Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 7

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

In the early nineties, the slasher film craze had long burnt out. The most prevalent horror subgenre of the eighties had long since passed its peak. Even the undisputed kings of the slashers, Freddy and Jason, had been killed off. But “Scream” changed all that. Suddenly, self-aware slasher riffs were all the rage. The films were slick, had hit soundtracks, and starred model-pretty actors plucked from popular TV shows. The first, and most popular, of these “Scream” clones was “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Furthering the connection, both films were written by Kevin Williamson.

Julie, Ray, Helen, and Barry are all long time friends who are celebrating their high school graduation. During their party, they all have too much to drink. Driving home, they strike a man. Fearful of being convicted of a crime, they toss the body into the crab fishing town’s bay. A year later, June receives a threatening note reading “I know what you did last summer.” Soon, the four are being stalked by a dangerous man in a rainslicker, wielding a meat hook. Julie has to unravel the mystery of the man’s identity before he eliminates all of them.

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” will inevitably be compared to “Scream.” However, this does not do the later film any favors. “Scream” was a meta-riff on the genre. “IKWYDLS” plays it straight. Aside from an early conversation about urban legends, the movie functions as a typical who-dun-it slasher flick. “Scream” also had likable or memorable characters. “I Know,” meanwhile, is full of shrill or annoying people. Ryan Phillippe is incredibly obnoxious as Barry, the meat-head jock that instigates this whole mess. He spends the whole movie yelling at everyone around him. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Helen is shallow and haughty. Her sister/boss, played by Bridgette Wilson, is a bully. Jennifer Love Hewitt is a thin horror heroine, with little defining her, and Freddie Prince Jr. has zero character development. Even the lovelorn nerd, played by David from “Roseanne,” is kind of a jerk. (Also, why the hell was the thin, athletic Gellar cast as the beauty queen while the notoriously shapely Hewitt is the sleuthing final girl? Someone was confused.)

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” isn’t focused so much on the hacking and slashing. It was loosely adapted from a YA mystery novel by Lois Duncan, the same person who wrote “Summer of Fear.” (Duncan, whose daughter was murdered in real life, didn’t appreciate the adaptation.) As such, large swaths of the movie is devoted to unraveling the mystery. This stuff is fairly dull. Hewitt and Gellar pursuing leads, like chatting up Anne Hache in a small role as a redneck sister, isn’t especially compelling. The film spends too much time setting up red herrings that won’t amount to anything. At the end, Julie stumbles upon the mystery’s answer, the facts being flatly explained to her. So all that sleuthing was for naught. Considering Duncan’s book was for the young teens, I suspect some of the killer’s ridiculous threats were carried over from the book too. Mysterious haircuts or a trunk full of crabs are more laughable then sinister.

So the characters suck and the mystery is lame. Is “IKWYDLS” any good as a horror movie? Not really. The sequences of suspense aren’t very balanced. Phillipe being chased by a car is alight but ends on a whimper. Gellar being watched during a parade is another promising scene that builds to a false start. As a slasher flick, “I Know” can’t even provide many cheap thrills. The Fisherman has a cool look and a nifty killing implement. However, the movie is awfully low on the red stuff. We only get one or two decent hook stabbings. Everything else happens off-screen, the audience only seeing a little blood splattering. Like many late nineties slasher, the movie also features none of the required sex or nudity. Unlike the subversive “Scream,” Williamson’s script is all to willing to play genre conventions straight. Authority figures don’t believe the kids. Bodies pop out to surprise the heroine. There’s a jump-scare ending. The killer even walks slowly while pursuing his victims!

So “I Know What You Did Last Summer” isn’t scary, thrilling, funny, or even all that gory. Why was this movie so popular at the time? I guess it just latched its train to the cultural zeitgeist. For years, real horror fans dismissed this flick and its imitators for their softness and lameness. Now, the tide has shifted, and people enjoy these movies as items of nineties nostalgia. Resist this temptation. Aside from some pretty photography and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s heaving bosom, there’s no reason to know what happened last summer. [5/10]

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Valerie a týden divu

“Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” is a movie I had never even heard of until a few years ago. Suddenly, Netflix was telling me to watch this weird Czech movie from the seventies. It popped up in a few books, including “101 Horror Movies to Watch Before You Die.” Obviously, the film’s domestic DVD release raised its profile. I’m sure there’s writing about it that predates its 2004 home media release. Yet I still find it odd that the movie went from being a complete obscurity one day and became essential viewing the next. I guess I don’t run in circles that discuss the Czech New Wave. Having caught up with “Valerie” now, I’m not quite sure what to think. It’s not truly a horror film. Instead, it’s an odd dream, somewhere between a fantasy and a nightmare, committed to celluloid.

Valerie is a thirteen year old girl, who has just entered puberty. Vampires lurk in her hometown, often hiding in places of authority. Valerie has a crush on a boy named Eaglot, despite her grandmother’s disapproval. Eaglot’s employer is a vampire who promises the grandmother eternal life and restored youth in exchange for Valerie’s innocence. Valerie attempts to survive the perilous situations around her, fighting or embracing the various adults who attempt to claim her as their own.

“Valerie and her Week of Wonders” is, without question, an art film. The movie’s narrative is surreal. The roles of characters shift several times, the same actors playing multiple roles. Lovers become brothers, grandmothers become cousins or maidens, bishops become vampires or fathers. Characters shift between living and dead without much overture. The film concerns itself with symbols. Within the opening minutes, Valerie picks a white flower that is stained with blood. Right afterwards, she gets her first period. While shirtless men rampage through the town, Valerie holds onto a white dove. Those same men whip themselves, self-flagellating into a frenzy. The vampire is referred to as a “polecat.” Later, a weasel is shown dragging a white chicken from a coop. She eats red berries, her lips stained with red liquid. Not long afterwards, she has a lesbian encounter. A hand reaches through a vulva-shaped window in a carriage, handing out flowers. What does it all mean? Obviously, a lot of it is about a young girl coming into adulthood, discovering her sexuality, and navigating a world full of people who would take advantage of her. Not all of it is so easily understood.

The vampires are of the “Nosferatu” variety. Their skin is a pale green, their ears pointed, and their mouths are full of pointed teeth. They wear concealing black hoods. Instead of two discreet pin pricks, they leave ugly, circular bite marks. The vampires seem to symbolize adults that abuse children. Many of the creatures in the film are preoccupied with scooping up Valerie. Her grandmother is told that, in order to restore her youth, she most feed Valerie to the head vampire. Later, the grandmother appears as a cousin, attempting to seduce Valerie. All throughout, adults are willing to abuse or sacrifice the young in order to further their own life. Not all the predators are undead. A balding monk, who is also the grandmother’s lover, attempts to rape Valerie. When she rejects him, he paints her as a witch, burning her at the stake. Yet Valerie survives the fire, seemingly developing healing powers as she enters adulthood. Who’s to say what it all means but the film is definitely preoccupied with how adults treat children and how they respond.

What it all means is certainly interesting but I think unpacking all of “Valerie’s” symbolism perhaps misses the point. Near the end, Valerie lays down in bed, slipping into sleep. As she awakens, most of the film’s events seem to have been undone. Yet this leads us into an even odder ending, her parents revealed as alive, her brother or boyfriend becoming a wondering actor. She wanders a lake-side field, cast members from throughout the film reappearing, many of them frolicking with the vampires. The last image of the film is Valerie asleep in bed again. Obviously, the movie is meant to be take as a dream. In that way, it replicates the pacing of a dream. Strange events happen without explanation, roles and faces shifting freely. The plot frequently meanders away, replaced by a specific feeling of exploration, desire, and uncertainty. Yep, sounds like the dream of a confused teenager to me.

Obviously, “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” isn’t for folks who roll their eyes at inscrutable, European art flicks. As Valerie, Jaroslava Schallerova has the face of an angel and exudes innocence, which makes her nude scenes very uncomfortable. The musical score is as odd and dreamy as the film that accompanies it. Going in expecting a traditional horror movie won’t put you on the correct wavelength. Taken as a dream-like exploration of young adulthood, it’s certainly a beguiling, infuriating, fascinating watch. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Operation Friendship

Without knowing it, the “Tales from the Crypt” guys made an episode about tulpas, ambulatory hallucinations generated by one’s own mind. Nelson is a computer programmer who lives alone. He is belittled by his boss and has been pushed around his whole life. As a kid he dreamed up Jack, an imaginary friend that is everyone Nelson isn’t. He’s loud, boisterous, dresses in flashy clothing and makes lewd comments about women. But now Jack won’t go away. When the adorable woman who just moved into the apartment across the hall expresses an interest in Nelson, Jack becomes jealous. And dangerous.

“Operation Friendship” isn’t your typical “Crypt” episode. There’s no infidelity or ghouls in sight. Instead, it’s mostly built around a trio of likable performances. Tate Donovan embodies the likable side of a lonely, shut-in nerd. He seems like a genuinely sweet guy and gives the character some cute quirks, like stacking candy bar wrappers. (Instead of Hershey Bars, they’re Silver Bars, a likely reference to the show’s producer, Joel Silver.) Michelle Burke is lovely and nice, a pure ball of sweetness and charm. John Caponera is suitably obnoxious as Jack. Dressed a bit like Buster Poindexter, Caponera hoots, hollers, and is generally as funny-annoying as possible without sliding into annoying-annoying. The whole episode walks a careful balance like that. Probably the nuttiest sequence is Jack presenting Nelson with tormentors throughout his life, including his grade school bully, a stern nun, and his boss. The ending is equally funny and slightly disturbing, when you consider the implications. By going to odder places then the usual “Tales,” “Operation Friendship” becomes a high-light of the still young sixth season. [8/10]

So Weird: The Muse

As a refreshing change of pace, here’s a season three episode that’s not really about Annie. Molly feels like she’s lost her inspiration. In hopes of regaining it, she returns to the club where she first met Rick, her late husband. When the building she’s staying in is being noisily renovated, the plan doesn’t seem to have worked. Meanwhile, Annie has met a strange man that claims to be Molly’s muse. He displays possibly magical powers, seemingly proving his statement. However, Molly still can’t quite grasp inspiration.

Every story arc from the previous two seasons were dropped suddenly at the start of season three. So to have an episode repeatedly referencing Molly and Rick’s marriage, and her grief over loosing him, is a major surprise. Focusing on Molly – a character we actually care about – raises the stakes considerably, her simple search for inspiration resonating emotionally with the viewer. A subplot about Jack developing an interest in photography, and looking for his own muse, ties nicely into this.  “The Muse” is still full of lots of goofy, season three antics. The young muse makes a dinner lady break out into a rap. (This, tortuously, plays in full over the end credits.) Afterwards, he makes a dog dance. It’s obvious where the business with the noisy repairman is headed. The comic relief remains awfully broad and the ending is overly concise. Yet this is the only Annie episode thus far to have any real heart, making it one of the best in a while. [7/10]

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