Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 28

The Stepford Wives (1975)

It’s a sad story that, in 2016, “The Stepford Wives” is suddenly relevant again. Just twelve years ago, the social criticism behind the film was seen as so antiquated that it was remade, not as a serious sci-fi/horror film, but as a screwball comedy. Now, with the rise of the neo-fascist alt-right and its backsliding “make me a sandwich” sexism, the film is vital again. It’s all too clear that there are hordes of modern men who would happily move to Stepford. I guess history repeats itself. The women’s lib of the 1970s spurned a fiery misogyny, which this film criticizes. Perhaps a serious remake is in order, what with the internet giving voice to “men's rights activists” and other he-man woman haters? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1975, to a small town in Connecticut.

Joanna is happy in New York City, with her lawyer husband, their two kids and her quasi-serious photography hobby. But Walter decides to uproot the family and move to Stepford, a seemingly idyllic suburb in New England. Walter is immediately happy there, invited to the local Men’s Club. Joanna is off-put by the quiet town. She doesn’t fit in with the wives, who are subservient, obsessed with housework, and sexually pliable. As the few other independent women in town change, this discomfort turns into a creeping suspicion that something is seriously wrong. That the men of Stepford are conspiring to keep Joanna from leaving.

“The Stepford Wives” is dated. Not just in its fashion and slang but because its liberated women are still mostly wives and mothers. The film’s presentation definitely reeks of the seventies. There’s little music, the soundtrack only piping in during the more intense or picturesque moments. The pacing is leisurely, the 115 minute run time mostly devoted to establishing life in the town. Joanna doesn’t even become aware of something weird happening until an hour in. Bryan Forbes’ direction is a bit on the dry side, though he does punctuate a few key moments with some nice camera movement. The film is peppered with overly on-the-nose symbolic gestures. During the first scene, a man carries a female mannequin down the street, for one example. That “The Stepford Wives” would become a healthy hit in 1975 shows how cultural sensibilities have changed.

Yet certain aspects of “The Stepford Wives” remains chilling. The film is based on a novel by Ira Levin, the same man who wrote “Rosemary’s Baby.” This one functions on a similar paranoia, of a woman slowly realizing she’s trapped in an awful situation by the whims of selfish men. Most everyone knows the twist, deluding some of the suspense. Even if you see the ending coming, there’s still something eerie about the story. You wonder at which moment Walter becomes aware of what will happen to his wife. The mundane men’s club meetings take on a sinister quality, especially when supported by the leering sexism of Patrick O’Neal’s ringleader. We’re given time to get to know the female characters, making their transformation into mindless robots more off-putting. The climax, set on a dark and stormy night, is still properly tense and upsetting. As is the final image, of tranquil domesticity hiding a horrible repression.

The film is also well cast. Katharine Ross, who is still most famous for “The Graduate,” displays her quiet discomfort on her face, adopting a nervous body language even before she begins to suspect the awful truth. Her confession to a shrink, that she’s either gone crazy or has uncovered something far worse, is beautifully acted. She’s still overshadowed by Paula Prentiss as best friend Bobbie. Prentiss has a wonderful energy and comedic timing, creating an immediately lovable character. This makes her eventual change into a Stepford Wife especially unnerving. Also watch out for a supporting turn from Tina “Ginger” Louise. Of the men, Patrick O’Neil as Dale Coba, the central figure of the men’s club, drips with a greasy, creepy sexism.

In the eighties and nineties, “The Stepford Wives” would spawn three made-for-television sequels. Two of which lazily switched the premise around, featuring men or children being turned into robots. The aforementioned remake was a deeply miscalculated affair, badly mangled by executive meddling. Yet the story’s most enduring impact on pop culture can be seen in how the term “Stepford Wife,” describing anyone who conforms to tradition at the sacrifice of their own personality, has entered the lexicon. Though flawed and unlikely to appeal to modern viewers, “The Stepford Wives” is still an effective story with an important message worth hearing. [7/10]

Watchers (1988)

What does one make of Dean Koontz? He’s probably one of the most popular authors to work in the horror genre. At one point, his books sold well enough to rival Stephen King. Despite this, his skills aren’t well respected. He’s generally considered a peddler of pulp. His books are airport fiction, possibly enjoyed but easily discarded. Okay, but what does one make of Dean Koontz inspired movies? “Demon Seed” was bizarre. “Phantoms” mostly survives as an in-joke in Kevin Smith movies. “Hideaway,” “Intensity” and “Odd Thomas” were forgettable. Which brings us to “Watchers,” which at least has a cult following of sorts.

A secret government laboratory goes up in flames. Two subjects escape the blast. The first of which is a seemingly ordinary Golden Retriever. The second of which is OXCOM, a hideous ape monster which gorily dismembers people. The creature is tracking the dog, driven by an obsessive desire to destroy it. Teenager Travis is caught up in this when the dog hides in his rickety old truck. He soon bonds with the canine, naming it Fur Face and discovering it’s super intelligent. The two are pursued by OXCOM, which leaves a trail of bodies in its wake, and two dangerous government agents determined to retrieve both.

The sci-fi/horror genre features a surprisingly number of boy and his dog films, such as “Bad Moon” and, uh, “A Boy and His Dog.” Though less notable then either of those, “Watchers” is more charming then expected. Corey Haim, sporting a ridiculous mullet, plays Travis as an every-teen. He’s preoccupied with getting a driver’s license and his disproportionately attractive girlfriend. He’s reluctant to keep the dog but can’t help but be won over by him. Fur Face displays exceptional intelligence immediately, opening a glove box to retrieve a candy bar. He knows who Abraham Lincoln is, can open fridges, types on a keyboard, and communicates via barking. In one especially amusing scene, the dog plays Scrabble. He even consults a dictionary! The canine actor is extremely well trained, her expressive eyes being a great benefit to the film. (The retriever is named Lala and gets third billing, by the way.) Maybe I’m a sucker for pups but the bond between Trevor and Fur Face is quite sweet.

The awesome dog isn’t the sole star of “Watchers.” There’s also the monster. We only get brief glimpses of the beast. This is probably because the bumpy skinned, orange sasquatch is visually underwhelming. “Watchers” features many scenes of unimportant side characters getting tore apart. A trio of childish teens on bikes are chased through the forest, splattered off-screen. A janitor is tossed into a hook, a deputy has her eyes torn out, and a handyman’s head is throw in a washing machine. Some of these characters, such as the old guy growing pot or the hotel cleaning lady, exist solely to up the body count. The chase scenes are mildly suspenseful, especially when the ape chases the dog through Trevor’s house, leading to a leap from a window. The gore is standard but mildly amusing.

In Koontz’ book, the hero isn’t a teenager but a former Special Forces operative. The movie compromises by making the kid the son of a Delta Force ranger. This provides Haim’s protagonist with a special set of skills. He’s a crack shot with a rifle, a pro with a Molotov cocktail, and can set up explosive booby traps. In a likely steal from the previous year’s “Predator,” there’s an extended montage devoted to Haim setting up these traps. Haim utilizes these abilities to defeat the monster by… Shooting it in the face? I don’t know about you but, in a one-on-one fight between a surly sasquatch and Corey Haim, the Bigfoot has my vote. Less underwhelming is Michael Ironside’s increasingly unhinged performance as the government agent tracking the dog. Ironside can always be counted on to bring laser point intensity to a part, no matter how shaky the script is.

I suspect “Watchers” was frequently rented by two demographics: Young horror fans and teenage girls with a crush on Haim. My evidence to support this are the four direct-to-video sequels that would follow. Weirdly, none of these films actually continue the story. Instead, they are basically remakes, telling similar tales of super smart dogs fighting super pissed monsters. They ditched the teenage angle though, instead casting Marc Singer, Wings Hauser, and Mark Hamill as the heroes. I have no idea if the sequels equal to the original, though I’d wager they don’t. I can’t call “Watchers” a classic, as it’s too silly for that. However, it is an easy film to throw on, to have a few laughs at. [7/10]

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: Life’s a Masquerade

Next year, a big budget film version of “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” is hitting theaters. Because all bits of nineties nostalgia is doomed to be rebooted at one hundred times the budget. Last year, I reviewed what I thought was the only Halloween episode of “Power Rangers” but there’s apparently another. “Life’s a Masquerade” isn’t explicitly set in October. Instead, the setting is a generic costume party, without a time of year being specified. However, a Frankenstein and Dracula costume feature prominently so that’s good enough for me.

