Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 7

House (1986)

After meeting William Katt last weekend, I decided it was time to revisit “House.” Directed by Steve Miner, after his two “Friday the 13th” sequels but before “Warlock,” the film has a small but passionate fan base. I know on the toy forum I hang out at, this one guy has been asking for a figure of Big Ben for practically a decade at this point. And obviously the film must have done okay for itself, since they made three sequels. For all of these factors, “House” is not a film you hear much about – assuming people are actually talking about this “House” and not this one, this one, or this one – but still has a reputation as a cult classic.

Successful horror novelist Roger Cobb’s life is in tatters. His wife, a popular television actress, recently left him. Their son mysteriously vanished several months ago, while swimming in the pool. His publisher is asking for another populist genre novel. Cobb, meanwhile, wants to finish a book about his time in Vietnam, an experience that still haunts him. His fans are weird. So when his eccentric aunt commits suicide, it’s another incident in a long line of misery. Cobb moves into his aunt’s old house, in hopes of finding some peace and quiet. Instead, he discovers that the house is haunted. That the ghosts – who have access to his memories and anxieties – plan to drive him totally mad.

“House” is actually a fairly dark story, about a man traumatized by war and the loss of loved ones. Roger Cobb is so lonely that, when his ex-wife calls him, he pretends that he’s having a big party. His feelings for that ex are far from settled. His best friend during Vietnam asked for a mercy killing but Cobb was unable to deliver. He has constant flashback to his son’s disappearance. Like all movie writers, he also has writer’s block. Despite this trauma-filled back story, “House” is a horror/comedy. A big reason the film pulls off this tonal balancing act is William Katt. There’s a certain lightness to Katt’s performance. He sets up boobie traps in the attic to catch a ghost, which involves him dressing in war fatigues and leaping around. Cobb shoots a ghost disguised as his wife, a scarring act. Immediately afterwards, there’s a comical scene where he tries to hide this from police. It works because of Katt’s comedic energy. Katt shines the most during a scene where he babysits a neighbor’s kid, a sequence equally funny, madcap, cute, and touching.

I suspect the main reason “House” resonated so strongly with a certain generation of horror fans is its gooey, novel monster designs. Though referred to as ghosts, the creatures are more like E.C. Comic style ghouls. There’s the thing in the closest upstairs. Its claws are sharp, arms long, skin green and covered in boils. An especially memorable creation is the old witch, a morbidly obese female that slaps garish lipstick on its grotesque face. Amusing, the witch just doesn’t stay dead, as even repeated dismemberment only slows it down. The last act is devoted to Big Ben, the zombified corpse of Cobb’s old war buddy. Partly skeletal yet still gushy, Ben has one empty eye socket and his intestines dangle from his exposed rib cage. There’s child-sized snatchers and a flying skull monster. “House” just piles on the crazy, cool monsters, each one suitable for a Fangoria cover.

“House” has a lot of fun with its concept, building upon the haunted house premise in multiple creative ways. There’s the expected poltergeist activity, with axes, sickles, and hedge clippers floating after Katt. The script utilizes this hovering instruments in a clever way, Cobb playing the ghostly activity against each other. The house is eventually revealed to be a portal to another world, outside of time and space. This is cleverly illustrated during a scene where Cobb falls into a seemingly endless, black void. Or when the door of the house is suddenly situated over a perilous cliff. “House” runs with this creative streak, making many of the scenes fun and energetic.

To this already appealing stew, “House” adds fun supporting performances from George Wendt as a nosy neighbor and Richard Moll as Big Ben. Miner’s direction also carries on the script’s creative spirit. Fred Dekker – of the similarly entertaining “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad” – did a pass on the script, which might explain some things. The result is a film that’s kind of perfect for the Halloween season. Spooky but funny, ghoulish but light-weight, fast-paced but thoughtful, it has everything an October traveler could be looking for in an undemanding eighties monster flick. [8/10]

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

I first encountered “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” in a kid’s book about fifties sci-fi. I don’t remember who wrote it but I’m guessing Daniel Cohen? The titular terror was on the cover, painted in rust red, waving his claws at the reader and barring his teeth. Within the same book, the author laid out the popular theory that “It!” might have inspired “Alien.” Both films are about a murderous space creature loose on a space ship. (No official connection between the films have ever been confirmed.) That last factoid has kept “It!” from being totally forgotten, which probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. Maybe not fairly either, as the film is a goofy but entertaining monster flick.

