Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 19

Apostle (2018)

Gareth Evans is a Welsh guy who, in 2008, started making Indonesian action movies with a total bad-ass named Iko Uwais. Their second film, “The Raid: Redemption,” became an international cult phenomenon by being the most brutal, bone-breaking action movie of the last ten years. They also made an awesome sequel together. As fantastic as Evans' action movies are, it's apparent that horror is also a genre he loves. His first film, the little seen “Footsteps,” sounds like it borders the genre. He contributed the break-out segment in “V/H/S/2.” When news of Evans' latest arrived, it sounded like another spine-crunching action flick. Dan Stevens rescues his sister from a cult? Lots of opportunities for punching there. Once the trailer for “Apostle” premiered, it became apparent that the film was Evans finally fulfilling his love for the horror genre.

Thomas Richardson was once a missionary. Following a disaster trip to China during the Boxer Rebellion, he lost his faith. The love of his sister, Jennifer, is the only thing that gives him hope. When Jennifer is kidnapped and held for ransom by a cult, operating on a Welsh island, Thomas volunteers to rescue her. The society on the island is led by a prophet named Malcolm Howe. As Thomas attempts to fit in with the cult, he discovers many strange things about them. They worship a goddess. They make blood sacrifice every night. Odd tunnels run underneath the homes. Upon discovering his sister is still alive, Thomas will go on the run and be thrown even further into the bizarre things happening behind-the-scenes on the island.

“Apostle's” setting, a spooky village on an isolated island in the late 1800s, goes a long way. From the minute Thomas arrives, you can tell there's definitely something weird going on here. This, combined with the odd and foreboding musical score, treats an unsettling atmosphere from the beginning. At the same time, this tone also creates an intentionally vague story. Not a lot is explained, leading to some minor confusion to even an observant viewer. “Apostle” also has a few too many characters and subplots. They're hard to keep track of after a while. Eventually, an element of conspiracy and in-fighting is inserted into the story as well. Though “Apostle” has spooky ambiance in spades, it's not the clearest viewing experience, right down to its ambiguous ending.

Having said that, when “Apostle” goes for in-your-face horror, it's hugely successful. A sequence where Thomas is crawling through the island's filthy sewers is claustrophobic to being with. It then ends with a startling and disturbing chase. A ritualistic execution half-way through makes the audience squirm, the incredibly uncomfortable gore being paired with nasty sound effects and people standing in creepy, occultic robes. This proceeds a later horrific scene, where a bizarre monster attacks Thomas and fingers are shoved into the nastiest looking meat-grinder I've ever seen. Evans brings this disturbingly potent strength for intense images even to non-supernatural sequence, such as the visceral flashback that explains Thomas' scars.

Anyone who has seen “The Raid” films knows that Gareth Evans is an expert in full throttle action scenes. While “Apostle” is a very different kind of film, devoted more to watching creepy shit unfold, it still features some face-smashing action sequences. A British spy attacking in the church begins with frenzied movement and ends suddenly, with a multiple spear impalement. Later, Thomas escapes capture by similarly impaling an enemy. A fist fight between a younger boy and an older man smashes through their entire cabin, bodies tossed back and forth and straight razors being dragged slowly across skin. Evans' photography stays focused on the action even as the scenery swirls around them, creating a highly energetic and vicious storm of cinematic violence. There's only a fraction of the action we saw in “The Raid” in “Apostle” but those bursts of velocity sure are needed.

After kicking much ass in “The Guest,” Dan Stevens has mostly appeared in rom-coms and Disney movies. Stevens spends much of “Apostle” brooding and growling, being in a paranoid state due to fear of being discovered. When he's unleashed though, Stevens proves, once again, that he's one of the film industry's most underrated action stars. (I hold out hope he'll be our next Bond.) Michael Sheen is also very good as Malcolm Howe. When speaking from the pulpit, he's a confident and charismatic leader. In private, he expresses more doubt about the situation he's found himself in. I also liked Kristine Froseth as the teenage girl at the center of one of the film's abbreviated subplots. Her youthful energy is positive and upbeat.

So “Apostle” is a bit of a mixed affair. Story wise, I didn't find it nearly as compelling as I hoped. Yet when the movie pauses to introduce some hard horror imagery, it's truly impressive stuff. Evans' ability to create unforgettable violence still makes him one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working right now. “Apostle' is a little too impressed with this own folk horror vibes to be totally satisfying. However, I can't argue with a movie that features so many freaky moments. And you've got to love that Netflix is bringing niche-y stuff like this to a wide audience. [7/10]

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Through some bizarre happenstance, I have never reviewed an Edward D. Wood Jr. movie before. I've reviewed the movie about him but never one of the films he actually directed. For years, Wood was considered one of the worst filmmakers ever made. With the dawning of the internet, most film fans know that there were many directors who consistently made far worst films. Wood's movies might've had incompetent special effects and strung-together stories but they are rarely boring. The trash auteur's surreal dialogue and bizarre digressions suggest a fascinating, if unconventional, talent. While I hope to get to Wood's most iconic work of accidental weirdo art later in the month, tonight I decided to give “Bride of the Monster” a spin.

People are disappearing in the marsh around the old Willow House. A monster is supposedly to blame. Thought to be haunted, a new resident has recently moved in. Dr. Vornoff is a disgraced mad scientist from an undisclosed European country, determined to use radiation to create a race of atomic supermen. He is assisted by Lobo, a silent and monstrous man with a gentle heart. A giant octopus in the lake has him dispose of his enemies. Janet, a reporter from a near-by paper, is determined to get to the button of this monster business. Instead, she gets captured and hypnotized by Vornoff.

What's most fascinating about “Bride of the Monster” is the way it mashes together classic horror and atomic age sci-fi concepts. It features a spooky old house, littered with cobwebs. There's a secret passageway in the fireplace, leading to a laboratory full of sparking technology. The mad scientist performs hypnotism and has an Igor-style henchman. Alongside these gothic horror trappings are stuff that would've been considered more modern in 1955. There's a free-floating  anxiety over atomic power in the air, Vornoff using radiation for evil purposes. Stock footage of an octopus and a big rubber prop stand in for a flashier giant monster. This is capped off with a random mushroom cloud. Watching Ed Wood, no matter how incompetently, attempt to sympathize older and newer genre elements. 

What makes “Bride of the Monster” even more entertaining, of course, are the idiosyncrasies that mark it as an Ed Wood movie. At 70,000 dollars, this was actually among Wood's more expensive productions. Despite that, the laboratory set still looks like it's made of cardboard. The giant octopus, when not played by documentary footage, obviously doesn't move. The rolling boulder at the end looks fake as can be. Bela Lugois is traded out for an unconvincing stunt double at one point. Yet these barebone production values add to the film's charm, making it feel like a small town production, made by people with more dreams than money. Wood also brings his trademark oddball dialogue tot he film. A monologue about how the swamp is made for death is fascinating. An attempt at catty dialogue between women or a smart alack secretary comes off as hilarious.

Of course, the centerpiece of the film, especially in the weirdo dialogue department, is Bela Lugosi's monologue about having no home. We all know that the horror legend was a down-on-his-luck drug addict by this point in his career. Fittingly, Bela looks frail and ill. Yet there's still some magic in the old guy. As absurd as that monologue is, Lugois add some power to it. When vamping around the laboratory, he still displays that talent for hammy declaration of villainy. He also has the oddest form of chemistry with Tor Johnson's Lobo. Tor has no dialogue, aside from scream, and his attempts at acting are awkward. Yet there's an odd charm to the guy, with his enormous frame and mad eyes. Especially when Wood gives Lobo his fetish for angora sweaters.

Yeah, it's ridiculous and hilarious and obviously not by design. At this point, my enjoyment of Ed Wood's films come as much from genuinely appreciation of their low budget charms as it does ironic laughs at their expense. “Bride of the Monster” rolls along quickly, being only a little over an hour. Something nutty or silly or fun is happening on-screen at every point. It's a comfortable slice of old school horror hokum. A brisk October night, when paired with some Mothman beer and monster tacos, is the ideal environment to be seduced by “Bride of the Monster's” particular charms. [7/10]

Roseanne: Trick or Treat

Boy, I sure picked a good time to start including “Roseanne” episodes in my Halloween marathons. Months after a racist Twitter tirade got her fired, and a few days after her show moved on without her, here I am revisiting “Trick or Treat.” It's a classic Halloween episode from the show's third season. The show's A-plot has Roseanne and Jackie getting stranded at a bar on October 31st.  Rosie's costume is of a male trucker and she easily fits in with the macho guys at the bar. Meanwhile, Dan, Becky, and Darlene participate in a local haunted attraction. Dan becomes concern when D.J. decides he to trick-or-treat as a witch this year.

The A-plot of “Trick or Treat” is hilarious, timely, and insightful. We'll be getting to it in just a minute. Because the B-plot of this episode is where its Halloween atmosphere truly shines. The Connors' costumes are next-level stuff. Dan goes as all Three Stooges, Moe and Larry's heads on his shoulders. Becky dresses as a prom queen, half of her body mutilated and burned. My favorite is Darlene's outfit, a fake arm allowing her to puppet a demonic baby bursting from her abdomen.  Sara Gilbert's delivery when puppeting the critter is hilarious and adorable. Halloween theatrics like this could not be more pleasing to me.

The Roseanne plot is good too. It helps that the simple make-up that turns her into a man is so convincing. Watching her interact with the sexist jockos at the bar, and eventually deflate their macho posturing, certainly provides some smart and piercing laughs. Seeing Jackie's embarrassment at her sister's antics is funny. When a mutual friend wanders into the bar, and also mistakes Roseanne for a man, gets maybe the biggest laugh of the half-hour. If it's not that, it's the sequence where Roseanne deciphers urinal etiquette. The points the episode make still stand. I'd like to think dudes are more sophisticated now, even in landlocked hellholes like Landford, but I'm sure the casual sexism depicted here still goes down all the time. Over all, it's a classic episode, full of amazing Halloween ambiance and lots of laughs. [8/10]

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham (2015)

Here's another short the internet recommended to me. “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” follows a prisoner undergoing a newly introduced punishment. Bingham, a rapist and murderer, is to have his body slowly amputated. His surviving family signs off on each limb or body part he has removed. He's marched into school and treated as an example, a warning to disobedient children of what could happen to them. As his body is slowly whittled away, Willie is forced to consider his situation in silence.

“The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” is a not too sublte indictment of the prison system. As Willie has his organs removed, it's mentioned in passing that prisoners provide a number of organ transplant in the film's world. This is mentioned as a side effect of the increasingly privatized prison system. We aren't harvesting prisoners for organs – yet anyway – but we do use them for slave labor. The ways the system dehumanizes the criminals its suppose to rehabilitate is obviously the target of Matthew Richards' short. As more of Willie is cut away, his mental state starts to break. He is transformed from a human being into an object.

An object, it's repeatedly stated, that's put on display. Willie being sent to schools, and used as a warning, is perhaps the most pointed element of the short. It's clear that Bingham's punishment has no effect on the juvenile delinquents he's suppose to be dissuading. It's more of a public form of humiliation, turning the man into a circus freak, an ineffective tool used by an uncaring system. Even after he becomes nothing but a faceless, voiceless torso, this public display – the government using the misery it causes as just another assets – continues.

The acting is strong, especially from narrator Gregory J. Fryer. Matthew Richards' quasi-documentary style is well suited to the short's presentation. “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” is a disturbing condemnation of a society all to eager to forget that imprisoned criminals, no matter their crime, are still human beings deserving of mercy. [7/10]

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