Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 29, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 29

I'm at Monster-Mania this weekend so enjoy some updates from hotel room tonight. I'll be away from my computer all day tomorrow. See you on Sunday!

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

As a youngster, I approached Elvira with some trepidation. We never got Movie Macabre out in my part of the country but I certainly recognized Cassandra Peterson's iconic character as a pitch-woman and commercial icon. Though I was obviously attracted to the character's spooky atmosphere, and other things about her that I was too young to understand, my little brain somehow got the impression that Elvira was something for grown-up that I wouldn't understand. I guess it was the cleavage. Honestly, I didn't rediscover the character until college, when I watched some of the newer Movie Macabre episodes and realized this shit was extremely up my alley. Peterson tried to cash in on her worldwide popularity in 1988 with a movie. “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” was dismissed at the time but, as with all things related to the character, has developed a following over the years.

Elvira stars as herself, of course. Within the film's universe, the character is also a horror host for a L.A. TV station. After rejecting the sexual advances of her sleazy boss, she's suddenly unemployed. The only professional offer she has is a potential show in Las Vegas. But the casino wants her to put up half the money. At that same time, Elvira receives news that her estrange aunt has died and she stands to inherent something. That something includes a house in the small town of Fallwell, Masschusetts, a dog, and a cook book. Unbeknownst to Elvira, her aunt was actually a witch and the cook book is actually a spell book. Her evil Uncle Vincent wants to get his hands on the book's powers and his willing to turn the entire puritanical town against his niece to get it.

Scripting wise, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” is a pretty standard slobs-vs.-snobs comedy. Initially, Elvira's outrageous ways are shocking to most of the townsfolk of Fallwell. After humiliating the stuck-up fogies a few times, she wins the whole town over. However, the various charms of Cassandra Peterson go a long way. First off, she's utterly shameless, willing to do anything to get a laugh. Peterson keenly understood that the T&A was a big part of her appeal and there are countless lingering, leering shots on her cleavage and other parts. However, Elvira has other stuff going for her. Peterson's bubbly and likable delivery makes some Mae West-style double entendres funnier than they probably otherwise would've been. The character is just really appealing. She's girlish but tough, goofy but capable, vulnerable but resourceful. And she's rarely the butt of the joke. Even though the character's sex appeal is her claim to fame, “Mistress of the Dark” makes a surprisingly convincing case for Elvira as some sort of role model.

Peterson's effervescent charms is mostly what keeps “Mistress fo the Dark” afloat. However, the movie does have a number of lovably goofy gags in its own right. Such as Elvira's animal side, Algonquin. Elvira shortens the pet's name to Gonk and gives the poodle a punk rock mohawk. Gonk proves to be a surprisingly amusing character. A decent chuckler has Elvira briefly changing a theater marquee to say an obscene word, scandalizing the locals. That plot thread reaches its, ahem, climax when Elvira uses the spellbook to cook up a libido boosting casserole and deploys it at the local pot luck. Not all the gags are this irrelevantly amusing. The direct parody sequences – such as an extended homage to “Flashdance” or a random “Rambo” shot-out in the last act – come off as a bit desperate.

Furthering my theory that Peterson alone keep the movie going, the pace drags any time she's off-screen. There's a surprisingly number of scenes devoted to the other characters in town. And none of them are horribly interesting. Elvira's love interest, Daniel Greene's Bob, is a snoring good guy. Aside from his handsome looks, I'm not sure why Elvira would be interested in such a square. Edie McClurg is mildly amusing as the appropriately named Chastity Pariah. However, the long scenes devoted to the town council decided what to do with the young witch are pretty lame. W. Morgan Sheppard hams it up as Uncle Vincent, the film's villain. Despite this, there's little interesting about the character. Basically, “Mistress of the Darks” attempt to actually have a coherent story is when it falters.

“Mistress of the Dark” is probably a dubious choice for a horror movie marathon. Calling it a horror/comedy isn't really accurate, as its better described as a comedy that lightly pokes fun at some horror tropes. Still, there are some special effects near the end. As Uncle Vincent gets more desperate, he becomes more demonic looking. Things get really silly when Elvira picks up her magic ring, trading some animated lighting bolts with the bad guy. Even then, the producers are smart enough to realize the cartoonish theatrics are not why people are watching this movie. The real conclusion is a Las Vegas dance show, featuring Elvira dancing around in a more revealing outfit and spinning some titty tassels. See earlier comment about Peterson being shameless.

“Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” strikes me as so good natured in its goofiness, so laid back and pleasant, that I can't imagine anyone disliking this movie. Yes, not all the jokes are that good and some gags are better than others. I guess it helps if you find Peterson to be as appealing a comedic performer as I do. I'm not alone in that assessment, as this one has clearly attracted some fans. Including my podcast co-host, JD, who flat-out loves this movie and considers it one of his favorite. It's good, mostly-clean, not-quite-wholesome fun for the whole family. [7/10]

Tower of London (1962)

The series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Roger Corman made with Vincent Price are rightly beloved and I really should do a proper retrospective of them some day. What fans might not know is there an interesting side chapter to those films. “Tower of London” is a remake of a 1939 Universal film. It was produced by Corman's brother Gene and made a United Artist, away from Corman's AIP stomping guards. Intended to be in color, like the Poe pictures, it was instead shot in black and white. Though arguably a more minor exercise for both Price and Corman, 1962's “Tower of London” still provides some interesting things to discuss.

Like Universal's “Tower of London,” Corman's film is loosely based off of Shakespeare's “Richard III,” which was even more loosely based on historical events. The film begins with Edward IV, the king of England, on his death bed. His sons will assume the crown one day and the king's brother, George, will be their protector until then. This infuriates his other brother, the hunchbacked Richard, who is determined to have the throne. He immediately murders George. He schemes up a plot where Edward's sons will be discounted as heirs. When this doesn't work, Richard simply kills them. Soon, he kills anyone who stands in their ways. His crimes weigh on his conscience, the ghosts of his victims haunting him.

Universal's “Tower of London” was a historical melodrama, which skated into the marginal corners of the horror genre due to its gothic setting Boris Karloff's grim supporting role as a court executioner. Corman, clearly determined to make a more definite genre film, ups the horrific content. Richard's madness is more craven. Minutes after killing his brother, he is visited by his ghosts. Each of Richard's victims appear to him as ghosts, though the film keeps it ambiguous over whether these are literal spirits or simply delusions. Being made twenty-three years later, this “Tower of London” can be a bit more explicit with its violence too. People are whipped, stretch on the rack, and have their faces chewed up by rats. The film clearly moves the material towards something akin to the Poe films, obviously.

Vincent Price appeared in a supporting role in the original film, as the Duke of Clarence, drowned in a vat of wine. The same death would be referenced in a later Price vehicle, the great “Theatre of Blood.” (Price also appeared in “Richard III” on-stage, though in a different role.) As that film made apparent, Price loved playing the bard. “Tower of London” isn't quite Shakesphere but it's close and Price is clearly having a ball. Price sneers and peacocks the way nobody but him could. His glee at watching his enemies suffer are infectiously gleeful. One particularly great moment has him bemoaning that someone dies early, when he was having fun torturing them. Price brings his hammy side to Richard's madness too, playing the king's hauntings and hallucinations with entertainingly unhinged glee.

Compared to the freedom Corman had at American International Pictures, “Tower of London” faced quite a bit of executive meddling. Producer Edward Smalls made the decision to shot the film in black and white, much to the chagrin of the Corman brothers. Despite this set back, “Tower of London” is a great looking black and white film. Corman utilizes shadows extremely well. One cool shot has Richard mistaking a shadow of a bottle for the ghost of his brother. Another neat shot involves a suit of armor, its shadow cast large against the stone walls. Later, Corman foregrounds a lion statue while Price communicates with a ghost giving a grave prophecy. The climatic battle scenes are shot entirely on sets, utilizing stock footage from the '39 film to boost its scale. However, there's still some nice foggy atmosphere in this scene. So “Tower of London” make lack the Poe films' psychedelic colors but it's still looks nice.

Corman's “Tower of London” is mostly remembered as a footnote, overshadowed by the more famous films the star and director did together. The film is frequently shoved onto various double feature disc or collections, in-between better recognized movies. This isn't a totally wrong reaction. However, the movie totally satisfies on its own terms. Price's performance is delightfully hammy and the visual palette is strong. The quickie run time, just under eighty minutes,  is also just right. If you're a Roger Corman or Vincent Price fan and you haven't check this one out, I'd absolutely recommend this one, a bit of a English fog-infected fun. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream

Among the season two additions to “Masters of Horror,” one I heartily approved of was Tom Holland. I love “Fright Night” and “Child's Play” is a beloved eighties horror cult classic. Holland's contribution would be “We All Scream for Ice Cream,” which was also scripted by David J. Schow. As kids, Layne was part of a gang called the West Side Bunch. Among the group was Virgil, a budding sociopath. Virgil enjoyed torturing Buster, the driver of the ice cream truck. Buster would be called neurodivergent today but, while dressed as a clown and giving kids ice cream, he was lovable. Virgil pulled a cruel prank on Buster, getting the man killed. Now, thirty years later, Buster has returned from the grave, using ice cream as his tool of vengeance.

It looks like I'm not done with killer clown movies this Six Weeks after all! Considering his tendency towards horror/comedy, “We All Scream for Ice Cream” was a good pick for Holland. The episode is delightfully ghoulish. There's many clever attributes. When Buster's ice cream truck drives into town, the temperatures drop to freezing. The clown's method of execution is more elaborate than you'd think. He uses the West Side Bunch's kids against them. Hypnotized into an obedient state by the music, they are given ice cream effigies of their fathers. As the kids eat the ice cream, their dads melt into gooey puddles of meaty sludge. The special effects are grisly but, more importantly, also creative. Amusingly, Layne uses Buster's own magical rules against him at the end. Adding to the clever effects is Holland's direction, which is heavy on the fog and fuzzy flashbacks.

Also improving “We All Scream for Ice Cream” is how sympathetic its villain is. Truthfully, Buster's revenge is entirely justified. He was an innocent man-child, entertaining kids with tricks and gags, providing them with sweet treats. The West Side Gang were bullies at best and psychos at worst. William Forsythe, usually cast in more sinister roles, is a natural as the whimsical, living Buster. As the undead Buster, he's equally effective. Despite the audience being on the ghoul's side, Lee Tergesen is decent as Layne. He feels appropriately guilty over his role in Buster's death. The episode makes a decent case for forgiveness and actually has you rooting for Layne by the end. As he repeatedly says, his kids don't deserve to be punished for his crimes.

By abandoning political subtext that characterized so much of “Masters of Horror: Season Two,” Tom Holland made a really fun episode. “We All Scream for Ice Cream” is gory but goofy, ghoulish but never grim. The episode nicely stands along side the horror/comedies the director made in the eighties. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: People's Choice

For its final episode, “Perversions of Science” brought Russell Mulcahy. He takes the series out with a goofy but entertaining story. “People's Choice” takes place in an alternate version of our modern world, where no household is complete with a Nana. That's a robotic maid, made to look like old ladies with beehive hairdos. Family man Todd is eager to upgrade his Nana model, which has been around since his wife was a child. Around the same time, he discovers an odd flaw in the machine's design. When their neighbor gets a new model, Todd learns that the Nanas are designed to fight each other. The reason for this is so they'll destroy each other, forcing home owners to buy new models. Typical of the series, there's a sinister agenda behind this strategy.

“People's Choice” is full of amusingly weird touches. The story is ostensibly set in the then-modern day, thanks to references to VHS and Mastercard. However, the fashion is very retro, full of pastels, high-waist pants, Gogo boots, and patterns. This sets up a surreal atmosphere. Mulcahy pays off on that with absurdist images. Such as gangs of robot Nanas fighting in the streets, tearing limbs off. Or one of the Nana's towering hairdos parting, revealing a circular saw. “People's Choice” eventually evolves into a gonzo satire of capitalism. People go out of their ways to buy the newest and best robot maids. The end features the most ridiculous model yet: A six foot tall Amazon decked out in patriotic colors. (But still with the silly haircut.) The last minute plot twist is totally nonsensical but did make me laugh. It's a goofy, fun episode and a decent one to end the series on. [7/10]

And thus concludes my coverage of “Perversions of Science.” It's easy to see why the show didn't catch on the way “Tales from the Crypt” did. Out of its ten episodes, only half were worth seeing. The series' low points were far worst than even the weakest “Tales” episode. That the show took so long to start to get good surely added to its dismal performance. Another problem was the host. Chrome just wasn't as appealing as the Crypt Keeper. The CGI effects have aged horribly. The gynoid's reliance on sexy double entendres quickly wore on the viewer. Also contributing to the show's failure, I imagine, was bigger budgets sci-fi necessitates, the awkward title, and the narrower appeal of this genre. Over all, “Perversions of Science” was an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. HBO has buried the series, rarely re-broadcasting it and never releasing it on DVD. It survives as blurry internet uploads, for the few people interested in tracking it down. [Series rating: 6/10]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 28

Cat People (1942)

As a long time horror fan, I'm pretty well-read in the genre. Yet, like anybody else, there are classics I haven't gotten to. One such blind spot are the films of Val Lewton. To many, the shadow shrouded films Lewton produced for RKO defines horror in the 1940s. The nine films are widely available, frequently packaged together, and are often shown on TV. So what's my excuse? I just... Haven't gotten to them yet. Well, no more. This Halloween, I finally expose myself to the work of Val Lewton. I begin with the first horror film Lewton had a hand in, which I have seen before, albeit years ago. “Cat People” remains probably the producer's most well-known motion picture.

Irena Dubrovna is a young Serbian woman who immigrated to America years ago. Her childhood was haunted by legends of cat people, individuals who turned into panthers and killed those they love. This has instilled in her a fear of falling in love. That's an especially pressing concern, as she's just met Oliver Reed. Oliver is immediately smitten with the exotic and charming Irena. The two quickly marry. However, Irena continues to fear that she might transform into a cat person. It puts a strain on their marriage, to the point that Oliver considers the advances of his lovelorn secretary. That is when the curse of the cat people takes hold of Irena.

Supposedly, Val Lewton's films began as titles first. RKO would allow him to do whatever he wanted with the films as long as they kept the exploitation movie titles and never ran over 75 minutes. With “Cat People,” it seems Lewton's team set out to subvert then-expectations for horror. Instead of being a simple creature feature, “Cat People” is about what happens when modern psychology meets ancient legends. There's a question of whether or not Irena is actually transforming into a panther. Even by the end, this isn't given quite a definitive answer. Her nightmares are haunted by images of black cat. She is told to visit a psychologist, who informs that this curse only exists in her head. Themes of sexual frustration and romantic anxiety inform the entire story, to the point that Irena's transformations become a manifestation of her psychological guilt. Imbuing what could've been a standard monster movie with themes such as this was a deliberate attempt by Lewton, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and director Jacques Tourneur to elevate the genre.

Tourneur's direction extends the shadows inside Irena's mind into the film's world. “Cat People's” visual palette is defined by deep shadows. The early scenes are sunnier but, as Irena descend into her personal nightmare more, the film's appearance gets darker. Even regular shots, of people just hanging around home or work, are shaded in blackness. The film is also acutely aware of the totemic power of the cat. Irena often visits the black panther in the zoo, fascinated with it for reasons she can't understand. She's subconsciously aware that the cat symbolizes the inner turmoil she can't acknowledge. She even feeds it a dead bird at one point, confirming the unspoken kinship she feels with the big cat. Fittingly, the panther contributes to her undoing. The film is littered with other cats, Irena constantly being reminded of the feelings she denies.

It's within this environment that some effective horror sequences are deployed. Since any were-panther action is kept strictly off-screen, “Cat People” has to function on suspense. Such as in two sequences where Alice, the secretary, is stalked by something unseen in the darkness. The first is a masterful sequence where she walks down a darkened walkway, strange growls and footsteps heard behind her. It concludes with what many consider the first jump scare in horror history: The so-called Lewton Bus. That scene is more famous but what's better is a later scene where Alice is chased into a pool. As odd lights and shadows dance off the water, Alice can only look up at the unseen predator in the darkness. These moments are so effective that when the were-panther is revealed, it can't help but be underwhelming. A simple black panther isn't the most memorable movie monster. “Cat People” probably should've kept its titular beastie totally in the darkness.

Really, I should consider “Cat People” brilliant. There are so many elements in the film that work for me. It's obviously a classic. So why don't I like it more? The love story at the film's center doesn't work for me at all. Irena and Oliver first encounter each other at the zoo, in what would be called a “meet cute” in modern film lingo. Within minutes, they are romantically involved. After a few scene, the two get married. Yet Irena's psychological hang-ups prevent her from even kissing her husband! No wonder he accepts Alice's romantic advances. Yet this infidelity also makes Oliver look like a jerk. It's hard to become too invested in the film when the love story is this anemic. Simone Simon, a perfect mixture of vulnerable and exotic, is perfect in the lead role. Even Kent Smith is fine as Oliver. The flawed writing is to blame.

Aspects of the writing is sharp. The direction is brilliant. The scenes of suspense are beautifully executed. Even the cast is decent. Yet I don't love “Cat People” as much as its reputation as a classics makes me feel like I should. Still, regardless of how I feel about the film, “Cat People” would successfully launch Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier's careers as horror filmmakers. It's plea for a more psychological, shadowy type of horror would have an immediate impact on the genre, with many similar films being produced by other studios. [8/10]

Necronomicon (1994)

Considering H.P. Lovecraft was best known for his short stories, an anthology film based around his work seems like a natural idea. I'm surprised nobody tried it before 1994. “Necronomicon,” usually accompanied by subtitles such as  “Book of the Dead” or “To Hell and Back,” was produced by Brian Yunza. Yunza had previously been involved with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” making fans eagerly anticipate this one. The film was completed in 1993 but never got a wide release. Eventually, even the VHS would go out-of-print. A domestic DVD release has never followed, though disc versions are available overseas. This rarity has given “Necronomicon” a certain allure. Is this hard-to-find Lovecraft film really worth tracking down?

The film features four segments. The framing device involves H.P. Lovecraft visiting an occult library. After sneaking into a hidden area, he uncovers the legendary Necronomicon. There, he reads three stories from the past and future. “The Drowned” is about Edward De LaPour, a man who has just inherited a dilapidated hotel. He learns his uncle, the hotel's former owner, lost his wife and child in a boat wreck. He then used the Necronomicon to bring them back to life. Both men, in turns out, are being manipulated by darker forces. In “The Cold,” a teenage runaway befriends an eccentric scientist who lives in a refrigerated room. The two fall in love before she learns how severe his condition really is. “Whispers” involves a pregnant police woman hunting a serial killer called the Butcher. This quest leads her to a bizarre underground world involving aliens and profane sacrifices to forgotten gods.

Another reason “Necronomicon” caught fans' attention is its leading man. After starring in so many Lovecraft adaptations, Jeffrey Combs finally got the chance to play the famous author. Combs doesn't look much like Lovecraft and wears some mediocre facial applications in the film. Lovecraft rarely left his home town in real life but “Necronomicon” recasts him as an adventurer. Combs makes this work though, by playing up Lovecraft's status as the knower of arcane knowledge. He also captures the author's sophisticated, Anglophile vibe. “The Library” is honestly a lot of fun. The library set is awesome. The Necronomicon prop is really cool. The ending features some delightfully messed-up creature designs. Seeing Combs play an action hero Howard Philips is definitely entertaining.

The first proper segment in the film is also quite good. “The Drowned” doesn't have much to do with the story its adapting, “The Rats in the Wall,” but feels fittingly Lovecraftian anyway. An amazing looking fish man puts in an appearance. Later, undead people sprout tentacles and seaweed from their orifices. The segment concludes with a giant elder god emerging from under the old house. The old hotel setting is very atmospheric. Christopher Gans, who would make “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and “Silent Hill” later, makes sure the segment is darkly colorful. Bruce Payne and Richard Lynch are solid in the leads. The segment ends a bit abruptly but its pretty good up to that point.

The second story is weaker than the first two. “The Cold” is based on “Cool Air” and is probably the closest adaption in the film. (Though many liberties are still taken with the source material.) The segment is, confusingly, told as a flashback within a flashback. Bess Meyer has decent chemistry with David Warner, as the scientist. Their love story develops far too quickly but is still believable. “The Cold” features multiple distracting subplots. The doctor is given a clingy female assistant. A plot point involving stolen spinal fluid doesn't go much of anywhere. The twist ending does not satisfy. The coolest thing about “The Cold” is its grisly special effects. A man rapidly decomposing before our very eyes is brought to life with some effectively gnarly make-up. Director Shusuke Kaneko, of the Heisei “Gamera” films and “GMK,” didn't speak any English when he made this film. Which may explain the slightly disjointed story.

The last story, Brian Yunza's “Whispers,” is by far the film's worst. Supposedly inspired by “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” the segment is actually totally unrelated. The opening scene, establishing the heroine's pregnant state, is bluntly delivered via messy dialogue. Signy Coleman's Sarah is too gruff a protagonist to be likable. The plot shifts gears several times. Soon, “Whispers” degrades into a nonsensical series of gross special effects. A body, its brain totally removed, staggers around. A woman with no eyes appears. Gooey corpses are snatched up by flying bat monsters. Fleshy forms, with transparent domes containing organs, are revealed. It all leads up to an overly grim and mean-spirited conclusion. The special effects are pretty cool but its in service of a story that makes no sense.

“Necronomicon” is about half a really solid horror picture. The wrap-around segment and first story are easy to recommend, stuffing in quite a bit of Lovecraftian atmosphere in their brief run times. The other two stories aren't very good, especially the last one. (It doesn't help that more faithful adaptations of “Cool Air” and “The Whisperer in the Darkness” would come along later.) The anthology is not quite worth seeking out. Unless you're a freak for really cool practical creature effects, which the movie features plenty of. Still, I am glad I watched the movie. If only because a Lovecraft anthology film is such a great idea. [6/10]

Masters of Horror: Right to Die

I mentioned the other day how Joe Dante's “Homecoming” was the breakout episode of “Masters of Horror's” first season. This led to season two being full of similarly politically themed episodes. We've already seen John Carpenter's “Pro-Life” and here comes “Right to Die,” from Rob Schmidt. Dentist Cliff Addison has just had an ugly fight with Abby, his wife, over his infidelity. In the aftermath of this, they go for a drive. Cliff crashes the car and Abby is horribly burned. All of her skin burned off, Abby is put on life support. Cliff decides to honor Abby's wish to not be a vegetable, taking her off a ventilator and allowing her to die with dignity. Her mother has other ideas, demanding Abby stay alive as long as possible. A huge media controversy ensues. Cliff's opinion on the right to die changes when Abby flatlines and her ghost comes after him.

If the plot synopsis didn't make it clear, “Right to Die” is obviously inspired by the Terry Schiavo case, still fresh in people's mind in 2007. The question of whether it's ethical for a doctor to induce death could've been fertile ground for a horror story. Instead of building on this “Right to Die” takes things in a deeply tasteless direction. I think Schmidt – whose “Wrong Turn” was fun but hardly earned him the title of master – is going for dark comedy. The way Cliff flip-flops on his wife's condition, when he realizes she's haunting him, seemingly makes light of a heavy real world issue. This is most apparent in an especially gross scene where skin Cliff has stolen, in hopes of providing Abby with a transplant, falls off his speeding vehicle. Furthermore, “Right to Die” is another sleazy episode. There's frequent female nudity and several lengthy sex scenes. All of the episode's content is at odds with any social or satirical commentary it could've had.

Making the episode more insulting is how big of an asshole the main character. Cliff isn't merely a jerk. He's a fully despicable psychopath. He shows no remorse about cheating on his wife. When she discovers video of him fucking his secretary, he stares her straight in the eyes and lies.  Even as his wife is dying, he doesn't stop boinking this other woman. After realizing that Abby needs to stay alive, or else he'll face the wrath of her ghost, he literally commits an incredibly grisly murder. He dopes his secretary up, ties her down to a dentist chair, and fucking skins her alive. To this disgusting stew, the episode adds an asinine twist ending, where we learn that Cliff attempted to murder Abby too. Martin Donovan plays Cliff as an idiot, making the character's increasingly hateful actions even more crass.

About the only thing “Right to Die” has going for it is the central premise of an intermittent ghost. Abby is barely living as a grotesquely burned invalid. Every time she flatlines, she becomes a ghost, immediately seeking revenge on Cliff. She also apparently has some control over heat and fire. Whenever the ghost enters a room, the temperatures sore. One of the episode's grislier scenes involve Corbin Benson, playing a sleazy lawyer, being dragged into a cat scan machine and set ablaze. All of this stuff is mildly interesting but not well served by the dumb-ass material around it. “Right to Die” is not only the weakest episode of “Masters of Horror's” entire run but one that actually managed to offend me. It's probably possible to make an effective horror story or dark comedy about this topic but they sure as fuck dropped the ball this time. [3/10]

Perversions of Science: Ultimate Weapon

Compared to the usually farcical “Tales from the Crypt,” “Perversions of Science” was a far more serious series. “Ultimate Weapon” joins “Boxed In” and “Panic” among the series' “funny” episodes. Lou Ann and her husband Matt are having some problems. Lou Ann is having reoccurring nightmares about space aliens. Matt dismisses them but Lou Ann really is being probed by intergalactic scientists. They hope to trick her into mating with one of them, presumably to cultivate a hybrid fetus. To accomplish this, they take the form of her old college boyfriend, her husband, and even her female best friends. Shenanigans ensue, especially when Lou Ann's parents stop by unexpectedly.

“Ultimate Weapon,” whose title is totally non-indicative of its content, is the most disjointed episode of “Perversions of Science” thus far. The premise seems to shift from scene to scene. Sometimes, Lou Ann has been infected some sort of alien device. This causes her personality to shift and her appearance to change. However, other times, Lou appears unaffected. During these scenes, the focus is on the aliens attempting to be human. This leads to jokey scenes like the aliens having to learn suddenly what “gay” means. There's too many characters in the episode and the writers can't juggle them. One of Lou's friends spends half the episode stuck in a closest. Another, along with her parents, come and go without notice. It's occasionally kind of funny – the final scene is somewhat amusing – but is ultimately too hard to follow. Heather Langenkamp stars as Lou. It's nice to see her again but even her charms can't save this mess. This is the sole directorial credit of screenwriter/producer Dean Lopata which tells you a lot. [4/10]

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 27

Clown (2014)

In 2010, Jon Watts and his friends put together a fake trailer for a non-existent movie called “Clown.” The trailer, about a clown suit that transforms its wearer into a monster, said it was produced by Eli Roth. Roth had no actual involvement with the project. Watts simply threw Roth's name on his short film because he's a well-known horror director. The project, however, made its way back to Roth. He loved it, contacted Watts, and immediately went about turning this fake trailer into a real movie. The finished movie had the misfortune of being distributed by the Weinsteins, producers who have trouble actually getting movies released these days. Widely available overseas and on the internet for quite some time, “Clown” finally got a domestic DVD release last year.

Jack McCoy is an anomaly. He's a modern day kid who genuinely loves clowns. When the clown booked to appear at his birthday party cancels, his mother Meg is concerned the kid's big day will be ruined. His father, Kent, thinks fast though. A real estate agent currently refurbishing an old house, he looks in the attic and discovers a vintage clown suit. He puts it on and appears at his own son's party as the clown. Later that night, Kent discovers he can't remove the suit. Soon, his body begins to change. His mind is overcome by grotesque urges. Kent quickly discovers that, by donning the clown suit, he has become possessed by an ancient evil.

The original “Clown” trailer played its premise primarily for laughs. The idea of an evil clown suit, transforming the person inside into an actual evil clown, is absurd enough to be funny. The feature length “Clown” runs with this, at least at first. The people around Kent react to his situation in baffled disbelief. A scene of him attempting to remove the clown suit with a power suit is obviously farcical. “Clown,” however, soon bends towards genuine horror. Kent's metamorphosis involves plenty of body horror. His fingers stretch, his bones warp. He coughs up his own teeth. In a darkly humorous joke, his feet swell to massive size. “Clown,” however, plays its premise to its natural extreme. By the end, this has involved into an incredibly grim horror picture, featuring way more dead kids than most viewers are comfortable with. Watts actually does a decent job of balancing the slippery tone by focusing on the main character's feelings. As his reaction shifts from confusion to horror, so does the audience's.

In 2014, the concept of the evil clown was already pretty played out. And this was even before the concept leaked over into real life, with 2016's clown sighting hysteria. Yet Watts' “Clown” does manage to put a clever spin on the worn idea. He presents an alternate origin story for the modern clown. In the film, we discover that clowns were originally figures of fear, not frivolity. In ancient Iceland, there existed a demon named a cloyne. Its skin was pale white, from living in caves. Its nose was blistered red from the Scandinavian cold. Most distressingly, it prayed on children, luring them into its cave and eating them. Over time, this legend involved into the modern figure of the clown. It's an interesting idea, mirroring the way fairy tales have been toned down from gory cautionary stories to frothy kiddy stuff. This adds a historical context to what otherwise might've been a standard demonic clown movie.

“Clown” is most sophisticated when commenting on the undertones of why people are afraid of clowns in the first place. There's a lot of reasons clowns freak people out. One of them, I suspect, is how they hang around children, entertaining them with jokes and treats. Watts incorporates the pedophilic undertones of the clown into his movie. Kent seems to be a devoted family man. After putting on the clown suit, he's overcome by strange desires. He feels a ghastly attraction to children. He tries to fight this hunger but is eventually consumed by it. He hunts places were children are common, like a Chuck E. Cheese style restaurant, waiting to get them alone. His condition, steaming from no fault of his own, most affects his family. It's easy to read between the lines here. What's most impressive is how Watts treats his protagonist sympathetically. Kent doesn't want to be a child-eating monster clown. He is sick. Just the way non-offending pedophiles are haunted by desires they didn't choose.

As “Clown” progresses, it becomes more like a monster movie. This is okay too. The sequence devoted to Kent, fully mutated into a murderous cloyne, stalking the Chuck E. Cheese is surprisingly tense. The whimsical setting of ball pens and plastic tunnels prove a taunt location to set chases and attacks. The finale features a full-blown monster clown, an impressive special effect. The showdown between heroine and monster is effectively gory. The only thing that doesn't work about the last act is the wife's sudden decision to briefly endanger another child, a dubiously moral moment the film doesn't quite earn.

The film has a decent cast too. Laura Allen is likable as the distraught mother. Andy Powers makes a decent impression as the family-man-turned-killer. The only recognizable face in the film is Peter Stormare, who happily hams it up as the evil clown expert. The film's protracted sit on the shelf certainly didn't slow down Jon Watts' career any. He's directing “Spider-Man” movies now. Which probably seems like a weird choice, until you realize how in-tune he is with his young protagonists here and in his second feature, the excellent thriller “Cop Car.” Horror fans should definite give this one a look. [7/10]

Lurking Fear (1994) 

“Lurking Fear” is a movie with a surprisingly complex production history. The idea for the film – an adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft's leaner and meaner stories – stretches back to at least the mid-eighties. Originally, the film was going to be produced by Empire Pictures and directed by Stuart Gordon. Charles Band took the idea with him to Full Moon, his next company. Production was fraught. The film would be the second, and last, directorial feature from long-time Full Moon writer, C. Courtney Joyner. Joyner and his leading man, Joe Finch, didn't get along. As a result, Finch's dialogue would be entirely re-recorded by a separate actor in post. There were issues with the film's budget, leading to Full Moon and production partner Paramount Pictures parting ways. This would begin Full Moon's slow spiral towards Z-budget irrelevance. That's a lot of behind-the-scenes turmoil for a movie that's only barely over an hour long.

Finally free after a long stint in prison, John Martense returns to his childhood home town. But Leffert's Corners is not how John remembers it. The town is slowly crumbling apart and is mostly abandoned. The local doctor and his female assistant have gathered in a near-by church. John is chased there by a gangster, searching for a secret stash of drugs that Martense knows about. Soon, John discovers why the town is dying. A breed of half-human, cannibalistic ghouls are living underneath the buildings. As a storm rages outside the church, Martense has to fight off both the criminals and the lurking fear below.

I haven't read Lovecraft's original “The Lurking Fear” in quite a few years but remember it being a compelling and simple story. The movie maintains the bare bones of Lovecraft's text. There's morlock-like ghouls below, an abandoned building above, and a terrible family secret. Joyner and his crew then added a bunch of other bullshit. The crime plot they include is baffling and unneeded, featuring the town mortician smuggling drugs out of the city inside corpses. The gangsters pursuing John take up far too much. The film often cuts away to Dr. Haggis and his female assistant's attempts to destroy the subterranean monsters. They are also taking care of a pregnant young girl. There's also the priest inside the church, determined to protect the place's holy attributes. All these subplots pile up to create a very disjointed feeling film. “Lurking Fear” is way more convoluted and hard to follow than a film like this should ever be.

Aside from being totally unnecessary, “Lurking Fear's” crime subplot also distracts from the horror elements we're here to see. The monsters are pretty cool. Though the mask they wear are somewhat stiff, the make-up is effective. The pale-skin, lanky bodies, and bulging – but blank – eyes combine to make decent looking ghouls. What they get up to is occasionally interesting. Such as the shots of the creatures in their underground lair, gnawing on old bones. However, the movie generally takes way too long to get to this stuff. Long stretches feature no monsters or attacks at all. More often, we only see a gnarly hand emerging from the wall or floor. “Lurking Fear” frequently feels like an half-assed crime movie with some flesh-eating beasties thrown in at random points.

Aside from the Lovecraft connection, the main reason I wanted to see “Lurking Fear” was because of its cast. Yes, this is another H.P. adaptation featuring Jeffrey Combs. Combs is stuck in a nothing supporting role, playing the town doctor leading the assault against the monsters. Yet Combs does everything to pump the part up. He plays Dr. Haggis as a functioning alcoholic, who is deeply sardonic about his mission. Playing his sidekick is “Hellraiser's” Ashley Laurence. It's an action heroine role for Laurence, as she wears tight leather, shoots guns, and throw around dynamite. Laurence at least seems to be having fun. (Hilariously, her last name is misspelled “Lauren” in the credits.) Vincent Schiavelli has a brief, and amusingly sleazy, turn as the mortician/drug-runner. Aside from those three, “Lurking Fear's” cast is pretty weak. Blake Adams is awful as John, grunting gruffly but blanky. John Finch goes way over the top as the crime boss.

Adding further insult to injury, C. Courtney Joyner is not an especially proficient director. Shots are often messily edited, the audience given no clear concept of where characters are. The score is derivative, the main melody blatantly stolen from “Bram Stoker's Dracula.” The film is only 75 minutes long but is so sloppily assembled that it feels longer. On paper, “Lurking Fear” sounded like a load of fun. Jeffrey Combs as an alcoholic doctor fighting cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers in an abandoned church? How can you loose? Pretty easily, it turns out. This is, by far, the weakest Lovecraft adaptation Charles Band produced. [4/10]

Masters of Horror: Valerie on the Stairs

Nobody has been more self-deprecating about his status as a so-called Master of Horror than Mick Garris. He has admitted that, the only reason he was allowed to make two episodes of the series, is because he created it. Perhaps to combat this criticism, “Valerie on the Stairs” is a “Masters of Horror” two-fer, as the script is from Clive Barker. The story is set at Highberger House, an apartment complex strictly for unpublished authors. Rob Hanisey moves in with hopes of moving past a bad relationship and writing a great novel. Instead, he begins to see visions of a beautiful woman on the stairs. Valerie, as she's called, is being pursued by a beastly demon. Hanisey soon learns that his visions mirror a manuscript the residents of Highberger House collaborated on. Dark forces are at work and fictional characters long to write their own lives.

I think every writer has tried their hand at a story about writing. This might explain why Barker's original “Valerie on the Stairs” story went unpublished for years. The episode certainly touches upon some typical “frustrated writer” cliches. Rob spends part of the episode starring at a mostly blank computer screen. The characters spend more time complaining about writing than actually writing. Still, Highberger House is a great setting that allows for some colorful characters. Such as a former nun who is foul-mouthed and horny, a pothead who abstains from orgasms, and the bisexual Southern Belle. There's a pretty good cast here, with Christopher Lloyd appearing as washed-up horror author. Honestly, Uwe Boll-regular Tyron Leitso, as Rob, is the weak link here. Leitso's line delivery is never quite believable.

Barker's influence only becomes more obvious as “Valerie on the Stairs” goes on. Garris has the lead character more-or-less explain the story's concept. That years of unfulfilled creativity have built-up inside the building's walls, allowing these characters to come to life. (I imagine Barker would've revealed that information in a more subtle way.) There's that typically Barker-esque element of sexuality to the episode. Valerie is an amalgamation of the resident's sexual fantasies, The demonic Beast, played brilliantly by Tony Todd, is both terrifying and somewhat sympathetic, as he genuinely loves Valerie. The gore is crazy too, a gag involving a man's spine pulled from his mouth being especially memorable. In the last act, the hero descend into a corpse-filled torture chamber, where the Beast sits upon a throne made of smashed typewriters. This leads up to a decidedly meta conclusion. Which doesn't make much sense but is still pretty neat. By totally surrendering himself to Barker's sensibilities, Mick Garris made “Valerie on the Stairs” one of his best films. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: Snap Ending

“Snap Ending” is a “Perversions of Science” episode that leans towards harder sci-fi troupes, though still ends up feeling something like a horror story. The episode concerns a not uncommon science fiction scenario. Set aboard a space station, “Snap Ending” begins with an astronaut tearing his suit upon re-entry. His death frees a deadly space virus into the ship. The station sets to self-destruct as a defensive measure. As the three remaining astronauts try to figure out who brought the infection on-board, they begin to turn on each other one by one.

“Snap Ending” is fairly predictable. As soon as Wil Wheaton's hostile Bryan is introduced, you know he's going to turn on the other officers. Even the twist ending can be guessed, as Chrome lays out the story's moral in her opening host segment. Still, “Snap Ending” progresses in a fairly tense way. The constant blaring lights and shouted warnings make you understand how tense this situation is for the characters. The cast is decent. Wheaton's natural smarmy-asshole tendencies are well suited to Bryan. Jennifer Hetrick is good as the cool-headed captain while Kathleen Wilhoite panics nicely as Paula. The opening scene is successfully taut, as the audience watches a perilous scenario spin out of control. (Sean Astin plays the doomed astronaut and also directed this one.) “Snap Ending” is not a sterling half-hour of television but, compared to the earlier “Perversions of Science” episodes, comes off as pretty good. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 26

Stitches (2012)

You know what's sort of funny? Odd funny, not haha funny? There's a lot of killer clown movies. Most of them, however, are not horror/comedies. With the exception of sub-genre high point, “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” it seems most evil clown flicks dispenses with the chuckles all together. I guess some people, horror filmmakers included apparently, find clowns far too freaky to even induce laughs. However, at least some people see the narrative irony in a clown that causes both laughs and screams. “Stitches” is an Irish film directed by Conor McMahon, whose made a number of low budget horror flicks. It's a starring vehicle for stand-up comic Ross Noble, whose manic material has won him a cult following. I have no familiarity with Noble's act but I liked “Stitches” anyway.

Tommy's mother has invited all his friends over for his tenth birthday party. Tommy receives his first kiss from Kate, while sitting in his tree house. This budding romance is interrupted by the arrival of Stitches, the party clown. Stitches' act is not well-received by the kids. Immediately afterwards, he suffers an awful accident, dying violently in Tommy's kitchen. Six years later, Tommy's sixteen birthday has arrived. He invites many of the same friends to his house, including Kate, who he is still crushed on. Someone else is returning as well. Stitches the clown crawls out of his grave. He seeks out the kids who were at Tommy's party, dispatching each of them in bloody fashion.

“Stitches” is a pretty crude comedy. This is a film that does begin with a clown having sex in his trailer. From there, we see young kids spitting, cursing, and puking. The antics of the high school kids are, naturally, full of colorful vulgarity and name-calling. “Stitches” comes very close to being overly crass and annoying. Luckily, the horror elements are played just straight enough that this doesn't happen. Most every facet of the movie is knowingly absurd. However, the terror Stitches' victims feel are taken seriously, even if nothing else is. It's a fine balance and one the movie pulls off successfully. “Stitches” even cooks up some likably nutty clown mythology. In this universe, clowns' souls are represented by magical eggs, painted with their faces. They receive these eggs when they join the clown-hood. That's a goofy, inspired idea.

The main thing, I suspect, people will remember about “Stitches” is its over-the-top death scenes. Unlike many other killer clown movies, which are content to stick a garden variety slasher in some greasepaint, “Stitches” embraces its gimmick. Stitches pulls a rabbit from a victim's throat. He utilizes spring-loaded gloves. He disembowels a teen and ties his guts into a balloon animal. During a chase scene, he leaps on a tiny tricycle. When “Stitches” isn't joyfully running with the killer clown concept, it throws in lovably fucked-up gore. An ice cream scope removes brains from a cracked open skull. A bicycle pump inflates a head until it explodes. My favorite involves an umbrella being shoved through a head, a death scene that stretches on to absurd heights. It's gory, goofy fun.

“Stitches” also features a likable cast. Despite his energetic stage performance, Ross Noble's performance as Stitches is pretty controlled. Even after being revived as a zombie clown, Noble tells jokes and quibs. But he's suitably undead during the film's later scenes. Tommy Knight is nicely awkward as the similarly named Tommy. He doesn't undersell the natural nervousness of a teenage boy but makes him likable. Gemma-Leah Devereux is especially eye-catching as Kate. She looks lovely in her goth girl get-up. Beyond that, Devereux has decent comedic timing and works well in the film. Tommy Kane Byrne is amusing as Bulger, an overweight and slightly effeminate friend of Tommy's.  Most of the other teens are kind of broad and annoying but they usually end up dead, so I guess that's okay.

After watching several lame killer clown flicks, “Stitches” really felt like a breath of fresh air. Who would think a clown flick that actually rolls with that conceit would be so rare? Either way, I enjoyed myself watching this one. The movie naturally ends by teasing a sequel. Normally, I'd roll my eyes at that but you know what? I would be interested in seeing more adventures from Ross Noble's undead and murderous clown. Assuming its nearly half as much fun as this one was, anyway. [7/10]

The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1993)

I have no idea how successful “The Unnamable” was. I imagine a limited-release horror film like that can only do so well. However, the movie clearly made money for someone, as a sequel was produced in 1993. Director Jean-Paul Ouellette would return to write and direct “The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter.” The subtitle comes from a different Lovecraft story, elements of which Ouellette incorporated into the sequel. I guess the second “Unnamable” film didn't do as well as the first, as no further sequels were produced. Ouellette, in fact, hasn't made another feature since. (Though he's been busy with shorts and producing.) Let's see how Randolph Carter's second cinematic adventure goes.

In the immediate aftermath of the events of the first “Unnamable,” the police descend on the Winthrop House. As the dead bodies are carried away, Randolph Carter manages to sneak the Necronomicon out. Inside the book, Carter discovers eldritch chants that correlate to modern quantum physics. He becomes convince the monster is still alive. In the tunnels under Winthrop House, Carter discovers he's right. Using modern science and ancient magic, he separates Alyda's innocent human half from her monstrous demonic half. Carter runs with Alyda across the Miskatonic University campus, pursued by the monster that hopes to reclaim her.

It's evident that “The Unnamable II” had a slightly bigger budget than its predecessor. Two name actors are in the cast. David Warner appears briefly as the dean of Miskatonic U. John Rhys-Davis has a sizable role as Dr. Warren, the man who accompanies Carter into the tunnels. The film takes place in more than one location, set all across and around the college campus. We also get far more shots of the monster. More importantly, “The Unnamable II” is wider in scope too. The story expands into the local area a little, suggesting the Arkham authorities are aware of the weird shit happening in their town but cover it up. The link between quantum physics and Lovecraftian magic – likely inspired by "Dreams in the Witch House" – is a pretty ambitious place to take a low budget horror sequel. C'thulhu's name is dropped regularly, as is the lore behind the Necronomicon. Once again, it becomes evident that Ouellette is a pretty big Lovecraft nerd. That knowledge invests this down-and-dirty monster flick with a little more gravitas.

Mark Kinsey Stephenson's performance as Randolph Carter was one of the best parts of the first “Unnamable.” Smartly, the sequel gives Stephenson an even bigger role. He gets the oddest sort of love story. After separating Alyda from the demonic Unnamable, Carter suddenly finds himself close to an attractive, naked, and child-like woman. Maria Ford plays Alyda as someone experiencing the normal world for the first time. Even the idea of putting on clothes is a foreign concept to her, at first. She hisses and scratches like an animal when a female friend attempts to dress her. Which makes her a weirdly ideal girlfriend for the socially awkward Randolph Carter. Their romance escalates quickly but believably. By the end, when their love story inevitably ends in tragedy, you actually feel pretty sorry for Carter.

Truthfully, the relationship between Carter and Alyda is actually more interesting than the monster movie antics. First off, putting the Unnamable in more direct light was a mistake. The creature design this time is more elaborate, including fully functional wings and a cat-like face, but also more rubbery and inexpressive. Future softcore queen Julie Strain plays the creature. Strain's shrieks are less convincing than Katrin Alexndre in the first movie and Strain shows little ability to act through the heavy make-up. The gore is less entertaining as well. Alyda claws most of her victims too death in less than creative ways. The one scene where Alyda flies is pretty awkwardly assembled too. The conclusion, which involves the monster being fused with a chair, is pretty cool though.

Once again, Ouellette does a decent job of combining Lovecraftian elements with more standard horror stuff. A sequence where the Unnamable claws at Carter while he climbs through an air vent is mildly tense. Mostly, I like the quirky romance at the movie's center as well as the numerous references to the Mythos sprinkled throughout. The sequel is not quite as solid as the first, lacking some of the nighttime atmosphere, shadowy shots of the monster, and effectively gooey death scenes. Yet it makes up for it in other ways, creating a generally entertaining horror picture. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution

Joe Dante's “Homecoming” was a break-out critical success for season one of “Masters of Horror,” though I didn't think it aged very well. For his season two episode, Dante's chose material that was no less political. “The Screwfly Solution” concerns a plague sweeping the world. Occurring in a straight line around the globe, men are violently attacking and killing women. It soon becomes apparent that this is an outbreak. Scientist Alan Alstein, a loving father and husband, works with the government in an attempt to control the misogynistic plague. However, it quickly grows out of control, women being systematically killed across the country. Alan's wife Anne attempts to hide out while the exact origins of the epidemic are revealed as not exactly earthly.

Unlike the instantly dated Bush II era protest of “Homecoming,” Dante's “The Screwfly Solution” is somewhat prescient. This episode was made a good decade before phrases like Men's Right Activist or Red Piller were on anyone's lips. (Though Dante linking religious fanaticism with misogyny was mistaken. Turns out that sexism is its own justification.) We haven't had wide-spread violence against women yet but these ideas are frighteningly close to the mainstream these days. This imbues “The Screwfly Solution” with a stark sense of horror. There are several shocking moments of violence. A bloodbath erupts in a strip club. On an airplane, a panicking woman has her neck snapped in a very nonchalant way. Later, a disguised Anne spots a bag made of a female breast for sale in a shop.

Yet “The Screwfly Solution's” scariest moments are its most plausible. While Anne is out with her teenage daughter, a crude construction worker catcalls her. The girl, in response, flicks him off. Instead of leaving it at that, the man walks up to their car, continuing to harass the girl. This kind of shit actually happens every day, making the sequence effectively chilling. Later, we see a man leave a female superior's office, covered in blood. He calmly tells a male co-worker to clean up the mess he made. The cast, for the most part, helps sell this intensity. Jason Priestly is surprisingly good in the lead role, especially when he fights off the disease's effect to give his wife and daughter a chance to escape. Elliot Gould is extremely good in a supporting role as the gay scientist leading the cure effort. Of the cast, only Brenna O'Brien as the daughter doesn't work, as her character comes off as slightly obnoxious.

Despite having so much going for it, “The Screwfly Solution” doesn't quite work. Ultimately, the story is too big in scope to be done on a TV budget. Too much of the film is devoted to character reading about violence in foreign countries. Far too many scenes are devoted to people in rooms discussing the events, instead of witnessing them first hand. It's also too big of a story to squeeze into an hour. The conclusion is overly blunt, featuring a somewhat silly appearance from some aliens. Dante shot the episode largely with handheld digital cameras, giving it a shaky, somewhat flat appearance. Lastly, the musical score from Hummie Man is melodramatic, putting too fine a point on several moments. It's a bummer that these elements drag down “The Screwfly Solution,” which came close to being a potent and frightening sci-fi story about our current times. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Panic

“Perversions of Science” seemingly pulls off the impossible by airing two decent episodes in a row! “Panic” is set in the thirties. On Halloween night, popular radio star Carson Walls premieres a new program. His story is about a Martian fleet landing on Earth and declaring war on humanity, presented as a factual news broadcast. When seemingly regular Earth dudes, Bob and John, hear this at their Halloween party, they freak out. See, Bob and John actually are Martians. The two have been living among humans for several months, collecting data for their Martian overlords. They think the invasion has began and their cover is blown. After Bob and John begin to indiscriminately kill humans, they discover that the broadcast is actually a hoax.

“Panic” is obviously a riff on Orson Welles' “War of the Worlds” broadcast. However, the episode puts a funny spin on it. Re-framing the popular narrative around that event – people believing the broadcast to be real – to be about actual Martians being fooled by the broadcast is a clever switch. This idea isn't revealed until about ten minutes into the episode, genuinely surprising the audience. Upon hearing the news, Bob and John suddenly murder all their human friends, a shocking moment of manic violence. How the episode plays out from there, with the two Martians arguing among themselves while they look for a non-existent alien army, is amusingly goofy. The episode's twist ending is unexpected and ends things on a suitably absurd note. Really, only a joke about a sexually deprived backwoods farmer falls flat. Otherwise, this is pretty funny.

Maybe we can attribute “Panic's” higher quality to its crew and cast. This marks the second Tobe Hooper directed anthology episode I've seen this month. Hooper incorporates some of his trademarks here, such as energetic camera movements and distinctive set designs. The script is from Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously wrote “Seven.” The cast, meanwhile, is perfectly pitched to the material. Jason Lee is amusingly nervous and nerdy as Bob. He has good chemistry with Jamie Kennedy as John, who plays things even more nerdy. Chris Sarandon, also making his second appearance this Six Weeks, is nicely grandiose as the Welles stand-in. The Chrome host segments are still groan-inducing but this is a “Perversions of Science” episode that is genuinely good. [7/10]

Monday, September 25, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 25

The Resurrected (1992)

When people list off the great horror filmmakers, Dan O’Bannon’s name is too often left off. As a screenwriter, O’Bannon helped create stone cold classics like “Alien” and “Total Recall.” He also had his names on cult favorites like “Dead and Buried,” “Heavy Metal,” and “Lifeforce.” And as a director, he gifted the world with “Return of the Living Dead,” one of the eighties’ greatest zombie movies. His second directorial feature would see him adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” This is fitting, as “Alien” contained some of Lovecraft’s DNA. The resulting film would be re-cut, retitled, and shuffled onto video with little fanfare. In the years since, some have reevaluated “The Resurrected” as an underrated and overlooked classic.

John March is a private detective living and working in Providence, Rhode Island. An attractive young woman comes into his office with a very odd case. Her husband, Charles Ward, has disappeared. March soon tracks the man down at a solitary country cabin, where he’s acting very strange. Ward is placed in a mental hospital soon afterwards. As March digs deeper into Ward’s case, he uncovers something unnerving. Ward is the ancestor of Joseph Curwin, a man accused of witchcraft a hundred years prior. After uncovering more evidence, March comes to believe that Curwin is Ward, somehow returned to life. His case only gets stranger from there.

Lovecraft’s original story was already something of a mystery, about a doctor attempting to figure out what caused Charles Ward to start acting so strange. O’Bannon ran with that aspect, making “The Resurrected” into a full blown detective story. There’s even a deliberate film noir vibe. March’s involvement with the plot begins with a strange woman enters his office. March is given a voice over narration, which stops just short of featuring some hard-boiled language. Ultimately, O’Bannon’s desire to turn Lovecraft’s story into a quasi-noir becomes a bit of a problem. “The Resurrected” veer towards convoluted at times, a few too many subplots not adding up. Twice, characters have to stop and explain the plot. Blending Lovecraft and mystery fiction wasn’t a new idea but is still a fun one.

As a horror movie, “The Resurrected” gets increasingly grisly as it goes on. The film begins as more atmospheric. There’s spooky shots of an old houses, surrounded by fog. A memorable shot features some wild dogs, howling amid a desolated landscape. The film makes the New England countryside look as foreboding as possible. A scalpel slashing a hand open, spurting blood, signals a shift in tone. A flashback to Curwin’s days conclude with a startling shot of a writhing, half decomposed, partially undead body. A lengthy portion of the film’s second half is devoted to exploring the catacombs under Ward’s cabin. What the heroes find there are horrifying masses of body horror. The twitching amalgamations of different corpses, fused together, lurch out of the shadows, in several shocking moments. The film’s climax features even stronger horror, as Curwin twists an orderly’s head. The villain’s final fate is a startling display of special effects. There’s even a stop-motion skeleton!

What about the film’s cast? I was a little uncertain of John Terry’s performance as March, at first. Some of his line readings, especially in the voiceover, come across as flat. In other moments, Terry is a really likable lead. He has nice chemistry with the other cast members. Laurie Briscoe appears as March’s secretary while Robert Romanus is Lenny, his investigative partner. Together, the three make a fun team, having a natural, breezy interaction. Jane Sibbett plays Claire, Ward’s horrified wife. Sibbett is vulnerable but resourceful, especially once she crawls down into her husband’s pit of horror. Of course, Chris Sarandon steals the show as Ward/Curwin. Sarandon puts on a convincing antiqued accent. As a villain, he projects a threatening air. He gets to really cut loose in the final scene, hamming it wonderfully as the fully unleashed necromancer.

