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]

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