Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 15

4D Man (1959)

Directed by independent filmmaker Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., “4D Man” is the second entry in the director’s unofficial trilogy of science fiction/horror hybrids, preceded by “The Blob” and followed by “Dinosaurus!” For his second feature, Yeaworth teamed up with Universal, who distributed the film. The film revolves around two scientist brothers whose experiments intertwine. Tony is hoping to create 4-dimensional force field, allowing someone to pass safely through solid objects. Scott, along with his fiancé Linda, has helped created cargonite, a nearly impenetrable mineral. Through a series of unexpected events, Scott manages to make himself fourth dimensional. His ability to phase through any object, Kitty Pryde-style, has two unforeseen side-effects. First off, he ages rapidly while using his power. Secondly, phasing through a person kills them immediately.

“4D Man” keeps a steady balance between science-fiction, horror picture, and character study. The story is deeply entrenched in the science-fiction conventions of the time. The cast is made up of severe looking men in lab coats. They watch through thick glass as experiments happen. Tony talks a lot about fusing gold and silver together on an atomic level and how his experiment would accomplish this same thing only much more quickly. Scott, meanwhile, is a cog in the machine of industrial science. He is unappreciated by his clueless corporate bosses. A major subplot involves the executive above him going behind his back and stealing his research. The fantastic element of the film is that Tony’s 4D-experiments are powered by human force of will. He is derisively referred to as an “alchemist,” which is actually a fairly accurate. Like many post-nuclear science fiction stories, “4D Man” presents a premise that appears plausible. Closer examination reveals the concepts to be fantastic and merely dressed up in hard science cloths. The movie references radiation giving people cancer but, at the end of the day, it can still do anything.

The film functions perhaps best as a character study. Tony Nelson is not your typical 1950s science hero. He’s brilliant but risk-taking, starting a fire in the opening frames. James Congdon plays the role as a man frustrated that the pace of science is so slow compared to his own ideas. Robert Lansing’s Scott, meanwhile, is as straight-laced a scientist as can be. He believes fully in the method, derides his brother’s outlandish ideas, and focuses solely on plausible science. The script subverts expectations by making Scott into the villainous mad scientist, his irresponsible brother cast as the unlikely role of hero. And it’s all because of a girl. Lee Meriwether, in her first film role, plays Lansing’s girlfriend. Meriwether is a ray of sunshine, contrasting against her harsh fiancé. The three have a picnic early on. Tony and Linda swing on a playground roundabout, smiling and laughing, Scott looking on grimly. The two get lost in a rain storm, take shelter in an abandoned building, and inevitably wind up locking lips. Tony has stolen the heart of his brother’s girl. The film treats this forbidden romance in a surprisingly realistic manner. Linda has to let her boyfriend down easy by rejecting his marriage proposal, in a way that cast neither as villain. Meriwether and Congdon share a moment outside the house, afraid to touch, communicating their affection in words. Ultimately, it’s a broken heart and a frustrated ego that drives Scott to become the film’s monster.

The romance and character interaction dominates the first half of the film. Nearly half-way through, Scott successfully shoves his hand through a steel block. He gets better quickly, phasing his hand through walls, storefronts, realizing too late that the activity drains his age. With that turn, “4D Man” becomes a horror film. Scott’s first murder is an accident but quickly utilizes his ability for revenge. He confronts his unscrupulous boss. Robert Lansing finally comes alive as a performer with a bristling monologue, tearing down the people in his life he sees as his enemies. Like Dracula, Scott sneaks into his lover’s house, lurking above her bed, a moment that builds intensity through character relationships as well as horror movie thrills. Before the end, the film is treating it’s 4D Man as a traditional monster. He leads the police on a manhunt, always evading capture. A little girl tries to befriend him, Scott trying to force her away before making up his mind, a fantastic moment. The focus returns to people at the end, the monster a man, confronting the maiden, put down by the love of his life.

The oddest element of “4D Man” is its score. The entire film is accompanied by a psychedelic jazz score. Some times this is effective. The sparse opening credits, with flashing arrows pointing to the names, is certainly made more memorable by the hot, quivering horns. Sometimes, however, a more subtle would have been more appreciated. The film’s romantic or tense moments are somewhat undermined by the noisy, intrusive score. If nothing else, it paints this clearly as a product of 1959. Another signifier of the time is the bright, vibrant technocolor photography. After watching so many black-and-white films this October, the lovely color is almost searing. The special effects are never quite convincing but more then serve their purpose. Despite the clearly tragic ending, “The End” is still punctuated with a question mark, a doubtlessly silly choice.

“4D Man” is an underrated science-fiction thriller. The script is far more mature then you’d expect, thematically rich and complex, anchored by a trio of fantastic performances. Like the best genre cinema, it uses the fantasique premise to explore the human condition. [7/10]

StageFright (1987)

Right from the get-go “StageFright” is playing with audience expectations. Like I-don’t-know-how-many giallos, we open with a working girl plying her trade on the mean streets. Out of the shadows of the alleyway behind her, hands emerge, pulling her back. Simon Boswell’s frantic electro-jazz score begins playing, by-standers flocking to the alley in choreographed fashion. The killer, dressed in an absurd owl head mask, leaps from the alleyway, rolling on the ground. Everyone begins to dance, in exaggerated, over-the-top fashion. The camera pulls back, revealing the city as a set, the setting as a stage. Director and crew swerve around in front of the stage, the ridiculous musical performance continuing. This is akin to what Mario Bava did in the original ending of “Black Sabbath,” revealing the artifice of the film format, pulling the curtain back. If we read the rest of the opening in this same light, the first few minutes of “StageFright” shows the Italian film industry in miniature. The director is an artist type, determined to push taboos and audience’s buttons. The financier doesn't care about the director’s vision, only if his investment is returned. The actresses are pushed through the meat grinder, degraded, the producers caring not at all. The entire production is rushed, its première only a week away. Considering director Michele Soavi worked for years in the Italian film industry as an assistant director, mentored by filmmakers as divergent as Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Joe D’Amato, he can no doubt attest personally to the shit that goes down on a low budget film set.

Despite its deeply European sensibilities, “StageFright” is not a true giallo. The identity of the killer is known from the beginning while the police play only a small role as absurd comic relief. Instead, the film owes itself to the most American of horror subgenres: The slasher film. With so many of those films depended on formula, many slashers are set apart by their setting. An old, empty theatre auditorium proves a fantastic setting for bloody slashery. The premise is right in-line with the genre: A theatre trope, doing some late night rehearsals, are unknowingly locked in with a brutal serial killer. The unstoppable killer wears a silly mask and offs everyone in creative, brutal ways, utilizing a number of weapons. The cast of characters is large and loosely defined. An actress is pregnant with the sound technician’s child, the leading man is flamboyantly gay, the director is trying to sleep with all of his actresses, etc. It’s not really important. “StageFright” even throws in an improbable spring-loaded cat, this one coming from the backseat of a car.

Despite fitting in perfectly with its slasher brethren, the style of “StageFright” is undeniably Italian. Soavi’s studying under Argento is hugely apparent sometimes. Soavi’s camera swoops around the theater, taking a frantic first-person perspective. The camera swings from a deadly pickaxe, crash-zooms on raised knives, and shows red paint mingling with spilled blood. The style is A-grade, in other words. When the killer finds the work shop, the weapons storeroom, shown from his perspective, blatantly recalls “Deep Red.” Soavi even directly goofs on Dario, either copying or parodying the “man behind a man” reveal from “Tenebre.” Boswell’s score isn’t exactly Goblin-esque. However, the mixture of hard rock and electronic tones still recalls earlier Italian genre films, frequently powering the action.

The film blatantly links horror with opera, mixing murder and dance choreography. The kill sequences continue the Italian tradition of stylized gore. An actress is stabbed repeatedly on stage, calling the audience out on their voyeurism. A man is impaled through a door with a giant, spiraling drill-bit, gore spilling on the floor. A woman is cleaved straight in two through a floorboard, the helpless half-a-body pulled out. “StageFright” doesn’t screw around. Irving Wallace gets a chainsaw. We see an arm sawed off in clear view, followed by a full-on decapitation, the head rolling across the floor. For all its stylization, “StageFright” is intensely, explicitly gory.

Unlike most slashers, who space their kills out over a ninety minute run time, Irving Wallace has eliminated most of the cast by the hour mark. Practically a very gory satire for its first hour, “StageFright” takes a definite tonal shift. The final girl is left completely alone in a theatre with a vision serial killer. The film becomes a series of jitteringly intense near-encounters between defenseless girl and brutal killer. Alicia cowers in a shower stall, the killer attacking another girl in the adjacent stall. Because the design of the mask, you can never be sure what he’s seeing. The hallways strike you as very small, very tight. The theatre becomes very quiet, Alicia aware of how much noise she is making.

One extended sequence in “StageFright” will always stick with me. The music drops out, the camera slowly revolving around the entire auditorium. The killer arranges his victim’s bodies on stage, smearing each with feathers, tossing a mannequin head off. Irving Wallace sits, patting the cat in his lap, head down. The key to unlock door, Alicia’s way out of this nightmare, rest in the slots of the stage. She crawls under the stage, slowly trying to wiggle the key down into her hand, worried about drawling the cat or the killer’s attention. I’ve written about this scene before and how I truthfully, without hyperbole, believe it to be one of the most intense sequences ever put to film. After its torturous conclusion, the scene climaxes with a phenomenal jump-scare, one that always gets me no matter how many times I see the film. The catwalk encounter that follows is great as well, powered by the rock score and making good use of an axe and extension cord, but can’t compare to the edge-of-your-seat intensity of the previous scene. Even if the rest of “StageFright” wasn’t so good, the film would always be great because of that moment.

The final scene returns to the earliest moments meta qualities. Soavi cribs from Argento again, the protagonist remembering back to an earlier scene, searching for a clue. The killer is put down, shot in the head. However, at the last second, blood oozing from the bullet wound, he looks to the camera and smiles. It’s a winking acknowledgement of the cliché of the immortal slasher killer as well as pointing out, once again, that this is a movie aware of its movie status. “StageFright” is a very underrated Italian horror effort, one of the eighties best, frequently overlooked. “Cemetery Man’ is Michele Soavi’s masterpiece but “StageFright” was the film that proved he was a master. [9/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today

This is one of those “Tales” were you can’t decide if your suppose to like the main characters or not. Brian Kerwin and Carol Kane are two rich assholes, the wife obsessed with appearance, the husband obsessed with guns. When Frances “Happy Gilmore’s Grandma” Bay comes to their door, she puts a medallion in the wife’s hand and switches bodies with her. The husband is confused by the frail old lady claiming to be his wife at first but, after encountering the missus at the train station, begins to believe her. Things wrap up, skip ahead three months, and have to wrap up all over again.

I think “Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today” is suppose to be a parody of gun-rights and the upper-class. Donald is a proponent of gun ownership and the kind of person who definitely should not have access to firearms. If the witch was more obviously on a lower social status, the episode’s satire might be a little easier to read. While where on the topic, the witch’s plot is awfully specific. How did she know the owners of that house were rich? That the wife would handle the necklace? Kane and Kerwin get a funny moments, Kane when complaining about her husband’s shotgun, Kerwin when tricking the witch into believing her new host body has cancer. The ending is weirdly somber, considering how silly the rest of the episode is. I liked Crypt Keeper segments but the episode itself is highly uneven. [5/10]

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