Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 25

Waxworks (1924)
Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

The wax museum occupies a special place in horror history. Maybe even more than dolls or dummies, wax figures take up residence in the Uncanny Valley. These glassy-eyed objects look like living things but, like corpses, are still and lifeless. The proprietors of these businesses are certainly aware of the disgust some patrons feel towards the dummies, as chambers of horrors are a regular feature in wax museum. Unsurprisingly, horror filmmakers have exploited these feelings many times over the years. Before Anthony Hickox's “Waxwork” films or “House of Wax,” or even “Mystery at the Wax Museum,” there was 1924's “Waxworks.”  It was the last movie Paul Leni made in his native Germany before coming to America and making several silent era classics for Universal Studios.

The owner of a wax museum, located within a carnival, posts a job ad. He wants someone to come in and write stories to accompany the wax figures, in hopes of attracting more business. A poet inquires about the job and is quickly hired to write backstories for three wax models: A one-armed model of Harun al-Rashid, a model of Ivan the Terrible, and a representation of Spring-Heeled Jack which the film seems to conflate with Jack the Ripper. Infatuated with the owner's daughter, the poet incorporates her and himself into each tale he writes.

To refer to “Waxworks” as a horror movie is a bit misleading. Of the three segments, only one truly belongs to the genre of the macabre. The first segment, concerned with Harun al-Rashid, is a adventure/romance in the vein of “Arabian Nights.” The plot, revolving around a baker attempting to impress his wife by stealing the caliph's ring and al-Rashid attempting to romance the same wife, is light-hearted. Despite the plot involving threats of assassination, nobody dies. There's a fun sequence involving the baker sword fighting with some royal guards and leaping across rooftops. Emil Jannings, best known for Murnau's “Faust” and “The Last Laugh,” is excellent as al-Rashid. Jannings has a twinkle in his eyes that assures the audience everything will work out all right in the end.

The Ivan the Terrible sequence is mostly a dour historical drama, though I suppose its themes of madness and death brushes up against the horror genre. I found the plot a bit hard to follow but it mostly involves Czar Ivan's love of poisoning people, whose deaths are timed as the last grain of sand in an hourglass sifts to the bottom. After he takes pity on a prisoner, the Czar's Poison-Mixer is lined up for execution. A convoluted series of events follow. Conrad Veidt plays Ivan and is unnervingly steely. Vedit's unforgettable eyes starred with a mad conviction, as he orders his victims. The twists and turns in the plot may be hard to follow but this episode features several memorable scenes, such as a dance at a wedding where everyone is clearly terrified and the conclusion, where the Czar turns the hourglass over and over again, eventually going mad.

The last segment in “Waxworks” is also the most brief, running only six minutes. It's practically plotless too. The poet falls asleep starring at the model of Spring-Heeled Jack and has a nightmare about the dummy stalking him and the owner's daughter through a surreal cityscape. Though light on story, the segment is probably the most memorable in the film. Befitting a wax model, Jack barely moves. Instead, he appears suddenly around every corner as the heroes try to escape. Sometimes, there's even more than one of him. Werner Krauss, best known for playing Dr. Caligari, gives Jack a transfixed and unnerving glare. It's a creepy and appropriately dream-like scene, a good note to conclude the film on.

What makes “Waxworks” truly special is its direction. The film piles on the expressionistic style. The Arabian streets in the first segment wind around each other in surreal, impossible ways. The palace and temple rooftops are eerie silhouettes, topped with Islamic crescent moons. Ivan the Terrible's torture chambers are shadowy, full of abstract angles that spiral down into darkness. Paul Leni's expressionistic direction really shines during the Jack the Ripper scene, as the city is composed solely of undefined shapes stretching up towards starless skies. “Waxworks” builds fantastically on the foundation build by “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and makes it clear that Leni was one of the visual innovators of the silent era.

Leni would bring that same sensibility to his American films, elevating “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Man Who Laughs,” and “The Last Warning” with similarly stylistic direction. The middle segment drags quite a bit but the first one is fun and the final one is spooky. I don't know if this was intended but the excellent cast plays like a who's-who of German silent cinema. Finding Cesare, Caligari, and Mephisto in the same film is a treat for classic horror devotees. More than anything else, Leni's unforgettably eerie direction makes “Waxworks” a must-see for fans of silent cinema. [7/10]

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Each of “The Purge” movies have come out in the summer. The first dropped in June and all the others in July. In fact, the last two were both released on July 4th. Personally, I've always thought releasing horror movies during the summer was a risky move. Smaller films threaten to get lost among the endless blockbusters. Yet I guess Blumhouse knows their shit. Genre counter-programming has clearly worked out for “The Purge” franchise. The series has happily leaned into the summer release date, the advertising comparing the real American tradition of July 4th with the fictional American tradition of the Purge. (Both events probably sever the same number of fingers.) 2016's “The Purge: Election Year” would be another success, outgrossing the previous entry.

“Election Year” jumps ahead twenty years. As a teenager, Charlie Roan's family was murdered by a purger. Now, she's a senator who is running for president on an anti-Purge platform. This angers the New Founding Fathers of America, the hard-right political party that made the Purge an institution. They remove the rule that makes high ranking political figures safe on Purge Night. Naturally, this is an excuse to assassinate Roan before she wins the upcoming election. Roan's bodyguard, the sergeant from “Anarchy” now named Leo Barnes, is her only protection. Soon, the fleeing senator encounter other people in D.C.: A shop owner named Joe, his young employee, a woman who goes out on Purge Night to help people, and a group of revolutionaries looking to destroy the N.F.F.A.

As you might have guessed, “The Purge: Election Year” was an especially topical entry in the franchise. After introducing political/social critique in the last film, James DeMonaco really doubles-down on it in “Election Year.”  The sequel focuses more on depicting the right-wing government that made the Purge possible. Now, it's just a matter of fact that the Purge is a political tool, designed to wipe out dissidents and the poor. The organizers are evangelical Christians, gathering in churches to murder and babbling in tongues while killing. The villains employ a band of mercenaries who decorate with Neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery. The heroes are black and Latino, the most frequent targets of government sanctioned violence both in and out of universe. And, of course, a liberal leaning woman running against a hyper-conservative man for president was especially relevant in 2016.

Whatever loftier intentions “The Purge: Election Year” has in mind, this is still a relatively low budget horror movie. Like many Blumhouse films, the series has been distributed by Universal Studios. Naturally, the company has been eager to incorporate the successful “Purge” series into their annual Halloween Horror Night events. “Election Year,” either intentionally or unintentionally, ends up resembling the “haunted maze” attractions at the parks. The middle section of the movie is devoted to the protagonists running through a Washington, D.C. that's been transformed into a war zone. Attackers in colorful outfits leap out and grab them. They see weird displays – public guillotining, a bloody man ranting on a street corner, a singing woman sitting on a bench by a burning corpse – play out around them. Though the movie is fairly grim, stuff like this is sort of fun in a ridiculous way.

And “Election Year” is a ridiculous film. The roaming gangs of purgers have only gotten more flamboyant. A group of psychotic teenage girls, with a petty grudge against Joe, show up at his store in a car covered in Christmas lights. They wear colorful and gratuitously sexy costumes while ranting like lunatics. We also meet a gang of murder tourists – Europeans who travel to America just to participate in Purge Night – wearing Americana themed outfits. One group of purgers have installed a Poe-style pendulum in an alley way. The action is bigger and sillier than ever before too. There's a helicopter with a chain gun, gladiatorial combat, a priest with a shotgun, and Frank Grillo shooting a drone out of the air. Betty Gabriel cracks the worst comebacks possible after blasting purgers. Grillo has a final boss battle knife fight before the end credits. It's super silly but in an appealing way.

The cast is an improvement over the previous one's too. Bringing Frank Grillo back was a great idea. Grillo's aptitude for action hero theatrics are a great boon to “Election Year.” You're certainly more inclined to follow him on a crazy night of murder than some other random joe. Elizabeth Mitchell is also likable as Senator Roan, a woman who sticks to her principles even when knee-deep in murder country. Mostly, it's the supporting cast that makes “Election Year” fun. Mykelti Williamson is hugely entertaining as the caustic Joe Dixon. Joseph Julian Soria is believable and oddly sweet as Marcos, his young protegee. Betty Gabriel is convincingly bad-ass as Laney Rucker, while still maintaining a more empathetic side. For you “Purge” fanatics, “Election Year” also brings back Edwin Hodge, reprising his role of the homeless man from the first film.

“The Purge: Election Year” is definitely the best film in the series thus far. Don't get any nutty ideas though, as it's still got some pretty big flaws. The evil-doers are getting increasingly more ridiculous with each new entry. The third film has the exact same pacing problems as the previous two. Just like last time, there's a weird sluggish spot in the second half, where all the action stops cold for a while. DeMonaco's direction is still pretty tacky, as he employ slow-mo and dramatic shaking once again. But these movies are getting incrementally better with each installment. Maybe the next will actually be good all the way through? [6/10]

Darkstalkers: Ghost Hunters

Episode six of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon brings in another game character: Hsien-Ko, the jiang-shi who hunts other Darkstalkers. (She's just referred to as a Chinese ghost here.) From Pyron's ship, Demitri and Morrigan notice that Darkstalkers are disappearing all over the globe. They soon realize that Hsien-Ko is exterminating them. Lord Raptor is sent to battle the hunter, which fails, and Morrigan soon follows after him. The ghost girl reveals her origins to Rikuo. She's driven by revenge, as Demitri murdered her family hundreds of years ago. The jiang-shi and the vampire are soon fighting it out.

There's a lot of crappy stuff about this episode. Hsien-Ko's redesign is hideous, with her giant metal hands, white skin, and exposed midriff. Her completely rewritten origin, which now involves eating magic rice, is lame. The action scenes are typically weak, Morrigan pulling a huge sword out of nowhere at one point. Rikou and Lord Raptor's roles in the episode are unnecessary, though Scot McNeil's lyrics-filled performance as the zombie is still fun. However, Hsien-Ko's grudge against Demitri is more compelling than the episode's plots usually are. She even gets a real character arc, rushed though it is. Also notable: Felicia and Harry have a very small role in this episode. I can't say I miss them. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dying to Know You

“Dying to Know You” begins with a daring daytime kidnapping. The wife and daughter of a millionaire are taken in broad daylight. The police brings in a psychic named Denise to help locate them. This becomes a problem as soon as she meets Nick Knight. While investigating the missing women, the psychic picks up images of Nick's extensive past and vampire lifestyle. This freaks her out so much that she decides to leave the investigation. As the case goes on, and it becomes apparent that Nick can't crack it without her help, the vampire cop reveals the truth to Denise. This, naturally, does not end well.

I guess it was only a matter of time before Nick meet some other character with supernatural powers. It goes without saying that a vampire cop is way more interesting than a psychic investigator. However, Elizabeth Marmur gives a decent performance as Denise. When she's assailed by the disturbing images of Nick's past, Marmur is believable. She also has a decent rapport with Geraint Wyn Davies. The psychic also introduces a few other amusing moments, such as when she tells Schanke his unseen wife isn't actually at her bowling night. (He then calls her on a giant cellphone.) The crime plot is completely uninteresting and the way it ties in with the psychic angle is somewhat disappointing. The ending features some cheesy flying effects and a blunt conclusion. [6.5/10]

Monday, September 24, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 24

Targets (1968)

At this point, the story behind “Targets” may be more famous than the actual film. Peter Bogdanovich was working as a film critic, writing essays for Esquire. He came to L.A. with hopes of becoming a director. After a chance encounter with Roger Corman in a theater, Corman offered him a job. Bogdanovich could make any movie he wanted as long as it was cheap and he met two criteria. Boris Karloff would have a major supporting role, as the aging horror star owed Corman two days. Also, the director had to utilize stock footage from Corman and Karloff's previous movie, “The Terror.” I don't know if “Targets” was the kind of movie Corman was expecting to get. Either way, it would launch Bogdanovich's career and give Karloff a worthy swan song.

The film follows two seemingly unrelated storylines. The first revolves around Byron Orlok, an elderly actor famous for his classic horror pictures. Orlok is increasingly cynical about the world and tired of the B-movies he's now making. So he announces he's retiring, much to the chagrin of his secretary Jenny and young screenwriter Sammy. Orlok is contractually obligated to promote his latest picture by appearing at a drive-in movie theater that night. Meanwhile, a clean-cut young man named Bobby Thompson goes on a rampage for no discernible reason. He murders his family before shooting his sniper rifle at a busy freeway. He's eventually chased to the same drive-in theater Orlok is scheduled to appear at, where the two men's destinies will intertwine.

“Targets” was a film very much of its time. Bobby Thompson is obviously based on Charles Whitman while his freeway rampage was clearly inspired by the 1965 Highway 101 shootings. The movie's release was delayed because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The deliberate contrast between Thompson's senseless acts of violence and the hokey, safe horror of Orlok's films makes it a movie about the shifting culture of the late sixties, when the Vietnam War – Thompson is a Vietnam vet – was bringing real horror into every American home. Yet, since we live in a world where the safety of public places is still regularly violated by random shootings, “Targets” still feels blisteringly vital.

Bogdonovich expertly depicts the mundane nature of evil. Aside from the clips of “The Terror,” “Targets” has no musical score, creating a naturalistic feeling. While the scenes with Orlok are full of dialogue, those focused on Thompson are quiet. In long shots, we see him watch TV with his family or go to the shooting range with his dad. (Who he, in a disturbing and unexplained touch, calls “Sir.”) This same distant approach is used when Thompson shoots his wife, mother, and dad. He then tidies up the murder scene, not wanting to make a mess. That tidiness is also on display before he begins his shooting spree, as he lays his firearms before him in a clear line. He then eats a sandwich, not disturbed by the acts he's about to commit. There are two scenes of him buying ammunition, before and after the massacre begins, and they are startlingly similar. The sniper's rampage isn't just random. It's casual too. Here's horrible, awful things happening for no reason even though the world around them seems to make sense. It's a chilling juxtaposition.

Yet “Targets” is not just a brilliant fictionalization of several famous murder sprees. It's also home to an extraordinary Boris Karloff performance. Karloff essentially plays himself and brings all the world-weariness you'd expect from an eighty year old screen icon to the part. He bemoans that his film, and his own acting by extension, no longer has the power to horrify. Yet a scene where he tells a version of W. Somerset Maugham's “The Appointment in Samarra,” in an uninterrupted monologue, is chilling. Karloff is allowed to be funny, in his scenes with Bogdanovich, but his real frailness and the weight of his actual legacy makes Orlok's situation so much more meaningful. Karloff is reflecting on his own life, with all the regrets and joys that brings. It was supposedly his favorite of all his performances and it's no wonder why.

In its final act, Bobby hides behind the drive-in theater screen, shooting people in the audience. So real life horror is firing from behind the fake, projected image. The earlier shootings were filmed from a distance, from behind Bobby's scope. Here, the audience feels the impact of the shots, the camera zooming in on the victims as the bullets bring them down. Thompson bringing actual death from behind the theater screen is inverted when Orlok walks up to him, the shooter confused by the actor seemingly emerging from the movie. This brings “Targets” to its last series of chilling images: An increasingly disoriented Bobby whimpering like a child after Orlok scares him. Orlok baffled that this frail boy could do such an awful thing. Thompson pointing out that he “didn't miss a one” as the police carry him away. Finally, the empty theater lot the next day, the ordinary place where all this terrible violence occurred.

“Targets” is awash in meta elements. The film does not hide that Karloff is basically playing himself, as Orlok also stars in “The Terror.” Later, he watches Howard Hawks' “The Criminal Code,” one of Karloff's earliest movies. Similarly, Bogdanivich plays Sammy, a young director who has just written script for Orlok where he basically plays himself. This shows how sharp and self-aware the film is. This, along with the then-recent tragic events, perhaps led “Targets” to be overlooked in 1968. However, in time, it has been reappraised. It was a brilliant, powerful and chilling debut for Bogdanovich. For Karloff, who made a few more films before his death, it was the perfect send-off. [9/10]

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Blumhouse is the biggest name in mainstream horror right now. There's a simple reason for this: Economics. Blumhouse is one of the few studios putting out medium budget genre films. Due to their smaller budgets and high concepts, their films are pretty much guaranteed to turn a profit. This approach has allowed the company to release many movies, with varying results. Sometimes you'll get a “Get Out” and sometimes you'll get a “Truth or Dare.” The original “Purge” movie exemplified this approach. Its three million dollar budget and catchy premise insured its success. That the premise actually struck a cord with audiences made the producers realize they had a potential franchise on their hands. “The Purge: Anarchy” would roll into theaters a little over a year later.

The year is 2023 and Purge Night is a few hours away again. The sequel follows several people over the course of the night. Eva, a working class waitress, and Calli, her teenage daughter, just hope to survive out the night in their apartment. Shane and Liz, a young married couple on the verge of divorce, are driving through the city when their car suddenly stops working. As the Purge begins, both duos are trapped in public. Meanwhile, a mysterious man roams the streets in an armored vehicle. The man has vengeance against a specific target on his mind but ends up protecting Eva, Calli, Shane and Liz as they navigate the twelve-hour period of unregulated crime.

A big complaint I had with “The Purge” is that it set itself in probably the most boring corner of its universe. All the crazy shit that could happen during Purge Night and the first movie was set inside some rich asshole's McMansion. “Anarchy” at least corrects that much. It's set in the worst parts of an urban metropolis. We get a taste of the –as the subtitle indicates– anarchy that goes down during the Purge. Snipers sit on roof tops, waiting for victims to wander into their sights. One such example rants into a megaphone while doing this. Heavily armed gangs drive around in armored buses, looking to reap chaos. Eva's sleazy apartment supervisor sees the night as a way to assault the woman he lusts after. I feel like we're still only getting a peak at what would go down during such an event. There's still no mass robbery or mundane stuff of that nature. But it's something.

The sequel also explores the political and social ramifications of the premise more so than its predecessor. It turns out there's a vocal portion of the U.S. population that is against the Purge. A group of underground activists protests the activity, even hacking television signals to send their message. The sequel also confirms something the first movie only hinted at. The Purge has lowered unemployment, resolved crime, and helped the economy not because “unleashing the beast” is good for Americans. It's because mostly poor people are killed during the night. The government sends professional kill squads into lower in-come communities to facilitate this goal. The rich either “buy” sickly poor people to execute or pay gangsters to round up stragglers they can then hunt for sport. Thus “The Purge” emerges as the ideal horror franchise of Trump's America, as it simply literalizes how the rich prey on the poor in the real world.

Sadly, “The Purge: Anarchy” still isn't a very good movie. James DeMonaco's direction has improved some from his previous film. There's fewer jump-scares and shaky-cam. However, his action scenes are still underwhelming to watch. There's a few stand-out sequences, such as when a flaming murder buggy rolls through a shadowy tunnel. Too often, his action scenes are composed of people just shooting at other people, with little finesse. There's also some more really shitty CGI blood. DeMonaco also still sucks at pacing. The sequel looses all momentum in its second half. Our group of protagonists arrive at a friend's home, a situation that inevitably ends in chaos in a way totally lacking in tension. The movie never recovers from this, as its finale feels sluggish. Its epilogue, devoted to our hero learning a lesson in forgiveness, also comes off as utterly insincere and limp.

Much like the movie, the cast is a mixed bag. The film is a vehicle for Frank Grillo, a tough guy character actor that, in another era, could've become a Charles Bronson-style movie star. Grillo's impressive physicality and steely gaze makes him a good fit for a movie like this. The audience is interested without him doing much and he's fun to watch during the action scenes. Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul are likable as the mother and daughter caught up in the Purge, seeming relatable enough. On the flip side are Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez as the splintering married couple. These two are utterly uninvolving, their conflict coming off as forced and contrived compared to everyone else's.

“The Purge: Anarchy” improves on the first one in some big ways. I still feel like DeMonaco cooked up the idea of the Purge as a way to add variety to the first movie's routine home invasion premise. In the sequel, you feel the filmmaker actually attempting to explore the concept he created. The sequel is still undone by its writer/director's inability to handle pacing and tension. Still, it's an improvement. I'm intrigued to see how the franchise will continue to evolve over the next two entries, neither of which I've seen before. [6/10]

Darkstalkers: The Walls Came Tumblin' Down

The fifth episode of “Darkstalkers” suggests something unexpected. Apparently, the events of the Old Testament exist in this universe. This week's MacGuffin is the magical trumpet used by the Israelites at the Battle of Jericho. Three separate groups are alerted to the instruments presence: That would be Felicia and Harry, zombie rock star Lord Raptor, and Pyron, who sends Anakaris after it. The three parties soon end up in Africa, in some ruins that combine Roman and Middle Eastern architecture, and battle over the magical horn.

The animation on this show is always awful but this episode is especially egregious. The characters' mouth frequently do not line up with the dialogue, which is sometimes out of order. Felicia's outfit shifts within seconds during a gym sequence. In the final scene, a car is driving across the desert before suddenly flying over the ocean. Once again, the characters' abilities vary wildly, with Felicia kicking a green lightning bolt in one scene and Morrigan shooting jelly(?) in another. The action scenes are, typically, laughably stiff and cheesy. Despite the countless deviations from canon, the episode does feature an out-of-nowhere reference to Ozom, Lord Raptor's master in the video game.

Having said that, “The Walls Came Tumblin' Down” is probably the best episode of “Darkstalkers” so far. This is entirely thanks to Scott McNeil as Lord Raptor. (McNeil seems fond of the character, as he voiced the character in both the American cartoon and the dub of the anime.) The zombie mostly speaks in rock lyric puns, which are mildly amusing. McNeil's campy performance goes a long way. Raptor has a pretty cool vehicle that can change shape, as he travels around in a zombified elevator, airplane, and car throughout the episode. It's still incredibly stupid and senseless but is slightly less irritating than the last few episodes. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dance by the Light of the Moon

Included in “Forever Knight's” opening credits is the image of Nick holding up his badge just as a topless stripper turns around, his shield blocking our view of the girl's chest. “Dance by the Light of the Moon” is the episode that scene is from. Said stripper, Ann, seduced one man into embezzling funds and another, a cop, into strangling the other guy. Who she then murdered. Nick and Schanke investigate the double murder and, going by the lipstick smeared on the corpse, quickly connect it to Ann. As Nick interrogates Ann, it seems he's also being seduced by her. The femme fatale hopes to repeat the double homicide with Nick and Schanke as her latest victims.

“Dance by the Light of the Moon” is the first episode of “Forever Knight” I didn't enjoy that much. Very early on, the viewer figures out that Nick isn't really being seduced by Ann. That this whole thing is a set-up to capture the murderer. Since we know the stripper is guilty from the beginning, there's very little suspense to the investigation. The character of a murder-addicted lawyer-turned-stripper strikes me as fairly ridiculous, which Cyndy Preston's high-strung performance not helping matters.

However, there's still some things I enjoyed about this episode. The flashback segments take us back to when Nick was seduced by Janette, 600 years ago, which contrasts to the scenes of Ann attempting to seduce him. Those moments are solid, giving us more of a peak into Knight's origins. Mostly the strength of the cast is what saves this one. There's a really funny scene of Nick and Schanke talking in his apartment, the human cop almost nodding off after working all night. I also like the cute scene between Nick and Natalie, where he gives her a little kiss on the forehead. The easy-going chemistry between the cast members prove more compelling than the melodramatic script this time. [6/10]

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 23

The Purge (2013)

You know a horror series has truly made an impact on the culture when it becomes short-hand, visual or otherwise, for something bigger. If you call someone Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, everyone knows what that means. For another example, a simple hockey mask is now practically the de-facto symbol of the entire horror genre. And, for a more modern example, we all know what Purge Night is. It seems the central idea of “The Purge,” a night where all crime is legal, has really caught the public's imagination. It has spawned memes and hoaxes and tasteless quarries. With four films now released, I thought this Halloween was a good time to take a look at one of the defining horror franchises of our time. 

Some time in the near future, America has become a far-right dictatorship. I know this is very difficult to imagine. By 2022, a yearly tradition called the Purge is now enforced country wide. The Purge is a twelve hour period where all crime, including murder, is legal. It's celebrated by many as a god-given right and has supposedly improved life for everyone. James Sandin has made himself rich selling safety equipment for families who hope to keep themselves safe during the Purge. Along with his family – wife Mary, teenage daughter Zoey, and younger son Charlie – he hopes to have a peaceful Purge Night. This plan is shattered when a homeless man, injured by a roving band of psychos, knocks on their door. Charlie lets the man inside. Now, the Sandins are targeted by a group of demented Purgers, determined to get inside their home.

It's very true that the central premise of “The Purge” is enticing. The ramifications of the film's main concept, that a night were all crime is legal will solve most of society's problems, raises a lot of questions. Mostly, the Purge makes you imagine all sorts of scenarios. Outside of roving bands of masked murderers, you can't help but see a big variety of crimes. Like Wall Street bankers embezzling millions. Or poor families robbing banks. Or battered spouses murdering their abusive husbands or people simply stealing the stuff they really want but can't afford. Moreover, you wonder what the ramifications of the Purge are on the rest of the society. Can people be persecuted for crimes committed on Purge Night if they affect things that happen the next day? Such as an arsonist that set fires that burn after the twelve-hour period? How do citizens cope with knowing their neighbors are murderers?

All those interesting scenarios “The Purge's” premise makes you imagine are squandered in favor of a simply serviceable home invasion thriller. Instead of setting itself within an area ravaged by the Purge, the film is set within a mostly safe, very upright neighborhood. If Charlie hadn't let the homeless man into the family home, the Sandins probably would have had a peaceful night. The middle section of the film, devoted to James debating about what to do while arguing with the psychos outside, are fairly uninviting. When the home invasion begins, the movie even becomes hokey. Director James DeMonaco turns up the shaky cam, throws in several cheap jump scares, and peppers the film with goofy shots of Purgers frolicking in their silly looking masks. “The Purge” mostly stands in the shadows of superior home invasion films like “The Strangers” or “You're Next.”

“The Purge” also has no idea what to do with the moral complexities of its premise. For most of the film, James and Mary are totally ready to kill the stranger or give him up to the murderers. After one tearful conversation with their daughter, they both totally change their mind and decide to protect him. At this point, “The Purge” becomes a weird action/horror hybrid. The scenes of James fighting off the intruders are decently executed. They're also hampered by some unimaginative, murky direction or some cheesy CGI blood. “The Purge” then clatters towards a fucking terrible ending. The plot is essentially resolved with fifteen minutes to go, forcing the film to extend the story in an aimless and unimaginative fashion.

What about the cast? Ethan Hawke has made a decent career out of starring in mid-tier thrillers like this. He's playing a fairly clueless guy, totally ignorant of the way he profits off other people's misery. Hawke goes hard in making him a Ward Cleaver-like stand-up dad, slowly becoming aware of what's happening around him. Lena Heady is a strong actress but she's stuck into an underdeveloped role, of a loyal wife mostly pushed around by the script. Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder, as the kid, do better, as their emotions are more consistent and less manipulated. Lastly, Rhys Wakefield goes way over the top as the soft-spoken leader of the Purgers. He smiles wide and speaks quietly, using every pathetic technique to signal to the audience that he's a crazy bad guy.

Honestly, the creepiest thing about “The Purge” is how completely okay the film's society is with their neighbors participating in a massacre. The contrast between the calm, smiling faces and their desire to murder is certainly creepier than shit like POV shots of the kid's spooky remote control baby doll drone. “The Purge” has a cool idea and one or two effective moment. However, the actual film really doesn't live up to what you imagine in your head when you hear the premise. It turns out, thinking about the “Purge” is a lot more interesting than actually watching “The Purge.” [7/10]

The Colossus of New York (1958)

“The Colossus of New York” is a movie I've heard about for years. As a lad, I saw a documentary or read a book about classic sci-fi or classic horror or killer robots or all three. I watched and/or read lots of things like that when I was little. Clips and images from “Colossus of New York,” usually of the caped colossus cradling a woman in his massive hands, appeared in documents like these frequently. Despite its seemingly iconic stature, Eugene Lourie's 1958 sci-fi film has been unavailable for years. If you wanted to watch the movie, you'd have to buy an old VHS tape or catch a rare television showing. In 2012, Olive Films finally released the “Colossus” on DVD and Blu-Ray. And now in 2018, I finally got around to picking the disc up.

Jeremy Spensser comes from a family of geniuses. He is a gifted scientist, designing devices which could solve world hunger. His father, William, is a brilliant brain surgeon. His brother, Henry, is an expert in robotics. Jeremy has a wife and son, Anne and Billy, that he loves dearly. After landing at an airport, Jeremy is hit by a truck and killed. William is incensed that the world should be denied his son's brilliance. So he concocts a scheme to save Jeremy's mind. The dead man's brain is placed inside a giant robotic body, designed by Henry. This, unsurprisingly, doesn't go according to plan. Jeremy, now known as the Colossus, goes insane. 

On one hand, “The Colossus of New York” is a very typical creature feature. After his son dies, William Spensser becomes a stereotypical mad scientist. He wears an overcoat, hangs out in a secret laboratory, and makes ominous proclamations about the world. The longer Jeremy stays as the Colossus, the madder he becomes. Soon, he's declaring that all humanity is inferior to him and should be destroyed. He attempts to reconnect with his son, who innocently befriends the giant robot. In a story turn very reminiscent of “The Golem,” the kid becomes the monster's undoing. After discovering Henry is moving in on Anne, Jeremy murders his brother. The Colossus has several far-out abilities. He has ESP and can shoot deadly laser beams from his eyes. The latter really comes into play during the climax, when the Colossus breaks into a ball room and starts blasting multiple innocent bystanders.

As routine as “The Colossus of New York” may look on a scripting level, the execution makes a big difference. Lourie's direction is atmospheric. There are several shots of the Colossus walking underwater, the giant eerily moving through the dark depths. This eerie beauty is also apparent in the scene where Jeremy returns his unconscious wife to her bed. Lourie frequently paints New York skyline in deep shadows, making the modern city feel like an expressionistic metropolis. The Colossus' final rampage is set in the United Nations building, the modern architecture of the interior making the sequence unforgettable. The Colossus itself has an indelible look. Atop its massive, caped body is an expressionless, robotic head that exaggerates human features into something colder and inhuman. The way the cyborg whirls and buzzes, frequently making odd noises, is also uncanny.

There's also something almost existential about the film's themes. When Jeremy first awakens in the Colossus' body, he goes into a screaming fit. He begs his father to let him die. While the movie at first appears to be indulging in that favorite trope of fifties mad science flick – that someone tampered in God's domain – it's actually a little deeper than that. Jeremy is brought back to life so he can continue to save the world. The act of doing this causes him to hate humanity. There's an interesting irony there, suggesting something deeper. (Though giving him a giant evil robot buddy probably didn't help.) Jeremy's isolation from his wife and son, and his own humanity, is more acutely depicted then you might expect.

It's easy to see why “The Colossus of New York” would gain such a cult following among monster kids and classic sci-fi fans. Yes, the titular robot has a really cool design. It makes an awesome model kit and re-appropriates well as a book jacket or album cover. Yet the movie isn't just notable for its memorable monster. The routine script is paired with some moody direction. The story's themes are deeper than expected. The sparse piano score is eerie and odd. During the eighties trend of remaking fifties sci-fi classics, I'm surprised this one didn't get updated as well. A new version could've expanded on the darker themes and boosted the special effects. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: The Game

Despite half the characters never interacting before, “The Game” begins with the good Darkstalkers - Rikuo, Jon Talbain, Sasquatch Bigfoot, Harry and Felicia - being invited to Victor’s castle. Unbeknownst to the heroes, Morrigan and Demitri captured the Frankenstein-like fighter earlier. The two bicker afterwards over who should be Pyron’s lieutenant. The alien overlord offers a solution: Whoever captures the most good Darkstalkers will become his lieutenant. Anakaris is suggested as judge. This quickly backfires, as the insane mummy looses count and the entire contest collapses into chaos.

While bizarre humor was a highlight of the third episode of “Darkstalkers,” comedy is the worst part of the fourth. The jokes here are truly pedestrian. Someone steps on a mop. The line “Have a nice trip, see you next fall!” is uttered after someone is tripped. Harry’s attempts to perform a fireball spell results in a cloud of stinky gas. A secret passageway produces a weak homage to/steal from “Young Frankenstein.” Anakaris rambles. Thrown dishes, a water pump, and the “Six Million Dollar Man” sound effect defeat Morrigan and Demitri at the end. The animation remains awful, the characters bending out of shape several times. The action scenes are uninspired. “Darkstalkers” reaches a new low with this one. But I’ll give the show this much. Unlike the anime, which had them becoming lovers, Morrigan and Demitri are accurately depicted as bitter rivals here. [3/10]

Forever Knight: Last Act

“Last Act” begins with a female vampire sitting on a park bench. She’s soon incinerated by the sunrise. When Nick discovers the remains, he recognizes them as belonging to Erika, a lover and playwright he brought across 300 years ago. The same night, Nick is sent to investigate the apparent suicide of a young nurse. Nick, still traumatized by Erika’s death, becomes obsessed with the case. As more inconsistencies emerge, such as the discovery the girl was pregnant, he becomes certain she was actually murdered. “Forever Knight” being the show it is, he’s right.

“Last Act” has an immortal vampire struggling with questions of life, death, and suicide. Erika takes her own life because she believes she’s contributed everything she could to the world. This contrasts with a terminal cancer patient Nick meets at the hospital, who desperately wants to live. That subplot adds a little more intrigue to the otherwise routine murder mystery plot. The real killer is easily deduced and Nick’s vampire powers, of course, help save the day.

“Last Act” is most interesting when focused on how Erika’s memories, and her last play, haunt Nick. A vampire grappling with whether life, especially a long one like his, can have meaning is fairly compelling stuff. He has imagined conversations with Erika, which brings that subplot to a satisfying conclusion. There’s also a funny moment when Schanke enters Nick’s apartment, finds his bottles of cow’s blood, and worries his partner may be drinking too much wine. Though a slow episode, it’s also a fairly meaningful one. [7/10]

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Halloween 2018: Sepember 22

Donovan's Brain (1953)

You can't talk about the history of horror without giving Curt Siodmak a mention. Siodmak wrote  “The Wolfman,” inventing most of the common werewolf tropes in the process. He would go on to write many other Universal Monsters movies. Siodmak's credits also include other classics like “I Walked with a Zombie,” “The Beast with Five Fingers,” and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Yet one of Siodmak's biggest successes would be a novel. “Donovan's Brain” would be a best seller in the forties. It would be adapted to radio and then to film three separate times. (In addition to inspiring the entire “killer brain” sub-genre.) The best known of these adaptations, from 1953, is the only one to use Siodmak's original title.

Dr. Patrick Cory is an experimental brain surgeon. His greatest goal is to keep a brain alive once it's been removed from the body. He's obsessed with his work, worrying his wife Janice and his alcoholic friend Frank. He gets a rare opportunity when millionaire Warren Donovan's plane crashes near their home. Patrick places Donovan's brain inside his experimental tank, keeping it alive. Soon afterwards, the doctor begins to exhibit many of Donovan's characteristic, a hard and hateful man. Donovan takes over Cory from beyond the grave, hoping to settle his affairs and unnaturally extend his life.

“Donovan's Brain” has some scary ideas floating around inside it. Siodmak puts a sci-fi twist on the classical possession idea, of someone loosing their free will to an outside force. The story also flirts with the idea of friends and family feeling powerless as they watch a loved one change. However, the movie doesn't sell these ideas in especially effective ways. First off, Dr. Cory is kind of a jerk to begin with. When Donovan begins to influence him, he just becomes another flavor of asshole. Donovan also isn't the scariest sci-fi villain imaginable. Donovan returns from the grave... So he can commit tax fraud. It's very late into the film that the evil brain actually commits murder and, even then, he never uses Dr. Cory to do so.

Felix E. Feist, previously of “Deluge,” directs a decent cast. Lew Ayres stars as Cory. Ayres does a good job of essentially playing two characters in the same body. Just through his body language, which includes affecting a limp, Ayres does a good job of informing the audience when Donovan has taken over his body. “Donovan's Brain” also co-stars Nancy Davis, who is definitely better known as Nancy Reagan. As the woman endangered by the wicked brain, the future First Lady projects a likable vulnerability. (I also like the love she shows for a monkey in the first scene.) Gene Evans is also decent as Frank. Despite the character being a drunk, he has an honorable side too, which Evans is good at playing.

As I said, “Donovan's Brain” is fairly underwhelming as a horror movie. While what the callous billionaire's brain does is potentially unnerving, the film never approaches it as especially sinister. As it moves towards its last act, “Donovan's Brain” begins to feel a bit more like a monster movie. A blackmailing reporter is killed and Cory, under Donovan's control, becomes more violent. However, the movie cops out with a super lame ending. I figured the thunder storm that begins in the last act was just there to provide some spooky atmosphere. Instead, the bad weather provides the deus ex machina that brings the villain's reign of terror to an end. This bullshit ending, notably, is not present in Siodmak's original novel.

As I said, this is but one of three adaptations of Siodmak's novel to reach theater screens. The book was first adapted in 1944 as “The Lady and the Monster,” starring Erich von Stroheim. A mere nine years after this film, the story would be adapted again as “The Brain,” this time by director Freddie Francis. It's also notable that, two years before his novel was released, Siodmak wrote “Black Friday,” a film similarly about brain transplant and a Jekyll and Hyde-esque possession. Despite it's reputation as a classic, I was a bit underwhelmed by “Donovan's Brain.” I guess that happens some time. [5/10]

It's Alive (2008)

Following the success of 2003's “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” studios became hungry to remake any moderately well known horror movie from the seventies or eighties. While most of these projects were deeply unnecessary affairs, a few had some merit. I enjoy the original “It's Alive” a lot but the premise could definitely prosper from an update. So when a new version of Larry Cohen's cult classic was announced, I didn't immediately dismiss it. Cohen was even credited with working on the screenplay! However, the project went into development hell for years. By the time the new “It's Alive” was actually released, the remake cycle had burned itself out. The film ended up being crapped out onto the straight-to-DVD market. This, along with an awful trailer, did not get my hopes up.

The remake makes many changes to the premise. Frank and Lenore Davis are now much younger, with Lenore still being a college student. Only six months into her pregnancy, she goes into labor. In the hospital, she's told the infant has doubled in size since the last ultrasound. In the delivery room, all the doctors are gorily killed. Lenore and the baby, who is named Daniel, are fine though. In the months that follow, Daniel appears to be perfectly healthy and normal. However, Lenore soon becomes aware that Daniel occasionally changes into a hideous monster that can tear people apart. She hides this information from her husband and his paraplegic brother but soon the bodies start to pile up. 

By changing the plot of “It's Alive” so much, the subtext behind the story is largely changed as well. The original's paranoia surrounding pollution, pharmaceuticals, and government agencies are totally excised. In fact, the reason why the Davis baby becomes a monster is never clarified in the remake. By refocusing the story on Lenore, and making the baby a less obvious mutant, “It's Alive” becomes about something very different. Now this is a film about a young woman uncertain about the responsibilities of motherhood. Lenore considered aborting the baby, right from the beginning. Though baby Daniel continues to kill, Lenore still loves and watches out for him. However, her behavior – morose, resigned, obsessive, isolated from her clueless husband – recalls postpartum depression.

This new approach could've provided a fresh take on the original. Sadly, 2008's “It's Alive” is an utterly laughable horror movie. Director Josef Rusnak, previously of “The Thirteenth Floor,” makes the odd decision to keep baby Daniel almost entirely off-screen. We usually only see the carnage the infant reaps. Which is ridiculous, by the way. This mutant baby is not an ambush killer, like the original. Instead, it tosses doctors into the air, tears holes in bodies, and gorily dismembers people in outrageous ways. As if these scenes weren't laughable enough, the new “It's Alive” tosses some truly shitty CGI in near the end. These ludicrous effects are often punctuated by an obnoxiously loud soundtrack. Bernard Hermman, this ain't.

Adding to the remake's litany of problems is a truly underwhelming cast. A very squeaky Bijou Philips stars as Lenore. Philips has shown herself to be a capable actress in the past. Here, however, she seems more indecisive than anything else. Her performance veers from hysterics to blank. Philips is, at least, better than James Murray as Frank. Murray's interpretation of Murray is epically clueless. The character spends the entire movie utterly aware of anything strange happening at all. Murray's performance is corresponding bland. Many of the supporting characters – Lenore's best friend from school, her stoner boyfriend, the asshole cops – are obnoxiously broad and exist just to add to the body count.

From the opening minutes of 2008's “It's Alive,” as soon as I saw the Millennium Releasing logo, I knew I was in trouble That logo rarely proceeds anything of quality.  Weirdly, the remake was also produced by the modern iteration of Amicus. Sadly, I don't think this film honored Amicus' legacy of classy British horror flicks. The straight-to-video market is, sadly, exactly where the remake of “It's Alive” belongs. Nobody was more dismissive of the film than Larry Cohen. In a 2009 interview, he said “I would advise anybody who likes my film to cross the street and avoid seeing the new enchilada.” An astute statement. Despite some clever ideas, 2008's “It's Alive” is wretched. [3/10]

Darkstalkers: Pyramid Power

In its third episode, the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon presents its interpretation of Anakaris, the game's mummy character. A proud warrior obsessed with restoring his empire in the game, Anakaris is re-characterized here as senile and completely incompetent. The plot concerns a powerful relic from Anakaris' days as Pharaoh, which Pyron hopes to steal. This magical jewel was stolen by Atlantians, the ancestors of merman Rikuo. (Anakaris and Rikou are both voiced by Scott McNeil, which is very obvious.) Morrigan tricks Rikou into revealing the jewel by disusing herself as a fish lady. Harry and Felicia end up in Egypt as Harry's mom – a tabloid reporter – is sent to investigate on Anakaris' pyramid floating around the Cairo.

In its third episode, “Darkstalkers” mostly gives up on action. This is a good idea, as the action scenes are still incompetent. (At least some of Anakaris' special moves are maintained.) Instead, the focus turns to exceedingly bizarre humor. Most of these jokes are awful. Anakaris spouting nonsensical phrase and Rikuo becoming obsessed with the fake fish woman are insulting. The scene where Demitri and Morrigan are chased off by house cats is embarrassing. Tossed-off lines about Elvis and Rikuo being curiously attractive are baffling. One joke made me laugh, when Rikuo randomly makes some dolphin noises. Also, having Anakaris mistakes Felicia for cat goddess Bast was mildly clever. The animation remains atrocious, the characters bending into abstract shapes near the episode's end. As awful as this show remains, this episode's bizarre humor makes it a little more interesting than the previous two. [4/10]

Forever Knight: For I Have Sinned

With episode three, “Forever Knight” finally branches out to tell new stories. Toronto is being stalked by a new serial killer. The murderer targets woman, extensively mutilating their bodies. Soon, a Catholic priest named Rochefort receives confessional from the killer, that old spiel about wanting to purge the world from sinners. Nick and Schanke press the priest to reveal the murderer's identity but he's reluctant to do so. A phone sex operator manages to escape the killer but he continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Nick reflects back on the time he met Joan of Arc, who refused his invitation over to the dark side.

The main plot of “For I Have Sinned” is not that interesting. The killer's identity ends up being a total question mark However, the episode continues to give us more insight into these characters and their world. Dealing with a case so heavily involved in Catholicism forces Nick to constantly look at crosses, which still repel him. (He's also experimenting with garlic tablets.) This leads to a funny scene where he's forced to hide in a confessional booth during the daytime. He needs up hearing Schanke's confession, the partner talking about nearly being bitten by another vamp. That's a funny scene. The Joan of Arc flashbacks show Nick's beliefs in his own vampirism being challenged very early into his undead life. We also get a little more insight into Nick's relationship with Janette, an old friend of his who now runs the vampire club. Overall, it's a fun episode. [7/10]

Friday, September 21, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 21

Zombieland (2009)

When “Zombieland” came out in 2009 – which was nearly ten years ago, I'm terrified to inform you – it quickly became a sleeper hit. A horror/comedy in a somewhat played out genre starring up-and-comers and character actors would win its weekend, eventually gross 110 million dollars, and become the then-highest grossing zombie movie. “Zombieland” wasn't just a commercial success but also beloved by fans and critics. I can't tell you how many times, during that year and the ones that followed, I heard people gush about the movie. When I saw “Zombieland,” I liked it, didn't love it. Revisiting for the first time in a decade, I wondered if I would still consider the movie overrated.

At some point in the near future, the world is brought to its knees by an outbreak of a zombie virus. In the post-apocayltic wasteland, some survivors have emerged. Such as a neurotic young man who survives via a long list of rules. Calling himself Columbus, as that is his destination, he soon meets other survives. Like Tallahassee, an eccentric man with a hunger for Twinkies and a thirst for zombie murder. Or sisters Wichita and Little Rock, a pair of con artists who are headed towards an amusement park. The four form an odd friendship, as they attempt to fight off the undead.

When the “Dawn of the Dead” remake hit big in 2004, everybody cashed in. Only five years later, the revival of the genre had burned itself out again. One of the reasons “Zombieland” was popular was because it provided a new take on the undead tropes. Columbus' obsession with his rules puts an irrelevant take on the survivalist aspect of the zombie story while still embracing those tendencies. Shenanigans like “Zombie Kill of the Week” are only one example of the film's puckish sense of humor.  You see colorful flashbacks, like Tallahassee frolicking with a puppy, or fantasy spots, like Columbus vividly describing his fear of clowns. The film's sarcastic and uninspired sense of humor is summed up during its best gag, what might be the best surprise celebrity cameo of all time.

“Zombieland” also has an extraordinarily likable cast. In 2009, Jesse Eisenberg was still the poor man's Michael Cera before he ended up overtaking Cera's career. As Columbus, Eisenberg balances the character's twitchy neurosis with a lot of well-placed humor. Woody Harrelson is hilarious, weird, and adventurous as Tallahasee. Emma Stone's path towards becoming America's latest sweetheart began her. Stone's smokey-eyes and sexy voice makes her immediately appealing. Her sharp humor and weird girl personality marked her as more than just a pretty face. Abigail Breslin gets several really amusing moments to herself as Little Rock, showing her youth without downplaying her intelligence. More important than anything else, the cast play off each other fantastically. The scenes of the four listening to music and chatting about random bullshit are delightful.

The movie's sense of humor translate to its action scenes as well. Over the course of the film, various atypical objects are weaponized. Among pick-axes and garden shears, car doors and a banjo are used to take some zombies out. Once the heroes make it to the carnival, “Zombieland's” creative action streak goes even further. A zombie fight on a roller coaster is inspired. A sequence aboard one of those rising platform rides actually manages to build some suspense, as ammo runs low and the zombies crawl closer. There's, of course, lots of gunplay through the film too, many zombies getting their brains splattered out throughout.

On second viewing, I still enjoy “Zombieland” quite a bit. However, there's definitely something that's, for lack of a better word, irksome about the movie that I just can't quite place. It's a little too cute, isn't it? Like the writers are trying too hard. This is most evident in the rules appearing on-screen or the protagonist's more tryhard tendencies, like that clown phobia or his insistence in calling the world “zombieland” now. Columbus, an agoraphobic gamer, plays a lot worst in 2018. Especially his creepy obsession with flipping a girl's hair over her ear or the causal way he describes women as “bitches.” “Zombieland” sometimes feels like a facile, and not especially self-respective, nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. Originally, he was a feckless dork. In Zombieland, he's a weathered survivor who gets everything he wants at the end, including a hot girlfriend.

So do I still think “Zombieland”is a little overrated? Yeah, I do. There's nothing this movie does that “Shaun of the Dead” didn't do better. Like the twinkies Tallahasee seeks, the movie provides you with a sugary rush but lacks much in the way of actual substance. It's absolutely a fun movie, so I'm not shocked it caught on. After a decade of false starts, and a largely disliked TV adaptation, it looks like “Zombieland 2” will finally be rolling into production soon. I really wonder if a sequel, even with the same cast, will be able to replicate the original's popularity and success. [7/10]

It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

After the release of “It Lives Again,” it really looked like the saga of the Davis baby was over. No more mutant infants would be crawling from creepy bassinets. However, nine years after the second film, Larry Cohen would make this killer baby two-parter into a trilogy. Initially, the director hoped to remake “House of Wax.” Instead, he entered into a deal with Warner Brothers' to direct two films for the home video market. Figuring sequels to established properties would be the best idea, Cohen ended up directing “A Return to Salem's Lot” and “It's Alive III: Island of the Alive.” By answering some question laid forth in the first film, Cohen would take his most famous horror movie in an even more unpredictable direction.

Among the many mutant babies born in the seventies is the offspring of Stephen and Ellen Jarvis. Aware that the government is exterminating the children, Stephen takes the case to court. Eventually, it is decided that the mutant babies deserve to live. They are shipped off to a remote island, quarantined from humanity and allowed to thrive in peace. The court case, however, destroys Stephen and Ellen's relationship, especially once he's roped into writing a tell-all book. Five years later, science hopes to return to the island. Stephen is dragged along on the expedition. It turns out to be a doomed trip, the researchers quickly killed by the now-grown mutants. Stephen ends up on a boat with several of the creatures, including his own child. The monsters are determined to go back to civilization.

“Island of the Alive” takes an already kooky horror series to far kookier locations. Cohen isn't satisfied just by answering the question of what the monster babies look like when they grow up. The creatures are given a whole island to play in. A movie about a doomed journey to a monster-filled island would probably be enough for most filmmakers. “It's Alive III” is only getting started. The rational, if brutal, creatures have a mission all of their own. Our hero ends up locked on a boat as they head back to the mainland, forced to talk and bargain with the monsters. From there, the movie takes a detour into Castro's Cuba before ending up in a punk rock club. The movie's squirrely, unpredictable energy is matched by Michael Moriarty's aggressively quirky lead performance, which sees him randomly bursting into song or harassing kids in a shoe store.

No matter how weird Larry Cohen gets, he never looses track of his film's simple, crowd-pleasing goals. “Island of the Alive” also fucntions as a trashy, monsters-on-a-rampge movie. It begins with an impressive sequence of a woman giving birth to one of the creatures in a cab. Once on the island, the now fully-grown beasties quickly dispatch the intruders. The film is surprisingly gory, the creatures ripping into faces and tearing away limbs. In the last act, the monsters end up fighting punk rockers and cops too. The full-grown monster babies are a bizarre sight, with giant heads and ghoul-like bodies. They perfectly straddle the line between comical and unnerving. For the hell of it, the film also throws in some fun stop-motion shots of the beasts when they're still little.

Through all the odd story twists and gory monster action, Cohen never sacrifices the weird pathos and deeper context of the series. The abuse and manipulation of woman seems to be on “Island of the Alive's” mind. Ellen, played by a nervous Karen Black, has to start her life over following the court case. She works in a sleazy bar, where she's regularly harassed by an asshole customer. Around the same time, the film also has a scene of punk rockers harassing a random waitress. All of these goons are murdered by the monsters for their misdeeds. Cohen is also insistent on portraying the “It's Alive” off-spring as beings with feelings and thoughts. Though they kill a lot of people, they are ultimately played as sympathetic. These creatures just want to survive, just want love and affection, like anybody else would ask for. It's hard to say if they're continued survival would be good for the rest of humanity but I get where the film is coming from.

The oddball cast also features Gerrit Graham as an asshole attorney and an adventurer obsessed with getting a sunburn. The “It's Alive” series only gets stranger with each film. It graduates to a quasi-comedic, full-blown monsterfest in the last entry. The result is too weird and unique not to be lovable, while still totally satisfying as a gory horror pic. While lacking the raw scares of the original, it's a lot more focused than the second one. It's a gloriously excessive and brilliantly bizarre capper to a trilogy of nasty, fun, but strangely thoughtful films. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Donovan’s Bane

Episode two of “Darkstalkers” introduces Donovan Baine, a powerful dhampr who wields a demonic sword and is driven to destroy all Darkstalkers by  hatred of his own lineage. The American version keeps the sword and the desire to kill Darkstalkers, even good ones like Felicia, but otherwise downgrades him to a simple wizard. After encountering Donovan, Morrigan heads to the British museum to retrieve a magic ring that’ll make her invincible. (It’ll summon the spirit of Morgaine le Fey, who Morrigan is descended from in this continuity.) Felicia and Harry are headed to the same museum, to grab their own magic ring, and all three forces inevitably clash.

There’s a few elements about “Donovan’s Bane” I like. Lisa Ann Beley and Garry Chalk are well-cast as Felicia and Donovan. There’s an interesting moment where Morrigan, with contempt, destroys a Christian church. The animators occasionally attempt to replicate some of the game’s special attacks, like Donovan’s elemental powers or Morrigan’s Soul Fist pose. Otherwise, the animation remains hideous. Darkstalkers can apparently change the size of their hands, which they hilariously do several times. It’s almost impressive how the show took Morrigan, one of the sexiest women in video games, and made her so unappealing. There’s a hysterically bad moment, where Harry levitates away from Morrigan’s very slow moving energy blast. (The obnoxious Harry continues to be very important to the show’s lore.) In one scene, the animators seemingly forgot to animate some energy blast, as Morrigan dodges nothing! Still, “Donovan’s Bane” is slightly better than the first episode, for the unintentional laughs if nothing else. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Dark Knight - The Second Chapter

The second part of “Forever Knight’s” pilot continues to closely adapt “Nick Knight.” Nick’s confrontation with LeCroix in the butcher shop, and the destruction of the Mayan cup, plays out almost identically. The identity of the killer draining homeless people is revealed a little sooner. The killer’s contrived motive for the murders is maintained. The scene of Schanke driving Nick’s car with a slashed break line, while Nick hides in the spacous trunk, is played for more humor. A polka is added to the soundtrack. The climax has fewer fiery pyrotechnics and Alyse, Nick’s human love interest, is left a vampire at the end. I honestly can’t remember if the show ever picks that plot point up again.

It’s still impressive how the “Dark Knight” two-parter has more-or-less the same script as “Nick Knight” but is so much better. There’s still some cheesy special effects, including a goofy flying scene, but they are largely disguised by the shadowy direction. The far moodier approach fits this story so much better. Mostly, it’s the cast that makes the difference. Geraint Wyn Davies is even funnier than Rick Springfield, as the few comedic scenes - like when a cleaning woman spots him leaving his trunk - really shine here. Nigel Bennett is fantastic as LaCroix. He plays him as a stylish, sinister villain who truly enjoys being evil and makes vampirism seem very seductive. The interplay between the cast makes the contrived crime plot way more involving than it otherwise would’ve been. [7/10]