Last of the Monster Kids

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

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Halloween 2018: Sepember 22

Donovan's Brain (1953)

You can't talk about the history of horror without giving Curt Siodmak a mention. Siodmak wrote  “The Wolfman,” inventing most of the common werewolf tropes in the process. He would go on to write many other Universal Monsters movies. Siodmak's credits also include other classics like “I Walked with a Zombie,” “The Beast with Five Fingers,” and “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Yet one of Siodmak's biggest successes would be a novel. “Donovan's Brain” would be a best seller in the forties. It would be adapted to radio and then to film three separate times. (In addition to inspiring the entire “killer brain” sub-genre.) The best known of these adaptations, from 1953, is the only one to use Siodmak's original title.

Dr. Patrick Cory is an experimental brain surgeon. His greatest goal is to keep a brain alive once it's been removed from the body. He's obsessed with his work, worrying his wife Janice and his alcoholic friend Frank. He gets a rare opportunity when millionaire Warren Donovan's plane crashes near their home. Patrick places Donovan's brain inside his experimental tank, keeping it alive. Soon afterwards, the doctor begins to exhibit many of Donovan's characteristic, a hard and hateful man. Donovan takes over Cory from beyond the grave, hoping to settle his affairs and unnaturally extend his life.

“Donovan's Brain” has some scary ideas floating around inside it. Siodmak puts a sci-fi twist on the classical possession idea, of someone loosing their free will to an outside force. The story also flirts with the idea of friends and family feeling powerless as they watch a loved one change. However, the movie doesn't sell these ideas in especially effective ways. First off, Dr. Cory is kind of a jerk to begin with. When Donovan begins to influence him, he just becomes another flavor of asshole. Donovan also isn't the scariest sci-fi villain imaginable. Donovan returns from the grave... So he can commit tax fraud. It's very late into the film that the evil brain actually commits murder and, even then, he never uses Dr. Cory to do so.

Felix E. Feist, previously of “Deluge,” directs a decent cast. Lew Ayres stars as Cory. Ayres does a good job of essentially playing two characters in the same body. Just through his body language, which includes affecting a limp, Ayres does a good job of informing the audience when Donovan has taken over his body. “Donovan's Brain” also co-stars Nancy Davis, who is definitely better known as Nancy Reagan. As the woman endangered by the wicked brain, the future First Lady projects a likable vulnerability. (I also like the love she shows for a monkey in the first scene.) Gene Evans is also decent as Frank. Despite the character being a drunk, he has an honorable side too, which Evans is good at playing.

As I said, “Donovan's Brain” is fairly underwhelming as a horror movie. While what the callous billionaire's brain does is potentially unnerving, the film never approaches it as especially sinister. As it moves towards its last act, “Donovan's Brain” begins to feel a bit more like a monster movie. A blackmailing reporter is killed and Cory, under Donovan's control, becomes more violent. However, the movie cops out with a super lame ending. I figured the thunder storm that begins in the last act was just there to provide some spooky atmosphere. Instead, the bad weather provides the deus ex machina that brings the villain's reign of terror to an end. This bullshit ending, notably, is not present in Siodmak's original novel.

As I said, this is but one of three adaptations of Siodmak's novel to reach theater screens. The book was first adapted in 1944 as “The Lady and the Monster,” starring Erich von Stroheim. A mere nine years after this film, the story would be adapted again as “The Brain,” this time by director Freddie Francis. It's also notable that, two years before his novel was released, Siodmak wrote “Black Friday,” a film similarly about brain transplant and a Jekyll and Hyde-esque possession. Despite it's reputation as a classic, I was a bit underwhelmed by “Donovan's Brain.” I guess that happens some time. [5/10]

It's Alive (2008)

Following the success of 2003's “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” studios became hungry to remake any moderately well known horror movie from the seventies or eighties. While most of these projects were deeply unnecessary affairs, a few had some merit. I enjoy the original “It's Alive” a lot but the premise could definitely prosper from an update. So when a new version of Larry Cohen's cult classic was announced, I didn't immediately dismiss it. Cohen was even credited with working on the screenplay! However, the project went into development hell for years. By the time the new “It's Alive” was actually released, the remake cycle had burned itself out. The film ended up being crapped out onto the straight-to-DVD market. This, along with an awful trailer, did not get my hopes up.

The remake makes many changes to the premise. Frank and Lenore Davis are now much younger, with Lenore still being a college student. Only six months into her pregnancy, she goes into labor. In the hospital, she's told the infant has doubled in size since the last ultrasound. In the delivery room, all the doctors are gorily killed. Lenore and the baby, who is named Daniel, are fine though. In the months that follow, Daniel appears to be perfectly healthy and normal. However, Lenore soon becomes aware that Daniel occasionally changes into a hideous monster that can tear people apart. She hides this information from her husband and his paraplegic brother but soon the bodies start to pile up. 

By changing the plot of “It's Alive” so much, the subtext behind the story is largely changed as well. The original's paranoia surrounding pollution, pharmaceuticals, and government agencies are totally excised. In fact, the reason why the Davis baby becomes a monster is never clarified in the remake. By refocusing the story on Lenore, and making the baby a less obvious mutant, “It's Alive” becomes about something very different. Now this is a film about a young woman uncertain about the responsibilities of motherhood. Lenore considered aborting the baby, right from the beginning. Though baby Daniel continues to kill, Lenore still loves and watches out for him. However, her behavior – morose, resigned, obsessive, isolated from her clueless husband – recalls postpartum depression.

This new approach could've provided a fresh take on the original. Sadly, 2008's “It's Alive” is an utterly laughable horror movie. Director Josef Rusnak, previously of “The Thirteenth Floor,” makes the odd decision to keep baby Daniel almost entirely off-screen. We usually only see the carnage the infant reaps. Which is ridiculous, by the way. This mutant baby is not an ambush killer, like the original. Instead, it tosses doctors into the air, tears holes in bodies, and gorily dismembers people in outrageous ways. As if these scenes weren't laughable enough, the new “It's Alive” tosses some truly shitty CGI in near the end. These ludicrous effects are often punctuated by an obnoxiously loud soundtrack. Bernard Hermman, this ain't.

Adding to the remake's litany of problems is a truly underwhelming cast. A very squeaky Bijou Philips stars as Lenore. Philips has shown herself to be a capable actress in the past. Here, however, she seems more indecisive than anything else. Her performance veers from hysterics to blank. Philips is, at least, better than James Murray as Frank. Murray's interpretation of Murray is epically clueless. The character spends the entire movie utterly aware of anything strange happening at all. Murray's performance is corresponding bland. Many of the supporting characters – Lenore's best friend from school, her stoner boyfriend, the asshole cops – are obnoxiously broad and exist just to add to the body count.

From the opening minutes of 2008's “It's Alive,” as soon as I saw the Millennium Releasing logo, I knew I was in trouble That logo rarely proceeds anything of quality.  Weirdly, the remake was also produced by the modern iteration of Amicus. Sadly, I don't think this film honored Amicus' legacy of classy British horror flicks. The straight-to-video market is, sadly, exactly where the remake of “It's Alive” belongs. Nobody was more dismissive of the film than Larry Cohen. In a 2009 interview, he said “I would advise anybody who likes my film to cross the street and avoid seeing the new enchilada.” An astute statement. Despite some clever ideas, 2008's “It's Alive” is wretched. [3/10]

Darkstalkers: Pyramid Power

In its third episode, the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon presents its interpretation of Anakaris, the game's mummy character. A proud warrior obsessed with restoring his empire in the game, Anakaris is re-characterized here as senile and completely incompetent. The plot concerns a powerful relic from Anakaris' days as Pharaoh, which Pyron hopes to steal. This magical jewel was stolen by Atlantians, the ancestors of merman Rikuo. (Anakaris and Rikou are both voiced by Scott McNeil, which is very obvious.) Morrigan tricks Rikou into revealing the jewel by disusing herself as a fish lady. Harry and Felicia end up in Egypt as Harry's mom – a tabloid reporter – is sent to investigate on Anakaris' pyramid floating around the Cairo.

In its third episode, “Darkstalkers” mostly gives up on action. This is a good idea, as the action scenes are still incompetent. (At least some of Anakaris' special moves are maintained.) Instead, the focus turns to exceedingly bizarre humor. Most of these jokes are awful. Anakaris spouting nonsensical phrase and Rikuo becoming obsessed with the fake fish woman are insulting. The scene where Demitri and Morrigan are chased off by house cats is embarrassing. Tossed-off lines about Elvis and Rikuo being curiously attractive are baffling. One joke made me laugh, when Rikuo randomly makes some dolphin noises. Also, having Anakaris mistakes Felicia for cat goddess Bast was mildly clever. The animation remains atrocious, the characters bending into abstract shapes near the episode's end. As awful as this show remains, this episode's bizarre humor makes it a little more interesting than the previous two. [4/10]

Forever Knight: For I Have Sinned

With episode three, “Forever Knight” finally branches out to tell new stories. Toronto is being stalked by a new serial killer. The murderer targets woman, extensively mutilating their bodies. Soon, a Catholic priest named Rochefort receives confessional from the killer, that old spiel about wanting to purge the world from sinners. Nick and Schanke press the priest to reveal the murderer's identity but he's reluctant to do so. A phone sex operator manages to escape the killer but he continues to pursue her. Meanwhile, Nick reflects back on the time he met Joan of Arc, who refused his invitation over to the dark side.

The main plot of “For I Have Sinned” is not that interesting. The killer's identity ends up being a total question mark However, the episode continues to give us more insight into these characters and their world. Dealing with a case so heavily involved in Catholicism forces Nick to constantly look at crosses, which still repel him. (He's also experimenting with garlic tablets.) This leads to a funny scene where he's forced to hide in a confessional booth during the daytime. He needs up hearing Schanke's confession, the partner talking about nearly being bitten by another vamp. That's a funny scene. The Joan of Arc flashbacks show Nick's beliefs in his own vampirism being challenged very early into his undead life. We also get a little more insight into Nick's relationship with Janette, an old friend of his who now runs the vampire club. Overall, it's a fun episode. [7/10]

No comments: