Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 30, 2018

CON REPORT: Monster-Mania 41

Going into Monster-Mania 41, I knew it was going to be a significant one. Without piling on the personal information, my best bud and con companion JD has some new life responsibilities coming his way. Money will be a little leaner for him in the near future. (All for very good reasons.) So, as we hit the road Friday morning, it was with the knowledge that this very well may be the last Monster-Mania the two of us go to for a while. Yet the stars seemed to line up for this very occasion. Among the many guests attending the con this year was Cassandra Patterson, none other than Elvira herself. Elvira has been JD’s number one most requested guest ever since we started going to these things. Getting to meet the Queen of Halloween was a big deal for him.

I’m obviously a huge fan of Elvira myself. Yet I couldn’t help but find myself feeling more excited for him all weekend. The guest list for Monster-Mania 41 was by no means poor. Cult icons like Sid Haig, Kane Hodder, Bill Mosely and Robert Englund were in attendance, along with well-known character actors like Robert Patrick and Lou Diamond Philips. However, the only other guests I was really excited for was Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer herself, and she cancelled at the last minute. It kind of went that way all weekend. JD was having the time of his life and I was trying hard not to be too much of a wet blanket.

The convention weekend began on an incredibly pleasant note. A relative lack of traffic meant we got to the hotel way too early. So early, they hadn’t actually finished setting our room up. The hotel was practically empty when we arrived. So we messed around at some local shops and got our traditional steak and lobster lunch. By the time we returned, the hotel lobby was full. And we all knew why. Horror fans can be pretty easy to spot. The horror shirts, tattoos, and punk rock haircuts tend to give them away. Soon, we checked into our rooms, unwinded for a bit, and headed down to the convention floor.

Stepping into any convention can be an overwhelming experience at first. Even after doing this for several years, I’m still not quite use to it. There’s hundreds of dealers, each one selling many different types of items. It’s a very noisy experience, the hallways being crowded even on the first day. Maybe that contributed to the slight sense of disorientation I felt throughout Friday evening and Saturday morning. I don’t know if this con was busier than usual or if my mental health has been more ragged lately, but I was feeling very anxious and uncomfortable for long stretches of the last two days.

But you don’t want to hear about that. After scooping around a bit, we headed down to the main ball room, where the guests would be signing. JD got a quick autograph from Mick Foley, a very gregarious figure who didn’t seem to have too much to say at that moment. Afterwards, we hit the dealer’s room. That’s when JD discovered something else he’s been searching for: A Coor’s Light standee of Elvira. He immediately grabbed it and we got back in line to meet Miss Peterson, which a decent sized line was forming for.

I assure you, Cassandra Peterson is an absolute sweetheart. JD chatted with her for a while, asking all the questions he wanted. When she asked where he wanted her signature on the standee, he sheepishly pointed towards the infamous cleavage. She laughed, jokingly called him “a pervert.” Naturally, we immediately set the standee up in his room that night, where it remained for the rest of the weekend.

I, sadly, did not witness any of this first-hand. Multiple people had asked me to grab Elvira signatures for them. The woman handling the money kept giving me conflicting information and I got confused. In order to prevent holding the line up, JD went ahead. By the time I sort things out, I was pretty frustrated so I just said a few kind things to Miss Peterson and posed for a photo. That was freak-out number one of the weekend.

The next signatures we headed for were mostly in the ballroom upstairs. Jonathan Ke Quan is, depending on your age and fandom, best known as either “The Goonies’” Data or Indiana Jones’ sidekick Shortround. For those that crow about Ke Quan’s Asian accent in those films is some sort of racially insensitive exaggeration: I can confirm that he really sounds like that. Figuring all the questions would be about “The Goonies” or “Temple of Doom,” I asked Jonathan about that pretty good episode of “Tales from the Crypt” he did. This conversation still ended up segueing towards the topic of Spielberg and Richard Donner. But I like to think convention guests enjoy hearing a question or compliment about things other than there best known projects.

I pulled a similar trick with Robert Patrick, who was situated across the room. I asked him about his early days as an action star in low budget Filipino films. He got really excited at just the mention, so that was cool. Patrick, by the way, projects a friendly and avuncular presence at odds with his tough guy appearance.

I also went down stairs to get Sid Haig’s signature. Despite having just filmed a new movie with Rob Zombie, a direct sequel to a film they made ten years ago, Mr. Haig did look pretty frail Friday evening. Nevertheless, he answered my questions in a detailed way. Of course, I had to ask about “Spider Baby,” a real fave of mine, and the process he used to get into such a bizarre character’s head. Apparently, Haig based Ralph Meryl on observations made of monkeys and young kids. JD, meanwhile, asked about the two episodes of “Batman” he did.

This preceded the second freak-out of the day. At some point after getting Haig’s signature, I realized I no longer had those three glossies in my hand. I searched around, re-tracing my steps, stopping at every table I could remember stopping at, to no avail. I straight up lost those three glossies. All I can figure is I put them down while picking up something else and they were either grabbed by someone else or tossed out. When I went back to Haig’s table, asking his handler if I had left the glossies there, Haig offered to give me a free replacement. (He then, in perfect Captain Spalding cadence, said “if you loose that one, I’ll break your fucking legs.”) I decided to try the same thing with Patrick and Quan. Each one understood and gave me a free replacement. So all three of those guys are super-duper cool in my book.

I had also promised my mom I’d pick up Lou Diamond Philip’s signature if he wasn’t asking for a ridiculous price. She’s a big fan of “Longmire” and that Imagine Dragons music video. Anyway, while getting that, I asked about his experiences working with Errol Morris on “The Dark Wind” and Larry Clark on “Another Day in Paradise.” Lou suggested Morris hasn’t made another narrative film because he’s so used to documentary directing. As for Clark, he said the director’s “entire life” is controversial while giving high props to Melanie Griffin and James Woods.

You’ll notice I mostly have pictures of my glossies in this post, instead of photos with the actual guests. In the years since I started attending Monster-Mania, it’s no longer customary for photos to be included with the price of the autograph. In fact, the photos are usually the same price as the autograph. Meaning you’ll have to spend double to get the complete package. I find it hard to justify spending so much and usually opt for just the signature. I guess some would consider a photo more personalized but I just prefer the autographs. This, of course, is not the fault of anyone at Monster-Mania.

So how about that shopping? On Friday, I grabbed some Blu-Rays from the Vinegar Syndrome table: “The Mutilator” and “Madman,” both of which I should’ve owned already. (I begged the company salesman to give “The Prey” a release but he seemed dismissive and stand-offish.) There were a few really cool, if small purchases. One booth was selling collectable pins of the Puppy-piller from “House II: The Second Story,” a movie JD and I love that is rarely merchandised. I picked up a signed, if admittedly somewhat rough, first printing of Richard Matheson’s “The Shrinking Man.” (One of the nicest things anyone said to me all weekend was that dealer saying I was obviously someone who loved and respected books.) I got a loose “Army of Darkness” Pit Bitch figure and an old McDonalds McNugget buddy.

Honestly, perhaps my favorite purchase is a really cool banner that combines two of my favorite passions: Halloween trick-or-treaters dressed as David Bowie’s various personas. That’s the kind of totally unexpected and super cool shit you find at conventions. Saturday, we made our required stop at the VHSPS, where I grabbed “The Supernaturals” and “Spookies.” I’ve only seen the latter and plan on reviewing both later in the month.

When I first step into the dealer’s room at Monster-Mania, I usually find an expensive item I really want. I then spend anywhere from the next few hours to the rest of the weekend deliberating if I want to spend that much money on said thing. Usually I crack by the end of Friday. I’ve learned that, if I don’t get it, someone else might. Last year, it was a table full of original theatrical one-sheets being sold dirt cheap. That guy was back this year but his prices had gone up considerably. Seems he realized the worth of what he had. Yet the poster for the very obscure, very strange documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicles” he had up captured my eye. After managing to talk him down on the price some – maybe the first time I’ve ever really haggled at one of these cons and, yes, it is exciting – I bought it. No, I still haven’t found wall space for all the posters I bought last year.

The second big purchase was a the eighteen scale action figure of Bruce Campbell’s Ash that McFarlane Toys made around Movie Maniacs Series 4. This is the same figure that sat in the long gone Suncoast I’ve written about before, that I spent many years envious over. You don’t always see these toys at conventions that often and, as the years have gone on, they are becoming rarer. So I went ahead and bit the bullet on the hundred dollar price tag.

JD’s main big purchase was Elvira’s signature but he did get some other cool shit. One of which is a very elaborate latex mask of some sort of skinless demon. He also got some toys of his own, including the Queen Alien NECA put out awhile ago. That’s another thing he’s been wanting for some time but never had the chance to pick up.

Something that did disappoint me about Monster-Mania 41 was the lack of solid panels. Instead of assembling, say, Bill Moseley and Sid Haig into a “Devil’s Rejects” panel, “Halloween” bit-player Nancy Kyes got her own panel. Or there was the guy who sang the “Lost Boys” theme song got a concert. And that’s cool and all, and probably a big deal for some people, but not of much interest to me. The only panel we caught was Cassandra Peterson’s. This, of course, was a delight. The crowd was engaged and Peterson was her usually bubbly, self-effacing, charming self. Sadly, that was pretty much ti for Saturday. For whatever reason, the dealer’s room closed at seven that night, when it’s usually open until ten on weekends. I don’t know what that was all about.

Last year, we stayed over into Sunday for the first time, expecting to get some good deals on stuff. We were disappointed to find that most vendors will still selling stuff at full price. This year, however, we managed to get a lot more bargains. I went home with two more posters from the same guy as before – beautiful one-sheets of “Thief” and “Damnation Alley” – and the guy literally gave me a poster of “A.I.” for free after that. Next, I grabbed some series one “Tortured Souls” figures for a decent price, as they are getting harder to find.

On Friday, I chatted with a painter promoting a locally produced anthology film called “The Black Hills Night Hike,” inspired by urban legends in and around Maryland. Aside form talking about Bava, Argento, and Soavi – all of which he had paintings inspired by – one smaller painting called my eye. It's of the Bunnyman, an urban legend from near-by Clifton, Virginia that I'm fascinated with. I couldn't quite justify the prices he was asking on Friday but he gave me a good deal today, so I went home with it. After that, JD and I got a magnificent brunch at the Iron Rooster and then headed home.

When I was experiencing Monster-Mania 41, I felt a little sour. There were some little annoyances and general changes that are systematic to the entirety of convention culture. But most of my problems, I think, had to do with my general mood.

Now, I’m finding myself looking back on some of the little moments, some of the neater things we found, and smiling. If nothing else, this convention was absolutely worth it just to see one of my closest friends fanboy out over a celeb he’s loved his whole life. If this does end up being our last convention for a while, that’s a pretty good note to take things out on.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 28

I'm at Monster-Mania in Baltimore this weekend, so you may not get some updates tomorrow. However, you will get some tonight. Here's today's round-up of horror entertainment:

Maniac (2012)

Usually, when a horror classic is being remade, it's strictly because of commerce. The rights holders to some older film believes they can cash in on whatever name recognition the original property may have, knowing that will sell the product regardless of the remake's actual quality. This is how we ended up with redos of obscure titles like “April Fool's Day” and “Prom Night.” Occasionally, however, a movie will get remade because a filmmaker is passionate about the original. Such was the case with 2012's “Maniac.” William Lustig wanted to remake his film and sought out Alexandre Aja, a huge fan of the original. Aja would write the script, handing directorial duties to friend and protegee Frank Khalfoun. Elijah Wood, also a big fan of the original, would star. This passion for 1980's “Maniac” is very evident in 2012's “Maniac,” making it one of the best horror remakes in recent memory.

2012's “Maniac” follows the plot of the original fairly closely. Frank Zito is still a deranged serial killer and child of a prostitute. He still murders women, scalps their corpses, and nails the bloodied wigs to mannequins. He still finds himself developing a romantic attraction to a photographer named Ann. Several key sequences – such as the subway chase, the grisly ending, and several lines of dialogue – are maintained. However, there are notable changes. The location has shifted from New York to L.A. Frank now owns and operates a mannequin shop. He often picks up his victims through dating websites. Ann's photography is more artsy-fartsy than fashionable. Most obviously, Khalfoun's “Maniac” is primarily shot from Frank's perspective.

Shooting “Maniac” almost entirely in a P.O.V. style is not just a slick visual gimmick, helping to distinguish this horror remake from the countless others. The original “Maniac” took us into Frank Zito's disturbing world. The remake takes us even further. We more intimately see his home, where he converses with his mannequins as if they were alive. Sometimes, he even sees them talking and moving. We see him scrub his knuckles bloody. He's haunted by visions of his mother and frequently suffers from migraines. He experiences hallucinations, placing himself inside a movie. If William Lustig's “Maniac” sought to take us inside a deranged killer's head, the remake accomplishes that goal in a more literal and even more disquieting fashion.

Khalfoun's remake is far more sympathetic to Frank. Among his mannequins is one of himself as a child. Deep inside, he's still that abused little boy, something emphasized during his death scene. We get several shots of Frank imaging everyone is staring at him, making his discomfort in public apparent. The remake makes it increasingly clear that Frank's murders are the result of a warped sex drive. During a date, a feisty redhead stripes down for him. As they are getting intimate, Frank strangles her. More emphasis is put on him calling his victims beautiful, leering after their bodies. His impotence is signaled by a nightmare, where he imagines himself as a mannequin from the waist down. The only time the movie takes us outside Frank's head is during the murder scenes, allowing the viewer to experience the orgasmic ecstasy of the kill.

Furthering this sympathetic reading is Elijah Wood's performance. Wood never diminishes Frank's status as a brutal killer or total creeper. However, he does make us understand why Zito is like this. Wood's casting also makes the romance with Ann a lot more believable. Elijah Wood is a lot more attractive than Joe Spinall. The remake has Ann expressing interest in Frank first, by photographing his mannequin shop. That connection over mannequins – soulless things that look alive but aren't – creates an actual foundation for their relationship. It's also way more plausible that an artistic type would be interested in a weirdo like Frank Zito, as opposed to Caroline Munro's strictly wholesome portrayal of the character in 1980.

No matter how sympathetic “Maniac's” take on Frank may be, this still functions as a brutal horror movie. It's easy to see Khalfoun taking some pointers from Aja in the attack sequences. Some are stomach churning in their nastiness. Such as Frank tying down a naked victim and slicing her back, before scalping her. Or a scene bringing the ankle slashers urban legend to mind, where Frank hides under a car and savagely cuts a victim's Achilles's tendon. Yet the film doesn't just rely on shocking gore. There's definite a sense of suspense during the long stalking scenes, especially the recreation of the subway chase, which is just as tense here as in the original.

Another positive element of 2012's “Maniac” is a gorgeous synth score from French electronic artist rob. The low throbbing synth of the soundtrack effectively underscores the tension and discomfort of Frank's life. 2012's “Maniac” may be one of those rare remakes that are superior to the originals. It doesn't have quite the same sleazy charm but it's a fantastically acted, beautifully orchestrated and brilliantly scored movie. Frank Khalfoun, previously of Christmas-set slasher “P2,” would next make the dreadful “Amityville: The Awakening.” Hopefully his next feature, Blumhouse produced thriller “Prey,” will be closer in quality to this one. [9/10]

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

A lot of people are afraid of spiders. There's a few reasons for this. Very few spiders can actually kill people, though some can deliver nasty bites. With their eight legs and multiple eyes, spiders can certainly look strange or alien. Mostly, I think spiders scare people because of their tendency to crawl into places were we don't expect to see them. And, hey, their webs make awesome set-dressing for haunted houses. Because of all this and more, there have been many horror movies starring spiders. Lots of these blow the arachnids up to enormous size. This, however, is unnecessary to make the creepy crawlers unnerving. 1977's “Kingdom of the Spiders” would become a cult classic thanks to William Shatner and 5000 real tarantulas.

Pleasant Verde Valley in Arizona seems like an idyllic small town. The town is preparing for a local celebration. Veterinarian Rack Hansen has managed to create a nice life for himself, taking care of his niece and his brother's widow. That's when animals around the town begin to mysteriously die. First a calf, then a dog, then a full-sized bull. Hansen sends the results to the local university. Diane arrives to tell him that spider venom is responsible for the deaths. The two soon discover that swarms of angry, unusually venomous tarantulas are crawling around Verde Valley. It's not long before the entire town is taken over by the pissed-off arachnids.

“Kingdom of the Spiders” falls into several subcategories of horror that were popular in the seventies. The film takes a little from “Jaws,” as the Mayor of the town downplays the threat because he doesn't want to delay a local event. Like many ecologically-themed horror pictures, pollution – pesticides specifically – are blamed for changing the tarantulas into killers. At times, the film seems like a low budget attempt to replicate the disaster movie trend. There's a sequence where the town is swarmed by the spiders. We see people fleeing, many falling to the ground, covered in spiders. A cop is even crushed by a falling water tower. (These scenes resemble, and predate, “The Swarm” from the next year.) The last act, devoted to the cast hiding in a local bar, trying to keep the spiders out, reminded me a lot of “Night of the Living Dead” as well.

Derivative as the film's plot may be, “Kingdom of the Spiders” is elevated by one detail. Using real tarantulas goes a long way. Director John “Bud” Cardos – who would go on to make “The Dark” and “The Day Time Ended” – throws in a few spider P.O.V. shots. However, the shots of real spiders crawling around amass are way creepier. In one scene, spiders emerge from the cockpit of a crop duster, swarming over the pilot. One effective shot shows a horde of tarantulas crawling under a little girl's feet as she sits on a swing. Spiders drop from a busted ventilation shaft, falling over an actress' head. Later, Shatner descends into the basement, where spiders cover the light bulbs and burst out of windows. If you're afraid of arachnids, “Kingdom of the Spiders” getting so up-close and personal with the eight legged beasties will certainly make you squirm. And if you're sympathetic to the critters, the movie might bum you out. Many tarantulas get squished during the ninety-minute run time.

“Kingdom of the Spiders” owes much of its infamy to its leading man. William Shater starred in this film during the years after “Star Trek's” cancellation, around the same time as “Big Bad Mama” and “The Devil's Rain.” Despite his hammy reputation, Shatner comes off as likably down-to-Earth here. (Though we do get some classical Shatnerian overacting during some of the spider attacks.) Considering the actor's real life love of horses, I imagine he enjoyed playing a glorified cowboy. The movie gives Bill two women to romance, Diane and his brother's widow. This romantic scenes are surprisingly cute. Though the spider invasion ends up resolving the love triangle, making the earlier scenes devoted to it feel superfluous.

Another thing to like about “Kingdom of the Spiders” is its final image. After surviving their hellish night, our protagonist look out the window. They see the entire town covered with spider silk. That's a fittingly haunting and spooky image to take the film out on. Though its budget and goals are modest, “Kingdom of the Spiders” does a good job of exceeding both. The film's cult following grew further thanks to frequent airings on cable television in the eighties. With the only previous DVD release being a shitty pan-and-scan transfer, the recent upgrade from Scream Factory was much appreciated. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Aliens Keep Out

“Aliens Keep Out” has a convoluted and senseless plot, even by the standards of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon. After a confrontation with Donovan, Rikou returns to Atlantis to relax. Morrigan and Bishamon ambush him, quickly capturing the curiously attractive fishman. Pyron is so pleased by this, he travels to Earth. Pyron landing on the South American continent awakens Huitzil, an ancient robot tasked by Quetzacoatl with sacrificing any aliens that step foot on Earth. Rikou, Morrigan, and Bishamon team up for the good of the whole planet. The Computer on Pyron's ship informs everyone that, if he's not returned within a few hours, the ship will explode, taking most of the solar system with it. The Computer recruits Felicia and Harry, for some reason, to help with this. Got all that?

The American “Darkstalkers” cartoon is known for its wild divergences from canon but “Aliens Keep Out” really takes the cake. In the games, there's a whole army of Huitzils and they are all Pyron's minions. Pyron is also among the most powerful characters in “Darkstalkers” lore. Here, he's overpowered by Huitzil, spending most of the episode crying like a baby. Bishamon, who has yet to get much character development, is portrayed here as a honorable samurai. He's cursed to be evil and longs for a dead wife, a plot point introduced randomly. This is very different from the games, where Bishamon's evil armor turns into a bloodthirsty sadist. The creators of this show apparently confused Rikou with Aquaman, as he's given the ability to communicate with and control aquatic life. He's also given a high-tech airplane, called the Sky Fish, that appears in one scene out of nowhere.

Beyond these baffling changes, “Aliens Keep Out” is probably one of the more entertaining episodes of “Darkstalkers.” That's mostly thanks to it being completely nuts. Its plot is baffling and nonsensical. Once again, Morrigan's abilities shift from episode to episode. Here, she can seemingly manipulate matter to her will. Scott McNeil's increasingly sarcastic and put-upon performance as Rikou is the ideal reaction to all the stupid bullshit happening here. Though his backstory and personality has been completely altered, Huitzil gets one of the better redesigns. He even gets to keep some of his special attacks. There's a weird homoerotic subtext between Pyron and his Computer, as the A.I. seems like a clingy girlfriend. Later, Harry reprograms the Computer to have a sultry female voice. The animation and action is still garbage but, I'll admit, I was entertain but this maddening episode. [6/10]

Forever Knight: I Will Repay

“Forever Knight” once again sees its hero wrestling with the ethical implications of being a vampire. Natalie's previously unmentioned brother, Richard, accompanies her to the police station. Just as he arrives, an angry perp grabs a cop's gun away. Richard is shot and fatally wounded. With her brother dying, Natalie asks Nick to transform him into a vampire. After hesitating, Nick goes through with it. This makes Knight recall a time, centuries ago, where he brought a leprous woman over to the dark side. Like that incident hundreds of years earlier, things go horribly wrong. Richard fancies himself a vampire vigilante and quickly goes mad with power.

The first half of “I Will Repay” is more interesting than its second. The debate between Natalie and Nick is compelling, because both of them are right. She has good reason to want her brother to live, as he has a wife and daughter. Nick, however, knows making new vampires is always a problematic endeavor. Once Richard is turned into a vampire, things quickly begin to go in a more typical direction. Richard becomes an insane vampire seemingly within the span of one night, using his powers to kill a local mob bosses. Naturally, Nick has to stake him in order to protect Natalie. The most interesting aspect of this plot twist – Richard's wife learning about vampires – is wiped away by Nick hypnotizing her at the end. “I Will Repay” starts promising but ends on an underwhelming note. [6/10]

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 27

Maniac (1980)

When was the last time the horror genre was really controversial? During the early 2000s, with that whole “torture porn” moral panic? Maybe “Human Centipede?” Though that was treated by most people as a sick joke more than anything else. The seeming danger, that sense of violating a taboo, of getting a peek at something forbidden, is definitely part of what attracts fans to the horror genre. When it comes to controversial horror films, William Lustig's “Maniac” occupies a rare place. At the time, many critics were disgusted with it. The film was derided as misogynistic and ultraviolet. Now, “Maniac” is a respected classic, though still widely regarded as one of the sleaziest movies in the genre.

The streets of New York City are being stalked by a killer. His name is Frank Zito. He preys on women, killing them in a frenzied state. After murdering them, he scalps their bodies, nailing the bloodied wigs to mannequins in his apartment. Frank is haunted by memories of his abusive, prostitute mother. His murders are a way to kill his mother, over and over again. Into this disturbing world enters Anna, an attractive photographer that Frank attempts to romance. She seems charmed by him, unaware of his nighttime activities. But is there any escape for Framl, from his own madness and murderous impulse?

"Maniac" was largely inspired by giallo – Argento nearly produced and Goblin was the first choice to score – and the film fit right in with the slasher flicks that were filling theaters at the time. However, few of those films went as far into its killer's head as “Maniac.” There are frequent POV shots, usually scored by Zito's heavy, aroused breathing. Zito is often shown leering at his female victims and the mannequins he conflates with them. Along with the slums and hookers of it setting, this creates a deeply dirty, unpleasant atmosphere. As sleazy and uncomfortable as Zito's world is, there's other layer to it. Zito is controlled by impulses he doesn't understand. He rambles to his mannequins and is compelled to kill. He hates his habits and hates himself. His world is also a childish one. There's a key shot, where he hugs a teddy bear on his lap. At one point, Zito plays with a music box and a cap pistol. The killer isn't just a figure of fear. He's a fully formed character. 

Contributing to “Maniac's” fleshed out portrayal of an insane killer is Joe Spinell's performance. “Maniac” was a passion project for Spinell, as he co-write the script and also produced. Spinell largely sets the mood. He's nearly always sweaty, the camera focusing on his delirious and greasy face. He frequently stares, wide-eyed and deranged. During the murders, he groans and roars. As creepy as Spinell makes Zito, he also makes him sympathetic. Zito is pathetic, especially when crying over his dead mother or speaking to his mannequins. He is too longingly human not to be sympathetic. It's impossible to take your eyes off Spinell, as he makes Frank Zito a disturbing and unforgettable portrayal of absolute insanity.

Zito is so creepy, that it's impossible to believe a woman would ever be interested in him. Even the prostitutes seem disgusted by him. His romance with Anna is difficult to take seriously. His attempts to be charming come off as awkward. For whatever reason, she's attracted to him. (Caroline Munro might be playing it as if she's taking pity on him, though it's hard to tell.) Though it's probably the film's biggest flaw, Frank and Anna's romance does provide more insight into how he views woman. She's a fashion photographer, her apartment filled with photos of beautiful woman. Frank talks about wanting to preserve their beauty, as something that will inevitably fade, an assessment Anna disagrees with. He rather literally objectifies women, thinking of them as something to collect. If “Maniac” is critical of this outlook might be giving it too much credit but, nevertheless, the film goes a long way towards studying this attitude.

As invested as “Maniac” is in Frank and his world, it still knows how to function as an effective horror movie. Despite his disreputable roots, Lustig engineers several very intense sequences. The infamous shotgun murder goes from a slowly simmering sense of unease to a shocking explosion of gore. The scariest scene in the film is a lengthy sequence of Frank stalking a nurse through a subway. The moment goes on and on, the woman failing to board a train and then being stalked through the grungy bathroom. All the elements of suspense – the balance of knowing what's coming but being uncertain of when it'll strike – are perfectly executed. The surreal finale, of Frank being torn apart by his own mannequins, is another time when Tom Savini's vibrant gore is utilized to shocking effect. Only a few scenes, such as a jump scare involving a corpse or some ill-advised slow motion, come off as hokey.

It's easy to see why Spinell was so invested in “Maniac.” The actor's career was mostly spent in small roles as cops and Mafia tough guys. Frank Zito gave Spinell an opportunity to show off his chops, to create an absolutely convincing character.  No wonder he would try to recreate the character a few times. 1982's “The Last Horror Film” would be another team-up with Caroline Munro and was even released in some markets as “Maniac 2.” In 1986, Spinell and “Combat Shock” director Buddy Giovinazzo attempted to make an official sequel. A promo reel for “Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie,” actually a remake of obscure seventies shocker “The Psychopath,” was filmed. Sadly, Spinell died before a complete version could be made. But maybe it's just as well that “Maniac” stands alone as a singularly unnerving and uniquely sleazy cult classic. [9/10]

Willow Creek (2013)

Combining the Bigfoot and found footage subgenres seems like a logical idea. The Squatchploitation genre largely began with a mockumentary, a sister genre to the found footage film. If you believe the infamous Patterson/Gimlin footage is a hoax, it can be seen as a proto-found footage flick of its own. After all, it has shaky handheld camerawork and something bizarre being spotted in a normal location. Sadly, most of the Bigfoot found footage flicks made over the last decade weren't been very good. This is not surprising, as 90% of the found footage genre is bad and there's been, I think, two good Bigfoot movies. Occasionally, an exception appears to prove the rule. Bobcat Goldthwait, beloved stand-up turned cult movie director, would take a stab at both genres with “Willow Creek” and earn some pretty positive notices.

