Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 29

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

In the mid-fifties, Ray Harryhausen created a trilogy of black and white sci-fi monster movies for Columbia pictures. The last, and best, of these films is 1957’s “20 Million Miles to Earth.” It’s true that Harryhausen didn’t write or direct any of these films. The concepts, however, were usually his. The producers at Columbia were smart enough to recognize that Harryhausen’s Dynamation creatures were the selling points and built films around his ideas. “20 Million Miles to Earth” appears typical of the time and genre, at first glance. However, a deeper reading reveals a hidden, subversive quality that marks the film as unique.

A peaceful Sicilian fishing village is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a rocket ship, the vessel crashing into the ocean. A trio of brave fishermen enter the smoking craft and pull out two American astronauts, both gravely injured. The U.S. space program’s secret trip to Venus was a failure, most of the crew dying on the planet. The two astronauts aren’t the only Venusian travelers to crash land in Italy. A strange creature is also removed from the ship. Though pocket sized at first, the alien doubles in growth every day. Soon, the visitor has escaped captivity, forcing the military to contain it.

Harryhausen’s previous creature features were standard monster thrillers. The Rhedosaurus was a violent killer. The It that came from beneath the sea rampaged without reason. The invaders of “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers” sought to conquer mankind. The Ymir of “20 Million Miles to Earth,” meanwhile, is not naturally hostile. It’s a stranger in our world, frightened and confused.  The Ymir is a gentle creature that seeks out sulfur, its favorite food stuff, and doesn’t lash out unless attacked. But attacked it is. By angry dogs, men with sticks and pitchforks, flame throwers, helicopters with nets, electric shocks, elephants, tanks and grenade wielding soldiers. If left to its own devices, the Ymir wouldn’t hurt anyone. Humans everywhere meet the creature with hostility, attempting to capture or kill it. The Ymir is a classical monster movie outsider, a misunderstood innocent that is feared by a hateful world.

Ultimately, its central creature is the most interesting thing about “20 Million Miles to Earth.” As originally pitched, the film was set in Chicago. At the last minute, Harryhausen changed the setting to Italy. Why? Because he had never visited Italy and really wanted to go. The finished film features countless ridiculous Italian accents, delivered by clearly American actors. You’ll hear more realistic accents in a Mario game. Aside from the unconvincing speech partners, “20 Million Miles to Earth” features some moderately interesting military heroes. William Hooper’s Col. Calder is a standard sci-fi movie hero. Hooper’s romance with Joan Taylor’s Marisa, the female lead, provides some humanizing moments for both cast members.

Of course, the Ymir is so lovable because of Harryhausen’s brilliant special effects. The Ymir’s design is reptilian without resembling any Earthly creature. It’s movement is fluid and full of personality. Harryhausen incorporates little touches, like a two-pronged tale or biting jaw, that makes the monster seem more alive. The Ymir’s constantly shifting size also provides lots of mayhem. The final act has the creature growing twenty feet tall and rampaging through Rome. It wrestles an elephant, a fight that is quite extended, the audience getting its money worth. The Ymir tears through a bridge, knocks over pillars, and finally dies atop the Coliseum. While the Ymir claims its share of casualties, the audience never looses its sympathy for the monster. (I mean, at one point, the hero rams it with a car for no reason.) So we get our misunderstood monster and lots of city wrecking mayhem.

I guess if you’re not a fan of old school monster effects, “20 Millions Miles to Earth” probably won’t do much for you. Without Harryhausen’s work, it’s likely the film would’ve been entirely forgotten. The script is a standard affair and there’s very little notable about its human cast of characters. With his effects, it becomes a beloved classic among monster kids everywhere. In the immortal words of Please do not poke the Ymir. Having previously reviewed “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” last year, I guess this means I have to review “It Came From Beneath the Sea” next Halloween? [8/10]

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

If United Artists were reluctant to produce a sequel to “Child’s Play,” Universal was perhaps overly eager. After the second film’s success, the studio rushed a third installment into development. “Child’s Play 3” would roll into theaters a staggering nine months after the second film. Series creator and screenwriter Don Manchini has admitted that, by this point, he was out of ideas. The resulting film is clearly a quickie sequel, eager to profit off Chucky’s popularity. While the sequel did okay at the box office, its mostly negative reception – among both critics and fans – would keep the killer doll off screen for seven years.

Eight years has passed since the second film’s events. Rather staggeringly, considering its criminal notoriety by this point, Play Pal Toys has made the decision to resurrect the Good Guys Doll line. In the process, they accidentally sprinkle Chucky’s blood into a vat of plastic and resurrect the spirit of Charles Lee Ray. Andy Barclay, meanwhile, is now a troubled teenager, attending a military school full of assholes. Once again, the killer doll chases down his human arch-enemy, in search of vengeance and a new host body. Soon, Andy is attempting to protect another young boy from Chucky’s wrath.

Don Manchini’s lack of ideas is evident in the military school setting. With nothing else to do, Andy is forced to interact with high school movie stereotypes. There’s the asshole bully, who uses his higher ranking as an excuse to torment outcasts. Andy has a nerdy roommate, who even has asthma and wears glasses. He develops a romance with a sharp shooting female student, the only person who stands up against the bully. There’s even the required abusive teachers, manifesting as a strict head master and an obsessive barber. “Child’s Play 3” is basically “The Lords of Discipline” with a killer doll. Justin Whalin is fine as the teenage Andy but his performance isn’t as lived-in as Alex Vincent’s in part two. Perrey Reeves is likable as his love interest but the rushed script doesn’t leave much room for development.

The script’s sloppiness is most apparent in Chucky’s actions. The killer doll practically lacks a motivation for most of the film. He hunts down Andy out of habit, having no reason to target the boy after part two’s ending. Only after arriving at the military school does Chucky realize he can transfer his soul into a new body. The first two films emphasized the limited time needed to perform the ritual. In part three, Charles screws around a lot, causing chaos and killing people just because it amuses him. That is when he isn’t playing with the overly childish Tyler, a boy who finds nothing alarming about a walking, talking doll. But we’ve still got Brad Dourif. Dourif hams it up, mining hilarity from Chucky’s smart-ass dialogue while never overlooking the killer’s desperation. After being thrice reborn, his first action is to scream in agony, trapped once again in a plastic shell. The viewer is honestly starting to feel bad for Chucky.

Usually you can count on even the weakest of slasher sequels to up the carnage. “Child’s Play 3” has more murders but its gore lacks conviction. Chucky kills one victim just by startling him into a heart attack, a moment so underwhelming even the doll is incredulous. The war game sequences at the end features a shoot-out and a suicide dive onto a grenade. The only memorable murders are a trash truck crushing and a straight razor slashing, even if the characters only exist to up the body count. For its final act, “Child’s Play 3” shifts location to an overly elaborate carnival fun house. The setting is ridiculous, with a big roller coaster, a giant Grim Reaper statue, and no guard rails to protect anyone. Yet Chucky chasing his victims through an atmospheric dark ride definitely provides some entertainment value. If only the rest of the sequel showed that level of campy invention. (Jack Bender’s direction is flashy but easily the weakest of the original trilogy. Chuck Lerios’ score, meanwhile, is seriously overdone.)

Despite its lackluster reputation, “Child’s Play 3” does hold some cultural notoriety. Moral guardian assholes in the U.K. linked the film with the brutal murder of a teenage girl, even though there was no evidence to support a connection. Personally speaking, this is the film in the series to haunted me the most. As a young child, I can vividly recall discovering an ad on the back cover of a “Star Trek” comic. The sight of Chucky’s glaring face startled me so much that I threw the comic behind the couch, refusing to retrieve it. If I’m being totally honest, just seeing the poster is enough to make me uncomfortable. It’s a shame the movie, a rushed sequel that barely justifies its own existence, in no way matches up with that childhood panic. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: About Face

Once again, “Tales from the Crypt” returns to the themes of infidelity, revenge, long lost relatives, and bodily deformities. In “About Face,” a holy man named Jonathan uses his position of power to sexually take advantage of countless young girls. His wife ignores his indiscretions as Jonathan’s writings make them rich. That is until a young woman, Angelica, knocks on their door step, claiming to be the pastor’s daughter. The couple take the girl in. But she isn’t alone. Angelica brings along her facially deformed, emotionally unstable, religiously fanatical twin sister Leah. Homicide, naturally, ensues.

“About Face” doesn’t break new ground, especially when it comes to “Tales from the Crypt.” However, it’s a fun half-hour nevertheless. Anthony Andrews is delightfully sleazy as Jonathan, a man who maintains his piousness despite his uncouth actions. Anna Friel’s dual performance as the sisters is effective, Friel successfully creating two characters. Leah’s make-up is genuinely unnerving, gross but within the realm of plausibility. Combined with Friel’s intense acting, “About Face” features at least two suspenseful sequences. Such as when the deformed sister confronts the pastor’s wife or one of his mistresses. The twist ending is one the show has deployed at least once before, in season five’s “People Who Live in Brass Hearses.” Yet it’s still somewhat shocking, ending the episode on an especially gruesome note. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Thunderbird

Season one of “Lost Tapes” arguably reaches its lowest point with “Thunderbird.” Teenagers Kevin and Paxton steal their parent’s video camera with the hopes of making a skateboarding video, down at a local legend spot called the Ditch. Kevin’s whiny little brother Cole insists on coming along. During the long walk through the park, night falls. Soon, the three boys are pursued by a giant bird, swooping overhead to attack. After Cole is injured, the boys are endangered even more.

Kevin is, thus far, “Lost Tapes’” most unappealing main character. He consistently bullies his little brother, calling him a wimp. After arriving at the Ditch, he pushes Cole off a slope, breaking the kid’s leg. Afterwards, the other two boys abandoned the injured brother, ostensibly to get help. But after walking away, Kevin tries to convince Paxton to abandon his brother entirely. What a little sociopath. Sadly, Cole is kind of annoying, with his high pitched voice and constant whining.

I find it highly unlikely that, after a giant bird attempted to carry one of them off, the kids would continue on their quest to the Ditch. The monster is kept entirely off-screen. We see a shadow, hear a shriek, and the teenagers drop to the ground in fright. This happens at least twice. Annoyingly, the skateboarding scenes are set to fast paced rock music, a bizarre choice given the found footage format. (Naturally, there’s no reason for Kevin to record so much of what happens.) And the ending totally wimps out. The informative segments focus on pseudo-science about thunderbirds, pterosaurs, bird attacks, as well as basic facts about birds of prey and skateboarding injuries. I’m beginning to wonder if marathoning this show will be worth it… [3/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

The Ymir does move so smoothly, it's really an amazing creation. But in the clip you feature with the Ymir vs. the Elephant, the Elephant is even more incredible. We are all familiar with the way a real elephant moves so the fact that Harryhausen created the Elephant model and manipulated its movements is stunning. It really looks like an actual elephant in a few shots.

Most everything other than the Ymir is extremely bland, just as you pointed out. (6/10)