Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 3

Rogue (2007)

Upon “Wolf Creek's” release, Greg McLean was immediately added to the Splat Pack. This phrase referred to a list of up-and-coming directors making especially brutal and violent horror movies in the early to mid-two thousands. Interestingly, few of the Splat Pack directors would stick with quote-unquote “torture porn.” James Wan would immediately move on to glossy ghost stories, whose success led him to big budget action movies. Neal Marshall would also move onto action mash-ups. Even Eli Roth, the most puerile of the bunch, would try other stuff in time. McLean, meanwhile, immediately shifted gears with his second feature. “Rogue” was a no-frills killer animal thriller, focusing on the saltwater crocodiles of McLean's native Australia. It would focus more on tension than gore and prove McLean was more than a one trick pony.

American journalist Pete arrives in the Northern Territory, a rural, jungle-like area of Australia, filled with huge rivers and streams. His cell phone dead, he decides to pass the time by joining a crocodile watching river cruise. He meets several people that day. Such as Kate, the pretty and confident boat captain, a married couple, a British family of three, an Irish woman, a would-be photography expert, a middle-age man mourning his dead daughter, and event two of the redneck locals. Just as the crew is ready to head home, they spot a flare. Kate steers the boat into a dead end, discovering the remains of a previous boat. They are then attack by a giant saltwater crocodile, who immediately capsizes the boat, stranding the people on a small island. As the night goes on, the tide rises, and the territorial crocodile continues to close in for the kill.

If “Wolf Creek” was a movie about Australians' duel reputation as laid-back blokes and outback dwelling crazies, “Rogue” explores another contrasting element of the country. McLean's camera often focuses on the incredible natural beauty of the Northern Territory. A notable shot shows Kate's boat moving up a river valley, the film lingering on the gorgeous cliff sides and green forest all around. Frank Tetaz' picturesque score further emphasizes the serenity of the area. This is a beautiful place. But it's also a very dangerous one. The opening scene shows the crocodile attacking a buffalo, crushing its head and dragging it into the water. Kate cautions the tourists about how deadly the crocodiles are while admiring their majestic qualities. This harsh but lovely land is also not for people. Repeated references are made to the tourists being in the crocodile's territory. There's a reason the natural world is striking out at these interlopers. They do not belong here.

An issue “Wolf Creek” had was its cast of indistinct characters. “Rogue” seems to have a similar problem at first. The cast is too large. In the introductory scenes, McLean reduces many of the cast members down to easily understood characteristics. Yet, as the situation grows graver, the tourists begin to grow. The mother can't swim and is afraid of water but is so determined to save her daughter that she makes a risky move anyway. The husband is willing to sacrifice himself for his wife. The good ol' boy actually reveals hidden depths, doing what he can to help the others. Especially rising above is Michael Vartan as Pete and Radha Mitchell. Vartan shows a believable humor while Mitchell nicely balances vulnerable and strong. (There's also two future stars in the ensemble. Neither Sam Worthington or Mia Wasikowska are that recognizable but, I assure you, they are in the movie.)

“Rogue” is also surely one of the better killer crocodile movies out there. The film is less bloody than expected, focusing more on sustained tension and sudden shocks. It may seem difficult to believe that a twenty-five foot long crocodile could sneak up on people. Yet McLean successfully sells this concept. The croc ramming the boat makes for a decent shock. Later, the huge reptile appears when least expected, scooping someone up. One of the most intense scenes involves the croc scooping someone up in its mouth and going into a death roll. McLean does a good job of putting together moments of long suspense. Such as a moment where characters attempt to cross a body of water with a rope. Or the climax, where Pete is alone in the cave with the crocodile, which may or may not see him.

“Rogue” doesn't reinvent the wheel. Instead, it's a back to basics flick, with little use for homage or irony. The film is merely focused on being as intense as possible, utilizing a real world monster as its central antagonist. The resulting film showed that McLean wasn't just a gorehound but a director capable of creating actual suspense. It flopped at the box office but received far better reviews than the director's premiere. Truly lovable characters still aren't within his grasp but “Rogue” is still worth seeing. [7/10]

The Leopard Man (1943)

As previously mentioned, Val Lewton's films began as titles first and movies second. This might explain the contrast between Lewton's nuanced, psychological films and their salacious, exploitation movie titles. So it's easy to imagine the higher-ups at RKO handing Lewton the title “The Leopard Man” in hopes that he would recreate the success of “Cat People.” The two titles seem to suggest more-or-less the same thing: Humanoid cat creatures. Even the “Leopard Man” trailer would play this up. But Lewton and returning director Jacques Tourner had other plans, making an entirely different kind of horror picture. Oddly, despite this pedigree, “The Leopard Man” is one of the least discussed film in the producer's career.

The nights are hot in New Mexico. In order to escape the heat, the small town locals gather in the night club. Kiki is the top dancer at the club and her boyfriend, Jerry, decides to add a leopard on a lease to her act. However, the leopard runs away that night. Later, a young girl is found killed, seemingly mauled to death by the escaped leopard. The killings do not stop there. Other women fall victim, dying in a similar manner. As the reign of terror continues, Jerry begins to suspect that a leopard is not the perpetrator. Instead, he comes to believe that a man is responsible for the deaths.

Unlike “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie,” “The Leopard Man” features no supernatural elements. The evil it concerns is of a much more human variety. The monster is a man who claims a certain type of victim in a specific way, a cool down period of days or weeks occurring between the murders. The phrase “serial killer” is never uttered during the movie's sixty-six minute run time but that's exactly what it's about. The film dispenses with the more psychological aspects of Lewton/Tourner's previous collaborations (Though feel free to read into the similarities between a leopard and a man who kills like one) in favor of a procedural mystery. The hero and heroine follows lead, eventually uncovering the murderer's identity through a combination of investigative skills and luck. This switch-up is surprisingly effective, the movie towing the line between murder mystery and grislier horror.

Despite the change of subject matter, Tourner does not reel back on the shadowy atmosphere. In fact, “The Leopard Man” shows the director continuing to improve his mastery of the black and white setting. The first murder features a long build-up, a teenage girl walking through the dark and light scattered night streets. It concludes with a fake-out jump scare that may actually top the one in “Cat People,” before moving on to a chilling reveal of the leopard. A sense of gloomy darkness characterizes all of “The Leopard Man,” the townsfolk often bathed in barely broken shadows. Tourner even brings this approach to the daylit scenes. A sequence of a girl exploring a graveyard, the leopard or leopard man crawling in the trees above, occurs in the afternoon but is no less tense and dreary. “The Leopard Man” is uniformly a tense, beautifully directed horror picture.

It seems some sort of love story was a requirement for RKO as well. “The Leopard Man” has one too. Jerry, the leopard's former owner, and Kiki, the dancer, are our sleuthing heroes. However, the guilt they feel over being indirectly responsible for the murders make them slightly more intriguing protagonists. They are far from the only interesting characters in the film. Tourner really attempts to capture the small town setting. We meet many of the local characters, such as a fortune teller, a mother and her two children, and the alcoholic leopard trainer. This adds a lot of local color, making the film's world a little more fleshed-out and interesting.

I had pretty much zero expectations for “The Leopard Man,” going in knowing almost nothing about it. This may explain why I enjoyed it so much. The ending, where the killer reveals his entire history in a few minutes, is a bit of a cheat. But even this I sort of like, as the film manages to make the killer somewhat sympathetic, despite his crimes. (This recalls “M” a bit, which I'm sure the director had seen before.) While the script is not as deep as Lewton and Tourner's previous films together, “The Leopard Man” is still a fantastically directed film that features some truly chilling moments. [8/10]

Masters of Horror: Dream Cruise

Mick Garris clearly intended “Masters of Horror” to be an international affair. Season one concluded with Takeshi Miike's ridiculously controversial “Imprint.” Season two would also wrap up with an episode from a Japanese director. While I suspect Garris was really hoping to get Hideo Nakata or Takashi Shimizu, season two's token Japanese director would be Norio Tsuruta, of “Ring 0” and “Premonition” fame. “Dream Cruise” follows Jack, an American lawyer living in Japan. He has fallen in love with Yuri, his best client's wife. Eiji is seemingly aware of this infidelity. He invites Jack and Yuri onto his yacht for the weekend. The mood on the boat is tense, Eiji confronting the lovers. After discovering the boat propeller wrapped in black hair, Eiji is possessed by a ghostly spirit. The ghost then pursues and attacks Jack and Yuri, still trapped on the yacht.

This is the only one of Norio Tsuruta's films I've seen but I'm already willing to say he's not in the same league as Nakata or Shimizu. Throughout “Dream Cruise,” Tsuruta indulges in J-horror cliches. Yes, the ghost is a stereotypical yurei. She's a vengeful spirit with long, black hair, the gray skin, a white dress, and creaking body language. Tsuruta's handling of this well-worn troupe is incredibly hokey. The ghost casts a green glow and walks on water in an unconvincing manner. The director's attempts to introduce other horror elements are similarly weak. Yuri is trapped in a flooding bathroom, which is just silly. When Eiji is possessed, his body begins to decompose, his head splitting open. This moment of gore looks hopelessly rubbery. When Eiji's disembodied arm begins to strangle Jack, “Dream Cruise” lapses into full-fledged unintentional comedy.

Though filled to the brim with J-horror cliches, “Dream Cruise” is not exactly your average “Masters of Horror” episode. Instead of being a one hour film intended for premium cable, “Dream Cruise” was originally shot as a feature film, released to Japanese theaters. The U.S. TV version has been cut down to an hour. This might explain some of the underdeveloped story turns. Jack is haunted throughout by the spirit of his little brother, who drowned while he was a boy. I imagine this was expanded upon in the theatrical cut. (No amount of extra footage would be able to save the incredibly cheesy resolution to that subplot though.) While nearly drowning, Yuri is given a vision explaining the ghost's backstory and its connection to her husband. I have no idea if this flashback is less awkwardly inserted into the story in the full version. I would hope it is. While the cuts are evident, it seems “Dream Cruise” wasn't changed much by missing a half-hour. The story flows more-or-less uninterrupted.

Another element of “Dream Cruise” that is a bit awkward is the acting. Here we have another case of a Japanese director having no idea how to direct an American actor and Japanese actors struggling to speak English. Daniel Gillies' lead performance as Jack is incredibly dull. He blankly delivers his lines, sleepwalking through most of his scenes. As for the Japanese cast, it's clear that English is a second language for them. Yohino Kimura is almost convincing as Yuri, as she's usually easy to understand. Ryo Ishibashi, meanwhile, roughly grunts through his scenes. Over all, “Dream Cruise” has hokey direction, a wildly derivative script, and a mediocre cast. This does not add up to an especially positive grade. [5/10]

I maintain that “Masters of Horror” was an amazing idea for a horror anthology series. There's hundreds of well known directors I would've loved to have seen involved with the show. Luminaries like Wes Craven, George Romero, and Sam Raimi were conspicuous in their absence. Season one had some flops but was, over all, a fairly strong collection. Season two, however, invited far too many questionable “masters”  aboard, resulting in way too many mediocre episodes. It's no wonder the show wouldn't survive in its original form pass this point. Yet I think the elasticity of its premise – established horror directors making most anything they want – means the show could be successfully revived. Imagine what Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggers, the Soska Sisters, or David Robert Mitchell could do with that format. Until that revival comes, I'll have to rate “Masters of Horror” as an exciting but ultimately failed experiment. [Masters of Horror: 7/10] 

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge: Pyron Descending

The penultimate episode of “Darkstalkers' Revenge” has the series main antagonist making himself know. Pyron, the fiery alien conqueror from above, descends on Earth. The Huitzils attack cities on his behalf. He installs five artificial suns around the globe, driving away the darkness. This infuriates Demitri, who holds off his attack on the Demon World in order to destroy Pyron. Morrigan decides to help him, mostly because she thinks it'll be fun. Meanwhile, humans flee their cities in drove. Hsein-Ko and Mei-Ling head towards the danger while Donovan and Anita deliberate on their choice. Felicia ends up in a small town especially affected by the invasion. Despite the humans being cruel to her, she decides to help them.

If the above plot synopsis was telling enough, “Night Warriors'” plot continues to be a jumbled mess. We've got anywhere from three to five story lines going on. Very few of them converge in any way. At the moment, Demitri and Morrigan's story is completely separate from the Donovan/Hsien-Ko/Anita part of the plot. This, in turn, is totally removed from the Felicia end of the story. Pyron invading the Earth is supposed to bring these plot threads together. Instead, the series continues to have the character operate in their own orbits. Episode three cuts back and forth between three locations, disrupting any sort of smooth narrative flow. This is why so many fighting games revolve around tournaments. It gives a reason for all these divergent characters to be in one location. “Pyron Descending,” meanwhile, forcefully resists this temptation, leading to a story that can't focus on one point for too long.

Despite the title suggesting Pyron will be the main focus, “Pyron Descending” is actually primarily devoting to exploring the characters' back stories. A large chunk of the episode shows how Hsien-Ko and Mei-Ling became monster fighting jiang-shi. Two centuries ago, in medieval China, their mother was a great sorceress. She gave her life to cast away a powerful darkness –  more-or-less revealed to be Pyron, in a plot twist that seriously muddles things – but trapping her soul in the underworld in the process. The sisters then made a vow to rescue their mother someday. They turned themselves into undead Darkstalkers in order to achieve this quest. This stuff is pretty interesting, even if I find it odd that the series director deemed Hsien-Ko's story more worthy of exploration than any other Darkstalker character. Though the reveal that Hsien-Ko looked just like Chun-Li when she was alive is a cute visual in-joke.

Hsien-Ko's back story is certainly more compelling than the Huitzils. We find out that the robots are millions of years old. They emerge any time a human civilization gets too advanced, destroying the cities, in order to protect the Earth. This explains why the world of “Darkstalkers” is so weirdly backwards. However, it doesn't explain why the robots are working with Pyron, an alien conqueror who is only interested in Earth as a way to sate his thirst for combat. This story inconsistency is carried over from Capcom's original video games, so we can't blame “Night Warrios” staff for that one. (The American UDON comic patched over this problem by revealing that Pyron created the Huitzils after visiting Earth billions of years ago, as a preemptive army for his eventual return.)

Last time, I complained that “Darkstalkers' Revenge” lacks the video game's humor. The anime doubles-down on this grimness here. “Pyron Descending” takes great pains to show how persecuted Darkstalkers are. Donovan and Anita are caught in the crowds fleeing Pyron's invasion. While the poor pile onto one boat, a rich family have reserved a whole galley for themselves, an interesting touch of class inequality the episode could've used more of. The rich boy steals Anita's doll, forcing her to reveal her psychic powers, which terrifies the crowd. Meanwhile, Felicia comes to a town under attack by the Huitzils. Despite actively fighting the killer robots, the local authorities imprison her. There's a moral here. Felicia is rescued by Jon Talbain, a kung-fu fighting werewolf who believes humans and Darkstalkers can never co-exist. Felicia's kindness towards people, and the eventual kindness she receives in turn, thaws his heart a little. Still, combining a story about aliens invading Earth and a persecuted supernatural minority makes “Darkstalkers' Revenge” more of a bummer than it should be.

Through all its flaws, “Night Warriors” remains beautifully animated. The scene of Hsien-Ko's mom fighting off a giant black beast, whose multiple heads swallow people whole, is really cool. The climax has Felicia and Jon Talbain destroying a horde of Huitzils by running an exploding train into a tunnel. That's a really inventive action beat. Episode three also has its share of fan service. Felicia and Jon Talbain are often paired together by fans, presumably because the pun of a cat and dog being a couple is too much fun to resist. So seeing them work together is neat, even if this is Talbain's sole appearance in the anime. There's some of the other type of fan service too. Morrigan gets a gratuitous bathing scene. Since Felicia is naturally naked, her modesty saved by strategically placed fur, there's a shot of her tied up in chains. You know, for the guys into that kind of stuff. Anyway, the “Darkstalkers” anime continues to be a frustrating but occasionally rewarding watch. [6/10]

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