Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 16, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 15

Flatliners (1990)

The greatest mystery is the question of what happens to us after death. Whether your an atheist or devout, you've probably wondered what awaits us beyond this life. If the entire foundation of the horror genre is humanity's common fear of the unknown, death is surely the greatest unknown of all. Obviously, this is a topic that has come up many times in horror movies. One film that dealt directly with this premise was “Flatliners.” The movie would become a decent sized hit in 1990, mostly due to being the first Julia Roberts movie released after “Pretty Woman” made her a household name. It's cast full of known names made it a regular presence on cable. I've seen parts of the movie on TV many times over the years but this is the first time I've sat down to watch the whole movie from start to finish.

Medical student Nelson Wright has touched upon a deadly experiment. He will intentionally induced heart failure, leaving the person in a state of death for several minutes, before they are revived. This, he figures, will allow the individual a peak at the afterlife. He uses himself as the first test subject. The result is so impressive that he talks three of his friends – Rachel, Dave, and Joe – into also participating in the experiment. At first, the results are invigorating. However, the group of four quickly begin to experience strange side effects. Figures from their past begin to haunt them, even attacking them. Now, the group must unravel the reasoning behind these events.

“Flatliners” has a premise with great potential. What if someone really did get a peak at the afterlife and found something horrible there? Disappointingly, the film doesn't really tackle this question very much. Dave is an atheist but quickly drops this philosophy after one near-death experience. “Flatliners” boils the afterlife down to one simple idea: While “dead,” the characters simply flashback to their youths. They are shown their most haunting memories. And those memories are pretty underwhelming. Rachel sees her suicidal father's dead body, which is pretty upsetting. Dave simply sees a girl he bullied as a kid and Joe sees the women he's manipulated. Nelson is also haunted by a kid he made fun of as a youth, which is linked to a disturbing memory. But as far as traumatic past events go, these are pretty lightweight. Perhaps "Flatliners" should've been about older characters, who have experienced more horrors. By focusing on young people whose lives are just beginning, the script paints itself into a vanilla corner.

The way the flatliners' guilt manifest themselves simply aren't scary either. Rachel briefly sees her dad as a corpse, which is a decent scare. Dave, meanwhile, has the little girl appear and call him names. Joe's conquests – women he recorded having sex with, without their consent, which definitely makes him a sexual predator of some sort – simply appear and say pick-up lines to him. Nelson, meanwhile, is repeatedly beaten up by a small child. If you want to establish your protagonist as worldly and experienced, don't repeatedly show him getting defeated by a little boy. This is the wimpiest attempt at horror I've seen recently. The way the characters resolve their issues, by making peace with their literal and metaphorical ghosts, is incredibly sappy. Joel Schumacher's direction, which is heavy on the cool blue colors and religious iconography, does little to improve their scenes of debatable horror.

As I said, I think “Flatliners'” cult following is mostly owed to its cast. Each of the main characters are played by then-popular performers. Kiefer Sutherland plays Nelson as someone totally sure of his discovery that slowly cracks up as the story progresses. Sutherland is in his comfort zone here and does fine. Kevin Bacon probably has the juiciest character arc as Dave, an atheist who becomes a believer. However, the film undersells this growth so much that Bacon is left to brood and growl. Daniel Baldwin has always been one of the greasier Baldwins, an attribute well used in the role of Joe. Julia Roberts probably gives the best performance in the film, as someone directly confronting her childhood trauma. You do feel for her a bit, as she's put through the emotional wringer. Oliver Platt, a talented actor, is stuck in the role of an over-analytical know-it-all. Considering Platt's character never undergoes the near death experiment, I don't even know why he's in the story.

I get the feeling that “Flatliners” is a horror movie made for people who don't like horror movies very much. The horrors are totally weak and defanged. The presentation is music video pretty. The cast is full of heartthrobs and sex symbols. It's inoffensive and safe, neither of which are good qualities for a horror film to have. It's a decent film to play in the background while you do laundry, which might explain its long life as a schedule filler on cable. James Newton Howard's score is pretty, I'll give it that much. As I said, the premise has a lot of potential. Perhaps a remake will come along that exploits that? Mmmm... [5/10]

The Stone Tape (1972)

I never really know what to expect from classic British sci-fi and horror. I love most of the things Hammer produced. “Ghostwatch” gets scarier every time I watch it. Yet I have never been interested in “Doctor Who.” Nigel Kneale's “Quatermass,” very well respected in certain circles, have always left me cold. So it was with some trepidation that I approached 'The Stone Tape.” The TV film, part of the BBC's long running ghost stories for Christmas series, supposedly traumatized a whole general of kids when it first aired in the early seventies. The premise certainly intrigued. However, the film also came from the pen of Kneale, making me uncertain of what to expect. Time to stop hesitating and just watch the damn thing.

Ryan Electronics is moving into a new facility at Taskerlands, a mansion in the British countryside. The oldest room, in the basement, was built with stones dating back to the Medieval period. Peter Brock, the research team manager, hopes to create some tape recording technology that will impress his boss. Instead, Jill, a computer programmer, discovers a ghost in the basement. As the research team investigate the haunting further, they begin to believe that the ghosts aren't the spectres of the dead. Instead, they float the theory that ghosts are like recordings, made on the ancient stones. Their attempts to exploit this discovery for financial gain does not work out for them.

A reoccurring theme throughout Kneale's work is the crossover between ancient mythology and modern technology. For one example, “Quatermass and the Pit” had a subway tunnel uncovering aliens that were the basis for old beliefs in demons. “The Stone Tape” also explores this idea. The film attempts to explain ghosts, one of the oldest of all legends, with then cutting edge science. The story's central concept – that ghosts are past events imprinted on the surrounding environment, like video recorded to a tape – is a tantalizing one. (So tantalizing that it's even been adopted by some real life parapsychologists.) We also learn that the castle was built upon an even older haunted patch of land. So modern horrors are just variances on even older stories. This dynamic, of the ancient and the modern, is present in the basic outline of the story. “The Stone Tape” is all about people filling an old castle with what passed for high-tech computers in 1972.

“The Stone Tape” has the production values you'd expect from the BBC in the seventies. In addition to the bell bottoms and muttonchops, the special effects look pretty cheesy to modern eyes. The film takes place mostly in one location. It's a pretty good location though. The modern hallways of the castle are cold and sterile. The basement, which maintains the original stone, is moldy and aged. It's the perfect place for a haunting. Some of the film's spookier events still provide chills. A ghostly apparition appearing at the top of the stairs is a little overdone. More impressive is a scene where Brock, walking into the stone room, only hears the ghostly screams. A moment where red eyes appear in the darkness is genuinely creepy. The climax, involving green spectres rising up out of the stone, borders on the campy. Yet there's some delightfully spooky about these creaky, old fashion special effects.

“The Stone Tape” definitely has some effectively creepy moments. A lot of it is still awfully dry in the same way Kneale's “Quatermass” films were. There are long scenes devoted to characters standing around in rooms, talking about events, instead of doing them. Far more time is spent talking about recording technology, of beating rival Japanese developers to major discoveries, than you'd probably prefer. There are long scenes of people trying to capture footage of the ghosts. This involves playing annoying noises inside the stone room and carrying around this ridiculous megaphone thing. Those scenes go on far too long. The kinship between the main characters are kept too stately as well. The exact details of Brock and Jill's relationship are a bit hard too read.

Some of the problems I had with “The Stone Tape” I totally anticipated. Like I said, if you're going to watch a movie that was made for British television back in the seventies, keep your expectations in check about special effects. If you overlook that, as well as the inherent dryness of the material, you'll find “The Stone Tape” to be pretty creepy. I can certainly see why kids, watching this back in the seventies, would be so affected by it. The ideas are fascinating and the proceedings are atmospheric. It's no “Ghostwatch” but I'm glad I gave it a look. [7/10]

Fear Itself: Echoes

I've seen every episode of “Fear Itself” before. When the DVD set came out, I bought it to complete my "Masters of Horror" collection. However, upon this rewatch, “Echoes” was the only episode I had absolutely zero memory of. It was directed by Rupert Wainwright, whose dubious horror credits include “Stigmata” and the godawful remake of “The Fog.” “Echoes” follows Stephen, who has just recently bought an old home. His female friend, Karen, is helping him move in. Stephen has romantic feelings for Karen but is too shy to make the first move. After his first night in the house, he begins to experiences memories from a past life. He recalls the life of Maxwell, a gangster who owned the house in the twenties. Maxwell murdered his girlfriend, Zelda. As Stephen digs deeper into the past, he realizes Karen looks a lot like Zelda. And he fears that history will repeat itself.

“Echoes” is very predictable. From the moment the story starts rolling, you know exactly where it will end up. Having said that, the ideas presented here appeal to me. People being caught in an inescapable cycle of events, especially when its connected to their past lives, is a theme I've explored in my own writing. “Echoes” hits every beat you'd expect. Stephen becomes more violent as the events of Maxwell's life start to influence him more. Yet it rolls along at a decent pace. Basing the episode around an unrequited romance is a nice touch, making the tragic outcome of Stephen and Karen's relationship more complex. It helps that the performances are solid. Aaron Stanford is likable and properly freaked out. Camille Guaty is lovely and has a nice energy as Karen/Zelda.

Sadly, “Echoes” ends up feeling very ho-hum. A subplot involving a psychologist goes absolutely nowhere. Stephen's exact connection to the past, whether it's just reincarnation or some sort of possession, is never sussed out. Instead of being a deliberate element of ambiguity, it just feels sloppy. Wainwright's direction relies far too much on shaky-cam. Near the end, the script starts to cycle through underdeveloped ideas to pad out the time. Did Stephen and Karen sleep together? Is Karen sleeping with every guy she knows? Did Maxwell and Zelda kill each other? It doesn't come together into a satisfying whole. At the very least, “Echoes” doesn't have a lame twist ending, like every other episode of this show. It's very nearly a decent hour but collapses once again into mediocrity. [5/10]

Conventional (2015)

As I've written about many times before, I've been to quite a few horror movie conventions. This is why I became interested in “Conventional,” a ten minute long short, starring and directed by Karen Gillan. Gillan plays Rachel Milligan. Milligan once starred in a slasher film called “Axe Wound 2.” Since then, her career has floundered. Now, in order to make end's meet, she makes regular appearances at conventions. She signs the same old glossies for fans dressed as Stu Mac, the film's axe wielding killer with a pageboy hair cut. She answers the same old questions at Q&As. She repeats the same phrases while pausing for photographs. The repetition, and the sense that her life is falling apart, is starting to get to her.

Usually, nerd conventions are portrayed unfairly in film and television. “Conventional” falls into this trap a little. I've never seen that much identical cosplay at one event. Otherwise, the film accurately captures the atmosphere. The first scene has Rachel signing an autograph for one devoted fan, while another guests has a much longer line. She feigns enthusiasm during the panel, while answering softball questions like “What does horror mean to you?” Gillan wears a ridiculous pair of fake lips in the short, showing that Rachel has had some ill-advised plastic surgery recently. That sense of sad desperation, of putting on a happy face while feeling like a has-been, I've seen that before. I wonder if this is the kind of thing horror convention regulars – your Adrienne Barbeaus and Kristy Swansons – think and feel all the time.

Mostly, “Conventional” is built around an impressive performance from Gillan. In the first half of the short, she hints at the depression the character feels while hiding behind a chipper smile. After hitting rock bottom – hooking up with a fan boy in the hotel bathroom – she cracks up. Gillan delivers an amazingly raw monologue to a half-empty panel room. Rachel goes on about feeling like a failure, saying how she lies about having new projects in development. How she struggles to find meaning in her life. She's tasted fame but it was fleeting. Now, she will do anything to recapture just the faintest reminder of that feeling. There's a dark humor to this scene, like Gillan spouting off a line about being “Bloody Disgusting's Babe of the Year,” but mostly it's a brazenly honest portrayal.

“Conventional” isn't just a film about horror movies, as it features a bloody murder in its final minutes. However, that last step almost feels unnecessary. The short is an impressive debut from Gillan. It's darkly funny, intensely sad, and insightful about a corner of nerd culture that can, let's face it, get a little pathetic at times. I'm sure, being a “Doctor Who” graduate, Gillan's been to more than a few conventions. However, considering her continuing role in a major Marvel franchise and the obvious talent she displays as a writer and director, she will probably won't end up like Rachel Mulligan. [8/10]

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 14

Baby Blood (1990)

Pregnancy is considered a miracle by some people. Of course, in a way, it is. The creation is pretty fucking magical when you think about it. It's also kind of horrifying. Humans are born out a sweaty act, arising out fluids being shot everywhere. Then a woman's body is transformed, hormonally and physically, as another creature grows inside them. This thing is then ejected via pain and blood. And that's not even considering the terror and anxiety associated with parenthood. Unsurprisingly, some horror filmmakers have found inspiration in the subject of childbirth. “Baby Blood” is a French film from 1990. I hadn't heard much about until a few years ago, when it started being recommended to me as a grisly, weirdo hidden gem. Immediately, it went onto my Halloween watch-list.

Yanka lives with her abusive boyfriend as part of a traveling circus. They receive a new shipment of animals from Africa. One of the big cats dies that night, something crawling out of its body. The parasite then crawls into Yanka's body while she's sleeping, taking up residence in her womb. The creature begins to grow inside her, Yanka becoming pregnant with the monster. It psychically communicates with her. Yanka's child demands blood, forcing her to go out and kill various men. As the parasite matures, her birth date drawing closer, Yanka and the creature begin to develop a strange relationship, equal parts resentful and warm.

“Baby Blood” exaggerates the regular pain and fears of pregnancy into something more explicitly horrific. Many mothers feel an immediate bond with their unborn children. The film turns this into a literal form of psychic communication. Embryos are demanding, making their mothers exhausted and demanded strange changes of them. In “Baby Blood,” the fetus' wants include the blood of victims. The parasite alternatively and deliberately causes Yanka pain and pleasure. She resents the intrusion at first but, eventually, develops a bond with the creature. This quickly builds towards a type of body horror. Yanka's skin stretches as the baby grows inside. She has an explicit nightmare about hands burst from her belly. Must pressingly, by making Yanka's child a literal parasite, the film brings the harshest irony of pregnancy – something is growing inside you and stealing from your body – to mind.

“Baby Blood” is also about the different ways men abuse women. Yanka's boyfriend is abusive. After he catches a man – who later attempts to forcefully kiss her – peeping on her changing, he threatens and beats her. Later, he tracks Yanka down at an apartment and attacks her again. After running off to the city, Yanka encounters other abusive behavior. A truck driver picks up a hitchhiking Yanka but later abandons her on the side of the road  A man oogles her wantonly during a quasi-date. After some awkward sex, he proposes to her. Turns out, the guy already has a girlfriend. In the final act, Yanka gets on a bus full of soccer hooligans. They attempt to rape her while the driver just sits back and blames her for what's happening. So the world of “Baby Blood” gives Yanka little reason not to want to murder her male victims. Notably, in the original French version, the parasite has a female voice. In the dub, the voice is male, extending the theme of abusive men even into Yanka's internal life. (In his book, “Horror Films of the 1990s,” John Kenneth Muir claims Gary Oldman provided the parasite's English voice. I can't find any other source for this factoid though.)

Most of “Baby Blood's” cult following is probably owed to its crazy gore. The violence gets more intense as the film goes on. It begins with some simple stabbings and throat slashing. As the film progresses, the violence gets more intense. A slashed man vomits blood directly into the camera. Yanka crushes a man against a wall with a car, his decapitated head flying across the road. She later smashes another guy's head open with a canister of compressed air, a massive amount of blood spirals upwards. Probably the most outrageous death involves a man being inflated with air until he explodes. When the parasite slithers on-screen at the end, it begins to drain its blood directly. Yanka spends most of the movie splattered with blood, until she's completely covered by the end. It's crazy, fucked-up stuff.

“Baby Blood” is certainly a flawed film. The tone ricochets wildly between twisted humor and serious horror, without much cohesion. The ending is abrupt. The acting can be pretty ropy at times, though Emmanuelle Escourrou is very good as Yanka. Some of my problems with the film aren't even the filmmaker's fault. The Region 1 DVD of “Baby Blood” is way out of print and being sold for too much. It's not currently available on any streaming services that I could find. So I ended up watching a version on a pretty sketchy website. Most of the movie was dubbed into English but a few lengthy scenes were in unsubtitled French. Luckily, I was still able to follow the story. Amazingly, a sequel called “Lady Blood” was made 2008. Escourrou returned but director Alain Robak didn't. I have no idea if it lives up to the original, a delightfully gross and entertaining cult classic. [7/10]

Prevenge (2017)

If you ask me who Alice Lowe was, I'd probably look at you with mild confusion. If you mentioned her roles in “Hot Fuzz” or “Garth Miringhi's Darkplace,” I'd vaguely know what you were talking about. If you just referred to her as the lady from “Sightseers,” I'd immediately know what you were talking about. She's a hard working British character actress and has been very funny in many things. When Lowe was heavily pregnant, nobody would hire her. So she decided to make her own work. While eight month pregnant, she wrote, directed, and starred in “Prevenge.” That alone is pretty impressive but “Prevenge” also ended up being pretty good.

Lowe plays Ruth. Eight months ago, her boyfriend died in a rock climbing accident. She blames his death on the other people in the climbing party. Her baby blames them as well. The fetus inside Ruth is instructing her to hunt down and murder the people responsible, whispering vague threats at her all hours of the night and day. Ruth doesn't entirely agree with this journey, often arguing with the unborn child inside her. It's October, nearly Halloween, and Ruth's due date is coming soon. Her child is insistent that its revenge must be fulfilled before it is born.

“Prevenge's” premise – a fetus telling its mother to kill – brings “Baby Blood” to mind, which is why I decided this should be a double feature. The only real similarities between the theme is a homicidal, high-pitched voice emanating from a woman's womb. “Baby Blood” is more about how men abuse women. “Prevenge” is more about grief and the anxiety of bringing life into the world. Ruth is haunted by her boyfriend's death. He died when his cord was cut, bringing umbilical cords to mind and connecting his death with Ruth's pregnancy. The fetus taunts Ruth by saying nobody else will ever love her. That she must do what the fetus says. This speaks to her uncertainty about giving birth. At one point, she says he'd trade the baby to have her lover back. Yet she's also deeply protective of the unborn child. After giving birth, Ruth's ambiguity towards the baby doesn't change any. “Prevenge” is a film all about anxieties that surround pregnancy. 

It's also a really funny, extremely dark comedy. Ruth is not an experienced murderer. Her interactions with her potential victims are often very awkward. She haphazardly seduces a guy at a Halloween disco party. After going back to his house, they stumble through some extremely gawky banter, before the guy's senile mom wanders into the room. Even after murdering the man, the elderly woman continues to walk around, confused. At a job interview, the fetus whispers mean-spirited (but darkly funny) comments into Ruth's ear, which she then repeats to the interviewer. One victim is a self-defense trainer, leading to some fisticuffs which then leads to an amusingly terse conversation. Probably my favorite comedic moment involves Ruth making friends with the roommate of one of her targets. After joking around about food, she's then forced to murder the man, which she immediately regrets. This kind of conversational, awkward comedy is very British and won't be to everyone's liking. I can dig it though.

Lowe often balances the film's funny scenes with its overtly horrific ones. These comedic encounters usually happen directly before the murder scenes. The first death scene concludes with a graphic castration. Another cool gag has a throat being slashed onto a glass table, the camera looking up at the blood. There's also a pretty decent eye-gouging. Yet “Prevenge's” death scenes are not its most effective horror element. Instead, Alice Lowe's performance is its most frightening element. Throughout most of the movie, she's dryly hilarious, only occasionally showing an agitated side. Near the conclusion, she confronts the last one responsible for her boyfriend's death. Lowe's convictions are impressive and intense, making you really believe these things.

“Prevenge” runs a tight 87 minutes and is highly entertaining for most of that run time. It's clear that Lowe didn't have entirely enough material to fill her film, as a couple of scenes meander a bit. However, it's a promising debut. As a comedy, it made me laugh plenty. As a horror film, it's surprisingly potent. As a showcase for Lowe's abilities, it really impresses. Hey, the film also has a pretty cool synth setting. It also makes full use of its October setting, as the final scene takes place during a Halloween parade. Those two factors are enough to make me really like this one. [7/10]

Fear Itself: The Spirit Box

Among the “Masters of Horror” directors, one I most assuredly wouldn't have invited back was Rob Schmit. I liked Schmit's “Wrong Turn” but his “Right to Die” was one of the weakest episodes of the show's second season. Despite this, Schmit would return for “Fear Itself.” “The Spirit Box” follows two teenage girls, Shelby and Becca. While bored on Halloween night, the two decide to make a spirit box. That's a bootleg Ouija board made out of whatever is lying around, which is a pizza box, a cellphone, and some magazines in this case. The two girls seem to contact the spirit of Emily D'Angelo, a classmate who killed herself the previous year. Via the spirit box, Emily tells the girls that she didn't commit suicide. She was murdered. As the girls investigate, they begin to suspect one of their teachers is responsible.

“The Spirit Box” was an early starring role for Anna Kendrick, whose only claim to fame in 2008 would've been the first “Twilight” movie. Kendrick is awfully charming as Shelby, making a likable teenage hero. (Though the script's assertion that Shelby is unpopular with boys is hard to believe, considering she looks like Anna Kendrick.) She has good chemistry with Jessica Parker Kennedy as Becca. Just watching the two of them play off each other, doing goofy teen girl things together, is fun. As a teenage sleuth story, “The Spirit Box” is solid. A scene devoted to Shelby sneaking into the teacher's house is actually somewhat suspenseful. The episode almost plays like an edgier “Nancy Drew” or similar stories, following its girl detectives trying to unravel a mysterious crime. It's kind of fun.

If “The Spirit Box” is mildly entertaining as a sleuthing teens story, it's totally lame as a horror movie. The episode throws several different types of scares at the audience and each one is a joke. Dramatic music blares while the make-shift planchette moves around the home-made spirit box. The girls receive ominous text messages, which are unintentionally funny due to their use of abbreviations. Ghostly hands leap out of the water, always accompany by loud music. A masked figure stalks Kendrick through the school but never becomes threatening. The episode's twist ending, like most of “Fear Itself's” twist endings, is totally asinine. So this is one of those rare cases where a horror story would've been improved by removing the horror elements all together. [5/10]

The Birch (2016)

I have no familiarity with the works of directors Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton. Apparently, some of their horror shorts are quite popular, with “Don't Move” garnering something like a following. While looking into their work, the title “The Birch” caught my eye. It was only four minutes long too. Anyway, the short follows a young boy named Shaun. At school, Shaun is ruthlessly bullied by a thug named Kris. At home, he deals with a sickly grandmother. While on her death bed, his grandmother passes him a book, detailing how to summon a spirit from inside the near-by woods. Soon afterwards, Kris chases Shaun into the forest. There, the bully encounters the Birch.

“The Birch” tells a surprisingly complete story, despite only being four minutes long. There's no narration or gratuitous set-up. Instead, Franklin and Melton leap right into the action. By smartly cross-cutting between Shaun's school and home life, they quickly establish the situation. The Birch, the supernatural entity in the woods, is set up with some speedy visuals. We see a book, an odd symbols in its pages, and next Shaun is building that symbol out of twigs. We understand the story's structure very quickly, which is a good thing when you only have four minutes. We learn about the bully's cruelty and long to see him get his comeuppance. At the same time, the short shows how frightened Shaun is by the powers he controls.

Many internet horror shorts build towards a jump-scare. “The Birch,” instead, builds up to a good look at the titular monster. I don't besmirch the directors for wanting to show the creature. The design is impressive. The creature wears a skirt that is indistinguishable from the skin of an old birch tree. The design can't help but remind me of the old Movie Maniacs Blair Witch figure. It has the same skeletal female face and wreath of branches around its head. Either way, the creature is a memorable special effect. Most attempts to expand horror shorts into features are disappointing. “The Birch” tells its story so compellingly in so little time that a longer version isn't necessary. At the same time, I feel like there's a bigger mythology here that might be worth exploring. [7/10]

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 13

Westworld (1973)

A couple of days ago, I was talking about how many horror films have been adapted into TV shows recently. I was initially skeptical about a lot of these announcements. When they decided to turn “Westworld” into a TV, I was really uncertain. What, were the robots going to go haywire and start killing people every week? Besides, it was already tried, back in the eighties, without much success. Against all odds, the “Westworld” TV show is apparently actually pretty good. I don't know because I've never seen it but the show's success did inspire me to go back and watch the original movie, which I first saw years ago. Besides, what Halloween season is complete without a killer robot or two?

In the near future – 1983 – the Delos Corporation has built a series of incredible theme parks. Medieval World, Roman World, and West World recreate the pop culture versions of their respective time period. The worlds are populated with realistic robots that expertly play their roles. The human visitors, meanwhile, can do whatever they want, murdering and debauch-ing with impunity. John Blane and Peter Martin visit West World, expecting to have the time of their lives. It's pretty fun until the robots begin to act outside their programming. The show is over and the machines become deadly. Now Blane and Martin must survive and escape.

You might question my decision to include “Westworld” as part of a horror movie marathon. History has recalled the movie more as a science fiction landmark than a horror one. But consider the facts. The film was the directorial debut of novelist Michael Crichton. Years later, Crichton would more-or-less recycle the same premise for “Jurassic Park,” replacing robot cowboys with dinosaurs. Though people argue about that too, I consider “Jurassic Park” pretty unambiguously a horror film. Robots belong to the sci-fi genre but murderous robots, I believe, fall strictly within horror's realm. The way the robotic gunslinger pursues Martin, slowly but always catching up with him, makes “Westworld” a predecessor to the slasher film. (So does the killer's habit of returning briefly from death for one more scare.) So I'll hear no more debate about this. “Westworld” is a horror movie. Case closed.

Crichton is most notorious for being equally fascinated and horrified by what science is capable of. Surprisingly, Crichton left all but the barest crumbs of this fascination behind with “Westworld.” Yes, you wonder at what a creation the park is and are then frightened when it all goes wrong. Yet Westworld is clearly a fantasy world, far outside the realm of possibility in 1973, so that no clear criticism of modern science emerges. Instead, “Westworld” targets something else. The theme parks are a place where violent and sexual fantasies can run amok. (Specifically, macho male fantasies of being cowboys or knights, though I doubt Crichton meant anything by that.) Inevitably, that kind of excess eventually leads to self-destruction. Meanwhile, it's also a film about how historical fact is repackaged to be modern day entertainment. Or how storytellers uses historical settings as an excuse to pack in as much flesh and blood as they want.  Honestly, there's a lot to chew on here.

As a genre effort, “Westworld” is pretty solidly entertaining. Several of the shoot-outs with Yul Brynner's Gunslinger are effective. In particular, the one that concludes with him flying out a window is neat. The way a sword fight with the robot black knight goes wrong builds nicely. A scene devoted to cleaning the park up after dark is nicely eerie. However, Crichton does make some rookie mistakes as a first time director. He cuts away from the main characters too often, focusing on irrelevant side characters. There's so little focus on the scientists running that the park that the inevitable robot rampage seems like no one's fault. There's also far too many scenes of people walking or riding their horses aimlessly. I haven't even mentioned the logic gaps in the story. The robots are colder than humans but nobody minds having sex with them? Why are the robots even given live ammunition in the first place?

As I said, Yul Brynner's Gunslinger is a prototype for later villains like Michael Myers and the T-800. Like the Terminator, he has his synthetic flesh burned off, revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath. (At one point, Schwarzenegger was attached to star in a remake of “Westworld,” which would've brought this connection full circle.) Brynner's casting is not just a reference to his many western roles. He actually gives a chilling performance. The reflective contact lens emphasize the uncanny appearance and detached quality that had long been Brynner's trademark. His best moment comes when that untouchable aura cracks up. At one point, the Gunslinger realizes he's wander into Medieval Land and doesn't seem to entirely understand what is happening. The other two leads in the film, James Brolin as Blane and Richard Benjamin as Martin, are also pretty good. It's a nice switch how Brolin, playing the more traditionally tough guy, gets killed first, forcing the more intellectual Benjamin to take the lead.

“Westworld” is obviously a flawed film. Yet it clearly resonated with the public. The film's success would give Yul Bryner's flagging career an extra act. It would spawn a sequel, though nobody talks about it much, in addition to those TV shows I've already mentioned. (It was also parodied on a pretty great “Simpsons” episode.) Even after “Jurassic Park” mostly overshadowed it, the film is well remembered by a certain strata of movie fan. It's vision of robotics has not aged well. Neither has the notion that people care enough about living in the wild west that they'd pay a thousand dollars to visit it. Crichton was clearly still getting the grip on directing. I like this one anyway. [7/10]

The Lure (2015)

Sometimes you hear a film premise and immediately know you have to see it. “The Lure” was released in its native Poland in 2015 but only began to circulate around English language festivals in 2016. Janus Films, the guys behind the Criterion Collection, gave it a stateside theatrical release earlier this year. So, for a while, I've been hearing about this horror/musical about man-eating mermaids singing in a nightclub. For a long time, I've been fascinated by the mermaid's potential as a horror character, since they're seductive, strange, and ultimately inhuman. The peculiar combination of horror elements and song-and-dance numbers always catches my attention. Oh, and did I mention its set in the eighties, so there's plenty of synth? Yeah, “The Lure” couldn't appeal to me anymore if it was made specifically for me.

A band – composed guitarist Mietek, a female singer, and several other musicians – practice on a beach. The music attracts a pair of mermaid sisters. When their bodies dry up, their fish tails turn into legs. A splash of water returns them to their natural state. (Though they notably lack human sex organs.) The blonde, naive sister is named Golden while her brunette, more adventurous sister is named Silver. They follow the band back to the club and are quickly incorporated into their act.  The sisters become a huge hit. However, neither sister can resist their natural instincts to kill humans and eat their hearts.

“The Lure” is a really cool update of the mermaid premise. The sisters do not look like Ariel. Instead, their tails are long, wide, and especially fleshy. They have bloody slits along the skin and yank out their scales. When their hunger is aroused, they grow jagged, fearsome teeth. Changing the sirens song to pop music is another clever change. Another neat touch is that the sisters can communicate via sonar. Mostly, I enjoy “The Lure's” horror movie take on the age-old legend. When the sisters get angry or hungry, they can easily tear open necks and rip out hearts. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska also links the girl's budding sexual desires with their need to eat people, giving the film's horror content a deeper meaning. (It would also make “The Lure” a good double feature with “Raw.”)

As a musical, “The Lure” is also really impressive. The songs are uniformly great. “You Were the Beat of My Heart” is a remorseful number disguised as a slinky, catchy come-on. “Take Me in Your Care” is a touching duet between Golden and Mietek, which the film beautifully illustrates as a swim through a murky lake. Maybe the stand-out number in the film is “Abracadabra,” which features the girl dancing through the green-lit club while dressed as Siouxsie Sue, against a thumping electronic beat. Smoczynska's directs the scenes fantastically, such as in the haunting “The Bed,” where Golden sings about gaining legs, or “I Came to the City,” which features the girls dancing through a mall, having discovered the joys of shopping. I don't speak Polish but I still found myself responding to the emotion, power, and melodies of these songs.

The cast is also extremely impressive. “The Lure” probably wouldn't work at all if the actresses playing the sisters weren't so perfect. Marat Mazurek plays as Silver as a teenage seductress who is learning to use her budding sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. Yet Mazurek also brings an undercurrent of sadness and rawness to the part, the young mermaid still learning to balance her emotions. Michalina Olszanska is even better as Golden. While her sister is cynical, Golden is wide-eyed and trusting. Olszanska's performance is instantly likable, the audience immediately wanting to protect this young girl... Who just happens to be a murderous mermaid. I also like Jakub Gierszal as Mietek, who manages to prevent the character from coming off as a total cad.

“The Lure” is also an adaptation of sorts of Hans Christian Anderson's” The Little Mermaid.” And I don't mean the Disney version. Smoczynska maintains the tragedy at the center of Anderson's story. Golden gives her heart to an Earthly man, giving up her tail and her voice. Ultimately, it doesn't work out and she suffers the same fate Ariel did. Thus, the film ends in tragedy. It's the story of young girls who have their hearts broken and, ultimately, can't find their place in a world they still don't understand. If the film truly is a coming-of-age story, it's about reaching maturity but learning the cost of these things.

Surprising absolutely no one, I loved “The Lure.” It has to be one of the most original films I've seen this year. The direction is colorful, expressive, and brilliant. The performances are fantastic. The music is amazing. The writing is funny and touching. This odd ball story of mermaids singing in a bar manages to touch upon just about everything I enjoy about movies. Smocynska's next project is apparently another musical, described as a science fiction opera based on the songs of David Bowie. So I'm probably going to love that movie too. [9/10]

Fear Itself: Chance

I probably should've mentioned this in the last review but, by the time “Chance” came along, “Fear Itself” had been canceled. After “Skin and Bones” aired, the show went on hiatus for NBC's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics. After the games ended, “Fear Itself” had disappeared from the schedule. The show was so beneath NBC's notice that they didn't even officially announce its cancellation until a few months later. So the show's remaining five episodes didn't surface until the DVD release. (They were then burned off on other channels like Fearnet and, for some reason, E!)

“Chance” was directed by John Dahl. He's made some good films but his only horror credit of note is “Joy Ride,” which hardly qualifies him for master status. Anyway, the episode follows a guy named – go figure – Chance. He's had some money problems recently, which is girlfriend is very concerned about. After discovering that an antique vase he owns is worth thousands of dollars, he thinks his hard times may be at an end. After meeting with the antiques dealer, Chance learns the vase is much newer than he thought and only worth a fraction of the expected value. The situation becomes tense and Chance accidentally ends up killing the antique shop owner. At this point, a morally corrupt version of Chance emerges from an ancient mirror, seeking to help him out of this problem.

“Chance” is one of those stories where the writer wants us to think the character is a victim of fate. If that was the intention, they totally failed. Chance isn't at the whims of, uh, chance so much as he's just an idiot. He doesn't check the actual value of the vase before attempting to sell it. When he discovers this vase isn't his gateway to financial freedom, he argues with the antiques dealer. Instead of walking away when things get intense, he picks a fight with the guy. Instead of leaving immediately, he sticks around, activates a fire alarm, gets the police involved, and ends up with more blood on his hands. In other words, Chance is a total idiot who consistently makes the worst possible decisions. Ethan Embry's performance is squrimy and unlikable.

The supernatural element that pushes “Chance” into the horror genre is that mean-spirited doppelganger that seemingly emerges from a magic mirror. This element is not well-explained. The twist ending – because every episode of this show has a dumb twist ending, it seems – suggests Chance had a psychotic break and did everything by himself. Which doesn't explain how the doppelganger can clearly affect things around him. It's a nonsensical narrative device added to an undercooked script, doing nothing to improve or complicated things. Dahl's direction is frequently shaky and unstable, making the episode hard to look at too. [5/10]

This House Has People in It (2016)

After “Too Many Cook's” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear's” meme-eriffic success, Adult Swim realized they were in the surreal horror short business. Alan Resnick, “Bear's” creator, was next allowed to make his most ambitious project yet. “This House Has People in It” is told from the perspective of security cameras set up inside a seemingly normal suburban home. The cameras watch in every room and the short cuts back and forth between them. The young son waits for his birthday party guests to arrive. The grandmother and the infant child watch TV. A plumber works in the basement. Mom and Dad argue in the kitchen about an upcoming vacation. That's when they notice their teenage daughter is laying on the floor, unresponsive. Soon, she begins to sink through the floor. The parents panic, trying to find a way to save their daughter from this bizarre condition. It gets weirder from there.

If one theme unites Adult Swim's trilogy of weirdo horror shorts, it's the perversion of the mundane. After twisting sitcom intros and commercials into weird, disturbing things, the next target is the normal life of a large family. At first, the titular house that has people in it seems normal. This is just a regular family going about their day, right? Then you notice the body laying on the floor. Or the cooking show grandma is watching, which seems to be about eating clay. Or you'll briefly glimpse a bizarre, cartoon animal shape moving outside a window. By the time the short escalates into its unnerving last act, you're already freaked out. This is the fundamentals of horror. First you set up the normalcy of the situation, which then allows you to subvert it in disturbing ways. “This House Has People in It” teaches this lesson very astutely and only in eleven minutes.

Still, the short is grounded in very real anxieties. As the teenage daughter sinks into the floor, he asks his wife if she took pills from her friends. A minute later, he's wondering if this is some sort of “woman's problem.” The dad has a well-meaning, if misguided, concern for his children. From there, Resnick's capitalizes on other common anxieties. The plumber in the basement is working on some project, which seems expensive. The little brother is anxious about his birthday party, which is canceled in the worst way. The food on the stove burns and the baby screams. This are every day concerns, thrown into sharp relief by the strangeness of the film's central problem.

By the end, “This House Has People in It” descends into total insanity. The father acts increasingly unhinged as the situation becomes more grave. Smoke fills the house, while grandpa sits in front of the TV, seemingly unaware of what's happening. Kids have a party on the lawn. The baby wanders out of the house, towards God knows what danger. The security cameras cut between the rooms more frantically. As an inevitable, horrible thing happens to the daughter, the cameras seem to loose the signal... Before regaining it long enough for us to see that the girl's condition is apparently contagious. Then you realize the title is also a twisted pun. When the daughter sinks into the floorboards, the house literally had people inside its very structure.

While “Too Many Cooks” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear” were one-and-done deals, “This House Has People in It” is actually at the center of a wider, creepier universe. There's a website for the fictional security company, dozens of videos hidden across Youtube, and an extensive Wiki. Down this wormhole, you'll discover other weird details. Like a pink skinned phantom haunting the house, a psychosis breeding disease caused by eating clay, and a parody of Sonic the Hedgehog called Boomy the Cat. Even without these extra details, “This House Has People in It” is a surprisingly potent bit of surreal horror. Not the kind of thing you expect from a channel best known for “Family Guy” reruns and stoner cartoons about talking fast food items. [9/10]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 12

Raw (2017)

Another candidate for indie horror darling of the year is “Raw.” Like many of these movies, I had heard nothing about it until festival buzz started to build earlier in the year. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, somebody in the audience supposedly fainted. During a Q&A afterwards, the director claimed any ignorance about this event. So if it was a publicity stunt, it was at least a well orchestrated one. Since then, the French film has picked up many positive reviews. And now, via the power of the internet, I can experience “Raw” myself.

Justine has been raised to be a vegetarian. She arrives at a veterinarian college, meeting her bisexual roommate Adrien and Alexia, her older sister. As part of the hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit liver. This seemingly awakens in her an incredible hunger for meat. After Alexia cuts a finger off, during a freak bikini wax accident, Justine attempts to eat the finger. Alexia is shocked at first but soon begins to share her sister's desire for human flesh. In-between finding acceptable ways to eat meat, Justine also begins a relationship with Adrien. Soon, the sisters are fighting over both of these factors.

I have no doubt that “Raw” is a movie people will be talking about for years to come, trying to uncover the meaning behind its various symbols. I'll admit that at least some of the film went over my head. Boiled down to its bare essential, “Raw” is a coming-of-age story. Justine is a virgin when she arrives at college. Her hunger for meat seems to coincide with her sexual awakening. (This is best displayed during a scene where she dances in a mirror while wearing a skimpy dress and make-up.) Meanwhile, the hazing she endures begins to push a wedge between the sisters. It's all about growing up, discovering your sexuality and realizing you don't have a perfect relationship with your sister. “Raw” being the kind of movie it is, these conflicts are framed as gruesome body horror. An awkward near sexual encounter ends with Justine biting part of the guy's lip off. Later, during her deflowering, Justine's climaxes by biting her own arm. While fighting with Alex, the two sisters gnaw on each other.

As a horror picture, “Raw” is quite grisly. It's a film intimately concerns with the sweaty, up-close, nasty details of the human body. After eating the rabbit liver, Justine awakens the next day, covered in an flaking, itchy rash. While visiting the doctor, she has large strips of loose skin removed. Urination and pubic hair also feature in two key scenes. Maybe the most disgusting scene in the film involves Justine vomiting long strands of hair. As for the gore effects, they are realistic and sickening. Every bite and crunch is audible. The tearing of skin and sinew is focused on. Yet it's all in service of “Raw's” story of a girl discovering the world is different from what she expected. The visceral quality of the gore contrasts intensely with Justine's previously meat-free world. There are several lingering shots on the various animals they work with at the academy, that I'm sure have some sort of deeper significance.

Buoying the film is an excellent pair of performances. Garance Marillier plays Justine. She has the perfect appearance of a wide-eyed innocent. As the story progresses, she cycles through feelings of shock and horror. When Justine is overcome with her hunger for meat, Marillier's performance reaches a level of animal intensity that is truly frightening. The chemistry she has with Ella Rumpf as Alexia is also impressive. Rumpf also gives an impressive performance, finding the balance between a character that is charming and somewhat obnoxious. It's a contrast that's needed, considering how Justine's feelings for her sister change over the story. Ultimately, their bond is what propels the film and both actresses seem to grasp that.

“Raw” also concludes with one hell of a final moment, half-way between a sick joke and a shock twist ending. Honestly, all of “Raw” walks that line, peppering its sick and twisted story with a certain degree of dark humor. The film is the feature solo debut of Julia Ducournau. She shows a strong directorial sense. Her use of music is especially good. The film is comparable to “Excision” and “In My Skin,” though not quite as good as either of those. (They'd make one hell of a triple feature though.) I'm not quite sure if this is the horror find of the year but I did really enjoy it. Worth passing out over? Nah. Still pretty good? For sure. [7/10]

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

“Werewolves on Wheels” is one of those legendary titles I've read about many times over the years. I mean that literally. It's a great title. The quality of the movie is really irrelevant, isn't it? Some B-movie exploitation producers got the novel idea of combining two profitable genres: Biker flicks and horror movies. They cooked up that awesome title, threw together equally salacious poster art, shot the movie as quickly and cheaply as possible, before dumping it on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. The scheme surely worked. “Werewolves on Wheels” would have been forgotten if it wasn't gifted with such a memorable title.

The Devil's Advocate, a biker gang, ride through the desert. They cause some mischief here and there but mostly just want to have a good time. That good time takes them to a seemingly abandoned church. After crashing there, the Satanic cult that makes the church its home is seriously annoyed with the bikers. As revenge, a curse is placed on their leader. Whenever the moon is full in the sky, he will become a werewolf. The rest of the gang finds this out soon enough, when members of their group start to wind up dead, slashed to death by some sort of beast.

Wikipedia tells me that at least part of “Werewolves on Wheels'” cast was made up of genuine bikers with zero acting experience. This certainly explains some things about the finished film. Director Michael Levesque, who would make one more exploitation flick before primarily focusing on production design for TV, seems to have taken a naturalistic approach. There are long scenes of the bikers driving down the road, dopey hippy rock playing on the soundtrack. There are similarly long scenes of the bikers hanging out around camp fires or screwing around inside a junkyard. Simply put, not much happens in “Werewolves on Wheels.”

As far as biker antics go, “Werewolves on Wheels” delivers the barest of thrills. The Devil's Advocates don't get up to much carnage. In the opening scene, they goof around inside a roadside diner. Later, they harass a gas station owner in a cowboy hat. Otherwise, they mostly mind their own business. This includes watching a naked woman dance around with a snake, pretending to be dogs, pretending to film news broadcast, and arguing about beer, drugs, and tarot cards. If you're looking for weird, drive-in nonsense, the biker stuff is mildly interesting. Watching a group of poorly acted fictional bikers just shoot the shit occupies the viewer... But only for a few minutes. It's gets tedious pretty quickly.

If “Werewolves on Wheels” is underwhelming as a biker film, it's outright disappointing as a werewolf movie. There's three whole werewolf transformations in the entire movie. Two of them largely take place off-screen. We see one of the bikers collapse and moan. Next, we'll see hairy claws tear out a throat or slash a face. It's only in the last act when we get a good look at the werewolf. The make-up is actually okay, looking a lot like a cross between Lon Chaney Jr. and Paul Naschy. However, the werewolf antics leave much to be desired. The werewolf awkwardly lunges around, sets someone on fire, before jumping on his bike. At which point the movie quickly wraps up, via explosion. If it isn't already obvious, the title is misleading. “One Werewolf on One Set of Wheels” would be more accurate.

I knew there was no way “Werewolves on Wheels” could live up to its amazing title. But I was hoping the movie would be more entertaining than it ended up being. The film is one of those tedious exploitation flicks that expect a crazy title and premise to carry the whole production. Little effort was expended on the rest of the movie. Occasionally, there's one or two moment that's interesting in a sleazy way. Or as a time capsule of the early seventies. Otherwise, you're going to need some beer (or whatever your recreational substance of choice is) to get through this one. You might be better served leaving “Werewolves on Wheels” as an awesome title and poster and forget about the mediocre movie. [5/10]

Fear Itself: Something with Bite

Hey, how about a werewolf double feature? After putting his (immediately kind of mediocre) stamp on the vampire with “The V Word,” Ernest Dickerson would tackle another classic horror archetype with his “Fear Itself” episode, “Something with Bite.” Willbur Orwell is a somewhat forgetful veterinarian. His son is a smart alack, his wife fears the spark has gone out of their relationship, and his employees don't respect him. (Except Mikayla, his assistant, who adores him.) That all changes after Wilbur is bitten by a strange animal brought into the vet's office. His communication with his animal clients improve. His sex life gets a lot better. He starts commanding more respect. Yep, Wilbur is a werewolf now. He's just worried he might be responsible for the gruesome animal murders happening around town.

“Fear Itself” has been pretty serious up to this point. “Something with Bite” is the first fully comedic episode. The script is from famous son/Twitter combatant/occasional screenwriter Max Landis. Dickerson and Landis keep the tone light and humorous. The characters are exaggerated and silly. Mikayla is a stereotypical good girl, right down to the glasses. Wilbur's wife, who the kids today would describe as “thicc,” is a mouthy, passionate black woman. The cop who appears is the expected hard boiled, ball-busting detective. The performances are on this same level. Wendel Pierce, as Wilbur, is affably goofy. “Something with Bite” is so light-hearted that it doesn't even really try for horror. The attacks are mildly gory. Dickerson directs them with gusto but the intent clearly isn't to scare.

“Something with Bite” puts a mildly clever spin on the werewolf premise, by suggesting that a person's life would be improved by becoming a werewolf. Wilbur meets up with a couple of hippy, vegetarian werewolves. They confirm that you don't do anything as a wolf that you wouldn't do as a person. Totally benevolent werewolves are something you don't see much outside of children's cartoons and cereal boxes. The episode's twist – that a human with a werewolf fetish is actually responsible for the murders – is a decent surprise. Though it only appears at the end, the werewolf effects are also pretty cool. “Something with Bite” is deeply goofy but it's an entertaining hour. I'd certainly watch it again before re-watching Dickerson's “Masters of Horror” contribution. [7/10]

Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014)

After “Too Many Cooks” became an internet phenomenon, the Adult Swim folks realized the weird shorts they showed at four A.M. could do more than just freak out insomniac stoners. A few months later, they premiered “Unedited Footage of a  Bear.” The short had an even more meta set-up. Beginning as if it was cell phone footage someone took of a bear and uploaded to Youtube, it quickly fades to an advertisement for an allergies medication called Claridryl. As happens in info-mercials, a mother of two begins to drive her car around a suburban neighborhood. The situation then turns weird, as she drives pass a violent crime scene and is then attacked by a psychotic double of herself.

If “Too Many Cooks” was parodying, and eventually darkly perverting, the visual language of nineties sitcom, “Unedited Footage of a Bear” seeks to do the same with medication commercials. Initially, the Claridryl ad is indistinguishable from the real thing: The blandly smiling lead actress, the drug literally chasing away dark storm clouds, children frolicking in parks, a seemingly idyllic suburban setting. Eventually, hints emerge that something isn't right. The mom – whose name is Donna, we discover – has multiple empty container of Claridryl in her glove box, suggesting she's addicted. The website address and Skip Ad button at the bottom of the screen fades away. Even after “Unedited Footage of a Bear” gets weird, it maintains the continuity of a commercial. Disclaimers about the drug's side effects, which get increasingly nonsensical, continue to flash across the screen.

While “Too Many Cooks” was pretty funny throughout, “Unedited Footage of a Bear” largely abandons absurdist comedy in favor of surreal horror. When Donna drives pass the crime scene, the camera lingers on the mad man's face, the cop's despondent body language, the bags of blood being carried away. By the time she spots a version of her own sweater on the road, we know something is wrong. Next, her doppelganger appears, running towards her with disturbing determination. From there, “Unedited Footage of a Bear” doesn't look back. Intense violence – the double beating Donna black and blue – is cut against abrasive weirdness. An angry punk song plays while the double frightens Donna's kids, performs strange rituals, and screams into a telephone. The result is in your face, bizarre, and unsettling.

As with “Too Many Cooks,” “Unedited Footage of a Bear” is probably an act of prankish dadaism that, nevertheless, invites deeper reading. People have been known to have bad reactions even to something as simple as allergy relief medication. The short hints at this, with the growing list of side effects and Donna's apparent addiction. The intense freak-out that makes up most of the short is a deliberate contrast to the sunny perspective the film begins with. So a criticism of the pharmaceutical industry emerges. People are sold happy-go-lucky relief but are often left in the dark about what can go wrong. Or maybe “Unedited Footage of a Bear” was just designed to scare stoners in the middle of the night. Either way, it's extremely successful. [8/10]

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 11

Cat People (1982)

It's part of the horror fan rule book that you have to become outraged anytime a remake of a classic film is announced. I wonder what the reaction was in the eighties, when a string of classic horror flicks from the fifties and earlier were getting remade? Did fans take notice that respected directors like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Paul Schrader were behind the cameras? Or did they bitch and moan about the original's legacies being shit on? If they did, it would've been a little funny. Now these remakes are regarded as classic themselves, often overshadowing the originals. Even Schrader's “Cat People,” which was greeted with mixed reviews and mediocre box office in 1982, has a healthy cult following today. Time makes fools of us all.

Schrader, directing a script from Bob Clark's old pal Alan Ormsby, deviates extensively from Val Lewton's original. In this version, Irena has moved to New Orleans to be reunited with her long lost brother, Paul. Soon after meeting him, Paul disappears again. Meanwhile, a black panther nearly maws a prostitute to death. The panther is captured by Oliver, a curator, and placed in the local zoo. Irena is drawn to the panther and, while visiting it, meets Oliver. After killing a zookeeper, the panther disappears  and her brother returns to Irena. He informs her that their bloodline is cursed. Whenever they feel lust, they transform into huge black cats. They can only return to human form after killing someone. Irena now must choose between the growing love she feels for Oliver and the animal fury growing within her.

Being made forty years later, Paul Schrader's “Cat People” can address the themes of repressed sexuality and Freudian desires that the original could only hint at. Instead of merely suggesting that Irena's transformation into a panther is linked with a frustrated sex drive, the remake makes this explicitly the case. She's a twenty year old virgin. Having sex means giving into a literal animal side. So, instead, she kills, as in a brilliant scene where she strips nude and hunts a rabbit through the night. This lends the film an intensely erotic atmosphere, built upon sexual longing and unresolved lust. The remake makes this perverse premise even kinkier by giving Irena a brother that sexually desires her, as the cat people can only avoid transforming by having sex with their own bloodline. So this is the film's moral: Sex is a wild and dangerous desire but, when repressed, it leads to depravity. That's a potent theme and one befitting Schrader's extremely Catholic writing style.

More sex and nudity weren't the only advantage age gave to this “Cat People.” The film was made around the same time as “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling,” two films that turned the werewolf transformation into gooey, graphic acts of body horror. Schrader's “Cat People” follows suit. The transformation, which is slowly revealed as the film progresses, involves the skin contorting and shifting before a panther burst free. These images – claws and fur stabbing through human skin – are undeniably unnerving. The remake doesn't skimp on the gore either, in intensely violent scenes like a panther tearing a zookeeper's arm off. Schrader isn't just focused on special effects. His film features some suspense too. The original's Letwon bus and pool stalking scene are reprised, impressively. A scene where a panther appears under a bed also taps into some classical nightmare imagery.

The remake also has the benefit of a fantastic cast. Filling Simon Simone's shoes was a hefty order but one Nastassja Kinski was more than up to. Kinski oozes sensuality in every scene. Her breathtaking beauty is so natural. This is befitting the part of a young woman who is just discovering the power her sexuality holds. At story's beginning, Irena is a wide-eyed innocent. By the end, she's a lusty predator. All throughout, Kinski's performance is relatable and considered. It's easy to see why Oliver, played by future “Home Alone” dad John Heard, would be so instantly enamored of her. As her brother, Malcolm McDowell finds the balance between someone trying to tempt an innocent to the dark side and a person torn apart by their own desires. McDowell is both devilish and pathetic in the part, making Paul a villain and a victim.

Instead of attempting to recreate Jacques Tourener's famously shadowy direction, Paul Schrader goes for a more colorful approach. The night is frequently depicted in glowing blues or sensual purples. This fits the story's New Orleans setting and cat-like perspective. The flashbacks, showing the origins of the cat people, are painted in bright red, a color that makes the scenes feel apocalyptic but also bring to mind the erotic heat at the story's center. Some of Schrader's other visual choices – POV shots leaping into trees or the occasional Dutch angle – are less sure-footed. The script has some problems too. After Paul's exit from the story, “Cat People” reaches a logical end point. Instead, Irena has a strange dream that explains the curse's origin and compels her to embrace her animal side. That's some sloppy writing, heavy on the exposition. It's an unnatural shift that makes the last act possible.

Lastly, if one is discussing 1982's “Cat People,” you have to talk about its music. Giorgio Moroder, the king of eighties synth, composed the score. Instead of going with rollicking electronic beats, Moroder fills the film's soundtrack with growling, moaning, pulsating hums. This is another way the film hints at the bubbling sexual desire inside it. This is often paired with tribal drum noises, pointing towards the story's African roots. Frequently accompanying Moroder's beats are the vocals of David Bowie. Bowie's own softly hummed melody play over the opening credits. This bookends the film, as the vocal version of Bowie's theme song plays over the end credits. That's a powerful track, full of poetic lyrics about repressed desire, with Moroder's brilliantly propulsive synth backing. No wonder the songs has memorably been featured on other soundtracks over the years.

I'll finish this review with a personal anecdote. Before I was born, my mother used to live in an apartment, which included HBO as part of the standard TV package. On lonely nights, when my sister was elsewhere, my mom would frequently fall asleep to whatever was on the channel. On one such night, she found herself watching “Cat People.” The film frightened her so much, that she had difficulty sleeping. One scene in particular, where the panther emerges from under a bed, had her checking under her own mattress for quite a few nights. It's funny how movies affect us. As for myself, I recognize that “Cat People” is a really flawed film but it features so many of the things that make me love movies. [8/10]

The Student of Prague (1926)

It's a night for remakes, folks. A few years back, I reviewed 1913's “The Student of Prague.” The directorial debut of German cinema pioneer Paul Wegener, it is sometimes credited with being the first feature length horror movie. I found it to be a bit slow and melodramatic myself. However, a mere thirteen years later, Wegener's film was remade. (This goes to show that remakes are far from a new phenomenon and are practically as old as film itself is.) The 1926 version starred another early icon of horror: Conrad Veidt. It's generally considered to be the superior version. Since I like to squeeze in at least one silent horror film every October, and this one had been on my list for a while, I decided to give it a look.

Much like the original, 1926's “The Student of Prague” mashes up the “Faust” story and Poe's “William Wilson.” Set in 1820, Balduin is a student at the university of Prague. Though a gifted fencer, he is financially destitute. While at a party, he meets Margit, the beautiful daughter of a rich count who is engaged to a local baron. At the same party, a stranger named Scapinelli says he can help Balduin out. At first, Balduin dismisses the man. Later, Balduin reconsiders Scapinelli's offer. The man gives the student riches and only wants a single item from his room in return. Balduin agrees and Scapinelli takes the boy's reflection. At first, Balduin's luck seems to have changed. He catches Margit's eye and gets ready to benefit from her dad's fortune. Then a man who looks just like him appears. It turns out that Balduin's reflection has come alive and is actively seeking to ruin the boy's life.

Wegener's “The Student of Prague” was barely a horror movie, playing more like a dark fantasy. Henrik Galeen's remake ramps up the spookiness just a bit. Film technology had come a long way in just the thirteen years between the two films. Galeen's “Student” is heavier on expressionistic atmosphere. From a mountain top, Scapinelli directs the action below, causing a fox hunt to crash into an inn. A notable sequence features the old wizard's shadow reaching up to grab a letter from a balcony, handing it to the flower girl who has a crush on Balduin. Later, after a night of drowning his sorrow at a bar, Balduin imagines a saw – the same one the musician was playing inside – sawing at his head. The ending, where the zombie-like doppelganger confronts the original, is impressively atmospheric. The reflection, fading in and out, stares from an open window. He chases Balduin into a dark and stormy night. These are effective images.

Galeen's “Student of Prague” still inherits some flaws from Wegener's original. Being a film from the twenties, the film is beholden to then-genre expectations. Yes, there's a couple of love triangles. Balduin lusts after Margit, who already has a fiancee. Later, a flower girl develops a crush on Balduin. This stuff just comes with the territory. Similarly, the remake is as slowly paced as the original. Scenes often meander, such as the sequence set inside a bar, which focuses way too much on the band playing. It also takes quite a while for “Student of Prague” to get going. Even then, the doppelganger and Balduin don't confront each other until the very end. This forces some scenes to happen off-screen.

Still, the remake has a stronger cast than the original. Conrad Veidt, one of the greatest silent film actors, does well as Balduin. He's charming as a poor student, in the early scenes. This allows you to root for him, as he struggles with the class and wealth divides in the city. Veidt's unforgettable face, the same creepy gaze that he used so well in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “The Last Performance,” is put to excellent work as the soulless doppelganger. Agnes Esterhazy is charming and lovely as Margit, the rich girl Balduin falls in love with. Werner Krauss has the showy part of Scapinelli. Krauss has a good sinister smile. He brings just the right amount of hamminess to the part of Mephistophelian magician. 

The mechanics of movie had improved a lot in-between 1913 and 1926. Even then, this “Student of Prague” features some clunky, silent movie awkwardness. The scene where Veidt grabs Esterhazy off her horse is difficult to follow. Many of the other scenes are stiffly directed. However, this one is an improvement of sorts over the original. I guess that's the kind of films that should be remade: Stories with potential that had flawed presentations. The story was remade again during the sound era, only nine years later. I guess I'm going to have to review that version some day too, aren't I? [6/10]

Fear Itself: Skin and Bones

When “Masters of Horror” was still going, I had a wish list of directors I hoped would be involved with the show some day. One that I figured was always a long shot was Larry Fessenden. Fessenden wasn't much of a name and his indie productions received divisive reviews, though I've always been a fan. I guess Fessenden was on the producer's radar after all, as he was recruited for “Fear Itself.” “Skin and Bones” concerns the Edlund family, ranchers living in the frozen north. Father Grady disappears into the woods for several weeks. When he returns, he's frost-bitten and starving. Grady's wife, brother, and two sons soon realized their dad is acting strangely. They quickly discover that he's been possessed by the wendigo, the Algonquian spirit of cannibalism. Soon, Grady's own family is on the menu.

Fessenden probably got called for “Skin and Bones” strictly because he previously directed a movie called “Wendigo.” Surprisingly, that film had little to do with the traditional version of the go-to Native American folkloric monster. However, Fessenden's ecologically-minded brand of horror is a good fit for this kind of story anyway. The episode focuses on the fleshiness of cannibalism. By dropping people meat into a stew, “Skin and Bones” naturally makes you wonder how the animals that end up on your plate felt. The episode takes the cannibalism subject as far as the network standards will allow, creating a decently disturbing half-hour. Fessenden focuses just as much on the chilly isolation of the far north setting. The sound design and discordant score is heavy on blowing winds and shrieking strings. This is best utilized in the last act, when Grady is stalking his own sons through the empty barn.

What really sold me on “Skin and Bones” is its lead performance. Doug Jones stars as Grady. Jones is an accomplished actor but is usually buried under latex. The wendigo make-up is light compared to the elaborate creatures Jones usually plays. This allows the actor to really show his stuff. The frostbite effects emphasize Jones' already gaunt frame, making him a believable survivor of the cold. Moreover, Jones brings an incredible physicality to the part. His hand motions are practiced and precise. Every movement is calculated to be as sinister as possible. Jones' performance is both animalistic, when slurping human stew, and also oddly poised, when convincing Grady's wife to cook her brother-in-law. Only the occasional digital effect, deepening Jones' voice, come off as lame. It's a sinister, stylish performance and really makes me wonder why Jones doesn't have his own horror franchise yet. (If New Line ever gets that new “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie off the ground, they should seriously consider Jones as their new Freddy Krueger.)

Still, “Skin and Bones” occasionally comes off as a little cheesy. A few too many times, Fessenden has Grady leap towards the camera, accompanying by a loud noise on the soundtrack. Later, after wrecking his bedroom, there's another herky-jerky shot of the man walking through the door. As great as Jones is, his performance veers towards the hammy at times. That occasionally makes “Skin and Bones,” otherwise a grim story, feel a little campy. Lastly, I wasn't invested in the familial drama at all. I couldn't really care less about the oldest son's inability to respect his uncle, who his mother is having an affair with. Even with these flaws, “Skin and Bones” is still easiest the best episode of “Fear Itself.” [7/10]

Too Many Cooks (2014)

Has it really been nearly three years since “Too Many Cooks” took the internet by storm? If you somehow missed the short in 2014, here's the gist. The eleven minute film was dropped into the late hours of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block with zero announcements. Those who caught it how no idea what it was. After being uploaded onto Youtube, “Too Many Cooks” became an internet meme. The film begins like the opening credits of a nineties sitcom, seemingly about a large family called the Cooks. Except the opening keeps going, adding more cast members. Soon, “Too Many Cooks” begins to shift genre, the insanely catchy theme song morphing along with it. Before the end, a layer of disturbing horror has found its way into the show's sitcom banality.

As a comedy short, “Too Many Cooks” is a textbook example of repeating a gag until it's no longer funny... And then continuing anyway, until the gag becomes funny again. It begins by perfectly recreating a sitcom intro, from the opening shot of a cityscape, to the way everyone winks at the camera, even down to the tracking lines. (There's deliberate shout-outs too, to shows like “Rosanne” and “The Brady Bunch.”) Some of the hackiest sitcom troupes are skewered, such as the Urkel-like nerdy next door neighbor, the multiple babies added to spice up the ratings, the youth appealing “cool guy” character, and the eye candy for the dads. “Too Many Cooks” then throws in several literal cooks. From there, the show absorbs other genres. It mutates into a workplace comedy, a cop show, a “G.I. Joe” style cartoon, a “Falcon's Crests”-like prime time soap, a “Law and Order”-esque procedural, a “Battlestar Galactia” inspired sci-fi show, before finally morphing back into a sitcom. The theme song changes genres too. And just when it seems like the actual show is beginning, “Too Many Cooks” ends abruptly.

Tying together this ridiculous idea is a freewheeling sense of absurdity. Due to its constantly shifting premise, “Too Many Cooks” can pack in countless gags. Among the fictional sitcom's huge cast are a hunky firefighter, a human disguised as a coat, a literal pie apparently played by Lars Von Trier, and Smarf. Smarf is an “Alf”-like puppet cat that shoots rainbows from his hands and is also a robot. Then there are gags that are just inspired and weird. Like a topless girl, covering her breasts, continuing to be semi-nude regardless of the setting. The killer's head appears atop a spaceship during the sci-fi section. There's also an absurdist, two-part shout-out to “Wonder Woman,” which also ends violently. Eventually, the different genres begin to bleed into each other, space characters ending up on a couch and vice versa.

You might be wondering why I'm reviewing this for Halloween. That's because “Too Many Cooks” eventually evolves into a horror film. During the endless intro, you begin to notice a strange bearded man in a jacket. A re-watch shows that he's hiding in the background of many shots. Eventually, the man begins to murder the cast members, dismembering them with a machete. At that point, “Too Many Cooks” becomes a slasher film. A girl manages to break out of her intro-induced paralysis so she can run from the killer. All the while, her credit remains in front of her chest, the theme song playing around her. This ultimately reveals her hiding place. The killer then takes over the intro, replacing all the cast members and even eating a few. “Too Many Cooks'” surreal horror continues to get weirder, until the cast members have been replaced with upright credits... And the credits are replaced with the people, who scream in agony.

The creator of “Too Many Cooks” claims that there's no deeper point to the short's abrasive weirdness. I'm not sure I buy that, strictly because it's so easy to read into it. The way the sitcom platitudes are slowly perverted into something twisted suggests a statement about the dark side of nostalgia. The Cook parents are revealed to be swingers. One segment features a doctor treating a cast member suffering from “intro-itis,” an infectious disease that trap people in an endless sitcom intro. All of this is aside from the machete wielding murderer. The way he sneaks into the intro, even appearing in the final cast shot, killing the cast members and replacing them, hints at the darkness sitcoms exclude. In short: Nostalgia may provide an escape from reality but you can only fight that off for so long. Unless it's constantly rebooted, the way a bloody Smarf does when he presses a reset button. “Too Many Cooks” is a hilarious, bizarre bit of absurdist comedy that eventually reveals the rotten heart at the center of nostalgia. [9/10]