Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 13

Hatchet (2006)

2007 was a surprisingly good time to be a slasher movie fan. While the mainstream horror scene was still preoccupied with remakes and torture porn, indie filmmakers were suddenly interested in throwbacks to eighties mayhem. It makes sense. By this point, the horror fan boys who grew up on Freddy and Jason were old enough to be making movies themselves. 2007 saw the general release of “Behind the Mask,” “The Tripper,” “Murder Party,” “Severance,” “Wrong Turn 2,” “Vacancy” if you wanted to drive to the multiplexes, and “Hatchet.” The latter film would really make a splash with fans. Thanks to director Adam Green's savvy guerrilla marketing tactics and a cast loaded with cult favorites, “Hatchet” would become an underground success. Eleven years later – yes, really – it's time to look back on Victor Crowley's debut. 

Deep in the swamps of New Orleans, there is a legend. Victor Crowley was a deformed boy, raised by his widowed father. On Halloween night, teenagers set their cabin on fire. Victor's father hacked down the door with a hatchet but, unaware his son's face was pressed to the other side, accidentally killed his own boy. Supposedly, Victor haunts the swamps still, crying out for his father. Ben and his friends, in town for Mardi Gras, know nothing about this. Ben, still reeling from a break-up, isn't interested in partying. Instead, he drags Marcus along for a midnight ghost tour. When the boat gets stuck, Ben and the other tourists – including the mysterious Marybeth – are stranded deep in the swamps. That is when they discover Victor Crowley is very real... And very pissed.

“Hatchet” sold itself as old school American horror, pitching directly at the Fangoria crowd. And you can't say “Hatchet” doesn't know it's audience. The movie is packed, start to finish, with all sorts of gory special effects. Within the opening minutes, a man is torn apart, his spine ripped from his body. Victor makes his big appearance by chopping a man diagonally in half and then, in my favorite kill in the movie, ripping a woman's head off jaw first. Though his hatchet is obviously his trademark weapon, Crowley utilizes many murder props. Such as a tombstone, a shovel, and, most hilariously, a belt sander. That's when he's not just tearing people apart with his bare hands. Naturally, all of this is accomplished with practical effects. When not focusing on graphic dismemberment, “Hatchet” packs in the puke and casual female nudity.

In addition to its graphic gore, “Hatchet” also fills its cast out with beloved horror icons. Robert Englund and Tony Todd have amusing cameos. (John Carl Buechler also appears briefly, as a piss drinking Cajun.) Most prominently, Kane Hodder stars as Victor Crowley. Green smartly plays up the killer's tragic back story. Though hideously deformed, he was originally a kind and childish soul, beloved by his father. Hodder also plays Victor's dad, sans make-up, and actually gets some pathos out of the part. Crowley, now a ghost, is trapped in the agony and rage of his dying moments. Which might just be an excuse for the wraith to violently murder everyone he comes across. Still, giving the movie's villain a sympathetic back story, and Hodder a chance to really act, was a nice touch.

If only the rest of “Hatchet” was as well intentioned as its ghostly backstory and love of practical effects. Most of the characters are obnoxious and annoying. The victims include a pair of amateur porn stars, one of which is played by “Buffy's” Mercedes McNab. The two girls spend most of their screen time calling each other crude, awful names. The tour guide, a man pretending to be an Asian stereotype pretending to be a Cajun stereotype, is similarly broad. In-between murder scenes, the characters do a lot of offensive bickering and in-fighting. This does nothing but bore and irritate the viewer. The film's sense of humor is generally very crass, with lots of creative profanity and crude sexual references. Only Joel David Moore, as sad-sack Ben, and professional That Guy Richard Riehle make a positive impression on the viewer.

Despite its atmospheric swamp setting, “Hatchet” also looks kind of cheap. Green frequently frames his shot in wide, flat, TV-like set-ups. While the movie saves us any meta-humorous winking, it certainly layers in the “Friday the 13th” references. Aside from Hodder's casting as another deformed killer with a tragic childhood, the movie concludes with a shock ending on a boat. One of the murders recall an infamous moment from “Friday the 13th Part VII” and the score is full of Manfredini-style shrieks. “Hatchet” is a juvenile, pedestrian film in many ways, recalling Lloyd Kaufman more than John Carpenter. I mean, I still had fun with it. Watch with some pizza, some beer, and some fellow gore hound friends for maximum enjoyability. But don't expect anything more than cheap thrills and bad jokes. [7/10]

Night of the Seagulls (1975)
La noche de las gaviotas / Night of the Death Cult

By the mid-seventies, it would seem the Spanish people's hunger for eyeless zombie movies was close to sated. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that the Spanish horror industry as a whole was about burned out. Paul Naschy would begin a five year break from monster movies starting the next year. The ever-prolific Jess Franco would spend the rest of the decade mostly making women-in-prison and sexploitation flicks. Amando de Ossorio would cap off his “Blind Dead” quartet with 1975's “Night of the Seagulls” and not make another above-ground feature until the start of the eighties. As for the final time the Blind Dead shuffled out of their tombs, fans are split over whether it's the best or the worst of the series.

A young married couple, Henry and Joan, are invited to an isolated town on the Spanish coast. Henry has arrived to replace the town's aging doctor, hoping to drag the antiqued town into the modern age. The locals, however, are hostile. They reject Henry's modern ways. Joan, meanwhile, finds the new town unsettling. The church bells ring at midnight, followed by the sounds of seagulls. Young women seem to regularly disappear around town. When Henry and Joan's young housekeeper are taken, it's clear something strange is up. Teddy, the village simpleton, soon informs them about the truth. Once a year, for seven nights, the undead Blind Dead appear. They sacrifice seven maidens on the beach, cutting out their hearts and offering it to their arcane god.

After three films of varying degrees of unevenness, de Ossorio finally seems to get the balance right on his last “Blind Dead” feature. “Night of the Seagulls” has a plot that mostly makes sense, a pace that doesn't drag too much, few tonal inconsistencies, and just the right amount of zombie action. Mostly, the film succeeds over the other “Blind Dead” flicks by giving us a pair of protagonists we actually care about. Henry and Joan are genuinely good people. Henry wants to help people, while Joan is the first person who's aware of something weird going on. The film even extends some sympathy to the deformed and mentally ill Teddy, who probably would've been a pervert or villain in one of the previous films. Notably, there's also no sexual violence in this one. Caring about the leads certainly makes you more invested in what happens.

A town having history with the Knights was an element in the first two films but “Night of the Seagulls” runs with it in an interesting way. The seaside village has a symbiotic relationship with the undead. As the opening flashback shows, the Templars have been taking hearts since medieval times. The villagers are terrified the zombies will turn on them if they resist but, naturally, can't tell outsiders about this tradition. So de Ossorio ends up adding a “town with a secret” element to the story. The sacrifice scenes feel truly ritualistic too, the hearts cut out of the women, who are then picked over by crabs and gulls. Having this iteration of the Templars worship a fish-like deity – recalling Lovecraft's Dagon – is a nice change as well, after three movies of them being devil worshipers.

Making the Templars part of a town-wide conspiracy adds to the film's unnerving atmosphere. From the moment the characters arrive, they don't feel trusted. There's something off about the setting, from the way they casually abuse Teddy. While the title sounds odd, there is definitely something eerie about the sounds of seagulls calling at night. Mostly, the zombie attack scenes here are the creepiest since the first movie. There's an extended sequence of the Templars trying to break into a home, a classic moment of zombie suspense that is well executed. Each of the “Blind Dead” films have at least one indelibly spooky image. “Night of the Seagulls'” comes at the very end, as the fallen Templar ooze blood from their empty eye-sockets.

I'm thoroughly in the pro-“Night of the Seagulls” column. While “Tombs of the Blind Dead” is probably the creepiest of the quartet, the final entry strikes me as the most consistent. The story is interesting, the characters are likable, and that spooky ambiance of creaky dread is still intact. While the Blind Dead series would officially end here, there have been a few homages and unofficial continuations over the years. Franco's “Mansion of the Living Dead” and Naschy's “The Devil's Cross” feature similar looking ghouls. De Ossorio was supposedly shopping around a fifth “Blind Dead” script when he died in 2001, which I would've liked to have seen. Though they are all inconsistent, I'd say the entire “Blind Dead” series is worth looking at, if nothing for the novel addition they made to zombie movie history.  [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Gorilla's Paw

The “Monkey's Paw” premise is one the original “Tales from the Crypt” took a whack at once or twice. Even the original Amicus film contains a variation on it. So I guess it's only fair that the cartoon puts a spin on this one too. “Gorilla's Paw” follows Walter, an awkward nerd desperate to be accepted by a trio of cool kids. They keep him around as an errand boy but refuse to accept him into their club. While visiting a shop, the boys see a magical gorilla's paw, supposedly gifted with the ability to grant wishes. Walter steals the paw and begins to grant his friends' wildest fantasies, finally becoming an official member of the club. He soon learns that wishes can't be undone once they're granted and that leads to disastrous consequences.

“Gorilla's Paw” puts a wacky spin on a premise that, admittedly, we've seen many versions of. Kevin, the leader of the clique, wishes to be on “Gruesome Gladiators,” a horror-fied version of “American Gladiators.” This leads to an extremely odd sequence of the boys being attacked by various monsters. They're sprayed with acidic liquid, licked by a rock creature that emerges from the ground, and nearly get eaten by a giant squid. This scene is pretty weird, slightly off-putting, and ends with two people transformed into trees. The episode's crazier diversions are more appealing, such as an idle wish “for the moon” going very literally and the giant gorilla the paw was stolen from coming to retrieve it. The moral plays out in a satisfying way, Walter learning that some people aren't worth befriending. Overall, this is a slightly weird but entertaining episode. [7/10]

Wolf Creek: Journey

Last year, after watching the two “Wolf Creek” films, I also watched the six episode television series. While season one of “Wolf Creek” suffered from some seriously bloated story telling, I found the struggle between John Jarret's psychopath Mick Taylor and Lucy Fry's Eve, the only victim to best him, compelling. The first season must've brought eyeballs to Stan, the streaming service it aired on, as a second season followed in 2017. As I was finalizing my October watch list, news came out that Jarratt was being charged for a sexual assault it seems he committed back in the seventies. After that news, I considered dropping the show altogether. I guess curiosity and inertia got the best of me because, here I am, watching it anyway.

Following the events of the previous season, the police are determined to find the serial killer active in the Wolf Creek area of Australia. Mick Taylor, feeling the heat, flees to Southern Australia. There, he sets his eyes on a new batch of victims. A tour bus packed full of travelers is headed into the outback. They include an American businesswoman and her husband, a British psychologist, a German family, a gay couple, an Islamic photographer, a black American war veteran, a bus nerd from New Zealand, and two Canadian young women. After the tour guide, Davos, encounters Mick at a gas station and accidentally insults him, the killer decides to take the tourists on his own type of outback adventure.

A big problem I had with season one was the excessive number of plot points – many of them very silly – it introduced. These added little to the story, other than padding the runtime out to six hours. The second season seems to have solved this problem. By introducing a whole bus full of people, there's tons of potential plot threads to draw from. Out of these, the most interesting one to me is Kelly and Michelle, the Canadians. Kelly is a lesbian and in love with Michelle, who is straight and smitten with photographer Wade. (Emma, the German couple's daughter, also seems to like him.) By the end of the episode, it's clear Michelle knows how Kelly feels about her. I'm curious how that will play out, especially once the violence begin. I'm less invested in married couple Rebecca and Danny, though watching them re-connect here is sort of sweet. The diverse group seems mostly persuasive, even Ritchie with his encyclopedic knowledge of buses.

As always, Mick's presence introduces an unnerving tension. The opening scene, where he murders an old friend, definitively clarifies that killing is an impulsive desire for Mick. The casual scene he has with Davos, a really likable character, builds more in tension as it goes on. The cliffhanger, which has Mick killing the tour guide and assuming his role, suggests some very grim things are ahead for our tourists. It's a shame John Jarrett is apparently a scumbag in real life, as he continues to be a terrifying but oddly charming on-screen villain. We'll see how it goes – season one of “Wolf Creek” also had an excellent first episode, before loosing its grip later on – but I think season two has already hooked me. [7/10]

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