Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 16

Flatliners (2017)

I'm of the philosophy that the films that should be remade are the ones with interesting ideas but weak executions. This should make “Flatliners” an ideal candidate for a retelling. Yet, in 2017, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for a reboot of a partially forgotten nineties movie. From the minute it was announced, we knew the kind of tame, PG-13 shenanigans we were getting. Even Ellen Page, absolutely my favorite actress working today, starring in the film didn't get my hopes up. It mostly made me wonder “Why is Ellen Page appearing in schlock like this?” So when the lame trailer dropped, I wasn't surprised. When the critics rushed to write their pithiest “falls flat/dead on arrival/shouldn't have been brought back from the dead” puns, I wasn't surprised. But, hey, it's been a while since I've seen Ellen on the big screen and I had a Regal gift card that I'd been sitting on for a while. Figured I might as well catch this thing during what will likely be its last week in theaters.

Despite some hubbub that 2017's “Flatliners” was actually a stealth sequel to the original, the film is in fact a remake. (That much touted Kiefer Sutherland cameo has him playing a totally different character.) This film follows Courtney Holmes, a young medical student obsessed with death, due to a tragedy in her youth. She lassos four friends into participating in her experiment: Tracking the brain's patterns while being clinically dead, using themselves as test subjects, only to be brought back. At first, the experience is powerfully positive, making the student smarter and vitalized. However, the group soon discovers that unnerving spectres – reminders of their greatest mistakes – have followed them back to the world of the living.

I went into 2017's “Flatliners” with abyssal expectations. Due to this, my initial reaction was positive. “This isn't so bad,” I thought. At first the new “Flatliners' seems to be a genuine improvement over the original. There's a more scientific edge to this version. The gothic cathedral is changed out for an abandoned hospital complex. A cat-scan machine is added to the procedure. Flatlining results in keener thinking and sexual euphoria, giving everyone more of a reason to do it. The characters' regrets, underwhelming in the original, have been made more serious. Courtney was driving the car during the wreck that killed her sister. Marlo ignored a patient's medical history, leading to a fatal reaction. Jamie manipulated an ex-girlfriend into getting an abortion, before abandoning her. Even Sophia's less tragic sin – spreading an academic rival's nudes around the school – is more devastating than anything in the original.

I also found the cast to be likable. And not just Ellen, though she's very good. Page makes the character's high points – sarcastically getting her friends to participate, her peppiness after flatlining – really charming while the darker moments are equally convincing. James Norton's Jamie, who is obviously inspired by Daniel Baldwin's character from the original, manages to be a cad but not an irredeemable sleazeball. He even becomes sympathetic by the end. Kiersey Clemons is cute and fun as Sophia. It's nice to see her break away from her controlling mother. Diego Luna and Nina Dobrev are probably the weaker links in the cast. Luna's serious moments are hard to take seriously while Dobrev is never entirely believable. But, generally speaking, the film's cast is not a problem at all.

Truthfully, “Flatliners” rolls along pretty decently until it has to become a horror movie. Director Niels Arden Oplev, who I guess is going to ride the success of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” forever, uses CGI pretty decently in the early going. The film's vision of the afterlife are genuinely interesting. The image of something squirming under a blanket, eventually revealed to not be there, is effective. However, Oplev eventually leans on CGI too hard. The climax involves a big, swirling storm cloud of computer-generated dust, for one example. The scare tactics the film deploys are lame and worn out. We've got multiple jump scares, usually assisted by pasty-faced ghouls suddenly stepping into frame. Both creepy nursery rhymes and creepy kids put in appearance. Probably the dumbest scare in the movie involves bloody letters suddenly appearing on a morgue door. It's all loud, unimpressive, and warmed over.

Something this “Flatliners” does maintain is the original's sappy streak. There's actually a moral here about self-forgiveness that couldn't be more forced in and unearned. Something that's new is the gratuitous product placement. Nina Dobrev's Mini-Cooper has more hero shots than any of the actual cast members. There's a mild plot twist midway through that did catch me off-guard, though mostly for all the wrong reasons. So, despite some minor moves forward, 2017's “Flatliners' is as exactly mediocre as the original but in a slightly different way. I hope Ellen can find better material than this in the future, as she deserves way better. [5/10]

Magic (1978)

The ventriloquist dummy has a proud history in the horror genre. Like dolls and mannequins, they have the corpse-like visage of looking alive but not being alive. Yet the dummy has the extra layer of having an intimate connection with a human. Pretty much from the first cinematic depiction of ventriloquism – 1925's “The Great Gabbo,” as far as I can tell – people have assumed a disturbing relationship between the dummy and the performer. One of the most famous evil dummy movies is “Magic.” The film was well received and reasonably successful upon release but, over the years, it has become even more respected.

Corky Withers has trained for years to become a magician. Though his skills are impressive, his inability to remain cool on-stage keeps his career from coming off. His luck changes when he adds Fats, a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, to his act. He's so successful that he's even offered a television special. Before that deal can go through, he has to undergo a mental exam. This scares Corky and he runs off to his childhood home in the Catskill Mountain. There, he reunites with Peggy Ann Snow, his high school crush. The two fall in love, despite Peggy being married. Fats, however, continues to occupy far too much of Corky's mind. The dummy – an extension of Corky's own madness – refuses to let Peg get in the way of their success.

Eleven years before becoming Hannibal Lector, Anthony Hopkins already had experienced playing a brilliant but insane character. Hopkins' performance is very intense. From the impressive first scene – where Corky describes a magic show as successful while the audience sees how unsuccessful it was – we learn about his angry streak. As the story progresses, Corky's neurosis and volatile side continues to manifest. As sweaty and unnerving as Corky can be, you also see how charming he is. His anger is balanced with a very relatable fear. He's also supported by one of the creepiest dummies in horror history. In a brightly-lit room, Fats is funny and non-threatening. In the dark, his wide eyes and unmoving face are spooky. Fats never comes alive anywhere but in Corky's mind but a first-time viewer sure doesn't know that. One scene, where Fats' lips quiver and his eyes go mad, is especially unnerving. Fats is somewhat tragic too, by the end, as his dying moans are deeply felt. “Magic” is a movie that keenly understands how the best monsters are equally scary and sympathetic. 

“Magic” was advertised with the tagline “A terrifying love story.” That might seem like a weird way to sell a psychological horror movie but the romance at the story's center is genuinely charming. Ann-Margret's Peggy is not happy with her life. She's trapped in a loveless marriage and has never left her childhood home town. Corky seems to intuitively understand her pain, as he's struggling with dissatisfaction too. The two quickly fall in bed but the warmth between Margret and Hopkins makes this believable. Corky's final gesture of love for Peg – a wooden heart he's whittled – gets me every time. His actions are sweet and selfless, rooted in a pure love. The film wouldn't work at all if the romance wasn't so believable. With it, “Magic” becomes a first rate film.

The film doesn't just exploit a creepy dummy for its horror content, though that goes a really long way. “Magic” is also a hugely suspenseful thriller. There are several stand-out sequences, that really push the tension as far as possible. When Corky's agent – played with warmth and bitter sarcasm by Burgess Meredith – forces the ventriloquist not to talk with his dummy for five minutes, the film makes sure the scene feels as long for the viewer as it does for Corky. This builds towards Corky bludgeoning his agent with the dummy, who refuses to stay dead in several inconvenient ways. Another impressive scene occurs when Peg's husband catches something on a fishing line. While he attempts to drag whatever it is up, Corky raises an oar, fearful of what might appear. As suspenseful as “Magic” is, it never looses sight of its tragic or romantic center.

As I said, “Magic” has developed a cult following over the years. I think the startling trailer has a lot to do with that. The trailer's sole focus is on Fats as he talks and eventually convulses in a disturbing manner. This was shown on daytime TV before parents of traumatized children requested it be removed. At least some of those kids grew up into horror fans. Beyond the really creepy dummy, “Magic” is a fantastically acted and wonderfully orchestrated feature, with some great performances and an effective score. I'm pretty happy that the original one-sheet is now hanging on my wall. [8/10]

Fear Itself: The Circle

For its final episode, “Fear Itself” didn't even bothered to get an arguable Master of Horror to direct. “The Circle” was directed by Eduardo Rodriguez, who had only made shorts up to that point. (He's since made the direct-to-video “Fright Night II,” doing little to help his case.) The series finale focuses on Brian, a hugely successful novelist. What he thought was going to be a quiet night with his wife, Lisa, is disturbed when Brian's agent and several other friends drop by. They're trying to get him over his writer's block. It's Halloween night, so neither are too disturbed when a pair of trick-or-treater's knock on the door. What they bring, a book called “The Circle,” is more unnerving. The monster from Brian's book, an amorphous darkness that infects people, encircles the cabin. Soon, Brian will have to write again if he hopes to survive the night.

I haven't seen any of Rodriguez' shorts, so I have no idea what was so effective about them that Mick Garris invited the guy to work on this show. I will say that “The Circle” is mildly successful as a horror film full of loud noises. There are many sequences of characters, infected by the darkness, leaping out and attacking people. Rodriguez has a decent enough grasp on tension that these moments are mildly effective. “Evil Dead” was a likely inspiration for this story – considering the cabin setting, the infectious evil, and an ominous book figuring into the plot – and Rodriguez captures that spirit a little bit. (The Halloween setting helps too.) The episode is also probably the goriest of “Fear Itself,” as people are impaled and tossed around repeatedly. Rodriguez does rely on CGI too much. The squirming mass of computer generated black tendrils do not impress.

Ultimately, “The Circle” is undermined by all its characters being awful people. Brian's agent is obnoxious, badgering him into writing a new book. His wife freaks out way too easily, spending most of the episode in a state of screaming panic. By the end, we learn that Brian has been cheating on his wife and his successful novel was writing by the other woman. The same woman that set the episode in motion by cursing the group. However, that woman is also annoying. Victoria Pratt plays the part in such a broad manner. Yes, like practically every episode of “Fear Itself,” this one also has a dumb twist ending. It's another mediocre hour of television from the underachieving series. [5/10]

In retrospect, “Fear Itself” was a little better than I remembered it being. Most of the episodes were deeply mediocre but only a few were truly awful. I even managed to like one or two. As a follow-up to “Masters of Horror,” it was a massive disappointment. Not just because the line-up of directors was generally underwhelming – though that was a big reason why – but because this series' goal seemed counter intuitive to that one's. “Masters of Horror” was all about allowing respected elder statesmen of the genre to do whatever they wanted. Moving the show to network television put a leash on that creativity. This is why, I think, “Fear Itself” was such a colossal failure. Even though I enjoyed a few episodes, I can't give this series too high a rating for that reason. [Fear Itself: 5/10]

The Early 70's Horror Trailer (1999)

I have no familiar with the work of director Damon Packard. He's done several features and a few shorts. His movie, “Reflections of Evil,” seems to have a small cult following. I watched his 1999 short film, “The Early 70's Horror Trailer,” because the title popped up on Letterboxd and it seemed like something I would enjoy. So what is “The Early 70's Horror Trailer” about? Exactly what it sounds like. It's a plotless series of images and titles, set to a groovy score, meant to recreate the look and feel of a vintage horror movie trailer. The non-existent movie the trailer is advertising seems to be about young women fleeing some sort of malevolent force, possibly a male killer.

As an act of re-creation, “The Early 70's Horror trailer” is pretty accurate. This does indeed feel like an old trailer. The musical score is excellent, especially the wild and shrieking violins that show up. The swirling, partially transparent titles Packard employ are period accurate. The rough zooms, color tinting, and shaky camera work recall a seventies giallo. A few of the images presented here are interesting. Such as a corpse-like man pointing ominously, a woman covered in blood laying in a bath tub, a witch-like face starring through a dark mirror, or a series of women running through a multi-colored area.

Otherwise, “The Early 70's Horror Trailer” gets tedious fairly quickly. Far too much of the short is composed of women running places. Packard seems a little over indulgent of his love of psychedelic colors. There are far too distorted or reflected shots. It's pretty cool for about two minutes. At seven minutes, it feels excessive. I would've preferred if Packard used his obvious attention to detail and talent for odd images to tell an actual narrative story. Unless this was some sort of meta experiment, about deconstructing a film into its bare parts and re-cutting that as a trailer... In which case, mission accomplished, I guess? [5/10]

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