Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 10, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 10

The Neon Demon (2016)

I took a long road to being a fan of Nicholas Winding Refn. “Drive” was fine but I didn’t get the overwhelming hype for it. Refn’s far more polarizing follow-up, “Only God Forgives,” really impressed me though. Seems like I like my Refn to be brightly lit and confrontational. So when “The Neon Demon” was announced – a femme-focused horror film inspired by Argento – I got hyped. Enough that I listed it as my most anticipated film of the year. “The Neon Demon,” typically, opened to divisive reviews. Some loved it, some called it sexist, many claimed it was all style and no substance. But forget all of that because I declare “The Neon Demon” to be rad.

Jesse, a pretty teenage girl, comes to L.A. with hopes of becoming a model. Her pure beauty immediately draws the attention of agency and photographers. Everyone wants to possess her good looks. Her make-up artist friend, Ruby, harbors romantic feelings for her. Her landlord crudely hits on her. Directors and photographers all want to take her picture. Eventually, the other models she encounters take drastic measures to obtain the natural talent Jesse has.

Nicholas Winding Refn doesn’t do subtle. “The Neon Demon” makes its point about the aesthetics obsessed world of modeling very clear. Elle Fanning’s Jesse starts out as a good person. She’s a bit naïve. When a photographer asks her to disrobe, she thinks nothing of it, even though he’s a grown man and she’s sixteen years old. She claims that she has no talents of her own, aside from her prettiness. Fanning intentionally plays the part somewhat blankly, to reinforce this. However, she’s nice, quiet, and makes friends easily. All of that changes quickly. People constantly praise her for her beauty. A tense dinner conversation between a fashion director and Jesse’s pseudo-boyfriend reinforces the girl’s belief that beauty – fleeting, youthful beauty – is the only thing that matters. By the film’s halfway point, Jesse has become a hateful, self-obsessed, shallow person, believing herself to be innately better then everyone else. She absorbs the vile philosophies of the fashion world.

In other words: “The Neon Demon” is a monster movie and the monster is our image obsessed culture. All of Jesse’s fellow models are wracked with insecurities and anxieties but unable to show them, least their perfect veneers crack. Bella Heathcote’s Gigi admits in several scene how much plastic surgery she’s had, in order to achieve an unattainable ideal of beauty. Later, a casting director uses her as an inferior example, compared to Jesse’s innate grace, humiliating the girl. Abbey Lee’s Sarah mutilates herself after Jesse is chosen over her. Keanu Reeves’ Hank, the landlord, is so obsessed with youth and beauty that it’s heavily implied he rapes another young tenant. Everybody wants Jesse or, at least, the standards she represents. This industry will consume and destroy those it desires, a point Refn eventually makes very literal. Those that call the film sexist seem to ignore how obviously critical it is of the shallow world it takes place in.

Then again, for all the criticism Refn lobs at the fashion industry, “The Neon Demon” is an awfully pretty movie. For long stretches of time, Refn totally abandons narrative in favor of burning visuals. A visit to a night club is framed by strobing red lights, the characters barely visible in the flashing illumination. A modeling gig for Jesse transforms into a surreal series of images, the girl walking through a glowing red triangle and kissing her own reflection. Even regular scenes are bathed in the titular neon colors. A backstage discussion is lit by cruelly blue bulbs. Refn packs the film with not easily understood symbols. A cougar appears in Jesse’s bedroom early on. Flashing triangles are a reoccurring image, usually in red or blue. The director pushes his style as far as it can go, creating a nightmare netherworld of pastel colors and blinking lights.

“The Neon Demon” is a horror film but not of the typical variety. Gore hounds will have to wait. Within the story’s deliberately symmetrical, shiny world, Refn introduces images of grotesque violence. Ruby has a day job as a mortician. (The director draws a direct parallel between the appearances of the models and the corpses, which is another symbolic move worth chewing on.) After Jesse rejects her romantic advances, Ruby performs an explicit act of necrophilia. Later, the film explodes into violence. The legend of Count Bathory is referenced, as the models bath in the blood of virgins. The climax involves dry heaves, disembowelment, and an errant eyeball. Yet even the most graphic acts are shot in the same deliberate, artistic style as the rest of the film. A shot of a woman voiding her bladder on the floor becomes a study in shape, movement, light and color. The extreme images contrast with the attractive surface, showing ugliness lurking beneath beauty.

It’s hard to get a grip on performances in a film like this. There’s a conscious artificial element. Fanning, Heathcote, and Lee give intentionally thin personalities. Jean Malone or Reeves are raw nerves, ugly and emotional in a way the other cast members can’t be. (Sadly, Christina Hendricks only has a small part.) “The Neon Demon” is typically challenging and will probably bore, annoy, or anger some people. I, for one, am on its wavelength. It’s piercing images, biting satire, and sickening gore make an appealing mixture. I mean, how can I not love a film with a gorgeously pulsating synth score like this one? [9/10]

Neon Maniacs (1986)

Now a neon movie of a decidedly different type. Once upon a time – that faraway land of the mid-2000s – a high school friend and I would rent bad movies with the express purpose of mocking them. Essentially, we were playing “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” except with fewer puppets and zero funny jokes. Anyway, “Neon Maniacs” was a film chosen for such a purpose. From what I remember, the movie was boring, bizarre, and strangely juvenile. Revisiting “Neon Maniacs” for the first time in a decade, these adjectives still suit the film, which is one of the more off-beat eighties creature features/slasher hybrids that I’ve ever seen.

From a doorway underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the Neon Maniacs emerge. They stalk San Francisco, searching for victims. The maniacs massacre a teenage party, with Natalie being the sole survivor. The next morning, no one believes her wild story about a group of monsters killing her friends. The only solace she finds is with Steven, a guy who likes her, and Donna, a horror movie obsessed teenage girl who lives near-by. The Neon Maniacs return to pursue Natalie, determined to finish the job they started. Soon, the monster attack the school dance.

What’s most memorable about “Neon Maniacs” is the film’s staunch refusal to make any sense. No attempt is made to explain where the Neon Maniacs come from. Their objectives, motivations, and origins remain a complete mystery. The opening narration suggests they may be demonic in nature, sent to punish the lusty teens of the world. That’s about it. The Maniacs have a weakness against water, which causes them to melt into gooey slime. Despite this, their base of operation is located under the Golden Gate Bridge. Which is, you know, near water. The Maniacs appear and disappear on a whim, their ranks constantly shifting. One of the film’s earliest scenes has a homeless man, the Maniacs’ first victim, discovering what appears to be Neon Maniacs trading cards. It’s all pretty odd and deeply senseless.

“Neon Maniacs” was the debut screenwriting gig of Mark Patrick Carducci, who later co-wrote “Pumpkinhead.” If that movie introduced one cool monster, “Neon Maniacs” attempts to introduce a dozen. The Maniacs are defined by singular, odd gimmicks. Among their professions are: Ape, archer, hangman, Indian, lumberjack, punk rocker, samurai, slasher, soldier and surgeon. One can shoot electricity and some others wield meat hooks. They are easily understood stereotypes that function within a group. Which essentially makes them the trash horror equivalents of the Village People. The make-up is all very simple, mostly composed of simple appliances and blue face paint. None of the Maniacs have any personality. Their ranks vary from scene to scene, the film not bothering to keep track of all twelve. Most of them just hang around, not contributing much to the story.

Some elements of “Neon Maniacs” suggests the movie is supposed to be funny. The battle of the band sequence is so extended, the music so ridiculous, that the audience laughs. The Maniacs play around with a turnstile or the controls of a subway train. The teen girl horror nerd is a very silly character, played by an adult woman but acting like a young child. The climax has the heroes blasting the Maniacs with squirt guns. Yet a lot of “Neon Maniacs” is seemingly played straight. The chase through the subway car attempts to build suspense. There’s extended moments of gore, such as the surgeon Maniac cutting up a bound victim. Or the soldier Maniac opening fire on the school dance. (Which, quite unintentionally, brings to mind modern day mass shootings.) “Neon Maniacs” strikes me as a serious horror film that is just so silly at times, it becomes funny. It’s not quite unintentional but not quite intentional either.

“Neon Manaics” is memorable for being so senseless, so arbitrary. The film feels like it was written by a child, hyped up on sugar and eighties slasher flicks. The writer seemingly throws around ideas he thought were neat without bothering to make sure the audience understands. That weirdness is occasionally inspired but is mostly just tedious. (There’s also nothing especially neon about it, aside from the eighties fashion sense.) At the same time, I can’t totally dislike a film this singularly strange. There’s truly no other movie like it, which is definitely a good thing, but does give the film some value. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Jenifer

Dario Argento is one of my favorite Masters of Horror, even if he hasn’t directed a truly good film in twenty years. “Jenifer” isn’t quite good either. Detective Frank Spivey spots a deranged man attempting to murder a young woman. Spivey shoots him dead before he can deliver the killing blow. The girl, named Jenifer, has a curvaceous body but a hideously deformed face. With nowhere else to go, Frank takes the girl into his home. He develops a strange, sexual fascination with Jenifer. Unfortunately, Jenifer also has an unearthly hunger for raw flesh, eating animals and children. Soon, Frank is constantly on the run, unable to give Jenifer up but horrified by her actions.

The moral of “Jenifer?” Never help people. The episode features a few Argento trademarks. There are several creative camera angles, Argento prowling around a parked car or empty room. Claudio Simonetti contributes a score, featuring spooky child-like chanting. “Jenifer,” however, is never scary. Some element actually point towards humor. Spivey’s wife and stepson’s reactions to Jenifer are comically exaggerated. After eating the family cat, Jenifer smiles and happily shows Frank the feline’s intestines. Steven Weber – who also wrote the episode – gives a silly, melodramatic performance. Yet the gore is so extreme it sucks away the humor. Jenifer tears out and swallows people’s guts, including the little girl next door. The sex, meanwhile, is frequent and highly choreographed. Argento lingers on actress Carrie Anne Fleming’s naked body. The script is repetitive though the ironic ending is effective. There’s some interesting stuff in the episode and I sort of get what Dario and Weber were going for. Ultimately, “Jenifer” is too uneven to work. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Death Crawler

Centipedes are terrifying with no exaggeration so the idea of six foot long centipedes are deeply unnerving. “Death Crawler” follows Karen, an entomologists, and her husband, Jonah. Their summer vacation is interrupted when their boat breaks down on an uninhabited island. While documenting the local insect life, Karen comes upon human remains. Jonah, soon afterwards, is bitten by what he claims is an enormous centipede. Karen doesn’t believe him at first but soon discovers the island is crawling with six foot long, highly venomous centipedes. As her husband gets sicker, Karen is forced to explore the island.

“Death Crawler” features the scariest of any of “Lost Tapes” monsters. Like I said, centipedes scare the shit out of me. Truly enormous ones seem more plausible then most cryptozoological claims. The effects utilize to bring the big bugs to life are crude but effective. A shot of the centipedes crawling over the couples’ tent, illustrated via shadow and revealed by lightning strike, is very creepy. The actress playing Karen, Jodi Fleisher, shows a strong will to survive while panicking well. The night time, island setting is eerie, as is the recovered footage within the episode. The documentary scenes are mostly devoted to centipede facts, one of the rare examples of those segments making “Lost Tapes” creepier. The premise – a deserted island inhabited by giant, poisonous centipedes – could actually be expanded into a feature film, even if the found footage gimmick is disposable. Maybe it’s just because I fucking hate these many-legged hellspawn but “Death Crawler” has got to be one of the best “Lost Tapes.” [7/10]

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