Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 4

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

Greg McLean had the chance to make “Wolf Creek 2” immediately after the first film's international success. Instead, he decided to focus on “Rogue.” Following that film's underwhelming box office performance, suddenly a sequel to his first big hit was a very attractive possibility. But eight years had passed, which is a very long time in the world of quickie horror sequels. Securing the funds to make “Wolf Creek 2” was a bit of a hassle. A major producer pulled out just before production was supposed to start. Obviously, the movie got made. The reviews were just as mixed as the first one but the film must've made money, as McLean has been steadily working ever since.

Some time has passed since the events of the first “Wolf Creek.” Mick Taylor's reign of terror over the Australian outback continues uninterrupted. Using his all-terrain truck and operating out of an underground lair, the serial killer continues to claim new victims. Such as Rutger and Katarina, a pair of German tourist backpacking across Australia. After Rutger falls to Mick's knife, Katarina is rescued by Paul, an English traveler. However, the reprieve is short-lived. Soon, Paul is also being stalked by Mick. Afterwards, a perverse game of cat and mouse begins between the killer and the good samaritan.

Before creating “Wolf Creek 2,” Greg McLean took some lessons from other horror sequels. Like “Evil Dead 2” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” he follows up a gritty horror picture with a gore-heavy flick that frequently veers towards the absurd. As in “The Devil's Rejects,” he realized the vicious serial killer was the most interesting character in the first movie and more-or-less makes him the protagonist of the sequel. Within the opening minutes of “Wolf Creek 2,” Mick Taylor turns his wrath on a pair of smarmy, asshole cops. From this point on, he becomes an odd antihero. Yes, he's still an unrepentant monster who murders without reason. (The film also suggests he's become a cannibal as well.) Yet John Jarrat's performance is undeniably charismatic. He brings such joy to Mick, as he goes about his grisly business. You're entertain by the guy, even if you can't bring yourself to necessarily like him. The sequel hinges on an obvious conclusion: If Mick wasn't a sadistic murderer, he'd probably be a lot of fun to hang out with.

The original “Wolf Creek” was already a really violent movie, though that was more due to its nihilistic atmosphere than its special effects. The sequel double-down on the gore in an interesting way. There's a lot more of it. Mick decapitates a guy in clear view before dismembering and gutting his body. More than once, Mick blows people's heads off with his rifle. Yet McLean exaggerates the violence in a comedic way. After a cop's head is exploded, his tongue flops around ridiculously. While trimming Rutger's body, much the way a butcher would with a pig, Mick dryly comments on the dead man's, um, equipment. A vehicular chase scene reaches its full absurdist potential when a mob of kangaroos amble onto the road, Mick dealing directly with the animals. McLean often scores the stalking scenes to classical music, making them feel like ridiculous ballets.

A radical change in tone like this serves the sequel well. “Wolf Creek 2's” shift towards pitch-black comedy is crystallized in its last act. After taking Paul back to his secret base, it seems like the sequel is going to reprise the torture theatrics of the original. Instead, Paul sings an Australian novelty song, Mick starting to sing along after a brief moment of bafflement. The killer then decides he sort of likes his potential victim. He asks him trivia questions about Australian history and popular culture. If Paul gets an answer wrong, Mick grinds a finger off with a sander. It's a ridiculous but deeply funny situation, showing the killer almost becoming cordial in-between bouts of cold-blooded torture. There's even a potential element of satire here, an insane Aussie punishing a modern Brit for the crown's past misdeeds. (I certainly had never heard the term “pommie” so much before this seeing this movie.) With this plot turn, “Wolf Creek 2” had completely won me over.

The film is clearly John Jarret's show, as his wildly entertaining performance dominates the film. Yet the rest of the cast is pretty good too. Making Mick's first two victims in the film German immigrants was an obvious reference to the Backpacker Murders that inspired the film. It also means long stretches of the movie are in subtitled German, an interesting choice. Philippe Klaus and Shannon Ashlyn are likable, showing a genuine chemistry with each other. Ryan Corr is even better as Paul, a man perpetually at the end of his wits when faced with an increasingly extreme situation.

Building a comedic sequel to a film with as much sexual violence and visual agony as “Wolf Creek” might've been in questionable taste. Mick Taylor is most definitely not the kind of character we should be sympathizing with. Yet that perverse sense of humor makes the movie's more intense moments of gore go down much more smoothly. Ultimately, this balance of tone makes me like “Wolf Creek 2” way more than I like the original. The film is a rather brilliant, if extremely dark, horror/comedy that might be overlooked due to the original's grimness. Give it a look, if you've got the stomach for it. And, hey, you might even learn a little about Australian history! [8/10]

The Seventh Victim ((1943)

When I think of cinematic Satanists, my mind drifts towards the films of the seventies. Following the success of “Rosemary's Baby,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Omen,” an entire subgenre of Satanism movies were born. The Devil and all his Earthly minions became a regular presence on theater screens. Yet devil-worshipers on-screen have a much older lineage than that. You can trace the trend through sixties and fifties films like “Curse of the Demon” and “The Devil Rides Out.” There's even older example, such as “The 7th Victim.” Originally about a serial killer, Val Lewton and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen completely rewrote the script. Upon release, it was not as well-received as Lewton's earlier movies. In the decades since, it has emerged as maybe the producer's most well regarded motion picture.

Sixteen year old schoolgirl Mary Gibson receives some troubling news. Her sister, the successful owner of a cosmetics company, hasn't paid her boarding school bill in several months. Instead of being thrown out, Mary voluntarily leaves. She attempts to locate her missing sister. Soon, she discovers a series of strange and unnerving events Jacquline was involved with. The journey leads her to the Palladists, a Satanic cult operating out of Greenwich Village. Jacquline is still alive, Mary learns, but on the run from the Palladists, who have condemned her to death for betraying the group.

While I've been able to appreciate them as works of art, an issue I've had with the previous Val Lewton movies I've seen has been the characters. Generally speaking, I haven't found them to be very memorable or relatable. “The 7th Victim” presents a heroine that is impossible not to root for. Mary Gibson is a teenage girl, tossed from her comfy boarding school existence into a frightening world she doesn't entirely understand. Kim Hunter, years before “Planet of the Apes” would make her a cult icon, plays Mary as the sweetest girl imaginable. Like the viewer, she's attempting to navigate a mystery, drawing the audience into her strife. “The 7th Victim” falters any time she isn't on screen, which is far too often. The other heroic cast members, such as Tom Conway as Dr. Judd or Hugh Beaumont as Gregory, are not as interesting.

After working as an editor on Lewton's previous three horror features, Mark Robson would make his directorial debut with “The 7th Victim.” It would be the start of a long and successful career, Robson eventually earning two separate Best Director Oscar nominations and making blockbusters like “Valley of the Dolls” and “Earthquake.” In his first film, Robson is obviously emulating Jacques Tourner's work. He fills the film with foreboding shadows. One especially unnerving scene involves Mary's detective friend walking through the darkened cosmetics company building. The office objects cast ominous shadows on the wall. The same style makes a later scene, where the Palladists command Jacquline to drink poisoned wine, look similarly unnerving. Val Lewton's films continue to occupy a nightmarish realm, where people are drown in living shadows.

“The 7th Victim” is fairly effective in most every way. Except one. It's villains aren't very threatening. Made long before the troupes of Satanic horror were crystallized, the film does not feature the robes, candles, chanting, pentagrams, or bloody sacrifices you might expect. Truthfully, all the Palladists really do is sit around in a night club, wearing business casual, discussing vaguely ominous stuff. They only mention Satan or the Devil a few times. If the film didn't explicitly refer to them as Satanists, you probably wouldn't even notice. Refusal to kill anybody is actually part of their club dogma. After the film's events play out, “The 7th Victim” concludes with the psychologist saying the Lord's Prayer in front of the Palladists, which somehow shames them. I kind of doubt that would upset die hard Satanist very much. Compare the spineless devil worshipers to the cult in “The Black Cat,” which managed to feel genuinely deviant and sacrilegious, and you see the downside of this.

Aside from the Satanists who don't do anything, “The 7th Victim” is another fine horror picture from RKO. Hunter's performance stabilizes a story that is a bit shaggy, which was partially the result of some last minute cutting and studio tinkering. Robson's film is as much film noir as horror picture, owing to the shadowy direction and long investigative sequences. Many scholars also consider this one a landmark LGBT film, as a friend of Jacquline's is pretty clearly in love with her. While I didn't find the film as fascinating as many others did, “The 7th Victim” is still worth seeing for its outstanding black and white atmosphere. [7/10]

Fear Itself: The Sacrifice

“Masters of Horror” was never officially canceled. When Showtime became disinterested in airing a third season, Mick Garris shopped the concept around to other networks. Eventually, season three of “Masters of Horror” would mutate into “Fear Itself.” The general premise – top horror directors creating hour-long films – was retained but there was a big difference. “Fear Itself” would air on network television, specifically NBC. Which meant all the graphic gore, sex, nudity, profanity, and insanity that made “Masters of Horror” intermittently great would not be present in the new series. “Fear Itself” also featured a much less impressive slate of filmmakers. Unsurprisingly, fans rejected the continuation while new viewers showed little interest. Eight of the thirteen episodes aired before NBC unceremoniously yanked the show from its schedule. The missing episodes would eventually emerge on DVD. Being a completest, I'll be reviewing the ill-fated spin-off in its entirety.

The premiere episode of “Fear Itself” is “The Sacrifice.” Four criminals – Point, his brother Lemmon, Navarro, and Diego – are on the run from some unspecified crime scene. Navarro is injured. After catching a flat tire, the four men take refuge in a near-by fort. There, they meet three beautiful but strange women. Point quickly begins to suspect that their hospitality is hiding something. He's right. The women have been luring men to their fort so they can feed them to the ancient, mutated vampire that is chained-up under the floorboards. Through the course of the story, the vampire is freed and begins to hunt all of them.

Dropping “Masters” from the title was likely a deliberate move on “Fear Itself's” behalf. Many of the new directors recruited showed little to no mastery over the genre. Such as Breck Eisner, director of “The Sacrifice.” Up to this point, Eisner hadn't directed any horror movies. Instead, he was only attached to remake “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Crazies.” Only the latter of which he would actually make. (He has since directed “The Last Witch Hunter,” Vin Diesal's D&D fan fiction.) Expectantly, Eisner shows little aptitude for horror. Several shots descends into incoherent shaky-cam. There's a really goofy shot of a man being dragged through a doorway by the monster, the door slamming behind him for no reason. Eisner leans on elaborate gore too much, with decapitations and impalement. “Gore” is in quotation marks, of course, since it's all watered down for network TV.

As a stand-alone story, “The Sacrifice” is deeply underwhelming. All of the guys are either scumbags or idiots, making it hard to root for them. It's immediately apparent that something is wrong at the farm, so you wonder why they stick around as long as they do. The plot is based around shaky logic and features more than a few holes. The twist ending is needlessly downbeat. The vampire looks pretty cool and the actresses playing the three sisters are all pretty attractive. That's about the only positive things I can say about “The Sacrifice,” a trite and limply executed hour of television. Sadly, from what I remember, this was par the course for “Fear Itself.” [4/10]

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge: For Whom They Fight

With episode four, the “Night Warriors” OVA reaches its conclusion. “For Whom They Fight” shows Pyron's invasion of Earth reaching its endgame. The fiery extraterrestrial travels the globe, crushing every challenger he encounters. This includes Demitri, who gets easily tossed aside, and the Huitzils, who suddenly decide to betray their master. Donovan attempts to put up a fight but even his skills aren't enough. As Donovan is near death, Anita cries for him, reawakening her emotions. This inspires the dhampir to unlock his greatest powers. Pyron is defeated and the Earth is saved by the Darkstalkers humanity despises.

Yes, the focus on Donovan's angst continues into “For Whom They Fight.” In the middle of his fight with Pyron, a mad scientist with a floating doom platform enters the scene. The guy lectures Donovan on how anyone associated with the Darkstalkers deserves to be wiped out. The scientist says this is God's will. (This is not the last time God is mentioned, bringing a weird religious element to an otherwise secular anime.) After being nearly beaten to death by Pyron, we get a further glimpse at Donovan's backstory. We see him as an angry young man, balancing on a bed of spikes, unable to make peace with his dual heritage. This, combined with Anita activating her telekinesis, gives Donovan the power boost he needs. He reconciles his fate as a child of the light and the dark, achieves inner peace, and saves the day. That's lazy writing at best, a sudden revelation wrapping the story up so smoothly. It's also undermined by the actual “Darkstalkers” video games, where Donovan is eventually consumed by his darker half and becomes an evil character named Dee.

This focus on Donovan more-or-less excludes any other character from the last episode. Hsien-Ko and Mei-Ling help fight Pyron but their story arc is nowhere close to concluded. Felicia is totally removed from the plot. Morrigan and Demitri may get it the worst. After three episodes of build-up, Pyron defeats Demitri in minutes. Morrigan doesn't even get to fight the alien. After witnessing a debate among the elders in the Demon Realm, she leaves to assist Demitri. Landing in the ruins of his castle, the vampire drinks her blood to regain his strength. The two then watch Donovan defeat Pyron, Demitri bragging about how strong he is, despite doing nothing of value the entire series.

This is disappointing from a story perspective, as it squanders three episodes worth of hype. It also totally railroads Morrigan's personality. In the video games, after loosing to him in battle, Morrigan turns herself to stone to keep Demitri from possessing her. In the anime, everything she does is motivated by helping Demitri. She willingly lets him bite her, even though Morrigan is usually disgusted by weakness. The two end up as a couple, the succubus princess betraying her own family to help the vampire take over the Demon Realm. What a spectacular way to screw over the franchise's most beloved character.

“Night Warriors'” saving grace, all along, has been its cool action scenes and expressive animation. This holds true with “For Whom They Fight.” The episode opens with a montage of Pyron fighting the remaining video game characters that haven't appeared in the anime. His fight with Demitri and Donovan features some cool special attacks. Donovan's finishing move involves him riding his sword like a surfboard, flying right through the alien's chest. Just to throw in one more fight scene, the episode also shows the Huitzils turning on Pyron. The robots fuse into one giant machine, which is a neat visual and throws a kaiju fight into the last episode. It doesn't make much sense but it is cool.

Taken as a whole, “Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge” is a disappointing experience. The animation and character design were cool. The story, however, was a muddled mess. The script tried to squeeze too many characters and too much plot into four forty minute episodes. The series is too convoluted to be understood by anyone but die hard “Darkstalkers” fans. That same audience will probably be annoyed by the baffling changes the anime made to the games' lore. Once you get over the novelty of seeing these video game characters operate in an actual narrative, the series looses much of its appeal. It's a shame, as I believe “Darkstalkers'” colorful characters and fascinating world could make for an awesome anime or movie. [6/10]

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