Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

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]

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