Last of the Monster Kids

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 13

Westworld (1973)

A couple of days ago, I was talking about how many horror films have been adapted into TV shows recently. I was initially skeptical about a lot of these announcements. When they decided to turn “Westworld” into a TV, I was really uncertain. What, were the robots going to go haywire and start killing people every week? Besides, it was already tried, back in the eighties, without much success. Against all odds, the “Westworld” TV show is apparently actually pretty good. I don't know because I've never seen it but the show's success did inspire me to go back and watch the original movie, which I first saw years ago. Besides, what Halloween season is complete without a killer robot or two?

In the near future – 1983 – the Delos Corporation has built a series of incredible theme parks. Medieval World, Roman World, and West World recreate the pop culture versions of their respective time period. The worlds are populated with realistic robots that expertly play their roles. The human visitors, meanwhile, can do whatever they want, murdering and debauch-ing with impunity. John Blane and Peter Martin visit West World, expecting to have the time of their lives. It's pretty fun until the robots begin to act outside their programming. The show is over and the machines become deadly. Now Blane and Martin must survive and escape.

You might question my decision to include “Westworld” as part of a horror movie marathon. History has recalled the movie more as a science fiction landmark than a horror one. But consider the facts. The film was the directorial debut of novelist Michael Crichton. Years later, Crichton would more-or-less recycle the same premise for “Jurassic Park,” replacing robot cowboys with dinosaurs. Though people argue about that too, I consider “Jurassic Park” pretty unambiguously a horror film. Robots belong to the sci-fi genre but murderous robots, I believe, fall strictly within horror's realm. The way the robotic gunslinger pursues Martin, slowly but always catching up with him, makes “Westworld” a predecessor to the slasher film. (So does the killer's habit of returning briefly from death for one more scare.) So I'll hear no more debate about this. “Westworld” is a horror movie. Case closed.

Crichton is most notorious for being equally fascinated and horrified by what science is capable of. Surprisingly, Crichton left all but the barest crumbs of this fascination behind with “Westworld.” Yes, you wonder at what a creation the park is and are then frightened when it all goes wrong. Yet Westworld is clearly a fantasy world, far outside the realm of possibility in 1973, so that no clear criticism of modern science emerges. Instead, “Westworld” targets something else. The theme parks are a place where violent and sexual fantasies can run amok. (Specifically, macho male fantasies of being cowboys or knights, though I doubt Crichton meant anything by that.) Inevitably, that kind of excess eventually leads to self-destruction. Meanwhile, it's also a film about how historical fact is repackaged to be modern day entertainment. Or how storytellers uses historical settings as an excuse to pack in as much flesh and blood as they want.  Honestly, there's a lot to chew on here.

As a genre effort, “Westworld” is pretty solidly entertaining. Several of the shoot-outs with Yul Brynner's Gunslinger are effective. In particular, the one that concludes with him flying out a window is neat. The way a sword fight with the robot black knight goes wrong builds nicely. A scene devoted to cleaning the park up after dark is nicely eerie. However, Crichton does make some rookie mistakes as a first time director. He cuts away from the main characters too often, focusing on irrelevant side characters. There's so little focus on the scientists running that the park that the inevitable robot rampage seems like no one's fault. There's also far too many scenes of people walking or riding their horses aimlessly. I haven't even mentioned the logic gaps in the story. The robots are colder than humans but nobody minds having sex with them? Why are the robots even given live ammunition in the first place?

As I said, Yul Brynner's Gunslinger is a prototype for later villains like Michael Myers and the T-800. Like the Terminator, he has his synthetic flesh burned off, revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath. (At one point, Schwarzenegger was attached to star in a remake of “Westworld,” which would've brought this connection full circle.) Brynner's casting is not just a reference to his many western roles. He actually gives a chilling performance. The reflective contact lens emphasize the uncanny appearance and detached quality that had long been Brynner's trademark. His best moment comes when that untouchable aura cracks up. At one point, the Gunslinger realizes he's wander into Medieval Land and doesn't seem to entirely understand what is happening. The other two leads in the film, James Brolin as Blane and Richard Benjamin as Martin, are also pretty good. It's a nice switch how Brolin, playing the more traditionally tough guy, gets killed first, forcing the more intellectual Benjamin to take the lead.

“Westworld” is obviously a flawed film. Yet it clearly resonated with the public. The film's success would give Yul Bryner's flagging career an extra act. It would spawn a sequel, though nobody talks about it much, in addition to those TV shows I've already mentioned. (It was also parodied on a pretty great “Simpsons” episode.) Even after “Jurassic Park” mostly overshadowed it, the film is well remembered by a certain strata of movie fan. It's vision of robotics has not aged well. Neither has the notion that people care enough about living in the wild west that they'd pay a thousand dollars to visit it. Crichton was clearly still getting the grip on directing. I like this one anyway. [7/10]

The Lure (2015)

Sometimes you hear a film premise and immediately know you have to see it. “The Lure” was released in its native Poland in 2015 but only began to circulate around English language festivals in 2016. Janus Films, the guys behind the Criterion Collection, gave it a stateside theatrical release earlier this year. So, for a while, I've been hearing about this horror/musical about man-eating mermaids singing in a nightclub. For a long time, I've been fascinated by the mermaid's potential as a horror character, since they're seductive, strange, and ultimately inhuman. The peculiar combination of horror elements and song-and-dance numbers always catches my attention. Oh, and did I mention its set in the eighties, so there's plenty of synth? Yeah, “The Lure” couldn't appeal to me anymore if it was made specifically for me.

A band – composed guitarist Mietek, a female singer, and several other musicians – practice on a beach. The music attracts a pair of mermaid sisters. When their bodies dry up, their fish tails turn into legs. A splash of water returns them to their natural state. (Though they notably lack human sex organs.) The blonde, naive sister is named Golden while her brunette, more adventurous sister is named Silver. They follow the band back to the club and are quickly incorporated into their act.  The sisters become a huge hit. However, neither sister can resist their natural instincts to kill humans and eat their hearts.

“The Lure” is a really cool update of the mermaid premise. The sisters do not look like Ariel. Instead, their tails are long, wide, and especially fleshy. They have bloody slits along the skin and yank out their scales. When their hunger is aroused, they grow jagged, fearsome teeth. Changing the sirens song to pop music is another clever change. Another neat touch is that the sisters can communicate via sonar. Mostly, I enjoy “The Lure's” horror movie take on the age-old legend. When the sisters get angry or hungry, they can easily tear open necks and rip out hearts. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska also links the girl's budding sexual desires with their need to eat people, giving the film's horror content a deeper meaning. (It would also make “The Lure” a good double feature with “Raw.”)

As a musical, “The Lure” is also really impressive. The songs are uniformly great. “You Were the Beat of My Heart” is a remorseful number disguised as a slinky, catchy come-on. “Take Me in Your Care” is a touching duet between Golden and Mietek, which the film beautifully illustrates as a swim through a murky lake. Maybe the stand-out number in the film is “Abracadabra,” which features the girl dancing through the green-lit club while dressed as Siouxsie Sue, against a thumping electronic beat. Smoczynska's directs the scenes fantastically, such as in the haunting “The Bed,” where Golden sings about gaining legs, or “I Came to the City,” which features the girls dancing through a mall, having discovered the joys of shopping. I don't speak Polish but I still found myself responding to the emotion, power, and melodies of these songs.

The cast is also extremely impressive. “The Lure” probably wouldn't work at all if the actresses playing the sisters weren't so perfect. Marat Mazurek plays as Silver as a teenage seductress who is learning to use her budding sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. Yet Mazurek also brings an undercurrent of sadness and rawness to the part, the young mermaid still learning to balance her emotions. Michalina Olszanska is even better as Golden. While her sister is cynical, Golden is wide-eyed and trusting. Olszanska's performance is instantly likable, the audience immediately wanting to protect this young girl... Who just happens to be a murderous mermaid. I also like Jakub Gierszal as Mietek, who manages to prevent the character from coming off as a total cad.

“The Lure” is also an adaptation of sorts of Hans Christian Anderson's” The Little Mermaid.” And I don't mean the Disney version. Smoczynska maintains the tragedy at the center of Anderson's story. Golden gives her heart to an Earthly man, giving up her tail and her voice. Ultimately, it doesn't work out and she suffers the same fate Ariel did. Thus, the film ends in tragedy. It's the story of young girls who have their hearts broken and, ultimately, can't find their place in a world they still don't understand. If the film truly is a coming-of-age story, it's about reaching maturity but learning the cost of these things.

Surprising absolutely no one, I loved “The Lure.” It has to be one of the most original films I've seen this year. The direction is colorful, expressive, and brilliant. The performances are fantastic. The music is amazing. The writing is funny and touching. This odd ball story of mermaids singing in a bar manages to touch upon just about everything I enjoy about movies. Smocynska's next project is apparently another musical, described as a science fiction opera based on the songs of David Bowie. So I'm probably going to love that movie too. [9/10]

Fear Itself: Chance

I probably should've mentioned this in the last review but, by the time “Chance” came along, “Fear Itself” had been canceled. After “Skin and Bones” aired, the show went on hiatus for NBC's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics. After the games ended, “Fear Itself” had disappeared from the schedule. The show was so beneath NBC's notice that they didn't even officially announce its cancellation until a few months later. So the show's remaining five episodes didn't surface until the DVD release. (They were then burned off on other channels like Fearnet and, for some reason, E!)

“Chance” was directed by John Dahl. He's made some good films but his only horror credit of note is “Joy Ride,” which hardly qualifies him for master status. Anyway, the episode follows a guy named – go figure – Chance. He's had some money problems recently, which is girlfriend is very concerned about. After discovering that an antique vase he owns is worth thousands of dollars, he thinks his hard times may be at an end. After meeting with the antiques dealer, Chance learns the vase is much newer than he thought and only worth a fraction of the expected value. The situation becomes tense and Chance accidentally ends up killing the antique shop owner. At this point, a morally corrupt version of Chance emerges from an ancient mirror, seeking to help him out of this problem.

“Chance” is one of those stories where the writer wants us to think the character is a victim of fate. If that was the intention, they totally failed. Chance isn't at the whims of, uh, chance so much as he's just an idiot. He doesn't check the actual value of the vase before attempting to sell it. When he discovers this vase isn't his gateway to financial freedom, he argues with the antiques dealer. Instead of walking away when things get intense, he picks a fight with the guy. Instead of leaving immediately, he sticks around, activates a fire alarm, gets the police involved, and ends up with more blood on his hands. In other words, Chance is a total idiot who consistently makes the worst possible decisions. Ethan Embry's performance is squrimy and unlikable.

The supernatural element that pushes “Chance” into the horror genre is that mean-spirited doppelganger that seemingly emerges from a magic mirror. This element is not well-explained. The twist ending – because every episode of this show has a dumb twist ending, it seems – suggests Chance had a psychotic break and did everything by himself. Which doesn't explain how the doppelganger can clearly affect things around him. It's a nonsensical narrative device added to an undercooked script, doing nothing to improve or complicated things. Dahl's direction is frequently shaky and unstable, making the episode hard to look at too. [5/10]

This House Has People in It (2016)

After “Too Many Cook's” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear's” meme-eriffic success, Adult Swim realized they were in the surreal horror short business. Alan Resnick, “Bear's” creator, was next allowed to make his most ambitious project yet. “This House Has People in It” is told from the perspective of security cameras set up inside a seemingly normal suburban home. The cameras watch in every room and the short cuts back and forth between them. The young son waits for his birthday party guests to arrive. The grandmother and the infant child watch TV. A plumber works in the basement. Mom and Dad argue in the kitchen about an upcoming vacation. That's when they notice their teenage daughter is laying on the floor, unresponsive. Soon, she begins to sink through the floor. The parents panic, trying to find a way to save their daughter from this bizarre condition. It gets weirder from there.

If one theme unites Adult Swim's trilogy of weirdo horror shorts, it's the perversion of the mundane. After twisting sitcom intros and commercials into weird, disturbing things, the next target is the normal life of a large family. At first, the titular house that has people in it seems normal. This is just a regular family going about their day, right? Then you notice the body laying on the floor. Or the cooking show grandma is watching, which seems to be about eating clay. Or you'll briefly glimpse a bizarre, cartoon animal shape moving outside a window. By the time the short escalates into its unnerving last act, you're already freaked out. This is the fundamentals of horror. First you set up the normalcy of the situation, which then allows you to subvert it in disturbing ways. “This House Has People in It” teaches this lesson very astutely and only in eleven minutes.

Still, the short is grounded in very real anxieties. As the teenage daughter sinks into the floor, he asks his wife if she took pills from her friends. A minute later, he's wondering if this is some sort of “woman's problem.” The dad has a well-meaning, if misguided, concern for his children. From there, Resnick's capitalizes on other common anxieties. The plumber in the basement is working on some project, which seems expensive. The little brother is anxious about his birthday party, which is canceled in the worst way. The food on the stove burns and the baby screams. This are every day concerns, thrown into sharp relief by the strangeness of the film's central problem.

By the end, “This House Has People in It” descends into total insanity. The father acts increasingly unhinged as the situation becomes more grave. Smoke fills the house, while grandpa sits in front of the TV, seemingly unaware of what's happening. Kids have a party on the lawn. The baby wanders out of the house, towards God knows what danger. The security cameras cut between the rooms more frantically. As an inevitable, horrible thing happens to the daughter, the cameras seem to loose the signal... Before regaining it long enough for us to see that the girl's condition is apparently contagious. Then you realize the title is also a twisted pun. When the daughter sinks into the floorboards, the house literally had people inside its very structure.

While “Too Many Cooks” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear” were one-and-done deals, “This House Has People in It” is actually at the center of a wider, creepier universe. There's a website for the fictional security company, dozens of videos hidden across Youtube, and an extensive Wiki. Down this wormhole, you'll discover other weird details. Like a pink skinned phantom haunting the house, a psychosis breeding disease caused by eating clay, and a parody of Sonic the Hedgehog called Boomy the Cat. Even without these extra details, “This House Has People in It” is a surprisingly potent bit of surreal horror. Not the kind of thing you expect from a channel best known for “Family Guy” reruns and stoner cartoons about talking fast food items. [9/10]

No comments: