Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 25

Stoker (2013)

A few years back, it seemed like a wave of critically lauded Korean filmmakers were coming to America to reinvent the wheel. Instead, things kind of petered out, at least commercially. Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer” was mishandled by its distributor. Jee-woon Kim’s “The Last Stand” failed to connect with audiences. Out of the three, Chan-Wook Park’s “Stoker” probably got the best treatment. A gothic-tinged, dark psychological thriller like this was never going to be a big box office hit. Though some felt the film was disappointing compared to Park’s Korean films, many loved it. Including me, where the film became my favorite release of 2013. A few years later, how does it hold up?

On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, India Stoker’s father has died. Rejected by her emotionally distant mother and unpopular at school, India finds solace in an unexpected place. Her uncle Charlie, who she had never met before, moves into the sprawling, family house. At first, India isn’t sure what to make of this man. This man who takes a special interest in her, this man who is seducing her mother. Soon enough, India realizes that Uncle Charlie has something in common with her. Both have secrets. Both are capable of horrible things.

“Stoker” has got to be one of the darkest coming-of-age stories ever committed to film. It’s essentially a story about a young girl accepting her blood lust, coming into her own as a serial killer. Watching the heroine dig deeper into Uncle Charlie’s dark history is fascinating. The viewer often wonders which path India will choose. Will she ignore her homicidal tendencies or will she become evil? The film directly connects India’s murderous awakening with her sexual one, furthering casting the story as a dark subversion of becoming tales. Like any adolescent, she’s moving away from her parents, forging her own path. But India’s path is far more disturbing then what you’d expect. Mia Wasikowska is mesmerizing as India. She speaks volumes with her steely gaze.

“Stoker” is also a story about the rivalries within a family. Mother Evelyn barely tolerates her eccentric daughter. She dismisses her interests and shows no need to understand her daughter’s mood. In time, Evelyn comes to see India as a romantic rival. In a chilling monologue, Nicole Kidman generating a disturbing intensity, she wishes hell on the girl. Yet mother/daughter conflicts aren’t the only ones present in “Stoker.” In time, we learn the truth behind Uncle Charlie’s travels around the world. The reason India’s father never introduce her to her uncle is revealed in a shocking flashback. That initial, hideous crime was itself motivated by sibling rivalry. “Stoker” portrays family not as a warmth place where everyone accepts you. It’s the opposite, a cold grave eager to judge and reject you.

If the committed performances and twisted script don’t appeal to you, maybe “Stoker’s” incredible visual sense will catch your eye. Chan-Wook Park’s direction is spellbinding. The camera sweeps around the characters. A brilliant sequence, set at a piano, seamlessly passes around the room. As India reads through her uncle’s letters, the words and images pile up on screen. The editing is brilliant, cutting between the past and the present, giving both events meaning. Park also packs the film full of visual symbolism. As Uncle Charlie influences India, a spider crawls up her skirt. Nature documentaries, discussing the predatory habits of falcons, are always playing on TV, invoking the characters’ murderous impulse. Shoes are presented as symbols of maturity, India casting off childish penny loafers and slipping on high heels. Metronomes, sand castles, belts, ice cream, and blood sprayed flowers are just some of the ordinary objects the film invests with a deeper meaning.

It’s a ludicrous simplification but I’ve described “Stoker” as a darker, more grounded take on “The Addams Family,” if Gomez was dead, Mortica hated everyone, and Fester was mentoring Wednesday in the ways of bloodshed. The gothic mansion setting and Wasikowska’s black locks, framing her pale face, point towards the comparison. The title, meanwhile, suggest a story about vampires. A desire to kill passed on along bloodlines does sound a bit like vampires, doesn’t it? Most surprisingly, “Stoker” was written by television actor Wentworth Miller. (Miller also wrote a prequel called “Uncle Charlie” that has yet to be filmed.) Who would’ve thought that the guy from “Prison Break” could’ve written such an impressive film? [9/10]

Orca (1977)

The seventies and eighties were the golden years for overseas rip-offs of American blockbusters. Massive hits like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Alien,” “The Terminator,” and “E.T.” would produce multiple low budget, foreign-produced attempts to replicate their success. Few mega-movies would produce more copycats then “Jaws.” Maybe this was because a wild animal eating people in an isolated location was an easy premise to emulate. Of all these would-be “Jawses,” 1977’s “Orca” is probably the most polished. An oddball attempt to mash up an aquatic creature thriller with deeper emotions, the film has garnered a cult following among fish flick fanatics.

During a routine trip, Captain Nolan has a frightening encounter. One of his team members is nearly attacked by a great white shark. At the last moment, an orca swoops in and kills the shark. Afterwards, Nolan becomes fascinated with catching a killer whale. He recruits a marine biologist, Dr. Bedford, to help him in this mission. When he finally targets a killer whale, he strikes a female instead of the intended male. The porpoise is dragged aboard the ship, dying along with its unborn child. This enrages the whale’s mate. From that point on, the male orca begins to pursue Nolan. It murders his friends and destroys his business. He’s determined to ruin the man’s life, all in the name of revenge.

What elevates “Orca” above the many other “Jaws” rip-offs is how unapologetically romantic it is. The film opens with shots of the orca frolicking in the water with its mate. They leap joyously through the air, happy together. Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score, which is equal parts love ballad and sea shanty, plays against these scenes. When the female orca is killed, the death is protracted. The creature bleeds and screams. The image of its aborted fetus, falling from the body aboard the deck and washed away with a hose, is disturbingly graphic. The audience is meant to sympathize with the orca, Richard Harris’ fisherman being a villain protagonist. The capsule summery of “Orca” would be “Moby Dick” in reverse, with a whale on an endless quest of revenge against a man. Or, to put it more bluntly, it’s "Death Wish" but with an orca instead of Charles Bronson. It’s not the kind of premise you’re going to see anywhere else is what I’m saying.

“Orca” follows its oddball muse even when attempting to scare the audience. The obvious horror movie moments often border on unintentional humor. When a live orca is traded out for a crudely animatronic one, the audience can definitely tell. The whale blowing up Harris’ boat or tossing a car across the land is hard to swallow. So is the animal destroying a house on the dock, in order to bite the legs off the people inside. As funny as these moments can be, “Orca” still has a weird, raw power. The attack scenes are brutal, people being dragged under the water in the animal’s jaws, bleeding profusely. They kick and scream as they die. This is one pissed off porpoise and his vengeance is righteous, if often campy.

In order help sell this ridiculous movie with its ridiculous premise, some top shelf actors were reeled into appearing. Richard Harris was weirdly defensive of the movie, becoming offended whenever anyone would call it a “Jaws” rip-off. Harris’ performance nicely reaches from playful at story’s start, regretful over his own actions, to craven by the end, learning to hate the whale as much as it hates him. (This is despite the ironic element of Harris’ Nolan also have a dead wife and child, which doesn’t quite work.) Charlotte Rampling is also very serious as the marine biologist. The reoccurring voiceover she delivers is unnecessary and her proclamations of science facts about orcas are self-serious. Rampling, however, has several humane moments that ground the characters. Will Sampson has a few decent moments, even if his character is a fairly standard Indian sage part. Also watch out for supporting roles from Robert Carradine and Bo Derek, both of whom get eaten.

As wacky as “Orca” is in its finished form, it could’ve been crazier. Producer Dino de Laurentis originally wanted the titular creature to walk on land. Now that would’ve been something! A deeply quirky variation on the “Jaws” formula, “Orca” is a lot of fun. How often does a movie attempt to get you to sympathize with a whale, much less a killer one? That everyone involved takes the silly premise entirely serious results in a campy but undeniably earnest motion picture. The combination results in a film that makes you laugh and is also kind of touching. And what more could you ask for from a killer fish movie? [7/10]

Sugar Hill (1974)

After the success of “Blacula,” A.I.P. watched other blaxploitation/horror combos pop up. There were more black vampires, your black Frankensteins, your black Exorcists. After wringing the last drop of blood out of Blacula, American International Pictures decided to put the blaxploitation spin on another horror archetype: The zombie. Instead of tackling the flesh-eating ghouls of “Night of the Living Dead” – which George Romero would kind of  do four years later – director Paul Maslansky and writer Tim Kelly would draw inspiration from Haitian legends of voodoo zombies. The film would mostly be overlooked, lacking the catchy titles of other blaxploitation horror mash-ups, but has developed a small cult following.

Langston and Diana Hill own a nightclub together, where voodoo themed dance numbers are performed every night. Langston has nicknamed Diana “Sugar,” due to her sweetness. Gangsters, scooping up other local businesses, insist on buying Langston’s club. When he refuses, they beat the man to death. Enraged and ready for revenge, Sugar Hill seeks out the help of a voodoo priestess named Mama Maitresse. They summon voodoo god Baron Samedi who grants Sugar an army of glassy eyed, machete wielding zombies. Using these minion, she sets out to exterminate the men who murdered her husband.

“Sugar Hill” has many similarities to another AIP blaxploitaiton hit, the previous year’s “Coffy.” A murdered loved one forces a woman into revenge against organized crime, using her sexuality and wits as a weapon. Both devote a scene to a cat fight between the lead and the gangster’s shapely moll. Marki Bey even slightly resembles Pam Grier. Beyond this blatant and likely emulation, “Sugar Hill” happily doubles down on blaxploitation clich├ęs. The white mobsters are openly and gratuitously racist. The script is full of ridiculous slang, Sugar often referring to her tormentors as “honks.” There’s an ineffective police detective chasing after the zombies, buffoonish gangsters, hilariously dated costumes, and a funky theme song. About the only thing missing is some drug references and an inner city setting, as the film takes place in not-quite urban Louisiana. (And was filmed in Texas.)

For all its campiness, “Sugar Hill” does summon up a spooky, horror atmosphere. The zombies have an odd design. Silver reflective ping pong balls cover their eyes. Dark lines are painted on their bodies. Cobwebs cling to their heads and necks. Sometimes they smile, in homicidal glee, but usually they stare blankly, stiffly swinging their machetes. When the zombies, revived corpses of slaves, rise from their mass graves, thunder strikes and a storm churns. The final features the villain being stalked through an empty house by the zombies, a mildly tense sequence made better by some shadowy ambiance. Though Sugar Hill usually lets her minions do the heavy lifting, occasionally she does the killing. A notable scene has her slowly torturing a thug to death with a voodoo doll. As cheap and cheesy as “Sugar Hill” can be, it still possesses a hokey power.

The performances range from surprisingly charismatic to totally ridiculous. Marki Bey is not the natural talent Pam Grier is, as some of her line-readings are awkward. However, she does occasionally summon up some emotion. If nothing else, she’s a compelling presence. Don Pedro Colley, as Baron Samedi, is likely the high-light of the film. He hams it up gloriously as the voodoo god, laughing uproariously all throughout the film. Robert Quarry, previously of the “Count Yorga” duology, plays the head mobster, Morgan. While Quarry was a decent vampire, he seems out of his element here. You can tell how uncomfortable the actor was with the slur filled dialogue. Betty Anne Rees probably gives the worst performance, shrieking ridiculous as Quarry’s girlfriend. Most of the bit players are really stiff.

As well loved as the blaxploitation horror cycle was, it was actually fairly short lived. “Sugar Hill” was one of the last notable entries to emerge from the fad. The film may actually be ideal Halloween viewing. It has the right balance of spookiness and campiness, all tied together by a funky soundtrack and a delightfully dated aesthetic. Though not as good as “Blacula,” it’s slightly better then “Scream Blacula Scream” and still miles above stuff like “Blackenstein.” Assuming you’re not too much of a jive turkey, give it a look. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Reptilian

Presumably because the writers had exhausted all other ideas, the final episode of “Lost Tapes” is entirely devoted to David Icke’s reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories. Teenagers are disappearing all over New York City. A pair of detectives trace the disappearances to a series of exclusive parties going down in abandoned subway tunnels. They infiltrate such a shindig, recording events with hidden cameras. What they discover are tunnels painted with odd symbols and guarded by intimidating men in hoods. As they dig further, they discover human bodies hanging in food lockers and reptilian, possible extraterrestrial, monsters disguised as people.

A reportedly educational network like Animal Planet broadcasting an ode to the kookiest conspiracy theory is deeply irresponsible. Supposed experts, with a straight face, talk about how the reptilians come from other worlds or dimensions. How they drink human blood and have infiltrated all corners of Earthly politics. The episode itself downplays the conspiracy element in favor of robed snake men suffocating people with saran wrap. The underground setting is mildly atmospheric. Most of the episode being shot in night vision actually adds to the spooky, subterranean ambiance. There’s a decent jump scare, involving a dead body on a hook swinging into view. The monsters themselves are deeply lame though. Guys in monk hoods don’t make for great creature designs. Occasionally, we see their slit eyes or scaly skin but it doesn’t count for much. As usual, the monsters work better when kept off screen. A flash of a swishing lizard’s tail or some gooey slime dripping from the ceiling are far creepier. Though it has some fun ideas, far too much of “Reptilian” is devoted to people wandering around industrial tunnels. [4/10]

Thus concludes my coverage of “Lost Tapes.” Rewatching the entire series in so short a period really emphasizes the show’s flaws. “Lost Tapes” was rarely good. Usually, it was cheaply produced, badly written, and poorly edited. The acting and characters were almost always awful. Despite that, I still love the premise. A weekly found footage show with a cryptozoology bent is a neat idea. It was never gold star television and most of the episodes were terrible. Occasionally, “Lost Tapes” produced a decent half-hour, creating pulpy, goofy, but entertaining mini monster movies.

I’m curious about what monsters a potential fourth season would have showcased. There almost certainly would’ve been a Slender Man episode. It would’ve been neat to see the show take on personal favorites like the Flatwoods Monster, Mokele-mbembe, or the Goatman. It wasn’t meant to be, as continued public indifference led Animal Planet to end the series. Considering the track record, these potential episodes probably wouldn’t have been good either. Despite its lack of quality, “Lost Tapes” was too much of a television misfit for me not to love it, just a little bit.

Woodhouse (2014)

After watching thirty four episodes of “Lost Tapes,” I figure there’s room for one more take on the topic of cryptozoology. “Woodhouse,” a British short film from 2013, takes place in the late seventies. After a little girl’s pet cat runs away into South East London’s Woodhouse Nature Reserve, she goes searching for him. After spending hours in the thick woods, she claims to have been stalked by a monster. This report makes it back to the school intendent, who develops a passion for the creature. The story reaches a local newspaper reporter. The supposed sighting attracts the attention of monster experts and parapsychologists. Eventually, the superintendent is accused of faking the whole thing, especially after his story is raked over the coals by a skeptical magazine. The populace moves on and the Woodhouse Monster is forgotten. By most people.

In just eight minutes, “Woodhouse” shows how the cryptozoology phenomenon is born, grows, stagnates, and finally dies. All dryly narrated by Edmund Dehn, creating the feel of a nature documentary, “Woodhouse” suggests that people choose to believe in monsters because it makes their lives a little more magical. It acknowledges the existence of crackery and hoaxes, with the spirit photographer being an admitted faker. (Though one who’s faking was based in sorrow and loss.) The little girl who started the rumor supposes she might not have seen anything. It also leaves room for sincerity, as the superintendent insists throughout the entire short that the creature is real. The short itself never reveals whether the Woodhouse Monster is real or not, ending on an ambiguous note. Over its short run time, it says so much about why some people chase Bigfeet and Mothmen while daftly displaying how a legend can spread. It’s certainly way more insightful then “Lost Tapes” ever was. [7/10]

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