Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 25

The Wraith (1986)

I'm a big fan of the “phantom vehicle” troupe. Long periods of our lives are spent in and around cars. A lot of people die in them too. So it's always surprised me that there are fewer horror films about these modes of transportation than you'd think. “Christine” and “The Car” are the certified classics of this subgenre and there's a handful of other flicks that deserve mention. What about “The Wraith?” I remember seeing part of the movie while passing through a friend's house, always remembering the cool title and the cooler car. After a recent Purple Stuff Podcast episode raved about the movie, I knew I had to watch it during the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon.

A strange spirit has come to visit Brook, Arizona. It drives a very fast, very sleek black car and wears a concealing helmet. Packard Welsh is the leader of a gang, forcing people into drag races and stealing their cars when they loose. He's been stalking Keri, a waitress at the local burger stand. He might have also been responsible for murdering Jamie, Keri's ex-boyfriend. The black car begins to pursue Packard and his gang, killing them one by one. The cops chase the killer but have no leads. Around the same time, a mysterious boy named Jacob appears and begins to romance Keri. He is here for revenge. He is the Wraith.

I'm not a car guy by any means but even I know a sweet ride when I see one. And the central car in “The Wraith” is pretty friggin' bad-ass. Officially, the car model is a Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor but they just call it the Interceptor for most of the movie. It's a shiny black bullet of a car and drives really fucking fast. It's the coolest car in the movie but seemingly everyone in “The Wraith” drives a supped-up monster of some sort. Naturally, all the cool cars are simply precursors to some cool car crashes. This is the titular wraith's main mode of execution. He leads the gang members on chases before magically teleporting the car into the center of the road, leading to spectacular crashes. Among these impressive sights are an eight-teen wheeler loosing several of the smaller vehicles it's hauling and a triple roll down a hill. The best crash in the movie occurs when the Interceptor drives into a wooden building. The barn goes up in a huge explosion, seemingly because the car was just going that fast.

Tying these awesome car sequences together is a heaping helping of campy ridiculousness. “The Wraith” has got to be the most 1986-esque movie I've seen recently. The soundtrack is full of the big hits of the day, including instantly recognizable songs from Billy Idol, Ozzy Osborne, Bonnie Tyler and Robert Palmer. The regular score is driven by some high-powered synth. The fashion is heavy on bright colors, denim, and torn jeans. Then there's the characters. Packard's gang is full of goofy-ass characters. There's a mo-hawked punk who is usually tweaking on something. He's frequently accompanied by a nincompoop with a speech impediment. Nobody other than Clint Howard, featuring the goofiest haircut in the movie, plays the flunky responsible for waving the flags during the races. There's female carhops in revealing outfits and a fat, ill-tempered sheriff. Randy Quaid is perfectly cast as said sheriff.

Practically every corner of “The Wraith” is full of charming goofiness like this. Except for one. The main characters are a total blank. Charlie Sheen stars in the film. Sheen is an occasionally compelling leading man. Here, he plays Jacob as an emotional blank, grunting monosyllabic noises through most of his dialogue. It's hard to believe anyone could have a romance with someone this unresponsive. Sherilyn Fenn, as Keri, plays her part admirably, doing what she can to make a fairly thin character interesting. However, she cannot generate any chemistry from Sheen. Maybe Charlie took the idea of playing a dead guy a little too literally. Jacob is only interesting when dressed-up as the Wraith and I'm pretty sure it wasn't Sheen under that helmet.

Like so much eighties trash, “The Wraith” got shown on cable a lot, leading to a small following. On one level, I understand that. “The Wraith” is a bit too goofy not to be lovable in some ways. And, yes, that car and the associated crashes are cool enough to make the whole movie worth watching. However, “The Wraith” ultimately lacks the necessary amounts of heart to make it a genuine cult classic. This one would actually be a good candidate for a remake, as the original needs some obvious improvements and the premise is general enough that you could do all sorts of stuff with it. But you'd have to keep the Interceptor. That part is non-negotiable. [6/10]

Children of the Damned (1964)

“Village of the Damned” is a sci-fi/horror classic, providing the world with one of the most famous examples of evil children in cinema. Its image of silver-haired children with glowing, hypnotic eyes made it a surprise hit in 1960. A sequel of sorts would follow in 1964. “Children of the Damned” would retain the premise of other-wordly children with telepathic powers but handled the concept in a wildly different manner. While not as successful as the original and widely overlooked over the years, even by classic horror fans, the film is generally well-liked by those who have seen it.

A nation-wide experiment, testing the intelligence of young children, has uncovered an extraordinarily intelligent young boy named Paul. Further test prove that Paul is not just really smart but also psychic, capable of hypnotizing the adults around him. Soon, other countries discovered similarly gifted children. They are brought from their embassies to London. The children escape government custody. The kids hide inside an abandoned church, using their powers to defend themselves from anyone who attempts to enter, and create experimental machines. Government around the world soon begin to wonder if the inhuman children are a threat to humanity. A psychologist and geneticist attempt to protect these children of the damned.

The original “Village of the Damned” was obviously of the Cold War era. References are made in the film to the Soviet Union. Threats from other civilizations and a generally political unease defined the film's story. The mostly unrelated sequel follows this path, becoming a full-blown geopolitical thriller. The children come from all over the world, including the Soviet Union and China. One of the reasons the children frightened the various governments is because they are a hive mind. What one knows, all the other knows. There are several scenes of government officials deliberating over what to do with the children, how big of a threat they might be. This provides a more topical feeling, setting “Children of the Damned” apart from its prequel and encapsulating the fears and paranoia of the day.

“Children of the Damned” isn't even truly a sequel, as the sinister kids have entirely different origins and temperaments. Instead of being outright malevolent, the kids are mostly neutral. They only use their powers to achieve their goals or defend themselves. They mostly want to be left to their own devices. And yet, there's still something off-putting about them. They rarely speak. Their wide-eyed stares are hard to read. Whenever they display their powers, the results are unnerving. Even the lair they choose, a dilapidated gothic cathedral, is creepy. As the film goes on, we learn that their powers are even more extreme then originally thought. It certainly makes the plot's central question – whether or not the children mean us harm – a trickier proposition. That the movie never judges in either direction, letting the audience decide, adds to its power.

The film was directed by Anton Leader, the sole feature film credit in a career primarily devoted to television. Despite his background, Leader makes this a handsome looking film. The black-and-white photography is delivered in an almost sterile way, contributing to the otherworldly atmosphere surrounding the titular children. There's also a classic horror vibe, emphasized by the long shadows of the spooky churn. The cast is solid too, composed primarily of British character actors. Ian Hendry brings a subtle humor to his role as Lewellin, the psychologist who discovers the children. He has a good rapport with Alan Badel, who plays the geneticist. I also rather like Barbara Ferris as Susan, the young woman drafted unwillingly to become the children's emissary and caretaker.

Changing the children from outwardly evil to more inscrutable characters probably annoyed fans of the original, who paid to see this back in 1964. It obviously brought the franchise to an end, as no more sequels were produced. “Children of the Damned” was sold as a straight-up shocker but there's less evil kid action in this one than the advertisements implied. Still, taken on its own, it's an interesting film, equal parts intelligent sci-fi, Cold War thriller, and spooky gothic horror film. Most home video releases have packaged the two movies together, so you'll probably watch it anyway. [7/10]

Hammer House of Horror: Children of the Full Moon

A few years ago, I reviewed an episode of “Hammer House of Horror,” an attempt by the then mostly defunct studio to keep their brand name alive. “The House That Bled to Death” is obviously the most famous episode of the series but fans of the show seem to consider “Children of the Full Moon” the best episode. (It was also among the handful of episodes released on VHS stateside in the eighties, with host segments from Elvira.) The episode concerns Tom and Sarah, a young married couple traveling through the British countryside. After experiencing car troubles, they take shelter in a country manor. The house is home to an old woman and several strange children. At night, wolves are heard howling and Sarah is attacked by an unseen beast. Several weeks later, she discovers she's pregnant and her behavior becomes odd. Tom begins to wonder if her pregnancy and their visit at the odd house aren't connected.

“Children of the Full Moon” begins like a standard horror story, one that wouldn't be out of place in a classic Hammer movie. Car problems causing people to hide in a weird house is one of those classic premises, you know. That portion of “Children of the Full Moon” is rather effective. The house is a good location, full of wandering hallways. The kids are genuinely eerie, starring oddly or disappearing suddenly. The caretaker, an older woman, appears friendly but is clearly hiding something. When she tells the couple not to leave their room at night, “Children of the Full Moon” reaches a turning point. The attack scene that follows keeps the violence entirely off-screen but is effectively intense, focusing on Susan's screaming face and off-screen animal noises.

The sudden story turn that follows definitely catches you off-guard. Tom wakes up, is told it was all a dream, and the two return home. “Children of the Full Moon” then switches gears, from being a classical monster movie concept to a story about pregnancy anxiety. This second half is not as compelling, though the sight of Susan eating whole chunks of raw meat is effectively gross. “Children of the Full Moon” does redeem itself with an ending that brings things full circle, though a bit too downbeat. Honestly, I feel like this one would've been improved if the title and pre-credits scene – a little girl attacking and eating a lamb – had been different. “Children of the Full Moon” would've had a better central mystery if we didn't immediately know it was about werewolves, setting up the eventual conclusion. [7/10]

The S from Hell (2010)

Rodney Ascher has carved out an interesting career for himself, as one of the few people who make documentaries that double as horror movies. “Room 237” would really grab people's attention while “The Nightmare” was genuinely frightening. Ascher's first stab at this odd genre mash-up was “The S from Hell.” It's a short documentary about the phenomenon of “Scary Logos:” Television and film production company logos that scared people as kids. Specifically, it focuses on the 1965 Screen Gems logo, nicknamed the S from Hell. Apparently, the swirling S and weird synthesizer music upset many children. Ascher builds his documentary around interviews with some of the S's victims.

Ascher's “Room 237” was fascinating to me. Not because I thought any of the conspiracy theories about “The Shining” had much credence – they don't – but because the documentary showed how varied people's reactions to the same work of art can be. “The S from Hell” doesn't go that deep but does show how totally innocuous things can have an unpredictable effect on people. Honestly, even as someone who was a very timid kid, I'm a little baffled how something as simple as a production logo could scare someone. I don't see anything especially sinister about the swirling lines and short synth loop. Yet the people go on about how the music sounds demonic, distorted or backwards. How the dot in the center of the S looked like a starring eye. It is definitely interesting to hear about how something so simple reverberated in people's minds and memories.

“The S from Hell” also shows that Ascher's directorial style was fairly well defined, right from the beginning. The short plays audio from folks traumatized by the logo over stock footage from old movies, TV shows, and industrial videos. It even includes a scene from “Halloween III,” which is pretty funny. Sometimes, Ascher visualizes the various memories. Like one woman's account of hiding behind the couch when the logo would appear on the TV. Or how a guy's older sister would torment him by holding him down and whispering “Screen Gems!” The flashiest moment is a recreation of a woman's nightmare, about being chased by a giant version of the logo. That's a pretty wild image. The short doesn't go any further into the bizarre internet subculture of production logo fanatics – yes, that's a thing that exist – but it does make for an interesting, if occasionally confusing, eight minutes. [7/10]

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