Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 29

Psychomania (1973)
The Death Wheelers

I’ve commented before on the process by which an obscure film becomes a cult classic. Up until a few years back, I had never heard of “Psychomania.” Suddenly, it started cropping up on long list devoted to great or overlooked horror films. I don’t know what caused people to rediscover the film, which has been widely available for years due to its quasi-public domain status. Alternatively known as “The Death Wheelers,” the film was directed by Don Sharp, a veteran of various Hammer horror films, and was the last role for George Sanders. It’s about time I give this one a look and come to my own opinion.

Tom is the leader of a motorcycle gang called the Living Dead. Wearing skull shaped helmet, they like to ride their bikes around standing stones. Tom’s mother is a medium, granted her powers by a strange old man named Shadwell. The son performs a magical ritual with the old man, upon which he realizes a shocking secret. Anyone can return from the dead as long as they really want to die and really want to come back. After successfully pulling this trick of, Tom introduces the tactic to the rest of the motorcycle gang. The undead bikers then proceed to terrorize the British countryside.

“Psychomania” combines aspects of the biker flick and an occult horror film. The motorcycle stunts are impressive. The bikes weave in and out of traffic, around other moving vehicles. They storm inside a busy supermarket, knocking over shelves and even running over a baby carriage. One of my favorite moments has a van swerving off the road after the bikers zip in front of them. The reason it’s impressive is how obviously unplanned this moment was. It’s certainly more impressive then a sliced tire leading to a separate van flipping over a hill, where it naturally explodes. Bikes go over bridges, into parked trucks, and through brick walls. An especially inspired moment, which might have inspired “Cemetery Man,” has Tom being buried atop his motorcycle which he later rides out of the grave.

The motorcycle stuff is amusing but “Psychomania” is ultimately more satisfying as an eerie occult horror film. The film begins with a shot of the bikes circling standing stones in slow motion, an oddly hypnotizing effect. The ritual which grands Tom the knowledge to conquer death is strange. He enters a sealed room, sees his birth in a mirror, and then collapses from fright. Somewhere in there, the toad god appears to him. “Psychomania” presents toads as symbols of immortality, older then man and aware of various arcane rites. The climax has bodies crumbling into ash on-screen, another genuinely creepy sequence. “Psychomania” also combines humor with its chills. Such as in the extended sequences of the bikers committing suicide. One of the guys ties heavy chains around himself before leaping into a lake. Another nonchalantly leaps off a highway overpass. The psycho zombie bikers are mocking the very concept of death. 

While the script is ridiculous on its face, “Psychomania” assembles a sturdy cast. Nicky Henson as Tom is a good looking psychopath, someone who casually commits murder just because it amuses him. Beryl Reid plays his mother, the actress bringing a surprising amount of normalcy to a character who consorts with the devil. As that devil, George Sanders seems unusually restrained. With age, his deep baritone became a less distinct croak. The veteran actor seems tired, even if his innate sense of respectability brings something to the part. My favorite performances in the film belong to two of the female gang members. Ann Michelle has an easy, intoxicating sexuality as Jane, a mischievous member of the gang. Mary Larkin plays Abby, Tom’s down-to-Earth girlfriend. She’s the heart of the film, the only one frightened by the gang’s increasingly devilish behavior. Larkin is also as cute as a button.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to join the cult of “Psychomania” just yet. The film takes too long to get to its central concept, of the undead bikers. The story is a bit too loose, focusing a little too much on the characters reeking chaos. However, the film does possess a weirdo power. In-between the standing stones, the toad worship, and the slow-mo motorcycles, there's definitely something special to this one. It also has an amazing guitar-driven psychedelic rock score, which grants the film much of its sleazy, chaotic energy. I’d say this one is worth giving a look. [7/10]

Jigoku (1960)
The Sinners of Hell

Many years ago, I was thumbing through a Fangoria magazine when I saw an advertisement for a Japanese film called “Hell.” At the time, I thought that was awfully ballsy, a horror movie just straight up calling itself “Hell.” Some time later, I would find out this “Hell” was one of two remakes of a film considered a classic of Japanese horror. 1960’s “Jigoku,” which is usually translated as “Hell” but is sometimes called “The Sinners of Hell,” is notorious for being usually gory for the time. Finally catching up with the film, I discover that its one part morality play with the other part being psychedelic horror. Let’s dig deeper.

