Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 17

Flesh for Frankenstein (1974)

Many years ago, I was watching a television documentary about Frankenstein or the relationship between horror and censorship. Something like that. Anyway, mid-way through, they showed clips from a film called “Andy Warhold's Frankenstein.” The image of a snapping pair of clippers thrusting towards the camera has lingered in my mind. At the time, I was vaguely aware of who Warhold was – the Campbell's soup can guy, right? – but found his association with a horror movie odd. Moreover, the idea of an X-rated Frankenstein movie confused me. At that age, I guess I couldn't convince of how gory cutting bodies up and stitching them back together were. (And I was certainly not aware of the necrophilic undertones inherent in the story.) I first saw “Flesh for Frankenstein,” as it's more commonly known, a while ago and didn't like it. I think I'm a little closer to the wavelength of movies like this, these days, and decided to give it another shot.

The plot of “Flesh for Frankenstein” is a mess, a loose collection of subplots competing for screen time. Dr. Frankenstein has stitched together a female creation and endeavors to mate it with a yet-to-be-completed male monster. He hopes to breed a race of subservient zombies. His wife, who is also his sister, is dissatisfied with their marriage. She begins sleeping with Nicholas, a sexually potent stableboy she is equally entranced and disgusted by. The doctor uses the head of Nicholas' friend as part of his male creation, not realizing the friend is celibate or possibly gay. Meanwhile, the doctor's assistant, Otto, is eager to recreate the Frankenstein's experiments. Otto is not as experienced and his imitations end in disaster. Also, the Frankenstein children are wandering around the castle, looking sinister.

As a teenager, I found “Flesh for Frankenstein” tedious and unintentionally hilarious. Watching as an adult, I realize there was absolutely an element of camp to Warhol and director Paul Morrissey's work. Just the decision to add sleazy sex to a classy gothic horror story is an obviously trashy choice. “Flesh for Frankenstien's” camp is most evident in its performances. Udo Kier is utterly ridiculous as Dr. Frankenstein. He shouts or sweats his way through each line, always stretching his silly German accent as far as possible. This makes his delivery of lines like “To know life, you must fuck death in the gallbladder” or “You a sex maniac!” even funnier. Kier's key moment comes when exploring a cadaver's organs pushes him to orgasm. That's not the only absurd accent in the film. Joe Dallesandro's thick Brooklyn accent is totally out of place in the Victorian setting and often paired with his flat delivery. Monique van Vooren, as the baroness, appears to be dubbed with an unconvincing voice. Over all, the performances are hammy or inexpressive. I suspect this was largely an intentional choice on Morrissey's behalf.

“Flesh for Frankenstein” earns its X rating but in a way that's almost quint. Its gore is excessive but obviously fake. Frankenstein decapitates a guy with comically oversized hedge clippers. Afterwards, he holds an obviously fake head while the body spasms around for far too long, a ridiculous amount of gore spurting out. In several scenes, characters rip out organs – sometimes other people's, sometimes their own – and squish the rubber intestines. Did I mention the film was shot in 3D? Because of this, the gore is often extended towards the viewer, which just makes it seem more exaggerated. The sex is equally excessive. There's graphic necrophilia, visits to brothels, boobies and ding-dongs galore. In one scene, van Vooren licks Dalesandro's armpit while loud slurping noises play. And it goes on for a solid minute. That might honestly be the grossest scene in the movie. It all plays out like a ridiculous dare. You can imagine the filmmakers snickering and saying “Can you believe were getting away with this shit?”

As trashy and intentionally dumb as Morrissey's film is, there is obviously a satirical intent here. Morrissey inserts an element of social critique into the “Frankenstein” story. The Frankensteins are idle rich who are so self-adsorbed that they intentionally commit incest, for the betterment of the family. Despite his position of power, the baron hopes to extend his political sway further with his creations. His patchwork people are treated like slaves and servants, forced to respond to his every whim. (Comically exaggerated in the scene where he forces the female creation to kiss the unresponsive male, over and over again.) The working class, like Dallesandro's stable boy, are treated with contempt by the royalty. They are killed and fucked only when it serves the rich's petty demands. In the end, the put-upon zombies revolt, killing their rich and powerful creators. Morrissey tempers this message with some mindless nihilism, seen in the pointlessly down-beat ending, but it's obvious he was going for something. And he sort of succeeds.

I get “Flesh for Frankenstein” way more now than I did when I first saw it. However, one criticism still stands. The movie is insanely slow. This partially the fault of the disorganized screenplay, as scenes clamor into each other without much sense of rhythm or narrative coherence. A lot of it is Morrissey's direction, which frequently lingers on images and scenarios longer than necessary. Despite being far too laborious an experience for a cult oddity like this, “Flesh for Frankenstein” does regularly amuse me. That's mostly thanks to Kier's totally over-the-top performance, the rubbery special effects, and the atmosphere of depravity that only could've been possible in the seventies.  [6/10]

Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007)

As a horror obsessed teenager, I had a subscription to the late, great Fangoria magazine. Sadly, this was during a not especially good period in the magazine's history, when they had to squeeze several thousand words out of dreck like “Scarecrow” or “The Steam Experiment.” However, I still loved the magazine, for the lurid ads if nothing else. One such ad that caught my eye was for “Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman.” At the time, I wasn't aware of the infamous Japanese urban legend, Kuchisake-onna, that spawned the film. After reading up on it, being someone fascinated by urban legends of all types, I knew I had to see the film. It's been on my watch-list for years and now, since it's streaming on Shudder, I'm finally getting to it.

Kuchisake-onna is an urban legend that's been terrifying Japanese children since at least the seventies, where it led to mass hysteria The legend concerns a ghostly woman, wearing a surgical mask. She confronts children and asks them if she's pretty. If they respond in the positive, she removes the mask, revealing a hideously scarred slit mouth. She then asks the question again and what happens next varies from telling to telling. The 2007 film version follows Kyoto, a recently divorced, grade school teacher. Following an earthquake, the children in her class begin to disappear. The abductions are coupled with sightings of Kuchisake-onna. More kids vanish, some of them turning up dead afterwards. Kyoto teams up with Noboru, another teacher, to attempt to save the kid and uncover the mysterious motivation behind the yurei's violence.

Around the time “Carved” was released, J-horror was becoming popular in the west. Especially among quote-unquote hardcore horror fans, the more extreme Japanese genre efforts had found a following. “Carved” was sold under Tartan's Asian Extreme label and fits this subgenre somewhat. The film is pretty gory and, with Kuchisake-onna's victims being children, is unusually grim. However, director Koji Shiraishi isn't just interested in shock value. He builds some dark suspense. In one notable scene, Kuchisake-onna cuts up the children she has tied up in her basement. We watch from the perspective of one of the captured kids, who can only hear and vaguely see the gruesome act. Shiraishi is also really good at engineering jump scares. The slit-mouth woman has a habit of appearing suddenly, in a way that doesn't feel cheap but is genuinely shocking.

There's more to the slit-mouthed woman's rampage than just killing kids. “Carved” uses its child-hunting spectre as a symbol of all child abuse. Before the earthquake, we see an abusive mother smack her daughter for poor grades. The next day, the girl goes to school with a surgical mask, to cover the bruise, inviting derision from the other students and reminding everyone of the ghost. Kyoto is recently divorced from her husband. In a fit of rage, she slapped her daughter. She feels intense guilt over this and her daughter has yet to forgive her. As the film goes on, it reveals Kuchisake-onna's origins as a mother who seriallt hit and beat her children. It's a serious theme to weave into a horror movie but the film earns it. The script establishes that the abusive parents still love their kids, rooting its supernatural horror in human frailty. The “or is it?” ending presents the possibility that a child may never forgive a violent parent. The resolution suggest that it takes mutual understanding and self-forgiveness to move past these things.

As an urban legend fanatic, it's disappointing that “Carved” discards some of the legend's traditional aspects. The slit-mouthed woman asking kids if they think she's pretty gets a passing mention but doesn't play much of a role in the story. Legend has it, the yokai has its root in Japan's medieval days, not back in the seventies. Granting Kuchisake-onna such a definitive origin also bugs me a little. However, Shiraishi's film still has a decent relationship with the myth. The first scene shows kids, all over the city, discussing the legend. This shows how urban legends spread and also how they change from teller to teller. Ultimately, the kids' ability to be open to ghost stories like this helps saves the day. If nothing else, the film is certainly aware of the power of mythology.

Of all of Japan's legends, Kuchisake-onna seems to have a particularly powerful grip on the country's mass consciousness. There have been many other films inspired by the legend of the slit-mouthed woman. Before this one, there were at least two other movies entitled “Kuchisake-onna,” released in 1996 and 2005 respectively. A sequel to this one, released abroad as “Carved 2: The Scissors Massacre,” and a prequel were both made in 2008. Since then, there's been at least eight other movies about the ghostly woman. (Another of which was directed by Shiraishi.) Including ones that transpose the legend to Los Angeles or have Kuchisake-onna fighting other figures from Japanese urban legends, like Hanako-san or Teke Teke. Despite the bounty of material, “Carved” remains one of the best known films about the legend. It's a nasty, but relatively powerful, take on the story. [7/10]

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror II

During “The Simpsons'” second season, the show runners touched upon the idea of presenting an anthology of out-of-continuity horror stories every Halloween season. The first “Treehouse of Horror” was such a success that it became a yearly tradition. “Treehouse of Horror II” followed in the third season. This year's framing device dropped the treehouse setting. Instead, Lisa, Bart, and Homer eat too much candy and have a series of bizarre nightmares. In “The Monkey's Paw,” Homer acquires a wish-granting monkey's paw while in Morocco. As these things usually do, the paw's powers are as much a curse as a blessing. In “The Bart Zone,” the Simpson son has gained malevolent and omnipotent powers. He uses these abilities to keep Springfield in terror, at least until he learns to love his father. In “If Only I Had a Brain,” Mr. Burns decides to replace his workers with automated robots. He picks Homer as the test-subject, plucking the oaf's brain into a massive robot body. It doesn't go exactly as planned.

Like the first “Treehouse of Horror,” the segments here freely riff on well-known stories. The Simpson-ified take on W. W. Jacobs' classic short story is expectantly irrelevant. Many classic horror scenarios are goofed on. The mysterious shop Homer bought the paw from seems to disappear, before he realizes he's simply misplaced it. After Lisa wishes for world peace, aliens invade and, in a usual inversion of these kind of things, crush human society with simple weaponry. “The Monkey's Paw” also makes fun of “The Simpsons'” then-status as a fad. After wishing for fame and fortune, cheap Simpsons merchandise pops up all over Springfied. The town quickly gets sick of it, mocking the influx of Simpsons-branded junk that flooded stores in the early nineties. There's also some good old fashion silliness in this segment. Such as stabs at “Midnight Express” and Princes Grace. Or Krusty the Clown, a kid's house, disposing of multiple types of weapons.

The second segment is obviously spoofing “The Twilight Zone” episode, “It's a Good Life.” The premise allows the show to throw in all sorts of absurd sights. Like Bart transforming the family cat into a fire-spewing monster. (Which even shoots fire in its sleep.) Or American history being rewritten to match his smart-ass history test answers. The segment reflects Bart's young, TV-obsessed mind. He forces Krusty the Clown to perform continuously or, when Homer interrupts his TV watching, he switches the ball and his dad's location. There's some general good gags here. Homer attempts to block his thoughts while sneaking up on Bart, which doesn't work too well for him. After being transformed into a jack-in-the-box, Homer's constantly springing head is confused for an affirmative nod. The conclusion is a funny subversion of the original “Twlight Zone” episode's conclusion.

“If Only I Had a Brain” is probably the weakest part of the episode. The general premise – that Homer is just as lazy as a robot as he is a person – isn't very insightful. There are still some good gags. Such as Burns beating the still living Homer inside his sack for “scaring Smithers.” Or the two mad scientist pausing their experiment to get some pizza. Some of the other gags are not as effective. Such as Mr. Burns' slow attempt to escape the falling robot or Homer immediately falling asleep during his new job as a gravedigger. Still, Harry Shearer's vocal performance as the millionaire goes a long way. He makes lines about comparing rocket science and brain sugary, a jab at Radio Shack, or a totally random shout-out to Davey Crocket sound inspired.

“Treehouse of Horror II” is not the stone cold classic the first one was. It's still pretty funny. This early in “The Simpsons'” history, the show was still great at balancing sharp wit, sarcastic pop culture parody, and general absurdity. You can easily see these attributes in this trio of tales. There's just nothing here to match the first Halloween special's “The Raven” or “Bad Dream House.” Still, I've watched this one just as many times as the others, considering it a classic too. [7/10]

Frank Stein (1972)

The story of “Frankenstein” is one that looms large, not just over the world of pop culture, but the world of art in general. Universal's 1931 film version, in particular, has been a part of America's collective visual language for the last eighty years. Unsurprisingly, the story has seen some avant-garde readings over the years. In 1972, art designer and experiment filmmaker Ivan Zulueta would do something very unusual with Universal's original “Frankenstein” movie. He would compress the already short film into four frenzied minutes. The images from the movie flash by quickly, occasionally pausing upon one or two moments. The new musical score is composed of electronic droning, that recalls the equipment in Frankenstein's lab. Zulueta would re-name his experimental remix “Frank Stein.”

The short is, fittingly, a Frankenstein film Frankensteined from “Frankenstein” itself. The result frequently, composed primarily of a sped-up swirl and repetitive noise, feels like the halfway point between a nightmare and a Novocaine dream. When the footage stops upon one of the images from the original film, usually a face or a violent moment, it feels like a visual exclamation point. The buzzing music changes as the short speeds through the original movie's events. As the crowd grabs pitches and torches, a vague chanting can be heard. When the windmill catches fire, burning wood is added to the cacophony. At that point, you notice how grainy and blurry “Frank Stein” is. It seems like the movie itself is catching fire. At a concussive four minutes, “Frank Stein” is a rather unnerving experience. It's a blast of cinematic images, shoved into a collection of seconds, and stabbed directly into the viewer's mind. [7/10]

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