Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 19

Dante's Inferno (1911)

During the Six Weeks of Halloween, I always talk a lot about the history of the genre. Horror is, after all, what we're here to discuss. Something that makes horror so fascinating to me is the way the hallmarks of the genre – things that frighten, unsettle, or horrify – have been depicted over the years. If you're looking for the origins of the horror movie, you have to go back over a hundred years ago. There were many early silent shorts with horror themes. But perhaps the first feature length horror movie, and one of the earliest feature films in general, is the 1911 version of “Dante's Inferno.” Made in Italy by a trio of directors, it would be an early cinematic hit, earning two million dollars in the U.S. alone. Despite its historical significance, the film is rarely discussed today.

If you took a college English class, you're probably at least vaguely familiar with Dante's “Divine Comedy” and its most famous first act, “Inferno.” The 1911 feature adaptation sticks fairly close to Alighieri's text. It begins with Dante lost in the dark forest of sin, besieged by attacking animals. In this dark moment, Dante is rescued by the spirit of his idol, the poet Virgil. Virgil then leads Dante on a guided tour through Hell. Looking upon each of the seven circles, the two see the various ways that those who are guilty in life are punished in death.

1911's “L'inferno” will be most interesting to horror fans for its elaborate depictions of hellish punishment. The silent film is full of surreal and nightmarish images that can still shock. Nude bodies lay on a volcanic field, fire raining down upon. Hordes of winged and horned demons whip and probe the damned souls. Later, we see demons and the damned depicted as people with blank doll faces or heavy, dome-like robes. People who bullshited in life spend eternity screaming in a literal river of shit. And some are buried head first in it. One memorable sequences shows dismembered bodies, including a man carrying his own head, stumbling out of a cave. Another has snake biting sinners in a pit. In the final, frozen circle, an enormous Satan gnaws on the greatest traitors of all. People are punished in rain, fire, ice, and the forest by various types of monsters. The film is also full of male and female nudity, as many of the damned are nude. It's surprising and visually impressive stuff, much of it looking right out of a Bosche painting.

I've always been interested in Dante's “Divine Inferno,” for its symbolic and historical value. Dante is largely responsible for creating our modern impression of what Hell looks like. He drew greatly upon pre-Christian lore, especially Greek paganism. This is apparent in the film version. A three-headed Cerberus, depicted by a crude puppet, guards the gates of Hell. Above the same gates are a trio of gorgons, turning visitors to stone. At one point, Dante and Virgil ride upon the back of Geryon, depicted here as an enormous dragon with a man's face. The forest where suicides are transformed into bleeding trees is inhabited by flapping harpies. Giants carry Dante and Virgil into the final circle. It's interesting to consider that much of what we think of as Christian doctrine was invented in the 14th century by someone largely pulling from beliefs that pre-date Jesus.

Being a very early feature, “L'inferno” does need to be graded on a certain curve. The special effects are creaky and nightmarish in much the same way many silent movies are. Some effects, however, are just goofy looking, like the googly-eyed cerberus or lizard monster. Dante's poem doesn't have much of an actual plot. The film's faithfulness to the material means it's basically a series of special effects sequences piled atop each other. This leads to a sluggish pace. The movie's only 72 minutes long but it definitely feels longer than that. Weirdly, the film will sometimes break for short historical sequences, when some of the tortured in Hell talk about their crimes in lives. These scenes are dull. The acting can also be quite hammy, the performers gesticulating wildly with their faces and arms.

Those same special effects scenes are probably why the movie was such a huge hit back in 1911. Cinema was still a new invention and audience had quite literally never seen wild sights like this before. These wild visuals has made Dante's poem irresistible to other filmmakers, even if his work lacks anything in the way of plot. 1924's “Dante's Inferno” is partially lost and only loosely inspired by “The Divine Comedy,” depicting the hellish afterlife of a greedy slumlord. A 1935 “Dante's Inferno,” starring Spencer Tracy, went down a similar path, depicting a rotten man having visions of his own grim afterlife. Other adaptations range from experimental shorts to hack-and-slash video games. Despite its stodginess, the images in 1911's “L'inferno” still maintain a certain power. It's certainly, ahem, one hell of a way to start off a Halloween marathon. [7/10]

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The six week long Halloween horror movie marathon serves several functions. It allows me to re-watch exciting or interesting films I haven't seen in quite a while. Other times, it gives me an excuse to watch newer horror features I haven't caught up with yet. Lastly, the marathon gives me a reason to fill some gaps in my horror education. I'm very familiar with the 1986 musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors,” based on the popular stage musical version of the story. Despite it being in the public domain and widely available, I've never seen Roger Corman's original film before. I guess that's not surprising, since the musical has overshadowed the film it was adapting in many ways. Well, the first day of the Blog-a-thon seems like a good time to finally watch a goofy horror/comedy about a man-eating plant.

Set in a bad urban neighborhood known only as “Skid Row,” the film is set largely within Mushnick's Flower Shop. Business is poor and the shop is on the verge of going out of business. That's when Seymour, the pathetic main employee of Mr. Mushnick, brings in an odd plant he's created. A large fly trap, he's named the plant after Audrey, the pretty co-worker he has a crush on. The plant, however, only feeds off one thing: Blood. As Seymour feeds it his own blood, Audrey Jr. grows and grows. The plant brings more people into the shop but its hunger for human flesh grows. Soon, Seymour is killing to appease the plant.

How Cormon's “Little Shop of Horror” came into existence is well known. The notoriously prolific and thrifty director had two days left on the schedule after completing “Bucket of Blood.” He quickly threw together this film to utilize all the same sets. Aside from sharing the same store front, apartment, and junkyard locations, it's easy to see “Little Shop” as a companion piece to “Bucket of Blood.” Both are about a milquetoast guy using murder as a means to fame and earning the respect of his dream girl. However, this film is not as sharp as the earlier one. “Bucket of Blood” was a pointed satire of the beatnik art scene, with some genuinely grisly horror. “Little Shop” is a silly farce, with a really fake looking killer plant at the center. Mostly, this film is nowhere near as funny as “Bucket.” The laughs are cheesy and limp, while Jonathan Haze is rather annoying as the spineless Seymour.

I've seen Frank Oz' 1986 film version of the stage musical many times. I'd say it's one of my favorite movies, as I love just about everything about it. So I can't help but compare the original to the better known subsequent adaptation. The nature of the man-eating plant seems to be the biggest difference. Audrey Jr., not Audrey II, only communicates in monosyllabic sentences. That is until a bizarre sequence in the last half where the plant hypnotizes Seymour. Which might explain why so many people enter the flower shop as Audrey grows, though there's little in the actual movie to suggest that. Audrey Jr.'s origins are much less convoluted here, simply being bred by Seymour. The ending is completely different as well. The Faustian themes of the remake, as well as its far-out sci-fi ideas, do not originate here. The 1960 “Little Shop” can't help but come off as a cruder version of this story.

It seems the main joke Corman and his screenwriter, Charles B. Griffith, thought up for the film was including as many bizarre supporting characters as possible. Dick Miller was offered the part of Seymour, presumably in another attempt to emulate “A Bucket of Blood.” Instead, he plays a customer of the floral shop who likes to eat flowers. Seymour's mom is depicted as an out-of-control hypochondriac who makes meals out of over-the-counter medicine. A pair of strange detectives, clearly based off “Dragnet's” Joe Friday, narrate the film and rattle off some fast-paced dialogue. There's a representative of the “Silent Flower Watching Society,” a  pair of enthusiastic teen girls, an elderly woman who has a new funeral to go to every week, and an eccentric prostitute. The only one of these oddballs to make much of an impression is the sadistic dentist and his masochistic patient. Jack Nicholson plays the latter and mugs it up in a delightfully weird fashion. (It's easy to see why those two are the only guest characters the musical kept.)

Corman let the movie lapse into the public domain because he didn't think it would make any money. That decision not only made the musical possible, it also paved the way for countless VHS/DVD releases and late night horror host screenings. (Unsurprisingly, many of these releases trumpet Jack Nicholson's appearance, despite it being fairly brief.) Now you can find it on any internet streaming website easily. Considering the movie has become a cult classic, I bet Corman wishes he held onto the rights. I guess later iterations spoiled me, as the original doesn't strike me as all that funny or charming. Oh well. [5/10]

It's Alive (1974)

The name of Larry Cohen has come up a few times before on this blog, especially during the autumn months. As a writer and director, Cohen is especially talented at creating zippy, B-movie premises that also function as insightful social commentary. The movie this inventive, independent filmmaker really made his name with was 1974’s “It’s Alive.” The infamous mutant baby epic, along with its two sequels, recently got a fancy Blu-Ray release from Scream Factory. Seems to me like this is a good time to revisit this often overlooked but doubtlessly influential horror series.

The Davis family - father Frank, mother Lenore and young son Chris - are expecting a new arrival. Lenore is ready to deliver her second child. The night of the birth, however, is far from a joyous one. The Davis baby is not like any other. Instead, it’s a fearsome beast that, mere seconds after being delivered, kills the doctors and nurses in the room. The creature crawls up a ventilation shaft, escaping, leading to national news coverage and heated pursuit from officials. Frank and Lenore, meanwhile, have to grapple with the fact that this monster came from them.

“It’s Alive” is a horror movie deeply rooted in the social fears and concerns of 1974. While Frank waits for the baby to be delivered, he chats with some other expecting fathers. They discuss pollution, especially how strange chemicals can mutate natural animal life. In a plot point that has not aged well, it’s strongly suggested the mutated baby is the result of Lenore previously using birth control. The film also reflects a general distrust of The System. The authorities - police, doctors, scientists, journalists - only seem to impend the Davis’ healing process, by trying to exploit their story or forcing them to sign endless documents. (In one scene, the cops also end up pointing their guns at a totally harmless infant, suggesting a certain degree of incompetence on their behalf.) Though definitely dated, the film obviously reflects fears that humans were irrevocably ruining our world and ourselves and that nobody in power was actually interested in reversing it.

“It’s Alive” is also about the more general fears of parenthood. Though Frank and Lenore are elated in the hours leading up the child’s birth, they’re also nervous. Chris wonders if anything will happen to his mom. Lenore vocally expresses the concern that there’s something wrong with her baby. The aftermath of the birth - a delivery room filled with blood and death, a panicked sense that something’s gone wildly wrong and nothing can be done about it - recalls an expecting parent’s worst nightmare. Afterwards, Frank feels directly responsible for the monstrous child’s existence, becoming obsessed with destroying it. Only at the last minute, after actually meeting the monster baby, does he realize this is his son, a scared and vulnerable creature. Cohen directly references “Frankenstein,” another story of a father determined to destroy his monstrous off-spring. This seems to be speaking to common fears of parents. Namely, the complex feelings brought about from wondering if you’re doing the right thing as a parent.

Despite stuffing in these headier themes, “It’s Alive” is still moderately successful as a monster shocker. The aftermath of the monster baby’s birth is still an impressive engineered moment. Cohen frequently adapts distorted point-of-view shots, suggesting the Davis mutant’s lurking without showing it. His most clever trick comes in the last act, as the police pursue the child into the sewers. These scenes are primarily dark, brief glimpse of the cop and the monster only be provided by the flashing red lights. The movie is also pretty damn gory for a PG movie, even one from 1974. A darkly funny scene of the baby killing a milkman is mostly kept off-screen but we still see a torrent of blood mix with the split milk. There’s also quite a few close-up shots of the Davis child bloodily munching necks.

On its face, “It’s Alive” is a ridiculous premise. How exactly is a newborn, even a mutant one, suppose to kill anybody? Helping to sell the goofy idea is a cast that takes the material one hundred percent seriously. John Ryan plays Frank Davis. His initial introduction shows him sweetly chatting with his wife and son. This establishes the normalcy of the situation before subverting. After that, Ryan is allowed to go to more intense places, as a man torn between grief at the normal life lost and obsession with his own culpability in the deaths. Sharon Farrell clearly drew inspiration from woman suffering from postpartum depression, as she brings a conflicted, erratic, and unpredictable character to life. These are strong, serious performances. In fact, it’s possible the performances are a little too grave as the movie drags some during its deathly serious middle section.

When paired with Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic score and Rick Baker’s mostly effective special effects, “It’s Alive” is a thoughtful and grisly creature feature. Still, I’ll admit, the film’s infamous trailer/TV spot is way scarier than the actual movie. That notorious trailer was put together for a re-release in 1977. The film was somewhat overlooked during its initial release, which Cohen blamed on an apathetic Warner Brothers. For the re-release, he personally commissioned the sinister new ad campaign, which made the movie a big success. I guess that proves you shouldn’t give up on a project if you really believe in it. [7/10]

Nick Knight (1989)

Of all the major horror archetypes, the vampire is probably the most popular. In the realm of television, the vampire is definitely the most commonly portrayed monster trope. This is because of the creature's evergreen appeal but also, I think, because few special effects are required to bring them to life. From the early days of “Dark Shadows,” up through “Buffy,” “True Blood,” and “The Strain,” there's been plenty of vampire shows. Cops and detective shows have also been extremely popular in that medium, pretty much from its inception. So it was only a matter of time before someone mashed up the vampire and detective genres. There are predecessors in comics and literature but, as far as I can tell, the first televised vampire detective was “Nick Knight,” a TV movie aired on CBS in 1989.

Nick Knight is a LA. cop, working the night shift. He is never seen eating, drives a car with a huge trunk, and visits tanning salons despite hating the sun. Knight is currently investigating homicides that have been dubbed the Vampire Murders. Homeless people throughout the city have been drained of their blood. The latest victim is a museum security guard. Afterwards, a ceremonial Mayan goblet – rumored to cure vampirism – was stolen. Nick is especially interested in this case because, you see, he is a vampire. After centuries of bloodsucking, he's become a cop to atone for his crimes and is actively seeking a cure for his condition. Soon, Nick discovers that the vampire who sired him is linked to the murders. 

There's a reason several vampire detective shows – “Angel,” “Moonlight,” “Blood Ties” – would follow in the footstep of “Nick Knight.” It's an undeniably catchy premise. Detectives are up all night and so are vampires. They also have superpowers that come in handy when fighting crime. And, hey, atoning for several lifetimes of crime or kicking a blood habit makes for compelling drama. “Nick Knight” works best when exploiting these elements. The ways Nick has adapted to the modern world are clever. Such as hiding in his spacious trunk when caught in the sun or living in an abandoned movie theater, watching the sunrise on TV. He's trying to kick his blood addiction, in hopes that'll cure him, but it's hard to do. This, not coincidentally, makes him resemble an alcoholic. The film's murder mystery plot also has a decent last minute twist, where traditional vampirism turns out to be a red herring.

Sadly, “Nick Knight's” execution is stone cold cheesy. Director Farhad Man employs a number of corny stylistic touches. The film has about a hundred P.O.V. shots. There are even aerial P.O.V. shots, meant to represent the vampires flying over the city, at least one of which goes on way too long. Man also throws in some melodramatic slow-motion, any time someone is injured or something is destroyed. There's several padding montages of Knight driving his car, scored to eighties pop hits. That hoary cliché, of guys walking a sheet of glass across the road, even appears during an otherwise effective scene of an out-of-control car careening down a hill. The special effects are also laughably depicted. When Nick or the other vamps float up into the air, the effect is unconvincingly stiff. Nick's vampire make-up, including a bumpy forehead, is not especially impressive either. The lame effects end up undermining sequences, like a shoot-out in a health spa or Nick's confrontations with his master, that should've worked.

Starring as “Nick Knight” is Rick Springfield. Though Springfield has done quite a bit of acting over the years, he's better known as the pop star behind “Jessie's Girl.” Springfield does alright in the part. He's a likable lead, sells Nick's angst believably, and has strong chemistry with his co-stars. This is most clear during his scenes with Laura Johnson, the archeologist Nick develops a romance with. He also gets some good banter with Robert Harper as Jack the coroner, the only other person who knows Nick's secret. Best yet is John Kapelos as Schanke, the smart-ass detective that unwillingly becomes Knight's partner. Michael Nader appears as LeCroix, Nick's evil vampire dad. Nader hams it up to sweaty levels, though his villainous monologues and evil declarations are quite entertaining.

“Nick Knight,” obviously, was meant to be a pilot for a TV show. The opening credits even refer to several actors as “guest stars.” The film definitely has some interesting ideas and a decent cast but still leaves a lot to be desired. That is probably why, when an on-going series did emerge several years later, it was a totally different beast. But we'll talk about that more starting tomorrow. As for “Nick Knight” itself, the underwhelming production means the movie probably would've been completely forgotten if a cult classic TV show didn't eventually spawn from it. [5/10]

The Thing in the Apartment (2015)

It's become a tradition onto itself by this point. Aside from watching as many horror movies and TV shows as possible during the Blog-a-thon, I also like to include quite a few horror shorts as well. The first short I'm giving a spin this year is “The Thing in the Apartment,” a film I picked because it's received some positive buzz but mostly because of its catchy title.

The short begins when Samantha receives a late night phone call from her friend, Lindsey. Panicked, Lindsey claims she spotted a bizarre creature in her apartment and has fled down the street. Sam picks her up and, after listening to the strange story, drives her back. She goes up to her friend's apartment, armed with pepper spray, certain that she'll find nothing. Certain that Lindsey just imagined it. It turns out, though, there really is some thing in the apartment.

“The Thing in the Apartment” is fairly simple. There's two girls, a monster, and a totally normal location. However, director John Ross makes this set-up into an effective little chiller. Though you only meet them for a few minutes, the two female leads seem real enough that you immediately buy into their dilemma. Sam wants to help her friend but she also believes she's imagining things. Melia Renee and Carly Jones are solid in the parts. Ross' direction, meanwhile, is shadowy and atmospheric. The short has the required jump scares – two of them, actually – but both are earned with a decent amount of build-up. The titular thing is a nasty looking wraith and his appearances make for decent shocks. This is one horror short that seems to succeed at all the goals it sets out for itself. It's a good watch to cap off the first day of the Six Weeks of Halloween with. [7/10]

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