In the far flung future year of 1975, the U.S. government sends its first shuttle to Mars. Soon afterwards, all but one member of the crew vanishes. A second rocket is sent to the red planet to investigate. The surviving astronaut, Col. Carruthers, is believed to have murdered the other men. He’s transported back to Earth to face trial. When questioned, Carruthers claims an alien creature killed the others. He’s not believed but that quickly changes when the monstrous creature stows away on the ship. Now, the astronauts have to survive the eight hour long trip back to Earth before It tears them apart.

“It!” was directed by Edward L. Cahn, a prolific maker of cheapie genre flicks who previously bought us “The She-Creature” and “Invasion of the Saucer Men.” Cahn didn’t always make good films but he was good at working within a small budget. “It!” looks really good for its small budget. The space ship setting, which was clearly only a few sets, is well utilized, Cahn making the unconvincing future location kind of sinister looking. It creates a decent sense of claustrophobia, the heroes trapped in a small space with the killer beast near-by. Cahn’s direction is effectively moody. More then once, he casts It’s huge shadow up on the wall, making the monster seem even more intimidating. The shadowy direction creates a certain spooky atmosphere. Considering “It!” isn’t much more then an old dark house story in space, the film being characterized by shadows and dark corridors is an appropriate decision.

Of course, the film can’t keep its titular monster off-screen forever. It is revealed early on, his growling face thrust out of the shadows towards the viewer. Maybe Cahn bathed so much of the film in shadows to disguise the goofy creature design. The chin of the actor playing It pushed out of the monster’s mouth, the costume designer creating too small a mask. The monster has a perpetual snarl, with big teeth, a pig nose and pointed eyebrows that are always angry. It’s three fingered, three toed, and bright green. Despite the exaggerated design, It is still an effective monster. He’s a blood sucker, draining all the fluids from his human victims. The creature is strong enough to heft grown men over head. He’s hard to kill, tanking grenades, gunshots, and even a bazooka. Moreover, the monster’s constant aggression makes him a threatening force.

Naturally, the version of 1975 presented in “It!” looks a lot like 1958. The men are all tough, stout-chinned scientist. The women are meek and subservient. The cast is not very notable, though I do like how badly everyone treats Carruthers at first. (Despite being a suspected murderer, he’s allowed full run of the ship.) By limiting its setting to a space ship, the film mostly avoids any embarrassing predictions about the future. There’s actually a lot of fun stuff inside the shuttle. One memorable scene has astronauts walking vertically along the outside of the ship. There’s plenty of cool shots of It tearing through various bulkheads and doors. The conclusion smartly uses the outer space setting, though the film stops just shy of kicking It out of the airlock.

I don’t know how much of a direct influence the film had on “Alien.” Aside from the premise of an intergalactic monster hiding aboard a ship, picking off the crew, I don’t see too much in common between the two. I don’t think the creators of “It” have an exclusive right to that concept. (“Planet of the Vampires” seems a more obvious forebear, in my opinion.) “It!” certainly doesn’t summon the same raw terror and alien geometries as Ridley Scott’s later picture. Monster kids being who they are though, “It!” has reappeared over the years as model kits, action figures, and comic books. The film is a fun creature feature, well shot with a decent amount of suspense, but not very much more. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road

When “Masters of Horror” was first announced, I thought it was the best ever idea for a horror anthology series. Born out of some awesome sounding dinner parties Mick Garris threw, the connecting fiber of the show was its directors. Some of the greatest horror filmmakers alive were invited to tell any stories they wanted, free from censors and executives, as long as it was an hour long and could be done on a television budget. “Masters of Horror” never quite lived up to that awesome idea. However, I was still glued to my TV every Friday during its original run, making the series a source of nostalgia for me. I’ve been wanting to review it for years and, now that I’m done with “Tales from the Crypt,” that time has finally come.

