Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 11

Cat People (1982)

It's part of the horror fan rule book that you have to become outraged anytime a remake of a classic film is announced. I wonder what the reaction was in the eighties, when a string of classic horror flicks from the fifties and earlier were getting remade? Did fans take notice that respected directors like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Paul Schrader were behind the cameras? Or did they bitch and moan about the original's legacies being shit on? If they did, it would've been a little funny. Now these remakes are regarded as classic themselves, often overshadowing the originals. Even Schrader's “Cat People,” which was greeted with mixed reviews and mediocre box office in 1982, has a healthy cult following today. Time makes fools of us all.

Schrader, directing a script from Bob Clark's old pal Alan Ormsby, deviates extensively from Val Lewton's original. In this version, Irena has moved to New Orleans to be reunited with her long lost brother, Paul. Soon after meeting him, Paul disappears again. Meanwhile, a black panther nearly maws a prostitute to death. The panther is captured by Oliver, a curator, and placed in the local zoo. Irena is drawn to the panther and, while visiting it, meets Oliver. After killing a zookeeper, the panther disappears  and her brother returns to Irena. He informs her that their bloodline is cursed. Whenever they feel lust, they transform into huge black cats. They can only return to human form after killing someone. Irena now must choose between the growing love she feels for Oliver and the animal fury growing within her.

Being made forty years later, Paul Schrader's “Cat People” can address the themes of repressed sexuality and Freudian desires that the original could only hint at. Instead of merely suggesting that Irena's transformation into a panther is linked with a frustrated sex drive, the remake makes this explicitly the case. She's a twenty year old virgin. Having sex means giving into a literal animal side. So, instead, she kills, as in a brilliant scene where she strips nude and hunts a rabbit through the night. This lends the film an intensely erotic atmosphere, built upon sexual longing and unresolved lust. The remake makes this perverse premise even kinkier by giving Irena a brother that sexually desires her, as the cat people can only avoid transforming by having sex with their own bloodline. So this is the film's moral: Sex is a wild and dangerous desire but, when repressed, it leads to depravity. That's a potent theme and one befitting Schrader's extremely Catholic writing style.

More sex and nudity weren't the only advantage age gave to this “Cat People.” The film was made around the same time as “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling,” two films that turned the werewolf transformation into gooey, graphic acts of body horror. Schrader's “Cat People” follows suit. The transformation, which is slowly revealed as the film progresses, involves the skin contorting and shifting before a panther burst free. These images – claws and fur stabbing through human skin – are undeniably unnerving. The remake doesn't skimp on the gore either, in intensely violent scenes like a panther tearing a zookeeper's arm off. Schrader isn't just focused on special effects. His film features some suspense too. The original's Letwon bus and pool stalking scene are reprised, impressively. A scene where a panther appears under a bed also taps into some classical nightmare imagery.

The remake also has the benefit of a fantastic cast. Filling Simon Simone's shoes was a hefty order but one Nastassja Kinski was more than up to. Kinski oozes sensuality in every scene. Her breathtaking beauty is so natural. This is befitting the part of a young woman who is just discovering the power her sexuality holds. At story's beginning, Irena is a wide-eyed innocent. By the end, she's a lusty predator. All throughout, Kinski's performance is relatable and considered. It's easy to see why Oliver, played by future “Home Alone” dad John Heard, would be so instantly enamored of her. As her brother, Malcolm McDowell finds the balance between someone trying to tempt an innocent to the dark side and a person torn apart by their own desires. McDowell is both devilish and pathetic in the part, making Paul a villain and a victim.

Instead of attempting to recreate Jacques Tourener's famously shadowy direction, Paul Schrader goes for a more colorful approach. The night is frequently depicted in glowing blues or sensual purples. This fits the story's New Orleans setting and cat-like perspective. The flashbacks, showing the origins of the cat people, are painted in bright red, a color that makes the scenes feel apocalyptic but also bring to mind the erotic heat at the story's center. Some of Schrader's other visual choices – POV shots leaping into trees or the occasional Dutch angle – are less sure-footed. The script has some problems too. After Paul's exit from the story, “Cat People” reaches a logical end point. Instead, Irena has a strange dream that explains the curse's origin and compels her to embrace her animal side. That's some sloppy writing, heavy on the exposition. It's an unnatural shift that makes the last act possible.

Lastly, if one is discussing 1982's “Cat People,” you have to talk about its music. Giorgio Moroder, the king of eighties synth, composed the score. Instead of going with rollicking electronic beats, Moroder fills the film's soundtrack with growling, moaning, pulsating hums. This is another way the film hints at the bubbling sexual desire inside it. This is often paired with tribal drum noises, pointing towards the story's African roots. Frequently accompanying Moroder's beats are the vocals of David Bowie. Bowie's own softly hummed melody play over the opening credits. This bookends the film, as the vocal version of Bowie's theme song plays over the end credits. That's a powerful track, full of poetic lyrics about repressed desire, with Moroder's brilliantly propulsive synth backing. No wonder the songs has memorably been featured on other soundtracks over the years.

I'll finish this review with a personal anecdote. Before I was born, my mother used to live in an apartment, which included HBO as part of the standard TV package. On lonely nights, when my sister was elsewhere, my mom would frequently fall asleep to whatever was on the channel. On one such night, she found herself watching “Cat People.” The film frightened her so much, that she had difficulty sleeping. One scene in particular, where the panther emerges from under a bed, had her checking under her own mattress for quite a few nights. It's funny how movies affect us. As for myself, I recognize that “Cat People” is a really flawed film but it features so many of the things that make me love movies. [8/10]

The Student of Prague (1926)

It's a night for remakes, folks. A few years back, I reviewed 1913's “The Student of Prague.” The directorial debut of German cinema pioneer Paul Wegener, it is sometimes credited with being the first feature length horror movie. I found it to be a bit slow and melodramatic myself. However, a mere thirteen years later, Wegener's film was remade. (This goes to show that remakes are far from a new phenomenon and are practically as old as film itself is.) The 1926 version starred another early icon of horror: Conrad Veidt. It's generally considered to be the superior version. Since I like to squeeze in at least one silent horror film every October, and this one had been on my list for a while, I decided to give it a look.

Much like the original, 1926's “The Student of Prague” mashes up the “Faust” story and Poe's “William Wilson.” Set in 1820, Balduin is a student at the university of Prague. Though a gifted fencer, he is financially destitute. While at a party, he meets Margit, the beautiful daughter of a rich count who is engaged to a local baron. At the same party, a stranger named Scapinelli says he can help Balduin out. At first, Balduin dismisses the man. Later, Balduin reconsiders Scapinelli's offer. The man gives the student riches and only wants a single item from his room in return. Balduin agrees and Scapinelli takes the boy's reflection. At first, Balduin's luck seems to have changed. He catches Margit's eye and gets ready to benefit from her dad's fortune. Then a man who looks just like him appears. It turns out that Balduin's reflection has come alive and is actively seeking to ruin the boy's life.

Wegener's “The Student of Prague” was barely a horror movie, playing more like a dark fantasy. Henrik Galeen's remake ramps up the spookiness just a bit. Film technology had come a long way in just the thirteen years between the two films. Galeen's “Student” is heavier on expressionistic atmosphere. From a mountain top, Scapinelli directs the action below, causing a fox hunt to crash into an inn. A notable sequence features the old wizard's shadow reaching up to grab a letter from a balcony, handing it to the flower girl who has a crush on Balduin. Later, after a night of drowning his sorrow at a bar, Balduin imagines a saw – the same one the musician was playing inside – sawing at his head. The ending, where the zombie-like doppelganger confronts the original, is impressively atmospheric. The reflection, fading in and out, stares from an open window. He chases Balduin into a dark and stormy night. These are effective images.

Galeen's “Student of Prague” still inherits some flaws from Wegener's original. Being a film from the twenties, the film is beholden to then-genre expectations. Yes, there's a couple of love triangles. Balduin lusts after Margit, who already has a fiancee. Later, a flower girl develops a crush on Balduin. This stuff just comes with the territory. Similarly, the remake is as slowly paced as the original. Scenes often meander, such as the sequence set inside a bar, which focuses way too much on the band playing. It also takes quite a while for “Student of Prague” to get going. Even then, the doppelganger and Balduin don't confront each other until the very end. This forces some scenes to happen off-screen.

Still, the remake has a stronger cast than the original. Conrad Veidt, one of the greatest silent film actors, does well as Balduin. He's charming as a poor student, in the early scenes. This allows you to root for him, as he struggles with the class and wealth divides in the city. Veidt's unforgettable face, the same creepy gaze that he used so well in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “The Last Performance,” is put to excellent work as the soulless doppelganger. Agnes Esterhazy is charming and lovely as Margit, the rich girl Balduin falls in love with. Werner Krauss has the showy part of Scapinelli. Krauss has a good sinister smile. He brings just the right amount of hamminess to the part of Mephistophelian magician. 

The mechanics of movie had improved a lot in-between 1913 and 1926. Even then, this “Student of Prague” features some clunky, silent movie awkwardness. The scene where Veidt grabs Esterhazy off her horse is difficult to follow. Many of the other scenes are stiffly directed. However, this one is an improvement of sorts over the original. I guess that's the kind of films that should be remade: Stories with potential that had flawed presentations. The story was remade again during the sound era, only nine years later. I guess I'm going to have to review that version some day too, aren't I? [6/10]

Fear Itself: Skin and Bones

When “Masters of Horror” was still going, I had a wish list of directors I hoped would be involved with the show some day. One that I figured was always a long shot was Larry Fessenden. Fessenden wasn't much of a name and his indie productions received divisive reviews, though I've always been a fan. I guess Fessenden was on the producer's radar after all, as he was recruited for “Fear Itself.” “Skin and Bones” concerns the Edlund family, ranchers living in the frozen north. Father Grady disappears into the woods for several weeks. When he returns, he's frost-bitten and starving. Grady's wife, brother, and two sons soon realized their dad is acting strangely. They quickly discover that he's been possessed by the wendigo, the Algonquian spirit of cannibalism. Soon, Grady's own family is on the menu.

Fessenden probably got called for “Skin and Bones” strictly because he previously directed a movie called “Wendigo.” Surprisingly, that film had little to do with the traditional version of the go-to Native American folkloric monster. However, Fessenden's ecologically-minded brand of horror is a good fit for this kind of story anyway. The episode focuses on the fleshiness of cannibalism. By dropping people meat into a stew, “Skin and Bones” naturally makes you wonder how the animals that end up on your plate felt. The episode takes the cannibalism subject as far as the network standards will allow, creating a decently disturbing half-hour. Fessenden focuses just as much on the chilly isolation of the far north setting. The sound design and discordant score is heavy on blowing winds and shrieking strings. This is best utilized in the last act, when Grady is stalking his own sons through the empty barn.

What really sold me on “Skin and Bones” is its lead performance. Doug Jones stars as Grady. Jones is an accomplished actor but is usually buried under latex. The wendigo make-up is light compared to the elaborate creatures Jones usually plays. This allows the actor to really show his stuff. The frostbite effects emphasize Jones' already gaunt frame, making him a believable survivor of the cold. Moreover, Jones brings an incredible physicality to the part. His hand motions are practiced and precise. Every movement is calculated to be as sinister as possible. Jones' performance is both animalistic, when slurping human stew, and also oddly poised, when convincing Grady's wife to cook her brother-in-law. Only the occasional digital effect, deepening Jones' voice, come off as lame. It's a sinister, stylish performance and really makes me wonder why Jones doesn't have his own horror franchise yet. (If New Line ever gets that new “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie off the ground, they should seriously consider Jones as their new Freddy Krueger.)

Still, “Skin and Bones” occasionally comes off as a little cheesy. A few too many times, Fessenden has Grady leap towards the camera, accompanying by a loud noise on the soundtrack. Later, after wrecking his bedroom, there's another herky-jerky shot of the man walking through the door. As great as Jones is, his performance veers towards the hammy at times. That occasionally makes “Skin and Bones,” otherwise a grim story, feel a little campy. Lastly, I wasn't invested in the familial drama at all. I couldn't really care less about the oldest son's inability to respect his uncle, who his mother is having an affair with. Even with these flaws, “Skin and Bones” is still easiest the best episode of “Fear Itself.” [7/10]

Too Many Cooks (2014)

Has it really been nearly three years since “Too Many Cooks” took the internet by storm? If you somehow missed the short in 2014, here's the gist. The eleven minute film was dropped into the late hours of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block with zero announcements. Those who caught it how no idea what it was. After being uploaded onto Youtube, “Too Many Cooks” became an internet meme. The film begins like the opening credits of a nineties sitcom, seemingly about a large family called the Cooks. Except the opening keeps going, adding more cast members. Soon, “Too Many Cooks” begins to shift genre, the insanely catchy theme song morphing along with it. Before the end, a layer of disturbing horror has found its way into the show's sitcom banality.

As a comedy short, “Too Many Cooks” is a textbook example of repeating a gag until it's no longer funny... And then continuing anyway, until the gag becomes funny again. It begins by perfectly recreating a sitcom intro, from the opening shot of a cityscape, to the way everyone winks at the camera, even down to the tracking lines. (There's deliberate shout-outs too, to shows like “Rosanne” and “The Brady Bunch.”) Some of the hackiest sitcom troupes are skewered, such as the Urkel-like nerdy next door neighbor, the multiple babies added to spice up the ratings, the youth appealing “cool guy” character, and the eye candy for the dads. “Too Many Cooks” then throws in several literal cooks. From there, the show absorbs other genres. It mutates into a workplace comedy, a cop show, a “G.I. Joe” style cartoon, a “Falcon's Crests”-like prime time soap, a “Law and Order”-esque procedural, a “Battlestar Galactia” inspired sci-fi show, before finally morphing back into a sitcom. The theme song changes genres too. And just when it seems like the actual show is beginning, “Too Many Cooks” ends abruptly.

Tying together this ridiculous idea is a freewheeling sense of absurdity. Due to its constantly shifting premise, “Too Many Cooks” can pack in countless gags. Among the fictional sitcom's huge cast are a hunky firefighter, a human disguised as a coat, a literal pie apparently played by Lars Von Trier, and Smarf. Smarf is an “Alf”-like puppet cat that shoots rainbows from his hands and is also a robot. Then there are gags that are just inspired and weird. Like a topless girl, covering her breasts, continuing to be semi-nude regardless of the setting. The killer's head appears atop a spaceship during the sci-fi section. There's also an absurdist, two-part shout-out to “Wonder Woman,” which also ends violently. Eventually, the different genres begin to bleed into each other, space characters ending up on a couch and vice versa.

You might be wondering why I'm reviewing this for Halloween. That's because “Too Many Cooks” eventually evolves into a horror film. During the endless intro, you begin to notice a strange bearded man in a jacket. A re-watch shows that he's hiding in the background of many shots. Eventually, the man begins to murder the cast members, dismembering them with a machete. At that point, “Too Many Cooks” becomes a slasher film. A girl manages to break out of her intro-induced paralysis so she can run from the killer. All the while, her credit remains in front of her chest, the theme song playing around her. This ultimately reveals her hiding place. The killer then takes over the intro, replacing all the cast members and even eating a few. “Too Many Cooks'” surreal horror continues to get weirder, until the cast members have been replaced with upright credits... And the credits are replaced with the people, who scream in agony.

The creator of “Too Many Cooks” claims that there's no deeper point to the short's abrasive weirdness. I'm not sure I buy that, strictly because it's so easy to read into it. The way the sitcom platitudes are slowly perverted into something twisted suggests a statement about the dark side of nostalgia. The Cook parents are revealed to be swingers. One segment features a doctor treating a cast member suffering from “intro-itis,” an infectious disease that trap people in an endless sitcom intro. All of this is aside from the machete wielding murderer. The way he sneaks into the intro, even appearing in the final cast shot, killing the cast members and replacing them, hints at the darkness sitcoms exclude. In short: Nostalgia may provide an escape from reality but you can only fight that off for so long. Unless it's constantly rebooted, the way a bloody Smarf does when he presses a reset button. “Too Many Cooks” is a hilarious, bizarre bit of absurdist comedy that eventually reveals the rotten heart at the center of nostalgia. [9/10]

No comments: