Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 7

Halloween (1978)

I wrote a review of “Halloween” in March but, to be honest, that review kind of sucked. I don’t think it was up to my usual quality. So I might repeat myself here. Besides, “Halloween” is best viewed on an October night, fallen leaves lining suburban streets just outside your window.

As originally envisioned by Moustapha Akkad, “Halloween” wasn’t much more then an exploitation film. Even the original title, “The Babysitter Murders,” sounds like the kind of undistinguished schlock that would have played on 42nd Street for weeks and then be forgotten. Enter John Carpenter. His stylish direction, directly influenced by Hitchcock, Argento, and Hawks, elevated “Halloween.” It really is as good as everyone says it is.

Carpenter uses the tracking shot emphatically throughout “Halloween.” It’s a rare shot that isn’t moving. The constant movement accomplishes several things. It establishes a sense of speed through the first half of the film, as the characters go through their everyday lives. We are placed within someone else’s world. The movement also implies a third party, a voyeuristic eye. Of course, there is a voyeur and it’s not just Michael Myers. The audience themselves are spying on the cast. During the best of these early scenes, the viewer truly feels like we’re snooping on the daily routine of ordinary small-town folks. Lastly, the camera constantly roaming makes the motionless moments more noticeable. The camera stands still to make a statement, a bold exclamation point on the preceding. Little Michael having his clown mask torn off. The Shape raising up from the floor behind Laurie. The final montage, noting the places where violence has taken place. “Halloween” is visually engineered to make an impact.

I’m going to talk about the early half of the film a lot, mostly because it’s frequently overlooked. You could call those day lit scenes a couple of things. “Twenty Minutes with Jerks” in TVTropes parlance. “Boring,” to modern, ADD-afflicted youth. And, yeah, it’s kind of those things. However, these scenes establish our setting, Haddonfield, the typical Midwestern small town. They establish the autumn setting, leaves fluttering in front of the camera. They show the characters in their normal lives, contrasting with the horror the night brings.

What exactly is Michael Myers? He’s not human. Watching the film this time, the word that kept coming to mind was ‘wraith.’ For those unaware, a wraith is a Scottish ghost that is exceptionally pissed off and takes it out on anyone that comes its way. Michael Myers is an entity, an embodiment of some inhuman force. This is why he comes into existence, fully formed. This is why Dr. Loomis insist the character is unknowable. His motivates are obscure and inscrutable. Actually observe Myers’ behavior. He shifts through the darkness undetected. His mask appears in frame before quickly vanishing again. Over Laurie’s shadows, in the doorway, he slowly fades out of the black of the night, a ghost phasing into perception. While the girls smoke pot in Annie’s car, Myers drives behind them. And what’s playing on the radio? “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” But you should fear the Reaper. Because you can’t stop him. Michael Myers is a malevolent manifestation of death itself, inexplicable and indestructible. The indestructibility is about the only thing the subsequent sequels and remakes got right…

Art by Bryan Baugh
Last time, I was dismissive of Carpenter and Debra Hill’s character work. No doubt, the writers were working in archetypes. Laurie is the virginal, shy everygirl, a babysitter and obedient little daughter, who hasn’t moved past schoolgirl crushes towards actual relationships. Is PJ Soles’ Lynda the more interesting, likable character? Maybe. That might have to do with the boundless enthusiasm Soles brings to the part, an innate likability that should have made her a major star. (And did, in that alternate universe where “Rock n’ Roll High School” was a genre-defying, pan-generational blockbuster.) It’s not as if there’s much to Lynda, a cheerleader stereotypically interested in fashion, school dances, beer, and fucking her boyfriend. But what about Annie, by-far the least defined of the girly trio? She is hopelessly devoted to a boy who doesn’t seem that invested, abandons the child she was supposed to protect, spills butter on her clothes, and gets her ass stuck in a window. “Halloween” mostly avoids the broad clichés of later slasher films but Annie totally deserved to die. What a stupid bitch.

Anyway, why Laurie? Why does she survive the Shape’s inescapable power? Carpenter likes to say it’s because she paid attention to her surroundings. Maybe. But then why does her off-screen teacher bring up destiny and fate? Laurie is forced on the path of survival, her encounter with pure evil destined to make her a fuller human being, to bring forth her indomitable will to survive. There’s no way JC could have predicted the influence his little movie would have. Yet, of course Laurie is the original final girl. Her elevation to iconic status is buried in the bone marrow of the film. Even if she does need Dr. Loomis, who spends most of the movie just kind of hanging around, to save her ass at the end.

The film is painted with shadows, crisscrossing faces and bodies. The blue tone not only suggests night and darkness but also a morbid, deathly pallor. No wonder Myers reigns supreme. He has recolored the entire night to suit him. Argento’s influence on Carpenter is most obvious here, as John uses color to create a tone and atmosphere. The last act is a funhouse thrill ride, designed to continuously ramp up the tension. Laurie falling down the stairs, running across the streets, knocking on a locked door, trapped in a closet, it’s all escalation of the previous set piece. Bold-faced audience manipulation that works every time. Despite the famous theme music, most of “Halloween’s” score is pulsating synth or pounding piano keys. Myers’ leitmotif, a quivering, rising note, implies his presence even when he’s barely glimpsed. The score is another tool in Carpenter’s box to raise tension and get the audience’s blood pressure up.

Am I reading too much into it? Or is “Halloween” some deep shit? The film is a classic for a reason, a retelling of an urban legend that transcends those roots. The retelling becomes the new standard for the myth, the old routines reinvented continuously throughout the years. Wow, “Halloween,” good movie after all. [9/10]

Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956)

In my journey through the Universal Monsters series, I have encountered many films regarded as bad. “She-Wolf of London” wasn’t terrible, simply mediocre. “The Cat Creeps” and “Jungle Woman” were more boring then deeply awful. But this one is the real deal, guys. I’ve found it. I’ve found the worse Universal Monsters movie. “Curucu, Beast of the Amazon” is that movie.

I knew, going in, that this was more jungle adventure pic then monster movie. The workers at a South American plantation are being killed by a strange creature with bird like talons. Adventurer Rock Dean, the kind of name that only exist in ‘50s adventure flicks, investigates. Tagging along is Dr. Andrea Romar, who is determined to discover the secrets of the local head-hunting tribe.

“Curucu” is padded like crazy. I hope you like scenes of people walking through the rain forest, walking by water falls, riding on boats, and hanging out in huts. Fifty percent of the runtime is spent in huts. When “Curucu” isn’t focusing on people hanging out in the jungle, it’s focused on people talking. Much time is spent observing the local tribesman or talking to the Christian missionary. If imperialism makes you uncomfortable, you’ll want to avoid this one. A lot of dialogue is spent decrying the local beliefs as less then Christian.

John Bromfield is probably the least charismatic actor I’ve seen in one of these things. Beverly Garland, as the doctor and love interest, has more chemistry with a lemur then she does with Bromfield. Garland, who looks lovely by the way, plays a woman who doesn’t get along with men. Can you blame her, when assholes like Rock Dean force kisses on her, insult her, and toss her across the room just to shoot a harmless tarantula? “Curucu” is, truthfully, about traumatizing Garland. She is attacked by alligators, snakes, headhunters, and the title monster. By the end, she’s a bag of nerves. In her confusion, Bromfield kisses her and the camera cuts to the thunderstorm raging outside. Subtle, movie.

The titular beast is one of the more ridiculous monster designs I’ve seen. Curucu is supposes to resemble a parrot but instead looks like some kindergartners got carried away when making a papier-mâché turkey. The monster is still the most interesting part. The best moments involves the monster abducting Garland from her bed. From a POV shot, we see the woman carried through the jungles, the leaves passing over her face. Immediately after this sole redeeming moment, the film makes its biggest mistake. Turns out, the monster is a hoax. Yes, this is a Scooby-Doo mystery. Keep in mind, there’s still half a movie left at this point.

Curt Siodmak wrote and directed this one. It doesn’t represent his best work. The climax involves other characters coming to the protagonists’ rescue. The villain is disposed off-screen. After resolving all storylines, the film drags on for another punishing ten minutes, rolling out any jungle adventure clichés it may have missed. Siodmak did not speak well of the filmmaking experience.

“Curucu, Beast of the Amazon” was shot in color in the actual jungles of Brazil. While Universal made that expense on such an unremarkable screenplay, I don’t know. The film has never received a home video release. The gray market copy I have is in black-and-white, probably recorded from a long ago television broadcast so I can’t even enjoy the color photography. If you’re a serious Beverly Garland fan or an absolute Universal Monster completest, like myself, by all means, seek “Curucu” out. Or, alternatively, don’t. [2/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “‘Til Death

“‘Til Death” is classic “Crypt.” Most of the series’ episodes are variations on a theme. An amoral evildoer plans something malicious, usually motivated by greed. Circumstances intervene to twist their plan around, the villain being punished through their own machinations. Here, the plotter is a slimy land-developer. His plan involves seducing a rich heiress to help bankroll his doomed swampland development. The sting in the scorpion’s tail is a voodoo priestess and her love potion, which works a little too well. Turns out, a love that transcends death isn’t as romantic as it sounds.

“‘Til Death” embraces its comic book roots whole-heartedly. Chris Walas, veteran effects artist whose only other directorial credits are the ill-conceived “The Fly II” and little-seen thriller “The Vagrant,” brings an exaggerated four-color palette to the entire episode. Blues and purples are used especially nicely. Shots like a corpse rising from its grave or a dress slowly sinking into quicksand spring right off the comic page. The script plays the premise for laughs, the rotting corpse bride pursuing her unwilling husband like Lena Hyena. D.W. Moffett plays the main character as cartoonishly sleazy, the kind of guy you’d love to see tortured in blackly comedic ways. Margaret Richardson is pitched at a similar level, flinging silly jokes about breaking nails and ruining dresses with ease. Chris Walas provided his own make-up and it’s excellent, a great example of a rotting zombie. The Crypt Keeper’s bookends are also favorites of mine. By this point, John Kassir has grown into the part fantastically. [7.5/10]


Michael Tatlock said...

Great review of Halloween. One of my top favorite movies.

Bonehead XL said...

I'll be reviewing most of the series this season so stay tuned!

Kernunrex said...

Even Busta Rhymes doing some kung fu on Mike? I feel your pain if so...

Also, Halloween is pretty damned close to a perfect horror movie.

Bonehead XL said...

I've never done a full Halloween retrospective before. I figured it was time.