Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 20

The Witch (2015)
A New-England Folktale

Over the last few years, there's been a number of articles talking about how great the horror genre has become recently. Of course, the horror genre has always been good. It is fair to say there's been a rise in high-profile indie horror movies. It seems each year brings with it a new genre picture that is immediately hailed as a masterpiece: “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” and this year's “Hereditary” are all examples. (And all extremely good films in their own rights.) Distributors A24 has released a few of these, cementing their reputation as the hippest studio in Hollywood. The same company also scooped up “The Witch,” as soon as it received rapturous reviews on the festival circuit. The film was dropped into wide release, baffling mainstream audiences, but quickly gained a following among horror nuts and critics.

The film is set in New Hampshire, before America as we know it was even established. William is the patriarch of a family composed of wife Katherine, eldest daughter Thomasin, older son Caleb, young siblings Mercy and Jonas, and infant Samuel. A deeply devout Puritan, he leaves the local community because he doesn't find it pious enough. The family soon settles in a house near the woods. They are beset by misfortune. Samuel disappears, seemingly snatched into the woods by a witch. The other children are prayed upon by sinister forces from outside the Christian household, the Witch coming to claim them all.

Director Robert Eggers, a native of New Hampshire, drew inspiration for “The Witch” from colonial tales of witches and devilry. With this in mind, the film sought to recreate period details as accurately as possible. The movie was supposedly shot by natural light and candles. The costumes are limited and the special effects simple. Most importantly, all the dialogue is spoken in traditional Olde English. This makes the characters difficult to understand at first, which I think was entirely intentional. “The Witch” does these things to further a sense of isolation. The characters are alone, in a barren field and besieged by evil. The audience, similarly, is cast adrift in a disturbing and unsettled world they do not recognized.

Eggers builds upward from this sense of isolation, creating a tense atmosphere of dread that only grows more grim as the film advances. Very early on, Eggers dismisses with any ambiguity by showing us the Witch abducting the baby, killing it, and bathing in its blood. From there, we see a series of frightening set-pieces. A rabbit stares ominously, unnerving human and animals. Caleb has a sensual but disturbing encounter with a beautiful woman in the woods. From there, he becomes bewitched and vomits up a whole apple. A goat's udder gives blood, a crow suckles a woman's breasts, and the demonic Black Philip attacks suddenly. Each of these scenes are expertly executed, each one designed to be as unnerving as possible.

Adding to this intensity are the thoroughly committed performances. Anya Taylor-Joy always displays a steel will as Thomasin, a girl becoming a young woman while stuck in a restrictive, puritanical family. Ralph Ineson, as father William, displays his unending piety while still clearly showing concern for his family. As her family dies around her, Kate Dickie as Katherine grows more desperate and frightened. As things get wilder, and the tension reaches a fever pitch, the performances head off for an ever more feverish pitch. The actors never let the period accents slip, making the events seem even more real and unnerving.

“The Witch” is also an incredibly rich story. You could read it from any number of angles. There's a feminist reading, as Thomasin rightly points out that her father is largely incompetent and his pride is indirectly responsible for everything that happens. There's a story here about man's struggle with nature. However, “The Witch” is primarily about escaping a constraining religious path. In William's Calvinistic view of the world, there is no escape from sin. Thomasin is born into a world where everyone is damned, where every minute is spent repenting for sins. This devotion gives her no fruit, only pain. Satan and witchcraft, meanwhile, clearly has real power in this world. So when Thomasin marches into Black Philip's pin and decides to live deliciously, who can blame her?

When I saw “The Witch” in theaters in 2016, I was a little disappointed in it. (Though I loved Black Phillip right from the beginning, who is as charming as an inexpressively creepy, Luciferian goat can be.) While my enjoyment of films are usually not affected by hype, hearing “The Witch” was so terrifying clearly left me unprepared. The film is not a scare-a-minute thrill ride. Instead, it's a slower horror film, built more on creating an unnerving atmosphere. Watching it again, I'm far more impressed with the obvious skill involved in creating the movie. Egger's debut is layered, gorgeously composed, and gets under the viewer's skin. [9/10]

It Lives Again (1978)

Following its 1977 re-release, “It's Alive” morphed from an overlooked genre film to a genuine hit. This was fortunate, as the first film ended by teasing a sequel, a minor character announcing that a second mutant child had been born. Larry Cohen would get to follow-up on that reveal with 1978's “It Lives Again.” Being the ever savvy salesman, Cohen would observe the biggest rule of making a sequel: Give the audience more of what they liked about the first one. Therefore, “It Lives Again” features three killer, mutant babies. By all accounts, it seems Cohen's strategy totally worked. Test audiences enjoyed the sequel so much, the studio thought the crowd was full of plants.

The Scotts, Eugene and Jody, are celebrating. Their first child is on the way. At the baby shower, they are met by a grave man. He introduces himself as Frank Davis. The Scotts recognize him, from the news stories about a monster baby. Davis has arrived to inform Eugene and Jody that their baby is likely mutated as well. That the government will try and kill the child. And that Davis has set up an underground medical center so the child can be born safely. The Scott baby does turn out to be another mutant, who is taken to a facility with two other, similarly afflicted infants. The trio soon proves hard to control.

The original “It's Alive” was heavily rooted in post-Watergate paranoia around authority, any and all authority. The sequel doubles down on this and turns its focus primarily towards the government. In order to cover up for the pharmaceutical companies and polluting corporations, secret kill squads have been sent out to gather and destroy the mutant children. These agents are disguised as doctors, making sure the babies don't make it out of the operating room. Cohen even incorporates spy movie elements, when Jody's mother slips a tracking device into Jody's purse. Or when Frank holds a pistol to a doctor's head, forcing them to safely escort the mutant baby out. At time, “It Lives Again” feels more like a conspiracy thriller than a monster movie.

Still, Cohen knows his audiences. “It Lives Again” is, in many ways, an even kookier creature feature than the first one. The monster babies aren't just hideous and ferocious, they're smart too. The doctor protecting and studying the babies routinely has one run a maze. During one such test, the baby escapes. It kills the doctor, grabs his keys, and frees the other two. Soon afterwards, one of the killer infants smashes an outside light before attacking Eugene in a swimming pool. The babies know to attack a man while he's asleep in bed, exploiting his vulnerability. By turning the offspring into such skilled killers, the sequel makes it a lot harder to take the threat seriously. Only one scene, where a major character is killed unexpectedly, comes close to matching the original's intensity. Still, it's certainly a fun, if slightly ridiculous, time.

However, “It Lives Again” is eventually sunk by its uncertain feelings towards the primary threat. The film's first act follows the spirit of the original ending, showing the monster babies are misunderstood and dangerous only when threatened. However, after that escape scene midway through, it's apparent the infants are too dangerous to be left alive. In the last act, the Scotts are reunited with their child. They cherish it at first before Eugene has to turn a gun on the thing, to protect his wife. So, what is it, movie? Are the mutant babies evil killers or simply animalistic children? While it's easy to read this as a pro-choice message – it's up to the parents to decide what they should do – it mostly feels like Cohen wanting to have it both ways.

“It Lives Again” is most successful when embracing the inherent pulpiness of its premise. It's attempt to elevate the material with some ambiguity ends up muddling the waters a bit. The sequel's scope is pretty limited, most of it taking place in one location. (Reportedly, the large house was Cohen's then residence.) The promise of the original poster, of the killer toddlers attacking a child's birthday party, turns out to be more of a tease. Still, if you're looking for a sequel where mutant babies run amok, “It Lives Again” certainly delivers on that. [6/10]

Darkstalkers: Out of the Dark

During last year’s Blog-a-thon, I reviewed “Night Warriors: Darkstslkers’ Revenge,” a four-part anime adaptation of Capcom’s cult classic “Darkstalkers” video game series. (Which, for the uninitiated, is basically “Street Fighter” but with classic monster and horror archetypes.) That, however, is not the only animated adaptation of the series. In the mid-nineties, Capcom licensed their various franchises to American animation studios. Along with “Mega Man” and “Street Fighter,” “Darkstalkers” would also get a cartoon series. The show aired in syndication for one season in 1995. Fans of the games widely despise the American cartoon, for its childish writing, wild deviations from canon, ugly character designs, and cheap animation. Still, as a big fan of the games, I was curious and decided to give it a look this year.

The wide-ranging adaptational changes begin with the first episode, “Out of the Dark.” Pyron, a fiery alien overlord obsessed with collecting planets, is re-characterized as a more generic alien invader. He gathers various Darkstalkers from across Earth to help his goal of conquering the world. Such as vampire Demitri, who is more buffoonish than his video game counterpart, and succubus Morrigan, the game’s anti-heroine who is changed into a cliched female villain here. Resisting Pyron’s recruitment are a series of heroic monsters: the Frankenstein-like Victor, werewolf Jon Talbain, a tribe of virtuous Bigfoots, merman Rikuo, and feline humanoid Felicia. Felicia soon teams up with teenage sorcerer-in-training, Harry Grimoire.

As an adaptation, “Darkstalkers” is very strange. I can understand redesigning the female leads to be a more modest or making the morally grey game cast more black-and-white, good-and-evil. I hate Morrigan turning into a typical bad guy but I understand it. But changing Sasquatch’s name to Bigfoot while also, paradoxically, making him less goofy? Brave Jon into a coward? Heroic mummy Anakaris into a senile villain? Felicia, a minor player in the game, now seems to be the series’ main hero. About the only changes I like are giving Victor a Schwarzenegger-esque accent and making murderous zombie rock star Lord Raptor into a more comical character. Those two were already pretty goofy so the changes fit.

And, yes, the cartoon features a young boy named Harry who wears glasses and discovers he’s a wizard. (Though the last name of “Grimoire” really should’ve tipped him off.) Instead of an owl, this information is delivered by a sexy cat girl. No, Harry does not find a half-naked cat woman appearing in his bedroom and telling him he’s super important to be especially exciting. I can already tell Harry is going to be one of those obnoxious characters inserted to make a show more appealing to a Saturday morning audience. Despite not even knowing he has a magical bloodline, he’s already levitating by the episode’s abrupt end.

The animation is as ugly as I’ve heard. The action scenes, primarily composed of characters shooting laser beams at each other, are uninspiring. The comic relief is very silly. However, the series’ storyline does appear to be fairly serialized, as this episode is entirely setup. Darkstalkers being referred to as the “old races” is a nice touch. They kept the theme song too. Otherwise, the show is off to a fairly retched start. And it’s supposed to get worst from here! [4/10]

Forever Knight: Dark Knight

While “Nick Knight” failed to spawn a series in 1989, whoever owned the rights never gave up on the idea. Three years later, the concept would be revised as “Forever Knight.” The show would air for two years as part of CBS' late night “Crimetime After Primetime” block. Afterwards, the show was picked up for a third and final season by USA Network, with reruns frequently airing on Sci-Fi Channel. This is how I first saw the show. In fact, I can fondly recall watching early morning reruns of the series with my mom and vampire-obsessed sister. When the series was released on DVD, during the early years of the TV-on-DVD cycle, I quickly bought all three seasons. However, I never actually got around to re-watching the show. I've been wanting to include the vampire cop show in my Halloween marathon for years and 2018 is finally the year.

Since three years had passed since “Nick Knight” aired, the first two episodes of “Forever Knight” remake the original TV movie. The story, of homeless people being drained of blood and an ancient Mayan cup being stolen from a museum, is the same. All the same dramatic beats are hit. Part one of “Dark Knight” even utilizes some of the same dialogue and camera angles. However, there are many big differences between the film and the show it spawned. The location was moved from Los Angeles to Toronto. The homeless victims are now hip, teenage runaways. There's much more emphasis on Nick's vampire powers, his super-senses, his hypnotism, and his ability to fly. (Which results in some pretty cheesy special effects.) We also see more of his vampire past. While “Nick Knight” had a very flat look, the first episode of “Forever Knight” is romantically shot, full of brooding colors and gothic locations.

More than anything else, it's the cast that makes all the difference. Geraint Wyn Davies keeps the cockiness Rick Springfield brought to the part but adds a weary worldiness. Knight seems more like someone who's been alive for 800 years than before. Jack, the coroner Nick had a friendship with, is now Natalie. Her desire to cure him of his vampirism now has romantic connotations. Catherine Disher and Davies have excellent chemistry. The police captain is now played by Gary Farmer, a native American actor who brings an interesting but not gimmicky level of mysticism to the part. The only actor maintained from the TV movie is John Kapelos as Schanke, who still does a great job as the motor-mouthed, smart-ass partner.

A change in cast and directional style makes a huge difference. While only halfway through, the pilot of “Forever Knight” is already a huge improvement over “Nick Knight.” It's already easy to see why the movie disappeared into obscurity but the TV show would attract a cult following. [7/10]

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