Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 30, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 30

I am currently in Baltimore for Monster-Mania 35, these updates coming from my hotel room. So there will be no updates tomorrow, the Halloween Horror Fest Blog-a-thon resuming on Sunday. Don't worry. A written convention report and podcast episode will be published soon afterwards. See you on the other side, Halloween faithfuls, and Happy October.

Bride of Chucky (1998)

After “Child’s Play 3,” Don Machini and most everyone else involved assumed the Chucky franchise was over. But “Scream’s” surprise success in 1996 brought with it a renewed interest in everything slasher related. The killer doll would return to life with “Bride of Chucky.” In addition to the new title, Charles Lee Ray would gain a new look, a girlfriend/wife, and the series would totally shift in tone. While not well received by every fan, “Bride of Chucky” would become the most popular entry in the franchise. It may very well be my favorite of these films, thus far.

Tiffany Valentine bribes a police officer, which she then murders, to bring her the tattered remains of a particular Good Guy Doll. Before Charles Lee Ray died the first time, Tiffany was his girlfriend. She’s carried a torch for all these years. After stitching the doll back together, Tiffany revives him. Not all is well though between the two homicidal maniacs and, following an argument, Tiffany ends up inside her own plastic doll body. Chucky remembers a MacGuffin that can restore him to human life, buried with his body. The two murderous playthings hitch a ride with a pair of runaway teenage lovers, traveling across the country and leaving a body count in their wake.

As the title indicates, “Bride of Chucky” ditches Andy Barclay and his childhood phobias. The sequel also abandons all pretenses of being a horror film. Instead, the script turns towards absurdist and often meta comedy. An opening scene features the trademark weapons of other famous slashers. Later, one of Chucky’s victims resembles “Hellraiser’s” Pinhead, a connection the doll comments on. “Bride of Frankenstein” is referenced throughout, sometimes to bittersweet effect. While relating his story, the doll admits that it would take “three or four sequels” to do it justice. When not making cute references to the genre, “Bride of Chucky” is full of amusing silliness. Chucky and Tiffany make chitchat while a victim is smothered to death. Later, a lover’s quarrel about dishes explodes into violence. Martha Stewart becomes a reoccurring joke. The two dolls even toke up at one point. The film takes its premise to its logical conclusion, giving us an intimate look at Chucky and Tiffany’s wedding night.

Considering Brad Dourif has always made Chucky a weirdly relatable character, the franchise’s graduation to full-blown comedy is a natural move. Dourif is just as adapt with absurdist humor as he is with murder-related one-liners. But what of Tiffany, Chucky’s bride? She’s played in human form by a voluptuous and scantily clad Jennifer Tilly, who is perfectly in tune with the film’s goofball wavelength. Tiffany is just as murderous as her husband but also carries with her a romantic streak. Such as when she considers a drive-through wedding chapel sweet. Or when she actually roots for the heroic human lovers. In other words, she makes an amusing foil for the cynical, selfish Chucky. The two are a match made in Hell. Tilly, meanwhile, is just as good a voice actresses as Dourif is.

“Bride of Chucky” would be the break-through English film for Hong Kong action auteur Ronny Yu. Yu brings a stylish approach to the sequel. Much of the scenes are set at night, adding a moody, foggy atmosphere to the feature. Befitting someone who cut his teeth on action films, Yu fills “Bride of Chucky” with creative carnage. A man receives a face full of nails. In a moment stretched out for maximum absurdity, Chucky blows up a friggin’ cop car. Tiffany literally smashes a glass ceiling, sending shards down on the couple below. The film even concludes with a car chase and crash. The use of CGI is sometimes overdone, such as in a dramatic dive from an exploding RV. Yet Yu’s stylish direction makes ‘Bride of Chucky” a good looking film while matching the screenplay’s gleefully silly tone.

While Chucky and Tiffany are clearly the stars of the show, the murderous doll having long since graduated to villain protagonist status, the human cast proves surprisingly likable. Katherine Heigl stars as Jade, the girl running away from a control freak uncle. Nick Stabile is her hunky boyfriend, Jesse. Heigl and Stabile play the material one hundred percent seriously, becoming the straight men to the quipping dolls. Gordon Michael Woolvett is amusing flippant as the couple’s gay best friend. John Ritter, of all people, appears as the asshole uncle. Ritter is very amusing, playing up his mean side. The film happily invites comparison between the teen lovers and the killer dollies, which is another layer of the script’s good-natured comedic streak.

There has always been an element of comedy in the Chucky film. After all, a small doll bringing down grown adults has always been slightly ridiculous, something the previous films would comment on from time to time. By embracing this humorous undercurrent, “Bride of Chucky” successfully revived a series once thought dead. (Yu would next revive two other eighties horror stalwarts, with the equally loopy “Freddy vs. Jason.”) The movie made me laugh a whole bunch, as it keeps the kills and quips coming quickly. [8/10]

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

By the time he made “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” Roger Corman had already directed eleven films. Keep in mind, all of those were produced between 1955 and 1957. The notoriously thrifty and prolific Corman was already an expert at churning out cheaply produced and highly profitable exploitation flicks. “Attack of the Crab Monsters” would be another big hit for him, made for all of 70,000 dollars and grossing over a million at the drive-in market. This kind of success might make you think that the film is some sort of overlooked, B-movie classic. Not quite. Occasionally, a movie about giant radioactive crabs that eat people and adsorb their minds is just as silly as it sounds.

This is the plot, as far as I can decipher. Scientists touch down on an obscure island for two reasons. First off, they are there to study the affect of radiation on the local animal life. Secondly, they’re looking for the previous expedition team, who vanished without a trace. Soon, the motley crew of geologists and biologists get grisly answers to both questions. Giant crab monsters, mutated by nuclear testing, have taken over the island. The same crustaceans have a bad habit of devouring people’s brain, adsorbing their minds in the process. How will our intrepid heroes survive such an insidious threat?

I’ve got no problem with “Attack of the Crab Monsters” being silly. Silly monster movies from the black and white era are my bread and butter. The movie’s ramshackle script is what bothers me. Minutes after touching down on the island, a man ducks his head below the waves. When his body is pulled back up, his head is missing. Gee, you’d think that would be a clear sign that something unusual is up? That our heroes should probably turn back? Nope, they sally forth. Later, people think nothing of strange sounds outside, choosing to dismiss them as wind. Characters disappear and reappear from scene to scene. What the crab monsters plan to do in retaliation against the human invaders also shifts frequently. In one scene, they threaten to blow the island up. In another, a mother crab monster is about to give birth to a whole brood of similarly deadly creatures. In yet another scene, the crabs declare that they will chip away at the island’s foundation, sinking it into the ocean. It’s pretty clear that the film’s plot was made up on the spot.

Which probably didn’t matter much to Roger Corman. After all, he wasn’t in the game to tell coherent stories. He wanted to make a buck. Corman contributes the film’s success to its outrageous title and unforgettably ridiculous monsters. Most B-movies would simply feature giant, radioactive crabs. Corman, meanwhile, mixed it up. Yes, the crab monsters are half human. Every victim they kill is adsorbed into a hive mind. As strange as that sounds, it’s nowhere near as odd as the crab monsters talking. Yep, the crustacean critters psychically speak with human voices, luring victims out into their claws. In one scene, a defeated crab monster vocally chastises the protagonists, letting them know he can grow back his limbs but they can’t. As dumb and hastily assembled as the film is, you’ve got to give Roger points for creativity.

“Attack of the Crab Monsters” only runs a little over an hour long, which is the right length for a film this done. This being a 1950s B-movie, there are quite a few scenes of characters standing around and talking. In truth, there’s very little action here. Several times, the heroes attempt to shock the crabs to death with electricity. Yet the attack scenes are so poorly organized that the effort barely registers. Honestly, a lot of the crab attacks happen off-screen, the audience simply hearing someone scream as they get crunched. Only once or twice does a human interact with the shelled monstrosities. The conclusion is especially underwhelming, a foot chase that leads into an unimpressive sacrifice.

Famously, the titular monsters were constructed from paper mache. It’s said that, in several scenes, you can see the feet of the operators underneath the crude puppets. I wish I liked the movie more. It’s premise is completely nuts but the execution varies between incompetent and boring. Aside from the goofy designs of the monsters, leading lady Pamela Duncan is what I’ll most remember about the movie. Her shapely body is clad in various tight outfits throughout. Corman prodigy Jim Wynorski wanted to remake the movie, seeing potential in its concept, but Roger wouldn’t let him. Apparently, the B-movie baron is fond of this one. That’s a fondness I can’t share. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Confession

I might have mentioned once before about how, for a brief period, “Tales from the Crypt” aired on Fox in a heavily edited form. I can definitely recall seeing “Confession” on that network. The episode revolves around two individuals. Jack Lynch is a hard boiled detective, currently pursuing a series of gruesome serial murders. Someone has been leaving the bodies of prostitutes, sans heads, around the city. Lynch believes he’s found a suspect in Evans, a screenwriter of violent and sexually explicit horror films. During an intense interrogation, it becomes apparent that both men have their secrets.

“Confession’s” script is pretty easy to predict. Not long after appearing on screen, the detective boasts that serial killers often carry souvenirs of their murders around in public. Lynch, meanwhile, always lugs a bowling ball bag around. Gee, I wonder what could be in there? Yet “Confession” is still entertaining, thanks to its cast. Eddie Izzard is amusingly sarcastic as the screenwriter, who frequently boasts of his research skills and industry success. (In a cute meta joke, Evans’ first credit is an episode of “Tales from the Crypt.”) Ciaran Hinds is, meanwhile, likably sweaty and intense as the detective. Watching the two play off each other is rewarding. The writer, occasionally, is more knowledgeable about serial killers then the cop, which leads to several nice moments. It’s a game of wits between the two men and both actors give fun performances. You can see the twist coming but “Confession” is still worth watching. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Skinwalker

“Lost Tapes” enters the realm of explicitly supernatural monsters with “Skinwalker.” College student Andy Miller returns to his childhood home, a ranch in the Utah countryside. He has two goals. First, he plans on recording the trip, in order to show his girlfriend back on campus. Secondly, he hopes to reconnect with his dad, who is still bitter about the boy abandoning the family business. Dad has lost several sheep to a coyote recently. While hunting for the hungry canine, Andy and his father encounter something very strange. Events which are captured on the boy’s camera.

“Skinwalker” represents “Lost Tapes’” best and worst tendencies. A brief scene devoted to the men driving, surrounded by eerie howls, is genuinely creepy. The required scenes of panic, when Andy runs while swinging his camera, actually ratchets up the tension. The conflict between father and son is standard stuff but slightly more grounded then “Lost Tapes”” usual drama. (Amusingly, Andy’s dad repeatedly asks him to put the camera down.) Sadly, “Skinwalker” still features some goofy moments. All the titular monster does is kill a sheep and traipses around in a wolf skin, which isn’t very scary. The episode’s ending is underwhelming, barely qualifying as a conclusion. Actual experts on Indian mythology are interviewed during the educational segments. Which is fine. But the decision to repeatedly insert stock footage of a growling werewolf is strange. So is the episode’s attempt to connect its story with Skinwalker Ranch, a location of dubious credibility that actually has little to do with skinwalkers. [5/10] 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 29

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

In the mid-fifties, Ray Harryhausen created a trilogy of black and white sci-fi monster movies for Columbia pictures. The last, and best, of these films is 1957’s “20 Million Miles to Earth.” It’s true that Harryhausen didn’t write or direct any of these films. The concepts, however, were usually his. The producers at Columbia were smart enough to recognize that Harryhausen’s Dynamation creatures were the selling points and built films around his ideas. “20 Million Miles to Earth” appears typical of the time and genre, at first glance. However, a deeper reading reveals a hidden, subversive quality that marks the film as unique.

A peaceful Sicilian fishing village is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a rocket ship, the vessel crashing into the ocean. A trio of brave fishermen enter the smoking craft and pull out two American astronauts, both gravely injured. The U.S. space program’s secret trip to Venus was a failure, most of the crew dying on the planet. The two astronauts aren’t the only Venusian travelers to crash land in Italy. A strange creature is also removed from the ship. Though pocket sized at first, the alien doubles in growth every day. Soon, the visitor has escaped captivity, forcing the military to contain it.

Harryhausen’s previous creature features were standard monster thrillers. The Rhedosaurus was a violent killer. The It that came from beneath the sea rampaged without reason. The invaders of “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers” sought to conquer mankind. The Ymir of “20 Million Miles to Earth,” meanwhile, is not naturally hostile. It’s a stranger in our world, frightened and confused.  The Ymir is a gentle creature that seeks out sulfur, its favorite food stuff, and doesn’t lash out unless attacked. But attacked it is. By angry dogs, men with sticks and pitchforks, flame throwers, helicopters with nets, electric shocks, elephants, tanks and grenade wielding soldiers. If left to its own devices, the Ymir wouldn’t hurt anyone. Humans everywhere meet the creature with hostility, attempting to capture or kill it. The Ymir is a classical monster movie outsider, a misunderstood innocent that is feared by a hateful world.

Ultimately, its central creature is the most interesting thing about “20 Million Miles to Earth.” As originally pitched, the film was set in Chicago. At the last minute, Harryhausen changed the setting to Italy. Why? Because he had never visited Italy and really wanted to go. The finished film features countless ridiculous Italian accents, delivered by clearly American actors. You’ll hear more realistic accents in a Mario game. Aside from the unconvincing speech partners, “20 Million Miles to Earth” features some moderately interesting military heroes. William Hooper’s Col. Calder is a standard sci-fi movie hero. Hooper’s romance with Joan Taylor’s Marisa, the female lead, provides some humanizing moments for both cast members.

Of course, the Ymir is so lovable because of Harryhausen’s brilliant special effects. The Ymir’s design is reptilian without resembling any Earthly creature. It’s movement is fluid and full of personality. Harryhausen incorporates little touches, like a two-pronged tale or biting jaw, that makes the monster seem more alive. The Ymir’s constantly shifting size also provides lots of mayhem. The final act has the creature growing twenty feet tall and rampaging through Rome. It wrestles an elephant, a fight that is quite extended, the audience getting its money worth. The Ymir tears through a bridge, knocks over pillars, and finally dies atop the Coliseum. While the Ymir claims its share of casualties, the audience never looses its sympathy for the monster. (I mean, at one point, the hero rams it with a car for no reason.) So we get our misunderstood monster and lots of city wrecking mayhem.

I guess if you’re not a fan of old school monster effects, “20 Millions Miles to Earth” probably won’t do much for you. Without Harryhausen’s work, it’s likely the film would’ve been entirely forgotten. The script is a standard affair and there’s very little notable about its human cast of characters. With his effects, it becomes a beloved classic among monster kids everywhere. In the immortal words of Please do not poke the Ymir. Having previously reviewed “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” last year, I guess this means I have to review “It Came From Beneath the Sea” next Halloween? [8/10]

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

If United Artists were reluctant to produce a sequel to “Child’s Play,” Universal was perhaps overly eager. After the second film’s success, the studio rushed a third installment into development. “Child’s Play 3” would roll into theaters a staggering nine months after the second film. Series creator and screenwriter Don Manchini has admitted that, by this point, he was out of ideas. The resulting film is clearly a quickie sequel, eager to profit off Chucky’s popularity. While the sequel did okay at the box office, its mostly negative reception – among both critics and fans – would keep the killer doll off screen for seven years.

Eight years has passed since the second film’s events. Rather staggeringly, considering its criminal notoriety by this point, Play Pal Toys has made the decision to resurrect the Good Guys Doll line. In the process, they accidentally sprinkle Chucky’s blood into a vat of plastic and resurrect the spirit of Charles Lee Ray. Andy Barclay, meanwhile, is now a troubled teenager, attending a military school full of assholes. Once again, the killer doll chases down his human arch-enemy, in search of vengeance and a new host body. Soon, Andy is attempting to protect another young boy from Chucky’s wrath.

Don Manchini’s lack of ideas is evident in the military school setting. With nothing else to do, Andy is forced to interact with high school movie stereotypes. There’s the asshole bully, who uses his higher ranking as an excuse to torment outcasts. Andy has a nerdy roommate, who even has asthma and wears glasses. He develops a romance with a sharp shooting female student, the only person who stands up against the bully. There’s even the required abusive teachers, manifesting as a strict head master and an obsessive barber. “Child’s Play 3” is basically “The Lords of Discipline” with a killer doll. Justin Whalin is fine as the teenage Andy but his performance isn’t as lived-in as Alex Vincent’s in part two. Perrey Reeves is likable as his love interest but the rushed script doesn’t leave much room for development.

The script’s sloppiness is most apparent in Chucky’s actions. The killer doll practically lacks a motivation for most of the film. He hunts down Andy out of habit, having no reason to target the boy after part two’s ending. Only after arriving at the military school does Chucky realize he can transfer his soul into a new body. The first two films emphasized the limited time needed to perform the ritual. In part three, Charles screws around a lot, causing chaos and killing people just because it amuses him. That is when he isn’t playing with the overly childish Tyler, a boy who finds nothing alarming about a walking, talking doll. But we’ve still got Brad Dourif. Dourif hams it up, mining hilarity from Chucky’s smart-ass dialogue while never overlooking the killer’s desperation. After being thrice reborn, his first action is to scream in agony, trapped once again in a plastic shell. The viewer is honestly starting to feel bad for Chucky.

Usually you can count on even the weakest of slasher sequels to up the carnage. “Child’s Play 3” has more murders but its gore lacks conviction. Chucky kills one victim just by startling him into a heart attack, a moment so underwhelming even the doll is incredulous. The war game sequences at the end features a shoot-out and a suicide dive onto a grenade. The only memorable murders are a trash truck crushing and a straight razor slashing, even if the characters only exist to up the body count. For its final act, “Child’s Play 3” shifts location to an overly elaborate carnival fun house. The setting is ridiculous, with a big roller coaster, a giant Grim Reaper statue, and no guard rails to protect anyone. Yet Chucky chasing his victims through an atmospheric dark ride definitely provides some entertainment value. If only the rest of the sequel showed that level of campy invention. (Jack Bender’s direction is flashy but easily the weakest of the original trilogy. Chuck Lerios’ score, meanwhile, is seriously overdone.)

Despite its lackluster reputation, “Child’s Play 3” does hold some cultural notoriety. Moral guardian assholes in the U.K. linked the film with the brutal murder of a teenage girl, even though there was no evidence to support a connection. Personally speaking, this is the film in the series to haunted me the most. As a young child, I can vividly recall discovering an ad on the back cover of a “Star Trek” comic. The sight of Chucky’s glaring face startled me so much that I threw the comic behind the couch, refusing to retrieve it. If I’m being totally honest, just seeing the poster is enough to make me uncomfortable. It’s a shame the movie, a rushed sequel that barely justifies its own existence, in no way matches up with that childhood panic. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: About Face

Once again, “Tales from the Crypt” returns to the themes of infidelity, revenge, long lost relatives, and bodily deformities. In “About Face,” a holy man named Jonathan uses his position of power to sexually take advantage of countless young girls. His wife ignores his indiscretions as Jonathan’s writings make them rich. That is until a young woman, Angelica, knocks on their door step, claiming to be the pastor’s daughter. The couple take the girl in. But she isn’t alone. Angelica brings along her facially deformed, emotionally unstable, religiously fanatical twin sister Leah. Homicide, naturally, ensues.

“About Face” doesn’t break new ground, especially when it comes to “Tales from the Crypt.” However, it’s a fun half-hour nevertheless. Anthony Andrews is delightfully sleazy as Jonathan, a man who maintains his piousness despite his uncouth actions. Anna Friel’s dual performance as the sisters is effective, Friel successfully creating two characters. Leah’s make-up is genuinely unnerving, gross but within the realm of plausibility. Combined with Friel’s intense acting, “About Face” features at least two suspenseful sequences. Such as when the deformed sister confronts the pastor’s wife or one of his mistresses. The twist ending is one the show has deployed at least once before, in season five’s “People Who Live in Brass Hearses.” Yet it’s still somewhat shocking, ending the episode on an especially gruesome note. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Thunderbird

Season one of “Lost Tapes” arguably reaches its lowest point with “Thunderbird.” Teenagers Kevin and Paxton steal their parent’s video camera with the hopes of making a skateboarding video, down at a local legend spot called the Ditch. Kevin’s whiny little brother Cole insists on coming along. During the long walk through the park, night falls. Soon, the three boys are pursued by a giant bird, swooping overhead to attack. After Cole is injured, the boys are endangered even more.

Kevin is, thus far, “Lost Tapes’” most unappealing main character. He consistently bullies his little brother, calling him a wimp. After arriving at the Ditch, he pushes Cole off a slope, breaking the kid’s leg. Afterwards, the other two boys abandoned the injured brother, ostensibly to get help. But after walking away, Kevin tries to convince Paxton to abandon his brother entirely. What a little sociopath. Sadly, Cole is kind of annoying, with his high pitched voice and constant whining.

I find it highly unlikely that, after a giant bird attempted to carry one of them off, the kids would continue on their quest to the Ditch. The monster is kept entirely off-screen. We see a shadow, hear a shriek, and the teenagers drop to the ground in fright. This happens at least twice. Annoyingly, the skateboarding scenes are set to fast paced rock music, a bizarre choice given the found footage format. (Naturally, there’s no reason for Kevin to record so much of what happens.) And the ending totally wimps out. The informative segments focus on pseudo-science about thunderbirds, pterosaurs, bird attacks, as well as basic facts about birds of prey and skateboarding injuries. I’m beginning to wonder if marathoning this show will be worth it… [3/10]

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 28

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Today, John Carpenter’s 1981 version of “The Thing” is rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. But I’m sure, back in the early eighties, some monster kids were aghast that the 1951 original was being remade. For decades, “The Thing from Another World” was considered one of the great pillars of 1950s sci-fi/horror. Officially credited to Christopher Nyby but usually considered Howard Hawks’ film, the original “Thing” is now somewhat overshadowed by Carpenter’s version. This is unfair to such an influential picture that still manages to scare today.

Loosely adapted from John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?,” the film begins in an Alaskan military outpost. After an alien space craft supposedly crash lands in the Arctic, the team is deployed to investigate. What they find is a massive flying saucer buried under the ice. After accidentally destroying the saucer, the men recover a humanoid figure in a block of ice. They take the being back to base, where it thaws out thanks to an woefully deployed electric blanket. The strange thing, a vegetable life form that drinks human blood, stalks through the base, attacking all who encounter it.

Howard Hawks was a versatile filmmaker, who made great contributions to the crime, comedy, and western genres. “The Thing” was his only horror film. Hawks didn’t adapt to other genres. He brought his style to different types of stories. “The Thing” is filled with grounded characters that trade fast-paced dialogue. My favorite cast member is Douglas Spencer’s Scotty, a reporter that sticks himself into the action and always has a quip up his sleeve. Yet I also like Kenneth Tobey’s Captain Hendry, a no-nonsense hero. He has a charming romance with Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki, the film’s required Hawksian woman. The cast is too large, with many of the characters barely developed, but a few are still likable. The comedic dialogue threatens to drain tension from scenes but the likable cast keeps the far-out story grounded.

“The Thing from Another World” takes a measured approach to horror. Focusing on the old adage that the unseen is scarier, it holds off on revealing the monsters for nearly half its run time. We only see the vague outline of the Thing inside its ice cube. People shoot at the escaping monster. In the distance, we briefly see the Thing brutally tear through the sled dogs. The film successfully builds up a sense of foreboding around its titular threat. Aside from the fleeting glances, it does this by discussing the creature’s habits. It’s a vegetarian being that sucks blood with the pointed barbs extending from its skin. These two styles combine in a notable sequence where the scientist dissect the Thing’s detached arm.

As much as “The Thing from Another World” suggests its horror content, the film also knows when to deploy some shockingly visceral horror. In what must be one of the earliest jump scares in cinema history, the Thing bursts through a door. It swings its barbed hand into the door frame, startling the men and everyone in the audience. Another memorable sequence has the monster slowly closing in on the humans. When it explodes into the room, they set the creature on fire. This doesn’t make the Thing any less dangerous, as it continues to rampage while ablaze. Yes, the Thing’s appearance is somewhat underwhelming. James Arness looks like a greener, thornier Frankenstein. The climax, where the Thing slowly approaches the protagonists’ trap, isn’t as scary as these earlier moments. But those shocks are worth a lot.

“The Thing from Another World” would have an immediate influence on the sci-fi/horror genre. The untrustworthy scientist character, whose willingness to communicate with the monster endangers everyone, would be copied by many lesser films. (It’s pretty easy to read into this, to see post-nuclear anxieties about where science will lead mankind.) The final scene, which has Spencer’s reporter imploring the audience to keep watching the sky, would also be widely imitated. While undeniably slightly hokey to modern eyes – what with its slow pace, stock characters, and talk of giant carrots – “The Thing from Another World” is still astonishingly effective at times. [7/10]

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

The original “Child’s Play” was successful but its release was met with some controversy. Apparently moral guardians feared the film would corrupt the minds of impressionable children. This panic, combined with United Artists being acquired by a horror-averse new owner, had the sequel shifting hands. Eventually Universal Studios, no stranger to monster movies, picked up the sequel. “Child’s Play 2” came out in 1990 to commercial success. The sequel also remains a favorite among the franchise’s fans. A friend considers it his favorite of the Chucky films and he’s not alone in that opinion.

“Child’s Play 2” picks up quickly after the first film’s events. After stories of Andy Barclay and his murderous Good Guy Doll hit the tabloids, the corporation behind the toy suffer serious losses. Their attempts to figure out what happened revives Chucky, who renews his quest to transfer his soul into the boy’s body. Andy’s mother told the truth about the murders and was declared insane. So Andy is now in foster care. The boy attempts to fit in among his new family are fraught by his lingering fears. Which turn out to be well founded, as it’s not long before Chucky finds Andy again and continues to make the boy’s life a living nightmare.

John Lafia has taken over the director’s chair formally occupied by Tom Holland. While Holland’s direction aimed for ominous, Lafia’s is more vibrant. “Child’s Play 2” is characterized by the bright colors of the Good Guys toy factory. Yet Lafia remembers he is making a horror movie. Several scenes generate genuine suspense. Such as Andy being locked in a school room with the killer doll or exploring the basement, taking the fight to Chucky. Or Chucky watching while the innocent toy he replaced is nearly uncovered. Or, my favorite, when Andy’s foster sister explores an empty house, stumbling upon a dead body. That scene, in particular, ends on a hell of a jump scare. “Child’s Play 2” maintains a fun house sense of horror throughout.

But more scares probably weren’t what fans demanded from a “Child’s Play” sequel. They wanted more Chucky. Series creator Don Manchini happily obliged. Part two practically makes the killer doll the protagonist. He’s brought back to life quickly. An early scene has him toying with a bound victim. After a toss down the stairs, his nose bleeds. Brad Dourif’s oddly humanistic approach to the plastic-bound serial killer makes the audience concerned for Chucky’s health! Dourif also sinks his teeth into the multiple one-liners the character is given. There’s an amusing glibness to sarcastic lines like “How it’s hanging?” The villain’s profane freak-outs also make the audience chuckle. He even flicks somebody off in an especially hilarious moment. You totally buy the character’s existence, even when he’s holding victims hostage and bossing people around. The combination of Dourif’s vivid vocal performance and the brilliant special effects makes the killer doll an even more unexpectedly lovable villain.

“Child’s Play 2” also understands the laws of sequel escalation. There’s a higher body count and more elaborate murders. This includes clever deployment of a bicycle pump, a brutal tumble from some stairs, and machinery assisted eye gouging. There’s also your standard throat slittings, stabbings, and electrocutions, though these are less memorable. The film’s carnage peaks during an outrageous final act. A car chase leads to a foot chase through the Good Guys factory. This sequence becomes more ridiculous the longer it goes on. The walls of doll boxes lead on to a surreal factory, where spinning gyros assemble toys amid colorful backgrounds. As in the last film, Chucky takes a beating. He looses a hand, looses both legs, is boiled in molten plastic, and finally has his head exploded with compressed air. “Child’s Play 2” sacrifices suspense for lively set pieces but it’s a trade worth making.

In the years between the first and second film, Alex Vincent has become a better actor. Part two’s Andy is a little more wily, more willing to take the fight to the killer doll. I like it when he picks up an electric carving knife or opens a valve of smoldering plastic. There’s few of the rough, overly cute moments that characterized Vincent’s acting last time. A loaded supporting cast helps. Gerrit Graham is nicely hammy as the asshole foster dad. Jenny Agutter is sweet as the foster mother, very willing to take care of Andy until she’s pushed too far. (Grace Zabriskie is, sadly, wasted in a minor role.) Mostly, I like Christine Elise as Kyle, Andy’s foster sister. She quickly develops a liking for the boy and the two share a nice chemistry. This helps, since the last act is devoted to the two of them fighting off the franchise’s villain.

“Child’s Play 2” is an amusing horror sequel, nearly as much fun as the first. It’s got more elaborate special effects, bigger gore gags, a handful of decent shocks, and an equally endearing cast. Most importantly, it’s got lots more of Chucky’s smarmy shenanigans. The way it directly builds on the first film’s story is also commendable. Six year old me never would’ve guessed that the horror movie villain that frightened me would prove so charming. I’m actually looking forward to watching the rest of this series now. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Smoke Wrings

Part of the fun of watching “Tales from the Crypt” is to see what future stars appeared on the show. Behind Brad Pitt, who featured in season four’s “King of the Road,” Daniel Craig is probably the biggest star to ever show up in the “Crypt.” “Smoke Wrings” stars Craig as an ex-con who worms his way into an advertising firm. His lack of manners irritates Frank, his male co-worker, but charms Jacqueline, his female partner. In truth, Craig has been sent by an embittered ex-partner of Jacqueline for revenge. He carries a gizmo the inventor cooked up, a sound device that can manipulate minds. The situation soon turns deadly.

“Smoke Wrings” is one of those “Tales” devoted to devious people tricking each other. Craig is manipulating the advertising firm. He’s, in turn, being manipulated by the inventor. The end reveals another layer of manipulation. The script admittedly contains a few surprising turns. The mind control technology leads to an amusing sequence where Jacqueline and Frank perform a series of demeaning tasks. The device also leads to the episode’s main horror element, a fantasy sequence where Craig imagines rats crawling over his skin. The cast is a lot of fun, with the future James Bond obviously being the stand-out performer. (Craig is, amusingly, billed fourth.) Ute Lemper and Denis Lawson are also amusing in their sleazy roles. Some lively direction from Mandie Fletcher further cements “Smoke Wrings” as another stand-out season seven episode. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Megaconda

“Lost Tapes” returns to the realm of slightly more plausible cryptids with “Megaconda.” If you hadn’t guessed, this episode’s monster is a big-ass snake. A duo of animal rights activist break into the warehouse of Ken Tobar, a local businessman. They suspect he’s illegally importing exotic animals and exotic animal parts. This suspicion is correct and they document the unlawful goods with their camera. However, Tobar’s latest black market shipment includes an enormous anaconda. The snake slithers forth from its crate, endangering the two activists and the night security guard.

“Megaconda” is one of those “Lost Tapes” were the protagonist should’ve dropped the recording device much sooner then they did. If a giant snake just ate my friend, I’m not lugging a camera around as I flee. The episode is actually okay, mining some average suspense from the cramped warehouse location. I doubt an anaconda this size could move that quickly but the snake attacks lead to at least one decent shock. We actually get an elongated look at the megaconda, thanks to glimpses on the security cams. The cast is mildly likable, especially Steven Littles as the security guard. The ending goes a little over the top, giving the unscrupulous businessman his just desserts. The info-tainment sequences are devoted to facts about anaconda and the black market animal trade, which are less ridiculous then the usual “Lost Tapes” factoids. [6/10]

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 27

Child’s Play (1988)

This one and I have some history. As an incredibly timid, easily frightened small child, I caught a commercial or advertisement for “Child’s Play” or one of its sequels. It traumatized me. The idea of something as innocent and harmless as a child’s doll, not unlike any of the ones I owned, becoming murderous was deeply upsetting to me. I had nightmares about Chucky. I lost sleep over it. For years, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the VHS box. Even as an adult, the character sometimes makes me uneasy. Of course, as a horror fan, I’m aware of Chucky’s passionate fan following and the many sequels this first film would spawn. It’s way past time for me to face this particular fear.

