Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 24, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 23

You’re Next (2011)

Back in 2013, I barely knew who Adam Wingard was. “A Horrible Way to Die” had been recommended to me a few times but I still haven’t caught up with it. I had seen the first “V/H/S” but Wingard’s framing device was one of the less memorable parts of that anthology. The advertising campaign for “You’re Next” made it look like another dreary home invasion flick. In other words, I went into the film with few expectations. Which may be the best way to watch it, as “You’re Next” delights in upturning audience expectations. Now, I’m a big fan of Adam Wingard, considering him our post-modern John Carpenter. That transformation began here.

Crispin rides to a family dinner, built around celebrating his parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. His Australian girlfriend Erin tags along. Once they arrive at the family mansion, Erin sees firsthand how dysfunctional Crispin’s family is. His brothers, Drake and Felix, clearly resent him, often getting into arguments. His sister, Aimee, is clearly the favored child. Mom is wrecked with anxiety, popping multiple pills. Family squabbling is interrupted when a crossbow bolt crashes through a window, killing Aimee’s boyfriend. Three men in animal mask enter the home, attacking and killing the family. But Erin gives them something they didn’t expect.

The home invasion flick was fairly played out by 2013, when “You’re Next” finally received a wide release. The likes of “Funny Games,” “The Strangers,” and “The Purge” had already come and gone. “You’re Next” plays out like a standard member of the subgenre, Wingard adding a little more slasher for seasoning. The first attack scene builds nicely, only one person noticing something outside before receiving an arrow to the forehead. There’s some other clever gags, like a length of razor wire strung outside a door, waiting for someone to run into it. The slasher elements emerge from the attackers wearing distinctive mask, a nice touch. A machete and axe come into place, utilized in bloody throat slittings and head smashing. Wingard’s visual design is a bit shaky, an attempt to build tension that doesn’t quite work.

Had “You’re Next” continued down this path, it would’ve been a decently constructed but widely uninteresting flick. Screenwriter Simon Barrett has other plans. Erin, it turns out, isn’t your typical final girl. She was raised by survivalists and is totally prepared for an attack like this. She knows exactly what to do, guarding perimeters and handling wounds. She brutally dispatched one of the men, cracking his knee and then his head with a meat tenderizer. She lays traps for the men, nails through boards and axes on door handles. She leaps through windows, stabs through eyes and clobbers with bricks. “You’re Next” ends in righteous bloodshed, Erin turning the tables on the masterminds with gory results. A blender is used fantastically. Sharni Vinson is amazingly self-assured in the part, brilliantly switching between an ordinary person to an experienced ass-kicker. 

Most home invasion stories pride themselves on giving their attackers no motivation, making the killings a random crime. That’s pretty scary – and well utilized in films like “The Strangers” and “Them” – but “You’re Next” continues to subvert expectations. There’s nothing random about this invasion. The night of the family dinner, Crispin and his brother Drake begin arguing. The familial resentment bubbles to the surface. Wingard’s film circles back around to this point by the end. Yes, the masked men have been hired by the youngest brother to take out his parents and siblings, in order to receive an inheritance. “Family drives you crazy” seems to be the message here.

Like Wingard’s later films, “You’re Next” has a retro leaning score. That is when “Looking For the Magic” by the Dwight Twilley Band isn’t playing, an awfully catchy pop song that plays throughout the movie. Wingard fills the film with his director friends, giving Larry Fessenden, Ti West, and Joe Swanberg supporting parts. The film’s gory thrills combine smoothly with a sick sense of humor, leading to a highly entertaining effort. That sarcastic streak continues right up to the end, concluding the film on a darkly comedic note. This genre shift wasn’t a hit with everyone. The film wasn’t very popular with audiences, who were perhaps expecting a more traditional flick. (Though it still easily recouped its million dollar budget.) Horror fans who can think on their feet, however, got a kick out of this one. [8/10]

Robin Redbreast (1970)

Here’s another recommendation I owe my buddies on Letterboxd. Sometimes a title I’ve never even heard of crosses my dashboard. One such title was “Robin Redbreast.” Apparently, the film was the first in a series of televised plays broadcast on the BBC. Called “Play for Today,” the series ran for about fourteen years, 39 films in total being produced. That sounds awfully stodgy but some surprisingly cutting edge script passed through the show, such as the work of Alan Clarke. I knew almost nothing about “Robin Redbreast” – other then it dealt with pagan rituals and had a spooky atmosphere – but onto the Halloween watch list it went.

Norah Palmer, a middle age script editor living in London, has recently ended a long term relationship with her boyfriend. Hoping to clear her head, she rents a cottage in rural England. Once there, she finds the village less inviting then she hoped. The neighbors are nosy, including her bossy housekeeper and a local archeologist who talks too much. She also meets Rob, an eccentric young man that catches her eye. Eventually, the two couple and Norah becomes pregnant. As her pregnancy progresses, coincidences prevent Norah from leaving the village. She begins to suspect something sinister has plans for her and her baby.

“Robin Redbreast” plays out like a low-key, rural, and very British version of “Rosemary’s Baby.” It trades in many of the same emotions. At first, Norah dismisses the strange things that have happened. They seem innocuous. A bird flying into her house, the rain guard coming off the roof, someone knocking her young lover unconscious. However, as more occurrences happen, a conspiracy seemingly emerges, with the goal of keeping her where she is. Norah doubts herself, blaming her fear on paranoia. By the time she realizes a cult is manipulating her, it’s too late. The script having her voice her thoughts shows the film’s roots as a stage play but Anna Cropper, grounded but nervous, makes up for the flaws.

Unlike Rosemary, Norah is a thoroughly modern woman. She’s a single woman, with no interest in marriage or children. She’s not beholden to a man and keeps contraceptives around, should sex become a need. After a dull date, she tosses Rob out. It’s only after the bird frightens her that she changes her mind, letting him spend the night. When he discovers she’s pregnant, Rob insists Norah keeps the child. She reminds him that it’s her body, her baby, and she’ll do whatever she wants with it. When the housekeeper asks her to go to a church service, Norah reminds her she’s agnostic and not interested. The older woman strong-arms her to go anyway. By placing an independent woman in the center of a pagan ritual, “Robin Redbreast” illustrates the conflict between modern changes and the old ways. (Very old ways, since the pagan rituals are explicitly presented as the ones Christianity built upon.)

“Robin Redbreast” isn’t scary the way most horror films are. Instead, it relies totally on atmosphere to create its chills. There’s very little music. Instead, the wind blowing through the trees draws attention to Norah’s isolation. She comes across strange things in the forest, like a half marble in her garden or a partially nude Rob performing karate. She has nightmares, the day’s events replaying in eerie darkness. There’s some colorful direction, such as the camera twitching around to illustrate a bird’s eye view. The climax builds in tension, concluding with the starling sight of a man dropping down the chimney. No, it’s not Santa Claus, even if one of “Robin Redbreast’s” scenes is set at Christmas. It’s something creepier then that.

The film does have some stagey elements. There’s a number of scenes composed of people standing around and talking. The denouncement has a character flatly explaining events, which probably wasn’t necessary. “Robin Redbreast” also escapes these limitations at times, such as in the nightmare sequence or the genuinely eerie final image. It’s about as dry as you’d expect a British television production from the early seventies to be. But I still liked it, as the lead actress is good and there’s enough weird spookiness in it to satisfy. After all, I’m a sucker for anything that crossbreeds pagan rituals and modern beliefs so I was right to assume this would be up my aisle. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Q: The Serpent God

The Enigma Corporation make their final appearance on “Lost Tapes” and Aztec god Quetzalcoatl makes his second appearance this Halloween. A spate of ritualistic murders have occurred throughout Mexico City. The ancient Aztec symbol for 52 is left at each slaying. The police department bring in the Enigma Corporation to investigate. They quickly link the killings with the local criminal underground. They trace a drug lord to an abandoned train depot. What they discover there is a strange occult ritual, already in progress. The murders successfully summon the serpent god Quetzalcotal and its up to the Enigma Corporation to un-summon him.

Season 3 of “Lost Tapes” has been shameless about ripping off better known movies. “Poltergeist” was clearly inspired by “Paranormal Activity.” “Wendigo” was clearly inspired by “The Blair Witch Project.” And “Q: The Serpent God” is clearly inspired by “Q: The Winged Serpent.” Even the titles are practically identical! The similarities end there. No, there’s no nifty stop-motion monster roosting in the Chrysler Building. Instead, most of the episode is spent investigating the cult and sneaking into the warehouse. It’s fairly tedious stuff, especially since the actors sound incredibly bored. When Quetzalcoatl appears, it’s as an unconvincing puppet, mostly obscured in shadows. How the heroes defeat the monster – by shooting it a few times – is a major anti-climax. Even though the script mentions it, the educational segments don’t bring up the real death cults existing in the Mexican drug world. Instead, it focuses on properly sensationalized factoids about Aztec beliefs. [4/10]

Monster Problems (2015)

When filmmaker Adam Green isn’t creating movies like “Digging up the Marrow” and the “Hatchet” series, he keeps busy by pumping out short films for his ArieScope website. 2015’s Halloween short film was “Monster Problem.” The comedic short revolves around a kid, after a night of trick or treating, leaping into his bed for fear of monsters. He’s right to be afraid, as he has three different creatures occupying his bedroom. Luckily for him, the monsters tend to bicker among themselves, impending their ability to munch on him.

The funniest thing about “Monster Problems” is how it plays childhood beliefs about bedroom monsters totally straight. So, once the kid is under the covers, he’s untouchable. The grisly beasts are horrified by a simple nightlight. They are useless against parents. It’s a cute gag, seeing grotesque monsters stymied by such minor things. Even for a six minute short, Green packs in some other gags. The three monsters argue about the particularities of haunting kids. About who gets closest duty, which groans are scarier, if the bed wetter next door is worth eating instead. One of the monsters is named Julian, which amuses the other two, but he’s sensitive about it. The cast is quite good. Derek Mears adopts a goofy British accent as Vylgoth. Kelly Vrooman is nicely neurotic as Dorghast. Colton Dunn is appropriately sassy as Julian. “Monster Problems” ends on a cute gag too. It’s totally worth your six minutes. [7/10]

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