Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 21, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 20

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

I reviewed “Cloverfield” two Halloweens back when I was marathoning kaiju films. At the end of that review, I noted how the long discussed sequel was probably never going to be made. Little did I know, likely around that same time, a follow-up to “Cloverfield” was in development. Befitting the mystery box approach producer J. J. Abrams loves so much, “10 Cloverfield Lane” was filmed under a different title, before an oblique trailer announced the truth. Of course, “10 Cloverfield Lane” isn’t a direct sequel to the found footage flick. It’s said to be set in the same universe, to share DNA with the original. In truth, Abrams and co were using the time tested tactic of tagging a known property to an untested project. Ultimately, this matters little as “10 Cloverfield Lane” is an effective thriller in its own right.

Following an argument with her boyfriend, Michelle leaves town suddenly. Driving down a dark back road, she’s struck by another vehicle. She awakens in a fall-out shelter owned by a man named Howard. He assures her that the kidnapping was for her own safety. He claims some sort of chemical attack, either foreign or alien in nature, has happened above. That the world has effectively ended and they are now survivors in the apocalypse. At first, Michelle doubts his outrageous claims. Soon, she discovers that he’s more right then she assumed. Howard, however, proves to be more dangerous then whatever is outside.

I only recently became familiar with the term “cozy apocalypse.” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” however, seems like a deliberate deconstruction. Michelle seeks to escape at first, fighting Howard, deliberately undermining his rules. After a major escape attempt, she realizes some bad shit has gone down overhead. What results is a surprisingly comfortable existence. Howard’s bunker is well stocked with movies, snack food, and books. (They watch “Pretty in Pink” and what appears to be an Italian cannibal movie.) He even has a jukebox! The trio – which include a likable good ol’ boy named Emmet – play board games and put together jigsaw puzzles. It looks comfortable, if not fun. However, “10 Cloverfield Lane” soon comes around to the point that it would not be nice living with a serious survivalist. Howard’s dangerous nature, which includes a vanished daughter, is slowly revealed. The viewer and the characters go through the same process, questioning if they can trust this man, before the film reveals how unsafe Howard is.

Mostly, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is built around two wonderful performances. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, now and forever Ramona Flowers, shows a real steel as Michelle. Her attempts to escape Howard reveals an on-her-foot ingenuity that continues to define the character. Yet Winstead also gets some vulnerable moments, showing a nice range. Michelle has a standard but deeply satisfying character arc. Goodman, meanwhile, is even better. Intentionally playing against his sitcom dad image, Howard can be deeply avuncular at times. When push comes to shove, he reveals how unstable he is. He’s a control freak who has some serious hang-ups about women, seeing them all as innocent little girls that need protecting. Any attempt to violate that conception makes him angry. There is a sympathetic side to this too, as Howard is also a deeply sad person. (John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett is funny but has a lot less to work with.)

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is probably not the best choice for October, as it belongs more to the sci-fi or thriller genre then horror. There is still quite a bit of intensity to be had. There’s a bracing encounter with the outside world, a sick woman knocking on the bunker door. A game of Pictonary builds in tension, the captives fearful Howard has discovered their secret. When he discovers what they’re up to, his next action is genuinely shocking. The showdown that follows gets surprisingly violent, the viewer truly wondering if our heroine can escape safely. The last act produces a big twist that would’ve been more surprising if the TV ads and posters didn’t spoil it. There’s way more special effects, explosions, and sci-fi elements then you might be expecting. The ending takes this small story in a big direction, without fumbling. It’s pretty cool that “10 Cloverfield Lane” keeps finding ways to catch the audience off-guard.

Strong performances and a clever script makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” worth checking out. Director Dan Trachtenberg, whose most prominent former credit is a “Portal” fan film, keeps the intensity high throughout. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed when I learned that the Cloverfield Monster doesn’t appear in any form, that this “blood relative’s” connection to the original film is truly minor. Even without a giant monster, the film functions extremely well, keeping the viewers on their toes, entertaining and thrilling. Now there’s talks of a third film. While Michelle’s further adventures could be neat, I think I’d rather see “Cloverfield” become an anthology series, each film telling a different sci-fi/horror story. [7/10]

Terror Train (1980)

Over the years, through the various Halloween Blog-a-thons and Director Report Cards, I’ve reviewed most of the horror films Jamie Lee Curtis starred in during the late seventies and early eighties. This year, I intend on getting to the few remaining ones. Like “Terror Train,” for example. Shot in Canada, like “Prom Night,” the film was dismissed for years as another forgettable slasher pic. After all, it didn’t spawn any sequels. At some point, galvanized by the internet’s ability to uncover anything, “Terror Train’s” reputation turned around. Now it’s considered a minor classic. So which is it? Which track do we proceed on? Let’s find out.

During a college fraternity New Year’s party, some bad shit goes down. The frat plays a prank on resident loser, Kenny, by tricking him into making out with a corpse. Kenny goes insane, winding up in a mental hospital. Three years later, the same frat is throwing a New Year’s costume party, this time on a train. Before the train pulls out of the station, someone sneaks aboard. He begins killing the fraternity members, stealing their costumes after each murder. Soon, only Alana – a girl who reluctantly participated in the prank – is left standing. Is Kenny responsible or is someone else behind the mask?

“Terror Train” is standard slasher stuff. Many of the genre’s clichés are present. You’ve got the crime in the past, the isolated location, the prankster character, the sex and violence. The black guy nearly dies first. Despite Kenny obviously being the murderer, the film sets up a superfluous red herring. What makes “Terror Train” worth seeking out is its funky, party atmosphere. There’s lots of disco dancing, slightly less then “Prom Night,” all set to groovy white people soul. Director Roger Spottiswoode, years before he made blockbusters like “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shot” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” contributes some colorful direction. There’s lots of neon lighting, greens and blues. This style climaxes during David Copperfield’s magic tricks, which are dramatically lit. The film is set on New Year’s Eve. However, considering everyone is in costume, I purposely ignore a few lines of dialogue and just pretend it’s Halloween.

In truth, the goofy party scenes are way more entertaining then the horror elements. The gore is fairly mild, as far as these things go. The film usually cuts away right before the killing blow. We see a head smashed into a mirror or a knife slice a throat. There’s more blood in the aftermath. Such as a bleeding body left in the bathroom or a decapitated head tumbling out of a bunk. The film attempts to play the suspense straight, so there’s no grand, theatrical death scenes. Instead, there’s long chase scenes. Only the last of which, involving Jamie Lee hiding in a cage, generates any tension. The biggest novelty is the killer’s gimmick. Kenny switches costumes after each murder. He starts out wearing a Groucho Marx get-up, which got the poster art treatment. Throughout the film, he progresses through a bitchin’ lizard man costume, a lame parrot get-up, and a mildly cool monk’s robe and old man mask.

Throughout my years in the slasher fandom, I’ve met a number of people who genuinely enjoy the characters in flicks such as these. I sometimes understand this tendency but, in the case of “Terror Train,” it’s mostly a pretty generic lot. Jamie Lee Curtis is as charismatic as usual, though Alana isn’t as distinctive as Laurie Strode or “Prom Night’s” Kim. Ben Johnson has a nice role as the heroic conductor, silently attempting to control the violence before it gets out of hand. Hart Bochner and Sandee Currie are mildly memorable as Doc and Mitchy, partiers in various states of drunkenness. Lastly, the film features David Copperfield’s only attempt at acting. Reportedly, the character was inserted into the film because the producer’s wife was a fan of the illusionist. Copperfield is pretty much playing himself and his extended sequences of magic bring the pace to a sudden stop.

I wouldn’t call “Terror Train” a classic, minor or otherwise. It’s not very memorable all together, save for one or two scenes. The train setting is slightly unique. I imagine most of its following stems from nostalgia over late night television screenings or VHS rentals at slumber parties. But I guess it’s not bad either. Notably, there have been two attempts to remake the film. The first, entitled simply "Train," eventually severed all connection with the original and became a dour, stand alone torture flick. A proper remake was announced in 2009 but never went before cameras. Which is a bit of a bummer, since “Terror Train’s” stock parts script means a remake could do anything it wanted. All you would need is a killer, a train, and a costume party. That leaves a lot of wiggle room. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Monkey

I don’t know how “Lost Tapes’” producers decided which monsters to showcase, though I suspect how cheaply they could be brought to life was a big motivator. The Devil Monkey of Appalachia seems like an awfully obscure creature to build a show around. The episode follows a trio of ATF officers, searching the forest for moonshine stills. They’re followed by a reporter, filming a story for a local West Virginian station. As they venture into the woods, they discover strange animal marks and blood. After uncovering a still, they find a screaming teenage victim, nearly driven to madness. The ferocious Devil Monkey soon follows.

The Devil Monkey sounds preposterous. And, I mean, it is. However, once you think about it, a giant baboon/chimp would probably be pretty scary. “Devil Monkey” is one of season three’s better moments. Recalling the first season, the creature is kept off-screen most of the episode. We hear him pounding on the shed and see the grisly remains of his victims. The dismembered bodies means this is one of the goriest “Lost Tapes’ episode. The story, of cops investigating local crime, already produces a tense tone. Disappointingly, once the creature appears on-screen, much of that tension is lost. The Devil Monkey is clearly a guy in a suit and not a convincing one. The found footage angle is fairly dumb. Once again, the heroine waits until the very end to drop the camera. However, the down-beat ending is another welcomed return to the series’ earlier episodes. The documentary segments share genuinely unnerving chimp attack facts and features stock footage from “Night of the Living Dead!” The writers, however, missed a chance to connect the Devil Monkey with the Monkey Man of New Dahli. I mean, that’s what I would’ve done. [6/10]

Frankenstein (1910)

Unlike Animal Planet’s “Lost Tapes,” lost films are a slightly more pressing concern. For years, the 1910 silent version of “Frankenstein” was thought lost. Produced at Thomas Edison’s studio, it was the earliest film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Luckily for horror historians, a nitrate copy was uncover in the seventies. Now, thanks to the public domain and the internet, 1910’s “Frankenstein” can be easily found and watched by anyone. It’s a highly condensed version of the story, shoving the whole novel into thirteen minutes. Frankenstein leaves college in the first scene and uncovers the secrets of life and death during an intertitle. The monster is created, dismissed by his father, and returns to threaten the doctor’s wedding night in quick succession. Unlike Shelley’s original, this version has a happy and slightly surreal ending.

Edison’s “Frankenstein” – that’s what people call the film even though J. Searle Dawley directed it – is more interesting for its historical value then its aesthetics. Like most early films, the direction is extremely flat. The short is basically a filmed stage play. The performances are extremely theatrical. Charles Ogle as the creature gesticulates wildly. Augustus Philips’ take on Dr. Frankenstein is similarly overdone. The confrontation between monster and creator is extremely underwhelming. They struggle for a second before the doctor waves a burning beaker at the homunculus, prompting his hasty retreat. There’s at least one long scene without titles, where characters talk about something. Edison’s studio reportedly played down the story’s horrific content, in favor of romance, which only explains some of the above.

Despite these short comings, the first “Frankenstein” does have some neat stuff in it. The most notable sequence is devoted to the monster’s creation. This Frankenstein doesn’t stitch his creature together from dead bodies. Instead, Charles Ogle is assembled inside an odd chamber, the body coming together from loose materials and fire. This is obviously just a model burning in reverse but the effect is memorable. The creature’s design mostly resembles a hairy hunchback. However, he does have the same flat head that Boris Karloff would sport twenty-one years later.  (It’s not as cool looking as the Silent Screamers action figure based on it.) The ending is goofy but unique. Considering its availability, briefness, and historical importance, there’s no reason not to check it out. But Frankenstein movies would come a long way over the years. [6/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

The cast of 10 Cloverfield Lane is great. The direction is terrific. I had no idea that Dan Trachtenberg could do this. He'd always been the quieter cast member on the old Revision 3 web channel's "The Totally Rad Show" (I miss it). It's going to be fun seeing what he does next.

John Goodman is awesome as a mostly calm, psychotic survivalist keeping two hostages. This is a really taut thriller. It kept me riveted and constantly guessing what would happen next. The last 20 minutes is bonkers. The only thing that knocks it down from a potentially excellent rating from me is the last moment of the film. It didn't quite satisfy.

Here's hoping this is the beginning of an anthology series. A "Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" style series feels much needed these days.(8/10)