Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 27

Frenzy (1972)

Do you know some people still argue that Hitchcock never directed a horror movie? Okay, my sister's husband once tried to convince me that Hitchcock never directed a horror movie because he's a pretentious ass. I think most people agree that “Psycho” and “The Birds” are obviously horror movies. “Frenzy” also meets the definition of a horror movie, in my opinion. It dives into the mind of a serial killer, focusing to a great degree on the methods of his murder. The director's penultimate movie, some go so far as to consider it his last masterpiece. Whether “Frenzy” is that good or not is a matter of opinion but the film is still certainly well regarded among Hitchcock fans.

A serial killer is prowling the streets of London again. The dead bodies of young women are washing up near Convent Garden. Each of the women were raped before being strangled to death with neckties. The police have no leads. Until the ex-wife of Richard Blaney winds up as the latest victim. Inspector Oxford believes the temperamental and volatile Blaney is their man. However, this isn't the case. The innocuous seeming Bob Rusk is actually the killer. As Richard hides out from the cops, Rusk attempts to cover his latest crimes and reel in a compulsion he has no control over.

Throughout his career, Hitchcock was obsessed with making audiences sympathize with morally ambiguous characters. Norman Bates in “Psycho,” a serial killer the audience can't help but empathize with a little, is only the most famous example. This inclination is taken even further in “Frenzy.” Jon Finch's Richard is the default protagonist of the movie. However, he's a jerk. He's introduced arguing with his boss. Later, he argues with his ex-wife and the wife of a friend. He's an abrasive asshole, a gambler and a drunkard. Barry Foster's Bob, meanwhile, is charming. He's funny and easy-going. The audience immediately likes him. He's also, we learn shortly afterwards, a disgusting rapist and murderer. Whether this is out of a perverse sense of humor or some greater purpose, that's for a full-blown Hitchcock scholar to answer. But it sure is interesting, putting the audience in a very uncertain place.

If this choice is out of a sick sense of humor, “Frenzy” has other comedic elements. The detective pursuing the killer, Inspector Oxford, has a buffoonish wife. She is certainly undergoing a ridiculous gourmet cooking course, making him meals like boiled pig's feet, quail and grapes, and some stew involving squid and eels. He, meanwhile, craves steak and potatoes and a British breakfast. These comedic moments border expertly executed moments of tension. The most famous of which is Bob sneaking into the potato truck carrying his latest victim, to remove his distinctive broach from a corpse's rigor mortis-ed fingers. The scene clatters on as nervously as possible, making the audience wonder if he'll get away with this one. These moments of farce and thrills somehow balance each other out.

Despite being his second-to-last film, “Frenzy” shows Hitchcock is just as strong a stylist as ever.   There are several beautifully filmed segments from “Frenzy.” The best of which is a long shot, showing Bob and a potential victim walking into a building. Hitch's camera tracks the two as they walk, the audience growing more and more aware of what the killer's intention are. As the two enter a room, the camera pulls backwards, out into the street. The viewer perks their ears up, expecting to hear the struggle and screams. This contrast with an earlier assault scene, in which Hitchcock shows us practically everything, with a ferocity that was unspoken of in his career. There's another clever moment, where the camera quickly cuts between a victim's screaming face and Bob undoing his tie.

Due to its graphic content, “Frenzy” has been accused of being sexist, then and now. Since more details about Alfred Hitchcock's treatment of women have come forward, one can't help but read into parts of the movie. Especially a bit where Bob talks about how some woman are “asking for it.” This stuff aside, “Frenzy” remains a highly effective moral mind-screw. It's a first rate thriller and a highly effective dark comedy, brilliantly directed and well acted. [8/10]

Demon Seed (1977)

Once again, I find myself asking the question: What of Dean Koontz? Is he just a second-rate Stephen King or does he actually have merits of his own? Since last asking that question, I have actually read a Koontz novel. One of his earliest novels, “Demon Seed,” was adapted into a film in 1977. In 1997, Koontz would completely re-write the book. The setting would be updated, the story would be softened a bit, and the entire novel would be re-told from the perspective of the insane supercomputer. This is the version I read this past summer. It was an alright book. After reading the novel, I became interested in revisiting the adaptation, which I first saw many years ago.

In Dr. Alex Harris' lab, a highly advanced super computer named Proteus IV waits. Harris has recently separated from his wife, Susan. She is left alone in their home, which is entirely outfitted with cameras, voice-controlled services, and even a robotic butler. Proteus' great mind feels trapped inside the laboratory and finds a way into Susan's home. The artificial intelligence traps Susan inside her own home. The machine demands a way to experience the sensation of the flesh. It creates a plot to impregnate Susan with his off-spring, birthing his consciousness into a human body. Susan must survive Proteus' terrifying tactics if she hopes to escapes.

When I first saw “Demon Seed,” I found it to be a very strange film. That impression hasn't changed much since then. Like many other stories about insane supercomputers, “Demon Seed” aims on the cerebral side of things. There are multiple scenes of the Proteus IV discussing the nature of existence. However, “Demon Seed” frequently veers more towards psychedelic. When Susan is impregnated, the film cuts away to a swirl of bright colors and wide shapes. Proteus' computer brain is repeatedly visualized in a similar way. Sometimes, this odd vibe influences the more grounded segments of the story. In a bit that was apparently in Koontz' original novel, but cut out of the 1997 revision, Proteus builds a giant cubic snake robot in the basement. It's such an odd sight, a geometric shape that can rearrange itself into a killing machine. A lot of “Demon Seed” has that slightly stoned, odd feeling to it.

As an eccentric fusion of science fiction and horror, “Demon Seed” veers between disturbing, pretentious, and ridiculous. Proteus IV's voice, provided by an uncredited Robert Vaughn, reverberates through the house, intoning mysterious and strange commands. Proteus' main tool is a small robot named Joshua. It's essentially a robotic arm attached to an electric wheelchair. Though a simple device, the robot is a surprisingly creepy sight, especially when its manhandling Julia. The scenes where she's strapped down and prodded by the machine are fittingly unnerving. However, a sequence involving a laser is utterly laughable, especially when its defeated with a vanity mirror.

The pretentious element comes forward in the film's treatment of the insane supercomputer. In the book, at least in the 1997 revision, Proteus is unambiguously a villain. He's a computerized sociopath, deeply sexist, who murders when it suits him and frequently goes on crazy rants. Maybe that was different in Koontz' original version, as “Demon Seed” treats Proteus almost sympathetically. When the men in Susan's life finally get the memo and decide to shut the computer down, he's given a monologue about the nature of life, death, and how a digital program approaches it. As opposed to the literary version, Proteus' achieves his goal of creating a child with Susan. It's pretty weird that the film allows the digitized rapist win and doesn't treat that victory as necessarily a bad thing either.

What really makes “Demon Seed” worth seeing is Julie Christie. From the early scenes, Christie is believable as both a victim and a more strong-willed person. She decides to leave her husband back in a really laid-back way. This seems to foreshadow her eventual imprisonment by Proteus. This would seem to set-up a character arc of Susan learning to fight for herself. It seems to be going that way, as Susan resists Proteus for a long time. The script sinks this in the last act, when she willingly accepts the computer's impregnation. Despite that, Christie's performance remains captivating. She is convincingly terrified throughout the story, yet still finds time to give the character an inner life and a more complicated personality.

“Demon Seed” is ultimately an odd one, a film that is off-putting in a way probably not intended by the filmmakers. The film is too pretentious to be a sleazy exploitation flick about a pervy computer. It's also too goofy and backwards to be an intellectual story about the limits of artifical intelligence. Say what you will about Koontz but I think the book is better then the movie. This is another one that could prosper from a remake. It's a shame the found footage fad is over. While reading the book, I thought you could make a solid found footage flick of “Demon Seed,” telling the story entirely through Proteus' security cameras. [6/10]

Vamps (2012)

The uncontrollable fever our culture displayed for vampires over the last decade or so finally seems to have cooled. Even the zombie fad has more-or-less died down, though “The Walking Dead” continues to go on. It would seem ghosts are the favored monsters of the moment. Anyway, the soaring popularity of vampires allowed all sorts of project to get made, as long as they involved bloodsuckers. “Vamps” would reunite Amy Heckerling with her “Clueless” star, Alicia Silverstone, who was hardly a bankable star in 2012. Upon release, the movie received predominately negative reviews and did poorly at the box office. However, a few people have suggested that the film is worth a second look.

Goody was turned into a vampire in 1841 by a sire, which are called “stems” in this film, named Ciccerus. Goody is currently rooming with another vampire, Stacy, who became one of the undead in the late eighties. The two refuse to kill humans, only drinking the blood of animals. They live a relatively happy life in New York's vampire underground. Yet Goody has regrets, especially when she runs into a former lover of her's. Stacy, meanwhile, meets a cute guy at her night school... Who ends up being the son of the Van Helsings. Soon, both vamps have to ask each other questions about what their undead lives mean.

“Vamps” is an extremely goofy comedy. It's full of broad gags build around its characters' status as vampires. Stacy and Goody stick straws in rats and drink their blood like sodas. (This, amusingly, leads to Goody performing a spit-take, with blood instead of water.) After spending all day texting with her boyfriend, Stacy tries to catch a nap from work, hanging outside down from the rafters. When making a quick escape from their apartment, both women crawl down the side of the building, Dracula-style. There are multiple attempts at hypnotism, some of them more successful than others. It's all really silly stuff. However, “Vamps” keeps the gags coming fast enough that the flat ones – some terrible special effects involving skeletons and stretching jaws – are quickly counteracted by the good stuff, like the vampires ordering boxes of native soil off Amazon.

Heckerling's film is also about aging. The film sees the director of classic teen flicks like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Clueless” encountering modern youth culture. Goody lies about her age, pretending to be from around the same time as Stacy, instead of a hundred years older. She professes bafflement at modern phenomenons like texting, the internet, social media, and abbreviations. At the same time, she nostalgic for other facets of her youth. Like when she comments on the various guises one building has taken over the years. Or how she re-develops feelings for the ex she encountered during her days as a hippy. The ending ultimately forces both women to come to terms with their ages in different ways. It's a natural progression in a career famous for making movies about youth.

A major factor in “Vamps'” favor is the pleasant cast. Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter, as Goody and Stacy, have excellent chemistry together. Not only are the characters best friends but it's evident that Ritter and Silverstone had fun making the movie. Ritter utilizes all her charm in the role of a slightly flighty, if always good-natured vampire. Silverstone is a little more reserved but still likable. Wallace Shawn gets several good moments as Dr. Van Helsing, especially when he poses as a cable repairman. Malcolm McDowell has an amusing small role as Vlad the Impaler, who has taken up knitting in his old age. Weirdly, the only performance that backfires is Sigourney Weaver, as Ciccerus. She gets the worst material in the film, like a crush on a Latin pop star or a groan-worthy gag about Chinese food. To compensate, Weaver goes way over the top, creating a clownish and obnoxious character. I'm frankly shocked that Sigourney is even capable of a performance this bad.

There's a lot of aspects of “Vamps” that are left up in the air. A subplot about Richard Lewis' wife dying of cancer is abruptly wrapped up and never spoken of again. A plotline about the government auditing vampires, trying to force them into the daylight, is seriously underwriten. The emotional ending only works thanks to the strengths of the cast, not the writing. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if “Vamps” was originally planned as a TV show. That would explain some of the underwritten elements. Still, the movie is a lot better than its reviews implies. It's a very campy and goofy, but ultimately still charming, little flick. [7/10]

I Love Sarah Jane (2008)

Once again, I relied on Google's algorithms to provide me with decent horror movie shorts. Once again, I am disappointed. “I Love Sarah Jane” comes from Spencer Susser, right before his mildly acclaimed feature debut “Hesher.” It's set sometimes after a zombie apocalypse has overtaken Australia. A boy named Jimbo rides his bike through the ruined towns. He comes to a friend house, where a zombie is chained up outside. Inside, lives a girl named Sarah Jane. He has a crush on the girl but it's difficult to make a meaningful connection when the world is in the middle of ending.

“I Love Sarah Jane” is what I think you'd get if Harmony Korine directed a zombie movie. The focus on young kids, and the post-apocalyptic setting, reminds me a lot of “Gummo” already. There's a white trash aesthetic to the short, as every one seems sweaty and poorly kept. Most annoyingly, the dialogue is way too heavy on the profanity. I think someone says “fucking” every other line. I get that this is how unsupervised teenagers talk but it quickly grates. The film would be an early role for Mia Wasikowska, as the titular girl, but she can't do much with the thin character. The idea of juvenile delinquents trying to kill time during the zombie apocalypse, primarily by torturing a random ghoul, is a mildly interesting idea. However, that's the only thing “I Love Sarah Jane” has going for it. This premise simply isn't enough to support even a fifteen minute short. [5/10]

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