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]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

"Elvira" is a fun movie. Cassandra Peterson has a real talent for comedy. The actors playing the other characters could have been anyone. Nothing about them stands out. Overall, no one should be surprised that this is about anything other than Elvira's cleavage. 6/10