Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1985)

9. Chiller

Though he was just coming off the biggest hit of his career and the film that would make his name synonymous with horror films, Wes Craven still had bills to pay. Or perhaps the critical and social clout of “Nightmare” wouldn’t become visible for a while. Either way, while Freddy was slashing up the box office, Wes was toiling in the TV movie trenches again. “Chiller” manages to be almost as silly as “Stranger in Our House” or “Invitation to Hell” but somehow even less entertaining.

The title might make you think “Chiller” is going to be an ice-themed horror flick. Instead, it focuses on the evils of cryonics! Yes, the same science that preserved Walt Disney’s head and threatened to make Gary Busey immortal. A man kept in stasis in a cryonics lab is suddenly unfrosted when his holding pod malfunctions. The liver transplant that was unavailable ten years ago has presented itself, bringing the newly unthawed Miles Creighton back to life. At first, his elderly mother, teenage sister, and corporate partners are overjoyed by the news. However, Miles came back wrong. He is now a soulless sadist, reeking passive-aggressive wrath on his unprepared family and friends.

Before we discuss the film proper, check out the DVD for this thing. It’s one of the strangest menus I’ve ever seen, falling just short of Inspector Gadget explaining everything to you. An omniscient narrator points out the features and describes the plot. The disc is either very old, very cheap, or, most likely, both. The film presentation itself is almost unwatchable. The sound is so garbled and static choked that you can’t even hear the dialogue some times. The picture quality is comparing to a third generation VHS, tracking lines intact. The commercial breaks have been hastily, awkwardly edited out. In other words, you might as well be watching this thing on YouTube.

The film’s script is rife with clichés and hokey elements. The film’s themes are theological, focusing on the purpose of the soul. This proves out of the reach of a crappy TV horror film from 1985. Cliché Watch: Man meddles in God’s domain and is punished for it. While Miles’ mother remains utterly clueless to his evilness up until the very end of the film, in what would almost be a decent portrayal of denial if it wasn’t so awkward, his pet Rottweiler is immediately aware. Naturally, the dog has to die first. A torn photograph is given overly melodramatic focus. The villain hits on trashy floozies before turning his sexist wrath on a female co-worker. A large portion of the film’s plot revolves around charity contributions!

Aside from being goofy and dumb, “Chiller’s” screenplay is also badly paced and awkwardly constructed. The film doesn’t have a proper protagonist, jumping back and forth between Miles, his mom and Paul Sorvino’s Reverend Penny. The audience never got to see Miles before his transformation, removing any meaning from his perverse new behavior. The first act is protracted, stretching on for a half an hour before the Chiller finally wakes up and makes it back to his home. Numerous other scenes drag on forever, like a scene of Sorvino and his wife talking about the soul in a church. The biggest issue with the film is that it’s so obvious to the audience that Miles is evil but everyone around him refuses to see it until it’s much too late. The mother, in particular, is deeply clueless.

“Chiller” utterly fails as a horror film. The opening scene stretches an attempted scare out for a long time, which involves a shambling aluminum foil man, before concluding with a lame fake-out. A scene largely shot form a dog’s perspective, as he stalks a hallway, might have worked had it been the killer’s perspective we were seeing. As it is, it’s a long scene with an unimpressive pay-off. One of the most ridiculous moments in the film is the stairway sequence. It’s dramatically shot but also utterly ridiculous. “Chiller” features one of the most passive aggressive killers in horror history, as Miles kills a man by forcing him to walk up the stairs. Why doesn’t the old man just stop? Beyond that, we’ve got a park stalking scene that builds to nothing. A car is used as a lethal weapon but in a laughable manner. A stunt man clamoring behind the vehicle as it drags him proves a comical sight. The finale in a meat locker could have, once again, been suspenseful if the filmmaker wasn’t so obviously bored with the material.

Only two or three horror sequences work in any way. The film somehow wrangled the great Stan Winston into doing the effects. This is only evident in one scene when the Chiller first wakes up, a bunch of bladders fluttering under his skin, an odd moment of body horror. It’s cool, even if it’s obvious and goes on too long. Miles sexually menacing his female co-worker honestly recalls “Last House on the Left,” even if the actress’ broad performance sinks any of the tension. The only moment that is truly creepy is the villain’s attempt seduction of his little sister. Besides the squick-y premise, the scene mostly works because Jill Schoelen is especially good at appearing vulnerable. Even then, the leopard print décor of the room adds some unintentional humor.

Speaking of the cast… Paul Sorvino is mostly grave and muted as the Reverend. He’s one of the few reasonable characters in the film, noticing something is wrong with Miles early on. He alternates between bored and committed to whatever dialogue he’s given. Schoelen’s role is very similar to her later part in “The Stepfather,” as another daughter that notices the new male in the house is villainous when others don’t. Michael Beck as the Chiller has a moment or two of devilish glee, his face bathed in blue lights, but is mostly horribly bland and muted. Beatrice Straight is, by far, the worse, delivering each line wide-mouthed and dumb founded.

“Chiller” eventually pays off on its title’s promise, Miles eventually becoming a blue-faced murderous ghoul, however briefly. A potentially poetic image of a mother cradling her dead son is ruined for the sake of a lame jump-scare. The film’s theme of religious conviction comes back for the hilariously melodramatic penultimate scene. “Chiller” then ends on one of the most unpromising sequel hooks I’ve ever seen, suggesting there’s an entire locker full of soulless murder machines just waiting to break out. Man, somebody’s gonna’ get sued over that.

And thus concludes the Wes Craven TV Movie Trilogy of Crap. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, which were terrible but at least unintentionally hilarious, “Chiller” is mostly just a bore. The pacing is strained, the performances broad, and the scares non-existent. The droning electronic score might be one of the worse I’ve ever heard in a horror film, though the sound quality of the disk doesn’t help. You have my permission to skip this one. [Grade: D-]

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