Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 21

Wrong Turn (2003)

I might’ve mentioned this before. When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, Stan Winston was my hero. In-between his hosting gig on AMC’s efx and the Stan Winston’s Creatures toyline, Winston was the monster maker I admired the most. In addition to launching his own toy company, Stan also began producing movies. “Wrong Turn” was his first theatrically released production. A throwback to eighties slasher flicks a few years before such things would come back into vogue, I was super excited for the movie. I even convinced a girl to see it with me in theaters, on my first ever real date. Back then, I was disappointed, the movie falling short of the awesome picture I imagined in my brain. Thirteen years later, I was curious if my opinion changed any.

Chris is traveling through the West Virginian country side, on his way to a new job as a medical school. Along the way, he takes a turn – you might even say a wrong turn – down a spooky back road. His car collides with another vehicle, broken down on the road. The other travelers – composed of couples Scott and Carly, Evan and Francine, and fifth wheel Jessie – had their tires busted by barbwire left on the road. Soon, the group discovers that a trio of deformed and deprived mountain men hunt these woods for human flesh to feast on. And Chris and his new friends are on the menu.

Story wise, “Wrong Turn” is strictly formula. The film opens with some unimportant characters getting the axe before the main story even starts. Before encountering the murderous brood, Chris stops for directions at a gas station. There, the excessively creepy attendant sends him down the wrong road. One of the couples decide the weird forested area is the perfect place for some hanky panky. Immediately afterwards, both are killed by the madmen. The girl who isn’t romantically involved, on the other hand, survives. On at least two occasions, a character hides under a structure while the villain stands above them. Most egregiously, the twenty-somethings run into a park ranger. Seconds later, the cop is killed. “Wrong Turn,” of course, ends by revealing that the nightmare is far from over.

Despite the entirely predictable script, “Wrong Turn” is entertaining. Rob Schmit’s direction is tight enough that he creates several effective jump scares. One worthwhile sequence has the fleeing teens hiding in a watch tower. This builds towards an amusing moment, when a radio blares to life at the worst time. Schmit also tosses axes, sometimes in a nightmare, sometimes in reality, at the audience’s face. Though predictable, the moments devoted to characters hiding inches away from the monsters generate some minor suspense. A dive into some trees is ridiculous but the following chase scene is decently executed. In truth, “Wrong Turn’s” predictability is more likely to endear it to slasher fans then annoy. We appreciate a good cliché every now and then.

“Wrong Turn” also has a better then average cast. I’m not talking about Desmond Harrington as Chris, who is a total snore, his face rarely changing expression. Instead, the other survivors are the ones that shine. Eliza Dushku, who was still best known as “Buffy’s” Faith at the time, plays a more down-to-Earth character as Jessie. Though the script’s attempts to generate pathos are unlikely – a scene under a waterfall is laughably brief – Dushku does much better when rolling, jumping and running from the backwoods maniacs. Jeremy Sisto, who shined in the previous year’s “May,” seems to be channeling Jeff Goldblum as the twitchy, nervous, but still endearing Scott. Sisto is certainly more interesting then Emmanuelle Chriqui’s Carly. Chriqui was probably cast more for her often exposed washboard abs then her acting. Perhaps she should’ve changed roles with Lindy Booth, whose energetic presence and charming screen persona is underutilized as the sexually active (and, thus, destined to die early) Francine.

Another reason “Wrong Turn” disappointed me back in 2003 was because I expected it to be gorier. The blood does splatter. Arrows are shot through chests and heads. Perhaps the most graphic death befalls poor Lindy Booth, who is garotted with barb wire. A conceptually cool kill, involving an axe to the head in a perilous place, is undermined by some not great CGI effects. Despite this, “Wrong Turn” is more conservative then you’d expect from a movie about inbred cannibal mutants. Considering Stan Winston’s influence, the trio of brothers are barely human. They squawk in a bizarre language, one of them cackling. With their bumpy skin, exaggerated teeth and jaws, and mutated limbs, they resemble demons more then men. There’s very little of the familial interplay of superior savage south shockers like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “The Devil’s Rejects.” However, just as special effects, the three mountain men are cool looking creatures.

One or two decent moments, a better then average cast, and some neat monsters makes “Wrong Turn” a fun eighty-four minutes for we horror fans. (The economic runtime is another reason to like the film.) Surprisingly, “Wrong Turn” would spawn a long running series, begetting five direct-to-DVD sequels. I remember part two being a lot of fun but never got around to seeing the others. As a native West Virginian, I definitely appreciate my home state having its own slasher franchise. Despite “Wrong Turn’s” success, Stan Winston’s producer career never quite took off. His proposed follow-up, “Wild Kingdom” – about a genetically engineered Cerberus running amok in the modern day – never materialized. I still want to see that movie. As for “Wrong Turn,” it’s a fun bit of slasher movie fluff. [7/10]

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

The 1985 Stephen King-penned anthology “Cat’s Eye” contained three stories. But that wasn’t originally the plan. Initially, “Cat’s Eye” was to include a fourth segment, “Sometimes They Come Back,” based on another story from “Night Shift.” However, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided the tale had more potential. “Sometimes They Come Back” was developed as a stand alone project. The adaptation would premiere on television, on CBS, in 1991. Aside from the obvious Stephen King connection, there’s another reason I’m talking about the movie. It’s the fourth feature film of Tom McLoughlin, who previously made likable horror riffs like “One Dark Night” and “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.” “Sometimes They Come Back,” said to say, does not live up to that standard.

Jim Norman does not have pleasant memories of his childhood home town. When he was nine years old, his older brother was murdered by a group of juvenile delinquents. Immediately afterwards, the greasers were killed when their car was struck by a train. The events still haunts him. Twenty years later, he’s returned home, to take a job as a teacher. Not long afterwards, one of his students is killed in a hit-and-run. The boy is replaced by a new student with an uncanny resemblance to one of the men who killed Jim’s brother, unaged and unaffected by changing fashion senses. This keeps happening, until all of the murderous hoods are present in Norman’s class. They’ve return and they want revenge.

“Sometimes They Come Back” is a movie about regret and trauma. Obviously. The screenplay by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal really wants you to know that. The film begins with a voice-over, provided by the bored sounding Tim Matheson, that constantly reminds the viewer of what Jim has lost. In the first half, the film frequently flashes back to the past, as Jim experiences nightmares, day dreams, and hallucinations about his childhood. One long series of flashbacks is punctuated by white light flashing on the screen, a very irritating choice. Making the returning ghouls greasers could’ve been a comment on boomer nostalgia but the movie is, instead, satisfied with these lazier themes. These constant callbacks aren’t just a lazy way to establish the movie’s otherwise evident themes. It’s also a way to stretch a short story to feature length.

“Sometimes They Come Back” shows little of the inventive eye McLoughlin displayed in his prior horror films. With this being a television production, there’s none of the creative dismemberment of “Jason Lives!” Yet even the low-fi spookiness of “One Dark Night” is outside of the feature’s reach. The ghostly delinquents appearing in Norman’s class is repetitive, the film drawing too much attention to it. Other attempts at creating a creepy mood – like an ominous pair of shoes hanging from a wire or the distant cry of a train’s horn – come off as overly cheesy. McLoughlin occasionally gets in a good jump scare, like when the gang’s roadster leaps over a hill. Or when a peaceful tracking shot through the family house is interrupted by the psychobillies’ intrusion. But the best thing about “Sometimes They Come Back” are the zombie versions of the undead greasers, decent special effects the movie utilizes well.

Jim is played by Tim Matheson, an actor with a long history in television that even includes voicing Jonny Quest. Matheson’s character arc is uninvolving. The film paints itself into a boring corner. Every time one of Norman’s students dies, he’s near-by. This, coupled with his erratic behavior, causes the police to suspect Jim is behind the murders. This tired story device is dropped by the movie’s halfway point. Matheson’s performance is uninspired. Brooke Adams makes her second appearance in a King adaptation, after ‘The Dead Zone,” as Jim’s wife. Though a talented actress, Adams isn’t given much to do.

King’s original short story has a far more sinister ending. The film version of “Sometimes They Come Back,” instead, goes for naked sentimentality. Changes like this mark “Sometimes They Come Back” as an uninspired production. Despite that, the television movie must’ve been popular on video, as it spawned two direct-to-VHS sequels. The first, “Sometimes They Come Back… Again” from 1996, at least maintained the idea of a dead criminal returning for revenge. 1998’s “Sometimes They Come Back… For More” tossed together demons, zombies, and a “Thing” inspired Antarctic setting, divorcing itself totally from the source material. I’d be really surprised if Stephen King knew about those two. I’d be surprised if he even bothered watching the original “Sometimes They Come Back,” as there’s not much to it. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Last Respects

Considering the series’ tendency towards horror clichés and tales of ironic revenge, I’m really surprised “Tales from the Crypt” didn’t adapt the Monkey’s Paw story until its final season. “Last Respects” revolves around three sisters, who own their late father’s magic/novelty shop. Two of the sisters want to sell the shop, while the third wants to respect dad’s wishes and keep the business open. While cleaning out old stock, they stumble upon a magical Monkey’s Paw. Like always, the talisman grants the sisters’ wish but in the most gruesome way possible.

The most notable thing about “Last Respects” is who was behind the camera. Freddie Francis, famous cinematographer who directed many British horror flicks in the sixties and seventies, directed this one. Francis, of course, also directed Amicus’ original “Tales from the Crypt” movie. It’s a nice bit of trivia but “Last Respects” is not Francis’ best work. The two evil sisters are obnoxious. The elderly relatives they take care of are grotesque, as the old woman messily gulps pureed meat. The acting is fairly over-the-top. Script wise, anybody familiar with both “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Tales from the Crypt” can see the twists coming. Yes, there’s a betrayal and a murder, motivated by greed. Yes, an avenging zombie appears at the end. Francis’ direction is colorful and there’s a handful of fun moments but “Last Respects” is otherwise forgettable. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Bigfoot

Every supernatural themed show has to cover Bigfoot eventually and usually sooner rather than later. The obligatory Bigfoot episode of “Lost Tapes” at least has a good reason for its story to be recorded. The episode follows a park ranger who is documenting black bear poaching in the Pacific Northwest. Naturally, she has set cameras up all over the forest and frequently records herself. After finding and deactivating many traps left around the woods, she attracts the ire of a poacher. Meanwhile, the ranger is also capturing glimpses of Bigfoot on her camera. While the poacher is hostile, the sasquatch appears more benevolent.

“Bigfoot” is one of the best episodes of “Lost Tapes.” Which means it still has some problems. Yes, there’s some tedious footage of people running through the forests, the camera shaking like crazy. The actor playing the poacher makes the character as ridiculously sleazy as possible, which includes spying on the park ranger with his own camera. Yet making Bigfoot a kindly protector gives the episode some novelty value. If nothing else, it gets some decent mileage out of the spooky sasquatch cries. The conclusion happens entirely off-screen, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the violence. Meredith Thomas is decent in the lead role. The pseudo-educational segments are actually interesting, as they spend more time discussing the realities of poaching then the possible existence of Bigfoot. It’s still awfully silly stuff but this was definitely one of the series’ prouder moments. [7/10]

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