Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 15

Flatliners (1990)

The greatest mystery is the question of what happens to us after death. Whether your an atheist or devout, you've probably wondered what awaits us beyond this life. If the entire foundation of the horror genre is humanity's common fear of the unknown, death is surely the greatest unknown of all. Obviously, this is a topic that has come up many times in horror movies. One film that dealt directly with this premise was “Flatliners.” The movie would become a decent sized hit in 1990, mostly due to being the first Julia Roberts movie released after “Pretty Woman” made her a household name. It's cast full of known names made it a regular presence on cable. I've seen parts of the movie on TV many times over the years but this is the first time I've sat down to watch the whole movie from start to finish.

Medical student Nelson Wright has touched upon a deadly experiment. He will intentionally induced heart failure, leaving the person in a state of death for several minutes, before they are revived. This, he figures, will allow the individual a peak at the afterlife. He uses himself as the first test subject. The result is so impressive that he talks three of his friends – Rachel, Dave, and Joe – into also participating in the experiment. At first, the results are invigorating. However, the group of four quickly begin to experience strange side effects. Figures from their past begin to haunt them, even attacking them. Now, the group must unravel the reasoning behind these events.

“Flatliners” has a premise with great potential. What if someone really did get a peak at the afterlife and found something horrible there? Disappointingly, the film doesn't really tackle this question very much. Dave is an atheist but quickly drops this philosophy after one near-death experience. “Flatliners” boils the afterlife down to one simple idea: While “dead,” the characters simply flashback to their youths. They are shown their most haunting memories. And those memories are pretty underwhelming. Rachel sees her suicidal father's dead body, which is pretty upsetting. Dave simply sees a girl he bullied as a kid and Joe sees the women he's manipulated. Nelson is also haunted by a kid he made fun of as a youth, which is linked to a disturbing memory. But as far as traumatic past events go, these are pretty lightweight. Perhaps "Flatliners" should've been about older characters, who have experienced more horrors. By focusing on young people whose lives are just beginning, the script paints itself into a vanilla corner.

The way the flatliners' guilt manifest themselves simply aren't scary either. Rachel briefly sees her dad as a corpse, which is a decent scare. Dave, meanwhile, has the little girl appear and call him names. Joe's conquests – women he recorded having sex with, without their consent, which definitely makes him a sexual predator of some sort – simply appear and say pick-up lines to him. Nelson, meanwhile, is repeatedly beaten up by a small child. If you want to establish your protagonist as worldly and experienced, don't repeatedly show him getting defeated by a little boy. This is the wimpiest attempt at horror I've seen recently. The way the characters resolve their issues, by making peace with their literal and metaphorical ghosts, is incredibly sappy. Joel Schumacher's direction, which is heavy on the cool blue colors and religious iconography, does little to improve their scenes of debatable horror.

As I said, I think “Flatliners'” cult following is mostly owed to its cast. Each of the main characters are played by then-popular performers. Kiefer Sutherland plays Nelson as someone totally sure of his discovery that slowly cracks up as the story progresses. Sutherland is in his comfort zone here and does fine. Kevin Bacon probably has the juiciest character arc as Dave, an atheist who becomes a believer. However, the film undersells this growth so much that Bacon is left to brood and growl. Daniel Baldwin has always been one of the greasier Baldwins, an attribute well used in the role of Joe. Julia Roberts probably gives the best performance in the film, as someone directly confronting her childhood trauma. You do feel for her a bit, as she's put through the emotional wringer. Oliver Platt, a talented actor, is stuck in the role of an over-analytical know-it-all. Considering Platt's character never undergoes the near death experiment, I don't even know why he's in the story.

I get the feeling that “Flatliners” is a horror movie made for people who don't like horror movies very much. The horrors are totally weak and defanged. The presentation is music video pretty. The cast is full of heartthrobs and sex symbols. It's inoffensive and safe, neither of which are good qualities for a horror film to have. It's a decent film to play in the background while you do laundry, which might explain its long life as a schedule filler on cable. James Newton Howard's score is pretty, I'll give it that much. As I said, the premise has a lot of potential. Perhaps a remake will come along that exploits that? Mmmm... [5/10]

The Stone Tape (1972)

I never really know what to expect from classic British sci-fi and horror. I love most of the things Hammer produced. “Ghostwatch” gets scarier every time I watch it. Yet I have never been interested in “Doctor Who.” Nigel Kneale's “Quatermass,” very well respected in certain circles, have always left me cold. So it was with some trepidation that I approached 'The Stone Tape.” The TV film, part of the BBC's long running ghost stories for Christmas series, supposedly traumatized a whole general of kids when it first aired in the early seventies. The premise certainly intrigued. However, the film also came from the pen of Kneale, making me uncertain of what to expect. Time to stop hesitating and just watch the damn thing.

Ryan Electronics is moving into a new facility at Taskerlands, a mansion in the British countryside. The oldest room, in the basement, was built with stones dating back to the Medieval period. Peter Brock, the research team manager, hopes to create some tape recording technology that will impress his boss. Instead, Jill, a computer programmer, discovers a ghost in the basement. As the research team investigate the haunting further, they begin to believe that the ghosts aren't the spectres of the dead. Instead, they float the theory that ghosts are like recordings, made on the ancient stones. Their attempts to exploit this discovery for financial gain does not work out for them.

A reoccurring theme throughout Kneale's work is the crossover between ancient mythology and modern technology. For one example, “Quatermass and the Pit” had a subway tunnel uncovering aliens that were the basis for old beliefs in demons. “The Stone Tape” also explores this idea. The film attempts to explain ghosts, one of the oldest of all legends, with then cutting edge science. The story's central concept – that ghosts are past events imprinted on the surrounding environment, like video recorded to a tape – is a tantalizing one. (So tantalizing that it's even been adopted by some real life parapsychologists.) We also learn that the castle was built upon an even older haunted patch of land. So modern horrors are just variances on even older stories. This dynamic, of the ancient and the modern, is present in the basic outline of the story. “The Stone Tape” is all about people filling an old castle with what passed for high-tech computers in 1972.

“The Stone Tape” has the production values you'd expect from the BBC in the seventies. In addition to the bell bottoms and muttonchops, the special effects look pretty cheesy to modern eyes. The film takes place mostly in one location. It's a pretty good location though. The modern hallways of the castle are cold and sterile. The basement, which maintains the original stone, is moldy and aged. It's the perfect place for a haunting. Some of the film's spookier events still provide chills. A ghostly apparition appearing at the top of the stairs is a little overdone. More impressive is a scene where Brock, walking into the stone room, only hears the ghostly screams. A moment where red eyes appear in the darkness is genuinely creepy. The climax, involving green spectres rising up out of the stone, borders on the campy. Yet there's some delightfully spooky about these creaky, old fashion special effects.

“The Stone Tape” definitely has some effectively creepy moments. A lot of it is still awfully dry in the same way Kneale's “Quatermass” films were. There are long scenes devoted to characters standing around in rooms, talking about events, instead of doing them. Far more time is spent talking about recording technology, of beating rival Japanese developers to major discoveries, than you'd probably prefer. There are long scenes of people trying to capture footage of the ghosts. This involves playing annoying noises inside the stone room and carrying around this ridiculous megaphone thing. Those scenes go on far too long. The kinship between the main characters are kept too stately as well. The exact details of Brock and Jill's relationship are a bit hard too read.

Some of the problems I had with “The Stone Tape” I totally anticipated. Like I said, if you're going to watch a movie that was made for British television back in the seventies, keep your expectations in check about special effects. If you overlook that, as well as the inherent dryness of the material, you'll find “The Stone Tape” to be pretty creepy. I can certainly see why kids, watching this back in the seventies, would be so affected by it. The ideas are fascinating and the proceedings are atmospheric. It's no “Ghostwatch” but I'm glad I gave it a look. [7/10]

Fear Itself: Echoes

I've seen every episode of “Fear Itself” before. When the DVD set came out, I bought it to complete my "Masters of Horror" collection. However, upon this rewatch, “Echoes” was the only episode I had absolutely zero memory of. It was directed by Rupert Wainwright, whose dubious horror credits include “Stigmata” and the godawful remake of “The Fog.” “Echoes” follows Stephen, who has just recently bought an old home. His female friend, Karen, is helping him move in. Stephen has romantic feelings for Karen but is too shy to make the first move. After his first night in the house, he begins to experiences memories from a past life. He recalls the life of Maxwell, a gangster who owned the house in the twenties. Maxwell murdered his girlfriend, Zelda. As Stephen digs deeper into the past, he realizes Karen looks a lot like Zelda. And he fears that history will repeat itself.

“Echoes” is very predictable. From the moment the story starts rolling, you know exactly where it will end up. Having said that, the ideas presented here appeal to me. People being caught in an inescapable cycle of events, especially when its connected to their past lives, is a theme I've explored in my own writing. “Echoes” hits every beat you'd expect. Stephen becomes more violent as the events of Maxwell's life start to influence him more. Yet it rolls along at a decent pace. Basing the episode around an unrequited romance is a nice touch, making the tragic outcome of Stephen and Karen's relationship more complex. It helps that the performances are solid. Aaron Stanford is likable and properly freaked out. Camille Guaty is lovely and has a nice energy as Karen/Zelda.

Sadly, “Echoes” ends up feeling very ho-hum. A subplot involving a psychologist goes absolutely nowhere. Stephen's exact connection to the past, whether it's just reincarnation or some sort of possession, is never sussed out. Instead of being a deliberate element of ambiguity, it just feels sloppy. Wainwright's direction relies far too much on shaky-cam. Near the end, the script starts to cycle through underdeveloped ideas to pad out the time. Did Stephen and Karen sleep together? Is Karen sleeping with every guy she knows? Did Maxwell and Zelda kill each other? It doesn't come together into a satisfying whole. At the very least, “Echoes” doesn't have a lame twist ending, like every other episode of this show. It's very nearly a decent hour but collapses once again into mediocrity. [5/10]

Conventional (2015)

As I've written about many times before, I've been to quite a few horror movie conventions. This is why I became interested in “Conventional,” a ten minute long short, starring and directed by Karen Gillan. Gillan plays Rachel Milligan. Milligan once starred in a slasher film called “Axe Wound 2.” Since then, her career has floundered. Now, in order to make end's meet, she makes regular appearances at conventions. She signs the same old glossies for fans dressed as Stu Mac, the film's axe wielding killer with a pageboy hair cut. She answers the same old questions at Q&As. She repeats the same phrases while pausing for photographs. The repetition, and the sense that her life is falling apart, is starting to get to her.

Usually, nerd conventions are portrayed unfairly in film and television. “Conventional” falls into this trap a little. I've never seen that much identical cosplay at one event. Otherwise, the film accurately captures the atmosphere. The first scene has Rachel signing an autograph for one devoted fan, while another guests has a much longer line. She feigns enthusiasm during the panel, while answering softball questions like “What does horror mean to you?” Gillan wears a ridiculous pair of fake lips in the short, showing that Rachel has had some ill-advised plastic surgery recently. That sense of sad desperation, of putting on a happy face while feeling like a has-been, I've seen that before. I wonder if this is the kind of thing horror convention regulars – your Adrienne Barbeaus and Kristy Swansons – think and feel all the time.

Mostly, “Conventional” is built around an impressive performance from Gillan. In the first half of the short, she hints at the depression the character feels while hiding behind a chipper smile. After hitting rock bottom – hooking up with a fan boy in the hotel bathroom – she cracks up. Gillan delivers an amazingly raw monologue to a half-empty panel room. Rachel goes on about feeling like a failure, saying how she lies about having new projects in development. How she struggles to find meaning in her life. She's tasted fame but it was fleeting. Now, she will do anything to recapture just the faintest reminder of that feeling. There's a dark humor to this scene, like Gillan spouting off a line about being “Bloody Disgusting's Babe of the Year,” but mostly it's a brazenly honest portrayal.

“Conventional” isn't just a film about horror movies, as it features a bloody murder in its final minutes. However, that last step almost feels unnecessary. The short is an impressive debut from Gillan. It's darkly funny, intensely sad, and insightful about a corner of nerd culture that can, let's face it, get a little pathetic at times. I'm sure, being a “Doctor Who” graduate, Gillan's been to more than a few conventions. However, considering her continuing role in a major Marvel franchise and the obvious talent she displays as a writer and director, she will probably won't end up like Rachel Mulligan. [8/10]

No comments: