Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 6

Death Kappa (2010)

There’s no hackier joke on the internet then pointing out how wacky Japanese pop culture is. I can’t tell you how many jokes about tentacles, panty vending machines, and wacky game shows I’ve skimmed through. However, it seems there’s a certain portion of Japanese filmmakers that cater to these expectations. Movies like “Tokyo Gore Police,” “RoboGeisha,” and “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead” double down on over-the-top gore, bizarre plots, and outrageous content. In the states, many of these films are distributed by Tokyo Shock. One such flick is “Death Kappa.” It has been described to me as “what a kaiju movie made by Troma would look like.” This is an only slightly misleading statement. “Death Kappa” is definitely wacky and over-the-top. However, it’s more measured and better looking then you’d expect from that logline.

Kanako’s attempts at pop idol stardom have fizzled out. Rejected by Tokyo, she returns to her sea-side home town. Within minutes of arriving, her grandmother is run over by a group of rambunctious teens. With her dying breath, the grandmother asks Kanako to look after the family shrine. She discovers a kappa, a cucumber-loving sea monster from traditional Japanese folklore, lives near-by. Kanako and the friendly kappa are soon abducted by a rogue group of Japanese extremists who want to create a race of half-human, half-kappa super soldiers. Following a nuclear explosions, both monsters grow to massive sizes and wreck havoc in Tokyo.

“Death Kappa” is split fairly evenly into two halves. The second half features lots of goofiness but the first half is even wackier. Kanako and her brothers immediately bond with the kappa. Unlike the rest of the world, the kappa loves Kanako’s saccharine pop music and dances frequently to it. The rebellious teens act very strangely while eating hot dogs on the beach. When the monsters attack them, the camera goes into a frenzy. The film’s villains want to bring back the glory of Imperial Japan. (For no particular reason, one is played by Hideaki Anno, director of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and Toho’s new Godzilla movie.) Their leader is a teenage girl who talks with a high-pitched moe voice and wears a leather bikini. She carries her grandfather’s corpse around in a wheelchair. When the kappa shows up to rescue her, a karate fight ensues between the monster and the villains. There’s slow-motion machine gun shooting and sudden naginata swinging. It’s nuts and fairly consistently amusing.

After the nuke goes off, the fish-men fuse into one giant beast named Hangyolas. He immediately marches on Tokyo. The military responses with jets, tanks, and giant laser beams which are powerless against the beast. I like the Hangyolas suit, which looks a bit like one of those dragons you see in a Chinatown parade. Yet the long scenes of the monster wrecking the vehicles gets a little tedious. Things pick up considerably when the kappa, transformed into the giant Death Kappa by the explosion, appears. Despite the kappa suit’s inexpressive face, the suits prove surprisingly flexible. The kaiju fight is acrobatic, full of flips, body slams, clotheslines, and flying kicks. One fun moment occurs when Death Kappa pulls Hangyolas’ tail off, like a gecko. A factory's smokestacks are improvised into nun-chucks and a dome is used like a volley ball. The fight takes up the last ten minutes of the film. The battle is silly but still functions as an entertaining kaiju brawl.

At times, it’s hard to tell if “Death Kappa” is just an especially wacky kaiju flick or an out-right parody of the genre. The film is sprinkled with references to kaiju films of years past. As a likely nod to “Godzilla Raids Again,” the monsters’ heads are replaced with hand puppets for one scene. Like Godzilla, Death Kappa’s head-plate glows before he sprays his atomic breath. A possible reference to “Godzilla 2000” occurs when, after his victory, Kappa sets the city ablaze. The tank-mounted death ray is right out of any Showa monster movie. Some moments are more purposely funny then others. The action is periodically interrupted so that a monster expert can dryly explain what’s going on. The jets, tanks, and cityscapes are intentionally fake looking. When Hangyolas attacks the city, some teens stop to get a selfie with the beast. A reporter is burned to a crisp by the monster’s flames, while the news ticker dryly comments on the event. The movie is most funny when nutty things are simply happening on-screen.

Though indecisively placed between parody and wack-a-doo homage, I still had fun with “Death Kappa.” Something insane is happening most every second of its short 79 minute run time. The effects are cheap but charming. The movie moves along at a nice pace, smoothly going from one crazy set-piece to another. On the short list of kaiju movie parodies, it’s far more consistent then “The Monster X Strikes Back” but never reaches the giddy heights of “Gehara.” That’s a comfortable half-way point to be at. [7/10]

Zombeavers (2015)

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s actually a market now for horror movies with intentionally ridiculous threats. People are making bad movies on purpose. We’ve reached peak irony saturation, you guys. Occasionally, this idea will produce a gem like “Lost Skeleton of Cadavra." Usually, it produces trying-too-hard, obnoxious crap like… “Zombeavers!” Obviously conceived as a title first and everything else second, the film was written by Jon and Al Kaplan. The two run a delightful Youtube channel, full of musical versions of macho eighties action flicks. Disappointingly, their feature film has none of the charm or humor of those shorts.

Jenn, Mary, and Zoe are a pair of college girls who go on vacation to a lake-side cabin. Due to Jen’s boyfriend breaking her heart, this is a weekend without boys or cellphones. That lasts for about a day, until all the girls’ boyfriends show up. The day before, a truck had dumped a barrel of toxic waste in the lake. The chemicals have transformed the lake’s harmless beavers into undying monsters that attack viciously and spread their virus through bites or scratches. Now, a relaxing weekend has turned into a struggle to survive.

