Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

At the start of October, I had plans for the 31st. Then those plans got canceled. Then I ended up making some back-up plans. The short version of this is that I ended up handing out candy at a friend's house while dressed in my slightly bootleg Uncle Gilbert costume. That was fun and, as soon as trick-or-treating dried up for the night, I headed home to watch horror movies until I was sick.

Halloweentown (1998)

In my regular side gig as co-host of the So Weird Podcast, I spend a lot of time talking about the Disney Channel, circa the late nineties/early 2000s. It was during this time that Disney's television sector really started cranking Disney Channel Originals: TV movies specifically made for the network. Typically, nostalgics of my age look back on many of these films fondly. Happily, several of these TV movies have a Halloween or light-horror theme. Such as “Halloweentown,” which remains one of the most popular Disney Channel Originals. Unsurprisingly, it's a favorite of mine too.

Gwen Cromwell has forbid her three children – 13 year old Marnie, middle brother Dylan, and seven year old Sophie – from ever celebrating Halloween. This is deeply upsetting for Marnie, who feels a fondness for all things spooky. On the 31st, Marine's grandmother, Aggie, comes to visit. She tells the children of a place called Halloweentown, a magical land inhabited by friendly monsters. After overhearing an argument between her mother and grandmother, Marnie learns Halloweentown is real. Aggie is a two-hundred year old witch and fears that a mysterious presence is destroying her home town. Marnie and her younger siblings follow their grandmother back to Halloweentown, assisting her on her quest to save the town.

The reason I was fond of “Halloweentown” as a kid, and still like it quite a bit, should be obvious. The titular setting is absolutely delightful. How can I not love a town founded by and for monsters? Where a huge jack o' lantern sits in the town's square and cyclops, mummies, gremlins, ogres and other ghoulies freely walk the street? The film uses this setting as a way to set up a number of adorable sight gags. A yeti operates the ice cream parlor. The local broom shop is run by a Roy Orbison-inspired rockabilly zombie. The aerobics instructor at the local gym is a cat-lady and most of her clients are dog-faced people. The local campy hairdresser is a werewolf in bell bottoms. They even have a bowling team, also comprised of monsters! One of the film's best supporting characters is Benny, a skeleton cab driver who is fond of bad jokes. It's super-goofy but undeniably charming.

There's a surprising amount of talent behind the camera on “Halloweentown.” “So Weird's” Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson worked on the script. Mark Mothersbaugh composed the jaunty score. Alfred Sole, director of “Alice, Sweet Alice,” did the production design.  Yet “Halloweentown's” flaws are still readily apparent. It's easy to guess who's behind the villain's plot. As soon as the mayor discourages Aggie from investigating further, we know it's him. I always forget about the film's saggy mid-section, after the kids arrive in town but before they start fetching the ingredients for the witch's brew. The ending has two separate deus ex machinas and the bad guy is defeated essentially by the heroes' wishing him away. As you'd expect, the TV movie scope is fairly limited. The creature effects are pretty good but the film's digital effects, as in a lengthy broom flying sequence, are embarrassing.

Luckily, the cast is far more likable than you'd expect from a nineteen year old kid's TV movie. The film introduced a whole new generation to Debbie Reynolds. As Aggie, she's the ideal kid's movie grandmother: Wise, fun, adventurous, and never anything but absolutely charming. Judith Hoag, otherwise known as the first live action April O'Neil, has the tricky job of playing the uptight mom. She manages to play the part without coming off as overly bitchy or severe. The younger actors are not totally free from typical children actor pitfalls. Kimberly J. Brown is a little too precocious as Marnie but still suitably likable, making Marnie an appealing young hero. Emily Roeske is obviously a little raw as Sophie but still sweet and cute.

“Halloweentown's” popularity is evident in how many sequels it spawned, generally a rarity among Disney Channel Originals. I was pretty disappointed in “Halloweentown II” when I first saw it. By the time “Halloweentown High” and “Return to Halloweentown” had rolled around, I had aged out of Disney Channel's target demographic. (Though the fourth film includes an early role from Sara Paxton, making me sort of interested in checking it out.) I am not blind to “Halloweentown's” flaws but it remains a really cute and generally entertaining kid's flick. It's an ideal way to kick off the 31st. [7/10]

Doctor X (1932)

Why is X the most ominous letter? Is it the rarity? The unique sound? The cool shape? Or is it the letter that just looks the most interesting when presented by itself? Whatever the reason, storytellers have been attaching the letter X to the honorific doctor – by far the coolest title someone can hold – for decades. There's an X-Men, a luchador, probably a few songs, and a Japanese drama are all named after some variation of Doctor X. As far as I can tell, the first “Doctor X” was a two-strip Technicolor horror movie released by Warner Brothers in 1932. I've never seen it before and, being a fan of pre-code horror flicks, now seems like a good time to check it out.

The waterfront district of New York City is being stalked by a deadly murderer. Each death has occurred during the full moon, causing the newspapers to dub the killings the Moon Killer Murders. Some of the victims have been women and a few were cannibalized. Reporter Lee Taylor is on the case. Soon, the cops determine that the medical academy run by Dr. Jerry Xavier has some connection to the crime. They investigate each of the doctors that work there, finding all of them to be potential suspects. Xavier soon begins his own investigation, exposing each of the doctors to moonbeams in hopes of revealing the killer. Meanwhile, Lee falls in love with Dr. X's daughter. 

“Doctor X” was directed by Michael Curtiz, twelve years before he won an Oscar for “Casablanca.” More pressingly, Curtiz made this film a year before he made “Mystery in the Wax Museum.” This film is an obvious predecessor to that one. Both star Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill. Both were based on plays. Both were shot in two-strip Technicolor. This technique has not aged very well, as it frequently gives the film a washed-out, overly green color. Despite this, “Doctor X” is still awash with classic horror atmosphere. There's several amazing shots utilizing shadows, such as when Doctor X is spotted looking at a dead body in the middle of the night. The medical academy, with its room full of skeletons and winding hallways, makes an ideal horror setting.

Most importantly, the film is packed full of mad scientist tropes, with men in lab coats ranting madly and equipment buzzing with electricity. This is the most interesting aspect of the film. Despite what the title billing may make you think. Dr. Xavier is not the film's villain. Instead, he attempts to locate the killer using bizarre experiments. He straps the suspects down and makes them watch recreations of the killings, using wax models. When the killer's identity is revealed, it's done in a really weird way. The murderer starts whispering about synthetic flesh, over and over again, and spreads the goop on his face. When combined with the seasick two-strip coloring, it's a really memorably odd note to conclude the film on.

Calling “Doctor X” a horror movie is certainly not inaccurate. As in a hundred old dark house movies, there's a stranger in a cloak with hairy hands, stalking and killing people. The elements of cannibalism is your indication that this was a Pre-Code film. Mad science and insanity are obvious themes in the film. Yet “Doctor X” blends together several genres. There's an obvious murder mystery element, as both the police and Doctor X himself are attempting to identify the killer. There's an element of comedy, as Lee Taylor is a farcical character that likes to shock people with a joy buzzer. This leads to a romantic element, since Fay Wray's Joanne develops feelings for him for some reason. There's even a romantic trip to the beach!

The cast is pretty solid too, as Atwill and Wray are both as excellent as usual. Lee Tracy is pretty irritating as the reporter but I suspect that was more of a problem with the script than the performer. Despite being a strange little shocker, “Doctor X” has slipped into obscurity. These days, it's probably most famous for spawning a quasi-sequel, 1939's “The Return of Doctor X,” which is notable for being Humphrey Bogart's sole horror credit. Aside from that, the film is most remembered for being referenced in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” theme song. Still, classic horror fans should give this one a look, for the oddball story and atmospheric photography. [7/10]

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959)

“Caltiki – The Immortal Monster” is a title I've been hearing about for years. How could you forget a title like that? The memorably schlocky name isn't the only reason I've read about this one. Officially, the film was directed by Riccardo Freda. Unofficially, the movie was primarily directed by Mario Bava. Freda was a friend of Bava's and the two had previously made “I Vampiri” together, which Bava also went uncredited on. Freda wanted to give Bava the chance to direct and allowed him to complete “Caltiki.” Some sources claim that nearly the entire film was Bava's work. I didn't cover the film when I did my Mario Bava Director Report Card, a million years ago, as I usually exclude uncredited work from my projects. Seeing the film for the first time, I wonder how much of a Mario Bava movie this is.

In the jungles of Mexico, a group of archaeologists are attracted to a forbidden area due to its stories of madness. There, they find ruins relating to the Mayan goddess Caltiki and a deep pool of water. Beneath the waves, there is treasure... And a giant amoebas monster that dissolves human skin. The scientist manage to subdue the monster with fire but not before one of their own is injured. They cut the piece of the blob of his arm, preserving it. While the injured man slowly goes mad, the remains of the amoebas remain in a laboratory. When a comet passes near Earth, the blob monster is awakens again.

If I didn't know Mario Bava more-or-less directed “Caltiki,” I probably wouldn't have guessed that. There's only a few Bava-esque signs. Early on in the movie, there's an atmospheric backlit shot of a man fleeing into a forest. Occasionally, there's some shadowy atmosphere, similar to what the director would do with “Black Sunday.” The Mayan temple is cast in shadows. Nighttime shots are filled with a similar ambiance. Later, when the madman is stalking his scientific rival's home, the films recalls Bava's later giallos. Otherwise, “Caltiki” is fairly average looking. There's certainly very little here to suggest the master Bava would later become.

“Caltiki” has always been sold to me as an Italian rip-off of “The Blob.” Yet the movie's low budget is evident in how little screen time that blob monster has. In fact, there's a lengthy subplot revolving around a much more human monster. The man injured by the blob quickly looses his mind upon returning home. He attacks people, wanders into the desert, and is pursued by the police. He becomes intensely jealous of the expedition's leader. He sneaks off to the man's house and attacks his wife, attempting to claim her for his own. This long-winded subplot is rather tedious and barely connects to the film's main story. It mostly leaves the viewer wondering when the blob monster will show up again.

Unsurprisingly, “Caltiki” is most entertaining when said monster is on-screen. Due to being filmed in black-and-white, this monster can't be the colorful, ruby beast that appeared in “The Blob.” Instead, Caltiki is a black mass of squirming matter. It grows and pulsates like a huge tumor. The film is quite a bit gorier than its American counterpart. We see Caltiki eat away at flesh. Near the end, the amoebas reduces a man to a crumbling skeleton. The finale has the blob growing to massive size, forcing the military to march in with flamethrowers and tanks. Finally, in its closing minutes, “The Immortal Monster” becomes the entertaining creature feature its poster promised.

It's the typical B-movie griff. You cook up an awesome title, a cool poster, and an exciting premise... All things that the low budget movie can't really deliver on. So “Caltiki” devotes most of its run time to shit nobody cares about, before finally bringing us some impressive monster action in the final minutes. As an embryonic Bava movie, “Caltiki” is only slightly more interesting, as you can only see the outlines of the director's style to come. I guess I wasn't missing much by skipping this one all these years. [5/10]

Witchfinder General (1968)

As I've mentioned many times before, Vincent Price was a formative part of my youthful horror fandom. His films were easy to find on cable at the time, usually on AMC or Turner Classics Movies and frequently on Friday nights. When I saw “The Conqueror Worm” coming up on the schedule, I got myself ready for another spooky, A.I.P. produced Poe adaptation starring Price. Within minutes of the film starting, I realized that this was not like Price's other horror movies. I found the movie harrowing and intense. Even then, I realized I was probably too young to really get it. Soon enough, I'd learn that the film was originally entitled “Witchfinder General.” That American International Pictures re-named the movie “The Conqueror Worm” in America, in hopes of tricking people into thinking it was part of Roger Corman's Poe Cycle. The uncut version, original title intact, is now widely available in America.

