Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 12

The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

Released at the end of the Atomic Age of Horror, “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” feels like a refugee from the forties. Aside from an initially skeptical scientist, the film is pure supernatural horror. On a ranch in very rural California, a young woman believes she’s discovered a well. Instead, she’s actually discovered a wooden trunk containing the decapitated head of an ancient warlock. The head goes about hypnotizing anyone who gives him a good look, working to reunite himself with his body and restart his reign of terror.

“The Thing That Couldn’t Die” has a particularly unthreatening villain. The head is immobile and speechless. This is why the script gives the warlock the ability to hypnotize those who look into his eyes. Essentially, the antagonist has to force other people to do his dirty work. Controlling the hulking farmhand is one thing. For most of the film, Gideon Drew hypnotizes women in a 1950s horror movie. The head spends a lot of time sitting in a closet. Building an entire film around an enemy who can’t move, talk, or shoot laser beams out of his eyes is faulty screenwriting. Starring is not the most threatening action.

You’d think once Gideon is reunited with his body, he’d start wreaking havoc, right? Nope. “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” has one of the lamest endings I’ve ever seen. The headless corpse rises from his grave, everyone stares slack-jawed, and the head is reattached. The reformed warlock rambles, gives reasons not to drink everyone’s blood, and pulls a knife. The hero pushes him back into the casket, the sorcerer crumbling into bones. So much for the “Couldn’t Die” part! The villain is incompetent and easily defeated. That’s the opposite of everything you want your villain to be. Even more ridiculous is the original tagline that reads “The most terrifying monster ever,” in all caps IMDb clarifies. The ad-writers were seriously overcompensating.

The shoddiness extends to the rest of the film. Carolyn Kearney’s Jessica is the dowser that discovers the head. She claims to be a “water witch” and has unspecified magical powers. She wishes death on the cast twice, once resulting in someone’s injury, and is piously self-righteous. Kearney looks nice in the tight nightgowns she wears but plays the part as obnoxiously naïve. She has romantic tension with William Reynold’s hero, who watched her grown up. Isn’t that a little weird? The secondary leads, Andrea Martin and Jeffrey Stone, are fine at first. She cares deeply about Jessica and he is a quasi-beatnik painter. Once Martin is turned evil by the head, and breaks up with Stone, both become comically bitchy. Peggy Converse’s Aunt Flavia is overly greedy while James Anderson’s Boyd is a ridiculously exaggerated scumbag.

The pacing is sluggish, too much time spent watching characters walk. The music is recycled from previous Universal films. You’ll recognize the Gillman’s motif during the head’s early appearances. Is there anything to like? There’s some okay foggy atmosphere and decent use of shadows. A (bloodless) decapitation is shown, signaling that this was nearly made in the sixties. “The Thing that Couldn’t Die” was featured on “MST3k,” where the riffing improved it. Unavailable for years, it was released as a vault title just this month, no doubt to be purchased primarily by Universal completest like myself. Though not completely terrible, the movie is saddled with an ill-conceived villain and a lifeless screenplay. [3/10]

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” had good intentions. Even as early as 1982, it was recognized that any horror franchise worth its salt had to have at least five sequels. John Carpenter and his associates thought “Halloween II” was stretching it and couldn’t see extending the Myers storyline further. As far as his creator was concerned, the Shape was dead. Carpenter had the rather novel idea of turning “Halloween” into a yearly anthology series, each new installment telling a different story, the only connecting fiber being the Halloween season. The American republic rejected this soundly and demanded more Michael Myers. Carpenter was, of course, right about continuing that story being nothing but crass and absurd. However, whether “Season of the Witch” stands on its own merit remains a topic of debate.

Maybe the viewership would have been more accommodating if a less wacky premise had been chosen. Alcoholic, divorced surgeon Dan Challis becomes involved in a strange mystery when a man is murdered in his hospital, only for the murderer to immolate himself in the parking lot. The presence of a Halloween mask at the murder sight leads Challis on an investigation. He meets up with the dead man’s daughter and track the mask back to its factory town. There, he uncovers a malicious plot to murder thousands of children. How? Through a convoluted combination of Halloween masks, television signals, microchips, robots, and Celtic magic.

My biggest issue with “Season of the Witch” involves that villainous scheme. The bad guy’s plot takes a lot of factors for granted. Yes, the Silver Shamrock masks are hugely popular but surely lots of children will be wearing other costumes. Sure, plenty of kids will be in front of the TV at the time of the commercial. But it’s likely many will still be trick r’ treating. And how many will have the TV on and also wear their mask? How many children must die for Cochran’s plan to be successful? What exactly is Cochran’s motivation? He seems to want to reclaim Halloween as a pagan festival. How exactly will murdering thousands of children do that? Why does he hate kids so much? Why would a corporate head rail against the commercialization of his holiday? What the fuck does his robot army have to do with anything? The ‘whys’ remains elusive.

The film features many absurd elements, to the point that Vincent Canby thought it was a parody. How does the very specific combination of masks and commercials kill the kids? By filling their heads with bugs and snakes. How that works at all boils down to “magic.” The transformation is powered by a tag on the mask. In the film’s most absurd moment, a woman has her face blown off by a laser beam shot from one of those tags. The magic ritual is powered by a chunk of Stone Henge, which I imagine was difficult to transport. The robot drones are something we have to take at face value, as little explanation is provided. The villain pulls a Dr. No by explaining his plot to the hero before leaving him in an easily escaped trap. The ending is overheated and melodramatic, with Tom Atkins screaming into a telephone before a sharp cut to black.

The innately likable Atkins is well-cast as his protagonist is definitely an anti-hero. His ex-wife is cartoonishly bitchy, unwilling to forgive him for working a lot and trying to save the world. While his children’s welfare are ostensibly his motivation, the kids are non-entities, glimpsed once and never developed. Atkins seems more concerned with fucking his new girlfriend. Stacey Nelkin plays that new girlfriend, the murdered man’s daughter. After knowing each other less then twenty-four hours, the two fall into bed. The romantic subplot is contrived and forced in, not making much sense for a woman still grieving for her father and a guy still grieving for his marriage. All of the supporting cast is broad and ugly. The mask seller and his family are terrible people, the wife and son especially, while the woman who gets her face melted is vulgar and unlikable. The cast does fine, with Dan O’Herlihy’s leathery-voiced take on Conal Cochran being the most memorable, but the characters are all seriously underwritten.

If “Season of the Witch” was reaching for scares or gross-outs, it failed. The numerous jump scares are protracted and broadcasted. Though Michael Myers is a no-show, part 3 continues the second film’s tendency to pad out the body count with random-ass people. Was it necessary to introduce a town drunk? Did he have to die? The gore effects are decent, with an early face-crunching being quite satisfying. However, the android soldiers’ tendency to bleed banana pudding is an odd one. The digital effects are cheesy and the villain’s demise is incredibly lazy. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s score is a major step down. The electronic droning of the main title is directionless and non-melodic. Much of the score is like that. They probably should have kept the classic theme. That fucking jingle was designed to be as annoying as possible and, boy-howdy, did it ever succeeded. You will get tired of listening to that goddamn thing.

What do I like about the film? Tommy Lee Wallace’s direction has a few nice moments, like a frantic tracking shot through a hospital hallway. If you overlook the absurdity of it, the climatic robot attack generates some tension. (Though, that too raises a lot of questions.) Atkins taking out leagues of people at the end is out-of-place but satisfying in its own way. Wallace manages to make Santa Mira, the same town from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” an eerie place. The constant surveillance and ghoulishly grinning town folks are correctly unnerving. The film’s vehemently anti-child tone is doubtlessly mean-spirited but it definitely makes the film unique.

Rejected upon release and widely reviled for many years, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has, over time, developed its own following. Fans like to point out the movie’s anti-corporate themes or the main character’s symbolic alcoholism as defining points. Sure. But is it scary? Nope. Does it have that proper autumn atmosphere? Not really. Is its plot goofy as fuck? Well, I certainly think so. I’m sorry, “Season of the Witch,” I want to like you. Really, I do. But I just can’t. [5/10]

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

Halloween III is my favorite of the series after the original. It's the best Carpenter-style movie not actually directed by the man. Love it.

As for motivations: the Silver Shamrock guy is a religious fanatic. To him, sacrificing a shit-ton of kids -- doesn't matter how many happen to being watching the show, it'll be more than enough -- is reclaiming the highly spiritual holiday that has been stolen and turned into a pathetic parody from his people. It'd be like a fundamentalist Christian bombing a toy store in order to rail against Christmas's commercialization. Doesn't make much sense, but religious fanatics rarely do.