“The Resurrected” is a decently compelling mystery and a very cool horror movie. Whatever flaws it has may not be O’Bannon’s fault. His original cut, entitled “The Ancestor,” was re-edited by the studio. In some areas, the movie was given the intriguing but nonsensical new title of “Shatterbrain.” Perhaps some of the narrative issues are the result of these differing edits. While O’Bannon’s death makes an official release of his director’s cut unlikely, “The Resurrected” is still pretty good in its present form. Thanks to a shiny recent Blu-Ray release from Scream Factory, the film is being rediscovered and further reevaluated as one of the better Lovecraft adaptations. [7/10]

Frayed (2007)

There's probably about a thousand killer clown movies out there. It's a cheap and easy gimmick to give your horror movie villain and one that will freak out a portion of your audience. A lot of these movies go direct-to-video and most of them, it's fair to say, are terrible. I doubt critical reevaluations of the “S.I.C.K./Mr. Jingles,” “Fear of Clowns,” or “Killjoys” series are forthcoming. So, during my tenure at Blockbuster Video, when “Frayed” crossed our video shelves, I dismissed it as more of the same. However, I would later read a highly positive review from the good folks at Kindertrauma. All these years later, I'm finally getting around to giving the film a watch.

At the birthday party of his eight year old sister, Sara, little Kurt Baker displays some anti-social behavior. First, he goes ballistic on the pinata. Then he ruins his sister's cake. Lastly, he brutally beats his mother to death with a baseball bat. Kurt is placed in a mental hospital and the years go by. His dad, the local sheriff, is haunted by Kurt's murder but attempts to move on. He remarries. Sara, now a young adult, has a best friend and a boyfriend. On the night she decides to stay out with this boy, Kurt escapes from the hospital. Wearing a clown mask, he begins to stalk and kill the family members who have tried to forget him.

When “Frayed” is discussed – which isn't often – usually the movie's opening scene is singled out. And rightfully so. That first sequence is brilliant. Through some shaky camcorder footage, we watch Kurt's bad behavior slowly escalate. When the murder comes, it's shockingly brutal. Using some clever CGI, we see the mother's face get battered, her forehead bruising, her mouth splitting open. “Frayed” never recaptures that moment. However, the movie occasionally features a few other clever gags. One has the killer's face slowly appear in a window, behind a woman's shoulders. Another scene has Kurt suddenly leaping out of a backseat, attacking the car's driver with a screwdriver.

However, these effective scenes only comprise a small part of “Frayed.” The movie, which runs nearly two hours long, is primarily devoted to seemingly endless build-up. We see Kurt escape from the mental hospital. We see the dead bodies of his few victims. We get to know all about Sara and her friends' life. I understand, and even somewhat applaud, what the director was trying to do. In theory, a horror movie is more effectively if we care about the characters. In practice, the effect is somewhat tedious. By the time Sara and her buddy begin to argue, in the middle of a tense situation, I was really getting tired of things. “Frayed” is far too long and not nearly as interesting as the filmmaker seems to think.

For all its flaws, “Frayed” at least functions as a decent slasher in the last act. The movie is clearly indebted to “Halloween” and directly pays homage to it. However, any momentum “Frayed” has collapses at the end. The script displays a twist ending. Killer clown Kurt and a helpful supporting character, we learn, are actually the same person. One twist is not enough for this movie. We then learn that Kurt didn't kill his mother, that she was actually murdered by someone else. In an almost offensive moment, this suddenly appearing killer also sexually molested Kurt. Yet even this isn't the last twist. There's yet another one, revealing that the entire movie isn't what it appears to be. No, “Frayed” doesn't stop there either. A post-credit scene hints at the true identity of Kurt's molester, that he might strike again. Give me a break. I was fed up after the first asinine twist. By the fourth, “Frayed' had used up any good will it had left.

I'm sorry to say that Kindertrauma was wrong about this one. “Frayed” does have a corker of an opening scene. The movie fails to live up to that moment. In fact, it repeatedly tramples on everything effective about its beginning. Throw in some annoying cinematic tricks – like some spasm-inducing peeks into the killer's mad mind – and I really struggle to recommend this one. There's not much killer clown action either, as the greasepaint just provide the murderer with a mask, not a gimmick. Perhaps the directors should have just made a short film instead? [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Pelts

By the time “Masters of Horror” rolled around, Dario Argento had gone from being one of the genre’s greatest voices to the man behind embarrassing flubs like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Dracula 3D.” Unsurprisingly, his two episodes for the series would be divisive and widely disliked. “Pelts” concerns Feldman, an egregiously sleazy fur trader. When not rending animal skin or browbeating his employees, he harasses Shanna, a local stripper. That’s where Feldman is when he gets a tip from an old trapper. The trapper has captured some impressive raccoon pelts. Feldman uses them to make a gorgeous fur coat. However, the pelts are connected to the sacred grounds of an Indian tribe. The vengeful spirits of the dead animals enact their revenge, making sure everyone who interacts with the furs dies a hideous death.

Argento’s first “Masters of Horror” episode, “Jenifer,” was mostly concerned with graphic violence and explicit sex. He doesn’t break this trend with “Pelts.” Despite only being an hour long, “Pelts” squeezes in six elaborate death scenes. Some of the cringers involve a severe baseball bat beating, a man falling face first into a steel trap, a self-disemboweling, and a woman sewing her nostrils and lips shut. In the last act, a man skins himself with a large knife, stalking a victim in only his exposed muscle. An early scene shows the aftermath of a raccoon chewing its paw off to escape a trap. This is mirrored in the final scene, where a woman’s arm is torn off in an elevator door. Argento dismisses with any suspense by beginning the episode with the main characters, dead and bloody, and backtracking from there. He’s not interested in the people, only their gory executions.

This isn’t the only type of flesh Dario is eager to put on display. “Pelts” is somehow sleazier than “Jenifer,” a story about an evil teenage girl seducing men. Feldman isn’t merely romantically obsessed with Shanna. He’s enamored with her ass, desiring anal sex with her. A private dance practically turns into a rape scene. Upon presenting her with the finished fur coat, he gets his wish, in a very graphic moment. Ellen Ewusie – who is, it must be said, totally fucking stacked – spends nearly the entire episode naked. Argento even throws in a lesbian sex scene, which is equally graphic and totally gratuitous. The blatantly sexual tone pairs oddly with the deeply misanthropic atmosphere.

Super sleazy sex and ridiculously graphic gore, however, can be appealing. “Pelts’” content is so extreme that I think it’s supposed to be partially comedic. The performances hold this out. Meat Loaf – yes, that Meat Loaf – is a sweating, lumbering, madman as Feldman. It’s a performance that leaves good taste behind in a very entertaining fashion. John Saxon is similarly over-the-top as the fur trapper, a toothless old redneck and drunkard. Holding it all together is a surprisingly elegant score from Claudio Simonetti. I’m not really sure if “Pelts” is a good hour of horror but it is, in the most base, lizard brain sort of way, an entertaining one. I guess that’s the most we can hope for from Dario Argento these days. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: Planely Possible

The punniful title of “Perversions of Science” doesn’t refer to airplanes, as I assumed, but dimensional planes. Walter Thurman’s wife is murdered by a home invader. He has never recovered from the trauma and is preoccupied with questions of “What if?” That’s when he has a chance meeting with Dr. Rotwang. The doctor is a former NASA engineer who not only believes in alternate dimensions. He also has invented a machine capable of transporting someone to them. Walter immediately signs up to be the test subject. Walter travels to other versions of this world where his wife is alive. Yet this is not the only difference. Walter finds himself arriving in multiple, horrifying, alternate Earths.

With four left to go, “Perversions of Science” finally delivers another half-way decent episode. The shifting narrative is centered around George Newbern’s Walter, who gives a likably nervous performance. The dimension leaping premise presents opportunities for all sorts of wacky situations. In one, Walter’s wife stretches into a mutated spider monster. In another, World War III has happened. In yet another, his wife is a murderer. This is the sort of wacky, quasi-comedic but creatively gruesome premise that “Tales from the Crypt” succeeded with. Russell Mulcahy contributes moody direction, making good use of shadows and camera angles. Vincent Schiavelli is amusingly hammy as Dr. Rotwang, a well-intentioned but still somewhat unstable scientist. Dr. Joyce Brothers, of all people, also has a cameo. Yes, Chrome’s host segments are still devoted to deeply juvenile sexual double entendres. But this is still probably the best episode of “Perversions of Science,” thus far. [7/10]