Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 29

Seconds (1966)

I first heard of “Seconds” many years thanks to some website – I don't remember which one – posting a list of the twenty scariest movies of all time or something like that. Among the usual suspects of “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” were titles I had never heard of, like “Repulsion” and this film. By the time I finally got to see the film, I knew it wasn't exactly your typical scare-fest but, instead, a good example of what I call “existential horror.” The film is considered the third part of director John Frankenheimer's paranoia trilogy, following “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May.” Of the three, it was the least successful upon release. In the time since then, it's developed a reputation as a classic.

Arthur Hamilton lives what some would consider a good life. He's a high ranking executive at a bank. He's been married for many years, with an adult age daughter he never sees. Arthur, however, isn't happy. One night, he receives a mysterious phone call from an old college friend he thought had died. This puts him in contact with the Company. They promise to give Arthur a new life. His death is faked, via a hotel fire. He's given extensive plastic surgery, completely remolding his appearance. His identity is changed to Antiochus Wilson, a successful painter. He's young and rich. He quickly gains a beautiful girlfriend. He's placed into a life of sex and parties. Happiness, however, continues to elude him.

From its opening minutes, “Seconds” feels like a nightmare. The opening credits are composed of extreme close-ups of the human face, distorted almost beyond recognition. Jerry Goldsmith's ominous score, with its gothic organs and demonic strings, play over top. The first scene follows Hamilton through a train station. The camera remains on his face or over his shoulder, focusing on his sweaty skin and the people around him. Everything else is in shadows. “Seconds” carries on in this fashion throughout. Frankenheimer repeatedly focuses on his character's faces, usually pushed into cramp areas. There's even a literal nightmare sequence, where Hamilton walks down a distorted hallway and seems to assault a panicking woman. While recovering from surgery, he wears an unnerving mask, wiping away his facial features. This hyper-real approach maintains “Seconds'” unsettling atmosphere.

“Seconds” is, ultimately, a movie about emptiness. Arthur Hamilton's life is void of feeling. He shares no passion with his wife. The Company persuades him by pointing out the lack of warmth in Arthur's life. Yet there's also a lack of feeling in Arthur's decision to join the Company. After becoming Antiochus, he gains no further happiness. He's reluctant, at first, to embrace his new life. He spends a lot of time alone. When he finally gives into the hedonism of a rich life, during a wine festival Frankenheimer shoots like an unnerving documentary, he's elated at first. However, this soon gives way to deeper loneliness. He still feels empty inside, still feels like he's living a life designed by other people. That's when he decides he wants to start over for a third time but, by then, it's too late. Fulfilling desires just exposes oneself to further meaningless. This is further emphasized by the distant, cold approach Frankenheimer brings to the movie.

There's a lot of thoughts floating around inside “Seconds.” Frankenheimer said he made the film as an attack on “the dream,” the promise of capitalism, the idea that youth and riches can solve all our problems. That people work all their lives to achieve these ultimately hollow goals. Yet the film is an attack on other concepts too. It's important that the organization that gives Arthur his second chance is called a company. Arthur must pass through a meat-packing plant before meeting with the Company's men. So these human lives are treated like meat, as nothing but product. Later, during his life as Antiochus, he discovers that Company employees are all around him, always watching, waiting for him to screw up and mention his previous life. Following a conspiracy classic like “The Manchurian Candidate,” it's easy to see this paranoid aspect as another criticism of McCarthyism, of being forced to watch what you say and do at all hours.

The film was made during a period when Rock Hudson was trying to shed his image as a romantic comedy star. Around the same time, he would star in thrillers like “Blindfold” and “Ice Station Zebra.” “Seconds” is a raw performance from Hudson. As Arthur/Antiochus begins to recognize the emptiness of his life, he cracks up, getting drunk and depressed. (If you're willing to read into Hudson's personal life, you can suspect that the story of a man hiding his true self might've interested him.) John Randolph plays Arthur. Randolph's presence provides some more real life subtext, as the actor was still blacklisted at the time. Randolph's projects the a hollow sadness from behind his eyes, disappearing into the role of a depressed man.

“Seconds” is a chilling experience, from its unsettling introduction to its nightmarish denouncement. It had a profound effect on me the first time I saw it and has the same impact every time I watch it. Though not a traditional horror movie, it's as frightening as any other I've seen. The moody black and white photography, equally menacing and melancholic score, strong performances, and sharp writing combined to make an underrated masterpiece. There have been a few similarly themed films – like the Ryan Reynolds flop “Self/less” – but this one remains a unique classic. [9/10]

We are the Flesh (2016)

Horror is a genre that's very attractive to provocateurs. Probably because it's the only cinematic genre – aside from straight-up art films and pornography, I guess – where pushing the envelope will actually attract an audience. About once a year, we get a new extreme horror movie promising to be more fucked-up than the fucked-up shit you saw last year. Usually, I opt out of such experiences, as I need a little more from a movie than baseless provocation. Occasionally, we actually get something like “Martyrs,” that actually has a reason for existing besides shocking you. This year's extreme horror model hails from Mexico and is called “We Are the Flesh.” I wasn't going to watch it but it was streaming on Shudder so I figured why not?  I haven't been properly disgusted this Halloween.

