Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 26

The First Purge (2018)

“The Purge” movies continue to make money. As we all know, if a horror series continues to make money, sequels will usually continue to be made. There was one problem. “Election Year” ended with the New Founding Fathers of America being voted out of office and the annual tradition of the Purge being outlawed. So for the fourth entry, Blumhouse and James DeMonaco decided to go back in time. “The Purge: The Island” would be a prequel, showing us the events of the very first Purge Night. Perhaps hoping to prevent confusion with movies about cloning or pirates, the title was changed to the far catchier “The First Purge” before its release this past July.

Seemingly set in this year, the film shows the far-right N.F.F.A. being elected into office on a populist ideology, amid fears about crime and economic insecurity. Again, I know this is very difficult to imagine. At this time, a scientist named Dr. Updale conceives of a social experiment, were all crime will be legal for twelve hours. Stanton Island is chosen as the location for this prototype Purge. The film follows several people on the island: Big-shot drug dealer Dmitri, his ex-girlfriend and anti-Purge activist Nya, her younger brother and would-be hustler Isaiah, and their friends from the neighborhood. They will have to band together to survive a night that grows more violent as it goes on, especially once the N.F.F.A. sends armed mercenaries into the island.

DeMonaco has handed directorial duties over to Gerald McMurray but the franchise continues to reflect our modern social/political structure. Dr. Updale thinks of the Purge as a totally neutral social experiment. The N.F.F.A., however, realizes the night can be used to wipe out the people - most of them varying shades of brown, it must be noted - that oppose their voter base. They offer people money to participate in the Purge, essentially paying the working class to murder each other. They flood the neighborhood with weaponry. “The First Purge” is, in one sense, the most hopeful entry in the series. Initially, the first Purge Night doesn’t see many murders. People party, do drugs, and loot a little but only psychopaths already prone to homicide kill. That’s when the professional death squads are sent in. “The First Purge” only slightly warps our modern world, showing a racist, bordering-on-fascist government eager to wipe out the Americans that bother them the most: the poor and racially diverse.

It’s a good thing “The First Purge” is a timely reflection of modern life. As a horror film, this series continues to be kind of silly. The prequel pauses to depict the origin of those ridiculous masks Purgers like to wear. A goofy scene involves two old ladies decorating an alleyway with baby dolls stuffed with explosives. Another laugher has a Purger, also wearing a baby doll mask, unsuccessfully attempting to molest Nya. (She calls him a “pussy grabber,” one of several jabs at our Toddler-in-Chief.) There’s a preposterous character named Skeletor, a junkie with a cross carved into his face who wields a stabbing-glove made of syringes. The eeriest moments in “The First Purge” do not feature this over-the-top ghoulishness. Instead, the spookiest scenes recall real life. Such as when a group of Purgers dressed as cops beat a black man to death in a baseball diamond. Or white supremacists attacking a black church. Or the streets filling with Hummers full of gun-toting Klansmen.

McMurray’s direction is slightly stronger than DeMonaco’s. There’s, refreshingly, no shaky-cam and few jump scares. McMurray does seem a little obsessed with sickly green coloration. The new director, in general, seems to prefer fight scenes to scary scenes. “The First Purge” is more successful as an action movie than a horror movie. The last act is devoted to Dmitri working his way up Nya’s apartment complex. He shoots, wrestles, slashes, and explodes the kill squad within. He even gets a lead bad guy to kill, in the form of a commander wearing a Gestapo trench coat and a bondage mask. There’s a pretty cool scene where the hero, after disrupting the building’s power, stalks the Purgers through flashing hallways. I wouldn’t be surprised if McMurray gets an action franchise gig based on his work here.

The prequel’s cast is largely made up of newcomers. Y’Lan Noel, who stars as Dmitri, only has five prior screen credits. Yet the actor makes a real impression. He’s muscly enough to be convincing as a bad ass killer. He also projects a sympathetic and compassionate side, playing a man conflicted over his profession. Lex Scott Davis plays Nya and radiates a down-to-earth but thoughtful energy. Jovian Wade plays Isaiah, depicting a good kid who is being forced to make some hard decisions. The only name actor in the film is Marisa Tomei as Dr. Updale, the architect of the Purge. The part is pretty thin and Tomei doesn’t do much besides get increasingly exasperated.

My previous statement that each new “Purge” movie is a little better than the one before continues to be true. While “The First Purge” still has some notable flaws, it manages to be both grimmer and more entertaining than the last one. A strong cast, some cool scenes, and an accurate reflecting of our current national nightmare makes this the best one yet. A prequel was smart from another perspective too. Now there’s twenty years of unexplored “Purge” history that future installments can now draw from. Maybe if the series continues its upward trajectory, part six or seven will be some sort of masterpiece. [7/10]

Devil Girl from Mars (1954)

When watching “The Colossus of New York” the other day, I mentioned my youthful habit of reading books and watching documentaries about the history of horror and sci-fi. Along with the caped and robotic Colossus, another image stuck with me from those days. That of a peculiarly dressed Martian vilainness ordering a boxy robot minion down the ramp of her space ship. The source of this image is “Devil Girl from Mars,” an independently made British sci-fi/horror flick from 1954. The film is regarded in some circles as a so-bad-it's-good classic. All of that sounds right in my wheelhouse and I'm surprised I've never seen the movie before now.

The film is set on the Scottish moors, all the events playing out around a pub called the Bonnie-Prince-Charlie. Various melodramas play out inside the public house. An American reporter, Michael, pursues a romance with a former fashion model named Miss Prestwick. An on-the-run convict has fled to the bar, where he rekindles an old affair with the barmaid, Doris. These melodramas are interrupted when a flying saucer lands outside the bar. A female Martian calling herself Nyah emerges. Armed with a futuristic weapons, including a robot with an annihilating ray, she holds the pub patrons hostage. Nyah explains that the Martians are about to go extinct and she's here to capture human men, in hopes of repopulating the planet.

The opening credits of “Devil Girl from Mars” informs us that the film is, hilariously, based on a stage play. It's hard to imagine people lining up at a playhouse to see “Devil Girl from Mars!” The film's stage bound roots are pretty evident on-screen. Most of the story is set in the boxy interior of the pub. Nyah casts a force field over the building, making the cast members unable to leave. The script is highly reliant on some fairly overwrought dialogue. The various romantic subplots, most of which are utterly disposable, seem as stagy as the limited setting. This combines with a story highly derivative of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as both films feature a humanoid visitor from another planet, who comes with an ultimatum for Earth and a robot bodyguard that shoots disintegrating rays from its head. That the visitor lands in the Scottish countryside inside of a major city is another example of how low-budget this production really is.

Despite the limitations of its script and budget, “Devil Girl from Mars” is still kind of fun. Nyah makes for a memorable villain. Patricia Laffan wears a ridiculous vinyl outfit, including a shiny helmet, a cape, thigh high boots, and a leather mini-skirt. Aside from the memorably fetishistic outfit, Laffan barks maniacal dialogue in a way that works for the film. Nyah's mechanical henchman, bizarrely named Channi, is also memorable. There's a creaky power to the image of the blocky robot marching out of the flying saucer and blasting a car, a tree, and a farmhouse into oblivion. Setting the story on a stretch of Scottish countryside obviously still recovering from World War II provides a desolate feeling to the proceedings.

Another element of unintentional camp in “Devil Girl from Mars” comes from its deeply antiquated gender politics. Nyah explains that society on Mars collapsed because men gave control to woman! The emancipation of women led to a war between the sexes, that ended with all the males being rendered impotent. Apparently the Martian women didn't consider that this would lead to a population crisis in just a few years later. Nyah is obviously a predatory woman, who even threatens a small child. This is in contrast to the film's other female characters, all of whom are subservient to men. Prestwick complains that, because she's not married or a mother, her life is basically over. She's 26, by the way. What can you do but laugh at such an over-the-top depiction of the past's overriding sexism?

Aside from Laffan, the film also features an early role for Hazel Court, who would go onto scream queens status after appearing in several Hammer films. Even with the stodgy script, “Devil Girl from Mars” can't help but hit my sweet spot. It's a slow sci-fi flick with cheesy effects and hilariously dated everything else. Yet there's a certain charm to that, which don't see anywhere else but fifties B-flicks. I'm not surprised it became a cult classic of sorts. The film, with its horny alien villain who wears fetish gear and wields a tri-pronged ray gun, was a likely influence on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” If that strain of bullshit appeals to you, you might want to check this one out. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Little Bigfoot's Last Stand

This cartoon didn't need another annoying comic relief character but adds one anyway. Meet Hairball, Bigfoot's young nephew. The yeti mails himself to Harry's house, now located out in the country for undisclosed reasons. Pyron hopes to abduct Felicia but ends up grabbing the boy wizard and the annoying sasquatch instead. The bad guys hope to ransom Hairball but the Bigfoot clan realize the villains will tire of him long before then. Meanwhile, Felicia finds a way onto Pyron's ship, which she accomplishes by harassing Lord Raptor, so she can rescue Harry. Soon, chaos erupts on the alien's mothership.

After two relatively serious episodes, “Darkstalkers” swings back towards obnoxious comedy very hard with this one. Hairball is supposed to be an annoying character, which the show does too good a job of accomplishing. In the one genuinely amusing moment in the episode, the little bigfoot even drives the usually unflappable computer on Pyron's ship nuts. Even Lord Raptor, with his rock music puns, fails to amuse me this time. The episode gets aggressively wacky as it goes on, especially once Bigfoot and the other sasquatches teleport themselves onto the spaceship. The final action scene is set in Pyron's vault, where he keeps all his magical relics, which might've been a cool moment if the animation wasn't so lame. Overall, it's another fairly pathetic episode of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon. [3/10]

Forever Knight: False Witness

“False Witness” starts with Nick watching out for Peter Farber, a police informant with a wire. Farber's talking with Murray Kozak, a sleazy pornography producer who is suspected of murdering an adult actress. When the sleazeball realizes Farber is wearing a wire, Nick leaps into action. The vampire flies into the room just after Kozak shoots the man in cold blood. He claims he saw the producer murder the witness. An investigation follows, internal affairs discovering some inconsistencies in Nick's story. He has to testify at a daytime trial, which is problematic for a vampire.

The conflict of “False Witness” is twofold. Nick knows Kozak killed Farber but he didn't literally see him pull the trigger. Everyone on the force, including Schanke and Stonetree, tell Nick he should lie so the scumbag goes away for life. Nick feels the lie weighing on him soon enough, mainly because it reminds him of seeing a witness lie on the stand in the 1700s. This stuff is mildly compelling from a dramatic stand-point. Forcing a vampire to function during a daytime trial is a little more fun, as Natalie smuggles Nick into the courtroom in the trunk of his car. His fingers singe a little while touching the Bible and giving the oath. He has to lean back from the sunlight crossing the court room. (And there's a cute denouncement where Nick and Nat watch “King Kong” together.) These elements make for a decent episode, even if the subplot involving a dominatrix pays off in a contrived way, there's another cheesy shot of Nick flying, and there's way too much stock footage. [7/10]

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