Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 6

Cellar Dweller (1988)

When you look at the sad productions Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures squirts out today, it’s hard to remember that the company once produced easily digestible, simply entertaining horror snack food. Before the Full Moon days, Band’s Empire Pictures created similarly low stakes but highly amusing creatures features. It was a different time, when even the direct-to-video rip-offs were usually worth renting a couple of times. “Cellar Dweller,” the second feature from effects-supervisor-turned-director John Carl Buechler, easily falls into that category. If you had any doubt that this was a Empire classic, it’s even got Jeffrey Combs in it.

Whitney Taylor is an art student who favors comic books and monsters over Picasso and Pollock. This makes her an outcast among her artsy-fartsy peers. Despite this, she gets invited to an exclusive art institute. In the 1930s, the building was the home of Colin Childress, an illustrator of grisly horror comics and Whitney’s idol. Childress seemingly committed suicide after murdering a young girl. After Whitney digs up a mysterious book Childress owns, she learns this isn’t quite true. A spell inside the book brought the monster from Colin’s comic to life. Now, four decades later, the cellar dweller has returned.

John Carl Buechler’s previous directorial credit was “Troll” and he would go on “Friday the 13th Part VII” and “Ghoulies III.” These credits may not inspired much confidence but hear me out. “Troll’s” eccentric cast was one of its strong points. “Cellar Dweller” builds upon this. The art students each have a specialty, which defines them. Whitney is a novel character, a female horror fan back when those were rarer. Debrah Farentino is likable, charming without softening the character’s flaws. Brian Robbins is campy as Phillip, Whitney’s energetic and goofy love interest. (Despite that, Robbins plays the part as camp gay.) Miranda Wilson is especially memorable as Lisa, the performance artist. While the character could’ve been a broad stereotype, Wilson makes her a bubbly lady you miss when she’s gone. I also like Vince Edwards as the would-be mystery novelist who lives next door, who sometimes pretends to be a criminal for inspiration. Aside from Combs’ cameo, Yvonne De Carlo is the marquee name as the suitably strict dean of the institute.

A monster movie having characters you actually care about is a nice bonus but, let’s face it, not the main attraction. The titular being, he who dwells in the cellar, has a suitably comic book-y appearance. Half werewolf, half demon, he’s a hulking creature with claws, big teeth, muscles, and a pentagram carved into his chest. Fitting the four color tone, the murder scenes are similarly lurid. The Cellar Dweller tears people apart, yanking limbs away and knocking off heads. He then consumes the flesh afterwards. It sounds grisly but “Cellar Dweller” keeps things so light and breezy, that the violence is more fun then disturbing. The comedic tone allows the movie to get away with potentially silly stuff, like the monster talking or being defeated with liquid paper.

Perhaps we can also credit “Cellar Dweller’s” solid writing to its screenwriter. Don Mancini, of the previously reviewed “Child’s Play” franchise, wrote “Cellar Dweller” under the pseudonym Kit du Bois. Just like that film showed some subtle criticism of the toy industry, “Cellar Dweller” makes the art world its satirical target. Whitney’s interest in comics is dismissed by her fellow students, the snobby kids looking down on an art form they perceive as inferior. Yet Whitney’s illustrations are so powerful that they bring a literal demon to life. Her ability to draw pulpy comics is what saves the day at the end… At least until the unnecessarily downbeat final scene. Which implies a deeper reading of the story, about how art can consume you and seem more real then reality.

“Cellar Dweller” runs a meager 77 minutes and that includes a long credits sequence. The movie’s compact run time further captures its comic book inspiration. Buechler’s direction also frequently frames the film in the style of comic book panels. In other words, “Cellar Dweller” goes out of its way to look and feel like a classic horror comic. The result is a fun, if goofy, bit of eighties monster madness. After years as an out-of-print VHS wonder, “Cellar Dweller” recently go released on Blu-Ray so you can appreciate its glory in HD. [7/10]

The Cellar (1989)

Hey, how about a cellar themed double feature? Director Kevin Tenney has undeniable horror nerd cred. He began his career with “Witchboard” and “Night of the Demons,” two films I like quite a bit and cult classics in their own right. Instead of moving on to bigger things, Tenney got stuck making mid-budget horror flicks. Like, for example, “The Cellar.” Tenney didn’t even originate the project. Someone named John Woodward directed eight days on the film before he took over. Which is perhaps why “The Cellar” – disappointingly not an adaptation of Richard Laymon’s splatterpunk classic – does not represent the director’s best work.

Mance moves into a new house on former Comanche Indian land, in the South-West. Despite his new wife and infant daughter, Mance is especially concerned with Willy, his son from his first marriage. After staying on the ranch house for a while, Willy starts telling tales. He says a monster lives in the house’s cellar, connected to the watery sinkhole out back, and believes the creature is targeting his little sister. Dad doesn’t believe him but, of course, the boy is right. The local Indian medicine man and eccentric drunk know about the monster but their help may not be enough.

“The Cellar” has several ingredients that should appeal to me. Such as late eighties monster effects, a story about a kid in a scary world, and a plot important relationship between parent and child. But there are some problems. Chris Miller’s performance as Willy is not very good. He’s alright when acting like a silly kid but, when called upon to perform in serious moments, the seams show. Moreover, the relationship between the boy and his dad is less then charming. Patrick Kilpatrick plays the dad and, at times, he bonds successfully with the boy. Such when they’re playing with dynamite or goofing around with boxing gloves. Other times, it seems like he hates his son. There’s a lot of yelling. At the end, he locks the kid in a room with the monster. Ostensibly, he wants to prove that the boy is telling lies. In effect, it makes dad look like a huge prick. (So does the unintentionally funny scene where dad attempts to shoot a random crow.)

As a monster movie, “The Cellar” is a bit more successful. The strange creature is kept off screen for a while, the audience only catching glimpses of the critter. It’s quadrupedal, both hairy and scaly, with a head like a mosasaur. The design is pretty cool, even if you can tell it’s a puppet most times. The attack scenes are well executed. As the boy swings on a tire over the sinkhole, the creature attempts to grab him. Another young boy is not so successful in escaping. Later, he drags an incidental character into a pit, devouring him off-screen. The film’s last third is devoted to a fight between the boy, his dad, and the thing in the cellar. There’s some cool stunt here, involving an electrified fence and a spear. If you’re on the right wavelength, “The Cellar” is a decent eighties creature feature.

“Witchboard” and “Night of the Demons” were both slightly tongue-in-cheek horror features, sneaking some light-hearted humor in with their mayhem. “The Cellar,” meanwhile, is totally serious. The script ladles the Indian mysticism on a little too thick, with an egregious opening and closing narration about Comanche rituals. It also tries to subvert these stereotypes, in a cute scene where the medicine man makes fun of American Indian stereotypes. Far more effective is the film’s use of symbols. A magical spear and rabbit’s foot originally bound the monster. Separated, these items are less effective. A good moment has the town drunk explaining the spiritual significance of the rabbit’s foot, how it represents a magical sacrifice. I like this stuff. Less effective are the crows that act as bad omens. When they fly through a car’s windshield, causing the vehicle to ride off a cliff, that’s a little silly.

All of “The Cellar” has that problem. Effective moments are off-set by odd performances, heavy handed scripting and occasional bursts of unintentional humor. This is a bummer as, with a few adjustments, “The Cellar” probably could’ve been a really entertaining eighties monster movie. It’s about half-way there already. Get different actors to play the two leads, dial back the Magical Indian stuff, and rewrite the father/son relationship and this would’ve been a hidden gem. As is, “The Cellar” is only worth half a recommendation. Maybe if an actual DVD release, along with some special features, ever surfaces, we’ll get a better glimpse at what went wrong. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Ritual

Following “Bordello of Blood’s” poor box office showing, the “Tales from the Crypt” film franchise was over. Until, like one of the series’ famous vengeance seeking ghouls, the series came back to life when least expected. For some reason in 2001, production rolled on “Ritual,” a Jamaican set remake of “I Walked with a Zombie.” The film was first released overseas as a stand alone feature, the Crypt Keeper host segments clipped out. “Ritual” wouldn’t come to domestic DVD until 2006, with the Crypt Keeper’s scenes reinstated. I have no idea why these things happened at this time. “Ritual,” predictably, failed to reignite interest in the series.

Dr. Alice Dodgson makes a mistake, going against her boss’ orders and giving an experimental medicine to a sick kid. Subsequently, the kid dies. Still haunted by the incident and with few options, she takes a job in Jamaica. She’s been hired to help the young heir of a local estate, Wesley Claybourne. Wesley has come down with a strange neurological condition, causing hallucinations and erratic behavior. Wesley, meanwhile, believes he's under a voodoo curse. As Alice begins to develop feelings for Wesley, she realizes that something unusual is happening here.

The biggest problem with “Ritual” is that it does not feel like a “Tales from the Crypt” story. There’s some gore and quite a bit of sex. However, there’s no puckish sense of humor, no ghoulish revenge. The types of scares the film goes for are very different and much lamer. When people are affected by the voodoo curses, they have uninspired hallucinations. There’s little tension when the audience understands that these things aren’t really happening to people. Alice has fake-out nightmares, one involving giant spiders, which are groan inducing. The worst scene has a driver imaging poorly CGI’d tree branches ensnaring his car. This results in the first of two scenes where a vehicle ramps up a mound of dirt, flying through the air. “Ritual” isn’t smart enough to be mind-bending so its attempts at nightmarish, surreal horror come off as totally limp. Sometimes, “Ritual” doesn’t even put this much work into it and just has random shit flash on screen, accompanied by a shriek on the soundtrack.

As weak as “Ritual’s” attempt at scares are, they are still more interesting then the plot twists the film piles on in its second half. After everyone around her has seemingly contracted the same disease, Alice begins to realize that someone is poisoning them. Soon, she suspects Wesley’s brother of wrong-doing, a conclusion the audience came to immediately. In its final act, “Ritual” disappears up its own ass. The script piles on some more voodoo bullshit and another plot twist, revealing the true mastermind behind everything that happened. The film features one of those tiresome scenes where the villain explains their entire plan, and all the incidents in the film up to that point, in extended detail. I couldn’t give less of a shit about these things. The film is way too long already, so some of this probably could’ve been cut.

That “Ritual” kind of sucks is even more disappointing, as the film has a promising cast. Jennifer Grey, former dancing partner of Patrick Swayze, stars as Alice. While Grey’s attempt at pathos are unearned by the script, she has fun interacting with the other cast members. (It most also be said that the film delights in putting the still lovely Grey in various states of undress.) Tim Curry has a typically hammy role as a perverted veterinarian, which lets the actor play to his strength. When Kristen Wilson is playing her role as the wacky best friend, forcing Grey’s Alice into various exciting incidents, she’s energetic and charming. When the script forces her into more dramatic moments, she’s less interesting.

“Ritual” just doesn’t have that “Tales from the Crypt” magic. This is most apparent in the Crypt Keeper host segment. (Singular segment. There’s only one, at the beginning of the film. Some frankly embarrassing fake bloopers play after the credits but that doesn’t count as an outro.) They obviously used a different puppet. The eyes barely move, the neck never moves, and the mouth moves stiffly. It looks less like the real Crypt Keeper and more like one of those props you’d buy in a Halloween store. John Kassir does the whole thing in an ill-advised Jamaican accent too. I wish “Ritual” had been good because an on-going series of DTV “Tales” probably would’ve been fun. [4/10]

Lost Tapes: Vampire

I imagine expectations for a horror anthology on Animal Planet, a channel not usually associate with that kind of program, were very low. Even if season one of “Lost Tapes” was mostly shitty, the ratings were good enough to justify a second season. The show underwent some changes in its sophomore year. The educational sequences ditched the on-screen text and switched totally to expert talking heads, which was a big improvement. The second season obviously had a bigger budget too, as we would see far more of the monsters from now. The premiere, “Vampire,” would stray slightly from the cryptozoology concept… Though in a somewhat interesting manner.

After loosing his job, Dennis Redding has decided that house flipping is the best way to make some cash. He moves his wife, Sarah, and their son, Eddie, into a dilapidated old home. Dennis has decided to document the renovation with cameras placed all over the building. Sarah is adapting but Eddie hates the house. He hears strange noise in the wall, his stuffed animal vanishes, and claims a monster lives in his closest. Soon, mom and dad discover the boy isn’t just anxious about the new home. There’s a feral, rat-like vampire living in the walls of the house.

“Vampire” is one of my favorite “Lost Tapes.” When the writers decided to tackle vampires, they put a cryptozoological spin on the concept. This vampire is covered in hair, with an inhuman face, and attacks indiscriminately. It's more animal then undead. The episode even has a couple of creepy moments. Such as when the exterminator discovers the vampire sleeping in the walls, its ugly face appearing on his camera. Or when the vampire sneaks into Eddie’s room while he sleeps. Switching between the different types of cameras also makes the found footage angle a little less ridiculous. The conclusion is still somewhat silly. There’s way too many scenes of people running, the camera swinging wildly. How the monster is dispatched is unlikely, to say the least. Still, “Vampire” may very well represent the best attributes of “Lost Tapes.” [7/10]

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