Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 23, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 22

ParaNorman (2012)

When it was announced a while ago that Oregon-based animation studio Laika was having some financial problems, we animation dorks were pretty concerned. Laika has continually produced brilliant work since their debut feature, “Coraline,” came out in 2009. With their trademark stop-motion style, their films are eccentric and frequently edgier than most mainstream animated fair. While they have a devoted cult following, they also haven't produced a huge hit yet, which might explain the money issues. “Coraline” was essentially a horror movie for kids and “ParaNorman,” the studio's second feature, follows a similar vain. It got a bit lost in the shuffle upon release, coming out around the same time as the similarly themed “Hotel Transylvania” and “Frankenweenie,” but would immediately grab a cult following.

Norman Babcock isn't like the other kids. He has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. And Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, with its history of witch trials and mob violence, is crawling with ghosts. Norman's ability doesn't make him very popular though. At school, he's bullied. At home, his father and older sister refuse to understand him. Norman's only friend, Neil, is an even bigger social outcast than him. As the anniversary of a local legend surrounding a witch's curse approaches, zombies from the Puritan era rise from their grave. With the town flung into chaos, it's up to Norman and his unique ability to save the day.

“ParaNorman” is a kid's movie seemingly designed to win over horror fans. The film includes hilarious shout-outs to “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” The film begins with a homage to eighties zombie movies, including a visible boom-mike and a synth soundtrack. These references are the first of many unexpected delights in “ParaNorman.” While most modern kids movie are rated PG, this one actually earns it. There's a few minor swears. A character is revealed to be gay, in a hilarious moment. There's even some sexual humor, thanks to the bully with grabby hands. (Not to mention the model designers clearly had fun with the female characters and their shapely hips.) The films' zombies are comical figures but surprisingly gruesome, with their tendencies to loose body parts. Some of the later scenes, involving a witch's shifting features, might actually scare younger viewers.

As with all of Laika's productions, “ParaNorman” is gorgeous to look at. While films like “The Corpse Bride” try to make their stop motion animation look sleeker, Laika embraces the earthy, artificial quality of this style. The characters even have a mildly grotesque. Norman's mom has a sloping chin. Neil is chubby and awkward. Alvin, who begins as a bully and becomes an unlikley alley, looks exactly like a teenage asshole should look. Yet this style is incredibly charmy, as “ParaNorman” doesn't quite look like anything else, not even other Laika films. Aside from the awesome character design, the film just generally looks lovely. The climax, where Norman enters the swirling spirit realm, is impressively vivid. “ParaNorman” was presented in 3D in theaters and, sometimes, the movie overdoes tossing things at the viewers. However, even that kind of fits the eighties throwback element of the film.

“ParaNorman's” biggest asset is its cast of characters. Everyone is treated with equal sincerity. Norman, perfectly voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, approaches everyone with openness. (He also has an amazing bedroom, full of zombie-related stuff.) Neil is a total goofball but the film never mocks him, instead letting their eccentricities come across as charming. Even the harsher characters are treated fairly. Alvin is a bully and a doofus but, in time, reveals his own strengths, becoming part of the team. Norman's sister Stephanie initially comes across as a preppy, mean older sister type. However, it's eventually revealed that she genuinely loves her little brother, even if she doesn't always understand him. “ParaNorman” has love and sympathy for every of its characters. Even the zombies, who committed an unforgivable crime, are eventually revealed to be victims of their own fear.

Tying “ParaNorman's” awesome horror homages, light-hearted comedy, and beautiful animation together is a touching moral about being an outcast and the dangers of mob mentality. Most of the main characters are outcasts of some sort, including within their own family. After the zombies descend on Blithe Hollow, the townsfolk begin to panic. Even though the zombies are relatively harmless, they still pursue them while destroying their own town. The reveal surrounding the witch's curse – that she was actually a little girl, hanged for having the same abilities Norman does – is a real gut-punch moment. As justified as Agatha's rage is, the film doesn't excuse it either. She's trapped in her own anger and it's hurting others. The film argues for forgiveness, of others and the self.

The first time I saw “ParaNorman,” I liked it well enough. However, I found the humor a bit crass and the tonal shifts jarring. Upon re-watch, these elements click into place for me. I found myself really loving “ParaNorman” this time. I'm not too proud to admit that I even teared up a little bit. It's a funny, sweet, and visually gorgeous motion picture that is perfect for the budding horror fans in your life. [9/10]

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

By the late eighties, the slasher movies became notorious for spawning long-running series. It wasn't just the headlining names, your Freddies and Jasons, that got way too many sequels. Even the second stringers, like my beloved Angela from “Sleepaway Camp,” became commercially viable franchises. Russ Thorn would not return for “The Slumber Party Massacre” sequel but the theme of drill-branishing killers offing girls in lingerie would manage to substain at least two direct sequels. Another element would connect the films too. Each one of the “Slumber Party Massacre” films was written and directed by women. Whatever Roger Corman and company were expecting for “Slumber Party Massacre II,” I bet the insane movie Debra Brock delivered wasn't it.

The connecting fiber between “Slumber Party Massacre” and its sequel is Courtney, the little sister of the first film's final girl. Courtney and her sister were completely traumatized by the original movie's events. The sister's in a mental hospital while Courtney has reoccurring nightmares about a drill-wielding murderer. To keep her mind off this, Courtney goes on a trip with her female friends to a vacated condo. During the day, they swim in the pool and play rock songs. At nights, they have sex with their boyfriends while Courtney dreams about the murderer. Somehow, that murderer enters in the world of the living and begins to kill everyone.

“Slumber Party Massacre II” is, of all things, a completely bonkers rock-and-roll horror/musical. The songs are seriously goofy. One, which the film treats like a uniting rock anthem, is a bizarre new wave number about Tokyo converters. The girls play a Wednesday Week-style number that is mildly catchy. Most of the rest of the movie are rockabilly influenced radio rock that harbors just around catchy. Tying it all together is a group of dumb-ass characters and a crystallized late eighties aesthetic. The boyfriends are the perviest jock-o meatheads I've ever seen in a slasher flick. The girls, meanwhile, are reheated valley girl stereotypes that still somehow manage to be endearingly silly. And did I mention the jean shorts, shoulder pads, pastels, and streamlined Diet Coke cans?

This standard spam-in-a-van premise was not enough to sustain Debra Brock's vision, however. The writer/director also infuses “Slumber Party Massacre II” with a surreal dream logic. Even before the Driller Killer appears in the last twenty minutes, Courtney's nightmares often cross over into reality. Her sandwich is replaced with a severed hand. A bathtub fills with blood. Yet this weirdness isn't here just for the hell of it. There's a boy Courtney likes but she never gets beyond first base with him. Meanwhile, many of her friends are having very loud sex in the same building. Her visions are full fo sexual imagery. Not just the phallic drill but a friend's giant pimple bursting in orgasmic fashion. When she comes close to having sex, that's when the Killer enters into reality. Brock inverts the original's “Slumber Party Massacre's” interrogation of the Male Gaze into a story of sexual frustration destroying a disturbed young woman.

“Slumber Party Massacre II's” insanity may have a uniting purpose. However, it's still totally nuts. And the Driller Killer is the biggest symptom of this. For some reason, he has a rockabilly theme, wearing a full leather biker get-up, cowboy spurs, sunglasses, and a pompadour. Most importantly, his weapon isn't merely a giant drill. It's a Drill-Tar, a fully functioning murder drill attached to a wild-looking guitar. The sequel carries this gimmick to its absolute logical end point. The Driller Killer also sings. The film stops cold, near the end, so he can sing a number called “Let's Buzz.” Which, by the way, he break-dances through. This isn't his only musical number either, as he sings while chasing the girls through a construction set. The gore – which isn't bad, featuring several memorably bloody drillings – is almost besides the point. The utter insanity of the Driller Killer supersedes everything else.

“Slumber Party Massacre II” is, in many ways, a fatally dumb mess. The script barely makes any sense. The ending borders total incoherence. It's not even enough material for the seventy-one minute run time, as there are multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards. The characters are incredibly cheesy and the acting is fairly broad. The sequel is also completely irresistible. This is the kind of coke-fueled madness that only could've happened in the eighties. It doesn't quite top “Sleepaway Camp II' for a slasher sequel that completely outshines the original in every way but it's awfully close. I like the meat-and-potato slasher comfort food “Slumber Party Massacre 1” but the rockabilly madness of part two blows it away. All hail the Drill-Tar. [9/10]

The Muppet Show: Alice Cooper

Without context, Alice Cooper appearing on “The Muppet Show” seems like the seventies equivalent of, I don't know, Tyler the Creator showing up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. By 1978, however, Cooper's public image had soften considerably. He had just gotten out of rehab for his alcoholism. His most recent hits were weepy ballads like “I Never Cry” and “Only Women Bleed.” He was hanging out with Mae West and Groucho Marx. So Cooper showing up on TV with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy was exactly where his career was at the time. Dead chickens and guillotines cast a long shadow, though, so “The Muppet Show” still played up Cooper's spooky side when he hosted the show.

That spooky element happens to make this episode perfect for the Halloween season. Most of Cooper's musical numbers are great. His opening bits involves him rising from a coffin, dressed as Dracula, and singing “Welcome to My Nightmare.” Naturally, a band of colorfully monstrous muppets back him up. Later, he performs “School's Out” in a red, devlish jumpsuit while dancing around with some goofy critters. Last memorable is a performance of “You and Me,” one of his weaker ballads, as a duet with a bird-like muppet. Alice's plot has him playing an agent of the devil, trying to get Kermit the Frog to sell his soul. This leads to some good gags, like Gonzo not being familiar with the Faust story or Cooper reporting his failure back to his devilish boss.

Being a variety show, Alice doesn't appear in every one of the show's segment. Some of these miscellaneous scenes are better than others. Robin singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a totally sincere, sweet moment. A gag about Dr. Honeydew and Beaker growing giant germs has that anarchic muppets energy I like. This episode does have one of the weaker “Pigs in Space” episodes, involving the characters becoming transparent. An extended joke about stalactites complaining about tooth aches borders the obnoxious. Still, this is a pretty fun episode, for Muppet and Cooper fans alike. [7/10]

White with Red (2013)

If you've spent too much time on the internet, you've probably encounter a few creepypastas. You know what those all: Original horror stories written on the internet, passed along via message boards and social media. A lot of them are awful but there's a few good ones. Like “White with Red,” which Brandon Christensen adapted into a short film in 2013. The plot is simple. A man checks into the Aloha, a sketchy roadside motel. After checking in, the clerk tells him not to look into the room next door. The guy does it anyway, glancing through the keyhole. First, he briefly sees a ghostly figure. The next morning, he sees nothing but a red color. The clerk then explains why he was told not to look into room 13.

“White with Red” is a pretty solid little short, all of three minutes long. Christensen shows a decent grasp of sound design. There's some creepy dissonance on the soundtrack but most of “White with Red” is characterized by the traditional ambient noise of a motel. Like the very distracted front desk clerk watching a “Tennessee Tuxedo” cartoon. The short, and the story it adapts, plays off the spookiness of hotels. How you never know what the people who were there before you did or what the people next door are up too, even if you can vaguely hear them. It keeps the scares limited too, only giving us brief glimpses at whatever the supernatural events are. About my only complaint about “White with Red” is some questionable CGI at the end. Over all, it's a decent film. [7/10]

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