Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 2

Robot Monster (1953)

In the annals of cult movie history, there are many notorious images. Even among the world of sci-fi/horror B-movies from the fifties, you could pick out any number of iconic moments. One absurd but simple sight has proven especially unforgettable: A man in a gorilla suit wearing a diving helmet. “Robot Monster” has, for years, been considered one of the worst movies ever made. Through many late night television screenings – including, of course, an appearance on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – the film has acquired a reputation as a cheesy classic. “Robot Monster” survives and endures, more-or-less, as an in-joke among classic horror and sci-fi fans. But how does this so-called stinker stand up an actual movie?

The civilizations of Earth have been destroyed. The planet is devastated. The human race is now an endangered species, with only eight homosapiens left standing on the world's surface. This is all the work of Ro-Man. A half-robotic invader, Ro-Man has destroyed humanity so his species can reap the Earth's resources. However, the last pocket of the human race remains trickier to wipe out than expected. A brilliant scientist has injected his entire family – his wife, teenage daughter Alice, younger daughter Carla, and young son Johnny – with a vaccine that protects against all disease. It also keeps them safe from Ro-Man's Calcinator Ray. The family attempts to survive, Alice finding love with another survivor, while Ro-Man grows more confused by his quest.

What exactly is a bad movie anyway? Is a film bad if it's production values are minuscule, its story incoherent, its acting wooden? Or is being boring the only real sin a movie can commit? “Robot Monster” certainly matches all the former descriptors. However, it is certainly not a boring movie. The film's stilted, bizarre dialogue is hilarious. Ro-Man proves to be a quirky, compelling villain. The titular robot monster is a dork. He's belittled by a domineering boss and outsmarted by children. Ultimately, he's defeated when he develops the emotions unique to the humans he was sent to destroyed. The film's z-budget world is oddly charming, with its bubble machines, sparking laboratory equipment, and Bronson Canyon filming locations.

“Robot Monster” has the same twist-ending as “Invaders from Mars,” which was released two months earlier. Both films, it turns out, are nightmares experienced by imaginative young boys. This goes a long way towards explaining “Robot Monster's” unique tone. Whether intentionally or not, the film accurately captures a dream-like atmosphere. The ridiculous mechanics of the plot – a single apeman destroying all of humanity? A cure for all diseases? – does seem like the kind of simplistic apocalypse a child would imagine. In order to disguise the tiny 50,000 dollar budget, quite a bit of stock footage is employed. Scenes of fighting slurpasaurs, stop-motion dinosaurs, and flying rocket ships often interrupted the movie. This only makes the movie resemble an odd dream, influenced by too many old monster movies, even more. The surreal sound design and operatic score, from a blacklisted Elmer Bernstein, cinches this particular feeling.

Most fascinating, and most indicative of its child-like perspective, is the nature of the apocalypse in “Robot Monster.” The world as we know it has been destroyed and only eight humans survive. Yet the fifties atomic family unit remains. Johnny and his family all wear clean clothes. They've managed to make the blasted-out shell of a house a comfy home. Johnny still plays games with his sister, Carla. Alice and studly survivor Roy get married, having a quasi-traditional service and even a honeymoon. The family even has a television of sorts, a monitor they can use to communicate with Ro-Man and his superior. If “Robot Monster” was meant to accurately depict a post-apocalyptic world, this would all be ridiculous. Since the film is actually depicting a child's crude conception of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like, it becomes brilliant.

Yes, brilliant. “Robot Monster” is an intoxicating, dizzying fever dream of a motion picture. Running barely over an hour long, the film is a pint-sized blast of weirdness straight to the cerebellum. The story behind the film is nearly as compelling. The film was shot in 3-D, which you can see a little of in the finished product, and all in six days. Director Philip Tucker was only twenty-five years old. After getting cheated out of profits by the distributor and the disastrous reviews, Tucker attempted suicide. He survived and made ten more movies. Success! “Robot Monster's” gonzo, possibly accidental genius still shines sixty-five years later. [8/10]

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)

According to the wise sages at Wikipedia, the first “Maniac Cop” did not gross more than its 1.1 million budget at the box office. The film, however, was obviously far more successful on VHS. We know this because it's two sequels were released straight-to-video. Yet this was during the late eighties and early nineties, when the video market was blooming. Skipping movie theaters did not necessarily meant a downgrade in production values. In fact, “Maniac Cop 2” is even bigger and badder than its predecessor. Director William Lustig – who made “Hit List” and “Relentless” between his two Matt Cordell adventures – doesn't just consider the sequel better than the original. He considered it the best of all his films.

Following the ending of the first “Maniac Cop,” which the sequel begins by re-capping, the New York Police Department just wants to forget the whole ordeal. Jack Forrest wants to go back to his normal life but his girlfriend, Theresa, isn't convinced Matt Cordell is dead. She confides this fear to police psychologist Susan. She's right, as the Maniac Cop rises again and resumes his murder spree. Quickly executing Jack and Theresa, Cordell soon teams up with Steven Turkell, a misogynistic serial killer. The police continue to deny that Cordell is the killer. Susan and her new ally, Detective Sean McKinney, are on the killers' trails.

If the first “Maniac Cop” could be described as a horror movie with some action elements, the sequel graduates to full-blown horror/action hybrid status. The film features some impressive stunt work. Cordell handcuffs Susan to a car door before the vehicle goes careening down a freeway, the stunt woman dangling alongside the moving car as it weaves in and out of traffic. After Turkell and Cordell bust into the police station, they escape in a prison bus. Cue a high speed car chase, involving lots of sparks and at least one exploding car. In its final act, “Maniac Cop 2” features its biggest, craziest stunt. Cordell is set on-fire and then remains on fire for several minutes. He grabs a few more victims, ablaze the whole time, before tumbling out of Sing-Sing prison. “Maniac Cop 2” must have grabbed some sort of record for longest full-body fire stunt. (And if you need anymore proof that this is a true eighties style action film: It's set at Christmas.)

While Matt Cordell was simply very hard to kill in the original, the sequel makes him an actual, super-strong zombie. This allows him to pull of crazier feats. Such as another impressive police station massacre, that begins down in the shooting gallery, continues through several glass doors, and ends with a guy thrown through five walls. It's not the only change the sequel makes to Matt Cordell. Though even more of an insane homicidal maniac, Cordell is given a tragic backstory. Turns out he was put away originally because he was close to uncovering corruption in city hall. Making the Maniac Cop a somewhat sympathetic character is an odd decision, as it makes the villain's motivation harder to read and muddies the sequel's thematic concerns.

“Maniac Cop 2” also begins by wrapping up any lingering plot points from the original, quickly killing off Bruce Campbell and Laurene Landon's survivors. (Campbell's death is especially embarrassing.) Two new protagonists step into the role. Robert Davi's Detective McKinney is a hard-boiled guy but committed to the truth, making him more likable. I also like Claudia Christian as Susan, a tough woman who doesn't loose sight of the human element. Leo Rossi is totally unhinged as the serial stripper killer who befriends Cordell. Michael Lerner is entertainingly caustic as the deputy commissioner. Standing in the middle of it all is Robert Z'Dar, still a towering and grunting force of shovel-faced power.

“Maniac Cop 2” ends by suggesting that any cop can become a maniac cop. However, the way the film goes about redeeming Matt Cordell, despite most of his murders being completely random, is really odd. Still, “Maniac Cop 2” definitely delivers on the crazy action and satisfying slasher shenanigans. It's hard to dislike any movie that features a flaming zombie cop and wraps up with a wonderfully campy rap song. I don't know if it's better than the original but it certainly delivers about the same level of entertainment value. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Darkest Before the Dawn

Apparently in the American continuity, Demitri Maximoff is a relative of Dracula. Before the Count was staked, he instructed Demitri to seek out a crystal skull in South America. A hundred years later, using a dousing rod of all things, he finally finds it. The various good Darkstalkers with a personal grudge against Demitri – Bishamon, Hsien-Ko, and Donovan – sense his terrible new powers. They attempt to hunt him down and stop him before he achieves anything else. Felicia and Harry, as they usually do, get drawn into this adventure. The boy wizard's powers end up saving the day.

As the penultimate episode of the series, “Darkest Before the Dawn” does attempt to wrap up some lingering plot points. For a few minutes, it really seems like Demitri kills off his three biggest rival. Instead, he just traps them inside the skull and they're all freed at the end. Demitri isn't killed by the heroes either. He's merely humiliated and sent crawling back to Pyron. Harry Grimore becoming the ultimate hero of this series is pretty fucking disappointing but at least the boy wizard has now completed something resembling a character arc. That's more than Donovan got, as his side-story is left largely unresolved.

This being the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon, even a stronger episode like this has some baffling moments. Harry wins the day by summoning the spirits of his ancestors, gaining a bodybuilder's physique, and speaking with a digitally deepened voice. There's a hilarious scene where the crystal skull magically flies towards Felicia's car. Or a bizarre moment where Hsien-Ko flies through a swamp, singing an odd song. And another one when Donovan summons some sort of fairy godmother to free Felicia and Harry from a force field. I will give the show this much. It's animation has gotten slightly better as it's gone on, rising from absolutely abysmal to merely bad. The fight scenes are still super awkward and poorly framed though. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Dead Issue

“Dead Issue” has probably the most convoluted plot of all the “Forever Knight” episodes I've seen so far. A woman and her sadistic lover meet in his apartment. As he begins to choke her, getting too rough, an unseen man enters and kills the man. The problem with this case is that the woman is married to a previous police chief, an old friend of Chief Stonetree. Stonetree encourages Knight to drop the investigation, not wanting his friend's dirty secrets to be brought to life. Nick continues to pursue the case, coming into contact with an adult video store owner and eventually uncovering the truth.

Sadly, “Dead Issue” is a bit of a snooze. It's another episode that reveals too much, too early. At first, the cops assumed the wife killed the man in self-defense. We, the viewers, already know this isn't the case. While I like Gary Farmer as Stonetree, building a whole episode around him wasn't the best idea. His devotion to his old friend, and wanting to protect their secrets, are not terribly captivating. The episode doesn't pick up until the very end, when Knight and Stonetree confront the killer personally. The episode's theme, of women and their desires conflicting with the roles society insist on them, is a bit undercooked. Especially in the flashbacks, to a time during the Renascence where Nick met a model who was assaulted by her portraitist. [5/10]

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