Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 26

Hard Candy (2005)
It’s probably says a lot about my taste in women that twice I’ve watched “Hard Candy” on dates and neither time did it mean the immediate end of the relationship. Most people probably wouldn’t consider a movie about child molestation, pedophilia, castration, and psychological torture particularly great social viewing. And yet, this is a film designed to start conversation. It always gets people talking.

You could debate wither or not “Hard Candy” is a horror film. It certainly doesn’t feature any supernatural elements and its sickening violence takes place wholly off-screen. Yet for me there’s no debate at all. “Hard Candy” fits perfectly into the post-9/11 landscape of American horror. Not (just) because of its heavily featured bondage and mental anguish but because it’s a film about moral uncertainty. Obviously, it’s also about gender politics, revenge, and vigilantism but the filmmakers were mostly concerned with putting the audience in an uncomfortable place. Who do you root for? The pedophile or the psychotic fourteen year old? At times, both sides come off as sympathetic. Initially, I think most people would be inclined to say any adult man who takes advantage of a young girl deserves to get his balls chopped off. But when Jeff is roped to the table, sweating in agony as his castration goes on, this viewer, as a man, just can’t help but feel a certain level of sympathy for the guy. As for the other half, Hayley is undoubtedly a charismatic figure. A four-teen year old girl resourceful and intelligent enough to pull off psychological warfare of this level can’t help but be somewhat likable. (Not to mention the movie makes it seem plausible that a fourteen year old girl could take down an adult man.) Numerous times, Jeff thinks he has the upper hand on the girl, believing he’s playing on some perceivable insecurity or trying to explain his actions. It doesn’t work. Hayley Stark is iron-willed and nothing will dissuade her from delivering her own brand of justice. But this isn’t “Death Wish” and Ellen Page isn’t Charles Bronson. Hayley is too vicious, too wicked. She’s no feminist avenger or a hero. No one is in “Hard Candy.” The moral ambiguity questions any notions of justice the audience might have. 

But “Hard Candy” is more then just an assault. It’s one of the most tensely crafted thrillers I’ve ever seen. The direction is scalpel sharp. The movie is mostly confined to one location, Jeff’s house, and we spend most of the runtime in only a few rooms. Despite the stage-like setting, the direction is deeply cinematic. Long shots are used effectively throughout. The camera swirls around the operating table during the infamous castration sequence, zipping behind walls, unbroken. The contours of the actor’s faces become landscapes, driving home the intensity of the two people’s interaction. Like Hayley, David Slade’s direction is concise and calculated, designed to ratchet up the material’s hissing tension. Only a few times does he lapse into rickety shaky-cam. It’s a big bummer that the latter attribute has dominated David Slade’s subsequent career of diminished returns.

The script is brilliant. The premise of a teenage girl turning the tables on a sexual predator is one of the catchier high-concept narrative hooks you could think of. Writers Brian Nelson uses this premise to build meaningful dialogue about our culture’s treatment of gender, blame, and justice. While you could probably go on for pages about the movie’s cultural deconstruction, “Hard Candy” is also a brilliant thriller. The movie is a power play between the two characters. Hayley dominates Jeff throughout most of the first half but, near the end, when the restraints come off, we remember this is an adult man chasing after a 4’11 girl who probably weights ninety pounds soaking wet. The girl’s cruelty lead to some brilliant pay-offs. Jeff’s pained confession about his pedophilia’s origin is curtly dismissed. Frequently thrillers can’t pay-off on the tensions they built. Not a problem “Hard Candy” has. The film’s climax, which is really just a line of dialogue, is liable to have audiences gasping in shock. All of this means a lot considering the movie really is just two people talking. As nerve-wrenchingly uncomfortable as the movie can get, it’s early scenes, where adult man and teenage girl are flirting and playing cute with one another, a seduction on both sides, might just be the movie’s most squirmy sequences. The only criticism you can level at the script is that maybe some of the early dialogue is a little ungainly and on the nose.

All of these factors are important reasons for the movie’s success. But two other aspects stand over all others: The performances. This is the movie that made me an Ellen Page fan. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around every once in a while. The conviction in her voice is frightening. It would have been easy to play Hayley Stark as a cartoonish super villain. Instead, she’s all too human. The sweat on Page’s brow, or the shake in her voice, suggests she is as nervous as the audience is, even when in control. Of course, Hayley is in control, the whole time. The power Page summons in her tiny frame is highly impressive. Her pixie haircut seems to emphasize how young she appears. Raging, clever, occasionally insecure but never weak, it’s one of my all-time favorite performance. Patrick Wilson isn’t any slouch either. He too never undersells the complexity of Jeff’s character. He is a fully formed human being, suffering, even if he questionably deserves it. A moment at the end, when the weeping, broken Jeff is curled up in Hayley’s arms, is almost heart-breaking. “Hard Candy” is a two person show and both actors stand up to each other.

Confrontational films like this obviously serve a purpose. But confrontation isn’t enough. Unlike a lot of controversial, transgressive movies, “Hard Candy” has more in mind then preaching. It’s an incredibly intense thriller and a showcase for two extraordinary actors. [9/10]

Ghost Catchers (1944)
And now, for the first time, my Universal Monsters Mega-Thon starts to feel like work. “Ghost Catchers” stars the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. Never heard of them? Me neither. These guys were just one pair of what I’m sure were many would-be comedy duos to emerge in the wake of Abbot and Costello. Like many of those other teams, they are no were near as funny. For a fact, “Ghost Catchers” is one of the most bafflingly unfunny films I’ve seen recently.

The story: A pair of Southern belles and their father move into a new home which they quickly come to believe is haunted. The older daughter runs out of the house in the middle of the night, looking for help. She walks into the building next door where a pair of strange men tie her to a chair, forcing her to watch a pair of people fight/dance. One of the men start throwing knives at her, a group of onlookers laughing at her fear and agony. No, this isn’t the 1940s equivalent of “Hostel.” This is supposed to be funny. Olsen and Johnson then proceed to aggravate the other members of the audience, slamming shoes onto tables and putting little toy ducks in a man’s soup. The pair cackle and giggle the whole time. Did I mention there’s a big musical number seemingly all about how the duo are insensitive assholes? When the girl finally pulls herself free of her bonds, her attempts to chastise her captives are silence when she’s dropped down through a trapdoor in the floor. Amazingly, she doesn’t awake in the Rancor pit.

Despite these guys clearly being no help, the family enlist them any way in their quest to remove the tap-dancing ghost from the house. They quickly deduce that the haunting is by the spirit of the bootlegger who previously owned the home. The man died in the middle of the party so in order to drive the ghost out, they decide to throw an even bigger party. More musical numbers and shrill slapstick follow. Olsen and Johnson entered their bedroom, their clothes yanked off by a spirit, criticizing “Hold That Ghost” by name. A plot develops, something about gangsters trying to get the stash in the house. Lon Chaney Jr. shows up in a bear suit. There’s a pair of dwarves dressed in gnome outfits, who get offended by constant “Snow White’ references. And who knew a ghost could get drunk?

Inexplicable, all of it. Neither Olsen and Johnson show a smidge of comedic timing or talent. One of them, I’m not sure which is which, the short fat one, has a high-pitched giggle which the film finds hilarious. Unlike a lot of haunted house comedies made in the forties, at least the ghost is real. Some of the floating object effects are even kind of impressive. But, Christ, “Ghost Catchers” is painful. And that finally closes out 1944, the busiest year ever for Universal Horror. [2.5/10]

Pillow of Death (1945)
Oh man, the floating disembodied head is gone! Have I not mentioned the floating disembodied head? Each one of the previous Inner Sanctum Mysteries opened with a shot of a floating head inside of a crystal ball, giving a brief monologue about the brain, introducing the format of psychological uncertainty and murders. I suspect this was meant to remind viewers of the radio show’s host. For whatever reason, “Pillow of Death,” the sixth and final entry in the series, decided to drop the introduction. Aw, I kind of miss the guy…

