Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 27

Child’s Play (1988)

This one and I have some history. As an incredibly timid, easily frightened small child, I caught a commercial or advertisement for “Child’s Play” or one of its sequels. It traumatized me. The idea of something as innocent and harmless as a child’s doll, not unlike any of the ones I owned, becoming murderous was deeply upsetting to me. I had nightmares about Chucky. I lost sleep over it. For years, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the VHS box. Even as an adult, the character sometimes makes me uneasy. Of course, as a horror fan, I’m aware of Chucky’s passionate fan following and the many sequels this first film would spawn. It’s way past time for me to face this particular fear.

There’s only one thing Andy Barclay wants for his birthday: A Good Guy Doll, a doll that talks, smiles, and promises to be your best friend forever. Andy’s mom Karen has to support the household by herself and can’t quite afford the pricey toy. So when a creepy homeless guy offers to sell her the doll at a discounted price, she leaps at the offer. The doll is named Chucky and Andy carries him everywhere. Not long after Chucky comes home, strange murders begin to occur around him. Karen fears her son is mentally ill. The truth is much stranger. Chucky is possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray, the notorious Lakeshore Strangler.

As a kid, Chucky obviously scared the shit out of me. But as an adult I can see the seams in the special effects, which makes the psychotic doll far less frightening. The elaborate puppetry is clever, even if you can clearly see how the director shot around the wires spooling out of the prop’s back. However, the times the character is played by a child actor in a cumbersome costume are quite apparent. Brad Dourif, who has made a career out of playing psychos and scumbags, brings that same nervous intensity to his vocal performance here. Yet for all of Chucky’s murders and quips, Dourif also grants a sweaty desperation to the character. Charles Lee Ray is a sick fuck but he’s eager to regain his literal, if not moral, humanity. He also has a sense of humor, being overjoyed at the possibility of possessing a young boy. So is he still scary? Startling, maybe. But not exactly terrifying.

Truthfully, “Child’s Play” can be quite funny. Director Tom Holland similarly combined comedy and thrills in his previous film, “Fright Night.” The film is good at generating tension. The build-up to the first two attacks is drawn out. For that matter, Chucky’s supernatural nature is kept off-screen for a while. When the carnage comes, it can be graphic. Using voodoo, a man’s limbs are twisted around, cracking painfully. Another character’s brain is fried with a shock treatment machine. One of the best scenes has the doll attacking the cop in the car, stabbing through the driver’s seat. Holland mines some tension from the cramped location and the escalating chaos. Yet the way Chris Sarandon dodges the blade is also kind of funny. Often, the film acknowledges how unlikely it is that a doll could take down grown men. Though less overtly funny then “Fright Night,” “Child’s Play” shows that Holland has always measured horror and humor.

“Child’s Play’s” mystery format and fancy special effects are good at disguising its basic structure as a slasher movie, a film built around gory death scenes. What most elevates the movie is its cast. Catherine Hicks plays Karen Barclay. She’s a single mom who works long hours at a low paying job just to keep the lights on. Which means she can’t afford to get Andy the Good Guys Doll he wants so badly. Hicks shows a genuine maternal love for Andy and an endearing vulnerability. After playing the bad guy in Holland’s “Fright Night,” Chris Sarandon reappears as the film’s hero. Despite the odd Chicago accent Sarandon adapts to play Detective Norris, he’s likable as someone who is incredulous at first but quickly begins to believe Karen. The only major cast member to falter is Alex Vincent as Andy. His delivery is often flat and his dialogue can be overly cutesy.

Screenwriter Don Mancini originally envisioned the film as a satire of how children are affected by toy marketing. Mancini’s script would be heavily re-written but this intent is still noticeable. The Good Guy Doll combines several eighties toy fads. He’s visually patterned after My Buddy, has Teddy Ruxpin’s gimmick, and causes a Cabbage Patch Kids like shopping frenzy. Naturally, there’s an accompanying cartoon show. Andy is so familiar with the series that he can recognize episodes immediately. He wears the tie-in pajamas and eats the breakfast cereal. Yet the mountain of merchandise isn’t what truly captivates Andy. It’s the doll’s promise to be his friend, to enliven his lonely existence, that captures his attention. “Child’s Play” toys with the idea that Andy might actually be committing the murders. Even after the truth is revealed, there’s the creeping suspicion that the spirit of consumerism has corrupted little Andy’s poor brain.

“Child’s Play’s” last act goes gloriously over-the-top, Chucky suffering more injuries and refusing to die. It’s a good example of the sometimes manic energy the movie summons, which is utilized for both laughs and horror. Kid-me probably would still be horrified by the film but adult-me enjoyed himself thoroughly. I’m not going to rush out and buy any of the countless Chucky action figures but I think I’ve successfully conquered my childhood fear of this movie. [7/10]

The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)

“The Hideous Sun Demon” is a late fifties monster movie with an interesting back story. Star Robert Clarke previously appeared in “The Astonishing She-Monster.” Clarke’s deal guaranteed him a percentage of the gross. Despite that movie being awful, it was successful enough to earn Clarke a pretty penny. Deciding he could do better, he conceptualized “The Hideous Sun Demon.” In addition to starring and working on the script, Clarke also co-direct with Tom Boutross. The funds were raised totally independently. The movie was shot on weekends with a crew composed of film students. The distributor who picked up “Sun Demon” went bankrupt not long after its release, meaning Clarke didn’t see a dollar from the flick. In time, though, the creature feature would develop a cult following.

Something has gone wrong with Dr. Gilbert McKenna. During a routine experiment, McKenna is exposed to radiation from a newly discovered isotope. As a result, McKenna develops a horrifying mutation. Whenever he’s exposed to sunlight, he slides backwards on mankind’s evolutionary chart, transforming into a scaly, reptilian monster. Instead of moving to Las Vegas and only going out at night, McKenna desperately searches for a cure to his condition. Along the way, he befriends a voluptuous bar room singer. However, he can only keep the Sun Demon at bay for so long.

You can tell “The Hideous Sun Demon” was produced near the decade’s end. The film is far seedier then you’d expect from a fifties monster movie. Gilbert McKenna resembles the stout-chinned scientist hero of countless 1950s sci-fi flicks. However, he’s incredibly flawed, drinking too much and often making mistakes. He nearly commits suicide in one scene. In a bar, he meets Nan Petersen’s Trudy, a lounge singer. Petersen’s acting is quite bad but her low cut neckline is unforgettable. She even spends part of the film wearing only a towel, after she falls in the water during a beach side romp. The film consistently implies that Gil and Trudy are sleeping together. Aside from the sexiness, the monster scenes feature more violence then you’d expect. The Sun Demon squeezes the blood out of a rat. He crushes a dog with a large rock, albeit off-screen. He batters a cop to death with his claws. The film is a bit sexier and gorier then you might expect.

Don’t get the wrong idea though. “The Hideous Sun Demon” is still an incredibly goofy B-movie. The science behind McKenna’s transformation is dubious, based on the long discredited idea that fetuses advance through all the evolutionary stages in the womb. There are several scenes of stately authority figures explaining the science. How exactly the sunlight triggers his transformation isn’t expounded on. Since the script demands McKenna hulk out, he’s constantly put into sunlit scenarios. Throughout his adventures, he befriends a little girl while hiding out in a barn, a very silly story turn. The monster design is pretty cool. However, the long scenes of the Sun Demon wandering around in a button-down shirt and pants prove comical. (It doesn’t help that the Demon’s chest looks a bit like a scaly shirt too.)

Once you get down to it, “The Hideous Sun Demon” is essentially a backwards werewolf story. Instead of the moon transforming the hero into a monster, the sun does. Just as werewolf movies often contain subtext about man’s inner beast, something interesting hides inside “Sun Demon.” After awaking in his hospital, Gil asks the nurse for a drink. After escaping, he spends a lot of time in bars. His beach-side date with Trudy features plenty of booze. After a monstrous rampage, he hides in the basement of his virtuous love interest’s home. He begs her to help him, to provide a cure for his condition. Yet when that help comes, the cure proves too slow for Gil. He can’t control the disease inside him. Soon afterwards, “Sun Demon” ditches the subtext in favor of monster movie theatrics. But it certainly makes the movie a little more interesting.

“The Hideous Sun Demon” has been poorly reviewed over the years. It’s undeniably slow in spots, cheaply produced, and poorly acted. While Boutross would direct some television, this is Clarke’s sole directorial credit. (To think, I could’ve gotten a No Encore article out of this.) Despite this, “The Hideous Sun Demon” has some passionate fans. There have been numerous model kits. Fans would cobble together an unofficial sequel in 1965 with “Wrath of the Sun Demon.” In 1983, a humorous re-dubbing of the film would appear, alternatively known as either “What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon?” or “Revenge of the Sun Demon.” I’ve seen that one too and it’s pretty lame, despite an early starring role for Jay Leno. I’d suggest the story as a candidate for a remake but I can’t imagine the film being taken very seriously in today’s world. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Report from the Grave

“Tales from the Crypt” has often concerned itself with stories about communicating with the dead. The show returns to this subject with “Report from the Grave.” Young scientist Elliot has created a device that can read the thoughts of the deceased. For some reason, he tests this equipment on the corpse of a serial killer named Valdemar Tymrak. An accident happens and Elliot’s girlfriend Arianne ends up dead. A year later, he’s become obsessed with bringing her back. He succeeds but at the terrible price of pulling Tymrak’s psychotic spirit into our world. Soon, Elliot is faced with the hard decision of choosing his girlfriend or protecting his life.

“Report from the Grave” was directed by William Malone, who previously made season six high-light “Only Skin Deep.” Occasionally, Malone cooks up a memorable image, like a laboratory fading into a bedroom. Otherwise, Malone’s directorial sense is seriously overdone. The director obviously saw “Jacob’s Ladder” in-between his two episodes. More then once, the ghosts in “Report from the Grave” twitch their heads around spasmodically, a really annoying visual quirk the episode returns to often. The episode’s tone is unusually dark for “Tales from the Crypt,” lacking the gory absurdity and sarcastic wit you associate with the series. Instead, it’s dead serious, attempting to scare the audience with its overdone visual tricks. Further complicating things is James Frain, who plays Elliot as a huge asshole for no reason. Overly maudlin and obnoxiously directed, “Report from the Grave” is one of season seven’s low points. [4/10]

Lost Tapes: Cave Demons

Inspired by stories of the Vietnamese Night Flyers, “Lost Tapes” shifts that infamous incident into a more modern setting. We’re talking Afghanistan, circa the year 2002. The U.S. military’s search through the Tora Bora cave system encounters a snag. Something is blocking radio signals deep inside the caverns. Three marines are sent in to investigate. Their helmets are outfitted with video cameras, providing the “Tapes” half of the series’ title. Once inside the cave, they discover what’s messing with their radios. It’s a collection of giant bat-like creatures with humanoid features… Who are very defensive of their territory.

“Cave Demons” was very nearly was a good episode of “Lost Tapes.” It has a solid premise and even an understandable reasoning for why these events were recorded. There’s one sequence that comes close to generating suspense. While the men run through the caves, their radar shows a number of unidentified predators closing in on them. The potential suspense from that sequence, however, is undermined by the cheesy computer graphics. Which is but one problem with this episode. The acting from the three main characters are cartoonish. This is one of the most poorly shot episodes of the series. Combining shaky, found-footage style photography with an overly dark setting does not make for very many clear visuals. Lastly, the cave setting feels very small, as the soldiers spend most of the episode protecting an injured comrade. This is overlooking the script’s obvious debt to “Aliens” and “The Descent." The informative segments feature standard facts about bats, the Tora Bora caves, and some highly dubious discussion about bat-like cryptids, of which many are said to exist. [5/10]

No comments: