Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 28

The Manitou (1978)

William Girdler is an odd case of a competent filmmaker who even showed a stylish visual sense from time to time who made mostly terrible films. This isn’t a case of a spectacularly untalented filmmaker accidentally making outsider art, like Andy Milligan or even Ed Wood. Girdler was consistently, quite nearly a good director. Odds are, if he had lived longer, he would have actually developed talent. With “The Manitou” he graduated from the world of low-budget genre rip-offs to the world of slightly higher budget genre rip-offs. “Grizzly” was “Jaws” with a bear. “Abby” was “The Exorcist” with (offensively stereotypical) black people. “The Manitou” is also “The Exorcist” but with Indian mysticism and bits of “Star Wars” thrown in for fun.

Based off a novel by hack horror author and sex manual writer Graham Masterton, the movie begins when Susan Strasberg discovers she has a thing in her neck. At first, it appears to be a tumor. As the growth continues to, uh, grow, baffled scientist realizes a fetus is developing inside her neck. Attempts to remove the growth results in disaster. Strasberg’s friend Tony Curtis, a phony medium, soon discovers that the tumor is actually the reborn spirit of an ancient, evil Indian shaman. Once the spirit reaches maturity and enters our world, shit gets craaaaazy.

“The Manitou” escalates in ridiculousness as it goes on. This is impressive, considering the movie begins with an Indian shaman being reborn through a tumor on a lady’s neck. First off, it cast an aging Tony Curtis as a romantic league, in a relationship with the noticeably younger Susan Strasberg. Wearing a succession of unflattering tight shirts, Curtis cons old ladies with chicanery so hackneyed and obvious only a delusional old lady would believe it. The first sign that “The Manitou” will be rife with unintentional hilarity is when one of Curtis’ elderly clients begins to chant in ancient languages and float inches above the floor to her death. The second big laugh comes when Curtis’ hippy-dippy friends make the top of the villain’s head appear. Just the top. When a surgical laser goes ballistics, the audience is far more likely to laugh then scream. Everything in “The Manitou” is pitched at a hysterical level.

About an hour in, “The Manitou” leaps from campy to goofy. A greasy-haired, dark skinned dwarf crawls out of Strasberg’s back. The character’s attempts to fight him off prove unsuccessful. The reborn shaman summons an evil spirit, which is shown by having an actor in an unconvincing giant lizard costume slither around on the floor. He freezes the entire floor of the hospital, including the present staff. Tony tosses a typewriter at the little person, which melodramatically explodes. (Because everything, even man-made objects, has manitous, you see.) This prompts the Manitou to toss decapitated heads, snow, and wind at the heroes. In its last ten minutes, “The Manitou” completely looses its shit. Curtis and his ethnic Indian friend open a doorway to outer space. Electric energy shoots through the hospital and explodes a doctor while Misquamacus laughs uproariously. A giant eyeball floats behind them, shooting beams of light and asteroids at everyone. The naked Strasberg rises from her bed, shoots lasers out of her hands, and beats the evil back. This is the kind of wacked out, hilarious imagery only seen in seventies B-flicks. God bless ‘em.

Despite its unforgettable moments, much of “The Manitou” drags. Really, up until the last half-hour, the film is massively boring. Curtis slums about, disinterested. Strasberg spends most of the story bed-ridden. The sleuthing and studying of American Indian spiritualism mostly amounts to people sitting around and talking. Only Burgess Meredith’s amusingly kooky cameo enlivens this portion. Even then, Meredith delivers dialogue about the Indian population that is fairly offensive. Also offensive: The film’s resident stereotypical medicine man character who is played by Michael Ansara who was, of course, Syrian. Heck, even the evil Misquamacus is played by an Italian, short actor Felix Silla. Honestly, if you fast-forward until the latter section of the film, you wouldn’t be missing much.

There’s very little intentionally good about “The Manitou.” Lalo Schifrin’s score is decent, incorporating traditional tribal music in with his usual action style. Michel Hugo’s cinematography is quite lovely. While the digital effects are laughable, the practical effects actually aren’t bad. Though the images Girdler presents on screen are absurd, there’s no denying the guy had a flare for the dramatic. You’re unlikely to forget “The Manitou,” or at least parts of it anyway. Bad movie lovers should check it out, for sure. [6/10]

Slaughter High (1987)

Have I talked about how my love of grime-bucket, zero budget trash-horror came about? If I haven’t already, now’s as good a time as any. I’ll come back around to “Slaughter High” eventually, I promise. I guess I was just out of high school and already a genre fan and devotee. However, when it came to slashers I hadn’t explored much beyond the big franchise. Until I came upon a YouTube channel, and later a Veoh channel, remember Veoh?, that did nothing but post hard to find slasher flicks. In this territory, “The Burning” or “My Bloody Valentine” was the well-known films. Over that summer, I promise to watch every eighties slasher ever made. That quest went unfulfilled, of course, yet I discovered that films made with no money, time, or talent could be as endearing as the classics. It was in this world that I was first exposed to “Slaughter High,” an incompetent, bizarrely fascinating piece of eighties slasher garbage.

“Slaughter High” has been given an official DVD release but, going by the quality, you’d never know that. If it wasn’t for the Lionsgate branding, trailers, and cheap-ass trivia track “special feature,” you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a bootleg. The full-screen video is ripped off the same VHS copy all the YouTube video pirates use. The image is almost indecipherably dark at times. The picture is grainy, scratchy, washed out, and full of tracking errors. The audio is tinny and frequently distorted. They even maintained the Vestron Video logo at the end! You could criticize Lionsgate for the shoddy release. Actually, you should do that. Yet, when I pressed play at the menu, a rush of nostalgia washed over me. I remember this world of scratchy VHS-rips and barely watchable uploads. (By the way, if you want a decent disc of the film, import Arrow’s Region 0 release from the UK.)

Anyway, the actual movie. “Slaughter High” begins in a high school. Duh. Thirty-six year old Caroline Munro plays a high school student, part of a group of the school’s “cool” kids playing a prank on resident nerd Marty Ratzen. Marty is seduced, stripped naked, strapped into a bizarre condom, photograph in the nude, sprayed with cold water, and has his head dunked in a toilet. Afterwards, the gym teacher yells at Marty for being in the girl’s bathroom. His humiliation isn’t over yet, as another one of the bullies hand him an exploding joint. This goes horribly wrong and the nerd is splashed with acid, deforming his face. A decade later, the same group of bullies are invited back to the now-abandoned hospital for an April Fool’s Day party. Predictably, a lunatic in a jester mask begins murdering them in gruesome, contrived ways. Gee, who saw that one coming?

The film was produced by Dick Randall, the same man behind “Pieces” and countless other low-budget trash offerings. While “Slaughter High” is neither as sleazy nor hilarious as “Pieces,” it comes awfully close at times. Aside from the thirty year olds cast as teenagers, the film is full of ridiculous slasher nonsense. Somebody just drank an acidic soda, their stomach literally splitting open. What is Nancy’s first course of action after that? To take a bath in one of the dilapidated building’s tubs. Surprise, the tub is full of acid! Her face melts via stop-motion animation. Despite their friends dying left and right, two of the invitees decide now is the best time to have sex. The woman implores the man to talk dirty, leading to him grunting out “Tits!” and “Fuck!” The killer drops an activated lawn mower on a victim. The guy never thinks to roll out from under the vehicle. Characters play practical jokes, a rat leaps out at someone, and the creepy old janitor dies first. If you want clich├ęs, “Slaughter High” delivers swiftly with its own demented sense of humor.

The film’s hilarious oddness is exacerbated by an unexpected mean-spirited streak. None of the characters are likable. Yes, Caroline Munro’s Carol expresses some guilt over the accident, but just a little. Marty, at first, might be a victim. Yet his cluelessness, awkwardness, and overwhelming dorkiness make him hard to root for. The other victims show such astonishing stupidity that they endear no sympathy. “Slaughter High” quickly dissolves into awful people doing awful things to each other.

But a devoted stalk-and-slash fan can find something worth-while in any thing. Honestly, when it comes to grimy, Z-grade slashers, “Slaughter High” is a better example. It’s certainly better then, say, “Blood Cult” or “Honeymoon Horror.” The empty hallways of the high school provide some decent atmosphere. Directing trio George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Litten throw in one or two inventive shot, like a close-up of Marty’s hands bursting through a picture or a POV of someone falling from a rope. The kills are ridiculous but quite creative. I mean, any maniac can stab someone, and Marty does, but it takes a real creative mind to melt someone in an acid bath. The final chase sequence goes on far too long but admittedly hits the horror fan sweet spot for me. The jester mask and letterman jacket combo is actually a cool get-up. When many slasher films were content to stick their killer in a ski mask, that one sticks out. Henry Manfredini’s score is terrible but his fans will probably enjoy it.

Ultimately contributing to “Slaughter High’s” atmosphere of nastiness is that Simon Scuddamore, the actor playing Marty, committed suicide from a drug overdose not long after filming wrapped. Apparently, he suffered from depression. It’s easy to imagine that his character’s torment added to his real life depression. The film’s thrown together, nonsensical ending features slow-motion murder, self-mutilation, and character’s forever stuck in mental anguish. Dude, what a bummer. So “Slaughter High” is not a good movie in any traditional sense. Yet those with a stomach for the stupid, senseless and cheap will find it has an indelible atmosphere all its own. [7/10]

Last Halloween (2011)

I first found out about “Last Halloween,” a short film from director John Stewart Muller, while Googling around for info about “The Last Halloween,” the obscure TV special I reviewed last year. The short was written by and co-stars Leslie Andrews, the talented star of “Sick Girl,” a movie I have to defend way too frequently and should probably get around to reviewing eventually. The short features a couple arguing and breaking up following a Halloween party. Experienced horror short viewers will spend the run time waiting for the kicker. What’s the morbid twist on this otherwise simply dramatic seeming material?

Leslie Andrews charms me in everything I’ve seen her in. The same goes for this, even if Andrews has very little to work with. Kit Williamson is a lot less interesting as the foul-mouth, philandering boyfriend. Director Muller is clearly a horror fan, slipping music from “Suspiria” and a poster of “The Thing” into the short. At only six minutes long, a bit too much of this is spent on the opening dance scenes. Of course, indie shorts like this hang on their last minute shock. “Last Halloween” has a pretty good one. It’s funny and morbidly amusing, probably more so then the rest of the film. Is “Last Halloween” worth checking if you’re not a Leslie Andrews fan? Probably not. Eh. [6/10]

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