Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Director Report Card: Steven Spielberg (1997) - Part One

“Jurassic Park” was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, a generation-defining hit. The movie was beloved by audiences, well liked by critics, and scooped up countless awards for its ground-breaking special effects. When a film is that beloved, audiences begin to want more of it. There was a problem. Michael Crichton, the original novel’s author, didn’t write sequels. Spurned by popular demand and the insistence of Steven Spielberg himself, Crichton dusted off a sequel novel called “The Lost World.” Immediately, Hollywood went to work on a film adaptation, with Spielberg behind the camera again. Released into theaters in 1997, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was another huge box office hit. It’s reception among critics and fans was more mixed. To this day, people debate the merits of “The Lost World” and in what ways it stacks up to the original.

Four years after the Jurassic Park incident on Isla Nublar, InGen’s stock is plummeting. John Hammond has been ousted by his own company, his greedy nephew taking over. Hammond retrieves Dr. Ian Malcolm, whose reputation was ruined after going public with the first film events. He reveals to an expedition is underway to Site B, the island where the dinosaurs were raised before being taken to the park. In man’s absence, the dinosaurs have run wild, creating their own ecosystem. Malcolm, still suffering from dinosaur-related PTSD, has no interest in returning. When he’s told that his paleontologist girlfriend is already on the island, he changes his mind. Trying to survive the dinosaur-infested island, Malcolm and friends uncovers a sinister plan by InGen’s new owners.

Making a sequel to a film as beloved as “Jurassic Park” would be a difficult proposition for anyone, even a proven hitmaker like Steven Spielberg. Anything he could have delivered likely would have been criticized, for the simple crime of not being the first movie. Perhaps as a pre-emptive move against such criticism, “The Lost World” functions on a time-tested sequel formula: Give the audience more of what they loved the first time. This tendency is most obvious in the decision to have two Tyrannosauruses in the film. We have a sequel with more dinosaurs, more action, more humor, and more human-on-dinosaur chaos. “The Lost World’s” eagerness to please is actually a problem. The film is so focused on delivering the goods that other parts of the story are underdeveloped. The result is an action-packed film that doesn’t satisfy the way its predecessor did.

In “Jurassic Park,” John Hammond created dinosaurs without thinking about the consequences. As dangerous as his creation became, his motivation was pure. Hammond was driven by a child-like glee to provide the world with the gift of living, breathing dinosaurs. This provided an interesting twist on the time-worn “scientists tampering in God’s domain” cliché. The funder behind “The Lost World’s” expedition have a far more basic motivation: Greed. Hammond’s penny-pinching cousin wants to refund the first park’s financial lost. He plans to capture dinosaurs and bring them to the mainland, where they will be displayed in a massive zoo. Why would anyone think this would be a feasible idea, especially after the first film’s events? Peter Ludlow, played by a sniveling Arliss Howard, is so thin and cartoonish a villain that the audience doesn’t have to question why.

The eagerness of the film’s villains to exploit the dinosaurs for profit speaks to the film’s ecological theme. The hubris of capitalism is targeted. Ludlow and his association are so hellbent on making profits that they don’t care who they endanger. By the time the bad guy actually fulfils his hair-brained scheme to bring a dinosaur to San Francisco, most everyone around him is disillusioned. Moreover, the movie is critical of anyone who exploits the natural world. There’s frequent shout-outs to Greenpeace. Man’s intrusion into Site B is seen as unnatural. By the end, even John Hammond is insisting that the dinosaurs be left alone. It’s a valid point. However, making a statement about mankind’s involvement with the world and tying it in with genetically engineered dinosaurs muddles the moral’s waters. 

Steven Spielberg made “The Lost World” after a four year hiatus, an unexpected break for the usually very busy filmmaker. During production, he expressed some misgivings about the movie. He felt like he was making a special effects film with no human heart. Re-watching “The Lost World” for the first time in years, I began to suspect Spielberg might have been making a toy commercial. A long sequence in the film’s middle section is devoted to the dino hunters InGen has hired. They track down the thunder lizards in their high-tech vehicles. The trucks are Mercedes-Benz, their branding proudly displayed. There are fold-out seats in the truck, allowing the hunters better shots. One of the trucks deploys a grasping winch in order to hold the creatures. Unsurprisingly, the extensive “Lost World” toy line revolved around the dinosaur hunters and all the fun gimmicks they could ensnare dinos with. (This ignored the fact that these characters are the film’s bad guys.) I don’t know which came first, the movie or the toys but, at times, the film feels like its in service of the marketing and not the other way around.

The film’s toyetic approach has one big attribute though: More dinosaurs! The first “Jurassic Park” allowed Spielberg the realize a dream about dinosaurs on-screen. The sequel gives him an even bigger toy box to play in. One of the first dinosaurs we meet here is the stegosaurus, a notable exclusion from the first film. The plated creature travels in packs and swings its thagomizer into a log, nearly skewering Julianne Moore. The hunters are introduced tracking a Parasaurolophus, one of the most visually distinctive dinosaurs. They also captured a Pachycephalosaurus, one of my favorites. And, yes, it does smash a vehicle with its famous dome-head. The beloved triceratops was featured in the first movie. However, it didn’t do anything other then lie on its side, sick. “The Lost World” corrects this by letting the Triceratops rampage through a camp. The tri-horned dinosaur smashes through structures and even tosses a car into a tree. It’s awesome.

The first “Jurassic Park” made the velociraptor, a relatively obscure creature before, into a dinosaur superstar. The sequel attempts another reinvention for a similarly unknown species. Compsognathus, referred to as Compies through the film, are small, relatively cute dinosaurs. They resemble saurian versions of geckos. However, their size betrays their dangerous qualities. The Compies descend on humans in swarms, slowly tearing at their flesh and eating them. A left-out element from Crichton’s first book, the film sequel devotes a lot of time to these critters. They have a fun gimmick, and are beautifully created through a smart mixture of CGI and puppetry. However, I think Spielberg and crew thought the Compsognathus was cooler then the rest of us did. Though they have a cult following, the tiny, deadly dinosaur did not crossover to the mainstream the way raptors did. 

Though “The Lost World” makes room for new dinosaurs – even sneaking in a cameo from a pterodon – it knows who the boss is. The T-Rex is given an even bigger role then before. Since the sequel is so intent on topping the original, it gives us a pair of T-Rexes. Nearly the entire first half of the film is devoted to the T-Rex. The big game hunter is eager to face down the Tyrant Lizard King. The duo, a mating pair, make a dramatic entrance into the film. They corner a research lab on both sides. After thinking they’ve appease the creatures, they continue to attack, pushing the trailer over a cliff. The extended sequence, devoted to the cast dangling inside the inverted vehicle, is one of the most intense scenes in “The Lost World.” Another intense sequence has the heroes cornered inside a cave by the dinosaurs. In addition to the mature T-Rexes, the movie also prominently features an adorable, injured, crying baby T-Rex. People liked the undisputed King of the Dinosaurs in the first movie. The sequel successfully gave us more of them.

In attempting to top the first “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg, Crichton, and their teams also made a darker, more violent film. The sequel is packed full of more explicit dino gore. A man is torn in two by the Rexes, each one grabbing a leg, splitting him like a wish bone. A scientist, based off real world eccentric paleontologist Bob Bakker, is chewed up by the dinos. Later, a pack of Compies chew up one of the villains. In a scene that honestly feels protracted and overly sadistic, he’s chewed up, blood spilling into the water. Later on, we even get a boat littered with severed body parts. In addition to the ramped-up gore, “The Lost World” is also visually darker, mostly taking place at night and in thick forest.

Since they were the breakout stars of the original, the sequel makes plenty of room for the velociraptors. An lengthy sequence in the middle of the film is devoted to the speedy creatures. They run and leap, running through a field of tall grass, pinning victims. The dinos jump through glass and wreck cars. This is cool and all but draws attention to the movie’s use of CGI, which is heavier then the first and not as timeless. The movie also makes the odd decision to weaken the raptors. In a moment of almost unbearable Spielbergian sap, a teenage girl kicks a raptor out a window with her gymnastic skills. Maybe because they were such an unexpected, thrilling presence in the first film, the raptors fill somewhat neutered here.

You know how else you can tell this is a Spielberg movie? It’s about family. Introduced early on is Ian Malcolm’s daughter, Kelly. Kelly is estranged from her mother and Ian frankly has a difficult time dealing with the precocious kid. She stowaways on the boat, travelling to Jurassic Park with her dad. She’s reluctant to accept Sarah, Malcolm’s long-time girlfriend, as a mother figure. By the end, after the ordeal they’ve been through with the dinosaurs, the trio renew their familial bond. This theme is connected with the dinosaurs. The two Tyrannosaurs are motivated by the theft of their off-spring. Once reunited with it, they are at peace. Even early on, a mother Stegosaurus is enraged by a perceived threat to its child. The film seems to suggest that parenthood is the connecting fiber throughout every world, even those of the dinosaurs.

In a movie as effects heavy as “The Lost World,” the human cast is almost unimportant. Sam Neill’s Alan Grant or Laura Dern’s Dr. Stattler do not return for the sequel. Instead, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is thrust into the role of protagonist. Goldblum does fine as a leading man. His nervous energy and quiet humor is actually a boon to the sequel, providing the movie with some sort of human heart. Playing his girlfriend is Julianne Moore. Moore has admitted she only took the movie for the paycheck. Despite that, she’s entertaining in the part. She has decent chemistry with Goldblum and seems to be having fun among the dinosaurs. 

The supporting cast is an interesting mix bag. Vince Vaugh, during that weird time when he was still a dramatic actor, plays Nick Van Owen, the team’s photographer. Vaughn’s smarmy attitude is weirdly at odds with the movie’s tone. Smartly, he vanishes before the last act. Playing the big game hunter is veteran character actor Peter Postlethwaite. Postlethwaite at first appears to be a thinly drawn bad guy. As the film goes on, he develops a deeper personality, learning to respect the creatures he’s been hunting. Postlethwaite is certainly preferable over Arliss Howard’s paper-thin Leyland. Peter Stromere has fun as Dieter, the greasy henchman, but the part only gives him so much to do.

I think part of the reason people were disappointed in “The Lost World” is because it’s entire marketing campaign was built around the Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaging through San Francisco. This does not occur until the very end, occupying a small portion of the two hour and nine minutes run time. I know this bugged me as a kid. Sometimes, the wait is worth it though. A homage to the 1925 silent version of “The Lost World,” the T-Rex’s rampage is deeply satisfying. People leap off docks to avoid the creature’s snapping jaws. The dinosaur flips cars, smashing his way through a video store, and chomps on David Koepp. Inevitably, the T-Rex corners the movie’s villain and viciously eats him, giving the bad guy an appropriately ironic end. The movie saves its best special effects for this conclusion. Even now, it’s an impressive display. Would I have preferred an entire movie devoted to dinosaurs attacking cities? Sure. (Though I can’t imagine it was feasible budget-wise.) Yet the movie makes its conclusion count. 

If you’re looking for dinosaur action, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” might actually satisfy more then the original. It’s a rare moment that doesn’t feature some sort of dino-related mayhem. That’s cool and all. Really, it is. However, the sequel does lack a certain something. The character are less well received and given less to do. The story is sketchy and almost an afterthought. It’s not a horrible film. It’s actually quite entertaining at times. Sadly, it does not match up to the original. Because it is possible to have too much of a good thing, even if that good thing is a T-Rex tearing people in two. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, November 17, 2022

RECENT WATCHES: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

There had been superhero movies starring black actors before "Black Panther" but none of them made the impact it did. The Afrofuturism tinged story, with the way it exalted blackness, really spoke to a wide audience. The film made massive money at the box office, was nominated for Best Picture, and turned Chadwick Boseman into an icon overnight. This status was amplified by his unexpected death. Seeing a star in his prime cut down, learning he was struggling with cancer while the world was praising him, was shocking. I'm sure it was shocking to Disney execs too. Because the Marvel franchise machine must roll on and now its newest big series was without its star. "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" was announced and moved forward with little indication of how exactly this was going to work. As the advertising campaign for the sequel finally ramped up, it became clear that Disney's main strategy for the movie was to lean into the death of its star, the typical superhero shenanigans being overshadowed by the mourning process. How did this work out for them? 

Following the events of "Endgame," King T'Challa dies unexpectedly of an unknown illness. His little sister, Shuri, feels enormous guilt as she was attempting to replicate the heart-shaped herb – which could have saved his life – as he died. Queen Ramonda must lead Wakanda without her son now. The U.S. government discovers an underwater supply of vibranium with a machine designed by college student Riri Williams. The leader of an aquatic civilization, Namor, demands Wakanda brings Riri to him or face all-out war. Shuri races to protect Riri, save her people, and accept her fate as the next Black Panther

The death of Chadwick Boseman put "Black Panther 2" in a hard situation. If Marvel simply recast the role, it would make a sequel story a lot easier to write. It might've also been perceived as insensitive towards Boseman's legacy. Kill him off-screen and the sequel is put in the awkward position of writing around its main character in-between movies. Ryan Coogler and his team chose the latter option. "Wakanda Forever" essentially attempts to move the first film's entire supporting cast into the protagonist role. Letitia Wright's Shuri, Angela Basset's Queen, and Danai Guirira's Okoye all appear to be the film's main character at different times. (With heavy supporting roles for M'Baku, Nakia, and Everett Ross.) It's an unwieldy solution, creating an unsteady story that is always shifting focus, centered on an ensemble that is weighed down by grief. 

Eventually, Shuri does emerge as the story's protagonist, with a clearly understood objective and motivation. Up until that point, "Wakanda Forever" is another one of those Marvel sequels that are burdened by having to set-up future adventures. Riri Williams, who will become the superhero Ironheart, is central to the film's beginning. She kicks off the plot and gets plenty of action beats during the climax. Yet she also disappears from the film for long stretches, making you kind of wonder why she's here at all. (Beyond the obvious reason that Disney has big plans for her.) Dominique Thorne is fine in the part but Riri never feels like the heart of the movie, as she should. The film similarly stops for a lengthy sequence devoted to establishing Namor's origins or showing that or showing that Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Contessa de Fontaine is still kicking around. "Black Panther 2" is so choked by grieving Boseman, writing around his death, and establishing characters that'll be important to other, future Marvel projects that the movie doesn't feel like it's actually started until it's halfway over. 

If nothing else, Coogler and his team assemble a strong cast that do their best to act their asses off. Angela Bassett dominates the screen in several of her scenes, imbuing the Queen with the heartbreak and fury she must feel. Letitia Wright has a more complicated arc this time, as Shuri is shouldering a lot more pain and responsibility. Lupita Nyong'a brings a gracefulness to Nakia, a character the sequel similarly uses and discards as it wants. Danai Gurira's Okoye and Winston Duke's M'Baku are the closest things the movie has to comic relief and they do their best. Moreover, all the actors and the movie around them are clearly heartfelt in their desire to pay tribute to Boseman. This is a movie preoccupied with the question of how we move on after our loved ones die and it's clear the creative team were juggling that query themselves. 

Though clearly an uneven affair, "Wakanda Forever" does succeed in doing one thing really well. It gives Namor, one of Marvel's most compellingly complex antiheroes, the introduction he deserves. The character's back story is extensively rewritten, making him and his city of Talokan (not Atlantis) the last remnant of a Mesoamerican civilization. This was probably done to distinguish the character from DC's Aquaman. Yet Namor's grievances with the surface world are still well founded. He's a proud, regal, super strong asshole with extreme measures but he's not wrong either. Newcomer Tenoch Huerta plays him with all the confidence of a seasoned movie star, immediately establishing a compelling screen presence. Namor is a great villain, even if the world he protects never feels fully fleshed-out. Mostly, I'm relieved that "Wakanda Forever" never flees from the ridiculous image of an aquatic Vulcan in a green speedo who flies with little chicken wings on his ankles. Comic book movies should never be afraid of their own silliness. 

Despite its many strengths, I just can't escape the feeling that "Wakanda Forever" is a movie that was rushed through production when more time was needed to finesse it. You see this in the cinematography and action choreography as well. Coogler and D.P. Autumn Durald Arkapaw do occasionally replicate the splendor of the first film. Such as when Namor introduces Shuri to his underwater world. Yet the film's photography is often way too dark, making many sequences hard-to-follow. The action scenes, all throughout, are also needlessly muddy. The camera work is shaky, the editing is too quick, and slow-motion "ramping" is overused. The result is big budget action spectacle that is never satisfying to watch or even easy to follow. 

Despite the praise that greeted it, the first "Black Panther" was a film whose parts were greater than its whole. The same is true of its sequel, which is further conflicted by Marvel double-stuffing it with set-up for future franchise opportunities. Mostly though, its the Chadwick Boseman-shaped hole in the center of the movie's heart that it can't overcome. "Wakanda Forever" is without its hero and every attempt it makes to get around that feels hopelessly awkward, no matter how heartfelt its tribute to the fallen star might be. At least Namor is badass though. That matters. [6/10]

Monday, October 31, 2022

Halloween 2022: October 31st - HALLOWEEN

I had plans for Halloween tonight. I was going to assist my buddy, JD, in operating the haunted trail type get-up he assembled in his yard. This was something of a last minute plan, which is why my costume was totally thrown together with things I had laying around the house. I still think I managed to be a pretty decent looking hardboiled detective. Unfortunately, trick-or-treating got totally rained out this year. On top of that, I've had a bit of a cold all day. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to let these things ruin my mood. If I can't have a proper Halloween in the outside world, I'm at least going to consume as many horror movies before dawn as I can. That's what we're all here for anyway, right? 

Monster movies got me into superhero comics. Yeah, I liked Batman and Spider-Man as a kid. Yet it was the discovery, in my early teens, that Marvel published a whole slew of monster comics in the seventies that really got me into collecting what is collectively known as cape shit. Watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe overtake popular culture has filled me with many mixed feelings. Yet the announcement last year that Marvel would be producing a “Werewolf By Night” adaptation blew my minds. Even after the explosion of superhero media in the last decade, I always thought Jack Russell and the gang making it to the big screen was a long shot... Which, I guess, it was. Because Marvel/Disney and composer-turned-director Michael Giacchino have made “Werewolf by Night” into an hour-long Halloween special, not a feature film. Nevertheless, this is the most hyped I've been for a Marvel project in a long time.

The death of legendary monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone has left his most powerful artifact, the Bloodstone, up for grabs. All the most powerful hunters in the world – plus Elsa, Ulysses' apathetic daughter – gather to compete for who will next wield the Bloodstone. Among the assembled is Jack Russell, who is seemingly far more soft-spoken than the others. Jack is actually there to free the monster – a man-thing named Ted – from the maze he's been put into. When the other hunters discover his deception, Jack and Elsa are imprisoned. This is not Jack's only secret though. He is cursed to become a werewolf by night. 

Aside from adapting some of my favorite Marvel characters, “Werewolf by Night” is obviously tailor-made to appeal to me for another reason. From the black-and-white cinematography to the gothic title card, “Werewolf by Night” is an attempt to pay homage to the Universal Monster movies. Now, the homage doesn't go much deeper than digitally adding cigarette burns to the frame. The cinematography doesn't really capture the look or feel of forties monster movies. But Giacchino and his team still created an amusingly moody looking hour here. There's some nice fog in several screams, such as in a cool pan up a twisted open cage.  More than anything else, “Werewolf by Night” delights in its monstrous characters. Once Jack transforms half-way through – his make-up largely practical, by the way – he's growling at the camera and ripping off ears. When Man-Thing (my all time favorite Marvel character) stomps on-screen, he's depicted as a lovable straight man. There's even a talking, puppet-like corpse thrown in, simply for the hell of it.

The film is focused on its feral heroes in another way too. “Werewolf by Night's” acrobatic action scenes are surprisingly gory, with blood even splattering right on the camera at one point. Those who feel fear burn at the Man-Thing's touch in spectacular fashion, reduced to ashes in seconds. The elaborate sword fights include a decapitation and multiple dismemberments. There's still the CGI flash-and-bang we've come to expect. The werewolf being tossed around by a big blast of red energy is the special's low point. Yet there's an almost martial arts movie like fluidity to the majority of the combat here. Watching the colorful monster hunters fall, one by one, is loads of fun.

The whole enterprise, no matter how bloody it may get, is kept pretty light-hearted. Those who hate the Marvel house style, of sarcastic one-liners being peppered among the action scenes, will not have their minds changed by “Werewolf by Night's” script. Yet the cast is mostly on the right page. Gael García Bernal is largely soft-spoken as Jack, bringing a relaxed quality without sacrificing the unease he surely feels. He really shines when conversing with a giant pile of CGI moss or Laura Donnelly, as Elsa. Donnelly has an action heroine attitude, with the right level of sarcasm and a handle on the action scenes. 

I have no idea what future plans Marvel has for this motley crew of monsters and misfits. Should “Moon Knight” get a second season, one imagines Jack Russell will appear. It's also easy to assume that Elsa Bloodstone could crop up in that incoming “Blade” movie. I can also see Disney trying to turn Man-Thing into their next Groot. (Which would be a frankly amazing reality to live in.) There's no post-credit scene to tease out sequel strategy. Even if “Werewolf by Night' remains a one-off, I had a great time for it. As far as Disney's big budget productions go, I can't imagine one being more in my wheelhouse. “Werewolf by Night” is a fleet-footed bit of monster-filled mayhem and I loved it. [8/10]

Alfred Hitchcock's breakthrough as a filmmaker was his 1927 film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” an adaptation of a popular novel and stage play inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders. Even though Hitchcock is unquestionably the master of the cinematic thrillers, his “Lodger” is not the most highly regarded version of this often told story. Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel would be adapted again, seventeen years later. This time, “The Undying Monster's” John Brahm was in the director's chair. Though Brahm's name has never become an adjective synonymous with suspense, his “Lodger” seems to be the most famous and critically lauded version of this story.

The time is 1888 and the place is the Whitechapel district of London. A mysterious killer known as Jack the Ripper holds the city in the grips of terror, murdering and mutilating actresses on the foggy streets. Meanwhile, Robert and Ellen Bonting have rooms for rent in their tenet building. A strange man calling himself Mr. Slade rents out the attic room. He stays out most of the night, carries a leather bag, often burns his clothes, and speaks vividly about the beauty and evil in women. He seems especially fascinated with Kitty, Ellen's niece and an up-and-coming cabaret singer. An inspector from Scotland Yard, also enamored with Kitty, begins to suspect Slade may be the Ripper.

While Hitchcock's adaptation is subtitled “A Story of the London Fog,” Brahm's version is the one loaded with shadowy, foggy atmosphere. The streets of London are often thick with fog, darkness straining against the white of the mist. This is not the only way “The Lodger” is a visually rich experience. Early on, there's an extraordinary tracking shot of a woman walking down the street and disappearing behind a wall. We hear her scream, before a red liquid – wine from a shattered bottle standing in for blood – rolls into frame. During an attack in a lowly flat, the camera trembles as we focus in on a screaming victim's face. While Ellen attempts to grab a fingerprint from Mr. Slade, as he discusses his master plan, his face is bathed in shadows. “The Lodger” is filled with little touches like that, sinister glances from around a corner or light casting strange shadows on the wall.

There's no attempt to align the story with the facts of the Ripper case, obviously. This is most evident in the censorship standards of the time preventing the film from even acknowledging prostitution. Instead, the killer targets actresses, dancers, and singers. Especially those that show a lot of leg, like Kitty. Despite these limitations, “The Lodger” still finds a way to delve into the psycho-sexual hang-ups of its murderer. Laird Cregar as Slade, shot from low-angles or his eyes lit like Dracula, speaks at lengths about his motivations. His twin loathing and fascination with women is discussed in terms of love and hate, of cutting the evil out of beauty. The trigger for this, we discover, was his brother – whom Slade has an almost homoerotic longing for – being driven to suicide after such a woman broke his heart. The film can't verbalize the killer's Madonna/Whore complex in explicit terms but it still finds a way to explore it. To dig into the idea of a man who resents women for the desires they awaken in him.

Hitchocock's “Lodger” derived suspense from the ambiguity over whether the Lodger was the murderer or not. There's never much doubt in Brahm's film that Slade is the Ripper. Cregar's laconically rambles on, about the cleansing power of water, or burns bloody clothes. That it takes so long for Ellen and Inspector Warwick to begin to suspect him frankly strains plausibility. Now, the tension becomes a question of when and if Slade will strike. The last act, when he finally confronts Kitty in her dressing room and slowly freaks the fuck out, is bristling with suspense. As is the chase scene that follows, which concludes in explosive fashion. “The Lodger” is never lacking in tenseness, even though we know who the killer is from the minute he appears. 

The cast is likable too. Cregar is a creditable, compelling creep. Merle Oberon is lovely as Kitty and has strong chemistry with George Sanders, as the inspector. A romantic scene, where they flirt while looking at Scotland Yard's black museum, even manages to be kind of charming. While her song-and-dance sequences might go on for a little too long, I actually kind of like those too. I guess my tolerance for musical theater is increasing as I age. And it doesn't distract from the film's positive attributes any. Visually stunning, suspenseful, and full of depth, Brahm's “The Lodger” is one of the few times when Hitchcock was truly outclassed. [9/10]

When I think of the great Hammer horror directors, my mind immediately goes to Terrence Fisher and Freddie Francis. Maybe I'll think of Roy Ward Baker, Don Sharp, or Val Guest if I go a little deeper. An overlooked talent for the studio was John Gilling. Gilling would direct several hidden gems for Hammer, such as “The Shadow of the Cat,” “The Plague of the Zombies,” and “The Reptile.” (As well as the regrettable “The Mummy's Shroud.”) Before working with England's most iconic horror studio, he'd work on the fantastic gothic horror picture, “The Flesh and the Fiends.” Gilling also dabbled in the science-fiction genre. Before making the luridly entitled “Night of the Blood Beast,” he'd handle an obscure bit of atomic panic horror called “The Gamma People” in 1956. 

American reporter Mike Wilson and his English photographer, Howard, are traveling via train through Eastern Europe. Their car is diverted in the obscure nation of Gudavia. The tiny village seems inviting enough at first, though Wilson is annoyed by how cut off it is from the rest of the world. Yet the outsiders soon start to notice that the locals act strangely. A little boy named Hugo is a weirdly self-assured genius, bossing others around. At night, zombie-like minions patrol the streets. Soon, the two visitors uncover a conspiracy by a mad scientist to create a race of gamma radiation infused slaves.

I guess the biggest difference between American science fiction of the 1950s and British sci-fi of the same period is the age of the protagonists. The heroes in U.S. sci-fi flicks were usually handsome, stout-chinned scientist, if not teenagers. In the U.K., the heroes were almost always stuffy old men. “The Gamma People” is a great example of this. Heavyset character actor Paul Douglas plays Wilson. He's a grumpy blowhard who is perpetually annoyed with everything that comes his way. He spends nearly the entire movie bitching about how inconvenienced he is by this whole adventure. Leslie Phillips plays his sidekick, Howard, and he's absurdly British. His posh accent sounds like a parody of Britishness, his prissy attitude constantly being a source of humor. These two are about as unlikely a pair of sci-fi heroes as you could get. It's pretty funny.

Most sci-fi of the fifties reflected the anxieties of the Cold War era. “The Gamma People” definitely does as well, to a certain degree. After all, radiation is what the mad scientist used to further his evil goals. Yet “The Gamma People” strikes me as a World War II throwback in many ways. The exact location of Gudavia is never given but it strikes me as highly Germanic. The native speak German, for one. The fashion on-display is a mixture of Austrian, Swiss, and German traditions. It's interesting that one of the main villains in the film is a strict little boy, whose constantly trumpeting his own brilliance. There's a definite shade of the Hitler Youth to the haughty kids. The villain of “The Gamma People” is identified directly as a tyrant, another way the threat reflects fears of Nazi Germany than Cold War anxieties. It's not like WWII was a distant memory by 1956. Filmmakers were still regurgitating the fears of the past. 

As long as it's focused on these two goofballs stumbling into a weird, sci-fi conspiracy, “The Gamma People” is pretty amusing. The film does pick up some memorably bizarre circumstances. Such as the heroes waltzing through an Octoberfest style parade. Or Howard harassing, and then getting beaten up, by a group of school children. The monsters on the poster, the mindless goons created by the gamma rays, only are in a few scenes. Yet they are a memorable presence nevertheless, atomic zombies that attack in packs while starring ahead blankly. The movie also ends with an exploding castle, which is always neat. 

“The Gamma People” definitely drags in-between these more outrageous moments though. The appeal of watching the two squarest heroes imaginable fumbling through an oddball mystery wears thin before the end. The black-and-white cinematography is mostly pretty flat. Though I enjoy seeing “Blood and Black Lace's” Eva Bartok again, her role – as a subservient Fraulein who immediately falls for Wallace – isn't the best. Still, there's laughs to be had here, along with some interesting insight into post-war reflections on Nazi Germany. That makes “The Gamma People” worth a look. [6/10] 

After watching “The Oily Maniac” the other day, I find myself in the mood for another drippy monster movie. And what horror menace is drippier than “The Incredible Melting Man?” This is a movie I've been hearing about my entire life. I think, to monster kids in the seventies, it's a ridiculous title that stuck in their brains for years to come. I mean, seriously, who hasn't wonder what a melting man would look like? (This is why, I think, Tim Burton made the melting man one of the residents of Halloween Town.) At the same time, “The Incredible Melting Man” has long been considered an all-time turkey. So which is it? Is the Melting Man a minor horror icon or one of the worst movies ever made? 

Steve West is an astronaut, part of the first manned flight to Saturn. While in orbit around the great ringed planet, Steve is blasted with a mega-dose of cosmic radiation. It kills the other astronauts but leaves him in a horrible near-death state. Upon awakening, his flesh starts to slowly melt off his bones. He is irrevocably drawn to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the living, in order to stay alive. General Michael Perry, of the Air Force, is dispatched to hunt this melting man down, tracking the mildly radioactive melting man with a Geiger counter.

Trivia insists that writer/director William Sachs wrote “The Incredible Melting Man” as a parody of fifties horror movies, before producers insisted it be filmed straight. This is evident in more ways than one. Premise wise, “Melting Man” is very much a throwback to B movies of the past. By the standards of 1977, the story is old fashion. During a time when the genre was leaning towards slasher flicks and exploitation fare,  the premise of an astronaut mutated by his experience in space, turning into a monster upon returning home, definitely feels more akin to a fifties movie. The lurid title, purposely fantastical, also feels like an intentional throwback as well. 

As much as “Incredible Melting Man” may sound like a fifties flick, its content is very much of the seventies. A young Rick Baker created the titular monster and it's a truly gruesome make-up. Steve's constantly dripping appearance, leaving bits of himself everywhere he goes, is gross as can be. We see his eyeball, ear, and an arm plop off as the movie goes along. The constantly wet creature is only the film's most memorable special effects. The movie is quite gory. Steve devours a nurse's head, tears a fisherman's head off, eats another guy's face, and drops a victim on a live wire. Sachs frequently emphasize the gory attack sequences with some truly questionable slow-motion. The nurse running in slow-mo from Steve, or the fisherman's head cracking open after careening over a waterfall, are truly misguided choices. 

Another way Sachs' script recalls fifties B-movies is that there's very little to it, outside of the monster-on-the-loose premise. In order to pad the movie to feature length, it frequently cuts away to the most random bullshit. A very silly scene, so silly the score gets knowingly comical, involves an elderly couple driving along and debating whether they should steal some lemons from an orchid. The script seems unusually concerned with General Perry's wife, often cutting away to the married couple having mundane conversations about what's for dinner or other such everyday topics. Lengthy digressions include a little girl being frightened by the Melting Man and – just so you know this is a seventies exploitation film – a sleazy photographer trying to convince a model to go topless. 

Baker's effects are unforgettably gross. The movie is well aware that its putrefying monster is the star of the show. It even allows the creature a mildly tragic death, continuing past the story's logical end point just so we can see poor Steve melt all the way. Distributor AIP was aware of this too and built the entire advertising campaign around the reeking make-up. Sadly, the film doesn't have much else going for it. Occasionally, there's a moment of campy distraction here that makes this a little more than just a display for sensational special effects. I wouldn't call this one of the worst movie of all time, like Trace Beaulieu of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” did. Yet it doesn't deserved to be remembered much, outside of some stand-out work from a rising make-up superstar. [5/10]

Back when I was knee-deep in my eighties slasher phase, I tried to design a table top card game based on the subgenre. I quickly abandoned the idea, upon realizing how bad I am at designing game rules. Before that point, part of the game would've involved different killer cards based on the archetypal categories of killers. Alongside unseen murderers, supernatural entities, and wise-cracking murderers was what I called the Brute. Those would be hideously deformed monster-men, usually the result of backwoods incest or some other such malignity. While Jason Voorhees is the iconic Brute, another pitch-perfect example of this type of slasher is 1982's “Humongous.” Director Paul Lynch's other contribution to the slasher movement, after “Prom Night,” it was forgotten for years before inevitably being restored for a spiffy Blu-Ray release. 

At a Labor Day party in 1945, the daughter of a millionaire is assaulted by a man at the party. He's then mauled by dogs before she kills him herself. Forty years later, a group of teens – led by brothers Erik and Nick, their sister Karla, and their respective girlfriends – go out on a yacht for a weekend of partying. While attempting to rescue a shipwrecked sailor, the yacht crashes on the shores of isolated Dog Island. They find the island totally devoid of life, a crumbling mansion and the skeletons of dogs being the only signs of civilization. But the group isn't alone. The hideously deformed son of millionaire heir Ida Parson is still alive on this island. And he is hungry.

“Humongous” begins with a graphic and disturbing rape scene. The camera lingers on the woman's body as she's forcibly disrobed and then focuses on the man's face as he assaults her, shouting misogynistic phrases at her the whole time. This disturbing moment is then followed by a cathartic burst of violence, as he's immediately violently killed. Such a brutal opening establishes a theme of bodily discomfort and disrupted sexuality. Sandy and Donna, Erik and Nick's girlfriends, are constantly sniping at each other's bodies. Even though both couples have healthy sex lives, nobody seems satisfied. Everyone's relationship with their bodies and their desires in “Humongous” are dysfunctional.

These are not the only interesting ideas in “Humongous.” Lots of slasher movies are set out in the woods. Yet placing these teens on a deserted island, where just about all animal life has died, makes the characters seem even more isolated. Paul Lynch knows how to make the most of the setting, making the cast look truly lost among those trees. Once the gang make it to the abandoned home, there's relics of a past life all around. It's effectively spooky stuff but, unfortunately, “Humongous” straddles that unsteady line between creating a sense of eerie isolation and featuring lots of scenes of people just wandering around the forest. None of “Humongous'” characters are all that defined and the film has a few too many dull stretches, just watching them explore the island.

It doesn't help that the film uses its murderous monster sparingly. The deformed offspring puts in limited appearances until the last act. Even when he does appear on-screen, Lynch's direction keeps the creature bathed in shadows. While this will disappoint anyone who is looking for some monster action, “Humongous” does make its killer an intimidating force. We only see it raging in the basement, throwing bones around. He bursts through walls, leaps from the water, and relentlessly pursues his victims. The climatic scuffle with the final girl proves especially intense, as the Humongous crushes a head. “Humongous” nicely finds the balance between making its monster a mysteriously threatening force and a pathetic beast that has been left unloved and abused. 

“Humongous” ultimately proves a bit frustrating. There's enough moments that work well, such as that horrifying opening and the intense final chase, to suggest that Lynch and his team knew what they were doing. Yet “Humongous” is also a bit too slow, the build-up to the murderous finale feeling a little tedious at times. There's some intriguing idea within the standard slasher set-up and a degree of spooky atmosphere. Yet I can see why this one sipped through the slasher fanatic cracks. I like the movie alright, as I have a higher tolerance for this kind of stuff than most, but “Humongous” never quite reaches its full potential. Those posters are great though, there's no denying that. [6/10]

One of my favorite discoveries in recent years was “WNUF Halloween Special.” I went in expecting a typical found footage thriller and instead got a pitch-perfect recreation of a nostalgic TV broadcast, including delightful fake commercials. I've dug into director Chris LaMartina's work a little but what I really wanted was a “WNUF Halloween Sequel.” I wasn't the only one, as the “WNUF” cult following has increased in the near decade since the film's release. LaMartina must've heard the demand as this year finally saw a proper follow-up. “Out There Halloween Mega Tape” attempts to do for nineties television what the original did for eighties nonsense. Sounds like a perfect note to end Halloween on.

Presented as a bootleg VHS from “Trader Tony's Tape Dungeon,” the “Mega Tape” collects two mid-nineties television presentations: The first is a Halloween installment of 1995 daytime talk show, “The Ivy Sparks Show.” The second half picks up with Sparks a year later, as she's now the co-host of paranormal program, “Out There.” Specifically, it's a live broadcast of an episode that interviewed a UFO cult on October 31st, the night the mother ship was suppose to take them home. The night would grow increasingly strange as it went on. Through it all, we see vintage commercials and learn the fate of reporter Frank Stewart and spiritualists the Bergers. 

As in the first “WNUF,” LaMartina and his team show an uncanny ability to replicate the look and feel of nineties junk television. Some of the fake commercials presented here – such as spots for a denim store, a clothing brand, atheletic shoes, a new age music CD, a PSA about HIV, and utterly convincing network bumpers – are indistinguishable from the real thing. The “Ivy Sparks Show” segment does a good job of replicating the pacing of talk shows from hosts like Ricki Lake and Sally Jesse Raphael. This is especially evident in the theme song and dramatic reenactments bits. The “Out There” scenes, meanwhile, clearly draw inspiration from “Sightings” and the “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” special. I remember the 90s' hunger for all-things UFO related and LaMartina brilliantly captures that feeling.

While “WNUF Halloween Special” played things mostly straight, its humor arising from the awkwardness of live television, “Out There Halloween Mega Tape” is more blatantly comedic. The “Ivy Sparks Show” segments are blatantly ridiculous. They detail a wannabe goth vampire getting a preppy makeover and a woman describing her affair with a ghost. Sparks being demoted to co-hosting “Out There,” often taunted with her old catchphrase, is a running joke. There's some naughty gags hidden in the extraterrestrial evidence “Out There” presents. A clearly stoned B-movie star drops obviously farcical trivia throughout the special. Many of the commercials are intentionally silly, such as a loan business dressed as the Lone Ranger or a toilet paper starring a mummy. They are funny but it breaks the immersion a little bit, when these throwback scenes are played for laughs. 

LaMartina makes his movies for tiny budgets and that's evident throughout “Out There Mega Tape.” Sometimes, the lack of funds runs into the movie's desire for realism. A briefly glimpsed cartoon looks limited, even by the standards of nineties animation. A commercial for a chocolate bar also features some shitty animation. (It's also an obvious shout-out to “Ernest Scared Stupid,” one of countless homages throughout.) A throwback to the Beanie Babies craze feature very cheap looking toys. There's some ugly green screen effects in ads for fake movies – would-be blockbusters, covering kaiju and disaster flicks – that do not impress. The other fake-movies-within-the-movie include a judge themed slasher flick and a mini-golf set “Gremlins” rip-off, neither of which are very convincing. I'm willing to forgive this stuff, considering the clearly limited budget, but it's another element that makes “Out There” less realistic than “WNUF” was.

While the original “WNUF” clearly took target at religious fanaticism, “Out There Halloween Mega Tape” is more about media accountability. A “Ivy Sparks” bumper about violence in the media then cuts to a commercial for a  Super Soaker-style water gun, emphasizing that it's a gun. Sparks' catchphrases, of “Be Nice!,” obviously comes off as hypocritically in comparison to the trashiness of her program. The finale, which the film marches towards with surprising grimness, suggests that maybe it wasn't a good idea that nineties pulp TV encouraged lunatics so much. Not quite as biting an observation as the original's but appreciated nevertheless.

It's clear that Chris LaMartina has put a lot of thought into this. There's countless connections to the original, minor faces reappearing throughout. Some of the shout-outs are incredibly subtle, such as WNUF being bought-out by a bigger cable company between 1995 and 1996. This lore extends to the DVD case – which goes into more details about "Trader Tony" – and even into the extra features, which includes an in-universe episode of the Purple Stuff Podcast. All of LaMartina's films are a labor of love and this is clearly true of “Out There Halloween Mega Tape.” I enjoyed the sequel so much, the movie scratching a certain itch that nostaglist like myself feel all the time. It's a bit a step down in quality from the original “WNUF” but I still enjoyed this a ton. [7/10]

Well, guys, I did my best. I'm not going to lie to you. 2022's Halloween season was disappointing for me. I didn't get to do any of the neat October rituals. Bad weather or bad planning saw to that. I tried to pack in as much horror movie madness as possible and I can't say I didn't meet my goal. But I'm heading out of October and into November feeling more exhausted than exhilarated. 

Better luck next year? I guess that's how it goes sometimes. The spirits giveth and they taketh away. Let's hope the next time I visit the October Country, it's full of more whimsy than mischief. The pumpkins will rot in their field and the scarecrows will wander back home to their post but Halloween lives in the heart always. Until next time, fellow travelers. The crypt doors are closed.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Halloween 2022: October 30th

Sometimes, all a horror movie has to do to get me really excited for it is set its story around the Halloween season. There’s two breeds of Halloween movies. Those that simply use the spooky season for set dressing and those that actually build the mythology and meaning behind the day into its story. Late last year, an exciting sounding Halloween-set horror picture started to play on festivals. “You Are Not My Mother” comes to us from Ireland, the land where this holiday has its roots. That alone was enough to pique my interest but when I learned that Kate Dolan’s debut feature had a tasty layer of folk horror to it as well, that was got it to crack my list of most anticipated titles for 2022. I’ve been waiting until nearly the day to watch the film to and now it is time.

Char is a schoolgirl in North Dublin, who is often bullied by her schoolmates. She lives with her grandmother, Rita, and mother, Angela. Angela has severe depression and frequently finds it difficult to get out of bed. After driving Char to school one morning, Angela disappears. When she reappears, a few days later, she acts differently. At first, more lively, Angela soon begins to display wild, violent mood swings. As the end of October approaches, and the locals gather to celebrate Halloween, Char must face the truth: That her mother has been replaced by a changeling

“You Are Not My Mother” fits in comfortably with the modern school of horror movies, what some would call “elevated horror,” that foreground the story’s subtext. “You Are Not My Mother” is, rather clearly, a movie about living with a bipolar parent. At the beginning, Angela is so distraught that she can’t get up and live her life. Char has happy memories of her childhood with her mom, of dancing and playing together. She seems like a different person now, twisted by the chemical imbalance inside her brain. Once she returns from her disappearance, Angela acts even more erratically. She slam-dances around the house, yelling and screaming and crawling on the floor. For a minute, I was wondering if the film even needed to introduce an element of supernatural horror. Growing up with a mentally ill parent is scary enough. 

While “You Are Not My Mother” is never exactly subtle about its horror metaphor, it does try its damnedest to be a scary movie too. Dolan creates a dreary atmosphere throughout, supported by the overcast Irish weather. The sinister, droning musical score increases this feeling, effecting a story filled with intense stares and a disquieted home. As the film progresses, it introduces freakier touches. Char spots her mother, late at night, cracking her neck at impossible angles and shoving her entire hand down her throat. Later, the mother-thing twists her ankle in a horribly uncomfortable manner. It all precedes an intense chase scene in the last act, as Char is pursued by the monster inhabiting her mother’s body and the two have a confrontation around a bonfire.

Those bonfires play a major role. All throughout “You Are Not My Mother,” it references the traditional rites of Samhain. The teenage delinquents that bully Char talk regularly about setting bonfires on Halloween night. Jack O’ Lanterns and pumpkins make prominent appearances throughout. There’s some great October 31st ambiance in the final act. Moreover, there’s heavy implication that the reason the changelings are being active now is because the wall between the world of the living and the other side are thin this time of year. That’s evident during a trip to a (ridiculously cool) museum, where a projected video talks all about the history of Samhain. Dolan’s film cooks the lore of Halloween into its story of mental illness and parental alienation. Not to mention a little bit of folk magik sprinkled throughout. 

A strong set of performances seal the deal on a film that’s handsome, tense, and with a well researched backstory. Hazel Doupe is a young heroine we can root for as Angela while Carolyn Bracken is suitably unsettling as the mother. Could the script been a little more fleshed out? Probably. A bit too much of “You Are Not My Mother” is composed of pregnant pauses, the story putting the character development more into the quiet performances. Ya know, there is a part of me that’s a bit tired of horror like this, that relies a lot on creating a dread-filled feeling and less on forward momentum. But, if horror like this must proliferate, “You Are Not My Mother’ is a good example of it. Any movie that digs into the Hallo’ween spirit as much as this one gets a thumbs-up from me. [7/10]

To what do we owe the cultural fascination with Bigfoot? This is not strictly an American phenomenon. Stories of hairy anthropoids, not quite human but more than apes, have been heard from all over the world. Maybe it’s a cultural memory of hairy hominids that we might’ve co-existed with hundreds of thousands of years ago. Maybe, once people got a look at monkeys, we just couldn’t avoid the conclusion that we share a common ancestor with them. Regardless of the reason why, Bigfoot is big business. Filmmakers have long tried to cash-in on the global curiosity with these elusive man-apes. Perhaps the grisliest, or maybe just the trashiest, example of Squatch-sploitation is 1980’s “Night of the Demon.” This skunk ape slasher was gruesome enough to get banned during the U.K.’s Video Nasty hysteria

Nugent, a professor in anthropology, has been left horribly mangled following a class trip into the woods. To the doctors and police, he explains his story. A die-hard believer in Bigfoot, he set out with his students to discover definitive proof of the creature. A young woman named Carla believes that Sasquatch murdered her father, as a distinctive footprint was found near his dismembered body. Similar beastly deaths have been occurring throughout the woods. The group soon uncovers a backwoods cult of grassman worshipers and Wanda, a mute woman living in a cabin who had a traumatic up-close encounter with the beast. It’s only a matter of time before Nugent and his students meet up with the bloody Bigfoot.  

 “Night of the Demon” is largely a delivery system for schlocky gore scenes. This is one pissed-off Momo and ripping people apart seems to be his favorite hobby. He tears an arm off before the opening title. He disrupts a couple in a shaggin’ wagon, slices throats on broken glass, rips guts out, and bashes faces in. This wildman is even a tool-using species, as he utilizes an axe, a pitchfork, and a hot stove in his murder spree. These death scenes are often ridiculously conveyed. The blood is syrupy looking. The ripped throats and dangling stumps look like raw meat. Chuckles of disbelief seem the likelier reaction to the carnage here. When Bigfoot swings a sleeping bag overhead, before impaling the man inside on a tree branch, is silly. A moment where the man-ape shoves two knife-wielding Girl Scouts into each other, awkwardly slicing them both up, is hysterical. The only moment more outrageous than that is when the hairy biped tears a roadside urinator’s dick off… Well, what can you even say in response to that? 

To say “Night of the Demon” is a crude production is an understatement. The film craft and narrative construction on display suggests an amateur crew. Whenever Professor Nugent recounts and anecdote of bloody sasquatch murder – this makes up about half the movie – the film fades to black. The camera movie is often shaky and unprofessional. The use of slow-motion in the climatic cascade of murder is gratuitous. The soundtrack is composed of warbling synth, when prosaic instrumentation isn’t playing. The sound mixing is echo-y. Bigfoot is brought to life by a body builder in a goofy mask with a shag carpet on his back. The performances are suitably ridiculous, with a woman’s mediocre attempt at a shocked face being the funniest bit of bad acting. On any sort of technical level, “Night of the Demon” is utter trash.

And therein lies the appeal. “Night of the Demon” is a hysterically bat-shit bit of sasquatch depravity. The attempts to expand the story beyond a mere collection of death scenes – there aren’t many – only makes the movie trashier. The discovery of a group of redneck Bigfoot worshipers sets up a lengthy flashback sequence, detailing Crazy Wanda’s backstory. That’s when maybe “Night of the Demon’s” sleaziest moment occurs, a bit of forced interspecies breeding between woman and sasquatch. Yes, we do see Bigfoot in the throes of passion. Yes, we see the result of this pairing too. There’s a focus on flesh here throughout, as we see lots of bare man-ass during the multiple sex scenes. To discover that this is the sole non-gay porn credit of director James C. Wasson is unsurprising. The lack of professionalism, stilted acting, and narrative incompetence recalls porn more than a traditional slasher film. It just cuts to murder, instead of fucking.

“Night of the Demon” – which, obviously, has nothing to do with Jacques Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon” or the “Night of the Demons” movies – will appeal to a limited group of trash horror fans. It doesn’t reach the dream-like heights of hilarious slasher incoherence as “The Prey” or “The Forest,” though it’s a little sturdier than similar murderdrone classic “Don’t Go in the Woods.” The mixture of do-it-yourself production values, writing that slides between tedium and insanity, and hilarious gore makes it a disreputable midnight movie classic or slasher heads.  Available for years as only an overly dark VHS rip, Severin’s Blu-Ray looks gorgeous and is packed with extras that tell the interesting story behind this weird-ass motion picture. Truly, Bigfoot’s O-face deserves to be seen in high-def! [7/10] 

Just Beyond: My Monster

Compared to Netflix and Hulu's strategy of just dropping something onto streaming with no advertisement, Disney+ does a better job of promoting its exclusive series. I actually saw a commercial for “Just Beyond,” a kid-friendly horror anthology series based on R.L. Stine penned comics, before deciding to watch it. “My Monster” is about fourteen year old Olivia. Following her parents' divorce, her and her little brother are moving into her mom's childhood home. Shortly afterwards arriving, Olivia begins to see a tall monster in a suit, wearing an expressionless mask. The creature follows her even to school, disrupting her attempts to make friends. Olivia soon learns that her mother saw the same beast when she was a girl.

I'm impressed to say that “Just Beyond” packs in the kid-friendly scares. The creature's appearance is also preceded by creepy music playing, which adds just the right amount of eeriness. Olivia encounters the spectre in the basement of the school and the darkened hallways of her home at night, in surprisingly spooky sequence. There's even a legitimate jump scare, when the creature appears suddenly next to her. Compared to Stine's own “Goosebumps,” which was so hokey that it was impossible to take seriously, “Just Beyond” has the skills and production values to produce just the right shivering feeling, especially for the young ones. The monster, who is obviously inspired by Slender Man, looks eerie and intimidating. 

The script is also a little more sophisticated than I expected. The eventual origins for the monster, as a manifestation for Olivia's anxiety, is clever. The conclusion is nuanced, even touching, as she learns the best way to cope with the creature. The premise of her parent's divorce is nodded to, without being lingered on to a distracting degree. There's some comic relief – in the form of a sarcastic friend and a dotting old babysitter – but it never supplants the scares. Newcomer Megan Stott is appealing as Olivia. “My Monster” is good and bodes well for the rest of “Just Beyond.” [7/10]

Earlier in the month, I watched a silent horror short that is arguably a music video. And so it seemed fitting to make the last short I reviewed this season also a horrific music video. Since I've already talked about “Thriller,” I knew “Fantasy” by DyE was my second choice. The animated music video depicts four teenagers sneaking into an in-door swimming pool for some drinking and hanky-panky. While one couple get closer, the shy girl notices that something isn't right. It seems the bottom of the pool contains a portal to another dimension. The young lovers then begin to mutate into hideous monsters. 

“Fantasy's” animesque movement and character designs, from French animator Jérémie Périn, is quite lovely to look at... Which makes the music video's surprising depravity all the more vivid. There's a clear air of sexual longing to “Fantasy.” One of the first images is a look up the redhead's skirt. Her ass, briefly exposed as she puts on her swimsuit, is on the title screen. Once the horror begins, it continues this sexual angle. The redhead's boyfriend manually stimulating her is turned into a hideous fusion once he becomes a worm-like monster. The other guy is attacked crotch-first. The first sign that something is wrong is the shy girl feeling something slither up the bottom of her swimsuit as she's in the pool. “Fantasy” seems to delight in vulgar displays of hentai-like sexual violation. 

Yet I don't think “Fantasy” is simply a work of shock value, combining cartoons and monstrous sex acts for the hell of it. The music video's protagonist is clearly uncomfortable with intimate acts. She rejects the guy she's been set-up with. The body horror shows the other couple becoming one, their sexual act bonding them together forever. This is what the final girl is attempting to escape. She's afraid of that final moment of maturity that sex signals, the idea of your life no longer being your own. “Fantasy” shows its teenage character being consumed by their sexual passions, an act full of bodily fluids that requires loosing total control. And that's exactly what its heroine fears most.

All of this is set to DyE's dreamy electro-pop. The thumping beats draw the ear. The lyrics, meanwhile, are a melancholy ode of giving up on your dreams. This seems to tie into the video's theme of one chapter of your life ending and another beginning... And did I mention there's a layer of Lovecraftian cosmic horror to all of this too? The final image of the music video is one of the best encapsulation of Lovecraft's themes that I've ever seen. “Fantasy” packs all of this into three and a half minutes. It's one of my favorite music video, telling a whole story and saying so much while including some seriously intense animated gross-outs. [9/10]