Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 24, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 24

Targets (1968)

At this point, the story behind “Targets” may be more famous than the actual film. Peter Bogdanovich was working as a film critic, writing essays for Esquire. He came to L.A. with hopes of becoming a director. After a chance encounter with Roger Corman in a theater, Corman offered him a job. Bogdanovich could make any movie he wanted as long as it was cheap and he met two criteria. Boris Karloff would have a major supporting role, as the aging horror star owed Corman two days. Also, the director had to utilize stock footage from Corman and Karloff's previous movie, “The Terror.” I don't know if “Targets” was the kind of movie Corman was expecting to get. Either way, it would launch Bogdanovich's career and give Karloff a worthy swan song.

The film follows two seemingly unrelated storylines. The first revolves around Byron Orlok, an elderly actor famous for his classic horror pictures. Orlok is increasingly cynical about the world and tired of the B-movies he's now making. So he announces he's retiring, much to the chagrin of his secretary Jenny and young screenwriter Sammy. Orlok is contractually obligated to promote his latest picture by appearing at a drive-in movie theater that night. Meanwhile, a clean-cut young man named Bobby Thompson goes on a rampage for no discernible reason. He murders his family before shooting his sniper rifle at a busy freeway. He's eventually chased to the same drive-in theater Orlok is scheduled to appear at, where the two men's destinies will intertwine.

“Targets” was a film very much of its time. Bobby Thompson is obviously based on Charles Whitman while his freeway rampage was clearly inspired by the 1965 Highway 101 shootings. The movie's release was delayed because of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The deliberate contrast between Thompson's senseless acts of violence and the hokey, safe horror of Orlok's films makes it a movie about the shifting culture of the late sixties, when the Vietnam War – Thompson is a Vietnam vet – was bringing real horror into every American home. Yet, since we live in a world where the safety of public places is still regularly violated by random shootings, “Targets” still feels blisteringly vital.

Bogdonovich expertly depicts the mundane nature of evil. Aside from the clips of “The Terror,” “Targets” has no musical score, creating a naturalistic feeling. While the scenes with Orlok are full of dialogue, those focused on Thompson are quiet. In long shots, we see him watch TV with his family or go to the shooting range with his dad. (Who he, in a disturbing and unexplained touch, calls “Sir.”) This same distant approach is used when Thompson shoots his wife, mother, and dad. He then tidies up the murder scene, not wanting to make a mess. That tidiness is also on display before he begins his shooting spree, as he lays his firearms before him in a clear line. He then eats a sandwich, not disturbed by the acts he's about to commit. There are two scenes of him buying ammunition, before and after the massacre begins, and they are startlingly similar. The sniper's rampage isn't just random. It's casual too. Here's horrible, awful things happening for no reason even though the world around them seems to make sense. It's a chilling juxtaposition.

Yet “Targets” is not just a brilliant fictionalization of several famous murder sprees. It's also home to an extraordinary Boris Karloff performance. Karloff essentially plays himself and brings all the world-weariness you'd expect from an eighty year old screen icon to the part. He bemoans that his film, and his own acting by extension, no longer has the power to horrify. Yet a scene where he tells a version of W. Somerset Maugham's “The Appointment in Samarra,” in an uninterrupted monologue, is chilling. Karloff is allowed to be funny, in his scenes with Bogdanovich, but his real frailness and the weight of his actual legacy makes Orlok's situation so much more meaningful. Karloff is reflecting on his own life, with all the regrets and joys that brings. It was supposedly his favorite of all his performances and it's no wonder why.

In its final act, Bobby hides behind the drive-in theater screen, shooting people in the audience. So real life horror is firing from behind the fake, projected image. The earlier shootings were filmed from a distance, from behind Bobby's scope. Here, the audience feels the impact of the shots, the camera zooming in on the victims as the bullets bring them down. Thompson bringing actual death from behind the theater screen is inverted when Orlok walks up to him, the shooter confused by the actor seemingly emerging from the movie. This brings “Targets” to its last series of chilling images: An increasingly disoriented Bobby whimpering like a child after Orlok scares him. Orlok baffled that this frail boy could do such an awful thing. Thompson pointing out that he “didn't miss a one” as the police carry him away. Finally, the empty theater lot the next day, the ordinary place where all this terrible violence occurred.

“Targets” is awash in meta elements. The film does not hide that Karloff is basically playing himself, as Orlok also stars in “The Terror.” Later, he watches Howard Hawks' “The Criminal Code,” one of Karloff's earliest movies. Similarly, Bogdanivich plays Sammy, a young director who has just written script for Orlok where he basically plays himself. This shows how sharp and self-aware the film is. This, along with the then-recent tragic events, perhaps led “Targets” to be overlooked in 1968. However, in time, it has been reappraised. It was a brilliant, powerful and chilling debut for Bogdanovich. For Karloff, who made a few more films before his death, it was the perfect send-off. [9/10]

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Blumhouse is the biggest name in mainstream horror right now. There's a simple reason for this: Economics. Blumhouse is one of the few studios putting out medium budget genre films. Due to their smaller budgets and high concepts, their films are pretty much guaranteed to turn a profit. This approach has allowed the company to release many movies, with varying results. Sometimes you'll get a “Get Out” and sometimes you'll get a “Truth or Dare.” The original “Purge” movie exemplified this approach. Its three million dollar budget and catchy premise insured its success. That the premise actually struck a cord with audiences made the producers realize they had a potential franchise on their hands. “The Purge: Anarchy” would roll into theaters a little over a year later.

The year is 2023 and Purge Night is a few hours away again. The sequel follows several people over the course of the night. Eva, a working class waitress, and Calli, her teenage daughter, just hope to survive out the night in their apartment. Shane and Liz, a young married couple on the verge of divorce, are driving through the city when their car suddenly stops working. As the Purge begins, both duos are trapped in public. Meanwhile, a mysterious man roams the streets in an armored vehicle. The man has vengeance against a specific target on his mind but ends up protecting Eva, Calli, Shane and Liz as they navigate the twelve-hour period of unregulated crime.

A big complaint I had with “The Purge” is that it set itself in probably the most boring corner of its universe. All the crazy shit that could happen during Purge Night and the first movie was set inside some rich asshole's McMansion. “Anarchy” at least corrects that much. It's set in the worst parts of an urban metropolis. We get a taste of the –as the subtitle indicates– anarchy that goes down during the Purge. Snipers sit on roof tops, waiting for victims to wander into their sights. One such example rants into a megaphone while doing this. Heavily armed gangs drive around in armored buses, looking to reap chaos. Eva's sleazy apartment supervisor sees the night as a way to assault the woman he lusts after. I feel like we're still only getting a peak at what would go down during such an event. There's still no mass robbery or mundane stuff of that nature. But it's something.

The sequel also explores the political and social ramifications of the premise more so than its predecessor. It turns out there's a vocal portion of the U.S. population that is against the Purge. A group of underground activists protests the activity, even hacking television signals to send their message. The sequel also confirms something the first movie only hinted at. The Purge has lowered unemployment, resolved crime, and helped the economy not because “unleashing the beast” is good for Americans. It's because mostly poor people are killed during the night. The government sends professional kill squads into lower in-come communities to facilitate this goal. The rich either “buy” sickly poor people to execute or pay gangsters to round up stragglers they can then hunt for sport. Thus “The Purge” emerges as the ideal horror franchise of Trump's America, as it simply literalizes how the rich prey on the poor in the real world.

Sadly, “The Purge: Anarchy” still isn't a very good movie. James DeMonaco's direction has improved some from his previous film. There's fewer jump-scares and shaky-cam. However, his action scenes are still underwhelming to watch. There's a few stand-out sequences, such as when a flaming murder buggy rolls through a shadowy tunnel. Too often, his action scenes are composed of people just shooting at other people, with little finesse. There's also some more really shitty CGI blood. DeMonaco also still sucks at pacing. The sequel looses all momentum in its second half. Our group of protagonists arrive at a friend's home, a situation that inevitably ends in chaos in a way totally lacking in tension. The movie never recovers from this, as its finale feels sluggish. Its epilogue, devoted to our hero learning a lesson in forgiveness, also comes off as utterly insincere and limp.

Much like the movie, the cast is a mixed bag. The film is a vehicle for Frank Grillo, a tough guy character actor that, in another era, could've become a Charles Bronson-style movie star. Grillo's impressive physicality and steely gaze makes him a good fit for a movie like this. The audience is interested without him doing much and he's fun to watch during the action scenes. Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul are likable as the mother and daughter caught up in the Purge, seeming relatable enough. On the flip side are Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez as the splintering married couple. These two are utterly uninvolving, their conflict coming off as forced and contrived compared to everyone else's.

“The Purge: Anarchy” improves on the first one in some big ways. I still feel like DeMonaco cooked up the idea of the Purge as a way to add variety to the first movie's routine home invasion premise. In the sequel, you feel the filmmaker actually attempting to explore the concept he created. The sequel is still undone by its writer/director's inability to handle pacing and tension. Still, it's an improvement. I'm intrigued to see how the franchise will continue to evolve over the next two entries, neither of which I've seen before. [6/10]

Darkstalkers: The Walls Came Tumblin' Down

The fifth episode of “Darkstalkers” suggests something unexpected. Apparently, the events of the Old Testament exist in this universe. This week's MacGuffin is the magical trumpet used by the Israelites at the Battle of Jericho. Three separate groups are alerted to the instruments presence: That would be Felicia and Harry, zombie rock star Lord Raptor, and Pyron, who sends Anakaris after it. The three parties soon end up in Africa, in some ruins that combine Roman and Middle Eastern architecture, and battle over the magical horn.

The animation on this show is always awful but this episode is especially egregious. The characters' mouth frequently do not line up with the dialogue, which is sometimes out of order. Felicia's outfit shifts within seconds during a gym sequence. In the final scene, a car is driving across the desert before suddenly flying over the ocean. Once again, the characters' abilities vary wildly, with Felicia kicking a green lightning bolt in one scene and Morrigan shooting jelly(?) in another. The action scenes are, typically, laughably stiff and cheesy. Despite the countless deviations from canon, the episode does feature an out-of-nowhere reference to Ozom, Lord Raptor's master in the video game.

Having said that, “The Walls Came Tumblin' Down” is probably the best episode of “Darkstalkers” so far. This is entirely thanks to Scott McNeil as Lord Raptor. (McNeil seems fond of the character, as he voiced the character in both the American cartoon and the dub of the anime.) The zombie mostly speaks in rock lyric puns, which are mildly amusing. McNeil's campy performance goes a long way. Raptor has a pretty cool vehicle that can change shape, as he travels around in a zombified elevator, airplane, and car throughout the episode. It's still incredibly stupid and senseless but is slightly less irritating than the last few episodes. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dance by the Light of the Moon

Included in “Forever Knight's” opening credits is the image of Nick holding up his badge just as a topless stripper turns around, his shield blocking our view of the girl's chest. “Dance by the Light of the Moon” is the episode that scene is from. Said stripper, Ann, seduced one man into embezzling funds and another, a cop, into strangling the other guy. Who she then murdered. Nick and Schanke investigate the double murder and, going by the lipstick smeared on the corpse, quickly connect it to Ann. As Nick interrogates Ann, it seems he's also being seduced by her. The femme fatale hopes to repeat the double homicide with Nick and Schanke as her latest victims.

“Dance by the Light of the Moon” is the first episode of “Forever Knight” I didn't enjoy that much. Very early on, the viewer figures out that Nick isn't really being seduced by Ann. That this whole thing is a set-up to capture the murderer. Since we know the stripper is guilty from the beginning, there's very little suspense to the investigation. The character of a murder-addicted lawyer-turned-stripper strikes me as fairly ridiculous, which Cyndy Preston's high-strung performance not helping matters.

However, there's still some things I enjoyed about this episode. The flashback segments take us back to when Nick was seduced by Janette, 600 years ago, which contrasts to the scenes of Ann attempting to seduce him. Those moments are solid, giving us more of a peak into Knight's origins. Mostly the strength of the cast is what saves this one. There's a really funny scene of Nick and Schanke talking in his apartment, the human cop almost nodding off after working all night. I also like the cute scene between Nick and Natalie, where he gives her a little kiss on the forehead. The easy-going chemistry between the cast members prove more compelling than the melodramatic script this time. [6/10]

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