Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 2

The Old Dark House (1932)
I wasn’t a fan of “The Old Dark House” upon first viewing but I did watch it at four o’clock in the morning while drifting in and out of consciousness. Upon second viewing, I remember why. The film introduces the main characters in the worse way possible: Crowded into a car, driving through the Welsh countryside in the middle of a hurricane. The driver and the female co-pilot bicker while the guy in the backside provides unhelpful quips. This doesn't endears them to the audience.

Once they get the titular house, things pick up. It’s fairly obvious James Whale is more interested in the dysfunctional family. The religious fanatic sister argues endlessly with the rationalist brother. (Played by Ernest Thesiger in what was, no doubt, a test run for Dr. Pretorius) Soon, another group of travelers wander in. The film goes about pairing the men and women from both groups with each other. Film scholars looking for gay subtext: Feel free to speculate on why Charles Laughton, closeted in real life, plays a man who lives with a woman he has no sexual interest in. The romantic dialogue is actually rather realistic. Melvyn Douglas and Lillian Bond have good chemistry, likewise Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey. The dialogue is catty but never laugh-inducing. While the film is considered a landmark horror/comedy, the comedy doesn’t register much for me. The climax is wrapped up a little too neatly. Aside from two characters I’ll get to in a minute, none of the demented family are a real threat. The house guests are never in much danger. Over all, “The Old Dark House” doesn’t quite gel for me.

But still, there are some fantastic moments. The house is a creepy location. The flat stone walls are often painted with shadows of staircase rails, looking like bars on a cage. The diner table scene, featuring a fantastic sarcastic prayer from Thesiger, is the funniest moment. Karloff doesn’t distinguish the deaf/mute/alcoholic/prototype for Lurch character of Morgan too much from the Frankenstein Monster but is, undoubtedly, an unnerving presence. The scene where Stuart, glamorous in a white nightgown, is threatened by the drunken monster is classic stuff. The centennial patriarch of the home is played by a woman in drag in an odd, memorable decision. The best scene in the movie has got to be the moment when Sister Femm berates Stuart for her “sinner’s lifestyle,” the camera frequently cutting to her distorted reflection in a series of mirrors.

The movie has a real ace up its sleeve for the final act. Saul, the crazed brother locked up in the attic, appears suddenly at the end. Though playing the victim at first, he makes it abundantly clear just how insane he is quickly. A near miss with a thrown knife and the pyromania that follows are an appropriately exciting finale. To be perfectly honest though, the image of a heart-broken Morgan picking up the dead body of his brother is almost heartbreaking and evokes the same monster love Whale showed in his “Frankenstein” films.

I’m sure Whale delighted in making such a queer, in both meanings of the word, film. The combination of macabre elements, humor, and family politics doesn’t quite mesh with but the cast is rightly lauded and several singular moments stand out. [6/10]

Shiver of the Vampires (1971)
“Shiver of the Vampires” brings the groovy back. A pair of newlyweds, so newly wed they are still in gown and tux, visits an uncle’s old castle. The uncles have recently been turned into vampires by the vampire woman who lives in the near-by cemetery. Despite the signs that something is afoot, like the uncle’s mute female servants, the couple stays. The girl is immediately seduced by the lady vampire. The husband realizes quickly weirdness is about. Wackiness ensues. You know the drill.

I think Rollin was aware of his formula. Despite the typically fast-and-loose story, he packs the film full of gorgeous images. The opening is long and almost dialogue free, as the two servants walk up a spiral staircase, bathed in red light. The opening credits play over fog billowing over a tombstone. The castle is decorated with bizarre statues, skulls, bones, and burnt-wood sculpted into human features. The vampire woman first appears nudged into a grandfather clock. Later, she shows up again, leaping out from behind red curtains. Color is hyper-stylized, as there are several late night walks into an orange and purple shaded cemetery. Rollin continues to dress his actresses in see-through shawls and it goes without saying that the nudity is abundant and often unexplained. The lesbian maids (Did I mention they are lesbians?) lunge around the castle in the nude and use an unorthodox method to wake the husband.

Pretty pictures only do so much to make up for the maudlin pace. What does make up for that is hilarity. The musical score is composed of waa-waa-ing funky guitar riffs. The movie establishes it’s goofy streak early when the female vampire rises from her grave, the stone moving in stop-motion and punctuated by animal screams. Upon hearing there’s a library in the castle, the groom flocks to the room and is attack by psychic books. The obsessed (human) lover of the uncles is murdered with a bra fitted with metal spikes. Oh shit, I haven’t mentioned the crazy uncles. Dressed like fops, they ramble on about paganism, Christianity, goddess worship, while the camera spins around, as confused as the characters. The acting is more stilted then usual.

Yeah, it’s pacing falters by the end and there’s plenty of vampires musing about what a wretched, unlovable species they are. The ending does feature an ironic take-down of the film’s antagonist and that weird ass beach appears again. The film wasn’t released in the US until the late seventies, with the new title “Strange Things Happen at Night.” I actually prefer that title since it’s far more evocative and also an accurate description of what’s to come. This is my favorite of the director’s films since “The Nude Vampire.” [7/10]

High School of the Dead: 
“In the Dead of the Night”
Episode 6 dispenses with any pretenses and basically becomes softcore porn. The girls strip down and take a bath together, with lots of fondling and rubbing of each other. Few details are spared. Following that, Nurse Boobs and Boring Girl both throw themselves at the men, with the other girls lounging around in their underwear. Shockingly, the episode stops just short of anything more explicit. I was expecting a “Well, the world’s ending anyway, so why not?” (Surprisingly, the manga, an art much less restricted then anime, backs down too. Not that I was looking or anything.) Amazingly, the fanservice never feels icky, like the constant up skirts, strictly because it’s not forced into otherwise dramatic situations. After two days of zombie killing, it’s almost a natural move for the characters. When this isn’t the regular type of porn, its gun porn, as Fat Nerd drools over the detailed types of massive firearms that just happen to be in the apartment. 

The good-natured-ness of the episode is broken up by scenes of society decaying. Protesters picket the military, convinced the zombies have been engineered by the government and the whole situation is an excuse to stomp over the civilian’s personal rights. This is stupid but 100% realistic. If a zombie outbreak happened tomorrow, Alex Jones would immediately start screaming the exact same thing. Cops shoot protesters, shoot themselves, and crush fleets of zombies with bulldozers. In the episode’s best, non-nudity related moment, a yelling mother is bitten and killed by the recently resurrected body of her own child. Effective scenes like that keep me watching through all the stupidity, angsting, and gratuitous exploitation.

(In-between this show and the Jean Rollin movies, this is the sleaziest Halloween ever. I’m sorry.) [6.5/10]

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