Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, September 28, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 28

I'm at Monster-Mania in Baltimore this weekend, so you may not get some updates tomorrow. However, you will get some tonight. Here's today's round-up of horror entertainment:

Maniac (2012)

Usually, when a horror classic is being remade, it's strictly because of commerce. The rights holders to some older film believes they can cash in on whatever name recognition the original property may have, knowing that will sell the product regardless of the remake's actual quality. This is how we ended up with redos of obscure titles like “April Fool's Day” and “Prom Night.” Occasionally, however, a movie will get remade because a filmmaker is passionate about the original. Such was the case with 2012's “Maniac.” William Lustig wanted to remake his film and sought out Alexandre Aja, a huge fan of the original. Aja would write the script, handing directorial duties to friend and protegee Frank Khalfoun. Elijah Wood, also a big fan of the original, would star. This passion for 1980's “Maniac” is very evident in 2012's “Maniac,” making it one of the best horror remakes in recent memory.

2012's “Maniac” follows the plot of the original fairly closely. Frank Zito is still a deranged serial killer and child of a prostitute. He still murders women, scalps their corpses, and nails the bloodied wigs to mannequins. He still finds himself developing a romantic attraction to a photographer named Ann. Several key sequences – such as the subway chase, the grisly ending, and several lines of dialogue – are maintained. However, there are notable changes. The location has shifted from New York to L.A. Frank now owns and operates a mannequin shop. He often picks up his victims through dating websites. Ann's photography is more artsy-fartsy than fashionable. Most obviously, Khalfoun's “Maniac” is primarily shot from Frank's perspective.

Shooting “Maniac” almost entirely in a P.O.V. style is not just a slick visual gimmick, helping to distinguish this horror remake from the countless others. The original “Maniac” took us into Frank Zito's disturbing world. The remake takes us even further. We more intimately see his home, where he converses with his mannequins as if they were alive. Sometimes, he even sees them talking and moving. We see him scrub his knuckles bloody. He's haunted by visions of his mother and frequently suffers from migraines. He experiences hallucinations, placing himself inside a movie. If William Lustig's “Maniac” sought to take us inside a deranged killer's head, the remake accomplishes that goal in a more literal and even more disquieting fashion.

Khalfoun's remake is far more sympathetic to Frank. Among his mannequins is one of himself as a child. Deep inside, he's still that abused little boy, something emphasized during his death scene. We get several shots of Frank imaging everyone is staring at him, making his discomfort in public apparent. The remake makes it increasingly clear that Frank's murders are the result of a warped sex drive. During a date, a feisty redhead stripes down for him. As they are getting intimate, Frank strangles her. More emphasis is put on him calling his victims beautiful, leering after their bodies. His impotence is signaled by a nightmare, where he imagines himself as a mannequin from the waist down. The only time the movie takes us outside Frank's head is during the murder scenes, allowing the viewer to experience the orgasmic ecstasy of the kill.

Furthering this sympathetic reading is Elijah Wood's performance. Wood never diminishes Frank's status as a brutal killer or total creeper. However, he does make us understand why Zito is like this. Wood's casting also makes the romance with Ann a lot more believable. Elijah Wood is a lot more attractive than Joe Spinall. The remake has Ann expressing interest in Frank first, by photographing his mannequin shop. That connection over mannequins – soulless things that look alive but aren't – creates an actual foundation for their relationship. It's also way more plausible that an artistic type would be interested in a weirdo like Frank Zito, as opposed to Caroline Munro's strictly wholesome portrayal of the character in 1980.

No matter how sympathetic “Maniac's” take on Frank may be, this still functions as a brutal horror movie. It's easy to see Khalfoun taking some pointers from Aja in the attack sequences. Some are stomach churning in their nastiness. Such as Frank tying down a naked victim and slicing her back, before scalping her. Or a scene bringing the ankle slashers urban legend to mind, where Frank hides under a car and savagely cuts a victim's Achilles's tendon. Yet the film doesn't just rely on shocking gore. There's definite a sense of suspense during the long stalking scenes, especially the recreation of the subway chase, which is just as tense here as in the original.

Another positive element of 2012's “Maniac” is a gorgeous synth score from French electronic artist rob. The low throbbing synth of the soundtrack effectively underscores the tension and discomfort of Frank's life. 2012's “Maniac” may be one of those rare remakes that are superior to the originals. It doesn't have quite the same sleazy charm but it's a fantastically acted, beautifully orchestrated and brilliantly scored movie. Frank Khalfoun, previously of Christmas-set slasher “P2,” would next make the dreadful “Amityville: The Awakening.” Hopefully his next feature, Blumhouse produced thriller “Prey,” will be closer in quality to this one. [9/10]

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

A lot of people are afraid of spiders. There's a few reasons for this. Very few spiders can actually kill people, though some can deliver nasty bites. With their eight legs and multiple eyes, spiders can certainly look strange or alien. Mostly, I think spiders scare people because of their tendency to crawl into places were we don't expect to see them. And, hey, their webs make awesome set-dressing for haunted houses. Because of all this and more, there have been many horror movies starring spiders. Lots of these blow the arachnids up to enormous size. This, however, is unnecessary to make the creepy crawlers unnerving. 1977's “Kingdom of the Spiders” would become a cult classic thanks to William Shatner and 5000 real tarantulas.

Pleasant Verde Valley in Arizona seems like an idyllic small town. The town is preparing for a local celebration. Veterinarian Rack Hansen has managed to create a nice life for himself, taking care of his niece and his brother's widow. That's when animals around the town begin to mysteriously die. First a calf, then a dog, then a full-sized bull. Hansen sends the results to the local university. Diane arrives to tell him that spider venom is responsible for the deaths. The two soon discover that swarms of angry, unusually venomous tarantulas are crawling around Verde Valley. It's not long before the entire town is taken over by the pissed-off arachnids.

“Kingdom of the Spiders” falls into several subcategories of horror that were popular in the seventies. The film takes a little from “Jaws,” as the Mayor of the town downplays the threat because he doesn't want to delay a local event. Like many ecologically-themed horror pictures, pollution – pesticides specifically – are blamed for changing the tarantulas into killers. At times, the film seems like a low budget attempt to replicate the disaster movie trend. There's a sequence where the town is swarmed by the spiders. We see people fleeing, many falling to the ground, covered in spiders. A cop is even crushed by a falling water tower. (These scenes resemble, and predate, “The Swarm” from the next year.) The last act, devoted to the cast hiding in a local bar, trying to keep the spiders out, reminded me a lot of “Night of the Living Dead” as well.

Derivative as the film's plot may be, “Kingdom of the Spiders” is elevated by one detail. Using real tarantulas goes a long way. Director John “Bud” Cardos – who would go on to make “The Dark” and “The Day Time Ended” – throws in a few spider P.O.V. shots. However, the shots of real spiders crawling around amass are way creepier. In one scene, spiders emerge from the cockpit of a crop duster, swarming over the pilot. One effective shot shows a horde of tarantulas crawling under a little girl's feet as she sits on a swing. Spiders drop from a busted ventilation shaft, falling over an actress' head. Later, Shatner descends into the basement, where spiders cover the light bulbs and burst out of windows. If you're afraid of arachnids, “Kingdom of the Spiders” getting so up-close and personal with the eight legged beasties will certainly make you squirm. And if you're sympathetic to the critters, the movie might bum you out. Many tarantulas get squished during the ninety-minute run time.

“Kingdom of the Spiders” owes much of its infamy to its leading man. William Shater starred in this film during the years after “Star Trek's” cancellation, around the same time as “Big Bad Mama” and “The Devil's Rain.” Despite his hammy reputation, Shatner comes off as likably down-to-Earth here. (Though we do get some classical Shatnerian overacting during some of the spider attacks.) Considering the actor's real life love of horses, I imagine he enjoyed playing a glorified cowboy. The movie gives Bill two women to romance, Diane and his brother's widow. This romantic scenes are surprisingly cute. Though the spider invasion ends up resolving the love triangle, making the earlier scenes devoted to it feel superfluous.

Another thing to like about “Kingdom of the Spiders” is its final image. After surviving their hellish night, our protagonist look out the window. They see the entire town covered with spider silk. That's a fittingly haunting and spooky image to take the film out on. Though its budget and goals are modest, “Kingdom of the Spiders” does a good job of exceeding both. The film's cult following grew further thanks to frequent airings on cable television in the eighties. With the only previous DVD release being a shitty pan-and-scan transfer, the recent upgrade from Scream Factory was much appreciated. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Aliens Keep Out

“Aliens Keep Out” has a convoluted and senseless plot, even by the standards of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon. After a confrontation with Donovan, Rikou returns to Atlantis to relax. Morrigan and Bishamon ambush him, quickly capturing the curiously attractive fishman. Pyron is so pleased by this, he travels to Earth. Pyron landing on the South American continent awakens Huitzil, an ancient robot tasked by Quetzacoatl with sacrificing any aliens that step foot on Earth. Rikou, Morrigan, and Bishamon team up for the good of the whole planet. The Computer on Pyron's ship informs everyone that, if he's not returned within a few hours, the ship will explode, taking most of the solar system with it. The Computer recruits Felicia and Harry, for some reason, to help with this. Got all that?

The American “Darkstalkers” cartoon is known for its wild divergences from canon but “Aliens Keep Out” really takes the cake. In the games, there's a whole army of Huitzils and they are all Pyron's minions. Pyron is also among the most powerful characters in “Darkstalkers” lore. Here, he's overpowered by Huitzil, spending most of the episode crying like a baby. Bishamon, who has yet to get much character development, is portrayed here as a honorable samurai. He's cursed to be evil and longs for a dead wife, a plot point introduced randomly. This is very different from the games, where Bishamon's evil armor turns into a bloodthirsty sadist. The creators of this show apparently confused Rikou with Aquaman, as he's given the ability to communicate with and control aquatic life. He's also given a high-tech airplane, called the Sky Fish, that appears in one scene out of nowhere.

Beyond these baffling changes, “Aliens Keep Out” is probably one of the more entertaining episodes of “Darkstalkers.” That's mostly thanks to it being completely nuts. Its plot is baffling and nonsensical. Once again, Morrigan's abilities shift from episode to episode. Here, she can seemingly manipulate matter to her will. Scott McNeil's increasingly sarcastic and put-upon performance as Rikou is the ideal reaction to all the stupid bullshit happening here. Though his backstory and personality has been completely altered, Huitzil gets one of the better redesigns. He even gets to keep some of his special attacks. There's a weird homoerotic subtext between Pyron and his Computer, as the A.I. seems like a clingy girlfriend. Later, Harry reprograms the Computer to have a sultry female voice. The animation and action is still garbage but, I'll admit, I was entertain but this maddening episode. [6/10]

Forever Knight: I Will Repay

“Forever Knight” once again sees its hero wrestling with the ethical implications of being a vampire. Natalie's previously unmentioned brother, Richard, accompanies her to the police station. Just as he arrives, an angry perp grabs a cop's gun away. Richard is shot and fatally wounded. With her brother dying, Natalie asks Nick to transform him into a vampire. After hesitating, Nick goes through with it. This makes Knight recall a time, centuries ago, where he brought a leprous woman over to the dark side. Like that incident hundreds of years earlier, things go horribly wrong. Richard fancies himself a vampire vigilante and quickly goes mad with power.

The first half of “I Will Repay” is more interesting than its second. The debate between Natalie and Nick is compelling, because both of them are right. She has good reason to want her brother to live, as he has a wife and daughter. Nick, however, knows making new vampires is always a problematic endeavor. Once Richard is turned into a vampire, things quickly begin to go in a more typical direction. Richard becomes an insane vampire seemingly within the span of one night, using his powers to kill a local mob bosses. Naturally, Nick has to stake him in order to protect Natalie. The most interesting aspect of this plot twist – Richard's wife learning about vampires – is wiped away by Nick hypnotizing her at the end. “I Will Repay” starts promising but ends on an underwhelming note. [6/10]

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