Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 2, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 2

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

According to Wikipedia, the word “zombie” first entered the English nomenclature in 1929, after the book “The Magic Island” introduced the western world to the largely fictional conception of voodoo that still lingers on in pop culture. From these humble roots sprang one of the most – if you'll excuse the pun – undying horror tropes. Yet early zombie movies were made before George Romero cross-pollinated the Haitian zombie with the Arabian ghoul and totally reinvented the creature. After “White Zombie,” one of the most prominent early zombie movies is “I Walked with a Zombie,” the second horror film Val Lewton would produce for RKO.

Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse, takes a job on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. She has been hired to care for Jessica Holland, the wife of the plantation owner, Paul. Jessica has fallen into a strange, hypnotized state, catatonic but prone to sleep-walking. The black house staff believe her to be a zombie. Paul, and his half-brother Wesley, believe there's some scientific explanation for her condition. As Betsy watches Jessica's odd behavior more, she begins to wonder about the truth herself. Meanwhile, a love triangle between the two brothers forms around the nurse.

“Cat People's” director, Jacques Tournear, would return to make “I Walked with a Zombie.” Naturally, Tournear employed a similarly shadowy visual palette. While a tone of psychological uncertainty informed their first film together, Tournear leans totally into black-and-white atmosphere with this one. The island setting creates a sense of isolation, further emphasized by Jessica's status as a stranger in a strange land. The film's sound design heavily features wind blowing in the trees, building a feeling of chilly unease. All of these elements are in service of the nightmarish images Tournear engineers. Such as Betsy's first encounter with Jessica, inside a darkened tower. Or a walk through the sugar cane field, concluding with her meeting a towering, blank-eyed zombie. “I Walked with a Zombie” is never exactly scary but its strongest moments are the very definition of spooky.

If “Cat People” attempted to rise above the genre by adding psychological elements, “I Waked with a Zombie” fully embraces the implications of its culture clash story. When Betsy first arrives on Saint Sebastian, Paul tries to disabuse her of any notions about the island's beauty. While riding towards the plantation, the black driver informs her of the area's history. How the island is named for the statue of Saint Sebastian that adorned the slave ship that colonized the area, how the successful business was built upon the backs of black labor. Once again, Betsy says the land is beautiful. The driver basically responds with “If you say so.” This leads to a wider theme about  whether certain ideas can co-exist. The struggle between Christianity and paganism, mysticism and skepticism, informs the story. These are pretty progressive themes for 1942.

As in “Cat People,” there's also a love story among the creepy images and lofty writing. The romance here is slightly more compelling than what was presented in Lewton's last film. Betsy doesn't have much reason to be attracted to Paul, as the man is quite gruff with her to begin with. The budding romantic chemistry she shares with Wesley makes more sense, at least until he becomes an asshole too. The truth is, Paul and Betsy can't commit to each other, as Paul's wife is still seemingly alive, if unresponsive. The love triangle ends up quickly wrapping up the story's plot, the truth about Jessica and Wesley's relationship is hastily explained minutes before the end. The cast makes it work a little better than in “Cat People” but its still a rather clumsy device.

Still, “I Walked with a Zombie” may be a stronger film than “Cat People,” as the story linking together the beautifully creepy moments is a little better put together. It seems the director and producer learned from any mistakes they might've made before. The film would become a classic of equal, if not larger, standing eventually. The story itself was something of an unofficial adaptation of “Jane Eyre” to begin with. I bet the Bronte sisters never envisioned an adaptation of the story quite like this. [8/10]

Wolf Creek (2005)

Upon release, “Wolf Creek” was quite a target for controversy. The Australian import would be a break-out hit in its home country. The gritty and grim film would immediately mark director Greg McLean as one to watch. While some declared “Wolf Creek” the best horror film of the year, others derided it was exploitative and misogynistic. Some critics threatened to walk out. Audiences hated it. (Though the misleading American marketing probably had something to do with that too.) The film was quickly caught up in the then on-going controversy over “torture porn.” In retrospect, now that it's clear that McLean isn't just out for shocks, one can judge “Wolf Creek” more fairly. Does the film stand up on its own merits or is it merely a gore-fest?

In 1999, three college-age tourist backpack across Western Australia. Ben is romantically attracted to Liz, a secret Kristy doesn't tell her. In hopes of impressing the girl, he buys a broken-down vehicle for the trip. After stopping by Wolf Creek National Park, home to the second biggest meteorite crater in the world, the car breaks down. Stranded in the outback, the trio is saved by Mick Taylor. An eccentric but seemingly kindly countryman, Mick tows the car back to his garage. Mick is not what he seems though. He's, in fact, a brutal serial killer. Soon, Liz and Kristy are running for their lives from an insane murderer.

“Wolf Creek” claims to be based on a true story. Per usual, this is a gross exaggeration, as the film is only loosely inspired by two separate Australian murderers. Instead, the claim towards factuality are meant to add to the film's naturalistic tone.  McLean shot much of the film handheld, on digital cameras, creating a grounded and gritty presentation. The interaction between the characters are loose and feel partially improvised. The opening scenes just show the cast members hanging out, partying and talking. The early-going moments feel very laid back. In the pros column, this successfully establishes the naturalistic feeling the director was clearly hoping to capture. In the cons column, this prevents the characters from being very distinct and starts the movie off slowly.

Though “Wolf Creek” is remembered for its graphic violence, the film's first half operates under a more subtle kind of horror. When the kids are first stranded in the desert, their situation seems hopeless. Once Mick Taylor arrives, he has the potential to be their savior. The audience, of course, knows this guy is a deranged serial killer. The characters, however, don't know that. So what follows is a very tense series of conversation, the viewer looking for signs of the maliciousness Mick is hiding under his good-natured exterior. And, honestly, put yourself in the characters' shoes. You'd probably take the ride home with the strange guy, if the alternative was being stranded in the desert for God knows how long.

Of course, this slow burn first half is only a precursor for the gore in the second half. It's not that the gore is especially realistic or graphic. Instead, it's the downbeat and mean-spirited tone that beats the audience down. Two of Mick's victims are restrained and tortured, psychologically and physically. When the madman goes in for the kill, his methods are brutal. Fingers are chopped off and spines are severed. The menace of sexual violence floats in the air. Dead bodies are frequently stumbled upon. The hopelessness Mick's victims feel is clearly shown. The girls make several escape attempts but each one is foiled. There is no escape, the murderer claiming his pray one by one. It's super bleak and unblinkingly nasty.

Despite what the film's critics said, I don't think we're meant to enjoy the violence Mick inflicts on his victims. Yet, due to the teens being fairly underdeveloped, Mick Taylor still emerges as “Wolf Creek's” most memorable character. The character is a rather brilliant subversion of Australian stereotypes. With his leather hat and frontiersman existence, Mick is directly compared to Crocodile Dundee. (With that film's most memorable quote being darkly reprised later.) Taylor, at first, appears to embodied the perception of Australians as a nation of rustic but easy-going individuals. He's then revealed to be the most deplorable of serial killers but still maintains the chummy attitude from earlier. The film would relaunch the career of character actor John Jarratt, turning him into something of a cult icon.

It's easy to see that Greg McLean achieved exactly what he set out to make with “Wolf Creek.” It's a bleak, unrelenting horror picture, built around capturing a particularly grim mood. It's not always an easy watch and that is by design. No wonder it received an F CinemaScore. Despite the seemingly nuclear word of mouth, “Wolf Creek” would more than make back its million dollar budget, launch the director's career, and garner a fan following all around the world. It's not a film I revisit often and one I appreciate more than I enjoy but it works in its own way.  [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Washingtonians 

Throughout its two seasons, “Masters of Horror” invited a few one-hit wonder directors on. By which I mean filmmakers who managed to make one really good horror movie but rarely returned to the genre. Such as Peter Medak, of “The Changeling,” who brought us “The Washintonians.” While clearing out his recently deceased grandmother's basement, Mike Franks discovers a portrait of George Washington. Behind the painting is a letter, in which the first president describes his love of eating human flesh. Mike is doubtful of the letter's authenticity but a local historian quickly offers to buy it. When Mike refuses, his family is stalked by violent men in powdered wigs with wooden teeth. Franks discovers that Washington did eat people and America was build on cannibalism. These truths were covered up by a secret society called the Washingtonians, people who still practice the president's dietary habits. If they're not careful, Mike and his family may be on the menu next.

“The Washingtonians” has a really disturbing premise. Imagining George Washington to be an enthusiastic cannibal, who killed and ate children, practically amounts to sacrilege here in America. This outrageous premise could've been used to make a point about how history is shaped. About how the real person is often covered up, and even sanitized, by the narrative of history. Instead of letting that idea breath, “The Washingtonians” has a character outright say these things. Moreover, some of the images and ideas in the episode – such as a president eating children or Thomas Jefferson having his guts torn out – point towards another heavy-handed message. American history is full of blood and even the country's founders were far from clean. If you didn't get how this applied to modern day politics, Medak wraps things up with a really dumb George W. Bush reference.

Still, these ideas could've been unnerving. Instead, “The Washingtonians” goes in the direction of absurdist horror/comedy. Mad murderers running around in colonial clothing, wearing powdered wigs and wooden teeth, is a ridiculous sight. Medak knows this and plays the Washingtonians' appearance for comedy. The actors in the part ham it up to gratuitous heights. The circumstances of the conspiracy are so outrageous, that this becomes funny too. Seemingly everybody in the small town are involved with the secret society. In this comedic tone, even the otherwise horrific gore begins to become kind of funny. Everything about the episode is so exaggerated that it frequently generates laughs. I'm sure Medak did this on purpose but he ends up undermining his own point a little. “The Washingtonians” has some interesting ideas but the execution is odd. [6/10]

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge: Blood of Darkness, Power of Darkness

As if “Night Warriors” didn't have a big enough cast already, the second episode focuses on introducing four new characters. Vampire hunter Donovan Blaine, still accompanied by telekinetic child Anita, arrives in a Chinese city. He has been hired by the local, power-mad warlord to retrieve a cursed samurai armor said to haunt the near-by valley. Donovan soon faces off with Bishamon, the man inhabiting the blood-drinking armor. Meanwhile, a pair of jiang-shi – the hopping corpses of Chinese lore – also arrive in town. Hsien-Ko and Mei-Ling are sisters and also fighters of the dark. They end up saving Donovan's life. Lastly, alien conqueror Pyron arrives on Earth and decides to target the three most powerful Darkstalkers on the planet: Donovan, Morrigan, and Demitri.

An issue I have with the “Darkstalkers” OVA is its lack of humor. The video game is full of goofy sight gags and visual jokes. The anime mostly dispenses with this, despite keeping the somewhat farcical character designs. Which is why I welcome the introduction of Hsien-Ko, even if the series' cast is much too large already. Hsien-Ko is sarcastic and accepts her condition as an undead creature with humor. This contrasts nicely with her sister, Mei-Ling, who is far more studious if no less kind-hearted. This is best displayed during an early scene. After driving into a town where demons have kidnapped all the women, a group of horny drunks attempt to attack the two sisters. Hsien-Ko easily beats them into unconscious, cracking jokes about how pathetic they are all the while. (The only clear improvement between the original Japanese voice cast and the English dub is Nicole Oliver as Hsien-Ko. Oliver's voice is a little scratchier and better suited to the scrappy character, as opposed to Yuko Miyamura's very girlish reading in the Japanese version.)

It's a good thing some humor is provided because “Blood of Darkness, Power of Darkness” is otherwise a fairly grim episode. It's far bloodier than the first episode, with Bishamon gorily slashing through his enemies. Donovan's personality is delved into a bit more. We discover that he's motivated to hunt monsters and demons because he despises his own demonic heritage. He's actually borderline suicidal, more than happy to die after the samurai fatally wounds him. Afterwards, the episode cuts to Pyron's invasion of Earth. Admittedly, these guys are two of my least favorite “Darkstalkers” characters. I found Donovan overly morose and an uninspiring take on the half-human/half-demon monster hunter troupe. Pyron, meanwhile, is motivated strictly by wanting to find stronger lifeforms across the galaxy to fight and then conquer. This is fine for a fighting game but not an especially compelling purpose for a narrative story.

The episode also hammers home its own themes a little too gratuitously. After beating up the potential rapists, Hsien-Ko comments on how humans can be just as beastly as Darkstalkers. After hiring Donovan to hunt down Bishamon, the local warlord instructs the monk to leave through the back door, least he upset the villagers. The warlord then pays some soldiers to attack passengers, in order to lure out Bishamon. We get it: People are assholes. If that wasn't enough, Donovan defeats Bishamon not with his magical sword but with an act of kindness. Donovan pauses the fight, opening himself up to injury, to protect two passersbys. Bishamon cannot comprehend a Darkstalker protecting a human and promptly explodes. I thought it was cheesy watching the show as a teenager and I think it's cheesy now.

Luckily, the second episode of “Darkstalkers” is packed full of gorgeously animated fight scenes.  The opening scene of Hsien-Ko fighting a pair of giant spiders displays the character's unique combat skills. When Donovan first enters the town, he uses his magical flying sword to protect himself from the villagers. This leads to a fun – and quintessentially anime-esque – shot of his sword slicing a whole building in half. The fight with Bishamon is a little more focus on bloody action and concludes with a real downer of a sequence, as the samurai's ghost explains the folly of his way. But the action is still pretty cool, elevating an episode of a show that is still cluttered and unfocused. [7/10]

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