Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 30

Madman (1982)

Last Halloween, I watched “The Burning,” one of the best retro-slashers the early eighties ever produced. That film took its inspiration from the campfire urban legend of the Cropsey Maniac. Yet there was another film from the same time inspired by the same legend. Like “The Burning” and many other films that would follow “Friday the 13th,” “Madman” is about a summer camp beset by a murderous maniac. Also like “The Burning,” the film actively engages with the campfire story concept. It’s hard to call anything ‘definitive,’ especially when dealing with a topic as wide-ranging as eighties slashers. However, “Madman” successfully combines many of the aspects I love about the genre and the time period.

A summer camp is closing for the season, the warmth of summer giving way to the browning leaves of fall. Around the camp fire that night, camp owner Max regales the kids and councilors with the legend of Madman Marz. A disagreeable brute of a man, one day Marz snapped and murdered his wife and children. A lynch mob strung him up but the body was gone by the next morning. Now, the legend goes, Marz is still out there and can be summoned simply by saying his name above a whisper. Naturally, one of the kids does just that. After tucking in the youths, the councilors settle in for a night of partying. Unlucky for them, the legend lives. Madman Marz is real and sets about stalking the camp, killing all he encounters.

The “Friday the 13th” films and “The Burning” were both slightly post-modern in regards to their campfire legend origins. Both basically showed the “true” events behind a popular legend. “Madman,” meanwhile, plays out exactly like a campfire story. Whether or not Madman Marz is just a hard-to-kill bastard or a genuine ghost is up for debate. His inhuman behavior and monstrous appearance certainly supports the ghost theory. His massive size, mane of white hair, and deformed face leaves Marz resembling a fairy tale ogre. Another differentiating factor in “Madman’s” favor is that the story is set entirely at night. This can lend the film a surprising moodiness at times. The early scenes, showing Marz slowly walking through his empty home, provide a nice creepiness. Scenes of the kids just walking through the woods get a considerable boost just from the pretty, eerie black-blue photography. For a low budget, down-and-dirty slasher flick, “Madman” can look surprisingly good at times.

Like a proper slasher film is suppose to, “Madman” doles out the mayhem in sporadic bursts. When the killings comes, they can be way more intense then you’d expect. Marz stalks as much as he slashes. He takes his time zeroing in on a victim. Frequently, the monster is seen lurking in the background before he strikes. When he does, the action ramps up. He appears suddenly out of a dark room, slashing a victim’s throat. He ties a noose around another’s neck, dragging him through the woods before stringing him up from a tree. The audible “crack!” of the snapping spine makes that kill especially effective. Another decapitation takes quite a while to build up. My favorite sequences involves a stalling vehicle, the killer not coming until the victim pokes her head under the hood. Another great moment involves hiding in a refrigerator and more extended sequences of stalking, before the killing blow comes quickly and suddenly. “Madman” is surprisingly willing to slowly build suspense.

Don’t get the wrong impression. “Madman” isn’t classy in the least. The acting is frequently terrible. Tony Fish is hysterically cock-sure as a character bizarrely named TP! Gaylen Ross, of “Dawn of the Dead” fame, plays final girl Betsy. Ross was apparently so ashamed of her participation in this film that she goes under the pseudonym Alexis Dubin. Despite proving herself a strong actress before, Ross is amazingly tone-deaf in the part. Look no further then the unbelievable scene where she drives a bus away from an attacking Madman. Betsy doesn’t fit the virginal part of the final girl archetype. She and TP share a love scene in a hot tub. The sex scene is mostly in slow motion and set to one of the most ridiculously maudlin love songs I’ve ever heard. Most of the performances are indistinct and cheesy, like the one counselor with the porn ‘stache. The only actor in the movie that isn’t awful is Frederick Neumann, going under the alias of Carl Fredericks, as camp owner Max. Neumann acts like he’s in a stage play, which is totally inappropriate for the material, but at least you can tell he’s a real actor. Apparently, that part was written for Vincent Price which would’ve been something… Though I can’t imagine horror’s gentleman in a flick this dirty and dumb.

That cheesiness is part of the charm. Any one who loves eighties slasher will tell you that. Yes, “Madman” is really dumb at times. It’s also slightly tedious, as you wait for the killer to appear. Yet “Madman” also has a lot going for it. It’s really well-shot. The director showed the basic skills necessary for suspense and mood. I even like the super-corny electronic score. Madman Marz is a genuinely intimidating killer with an unforgettable, monstrous appearance. The villain seemed tailor-made for a franchise. Despite some efforts over the years, and the continued enthusiasm of actor Paul Ehlers, “Madman II: Marz Needs Women” never rolled into production. Let’s sing the theme song together! The leeeegeeeend lives! Beware the Madman Marz! [7/10]

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

As a ten year old, I started reading grown-up books. My fascination with classic monster movies already intact, I turned my eye towards reading the original “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” novels. Among the books of gothic horror I collected, I found Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Like all the others, I read it. Unlike the others, I didn’t totally grasp the meaning of its themes or ideas until I was older. It’s no surprise that studios, after adapting those other horror classics, would come to Wilde’s book.  However, Wilde’s story is as much Victorian morality tale as it is horror tale. Back in 1945, this adaptation was even classy enough to win an Academy Award! Maybe for these reasons and more, I’m only now getting around to watching it.

Dorian Gray is a virtuous, young gentleman and the model for Basil Hallward’s latest painting. While visiting Basil, Dorian makes the acquaintance of Lord Henry Wotton. A hedonist, Wotton imposes on Dorian his idea that youth is a man’s greatest gift. After thinking about this, Gray wishes that his portrait would age instead of him. And so it happens. Dorian remains young and untouched on the outside, his heart and soul tarnished by his increasingly immoral actions. As the decades wind on, Dorian hides the increasingly ugly portrait in his attic, observing the hideous rot of his own soul.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a philosophical horror movie. Instead of being about mortal lives endangered by supernatural threats or madmen, it details the destruction of a man’s soul by his own actions. Many of the early scenes are devoted to philosophical conversations about morality, hedonism, love, pleasure, and age. Interestingly, the film doesn’t judge Gray’s action by the usual moral standards. His sex life doesn’t come up, for one. Instead, his wrong-doings are against other people. He cruelly rejects a woman who loves him dearly on a whim, leading to her suicide. Other people he leaves in his wake take their own lives as well, Dorian’s wickedness crushing the spirits of people near him. His ultimate rotten act comes when he murders his only true friend. The sequence is shot dramatically, Gray playing with the knife before stabbing the man. When he does so, he bumps the overhead lamp. The light sways through the room, casting the act and its aftermath in light and darkness. Four times, the black-and-white film flashes into vivid Technicolor. Each time, it’s a reveal of Gray’s portrait. When we see his hideous, deformed, latter-day portrait, in burning color, it definitely makes an impression on the viewer.

It’s hard to resist Oscar Wilde’s opulent, sarcastic prose. The makers of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” obviously couldn’t. All too often, the film relies on voice-over narration, much of it taken directly from Wilde’s book. As Dorian studies his portrait, the narrator talks. After he commits murder, the narrator endlessly talks. Many of these scenes would have been better, moodier and more concentrated, without the voice-over guy constantly yapping about the character’s mental state. Half-way through the film, the story leaps ahead by twenty or so years. Instead of seeing Dorian, ageless, living through the changing years, all his friends and family growing old around him, we simply skip to the end. It’s easy to imagine a lot of interesting, juicy details were glossed over by doing this. Even with the censorship standards of the forties, there’s more we could’ve seen.

Saving the film from many of these problems is its fantastic cast. George Sanders, Shere Khan to me and many other generations, is perfectly suited to Lord Henry. Sanders effortlessly prattles through the pages of baroque dialogue he’s given, making all of it sound cool as hell. Sanders’ dominance of the film is obvious when you notice he gets top-billing, despite playing a supporting role. At first, Hurd Hatfield seems too dry as Gray. Yet, as the story progresses, his coldness begins to work for the character. Angela Lansbury would be nominated for an Oscar as Sibyl, the first victim Gray claims. Indeed, her performance is heart-breaking. When Gray plays his cruel games with the character, you really feel her pain. Despite exiting the story early on, Lansbury cast a long shadow over the rest of the film. To the point where the perfectly capable Donna Reed, as Gray’s secondary love interest, doesn’t make anywhere as much of an impression.

Beautifully shot with some fantastically expressionistic miniature sets, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is an interesting, well-made movie. The performances are excellent, the strength of Wilde’s dialogue transcends the screen, and there are a few memorable, shocking moments. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this story could’ve been told better. I wonder if the sleazy-sounding Italian version from the seventies handles that aspect better? [7/10]

Hellions (2015)

I generally keep an eye on the film festival scene because it’s always where the best horror films premiere. As has long been the case for over a decade at this point, the indie scene is where it’s at when it comes to horror. Anyway, last year I started hearing some buzz about “Hellions.” Despite being the spookiest holiday by far, there aren’t nearly as many Halloween-set horror films as there should be. So here comes a film about malevolent trick-or-treaters? And it’s directed by the guy who made “Pontypool,” an odd but fascinating Canadian variation on the zombie concept from a few years back? Sign me up! As sometimes happened, the review started to roll in and they were fairly mixed. Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to get to “Hellions” during this year’s Six Weeks.

Dora is a seventeen year old who enjoys skipping class and smoking pot with her boyfriend. On Halloween morning, she gets some unpleasant news from her doctor: She’s pregnant. Uncertain of what to do, she stays home that night while her boyfriend is at a party and her mom and little brother go trick or treating. Before the sun goes down, a trio of sinister trick-or-treaters knock on her door. Soon, it becomes apparent that the kids aren’t what they appear. They are otherworldly invaders with nasty plans for Dora and her unborn baby.

“Hellions” runs a brisk eighty minute long. The film is able to throw together some attractively spooky set pieces during that run time. The true intentions of the hellions is revealed one at a time, more kids appearing every time Dora opens the door. Like many good horror films, “Hellions" successfully plays up the tension of being alone in a house, intruders trying to force their way in. At one point, Dora and her doctor are in her basement. The sinister kids are up-stairs and slowly working their way into the room. This is probably “Hellions'” most intense moment. The film definitely has some stand-out scares like that. The image of one of the kids crawling across the ceiling is creepy but not overdone. Robert Patrick’s late appearance is cut short when he’s suddenly yanked into an attic crawlspace. When down to Earth, “Hellions” is a solid home-invasion horror/thriller.

Disappointingly, the movie goes off on many weird tangents. At some point, the demonic kids yank Dora’s home into some sort of hellish dreamscape. There’s a pinkish-red coloration to the film from this point on. While hiding in a shed, Dora begins to hear voices, the monsters demanding they give her the baby. They begin chanting "Blood for baby!" This leads to much bizarre birthing imagery. One nightmare has Robert Patrick handing the girl a creepy, deformed fetus. There’s a long sequence where she wanders through billowing white sheets. While looking in a mirror, the girl’s reflection begins to talk to her. There are many odd scenes that go on but add little to the plot. Though capable of scares, “Hellions” is too willing to just get weird instead.

Another disappointment is that “Hellions’ isn’t Halloween-y enough. The early scenes, before the evil trick-or-treaters show up, have some nice atmosphere. The small town setting features lots of cool looking Jack O’Lanterns. At some point in the weird nether-verse, Dora is runs through a field of huge, exploding pumpkins. The exact purpose of the Hellions isn’t expounded on, which is fine. Mostly, I want to know why the demons choose Halloween as their night to cut loose. The film makes no attempt to tie in Celtic or Satanic Panic-style mythology to the monsters. Why set the film on Halloween then? On the plus side, Chloe Rose is likable enough as the heroine, managing to carry the whole movie without too much trouble. Robert Patrick is cool too, when he shows up.

I was hoping for more from “Hellions.” Director Bruce McDonald definitely has the skills for horror flicks. When focusing on straight-up thrills, this one works quite well. However, the director quickly looses focus, taking the story to these odd-ball, bizarre places. Of all the non-franchise Halloween horror flicks, “Hellions” is unlikely to rank very highly even if it has some interesting ideas. [6/10]

Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 29

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Once again, I begin a review with a childhood anecdote. As a youngster, our VHS copy of “Buff the Vampire Slayer” frequently found its way into my VCR. I was such a fan that when Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed and cultishly beloved TV series premiered, I was generally dismissive of it. Judging by the commercials, the show seemed to lack the humor of the movie. It took years for me to warm up to the show. Of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy is the one most people love, the one upon which a cult following is built around. Joss Whedon, and accordingly some of his fans, are dismissive of the original movie. I’m taking a bold stance, you guys: It’s okay to like both and, some days, I even prefer this version.

Buffy is a L.A. teenager, a cheerleader, whose favorite hobby is wasting time at the mall with her equally vaporous friends. She’s seemingly unaware of the strange murders happening around the city. When an older man named Merrick appears to her, referring to her as the chosen one, all of that changes. Buffy soon discovers that she is the Slayer, a girl chosen by fate to slay vampires. Her destiny puts her on a collision course with Lothos, an especially powerful and evil vampire. Merrick endeavors to train her in time while Buffy struggles to balance monster fighting with a normal high school life.

After the TV version of “Buffy” found success and popularity, creator Joss Whedon would occasionally say not-so-nice things about this movie. About how his script was heavily rewritten and the finished film doesn’t represent his original vision. Okay, maybe. Yet the most memorable thing about 1992’s “Buffy” is its sarcastic, frequently hilarious dialogue. Like “Heathers” before it, the film creates intentionally exaggerated, silly and trendy slang for the teens, giving them their own language. Conversations about the environment or hairy old moles greatly amuse. The interaction between flighty, girlish Buffy and her grave, serious Watcher Merrick provides plenty of laughs. People make fun of the training montage but it’s another stand-out moment, the sequence quickly making it clear that Buffy still has a lot to learn about vampire slaying. Buffy’s smart-ass response to the master vampire’s threat is another favorite of mine. Even the high school principal gets plenty of big laughs, especially during his rambling monologue about dropping acid. The point is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a very funny movie and remains funny throughout its run time.

Which I suppose runs counter to the movie’s goal as a horror film. As a horror movie, “Buffy” never quite gets scare. Occasionally, it develops an eerie feeling. Buffy has reoccurring nightmares about Lothos, one of which has the vampire appearing in her bed. A later scene has the same vampire floating above a potential victim. A scene set in a parade float warehouse also features a creepy, giant squirrel. However, the vampires are never frightening, if they were even meant to be. As an action flick, “Buffy” is more successful. Yes, it’s very obvious when Kristy Swanson is traded out for her stunt-double. Yet the action scenes are usually pretty likable. Buffy flipping, kicking, or staking vampires has a nice appeal to her. Her final fight with the main villain is especially satisfying, as it features a big ass sword and creative use of a flag pole. As far as horror or action goes, “Buffy” doesn’t blow you away but it scratches a certain itch.

Most of the above wouldn’t have worked without the film’s phenomenal cast. Kristy Swanson has the perfect mixture of funny and brave. Her Buffy starts out as very flippant but soon develops a nonchalant heroic side that I like. She has phenomenal chemistry with Donald Sutherland as Merrick. An exchange about the Watcher’s eternal life is both hilarious and touching. Rutger Hauer can do slow-boiling malevolence and manic evil easily. What I really like about his performance is the off-hand humor he reveals. Truthfully, the M.V.P. of “Buffy” is a near-unrecognizable Paul Reubens as Lothos’ lackey. His pervy attitude works well when confronting the heroine in a hallway or bemoaning his torn jacket. Truthfully, his prolonged, improvised death scene is the comedic high-light of the movie. Even Luke Perry, hardly the most versatile performer, comes off pretty well. After all, Perry gets to deliver immortal lines like “Dude, you’re floating!” and “Now, you’re a coat rack.”

So that’s that. I really like the original “Buffy” movie. Obviously, it lacks the dramatic depth and rich characterization the television show would strive for. It also lacks the contrived melodrama that would sometimes make the series a chore to watch. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking but I find the film to be really funny and entertaining. Don’t let the Whedon faithful crowd turn you off it. Give 1992’s “Buffy” a shot and you may like it! [7/10]

The Sect (1991)
La setta

After watching “The Church," it only makes sense to continue on to Michele Soavi’s next film, “The Sect.” The two films have more in common then just their director. Both are religious-themed horror films. “The Church” is about a cursed church. “The Sect” is about a satanic sect. Both films share a co-writing credit with Dario Argento. In Japan, “The Sect” was even released as the fourth film in the “Demons” series, just as “The Church” was released as “Demons 3.” However, there’s one big difference. While “The Church” is well-regarded as a cult classic of Italian horror, “The Sect” has never caught on to the same degree. This may be because the film has never received a proper DVD release in the States.

In the seventies, a satanic cult led by a man named Damon murdered and sacrifice a family of hippy youths in the American desert. More then twenty years later, a school teacher named Miriam moves into a new home in the woods of Germany. After nearly hitting an old man with her car, she invites him back to her home. He uncovers a hidden room in her basement, containing a deep well of blue water. The old man dies but not before leaving a present for the woman. Soon, she begins to see and experience some very strange things. Unwillingly, Miriam has found herself at the center of an occult conspiracy.

About the only problem I had with “The Church,” a movie I otherwise liked a lot, was that it could never bring its various subplots together into a coherent whole. “The Sect” has a similar issue but in a different way. Unlike “The Church,” which had no clear protagonist, “The Sect” is clearly about Miriam. The film follows her closely and she’s in nearly every scene. However, “The Sect” still suffers from a lack of focus. Occasionally, the story rambles off to side characters, none of which have a clear connection to the main plot. Weird or creepy things happen to Miriam for little rhyme or reason. Some characters even return from the dead in ways that aren’t clearly defined. “The Sect” concentrates into a stable story in its last half-hour, after over an hour of the audience being confused. It’s a bit too little, too late. Listen, I don’t mind some dream logic or lack of coherence in my horror movies, especially Italian ones. Reading that “The Sect” was written by three different people with ideas totally at odds with each other explains a lot. The film feels like an unfocused jumble of disconnected ideas.

Despite that, powerful images still emerge from time to time. This is still a Michele Soavi film so, naturally, it’s frequently beautiful. The director employs his trade-mark tracking shots fantastically. One instant has the camera tracking plumping inside the house all the way out to a sink faucet. Another scene follows a bug as it crawls inside someone’s body. There’s an especially effective dreams sequence. Miriam awakes in a green field, wanders towards a tree where a Christ-like person hangs, before falling backwards. Her dress suddenly stretches on endlessly, black cords crawling up it towards her body. Soavi doesn’t back away from visceral horror either. A death shroud springs to life, wrapping itself around someone’s face, strangling the life out of them. Later, a dead body leaps up, suddenly, violently attacking someone. An attacker does not let go of a moving vehicle, stabbing at the driver even as he’s dragged along. Probably the most disturbing moment in “The Sect” involves hooks meticulously being inserted into a victim’s face, climaxing with her skin being torn away. Soavi shoots all of it expertly, lending the carnage a certain art. Each sequence is calculated to be as unnerving as possible.

In his next film, “Cemetery Man,” Soavi would create a film full of symbols with complex, layered meanings. In this sense, “The Sect” could be considered a predecessor. Miriam has a pet rabbit, a symbol of both child-like innocence and pagan fertility. (One amusingly bizarre scene has the rabbits flicking through TV channels with a remote.) The satanic cult, meanwhile, is associated with beetles that crawl inside people’s heads, laying worms in their brain. Miriam’s water turns blue after the cult messes with it, gross slime floating inside it. In the movie’s weirdest turn, a hook-billed crane symbolizes the devil. This builds towards a scene where – I’m not kidding here – Miriam is raped by the bird. Some of these symbols have more easily understood meanings then others. That Soavi was willing to pack a story that wasn’t much more then a “Rosemary’s Baby” rip-off with such symbols speaks positively of him. What it all means exactly is another story entirely.

The performances are quite good. Even while dubbed, it’s clear that Kelly Curtis and Herbert Lom are solid actors. The film has no shortage of memorable sequences, it’s well shot, and the music is good. Despite everything it has going for it, “The Sect” never collects into a fully satisfying whole. This is most apparent in its baffling, non-sequitur ending. For his next movie, Soavi would stop collaborating with Dario Argento. In retrospect, maybe he should’ve ended the partnership sooner. [6/10]

The Queen of Spades (1949)

The horror genre can lead in all sorts of unexpected directions. This late in October, I wouldn’t expect to be watching a movie based off the works of Alexander Pushkin, the most respected of Russian poets. But here we are. Many critics list ‘The Queen of Spades” as a notable, landmark ghost story. The story’s literary roots are evident in its other adaptations. There have been three Russian adaptations and the story has inspired two operas. Yet the 1949 film version is regarded as the best.

In the eighteen hundreds, the card game of Faro has become very popular among soldiers in the Russian army. Herman Suvorin is very serious about his gambling and hopes to make it rich playing cards. In a book of occult writing, he reads about an old countess who sold her soul to the devil in exchange for never loosing at cards. Locating the old woman, Herman devises a plan to seduce the countess’ ward, in order to get close to the old woman and learn her secret.

“The Queen of Spades” is one of the best looking films from the forties that I’ve ever seen. It is gorgeously shot. The film is bathed in shadows. Characters peer around corners in darkened rooms, the actors shot from stylized angles. The direction is way more dynamic then you’d expect from this time period. The pans are smooth, the camera moving in a poetic fashion around the scenes. “Queen of Spades” is shot like a noir, expressive in its darkness. It’s a dark story of greed and manipulation and the film itself follows that thought. Befitting a period film, “Queen of Spades” has opulent production values, full of beautiful costumes, rooms, and parties. In short, this is one good looking movie, both in terms of style and production designs.

To call “Queen of Spades” a horror movie is slightly misleading. For most of its run time, the film is about a very bad man manipulating a perfectly innocent woman for totally selfish reasons. Yes, there is a love triangle. While Herman courts Lizaveta solely to get close to the countess, his friend Andrei actually has genuine feelings for her. (This subplot also features some on-the-nose symbolism about a caged bird.) However, “Queen of Spades” doesn’t lack spooky moments. While reading about the Countess’ deal with the devil, we see images of an old, cobweb-strewn building where a man assembles creepy dolls. Later, as the old woman attempts to go to sleep, Herman approaches her. Though not outright sinister, the sequence is shot in a creepy fashion, the black and white contrast being extremely high. This builds towards a hugely impressive sequence of mounting dread. After the Countess’ death, Herman sits alone in his room. Suddenly, the area is quiet. Footsteps are heard down the hall. Wind blows and windows creak. It’s classic horror stuff but pulled off in astonishing fashion. Though the movie is as much costume drama as ghost story, this one hugely impressive sequence solidifies “Queen of Spades’” reputation as a horror classic.

The acting is theatrical but involving. Anton Walbrook is powerful as Herman, a man so gripped by greed that he is willing to break any moral ground if it’ll make him richer. Walbrook’s performance is extremely controlled, the character’s every movement calculated. I also like Yvonne Mitchell as the poor girl strung along by his scheme. There’s a powerful sequence where, after the Countess’ death, Herman confesses his ploy. While Lizaveta cries out in disbelief, he is still struck by the Countess dying before he could learn her secret. “Queen of Spades” builds towards a moral about the price of avarice. Like an extremely classy “Tales from the Crypt” issue, “Queen of Spades” ends with the asshole getting his just desserts. However, the story stops of anything more explicit. There are no ghastly ghosts back from the grave for revenge. Greed makes humans monstrous on their own.

I have no idea if “The Queen of Spades’ will appeal to most horror fans. It’s a slower story and its supernatural elements take a while to reveal themselves. However, I loved it. The film is beautifully shot, a pleasure to watch just based on its visual. The acting is wonderfully entertaining, if you’re on the right wavelength. As Halloween mood setting, “Queen of Spades’ is hugely successful, a series of spooky imagery building in intensity. The crossover between fans of horror and Russian literature is probably pretty small but everyone else in that Venn diagram loves “Queen of Spades” a bunch too, I bet! [9/10]

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 28

The Church (1989)

I’m a big fan of “StageFright,” the first proper horror film Michele Soavi made, and an even bigger fan of “Cemetery Man,” his last credit before working exclusively in Italian televison. Weirdly, I’ve never seen the two religious horror films Soavi made in-between those features. The Six Weeks of Halloween is for correcting oversights like this. “The Church” was the first time Soavi collaborated on a screenplay with Dario Argento, the filmmaker he had acted or assistant directed under many times before. “The Church” would prove to be Soavi’s break-out hit, marking him as the proper heir to Argento’s throne as the Italian master of visually innovative, poetic, and viscerally gruesome horror. Conceived as the third film in the “Demons” series – one of at least three movies claiming that title – the film was released as a stand-alone story at least in Italy and the States. I probably should’ve seen it way before now.

In the center of a modern German city stands a massive, ancient, elaborate cathedral. Hundreds of years ago, the church was built upon a mass grave of innocent people murdered as witches. The church’s new librarian looks into the building’s history, when not pursuing a romance with the female archaeologist excavating the place. He uncovers a strange crypt in the church’s basement. When he breaks the seal, he is overcome by a demonic force. Soon, the same Satanic influence begins to affect everyone inside the church. When the sacristan brutally kills himself, his blood activates an old mechanism which locks the place’s only exit. Now, a group of normal people are trapped inside the church with very old and very evil forces.

The reason Soavi was the logical successor to Argento’s title is that both filmmakers share a unique visual sense. “The Church” is full of moments that are equally poetic, kinetic, or gruesome. After the extended opening, the camera rushes up from the underground cross, through the floors of the church, onto its main floor. When Evan is overcome by the demonic force, he pulls his own heart out, holding it above a blood red sky. The camera then speeds through the city’s streets, coming to the girlfriend’s home. The film’s deft touch for gory spectacle manifests when an old woman bangs her husband’s decapitated head against a bell. Or a man impales himself on a jack hammer, an extended and brutal scene. Or a priest falls from a balcony, landing on a pointed spire below. Or a woman has her head smashed against a speeding train. Mostly, “The Church” is full of creepy, unsettling imagery. A demonic goat appears outside a widow. Later, the same monster slowly makes love with a hypnotized woman. A biker’s girlfriend appears nude, wrapped in the arms of a winged demon. Piles of muddy, bloody bodies emerge from the cathedrals’ bowels. These unnerving images lend “The Church” a strange, creeping sense of unease. The movie is genuinely spooky for most of its run time.

This is despite a script that can best be described as scatterbrained. “The Church’s” story barely makes any sense. It basically boils down to the bad juju in the church making all sorts of weird, creepy shit happen. A major problem with the movie is that there’s no defined protagonist. At first, Evan the new librarian seems to be the main character. The movie even devotes time to his romance with Lisa. On the other hand, Evan is the first person to become possessed and disappears for the rest of the movie. Hugh Quarshie’s heroic priest gets top billing and resolves the story. However, he doesn’t do much besides that. The sacristan’s daughter may be the main character. We follow her for most of the run time. Asia Argento, even at only fourteen years old, is still the most captivating actor in the movie. Yet she never drives the plot, merely reacting to it. In the second half, there’s over a dozen people in the church. There’s a biker, his girlfriend, a bride and her wedding party, a teacher, her students, an elderly couple, the priests, and probably a few others. Time is split between each of them, leading to a lack of focus just when “The Church” is truly ramping up.

Italy is, obviously, the most Catholic country in the world. Weirdly, you don’t see more Italian horror films commenting on Catholicism. “The Church,” however, breaks this trend. The movie begins with a clan of Christian knights massacring an entire village of people with little reasoning. The cruelties and indignities of the Catholic Church inform the backbone of the film. Many people have been tortured and persecuted in the name of God. The exact source of the evil in “The Church” is never outright stated. However, it’s implied that the demonic forces come not from the supposed witches but instead from the cruelty inflicted on them by the church. “The Church” seems more then willing to use classic Catholic imagery in an effort to unnerve. The demons and monsters seem inspired by bizarre, medieval frescoes of demons and the devil. Hooded men, standing around and chanting, take on a sinister quality even before the weird shit starts happening. “The Church” acknowledges that Catholicism is kind of weird and then twists the religion into startling, strange, unnerving directions.

Despite some plotting problems, “The Church” is hugely successful as a creepy, visual horror show. Soavi inflicts some truly strange and eerie imagery on the audience. The film cultivates an unnerving atmosphere that never truly lets up. It’s also full of inventive slaughter and sleazy nudity, if those are the things you’re looking for. Truthfully, the only horror fans likely to be disappointed in “The Church” are those that demand constant coherence and logic from their movies. And if you’re an Italian horror fan, you probably aren’t too invested in those things, anyway. [8/10]

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

When I was reading Fangoria as a teenager, they had this thing called the Chainsaw Awards. Basically, the fans would vote for what they considered the best horror films from the past year. (It was an inspiration for own silly genre award show, the Phantom Awards.) Apparently, horror fans have always felt the need to give fake awards to movies they like. Back in 1959, Famous Monsters magazine – the prototype for all horror mags – awarded “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” the Shock Award. The makers of the film were so proud of this achievement that they slapped the award right there on the poster. Though obscure even by monster kid standards, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” does have a minor cult following.

Piedras Blancas is a real place, a seaside outpost near the California town of San Simeon. The location is most famous for its light house. In “The Monster of Piedras Blancas,” the town is a sleepy location full of normal people, going about their lives. Like lighthouse keeper Sturges or his comely daughter Lucy. However, the town is shocked when headless bodies are discovered along the coast. It turns out the caves around Piedras Blancas are home to an inhuman, reptilian monster. Now, the creature has developed a hobby of collecting people’s heads. How is the lonely lighthouse keeper connected to the deadly beast?

