Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 26, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 25

It's been way too long since I've visited a Halloween haunt. I consider walking through a dark maze while people in masks shriek at you to be an essential October experience. However, I frequently have trouble convincing people to do this with me and, honestly, it's not the kind of activity you can do alone. Tonight, I was able to convince a female friend of mine to join me on a trip out to Hill High Farm, home to the Haunted Nightmares attraction. The guide sends you through in parties of four, so my friend and I were accompanied by a pair of flighty teen girls. Both squealed at every shock, which made the experience even more fun. I know I was suppose to be scared but couldn't help but laugh and smile the entire time. Highly recommended! 

Summer of 84 (2018)

One of my favorite podcasts is the Purple Stuff Podcast, a collaboration between Dinosaur Dracula and The Sexy Armpit. Among the many delightful episodes was the one devoted to favorite summer memories. In that episode, co-host Jay expands on two favorite memories of his. First, he talks about neighborhood wide games of Manhunt, where kids would trace and track each other through the suburbs. Secondly, he delivers a vivid memory of a time him and his friends were convinced their neighbor was trafficking drugs. I certainly hope Jay has heard of “Summer of 84,” the newest film from “Turbo Kid's” trio of directors, as it practically adapts both of these memories. I'll be totally honest, that similarity was a big reason why the film made it onto my list of most anticipated movies this year.

The small town of Cape May, Oregon seems idyllic. Davey Armstrong lives a fairly charmed existence, delivering papers during the day, lusting after the pretty girl next door, and spending time in a tree house with his best friends: Smart-ass Eats, big sensitive guy Woody, and nerd Farraday. But a darkness beats under the town's surface. Teenage boys have been disappearing from the general area for a decade. Soon, a serial killer called the Cape May Slayer announces himself to the papers and the police. While out playing manhunt with his friends, Davey swears he sees one of the missing boys in the home of Mackey, his next door neighbor. Mackey is a cop, and a respected one, making it difficult to take these accusations seriously. As he draws his friends into the mystery, the horrible truth becomes impossible to ignore.

“Summer of 84” is the latest entry in the wave of nostalgic kids-on-bikes adventure/horror movies, joining the superstar ranks of “IT” and “Stranger Things” (which I still haven't seen), as well as some weirder, darker examples like “Super Dark Times” and “Boys in the Trees.” The film hits many of the same expected beats. There's a(n excellent) synth score. References are made to established classics, such as “Return of the Jedi” and “Gremlins.” The film nails the look and feel of the Reagan decade. What really elevates the film above similar fair is how perfectly it captures the sense of childhood adventure. Davey is already a bit of a conspiracy theorist, his bedroom wall pasted with cut-outs from the Weekly World News. He wins his friends over largely because they are boys that love adventure and it's summer. They don't have much else to do. The film is set totally within that boyhood sense of mystery and adventure, where a run around town can become a grand adventure. It's almost whimsical at times, with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the hot babysitter next door actually expressing some interest in Davey.

I think the reason I really loved “Summer of 84” is its cast of young heroes. As you'd expect, the cast is composed of relative newcomers. Only Judah Lewis, who previously starred in “The Babysitter” and “Demolition,” is recognizable. Each of the boys is fantastic. Graham Verchere as Davey is immediately likable, making an ideal hero, while sprinkling the part with some decent eccentricities. Caleb Emery has equal amounts of humor and heart as Woody, the guy who's the biggest but also the most vulnerable. Cory Gruter-Andrew doesn't take away from Farraday's essential nerdiness but adds a nice sarcastic edge. Lewis, as Eats, is both hilarious with his one-liners while also pointing at the character's inner anger and frustration, stemming from a troubled home life. It's also how satisfying how each character slots so perfectly into the Five Man Band concept, with the bubbly and bitterly funny Tiera Skovbye's Nikki filling the role of the token female.

Like all of these modern kids-on-bikes movies, “Summer of 84” gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting its youthful, inexperienced protagonists with the actual danger of their situation. There are many moments of sustained suspense throughout the film. The boys pretend to play Manhunt while actually staking out Mackey's home, a sequence that ends with an excellent shock. Woody and Farraday follow the suspected killer to a parking garage, they are nearly caught, a moment that escalates nicely. Yet the most suspenseful sequence occurs when Mackey, after seemingly being cleared of accusations, comes to Davey's doorstep. It's a drawn out moment, the audience unclear of where exactly things are headed.

It all builds towards a shocking ending. Without spoiling too much, Davey and Woody come face-to-face with the killer. After a thrilling chase scene, the pay-off is surprisingly blunt. From there, everything seemingly falls apart for our protagonists. In one montage, we see every victory denied him. This downbeat ending is not very satisfying but totally by design. It's the end of innocence, Davey stalked from now on by the spectre of death. In other words, the knowledge that he could die at any point. This downer conclusion also helps distinguish “Summer of 84” from similar movies, going for a more foreboding and melancholic feeling.

“Summer of 84” has received mixed reviews, being compared unfavorably to the many similar projects. It's also not as deliberately loopy as “Turbo Kid,” though it appeals to the same eighties aesthetic. However, I think “Summer of 84” is primed for future cultdom. It embraces the darkness lurking under the heart of suburbia more than even the movie actually about a killer clown. When combined with a frequently hilarious but no less thrilling script and a fantastic cast, it results in a movie that's right up my alley. [8/10]

Fear No Evil (1981)

“Fear No Evil” is another movie I first stumbled upon on the internet, during those early college years when I would watch just about anything if it was horrific and at least twenty years old. I went into the movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. I found the film weird and outrageous but also, apparently, unforgettable. In the years since, occasionally a moment or song from the movie would wander into my brain. I've been wanting to revisit it for years but just never got around to it. Well, hail Satan, because it's 2018 and I'm finally rewatching “Fear No Evil.” A passion project for Frank LaLoggia – who wrote, directed, produced, and composed the film – it would launch the director to a minor but interesting career.

“Fear No Evil's” script puts its own spin on Christian lore. In this film, when Lucifer was banished from Heaven, his spirit fell to Earth. There, he would be reincarnated throughout the ages, attempting to bring about an Earthly Hell. In retaliation, Yahweh sent three angels – Gabriel, Rafael, and Mikhail  - to be similarly reincarnated. In the sixties, the human form of Rafael murdered Satan's latest incarnation and was sent to prison for his efforts. The devil was immediately reborn as Andrew Williams. Throughout his youth, the boy drove his parents crazy. Now, Andrew is a teenager and getting ready to graduate high school. As he becomes more aware of his powers, the remaining angels attempt to hunt him down and prevent his apocalyptic destiny.

LaLoggia's film re-imagines Satan as a gay teenager. Andrew is shunned and misunderstood by everyone. His dad finds him off-putting, eventually driven mad by his son's inability to follow traditional roles. In school, he's picked on ruthlessly by Tony. At one point, while in the gym shower, the bully plants a kiss on Andrew. This drives both dudes into naked seizures. Tony, a classic case of toxic masculinity who slaps his girlfriend and picks fights all the time, obviously sees Andrew as a threat to his heterosexuality. When he realizes his demonic potential, Andrew turns Tony into a woman, prompting the boy to commit suicide. At the same time, Andrew slips into a revealing and glittery outfit, fulfilling his destiny as Queer Satan. (Rainbows also seem to be a reoccurring motif in his spells.) But what of the scenes where Julie, the teen girl who is the latest reincarnation of Gabriel, has sexual dreams about Andrew? It seems unlikely that LaLoggia was unaware of this subtext, as he cast the swish-y Stefan Arngrim as Andrew, so I can only assume this is another example of the devil disrupting the hetero-normative traditions.

Most of the movie is pulled between its plot of reborn angels and the devil's high school days. The religious mythos is a bit of a snore. Watching Mikhail, in the body of an elderly woman, try to convince Julie of her destiny drags the pacing down. The high school stuff is a lot more fun though. Despite featuring a uber-hip soundtrack, which plays like a greatest hits album of punk/post-punk luminaries, the school setting is strictly in the past. Tony is an illiterate greaser. His girlfriend heads a girl gang in shiny, gold jackets. The students spend more time smoking and making out than studying. The gym teacher is an insane lunatic, driven into a frenzy by dodge ball. It feels more like “Grease” than an accurate depiction of high school life in the early eighties. Which is perfect for the film's campy atmosphere.

As a horror movie, “Fear No Evil” similarly walks a line between silly and spooky. Some sequences are hilariously overwrought. Such as Andrew turning that dodge ball game deadly, while flashy evil reptilian eyes. Other times, LaLoggia successfully creates some eerie moments. An early scene, where the devil boy's shadow moves without him, is spooky. So is the scene where Andrew raises a fleet of zombies, which features a crucified horse skeleton slowly moving. Among the first evil deeds Andrew does is cause the star of the passion play to actually experience Christ's wounds. The sound design is decent, such as a scene where Andrew sits on a swing and unknowingly raises a storm. The finale is deeply silly, featuring its somewhat sympathetic villain shrieking in pimply demon make-up and lots of magical bolts of light. Those zombies are also pretty silly, shouting at their victims in low budget make-up. Still, there's no denying that this stuff is entertaining and even occasionally effective.

LaLoggia obviously had big ambitions for “Fear No Evil.” He packs his story full of multiple subplots. At one point, five events are happening simultaneously: Andrew's demonic ritual, a near-by passion play, the graduation party, his Dad's homicidal drinking spree, the heroes rushing to save the day. Maybe the script was just underwritten, as Andrew's acceptance of his Satanic fate is inconsistent. In some scenes, he seems to know everything about it already. In others, he struggles to understand what is happening. The cast is inconsistent too, full of broad or stiff performances, Arngrim among them. Despite these flaws, “Fear No Evil” is fascinating and a ton of fun. The director successfully put his on spin on the material, packed it full of crazy ideas, and then added a kick-ass soundtrack on top. Sounds just right for a late October horror marathon to me. [8/10]

The Adventures of Pete & Pete: Halloweenie

I remember watching “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” on Nickelodeon back in the day. I thought the show was alright but have been quite surprised to discover its passionate cult following in the years since. It seems this show is considered among the weirdest and smartest kids' shows. It's entirely possible I was too young to really appreciate the show as a youngster, whose taste was more attuned to “Legends of the Hidden Temple.” Its Halloween episode, “Halloweenie,” is regarded as a classic in certain circles. With only a few days until the big event, I decided to give this beloved series a try for the first time in years.

“The Adventures of Pete & Pete” is set in the excessively quirky small, suburban town of Wellsville. It follows two brothers, both named Pete, on their bizarre adventures. “Halloweenie” concerns the brothers' differing opinions about October 31st. Little Pete, played by Danny Tamberelli, adores Halloween. This year, he hopes to break the record for the most houses visited in a night of trick-or-treating. Big Pete, played by Michael C. Maronna, is pretty sick of the holiday though. The seasonal festivities are threatened by a group of vandals named the Pumpkin Eaters. The jack-o-lantern wearing hooligans have created such a reign of terror that the town officials are threatening to cancel trick-or-treating. After he smashes a pumpkin, the Pumpkin Eaters attempt to recruit Big Pete. Feeling bad about it, he decides to accompany his smaller brother on his adventure. At the same time, he fears being captured and humiliated by the gang of delinquents.

One thing I've read about this show is definitely true. “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” certainly doesn't feel like any other kids' show. The episode is narrated by Maronna. He frequently includes surreal touches, such as talking jack-o-lanterns appearing on people's shoulders like a devil or angel. The town's residents are pretty odd, making the show feel a bit like a kid-friendly take on “Twin Peaks” or “Picket Fences.” (If you need another example of the show's hipness, it features a cameo from Iggy Pop.) There's very little humor directly pitched at the kiddie lot in this episode, save for one pee joke or some broad slapstick. The Pumpkin Eaters are genuinely weird bad guys and the chaos they reap is fittingly surreal. The performances are more measured and deadpan than you'd expect from a Nick show. Even the style of direction, with its frequent cuts away to black-and-white scenes, feel more eccentric and sophisticated than you'd expect.

The silly confrontation with cartoonish villains and indie rock soundtrack are fun. What I really appreciate about “Halloweenie” is Little Pete's enthusiasm for the day. The boy's love of the holiday is characterized as religious awe, his observations of the rituals taken with deadly seriousness. See? This kid gets it! At the same time, his hatred of the day makes it difficult for me to like Big Pete here. Naturally, he gets over it and loves Halloween again by the end. I'm not saying I'm going to turn around and immediately watch every other episode of the show. However, “Halloweenie” was really a lot of fun. [7/10]

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

Growing up as an American kid in the nineties, I experienced my share of disturbing PSAs and commercial. I'm taking about drug-dealers turning into snake-monsters or asphyxiating goldfish. However, it seems the U.K. really had a knack for cooking up well-intentioned but terrifying public service announcements. Several years before creating the hyper-violent “Apaches,” Britain's Central Office of Information produced “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water.”

The minute-and-a-half short depicts a hooded, Grim Reaper-like figure. The spirit represents every pool of stagnant or unattended water. And not just those found in swamps. Over the commercial's length, we see a boy playing on a muddy slop fall into a deceptively deep puddle. Next, a kid dangling off a weak tree branch crashes into a fetid river. Most chillingly of all, an unsuspecting swimmer is caught on a piece of underwater debris, kicking and screaming for help that doesn't seem to be coming. All the while, the hooded figure lurks in the background, watching like an ominous sentinel. Though a group of sensible and safe children banish the Spirit by the film's end, his echoing voice assures us that he will return.

The short is especially of interest to horror fans because the titular Spirit is voiced by Donald Pleasence. His intonations are casual and matter-of-fact, dripping with sinister intent, making the information he provides even more creepy. Watching as an adult, I found “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water” fairly unsettling. The direction is stark and spooky, the cutting making it seem like the foolish kids die the minute they hit the water. I can't imagine how frightening this would've been for a kid. If I was a youngster in the seventies, I sure as fuck wouldn't mess with any unsupervised body of water after seeing this. [7/10]

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