Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 24

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

How is it that I’ve been writing about horror movies for eight years and I’ve never reviewed a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie? I reviewed a movie about H.G.L. before I reviewed a movie he actually directed. Despite that, I’m a casual dabbler in the Godfather of Gore’s creations. During my college journey into trash cinema, I watched a handful of his crude but charming splatter flicks. Of these, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” emerged as my favorite. The film is also an early example of the murderous redneck subgenre.

During a road trip through the American south, six travelers takes a mysterious detour. The path leads them to the small town of Pleasant Valley. Each of the Northerners are given a grand welcome. The Yankees are the special guests of the Centennial Jubilee. One of the travelers discovers that, a hundred years ago during the Civil War, a Union army massacred the inhabitants of the town. Now, during the anniversary of the war crimes, the residents of Pleasant Valley decide to visit their bloody vengeance on any Yankee that wanders into their town.

The films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are an acquired taste, to say the least. Gordon’s cinema is not especially concerned with the traditional aesthetics usually valued by professional filmmakers. The film’s low budget is apparent in its crude production design. Aside from Jeffrey Allen’s jovial turn as Mayor Buckman, the acting is extremely flat and amateurish. The characters are thinly defined and indistinguishable from each other. The story rambles loosely from set piece to set piece. The music ranges from distracting to actively annoying. The pacing is awful, the script alternating between scenes that creep at a snail’s pace and moments of manic comic relief. The movie has about six different endings, tortuously extending the story to feature length. Fans of Lewis just have to take these things in stride. It’s all part of the filmmaker’s charm. “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is lo-fi, home made, nutty, roughly assembled but fun in its own way.

After all, the main attraction for Lewis’ exploitation flicks were the gore. Back in 1964, graphic dismemberment and Technicolor blood were shocking sights. To modern eyes, the gory special effects in “Two Thousand Maniacs!” are obviously unsophisticated. When a woman is held down and has her arm chopped off with an axe, the removed limb is clearly a mannequin's arm. The film’s often displayed blood is obviously bright red paint. Despite how evidently fake the gore is, it still has its charms. The methods of murder are usually creative. A woman is drawn and quartered by charging horses. A guy is rolled inside a barrel hammered through with spikes. An especially amusing sequence is devoted to a contraption that drops a big ass rock on a bound victim. While there’s a clear streak of sadism in the death scenes, the execution is too goofy to offend.

As cornball as “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is, some have actually applied a scholarly reading to the film. This is, after all, a film about murderous rednecks that was released during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet I doubt these issues were on Lewis’ mind. Instead, the film re-characterizes the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, as an outrageous gore comedy. The residents of Pleasant Valley are monstrous. They’re cannibalistic murderers. Yet their actions are motivated by the bloody atrocities visited upon them a hundred years earlier, making their revenge understandable, if not reasonable. But things aren’t that simple. After one of the graphic murders, many of the town’s citizens are unnerved. The Mayor forces them to celebrate. And the Northerners are, ostensibly, the heroes. If Hershell Gordon Lewis was making any point at all, it seems to be that the victors write the history books. Or that nobody gets out of war without blood on their hands.

If you’re not already a fan of H.G.L.’s demented motion pictures, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is unlikely to win you over. As cheap and unrefined as this one can be, it’s actually one of his most polished movies. For those on the director’s trashy wavelength, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” can be a lot of fun. Any film that opens with an upbeat blue grass number like “The South’s Gonna' Rise Again” can’t be all bad, no matter how many wooden performances and unnecessary endings it has. [7/10]

Cell (2016)

When first published in 2006, Stephen King’s “Cell” was a hot literary property. The story cashed in on the newly popular again zombie genre while commenting on fears that cell phones would take over our lives. The film rights were immediately picked up. For a while, Eli Roth was going to direct, from a script by King. By the time the “Cell” movie actually came out, Roth was nowhere in sight. The film had switched production companies and distributors several times. What was once hyped as a big horror movie event slipped onto VOD and DVD with little fanfare. No, “Cell” is not one of the good Stephen King movies.

Comic book artist Clay Riddell has arrived in Boston, hoping to reconnect with his estranged wife. At the airport, people begin to go fucking nuts. Anybody with their head near a cellphone is turned into a mindlessly homicidal zombie. Chaos breaks out in the city. Soon, Clay teams up with other survivors – gay Vietnam vet Tom, teenage girl Alice, prep school student Geoff – with the goal of reaching Maine and rescuing his wife and son. However, there’s a hidden intelligence behind the psychic outbreak.

In the ten years between the publication of “Cell: The Novel” and the release of “Cell: The Movie,” we as a culture have only become more dependent on our cell phones. The film had the oppretunity to comment on this. Instead, “Cell” presents its zombies in a ridiculous manner. The opening scene is more likely to produce laughter then gasps. When the mysterious signal takes over people’s mind, they seize, gyrate, and foam at the mouth. The erratic behavior has the zombies smashing their heads into walls or running out of bathrooms, pants still around their ankles. It’s silly and the film only gets sillier. The zombies quickly earn the goofy nickname “phoners.” They open their mouths and release bizarre audio feedback sounds. At night, they sleep, their collective signal singing the “Trolololo” song. Through their dreams, the protagonists become aware that the phoners are controlled by a zombified man in innocuous red hoodie. “Cell” is packed with unintentionally comical touches like this.

That “Cell” would limp out to little commercial success must’ve been a bummer to its investors. The last time John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in a Stephen King adaptation, it produced “1408,” a decent sized hit that was well received. Admittedly, “Cell’s” cast is its best attribute. Samuel L. Jackson steps outside his usual BAMF roles to play a seasonal, relaxed gay man who just happens to be handy with a rifle. I like Isabelle Fuhrman, who panics nicely, as Alice. Wilbur Fitzgerald stays on the right side of likable as Geoff. Stacy Keach shows up for a small role. He mostly delivers some awkward expositions but still maintains that gritty charm. Of the performers, only Cusack seems bored. He spends most of the movie whispering grimly, showing little of the humor or humanity that made his “1408” role memorable.

While King’s novel bent the zombie apocalypse story in some bizarre directions, the movie plays the subgenre’s conventions much straighter. “Cell” partakes in those usual scenes of survivors scrambling around for supplies. The heroes conveniently stumble upon a home hoarding guns and ammo. There’s the expected moments of city-wide chaos, of the mad horde descending on innocent by-standers. There’s even the expected middle of the story sequence of the heroes finding shelter, which quickly turns deadly. Yes, some of the ensemble die and loved ones have to be put down. As dull as “Cell’s” typical zombie movie shenanigans are, its attempts to deviate from the formula are baffling. How the zombies act shift from scene to scene. The climax borders on incoherent, the end landing weakly.

Yeah, “Cell” is pretty lame. It squanders more-or-less all the potential its premise has and doesn’t give a talented cast nearly enough to do. Instead, the movie quickly collapses into goofiness and clichés. By the end, I’m not even sure what was happening, as the story’s attempt at self-mythologizing are more bizarre then interesting. Would Eli Roth’s “Cell” have been better? Maybe not but I bet it would have been a lot less boring. The “Cell” we got instead is destined to rest in Wal-Mart DVD cheap bins, rarely seen and even more rarely enjoyed. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Horror in the Night

After more general thriller stories for the last two episodes, season seven of “Tales from the Crypt” takes a hard swing back into horror. In “Horror in the Night,” a jewelry store robbery goes horribly wrong. The two thieves turn on each other, shooting one another, with Nick surviving. He hides out in a seedy hotel, mending his wound and carrying the briefcase full of diamonds. Inside the hotel, he meets a sexy woman who seems interested in him. Nick, however, is haunted by bizarre visions.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Yes, Nick died in the opening shoot-out and the episode that follows is his dying vision, his subconscious guilt manifesting as an elaborate fantasy. Despite the predictability, “Horror in the Night” still manages to entertain. Russell Mulcahy’s direction is moody, making great use of the flickering lights and the shadowy location. Nick’s graphic hallucinations manages to include several effective images. Such as the pipes bursting with blood. Or Nick’s sex scene with Eliazbeth McGovern’s simmering sexpot, which quickly turns gory and weird. While that ironic ending is easy to predict, “Horror in the Night” throws in a few other twists that makes the situation more personal. That’s what the best “Crypt” episodes were about: Using established story idea and bending them in unexpected, entertaining directions. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Oklahoma Octopus

When this episode of “Lost Tapes” first aired, I thought for sure the show’s producers dreamed up the titular monster themselves. Surely, no one truly believes that a freshwater octopus lurks in the lakes of a land-locked state like Oklahoma? But, nope, the Oklahoma Octopus is a cryptid some say exist. As for the episode itself, “Oklahoma Octopus” follows a group of high school graduates on their last trip together before college starts. One of the boys decides to video tape the day at the beach. After an asshole boyfriend strands the group on a raft in the middle of the lake, an unseen but tentacled creature begins dragging the kids to their deaths.

“Oklahoma Octopus” is one of several “Lost Tapes” that resemble underachieving found footage flicks. (It also resembles “The Raft” segment from “Creepshow II.”) The teens are uninspired characters. The main guy harbors an unrequited crush on the main girl, which he announces to the camera as soon as the episode starts. Some of the kids, such as the aforementioned asshole boyfriend, are obnoxious. The script is repetitive, quickly falling into the pattern of kids leaping off the raft and getting killed. Several of the attacks happen off-screen, characters disappearing in the blink of an eye, which really defuses tension. The episode’s conclusion is underwhelming. The educational segments discuss lake monster legends and attempt to explain how a freshwater octopus could possibly exist. The documentary shots of real octopi manage to be creepier then anything in the actual episode. [4/10]

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