Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 28, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 27

Severance (2006)

Christopher Smith feels like a filmmaker that should’ve had a bigger career. I suppose he’s done well for himself. He’s directed six features and one television mini-series over the course of sixteen years. Almost all of them have been very well received. Films like “Creep” and “Black Death” have earned him a sizable cult following from horror fans. Yet it just feels like he’s not the respected, well known name he should be. That should speak to how well made and likable his films are. “Severance” is probably my favorite of his, a grisly horror/comedy with some heavier issues on its mind.

Seven workers for Palisades Defense, a manufacturer of military grade weapons and munitions, are taking a work retreat in the Hungarian moments. After the bus finds a downed tree blocking the path, manager Richard insists they take a second path through the woods. The driver refuses, prompting the group to trek through the forest on their own. Instead of finding the luxury suite they were promised, they discover a dilapidated old house. They shack up there anyway, also at Richard’s insistence. Everyone has heard the legends about the locations. How the house was an insane asylum or a hiding ground for former Soviet war criminals. What they don’t know is that the legend is true. Violent ex-soldiers roam the woods and soon go hunting for the workers.

“Severance” walks a very tricky tonal tightrope. The gore in the film is similar to then-trendy “torture porn” films. One character has his leg graphically severed in a bear trap. Later, he’s tied to a chair and his flesh is sliced away. Another character is tied to a tree and slowly, sadistically burn. The gunshot wounds are graphic and seeping. Yet the intense gore is often undercut by a delightful sense of humor. The above severed leg is shoved into a mini-fridge. A fight to the death concludes with a character struggling to pick up a big rock. An important phone call segues into ridiculous hold music. A dramatic reveal involving a bazooka goes hilariously wrong.

Smith makes great use of comedic foreshadowing. A character discusses how a decapitated head can still feel for several minutes. He later experiences this first hand. Someone shot during a paintball game is later actually shot. During that same game “going Rambo” is discouraged. A character later successfully employs that exact strategy. Smith often undercuts the brutal gore with soft listening music. The film successfully shocks the viewer with intense violence and then makes them laugh by swinging back hard towards absurdist comedy.

Smith has a lot of fun messing with the viewer. A dream sequence, in which the boss is propositioned by the American hottie, gets weird. Danny Dyer’s Steve is high on magic mushrooms for most of the movie, leading to bizarre hallucinations. Yet my favorite such flight of fancy is when different characters describe the area’s past. Stuffy Harris imagines the insane asylum story as a 1920s silent horror film. There’s a coachman with long fingernails, right out of “Nosferatu,” and the story’s twist is directly from Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr.” Jill, a woman so socially conscious that she won’t even kill a spider, corrects him. Her version of events are a gritty documentary on war crimes. The aforementioned stoner, meanwhile, imagines a tawdry soft core porn likely inspired by the likes of “Confessions of a Window Cleaner.” His story features busty, scantily clad nurses descending on the first virile male they encounter. It’s a clever update of the old slasher movie stand-by, of the villain's origins being told as a campfire story. It also shows Smith is adapt at aping other styles.

A lot of nasty gore flicks from around the turn of the century set their films in former Soviet countries. Maybe they were ripping off “Hostel” or referencing the atrocities in Kosovo. Maybe we as a culture were still hung over from the Cold War. Usually it’s for no deeper reason. “Severance,” on the other hand, has something specific in mind. Palisade Defenses makes weapons, selling death and destruction to foreign countries. The crazed men who attack them do so with the weapons Palisades produces. By dropping the employees into such an area, where they are murdered by war criminals wielding the weapons they sell, brings the gravity of their job home. There’s an implicit criticism of first world war profiteering, of Americans and Europeans damning countries they’ll never travel to, can’t even find on a map, to death and destruction.

“Severance” is very well cast. The actors take parts that might’ve been indistinct on paper and turn them into full blown characters. Laura Harris as Maggie, the sole American on the trip, emerges as the unlikely hero. She’s tough enough to blast attackers with a shotgun or smash heads with rocks. She’s also the most reasonable of the group. Steve isn’t reasonable, as he spends most of the movie high. Amusing, he also makes it to the end, the character surviving based on an previously unknown slickness. Toby Stephens is hilarious as Harris, a stuck-up know-it-all. Andy Nyman’s Gordon is an awkward nerd that just wants everyone to have a good time. Babou Ceesayu’s Billy is similarly charming in his dorkiness, harboring an unrequited crush on Maggie. Claudie Blakley’s Jill is somewhat stern but makes the most right decisions out of the cast. Even Tim McInnerny’s Richard, who begins the film as a complete tool, redeems himself before the end. The characters are slightly exaggerated but we come to care about them nevertheless.

I haven’t seen “Severance” since it first hit DVD back in 2006. Now I wonder what took me so long to revisit it. It’s rare that a film makes you squirm and laugh this much. Christopher Smith’s other horror credits would be mostly serious but I hope he someday returns to something like “Severance,” balancing horror and humor in a wonderful way. [8/10]

Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)

Around 2009, friends of mine wanted to make a micro-budget horror film, utilizing a local forested property owned by a family member as the setting. I was drafted to create the screenplay. I cooked up “Earth Day,” a somewhat sarcastic homage to eighties slasher flicks, featuring a nudist killer dispatching anybody who disrespect nature. Though “The Prey” was my main inspiration, I envisioned a hard rock version of the theme song from “Don’t Go in the Woods” playing over the end credits. Through an IMDb message board, I contacted James Bryon, this movie’s director. He kindly passed the contact information for the film’s composer on to me, in hopes of making this dream come true. “Earth Day” was obviously never made but I’ll always remember that act of kindness. Now let’s talk about “Don’t Go in the Woods.”

Describing the plot of “Don’t Go in the Woods” is an act that is either absurdly easy or insanely difficult. The simplest version? Unrelated individuals wander into the same stretch of Utah woods and are murdered by a spear-wielding, forest dwelling madman. No explanation is provided for the wild man’s murderous tendencies, though it’s implied that he may have rabies. Eventually, the film comes to focus on a group of four hikers, two men and their girlfriends. In time, they encounter the killer and get separated. Some make it back to town and some don’t. This, however, doesn’t describe the strange, numbing mood the film draws the viewer into. Welcome to “Don’t Go in the Woods,” where characters do not matter and everything happens for no reason.

It would not be inaccurate to describe “Don’t Go in the Woods” as a series of unrelated murder scenes. A bird watcher has his arm hacked off. A painter has her blood splattered against her canvas. A man is caught in a hammock, helpless to fight back against the blade penetrating him. A bear trap on a wench swings into somebody’s face. The special effects are crude, the blood clearly being fake, the severed limbs obviously from dummies. We have no reason to care about this mayhem. Yet, occasionally, a weirdly poetic moment emerges. Such as an abandoned camera floating in a stream. Or a baby, left alone after her mother is killed. Eventually, the long scenes of people running, screaming, through the woods creates an unnerving atmosphere. The film’s unrelenting mayhem was enough to earn it a spot on the U.K. Video Nasty list, winning it a certain degree of notoriety.

Through the unending scenes of blood and gore, a goofy sense of humor emerges. One of the Wild Man’s countless victims is a couple vacationing in a shaggin’ wagon. The man is named Dick and the woman is named Cherry, two obvious double entendres. Far weirder is that poster of Farrah Fawcett attached to the ceiling. Or Cherry’s inability to close a door. Or Dick’s half-hearted attempts to intimidate the intruder. Even stranger is the obese man in a wheelchair, who takes several long scenes to make it up a mountaintop. Once he reaches the top, his head is nonchalantly cut off. I can imagine a similar scene playing out on one of those anti-comedy shows the college students love. Confirming that at least some of these scenes are meant to be funny is H. Kingsley Thurber’s bizarre score. While mostly composed of shrieking, discordant synth notes, he occasionally punctuates scenes with a cornball “comedy” music, made up of honking clown noises.

Compared to these visual non-sequiturs, the more traditional scenes are less interesting. We learn nothing about the four hikers. The bucktoothed redhead is Ingrid, her boyfriend is Pete. There’s another couple, the hiking expert and his smoking hot girlfriend, with the short brown hair and very tight pants. They wander the woods, occasionally being attacked by the killer. Even after escaping, they wander back into the woods. Sometimes they live, sometimes they die. The cute brunette is brutally cut down by the murderer. A mildly clever moment has a random person being mistaken for the Wild Man, being killed in accidental self-defense. There’s the required fat sheriff, who talks to people at the office, follows leads, but ultimately contributes little to the film. It’s not surprising that the shrieking madman is the most interesting character, with his creatively decorated cabin and beads dangling over his face. It doesn’t matter. “Don’t Go in the Woods” isn’t about character or story. It’s a baffling audio/visual experience, a trash-horror mood piece, a shrieking tone poem. An accidental art film.

“Don’t Go in the Woods” is a film that has been poorly reviewed over the years. It’s a rare situation where I can’t disagree with anything negative said about the film. Objectively, “Don’t Go in the Woods” is a bad film. The pacing is terrible, the acting is awful, the music is tone deaf, the story is practically nonexistent. The utter creative construction of the film is incoherent. Yet all of this undersells the strange, hypnotizing effect “Don’t’ Go in the Woods” has on its audience. It’s often funny, sometimes on purpose. Occasionally, it’s eerie, probably accidentally. Overall, it truly seems like a production from another universe, made by aliens with no use for traditional narrative structure. It’s not a film, it’s a desperate cry for help. [Objective Quality: 2/10] [Entertainment Factor: 9/10]

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror

The annual “Simpsons” Treehouse of Horror episode is a tradition by this point, with this year’s installment being the twenty-eighth installment. But, if your memory stretches back that far, think back to the first “Treehouse of Horror.” There was no precedence in the series for an episode like this, a collection of non-canon tales that could stretch in any grotesque, grisly, or weird direction imaginable. The show was such a success that, every Halloween, the “Simpsons” writers would let themselves go crazy, visiting all sorts of morbid situations on the sitcom cast. The first one didn’t even have the horror puns in the opening credits! While not as funny as future Halloween editions, the first “Treehouse of Horror” is still a classic.

Future versions would skip the framing device – Bart and Lisa telling scary stories in the backyard tree house – that set up this collection of ghoulish tales. “Bad Dream House” is a riff on haunted house stories, the Simpsons buying a new home that desires to murder them. “Hungry are the Damned” spoofs the famous “Twilight Zone” episode “To Serve Man.” The family is abducted by aliens – Kang and Kodos in their first appearance – who pamper them with food for seemingly sinister reasons. Lastly, “The Raven” cast Homer and Bart as the key figures in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem of gothic horror and existential dread.

“Bad Dream House” is by far the funniest of the three segments and probably my favorite. The haunted house setting presents several great surreal gags. Like the portal to another dimension in the kitchen, Lisa keeping a butcher knife in her bedroom draw, Homer floating towards the ceiling, or Bart mistaking the house’s command to kill for his conscience. Yet the segment is at its funniest when subverting expectations. Marge breaks the home’s control over the family simply by yelling at it, uncharacteristically loosing her temper. Afterwards, the family begins to demand things of their haunted home. Such as Bart insisting the walls bleed. The flat reveal of the Indian burial ground, and Homer’s reaction to it, are other fantastic gags.

“Hungry are the Damned” is amusing, even if it basically has one joke. The entire segment builds towards the reveal of the cook book, the episode doubling back on Red Serling’s famous twist several times. The ending, where the Simpsons are kicked out by the aliens for not trusting them, is a funny if downbeat conclusion. Mostly, the segment is devoted to food based puns. Like Marge being called “a dish.” Or silly gags about the aliens’ technology, featuring cable television and pong. At the very least, Kodos and Kang would become beloved, reoccurring characters. James Earl Jones’ Serak the Prepaper, meanwhile, would not presumably because of the big name voice talent.

What I most like about “The Raven” is how it comments on the perception of horror changing throughout history. Bart repeatedly butts into the story, declaring it not scary for various reasons. Homer, in the episode’s denouncement, is terrified. Which goes to show how this genre can be different things to different people. Mostly, I enjoy how the segment illustrates Poe’s famous poem. Homer-as-Narrator being swept away by his dreams is a nice moment. There’s also several cute visual jokes, such as the book being entitled “Forgotten Lore Vol. II” and Marge-as-Lenore’s portrait featuring her extra tall hairdo. The additions to Poe’s text, like Homer angrily chasing after Bart-as-the-Raven, are goofy but appreciated. And you have to commend Dan Castellaneta for delivering Poe’s text through Homer’s goofball voice and Jones’ expectedly sonorous narration.

It’s easy to see why the writers would love this idea so much. Who could resist turning their traditional animated sitcom into three separate horror/comedies once a year? The episode begins with Marge warning the audience of the show’s content, in a loose parody of “Frankenstien’s” opening scene. Which is absolutely quint by modern standards, as there’s not a single graphic or explicit part of this episode. [8/10]

Lot 254 (2012)

Here’s another horror short recommendation from the depths of Google. “Lot 254” is entitled for the auction number on an old movie camera. Purchased by a collector of cameras – as evident by his room being full of old film cans and projectors – the short begins with him winding up the device. After looking through the camera, he notices a pale skin ghoul with a creepy grin. Naturally, the spectre is only visible through the camera. The short has a predictable ending, I’ll just say that.

Sadly, “Lot 254” is another disappointment. It starts promising, generating some decent mood with the music and sound design. However, as soon as the spooky faced phantom appears, the short falls apart into a series of overly loud, obnoxious jump scares. When will promising horror filmmakers realize that just throwing something ugly in the audience’s face, always accompanied by a deafening noise, isn’t enough? At the very least, the production values are pretty good for an obviously modest film. And it’s under five minutes long too, so I didn’t waste much time on it. [5/10]

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