Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 20

The Mist (2007)

“The Mist” may be a prime example of the horror cult classic. In 2007, it came and went from theaters quickly. It made back its budget at the box office but was hardly a huge hit. The reviews were okay but many considered the film disappointing compared to director Frank Darabont’s previous Stephen King adaptations, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” Horror fans, on the other hand, loved the movie immediately. It seems that the combination of survival, siege, end of the world, social commentary, and elaborate monsters tickled fans everywhere. I should, by all metrics, love “The Mist.” Yet I was disappointed in the film upon release. Going back and watching it years later, I still don’t quite get the hype.

A bad storm blows into a small town. While the Drayton family hides in the cellar, a tree blows through their front window. The next morning, father David and his young son Billy head to a local store for supplies. The building is packed full of people, looking for the same thing. While there, a mysterious mist blankets the entire area. Bizarre monsters, with a taste for human flesh, hide in the clouds. Locking themselves inside the general store, the townsfolk soon discover that the worst kind of monsters might not await them in the mist.

My discontent with “The Mist” boils down to one complaint. Half of the people in this small town are assholes. David’s neighbor, Brent Norton, is needlessly confrontational. Several of the employees are abrasive dick bags. They doubt our hero, allowing a tentacle to kill several people. As annoying as these guys are, at least they get eaten early on. The same can’t be said for Mrs. Carmody. She’s a character Stephen King has written repeatedly: The fanatical Christian. Within minutes of the mist arriving, Carmody begins to rant about the End Times. She soon claims that God is talking directly to her, that she’s a prophet. By the halfway point, she’s convinced several of the residents of the same and begins demanding human sacrifices. Marcia Gay Harden is incredibly over the top and irritating. But she’s just playing the character as written, a broadly sketched stereotype. If “The Mist” had simply made the main villain somebody else, it would’ve been ninety percent more tolerable.

This is even more of a bummer since “The Mist” features several genuinely likable actors. Thomas Jane usually bores me. He’s still pretty bland here but, considering David Drayton is another one of Stephen King’s everyman protagonist, that quality works for the film. Toby Jones has one of the best parts as Ollie, the store’s assistant manager. Jones is a reasonable man, who manages to keep his cool during the panic. He’s also the local shooting champ, a skill which comes in handy later. Frances Sternhagen, in her second appearance in a Stephen King movie after “Misery,” plays Irene Reppler. An elderly school teacher, Miss Reppler is feisty and happily calls people on their bullshit. William Sadler plays Jim Grondin, who is another thinly sketched character who follows whoever is leading. Sadler, however, always brings something interesting to every part he plays.

The characters, I suspect, aren’t the reason for “The Mist’s” cult popularity. Instead, I bet it’s all about the monsters. And “The Mist” does indeed feature some awesome monster designs. A number of creative beasties are on display. At night, pterodactyl-style winged reptiles fly into the store, leading to a fairly intense attack scene. They’re pursuing giant flying insects, who are equipped with nasty stingers. When venturing into the drug store next door, the ensemble battle a breed of giant, spiny spiders. One of the most memorable monsters in “The Mist” is the behemoth, briefly glimpsed near the end. All of this stuff is pretty cool and the film utilizes computer generated and practical effects well.

Frank Darabont’s director’s cut of “The Mist” is in black and white, suggesting he envisioned the film as something of a throwback to 1950s creature features. If so, why is so much of the movie shot in a distressingly shaky, handheld style? Perhaps he was attempting to capture a sense of realistic panic. Yet this is another example of Darabont’s perhaps overdone directorial hand. The theme of “The Mist” is evident and often repeated. People do stupid things when they panic. Even the movie’s tagline, “Fear Changes Everything,” emphasizes this. That’s why Mrs. Carmody’s particular breed of crazy catches on. It also explains the movie’s twist ending. Yet even in context, that ending comes off as overly sadistic. A main character takes a very drastic action, after spending the entire movie being the only reasonable person around. The universe goes about punishing him for his rashness far too quickly and in far too unlikely a circumstance. Mostly, the ending makes me feel like Darabont is screwing with us.

I appreciate what “The Mist” is trying to do. I can’t completely dislike a movie with this many cool monsters in it. Yet a heavy handed script and a deeply unlikable supporting cast keeps the film out of my good graces. Maybe Frank should’ve kept King’s more ambiguous conclusion. Or maybe he should’ve been less focused on his obvious themes. Or, I don’t know, just killed off the obnoxious crazy Christina bitch in the first act? Either way, “The Mist” is a movie I appreciate more for its technical aspects then its actual story telling. As for that upcoming TV show? I have no interest in seeing the movie’s drama stretch out for thirteen episodes. Thanks but no thanks. [5/10]

Southern Comfort (1981)

Walter Hill is one of those filmmakers who have had several big, mainstream successes yet have never become a hugely well known name. “48 Hrs.” was a genre defining hit, while “The Driver,” “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire” are all beloved cult classics. Well known for his work in tough guy action pics, Hill has always skirted the horror genre without fully committing to it. Hill produced all of the “Alien” films and directed several “Tales from the Crypt” episodes. Yet the closest thing Hill has ever directed to a proper horror feature is the 1981 underrated backwoods survival flick “Southern Comfort.”

A group of weekend warriors, members of the Louisiana National Guard, gather in the state’s swampy, humid bayou. Among the men are smart-ass Private Spencer, redneck Corporal Reece, mentally unstable Corporal Bowden, and rough around the edges new recruit Corporal Hardin. A standard exercise has the group navigating the swamp. The soldiers steal some unclaimed boats in order to make it across a river. When the Cajun owners of the boats appear, one of the soldiers fire blanks at the hunters. In response, the Cajuns open fire, killing the group’s leader. Now, the men are being hunted, pursued by an enemy that is more familiar with the area then they are.

“Southern Comfort” is not truly a horror movie. The story – men on a journey through hostile territory – recalls Hill’s own “The Warriors.” The themes, of American soldiers outwitted by less technologically advanced locals, bring the Vietnam War to mind. (Hill has vehemently denied this reading.) Despite mostly being an action/thriller, “Southern Comfort” undeniably contains some horrific elements. The Cajun trappers rarely appear on-screen. Instead, they are more like an almost supernatural force of nature. Traps have been left for the men, getting attacked by dogs, bear traps, dropping trees, and spring-loaded spikes. The dead bodies of their victims are artfully displayed, tied to trees or strung up from train tracks. If you squint hard enough, these scenes could be right out of a slasher flick. Mostly, “Southern Comfort” is characterized by a foggy atmosphere of foreboding and dread. The genre elements are marginal but “Southern Comfor” makes them count.

Upon release, “Southern Comfort’s” characters were criticized for being thin or exaggerated. The cast members are undeniably simple. With nine principal characters, reducing the soldiers to archetypes was probably a good decision. So you’ve got the smart ass, the hard ass, the dumb ass, the tight ass, and so forth. Hill fills his cast with tough guy character actors, which goes a long way towards defining them. Front and center are Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe. Carradine has a wry glee in his smile but is surprisingly cool under pressure. Boothe is hard as a flint, constantly scowling. Yet Boothe’s Hardin gives the impression of being a massive bad ass. Peter Coyote is the voice of powerless authority as the unit leader. Fred Ward is well utilized as the needlessly violent good ol’ boy. Even the bit roles are filled by soon-to-be action veterans. Such as Brion James as the one-armed Cajun or Sonny Landham as a briefly glimpsed hunter. The back-and-forth between the cast members is one of the biggest pleasures of “Southern Comfort.”

“Southern Comfort” is excellently paced, the plot always barreling forward. Within a few minutes, the threat is introduced. New attacks occur steadily every ten or fifteen minutes. Many of these sequences, such as the bracing dog attack or intense run through the falling trees, make an impression on the audience. A knife fight between Boothe and Ward is another stand-out moment. It all builds towards an excellent final act. Boothe and Carradine arrive at a seemingly friendly Cajun village. While Spencer dances with the locals, Hardin notices that their enemies have pulled into town. The build-up to the next attack is cut between graphic footage of a pig being slaughtered, increasingly putting the audience at ill ease. When the violence hits, the results are explosive. “Southern Comfort” doesn’t leave much room for cathartic release, as the film ends immediately after the violent conclusion, leaving the audience unsettled.

The film did poor business at the box office during its original theatrical release. When “Southern Comfort” was released to video or shown on cable, it attracted a bigger audience. In-between the excellent cast of likable actors and intense sequences, it’s earned that cult following. Due to a Southern setting that can’t help but recall “Deliverance” and backwoods villains, it also fits fairly snuggly within the redneck horror genre. (Bizarrely, the film would be shown on Iranian television in the nineties, re-edited to become anti-American propaganda. In that version, the U.S. government knowingly sends the boys to their death, the Cajuns working for the military. Now that’s unexpected!) [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Fatal Caper

As the Six Weeks begin, the Cryptkeeper is there to happily invite me back into the tomb. For the last three years, I’ve been watching my way through the series. Just hearing that theme song and seeing the opening makes me grin. This year, I’ll wrap up the show, watching the last season of HBO’s horror anthology. For the seventh season, as a cost saving measure, the show was moved from America to the United Kingdom. It’s a move the show acknowledges, with the Cryptkeeper relocating underneath London Bridge. He even mentions his English heritage, which is probably a reference to Amicus’ original “Tales from the Crypt” movie.

But the move in geography doesn’t mean a change in style. “Fatal Caper” continues the “Crypt” tradition of revenge, betrayal, deceit, and twist endings. The episode concerns an ailing millionaire, Mycroft Amberson. His sons are an unworthy lot, with Evelyn being a money grubbing jerk and Justin being a sex-craved moron. Mycroft hires a female lawyer to deliver the conditions of his will. The brothers will only receive his millions if they can locate their missing third brother, who walked out of dad’s life years ago. This being “Tales from the Crypt,” things aren’t exactly as they seem.

“Fatal Caper” is a fairly standard “Tales” episode, full of bad guys getting what’s coming to them. The horror content this time includes a bloody murder at the end, a spooky séance, and a pivotal scene in a tomb. With this standard script, it’s up to the performance to keep your attention. Greg Wise plays Justin as a buffoon who is indifferent to his father’s pain, having a good time. James Saxon really goes over the top as Evelyn, making the character as snooty as possible. Bob Hoskin, who plays a small role, directed the episode. He produces some neat shots, like a reveal concerning a maid. The twist ending is pretty silly, deeply politically incorrect by modern standards, but admittedly unexpected. It’s not among the series’ best premieres but it’s an amusing thirty minutes nevertheless. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Chupacabra

Lost Tapes” was a series that aired for three seasons, from 2008 to 2010, on Animal Planet. That’s probably not the first network you associate with horror television. “Lost Tapes” was, of all things, a found footage anthology series. Each episode would detail an encounter with a cryptozoological creature, always captured by cameras of some sort. In order to justify such a series airing on an ostensibly educational channel, interviews with experts, media critics, and legitimate zoologists would play in-between the fictional segments. During the early years of the Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon, I review one or two episodes of the show. In order to appease my OCD, I hope to watch the entire series this year.

The first lost tape concerns the chupacabra, that goat sucking monster from down Mexico way. The Ramierz family, composed of a father, a mother, and a young daughter, hope to sneak across the border into America. Midway through the trip, their coyote abandons them in the middle of the desert. For some reason, the daughter lugs the family camcorder along with her. This allows her to record the frightening encounter they have with el chupacabra.

“Lost Tapes” was never a great show but I’ll admit a certain fondness for it. The premise – combining horror anthology, cryptozoology, and found footage – hits too many of my sweet spots for me to ignore it. Considering it aired on fucking Animal Planet, the series was also surprisingly downbeat. As the title suggests, the main characters usually ended up dead.

Yet “Chupacabra” is a weak premiere. The camera work is overly shaky, with far too much of the episode devoted to people running and screaming. The chupacabra, as presented here, does not match up with the awesome, alien-like conception of the creature, as passed around in the nineties. Instead, the brief glimpses we get at the monsters show one of those lame, dog things some people insists are chupacabras. The story basically wraps up midway through, an extended epilogue tagged on at the end. And the “informative” segments are especially inane, focusing on basic facts concerning illegal immigration and what kind of animals live in the Mexican desert. This is pretty standard for the show but, I assure you, a few episodes are better then this. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

You are correct. I like The Mist for the monsters and thankfully there are a lot of them.

I don't mind the dialogue and for the most part, find the characters interesting. But I've either read enough of Stephen King to have established an appreciation for it or maybe not enough to have become sick of it yet.

The premise of where the mist came from is explained, but left me wanting to see its point of origin. The ending of this movie is very shocking, some might even call it controversial. It is difficult to offer an opinion on without giving it away. Let's just say that the fate of Thomas Jane is not unlike the unfair fate that Twilight Zone nice guy-bookworm Henry Bemis faces in "Time Enough At Last", which is simply one of the cruelest injustices ever bestowed upon a main character. The first time I saw it I liked it. But upon rewatches have found the movie more satisfying by stopping it when the Jeep drives off into the mist after seeing the Behemoth. (7/10)