Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 14

Curse of the Undead (1959)

The western was the predominate populist genre for the first fifty or so years of American cinema. The genre would, soon enough, leave theaters for the more comfortable home of television and, eventually, Italy. After so many years of similar stories, it’s not surprising that films like “Curse of the Undead” would come along to mix things up. We in the fandom refer to this weird mixture of horses, hats, the frontier, and six-shooters with monsters or aliens as “Weird West.” Many of these hybrid films have trouble balancing the tones of the two genres. How does “Curse of the Undead,” Universal’s attempt, fair?

The story, at first, follows western outlines fairly closely. A land dispute between two groups intensifies when the patriarch of the one family winds up dead. The grieving daughter and son immediately blame Buffer, the man on the opposing side of the ranch. The son is shot dead in a barroom brawl, intensifying Dolores, the daughter's, desire for revenge. Enter Drake Robey, a black hat gun-for-hire fulfilling Dolores’ need for a hit man. The local preacher and sheriff try to talk the girl out of it but by then, it’s too late. Turns out Drake isn’t just a roving gunfighter but a vampire, determined to seduce the girl and spread his plague of darkness.

Making the western black hat into a vampire is clever move. Because of his invulnerability to bullets, Drake Robey doesn’t have to be a particularly fast drawl. He can take a hit, turn around and blast the other guy. Usually, the bad guys in western are so cartoonishly evil that making the villain an undead demon seems like a natural evolution. “Curse of the Undead” is interesting in another regard. It goes back to the European mythological standard of vampires. Drake can walk around in the sun without bursting into flames. He doesn’t turn into a bat. A stab to the heart isn’t an enough. It has to be a wooden stake. Most importantly, the vampire’s origin doesn’t involve being sired by another vampire. He is instead cursed, a murderer of his brother and a victim of suicide. This is a pretty interesting take on the vampire concept and a bit more creative then you’d expect from a late fifties B-flick. Yeah, the vampire can still hypnotize people and his greatest weakness seems to be the cross. Still, the change-up is appreciated. Michael Pate looks the part too, with his dark hair, pale skin, glowering from under a black Stetson.

“Curse of the Undead” successfully feels more like a horror film then a western. Yeah, there’s some gunfights, a frontier setting, a few horse, and plenty of funny hats. However, the film frequently mines shadowy atmosphere for above-average thrills. The flat western town lends itself to dark nights surprisingly well. An early scene shows a window shade spinning around the reel, the attacker just escaped. The villain hangs out in tombs, sleeping in coffins. He stands above his female victim while she sleeps, leaning over her to feed. Easily, the standout moment of “Curse of the Undead” is when the hero steps outside of his office, seeing something moving in the shadows just out of the corner of his eyes. It conveys the feeling of being watched nicely, tension rising accordingly. The payoff underwhelms a bit and, once “Curse of the Undead” becomes a story of hero vs. villain, it’s less interesting. Still, the final shootout dispels the enemy in a creative manner.

The screenplay could have used a little fine-tuning. Far too much time is spent arguing about property borders or characters trying to convince others what to do. The end of the middle act could have used some editing and the finale could have used some beefing up. The hero finding a journal that happens to explains the vampire’s origin is a little too neat. I like that the hero isn’t the town sheriff, instead the town preacher. Gravely voiced Eric Fleming actually makes a convincing hero. Sad for him, the villain has far more chemistry with Kathleen Crowley’s damsel in distress. This especially becomes a problem when the film becomes a love triangle. Still, “Curse of the Undead” is an interesting genre mash-up and a surprisingly decent late period Universal Horror entry. [6.5/10]

The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)

I remembering seeing the commercials for “The Rage: Carrie 2” when it originally came out in 1999. At the time, the affair struck me as deeply crass. How the hell do you sequelize a story where the main character died at the end? Probably more importantly, why would you sequelize a powerful, influential, critically beloved classic like “Carrie?” The truth is “The Rage” is just as much remake as it is sequel, a similarly structured but unrelated screenplay that was converted into a sequel to DePalma’s classic when the similarities where recognized. I’ve never given the film a chance. Does it deserve one?

The sequel elements are easily spotted as hastily bolted on. “The Rage: Carrie 2” isn’t about a girl named Carrie but a girl named Rachel, Carrie's previously unmentioned half-sister. In order to distinguish it from the original, Rachel’s crazy religious fanatic mom is carted off to the crazy house early on, leaving the girl with a foster home. 1999’s outcast isn’t a socially awkward misfit with no fashion sense and a bugnuts mom. Instead, Rachel is a snarky, “Daria”-like quasi-goth girl who dresses in black, has wavy hair, a tattoo, and listens to Garbage, NIN, and Marilyn Manson. Jesus, really? Anyway, Rachel’s powers are awakened when her equally gothy best friend kills herself. The motivation for the suicide? She was deflowered by a local jock as part of a dude-bro frat-game of fucking girls and assigning points based on attractiveness and social standing. Harsh. Anyway, Rachel telekinetic powers slowly manifest while she’s being tormented by the school jocks, their bitch girlfriends, courted by one of the not-so-dickish jocks, and sorta’ deals with her asshole foster parents. Just to further the connection between the two films, Amy Irving returns as Sue Snell, now a guidance counselor at the rebuilt Bates High. After recognizing Rachel’s powers, she tries to prevent another telekinetic massacre from happening. Spoiler alert: She fails.

Remembering when I said the original “Carrie” wasn’t a revenge fantasy, instead a inevitable tragedy? Yeah, the creators of “The Rage” didn’t get that memo. Transforming the Carrie stand-in from a true social outcast to someone who chooses to be a social outcast, a too-cool-for-social-hierarchy high school hipster, negates much of the point. Carrie was bullied because teenagers are assholes. Rachel is targeted by a school-wide conspiracy from the cool kids to punished the unpopulars. In the original, Sue Snell’s character arc was based around a bully becoming self-aware and trying to atone for her past assholery. In “The Rage,” the tormentors are cartoonishly vile. The football players are borderline date-rapists, invested in complex sadistic plots, and only concerned for their own well beings. Which, in the shallow world of this movie, translate to getting a sports scholarship and remaining popular. Being directly responsible for a girl’s suicide weights on their consciences none at all. The girlfriends are equally shallow, defined solely by their hatred of Rachel. Why do they hate her? She transgressed the high school social bindings by dating a football player, shock, gasps. Carrie’s rampage was an example of cruelty only begetting cruelty. Rachel’s inevitable rampage is a righteous act of revenge, for her friend’s death and her own humiliation. She’s doubtlessly the hero of the film, her victims deserving of their deaths. She doesn’t die consumed by her own imperfections. Instead, Rachel sacrifices her life to save a loved one. The innocent bystanders that are killed in the cross-fires warrant no mention by the script.

All right, all right, perhaps judging “The Rage” against the original is unfair. Does it stand up on its own merits? Nope, nada, no. Katt Shea, of “Poison Ivy” and “Stripped to Kill” fame, directs with a melodramatic, inelegant hand. Scenes are frequently punctuated with flashes of blinding white light, senselessly. Rachel is prone to having slow-motion nightmare flashbacks to earlier scenes in the movie. Most obnoxiously, pathetically, the film switches to black and white a few times for no goddamn reason. The attempts to scare are facile and weightless. A moment where the jocks taunt Rachel from outside her home is deeply embarrassing. The douchebag ringleader calls her on the phone, talks in a Donald Duck voice, and asks her what her favorite scary movie is. Seriously! They click the lights off, the camera swooshes around dramatically, and things go from color to black and white. Annoyingly, the black and white trick returns during the end.

The moments that blatantly recall the original are even worse. Rachel’s mom’s religious-fuck-nuttery manifests itself by painting walls. At the end, when she appears to comfort her daughter at death, she sees Rachel as a little girl again and starts ranting about the devil, despite being sane earlier. Ugh. As far as massacre triggers go, I suppose having your first time recorded and broadcast to everyone is no less humiliating then getting pig’s blood poured you. Maybe, but it certainly lacks the same visceral punch. Once the shit hits the psychic fan, Rachel’s tormentors don’t run in panic, but plan to kill her back. Jesus. The “hand suddenly reaching up and grabbing an ankle” gag is recycled, much less effectively and pointlessly. We have a jump-scare ending, of course, but it’s meaningless, without any effect on the plot. Even the clips from the ’77 original come off badly, crassly, wantonly inserted at random.

There’s not much to recommend about “The Rage: Carrie 2.” Emily Bergl does decently in the lead. She’s likable enough, easy to watch, and has decent chemistry with the otherwise flat Dylan Bruno. I like that Amy Irving was wrangled into returning. Sue Snell becoming a guidance councilor is a natural move, perhaps the only one in the script. The original Carrie’s rampage has become the stuff of urban legend, the burnt-out remains of the original Bates High still standing. The climatic carnage features some clever gore gags, a double impalement with a fire poker, spear gun castration, exploding eyeballs, murderous flying CDs. (Another sign this was made in 1999, along with the way overdone pop-rock soundtrack.)

Sure, it’s cool but the original “Carrie” wasn’t about gore. It was about people and emotions, something beyond the grasp of this stupid, pointless film. The movie has its defenders, mostly as a source of late nineties nostalgia. Maybe it’s not fair to compare “The Rage: Carrie 2” to the original. Yet all it does is remind you that vastly superior film. No, it doesn’t stand on its own merits. It’s a shitty piece of shit. Fuck this movie. [3/10]

So Weird: “Singularity

“Singularity” is one of those times when you can see “So Weird” not only simplifying its concept for Disney Channel audiences but clipping it to fit within a half-hour time slot. While playing a game of baseball with her family, Fiona and Clu accidentally discover a time warp black-hole pocket dimension thingy. It’s full of foul balls, missing Frisbees, and even a dog, all suspended in time. When Clu is trapped inside, Fiona pops out fifteen minutes earlier inside of the home of the local baseball hoarding nutball. The two have to work together to free those trapped inside the reverse time wedgie.

“Singularity” has one fantastic, touching moment. After having a bit of sibling rivalry on the baseball diamond, Fiona runs back into her brother after leaving the time warp. Tearfully, she tells him mow much he means to her, Jack not entirely understanding. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt moment and Cara DeLizia plays it to the hilt. That emotional core is buried under a goofy plot of Fi befriending the kooky old man. Ron Sauve plays the part with a silly “old man” accent while raving about his lost dog. The character arc boils down to Fi learning she’s not bad at baseball. The stakes are high but the handling is awfully low. The time travel/time warp concept is a complex one and well worth exploring. Sadly, the logic of such a phenomenon is glossed over. Ultimately, that one great moment elevates the whole episode, which is otherwise one of “So Weird’s” more ‘kiddy’ installments. [6.5/10] 

Tales from the Crypt: “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy

Most “Tales” have titles that are goofy puns or vaguely poetic terms. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” just goes right for it. ‘Yep,’ the title says, ‘this is our demented dummy episode.’ Most variations on this concept have the ventriloquist’s murderous split personality manifesting itself through the dummy. “Crypt” takes a slightly different approach. Star ventriloquist Mr. Ingles’ career is destroyed when his hotel goes up in flames, resulting in a girl’s death, but not before inspiring talent-bereft Billy Goldman to take up dummies. Fifteen years after the accident, an adult Billy, still sucking at puppets, looks up Ingles and discovers the frightening secret behind his success.

This is another episode largely anchored by its lead performances. Don Rickles’ rightfully beloved insult-comedy has long had an air of passive-aggression, self-loathing, and nihilism about it. Rickles playing a resentful old man haunted by his past is an inspired bit of casting. Rickles nicely taps into the inner darkness that has always floated about him. Meanwhile, who can play sweaty, nervous, pathetic, but still darkly funny better then Bobcat Goldthwait? Goldthwait’s Billy is as pathetic as Rickles’ Ingels is bitter. His own shot at live ventriloquism is truly cringe-inducing. When the two confront one another, the episode explodes into full-on body horror. Morty, the parasitic twin turned dummy, is truly creepy looking. Rickles swinging a meat cleaver with a squeaky-voiced madman on his wrist has got to be one of “Tales’” signature moments: Spooky and darkly funny simultaneously. Rickles’ dying moments show genuine acting strength.

The episode slips into goofy, fun house escapades before it’s over, which is slightly disappointing considering its effective first half. The ending is a question mark too. Billy makes a deal with the devil. In the final seconds, that Faustian bargain is made physically apparent. It’s an odd move though and leaves viewers scratching their heads. Still, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is another very good episode, directed with stylish glee by Richard Donner and written nicely by Frank Darabont. The Crypt Keeper’s host segments are appropriately schticky as well. I got to tell you, that guy’s really grown on me… [7/10]

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