Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 14

Deep Star Six (1989)
So what was going on in 1989 that so many underwater set sci-fi/horror films came out? Was everyone just racing to rip off “The Abyss?” Was there some sort of news story or cultural event that influenced this? Anyway, “Deep Star Six” has a lot in common with another one of the films released the same year, “Leviathan.” While Cameron was going for something a lot more cerebral, these movies were content to be simple B-movie monster flicks. Both films are about a group of blue-collar scientists (A lot like “Alien,” undoubtedly an influence.) and workers stuck in a research lab at the bottom of the ocean before uncovering some ancient, possibly alien threat, that invades and destroys the lab. Spoiler alert ahead, both films even end in startlingly similar ways, with a duo of survivors abandoning the lab and floating to the surface where, of course, the monster follows them, resulting in a fatal explosion.

Both films have pretty strong ensemble casts, though “Leviathan” wins since it has Robocop, Col. Troutman, and a Ghostbuster in it. The best this movie can muster is Agent Albert Rosenfeld. The creature designs are kind of evenly split though. “Leviathan” had Stan Winston in its corner and featured some cool, giant shifting mass of body-horror, but that was abandoned in the end in favor of a cheesy fish-monster. “Deep Star Six” features one pissed-off giant lobster thing. While the monster is kind of cumbersome, it’s not a bad design and is brought to life believably. It’s also not as featured as much. The film instead focuses on the hazard of a deep sea ship for its first half. “Deep Star Six” is also the gorier film, featuring an aquanaunt bitten in half and a dude exploding upon depressurization.

Also like “Leviathan,” the movie really doesn’t do anything interesting or new. It’s a simple creature feature with a sci-fi slant. The most exciting moments in the movie are watching Miguel Ferrer go crazy. I can’t really say that you should really go out and see “Leviathan” in favor of seeing “Deep Star Six” instead, since neither film are really worth seeing all that much. But, if you want to see a giant lobster kill some folks, some beautiful underwater photography, and also be able to see what else Sean S. Cunningham has ever been up to, it’s worth checking out, I guess. (6/10)

Burnt Offerings (1976)
An interesting subversion of the traditional ghost story. This isn’t the story of a house that’s haunted, so much as it is the story of a house that haunts people. The sprawling, gothic manner is a living entity onto itself. It seems to live off the life force of the new family that moves in, slowly regenerating its old, run-down appearance, with the eventual goal of outright absorbing the family into its walls. The movie is intentionally mysterious, leaving much of its mythology up to the viewer to figure out.

My biggest issue with the haunted house genre is, “Why don’t the people just leave?” The movie gets around this by having mother (a very capable Karen Black) immediately smitten and possessed by the house. Despite the protest of father (Oliver Reed at his blustery best), son, and great-aunt (a very entertaining Bette Davis), the family stays in the house, even after it becomes apparent how much of a threat it is to their lives. When they do finally try to leave, the home physically, intentionally blocks their escape with a downed tree. The house’s intentions are carried out subtly. When we do see creaking doors or creeping vines, its long after the creepy slow-burn has settled in. Before revealing the truth, the movie suggests that the supernatural going-ons could just as easily be explained with mental illness or bitterness slipping into an old marriage. (Indeed, the movie could easily be read as a metaphor for a marriage going bad, since it’s about discovering your loved one is literally a different person.)

Suspense and scares are supplied throughout. A playful underwater episode between father and son unexpectedly turns deadly. Later on, the pool proves fatal again, but now the parents are forced to watch, helpless to do anything about. In the film’s most famous scenes, Reed’s reoccurring nightmares about a ghoulish, smiling chauffer at his mother’s funeral bleed over into reality in a fantastically creepy set of sequences. The movie ends bleakly, with a nose-dive out a window and into a windshield, and spares nobody. While writer/director Dan Curtis is best known for television work, “Burnt Offerings” is free of stale, TV style staging. It’s a mysterious, creepy, and unique take on the haunted house concept. (7/10)

Tales from the Hood (1995)
One of the earliest entries in the “urban horror” subgenre. (Though “Candyman” came first, and the sub-genre is just a natural evolution of the seventies blaxploitation films.) As soon as I saw Spike Lee’s name in the credits, I knew to expect something a little more sophisticated then, say, “Snoop Dog’s Hood of Horror.” The movie does a good job of combining classic EC Comics/Amicus tropes with socially conscious material and an inner-city perspective.

The first story tells the classic “Revenge from Beyond the Grave” style tale, but the trigger for the revenge is a Rodney King style beating, in which an innocent black man is beaten to death by a trio of drug-pushing, sadistic white cops. The revenge is often ironic and the segment features some top-notch zombie make-up. The second story has the trappings of both a “Strange Child” and “Monster in the Closet” story, but handles the issue of child abuse. The disturbing subject matter is told in up-close, queasy detail. Perhaps too close, considering the overall tone of the film and the magical conclusion. And, boy, is this not your typical David Allen Grier performance.

The third story is the obligatory killer doll segment. It directly references “The Trilogy of Terror” with the chattering, sharp-teeth monster dolls, but their target is a racist white politician (played nicely by Corbin Benson) whose campaign falls back on the ol’ “Affirmative Action is reverse-racism!” bullshit. The dolls are brought to life in stop-motion Full Moon style and this part of the film proves the most entertaining. The last story builds on the “Strange Experiments” archetype, but mainly discusses the motivation behind gang violence. A murderous thug, after being imprisoned, is forced into an odd “A Clockwork Orange” style experiment, directly confronting him with his own violence. It’s definitely the strangest part of the movie.

There’s a framing story too, of a trio of hoods breaking into a funeral home and trying to buy drugs from a strange, story-telling mortician. Anybody who’s ever seen a horror anthology before can quickly figure out where this is going. (It’s like there’s a rule list you have to follow to get one made.) Clarence Williams III sure has a blast as the storyteller though and the movie nicely ties its framing device into one of the stories.

While the themes of racism and violence might seem urban-centric, they are obviously universal and the movie knows this. Mixing horror with the gangster rap culture certainly makes a lot of sense, considering both have a preoccupation with death. (The opening image of a skeleton wearing sunglasses, a doo-rag, and holding a joint and a gat is only partially ironic.) Christopher Young’s gothic score is nicely ominous and his use of European violins would crop up again later in his superior “Drag Me to Hell” score. While I would hardly call it a classic, this movie is ultimately a lot smarter then it gets credit for. I’d recommend it to both Amicus and Spike Lee fans. (7/10)

The Black Scorpion (1957)
I haven’t seen this one since I was a young kid. I remember liking it enough at the time. While I previously stated I wasn’t super crazy about fifties sci-fi/horror in general, I do like some of the giant bug flicks. Insects and arachnids are naturally repugnant, so super-sized insects and arachnids makes them perfect horror film subjects. This movie almost completely forgoes sci-fi elements in general, instead playing out like a hybrid of westerns and strange land adventure fiction, with the giant bugs being the thing that holds it all together. There’s no radiation, atom bombs, or mad science anywhere in the film. (The cliché of radiation making normal animals into giant sized killers doesn’t apply to the majority of the sub-genre’s films, anyway.) The movie owes more to “King Kong” then “Them.”

Obvious segue here, but the “Kong” connection is even deeper then that. The movie is most notable for being Willis O’Brien’s other giant killer creature feature. When our scientist and cowboy hero lower themselves into the volcano that released the titular scorpions, they find themselves in a wild, savage world, inhabit with giant insectoids. It’s believed that this sequence was a recycling of the infamous “Spider Pit” sequence that was cut from “Kong” for being too disturbing at the time. (Those who watched the WETA Effects reconstruction of the Spider Pit scene that’s on the special edition “King Kong’ DVD will recognize the tentacled, weird worm creature that briefly appears here.) In the final act, the killer scorpion even derails a train. The giant animatronic scorpion head used throughout recalls a similar prop from “Kong” as well.

The movie certainly isn’t in the same league as that classic, but it does deliver on the simple pleasure of a giant killer bug flick. O’Brien’s stop-motion work is fantastic, as expected. The movie’s tone veers more towards horror. The sequence where the giant scorpion chases a fleeing man up a telephone pole generates some suspense. If nothing else, the Scorpion’s desire to just fucking kill everything in its way makes it a viable, memorable threat. And while the Mexican setting doesn’t afford the kind of collateral damage New York does, it does create a unique, South of the Border atmosphere.

The romantic subplots in these films are usually a drag, but Richard Denning and Mara Cordey actually have a nice chemistry together and their catty dialogue makes the dating scenes entertaining. (Even if they do feel like they’re from a different movie.) The movie relies far too much on stock-footage, reusing the expensive stop-motion scenes over and over again. O’Brian’s great creature effects are latter ditched in favor of unconvincing rear-projection work. There’s also an annoying kid that exist solely to be put in peril. (Luckily he gets out of the way for the finale.) I’d say “Black Scorpion” is a minor classic of the short-lived big bug fad. It has a enough unique elements to rise above the pack. (7/10)

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