Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, September 21, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 21

Zombieland (2009)

When “Zombieland” came out in 2009 – which was nearly ten years ago, I'm terrified to inform you – it quickly became a sleeper hit. A horror/comedy in a somewhat played out genre starring up-and-comers and character actors would win its weekend, eventually gross 110 million dollars, and become the then-highest grossing zombie movie. “Zombieland” wasn't just a commercial success but also beloved by fans and critics. I can't tell you how many times, during that year and the ones that followed, I heard people gush about the movie. When I saw “Zombieland,” I liked it, didn't love it. Revisiting for the first time in a decade, I wondered if I would still consider the movie overrated.

At some point in the near future, the world is brought to its knees by an outbreak of a zombie virus. In the post-apocayltic wasteland, some survivors have emerged. Such as a neurotic young man who survives via a long list of rules. Calling himself Columbus, as that is his destination, he soon meets other survives. Like Tallahassee, an eccentric man with a hunger for Twinkies and a thirst for zombie murder. Or sisters Wichita and Little Rock, a pair of con artists who are headed towards an amusement park. The four form an odd friendship, as they attempt to fight off the undead.

When the “Dawn of the Dead” remake hit big in 2004, everybody cashed in. Only five years later, the revival of the genre had burned itself out again. One of the reasons “Zombieland” was popular was because it provided a new take on the undead tropes. Columbus' obsession with his rules puts an irrelevant take on the survivalist aspect of the zombie story while still embracing those tendencies. Shenanigans like “Zombie Kill of the Week” are only one example of the film's puckish sense of humor.  You see colorful flashbacks, like Tallahassee frolicking with a puppy, or fantasy spots, like Columbus vividly describing his fear of clowns. The film's sarcastic and uninspired sense of humor is summed up during its best gag, what might be the best surprise celebrity cameo of all time.

“Zombieland” also has an extraordinarily likable cast. In 2009, Jesse Eisenberg was still the poor man's Michael Cera before he ended up overtaking Cera's career. As Columbus, Eisenberg balances the character's twitchy neurosis with a lot of well-placed humor. Woody Harrelson is hilarious, weird, and adventurous as Tallahasee. Emma Stone's path towards becoming America's latest sweetheart began her. Stone's smokey-eyes and sexy voice makes her immediately appealing. Her sharp humor and weird girl personality marked her as more than just a pretty face. Abigail Breslin gets several really amusing moments to herself as Little Rock, showing her youth without downplaying her intelligence. More important than anything else, the cast play off each other fantastically. The scenes of the four listening to music and chatting about random bullshit are delightful.

The movie's sense of humor translate to its action scenes as well. Over the course of the film, various atypical objects are weaponized. Among pick-axes and garden shears, car doors and a banjo are used to take some zombies out. Once the heroes make it to the carnival, “Zombieland's” creative action streak goes even further. A zombie fight on a roller coaster is inspired. A sequence aboard one of those rising platform rides actually manages to build some suspense, as ammo runs low and the zombies crawl closer. There's, of course, lots of gunplay through the film too, many zombies getting their brains splattered out throughout.

On second viewing, I still enjoy “Zombieland” quite a bit. However, there's definitely something that's, for lack of a better word, irksome about the movie that I just can't quite place. It's a little too cute, isn't it? Like the writers are trying too hard. This is most evident in the rules appearing on-screen or the protagonist's more tryhard tendencies, like that clown phobia or his insistence in calling the world “zombieland” now. Columbus, an agoraphobic gamer, plays a lot worst in 2018. Especially his creepy obsession with flipping a girl's hair over her ear or the causal way he describes women as “bitches.” “Zombieland” sometimes feels like a facile, and not especially self-respective, nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. Originally, he was a feckless dork. In Zombieland, he's a weathered survivor who gets everything he wants at the end, including a hot girlfriend.

So do I still think “Zombieland”is a little overrated? Yeah, I do. There's nothing this movie does that “Shaun of the Dead” didn't do better. Like the twinkies Tallahasee seeks, the movie provides you with a sugary rush but lacks much in the way of actual substance. It's absolutely a fun movie, so I'm not shocked it caught on. After a decade of false starts, and a largely disliked TV adaptation, it looks like “Zombieland 2” will finally be rolling into production soon. I really wonder if a sequel, even with the same cast, will be able to replicate the original's popularity and success. [7/10]

It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

After the release of “It Lives Again,” it really looked like the saga of the Davis baby was over. No more mutant infants would be crawling from creepy bassinets. However, nine years after the second film, Larry Cohen would make this killer baby two-parter into a trilogy. Initially, the director hoped to remake “House of Wax.” Instead, he entered into a deal with Warner Brothers' to direct two films for the home video market. Figuring sequels to established properties would be the best idea, Cohen ended up directing “A Return to Salem's Lot” and “It's Alive III: Island of the Alive.” By answering some question laid forth in the first film, Cohen would take his most famous horror movie in an even more unpredictable direction.

Among the many mutant babies born in the seventies is the offspring of Stephen and Ellen Jarvis. Aware that the government is exterminating the children, Stephen takes the case to court. Eventually, it is decided that the mutant babies deserve to live. They are shipped off to a remote island, quarantined from humanity and allowed to thrive in peace. The court case, however, destroys Stephen and Ellen's relationship, especially once he's roped into writing a tell-all book. Five years later, science hopes to return to the island. Stephen is dragged along on the expedition. It turns out to be a doomed trip, the researchers quickly killed by the now-grown mutants. Stephen ends up on a boat with several of the creatures, including his own child. The monsters are determined to go back to civilization.

“Island of the Alive” takes an already kooky horror series to far kookier locations. Cohen isn't satisfied just by answering the question of what the monster babies look like when they grow up. The creatures are given a whole island to play in. A movie about a doomed journey to a monster-filled island would probably be enough for most filmmakers. “It's Alive III” is only getting started. The rational, if brutal, creatures have a mission all of their own. Our hero ends up locked on a boat as they head back to the mainland, forced to talk and bargain with the monsters. From there, the movie takes a detour into Castro's Cuba before ending up in a punk rock club. The movie's squirrely, unpredictable energy is matched by Michael Moriarty's aggressively quirky lead performance, which sees him randomly bursting into song or harassing kids in a shoe store.

No matter how weird Larry Cohen gets, he never looses track of his film's simple, crowd-pleasing goals. “Island of the Alive” also fucntions as a trashy, monsters-on-a-rampge movie. It begins with an impressive sequence of a woman giving birth to one of the creatures in a cab. Once on the island, the now fully-grown beasties quickly dispatch the intruders. The film is surprisingly gory, the creatures ripping into faces and tearing away limbs. In the last act, the monsters end up fighting punk rockers and cops too. The full-grown monster babies are a bizarre sight, with giant heads and ghoul-like bodies. They perfectly straddle the line between comical and unnerving. For the hell of it, the film also throws in some fun stop-motion shots of the beasts when they're still little.

Through all the odd story twists and gory monster action, Cohen never sacrifices the weird pathos and deeper context of the series. The abuse and manipulation of woman seems to be on “Island of the Alive's” mind. Ellen, played by a nervous Karen Black, has to start her life over following the court case. She works in a sleazy bar, where she's regularly harassed by an asshole customer. Around the same time, the film also has a scene of punk rockers harassing a random waitress. All of these goons are murdered by the monsters for their misdeeds. Cohen is also insistent on portraying the “It's Alive” off-spring as beings with feelings and thoughts. Though they kill a lot of people, they are ultimately played as sympathetic. These creatures just want to survive, just want love and affection, like anybody else would ask for. It's hard to say if they're continued survival would be good for the rest of humanity but I get where the film is coming from.

The oddball cast also features Gerrit Graham as an asshole attorney and an adventurer obsessed with getting a sunburn. The “It's Alive” series only gets stranger with each film. It graduates to a quasi-comedic, full-blown monsterfest in the last entry. The result is too weird and unique not to be lovable, while still totally satisfying as a gory horror pic. While lacking the raw scares of the original, it's a lot more focused than the second one. It's a gloriously excessive and brilliantly bizarre capper to a trilogy of nasty, fun, but strangely thoughtful films. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Donovan’s Bane

Episode two of “Darkstalkers” introduces Donovan Baine, a powerful dhampr who wields a demonic sword and is driven to destroy all Darkstalkers by  hatred of his own lineage. The American version keeps the sword and the desire to kill Darkstalkers, even good ones like Felicia, but otherwise downgrades him to a simple wizard. After encountering Donovan, Morrigan heads to the British museum to retrieve a magic ring that’ll make her invincible. (It’ll summon the spirit of Morgaine le Fey, who Morrigan is descended from in this continuity.) Felicia and Harry are headed to the same museum, to grab their own magic ring, and all three forces inevitably clash.

There’s a few elements about “Donovan’s Bane” I like. Lisa Ann Beley and Garry Chalk are well-cast as Felicia and Donovan. There’s an interesting moment where Morrigan, with contempt, destroys a Christian church. The animators occasionally attempt to replicate some of the game’s special attacks, like Donovan’s elemental powers or Morrigan’s Soul Fist pose. Otherwise, the animation remains hideous. Darkstalkers can apparently change the size of their hands, which they hilariously do several times. It’s almost impressive how the show took Morrigan, one of the sexiest women in video games, and made her so unappealing. There’s a hysterically bad moment, where Harry levitates away from Morrigan’s very slow moving energy blast. (The obnoxious Harry continues to be very important to the show’s lore.) In one scene, the animators seemingly forgot to animate some energy blast, as Morrigan dodges nothing! Still, “Donovan’s Bane” is slightly better than the first episode, for the unintentional laughs if nothing else. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Dark Knight - The Second Chapter

The second part of “Forever Knight’s” pilot continues to closely adapt “Nick Knight.” Nick’s confrontation with LeCroix in the butcher shop, and the destruction of the Mayan cup, plays out almost identically. The identity of the killer draining homeless people is revealed a little sooner. The killer’s contrived motive for the murders is maintained. The scene of Schanke driving Nick’s car with a slashed break line, while Nick hides in the spacous trunk, is played for more humor. A polka is added to the soundtrack. The climax has fewer fiery pyrotechnics and Alyse, Nick’s human love interest, is left a vampire at the end. I honestly can’t remember if the show ever picks that plot point up again.

It’s still impressive how the “Dark Knight” two-parter has more-or-less the same script as “Nick Knight” but is so much better. There’s still some cheesy special effects, including a goofy flying scene, but they are largely disguised by the shadowy direction. The far moodier approach fits this story so much better. Mostly, it’s the cast that makes the difference. Geraint Wyn Davies is even funnier than Rick Springfield, as the few comedic scenes - like when a cleaning woman spots him leaving his trunk - really shine here. Nigel Bennett is fantastic as LaCroix. He plays him as a stylish, sinister villain who truly enjoys being evil and makes vampirism seem very seductive. The interplay between the cast makes the contrived crime plot way more involving than it otherwise would’ve been. [7/10]

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