Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 30

Happy Death Day (2017)

Blumhouse just can't be stopped. Born on the back of “Paranormal Activity,” and shot into the stratosphere by the likes of “Insidious,” “Sinister,” and “The Purge” franchise, Jason Blum's house is clearly the reigning horror specialists of the moment. Earlier in 2017, they scored a huge commercial and cultural hit with “Get Out.” As Friday the 13th dawned this October, they found another. “Happy Death Day,” though obviously a way less important movie than “Get Out,” has already proven to be a solid-sized hit. The horror-ifed “Groundhogs Day” riff has also won some positive reviews, from fans and critics. I like to catch a horror movie in theaters during the Six Weeks of Halloween and this seemed like the one to catch.

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman awakens on her twentieth birthday. She spent the night in a strange man's dorm room. Throughout the walk of shame back to her sorority house, she dodges romantic advances and phone calls from her dad. Her day is going to get worst though. Tree is being stalked by someone in a King Cake Baby mask. Eventually, the person finds her and kills her. And then the day starts all over again. Tree is stuck in a time loop which repeats whenever she dies. If Tree hopes to escape this repetition, she has to solve the mystery of her own murder.

As in the movie that inspired it, the implicit premise of “Happy Death Day” is that the protagonist will be caught in this cycle until she becomes a better person. So, Tree begins the movie as a bad person. She's a bitchy sorority girl. She stands by while others are bullied. She ignores her friends and family. After dying and coming back a few times, she gets better. She reconnects with her dad, stands up to her evil sorority sisters, and generally becomes nicer to everyone. Yet the audience never quite gets over that first impression. Tree's evolution from selfish to generous happens essentially during a montage. Jessica Rothe's performance is always slightly too snarky. A more appealing actress probably could've smoothed over this problem but Rothe is not that compelling.

Despite this issue, “Happy Death Day” is a fun little mystery. It reminded me of early slasher flicks, like “Happy Birthday to Me” or “Prom Night,” in that it functions like a whodunit for most of its run time. The early scenes present Tree with a long list of potential suspects. Watching the girl whittle down the list, eliminating her sorority sisters or the guy she went on a date with once, is mildly entertaining. It's fun to interact with the film, trying to figure out who could be responsible. “Happy Death Day” looses a lot of momentum once it reveals that a totally unrelated character is actually the killer. Tree's eventual revenge on this guy comes off as hopelessly phony, another element of her redemption that the audience can't believe. This turns out to be a decoy ending but the film never quite recovers. “Happy Death Day” should've ditch the switch-a-roo and only included one murderer in its script.

I remember when the “Happy Death Day” trailer premiered. I was totally sold on the movie until the rating came up. Inside this sleek PG-13 horror flick, the heart of a slasher movie beats. There's plenty of murder in the film. One clever death involves a weaponized bong. Another has the killer taking his spree on the road, blowing up a car. The masked murderer even stacks up some other bodies, claiming some collateral damage. The killer's mask, designed by the same guy behind “Scream's” Ghostface mask, has the potential to become iconic. Yet “Happy Death Day's” mayhem too often proves literally and figuratively bloodless. Listen, this is a movie about the main character dying repeatedly. Was a little gore, a little special effects flash, too much to ask for? Where's that “Final Destination” magic when you need it? Let R-rated concepts breed R-rated movies.

“Happy Death Day” nearly ends on a sickly ironic ending, which would've happily set up one of those sequels Blumhouse is fond of. Instead, this is yet another fake-out. Then again, it's success might mean grant the film a sequel anyway, though I'm not sure how. “Happy Death Day” is pleasant, a likable enough experience. It's also totally forgettable. The characters or ideas do not linger in the viewer's heart or mind. Several of Blumhouse's productions have had a hand in shaping the direction of modern horror. But this won't be one of them. I doubt we'll be talking about the movie in a year. “Happy Death Day” is as nice as a murder movie can be but it ultimately could've used a little more bite. [6/10]

Spider Baby (1967)

Jack Hill is a mostly unheralded master of the exploitation and horror genres. Yes, hardcore fans of the genre know his name but it's only been recently that he's gotten his due. “Coffy” may be one of the best exploitation movies ever made, in my opinion. Hill got his start doing odd jobs around American International Pictures, editing and doing additional photography. He would make his solo directorial debut with “Spider Baby.” The film was shot in 1964 but sat on the shelf until 1967. It received little attention upon release. However, horror fans would eventually discover “Spider Baby” realize how special this strange, hilarious, creepy motion picture is. Nowadays, the film is rightfully regarded as a cult classic.

The Merrye Syndrome is so named because it only affects the members of the Merrye family. The unique disease causes those afflicted, once they reach a certain age, to be regressing backwards mentally. Allowed to live long enough and someone with Merrye Syndrome will repress beyond speech, into madness and cannibalism. The last surviving members of the Merrye family hide in a dilapidated mansion. Family butler Bruno has his hands full watching the children: Infant-like Ralph, prickly Elizabeth, and the spider-obsessed Virginia. A further branch of the family, unaffected by the disease, arrive at the house, there to discuss the estate. However, the chaotic and deadly Merryes can only co-exist with normal people for so long before someone winds up dead.

