Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 22, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 22

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

American International Pictures made at least seven films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, more if you count the films that took Poe's titles and attached them to unrelated stories. The studio's attempt to launch a long-running series of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations was less successful. Their effort would produce only three adaptations over the course of eight years. The final Lovecraft film from the studio was 1970's “The Dunwich Horror.” Director Daniel Heller would return from “Die, Monster, Die!” The result is one of the weirder Lovecraft movies, coming at a time when the horror genre – and A.I.P's approach to it – was changing.

Inside the library at Miskatonic University, located in Arkham, Massachusetts, resides the Necronomicon. The notorious tome supposedly contains spells and rites that can summon the Old Ones – ancient gods who ruled Earth before man – back to our level of reality. Wilbur Whateley has a particular interest in the book. His family has a long history of witchcraft. Wilbur's grandfather was a warlock, lynched by angry villagers. His father claims Wilbur has a brother, though no evidence exists of this. Local college student, Nancy Wagner, is strangely attracted to Wilbur. After stealing the Necronomicon, Whateley seduces Nancy into his cult, ready to return Yog-Sothoth back to Earth.

Though based on a story written in 1928, “The Dunwich Horror” was clearly inspired by “Rosemary's Baby.” Lovecraft's Old Ones are name-dropped frequently, with Yog-Sothoth being mentioned probably a hundred times. Yet the tone is explicitly sacrilegious, pointing out how the Old Ones are pagan deities, summoned by occult rituals. Pregnancy is a reoccurring image. The movie begins with a strange birth, the opening credits feature weird baby imagery, and then ends with a demonic conception. Satanism isn't the only trendy topic incorporated into the story. 1970's “The Dunwich Horror” is heavy on psychedelic shenanigans. Nancy has visions of hairy, naked hippies attacking her. Trippy colors and quick cuts appear throughout. The movie is characterized by an off-center, slightly dreamy tone. It's an odd approach to Lovecraft but one that works well. “The Dunwich Horror” is certainly memorable.

Adding to this late sixties atmosphere are the clearly stoned performances. Dean Stockwell, not quite recognizable with a beard and long hair, plays Wilbur Whateley. The cinematic Whateley lacks the literary Wilbur's chimerical physique but is no less weird. Stockwell states most of his dialogue in a flat monotone. He spent the entire movie starring with wide, wild eyes. It's an odd, off-putting performance that kind of works, given the character. What doesn't work is Nancy's inexplicable attraction to Wilbur. Why a normal girl like her would be interested in an obvious weirdo like Wilbur is mysterious. Sandra Dee is fine in the part but the character is often a non-entity, reduced into a passive role for most of the story.

Like I said, Lovecraft and psychedelia doesn't seem like an ideal combination but “The Dunwich Horror” ends up making it work. Mostly when it comes to the titular horror, Wilbur's locked-up brother. The glimpse we get of the monster are unimpressive, appearing to be a pulsating beach ball covered with rubber snakes. Instead of directly showing the monster, the film often takes the creature's perspective. Shifting, searing colors overtake the movie. People flee in terror from the unseen threat, its presence affecting the area around them. It's a surprisingly effective, if somewhat campy, way to depict Lovecraft's indescribable monstrosity on-screen. The movie's other explicit horror elements – Sandra Dee strapped to a stone altar, Stockwell shooting lightening from his magic rings – are equally campy but also fun in their own way.

Another element I like about “The Dunwich Horror” is Les Baxter's spooky score. Baxter combines a memorable melody, sparse but clear, with mounting electronic noise. The first time I saw “The Dunwich Horror,” on TV and late at night, I found it somewhat creepy but also slightly off-putting. I've seen it a few other times, liking it more every time. The campy elements are still evident, such as a goofy fight scene Stockwell has with a guard as Miskatonic University. However, this stuff is more appealing to me now. Though far from an ideal adaptation, it's a fun horror picture in its own right. Another adaptation came in 2009, which starred Jeffrey Combs and... Dean Stockwell. I wonder if it's worth seeing? [7/10]

Blood Harvest (1987)

Like many other nerds, I became a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic at a young age. As a teenager, I explored beyond Yankovic into further avenues of weird music. I discovered the perverse songs of Barnes & Barnes, the insane rantings of Wild Man Fischer, and the peculiar stylings of Tiny Tim. Born Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim is best known for his ukulele-assisted novelty hit “Tiptope Through the Tulips” and his stunt marriage to Miss Vicki on the Tonight Show. However, Tim's deeper discography shows a phenomenal vocal range and a surreal sense of humor. And if you doubt his commitment to his craft, consider that he died on stage. Anyway, Tim brought his unique abilities to a handful of films. His only lead role, however, was the 1987 horror film, “Blood Harvest.”

“Blood Harvest” revolves around Jill. After spending some time at college, and gaining a fiance while there, she is returning home. Her family is controversial in her home town, as they own the bank responsible for a number of local farms being forced to foreclose. Back home, Jill is reunited with an old childhood friend. Gary lost his parents at a young age, forcing him to take care of his mentally ill older brother, Mervin. Mervin has a child-like worldview and likes to dress up as a clown, calling himself the Magnificent Mervo. Soon afterwards, friends of Jill's begin to disappear. Is Mervo, the lovelorn Gary, or someone else to blame for the murders?

“Blood Harvest” is likely to be enjoyed by two audiences: Fans of scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel eighties horror and hardcore Tiny Tim aficionados. The latter audience is likely to get the most out of “Blood Harvest.” Whenever Tim is on-screen, the movie is taken over by a strange, unnerving energy. As the Magnificent Mervo, Tiny Tim is genuinely unsettling. He's perfectly cast as an off-putting man-child, prone to sitting on porch swings at night and appearing outside windows suddenly. The sight of Tim's wide, weird face, smeared with grease-paint, is probably unsettling enough for most people. Add him slobbering through the Lord's prayer and crying over pictures of dead pigs for further creep factor. It seems to me that Tim is just playing a greasier, clown-ier version of himself.  Which just happens to translate to a slightly sympathetic and really freaky horror character.

Aside from Tiny Tim's unique screen presence, not a whole lot else happens in “Blood Harvest.” There's attempt to pad the movie out with various subplots, such as a group of paintballers in the woods or the locals being angry at Jill's family. All of these storylines vanish by the half-way point. Instead, most of the film is devoted to leading lady Itonia Salchek – this is her only film appearance – lounging around the house. About a third of the film takes place on her bed, to the point where her teddy bear and the “Commando” poster on the wall probably deserve credits. Salchek is either nude or in her underwear for many of her scenes. This is one component of the film's sleazy elements. There's also some heavy petting, some light bondage, and an attempted rape scene.

“Blood Harvest” was directed by Bill Rebane, previously of “The Giant Spider Invasion” and “Monster-a-Go-Go.” The film is slightly more competent than those garbage classics but not by much. “Blood Harvest's” attempts at being a slasher film are fairly anemic. There are no real kill scenes. The killer abducts his victims, strings them up in the barn, and slashes their throats. This happens repeatedly, so there's no novel murder scenes. What gore we do see is watery and unconvincing. The film's climax involves the identities and motivations being revealed, none of them surprising. The showdown between the heroine and the killer goes on too long before deflating suddenly.

“Blood Harvest” is plenty trashy but doesn't deliver the kind of trashy thrills you might be expecting. No, the movie does not feature Tiny Tim murdering teenagers while wearing slimy clown make-up. There's actually very little killer clown action in “Blood Harvest.” The movie remains a Wisconsin-produced oddity, equal parts tedious and sleazy. The version on the DVD is supposedly the director's cut, featuring the similarly uninspired title of “Nightmare,” but I doubt some great creative vision was stymied by producers. Whatever you call the film, it's occasionally inspired insanity but is mostly a bore. [4/10]

Masters of Horror: The V Word

One of the reasons “Masters of Horror: Season Two” disappointed me was the new directors brought onto the series. Referring to some of these guys as “masters” strained believably. Such as Ernest Dickerson. Sure, “Demon Knight” and “Bones” are fun but I wouldn't call them masterpieces. Anyway, “The V Word” follows two teenage boys: Justin and Kerry. Justin is feuding with his dad, who recently left his mother and little sister for another woman. Bored, the two decide to sneak into the local funeral home to look at the body of a dead classmate. What they find instead is Mr. Chaney, a predatory vampire who preys on teenage boys. Both Justin and Kerry are bitten, transforming into vampires, forced to deal with their new attributes.

When first watching it, I found “The V Word” to be mediocre. On second viewing, it holds up better. The first half of the episode is devoted to the teens exploring the funeral home. There's not much to this but it works well, boiling with a quiet tension and some shadowy atmosphere. When the vampire stuff appears, Dickerson throws in some effectively grisly gore. These vampires don't leave two discreet holes. Instead, they tear people's throats out. Upon awakening as a vampire, Kerry attempts to drink water, the liquid spilling out of his neck. The young cast, Arjay Smith as Kerry and Branden Nadon as Justin, have an amusingly bro-tastic chemistry. Michael Ironside is fittingly sinister as Mr. Chaney, even if his status as a sexual predator is barely commented on.

Sadly, the second half of “The V Word” is less interesting. After the boys are bitten, the episode focuses on their transformation into vampires. Justin's mom doesn't notice how odd he's acting. He wanders around in a daze. Kerry forces a conflict between Justin as his dad, which plays out in a deeply anti-climatic fashion. By the time we get to the confrontation with Mr. Chaney, “The V Word” is focusing on standard heroics. One of the boys even dies heroically in a Christ pose. That's another example of how “The V Word's” references are a little too on the nose. Dickerson piles on some obvious classic horror throwbacks: Mr. Chaney's name, a “Nosferatu”-style shadow, an appearance from Bela Lugosi, a direct quotation of “Dracula.” It's all too on the nose. So “The V Word” was very nearly a decent hour but doesn't quite hit the mark. [5/10]

Perversions of Science: Boxed In

This is not my first attempt to watch “Perversions of Science.” Several years back, after finding all the episodes on the internet, I decided to give the show a shot. After “Boxed In,” I gave up on that endeavor. The episode begins on a dilapidated space cruiser. There's only two inhabitants: A decorated war veteran and Emmy, a horny sex robot he won in a card game. The pilot is faithful to his fiance back on Earth though, resisting the sex-droid's frequent advances. After the war is over, he returns to Earth and reunites with his fiance. However, her controlling Admiral father has outfitted her with a high-tech chastity belt. Sexually frustrated beyond belief, the pilot takes Emmy up on her offers. Naturally, something goes wrong.

“Boxed In” is a truly dire sci-fi sex farce. The central gag occurs midway through. After finally deciding to have sex with Emmy, the robot shuts down out of jealousy over the unnamed pilot's fiance. The man is still, um, inside her when this happens. Meaning he has a naked female torso attached to his crotch. This leads to some sigh-inducing slap stick. Misogyny runs through this one, in-between the bitchy sex droid (a woman who is literally an object and frequently reduced to pieces) and the brainless fiance. The gags are simply too stupid to entertain. The episode features pathetic special effects too, as Emmy continues to talk after being decapitated thanks to lousy digital effects. Kevin Polalck tries to get laughs in the lead but it's no use. William Shater directed this, casts himself as the hammy admiral, features his daughter as the fiance, and references “Star Trek” in the opening minutes. I'm hoping this is the low point of “Perversions of Science” and not the precedence for the rest of the series. [3/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I just think "The Dunwich Horror" is an awful telling of the H.P. Lovecraft tale. This is so stuck in its late '60s early '70s period that it really distracts from the story. Given the limits of '60s special effects I suppose I should be less critical with the way that the filmmakers showed the Old Ones, but it was pretty lame. Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, and Sam Jaffe were just so off-kilter and odd. I didn't like this. 2/10

The Tiny Tim movie sounds painful as does today's MoH and PoS offerings. I admire your ability to tough it out.