Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 10

Cult of Chucky (2017)

Consider Chucky's place in the pantheon of seventies/eighties horror icons. Michael Myers and Leatherface are trapped in ever-repeating, never ending cycle of reboots and remakes. Jason and Freddy have remained unseen for quite a few years, producers unable to get sequels made to successful new films. Chucky, meanwhile, has kept going over thirty years. The same man, Don Mancini, has written every film in the series, as well as directing the last three. There's never been a remake or reboot, all the films remaining in the same continuity. Despite going direct-to-video for the most recent entries, there's been no appreciable drop in quality. If anything, the two newest films have been some of the best received in the series' history. The brand new “Cult of Chucky” has received reviews just as positive as “Curse of Chucky” did. It's certainly an impressive achievement for a guy who isn't even four feet tall!

Four years have passed since the events of “Curse of Chucky.” Nica, a survivor of Chucky's last rampage, has recently been transferred from a maximum security facility to a medium security mental institution. She has been convinced that Chucky was never real, that she murdered her family. During a group therapy session, Nica's doctor introduces a new prop: A Good Guys doll. Soon afterwards, a woman named Tiffany – claiming to be the guardian of Nica's niece – also brings a Chucky doll to the group house. After that, the murders begin again. In the blood of one victim, the phrase “Chucky Did It” has been written. Nica quickly begins to believe that the killer doll is after her again.

Perhaps the reason the “Chucky” franchise has remained fresh after all these years has been Don Mancini's insistence on trying new things. After the relatively straight-forward slasher shenanigans of the original three films, the series moved towards absurdist comedy for its middle entries. “Curse of Chucky” placed the murderous doll into a gothic horror story. “Cult of Chucky,” meanwhile, is the most psychological and twisty film in the franchise yet. For the first act of the movie, Nica actively wonders if she's crazy or not. The psychosis of her fellow patients doesn't help this impression much. After she discovers she's not insane, the film continues to keep viewers guessing. The exact nature of Chucky's return is kept ambiguous for a while, seriously making you wonder how he's pulling these things off. Machini even throws in a Freudian dream sequence or two. It's certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect from the seventh entry in a slasher franchise.

On his third feature, Mancini has developed into a surprisingly strong director. “Cult of Chucky” looks really good, considering its budget. The snowy asylum setting is gorgeous. The snow-covered landscapes, outside the building, are sweeping and isolated. The asylum, meanwhile, is slate white and disconcertingly sterile. Mancini shows his obvious debt to DePalma in several ways, with a split-screen sequence, crash zooms, and a Bernard Hermann-inspired score. Mancini even brings this grace and beauty to the murder scenes. A shattering glass assisted decapitation is orchestrated in a seriously impressive way. The other deaths are just nasty and in your face. A tongue-ripping is intimate and frenzied. A man being stabbed and disemboweled is delightfully gratuitous. A drill to the head is squishy and graphic.

After the relatively grim “Curse of Chucky,” Mancini also returns a lot of the series' humor with this one. Usually in a horror/comedy, the threat is taken entirely seriously while the movie around it is funny. “Cult” inverts this in a surprisingly effective way.  The film's story is serious while Chucky himself is a total hoot. While encountering an incoherent patient, he becomes quickly frustrated with her babbling. Later, the murderous doll is increasingly disgusted with a predatory psychiatrist. When the movie really starts to move in its last third, the doll is cracking jokes left and right, snarking about his appearance of the cancellation of “Hannibal.”  All the while, Brad Dourif's performance remains utterly delightful. The man is having as much fun in the part as he was thirty years ago.

When you look at the mess that has been made of the “Halloween” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series, you really start to appreciate the concise continuity of the “Chucky” films. “Cult” is peppered with in-jokes and call-backs to previous films. Tiffany appears in both human and doll form. At one point, the character expresses confusion over whether or not she's Tiffany or Jennifer Tilly. Most importantly, Andy Barclay – Chucky's archenemy from the first three films – has a hefty supporting roles. I'm a little disappointing with how that subplot plays out but the little boy's transformation into a gun-totting badass is pretty cool. The way he retrieves a firearm near the end is especially clever. There's even a surprise, post-credits cameo from a beloved, if often overlooked, character from the series.

I honestly don't know why this film and “Curse of Chucky” before it weren't given theatrical releases. If dropped into a smart release date, like January or February, there's no way these films wouldn't make money. I think Universal is seriously underestimating the value of Chucky's name recognition. Then again, maybe direct-to-video allows Don Mancini the freedom he needs to make these last two movies so good. “Cult of Chucky” ends by blatantly setting up another sequel. Considering how well liked this one has been, I think the odds of that happening are good. I'm looking forward to it! [7/10]

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

What is it about the classic monsters that make mashing them up so irresistible? Is it because Universal set a precedence with their monster mashes in the forties? Is it because Frankenstein and Dracula are iconic characters that happen to be in the public domain? Maybe it's because every young monster kid wonders if “X would win in a fight with Y.” This tendency even extends beyond the horror genre. “Billy the Kids vs. Dracula” asks who would emerge victorious in a battle between the legendary gunslinger and the king of all vampires. It made sense from a financial background, as both monster movies and westerns were popular with kids in the sixties. In the decades since then, the film has acquired a reputation as a notorious stinker. Even John Carradine considered it his worst film, which is really saying something.

William Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid, is trying to put his old life as a gunslinger and a criminal behind him. He has moved to a small Western town and is romancing a sweet girl named Betty Bentley. Their peaceful courtship is interrupted when a strange man enters town. He claims to be Betty's uncle, come to give her news about her mother's death. Young maidens around town begin to die mysteriously, drained of their blood. Betty's uncle becomes overly protective of her, generally acting strange. Billy begins to wonder if a vampire is active in the neighborhood. Could Betty's uncle be Count Dracula?

“Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” is, indeed, a cheaply and crudely made motion picture. The sets and costumes are obviously recycled from countless other westerns. Much of the story is devoted to determining if Betty's uncle is a vampire, something the audience is made aware of in the first ten minutes. Despite these obvious flaws, there's something oddly cozy about this one. The film is set in that idealized version of the wild west. The town doctor welcomes everyone, even helping Billy find information about vampires or vampire slaying. The sheriff is crotchety but ultimately has a nice heart. Betty is more than willing to welcome a complete stranger into her home, just because he says he's her uncle. As cheesy and unrealistic as it is, this location is awfully nice to visit.

Matching this low budget western charm are some really campy horror theatrics. Naturally, the special effects are incredibly cheesy. Dracula turns into the cheapest rubber bat imaginable. Whenever he's hypnotizing people, bright orange lights shine on John Carradine's bulging eyes. Dracula prays on all his female victims in the exact same way. He leans towards their bodies before the camera cuts away, revealing two bloody pinpricks on their necks. (Dracula does earn a surprisingly high body count, thanks for taking out a whole stagecoach early on.) The last act features some dime store candles and a cardboard coffin. The film's commitment to this Z-grade horror aesthetic also ends up being weirdly charming. It feels home-made, cheesy but utterly earnest.

John Carradine might have considered this his worst film but he was too much of a professional to let that show. Carradine was such a pro that he can make his incredibly cheesy dialogue sound somewhat impressive. He even manages to make this Dracula distinct from the version he played in Universal's monster movies. He's more outwardly threatening than the seductive Baron Latos. Carradine leads a surprisingly game cast. Chuck Courtney was a former stuntman, which meant he appeared in a lot of westerns back in the day. (He also had a reoccuring part in the fifties “Lone Ranger” show.) Courtney manages to bring some charm to his take on Billy. There's no sign of a ruthless outlaw here, just a likable western hero. Melinda Plowman is also genuinely sweet as Billy's love interest.

I can certainly understand why some people would turn their noses up at “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” From most objective perspectives, it's the crappiest of low budget horror crap. But low budget horror crap can have charms of its own. There's something to be said for a sincere flick like this. “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” was shot back-to-back with another western/monster movie fusion, “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter,” and released on the same double bill. Both films were the final credits of William Beaudine, a director who made over two hundred movies, since the twenties. I doubt these were the films he was most proud of but they're probably his most discussed movies now. [7/10]

Fear Itself: Community

The first two seasons of “Masters of Horror” did not feature any women directors. This says less about the showrunners and more about how underrepresented women are in both the horror genre and director in general. For all the shit I give it, at least “Fear Itself” corrected that. Mary Harron, who made a genuine masterpiece with “American Psycho,” would direct the show's seventh episode. “Community” follows Bobby and Tracy, a young married couple who are trying to conceive. They are invited to move into the Commons, a gated suburban community. At first, the Commons seems welcoming and idyllic. However, Bobby soon begins to notice strange things. Couple's personal moments appear on the television. A community council hand out punishments for private matters. Soon, the couple are being targeted by their neighbors.

“Community” is a more psychological episode of “Fear Itself.” It plays off the concept of a perfect neighborhood, revealing itself to be a nightmare in time. Ocassionally, this set-up provides for some genuine chills. After a wife is accused of infidelity, she is tied-up in the middle of town, forced to wear a pig mask, and pelted with rotten vegetables. Two things make that moment creepy. Firstly, we find out the wife chose this punishment for herself. Secondly, there's later a scene of young kids recreating the scenario. The slow reveal of the collective sociopathy of the Commons is generally effective, how it begins with intrusively binding contracts and gets worst. We see a drunken husband is missing a leg. The discovery that private moments are broadcast to the whole development is also pretty unnerving.

However, there are some elements in “Community” that are less effective. For some reason, extremely cheesy title cards are deployed throughout, marking the time of year. One moment, involving a woman being hit by a car, is badly hampered by cutting around the violence. Like too many episodes of “Fear Itself,” this one also wraps up with a nonsensical and overly mean-spirited twist ending. I also found Brandon Routh – the Superman no one talks about – somewhat mawkish in the lead role. Still, it's one of the better “Fear Itself” episode. You can even see some of Mary Harron's trademarks – such as her reoccurring interest in restrictive societal structures – here. [7/10]

Wolf Creek: Wolf Creek

The previous episodes of the “Wolf Creek: The Series” were directed by Tony Tilse, a veteran Australian television director. But for the season one finale, Greg McLean return to the characters he created. The eponymous episode begins with Eve arriving in Wolf Creek, having been directed there by Ben “Jesus” Mitchell. Mick has left her a scrapbook, revealing some information about his childhood. From there, she tracks down the killer's birthplace. Mick is waiting for her, having captured and tortured Detective Sullivan. A fight to the death soon ensues between the serial killer and the girl who's been hunting him.

Tony Tilse has actually been doing a fine job with the series, up to this point, but Greg McLean clearly brings a different approach to this world. McLean shoots the outback with an eerie stillness, drawing attention to Eve's isolation. The attack scenes are brutal and visceral, McLean bringing the same frenzied style here that he did to the films. The flashback sequences are shot in black and white, McLean often emphasizes moments with slow motion and close-ups. That could've come off as cheesy but, surprisingly, works really well.

One thing I'm really not sure about, concerning “Wolf Creek's” season finale, is the decision to five Mick Taylor a definitive origin. Considering he's suppose to be this nearly supernatural, elusive legend of outback cruelty, to learn his background demystifies him a bit. It's also disappointing how textbook Mick's beginnings were. He had an abusive father and a mother who turned a blind eye. His little sister was abducted by a sexual predator, who his father then murdered, forcing Mick to watch. The creep even drove a blue vehicle, just like Mick. This seems to gives some sympathy for the notoriously sadistic killer... At least until the reveal that Mick was the one who actually killed his sister, seemingly confirming that he's always been a psycho. While I'm not really against this background, I still kind of wish Mick's origins had been left a mystery.

Ultimately, this “Wolf Creek” is all about the confrontation between Eve and Mick. In that regard, it doesn't disappoint. The fight between the two is bloody and drawn-out, both receiving some punishment. Throughout the climax, we come to understand that Mick respects, and might even like, the girl. I was curious how far the show would take this confrontation, considering a second season and a third movie are planned. It cops out a little, in that regard, but still allows Eve to get her revenge. There are losses as well, giving the conclusion some weight. The final moments, where Eve is reunited with the Maori truck driver from episode two and her dog, are surprisingly touching. After seeing her in a state of emotional trauma for the entire series, it's nice to see the girl smile. I think the show has earned that. [7/10]

The first season of “Wolf Creek” had its ups and downs. The first episode was really strong while the last two episodes provided satisfying pay-offs. The three episodes in-between were frustrating, piling an excessive amount of subplots that distracted from what interested us in the first place. Ultimately, the show was worth sticking around for simply because I really like the main characters. Lucy Fry has truly emerged as an actress to watch. John Jarratt was consistently fantastic. After adsorbing all the “Wolf Creek” material out there, I think Mick Taylor truly is one of my favorite modern horror villains. As I said, a second season of “Wolf Creek” is currently filming. Supposedly the next season will take more of an anthology approach, detailing individual encounters between Mick and his victims. That sounds like a good way to avoid the flabby writing of the first season. I'll probably check it out.

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