Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 25

Waxworks (1924)
Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

The wax museum occupies a special place in horror history. Maybe even more than dolls or dummies, wax figures take up residence in the Uncanny Valley. These glassy-eyed objects look like living things but, like corpses, are still and lifeless. The proprietors of these businesses are certainly aware of the disgust some patrons feel towards the dummies, as chambers of horrors are a regular feature in wax museum. Unsurprisingly, horror filmmakers have exploited these feelings many times over the years. Before Anthony Hickox's “Waxwork” films or “House of Wax,” or even “Mystery at the Wax Museum,” there was 1924's “Waxworks.”  It was the last movie Paul Leni made in his native Germany before coming to America and making several silent era classics for Universal Studios.

The owner of a wax museum, located within a carnival, posts a job ad. He wants someone to come in and write stories to accompany the wax figures, in hopes of attracting more business. A poet inquires about the job and is quickly hired to write backstories for three wax models: A one-armed model of Harun al-Rashid, a model of Ivan the Terrible, and a representation of Spring-Heeled Jack which the film seems to conflate with Jack the Ripper. Infatuated with the owner's daughter, the poet incorporates her and himself into each tale he writes.

To refer to “Waxworks” as a horror movie is a bit misleading. Of the three segments, only one truly belongs to the genre of the macabre. The first segment, concerned with Harun al-Rashid, is a adventure/romance in the vein of “Arabian Nights.” The plot, revolving around a baker attempting to impress his wife by stealing the caliph's ring and al-Rashid attempting to romance the same wife, is light-hearted. Despite the plot involving threats of assassination, nobody dies. There's a fun sequence involving the baker sword fighting with some royal guards and leaping across rooftops. Emil Jannings, best known for Murnau's “Faust” and “The Last Laugh,” is excellent as al-Rashid. Jannings has a twinkle in his eyes that assures the audience everything will work out all right in the end.

The Ivan the Terrible sequence is mostly a dour historical drama, though I suppose its themes of madness and death brushes up against the horror genre. I found the plot a bit hard to follow but it mostly involves Czar Ivan's love of poisoning people, whose deaths are timed as the last grain of sand in an hourglass sifts to the bottom. After he takes pity on a prisoner, the Czar's Poison-Mixer is lined up for execution. A convoluted series of events follow. Conrad Veidt plays Ivan and is unnervingly steely. Vedit's unforgettable eyes starred with a mad conviction, as he orders his victims. The twists and turns in the plot may be hard to follow but this episode features several memorable scenes, such as a dance at a wedding where everyone is clearly terrified and the conclusion, where the Czar turns the hourglass over and over again, eventually going mad.

The last segment in “Waxworks” is also the most brief, running only six minutes. It's practically plotless too. The poet falls asleep starring at the model of Spring-Heeled Jack and has a nightmare about the dummy stalking him and the owner's daughter through a surreal cityscape. Though light on story, the segment is probably the most memorable in the film. Befitting a wax model, Jack barely moves. Instead, he appears suddenly around every corner as the heroes try to escape. Sometimes, there's even more than one of him. Werner Krauss, best known for playing Dr. Caligari, gives Jack a transfixed and unnerving glare. It's a creepy and appropriately dream-like scene, a good note to conclude the film on.

What makes “Waxworks” truly special is its direction. The film piles on the expressionistic style. The Arabian streets in the first segment wind around each other in surreal, impossible ways. The palace and temple rooftops are eerie silhouettes, topped with Islamic crescent moons. Ivan the Terrible's torture chambers are shadowy, full of abstract angles that spiral down into darkness. Paul Leni's expressionistic direction really shines during the Jack the Ripper scene, as the city is composed solely of undefined shapes stretching up towards starless skies. “Waxworks” builds fantastically on the foundation build by “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and makes it clear that Leni was one of the visual innovators of the silent era.

Leni would bring that same sensibility to his American films, elevating “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Man Who Laughs,” and “The Last Warning” with similarly stylistic direction. The middle segment drags quite a bit but the first one is fun and the final one is spooky. I don't know if this was intended but the excellent cast plays like a who's-who of German silent cinema. Finding Cesare, Caligari, and Mephisto in the same film is a treat for classic horror devotees. More than anything else, Leni's unforgettably eerie direction makes “Waxworks” a must-see for fans of silent cinema. [7/10]

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Each of “The Purge” movies have come out in the summer. The first dropped in June and all the others in July. In fact, the last two were both released on July 4th. Personally, I've always thought releasing horror movies during the summer was a risky move. Smaller films threaten to get lost among the endless blockbusters. Yet I guess Blumhouse knows their shit. Genre counter-programming has clearly worked out for “The Purge” franchise. The series has happily leaned into the summer release date, the advertising comparing the real American tradition of July 4th with the fictional American tradition of the Purge. (Both events probably sever the same number of fingers.) 2016's “The Purge: Election Year” would be another success, outgrossing the previous entry.

“Election Year” jumps ahead twenty years. As a teenager, Charlie Roan's family was murdered by a purger. Now, she's a senator who is running for president on an anti-Purge platform. This angers the New Founding Fathers of America, the hard-right political party that made the Purge an institution. They remove the rule that makes high ranking political figures safe on Purge Night. Naturally, this is an excuse to assassinate Roan before she wins the upcoming election. Roan's bodyguard, the sergeant from “Anarchy” now named Leo Barnes, is her only protection. Soon, the fleeing senator encounter other people in D.C.: A shop owner named Joe, his young employee, a woman who goes out on Purge Night to help people, and a group of revolutionaries looking to destroy the N.F.F.A.

As you might have guessed, “The Purge: Election Year” was an especially topical entry in the franchise. After introducing political/social critique in the last film, James DeMonaco really doubles-down on it in “Election Year.”  The sequel focuses more on depicting the right-wing government that made the Purge possible. Now, it's just a matter of fact that the Purge is a political tool, designed to wipe out dissidents and the poor. The organizers are evangelical Christians, gathering in churches to murder and babbling in tongues while killing. The villains employ a band of mercenaries who decorate with Neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery. The heroes are black and Latino, the most frequent targets of government sanctioned violence both in and out of universe. And, of course, a liberal leaning woman running against a hyper-conservative man for president was especially relevant in 2016.

Whatever loftier intentions “The Purge: Election Year” has in mind, this is still a relatively low budget horror movie. Like many Blumhouse films, the series has been distributed by Universal Studios. Naturally, the company has been eager to incorporate the successful “Purge” series into their annual Halloween Horror Night events. “Election Year,” either intentionally or unintentionally, ends up resembling the “haunted maze” attractions at the parks. The middle section of the movie is devoted to the protagonists running through a Washington, D.C. that's been transformed into a war zone. Attackers in colorful outfits leap out and grab them. They see weird displays – public guillotining, a bloody man ranting on a street corner, a singing woman sitting on a bench by a burning corpse – play out around them. Though the movie is fairly grim, stuff like this is sort of fun in a ridiculous way.

And “Election Year” is a ridiculous film. The roaming gangs of purgers have only gotten more flamboyant. A group of psychotic teenage girls, with a petty grudge against Joe, show up at his store in a car covered in Christmas lights. They wear colorful and gratuitously sexy costumes while ranting like lunatics. We also meet a gang of murder tourists – Europeans who travel to America just to participate in Purge Night – wearing Americana themed outfits. One group of purgers have installed a Poe-style pendulum in an alley way. The action is bigger and sillier than ever before too. There's a helicopter with a chain gun, gladiatorial combat, a priest with a shotgun, and Frank Grillo shooting a drone out of the air. Betty Gabriel cracks the worst comebacks possible after blasting purgers. Grillo has a final boss battle knife fight before the end credits. It's super silly but in an appealing way.

The cast is an improvement over the previous one's too. Bringing Frank Grillo back was a great idea. Grillo's aptitude for action hero theatrics are a great boon to “Election Year.” You're certainly more inclined to follow him on a crazy night of murder than some other random joe. Elizabeth Mitchell is also likable as Senator Roan, a woman who sticks to her principles even when knee-deep in murder country. Mostly, it's the supporting cast that makes “Election Year” fun. Mykelti Williamson is hugely entertaining as the caustic Joe Dixon. Joseph Julian Soria is believable and oddly sweet as Marcos, his young protegee. Betty Gabriel is convincingly bad-ass as Laney Rucker, while still maintaining a more empathetic side. For you “Purge” fanatics, “Election Year” also brings back Edwin Hodge, reprising his role of the homeless man from the first film.

“The Purge: Election Year” is definitely the best film in the series thus far. Don't get any nutty ideas though, as it's still got some pretty big flaws. The evil-doers are getting increasingly more ridiculous with each new entry. The third film has the exact same pacing problems as the previous two. Just like last time, there's a weird sluggish spot in the second half, where all the action stops cold for a while. DeMonaco's direction is still pretty tacky, as he employ slow-mo and dramatic shaking once again. But these movies are getting incrementally better with each installment. Maybe the next will actually be good all the way through? [6/10]

Darkstalkers: Ghost Hunters

Episode six of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon brings in another game character: Hsien-Ko, the jiang-shi who hunts other Darkstalkers. (She's just referred to as a Chinese ghost here.) From Pyron's ship, Demitri and Morrigan notice that Darkstalkers are disappearing all over the globe. They soon realize that Hsien-Ko is exterminating them. Lord Raptor is sent to battle the hunter, which fails, and Morrigan soon follows after him. The ghost girl reveals her origins to Rikuo. She's driven by revenge, as Demitri murdered her family hundreds of years ago. The jiang-shi and the vampire are soon fighting it out.

There's a lot of crappy stuff about this episode. Hsien-Ko's redesign is hideous, with her giant metal hands, white skin, and exposed midriff. Her completely rewritten origin, which now involves eating magic rice, is lame. The action scenes are typically weak, Morrigan pulling a huge sword out of nowhere at one point. Rikou and Lord Raptor's roles in the episode are unnecessary, though Scot McNeil's lyrics-filled performance as the zombie is still fun. However, Hsien-Ko's grudge against Demitri is more compelling than the episode's plots usually are. She even gets a real character arc, rushed though it is. Also notable: Felicia and Harry have a very small role in this episode. I can't say I miss them. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dying to Know You

“Dying to Know You” begins with a daring daytime kidnapping. The wife and daughter of a millionaire are taken in broad daylight. The police brings in a psychic named Denise to help locate them. This becomes a problem as soon as she meets Nick Knight. While investigating the missing women, the psychic picks up images of Nick's extensive past and vampire lifestyle. This freaks her out so much that she decides to leave the investigation. As the case goes on, and it becomes apparent that Nick can't crack it without her help, the vampire cop reveals the truth to Denise. This, naturally, does not end well.

I guess it was only a matter of time before Nick meet some other character with supernatural powers. It goes without saying that a vampire cop is way more interesting than a psychic investigator. However, Elizabeth Marmur gives a decent performance as Denise. When she's assailed by the disturbing images of Nick's past, Marmur is believable. She also has a decent rapport with Geraint Wyn Davies. The psychic also introduces a few other amusing moments, such as when she tells Schanke his unseen wife isn't actually at her bowling night. (He then calls her on a giant cellphone.) The crime plot is completely uninteresting and the way it ties in with the psychic angle is somewhat disappointing. The ending features some cheesy flying effects and a blunt conclusion. [6.5/10]

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