Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 22

We're are headed into the home stretch of Halloween now. Welcome to the penultimate week of the Six Weeks! I realized recently that I forgot to share with you pictures of this year's Halloween Mood Table, a tradition started by Dinosaur Dracula. This year's centerpiece is a bitching carnivorous plant prop I bought from Michael's back in August. Naturally, I added lots of toys, books, DVDs, and nick-nacks to it as well. Perhaps I've done better work in the past but I think it turned out pretty well. Anyway, on with the reviews!

Halloween (2018)

It's 2018 and we've got a new “Halloween” movie. As production on the new film rolled forward, it's as if the universe was intentionally trying to keep me from getting too hyped. Blumhouse producing the movie certainly made sense from a financial perspective but that studio does not always produce quality art. David Gordon Green directing was a bit of a question mark, as the naturalistic drama/stoner comedy auteur had little experience with horror. The decision to remove all the sequels from continuity was potentially freeing but also somewhat frustrating. Jaime Lee Curtis returning to star was certainly neat but also threatened to make the new movie a re-trend of “Halloween H20,” one of the better sequels. Okay, John Carpenter doing the score was a big deal. Or maybe I was just telling myself these things so I wouldn't get overly excited. Well, the movie's out now and I can make up my mind.

Green's “Halloween” includes a few shout-outs to some of the sequels but it really does act as if nothing after Carpenter's original film happened. It's been forty years since Michael Myers rampaged through Haddonfield on Halloween night. The Shape has spent all that time in an institution, unresponsive. In all that time, Laurie Strode has been married and divorced twice, mothered a child, become a grandmother, and alienated everyone around her with her paranoid, survivalist habits. On the 40th anniversary of his crime, Michael is being transported to a new facility. That's when the bus crushes. The evil is free and, just as Laurie has feared all these years,  he comes after her daughter and granddaughter.

Early within 2018's “Halloween,” there's a shot of Michael Myers' shadow cast huge on a wall. This is fitting, as the new “Halloween” is really all about the shadow Myers has cast on the lives of those around him. The violence of that October night ruined Laurie Strode's life, causing her to retreat into her trauma and build literal and psychological defenses around herself.  This, in turn, traumatized her daughter, Karen, who has never really connected with her mom. Myers' new doctor, Dr. Sartain, has become obsessed with understand Myers' evil. Even a group of true crime podcasters, a potentially interesting subplot that just ends up padding the body count, have clearly become obsessed with the crime. The ripples of the Halloween massacre are still felt forty years later, the trauma of those wounds never truly healing.

The sequel/reboot is also about three generations of Strode women. Jamie Lee Curtis brings a different approach to depicting Laurie's PTSD than she did in “H20.” She has weaponized her trauma, becoming a cold survivalist that prioritizes defense over every thing else. Curtis is commanding, intimidating, and even turns into an effective action star by the end. Judy Greer, who is practically typecasted as supporting moms in flashy genre films, plays Karen as a more practical woman. Her attempts to reach out to her mom have failed so many times over the years that she's given up. Yet Greer also makes it clear that she loves her mom. Greer even gets a fantastically satisfying action heroine moment to herself. Andi Matichak, a relative newcomer, plays Allyson, the granddaughter. Matichak has a likable, mischievous side, making for a convincing every-teen that the audience can root for. If it wasn't immediately apparent, the film's final shot makes it obvious that this “Halloween” is as much about healing the broken familial bonds between the three women as it is Michael Myers' latest rampage.

I've yet to catch up with David Gordon Green's earlier works, only being familiar with his pot-fueled comedies. (From what I've read, “Undertow” sounds like the most direct stylistic precedence to this film.) Green and his co-conspirator, most notably co-writer Danny McBride, are obviously fans of the original. Green works to recreate Carpenter's autumnal warmth and colors. He also replicates the infamous steady-cam shots, in effective long takes that focus on Michael Myers grabbing the nearest weapon and exterminating the closest target. Over all, Green directs towards a grim atmosphere. Myers is often seen lurking in the background of shots, committing violent shots just out of ear and eye shot. Aside from a few ill advised lapses into shakycam, it's an effectively directed movie.

Unlike many of the sequels, 2018's “Halloween” is clearly more focused on suspense than elaborate death scenes. There are many moments of drawn-out tension. Michael attacking a young woman in a bathroom is a sequence that builds suspense via repetition. Alyson being stalked though the backstreets of Haddonfield is well done. This is most apparent in the brilliant last act, where Laurie searches her fortified home for Michael. In-between the creaking floorboards, jumping at shadows, and the ominously placed mannequins, it's a fantastically orchestrated conclusion. For you gore-hounds: Don't worry, the film does indulge in some splattery specials effects, thanks to a stomped head.

If Green's “Halloween” has a major flaw, it's the film's inability to make us care about many of Michael's new victims. Alyson's friends are a thinly sketched lot. There's the horny baby sitter, her dopey boyfriend, Alyson's asshole boyfriend, and his chubbier brother. Though I like many of the sequences they star in, especially one involving a motion activated floodlight, they are not especially involving characters. The attempts to make the teens relatable and quirky come off as overdone. You could remove their scenes from the movie and loose very little. Green and McBride's comic relief is sometimes feel out-of-place as well, though the smart-mouthed kid Vicky is babysitting steals the few scenes he's in.

After the grotesque excesses and wild divergences from series lore of Rob Zombie's films, this is exactly the kind of movie the “Halloween” series needed. The countless in-jokes and call-backs – which includes Carpenter's naturally excellent score - remind people of the “Halloween” they've always loved. The movie around those callbacks is well-done, a handsome affair that is effective, even if it doesn't do anything especially new or interesting. The new film leaves the door wide open for further sequels. It's already made a boatload of money, making that continuation very likely. If this film's success leads to a wave of similarly respectful, if slightly unambitious, reboots of other seventies/eighties slasher franchises, that would be just fine for me. [7/10]

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)
Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan

I regret to inform you, dear readers, that Halloween is almost here and I haven't watched a single Japanese film yet. Time to change that! And what's more Japanese than the spooky ghost girl with long black hair? This archetype has a mythological precedence, the onyro or yurei, but was popularized in the modern age by a play called “The Ghost of Yotsuya.” Enormously successful upon debuting on stage in 1825, this popularity would not end with the rise of cinema. Since 1912, the play has been adapted to film at least 24 times. The most highly regarded of these adaptation seems to be the 1959 version, produced by Shintoho Studios and directed by Nobuo Nakagawa. I previously enjoyed Nakagawa's “Jigoku,” so decided to give his earlier horror pictures a look.

Set during the feudal period, “The Ghost of Yotsuya” follows a ronin named Iemon. He wants to marry a woman named Oiwa. When her father refuses, he murders her. However, after being married to Oiwa for a short time, he grows bored. Sick of being poor, he begins to pursue Ume Ito, the daughter of a rich lord. Before he can marry into the prosperous family, he must deal with his current wife. He poisons Oiwa, with a concoction that brutally deforms her face too. He also murders Takuetsu, a masseur who had a crush on Oiwa. On his wedding night to Ito, Iemon is haunted by the ghosts of Oiwa and Takuetsu. They will have their revenge.

This is only the second of Nakagawa's films I've seen but themes are starting to emerge. Like “Jigoku,” “The Ghost of Yotsuya” is a simple morality tale. Iemon, played by a steely Shigeru Amachi, spends the entire movie being a huge asshole to everyone around him. After murdering Oiwa's father, he's prompted by his sleazy friend Naosuke to murder his future brother-in-law. From there, he immediately goes about treating Oiwa awful. When she asks if he'd remarry were she to die, he answers bluntly in the affirmative. This is the kind of guy that has no problem plotting to marry another woman when his wife is at home but still gets jealous about her having a male friend. He's a scumbag and the supernatural punishment that's visited upon him by the film's end is more than deserved. This theme of deserved revenge runs throughout all of “The Ghost of Yotsuya,” as Iemon and Naosuke are constantly promising to avenge the murders they committed. Even the ghost of a snake he killed earlier in the movie comes back to haunt him.

It takes a while for the film to get to the haunting, as Iemon's crimes must be depicted. However, the wait is worth it.  “The Ghost of Yotsuya” is a surprisingly grisly film. While murdering Takuetsu, Iemon chops off the man's arm. Oiwa's scarred face, starring between stringy hair, is nasty to look at. At one point, the ghost's corpses emerge from a river, turning all the water to blood. The sequence where Oiwa appears on Iemon's wedding night, her eerie voice proceeding her appearance, puts a creepy spin on that cliché of a ghost tricking someone into attack the living. The image of her ghostly form, clinging to the roof of his bedroom, is a spooky sight.

Nakagawa's direction turns the story's stage roots into an advantage, setting the film primarily around interior rooms. These tight rooms and locations make the hauntings more intimate. Filmed in Technicolor, “The Ghost of Yotsuya” is surprisingly warm at times, such as in a scene where Iemon and Naosuke plotting before a glowing sunset. As the haunting becomes more intense, Nakagawa's direction bets more creative.  At one point, while a ghostly red sheet floats in the air, Iemon stumbles into a room totally composed of doors. Oiwa and Takuetsu swing suddenly into frame, still tied to the sliding door. The colors get turned way up in these scenes, Nakagawa employing the same extreme greens and reds he would use next in “Jigoku.”

I'm not an expert in Japanese culture so can only speculate why this story had such a powerful grip on the country's imagination. (Or why this particular type of ghost would become so wide spread.) I have no familiarity with the many other versions of this story. However, Nakagawa's rendition would be hard to top. The film creates many spooky images, such as Oiwa's ghost walking through a misty swamp or cradling her child in a foggy landscape. The film has perhaps too many subplots, as Naosuke's storyline is mostly unnecessary. However, I found this to be an effectively eerie ghost story. [7/10]

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Shadow of the Bat

The association between Batman and Halloween is inescapable. Being among the most popular superheroes, he's also a perennially popular Halloween costume. Beyond that, with his demonic appearance and frequently Gothic adventures, he's among the spookiest of the mainstream superheroes. He's associated with bats, obviously, and bats are associated with vampires. So there have been a number of stories where Batman fights vampires or even becomes one. “Shadow of the Bat,” the second episode of “Batman: The Brave and the Bold's” third season,  pays homage to many of these stories. While out hunting Dala with Jason Blood, Batman is bitten. He soon becomes an extremely powerful and evil vampire himself. The now corrupted Dark Knight soon begins to hunt his Justice League friends aboard the Watchtower Satellite.

Though not an official Halloween episode, “Shadow of the Bat” is definitely among “Brave and the Bold's” spookiest moments. Minutes after turning into a vampire, Batman begins to feed on the supervillain, Black Mask, who is also appropriate for the Halloween season. Upon entering the Satellite, he invites the Justice League – the Justice League International line-up, by the way – to a Dracula-esque dinner. Afterwards, the Dracula connection is continued, when he scales the outside of the ship's hull. Among Batman's new powers is the ability to turn into mist, a horde of rats, a giant wolf, and a grotesque bat monster. Most of the Justice League are transformed into zombie-like minions, who proceed to tear Martian Manhunter apart. We even see his dismembered arm tossed across the room! I can imagine this scaring the piss out of really young kids.

Aside from the spooky vampire element, this episode is worth seeing for the way this version of the Justice League interacts. Fire and Ice have a super cute moment as they're going to bed, Ice admitting she has a crush on Aquaman specifically because he smells like fish. This always outrageous version of Aquaman gets a bad-ass moment, when the alien fish aboard the ship tell him something is wrong with Batman. Booster Gold is a bragging asshole but in a delightful way. Martian Manhunter ends up saving the day, when he changes the Satellite's orbit to rotate into the sun's path, melting Batman and the his ghouls. There's also a very effective flashback, when Batman enters J'onn's mind and we see how his wife and daughter died.

Over all, this is a pretty kindertraumatic episode, I'd say. The ending does wuss out, of course. Batman really hasn't been turned into a vampire and then burned to ash, along with the rest of the Justice League. It was a horrible nightmare, caused by Dala's vampiric (but not contiguous) bite. Still, this is definitely a fun and off-beat episode of easily the most fun and off-beat animated version of this characters. The opening segment, by the way, features Batman and Robin in Tarzan-style loincloths and the appearance of Bat-Ape, so it's awesome too. [8/10]

Alone Time (2014)

Here's another horror short recommended to me by the internet algorithm. “Alone Time” follows Ann, a young woman working in New York City. Her office job is soul-crushing. She feels isolated in her tiny apartment. So, for the weekend, she decides to go on a hiking trip. She buys an instant camera from a gas station on the way. Getting in touch with nature, being out in the wild, is calming for her. She loves the serenity of the lake and forest. When she returns home and has her photos developed, she witnesses something terrifying.

“Alone Time” is about as simple as a short film can get. There's no real dialogue, the protagonist's name only being revealed in the end credits. The story is told entirely visually. Through simple shots of her lonely apartment, or her tense trips on the subway, we get a sense of the woman's isolation. Similarly, through an excellent use of sound design, comparing the noiseless forest with the congested city, we get a sense of how relaxing her trip is. “Alone Time” saves its sole horrific element until the very end but it's a good one, expertly depicting the violation of safety and privacy that the title hints at. Scarier yet, “Alone Time's” opening seconds informs us that this short is based on a true story. Director Rob Blackhurst has made a number of other shorts and two features as well, which I think I'll have to check out now. [7/10]

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