Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 23

Demons (1985)

Somehow, I've made it to the penultimate week of the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon without watching an Italian movie. It's past time to correct that. “Demons” is a popular cult classic of Italian horror. The film has a strong pedigree. Dario Argento, obviously the biggest director in the genre, produced and co-write. Lamberto Bava, son of the grandfather of Italian horror, had already made three feature films before this one. However, “Demons” would largely solidify his standing within the Italian film industry. The film was popular on video back in the day and remains well-liked even now. I think I definitely need to review this.

In Berlin, a new movie theater is having a secret, free showing. A mysterious man in a silver mask has passed tickets out to people all throughout the city. A divergent group of characters – film buff Cheryl, her friend Kathy, college kid George, a blind man, a pimp, two of his girls, an elderly couple – arrive at the Metropol. The theater is seemingly unstaffed but includes a big display in the lobby, with props from the new film: A motorcycle, a katana, a demonic silver mask. Once the lights go down, the group watch a horror film about demons taking people over. After one of audience members puts on the silver mask, she becomes possessed. Now an attacking monster, she passes the demonic virus to other people. Soon, the audience members are fighting for survival as the theater is plunged into hell.

It's tempting to read “Demons” as a meta-commentary on people's relationships with movies. As the secret screening begins, Kathy hopes that the film isn't a horror movie. That's exactly what it is. Most of the audience members, however, are happy to be scared. Of course, they all end up getting a little too scared. They quickly decide that the film is the source of this horror, suggesting commentary on how horror movies effect people, but this proves to not be the case. The nature of “Demons'” demonic invasion is left unexplained. We can only ponder on the significance of the forces of hell invading our world through a horror movie. The sight of horrors walking off the screen, breaching the promise of safety of the fourth wall and infect the auditorium, is rift with symbolic weight. But “Demons” isn't really interested in that.

No, Bava's film has much more modest goals. Instead, “Demons” is basically a re-packaging of the kind of zombie movies that swarmed Italian cinemas just a few years earlier. The demonic influence spreads via bites and scratches. People are usually killed by the attacks, before reviving as infected monsters. There's even a sequence of the survivors boarding up the walls and doors, definitely a cliché of the undead genre. The film's ending features a post-apocalyptic wasteland, highly reminiscent of Romero's trilogy. This connection is confirmed in another way. Despite constantly being called “demons,” there's no attempt to link the monsters with any religious element.

By saying its monsters are demons, instead of zombies, it allows Bava and his team to indulge in all sorts of crazy special effects. The transformation begins with grotesque body horror. Huge pimples grow on the skin, bursting with green slime. Once fully changed, that same slime spews from the mouth. New claws and teeth grow from the fingers and gums, placing the traditional nails and teeth aside. That's a nicely grisly element. So is a sequence where a mature demon grows out of someone's back. This kind of ingenuity extends to the way the demons are dispatched. That motorcycle and katana come in handy during the outrageous finale, which is certainly a satisfying appearance. There's also a surprise helicopter crash.

Aside from its outrageous gore and special effects, I think “Demon” owes its cult following mostly to its soundtrack. It's a pretty good collection of new wave and metal songs, with notable appearances from Billy Idol, Saxon, and Go West. Claudio Simonetti's score, with its mixture of gothic organs and electronic pumping, fits right in with this crowd. That style extends to the cast as well. A collection coke-snorting punk/new wave creeps, with names like Ripper and Hot Dog, enter the story halfway through. They mostly exist to add some sex appeal and pad the body count. The cast is pretty silly, especially Tony the pimp, with his ridiculously deep dubbed voice and campy dialogue. “Demons” certainly gains points for bringing the zombie movie into the glossy, sleazy eighties.

