Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 20

Revenge (2017)

Here in 2018, no exploitation genre is more disreputable than the rape-and-revenge movie. We, as a culture, are a lot more sensitive to the trauma women feel when assaulted. Trivializing this serious real world issue, by making a movie that have things both ways, letting a victim murder their assaulters but also reveling in a salacious rape, will earn a filmmaker a lot of hate. However, in 2017, this nastiest of grindhouse genre has gotten a new entry. “Revenge,” a French/American co-production, hit the festival circuit a year ago. Since then, it's picked up quite a few rave reviews. Now, the movie is streaming exclusively on Shudder, where horror fans of all sorts can check it out and see for themselves.

French politician Richard is having an affair with Jen, a young American girl who hopes to make it to L.A. and become a star. Richard has flown Jen out to his isolated vacation home in the middle of the desert. Every year, Richard travels out here with two friends, Stan and Dimitri, for a  hunting trip. After a night of partying, Jen is left alone in the house with the other two guys. Stan rapes her, while Dimitri lets it happens. When Richard is informed about this, he offers to fly Jen out to America. When she refuses, he pushes her off a cliff. But she survives. Though impaled, burned, and bloodied, Jen will have her revenge.

For some reason, I just assumed a guy directed “Revenge.” It's, perhaps, an easy mistake to make. In the first act, the movie is full of lingering shots of actress Matilda Lutz' body. She wears a thong, a tiny mini-skirt, clinging panties, and spends most of the movie in her underwear. The movie fixates on her ass and legs. It made me a little uncomfortable that a film was so blatantly sexualizing a soon-to-be rape victim. After learning a woman, Coralie Fargeat, directed the film, these shots suddenly meant something very different. “Revenge” is interrogating the male gaze, I think. The viewer is put into the same place as the film's men, seeing Jen as just a sexual object, before increasingly turning the tables on us. This is made all the apparent in the finale, where Richard stripes nude and is treated to similarly leering shots.

Fargeat's strength as a cinematic visualist becomes all-the-more apparent as “Revenge” goes on. This is an incredible looking movie. The flat desert landscape becomes a canvas for Fargeat to paint her increasingly bloody pictures. The black nights and still water make for some especially striking images. Half-way through the story, Jen ingests some peyote which leads to an especially wild sequence. Squirming maggots, a bloated corpses, and other wild colors quickly bursts across the screen. Fargeat's direction is such that even a simple image, like Richard riding his motorcycle through the dark, can become compelling. Especially when combined with Robin Coudert's throbbing electronic score.

“Revenge's” status as a horror movie is probably debatable. It likely belongs more to the thriller genre, since it features no supernatural element and seems devoted more to action than gruesomeness. However, it is certainly a gory movie. There's several exploding heads, via a nightmare sequence. A spellbinding moment involves Jen removing the tree limb from her gut and cauterizing the wound. If that doesn't make you squirm, maybe an extended sequence devoting to digging a shard of glass out of a foot will. However, the movie totally outdoes itself with that finale. Directed in long takes, and scored to the mindless chatter of a home-shopping network, Jen and the nude Richard chase each other through the house. He is wounded and blood spills, oozes, or is rubbed absolutely everywhere. It's an amazingly graphic and hugely intense sequence that keeps building. It certainly ends the movie on a hell of a note.

The film's cast is quite adapt. Matilda Lutz is steely and determined. Kevin Janssens reveals more of his disturbing side as the film progresses. Vincent Colombe captures the disgusting sleaze bag role well. I wasn't too sure what to think of “Revenge” at first but it won me over by the end. The film's impressive visual style goes a long way. That last act is absolutely fantastic. I think this is a movie people will be talking about for a while, for the way it subverts the expectations of the rape/revenge genre and turns the exploitation movie on its head. [7/10]

Spookies (1986)

Cult movies, especially in the horror genre, come to be through many roads. Usually, a movie is too off-beat for mainstream audiences but finds a die-hard following through home video or the internet. Sometimes, a movie is so bad, that people are attracted to it for its “so-bad-it's-good” value. (And, frequently, people start to genuinely like the movie after making fun of it for so long.) Sometimes, however, a movie becomes a cult item because it's genuinely strange. A baffling viewing experience, it must be watched and re-watch to decipher what it even is. “Spookies” manages to combine all three of these scenarios. Despite never being released on DVD, the movie has a small but loyal following of nuts who appreciate what a truly odd motion picture it is.

In a stately manner, a mysterious warlock named Kreon waits. He keeps his undead wife in a casket, feeding her the souls of unlucky passer-bys. Luckily, a few wander into the house on that night. A boy named Billy flees from his home because his parents forget his birthday. Two separate set of motorists take a detour and decide the spooky old mansion is the ideal setting for a party. After messing with a creepy ouija board, a hoard of demons, monsters, freaks, and weirdos are summoned. Chasing the mixed company through the house, the guests are picked off by the increasingly strange creatures.

It's been suggested before that the story behind “Spookies” is probably more interesting than the actual film. The short version is this: Two inexperienced directors were hired to make a monster movie, entitled “Twisted Souls.” During the editing process, the not-quite-complete film was taken away from the directors. A separate filmmaker was then brought in to shoot thirty totally unrelated minutes, creating a feature length run time. This patchwork job is fairly obvious in the final product. The story line involving the sorcerer, his wife, and the dearly departed Billy never really interacts with the plot about the kids sneaking into the house. This results in a totally unrelated ending, as Kreon's bride attempts to escape his grasp, the main plot forgotten. The attempts to bolt the two unrelated stories together are quite funny. At one point, Kreon's were-cat side-kick stalks the teens through the mansion. Yet he mostly just lingers, watching behind a door or through a window, never actually striking.

The result is a movie that borders on the incoherent. Even if “Twisted Souls” had been finished as intended, there's reason to suspect the original product was not exactly seamless either. “Spookies” is mostly composed of kids wandering around the house and being killed by a litany of bizarre monsters. The thin wisp of a plot involves a gnarly ouija board, not exactly a novel concept. The teens themselves are pretty weird too. There's an asshole boyfriend, who starts a fight for no reason. Strangest is the film's comic relief, a would-be comic who carries a hand puppet with him everywhere. (He also wears a t-shirt with a picture of himself and the puppet on it.) At least the A-story makes more sense than the additional footage. Apparently Kreon's Winona Ryder-looking wife gave birth to weirdo zombies while she was sleeping. There's a twelve year old son, dressed as one of the Jawas from “Phantasm,” and a conclusion loaded with pasty faced zombies. It's all very weird and doesn't make a lick of sense.

Some truly bizarre monsters lurch on-screen throughout “Spookies'” 85 minute run tine. There's that were-cat, who has a hook hand and dresses like he's in Adam and the Ants. The “Twisted Souls” footage includes a ouija-ghoul with a split-open head. An eel monster with entangling tentacles shoots waves that melts people, via stop-motion animation. There's a slimy Fiji mermaid that looks inspired by “Ghoulies.” Possibly based on Japan's Jorogumo legend, an Asian woman lures the comic relief to his death before turning into a grotesque spider monster. The most infamous moment involves a small army of muck men who fart as they move, supposedly inserted at the insistence of a producer with a fecal fetish. But my favorite monster is the bitchin' looking Grim Reaper who appears near the end. He swings his scythe around, get throws off the roof, and explodes like a ton of TNT. He's awesome.

If you're watching “Spookies” and expecting a coherent story, you'll be disappointed. It definitely doesn't provide that. However, as an extended effects reel, it's pretty damn interesting. The combination of a collection of increasingly weirder monsters, some amusingly dopey teen protagonists, and a totally bonkers framing act makes “Spookies” a frequently baffling but nevertheless entertaining experience. The film was frequently shown on USA Network's “Saturday Nightmares” block back in the day, which is probably the ideal way to see it. The VHSPS bootleg disc I have is pretty good too though. [7/10]

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III

Much like an undead ghoul, “The Simpsons” refuses to die, no matter how hard we try to kill it. Even their annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween specials produce exhausting results these days. However, you still can't argue with the classics. “Treehouse of Horror III,” from season four, is certainly among the show's most iconic Halloween specials. Following the Hitchcock-inspired opening, which is amusingly meta, we're introduced to our framing device. When Homer ruins the kid's Halloween party, the family resorts to telling ghost stories. Lisa's tale, “Clown Without Pity,” involves a murderous Krusty the Clown doll. Grandpa delivers “King Homer,” a “King Kong” parody. Bart wraps things up with “Dial Z for Zombie,” about the undead taking over Springfield.

Each of “Treehouse of Horror III's” segments are a classic. “Clown Without Pity,” another “Twilight Zone” parody, is probably my favorite. It contains one of the greatest comedic exchanges in television history, involving frogurt. Homer's reaction to the doll's attempt to kill him get increasingly wacky, climaxing with an attempted harpooning in the bathtub. The doll's interaction with his intended victim, such as when he insists his pull-string gets pulled again or is disabled by smelly socks, are hilarious. The segment's denouncement is hilariously blunt and sudden, while the epilogue wraps things up with a sitcom-style heart-shaped iris out. I also love little gags, like Grampa Simpson's rantings about the government or wanting attention.

“King Homer” is apparently a favorite of Matt Groening's, though I think it's the weakest of this batch. Which means it's still pretty damn funny. As a parody of “King Kong,” it's very obvious. However, there are some nice gags, like Burns' reaction to the gas bomb. Or the show recreating the shots of the famous King Kong head prop with Homer. I do like the ways King Homer eats various people or plays with Marge's hair. Mostly, this segment is funny for its absurd moments. Blink-and-miss-them gags involving Dick Cavett or the chubbiest kick-line in town made me laugh. Mr. Burns, in the Carl Denham part, provides numerous hilarious one-liners about ethnic comedy, Al Joelson, and dreading the reviews.

Similarly, “Dial Z for Zombie's” zombie gags aren't as funny as the smaller moments. Bart wearing “Thriller” as a hat while summoning the dead or the absurd string of pop culture references that make up the spells are hysterical. As is Homer's reaction to learning the news of the zombie outbreak. Little bits of dialogue, about the chapters in the occult book or Waldo not trying anymore, are among the episode's biggest laughs. Still, the zombie shenanigans are amusing. Classic bits about Seymour eating Martin's brain, confusion among zombie John Smiths, zombie Flanders, and zombie Shakespeare are well regarded for a reason.

Season four of “The Simpsons” is loaded with all-timers: “Kamp Krusty,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Mr. Plow,” “New Kid on the Block,” “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” and probably some others I could mention. Among that company, “Treehosue of Horror III” pales a bit. However, it is still a really good time and certainly makes for fantastic seasonal viewing. And, hey, where else on TV in 1992 were you going to see a reference to “Terror at the Red Wolf Inn?” [7/10]

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

In 1928, there were two adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” and both are considered landmarks in silent cinema. The first of which was made in France by influential critic-turned-filmmaker Jean Epstein. The second is an American short directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. The short is a very loose adaptation of Poe's story. It focuses on Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline. She appears to die of a mysterious illness. He buries her. There's an odd visitor to their home. She comes back from the grave, insane but very much alive. The story is told with no intertitles and in an avant-garde manner.

Watson and Webber's “The Fall of the House of Usher” is primarily a visual experiment and should be taken as such. The short is overwhelming with expressionistic atmosphere. The begins with the house looming in the distance as a pointed, abstract shape. The interior of the house is composed entirely of slanted angles. Long, triangular doorways and walls surround the characters. The shadows of banisters stretch up the walls into long shadows. Soon, they are accompanied by a shadowy hammer beating into the characters. Endless staircases sprout towards the heavens. Even the regular doors are decorated with conceptual shapes. As Roderick falls deeper into madness, the house becomes blockier and stranger looking. Watson and Webber's “The Fall of the House of Usher” follows the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” into an expressionistic nightmare of gloomy dread.

The short largely sacrifices story in favor of its visuals. Prism effects are used throughout. The pages of a book, an umbrella, staircases, and other objects are repeated and refracted on the screen. Another tool implemented here are sea-sick, wavy effects, stretching and distorting the image. Sometimes, the short's surreal images become especially unusual. Pitch black hands, and apparently just the hands, serve the siblings dinner. Madeline falls ill seemingly because a casket appears under a server trey, the image of which continues to haunt her. A shadowy top hat floats around a room. Words leap off the pages of a book and swell in mid-air. This dream-like approach eventually becomes far too abstract, loosing the story, and causing this thirteen minute short to drag.

Still, when this version of “House of Usher” works, it's a gorgeous and very creepy film. As a distillation of Poe's themes, it's especially interesting. It's avant garde approach would be insufferable at feature length but, as a short, it's fairly effective. [7/10]

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