Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 24

Coma (1978)

As a kid, I used to confuse Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. This doesn't seem to be an entirely unreasonable mix-up. Both men write thrillers based upon plausible science and hot-button political issues, though Cook, as a former physician, leans way more on the medical side of things. (They're also both mega-sellers of airport reads who have been active since the seventies.) Surely contributing to this confusion is “Coma,” the first film adaptation of Cook's work. Michael Crichton, obviously sensing the similarities between their styles, made “Coma” his second directorial credit. Though a lot less iconic than “Westworld,” “Coma” would become a solid box office success in 1978.

Susan Wheeler is a surgeon at Boston Memorial Hospital. She has a hard job and frequently fights with her boyfriend, Mark, also a doctor at the same hospital. Those emotions run even higher when Susan's best friend, Nancy, goes into a coma during what should've been an in-and-out procedure. Initially, this is blamed on an allergic reaction to the anesthetics. Later, a similarly young patient also goes into a coma in the same operating room, while under different anesthetics. Susan begins to suspect something malevolent is happening at the hospital. She soon uncovers a conspiracy. Patients are being put into comas, shipped off to another facility, killed, and having their organs harvested. If she's not careful, the same fate may befall Susan.

“Coma” may not seem like horrific enough viewer for this late in October. I'd argue that it's a top-rate thriller with enough gruesome elements to classify. Crichton builds some very suspenseful scenes throughout “Coma.” Susan has the bad habit of wandering into dangerous situations. More than once, she has to sneak around without being discovered. At one point, she's climbing up a large ladder, avoiding detection. Later, she crawls above the suspended comatose patients – the film's most memorable visual – and nearly slips up. Probably my favorite scene in “Coma” involves a professional killer chasing the woman into a locker full of corpses. She has to hide among the dead bodies, eventually using them to defend herself, to survive. Even a simple scene, of her riding the elevator with another person looking at her suspiciously, builds a nice amount of tension.

Those scenes wouldn't be as effective if with didn't care about the main character. “Coma” is another proud entry into the genre of paranoid women with good reason to be paranoid. Susan initially doubts her suspicions, wondering if she's just grieving and overworked. Later, as more facts come forward, she begins to wonder if she can trust anyone. She even suspects Mark is in on the organ-stealing plan. (“Coma” probably should've ran with this, skipping the romantic montage of the two at the beach, and making Mark part of the conspiracy.)  Despite everything being against her, Susan doesn't bend or yield. She's a strong, willful person determined to right wrongs. Geneviève Bujold is very good in the part, making the character exactly as powerful as she needs to be.

As I said in my “Westworld” review, Crichton's stories frequently play off of a fear of scientific advancement. Though Crichton didn't write “Coma,” you can see this tendency shining through. This is a film that plays on people's distrust of hospitals. We put so much faith in the medical establishment, trusting doctors and nurses to take care of us and our loved ones, to always be ethical. The truth is, it doesn't always work that. In “Coma,” the violation turns out to be much more severe than mere malpractice. Pretty sure a hospital secretly running an organ smuggling ring would make the news. But the point remains the same. You can never know the true intentions of the men behind the white masks.

Another big difference between Michael Crichton and Robin Cook is their multimedia success. While Crichton's books have been adapted into a number of enormous blockbusters, adaptations of Cook's books have mostly stuck to television. (Including “Coma,” which was remade as a four-hour mini-series for A&E in 2012.) The only other theatrically release adaptation of Cook's work has been “Sphinx,” which was a huge critical and financial flop. This doesn't reflect poorly on “Coma,” which is a sturdy little conspiracy thriller. Though not a classic, if you already get nervous in hospital, this one will likely only increase that fear. [7/10]

Grim Prairie Tales (1990)

Never underestimate the power of an awesome title. Years ago, during my days digging through less-than-legal VHS rips of obscure movies to obscure websites, I came across the title “Grim Prarie Tales.” I had never heard of the movie before, much less seen it. Apparently it was a western-themed horror anthology starring James Earl Jones and Brad Douriff. The uploader who had provided the film had his account deleted before I got a chance to watch it. However, the title always stuck with me. So, when I saw the DVD at the VHSPS booth at Monster-Mania, I just had to grab it.

The setting is the Wild West era. Farley is a banker, traveling across the desert to meet his wife in a distant village. After setting up camp for the night, a stranger wanders by. Calling himself Morrison, he's a bounty hunter he has recently made a kill. Despite some initial agreements, the two start to tell horror stories around the fire. The first involves an old man wandering through an Indian burial ground. He dismisses the superstitions and pays the price. The second involves a man picking up a pregnant woman on the prairie and discovering a grim secret about her. The third concerns a daughter who learns her rancher father is part of a lynch mob. The last tale involves a gun-for-hire being haunted by his most recent victim.

“Grim Prairie Tales” is the rarest of creatures: It's a horror anthology were the framing device is better than any of the segments. The segments aren't bad, it must be said. However, they don't have Brad Dourif and James Earl Jones bickering about storytelling. The two are cast against type, Dourif playing the reasonable voice of authority while Jones is the oddball. Jones hams it up, as a eccentric and possibly alcoholic bounty hunter. Dourif, meanwhile, maintains his usual level of panick-y charm. Better yet, the framing device also talks about how stories can mean different things to different people. Morrison insists stories are just stories, that they don't mean anything. Farley, meanwhile, believes stories can include social commentary and important themes. During their time together, the two come around to each other's form of thinking. They become odd friends too.

As a horror anthology, the stories in “Grim Prairie Tales” can easily be separated into two categories. Stories like Morrison, which are simply meant to be horror stories, and stories like Farley, which say something more about the world. The opening story is a decent riff on the haunted Indian burial ground troupe. Save for the appearance from an undead corpse, it's barely a supernatural story. The ending, involving someone being buried alive, is pretty creepy. The fourth segment seems to be similarly grounded. The gun-for-hire is haunted more by his heavy conscience than a literal ghost. A literal ghost shows up by the end. Director Wayne Coe – this is his sole directorial credit – has primarily worked as an animator and storyboard artist. So Coe throws in a wild animated sequence, where the gunfighter imagines himself as a bullet in his own gun. That's pretty cool.

These stories aren't but the other two prove stronger. Probably the most famous scene in “Grim Prairie Tales,” if any segment in the fame can said to be famous, is the second. The build-up is decent, all the pieces coming together in a satisfying manner. It's a calmly performed tale that climaxes with a truly unsettling, and bizarre, unbirthing sequence. Unsurprisingly, some folks have seen a feminist element to this story. The third segment, meanwhile, features no supernatural elements. The story of frontier justice, and the impact it has on the men's family, is told with no exaggeration. The brief racial violence is pretty intense. The ending is oddly touching, finding some humanity in a cruel world.

Coe's commitment to realism in this fantastical horror anthology is surprising. Even the ending, which you'd expect to wrap things up on a gruesome note, instead goes for humor and the characters finding common ground. “Grim Prairie Tales” has never gotten a DVD release, meaning the VHSPS presentation is one of the better ways you can see the movie. That's a bummer, as I bet this would look pretty good, cleaned-up and on Blu-Ray. The movie is certainly a lot classier, and a lot cooler, than it's VHS-only obscurity would make you think. [7/10]

Community: Introduction to Statistics

I still fondly recall my brief love affair with “Community.” For three years, Dan Harmon's cutting edge sitcom seriously seemed like the smartest, funniest, most insightful show on television. My introduction to “Community” actually was “Introduction to Statistics.” The episode began the series' tradition of awesome Halloween episodes. Though, to be totally technical, “Introduction to Statistics” is a Dias De Los Mortos episode.

For extra credit, overachiever Annie has decided to throw a Halloween party for the study grou's Spanish class. Annie sees this as her chance to be popular in college. That popularity depends on resident cool guy Jeff showing up for the party. Jeff, however, is more concerned with asking an attractive teacher out. Meanwhile, Shirley is still recovering from her recent divorce, redirecting her anger at her husband's new girlfriend at Jeff's potential date. Pierce, meanwhile, struggles with his own mortality.

What really elevated “Community” above so many other shows was not just its razor sharp writing. Instead, so much of the humor was based in the lovable cast of characters. Annie is so desperate to be liked. Her attempts to intimate Jeff soon dissolve into panicked cries, which Allison Brie makes both hilarious and pathetic. Pierce is afraid of being old. So first he dresses up as the Beast Master, a character he thinks is hip but is unfamiliar with. Next, he takes some drugs at the party, resulting in a bad trip. This is all rooted in his fear of death, which the Halloween party only intensifies. It's a serious issue but Chevy Chase's performance is hysterical. Shirley's anger at her ex allows Yvette Nicole Brown to show the character's fiery side, which was always hilarious, without loosing the pathos of the situation. It's so impressive that, this early in the show's run, the writers had such a strong grasp on the characters.

As much of the show's wit was based in its characters, “Community” could also deploy absurdity or a well-timed pop culture reference like no other. When convincing his teacher he's old enough tod ate her, Jeff says he's old enough to have seen “Ghostbusters” in the theater. Most notably, Abed dresses up as Batman at the party, even using a gravelly Christian Bale voice. He takes the part entirely seriously, convincing others he's actually Batman. (This gag was so beloved that it became a reoccurring joke.) This concludes in a brilliant gag involving chairs stacked into a fort. Britta's reaction to Jeff in his tight cowboy outfit is another great joke, Gillian Jacobs quickly rattling off a bemused come-on. Troy gets a few good lines – about Mexican Halloween and Pierce's touching habit – but his best bit is saved for after the credits. He describes his fair of waking up as a doughnut and eating himself. In other words, “Introduction to Statistics” is awesome, a great example of the show's ability to balance heart and humor. [9/10]

Hag (2014)

During the Six Weeks of Halloween, I like to watch some horror shorts. Usually, I find these simply by Googling for good horror short films. “Hag,” from director Erik Gardner, was on one of those lists. As soon as I saw that the short dealt with the legend of the Old Hag, a topic I'm interested in, I added it to my Halloween watchlist. The short follows a married couple, Marie and Scott. Marie has a sleepwalking problem, which is disturbing Scott's sleep. The two start seeing a specialist. Marie gets better but Scott develops his own problem. He begins experiencing sleep paralysis, accompanied by a painful pressing feeling on his chest. He reads up on the condition and hears the legend of the Old Hag. What he assumes is just a legend turns out to be much more.

“Hag” has a decent grasp of tension and tone. The slow reveal of the Hag, beginning with Scott seeing his wife acting strangely, works okay. Gardner, who previously directed “The Mangler Reborn,” keeps the attack scenes creepy by not revealing too much, too quickly The cast is decent. Megan Duffy is believable as both a victim of some curse and something more serious, while also showing off a sexy side. Drew Wicks is solid as the baffled husband.

Really, there's only two elements of “Hag” that didn't work for me. There's a moment where something a little overdone happens with the Wikipedia page for the Old Hag, which I thought was cheesy. The short doesn't quite stick the ending. Instead of wrapping up in a satisfying manner, it ends by just raising more questions. As someone who has actually experienced sleep paralysis, “Hag” comes nowhere close to recreating what a frightening feeling that is. However, as a fifteen minute horror short, it's not bad. [7/10]

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