Last of the Monster Kids

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 23

American Psycho (2000)

The internet doesn't really need another essay talking about “American Psycho.” In the seventeen years since the film's original release, it's gone from financial disappointment, to cult favorite, to certified classic. Mary Harron's masterpiece has spawned internet memes, a barely related sequel, and even a Broadway musical. Hell, I've even already reviewed it, way back in the blog's first year. Yet, in the New Epoch of Trumpian Dumbness, when Bret Easton Ellis has seemingly forgotten the irony at the center of his own work, “American Psycho” deserves an umpteenth look. Besides, it's not like I really need an excuse to rewatch the uber-dark comedy, which is truly one of my favorites.

Patrick Bateman is twenty-seven years old. He's rich, due to a high ranking Wall Street position. His apartment is fancy. All his clothes and accessories are top of the line. He's engaged to a beautiful woman. He's also a brutal serial killer. At night, he rages on, murdering the homeless and prostitutes in increasingly elaborate fashion. As Bateman's night time activities go on, he has increasing difficulty hiding his true self from the respectable world he inhabits. Assuming, of course, that any of his murders are even real.

You don't need me to tell you the central point of “American Psycho” but let's go over it again anyway. Through the voice-over assisted peaks we get into Patrick Bateman's skull, we learn he's a complete sociopath who cannot relate to other people and only desires to inflict pain and suffering – extension of his own self-hatred – on the world. In order to cover this up, he follows every popular trend of the day. His exercise and self-care routine is spit at us with momentous orderliness. He listens to popular music, saying the more commercial a work is, the more satisfying it is. He knows every restaurant and club in town. Of course, Bateman can't truly disguise his alien attributes, since he's prone to bizarre monologue. A serial killer using the vapidness of the Wall Street lifestyle to cover his inherent psychopathy draws attention to how empty the eighties narcissism truly was. If you missed this, you probably also missed the ten thousand think-pieces written about the film since its release.

What really caught my attention on this re-watch was Bateman's treatment of women. Most of his victims are female. Even the women he doesn't kill, he treats with scorn. He yells abuse at female bartenders. He's exclusively condescending to his fiancee. He cheats on her for discerningly no reason, as he treats his girlfriend the same way. Bateman considers women strictly receptacles for his pleasures. Prostitutes are ordered around, abused, plied with money when they resist that abuse, and killed. Other women are also manipulated. Bateman hates effeminate men too. In an early scene, he claims to support multiculturalism. Yet he vehemently despises non-whites, non-Christians, and gays. When a prelude to the murder is mistaken for a come-on, Bateman's reaction is bumbling panic. This is despite Bateman's own homoerotic pampering. During a threesome, all Bateman focuses on is his own reflection. Bateman isn't gay, he's just in love with himself, the only real person in the world in his eyes. Anything that may even suggest he's gay though, that shakes his perfectly manicured image of masculinity, terrifies him.

Bateman's treatment of women was controversial, though less so than it was in the way more explicit novel. Perhaps to circumnavigate this issue, a woman was hired to direct the adaptation, after potentially disastrous adaptations from Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg fell apart. Mary Harron, of course, approached “American Psycho” as the darkest of dark comedies. Patrick Bateman's perfect veneer eventually cracks, revealing him to be “such a dork.” Yet there are earlier hints to “American Psycho's” barely concealed humor. The overreaction to a business card is a masterclass in subdued comedic acting. Bateman's interaction with Willem DaFoe's detective is full of terse humor. Even the murder scenes are played more for laughs than chills. Bateman is so frenzied, when chasing a hooker with a chainsaw, that the moment is exaggerated into a comical nightmare play. The earlier murder of Paul Allen, the violent outburst contrasting with Bateman's earlier giddiness, is simply hilarious.

“American Psycho” would also make Christian Bale into a star. He obviously wouldn't have gotten the part of Batman without this movie. Bale's performances are so typically blustery these days. You can forget what an electrifying actor he was originally. As Patrick Bateman, Bale speeds through the entire emotional cycle. Usually, Bale's appearance is calculated and patronizing. There's the killer's woozy heights, when in the throes of murder. This predates Bateman's crack-up near the end. As it becomes harder for him to hide his murders, Bateman falls to pieces. His tear-strewn telephone confession to his lawyer is both hilarious, for how unhinged Bale gets, and seriously unnerving, for exactly the same reasons. Bale is less hyper-real than Easton's Bateman, a human portrayal of an intentionally ridiculous character.

I could say a lot more about “American Psycho.” I haven't even touched upon the moments of over-the-top action movie violence, the hilarious kitten scene, the great soundtrack, or the much contested ending. And here in Trump's America, it's easy to see eerie parallels between Patrick Bateman and our Psychotic Man-Child in Chief. (Trump is referenced several times in the book.) Both disregard women as anything but sexual release valves. Both want to appear worldly and sophisticated without putting any effort into it. Both casually reveal their hatred of the world through a nonsensical sense of humor. Both are textbook sociopaths. But Patrick Bateman isn't real and Donald Trump is fucking president. This state of affairs suggest to me that Harron's film will, sadly, remain relevant forever. [9/10]

Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

“The Slumber Party Massacre” is a nostalgic favorite. “Slumber Party Massacre II” is too insane to ignore. But you don't hear much about “Slumber Party Massacre III.” From all corners, it's widely considered the weak link in the franchise chain. I kind of doubt the world was demanding this drill-themed duo to become a cinematic trilogy, especially with the dawning of the nineties. Commerce, as always, would not be denied. The film would be produced for less than 500,000 dollars, gross over a million in theaters, and probably earned way more than that on video. At least Roger Corman, still the series' producer, kept the behind-the-scenes tradition. Part three would be directed by Sally Mattison, a long time assistant producer for Corman. It is also, it must be noted, her sole directorial credit.

“Slumber Party Massacre III” severs any connection with the original, save for the tradition of driller killers and lingerie parties. (And the apathetic cops and weirdoes next door, I guess.) It's not even set in California, like the others, but in a Chicago suburb. Jackie's parents are away for the weekend, leaving her in charge of the house. Naturally, she invites all her friends over for a party. While this is meant to be a slumber party, meaning no boys are allowed, a group of guys quickly show up. A strange man, armed with a giant electric drill, also appears. The girls go about stripping, snacking, and sleeping with their boyfriends, unaware that a killer stalks outside. However, that murderer ends up not being the most serious threat...

The first “Slumber Party Massacre” was a comedy, even if the film didn't always seem to realize that. The sequel went fully in this direction, creating a bonkers musical experience. The third film, meanwhile, leaves comedy behind entirely. The film has a grim atmosphere, which is established from the opening credits – black and white photographs of the characters, against vaguely sinister music – onward. Mattison's direction is dark, focusing on long shadows and dark streets. The attack scenes focus more on the pain of the victims than ever before, the drill frequently eviscerating people. What comedy in the movie is a side effect of this being an early nineties genre film. “Slumber Party Massacre III” is played totally straight.

This darker tone allows the film to take its characters a little more seriously. Now, the cast is still way too large, full of generic slasher bait, for anyone to be too developed. Characters with names like Janie, Tom, Michael, and Frank are more-or-less interchangeable. However, I found myself rooting for this batch of fodder more than expected. The film was an early role for B-movie starlet/softcore regular Maria Ford, who plays the big-haired redhead. Ford's acting is unpolished but game and perhaps reveals why she would go onto a prolific career. Susie, played by Maria Claire, is mousier than her friends, wearing dowdy pajamas, and rather likable. Duncan, played by David Greenlee, is such a bizarre character. He's a horny guy that the others treat like a harmless little brother. This might also be the first film in the series to attempt genuine eroticism.  A love scene between Juliette and Ken is pretty hot and heavy.

What's most interesting about “Slumber Party Massacre III” is its approach to its killer. The original Russ Thorn was a symbol of sexist violence in slasher movies. Part two's Driller Killer represented the final girl's sexual frustration. The third film's killer would, in modern language, be called a Nice Guy. The creepy stalker outside is not the murderer, we discover. Instead, it's Ken. He's spent the entire movie hanging around the girls, trying to get close to them. When he nearly has sex with Juliette, his own impotence prevents him from going further. He blames the girl for his own inadequacies. From there, he goes on a vicious power drill rampage, blaming each of the girls for his own violence. Fittingly, Mattison films many of the murder scenes as if they were rapes, focusing on the panicking girls and the penetrating drill. In another bizarre twist, we discover Ken was sexually molested by his uncle when he was a boy. This goofy slasher flick is haunted by the spectre of sexual assault, making it a surprisingly bracing watch.

“Slumber Party Massacre III” is still, one hundred percent, a standard slasher film. It does not defy the cliches of the genre. The gore is not even especially inventive, if that's what you're in the game for. Compared to the mad heights of the second film, I can definitely see why this would be considered a disappointment. But “Slumber Party Massacre III” is kind of interesting in its own way. Director Mattison clearly had a vision and what was probably just meant to be a second act plot twist evens up shedding new light on the film's story. Each film in this series are very different from each other but they are all entertaining. [7/10]

Witch's Night Out (1978)

When it comes to made-for-television Halloween specials, the only one that has really endured is “Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin.” Yeah, “Garfield's Halloween Adventure” and “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” have developed real cult followings but Snoopy still reigns supreme in this category. One formally obscure special I've started hearing more about recently is “Witch's Night Out.” Produced in Canada, the half-hour cartoon aired on NBC in 1978. Most of its cult following comes from re-airings on the Disney Channel throughout the eighties and nineties. The special concerns Small and Tender, two eager trick-or-treators. Their parents decide to throw a Halloween party in an abandoned house on the edge of town. Turns out the house is abandoned, as a lonely witch lives there. Small and Tender accidentally summon the witch, who transforms them into actual monsters, leading to chaos at the party and abroad.

“Witch's Night Out” is immediately notable for its bizarre animation. The character designs are distinctive, to say the least. All the characters are in bright, primary colors. Their bodies are simple, abstract shapes. The mom, for example, is seemingly composed of fuzzy cotton balls. The kid's baby sitter has a square, blockhead. Even the more detailed characters, like the witch in her black gown and stocking cap, have simple outlines. Sometimes the details border the grotesque, like the witch's weirdly wrinkled face or Malicious, who has an ugly face but weirdly shapely breasts. The characters move in a fashion that is both weirdly fluid and slightly jerky. The backgrounds are highly detailed, almost looking like photographs at times. I haven't seen anything else that quite looks like it. The result is a film that looks way better than you'd expect a television cartoon made in 1978 to look.

As a Halloween special, “Witch's Night Out” is heavy on the cute side of things. The kid's adventures emphasize the innocent side of Halloween, focusing on the candy and mischievous pranks. Even after they are turned into monsters, it's all fun and games. There's a deliberate contrast between the kid's fun and the boring party the adults throw. By the end, the adults embrace the innocent side of Halloween, as the witch turns them into fantastical creatures. It's a simple moral – of embracing the sincere pleasures of Halloween and learning not to be afraid of everything – but it works for “Witch's Night Out's” purpose. Gilda Radner voices the witch, by the way, and provides an enthusiastic performance. I can see how kids who saw this over the years could get attached to it. But the weird animation is probably the main reason to check out “Witch's Night Out” in 2017. [7/10]

Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin (1994)

I first came across “Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin” earlier this year. An article described it as, essentially, a splatterpunk short story as a short movie. That caught my attention, even if I have zero exposure to the rest of director Jim Van Bebber's career. Van Bebbler has attracted a small fandom for his brutish, grimy shorts and features. It's also an accurate description. “Roadkill” follows a serial killer, who lives in decay and squalor at his home. While out for a drive, he picks up a couple having car troubles. He drags them back to his house, where he tortures, kills, and cannibalizes them.

“Roadkill” is one of those hardcore horror movies preoccupied with letting audiences know how extreme it is. The short is gross and abrasive. The opening scenes show John Martin in his kitchen, chopping up raw meat, mingling among rats, cockroaches, and maggots. He vomits and screams profanity at his television. Weirdly, this is more stomach turning then the torture scenes. Martin chopping off a guy's head and eating his flesh, while dangling a naked woman over a stove burner, is obviously fake. The vermin and rancid meat the guy was putting in his mouth in the first scene were probably real.

Aside from just being really nasty, what purpose does “Roadkill” have? Well, Van Bebber is pretty good at creating a particular tone, albeit an incredibly unpleasant one. John Martin's home, decorated with the bones and body parts of his victims, has a pretty cool look. Otherwise, there's not much else to this one. There's barely any story. The short ends abruptly and without resolution. The acting is minimalistic. The musical score is droning and irritating. As a peak into the hellish world of a serial killer, I guess “Roadkill” works fairly well. As an actual narrative movie, it's far less successful. [5/10]

No comments: