Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 19

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

When I was knee-deep in my Mega-Thon last year, you might have noticed I skipped this one, arguably the first proper film of the cycle. If I was smart, I would say that “Hunchback of Notre Dame” isn’t a horror film, instead a period melodrama. While Quasimodo is frequently featured next to Frankenstein and Dracula, the film is low on horror content. The truth is I remember disliking the movie and felt no reason to revisit it. Leaving “Hunchback” out all-together isn’t fair though. After all, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” wouldn’t have happened without it.

The movie is beholden to the conventions of Hugo and Laemmle. Despite getting title billing, the hunchback isn’t featured in large portions of the film. The gypsy Esmeralda’s love affair with the captain of the guard Phoebus takes up half the run-time. Hugo’s themes of social unrest take stage in this subplot. Esmeralda’s adopted father, Clopin, king of the gypsies, plots revolution against the apathetic king. His daughter falling in love with a noble doesn’t sit well with the guy. The themes of the haves versus the have-nots are never more apparent then in the scene where Clopin and his thieves storm Phoebus’ party. The poor stand on one side of the ballroom, clothed in rags, the rich on the other, in elegant gowns. Even Quasimodo is a gear in the machine of social hierarchy. The film’s villain controls the hunchback. When the gypsy girl flares Frollo’s lust, he forces Quasimodo to kidnap her. Caught by the guards, the deformed servant suffers for his master’s crimes. The hunchback turning against his boss is indicative of the story’s overall themes of revolt.

Potentially interesting themes are undermined by the commitment to melodrama. Differing from the novel, Esmeralda is saved from the gallows. Following the novel, she is actually royalty, the daughter of a rich woman, kidnapped as an infant by gypsies, her birth mother driven mad by the lost. This information is delivered flatly by a very knowledgeable, exposition-prone bit player. Esmarelda’s true identity as a princess doesn’t affect the plot much. Frollo’s villainous machinations and Quasimodo’s rebellion are motivated by their passion for the girl. This would probably be fine if the character had more depth. Patsy Ruth Miller looks elegant but the character is pushed around by the whims of the plot. Phoebus, a cynical womanizer in the novel, is transformed into a bland romantic hero, practically obsessed with the girl. The story of class warfare gets lost admit the romantic entanglements and period grandeur. Hugo’s criticism of the Catholic Church is excised totally, Archdeacon Claude Frollo becoming a kind man of the cloth. The role of villain is shifted to his brother, Jehan. Despite this, Brandon Hurst’s performance is a highlight, sneering and glaring from under his cap. Even Hurst gets a romantic moment, confessing his love to the girl in her dungeon prison.

Even if he isn’t the protagonist, Quasimodo is the most interesting character. Lon Chaney’s performance is legendary. Performing under extensive make-up and a fifteen-pound rubber hump, he conveys pathos with only his body language. The moment when Esmarelda comes to the hunchback’s aid as he suffers on the pillory is touching strictly because of Chaney, gratitude clearly visible on his face. Chaney vends the hunchback’s love with longing looks, selling the romance better then the script can. Quasi’s last act before he dies is to ring the bells, celebrating Phoebus and Esmarelda’s love, another memorable moment. Chaney overacts at times, sticking his tongue out and grasping his hands. Still, his performance is probably the best thing about the film. Especially since Quasimodo’s evolution to anti-hero is a bit rough. Dropping wooden pillars and boiling lead on rioting, otherwise innocent gypsies doesn’t exactly endear him to the audience.

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” isn’t a horror film but is still visually spectacular. The sets of Notre Dame are beautiful and moody, gothic arches echoing through the entire church. The Court of Miracles is another fantastic set, teeming with life in cramped, rocky locations. People in ghoulish skeletons costumes dance out from under dark bridges. Deep shadows seal the eerie atmosphere. An extended visit to a torture chamber is another effective, horrific scene. Ultimately, these elements sell me on the movie, not the overwritten, routine story. I probably prefer Disney’s version and the Charles Laughton take appears to be the most critically acclaimed but 1923’s “Hunchback” endures for a reason. [6/10]

Dollman (1991)

I’m surprised I haven’t talk more about Full Moon Entertainment. I should do a “Puppet Master” retrospective someday. Anyway, why am I talking about “Dollman” which isn’t a horror film? A month ago, while browsing through my local Dollar Store, I found the “Dollman / Demonic Toys Box Set” for three dollars. A dollar a movie! I couldn’t pass up such a bargain. As soon as I bought it, I knew I’d be reviewing all three for Halloween.

“Dollman” was probably motivated by three factors. It was a superhero movie released in the wake of ‘89’s “Batman.” Wikipedia will tell you that this film is unrelated to the Golden Age superhero of the same name but I refuse to believe this. It’s not surprising that Charles Band would rip-off a diminutive superhero, considering his love of all threats tiny. Of course, there’s nobody Band likes to rip-off more then himself. In Full Moon’s long-running “Trancers” series, Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, a hard-boiled, sarcastic cop who chases a fugitive from the future to the modern day. In “Dollman,” Tim Thomerson plays Brick Bardo, a hard-boiled, sarcastic cop who chases a fugitive from another planet to Earth. The catch? Though normal sized on his world, Brick is only thirteen inches tall on Earth. Armed with an absurdly powerful laser gun, Dollman cleans up the streets of Los-Angles-posing-as–New-York.

“Dollman” has a good sense of humor about itself. The title character is introduced as a bizarre riff on Dirty Harry, tying in fat ladies and laundry with the famous “You feelin’ lucky?” sequence. Brick explodes a guy with a single shot, a hilarious special effect. Once on Earth, our hero is badgered by children, slings size-related one-liners and leaps from a building, somehow landing safely on a moving vehicle. The miniature Dirty Harry’s new size doesn’t affect his abilities much, save for a gag where it takes him several minutes to travel a short distance.

“Dollman,” weirdly, reaches for social relevance. After the sci-fi intro, we get a long montage showing the crime-ridden city. Brick’s normal sized love interest is a single mom attempting to survive in the ghetto. A post-“Bad News Bear,” pre-“Watchmen” Jackie Earl Haley plays the villain, a nasty thug obsessed with the mom. In one of the more clever bits, what appears to be the primary villain is bluntly dismissed, making way for Haley’s vulgar, clueless creep. Don’t get the wrong idea. This is an Albert Pyun joint after all. As in accordance with all 90s low-budget action flicks, the climax is set in an abandoned warehouse.

Keep your expectations relaxed. “Dollman” is goofy, self-aware, violent, and features some solid actors having a good time. Anyway, on with the horror movies. [7/10] 

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

While watching “Scream” this summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about post-modern horror. Naturally, Kevin Williamson didn’t do it first. Dan O’Bannon, a hugely successful and influential screenwriter that never got his due in his life time, beat him by a decade. Originally designed for horror-hack Tobe Hooper, O’Bannon injected the screenplay with his trademark inventiveness and quirky humor. “Return of the Living Dead” is textbook post-modern, referencing “Night of the Living Dead” explicitly. O’Bannon makes his intentions clear immediately with a sarcastic title card declaring the film to be a true story.

Hardcore horror fans like myself hate on fast zombies while conveniently overlooking that this beloved cult classic has fast zombies in it. Unlike the inexplicable MTV zombies Zack Snyder inflicted on the world, “Return’s” zombies have a reason for running. As Freddie and Frank’s in-progress zombificaiton shows, Trioxin keeps the higher functions alive while causing the the body to die, allowing for awesome, goopy zombies that run, talk, and use complex tools. The comic book tone prevents that from coming off as ridiculous, as it would in a more self-serious film. Zombies eating brains, a behavior this film invented, is explained as curtailing the pain of rot. Of course, the brain contains dopamine and other tasty hormones. Makes perfect sense.

The movie reinvented zombies in other ways. Romero always made an effort to give his ghouls personalities. Due to the microscopic budgets of his films, this usually didn’t go beyond nurse outfits, clown wigs, or no clothes at all. “Return,” on the other hand, came right in the golden age of eighties creature effects. The Yellow Man bobs around with no head, a double amputee zombie waddles after his pray, and a skeletal corpse rattles a dangling spinal cord. The Tar Man stands in an undead league of his own. I seriously don’t think there’s a better example of what a zombie can be on-screen. Zombies are too frequently faceless hordes, an impulse this movie laughs at.

Also unlike Romero’s epics, “Return” is probably too much of a spit-take to examine from a sociological viewpoint. And yet… This movie set out to reinvent zombies for the eighties. Eighties: The Cocaine Decade. These zombies eat brains to dull the pain of death, like cokeheads snort to dull the pain of life. When they’ve had their hit, the undead are hopped up, running and leaping all over the place. Freddie’s slow death represents another type of drug abuse, a junkie fading to sedatives. Until, finally reaching rock bottom, he’s not recognized by love ones, transformed into totally different creatures. Notably, these zombies don’t pass their condition on through bites. It’s born out of the air, out of the crowded, urban cemeteries they live in. The government’s response to the pandemic? Nuke it from orbit. Reading too much in to it? Probably. And yet...

“Return” is widely regarded as a hallmark punk movie. No doubt, when cast members wear tattered leather and have chains in their faces. But punk wasn’t as homogenous in 1985 as it is now. Suicide, Scuz, Spider, and Trash would fit in fine at a Circle Jerks concert but Chuck and Casey would probably be more comfortable in a new wave club. (This almost justifies squeaky-clean Tina hanging out with the bawdy punks. Almost.) The soundtrack isn’t straight-ahead either. You’d be hard-pressed to hear psychobilly like “Surfin’ Dead” or sleazy dance-pop like “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” on a punk station these days. The punk aesthetic was chosen to distinguish the cast from typical eighties slasher fodder. It succeeds in that regard, even if the teens aren’t developed much. Mark Venturini’s hilarious monologue about his punk bonafides and Miguel Nunez being the first black guy to make it to the end are the only time the kids truly shine. Linnea Quigley, decked out in a Ziggy Stardust wig and not much else, is either intentionally playing her character deadpan, a bad actress, or stoned out of her mind. Either way, she’s hilarious. Her nearly feature-length nude scene is the stuff of eighties horror legend.

The older cast members truly own this one. James Karen and Clu Gulager both get uproarious bits to themselves. Karen when he goes from panicky to calm with just a sip of coffee. Gulager when he has to explain the rabid weasel situation. The film makes excellent use of both veteran character actors. Don Calfa’s Ernie, who is almost definitely a Nazi, is maybe the stand-out, reacting calmly to the escalating situation, never loosing his hilarious, morbid matter-of-factness.

While predominantly a pitch-black dark comedy, “Return” isn’t without scares or pathos. A zombie leaping through a window, disposing of a pesky phone, is a great jump scare. Frank’s final fate is weirdly sincere, as are the character’s genuine panic over the increasingly bleak predicament. Yes, “Return of the Living Dead” is truly one of the best zombie movies ever made. Pretty much zero other films in the sub-genre matches its balance of wit, inventiveness, and sense of fun. Especially its’ four sequels, all lackluster affairs. [9/10]

Recorded Live (1975)

Frequently used as network filler by HBO during the eighties, “Recorded Live” is a simple horror story of a man stalked by a blob of living film reels. Though easy to mistake for “The Creeping Terror,” the murderous film reel makes a creditable horror threat. It makes creepy, distorted audio noises, slinks under doors and through carpet. The creature, I guess you’d call it, is brought to life through appropriately uncanny stop-motion. The movie acknowledges the silliness of the premise too. When not groaning like a backmasked message, the film reels speak in squeaky, sped-up whines. The nameless hero quickly discovers magnets to be the monster’s only weakness. Even that’s not enough to save him, the story playing out in kindertraumatic fashion. Overall, “Recorded Live” is a clever, darkly funny short. Director S. S. Wilson would later lend similarly ridiculous premises some credit with the “Tremors’ series and the first “Short Circuit,” which I enjoy without a trace of irony. [7/10]

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

The trailer for Dollman is one of my favorites of all time. I've used that thing during lots of horror movie showings.