In “Pillow of Death,” Chaney plays a man looking to divorce his wealthy wife so he can marry his young secretary. Happenstance would have it that, on the night he plans to announce this, his wife has been murdered, smothered with a pillow in her sleep. A group of potential suspects gather in the mansion, including Chaney’s bitchy mother-in-law and a medium prone to melodramatic séances. Parts of the movie resemble a closed room mystery, the detective snooping around and talking to people. Despite that sounding a lot like an old dark house movie, and there is a secret passageway, “Pillow of Death” has some more overt horror concepts. The séances are phony but someone really does hear the voice of a dead love one.

“Pillow of Death” is actually one of the weaker Inner Sanctum films, though better then “Dead Man’s Eyes.” There’s some decent direction. The old mansion setting certainly provides some shadowy atmosphere, from the opening dolly shot to the séance sequences. There’s some story quirks here and there. At one point, an old woman threatens to asphyxiate some people in a closet. There’s a surprising lack of red herrings and the person who seems to be the murderer actually turns out to be the murderer. Chaney gives as best a performance as the thin material can provide, especially when communicating with his dead wife. After all the previous films focused on more personal, psychological horror, it’s disappointing to see the sixth film became basically a murder mystery, even if it does have some horror trappings on it. Four out of six is actually a good score and I found the Inner Sanctum Mysteries far more entertaining then I expected. [5/10]

Mockingbird Lane (2012)
On paper, a “dark and gritty” reboot of “The Munsters” is an idea that is, in as few as words as possible, retarded. Early in development, the show seemed like nothing but an attempt to cash-in on our culture’s current obsession with vampires and werewolves. However, as news started to trickle out, I became more intrigued. I’ve never seen “Pushing Up Daisies” or “Wonderfalls” so I don’t have an opinion about Brad Fuller. An interview were he described the show as “Universal Monsters: The Series” and promised story arcs inspired by “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Phantom of the Opera” really piqued my interest. Naturally, it wasn’t long after that we found out the show hadn’t been picked up for series.

Getting to see the pilot, premiered as a stand-alone Halloween special, makes me want to see a whole season run. The show strikes a balance between familial drama, high-concept monster shenanigans, and a surprising morbid streak. The opening features a werewolf attacking a boy scout camp, quoting directly from 1979’s “Prophecy,” which is a good way to win over hardcore horror fans. The story of the episode mostly concerns Herman and Lily trying to figure how to break it to Eddie that he is a werewolf. The son is proud to be ‘normal’ and doesn’t take his transformation well. Mom and Dad’s attempt to let the kid down easy are undermined by Grandpa’s over-the-top embraces of his monster-dom, which includes turning into a bat monster, trying to kill the boy’s scout leader, eating a mountain lion in front of the boy, and hypnotizing the neighbors. A subplot includes Herman’s heart quite literally falling apart on him.

The show is funny, if a little on the overly quirky side. There’s a definite chemistry between the cast. Jerry O’Connell, whom I normally can’t stand, works well as Herman. Mason Cook is especially good as Eddie, showing a lot of promise. Eddie Izzard, who turned into Oliver Reed at some point, is way over the top and goofy as Grandpa, which suits the character fairly well. I wish we had seen more of Portia de Rossi as Lily, who seems to have a good grasp on the character. The production values of the show are very high, which is probably the real reason it wasn’t picked up for a series. The Munster House looks fantastic. There’s a striking sequence when the newly awaken Lily forms her gown out of spider-webs. Some of the CGI is a little shaky, such as the mounds of rats or the mountain lion, but some of it works better, such as Spot the Dragon’s late-episode entrance. So it’s sort of a bummer this isn’t going to be a full season. I see a lot of promise here. [7/10]

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