There’s only one thing Andy Barclay wants for his birthday: A Good Guy Doll, a doll that talks, smiles, and promises to be your best friend forever. Andy’s mom Karen has to support the household by herself and can’t quite afford the pricey toy. So when a creepy homeless guy offers to sell her the doll at a discounted price, she leaps at the offer. The doll is named Chucky and Andy carries him everywhere. Not long after Chucky comes home, strange murders begin to occur around him. Karen fears her son is mentally ill. The truth is much stranger. Chucky is possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray, the notorious Lakeshore Strangler.

As a kid, Chucky obviously scared the shit out of me. But as an adult I can see the seams in the special effects, which makes the psychotic doll far less frightening. The elaborate puppetry is clever, even if you can clearly see how the director shot around the wires spooling out of the prop’s back. However, the times the character is played by a child actor in a cumbersome costume are quite apparent. Brad Dourif, who has made a career out of playing psychos and scumbags, brings that same nervous intensity to his vocal performance here. Yet for all of Chucky’s murders and quips, Dourif also grants a sweaty desperation to the character. Charles Lee Ray is a sick fuck but he’s eager to regain his literal, if not moral, humanity. He also has a sense of humor, being overjoyed at the possibility of possessing a young boy. So is he still scary? Startling, maybe. But not exactly terrifying.

Truthfully, “Child’s Play” can be quite funny. Director Tom Holland similarly combined comedy and thrills in his previous film, “Fright Night.” The film is good at generating tension. The build-up to the first two attacks is drawn out. For that matter, Chucky’s supernatural nature is kept off-screen for a while. When the carnage comes, it can be graphic. Using voodoo, a man’s limbs are twisted around, cracking painfully. Another character’s brain is fried with a shock treatment machine. One of the best scenes has the doll attacking the cop in the car, stabbing through the driver’s seat. Holland mines some tension from the cramped location and the escalating chaos. Yet the way Chris Sarandon dodges the blade is also kind of funny. Often, the film acknowledges how unlikely it is that a doll could take down grown men. Though less overtly funny then “Fright Night,” “Child’s Play” shows that Holland has always measured horror and humor.

“Child’s Play’s” mystery format and fancy special effects are good at disguising its basic structure as a slasher movie, a film built around gory death scenes. What most elevates the movie is its cast. Catherine Hicks plays Karen Barclay. She’s a single mom who works long hours at a low paying job just to keep the lights on. Which means she can’t afford to get Andy the Good Guys Doll he wants so badly. Hicks shows a genuine maternal love for Andy and an endearing vulnerability. After playing the bad guy in Holland’s “Fright Night,” Chris Sarandon reappears as the film’s hero. Despite the odd Chicago accent Sarandon adapts to play Detective Norris, he’s likable as someone who is incredulous at first but quickly begins to believe Karen. The only major cast member to falter is Alex Vincent as Andy. His delivery is often flat and his dialogue can be overly cutesy.

Screenwriter Don Mancini originally envisioned the film as a satire of how children are affected by toy marketing. Mancini’s script would be heavily re-written but this intent is still noticeable. The Good Guy Doll combines several eighties toy fads. He’s visually patterned after My Buddy, has Teddy Ruxpin’s gimmick, and causes a Cabbage Patch Kids like shopping frenzy. Naturally, there’s an accompanying cartoon show. Andy is so familiar with the series that he can recognize episodes immediately. He wears the tie-in pajamas and eats the breakfast cereal. Yet the mountain of merchandise isn’t what truly captivates Andy. It’s the doll’s promise to be his friend, to enliven his lonely existence, that captures his attention. “Child’s Play” toys with the idea that Andy might actually be committing the murders. Even after the truth is revealed, there’s the creeping suspicion that the spirit of consumerism has corrupted little Andy’s poor brain.

“Child’s Play’s” last act goes gloriously over-the-top, Chucky suffering more injuries and refusing to die. It’s a good example of the sometimes manic energy the movie summons, which is utilized for both laughs and horror. Kid-me probably would still be horrified by the film but adult-me enjoyed himself thoroughly. I’m not going to rush out and buy any of the countless Chucky action figures but I think I’ve successfully conquered my childhood fear of this movie. [7/10]

The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)

“The Hideous Sun Demon” is a late fifties monster movie with an interesting back story. Star Robert Clarke previously appeared in “The Astonishing She-Monster.” Clarke’s deal guaranteed him a percentage of the gross. Despite that movie being awful, it was successful enough to earn Clarke a pretty penny. Deciding he could do better, he conceptualized “The Hideous Sun Demon.” In addition to starring and working on the script, Clarke also co-direct with Tom Boutross. The funds were raised totally independently. The movie was shot on weekends with a crew composed of film students. The distributor who picked up “Sun Demon” went bankrupt not long after its release, meaning Clarke didn’t see a dollar from the flick. In time, though, the creature feature would develop a cult following.

Something has gone wrong with Dr. Gilbert McKenna. During a routine experiment, McKenna is exposed to radiation from a newly discovered isotope. As a result, McKenna develops a horrifying mutation. Whenever he’s exposed to sunlight, he slides backwards on mankind’s evolutionary chart, transforming into a scaly, reptilian monster. Instead of moving to Las Vegas and only going out at night, McKenna desperately searches for a cure to his condition. Along the way, he befriends a voluptuous bar room singer. However, he can only keep the Sun Demon at bay for so long.

You can tell “The Hideous Sun Demon” was produced near the decade’s end. The film is far seedier then you’d expect from a fifties monster movie. Gilbert McKenna resembles the stout-chinned scientist hero of countless 1950s sci-fi flicks. However, he’s incredibly flawed, drinking too much and often making mistakes. He nearly commits suicide in one scene. In a bar, he meets Nan Petersen’s Trudy, a lounge singer. Petersen’s acting is quite bad but her low cut neckline is unforgettable. She even spends part of the film wearing only a towel, after she falls in the water during a beach side romp. The film consistently implies that Gil and Trudy are sleeping together. Aside from the sexiness, the monster scenes feature more violence then you’d expect. The Sun Demon squeezes the blood out of a rat. He crushes a dog with a large rock, albeit off-screen. He batters a cop to death with his claws. The film is a bit sexier and gorier then you might expect.

Don’t get the wrong idea though. “The Hideous Sun Demon” is still an incredibly goofy B-movie. The science behind McKenna’s transformation is dubious, based on the long discredited idea that fetuses advance through all the evolutionary stages in the womb. There are several scenes of stately authority figures explaining the science. How exactly the sunlight triggers his transformation isn’t expounded on. Since the script demands McKenna hulk out, he’s constantly put into sunlit scenarios. Throughout his adventures, he befriends a little girl while hiding out in a barn, a very silly story turn. The monster design is pretty cool. However, the long scenes of the Sun Demon wandering around in a button-down shirt and pants prove comical. (It doesn’t help that the Demon’s chest looks a bit like a scaly shirt too.)

Once you get down to it, “The Hideous Sun Demon” is essentially a backwards werewolf story. Instead of the moon transforming the hero into a monster, the sun does. Just as werewolf movies often contain subtext about man’s inner beast, something interesting hides inside “Sun Demon.” After awaking in his hospital, Gil asks the nurse for a drink. After escaping, he spends a lot of time in bars. His beach-side date with Trudy features plenty of booze. After a monstrous rampage, he hides in the basement of his virtuous love interest’s home. He begs her to help him, to provide a cure for his condition. Yet when that help comes, the cure proves too slow for Gil. He can’t control the disease inside him. Soon afterwards, “Sun Demon” ditches the subtext in favor of monster movie theatrics. But it certainly makes the movie a little more interesting.

“The Hideous Sun Demon” has been poorly reviewed over the years. It’s undeniably slow in spots, cheaply produced, and poorly acted. While Boutross would direct some television, this is Clarke’s sole directorial credit. (To think, I could’ve gotten a No Encore article out of this.) Despite this, “The Hideous Sun Demon” has some passionate fans. There have been numerous model kits. Fans would cobble together an unofficial sequel in 1965 with “Wrath of the Sun Demon.” In 1983, a humorous re-dubbing of the film would appear, alternatively known as either “What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon?” or “Revenge of the Sun Demon.” I’ve seen that one too and it’s pretty lame, despite an early starring role for Jay Leno. I’d suggest the story as a candidate for a remake but I can’t imagine the film being taken very seriously in today’s world. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Report from the Grave

“Tales from the Crypt” has often concerned itself with stories about communicating with the dead. The show returns to this subject with “Report from the Grave.” Young scientist Elliot has created a device that can read the thoughts of the deceased. For some reason, he tests this equipment on the corpse of a serial killer named Valdemar Tymrak. An accident happens and Elliot’s girlfriend Arianne ends up dead. A year later, he’s become obsessed with bringing her back. He succeeds but at the terrible price of pulling Tymrak’s psychotic spirit into our world. Soon, Elliot is faced with the hard decision of choosing his girlfriend or protecting his life.

“Report from the Grave” was directed by William Malone, who previously made season six high-light “Only Skin Deep.” Occasionally, Malone cooks up a memorable image, like a laboratory fading into a bedroom. Otherwise, Malone’s directorial sense is seriously overdone. The director obviously saw “Jacob’s Ladder” in-between his two episodes. More then once, the ghosts in “Report from the Grave” twitch their heads around spasmodically, a really annoying visual quirk the episode returns to often. The episode’s tone is unusually dark for “Tales from the Crypt,” lacking the gory absurdity and sarcastic wit you associate with the series. Instead, it’s dead serious, attempting to scare the audience with its overdone visual tricks. Further complicating things is James Frain, who plays Elliot as a huge asshole for no reason. Overly maudlin and obnoxiously directed, “Report from the Grave” is one of season seven’s low points. [4/10]

Lost Tapes: Cave Demons

Inspired by stories of the Vietnamese Night Flyers, “Lost Tapes” shifts that infamous incident into a more modern setting. We’re talking Afghanistan, circa the year 2002. The U.S. military’s search through the Tora Bora cave system encounters a snag. Something is blocking radio signals deep inside the caverns. Three marines are sent in to investigate. Their helmets are outfitted with video cameras, providing the “Tapes” half of the series’ title. Once inside the cave, they discover what’s messing with their radios. It’s a collection of giant bat-like creatures with humanoid features… Who are very defensive of their territory.

“Cave Demons” was very nearly was a good episode of “Lost Tapes.” It has a solid premise and even an understandable reasoning for why these events were recorded. There’s one sequence that comes close to generating suspense. While the men run through the caves, their radar shows a number of unidentified predators closing in on them. The potential suspense from that sequence, however, is undermined by the cheesy computer graphics. Which is but one problem with this episode. The acting from the three main characters are cartoonish. This is one of the most poorly shot episodes of the series. Combining shaky, found-footage style photography with an overly dark setting does not make for very many clear visuals. Lastly, the cave setting feels very small, as the soldiers spend most of the episode protecting an injured comrade. This is overlooking the script’s obvious debt to “Aliens” and “The Descent." The informative segments feature standard facts about bats, the Tora Bora caves, and some highly dubious discussion about bat-like cryptids, of which many are said to exist. [5/10]

Monday, September 26, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 26

Thinner (1996)

I’m a big fan of the stories Stephen King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. They tend to be leaner and meaner then the work he publishes under his own name. “Thinner” would be the last of the original Bachman books, with the author’s true identity being discovered not long after its release. “Thinner” is, thus far, the only one of Bachman’s stories to adapted to film. Directed by Tom Holland, of “Fright Night” and “Child’s Play” fame, the film would have a troubled production. This, combined with the negative reviews and mediocre box office, would lead to Holland taking a long hiatus from directing. Despite its pedigree, “Thinner” doesn’t have much of a following.

Billy Halleck likes to do things his way. He’s morbidly obese, constantly packing his face with food. He’s a dirty lawyer, who recently won a trial for a mob boss. While driving home from a celebratory dinner, his wife goes down on him. This sufficiently distracts Halleck, causing him to run over an elderly gypsy woman. After his local connections clear him of all charges, the old woman’s even more ancient father curses him. Halleck begins to loose weight, no matter how much he eats. Soon, he’s withering away to nothing. Halleck sets about confronting the gypsy, hoping to reverse the curse before it kills him.

Every single character in “Thinner” is a terrible person. Billy never feels any remorse for killing the old woman. His entire motivation is to avoid responsibility for his crime, eventually violently turning against those punishing him. The judge is blatantly racist against gypsies. The cop has no problem overlooking the circumstances of the death. His wife has an affair with a friend after Billy becomes ill. The mob boss has no qualms about murdering, torturing, or harassing people to achieve his goals. It’s clear what “Thinner” is getting at. This is an E.C. Comics style story, about a bad man getting his suitably ironic comeuppance. (The gypsy curse angle and all the mysticism that comes with it, which the film presents without any subversion or deconstruction, also suits this comic book mood.) While stories like this work fine for half-hour television or short comic books, seeing such a tale stretched to feature length quickly exhausts the audience.

In order to compensate for this, “Thinner” makes some awkward attempts at comedy. Billy is munching on potato chips or rich deserts in nearly every scene. Holland draws so much attention to the snack food name brands, such as Doritos, that it has to be an intentional act. This being a Stephen King adaptation, character often speak in colorfully profane language. The gypsy business is so overheated that it quickly becomes comical. “White Man from Town” is repeated so often that it becomes funny. The film’s bizarre comedic streak peaks during a nightmare sequence. Billy is chased out of a fair by the gypsies, hops into a car driven by his equally mutated friend, and is crushed by two separate vehicles driven by the old man. It’s an odd, off-putting scene, a moment of slapstick violence inserted into a film that often reaches for seriousness.

Fitting the film’s over-the-top tone is its grotesquely ridiculous performances. Robert John Burke, who previously filled Peter Weller’s suit in “RoboCop 3,” plays Halleck. While wearing an unconvincing fat suit, he mumbles in an exaggerated fashion. After the character begins to loose weight, he continues to speak in a weirdly overstated voice. It’s a cartoonish performance. Joe Mantegna is equally overblown as the gangster, gripping and grinning in a goofy manner. Even the supporting parts, like Lucinda Jenney as Halleck’s wife or Kari Wuhrer as a sexy gypsy girl, have a quality slightly outside reality.

For all of “Thinner’s” obvious attempts to be a purposely ridiculous horror/comedy, its tone is the biggest problem. The film is too mean-spirited, too intentionally ugly, to ever be funny. “Thinner” can’t even be enjoyed as a body horror-filled special effects film, as the make-up is often rubbery and unconvincing. Holland spent years developing the film only to have the studio demand a new ending. In the book, Halleck ultimately accepts his actions and pays for his crimes. In the film, he gets away with it, which further confuses the audience. The aspects I most remember about “Thinner” ultimately have little to do with the movie. First off, Michael Jackson’s long form music video “Ghosts” was attached to some of the screening, an odd bit of trivia. Secondly, the line of dialogue “Eat your own pie!” became a running joke with a cousin of mine. Even after re-watching the film, it’s likely this will be all I remember about it. [5/10]

Jug Face (2013)

I first encountered Lauren Ashley Carter thanks to her excellent supporting turn in Lucky McKee’s “The Woman.” I’ve been happy to see her carve out a niche for herself since then, as a frequent leading lady in the indie horror scene. An important leading role for Carter was 2013’s “Jug Face,” which McKee produced. Though it remains obscure even within the horror community, and the somewhat silly sounding title surely didn’t help it any, those who have seen the film praise it. Director Chad Crawford Kinkle presented a unique vision. As I wrap up my look at Southern fried horror, “Jug Face” emerges as a film not quite like any other.

Teenage Ada lives in an isolated community deep in the woods. The families that live there worship the Pit. The Pit, or rather the entity within it, posses a magical ability to heal or protect people. And all it asks for in return are human sacrifices. These sacrifices are chosen when a sculptor receives a vision of a face, which he then molds unto a jug. Ada is already fearful of her parents, due to an unexpected pregnancy. When she becomes the next jug face, she flees her ancestral home. The Pit is pretty pissed off about this.

What most impressed me about “Jug Face,” upon first viewing and now, is the fully formed society Kinkle created. The people who live there have their own weird beliefs, philosophies, and rituals. There are strange dances and old curses, each with specific rules. They pepper their dialogue with odd phrases. Aside from jug faces and the Pit, marriage is called “joining.” Moonshine is abbreviated to “shine.” Those that break the rules become Shunned Ones. The characters have antiquated Southern names, such as Dawai, Jesseby, Loriss, or Sustin. Their clothing is also vintage and homemade, nary a sneaker or brand name in sight. This gives the impression of “Jug Face” being set at some point in the past. Yet the town Ada occasionally journeys too appears relatively modern. The film’s world is self-contained and vividly created, a backwoods cult that is totally believable.

