Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 14, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 13

Horror Express (1973)

Let’s continue with the “Christopher Lee Films in the Public Domain” theme, shall we? Because Halloween is always a good excuse to watch thing I should have seen by now. Like “City of the Dead,” “Horror Express” is widely available, appearing in countless public domain multi-packs. Also like that film, it doesn’t quite have the reputation of a classic. A British/Spanish co-production that loosely and unofficially adapted “Who Goes There?,” it is well-liked by those who’ve seen it. However, it isn’t considered one of those essential horror pictures. Once again, the time has come for me to judge for myself. 

In the year of our Lord 1906, archeologist Professor Saxton makes a chilling discovery. Preserved in a block of ice, he finds the frozen remains of an ape-like humanoid, millions of years old. The fossil is placed on the Trans-Siberian Express, traveling from China to Moscow. Inside the train, Saxton encounters old and new friends, like Doctor Wells and Countess Petroski. Just as the trip begins, the fossilized ape disappears. The red-eyed creature stalks the train, leaving corpses with white eyes and bleeding sockets. Soon, the two scientists are fighting for their lives against an insidious alien force.

“Horror Express” being set early in the 20th century provides an interesting angle to the story. Professor Saxton is a man of science and believes his ape-like discovery could be the missing link. The Countess angrily rejects evolution as a theory. Also aboard the train is Father Purjavdov, the countess' Christian advisor. He proclaims the creature to be Satanic in nature. Amusingly, after seeing the monster’s power, Purjavdov rescinds his faith and hails allegiance to the Dark Lord. Professor Saxton fights back against all this superstition, begging for logic and reason to prevail. He’s right. The monster isn’t demonic in nature, but rather alien, a incorporeal psychic entity that’s been surviving inside organic beings for millennia. Through a standard monster on the loose story, “Horror Express” presents an interesting debate about science vs. religion during a time period when a similar struggle was playing out around the world. Unusual for a horror film, it comes down on the side of science too.

The theological debate is interesting but “Horror Express” – as the exploitative title makes evident – knows which side of its bread is buttered. This is, first and foremost, a monster movie. The film isn’t exactly shy with its main creature. We see the ape man partially frozen from the beginning. Though partially covered by shadows, the hairy beast is seen lurking through train cars and hovering over potential victims. Its red, glowing eyes are awfully creepy, especially when seen through the darkness. However, the ape man exits the film early on. From there, “Horror Express” become a body snatcher flick, the entity possessing victims. Even when in human form, the piercing red eyes are maintained. The exact nature of the invader – an ancient intelligence that suck brains of their knowledge, leaving them wrickleless – is intriguingly specific. For the finale, “Horror Express” even throws in some zombies, the film’s atmosphere graduating to a creaky, weird dread.

This stuff is all pretty great but what will probably interest people most about “Horror Express” is its cast. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee usually appeared on screen as enemies. Here, the two play close friends, as they were in real life. Reportedly, Cushing – still grieving his late, beloved wife – wanted to leave the project. Lee talked him into staying just by reminiscing about their old projects. If Cushing was depressed while making the film, he doesn’t show it. He plays Doctor Wells as jovial and friendly, with a whimsical sense of humor. Lee, meanwhile, makes a perfect foil, as a stern man of science. Telly Savalas enters the film late but is unforgettable as an eccentric Soviet guard. His lines about how many arms a murderer has are immensely quotable. I also like the lovely Silvia Tortosa as the Countess.

“Horror Express” is a lot of fun. As a creature feature, it presents its monster in a way both satisfying and novel. The script takes several unexpected twists, keeping the viewer guessing. There’s some creepy atmosphere, generated by the spooky zombies. Lastly, the cast is all having a ball. Put all that together and you’ve got a real treat for classic horror fanatics. I don’t what took me so long to see it. [8/10]

Next of Kin (1982)

I first read about “Next of Kin” a year or so ago, while reading a list of best horror soundtracks. I had never even heard of the movie, much less its soundtrack. Apparently, the obscure film gained some fame after being mentioned in a documentary about Australian genre films. Onto the watch list it went. While hanging out at Monster-Mania last weekend, I notice the flick on the VHSPS’ red rack. Naturally, I decided to grab it. The dark, scratchy VHS print doesn’t do the film that many favors but I’m glad I decided to give “Next of Kin” a look.

Linda gets the bad news. Her mother has passed away. With mom’s death, she inherits Montclare, the retirement home Linda’s mother built with her late aunt. While moving into the building, Linda is flooded with strange, foreboding memories. The patients begin dying mysteriously, several by drowning. After discovering her mother’s old journal, Linda reads that identical murders occurred there two decades prior. It soon becomes apparent that a killer roams the hallways of Montclare. And Linda is the next target.