The first episode, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” was directed by Don Coscarelli and based off a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, making it a “Masters of Horror” two-fer. Ellen is headed down a country road for mysterious reasons. She encounters a crashed car, discovering the driver has been snatched by Moon-Face, a deformed serial killer. While running from the attacker, Ellen reflects on the tactics her survivalist husband taught her. After being captured and taken to Moon-Face’s backwoods lair, she realizes only her own instincts will save her.

It’s easy to see why “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” would appeal to Coscarelli. The “Phantasm” films were full of home-made booby traps, similar to what Ellen cooks up here. She digs a pit full of spikes. Using the elastic in her underwear, she builds a small catapult. At first, the episode seems to play the survivalist shenanigans Ellen’s husband believes straight. The flashbacks are brightly light, compared to the stormy forest scenes. Yet every trap she builds ends up failing. It’s not until Ellen starts to rely on her own skills that she successfully fights off Moon-Face. This ironic turn becomes even darker once the final twist is revealed, showing her husband to be an even bigger bastard then previously assumed. (Considering what a boy’s club the “Phantasm” flicks are, it’s nice to see a female lead in a Coscarelli film.)

“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” should also thrill backwoods horror fans. Moon-Face is an intimidating figure. He’s tall and bulky with metal capped teeth, yellow skin, and home made knives. His hidden cabin is littered with dead bodies. He has a fetishistic hatred with eyes, drilling them out of his victim’s sockets. The late, great Angus Scrimm also hangs out in the guy’s basement, as an eccentric captive who sings songs and tells tales. Seeing our heroine rise up against such a threatening enemy is satisfying, while the episode is filled with more then enough grisly thrills and horrorfic sights. It’s a solid story to start the series with. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Lizard Man

In the second episode of season two, “Lost Tapes” covers another favorite cryptid of mine: The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp. Pets have been disappearing around Lee County, South Carolina. One such incident prompts a local news puff piece. A reporter, her cameraman, and a pair of firefighters head down into the sewer to locate an old lady’s missing cat. Down there, they discover the half-eaten carcasses of dozens of animals. The trail soon leads them to the Lizard Man, a half-human, half-reptile creature that pursues and attacks them.

“Lizard Man” is another “Lost Tapes” episode with a very scattered script. Seems like over half of the episode is composed of people calling out for the cat – weirdly named Mr. Smithers – and walking endlessly through the sewer tunnels. When the monster appears, it’s in quick burst, usually resulting in a black screen and sudden screams. Splitting the story between the firefighters and the news team was a mistake, as the episode is constantly cutting between the two POVs. The reptilian monster kills the news reporter, in a mean-spirited story turn, making you wonder why they were in this story in the first place. The conclusion is also disappointingly final, the one firefighter clubbing the Lizard Man to death with an axe off-screen. The “expert” interviews including a typically feckless Loren Coleman talking about moss covered sasquatches, an actual biologist laughing at the idea of a lizard man, and a lady bringing up the reptilian humanoid theory. The brief glimpses we get of the monster are pretty cool, I give this episode that much. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

House is a lot of fun and reminds me of "Evil Dead 2" in some ways. It's not nearly as gross as that, but it's just essentially one man battling evil forces.

The Vietnam scenes that actually form the basis for the hauntings are extremely corny. But of lot of the suspense built off noises in the house, the main character's (William Katt) isolation, and the creepy dead Aunt work pretty well. This is light Horror, though, and it's more funny than scary. George Wendt is really entertaining as an annoying but big-hearted neighbor.

The story with the missing son and the divorced wife, it's all standard stuff. The effects work well enough and they are very cartoonish which benefits the mood the movie sets up. The end is abrupt and it feels a bit like the filmmakers wanted to just finish things up. Overall though, this is a good, goofy 90-minute time killer.(7/10)

Yes, it's true. It! The Terror From Beyond Space has got to be one of the main influences of Ridley Scott's "Alien". There were some effective scares and the use of levels within the spacecraft gives off an impending sense of doom when the beast is trying to move upstairs to attack. The effects are marginal and the monster costume is a clumsy creation. But it's a big rugged, vicious thing and that sells the whole concept to me. The acting is pretty good and overall its slightly above the standard fare offered in '50s Sci-Fi.(6/10)