Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 22

The Innocents (1961)

The English ghost story is a tradition with a long and proud history. Maybe the best example of that genre, at least on film anyway, is “The Innocents.” Based off Henry James’ classic story, “The Turn of the Screw,” the film came out in 1961. Befitting the time, it represents an interesting half-way point between the classic horror of the previous three decades and the more explicit horror that would come to prominence in the sixties. It is a gothic ghost story in the truest sense. Yet its story, of sexual repression and spiritual corruption, point towards themes that would become important in the quickly changing world.

Miss Giddens, despite her youth and inexperienced, is hired to be the governess to two young children. Orphans, their rich uncle is far too preoccupied with his business ventures to care for the kids. Giddens quickly grows attached to sweet Flora and the mischievous Miles. Not long after coming to live on the estate, Giddens begins to see ghost-like figures. She learns that the previous governess committed suicide, following the death of her abusive boyfriend, Quint the valet. Giddens also notices the increasingly strange behavior of the children, beginning to fear that adult spirits are influencing and possessing their young minds.

“The Innocents” owes much to its power to the story’s ambiguity. This is one of the few films that truly supports the possibility that the supernatural activity is all in the protagonist’s head. Miss Giddens is a sexually repressed, proper English lady. At night, she tosses and turns, as if having dreams about desires she can’t face. When she hears the previous governess’ story, two people dying isn’t what upsets her. Instead, she’s disturbed that the couple was openly sexual, that they used “rooms by daylight as if they were dark woods.” That the children might have looked up to such people, that they might have been influenced by them, deeply unnerves Giddens. The ghosts, if they actually exist, boil just below the surface like Giddens’ repressed sexuality. And if they don’t exist, Giddens denying her basic human nature is driving her crazy.

Of course, children acting sexually is unnerving. The film’s title refers to the two kids and suggests the creeping possibility that they aren’t so innocent after all. The governess freaks out about seeing the kids whisper to each other. Miles leaves the house at night, walking in the garden. Flora dances alone on the dock while it rains. During a game of dress-up, the boy recites an unnerving poem. They lie and tell half-truths. One of the film’s most chilling sequence has the little boy giving the governess a kiss, which lingers on the lip longer then appropriate. If it’s true that the kids are possessed by the spirits of sadomasochistic adults, that’s disturbing. If not, this is actually normal kid behavior. Giddens’ paranoia is unduly emphasizing behavior typical for kids that age. Once again, it’s up to the viewer whether or not this is a story of ghostly possession or if “The Innocents” is merely giving us a peak at the secret lives of children.

These elements make “The Innocents” great. What makes the movie scary is its atmosphere. This is the film that made cinematographer Freddie Francis’ name, likely leading to him directing several horror films in the sixties and seventies. “The Innocents” looks like a high-contrast painting brought to life, existing in deep black and whites. Francis films the mansion setting like its another world, peering up through a spiral staircase or down a hallway. The photography combines with the genuinely haunting sound design – the reoccurring song the children sing is especially eerie – to create a perfect, ghostly atmosphere. When the ghosts appear, “The Innocents” captures a creeping tone of classical spookiness. Sometimes, the thrills are obvious, like a spectral face reaching through a window. Sometimes, they are calmer, like an unidentified figure appearing in the distant. By the end, “The Innocents'” psychological ambiguities combine with its more obvious, ghost story elements, creating an intense climax.

Deborah Kerr is excellent in the lead part, by the way. The child actors would make other notable genre appearances. Pamela Franklin would become a scream queen in her own right. Martin Stephens, meanwhile, would also appear in “Village of the Damned,” another classic of British horror. “The Innocents” would, surprisingly, be followed by a prequel. “The Nightcomers” cast Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beachum as the doomed valet and governess. Exploitation auteur Michael Winner took over for Jack Clayton. Which, by all accounts, might explain while that film is both more explicit and nowhere near as good as this one. Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” has been adapted several times since then but “The Innocents” remains the best cinematic version. [9/10]

The Relic (1997)

I’ve always thought of “The Relic” as the last of the dying breed. The film was a big budget, studio produced, R-rated monster movie, full of traditional creature effects. By the late nineties, such things were on their way out. CGI would take over for latex and puppetry. Studios would rarely invest major money in gory creature features, as the years went on. “The Relic” wasn’t a hit in its day, failing to recoup its budget. Yet the advertising campaign always stuck with me. When I got glimpses of the movie’s monster – a tusked lizard creature the size of a rhino – that stuck with me too. While “The Relic” is far from a classic, I’ve always felt it’s a bit on the underrated side.

Dr. Green, a biologist working the Chicago Museum of Natural History, receives a strange crate. Inside are seemingly ordinary leafs and a shattered a relic, a statue of a mythological monster called the Kothoga. Detective D’Agosta believes the crate is connected to a grisly murder that occurred on a cargo ship recently. Seemingly, the murders have resumed inside the museum. Around the same time, the museum is opening a new exhibit about ancient superstitious. Soon, the detective and the biologist discover that a strange creature is responsible, growing out of the contents of the crate.

A museum is a cool and rarely utilized setting for a horror film. “The Relic” makes the most of it. Peter Hyams, who made the film between “Sudden Death” and “End of Days,” creates a dark atmosphere. The dimly lit corridors of the museum are often spooky. The new superstition exhibit is inside a faux-cave set-up, through an entrance like a giant mouth. Even the public bathroom, under sickly fluorescent bulbs, become kind of eerie. Throughout this setting, “The Relic” engineers some successful chase scenes. Dr. Green is pursued by something, running through the new exhibit, eventually hiding in a bathroom. (This sequence has a neat, switch-a-roo denouncement.) The monster spends most of the film hiding in the tunnels below the museum, a shadowy location that is well used for similarly frenzied chase scenes.

The monster is, undoubtedly, the main attraction of “The Relic.” The Kogotha is mostly kept off-screen for first half. We only see a claw or quick flash of teeth. This is an effective way to build intrigue around the creature, making it’s slow reveal count more. The script calls it a chimera, the monster roughly being a mash-up of a tiger, a wolf, a gecko, and a stag beetle. (And, we discover later, human.) Mostly, I just see a giant reptilian beast with huge snapping jaws. One that likes to eat brains and snap off heads. A key sequence has the Kogotha tearing through a crowded room, removing heads and tossing people through glass. “The Relic” is unapologetically gory, showing the monster's grisly habits in detail. The Kogotha is brought to life with glorious practical effects, a giant monster prop interacting with real actors. Occasionally, Stan Winston’s excellent effects are traded out for unconvincing CGI, which is all too obvious and deeply disappointing.

“The Relic’s” large cast can be evenly split in two. There’s the main protagonists. Penelope Ann Miller is spunky as Dr. Green. She is defined just as much by how she studies the science behind the monster as she is by how fast she can run. Tom Sizemore, in an unexpected turn of events, is down-to-earth and likable as Detective D’Agosta. A reoccurring gag about his recent divorce, and the fate of his dog, is funny. The two have a nice chemistry together, making their scenes together a joy to watch. Sadly, that only accounts for some of “The Relic’s” cast. Long scenes are devoted to the people in the museum, alternatively running and hiding from the beast. Most of these characters are whiny and annoying. Splitting the audience’s attention between the two was a mistake. Any time the film cuts away to the crowds inside the museum’s atrium, we just want to get back to the characters we actually like.

Still, “The Relic” is a bloody good time for horror freaks. A film about a giant monster eating people was a throwback in 1997. This is doubly true in 2016. It’s a really cool monster too. What fan following the flick has seems to be because of the creature. There’s even been some toys and model kits of it, the ultimate sign of approval from monster kids. While the film built around that monster is not always compelling, it gets the job done. Fun performances from Miller and Sizemore help a lot. Light weight if a little too long, “The Relic” still goes down easily in the back half of October. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Wendigo

The wendigo is a fascinating mythological creature that is too often reduced to “generic American Indian monster.” “Lost Tapes” at least gets the cannibalism part right, even if they drop the ball on everything else. A quartet of college students go camping in the Appalachian woods. After a few days, they become lost. A few days more, they run out of food. A week later, something begins to kill the kids. Soon afterwards, a search party is assembled to find the students. The walk through the woods is recorded. They discover one of the students is still alive. They also uncover partially eaten human remains. The truth is soon revealed: One of the guys has become a wendigo, the cannibalistic spirit of Algonquian folklore.

Like any other modern found footage project, “Lost Tapes” owes a large debt to “The Blair Witch Project.” “Wendigo,” however, is the first episode that blatantly rips it off. The scenes of people wandering the woods, lost and confused, are condensed into a few minutes. The recorded scenes of people panicking, running, and discovering weird shit hanging in the trees are right out of “Blair Witch.” The episode ends with a character apologizing to a camera for what happens, a bold steal from that film. Aside from copying that highly influential film, “Wendigo” doesn’t offer much else. The monster is a guy with a deer skull on his head, which is underwhelming. Despite mostly being human, the wendigo makes an obnoxious screaming noise. There’s an attempt at a creepy moment, when the creature calls to the survivors with a human voice. But it’s no use. “Wendigo” is “Lost Tapes” in a lame mood. Not even the utterly earnest expert interview, which bring up Wendigo Psychosis despite the episode not utilizing this, can save this one. [4/10]

He Took His Skin Off for Me (2014)

Here’s another quasi-horror short that was making the rounds on the internet a while back, mostly thanks to its “what the fuck?” value. “He Took His Skin Off for Me” is exactly what it sounds like. A woman asks her boyfriend to remove his skin for her. He does so, hanging his dermus up in the closest like an old coat. He spends the rest of the short with his muscles and nerves exposed. At first, the woman is thrilled. Soon though, the realities of living without skin start to weigh on both of them.

“He Took His Skin Off for Me” is a story about how far one will go to please a lover. Most people don’t remove their skin to make a boy/girlfriend happy but people undoubtedly go to extreme lengths, sometimes, to meet a partner’s request. The short is narrated by Anna Maguire, who plays the girlfriend. She dryly, whimsically comments on the differences. About the blood stains constantly left around the house, meaning she has to scrub the floor and wash the sheets every day. The most effecting scene, for me, involves a dinner party. There, the skinless man tries to hide how uncomfortable the change has made him. By the short’s end, it becomes clear who is willing to sacrifice more, leading to a slightly disturbing conclusion.

Horror fans will be drawn to “He Took His Skin Off for Me” for its excellent special effects. No CGI is utilized, the skinless man brought to life strictly through make-up. The actor, Sebastian Armesto, has no problem expressing through the get-up. A skinless body walking around is a disturbing idea, countered by the short’s light-hearted tone. The brief sequences of peeling skin are fairly squirm inducing too. Between the great effects and the quietly considered script, “He Took His Skin Off for Me” is definitely worth the eleven minutes it’ll take to watch it. [7/10]

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