Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 14

I'm super-behind and I'm working hard to fix that. Expect an flurry of updates in the next day or so.

Pumpkinhead (1988)
Growing up in the nineties, when Pumpkinhead was deemed iconic enough to stand alongside Michael Myers and Norman Bates, the film garnered something of a status as one of those great 1980s horror films. Since then, attempts to launch the movie into a franchise have fizzled out and the movie is now more regarded as a minor cult classic of the era, not that well-known outside of the horror fandom. This is something of a shame because “Pumpkinhead” really is that good.

The tagline referred to the movie as a “grim fairy tale.” The intentionally fable-tastic tone is used a bit to excuse the script’s shortcomings. The story of a group of city kids coming to the country, accidentally killing a poor store owner’s son, and the demonic wrath that follows is simple as simple can be. The teens are all, at best, sketchy character types. You’ve got Jerk-Ass, who’s insistence on not taking responsibility for the manslaughter at least spurns on the carnage. He’s got a Little Brother (Moral Alliance: Mostly Good.), a Girlfriend (Spunky, just shy of bitchy), Christian Girl, Nice Girl, and Nice Guy. Of those last three, Christian Girl is easily the best performed, while the two heroic teens aren't developed much beyond disagreeing with the other characters. It’s not completely unreasonable to say that these kids exist just to start the plot off and to get slaughter.

Normally, that would hold the movie back, but there are three major factors that make “Pumpkinhead” make a genuinely good creature feature. First off, Lance Henriksen is given a real starring role. Ed Harley is the heart of the movie. Lance is such a subtle actor in this. He manages to show so much with just his face, a cock of the eye, an upward angle. Though the early scenes between him and the son are brief, they feel genuine. Henriksen makes really hokey lines about him being the luckiest dad in the world not sound contrived and stupid. Next to Bishop, it’s probably his best performance. The warm, sweet musical score moves this along.

As good as Henriksen is, the real star of “Pumpkinhead” is the monster himself. The film was directed by the late, great Stan Winston, a creature effect artist who I’ve always loved. His make-up team, the same team that made iconic characters in “Aliens,” “Predator,” and “The Monster Squad” are the ones responsible for Pumpkinhead. It’s a great design to star, a creature reptilian and demonic, humanoid but alien. It doesn’t quite fall anywhere on the recognizable animal scale. It looks so damn amazing. This is why CGI can never top practical creature effects: Pumpkinhead looks and moves like a living thing. More then that, it has a personality. The suit actor brings even subtle cues to the monster’s personality. He can snarl or have a sinister little smile. He does things like play with a victim’s corpse, taunt them, carve a cross in their forehead. This is the same reason why Freddy Krueger and Frankenstein’s Monster endure. They are clear, obvious, fully formed personalities. Anyway, I’m rambling but it’s fair to say Pumpkinhead is one of my all time favorite movie monsters.

Finally, the film simply looks fantastic, a combination of atmospheric shooting and detail oriented set designs. The color is great. The nights are clear and blue. The days are orange and brown, lived in and rural. Every set is lived in. The witch’s hut is super atmospheric. The burnt out church is so friggin’ cool. A demon appears in the doorway of a ruined church, fog swirling all around the blue night. Classic. The graveyard where Ed Harley digs up the demon feels like walking into another world, especially the giant burial mound. This is Southern Gothic, Hillbilly Noir. A lot of movies and shows have attempted this but few are as successful.

The fable tone successfully comes through several times. The opening sequence, of a child seeing something horrible he can’t really understand, sets the tone fantastically. The ending brings an ironic, mythic quality to the film. “Pumpkinhead” is one of those movies I like more every time I see it. It’s easy to pick apart the movie’s flaws but it’s successful qualities are hugely endearing. [8/10]

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
By 1940, Universal was in the monster business. Maybe “Son of Frankenstein” did really great at the box office. Either way, sequels were now a part of the business plan. “The Mummy” probably wasn’t the easiest film to sequelize, which the studio writers got around by not making a sequel. “The Mummy’s Hand” is about a completely different new set of characters. Imhotep gives way to Kharis. While the original film waited until the halfway point before explaining the character’s origins, this film opens with a lengthy, ten-minute long monologue/flashback. Using extensive stock footage of the first movie, we are given the down-low on how Kharis became an immortal mummy, the whole Tana Leaves plot device, the limitations on the number of leaves he can drink every night before becoming uncontrollable, what he’s protecting, who the people watching over him are, and the importance of the full moon. Got all of that?

The film is unmitigated pulp. Egypt is presented as full of starving, would-be archeologist, desperately searching for funding for digs in the desert. Lantern-jawed scientist Steve Banning and his shyster, bumbling sidekick/comic relief Chick quickly stumble upon a major discovery, get denied funding from the museum (Which is, of course, in on the conspiracy.), before securing funding from an amusingly goofy magician and his skeptical daughter. At the forty minute point in this hour long movie, our gang finally makes it out to desert, quickly uncovers the princess’ tomb, and the mummy’s wrath is unleashed. The shambling, rigid, highly flammable creature manages to claim two lives before the high priest bad guy decides he wants to kidnap the magician’s daughter/love interest lady and perform some sort of ancient rite on her. The comic relief proves himself surprisingly useful, we get a screaming babe tied to an altar, some more talk about Tana leaves, and Kharis goes up in flames. All’s well that end’s well.

That probably sounds like I didn’t like the movie. It’s far from a great film, obviously, and is very much a routine studio product. Having said that, “The Mummy’s Hand” is kind of fun. The temple conspiracy extends down to a street begger that just happens to always be around when important information is being discussed. As far as comic relief sidekicks go, Chick is actually fairly amusing, especially the way he talks to a dancing girl doll he carries around with him. Cecil Kelloway is clever as the scattered-brain magician. Peggy Moran is a feisty spitfire as the magician’s daughter and it’s a shame that she inexplicitly falls in love with the hero before being reduced to a screaming damsel in distress. Sadly, the mummy is easily the least intimidating of the classic monster, even if his black-out eyes are neat. The use of stock footage is admittedly a drag. There’s a bar room fist fight. “The Mummy’s Hand’ is pure pulp which might not make it special or interesting but it’s enjoyably hokey and speeds along quickly enough. [6.5/10]

The Invisible Woman (1940)
Considering the premise means your protagonist is naked for most of the movie, it’s not surprising “The Invisible Man” was quickly retrofitted for (by the standards of the time) naughty comedy. “The Invisible Woman” is unrelated to the previous two films. Its set in America and, instead of the result of a mad scientist and his sanity-disabling mixture, invisibility is caused by an electric device invented by John Barrymore’s absent-minded professor. Runway model and potential feminist Virginia Bruce uses her invisibility to get revenge on her sexist, obnoxious employer. All of these escapades are funded by not-quite-a-millionaire-any-longer playboy John Howard, much to the chagrin of his slapstick prone butler Charles Ruggles. Alcohol is quickly found to prolong the invisibility effects. There’s some nonsense about gangster trying to steal the equipment. The Wicked Witch of the West has a cameo.

“The Invisible Woman” is fairly amusing, considering what it is. The special effects of this series continue to improve as time goes on. For the first time, the old “headless set of clothes” gag doesn’t look too awkward and wires aren’t visible on the various floating objects. Virginia Bruce is likable enough in the lead. She actually has chemistry with love interest Howard, especially in the scene where he helps her drunk character get into bed. (No doubt, slipping panty-hoses over her invisible leg was rather ribald at the time.) Ruggles is a surprisingly good physical comedy, especially when marching off a standing ladder. Constantly redressing the house and fainting at the non-sight of an invisible woman never get old over the course of the short runtime. The gangster subplot never really gels, though I did like the tough guy enforcer with the squeaky voice. All of this makes up for the fact that the invisibility concept is never much uses for comedy, except at the end when our sloshed heroine prolongs the hostage situation so her man can look good rescuing her. “The Invisible Woman” is endearingly goofy, good-nature piece of 1940s effects-driven fluff. [6.5/10]

No comments: