Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 21

M (1931) 
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

After watching “Mad Love” the other day, I felt the need to revisit Peter Lorre’s star-making turn in “M.” Released in 1931 – the same year as “Dracula,” “Frankenstien,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – the film is generally considered the first ever to portray a serial killer. Though more properly described as a crime story, this marks it as hugely important to the horror genre. Director Fritz Lang, already a critically acclaimed filmmaker by ’31, referred to it as his favorite of his own films, pointing to the social criticism in the script. Like the dark streets of Lang’s expressionistic direction, “M” cast a long shadow over the entirety of cinema.

The city of Berlin is gripped with fear. Someone is abducting and murdering children, little girls. Eight have already been claimed. Fear over the killer drives the city into a hysteria. The police increase their patrols, which hampers the business of Berlin’s criminal underground. Incensed, the crooks launch their own man-hunt for the murderer. Eventually, he is found. His name is Hans Beckert and he is a paranoid, sick, pathetic man. Beckert is soon on the run from the cops, the criminals, and his own haunted memory.

“M” was Lang’s first sound film. Like many early talkies, “M” has long, silent stretches. A sequence devoted to the criminals filling their bar is one such example. Despite this, Lang often makes novel use of sound. The opening scene is still haunting. We follow the little girl as she plays with her friends, leaving school. We see Beckert’s shadow as he approaches her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Lang cuts between Beckert’s calm abduction of the child with her mother worrying at home. The scene ends with silence, the girl’s balloon floating away, caught in phone lines. Lang creates other striking, stark moments throughout the film. The director often assumes a roaming, voyeuristic point of view, watching the killer and others from afar. This creates a constant sense of unease, of watching and being watched. The black and white photography is gorgeous, rooted in the reality of 1930s Berlin yet also visually inventive, recalling Lang’s work on “Metropolis.”

“M” also shows how hysteria can grip an otherwise calm populace. As the man-hunt for the child killer grows more intense, the populace becomes more willing to pin the crime on anyone. A friendly game of cards comes to a sudden end when one man accuses the other of being the killer. A mob quickly descends on a gentleman innocently talking to a child on the street, shouting and attacking him. All the while, Hans Beckert continues his habit, unobserved by anyone.  The police’s investigation, which Lang portrays austerely as a grounded procedural, seems to only embolden the public’s frenzy more. The film keenly portrays how a crime can overtake a city, innocent people driven to violence by fear and paranoia.

The central plot of “M,” of criminals hunting another criminal, presents a further oppretunity for social criticism. The thieves, safe crackers, and other petty crooks say they’re disgusted by the murders. A notable scene has a shopkeeper explaining to a police officer how even the hardest criminal loves children. Yet the vile murders aren’t what force the criminal underground towards action. Instead, it’s their illegal enterprises being interrupted by the cops that upset them. In its final act, “M” presents a parody of the justice system. The thieves and murderers apprehend Beckert and stand him before a jury of other crooks. (Amusingly, it’s pointed out how these repeat offenders might as well be experts in the law.) The convicted is eager to point out the hypocrisy of being judged by other breakers of the law. “M” sharply condemns the self-righteous, those who believes themselves better then anyone.

In truth, “M” ultimately presents a message of mercy. Not only is Hans Beckert the first cinematic serial killer, he’s also the first sympathetic cinematic killer. Beckert can be calculating, such as when he sends a taunting letter to the press or when he easily convinces a child to trust him. Yet Lorre’s performance is mostly characterized by pulsing, deeply human insecurity. Beckert is always looking over his shoulder, sweating, eyes bulging, mad with paranoia. The way he’s doggedly pursue in the last half can’t help but court audience’s sympathies. The film’s powerful climax has Beckert pleading with the kangaroo court. In a shrieked, wild monologue, Hans screams about his uncontrollable urge to kill. How he hates his desires but is caught in an inescapable loop, murdering and then regretting his actions but killing again to escape the stress. Beckert is despicable but he’s also ill. “M’s” final, chilling scene makes it clear that, no matter what happens to the killer, nothing can bring the dead children back.

