Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 1

Maniac Cop (1988)

I'm sure there are police officers that are decent people, guys who uphold the law, protect the innocent and serve the public trust. Yet the events of the last several years have made it abundantly clear that police brutality runs rampant in this country. That many cops are psychos with badges that are explicitly trained to see non-whites as less than human. Larry Cohen and William Lustig, it turns out, were ahead of the curve in realizing cops are not always heroes. Eight years after directing “Maniac,” Lustig would direct a similarly entitled script from one of the masters of American b-movies. The film would be a success, especially on home video, becoming the first part of a trilogy.

Someone is murdering random people on the streets of New York. This isn't just any ordinary psycho. Instead, the killer is dressed as a police officer. This creates a huge problem with the NYPD, as public trust of the police plummets, so they are quick to catch the perpetrator. The murders are quickly pinned on Officer Jack Forest, after his wife ends up dead. Detective Frank McCree, however, isn't sure Forest is the guy. He begins to investigate more and soon uncovers the case of Matt Cordell. A trigger happy cop, Cordell was put away in Sing-Sing Prison. He was quickly slashed to death by the crooks he put away. However, McCree begins to suspect Cordell is still alive and that he's the maniac cop.

Narratively, “Maniac Cop” has a bit of a problem. It's first act is structured like a mystery. Who is the Maniac Cop and where did he come from? While it's fun to watch Tom Atkins sleuth, this is ultimately not an especially compelling mystery. The way he uncovers the truth, by tracking a police woman who walks with a limp, does not show his detective skills as especially impressive.  After the truth about Matt Cordell is revealed, “Maniac Cop's” mysterious streak evolves into a tendency towards action theatrics. For its climax, the film throws in a car chase and a shoot-out or two. Which is a bit more fun than the detective-ing.

“Maniac Cop” is most successful as a horror movie. The intimate direction Lustig showed in “Maniac” has evolved towards something more atmospheric. The film opens with moody shots of Cordell suiting up and loading his weapons. The early attacks scene occur on the dark blue, night streets of New York City. The film plays the reveal of Cordell's weapon – a knife blade hidden in a billy club – for as much dramatic effect as possible. In the second half, when Cordell really goes on his rampage, a chaotic sense of mayhem overtakes the movie. The bodies pile up, as Cordell stabs, slashes, chokes, and tosses his way through unimportant extras. The movie's spooky direction peaks during the largely silent flashback, showing us Cordell's transformation from regular cop to maniac cop. He's attacked in the shower, throwing his attackers away, before being overwhelmed and cut to ribbon. Lustig leans heavily on the shadows and slow motion. When paired with Jay Chattaway's creepy synth score, it becomes surprisingly spooky.

William Lustig also assembled quite a cast of B-movie luminaries for “Maniac Cop.” Tom Atkins plays McCree. Like many of Atkins' roles, he's a fed-up cop that is determined to get the job done anyway. Nevertheless, Atkins' enormous charm and grit makes the part memorable. In a likely nod to “Psycho,” Atkins – the assumed star of the film – is offed halfway through. At that point, Bruce Campbell's Jack Forest becomes the hero. Forest is a bit of a thin part, leaving little room for Campbell's trademark humor. Laurene Landon is more likable as Forest's determined love interest. Of course, the late, great Robert Z'Dar plays Cordell. Z'Dar's massive frame and utterly distinctive face makes him an ideal fit for a lumbering, unstoppable killer. Even the bit parts are filled with recognizable faces like the gravelly-voice Wiliam Smith and a largely underused Richard Roundtree.

Though a simple action/slasher mash-up, Lustig and Cohen did sneak some social commentary into “Maniac Cop.” The film openly depicts police corruption. Despite being a “shoot first, ask questions later” type, the other cops refer to Cordell as a hero. The judge who sent him away, however, was black. Later, during a series of on-the-street interviews, a black man says that many of his friends have been killed by cops. Despite its simple and pulpy pleasures, “Maniac Cop” can't help but come off as very relevant. Maybe that's why Nicholas Winding Refn and John Hyams have been planning a remake for a while. Though Z'Dar will be hard to replace, that sounds like a good match. [7/10]

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

I have a huge deal of respect for Ray Harryhausen. Obviously, the man completely changed the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror genre with his groundbreaking effects work. For many, Harryhausen's name is synonymous with stop motion creations. Over the last few years, I've been watching the trilogy of black-and-white monster movies Harryhausen made for Columbia Pictures in the fifties. Completely unintentionally, I was watching this particular trilogy in the reverse order it was made. So, after covering “20 Million Miles to Earth” and “Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers,” I turn my attention towards “It Came from Beneath the Sea.”

Commander Matthew captains a U.S. submarine off America's Pacific coast. The sub is attacked by an unknown, but massive, creature. A huge mass of flesh is lodged in the propeller. The tissue is examined by expert marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce and Dr. John Carter. They determined the mass is from an enormous octopus, the creature brought up from the depths of the ocean by hydrogen bomb tests. The doctors are right. The octopus is attacking other ships and soon turns its tentacles on San Francisco.

It's not an completely unfair stereotype that fifties creature features were primarily composed of people standing around and talking, with maybe ten minutes of monster action. “It Came from Beneath the Sea” fits this accusation to a tee. This is a very talky monster movie. Carter and Joyce study the creature's remains in the lab. Joyce and Matthews argue/flirt. The scientist try to convince the military brass of the truth. Sailors, who were attacked by the octopus, alternate between admitting the truth or being accused of being crazy. They wait on the beach for the titular It to attack. I've got no problem with my vintage monster movies to be a little slow but “It Came from Beneath the Sea” feels a little unmotivated at times.

However, the monster scenes are pretty good. The giant octopus is not Ray Harryhausen's most personable monster. Compared to the snarling Rhedosaurus, the sympathetic Ymir, or even the wobbling flying saucers, the it that came from beneath the sea doesn't do as much. The octopus mostly sits at the bottom of the bay, its face and head fluttering and pumping. However, Harryhausen still makes the most of the creature. The scenes of the massive tentacles rising above the city –pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge, a clock tower, or snatching up vehicles– are a lot of fun. Even if the shot of the cephalopod holding the submarine during the climax looks a little silly.

“It Came from Beneath the Sea” has a solid cast, in theory. Kenneth Tobey, previously seen in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and “The Thing from Another World,” reappears as Commander Matthew. This was the third sci-fi creature feature Faith Domergue appeared in during 1955, along with “Cult of the Cobra” and “This Island Earth.” Both are fine, in their parts of a stern military captain and a sexy lady scientist. What doesn't work is their romance. At first, Matthew's romantic advances against Joyce are a little uncomfortable. Despite her telling him to back off, he repeatedly pursues her. This being the kind of movie it is, made during the time it was, she's eventually won over. The two end the movie kissing. However, from modern perspective, it's a little queasy.

Compared to the other monster movies Harryhausen would make around the same time, “It Came from Beneath the Sea” is a little anemic. The pace is a bit slow, the characters aren't as interesting, and the central monster is not as likable. Still, there's something to be said for those uniquely charming stop motion effects. Like the other two flicks Harryhausen would make for Columbia, this has its fans. Enough so that, fifty-two years later, there was a comic book sequel. By the way, I watched the colorized version –as that's what is streaming on Amazon– and it looks washed-out and sickly green. Stick with the black and white, if you can. [6/10]

Darkstalkers: There's No Business like Dragon Business

The American “Darkstalkers” cartoon reaches its most baffling point with “There's No Business like Dragon Business.” While out sledding with Hairball –a character we really didn't need to see again– Harry uncovers a dragon frozen in a glacier. The dragon, who talks with an effete accent, soon thaws out. The dragon is looking for the Holy Grail but is also extremely gullible. Meanwhile, Lord Raptor is starring in a dinosaur movie. After destroying the expensive dinosaur prop, he decides to track down the dragon instead. He quickly tricks the fire-breather into thinking Felicia and Harry are evildoers. Soon, all the heroes and villains end up on Pyron's ship. In his incompetence, Raptor activates the ship's solar system devastating self-destruct program.

Guys, I don't even know where to start with this one. “There's No Business like Dragon Business” is incredibly senseless, even for a series as consistently shitty as this one. Why is Lord Raptor starring in a jungle adventure movie? Why is the film set using a giant dinosaur robot? Why is there a random Arnold Schwarzenegger reference right after this scene? The dragon talking with a vaguely William Shatner accent is mildly amusing but very odd. There's a hilarious and disturbing scene where the Bigfoots spit out enough ice to create a huge dome. After Lord Raptor and the dragon begin to wreck Pyron's ship, things get even stranger. The computer sings a nonsense song. The zombie rock star raps, dresses in drag, and dances on the beach with a cartoon shark. It's one “what the fuck?” moment after the next. This show keeps finding new ways to impress me with its incompetence and sheer stupidity. [3/10]

Forever Knight: Hunters

Half-way through its first season, “Forever Knight” starts to focus some episodes on its supporting cast. “Hunters” begins with Nick and Schanke hanging out in the streets with Jim, an old friend of Schanke's. Jim is shot dead right in the street, shocking the other two. After a threatening letter is sent to the police station, it's discovered that Schanke was the intended target. Nick's partner goes into hiding. First, the hotel he stays in is exploded, causing Nick to hide Schanke in Janette's vampire club. Eventually, it's discovered that the nutcase obsessed with Schanke is an old friend from his Academy days.

“Hunters” is an episode that really jumps all over the place tonally. Schanke sees two friends killed before his eyes. After Jim is shot down in the opening scene, a beat cop is killed when the hotel is destroyed. (How Schanke survives the blast really seems impossible.) The finale, where the psycho hunts Schanke through the Academy shooting range, is also mildly tense. This contrasts against some very goofy scenes, mostly set around Schanke stumbling through Janette's vampire club or chatting with an elderly woman selling newspapers. Sometimes, however, I don't care about tonal consistence and both of these elements are equally entertaining.

The flashback portions of this episode are also really strong. Sometime during the Wild West days, Nick, Janette, and LeCroix were pursued by a trio of vampire hunters. These scenes show us a more savage side of Nick Knight, as he coldly executes the hunters. There's also some novelty to seeing the smoking vampires riding their horses through the day. Or being pinned down in an old shack by the hunters. While the story jumps all over the place, I still found myself liking this one before. [7/10]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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