Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 6

The Belko Experiment (2017)

Consider the career of James Gunn. He began as a supporting player in the Troma factory. He, somehow, parlayed that into a successful career as a screenwriter on big-ish movies like “Scooby-Doo” and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. He used this as a springboard to direct two amazing, idiosyncratic movies. “Slither” and “Super” immediately attracted cult followings but didn't make much money at the box office. At that point, Gunn was plucked out of the weird movie underground to direct a massive Marvel superhero flick. And then he made an equally huge sequel. Somewhere in there, Gunn wrote a brutal horror/comedy screenplay called “The Belko Experiment.” While Gunn was initially attached to direct “The Belko Experiment,” he eventually passed the script onto Greg McLean instead.

In rural Columbia stands an office building for the Belko Corporation. What Belko makes, and what its employees do, is unimportant. Aside from some new security guards outside, it seems like a normal day. Mike flirts with Leandra, his girlfriend. She avoids creepy come-ons from executive Wendell while COO Barry tries to keep everyone motivated. The normal day is interrupted when steel barriers seal the doors and windows. A voice, from the sound system, instructs the employees to begin killing each other. If they fail to do this, many more of them will die, via explosive implants all the employees had inserted inside them when they got the job. Blood soon begins to flow, the Belko employees forced to take part in a sadistic experiment.

If there's one theme connecting Greg McLean's films, as far as I can see, it's this one. People may be good, bad, or whatever but the natural world is cruel and pitiless. And predators will always hunt prey. Going into “The Belko Experiment,” I was expecting a gory horror riff on office politics. There's some of that, such as when Wendell's creepy microaggressions become outright aggression once the experiment starts. Or how the team leader quickly begins to decide who will live and who will die. However, “The Belko Experiment” is mostly concerned with saying some pretty grim things about human nature. The way the employees coldly, practically decide to start executing each other is chilling. Watching it, you can't help but think of Nazi soldiers compliant in murdering Jew. Or the men who calmly participated in atrocities in Bosnia or Rwanda. All along, McLean's philosophy – that those with power will instinctively prey on those they perceive as weak – informs the story. It's pretty heavy stuff for a mid-budget horror picture.

Matched with the heavier thematic concerns are some extremely intense sequences of gore. The most disturbing of which occur with the most distance. After casually deciding who will live and who will die, Barry lines people up against the wall. He executives them, one by one, the gunshots splattering blood like clockwork. These are not the sole source of exploding heads. The first time one of the cranial implants go off, the audience in shocked. As it happens repeatedly, the carnage almost takes on a comedic element. Yet, whenever things get too funny, “The Belko Experiment” snaps us back with another cruel moment. Such as a supporting character being senselessly killed. Or a woman having her neck brutally snapped. Or an axe reducing a man's head to bloody pulp. McLean's strength for creating disturbing, explicit gore comes back in a big way following the tame “The Darkness.”

That constant back-and-forth between dark comedy and deeply unnerving violence create a seesawing tone. And it must be on purpose. I suspect much of the comedy is directly from Gunn's original script. One of the office employees, a stoner, goes on paranoid rants about the drinking water. Goofy scenes like that directly collide with sickening gore. After several people are graphically hacked to death in a bathroom, the film lingers on the “please keep bathrooms clean” sign attached to the door. Several of the violent scenes are scored to upbeat pop songs. Instead of relieving the film's grim atmosphere, it actually disturbs the audience more. Should we be laughing or cringing? Or, as I suspect, are we supposed to do both at the same time?

Further proof that “The Belko Experiment” is as much Gunn's film as McLean's is the cast. Several of Gunn's regular players appear. His brother, Sean, hilariously plays the aforementioned stoner. Michael Rooker appears as a burly mechanic. Amusingly, Rooker – who frequently plays psychos and tough guys – ends up exiting the film before the violence really starts. Gregg Henry also has a key role, revealed near the end. It's nice to see these guys again but the other players leave bigger impressions. Tony Goldwyn is really frightening as Barry, playing a character who becomes a mass-murderer all too quickly for reasons that chillingly make sense to him. John Gallagher Jr. is convincing as Mike, the film's anti-hero, who does what he can to stick to his morals. John C. McGinley, meanwhile, plays up his unhinged elements as Wendell, who ends up taking too much glee in the mayhem he participates in.

“The Belko Experiment” has drawn comparisons to “Battle Royale,” which I'm sure Gunn was aware of. Like that film, it's easy to imagine yourself in the fictional scenario, wondering how you would react. Maybe that's why “The Belko Experiment” ends up being so disturbing. The film's carnage is graphic, over-the-top, and sometimes even absurd. It's also seems far too plausible. This unnerving combination of tones makes “The Belko Experiment” an uneasy watch. It's certainly not a crowd-pleasing horror picture, which might explain its modest box office takes. The marriage of McLean and Gunn may be a distressing one but it's certainly not a movie that I'll forget anytime soon. [7/10]

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Val Lewton was fond of creating vague connections between his films. The psychologist from “Cat People” is a main character in “The 7th Victim.” The island from “I Walked with a Zombie” is referenced in “The Ghost Ship.” Yet the producer only ever made one direct sequel... Sort of. Due to the huge success of “Cat People,” Lewton's RKO overlords demanded a sequel. Lewton kept some of the characters but otherwise wrote a film heavily inspired by his own childhood – more of a melancholy drama with light fantasy elements then a proper horror movie – that pointedly did not feature any actual cat people. RKO still insisted on marketing it as a horror film, leading to poor box office. Like all of Lewton's production, over time, “The Curse of the Cat People's” reputation has grown. Many considered it the producer's best work. In 2010, the Moving Arts Film Journal even ranked in one of the greatest films ever made.

Quite a few years have passed since the events of “Cat People.” Oliver married Alice. Not long afterwards, they welcomed their daughter Amy into the world. Now Amy is six years old. Oliver is concerned about Amy having so few friends, that she spends too much time in her own head. Secretly, he fears that Amy has inherited something from Irena, the cat woman he once loved. After befriending an eccentric old woman, and receiving a magical wishing ring, Amy begins to have visions of Irena. The ghostly figure becomes her secret friend and the two spend a lot of time together. However, danger lurks in the town, in the form of the old woman's jealous daughter.

“The Curse of the Cat People” may very well be one of the best films ever made about childhood.  Amy lives in a secret world that is strange and confusing to her parents. Sometimes, even other children don't understand. A boy her age accidentally kills a butterfly Amy considered her friend, enraging the girl. That she relates more easily to an old woman, rather than kids her own age, isn't surprising. Amy accepts the ghost of Irena at face value. It's a perfect, beautiful friendship based in simple, intuitive understanding. As it typical of Lewton's films, whether Irena is literally a ghost or simply a figment of Amy's imagination is left ambiguous. Clarification isn't needed. Amy's world – the innocent world of a child, seeing and feeling things adults have forgotten – is one naturally full of wonder.

It's also a world of loneliness and, occasionally, fear. The same special qualities that allow Amy to see Irena also alienates her from other people. Including her father. Oliver's concern for his daughter is parental and sincere but ultimately misguided. His insistence that she spends less time daydreaming ends up pushing his daughter further into her fantasy world. “Curse of the Cat People” is set in Tarrytown, near-by where Val Lewton actually grew up. Befitting the setting, Ms. Farren tells Amy the story of the Headless Horseman. Though she's fine at the time, Amy's dreams are haunted by the tale. Later, while crossing a snowy bridge, she believes she hears the Horseman behind her, forcing the girl to hid. This preludes a frightening encounter with the old woman's daughter, whose resentment to the little girl quickly veers towards the deadly. And yet the child's ability to forgive and love unconditionally is what ends up saving Amy's lives in the last act.

Building a childhood fable about friendship around a psychological horror movie like “Cat People” may seem like an especially odd decision. When looking at Simon Simone as Irene, it makes more sense. The same uncanny quality that made Simone ideal for a cursed young woman also makes her a fine choice for a ghostly, imaginary friend. Simone, always dressed in a sparkling gown, projects a loving and innocent glow. Child actor Ann Carter is perfectly cast as Amy. Despite being seven at the time, it's a well-rounded performance, serious-minded and full of surprising nuance. Also returning from the original film is Kent Smith and Jane Randolph. Their new roles as parents allow both to reach new depths, both bringing new warmth to their roles. Julia Dean is also well utilized as Mrs. Farron.

“Curse of the Cat People” is probably not the most seasonally appropriate viewing for the Six Weeks of Halloween. The film begins during autumn but most of the second half is set during the winter. A key scene occurs on Christmas, Amy handing out gifts around the tree. Then again, “Curse of the Cat People” isn't really a horror movie either. The film is haunting in an entirely different sort of way, playing out as a touching and eerie story about the secret inner world children inhabit. Beautifully acted and directed by Robert Wise, who replaced Gunther von Fritsch after eighteen days, the film is easily my favorite of the pictures Val Lewton produced. [9/10]

Fear Itself: Family Man

The third episode of “Fear Itself,” “Family Man,” is directed by Ronny Yu. Yu may not exactly be a master of horror but he did make the wildly entertaining “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” which counts for something. The episode follows Dennis Mahoney, a hard-working, church-going father of two beloved by his wife and kids. On the way to work one morning, his car is struck. Dennis is in the emergency room at the same time as Richard Brautigan. Brautigan is a vicious serial killer, notorious for murdering whole families. Somehow, while in the hospital, Dennis and Richard's souls switch bodies. Now, the innocent Dennis is in the body of a killer recently arrested for a brutal crime. The killer, meanwhile, is at home with Mahoney's family.

A horror spin on the body swap premise is an interesting idea. “Family Man” actually explores the premise more fully than expected. Upon awaking in Mahoney's body, Brautigan doesn't immediately get back to his old tricks. He tries to play the role of the devoted father, to live a good life. It's interesting to see a totally amoral serial killer attempting to go straight, as it were. Mahoney, while in the killer's body, begins to pick up on some of Brautigan's cruelty and tolerance for pain. The suggestion that environment plays a large role in how each man acts is one worth exploring. Naturally, the family man's homicidal rage begins to show itself but the build-up is decent. Colin Ferguson and Clifton Collins Jr. are both very good in the two roles. It's especially entertaining to see Ferguson, usually cast in cuddlier parts, play a man barely concealing his murderous desires.

As a Ronny Yu film, you can see some of his trademarks in “Family Man.” A final fight between Ferguson and Collins is surprisingly elaborate and brutal. There's even a pretty cool gore gag, of Ferguson yanking a knife from his chest. There's definitely some elements of “Family Man” that don't add up. A dream sequence, where the daughter sings a sinister nursery rhyme, is seriously cheesy. A bunch of religious symbolism is thrown in and none of it adds up. A twist ending is super dumb and needlessly cruel. However, a premise with some actual meat on its bones, strong lead performances, and some color direction makes this the first episode of “Fear Itself” actually worth seeing. [6/10]

Wolf Creek: Kutyukutyu

A reason a lot of genre television leaves me cold is the problem of extending a story over twenty-six hours that could easily be told in half that time. Considering “Wolf Creek's” first season was only six episodes long, I was hoping it wouldn't have this problem. However, the second episode, “Kutyukutyu,” seems to be about delaying the inevitable confrontation between Eve and Mick Taylor for as long as possible. By following leads, the girl comes to the titular town. She immediately backends a cop, who discovers some pot in the van left there by the previous owner. While in prison, she meets Johnny, an unsavory fellow who may know something about the man she seeks. After escaping prison, Eve tracks her cellmate down. She only manages to risk her own life further. Meanwhile, in the outback, Mick bides his time.

Granted, some of the adventures Eve has on the road are kind of entertaining. She acquires a dog, a yellow mutt leaping into her van and refusing to leave. After being accosted by some sleazeballs at a gas station, she's rescued by another woman, a Maori truck driver. I especially like the scene of those two talking. When the driver asks Eve why she's hunting this man, the girl doesn't answer but the older woman understands perfectly. I like Johnny's ascertain that, since Eve and Taylor Swift are both Americans, they both must be able to sing well. I guess all nationalities are equally stereotyped abroad. Some of the other scenes are less compelling. Eve meeting back up with the detective in charge of her case, running from the small town cops, or being chased by Sullivan and his goons feel like narrative wheel-spinning. Lucy Fry remains a compelling performer but I hope the series doesn't waste too much more time.

Mick Taylor's side of the story has even less going on but somehow remains more entertaining. The episode largely shows how Mick resists the temptation to randomly murder people all day. During his day job, of killing pest animals like kangaroos and pigs, he considers shooting a passing motorists before changing his mind. At night, by the Wolf Creek Crater, he attempts to pick up several tourists having motor problems. This is the exact same scheme he used in the original movie. However, this time, a group of guys with more equipment and a fancier vehicle show up, actually helping the tourists. Once again, Mick considers the option of killing but decides against it. “Kutyukutyu” shows Mick Taylor in a state of serial killer blue balls. He's eager to perform his favorite hobby but something keeps inconveniencing him. Which is kind of funny.

Speaking of kind of funny: This episode also contains a cute reference to McLean's “Rogue” in the form of a newspaper headline. “Wolf Creek” is still holding my attention but hopefully the next four episodes are a little more active. [6/10]

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