Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 4

Curse of Chucky (2013)

“Seed of Chucky” seemed to bring the story of Charles Lee Ray, America’s favorite homicidal doll, to something like a conclusion. At the very least, the murderer’s wife and child had reached turning points. Chucky’s saga was wrapped up enough that a remake, instead of a further continuation, was planned. (Remakes being the hip horror trend at the time didn’t hurt.) When development on the remake stalled after years of promise, series creator Don Manchini made an unexpected decision. A new sequel was made instead, one promising a return to the series’ horror roots after the increasingly comedic tones of the later sequels. Despite being released direct-to-video - usually the dying grounds for long running horror series - “Curse of Chucky” received enthusiastic reviews.

Nica, a paraplegic who recently dropped out of college, lives with her mother in a secluded country home. One day, a mysterious package arrives for Nica, containing a Good Guys Doll calling itself Chucky. That same night, Nica’s mother is found dead, seemingly of a suicide. Nica’s family arrives at the old house following the death: sister Barbie, brother-in-law Ian, family nanny Jill, and niece Alice. The young niece immediately takes a liking to Chucky. As night falls over the family home, more unusual deaths occur. Soon, Nica realizes what Chucky is. And the killer doll has a personal connection to the wheelchair bound girl.

Though slightly comedic, the first three “Child’s Play” films mostly went after scares and shocks. The fourth and fifth, meanwhile, evolved into absurdist comedies. With “Curse of Chucky,” the series circles back to serious horror, capturing a tone far darker then even the original film. The sequel is set inside an isolated house, full of old staircases, shadowy lighting, grey hallways and a rickety elevator. This moves the usually urban “Chucky” franchise towards gothic horror. Beyond the spooky setting, the gothic roots show in the script’s concern. Nica’s family is full of conflict. Barbie resents the favor her disabled sister courted from mom while Nica, in turn, resents Barbie’s condescending treatment of her. Ian suspects his wife is cheating on him… With Jill, the family nanny. He’s right. Chucky’s violence is motivated by old grudges. Secrets, shadows, and insecurities characterize the story, producing a far grimmer tone then you’d expect from a late period slasher sequel.

In truth, “Curse of Chucky” is by far the most sinister “Child’s Play” movie. The focus is not so much on the gory death scenes. Oh, they’re certainly here. Such as a grisly car crash decapitation, a face scorching electrocution, a butcher knife to the eye, a hatchet to the jaw, and numerous cuts and lacerations. Yet Chucky cracks fewer quibs. He’s angrier, telling a little girl there’s no God and treating his female victims with a sexist, sadistic attitude. More attempts are made to build suspense around the doll, frequently having him hiding in the house. He watches, waiting for the most devastating moment to strike. He enjoys scaring people. There’s a renewed interest in the living doll’s uncanny qualities, playing up just how damn creepy his plastic face can be. The darker script is matched by the creepier atmosphere. By the time the claustrophobic climax occurs, the audience is suitably on edge.

At first, “Curse of Chucky’s” connection with the rest of the series seems loose. Chucky’s face has, seemingly, been restored to a smooth plastic veneer. Why the doll is targeting Nica’s family isn’t immediately clear. Around the mid-way point, “Curse of Chucky” starts to pile on the fan service. We discover the killer doll has only covered the Frankenstein-esque stitches he acquired in part four. After eliminating her family, Chucky confronts Nica. This time, it’s personal for Charles Lee Ray, as he targeted Nica’s mother 25 years ago. We see the events leading up to Ray’s death in the original, Brad Dourif appearing on-screen for the first time in ages. Before the end credits roll (and after), even more familiar faces put in much appreciated surprise appearances. Sometimes, the sequel overreaches its continuity. Chucky delivers a little too much exposition at the end. The conclusion is slightly baffling. Yet I appreciate how Manchini presents a seemingly new story before revealing more and more callbacks to the series’ history.

The cast is solid. You might be tempted to cry nepotism but Fiona Dourif is quite good as Nica. By moving the series in a darker direction, Manchini has possibly created the first actually scary Chucky movie. That’s impressive, considering how goofy the franchise had gotten. “Curse of Chucky’s” more oppressive tone has revitalized interest in the killer doll. A script for a seventh film is ready, with both Dourifs intending to return. As much as I enjoy the giddy heights of the previous sequels, “Curse of Chucky” is a nasty, effective horror flick. I’d never thought I’d be a fan of a series that freaked me out for so many years but here we are. Bring on "Revenge of Chucky" or whatever it's called. [7/10]

It Conquered the World (1956)

As a kid, I rarely missed a chance to watch a documentary about the history of the horror and science fiction genre. Yes, that’s why I have such a deep well of genre related trivia/bullshit. My nerdiness goes that far back. Anyway, an image I would often see was the cone-headed Beulah from “It Conquered the World.” The creature is often trotted out as an example of cheese ball fifties monster flicks, especially those produced by Roger Corman and AIP. Despite my familiarly with clips from the film, I’ve never actually sat down and watched it. Well, that changes now!

Dr. Tom Anderson has made an amazing scientific break-through. He’s established contact with an alien intelligence. Using radio waves, he’s connected with an extraterrestrial creature from Venus. Yet Anderson, who is hateful of humanity, was chosen for a reason. After landing on Earth, the Venusian monster releases organic probes. They attack the people in the near-by town, psychically taking over their minds, turning brother against brother. The monster also disables the county’s electric grid. Only Dr. Nelson, a colleague of Anderson, seems wiling to stop the alien invader.

For “It Conquered the World,” Roger Corman seemingly combined two popular variation on the alien invasion genre. The film is sort of an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” style tale of an insidious invasion. Beulah’s small, manta ray-like props sting the back of people’s neck. This assimilates the humans into the monster’s hive mind. “It Conquered the World” even directly addresses the Communist threat usually only hinted at in fifties sci-fi film. After the alien-controlled cops declare martial law in town, they blame the state of emergency on a Red invasion. While the movie features mind control and body snatching, Corman was also smart enough to toss in a giant rubber monster, maybe the most prominent horror/sci-fi trend of the day. The Beulah wrestles with the military and the heroes before the story concludes, awkwardly swishing its claws through the air and crawling across the ground.

“It Conquered the World” also features a few recognizable names among its main cast. Lee Van Cleef, years before he became an iconic star of spaghetti westerns, stars as the doctor communicating with the Venusian. The part is extremely thinly written but Van Cleef makes the guy seem genuinely unhinged. His misanthropy is exaggerated to the point that aligning himself with an alien invader seems utterly natural to him. Yet van Cleef still gets a juicy redemptive arc. Peter Graves, a decade before his star making role on “Mission: Impossible,” plays the more traditionally heroic Dr. Nelson. Graves brings a nice desperation to the part, showing Nelson as a guy willing to do whatever it takes to save the day. Beverly Garland, something of a cult icon already by 1956, plays Cleef’s put upon wife. Garland spends most of the film threating about her husband’s humanity hating attitudes. But when she gets on the radio to cuss out the monster? And eventually tracks it down with a shotgun? Yeah, that’s cool.

Honestly, I wish I liked “It Conquered the World” a little more. The movie is at this awkward place between being a camp masterpiece and almost being a genuinely good movie. The Beulah is a lovably silly creation. His squat body, perpetually grimacing face, cone shaped head, and long lobster claws result in a monster that waddles across the floor. Without its psychic powers, it would present no threat to anyone. The film concludes with the military confronting the beast, Van Cleef finally killing it with a blowtorch. The probe bats are less interesting though, despite a decent sequence where Graves fights one. For its B-movie charms, “It Conquered the World” also clearly possesses a tossed together, unfocused screenplay. Graves turns on his wife for ill defined reasons. Several scenes are focused on a bumbling solider.

Another indignity facing “It Conquered the World” is its inaccurate title. I guess “It Conquered a Small Town” isn’t as catchy. Roger Corman aficionados probably consider this one a classic of Corman’s particular brand of B movie. And the film is a classic, if just for its ridiculous but amusing creature. Sadly, the movie around the lovably absurd Beulah is not as compelling as that goofball creation. It’s a bit too slow, with uneven characters, and a story that never focuses on one primary point for too long. But, hey, that monster is great. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Third Pig

It’s hard to know if the “Tales from the Crypt” producers realized the seventh season was destined to be the series’ final one. Yet the unique nature of the final episode makes me suspect as much. In addition to being the last episode, “The Third Pig” is the only animated episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” The twisted cartoon retells the fable of the three little pigs. In this version, the industrial swine’s two brothers are a heavy smoker and an alcoholic. When the wolf knocks down their homes, they shack up in his house… And refuse to leave. Eventually, the wolf does kill the two other pigs. After a canine jury convicts him of the murders, the third pig touches upon a plan. He cobbles his brothers’ corpses together into a vengeance seeking Porkenstein monster.

“The Third Pig” was probably inspired by the popularity of “Ren and Stimpy” and other aggressively obnoxious nineties cartoons. The animated episode is packed full of R-rated content, with extra gory murder scenes and multiple sexual references. This is mildly amusing, even if the simplistic animation quickly grates on the eyes. The story is disappointingly pedestrian, shifting the Big Bad Wolf story into some very dumb and not especially funny places. More amusing is the episode’s voice cast. Bobcat Goldthwait plays the wolf as a frustrated killer, unable to match the fairy tale rhymes all the characters speak in. Cam Clarke – that’s Leonardo to you and I – plays the titular pig as squeaky clean, in amusing contrast to his brothers’ debauchery. John Kassir, as the Crypt Keeper, also provides a pretty funny story book narration. The Frankenstein monster comes out of nowhere, seemingly inserted to justify this story being told on a horror series. While “The Third Pig” has an undeniable novelty factor, it’s not as clever, goofy, or crude as it should have been. [6/10]

And that concludes my four year long journey to review every episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” At the end of this adventure, a few things remain clear. I still love John Kassir’s Crypt Keeper, with his high pitched chuckle and lovably dumb puns. The series formula, as predictable as it always was, proved surprisingly versatile, more often then not being entertaining. The series’ quality probably peaked around seasons two through four. The last three seasons were not as memorable, even though I enjoyed many episodes. Over all, the show’s place in cult/horror history is secure. I still like it a lot. Technically, my “Tales from the Crypt” experience isn’t quite over yet, as I will watch the two movies connected with the show. (I suppose I could review the spin-offs some day.) And now there’s talks of a “Tales from the Crypt” revival, probably coming next year. I’ll likely give the new series a look but, if Kassir isn’t back as the puniful Crypt Keeper, I doubt I’ll be too invested in it.

Lost Tapes: Death Worm

As season one of “Lost Tapes” nears its end, the show pulled from the more obscure corners of cryptozoology. This week’s supposed creature?: The Olgoi khorkhoi, perhaps better known as the Mongolian Death Worm. Two professional motocross riders race across the Gobi desert, competing in a contest to travel the scorching arena. They document their journey with cameras mounted to their helmets and ATVs. After getting lost in the dark, the two men are attacked by a subterranean creature that spits acid and generates electric shocks.

“Death Worm” may be the best episode of “Lost Tapes’” first season. The relationship between the two racers is nicely established. We get a good grasp of the guys’ bro-mance and hints at their lives outside racing. It’s obvious both care a lot for one another. The monster is actually creepy. We only get glimpses of the Death Worm as it slithers through the sand. The worm’s presence is hinted by an electric humming on the soundtrack, a nicely foreboding element. The script mixes it up, including both the worm’s supposed acid spitting and electrical abilities. We get to see the former up close, as a bloody gash forms on the one man’s skin. Lastly, the image of people pulled beneath the sand, screaming for mercy, borders on genuinely unnerving. While not avoiding the show’s cheesy aspects – the educational sequences really push it this time – “Death Worm” is easily the most effective episode of “Lost Tapes” thus far. [7/10]

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