Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 9, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 8

Leatherface (2017)

Of all the eighties slasher icons, it seems like Leatherface has been the most abused. Following Tobe Hooper's unhinged sequel to his own classic, it seems like few filmmakers actually known what to do with the chainsaw wielding maniac. Over the years, we've gotten reboots, remakes, and prequels, one after the other, none pleasing fans much. So when it was announced that another “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” prequel was in development, I didn't get my hopes up. My anticipation briefly flickered when Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the madmen behind “Inside,” signed up to direct the film. Then “Leatherface” sat on the shelf for a few years before finally being released straight-to-DirecTV, a release strategy that raise my confidence. When the film finally came out, it actually received some okay reviews. Was I wrong to pre-judge this one?

The film takes us back to the early days of the Sawyer family. For his seventh birthday, Jedidiah Sawyer is presented with an unusual gift: A chainsaw. The next day, Jed's deranged older brothers kill a young woman. This girl is the daughter of Sheriff Hartman. As revenge, the Sheriff gets Jed taken off to a mental institute, separating the boy from his mother, Verna. Ten years pass. Jed has grown into a young man. After a failed attempt to free her son, Verna engineers a riot at the hospital. Jed, along with three other inmates, escape. With a kidnapped nurse in tow, the group heads back to the Sawyer family home. Sheriff Hartman quickly pursues them. By the end, Jedidiah will complete his transformation into Leatherface.

“Leatherface” is a frustrating film. In some ways, it's the first rebbot that feels like it respects the original. The importance of family to the future Leatherface is a main point of the film. He's loyal to his mother and brothers. In turn, they are deeply loyal to him. Yet the film takes a while to circle back to this point. Most of “Leatherface” is devoted to the four juvenile delinquents rampaging across the south. Something about this is appealing, in a way that recalls Charles Starkweather and other films. The film certainly attempts to capture the depravity of the original – there's a graphic sex scene involving a corpse – while respecting the teen killers as brutal anti-heroes. At the same time, it doesn't feel much like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The chainsaws, leather masks, and cannibalism play a very small role. The entire storyline involving the deranged cop feels especially shoehorned in, a simple narrative device to keep the kids on the run.

Maury and Bustillo's previous films were characterized by two things: Frenzied direction and extremely intense gore. “Leatherface” lacks neither. The bloody effects are vivid and disturbing. During the mental asylum escape, a nurse has her tongue graphically ripped out. A stick-up in a roadside diner climaxes with a massive exploding head. Faces are bashed, heads caved-in, necks stabbed, and brains blown out. It's pretty gnarly stuff and the directors deployed it with maximum impact. Disappointingly, the duo leans on that most dreaded of cinematic styles – shakey-cam – a little too much as well. Several scenes are so shaky, they become difficult to follow. It's not as bad as the equally spastic “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” but its rougher than I would've preferred.

The film rounds up an interesting cast of characters actors and relative unknowns. Sam Strike plays Jedidiah, otherwise known as teenage Leatherface. There's something vulnerable about Strike, in spite of his hunky good looks. He plays up Jed's sympathetic side almost too much, making the character's inevitable transformation into a faceless killer seem somewhat improbable.  It's still a solid performance and I can see Strike going on to a decent career. Lili Taylor is effectively unhinged, but believable, as Verna. (Angela Bettis was slated to play the role but dropped out before filming began, forever making me wonder what she would've brought to the part.) Jessica Madsen is sexy and frightening as Clarice, the crazy girl that accompanies the guys on their trip. I'm not a fan of all the performances. Jaems Bloor mugs badly as Ike, an over-the-top psychopath. Stephen Dorff goes way over the top to play the one-note Sheriff Hartman.

Like I said, “Leatherface” just doesn't feel enough like a real “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie. There's maybe one instance of people eating people and a single shot of bones used in interior decorating. Despite this, the script is peppered with references and in-jokes to the other films. Hartman is one significant name that crops up. Nubbins is another. Ultimately, a big mid-film twist is what bugged me the most about this one. A character that looks and acts a lot like the classic Leatherface is introduced. Names are limited to pseudonyms at this point, making exact identities difficult to determine. Eventually, we find out that this person who obviously seems to be Leatherface actually isn't. That feels contrived and unnecessary. Why set up all that foreshadowing just to swerve suddenly at the end? Did that twist have any purpose other than just screwing with the audience?

