Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 30

Madman (1982)

Last Halloween, I watched “The Burning,” one of the best retro-slashers the early eighties ever produced. That film took its inspiration from the campfire urban legend of the Cropsey Maniac. Yet there was another film from the same time inspired by the same legend. Like “The Burning” and many other films that would follow “Friday the 13th,” “Madman” is about a summer camp beset by a murderous maniac. Also like “The Burning,” the film actively engages with the campfire story concept. It’s hard to call anything ‘definitive,’ especially when dealing with a topic as wide-ranging as eighties slashers. However, “Madman” successfully combines many of the aspects I love about the genre and the time period.

A summer camp is closing for the season, the warmth of summer giving way to the browning leaves of fall. Around the camp fire that night, camp owner Max regales the kids and councilors with the legend of Madman Marz. A disagreeable brute of a man, one day Marz snapped and murdered his wife and children. A lynch mob strung him up but the body was gone by the next morning. Now, the legend goes, Marz is still out there and can be summoned simply by saying his name above a whisper. Naturally, one of the kids does just that. After tucking in the youths, the councilors settle in for a night of partying. Unlucky for them, the legend lives. Madman Marz is real and sets about stalking the camp, killing all he encounters.

The “Friday the 13th” films and “The Burning” were both slightly post-modern in regards to their campfire legend origins. Both basically showed the “true” events behind a popular legend. “Madman,” meanwhile, plays out exactly like a campfire story. Whether or not Madman Marz is just a hard-to-kill bastard or a genuine ghost is up for debate. His inhuman behavior and monstrous appearance certainly supports the ghost theory. His massive size, mane of white hair, and deformed face leaves Marz resembling a fairy tale ogre. Another differentiating factor in “Madman’s” favor is that the story is set entirely at night. This can lend the film a surprising moodiness at times. The early scenes, showing Marz slowly walking through his empty home, provide a nice creepiness. Scenes of the kids just walking through the woods get a considerable boost just from the pretty, eerie black-blue photography. For a low budget, down-and-dirty slasher flick, “Madman” can look surprisingly good at times.

Like a proper slasher film is suppose to, “Madman” doles out the mayhem in sporadic bursts. When the killings comes, they can be way more intense then you’d expect. Marz stalks as much as he slashes. He takes his time zeroing in on a victim. Frequently, the monster is seen lurking in the background before he strikes. When he does, the action ramps up. He appears suddenly out of a dark room, slashing a victim’s throat. He ties a noose around another’s neck, dragging him through the woods before stringing him up from a tree. The audible “crack!” of the snapping spine makes that kill especially effective. Another decapitation takes quite a while to build up. My favorite sequences involves a stalling vehicle, the killer not coming until the victim pokes her head under the hood. Another great moment involves hiding in a refrigerator and more extended sequences of stalking, before the killing blow comes quickly and suddenly. “Madman” is surprisingly willing to slowly build suspense.

Don’t get the wrong impression. “Madman” isn’t classy in the least. The acting is frequently terrible. Tony Fish is hysterically cock-sure as a character bizarrely named TP! Gaylen Ross, of “Dawn of the Dead” fame, plays final girl Betsy. Ross was apparently so ashamed of her participation in this film that she goes under the pseudonym Alexis Dubin. Despite proving herself a strong actress before, Ross is amazingly tone-deaf in the part. Look no further then the unbelievable scene where she drives a bus away from an attacking Madman. Betsy doesn’t fit the virginal part of the final girl archetype. She and TP share a love scene in a hot tub. The sex scene is mostly in slow motion and set to one of the most ridiculously maudlin love songs I’ve ever heard. Most of the performances are indistinct and cheesy, like the one counselor with the porn ‘stache. The only actor in the movie that isn’t awful is Frederick Neumann, going under the alias of Carl Fredericks, as camp owner Max. Neumann acts like he’s in a stage play, which is totally inappropriate for the material, but at least you can tell he’s a real actor. Apparently, that part was written for Vincent Price which would’ve been something… Though I can’t imagine horror’s gentleman in a flick this dirty and dumb.

That cheesiness is part of the charm. Any one who loves eighties slasher will tell you that. Yes, “Madman” is really dumb at times. It’s also slightly tedious, as you wait for the killer to appear. Yet “Madman” also has a lot going for it. It’s really well-shot. The director showed the basic skills necessary for suspense and mood. I even like the super-corny electronic score. Madman Marz is a genuinely intimidating killer with an unforgettable, monstrous appearance. The villain seemed tailor-made for a franchise. Despite some efforts over the years, and the continued enthusiasm of actor Paul Ehlers, “Madman II: Marz Needs Women” never rolled into production. Let’s sing the theme song together! The leeeegeeeend lives! Beware the Madman Marz! [7/10]

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

As a ten year old, I started reading grown-up books. My fascination with classic monster movies already intact, I turned my eye towards reading the original “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” novels. Among the books of gothic horror I collected, I found Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Like all the others, I read it. Unlike the others, I didn’t totally grasp the meaning of its themes or ideas until I was older. It’s no surprise that studios, after adapting those other horror classics, would come to Wilde’s book.  However, Wilde’s story is as much Victorian morality tale as it is horror tale. Back in 1945, this adaptation was even classy enough to win an Academy Award! Maybe for these reasons and more, I’m only now getting around to watching it.

Dorian Gray is a virtuous, young gentleman and the model for Basil Hallward’s latest painting. While visiting Basil, Dorian makes the acquaintance of Lord Henry Wotton. A hedonist, Wotton imposes on Dorian his idea that youth is a man’s greatest gift. After thinking about this, Gray wishes that his portrait would age instead of him. And so it happens. Dorian remains young and untouched on the outside, his heart and soul tarnished by his increasingly immoral actions. As the decades wind on, Dorian hides the increasingly ugly portrait in his attic, observing the hideous rot of his own soul.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a philosophical horror movie. Instead of being about mortal lives endangered by supernatural threats or madmen, it details the destruction of a man’s soul by his own actions. Many of the early scenes are devoted to philosophical conversations about morality, hedonism, love, pleasure, and age. Interestingly, the film doesn’t judge Gray’s action by the usual moral standards. His sex life doesn’t come up, for one. Instead, his wrong-doings are against other people. He cruelly rejects a woman who loves him dearly on a whim, leading to her suicide. Other people he leaves in his wake take their own lives as well, Dorian’s wickedness crushing the spirits of people near him. His ultimate rotten act comes when he murders his only true friend. The sequence is shot dramatically, Gray playing with the knife before stabbing the man. When he does so, he bumps the overhead lamp. The light sways through the room, casting the act and its aftermath in light and darkness. Four times, the black-and-white film flashes into vivid Technicolor. Each time, it’s a reveal of Gray’s portrait. When we see his hideous, deformed, latter-day portrait, in burning color, it definitely makes an impression on the viewer.

It’s hard to resist Oscar Wilde’s opulent, sarcastic prose. The makers of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” obviously couldn’t. All too often, the film relies on voice-over narration, much of it taken directly from Wilde’s book. As Dorian studies his portrait, the narrator talks. After he commits murder, the narrator endlessly talks. Many of these scenes would have been better, moodier and more concentrated, without the voice-over guy constantly yapping about the character’s mental state. Half-way through the film, the story leaps ahead by twenty or so years. Instead of seeing Dorian, ageless, living through the changing years, all his friends and family growing old around him, we simply skip to the end. It’s easy to imagine a lot of interesting, juicy details were glossed over by doing this. Even with the censorship standards of the forties, there’s more we could’ve seen.

Saving the film from many of these problems is its fantastic cast. George Sanders, Shere Khan to me and many other generations, is perfectly suited to Lord Henry. Sanders effortlessly prattles through the pages of baroque dialogue he’s given, making all of it sound cool as hell. Sanders’ dominance of the film is obvious when you notice he gets top-billing, despite playing a supporting role. At first, Hurd Hatfield seems too dry as Gray. Yet, as the story progresses, his coldness begins to work for the character. Angela Lansbury would be nominated for an Oscar as Sibyl, the first victim Gray claims. Indeed, her performance is heart-breaking. When Gray plays his cruel games with the character, you really feel her pain. Despite exiting the story early on, Lansbury cast a long shadow over the rest of the film. To the point where the perfectly capable Donna Reed, as Gray’s secondary love interest, doesn’t make anywhere as much of an impression.

Beautifully shot with some fantastically expressionistic miniature sets, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is an interesting, well-made movie. The performances are excellent, the strength of Wilde’s dialogue transcends the screen, and there are a few memorable, shocking moments. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this story could’ve been told better. I wonder if the sleazy-sounding Italian version from the seventies handles that aspect better? [7/10]

Hellions (2015)

I generally keep an eye on the film festival scene because it’s always where the best horror films premiere. As has long been the case for over a decade at this point, the indie scene is where it’s at when it comes to horror. Anyway, last year I started hearing some buzz about “Hellions.” Despite being the spookiest holiday by far, there aren’t nearly as many Halloween-set horror films as there should be. So here comes a film about malevolent trick-or-treaters? And it’s directed by the guy who made “Pontypool,” an odd but fascinating Canadian variation on the zombie concept from a few years back? Sign me up! As sometimes happened, the review started to roll in and they were fairly mixed. Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to get to “Hellions” during this year’s Six Weeks.

Dora is a seventeen year old who enjoys skipping class and smoking pot with her boyfriend. On Halloween morning, she gets some unpleasant news from her doctor: She’s pregnant. Uncertain of what to do, she stays home that night while her boyfriend is at a party and her mom and little brother go trick or treating. Before the sun goes down, a trio of sinister trick-or-treaters knock on her door. Soon, it becomes apparent that the kids aren’t what they appear. They are otherworldly invaders with nasty plans for Dora and her unborn baby.

“Hellions” runs a brisk eighty minute long. The film is able to throw together some attractively spooky set pieces during that run time. The true intentions of the hellions is revealed one at a time, more kids appearing every time Dora opens the door. Like many good horror films, “Hellions" successfully plays up the tension of being alone in a house, intruders trying to force their way in. At one point, Dora and her doctor are in her basement. The sinister kids are up-stairs and slowly working their way into the room. This is probably “Hellions'” most intense moment. The film definitely has some stand-out scares like that. The image of one of the kids crawling across the ceiling is creepy but not overdone. Robert Patrick’s late appearance is cut short when he’s suddenly yanked into an attic crawlspace. When down to Earth, “Hellions” is a solid home-invasion horror/thriller.

Disappointingly, the movie goes off on many weird tangents. At some point, the demonic kids yank Dora’s home into some sort of hellish dreamscape. There’s a pinkish-red coloration to the film from this point on. While hiding in a shed, Dora begins to hear voices, the monsters demanding they give her the baby. They begin chanting "Blood for baby!" This leads to much bizarre birthing imagery. One nightmare has Robert Patrick handing the girl a creepy, deformed fetus. There’s a long sequence where she wanders through billowing white sheets. While looking in a mirror, the girl’s reflection begins to talk to her. There are many odd scenes that go on but add little to the plot. Though capable of scares, “Hellions” is too willing to just get weird instead.

Another disappointment is that “Hellions’ isn’t Halloween-y enough. The early scenes, before the evil trick-or-treaters show up, have some nice atmosphere. The small town setting features lots of cool looking Jack O’Lanterns. At some point in the weird nether-verse, Dora is runs through a field of huge, exploding pumpkins. The exact purpose of the Hellions isn’t expounded on, which is fine. Mostly, I want to know why the demons choose Halloween as their night to cut loose. The film makes no attempt to tie in Celtic or Satanic Panic-style mythology to the monsters. Why set the film on Halloween then? On the plus side, Chloe Rose is likable enough as the heroine, managing to carry the whole movie without too much trouble. Robert Patrick is cool too, when he shows up.

I was hoping for more from “Hellions.” Director Bruce McDonald definitely has the skills for horror flicks. When focusing on straight-up thrills, this one works quite well. However, the director quickly looses focus, taking the story to these odd-ball, bizarre places. Of all the non-franchise Halloween horror flicks, “Hellions” is unlikely to rank very highly even if it has some interesting ideas. [6/10]

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