Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 20

IT (1990)

Whatever the origins of the killer clown, one of the most popular modern horror archetypes, Stephen King certainly has to answer for a lot of it. His 1986 novel is a sprawling masterpiece that covers a lot of ground. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, however, is the only thing most people remember about “It.” The mini-series adaptation, first aired on ABC  in 1990, may be the primary reason for this. Producers originally intended the mini-series to run for ten hours, with George Romero directing. When “It” actually rolled into production, the run time had been cut down to three, with Tommy Lee Wallace of “Halloween III” and “Fright Night II” directing. Despite that considerable step down in talent, “It” made Pennywise into a horror icon and remains a nostalgic favorite.

The killings in Derry have started again. The small Maine town is caught up in a cycle. Every thirty years, children begin to die. After a huge outburst of violence, the murders stop... Only to start again three decades later. In the late fifties, a group of eleven year old youths – calling themselves the Losers Club – confronted the force behind the killings directly. Mostly appearing as a malevolent clown, It is actually an ancient entity older than any of them, that can take the shape of your worst fears. They thought they killed it back then. But, now, It has returned. The Losers Club reconvene in Derry, uncertain if they can survive another encounter with It.

I would not envy anybody adapting King's “It.” First off, it's a door stopper that runs over a thousand pages. Even the prospect of shoving all that into a three hour run time is daunting. Some of screenwriter Lawrence Cohen's decisions were strictly pragmatic. Most of King's backstory, for the characters and the town of Derry, and nearly all the subplots are clip out. The two halves are wildly condensed. Different adventures are combined or switched around. Of course, there are budgetary decisions too. The sprawling sewer tunnels and underground caverns are replaced with an underwhelming filtration plant. The titular entity spends most of the film as the clown, removing the wilder transformations. And the cosmic conclusion is entirely excised. Ultimately, maybe thirty percent of King's book made it into the mini-series. The result is not the most satisfying adaptation. In fact, this “It” feels practically anemic.

An entire generation of nineties kids have talked about how “It” traumatized them. I remember this too, watching the movie from under a blanket, being too freaked out to even look at it. To adult eyes, Wallace's “It” comes off as deeply corny. Many of the horrific sequences – most of them added for the film – are less than frightening. An encounter between Eddie and Pennywise in the school shower is deeply silly. The creature design for It's final form – an alien spider – is neat. However, the effects are stiff. There was something cathartic on the page about the Losers beating the Spider to death with their bare hands. On-screen, it's deeply anticlimatic. But Henry Bowers gets it the worst. King's frightening young psychopath is changed into a generic, deeply unthreatening greaser kid. The fate of him and his friends, sucked into a pipe and hair turned white, are laughable. The electronic score is largely cheesy too.

Having said that, Wallace's film occasionally touches upon a creepy image. Beverly's vision of blood bubbling up from the sink is one of the few moments from the book that are largely unaltered, to the film's benefit. In fact, blood bursting into the air provides some of “It's” best moments. When a balloon splatters blood all over Richie, while he sits in the library as an adult, that makes for a decent shock. A sequence set in a Chinese restaurant, where every fortune cookie holds a gruesome surprise, works pretty well even with some shaky special effects. Another encounter from the adult years, where Beverly comes face-to-face with a ghoulish old lady, works pretty well. In fact, "It" is probably at its scariest when hewing the closest to King's text.

Of course, none of this is the real reason people recall “It” so fondly. It all comes down to Tim Curry as Pennywise. Roddy McDowell and Malcolm McDowell were both considered for the part and either surely would've done a good job. But Curry's evil clown is on a whole other level. The clown persona allows Curry to ham it up as much as he wants, which is hugely enjoyable on its own. However, Curry maintains a sinister edge even when being jovial. He understands that Pennywise is someone that enjoys frightening children and relishes it. In fact – with his big smile, wicked laugh, and deeply unnerving delivery – Curry's Pennywise may be creepier than King's. On the page, Pennywise is merely one of It's many faces. In the film, he's the main attraction.

The rest of the cast is more varied. None of the Losers, as kids, are especially well cast. Seth Green's young Richie is incredibly annoying. Ben Heller's Stan Uris is so distant from the literal Stan that he reads like a totally different character. Emily Perkins as young Bev and Brandon Crane as young Ben are better performers but have a similar problem. Many of the adult losers are simply miscast. Harry Anderson as adult Richie mugs furiously but can't seem to shed his comedic side in the more serious scenes. (The mini-series makes Richie a successful stand-up, instead of a deejay. Which makes sense, except his material is so bad, you can't believe he'd ever be popular.) John Ritter is also a really poor choice for adult Ben, being too cuddly and not nearly stoic enough. Annette O'Toole is a solid choice for adult Beverly but isn't given nearly enough to do.

Ultimately, I suspect nostalgia does play a big role in the fondness displayed for “It.” Tim Curry's Pennywise has become beloved and widely referenced for a reason. He's brilliant and easily the highlight of the film. While watching as a kid, he's utterly terrifying and that clearly imprinted on a whole generation of kids. The mini-series around him is less impressive. Especially when compared to King's epic novel, Tommy Lee Wallace's adaptation can't help but pale. Lack of budget, lack of time, and lack of vision lead to a forgettable mini-series with a simply unforgettable villain. [6/10]

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

“Die, Monster, Die!” might have been the first piece of Lovecraftian fiction I was ever exposed too. I caught the movie on AMC's Friday night creep show when I was a budding horror fan. At the time, I had no idea who H.P. Lovecraft was, though I would soon discover. I remember the film being campy and spooky in the way I had come to expect from American International Pictures classics. As an adult, I now know that the movie was the second Lovecraft adaptation A.I.P. produced, following “The Haunted Palace.” Newcomer filmmaker Daniel Haller would take over the director's chair from Roger Corman. Though not quite a classic, the film does have a certain notoriety, mostly do to its memorably outrageous title and the presence of an elderly Boris Karloff.

The film is inspired by “The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft's best short stories, though it leaves little of the source material. The setting is moved from New England to old England, firstly. Secondly, the farm house location is switched for a gothic mansion. Naturally, a female love interest and more monsters are added to the tale. The titular color is reduced to a plot device. Instead, the film follows Stephen Reinhart, who has come to England to retrieve his young girlfriend. That girl, Susan Witley, is living in her family's old house. Her father is confined to a wheelchair. Her mother is ill, staying in her room. Soon, Stephen and Susan discover that the mansion holds a strange, horrible secret. One that comes from beyond the stars.

“Die, Monster Die!” isn't the most sophisticated movie but I found myself enjoying it. The movie openly participates in an older style of horror atmosphere. By shifting the story's location, Lovecraft's backwoods mutations take on a more gothic air. The film's mansion setting is well utilized. It's full of darkly hallways, spooky old portraits, and dusty trinkets from a decade or more ago. In this effectively creepy location, a classical breed of chills are deployed. Strange figures are half-seen through windows or bedroom curtains. Old family curses are whispered about. There's a boarded-up room that everyone is forbid from entering. A spooky old battle axe, the kind a classical executioner might carry, even puts in an appearance. It's pretty hooky but admittedly catnip for a classic horror fanatic like myself.

“Die, Monster, Die!” is so heavy on this more quint brand of horror that the Lovecraftian elements aren't immediately evident. Slowly, they emerge. A key sequence involves Steve and Susan entering a forbidden green house. Inside, they find giant vegetables – one of the few holdovers from the original story – and grotesquely mutated animals. These creatures are so deformed that you can't even recognize what they once were. Humans are similarly effected. In the last reel, Susan's mother is revealed. Her face has distorted, sprouting bleeding sores. This kind of proto-body horror makes up much of Lovecraft's original story. There are other elements too. The senior Witley feels cursed by an ancient family bloodline, recalling “Charles Dexter Ward.” There's also a green glowing light underground, which at least hints at the subterranean terrors Howard Philips wrote about.

These two separate techniques of horror play out mostly in separate sequences. And to the benefit of the film. When “Die, Monster, Die!” attempts to link its drippy horror setting with its Lovecraftian roots, the result is a stuntman running around with silver paint on his face. In the last act, Boris Karloff's character gets a mega-dose of the mutation causing radiation. An obviously different actor then takes over, attacking Nick Adams while wearing aluminum foil-looking make-up and glowing green. It's a silly ending to a somewhat silly movie but one that jives badly. Especially since it takes Karloff out of the picture. Karloff's ominous performance is another highlight of “Die, Monster, Die!” He's a bit more memorable than Adams in the hero role and Suzan Farmer as the screaming damsel, both of whom are just adequate.

I actually enjoy “Die, Monster, Die!” more now than when I was a kid. I guess my appreciation for this brand of nonsense has increased with age. It's not an especially accurate Lovecraft adaptation and is fairly goofy overall. However, this movie still hits enough of my sweet spots to recommend it. I'm certainly not the only fan, as there are several songs and bands named for the film. A.I.P., by the way, originally released this on a double feature with Mario Bava's “Planet of the Vampires.” I bet that was a fun show to catch at the local drive-in. [7/10]

Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing

Last year, I reviewed season one of “Masters of Horror.” Back in high school, when my horror fandom was really starting to burn bright, the show was appointment television for me. So revisiting that first season was a source of nostalgia, even if the episodes varied in quality. I have fewer fond memories of season two. By the time the second season started, I was no longer speaking to my father, the only person in my family who had Showtime. So I didn't see season two during its first run. As a youngster, I also though the second season's line-up of directors was disappointing. Now, however, I have another reason to continue watching this show. These unique filmmakers are starting to die off. The first episode of “Masters of Horror's” second season, “The Damned Thing,” is from the recently late Tobe Hooper. I have to watch this show now, to pay tribute to this now-gone filmmaker.

“The Damned Thing” is loosely based off the Ambrose Bierce story of the same name. Very loosely, it must be said. The film begins in the eighties, when Kevin Reddle was only a boy. His father went insane on his fortieth birthday, killing his mother and attempting to kill Kevin. Afterwards, the man was torn apart by an invisible force. Now, Kevin is approaching his own fortieth birthday. He's now the sheriff in his small town, currently separated from his wife and son. Reddle has a dark feeling that the damned thing is about to return. He's right. An evil force bubbles up from the ground, driving the townsfolk insane, causing them to murder one another.

“The Damned Thing” is a pretty good example of Tobe Hooper's unique strengths and myriad flaws as a filmmaker. Look at the scenes were the invisible monster, the titular damned thing, attacks and forces others to attack. Hooper employs some startlingly gory special effects. A man's chest is torn open, his intestines yanked out, before his body levitates into the air. An effective scene has a man beating himself to death with a claw hammer. Another surprising moment has the sheriff attempting to rescue a teenage girl from a car crash. All he succeeds in doing is tearing her legs off, which come apart with a sickening sound. Yet these moments also feature some tacky direction from Hooper. The camera seizes wildly during the attacks, with gratuitous shaky-cam. For some reason, a stock sound effect monster roar is used to signals the damned thing's presence. That's annoying, especially since it's replayed repeatedly.

The script, provided by Richard Christian Matheson, is also a mixed bag. The damned thing manifesting as oil, the hate and violence literally bubbling up from the ground, is a clever touch. (Even if the CGI used in the last scene could've used some work.) Some of the interactions in the town, like Ted Raimi's Catholic priest turning a gun on a mouthy confession, are darkly humorous. Yet Matheson's script also saddles the main character with a distracting voiceover. That narration blandly explains too much of the story. You can see this dynamic in the cast too. Sean Patrick Flannery is decent in the lead. Brenden Fletcher is amusing as the deputy who dreams of becoming a cartoonist. Yet other performances are less certain. Marisa Coughlan is tone-deaf as the wife, especially in the scenes where the damned thing begins to influence her.

Ultimately, “Masters of Horror: Season Two” gets off to a shaky start. I remember too much of the second season having a similar problem. The artful bits stand alongside more awkward stuff, like that needlessly nihilistic ending. As a Tobe Hooper film, “The Damned Thing” is set in his native Texas and features some of the frenzied insanity common to his work. It's also sadly typical of Hooper's sloppy later work. Still, even if he made some mediocre-to-terrible films, I am going to miss Tobe Hooper. The horror genre absolutely wouldn't be the same without him. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Dream of Doom

Over the last four Halloweens, I watched all of “Tales from the Crypt.” The show was frequently formulaic yet I loved it. It was also a big hit for HBO, who was only beginning to move into original television at the time. Unsurprisingly, after its healthy seven year run, the network wasn't ready to give up on the idea of an E.C. Comics-based anthology series. In 1997, the same producers would re-team for a follow-up. While “Tales from the Crypt” was based on E.C.'s horror comics, “Perversions of Science” would be based on E.C.'s science fiction comics. Instead of a jokey puppet Cryptkeeper, the show was hosted by a sexy CGI gynoid named Chrome. Despite having so much going for it, “Perversions of Science” would not repeat “Tales'” success. It would end after one season. Though ostensibly a sci-fi show, the stories crossed over into the horrific often enough to make it fitting viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween.

That's very evident in the sole premiere episode. “Dream of Doom” is more-or-less straight-up psychological horror. The story concerns Arthur Bristol, a forty-something college professor. Bristol visits a psychologist, claiming that he can't wake up. He believes himself to be stuck in a dream. Every time he awakes, he simply finds himself in another dream. Faces reappear throughout his fantasies. A woman who is sometimes his doctor and sometimes his wife. Or a comely young lady who is sometimes his student and sometimes his girlfriend. Arthur becomes desperate to break this cycle and begins considering violent options.

“Dream of Doom” was directed by Walter Hill, who also directed “Tales from the Crypt's” first episode. This isn't a classic on the level of “The Man Who Was Death” though. The script, from future blockbuster scribe David Goyer, is intentionally scattered. The premise, of endless dreams cycling into each other, leaves little room for narrative coherence. So we get a collection of scenarios. Some of them, like Arthur awakening inside a seedy strip club or a shrink's office, are kind of interesting. The segments play joyfully with Freudian implications. Such as the same woman appearing as his wife in one dream, and his daughter in another. The sexy females also show up as Marylin Monroe-style muses, cooing unhelpful secrets. Yet the constantly shifting story never comes together into a solid whole. “Dream of Doom” is essentially a half-hour of unfinished situations, occasionally building on each other but too often simply existing side-by-side.

Just like “Crypt,” recognizable actors appeared in “Perversions of Science.” This one stars Keith Carradine, Lolita Davidovich, and Adam Arkin. Sadly, the script didn't give anyone much to work with. As a show, “Perversions of Science” is already less charming than “Tales from the Crypt.” Chrome's slinky double entendres are less endearing than the Crypt Keeper's puns. Her CGI appearance is also way less expressive than the old Crypt Keeper puppet. Danny Elfman's boozy jazz theme song is pretty cool though. I'm hoping the show will get better before I finish with its ten episode run but I'm not really expecting that. [5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

For years I'd been avoiding watching the mini-series "It" because I didn't want it to spoil my first reading of the King novel. So what did I do? I caved and went to see the 2017 movie. I did manage to make it through the first couple of hundred pages of the book. The new movie was fun but I wasn't as impressed as many others. Now more than ever, I want to finish the book and my viewing of this mini-series will probably never happen.

"Die, Monster, Die!" has a great premise with a meteor that crashes and mutates plants and animals. There are a couple of intriguing shots and sets, one is what appears to be mutated animals in a greenhouse, and the other is the holding pit of the meteorite in the basement of Nahum (Karloff). It's too bad that the movie is slow beyond words and takes place mostly in a mansion where people do nothing but plead with each other not to do this or that.

All of the acting here falls flat, including Karloff's. The characters, especially Stephen played by Nick Adams, are uninteresting. The most disappointing thing is there is something otherworldly happening in that greenhouse and we get only a few seconds to explore it. 3/10

I've never seen any of the "Masters of Horror" episodes, probably because I've really only been consuming Horror the last decade or so. Here's the thing with me and Horror...I'm almost never scared by it but am intriguiged by monsters, kaiju, and beasts of all sorts. "The Damned Thing" seems like it features one of those strange beasts but it sounds like the episode's purpose is to show gore. I don't avoid gory movies if the gore occasionally is the result of some terrible force . But if showing blood and guts is THE reason for the movie's existence, I just avoid it (see "Frankenstein's Army", "The Signal" or "The Void", which I mentioned yesterday). I am interested in seeing some of the "Masters of Horror" stories, though. Maybe you'll cover some that I'll want to watch.

I'd never even heard of "Perversions of Science". Of course, now you've made me curious and perhaps I'll buy what you're selling once I've read a few of your reviews. Hopefully it's better than the over-preachy, bleeding heart "Masters of Science Fiction" series that Stephen Hawking opened for in 2007.