Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 26, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 26

Thinner (1996)

I’m a big fan of the stories Stephen King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. They tend to be leaner and meaner then the work he publishes under his own name. “Thinner” would be the last of the original Bachman books, with the author’s true identity being discovered not long after its release. “Thinner” is, thus far, the only one of Bachman’s stories to adapted to film. Directed by Tom Holland, of “Fright Night” and “Child’s Play” fame, the film would have a troubled production. This, combined with the negative reviews and mediocre box office, would lead to Holland taking a long hiatus from directing. Despite its pedigree, “Thinner” doesn’t have much of a following.

Billy Halleck likes to do things his way. He’s morbidly obese, constantly packing his face with food. He’s a dirty lawyer, who recently won a trial for a mob boss. While driving home from a celebratory dinner, his wife goes down on him. This sufficiently distracts Halleck, causing him to run over an elderly gypsy woman. After his local connections clear him of all charges, the old woman’s even more ancient father curses him. Halleck begins to loose weight, no matter how much he eats. Soon, he’s withering away to nothing. Halleck sets about confronting the gypsy, hoping to reverse the curse before it kills him.

Every single character in “Thinner” is a terrible person. Billy never feels any remorse for killing the old woman. His entire motivation is to avoid responsibility for his crime, eventually violently turning against those punishing him. The judge is blatantly racist against gypsies. The cop has no problem overlooking the circumstances of the death. His wife has an affair with a friend after Billy becomes ill. The mob boss has no qualms about murdering, torturing, or harassing people to achieve his goals. It’s clear what “Thinner” is getting at. This is an E.C. Comics style story, about a bad man getting his suitably ironic comeuppance. (The gypsy curse angle and all the mysticism that comes with it, which the film presents without any subversion or deconstruction, also suits this comic book mood.) While stories like this work fine for half-hour television or short comic books, seeing such a tale stretched to feature length quickly exhausts the audience.

In order to compensate for this, “Thinner” makes some awkward attempts at comedy. Billy is munching on potato chips or rich deserts in nearly every scene. Holland draws so much attention to the snack food name brands, such as Doritos, that it has to be an intentional act. This being a Stephen King adaptation, character often speak in colorfully profane language. The gypsy business is so overheated that it quickly becomes comical. “White Man from Town” is repeated so often that it becomes funny. The film’s bizarre comedic streak peaks during a nightmare sequence. Billy is chased out of a fair by the gypsies, hops into a car driven by his equally mutated friend, and is crushed by two separate vehicles driven by the old man. It’s an odd, off-putting scene, a moment of slapstick violence inserted into a film that often reaches for seriousness.

Fitting the film’s over-the-top tone is its grotesquely ridiculous performances. Robert John Burke, who previously filled Peter Weller’s suit in “RoboCop 3,” plays Halleck. While wearing an unconvincing fat suit, he mumbles in an exaggerated fashion. After the character begins to loose weight, he continues to speak in a weirdly overstated voice. It’s a cartoonish performance. Joe Mantegna is equally overblown as the gangster, gripping and grinning in a goofy manner. Even the supporting parts, like Lucinda Jenney as Halleck’s wife or Kari Wuhrer as a sexy gypsy girl, have a quality slightly outside reality.

For all of “Thinner’s” obvious attempts to be a purposely ridiculous horror/comedy, its tone is the biggest problem. The film is too mean-spirited, too intentionally ugly, to ever be funny. “Thinner” can’t even be enjoyed as a body horror-filled special effects film, as the make-up is often rubbery and unconvincing. Holland spent years developing the film only to have the studio demand a new ending. In the book, Halleck ultimately accepts his actions and pays for his crimes. In the film, he gets away with it, which further confuses the audience. The aspects I most remember about “Thinner” ultimately have little to do with the movie. First off, Michael Jackson’s long form music video “Ghosts” was attached to some of the screening, an odd bit of trivia. Secondly, the line of dialogue “Eat your own pie!” became a running joke with a cousin of mine. Even after re-watching the film, it’s likely this will be all I remember about it. [5/10]

Jug Face (2013)

I first encountered Lauren Ashley Carter thanks to her excellent supporting turn in Lucky McKee’s “The Woman.” I’ve been happy to see her carve out a niche for herself since then, as a frequent leading lady in the indie horror scene. An important leading role for Carter was 2013’s “Jug Face,” which McKee produced. Though it remains obscure even within the horror community, and the somewhat silly sounding title surely didn’t help it any, those who have seen the film praise it. Director Chad Crawford Kinkle presented a unique vision. As I wrap up my look at Southern fried horror, “Jug Face” emerges as a film not quite like any other.

Teenage Ada lives in an isolated community deep in the woods. The families that live there worship the Pit. The Pit, or rather the entity within it, posses a magical ability to heal or protect people. And all it asks for in return are human sacrifices. These sacrifices are chosen when a sculptor receives a vision of a face, which he then molds unto a jug. Ada is already fearful of her parents, due to an unexpected pregnancy. When she becomes the next jug face, she flees her ancestral home. The Pit is pretty pissed off about this.

What most impressed me about “Jug Face,” upon first viewing and now, is the fully formed society Kinkle created. The people who live there have their own weird beliefs, philosophies, and rituals. There are strange dances and old curses, each with specific rules. They pepper their dialogue with odd phrases. Aside from jug faces and the Pit, marriage is called “joining.” Moonshine is abbreviated to “shine.” Those that break the rules become Shunned Ones. The characters have antiquated Southern names, such as Dawai, Jesseby, Loriss, or Sustin. Their clothing is also vintage and homemade, nary a sneaker or brand name in sight. This gives the impression of “Jug Face” being set at some point in the past. Yet the town Ada occasionally journeys too appears relatively modern. The film’s world is self-contained and vividly created, a backwoods cult that is totally believable.

“Jug Face” features no big stars. A-list ejectee Sean Young plays Ada’s mother. Her father is played by indie horror filmmaker and character actor Larry Fessenden. While both give fine performances, the film clearly belongs to Lauren Ashley Carter. With her huge doe eyes, she projects a sense of innocence. Yet Carter also gives Ada an inner strength, as the character subverts the rules in hopes of escaping her fate. She’s a misfit and an outcast even in her own family. She bonds with Dawai, the mentally unstable man who sculpts the jugs. The audience longs to see her succeed. When she accepts her destiny, it’s with grace and maturity. Carter’s powerful presence centers the viewer, which is helpful considering “Jug Face’s” odd story turns.

“Jug Face” refreshingly avoids hick horror clichés, save for one. The father of Ada’s baby is her own brother. Yet by following a strong female lead, threatened on all sides by a constricting society, “Jug Face” presents a rich feminist subtext. The cult of the Pit are controlled totally by strict traditions. Ada is “joined” with another boy in the community, essentially an arranged marriage, and is given no say in the manner. Her mother scrutinizes Ada’s sexual history, when she isn’t burning her with cigarettes. After Ada’s transgressions are revealed, her father whips her brutally. Even Ada’s brother and secret lover has no desire to protect her. Ada’s desire to escape the community shows her eagerness to escape a society ruled by old rules… Rules that show no kindness towards women.

For all its fascinating elements, “Jug Face” doesn’t succeed totally as a horror movie. The story’s supernatural elements, aggravated by a low budget, sometimes come off as hokey. After breaking the pact, Ada sees through the eyes of the Pit’s apparition, an image that graced the poster. The entity attacks people via oddly framed point-of-view shots. Later in the story, a ghostly boy appears, a relatively unnecessary addition. “Jug Face’s” more effective horror stem from its willingness not to spare details about the human form. Such as Ada’s grandfather embarrassing himself on the commode. Or a bloody miscarriage plopping wetly into a bath tub. Or that squirm inducing scene of Sean Young manually checking Carter’s virginity. The grisly remains of the Pit’s victims, their body parts tossed around, is far more effective then the camera shaking at people’s faces.

