Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 5

C.H.U.D. (1984)

“C.H.U.D.” is a good example of a low budget genre flick that probably would have been forgotten if it wasn’t for its catchy title. The first time I ever heard of the movie was on, of all places, Geena Davis’ short lived sitcom. Chuds, as a proper noun, also cropped up on “The Simpsons” occasionally. A phrase like “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers” certainly brings undeniably tantalizing images to mind. Considering the age of outrageous horror titles would soon be over, “C.H.U.D.’s” title granted it a novelty factor, allowing the film to stand out among the eighties’ many monster movies. But does the movie live up to that title? That’s for me, the viewer, to decide.

Something is happening underneath the streets of New York City. People are disappearing. Many of the homeless folks that used to frequent Reverend Shepherd’s soup kitchen have turned up missing. Police detective Bosch’s wife has vanished as well. George Cooper, a photographer who has produced a series of photos about the homeless population in the NYC subway tunnels, soon investigates more closely. He discovers that mutated monsters stalk the sewers and tunnels, picking the defenseless off. But the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers aren’t just man-eating beasties. They’re the result of industrial negligence.

Reportedly – according to Wikipedia anyway – “C.H.U.D.” was heavily rewritten during filming. This might explain why the story makes some odd decisions. There’s three protagonist that the movie rotates through. Is John Heard’s Cooper the hero of the story, the every man photographer with the independent wife who stumbles into trouble? Or is it Detective Bosch, who has a personal stake in the mystery? Both occupy equal amounts of screen time, both driving the story. While Daniel Stern’s Reverend might technically be a supporting player, Stern’s colorful performance and the scrambled script make the character as prominent as the others. It’s not until the last third that these characters start to interact. “C.H.U.D.” isn’t a bad flick but tighter writing would’ve seriously improved it.

Of course, the human characters aren’t the reason anyone rented “C.H.U.D.” back in the day. This is a monster movie and the monsters are the main attraction. “C.H.U.D.” is fairly coy with its titular creatures at first. We only catch a glimpse of a claw or a scaly back. This does a decent job of building suspense, as does the blinking Giger counters or scurrying sounds that precede the monsters. When the Underground Dwellers are revealed in all their glory, it’s an effective shock. The creature design, with their glowing eyes, bubbling skin, and pointed ears, are certainly memorable. By the end, “C.H.U.D.” has really doubled down on its monsters. The Chuds attack a dinner, chase the female lead through her apartment, kick down doors, attack little children, and scatter around the subway tunnels. Fun stuff.

Yet there is a subversive edge of “C.H.U.D.’s” cheap monster movie antics. Detective Bosch’s attempt to investigate the strange disappearances soon puts him in conflict with an agent of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Reverend is deeply distrustful of the government bureaucrats. By the story’s end, we discover that the mutated monsters are the result of radioactive waste being dumped in the subways and sewers. The NRC has been covering it up. By the end, the government baddies hope to wipe out the monsters and any responsibility they might have for the disaster. In other words, underneath its exploitation movie exterior, “C.H.U.D.” aspires to be a serious minded conspiracy thriller.

There’s some decent shocks in the flick, such as a dead dog appearing suddenly or blood spurting from a clogged shower drain. The monsters themselves have become mildly iconic, their glowing eyes being especially memorable. “C.H.U.D.’s” place in pop culture would lead to a 1989 sequel, with an equally awesome title. Among Criterion hoaxes, there have also been announcements of various remakes, neither amounting to much yet. While a remake likely wouldn’t have the original’s charmingly seedy setting or cool monsters, it would probably have a more focused script. That would be an improvement. [6/10]

Not of This Earth (1957)

A few days ago I reviewed “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” which Roger Corman produced independently through his Allied Artists company. Since Corman’s movies made their boffo box office through the cheap-o drive-in market, his films usually ran as double bills. “Not of This Earth” was the B-side to “Attack of the Crab Monsters’” supposed A-side. I’m not sure how these things usually worked, if the better film always played on the second half. However, that was certainly the case of “Not of This Earth,” which is a charmingly simple sci-fi/thriller and far better then the movie with the brain-eating crustaceans.

A strange man enters Dr. Rochelle’s office. He calls himself Mr. Johnson, speaks with an odd accent, never removes his sunglasses, and seems sensitive to loud sounds. He’s also highly anemic and adamant about receiving a blood transfusion. He eventually talks Nadine Storey, Rochelle’s nurse, into becoming his live-in medical assistant. Johnson, it soon becomes clear, isn’t human. He’s an alien invader, from a world that is slowly dying of blood poisoning. Johnson’s mission is to drain as much human blood as possible and teleport it back to his home world. Nadine quickly becomes his next target.

“Not of This Earth” takes a lo-fi approach to the alien invader genre. Mr. Johnson looks like a regular human, once you get use to his permanent sunglasses accessories. Neither space ships nor star armadas accompany him. His behavior, in many ways, resembles that of a serial killer. He stuns victims with his alien eyes and piercing psychic powers. Afterwards, he drains their blood with a device kept in a suitcase. Throughout the film, he invites potential victims into his home, such as a vacuum cleaner salesman or a trio of drunks. Yet Mr. Johnson has a clearly understood motivation. His goal is ultimately to save his species, his home world. He even possesses a strain of compassion, such as when he helps a female traveler also from his planet. The way this motivation is laid out can be somewhat clumsy. “Not of This Earth” relies a bit too much on telepathic communication in the form of voice over narration. But giving its villain a personality, even a little heart, makes the film stronger.

The film also keeps its cast fairly self-contained. Aside from Paul Birch’s memorable turn as the alien killer, there aren’t that many other characters. Beverly Garland, reappearing from the previous year’s “It Conquered the World,” stars as Nadine. Garland has a more down-to-Earth role here, allowed to show off her natural charm and grace. She’s especially cute when flirting with Morgan Jones, as her love interest. Jones’ part is not especially nuanced but Jones has some charisma of his own. I also like Jonathan Haze as Jeremy, the house servant Mr. Johnson hires. Haze has a rough and tumble appeal that makes the character more memorable then he would be otherwise. And watch out for Dick Miller as the vacuum salesman, bringing more details then necessary to the nothing part.

“Not of This Earth” isn’t packed with huge thrills for most of its run time. It’s a low key affair, its pleasures coming from the likable cast and the interesting story turns. However, in its final minutes, Corman ups the action. There’s a fist fight on a stair case and confrontations between our heroes and villain. Johnson’s stated weakness against loud sounds becomes important again. There’s even a car chase and an explosion. Because this is a 1950s drive-in flick, there’s a monster too. Johnson summons a floating bat-like creature (made from an umbrella) that crushes the head of one of the loose ends. While the critter plays a small role in the film, it’s still a pretty cool creation. It was at least cool enough to make it on the poster.

Further contributing to “Not of This Earth’s” hidden gem status is Ronald Stein’s surprisingly moody score and Corman’s occasionally striking direction. The entire movie is a good example of how Corman turned a small budget into an advantage. “Not of This Earth” has surprisingly been remade twice. The first time was by Jim Wynorski, who famously slotted Traci Lords, just retired from her porn career, into the lead role. The second time was in the mid-1990s, as part of a wave of Corman remakes produced for Showtime. I wonder if either of those are as much fun as this original? Either way, the original is an entertaining surprise for this monster fan. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood (1996)

The first “Tales from the Crypt” movie must have done okay for itself. The next year, following the end of the television series, a second “Tales from the Crypt” feature rolled into theaters. As with “Demon Knight,” “Bordello of Blood” had little connection with the E.C. Comics the TV show adapted, aside from host segments featuring the Crypt Keeper. Instead, it was a more-or-less original horror story designed to follow the “Tales from the Crypt” spirit of sex, violence, humor, and ghouls. “Bordello of Blood,” despite that memorable poster, did not repeat “Demon Knight’s” success and seemed to bring the series to a pre-mature end.

Catherine Verdoux, the personal assistant to televangelist and mega-church pastor J.C. Current, has a no good brother. After he disappears, she stumbles into securing the services of Rafe Guttman, an eccentric private detective. Guttman uncovers a brothel located in the basement of local mausoleum. The brothel, by the way, is populated by vampires and run by Lilith, the queen of all vampires. Turns out, Verdoux’s boss also has a connection with the undead prostitutes. The three have to put aside their differences if they hope to stop the evil before it spreads.

