Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

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