Flaws and all, “Jug Face” is a very impressive debut. For such a short film, it’s packed with details and interesting story developments. You can imagine a lengthy novel being set in this world, allowing a fuller exploration of the characters and their beliefs. An excellent lead turn from Carter further sells the audience on the strange story and odd title. (Some overseas releases bare the title “The Pit.” This is equally appropriate and more sinister but a bit more generic then “Jug Face.”) Chad Crawford Kinkle has yet to direct another feature film. Hopefully he’ll make a follow-up some day and prevent “Jug Face” from becoming a future entry in my No Encores series. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Kidnapper

I’ll be totally honest. I haven’t recognized most of the actors from “Tales from the Crypt’s” U.K. set final season. But I know Steve Coogan! In “The Kidnapper,” Coogan plays one of the series most pathetic anti-heroes. Daniel Skeggs is a simple-minded pawnshop owner. On a cold Christmas night, a homeless and pregnant young woman enters the store. He takes her in and soon falls in love with the girl. After the baby is born, their relationship changes. He is unprepared to handle the stresses of parenthood while she denies having romantic feelings for him. In hopes of recapturing their earlier bliss, Skeggs has the baby kidnapped by black market crooks. This, as you might expect, causes more problems then it solves.

Providing a wry voice-over, Coogan plays Skeggs as an emotionally stunted man-child. His decisions are motivated by totally selfish reasons. But his immature attitude also prevent him from understanding the consequences of his actions. The episode doesn’t back away from how shitty a human Skeggs is, as he attempts to force himself on the girl at one point. However, Coogan’s performance presents him as a sad, pathetic man, allowing the audience to remain sympathetic. “The Kidnapper” is mostly a character study and is short on horror elements, save for the young mother’s quickly progressing madness. (There’s also a bizarre sequence involving mimes but it’s more comedic then creepy.) The twist ending almost comes off as needlessly cruel but cements “The Kidnapper” as a quasi-tragic story of a foolish man brought down by his own flaws. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Death Raptor

“Death Raptor” isn’t about the dinosaur equivalent of the Grim Reaper. Instead, it’s about Mothman’s English cousin: The Owlman of Cornwall. But Animal Planet wasn’t going to pay for a trip to the British Isles so the Owl Man has relocated to California. Two paranormal experts, who often sell their recordings to television, have been invited to investigate a local church. A seemingly demonic, owl-like creature has been spotted around the bell tower. The investigators bring along the little girl and old woman that the Owl Man seems to be fixating on, which successfully draws out the monster.

“Death Raptor” indulges some of “Lost Tapes’” worst tendencies. About a third of the episode is composed of people screaming and running from the monster, the camera shaking wildly as they go. There’s an unintentionally funny sequence, devoted to our heroes studying the contains of a giant owl pellet. (In a likely steal from “The Blair Witch Project,” human teeth are found inside.) The decision to focus on the little girl and the mentally ill old woman brings unnecessary themes of Indigo children and mass hysteria into the episode. The ending is hugely anticlimactic and the acting is quite bad. This is disappointing as “Death Raptor” has a lot of potential. The gothic church setting could’ve contributed some creepy atmosphere. The single clear shot we get of the Owl Man is effectively spooky. Instead, the episode is mostly composed of magical little kids, a fidgeting camera, and owl screeches. Ow well. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I remember reading Thinner decades ago, probably back in the mid-80s. I know I enjoyed the story quite a bit but never felt the need to see this movie. Turns out it's not too bad. I don't recall the book being humorous in the least but this movie definitely has a dark sense of humor to it. The special effects are rather weak and this looks like yet another Stephen King novel adaptation made on the cheap. But I actually enjoyed it anyway.

Joe Mantegna and Kari Wuhrer both hammed it up and Robert John Burke does a decent job as the cursed lawyer. Much more time could have been spent on his transformation from fat to thin. His quick weight loss never had much of an impact and as Horror movies go, this isn't anywhere near scary, creepy, or anything else related to the genre.

The more I think about it the more the dark humor seems to be the movie's selling point for me. The ending is wicked, even cruel, but without it Thinner wouldn't be anything you'd likely remember.(7/10)