Every episode of “Power Rangers” has an extremely formulaic plot. “Life’s a Masquerade” is no different. Moon dwelling supervillain Rita Repulsa has instructed Finster, her monster making expert, to build more powerful versions of the Putties, Rita’s easily defeated foot soldiers. In order to distract the Power Rangers from this quest, she sends a different monster. A Frankenstein Monster arrives at the costume party the Rangers are attending. The other five at first assume the monster to be Tommy, the sixth Power Ranger, in disguise. Soon enough, they realize this Frankenstein’s Monster is the real deal.

Knowing “Power Rangers” episodes are cobbled together from old Japanese TV shows can help you understand why the series can be so disjointed. The plot involving the Super Putties goes absolutely nowhere. Rita floats on a giant ball of clay at one point, for seemingly no reason. Billy the Blue Ranger leaves the party, follows the Frankenstein Monster to a cave, and has a brief fight for him. A minute later, he’s back at the party. The costume party subplot is ridiculous, as far too much of the episode is devoted to Bulk and Skull, the idiotic bullies/punching bag, deciding what their costume should be. This sequence features the two dressing as Skinny Elvis and Fat Elvis before they just decide to go as themselves. It’s super dumb and poorly written.

That’s not why I watch “Power Rangers,” as a kid or as an adult. I’m in it for the bonkers giant monster action. Considering some of the bizarre creatures the Rangers would fight over the years, a grey-skinned Frankenstein seems almost quint. Yet the series had to put their own stamp on the character. For one, he talks. Later, he sprays fire from his mouth. He removes the bolts in his neck and connect them by a chain, forming crude nunchuks. After the monster grows into a giant, as every “Power Rangers” monster does, the Rangers have to combine the Megazord and the DragonZord – two separate giant robots they pilot – to defeat the creature. How do stop Frankenstein? By drilling a huge ass hole in his fucking chest, which is pretty grisly for a kid’s show. Obviously, those without a nostalgic connection to the show will be completely baffled by this. It’s incredibly dumb but entertaining for those who grew up with it. [7/10]

Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1981)

What is there to write about “Thriller” that hasn’t already been written? Say what you will about Michael Jackson the man but Michael Jackson the pop musician was a genius. “Thriller” has long been considered the greatest music video of all time. It’s certainly one of the most famous. You don’t need me to tell you the general gist but I’ll go ahead anyway. A guy and his date leave a scary movie after she become spooked. Walking home from the theater, the two encounter a troupe of dancing zombies, of which the boyfriend becomes the leader of. We later discover this is just a bad dream the girl is having… Or is it?

“Thriller,” as a cornerstone of our collective popular culture, is more-or-less above criticism. The short film has been so widely absorbed that even a scholarly reading is difficult to attempt. There’s something to said for the way the movie blends different horror trappings. The opening film-within-the-film is clearly set in the 1950s, as evident by the fashion Michael and his date are wearing. Yet his transformation into a were-cat is provided by Rick Baker in much the same style as John Landis’ previous film, “An American Werewolf in London.” We next segue into the then modern day, Michael and his date slipping into eighties fashion including that famous red jacket. The zombies that soon appear also from a different era of horror, clearly inspired by 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.” (The zombies cornering the girl in the house also recalls Romero’s classic.) Jackson’s music video piles different influences and styles together to form a glorious monster movie tapestry.

Even this isn’t the real reason I love the music video. Mostly, it’s just for the awesome factor. Such as Vincent Price delivering his “rap” while the zombies pull themselves from their grave, Landis piling on all the atmosphere the $500,000 budget could afford. The dancing zombies are also amazing, the choreography being widely imitated but rarely equaled. The zombie make-up is still creepy, even if Landis’ sense of humor shines through during the dance number. Or, especially, the closing credit bit of the zombies goofing off in the graveyard. Yeah, I love the song too, even if it inevitably appears on everyone’s Halloween playlist. There’s a reason “Thriller” is such a late October stalwart. Every minute of it is brilliant. [9/10]

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