Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 24

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Urban legends have inspired a number of horror films, ranging in quality from the creative heights of “Candyman” to the dubious lows of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Somewhere in the wide expanse between those two poles is “When a Stranger Calls.” Director Fred Walton previously made a short called “The Sitter,” a direct adaptation of the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs. (The earlier “Black Christmas” also drew from this legend.) The short was successful enough that Walton built a whole film around it, the first fifteen minutes of “When a Stranger Calls” functioning as a shot-for-shot remake. The direction the feature goes in after that is divisive, though the picture has earned a reputation as a cult classic.

Teenager Jill takes a job babysitting the children of Dr. Mandrakis. She doesn’t think much of it at first. Until she begins receiving ominous phone calls, a man asking her to check on the children. Growing more terrified, Jill eventually calls the cops. They determined that the man is already in the house, having brutally murdered the children with his bare hands. Seven years later, the killer escapes the mental hospital he was placed in. A private detective is on his tail but the psycho proves difficult to track. Jill has moved on with her life, getting married and having kids. But the past isn’t done with her. Soon, her own children are in peril.

The opening sequence of “When a Stranger Calls” is rightfully lauded. It follows the urban legend beat for beat yet remains thrilling. The filmmaker establishes a sense of normalcy first, making the home Jill will be staying at seem comfy. He slowly subverts this, with the first call shattering the good mood. From there, the film grows more ominous. Walton tucks his camera in odd place, like inside the chamber of a grandfather clock. He emphasizes how dark and quiet the house is. The unnerving musical score hints at the killer’s presence with a long note, that builds from quiet to deafening. Carol Kane is perfectly cast as the girl next door, who grows increasingly closer to panicking. When the killer is revealed, he does so by casting his shadow down a staircase. It’s a brilliant exercise in building suspense, in putting the audience at unease by creating an atmosphere of mounting dread.

Everybody loves the opening scene. It’s the rest of the movie people have problems with. Instead of directly following the aftermath of the killings, the script makes the odd decision of jumping seven years into the future. Obvious horror is left behind in favor of something a little more obtuse: A story of a detective chasing a killer. The film splits time between Charles Durning’s John Clifford, hunting the madman, and Tony Beckley as Curt Duncan, the killer. Durning is absolutely captivating, as he always was, as the detective. Watching him track down leads, talking to a homeless man, Duncan’s former doctor, or an old police pal, are entertaining. The few times the two interact, such as a relatively tense chase through a homeless shelter, are effective. It’s good but probably not what people were expecting after the opening. Walton was directly inspired by “Halloween” but created far more down to Earth versions of Dr. Loomis and Michael Myers.

The killer is set up as a ruthless psycho, characters speaking in hushed tones about what he did to the Mandrakis children. Yet the script takes a sympathetic approach to Duncan. He’s homeless. He has no friends and his attempts to reach out to people, such as a woman at a bar, go spectacularly wrong. Tony Beckley, who was terminally ill at the time and would pass away soon after filming finished, plays Duncan as a sad eyed transient, unable to fit in anywhere. He’s also completely nuts, muttering to himself and starring madly. This is best displayed in a scene where a nude Beckley cowers on a bathroom floor, caught up in a traumatizing memory. This dual approach – grounded but dangerous – makes the character compelling without stripping him of his threatening factor. His stalking scenes, tracking a woman through the streets or returning to haunt Jill, are still effectively intense. The ending manages to recaptured some of the thrills of the beginning.

Ultimately, I enjoy how “When a Stranger Calls” mixes things up. It begins as a standard late seventies stalker thriller, mutates into a detective story, and circles back around to horror by the end. But the first fifteen minutes are undeniably the most memorable part. I’m not surprised that the 2006 remake would focus solely on that element, to reportedly tedious results. Walton would also create a mediocre television sequel in 1993, which somehow roped Carol Kane and Charles Durning into returning. Neither succeeded in recapturing the late night spookiness of the original, a daring and well orchestrated film. [7/10]

The Mafu Cage (1978)

How about a Carol Kane double feature? The same list that introduced me to “The Velvet Vampire” also introduced me to “The Mafu Cage,” a film I had never heard of before. Which is surprising, as the flick sounded deeply weird and right up my alley. Based on a play, the picture has been overlooked for years. Too psychological to appeal to most horror fans but too mentally disturbed for mainstream critics, the film was never going to be a commercial hit. It’s very nearly a cult classic, a point of fascination for those who have seen it but not well known enough to truly have a following.

Ellen and Sissy are two sisters with a non-traditional relationship. Sissy is obsessed with her late father, a biologist who specialized in African animals and cultures. She decorates the house with African art and often covers herself in face-paint. Ellen tries to live a normal life but is mostly her sister’s caretaker. (And occasional lover.) A particular point of obsession for Sissy is Mafu. A pet ape kept in a cage, Sissy loves Mafu until she looses her temper and beats the animal to death. Afterwards, she gets another pet ape, which becomes the new Mafu. As Ellen’s desire for a normal life grows stronger, Sissy becomes more violent. Apes won’t be the only thing locked up in Mafu’s cage.

“The Mafu Cage” is built around two extremely strong performances. Lee Grant plays up Ellen’s conflict. She loves her sister. Yet she’s growing frustrated with Sissy’s wild mood swings. A potential boyfriend is her opportunity for a normal life. Grant is great but the film belongs to Carol Kane. Kane’s high-pitched voice and wide eyes makes her an ideal pick for an arrested woman-child. When excited, she dances, squeaks, and giggles. When angry, she lashes out violently. Kane maintains several reoccurring quirk. Beyond the obsession with Mafu and Daddy, Sissy’s favorite insult is “Dumb shit!” Kane’s performance is disturbing, playing a grown woman acting like a child. Yet she also finds Sissy’s emotional center. She’s sick, not evil. Her interior world has its own rules that we may not understand but they make perfect sense to Sissy. Or, at least, they do until that fiery rage – based in loneliness and frustration – boils out of control.

“The Mafu Cage” takes you into the sister’s odd world, which is a fully formed if deeply disturbed place. Sissy’s preoccupation with African culture has raised some modern eyebrows. She decorates with statues, artwork, and fake trees. Tribal music constantly plays. Mafu is her biggest point of obsession, as she treats the monkey like a living stuffed animal. She wears tribal face point and eventually dons brown face. This makes the viewer uncomfortable but I suspect that was the intention. The sister’s sexual couplings also make the viewer squirm. More so because the film refuses to judge the sisters for their incestuous relationship. There’s a delicate balance to their world and when Ellen expresses interest in another person, it throws that balance off. Not all of these elements hang together, as the sexual aspect is underdeveloped. Yet the sisters’ world is compellingly weird.

Eventually, “The Mafu Cage” descends into violence. When Sissy lashes out at her monkeys, it’s disturbing. The film reaches a sickening frenzy as she whips an orangutan with a chain. Someone attempting to enter Sissy’s world doesn’t end well. Once a human is locked up in Mafu’s cage, the viewer’s stomach sinks. Something bad is going to happen. And indeed it does, the violence coming suddenly, abruptly. Since the viewer is invested in Sissy and Ellen’s lives, watching their relationship fall apart is troubling. The ending is tragic but feels inevitable. These aren’t the usual kind of shocks but they linger in the viewer’s mind.

“The Mafu Cage” is a strange one, for sure. It doesn’t quite escape its stage roots. However, it’s ultimately disturbing and memorable, primarily thanks to Kane’s unforgettable performance. This as director Karen Arthur’s second feature and she would go onto a long career in television. (Her second best known film is probably “The Rape of Richard Beck,” a movie-of-the-week starring Richard Crenna with a self-explanatory title.) Since it was deeply noncommercial, “The Mafu Cage” was re-titled in some theaters "Don’t Ring the Doorbell," an exploitation movie title that most assuredly did not prepare viewers for what was to come. [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Beast of Bray Road

Season three’s werewolf themed episode is “Beast of Bray Road,” about Wisconsin’s wolf-headed state cryptid. Deep within the woods of a Wisconsin is a violent militia group, made up of paranoid gun nuts. They are led by Brian Cavanaugh, who has decided to give a rare interview to reporter Randal Steiner. Randal’s cameraman, of course, tags along. Just as the interview is about to get underway, the compound is attacked by something. Cavanaugh is convinced the government has finally come for his guns. In truth, the Beast of Bray Road is behind the attacks.

The big joke of “Beast of Bray Road” is that, despite clinging to their firearms, the militia can’t even fight off a quasi-werewolf. The gang’s paranoia brings them down. Cavanaugh sees government spies everywhere. The others are quick to blame each other. As someone who finds the entire militia movement to be full of shit, it’s a criticism I appreciate. As a monster movie, “Beast of Bray Road” features one or two nice moments. Such as when the creature creeps behind an unaware victim, noticeable in the background. The attacks are a little melodramatic, especially the last one, but do summon up a certain amount of frenzied tension. Taymour Ghazi, the actor playing Bryan Cavanaugh, is extremely hammy. Considering the way Alex Jones acts, I can’t really hold that against Ghazi. The episode has some flaws typical of “Lost Tapes” – weak monster make-up, superficial expert interviews, too many night vision scenes – but this is still a better episode. [6/10]

The Chickening (2016)

Here’s a short film that was making the rounds on the internet a few months back. It’s an extremely obnoxious parody/remix of “The Shining,” cut down to three minutes. In “The Chickening,” the Overlook Hotel has been replaced with a fried chicken restaurant/theme park. Danny now has the face of a middle age man. Tony is now a sentient, foul-mouthed finger with five o’clock shadow and a hat. Halloran is a green skinned alien. Wendy’s eyeballs look in different directions. Jack is transforming into a giant chicken. Booze has been replaced with hot sauce. It’s bizarre and in-your-face weird.

Obviously, this kind of abrasive nonsense is an acquired taste. Either you’ll love it or hate it. For me, “The Chickening” has got to be the longest five minutes of my life. Beneath the aggressive weirdness are extremely pedestrian jokes. Such as fart sounds, potshots at fast food and fast food employees, lots of profanity, poop jokes, gratuitous naked men, and lines about women making sandwiches. It doesn’t comment on “The Shining” in anyway, simply using the classic film as a clotheslines to string its gags on. The visual and audio sense is obnoxious, with lots of loud sounds, bright colors, and flashing images. Among the roughly ten thousand jokes in the short, only two made me laugh. That would be the Grady Sisters greeting Danny with a techno song and “Redrum” becoming “Regrub.” (“Burger” backwards, in keeping with the fast food theme.) It’s deeply crass and juvenile internet shenanigans with an extra layer of obnoxious weirdness on top, creating an incredibly annoying experience. But that was the creators’ goal, which means they won and I lost. [4/10]

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