Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 29

Every year I promise to make it out to a haunted attraction. Every year, I miss the opportunity. In 2013, I was determined to fix that. This past weekend, a female friend and I drove out to Hill High Farms in Winchester, VA. After driving up the perilous rock path, we were greeted with a folksy farm and petting zoo. We were mostly there for the corn maze, something I've always wanted to do but have never experienced before. Upon arriving, I noticed that a haunted house was also on the grounds. Haunted Nightmares, it was called. A. doesn't much like scary things, so we got tickets for the corn maze first. It was fun but simplistic. The sound of the wind blowing through the corn stalks is strangely soothing though.

It only took us about forty minutes to make our way through. We only cheated once. A. has a better sense of direction so she led the way. Afterwards, I talked her into stepping through the haunted barn. From the outside, the building seemed small. I was expecting something kind of lame. However, Haunted Nightmares Haunted House didn't disappoint. The barn is separated into various themed rooms. There's a zombie room, a creepy doll room, a clown room, an insane asylum room, a cannibal butcher room, and, most creatively, a haunted outhouse room. There's some clever gags, like spurting mist, which hit both of us straight in the face twice. The strobe lights took some getting use to. Luckily, there's not very many of them. The actors are a little overly confrontational. I'm certain my travel partner was about to elbow one particularly shout-y actress in the face. I enjoyed the dark room segment, where you have to feel your way through pitch black, blind corners. A. was less receptive, the only part of the house to really freak her out. Similarly, I really dislike a portion where you have to squeeze through two black mattresses. If that I had gone on a few seconds longer, I probably would have freaked out.

Generally speaking though, Hill High Farm is a fun place. A cozy country store is also on the grounds, along with a pumpkin patch featuring some obscure gourd species. (Grabbed two jarrahdales, a warty pumpkin, and an Aladdin's Turban.) If you're in the Western Virginia area today, check it out! Anyway, on with the reviews.

Hocus Pocus (1993)

If you grew up in the nineties, you’ve probably seen “Hocus Pocus” a few hundred times. I think most every generation gets their own kid-friendly horror-lite Halloween movie. “Gremlins” probably filled that role for a lot of eighties kids and hopefully “Coraline” is the pick for the modern 6-10 crowd. “Hocus Pocus” is nowhere near as good as either of those movies but I’ve seen it a bunch anyway. Probably more, since my Mom has long been a Bette Midler fan. Of course, even goofy kid’s flicks like this have new information to reveal. I had no idea that Mick Garris, veteran horror screenwriter, co-wrote this one. Nor did I know that Doug Jones, probably the most famous creature actor today, played the zombie in this. Was there any other new information waiting me?

The movie actually holds up alright. The decent premise is classic horror stuff. Set in Salem, of course, the child-stealing Sarandon sisters were executed but not before doing a few things: Turning a local teen into an immortal black cat, draining his little sister’s life force, and, more pressingly, placing a curse on the town. Should a virgin ever light the black candle, they will return. Of course, this happens. Recently relocated teen Max, dragging his little sister and high school crush with him, lights that candle, revives the witch sisters, and leads to a bunch of wacky antics.

The cast and characters make the film far more likable then it would have been otherwise. Bette Midler goes far over the top as lead witch Winnifred. Her make-up is cartoonish, including frizzy red hair, perpetually pursed lips, and comically exaggerated buckteeth. Midler’s acting is on the same level. She hoots, hollers, squeals, and delivers every line with comic stripe panache. Even her facial expressions and body language are calculated for maximum goofiness. She plays off the other two sisters nicely. Sarah Jackson Parker, before everyone started calling her a horse, brings a manic energy to the part. She jumps around, repeats dialogue, and actually conveys a wacky sexiness. Kathy Najimi is similarly silly, acting like an overgrown dofus.

Much of the humor comes from typical “fish out of water” shenanigans. The witches are baffled and occasionally delighted by asphalt, a bus, TV, remotes, and the concept of Halloween. Some of this is more entertaining then others. The interaction with a horny bus driver or Garry Marshall dressed as the Devil get genuine laughs. The trio constantly being fooled by fire sprinklers or headlights proves less so. Some of the overly goofy gags prove better then others. The witches having their brooms snatched by young look-a-likes is amusing. Them jumping on mops and vacuums are the sorts of goofy, kid’s movie jokes you’d hope the movie would avoid. Midler and crew deliver their frequently corny dialogue like pros, never loosing that ridiculous cartoon tone.

It’s not uncommon for the kids in the kids’ movies to be punch-worthy. “Hocus Pocus” mostly avoids that too. The movie’s theme boils down to one of sibling love. Surprisingly, this is incorporated organically into the story. Binx, the talking cat, lost his sister and is driven by the hope of being reunited with her. Max comes to appreciate and love his sister over the course of the story. It fits in and isn’t overdone. The improbably named Ormi Katz finds a decent balance between grouchy, angsty teenager and proactive protagonist. A tiny Thora Birch also comes close to annoying. Her emotional interactions with the brother and the talking cat make the character relatively real. Vanessa Shaw is lovely and shows some genuinely comedic skills as Max’s love interest. Only the ridiculous bully characters overdo it.

The movie couldn’t cast Bette Midler in the lead without getting her to sing. The whole movie’s tone of improbable goofiness is best summed up when a three-hundred year-old witch walks on-stage and sings a choreographed song-and-dance number. Yet that’s probably the most memorable moment in the film. The zombie antics, with his head and fingers getting knocked off, are nicely gruesome for a kid’s flick. “Hocus Pocus” even has a moment of eerie beauty, when Parker lures the children of the town away with a siren song. The music is ethereal and the image of hundreds of kids, some still in their Halloween costumes, walking the streets at night sticks with you. The special effects don’t hold up and the whole movie is a goofy trifle. As far as nineties nostalgia go? “Hocus Pocus” is one of the better examples from my childhood. [7/10]

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

This is going to date me. “Eight Legged Freaks” is the first time I can remember being excited about a movie no one else cared about. It was my first year of high school. I was just far enough into my teens that my love of black and white creature features were confirmed. Someone was attempting to revive the big bug picture in 2002? Hell yeah, I was up for me. No one else was. It bombed domestically (though broke even internationally) and reviews were middling. The movie isn’t quite old enough to have a cult following. If the “Eight Legged Freaks” fandom has to start somewhere, let it start with me.

The story is basically “Gremlins” by-way of “Tarantula.” This is most obvious in how the film treats its threats. The giant spiders of “Eight Legged Freaks” are arachnid goofballs. The CGI is clearly dated but the animators and special effect guys made sure the spiders had personality. They mumble, shriek, and grabble like Killer Tomatoes. Their vocalizations are intentionally exaggerated and cartoonish. On two separate occasions, giant spiders get dragged behind moving cars. One grumbles in frustration after taking a bite out of a stuffed moose. Another jumps flat into a closed window. One spider out-boxes a boxer. Another cheers on his brothers as they rush the mall. One slides down on a rope, screaming the whole way. A shot spider swings on a thread, dousing his pals with green spider goop. One of the best spider gags involves a sneaky tent. Even a diehard arachnophobe is more likely to laugh then scream. “Eight Legged Freaks” is less a modern reinvention of the classic big bug flick then a Mel Brooks parody on the subgenre. I guess some might find that to be a one-note joke but, I don’t know guys, wacky giant spiders? Count me in.

The film also nails the small town setting. Prosperity, Arizona is nicely isolated at times. The ensemble cast quickly gives you a sense of community. You believe that this small time is fighting for their mutual survival. The crusty old barber and near-sided janitor are equally amusing, each assign simple, entertaining personalities. Doug E. Doug finds a great home for his overtaxed comedic style as the local conspiracy radio host. His beleaguered shouts of frustration prove consistently funny. Rick Overton is also great as Deputy Pete. His reactions to the spiders are, at first, shocked confusion, later transitioning to dead-pan fear. Leon Rippy’s talents are also well-suited to the conniving town mayor. Tom Noonan, uncredited and with minutes of screen time, makes an impression too. The strong character actor cast is another reason to love “Eight Legged Freaks.”

The supporting cast proves far more memorable then the leads. I’m willing to give David Arquette more slack then others. But there’s no mistaking the guy for leading man material. His attempts at one-liners are especially groan-inducing. His performance works best when playing up his nervous qualities. Kari Wuhrer is never convincing as a mom or action heroine. Yeah, she looks fantastic in tight jeans and t-shirts but can hardly carry the film. She has zero chemistry with Arquette. Even Scarlett Johansson, hardly a great actress in her right, outshines the leads. (And also looks fantastic in tight t-shirts and jeans.)

You can actually see elements of a more serious horror film under “Eight Legged Freaks” goofy exterior. A mouthful of spiders, regardless of size, is likely to make some squirm. The trapdoor spiders snatching people running across a parking lot could have been mined for real scares. Probably the biggest action set-piece in the film is the jumping spiders going after the kids on dirt bikes. This is the closest the film comes to real tension and, even then, it’s awash in silly special effects. I’m not complaining, simply noting. It wouldn’t surprise me if this started life as a more serious screenplay.

The script is decently constructed. You can tell that the cigarettes, stun gun, and underground gas veins will be important later. I still appreciate the effort to set them up. I also appreciate the horror in-jokes, “Them” on TV, the mall invasion finale, the Hockey Mask/Chainsaw combo. The Micky Mousing score is probably the only thing about the movie I don’t like. That’s the only overly jokey element. Even then, incorporating a low-pitched version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was clever. An early scene where a spider and a cat wrestle inside a wall probably goes on too long and reaches too hard for the kind of silly laughs the rest of the movie has no problem with. “Eight Legged Freaks” is still underrated and underseen. This surprises me. I can think of many horror fans who would love its goofy charms. [8/10]

Larger Than Life (1998)

Included on the DVD of “Eight Legged Freaks” is director Ellory Elkayem’s short film, “Larger Than Life.” Filmed in black-and-white, the short is even more of a homage to classic big bug flicks then the feature is. When strange chemicals leak out of a sinister factory, normal spiders are exposed and gradually grow bigger. This is a problem for single woman Jo, alone in the house with giant arachnoids. The clueless exterminator isn’t much help and soon she has to defend herself from the eight-legged invasion.

“Larger Than Life” functions more like a straight horror film. The tone is still light and jokey. The exterminator doesn’t notice the giant spider on his back and the “Or Is It?” ending is winkingly silly. However, some scenes attempt to build suspense. The spider corners the girl in the shower, “Psycho”-strings playing on the soundtrack. An escape is cut short by a shot of webbing. Opposed to “Eight Legged Freaks” CGI, the spider here is mostly a puppet. Actors struggling with a real object, even if it’s an obvious puppet, still prove more squirm-inducing. There’s not a lot to the short and it’s less charming then Elkayem’s feature. Still, there’s enough obvious strength and love of the material on display that it’s not surprising the director would get the jobs he did. [7/10]

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