When you take its original filming date into consideration, “Spider Baby” emerges as more than just a fascinating item of obscure cinema. It may be the missing link between the classic horror of the thirties, forties, and fifties and the bloodier, edgier, sleazier brand of horror that would define the genre in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. The film is awash in the tropes of classic horror. There's a spooky old house. The story of normal outsiders coming to visit a family of lunatics recalls “The Old Dark House.” Cobwebs, shadows, spiders, and dust define the film's look. The most obvious reference is Lon Chaney Jr., in the kind of manservant role he frequently played in the twilight of his career. The film even directly references the Universal Monsters Chaney played. Yet there are no wolfmen or mummies in “Spider Baby.” The monsters are humans, wielding knives and pitchforks. Scantily clad women are persuaded by maniacs and one is even raped. The film contains features from both ages of horror, an unlikely bridge between the past and the present.

The film also reminds me of another program that attempted to fuse modern trends with classic horror trappings. The Merrye family are a bit like the Addams family. They live in a gothic mansion. They have a male groundskeeper with a memorable name. They eat weird food. Mostly, they fight to protect their unique lifestyle from quote-unquote normal people who attempt to take it away from them. No matter how insane they are, the audience is on the Merrye's side. This is partially because at least two of the guests in the house – the fittingly named Mr. Schlocker and Emily – are immensely unlikable. Schlocker is a thief, a conman, and a jerk with a Hitler mustache. Emily is stuck-up and clearly disgusted with the Merryes. Even if they're murderers and madmen, the Merryes have a point of view. They have unique interests. They love each other and care for each other. Their need to protect one another, and protect their lifestyle, rubs off on the audience.

The Merrye siblings, in particular, are especially charming. Their childish personalities lead to a disregard for other people's lives. However, it also leads to a child-like joy. Virginia and Elizabeth's pure glee at seeing Ralph again is utterly endearing. How happy Virginia's pet tarantulas make her are equally pleasing. The sisters fight with each other but, ultimately, beg not to be hated, to be loved and understood. Virginia is really the heart of the film. When she “plays spider” – catching people in nets and stabbing themselves to death – she hardly understands what she's doing is wrong. Jill Banner's performance is energetic and alluring. The film's original poster refers to her as a “lolita” and, indeed, there's an odd sexuality to her as well. This is apparent in the scene where she ties up Peter, a scene that plays more like a seduction the longer it goes on. Banner is mesmerizing in the part and, sadly, would die at a very young age.

It's notable that Peter and Ann, ostensibly the film's heroes, are not all that bad. They accept the Merrye siblings, up to a point anyway. They play their games, eat their foot, and generally seem less square than Schlocker and Emily. However, they still represent the establishment. Like so many horror films of the sixties, “Spider Baby” is about the culture war. As in “Psycho” and “Night of the Living Dead,” reasonable society brushes up against something rawer, wildier, and are promptly terrifying. This is even more apparent in “Spider Baby,” as the Merryes are clearly more lovable than the outsiders. Yes, they murder and rape and literally eat the other generation, the way a new culture must destroy the old one. Bruno, who walks in both worlds, realizes the Merryes can never survive in polite society. Peter and Ann marry, have children, and become as boring as their parents. Peter seems to think the insanity of his heredity has been banished. The closing shto, however, seems to suggest that his daughter carries some of the ol' Merrye madness in her. Thus, the untamed underground is always waiting, always present in modern society, waiting to take its revenge.

“Spider Baby” represents so much of what I love about cinema. The gorgeous sets, black and white photography, and classic horror references appeal to my monster kid soul. The themes of childhood rebellion and counterculture revenge speak to my punk rock spirit. The sex and violence touch my love of cinemas that grimy, sleazy, and crazy. It's a wonderfully weird little movie, campy but progressive, classical but exploitative. A goofy theme song co-exist next to incest and cannibalism. Every time I watch the movie, I love it more and more. This is the entire horror genre, wrapped up in a sleek eighty minute package. [9/10]

The Lords of Salem (2012)

Over his first four features, Rob Zombie: Director had carved out a pretty clear aesthetic for himself. His horror films were full of extreme violence, omnipresent vulgarity, and white trash characters and settings. Some loved these antics, others hated him. After the “Halloween” remakes, Zombie's reputation as a director was especially divisive. For his fifth feature, Zombie said he wanted to try something a little different in tone. “The Lords of Salem” is, indeed, a change in pace from the shock-rocker-turned-filmmaker's previous efforts. Yet the film would receive a similarly mixed reaction from fans and critics.

Zombie's previous movies were occasionally obnoxious, due to constantly reminding the viewer how hardcore and in-your-face they were. “Lords of Salem” steps this back slightly. The trashy dialogue and settings have been reeled way back. In fact, the film works best when establishing its setting and characters. The scenes devoted to Heidi working among her fellow deejays are likable comfy, gently mocking the sound-bite heavy morning zoo setting. We get passing nods towards Heidi's past, a history of drug abuse being referenced. Yet her current life, living in a stylish apartment with a dog, seems comfortable. Zombie happily lingers on the Salem setting, drawing attention to the local landmarks. Zombie showed a similar strength for setting in his previous films but pointed that skill in a more revered direction with this one.

