Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 24

The Unnamable (1988)

There aren't many traditional heroes among H.P. Lovecraft's many stories. Especially compared to his pulp contemporaries, Lovecraft's lead characters tend to be somewhat feeble. Scholarly intellectuals are more likely to appear than two-fisted adventurers. The character most indicative of the Lovecraft Hero is Randolph Carter, one of his few re-occurring protagonists. Carter is an expert in the occult and the Dreamlands, an unpublished author who sprouts long reams of expositionary dialogue. He's also prone to fainting, being described as extremely nervous from time to time. Aside from his collection of Elder Gods and Old Ones, he's probably the author's most famous creation. Carter's first on-screen appearance was in the 1988 low budget film, “The Unnamable.”

In Arkham, Massachusetts, near Miskatonic University, there is a place known as the Winthrop House. A hundred years ago, a demonic child was born there. Unable to kill the demon, the child's father attempted to imprison her before being killed himself. Supposedly, the monster still occupies the house. This is the legend anyway. Randolph Carter believes it but his friend, Howard, is skeptical. When a friend of their's vanishes inside the house, Carter and Howard decide to investigate. On the same night, two college couples decide the haunted Winthrop House is the perfect make-out spot. Soon, the Unnamable is hunting all of them.

There's not too much to Lovecraft's “The Unnamable.” The story is essentially Carter telling his friend about the legend before the two are briefly attacked by the monster. Writer/director Jean-Paul Ouellette essentially uses this as the opening of his adaptation. (He also mixes in part of the Jersey Devil legend, with the detail of a mother's unwanted child being a monster.) From there, “The Unnamable” essentially becomes a slasher flick. The movie follows a group of horny college students, trapped in a spooky house. They are then hunted down one by one, a killer murdering each of them. There's the required nudity, when some heavy petting gets heavier. There's plenty of gore too. The Unnamable tears heads off, snaps necks, slashes faces, and yanks out guts. I doubt Lovecraft would appreciate his work being associated with such a low genre. But “The Unnamable's” straight-ahead quality makes it more appealing to us horror fans.

“The Unnamable” was pretty obviously a low budget production. The majority of the film is set inside the dusty old house, with little in the way of sets beyond that. In order to pass the time between the murder scenes, the film is padded out with long scenes of people exploring the Winthrop House. Some of these scenes are mildly suspenseful. When Howard and Carter's friend first enters the home, there's a quiet tension as he explores the dark hallways. Later, after the guys and girls arrive, there are longer moments of people walking around the house. These verge more towards the tedious. It doesn't help that it's pretty obvious which characters will live and which will die. The jock, his slutty girlfriend, the other generic fratboy, and the wacky comic relief might as well have targets on their backs. Howard, Carter, and the European transfer student are obviously going to live.

Despite these slower moments, “The Unnamable” does make up for it in a few ways. First off, it's got a pretty cool monster. The Unnamable actually does have a name. She's called Alyda Winthrop. As in Lovecraft's text, the female creature has devil horns and cloven feet. Yet the film is surprisingly sympathetic to its monsters. Alyda is obviously a ruthless killer yet, when she's hurt, she screams in a very human fashion. The film emphasizes Alyda's recognizably human characteristics. Her body is identifiable as a naked female body, making her somewhat vulnerable. You can tell some thought went into the creature's performance. (Katrin Alexandre is credited with playing Alyda but an interview in “The Lurker in the Lobby” confirms that this was a pseudonym for a well-known dancer. You're guess is as good as mine as to who that could be.) Mark Kinsey Stephenson is also fantastic as Randolph Carter, essentially embodying Lovecraft's brainy but somewhat courageous hero.

“The Unnamable” does have a pretty sloppy script at times. While exploring the house, Carter just happens to find the Necronomicon. The book provides the spell needed to contain Alyda. This leads to a somewhat baffling conclusion, the exact nature of the monster's defeat being rather comical. Yet “The Unnamable” is still pretty satisfying. It functions as a tasty bit of exploitation while, somehow, honoring Lovecraft's original ideas. If you have no pre-existing preference for low budget, eighties monster movies, you probably won't think much of it. For the rest of it, this is a fun flick to spent less than ninety minutes with. [7/10]

Funny Man (1994)

I first became aware of “Funny Man” in a way that seems especially antiquated now: I saw the DVD box in a video store. I was a teenager, browsing the horror section at my late, lamented Sun Coast. The jester-like character on the cover caught my eye. As did the presence of Christopher Lee and the box's claims that the film was a “cult classic.” I didn't buy the film, because I had a strict policy at the time of only buying films I had already seen. However, do to my obsessive nerdiness, the title stuck in my brain all these years. Considering the killer clown theme I'm tackling this first week of the Blog-a-thon, I figured now was the time to finally watch this mysterious movie. After all, a killer jester is basically the same thing as a killer clown, right?

Loosely inspired by the legend of Tom Skelton, a homicidal jester said to haunt Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, England. “Funny Man” begins with a poker game. Rock music executive Max Taylor wins the ancestral castle home of the Chance family in a poker game. He quickly moves his wife, teenage daughter, and young son into the place. His never-was rock star brother is on the way to join them. Upon entering the castle, Max spins a wheel of fate game. This frees an evil creature living on the castle grounds. Calling himself the Funny Man, the demonic jester proceeds to kill everyone he comes across in whimsical, irrelevant ways.

I don't know much about Simon Sprackling, “Funny Man's” director and writer. Aside from this film, he's mostly directed DVD special features concerning other British horror movies. However, it's clear Sprackling has some talent. “Funny Man” is a good looking film. The use of lighting is atmospheric, characters often bathed in strange light. The use of color is clever, many of the movie's sets given an unreal feeling. Sprackling throws together some memorable images, such as a raving mad victim wearing a jester's hat made of dismembered arms. “Funny Man” clearly had some money behind its production too. The castle set is quite cool. The various settings the Funny Man creates are vivid. One especially neat one is a staircase that spirals down into a drill-like point. The creature make-up is solid. The special effects are convincing.

It's just a shame that “Funny Man's” plot makes absolutely zero sense. What story the movie does have is quickly abandoned. Within a half-hour, “Funny Man” degrades into long scenes of the evil jester messing with his potential victims. The clown's powers are seemingly unlimited. The settings shift from scene to scene. One moment takes place on a beach. Another is in a seedy strip club. There's a green glowing underworld, with a vague western theme. These segments rarely connect with each other. The characters wander around until they encounter the titular monster, meeting their fate soon afterwards. By the end, which features an utterly bizarre rock performance, “Funny Man” has entirely abandoned logic and reason. It would not surprise me to discover the movie was shot without a script.

The driving factor behind “Funny Man's” existence seems to be the movie's unusual sense of humor. The Funny Man likes to mess with his victims. He often chit-chats with people before killing them. This is apparent in a scene where he insists a man wears a music-playing retro wig before entering a club – yes, it's weird – and then afterwards, where he awkwardly talks with the guy. The Funny Man is so chatty that he often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. This sense of humor entered into the absurdly gory death scenes. A teenager, while playing a Gameboy, has her head blown off with jumper cables. Another woman, dressed as “Scooby-Doo's” Velma for no reason, receives a shotgun blast to the back of the head. This cause her brain, eyes, and glasses to fly across the room. Another victim is dispatched with a modern version of a Punch and Judy show. It's occasionally creative but usually utterly baffling.

Making “Funny Man” even more difficult to understand are the thick British accents of the cast. Sometimes, I straight-up could not understand anything anyone was saying. The film's sense of humor – absurd, ribald, conversational – also strikes me as extremely British. Despite what the DVD case says, I kind of doubt that “Funny Man” has much of a cult following. I'm sure, however, someone out there loves this weird-ass movie. It's defiantly singular, if nothing else. Christopher Lee, by the way, only appears in a few scenes. He does, however, sing the theme song. So the movie has that going for it. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Pro-Life

John Carpenter's first “Masters of Horror” episode was, in actually, a homage to a different master. His “Cigarette Burns” recalled the films of Dario Argento. His season two episode, “Pro-Life,” was written as a homage to Carpenter's own filmography. The episode begins with Angelique, a fifteen year old girl, running through the woods. She's rescued by a doctor and nurse, who work at a near-by abortion clinic. The girl is the daughter of Dwayne Burcell, a fanatical pro-life protester. And she's pregnant, seeking to terminate the baby. However, this is no ordinary pregnancy. Angelique was apparently raped by a demon, the baby inside developing at an extraordinary rate. Outside the clinic, Dwayne hears a voice, commanding him to enter the clinic and protect his unborn grandson. Violence breaks out soon afterwards.

As I said, Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan – who also wrote “Cigarette Burns” – wrote “Pro-Life” as an intentional throwback to Carpenter's eighties output. The episode is a siege movie. Befitting an eightes-style action story, “Pro-Life” is heavy on gunfire. Burcell gets into several gun fights with one of the doctors. These shoot-outs lead to some pretty intense gore. People have their heads blown open. One of Burcell's sons is shot in the neck, bleeding out quickly. Another explicit shot revolves around a man receiving a shotgun shell to the gut. However, the episode's gory streak hits a snag during its most explicit sequence. When Burcell turns the abortion tools on one of the male doctors, “Pro-Life” becomes preoccupied with its own grisliness.

“Pro-Life” features a good cast. Ron Perlman is convincingly harsh yet believably sanctimonious as Burcell. Caitlin Wachs is sympathetic as the young mother, thrown into a situation she can barely comprehend. Yet “Pro-Life” didn't receive the positive review that met “Cigarette Burns.” A big problem with the episode is its wishy-washy politics. The script is pretty clearly pro-choice, portraying pro-life activists as insanely violent and unhinged. Yet the politics of the situation rarely play into the proceedings. The Burcells are merely bad guys, their beliefs being largely irrelevant to the actual story. What's really confusing is the ending. After the demonic baby is born, and then killed, the demonic father genuinely mourns his child's lost. How are we to interpret this? It's good that the demon baby was aborted but too bad for its dad? There's no clear point to this one, which undermines what otherwise would've been a decent thriller. [6/10]

Perversions of Science: Given the Heir

“Perversions of Science” backslides again in its fifth episode. “Given the Heir” follows Lisa Gerou, a woman living in the far-flung future year of 2006. She's obsessed with Nick Boyer, a long dead millionaire. She travels back in time, to 1997, to be with him. Lisa uses her knowledge of the future to access Boyer's bank account. She then quickly seduces him, the two making love in his penthouse. Yet Nick quickly picks up that there's something weird going on. Soon, the two lovers are at each other's throat. Lisa, however, is not the person Nick believes her to be.

If the title didn't make it obvious, “Perversions of Science” was a show obsessed with being sexy. Chrome's host segments are 97% crude sexual double entendres. (This one begins with a groan-worthy joke about solitaire. "Playing with yourself" in other words.) “Given the Heir” really doubles down on this. Yancy Butler begins the episode in a form-fitting red jumpsuit. Later, she appears in just a large T-shirt or a slinky dress. This leads up to an extended love scene. Despite the passion the characters are displaying, the sex is mechanical and un-erotic. Once the two main characters bang, everything interesting about “Given the Heir” goes out the window. There's needless shoot-outs, conflicts suddenly arising, and absolutely one of the dumbest twist endings I've seen recently. About the only thing that engaged me about this one was Paul Williams' cameo in the opening minutes. Otherwise, it's another dud. [4/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I knew eventually I'd have nothing to contribute to your marathon. I haven't seen anything on today's post and nothing really catches my eye. So I can at least tell you that you write really good reviews. They're nice recaps of plot, crew, and movie quality with thoughtful opinion. Great stuff!