Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 17

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Unlike the teen-oriented drive-in thrills of “The Blob,” or the surprisingly sophisticated sci-fi horror of “4D Man,” “Dinosaurus!” is a kid’s flick. And why shouldn’t it be? Kids love dinosaurs! Because dinosaurs are awesome! When Irvin Yeaworth threw this together, he probably didn’t realize it was the end of an era. “Dinosaurus!” would be the last genre film Universal Studios produced during the Classic Age of Horror. Yes, this goofy kids flick is the last Universal Monster movie.

The story is simple as pulp gets. Set on a Caribbean island, a group of construction workers accidentally stumble upon an incredible find: Two dinosaurs, perfectly preserved in suspended animation under the waves. The T-Rex and Brontosaurus (of course) are dragged to the surface along with a thawing out Neanderthal. That night, lightening strikes both dinos, resurrecting them. Against the background of dinosaur action is your typical human story. Hero Bart tries to protect the island population from the thunder lizards, while oblivious to love interest Betty’s romantic pleas. Cartoonishly evil villain Hacker, along with his two clueless henchmen, wants to capture the caveman and sell him to scientific research. Dinosaur obsessed kid Julio, naturally, befriends the caveman and brontosaurus, forced to protect his new friends against the fearsome tyrannosaurus. Just for good measure, cultural stereotypes like Latina bar maiden Chica, drunken Irishman Jasper, and fat best friend Dumpy round out the cast.

You’re here for the dinosaurs. Unlike many science-fiction films before it, “Dinosaurus!” doesn’t screw around. The giants are discovered within the first few minutes and, after some expected character introductions, the creatures get revived. The T-Rex immediately goes about wrecking havoc. He eats the offensive Irish stereotype, somehow avoiding becoming intoxicated himself. He attacks a bus, crushing the passengers under feet. Probably most absurdly, he even picks people up in his tiny little baby arms. Predating the “Jurassic Park” T-rex, this one peruses his victims for no reason. Towards the end, the dinosaur collapses a building in hopes of getting at a few innocent bystanders. Rex is obviously the star of the show but the Brontosaur gets a moment or two. His introduction with the kid is sickeningly sweet, the sauropod taking orders from some squeaky brat. Better is when the kid and the caveman ride on the dinosaur’s back. Naturally, the two dinosaurs fight before its over. It’s, doubtlessly, the best sequence in the film. The dinosaurs are brought to life through a combination of stop-motion animation and puppetry. The stop-motion work is very good, the creatures moving believably and with character. The puppets are a lot less convincing.

The caveman antics are far more uneven. The script and actor Gregg Martell make the Neanderthal far too much of a comical character. He attacks a radio in confusion, swings an axe like a club, leaps into the bushes when frightened by an old woman, tries on a dress, and throws pies in the bad guy’s face. A few moments do work nicely. The caveman’s first encounter with a mirror is quite striking, in addition to being genuinely funny. When he captures Kristina Hadson’s love interest, the two develop a nice banter. Her attempts to dissuade his romantic advances are quite amusing.

Usually, the human element in these stories drag the film down. “Dinosaurus!” is too goofy and light-weight to be bothersome. Ward Ramsey’s hero is thin as can be. Fred Engelberg’s Hacker is a ridiculous villain. He doesn’t have a mustache but, if he did, you’d know he’d be twirling it. The guy actually stomps on a little boy’s dinosaur toys, that’s how evil he is. His thugs are exactly the kind of comic-relief henchman you’d expect in children’s fair. Little boy Julio, played by Alan Roberts, is obviously the star of the show, most likely to appeal to the kids. He comes very close to be annoying without slipping over the edge. His terms of endearment to the brontosaurus is overly sweet and his immediate declaration of the T-Rex as the “mean one” is overly simplistic. “Dinosaurus!” is smart about this sort of thing though. Just when the kiddy antics might start to grate, we get footage of the T-Rex tearing shit up. That’s what I call balance.

I had only seen “Dinosaurus!” once before this viewing. All I really remembered was the very end, where the hero fights the T-Rex back with a steam shovel. The fight plays out far more awkwardly then I remember but, no doubt, it’s a memorable moment. Like “4D Man” this film also punctuates “The End” with a question mark. That’s exactly the kind of light, easily digestible, campy dino-fair “Dinosaurus!” is. Even if you wish T-Rex ate the little kid, odds are you’ll still enjoy this one. [7/10]

With that, I have completed my Universal Monsters Mega-Thon. That’s 97 films and 100 reviews, over the course of two separate Halloweens, spanning about fifty years of film history. How’s that for an impressive act of nerdery? Over the course of my journey, I have questioned my commitment to this one studio and their monster movies. Universal’s films were, in many ways, no better or worse then the other horror output of the time. Yet, they did it first. In this age of mega-budget blockbusters, the studio still references and reboots these classic characters. Up until “Psycho” changed the face of horror forever, bolted-necked Frankenstein, Hungarian Dracula, and yak-haired Wolfman were the definition of horror films. These movies are the foundation upon which all future American horror films would build. By watching so many of them, I’ve not only seen horror evolve, I’ve seen film itself evolve. Including the good and the bad, I can’t help but feel this project has deepened my understanding of the medium.

(Somewhat ironically, Universal would eventually acquire the rights to the Paramount-produced “Psycho,” making Norman Bates an honorary Universal Monster himself.)

Naturally, the journey never quite ends. A few rarities like “The Man Who Reclaimed His Head” or “The Spider Woman Strikes Back” have evaded me. I have yet to crack the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, many of which crossed over into horror territory. I look forward to acquiring those items and reviewing them someday. But, for the time being, I close the book on the iconic studio and their legendary monsters. Goodbye Frank, Drac, Larry, Gill. I can’t wait to see you all again.

Carrie (2002)

The problem with remaking “Carrie” is two-fold. The original Brian DePalma film is a defining classic. Any additional version will be compared unflatteringly to that original. Secondly, the story follows a well-known structure. “Carrie” always has to end with the main character wreaking telekinetic havoc at the prom. The question of remaking “Carrie” becomes whether or not the performances justify telling a story everyone knows already. This was the question facing the 2002 television version of “Carrie” and is the question currently facing the brand new, Chloe Moretz-starring remake opening tomorrow.

So, do the performances justify the film? Kind of. A screening of “May” is what convinced the producers that Angela Bettis was the perfect choice for the role. No doubt, the two characters are similar, disenfranchised loners who strike back violently. Angela Bettis makes Carrie not only very different from May but different from Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. Spacek played the character as a wounded animal. Bettis’ Carrie, meanwhile, plays like a PTSD victim. She keeps her head down, taking abuse silently. She’s more spastic, going into seizure-like trances. Bettis’ naturally nervous qualities are played up, her eyes and forehead twitching. This Carrie has a secret rage burning inside of her. She bottles up her anger. A more bitter or even sarcastic side shows through. Spacek’s Carrie was a poor girl who snaps suddenly, unexpectedly. Bettis’ Carrie is a ticking time bomb. The differing interpretation allows Angela to make the part her own. It’s a very good performance from a great actress.

Piper Laurie in the original played Mrs. White as over-the-top, high opera. Patricia Clarkson goes in the opposite direction. Her Margaret White rarely raises her voice. Her threats are quiet and subtle. She doesn’t have to yell to make her point. She plays her religious fanaticism as a frightening truth, someone who believes unerringly. Clarkson is excellent, far more believable then Laurie’s campy theatrics. It’s the only true advantage the 2002 version has over the 1976 version.

The 133-minute long film, originally aired in two halves over two nights, hews closer to Stephen King’s original novel. It reinstates the epistolary format, a police detective interviewing the surviving high school students about what happened that night. The narrative reshuffling does little to change the flow of the story. Carrie still gets her period in the girl’s changing room, freaks out, discovers her powers, faces her religious fanatic mother, gets invited to the prom by Tommy Ross, has pig’s blood dumped on her, goes nuts and kills a lot of people. Several missing scenes from the book are reinserted. Small meteorites fall from the sky when Carrie is born. When she’s six years old, after an encounter with the neighbor’s daughter, the same thing happens. After the massacre at the prom, Carrie walks through Chamberlain, destroying most of the town.

I’m not sure how to feel about the extended run time. In some ways, it allows the material to breathe more. A few scenes add nice character development. Chris Hargensen interacts with Carrie alone, showing Chris to have some depth as a character. When Kandyse McClure’s Sue Snell talks to Carrie about make-up, it’s humorous, expands on the two’s relationship, and provides more insight in Carrie’s opinions. The pre-massacre prom scenes are surprisingly good. Carrie and Tommy Ross talking in the car is unusually sweet. Miss Desjarden’s monologue to Carrie about post-high school life is wonderful, especially her reaction to it. As Carrie and Tommy dance, Angela gets a great moment, expressing gratitude to the young man. The detective subplot doesn’t add much but the cop looking through Carrie’s completely empty, unsigned year book is heartbreaking. Then again, several scenes are unnecessarily extended. The pig bleeding goes on far too long. Carrie freaking out in class, shattering her desk, adds nothing. The principal talking with a lawyer has no effect on the rest of the film. Though Emilie de Raven’s Chris is less blatantly psychotic then Nancy Allen’s, her boyfriend Billy becomes a cold sociopath for no particular reasons.

The biggest problem with 2002’s “Carrie” is that it can’t compete with 1976’s thrills. The CGI-filled prom massacre lacks the visceral punch of the original. DePalma’s unique style ramped up the intensity. David Carson’s flat direction adds little. The rampage through town is well executed but seems superfluous. Carrie’s powers are often overdone, with her cracking desks, throwing bikes through the air, or wrapping a truck around a tree. Considering Carrie’s obvious anger, her not having any memory of the rampage is a cheat. Laura Karpman’s score isn’t bad, blatantly recalls Pino Dinaggio’s work at times, but isn’t as impressive.

Of course, the ending is different. For some reason, producer Bryan Fuller decided “Carrie” would make a great set-up for a series. Carrie White survives and goes on the road with Sue Snell. The series would have been “The Fugitive,” with a telekinetic teenage girl as the protagonist. This, of course, was a terrible idea. If 2002’s “Carrie” maintained the book’s ending, it perhaps would have been a stronger film. As it is, it’s not a bad effort. It can’t compare to DePalma’s version and is frequently mediocre. Still, the two lead actresses lend what otherwise would have been a forgettable product some elegance. [6.5/10]

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