Jim and Kelly have been dating for a while. She's a struggling actress. He's a would-be documentary filmmaker. He's also a Bigfoot enthusiast. For his birthday, Jim talks Kelly into driving into the Six Rivers National Park. They are visiting Willow Creek, the area where the notorious Patterson/Gimlin footage was shot fifty years earlier. Jim decides to video tape their journey, interviewing people in the town and catching footage of the woods. The two encounter some odds things. A man threatens them, telling them to leave. At night, in their tent, they hear strange noises. As they draw closer to the area where the original Bigfoot film was shot, things only grow more disturbing.

The benefits of the found footage genres are many. Beyond it being super cheap to produce, the format brings with it an incredible verisimilitude. (This can be abused as well, as bad filmmakers over rely on shaky camerawork to generate thrills.)  “Willow Creek” does a pretty good job with this. Watching the couple flirt, chat, and argue on camera feels naturalistic and realistic. Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore are both likable and believable in their roles. The early scenes, of Jim interviewing locals or marveling at the kitschy local artwork, are frequently funny in a low-key way. The later scenes, once things get weird, are suitably tense, capturing a fitting sense of panic. “Willow Creek” is good probably because it stole from the best. The film, with its scenes of documentary filmmakers getting lost in the woods and being pursued by unseen forces, definitely owes a lot to “The Blair Witch Project.”

One of the things that elevates “Willow Creek” is that it's not just about Bigfoot. You see, Jim is not just a true believer. He's a hardcore Bigfoot geek, knowing all the location and having memorizes many factoids. Kelly, meanwhile, is a skeptic. She spends most of the movie dismissing her boyfriend's Bigfoot-mania. It's evident, early on, that these two do not have the most stable relationship. She wants to move to L.A., to pursue acting full time. He's vehemently against this idea. Once the two settle into their tent, Jim proposes to Kelly. She turns him down, though he takes it fairly well. Still, “Willow Creek” builds on the tension of a dissolving relationship, using that as fertile ground upon which to build its shocks.

Goldthwait is especially gifted at using the found footage format to create some chills. An earlier scene, where a random man in the woods attempts to dissuade Jim and Kelly from going further, is intense. It's all build-up for an extremely creepy sequence. Jim and Kelly are awoken in the middle of the night by noises outside their tent. They sit in the silence and darkness, listening for unusual noises. They hear something knocking on trees. Just as they're ready to dismiss this and go back to bed, they hear unearthly howls. This is followed by footsteps and finally something poking at the outside of their tent. This scene expertly captures everything that's scary about being in the woods at night, in the dark and quiet, surrounded by strange things. It's also, impressively, a single shot that runs for eighteen minutes, rooting the audience in the stillness of the scene.

“Willow Creek” peaks early in that moment, as there's still about ten minutes left. These later scenes aren't as scary, though the shock ending is fairly effective. (It also pays off on a missing poster we glimpsed earlier.) “Willow Creek” maintains a bit of ambiguity about its topic up to that point, though it's probably for the best that the film makes a definitive statement on whether it believes Bigfoot lives or not. Goldthwait seems to be a Bigfoot romantic, if nothing else. “Willow Creek” is a solid found footage thriller on its own but that single-shot scene really puts it up on the next level. At only seventy-nine minutes long, it's also the perfect runtime for a creepy, if not wholly original, stab at a creature feature. [8/10]

Darkstalkers: My Harry's in the Highland

“Darkstalkers” fans love to pair up Felicia and Jon Talbain. Presumably because a werewolf and a catwoman being partners, if not lovers, is too cute an image to resist. The American “Darkstalkers” cartoon finally plays this up in its eighth episode. While in Scotland, attempting to train Harry, the boy wizard is abducted by Morrigan. The succubus wants to train the teenager to use magic, something Felicia is resistant to do. Morrigan plans to use Harry to help raise an army of immortal Scottish warriors from a sunken city. Felicia teams up with Jon Talbain to rescue him.

Don't get me wrong. “My Harry's in the Highland” is as awful as any other episode of “Darkstalkers.” The animation is, typically, atrocious. This is especially notable in the extremely awkward and cheap action scenes. The climatic fight between Morrigan and Talbain is especially hokey. The changes to series lore are as baffling as always. Morrigan is now a sorceress who was imprisoned in a stone for two hundred years. We see a glimpse of Jon's past, where he witnesses a bakery explode for no discernable reason. Harry temporarily aligning himself with Morrigan is never explained, nor is he punished for this crime. This makes the bratty teen seem even more petulant than usual.

However, I do like a few writing decisions in this one. Morrigan trying to raise a skeleton army is  a cool idea that, sadly, is abandoned almost the minute it's introduced. I actually found myself liking Lee Tockar's growl-y British accent as Jon. (It's quite a departure from the voice actor best known role: The effeminate villain Frieza on “Dragon Ball Z.”) I was also surprised that Felilcia and Jon are actually depicted as having romantic feelings for each other, something even the Japanese media usually backs away from. The scene where Morrigan calmly decides to throw Harry off a cliff is funny too. Again, it's pretty bad by any normal standard but by the low, low standards of this cartoon, it's actually one of the better episodes. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Cherry Blossoms

Airing around the same time as “Forever Knight” was “Highlander: The Series,” which had the similar concept of an ageless protagonist whose modern adventures reminded him of older days. Both series inevitably touched upon an Asian-influenced episode. “Cherry Blossoms” begins with a Chinese woman, a witness against a Triad gangster, nearly escaping being assassinated. She is fearful of going to the cops or immigration. An old man, an acupuncturist named Dr. Chung, saves her. Nick soon finds the old man, who is also reluctant to help. Chung recognizes Knight from an encounter in his childhood and believes the vampire killed his mother. After the witness is rescued and the Triads defeated, the doctor and the vampire have a confrontation.

The criminal subplot in “Cherry Blossoms” is forgettable and disposable. It climaxes in a fairly silly scene where two Triad enforcers randomly attack Nick with nunchucks and a bo staff. What's interesting about “Cherry Blossoms” is Nick's connection with the old Chinese man. Apparently, Nick hoped acupuncture could be a cure for his vampirism. I like the way Nick is still paying for the consequences of his past, even if it turns out he didn't kill the old guy's mom. (I, being the monster nerd I am, also like that Chung refers to him as a jiang-shi.) Mostly, this episode will be worth seeking out because none other than James Hong plays Chung. Hong actually gives a really good performance and the climax, where he learns the truth, is an effective moment. [7/10] 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 26

The First Purge (2018)

“The Purge” movies continue to make money. As we all know, if a horror series continues to make money, sequels will usually continue to be made. There was one problem. “Election Year” ended with the New Founding Fathers of America being voted out of office and the annual tradition of the Purge being outlawed. So for the fourth entry, Blumhouse and James DeMonaco decided to go back in time. “The Purge: The Island” would be a prequel, showing us the events of the very first Purge Night. Perhaps hoping to prevent confusion with movies about cloning or pirates, the title was changed to the far catchier “The First Purge” before its release this past July.

Seemingly set in this year, the film shows the far-right N.F.F.A. being elected into office on a populist ideology, amid fears about crime and economic insecurity. Again, I know this is very difficult to imagine. At this time, a scientist named Dr. Updale conceives of a social experiment, were all crime will be legal for twelve hours. Stanton Island is chosen as the location for this prototype Purge. The film follows several people on the island: Big-shot drug dealer Dmitri, his ex-girlfriend and anti-Purge activist Nya, her younger brother and would-be hustler Isaiah, and their friends from the neighborhood. They will have to band together to survive a night that grows more violent as it goes on, especially once the N.F.F.A. sends armed mercenaries into the island.

DeMonaco has handed directorial duties over to Gerald McMurray but the franchise continues to reflect our modern social/political structure. Dr. Updale thinks of the Purge as a totally neutral social experiment. The N.F.F.A., however, realizes the night can be used to wipe out the people - most of them varying shades of brown, it must be noted - that oppose their voter base. They offer people money to participate in the Purge, essentially paying the working class to murder each other. They flood the neighborhood with weaponry. “The First Purge” is, in one sense, the most hopeful entry in the series. Initially, the first Purge Night doesn’t see many murders. People party, do drugs, and loot a little but only psychopaths already prone to homicide kill. That’s when the professional death squads are sent in. “The First Purge” only slightly warps our modern world, showing a racist, bordering-on-fascist government eager to wipe out the Americans that bother them the most: the poor and racially diverse.

It’s a good thing “The First Purge” is a timely reflection of modern life. As a horror film, this series continues to be kind of silly. The prequel pauses to depict the origin of those ridiculous masks Purgers like to wear. A goofy scene involves two old ladies decorating an alleyway with baby dolls stuffed with explosives. Another laugher has a Purger, also wearing a baby doll mask, unsuccessfully attempting to molest Nya. (She calls him a “pussy grabber,” one of several jabs at our Toddler-in-Chief.) There’s a preposterous character named Skeletor, a junkie with a cross carved into his face who wields a stabbing-glove made of syringes. The eeriest moments in “The First Purge” do not feature this over-the-top ghoulishness. Instead, the spookiest scenes recall real life. Such as when a group of Purgers dressed as cops beat a black man to death in a baseball diamond. Or white supremacists attacking a black church. Or the streets filling with Hummers full of gun-toting Klansmen.

McMurray’s direction is slightly stronger than DeMonaco’s. There’s, refreshingly, no shaky-cam and few jump scares. McMurray does seem a little obsessed with sickly green coloration. The new director, in general, seems to prefer fight scenes to scary scenes. “The First Purge” is more successful as an action movie than a horror movie. The last act is devoted to Dmitri working his way up Nya’s apartment complex. He shoots, wrestles, slashes, and explodes the kill squad within. He even gets a lead bad guy to kill, in the form of a commander wearing a Gestapo trench coat and a bondage mask. There’s a pretty cool scene where the hero, after disrupting the building’s power, stalks the Purgers through flashing hallways. I wouldn’t be surprised if McMurray gets an action franchise gig based on his work here.

The prequel’s cast is largely made up of newcomers. Y’Lan Noel, who stars as Dmitri, only has five prior screen credits. Yet the actor makes a real impression. He’s muscly enough to be convincing as a bad ass killer. He also projects a sympathetic and compassionate side, playing a man conflicted over his profession. Lex Scott Davis plays Nya and radiates a down-to-earth but thoughtful energy. Jovian Wade plays Isaiah, depicting a good kid who is being forced to make some hard decisions. The only name actor in the film is Marisa Tomei as Dr. Updale, the architect of the Purge. The part is pretty thin and Tomei doesn’t do much besides get increasingly exasperated.

My previous statement that each new “Purge” movie is a little better than the one before continues to be true. While “The First Purge” still has some notable flaws, it manages to be both grimmer and more entertaining than the last one. A strong cast, some cool scenes, and an accurate reflecting of our current national nightmare makes this the best one yet. A prequel was smart from another perspective too. Now there’s twenty years of unexplored “Purge” history that future installments can now draw from. Maybe if the series continues its upward trajectory, part six or seven will be some sort of masterpiece. [7/10]

Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

When watching “The Colossus of New York” the other day, I mentioned my youthful habit of reading books and watching documentaries about the history of horror and sci-fi. Along with the caped and robotic Colossus, another image stuck with me from those days. That of a peculiarly dressed Martian vilainness ordering a boxy robot minion down the ramp of her space ship. The source of this image is “Devil Girl from Mars,” an independently made British sci-fi/horror flick from 1954. The film is regarded in some circles as a so-bad-it's-good classic. All of that sounds right in my wheelhouse and I'm surprised I've never seen the movie before now.

The film is set on the Scottish moors, all the events playing out around a pub called the Bonnie-Prince-Charlie. Various melodramas play out inside the public house. An American reporter, Michael, pursues a romance with a former fashion model named Miss Prestwick. An on-the-run convict has fled to the bar, where he rekindles an old affair with the barmaid, Doris. These melodramas are interrupted when a flying saucer lands outside the bar. A female Martian calling herself Nyah emerges. Armed with a futuristic weapons, including a robot with an annihilating ray, she holds the pub patrons hostage. Nyah explains that the Martians are about to go extinct and she's here to capture human men, in hopes of repopulating the planet.

The opening credits of “Devil Girl from Mars” informs us that the film is, hilariously, based on a stage play. It's hard to imagine people lining up at a playhouse to see “Devil Girl from Mars!” The film's stage bound roots are pretty evident on-screen. Most of the story is set in the boxy interior of the pub. Nyah casts a force field over the building, making the cast members unable to leave. The script is highly reliant on some fairly overwrought dialogue. The various romantic subplots, most of which are utterly disposable, seem as stagy as the limited setting. This combines with a story highly derivative of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as both films feature a humanoid visitor from another planet, who comes with an ultimatum for Earth and a robot bodyguard that shoots disintegrating rays from its head. That the visitor lands in the Scottish countryside inside of a major city is another example of how low-budget this production really is.

Despite the limitations of its script and budget, “Devil Girl from Mars” is still kind of fun. Nyah makes for a memorable villain. Patricia Laffan wears a ridiculous vinyl outfit, including a shiny helmet, a cape, thigh high boots, and a leather mini-skirt. Aside from the memorably fetishistic outfit, Laffan barks maniacal dialogue in a way that works for the film. Nyah's mechanical henchman, bizarrely named Channi, is also memorable. There's a creaky power to the image of the blocky robot marching out of the flying saucer and blasting a car, a tree, and a farmhouse into oblivion. Setting the story on a stretch of Scottish countryside obviously still recovering from World War II provides a desolate feeling to the proceedings.

Another element of unintentional camp in “Devil Girl from Mars” comes from its deeply antiquated gender politics. Nyah explains that society on Mars collapsed because men gave control to woman! The emancipation of women led to a war between the sexes, that ended with all the males being rendered impotent. Apparently the Martian women didn't consider that this would lead to a population crisis in just a few years later. Nyah is obviously a predatory woman, who even threatens a small child. This is in contrast to the film's other female characters, all of whom are subservient to men. Prestwick complains that, because she's not married or a mother, her life is basically over. She's 26, by the way. What can you do but laugh at such an over-the-top depiction of the past's overriding sexism?

Aside from Laffan, the film also features an early role for Hazel Court, who would go onto scream queens status after appearing in several Hammer films. Even with the stodgy script, “Devil Girl from Mars” can't help but hit my sweet spot. It's a slow sci-fi flick with cheesy effects and hilariously dated everything else. Yet there's a certain charm to that, which don't see anywhere else but fifties B-flicks. I'm not surprised it became a cult classic of sorts. The film, with its horny alien villain who wears fetish gear and wields a tri-pronged ray gun, was a likely influence on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” If that strain of bullshit appeals to you, you might want to check this one out. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Little Bigfoot's Last Stand

This cartoon didn't need another annoying comic relief character but adds one anyway. Meet Hairball, Bigfoot's young nephew. The yeti mails himself to Harry's house, now located out in the country for undisclosed reasons. Pyron hopes to abduct Felicia but ends up grabbing the boy wizard and the annoying sasquatch instead. The bad guys hope to ransom Hairball but the Bigfoot clan realize the villains will tire of him long before then. Meanwhile, Felicia finds a way onto Pyron's ship, which she accomplishes by harassing Lord Raptor, so she can rescue Harry. Soon, chaos erupts on the alien's mothership.

After two relatively serious episodes, “Darkstalkers” swings back towards obnoxious comedy very hard with this one. Hairball is supposed to be an annoying character, which the show does too good a job of accomplishing. In the one genuinely amusing moment in the episode, the little bigfoot even drives the usually unflappable computer on Pyron's ship nuts. Even Lord Raptor, with his rock music puns, fails to amuse me this time. The episode gets aggressively wacky as it goes on, especially once Bigfoot and the other sasquatches teleport themselves onto the spaceship. The final action scene is set in Pyron's vault, where he keeps all his magical relics, which might've been a cool moment if the animation wasn't so lame. Overall, it's another fairly pathetic episode of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon. [3/10]

Forever Knight: False Witness

“False Witness” starts with Nick watching out for Peter Farber, a police informant with a wire. Farber's talking with Murray Kozak, a sleazy pornography producer who is suspected of murdering an adult actress. When the sleazeball realizes Farber is wearing a wire, Nick leaps into action. The vampire flies into the room just after Kozak shoots the man in cold blood. He claims he saw the producer murder the witness. An investigation follows, internal affairs discovering some inconsistencies in Nick's story. He has to testify at a daytime trial, which is problematic for a vampire.

The conflict of “False Witness” is twofold. Nick knows Kozak killed Farber but he didn't literally see him pull the trigger. Everyone on the force, including Schanke and Stonetree, tell Nick he should lie so the scumbag goes away for life. Nick feels the lie weighing on him soon enough, mainly because it reminds him of seeing a witness lie on the stand in the 1700s. This stuff is mildly compelling from a dramatic stand-point. Forcing a vampire to function during a daytime trial is a little more fun, as Natalie smuggles Nick into the courtroom in the trunk of his car. His fingers singe a little while touching the Bible and giving the oath. He has to lean back from the sunlight crossing the court room. (And there's a cute denouncement where Nick and Nat watch “King Kong” together.) These elements make for a decent episode, even if the subplot involving a dominatrix pays off in a contrived way, there's another cheesy shot of Nick flying, and there's way too much stock footage. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 25

Waxworks (1924)
Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

The wax museum occupies a special place in horror history. Maybe even more than dolls or dummies, wax figures take up residence in the Uncanny Valley. These glassy-eyed objects look like living things but, like corpses, are still and lifeless. The proprietors of these businesses are certainly aware of the disgust some patrons feel towards the dummies, as chambers of horrors are a regular feature in wax museum. Unsurprisingly, horror filmmakers have exploited these feelings many times over the years. Before Anthony Hickox's “Waxwork” films or “House of Wax,” or even “Mystery at the Wax Museum,” there was 1924's “Waxworks.”  It was the last movie Paul Leni made in his native Germany before coming to America and making several silent era classics for Universal Studios.

The owner of a wax museum, located within a carnival, posts a job ad. He wants someone to come in and write stories to accompany the wax figures, in hopes of attracting more business. A poet inquires about the job and is quickly hired to write backstories for three wax models: A one-armed model of Harun al-Rashid, a model of Ivan the Terrible, and a representation of Spring-Heeled Jack which the film seems to conflate with Jack the Ripper. Infatuated with the owner's daughter, the poet incorporates her and himself into each tale he writes.

To refer to “Waxworks” as a horror movie is a bit misleading. Of the three segments, only one truly belongs to the genre of the macabre. The first segment, concerned with Harun al-Rashid, is a adventure/romance in the vein of “Arabian Nights.” The plot, revolving around a baker attempting to impress his wife by stealing the caliph's ring and al-Rashid attempting to romance the same wife, is light-hearted. Despite the plot involving threats of assassination, nobody dies. There's a fun sequence involving the baker sword fighting with some royal guards and leaping across rooftops. Emil Jannings, best known for Murnau's “Faust” and “The Last Laugh,” is excellent as al-Rashid. Jannings has a twinkle in his eyes that assures the audience everything will work out all right in the end.

The Ivan the Terrible sequence is mostly a dour historical drama, though I suppose its themes of madness and death brushes up against the horror genre. I found the plot a bit hard to follow but it mostly involves Czar Ivan's love of poisoning people, whose deaths are timed as the last grain of sand in an hourglass sifts to the bottom. After he takes pity on a prisoner, the Czar's Poison-Mixer is lined up for execution. A convoluted series of events follow. Conrad Veidt plays Ivan and is unnervingly steely. Vedit's unforgettable eyes starred with a mad conviction, as he orders his victims. The twists and turns in the plot may be hard to follow but this episode features several memorable scenes, such as a dance at a wedding where everyone is clearly terrified and the conclusion, where the Czar turns the hourglass over and over again, eventually going mad.

The last segment in “Waxworks” is also the most brief, running only six minutes. It's practically plotless too. The poet falls asleep starring at the model of Spring-Heeled Jack and has a nightmare about the dummy stalking him and the owner's daughter through a surreal cityscape. Though light on story, the segment is probably the most memorable in the film. Befitting a wax model, Jack barely moves. Instead, he appears suddenly around every corner as the heroes try to escape. Sometimes, there's even more than one of him. Werner Krauss, best known for playing Dr. Caligari, gives Jack a transfixed and unnerving glare. It's a creepy and appropriately dream-like scene, a good note to conclude the film on.

What makes “Waxworks” truly special is its direction. The film piles on the expressionistic style. The Arabian streets in the first segment wind around each other in surreal, impossible ways. The palace and temple rooftops are eerie silhouettes, topped with Islamic crescent moons. Ivan the Terrible's torture chambers are shadowy, full of abstract angles that spiral down into darkness. Paul Leni's expressionistic direction really shines during the Jack the Ripper scene, as the city is composed solely of undefined shapes stretching up towards starless skies. “Waxworks” builds fantastically on the foundation build by “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and makes it clear that Leni was one of the visual innovators of the silent era.

Leni would bring that same sensibility to his American films, elevating “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Man Who Laughs,” and “The Last Warning” with similarly stylistic direction. The middle segment drags quite a bit but the first one is fun and the final one is spooky. I don't know if this was intended but the excellent cast plays like a who's-who of German silent cinema. Finding Cesare, Caligari, and Mephisto in the same film is a treat for classic horror devotees. More than anything else, Leni's unforgettably eerie direction makes “Waxworks” a must-see for fans of silent cinema. [7/10]

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Each of “The Purge” movies have come out in the summer. The first dropped in June and all the others in July. In fact, the last two were both released on July 4th. Personally, I've always thought releasing horror movies during the summer was a risky move. Smaller films threaten to get lost among the endless blockbusters. Yet I guess Blumhouse knows their shit. Genre counter-programming has clearly worked out for “The Purge” franchise. The series has happily leaned into the summer release date, the advertising comparing the real American tradition of July 4th with the fictional American tradition of the Purge. (Both events probably sever the same number of fingers.) 2016's “The Purge: Election Year” would be another success, outgrossing the previous entry.

“Election Year” jumps ahead twenty years. As a teenager, Charlie Roan's family was murdered by a purger. Now, she's a senator who is running for president on an anti-Purge platform. This angers the New Founding Fathers of America, the hard-right political party that made the Purge an institution. They remove the rule that makes high ranking political figures safe on Purge Night. Naturally, this is an excuse to assassinate Roan before she wins the upcoming election. Roan's bodyguard, the sergeant from “Anarchy” now named Leo Barnes, is her only protection. Soon, the fleeing senator encounter other people in D.C.: A shop owner named Joe, his young employee, a woman who goes out on Purge Night to help people, and a group of revolutionaries looking to destroy the N.F.F.A.

As you might have guessed, “The Purge: Election Year” was an especially topical entry in the franchise. After introducing political/social critique in the last film, James DeMonaco really doubles-down on it in “Election Year.”  The sequel focuses more on depicting the right-wing government that made the Purge possible. Now, it's just a matter of fact that the Purge is a political tool, designed to wipe out dissidents and the poor. The organizers are evangelical Christians, gathering in churches to murder and babbling in tongues while killing. The villains employ a band of mercenaries who decorate with Neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery. The heroes are black and Latino, the most frequent targets of government sanctioned violence both in and out of universe. And, of course, a liberal leaning woman running against a hyper-conservative man for president was especially relevant in 2016.

Whatever loftier intentions “The Purge: Election Year” has in mind, this is still a relatively low budget horror movie. Like many Blumhouse films, the series has been distributed by Universal Studios. Naturally, the company has been eager to incorporate the successful “Purge” series into their annual Halloween Horror Night events. “Election Year,” either intentionally or unintentionally, ends up resembling the “haunted maze” attractions at the parks. The middle section of the movie is devoted to the protagonists running through a Washington, D.C. that's been transformed into a war zone. Attackers in colorful outfits leap out and grab them. They see weird displays – public guillotining, a bloody man ranting on a street corner, a singing woman sitting on a bench by a burning corpse – play out around them. Though the movie is fairly grim, stuff like this is sort of fun in a ridiculous way.

And “Election Year” is a ridiculous film. The roaming gangs of purgers have only gotten more flamboyant. A group of psychotic teenage girls, with a petty grudge against Joe, show up at his store in a car covered in Christmas lights. They wear colorful and gratuitously sexy costumes while ranting like lunatics. We also meet a gang of murder tourists – Europeans who travel to America just to participate in Purge Night – wearing Americana themed outfits. One group of purgers have installed a Poe-style pendulum in an alley way. The action is bigger and sillier than ever before too. There's a helicopter with a chain gun, gladiatorial combat, a priest with a shotgun, and Frank Grillo shooting a drone out of the air. Betty Gabriel cracks the worst comebacks possible after blasting purgers. Grillo has a final boss battle knife fight before the end credits. It's super silly but in an appealing way.

The cast is an improvement over the previous one's too. Bringing Frank Grillo back was a great idea. Grillo's aptitude for action hero theatrics are a great boon to “Election Year.” You're certainly more inclined to follow him on a crazy night of murder than some other random joe. Elizabeth Mitchell is also likable as Senator Roan, a woman who sticks to her principles even when knee-deep in murder country. Mostly, it's the supporting cast that makes “Election Year” fun. Mykelti Williamson is hugely entertaining as the caustic Joe Dixon. Joseph Julian Soria is believable and oddly sweet as Marcos, his young protegee. Betty Gabriel is convincingly bad-ass as Laney Rucker, while still maintaining a more empathetic side. For you “Purge” fanatics, “Election Year” also brings back Edwin Hodge, reprising his role of the homeless man from the first film.

“The Purge: Election Year” is definitely the best film in the series thus far. Don't get any nutty ideas though, as it's still got some pretty big flaws. The evil-doers are getting increasingly more ridiculous with each new entry. The third film has the exact same pacing problems as the previous two. Just like last time, there's a weird sluggish spot in the second half, where all the action stops cold for a while. DeMonaco's direction is still pretty tacky, as he employ slow-mo and dramatic shaking once again. But these movies are getting incrementally better with each installment. Maybe the next will actually be good all the way through? [6/10]

Darkstalkers: Ghost Hunters

Episode six of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon brings in another game character: Hsien-Ko, the jiang-shi who hunts other Darkstalkers. (She's just referred to as a Chinese ghost here.) From Pyron's ship, Demitri and Morrigan notice that Darkstalkers are disappearing all over the globe. They soon realize that Hsien-Ko is exterminating them. Lord Raptor is sent to battle the hunter, which fails, and Morrigan soon follows after him. The ghost girl reveals her origins to Rikuo. She's driven by revenge, as Demitri murdered her family hundreds of years ago. The jiang-shi and the vampire are soon fighting it out.

There's a lot of crappy stuff about this episode. Hsien-Ko's redesign is hideous, with her giant metal hands, white skin, and exposed midriff. Her completely rewritten origin, which now involves eating magic rice, is lame. The action scenes are typically weak, Morrigan pulling a huge sword out of nowhere at one point. Rikou and Lord Raptor's roles in the episode are unnecessary, though Scot McNeil's lyrics-filled performance as the zombie is still fun. However, Hsien-Ko's grudge against Demitri is more compelling than the episode's plots usually are. She even gets a real character arc, rushed though it is. Also notable: Felicia and Harry have a very small role in this episode. I can't say I miss them. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dying to Know You

“Dying to Know You” begins with a daring daytime kidnapping. The wife and daughter of a millionaire are taken in broad daylight. The police brings in a psychic named Denise to help locate them. This becomes a problem as soon as she meets Nick Knight. While investigating the missing women, the psychic picks up images of Nick's extensive past and vampire lifestyle. This freaks her out so much that she decides to leave the investigation. As the case goes on, and it becomes apparent that Nick can't crack it without her help, the vampire cop reveals the truth to Denise. This, naturally, does not end well.

I guess it was only a matter of time before Nick meet some other character with supernatural powers. It goes without saying that a vampire cop is way more interesting than a psychic investigator. However, Elizabeth Marmur gives a decent performance as Denise. When she's assailed by the disturbing images of Nick's past, Marmur is believable. She also has a decent rapport with Geraint Wyn Davies. The psychic also introduces a few other amusing moments, such as when she tells Schanke his unseen wife isn't actually at her bowling night. (He then calls her on a giant cellphone.) The crime plot is completely uninteresting and the way it ties in with the psychic angle is somewhat disappointing. The ending features some cheesy flying effects and a blunt conclusion. [6.5/10]