Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 20

The Last Performance (1927)

Universal was enamored of setting stories in the theater, weren’t they? Perhaps “Phantom of the Opera” set the precedence. “The Last Warning” featured a masked murderer terrorizing Broadway. “The Last Performance” sets a love triangle among a magic act. Once again, Mary Philbin plays the object of desire of a murderous older man. While “Phantom” had obvious grotesque attributes and “The Last Warning” was basically an old dark house mystery, “The Last Performance” is a melodrama with light fantastic elements.

The story is typical. Erik the Great, a stage magician and hypnotist, is in love with Julie, his female assistant. He plans to marry the girl as soon as she turns eighteen, a story turn likely to gross out modern audiences. Julie only has eyes for Mark, a vagabond that Erik takes under his wing. “The Last Performance” neatly follows the three-act structure, with Erik discovering the truth about his love at the 18 minute point, the “seven swords through the box” magic trick going predictably wrong half-way through, and the last act, set during a trial, featuring case-solving testimony as a concise climax.  

Of most interest to horror fans is Conrad Veidt’s performance. Veidt was made for the silents. He says so much with simply a shift of his brow, expressing heart-break or jealousy with only his face. Despite the temptation to compare the two, Erik the Great isn’t Erik the Phantom. He’s not a monster, rather a fair man who commits wrong only out of love. The hypnotism sequences make great use of his glaring eyes. No wonder Veidt was nearly Dracula. Conrad’s performance alone makes the sappy finale believable. The rest of the cast is thin, with Mary Philbin making goo-goo eyes at Fred MacKaye, a marginal matinee hero.

While lighter on expressionistic atmosphere then you’d hope, “The Last Performance” still has several stand-out moments. An early bit has Veidt walking a catwalk, shadows criss-crossing over his face. When the lover’s affair is revealed, his shadow is cast huge on the wall, dwarfing the girl and her mate. Veidt’s power as a hypnotist is displayed by overlaying his glaring face over the character performing the requested action. A memorable early scene has the man mesmerizing a skeptical audience member, their theater booth suddenly spinning around them.

“The Last Performance” is another example of routine silent film material elevated by its lead actor. After years of obscurity, the film was recently released by the Criterion Collection… Kind of. It’s a special feature packaged with “Lonesome,” a later film by the same director. This version has Danish intertitles with English subtitles and is apparently missing several sound sequences. The film is concise enough that I can’t imagine those scenes would add much. [7/10]

Demonic Toys (1992)

Remember when I said Charles Band’s favorite person to rip off was himself? “Dolls” was about people isolated in a mansion with killer dolls. “Puppet Master” was about people isolated in a hotel with killer puppets. “Demonic Toys” is about, guess what?, people isolated in a warehouse with killer toys. I haven’t seen “Blood Dolls” but I bet it fits the formula.

“Demonic Toys” is a blatant attempt to recreate “Puppet Master.” Both open with close-ups on its plastic villains while Richard Band’s scores play. In “Puppet Master,” the murderous marionettes are controlled by an undead sorcerer. In “Demonic Toys,” the perilous playthings are activated by a demonic entity. While “Puppet Master’s” protagonist had psychic dreams, the policewoman hero of “Demonic Toys” is contacted by the demon in her nightmares. This movie appears to have been made on half the budget, since the whole thing takes place over no more then three sets.

The toys aren’t as memorable as Full Moon’s more famous villains. A killer teddy bear (who is, disappointingly, not named Grisly Bear. Come on, guys, that one writes itself) is relatively indistinct while a robot tank has even less personality. An evil jack-in-the-box is a little more memorable. The cackling clown functions like a snake, with a baby’s rattle at the end of its tail. The MVP of “Demonic Toys” is Baby Oopsie Daisy, a foul-mouthed baby doll. The Baby is a clear Chucky expy, especially when she gets her face burnt off. The doll’s one-liners are groaners but I couldn’t help but laugh. Her weird plastic face is probably the closest thing “Demonic Toys’ has to a genuinely creepy special effect. (Though a stop-motion tin soldier is a bit uncanny.)

The movie makes up for its uncreative threats with surprisingly interesting humans. The fat security guard swears creatively and listens to polka. He watches the original “Puppet Master” on TV, which raises questions about what level of reality this is on. His porno mag provides the gratuitous nudity every Full Moon flick needs. The guard also orders from a 24-hour fried chicken restaurant, an idea in need of further exploiting. The chicken delivery boy becomes an unlikely hero, shotgunning toys and throwing Molatov Cocktails. Even a teenage girl randomly introduced half-way through to drop some exposition is amusing. Perhaps we have future blockbuster screenwriter David Goyer to thank for the memorable characters?

“Demonic Toys” is too campy to mine its imagery for scares. But its female lead’s anxiety about giving birth, and the movie’s co-opting of childish imagery for horror, suggests a possible subtext. That’s probably giving the movie more credit then it deserves. “Demonic Toys” is a cheaper, goofier Full Moon offering but still provides chuckles. [7/10]

Night of the Hunted (1980)

“Night of the Hunted” has a great opening. A man drives down a road at night, the ethereal soundtrack playing. He picks up a strange woman. She is confused and can’t remember much. The first woman has left a nude girl behind on the road. Welcome back to the weird world of Jean Rollin.

This film was Rollin’s first non-pornographic effort after “Fascination” and the two have much in common. Both star the lovely Bridget Lahaie. Like “Fascination,” “Night of the Hunted” is the filmmaker breaking from his usual subject matter of frequently naked vampires. Both have a more accessible storyline then the director’s usual fair. Both brush up against soft core. Despite the similarities, “Night of the Hunted” isn’t as good as “Fascination.”

The film isn’t obviously horror at first. The story revolves around a mental hospital where people have their memories wiped, leaving the victims confused. The reasoning behind this is never explained. To be expected, the set-up is used more to explore potential themes. The inhabitants of the apartment are in a constant state of existential crisis. One girl, Lahaie’s roommate, can’t even feed herself without breaking down. Another woman cries out constantly for a missing child she can’t remember. One man seems to be constantly in the throes of a nervous breakdown. The logistics of the memory loss are inconsistent. The janitor, another victim, seems to have a solid grip on his mind. Lahaie goes back and forth, sometime appearing lucid, other times insecure. While in the throes of orgasm with the man who rescued her, Lahaie swears to never forget this experience. She does anyway. I can’t tell if this is intentional or sloppy writing.

The biggest problem with “Night of the Hunted” is pacing. Its start off strong and Robert, the man, rescuing this beautiful, strange girl is fairly captivating. When she’s taken back to the hospital, the film degrades into a series of more-or-less unrelated sequences. The roommate cries into her lobster soup. The janitor rapes a girl before a random man beats him to death with a hammer. The roommate stabs herself in the eyes. A nurse seduces the nervous man but he looses it mid-coitous and strangles her. The friendship between Elizabeth and Veronique tries to create a center to the story. Two female leads are a Rollin trademark but Veronique is a weak character so it’s hard for the audience to relate.

Near the end, Robert shows up in an attempt to rescue his girl. Suddenly, the movie features a lot of gun play, people getting shot left and right. It’s revealed that the hospital is killing and burning the body of the amnesic patients. Why? Shrugs. “Night of the Hunted” wraps up on a hauntingly poetic image: Two lobotomized lovers walking off hand in hand. The movie needed more poetic moments like that. The film isn’t bad Rollin but it’s uneven Rollin. Probably only for fans. [6/10]

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