Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 28

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

In 2006, “Snakes on a Plane” showed both pros and cons of a movie becoming an internet meme. Since it's been over ten years – yes, really – some of you may not remember. Samuel L. Jackson signed on to the project based on its title, which is also its premise. The internet, subsequently, fell in love. They made art, fan fiction, songs, and animations. When New Line Cinema found out, they re-shot the PG-13 movie to bring it more in line with fans' R-rated expectations. What was formally an unimportant August release became a genuine pop culture phenomenon. I was caught up in this too. I literally bought the T-shirt. When “Snakes on a Plane” came out, it did underwhelming business. This proved that, just because the internet loved a movie, it didn't mean people would actually show up. In the decade since, the movie has been more-or-less forgotten.

So why, exactly, are these snakes on this specific plane? While in Hawaii, Sean sees gangster Eddie Kim beat a federal agent to death. Sean is immediately grabbed by FBI agent Neville Flynn. Sean is dropped on a plane and sent to California to testify against Kim. The crime boss really doesn't want this to happen. He cooks up an especially convoluted plan to make sure the kid doesn't make it to court. Kim smuggles hundreds of highly venomous snakes onto the Boeing 747, giving the passengers pheromone scented leis. When the snakes escape, they are highly aggressive. Now, Flynn has to protect his witness and everyone else on the flight as the deadly snakes became their violent rampage.

The concept for “Snakes on a Plane” was conceived in 1992, by first-time screenwriter David Dalessandro. That was around the time disaster movies were coming back into vogue in Hollywood. Accordingly, “Snakes on a Plane” functions under a similar formula. The first half-hour introduces us to the ensemble cast, the crew and the passengers who will try and survive this ordeal. They are easily understood archetypes: The elderly stewardess nearing retirement, the ambiguously gay male stewardess, the germaphobe rap star, his buffoonish bodyguards, the two little kids, the single mom with a baby, the Paris Hilton-like heiress, the belligerent asshole, the horny pilot. Even Flynn fits the traditional role of a tough but resourceful hero, tossed into a crazy situation. In accordance to these same troupes, there's also a team on the ground, helping to save the day.  So “Snakes on a Plane'” premise is less snakes on a plane and more “Airport... with Snakes.”

“Snakes on a Plane” is not so beholden to formula that it can't have some fun with its ridiculous premise. The late David R. Ellis also directed “Final Destination 2,” an uproarious gore-comedy disguised as a standard sequel. Ellis brings some of that sick humor to this one. The sequence of snakes descending on a couple banging in the bathroom concludes with a milk snake biting the woman's breasts. Later, a snake bites a guy's dick, causing him to theatrically thrash around the bathroom. In a likely nod to “Gremlins,” a snake gets exploded in a microwave. A massive boa constrictor eats both a chihuahua and the asshole who threw it. There's certainly plenty of footage of snakes biting people, leaving convulsing corpses covered in ripened sores. The snakes aren't the only cause of chaos. During a stampede of people, a woman in high heels stomps on a guy's head. After a crowd overwhelms the staircase, some people are impaled. Ellis even throws in some POV shots from the snakes!

Despite featuring quite a lot of reptile-on-human carnage, “Snakes on a Plane” still falls short of its outrageous concept. It's quite obvious that this was a PG-13 movie that was upgraded to an R-rating. Most of the profanity and elaborately gory moments are obvious re-shoots. There are long stretches of the movie that are far less exciting. Such as Samuel L. Jackson heading into the bowels of the plane, trying to get the coolant system back on line. (Jackson's performance is disappointingly subdued, save for a few moments.) The subplot about the team on the ground, trying to locate enough anti-venom, is a total snooze. In addition to that, most of the computer effects have aged incredibly poorly. The CGI snakes look like crap, then and now.

Ultimately, “Snakes on a Plane” was a better internet meme than a movie. In the run-up to the film's release, it was a blast to imagine an entire franchise of films, of Samuel L. Jackson fighting other killer animals on other isolated vehicles. Who wouldn't want to see “Spiders on a Submarine” or “Crocodiles on a Cruise?” Or a prequel, where Jackson's cowboy ancestor fights snakes on the frontier called “Snakes on a Plain?” Fan projects like these were ultimately more creative and enduring than the actual film. What we're left with are a bunch of in-jokes and that amazing central scene that the internet willed into existence. The final film is entertaining, for what it is, but in no way the uniting cult classic people hoped it would be. [6/10]

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1972)

I need to see more giallo. I really love Italian horror in general but am still woefully under-read when it comes to these gory, crazy murder mystery. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” seems like a good one to include, this Halloween. It was the first proper horror film from Lucio Fulci, who had previously specialized in comedies and spaghetti westerns. Fulci's next film would be “Don't Torture a Duckling,” which would solidify his transition into a horror director and lead to the likes of “Zombie” and “The Beyond.” Obscure and unavailable in the states for years, “A Lizard in Woman's Skin” has slowly gathered a reputation as a classic of the giallo genre.

Carol Hammond, the daughter of an influential politician, is having strange dreams. The erotic and unnerving visions seem to focus on her next door neighbor, a beautiful woman prone to throwing wild parties. After visiting a shrink, Carol has a dream about murdering the girl next door. The next day, the woman actually ends up dead, in a way that perfectly mirrors Carol's dream. From there, the woman is drawn into a web of lies, deceit, drugs, and sex. Soon, a man begins to chase her, seemingly with murder on his mind.

“Lizard in a Woman's Skin's” dream sequences are clearly the highlight of the film. While most cinematic dreams are too orderly, the erotic nightmares here feel appropriately surreal. Carol wanders through long hallways, full of naked partiers mingling among themselves. She is watched by dead-eyed witnesses, floating in the air. When confronting her dream woman, Fulci's camera oozes and slides with strange motions. The dreams are full of fittingly unexplained elements, like a fascinating sequence where Carol is chased by a huge, mechanical goose. These scenes are just random enough to feel like real dreams. Like dreams, they are inviting, sensual, strange, and frightening. It certainly starts “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” on a very high note. These scenes, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's slithering score, are honestly so good that I'm surprised Fulci directed them. He certainly didn't display artistry like this in his later zombie movies. (Some of the later scenes include tackier tricks, like repeated crash-zooms, that I associated more with Fulci.)

The film never totally leaves the dreaming world behind, even during the later stalk-and-slash scenes you'd expect in a giallo. While being pursued through a hospital, Caorl walks into the startling sight of dogs suspended in the air, cut open, tubes running through their bloody entrails. (This scene disturbed Italian censors so much, they forced the film's effect supervisor to prove they were fake.) Another chase scene begins in the tunnels under a church. The scenes here contrast the blackness of the underground with the stone walls. Soon, Carol is chased up through the building, pass a pair of whirling generators. She accidentally activates the pipe organ before being attacked by a swarm of bats inside the belfry. This effective sequence ends with her arm being brutally slashed by the man. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” is uncharacteristically lacking in gore for a Fulci movie but that moment is pretty cringe-inducing, as you really feel the blade piercing the skin.

Aside from the stylish murder scenes and a degree of eroticism, what really characterizes the giallo genre is convoluted mystery plots. “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” has a truly incomprehensible one. There are long, fairly droll scenes of police officers and other people talking about the details of the case. There's an on-going subplot about a pair of hippy artist, who talk repeatedly with a young girl, and an unhinged Irishman. Eventually, we learn that Carol was more connected with her neighbor then she first appeared. How it ties together with the dead dogs and the nightmares, I can't tell you. There's a twist ending that seems to muddle things further. The truth is, I don't think anybody watches giallos for the plot anyway.

Also par the course of the giallo genre, the film's lyrical title doesn't have much to do with the actual story. There are no “V”-like reptilian humanoids to be seen here. There's one line of dialogue about a woman's skin hiding a lizard's body. In a broader sense, the title symbolizes Carol's status as someone hiding something, I guess. All these flaws aside, “Lizard in a Woman's Skin” works beautifully at times. Those dream sequences and stalking scenes go a very long way. None of it makes much sense but that barely matters. It's a stylish, creepy, sexy murder-thriller and that's exactly what I want when I pop in an Italian horror flick like this. [7/10]

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

I never know what to make of Takashi Miike. The incredibly prolific director – he recently completed his 100th movie – is probably Japan's premiere cult filmmaker. “Audition” won an international fanbase. His ultra-violent and sexually perverse features, like “Ichi the Killer” and “Visitor Q,” attracted the attention of a certain breed of horror fan. Yet a lot of Miike's work have left me cold. The extreme violence in his film always struck me as self-serving while his frequent disregard for story put me off. More often, I've enjoyed the off-beat stuff in his career more, like the oddball superhero flick “Zebraman.” So I hoped I'd enjoy his dark comedy/horror/musical “The Happiness of the Katakuris” equally.

The Katakuris clan has seen better days. After being fired from their jobs at a shoe factory, Masao and Terue decided to open a roadside bed-and-breakfast. Thus far, the business has been an absolute failure. Daughter Shizue, who falls in love too easily, is recently divorced. Son Masayuki is a petty criminal who has gotten out of prison not too long ago. Grandfather Jinpei, granddaugther Yurie and dog Poochi are just living their lives. Things start to change when a suicidal man arrives at the hotel. After killing himself, the family decides to bury the dead body without telling anyone. Following that incident, people keep dying violently at the Katakuris' hotel. Things escalate quickly.

From everything I've read, “The Happiness of the Katakuris” sounded like a crazy, over-the-top horror/comedy. Maybe something along the lines of “Hausu.” While the film is incredibly strange, the tone is not madcap. In fact, “Happiness of the Katakuris” is actually quite maudlin. Failure is the main theme in the movie. Each member of the family is a screw-up to some degree. The dead bodies are not comedic interruptions so much. Instead, they are the latest roadblock they have to overcome. This challenge ends up uniting them, bringing the film's second theme to mind: The power of family and how that love unites people. When something wacky isn't happening, the film functions like a slow-paced drama about a neurotic family.

Of course, wacky things do happen. The film begins with an incredibly bizarre sequence of a woman yanking a cherub-like creature out of her soup. The winged thing then grabs her uvula. From there, the critter is eaten by a crow, which is eaten by a murderous teddy, and so on. Did I mention these scenes are brought to life with stop-motion effects/ Throughout the film, the characters are replaced with weird stop-motion puppets. This probably happens when an event – a tumble down a cliff side, an erupting volcano – was outside the movie's budget. The death scenes are another bizarrely comic element. They're less outrageous than Miike's regular output would lead you to believe. One death scene involves a sumo wrestler dying while having sex with his ten year old girlfriend – there's that deviant sex Miike loves – smothering her to death with his size. That leads to a mildly amusing bit where they lower the sumo's corpse from a window.

One of the weirdest things about “The Happiness of Katakuris” are the musical numbers. As odd as the movie is, the musical numbers are still presented as dream sequences. I guess singing and dancing would break with even this story's reality. Some of the sequences are quite theatrically realized. When Shizue meets a man claiming to be an American naval officer – he's actually a con artist – they go leaping through the air, declaring their love for one another. When the police arrive for totally unrelated reasons, father and son musically debate over who should take the fall. A memorable scene involves Masao and Terue re-declaring their love for each other via a karaoke sing-along. Probably the most famous scene involves some of the dead bodies rising from their grave, to dance along and provide back-up vocals. Despite how unforgettable these moments are, none of the songs are that catchy. They're pretty forgettable J-pop.

Is Takashi Miike just not my speed? Once again, I watch one of his beloved cult classics and I find myself underwhelmed. This is the kind of thing that should be right up my alley. Instead, it didn't quite work for me. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” is obviously an interesting movie. It's too aggressively weird not to be. I do not besmirch the film it's cult following. Yet the somber tone seems at odds with the wackier elements. It's also pretty weak as a musical. This is a loose remake of a Korean film, called “The Quiet Family,” that approaches the material in a more straight-forward manner. Maybe I'll enjoy that one more? [6/10]

Riley (2015)

I've become a Bex Taylor-Klaus fan while seeing very little of her work. I've never watched a single episode of “The Killing” or “Scream: The Series” and gave up on “Arrow” after the first few episodes. The truth is, I saw Bex on her one episode of “Longmire,” thought she was cute, and have kept an eye on her career ever since. She's beginning to develop a real following. “Riley' was a short she did a few years back and, hey, what do you know, it's a horror movie. Taylor-Klaus plays the titular character, a young woman who happens to be a serial killer. Her latest murder is interrupted when a date arrives a little early. Now, Riley has to distract the guy long enough before he discovers the gruesome truth.

“Riley” was obviously produced very cheaply. I suspect it was shot in the home of one of the key players. Most of the short is devoted to Bex and Vincent Martella, as Riley's date, talking. It's a comedy of manners, as the girl hopelessly attempts to steer her date away from the awful truth. This light-hearted mood is punctuated by a goofy score. The scenes of awkwardness between Klaus-Taylor and Martella are clearly the high-light of the film. Once we get to the actual murders, it becomes a little less interesting. Still, “Riley” is cute enough and definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of the lead actress. [7/10]

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