Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 12

The City of the Dead (1960)

Ever see a movie that you feel like you should love but, for some reason, it just doesn’t quite click with you? Say hello to “The City of the Dead.” The story is set in America but was produced by an entirely British cast and crew, the people who would soon form Amicus Productions. The film is a good example of the transitions the horror genre was going through in the early sixties. Though deeply indebted to the gothic ghost stories that came before, “The City of the Dead” is actually an early example of the devil worshiper movies that would become more popular later in the decades. Though its public domain status makes the film widely available, it’s not quite well known or high regarded enough to be considered a classic.

Two hundred years ago in the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, the witch Elizabeth Selwyn was burnt at the stake by the Puritan townsfolk. With her dying breaths, she pleaded to the dark lord Satan, granted immortality in exchange for virgin sacrifices. In the modern day, this story is told as just a legend. Student Nan Barlow, writing a term paper about witchcraft, travels to Whitewood for research. Soon, after arriving in Whitewood, Nan vanishes. Her brother Richard follows after her, discovering that Elizabeth Selwyn and her curse aren’t a legend after all.

“The City of the Dead” may feature the platonic idea of  black and white horror atmosphere. Whitewood is always shrouded in fog, a thick layer constantly floating around everyone’s feet. The buildings are dilapidated, many boarded up. A spooky road sign – one of the wooden ones I thought only existed in old cartoons – points the way towards town. Deep shadows characterize the entire film, everyone existing in shades of black or grey. The cellar underneath the inn is thick with spiderwebs. Yes, there’s an ancient cemetery. My favorite scenes in “City of the Dead” are some of the least narratively important. Those that drive towards Whitewood find a man on the side of the road. After picking him up, he talks about Whitewood’s checkered past. Upon arriving in town, he disappears. Yep, “City of the Dead” inserts the old Vanishing Hitchhiker legend periodically into its narrative, solidifying its status as an old school horror story.

So I love how “The City of the Dead” looks. I would happily frame any of its still and hang them on my wall. Sadly, there’s not very much compelling about the film’s story or characters. Venetia Stevenson’s Nan appears to be the story’s main character for its first half. She winds up sacrificed by the Satanists mid-way through, shifting protagonists duties to her brother. Sadly, Dennis Lotis’ Richard is dull as dishwater. (I’d suspect killing the main character off early was a “Psycho” reference if the two films didn’t come out the same year.) The plot is very easy to predict. The witches essentially do the things they promise they’ll do, the sacrifices being heavily foreshadowed. Characters wander around, trying to figure out things the audience already knows. The one nice girl in Whitewood might as well have “virgin sacrifice” written on her forehead. A cast member that is obviously evil is revealed as such.

Despite the standard script and forgettable characters, “The City of the Dead” does have some memorable sequences. Nan spots black hooded cultists gathering in a cemetery after dark. A very good moment has the girl descending into the cobweb strewn cellar, grabbed by the witches and pinned to a slab. A mute girl is found dead in the same tunnels, seemingly frightened to death but unable to scream. A dead bird is used as a bad omen, even if that reveals too much too soon. The climax to “The City of the Dead” is its most bizarre moment. A hero breaks up a Satantic sacrifice. By waving a giant stone cross around, he calls down the wrath of god, causing the devil worshipers to burst into flames. At the very least, that’s a more direct resolution then I was expecting.

I don’t ask a lot from my horror movies and sometimes formula can be comforting. The characters and story of “The City of the Dead” just didn’t ring with me. Which is a shame, since the visuals are incredible. When brought to America, the title was changed to “Horror Hotel” for some reason and some of the more explicitly Satan-y dialogue was cut out. The film obviously has a cult following among various heavy metal bands. Iron Maiden used clips in their “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter” music video and Rob Zombie sampled the dialogue in “Dragula,” just for the more well known examples. Muting the flick and putting on some devil rock might be the idea way to watch “City of the Dead,” a feast for classic horror fans’ eyes with a forgettable script. [6/10]

Paperhouse (1988)

It’s always seemed to me that Bernard Rose deserved a better career then the one he has. You’d think that, after making a critically beloved and commercially successful film like “Candyman,” Rose would’ve become a well known director. He’s made a few notable movies since then – a Beethoven biopic, several Tolstoy adaptations – but most of his subsequent entries in the horror genre have been poorly received. Before making that famous Clive Barker adaptation, Rose made an earlier horror film… Sort of. “Paperhouse” isn’t quite a surreal horror film and isn’t quite a children’s fantasy flick but a tantalizing halfway point between both.

While sitting bored in school, 11 year old Anna absentmindedly doodles a drawing of a house. Later that day, she collapses. Diagnosed with a glandular inflammation, Anna is instructed to stay in bed. During the day, she adds to the drawing of the house. At night, in dreams, she visits the changing home. In the house, she meets Marc, a boy unable to walk. Soon, Anna learns that Marc is a real boy with a muscular illness. As the two meet every night, Anna’s attempts to change her dream world for the better sometimes produces frightening results.

“Paperhouse” captures a dreamy tone with its eerie production design. The titular structure is slate grey, leaning sideways, standing among a barren field. The interior of the house features strangely slanted angles and stairways. Yet other strange flourishes characterizes “Paperhouse’s” surreal environment. Anna attempts to draw Marc working legs. Instead, useless clay legs appear in the stairway. She draws an ice cream machine but forgets to draw cones to eat the dessert with. She draws a radio but it's large and childish. Most intriguingly, the dreams and the waking world overlap in interesting ways. While a paramedic performs CPR on Anna, a monster in her dream pounds on her chest. The blaring of a clock radio echoes throughout the house. When carried into a hospital, Anna floats dreamily up the staircase of the paperhouse. Little touches like these make “Paperhouse’s” dream world seem appropriate unreal.

Anna’s life in the Paperhouse reflect her fears and desires. She slowly develops romantic feelings for Marc, the literal boy of her dreams. The romance develops naturally, as the two youths are initially somewhat critical of each other. An early reference to “snogging” becomes relevant later as the two kiss for the first time. Yet the house isn’t a retreat from reality either. The adolescent mind can also be a scary place. Anna’s father is an alcoholic who is rarely home. She draws him into the house but, in a rage, scratches out his eyes. Thus, the dream version of Anna’s father becomes a blind, violent monster. The girl’s youthful resentment of her father manifests as a horror movie, an atmospheric sequence of a hammer wielding madman stalking Anna and Marc. The resolution to this scene – tearing her dad out of the drawing – plays out as frighteningly literal. “Paperhouse” shows how intense an eleven year old’s mind can be.

The technical aspects of “Paperhouse” are impressive. Bernard Rose’s direction is frequently gorgeous. The shadowy shots of the nightmare version of Anna’s father descending down a hill are deeply creepy. Anna’s first venture into the dream world positively recalls Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is equal parts foreboding and enchanting, one of the divisive composer’s best soundtrack. Mostly, it’s the young cast that shines in “Paperhouse.” The film is the sole screen credit of Charlotte Burke, whose Anna is insensitive, bratty, wounded, inquisitive, emotional, and ultimately brave. Elliot Spiers, who died suddenly while “Paperhouse” was awaiting release, gives a similarly nuanced performance as Marc.

While the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s still a creeping sense that things could easily go wrong throughout most of “Paperhouse.” Which is appropriate, I suppose, considering how easily dreams can become nightmares. Considering the dark and strange places the film goes, it might be surprising to read that “Paperhouse” was adapted from a children’s novel. “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr was previously adapted as a BBC serial called “Escape into Night” which was, reportedly, more faithful to the book. My copy of the flick, purchased from the VHSPS, hilariously begins with an ad for a psychic hotline and concludes with a commercial for a sports bloopers tape. Which certainly adds to the film’s surreal trappings. [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Homecoming

Considering the grotesque freak show 2016’s election season has become, a Bush era parable like Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” comes off as almost quint today. Set during the worst years of the Second Gulf War, the episode follows a right wing speech writer named David Murch. After a mother of a dead soldier confronts him on a talk show, he tosses off a comment about soldiers coming back to life, to let us know how much they love their country. His wish comes true, deceased American soldiers returning to life as zombies. And they do express their love of country… By utilizing their god given right to vote the incumbent out of office.

Political disclosure: I lean pretty fucking hard to the left. Yet even I find “Homecoming” to be a bit heavy handed. Making a shallow, painfully over-exaggerated Ann Coulter stand-in a main character was a mistake, especially the decision to portray her as a dominatrix. (Today, I think we’re all about 90% certain that Coulter’s entire act is a put-on at this point.) A plot twist in the last act has nothing to do with the episode’s main satirical target and really muddles the water. Revealing that the Republicans literally stole the election also pushes it. I don’t think even lobbyists have that much power in this country. These heavy handed moments distract from “Homecoming’s” funny scenes – the red-wingers changing their opinions about the zombies overnight – and its touching scenes, like when a dinner owner gives a tired zombie a place to sit. Good satire is subtle satire. “Homecoming” assuredly is not subtle. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Jersey Devil

Considering the Jersey Devil is one of America’s most notorious cryptids, I’m surprised “Lost Tapes” didn’t get to it until season two. The Stark family – husband Greg, pregnant wife Judy, daughters Christina and Jolene – are traveling down the Jersey Shore. Jolene is recording the trip with the family camera. The group take a shortcut through the Pine Barrens when Dad runs over some sort of animal. After getting out to investigate, the family dog flees. While looking for him, the four are pursued by the Garden State’s most famous demon.

The plot for “Jersey Devil” is lame. The script has to stretch to get the family to leave their car in the middle of the Pine Barrens. There’s no reason for the youngest daughter to keep recording as long as she does. The episode’s final moments actually has the girl drop the camera, begging the question of what took her so long. There’s an embarrassing moment when a pregnant woman fights off the Devil with a 2x4, which really brings his credentials as a monster into question. Far too much of the episode is devoted to the daughter exploring an abandoned house. Yet, when the creature is on-screen, “Jersey Devil” kind of works. There’s a suspenseful shot of the Devil looking for the kids while they hide in a closest. The episode’s final image, of the monster’s hooves hovering over the camera, is mildly eerie. The educational segments are devoted primarily to the legends surrounding the Jersey Devil, except for the one guy who admits that some of the sightings could be a crane. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

There are a couple of things I enjoyed during Paperhouse. One was the image of Anna's father descending from the hillside and the other was the stark imagery of the "paper" house. But that's it. I honestly could barely sit through this. It was just grating to me most of the time. The actors are repeatedly hollering "Anna!" or "Marc!" Everyone in the movie seemed totally self-absorbed. I found it impossible to care what the dreams were about or whether they had anything to do with Anna changing reality.

I watched the first 45 minutes of the movie three different times because I thought I had to be missing something. I normally can see what it is that is appreciated about a particular film, even if I disagree. I personally found very little to like about this.(2/10)