Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 30

I was at Monster-Mania 23 in Baltimore yesterday, hence the lack of an update. A con report for that is probably coming later tonight.

The Mummy (1932)
Among the established classics, “The Mummy” tends to be overlooked. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman go together like peanut butter and jelly. But the Mummy? His Egyptian setting causes him to stick out among the classic European horrors. This is odd because “The Mummy” is very much a gothic story, one that wouldn’t have been out of place during the genre’s literary heyday.

There’s a world of difference between ’31 and ’32. A good third of “The Mummy” is scored, with trembling but effective pieces of music. Karl Freund, the man responsible for the look of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” directs with a creative, steady hand. The early scenes of Imhotep in his tomb never reveal too much. The camera roams the museum, eyeing the artifacts in one scene while slowly revealing a praying Ardith Bay in another. My favorite shot involves a cutaway from Ankh-es-en-Amon’s death-mask to the face of Zita Johann, her modern descendent. It’s a beautifully shot film. The desert dunes and dusty streets of Cairo don’t afford much opportunity for foggy atmosphere. The film makes up with its mythic, mystical tone. Similarly, the set design is more subtle then “Frankenstein” or “Dracula,” but its attention to detail lends some verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Really, it’s all about Karloff. Imhotep is one of the more intriguing figures in the Universal canon. He’s undeniably sinister. He makes no attempt to hide his hideous nature and openly threatens the cast. His imposing stature and cruelly deployed powers make it clear he can back up any claims up. However, Imhotep is also a romantic figure. His actions, no matter how monstrous, are motivated by love. His desires are obsessive, dangerous, but all too human. This dynamic is best displayed in the scene when Helen and Ardith Bay first meet. He towers over her, standing uncomfortably close, his hypnotic eyes staring down. She’s seems similarly frightened and enchanted. The love between them is real and, at least a part of her, shares Bay’s obsession. Helen is given a human love interest in Frank Whemple but their love-at-first-sight relationship is unconvincing compared to Imhotep’s century-spanning passion. Karloff’s performance is fantastic, proving he had range beyond “Frankenstein,” while Zita Johann’s intriguing good looks, her round face and big eyes, perfectly embodied the time swept princess.

Ancient Egyptian magic is completely alive in this setting, a surprising move. A modern Nubian immediately submits to Imhotep’s slavery. The mummy’s powers are unstoppable, with a charm of Isis being the only protection. In the film’s primarily narrative gaff, a climatic call for help from the gods proves successful. There’s a creaky spookiness to the film, especially its sacrificial ending. The film is well edited, avoids most pacing issues, the performances are assured, the direction solid, and the story rife with complex themes. The modest goals are wildly exceeded. In some ways, it’s a better film then “Dracula,” which it’s frequently compared too. [8/10]

The Demoniacs (1974)
An allegory of some sort. The film revolves around “wreckers,” bandits who beached boats and raided the spoils. We are introduced to a captain, his sadistic girlfriend, a drunk, and the Other Guy. While out raiding crashes one night, out of the ocean emerges two beautiful blondes. The pirates rape the girls. The next day, the captain has visions of the girls. Still alive, they wander into haunted ruins, guarded by a woman in clown make-up and Rasputin. They make a deal with a man locked in a prison under the hill, who might be the devil. He deep-dogs them both and grants them the powers they need for revenge.

“The Demoniacs” doesn’t have much in way of pacing. We lull slowly from one location to the next. The bandits try to kill the girls, without much success. A cross-dresser plays ominous songs on a piano. It drags until we get to the ruins. The moss covered chapels and rotting churches are gorgeous and make a memorable setting. The clown woman is bizarre, especially her first appearance perched on a rock. A man drinks out of a giant bottle before tripping and slicing his neck on the glass. Dead bodies sink into mud as the tide rolls in. The bow of a ship, an animal skull placed there, disappears slowly under the waves. As you’d expect, female nudity abounds and Rollin frequently frames the nubile bodies in a greater tableau, such as a stark naked babe standing on a bed in a ruined room, chastising the cowering men.

Once empowered by the devil, you’d think the movie would become a rampage of revenge. Not quite. The girl’s abilities come with a few strings attached. In the last ten minutes, the movie descends into almost pure allegory, as the mute girls (Did I mention they’re mute?) are set upon by their attackers. Nature intercedes each time, cutting down the villains. Our protagonists are raped again, their much touted innocence further sullied. I think that’s what the movie is getting at, something about the death of innocence. I’m not sure.

There’s some camp. The sadistic woman tries to corner the girls in an abandoned church. They use their powers to make statues fall around her. That’s got to feed into the film’s theme, statues of Mary and saints shattering. The mute girls hilariously direct the statues by waving their arms stiffly. Despite being a period piece, everyone is dressed in pastels and spandex. There’s a lot of stereotypically French stripy shirts. The Devil looks like a swarthy seventies lover. A 1800s pirate in bright red stretchy pants is pretty comical. The girls’ tan lines betray the setting.

“The Demoniacs” is Rollin at his most linear but also his most pretentious. Eventually, it stops making any sense on even an interpretive level. Despite the numerous rapes, the movie never looses its softcore sheen. I suspect the filmmaker was aroused by the images. I’ll be returning to the director’s vampire movies next where I suspect his talents are better suited. [6/10]

High School of the Dead: “Running in the Dead”
So, fourth episode in, and the show all ready feels it’s necessary to do a recap? I mean, the first ten minutes are composed solely of scenes from the first three episodes. That’s nearly half the run time! What the fuck? Stop making me hate you, “High School of the Dead!”

The rest of the episode is just as bad. It focuses on Boring Hero Guy and Girl. They drive around on a motorcycle, steal some guns, and get gas. The two proceed to argue about the best friend who died in the first episode for no reason. A crazed gangbanger wanders in and threatens to rape Boring Girl. So now all the pervy camera angles officially get creepy. Worse yet, Rapist Guy spews vulgarities non-stop. Takashi, despite obviously being a fucking action star, hesitates over shooting the guy before finally shooting him. The duo drives off. The plot moves forward an inch. Did I mention that Hero Guy monologues solemnly over top the whole thing? Get better “High School of the Dead” or I’m leaving you. [3/10]

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