Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 26

Village of the Damned (1960)

The older I get, the more I appreciate the British sci-fi/horror films of the sixties. Along with Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass films, “Village of the Damned” is a landmark example of this movement. These films combine science fiction concepts with insidious horror thrills, putting an especially paranoid riff on the genre befitting the Cold War era. Based off John Wyndham’s “The Midwich Cuckoos,” the film was one of the earliest creepy kids movie. Films in that category usually don’t do much for me. However, this one is an exception, becoming more effective by rooting its killer kids in some cosmic horror.

A strange malady befalls the idyllic British village of Midwich. Everybody within the town’s limits fall unconscious. Those that enter the village are similarly effected. After a few hours, everyone wakes up, a little cold but otherwise fine. Until the news comes out that every healthy woman in town is pregnant, regardless of age and experience. Several months later, they all give birth on the same night. Each of the children have silver-blonde hair. They also display unusual intelligence, their minds developing much faster then usual, and little traditional morality. As the children grow older, they develop terrifying psychic powers, causing the townsfolk to live in fear. Local doctor Gordon Zellaby begins to suspect that the children are planning a take-over.

Most horror films about creepy kids are happy to smear some ridiculous make-up around their eyes and have them whisper vaguely sinister things. “Village of the Damned” has a more nuanced take on the concept. The children of Midwich have had their humanity stripped away. The silver/blonde hair each child has deliberately brings stories of Nazi experimentation and Aryan Hitler youth to mind. They speak not with overdone creepy affectations but calmly, orderly. Yet for all their intelligence, the children also display the impatience and lack of empathy of young kids. Something about their hypnotizing eyes – glowing a soft gold – ordering their victims to kill themselves is creepier then the kids just doing it themselves.

“Village of the Damned” isn’t merely a story of morality lacking, creepily synchronized kids. The film brilliantly blends sci-fi and horror. The opening presents a tantalizing mystery. Why are the people of Midwich falling unconscious? Why have the women become pregnant? We hear stories about other events such as these happening around the world. Even by the end, we never receive concrete answers. (One such colony goes very badly, setting up some excellent foreshadow.) While an extraterrestrial intelligence is assumed to be responsible, there’s also the implication that the kids are the next step in human evolution. That their disregard for morality and lesser humans is a mark of them being “superior.” Their intelligence and psychic abilities also point towards them being developed. By raising questions of what it means to be human, “Village of the Damned” manages to scare the audience and make them think.

A few days ago, I saw Martin Stephens play a rambunctious boy in “The Innocents.” Here, he’s perfectly controlled, calmly and quietly going about his business, acting very much unlike a normal child. Despite having two excellent performances under his belt before the age of twelve, Stephens retired from acting before adulthood. George Sanders plays an unlikely hero, a man of science who is intrigued by the children at first. After he becomes aware of their monstrous behavior, he carefully walks on egg shells around them, frightened by calm. When he realizes what he most do, there’s a touching scene of him saying goodbye to his dog. As Sanders’ much younger wife is scream queen Barbara Shelley. Shelley’s fragility is her greatest strength, paired with a bubbly sweetness. This is best displayed when she happily announces her pregnancy, long before her apprehension grows into fear.

After the threat is seemingly dispelled, the glowing eyes of the demonic children float across the screen, towards the audience. This has got to be one of my favorite “Or is it?” endings, subtly suggesting the children’s advanced minds can live beyond their bodies. While “Village of the Damned” is a bit on the dry side, I love the little details of country living it incorporates. Such as the priest refusing to reveal his parishioners' secrets, even after the strange pregnancies begin. MGM had little faith in the film in 1960 but it would become a surprise hit, spawning a quality sequel four years later and a less solid remake in 1995. The original still stands above all other stories of malevolent children. [8/10]

The Final Terror (1983)

Not a Halloween passes without me talking about how the internet affected my horror fandom. Through cyber space I was introduced to films I never would’ve heard of otherwise. But sometimes the internet has bad information. Before I became a hardened slasher veteran, I used to search around for info about this subgenre. One website, mostly devoted to “Friday the 13th,” featured reviews of less well known titles. This is where I first heard of “My Bloody Valentine.” It’s also where I first heard of “Don’t Go in the Woods.” Years later, I’d see that film but would recognize none of the scenes referenced in the review. Shortly afterward, I saw “The Final Terror,” which was the film this particular review was actually describing. Those are the kind of rookie mistakes people wouldn’t tolerate now but often went overlooked in the late nineties.

A group of six young men, part of some sort of military training, take a camping trip into the redwood forest. It’s ostensibly a work exercise, the recruits chopping up trees and learning to live off the land. There’s an alternative reason beind the journey though. Four women have also been invited. However, the planned weekend of sex and drugs is interrupted when people in the group start disappearing. Something in the woods is stalking them. Is it Eggar, the eccentric leader, or is another entity responsible?

“The Final Terror” was released in 1983 but filmed three years earlier, making it one of the directly post-“Halloween” slasher flicks. So the clichés the script freely partakes in where only just formulating. The teens hang out in the woods, smoking pot and eating magic mushrooms. The killer’s origin is first told to us as a campfire legend. A couple who sneak away for some hanky-panky are immediately killed. The murderer leaves trophies, decapitated heads and dead bodies left hanging around for potential victims to find. Yet in some ways, “The Final Terror” defies expectations. Both of the black characters survive to the end. A guy left alone in the woods as a prank isn’t killed either. Even though there are nine named characters, the body count is ultimately very low. In some ways, the film is as much “Deliverance” as “Friday the 13th,” focusing on the characters surviving in the woods.

“The Final Terror” is probably most notable for the unusual amount of known actors in its cast. Rachel Ward pre-“Thorn Birds,” Daryl Hannah pre-“Blade Runner,” Adrian Zmed pre-“T. J. Hooker,” and Mark Metcaff post-“Animal House” all play members of the troop. Sadly, all their parts are fairly indistinct with only Metcaff, as the hard ass of the group, becoming memorable. Most of the characters are interchangeable. The best character in the film is Joe Pantoliano as Eggar. Pantoliano is nicely unhinged, exploding in random fits of anger. Considering how much the others pick on him, his rage seems somewhat justified. The script surely did them no favors but it’s easy to see why Pantoliano’s career would outlast any of the above mentioned names. John Friedrich, as Zorich, is equally colorful but more irritating.

If you go into “The Final Terror” expecting a gore fest, you’ll be disappointed. There’s a stab to the back, a decapitated head falling off a shelf, a mostly off-screen throat slashing, and a fall from a great height. The killer employs booby traps more often then knife blades. A branch with rusty can lids attached or an axe swinging in to smash a window are two examples. Ultimately, “The Final Terror” relies more on atmosphere then special effects. The rainy woods are a decent setting, the film getting a lot out of the towering trees and damp leaves. The killer is rarely seen, using a moss covered coat to camouflage itself. The ending is very memorable, the killer’s true identity being a decent twist. The murderer’s final fate is pulled off colorfully. This stuff is nice but doesn’t quite make up for the slow pace and lack of interesting cast members.

For years, “The Final Terror” was only available as a scratchy VHS, a overly dark transfer making the movie hard to watch. I rated the movie very poorly the first time I saw it partially because of this. Now that a Blu-Ray is available, you can appreciate the positive things the film accomplishes a little more easily. (Scream Factory, being the pros they are, still apologize for the slightly scratchy print.) Director Andrew Davis would go on to direct many action flicks, including “Code of Silence,” “Above the Law,” “Under Siege,” and “The Fugitive.” Perhaps horror wasn’t his preferred genre? The film has a few clever moments but they aren’t enough to make up for the standard script and bland characters. [5/10]

There’s Nothing Out There (1991)

Speaking of films first recommended to me on the internet! I had never heard of “There’s Nothing Out There” before reading’s glowing review of it. The film is an example of a sub-genre that wouldn’t come into vogue for a few more years: The self-aware horror/comedy. Some times before “Scream” was quipping about the clichés of horror movies, Rolfe Kanefsky’s scrappy indie was doing much the same. Despite all of this, the film has never garnered much attention.

A group of friends gather at a lakeside cabin for a weekend of partying and debauchery. Most of the guys have girlfriends, with which much humping soon ensues. Except for Mike. Mike notices the strange car wreck on the side of the road. Or the strange rustling in the bushes. For, you see, Mike is a horror movie expert, all to aware of the clichés of the genre. After his friends start to disappear, Mike realizes he’s in a horror movie scenario. An alien creature, with big teeth and hypnotizing eyes, is attacking the cabin.

“There’s Nothing Out There” is a direct ancestor to “Scream,” whether Kevin Williamson realized it or not. The film comments on horror stereotypes in a similar fashion. The opening nightmare scene, set in a video store horror section, features countless recognizable VHS boxes. A great gag involves a spring loaded cat leaping out of nowhere. When Mike sees something odd moving in the bushes, he pointedly does not investigate. When couples disappear in the woods, he writes them off as dead. He boards up windows and wears home-made armor, ready for the monster attack at any moment. While others wonder where the creature came from, Mike focuses on trying to kill it. “There’s Nothing Out There” is more horror/comedy then horror parody. Save for a moment near the end when a boom mic lowers into frame… And a character uses it to swing away from the monster! Many reviews have accused Mike’s know-it-all tendencies of being annoying. To each his own. I thoroughly enjoy the character, as played by a perfectly snarky Craig Peck.

The film was the directorial debut of Kanefsky. Later in his career, Kanefsky would write and direct several Skinimex flicks with titles like “Sex Files” and “The Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man.” I suspect this wasn’t a compromise on Rolfe’s behalf. “There’s Nothing Out There” is preoccupied with naked women. An early scene has a gang of punks driving up to the lake and leaping in. All the women take off their tops, the camera lingering on one especially busty lass. Every female character in the film gets nude. Most of these are during gratuitous, extended sex scenes or skinny dipping sequences. During one monster attack, a female co-star has her top torn open. In the final act, all the surviving women are wearing either a swimsuit or panties and a large t-shirt. While the film is self-aware about most things, its abundance of nudity is shamelessly sleazy.

In keeping with its self-aware nature, “There’s Nothing Out There” takes a while to reveal its monster. In early scenes, the creature is mostly represented by point-of-view shots. When it does slither on-screen, it’s an intentionally ridiculous looking creation. Squat and green, it’s slightly resembles a frog. It’s huge mouth is exaggerated. Its tentacles awkwardly reach for the actors. The mind control gimmick, introduced late in the film, mostly exist as a cost-saving measure, I suspect. The effects are goofy and crude but suitable for what the movie sets out to do. How Mike defeats the alien is just as silly, involving shaving cream and an oven. While some of the scenes border seriousness, “There’s Nothing Out There’s” central threat is knowingly ridiculous.

The film doesn’t entirely rely on jokey horror references and wanton nudity. There’s an occasional nice bit of absurdity, such as someone making comments about “falling clouds.” The film would never rival “Scream.” It’s far too silly for that. However, it is nice to know that someone before Kevin Williamson was making observations about the rules and stereotypes of the eighties horror film. “There’s Nothing Out There” would eventually get picked up by Troma, which seems like a good match even if the film is slightly less crass then the studio’s usual output. [7/10]

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Nightmare in the Lair

Remember that time the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles met Freddy Krueger, basically? I discovered this episode a few years back when binge watching the series and decided to revisit it during this year’s Blog-a-thon. Resident turtle genius Donatello invents a new device called the Dream-o-Vision. The machine has the ability to project dreams as if they were films. While testing the machine, the turtles encounter a bizarre phantom in a stripped sweater. After Michelangelo plays with the machine later, he runs into the spectre again. Calling himself Creepy Eddie, he torments the turtles and schemes to enter the world of the waking.

Anytime one revisits a show from their childhood, they must keep their expectations reeled in. Once you remove nostalgia, the Fred Wolf “Ninja Turtles” cartoon wasn’t cheaply animated, highly repetitive, with ridiculous scripts and simplistic characters. Indeed, there’s plenty of shenanigans in “Nightmare in the Lair” to make one roll their eyes. The entire Dream-o-Vision concept is ridiculous. The constant pizza puns are exhausting. The moral lesson – Splinter encourages the turtles not to watch so much television – is lame. Creepy Eddie’s dialogue is often overly expository. The entire subplot revolving around April O’Neil, Irma, and Vern kissing up to the boss’ son is awful. It features pathetic slapstick, easily predicted punchlines, and doesn’t connect to the main story at all. It’s like a bad sitcom.

Once you get over that, “Nightmare in the Lair” is goofy fun.  Creepy Eddie isn’t exactly Freddy – no claws or burns, top hat instead of fedora, orange and blue stripes instead of green and red – but the inspiration is obvious. He even cracks goofy one-liners and has a similar voice! The nightmare scenes are completely G-rated, of course. Eddie turns into an evil wave in Mikey’s surfing dream, an evil goalie in his hockey dream, and sends movie monster after him in the final nightmare. In reality, he sics a sabre tooth tiger on Splinter and glues the Turtles’ feet to the floor. It’s silly but you can definitely imagine the real Freddy doing similar tricks. The conclusion is underwhelming – April disrupts Eddie’s plan and then Donnie blows him the fuck up – but this is still an amusing dumb half-hour. Assuming you have a stomach for these kind of kids show shenanigans. Now how come Playmates never made a Creepy Eddie action figure? [7/10]

Coffer (2014)

After watching David F. Sandberg turn his effective short “Lights Out” into a just okay feature, I decided to revisit one of his shorts. “Coffer” was likely a deliberate attempt to recapture the success of Sandberg’s most popular short. In both, Lotta Losten – Sandberg’s wife – plays a woman alone in an apartment. Something ordinary becomes frightening. The lid to the living room coffer begins to open, much like the apparition appearing in the hallway. She makes attempt to counter this invasion, by either flicking off the lights or sitting on the coffer lid. In the end, the monster gets her anyway. Both shorts conclude by giving us a good look at the creature.

It’s obvious the director has a formula but it’s an effective one, as “Coffer” is nearly as scary as “Lights Out.” Both shorts build suspense via repetitive actions. In one, it’s the ghost appearing with ever flicker of the light. In “Coffer,” it’s the creaking noise of the lid. Lotta, partially due to her every woman quality, panics extremely well, increasing the tension the audience feels. The slow reveal of the coffer’s weirdness, as it features a seemingly bottomless pit, is a nice touch. The only issue I have with “Coffer” is the ending. While showing the face of the “Lights Out” ghost was a nice shock to end that short on, revealing the shadow monster dwelling inside the coffer is less effective. Still, this is a really well produced short that gets the exact reaction out of its viewer that it seeks. [7/10]

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