Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 21

Toy Story of Terror (2013)

Ah, the Halloween special, a dying pedigree. Every December usually brings one or two new Christmas specials. The Halloween special, however, is a rarer breed. “The Great Pumpkin” gets trotted out every October but new productions are far less frequent. Pixar, for the first time, is throwing their hat into the ring with “Toy Story of Terror,” basically a slightly-longer, televised version of their already popular “Toy Story” shorts. I’m a fan of the company and the series but would a Disney-owned property be willing to get creepy?

Yes and no. “Toy Story of Terror” follow the same batch of toys as always (though Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky-Dog, and Dolly are notably absent), on the road with Bonnie and her mom. When their car breaks down, the group has to stop at a spooky hotel. Once inside, the toys wander off, something strange picking them off one-by-one.

It’s probably a mark of Pixar’s quality that even a fluffy TV special has a genuine character arc. “Toy Story of Terror” begins with Jessie falling into a tool box and freaking out. Later on, she ventures out of Bonnie’s bag because it’s too confined for her. This is a story of the cowgirl conquering her claustrophobia. The arc is framed as a usual “believe in yourself” kid’s movie story but the effort is appreciated. Moreover, Joan Cusack sells her fear honestly. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen have far smaller roles, Cusack, Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, and Timothy Dalton doing most of the work. Dalton and Shawn are fantastic actually, the parts of Rex and Mr. Pricklepants playing nicely to their strengths.

As far as horror-content goes, “Toy Story of Terror” has some fun. The special begins with the toys watching a black-and-white vampire film, which is recreated nicely. Throughout the special, Mr. Pricklepants delivers dialogue about the traditional structure of the genre. After Mr. Potato-Head disappears, the toys investigate the dusty, cobweb-filled sub-flooring of the motel, Buzz’ glow-in-the-dark paint casting an eerie green glow on everything. Jesse quickly becomes a final girl, an off-screen monster picking off her friends. She even has a run-in with an ineffectual authority figure, Carl Weathers hilariously poking fun at himself as Combat Carl. The second half of the special, after the truth is revealed, the horror elements pretty much disappear. This is disappointing, considering the first half did a good job introducing kids to the rules of the slasher film. That’s unexpected for a Disney product. Will “Toy Story of Terror” become a classic like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?” It’s hard to say but, if this becomes a yearly tradition, I’d probably be okay with that. [7/10]

Halloween H20 (1998)

After the extended clusterfuck that was “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers,” it was clear that the franchise needed a kick in the ass. A problem facing all the sequels is that Michael Myers is not a particularly captivating character. When faithful to the original, he’s not a character at all but rather an absence of character. It isn’t surprising that Dr. Loomis, Michael Myers’ arch-enemy, was the most interesting part about most of the sequels. “Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later” understands this. It attempts to return the series to its roots, revitalizes the limp franchise, while also providing Myers with a captivating opponent: His first, Laurie Strode, Jaime Lee Curtis returning to the series that made her a star.

Picking up twenty years after the original, Laurie Strobe has moved far away from Haddonfield, faked her death, and created a new life for herself. She is now Keri Tate, a head teacher at Hillcrest Academy, a fancy private school. She has a boyfriend in the school guidance counselor and even a son, seventeen year old John. Laurie is still suffering from the events of that night, having nightmares, seeing her brother everywhere. Her trauma, and her subsequent alcoholism, has put a strain on her relationship with her son. Of course, Michael isn’t dead. He tracks his sister down, targets her child, forcing a final confrontation between the two.

“Halloween H20” is the first “Halloween” film to be made in the wake of “Scream,” the movie that revitalized the slasher subgenre. This is all too obvious at times, especially since Kevin Williamson’s name is there in the credits. The young cast are super-model sexy, many of them recruited from popular television series. The visuals are far more polished then ever before. There are a few times when Myers is getting knocked around by skinny women that reminds me of Ghostface. Hell, “Scream 2” is even shown on TV at one point! There’s a general referential tone. Dr. Loomis’ “Blackest Eyes” speech plays over the opening credits, “Mr. Sandman” gets played a few times, classic dialogue is reprised, Laurie gets slashed in the shoulder and Michael gets knocked over a railing. Myers lifts a victim up with a blade, a female student notices the killer through a window while in class, and bloody scissors make a prominent appearance. There are other horror references, most blatantly to “Psycho,” with Janet Leigh having a bit part. This becomes too cute when Leigh asks to be maternal and walks away to a reprise of the “Psycho” theme!

The early parts of “H20” feel like what you’d expect “Halloween” in 1998 to be like. Myers slashes throats and stabs backs with a big knife. Perhaps attempting to capture that classic spirit, the movie double-downs on Michael leaving bodies in unexpected places. The movie feels simultaneously more and less brutal then previous sequels. The kills themselves aren’t particularly cruel but the focus is on stab wounds and shattering bones. A leg crushed in a dumb-waiter is especially squirm-inducing. Michael either teleports a few times or climbs stairs really quickly. The Shape hacking teens outside of Haddonfield feels weird. I can’t say the private school setting works for me. The slasher elements are decent without being anything special.

What elevates “Halloween H20” above the other sequels is Jaime Lee Curtis’ participation. While the first half is filled with cheap jump scares, Marco Beltrami’s overly flowery score blaring too much, the focus is squarely on Laurie’s still reeling mental state. A confession to her boyfriend is a stand-out, Curtis bringing her matured talent to the role. After shipping her kids off to safely, Laurie Strobe smashes the gate control and grabs an axe. Laurie Strode is on the defensive. The last half-hour of “H20” is excellent. The two beat the shit out of each other. A moment where Laurie hides under tables while the Shape flips them over generates decent suspense. After downing Myers, Laurie realizes that he’s not dead. The final ten minutes are action-packed and deeply suspenseful. The finale is intriguing. Pinned between a tree and a flipped van, Michael glances around, holding his head. He reaches for Laurie, his humanity seemingly returned. Laurie doesn’t buy it. The climatic decapitation is deeply satisfying, finally providing closure to the long-running series.

Steve Miner, director of fan-favorite flicks like “Friday the 13th Part II,” “Friday the 13th Part III” and, uh, “Lake Placid,” contributes above-average direction. I like the billowing curtains. LL Cool J’s role as a security guard/would-be romance novelist is annoying. I like how tall and lanky Myers is but the mask needs work. His eyes are too visible and the mask too lined. “H20” has an uneasy relationship with continuity. Officially, this film ignores four through six. However, it’s easy to fan-wank a connection, as long as you ignore Laurie abandoning her daughter. Though very much a product of 1998, “Halloween H20” is definitely a strong sequel. If it had been the last “Halloween” film, I would have been perfectly happy with that. [7/10]

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