Shira’s normal life suddenly takes a disturbing turn. What should’ve been a happy day – he’s just became engaged to his girlfriend, Yukiko, the daughter of his theology professor – has been ruined. While out driving with a strange friend named Tamura, the two struck a man drunkenly wandering through the streets. Soon afterwards, Shiro’s girlfriend dies in a car crash. His mother becomes terminally ill. The lover and mother of the dead man hunts Shiro down for revenge. The tragedies pile up in his life, death following him like a shadow. Until Shiro himself dies and awakens in Hell, where he suffers the torments of the damned.

The first hour of “Jigoku” feels like an old Japanese melodrama, which is fitting considering the time and place it was made. One mistake causes Shiro’s entire life to spiral out of control. It’s a mistake he’s not even directly responsible for, as Tamura was driving the night the man was hit. Yet Shiro’s reluctance to come forward and admit the crime happened is what damns him. The film hammers this home repeatedly, as seemingly everyone around Shiro begins to die. The car wreck that kills Yukiko seems especially sudden. The lover of the dead man and Tamura both confront Shiro on a rope bridge. Both end up dead, falling into the river below. After his mother’s passing, his father strangles his mistress right in front of him. Yukiko’s parents, shaken with grief, commit suicide. An entire party of men die after eating poisoned fish, poorly prepared by the cook. The constant death and melodrama would normally be hard to swallow. “Jigoku,” however, is characterized by an overwhelming sense of tragedy. As if all of this was inevitable, everyone succumbing to an unavoidable curse.

Even before the film moves into the colorful Hell sequences, a sense of foreboding hangs in the air. Tamura often appears suddenly, popping up in a desk next to him or on the railroad behind him. It’s as if the amoral friend is a ghost, an entity that has come to lead the otherwise upstanding Shiro towards damnation. The moment Shiro dies, time stops, the pendulum in a grandfather clock freezing in place, an eerie sight. Once he awakens in hell, the film is bathed in green light. He meets Yukiko who informs him that she was pregnant at the time of her death. Their child floats down an endless river, the purgatory occupied by all dead children. The damned marched in a line, walking towards a destination they will never arrive at. These scenes are melancholic, characters haunted by bad decisions they can no longer correct. 

“Jigoku” is adapting the Buddhist conception of Hell, which shares some similarities with the fire and brimstone hell of Judaeo-Christian belief. Enma, the lord of Hell, judges everyone that comes before him. The condemned are tortured by large demons, stabbed with spears, their limbs broken, their eyes gouged out. Lovers are boiled in massive cauldrons of scolding oil. Yet this Hell is also more ironic. We learn that Yukiko’s father, during the second World War, drank a comrade’s water, causing the other man to die of dehydration. As punishment, he crawls through a desert towards a shallow pool of water. When he arrives, the only liquid is a river of seething bile, wrung from dead bodies. A treacherous doctor is cut in half by a giant saw. An adulterer has her head torn from her body. Another man has his flesh ripped away, reduced to a bloody skeleton. The gore is oddly artificial, adding to the uncanny effect. There are many unforgettable images, such as numerous heads in a dirt field or countless hands crawling out of the ground, reaching for a salvation beyond them.

I’m not Buddhist, so I have no familiarity with that religion’s conception of the afterlife. Yet it’s interesting that demons with sharp implements, searing fire, and rivers of souls are apparently universal. At the same time, “Jigoku’s” sensibility is deeply Japanese. The story around the film’s phantasmagorical depiction of Hell feels very old, as if it’s based on a classic novel. It isn’t but that’s just a testament to the sense of tragedy and irony the script summons. For its foreboding atmosphere and unforgettably bizarre images of hellish punishment, “Jigoku” certainly is a classic of some sort. [7/10]

The Wickedest Witch (1989)

You’re probably wondering what the hell this is. “The Wickedest Witch” is a Halloween special that aired twenty-seven years ago on NBC. It was only ever shown once and has never been given a home video release. It was brought to my attention thanks to Dinosaur Dracula, who recently acquired a copy and posted it on the internet. The plot of “The Wickedest Witch” is surprisingly convoluted for something that’s only a half-hour long. The titular witch is Avarissa, a hag banished to an underground cave for her evil ways. The cave is occupied by Greevils, little reptilian garygoyle muppet things. Anyway, if she convinces an innocent child to comment an evil act, Avarissa will be freed from her prison. She sends a Greevil to capture a child who proves too kind to do wrong, even when tempted by real magical powers.

“The Wickedest Witch” was apparently produced by the same people as “ALF.” The special is on roughly that same level. So there’s lots of heavy-handed shtick. There’s even a character named Shtick, some sort of wizard Avarissa contacts via a magical vending machine. Avarissa hosts bingo games for the Greevils, for some reason. The monsters put woopie cushions on her chair and burp after scarfing snack food. Rue McClanahan plays the witch, seeming a bit irritated and bored by the material. It’s easy to imagine her “Golden Girls” co-stars Bea Arthur or Betty White having way more fun with this. Burgress Meredith narrates the special, often commenting on the stupidity of the characters in a weirdly mean-spirited way. The actor playing the kid isn’t very good and his story arc, of making friends with a Greevil, is deeply uncompelling.

So there’s no laughs to be had in “The Wickedest Witch.” For a special that aired all of once, it does have surprisingly high production values. The shots of the underground cave display some impressive miniature and mat painting work. The Greevil are cute little creations, resembling small, felt dragons. Which makes the witch’s poor treatment of them an even stranger choice. A lot of money obviously went into this thing. The ratings must not have been great if NBC shelved it after a single airing. Still, it is sort of interesting to lay eyes on something this rare and obscure, even if it’s pretty lame. [5/10]

Michael Jackson’s Ghosts (1997)

If “Thriller” is unquestionably Michael Jackson’s greatest achievement as a music video artist, “Ghosts” is his unlikely nadir. Conceived as a spiritual successor to “Thriller,” the video’s story was co-written with Stephen King and Mick Garris. Stan Winston would direct. While “Ghosts” was clearly a costly production, Jackson wasn’t the same pop culture icon in 1997 that he was in 1981. Sexual abuse allegations had forever tainted his career. His bizarre plastic surgery addiction, a publicity stunt marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and accusations of antisemitism had further sullied his reputation. “Ghosts” would briefly play in theaters, before some versions of “Thinner,” before being quickly shuffled onto home video. It’s by far Jackson’s most overlooked creation. Even “Captain EO” is more widely seen then this thing.

Not helping matters is “Ghosts” intentionally bringing the sex abuse scandal to mind. The plot revolves around a mysterious man who lives in a spooky old mansion. He performs ghoulish magic tricks for young boys, which they love. The mayor, however, thinks the Maestro is a freak and tries to run him out of town. After confronting the Maestro in his own mansion, he performs a series of ghostly dance numbers in an attempt to scare the Mayor. Jackson was clearly framing himself as a harmless eccentric, persecuted by a world unwilling to tolerate his quirks. Jackson didn’t seem to understand that, whether or not he did the things he was accused of, having sleepovers with prepubescent boys is not behavior becoming an adult man. Painting the story in pop video/horror movie clichés doesn’t make him seem more relatable or down to Earth.

“Ghosts” seems designed to top “Thriller.” It’s three times the length. Instead of featuring a horde of dancing zombies, it features a crowd of dancing ghosts. The special effects are far more elaborate. Ghosts walk up walls and onto ceilings. Jackson tears his flesh off, appearing as a moonwalking skeleton via then cutting edge CGI. He stretches his face, transforms into a giant demon, and flies through the air. The video’s best special effect has Jackson also playing the big fat Mayor, something you probably don’t notice at first. The set design for the spooky old mansion is awesome. The special effects team certainly did their job correctly.

Sadly, “Ghosts” is mostly boring. The dance choreography isn’t as good as “Thriller.” Long portions of the video are composed of Jackson’s shouting, snapping his fingers, or stomping his feet. Ghosts aren’t as inherently cool as zombies. The special effects have a showy quality, the camera lingering far too long on them. I’d blamed this on Stan Winston but “Pumpkinhead” didn’t have this problem. Presenting the story as a series of stunts meant to impress a crowd of non-believers just further paints “Ghosts” as an ode to M.J.’s ego. Periodically cutting away to the crowd's stunned reaction is another problem, as if the video is begging us to be impressed. The songs aren’t especially memorable, lacking catchy melodies. “Thriller” would’ve been impossible to top even before Jackson’s very public breakdown. “Ghosts” certainly doesn’t accomplish that lofty goal. [5/10]

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