Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 2

I'm still pretty hung over from my convention trip - I'll tell you all about it tomorrow - so tonight's reviews are a little more brief. Until tomorrow, check out what fellow Six Weekers Kaedrin has been up to.

Vamp (1986)

When you’ve been a horror fan as long as I have, there are certain titles that take you years to get too. I certainly remember seeing “Vamp’s” VHS box art in the day, with its image of a white-faced vampire with a red bob haircut. A handful of times over the years, somebody would recommend the title to me. It’s one of those eighties cult horror flicks that I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Yet it’s never been memorable or universally acclaimed enough for me to actually bother with it. Well, the time has come for me to finally sit down and watch “Vamp.” Was it worth the wait? Eh, probably not.

AJ and Keith really want to get into a college fraternity. When they foul up the initiation ritual, the boys present an alternative to the frat brothers. They’ll obtain some booze and a stripper for a party. There’s only one problem: AJ and Keith don’t know a stripper. After teaming up with a local dork who owns a car, they find a newspaper ad for the After Dark Club. Unbeknownst to both boys, the club resides in another dimension. A dimension that is ruled over by vampires. After AJ is seduced by Queen Katrina, the most beguiling of the vampire strippers, it’s up to Keith to survive the night and make it home alive.

“Vamp” is certainly one of the most aggressively eighties vampire movies I’ve ever seen. The scenery becomes drenched in neon lights. Radioactive greens and hot pinks characterizes entire sequences. Against this stylish background, the film presents an inconsistent takes on vampires. Some times they have bumpy foreheads and huge incisors. Some times they don’t. There are zombified servants which sometimes act like vampires themselves. This inconsistency also extends to the script. The film lurches wildly between comedy and horror, the two never fusing together satisfactory. Such as when a serious vampire encounter concludes with a corpse flicking someone off. The story moves in starts and pauses, the plot meandering away for long stretches. Characters die and then returning to life. Unimportant subplots receive too much screen time. So that’s another eighties aspect of the movie: The barely coherent script reeks of the cocaine sweats.

When “Vamp” works at all, it’s as an arty bit of eighties sleaze. When inside the strip club, the story at least remains focused. Despite the rowdy setting, the bar patrons remain strangely quiet during the women’s dance numbers. In outrageous costumes, the strippers perform overly choreographed routines to cool, eighties synth music. (They also, notably, remain mostly clothed, suggesting even vampires are confined by alcohol/nudity laws.) The centerpiece of the film is Grace Jones’ appearance as Queen Katrina. Wearing a florescent red wig and white body paint, Jones contorts and slithers around a vaguely humanoid statue. Jones is one of the best things about “Vamp.” She never speaks. Instead, she glares, hisses, struts and stretches. The part perfectly combines Jones’ unearthly quality and her animalistic sexuality. Sadly, Queen Katrina and the strip club setting play far too brief a role in “Vamp.”

As a comedy, “Vamp” is so-so. The opening scene, which begins as a Satanic ritual and degrades into a frat house initiation, is amusing. Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler are entertaining as Keith and AJ. The two have a lived-in, friendly chemistry that suit the parts. The early scenes, devoted to their half-assed attempts to hire a stripper, get some decent laughs. Gedde Watanabe, the Donger himself, has a mildly funny part as super nerd Duncan. An especially kooky moment features Billy Drago as an albino street thug. Notably, all these elements get launched out of the film as the story falls apart. Keith fights his way through the vampire world and the script collapses into a series of barely connecting set pieces. These later scenes are also mostly serious, removing the humor that might have saved “Vamp” if it had been maintained.

Honestly, it seems to me that the creators of “Vamp” had several potent ingredients: Memorable lighting, a few funny jokes, an endearingly sleazy strip club setting, and a phenomenally well cast Grace Jones. Instead of building a stable story around these elements, they just made stuff up. The result is a film that is occasionally inspired but is otherwise too ramshackle. If you listen to Grace Jones’ theme song, watch her dance number, and check out a couple of stills on Googles Images, you’ve experienced the best “Vamp” has to offer. [5/10]

Communion (1989)

Whitney Strieber has had an unusual journey. Once a successful author of horror fiction, whose books include “The Hunger” and “Wolfen,” in the mid-eighties he was allegedly abducted by aliens. Afterwards, Strieber became obsessed with outside-the-mainstream alternative science and philosophy. In addition to his writings on alien abduction, Strieber has also written about the 2012 apocalypse, “natural” cures for cancer and is a frequent guest on Coast to Coast A.M. He’s occasionally shown a sense of humor about it but Strieber is an eccentric at the least and a full-blown crank at the most. “Communion,” his book about his experiences with the visitors, remains his most well-known work. A film adaptation, nearly as bizarre as the story it’s based on, came in 1989.

Whitney lives in New York with his wife and young son. While struggling to write his next book, the Strieber family takes a trip to a vacation cabin in the Catskills. While there, Whitney is haunted by strange dreams and visions. Lights flash through the cabin at night and his son awakes screaming. The night time visitations continue, growing more vivid and disturbing. Entities with thin bodies and oval eyes carry him unto a craft, probing his body. Uncertain if he’s loosing his mind or is truly connecting with otherworldly beings, Whitney fears for his family and his own sanity.

What will attract most people to “Communion,” I suspect, is Christopher Walken. The film came around the same time as “King of New York” and “McBain,” when Walken was still something like a bankable movie star. As expected, Walken brings an unerringly eccentric quality to the lead role. From the earliest scenes, the actor is muttering to himself. He’s dancing and jiving in that uniquely Walken-esque fashion. As the story goes to stranger places, Walken becomes more unhinged. He’s screaming at kids during a Halloween party, freaking out on a bus, and pointing a gun at his own wife. Chris makes idle chit-chat with the aliens aboard their ship, acting slightly stoned. Even a performer as fearless as Walken is uncomfortable with some of the material. Like the anal probing scene, for example. Or when he’s dressed as a stage magician and talking to himself. Reportedly, Walken improvised much of his dialogue. Which is quite obvious. Though the performance is shapeless and unfocused, lost among the aimless script, Walken always makes a compelling oddball.

“Communion” doesn’t comfortably fit into the horror genre, functioning more like a character-based drama. Yet the film’s baffling, sometimes unnerving, weirdness makes other categorization difficult. There are some creepy moments here. Like when Walken spies one of the aliens peeking at him from around a grandfather clock. Or when a hypnotism session seemingly bleeds into reality, the camera focusing intentionally on the actor’s face. Sometimes, the film veers into unintentional comedy. Like when a toy robot comes flying into the bedroom or a grey alien spasmodically flails. More often, “Communion” has an off-beat tone, balancing uncomfortably between dreams and reality. The scenes aboard the alien vessel features bizarre incidents, like a grey floating through the air or Walken dancing with small blue scientists. These moments are shot in a flat, realistic fashion. Some of this might have been intentional. The characters in the movie describe the visitors as being unnerving yet not malevolent. Mostly, these scenes leave the viewer in a very unusual mood.

For every alien abduction freak-out, “Communion” features another scene of its protagonist grappling with said events. Strieber’s family starts to dissolve because of the stress he feels. He has several extended arguments with his wife. Long scenes are devoted to his hypnotherapy sessions. In the last third, Whitney joins a support group for other abductees. These scenes attempt to ground the story’s odd events in some sort of reality. It doesn’t entirely work. Neither Lindsay Crouse as the wife nor Frances Sternhagen as the doctor give convincing performances. Apparently Strieber’s wife and son are both abducted, a subplot which is not focused on. Near the end, the film attempts to resolve its emotional issues with a pair of monologues from Crouse and Sternhagen. What a bizarre decision that was.

“Communion” plays out like a collection of barely connected ideas, never solidifying into an understandable whole. This is abundantly clear in its conclusion, which makes no attempt to explain anything that has happened. Realistic, I suppose, but not very satisfying. Adding further weirdness to the pot is the blues-guitar driven theme song, provided by Eric Clapton. Director Philippe Mora, who has made several notable cult and horror films, contributes a very odd style to the film. It’s sometimes effective but usually off-putting. “Communion” is most successful as a showcase for an off-beat Christopher Walken performance. Though several moments are unforgettably weird, the movie never grasps the lofty goals it reaches for. [6/10]

Atman (1975)

I’ve been on Letterboxd for over a year at this point. The site is a great way to discover movies you otherwise never would have heard about. Like “Atman,” for example. A twelve minute long short film by Japanese art house director Toshio Matsumoto, several fellow Letterboxd reviewers referred to the film as very creepy and unnerving. Sounds like good Horror-fest material, right? Not so fast. “Atman” is an avant garde production. There is no plot. Instead, the short is a continuous shot of a man, wearing a robe and an oni mask, sitting in a desert-like valley. The camera rotates around him, the speed varying from spasmodically fast to frame-by-frame slow. Simultaneously, the film is also zooming in and out on the masked face, sometimes in sudden crash zooms. Different colored filters are applied. A monotonous soundtrack plays throughout.

Is there any point to this? Without a narrative, “Atman” must be approached as a mood piece. The musical score is pretty spooky. The occasional crash zooms on the demonic face are mildly startling. As the repetitive sequence stretches on for twelve minutes, the film does begin to feel like a weird occult ritual committed to film. However, the film technique is abrasive. If “Atman” only ran two or three minutes, it probably would’ve been alright. But twelve minutes of this shit stretches the material far pass its novelty value. Is there any deeper meaning to “Atman?” I have no idea. While the short is sort of interesting, the endless buzzing of the soundtrack and the constantly flashing on screen quickly becomes irritating. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

The visuals this movie creates are nothing like what I imagined while reading the book. Communion the book was genuinely scary, where this movie is disjointed and almost silly. Christopher Walken was not a good choice to play Whitney Strieber. He's too quirky or too odd to generate much sympathy.

I don't recall if the book was this trippy. What I mean by that is Strieber's recollection and later hypnotically-induced memories are so scatter shot. It's really tough to stay interested. I thought Lindsay Crouse was good as Mrs. Strieber. She really grounded things and was the real voice of reason through the craziness.

The alien creations are very disappointing and the special effects are all bright lights and fog.(4/10)