Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 26

Cemetery Man (1994)

Italian zombie movies come with their own set of rules. By 1994, the extreme gore and apocalyptic visions the genre is famous for were well-established. Michelle Soavi’s “Cemetery Man” shows disinterest in the tradition of the genre in its opening minutes. After a long pan out of the inside of a skull, Francesco Dellamorte causally shoots a zombie in the head. “Cemetery Man” has zombies in it but is not a zombie movie. Instead, it’s a surreal, absurdest voyage into the psycho-sexual subconscious of its lead character.

Adapted from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, itself a spin-off of Sclavi’s immensely popular “Dylan Dog” comic, the movie takes a semi-episodic look at the life of Francesco Dellamorte, the caretaker of a cemetery in the small Italian town of Buffalora. The dead buried in the cemetery have a nasty habit of returning to life. However, Francesco’s concerns are elsewhere. He worries about loosing his job, keeping the zombie infestation a secret. He wonders if his life has meaning and if he’ll ever get out of his dead-end corner of the universe. A plot line slowly forms, revolving around Francesco meeting the woman of his dream, only for her to die, and reappear again. The troubles in Francesco’s life pile up, culminating in visions of Death itself, prompting him to murder the dead while they’re still living.

Soavi loads his film with symbols and deeper meanings. A first time viewer has to let the dreamy “Cemetery Man” wash over them. Repeat viewers are allowed to examine the picture, discerning the purpose behind its images. Francesco apathetically slays zombies. He has little regard for life either, even before his murder sprees start. He struggles to find meaning in his life, has few friends, and no future. The cemetery becomes his prison, the job and the town around it inescapable. The events of the film are representative of his inner turmoil. The ending and snow globe imagery reflect this, showing Francesco as trapped in his own cycle of self-defeat. The script acknowledges this is the protagonist's own fault. Dim-witted Gnagi has no problem assembling the skull puzzle Francesco struggles with.

The original Italian title is “Dellamorte Dellamore,” translating as “Of Death, Of Love.” The love of Francesco’s life is a nameless woman that keeps returning to his life. Credited only as She, the woman sets up her own purpose earlier on, asking the man if she “can return.” She is represented by billowing scarfs. The title is visually illustrated when her bright red scarf, representative of love, blows onto a pile of skulls. The nameless woman is less a character then another symbol of Francesco’s self-inflicted torture. During their graveyard set sex scene, the woman stand behind a statue of a headless angel, the wings behind her. Later, the wings fall off the statue, beside Francesco’s feet, marking them both as fallen. The first time She dies in Francesco’s arms, he is unable to save her. The second time he lets her rotting zombie chew on him. The third encounter shows his suffering over a woman he barely knows isn’t worth the trouble it brings. By her fourth appearance, Francesco has come to actively resent his love, another symbol of his endless frustrations. Love, like death, is never as simple as it’s supposes to be.

Don’t think “Cemetery Man” is a pretentious study in symbolism. The movie has a darkly comic streak running through it. This is most evident in Gnagi, Dellamorte’s sole friend and companion. The rotund Gnagi resembles Uncle Fester and speaks only one word, a grunting “Gna!” He grotesquely scarfs spaghetti and mindlessly watches television. He hordes dried up leaves in the same way Francesco hordes old telephone books. Like Stan, he shows his romantic interest in the mayor’s daughter by vomiting on her. Despite perishing immediately afterwards in a motorcycle crash, Gnagi still gets to have a relationship with the girl. He removes her zombified head from her glass coffin, serenading her with his violin. The girl(‘s head) is charmed by the bizarre Gnagi and happily takes up resident in his blasted-out TV. Humor is all over the place in this film, from the oddball motorcycle riding zombie, the mid-film absurdest take on Tod Browning’s “The Unknown,” the mayor’s morbid political grumbling, to Rupert Everett’s sarcastic line readings. For all its melancholy and existential wandering, “Cemetery Man” is a very funny movie.

It’s also, visually, quite a beautiful one. Soavi has always been a fantastic visualist but he tops himself here. The cemetery is another world. Turquoise balls of fool's fire dance through the air. Fog billows among the grave stones. The gates and walls of the graveyard seem to close in on the characters as the story goes on. The tombs are painted in blues and violets. Soavi places his camera in creative locations. It slides between floorboards, under coffin lids and even peers out of a floating head’s mouth. Instead of showing the aftermath of a violent shooting in a simple A-to-B fashion, the camera spins upside down. “Cemetery Man” is equally moody and creative in story and visual presentation.

The ending is inscrutable at first. However, I finally gleamed its meaning on this rewatch. Francesco realizes his greatest treasure had been beside him the whole time and, still unable to escape his own world, devotes himself to his stalwart companion. Rupert Everett is perfectly cast in the lead, Francois Hadji-Lazaro makes one word mean so much, and Anna Falci is achingly desirable. “Cemetery Man” is a unique, beautiful film, Michelle Soavi’s masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind treat for adventurous horror fans. [9/10]

Prom Night (1980)

“Prom Night” is the second chapter of a trilogy of slasher films Jaime Lee Curtis starred in early in her career. After “Halloween” and before “Terror Train,” Curtis lend her rising scream queen talent to this Canadian production, a minor classic for slasher fans. Coming so early in the sub-genre’s life, “Prom Night” follows the expected slasher outline. A group of kids while playing an aggressive game of hide and seek in an abandoned high school indirectly causes a fellow child’s death. The police pin the murder on a pedophile. As the years pass, some of the children harbor guilt over the death, while others forget about it. A decade later on the eve of the senior prom, the girls begin receiving threatening phone calls. The same child molester has escaped from prison and murdered a nun already. As prom begins and the kids boogie the night away, a masked man begins to hack his way through the guilty party.

“Prom Night” takes a surprisingly long time to get to its murders. It’s nearly an hour into the film before the deaths start to happen. For such a deliberate pace, you’d expect the characters to be more solidly developed. Most of the large cast aren’t much more then loose ideas. Jaime Lee proves to be the final girl but she’s not quite the protagonist. Curtis’ Kim is mostly defined by her relationship with neurotic brother Alex. Her boyfriend Nick doesn’t have much personality. Asshole Lou and bitch Wendy seem to want to recreate the end of “Carrie” by hijacking the prom. Seymour is the required prankster character. Only Kelly, pushed by her boyfriend into having sex, has any sort of definable arc. She, of course, dies first.

What joys there are to “Prom Night” come from Paul Lynch’s frequently moody direction. He mines quite a bit of sinister intent out of long shots of empty high school hallways. The killer’s first appearance is stretch out nicely, the death coming as a shock, the murder scene fading to red. The creepy phone calls are handled nicely, with extreme close-ups on a pencil thumping at a pad of paper. The ending is surprisingly sincere, playing the material for pathos instead of blatant shocks. While “Prom Night” doesn’t earn that emotion, the attempt is still appreciated.

The movie’s camp factor is probably more entertaining. I hope you kids like disco because this movie is full of it. There are long sequences of cast members dancing to cheesy, canned dance music. Have you ever wanted to see a pre-comedy-career Leslie Nielson boogie his heart out? You’ve got it. The killer’s sparkly ski-mask proves a somewhat comical disguise. Predating “Scream,” the slasher is borderline incompetent. He gets beat up by a nerd. The hilarious van crash has little to do with the killer’s attempt to sneak inside. He nearly forgets his axe during a chase scene. He routinely gets beaten and battered by the film’s heroines. This is probably intentional, considering the murderer is just another teenager.

“Prom Night” is hardly a gory film but what kills it has are quite clever. A shattered glass throat slashing is memorable. The van face stabbing generates a shock or two. The decapitation, the severed head landing on the day-glo dance floor, is darkly humorous. It’s no surprise that “Prom Night” was a big hit in its day and would, years later, spawn the required slasher franchise. The movie’s nothing special but I can see why slasher fans consider it nostalgic horror comfort food. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “My Brother’s Keeper

I’m rather fond of the premise behind “My Brother’s Keeper.” Conjoined twins Eddie and Frank are stick of being stuck with each other. Frank is bookish and arty, fond of reading, museums, orchestral music, and fancy cooking. Eddie likes bars, loose women, gambling, and kinky sex. Conjoined at the ass, separating the two would prove a difficult, potentially deadly procedure. Eddie wants the surgery desperately while Frank is more cautious. The brother’s condition makes romance difficult. This becomes obvious once Frank catches the attention of Marie. The two develop real feelings for each other, despite Eddie’s obnoxious attempts to break the couple up.

“My Brother’s Keeper” mostly plays it fascinating premise for overly broad humor. The fictional brothers are played by real brothers Jonathan and Timothy Stark. Both actors overdo it, Jonathan especially. Eddie is such a cartoon, slinging cheesy one-liners and spending time with a dominatrix. Timothy Stark isn’t much better, playing Frank as an almost equally broad stereotype. The brothers’ condition is frequently played for easy laughs, such as their bathroom or exercise routine. Still, “My Brother’s Keeper” builds decently. I’m on record as a Jessica Harper fan and she’s wonderful as the woman that comes between the siblings. She brings all of her expected charm to the part. The humor finally pays off towards the end, when the brothers start to fight one another. I’m not sure I like the implications of the ending though. I’m not hard to please. This is another slight but goofily entertaining episode. [6.5/10]

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