“Next of Kin’s” story is not that important. Montclare has its secrets, about doctors having affairs with nurses or the people in town speculating about Linda’s past. It’s all relatively tedious, not made more compelling by the film’s deliberate pacing. When the final reveal comes, the audience is barely aware of the characters' significance. What makes “Next of Kin” interesting is the genuinely weird, off-putting tone it captures. From its opening minutes, which features Linda walking around her car in a daze, reading the will in voice over, it’s clear the movie takes place in a world that is slightly off. As she explores Montclare’s hallways, the walls around her seem to ripple, stretching and shrinking. The camera follows the woman or a cat as they slowly the home’s halls. Odd flashbacks focus on Linda as a little girl, wandering the grounds while carrying a red ball. The camera routinely circles Linda, as if she’s being watched. Visually, “Next of Kin” is designed to make the viewer feel odd and unnerved. Klaus Schulze’s score is composed of pulsating synth and weird, discordant noise, adding to the off-putting atmosphere.

So much of “Next of Kin” is devoted to suggestion and implication, that its moments of overt horror hit the audience harder. Sometimes these are fake-outs, like a cat leaping onto a desk or an old doll springing out of a drawer. Sometimes, an ugly creepiness is the goal. Such as when a dead body, cold and fat and blue, is slowly pulled from bath water. Often, the film builds up decent suspense. Linda leaps into her room, pursued by an attacker. She leans into the door, hearing for the footsteps outside. Only at the very end does the film go for the throat. A dead body is pushed out of the shadows. A madman chops through a door, leaping out to attack. An especially brilliant shock has a vehicle driving through a wall, a moment director Tony Williams really builds up to. By contrasting between more obvious scares and an extended atmosphere of dread, “Next of Kin” gets two very different reactions out of its viewers.

While the story is largely irrelevant, “Next of Kin” does have a strong character to center around. Jacki Kerin plays Linda. At first, she strikes the viewer as staggeringly ordinary, an element that Kerin’s girl next door looks really play too. As the story goes on, and the character becomes more unsettled, Kerin summons up an effective intensity. By the end, her nerves are totally wrecked, a state Kerin is also good at portraying. She also has a love interest, in the form of John Jarratt’s Barney. Jarratt, who later came to notoriety as the deranged killer in the “Wolf Creek" films, plays the character as a charming good old boy. The two have a nice, laid back chemistry, which helps elevate the tension when the couple are threatened.

To call “Next of Kin” a hidden gem is apt, I suppose. It’s definitely obscure enough. Horror fans with an appetite for films that emphasize atmosphere over gory thrills will almost definitely love it. It’s very slow and has a thin script though, one that probably wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny. However, “Next of Kin” is probably worth checking for a handful of effective moments and a solid lead performance from a talented actress. Director Tony Williams has few other credits though his 2013 documentary “A Place Called Robertson” sounds interesting. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: Deer Woman

When John Landis was given an oppretunity to tell any story he wanted on “Masters of Horror,” he decided to give an early screenwriting gig to his son. “Deer Woman” revolves around Detective Faraday, a disgraced police officer who is stuck working animal attack cases. He examines a baffling murder. A truck driver has been beaten to a bloody pulp, unrecognizable as human. The driver was last seen with a beautiful woman. It’s soon discovered that hoof prints – matching a deer’s – cover the body. As more deaths with the same, bizarre M.O. appear, Faraday comes to the unlikely conclusion that the Deer Woman, a figure in American Indian mythology, is responsible.

“Deer Woman” is a horror/comedy that comes dangerously close to being too snarky. There’s a number of amusingly absurd moments. Such as Faraday imagining the various unlikely scenarios that could’ve led to the murders. My favorite of which is shot like a fifties monster movie, involving a flannel wearing deer man. Or a bit part about an old woman’s dog and a dead monkey. Other moments are a little too smug, such as a talking deer head in a casino or the overly caustic dialogue. Holding it all together is a perfectly deadpan performance from Brian Benben as Faraday. His tragic backstory is totally unnecessary but Benben’s sarcastic incredulity gets a lot of laughs. Brazilian model Cinthia Moura, in her sole acting credit, is perfectly cast as the Deer Woman. She pairs a strength for physical comedy with her stunning good looks. I like the episode directly adapting the legend and the script’s outright refusal to explain the creature’s motivation. Goofy, funny, and comically gory, “Deer Woman” is an amusing hour. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Alien

As it did with the vampire, “Lost Tapes” puts a cryptozoological spin on the killer alien story. A female astronaut is checked into a V.A. hospital for erratic behavior. She has a gross skin condition, tries to cut her belly open, has developed super strength, and has a second heart beat inside of her. During a late night shift, her body burst open, freeing an insectoid alien creature. The murder wasp from outer space rampages through the hospital, attacking a nurse, a doctor, and the late night security guard. The incident is caught on the hospital’s security cameras and, for some reason, a camera the nurse is carrying.

The premise has potential but “Alien” is another super lame episode of “Lost Tapes.” Instead of designing a weirdo alien creature, we basically get a dog-sized wasp. About a third of the episode has passed before the monster is even revealed. All of the attack scenes take place off-screen, the characters discovering the dead bodies afterwards. What we see of the alien bug makes it look like an unconvincing hand puppet. The actress playing the nurse is very annoying, as she spends the entire second half shrieking loudly. The conclusion is very underwhelming, the alien bee simply flying away. The episode is notable for some gory special effects but is otherwise dulls-ville. The talking head scenes feature some mildly interesting tidbits about insect physiology and a whole bunch of bullshit concerning supposed alien encounters, including the repeatedly debunked Betty and Barney Hill story. [4/10]

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