Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Oddly, a surprising fraction of “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” almost plays like a straight horror film. The character was an odd pick for a Meet the Monsters flick, since Jekyll and Hyde have no previous heritage at Universal. Perhaps this was the studio’s attempt to put their mark on the character. As an adaptation of the frequently told tale, it takes wild liberties with the premise. For starters, Dr. Jekyll is fairly evil as well. He transforms into Mr. Hyde, not out of an attempt to remove his inner evil and temptation, but instead to provide a proper alibi to commit murder! Mr. Hyde is an unrefined monster who never speaks, only growls. Instead of being a general doctor, Dr. Jekyll is specifically a brain surgeon, fond of swapping animal’s brains around. (Producing visuals like a roaring bunny or a mooing chimp.) There is a brief subplot about both Jekyll and Hyde being in love with the female lead that doesn’t really go anywhere. The film is a Victorian period piece and the female lead is a suffragette. Her journey for woman’s right is somewhat undermined by her night job as a can-can dancer. Many moments play like a normal horror film, like the open kill or the chase across the roof tops of London. Bud and Lou don’t even show up until about ten minutes in!

As for the humor, once again, the biggest gags belong to Costello. This entry sees the guys in strictly broad slapstick mode. The funniest moment involves Lou stumbling into a wax museum and being threatened by wax models of Frankenstein’s monster and a disembodied head. The movie makes good use of Lou’s scared reactions. This is the movie’s high point and it starts to drag after this. An odd gag involves Lou drinking one of Jekyll’s potions and turning into a giant mouse. This leads to some amusing back-and-forth. Sadly, in the latter half, the movie starts to focus on the Hyde formula getting out to the general public. Random people dressed as Mr. Hyde jumping out and frightening folks isn’t funny to begin with and continues to be non-amusing when repeated over and over again. The movie trudges along in its second half to the seriously underwhelming ending.

Boris Karloff seems a little bored, playing the two-faced villain bit he’s done many times before. He’s never actually under the Hyde make-up and the stuntman who is really playing the part is as uninspired as the rest of the movie. The film doesn’t do much with the source material, aside from a doctor changing shape and the Victorian setting. Bud and Lou were dropped into the middle of a fairly run-of-the-mill mad doctor/monster on the loose flick. “Abbott and Costello Met Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” showed the Meet the Monsters series sliding out of quality. [5/10]

It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Would you believe I’ve never seen this movie before? I probably missed it simply because it never cropped up on the Friday Night creature feature show back in the day. Considered a classic by sci-fi fans, “It Came From Outer Space” was highly influential, at least at Universal anyway. It revived interest in monster movies in the studio by steering away from the traditional gothic setting towards space aliens and other science fiction concepts. It would birth a whole new wave of sci-fi themed monster and horror films.

With a script from personal idol and science fiction master Ray Bradbury, “It Came From Outer Space” is far from your typical 1950s alien invasion flick. An amateur astrologist spots an asteroid crash into the Arizona desert, what turns out to be an alien space craft. The locals are naturally skeptical and dismiss the guy as a crackpot. The incident even costs his girlfriend her job. He is, of course, right. Instead of reaping terror among the population, the aliens instead kidnap some people and assume their identities, only shopping for supplies to fix their ship and return home.

The film, considering its pedigree, reads more like a great science fiction short story instead of a B-movie. Aliens that don’t want to blow us up or eat us was a new, exciting idea at the time. The visitors might not be evil in intent, but they are monstrous in appearance. The entire conflict of the story steams from the fact that the aliens realize humanity isn’t ready for them, recalling Arthur C. Clark’s “Childhood’s End” or even a little bit of Lovecraft. The visitors are ambiguous, regarding humans the way we regard a spider. The design, with its twitching eyeball and slimy tentacles, a plume of smoke always encircling them, is rather grotesque. I’m sure keeping the creatures off-screen throughout most of the movie was a budgetary decision but it provides an air of mystery. The POV shots, parodied just the other day in “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” in which people scream as an unseen creature barrels down on them, is the movie’s main horrific element. Aside from a death ray and a laser shooting magic wand, there’s little visceral threat here. “It Came from Outer Space” is squarely a sci-fi movie.

It’s still good. Richard Carlson does a good job as the lead character. He’s frustrated that no one believes and seems as unsure of how to react to the visitors as everyone else does. He’s surprisingly nuanced as far as leading men go in films of these types. Barbara Rush is also good as his love interest, similarly conflicted by the situation. Kathleen Hughes’ screaming face made the poster even if her part in the film is quite small. She still looks gorgeous. The climax, which involves a trip into a creepy cave, is quite suspenseful and, like much of the film, undermines your typical expectations.

The short story style carries into the movie’s pacing. It drags a little in the middle. The premise isn’t quite extensive enough to support a feature. “It Came from Outer Space” made a crap load of money at Universal, almost certainly because of its then-innovative 3-D gimmick. (Watched flat, the 3-D effects don’t register much.) Director Jack Arnold would next direct “Creature from the Black Lagoon” which would really throw the floodgates open for the next generation of Universal Monsters. This film is important for that reason alone. [7/10]

And I'm cutting my Universal Mega-thon off there. It's a good stopping place, as the Abbott and Costello team-up flicks meant the end of the classic monsters and "It Came from Outer Space" ushered in the new era of sci-fi/atomic age monster flicks. "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and the rest of the fifties output will have to wait until next year.

Cabin Fever (2002)
Most of my movie-watching time is spent taking in new films. New releases, older movies I’m just seeing for the first time, so on. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy Halloween so much. It’s a time for me to revisit stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes that’s like visiting old friends. Other times that means reassessing my opinion on films I haven’t seen a while. Thus: “Cabin Fever.” I loved it when I first saw it in the theaters and I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. With the possible exception of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth is the most divisive filmmaker to come out of the horror wave of the last decade. The tide of controversy his “Hostel” films ignited easily overshadowed his first feature.

Roth’s biggest problem is evident through all of his movies. The dude can not write genuine, likable characters. At best, they come off as simple sketches. At worst, they are intensely unpleasant assholes. Case in point: In “Cabin Fever,” characters are separated into two types. Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd are the main characters, defined solely by their relationship to each other. Strong’s Paul is trying to transfer from childhood friend to serious romantic partner to Ladd’s Karen. That’s pretty much it. Their personalities otherwise morph in accordance to the story’s whims. The rest of the main cast is obnoxious, deeply unlikable cartoon characters. Joey Kern’s Jeff spews homoerotic dialogue, does senseless things like shop-lift or shoot animals, and never lets the audience forget for a minute he’s a jockish bonehead. As bad as Jeff is, James DeBello’s Bert is even worse. An opportunistic asshole who doesn’t seem capable of caring for another person, he spends most of his screen time screaming profanity at his friends, begging the question of why he is on this trip with these people. Despite being a massive tool, the guy has an absurdly hot girlfriend in the shape of Cerina Vincent’s Marcy.

Marcy best exemplifies the movie’s biggest issue. The characters lack any common sense. They make wildly bad decisions for no particular reason. If you accidentally shoot a guy, you take him to the hospital and apologize profusely. If a sick person comes to your door, call 9/11. Do not attempt to beat him to death with bats and crowbars. (And stop taking swings if you’re destroying your only mode of transportation.) Most definitely do not set him on fire. If a friend has contacted an aggressive flesh eating virus, locking her in a shed is not advisable. Marcy’s only defining characteristic is her overwhelming sluttiness. When it becomes obvious she has the virus, she decides random, enthusiastic fucking is the only course of action. I know Cerina Vincent is really hot but, if she’s infected with a vicious skin-eating disease, decline her sexual advances. It won’t end well. And, hey, what’s a natural thing to do when a horrible virus is drilling through your layers of dermis? “Shave your legs” is not an appropriate answer. If you see a dead body floating in a reservoir, do not climb down a rickety ladder just to poke it with a stick. Writing characters who are intentionally dumb is one thing. Having your characters do things that no human being would ever do is an entirely different faux-pas. Even the otherwise sensible humans make astonishingly bad decisions.

Roth’s strengths as a writer and director is his surreal sense of humor and an ability of craft sickening horror set-pieces. And that’s why “Cabin Fever” is worth checking out at all. The local redneck characters are bizarre enough to be humorous. Which do you prefer, the blonde hair kid who screams about pancakes and does inexplicable karate moves? The local deputy who highly moans about “parties,” in the face of all sanity? How about the kindly, folksy shop owners who engages in unexpected racist dialogue? (A gag that has a hilarious pay-off at the end.) Even Roth’s aggravating cameo gets a laugh or two. Later on, the harmonica man and a resilient deer appear, to choruses of laughter. As for the horror sequences, some of them are gleefully nasty, like the Bowling Alley Massacre or Strong turning on the trio of invading rednecks, the strong result of a mind weaned on seventies/eighties sleaze-exploitation horror films. Others are body-horror worthy of Cronenberg, like the snap of an ankle or red marks trailing down a back.

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is unnerving and gets under your skin in the same way the movie’s disease does. Roth’s direction is stylish enough. I’m not sure if his horror-nerd homages are endearing or annoying. All the songs on the soundtrack are from “The Last House on the Left.” In any other movie, a lingering shot on your actress’ plump ass would be just that. In a Roth film, it becomes a callback to “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Friday the 13th Part II.” A screwdriver in the ear? “Dawn of the Dead.” Vomiting on somebody? “The Fly.” The Batcave puts in a cameo. Not to mention the entire premise owes a considerably amount to “The Evil Dead.” Roth’s homophobic dialogue is as tin-earred and hard-to-swallow here as it is in “Hostel.” Talking about a dog sticking its nose up your ass isn’t helping your case, Eli.

Still, the parts are greater then the whole. “Cabin Fever” is worth sticking around through for the wacky or sickening moments, even if Roth’s flaws as a writer are all too apparent. The “Thanksgiving” trailer is still the best thing he has ever done. [6.5/10]

So Halloween kind of kicked my ass this year. Aside from the hurricane and a falling tree dampening the festivities, it was a struggle all month to keep up with the daily updates of the blog. Still, I did, more or less, meet my goal. I watched a whopping 102 movies, 4 shorts, and 14 television episodes, dwarfing all previous records. And yet, still, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to get to that I didn't. Next year, my friend. The Jack o' lanterns, bowls of candies, ghoulish costumes and decorations are all put away for another year. Thanks for going on this journey with me, readers. As always, more stuff coming soon, as soon as I get the power turned back on.

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