Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

At the start of October, I had plans for the 31st. Then those plans got canceled. Then I ended up making some back-up plans. The short version of this is that I ended up handing out candy at a friend's house while dressed in my slightly bootleg Uncle Gilbert costume. That was fun and, as soon as trick-or-treating dried up for the night, I headed home to watch horror movies until I was sick.

Halloweentown (1998)

In my regular side gig as co-host of the So Weird Podcast, I spend a lot of time talking about the Disney Channel, circa the late nineties/early 2000s. It was during this time that Disney's television sector really started cranking Disney Channel Originals: TV movies specifically made for the network. Typically, nostalgics of my age look back on many of these films fondly. Happily, several of these TV movies have a Halloween or light-horror theme. Such as “Halloweentown,” which remains one of the most popular Disney Channel Originals. Unsurprisingly, it's a favorite of mine too.

Gwen Cromwell has forbid her three children – 13 year old Marnie, middle brother Dylan, and seven year old Sophie – from ever celebrating Halloween. This is deeply upsetting for Marnie, who feels a fondness for all things spooky. On the 31st, Marine's grandmother, Aggie, comes to visit. She tells the children of a place called Halloweentown, a magical land inhabited by friendly monsters. After overhearing an argument between her mother and grandmother, Marnie learns Halloweentown is real. Aggie is a two-hundred year old witch and fears that a mysterious presence is destroying her home town. Marnie and her younger siblings follow their grandmother back to Halloweentown, assisting her on her quest to save the town.

The reason I was fond of “Halloweentown” as a kid, and still like it quite a bit, should be obvious. The titular setting is absolutely delightful. How can I not love a town founded by and for monsters? Where a huge jack o' lantern sits in the town's square and cyclops, mummies, gremlins, ogres and other ghoulies freely walk the street? The film uses this setting as a way to set up a number of adorable sight gags. A yeti operates the ice cream parlor. The local broom shop is run by a Roy Orbison-inspired rockabilly zombie. The aerobics instructor at the local gym is a cat-lady and most of her clients are dog-faced people. The local campy hairdresser is a werewolf in bell bottoms. They even have a bowling team, also comprised of monsters! One of the film's best supporting characters is Benny, a skeleton cab driver who is fond of bad jokes. It's super-goofy but undeniably charming.

There's a surprising amount of talent behind the camera on “Halloweentown.” “So Weird's” Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson worked on the script. Mark Mothersbaugh composed the jaunty score. Alfred Sole, director of “Alice, Sweet Alice,” did the production design.  Yet “Halloweentown's” flaws are still readily apparent. It's easy to guess who's behind the villain's plot. As soon as the mayor discourages Aggie from investigating further, we know it's him. I always forget about the film's saggy mid-section, after the kids arrive in town but before they start fetching the ingredients for the witch's brew. The ending has two separate deus ex machinas and the bad guy is defeated essentially by the heroes' wishing him away. As you'd expect, the TV movie scope is fairly limited. The creature effects are pretty good but the film's digital effects, as in a lengthy broom flying sequence, are embarrassing.

Luckily, the cast is far more likable than you'd expect from a nineteen year old kid's TV movie. The film introduced a whole new generation to Debbie Reynolds. As Aggie, she's the ideal kid's movie grandmother: Wise, fun, adventurous, and never anything but absolutely charming. Judith Hoag, otherwise known as the first live action April O'Neil, has the tricky job of playing the uptight mom. She manages to play the part without coming off as overly bitchy or severe. The younger actors are not totally free from typical children actor pitfalls. Kimberly J. Brown is a little too precocious as Marnie but still suitably likable, making Marnie an appealing young hero. Emily Roeske is obviously a little raw as Sophie but still sweet and cute.

“Halloweentown's” popularity is evident in how many sequels it spawned, generally a rarity among Disney Channel Originals. I was pretty disappointed in “Halloweentown II” when I first saw it. By the time “Halloweentown High” and “Return to Halloweentown” had rolled around, I had aged out of Disney Channel's target demographic. (Though the fourth film includes an early role from Sara Paxton, making me sort of interested in checking it out.) I am not blind to “Halloweentown's” flaws but it remains a really cute and generally entertaining kid's flick. It's an ideal way to kick off the 31st. [7/10]

Doctor X (1932)

Why is X the most ominous letter? Is it the rarity? The unique sound? The cool shape? Or is it the letter that just looks the most interesting when presented by itself? Whatever the reason, storytellers have been attaching the letter X to the honorific doctor – by far the coolest title someone can hold – for decades. There's an X-Men, a luchador, probably a few songs, and a Japanese drama are all named after some variation of Doctor X. As far as I can tell, the first “Doctor X” was a two-strip Technicolor horror movie released by Warner Brothers in 1932. I've never seen it before and, being a fan of pre-code horror flicks, now seems like a good time to check it out.

The waterfront district of New York City is being stalked by a deadly murderer. Each death has occurred during the full moon, causing the newspapers to dub the killings the Moon Killer Murders. Some of the victims have been women and a few were cannibalized. Reporter Lee Taylor is on the case. Soon, the cops determine that the medical academy run by Dr. Jerry Xavier has some connection to the crime. They investigate each of the doctors that work there, finding all of them to be potential suspects. Xavier soon begins his own investigation, exposing each of the doctors to moonbeams in hopes of revealing the killer. Meanwhile, Lee falls in love with Dr. X's daughter. 

“Doctor X” was directed by Michael Curtiz, twelve years before he won an Oscar for “Casablanca.” More pressingly, Curtiz made this film a year before he made “Mystery in the Wax Museum.” This film is an obvious predecessor to that one. Both star Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill. Both were based on plays. Both were shot in two-strip Technicolor. This technique has not aged very well, as it frequently gives the film a washed-out, overly green color. Despite this, “Doctor X” is still awash with classic horror atmosphere. There's several amazing shots utilizing shadows, such as when Doctor X is spotted looking at a dead body in the middle of the night. The medical academy, with its room full of skeletons and winding hallways, makes an ideal horror setting.

Most importantly, the film is packed full of mad scientist tropes, with men in lab coats ranting madly and equipment buzzing with electricity. This is the most interesting aspect of the film. Despite what the title billing may make you think. Dr. Xavier is not the film's villain. Instead, he attempts to locate the killer using bizarre experiments. He straps the suspects down and makes them watch recreations of the killings, using wax models. When the killer's identity is revealed, it's done in a really weird way. The murderer starts whispering about synthetic flesh, over and over again, and spreads the goop on his face. When combined with the seasick two-strip coloring, it's a really memorably odd note to conclude the film on.

Calling “Doctor X” a horror movie is certainly not inaccurate. As in a hundred old dark house movies, there's a stranger in a cloak with hairy hands, stalking and killing people. The elements of cannibalism is your indication that this was a Pre-Code film. Mad science and insanity are obvious themes in the film. Yet “Doctor X” blends together several genres. There's an obvious murder mystery element, as both the police and Doctor X himself are attempting to identify the killer. There's an element of comedy, as Lee Taylor is a farcical character that likes to shock people with a joy buzzer. This leads to a romantic element, since Fay Wray's Joanne develops feelings for him for some reason. There's even a romantic trip to the beach!

The cast is pretty solid too, as Atwill and Wray are both as excellent as usual. Lee Tracy is pretty irritating as the reporter but I suspect that was more of a problem with the script than the performer. Despite being a strange little shocker, “Doctor X” has slipped into obscurity. These days, it's probably most famous for spawning a quasi-sequel, 1939's “The Return of Doctor X,” which is notable for being Humphrey Bogart's sole horror credit. Aside from that, the film is most remembered for being referenced in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” theme song. Still, classic horror fans should give this one a look, for the oddball story and atmospheric photography. [7/10]

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959)

“Caltiki – The Immortal Monster” is a title I've been hearing about for years. How could you forget a title like that? The memorably schlocky name isn't the only reason I've read about this one. Officially, the film was directed by Riccardo Freda. Unofficially, the movie was primarily directed by Mario Bava. Freda was a friend of Bava's and the two had previously made “I Vampiri” together, which Bava also went uncredited on. Freda wanted to give Bava the chance to direct and allowed him to complete “Caltiki.” Some sources claim that nearly the entire film was Bava's work. I didn't cover the film when I did my Mario Bava Director Report Card, a million years ago, as I usually exclude uncredited work from my projects. Seeing the film for the first time, I wonder how much of a Mario Bava movie this is.

In the jungles of Mexico, a group of archaeologists are attracted to a forbidden area due to its stories of madness. There, they find ruins relating to the Mayan goddess Caltiki and a deep pool of water. Beneath the waves, there is treasure... And a giant amoebas monster that dissolves human skin. The scientist manage to subdue the monster with fire but not before one of their own is injured. They cut the piece of the blob of his arm, preserving it. While the injured man slowly goes mad, the remains of the amoebas remain in a laboratory. When a comet passes near Earth, the blob monster is awakens again.

If I didn't know Mario Bava more-or-less directed “Caltiki,” I probably wouldn't have guessed that. There's only a few Bava-esque signs. Early on in the movie, there's an atmospheric backlit shot of a man fleeing into a forest. Occasionally, there's some shadowy atmosphere, similar to what the director would do with “Black Sunday.” The Mayan temple is cast in shadows. Nighttime shots are filled with a similar ambiance. Later, when the madman is stalking his scientific rival's home, the films recalls Bava's later giallos. Otherwise, “Caltiki” is fairly average looking. There's certainly very little here to suggest the master Bava would later become.

“Caltiki” has always been sold to me as an Italian rip-off of “The Blob.” Yet the movie's low budget is evident in how little screen time that blob monster has. In fact, there's a lengthy subplot revolving around a much more human monster. The man injured by the blob quickly looses his mind upon returning home. He attacks people, wanders into the desert, and is pursued by the police. He becomes intensely jealous of the expedition's leader. He sneaks off to the man's house and attacks his wife, attempting to claim her for his own. This long-winded subplot is rather tedious and barely connects to the film's main story. It mostly leaves the viewer wondering when the blob monster will show up again.

Unsurprisingly, “Caltiki” is most entertaining when said monster is on-screen. Due to being filmed in black-and-white, this monster can't be the colorful, ruby beast that appeared in “The Blob.” Instead, Caltiki is a black mass of squirming matter. It grows and pulsates like a huge tumor. The film is quite a bit gorier than its American counterpart. We see Caltiki eat away at flesh. Near the end, the amoebas reduces a man to a crumbling skeleton. The finale has the blob growing to massive size, forcing the military to march in with flamethrowers and tanks. Finally, in its closing minutes, “The Immortal Monster” becomes the entertaining creature feature its poster promised.

It's the typical B-movie griff. You cook up an awesome title, a cool poster, and an exciting premise... All things that the low budget movie can't really deliver on. So “Caltiki” devotes most of its run time to shit nobody cares about, before finally bringing us some impressive monster action in the final minutes. As an embryonic Bava movie, “Caltiki” is only slightly more interesting, as you can only see the outlines of the director's style to come. I guess I wasn't missing much by skipping this one all these years. [5/10]

Witchfinder General (1968)

As I've mentioned many times before, Vincent Price was a formative part of my youthful horror fandom. His films were easy to find on cable at the time, usually on AMC or Turner Classics Movies and frequently on Friday nights. When I saw “The Conqueror Worm” coming up on the schedule, I got myself ready for another spooky, A.I.P. produced Poe adaptation starring Price. Within minutes of the film starting, I realized that this was not like Price's other horror movies. I found the movie harrowing and intense. Even then, I realized I was probably too young to really get it. Soon enough, I'd learn that the film was originally entitled “Witchfinder General.” That American International Pictures re-named the movie “The Conqueror Worm” in America, in hopes of tricking people into thinking it was part of Roger Corman's Poe Cycle. The uncut version, original title intact, is now widely available in America.

The year is 1645 and England has been torn apart by civil war. In this tumultuous time, lawlessness has overtaken the individual villages. This allows Matthew Hopkins, who claims to be a government sanctioned witchfinder, to ply his trade. Hopkins goes from town to town, torturing innocent people accused of witchcraft, all in the name of God. In the village of Brandonston, Hopkins investigates the local priest, accused of Satanism. In order to protect the priest, her uncle, Sara sleeps with Hopkins. The witchfinder hangs the priest anyway. When Sara's finance, a soldier named Richard Marshall, returns to the village, he promises vengeance against Hopkins.

Linking “Witchfinder General” with Corman's Poe films was an especially ironic move. Corman's movies, and many other traditional horror films, glamorized the distant past. They presented a version of classical England that almost like a fairy tale. “Witchfinder General” is not that kind of movie. This England is dirty. People spit, swear, and rape. Death is ugly, brutish, and agonized. The state of civil war has left the countryside communities in tatters. Ultimately, Michael Reeves' film focuses on deconstructing heroic stories in general. Revenge is presented as petty and useless. When Richard vows to avenge the priest's death, his driven into an almost mad state. There's nothing gallant about the way he kills the witchfinder. He brutally clubs the man to death with an axe while his fiance, ostensibly the woman he's avenging, screams in horror. Additionally, after Hopkins abandons his assistant, the man also swears to track him down. However, his thirst for vengeance is relaxed when Hopkins pays him. There's no heroics in this movie's universe.

In the United States, “The Conquering Worm” was widely ignored as just another horror movie. In the U.K., the film's violence was controversial, with several minutes of footage being cut before release. “Witchfinder General” is unusually brutal for its time. The film presents real witch-finding methods without exaggeration. People are stripped and stabbed, while ordinary birthmarks are considered signs of demonic interaction. Victims are thrown in lakes, bound. If they drown, they were free of sin. If they float, they are then hanged. One of “Witchfinder General's” most intense scenes shows a woman tied to a ladder and slowly lowered into a fire. While she screams in agony, her husband screams in hopeless loss. Moreover, “Witchfinder General” is a strictly atheistic film. It never even once consider that Matthew Hopkins' actions are justified. His deeds are presented as utterly sadistic and needlessly cruel, all for the sake of greed.

Famously, director Michael Reeves and Vincent Price did not get along. Reeves had written the part for Donald Pleascene and was annoyed that he had to use Price instead. The two had an argumentative relationship, butting heads over everything. Upon seeing the film, Price would realize there was at least a method to Reeves' madness. Matthew Hopkins is not your typical Vincent Price villain. He's not campy, charming, or amusing. He's a calculating, dangerous, and sadistic man. No matter how based in greed or lust Hopkins' action are, Price plays him as totally certain of his actions. Whether or not Hopkins believes he's doing the Lord's work is up to interpretation. Price's performance makes it clear that Hopkins certainly presents the facade of believing this. It's a stern, frightening performance and one of the actor's best.

“Witchfinder General,” by the way, is loosely based on historical fact. Yes, there really was a man named Matthew Hopkins and he really was witch hunter. Unlike in the movie, the real Hopkins died peacefully at his home of tuberculous. When it comes to these sort of things, too often, reality is more horrifying than fiction. “Witchfinder General” is a tough watch but, ultimately, a film worth seeking out. By the way, I kind of like “The Conqueror Worm” cut, which is mostly intact but adds Price reading from Poe's poem at the beginning and end of the movie. It's unnecessary but sort of fitting anyway. [7/10]

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Among slasher fanatics, there are certain titles that are highly regarded. I'm not talking about the big franchises, not “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween,” though those are also beloved. I'm referring to the likes of “The Burning.” “My Bloody Valentine.” “The House on Sorority Row.” The latter title, in particular, is often cited by fans as one of the best slasher movies ever made. Now, I like this movie too. However, I've never quite loved it as much as many others do. Then again, I haven't seen “Sorority Row” since my college era slasher-mania. Halloween seems like the time to revisit this particular house.

As the college season ends, seven sorority sisters make plans for a big party. This greatly angers the house mother, Mrs. Slater, who also closes the house up early for unknown reasons. In order to pay her back, Vicki plans a prank on Slater. The prank goes horribly wrong and Slater ends up shot, possibly dead. Vicki convinces the others to cover the death up, though this horrifies Katey. Later that night, while the party rages, someone begins to murder the girls. The killer lurks in the darkness and swings Slater's cane. Katey soon learns she'll have to pay for her sisters' crimes.

“House on Sorority Row” was the directorial debut of Mark Rosman, who would mostly go on to direct family movies. Despite that, Rosman shows a strong eye for horror. “House on Sorority Row” is a stylish slasher focused more on suspense than gore. Now, there's plenty of gore. Slater's cane is used to stab and impale, gouge out eyes, and even slit a throat. One of the film's most notorious moments involves a decapitated head being found in a toilet. Yet the murders allows come at the end of long, suspenseful stalking scenes. Rosman makes good use of light, often obscuring his killer in shadow or behind bright lights. The film's stand-out moment occurs near the end, when final girl Katie gets drugged. She proceeds to hallucinate people dancing in the house or Slater's cane floating above the floor. There's some strong color here too, the sorority house being painted in purples and blues.

Most slasher movies feature equal numbers of men and women in their cast, to allow for gratuitous nudity and hanky-panky. “House on Sorority Row” features some T&A but its cast is primarily composed of women. The sorority sisters are the stars – and victims – of this story. By turning the attention away from romance, it allows the audience to care about the characters a little more. Katey, our eventual final girl, is intelligent and compassionate. Jeanie is the nervous one. Morgan buries her problems with alcohol. Not all the girls are that well developed. We don't get to know Liz very well. The acting isn't always great either. Jodi Draigie, though lovely, is pretty wooden as Morgan. Yet only Vicki, the queen bitch, is actively unlikable.

The film obviously wants you to think that Mrs. Slater, not quite dead and ready for revenge, is the killer. Yet it also, early on, sets up the eventual reveal that someone else is responsible. The eventual reveal gives the killer a really cool look, a fascinating backstory, and an interesting personality. Others have suggested that Erik Slater, the house mother's mentally-ill son, easily could've supported a franchise. Yet Erik's apparent child-like nature – his fascination with clowns, using rubber balls or jack-in-the-boxes as his calling card – contrasts with his victims in an interesting way. Early on, Katey tells her friends that they need to grow up. When they refuse maturity, they end up performing a fatal prank. So Erik isn't just a source of comeuppance but also symbolic of the sorority's sisters own immaturity.

I wouldn't call “The House on Sorority Row” a masterpiece or anything. I don't like it nearly as much as some of the films I mentioned above. Yet I can see why fans latch onto this one. It's pretty classy for a slasher flick, without loosing the flesh and blood the genre requires. It has a good cast and builds some decent suspense. The entire last act is really solid, with its dream sequences and murderous reveals. A sequel - “The Second House on Sorority Row?” – really would've been cool. Instead, we got a super lame, in-name-only remake twenty-six years later. [7/10]

Boys in the Trees (2016)

From the moment I read about “Boys in the Trees,” I knew I had to see it. There are certain themes that really appeal to me, that I've explored repeatedly in my own writing. I'm fond of coming-of-age stories. Plots revolving around teenage boys, growing up and growing apart, fascinate me. (Probably because I still basically feel like a teenage boy most of the time.) And, of course, I'm obsessed with Halloween. The Australian film, which has been traveling the festival circuit for a few years and finally got a U.S. release this year, combines all of those elements into one story. Though it's received little hype, the film really sounded like the right one to end the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon with. Especially since I've watched so many Australian films this October already.

When Corey and Jonah where little boys, they were best friends. They spent their days imagining an elaborate fantasy world and telling each other ghost stories. But that was a long time ago. It's 1999 now and both boys are teenagers. Corey is hanging out with a rowdy bunch of boys at school. Jonah has remained an outsider and is the frequent target of bullying from Corey's new friends. On Halloween night, after partying with his gang, Corey runs into Jonah again. Jonah convinces his old friend to go on a walk with him through the town. Together, they revisit the places – real and imagery – from their childhood. And they encounter some monsters along the way.

There's so much to unpack in “Boys in the Trees.” Ultimately, it's a story about teenage boys stumbling towards adulthood. Corey wants to pursue a career in photography, and is considering applying to an American school, much tot he chagrin of his father and friends. He chose his rowdy gang of friends, led by a bully named Jango, because they seem more mature. They do drugs and cause chaos on Halloween and fuck girls. Jonah's world of make believe seems so small in comparison. Yet, he discovers, it's a world he also cares about. The over-eagerness of a teenage boy, to want to grow and appear edgy, is an attempt to compensate for the childishness he still feels inside. There's a lot in the film about macho aggression, as Corey's new friend bully Jonah by calling him gay. This hints at the homoerotic tension in Corey's friendships with both Jonah and Jango.

“Boys in the Trees” uses its fantasy world as a metaphor for growing up. As Corey and Jonah regress back into their childhood friendship, they interact further with their childhood imaginations. Jonah rather obliviously uses fantasy monsters to represent his fears. The teenage bullies become werewolves. He tells stories about dead girls, stuck in a permanent state of childhood. A sewer entrance becomes a symbolic entrance into their fantasy world. As the dark truth of the nights events dawn on them, black robed wraiths appear. Eventually, growing up out of adolescence is revealed as a metaphor for another change in life. Jonah's stories edge “Boys in the Trees” into horror, especially a story about a grown-up consumed by darkness. This fits in with the film's Halloween setting, heavy on pumpkins, costumes, candy, and pranks.

Bolstering the film are two amazing, central performances. As Corey, Toby Wallace perfectly captures being a slightly meat-headed kid afraid of being a kid. He hides his intellectual pursuits from his friends, using his photography strictly as part of the bullying he participates in. As the film progresses, he gets more in touch with his secret, childish self. As Jonah, Gulliver McGrath is the truly impressive one. He projects a sadness, of being alone. Also a mischievous side, which he reveals through his frightening stories. Ultimately, the chemistry the two has makes the movie.  A pivotal conversation at the end, involving how their friendship ended originally, is incredibly powerful mostly because of the strength of the two's performances.

“Boys in the Trees” does a pretty good job of catching the spirit of 1999 too. The computers in general, and the internet specifically, are still new things that people don't really understand yet. The soundtrack is filled with memorable cuts from Marilyn Manson, Bush, and Rammstein. There's a generalized anxiety about the new millennium in the air. The film is a bit too long and doesn't quite catch all the balls it throws up in the air. A romantic subplot is truly inessential. The final reveal borders on the ponderous. The Dias de los Muertos symbolism is too on the nose. However, it's still an impressively emotive film about a difficult period in a young man's life that can't help but touch me deeply. And it sure the fuck is packed full of Halloween atmosphere. [9/10]

2017's Halloween season was a decidedly mixed affair for me. It started strong, with trips and fun and games for others. However, as October dawned, other plans fell through. I felt myself getting a little burned out with the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon. When you celebrate Halloween for six weeks, the end of October can't help but feel a little melancholy. But, in the end, Halloween pulled through, like it always did. I managed to have a really good time tonight, handing out candy and watching movies into the early morning hours.

Could I have made more of the season? Well, probably. Still, looking back at the Six Weeks of Halloween that was, it's hard to complain too much. It was a good Halloween season, not a great one. But good is still better than bad. Let's hang this pumpkin on the tree and bid the season of the spooks farewell. I've watched my scary movies. I've eaten my candy. I've howled at the moon and honored the spirits. Halloween, now and forever, until the day I die, will always be a good time. See you again soon, ghosts and goblins and everything else I love.

Halloween 2017: October 30

Happy Death Day (2017)

Blumhouse just can't be stopped. Born on the back of “Paranormal Activity,” and shot into the stratosphere by the likes of “Insidious,” “Sinister,” and “The Purge” franchise, Jason Blum's house is clearly the reigning horror specialists of the moment. Earlier in 2017, they scored a huge commercial and cultural hit with “Get Out.” As Friday the 13th dawned this October, they found another. “Happy Death Day,” though obviously a way less important movie than “Get Out,” has already proven to be a solid-sized hit. The horror-ifed “Groundhogs Day” riff has also won some positive reviews, from fans and critics. I like to catch a horror movie in theaters during the Six Weeks of Halloween and this seemed like the one to catch.

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman awakens on her twentieth birthday. She spent the night in a strange man's dorm room. Throughout the walk of shame back to her sorority house, she dodges romantic advances and phone calls from her dad. Her day is going to get worst though. Tree is being stalked by someone in a King Cake Baby mask. Eventually, the person finds her and kills her. And then the day starts all over again. Tree is stuck in a time loop which repeats whenever she dies. If Tree hopes to escape this repetition, she has to solve the mystery of her own murder.

As in the movie that inspired it, the implicit premise of “Happy Death Day” is that the protagonist will be caught in this cycle until she becomes a better person. So, Tree begins the movie as a bad person. She's a bitchy sorority girl. She stands by while others are bullied. She ignores her friends and family. After dying and coming back a few times, she gets better. She reconnects with her dad, stands up to her evil sorority sisters, and generally becomes nicer to everyone. Yet the audience never quite gets over that first impression. Tree's evolution from selfish to generous happens essentially during a montage. Jessica Rothe's performance is always slightly too snarky. A more appealing actress probably could've smoothed over this problem but Rothe is not that compelling.

Despite this issue, “Happy Death Day” is a fun little mystery. It reminded me of early slasher flicks, like “Happy Birthday to Me” or “Prom Night,” in that it functions like a whodunit for most of its run time. The early scenes present Tree with a long list of potential suspects. Watching the girl whittle down the list, eliminating her sorority sisters or the guy she went on a date with once, is mildly entertaining. It's fun to interact with the film, trying to figure out who could be responsible. “Happy Death Day” looses a lot of momentum once it reveals that a totally unrelated character is actually the killer. Tree's eventual revenge on this guy comes off as hopelessly phony, another element of her redemption that the audience can't believe. This turns out to be a decoy ending but the film never quite recovers. “Happy Death Day” should've ditch the switch-a-roo and only included one murderer in its script.

I remember when the “Happy Death Day” trailer premiered. I was totally sold on the movie until the rating came up. Inside this sleek PG-13 horror flick, the heart of a slasher movie beats. There's plenty of murder in the film. One clever death involves a weaponized bong. Another has the killer taking his spree on the road, blowing up a car. The masked murderer even stacks up some other bodies, claiming some collateral damage. The killer's mask, designed by the same guy behind “Scream's” Ghostface mask, has the potential to become iconic. Yet “Happy Death Day's” mayhem too often proves literally and figuratively bloodless. Listen, this is a movie about the main character dying repeatedly. Was a little gore, a little special effects flash, too much to ask for? Where's that “Final Destination” magic when you need it? Let R-rated concepts breed R-rated movies.

“Happy Death Day” nearly ends on a sickly ironic ending, which would've happily set up one of those sequels Blumhouse is fond of. Instead, this is yet another fake-out. Then again, it's success might mean grant the film a sequel anyway, though I'm not sure how. “Happy Death Day” is pleasant, a likable enough experience. It's also totally forgettable. The characters or ideas do not linger in the viewer's heart or mind. Several of Blumhouse's productions have had a hand in shaping the direction of modern horror. But this won't be one of them. I doubt we'll be talking about the movie in a year. “Happy Death Day” is as nice as a murder movie can be but it ultimately could've used a little more bite. [6/10]

Spider Baby (1967)

Jack Hill is a mostly unheralded master of the exploitation and horror genres. Yes, hardcore fans of the genre know his name but it's only been recently that he's gotten his due. “Coffy” may be one of the best exploitation movies ever made, in my opinion. Hill got his start doing odd jobs around American International Pictures, editing and doing additional photography. He would make his solo directorial debut with “Spider Baby.” The film was shot in 1964 but sat on the shelf until 1967. It received little attention upon release. However, horror fans would eventually discover “Spider Baby” realize how special this strange, hilarious, creepy motion picture is. Nowadays, the film is rightfully regarded as a cult classic.

The Merrye Syndrome is so named because it only affects the members of the Merrye family. The unique disease causes those afflicted, once they reach a certain age, to be regressing backwards mentally. Allowed to live long enough and someone with Merrye Syndrome will repress beyond speech, into madness and cannibalism. The last surviving members of the Merrye family hide in a dilapidated mansion. Family butler Bruno has his hands full watching the children: Infant-like Ralph, prickly Elizabeth, and the spider-obsessed Virginia. A further branch of the family, unaffected by the disease, arrive at the house, there to discuss the estate. However, the chaotic and deadly Merryes can only co-exist with normal people for so long before someone winds up dead.

When you take its original filming date into consideration, “Spider Baby” emerges as more than just a fascinating item of obscure cinema. It may be the missing link between the classic horror of the thirties, forties, and fifties and the bloodier, edgier, sleazier brand of horror that would define the genre in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. The film is awash in the tropes of classic horror. There's a spooky old house. The story of normal outsiders coming to visit a family of lunatics recalls “The Old Dark House.” Cobwebs, shadows, spiders, and dust define the film's look. The most obvious reference is Lon Chaney Jr., in the kind of manservant role he frequently played in the twilight of his career. The film even directly references the Universal Monsters Chaney played. Yet there are no wolfmen or mummies in “Spider Baby.” The monsters are humans, wielding knives and pitchforks. Scantily clad women are persuaded by maniacs and one is even raped. The film contains features from both ages of horror, an unlikely bridge between the past and the present.

The film also reminds me of another program that attempted to fuse modern trends with classic horror trappings. The Merrye family are a bit like the Addams family. They live in a gothic mansion. They have a male groundskeeper with a memorable name. They eat weird food. Mostly, they fight to protect their unique lifestyle from quote-unquote normal people who attempt to take it away from them. No matter how insane they are, the audience is on the Merrye's side. This is partially because at least two of the guests in the house – the fittingly named Mr. Schlocker and Emily – are immensely unlikable. Schlocker is a thief, a conman, and a jerk with a Hitler mustache. Emily is stuck-up and clearly disgusted with the Merryes. Even if they're murderers and madmen, the Merryes have a point of view. They have unique interests. They love each other and care for each other. Their need to protect one another, and protect their lifestyle, rubs off on the audience.

The Merrye siblings, in particular, are especially charming. Their childish personalities lead to a disregard for other people's lives. However, it also leads to a child-like joy. Virginia and Elizabeth's pure glee at seeing Ralph again is utterly endearing. How happy Virginia's pet tarantulas make her are equally pleasing. The sisters fight with each other but, ultimately, beg not to be hated, to be loved and understood. Virginia is really the heart of the film. When she “plays spider” – catching people in nets and stabbing themselves to death – she hardly understands what she's doing is wrong. Jill Banner's performance is energetic and alluring. The film's original poster refers to her as a “lolita” and, indeed, there's an odd sexuality to her as well. This is apparent in the scene where she ties up Peter, a scene that plays more like a seduction the longer it goes on. Banner is mesmerizing in the part and, sadly, would die at a very young age.

It's notable that Peter and Ann, ostensibly the film's heroes, are not all that bad. They accept the Merrye siblings, up to a point anyway. They play their games, eat their foot, and generally seem less square than Schlocker and Emily. However, they still represent the establishment. Like so many horror films of the sixties, “Spider Baby” is about the culture war. As in “Psycho” and “Night of the Living Dead,” reasonable society brushes up against something rawer, wildier, and are promptly terrifying. This is even more apparent in “Spider Baby,” as the Merryes are clearly more lovable than the outsiders. Yes, they murder and rape and literally eat the other generation, the way a new culture must destroy the old one. Bruno, who walks in both worlds, realizes the Merryes can never survive in polite society. Peter and Ann marry, have children, and become as boring as their parents. Peter seems to think the insanity of his heredity has been banished. The closing shto, however, seems to suggest that his daughter carries some of the ol' Merrye madness in her. Thus, the untamed underground is always waiting, always present in modern society, waiting to take its revenge.

“Spider Baby” represents so much of what I love about cinema. The gorgeous sets, black and white photography, and classic horror references appeal to my monster kid soul. The themes of childhood rebellion and counterculture revenge speak to my punk rock spirit. The sex and violence touch my love of cinemas that grimy, sleazy, and crazy. It's a wonderfully weird little movie, campy but progressive, classical but exploitative. A goofy theme song co-exist next to incest and cannibalism. Every time I watch the movie, I love it more and more. This is the entire horror genre, wrapped up in a sleek eighty minute package. [9/10]

The Lords of Salem (2012)

Over his first four features, Rob Zombie: Director had carved out a pretty clear aesthetic for himself. His horror films were full of extreme violence, omnipresent vulgarity, and white trash characters and settings. Some loved these antics, others hated him. After the “Halloween” remakes, Zombie's reputation as a director was especially divisive. For his fifth feature, Zombie said he wanted to try something a little different in tone. “The Lords of Salem” is, indeed, a change in pace from the shock-rocker-turned-filmmaker's previous efforts. Yet the film would receive a similarly mixed reaction from fans and critics.

Zombie's previous movies were occasionally obnoxious, due to constantly reminding the viewer how hardcore and in-your-face they were. “Lords of Salem” steps this back slightly. The trashy dialogue and settings have been reeled way back. In fact, the film works best when establishing its setting and characters. The scenes devoted to Heidi working among her fellow deejays are likable comfy, gently mocking the sound-bite heavy morning zoo setting. We get passing nods towards Heidi's past, a history of drug abuse being referenced. Yet her current life, living in a stylish apartment with a dog, seems comfortable. Zombie happily lingers on the Salem setting, drawing attention to the local landmarks. Zombie showed a similar strength for setting in his previous films but pointed that skill in a more revered direction with this one.

“Lords of Salem” is also employing a more subtle type of scare than “House of 1000 Corpses” or “Halloween II.” At least at first. The film isn't heavy on graphic gore or excessive fuck-bombs, initially. Instead, Zombie seems influenced by Polanski's Apartment Trilogy here. There's a spooky atmosphere to the scenes devoted to Heidi wandering the halls of her apartment. The sound design is built upon slowly building, rambling unease. This unnerving atmosphere ultimately explode towards more blatantly shocking scenes. Some of these moments are effective. Such as a nightmare involving a glowing red cross and a sudden yeti. Other antics are more distracting, such as a sexual assault in a church from a priest. Moments like this seemingly show Zombie torn between his attempts to make a more subtle horror film and antics more typical of his films.

Say what you will about Rob Zombie but his films usually have interesting casts. As is expected, he fills the film with recognizable cult performers. Bruce Davidson is likable as Francis, the local librarian that investigates the mystery. Sadly, that story arc ends abruptly, though Davidson makes the most of his scenes. As the cabal of evil witches, Patrica Quinn, Dee Wallace, and Judy Geeson fittingly juggle being sinister and friendly. Meg Foster is just purely creepy, primarily appearing in heavy make-up and partially nude, as a spectre of Satanic evil. Zombie, being who he is, also drops a number of notable cameos into the film. See if you can spot Michael Berrymore, Sid Haig, Barbara Crampton, and Lisa Marie.

Yet none of these experienced performers technically star in the film. Instead, Rob sticks his wife and constant muse, Sheri Moon, in the lead role. Moon's performance here, and her acting in general, have always received mixed reviews. I actually think Moon does okay in the lead. The script has here spending most of the film in a dazed state. Sheri has no issue bringing that to life. Yet, in keeping with the film's comfortable setting, I also like the scenes devoted to her work and home life. Heidi seems like a nice person, a far more relatable and likable character then the outrageous parts Moon has played in her husband's previous motion pictures.

“The Lords of Salem” is mildly effective as an atmosphere driven horror picture for about half of its run time. As the story goes on, the film becomes more dependent on shocking images. By the last act, the film descends totally into incoherent chaos. The climax is a surreal parade of bizarre images. We're talking masturbating mummy popes, Harlequin baby Satan, stuffed goat rides, and swirling colors. Zombie leans on his prized graphic violence here too, featuring a bizarre monster child being gorily torn from a woman's womb. At this point, “The Lords of Salem” looses its audience. It's almost as if Zombie couldn't think of a real ending to his film and instead just threw some crazy bullshit at the screen, hoping that would be enough. That's not quite the case.

Rob Zombie can be commended for attempting a change in direction. “Lords of Salem” does show off his strengths as a filmmaker, proving the director doesn't need to toss around excessive F-bombs and necrophilia to shock an audience. However, his weaker tendencies ultimately overtake the film, preventing the film from being totally satisfying. Sadly, the director would immediately get back to his old tricks with his next picture. Maybe he'll make a more subtle horror picture at some point. [6/10]

The Lottery (1969)

Like everyone else, I read Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” in high school. As a teenager, a story of tradition and conformity having ghastly consequences especially spoke to me. Somehow, though, I've never seen the highly regarded 1969 short film adaptation of Jackson's famous story. Writer/director Larry Yust does not waver from Jackson's text at all. The short is still set in an unnamed small town. Every year, a lottery is held. The matriarch of every family grabs a piece of paper from a black box. Most of the papers are blank but one will have a black spot on it. Once someone grabs that paper, a second lottery is held within that family. Whoever receives the black spot, this time, will be this year's sacrifice.

What makes Jackson's story so chilling, even today, is how normal she makes this ghastly ritual seem. People make small-talk before the lottery takes place. They gossip and share bits and pieces from their everyday life. One woman is late. Someone in town has broken his legs, forcing his wife to draw for him. A town official performs the drawing without blinking. He asks everyone to work quickly, so they can get on with the rest of their day. An old man grouses about how some towns have abandoned the lottery. How progress is chipping away at tradition. Even more frightening, no reason for the lottery is given. There's a reference to the lottery leading to a healthy crop but this is fleeting. People have been doing this thing for so long, they don't even remember why it's important.

By sticking so closely to Jackson's prose, Yust maintains most of its power. The conclusion is just as startling and the reader feels the injustice, as poor Tessie Hutchinson, is stoned to death for no reason. Yust's direction is simple, stripped down, and even raw at times. There's a couple of rough zooms and pans. However, this gives the film a quasi-documentary feeling, reminding the viewer that this could be happening in any small town anywhere. The short story is better, as you get to experience this normal small town where this horrible thing happens a little more. However, the short film is definitely worth seeing. This isn't the only adaptation of Jackson's story. It was also made into a feature length TV film in 1996 and, oddly enough, adapted in an episode of “South Park.” [7/10]

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 29

Seconds (1966)

I first heard of “Seconds” many years thanks to some website – I don't remember which one – posting a list of the twenty scariest movies of all time or something like that. Among the usual suspects of “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” were titles I had never heard of, like “Repulsion” and this film. By the time I finally got to see the film, I knew it wasn't exactly your typical scare-fest but, instead, a good example of what I call “existential horror.” The film is considered the third part of director John Frankenheimer's paranoia trilogy, following “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May.” Of the three, it was the least successful upon release. In the time since then, it's developed a reputation as a classic.

Arthur Hamilton lives what some would consider a good life. He's a high ranking executive at a bank. He's been married for many years, with an adult age daughter he never sees. Arthur, however, isn't happy. One night, he receives a mysterious phone call from an old college friend he thought had died. This puts him in contact with the Company. They promise to give Arthur a new life. His death is faked, via a hotel fire. He's given extensive plastic surgery, completely remolding his appearance. His identity is changed to Antiochus Wilson, a successful painter. He's young and rich. He quickly gains a beautiful girlfriend. He's placed into a life of sex and parties. Happiness, however, continues to elude him.

From its opening minutes, “Seconds” feels like a nightmare. The opening credits are composed of extreme close-ups of the human face, distorted almost beyond recognition. Jerry Goldsmith's ominous score, with its gothic organs and demonic strings, play over top. The first scene follows Hamilton through a train station. The camera remains on his face or over his shoulder, focusing on his sweaty skin and the people around him. Everything else is in shadows. “Seconds” carries on in this fashion throughout. Frankenheimer repeatedly focuses on his character's faces, usually pushed into cramp areas. There's even a literal nightmare sequence, where Hamilton walks down a distorted hallway and seems to assault a panicking woman. While recovering from surgery, he wears an unnerving mask, wiping away his facial features. This hyper-real approach maintains “Seconds'” unsettling atmosphere.

“Seconds” is, ultimately, a movie about emptiness. Arthur Hamilton's life is void of feeling. He shares no passion with his wife. The Company persuades him by pointing out the lack of warmth in Arthur's life. Yet there's also a lack of feeling in Arthur's decision to join the Company. After becoming Antiochus, he gains no further happiness. He's reluctant, at first, to embrace his new life. He spends a lot of time alone. When he finally gives into the hedonism of a rich life, during a wine festival Frankenheimer shoots like an unnerving documentary, he's elated at first. However, this soon gives way to deeper loneliness. He still feels empty inside, still feels like he's living a life designed by other people. That's when he decides he wants to start over for a third time but, by then, it's too late. Fulfilling desires just exposes oneself to further meaningless. This is further emphasized by the distant, cold approach Frankenheimer brings to the movie.

There's a lot of thoughts floating around inside “Seconds.” Frankenheimer said he made the film as an attack on “the dream,” the promise of capitalism, the idea that youth and riches can solve all our problems. That people work all their lives to achieve these ultimately hollow goals. Yet the film is an attack on other concepts too. It's important that the organization that gives Arthur his second chance is called a company. Arthur must pass through a meat-packing plant before meeting with the Company's men. So these human lives are treated like meat, as nothing but product. Later, during his life as Antiochus, he discovers that Company employees are all around him, always watching, waiting for him to screw up and mention his previous life. Following a conspiracy classic like “The Manchurian Candidate,” it's easy to see this paranoid aspect as another criticism of McCarthyism, of being forced to watch what you say and do at all hours.

The film was made during a period when Rock Hudson was trying to shed his image as a romantic comedy star. Around the same time, he would star in thrillers like “Blindfold” and “Ice Station Zebra.” “Seconds” is a raw performance from Hudson. As Arthur/Antiochus begins to recognize the emptiness of his life, he cracks up, getting drunk and depressed. (If you're willing to read into Hudson's personal life, you can suspect that the story of a man hiding his true self might've interested him.) John Randolph plays Arthur. Randolph's presence provides some more real life subtext, as the actor was still blacklisted at the time. Randolph's projects the a hollow sadness from behind his eyes, disappearing into the role of a depressed man.

“Seconds” is a chilling experience, from its unsettling introduction to its nightmarish denouncement. It had a profound effect on me the first time I saw it and has the same impact every time I watch it. Though not a traditional horror movie, it's as frightening as any other I've seen. The moody black and white photography, equally menacing and melancholic score, strong performances, and sharp writing combined to make an underrated masterpiece. There have been a few similarly themed films – like the Ryan Reynolds flop “Self/less” – but this one remains a unique classic. [9/10]

We are the Flesh (2016)

Horror is a genre that's very attractive to provocateurs. Probably because it's the only cinematic genre – aside from straight-up art films and pornography, I guess – where pushing the envelope will actually attract an audience. About once a year, we get a new extreme horror movie promising to be more fucked-up than the fucked-up shit you saw last year. Usually, I opt out of such experiences, as I need a little more from a movie than baseless provocation. Occasionally, we actually get something like “Martyrs,” that actually has a reason for existing besides shocking you. This year's extreme horror model hails from Mexico and is called “We Are the Flesh.” I wasn't going to watch it but it was streaming on Shudder so I figured why not?  I haven't been properly disgusted this Halloween.

A pair of homeless siblings, Lucio and Fauna, break into an abandoned building. They soon find the place is already inhabited. A man named Mariano has made the place his home. He allows the brother and sister to live there, even feeding them, as long as they help him with a project. The trio transform the building into cave or womb-like structure. Afterwards, Mariano's requests become more disturbing. He demands that the siblings have sex. Fauna is more receptive to the man's sickening demands. Soon, both siblings are inundated into a world of depravity and madness.

Most extreme horror movies are extreme in their violence. There's definitely some gore in “We are the Flesh:” A beheading, a throat-slashing, an eye-dropper stuck into an open wound, and some cannibalism. Otherwise, the film's extreme content is sexual in nature. Incest is a plot point. Quite a few unsimulated sex acts happen on-screen. There's close-ups on male and female genitalia. Orgies and various bodily excretions appear. The question is: Is there's any actual point to this than pure provocation? The answer is... I'm not sure? Hedonism is the main theme of the movie. Mariano's philosophy focuses on existing in the now, celebrating our statuses as filthy animals, and achieving a higher state through sensation. Is this a good enough reason to throw so many ding-dongs, hoo-has, menstrual blood, and sexual assault at the viewer? Maybe not, dude, but at least it's an ethos.

Despite going out of its way to gross out the viewer, “We are the Flesh's” messed-up themes of family kind of appeal to me. Initially, Lucio and Fauna aren't sure what to make of Mariano. The old man frightens them but they are slowly won over by his extreme tactics. Eventually, the trio evolves into a bizarre family of sorts. The performances help sell this unusual dynamic, as there are few characters in the film besides the trio. Maria Evoli, as Fauna, is successful as a seemingly normal girl that is quickly overcome by strange desires. Diego Gamaliel, as Lucio, starts out just reacting to the weird shit around him but quickly develops a more interesting relationship with his deviant behavior. Noe Hernandez, the closest the film has to a name actor, is unnerving as Mariano.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter, making his feature debut here, clearly has some talent. “We are the Flesh” is a visually interesting film. The film is shot realistically at first. After Lucio and Fauna cross over into the world of transgression, the visuals go crazy. A sex scene is shot in inferred, set to a Mexican folk song. The interior of the building begins to feel more and more like an actual cave, which is pretty cool. Characters crawl out of black slime. By the end, a strong color palette takes over. Purples, blacks, reds, and blues mix together to create a psychedelic landscape. What's happening on screen is usually sick but it's kind of pretty too.

I'm really not entirely sure what to think about “We are the Flesh” but, if nothing else, it is interesting. I'm going to be thinking about it for a while. Some people have already attempted to find a deeper meaning within the graphic sex and gore, wondering if the film is a reaction to the political turmoil and rampant crime Mexico has been experiencing for quite some time. The movie is destined to be one of the year's most divisive films, which is entirely appropriate, considering the content. Yet I applaud the filmmaker for having a vision, even if it's a frequently repugnant one. [6/10]

Freaks of Nature (2015)

A few years ago, I remember reading about a movie called “The Kitchen Sink.” This was when our culture's love of vampires and zombies were at their peak. The idea was to throw together every popular modern monster archetype into a goofy horror/comedy. This was to be the first vampires, zombies, aliens, and werewolf hybrid feature. The movie rolled into production and then seemed to disappeared, a theatrical release never surfacing. Then, last year, a friend of mine started describing a film called “Freaks of Nature.” I told him that the movie sounded a lot like the elusive “Kitchen Sink.” A little internet research revealed that “Freaks of Nature” is “The Kitchen Sink,” that the high-profile project ended up going direct-to-video. I guess that's a better title.

The town of Dillford, Ohio is famous for two things. It's home to the Riblet, an addictive fast food sandwich. It's also town shared between humans, vampires, and zombies. The three cultures are integrated. They all go to school together and the teachers are even mixed. However, it's an uneasy peace. The zombie's brain-eating tendencies are kept under control with shock-collars. The humans often resent the vampires' bloodsucking and special abilities. When an alien spacecraft appears above the town, the unrest explodes into full-blown violence. Human Dag, recently turned vampire Petra, and zombie Ned most navigate the chaos, instill some reason in the adults, and defeat the alien invasion.

That “Freaks of Nature” ended up going straight-to-video is not horribly surprising. The film is, simply put, obnoxious. All the characters are annoying. Petra's story line is a parody of “Twilight,” as she is bitten by a vampire that refuses to have sex with her. Except the vampire is a bullying asshole. That kind of petty attitude characterize the whole cast. Ned's family are jerks, as his dad is mentally abusive, his brother is a mean jock, and his mom is clueless. However, Ned is also an irritating know-it-all. Petra bites and kills a girl whose biggest crime was being a cock tease. Dag, we learn, abandoned his friends. Worst yet, “Freaks of Nature” attempts to play the teens' situation for drama at one point. Most of the adults are broad caricatures. Especially Dennis Leary as the local businessman, who is hateful to everyone. Or Keegan-Michael Key as a teacher who flunks his students out of meanness. There is not a single likable person in this entire movie.

My main reason for wanting to check out “Freaks of Nature” is because it's a monster mash. In this day and age, it's not too often that you see a film willing to throw together so many different monsters. Some of this monster-on-monster is amusing. A fight between zombies and vampires tear through a suburban home, the two tearing into each other. When the vamires are staked through the heart, they explode into a bloody mist. A recliner is utilized in staking a vampire, in one clever moment. The special effects are genuinely good. The zombies are detailed and decayed. The aliens have a cool design. You can see the vampire's veins through their translucent skin. It's obvious some money went into this, further indicating that Sony dropped this on video because it's not very good.

So is “Freaks of Nature” funny at all? There's one or two chuckle worthy moments. Contrasting the “Twilight” story with douchey teen boy behavior, as the vampire bites Petra and then refuses to talk to her, is a funny idea. The film has a surprisingly stacked cast. Patton Oswalt has a cameo as a survivalist, attempting to wring laughs out of some dire material. Mae Whitman is funny, and kind of cute, as the zombie girl that turns Ned. Joan Cusack and Bob Odenkirk are mildly amusing as Dag's stoner mom. Werner Herzog voices the alien's commander. I hope they paid him a lot for that, as he's given some truly embarrassing dialogue. Most of the gags are really dire though, such as a scene where the protagonists have to walk around naked to avoid the aliens.

“Freaks of Nature” was recommend to me by JD, my podcast co-host. This is not the first time he's told me to watch something I thought was really stupid. I guess I should just realize JD has pretty bad taste. Then again, I understand why it might seem like I would enjoy “Freaks of Nature.” Setting monster archetypes in a high school setting is something I've done in my own writing. Monster mashes are usually a can't-fail proposition for me. Yet “Freaks of Nature” is a deeply dire affair. By the way, this was another script that began life on the Blacklist, the annual list of the most marketable unproduced films. Like seemingly every blacklisted film I've seen, this one ended up lousy, proving once again that “marketable” and “good” are not synonymous.  [4/10]

The Sandman (1991)

In high school, I read E.T.A. Hoffman's short story “The Sandman.” I was immediately enamored by the story, which weaves together childhood nightmares, fears of going insane, and a mechanical woman into an beguiling brew. Hoffman's version of the Sandman, usually an innocent childhood figure, was decidedly not so nice. Hoffman's Sandman is a spectre who lives on the moon and throws sand in disobedient children's eyes until they fall out. That last detail would inspire an stop-motion animated short in 1991. The short follows a young child who doesn't want to go to bed. He has good reason, as the bird-like Sandman is stalking him. After the boy finally falls asleep, the inhuman creature comes for him.

Hoffman's “Sandman” would've made for an amazing, German Expressionism silent film. This short is probably the next best thing. The eerie sets are reminiscent of Expressionism, composed of harsh angles and deep, dark shadows. A shot of the little boy heading up to his room, where the hallways seem to extend outwards, is especially effective. The Sandman, as depicted here, is unforgettably wicked. He takes pleasure in tormenting his victims, dancing around the boy's bed, appearing and disappearing often. The final reveal of what the Sandman does to the boy is fairly horrific. Even in an exaggerated, animated style, a monster plucking a little kid's eyes out is still a ghastly sight. A brief shot after the credits also implies that this has happened many times before as well, a chilling thought.

It might just be a coincidence, since they share many of the same influences, but I wonder if Tim Burton and Henry Selick saw “The Sandman” before beginning work on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The two films have a similar look and even the character designs, with their thin bodies and big heads, and nearly identical. The Sandman himself is a really brilliant design. The feathers aren't soft-looking but are instead sharp. His entire body appears pointed, a raptor ready to scoop up and pierce his victims. His bird-like face also recalls a crescent moon, which hints at his lunar nature. “The Sandman” would be nominated for an Oscar in 1992. While leaving out some of the weirder, more Freudian elements of Hoffman's story, it invokes a similar feeling of helplessness and dread. [8/10]

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 28

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

In 2006, “Snakes on a Plane” showed both pros and cons of a movie becoming an internet meme. Since it's been over ten years – yes, really – some of you may not remember. Samuel L. Jackson signed on to the project based on its title, which is also its premise. The internet, subsequently, fell in love. They made art, fan fiction, songs, and animations. When New Line Cinema found out, they re-shot the PG-13 movie to bring it more in line with fans' R-rated expectations. What was formally an unimportant August release became a genuine pop culture phenomenon. I was caught up in this too. I literally bought the T-shirt. When “Snakes on a Plane” came out, it did underwhelming business. This proved that, just because the internet loved a movie, it didn't mean people would actually show up. In the decade since, the movie has been more-or-less forgotten.

So why, exactly, are these snakes on this specific plane? While in Hawaii, Sean sees gangster Eddie Kim beat a federal agent to death. Sean is immediately grabbed by FBI agent Neville Flynn. Sean is dropped on a plane and sent to California to testify against Kim. The crime boss really doesn't want this to happen. He cooks up an especially convoluted plan to make sure the kid doesn't make it to court. Kim smuggles hundreds of highly venomous snakes onto the Boeing 747, giving the passengers pheromone scented leis. When the snakes escape, they are highly aggressive. Now, Flynn has to protect his witness and everyone else on the flight as the deadly snakes became their violent rampage.

The concept for “Snakes on a Plane” was conceived in 1992, by first-time screenwriter David Dalessandro. That was around the time disaster movies were coming back into vogue in Hollywood. Accordingly, “Snakes on a Plane” functions under a similar formula. The first half-hour introduces us to the ensemble cast, the crew and the passengers who will try and survive this ordeal. They are easily understood archetypes: The elderly stewardess nearing retirement, the ambiguously gay male stewardess, the germaphobe rap star, his buffoonish bodyguards, the two little kids, the single mom with a baby, the Paris Hilton-like heiress, the belligerent asshole, the horny pilot. Even Flynn fits the traditional role of a tough but resourceful hero, tossed into a crazy situation. In accordance to these same troupes, there's also a team on the ground, helping to save the day.  So “Snakes on a Plane'” premise is less snakes on a plane and more “Airport... with Snakes.”

“Snakes on a Plane” is not so beholden to formula that it can't have some fun with its ridiculous premise. The late David R. Ellis also directed “Final Destination 2,” an uproarious gore-comedy disguised as a standard sequel. Ellis brings some of that sick humor to this one. The sequence of snakes descending on a couple banging in the bathroom concludes with a milk snake biting the woman's breasts. Later, a snake bites a guy's dick, causing him to theatrically thrash around the bathroom. In a likely nod to “Gremlins,” a snake gets exploded in a microwave. A massive boa constrictor eats both a chihuahua and the asshole who threw it. There's certainly plenty of footage of snakes biting people, leaving convulsing corpses covered in ripened sores. The snakes aren't the only cause of chaos. During a stampede of people, a woman in high heels stomps on a guy's head. After a crowd overwhelms the staircase, some people are impaled. Ellis even throws in some POV shots from the snakes!

Despite featuring quite a lot of reptile-on-human carnage, “Snakes on a Plane” still falls short of its outrageous concept. It's quite obvious that this was a PG-13 movie that was upgraded to an R-rating. Most of the profanity and elaborately gory moments are obvious re-shoots. There are long stretches of the movie that are far less exciting. Such as Samuel L. Jackson heading into the bowels of the plane, trying to get the coolant system back on line. (Jackson's performance is disappointingly subdued, save for a few moments.) The subplot about the team on the ground, trying to locate enough anti-venom, is a total snooze. In addition to that, most of the computer effects have aged incredibly poorly. The CGI snakes look like crap, then and now.

Ultimately, “Snakes on a Plane” was a better internet meme than a movie. In the run-up to the film's release, it was a blast to imagine an entire franchise of films, of Samuel L. Jackson fighting other killer animals on other isolated vehicles. Who wouldn't want to see “Spiders on a Submarine” or “Crocodiles on a Cruise?” Or a prequel, where Jackson's cowboy ancestor fights snakes on the frontier called “Snakes on a Plain?” Fan projects like these were ultimately more creative and enduring than the actual film. What we're left with are a bunch of in-jokes and that amazing central scene that the internet willed into existence. The final film is entertaining, for what it is, but in no way the uniting cult classic people hoped it would be. [6/10]

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1972)

I need to see more giallo. I really love Italian horror in general but am still woefully under-read when it comes to these gory, crazy murder mystery. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” seems like a good one to include, this Halloween. It was the first proper horror film from Lucio Fulci, who had previously specialized in comedies and spaghetti westerns. Fulci's next film would be “Don't Torture a Duckling,” which would solidify his transition into a horror director and lead to the likes of “Zombie” and “The Beyond.” Obscure and unavailable in the states for years, “A Lizard in Woman's Skin” has slowly gathered a reputation as a classic of the giallo genre.

Carol Hammond, the daughter of an influential politician, is having strange dreams. The erotic and unnerving visions seem to focus on her next door neighbor, a beautiful woman prone to throwing wild parties. After visiting a shrink, Carol has a dream about murdering the girl next door. The next day, the woman actually ends up dead, in a way that perfectly mirrors Carol's dream. From there, the woman is drawn into a web of lies, deceit, drugs, and sex. Soon, a man begins to chase her, seemingly with murder on his mind.

“Lizard in a Woman's Skin's” dream sequences are clearly the highlight of the film. While most cinematic dreams are too orderly, the erotic nightmares here feel appropriately surreal. Carol wanders through long hallways, full of naked partiers mingling among themselves. She is watched by dead-eyed witnesses, floating in the air. When confronting her dream woman, Fulci's camera oozes and slides with strange motions. The dreams are full of fittingly unexplained elements, like a fascinating sequence where Carol is chased by a huge, mechanical goose. These scenes are just random enough to feel like real dreams. Like dreams, they are inviting, sensual, strange, and frightening. It certainly starts “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” on a very high note. These scenes, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's slithering score, are honestly so good that I'm surprised Fulci directed them. He certainly didn't display artistry like this in his later zombie movies. (Some of the later scenes include tackier tricks, like repeated crash-zooms, that I associated more with Fulci.)

The film never totally leaves the dreaming world behind, even during the later stalk-and-slash scenes you'd expect in a giallo. While being pursued through a hospital, Caorl walks into the startling sight of dogs suspended in the air, cut open, tubes running through their bloody entrails. (This scene disturbed Italian censors so much, they forced the film's effect supervisor to prove they were fake.) Another chase scene begins in the tunnels under a church. The scenes here contrast the blackness of the underground with the stone walls. Soon, Carol is chased up through the building, pass a pair of whirling generators. She accidentally activates the pipe organ before being attacked by a swarm of bats inside the belfry. This effective sequence ends with her arm being brutally slashed by the man. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” is uncharacteristically lacking in gore for a Fulci movie but that moment is pretty cringe-inducing, as you really feel the blade piercing the skin.

Aside from the stylish murder scenes and a degree of eroticism, what really characterizes the giallo genre is convoluted mystery plots. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” has a truly incomprehensible one. There are long, fairly droll scenes of police officers and other people talking about the details of the case. There's an on-going subplot about a pair of hippy artist, who talk repeatedly with a young girl, and an unhinged Irishman. Eventually, we learn that Carol was more connected with her neighbor then she first appeared. How it ties together with the dead dogs and the nightmares, I can't tell you. There's a twist ending that seems to muddle things further. The truth is, I don't think anybody watches giallos for the plot anyway.

Also par the course of the giallo genre, the film's lyrical title doesn't have much to do with the actual story. There are no “V”-like reptilian humanoids to be seen here. There's one line of dialogue about a woman's skin hiding a lizard's body. In a broader sense, the title symbolizes Carol's status as someone hiding something, I guess. All these flaws aside, “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” works beautifully at times. Those dream sequences and stalking scenes go a very long way. None of it makes much sense but that barely matters. It's a stylish, creepy, sexy murder-thriller and that's exactly what I want when I pop in an Italian horror flick like this. [7/10]

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

I never know what to make of Takashi Miike. The incredibly prolific director – he recently completed his 100th movie – is probably Japan's premiere cult filmmaker. “Audition” won an international fanbase. His ultra-violent and sexually perverse features, like “Ichi the Killer” and “Visitor Q,” attracted the attention of a certain breed of horror fan. Yet a lot of Miike's work have left me cold. The extreme violence in his film always struck me as self-serving while his frequent disregard for story put me off. More often, I've enjoyed the off-beat stuff in his career more, like the oddball superhero flick “Zebraman.” So I hoped I'd enjoy his dark comedy/horror/musical “The Happiness of the Katakuris” equally.

The Katakuris clan has seen better days. After being fired from their jobs at a shoe factory, Masao and Terue decided to open a roadside bed-and-breakfast. Thus far, the business has been an absolute failure. Daughter Shizue, who falls in love too easily, is recently divorced. Son Masayuki is a petty criminal who has gotten out of prison not too long ago. Grandfather Jinpei, granddaugther Yurie and dog Poochi are just living their lives. Things start to change when a suicidal man arrives at the hotel. After killing himself, the family decides to bury the dead body without telling anyone. Following that incident, people keep dying violently at the Katakuris' hotel. Things escalate quickly.

From everything I've read, “The Happiness of the Katakuris” sounded like a crazy, over-the-top horror/comedy. Maybe something along the lines of “Hausu.” While the film is incredibly strange, the tone is not madcap. In fact, “Happiness of the Katakuris” is actually quite maudlin. Failure is the main theme in the movie. Each member of the family is a screw-up to some degree. The dead bodies are not comedic interruptions so much. Instead, they are the latest roadblock they have to overcome. This challenge ends up uniting them, bringing the film's second theme to mind: The power of family and how that love unites people. When something wacky isn't happening, the film functions like a slow-paced drama about a neurotic family.

Of course, wacky things do happen. The film begins with an incredibly bizarre sequence of a woman yanking a cherub-like creature out of her soup. The winged thing then grabs her uvula. From there, the critter is eaten by a crow, which is eaten by a murderous teddy, and so on. Did I mention these scenes are brought to life with stop-motion effects/ Throughout the film, the characters are replaced with weird stop-motion puppets. This probably happens when an event – a tumble down a cliff side, an erupting volcano – was outside the movie's budget. The death scenes are another bizarrely comic element. They're less outrageous than Miike's regular output would lead you to believe. One death scene involves a sumo wrestler dying while having sex with his ten year old girlfriend – there's that deviant sex Miike loves – smothering her to death with his size. That leads to a mildly amusing bit where they lower the sumo's corpse from a window.

One of the weirdest things about “The Happiness of Katakuris” are the musical numbers. As odd as the movie is, the musical numbers are still presented as dream sequences. I guess singing and dancing would break with even this story's reality. Some of the sequences are quite theatrically realized. When Shizue meets a man claiming to be an American naval officer – he's actually a con artist – they go leaping through the air, declaring their love for one another. When the police arrive for totally unrelated reasons, father and son musically debate over who should take the fall. A memorable scene involves Masao and Terue re-declaring their love for each other via a karaoke sing-along. Probably the most famous scene involves some of the dead bodies rising from their grave, to dance along and provide back-up vocals. Despite how unforgettable these moments are, none of the songs are that catchy. They're pretty forgettable J-pop.

Is Takashi Miike just not my speed? Once again, I watch one of his beloved cult classics and I find myself underwhelmed. This is the kind of thing that should be right up my alley. Instead, it didn't quite work for me. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” is obviously an interesting movie. It's too aggressively weird not to be. I do not besmirch the film it's cult following. Yet the somber tone seems at odds with the wackier elements. It's also pretty weak as a musical. This is a loose remake of a Korean film, called “The Quiet Family,” that approaches the material in a more straight-forward manner. Maybe I'll enjoy that one more? [6/10]

Riley (2015)

I've become a Bex Taylor-Klaus fan while seeing very little of her work. I've never watched a single episode of “The Killing” or “Scream: The Series” and gave up on “Arrow” after the first few episodes. The truth is, I saw Bex on her one episode of “Longmire,” thought she was cute, and have kept an eye on her career ever since. She's beginning to develop a real following. “Riley' was a short she did a few years back and, hey, what do you know, it's a horror movie. Taylor-Klaus plays the titular character, a young woman who happens to be a serial killer. Her latest murder is interrupted when a date arrives a little early. Now, Riley has to distract the guy long enough before he discovers the gruesome truth.

“Riley” was obviously produced very cheaply. I suspect it was shot in the home of one of the key players. Most of the short is devoted to Bex and Vincent Martella, as Riley's date, talking. It's a comedy of manners, as the girl hopelessly attempts to steer her date away from the awful truth. This light-hearted mood is punctuated by a goofy score. The scenes of awkwardness between Klaus-Taylor and Martella are clearly the high-light of the film. Once we get to the actual murders, it becomes a little less interesting. Still, “Riley” is cute enough and definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the lead actress. [7/10]