“Lords of Salem” is also employing a more subtle type of scare than “House of 1000 Corpses” or “Halloween II.” At least at first. The film isn't heavy on graphic gore or excessive fuck-bombs, initially. Instead, Zombie seems influenced by Polanski's Apartment Trilogy here. There's a spooky atmosphere to the scenes devoted to Heidi wandering the halls of her apartment. The sound design is built upon slowly building, rambling unease. This unnerving atmosphere ultimately explode towards more blatantly shocking scenes. Some of these moments are effective. Such as a nightmare involving a glowing red cross and a sudden yeti. Other antics are more distracting, such as a sexual assault in a church from a priest. Moments like this seemingly show Zombie torn between his attempts to make a more subtle horror film and antics more typical of his films.

Say what you will about Rob Zombie but his films usually have interesting casts. As is expected, he fills the film with recognizable cult performers. Bruce Davidson is likable as Francis, the local librarian that investigates the mystery. Sadly, that story arc ends abruptly, though Davidson makes the most of his scenes. As the cabal of evil witches, Patrica Quinn, Dee Wallace, and Judy Geeson fittingly juggle being sinister and friendly. Meg Foster is just purely creepy, primarily appearing in heavy make-up and partially nude, as a spectre of Satanic evil. Zombie, being who he is, also drops a number of notable cameos into the film. See if you can spot Michael Berrymore, Sid Haig, Barbara Crampton, and Lisa Marie.

Yet none of these experienced performers technically star in the film. Instead, Rob sticks his wife and constant muse, Sheri Moon, in the lead role. Moon's performance here, and her acting in general, have always received mixed reviews. I actually think Moon does okay in the lead. The script has here spending most of the film in a dazed state. Sheri has no issue bringing that to life. Yet, in keeping with the film's comfortable setting, I also like the scenes devoted to her work and home life. Heidi seems like a nice person, a far more relatable and likable character then the outrageous parts Moon has played in her husband's previous motion pictures.

“The Lords of Salem” is mildly effective as an atmosphere driven horror picture for about half of its run time. As the story goes on, the film becomes more dependent on shocking images. By the last act, the film descends totally into incoherent chaos. The climax is a surreal parade of bizarre images. We're talking masturbating mummy popes, Harlequin baby Satan, stuffed goat rides, and swirling colors. Zombie leans on his prized graphic violence here too, featuring a bizarre monster child being gorily torn from a woman's womb. At this point, “The Lords of Salem” looses its audience. It's almost as if Zombie couldn't think of a real ending to his film and instead just threw some crazy bullshit at the screen, hoping that would be enough. That's not quite the case.

Rob Zombie can be commended for attempting a change in direction. “Lords of Salem” does show off his strengths as a filmmaker, proving the director doesn't need to toss around excessive F-bombs and necrophilia to shock an audience. However, his weaker tendencies ultimately overtake the film, preventing the film from being totally satisfying. Sadly, the director would immediately get back to his old tricks with his next picture. Maybe he'll make a more subtle horror picture at some point. [6/10]

The Lottery (1969)

Like everyone else, I read Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” in high school. As a teenager, a story of tradition and conformity having ghastly consequences especially spoke to me. Somehow, though, I've never seen the highly regarded 1969 short film adaptation of Jackson's famous story. Writer/director Larry Yust does not waver from Jackson's text at all. The short is still set in an unnamed small town. Every year, a lottery is held. The matriarch of every family grabs a piece of paper from a black box. Most of the papers are blank but one will have a black spot on it. Once someone grabs that paper, a second lottery is held within that family. Whoever receives the black spot, this time, will be this year's sacrifice.

What makes Jackson's story so chilling, even today, is how normal she makes this ghastly ritual seem. People make small-talk before the lottery takes place. They gossip and share bits and pieces from their everyday life. One woman is late. Someone in town has broken his legs, forcing his wife to draw for him. A town official performs the drawing without blinking. He asks everyone to work quickly, so they can get on with the rest of their day. An old man grouses about how some towns have abandoned the lottery. How progress is chipping away at tradition. Even more frightening, no reason for the lottery is given. There's a reference to the lottery leading to a healthy crop but this is fleeting. People have been doing this thing for so long, they don't even remember why it's important.

By sticking so closely to Jackson's prose, Yust maintains most of its power. The conclusion is just as startling and the reader feels the injustice, as poor Tessie Hutchinson, is stoned to death for no reason. Yust's direction is simple, stripped down, and even raw at times. There's a couple of rough zooms and pans. However, this gives the film a quasi-documentary feeling, reminding the viewer that this could be happening in any small town anywhere. The short story is better, as you get to experience this normal small town where this horrible thing happens a little more. However, the short film is definitely worth seeing. This isn't the only adaptation of Jackson's story. It was also made into a feature length TV film in 1996 and, oddly enough, adapted in an episode of “South Park.” [7/10]

No comments: