Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 23

Clownhouse (1989)

It's impossible to talk about “Clownhouse” without discussing the disturbing case of director Victor Salva. Salva was a promising, young filmmaker snatched up by Francis Ford Copella. He was given a small budget to produce his debut feature, “Clownhouse.” The film received good reviews on the festival circuit. Soon afterwards, however, Salva was convicted of molesting the movie's young star. He even recorded one of the assaults. Salva would be sentenced to three years but only serve fifteen months. Since being released, he's continued to make films, including the successful “Jeepers Creepers” franchise. Knowing this, watching “Clownhouse” becomes an uncomfortable experience. Is it possible to separate the film's merits from the crimes its director perpetrated on its star?

The film concerns three brothers. Casey is the youngest and has an intense phobia of clowns. His older brother, Randy, often torments Casey over this. The middle brother, Geoffrey, is a little more sympathetic. One fateful night, the three brothers are left home alone by their parents. In order to pass the time, Randy and Geoffrey take Casey to the circus. There, the boy has a frightening encounter with a circus clown. Later that night, a group of lunatics escape from a mental institute. They attack and kill the circus clowns, taking their costumes. The maniacs follow Casey back to his house, proceeding to hunt and torment the boys throughout the night.

Looking at “Clownhouse” strictly from an artistic perspective, it's an effective horror film. The film sustains a surprising amount of tension during its first half. After about a half-hour of set-up, we are greeted to long scenes of the clowns stalking their victims. There's a simple trick here that makes these scenes intense. The boys don't know the clowns are near-by. So there's extended moments of the brothers being watched by the clowns, unaware that they're being observed. A really solid scene has the clowns walking down a hallway towards one brother, only for them to vanish again in a blink. Lights blink in the attic, a running clown briefly visible in the background. Later, we spot clowns hiding behind racks of clothes in a closest. Or peering through a slightly ajar door. These are creepy images and “Clownhouse” utilizes them to ratchet up the tension.

These moments of long, sustained tension eventually build towards a frightening release. “Clownhouse” has been referred to as a slasher film but there's little gore in the movie. When the clown attacks happen, the film continues its focus on tension. The clowns never pick up a bladed weapon. One victim has his neck broken, after a theatrical build-up. Another is killed off-screen, his body dropping out of a closest. Otherwise, the attack scenes are devoted to clown's leaping out of doorways and hallways. “Clownhouse” really mines the unnerving quality of the clown for all its worth. I have no fear of clowns but a madly grinning, painting face suddenly peering from the darkness is startling. The attack scenes are fiercely directed, especially in the final act, where Cheezo the Clown has Casey pinned under a table.

“Clownhouse” does have a good cast. Nathan Forrest Winters gives a naturalistic performance as Casey, striking the viewer as a normal kid, overwhelmed by his fears. (Though it's very difficult to judge Winters' performance, knowing what the director did to him.) Brian McHugh is similarly likable as middle brother, Geoffrey. McHugh brings a slightly nerdy edge to the character, making him seem more grounded. Future star Sam Rockwell appears as Randy, the asshole older brother. Randy is unquestionably a bully but Rockwell sneaks in a few hints that he does actually love his younger brothers. The actor Michael Jerome West, credited simply as “Tree” for some reason, is deeply creepy as Cheezo the Clown. Using just his body language, Tree creates an effectively unnerving horror villain.

“Clownhouse” puts me in a really weird place, as a horror fan. On one hand, I want to recommend it as an effectively tense horror/thriller. On the other hand, it's impossible not to feel Victor Salva's pedophilic instincts in the film. Aside from the general plot of young kids being stalked by older men, there's multiple scenes of the three boys in their underwear, changing, or bathing. So I've answered my opening question: It is impossible to separate the film's artistic value from the disgusting acts its filmmaker committed during production. (If you must know, I downloaded a copy off a sketchy streaming site, so at least Salva didn't profit from me watching his movie.) In some alternate universe, where Victor Salva isn't a literal child molester, “Clownhouse” is a pretty good horror flick. In our world, I really don't know how the hell to rate it and will refrain from doing so. [-/10]

The Curse (1987)

I've probably mentioned it before. During my college years, I really got into obscure eighties horror, even more so than before. During that time, Youtube was still pretty new and packed with illegal uploads of all sorts of movies. In our 4K, HD world, it's hard to believe I once watched so many movies in 360 pixels, cut into ten minute segments. However, I found a lot of films I probably never would've seen otherwise this way. Such as “The Curse.” Among the channels I subscribed too, one I trusted so implicitly that I watched everything he uploaded, regardless of whether I had heard of it before. While watching “The Curse” back then, I realized the movie was an adaptation of Lovecraft's “The Colour Out of Space.” The film was also produced by Lucio Fulci and directed by David Keith, of all people. This makes it a uniquely eighties take on Providence's scribe of the strange.

Something has happened on the Crane family farm. In the middle of the night, a meteor crashes into their field. Within the next few days, the strange, glowing stone shrinks until it's nothing. After that, the family's crops begin to flourish. However, the fruit and vegetables are rotten inside. The animals begin to go mad. Soon enough, the family members are infected, slowly changing into half-human monsters. The meteor brought some pathogen from space and it has seeped into the well water. If it's not stopped soon, the entire town may be in trouble.

“The Curse” has been referred to by other writers as “cheesy,” which is not an inaccurate description. Most of the characters in the film are broad redneck stereotypes. The oldest Crane sibling, Cyrus, is an especially ridiculous character. He's a honking, farting, guffawing nincompoop. The majority of the performances are on this level. The various scenes of animals attacking, driven mad by the intergalactic infection, tend to be goofy. A horse attack is especially laughable. Yet, within its goofy atmosphere, “The Curse” occasionally touches upon a seriously gross image. Such as a half-eaten apple full of squirming worms or a tomato spurting a tidal wave of brown slime. One of the nastiest scenes involves a cow rotted from the inside out, rancid flesh and bugs exploding from its body. This stuff is not sophisticated but it's effectively nasty, hitting the viewer in their visceral gut.

Despite making his directorial debut with a down-and-dirty horror film, David Keith's ambitions were pretty high for “The Curse.” The film is not just a portrait of a redneck family, infected by alien pathogens, but actually looks at the entire community. We meet a man who is buying up many of the local farms, selling the property to developers. Francis Crane is cheating on her husband with the hunky farm hand, a subplot that barely comes up. The doctor next door, interested in helping the Cranes, is ostensibly the hero of the film. We also meet a local government official, who is also having an affair. Most of these subplots were probably not necessary, especially considering the film's brief 92 minute run time. However, it does give us a nice view of the surrounding area, making the movie a little more interested than it would've been otherwise.

“The Curse” is more faithful to “The Colour Out of Space” than “Die, Monster, Die!” was. The farm setting, backwoods half-wits, the meteor shrinking into nothingness, and giant but rotted vegetables are maintained. Most of the author's cosmic elements are ditched, such as the intelligent alien color beyond human comprehension. However, “The Curse” does touch upon some of H.P.'s themes, in an odd way. Nathan Crane is a religious fanatic, often praising God and cursing his family to damnation. When the curse befalls their animals and crops, Nathan initially blames his children for bringing this on them. Later, he decides this must be God's will. Yet the effects of the meteor are clearly a science-fiction threat, disconnected from religion. “The Curse,” if it was less trashy, could've been a story about Christian fanaticism meeting Lovecraftian horror.

The cast is pretty hammy, all things considered. The effects are not the best, the Crane family turning into pasty-faced ghouls. The ending goes on way too long, the movie attempting to wrap up too many subplots in too little time. Still, I sort of liked “The Curse.” Weirdly, the movie would spawn three in-name-only sequels. I've seen the second, “Curse II: The Bite,” which involves snakes, more body horror, Jill Schoelen, and something about an Amish family. I haven't seen the others, none of which are discussed much. The original is sort of worth seeing though, as a grimy and slightly dumb take on one of Lovecraft's best stories. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Sounds Like

As I said yesterday, I found most of the new additions during “Masters of Horror” season two to be questionable masters, at best. Yet I soundly approved of one name. After the terrifying “Session 9” and the effectively grim “The Machinist,” Brad Anderson seemed to earn that title. (Disappointingly, Anderson's subsequent genre work has been very forgettable.) Anderson would direct “Sounds Like.” The episode concerns Larry Pearce, a man with hypersensitive hearing. Usually he can ignore this troubling ability. Sometimes, like at his job as an call monitor at an I.T. call center, it even comes in handy. However, Pearce is still haunted by the death of his young son. In-between his inconsiderate wife and stressful job, Pearce's super-hearing goes into overdrive. Soon after that, his grip on sanity starts to slip.

Compared to most “Masters of Horror” episodes, which tend to focus on gory special effects, “Sounds Like” is a more psychological episode. There's very little violence and most of the horrifying stuff happens inside the main character's head. (Or ear canals, as it were.) It's primarily a character study of a man grappling with grief. Larry refuses to let his wife re-paint their dead son's bedroom, leaving it the way it was when the boy died. When the same wife suspect she's pregnant, Larry is offended that she would ever want to replace their deceased son. He frequently visits the boy's grave, fondly recalling their trips to a local lake to race toy boats. In one scene, he speaks to a younger co-worker, imagining the man as his little boy. In fact, “Sounds Like's” depiction of grief is so raw, that it's almost difficult to watch. Chris Bauer's performance rotates between quiet disconnection and fiery rage. Without going for melodrama, the film solemnly depicts the boy's dying days and Larry's inability to move on.

The super-hearing aspect of the story may seem disconnected from this element. Yet “Sounds Like” incorporates Larry's overly sensitive hearing as a measuring stick for his stress level. When he's dealing with things, his hearing is normal, peaceful even. When emotions start to boil over, the slightest sound can be insufferable. “Sound Like” does a great job of making noise unnerving. Raindrops on a windshield sound like bombs falling. A sleeping person's eyeball, fluttering against their closed eyelid, makes a disgusting squishing noise. A buzzing fly on a window sounds like a hurricane. Eventually, Larry can't even hear speech anymore, people's words obscured by the sound of their tongues swishing in their saliva. If you're sometimes sensitive to noise, “Sounds Like” is a very effective horror movie. It successfully makes the somewhat benign premise of “super hearing” into a nightmarish situation. This, combined with its strong emotional content, makes it easily one of the series' best episodes. [9/10]

Perversions of Science: The Exile

“Perversions of Science” finally starts to pick up some in its fourth episode. “The Exile” begins in some far-flung future society where most crime has been eliminated. This seemingly utopian world is interrupted by a sadistic serial killer, a would-be scientist obsess with racial purity. He is caught and imprisoned. Since the death penalty has been outlawed, the authorities attempt to reprogram him. The warden, Dr. Nordoff, becomes especially interested in the mad killer. Despite their best efforts, the man's violent and obsessive tendencies remain unchanged. The authorities decide to exile him instead.

“The Exile” has a better pedigree than most “Perversions of Science” episodes. Splatterpunk pioneer David J. Schow wrote the script while William Malone directs. Malone's somewhat obnoxious visual style is restrained, save for one colorful nightmare. Instead, the episode is mostly about three cult icons hamming it up delightfully. Jeffrey Combs plays the serial killer. He's in full-on Herbert West mode when ranting at his victims. When playing off other actors, Combs' enjoyably plays up his nihilistic side. He swears, sweats, and makes being a huge asshole look very amusing. David Warner plays Dr. Nordoff as a cold, authoritarian voice. This makes him an ideal foil to the blustering Combs. Watching Warner grow more tired of his bullshit is great. Lastly, Ron Perlman appears as Combs' cell mate, a coldly practical criminal. The ending is utterly ridiculous and borderline offensive but, I'll admit, it totally caught me off-guard. “The Exile” is, thus far, the best episode of this series. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I've seen "Jeepers Creepers" and "Jeepers Creepers 2" and thought they were both pretty good and had some scary moments. That was before I found out about Salva and the horrible things he had been up to. I'll just go ahead and skip "Clownhouse".

I'll put "The Curse" in my watchlist. I'm not sure I'm a big fan of "dumb Horror" if that's a sub-genre, but your review makes it seem interesting.

MoH's "Sounds Like" sounds (pun!) interesting, too. The character's struggles with grief is someplace I'd rather not go, though. I lost a brother that I was very close to a couple of years ago and my father in the last few months. Deaths that are dwelled upon in Movies or on TV always bring back awful feelings. Still, it's good to hear (pun again) that the series isn't entirely centered around butcher shop aesthetics.

PoS's "The Exile" might be something that I need to check out. I've really enjoyed David J. Schow's dissections of classic TV shows. His book on the 1960's Sci-Fi series "The Outer Limits" is the most amazing companion I've ever read and his DVD commentaries on the 1960's Karloff hosted "Thriller" are insightful and funny. It's kind of odd that I've never really looked into his work as a writer.