Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Halloween 2016: October 9

Lights Out (2016)

A while ago, I reviewed Daniel F. Sandberg’s “Lights Out,” a totally effective short film that took a few trips around the internet. The short was so successful that Sandberg got the green-light to make a feature version. “Lights Out” was one of several horror flicks to do great business this past summer, which suggests Sandberg has arrived. Yet expanding a short film into a feature is tricky. Considering how brief the original “Lights Out” was, I had no idea how Sandberg was going to build a feature around that. Having seen the film now, I realize the director took the short’s visual gimmick and grafted it to a populist ghost story narrative.

Sophie’s mental conditions are tearing her family apart. Her teenage daughter Rebecca moved out a while ago, unable to deal with her mom’s stormy moods. Now the younger son, Martin, is starting to be disrupted by his mother’s illness. But Sophie’s condition isn’t typical. Her childhood imaginary friend Diana isn’t so imaginary. Diana can only appear in the dark, being banished by light. The wraith’s only goal is to separate Sophie from her family. The ghost begins to target any one that will get in her way, like Rebecca and Martin.

The feature version of “Lights Out” was produced by James Wan, whose name was slapped all over the posters and trailers. The comparison is apt, as “Lights Out” resembles the handsome ghost stories that Wan makes. Like “Insidious” or “The Conjuring,” the film is a well engineered boo machine. Sandberg stretches the techniques he used in the short to their breaking point. He finds new way to make Diana leap out of the darkness. The best ones have the spectre lifting Rebecca into the air, interrupting a movie night between mother and son, or yanking Martin under the bed. All sorts of illuminating devices are utilized – candles, hand cranked flash lights, glow sticks, and black lights – in the name of keeping things fresh. The visual presentation of the creature, a living shadow with two pinpricks for eyes, is genuinely creepy. The repeated shock scares aren’t nuanced or sophisticated but they work. “Lights Out” successfully gets a rise out of audiences.

“Lights Out” has something else in common with Wan’s wildly popular spook shows. It also struggles to build a mythology out of nothing. Being only three minutes long, Sandberg’s short had no time to develop its antagonistic apparition. It wasn’t necessary, as the light averse phantom was spooky on its own. The feature version, meanwhile, has to justify the spirit’s existence. Turns out, Sophie spent some time in a mental institute. There, she befriended a girl with a light sensitive condition and possibly psychic powers. After dying in an experiment gone wrong, Sophie and Diana became linked. This information is presented to the viewer when Rebecca comes upon a box conveniently full of hospital documents. There wasn’t a more natural way to get this information out there? Was all of it even necessary? The behavior was what made the shadowy ghost scary. Giving it a tragic back story drains away some of that fear factor.

Sandberg didn’t just toss an elaborate backstory into his movie because the mall horror audiences demand this. Instead, “Lights Out” is making a deliberate point. When Sophie’s on her meds, the ghostly attacker is kept at bay. When she stops taking her pills, Diana reappears. The monster lies and manipulates her, ultimately intending to destroy her life and family. Her children especially suffer from the attacks. Gee, does this remind you of anything? Diana and her shadowy behavior are clearly a metaphor for depression or mental illness. But “Lights Out” isn’t as good as the similarly themed “The Babadook,” which clearly understood the parallels it made. Eric Heisserer’s script uses these signals to add perceivable depth to the script. Any comment the film might have about how depression affects people is decidedly shallow. Especially in light of that ending, which suggests that people with mental illness should kill themselves so as not to burden their families. This is, maybe, not the best message to send.

Most everyone in “Lights Out’s” cast is excellent, especially Teresa Palmer as the protagonist and Maria Bello as the sick mother. Cinematographer Marc Spicer creates a very good looking film. The showdown between Diana and the cops in the darkened house is especially memorable. “Lights Out” was successful enough that a sequel is already in development, with Sandberg planning to return, meaning Diana could become a franchise character. Don’t get me wrong. The movie works. It just has some questionable subtext and is more then willing to play modern horror clichés straight. [7/10]

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

These days, cheap horror films more often then not features generic, one-word titles. It wasn’t always that way. Lurid titles were standard issue for 1950s sci-fi flicks. Sometimes, outrageous titles and colorful poster art were the only thing low budget films had going for them. “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” is certainly an unforgettable title. However, that name suggests a far sillier, more exploitative film then the one we got. Believe it or not, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” is a surprisingly somber and insightful film, truly one of the hidden gems among fifties sci-fi/horror flicks.

Marge Bradley, after many years of dating, has finally talked her boyfriend Bill into marrying her. The night before the wedding, Bill has an encounter with an extraterrestrial who assumes control of his body. Marge notices her husband acting strangely but attributes it to post-wedding jitters. A year later, Bill still isn’t himself. Slowly, Marge begins to realize that her husband isn’t who he claims to be. She soon learns that she married a monster from outer space. Moreover, an invasion is forth coming, the aliens taking over the bodies of other people in the town. Will Marge be able to alert the proper authorities in time? Will anyone believe her?

“I Married a Monster from Outer Space” is mostly a vehicle for Gloria Talbott, a minor scream queen who only starred in a few films. Despite her relative obscurity, Talbott gives a wonderful performance here. She plays a woman that no man will believe. After entering a bar, hysterical from the sudden revelation, men patronize and hit on her. Even before realizing her husband is a space monster, Marge is racked with doubts and fears. She’s constantly told not to worry, to represses these anxieties. Through this subject, the film emerges as an unlikely feminist text. Talbott’s Marge is repeatedly told that her problems do not matter, just because she’s a woman. The conquering aliens all taking the form of married men speak to how husbands lord over their wives.

Director Gene Fowler Jr. previously made another luridly entitled fifties classic, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” For this film, he contributes similarly moody direction. The rooms of Bill and Marge’s house are dark, filled with shadows. An especially effective scene has Marge entering the basement, where her husband has just strangled a new dog to death. The couple’s honeymoon is characterized by a thunderstorm overhead. It’s as if the couple’s conflicted emotions are playing out in the environment around them. The dark direction speaks to the other rich thread of subtext running through “I Married a Monster from Outer Space.” This is a film about waking up one day and realizing your spouse is a total stranger. In this case, literally, as Bill has been replaced by a body snatcher.

For all the serious themes the film contains, it also functions perfectly as a monster movie. Unlike other fifties B-flicks, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” never backs away from showing the titular invaders. They’re blob-like Cthulhoids, with tentacles framing their circular mouths. They zap malcontents with laser beings, reducing them to ash. The movie is so determined to satisfy audiences that it concludes with a big fight between the aliens and the military. The enemies are immune to bullets but dogs tear their breathing tubes away. The costumes are a bit stiff and rubbery but “I Married a Monster” piles on the awesome monster action. The extended finale even shows us the creatures dissolving into powder! It’s pretty cool stuff.

“I Married a Monster from Outer Space” is so thoughtful that it even humanizes the antagonists slightly. After being in human form so long, Bill’s alien doppelganger starts to develop actual feelings for Marge. The film takes an exploitation title and a standard premise and imbues it with a surprising depth. Tallbot’s performance is great, the direction is awfully moody, the monster stuff is campy fun, and the film is far smarter then you might’ve expected. Put it all together and you’ve got an overlooked classic, a film that any fan of fifties sci-fi and horror should absolutely seek out. [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead

“Masters of Horror” hits its first bump with Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead.” The episode is based on a story by Richard Matheson and was adapted by Matheson’s own son, also a notable author. The episode takes place after World War III has ravaged America. Punks rule the street, stealing people’s blood and selling it. The zombified bodies of nearly dead drug addicts are put on display at the Doom Room. They are injected with healthy blood, performing spasmodic dances. In this world, normal teen Peggy runs a failing dinner with her mother. After encountering a biker gang, and being intrigued by a handsome boy named Jak, she sneaks out of the house. She joins the delinquents for a night at the Doom Room. Dark secrets are revealed there.

After watching all of Tobe Hooper’s movies this past July, I’ll agree that his credentials as a Master of Horror aren’t the best. The visual design he brings to “Dance of the Dead” is hideous. The camera spazs wildly all throughout, seemingly mimicking a bad rock video. Considering the episode is scored to overly loud heavy metal, maybe that’s what Hooper was going for. The  obnoxiousness extends to the characters. Jak’s junkie friends are incredibly annoying. The story is overly bleak, with mean-spirited scenes of naked women set on fire, zombies being raped, and children burned by chemical weapons. Matheson’s original story was pretty thin, forcing Hooper to pad the episode with unneeded plot twists and extended world building. “Dance of the Dead’s” only positive attributes? Robert Englund’s gleefully sleazy performance as the Doom Room’s MC and Hooper’s trademark exaggerated set design. [4/10]

Lost Tapes: Werewolf
After season one’s “Skinwalker” episode, “Lost Tapes” decided to handle a more traditional werewolf story for season two. In “Werewolf,” a brutal serial murderer dubbed the Beast Killer is piling up victims. A documentarian named Austin Pace is allowed to tag along with two police officers investigating the case. They trail a potential suspect, as he carries an intoxicated young woman home with him. After hearing screams, the men enter the house. Inside, they find dead bodies, chaos, and discover that the Beast Killer is more beast then man.

“Werewolf” is one of “Lost Tapes” better episode. There’s actually a legitimate reason for these events to be recorded. By framing the story around a police investigation, “Werewolf” builds up some decent suspense. While the men explore the house, discovering grisly evidence, the viewer fears that they may encounter the brutal killer at any point. More or less the entire episode is built around this set-up but it works, creating a fast pace and a tense atmosphere. “Werewolf” concludes with a twist ending that genuinely caught me off-guard the first time I watched this. Even on rewatch, it’s a nice bit of misdirection. The "educational" segments revolve around supposed werewolf sightings and the possible basis in reality the legend has. It’s typically overheated but mildly entertaining, without slowing the main story down too much. [7/10]

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