“Jug Face” features no big stars. A-list ejectee Sean Young plays Ada’s mother. Her father is played by indie horror filmmaker and character actor Larry Fessenden. While both give fine performances, the film clearly belongs to Lauren Ashley Carter. With her huge doe eyes, she projects a sense of innocence. Yet Carter also gives Ada an inner strength, as the character subverts the rules in hopes of escaping her fate. She’s a misfit and an outcast even in her own family. She bonds with Dawai, the mentally unstable man who sculpts the jugs. The audience longs to see her succeed. When she accepts her destiny, it’s with grace and maturity. Carter’s powerful presence centers the viewer, which is helpful considering “Jug Face’s” odd story turns.

“Jug Face” refreshingly avoids hick horror clich├ęs, save for one. The father of Ada’s baby is her own brother. Yet by following a strong female lead, threatened on all sides by a constricting society, “Jug Face” presents a rich feminist subtext. The cult of the Pit are controlled totally by strict traditions. Ada is “joined” with another boy in the community, essentially an arranged marriage, and is given no say in the manner. Her mother scrutinizes Ada’s sexual history, when she isn’t burning her with cigarettes. After Ada’s transgressions are revealed, her father whips her brutally. Even Ada’s brother and secret lover has no desire to protect her. Ada’s desire to escape the community shows her eagerness to escape a society ruled by old rules… Rules that show no kindness towards women.

For all its fascinating elements, “Jug Face” doesn’t succeed totally as a horror movie. The story’s supernatural elements, aggravated by a low budget, sometimes come off as hokey. After breaking the pact, Ada sees through the eyes of the Pit’s apparition, an image that graced the poster. The entity attacks people via oddly framed point-of-view shots. Later in the story, a ghostly boy appears, a relatively unnecessary addition. “Jug Face’s” more effective horror stem from its willingness not to spare details about the human form. Such as Ada’s grandfather embarrassing himself on the commode. Or a bloody miscarriage plopping wetly into a bath tub. Or that squirm inducing scene of Sean Young manually checking Carter’s virginity. The grisly remains of the Pit’s victims, their body parts tossed around, is far more effective then the camera shaking at people’s faces.

Flaws and all, “Jug Face” is a very impressive debut. For such a short film, it’s packed with details and interesting story developments. You can imagine a lengthy novel being set in this world, allowing a fuller exploration of the characters and their beliefs. An excellent lead turn from Carter further sells the audience on the strange story and odd title. (Some overseas releases bare the title “The Pit.” This is equally appropriate and more sinister but a bit more generic then “Jug Face.”) Chad Crawford Kinkle has yet to direct another feature film. Hopefully he’ll make a follow-up some day and prevent “Jug Face” from becoming a future entry in my No Encores series. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Kidnapper

I’ll be totally honest. I haven’t recognized most of the actors from “Tales from the Crypt’s” U.K. set final season. But I know Steve Coogan! In “The Kidnapper,” Coogan plays one of the series most pathetic anti-heroes. Daniel Skeggs is a simple-minded pawnshop owner. On a cold Christmas night, a homeless and pregnant young woman enters the store. He takes her in and soon falls in love with the girl. After the baby is born, their relationship changes. He is unprepared to handle the stresses of parenthood while she denies having romantic feelings for him. In hopes of recapturing their earlier bliss, Skeggs has the baby kidnapped by black market crooks. This, as you might expect, causes more problems then it solves.

Providing a wry voice-over, Coogan plays Skeggs as an emotionally stunted man-child. His decisions are motivated by totally selfish reasons. But his immature attitude also prevent him from understanding the consequences of his actions. The episode doesn’t back away from how shitty a human Skeggs is, as he attempts to force himself on the girl at one point. However, Coogan’s performance presents him as a sad, pathetic man, allowing the audience to remain sympathetic. “The Kidnapper” is mostly a character study and is short on horror elements, save for the young mother’s quickly progressing madness. (There’s also a bizarre sequence involving mimes but it’s more comedic then creepy.) The twist ending almost comes off as needlessly cruel but cements “The Kidnapper” as a quasi-tragic story of a foolish man brought down by his own flaws. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Death Raptor

“Death Raptor” isn’t about the dinosaur equivalent of the Grim Reaper. Instead, it’s about Mothman’s English cousin: The Owlman of Cornwall. But Animal Planet wasn’t going to pay for a trip to the British Isles so the Owl Man has relocated to California. Two paranormal experts, who often sell their recordings to television, have been invited to investigate a local church. A seemingly demonic, owl-like creature has been spotted around the bell tower. The investigators bring along the little girl and old woman that the Owl Man seems to be fixating on, which successfully draws out the monster.

“Death Raptor” indulges some of “Lost Tapes’” worst tendencies. About a third of the episode is composed of people screaming and running from the monster, the camera shaking wildly as they go. There’s an unintentionally funny sequence, devoted to our heroes studying the contains of a giant owl pellet. (In a likely steal from “The Blair Witch Project,” human teeth are found inside.) The decision to focus on the little girl and the mentally ill old woman brings unnecessary themes of Indigo children and mass hysteria into the episode. The ending is hugely anticlimactic and the acting is quite bad. This is disappointing as “Death Raptor” has a lot of potential. The gothic church setting could’ve contributed some creepy atmosphere. The single clear shot we get of the Owl Man is effectively spooky. Instead, the episode is mostly composed of magical little kids, a fidgeting camera, and owl screeches. Ow well. [5/10]

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 25

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Let’s look back on the early 2000s, when grisly horror movies were suddenly a big deal again. While James Wan and Eli Roth came to prominence in the mainstream, more compelling directors emerged from the independent scene. Such as Tim Sullivan. A buddy of Roth and Adam Green, Sullivan briefly seemed like a viable member of the Splat Pack. He never broke through to the mainstream, as his films were far too crude for that. (Though I remember “Driftwood” being pretty good.) Which brings us to “2001 Maniacs,” a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gore classic and Sullivan’s most popular feature.

Sullivan maintains the general outline of Lewis’ original. A handful of travelers follow a strange detour to the town of Pleasant Valley – clarified as being in Georgia – where they are caught up in the Centennial Jubilee. Of course, the redneck townsfolk actually intend to murder and eat the Northerners, as revenge against the Union Army for massacring the town one hundred years ago. Sullivan otherwise updates the story. There’s eight visitors, instead of six. Instead of vacationing couples and traveling school teachers, the protagonist are horny college students headed towards Florida for spring break. Yet both films are characterized by an irrelevant look at the Civil War and grisly violence.

By shifting the cast in a younger direction, Sullivan sexes up the material considerably. The majority of the characters are preoccupied with getting laid. When the male heroes encounter their female counterparts, both parties immediately express their mutual desire to bone. A montage in the middle of the film is devoted to the characters’ various sexual escapades. This sequence includes gay and lesbian encounters, voyeurism, and even some light S&M. The Pleasant Valley residents aren’t exempt from this air of general horniness either. A girl named Peaches, played by a very attractive Wendy Kremer, speaks almost exclusively in crude double entendres. One of Mayor Buckman’s son constantly expresses his desires to mate with a sheep. A pair of young women can’t keep their hands off each other, even though they’re cousin. Sullivan has essentially turned Lewis’ gore epic into a crude sex comedy. I mean, it’s dumb but fun in its own way.

When not focusing on the character’s lower desires, “2001 Maniacs” occasionally functions as a horror film. Sullivan frequently reprises and revamps some of Lewis’ most famous murder scenes. The drawn and quarter death is more graphic, focusing more on the victim’s suffering. A giant rock is traded out for a large brass bell but the splat is maintained. Sullivan cooks up some twisted deaths himself. Some are effectively ridiculous. Such as two scenes that push good taste, one involving a giant barbecue skewer and the other revolving around a cotton press. Others are just goofy, like a milk jug full of acid. Once or twice, “2001 Maniacs” touches on a genuinely macabre element. Like a blowjob gone horribly wrong or a grisly game of horseshoes. For such a farcical film, it’s weird when “2001 Maniacs” tries to play its story straight. As the story advances, we get more serious scenes of horror, all of them badly jiving with the rest of the film.

“2001 Maniacs” was clearly aiming for the established horror fan crowd. Being a remake of a cult favorite and the outrageous content points towards that. Another indicator is the cast. Lin Shaye, Mrs. New Line herself, has a delightful role as the outwardly friendly old woman who runs the hotel. More pressingly, Robert Englund occupies the part of Mayor Buckman. Sporting a ridiculous Southern accent, Englund hams it up nicely. Peter Stormare and Kane Hodder have cameos. Less immediately recognizable faces include Giuseppe Andrews as a weirdly charming Southern gentleman and Eli Roth, reprising his bit part from “Cabin Fever.” The actors playing the Yankee heroes are less distinguished. Dylan Edrington as nerd Nelson has a few okay bits but everyone else is pretty forgettable.

Disappointingly, Sullivan’s remake also ditches the original’s ambiguity. “2001 Maniacs” seems to think that the Pleasant Valley residents are totally justified in their revenge. You’d think, given the forty year time difference, a remake could’ve addressed the original’s racial and social subtext more directly. It’s super silly and more genuinely dumb then Lewis’ version but “2001 Maniacs” goes down pretty easily in the middle of the night with some liquid imbibements. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the dire sequel, which subbed out Bill Moseley for Englund and was generally far too cheap and dumb. [7/10]

Secret Window (2004)

Recently, I surprised a friend by telling him “Secret Window” was a Stephen King adaptation. That, in turn, surprised me since “Secret Window” is another story about King’s favorite subject. No, not Maine. King’s favorite subject is himself, the frustrated writer, which he’s often explored via fictional surrogates. See also: “The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Dark Half,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Desperation,” “Lisey’s Story,” and that one “Dark Tower” book. “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” featured in the “Four Past Midnight” collection, was adapted by screenwriter turned director David Koepp. Cutting the garden from the title, the film would prove to be a minor hit back in 2004.

Mort Rainey stares down the worst thing an author can ever see: A blank page. Rainey has a lot on his mind. He's in the process of divorcing his wife, Amy, after discovering she was having an affair with another man. His retreat to a lake side cabin is interrupted when a man knocks on his door. Calling himself John Shooter, he claims that Mort plagiarized a story from him. When reading the two stories, Mort is startled by how similar they are. Shooter’s persistent soon turns deadly, as bodies begin to pile up. But all is not what it seems to be.

Before he became a pop culture punchline, famous for trotting out different hats and aggressively eccentric characters to diminished returns, Johnny Depp was a genuinely interesting leading man. “Secret Window” is mostly a showcase for Depp’s talent. He spends large portions of the film talking to himself or projecting his thoughts at a dog. A briefly used voice over sometimes gives the audience insight into Mort’s thoughts and isn’t too intrusive. Mort is slightly grouchy, which is a good starting place for Depp. He builds upon the grumpy writer shtick with some nice physical comedy. Such as when the character stumbles while fleeing a dead body or tries to hide a cigarette from his house keeper. Honestly, if “Secret Window” had just been a one-man show for Depp, playing a blocked writer trying to kill time in an isolated cabin, it probably would’ve been a better movie.

Of course, “Secret Window” isn’t just a showcase for “Secret Window.” John Turturo gets the meaty role of Shooter. Turturo adapts a slightly exaggerated but still believable Mississippi drawl while wearing a suit like a Southern preacher and a ridiculous hat. For the first hour of “Secret Window,” the character does nothing but deliver threats. Turturo manages to summon an unnerving energy, creating a memorable threat if not a fully formed character. John Shooter also leads “Secret Window” to its most obvious horror elements. Such as a dead dog – executed as if in a slasher movie – and a truck occupied by two skewered bodies.

As a screenwriter, David Koepp has written huge blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Spider-Man.” As a director, he previously made ghostly cult classic “Stir of Echoes” and would go on to the likes of “Mortdecai.” It’s clear that Koepp is eager to show off his visual skills. This results in some flashy sequences, such as Mort having a nightmare about dangling over a cliff. Or the camera accenting the angles of Mort’s bookshelf. The direction isn’t the film’s only plea for seriousness. Koepp also lassoed Philip Glass, arty musician and occasional film composers, to do the music. (Or at least some of it. Geoff Zanelli did the rest.) Glass’ score doesn’t touch his iconic work on “Candyman” or “Koyaanisqatsi” but the main theme is kind of pretty and marginally ominous.

At some point, twist endings became mandatory for thrillers. King’s novella had one built in, so “Secret Window” happily obliges genre conventions. The twist might catch an unobservant viewer off-guard but anyone paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The various red herrings, such as Timothy Hutton as the ex-wife’s current boyfriend, are unconvincing. The script keeps harping on Mort’s resentment of his wife and the violent ending of Shooter’s version of the titular story. Yes, the killer and the protagonist are the same person, the result of a split personality. The film reveals this twist in a hamfisted manner, with Depp talking to himself and slipping into a ridiculous accent. The gory ending comes off as slightly mean-spirited but is memorable, if nothing else. (King’s story had a happier, more supernatural ending that the filmmakers ditched. Which was probably the right decision.)

“Secret Window” is ultimately a minor work, much like the story that served as its inspiration. The script is standard stuff, removing King’s musings on the creative mind in favor of traditional thriller exercises. However, the two lead performances are enjoyable, the pacing is snappy, and the scenery is lovely. It seems unlikely that “Secret Window” was designed to linger in the brain for very long. Instead, it’s a mildly compelling bit of horror/thriller fluff that won’t make you roll your eyes, oh, more then two or three times. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Cold War

To talk about “Cold War,” one of season seven’s best episodes, you have to spoil all the twists that make the show fun. So if you’ve never seen this one, you might want to skip this review. “Cold War” follows Ford and Cammy, two petty thieves. After a grocery store stick-up goes awry – some other robbers have already claimed the place – the couple have a big argument back at home. Cammy goes to a bar and meets up with Jimmy Picket, an attractive black man. After bringing the man back to the apartment, Cammy and Ford’s true nature is revealed. They’re ghouls, undead creatures who feast on the flesh of corpses. Jimmy, meanwhile, is a vampire who sees these zombies as beneath him.

“Cold War” is a lot of fun, the episode holding off on revealing the characters’ true nature as long as possible. When the twist comes, it signals a transformation into a highly amusing monster fight. The direction is colorful, a green light often shining on Jimmy’s eyes after he shows his fangs. The script is full of colorfully profane dialogue. Like “Kiss my zombie ass!” Or “Fight’s over, Count Chocula!” Boosting an already amusing story is a fun cast. Ewan McGregor and Jane Horrocks have great chemistry together, the two happily playing up the characters’ love/hate relationship. (Horrocks spends the entire episode in corsets, leather mini-skirts, and stockings which is nice too.) Colin Salmon gets to go gleefully over the top as Jimmy, especially once his true nature is revealed. The final image throws in some gruesome make-up effects too. In other words, “Cold War” is classic “Crypt.” [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Dragon

“Devil Dragon” features one of “Lost Tapes’” more mundane monsters: The Megalania, a twenty foot long monitor lizard that actually exists in the fossil record. Unsubstantiated rumors suggests the species may survive into the modern day. “Devil Dragon” also has one of the series’ better premises. The star of a “Survivor Man” style reality show is dropped into the Australian rain forest alone, with nothing but a backpack and a camera. While delivering practiced banter to the camera, he’s bitten by the unseen predator. Over the next day, he’s stalked by the giant reptile while growing sick from the festering bacteria in the bite wound.

By focusing on a reality show host, “Devil Dragon’s” script provides a genuine reason for its main character to record everything and constantly talk to himself. (Though you’d assume that, while running for his life, he’d toss the damn thing.) The actor playing Tim Akrin – IMDb doesn’t provide a cast list – is charismatic enough. Akrin repeatedly flubs his lines, forcing himself to re-shoot several moments. He lies directly to the camera before admitting the truth in asides. After getting bitten, his physical health degrades quickly which adds a grounded, human element to the story. There’s few of the silly moments that characterize other “Lost Tapes” episodes… Aside from the monster remaining entirely off-screen. It’s hard to imagine a giant lizard being that good at hiding itself, even in a heavily forested area. [7/10]