Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 8

Prophecy (1979)

If you only know 1979’s “Prophecy” through Youtube clips and “South Park” references, you might be under the impression that it was some low budget B-movie. In fact, the film was a major studio production. “Prophecy” cost Paramount 12 million dollars, which is one million less then the budget for the original “Star Wars.” John Frankenheimer previously directed blockbuster “Black Sunday.” It was screenwriter David Seltzer’s follow-up to the iconic “The Omen.” It starred Talia Shire, of “Rocky” and “The Godfather,” two of the biggest hits of the decade. In other words, the film had everything in its favor and still became a punchline. Let’s try and figure out why.

The forested area around Maine’s Androscoggin River is in conflict. A logging corporation and paper mill has intruded into the woods. The local American Indian population is protesting the building. Several deaths have occurred in the forest and the corporation is eager to blame the protestors. The Indians credit the murders to Katahdin, a vengeful spirit from their mythology. Dr. Verne, an agent of the Environmental Protection Agency, is sent to investigate. His wife Maggie, who recently realized she’s pregnant, tags along. Verne soon discovers that the mill is dumping toxic mercury into the river, creating mutations in the near-by animal life. Such as the giant mutant bear that has been killing everything in its path.

“Prophecy” believes itself to be a serious movie. The film’s first hour is laboriously paced. There’s long, lingering shots of the forest and rivers. The script is deeply focused on important themes of environmental responsibility. The paper mill process is shown in detail, seemingly to set up that the plant is poisoning the local wildlife. The conflict between the Indians and the corporation takes up way too much time, such as an extended scene where a lumberjack nearly cuts a protestor with a chainsaw. Verne and Maggie have long talks with the local native families. Dr. Verne is introduced helping a baby that’s been bitten by rats in a slum apartment. He’s deeply cynical about the modern world and man’s place in it. Seltzer’s script directly channels seventies concerns about pollution and industrialization, as well as the decades’ facile fascination with American Indian trappings. (Despite the movie claiming to respects indigenous people, it plays the mysticism tropes totally straight and cast all the Indian roles with Italian actors.)

“Prophecy” is so determined to be taken seriously that its monster doesn’t even appear on-screen until nearly an hour in. This seems to be an intentional move on the filmmaker’s behalf, eager to cover up “Prophecy’s” status as a big, cheesy monster movie. When Katahdin actually waddles on-screen, it’s clearly a man in a ridiculous rubber suit. (Future Predator and experienced monster man Kevin Peter Hall is inside that suit.) The shots of the creature stiffly rampaging through the forest looks like something out of a sixties kaiju flick. This is most apparent during the handful of day-lit scenes. When Katahdin gets violent, “Prophecy” urges the viewer towards laughter. It comically jiggles when running. The bear awkwardly picks up a cub with its jaws. It bites a guy’s head off, an exaggerated crunching sound playing on the soundtrack. Most infamously, it reduces a sleeping bag bound camper to feathers. The mutant bear is so goofy, it becomes endearing. Which is, you’ll notice, at odds with “Prophecy’s” stated goal of being a serious horror film.

The environmental and Indian mythology elements weren’t enough for “Prophecy.” The script also tosses in some stray thoughts about motherhood. Maggie is reluctant to tell Verne about her pregnancy, fearful her nihilistic husband will want to terminate the fetus. After she learns that exposure to mercury is causing mutations in the local animal life – such as the giant tadpole Verne discovers – she becomes concern her baby might be infected. Soon, the couple picks up the creature’s deformed off-spring. Maggie carries the mutant baby bear around, the film drawing an odd parallel between the two mothers. Yet the baby Katahdin attacks Maggie later, making it unclear what this connection is meant to mean. It doesn’t help that Robert Foxworth and Talia Shire, as the married couple, have no chemistry. In fact, the two don’t seem to like each other at all.

In conclusion, “Prophecy” is a movie I want to like more then I actually do. That giant mutant bear sure is charming, in much the same way the rubber monsters in fifties’ sci-fi flicks are. Sadly, the film around said giant mutant bear is a real snore. If “Prophecy” had been a locally produced B-movie, instead of a blockbuster production, it probably would’ve been more entertaining. It certainly would have been less pretentious. John Frankenheimer was disappointed in the film, blaming its poor quality on his alcoholism. “Prophecy” didn’t become the next “Exorcist” but it still made money, so Paramount probably didn’t care. There are fans of “Prophecy” but I think they love it for the mutant bear, not the heavy-handed writing. [5/10]

House II: The Second Story (1987)

The eighties being the decade it was, even the most unlikely of horror flicks could blossom into franchises. “House” was a lot of fun but its ending didn’t present much room for continuation. Obviously the New World execs felt differently. For “House II,” screenwriter Ethan Wiley graduated to director. Maybe he realized the first one told a complete story because the sequel is totally unrelated, save for the concept of a strange house. Wiley would move the sequel even further into the realm of comedy, leaving horror all but behind in favor of goofball comedy antics. I’m not complaining. “The Second Story” is even more fun then the original.

Jesse, a young but successful architect, has recently inherited the family mansion. Jesse’s great-grandfather was a gunfighter in the old west who built his fortune thanks to an Aztec crystal skull. After consulting the books in the basement, Jesse realizes the skull on display isn’t the original. Along with his goofy friend Charlie, he digs up his great-grandfather’s grave. The old man still has the skull. More importantly, he’s still alive, albeit as an undead mummy. The magical attributes of the skull opens portals to different times and places inside the mansion. Soon, Jesse and Charlie have to contend with barbarian warriors, dinosaurs, worm creatures, Aztec human sacrifices, and ghostly cowboys.

Like I said, “House II” isn’t a horror movie at all. The mummies and ghosts technically place it within the genre. But there’s nothing scary about it. Instead, “House II” is a madcap comedy with an excess of nutty ideas. At its center are Jesse and Charlie. While Charlie is the real goofball – whose attributes include getting his girlfriend to dance in her underwear, casually carrying an Uzi, and throwing a crazy Halloween party – the two aren’t far remove from Bill and Ted. Arye Gross and Jonathan Stark have great chemistry with each other. “House II’s” eccentric cast only grows from there. The boys quickly learn to love Jesse’s undead grandfather, who calls himself Gramps. Soon, an adorable half dog/half caterpillar creatures appears. The two dudes even make friends with a baby pterodactyl. The unlikely group soon becomes a family of sorts, the audience learning to love these strange critters.

In truth, there’s not much to “House II’s” screenplay. Ethan Wiley uses the haunted house setting as a way to tell any sort of story he wants. Such as a dinosaur adventure. During a riotous Halloween party, a buff barbarian wanders out of a portal. The two pals chase him into another portal, which opens up into a prehistoric jungle. Inside are stop-motion dinosaurs, including a brontosaurus, pterodactyl, and a strange whiskered rat creature. There’s some really amusing stuff here, such as the boys stumbling around a dinosaur nest or Jesse mistaking a cigarette lighter for a gun. The scene continues to build, into a screwball sequence where Gramps, the baby dinosaur, and an old girlfriend  get swapped inside a rotating pantry.

You know how much I love dinosaurs but that’s not even my favorite scene in “The Second Story.” Midway through the film, Jesse calls on an electrician to work in the house. An unassuming fellow named Bill arrives. While working on the wiring, he uncovers another portal, showing Aztec warriors attempting to sacrifice a virgin. Bill swoops into this other world with Jesse and Charlie. The three rescue the girl, fight off the bad guys, and escape back to reality. Afterwards, the electrician nonchalantly reveals that he does this sort of thing all the time. Did I mention he’s played by John “Cliff from Cheers” Ratzenberger, who maintains a perfect deadpan throughout? It’s a hilarious, totally unexpected moment.

