Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 2

This Island Earth (1955)

The twin success of “It Came from Outer Space” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” emboldened Universal. In addition to greenlighting many cheapies, they became willing to spend money on a (slightly) bigger budgeted, color science fiction extravaganza. “This Island Earth” is most famous for two things. Despite playing a small role in the film, the Metaluna Mutant has become an iconic example of bug-eyed, big-brained aliens and is often featured in merchandise. Secondly, the film was featured in “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” the ill-conceived theatrical version of the beloved cult TV series. Full disclosure: This is the fist time I’ve seen “This Island Earth” without the accompaniment of Mike and the ‘bots.

Based on a 1952 novel, the film is very reliant on the conventions of the day. After being rescued from a plane crash by a green light, all-purpose scientist hero Cal Meachum receives a strange package in the mail. Assembling the Interocitor, he is put in contact with aliens gathering human scientists on Earth. Along with a stock-parts love interest and some other random dude, Cal is involved in an intergalactic conflict, Earth sorta-kinda-not-really caught in the middle.

As my plot description hints at, “This Island Earth” does not have the most interesting cast. Played by booming voiced Rex Reason, a name Stan Lee would appreciate, Cal is the kind of dull, voice-of-reason hero that populates too many films of the era. He’s a scientist so brilliant even aliens notice, in addition to being a pilot, media celebrity, ladies’ man, and able to fight off muTANTs with his bare fists. He’s like Doc Savage without the fun or Buckaroo Bonzai without the irony. In other words, a total bore. He’s also a dick, more then once insulting those around him in passive-aggressive ways. The supporting cast is only slightly better. Faith Domergue from “Cult of the Cobra” is more relatable, but only a damsel in distress. The only memorable character is Exeter, Jeff Morrow’s alien mastermind. He’s the one who motivates the plot and his arc, in which a cold alien learns compassion, is the only graceful element of the screenplay.

The story isn’t spotless either. The Metalunans are kidnapping scientists in order to assist in their war with another planet. Wait, you’re telling me that these guys have figured out faster-then-light travel, advanced genetic engineering, and built a television-phone that shoots laser beams, but they need our help inventing force fields? The plan is too little, too late, as Metaluna is already doomed by the time the humans arrive. The back story is dropped on the audience via monologue, an inelegant device if there ever was one. With the plot failing to make a difference or having much of an affect on the cast, the audience is left wondering what the point of all this was.

So why is the movie remembered? Probably because the special effects are awesome. Metaluna is brought to life beautifully, by way of intricately detailed mat paintings. This portion looks and feels like a pulp magazine cover brought to life. Similarly, the miniature effects are impressive. Those flying saucers look great, especially when glowing bright red. A shot where the cast is bathed in blue light is distinctive. The sterile interiors of the alien world helped defined the look of science fiction. A few clever concepts emerge from the script, like planets attacking each other by redirecting comets or, the film’s most poetic (if scientifically inaccurate) moment, a dying plant transforming into a sun.

The picture isn’t free of campy elements either. A ray-gun attack on a fleeing station wagon is awkwardly constructed enough to cause giggles. The giant foreheads on the Metalunans is silly looking, even more-so since not a single human notices it. The Metaluna Mutant is an awesome monster but serves little purpose in the story, other then to threaten the heroine in the last act. “This Island Earth” is sometimes considered a land-mark sci-fi film and I guess it could be. In my opinion, the film’s visual design is far more significant then its’ plot. [6/10]

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

I like to say the Gothic Age of Horror ended with “Psycho.” While that film dragged horror into the modern day, spooky castles and foggy graveyards never go out of style. William Castle, who had just ripped off “Psycho” earlier in the year with “Homicidal,” looked back to the Gothic Age with “Mr. Sardonicus.” Set in 1880, the world is presented on the edge of the modern age, advancing medicine ending the dark ages forever. The English hero is called away to an obscure, eastern European country to serve a mysterious baron named Sardonicus.

“Mr. Sardonicus” isn’t necessarily a great film but it does have a great villain. The movie holds off on revealing its titular character, glimpsing him in shadows. When Sardonicus finally appears, wearing an emotionless doll face, he holds the entire room in his grasp. Baron Sardonicus is sadistic, calculating, willing to inflict all manor of cruelty for his own well-being. When we finally see his grotesque rictus grin, it’s an outward expression of his inner corruption. It’s easy to imagine Vincent Price going gleefully over-the-top in the part. Instead, Guy Rolfe speaks softly but deeply, commanding his manor with strong words and a stronger will. Rolfe’s best moment is when he turns on his wife. The script makes it clear that Sardonicus is evil because of his action but, when Rolfe says his wife is revolted by his face most of all, you believe him.

The film makes a fair go at foggy atmosphere. Castle even gets a inventive at time, like the camera circling around a wagon wheel. The graveyard, with its gnarled weeds, is a great set. On Blu-Ray, it has an intentionally artificial feel to it, recalling Bava’s “Black Sunday.” The torture chamber looks awesome and the torture is surprisingly explicit for the time. Most of the film is too brightly lit, too uniformly shot to be truly atmospheric. Except for one stand-out sequence. A flashback midway through the film details Sardonicus’ origin story. He digs through the graveyard, his body bathed in shadow, fog swirling around him like a cyclone. The atmosphere builds fantastically, climaxing with the reveal of the villain’s twisted face. Though the make-up is implausible, and causes a major plot hole at the end of the film, it still leads to a great shock. 

Rolfe easily overshadows the rest of the cast. Ronald Lewis is a fine lead, more empathetic then you’d expect. Audrey Dalton and Erika Peters are both fine scream queens, with Dalton even standing up to Rolfe several times. The second best performance in the film is Oscar Homolka as Sardonicus’ one-eyed henchman, a pragmatic man as cruel as his master. Even Castle’s best films have a little campiness in them. “Mr. Sardonicus” has a moment where the sleeping hero is haunted by the visions of the other characters in the film, their heads floating over his bed.

The movie’s gimmick was the “Punishment Poll.” The ad copy went that the audience would vote on one of two endings, one in which Sardonicus lives, and another in which he is punished for his crimes. Even if the second ending was filmed, it’s clear there was never any intention to use it. William Castle reappears for the epilogue, denoting the villain’s evil, and counting votes from an imaginary audience. Though unerringly awful throughout the story, the one flashback shows him as a normal man, normal enough that his transformation into a villain almost seems impossible. Either way, his final fate is rather poetic, cured of his condition but starved to death by his psychological baggage. “Mr. Sardonicus” is a fun one, an entertaining exercise in gothic funhouse chills. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Collection Completed

Strangely, “Tales from the Crypt” might work best when not going for horror. “Collection Complete” is a completely tongue-in-cheek episode and probably the best of the first season. M. Emmet Walsh, if not the definitive grumpy old man actor, certainly one of the definitive grumpy old man actors, has a ball as the animal-hating retiree at the story’s center. The character is a deplorable asshole, grouchy from the moment he walks in, but Walsh’s endearing cantankerousness is immediately amusing. His aggravated bellowing at a bath top full of fish is a particularly memorable gag. Audra Lindley is delightfully loopy as his wife. She is simultaneously lovable but you can also see how quickly her antics could get annoying.  Her love for animals, though exaggerated and over-the-top, honestly is not realistic. I mean, we’ve all known somebody like that.

The episode has delightfully low stakes. It has a lot of fun with dramatic reveals, where a serious conversation is revealed to be with a cat or a surprise birthday party is actually occupied by dogs… In hats. The “horror” at the end is pitched at a hysterical level, a taxidermied dog’s eyes blinking or a stuff squirrel falling into someone’s lap. Walsh’s performance gets especially loopy at this point, especially his orgasmic glee while rubbing the animal pelts on his face. “Collection Completed” is a really goofy episode but highly entertaining throughout. I still haven’t figured out if Mary Lambert directing this was an in-joke... [7/10]

So Weird: “Memory

“Memory” at first appears to be “So Weird’s” take on the “town with a dark secret” cliché. Molly’s tour bus, the air conditioning busted, stops by a strange town where memories are scrambled and the local swimming pools have turned to green sludge. The episode spends a lot of time focusing on the characters’ intense discomfort in the heat and how weird the local townsfolks are. Fi, Jack, and Clu befriend a local boy whose mother seems in on whatever conspiracy is going on here. A quarter of the way through, the episode shifts gears and suddenly becomes about aliens. Turns out a UFO crashed in the town, the aliens stepped out, told everyone to forget about it, and are now in the process of repairing their ship. Fi and Jack arrive too late to see the aliens lift off and you’re honestly left wondering if anything happened at all.

At first, “Memory” does a good job of making Steveston, Oklahoma into a weird town. The locals are off-putting without being cartoonish. Though the briefly glimpsed flashes of memory are fairly cheesy, they are at least effectively constructed. Scripting and pacing wise is where this one fails. So much of the episode is spent setting up the mystery that the pay-off has to be rushed through. After all that build-up, the simple answer of “Aliens!,” isn’t the most compelling conclusion. That this revelation comes from characters just remembering it isn’t exactly dramatically sound either. It’s about as exciting as an episode about kids wanting to swim in a pool can be. Signs this was made in 1999: Fiona’s weird semi-pigtail haircut and an off-hand reference to the Macarana. [5/10]

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