Last of the Monster Kids

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 5

The Ghost Ship (1943)

In-between his most famous movies and before his popular collaborations with Boris Karloff, Val Lewton would make “The Ghost Ship.” This alone might seem like the reason why it's probably Lewton's most overlooked film. Turns out there's an even better reason. After “The Ghost Ship” was released, playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner sued Lewton and RKO. The duo claimed the film ripped off a script they submitted to the producer. Because of this lawsuit, the film was pulled from theaters halfway through a successful run. Due to the legal entanglements, the film remained unavailable for nearly fifty years. “The Ghost Ship” didn't go back into print until it fell into the public domain in the late nineties. Since then, it's been as widely available alongside Lewton's other movies.

Despite the title, “The Ghost Ship” features no supernatural elements. Truthfully, it's more of a psychological thriller than a proper horror film. The plot concerns Tom Merriam. A professional sailor, he joins the crew of the merchant vessel, the Altair, as the third officer. At first, Tom feels welcomed by the ship's captain, Will Stone. However, Merriam quickly begins to notice Stone is slightly unhinged. When a crew member disrespects him, Stone locks the man in the chain locker, where he is crushed to death. Afterwards, Tom starts to believe the captain has gone mad with power. Other crew members begin to disappear as Tom comes closer and closer to exposing Captain Stone as a murder and a madman.

“The Ghost Ship” would be Val Lewton's second collaboration with director Mark Robson. Robson continues the shadowy visual style he displayed on “The 7th Victim.” The interior of the ship are often bathed in darkness, the men glaring from darkened corners and rooms. To this already umbrageous visual palette, Robson adds an extra layer of good old fashion fog. The opening credits show the ship emerging out of the fog. This further emphasizes the desolate, isolated, seafaring setting. “The Ghost Ship's” direction makes a story full of ominous events – a blind man realizing Tom is a sailor from the sound of his boots, the baleful narration of a mute helmsman – seem even more eerie.

So the Altair isn't haunted by ghosts. Instead, the ship is haunted by a power mad captain. The film explores themes of authority and corruption. Captain Stone seems like an orderly, reasonable man at first. However, it's quickly revealed that he's obsessed with his own responsibilities as captain. He considers himself an unquestionable leader on the ship, that he has the right to decide whether his crew lives or dies. Made two years before the end of World War II, “The Ghost Ship” daringly suggest that not all men are psychologically prepared to be leaders. The film stops just short of saying that any position of authority will make men evil. Throughout the film, Tom Merriam's belief in the inherent goodness of man remains. His encounter with the psychotic Captain Stone shakes, but doesn't break, this certainty. Even then, “The Ghost Ship's” conclusions about human nature seem relatively grim.

Part of what makes “The Ghost Ship” so successful is its cast. As Captain Stone, Richard Dix is extremely well cast. In his earlier scenes, Dix plays the Captain as a genuinely nice guy. The way he slowly reveals the cracks in the man's personality are effectively subtle. You believe that Captain Stone is both beloved by his crew but also a dangerous psychopath. He's even afraid of his own instability, in a scene where he confesses his fears to the standard Val Lewton love interest. Ultimately though, he's a figure of fear, especially in the last act when he becomes especially violent. Russell Wade is a solid hero as Tom Merriam, a man trying to stay reasonable in an unreasonable world. Character actor Skelton Knaggs is perfectly cast as Finn, the mute who observes the events. His distinctive face and clear eyes keep the silent man expressive. Also look out for a young Lawrence Tierney as the man who meets his fate in the chain locker.

“The Ghost Ship” is another RKO thriller helped by knowing as little as possible about it going in. As long as you don't expect an actual ghost story, you'll enjoy it as a moody thriller with some heavier themes on its mind then you'd think. Seems like the fewer expectations I have for these films – the less hype they receive as all-time great horror classics – the more I end up enjoying them. Strong performances, ambitious writing, and moody direction make “The Ghost Ship” a chilly and effective pseudo-noir flick, fit for October despite its down-to-Earth story. [7/10]

The Darkness (2016)

I vaguely recall seeing the trailers and poster for “The Darkness” last year. I dismissed the film as another PG-13 ghost movie. You know what I mean. I'm talking about the mid-tier haunting flicks that started to flood theaters after the success of “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” They're full of jump scares, lame CGI, lazy scripts, and B-list character actors. It's not the kind of horror that interest me. When I looked up the movie, I was not surprised to see it was produced by Blumhouse, a studio that practically specializes in disposable stuff like this. What did surprise me was Greg McLean's directing credit. None of his previous horror films dealt with supernatural topics. Moreover, this kind of soft and cuddly horror seemed uncharacteristic of the director of “Wolf Creek.” All I can figure is that McLean either wanted to try his hand at the most currently mainstream form of the genre or he just really needed the paycheck.

The Taylors head out on a family trip to the Arizona desert. While dad Peter and mom Bronny chill by the grill, and oldest sister Stephanie flirts with a cute boy, youngest son Michael wanders off. He falls through the ground into a hidden cavern. There, he recovers five stones with strange symbols carved onto them. Upon returning home, Michael begins to act strangely. His parents first chalk this up to his autism. Eventually, his behavior becomes too disturbing to ignore. Other odd things begin to happen around the house. It becomes apparent that the stones Michael brought home unleashed an ancient evil, a primordial darkness, that threatens to claim the entire family.

There's really only one interesting thing about “The Darkness.” Even before the dark spirits come into their lives, the Taylor family is having some problems. Dad is considering cheating on his wife with his pretty new assistant. Mom has a drinking problem lurking in her past, threatening to relapse. Stephanie is bulimic, something she hides. Michael's autism makes him prone to emotional outbursts. Naturally, a paranormal incident only causes the seams in the family's perfect suburban dream to show more. Instead of using the shadowy spirits as a symbol of the family's greater discontent, this is just a simple character arc. The Taylors will overcome their challenges by the story's end, the haunting ultimately bringing them closer together. I'll give credits where its due. At least Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell, as the parents, managed to make their characters seem natural and lived-in.

The actual horror content in “The Darkness” leaves much to be desired. The film does indeed feature its share of obnoxious jump scares. Someone stepping suddenly into frame or a snake appearing on a table are always accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack. For most of the run time, the supernatural activity is almost quaint. Yes, we get ominous nightmares and shadowy arms reaching out of walls. A garage door opening on its own, pictures falling off walls or muddy footprints are less intimidating. Even a wall catching on fire or dog attack are totally void of frightening power. In the last half-hour, “The Darkness” partakes in some seriously unimpressive CGI shenanigans. Glass flies around, dowsing rods become red hot, lightning sparks from the walls, and spooky shadow portals appear in walls. It's deeply pedestrian and totally lacks the ferocious power seen in McLean's other films.

In addition to featuring hackneyed hauntings, “The Darkness” happily embraces cliches I thought were long out of vogue. The film is awash in Indian mysticism. The evil spirits originate in Hopi and Anasazi beliefs. Hopi mythology is actually really fascinating but “The Darkness” discards that in favor of typical Hollywood Magical Indian shenanigans. An ethnic wise woman is recruited to cleanse the house. The wise woman – who isn't even American Indian but Latina instead – doesn't do much to save the day, making me wonder why the writers drug out such a hoary cliche. Aside from that, the film's treatment of autism is less than sensitive. The condition is portrayed as a disease that makes a kid alternatively weird, creepy, or magical. The script's cluelessness peaks when characters watch a supernatural documentary on Youtube to help understand their situation. That has got to be the most hilariously lazy way to get the exposition out that I've seen recently.

Greg McLean apparently contributed to “The Darkness'” screenplay, though you'll be hard pressed to notice any of his trademarks. About the only thing linking this movie to the director's other work is the totally bullshit claim that it's based on a true story. “The Darkness” resembles the “Poltergeist” remake more than “Wolf Creek.” It fails as a horror film, as there's only one spooky moment, when the mom notices a shadowy figure in the background of a family photo. The film came and went from the box office, receiving highly negative reviews. However, because Blumhouse keep their products modestly budgeted, it still managed to turn a decent profit. So it's nice that this shitty movie provided McLean, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, and Ming-Na with decent paydays. [4/10]

Fear Itself: Spooked

Of the thirteen directors who worked on “Fear Itself,” five of them returned from “Masters of Horror.” Among them was Brad Anderson. His “Sounds Like” was one of the best episodes of the previous series. His “Fear Itself” contribution, “Spooked,” is not up to that standard. The episode revolves around Harry Seigal. Seigal is a police officer notorious for roughing people up. While attempting to locate a kidnapped child, Seigal ends up killing a connected criminal. This gets him tossed off the force. Fifteen years later, he's working as a private investigator. Seigal takes what he thinks is going to be another standard job, spying on a cheating husband. He stakes out an abandoned house across the street from the husband's residence. Inside the home, strange things begin to happen. Harry discovers the house is haunted and determined to make him suffer for his sins.

Anderson's films, including “Sounds Like,” tend to veer towards the more psychological side of horror. This is a director who turned a standard haunting asylum premise into a chilling examination of the darkness inside the human soul. With “Spooked,” however, he's dealing with far more pedestrian horror elements. A prominent feature in the haunted house are paintings of four figures on the wall, above a pentagram. As the story goes on, the faces change. He hears his victims talking about over his radio. Eventually, the spectre of the dead man appear to him. None of these scenes are particularly scary. In fact, they often veer towards the incredibly hokey. The effects are cheesy and the more overt ghostly elements are melodramatically presented.

The first half of “Spooked” repeatedly draws attention to what a scumbag Harry Seigal is. As a cop, he wildly abused his power and frequently beat and tortured people for no reason. The incredibly busy Eric Roberts sleazes it up as Seigal. Roberts makes the cop as greasy and grouchy as possible. If “Spooked” was operating in an E.C. Comics mode, about bad people getting their just desserts, maybe this would've worked. Instead, the script tries to make Seigal sympathetic. Through a seriously histrionic flashback, we see he had a tragic childhood. Eventually, we discovered he's been manipulated, into becoming a sacrifice for the evil spirits behind the house. By this point, it's too little, too late. Harry is too much of a douchebag for the audience to buy a tragic or redemptive arc.

About the only effective moment in “Spooked” is a rather nonsensical scene involving a man replacing his knocked-out teeth with bullet casings. Otherwise, it's another weak “Fear Itself” episode. [4/10]

Wolf Creek: Billabong

Over the last decade or so, television has become an unexpected but reliable home for the horror genre. I guess you can chalk that up to the success of “The Walking Dead.” A popular tactic has been to adapt horror films into TV shows. This is how we've gotten on-going series based off unlikely candidates like “Hannibal,” “Scream,” “The Exorcist,” and “Evil Dead.” Among these horror-movies-turned-horror-shows is “Wolf Creek.” If you didn't know a television adaptation of Greg McLean's film existed, don't feel bad. The show aired on an Australian web streaming service last year, with its only exposure stateside being some obscure cable network called Pop. (No, I haven't heard of it either.) Considering I'm watching everything else McLean has directed during the Six Weeks, and its only six episodes long, I figured I might as well give “Wolf Creek: The Series” a look.

The Thorogood is an American family of four, vacationing in the Australian outback.  This isn't a typical getaway. Instead, the family has journeyed to the country specifically to help teenage daughter, Eve, get over a prescription pill addition. During a stop by a scenic billabong, Eve's little brother is almost eaten by a crocodile. The boy is rescued by Mick Taylor. Grateful, the family lets Mick sit around the fire with them, drinking a beer. Eve, following a fight with her dad, hides inside the R.V. That's when Mick brutally murders her father, mother, and brother. She gets shot in the back but survives. After being released from the hospital, Eve becomes obsessed with getting revenge the man who killed her family.

When I first heard there was a “Wolf Creek” TV show, I wondered how such a notoriously gory film series could be adapted to television. Now that I know the series aired on an Australian equivalent to Netflix, I realize this wasn't a concern. “Billabong,” the show's first episode, is just as brutal as the films that spawned it. When Mick Taylor unleashes his violent side, no punches are pulled. He slashes the dad's throat and tosses a knife into the mom's face. The camera doesn't even look away when he turns his rifle on the little brother. It's a startling, vicious moment. The episode even indulges in some of the sequel's dark humor. Mick's reaction to a woman performing yoga alongside a desert road is one of amusing bafflement. We even get a brief glimpse into the killer's personal life, when we see him return to his lair. John Jarratt remains as oddly charismatic in the part as ever.

Mick is only partially the focus of “Billabong” though. Most of the episode revolves around Eve. She is, as you'd expect, traumatized by her family being brutally slain by a serial killer. At first, she is numbed by the pain. Later, the scars begin to show. She's afraid of being left alone. She begins to see Mick's truck everywhere. Any man in a hat reminds her of the killer. A cop, who suspects the same man who killed Eve's family is responsible for dozens of disappearance, tries to help. Ultimately, she has to go beyond the law. Lucy Fry, reappearing from McLean's “The Darkness,” is fantastic in the part. She's dry and sardonic yet clearly shows the trauma Eve is feeling inside. Over all, “Wolf Creek” is off to a pretty good start. [7/10]

No comments: