Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

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