Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 1

The Uninvited (1944)

I've probably seen more horror films from the thirties, forties, and fifties than most people have. Some classics are harder to get a hold of than others. “The Uninvited” is a glossy ghost story produced by Paramount in 1944. It's commonly regarded as a classic by fans. For years, the movie was somewhat hard to find. For whatever reason, a DVD release was withheld for a long time. It wasn't until 2013 that a non-VHS home media release came out, from the obsessive film fans at the Criterion Collection. Finally, classic horror fans could watch “The Uninvited” in HD quality. This might be one reason why it took me so long to watch this one.

Roderick Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela didn't plan on buying a house. However, after stumbling upon Windward House, a sprawling sea-side manor in Cornwall, they immediately fall in love. However, Roderick is intrigued by the cheap price they get for the large home. He soon encounters Stella. Stella's mother died in Windward and she is fascinated by both her mother's death and the house. Soon, Roderick and Pamela begin to believe that Stella's mother continues to haunted Windward. As he begins to develop feelings for the young girl, he draws closer to uncovering the truth about the strange house.

I was pretty disappointed in “The Uninvited.” All this time, the movie has been sold to me as a horror film. It is more accurately described as a gothic romance. The movie is very light on horror. Meanwhile, it leans especially hard on the romance and mystery. The musical score is light-hearted. The general tone is conversational and jovial. Most scenes focus on the flirtatious relationship between Roderick and Stella. We see them drive through town, interact with the locals, play piano, eat, drink, and generally hang around the house. When not paying attention to the lovers, “The Uninvited” functions more like a murder mystery. Roderick and his sister are determined to uncover the backstory of the house and its ghost. Their sleuthing involves them sticking their noses into books and talking with clearly antagonistic people. It seems this ghost story is especially invested in figuring out the logical motivations of its central spirit.

“The Uninvited” is shockingly sparse on spooky atmosphere in general. Windward House seems like a pretty cozy place to live. Yeah, at night, it's lit only by candles. But there's no foreboding undertones, the staff is accommodating, and the architecture is open.  Even the ghost is totally nonthreatening. It only wants to solve its own murder. The worst it does is cry and giggle. Really, there's only two scenes when “The Unvited” even approaches a haunted house feeling. The first is a séance scene. The characters improvise a Ouija board, using a wineglass and Scrabble letters. Eventually, the make-shift planchette starts to move on its own, foretelling a misty apparition drifting into the room. The second spooky scene involves the window blowing open, seemingly a strange feeling washing over Stella. How laid back “The Uninvited's” haunting is is evident at the end, where the hero chases the ghost off with a few stern words and a thrown candlestick.

Well, at least the cast is likable. Ray Milland, sporting his natural and not totally unnoticed Welsh accent, makes for an amiable lead. He's charming enough, getting a few chuckles out of the conversational scenes. Milland's abilities patch up the inherent creepiness in a man his age romancing Gail Russell's Stella, who the movie repeatedly reminds us is only twenty years old. Though it's easy to see why anyone would be enamored of Stella. Russell is lovely and imbues the character with a joyful, light-hearted attitude. If anything, her obsession with her mother's death and haunting comes off less like a serious psychological hang-up and more like an adorable quirk. Ruth Hussey also has good chemistry with Milland, as the put-upon sister, functioning as the more concerned of the two siblings.

If I were to ever re-watch “The Uninvited,” I would probably like it a little more. Expectations have a lot to do with your initial opinion of things. If I had know “The Uninvited” wasn't really a horror movie, but instead a supernatural-themed romantic-comedy, my reaction would be more positive. Still, I think it's pretty inexcusable for a ghost movie to be this low on spooky feelings.  Despite its lack of horror elements, or maybe because of it, “The Uninvited” was profitable enough to spawn a quasi-sequel. “The Unseen” would have the same director, Lewis Allen, and also star Gail Russell. (Milland was replaced by Joel McCrea.) By all accounts, it's even less of a horror film than this one. [5/10]

The Love Witch (2016)

If there's anything I've learned, during my years watching indie horror films, it's that you never know what might come around next. When news about “The Love Witch” start to bubble out of the festival circuit, it sounded right up my alley. A beautifully photograph homage to sixties and seventies sexploitation flicks? With a witchcraft/feminist angle? Sure, I'll watch that. Yet “The Love Witch” has emerged as more divisive than that. Some really love this movie. Others seem more baffled by it. Either way, it was definitely something I had to check out. And, hey, Halloween is nothing if not a time for witches.

Elaine is tired of having her heart broken by men. After being betrayed by her husband, she took up witchcraft. She then used those magical powers to make him pay. Fleeing the murder scene, she's moved into a new town, by the California coast. There, she continues to use her powers of bewitchment and mesmerism to take any man she wants. Yet each – a college professor, her downstairs neighbor, a police captain – disappoint her. She finds it increasingly harder to pursue her dreams and obtain her goals. Elaine is also embroiled with dramas inside the local witchcraft community.

“The Love Witch” is not a parody of sixties psychedelica or sexploitation flicks. The film is funny but never at the expense of its subject matter. Unlike many other indie horror throwbacks, the film also isn't a direct homage to any one film or particular director. (Though one can see a resemblance to Herschell Gordon Lewis and films like “Simon: King of the Witches.”) Instead, director Anna Biller attempts to perfectly recreate the look and feel of that era. In that regard, “The Love Witch” is a huge success. The movie's Technicolor photography is a treat for the eyes. The colors are bright and bold. The look is intentionally artificial. Crude visual tricks are often employed. Every frame of the movie is perfectly crafted, making “The Love Witch” frequently look like a gorgeous painting come to life. It's lovely.

“The Love Witch” is loosely plotted. It's essentially a series of encounters between Elaine and the men in her life, usually concluding with their deaths. In-between these scenes are long moments of Elaine talking with local witches or friends, discussing their love lives and sex magik. Through these moments, “The Love Witch's” feminist message emerges. And I'm not quite sure how to read it. There appears to be a degree of irony at work here. While Elaine's friends go on about feminist theory, the camera lingers on burlesque dancers on-stage, making a strange contrast. Elaine goes on about the beauty and purity of women, while the film draws attention to her murders and bodily fluids. She seems to define herself by the men in her life but often dismiss them as overly emotional and clingy, even calling them “pussies.” I'm really not sure how to read this. Biller's, let's say unorthodox, feminist writing honestly only muddle the waters further.

Adding to the film's intentional feeling of artifice are the performances. They are not realistic and, instead, played with a certain degree of detachment. Within this style, “The Love Witch” features some interesting acting. As Elaine, Samantha Robinson is memorable. She has a definite screen presence. Through her unforgettable eyes, Robinson conveys the depth of feelings in her character, even under the movie's intentionally broad sheen. Among the supporting cast are Jeffrey Vincent Panse as Wayne, the professor. At first a smarmy intellectual, he then degrades into a sickly and desperate state. Gian Keys, who looks like a sixties movie star, is effectively gruff as Griff, the police captain who also falls for Elaine.

“The Love Witch” probably isn't the best Halloween viewing either. It features witchcraft, murders, and grotesque imagery but is hardly a horror film. It's also not quite a sexploitation throwback. There's lots of nudity and sex in the film but it never feels exploitative. Instead, the flesh on display is part of the movie's vivid imagery, which it's endlessly enamored of. It's an odd one, to be sure. I suspect cult movie fans will be studying “The Love Witch” for years to come, trying to decipher its exact philosophies. As for me, I liked it mostly because it's really pretty to look at. I guess that makes me shallow. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Black Cat

After watching so many H.P. Lovecraft films, many directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Jeffrey Combs, it's about time to watch an Edgar Allen Poe film from the same creative team. “The Black Cat” is about Poe himself. Poe is a struggling writer, hoping to become well known for his poetry but only able to sell horror stories. He's also far too fond of drinking, which gets him in trouble. When his young wife, Virginia, contracts consumption, his situation becomes even graver. Poe's life becomes a living nightmare, haunted by images of his wife dying and other horrors. A predatory black cat, which seemingly refuses to die, watches over it all.

Despite being an hour-long bit of episodic television, “The Black Cat” would prove to be an important film for Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs. The two would essentially spin the one-man stage show, “Nevermore,” out of “The Black Cat.” And it's easy to see why Combs would endeavor to play Poe again. He's great in the part. Unlike the stiff make-up he wore as Lovecraft in “Necromicon,” Combs is made-up to look exactly like Poe. Moreover, he perfectly captures the iconic writer. Combs' Poe leaps between self-loathing and self-mythologizing. He drinks too much but is also overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. He loves his wife dearly but is assailed by frightening visions. He's pathetic, brilliant, funny, and unforgettably human. Combs' performance alone is enough to elevate “The Black Cat” over most of the other “Masters of Horror” episodes.

Luckily, the rest of the hour is also pretty good. The meta-fictional choice of weaving together Poe's actual life and his fiction is inspired. Since so many of Poe's stories mirrored his life anyway, it certainly makes sense. “The Black Cat” quotes not just the titular story but also ties in elements from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “A Cask of Amontillado.” Poe's obsession with being buried alive and sickly young women also feature into the episode. Upon this ground, Gordon builds several shocking horror sequence. The various gruesome fates that befall the black cat are effectively cruel. A sequence of Virginia coughing up blood all over the piano is memorably stark. The episode's most violent moment occurs when an axe meets a head. Yet “The Black Cat” never looses sights of its loftier goal among the gorier moments.

Gordon also engineers a dream-like tone. The exact place where Poe's nightmares and his waking world interact are never made clear. This may seem like its setting up a fake-out ending but “The Black Cat” actually prepares us for that. The first scene has Poe quoting his poem, “A Dream Within a Dream,” after all. Adding to this dreamy tone is the episode's color palette. Gordon stripes away as much color as possible, making the film practically black-and-white. (In fact, I remember it being in black-and-white when I first saw it.) The monochromatic visuals established the gloomy atmosphere and period setting. It also makes the drops of blood or the cat's piercing green eyes stand out more. Over all, “The Black Cat” is a fantastic hour of television and another highlight from this show's second season. [8/10]

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge: Return of the Darkstalkers

If you're familiar with video games, you've surely heard of Capcom, the company behind iconic franchises like “Street Fighter,” “Megaman,” and “Resident Evil.” Among their less well-known series is “Darkstalkers.” A fighting game in the vein of “Street Fighter,” the series pitted characters based on classic horror and monster archetypes against each other. When I discovered “Darkstalkers,” monster movies and anime babes were my two favorite things in the world. Naturally, I immediately fell in love and have been a huge fan ever since. (The voluptuous and scantily clad succubus heroine, Morrigan Aensland, had a particularly strong effect on my boyhood psyche.) In 1997, Japanese animation studio Madhouse produced a four-part OVA – animated mini-series released straight to video – based on the games. Given the unwieldy title of “Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge,” the series was recently re-released by Discotek Media. Halloween seems like a good time for me to revisit this one.

The world of “Darkstalkers” is one half-way between our modern life and the Victorian Europe found in gothic horror novels, populated with supernatural beings known as Darkstalkers. A hundred years ago, vampire lord Demitri Maximoff was banished from the demon realm. When he came to Earth, he blotted out the sun. After a century of plotting, Demitri plans to return and take back the throne from Belial Aensland, the devil who exiled him. Belial's daughter, the irresponsible but immensely powerful Morrigan, opposes Demitri. Meanwhile, a half-human/half-demon monster hunter named Donovan Blaine travels the globe, seeking to destroy all evil. On his quest, Blaine befriends Anita, a telekinetic but emotionally cold young girl. Above it all, strange forces from another world watch and scheme.

“Night Warriors” faces a problem that many fighting game adaptations struggle with. The plot is an overstuffed mess, focused on getting as many characters in as possible. In addition to Demitri, Morrigan, and Donovan, this first episode also introduces Felicia. A feline Darkstalker who dreams of becoming a pop star, Felicia bumps into and fights alongside Lord Raptor, a heavy metal singer and soul-sucking zombie. (And obvious homage to Iron Maiden's Eddie.) And I haven't even mentioned the Huitzils – shape-shifting robots – and Pyron – evil alien overlord – that will tie these plot threads together. If you're not familiar with “Darkstalkers” lore, “Night Warriors” will quickly leave you baffled and confused. The filmmakers apparently even found the multiple story threads difficult to juggle. The first half of this forty minute episode is largely devoted to Demitri and Morrigan. In an even split, the second half is entirely devoted to Donovan and Anita. It feels like two episodes unceremoniously smashed together.

Honestly, the best way to watch “Night Warriors” may be to just forget the convoluted plot and enjoy the animation. In America, direct-to-video cartoons usually looked pretty crappy. In Japan, OVAs had animation just slightly below theater quality. The world of “Darkstalkers' Revenge” is full of charming details. Like Demitri's floating castle, his vampiric zeppelin, or the elaborate outfits and environments. Being based on a fighting game, “Night Warriors” is jammed full of beautifully realized action. The animator obviously closely studied the original video games. Many of the characters' special attacks and unique movements are visible, leading to frenetic and inventive fight scenes. The budget also allows for some clever touches too, like when the blood of Lord Raptor's victims – flamethrower-wielding monks – splatters and obscures the screen.

The first episode of “Night Warriors” presents some odd adaptational changes. Morrigan and Demitri are bitter rivals in the games. Though they fight in the anime, it's already clear that there's a romantic attraction between them. In the games, Felicia is essentially a pacifist. Here, she befriends the sadistic Lord Raptor and helps him murder attackers! There's also some confusing inconsistently in the story logic. Some areas of this world are completely impoverished by Demitri blotting out the sun. Others seem more modern. Likewise, in some places, Darkstalkers are feared and persecuted. In others, like at Lord Raptor's concert, they are celebrated. Then again, the anime does get some things perfectly right. Such as Morrigan's characterization as a spoiled rich girl in search of stimulation. Or Anita's isolation from other people. The series is off to a bit of a rough start but I'm kind of enjoying it. [6/10]

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