The year is 1645 and England has been torn apart by civil war. In this tumultuous time, lawlessness has overtaken the individual villages. This allows Matthew Hopkins, who claims to be a government sanctioned witchfinder, to ply his trade. Hopkins goes from town to town, torturing innocent people accused of witchcraft, all in the name of God. In the village of Brandonston, Hopkins investigates the local priest, accused of Satanism. In order to protect the priest, her uncle, Sara sleeps with Hopkins. The witchfinder hangs the priest anyway. When Sara's finance, a soldier named Richard Marshall, returns to the village, he promises vengeance against Hopkins.

Linking “Witchfinder General” with Corman's Poe films was an especially ironic move. Corman's movies, and many other traditional horror films, glamorized the distant past. They presented a version of classical England that almost like a fairy tale. “Witchfinder General” is not that kind of movie. This England is dirty. People spit, swear, and rape. Death is ugly, brutish, and agonized. The state of civil war has left the countryside communities in tatters. Ultimately, Michael Reeves' film focuses on deconstructing heroic stories in general. Revenge is presented as petty and useless. When Richard vows to avenge the priest's death, his driven into an almost mad state. There's nothing gallant about the way he kills the witchfinder. He brutally clubs the man to death with an axe while his fiance, ostensibly the woman he's avenging, screams in horror. Additionally, after Hopkins abandons his assistant, the man also swears to track him down. However, his thirst for vengeance is relaxed when Hopkins pays him. There's no heroics in this movie's universe.

In the United States, “The Conquering Worm” was widely ignored as just another horror movie. In the U.K., the film's violence was controversial, with several minutes of footage being cut before release. “Witchfinder General” is unusually brutal for its time. The film presents real witch-finding methods without exaggeration. People are stripped and stabbed, while ordinary birthmarks are considered signs of demonic interaction. Victims are thrown in lakes, bound. If they drown, they were free of sin. If they float, they are then hanged. One of “Witchfinder General's” most intense scenes shows a woman tied to a ladder and slowly lowered into a fire. While she screams in agony, her husband screams in hopeless loss. Moreover, “Witchfinder General” is a strictly atheistic film. It never even once consider that Matthew Hopkins' actions are justified. His deeds are presented as utterly sadistic and needlessly cruel, all for the sake of greed.

Famously, director Michael Reeves and Vincent Price did not get along. Reeves had written the part for Donald Pleascene and was annoyed that he had to use Price instead. The two had an argumentative relationship, butting heads over everything. Upon seeing the film, Price would realize there was at least a method to Reeves' madness. Matthew Hopkins is not your typical Vincent Price villain. He's not campy, charming, or amusing. He's a calculating, dangerous, and sadistic man. No matter how based in greed or lust Hopkins' action are, Price plays him as totally certain of his actions. Whether or not Hopkins believes he's doing the Lord's work is up to interpretation. Price's performance makes it clear that Hopkins certainly presents the facade of believing this. It's a stern, frightening performance and one of the actor's best.

“Witchfinder General,” by the way, is loosely based on historical fact. Yes, there really was a man named Matthew Hopkins and he really was witch hunter. Unlike in the movie, the real Hopkins died peacefully at his home of tuberculous. When it comes to these sort of things, too often, reality is more horrifying than fiction. “Witchfinder General” is a tough watch but, ultimately, a film worth seeking out. By the way, I kind of like “The Conqueror Worm” cut, which is mostly intact but adds Price reading from Poe's poem at the beginning and end of the movie. It's unnecessary but sort of fitting anyway. [7/10]

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Among slasher fanatics, there are certain titles that are highly regarded. I'm not talking about the big franchises, not “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween,” though those are also beloved. I'm referring to the likes of “The Burning.” “My Bloody Valentine.” “The House on Sorority Row.” The latter title, in particular, is often cited by fans as one of the best slasher movies ever made. Now, I like this movie too. However, I've never quite loved it as much as many others do. Then again, I haven't seen “Sorority Row” since my college era slasher-mania. Halloween seems like the time to revisit this particular house.

As the college season ends, seven sorority sisters make plans for a big party. This greatly angers the house mother, Mrs. Slater, who also closes the house up early for unknown reasons. In order to pay her back, Vicki plans a prank on Slater. The prank goes horribly wrong and Slater ends up shot, possibly dead. Vicki convinces the others to cover the death up, though this horrifies Katey. Later that night, while the party rages, someone begins to murder the girls. The killer lurks in the darkness and swings Slater's cane. Katey soon learns she'll have to pay for her sisters' crimes.

“House on Sorority Row” was the directorial debut of Mark Rosman, who would mostly go on to direct family movies. Despite that, Rosman shows a strong eye for horror. “House on Sorority Row” is a stylish slasher focused more on suspense than gore. Now, there's plenty of gore. Slater's cane is used to stab and impale, gouge out eyes, and even slit a throat. One of the film's most notorious moments involves a decapitated head being found in a toilet. Yet the murders allows come at the end of long, suspenseful stalking scenes. Rosman makes good use of light, often obscuring his killer in shadow or behind bright lights. The film's stand-out moment occurs near the end, when final girl Katie gets drugged. She proceeds to hallucinate people dancing in the house or Slater's cane floating above the floor. There's some strong color here too, the sorority house being painted in purples and blues.

Most slasher movies feature equal numbers of men and women in their cast, to allow for gratuitous nudity and hanky-panky. “House on Sorority Row” features some T&A but its cast is primarily composed of women. The sorority sisters are the stars – and victims – of this story. By turning the attention away from romance, it allows the audience to care about the characters a little more. Katey, our eventual final girl, is intelligent and compassionate. Jeanie is the nervous one. Morgan buries her problems with alcohol. Not all the girls are that well developed. We don't get to know Liz very well. The acting isn't always great either. Jodi Draigie, though lovely, is pretty wooden as Morgan. Yet only Vicki, the queen bitch, is actively unlikable.

The film obviously wants you to think that Mrs. Slater, not quite dead and ready for revenge, is the killer. Yet it also, early on, sets up the eventual reveal that someone else is responsible. The eventual reveal gives the killer a really cool look, a fascinating backstory, and an interesting personality. Others have suggested that Erik Slater, the house mother's mentally-ill son, easily could've supported a franchise. Yet Erik's apparent child-like nature – his fascination with clowns, using rubber balls or jack-in-the-boxes as his calling card – contrasts with his victims in an interesting way. Early on, Katey tells her friends that they need to grow up. When they refuse maturity, they end up performing a fatal prank. So Erik isn't just a source of comeuppance but also symbolic of the sorority's sisters own immaturity.

I wouldn't call “The House on Sorority Row” a masterpiece or anything. I don't like it nearly as much as some of the films I mentioned above. Yet I can see why fans latch onto this one. It's pretty classy for a slasher flick, without loosing the flesh and blood the genre requires. It has a good cast and builds some decent suspense. The entire last act is really solid, with its dream sequences and murderous reveals. A sequel - “The Second House on Sorority Row?” – really would've been cool. Instead, we got a super lame, in-name-only remake twenty-six years later. [7/10]

Boys in the Trees (2016)

From the moment I read about “Boys in the Trees,” I knew I had to see it. There are certain themes that really appeal to me, that I've explored repeatedly in my own writing. I'm fond of coming-of-age stories. Plots revolving around teenage boys, growing up and growing apart, fascinate me. (Probably because I still basically feel like a teenage boy most of the time.) And, of course, I'm obsessed with Halloween. The Australian film, which has been traveling the festival circuit for a few years and finally got a U.S. release this year, combines all of those elements into one story. Though it's received little hype, the film really sounded like the right one to end the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon with. Especially since I've watched so many Australian films this October already.

When Corey and Jonah where little boys, they were best friends. They spent their days imagining an elaborate fantasy world and telling each other ghost stories. But that was a long time ago. It's 1999 now and both boys are teenagers. Corey is hanging out with a rowdy bunch of boys at school. Jonah has remained an outsider and is the frequent target of bullying from Corey's new friends. On Halloween night, after partying with his gang, Corey runs into Jonah again. Jonah convinces his old friend to go on a walk with him through the town. Together, they revisit the places – real and imagery – from their childhood. And they encounter some monsters along the way.

There's so much to unpack in “Boys in the Trees.” Ultimately, it's a story about teenage boys stumbling towards adulthood. Corey wants to pursue a career in photography, and is considering applying to an American school, much tot he chagrin of his father and friends. He chose his rowdy gang of friends, led by a bully named Jango, because they seem more mature. They do drugs and cause chaos on Halloween and fuck girls. Jonah's world of make believe seems so small in comparison. Yet, he discovers, it's a world he also cares about. The over-eagerness of a teenage boy, to want to grow and appear edgy, is an attempt to compensate for the childishness he still feels inside. There's a lot in the film about macho aggression, as Corey's new friend bully Jonah by calling him gay. This hints at the homoerotic tension in Corey's friendships with both Jonah and Jango.

“Boys in the Trees” uses its fantasy world as a metaphor for growing up. As Corey and Jonah regress back into their childhood friendship, they interact further with their childhood imaginations. Jonah rather obliviously uses fantasy monsters to represent his fears. The teenage bullies become werewolves. He tells stories about dead girls, stuck in a permanent state of childhood. A sewer entrance becomes a symbolic entrance into their fantasy world. As the dark truth of the nights events dawn on them, black robed wraiths appear. Eventually, growing up out of adolescence is revealed as a metaphor for another change in life. Jonah's stories edge “Boys in the Trees” into horror, especially a story about a grown-up consumed by darkness. This fits in with the film's Halloween setting, heavy on pumpkins, costumes, candy, and pranks.

Bolstering the film are two amazing, central performances. As Corey, Toby Wallace perfectly captures being a slightly meat-headed kid afraid of being a kid. He hides his intellectual pursuits from his friends, using his photography strictly as part of the bullying he participates in. As the film progresses, he gets more in touch with his secret, childish self. As Jonah, Gulliver McGrath is the truly impressive one. He projects a sadness, of being alone. Also a mischievous side, which he reveals through his frightening stories. Ultimately, the chemistry the two has makes the movie.  A pivotal conversation at the end, involving how their friendship ended originally, is incredibly powerful mostly because of the strength of the two's performances.

“Boys in the Trees” does a pretty good job of catching the spirit of 1999 too. The computers in general, and the internet specifically, are still new things that people don't really understand yet. The soundtrack is filled with memorable cuts from Marilyn Manson, Bush, and Rammstein. There's a generalized anxiety about the new millennium in the air. The film is a bit too long and doesn't quite catch all the balls it throws up in the air. A romantic subplot is truly inessential. The final reveal borders on the ponderous. The Dias de los Muertos symbolism is too on the nose. However, it's still an impressively emotive film about a difficult period in a young man's life that can't help but touch me deeply. And it sure the fuck is packed full of Halloween atmosphere. [9/10]

2017's Halloween season was a decidedly mixed affair for me. It started strong, with trips and fun and games for others. However, as October dawned, other plans fell through. I felt myself getting a little burned out with the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon. When you celebrate Halloween for six weeks, the end of October can't help but feel a little melancholy. But, in the end, Halloween pulled through, like it always did. I managed to have a really good time tonight, handing out candy and watching movies into the early morning hours.

Could I have made more of the season? Well, probably. Still, looking back at the Six Weeks of Halloween that was, it's hard to complain too much. It was a good Halloween season, not a great one. But good is still better than bad. Let's hang this pumpkin on the tree and bid the season of the spooks farewell. I've watched my scary movies. I've eaten my candy. I've howled at the moon and honored the spirits. Halloween, now and forever, until the day I die, will always be a good time. See you again soon, ghosts and goblins and everything else I love.

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