Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 12, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 11

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

There's no genre horror fans love to be all post-modern about more than the slasher movie. It's not just because of “Scream.” Parodies, like “Student Bodies” and  “Unmasked Part 25,” existed long before Wes Craven and Kevin Williams' famous deconstruction. It's gotten to the point where played-straight, unironic examples of the genre are getting harder to find. When “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” started to hit festivals in 2006, it certainly seemed to be playing this note too. Yet the film's novel approach, essentially being a mash-up of “Man Bites Dog” and “Scream,” won it fans. Over a decade later – how the time flies – its cult following has only grown stronger.

In a world where Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers are real, Leslie Vernon hopes to become the next great slasher icon. He's manufactured an elaborate legend around himself, involving a local apple orchard. He's currently pursuing a high school girl named Kelly and hopes to make her his “survivor girl,” after he's murdered all her friends. In order to document his process, he's invited a group of student filmmakers, led by young woman named Taylor. At first, the filmmakers are fascinated as Leslie explains his plan, as he introduces his mentor and gets his own archenemy. As Leslie comes closer to pulling off his killing spree, Taylor and the others realize they are all part of his slasher scheme.

By 2006, all the tropes and conventions of the slasher genre had been thoroughly picked over. We were all familiar with how sex equals death, the virginal final girl, the slowly advancing killer. Yet “Behind the Mask” somehow finds new things to say about slasher cliches. Going behind the scenes, showing the killer planning out his rampage, provides clever new observations. We see Leslie lay traps for his victims, sabotaging weapons and potential escape routes. He explains how he has to do lots of cardio, to keep up the illusion of the slow moving but inescapable slasher. (A deleted scene explains that slashers just run when the victims' backs are turned.) That he uses slight of hands and tricks to perpetrate his legend. A lot of the humor comes from contrasting Leslie's upbeat personality with his monstrous actions. He tells jokes and plays with his pet turtles. When he discovers he has an “Ahab,” an obsessive hero hunting him, he's overjoyed. He explains his intention to commit multiple homicides with a smile, becoming genuinely likable.

“Behind the Mask's” deconstruction of the slasher film works for a clear reason. The film isn't mocking anything. Director Scott Glosserman and his cohorts obviously love and respect the subgenre. Throughout the film, Leslie breaks down the symbolism of the final girl's journey. He talks about the womb-like aspect of the closest or shed. He discusses the phallic symbolism of the weapons she'll inevitably choose. The transference of power as she goes from victim to hero. It's all straight out of “Men, Women, and Chainsaw” but the film delivers it with conviction. Leslie, and all other slashers it's implied, actually admire their chosen targets. They want to see them become the best versions of themselves. They, in an odd way, love them. (And it's sometimes reciprocated, as Leslie's mentor Eugene married one of his final girls.) This brings an element to the slasher genre we hadn't seen before and is probably the most novel and unique aspect of “Behind the Mask.”

Most of “Behind the Mask” is shot like the mockumentary it is. We assume the perspective of the filmmakers' cameras. However, occasional Glosserman's camera pulls back. The opening scene, of Leslie stalking Kelly at her work, is shot like a traditional slasher flick. Periodically, “Behind the Mask” will take this approach. We see Leslie's imagining of his special night this way or his first murder in front of the girl. In the last act, “Behind the Mask” intentionally switches to this perspective. It comes just as the movie switches around most of the expectations it built up in the first two acts. In a brilliant and hilarious twist, we discover that Kelly is not the final girl Leslie's been pursuing. This last act essentially lets “Behind the Mask” have its cake and eat it too. It's both a clever deconstruction of slasher flicks and a fine, exciting, and surprising execution of the genre.

Perhaps more than anything else, the film's cast is what makes it so likable. Nathan Baesel is goddamn delightful as Leslie. He manages to make this psychotic killer into a lovable nerd, someone whose passion for his chosen field is infectious. Which makes the moment when he swings in the other direction, showing how vicious and uncompromising he can be, all the more startling. Angela Goethals is also excellent as Taylor, a shy young woman trying to come out of her shell. Goethals has a tightly wound veneer throughout most of the film until it finally cracks in the last act. The movie fills its supporting cast with recognizable genre actors. Scott Wilson, who just passed away a few days ago, is perfectly utilized as Leslie's mentor. (Who, the screenwriter has confirmed, is meant to be “Black Christmas'” Billy.) Robert Englund has several scenes as the obviously Dr. Looms-inspired Ahab. Zelda Rubenstein only has one scene but gets to deliver the legend behind Leslie, which is perfect. And then there's Kane Hodder, who has a very funny cameo.

As you'd expect from a movie all about the rules of the slasher genre, “Behind the Mask” ends by setting up its own sequel. Hints are dropped throughout about how Leslie can survive his climatic send-off. Sadly, actual attempts to get that sequel made – tentatively entitled "Before the Mask" – have been difficult. Scott Glosserman and his team have pursued the concept as a comic book. Recent news suggest the film may finally be moving forward, in one way or another. I can only hope that comes to pass. Leslie obviously deserves to spawn a franchise. Until then, “Behind the Mask” stands as a supremely cleverly and brilliantly executed love letter to the slasher genre. [9/10]

Return of the Blind Dead (1973)
El ataque de los muertos sin ojos / Return of the Evil Dead

It seems that “Night of the Living Dead's” original release made far bigger ripples in Europe than America. While the States wouldn't start really pumping out zombie movies until the eighties, the early seventies saw a number of releases in Europe. “Vengeance of the Zombies,” “A Virgin Among the Living Dead,” and “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” would follow throughout the decade's early years. De Ossorio's “Blind Dead” series was ready and willing to capitalize on this hunger. A year after the release of “Tombs of the Blind Dead,” the director and his sightless Templar Knights would return as well. Among the many alternate titles for “El ataque de los muetos sin ojos” –  translated as “Attack of the Eyeless Dead” – “Return of the Blind Dead “is the most appropriate.

“Return of the Bind Dead” is not technically a sequel to “Tombs.” The film presents an entirely different origin for the Blind Dead. Now, the blood-drinking, virgin sacrificing Templars are located in the Portuguese town of Bouzano. The angry villagers strung the Knights up and burned their eyes out with torches. In the centuries since then, the town has built a festival around the Knights' executions. They have fireworks, burning effigies, and plenty of celebration. Town idiot Murdo makes a blood sacrifice that night, awakening the Blind Dead once again. Soon, the eyeless zombies are rampaging through the town, forcing a motley crew of survivors to hide inside a local church.

As I said last time, the Blind Dead only actually appeared in a few scenes in the first film in the series. De Ossorio clearly set out to correct this oversight with “Return of the Blind Dead.” The sound-seeking Knights enter the film earlier and get far more screen time. There's more spooky shots of the mummified zombies riding their undead horses in slow motion. They reap more mayhem than before. On horseback, they slice their way through a crowd. Later, a bound man has his hand sliced off. There's even a decapitation, when the Blind Dead turn on the man who summoned them. The spookiest moment in the film comes at the very end, when the lifeless Templars collapse after sunrise.

The sequel gives us way more of the blind Templar Knights but at the cost of creating a more typical zombie movie. Though the horses are maintained, there are far fewer scenes of the Blind Dead detecting by sound, going a long way towards removing the villains' central gimmick. After the attack begins, the heroes and villains gather in a church at the town's edge. From that point on, “Return of the Blind Dead” becomes a rather sloppy variation on “Night of the Living Dead.” The church is more secure than the farm house in Romero's classic, so characters are given unconvincing excuses to leave the building. When the humans are fighting among themselves, they are listening to the Templar Knights banging on the church doors. This stuff isn't as creepy and unique as the zombie theatrics spotted in the first movie.

The protagonists of the first “Blind Dead” film were distinguished by a bisexual love triangle. The heroes of the sequel do not bring anything that interesting to the table. Instead, “Return of the Blind Dead” adds an element of political satire to the material. The town's Mayor watches the Blind Dead attack the festival. After they hide in the church, the Mayor and his aide grab the money and decide to run. They use a child as bait. They contact the Governor several times, who never seems especially concerned about the zombies. Instead, he's way more fascinated with seducing his maid and staying in bed. (This being the kind of horror movie it is, there's also an attempted rape scene.) While the political intrigue is something, it makes many of the character unlikable. Tony Kedall and Esperanza Roy's heroes are fairly bland.

It's easy to imagine de Ossorio designing this sequel around fan demand. People wanted more of the blind Templar Knights, so he gave the zombies a far bigger role. By playing more to zombie movie conventions, “Return of the Blind Dead” ends up loosing some of what made the first movie so special. Still, the sequel is not a total wash. There's still a few creepy shots, the music is still eerie, and those blind zombies are still pretty cool. If you liked the first, definitely watch the second film. But also keep your expectations a little more measured with this one. [6/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Hyde and Go Shriek

Despite the title, “Hyde and Go Shriek” is only sort-of, kind-of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” putting its spin on the Jekyll/Hyde story. High school nerd Wendell – people named Wendell are always nerds – is relentlessly bullied by the school jocks. He usually takes it in stride but when thug Rex tosses out Wendell's pet rat, the nerd has had enough. He attempts to bulk up and, when that doesn't work, buys some supposedly magical tea from Rex's friends. The tea, however, actually works. When he drinks it, Wendell turns into a bespectacled werewolf. Soon enough, the put-upon teen uses his new ability to turn his tormentors into the tormented.

After the weak “Cave Man,” “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” gets back into shape with “Hyde and Go Shriek.” The moral here is a classic almost worthy of the live action show. After werewolf Wendell humiliates Rex, the bully tries the same magic tea. His attempt goes horribly wrong though, in a classic twist. The sequence of the werewolf chasing Rex through an abandoned building is a solid horror sequence, featuring some nice animation and several decent moments of suspense. It's kid-friendly but still effectively spooky. This is also a fairly funny episode. The health food store is owned by the dad of a friend of Rex's. Everyone responds to this news in the same baffled fashion. The Cryptkeeper's puns in the host segment are also extra sharp. Over all, this is exactly the kind of G-rated horror theatrics that this show does well, at least when its on the ball. [7/10]

Forever Knight: 1966

I was hoping that “1966” would be about Nick's adventures with hippies or something. Instead, it's about the vampire visiting Berlin during the Cold War. In the present day, a nut with a gun and a grenade holds the police station hostage. He wants to see his brother released, points a gun at Natalie's head, and threatens to blow up the whole station. This reminds him of the time he traveled behind the Berlin Wall. In hopes of discovering an ancient book capable of lifting curses, called the Ararat, Nick helps a family of political dissidents escape from the Soviet Union.

I'll admit, “1966” is an episode I had some problems getting into. It's pretty easy to figure out why the modern day scenes take place entirely in one room. The flashbacks are longer and more involved than this show usually is. While I like Geraint Wyn Davies' chemistry with the actress playing the daughter, the storyline is a bit of a snooze. It's picks up more once they're on the run, Nick forced to use his vampire powers to fight some East Berlin soldiers. LeCroix also puts in a surprise appearance at the end. The modern-set scenes are mildly tense, especially in the slightly ridiculous way it plays out. [6/10]

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