Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 23

The Purge (2013)

You know a horror series has truly made an impact on the culture when it becomes short-hand, visual or otherwise, for something bigger. If you call someone Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, everyone knows what that means. For another example, a simple hockey mask is now practically the de-facto symbol of the entire horror genre. And, for a more modern example, we all know what Purge Night is. It seems the central idea of “The Purge,” a night where all crime is legal, has really caught the public's imagination. It has spawned memes and hoaxes and tasteless quarries. With four films now released, I thought this Halloween was a good time to take a look at one of the defining horror franchises of our time. 

Some time in the near future, America has become a far-right dictatorship. I know this is very difficult to imagine. By 2022, a yearly tradition called the Purge is now enforced country wide. The Purge is a twelve hour period where all crime, including murder, is legal. It's celebrated by many as a god-given right and has supposedly improved life for everyone. James Sandin has made himself rich selling safety equipment for families who hope to keep themselves safe during the Purge. Along with his family – wife Mary, teenage daughter Zoey, and younger son Charlie – he hopes to have a peaceful Purge Night. This plan is shattered when a homeless man, injured by a roving band of psychos, knocks on their door. Charlie lets the man inside. Now, the Sandins are targeted by a group of demented Purgers, determined to get inside their home.

It's very true that the central premise of “The Purge” is enticing. The ramifications of the film's main concept, that a night were all crime is legal will solve most of society's problems, raises a lot of questions. Mostly, the Purge makes you imagine all sorts of scenarios. Outside of roving bands of masked murderers, you can't help but see a big variety of crimes. Like Wall Street bankers embezzling millions. Or poor families robbing banks. Or battered spouses murdering their abusive husbands or people simply stealing the stuff they really want but can't afford. Moreover, you wonder what the ramifications of the Purge are on the rest of the society. Can people be persecuted for crimes committed on Purge Night if they affect things that happen the next day? Such as an arsonist that set fires that burn after the twelve-hour period? How do citizens cope with knowing their neighbors are murderers?

All those interesting scenarios “The Purge's” premise makes you imagine are squandered in favor of a simply serviceable home invasion thriller. Instead of setting itself within an area ravaged by the Purge, the film is set within a mostly safe, very upright neighborhood. If Charlie hadn't let the homeless man into the family home, the Sandins probably would have had a peaceful night. The middle section of the film, devoted to James debating about what to do while arguing with the psychos outside, are fairly uninviting. When the home invasion begins, the movie even becomes hokey. Director James DeMonaco turns up the shaky cam, throws in several cheap jump scares, and peppers the film with goofy shots of Purgers frolicking in their silly looking masks. “The Purge” mostly stands in the shadows of superior home invasion films like “The Strangers” or “You're Next.”

“The Purge” also has no idea what to do with the moral complexities of its premise. For most of the film, James and Mary are totally ready to kill the stranger or give him up to the murderers. After one tearful conversation with their daughter, they both totally change their mind and decide to protect him. At this point, “The Purge” becomes a weird action/horror hybrid. The scenes of James fighting off the intruders are decently executed. They're also hampered by some unimaginative, murky direction or some cheesy CGI blood. “The Purge” then clatters towards a fucking terrible ending. The plot is essentially resolved with fifteen minutes to go, forcing the film to extend the story in an aimless and unimaginative fashion.

What about the cast? Ethan Hawke has made a decent career out of starring in mid-tier thrillers like this. He's playing a fairly clueless guy, totally ignorant of the way he profits off other people's misery. Hawke goes hard in making him a Ward Cleaver-like stand-up dad, slowly becoming aware of what's happening around him. Lena Heady is a strong actress but she's stuck into an underdeveloped role, of a loyal wife mostly pushed around by the script. Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder, as the kid, do better, as their emotions are more consistent and less manipulated. Lastly, Rhys Wakefield goes way over the top as the soft-spoken leader of the Purgers. He smiles wide and speaks quietly, using every pathetic technique to signal to the audience that he's a crazy bad guy.

Honestly, the creepiest thing about “The Purge” is how completely okay the film's society is with their neighbors participating in a massacre. The contrast between the calm, smiling faces and their desire to murder is certainly creepier than shit like POV shots of the kid's spooky remote control baby doll drone. “The Purge” has a cool idea and one or two effective moment. However, the actual film really doesn't live up to what you imagine in your head when you hear the premise. It turns out, thinking about the “Purge” is a lot more interesting than actually watching “The Purge.” [7/10]

The Colossus of New York (1958)

“The Colossus of New York” is a movie I've heard about for years. As a lad, I saw a documentary or read a book about classic sci-fi or classic horror or killer robots or all three. I watched and/or read lots of things like that when I was little. Clips and images from “Colossus of New York,” usually of the caped colossus cradling a woman in his massive hands, appeared in documents like these frequently. Despite its seemingly iconic stature, Eugene Lourie's 1958 sci-fi film has been unavailable for years. If you wanted to watch the movie, you'd have to buy an old VHS tape or catch a rare television showing. In 2012, Olive Films finally released the “Colossus” on DVD and Blu-Ray. And now in 2018, I finally got around to picking the disc up.

Jeremy Spensser comes from a family of geniuses. He is a gifted scientist, designing devices which could solve world hunger. His father, William, is a brilliant brain surgeon. His brother, Henry, is an expert in robotics. Jeremy has a wife and son, Anne and Billy, that he loves dearly. After landing at an airport, Jeremy is hit by a truck and killed. William is incensed that the world should be denied his son's brilliance. So he concocts a scheme to save Jeremy's mind. The dead man's brain is placed inside a giant robotic body, designed by Henry. This, unsurprisingly, doesn't go according to plan. Jeremy, now known as the Colossus, goes insane. 

On one hand, “The Colossus of New York” is a very typical creature feature. After his son dies, William Spensser becomes a stereotypical mad scientist. He wears an overcoat, hangs out in a secret laboratory, and makes ominous proclamations about the world. The longer Jeremy stays as the Colossus, the madder he becomes. Soon, he's declaring that all humanity is inferior to him and should be destroyed. He attempts to reconnect with his son, who innocently befriends the giant robot. In a story turn very reminiscent of “The Golem,” the kid becomes the monster's undoing. After discovering Henry is moving in on Anne, Jeremy murders his brother. The Colossus has several far-out abilities. He has ESP and can shoot deadly laser beams from his eyes. The latter really comes into play during the climax, when the Colossus breaks into a ball room and starts blasting multiple innocent bystanders.

As routine as “The Colossus of New York” may look on a scripting level, the execution makes a big difference. Lourie's direction is atmospheric. There are several shots of the Colossus walking underwater, the giant eerily moving through the dark depths. This eerie beauty is also apparent in the scene where Jeremy returns his unconscious wife to her bed. Lourie frequently paints New York skyline in deep shadows, making the modern city feel like an expressionistic metropolis. The Colossus' final rampage is set in the United Nations building, the modern architecture of the interior making the sequence unforgettable. The Colossus itself has an indelible look. Atop its massive, caped body is an expressionless, robotic head that exaggerates human features into something colder and inhuman. The way the cyborg whirls and buzzes, frequently making odd noises, is also uncanny.

There's also something almost existential about the film's themes. When Jeremy first awakens in the Colossus' body, he goes into a screaming fit. He begs his father to let him die. While the movie at first appears to be indulging in that favorite trope of fifties mad science flick – that someone tampered in God's domain – it's actually a little deeper than that. Jeremy is brought back to life so he can continue to save the world. The act of doing this causes him to hate humanity. There's an interesting irony there, suggesting something deeper. (Though giving him a giant evil robot buddy probably didn't help.) Jeremy's isolation from his wife and son, and his own humanity, is more acutely depicted then you might expect.

It's easy to see why “The Colossus of New York” would gain such a cult following among monster kids and classic sci-fi fans. Yes, the titular robot has a really cool design. It makes an awesome model kit and re-appropriates well as a book jacket or album cover. Yet the movie isn't just notable for its memorable monster. The routine script is paired with some moody direction. The story's themes are deeper than expected. The sparse piano score is eerie and odd. During the eighties trend of remaking fifties sci-fi classics, I'm surprised this one didn't get updated as well. A new version could've expanded on the darker themes and boosted the special effects. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: The Game

Despite half the characters never interacting before, “The Game” begins with the good Darkstalkers - Rikuo, Jon Talbain, Sasquatch Bigfoot, Harry and Felicia - being invited to Victor’s castle. Unbeknownst to the heroes, Morrigan and Demitri captured the Frankenstein-like fighter earlier. The two bicker afterwards over who should be Pyron’s lieutenant. The alien overlord offers a solution: Whoever captures the most good Darkstalkers will become his lieutenant. Anakaris is suggested as judge. This quickly backfires, as the insane mummy looses count and the entire contest collapses into chaos.

While bizarre humor was a highlight of the third episode of “Darkstalkers,” comedy is the worst part of the fourth. The jokes here are truly pedestrian. Someone steps on a mop. The line “Have a nice trip, see you next fall!” is uttered after someone is tripped. Harry’s attempts to perform a fireball spell results in a cloud of stinky gas. A secret passageway produces a weak homage to/steal from “Young Frankenstein.” Anakaris rambles. Thrown dishes, a water pump, and the “Six Million Dollar Man” sound effect defeat Morrigan and Demitri at the end. The animation remains awful, the characters bending out of shape several times. The action scenes are uninspired. “Darkstalkers” reaches a new low with this one. But I’ll give the show this much. Unlike the anime, which had them becoming lovers, Morrigan and Demitri are accurately depicted as bitter rivals here. [3/10]

Forever Knight: Last Act

“Last Act” begins with a female vampire sitting on a park bench. She’s soon incinerated by the sunrise. When Nick discovers the remains, he recognizes them as belonging to Erika, a lover and playwright he brought across 300 years ago. The same night, Nick is sent to investigate the apparent suicide of a young nurse. Nick, still traumatized by Erika’s death, becomes obsessed with the case. As more inconsistencies emerge, such as the discovery the girl was pregnant, he becomes certain she was actually murdered. “Forever Knight” being the show it is, he’s right.

“Last Act” has an immortal vampire struggling with questions of life, death, and suicide. Erika takes her own life because she believes she’s contributed everything she could to the world. This contrasts with a terminal cancer patient Nick meets at the hospital, who desperately wants to live. That subplot adds a little more intrigue to the otherwise routine murder mystery plot. The real killer is easily deduced and Nick’s vampire powers, of course, help save the day.

“Last Act” is most interesting when focused on how Erika’s memories, and her last play, haunt Nick. A vampire grappling with whether life, especially a long one like his, can have meaning is fairly compelling stuff. He has imagined conversations with Erika, which brings that subplot to a satisfying conclusion. There’s also a funny moment when Schanke enters Nick’s apartment, finds his bottles of cow’s blood, and worries his partner may be drinking too much wine. Though a slow episode, it’s also a fairly meaningful one. [7/10]

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