The police procedural scenes can be a bit dry. When the audience is most concerned with what’s happening to Beckert, Lang cuts away to long shots of the cop interrogating a witness. Critics in 1931 had a similar criticism, saying the film was a little long. The available version, for years, was cut by about ten minutes, likely clipping these scenes. For its flaws, “M” is still a staggering masterpiece, a powerful and insightful film that resonates even today. Lorre’s incredible performance, Lang’s atmospheric direction, and a sharp screenplay creates a film that has often been imitated but rarely been matched. [9/10]

Hunter’s Blood (1986)

Have I mentioned what a timid kid I was recently? Here’s another example. As a kid, my local Blockbuster kept the horror section right by the new releases. Often, I would take brief glances at the VHS boxes, hoping to catch sight of something that scared me. This is how much of a wimp I was: One look at the “Hunter’s Blood” artwork was enough for me to turn away. It’s not even an especially scary cover, is it? A bleeding body, sprawled on what I thought at the time was snow? (Turns out its water.) But something about it freaked me out. Naturally, when I saw that same cover art at the VHSPS booth at Monster-Mania, I had to pick it up. See what all the internal hubbub was about.

Plot wise, “Hunter’s Blood” owes an obvious debt to “Deliverance.” Five city boys drive off to the Arkansas country side for a weekend hunting trip. The group is composed of David, his father Rand, his uncle Al, Al’s son Ralph, and mutual friend Marty. Once there, some park rangers warn them that people have disappeared in these woods. Soon, the five stumble upon a poaching operation, selling illegally killed deer to a big burger company. They bust the deprived rednecks responsible but the poachers don’t stay captured for long. As the night goes on, the Yankees have to fight for their lives against the dangerous southerners.

“Hunter’s Blood’s” earliest scenes of manly bonding are deeply silly. There’s some torturous long character establishing scene, devoted to the guys driving around and talking. The city boys do everything possible to piss off the locals. Marty snaps pictures of a redneck as if he’s an animal in the zoo. They pick fights with a gang in a seedy bar. This leads to an utterly ridiculous pick-up truck chase. There’s even some banjo music on the soundtrack! Sillier still is the sequence devoted to the men passing a joint around the campfire, which concludes with a high-pitch helium voice. The protagonists aren’t much to write about though the cast is decent. Sam Bottoms is a standard hero type but Clu Gulager and Ken Swofford are entertaining as the older gentlemen.

Once the redneck crazies wander on-screen, “Hunter’s Blood” perks up considerably. They disturb the campfire, literally pissing on the men. They glower and spit, acting like Southern fried menaces. The film lines up a number of memorable character actors to play the degenerates. Lee de Broux, best known for bit parts in “RoboCop” and “Pumpkinhead,” plays the gang’s leader, relying on silent intimidation. Billy Drago appears as a character named Snake – of course he does – and brings a great deal of crazy-eyed glee to the part. Mickey Jones, who I recognizes from “Home Improvement,” is an especially gross redneck weirdo. Even Charles Cyphers and Billy Bob Thorton show up! Yet none of the villains make an impression like Bruce Glover. Playing One-Eye, so named because of his cataract covered left eye, Glover goes nuts. He screams, slobbers, glares, and acts totally demented, inhabiting the part of a deprived hillbilly psycho. It’s good to know Bruce’s kid got his knack for playing crazy from his dad.

“Hunter’s Blood” gets increasingly sleazy as it rolls along. What starts as a lightly comedic backwoods adventure evolves towards brain-dead action. After stumbling upon the poaching operation, one of the guys gets into a mud fight with Drago. Following this, the film takes a hard turn into bloody horror. The rednecks slit one park ranger lengthwise, leaving his body hanging from a tree. They decapitate the other, impaling his head on a stick. A shotgun blast practically decapitates one minor character. Someone is stabbed with deer antlers. Before the end, “Hunter’s Blood” even shovels in some greasy sleaze. In addition to the poaching and moonshining, we discover the backwoods criminal are also running a sex slavery ring. The hero’s girlfriend, reappearing randomly midway through the film, is nearly kidnapped by the slavers and threatened with rape. It’s a surprisingly grisly change but also makes “Hunter’s Blood” way more entertaining as it goes along.

I ended up having a good time with “Hunter’s Blood,” even if the film does little to break out of the clichés of the savage south subgenre. Aside from the general premise, the film has other aspects in common with “Deliverance.” A character is injured early on, dragged around by the others for the reminder of the story. Luckily, no one squeals like a pig. Mostly, catch this one for a few surprising moments of gore, an appealing greasy Southern setting, and a completely demented Bruce Glover performance. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Yeti

“Lost Tapes” was usually dumb but occasionally touched upon a clever idea. Any cryptozoology series will have to cover the Yeti eventually. Filming an entire episode on a snowy hill top was outside the low budget show’s limited means. So this is the work-around they cooked up. A billionaire explorer goes missing while climbing the Himalayan Mountains. However, his major discovery is found and shipped towards America aboard a cargo ship. A pair of journalists bribe a disgruntled dock worker and sneak aboard the ship before the next day’s press conference. They record their big scoop. What they find is a busted crate that obviously contained a living specimen. That live specimen – an exceedingly pissed off yeti – finds them next.

“Killer yeti on an empty cargo ship” is a premise with an undeniable pulpy appeal. “Yeti” makes good use of the claustrophobic setting. The dark interior of the ship, usually lit in bright red, helps build a tense environment. The characters being pursued through the tight corridors and winding tunnel by a huge, angry monster creates some thrills. That the Yeti is so ferocious makes him an even more viable threat. He tears a dude’s arm off, for one example. For once, the running and screaming filled finale pulls the viewer in. Making the protagonists journalists willing to break the law changes the context of the usual downbeat ending. For once, the characters arguably deserve to be torn apart by a monster. The documentary segments are devoted to rehashing the yeti mythology but at least the interviews stay on topic. [7/10]

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

In 2005, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society – essentially an elaborate role-playing group – had a neat idea. They were going to adapt Lovecraft’s most popular and influential story to the screen. Yet the group didn’t intend to make a standard adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Instead, they imagined what an active filmmaker in 1926, the year Lovecraft wrote the story, might have done with the tale. Thus, 2005’s “The Call of Cthulhu” is presented as a silent two-reeler, the complete picture running fifteen minutes shy of an hour. While the effect is not entirely seamless, director Andrew Leman does an excellent job of capturing the tone and spirit of a silent film while paying due respects to Lovecraft’s work.

Being made by the faithful admirers at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the film is deeply fidelitous to the story. It maintains Lovecraft’s somewhat clumsy, flashback heavy plot structure. A narrator tells his story of uncovering his granduncle’s mad tales to a friend. A statue of a bizarre, octopus-headed creature reappears multiple times. This recollection spirals back to several different characters: An artist driven insane by a nightmares of a bizarre city, floating at sea. A police detective uncovering a strange cult in the New Orleans bayou, seemingly worshiping the same deity. Finally, a Norwegian sailor shares his terrifying encounter with the same city and the god-like entity that dwells there. Lovecraft’s text relies on the power of suggestion. Somehow, by turning H.P.’s long descriptions of eldritch things into black and white images, the filmmakers have maintained that same creeping sense of dread.

Andrew Leman and his team, for the most part, successfully replicate the look and feel of a silent film. Occasionally, the seams show. The short’s use of CGI is noticeable from time to time, especially in the shots of the shifting sleeping city or the swamp bound cultists. Yet the director nailed the black-and-white atmosphere. The scenes of a police carriage driving through the night streets or a countryman leading the detective to the cult’s bayou lair feature an impressive, foggy atmosphere. There are some inventive camera angles, involving people stepping through dark doorways or clerks stamping papers. Smartly, the filmmakers rely on “Dr. Caligari”-style expressionistic sets to portray the risen city of R’lyeh. This furthers the nightmare tone while adequately capturing Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean architecture.

While it’s hard to call something as intentionally stodgy as “Call of Cthulhu” scary, the short does feature some nicely spooky moments. The cult’s activity in the swamps rises to a frenzied, unnerving pace. Later, one of the cult member’s insane rantings to a police officer builds in intensity. The short regards the titular Elder God’s appearance correctly. Cthulhu is portrayed through some nifty – though probably too advanced for 1926 – stop motion animation. He remains mostly in the shadows, maintaining his mystery and sense of mind-shattering danger. “The Call of Cthulhu” is probably best enjoyed by hardcore Lovecraft fans but is still very well made, considering its more-or-less a fancy fan film. The HPLHS would try something similar several years later. Their feature adaption of “The Whisperer in Darkness” done in the style of a 1930s monster movie, wouldn’t be as successful. [8/10]

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