Not only are the effects and eighties fashion the main reason to watch “Demons,” they might be the reason the whole movie was made. The story is incredibly thin, no explanation ever provided for why these events are happening. Clearly this did not dissuade fans. The film was hugely popular in the international market. It spawned a direct sequel, “Demons 2,” a year later. After that, dozens upon dozens of films were released aboard with the “Demons” title attached, even though none of them had any official connection to the original films. Bava's original lives on as a favorite of gorehounds, horror nuts, and lovers of Italian sleaze. I don't love the film but can't deny that it's certainly entertaining. [7/10]

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018)

I never thought the “Tremors” franchise would still be continuing, in more-or-less its original form, in 2018. I love almost all of these movies but never thought the public felt the same. This is likely because Universal is the last major studio still making films for the direct-to-video market. While this release tactic has been a boon for the “Chucky” franchise, the results for the “Tremors” have been... Less than stellar. Series creators Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson had nothing to do with 2015's “Tremors: Bloodlines” and, boy, did it show. Don Michael Paul, the director of “Who's Your Caddy?” and “Kindergarten Cop 2,” has become the new steward of the series. He would return to make this year's “Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell.” Though seriously unimpressed with the last one, my fidelity to “Tremors”-verse meant I had to give this one a look.

In Perfection, Nevada, famed graboid hunter Burt Gummer is trying to live his life but it ain't easy. He is suffering from strange headaches and now the IRS wants to repossess his home. That's when Travis, his obnoxious son introduced in the last movie, comes calling. Apparently, a glacial research team has discovered graboids in the frozen tundra of Canada. Burt is skeptical at first, believing the giant worms to only exist in warmer climates, but he needs the money. As the team fly into the isolated location, their plane is taken out by an Ass-Blaster. Now, Burt and Travis are stranded in the middle of nowhere, with monsters under their feet and nosy government agents at their back.

Unsurprisingly, Don Michael Paul's skills have not markedly improved since 2015. “A Cold Day in Hell” is just as uninspired by “Bloodlines” was. Paul's direction continues to feature lots of shitty shaky-cam, distracting crash zooms, and obnoxious handheld photography. The special effects largely rely on competent, if charmless, CGI. The uninspired and unlovable re-designs of the monsters seen in the last film are used again here. So the Graboid spin through the air for no reason and the Ass-Blasters have that lame vagina dentata mouth. The attack scenes lack creativity, humor, or intensity. The new characters, which includes the daughter of Kevin Bacon's Valentine, are forgettable and indistinct. The script features lots of annoyingly macho dialogue.

Despite the film having the interesting gimmick of graboids in the Arctic, don't think for a minute that Universal shelled out the cash to actually shoot in a snowy location. This was made in South Africa, just like the last one. Aside from the icy opening scene, there's nary a snowflake on the ground. The script attributes this to the unseasonable Canadian weather, which is also responsible for melting the permafrost that freed this strain of Graboid. This is a good example of how lazy "A Cold Day in Hell” is. The script soon degrades into our cast trying to hide from one singular graboid. The last act, devoted to capturing one of the beast alive, is utterly lifeless. There's no sense of narrative flow or pacing, the movie just clamoring awkwardly through its run time until the credits roll.

The only thing “A Cold Day in Hell” has going for it is Michael Gross. Gross has lived with the character of Burt Gummer for so long – twenty-eight years! – that he understands every facet of him. He could make the lovable gun nut, who rants about HAARP engineering graboid-based weapons and other conspiracy theories, charming in his sleep. The film doesn't heap scorn on Burt like the last one did, even if Jaime Kennedy's obnoxious mugging gets second billing. It does flirt with killing him off though. The plot involves him being infected with a graboid-born parasite, the result of being swallowed by one in part three. It's an interesting idea but the execution is lacking. This is a weak attempt to insert some pathos into the film and another excuse for director Paul to flex his annoying visual style, thanks to the headaches the parasite causes.

It's sad to me that the “Tremors” series has degraded to this. While the similarly direct-to-video second through fourth films weren't high art, Wilson and Maddock's pure enthusiasm for these characters and their world made them highly re-watchable. It's evident that the people currently in charge of “Tremors” have no such affection for the series. Even more frustrating is that it didn't have to be this way. Before “A Cold Day in Hell” was released, Kevin Bacon was developing a new television series. Despite airing the original television show, Syfy passed on the pilot. I don't know, maybe that sucked too. Yet I can't imagine it was lamer than this thing. [4/10]

3rd Rock from the Sun: Scaredy Dick

“3rd Rock from the Sun” was a nineties sitcom that nicely balanced critical enthusiasm, mainstream success, and cult popularity. Despite that, it seems like the show has largely disappeared from the conversation. It's not even shown in syndication that often anymore. I loved the show as a kid. When I revisited it with the dawn of the TV-on-DVD era, I expected it to be awful. Most shows I loved when I was younger were. Surprisingly, “3rd Rock” is consistently hilarious. The first four or so seasons are anyway. The series had a Halloween episode in its third season, “Scaredy Dick,” and I'm happy to report it's also pretty damn funny.

The episode's A-plot involves Dick Solomon, the patriarch of the aliens-disguised-as-humans the series revolves around, being required to get a physical check-up to keep his job. He finds the doctor's examination room terrifying and repeatedly flees it. This comes to a head at the office Halloween party, where he encounters his doctor. He runs home, where Harry – the group's simpleton – believes he's encountered a ghost. The B-plot involves Sally – the alien military leader now living as a leggy blonde – and Tommy – the military intelligence officer now living as a teenage boy – house sitting Dick's girlfriend's home on Halloween. They do not understand how to hand out candy.

The main reason, I think, “3rd Rock” holds up so well is because of the cast. John Lithgow is hilarious. The sequence where Dick grows increasingly terrified in the doctor's office is a masterclass in physical comedy. Lithgow's face twists and bends in exaggerated ways, growing more scared at every minor sight. Lithgow pairs this childish streak with a misplaced sense of confidence, seen when he brags during the Halloween party or attempts to carve a pumpkin. He also plays excellently off French Stewart as Harry, another overgrown man-child with a hilariously expressive face. The two attempting to conquer the “ghost” builds to a hysterical last act.

The episode is also loaded with Halloween atmosphere. A good running joke are the characters misunderstanding costumes. Dick doesn't understand Mary's Dorothy Gale costume, Tommy and Sally dress as Sonny and Cher in bafflement, and Harry takes his “alien” costume very literally. The trick or treating subplot humorously dissolves into egg-related torture. The resolution to the ghost subplot is easily deduced but it's still funny to watch unfold. The episode saves that completely with a last minute twist. And, as always, the episode is packed full of hilarious one-liners and dialogue. I especially like the rebuttal concerning buccaneers. [8/10]

Aftermath (1994)

I first heard about Nacho Cerda's infamous “Aftermath,” weirdly, in the context of the notorious alien autopsy video. I saw some documentary about that ill-famed hoax, claiming a Spanish short called “Aftermath” was an influence on the style of the fake production. The title always stuck with me. Years later, I'd learn that “Aftermath” was well known for being an especially shocking and explicit horror film. Thanks to the internet, I was able to quickly track the film down. I found it a thoroughly disturbing but also oddly touching experience. That was probably more than ten years ago, so I figure I'm due a rewatch.

For those unaware, let me explain why “Aftermath” is so notorious. The film features no dialogue and little music. It begins with the the aftermath of a car crash, the sound of screaming brakes, a woman's death cries, and then footage of a squashed dog. From there, we see two morticians perform autopsies on two male corpses. Every detail of the gory procedure is shown. The one mortician seems aroused by the cutting of the flesh. Next, we see the dead girl from the beginning wheeled into the morgue. The same man, alone now, molests the corpse. He cuts it open before performing necrophiliac acts. This is also shown in graphic detail. Once he's done, he takes the dead girl's heart home and feeds it to his dog.

Sounds sick, right? Make no mistake, “Aftermath” is an utterly stomach-churning film. The gore is very realistic. The corpses look a little rubbery but their lifeless appearances are still disturbing. The meticulous way they are cut open, brains and hearts removed, before they shoved back together and stitched up, is utterly disgusting. And that's even before the explicit necrophilia. Despite the highly graphic content, I don't think Nacho Cerda was attempting to make a “shock” film. There's no joy in the sickening special effects or shocking acts depicted here. The movie's tone is somber, not confrontational. It watches these gross events with a sense of scientific detachment, the feeling coming off as very sterile.

The first time I saw “Aftermath,” the meaning behind its images struck me as obvious. The corpses, throughout the film, are unmoving and unresponsive. They do not care what happens to them. The autopsy and necrophilia are both depicted as elaborate rituals, meant to give meaning to the death. The violating mortician is, obviously, very passionate about this inert body. In other words: The living care a lot more about the dead than the dead do. This idea is still evident in the movie but Cerda is also making a more generalized point. The world will not stop for us when we die. Yes, “Aftermath” remains a powerful and very interesting motion picture, though an obviously difficult one to recommend. Funny enough, I found the gore much more disturbing now than I did as an edgy teenager. I guess I really am getting older. [8/10]

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