Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 17

Slender Man (2018)

When it first started making the rounds in 2009, I really did think Slender Man was scary. Those black and white Photoshops images were very creepy. The lore that quickly built up around the character was all about invading your privacy, creating paranoia, and blurring the line between fiction and reality. It was effective stuff. I even briefly really got into “Marble Hornets,” an internet series that maybe hasn't aged the best. I actually had a few nightmares about it. When the big budget “Slender Man” movie hit theaters last August, the entire concept had long since jumped the shark. I blame that compute game for turning a freaky creepypasta into an overexposed meme. The studio-made film isn't even the first one inspired by the internet urban legend, though it is the first to be officially approved by the creature's creator.

A group of four high school friends – Hallie, Wren, Chloe, and Katie – are trying to kill some time on a boring weekend. They hear that a group of male friends, including the boy Hallie likes, are trying to summon the Slender Man. Not wanting to be outdone, the girls look up an internet video said to draw the faceless, tentacled, black-suit wearing entity your way. The girls are spooked by the video but don't think much of it. That is until Katie disappears a few weeks later. Finding Katie's laptop, Wren discovers that the girl became obsessed with the legendary creature before she vanished. Soon, the remaining friends are also being targeted by Ol' Spaghetti Arms.

From the moment the trailer hit theaters, it was immediately apparent what kind of horror movie this is. I'm talking typical PG-13, mall horror bullshit. “Slender Man” does not defy expectations. There's plenty of jump scares, of images emerging on-screen suddenly, accompanied by loud shrieks on the soundtrack. When that's not happening, the film loads up with CGI silliness. The titular character is not convincingly brought to life, looking plastic-y and fake. An encounter in a library, that concludes with Joey King getting her face removed, is laughable. Director Sylvian White, previously of “Stomp the Yard” and “I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer,” throws in more goofy imagery as the movie goes on. Such as a make-out session degrading into spasmodic head-shaking, a ridiculous pregnancy-invoking nightmare, or a random shot of one of the girls buried in dirt, arms twitching around. By the time the heroine comes face-to-face with the monster in the last act, the movie has already descended into unintentional comedy.

The movie is dumb and quite silly. However, it does attempt to touch upon what made Slender Man interesting in the first place. I've always interrupted the character as a metaphor for millennial paranoia about the surveillance state and how internet social pressures have become inescapable. Because, see, he's always watching and worms into your head. Keeping with this idea, the girls first become exposed to the entity thanks to the internet. Katie descent into obsessive behavior goes hand-in-hand with her spending more time on weird internet forums. The film takes this idea to its silliest conclusion when Slender Mans communicates with the girls via their smart phones. The movie also touches upon the character's deeper lore, by linking him with shadow people, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and other fairy tales. However, this is simply a(n ultimately abandoned plot point) and not commentary on the way archetypes of child-snatching beings that hang out in the forest have evolved over the centuries.

By the time “Slender Man” ended, I was definitely tired of how stupid it was. However, the earlier scenes are a little more likable. The four girls have a nice chemistry together. After Katie's disappearance, the scenes of Hallie, Wren, and Chloe trying to untangle what happen have a mildly fun teen detective feeling. The young cast is fairly likable. In-between this, “The Conjuring,” and “Wish Upon,” Joey King is quickly becoming the go-to scream queen for underachieving studio horror films. That's probably because she has an easy-going charm and is very talented at acting panicked. Julia Goldini Telles, a stand-out performer from “Bunheads,” has a similarly sardonic charm. Her abilities are deeply underused here but the actress manages to create a likable protagonist, even if the script doesn't.

“Slender Man” ends on a total shrug too, by the way. After that hysterical climax, packed with horrifically fake special effects, the movie more-or-less just ends. That the film is so typically bad is unsurprising but still disappointing. I think a quality horror film could still be made about the Slender Man, even if the idea is way past its expiration date. And there is the possibly we might get more of these things. Despite little promotion, probably because Screen Gems wanted to distance itself from the real life tragedy the meme has inspired, the film still turned a decent profit this past summer. Then again, maybe it's for the best if creepypasta movies don't become the next Hollywood horror trend. I really don't want to see a “Jeff the Killer” movie clogging up the multiplexes. [4/10]

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Why are scarecrows spooky? The easy answer is the same reason why dolls, dummies, mannequins, and robots are spooky. They have a humanoid shape, they look like something that's alive, but they ultimately aren't. However subtly and subconsciously, these objects remind us of corpses. Scarecrows have extra elements that make them unnerving. By their nature, they usually appear in rural settings. This brings being in an isolated location to mind, being alone and away from safety. They also have the word “scare” right there in their name. The concept of a homicidal scarecrow is one horror movies have touch on from time to time, to varying degrees of success. As far as I can tell, the first horror movie to deal with this subject is “Dark Night of the Scarecrow.” Considering its influence, it might be surprising to hear this was a TV movie. It premiered on CBS on October 24, back in 1981.

Bubba Ritter is mentally disabled. Though in his thirties, he has the mind of a child. Subsequently, his best friend is Marylee, a little girl. Local postman Otis, and his posse of good old boys, have been waiting for Bubba to harm Marylee. When the girl is attacked by a dog, seemingly killed, the lynch mob have their chance. Bubba hides inside the farm's scarecrow but is still found and killed. Only afterwards do Otis and the others learn that Marylee is fine. They are not charged with murder. In the following nights, Otis and his friends begin to see the same scarecrow, now stuffed with straw, in their yards. After that, they begin to die mysteriously. Is someone avenging Bubba Ritter or has the man returned from the grave, in the guises of the scarecrow?

Despite its humble television roots, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” maintains a spooky atmosphere throughout. While the title is singular, there are in fact many dark nights contained in this movie. The film's characters are guilty men, so many of the smallest incidents become foreboding omens. Such as Otis talking to the little girl at a Halloween party, her informing him that she know what he did. Or, of course, a scarecrow that wasn't there before appearing in a field. Director Frank De Felitta does not let the limitations of the TV format hold him back. The editing is stark and sudden, adding to the unnerving atmosphere. This often builds towards genuine suspense, such as a surprising scene where Otis confronts Bubba's mother.

I've seen “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” described as a slasher movie of sorts, which is slightly misleading. The film operates with more ambiguity than that particular sub-genre usually does. However, Bubba's attackers are killed off, one by one. The film does a nice job of foreshadowing each particular demise. Harliss is shown, early on, working with a wood chipper. This is the same device that kills him, in a tense sequence featuring him dangling off a light above the whirling machine. Philby has a grain silo on his property, which he ends up suffocating inside. Being made for television, there's no gore. Instead, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” builds up to these implied acts of violence. Via a chain rattling in the wind or a suspenseful chase through a pumpkin patch.

The film isn't just set in the South because that's where farms and, subsequently, scarecrows are found. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is a movie about small town hypocrisy. Bubba has never harmed anyone but, from the beginning, Otis and his gang are looking for an excuse to kill him. This is simply because he's different. Yet there might be another reason Otis hates Bubba so much. It's heavily implied the mailman may be a predatory pedophile, exactly the thing he accused the gentle Bubba of. Thus, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is about respectable people hiding dark secrets and those that seem strange being upstanding individuals.

The telefilm also has an excellent cast. Larry Drake, a few years before playing a similar part on “L.A. Law” (and many more years before his villainous roles in “Darkman” and “Dr. Giggles”), plays Bubba. He perfectly captures the innocence of the character. The scenes devoted to Bubba, confused and terrified, asking his mother what he should do, are heartbreaking. Similarly sad is the sequence where Jocelyn Brando as Bubba's mother tries to explain to Marylee that her friend is dead. Charles Durning, one of my favorite character actors, plays Otis. Durning certainly makes the mailman a despicable scumbag, especially when he celebrates winning the court case by getting fried chicken. Yet Durning is compelling enough that you don't mind watching him, especially since he's basically the star of the film.

“Dark Night of the Scarecrow” also makes ideal October viewing, as its set around Halloween and concludes in a pumpkin patch. The series of final images are a chilling way to go out. The film was out-of-print for many years, given it the reputation of a missing classic. A really nice DVD restoration finally arrived in 2010 and that disc can still be found for a decent price. Though there have been a few other decent killer scarecrow thrillers over the years – “Scarecrows” is pretty good and the similarly entitled “Night of the Scarecrow” has its moments – “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is definitely still the peak of this odd little subgenre. [9/10]

Wolf Creek: Shelter

The previous episode of “Wolf Creek” ended with the tourists coming upon an old mining base. In “Shelter,” we discover that it's home to a family: Old miner Spence, his wife, and their son, which shares a name with Rebecca's missing husband. Nina receives treatment for her snake bite and the group of four believe that they are safe for a moment. It's not long before Mick, who has Kelly captured at his home, arrives though. He quickly kills Spence and his family. The tourists cook up a plan. Rebecca and Brian will steal Mick's truck while Oskar and Nina will take the other vehicle at the location. Things do not exactly go according to plan.

After several episodes of being chased, “Shelter” does give our cast of heroes a little room to breathe. This leads to some conversation. Rebecca telling Brian how the life in her marriage went out is compelling. Spence discussing with Oskar how he believes the Wolf Creek crater actually drives people crazy is less-so. As nice as it is to see our heroes unwind, Nina is here to remind them of what they've lost. The woman is still clearly shaken by the murder of her daughter and spends most of the episode in a catatonic state.

Spence and his family, though they only have a few scenes, are likable enough that you're annoyed when Mick kills them, literally minutes after they are introduced. Setting up new characters just to hastily wipe them out is a bad habit this show has developed. Still, the scenes of the killer stalking his prey through the old mining camp are decently suspenseful. The sequence where Rebecca discovers several dead bodies, before nearly attacking her friends, is well done. There's also some humor added here. While Mick is locked in a shed, Brian is sent to distract. The psychologist attempts to break through the killer's psychotic shell, resulting in some very funny banter.

The penultimate episode of season two ultimately ends in a dark place. Rebecca and Brian get away but are unaware that Mick is hot on their trail. The show definitely kills off one of the season's best characters while flirting with killing my personal fave. (There's also shades of sexual violence here, which are even more distasteful with John Jarret facing criminal charges.) Still, it's an improvement over “Singing,” suggesting “Wolf Creek's” second season may be back on track. [7/10]

Possibly in Michigan (1983)

What is “Possibly in Michigan?” It's an extremely weird short film from 1983 that started getting passed around the internet a few years back. (I didn't hear about it until earlier this year.) Various sources described the plot as “two women are chased through a shopping mall by a cannibal.” But that doesn't really prepare you for the actual short. “Possibly in Michigan” does indeed follow two women, Sharon and Janice, who meet in a mall and are followed home by a predatory man. Odd images interrupt the film: men in animal masks, Sharon laying in a bed of roses, photographs of corpses, worms wiggling around. Cannibalism does seem to be a theme and the film ends with flesh being ripped from the bone. The eleven minute short is also largely sung, the sing-songy dialogue accompanied by tinny Casio keyboard melodies.

“Possibly in Michigan” is obviously an art piece. It's a baffling experience, quickly prompting questions of what it means. I can't be entirely sure and many of its images seemed to be weird-for-weirdness' sake. However, some coherent ideas do emerge. This is obviously a film about consumption. Shopping at the mall is directly connected with eating and sex. The women are looking at perfume, to attract a mate. That mate, a guy apparently named Arthur, wants to literally eat them. He's compared to the Big Bad Wolf. When the act of cannibalism finally goes down, the participants are naked. All these hungry desires, desperate to be filled, characterize the film. The film was also created by a woman, Cecelia Condit, which brings an interesting layer to how the female heroes violently reject their male suitor. “Possibly in Michigan” does seem to be criticize the masculine tendency to associate with love and sex with violence, as the killer say he attacks “for love.”

You can say all this stuff but it doesn't really give credit to what a baffling experience “Possibly in Michigan” is. Scoring the entire film to cheap new wave music, and having most of the dialogue be sung, immediately creates a surreal feeling. The frequent cuts to possibly unrelated images, like Janice posing with a gun or walking a dog, makes this a disorientating experience. Many of the images put on-screen here are bizarre and unforgettable. Such as Sharon dancing with a whole room of men wearing rubber animal masks. Or the masked man skipping across the road like some sort of spectre.

Is it a horror movie? The mask Arthur wears, with its bulging eyes and mouth permanently fixed in a hungry grimace, is definitely creepy. So is the way he constantly pursues the women. The cannibalism element, symbolic though it may be, is obviously pretty morbid. The music is usually upbeat but the lyrics continue the predatory themes, of hunter and prey. I still don't know exactly what the hell “Possibly in Michigan” is. I do know I had to immediately rewatch it after seeing it once. I will probably have to revisit it again soon, inflicting it on my friends. It's a confounding but fascinating experience in artsy-fartsy weirdness that is humorous enough to keep from being pretentious. [8/10]

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