Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

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