“Zombeavers” apparently went to the Eli Roth School of Character Development. From the moment the characters are introduced, they are making crude sexual references. Dick pics, sexual history, and pee are all brought up within the first ten minutes. The dialogue is full of profanity. Relatively early into the film, a character murders a dog. Amazingly, he stays alive for most of the rest of the movie. What’s the purpose of such obnoxious characters? Are their loudness suppose to be funny? Were the writers substituting personality with F-bombs? If we’re supposed to laugh at the cast, why does the movie get weirdly serious about them sometimes? The mystery of who is cheating on Jenn comes up repeatedly. When the mystery girl is revealed as one of the friends, “Zombeavers” is all too willing to treat the affair seriously. If the film is meant to be a parody, why are the characters’ taken seriously at all? If the characters are meant to be jokes, why are their serious scenes of them? All questions without answers.

“Zombeavers” is clearly meant to be a horror/comedy. Yet the film frequently underplays the “comedy” side of that equation. There are jokes. Like the truck drivers who are way too open with each other, played by John Mayer and Bill Burr for some reason. Or the teenage boy with a hat that says “#1 Dad,” one of the film’s funnier and more subtle gags. There’s a horny hunter who becomes more important later and a bear that is obviously taken from stock footage. For the most part though, “Zombeavers” seems to think merely the premise of “Zombie beavers!” is enough to power a whole comedy. Most of the movie plays like a straight horror film, the teen’s being attacked by the creatures, boarding up the cabin, or trying to make an escape.

Truthfully, you could switch out the beavers for most any woodland animal and the plot wouldn’t be changed that much. The movie doesn’t really utilize its titular critters that well. Yes, the beavers tunnel into the cabin after a while. However, there’s only one scene where we see them chew down a tree or hang out in a dam. Otherwise known as the things beavers are best known for. The beaver puppets are mildly amusing though their charm quickly wears out. Worst yet, the zombeaver’s condition is contagious. Thus, most of the movie’s last third is devoted to humanoid beaver zombies. This removes the film’s central gimmick, making it a generic zombie flick. Despite being so obviously committed to the “zombie beaver” idea, the film doesn’t seem to understand that concept’s appeal very well.

The girls are all pretty cute and usually in one state of undress or another. There’s plenty of sex and nudity in the movie, if you’re looking for that kind of thing. I could even imagine Rachel Melvin or Cortney Palm being entertaining in a much better movie. (Lexi Atkins is a bore though.) “Zombeavers” proves what we already know. A goofy premise and a knowing approach is not enough to build a film upon, especially if crass vulgarity and annoying characters is the only other thing you bring to the table. Jon and Al should stick to Youtube videos. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Whirlpool

This is the second time loop story I’ve seen this season. What the odds? Anyway, Rolanda is a writer for the “Tales from the Crypt” comic. (This is also the second time this show has done that meta-reference, previously seen in season two’s “Korman’s Kalamity.”) Rolanda’s boss doesn’t think much of her work and, after an especially bad story, fires her. That night, she returns to the office, murders him, and is gun down by the police. The next day, Rolanda awakes and experiences the same events again. After every death, the day starts over. Attempts to break the cycle only further muck it up, trapping Rolanda in an unending cycle of defeat and murder.

On a story level, there’s not a lot to say about “Whirlpool.” Once the time loop idea is introduced, it’s easy to see where this is going. That the day will start the same but the main character will find some new way to end up dead. There’s some fun curve balls tossed at the audience. I like the opening scene, which progresses like a typical “Tales from the Crypt” episode before we see that… It’s actually a page from a “Tales from the Crypt” comic book. The last scene is an interesting switcharoo as well. Mick Garris, a director who has always had more luck then talent in my opinion, contributes some decent visuals. Mostly, “Whirlpool” is about the performances. Rita Rudner is funny as the put-upon Rolanda, who is cracking apart with stress, then confusion, and finally madness. Ricahrd Lewis plays a very Richard-Lewis-y part as her abrasive boss. It doesn’t break any new ground but “Whirlpool” puts a decent spin on its idea while maintaining that “Tales from the Crypt” sense of morbid humor. [7/10]

So Weird: Pen Pal

So here’s another episode of “So Weird: Season Three” that has an interesting idea but a juvenile execution. The Philips household receives a letter from Annie, detailing her trip to Washington D.C. with her friend, Jennifer. In the pictures, Annie wears black, has a lip piercing, and talks about getting a tattoo. This all runs counter to how Annie actually looks, acts, and lives. Soon, Annie realizes that a version of herself from an alternate reality has somehow crossed over into this one.

“Pen Pal” begins with the idea that every decision we make, no matter how small, creates an alternate universe. This is fascinating. We’ve all made mistakes that wouldn’t have happen if we had done something differently. However, “Pen Pal” simplifies too much. Instead of being a studious teenie-bopper, the other Annie ditches school, gets tattoos, and uses words like “dank,” “dawg,” or “wiggin’.” (That she dresses like a goth but uses hip-hop slang shows that the writers were… Confused.) The confrontation between normal Annie and Other Annie is resolved bluntly. Annie grabs her other self. Instead of dissolving into goo like Ron Silver in “Timecop,” this causes Other Annie and her bad influence friend Jennifer to vanish. Did Annie just casually wipe out an entire universe? Also, that stupid spirit panther shows up in a pointless appearance. The episode’s emotional heart, about Molly wondering if Annie feels accepted in her new family, is buried under overly broad writing and simplistic understanding of complex issues. In other words, business as usual for this season. [5/10]

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