Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 14

Darling (2015)

Sometimes, you’re predisposed to love a certain movie. From the moment I heard of “Darling,” it flew near the top of my must-watch list. I liked director Mickey Keating’s previous film, “Pod,” though it didn’t blow me away. His next film shifted Lauren Ashley Carter – for whom I’ve already expressed my appreciation this Halloween – to the lead role. “Darling” was described as a freaky, black and white homage to Polanski’s Apartment trilogy. Upon being released earlier this year, the reviews were mixed. But, haha, I loved it. A girl goes crazy in a spooky building shot in black and white? Of course I was going to love this.

A young woman known only as Darling takes a job as the caretaker of a strangely empty New York apartment building. Right before the owner gives her the keys, she’s told that the previous caretaker committed suicide. While exploring the building, she comes upon a locked door. She asks about it and is told never to open the door. She hears rumors that Satanic rituals used to go on inside the apartment. Soon, the isolation and the strange stories start to get to her. Darling’s sanity is slipping.

“Darling” is a triumph of direction, music, atmosphere and tone. From the opening minutes, the film casts a spell on the viewer. The high contrast black-and-white photography puts the film in an exaggerated dream world. The editing is broken glass harsh. Carter’s glaring eyes or screaming face will flash on-screen for a split second, following equally brief images of blood or the building’s hallway. Keating repeatedly uses this effect, the device becoming more unnerving with each application. The sound design is stark, focusing on whispered voices and far-off noises, immediately creating a tone of isolation and unease. What music that is heard is usually softly unnerving, eerie sounds of discordance and isolation. Except the occasional blare of death metal, an inspired touch. “Darling” is custom built to get under your skin and freak you out, a goal it succeeds wildly at.

As much as the editing and direction are the stars of the show, “Darling” is equally a display for the talents of Lauren Ashley Carter. As a tonal piece, there’s little story to the film. Instead, it’s up to Carter to fill in the emotional space. Luckily, she’s up to the job. Carter’s unforgettable eyes convey an astonishing amount of emotion. Her slightest smile, a slight turn of the head, can create infinite menace. She has a croak in her throat when reading lines like “Are you a good guy?” or “He said I was all right now,” making them chilling. Watching Carter unravel is deeply compelling, making an ideal center for “Darling’s” storm. She also cries with the best of them, a talent she displays all throughout the film.

“Darling” is a film of deliberate ambiguity. Is it a ghost stories? Is that the restless spirits of the prior caretaker whispering to the title character, driving her to madness? Is it a story of demonic possession? Was a demon really summoned inside the apartment's wall, a force manipulating Carter’s heroine to do evil? Or is Darling completely insane? Is all the ominous atmosphere entirely within her own head? Does she see the face of her assaulter in a random by-stander because she’s crazy? Because the devil made her do it? Because she's haunted? There’s the distinct possibility that all of the above options are true. Keating doesn’t provide answers, instead allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in this unsettling world.

I’m not surprised by the negative reviews “Darling” has received. That some people have called the film shrill, pretentious, or overly eager. Considering the compact 75 minute run time, the last one could be a genuine complaint. Yet the film entirely sucked me in, thanks to the fantastic lead performance and intoxicating directorial style. I have no idea if anyone else will agree with me that it’s a masterpiece but, I suspect, “Darling” will attract a cult following further down the line. [9/10]

God Told Me To (1976)

Once again, I return to the world of Larry Cohen. As previously mentioned in my review of “Q,” Cohen’s films run on high concept premises. All of his movies can be summarized in one sentence. “God Told Me To” - his follow-up to his biggest hit, “It’s Alive” - has one of his best. “What if multiple mass murderers said God told them to kill?” Cohen takes this tantalizing idea and runs with it, to some especially strange places. While the film didn’t match the commercial success of “It’s Alive,” “God Told Me To” has found a following of its own.

A sniper guns down twelve people in the busy streets of New York. Detective Peter Nicholas tries to talk to the killer. Before the young man leaps to his death, he claims that God told him to kill. Later, a cop shoots several people during the St. Patrick Day parade. He gives the same motivation. Random stabbings, murders, and slayings all over the city end with the same words. "God told me to." Nicholas, a devout Catholic, is disturbed by the trend. He uncovers a connecting fiber between the killings: A cult leader named Bernard Phillips. As Nicholas explores the strange case, he discovers Philips isn’t entirely human. And that he has a personal connection with the mad messiah.

“God Told Me To” has a hell of an opener. People start suddenly dropping in the streets. As we get closer, we see bullet holes appearing on their bodies. Panic grips the area as people rush around, attempting to avoid the mad sniper. When Nicholas confronts the young man responsible, he is creepily serene about what he’s done. This is the first of several bracing scenes of horror contained in “God Told Me To.” The parade shooting – infamously featuring Andy Kaufman as the attacker – is equally intense, the violence being more graphic. Cohen captures a raw sense of panic in these moments, feeling like a documentary filmmaker dropped into a scene of violence. It’s not just the mass shootings that are disturbing. Later, Nicholas also talks with one of the murderers. Even though the man just killed his wife and child, he’s calm, which is somehow creepier then any scene of slaying could ever be.

Cohen’s idea is ultimately more interesting then his execution. Tony Lo Bianco is very good as Detective Nicholas, a man increasingly conflicted by the things he learns. That may be his natural state, as he’s a devoted Catholic currently dating an atheist. It’s also implied that he’s cheating on his smoking hot girlfriend with an ex, who is more religiously inclined. This plot thread eventually devolves into melodrama and is easily the weakest aspect of the film. However, when Cohen focuses on Lo Bianco’s inner conflict, he probes at some interesting questions. Nicholas has his conception of God and the universe completely shaken up. “God Told Me To” eventually leaves theological discussions behind but at least hints at what effect events such as these would have on the faithful.

Cohen, however, has the tendency to follow his muse down odd rabbit holes. Some moments in “God Told Me To” feel like a gritty crime thriller, when Lo Bianco is questioning witnesses. Or when a pimp stabs a dirty cop to death, using the God-blamed hysteria as a cover. Soon, Cohen’s thoughts on theology run into “Chariot of the Gods” territory. There’s bizarre sequences devoted to a naked woman being found on the side of the street. Later, we see her being abducted by a space ship, a scene which utilizes some off-center special effects. Before the end, “God Told Me To” throws in psychic powers, a cabal of high power cultists, and Richard Lynch dressed as Jesus. Who, by the way, has a vagina in the side of his torso. And requests his half-human brother to mate with him. In other words, “God Told Me To” gets really fucking weird.

The combination of bizarre plot twists, religious issues, and effectively disturbing horror make “God Told Me To” an unforgettable motion picture. It doesn’t quite work as a whole, as Cohen's script stumbles a few times. The director also isn’t as interested in the philosophical concepts his idea raises. However, a film this simultaneously creepy and odd is definitely worth seeking out. “God Told Me To” is another flick with a quasi-public domain status, though official copies are also widely available. In other words, it shouldn’t take religious intervention to get you watch it. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Of all the “Masters of Horror” episodes, John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” is easily the most critically acclaimed. The success of his TV work would even briefly get J.C. interested in directing movies again. “Cigarette Burns” stars Norman Reedus as Kirby Sweetman, a theater owner and private film collector. An eccentric millionaire by the name of Bellinger hires him to track down a rare film. The title is “La Fin Absolue du Monde,” a mysterious motion picture that reportedly causes violence and insanity in all who watch it. Kirby’s quest to find the film takes him down some disturbing avenues: A man disfigured by the movie. A critic who has been writing a review for thirty years. A trio of snuff filmmakers. As his search intensifies, Sweetman is haunted by strange visions and intense regrets from his past.

“Cigarette Burns” wants to be a grand statement about the power of film. After all, it’s literally about a movie that exerts a strange power on its viewer. However, “Cigarette Burns” doesn’t have much to say about cinema. “La Fin Absolue du Monde” is a plot device, with characters talking more about what it can do then what it means. The psychic scars the evil film inflicts exist to exploit character beats. Instead, “Cigarette Burns” is an awesome potboiler, a gritty detective story. Sweetman follows leads, picks up clues, and stumbles into increasingly crazier scenarios. The viewer gets drawn in, trying to figure out where this journey will take the protagonist next. At the end, he simply walks away with the film can, which is a bit underwhelming. Not that any film could live up its reputation but the peeks we get at “La Fin Absolue du Monde” are also underwhelming. Heavy metal video style editing and sound effects aren’t exactly mind breaking.

In truth, “Cigarette Burns” doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter film. Aside from the minimalist, melodic score, few of his trademarks are present. Given the use of bright color, and the multiple times his name is dropped, “Cigarette Burns” may be an intentional homage to Argento. Still, Carpenter packs in some startling moments of horror. I’m not talking about the titular objects flashing on-screen, which are a bit heavy-handed. Instead, it’s good ol’ gore that brings the intensity. There’s a seriously fucked-up decapitation, a naked woman soaked in blood, a knife to the eyes, and a self-mutilation involving a projector. The pile-up of gruel certainly ends the episode on a memorable note. “Cigarette Burns” is a bit overrated. It’s Carpenter’s best film of the last twenty years strictly by default. However, it’s a solidly entertaining and a high-light of this series’ first season. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Bear Lake Monster

Obviously, the producers of “Lost Tapes” would want to base an episode around a famous lake monster like Nessie or Champ. But they couldn’t afford a trip to Scotland or Canada. So Utah’s Bear Lake Monster has to stand in for all lake monsters. Four twenty-something females travel to the lake to celebrate one of their birthdays. What follows is a day of messing around on the beach, most of it recorded on the one girl’s cellphone camera… And a night of terror, after a dinosaur-like amphibian creature crawls out of the water and begins eating the college students.

“Bear Lake Monster” is one of the few “Lost Tapes” episodes were you get the impression that the writers actually cared about the characters. We spend some time with the girls, watching them hang out and talk among themselves. Refreshingly, romantic drama is not the main topic of discussion. When one of the women brings up an ex-boyfriend, she’s immediately dissuaded from talking about him. Sadly, that’s the best compliment I can pay “Bear Lake Monster.” The attack scenes could’ve been tense but a melodramatic musical score – why does found footage have a musical score? – drains any suspense. As usual, the camera work quickly degrades into frantic chasing. Worst yet, a lot of the episode is shot through sickening night vision. The actresses, mildly likable in the sunlit scenes, are reduced to annoying screaming and crying in the second half. The script doesn’t take advantage of the creature’s amphibious nature, mostly focusing on the beach scenes. The expert interviews bring up mosasaurs and alligator hunting habits, which barely connects with the topic at hand. [5/10]

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