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Monday, September 19, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 19

The Unknown (1927)

For the last three years, I’ve begun my Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-thon with a silent film. This is a tradition I don’t plan on breaking any time soon. For 2016, I open with “The Unknown,” an unusual classic from the silent era. The film’s horror roots are obvious. It stars Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces and the first American horror star. It was an early role for Joan Crawford, decades before she would return to the genre. Mostly, “The Unknown” was directed by Tod Browning, the man would make “Dracula” and “Freaks.” While the story is steeped in melodrama and romance, its gothic themes of madness, revenge, murder, and bodily discomfort make it a classic of the macabre.

Strange things are afoot at the circus. Alonzo the Armless is the knife thrower. He squeezes the blades between his toes, tossing them with his feet. His partner is Nanon, a beautiful young girl that Alonzo is in love with. The circus strongman Malabar hopes to claim Nanon for himself. However, the girl has a phobia of being touched. This same psychosis causes feelings to bloom between Alonzo and Nanon. Alonzo, however, has a secret. He actually does have arms, binding them around himself with a corset. He’s a criminal on the run, easily identifiable by his double thumb, hiding out at the circus. After the ringleader – and Nanon’s father – discovers his secret, Alonzo murders him. He decides to have surgery to actually remove his arms, making it impossible to link him to the crimes while also insuring Nanon’s love. Fate, however, has other plans.

Tod Browning directed “The Unknown” between “The Show,” a circus set melodrama, and “London After Midnight,” an early vampire movie and doubtlessly the most famous lost film ever. “The Unknown” begins in similar territory as “The Show.” Some of these early scenes, such as Alonzo shooting Nanon’s clothes off with a rifle, border unintentional humor. There are long expositionary sequences devoted to Cojo, Alonzo’s dwarf partner, explaining the story’s set up. There’s a love triangle, of course, while others scenes reek of melodrama. Such as Alonzo murdering Nonan’s father right in front of her, the girl somehow avoiding seeing his face. However, as “The Unknown” progresses, its story grows stranger. The stodgy melodramatic elements acquire a dark fable like tone, the main character veering closer to madness.

At the center of “The Unknown” is Lon Chaney. The film cast Chaney in a type of role he would play many times before and after: An older man who desires a younger girl and, when rejected for a man in his prime, goes mad. See also: “Phantom of the Opera,” “He Who Gets Slapped,” “Laugh Clown Laugh” and probably some others. “The Unknown” doesn’t feature Chaney’s most subtle acting either. Later scenes have Alonzo laughing madly or glaring with insane eyes. However, in the film’s best moments, Chaney makes Alonzo both sympathetic and frightening. When he discovers Nonan has fallen for Malabar, the look of resignation on his face is heart breaking. When he’s threatening a doctor into performing the arm-removing surgery, the violent commitment on his face is unnerving. Alonzo’s exclamations of wanting to “own” Nonan are creepy but also hint at what a sad, damaged soul he is.

“The Unknown” is most well known for the bitterly ironic twist at the end of its second act. Near the film’s beginning, Alonzo is certain that Nonan loves him. After all, he’s the only armless guy in the circus. Malabar’s courting maneuvers seem crude in comparison. Alonzo sarcastically gives the strong man romantic advice. This, however, ends up working. While Alonzo is away having his arms surgically removed, Malabar breaks through Nonan’s phobia and wins her heart. The woman disgusted by being touched shifts in personality, learning to love the sensation of being held. In other words, the one thing Alonzo can no longer do for her. The unknown tide of fate that the title refers to strikes Alonzo the hardest. This twist makes “The Unknown” into a gothic tragedy, the anti-hero’s own plan turned against him by unforeseeable circumstances.

Tod Browning’s silent films never looked as good as the Expressionism influenced movies of his contemporaries. At times, “The Unknown” plays out as far too flat. The conversations between Alonzo and Cojo play as way too stagey. However, as “The Unknown” goes on, a fantastic visual edge emerges. A wide shot of the circus leaving town is nicely framed. The hospital where Alonzo’s surgery is performed looks like a cathedral, the operating table centered between sloping walls. As he walks towards the slab, Chaney passes through a hall checkered with shadows. This all leads towards the movie’s intense climax, where Alonzo attempts to tear Malabar’s arms off with wild horses. The villain’s ironic death, and the couple’s happy ending, is expected. However, Browning orchestrates the sequence with a frenzied intensity, mirroring Alonzo’s rapidly deteriorating mind.

“The Unknown’s” obsession with amputation pushes it even further into the reaches of horror. Nonan recovers from her fear of hands before the story concludes. However, “The Unknown” is still characterized by a sense of unease with the body and limbs. You can imagine a modern day remake allowing the story to graduate into full-blown body horror. Yet a remake would have trouble casting someone as indelible as Lon Chaney, as beautiful as a young Joan Crawford, or a director as willing to sympathize with outsiders and circus freaks as Tod Browning. While occasionally falling prey to the conventions of the time, “The Unknown” is still an impressively freaky and tragic story, a fittingly macabre film from the makers of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Dracula.” [8/10]

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

It’s just not Halloween without Vincent Price. Though I usually save my Price feature for the 31st, this year the stately if often campy duke of horror called to me a little earlier. “House on Haunted Hill” is one of two classics Price would make with the master of gimmick horror, William Castle. (I reviewed the other one a while back.) It’s doubtlessly the most iconic of Castle’s films. Partly due to its public domain status, making it widely available. But also because of how perfectly it sums up Castle’s spooky, goofy, and theatrical style. This combination, it so happens, also makes it a great choice for the first day of the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon.

You already know the plot of “House on Haunted Hill” but humor me for a minute. Millionaire Fredick Loren has recently come into the possession of a house with a notorious history. Reportedly, many have died there, driven mad but the ghostly spirits that haunt the building. Loren has invited five people to a party in the house on haunted hill. Each is entitled to $10,000… Assuming they survive the night. As the spooky events begin to pile up, Loren and his treacherous fourth wife begin to wonder how true the stories of ghosts are.

Castle might be well respected as a showman but he was, above all else, a businessman. His films often traded in well-trotted stories. “House on Haunted Hill” is basically a variation on the old dark house movie. There’s the dusty, sprawling mansion. A offer of money is what motivates the participants. The titular house features a number of hidden passageways and secrets. Murder is afoot but not everything is as it seems. The film is undeniably hokey at times, with its marionette skeleton and sudden lightning storms. Yet these qualities also make the movie endlessly charming. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Horror fans, on the other hand, tend to smile when a movie knowingly rolls with the conventions and troupes they’ve come to love.

William Castle usually built his movies around a gimmick. Like the life insurance policy every viewer of “Macabre” had to sign, in case they died of fright. Or the joy buzzers inside the theater seats during “The Tingler.” “House on Haunted Hill” boasted Emergo!, which featured a skeleton on a rope swinging through the theater during pivotal moments. That gimmickry obviously extends to the film itself, which has characters on-screen directly addressing audiences at least twice. Despite how cheesy this can be, “House on Haunted Hill” cooks up several genuinely spooky sequences. A white eyed old woman suddenly appears in one of the greatest jump scares of all time. When a ghostly woman appears outside a window, a rope curling around her victim’s leg, the audience notices a shiver crawling up their spine. Even corn ball images, like a organ springing to life on its own, can become creepy when accompanied by the proper atmosphere.

“House on Haunted Hill” has a fairly large cast. Of the five guests to the house, few of them are developed much. Richard Long as the pilot is an indistinct hero type. Alan Marshal’s psychiatrist and Julie Mitchum’s newspaper columnist aren’t given much to do. Of the potential victims, only two stick out. Elisha Cook is amusingly sweaty and nervous as the superstitious owner of the home, who functions as the story’s ignored oracle. Carolyn Craig can scream with the best of them as Nora, a character quickly driven to the point of insanity. Of course, these characters very nearly don’t matter. Not when you have Vincent Price hamming it up. As Loren, Price grins and preens with sinister intent. He makes small gestures and slight looks into acts of grand villainy.

Price’s Loren is also something like the film’s antihero. His treacherous wife Annabelle only married him for his money. She’s made one previously attempt to murder him. Further showing the story’s debt to old dark house movies, the final act reveals that the entire haunting has been a sham. Annabelle and her lover engineered the ghosts in order to murder Loren. It’s heavily implied that Loren murdered his previous wives. Despite that, he still emerges as the hero, turning the tables on the philandering Annabelle. (“The Tingler” featured a similar subplot, suggesting Castle might’ve had some issues with women.) The film tries to mine its story of ghosts and revenge from beyond the grave for chills. Ultimately, though, there are no ghosts. “House on Haunted Hill,” surprisingly, presents a skeptical view of the supernatural.

Being in the public domain, there are roughly ten thousand different home video releases of “House on Haunted Hill” out there. Only a few are actually worth owning. The film’s classic reputation and a marquee name like Price means it has slipped into so many public domain box sets. This same reasoning has made the movie a regular presence on horror hosts shows over the years, adding to its reputation. There was even a remake, which ditched the skeptical ending and was largely mediocre. The film has survived these subpar releases and choppy transfers, enduring as a campy but rightfully beloved horror picture. [8/10]

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Larry Cohen occupies an interesting place in cult movie history. His films aren’t much more then B-pictures, with matching high concept premises. For all the cheese and camp located within his work, his movies are frequently gifted with subversive screenplays and meaningful subtext. Cohen has also won fame for his independence as a filmmaker, often pulling off big stunts with little money. After the mutated babies of “It’s Alive!” and the man-eating yogurt of “The Stuff,” his third most beloved creation is “Q: The Winged Serpent.” An oddball leading performance and a refreshingly old fashion approach to its monster even won over some mainstream critics back in 1982. 

So what is “Q’s” high concept log line? Likely inspired by the 1946 George Zucco movie “The Flying Serpent,” Cohen’s “The Winged Serpent” drops the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatl into modern day New York City. The feathered serpent god is flying about, eating New Yorkers and nesting inside the dome of the Chrysler Building. Detective Shepard quickly connects the monster sightings with a series of grisly ritual murders that he’s investigating. His quest to stop the creature soon puts him in contact with Jimmy Quinn, a small time thug who has run into some problems with the mob.

Even back in 1982, “Q” was something of a throwback. The titular monstrosity is primarily brought to life with stop-motion animation. The special effects are quite good, the monster moving fluidly and being highly expressive. Quetzalcoatl also, clearly, doesn’t occupy the same reality as the flesh and blood actors. When the two have to interact, it’s immediately awkward. Actors either are grasped by giant feet props or are transformed into sketchy stop motion models. Large portions of “Q” are devoted to the monster chomping down on its victims. A window washer has his head snatched away. A construction worker is similarly decapitated. In order to provide some exploitation, one of Q’s meals is a topless sunbather. Blood and body parts rain down on the streets below, befuddling and terrifying the citizens. It’s not sophisticated stuff but certainly scratches a certain itch for horror fans.

The likes of Roger Ebert and Rex Reed were expectedly dismissive of “Q” back in the down. Both critics, however, singled out Michael Moriarty’s performance. Moriarty is a character actor that can always be counted on to give a memorable performance. His turn as Jimmy Quinn is especially bizarre. Moriarty spends the entire movie in various states of freaking out. When working with the mob, he’s a twitchy mess, refusing to carry a gun and reluctantly teaming with the tough guys. At home, with his put-upon girlfriend, he tosses furniture, mumbles in a frightened manner, and collapses onto a couch. When talking about the winged serpent with the police, he makes outrageous demands, essentially making it harder for the cops to cooperate with him. When not doing any of the above, Quinn exercises his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. That’s right, Moriarty messes around on the piano, scatting as he goes. Moriarty is compellingly bizarre, if nothing else.

“The Winged Serpent” throws another ingredient into its nutty stew. Around the same time the serpent’s reign of terror begins in the city, the cops stumble upon several gory murders. A man is skinned. Another has his heart cut out. Obviously, these occult killings are connected with the monster’s appearance, a conclusion the audience comes to far sooner then the characters do. Playing the detectives on the case are David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Carradine is having a blast, flirting wildly with his girlfriend, reading up on Aztec mythology, and firing a machine gun at a flying snake. Roundtree, as Carradine’s skeptical and antagonistic partner, has some fun too.

“Q: The Winged Serpent” is a very goofy movie, loaded with fun if unconvincing special effects and entertainingly unhinged performances. Cohen gets the most out of the aerial shots, often suggesting Q’s appearance even when its not actually there. Robert O. Ragland’s music is memorable, as are Moriarty’s strange jazz numbers. “Q: The Winged Serpent” was not a hit in theaters. Instead, the film would find its audience on video and television. These days, it’s a well regarded cult classic, a deeply silly but briskly entertaining creature feature. [7/10]

1408 (2007)

Stephen King has talked before about how he believes every author should write a story about a haunted hotel or inn. Seemingly forgetting that he already wrote “The Shining” some years before, King set out to meet this goal with “1408.” The short story, originally published as an audio book before seeing release in print, would later be adapted into a film by Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom. “1408,” the movie, would become a sleeper hit in 2007, earning solid reviews and doing good business. I mean, it’s obviously not as good as “The Shining” but it’s actually an okay flick. Let me explain why.

Welcome back to Stephen King Land. You know you’re here because the protagonist is a writer. Mike Enslin writes paranormal guides, books about top ten scariest haunted hotels and similar topics. Despite having visited many supposed ghostly hot-spots, he remains a complete skeptic of the supernatural. The only hauntings he’s experienced are caused by the memories of a dead daughter, a failed marriage, and the compromised dreams of being a serious writer. He receives a postcard advertising the Dolphin Hotel. The Dolphin’s Room 1408 has a history of violent deaths and suicides. Enslin tries to book the room, is repeatedly denied, but eventually gets his way. Once inside 1408, his opinion on hauntings change quickly.

“1408” is a big budget, PG-13 rated, studio produced boo show. I should hate it, right? Yet I don’t. “1408” tries as many horror movie tactics as possible. There’s jump scares, from blaring clock radios or the sudden appearance of hammer wielding maniacs. There’s a creaking sound design, pasty faced zombies, suicidal ghosts, and innocent pop music re-appropriated in a spooky context. When that doesn’t work, the film piles on the special effects, the room’s lay-out constantly changing shape. From the hardened horror fan’s perspective, “1408” is basically a grown up version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. But the movie approaches its topic seriously, features well rounded characters, takes its time, and attempts to build tension and atmosphere. The scares are still hopelessly hokey but “1408” was made by adults for adults. That counts for something.

How much you like “1408” may also depend on your tolerance for John Cusack. When he’s not trying, Cusack is a snore. When he’s trying too hard, he’s insufferable. Luckily, Mike Enslin catches the actor in that happy middle ground. Which is good, since “1408” is mostly a one man show. Cusack brings some sarcastic humor to the part, his reaction to the room’s theatrics beginning with dismissal, shifting to incredulity, and finally to hysterics. The film doesn’t rely on distracting voice overs. Instead, Cusack spends most of the movie talking into a handheld recorder. Yes, Enslin is a skeptic who is humbled by an appropriately spooky incident. That character arc produces some eye rolls but Cusack is likable enough in the lead, easily carrying most of “1408.”

As silly as the film’s spook show shenanigans and pseudo-science friendly writing may be, that’s when “1408” is most successful. When the movie tries to move outside the titular room, that’s when it falters. I’m not talking about Samuel L. Jackson’s amusingly brief role as the overly severe hotel manager. I’m referring to Enslin’s dead daughter and estranged wife. The flashbacks to the little girl’s last days put an obvious point on Enslin’s conflict, the script limply connecting his disbelief in the supernatural with his daughter’s death. “1408” attempting to bring the wife into the story is an unimpressive attempt to heighten the story’s stakes. A mid-film sequence, where Cusack seemingly escapes from the room, is an unneeded extension of the story. The audience can easily guess that he’s still within 1408. Moments like this are when the film’s origin as a short story, and the screenwriter’s obvious attempts to expand the story, become clear.

“1408” was obviously designed to be a crowd pleaser. Apparently test audiences were difficult to please. The film has four different endings, all of which differ Stephen King’s original ending. What’s odd is only one of these endings seriously differs from each other, the main character’s fate remaining the same across three of the conclusions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much. “1408’s” machinations can be clearly seen and it doesn’t always work. However, I admire what Hafstrom and his team were getting at and find the finished project reasonably entertaining. And its old fashion spookiness works well on the first day of the Six Weeks. [6/10]

The Ten Steps (2004)

In the days leading up to the Six Weeks of Halloween, I search the internet for worthy horror shorts. I don’t normally watch short films, so digging up films like this is another reason for the season’s specialness. Frequently, hyped horror shorts aren’t worth even the brief amount of time required to watch them. “The Ten Steps,” however, is genuinely good.

Katie sits at home, babysitting her mischievous young brother. Her mom and dad are at an important dinner, a meal with a potential employer. She continues to pester her parents with phone calls, much to their annoyance. After the lights go out in the house, she calls with in an especially panicked mood. The father insists she climbs down into the basement, to look at the electrical box, despite the girl’s phobia of basements. All she has to do is get down the ten steps into the darkened room below.

“The Ten Steps” operates on a simple premise, playing out much like a camp fire ghost story. The film’s ten minute run time builds towards Katie making it down those steps, a sequence that is stretched out for maximum suspense. Cutting between the girl’s walk into the basement and the parent’s phone call also helps up the tension. While Katie makes her journey, mom gets increasingly worried and their dinner guests share creepy stories about the home. The repetition of Katie calling out the number of steps keeps the pace moving forward, drawing the viewer in. The music and sound design help sell the intensity of this moment. Brendan Muldowney’s direction is colorful and well composed, creating an intentionally artificial location. That twist ending takes the film out on an ominous note. “The Ten Steps” is a well made horror short, squeezing a lot of spookiness into a brief run time. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I had high expectations for House on Haunted Hill. I guess I thought it was going to be scary. The old woman shock is one for the ages! Very memorable. Actually, it's more than a fright, it's creepy. But after that there was very little haunting going on. This movie was more about distrust and double-crosses between the guests. It seems the movie is misnamed.

Vincent Price really steals the show. He's such a ham, but he's so good at it. Richard Long is also excellent as his normal cool self. Carolyn Craig may me want to grab ear plugs. Her screams of terror made me cringe several times.

This is another relatively successful Vincent Price movie, but almost entirely on the strength of his enormous personality and screen presence. (5/10)

Q is for in Michael Moriarty's performance. The impression I got before going in was that the winged beast would be the strangest thing in this movie. Instead, it's Moriarty. I shouldn't stop there. David Carradine is odd, too. In fact, most everything here is off a step. The dialogue is goofy and the conversations between characters is poorly timed or something. It's almost like they were ad-libbing much of the time.

The stop motion animation is pretty weak, but it's good enough to make the final battle between Q and the police at the top of the Chrysler Building a lot of fun. It ultimately makes the movie worth watching.

There were many times that "Q" gave me the same feeling I get when watching old episodes of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker". (5/10)

1408 is really not that scary, but that might have been due to the distracting group of 13-year-olds in the theater who were blabbing on their cell phones when I saw it years ago. They were yelling out theories about what was going to happen on the screen. Little jerks...

John Cusack was okay early in the film as an author going through the motions of pushing his latest book. His skepticism about haunted houses, gleaned from his uneventful stays in them on past reader recommendations, flies in the face of the source of his income as someone who writes about haunted houses.

The movie builds up the suspense helped along by Samuel Jackson's performance. Cusack became less convincing once he became isolated in Room 1408, when the supposed scares were to begin. (6/10)