Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 26

Stitches (2012)

You know what's sort of funny? Odd funny, not haha funny? There's a lot of killer clown movies. Most of them, however, are not horror/comedies. With the exception of sub-genre high point, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” it seems most evil clown flicks dispenses with the chuckles all together. I guess some people, horror filmmakers included apparently, find clowns far too freaky to even induce laughs. However, at least some people see the narrative irony in a clown that causes both laughs and screams. “Stitches” is an Irish film directed by Conor McMahon, whose made a number of low budget horror flicks. It's a starring vehicle for stand-up comic Ross Noble, whose manic material has won him a cult following. I have no familiarity with Noble's act but I liked “Stitches” anyway.

Tommy's mother has invited all his friends over for his tenth birthday party. Tommy receives his first kiss from Kate, while sitting in his tree house. This budding romance is interrupted by the arrival of Stitches, the party clown. Stitches' act is not well-received by the kids. Immediately afterwards, he suffers an awful accident, dying violently in Tommy's kitchen. Six years later, Tommy's sixteen birthday has arrived. He invites many of the same friends to his house, including Kate, who he is still crushed on. Someone else is returning as well. Stitches the clown crawls out of his grave. He seeks out the kids who were at Tommy's party, dispatching each of them in bloody fashion.

“Stitches” is a pretty crude comedy. This is a film that does begin with a clown having sex in his trailer. From there, we see young kids spitting, cursing, and puking. The antics of the high school kids are, naturally, full of colorful vulgarity and name-calling. “Stitches” comes very close to being overly crass and annoying. Luckily, the horror elements are played just straight enough that this doesn't happen. Most every facet of the movie is knowingly absurd. However, the terror Stitches' victims feel are taken seriously, even if nothing else is. It's a fine balance and one the movie pulls off successfully. “Stitches” even cooks up some likably nutty clown mythology. In this universe, clowns' souls are represented by magical eggs, painted with their faces. They receive these eggs when they join the clown-hood. That's a goofy, inspired idea.

The main thing, I suspect, people will remember about “Stitches” is its over-the-top death scenes. Unlike many other killer clown movies, which are content to stick a garden variety slasher in some greasepaint, “Stitches” embraces its gimmick. Stitches pulls a rabbit from a victim's throat. He utilizes spring-loaded gloves. He disembowels a teen and ties his guts into a balloon animal. During a chase scene, he leaps on a tiny tricycle. When “Stitches” isn't joyfully running with the killer clown concept, it throws in lovably fucked-up gore. An ice cream scope removes brains from a cracked open skull. A bicycle pump inflates a head until it explodes. My favorite involves an umbrella being shoved through a head, a death scene that stretches on to absurd heights. It's gory, goofy fun.

“Stitches” also features a likable cast. Despite his energetic stage performance, Ross Noble's performance as Stitches is pretty controlled. Even after being revived as a zombie clown, Noble tells jokes and quibs. But he's suitably undead during the film's later scenes. Tommy Knight is nicely awkward as the similarly named Tommy. He doesn't undersell the natural nervousness of a teenage boy but makes him likable. Gemma-Leah Devereux is especially eye-catching as Kate. She looks lovely in her goth girl get-up. Beyond that, Devereux has decent comedic timing and works well in the film. Tommy Kane Byrne is amusing as Bulger, an overweight and slightly effeminate friend of Tommy's.  Most of the other teens are kind of broad and annoying but they usually end up dead, so I guess that's okay.

After watching several lame killer clown flicks, “Stitches” really felt like a breath of fresh air. Who would think a clown flick that actually rolls with that conceit would be so rare? Either way, I enjoyed myself watching this one. The movie naturally ends by teasing a sequel. Normally, I'd roll my eyes at that but you know what? I would be interested in seeing more adventures from Ross Noble's undead and murderous clown. Assuming its nearly half as much fun as this one was, anyway. [7/10]

The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1993)

I have no idea how successful “The Unnamable” was. I imagine a limited-release horror film like that can only do so well. However, the movie clearly made money for someone, as a sequel was produced in 1993. Director Jean-Paul Ouellette would return to write and direct “The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The subtitle comes from a different Lovecraft story, elements of which Ouellette incorporated into the sequel. I guess the second “Unnamable” film didn't do as well as the first, as no further sequels were produced. Ouellette, in fact, hasn't made another feature since. (Though he's been busy with shorts and producing.) Let's see how Randolph Carter's second cinematic adventure goes.

In the immediate aftermath of the events of the first “Unnamable,” the police descend on the Winthrop House. As the dead bodies are carried away, Randolph Carter manages to sneak the Necronomicon out. Inside the book, Carter discovers eldritch chants that correlate to modern quantum physics. He becomes convince the monster is still alive. In the tunnels under Winthrop House, Carter discovers he's right. Using modern science and ancient magic, he separates Alyda's innocent human half from her monstrous demonic half. Carter runs with Alyda across the Miskatonic University campus, pursued by the monster that hopes to reclaim her.

It's evident that “The Unnamable II” had a slightly bigger budget than its predecessor. Two name actors are in the cast. David Warner appears briefly as the dean of Miskatonic U. John Rhys-Davis has a sizable role as Dr. Warren, the man who accompanies Carter into the tunnels. The film takes place in more than one location, set all across and around the college campus. We also get far more shots of the monster. More importantly, “The Unnamable II” is wider in scope too. The story expands into the local area a little, suggesting the Arkham authorities are aware of the weird shit happening in their town but cover it up. The link between quantum physics and Lovecraftian magic – likely inspired by "Dreams in the Witch House" – is a pretty ambitious place to take a low budget horror sequel. C'thulhu's name is dropped regularly, as is the lore behind the Necronomicon. Once again, it becomes evident that Ouellette is a pretty big Lovecraft nerd. That knowledge invests this down-and-dirty monster flick with a little more gravitas.

Mark Kinsey Stephenson's performance as Randolph Carter was one of the best parts of the first “Unnamable.” Smartly, the sequel gives Stephenson an even bigger role. He gets the oddest sort of love story. After separating Alyda from the demonic Unnamable, Carter suddenly finds himself close to an attractive, naked, and child-like woman. Maria Ford plays Alyda as someone experiencing the normal world for the first time. Even the idea of putting on clothes is a foreign concept to her, at first. She hisses and scratches like an animal when a female friend attempts to dress her. Which makes her a weirdly ideal girlfriend for the socially awkward Randolph Carter. Their romance escalates quickly but believably. By the end, when their love story inevitably ends in tragedy, you actually feel pretty sorry for Carter.

Truthfully, the relationship between Carter and Alyda is actually more interesting than the monster movie antics. First off, putting the Unnamable in more direct light was a mistake. The creature design this time is more elaborate, including fully functional wings and a cat-like face, but also more rubbery and inexpressive. Future softcore queen Julie Strain plays the creature. Strain's shrieks are less convincing than Katrin Alexndre in the first movie and Strain shows little ability to act through the heavy make-up. The gore is less entertaining as well. Alyda claws most of her victims too death in less than creative ways. The one scene where Alyda flies is pretty awkwardly assembled too. The conclusion, which involves the monster being fused with a chair, is pretty cool though.

Once again, Ouellette does a decent job of combining Lovecraftian elements with more standard horror stuff. A sequence where the Unnamable claws at Carter while he climbs through an air vent is mildly tense. Mostly, I like the quirky romance at the movie's center as well as the numerous references to the Mythos sprinkled throughout. The sequel is not quite as solid as the first, lacking some of the nighttime atmosphere, shadowy shots of the monster, and effectively gooey death scenes. Yet it makes up for it in other ways, creating a generally entertaining horror picture. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution

Joe Dante's “Homecoming” was a break-out critical success for season one of “Masters of Horror,” though I didn't think it aged very well. For his season two episode, Dante's chose material that was no less political. “The Screwfly Solution” concerns a plague sweeping the world. Occurring in a straight line around the globe, men are violently attacking and killing women. It soon becomes apparent that this is an outbreak. Scientist Alan Alstein, a loving father and husband, works with the government in an attempt to control the misogynistic plague. However, it quickly grows out of control, women being systematically killed across the country. Alan's wife Anne attempts to hide out while the exact origins of the epidemic are revealed as not exactly earthly.

Unlike the instantly dated Bush II era protest of “Homecoming,” Dante's “The Screwfly Solution” is somewhat prescient. This episode was made a good decade before phrases like Men's Right Activist or Red Piller were on anyone's lips. (Though Dante linking religious fanaticism with misogyny was mistaken. Turns out that sexism is its own justification.) We haven't had wide-spread violence against women yet but these ideas are frighteningly close to the mainstream these days. This imbues “The Screwfly Solution” with a stark sense of horror. There are several shocking moments of violence. A bloodbath erupts in a strip club. On an airplane, a panicking woman has her neck snapped in a very nonchalant way. Later, a disguised Anne spots a bag made of a female breast for sale in a shop.

Yet “The Screwfly Solution's” scariest moments are its most plausible. While Anne is out with her teenage daughter, a crude construction worker catcalls her. The girl, in response, flicks him off. Instead of leaving it at that, the man walks up to their car, continuing to harass the girl. This kind of shit actually happens every day, making the sequence effectively chilling. Later, we see a man leave a female superior's office, covered in blood. He calmly tells a male co-worker to clean up the mess he made. The cast, for the most part, helps sell this intensity. Jason Priestly is surprisingly good in the lead role, especially when he fights off the disease's effect to give his wife and daughter a chance to escape. Elliot Gould is extremely good in a supporting role as the gay scientist leading the cure effort. Of the cast, only Brenna O'Brien as the daughter doesn't work, as her character comes off as slightly obnoxious.

Despite having so much going for it, “The Screwfly Solution” doesn't quite work. Ultimately, the story is too big in scope to be done on a TV budget. Too much of the film is devoted to character reading about violence in foreign countries. Far too many scenes are devoted to people in rooms discussing the events, instead of witnessing them first hand. It's also too big of a story to squeeze into an hour. The conclusion is overly blunt, featuring a somewhat silly appearance from some aliens. Dante shot the episode largely with handheld digital cameras, giving it a shaky, somewhat flat appearance. Lastly, the musical score from Hummie Man is melodramatic, putting too fine a point on several moments. It's a bummer that these elements drag down “The Screwfly Solution,” which came close to being a potent and frightening sci-fi story about our current times. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Panic

“Perversions of Science” seemingly pulls off the impossible by airing two decent episodes in a row! “Panic” is set in the thirties. On Halloween night, popular radio star Carson Walls premieres a new program. His story is about a Martian fleet landing on Earth and declaring war on humanity, presented as a factual news broadcast. When seemingly regular Earth dudes, Bob and John, hear this at their Halloween party, they freak out. See, Bob and John actually are Martians. The two have been living among humans for several months, collecting data for their Martian overlords. They think the invasion has began and their cover is blown. After Bob and John begin to indiscriminately kill humans, they discover that the broadcast is actually a hoax.

“Panic” is obviously a riff on Orson Welles' “War of the Worlds” broadcast. However, the episode puts a funny spin on it. Re-framing the popular narrative around that event – people believing the broadcast to be real – to be about actual Martians being fooled by the broadcast is a clever switch. This idea isn't revealed until about ten minutes into the episode, genuinely surprising the audience. Upon hearing the news, Bob and John suddenly murder all their human friends, a shocking moment of manic violence. How the episode plays out from there, with the two Martians arguing among themselves while they look for a non-existent alien army, is amusingly goofy. The episode's twist ending is unexpected and ends things on a suitably absurd note. Really, only a joke about a sexually deprived backwoods farmer falls flat. Otherwise, this is pretty funny.

Maybe we can attribute “Panic's” higher quality to its crew and cast. This marks the second Tobe Hooper directed anthology episode I've seen this month. Hooper incorporates some of his trademarks here, such as energetic camera movements and distinctive set designs. The script is from Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously wrote “Seven.” The cast, meanwhile, is perfectly pitched to the material. Jason Lee is amusingly nervous and nerdy as Bob. He has good chemistry with Jamie Kennedy as John, who plays things even more nerdy. Chris Sarandon, also making his second appearance this Six Weeks, is nicely grandiose as the Welles stand-in. The Chrome host segments are still groan-inducing but this is a “Perversions of Science” episode that is genuinely good. [7/10]

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