A pair of homeless siblings, Lucio and Fauna, break into an abandoned building. They soon find the place is already inhabited. A man named Mariano has made the place his home. He allows the brother and sister to live there, even feeding them, as long as they help him with a project. The trio transform the building into cave or womb-like structure. Afterwards, Mariano's requests become more disturbing. He demands that the siblings have sex. Fauna is more receptive to the man's sickening demands. Soon, both siblings are inundated into a world of depravity and madness.

Most extreme horror movies are extreme in their violence. There's definitely some gore in “We are the Flesh:” A beheading, a throat-slashing, an eye-dropper stuck into an open wound, and some cannibalism. Otherwise, the film's extreme content is sexual in nature. Incest is a plot point. Quite a few unsimulated sex acts happen on-screen. There's close-ups on male and female genitalia. Orgies and various bodily excretions appear. The question is: Is there's any actual point to this than pure provocation? The answer is... I'm not sure? Hedonism is the main theme of the movie. Mariano's philosophy focuses on existing in the now, celebrating our statuses as filthy animals, and achieving a higher state through sensation. Is this a good enough reason to throw so many ding-dongs, hoo-has, menstrual blood, and sexual assault at the viewer? Maybe not, dude, but at least it's an ethos.

Despite going out of its way to gross out the viewer, “We are the Flesh's” messed-up themes of family kind of appeal to me. Initially, Lucio and Fauna aren't sure what to make of Mariano. The old man frightens them but they are slowly won over by his extreme tactics. Eventually, the trio evolves into a bizarre family of sorts. The performances help sell this unusual dynamic, as there are few characters in the film besides the trio. Maria Evoli, as Fauna, is successful as a seemingly normal girl that is quickly overcome by strange desires. Diego Gamaliel, as Lucio, starts out just reacting to the weird shit around him but quickly develops a more interesting relationship with his deviant behavior. Noe Hernandez, the closest the film has to a name actor, is unnerving as Mariano.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter, making his feature debut here, clearly has some talent. “We are the Flesh” is a visually interesting film. The film is shot realistically at first. After Lucio and Fauna cross over into the world of transgression, the visuals go crazy. A sex scene is shot in inferred, set to a Mexican folk song. The interior of the building begins to feel more and more like an actual cave, which is pretty cool. Characters crawl out of black slime. By the end, a strong color palette takes over. Purples, blacks, reds, and blues mix together to create a psychedelic landscape. What's happening on screen is usually sick but it's kind of pretty too.

I'm really not entirely sure what to think about “We are the Flesh” but, if nothing else, it is interesting. I'm going to be thinking about it for a while. Some people have already attempted to find a deeper meaning within the graphic sex and gore, wondering if the film is a reaction to the political turmoil and rampant crime Mexico has been experiencing for quite some time. The movie is destined to be one of the year's most divisive films, which is entirely appropriate, considering the content. Yet I applaud the filmmaker for having a vision, even if it's a frequently repugnant one. [6/10]

Freaks of Nature (2015)

A few years ago, I remember reading about a movie called “The Kitchen Sink.” This was when our culture's love of vampires and zombies were at their peak. The idea was to throw together every popular modern monster archetype into a goofy horror/comedy. This was to be the first vampires, zombies, aliens, and werewolf hybrid feature. The movie rolled into production and then seemed to disappeared, a theatrical release never surfacing. Then, last year, a friend of mine started describing a film called “Freaks of Nature.” I told him that the movie sounded a lot like the elusive “Kitchen Sink.” A little internet research revealed that “Freaks of Nature” is “The Kitchen Sink,” that the high-profile project ended up going direct-to-video. I guess that's a better title.

The town of Dillford, Ohio is famous for two things. It's home to the Riblet, an addictive fast food sandwich. It's also town shared between humans, vampires, and zombies. The three cultures are integrated. They all go to school together and the teachers are even mixed. However, it's an uneasy peace. The zombie's brain-eating tendencies are kept under control with shock-collars. The humans often resent the vampires' bloodsucking and special abilities. When an alien spacecraft appears above the town, the unrest explodes into full-blown violence. Human Dag, recently turned vampire Petra, and zombie Ned most navigate the chaos, instill some reason in the adults, and defeat the alien invasion.

That “Freaks of Nature” ended up going straight-to-video is not horribly surprising. The film is, simply put, obnoxious. All the characters are annoying. Petra's story line is a parody of “Twilight,” as she is bitten by a vampire that refuses to have sex with her. Except the vampire is a bullying asshole. That kind of petty attitude characterize the whole cast. Ned's family are jerks, as his dad is mentally abusive, his brother is a mean jock, and his mom is clueless. However, Ned is also an irritating know-it-all. Petra bites and kills a girl whose biggest crime was being a cock tease. Dag, we learn, abandoned his friends. Worst yet, “Freaks of Nature” attempts to play the teens' situation for drama at one point. Most of the adults are broad caricatures. Especially Dennis Leary as the local businessman, who is hateful to everyone. Or Keegan-Michael Key as a teacher who flunks his students out of meanness. There is not a single likable person in this entire movie.

My main reason for wanting to check out “Freaks of Nature” is because it's a monster mash. In this day and age, it's not too often that you see a film willing to throw together so many different monsters. Some of this monster-on-monster is amusing. A fight between zombies and vampires tear through a suburban home, the two tearing into each other. When the vamires are staked through the heart, they explode into a bloody mist. A recliner is utilized in staking a vampire, in one clever moment. The special effects are genuinely good. The zombies are detailed and decayed. The aliens have a cool design. You can see the vampire's veins through their translucent skin. It's obvious some money went into this, further indicating that Sony dropped this on video because it's not very good.

So is “Freaks of Nature” funny at all? There's one or two chuckle worthy moments. Contrasting the “Twilight” story with douchey teen boy behavior, as the vampire bites Petra and then refuses to talk to her, is a funny idea. The film has a surprisingly stacked cast. Patton Oswalt has a cameo as a survivalist, attempting to wring laughs out of some dire material. Mae Whitman is funny, and kind of cute, as the zombie girl that turns Ned. Joan Cusack and Bob Odenkirk are mildly amusing as Dag's stoner mom. Werner Herzog voices the alien's commander. I hope they paid him a lot for that, as he's given some truly embarrassing dialogue. Most of the gags are really dire though, such as a scene where the protagonists have to walk around naked to avoid the aliens.

“Freaks of Nature” was recommend to me by JD, my podcast co-host. This is not the first time he's told me to watch something I thought was really stupid. I guess I should just realize JD has pretty bad taste. Then again, I understand why it might seem like I would enjoy “Freaks of Nature.” Setting monster archetypes in a high school setting is something I've done in my own writing. Monster mashes are usually a can't-fail proposition for me. Yet “Freaks of Nature” is a deeply dire affair. By the way, this was another script that began life on the Blacklist, the annual list of the most marketable unproduced films. Like seemingly every blacklisted film I've seen, this one ended up lousy, proving once again that “marketable” and “good” are not synonymous.  [4/10]

The Sandman (1991)

In high school, I read E.T.A. Hoffman's short story “The Sandman.” I was immediately enamored by the story, which weaves together childhood nightmares, fears of going insane, and a mechanical woman into an beguiling brew. Hoffman's version of the Sandman, usually an innocent childhood figure, was decidedly not so nice. Hoffman's Sandman is a spectre who lives on the moon and throws sand in disobedient children's eyes until they fall out. That last detail would inspire an stop-motion animated short in 1991. The short follows a young child who doesn't want to go to bed. He has good reason, as the bird-like Sandman is stalking him. After the boy finally falls asleep, the inhuman creature comes for him.

Hoffman's “Sandman” would've made for an amazing, German Expressionism silent film. This short is probably the next best thing. The eerie sets are reminiscent of Expressionism, composed of harsh angles and deep, dark shadows. A shot of the little boy heading up to his room, where the hallways seem to extend outwards, is especially effective. The Sandman, as depicted here, is unforgettably wicked. He takes pleasure in tormenting his victims, dancing around the boy's bed, appearing and disappearing often. The final reveal of what the Sandman does to the boy is fairly horrific. Even in an exaggerated, animated style, a monster plucking a little kid's eyes out is still a ghastly sight. A brief shot after the credits also implies that this has happened many times before as well, a chilling thought.

It might just be a coincidence, since they share many of the same influences, but I wonder if Tim Burton and Henry Selick saw “The Sandman” before beginning work on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The two films have a similar look and even the character designs, with their thin bodies and big heads, and nearly identical. The Sandman himself is a really brilliant design. The feathers aren't soft-looking but are instead sharp. His entire body appears pointed, a raptor ready to scoop up and pierce his victims. His bird-like face also recalls a crescent moon, which hints at his lunar nature. “The Sandman” would be nominated for an Oscar in 1992. While leaving out some of the weirder, more Freudian elements of Hoffman's story, it invokes a similar feeling of helplessness and dread. [8/10]

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