Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 28

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Today, John Carpenter’s 1981 version of “The Thing” is rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. But I’m sure, back in the early eighties, some monster kids were aghast that the 1951 original was being remade. For decades, “The Thing from Another World” was considered one of the great pillars of 1950s sci-fi/horror. Officially credited to Christopher Nyby but usually considered Howard Hawks’ film, the original “Thing” is now somewhat overshadowed by Carpenter’s version. This is unfair to such an influential picture that still manages to scare today.

Loosely adapted from John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?,” the film begins in an Alaskan military outpost. After an alien space craft supposedly crash lands in the Arctic, the team is deployed to investigate. What they find is a massive flying saucer buried under the ice. After accidentally destroying the saucer, the men recover a humanoid figure in a block of ice. They take the being back to base, where it thaws out thanks to an woefully deployed electric blanket. The strange thing, a vegetable life form that drinks human blood, stalks through the base, attacking all who encounter it.

Howard Hawks was a versatile filmmaker, who made great contributions to the crime, comedy, and western genres. “The Thing” was his only horror film. Hawks didn’t adapt to other genres. He brought his style to different types of stories. “The Thing” is filled with grounded characters that trade fast-paced dialogue. My favorite cast member is Douglas Spencer’s Scotty, a reporter that sticks himself into the action and always has a quip up his sleeve. Yet I also like Kenneth Tobey’s Captain Hendry, a no-nonsense hero. He has a charming romance with Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki, the film’s required Hawksian woman. The cast is too large, with many of the characters barely developed, but a few are still likable. The comedic dialogue threatens to drain tension from scenes but the likable cast keeps the far-out story grounded.

“The Thing from Another World” takes a measured approach to horror. Focusing on the old adage that the unseen is scarier, it holds off on revealing the monsters for nearly half its run time. We only see the vague outline of the Thing inside its ice cube. People shoot at the escaping monster. In the distance, we briefly see the Thing brutally tear through the sled dogs. The film successfully builds up a sense of foreboding around its titular threat. Aside from the fleeting glances, it does this by discussing the creature’s habits. It’s a vegetarian being that sucks blood with the pointed barbs extending from its skin. These two styles combine in a notable sequence where the scientist dissect the Thing’s detached arm.

As much as “The Thing from Another World” suggests its horror content, the film also knows when to deploy some shockingly visceral horror. In what must be one of the earliest jump scares in cinema history, the Thing bursts through a door. It swings its barbed hand into the door frame, startling the men and everyone in the audience. Another memorable sequence has the monster slowly closing in on the humans. When it explodes into the room, they set the creature on fire. This doesn’t make the Thing any less dangerous, as it continues to rampage while ablaze. Yes, the Thing’s appearance is somewhat underwhelming. James Arness looks like a greener, thornier Frankenstein. The climax, where the Thing slowly approaches the protagonists’ trap, isn’t as scary as these earlier moments. But those shocks are worth a lot.

“The Thing from Another World” would have an immediate influence on the sci-fi/horror genre. The untrustworthy scientist character, whose willingness to communicate with the monster endangers everyone, would be copied by many lesser films. (It’s pretty easy to read into this, to see post-nuclear anxieties about where science will lead mankind.) The final scene, which has Spencer’s reporter imploring the audience to keep watching the sky, would also be widely imitated. While undeniably slightly hokey to modern eyes – what with its slow pace, stock characters, and talk of giant carrots – “The Thing from Another World” is still astonishingly effective at times. [7/10]

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

The original “Child’s Play” was successful but its release was met with some controversy. Apparently moral guardians feared the film would corrupt the minds of impressionable children. This panic, combined with United Artists being acquired by a horror-averse new owner, had the sequel shifting hands. Eventually Universal Studios, no stranger to monster movies, picked up the sequel. “Child’s Play 2” came out in 1990 to commercial success. The sequel also remains a favorite among the franchise’s fans. A friend considers it his favorite of the Chucky films and he’s not alone in that opinion.

“Child’s Play 2” picks up quickly after the first film’s events. After stories of Andy Barclay and his murderous Good Guy Doll hit the tabloids, the corporation behind the toy suffer serious losses. Their attempts to figure out what happened revives Chucky, who renews his quest to transfer his soul into the boy’s body. Andy’s mother told the truth about the murders and was declared insane. So Andy is now in foster care. The boy attempts to fit in among his new family are fraught by his lingering fears. Which turn out to be well founded, as it’s not long before Chucky finds Andy again and continues to make the boy’s life a living nightmare.

John Lafia has taken over the director’s chair formally occupied by Tom Holland. While Holland’s direction aimed for ominous, Lafia’s is more vibrant. “Child’s Play 2” is characterized by the bright colors of the Good Guys toy factory. Yet Lafia remembers he is making a horror movie. Several scenes generate genuine suspense. Such as Andy being locked in a school room with the killer doll or exploring the basement, taking the fight to Chucky. Or Chucky watching while the innocent toy he replaced is nearly uncovered. Or, my favorite, when Andy’s foster sister explores an empty house, stumbling upon a dead body. That scene, in particular, ends on a hell of a jump scare. “Child’s Play 2” maintains a fun house sense of horror throughout.

But more scares probably weren’t what fans demanded from a “Child’s Play” sequel. They wanted more Chucky. Series creator Don Manchini happily obliged. Part two practically makes the killer doll the protagonist. He’s brought back to life quickly. An early scene has him toying with a bound victim. After a toss down the stairs, his nose bleeds. Brad Dourif’s oddly humanistic approach to the plastic-bound serial killer makes the audience concerned for Chucky’s health! Dourif also sinks his teeth into the multiple one-liners the character is given. There’s an amusing glibness to sarcastic lines like “How it’s hanging?” The villain’s profane freak-outs also make the audience chuckle. He even flicks somebody off in an especially hilarious moment. You totally buy the character’s existence, even when he’s holding victims hostage and bossing people around. The combination of Dourif’s vivid vocal performance and the brilliant special effects makes the killer doll an even more unexpectedly lovable villain.

“Child’s Play 2” also understands the laws of sequel escalation. There’s a higher body count and more elaborate murders. This includes clever deployment of a bicycle pump, a brutal tumble from some stairs, and machinery assisted eye gouging. There’s also your standard throat slittings, stabbings, and electrocutions, though these are less memorable. The film’s carnage peaks during an outrageous final act. A car chase leads to a foot chase through the Good Guys factory. This sequence becomes more ridiculous the longer it goes on. The walls of doll boxes lead on to a surreal factory, where spinning gyros assemble toys amid colorful backgrounds. As in the last film, Chucky takes a beating. He looses a hand, looses both legs, is boiled in molten plastic, and finally has his head exploded with compressed air. “Child’s Play 2” sacrifices suspense for lively set pieces but it’s a trade worth making.

In the years between the first and second film, Alex Vincent has become a better actor. Part two’s Andy is a little more wily, more willing to take the fight to the killer doll. I like it when he picks up an electric carving knife or opens a valve of smoldering plastic. There’s few of the rough, overly cute moments that characterized Vincent’s acting last time. A loaded supporting cast helps. Gerrit Graham is nicely hammy as the asshole foster dad. Jenny Agutter is sweet as the foster mother, very willing to take care of Andy until she’s pushed too far. (Grace Zabriskie is, sadly, wasted in a minor role.) Mostly, I like Christine Elise as Kyle, Andy’s foster sister. She quickly develops a liking for the boy and the two share a nice chemistry. This helps, since the last act is devoted to the two of them fighting off the franchise’s villain.

“Child’s Play 2” is an amusing horror sequel, nearly as much fun as the first. It’s got more elaborate special effects, bigger gore gags, a handful of decent shocks, and an equally endearing cast. Most importantly, it’s got lots more of Chucky’s smarmy shenanigans. The way it directly builds on the first film’s story is also commendable. Six year old me never would’ve guessed that the horror movie villain that frightened me would prove so charming. I’m actually looking forward to watching the rest of this series now. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Smoke Wrings

Part of the fun of watching “Tales from the Crypt” is to see what future stars appeared on the show. Behind Brad Pitt, who featured in season four’s “King of the Road,” Daniel Craig is probably the biggest star to ever show up in the “Crypt.” “Smoke Wrings” stars Craig as an ex-con who worms his way into an advertising firm. His lack of manners irritates Frank, his male co-worker, but charms Jacqueline, his female partner. In truth, Craig has been sent by an embittered ex-partner of Jacqueline for revenge. He carries a gizmo the inventor cooked up, a sound device that can manipulate minds. The situation soon turns deadly.

“Smoke Wrings” is one of those “Tales” devoted to devious people tricking each other. Craig is manipulating the advertising firm. He’s, in turn, being manipulated by the inventor. The end reveals another layer of manipulation. The script admittedly contains a few surprising turns. The mind control technology leads to an amusing sequence where Jacqueline and Frank perform a series of demeaning tasks. The device also leads to the episode’s main horror element, a fantasy sequence where Craig imagines rats crawling over his skin. The cast is a lot of fun, with the future James Bond obviously being the stand-out performer. (Craig is, amusingly, billed fourth.) Ute Lemper and Denis Lawson are also amusing in their sleazy roles. Some lively direction from Mandie Fletcher further cements “Smoke Wrings” as another stand-out season seven episode. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Megaconda

“Lost Tapes” returns to the realm of slightly more plausible cryptids with “Megaconda.” If you hadn’t guessed, this episode’s monster is a big-ass snake. A duo of animal rights activist break into the warehouse of Ken Tobar, a local businessman. They suspect he’s illegally importing exotic animals and exotic animal parts. This suspicion is correct and they document the unlawful goods with their camera. However, Tobar’s latest black market shipment includes an enormous anaconda. The snake slithers forth from its crate, endangering the two activists and the night security guard.

“Megaconda” is one of those “Lost Tapes” were the protagonist should’ve dropped the recording device much sooner then they did. If a giant snake just ate my friend, I’m not lugging a camera around as I flee. The episode is actually okay, mining some average suspense from the cramped warehouse location. I doubt an anaconda this size could move that quickly but the snake attacks lead to at least one decent shock. We actually get an elongated look at the megaconda, thanks to glimpses on the security cams. The cast is mildly likable, especially Steven Littles as the security guard. The ending goes a little over the top, giving the unscrupulous businessman his just desserts. The info-tainment sequences are devoted to facts about anaconda and the black market animal trade, which are less ridiculous then the usual “Lost Tapes” factoids. [6/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

This movie has a lot of atmosphere, perhaps due to the confined living quarters of the outpost. It's got a pretty satisfying finale, too.

My Dad told me once that this movie scared him like no other in his younger days (He's in his 80s now). It really must have because he never went to see movies, much less talked about them. He mentioned the jump scare with the Thing standing behind the door and the scene that the Thing gets torched in. That scene is amazing to me, too. Even today it really holds up.(7/10)