“The Monster of Piedras Blancas” was a low budget independent monster movie, made primarily by craftsman and workers recently laid off by Universal Studios. Accordingly, the movie resembles many late period Universal sci-fi or monster movies. Like “The Monolith Monsters,” the small town setting proves charming. Piedras Blancas is a place where everyone shops at the same small store. The only place to go at nights is the local bar and the neighborhood priest is on a first name basis with everyone. Moreover, the movie cooks up a cute mythology for its titular critter. Like the Gill-man, the monster is said to be a remnant survivor of a long since extinct species. Real diplovertebrons were crocodile-like amphibians, while the movie’s monster is a pig-faced monster man. All throughout the film, legends of the monster are traded. Nobody believes them at first but, naturally, the creature soon proves itself real. Silly quasi-science and hokey small town settings might put some viewers off. I find them fun.

Like a lot of indie horror flicks of the time, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” features some oddball characters. Most notable is Kochek, the eccentric storekeeper. He keeps talking about the monster, annoying everyone with the lore, until the monster finally comes for him. (Kochek sounds a lot like Kolchak and his constant talk of monsters amused me.) John Harmon plays the lonely lighthouse keeper, whose only friend in the world is his dog and his daughter. Harmon is somewhat gruff but secretly has a compassionate heart. I also like Forrest Lewis as the town’s constable, who is more confused then disturbed by the monster’s grisly murders. He’s also tough enough to survive an up-close encounter with the beast. There’s even a little dark humor, like when a funeral for two of the monster’s victims is interrupted by news of the monster’s latest murder. Not all the performances are fun. Les Tremayne is a snore as the boring scientist hero. Jeanne Carmen, as screaming damsel Lucy, was likely cast more for her looks then her acting abilities.

The setting is comfy and the performances are mostly neat. Yet the monster obviously steals the show. The creature suit was designed by Jack Kevan, who worked on many Universal B-flicks of the time. Apparently, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas” utilized left-over pieces from “This Island Earth” and “The Mole People!” Yet it’s an appealing design, with his hog-like snout, canine-esque jaws, and barely visible devil horns. The monster is even slightly sympathetic, as we learn it is killing only because its regular food supply was cut off. Notably, the film is far gorier then you’d expect from 1959. Decapitation is the Monster’s preferred method of killing and bloody, severed heads put in multiple appearances. The whole thing ends with a shoot-out at that famous lighthouse.

It doesn’t break any new ground. Truthfully, the film is proudly derivative of older, better movies. Monster fans don’t necessarily demand a lot. The creature looks cool, cool enough to warrant many model kits over the years. The black-and-white photography is nicely atmospheric. The setting is appealing. It’s unambitious but, watched late at night with a handful of popcorn, it certainly satisfies. [7/10]

Little Monsters (1989)

Kids do not have the most discriminating taste. They basically watch anything as long as it tickles some sort of primal pleasure center, usually via bright colors, loud comedy, or repetitive fantasy violence. If something does this especially well, kids will watch it over and over again. As a child, I had a dark, washed-out copy of “Little Monsters,” recorded from a rental tape. I watched the movie many times until the tape worn out. Weirdly, after a certain age, I didn’t return to “Little Monsters” much. Revisiting the flick as a grown-up, it’s the first time I’ve thought – much less watched – the movie in years.

Brian is a kid in the seven-to-ten range. He lives with his little brother Eric and his mom and dad. Eric is oblivious but Brian can see that his parents’ marriage is starting to crack apart. Not helping matters is someone getting up to mischief at night. Brian’s bike is wrecked and someone left ice cream in the pantry. Soon, Brian realizes that he has a monster living under his bed. The monster, named Maurice, is actually quite friendly. He introduces Brian to the underground world of monsters, where there are no bed times, kids can do whatever they want, and lots of manic fun can always be had. Of course, this comes with a price. Brian soon discovers not every monster is as friendly as Maurice.

Like I said, kids are easy to amuse. “Little Monsters” is definitely a kid’s movie. When Maurice first appears, he starts shouting and yelling rapidly, leaping around the room. The character stays in this mode throughout most of the film, Howie Mandel pushing his shtick to its extreme. When he pulls Brian into the monster world, yet more goofy, hyper shenanigans occur. “Little Monsters” is also fairly crass for a PG flick. There are fart jokes and multiple references to boogers and ear wax. One scene even has Maurice peeing in a bottle. There’s also a bit more profanity then you might expect. Like a kid’s movie, “Little Monsters” features the easily defined roles of the genre. Brian is the lazy-but-brilliant hero, there’s his tom girl love interest, nerdy friend, and the obnoxious bully. Still, “Little Monsters” is an eighties kid’s flick. That’s significant. The subplot about the parents breaking up informs most of the story. Eventually, a moral about growing up arises. I’m not saying it rises above its genre. The film is actually entirely typical of its time and place.

Watching as an adult, what I most liked about “Little Monsters” is its production design. The world of the monsters is mostly composed of rickety staircases, run down and damaged. The closer the characters get to the villain’s lair, the more surreal the place becomes. There’s even some “Caligari’-esque jagged landscapes. There’s a weird, desolate, and crowded look to the place. The entire dimension is shot through a reddish-brown color filter, creating an interestingly subterranean feeling. The monsters themselves are memorably weird. Maurice, just for one, dresses like a New Wave/Punk kid. Most of the monsters have blue skin, curving horns, or spots all over their bodies. One minor character has a head like a rotted pumpkin. Another appears to be an over-sized cockroach. None of the make-up will blow your mind but the creature designs have their own odd charm.

“Little Monsters” is loosely plotted. There’s not much drive to the story. The film mostly concern itself with Brian and Maurice getting into nasty fun. To show you how lackadaisical the plotting is, the villain Snik isn’t introduced until an hour into the movie. At some point, Brian doubts his monster friend’s habits and fears he may be turning into a monster himself. This plot point is mostly dropped by the end. In the last act, “Little Monsters” shows a surprising willingness to get weird and creepy. The villainous monsters kidnap Brian’s little brother. He goes and confronts the main baddie. The character is named Boy and dresses in a prep school uniform. At first, he appears relatively human but a closer inspection reveals gory flesh raising through his skin. Later, he tears his face off, revealing a monstrous visage underneath. His room is full of toys that spring to life and attack the kids. Not quickly though. Instead, the wicked teddy bears or toy tanks slowly move into place. Obviously meant to be a symbol of arrested development, Boy is definitely one of the weirdest and creepiest bad guys in eighties kid’s fiction.

Of course, the bad guys are vanquished and the heroes prevail. There’s a lot of goofy kid movie antics in the last act of “Little Monsters,” contrasting weirdly with the movie’s creepiness. The film is too long, at 101 minutes. This could have been solved easily is the overly long epilogue had been clipped down. I’m not sure if “Little Monsters” is a good movie. The script is sloppy, the characters are simplistic, the tone is inconsistent, and the performances are broad. I can see why it appealed to my younger self though, with its obnoxious humor and odd creature designs. Adult me doesn’t like it anywhere near as much but I do appreciate certain aspects of it. [6/10]

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 27

The Others (2001)

After the break-out success of “The Sixth Sense,” it seemed like classy ghost stories were going to be the defining cinematic horror style of the new decade. This trend turned out to be fairly short lived, a harsher form of horror emerging shortly afterwards. Before that happened, we got a few interesting movies. Such as “The Others.” The film was even sold as “from the creators of “The Sixth Sense,”” presumably because “from the director of “Tesis”” didn’t carry the same commercial appeal. Unusual for a horror film, “The Others” received many awards, winning Goyas and being nominated for BAFTAs and a Golden Globe. A decade later, how does it hold up?

Grace lives alone in a large house on the fog-choked island of Jersey. Her children, Anne and Nicolas, suffer from a rare allergy to light, forcing the home’s curtains to be drawn at all hours. Her husband disappeared in World War II and Grace has given up hope that he’ll ever come home. The quiet life the three live is interrupted when a trio of house keepers come to the island. Anne talks about seeing a ghostly little boy and old woman in her room. Grace is dismissive of her daughter’s claims at first but, soon, begins seeing and feeling odd things herself. She soon realizes that their home is haunted, that there are intruders about.

The best ghost stories understand that ghosts are just a reflection of the feelings and thoughts of the living. In “The Others,” the family is plenty disturbed even before the haunting begins in earnest. Grace keeps a very tight grip on her home, regulating everything that her children does and everything that goes on in house. When the housekeepers are introduced, she goes through every room, informing them of the place’s history. Grace is a devoutly religious woman, forcing her kids to study the Bible and religious text at all times. When her kids ask reasonable questions about the world, she usually yells at them. It’s obvious that these probing questions just make the fragile Grace uncomfortable. Her religious beliefs are just one thing she possesses, in order to hold her delicate world together. Nicole Kidman is so tightly wound, her performance incredibly controlled. Every twitch and small gesture gives the impression of a woman on the edge of breaking apart, barely holding herself together.

“The Others” is obviously in the tradition of “The Innocents” and many other English ghost stories. The home is introduced nearly lost amid the clouds of fog. The entire movie is bathed in fog, casting a gloomy atmosphere over the whole story. The creepiness of the constantly dark, nearly empty home is emphasized throughout. The amazing production design and Alexandro Amenabar’s incredibly patient direction establishes a spooky tone of creeping dread early on. When “The Others” goes for outright scares, it tends to be more subtle about things. A creaking door or a room full of white sheets are the kind of scares that define the film’s first half. Even the bolder sequences are more calculated. The sequence of Grace’s daughter seemingly being replaced with an old woman was all over the trailers and TV spots. The movie’s climax begins with the family waking up to all the curtains being torn down. Yet “The Others” earns the bigger scares. It’s an extremely focused, beautifully orchestrated exercise in atmosphere. Anyone who loves foggy old horror movies are likely to be impressed by it.

Like “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others” has a twist ending that completely re-contextualizes the entire story that came before. It’s not too difficult to guess, even if you’ve never seen the movie before. The film features plenty of foreshadowing, such as the mysterious groundskeeper covering up a tombstone. Or the unusual nature of the fog surrounding the home, a seemingly inescapable wall that surrounds the property. Spoiler alert for a fourteen year old movie: Grace and her children are the ghosts. The spectres they keep seeing are actually the current, living residents of the home. However, this twist isn’t just a cheap attempt to catch the audience off-guard. “The Others” is about people’s inability to let go of the past. When her husband reappears in the fog, he quickly leaves again. Grace holds tight to the home, determined to keep her tiny world exactly as she wants it. The reveal builds to a sense of emotional catharsis. We learn the details of how Grace and her children became ghosts. In these moments, “The Others” becomes a sad tragedy, a sorrowful ghost story told from the perspective of the ghosts.

Amenabar reaches for scares he can’t quite get in “The Others.” Instead, the film is built entirely on its wonderful atmosphere and its strong lead performance. It’s a visually gorgeous film, with a slowly turning script that is rooted in real feelings. Finally, it makes fantastic October viewing. Tucking in with a movie like this, bathed in fog and a slowly creeping sense of dread, puts me in the perfect Halloween mood. Maybe it will for you too. [8/10]

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

These days, Sweeney Todd is best known as the singing revenge killer of Stephen Sondheim’s musical stage play or Tim Burton’s film adaptation. It wasn’t always that way. Beginning life as a penny dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls,” the story was soon adapted into a stage play. Like many other horror stories, the play claimed to be based on true events in order to add verisimilitude to its tale. Despite this being a blatant lie, many people believed it, turning Sweeney Todd into an urban legend. A story this grisly, with that much murder and intrigue, was doubtlessly going to attract the attention of filmmakers. The 1936 version of “Sweeney Todd” isn’t even the earliest film adaptation. There were two prior movies during the silent era. Yet the ’36 movie would really connect with people and prove a vital source of inspiration for Sondheim’s musical.

In Victorian England, there lives a barber named Sweeney Todd. Working near the docks, he invites unwashed and unshaved sailors into his shop. It’s the riches the men bring from distant lands that interest Todd. He pulls a lever in his shop, dropping the men out of their chair into the basement below, cracking their skulls or breaking their necks. In case they aren’t dead, Todd slashes their throats with his straight razor. His neighbor and partner in crime then bakes the dead bodies into her meat pies. It’s a good con but Todd sees an end to his toiling. He plans to marry the young daughter of a rich lord. The girl and her boyfriend have different ideas, which puts them both in the path of Sweeney’s razor.

“The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” directly adapts the original pulp serial, even including the titular string of pearls. As such, the story is awash in melodrama. Unlike later versions, Todd’s sole motivation is greed. He kills for the cash and pursues Joanna for the same reason. Sweeney is nothing but a wicked villain in this telling. Despite that, Todd’s interest in Joanna creates a love triangle with her boyfriend Mark. Her father, naturally, doesn’t approve of Mark despite his pure heart. There’s plenty of blackmail and betrayal. Todd manipulates Joanna’s dad and blackmails Mrs. Lovett into being his accomplish. Lovett, in turn, betrays Todd, allowing Mark to escape the basement. The fence Todd sells his stolen goods to tries to turn him in, another example of betrayal. As Todd’s goals close in, two different people go undercover in disguise in order to expose him. The film engages in so many melodrama clich├ęs that it, at times, plays like a parody of the genre.

Truthfully, “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” seems to downplay the story’s horror elements. Perhaps due to censorship, the cannibalism is barely mentioned. Only once do we see someone munching on Mrs. Lovett’s famous meat pies. That they are made with human flesh is more implied then anything else. We only see Sweeney take his razor to someone’s throat once. For a story about a notorious serial killer, there’s surprisingly little death in it. The body count maxes out at three and that includes the villain’s demise. Truthfully, the movie’s most macabre element is its titular murderer. Tod Slaughter goes way over-the-top as Sweeney. Every other line out of his mouth is a barber pun about murder. He makes references to “polishing people off” so often that it becomes a joke. He constantly says mean things to Toby, his young assistant, making it clear that he’s willing to kill the boy at any point. The character is so obviously evil that I can’t believe it takes a whole movie for people to figure out he’s a murderer. When Slaughter dons a cape at the end, Sweeney Todd has made a complete transformation into a cartoonish super villain. Slaughter’s performance, though ridiculous, is at least entertaining.

The film is so indebted to melodrama troupes that it even devotes some time to Mark’s adventures abroad. There’s a baffling sequence of the sailor aboard his ship, chatting with other men. This segues into a brief scene in Africa, the men warring with native tribes there. I’m not sure what this has to do with the main plot. Naturally, there are long scenes devoted to Joanna and Mark’s romance. When the lovers reunited in the last act, the film pauses so they can declare their feelings for each other. Even though Todd is pursuing the girl strictly for her dad’s money, that subplot still gets some extended screen time. At times, the murder and mayhem seems secondary to the film’s actual goals.

I’ve seen enough films from this era that I’m usually immune to the conventions of the time. A certain amount of romantic melodrama and goofy comic relief is to be expected. Yet “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” definitely needed more throat slashing and pies made of people. Tod Slaughter’s performance as the titular madman provides some goofy entertainment but the film is, overall, too restrained and distracted. It is seemingly in the public domain, meaning many prints of varying awfulness can be found all over the internet. [5/10]

Pulgasari (1985)

I have little doubt that the true story behind “Pulgasari” is more interesting then the actual movie. If you’re reading this, you probably know it already. Kim Jong-Il was determined to create a North Korean film industry. In an effort to do this, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his starlet wife Choi Eun-hee. “Pulgasari” would be the last movie the filmmaker would make while under the dictator’s thumb. A great fan of Godzilla movies, Kim Jong-Il forced the director to make a kaiju epic that would double as communist propaganda. He even got many of Toho’s special effect experts, including Heisei Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma, to work on the film. Not long after the release of “Pulgasari,” the director and his wife would successfully escape North Korea. Thus, “Pulgasari” is a kaiju flick with the strangest backstory ever. The only other country where the film was officially released was Japan, where it has garnered a “so bad, it’s good” reputation among kaiju fans. Is this reputation deserved?

In medieval Korea, the poor villagers suffer under the rule of a cruel lord. The lord demands the blacksmith make weapons for his army, using the villager’s pots and tools for material. When the blacksmith refuses, he is tortured and thrown in jail. The man’s family revolts against the lord, soon being captured themselves. With his last ounce of strength, the blacksmith sculpts a small creature out of rich. When his daughter accidentally bleeds on the sculpture, it springs to life. The creature is a Pulgasari, a mythological creature that eats iron. The more iron it eats, the larger and more powerful Pulgasari becomes. Aligned with the giant monster, the villagers lead a revolution against the warlord and his armies.

The titular monster of “Pulgasari” doesn’t appear until a half-hour into the movie. Before that, the film resembles a medieval drama and war movie. Parts of the film, devoted to the brave hero slashing away at enemy soldiers with his sword, reminded me of Chinese Wuxia cinema. So did the bits featuring rebels rolling rocks off a cliff, onto soldiers on horses. Quite a bit of screen time focuses on the cruelty of the lord against the innocent villagers. Even after the monster shows up, “Pulgasari” still closely resembles a war epic. There are long scenes of armored men fleeing the monster’s path while proud revolutionaries crowd around their kaiju pal. “Pulgasari” was obviously shot on artificial sets, shrouded in fog and odd colors. During its best moments, the film uses this to its advantage, creating a historical fantasy feeling. During its weaker moments, “Pulgasari” feels a bit tedious and marred in uninteresting melodrama.

As a kaiju movie, “Pulgasari” is still rather uneven, I’m afraid. The titular beasty begins life as only a few inches tall. After just a night of eating, it’s the size of a man. In a few days, the creature is truly a giant. The monster design, which is halfway between an ox and a dragon, is appealing. The effects are honestly better then you’d expect, as the monster’s face can be quite animated. Satsuma, already a veteran of suited performances, manages to gift Pulgasari with some personality. Setting a giant monster loose in a medieval setting is an interesting idea. However, “Pulgasari” is disappointingly short on mayhem. Too often, the film sets into a pattern. The film’s lead villain, the head general, thinks up some ridiculous scheme to defeat the monster. He lures it into a massive cage and sets it on fire. Or confuses it with a song and drops it into a pit, burying it under stones. Each time, Pulgasari escapes and drives back the army. Too much of “Pulgasari” is made up of enemy soldiers fleeing the monster. Not enough of the film features the kaiju smashing shit. He crashes some stone walls and buildings but mostly just stands around, looking intimidating.

Aside from being a monster movie and a historical fantasy, “Pulgasari” was also meant to function as North Korean propaganda. If nothing else, you’d think the movie would have a grasp on that. Truthfully, “Pulgasari” even seems a little confused on that front. The peasants revolting against the tyrannical lord certainly recalls the people’s revolution. It also recalls, in perhaps an ironic jab by the director by his captors, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea itself. After Pulgasari and his human allies crush the evil king, the film takes another weird turn. The monster continues to demand iron. He is eating the newly liberated village out of house and home. The people feel obligated to the monster but are fearful of its wrath. The film protagonist explicitly states the point of this extended epilogue. She says the monster's constant demand for iron will force more wars into existence. Ah, Pulgasari represents capitalism and the West! He liberates the peasants from their oppressors but then demands more and more, fueling a cycle of unending conflict. Still, considering “Pulgasari” was made by filmmakers coerced by a dictator, all its talk about people rebelling against tyrants comes off as awfully ironic.

“Pulgasari” isn’t exactly so-bad-it’s-good. There are definitely amusing moments. When the monster swallows a cannonball and then spits it back out, that made me laugh. Overall, I felt the film was a bit of a snore. Its monster is charming but he’s not given enough to do. As a kaiju flick, it’s far too short on destruction and building smashing. As a historical drama, it’s a bit flat. And the filmmaker seemed to be intentionally undermining its purpose as North Korean propaganda. So “Pulgasari” isn’t truly successful in any way. I have no doubt that the inevitable documentary or fictionalized retelling about its making will be far more interesting. [5/10]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Halloween 2015: October 26

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Can you believe I’ve never seen this movie before? “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is one of the definitive fifties monster movies. The title has been referenced and mock countless times over the decades. “I Was a Teenage __” is a common snowclone used by subsequent horror films and TV sitcom titles. The film seems to encapsulate the campy quality of B-films of that era and also remains an object of boomer nostalgia. You’d think I would’ve gotten to it sooner, right? Yet the old monster movies I saw as a kid were largely dependent on what got shown on TV. I guess this one didn’t get shown that often. The film was originally released on a double bill with “Invasion of the Saucer Men,” which I’ve already reviewed this October. It seems appropriate to finally get to this one.

Tony is a troubled teenager. He has a hair-trigger temper, the smallest things sending him flying off the handle. This has gotten him in plenty of trouble recently, despite the best efforts of his understanding father and squeaky-clean girlfriend Arlene. Tony seeks the help of Dr. Brandon, an experimental psychologist. Obsessed with man progression from savage to civilized, Brandon injects Tony with a secret serum and hypnotizes him. Now, every time he hears a bell ring, Tony backslides on the evolutionary spectrum, becoming a teenage werewolf. This only increases his angst.

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” was one of American International Picture’s most successful releases. From a business perspective, it makes total sense. Inspired by the success of 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” films about angsty teenage delinquents were dominating the drive-in circuit. Monster movies, meanwhile, were always consistent money-makers. So combining the two makes sound sense. As a teen angst film, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is better then you’d think. Tony seems to be a kid with a genuine rage problem. He’s introduced in the middle of a fist fight that is way more intense then a schoolyard scuffle should ever be. After his dad leaves him at home, he’s so distraught that he breaks shit in the kitchen. When he beats the crap out of a friend due to a harmless Halloween prank, even Tony realizes he needs help. Michael Landon actually does a good job as the conflicted teenager. Even his own emotions confuse him. He doesn’t understand why he’s so angry. As silly and overheated as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” can get, Landon’s performance roots the movie in some honest emotion.

As a werewolf movie, the film thinks up a unique origin for its lycantrophic threat. Like the previous year’s “The Werewolf,” the monster is created through mad science. As an added gimmick, the transformation is triggered through hypnotism. As far as the werewolf design is concerned, the film wouldn’t win any awards for creativity. The teenage werewolf looks like a cross between Chaney’s the Wolfman and the Werewolf of London. The design is well utilized though. The last act, when the monster has rabid foam dripping from his jaws, is certainly neat. Aside from that catchy title, the image of a werewolf in a letterman jacket is the film’s most enduring contribution to pop culture. As a pulp monster thriller, the movie delivers the goods. The werewolf stalking a shapely female gymnast works nicely. The second half of the story is devoted to a man-hunt for the beast. I admire the movie’s focus. It usually takes longer for the townsfolk in a monster movie to realize something is up. Hell, Tony even fights a German Sheppard in one scene. Considering its low budget, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” has a good balance of monster movie madness.

It’s always interesting to note how juvenile delinquent movies treat the adults in the film. The cops tracking the werewolf are sympathetic. I like how the cops and reporters openly acknowledging that they are hunting a werewolf. Tony’s Dad seems caring but his busy work schedule means he’s not emotionally available for his boy. Arlene’s parents seem ready to judge the boy as a trouble-maker. The mad scientist at the story’s center is entirely ambivalent to his patient’s suffering. Even his lab partner’s pleas for reason are ignored. The movie tacks on a ridiculous “Man shouldn’t meddle in God’s domain!” moral. Considering the movie concerns itself with the why adults judge and abuse teens, maybe the moral should’ve been “Teens are people too.”

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” is a pretty good drive-in monster flick. The performances are above average, the effects are solid, and the script is a little deeper then you’d expect. AIP hedged their bets with this one and it really paid off. Heck, the movie even includes a swinging rock-n-roll song-and-dance number! No wonder it’s an object of nostalgia. I’m really surprised the movie didn’t get a remake when all the other fifties classics were getting remade. Is the title just too goofy? A remake could truly explore some of the dark ideas this fun and campy creature feature can only hint at. [7/10]

The Puppet Masters (1994)

Robert Heinlein may be a wonderful writer but I doubt I’ll ever experience his work firsthand. Let me put it this way: A family member I can’t stand has an almost evangelical fidelity to Heinlein. He espouses the author’s political beliefs frequently and constantly praises his work. Despite this, you can’t deny the author’s influence on science fiction. He seemingly invented robot battle suits in “Starship Troopers.” His 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters” codified the Brain Slug style alien. The story was an obvious influence on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and parasitic puppeteers would crop up in everything from “Animorphs” to “Futurama.” When the story was made in a movie in the early nineties, following a troubled production, it was overshadowed by the stories influenced by the original book.

What is seemingly a small meteor crashes in a rural town in Iowa. Inside are parasitic alien creatures. They attach themselves to their victims’ brains, completely taking control of the host’s body. They multiply within hours. Sharing a hive mind, the invaders intend on conquering Earth. An elite government agency, designed to protect Earth from extraterrestrials, is on the case. However, the creatures are an insidious threat, difficult to contain and capture. Soon, the agents are uncertain who they can trust.

Heinlein’s novel is apparently a much bigger story, set in a post-apocalyptic future with space ship battles and a plot to defeat the aliens via mass nudity. The film version of “The Puppet Masters” narrows the story down considerably. The movie is a ground view of an alien invasion. We see the first victims taken over, a trio of farm boys. They spread the parasites to their parents and to the other people in town. Soon, the invasion is rolling along. Agents within the organization are compromised. The creatures attempt to take over the president. The soldiers sent to control the aliens are controlled by them. Containment is the military’s top priority in “The Puppet Masters.” The film repeatedly emphasizes how easy it would be for the invasion to grow to uncontrollable size. Though purists will likely complain, limiting the invasion to one small town instead of the world gives “The Puppet Masters” an urgency that I like.

Befitting a studio film from the early nineties, “The Puppet Masters” features some fantastic creature effects. The titular invaders look like the combination of a manta ray and a lamprey. Their leather wings flap helplessly. With their gooey, gross appendage, they shoot their impaling brain-spears. The movie devotes a lot of screen time to the creatures’ physiology. They identify each other by touching their natural antennas. As a hive mind, they don’t understand the concept of individuality. The monsters can contract into a pod-like form, making them easy to ship and spread. An interesting moment has the parasites being attached to chimps, which shows their tactics work even on a primitive level. Early on, we’re shown the Puppet Masters in action so they’re not just a conceptual threat. They’re a physical one. Honestly, the feature does a good job of emphasizing how dangerous the monsters are. They’re slimy and diminutive but no less dangerous.

“The Puppet Masters” doesn’t waste too much time getting to the point. Before the opening credits end, the heroes are investigating the crash site. Not long after that, they get their first look at the parasites up close. There are chase scenes, both on foot and in cars. Shots are fired. The brain slugs give their hosts super-strength, which leads to more then a few close-quarter fight scenes. The most exploitative moment, perhaps, has an infected half-naked woman leaping through a window and speeding away in a car. Those hoping for an intellectual sci-fi flick may be disappointed to read that “The Puppet Masters” ends with shoot-outs and explosions. I’m okay with this, though. The movie is a quick-paced, pulpy sci-fi action/thriller. The movie does make time for plenty of science, with stern characters in lab coats discussing the nature of the invaders. On the other hand, it climaxes inside a spinning helicopter.

“The Puppet Masters” is obviously indebted to other, better sci-fi flicks. The cast is uneven. Eric Thal is a bit wooden and Julie Warner should’ve been given more to do. Donald Sutherland is too dry as the leader of the secret division, though he gets a few moments. Reliable character actors like Yaphet Kotto and Richard Belzer are stuck in do-nothing bit parts. Honestly, it’s up to Keith David and Will Patton to enliven their roles, which they have no issue doing. I suppose it’s not terribly memorable. However, it makes for decent low-expectation late night viewing. And there’s enough slimy monster effects and tense moments for it to work in October too. [7/10]

Killer Kart (2012)

After spending a large portion of the Six Weeks watching horror movies with bizarre or impractical threats, I come to “Killer Kart,” a short film parody of that very topic. Cass is a finishing up her first day as store manager in her shopping center. She doesn’t notice it at first but something strange is going on. The building looses power. The phone stops working. A single shopping cart rolls into the store. When she returns from a bathroom break, she finds her co-workers panicking and covered in blood. That shopping cart is tired of being pushed around and has decided to go on a rampage. Will any one survive the night?

In just fourteen minutes, “Killer Kart” does a great job of capturing the tone of eighties monster movies. It basically takes a typical creature feature script and cuts out the long middle, leaving only the beginning and the ending. And adding a whole bunch of absurdity. The short has a clever way of presenting the killer shopping cart. We see the bloody, screaming victims before we see the Killer Kart. This leaves the audience wondering how an animated shopping cart can hurt anyone, which is exactly the joke. The short joyfully ramps up the gore of eighties horror flicks. The Kart tosses a decapitated head at a car and chomps someone in half, for two examples. Christine Rodriguez is extremely likable as Cass. By the end, when she’s fighting off the aluminum monster, she has become a creditable horror heroine. The short actually does a good job of establishing the humanity of its cast. I also really like Ray Bouchard as Hale, the guy way too old to work at a grocery store. He’s the only actor who winks at the camera, and the script lets him earn it. Otherwise, “Killer Kart” plays its ridiculous idea totally straight. That’s the way you do it. [8/10]