Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 25

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Let’s look back on the early 2000s, when grisly horror movies were suddenly a big deal again. While James Wan and Eli Roth came to prominence in the mainstream, more compelling directors emerged from the independent scene. Such as Tim Sullivan. A buddy of Roth and Adam Green, Sullivan briefly seemed like a viable member of the Splat Pack. He never broke through to the mainstream, as his films were far too crude for that. (Though I remember “Driftwood” being pretty good.) Which brings us to “2001 Maniacs,” a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gore classic and Sullivan’s most popular feature.

Sullivan maintains the general outline of Lewis’ original. A handful of travelers follow a strange detour to the town of Pleasant Valley – clarified as being in Georgia – where they are caught up in the Centennial Jubilee. Of course, the redneck townsfolk actually intend to murder and eat the Northerners, as revenge against the Union Army for massacring the town one hundred years ago. Sullivan otherwise updates the story. There’s eight visitors, instead of six. Instead of vacationing couples and traveling school teachers, the protagonist are horny college students headed towards Florida for spring break. Yet both films are characterized by an irrelevant look at the Civil War and grisly violence.

By shifting the cast in a younger direction, Sullivan sexes up the material considerably. The majority of the characters are preoccupied with getting laid. When the male heroes encounter their female counterparts, both parties immediately express their mutual desire to bone. A montage in the middle of the film is devoted to the characters’ various sexual escapades. This sequence includes gay and lesbian encounters, voyeurism, and even some light S&M. The Pleasant Valley residents aren’t exempt from this air of general horniness either. A girl named Peaches, played by a very attractive Wendy Kremer, speaks almost exclusively in crude double entendres. One of Mayor Buckman’s son constantly expresses his desires to mate with a sheep. A pair of young women can’t keep their hands off each other, even though they’re cousin. Sullivan has essentially turned Lewis’ gore epic into a crude sex comedy. I mean, it’s dumb but fun in its own way.

When not focusing on the character’s lower desires, “2001 Maniacs” occasionally functions as a horror film. Sullivan frequently reprises and revamps some of Lewis’ most famous murder scenes. The drawn and quarter death is more graphic, focusing more on the victim’s suffering. A giant rock is traded out for a large brass bell but the splat is maintained. Sullivan cooks up some twisted deaths himself. Some are effectively ridiculous. Such as two scenes that push good taste, one involving a giant barbecue skewer and the other revolving around a cotton press. Others are just goofy, like a milk jug full of acid. Once or twice, “2001 Maniacs” touches on a genuinely macabre element. Like a blowjob gone horribly wrong or a grisly game of horseshoes. For such a farcical film, it’s weird when “2001 Maniacs” tries to play its story straight. As the story advances, we get more serious scenes of horror, all of them badly jiving with the rest of the film.

“2001 Maniacs” was clearly aiming for the established horror fan crowd. Being a remake of a cult favorite and the outrageous content points towards that. Another indicator is the cast. Lin Shaye, Mrs. New Line herself, has a delightful role as the outwardly friendly old woman who runs the hotel. More pressingly, Robert Englund occupies the part of Mayor Buckman. Sporting a ridiculous Southern accent, Englund hams it up nicely. Peter Stormare and Kane Hodder have cameos. Less immediately recognizable faces include Giuseppe Andrews as a weirdly charming Southern gentleman and Eli Roth, reprising his bit part from “Cabin Fever.” The actors playing the Yankee heroes are less distinguished. Dylan Edrington as nerd Nelson has a few okay bits but everyone else is pretty forgettable.

Disappointingly, Sullivan’s remake also ditches the original’s ambiguity. “2001 Maniacs” seems to think that the Pleasant Valley residents are totally justified in their revenge. You’d think, given the forty year time difference, a remake could’ve addressed the original’s racial and social subtext more directly. It’s super silly and more genuinely dumb then Lewis’ version but “2001 Maniacs” goes down pretty easily in the middle of the night with some liquid imbibements. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the dire sequel, which subbed out Bill Moseley for Englund and was generally far too cheap and dumb. [7/10]

Secret Window (2004)

Recently, I surprised a friend by telling him “Secret Window” was a Stephen King adaptation. That, in turn, surprised me since “Secret Window” is another story about King’s favorite subject. No, not Maine. King’s favorite subject is himself, the frustrated writer, which he’s often explored via fictional surrogates. See also: “The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Dark Half,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Desperation,” “Lisey’s Story,” and that one “Dark Tower” book. “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” featured in the “Four Past Midnight” collection, was adapted by screenwriter turned director David Koepp. Cutting the garden from the title, the film would prove to be a minor hit back in 2004.

Mort Rainey stares down the worst thing an author can ever see: A blank page. Rainey has a lot on his mind. He's in the process of divorcing his wife, Amy, after discovering she was having an affair with another man. His retreat to a lake side cabin is interrupted when a man knocks on his door. Calling himself John Shooter, he claims that Mort plagiarized a story from him. When reading the two stories, Mort is startled by how similar they are. Shooter’s persistent soon turns deadly, as bodies begin to pile up. But all is not what it seems to be.

Before he became a pop culture punchline, famous for trotting out different hats and aggressively eccentric characters to diminished returns, Johnny Depp was a genuinely interesting leading man. “Secret Window” is mostly a showcase for Depp’s talent. He spends large portions of the film talking to himself or projecting his thoughts at a dog. A briefly used voice over sometimes gives the audience insight into Mort’s thoughts and isn’t too intrusive. Mort is slightly grouchy, which is a good starting place for Depp. He builds upon the grumpy writer shtick with some nice physical comedy. Such as when the character stumbles while fleeing a dead body or tries to hide a cigarette from his house keeper. Honestly, if “Secret Window” had just been a one-man show for Depp, playing a blocked writer trying to kill time in an isolated cabin, it probably would’ve been a better movie.

Of course, “Secret Window” isn’t just a showcase for “Secret Window.” John Turturo gets the meaty role of Shooter. Turturo adapts a slightly exaggerated but still believable Mississippi drawl while wearing a suit like a Southern preacher and a ridiculous hat. For the first hour of “Secret Window,” the character does nothing but deliver threats. Turturo manages to summon an unnerving energy, creating a memorable threat if not a fully formed character. John Shooter also leads “Secret Window” to its most obvious horror elements. Such as a dead dog – executed as if in a slasher movie – and a truck occupied by two skewered bodies.

As a screenwriter, David Koepp has written huge blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Spider-Man.” As a director, he previously made ghostly cult classic “Stir of Echoes” and would go on to the likes of “Mortdecai.” It’s clear that Koepp is eager to show off his visual skills. This results in some flashy sequences, such as Mort having a nightmare about dangling over a cliff. Or the camera accenting the angles of Mort’s bookshelf. The direction isn’t the film’s only plea for seriousness. Koepp also lassoed Philip Glass, arty musician and occasional film composers, to do the music. (Or at least some of it. Geoff Zanelli did the rest.) Glass’ score doesn’t touch his iconic work on “Candyman” or “Koyaanisqatsi” but the main theme is kind of pretty and marginally ominous.

At some point, twist endings became mandatory for thrillers. King’s novella had one built in, so “Secret Window” happily obliges genre conventions. The twist might catch an unobservant viewer off-guard but anyone paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The various red herrings, such as Timothy Hutton as the ex-wife’s current boyfriend, are unconvincing. The script keeps harping on Mort’s resentment of his wife and the violent ending of Shooter’s version of the titular story. Yes, the killer and the protagonist are the same person, the result of a split personality. The film reveals this twist in a hamfisted manner, with Depp talking to himself and slipping into a ridiculous accent. The gory ending comes off as slightly mean-spirited but is memorable, if nothing else. (King’s story had a happier, more supernatural ending that the filmmakers ditched. Which was probably the right decision.)

“Secret Window” is ultimately a minor work, much like the story that served as its inspiration. The script is standard stuff, removing King’s musings on the creative mind in favor of traditional thriller exercises. However, the two lead performances are enjoyable, the pacing is snappy, and the scenery is lovely. It seems unlikely that “Secret Window” was designed to linger in the brain for very long. Instead, it’s a mildly compelling bit of horror/thriller fluff that won’t make you roll your eyes, oh, more then two or three times. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Cold War

To talk about “Cold War,” one of season seven’s best episodes, you have to spoil all the twists that make the show fun. So if you’ve never seen this one, you might want to skip this review. “Cold War” follows Ford and Cammy, two petty thieves. After a grocery store stick-up goes awry – some other robbers have already claimed the place – the couple have a big argument back at home. Cammy goes to a bar and meets up with Jimmy Picket, an attractive black man. After bringing the man back to the apartment, Cammy and Ford’s true nature is revealed. They’re ghouls, undead creatures who feast on the flesh of corpses. Jimmy, meanwhile, is a vampire who sees these zombies as beneath him.

“Cold War” is a lot of fun, the episode holding off on revealing the characters’ true nature as long as possible. When the twist comes, it signals a transformation into a highly amusing monster fight. The direction is colorful, a green light often shining on Jimmy’s eyes after he shows his fangs. The script is full of colorfully profane dialogue. Like “Kiss my zombie ass!” Or “Fight’s over, Count Chocula!” Boosting an already amusing story is a fun cast. Ewan McGregor and Jane Horrocks have great chemistry together, the two happily playing up the characters’ love/hate relationship. (Horrocks spends the entire episode in corsets, leather mini-skirts, and stockings which is nice too.) Colin Salmon gets to go gleefully over the top as Jimmy, especially once his true nature is revealed. The final image throws in some gruesome make-up effects too. In other words, “Cold War” is classic “Crypt.” [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Dragon

“Devil Dragon” features one of “Lost Tapes’” more mundane monsters: The Megalania, a twenty foot long monitor lizard that actually exists in the fossil record. Unsubstantiated rumors suggests the species may survive into the modern day. “Devil Dragon” also has one of the series’ better premises. The star of a “Survivor Man” style reality show is dropped into the Australian rain forest alone, with nothing but a backpack and a camera. While delivering practiced banter to the camera, he’s bitten by the unseen predator. Over the next day, he’s stalked by the giant reptile while growing sick from the festering bacteria in the bite wound.

By focusing on a reality show host, “Devil Dragon’s” script provides a genuine reason for its main character to record everything and constantly talk to himself. (Though you’d assume that, while running for his life, he’d toss the damn thing.) The actor playing Tim Akrin – IMDb doesn’t provide a cast list – is charismatic enough. Akrin repeatedly flubs his lines, forcing himself to re-shoot several moments. He lies directly to the camera before admitting the truth in asides. After getting bitten, his physical health degrades quickly which adds a grounded, human element to the story. There’s few of the silly moments that characterize other “Lost Tapes” episodes… Aside from the monster remaining entirely off-screen. It’s hard to imagine a giant lizard being that good at hiding itself, even in a heavily forested area. [7/10]

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