“Leatherface” proves to be a frustrating watch for a fan of this series. It's clear the filmmakers and writers actually had a vision for this one. That actual respect was paid to certain aspects of Hooper's original creation. (For all it's flaws, at least Leatherface gets to keep his nose in this one.) There's certainly some impressive gore, if nothing else. Yet I still feel like a peak into Leatherface's mind, into his origin, could've made for a more nuanced and exciting movie. It's not a bad movie but is yet another “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” spin-off that feels slightly disconnected from the spirit of the original. [6/10]

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Some images reverberate through history. Arnold Bocklin's “Isle of the Dead” series are probably some of the famous paintings that you might not be able to name. They all depict the same thing: Positioned on a small island are a closely cropped group of towering trees, growing up in-between stark stone cliffs. A solitary ship is docked outfront, seemingly carrying coffins either to or away the island. The paintings are so powerful and iconic that they've inspired all sorts of art. Sergei Rachmanioff composed a tone poem inspired by the painting. In 1945, Val Lewton took the title for his seventh horror RKO horror movie. Fittingly, Bocklin's painting appears behind the opening credits. The film similarly captures the same foreboding, melancholy as the painting.

The Balkan Wars of 1912 rage on. The Greek forces are led by General Pherides. While conversing with a visiting American journalist, the topic of Pherides' deceased wife comes up. The two decide to visit the grave, kept on a near-by island. As they arrive on the island, they find the tomb has been disturbed. Staying at a local inn, both men hear stories of vorvolaka, an undead monster similar to a vampire. Both men dismiss the belief as superstition. Soon, a batch of septicemic plague breaks out on the island. As the group is forced to stay inside the inn, quarantine, suddenly stories about undead monsters being to make more sense.

“Isle of the Dead” shares some thematic similarities with Lewton's other films. Like “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie,” the story is set in the place where superstition meets science. While Kyra talks about vorvolaka, the general is more concerned with the plague. Early on, a character makes a bargain, outright betting science against the god Hermes. As the situation grows more grave, and more people die, Pherides begins to wonder if there isn't something to this vorvolaka business. In the last act, someone does rise from the grave and begin to kill. However, as in Lewton's other films, it's kept ambiguous whether something truly supernatural is happening. Into this concept, Lewton and his writers introduced elements of Poe – a beautiful maiden buried alive – and shadows of World War I, which most of the film's cast and crew were still old enough to remember.

Despite the title, “Isle of the Dead” does not seem like a horror film at first. Much of the earlier scenes are set in the daylight, leaving few opportunities for Mark Robson's trademark shadowy direction. The script mostly deals with people trying to survive a plague, talking among themselves inside the inn. However, as “Isle of the Dead” nears its conclusion, the film gets both visually and narrative darker. Robson creates a very intense sequence where Thea wanders through the island's darkened corridors, encountering a Mary that has seemingly returned from the dead. This scene; which is painted in stark black and white, making stunning use of the eerie island noises; may be among the scariest in any of Lewton's films. In this last act, “Isle of the Dead” takes a hard turn into horror, featuring a mad woman stalking and killing people with a trident. So the film rewards your patience in a great way.

In “The Body Snatcher,” Boris Karloff was chilling as a totally amoral villain. In “Isle of the Dead,” he plays a different sort of character. General Pherides is haunted by the spectres of war. He's a man that is always trying to make the right choice, even when that is frequently the hardest thing to do. While quarantined on the island, something gets to him. Part of it is the growing isolation but it's mostly the weight of living under so much death. To a man that has seen as much death as him, the idea of an undead monster is almost appealing. It's a humanistic, deeply nuanced performance from Karloff. He leads a solid cast. Ellen Drew's beauty is haunting and otherworldly as Thea, the strange girl that people suspect of being a monster. Alan Napier is charming and slightly funny as St. Aubyn. Helene Thimig plays Kyra not as a delusional old woman but as someone deeply convinced of their own beliefs.

