Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 16

Green Room (2015)

Jeremy Saulnier has come a long way. I remember reading about his debut movie, “Murder Party,” in Fangoria years ago. I would refer to that film as forgettable if I didn’t still remember it, I guess. Saulnier improved a lot with his next film. “Blue Ruin,” a deconstruction of the vigilante genre, was a brilliant explosion of a movie. It excited me enough that Saulnier’s follow-up, “Green Room,” climbed near the top of my most anticipated release list. A violent thriller that pushed into horror, co-starring Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi? Hell yeah, I want to see that. After finally watching “Green Room,” I wasn’t disappointed.

Punk band the Ain’t Rights – composed of bassist Pat, guitarist Sam, drummer Reece, and singer Tiger – are wrapping up an underwhelming tour. After a performance goes pear shaped, a promoter sets them up with a replacement gig. He refers to the club as “right wing.” In truth, it’s a Neo-Nazi bar. After a riotous gig – which includes performing the Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” – the band prepares to leave the club. A last minute entry into the green room has the gang walking in on a brutal murder. From there, the situation escalates into a tense stand-off, the band attempting to survive the night while the Nazi punks attempt to lure them out and kill them.

Even the early scenes of “Green Room” have a jittery unease to them. Saulnier shows the band bonding during a shitty tour while also suggesting something bad will happen soon. After the stand-off in the titular location starts, “Green Room” rams the tension down the viewer’s throat. An antagonistic bouncer named Big Joshua is held down repeatedly, the viewer unsure of when he’ll attack next. An exploration of the room below, where the band discover what bad shit the Nazis are really into, generates cold chills, the hero’s situation looking grimmer. The film concludes with a tense walk through the woods, uncertain of what we’ll see next. Saulnier knows when to turn up the volume too. A negotiation with the Neo-Nazis bursts into violence, Pat’s arm being brutally slashed while attempting to hold the door shut. A bungled escape attempt escalates forcefully, the heroes only finding death inside the club. Even after Pat successfully turns the table on their attackers near the end, there’s this sense that nobody might survive. The film is grim but constantly pumping, like the punk music that inspired it.

In “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier showed an incompetent vigilante stumbling into increasingly gory situations. The director takes a similar approach to gruel in “Green Room.” It’s brutal but also blunt. Heads are snapped back by sudden shotgun blast, skin blasted away. Limbs are slowly twisted out of place, bones cracking. A knife protruding from a head looks especially unpleasant. Skin is sliced, the victim reduced to a blubbering mess. Attack dogs tear out throats and multiple stab wounds reduce people to limp sacks. Gunshots and slashed throats produce their share of arterial spray, especially in one notable moment at the end. Saulnier doesn’t linger on the gore. He’s in it for the sudden shock, a burst of violence catching the audience off-guard. In a way, it’s more realistic then flashier effects, a sudden slam that makes a mess but doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.

“Green Room” has got a seriously great ensemble. Patrick Stewart has gotten all the press, as Nazi ringleader Darcy. And, yeah, Stewart is very good. He casually orders executions, in the same line when discussing fire safety. There’s also an unsettling novelty to seeing a respected thespian like Stewart offhandedly say racial slurs. I also really liked Imogen Poots, as a dryly sarcastic Neo-Nazi youth who develops a soul and earns the audience’s sympathies. Yet the band is where it’s at. The sadly late Anton Yelchin panics extremely well, retaining an earthy humanity even when surrounded by craziness. Alia Shawkat has a similar quality as Sam, bringing a sweaty panic to her scenes. Joe Cole’s Reece is maybe the most aggressive of the group, though Cole maintains a desperate compassion that keeps the character from becoming a jock. Something similar can be said of Callum Turner’s Tiger, who vacillates between angry and laid back nicely. (I can’t help but wonder if it’s a deliberate subversion that the bassist – rarely the most loved member of any rock group – becomes the film’s hero.)

Throughout the film’s unrelenting intensity, Saulnier still manages to sneak in quiet moments of humor or pathos. Like Pat telling a paintballing anecdote, the final fate of one of the Nazi attack dogs, or a reoccurring bit about a desert island band which pays off fantastically. Some may doubt “Green Room’s” status as a horror film – there’s no monsters, supernatural activity, or gothic trappings – but the severe violence and prolonged thrills makes its placement inside the genre obvious to me. It’s a blood soaked punk rock experience definitely worth seeing. [9/10]

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

The Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon has several purposes, the most obvious of which is to celebrate the season for six weeks. It’s an excuse for me to revisit films I love and check out newer stuff that people like. However, I think I most enjoy catching up with beloved cult classics that I’ve missed until now. Like, for example, “The Deadly Spawn.” I was certainly familiar with the film’s lurid poster art and have heard several people over the years express enthusiasm for it. Considering how many rubber monster movies I’m watching this month, now seemed like the right time to finally give “The Deadly Spawn” a spin.

As in many sci-fi monster movies before it, the film begins with a mysterious meteorite crashing down in a small town. The space rock brings with it an alien spore, that quickly grows into a giant worm like creature. A creature then spawns smaller worm monsters and has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Soon, the spawn moves into the basement of a near-by home. There, a group of teenagers and their younger brother have to fight off the monsters, prevent their parents from getting eaten, and survive the rainy day and night that follows.

“The Deadly Spawn” has all the hallmarks of a locally produced horror film. Most of the film was shot in small town New Jersey. It was clearly a passion project for writer/director Douglas McKeown. The film is obviously a low budget affair, with most of the story taking place in one location. Some of the special effects are less then stellar, like an obvious dummy being substituted for a headless body. Despite having many of the flaws you associate with locally produced horror projects, “The Deadly Spawn” is surprisingly smooth at times. The script is speedy, essentially a series of monster attacks that are easily linked together. The pacing is tight, the film never lingering too long in slow spots. Subsequently, “The Deadly Spawn” has all the charm of a low budget, backyard production but is better executed then most of them, feeling like a professional production.

Especially charming is McKeown’s decision to make the monster kid the hero. Little brother Charles has a bedroom covered with monster posters and toys. He makes his own masks and make-up, even throwing together flash bombs. In one amusing scene, Charles’ psychologist uncle examines him, concerned the boy’s interest in horror movies is a sign of mental imbalance. The kid, however, is totally down to earth. (He also lists “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” as one of his favorite movie monsters, proving McKeown knows his stuff.) McKeown discovers the giant spawn in the basement and quickly deduces its nature. He attempts to train and befriend the monster. After it becomes clear that the Deadly Spawn can’t be tamed, he uses his horror fan ingenuity to save the day. Lots of movies feature monster-obsessed kids, obvious stand-ins for the presumably monster-obsessed audience. “The Deadly Spawn” is one of the few to actually let the kid save the day, an extremely refreshing turn of events.

The film’s low budget is fairly evident, in its sometimes shaky production values. However, what money McKeown had is clearly up on the screen. The monster is the star of the show. The Deadly Spawn are giant, pink, squirming worms with multiple heads. They have huge mouths full of countless teeth. The Mother Spawn does most of the attacking but several scenes are devoted to the smaller critters, creeping little eels, tearing through room full of guests. The gore is crude but effective, with plenty of blood and dismembered limbs being tossed around. Though clearly an elaborate puppet, the viewer totally buys the Spawn as a genuinely threatening monster.

Despite its humble roots, “The Deadly Spawn” has definitely influenced other creative minds. Look at the “Splatterhouse” video game series, whose boreworm enemies were obviously inspired by this movie. The film was released in some areas as “Return of the Aliens,” an attempt to cash-in on “Alien’s” success. However, McKeown delightfully goofy gore-fest is indebted to an older horror tradition. It’s a low budget, eighties update of the 1950s monster on the loose movie, right down to the gloriously insane “Or is it?” ending. With a likable cast, gooey special effects, and a run time that whips along, “The Deadly Spawn” would be a perfect movie to watch with similarly horror-loving friends. I had a blast with this one. [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Sick Girl

Lucky McKee was undoubtedly the young buck of “Masters of Horror’s” first season. Considering how much I love “May,” I had no problem with his inclusion among the other masters. Since “The Woods” wouldn’t be released for a while longer, “Sick Girl” is basically McKee’s follow-up to “May,” even re-uniting him with Angela Bettis. Bettis plays Ida Tetter, a lesbian entomologist whose buggy hobby is cramping her love life. That is until she meets Erin, a quirky young woman who appreciates Ida’s little, creepy-crawling friends. The quickly developing relationship is disturbed when Erin is bitten by a strange new bug in Ida’s collection. She begins to act erratically, growing insect-like appendages, attacking the neighbors.

“Sick Girl” is ostensibly a fable about rushing into a new relationship. Ida and Erin have only known each other for about a week when she moves in. When Erin begins acting strangely, Ida initially just assumes its her new girlfriend’s personality. However, this moral is somewhat undermined by how incredibly charming these nerds are. Bettis affects a strange vocal pattern as Ida, which is slightly distracting. Yet Bettis makes Ida more then her quirks. She’s a funny, nervous, emotional, compassionate person who quickly comes to own her eccentric interests. Erin Brown, better known as soft-core porn actress Misty Mundae, displays an easily lovable energy. Brown’s piercing eyes are striking and her effervescent performance is immediately likable. Mostly, watching the two women learn to love one another is so sweet. Their personalities immediately compliment each other. Bettis and Brown are both excellent, rooting the episode’s humor and horror in a really touching place.

Of course, McKee has a special knack for visceral, squirm-inducing body horror. The personality warping bug hides in Ida’s pillow, an unnerving invasion of privacy. Erin’s ear inflames into a swelling mass, spurting pus occasionally. She also, in one sequence, nonchalantly eats a cockroach. The insect attributes crawl out of Brown’s body. Pinchers pry her mouth open. Spider legs burst from her back. Insect-like visors clamp over her eyes. When the inevitable murders arrive, McKee piles on the spurting blood. Yet what’s more disturbing then the special effects is how Erin’s sweet, youthful personality morphs into something predatory, angry, and aggressive. While he likes blood and gore, McKee understands that characters are the greatest tool for horror filmmakers.

Not everything about “Sick Girl” works. Ida’s perverted male co-worker, who constantly asks about her sex life, is more off-putting then funny. A subplot about the apartment building’s conservative landlord discriminating against Ida because of her sexuality is a little heavy-handed. (Though I like her granddaughter looking up to Teeter.) The comedic ending is funny on a repeated viewing but initially baffled me when I first saw it. Still, “Sick Girl” is one of my favorite “Masters of Horror” episodes. Originally conceived for Roger Corman, McKee owns the material entirely, creating a quirky love story and monster movie that only he could’ve made. [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Zombies

“Lost Tapes” would undergo even more changes in its third season. Reoccurring characters would be added, in the form of the Enigma Corporation, a private security firm that often encounter monsters. Meanwhile, the third season would frequently abandon the cryptozoology gimmick. As in the premiere, “Zombies.” During Mardi Gras, a disturbing crime is caught on tape. An odd man attacks and partially eats the female owner of his apartment complex. The Enigma Corporation enters the building to investigate further. Inside, they find voodoo relics and a pack of aggressive, flesh-eating, undead humans.

Considering how overexposed zombies were in 2010, there was no need for “Lost Tapes” to put their stamp on the material. “Zombies” models itself directly after the “Resident Evil” games. There’s a crew of armed security experts and a creepy building full of zombies. The frequent first person perspective shots only call the video game analogy more to mind. The zombie stuff is uninspired, senselessly mixing voodoo and Romero mythology. Tetrodotoxin is name-dropped but these guys act like shambling flesh-eaters. Introducing reoccurring characters negates one of “Lost Tapes’” main points. If the recorders survive, how can the tape become lost? The Enigma Corporation people aren’t very interesting. You know from the beginning that the new guy is going to become a zombie. Despite being defense experts, the heroes still don’t know to shoot the zombies in the head, needlessly drawing out the episode’s last act. It’s pretty lame. Also lame: Max Brooks being introduced as a “zombie expert” and self-seriously discussing zombies like they’re real things that can actually exist. [4/10]

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