Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 15

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Disney in the early eighties is one of my favorite periods for the studio. During this time, the company’s traditional live action family comedies and cartoons were loosing box office ground. So the studio got experimental, branching out into genres usually outside Disney’s toolbox. Thus, the Mouse Factory made a surreal and violent sci-fi epic, a grisly fantasy film, and a dark Ray Bradbury adaptation. Within this period, they would even make an honest-to-God attempt at a horror movie. “The Watcher in the Woods” didn’t garner much attention in 1980 but has grabbed a slight cult following, much like the other oddball Disney flicks from that time.

After searching for a while, the Curtis family have found a home they like. The Aylwood manor comes at a great price, considering its size. Little Ellie likes the home because it’s right next to the forest. Teenage Jan, however, is less certain. She begins to have visions of a ghostly girl in a blindfold. Magic glowing circles beckon to her throughout the woods. Jan learns that she resembles Karen, Mrs. Aylwood’s daughter, who vanished twenty years ago. Soon, it becomes apparent that Karen is attempting to contact Jan from the other side. What other side, exactly, remains to be seen.

“The Watcher in the Woods” is, essentially, the Disney version of those classy horror flicks big studios produce in the 1970s. I’m talking about films like “Legend of Hell House” or “Audrey Rose.” They’re glossy movies usually about hauntings or possession. The link is obvious as John Hough previously made “Hell House.” (Hough’s incredibly diverse career also includes “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and “The Incubus.") The film, for a while, even seems to be pointing in some pretty dark directions: That a ghost of a child, murdered decades ago, is haunting a young girl in the present day in hopes of seeking revenge against those that wrong her.

That’s where it looks like its going anyway. “The Watcher in the Woods” is never scary. Occasionally, however, it is eerie. The long shots of something watching the kids from within the woods set up an ominous mood. Many accidents and coincidences befall Jan and her family. She cuts her finger on broken glass and accidentally drops a mirror. Jan is nearly hurt during a motorcycle show or a horse riding accident. The repeated visions of the missing girl, or the way she possesses little Ellie, border on the creepy. Ultimately though, “The Watcher in the Woods’ isn’t a tale of ghostly revenge. Instead, the script takes a hard, strange turn in the last act involving a magical ritual and an alternate universe. It’s a bizarre twist and one that derails the story just when it’s supposed to be getting really exciting.

Making up for some of these problems is an entertaining cast. The biggest stars in the film are in supporting roles. Bette Davis plays Mrs. Aylwood, the missing girl’s mother and the owner of the big house. The script toys with Aylwood’s characterization, hinting that she may be a villain. She’s not, the character being a red herring discarded early in the film. So Davis isn’t going over the top. Instead, she plays it subtle, as a grieving mother who can barely contain her frustrations and despair. The other big-ish name is David McCallum as the father, a part with little meat on the bones. Lynn-Holly Johnson is good as Jan, a girl who knows what she’s believe and has to fight to convince others. Kyle Richards is a little too cutesy as the younger daughter though.

“The Watcher in the Woods” runs a fairly short 82 minutes. The first cut of the film, however, apparently ran 100 minutes. A far more elaborate ending, which involved an insect like alien living in another dimension, was originally planned. After negative test screenings, these scenes were cut. The more abbreviated version we see now was pasted together. This might explain why the ending is so weird. Reportedly, “The Watcher in the Woods” was pitched to the studio as “Disney’s “Exorcist.”” Seeing the studio do their riff on such an un-Disney-like genre is interesting, and creates some spooky atmosphere, even if “The Watcher in the Woods” doesn’t quite work as a whole. [6/10]

Night Tide (1961)

I first came to appreciate Dennis Hopper during that weird teenage period when “Easy Rider” was one of my favorite movies. Hooper’s years of drug abuse marked him as an edgy artist, while his craziest performances were unforgettable. The guy also collaborated with cult icons like David Lynch, Tobe Hooper, and Crispin Glover. One of Hopper’s earliest leading roles is 1961’s “Night Tide.” Which is another public domain horror film. I swear, that’s one theme I didn’t plan in advance. Anyway, I’ve heard some recommendations for the film over the years and decided that 2016 was the Halloween I finally watch it.

After several months docked in Hawaii, sailor Johnny gets some shore leave. He uses this time to visit the local carnival. There, he encounters a beguiling young woman named Mora. The two immediately hit it off. After knowing her for a day or two, Mora reveals to Johnny that she works at the carnival. She sits in a water tank all day, while wearing a fake mermaid tail. As he begins to develop feelings for her, Johnny hears some startling news from the other carnies. Mora’s previous two boyfriends have turned up dead, their corpses washing up on shore. After he confronts her, Mora tells him the truth: She believes herself to be a mermaid.

“Night Tide” got sold to me as a horror film, which really isn’t an accurate description. If anything, “Night Tide” is more of a romance. Most of the film is focused on Johnny and Mora’s budding relationship. We get long scenes of the two eating breakfast, discussing their mutual back stories. Another sequence shows them mingling on the beach, kissing and bantering. I wish I found this romance a little more compelling. Johnny and Mora only know each other for a day before they’re holding hands. It’s two days before they’re making out, suggesting a more physical relationship. After about a week, he’s in love. It all moves a little too quickly, the audience never quite buying how the two feel for each other.

Another reason the romance isn’t very convincing are the performances. Dennis Hopper would go on to become a wonderful actor. His acting here, however, is extremely stiff. He speaks flatly, which is a big problem when Johnny is talking about how much his mother’s death effected him. As the story becomes heavier, Hopper maintains this somnambulist style, draining tension from the film’s later scenes. Linda Lawson is no less awkward as Mora. Her line delivery is also highly inexpressive. The scenes the two have together give the impressions of kids pretending that they like each other. Of the actors, only Gavin Muir as Mora’s sea captain guardian seems to be acting much.

I can see why “Night Tide” would be misclassified as a horror movie. It was certainly marketed that way, if you look at the lurid posters. During its best moment, the film has a dark visual design. All the talk of murder, mermaids, and sirens push the story to the margins of the genre. In the spookiest scene, Hopper has a nightmare about being wrapped in the tentacles of a giant octopus. The finale prominently features a dead body. Ultimately though, it’s all a fake-out. There are no monsters in “Night Tide,” no real mermaids. This is a dark fantasy at most and probably closer to thriller.

I really wanted to like “Night Tide.” The premise is cool, Dennis Hopper is usually great, and the shore-side carnival setting has eerie potential. It just didn’t work out though. The performances are weak, the script meanders, and the pacing drags. “Night Tide” is another entry for the folder full of films that would prosper from a remake. Play up the mermaid stuff more, downplay the romance a bit, and increase the creepiness, and you might have something there. Until then, the original “Night Tide” is an occasionally interesting but ultimately somewhat dull experience. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: The Fair Haired Child

Both seasons of “Masters of Horror” featured directors whose mastery of the genre is debatable. I suspect William Malone – whose prior credits include shit like “House on Haunted Hill” remake and “feardotcom” – got invited to this gig just because he’s friends with Mick Garris. Anywho, “Fair Haired Child” follows Tara, a nerdy teenage girl who likes to draw comic books and gets picked on by the other kids. While riding her bike home from school, she’s abducted by a strange man. He takes her to a large mansion where his wife locks her in the basement. Down there, she meets Johnny. Johnny can not speak and harbors a demonic secret that may get Tara killed.

“Fair Haired Child,” plot wise, is standard. There’s a spooky mansion, a virgin sacrifice, Satanic bargains, a monster, and an easily predictable twist ending. The script plays coy, slowly revealing Johnny’s tragic backstory and his bad habit of transforming into a pasty-faced demon. The writer adds self-conscious quirky elements like the father having some sort of dementia. Malone tries to spruce things up with his shock rock style. So the titular demon moves around in a herky-jerky fashion and there’s utterly ridiculous flashbacks. One features lots of slow motion and the father wearing a paper dunce cap while floating on a lake. Others have pointed out how much the titular monster looks like Chris Cunningham’s "Rubber Johnny," a likely inspiration. Lindsay Pulsipher is likable but Jesse Haddock’s performance is overly twitchy. The episode also wastes Lori Petty who is unusually mannered as the mom. In other words: William Malone’s contribution to “Masters of Horror” is as uninspired as his theatrical work. [5/10]

Lost Tapes: Dover Demon

In the last episode of season two, “Lost Tapes” seems to be poking fun at itself slightly. Chad, who is currently unemployed, decides to create a hoax video about the Dover Demon, Massachusetts' resident monster. He goes into the Dover woods with his wife and best friend, with a shotgun, a camera, and a cheap monster costume. While wandering through the woods, the group begin to fall prey to traps, laid out by some sort of intelligent being. As something picks them off one by one, it becomes apparent that the Dover Demon isn’t a fake.

Chad begins his tape by delivering a melodramatic speech to his camera, which heavily resembles “Lost Tapes’” frequently self-serious narration. So it’s good to know the writers didn’t take themselves seriously. Despite the goofy start, “Dover Demon” is actually one of the series’ best episode. There’s a great moment when the guy with the camera unwittingly records the Dover Demon. (The moment would’ve been more effective if it wasn’t in the opening credits but it’s still a decent gag.) Having the victims fall into traps set by the monster mean there are fewer scenes of people running around and screaming. The characters are bumbling buffoons, which actually make them more defined then the usual indistinct protagonists on this show. The final scene, of the injured couple, laying in a hole, helpless while the monster comes for them borders on chilling. The expert interviews feature Loren Coleman and others offering increasingly unlikely explanations for the monster. No, I don’t think the Dover Demon was a Slow Loris. But at least season two ended on an up note. [7/10]

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