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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 9

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

“The Deadly Mantis” has a fantastic opening. The camera pans along a map of the world, stopping on a tiny island in the Arctic. The focus is kept there for nearly a minute before a dramatic explosion engulfs the screen, shattering the silence. As the titles come up, we see the titular giant mantis frozen in an iceberg, slowly melting from the volcanic heat. Sticking to the story structure laid out by “Them!,” Arctic military instillations and airplanes are attacked by a strange force, preceded by a thunderous buzzing sound. Giant footprints and an enormous leg spur are found at the crash site, drawling the attention of Colonel Joe Parkman, natural history scientist Dr. Nedrick Jackson, and magazine editor Marge Blaine.

Aside from the brief glimpse during the credits, “The Deadly Mantis” holds off on revealing its titular monster. Ned, Marge, and other scientist study the mysterious, giant shell, determining the creature of origin. They throw out a lot of science concerning giant dragonflies before quickly determining that a giant, dare I say even deadly, mantis is behind the attacks.

After this, “The Deadly Mantis” kicks into gear. In contrast with “Tarantula,” the giant bug action here is excellent. Though the first attack on an Inuit village is filled with stock-footage, the giant insect crushing a man under some wood is intense and memorable. The Mantis attacks a military instillation, fought off with flame thrower and machine gun, the soldiers blown away by its' huge wings. An atmospheric, fog-filled assault on an Arlington bus is probably the scariest moment in the film. The buzzing the creature’s wings create is used well, especially when the monster climbs the Washington Monument. The mantis flies towards the structure, the audio going silent for a moment, before the stone shakes. It should be noted that the Washington sequence is the only time a normal sized mantis is placed on small sets. The rest of the time the Deadly Mantis is brought to life through a detailed puppet. While the puppet used on “Tarantula” didn’t resemble the actual animal much, the Deadly Mantis is realistic enough not to confound audiences while still being stylized enough to appeal to monster fans. I especially like its dome eyes and clutching mouth. The static model used whenever the mantis flies is less convincing and a firefight with a squadron of jets is one of the film’s lesser moments.

The bug stuff is great. The rest of “The Deadly Mantis” is… Eeh. The screenplay does something odd, stopping the story to drop droll, documentary segments on Distant Early Warning Line and Continental Air Defense Command. I guess this is more natural then having a character drop some exposition though it’s certainly no smoother. The characters in the film aren’t bad. I actually rather like the dialogue between William Hopper’s Dr. Ned and Alix Talton’s Marge. Splitting the protagonist duties between Ned and Craig Stevens’ more typically heroic Col. Parkman is problematic, if only because Ned is far more interesting. The romance between Joe and Marge is fine, there’s even a cute scene between them in a car, but it feels very functionary. Unlike “Tarantula,” “The Deadly Mantis” has a global view, the whole country threatened by the big bug. I don’t mind that but it does leave less time to develop our heroes.

I keep bringing up “Tarantula” but the two films play like companions. (Maybe Universal should have brought John Agar back and made this the second entry in the “Matt Hastings: Bug Hunter” series…)  Both feature a scene where the giant bug hangs outside a window for a while, the female lead somehow not noticing for several minutes. Both have underwhelming climaxes. In both films, the military is responsible for ending the threat, destroying the bug through mundane means. The Tarantula is set ablaze with napalm. The Mantis is put down with poisonous gas. “The Black Scorpion,” “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” and most of the Toho flicks at least cooked up some wacky sci-fi device to kill the beast. Though “The Deadly Mantis” has the good nature to put its hero directly in the monster’s line.

While the Mantis looks cool, it certainly doesn’t have the personality of any of the classic monsters. I miss empathetic monsters. Still, big bug fans will surely find plenty to like, even if I’d rank this below “The Black Scorpion,” (slightly) below “Tarantula,” and way below “Them!” (Though far above “The Beginning of the End” or “Monster from Green Hell.”) [6/10]

Halloween II (1981)

“Halloween II” is a slasher sequel held in high regard by the fandom that I’ve never been crazy about. Back when AMC was going from a channel that showed older films, unedited and commercial-free, to a channel that showed newer films, cut for content and to squeeze in as many commercials as possible; “Halloween II” was in heavy rotation. The film never impressed and always played like a pale shadow of the original. Of course, I held “Friday the 13th Part II” in similar regard, which I sort-of-kind-of reevaluated. So why not Michael Myers' second outing?

There’s a certain verisimilitude to the premise that’s admirable. “Halloween II” picks up right where the first film ended, on Halloween night, 1978. The film occasionally dips its toes into a realistic tone. Laurie’s injuries and traumatized state are treated logically. Haddonfield’s reaction to the murders is interesting. News of the killings line every TV and radio, with photographers and reporters buzzing around the survivors. The townfolks stoning the old Myers house is interesting as well.

However, any attempts at realism are often sacrificed for clichés. “Halloween II” came out during the slasher boom that followed the original. If any film could have resisted the conventions of the genre, or at least invented new ones, it would have been the progenitor's sequel. Instead, “Halloween II’ gleefully conforms. The hospital is surprisingly empty, like a summer camp I could name. Cars won’t start when needed. At least there’s a reason for that, though when Michael Myers had time to slash every tire in the parking lot, I don’t know. Maybe he did that around the same time he cut the phone lines? The spring-loaded cat and fake-out jump-scares are present and accounted for. Myers embodies the slow moving killer in this entry, allowing his would-be victim plenty of time to escape. After Michael is seemingly knocked dead, some idiot leans over the body, allowing the killer to spring back up and kill the asshole. By far the biggest slasher cliché “Halloween II” practices is a larger cast, filled with indistinct victims that serve no purpose other then to up the body count. Is the Shape stabbing a truly random teenager to death or murdering folks with the claw-end of a hammer out of character? Maybe, maybe not. But it sure doesn’t feel natural.

The most unnatural move of the entire film is Laurie Strode being revealed as Michael Myers’ long lost little sister. Carpenter, who co-wrote the script, has admitted to pulling that story turn out of his ass. It inadvertently set up most of the other sequels. Like making Regan MacNeil a magical healer in “Exorcist II,” it robs the first film of its frightening randomness. Michael Myers is no longer a roving, destructive force of nature. Now he has an agenda. Worse yet, it’s a totally unneeded development. The killer continuing to stalk his surviving victim from the first film wasn’t motivation enough? There are many things I dislike about “Halloween: The Franchise,” but that reoccurring plot line is definitely the thing I most hate.

Rick Rosenthal is no John Carpenter. He employs Carpenter’s tracking shots a few time but always in service of a POV. Rosenthal does away completely with John’s color palette. This October night is black, with none of those cool blues. His scene presentation is frequently flat. Rosenthal’s talent instead lies in striking near-still photography. His best moments are when the camera stops to focus on an eerie, empty frame. A hospital door slowly blowing open, a slow pan up a knife stuck in a desk, a body lying in a pool of blood, light cast into the dark room through the crack door. No, Rosenthal isn’t Carpenter, not by a long shot, but he does show some talent.

The first film didn’t leave much room for returning cast members. During this phase of her career, Jamie Lee Curtis probably couldn’t say no. Yet her disinterest is fairly evident. Laurie Strode spends the majority of “Halloween II” lying in bed, asleep or nearly asleep. She still has that spirit to survive but there’s little life behind Curtis’ eyes. This is truly Donald Pleasence’s show. Dr. Loomis is far more unhinged this time, shouting and screaming, pulling guns on people. It’s the first suggestion of the doctor being as dangerous as his patient, especially since he’s indirectly responsible for two innocent people dying. Pleasence’s early scenes with Charles Cyphers are oddly funny, making me imagine the two in a wacky buddy cop movie. Donald even gets another monologue that nearly rivals the “Blackest Eyes” speech, a backseat discussion about Celtic rituals and humanity’s inner darkness. Is it any wonder that Pleasence’s increasingly sloppy drunk performances would become the best thing about the further sequels?

The new additions don’t make as much of an impression. Lance Guest is flat as the guy who develops romantic feelings for Laurie for no particular reason. Leo Rossi plays the traditional slasher movie asshole, a vulgar, abrasive ambulance driver named Budd. Pamela Susan Shoop is incredibly beautiful as his girlfriend. Some review I read years ago described her as having “perfect breasts” and I can’t say I disagree. As for the rest of the new cast? Generic slasher fodder. The drunk doctor, the tough black nurse, the other nurse, the other other nurse, that’s as much character development as you get.

As “Halloween II” goes on, it starts to win me over. The movie toys seriously with killing Laurie off, which makes her constant peril in the second half more involving. Myers slowly appearing behind a victim and sticking her with a needle, though blatantly derivative of the first film, works just as well. A car horn or a door that won’t open raise the stakes nicely, our heroine coming close to being caught. Michael Myers isn’t Jason so I’ve never liked his creative kills but, I have to admit, lifting a victim up with a blade? That shit’s cool. Yeah, there’s a loud musical sting whenever the killer jumps out. Yeah, Laurie shows amazing accuracy for someone who’s probably never handled a gun before. As much as it pains me to say it, “Halloween II” delivers on the scares, belabored and engineered though they might be.

“Halloween II” is probably as good as a sequel that starts with a continuity error can be. It’s unnecessary and I take issue with many of its stylistic and story decisions. But compared to what came after? Yeah, I’ll take it. Should “Halloween” have ever been a series? No, probably not. But I’ll take it anyway. [6.5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “The Thing from the Grave

Nobody could ever mistake “Tales from the Crypt” for pretentious. It’s about as upfront as pulp can be. No episode is more blatant about its comic book roots then “The Thing from the Grave,” maybe the entry most representative of the show’s mission statement. A perfectly cast Miguel Ferrier plays an abusive, possessive dickhole determined to control every aspect of his model girlfriend’s life. When a quasi-nerdy photographer provides some much needed comfort, Miguel takes it badly. Badly in a way that involves handcuffs, a handgun, and a freshly dug grave. As per the course with “Crypt,” fate and magic intervenes, dealing out cruelty to those who are cruel. And zombies. Don’t forget the zombie.

Ferrier is sleazy and manipulative, dealing out meaty dialogue like a film noir villain. The whole episode trades in noir imagery. Trench coats, black gloves, .44s, spinning ceiling fans, a beautiful dame, and hardboiled dialogue put in due appearances. The noir influence extends to the story presentation, which makes use of flashbacks and nonlinear plotting. Like the best “Crypt” episodes, the comic book roots are up on the screen, the colors just right, the darks cool and blue, the brights red and passionate. No surprise that the show nails the look so well, since it was directed by noted genre enthusiast Fred Dekker. Dekker would write several episodes but this was the only one he directed. It’s a shame too, as Dekker’s direction is stylish and appropriate. I especially like the Raimi-esque shovel-o-vision. And if you’re looking for exploitation, this one has that covered too, with peak-hotness Teri Hatcher in a skimpy swimsuit and a worm-eyed zombie. Another great episode from season two’s winning streak. [8/10]

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