Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 1, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

October 31st is always a little anticlimactic in my house. We never get many trick r' treaters. It doesn't matter if I dress up first or how much candy I buy. I reprised my costume idea from two years ago, going as the Big Summer Movies of 2013. Even if I couldn't find a "Star Trek" badge or a "Pacific Rim" shirt in time. It ended up not mattering. We had four kids at the door, all in one group. There was some rain later in the evening but there was still plenty of opportunity for kids to visit us. Oh well. I can make my own fun.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

For nearly two Halloween seasons now, I’ve been going on about the influence silent German Expressionism cinema had on the early Universal Monster films. It only seems fair, for the conclusion of 2013’s viewing season, to return to the film that started it all. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” has an obvious, undeniable influence on those early American horror films. It is doubtlessly one of the earliest mad scientist films. Cesare the Somnambulist might be brought to life through the power of hypnotism but he acts much the same as Frankenstein’s Monster. He walks stiffly through the German village, murdering innocents, all at the will of the mad doctor. Most famously, he even abducts a fair young maiden, carrying her off in his arms. I try to resist hyperbole but, fuck it: The classic American horror films would not exist without this movie. The entire genre would have been irrevocably changed without it.

Of course, the main influence “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” had on the word was in its production design. I don’t know what precedence existed for horror in 1919, if any. Robert Wiene and his crew decided to make a movie that would frighten not through blatant shocks or big scares. Instead, every aspect of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is design to put the audience off-balance. Every building and structure of the village setting is at an angle, curving or jutting out diagonally. Doors are twisted slots cut in bent walls. Homes and buildings seem to pile atop each other. Bridges twist up and around. Even the writing in the titles is bent and jagged. It creates a sense of a world out of order. Madness rules over all. Even the scenery has gone insane.

My personal favorite sets are those that make the human form seem unnatural by association. The wrongfully accused man hugs his knees in his cone-shaped jail cell. The triangular room and cramped windows make him seem like a sprite trapped in a frame. Caligari flees down a winding mountain pathway, disappearing into the distance. A police office walks over a bridge, one that twists senselessly around the land. The doctor’s office at the hospital is visually striking. A skeleton dangles from the wall, seeming out of place amidst the warped room. After his insanity grows, Caligari is framed by a pile of books, his face twitching into a mad grin. Silent films couldn’t depend on dialogue. Instead, the themes of the story must manifest in the image. “Cabinet” succeeds fully at this.

Does this ninety-three year old movie still retain any power to scare? The pacing is undeniably creaky. Most of the characters are little more then pawn pieces. Yet “Caligari” has an eerie horror atmosphere all its own. Most of this can be accredited to Conrad Veidt’s performance as Cesare. The Somnambulist is a mime from hell. Every movement is calculated and controlled. He is less a human being and more a moving statue. His earliest appearances bring dread with them. The murder of Alan is still terrifying. Cesare’s shadow is cast huge on the wall. The murderer descends on him, the victim powerlessly to fight him back. There’s something deeply nightmarish about this sequence. It strikes a primal cord. Cesare walking up the slanted building, the innocent girl in his arms, might as well be the film’s ascension in cinema history. Maybe scary isn’t the right word but “Caligari” is still powerfully strange.

The Expressionist movement produced many fantastic films. Yet Robert Wiene was not as good a filmmaker as F. W. Murnau or Paul Wegener. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” comes to a screeching halt in the last fifteen minutes. The story of Cesare is resolved about an hour in. A very long epilogue follows. We learn the origin of Dr. Caligari, how he was once an administrator at an asylum who became obsessed with the pre-existing legend of Caligari. Determined to recreate the story, he went insane himself and was locked up in his own asylum. This, in turn, is revealed to be nothing but a fantasy of the lead characters. Turns out, the whole movie was the deluded ramblings of a crazy man. All of this is laid out for the audience in extended detail. It feels extraneous and only delays the inevitable twist.

A film this surreal is obviously open to interpretation. It’s easy to see how the story of authority figures gone mad with power is interpreted as criticism of the Nazi regime, incorrectly. Or perhaps it was merely an attempt to create a unique film. Success. The film’s influence can be seen all over pop culture, from the films of Tim Burton down to the art stylings of Lady Gaga. A mostly unrelated remake, that maintained nothing but the twist ending, followed in 1962 and another nearly shot-for-shot remake came in 2005. At least that one had the good sense to cast Doug Jones as Cesare. Neither matched the strength of the original, a true classic for all cinema, regardless of genre. Even if the ending is bogus. [8/10] 

Sssssss (1973)

Some people are afraid of snakes. I understand this. Most animals at least have legs, something resembling humans, but not snakes. They have scaly skin, forked tongues, and swallow their food whole. Some can kill with a bite or crush your skull. Aside from spiders and maybe sharks, I don’t think any animal has endured a more disproportional hatred. I like snakes. I like the way they feel, the way they move. They are humble, straight-forward creatures. Despite their reputation, a snake will never lie to you.

“Sssssss,” or “Seven S” as I sometimes call it, is a snakesploitation film I have an unusual amount of affection for. This is probably because it use to air constantly on cable. It was a regular fixture on the old, good Sci-Fi Channel, USA Network, and the HBO of my youth. Re-watching it now, I think I might have responded to the films treatment of snakes. They are not shown as mindless killing machines. For the most part, the animals are depicted accurately. Most of the snakes are harmless while the venomous ones are respected. This is not a monster movie where actual animals are slotted in the spot of villain. The humans are the monster. Or become them.

The plot of “Sssssss” fits in with the early seventies, drive-in/grindhouse market. Strother Martin, previously seen in “Brotherhood of Satan,” is Dr. Stoner, a snake expert. Along with his daughter, Kristina, he runs a snake farm and research center. The prizes of their collection are Harry, a python and beloved pet, and a regal, female King Cobra. Dr. Stoner seems harmless enough but is actually a mad scientist. He begins to inject his new lab assistant (and Kristina’s new boyfriend) with a strange chemical compound. Soon, David’s skin begins to peel and scales grow…

“Seven S” is delightfully kooky in spots. This is mostly due to Strother Martin’s performance. Dr. Stoner has one-sided conversations with Harry the Python. He almost worships the enormous Queen Cobra. He is open about enjoying the company of animals to most people. Martin is a warm, if slightly eccentric, father at first. Slowly, he reveals his sinister side. He murders someone with a Black Mamba, sticks a colleague that has seen too much in a death trap, and feeds someone to Harry’s starved mate. His ultimate end game? Turn a human into a snake. While this is obvious to the viewer early on, the film holds off on revealing exactly why he’s doing this. In a climatic monologue, he reveals his motive, that he considers snakes superior to man, and believes the human race will survive the future if transformed into slithering reptiles. Martin’s best moment as an actor is when he stares down the Queen Cobra, treating the animal like real royalty. The character is obviously insane but Strother never raises his voice, making him all a more effective villain.

There’s some home-made, low budget camp at play here as well. Hunk-of-meat actor Reb Brown, a decade apart from the hilariously low budget action-fest that would make him a dubious cult icon, plays an asshole jock. To show how big of an ass he is, he starts aggressively hitting on Kristina. Dirk Benedict doesn’t like that and a fist fight breaks out. In the film’s most hysterical moment, Benedict leaps onto Reb and starts biting him like a snake. It’s hilarious. Reb shows up later to get killed by a black mamba, prompting him to unconvincingly yell “Oh shit!” Reb’s exaggerate assholery is just one of the film’s silly joys. In order to maintain a PG rating, all the nudity is blocked by out-of-focus foliage or lamps. This is also, probably the only film in history where a mongoose causes a woman to scream in slow-motion agony.

If you’re looking for camp, you’ll find it. However, “Sssssss” is ultimately too effective as a horror film to be laughable. There is something definitely unnerving about the half-formed “snake man” central to the plot. The way he flops his stumped arms and legs and grunts wordlessly is genuinely grotesque. The facial features are human but the body is not, creating an uncanny effect. David’s slow transformation is rather horrifically realized. His skin peels like bad sunburn. His dreams are haunted by psychedelic hell scapes. He writhes on the ground as his innards change. The special effects are a little shaky but the film sells them. As the opening titles tell us, all the snakes are real. Even the ones that look like puppets, like the perpetually poised King Cobra. Seeing actors interact so freely with venomous snakes is liable to make viewers a little nervous.

There’s another reason I love the movie. I had a major crush on Heather Menzies, all because of this movie. She has an infectious girl-next-door charm. Her conversations with Harry the Python are adorable and I love how she treats the snakes with love, not fear. She sports a pair of clunky seventies eye-glasses fantastically, emphasizing her charm and vulnerability. Her romance with Benedict evolves naturally. The skinny dipping scene is played more for innocent cuteness then wanton titillation. Menzies proves a strong scream queen too, properly horrified by the snake man. She’s adorable in “Piranha” too. It’s a bummer she’s retired from acting. I blame Robert Urich.

I also have a soft spot for horror films set at carnivals. The carnival here is delightfully sleazy. Where burlesque tents with disproportionally attractive dancing girls that sidelined as prostitutes a common feature at carnivals back in the day? I seem to remember a similar scene in “The Funhouse.” Anyway, “Seven S” is a favorite of mine I return to quite frequently. There’s little reason to love it but I do anyway. [8/10]

The Prowler (1981)

The slasher is probably the most derided of any horror type. People criticize the films are formulaic, gore-for-gore’s sake, mindless, or even misogynistic. These things are sometimes true, yes. Which isn’t to say that a satisfying, suspenseful, well made film can’t be made within those outlines. “The Prowler” is one of the best examples of the subgenre.

How much does “The Prowler” fit the traditional outlines? It opens with a crime in the past. After his girlfriend breaks up with him via a Dear John letter, a just-returned World War II veteran murders the girl and her new lover with a pitchfork. On what night did the deaths take place? The night of the big graduation party. Thirty five years later, the New Jersey town of Avalon Bay is having a graduation party for the first time since that night. Naturally, this event inflames the still-living killer’s rage, forcing him to kill again. Just to go down the list, that’s a crime in the past, a special holiday event, an anniversary of a crime, and a killer in both a mask and with not one, but two!, trademark weapons. On the surface, “The Prowler” is about as typical as it gets.

The story is not what makes “The Prowler” special. Instead of being shot in some dark forest or other, uninteresting isolated location, “The Prowler” was lensed in New Jersey’s historical district. This gives the film a unique look, the old Victorian buildings adding a certain gravitas to the proceedings. Joseph Zito’s direction is equally handsome. The nights are made up of contrasting blues and blacks. Zito frequently employs less then typical shots, like a long sequence reflected in a mirror. My favorite bit is when the girls getting ready for the dance are cut with and contrasted against the killer preparing his weapons and outfits. “The Prowler” might just be the prettiest slasher ever made. It’s certainly far more polished then must of the output of the time.

The film is also, perhaps, the goriest film of the first wave of American slashers. Tom Savini declared it his best work. It very well might be. Pitchforks are dug into backs, a large puddle of blood oozing from the victims. An eighteen inch long bayonet is shoved all the way through a victim’s head, his eyes rolling back until they’re completely white. “The Prowler” one-ups “Psycho” by the having the naked, bathing beauty nailed to the wall with a pitchfork. Savini marches out his trademark of exploding a fake head with a real shotgun fantastically. The bayonet is, earlier, shoved directly into a woman’s jugular, blood spurting from the wound, her shoes painted red. All of these are fantastic. Yet no kill is more impressive then the girl with the slit throat in the swimming pool. Sorry, did I say “slit?” “Embedded” is more likely. The villain saws her neck open until he hits bone. The latex stretches and tears, torrent after torrent of corn syrup flooding the pool. It’s extended, brutal, and borderline pornographic. I love it.

Buckets load of blood and gore are fine and dandy. “The Prowler” backs it up by generating actual suspense. A scene where the heroine is delayed by the creepy old man works well. The girl being unaware of the killer in the same room is another potential cliché enlivened by excellent execution here. The sudden surprise of a corpse in a fireplace or discovery of a fresh body in a casket jolts nicely. Most slashers have a long chase scene between final girl and killer. The one presented here stands above the rest. Final girl Pam enters a room of old furniture covered with white clothes. Hiding under a table, she watches helplessly as the killer tears the room apart, flipping tables and smashing things. Even when a big ass rat crawls through her hair, she remains silent. The same year’s “Friday the 13th Part II” featured a similar sequence but this one is far more effective. This is how you do it, kids.

About the only thing that doesn’t work about “The Prowler” is its cast. The film earns points for not featuring the typical horny teenagers. Instead, the hero is a deputy police officer, his girlfriend spunky and strong. The middle chapter of the film is composed of them sleuthing out the mystery, investigating graveyards and old homes. The boyfriend trying to convince the girl to stay behind add some character. Also among the cast: Horny college students. Most of the victims are just random by-standers. I suppose it’s fair to develop the central duo while filling the body count with minor characters. Vicky Dawson is likable enough as the final girl but Christopher Goutman, looking all the world like a young William Fichtner, is too blandly heroic to register. The film also makes the mistake of wasting Lawrence Tierney, sticking him in a speechless, undefined “creepy old man” part and not even giving him the dignity of a death scene.

The killer’s military garb gives him a distinctive look. His habit of leaving roses with his victims gives him personality. I enjoy the bizarre comic relief scene involving a lazy hotel clerk. The last jump scare is totally bogus but effective all the same. “The Prowler” is one of my top slasher picks, fantastically gory, beautifully shot, well structured and paced. I’d rank it above “The Burning” but just below “My Bloody Valentine.” [7/10]

Ghostwatch (1992)

Most horror fans, including my fellow Six Weekers, have one movie they watch every Halloween. Some pick “Halloween” or “Trick r’ Treat.” Casual fans go with “The Great Pumpkin” or “Rocky Horror.”  I’ve never been one to watch the same thing every year. Well, guys, I think I might have found my yearly Halloween favorite. It’s “Ghostwatch,” the notorious BBC Halloween special from 1992.

Notorious in what way? Imagine in the early nineties, long before reality television was established as a format, ABC took cameras inside of a real haunted house. Imagine established television personalities like Diane Sawyer, Alex Trebek, or Dave Coulier were involved in the program. What if seemingly genuine ghostly activity was caught on camera? What if things went terribly wrong? And what if it was all presented as 100% true? “Ghostwatch” did something much like that, involving recognizable BBC personalities in a convincing recreation of a haunting. It wasn’t real, of course. Any one who noticed the opening and ending credits probably could have realized that. But tell that to the frightened, fooled television audience. People called in amass, complaining. Most tragically, an autistic child, taken in by the program, killed himself from the trauma. “Ghostwatch” was never aired again.

The effectiveness of a program like “Ghostwatch” is dependent totally on how believable it is. Getting the most trusted newscaster in the world to go along with the prank wouldn’t matter if the whole could be laughed off as a gag. Luckily, “Ghostwatch” is committed totally to verisimilitude. The structure of the film is calculated to appear as realistic as possible. The rhythm of any live television documentary is matched perfectly. The live feed of the family inside the house is cut back and forth with banal interviews with experts or previously recorded ghost stories. The mindless chit-chat between the hosts match the tone. This sets up the precedence of reality.

The freakiness of the unspooling events slowly escalates. “Ghostwatch” is, if nothing else, an exercise in deliberate pacing. The film drawls from documented poltergeist phenomena. The opening features children awoken in their bed by banging on the walls. We see the pictures of the oldest sister covered with cuts. A mysterious wet spot appears on the carpet, perfectly circular. Photographs fly off the wall. The temperature in their bedroom drops. Video becomes distorted and slowed down. A stuffed bunny is found floating, eyeless, in the sink. The sound of cats crying overwhelms the dialogue. This all leads up to the film’s most frightening moment. The boards on the crawlspace door are pulled off. The door slowly opens on its own accord. The audience catches a brief glimpse of Pipes before the camera cuts away. “Ghostwatch” isn’t over after that, about ten minutes left to go, but the film obviously peaks in that moment.

Have I mentioned Pipes? The central villain of “Ghostwatch” is a ghostly apparition of a balding man in a gray dress, his eyes and face scratched out. The ghost is never seen clearly, only in shadows or brief flashes. Some of these are very quick. The camera pans around the room, the spirit standing next to the girl’s window. Panning back quickly, he’s gone. Others are completely subliminal. He is briefly glimpsed in reflections or the background. “Ghostwatch” manages to build up an impressive mythology behind its villain over a series of three phone calls. A supposedly live caller rings in, discussing the haunted history of the area. We learn a baby farmer drowned infants in that house. Later on, in a sobering monologue, a different caller relates the history of the home’s previous tenant. Normally, I’d be against a character just talking about the story’s background. However, like Robert Shaw in “Jaws,” sometimes the camera just needs to stop and listen. The way Pipes is handled, right down to the video distortion, makes me wonder if the guys behind “Marble Hornets” had ever seen “Ghostwatch.”

“Ghostwatch” has something else in common with Slendy too. The fourth wall will not protect you. Being presented as true, the increasingly concerned callers were presumed to be real people as well. Viewers from all over the country report strange poltergeist activity. Without spoiling too much, the program suggests that, after Pipes and his nasty supernatural cronies are done ruining the Early’s lives, they’re coming for you. A lot of fiction attempts to yank the carpet out from under the viewer. Most come of as horribly hokey. “Ghostwatch” is presented so realistically, its program so convincingly spooky, you buy. I’ll probably leave the hallway lights on tonight…

It does take a patient viewer to enjoy “Ghostwatch.” When Michael Parkinson and Dr. Lin Pascoe are looking at warped spoons, you’ll be forgiven if your attention wanders. Similarly, a subplot involving a skeptical scientist in New York doesn’t pay off much. The acting from Brid Brennan, as the oldest Early daughter, is a bit ropey at times. However, it’s very easy to see why this program freaked people out. Still obscure in the States, “Ghostwatch” definitely deserves to be more widely seen. It’s a shame “reality” TV ghost hunting shows, found footage films, and YouTube video hoaxes have made a similar experiment impossible. No one would buy “Ghostwatch” at face value today. Watching it on Halloween night, during the witching hour no less, I found myself believing. Just for a minute anyway. [9/10]

The Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon is always crazy for me. I go into September super excited and ready. Half-way through October, I'm feeling a little fatigue. Usually, I come around before the end, ending the season just as excited as I was to begin with. That's how it's been in years pass, that's how it was this year. Real life threw some wrenches at me this month and, when I fell behind a few days, I didn't know if I'd ever catch up. But I did. Thank the spirits. I made it.

How did 2013's festivities measure up to last years? Last year, even with the hurricane, my watch total was 120 things. This year, amazingly, I surpassed that record, with a total watch number of 123. Don't be too impressed. Last year's total was made up of 103 movies, 14 television episodes, and 3 short films. This year's tally was formed by 80 films, 37 television episodes, and 6 short films. Still, looking back on what I accomplished this month, I'm pleased. I finished my Universal Monsters Mega-thon. I attended a horror convention. I worked my way through the first two seasons of "Tales from the Crypt" and the first season of "So Weird." I browsed some short films. I walked through a haunted house and carved jack o' lanterns. In between all that, I still found time to revisit movies I love and learn to love ones I had never seen before. Good deal. November may now start, the ghouls, pumpkins, and skellingtons put away for another year. The spirits are satisfied and so am I.

Count Pumpkula is at rest.

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