In its final act, “House II” circles back around to its main plot. The crystal skull MacGuffin becomes important again and the film’s villain – a skeletal cowboy from hell – reveals himself. Which means, yep, the film becomes a western near the end. There’s a cool zombie horse, shoot-outs, shotgun decapitation, breaking glass, and a showdown with the cops. The creature effects are really solid. In a nice touch, the evil zombie cowboy maintain his Willie Nelson-like red locks even into death. The finale is just a further example of how creative and amusing “The Second Story” is.

Yes, the script is a bit ramshackle. Jesse and Charlie’s girlfriends appear important but wind up being totally non-consequential characters. The various nutty scenes don’t connect much. However, I find it difficult to care about that when I’m having so much fun. “House II: The Second Story” ends on a sequel hook, promising more adventures for this motley crew of characters. There would be further “House” sequels sort of but, sadly, none of them would follow up on “The Second Story.” I wonder what the caterpillar dog, baby pterodactyl, and Bill Tanner the electrician/adventurer would be up to today? [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House

For his “Masters of Horror” episode, Stuart Gordon returns to his favorite author. The full title of “Dreams in the Witch-House” even includes Lovecraft’s name. Gordon ditches H.P.’s musing on non-Euclidean mathematics and the connection to the Cthulhu Mythos. He does follow the story’s broad strokes. Walter Gillman moves into a tenement house in order to further his studies into advanced geometry. He bonds with the young mother that lives next door, even babysitting for her. However, he starts to have vivid nightmares about a witch and a rat with a human face. Soon, he becomes convinced that a witch inhabits a pocket dimension inside his room. That the witch has chosen him to sacrifice the baby next door.

Gordon casts “Dagon’s” Ezra Godden, the ersatz Jeffrey Combs, as Walter. Luckily, Ezra does better here, playing up the character’s nerdiness and desperation but keeping him likable. Truthfully, Godden falling under the witch’s control is the scariest thing about “Dreams.” I’m not a big fan of consequence lacking nightmare sequences in horror movies. However, “Witch-House” summons some mildly startling images. (And some humor too, like when Godden awakens in a university library in his underwear.) Such as the human faced rat or a sexy dream that quickly goes wrong. The build-up to the finale is suitably sinister and concludes on a genuinely shocking image. But the climax, where Godden stabs the witch, is underwhelming. Gordon maintains Lovecraft’s extended denouncement, ending the episode on a slow moment. Still, “Dreams in the Witch-House” is a decently satisfying if inessential bit of Lovecraftia. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Southern Sasquatch

Every season of “Lost Tapes” would feature at least one episode about a variation on the Bigfoot myth. Season two’s example is “Southern Sasquatch” which concerns itself with the Fouke Monster. Nerdy city boy Matthew hopes to endear himself to his sister’s family by joining her two redneck brothers, Levi and Corbin, on a hunting trip. For some reason, the good ol’ boys decide to video tape the journey. While exploring the backwoods of Fouke, Arkansas, the guys stumble about a skunk ape. Unlike the gentle sasquatch of “Lost Tapes’” Bigfoot episode, this creature is very aggressive.

The redneck shenanigans contained in “Southern Sasquatch” are of little interest. The actors playing Levi and Corbin go way over the top. By the time they encourage Matthew to go on a snipe hunt, the audience is rolling their eyes. Yet the later decision to have Matthew outlast the rednecks, suddenly becoming competent, is equally silly. What’s most interesting about “Southern Sasquatch” is how gory it is. The Fouke Monster tears a huge gash in Corbin’s chest. Later, his corpse is found hanging in a tree. The night vision assisted climax isn’t fresh but does capture some minor panic. This is the first “Lost Tape” of season two with a downbeat ending, leaving the audience feeling slightly eerie. The totally disposable documentary segments do acknowledge “The Legend of Boogy Creek,” by the way. [6/10] 

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