“Isle of the Dead's” production was protracted. Karloff needed surgeon on his back following the first two weeks, forcing filming to pause for several months. As it took longer to prep “Isle of the Dead,” he actually shot “The Body Snatcher” in the interim. The released film also wasn't a huge hit for RKO either. This one is not quite as good as that previous collaboration. It's slower and more ambiguous. However, if you're willing to wait around, you'll be rewarded with a chilling and thought provoking classic horror picture. [7/10]

Fear Itself: Eater

During its brief run on NBC, “Fear Itself” was either ignored or outright dismissed by most critics. However, “Eater” – the contribution from Stuart Gordon – received some positive notices.  The episode is set Set in a police station caught in the middle of the snowstorm, the episode follows new recruit Danny Bannerman. She is one of four officers in the entire building. That night, Duane Mellor is brought in for holding. Mellor is a towering Cajun serial killer, who was notorious for eating his victims. Bannerman discovers Mellor doesn't just eat people because he likes how they taste. Using voodoo magic, he can also take on the appearance of the people he kills. Soon, it's up to Bannerman alone to stop this madman.

After directing two of the best “Masters of Horror” episodes, Stuart Gordon directed one of the best “Fear Itself” episodes. “Eater” makes great use of its cramped location. The police station, surrounded on the outside by snow, is lit by sea-sick green, florescent lights. Often, the lights flicker, temporarily casting the characters in darkness and disorientated the viewer. This is one technique Gordon uses to create several tense encounters. The episode doesn't immediately reveal the Eater's powers. Danny can tell something is wrong with her co-workers. One guy gets uncomfortably close to her, continuing to bring up the disturbing circumstances of the case. Another passive-aggressively chides her. Everybody is sweaty and sleazy. By the time the killer reveals himself, “Eater” has ramped up to a fever pitch. The final ten minutes are easily the most suspenseful of the series thus far. 

It helps that we actually care about the main character. Elisabeth Moss is introduced as a fellow horror fan, reading a Fangoria knock-off during briefings and correcting her co-workers about “Silence of the Lambs.” She's initially morbidly curious about the Eater but grows more frightened the closer she gets to him. She's also resourceful and tough, staying alive and staying ahead of the guy. Gordon regular Stephen Lee shows up as one of the more obnoxious and gross officers. Stephen R. Hart only appears briefly as the killer but his height and odd facial features makes him perfect of the part. “Eater” is a tight little hour and a thrilling piece of pulp, almost singlehandledly making the whole series worth watching. [7/10]

Wolf Creek: Opalville

Turns out the cliffhanger last episode was a total cop-out. Looks like “Wolf Creek” really is going to drag this out for six whole episodes. Eve drives to Opalville to talk to the parents of one of Mick Taylor's previous victims. The father, a milker of venomous snakes, turns out to be mentally unstable himself. A struggle inevitably follows. Afterwards, Eve gets bitten by one of the snakes. She is then rescued by an unexpected friend. Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated Mick Taylor gets sloppy in his slaughter, dropping a clue that Detective Sullivan picks up on.

The first half of “Opalville” represents “Wolf Creek” at its most frustrating. The encounter between Eve and the snake farmer is obviously another unnecessary stop, meant to stretch the story out further. The idea of Eve connecting with another victim of the killer is interesting. As is the subterranean dug-out setting. The direction the script goes in next – making the dad a mentally unstable abuser, causing the sequence to explode into a fight and a chase – seems like a totally random writing decision. Mick, meanwhile, has been reduced to cameos in his own show, murdering random people at the beginning and end. If you weren't annoyed enough already, “Opalville” concludes by reintroducing that pointless biker subplot.

However, it's not a total lost cause. After being bitten by the snake, Eve is rescued by an Aboriginal medicine man. It's a random plot choice but a charming one. After seeing the character constantly stressed out for the last couple episode, it's nice to see her meet a friendly person, to see her unwind. It's also promising that Detective Sullivan is starting to do his job. I know Mick Taylor's inability to be caught is part of his mystique as an outback legend. But, seriously, the cops should be on his trail by now. The episode ends on another down-note – throwing in another chase scene and resolving yet another sloppy subplot – but there's only two more episodes left. Surely the show will be getting to the point real soon? [6/10]

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