Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 10

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
La noche del terror ciego

Horror films made in Spain have never garnered the same cult following, stateside, as Italian horror. Though Jess Franco and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador have their disciples, they've never caught on to the degree Dario Argento or Mario Bava have. Maybe it's because there are fewer notable Spanish horror directors or maybe because the country's genre output is more uneven overall. If Spanish horror has a key image, and it's not Paul Naschey's immortal werewolf count, it's the eyeless Templar Knights of Amando de Ossorio's “Blind Dead” tetralogy. Inspired by American zombie movies, de Ossorio's “Tombs of the Blind Dead” would kickstart a short-lived interest in horror in the Spanish film industry. In the years since, the film, its sequels and knock-offs have developed a small but passionate fan following.

At a vacation resort, childhood friends Betty and Virginia reunite. Virginia is traveling with her platonic male friend Roger. They invite Betty on a trip the next day, where they pass through the Portuguese town of Berzano. Berzano is home to a legend. Hundreds of years ago, a sect of Satan-worshiping Templar Knights lived in a temple there. After sacrificing and cannibalizing a number of people, the Knights were hanged from trees. Before they died, crows plucked their eyes out. Supposedly, the undead Knights still stalk the temple after sunset. Virginia discovers this legend is true, after ducking out of the train ride and spending the night in the temple. Betty and Roger go searching for their missing friend and experience the wrath of the Blind Dead personally.

“Tombs of the Blind Dead” is a film with a lot of flaws. However, a key element has insured its status as a Eurohorror cult classic. The Blind Dead are genuinely creepy. The Knight move extremely slowly, their ancient bones creaking. Fog rises from the ground before they pull themselves from their tombs. The ages have caused their white robe to decay into a dirty brown color. Their eyeless skulls peak out from under hoods, scraggy beards dangling from their skeletal faces. Being blind, they often grasp the air wildly. They hunt entirely by sound, meaning their victims' screams or heartbeat can give them away. This gives them a gimmick unlike any other cinematic zombies. Their visual appearances and behavior make them a unique and unforgettable collection of horror villains.

The horror movie around them is sometimes creepy too. The musical score, which heavily features gothic chanting, is extremely spooky and might've inspired Jerry Goldsmith's notorious soundtrack to “The Omen.” De Ossorio's direction is occasionally very cheesy, as he utilizes some crass zooms. However, his use of slow-motion – mostly during the scenes where the Knights are riding their horses – is effective. It makes the zombies, who are otherwise very slow and easy to escape, seem truly otherworldly. Another scene, a slow-paced stalking inside a factory colored by flashing red lights, is also tense. The scenes of the Blind Dead attacking can be disturbing. The film is not extremely gory but its moment of violence make an impact. Such as the finale, where the ghouls invade a busy train. They attack a young woman, her infant daughter helplessly clinging to her lifeless and bleeding mother. Though uneven, “Tombs of the Blind Dead's” spookiest moments definitely make an impression.

Sadly, the movie around those scenes is not as sturdy. Plot wise, “Tombs of the Blind Dead” meanders wildly. The titular zombies only truly appear in two scenes. A long stretch in the middle shows the undead condition to be contagious, as a victim resurrects and makes her own kill. These scenes feel totally different from the rest of the movie. The script has no clear protagonist. At first, it seems to be Virginia but she is killed half-way through. Her friends take over from there. Even then, the movie often shifts focus to unimportant side characters. There's a lengthy subplot devoted to a criminal empire, that never connects to the zombie story. “Tombs of the Blind Dead” often feels like its story was made up as the filmmakers went along, few clear objectives in mind.

The cast is not especially notable. Being a European horror film from the seventies, even the uncut and subtitled version is technically dubbed. However, at least one character emerges as unusual. There's a reason Virginia and Roger aren't boyfriend and girlfriend, despite Roger's obvious attraction to her. When Virginia and Betty meet again, there's a clear awkwardness between them. In college, the two women were more than just friends. Virginia is a lesbian and Betty is at least bisexual. This subplot results in a very sleazy and uncomfortable scene, where another man attempts to rape Betty into being straight. Yet it's clear that the queer love story isn't in the film strictly for exploitative reasons. The director was interested in this, for more than just totally salacious reasons.

I have no idea if “Tombs of the Blind Dead” will appeal to all horror fans. The pace is slow. The story is inconsistent. The villains, as creepy as they are, could've been easily outrun. The aesthetic is undeniably cheesy and sleazy. However, the film's strong moments are still rather impressive. More than anything else, the undead antagonists still stand out among the countless other cinematic zombies shambling around. This unique gimmick would make the film a success on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. Today, a select group of fans still enjoy this one. (Bizarre bit of trivia: One American cut of the film tried to piggyback off the popularity of the “Planet of the Apes” films by re-editing the movie to make the Templer Knights undead, evil apes. I can kind of see the resemblance but that change must've necessitate some impressive rewrites.) [7/10]

Joy Ride (2001)

I've always been fascinated with horror movies that take place on the open road. It's not that I find road trips to be inherently sinister or anything. But things can easily go wrong on the road. Contrasting the upbeat nature of a trip, the endless possibility of the road, with horror is also a worthy exercise. Despite my fondness for this story type, I've never gotten around to watching “Joy Ride” before. I always dismissed the film as another post-”Scream,” watered-down, mall horror wannabe. That's certainly what the trailers and posters made it look like. Despite that, “Joy Ride” has received some positive notice over the years. Combining that with the road-bound premise, I decided that this October was finally the time for me to watch this one.

College student Lewis learns that Vienna, a girl he's been lusting after for some time, is recently single. With summer break fast approaching, Lewis offers to drive from California to Colorado, pick her up, and drive back. Lewis doesn't actually have a car but he quickly gets a rental. Along the way, he receives news that his troubled brother, Fuller, has just gotten out of jail. Lewis picks up Fuller, who adds a CB radio to the car. Bored on the road, they decide to pull a prank on a trucker who goes by the handle “Rusty Nail.” Fuller talks Lewis into pretending to be a woman, who offers to sleep with Rusty Nail. Things start to go wrong when Rust shows up at their hotel and brutally injuries another tenant. Nail doesn't appreciate being pranked. Soon, he's pursuing the brothers and Vienna, determined to punish them as harshly as possible.

“Joy Ride” was co-written by J.J. Abrams, back when he was just a humble screenwriter and not a director of massive blockbusters. Ever the student of Spielberg, “Joy Ride” is obviously Abrams' homage to “Duel.” In that film, the malevolent trucker pursues Dennis Weaver for no reason at all. Here, the protagonists have genuinely wronged the trucker. Rusty Nail was essentially promised sex. When he didn't receive it, he revealed himself as a dangerous and obsessive killer. Sex is wrapped up inside all of “Joy Ride.” Lewis is motivated by sex, hoping to get some from Vienna. Fuller frequently talks about being horny. Eventually, both brothers become attracted to the girl. This marks “Joy Ride” as a slasher movie in spirit, where sex triggers the horror and youthful indiscretions are punished by an insane murderer.

I say slasher “in spirit” because “Joy Ride” does not focus on gory mayhem. If it wasn't for a few F-bombs, the movie easily could've been rated PG-13. Instead, the film successfully aims for suspense. The moment Rusty Nail's psychosis is revealed is effective voyeuristic. That leads into a brilliant moment, where the protagonists realize they're being followed. The chase scene after that builds fantastically, involving a false start at a gas station, a surprisingly big explosion, and the place between a tree and a screeching truck. The film peaks somewhat early, with the desperate and escalating tension of that sequence. However, it comes close to matching that moment near the end. After Rusty Nail has captured Vienna and invents an elaborate trap for the guys, the audience is left wondering exactly what will happen. “Joy Ride's” thrills are grisly and sweaty enough that the film easily leaps from thriller to horror.

A big factor in whether a thriller works or not is if the audience cares about the characters. “Joy Ride” walks a perilous rope with that one. Its heroes are a horny, somewhat duplicitous guy and his chronic screw-up, ex-con brother. All the bad stuff that happens to them, they more-or-less bring on themselves. Yet Paul Walker and Steve Zahn manage to overcome these issues. Zahn roots enough of his bad behavior – even his attempt to seduce his brother's girlfriend – in a squirrely humor, making it easy to forgive him. Walker had an everyman quality that could border on bland. Here, the part has just enough personality that Walker comes off as relaxed and likable. Leelee Sobieski, gorgeous, plays Vienna as highly reasonable. Probably too reasonable to be involved in these shenanigans. Lastly, Ted Levine is perfectly utilized as the voice of the largely unseen Rusty Nail. Levine's gravelly baritone makes the trucker creepily abnormal and viscerally threatening.

“Joy Ride” certainly does fit in with the post-”Scream” wave of horror. It's cast is composed mostly of pretty faces, it's boldly derivative of films that came before, the soundtrack is full of pop songs, and John Dahl's direction is music video slick. There's also a bunch of floating heads on its poster. All that is true but it can't prevent “Joy Ride” from being a very effective on-the-road thriller. Two direct-to-video sequels, both of which supposedly feature gorier special effects, followed in 2008 and 2014. I liked this one enough that I'm honestly a bit curious about those too. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Cave Man

The de-frosted caveman is another classic sci-fi/horror trope that the original “Tales from the Crypt” show never utilized. Once again, the animated spin-off picked up the tropes the live action show left behind. Peter's dad works at a museum, which is getting ready to open a new exhibit. The center piece of which is a real neanderthal, perfectly preserved in a block of ice. Mr. Orwell, the owner of the museum, is an asshole and forces Dad to work on Peter's birthday. As revenge, the boy smashes the cave man display. This causes the neanderthal to thaw out. Peter and the defrosted hunter/gatherer immediately becomes friends. The two go on an adventure together at a local carnival before returning to the museum.

Most of the “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” episodes, thus far, have done a decent job of actually functioning as little horror movies for kids. “Cave Man,” however, does not seem to be going for scares. The thawed-out caveman is a comical, not frightening, figure. His escapades are broadly humorous, in that fangless way children's television too often invokes. Watching the caveman smash stuff at the carnival or museum left me unmoved. (Though an Arnold Schwarzenegger-themed strength testing machine was nicely baffling.) The kid is also somewhat annoying, a selfish brat that cares more about his birthday than his dad's employment status. This is the kind of lame kiddie bullshit I feared “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” was and has mostly avoided being  up to this point. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Fatal Mistake

Maybe it's just because I was half-asleep while trying to watch it but “Fatal Mistake” is a convoluted episode of “Forever Knight.” It's another episode focused on Captain Stonetree. The captain is present during a burglary of a gas station. He chases the teenagers responsible and ends up fatally shooting one of the boys. The captain feels immense guilt over this. Nick explains to the captain that he understands how he feels. He recalls a time, centuries ago, where he bite a barmaid and sucked her dry. The death made Nick feel remorse for the first time since becoming a vampire fighter. Afterwards, LeCroix turned the girl into a vampire. Now, hundreds of years later, she's stalking Nick again.

“Fatal Mistakes” pretty clearly seems to be an episode split in two. The guilt Stonetree feels over the death, and the resulting revenge the victim's brother attempts to pull on him, are clearly not the main attractive here. Nick's showdown with his former victim is way more interesting. The vampires' fight in a junk yard is pretty cool and has a nicely grotesque ending. The two plots connect in tenuous ways, “Fatal Mistakes” feeling increasingly like the writers favored one plot line but didn't have the time or money to really give it the attention it needed. The result is a very uneven episode. [6/10]

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