Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Perfect pumpkin pyramid.

Halloween falling on a Friday this year messed up the holiday for a lot of people. For people who like to both go to parties and stay in and watch movies, it forced them to make a choice. In my small redneck town, and many others I suspect, trick or treating was postponed until November 1st. Why? Because a stupid high school football game was tonight. If a football game fell on Christmas, you’d move the fucking game, not the holiday. So I guess I’ll dress up and hand out candy tomorrow, on the day when the radio stations start playing the same seven Christmas songs on a 24-hour loop.

My humble Jack o'Lantern
This was frustrating but I wasn’t going to let it ruin my Halloween. I carved pumpkins, the ones plucked from my own garden. None of them got very big and, I’ll say, smaller pumpkins are trickier to carve. Those mothers are dense. Still, it was fun. I’ve been partaking of candy and seasonal beverages all day. And, of course, I’ve been watching horror movies. On special events like these, when the rest of the world doesn’t play along, you have to make your own traditions.

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985)

Ever since watching “A Garfield Christmas Special” last December, I’ve been interested in revisiting the fat cat’s corresponding Halloween special, originally aired as “Garfield in Disguise” but known as “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” ever since. While the Christmas special was one I had on tape as a kid, and watched incessantly, the Halloween special has never been a nostalgic favorite for me. Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure I ever saw “Garfield in Disguise” as a kid. If there was ever a day to revisit a Halloween special, today would be the day.

The half-hour one-off begins with Garfield snoozing soundly in his bed, as the tubby tabby is prone to. Awoken by an obnoxious announcement from Binky the Clown, the cat suddenly realizes its Halloween. Garfield has no interest in the holiday until, ever the glutton, he realizes it’s a night to load up on candy and sugary treats. Pillaging Jon’s attic for a cheap pirate costume, Garfield heads out with Odie, realizing the dog would get him a second bag of candy. While on the hunt for chocolate, the pets stumble into a local legend of ghostly pirates and hidden treasure.

Garfiled is a childhood favorite I have trouble justifying these days. Knowing now that Jim Davies invented the character to have as wide a demographic appeal as possible, you see what a blatant, pandering creation he is. His generic ‘tude, his affinity for napping and lasagna, his sarcastic call-backs to his owner’s cluelessness; all is extremely calculated. The fat cat’s reaction to Halloween is counter-wise to my own. He sees the day only as an excuse to get even fatter on candy. He has no respect for the lore, mystery, or feel of the day. Of course, Garfield learns his lesson but, because this is a kid’s show, he still goes home with a fat sack of candy. Kind of negates the moral, doesn’t it?

People do like “Garfield in Disguise” though. It even won an Emmy! A recent interview revealed that the special was made with a far more noble goal in mind then most usual “Garfield” merchandise: To scare the shit out of kids. On their search for candy, the two pets climb onto a boat and float over to a strange house. There, an old man tells them a story. In a probably unintentional reference to “The Fog,” he talks about how a hundred years ago, a group of pirates buried their loot here before passing on. And now, their spirits will return. The old man flees, stealing the animal’s boat. (One of the episode’s few truly funny gags.) The two hide, convinced there aren’t any ghosts… Until the spectral pirates pull themselves from their watery graves. They spin around the room, spooking the critters, before grabbing their gold and leaving. The animation here is the best in the special, the ghost moving in a very fluid manner. It’s never scary, not to an adult’s eyes, but it is a little spooky, enough so to elevate the entire special.

“Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” is short on laughs. Jon plays a very small role in the story, meaning there’s not much interaction between the pet and his owner, the main source of humor in “A Garfield Christmas Special.” Lorenzo Music’s spectacularly dry delivery helps a lot though. The special is badly hampered by a number of distracting, forgettable musical numbers. The Lou Rawls opening number isn’t too bad and I’ll admit to liking the animation during Garfield’s “What Should I Be” song. However, the rest of the songs are forgettable, if not out right bad. They really drag down the pacing, especially in the first half of the special.

Really, if it wasn’t for the ghost pirates, I don’t think anyone would remember “Garfield in Disguise” at all. The musical style wasn’t a good approach for a series built around a character making pithy comebacks. Still, I bet this made an impression on young viewers. I, personally, remember the vampire episode of “Garfield and Friends” more. Maybe I should track down a copy of that for next Halloween. [5/10]

The Tingler (1959)

Another way in which this year’s Six Weeks of Halloween has been deficient for me: Not enough Vincent Price! And not a single William Castle movie. Price has long been the face of Halloween for me and “The Tingler,” which so perfectly combines many of the things I love about the genre, is just the right movie for October 31st. The movie is probably best remembered today for the outrageous gimmick Castle designed for it. When the Tingler is freed in a movie theater during the film, buzzers in random seats throughout the theater (along with a few likely plants) would activate, roughly simulating the creature’s bite. Beyond its fantastic gimmick, “The Tingler” remains one of William Castle’s best films.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist studying the effect fear has on the human body. While autopsying bodies over the years, he’s noticed that people who have died in intense fear frequently have cracked spines. He and his science partner, the fiancé of his wife’s much younger sister, have named the sensation the Tingler. The only thing known to dilute the sensation is the act of screaming. A friend of Chapin, the owner of a silent theater, murders his deaf-mute wife by frightening her to death. This provides Warren with a fresh specimen of the Tingler, which is actually a physical creature that grows on the spine when humans are frightened. It’s only a matter of time before the crawling creature gets loose, paralyzing people with its vice-like jaws.

“The Tingler” might be the perfect horror movie for 1959, the end of the classic era. It has aspects of the campy sci-fi monster movies that characterized the fifties. Simultaneously, its infidelity, murder, betrayal, moral ambiguity, and on-screen acid trip points to the directions horror would evolve in during the next decade. The central premise of “The Tingler” is patently absurd. That a nasty centipede-y critter grows on our spines when we’re scared, and that only screaming can control it, is the kind of goofy 1950s movie-science that doesn’t even pretend to have a basis in reality. Once the Tingler is revealed on-screen, it’s a floppy rubber prop. The creature is tugged around on a frequently-visible fishing wire and never appears convincingly alive. The Tingler is just small enough that the movie has to cook up incidents where it can be a threat. The critter attacks Price while he sleeps or surprises people in a dark movie theater. The movie’s premise is fun in the kind of improbable way that only flicks from this era can pull off.

Despite a set-up that can best be described as “lovably silly,” “The Tingler” does feature some legitimately creepy moments. The movie is notable for containing the first acid trip ever put to film. Hoping to experience true fear, Chapin takes an experimental drug his young college gives him. Though never identified as such, Price just dropped acid. And he’s on a very bad trip. Though Price’s sweaty, shouting performance is hammy, the sequence is effective. The best moment is when he stumbles into the lab skeleton and really starts to freak out. As stand-out as that scene is, “The Tingler” features an even better bad trip of sorts. While alone in her room, the doors and windows slam shut around the theater owner’s deaf-mute wife. A figure rises from the bed, obscured by the sheet. She pulls the sheet away, revealing a hideous deformed man. Hairy hands reach through windows, tossing axes. The deaf-mute woman, unable to scream, has to express her terror facially. The sequence, aside from music, is silent, providing an eerie feel to the potentially hokey effects. The scene climaxes when Martha enters the bathroom. The film is in black-and-white except for this moment, when bright red blood flows from the sink and fills the bathtub. A severed arm, dripping with blood, beckons from the tub. The scene is surprisingly freaky and the movie never surpasses it.

Another interesting aspect to “The Tingler” is Price’s character. Unlike his previous collaboration with Castle, Price plays the hero of “The Tingler.” Chapin discovers the Tingler, learns how to stop it, and helps those around him. He’s a generally good guy. Save for one attribute. Chapin is so devoted to science that he has alienated his philandering wife. Every night, she is out with a different man and makes no secret of this. She’s also the owner of the family fortune. She refuses to allow her sister to marry Warren’s poor lab assistant too. Midway through the film, Chapin pulls a revolver on his wife, seemingly having had enough. He interrogates the woman, locks her in his lab, and pulls the trigger. Quickly, the film reveals that the gun was filled with blanks and all of this was a gambit designed to merely frighten her. Still, it makes you question Chapin’s motive. Enough that you wonder if he intentionally drugs Martha with LSD, leading to her death, though the film never confirms this. It’s a good part for the ever-likable Price and shows off his range some.

My favorite moment in “The Tingler” is not the scariest one. However, it might be the most interesting. A deaf-mute woman running a silent movie theater is a nice touch to begin with. It also, rather blatantly, sets up the finale. The Tingler is left in the apartment above the theater when, accidentally, it’s let loose. The creature waddles its way into the auditorium, biting a woman on the leg. The film focuses on the movie playing on-screen in the theater. The screen goes black. Price’s voice comes over the loud speaker, assuring the audience there’s nothing to be afraid of. The Tingler then wiggles into the projection booth, crawling over the projector. Again, Castle’s camera focus on the theatrical screen. The film breaks, the silhouette of the Tingler squirming across the screen. Price speaks again, instructing us to scream for our lives. Imagine watching this in a theater in 1959. Castle’s “Percepto” gimmick of joy-buzzer infused seats was almost unnecessary. In this moment, the movie brilliantly breaks the fourth wall. The Tingler is suddenly in the theater, your theater, and could attack anyway. This makes it clear how smart Castle was, how aware he was of the power of the screen and the affect it has on the audience. Way before “The Blair Witch Project” convinced people it was real, William Castle had perfected the art of breaking fiction’s promise of safety.

“The Tingler” is a blast, from beginning to end. It’s a good time for fans of Price and Castle. Anyone who loves fifties monster movies should have already seen it. More importantly, the movie has some really interesting thoughts about the audience’s relationship with the screen. The movie scared the crap out of people in 1959. It probably wouldn’t do the same today but I wonder if a similar experiment could be successful under different conditions. Are audiences too sophisticated to be fooled again? Or can would the Tingler’s bite still make them scream, scream for their lives? [8/10]

Island of Terror (1966)

“Island of Terror” is a film I’ve heard about for quite some time. It was one of the few pairings of director Terence Fisher and leading man Peter Cushing to be made outside Hammer Studios. Heck, it wasn’t even an Amicus production! After reading about the film on the AV Club’s annual horror marathon list, my curiosity ran too high. It was time to track down a copy of “Island of Terror” and give it a watch. (Also, I wanted a transitional film from the quint horror of “The Tingler” to the nastier gore of the next movie I planned to watch tonight. This seemed to fit the bill.)

Set on Petrie’s Island, a tiny island off the coast of Ireland, “Island of Terror” begins when strange dead bodies begin to disrupt the small community. If you could call them “bodies.” They’re nothing but piles of flesh, their bones removed and sucked dry of their fluids. Three scientists, two old pros and a young hot shot (and his girlfriend, who insisted on coming along), fly in to investigate. They soon discover the Silicates, marrow-sucking organisms accidentally created in a bid to end cancer. Most frighteningly, the Silicates divide like cells hourly. Unless they’re stopped soon, the monsters will devour everyone on the island. Unfortunately, the Silicates are near impossible to kill.

Those nasty monsters are, no doubt, the most memorable thing about “Island of Terror.” They’re not quite like any other monster put to screen, vampiric critters half-way between the Blob and the Triffids. The Silicates are bright green, resembling moss, but move around like giant amoebas. The movie skirts against comedy, since the Silicates are so slow-moving, that they should be easy to avoid. The script has to give them impenetrable armor and a quickly multiplying life cycle to make them creditable threats. (Also, they appear to bleed chicken noodle soup whenever they divide.) However, the method in which the Silicates devour their victims is truly nightmarish. Long tentacles, topped off with barbed suckers, emerges from their bodies. The appendages need only grasp an arm or leg before they start to feed. With an awful sound that best resembles a straw sucking at the bottom of a milk shake, they suck their victims dry. The deflated, bloody bodies left behind are not a pretty sight. The process seems agonizingly painful. As far as horror movie deaths go, having my innards slowly sucked out by slimy monsters would definitely be the one I’d least like to experience.

The Silicates are convincing special effects, even if they slightly resemble vacuum cleaners. The movie makes the most of the slimy monsters. An early attack scene has a major character falling to the creature’s grasp, the man being sucked dry just off-screen. A suspenseful moment has Peter Cushing’s arm being snared. Writhing in agony, his friend has to cut his arm off to save him. Though the act is kept off-screen, I sure didn’t expect the movie to go there. The finale has all the island’s survivors gathered in a tavern. The Silicates fight their way in, their tentacles dragging across the glass, and falling through the overhead windows onto unsuspecting victims. It’s a surprisingly tense scene, recalling “Night of the Living Dead” and other siege pictures. It’s a bit of a bummer when the heroes crazy plan begins to work, the Silicates expiring just in time. That feels a little like a cheat.

“Island of Terror’ also boasts a likable cast of characters. Peter Cushing is as solid as ever. Like his Van Helsing, he remains scientific and focused even in the face of terror. After he looses his hand near the end, I like his anecdote about phantom pain. Edward Judd plays Dr. David West. His introduction reveals this as a movie from 1966. He is seen in the morning with Toni, a beautiful young woman who is wearing nothing but an oversized T-shirt. The two trade some double entendre laced dialogue before the other scientists walk in, interrupting the love-making that surely was about to happen. A funny dialogue exchange happens, before the quartet gets on a plane, where Toni makes it clear she intends to finish what she started. Carole Grey is lovely to look at in the part and is quite a bit more likable then your usual screaming damsel. The movie also loads its supporting cast with likable Irish actors, their accents adding a lot of color to film.

“Island of Terror” also ends on a chilling note. A Japanese scientist, miles away from where the rest of the film happened, enters a laboratory. From off-screen, we hear him scream, followed by the hellish sound of the Silicates feeding. Creepy. “Island of Terror” isn’t quite good enough to be a forgotten classic but the film does have unique monsters and a likable cast doing their thing. For people who have seen everything Hammer and Amicus have to offer, but want more of Fisher and Cushing working together, give it a look. [7/10]

The Burning (1981)

Hey man, it’s just not Halloween without a slasher flick. Last year, I watched “The Prowler,” my vote for best eighties slasher ever, at least outside the big franchises. That movie featured spectacular gore effects from Tom Savini. In 1981, the first wave of American slasher was still going strong, so Savini was busy. Like that film, he also contributed effects to “The Burning,” another flick dismissed by the mainstream as sleazy, cheesy trash but beloved and well-regarded by the hardcore retro-slasher crowd.

“The Burning” follows the slasher playbook fairly closely. It begins with a crime in the past. At a summer camp, the kids pull a prank on the surly groundskeeper Cropsy. The prank goes horribly wrong, resulting in Cropsy being burnt to a crisp. Five years later, the hideously deformed Cropsy gets out of the burn ward. Vengeance on his mind, he returns to the summer camp, seeking the same kids, who are now teenagers. His trusty hedge-clippers in hand, Cropsy goes to work slashing and cutting through anyone in his way, onward to his intended targets.

One of the things that add an extra layer to “The Burning” and makes it special is that the film is based on a real life urban legend. Like every summer camp eighties slasher flick, the movie is set in the Hudson River valley. In that area, at real summer camps, kids have been terrified for decades by the legend of the Cropsey Maniac. Though the details tend to vary from location to location, the consistency with Cropsy is that he’s in the forest, he’s mad, and he’ll kill anyone he catches. It’s a legend designed to keep kids in their cabin at night. With this in mind, “The Burning” is told like a camp fire story. (“Camp Fire” would have been a good alternate title for the movie.) The film acknowledges this connection by featuring a camp fire scene in which the story of Cropsy, as shown earlier in the movie, is told. It’s an effectively creepy moment, focused on the faces of the actors and the shadows around them. At the very end, the movie reprises it, suggesting that Cropsy may be dead but his legend will live on. “The Burning” isn’t even the only movie inspired by the Cropsy legend. The less-polished-but-nearly-as-good “Madman” from the next year built upon the same lore. (There was also that muddled documentary but we don’t talk about it.)

Something that elevates “The Burning” above the many other slashers that came before and after is its sense of location. Unlike most of the “Friday the 13th” flicks, this summer camp is in season. The kids and counselors mingle, their relationships being both friendly and antagonistic. The characters in “The Burning” aren’t much more defined then your usual slasher bait. Most of the guys, like bully Glazer or pushy Eddy, are jerks. The girls, like shy Sally or Karen, are mostly delineated by their (usually not very good) relationship with the guys. Only the horny nerds, like Jason Alexander’s Dave or Fisher Stevens’ Woodstock, are memorable. Instead, “The Burning” does a great job of capturing the summer camp experience. You can feel the sticky heat of the day and the refreshing coolness of the water. The forest is realistically dark and difficult to navigate. The rocks and near-by mill are caked with dust and grit. The relationship between the teens is realistic. Even jock Glazer gets a humanizing moment, after a humiliating session of sex with his girlfriend. Sure, the characters are more-or-less generic slasher bait. But they’re generic in a way that seems plausible.

For all its other positive attributes, what “The Burning” is truly remembered for is Savini’s incredible gore effects. The film shows that there are lots of ways to slash a teen with a pair of hedge-clippers. Cropsy opens the scissors, slashing throats length-ways. My favorite kill befalls Glazer. Cropsy stabs him through the throat with the blades, lifting him off the ground, carrying him towards a tree. The camera focuses on his face as he coughs blood, sputtering and dying. The attack scenes are awfully brutal too, the victims struggling against Cropsy before he claims their lives. The gory peak of the film is the famous raft sequence. A group of campers approach an abandoned canoe. The scene drags out, slowly building suspense as the kids near their inevitable fate. Cropsy leaps from the canoe, clippers high, silhouetted against the summer sun. In a manner of minutes, he takes out the whole gathering of teens. Fingers are cut, throats are stabbed, heads are bashed, and victims fall, bloody, into the water. The scene fades to red, knowing its done a good job. There are further impressive gore scenes. Cropsy’s make-up is blatantly unrealistic, resembling a melted candle. His demise involves an axe to the head and a torrent of blood being vomited. Yet that raft scene overshadows everything. It earned the movie a spot on the Video Nasties list and a place in gorehounds’ hearts.

Rick Wakeman’s electronic score is also a cut above the rest. Aside from Alexander and Stevens, the movie also features a bit part from a young Holly Hunter. Behind the camera, it was the first movie produced by Miramax, the Weinsteins even co-writing the screenplay. I guess non-slasher enthusiasts won’t think much of it but us die-hards know “The Burning” is one of the best. [8/10]

Trick r’ Treat (2007)

As originally planned, “Trick r’ Treat” was intended to be a late-in-the-year surprise for horror fans, a seasonal treat for Halloween. Instead, despite receiving positive reviews at festival screenings, the film sat on a shelf for two years. In that time, “Trick r’ Treat” built up a reputation as the next horror classic. When the film finally saw a general release in 2009, it arrived with a built-in audience. I suspect if I saw “Trick r’ Treat” when it was originally planned for release, I would have liked it a lot more. Seeing it after getting hit by the hype train, I was disappointed. Since then, however, “Trick r’ Treat” has become a true cult classic. It has become many people’s go-to Halloween movie. Many consider it the best Halloween movie since, well, “Halloween.” The late, lamented FearNet use to run it for 24 hours on the 31st. Sam, the film’s pumpkin-headed avatar of All Hallows Eve, has been merchandised almost as much as Freddy or Jason at this point. Now, there’s even a sequel in development. Separated a few years from the hype, what do I think of the film now?

Set in the town of Warren Valley, Ohio, the film follows four separate stories, each happening on Halloween night. Each are connected by Sam, the physical embodiment of the holiday. The first concerns an elementary school principal who gets nasty revenge on his ill-behaved students. The second is about a group of trick r’ treaters exploring a local legend – a crashed school bus full of mentally ill children – and playing a mean trick on one of their classmates. The third story is about a quartet of young women, looking for dates for the Halloween celebration, especially one for the virginal Laurie. The last story concerns a mean old man who hates Halloween and has a close encounter with Sam.

One of the big problems I had with “Trick r’ Treat” when I first saw it, and it continues to be a problem, is the method in which the stories are connected. Most anthology films tell their stories in self-contained segments. “Trick r’ Treat,” on the other hand, tells the stories in an interweaving fashion. I don’t mind the scenarios in an anthology film existing in the same universe. “Pulp Fiction,” after all, is one of my favorite movies. “Trick r’ Treat,” however, tells its stories simultaneously. The tales interconnect, the events crossing over. This has a bad side effect of constantly interrupting the flow and pacing of each story. “Trick r’ Treat” plays in starts and spurts. When the film focuses on one story for an extended period of time, this is when it works best.

Another thing I disliked about “Trick r’ Treat” upon first viewing was its mean-spirited content. Kids are not safe in the world of “Trick r’ Treat” and perish regularly. I love Halloween but dead kids is not part of the fun for me. However, on this viewing, I began to see the morbid humor behind the film’s actions. As Principal Wilkins buries a student he just murdered in his backyard, he’s constantly interrupted. His neighbor yells at him. His son shouts constant interruptions from the house’s windows. The kid is so annoying, that you expect the man to murder him next. Instead, the film has a morbid punchline for a twist ending. The humor works best in the last segment, when mean Mr. Kreeg is constantly pranked by Sam. I really love this concluding segment’s ending, when Kreeg finally gives Sam what he wants. Once you get in its specific frame of mind, the film is blackly funny.

Truthfully, most of the film works pretty well. The second story is maybe the best executed in the film. The story has a nice EC Comics feel. A quartet of kids pull a nasty prank on the weird girl in class. She probably has Aspergers and her particular obsession is the lore and tradition of Halloween. In other words, the audience likes her. When the other kids are needlessly mean to her, you have sympathy for the girl. So the nasty punishment the bad kids receive seems fully deserved and is nicely ironic. The flashback, key to this segment, is also fantastically executed. The whole scene has an amber, autumn glow to it. The sequence builds to something bad happening very well. That last image, of the school bus heading over the cliff, is almost graceful. The story devoted to Sam and Mr. Kreeg is also fantastic, darkly funny and mischievous in the right, Halloween-y spirit. While the flashback escalates in a creepy fashion, this one escalates in a funny way, the abuse the old man suffers slowly getting worst.

Though there’s a lot to like about “Trick r’ Treat,” one element keeps me from liking it fully: That fucking werewolf scene. The middle story, about the twenty-somethings looking for dates to a Halloween party, is easily the weakest part of the film. None of the characters are likable. There are obnoxious and annoying. Laurie’s quest for a date isn’t very compelling, especially compared to the higher stakes of the other stories. There’s a jokey moment here, where every man she sees on the street is already taken. That’s definitely the low point of the movie’s humor. The conclusion is thuddingly obvious. Turns out, all the girls are werewolves and their “dates” are their meals for the night. The man stalking Laurie turns out to be Principal Wilkins, a decision I don’t care for. The “predator becomes the prey” turn-about is easy to see coming. As the girls transform into wolves, Marylin Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams” play, which is a groan-worthy soundtrack choice. Finally, the werewolves tearing off their skin as they transform has been done before, and better, by “The Company of Wolves.” For that matter, “The Company of Wolves” did the Little Red Riding Hood thing first too. This one stinky segment drags down the whole movie.

When I first reviewed “Trick r’ Treat,” during the mini-review days of the blog, I said it didn’t beat “Creepshow” at its own game. This is true and the movie probably should have ditched the comic book motif altogether. My preferred Halloween horror movie is still “Ghostwatch” and it’ll probably remain that way. However, on the 31st of October, with a bucket of candy in my lap and a glass of cider in my hand, “Trick r’ Treat” goes down pretty easy. [7/10]

The Babadook (2014)

Every year, I endeavor to see a newly released horror movie, preferably in the theaters. Because, while Halloween is about revisiting old favorites, it should be about new discoveries too. Of course, I did see a new horror movie in the theater this season, “Dracula Untold.” But that barely counts. I had other options, like fucking “Ouija,” ugh. The horror movie I really wanted to see, though, was “The Babadook,” a new Australian film that has been getting rave reviews and had a scary as hell trailer. When I saw “The Babadook” crop up as a new release On-Demand…. Well, it’s not the theaters but it’ll do.

The film follows Amelia and her son Samuel. Samuel’s father died in a car crash, while Amelia was in labor, on the way to the hospital. Samuel’s birthday is never celebrated on the actually day since it reminds Amelia of her husband’s death. Amelia is very stressed ut and Samuel, an eccentric child obsessed with magic, monsters and cobbling together his own inventions, is difficult to live with. On night before bed, Samuel pulls out a book Amelia has never seen before. A sinister pop-up book, it tells of a figure named the Babadook, a boogeyman who appears in your home, if you let him in. Then he’ll enter you, make you kill your pets, make you kill your kid, and then he’ll kill you. Once the Babadook finds you, there’s no way to get rid of him. The monster is real, comes knocking at their door, and Amelia and Samuel go mad.

I’m not going to beat around the bush. “The Babadook” is terrifying. Director Jennifer Kent has a perfect grasp on tone, sound design, and execution. “The Babadook” begins with a persistent tone of creeping dread. The film captures the tone of sleepless, exhausted stress that is familiar to new parents. This is the state Amelia lives in. When the Babadook book is found, things get even darker. From the moment the pages are flipped, the inescapable sense that things are going to get much worst begin. There are so many stand-out moments in “The Babadook,” many of them operating on a different type of horror. When Amelia looks up quickly, catching a glimpse of the Babadook before looking again and seeing it gone, that’s the horror of loosing your mind. Anyone with any experiences with insomnia knows that one. When Amelia stares at the TV, hoping for sleep that won’t come, and see the Babadook appearing on-screen, that’s surreal horror. Finally, when she’s driving the car and nearly crashes it because the boogeyman is there, that’s go-for-the-throat horror. The entire last horror of “The Babadook” operates in this mood, the dread having built to a fever pitch. The film pulls out every trick in the book to create a terrifying final act. Characters are tossed across rooms, slid on their feet, scream in distorted voices, the camera moving at odd angles, and the sound design ramps up. Normally, this would be pandering but “The Babadook” pulls it off. You’ll be sitting in your chair, jittering nervously during the entire last half-hour of the film.

Many factors make “The Babadook” so fantastically effective but two in particular stand out. The first is the performance of Essie Davis. Amelia is in a very unpleasant mood, constantly. Davis is not afraid to play a character that is perpetually stressed, exhausted, and terrified. She commits fully to the part, creating an incredibly nuanced and brave performance. Noah Wiseman as Samuel is also incredible. Wiseman has to play a kid that is both annoying and sympathetic in equal measure. When Amelia is controlled by the Babadook, and trying to kill her own son, you have to believe that she is frustrated enough to do so. Similarly, when her son ties her down, forcing the monster out, you have to believe that his love is true enough to do so. Wiseman succeeds. Together, the two make the central characters of “The Babadook” intensely worth caring about.

The second major factor in the film’s favor is the incredible production and sound design. “The Babadook” is dark. Every room is grey and drab. This is how someone who is exhausted, all the time, sees things. The house “The Babadook” is set in seems huge and ominous, the grey walls stretching on forever. It seems like a huge tomb. At the end of Amelia and Samuel’s bedrooms are looming wardrobes. These are like coffins. Ominous symbols are around every corner. The shadows and corners provide plenty of hiding places for the Babadook. The titular villain is an impressive creation too. There’s no shortage of pop culture villains in long coats and funny hats. Even the Babadook, with its towering top hat and draping coat, is nothing new. However, the film makes it work. The hands are topped with long fingers, topped with curling nails, perfect for reaching out and grabbing people. When we see its face, which isn’t often, the eyes are always starring, always watching. It’s mouth, meanwhile, is always open wide and full teeth… Perfect for eating little kids and scared mothers. In short, the Babadook is an ideal cinematic boogeyman.

Great horror movies are never just about what they’re about though. “The Babadook,” at first, appears to be a film about how being a parent can be fucking terrible. When you have a kid, you never get much sleep, you’re always high-strung and worried, being pulled in many directions all at once. Is it any wonder some mothers kill their children? They take over your life. “The Babadook” is about this, of course, but a more important purpose reveals itself. In time, the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband, promising her that they can be together again if she brings him the boy. The Babadook becomes a symbol of trauma. Once he finds you, you can never get rid of him. Even after Amelia stands up to the monster, he doesn’t go away. Trauma, whether it be from the death of a love one, the end of a meaningful relationship, or any other horrible thing, never truly goes away. Instead, you learn to live with it. You learn from it. The ending of “The Babadook” is incredibly cathartic and well-earned.

It’s always presumptuous to say these things, especially when there’s a lot left that I haven’t seen. Right now, however, I’m willing to say this: “The Babadook” is the best horror film of 2014. It is the scariest film I have seen in many years, blowing away previous candidates like “[REC]” or  “The Strangers.” Jennifer Kent is a talent to watch and I look forward to what she’ll come up with next. In time, the film will likely join the great horror films of cinematic history. What a way to wrap up October. [9/10]

Thank God for Halloween. October has been rough, for personal reasons totally unrelated to this blog. Lots of crazy shit happened. However, on Halloween, I feel different. The whole world feels different. At one point today, I was so fucking happy I almost felt like crying. This is why this day is special. It brings something out of me that isn’t there during any other month. The spirits walk the Earth and the spirits walk in me too. I hope it was that way for all of you as well.

I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to do these Six Weeks. I didn’t make it to a corn maze or a haunted attraction. I didn’t get to dress up in my awesome Herbert West costume because trick or treating got moved. However, I did accomplish other stuff. I went to a horror con and had a good time. I went to “Rocky Horror” and had a good time. Mostly, I watched a spooky shit ton of horror movies. Final tally?: 157 total things watched, 93 movies, 57 TV episodes, and 7 shorts. Holy crap. That’s a record. It wasn’t easy and maybe I overdid it. But that’s a geeky number I can be proud of.

2014’s Halloween season wasn’t as good as last year’s. Maybe there was no way it could be. But did I have fun? Sure did. Make some memories? You bet. Live the season to the fullest? Yep. It’s now November 1st and I can look back and say “I did it.”

2014’s Halloween Horrorfest Blog-a-Thon is concluded. Onward to the next one. Happy Halloween. God bless. Thank you so much. See you again soon.

Haunting the pumpkin patch.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 30

The Student of Prague (1913)

As October comes to a close, and Halloween looms, I found myself looking over my list of films watched thus far. In a moment of confusion, I forget that I had watched the 1920’s version of “The Lost World” and came to the incorrect conclusion that I had yet to watch a silent horror film this season. Before I could correct myself, I set off looking for a voiceless flick. Looking over a list of notable silent horrors, I came upon the 1913 version of “The Student of Prague.” Starring “The Golem’s” Paul Wegener, the film is loosely adapted from the Poe story “William Wilson.” It is usually considered the first horror movie ever made.

Set in 1800s Prague, the story follows Balduin, the best fencer in the country and a rebel-rousing student, who has recently fallen on hard financial times. After rescuing a countess from a stream, Balduin falls in the love with the girl. However, he’s far too poor to even consider courting her. Enter a strange old man named Scapinelli, who offers Balduin 100,000 coins in exchange for anything in his room. The student immediately signs the paper only for the elderly gentleman to reveal himself as a demon and leave the room with Balduin’s reflection. The student’s attempt to woo the countess are made more difficult when that reflection, now ambulatory and with a mind of its own, sets about ruining the young man’s life.

As previously established, I like silent movies. Considering film is primarily a visual art form, movies that rely solely upon visuals almost seem purer then sound cinema. I usually don’t find the style of silent movies off-putting or confusing. However, “The Student of Prague” is an early silent movie. Discounting some Melies and Edison shorts, it might actually be the oldest movie I’ve ever watched. The cinematic art form was still developing. Thus, “The Student of Prague” is not always the most elegant feature. The film uses title cards sparingly, most of the dialogue going uninscribed. Despite featuring few intertitles, the movie still falls back on exposition. Balduin's skills as a fencer are never actually featured on-screen, only be referenced in dialogue. A key event has Balduin’s reflection killing a romantic rival the student promised to spare. This happens entirely off-screen! The only time some of the characters are identified is during the opening role call. This, combined with the faltering quality of the film print, frequently makes “The Student of Prague” difficult to follow. Despite only running 87 minutes, the movie is also one of the slowest paced silent films I’ve ever seen.

Though not necessarily easy to follow, “The Student of Prague” does have some effective moments. Though early in the movement’s lifespan, the film still has some beautiful, expressionistic scenery. Balduin’s apartment is set at rough, slanted angles, looking odd and off-center. A midnight rendezvous with his lover takes place in an old cemetery. The old tombstones intentionally do not look real. The obviously artificial set gives the film a creaky, spooky atmosphere. After an encounter with his wicked doppelganger, Balduin flees down the shadowy streets of Prague, seeming very small among the old city’s towering buildings. Wegener’s later film, “The Golem,” is much more effectively surreal but this one does feature just enough strange moments to push it into the category of “horror.”

Don’t be mistaken, “The Student of Prague” is marginally horror. It is, more often then not, a period melodrama that can be hard to swallow. One of Balduin’s earlier romantic conquest is a dancing girl. Despite showing little interest in the man, after he begins to pursue the Countess, she passes an incriminating letter along to her. Why? Jealousy? The film never elaborates on this. There are also long scenes of fox hunts, ball room dances, and people sitting around in empty rooms, pining. The stuff with the evil reflection is quite striking, and the ending is nicely downbeat, but far too much of “The Student of Prague” is a melodramatic slog.

Is “The Student of Prague” the first true horror movie? Even with a Satanic old man, a murderous doppelganger, and a Faustian bargain, the movie doesn’t truly fit the genre. I think “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” probably has a better claim on that title. The story has been remade several times, even during the silent era. A 1926 version starring Conrad Veidt seems to be better regarded. Maybe I should have watched that one instead… [5/10]

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

A while back I reviewed Charles B. Pierce’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I actually saw the movie even more recently then that, when Shout Factory gave the long out-of-print sorta’ classic a Blu-Ray release. That film, an odd mixture of docudrama and fictional retelling, had a predecessor. Pierce first tested out that very specific format with “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a quasi-documentary about the Fouke Monster of Fouke, Arkansas. It might be hard to believe this now but “The Legend of Boggy Creek” was a big hit in its day. An America gripped by Bigfoot fever saw the movie so many times that it went on to become the eleventh highest grossing film of the year! While the film is a true independent success story, outside of Bigfoot enthusiasts and horror fans, it’s not well remembered today.

The film claims to tell the true story of the Fouke Monster. Periodically, since the 1950s, the backwoods town of Fouke, Arkansas has been haunted by a mysterious monster roaming the woods and swamps. Covered in black hair, over six feet tall, and leaving three-toed foot prints, the monster has terrified and intrigued the people of the tiny town. The film combines voice-over narration, interviews with supposed witnesses, dramatic reenactments of the encounters, and local footage and music to create a film that’s not quite a fictional movie and not quite a documentary.

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” is pretty corny and cheesy, lacking the dread of Pierce’s later “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” While it never reaches the intensity of that film, “Boggy Creek” does occasionally summon up a folksy, Southern-fried creepiness. The very first scene has a little boy, the film’s narrator as a child, running across a golden field, frightened by a strange noise. Later, a family discovers a dead cat, scared to death by the monster. Probably the most blatantly frightening scene in the film has a young woman, napping on the couch, rudely awoken by the Bigfoot’s hairy arm, reaching through the window. The monster is only briefly glimpsed throughout the film. We mostly only see the creature only as a black shape, moving quietly through the woods. This proves surprisingly creepy, the film functioning well on the “less is more” principal. A Fouke monster that is a smelly Skunk Ape is much less frightening then a Fouke monster that is an ill-defined, shadowy figure. The most effective moment, for me anyway, were simple shots of the monster, seen only in the distance, crossing the swamplands.

Despite a handful of decent moments, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” is gripped by camp. All of the actors in the film are amateurs. This is readily apparent. All of the performances in the film are either broad or flat. Many of the monster witnesses play themselves. Their hillbilly personae do little to dispel Fouke as a backwoods town full of drunk rednecks. The film’s climax, in which a man is attacked by the monster while in an outhouse, is sure to generate giggles today. The man fleeing through the woods, his pants halfway down his ass, is especially funny. The narration is frequently overdone, most obviously in a sequence detailing how even the police dogs were too scared to pursue the creature. The cherry on the goofball redneck sundae are the two incredibly silly folk songs played throughout the movie. The first is a ballad describing how the Fouke monster is actually quite lonely, being the last of his kind. The second is devoted to witness Travis Crabtree, an ode to his fishing trips and long days wandering the woods outside his home.

By filming on location and with the people who were actually there, “The Legend of Boggy Creek” does capture a certain degree of local color. One of the creature’s witnesses can’t move very fast, having injured his leg in a hunting trip. Imagine a “Boggy Creek” without the monster and you’d probably get a movie very similar to Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida,” a film about how people pass the time in a tiny, Southern town. It’s apparent the small town was a point of fascination for Pierce. Both “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” have a nostalgic longing for the simple small town, both portraying the central locations as rustic, relaxed, wholesome places. In “Sundown,” that creates an ironic quality when the gruesome murders begin to take place. In “Boggy Creek,” however, it makes the film more of a love letter to the local residents and their strange stories. (That most of the movie’s “true story” is demonstratively bullshit doesn’t seem to matter much.)

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” spawned a cottage industry of pseudo-documentaries about Bigfoot and Yetis, helping to feed the appetite this country had in the early seventies for all things Bigfoot. It’s hard to believe that movies like “The Mysterious Monsters” or “Bigfoot: Man Or Beast?” got theatrical releases back in the day. Moreover, there’s a tangled web of “Boggy Creek” sequels and remakes. “Return to Boggy Creek,” an unofficial sequel made without Pierce’s involvement, was released in 1977. A few years later in 1985, Charles B. Pierce rebuked that film with his own sequel, “Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues.” That one was, famously, featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” "The Legacy of Boggy Creek," a pseudo-official remake, came in 2011 while 2010’s “Boggy Creek” is an unrelated and otherwise generic Sasquatch-ploitation flick. Boy, that got complicated quickly, didn’t it? Who would have thought such a humble film would birth such a long-lasting legacy? [6/10]

Gehara: The Dark and Long-Haired Monster (2009)
Chohatsu Daikaiju Gehara

Okay, when I said I was done with kaiju movies for the year, I lied. After hearing about “Gehara,” a twenty minute made-for-television monster flick, I just had to see it. The film begins, like so many of them do, with a fishing boat attacked by a strange creation. The lone survivor, half mad, seems terrified of hair. Though the destruction is initially blamed on an Umi-Bozu, the true culprit soon emerges: Gehara, a giant monster covered in long, black hair. The monster is soon marching on Japan, its hair giving off a deadly gas. The government cooks up a crazy plot to stop the monster while a group of rural monks worship the critter. Can anything stop Gehara?

Despite only being twenty minutes long, “Gehara” is a perfect parody of Showa Eiga kaiju films. Gehara, on paper, sounds like a fairly ridiculous creation. A monster whose main power comes from its long hair does not sound particularly intimidating. However, the film approaches the premise with a totally straight face. A scientist constantly delivers grave warnings about the monster. A crazy general deploys a wacky weapon to stop the monster. A journalist investigates a religious order that seems to blame the monster’s reemergence on mankind’s mistreatment of the planet. The movie blatantly references the original “Gojira,” with an Akira Ifukube-inspired score and a ending that features a man talking about how another Gehara could surface if mankind doesn’t stop abusing the planet. At least, that seems like the ending. In its final minutes, “Gehara” tacks on a pitch-perfect reference to “Monster Zero” and ends with a trailer for its own, even crazier seeming (and, sadly, as yet unrealized) sequel. Even the outwardly funny parts of “Gehara,” like teenagers trying to get the attention of a news reporter, are a bit more subtle then expected.

Even though it’s a spoof of the genre, “Gehara” is still a pretty cool monster movie. At only twenty minutes long, “Gehara” packs in plenty of kaiju action. The monster appears to be brought to life through puppetry and looks fantastic. He’s reptilian but the long scarf of hair makes it appear more greasy and mysterious. His design might be intentionally goofy but the creature is brought to life fantastically. The building smashing and military battles are also quite convincingly done. There’s a little shaky cam present, probably to cover up the seams of a low budget production.

“Gehara” manages to be both a hilarious parody of the genre and a perfectly executed example of it. As you’d probably expect for an obscure television production, the film doesn’t have any sort of official stateside distribution. However, the Japanese Blu-Ray is region free, so feel free to import this sucker. I know I will. Hell, apparently there’s already a toy of Gehara too! Would I watch that sequel? You bet your ass I would watch that sequel. [9/10]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 29

White Zombie (1932)

I’ve never seen “White Zombie” before. Does that surprise you? Considering how obsessed I am with horror films from the thirties, I don’t blame you for thinking I should have gotten to it sooner. The movie’s even in the public domain, really giving me no excuse for taking so long to catch up with it. Truthfully, when it comes to classic horror, I focus pretty heavily on the Universal Monsters, a category “White Zombie” falls just outside of. After getting my hands on the Kino Blu-Ray, of a far better quality then any of the public domain releases out there, I finally sat down to watch the flick.

The first film ever made to feature voodoo zombies, “White Zombie” follows a happy American couple traveling to Haiti. Madeleine and Neil are soon to be married on the plantation of Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s secret, however, is that he is in love with Madeleine. After he fails to seduce her on her wedding night, Beaumont becomes desperate. He seeks the service of Murder Legendre. Legendre is a voodoo master, stocking his mills with his subservient zombies, undead bodies he controls with his mind, eyes, and hands. Legendre poisons Madeleine, resurrecting her as a zombie for Beaumont. The man is unhappy with his zombified bride but, by then, it’s too late. Beaumont, Madeleine, and Neil are caught in Legendre’s dangerous web of deception and manipulation.

“White Zombie” was made right after Bela Lugosi’s star-making turn in “Dracula.” It’s a similar story. In both films, Lugosi plays a powerful, ominous foreigner with a mysterious sway over those people around him. Both films focus on Lugosi’s piercing eyes, to great effect. While Murder Legendre is not as iconic a villain as Dracula, the part plays to Lugosi’s strengths equally well. In some ways, Legendre is a better part then Dracula. He has more dialogue, giving Lugosi more of an oppretunity to stretch his sinister accent. While Dracula mostly manipulates those around him with steely gazes, Legendre is more openly controlling. With his smooth words but always-intimidating body language, he compels everyone around him. You imagine his mastery of voodoo is almost unnecessary. The man is Luciferian in his ability to get what he wants. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Legendre poisons Beaumont with the zombie powder. As the man succumbs, Lugosi mocks him. Later on, Beaumont’s brain falling to the drug, Lugosi continues to lord over him, in a cruel, practically scientific manner. If great horror movies are graded on the strengths of their villain, then “White Zombie” would grade awfully high.

What I truly love about horror films from this era are their unmistakeably quiet, monochromatic ambiance. Even the worst films of the era have a special charm I can’t overlook. “White Zombie” is packed full of incredibly, black-and-white atmosphere. As Neil and his fiancee ride through the Haitian countryside, Lugosi’s eyes loom over them. Later, Lugosi’s piercing stare glares out of a coffee cup, striking Madeleine dead. While Neil mopes in a bar, the shadows of the dancer appear on the wall, mocking his sad state. Murder and his zombies drag her casket of out the tomb, deep shadows encasing them in the tunnel. The second half of the film is primarily set in Legendre’s spooky old mansion. Man, what a set that is, full of gorgeous, gothic mood. Every inch of it is covered in cobwebs and shadows. Black shapes move on the wall, the zombies slowly roaming the halls. Vultures shriek from their perches, the ocean waves crashing outside. The black-and-white cinematography is full of expressionistic dread. Though it isn’t a Universal film, “White Zombie” occupies the same beguiling shadowland, chilling, dark, still, and rich in antiqued beauty.

The film also has no shortage of the melodrama you associate with cinema of the time. “White Zombie” does, after all, heavily feature a love triangle. Neil is a highly ineffectual hero. After his brand new wife dies, he spend the entire movie drunk and sad. He pretty much does nothing proactive throughout the rest of the plot. The day is saved by other characters. Madeleine, though played by the lovely Madge Bellamy, is almost literally a cipher. She spends the majority of the run time hypnotized, starring emptily with her huge eyes. Beaumont is a sad sack loser, pining for another man’s woman and ready to sink to icky depths to win her. The movie also throws in a preacher/detective, to help motivate the plot. This character is one of the film’s best, simply because he advances the story. It’s no wonder Lugosi’s Murder is the thing most people remember about the film. Even then, the romantic subplot has one indelible moment. As Neil mopes outside Legendre’s castle, Madeleine stands on the balcony. The film cuts between the two, the picture dissolving together, until both share the same screen. What an interestingly visual way to show the two’s connection.

The zombies are still, moving stiffly, their faces blank and painted black-and-white. They’re classic movie monsters and, though they don’t eat brains or human flesh, it’s not hard to draw a line between these zombies and Romero’s zombies. “White Zombie” is surprisingly free of sociological subtext. None of Murder’s zombies are black, defusing any attempt at a slavery metaphor. There’s actually few black characters in the film. I suppose a racial reading is still possible, if you’re willing to ignore the total lack of racial elements in the film. Instead, “White Zombie” follows many of the troupes of gothic literature. With its love triangle, unrequited passion, comic relief sidekicks, sinister villain, and dusty mansions, it fits in perfectly.

“White Zombie” was directed by Victor Halperin, who later made “Supernatural” which I reviewed last Halloween. “White Zombie” has all of that film’s strength and none of its weaknesses. It has a great villain, one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances, and some unforgettable classic horror ambiance. Predictably, I loved it and should have seen it sooner. [8/10]

Silent Rage (1982)

In the days before he was an internet meme, and a politically conservative religious fanatic, Chuck Norris was one of the better low budget action stars. Seriously, I know we think of his movies are cheesy and hilariously shitty, but I’ll take an early Chuck over modern Seagal. It might be even harder to believe but “Silent Rage” was actually something of a breakthrough for Mr. Norris. It was his first film produced by a major studio, in this case Columbia. The film is a truly unexpected genre hybrid too. Wikipedia list it as a "romance/action/science-fiction/horror movie" and even that doesn’t encompass every genre “Silent Rage” implements.

Set in a small Texan town, the film opens with John Kirby. Kirby is incredibly stressed. Screaming kids and an obnoxious landlord pushes him over the edge. Kirby grabs an axe and starts killin’. Enter: Chuck Norris, this time as sheriff (and martial arts expert) Dan Stevens. Kirby is shot in the fray, near death, and rushed to the hospital. There, irresponsible scientists pump the dying psychopath full of an experimental drug that heals any wounds in seconds. Kirby is rendered silent but still rage-filled. Turns out, turning a violent psycho into an unstoppable superhuman was poor planning. Can even Chuck Norris stop him?

“Silent Rage” is essentially a mash-up of a cheesy eighties action movie and a slasher film. How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a slasher flick? Pretty solid, I must say. Unlike most slashers, who can survive grievous injury just because the plot says so, John Kirby explicitly has a Wolverine-style healing factor. Kirby stalks the home of his former shrink, played by a grossly overqualified Ron Silver. The stalking scene generates some decent suspense, with its “Halloween”-style POVs and pulsing synth score. When the violence comes, it can be unexpectedly brutal. The best bit is when Kirby kills Silver’s wife. He appears behind a door, slamming her head suddenly into the wall. Naturally, Chuck’s love interest then finds the dead bodies, hidden in just the right places to give the girl a shock. Later, the movie moves the action to a hospital, always a good setting for a slasher flick. Kirby stalking William Finley’s character through shadowy hallway, ending with Finley getting a syringe in the neck, has just the right feel fans of eighties slashers love. “Silent Rage” isn’t super-gory either, making it a good pick for newcomers to the subgenre.

How does “Silent Rage” hold up as a Chuck Norris movie? Even better. The opening fight between Norris and Kirby, before he becomes superhuman, makes good use of wall-kicking and a random board. Midway through the film, Chuck enters a bar occupied by a ridiculously campy biker gang. This is probably the action high-light of “Silent Rage.” Chuck snaps a pool cue in two, roundhouse kicks a dude, slides another mook across the bar, and generally punches and kicks the shit out of everyone around him. The scene climaxes with the lead biker attempting to ride his bike out the bar. Chuck knocks the guy off his bike, sending the unmanned motorcycle through the window. All in glorious slow-motion, of course. “Silent Rage” builds up to the rematch between Chuck and Kirby. After shooting the guy out a hospital window, running him over with his truck, and blowing him up, the two face off in a forest clearing. There’s plenty of neck-holds, body slams, punches, and slow-motion kicks to the face. Because Kirby is literally unstoppable, Chuck seems outmatched for the first time in his career, lending the fight a special, desperate energy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an eighties action/horror movie without a bunch of other stupid bullshit. The comic relief and romantic subplot adds the perfect extra layer of cheese to “Silent Rage.” Chuck’s sidekick is an incompetent, overweight deputy named Charlie. Charlie almost shoots his boss in an earlier scene. While Chuck is beating the shit out of the biker gang, Charlie sits in his car, talking about titties over the CB radio. Charlie was intended to be funny but is so deplorably stupid that it comes around on the other side as unintentionally funny. The romance, meanwhile, is also a laugh riot. The film crash cuts from Norris’ love interest saying she won’t sleep with him to… The two in bed together, post-coitus. A lengthy romantic montage has the two rolling in bed, swinging in a hammock, and eating out of a fruit basket together. As ridiculous as these scenes are, they make good use of Norris’ relaxed, easy-going charisma.

I love eighties action movies. I love eighties slasher movie. Naturally, I kind of love “Silent Rage.” Maybe the genre mash-up works where others fail because the two genres exist separately in the movie. The slasher appears, stalks and kills. Chuck Norris beats up random dudes or macks on his love interest. Only during the very beginning and the last act do the two intermingle. The balance works in the film’s favor. Add a really solid supporting cast full of great character actors, some amusing camp, and a slow-motion fall into a well, and you’ve got a minor cheese classic. [7/10]

Cloverfield (2008)

“Cloverfield” made a splash in ‘07. Its teaser trailer was attached to “Transformers,” the biggest movie of that summer. The evocative teaser, presented without title or further information, got people talking. Some thought the mysterious film was a stealth Godzilla reboot. One vocal minority was convinced it was a live-action Voltron movie. I, personally, was hoping for Cthulhu. “Cloverfield” wound up not being any of those things but J. J. Abrams’ “mystery box” advertising got people in the theaters anyway. The film’s found-footage angle also paved the way for the subgenre’s popular revival. Six years later, now that found footage and Abrams’ style are both played out, how does “Cloverfield” hold up?

If nothing else, “Cloverfield” remains an intense thriller. The film’s opening twenty minutes establishes the normality of the setting. The sequence goes on long enough that, when the monster attacks, the audience is as surprised as the cast is. The found footage aspect is a gimmick, through and through. The film’s continued justification for it, Hud insisting that people will want to know what happened, stretches credibility. However, the gimmick adds an “on-the-ground” perspective to what happens, a kaiju film seen from the puny humans’ perspective. The presentation captures a real sense of panic and fear. The characters crouching in a shop as smokes, noise, and chaos billows outside has a real effect on me. Similarly intense moments involve the military’s attempt to combat the monster, a walk through a collapsing building, the cast fleeing as the creature destroys the next block, and the final fall from a helicopter. Many films have used the found footage angle in an attempt to create realistic panic but “Cloverfield” stands above the pack in that regard.

Aside from effective thrills, the sequences of urban destruction and falling buildings accomplish something else. As the Large Scale Aggressor surfaces in New York, explosions gripping the city, a minor character asks “Is it another terrorist attack?” “Cloverfield”  is patently designed to remind viewers of September 11th. The post-destruction scenes, showing the burning ruins of the city, are chilling because of this. The monster knocking over skyscrapers, huge clouds of smoke and debris filling the area, are obviously patterned after what happened on that awful day. Clover’s first action is to decapitate the Statue of Liberty, striking down an American icon, one representative of our country’s ideals. This identifies the monster with the terrorists, striking at the heart of the country. Is using a real-life tragedy to add intensity to your monster movie in poor taste? Some people think so. The original “Godzilla” was an extended metaphor for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. However, that film worked more as a nightmarish fable. “Cloverfield” is committed to verisimilitude. Horror movies usually help audiences digest real life horror through genre subtext. Abrams and Reeves’ film mostly skips pass subtext and goes right for the throat. “Cloverfield” is about ordinary life being interrupted by massive, unpredictable tragedy.

The moments focused on Clover’s rampage are the film at its most intense and frightening. “Cloverfield” runs at a brief 86 minutes, including about ten minutes of credits. Even a run time that short can’t be filled completely with visceral, horrifying attacks. Instead, “Cloverfield” has to shake it up. The opening scene, Rob’s going-away party, goes on a little too long. It skirts dangerously close to “Twenty Minutes with Jerks” territory. The most tedious bit is a jog through the empty subways. In the tunnels, the quartet is chased by the parasites that fell off the larger monster. It’s a moment that belongs in a more typical monster movie, far too typical to generate much tension. The scenes between attacks, like a stop-over in an army base or the characters mending wounds, really drag the tension down. Luckily, the monster reappears, bringing the thrills back for the last act.

“Cloverfield” is an nontraditional kaiju movie, obviously. However, cute references to the genre’s past are sprinkled throughout, including split-second glimpses of Kong, the Beast, and Them. The only music in the film plays over the end credits, a gorgeous homage to Akira Ifukubi. What most connects “Cloverfield” to its predecessors is its’ monster. Clover doesn’t resemble the kaiju of yore much, being another one of Neville Page’s hairless monkey-spiders. Instead, the creature’s behavior is what connects it to the past. Clover isn’t a malicious attacker. The monster is simply lost, scared, trying to navigate a world that wasn’t made for it. Like Godzilla, he’s a force of nature. Similarly, late in the film, we watch from above as the beast is pelted with bombs and missiles, crying out in agony. Clover is terrifying but not beyond sympathy. It is unlikely to go down in history as one of the greats. However, the critter isn’t without personality. In the right light, he’s even sort of cute, with its big eyes and gangly limbs.

At first, the human cast of “Cloverfield” might come off as unlikable. Rob’s determination to find Beth in the wreckage of the city, pulling his friends along with him, pushes the character into aggravating territory. Michael Stahl-David and the perpetually flat Odette Yustman certainly don’t have the right kind of chemistry to sell the romance. However, the writing is decent enough that the audience sort of cares. More likable is Hud, the man behind the camera. His name is a lame pun and some of his behavior borders obnoxious. However, his off-hand comments and glib sense of humor provides some nice levity during the movie’s more intense moments. Lizzy Caplan is underserved by the plot, and exits too soon, but her sarcastic way of speech is as charming as ever. The presentation is ultimately more important then the cast.

J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film. However, his method informs the whole movie. We never learn what Clover is, where it comes from, or what awoke it. The viral ad campaign and expanded universe provides oblique answers, something about a fallen satellite and a Japanese soft drink company. The proposed sequel probably would have provided more concrete answers. However, Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard are busy with other stuff. It’s just as well, as I can’t foresee “Cloverfield” lending itself to a franchise well. As a stand alone film, it can be incredibly scary and surprisingly powerful while still functioning as a solid monster movie. [7/10]

So concludes 2014’s KAIJU-THON. As with any cinematic journey of this size, I end it with a whole new batch of things I want to see. I was unable to procure copies of Toho’s submarine duology – “Atragon” and “Latitude Zero” – which means I just came up short on seeing all of Ishiro Honda’s science fiction films. What about the King Kong remakes and rip-offs? What of oddball imports like “Yonggary,” “Pulgasari,” and “Reptilicus?” Where do “Big Man Japan” and “Death Kappa” fit into God(zilla)’s grand design? The journey never truly ends. Will next Halloween be devoted to another KAIJU-THON? Probably not. However, expect a giant monster movie or two to sneak into my seasonal viewing from now on.

Halloween 2014: October 28

The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008)
Girara no gyakushû: Tôya-ko Samitto kikiippatsu

After forty-three years of silence, the last kaiju anybody expected to make a come-back did just that. Guilala, the lovably laughable monster star of “The X from Outer Space,” was to appear in a new film. The belated sequel, verbosely entitled by “The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit,” was directed by Minoru Kawasaki. Kawasaki is a low-budget Japanese filmmaker known for bizarre comedies like “The Calamari Wrestler,” “Executive Koala,” and “The Rug Cop.” (The first two feature human-sized animals attempting to fit in with the regular population. The latter is about a cop that fights crime with his toupee.) As you’d expect, Kawasaki brought his peculiar sense of humor to Guilala’s return.

As the title expounds, the film is set at the 34th G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan. The leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the US gather in one place, bickering about various global issues. During the summit, a Chinese Mars probe crashes in Sapporo, bringing with it a bizarre space spore. Guilala has returned to Earth. While the monster wrecks havoc, the leaders of the world think up ineffectual plots to stop the monster. Meanwhile, two reporters investigate a local shrine devoted to a deity named Take-Majin, which might be the only hope to stop Guilala’s rampage.

“Attack the G8 Summit,” perhaps unsurprisingly, focuses a large percent of its run time on broadly spoofing world politics. The leader of each country is filtered down to only their most easily parodied aspects. The U.S. President is a blow-hard, obsessed with striking first with military might and is none too bright. The French prime minister spends the entire movie trying to put the moves on his pretty, Japanese translator. The German leader is the only woman present and seems most preoccupied with disproving sexist presumptions. Russia’s president is a big asshole, greatly interested in taking over other countries. Italy’s president is the most ridiculous caricature, who mostly boasts about Roman history and talks about Pizza. The P.M. of Great Britain doesn’t do a lot and, hilariously, the actor doesn’t even attempt a British accent. The guy playing the Canadian representative at least puts on a Quebec accent. The various plots to stop the monster all play up cultural stereotypes as well. The U.S. attacks with missiles and bombs. Russia poisons the monsters. Germany tries to kill Guilala with, ugh, poison gas. Italy falls back on Ancient Roman strategy. Britain’s attempt involves mass censorship. All of this is incredibly silly, simplistic, and relatively listless. Monster fans will want to fast-forward through many scenes.

However, some of the goofy comedy in “The Monster X Strikes Back” works. The Japanese prime minister suffers from stomach cramps, an amusingly random element. Midway through the film, he is replaced with another Japanese man in a bad wig. Later on, this man reveals his true identity: Kim Jong-Il! The translators are actually North Korean assassins, each one laughing with a high-pitch trill. He uses the monster’s attack as a chance to take over the world. If the movie was going to parody global politics, it should have followed in this irrelevant fashion. A funny reoccurring gag has a banner being replaced every time a new plan is implemented to stop Guilala, which is often. Lastly, the heroic kaiju, Take-Majin, is patterned after Japanese actor Beat Takeshi. In the North, Takeshi is best known for violent crime thrillers like “Sonatine” or “Violent Cop.” In Japan, however, Takeshi is best known for his comedies. I’m sure the film contains numerous references to Takeshi’s career and style that went over my head. Takeshi’s presence in the film would be roughly equivalent to a giant gold Jim Carrey appearing to save the day in the next “Pacific Rim” movie. It’s a good sign of how unorthodox a kaiju film “The Monster X Strikes Back” is.

And what about those giant monsters? “Attack the G8 Summit” is, in some ways, an affectionate parody of kaiju flicks. The score is an obvious riff on Akira Ifukube. The opening credits play against close-ups of the monsters, a likely reference to “GMK.” There’s some lovably bizarre moments, like Guilala performing an impromptu ballet or Take-Majin stopping a nuclear missile with his ass. Once the climatic monster battle finally happens, it’s fairly entertaining. However, most of Guilala’s rampage through Sapporo is made up of stock footage from the original “The X from Outer Space.” This is disappointing, especially since the movie in no way attempts to disguise this. The film grain is notably different and the suits even look different. 1966’s Guilala is less colorful and lacks the bright red nails and tail. An obvious indicator of how low the film’s budget was is the huge tear in the Guilala suit. Again, the movie never attempts to cover this up.

The subplot involving the reporter protagonist is disposable. The build-up to Take-Majin’s reveal gets tedious fast. You will get tired of hearing the song and dance used to summon him. The movie never references the events of “The X from Outer Space.” There are a handful of meta references. A Japanese boy names the monsters, a kaiju otaku mentions he would have preferred Baragon or Varan’s return, and a SD Guilala toy is used by the military. Touches like this make me wander if the movie is more remake then sequel. Guilala is a monster with potential. His goofy appearance probably would have lend itself well to an intentional parody. Guilala’s best appearance is still that job agency commercial. [5/10]

Cujo (1983)

When it comes to Stephen King adaptations, there’s the top tier. The untouchably great stuff: “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Misery,” a few, rare others. Next, you’ve got your pretty good King-derived films, like “Christine” or “The Dead Zone.” Then there’s pretty much everything else, in varying degrees of quality, ranging from “decent,” "guilty pleasure,” “forgettable,” to “flat-out terrible.” Despite being one of his most famous creations, “Cujo” is not a film adaptation mentioned frequently. It was well liked in its day, has a following now, but no one much talks about it anymore. This isn’t fair, in my opinion. While I’m hesitant to say it's top tier King, it might just be on the borderline between the two highest categories.

The Trenton family is in a state of transition. Young son Tad is afraid of monsters in his closest. Father Vic, an advertising exec, is having a work related crisis, the cereal he create an ad campaign for suddenly producing FrankenBerry stool. Mom Donna, meanwhile, is having an affair with the town’s stud… An affair she’s seriously starting to regret, as the man is emotionally unstable. While Vic is on a business trip, Donna and Tad takes the sputtering, old car to a local mechanic. In the middle of this, enters Cujo, a rabid, murderous Saint Bernard. The car stalls in the mechanic’s yard, Donna and Tad trapped inside during a heat wave by the mad dog.

It’s interesting to note that, for its first hour, “Cujo” isn’t much of a horror film. Instead, it’s a slow paced family drama. We see Vic bonding with his son, helping him overcome his fear of monsters. While father is frustrated with the vehicle, and beginning to suspect his wife’s infidelity, he puts his son on his knee and has a touching heart-to-heart. He runs to his father, excited, when he comes unexpectedly to pick him up from summer camp. Donna and Tad sing songs together, the two obviously being close. The relationship between parents and children is realistic, fraught with occasional frustration, but usually sweet and understanding. Though the script was probably eager to get to the killer dog, “Cujo” probably would have benefited from focusing more on Donna’s motivation for cheating on her husband. It’s clear that Steve Kemp is a creep and Donna herself wonders why she’d cheat on her happy family with such a sleazebag. More frustratingly, that subplot never pays off. You keep expecting the dog to kill Kemp. It never happens.

When Cujo becomes the focus of the story, the movie changes suddenly. This is intentional. While Donna parks the car outside Joe Camber’s house, Cujo leaps up to the window, barking loudly and fiercely. It’s one of those iconic jump scares in horror history. Tad screams about the boogeyman in his closest, Donna’s unreassuring cries that it’s “just a doggy” falling on deaf ears. Amazingly, every time Cujo goes on the attack, the film summons the same visceral, terrifying quality. The dog leaps on window, barking incessantly. When the phone rings, Cujo goes nuts. He headbutts a door, nearly overturning the car. He shatters a window, tears off a door handle, and sticks his slobbering maul through the cracked door. Donna’s attempt to escape the humid car has Cujo leaping on her, clawing and biting her. It’s such a viscous attack that I don’t know how she survives. The camera spins inside, Tad crying, Donna traumatized. Many scenes build a quiet silent just by having Cujo slightly out-frame, watching. The film’s overwhelming sound design, frightening visual sense, and smart deployment of claustrophobia and the summer heat makes each of these attacks as terrifying as the last.

“Cujo” the movie ditches the implied supernatural elements of King’s book. The dog isn’t possessed by the spirit of the serial killer from “The Dead Zone,” obviously. However, “Cujo” remains a monster movie of sorts. A rabid dog, no matter how big and strong, probably doesn’t fit most definitions of the word “monster.” But think about it. Cujo is certainly fearsome, a floating presence of dread and fear. He’s monstrous looking. The dog starts out caked in slobber. Yellow pus runs from his eyes, mud and grime covering his coat. After ramming the car door, blood smears his face. As horrifying as Cujo is, he fits another classic monster criterion. He generates both fear and sympathy. After all, he’s just a dog, an innocent animal. When he first appears, he’s a fluffy, friendly, sweet, family dog. He’s introduced playfully chasing a rabbit, before the rabies-carrying bat bites him, starting the plot rolling. As Cujo’s mind and body degrades, a pathetic element arises. Though the film mines Cujo’s appearance and attitude for as much horror as possible, you can’t overlook that he’s a suffering animal. It adds an extra layer to the film.

“Cujo” is further bolstered by an excellent lead performance from Dee Wallace. She spends most of the film in a state of constant panic, her ability never faltering. Danny Pintauro is naturalistic as Tad. Daniel Hugh Kelly and Christopher Stone probably could have been given more to do. if “Cujo” has any obvious flaw, it’s that the audience has to accept some contrivances in the story. The mechanic’s wife and son have gone on a sudden vacation. Cujo kills everyone in the house before Donna gets there. The car breaks down exactly when there at the dog’s doorstep. The mailman doesn’t come because the mechanic has lost his mailing permit. The cop sent to investigate is also taken down by the ravenous dog. Donna just happens to find a gun when Cujo leaps through the kitchen window. Some of this has an element of “The worst thing happening at the worst time,” which is fine. Some of it makes the audience roll their eyes a bit.

Luckily, the rest of “Cujo” is so damn scary that you can overlook most of these problems. It’s a film that milks every frightening moment out of its unlikely premise. It turns a beloved family pet into an unstoppable force of nature. It plays with panic and deep seated fears. Director Lewis Teague formally made “Alligator” and would return to King with the equally underrated “Cat’s Eye.” “Cujo,” however, is his best film and shouldn’t be overlooked as a classic of eighties suspense. [8/10]

The Muppet Show: Vincent Price

Here’s the real reason I’m watching an oddball thing. I found myself with a little extra time during my nightly movie watching. So, looking for something short to watch, I realized I owned the first season of “The Muppet Show.” After the intensity of “Cujo,” I wanted to watch something light. And, hey, I haven’t seen Vincent Price this Halloween season. So I popped in the disk.

Your enjoyment of “The Muppet Show” will depend on your tolerance for seventies variety shows, an admittedly stone-dead genre. “The Muppet Show” always mixed delightful wordplay, wacky physical comic, and an anarchic sense of humor with lame puns, flat skits, and overlong musical numbers. The Vincent Price-hosted episode has plenty of all of the above. The reoccurring gags about talking houses or Sam the Eagle presenting Wayne and Wanda are groan-worthy. The worst bit is a skit where Vincent Price plays a guest mysteriously arriving at a spooky castle, owned by Fonzie and Gonzo. The punchline depends on an ancient pop culture reference, sure to confuse modern viewers. Price is better deployed during funny sketches involving a cooking show panel and how to play a vampire. (Ironic, of course, since Price only played a vampire once, late in his career.) An all-muppet skit involving furniture turning into flesh-eating monsters is another high-light. The musical numbers, involving singing ghost and monster cannibalism, are better then average. The back stage shenanigans, this time featuring a three-headed critter, probably won’t entertain everyone but I liked them.

That Price would show up on “The Muppet Show” was inevitable. The show already had a Price-inspired muppet, who is featured here. Secondly, Price would show up in anything in the seventies. After "The Brady Bunch" cursed Tiki episode, the Muppets were probably considered a big step up. It’s weird that the muppet characters continue to endear but the original show’s format probably won’t appeal to most modern viewers. I’m touch and go on the series but Price certainly had a good time on it and the show made good use of his talents. [7/10]