The “Tales” series had the bad luck of attaching non-starting leading men to their films. “Demon Knight” thought Billy Zane was going to be the next big thing. “Bordello of Blood” is, of all things, a Dennis Miller vehicle. Remember Dennis Miller? The super smarmy, pop culture reference happy stand-up who rode the early nineties love of ironic detachment to brief fame, before somehow winding up on Fox News? Building an entire movie around Miller’s superior snark probably wasn’t the best idea, as he’s insufferable even in small doses. There are a couple of times throughout “Bordello of Blood” when you want to smack the smug out of Miller. His above-it-all attitude doesn’t favor the film, as horror/comedies usually succeed with sincerity. Still, Miller does get a few laughs. His lines about Mickey Rourke or Larry Flint made me chuckle.

“Demon Knight” was, more or less, a straight horror film with occasional moments of screwball comedy. “Bordello of Blood” bends in the opposite direction. It’s a total, gore soaked farce. Some of these gags are amusing. Miller storming into the brothel with a super-soaker full of holy water, reducing the vampiric hookers to blazing remains, has a certain giddy energy. Lilith invading Miller’s fantasy is sort of a neat moment. The film thinks of clever ways to yank hearts out, with tongues slithering down throats. However, “Bordello of Blood” borders obnoxious too often. The ghoul sent out to gather victims for the bordello is incredibly annoying. Corey Feldman, who plays Verdoux’s brother, painfully mugs after transforming into a vampire. The tone is very broad and cartoonish throughout, quickly wearing on the viewer.

Given its setting, the second “Crypt” film doubles down on the sex. Despite the number of breasts on display, the film is shocking un-erotic. There’s so much nudity that the audience quickly grows numb to it. The sex scenes are blankly shot and choreographed. What’s more limp is the flaccid attempt at commentary on religious hypocrisy. Yes, J.C. Current is a fraud. He’s secretly funding Lilith’s operation, in hopes of wiping out sinners. Meanwhile, his indifference towards his employees and love of money do not represent Christian values. Despite clearly painting Current as an asshole, he’s ultimately a hero, realizing the error of his ways and facing down the vampires. (Never mind all the deaths he’s indirectly responsible for.) Chris Sarandon, at the very least, is having a ball hamming it up in the part.

For every amusing attribute, “Bordello of Blood” has another element holding it back. Phil Fondacaro is funny as the man who summons Lilith. Angie Everheart, meanwhile, is hopelessly lame and noncommittal as the she-vamp. In truth, the framing device might be more entertaining. Seeing the Crypt Keeper bicker with a haughty mummy played by William Sadler is amazing. (I also like the soundtrack, full of heavy metal and dad rock.) A third “Tales from the Crypt” feature, entitled “Fat Tuesday,” was filmed. However, producer Joel Silver blocked its release for fear that it made him look racist. “Bordello’s” mediocre box office made it a moot point. In the end, the “Tales” trilogy seemingly ended abruptly, only two parts in. [6/10]

Lost Tapes: Hellhound

“Lost Tapes’” second return to the realm of the supernatural at least takes the form of a recognizable animal. “Hellhound” concerns a quartet of goth teenagers and a new inductee into their ranks. For the initiation ritual, Annabel and her friends drive Nora out to the local graveyard. The sole boy in the group records the trip for Annabel’s goth themed website. While the other goths are happy to have Nora, Annabel is hateful towards the girl, planning to pull a prank on her. After arriving at the cemetery around midnight, the five teenagers are attacked by a black dog with glowing red eyes and the stench of brimstone.

“Hellhound” is one of the few times “Lost Tapes’” half-hour format really works for it. As a feature length found footage film, this story would have gotten old fast. As a 19 minute bit of fluff, it’s just the right length. Annabel is a queen bee bully who mistreats Nora from the moment they meet. While her friends seem much nicer, especially the awkward Severin, they all go along with the stupid prank. (In a softly mocking turn, the narrator points out the goth kids’ dorky real names.) In other words, this is a “Tales from the Crypt” style story of bad people getting their just desserts. The graveyard setting contributes some decent atmosphere. The hellhound’s sudden appearance and loud barking produces some okay shocks. There are some typically dumb moments. The teens should have fled the cemetery far sooner then they did. With no reason for these events to be recorded, there’s a few too many scenes of people shouting at each other. But that twist ending makes up for a lot. The first season of “Lost Tapes” had some severe ups and downs but at least it ended on an above average note. [7/10]

No comments: