Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 22, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 21

The Ritual (2017)

Director David Bruckner made a big splash as one of the three directors behind “The Signal,” a funny and fierce horror indie from 2007. While his co-directors – Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry – would go on to other features, shorts, and TV work, it took ten years for Bruckner to make his proper follow-up. In that time, he contributed excellent segments to anthologies “V/H/S” and “Southbound,” both highlights of those films. He also spent a long time toiling away on an amazing sounding “Friday the 13th” reboot that was ultimately discarded by the studio. Finally, Bruckner made another feature. Based on a novel by Adam Nevill, “The Ritual” premiered on Netflix earlier this year to decent reviews and a solid amount of buzz.

Every year, five old college buddies – Phil, Dom, Hutch, Luke and Rob – get together for a ritual, usually a trip to another country. Rob wants to hike the King's Trail in Sweden but is shot down. Immediately afterwards, he is killed in a liquor store hold-up. Six months later, the surviving friends fulfill Rob's dying wish by hiking through Sweden. After Dom twists his ankle, the group decides to take a shortcut through the near-by forest. The men soon encounter strange things. Like a disemboweled elk hanging in the trees. Or an abandoned cabin with a shrine to a pagan deity in its attic. The group are haunted by nightmares. It becomes apparent that there is something weird in the woods. And it's hunting them.

Over this Halloween season, I've talked a lot about some of my least favorite horror cliches. I'm sick of this growing tendency for horror movies to begin by saddling the protagonist with a personal tragedy, the trauma of which he overcomes through the film's grueling experience. I also hate when a group of characters start arguing over petty bullshit, fighting among themselves when they should be uniting against an outside threat. “The Ritual” indulges in both of these tropes really hard. Furthermore, the characters also repeatedly make dumb mistakes. They see the ominous gutted deer and keep going, instead of immediately turning around and leaving. They spend the night in the evil cabin. After their friends begin to die, they keep on hiking through the forest, instead of just looking for the nearest way out. None of the characters or performances are very distinct either, causing the four guys to blend together.

Despite belonging solidly to the “assholes wandering in the woods” genre, “The Ritual” does have some positive qualities. Bruckner does an excellent job of capturing the chilly isolation of the forest. (Which further suggests he was the right pick for “Friday the 13th.”) The guys are alone among the trees, which seem endless. Nature is impersonal and indifferent to their arguments, their strife. At night, they hear unusual noises. They see fleeting glimpses of something unusual hiding in the woods, nobody certain what it is. This creepy atmosphere is worth suffering through the tedious scenes of the guys argument about stuff.

As it goes on, “The Ritual” also reveals itself as a straight-up monster movie. The end of the second act features the two surviving men hiding from the mysterious beast, which is probably the best part of the movie. Afterwards, a cult that worships the monster – identified as a Jotunn from Norse mythology – is introduced. The info-dump is unnecessary but we see a lot more of the creature after that. It's a bit like a centaur, a humanoid figure emerging from the face of a massive, black elk. It's a creative and foreboding design, one that's brought to life through a clever combination of CGI and practical effects. The cool monster is another reason to stick through “The Ritual's” weaker scenes.

Aside from confirming that Brucker could've made a spooky Jason movie, the shots of a barely seen monster with glowing eyes lurking through the woods, bringing with it a tone of uneasiness, makes me want to see this guy make a Mothman movie as well. I'm bummed “The Ritual” didn't work more for me than it did. The aspects of the movie that I liked, it's spooky location and clever monster design, are really up my alley. But the characters are total blanks and their interpersonal drama is yawn worthy. I still think it's obvious that the director has it in him to make another great horror movie some day. [6/10]

The Supernaturals (1985)

Some times, all it takes for a movie to make an impression on horror fans is some memorable VHS box art. “The Supernaturals” is not an especially well known film. It's slipped into obscurity, as a title released primarily straight-to-video back in the eighties and never re-released to DVD. I've occasionally heard some rumbling about “that movie with the ghost Confederate soldiers and LeVar Burton.” But mostly “The Supernaturals” owes whatever notoriety it has to that bitching artwork, of a skull wearing sunglasses and a Johnny Reb cap. This was also the reason I bought the bootleg DVD from the VHSPS booth at Monster-Mania last month.

A group of new army recruits have been marched into the Alabama forest for a training exercise. They have their petty disagreements. Sole female, Pvt. Lejune, is hit on by every guy in the group. There's a drunk, a nerd, and a token black guy. Sgt. Hawkins, the troop leader, is hard-ass who's tough on everyone. What the group doesn't know is that, one hundred years earlier, a bloody Civil War atrocity occurred on this very spot. A group of Union soldiers forced Confederate prisoners to walk across a mine-field, including a child. Now, the ghosts of those dead men are calling for revenge.

“The Supernaturals” does have one big thing in its favor. It's got some real nice, foggy atmosphere. The abandoned battlefield looks really cool late at night. Director Armand Mastroianni, also of “He Knows You're Alone” and “Cameron's Closest,” ensures that the underground tunnels are moody and hellish. The nights are blueish, in a pretty way. Once the fog blows on, we get lots of fantastic shots of clouds billowing over trees and old fences. The fog is so thick that the characters in the film actually acknowledge it as especially impenetrable. Spooky atmosphere goes along way for me and moments like that are probably the whole reason I liked “The Supernaturals” at all.

Truthfully, beyond some bad-ass fog, the movie has very little to offer. It's plot drags something horrible. We're nearly an hour into this 85 minute movie before the action begins in any serious way. The central mystery, involving a mysterious woman and an old man, is not absorbing in any way. The central gimmick behind the film, of zombie Confederate soldiers attacking a modern army troop, sounds fun. However, the ghostly zombies rarely appear on screen. When they do, the fog is so thick, you can barely see the effects. There's very little gore in the film, a few people getting attacked in forgettable ways.

Okay, there's one other thing the movie has going for it: The cast is half-way decent. We've got two “Star Trek” cast members here. Nichelle Nichols is obviously having fun, hamming it up as a hard-ass drill instructor. LeVar Burton isn't given much to do but does get to crack a few funny one-liners. Talia Balsam is tough and likable as the film's heroine, who is otherwise underused. You can tell some thought went into these characters, as the acting is generally lively and everyone is a little more than an ill-defined stereotype. Maxwell Caulfield is a total block-of-wood as the hero though.

I went into “The Supernaturals” hoping it would be a hidden gem. The first half-hour is fairly promising, making me think this would be fun. The movie never escalates from there though, the story taking forever to get moving and not building towards any sort of climax. Sadly, “The Supernaturals” sort of deserves to be forgotten, a dull exercise in testing your patience that wastes a likable cast and a cool premise. But, hey, that box art is still bitching. Nothing can take that away from us. [5/10]

Community: Epidemiology

I'm shocked I've never written about “Epidemiology,” the sixth episode of “Community's” second season, as it's probably my favorite half-hour of episodic television ever. It's October 31st and Greendale Community College is having a Halloween party. It's business as usual: Dean Pelton is dressed up in a gender-bending costume, Jeff and Britta flirt/argue relentlessly, Troy and Abed are goofing around in nerdy ways. That's when things start to go wrong. The foodstuff the Dean bought from a military surplus store wasn't taco meat. Instead, it's an unidentified substance that is turning anyone who ate it into zombie-like beings. Soon, the student group has to survive for six hours as they wait for the government to respond. However, everyone may burn up and die of a fever before then.

Much like the first season's paintball episode, “Epidemiology” immediately became a fan favorite largely by being purely unexpected. Nobody thought a NBC sit-com was going to do a full-blown zombie movie parody. But that's exactly what “Epidemiology” is. The episode hilariously pokes fun at the cliches of the zombie subgenre. After the outbreak, the Study Group hide in their special room, this becoming their farm house. Naturally, someone in the group has been hiding secret bites all along. The tendency of zombies to gnaw someone to death excessively is made fun of, as Troy shrugs off the attack after he's been bitten once. Maybe the most hysterical joke in the episode has nothing to do with zombies. It involves a spring-loaded cat that just keeps leaping into the character's path, a hilarious scene that escalates fantastically.

As funny as the specific parody points are, “Community's” greatest strength has never been it's pop culture savvy. Instead, the absolutely lovable cast and perfectly attuned sense of the absurd was the show's strongest attributes. “Epidemiology” has plenty of both. Within the zombie movie story is a plot about Troy and Abed's friendship being tested and then renewed. Aside from that, the character's specific quirks allow for some hilarious gags. Such as the Dean's oddly specific shopping list, which plays throughout the episode. Or Jeff's hatred of a wholesome minor character, Troy solving problems by punching them, or Shirley's personality going from lovable to hostile when provoked. This element is enforced later, as everyone retains their personality after becoming zombies.

As for that freewheeling absurdity, there's so much of it too. The entire episode is scored to ABBA songs, thanks to a mix-up with the Dean's Halloween playlist. There are repeated references to calling all vampires “Draculas,” which is hilarious. Troy's attempt to use the power of imagination to fight the zombies is not effective. Most brilliantly, the episode is narrated by George Takei for no particular reason. The episode packs itself full of nerdy references too, such as “Aliens,” “Star Trek,” and “Star Wars.” Really, the only thing ot dislike about the episode is a minor subplot involving Spanish-teacher-turned-student, Chang, who was always among the show's most annoying elements. Otherwise, “Epidemiology” is a hilarious, brilliant half-hour of television. [9/10]

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

I've been watching a lot of artsy-fartsy shit this Halloween. “Meshes of the Afternoon” is another experimental short, this time from 1943. It was directed by Maya Deren and her husband, Alexander Hammid. The film seems to chart a dream Maya's character is having. She picks up a flower in the drive. Their home is oddly empty. She repeatedly encounters a mysterious, cloaked figure with a mirror instead of a face. Wind blows her up their stairs. A knife in a loaf of bread reappears. Clones of the woman shows up repeatedly. Her husband becomes a menacing figure. This elements reoccur and repeat themselves. The final image suggests this dream might have some affect on the woman's reality as well.

“Meshes of the Afternoon” is loaded with symbols. Many of the film's elements seem loaded with symbolic meaning. The woman repeatedly handles a key, removing it from her mouth on several times. The re-occuring role of a wedding ring, and the way her husband becomes threatening, makes you wonder if the film isn't about marriage or gender roles. The fatalstic finale image seems to cast an omen on whatever relationship the protagonist has with the man in her life. Then there's that odd hooded figure, whose appearance recalls both the Grim Reaper. Yet it's a feminine figure as well, its lack of a true face suggesting something about the woman's own identity. (And the folds of its hood can't help but come off as slightly yonic as well, which the repeated image of the flower might be related to.) However, this is just me guessing blindly in the dark. I can't even begin to tell what the hell “Meshes of the Afternoon” actually means.

You might be wondering why I'm watching this slice of weirdness for Halloween. Well, there is definitely something somewhat foreboding about “Meshes of the Afternoon.” That hooded person is a slightly unnerving sight. The way the film's structure repeats itself suggest a nightmare the protagonist can't escape. The short is partially shot from the woman's perspective, forcing the viewer to interpret its event as a dream she's having. And it's images of death, being hunted, a familiar setting and people becoming threatening, and loss of identity certainly suggests a nightmare.

It's interesting but I can't say I found it especially gripping. “Meshes of the Afternoon” is considered a classic of avant garde cinema. The BBC ranked it one of the greatest American films of all time. It must be said that the film does not feel like it's from 1943. Instead, it seems very modern. Sadly, the whole thing kind of went over my head. I have no doubt that these images and techniques are meaningful for some people. [5/10]

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