Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 30, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 30

Revenge of the Creature (1955) 

On the commentary for the first “Creature,” Tom Weaver notes, a day after filming wrapped, Universal had a treatment for a sequel ready. “Revenge of the Creature” was released the next March. If the original was the first half of “King Kong,” “Revenge” is the second half, the Rita returning to the Black Lagoon, capturing the Gillman, and bringing him to civilization.

“Revenge of the Creature” is disappointing. The screenplay severely degrades the monster’s badassitude. Early on, the Gillman wrestles with a guy in an old-timey diving suit. In the first film, he tore grown men to pieces with ease. Here, the adventurer floats back to the boat, a few scratches on his face. After being stunned by dynamite, the Gillman spends far too much time unconscious, pushed through the water by a random assortment of dudes. When the Creature finally awakes, he’s chained to the floor of an aquarium. The threatening three-note motif looses its bite when scored against the monster harmlessly swimming around his tank. Even after breaking free and scoring a few kills, he still spends a disproportionate amount of the second half sulking. Worse yet, the Creature is redesigned, gaining goofy, bulging muppet eyes.

The original “Black Lagoon” had better then average characters. The central leads in “Revenge” are more typical. B-movie stalwart John Agar plays Clete Ferguson, a marine biologist. (Clete?)  Lori Nelson plays his love interest, a blonde ichthyologist who frequently has to explain what an ichthyologist is. He has a rival for her affection, some meathead named Joe. The way Clete treats Lori when Joe is around is reductive and territorial. After the Creature axes that corner of the love triangle, the two get engaged. A romantic encounter on the beach boils down to him bullying her into accepting his proposal. This is supposes to be romantic but comes off more like an older man manipulating a younger girl. I know 1955 was a different time but it still makes the guy unlikable. What most makes the character unlikable is his treatment of the Gillman. What’s the logic behind offering the monster some food and then shocking him? It’s cruel and almost comically clueless.

Lori Nelson isn’t Julie Adams. She’s not bad and wears her own swimsuit almost as well. In the first film, the monster fell in love with a beautiful angel that floated into his world. Here, the Gillman stalks Nelson because the original established that the monster needs to kidnap a babe in the last act. Story-wise, it’s less “love at first sight” and more “You’ll do for now.” The Creature watching Nelson as she swims is a poor imitation of similar moments in the first film. It’s less a romantic ballet and more a goofy game of tag. Moreover, it’s in a more shallow body of water, leaving little excuse for the girl not noticing the monster pawing at her legs. Still, the Creature stalking her while she’s in the shower is probably the scariest, sexiest moment in the sequel.

Does “Revenge of the Creature” work as a horror film? The inevitable rampage through the water park isn’t satisfying like it should be. Tourists flee in panic while the lake monster awkwardly waddles after them. A beach-side attack of two good Samaritans is damaged by cheesy wire work. The Creature storming into a night club would almost work if his sudden appearance wasn’t borderline comical. The Gillman’s wimpification is most noticeable at the end when the hero basically talks the monster into standing still so a horde of cops can shoot him to death. My Creature wouldn’t do that! I do like the car flip gag.

Being a huge fan of the original, I probably take “Revenge’s” lackluster qualities more seriously. Jack Arnold is back in the director’s chair but seems less interested. The first's eco-friendly moral is traded off for the message of “Animals hate being in zoos” If indeed that was the intended subtext, extended footage of a happy, performing dolphin sticks out. Even if the Gillman wasn’t defanged and the hero wasn’t a prick, this one would still probably be most remembered for Clint Eastwood’s cameo as a scientist with a mouse in his pocket. Oh, and its bitchin’ trailer. [4/10]

Shanks (1974)

Few filmmakers understand the absurd’s potential for horror: The German Expressionists, Luis Buniel, Roman Polanski, David Lynch. Of that number, I’d never think to include William Castle. Castle’s gimmick films weren’t without shocks but most were content to be charmingly campy. His final feature, “Shanks,” saw the filmmaker moving into new creative territory, creating a film that mines the absurd to uncanny, dream-like, humorous, and unnerving affect.

“Shanks” does have a gimmick, of course. It’s stars Marcel Marceau, world-famous mime. Large portions of the film lack dialogue and silent movie-style titles are inserted throughout. The plot revolves around Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute puppeteer. His only friends are the neighborhood children and, at night, Shanks suffers abuse from his cruel sister and her alcoholic husband. When an elderly mad scientist, also played by Marceau, notices the boy’s puppetry skills, he hires him as a lab assistant. Inside of his sprawling gothic manor, the scientist has been experimenting with animating corpses through diodes and remotes. After the scientist dies, Shanks continues his work, creating twitching, corpse puppets for revenge and amusement.

“Shanks” features some truly unforgettable imagery. Marceau’s double role allows him to employ his skills as the creaking mad scientist meat puppet. The moment when the scientist is first revived has Marceau slowly, stiffly moving through the house, Shanks learning the ins-and-outs of the puppetry. A slow-motion attack by an undead rooster, featured in close-shots and quick cuts, should be absurd but Castle’s direction creates a truly unnerving effect. Once the sister and husband are killed and revived, the movie uses its gimmick fantastically. The corpse-puppets robotically moving while shopping at a convenience store is both surreal and absurdly funny, especially the two bending in half to step down a curb. I wish Marceau could have done more mime work in the film but Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay are both excellent. They lean in the wind, gyrate on the ground, stiffly move about, and perform bizarre, contorting dances.

The film takes a hard turn in the last act. Shanks’ closest friend is young Celia. It’s clear she has a crush on him and the film is ambiguous over whether the adult man shares the affection. At first she is frightened by Shanks’ new puppets but quickly learns to love them, especially once they start dancing. While having a birthday party in the mansion, a group of cartoonishly evil bikers suddenly ride into the film. They invade the house, rape the girl, tie up Shanks, and steal the puppets. The story shift is signaled by one of the intertitles going up in literal flames. The conflict is created for the purpose of the climax, in which Shanks revives his first puppet. The cliché of a corpse digging its way out of a grave is repurposed in a fresh, spooky way. The last half features the most impressive mime work, even if Marceau’s sudden transformation into an action hero comes out of nowhere. The sepia-toned penultimate scene is poetic and bizarre, while the final scene suggests the whole film might have been a dream. That would certainly fit the tone.

Alex North’s vibrant score propels the film and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Unseen for years, “Shanks” was recently released by Olive Films. Olive is slowly winning my heart by releasing oddball obscurity like this and “The Hellstrom Chronicles.” However, if they truly want to be the Criterion of cult films, they’ll have to work a little harder. The image transfer is sometimes lovely but too often scratchy and dusty. Worse yet, there’s nary a special feature on the disk, not even a trailer. Still, “Shanks” warrants rediscovery. It’s bound to be the only horror film you see about mime, at the very least. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Only Sin Deep

“Only Sin Deep” is mostly notable as a rare starring vehicle for Lea Thompson and for being written by Fred Dekker. Dekker’s talent is tailor-made for “Crypt’s” campy, pulpy thrills but “Only Sin Deep” isn’t his best work. Thompson plays an unusually attractive street prostitute. After murdering her pimp, she wanders into a pawn shop whose owner collects women’s face molds... And their beauty. Thompson gains a fancy wardrobe and a rich boyfriend, only realizing too late the shop owner has stolen her beauty.

Lea plays the part with an unconvincing New Yawk accent. Her character is especially despicable, comically vain and far too murderously duplicitous to be enjoyable. Howard Deutch’s direction is melodramatic, with swooping cuts and shaky handheld. The score follows along, featuring inexplicable big cat growls and obnoxious clattering. The story, of course, trivializes the strife a street prostitute faces. I don’t expect balanced social commentary from “Tales from the Crypt” but the script is too mean-spirited to be campy fun. The girl’s final, ironic punishment is overly cruel, even to a character as unlikeable as this one.

The shittiness extends to the host segment. The Crypt Keeper is overly puppet-like this time around. The most I can say about “Only Sin Deep” is that Thompson’s old age make-up looks like Graham Ingels’ artwork sprang to life. That final image of Thompson cradling her shattered facial mold is almost poetic. Not every one can be a winner. [4/10]

So Weird: “Family Reunion

“So Weird” came at the right time for me. As a ‘tween obsessed with the supernatural and the internet, a show about a young supernatural investigator with a cool (by 1999 standards) website was right in my wheelhouse. Carla DeLizia’s Fi quickly became my pop culture crush de jour. Making the main character the daughter of a washed-up pop star on a comeback tour (Mackenzie Philips more-or-less playing herself) across the country, allowed Fi to investigate a different phenomenon each week. Rare for a kids’ show at the time, “So Weird” even featured a myth arc, Fiona attempting to solve her father’s mysterious disappearance.

Ah, but would it hold up? “Family Reunion” is a strong pilot. Carla DeLizia nails that age’s enthusiasm without being annoying. On a writing level, Patrick Lewis isn’t that distinct from a typical “annoying older sibling” cliché but Lewis’ natural charisma saves the part. He shines during a monologue about the nature of death, nicely illustrating both sibling’s reaction to their father’s death. Philips’ is naturally comfortable and the supporting cast is full of character. This first episode even builds some decent tension. The sudden appearance of the ghost boy positively recalls “The Devil’s Backbone.” Using clinging moisture to signal the ghost’s presence is a nice touch. A journey through an abandoned building is decently spooky. The sudden appearance of a drowning family goes for pathos and succeeds, despite some shaky production values.

Still, that kid’s show goofiness is there. A water logged laptop flying across the room isn’t convincing and the climax, featuring a room of poltergeist-ing objects, goes over the top. Conforming to broadcast standards of the time, the show features educational info about the Chicago Fire and the wreck of the SS Eastland. This is sometimes handled smoothly, sometimes not. So far, I’d say “So Weird” lives up to my recollection. It’s a shame the quality of the bootleg is atrocious. You’d be better off watching the show on YouTube. Since Disney has no interest in releasing the show, I guess it’ll do for now. [7/10]

Bangers n' Mash 27: Live from Monster-Mania 26!

I debated even posted this. My con report below fills the exact same purpose and in more details. The most recent Bangers n' Mash episode is only a few days old too. But, I figured, what the hell, why not? It's my blog and I'll do things my way.

The quality for this isn't as good as I wanted. I even apologize for it at the beginning. I did manage to capture the Kane Hodder and Adam West Q&A panels though the sound is a bit rough. You'll want to turn your volume up on those. That's more or less the only incentive to check this out if you've read the con report.

Don't expect the next episode to be out this quickly. This is an anomaly, not a new standard.

CON REPORT: Monster-Mania 26

I’ve never felt more conflicted about a convention like I have about Monster-Mania 26. It’s not that I didn’t have a good time. I actually had a great time. However, certain elements dissatisfied me. This was my third year at Monster-Mania in Baltimore. That’s long enough that I can see the convention changing in ways I dislike.

My travel partner and I actually stayed at the Hunt Valley Inn, this time. This, admittedly, made the experience a little easier all around. It allowed us to arrive early, with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely lunch and recoup from the stressful drive before facing the crowds.

Of late, Monster-Mania has, if not moving away from horror, been expanding into other spheres. The main attractions at the year’s previous cons were both “Star Wars” actors. 26 was focused on the 1966 “Batman” series. Adam West, Burt Ward, and Lee Meriwether were all in attendance. Even a few other guests were only sort-of connected to the genre, like Felix Silla, Lisa Loring, or Michael Madsen. This raises the question of how many horror films one has to do before being considered a “horror actor,” which may be beside the point. Odds are most horror fans like “Star Wars.” Most probably like “Batman,” sci-fi, wrestling, or crime movies. It’s certainly true for me, at least the Batman and sci-fi parts. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the, for lack of a better term, purity of the convention is being deluded in hopes of attracting more people.

Zombie Ninja Turtles. The kind of thing you only see at a horror con.

Friday evening, JD and I decided to get a jump on things by going down at four. At least, that’s what we thought. In actually, a long line had already formed for Adam West. With only four conventions under my belt, I’m hardly a veteran. I realized I had never waited an excessive amount of time to meet someone before. I got lucky with John Carpenter and Asia Argento was a twenty minute wait, max. The line grew behind us without moving ahead. This continued for two hours. Representatives let us know that West and Ward were participating in pre-paid meet-and-greet encounters. Around six, the doors finally opened and the line finally staring moving.

West’s blonde, beach-bum handler told us that it was sixty dollars for a signature. And that didn’t include a photograph. That was another sixty. I had come this far so I wasn’t walking out. That was still more then I expected to pay. Waiting in the second line, inside of the room, I noticed Adam was signing people’s items and shooing them away without asking a question. I had long since decided that I wanted to ask West about an obscure TV film he did in the seventies with Sammy Davis. Jr and Christopher Lee, a film born out Davis’ Satanist period, a truly bizarre piece of pop culture debris. As I handed over my three bills, I sheepishly asked if there was time for questions. The handler informed that there wasn’t much. Quickly, I asked Mr. West about the aforementioned project. He furrowed his brow and shook his head, having no recollection. That was that. I spent sixty dollars on twelve seconds with Adam West. I don’t even have a photograph to prove it. Buyer’s remorse set in immediately.

Of course, I had to get Burt Ward’s signature too. One’s useless without the other, right? I figured Ward, a humble fellow aware of his minor status, wouldn’t want more then the standard fee of twenty bucks. Forty at the most. Nope. Fifty, just shy of West’s asking price. And, no, photographs weren’t included. Burt was much nicer, actually took time with each guests. I made the decision I didn’t want to ask any of the “Batman” guest about “Batman,” picking another project off their resumes to be the topic of discussion. Burt remembered “High School USA,” a TV movie he made with Crispin Glover, but not very much. He’s actually a nice guy. Am I happy I spent fifty bucks to get him to sign a tiny piece of paper? I’m still not sure.

Proof that I met Adam West and Burt Ward.

After that wrapped up, we headed down stairs to explore the con more fully. The lay-out was changed this year. The hallway surrounding the primary ballrooms were packed with vendors, as always. However, this year, the remaining guests were packed into the vendor’s room. This quickly became congested. The layout was crowded and you weren’t sure if you were waiting in line for Michael Madsen or Heather Langenkamp.

What better way to blow off line fatigue then by buying stuff? I bought a lot of toys but the coolest was an original Shogun Warriors Great Mazinger, which I snagged for forty bucks, both rocket fists included. I was happy to see many vendors selling classic horror items. From one table, I grabbed “Shanks,” “Mr. Sardonicus,” “Brotherhood of Satan,” and the “Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection” triple feature. The prices weren’t great but the selection impressed. The MidAtlantic Nostalgia Con table got me a bootleg of “Curucu,” filling a spot in my Universal Monsters collection. Both were promoting conventions of their own. The previous weekend, at the same hotel, I missed the opportunity to meet another Catwoman, Julie Newmar. Meanwhile, Monster Bash next June will feature Julie Adams, Ricuo Browning, and Barbara Steele. I’ll probably have to go to that one.

Gerrit Graham was a last-minute addition. Being a huge “Phantom of the Paradise” fan, it was one I was excited for. Mr. Graham is very relaxed and friendly. He spent quite some time regaling me with stories of working on “Phantom.” Brian De Palma and Graham’s working relationship was close enough that the director allowed him to improvise, aware of his abilities as a performer. Graham let it known that he wasn’t pleased that De Palma dropped him and most of his established acting troupe after finding mainstream success. Graham is very nice and one of the few guests this weekend who wasn’t asking a ridiculous price for a signature.

You hear stories about Michael Madsen’s drunken surliness. There was no wait for and we went right up to his table. The guy is raspier in real life but nicer then his reputation suggests. Sort of. Midway through his discussion with JD, a gentleman walked up to Madsen’s table and gave him the middle finger. In mid-sentence, Madsen walked passed JD and went after the offending fellow. We were both certain an ass-kicking was about to happen. Madsen’s handler actually had to talk him down. Mike was nice to us, laughed when I asked him about working with Uwe Boll, and gladly posed for a photograph. But I wouldn’t recommend pissing the guy off.

Lee Meriwether wasn’t in the up-stairs ballroom earlier but was when we returned. Her line was slow-moving but for all the right reasons. Ms. Meriwether took time with each guest, happily answering questions and posing for photographs. (For no extra charge I’ll add.) She had many positive memories of “The 4D Man” while repeating often-heard but no-less entertaining “Batman” anecdotes for JD. Lee is probably the nicest guest we met all weekend.

Friday was winding down. Carel Struckyen was in “The Prey,” a movie I’ve gone on about at length, so I had to meet him. This might go without saying but Mr. Struckyen is extraordinary tall. Later in the evening, while waiting for an elevator, we noticed he actually had to duck in order to get through the hallways. He’s also very nice and soft-spoken. He didn’t remember much about “The Prey” but confirmed my suspicion that the film was as weird to make as it is to watch.

The last guest we met was Kane Hodder. Hodder does a lot of these things and has developed a chatty, humorous repor with his fans. While talking to us, he was throwing questions at passing guests and trading good-natured barbs with R. A. Maihailoff, whose table was next to him. Strapped for more interesting questions, I asked my old stand-by: What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever done? Kane laughed and told me a fan once sent him a vile of semen. Wow. And gross. In every con photo you see, Hodder is stage-choking fans in typical Jason fashion. Turns out, that’s not “stage”-choking. Maybe I’m just a massive wimp but Mr. Hodder made it clear, in that moment, he could have easily killed either of us. The surprise on my face is genuine.

The next day was busier, with more people and lines everywhere. Roddy Piper was a no show, which bummed me out. I had so many casual, one-off encounters with vendors and random fans I can’t remembered most of them. I got Felix Silla’s signature for a friend. He’s nice but didn’t have much to say.

Eventually, the siren song of Charles Band’s Full Moon table was too strong to resist. Band is also legendary for his theatrics. During our time together, he was heavily promoting Full Moon’s latest productions: Leprechaun flick “Unlucky Charms” (which could be purchased in a box of all-marshmallows cereal) and “Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong,” a crossover I doubt anyone was clamoring for. Mostly, he was pushing a new streaming service, promising me I could finally see “Crash!” and “MurderCycle,” and hundreds of other titles, for 7.99 a month. I passed and instead bought Blu-rays of “Castle Freak” and “The Evil Clergyman.” Truthfully, Charlie is fun. After telling us that Full Moon films are titles first and screenplays second, I suggested my own title. He laughed and told me “Doom Cock” is better suited to Troma. He’s probably right. Should I ever meet Lloyd Kaufman, I’ll have to pass that on.

Despite spending way too much on Friday, I still bought more. I grabbed a bootleg of Disney Channel’s “So Weird,” which probably doesn’t hold up but fifteen bucks for all of it was too good a bargain to pass on. I’ve made a tradition of getting an item from the VHS Preservation Society every year, as I love how their discs are presented. Unlike most bootlegs, the VHSPS’ discs have menus, music, and an MST3k-style “stinger” at the end of each film. It’s a small thing but really adds to the experience. After missing it last year, I left with “Unmasked Part 25.”

Saturday was concerned with panels. At the “Addams Family” panel, Felix Silla shared an amusing story about almost being set on fire while in the Cousin Itt costume. Carel Struckyen mentioned that, before getting cast in the features, people would ask him on the street if he was Lurch, with some getting belligerent about it. He was happy that, after being cast as Lurch, he could finally tell these people yes. The Kane Hodder/ R. A. Maihailoff panel was loose and laughter-filled. Both spent time promoting new films like “Among Friends” and “Smothered,” while happily answering often-asked questions like “favorite kill” or “favorite movie.” The “Batman” panel almost made up for the brevity of the earlier meetings. Adam West is a ham and knows how to play to his audience, cracking jokes and sharing stories. I learned that West was offered the role of James Bond and that Burt Ward burnt his ass while riding in the Batcycle. Annoyingly, no pictures were allowed. This makes me suspect that the real asshole isn’t West but his handlers. I enjoyed the panel but I think JD got more out of it then I did.

This Leslie Vernon cosplayer was pretty cool.

Staying in the same hotel as the guests did led to some encounters. Stepping off of an elevator Friday night, I overheard West hitting on a pair of very attractive twenty-something girls, both of whom seemed to be encouraging him. Charles Band almost walked into me after stepping out of an elevator. Saturday morning, I shared an awkward, crowded elevator ride with R. A. Maihailoff, who ended up hitting on the same girls Adam West was hitting on the night before. I guess you can get away from those things when you’re sort-of-kind-of-almost-famous.

We left the con Saturday, spent Sunday morning with friends in Baltimore before heading home. This gave me time to reflect. I’m embarrassed by how much I spent and wonder what I’m going to do with some of this stuff. The prices at Monster-Mania are going up and there’s more focus on expensive, extended “meet and greet” photo-ops and VIP parties. Should it continue, there might be a day when horror cons are too expensive for me. Still, a weekend this weird can’t be all bad.

Just some of the crap I bought this weekend.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 27

Later today, I'm leaving for Monster-Mania 26 in Baltimore, Maryland. This will be my third year at the convention. I'll be blogging and podcasting about it when I get back on Sunday. I had to rush this entry out as I'll be walking out the door any minute now. Anyway, that's why they're won't be an update tomorrow. If you have a question for Adam West you want me to pass along, it's probably too late now to ask.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

In many ways, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is your typical fifties pulp thriller. The story is obviously indebted to “King Kong” and other jungle adventure flicks. We have a bronze-chinned scientist hero, frequently shirtless, showing off his manly chest hair. His beautiful girlfriend is a screaming damsel in distress, kidnapped by the deadly monster. The bad guy, Mark, is a belligerent asshole. The plot isn’t much more then the Creature bumbling into the characters repeatedly. The supporting cast is full of stuffy professionals and unimportant extras, little more then monster fodder. The most obvious schlocky element is the score. Every time we see the Creature, his face or claws, a three-note leitmotif blasts on the soundtrack. The viewer is hit over the head with this, blatant attempts to get teenage girls to leap into their boyfriends’ laps. In 3-D, the Gillman, harpoons, and even a cheesy rubber bat, fly towards the audience.

Yet, in many other ways, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” subverts the expectations of a fifties B-movie. I criticize Mark, the obnoxious jerk, as a shallow character. At the same time, a movie of the period making a big game hunter the villain is somewhat progressive. The hero believes man should coexist peacefully with nature. Only at the end, when face-to-face with the aggressive monster, does he fight back. When the Gillman is fatally wounded, Reed steps down, allowing the monster to die with dignity. The ecological themes were revolutionary for the time. They float below the surface, in scenes like the Gillman looking up at a carelessly discarded cigarette. Even the romantic triangle is more subtle. Julie Adams isn’t a simple object of desire for Reed and Mark. She has thoughts and opinions, a knowledgeable scientist equal to her boyfriend.

I can go on about the themes but the real reason I love the movie is because I love the Creature. He’s the most sympathetic of the Classic Monsters, more so then even Frankenstein. The Gillman is clearly reactive, his home invaded by strangers who promptly shoot him with harpoons. If you go deeper, you realize the fossilized hand discovered at the beginning is the remains of the Gillman’s previous lover. And that’s what it’s all about. The Creature wants to be loved. The overzealous score wants the audience to be frightened by the Creature swimming along side Julie Adams. However, it’s clearly poetic. The two are dancing, a romantic courtship. The Gillman doesn’t reach for her feet because he wants to attack. He’s curious, smitten, wanting to touch this beautiful angel floating through his world. It’s a shame that Kay reacts only with fear, Adams’ lungs getting a workout. That remake Universal keeps threatening to make would, ideally, play up the romantic angle, perhaps making Kay as intrigued by the Gillman as he is by her.

Visually, the Gillman is easily the best looking monster of the ‘50s rubber suit period. The design is logical, cohesive. Unlike “It Conquered the World” or “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” the Creature looks like something that could actually exist. The air bladder in the mask, showing the monster gasping for breath on land, is another impressive special effect. Ricou Browning’s underwater performance imbues simple foot paddles with emotion and thought. The closing moments of the Creature swimming away, wounded, dying, are actually heartbreaking.

But this is a monster movie. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” eliminates many extras, the Gillman tearing through the cast like a wet, scaly Jason Voorhees. The opening kill, two ethnic diggers tossed through a tent, is as visceral as ‘50s creature features got. The underwater tussle between Gill and Mark is similarly intense. The exploitation comes through in other ways too. Of course, Julie Adams looks absolutely beautiful and her tight, white swimsuit probably ushered a generation into manhood. The camera worships her, ogling her as she swims and on the land. No wonder the Gillman falls in love with her. Who wouldn’t?

Despite his newcomer status, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was immediately accepted into the pantheon of Classic Universal Monsters. He filled a void in the monster-verse, putting a name to generations of fish-men and lake monsters. Aside from maybe Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, the Gillman had no literary ancestors. He is strictly a son of the silver screen. It’s an iconic monster, an iconic film, and one of my all-time favorites. [9/10]

Cry Baby Lane (2000)

“Cry Baby Lane” originally aired on Nickelodeon in 2000. Odds are the movie would have been forgotten by all but the most dedicated nineties nostalgist if something funny hadn’t happened. It was never aired again. Rumor has it, the film was pulled from rotation because parents complained it was “too scary.” “Cry Baby Lane” became sought-after by Nick devotees. The widely unseen film even spawned a (shitty) creepypasta. Finally, in 2011, a copy emerged and got plastered all over the internet, prompting Nickelodeon to reair it for the first time in ten years. Because I work at my own pace, I’m just now getting around to watching it.

Too scary? Not quite. As far as content goes, “Cry Baby Lane” is on par with an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” Like that fondly remembered show, “Cry Baby Lane” has an impressively creepy opening. Frank Langella recalls an urban legend about conjoined brothers kept in captivity by their father. As with most fictional twins, one is good and other is evil. When the boys die, the father separates the children, burying the good child in the public cemetery and the evil one in an isolated grave along the titular road. The story, darkly intoned, is played over images of black-and-white graveyards, abandoned homes, torn up stuffed animals, and bloody saws. This is doubtlessly the spookiest thing about “Cry Baby Lane.”

The rest plays out more typically. After hearing about the legend from the friendly mortician, ten-year old Andrew and his older, wrestling-obsessed, borderline abusive brother decide to perform a prank séance for the girls they like. A fake séance works as well as a real one, resurrecting the spirit of the evil twin. The ghost wreaks havoc on the small town, possessing most of the residents. This is a kid’s movie so the evil manifest as petty prankery. Graffiti and mailbox tag are annoying but not exactly evil. The most malevolent actions are a burning boat and potentially deadly, if non-lethal, encounters with a bull and a harvester. Also, because this is a kid’s movie, the story is primarily concerned with Andrew proving his courage to his asshole brother.

The blatant attempts at horror fall flat. An encounter with a possessed cop doesn’t pay off. The final, underground confrontation with the evil twin is hopelessly lame. “Cry Baby Lane” is probably more valuable as comedy. The apathetic father provides a few laughs, as does the overprotective mom and lazy gravedigger. The older brother’s attempt to retell the legend while the girls interrupt him got a chuckle out of me. Other comic relief is less amusing, like the belligerent “Lord of the Rings”-obsessed kid or a giant girl-scout. The movie doesn’t address a young boy spending so much time with a strange old man, even when the kid ends up in his underwear. I guess that’s to be expected. Overall, the cult of “Cry Baby Lane” is mostly undeserved, even if that opening is still aces. [5.5/10]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 26: The Remake

In the midst of all my Halloween viewery, I've also been keeping up with the Bangers n' Mash Show. On the previous episode, you might remember Mr. Mash and I read our first fan letter, in which the writer requested an episode about remakes. Who am I to say no?

I know these podcast notices are always my least-read entries so I'm actually okay with it getting buried beneath a horde of Halloween-related postings. It's cool.

Halloween 2013: September 26

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

Originally conceived as just another Abbott and Costello flick, after “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was such a major hit, “Easy Does It” was re-conceived into “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer.” To further trick people into thinking the film was a proper-horror/comedy, Boris Karloff was slotted into a small supporting role and his name was thrown up under the title. “Meet the Killer’s” horror content is ultimately minor. However, the duo were still on their game and the film is easily better then most of the later “Meet the Monsters” flicks.

The story is fairly standard. Bud and Lou play hotel employees. When a high profile guest winds up dead, Costello’s typically nervous bellhop is quickly pegged as the prime suspect, forcing the two to clear their names. Despite the below the title billing, Karloff’s role is fairly small. He plays a Swami, one of four red herrings. Karloff mostly just stands around save for one stand-out moment where he attempts to hypnotize Costello into suicide. It’s a very funny sequence, builds nicely, and one of the more memorable bits in the film. It’s also the only time Karloff gets to show off his considerable comedic chops. Of most interest to horror viewers would be the last act, set in an expansive cavern, with a masked killer (comically) stalking Costello.

As for cut-up comedy, “Meet the Killer” mostly satisfies. Bud and Lou have a solid back-and-forth and their verbal skills are top-notch. Notable moments include an early moment where Lou badgers a hotel employee, the two fighting over a girl, and comedic booby-traps. A repeated gag about Bud nearly getting hit with a fatal blow works nicely. An extended bit about Costello dressing in drag goes on too long and the entire movie burns out before it’s over. In general, Lou’s stuttering, frightened reactions prove to be unusually entertaining. Bud gets sold short some, playing a stale straight man. While it’s not as good as “Meet Frankenstein,” “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer” is a solid slap-stick murder mystery, bound to please fans of the actors. [6.5/10]

Ugetsu (1953)

“Onibaba” led me to “Ugetsu,” an earlier, even more critically acclaimed film from the Japanese New Wave. Despite what a few websites and reference books told me, “Ugetsu” isn’t a true horror film. Instead it’s a simple moral fable that slowly reveals itself to have a supernatural element.

Also set during one of Japan’s civil wars, this one in the 16th century, “Ugetsu” focuses on a family trying to survive amidst the turmoil. Genjuro is a pottery maker, struggling to feed his wife Miyagi and his young son. Tobei dreams of being a samurai, even if his wife Ohama suggests he focuses on the here and now. After a particularly profitable day in the city, Genjuro returns home with a handful of silver and a beautiful kimono for his wife. “Ugetsu” heavy-handedly lays out it's themes right then and there, with Miyagi telling her husband it isn’t the gifts that make her happy. After soldiers raid the town, the family is forced to leave their village. The husband leave their wives on the river shore as they go off in search of profits.

Both men’s dreams end up coming true. Tobei stumbles upon the corpse of a high-ranking enemy general, claiming the kill as his own, and being promoted to a high-ranking position, finally becoming a powerful, respected samurai. Genjuro catches the attention of a mysterious princess. The princess adopts him as her husband, allowing the man to live a life of wealth and relaxation. Meanwhile, Ohama is forced into prostitution and Miyagi flees from village to village, narrowly escaping detection by rampaging soldiers.

The supernatural element of “Ugetsu” comes from the subplot featuring the princess. Always clothed in white and with distinctive facial make-up, she cuts an uncanny figure. The manor she lives in is weirdly isolated. Probably the film’s spookiest moment comes when a strange voice starts to reverberate out of an empty samurai armor, the ghost of the girl’s father speaking through it. When the townsfolk are freaked out by the mention of the princess’ name, it’s easy to figure out where this is going. Yep, Genjuro has fallen in love with a ghost, one that gets rather possessive. When he reveals to the princess that he’s married, the spirit reacts… Badly. That conclusion is “Ugetsu” at its best, the man chased by spectres through an abandoned home amidst a ravaged, ruined battlefield, his body painted with Buddhist symbols.

The film’s resolution is chilly and melancholy, the men returning home broken but perhaps better people. The messages of “Appreciated what you have,” and “Don’t be greedy” are simple and obvious. That’s not what makes “Ugetsu” memorable. Kenji Mizoguchi’s direction is moody, frequently bathing the stark tableus in fog and shadow. All the performances are good though the old woman playing the ghost princess’ servant is probably my favorite. Her monologue, imploring the man to stay and explaining their origins, is spoken musically, like a strange poem. So “Ugetsu” is quite good even if it’s not actually a horror film. I should do more research next time before Netflixing something. [7/10]

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 25

The Jungle Captive (1945)

The missing Ape Woman film, the concluding chapter in Universal’s most underachieving monster saga.  Unlike “Jungle Woman,” “The Jungle Captive” doesn’t feature any stock footage. Actually, it has little set-up. During a morgue robbery, the attendant mentions an Ape Woman, without disclosing her origins. If a viewer isn’t familiar with Paula’s previous exploits, odds are good they’d think this is a stand alone feature.

Anyway, the plot: A mad scientist obsessed with reviving corpses gets his henchman, played by Rondo Hatton, to steal Paula’s body. He is determined to revive the Ape Woman. To do so, he kidnaps a young female nurse who, along with her finance, believes the doctor to be benevolent. Transferring the living girl’s blood into the dead were-gorilla somehow brings Paula back to life. The first half-hour of the hour long film is spent on this, meaning the central monster doesn’t do anything until it’s half-way over. It becomes apparent to the doctor very quickly that the newly resurrected Paula is practically brain dead and requires a grey matter transplant. Gee, good thing he’s got this young girl of the exact same physical type right here, isn’t it?

Once again, Paula proves to be an ineffectual monster. She breaks out of the house and kills a dog. That’s it. Rondo is more proactive, frequently murdering people for the doc. Paula’s origin is retconned a bit. Originally a gorilla that got a human thyroid, leading to the transformation, Paula is now a gorilla that got a human brain. Perhaps this was done to account for a new actress playing the part? While Acquanetta was wooden, she was at least a little more interesting then Vicky Lane, who does nothing but stand around and blankly stare. When under the make-up, she delivers some unconvincing snarls and growls.

The clueless boyfriend and asshole detectives finally put two-and-two together. The body count spikes with servant turning on doctor, doctor turning on servant, and monster turning on doctor. Despite being slow and clumsy, I liked “The Jungle Captive” more then “Jungle Woman.” At the very least, you actually see the monster in this one. I’ll defend Hatton’s acting. He’s gruff but you can gleam some emotion under his ugly mug. If he had lived longer, you know “monosyllabic henchman” is a part he would have played more. None of the Ape Woman movies are good but some are less terrible then others. Maybe the novelty of a female monster was enough to get three films out of the premise. Maybe, in the forties, Universal would sequelize any of their B-flicks. Either way, it’s no surprise the characters remains the studio’s most obscure creation. [5/10]

Vampires in Havana (1985)

This is one I’ve been meaning to get to for years. I remember first hearing about it on a list of “Cartoons for Grown-Ups.” Along side “Heavy Metal” and a bunch of Bakshi was “Vampires in Havana.” The title always stuck with me though I never had much desire to actually seek the flick out. Hey, look at that, there it is on Netflix Instant.

The plot is surprisingly complicated. Dracula, after forming a European union of vampires, orders his mad scientist son to create a formula to allow vampires to walk around in the daylight. It doesn’t work at first. Later, in 1930s Cuba, he has perfected the formula and raised Dracula’s grandson on the juice. Because of this, young Pepe doesn’t know he’s a vampire and spends his time playing jazz and seducing babes for the revolution. (To the protest of his traditional girlfriend.) Meanwhile, a cartel of Chicago vampires want to buy Dracula’s castle and make it an in-door beach. In-door beaches are apparently quite the revenue stream for vampires. The councils come after the formula while local criminal elements are also after Pepe. Got all that?

Despite being released in 1985, I suspect the movie was in development for a long time. The animation is loose and sketchy, like a (more) demented version of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” It would have been fine in the 1970s but probably looked very dated in 1985. Which isn’t to say there aren’t stand-out moments like when Lola imagines her married life with Pepe. There are a couple of clever sight-gags, like a vampire bar built under a hospital, blood on tap straight out of patients’ arms. The movie never gets huge laughs but has an energetic, anarchic tone that I like. The jazz score is good too.

The movie might be the first time some vampire tropes were presented on-screen. Silver bullets harming vampires? Okay, probably not. Vampires from different social backgrounds coming together to form a council? Hmm, I’m not sure. Guns loaded with wooden stakes? Okay, “Vampires in Havana” had to have done that one first. It’s an entertaining enough comedy and over quickly at only 80 minutes. For the perverts, yes, there are animated boobs though whether the character designs will do it for you is a matter of taste. [6.5/10]

Living Doll (1980)

Mannequins saunter right into the uncanny valley for me. The more realistic and detailed, the creepier they are. This short, another regular feature of Saturday Nightmares and HBO filler, understands this. Its opening credits close-up of dress shop mannequins is almost as creepy as anything else that happens in the film.

 The story isn’t complex. A janitor in a fabric shop takes abuse from his boss and costumers all day. In order to blow off steam, he goes up stares and breaks the mannequins. After falling sleep up there, he wakes up in the middle of the night surrounded by the dolls. That’s when things get creepy…

“Living Doll” would play fantastically on the big screen, where its creaking sound design, eerie musical score, and shadowy direction could be truly appreciated. It’s not as effective as half-remembered long-ago TV viewings or a murky YouTube video. When the mannequins finally come to life, it has the potential to be campy. Still, the film’s final images, of mannequins with bleeding eyes or a sudden, pasted-on doll face, are undeniably creepy. My first viewing of the film, years ago, played out in a not-dissimilar fashion. I fell asleep probably during an episode of “The Hitchhiker” or something and awoke to this disquieting, spooky short, not exactly sure of what I was watching. Man, I miss what the USA Network was in the early nineties… Anyway, “Living Dolls” is a very effective short. Give it a watch. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 24

Carrie (1976)

The influence of “Carrie” can’t be overstated. The film transformed Stephen King from a minor bestseller to an international success. Brian De Palma, known before for absurdest satires, was changed into the predominant thriller filmmaker of his age. It launched the careers of Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travoltra and, most importantly, Sissy Spacek. The movie’s box office success and critical praise was acknowledged with two Academy Award nominations, unheard for a horror film. Finally, the film introduced the final jump scare into the horror movie cliché library, something most every major shock film of the next two decades would rip off.

“Carrie” is a simple story, befitting a film adapted from a slender, 250-page novel. Meek, poor and telekinetic Carrie White suffers abuse at school from classmates and at home from her religious fanatic mother. Sue Snell, Tommy Ross, and Miss Collins attempt to help poor Carrie, to save her. Vindictive Chris Hargensen and her doofus boyfriend plan petty revenge for mostly imagined wrongs. The plot is engineered to build towards the climatic prom sequence, each storyline coming together. The whole story takes place over no more then a few days. The structure is precise, elegant, and functional.

It's also a coming of age story. The film begins and ends with blood in bath water, representing different losses of innocence. The emergence of Carrie’s powers is tied directly with her first menstrual cycle. Her character arc is ultimately framed as a struggle against her mother’s authority. Her psychic abilities give her the strength to fight back, to strike out on her own. Dowdy and plain at first, Carrie goes through a “Beautiful All Along” transformation, charming Tommy at prom, suggesting that, had this not been a Stephen King story, she could have gotten away from her mother, had a normal life. King’s original book was a epistolary novel, showing the events from the outside looking in. The film refocuses on Carrie, showing her world, her side of the story.

For a fact, whenever the movie shifts away from Carrie, it suffers. De Palma’s past as a cult filmmaker occasionally pokes through. A long sequence of the girls in gym detention is odd, with upbeat music and comical angles, adding little to the story. How about the scene of Tommy and friends trying on tuxes, which features bizarre fast motion and also adds nothing? Carrie’s Mother isn’t the most complex character in the film. She’s little more then a raving, religious lunatic cliché. Only near the end, when explaining Carrie’s conception, does the character seem to be more. Piper Laurie plays the part as operatic theater, driving her intensity to absurdest heights, most evident during her orgasmic death scene, writhing in religious agony. Chris is similarly cartoonist, a sadistic, evil queen bitch. It’s no fault of Nancy Allen, who plays the part to its fullest, simply an example of thin writing. (I blame Stephen King for this, not screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. King’s villains are usually two dimensional.) William Katt, several years away from his light comedy hero roles, is nearly flat as Tommy. Katt tries, occasionally showing some depth under those golden locks, but frequently comes off as a brainless jock.

Spacek owns the film and, when the focus is on her, “Carrie” shines. Her big blue eyes and freckled face conveys such a strong vulnerability, a deep sadness. You feel for the character, want to protect her. As the prom night goes on, as you see her smile and come into her own, a deep melancholy comes over the film that almost brings me to tears every time. Because you know her happiness is going to be short-lived. Despite occasional misinterpretations, “Carrie” isn’t a revenge story. Carrie’s psychic wrath at the prom isn’t righteous nor is the audience meant to enjoy it. Instead, it’s high tragedy. You’re watching her fragile world shatter apart and the terrible fall-out from it. “Carrie” is ultimately an incredibly sad film. You forget that between showings, only remembering De Palma’s stylistic flourishes or the intense effect scenes.

De Palma’s highly stylish direction occasionally verges on melodramatic. The multiple quick-cut close-ups on Carrie’s glaring face or Margret chopping a carrot drawls too much attention. The infamous De Palma split-screen nicely show the effect of Carrie’s powers but are an exercise in style, not story. The last supper between Carrie and her mother, though beautifully shot in deep shadows, puts too fine a point on it when lightening strikes after Margret’s dialogue. Ultimately though, De Palma’s direction works for the film. His repeated use of double focus, different items in the foreground and the background, provide depth to the frame, supporting the themes of the film. The turn-table shot of Carrie and Tommy at the prom probably goes on too long but beautifully illustrates both her heavenly feeling while subtly suggesting that things are about to go out of control. No sequence is better constructed then the lead-up to the prom massacre. Another one of De Palma’s trademarks, a long, single shot, revolving around the room, setting each puzzle piece in place brilliantly. The flames erupting behind Carrie are mythic, blazing demonic wings sprouting behind her.

Pino Donaggio’s score is also hugely important to the film’s success. The score is beautiful, dreamy and romantic when it needs to be. Carrie and her mother each have a leitmotif, a mournful oboe for Carrie and pounding, psychotic piano steps for Mom. During the prom, Donaggio’s score fluctuates from silent to foreboding, slowly building tension. While the actual massacre is happening, the score is almost non-existent, treating the violence starkly, honestly. Unlike De Palma’s direction, the score is always honest, building and supporting the story’s emotions… Except for the shrieking, Hermann-esque “Psycho” strings that play whenever Carrie employs her powers. This was no doubt De Palma’s idea, the Hitchcock humping bastard.

Though infamous, I almost feel like that final jump scare is unnecessary. It’s an exploitation movie move in a film that is anything but. However, that final image, of Sue’s mother cradling her on the bed, the room womb-like, a warm parental relationship, the kind Carrie never had, recalls the story’s whole point. “Carrie” is a devastatingly sad, powerful horror picture, showing that the genre can explore emotions far deeper then fear or revulsion. [9/10]

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

Another Universal release, this isn’t quite horror but comes surprisingly close. It fits comfortably under the “dark fantasy” label. An anthology, the framing device revolves around a man suffering from troubling dreams. His friend tries to take his mind off the issue by regaling him with stories of the supernatural, all of which explores fate and the influence magic has over people’s lives.

The first story is the weakest. It opens with the striking image of winged demons stepping over a dead man. Louisiana and Marti Gras are revealed as the setting, the demons only people in costumes. The direction shifts to a young woman who considers herself so ugly that no one could ever love her. (Betty Field under bumpy make-up.) After stumbling into a mask shop, the mysterious owner gives her a mask which will gift her with beauty for a few hours. While it has a strong start, this one quickly develops into sap. There isn’t any ironic twist. This is an obvious story of inner beauty. The voice-over gets heavy handed at times and the ending is too on the nose. Either way, Field gives a good performance and is quite lovely.

The second tale is the best, featuring a strong performance from Edward G. Robison. At a party, a fortune teller accurately predicts the future of everyone present. After reading Robison’s palm, the medium predicts that he will commit murder. At first dismissing this as nonsense, Robison is quickly taunted by an inner voice, convincing him to kill. This segment has moody direction and Robison’s inner voice, usually shown as his own reflection, leads to some nice moments. My favorite is when his shadow begins to speak. The story builds to an effective ending with some nicely atmospheric black and white shadows. There’s dark humor here and the murderous protagonist is what pushes the film into horror. I quite liked it.

The third segment is the lightest on fantasy and the most blatantly romantic. A tight-rope walker, whose gimmick involves getting drunk before walking the wire, keeps having a dream that he’ll fall to his death. The dream also features a woman he’s never met before. While on a boat ride across the ocean, he meets her. The two naturally fall in love. However, it quickly becomes apparent that she is hiding a secret. Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck have decent chemistry together. Though maybe the least interesting story on paper, it proves compelling in execution.

The film has a history. Originally, a fourth segment about a murderer hiding out with a family and falling in love with their blind daughter opened the film. Each story was supposed to flow into the next, as the second and third do. However, the first sequence was built into a stand alone film called “Destiny” and the comedic framing device added. “Flesh and Fantasy” probably won’t interest most horror fans beyond Universal completest like myself. It makes decent Halloween viewing either way because of its shadowy mood. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: 
Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone

Early Crypt Keeper continues to be darker. He opens this episode with a brief monologue about the nature of death. I know this is a horror show but gee, that’s dark. With the slower, raspier delivery, even the shitty one-liners come off as a lot meaner.

“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is another early episode anchored by its lead actor. Joey Pantoliano has made a career out of playing sleazy jerks. Ulric the Undying proves an especially sleazy jerk, a homeless bum granted a cat’s nine lives by a mad scientist. That premise is absurd, of course, and the episode uses it mostly as a set-up for increasingly elaborate deaths for Ulric. As in most “Tales from the Crypt” scenario, the episode is also a moral story. Ulric murders the mad scientist, who is also his stage manager. Ulric’s showgirl girlfriend turns on him before he finally decides to screw over the carnival barker he works for. As is always the case, our villain protagonist is punished for his greedy ways with a nicely ironic ending.

Episode 3 is way goofier then the first. Richard Donner’s direction is comical and exaggerated, using dutch angles, overbaked quick cats, and even cartoonish scene transitions. (Did somebody say star wipe?) The characters are cartoonish too, from Robert Wuhl’s foul-mouthed carnival barker to Kathleen York’s squeaky voiced showgirl. Joey Pants holds it together though, making for another entertaining half-hour. [7/10]

(Oh, and if you wonder why I skipped the famous second episode, “And All Through the House…” Come on, man, it’s still September. Way too early for Christmas horror.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 23

The Monster and the Girl (1941)

I’ve been waiting a long time for this one. In the mid-nineties, Universal released 37 films as the “Universal Monsters Classic Collection.” The tapes were fun to collect because of the castle design and monster portrait that decorated each cover. The series looked awesome on a shelf together. The collection went deep too, including Rondo and Paula. As a youngster, with money earned from mowing lawns, I managed to gather the entire series. Except for “The Monster and the Girl.” In the DVD era, Classic Collection giving way to Legacy Collection, the movie remained unavailable. Until earlier this year, when it was finally released as a DVD-on-demand.

Was the wait worth it? The first 26 minutes are devoted to the trial of Scot Webster, convicted with murdering a mobster. Webster maintains that he’s innocent, a story his sister Susan supports. The witnesses on the stand fill in the story, most prominently Susan. She talks about coming to New York, looking for work, and falling in love with Larry. The two marry but Larry turns out to be a hood, breaking Susan’s heart and involving her in his criminal activities. Scot went to the city to murder the man who hurt his sister but, instead, wound up framed by Larry’s criminal comrades. Despite the story, Scot is convicted. Instead of going to the gallows, he is chosen by a scientist (George Zucco’s cameo) as a test subject. Scot’s brain is placed in a gorilla’s body, signaling “The Monster and the Girl’s” transformation into a horror film. In his new gorilla body, Sam avenges his wrongful conviction as well as his sister’s heartbreak.

“The Monster and the Girl” isn’t well regarded but I found plenty to like anyway. Ellen Drew gives a great performance as Susan. In the scene most recalling pre-code Paramount shockers, Susan wakes up in her honeymoon bed alone, still smiling. Instead of her husband entering, a criminal thug steps in. He threatens the girl, forcing her into a job as “a cabaret dancer.” The sequence ends with the man throwing her around, Drew’s eyes wide and terrified. What happens next is kept ambiguous but the suggestion of assault was still edgy stuff in 1941. It’s a shame that Drew isn’t given much to do in the second half, mostly playing a damsel in distress.

Some might be disappointed that, like many ‘40s B-flicks, what passes for a monster is just a slightly modified gorilla. Unlike those films, this gorilla suit is well-made. The performer successfully apes simian movement. (Not apologizing for that.) There’s focus on the animal’s soulful eyes, showing the humanity within. Scot’s habit of wiping his brow is carried over to his new, hairy body. The gorilla’s laboratory escape is off-screen, a pan around the ruined lab in its place, a moody element. The dog that was Scot’s pet in his human life recognizes him, trailing the gorilla. A moment where Gorilla-Scot visits his sleeping sister is actually heart-felt. Meanwhile, Scot-rilla stalking a mobster thug from the rooftops, the dog behind the guilty man, builds suspense. The actual gorilla attacks aren’t scored, lending a spooky feel. The dog, who receives billing in the credits, returns at the end, laying his head down for his fallen master. Awww!

The film isn’t without distraction. The method in which Scot is framed isn’t very convincing. Philip Terry is flat. Most of the comic relief, such as the catty dialogue between detectives, is amusing but a slapstick bellhop isn’t. Still, this one entertained. Worth the wait? Sure. [7/10]

The Iron Rose (1973)

Opening on the beach that must be familiar even to casual Rollin fans, “The Iron Rose” might be the director’s most acclaimed film. It’s a very pure movie, with an even more simplistic story then you’d expect and not a single naked vampire in sight. Two lovers meet at a Halloween party. The next day they go for a train ride and end up in an old cemetery. While making love in a crypt, the gates are closed and the two are locked in.

At night, the cemetery becomes an otherworldly place. There is no escape. The boy searches helplessly for an exit while the girl quickly goes mad. She warms up to the idea of death,  holding a skull up over her face, laughing. Earlier, the boy falls into an open grave, the camera spinning around him as he looks up as his girlfriend. The two characters represent conflicting ideologies. Early on, they discuss religion, the boy being a strict non-believer while the girl isn’t sure. After the madness sets in, she accepts death as a natural thing. He fears it, rebels against it. Given the fixed location and small cast, the movie plays more like an allegory the longer it goes on.

“The Iron Rose” has gorgeous gothic atmosphere. The cemetery is a fantastic setting, with its huge gravestones, looming crosses, dusty crypts, and cobweb strewn statues. The film is based off a poem, which explains the dreamy tone, but the graveyard had to have been the real inspiration. How could anyone resist making a horror film in this setting? The sparse music is composed of whispering voices. The only moment of unintentional camp comes when the girl opens her mouth to releases an odd, unconvincing scream.

It’s a good thing the movie looks so damn good because the story is a drag. After night falls, the film breaks down into a clear pattern. Guy tries to escape, girl rambles on, guy’s attempts are frustrated, repeat. Unusual for Rollin, the film is dialogue-heavy, many semi-poetic monologues about life and death being batted around. Both characters are slightly annoying, the girl coming off as manic and the guy coming off as kind of a dick. Honestly, the best moments are the ones that have the least to do with the couple. A sad clown drags a handful of roses through the gravestones. An old woman leaves a flower pot on a crypt door. The girl frolics on a beach in the nude, pushing over iron crosses. I suspect this would have made a fine short, given its fantastic setting, images, and nicely poetic ending. As a feature, it quickly becomes repetitive. I maintain that Rollin’s goofier, vampire-filled, nudity-and-imagery driven films are his best. [6.5/10]

Onibaba (1964)

Every Halloween I inch further through “101 Horror Films You Need to See Before You Die” and other books listing “essential” genre cinema. Since these books are put together by “film experts,” you never know what you’ll get when watching the listed, obscure foreign films. Will it be something that lives up to the hype or pretentious, overrated hogwash?

“Onibaba” delivers on the horror, though it takes a while. Set in 1300’s Japan, when civil war had torn the country apart, the film focuses on an old woman and her daughter-in-law. With the son/husband off to war, and an apocalyptic summer ruining crops, the two have taken to murdering wandering samurais, and selling the armor, in order to survive. When the son’s neighbor, friend, and fellow soldier returns home alone, tension rises between the two women.

“Onibaba” sharply criticizes the act of war. The on-going conflict is painted as pointless, rich men squabbling over little land for no discernible reason. All the war does is impoverishes the working class, forcing normal people to murder in order to survive. This theme is illustrated most sharply when a wandering samurai wakes the old woman in the night. The samurai wears a demonic mask and forces the woman to lead him out of the field. During their walk, she tears the general down, saying that men like him are responsible for her son’s death. That the samurai dies and is blatantly painted as a demon makes the director’s opinion on those who start wars clear.

This commentary isn’t what informs most of “Onibaba.” On the Criterion DVD, the director flatly states that the film is about sex, or more specifically, that the human desire for sex is vital. Despite the returning soldier being sleazy, the daughter can’t resist him. She runs off in the night to be with the man. It’s made clear that it’s less the guy himself and more that she’s incredibly horny after being without a man for so long. The mother-in-law also desires him and her jealousy is ultimately what drives the plot. It’s not the countless murders of random samurai that makes the old woman into the onibaba, the demon hag of Japanese legend, but rather her denying the young woman her natural right to sexual satisfaction.

That probably doesn’t sound like a horror movie. “Onibaba” is a feudal drama for its first hour. In the last forty minutes, the film piles on startling, memorable horror imagery. The susuki grass, always billowing in the wind, provides fantastic atmosphere. Finally, when the demon masked old woman appears out of the grass, seemingly floating above it, the horror kicks in. The film’s direction, with its deep shadows and focus on strong faces, is uniformly strong. These moments stand above the rest and are genuinely creepy. The ending is ambiguous, character’s fate left up in the air. However, the intention is clear. “Onibaba” clearly believes that a person’s action can transform them into a monster and it doesn’t necessary take a spooky mask to get there. [8/10]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 22

Supernatural (1933)

Another Universal acquisition from Paramount and also a pre-code film. It’s most notable for sticking out among Carole Lombard’s body of work, her only horror film. The film has two stories that slowly intertwine. A woman strangler is on death row, pleading revenge on the guy who turned her in. After being executed, her body is left to a scientist who has some strange experiments in mind, a pure plot device. The second story involves Lombard as the grieving inherent to her millionaire brother’s fortune. Seeing an opportunity, a villainous false-medium, the guy who sold the strangler up the river, decides to take advantage of Lombard’s morning. Remember the scientist I mentioned? Somehow, the spirit of the dead strangler possesses Lombard’s body, seeking revenge on the slimy medium.

Having enjoyed the previous pre-code Paramount horror films I’ve seen, I had high expectations for “Supernatural.” Should have kept them in check. The movie is hampered by a bad case of melodrama. Willowy choir music plays over the opening titles, along with numerous massive lightening strikes. After the credits, we get like four different religious quotes vaguely related to the film’s themes. At only an hour-four minutes long, it’s a quick watch. However, the majority of the runtime is spent setting up the premise. The movie takes a lot of time establishing the medium’s villainy, which involves strangling an old lady who lives in his apartment and cackling wildly why doing so. Lombard, while looking fantastic in tight dresses, spends most of the early half crying. Watching the chicanery involved in faking a séance is at least sort of interesting.

More then halfway finished, the movie finally starts to move. Lombard is possessed by the strangler’s spirit. She goes about seducing the medium, isolating him, and readying her revenge. Once embracing her evil side, Lombard’s performance really takes life. She does seductive femme fatale very well. The second half is soundly satisfying and its ending has a nice ironic tone to it. “Supernatural” has a few spooky moments, mostly involving the dead brother’s spectre appearing out of nowhere or close-ups on the lead girl’s glowing eyes. The pre-code elements mostly consist of a brief mention of orgies at the beginning and actually showing an attempted strangulation in full view. Over all, I’m not sure if “Supernatural” was worth the wait. It ends all right but takes an awfully long time getting there. [6/10]

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)

Growing up in the nineties, UFOs and alien abductions were on many tongues. Though obviously in pop culture since the sixties, the decade of my youth was filled with stories of little grey men and nocturnal visitations. “Communion” was recent enough to be easily found in libraries, “Fire in the Sky” hit theaters in ‘93, "The X-Files" brought alien conspiracy theories to the masses, and “documentaries” filled cable. For years, I considered alien abductions to be definitive proof of extraterrestrials. As a teen, I spent many nights worrying about greys in my bedroom. Until I read about sleep paralysis and found it explained the majority of encounters. Anyway, it’s a good thing I didn’t see “Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County” when it first aired on television. There would have been many more sleepless nights if I had.

A found footage film just predating “The Blair Witch Project,” if not “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Alien Abduction” depicts the McPherson family’s Thanksgiving dinner, all filmed by youngest son Tommy. At first, the tensions of Thanksgiving are normal, such as mother’s alcoholism, the liberal sister bringing her black boyfriend to dinner, and her racist brother reacting. When the power goes out, the three brothers discover a cadre of aliens mutilating some cattle. The family spends the rest of the night terrorized by the beings, Tommy catching it all on tape.

There’s a reason found footage has taken a foothold in the culture. It’s not just because the movies are cheap to make and speak to millennial paranoia about privacy. The best moments of “Alien Abduction” create an eerie tension. The lack of any music has the audience listening carefully for sounds off-screen. Similarly, the handheld camera-work has the viewer watching the corners of the frame, on the look-out for half-seen aliens. The best moment in the film involves Tommy retreating to his bedroom and putting the camera down. When he picks the camera up, an alien appears in the room. Without an obnoxious score signifying the scare, the jump is allowed to breath, stretching to disturbing lengths. Another notable moment involves the men retreating outside, noticing the upstairs bedroom window is open.

Both of those awesome bits take place in the first hour. Smartly, the movie doesn’t screw around, getting to the action quickly. However, the premise proves too thin to sustain a 93 minute story. The middle section involves the family dodging a red light, caring for a sick family member, experiencing burning rashes and, weirdly, deciding to continue dinner. The aliens are apparently petty fuckers, psychically manipulating their victims. The mother sees her dead husband, the black boyfriend and oldest brother’s wife make out, and the little girl plays an unheard piano concerto. The movie lays down the cards concerning the little girl early. She’s either possessed by aliens or being psychically controlled by them, a story element that doesn't quite work. Most annoyingly, the story is occasionally interrupted by talking head interviews. Some of the interviewees are connected to the story, like the Lake County sheriff. Others, like a Hollywood special effects technician or British rock star, have little to do with what’s happening. Either way, the segments unnecessarily distract. Despite the style choices and dragging middle, “Alien Abduction” picks up at the end. The final image, the family sitting around the table, the aliens slowly coming to abduct them, is rather creepy.

The movie has a bizarre legacy. It was aired on UPN, presented as fact, and heavily edited to conform to docudrama standards. Despite having end credits, many were convinced it was true. “Alien Abduction” is actually a bigger budgeted remake of the same director’s first feature and probably based on the Hopskinville/Kelly encounter. Weirdly, a tape of that rare, original film circulated at UFO conventions, convincing many it was genuine. Despite the director out right saying it’s fiction, some still believe the original McPherson tape is legit. You can’t convince those who truly want to believe. Anyway, “Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County” won’t blow your socks off. The acting is sometimes sketchy and the writing occasionally rough. The premise is still fantastic and the creepy, effective moments justify the whole project. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “The Man Who Was Death

Before getting to the episode, can I talk about how awesome the opening to “Tales from the Crypt” is? A POV shot swerves through a misty graveyard, lit cool night blue. We slide into a creepy mansion on the hilltop. Darting back and forth through the cobweb strewn gothic manor, the viewer is taken behind a secret passageway. Careening down a winding, stone stairway, lit only by torches, we wander into the titular crypt. Our host, the Crypt Keeper, greets us with a maniacal laugh, ooze dripping down the screen as the title comes up. Accompanied by Danny Elfman’s carnival funhouse theme, this tells us everything we need to know. The show is traditional but technically advanced, winking and self-aware while still delivering classic horror chills. Pure, delicious comic book horror.

In this first season, the Crypt Keeper wasn’t quite the cheesy one-liner tossing, quick-talking goofball corpse we’d come to love. He spoke a little slower, the jokes slightly more subdued. Stature-wise, he’s smaller as well, apparently a dwarf in these first few episode. Soon enough, John Kassir’s vocal performance and Kevin Yahger’s puppetry would come into their own, even if the idea of a slightly darker, slightly more serious Crypt Keeper is sort of intriguing.

As for “The Man Who Was Death,” its main attribute is William Sadler’s star role. Rolling with a Southern accent of uncertain origin, he delivers bluesy, sick monologues on everything from capital punishment to romance. Sadler, as a great character, milks them for all their worth. Walter Hill’s direction is noir-lite, letting Sadler speak right into the camera. Characters are frequently silhouetted in shadow. The script too is more noir then horror, the story of an unemployed executioner turning to vigilantism not having much in the way of zombies or monsters. Still, “The Man Who Was Death” features the ironic humor that is the series trademark. It’s not as lightly funny as later episode but, as far as preimeres go, makes a bold statement. [7/10]