Buffy and her grave, serious Watcher Merrick provides plenty of laughs. People make fun of the training montage but it’s another stand-out moment, the sequence quickly making it clear that Buffy still has a lot to learn about vampire slaying. Buffy’s smart-ass response to the master vampire’s threat is another favorite of mine. Even the high school principal gets plenty of big laughs, especially during his rambling monologue about dropping acid. The point is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a very funny movie and remains funny throughout its run time.

Which I suppose runs counter to the movie’s goal as a horror film. As a horror movie, “Buffy” never quite gets scare. Occasionally, it develops an eerie feeling. Buffy has reoccurring nightmares about Lothos, one of which has the vampire appearing in her bed. A later scene has the same vampire floating above a potential victim. A scene set in a parade float warehouse also features a creepy, giant squirrel. However, the vampires are never frightening, if they were even meant to be. As an action flick, “Buffy” is more successful. Yes, it’s very obvious when Kristy Swanson is traded out for her stunt-double. Yet the action scenes are usually pretty likable. Buffy flipping, kicking, or staking vampires has a nice appeal to her. Her final fight with the main villain is especially satisfying, as it features a big ass sword and creative use of a flag pole. As far as horror or action goes, “Buffy” doesn’t blow you away but it scratches a certain itch.

Most of the above wouldn’t have worked without the film’s phenomenal cast. Kristy Swanson has the perfect mixture of funny and brave. Her Buffy starts out as very flippant but soon develops a nonchalant heroic side that I like. She has phenomenal chemistry with Donald Sutherland as Merrick. An exchange about the Watcher’s eternal life is both hilarious and touching. Rutger Hauer can do slow-boiling malevolence and manic evil easily. What I really like about his performance is the off-hand humor he reveals. Truthfully, the M.V.P. of “Buffy” is a near-unrecognizable Paul Reubens as Lothos’ lackey. His pervy attitude works well when confronting the heroine in a hallway or bemoaning his torn jacket. Truthfully, his prolonged, improvised death scene is the comedic high-light of the movie. Even Luke Perry, hardly the most versatile performer, comes off pretty well. After all, Perry gets to deliver immortal lines like “Dude, you’re floating!” and “Now, you’re a coat rack.”

So that’s that. I really like the original “Buffy” movie. Obviously, it lacks the dramatic depth and rich characterization the television show would strive for. It also lacks the contrived melodrama that would sometimes make the series a chore to watch. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking but I find the film to be really funny and entertaining. Don’t let the Whedon faithful crowd turn you off it. Give 1992’s “Buffy” a shot and you may like it! [7/10]

The Sect (1991)
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After watching “The Church," it only makes sense to continue on to Michele Soavi’s next film, “The Sect.” The two films have more in common then just their director. Both are religious-themed horror films. “The Church” is about a cursed church. “The Sect” is about a satanic sect. Both films share a co-writing credit with Dario Argento. In Japan, “The Sect” was even released as the fourth film in the “Demons” series, just as “The Church” was released as “Demons 3.” However, there’s one big difference. While “The Church” is well-regarded as a cult classic of Italian horror, “The Sect” has never caught on to the same degree. This may be because the film has never received a proper DVD release in the States.

In the seventies, a satanic cult led by a man named Damon murdered and sacrifice a family of hippy youths in the American desert. More then twenty years later, a school teacher named Miriam moves into a new home in the woods of Germany. After nearly hitting an old man with her car, she invites him back to her home. He uncovers a hidden room in her basement, containing a deep well of blue water. The old man dies but not before leaving a present for the woman. Soon, she begins to see and experience some very strange things. Unwillingly, Miriam has found herself at the center of an occult conspiracy.

About the only problem I had with “The Church,” a movie I otherwise liked a lot, was that it could never bring its various subplots together into a coherent whole. “The Sect” has a similar issue but in a different way. Unlike “The Church,” which had no clear protagonist, “The Sect” is clearly about Miriam. The film follows her closely and she’s in nearly every scene. However, “The Sect” still suffers from a lack of focus. Occasionally, the story rambles off to side characters, none of which have a clear connection to the main plot. Weird or creepy things happen to Miriam for little rhyme or reason. Some characters even return from the dead in ways that aren’t clearly defined. “The Sect” concentrates into a stable story in its last half-hour, after over an hour of the audience being confused. It’s a bit too little, too late. Listen, I don’t mind some dream logic or lack of coherence in my horror movies, especially Italian ones. Reading that “The Sect” was written by three different people with ideas totally at odds with each other explains a lot. The film feels like an unfocused jumble of disconnected ideas.

Despite that, powerful images still emerge from time to time. This is still a Michele Soavi film so, naturally, it’s frequently beautiful. The director employs his trade-mark tracking shots fantastically. One instant has the camera tracking plumping inside the house all the way out to a sink faucet. Another scene follows a bug as it crawls inside someone’s body. There’s an especially effective dreams sequence. Miriam awakes in a green field, wanders towards a tree where a Christ-like person hangs, before falling backwards. Her dress suddenly stretches on endlessly, black cords crawling up it towards her body. Soavi doesn’t back away from visceral horror either. A death shroud springs to life, wrapping itself around someone’s face, strangling the life out of them. Later, a dead body leaps up, suddenly, violently attacking someone. An attacker does not let go of a moving vehicle, stabbing at the driver even as he’s dragged along. Probably the most disturbing moment in “The Sect” involves hooks meticulously being inserted into a victim’s face, climaxing with her skin being torn away. Soavi shoots all of it expertly, lending the carnage a certain art. Each sequence is calculated to be as unnerving as possible.

In his next film, “Cemetery Man,” Soavi would create a film full of symbols with complex, layered meanings. In this sense, “The Sect” could be considered a predecessor. Miriam has a pet rabbit, a symbol of both child-like innocence and pagan fertility. (One amusingly bizarre scene has the rabbits flicking through TV channels with a remote.) The satanic cult, meanwhile, is associated with beetles that crawl inside people’s heads, laying worms in their brain. Miriam’s water turns blue after the cult messes with it, gross slime floating inside it. In the movie’s weirdest turn, a hook-billed crane symbolizes the devil. This builds towards a scene where – I’m not kidding here – Miriam is raped by the bird. Some of these symbols have more easily understood meanings then others. That Soavi was willing to pack a story that wasn’t much more then a “Rosemary’s Baby” rip-off with such symbols speaks positively of him. What it all means exactly is another story entirely.

The performances are quite good. Even while dubbed, it’s clear that Kelly Curtis and Herbert Lom are solid actors. The film has no shortage of memorable sequences, it’s well shot, and the music is good. Despite everything it has going for it, “The Sect” never collects into a fully satisfying whole. This is most apparent in its baffling, non-sequitur ending. For his next movie, Soavi would stop collaborating with Dario Argento. In retrospect, maybe he should’ve ended the partnership sooner. [6/10]

The Queen of Spades (1949)

The horror genre can lead in all sorts of unexpected directions. This late in October, I wouldn’t expect to be watching a movie based off the works of Alexander Pushkin, the most respected of Russian poets. But here we are. Many critics list ‘The Queen of Spades” as a notable, landmark ghost story. The story’s literary roots are evident in its other adaptations. There have been three Russian adaptations and the story has inspired two operas. Yet the 1949 film version is regarded as the best.

In the eighteen hundreds, the card game of Faro has become very popular among soldiers in the Russian army. Herman Suvorin is very serious about his gambling and hopes to make it rich playing cards. In a book of occult writing, he reads about an old countess who sold her soul to the devil in exchange for never loosing at cards. Locating the old woman, Herman devises a plan to seduce the countess’ ward, in order to get close to the old woman and learn her secret.

“The Queen of Spades” is one of the best looking films from the forties that I’ve ever seen. It is gorgeously shot. The film is bathed in shadows. Characters peer around corners in darkened rooms, the actors shot from stylized angles. The direction is way more dynamic then you’d expect from this time period. The pans are smooth, the camera moving in a poetic fashion around the scenes. “Queen of Spades” is shot like a noir, expressive in its darkness. It’s a dark story of greed and manipulation and the film itself follows that thought. Befitting a period film, “Queen of Spades” has opulent production values, full of beautiful costumes, rooms, and parties. In short, this is one good looking movie, both in terms of style and production designs.

To call “Queen of Spades” a horror movie is slightly misleading. For most of its run time, the film is about a very bad man manipulating a perfectly innocent woman for totally selfish reasons. Yes, there is a love triangle. While Herman courts Lizaveta solely to get close to the countess, his friend Andrei actually has genuine feelings for her. (This subplot also features some on-the-nose symbolism about a caged bird.) However, “Queen of Spades” doesn’t lack spooky moments. While reading about the Countess’ deal with the devil, we see images of an old, cobweb-strewn building where a man assembles creepy dolls. Later, as the old woman attempts to go to sleep, Herman approaches her. Though not outright sinister, the sequence is shot in a creepy fashion, the black and white contrast being extremely high. This builds towards a hugely impressive sequence of mounting dread. After the Countess’ death, Herman sits alone in his room. Suddenly, the area is quiet. Footsteps are heard down the hall. Wind blows and windows creak. It’s classic horror stuff but pulled off in astonishing fashion. Though the movie is as much costume drama as ghost story, this one hugely impressive sequence solidifies “Queen of Spades’” reputation as a horror classic.

The acting is theatrical but involving. Anton Walbrook is powerful as Herman, a man so gripped by greed that he is willing to break any moral ground if it’ll make him richer. Walbrook’s performance is extremely controlled, the character’s every movement calculated. I also like Yvonne Mitchell as the poor girl strung along by his scheme. There’s a powerful sequence where, after the Countess’ death, Herman confesses his ploy. While Lizaveta cries out in disbelief, he is still struck by the Countess dying before he could learn her secret. “Queen of Spades” builds towards a moral about the price of avarice. Like an extremely classy “Tales from the Crypt” issue, “Queen of Spades” ends with the asshole getting his just desserts. However, the story stops of anything more explicit. There are no ghastly ghosts back from the grave for revenge. Greed makes humans monstrous on their own.

I have no idea if “The Queen of Spades’ will appeal to most horror fans. It’s a slower story and its supernatural elements take a while to reveal themselves. However, I loved it. The film is beautifully shot, a pleasure to watch just based on its visual. The acting is wonderfully entertaining, if you’re on the right wavelength. As Halloween mood setting, “Queen of Spades’ is hugely successful, a series of spooky imagery building in intensity. The crossover between fans of horror and Russian literature is probably pretty small but everyone else in that Venn diagram loves “Queen of Spades” a bunch too, I bet! [9/10]

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