Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 26

Mandy (2018)

If one movie has dominated the discussion among weirdo cinema fans in 2018, it's “Mandy.” I can't tell you how many raves I've read about this one. Cheddar Goblin has been showing up in my social media feeds for a while, it feels like. “Mandy” has been so popular, that it's actually stayed in theaters long after most weirdo indie movies shuffle onto streaming services and video-on-demand. We've all come around to loving Nic Cage at his most unhinged these days and “Mandy” has ridden that affection to become a true cult phenomenon. This is all the more surprising, as Panos Cosmatos’ latest is genuinely a very weird movie.

Red Miller, a humble lumberjack, and his wife, Mandy, live a peaceful existence among the forest near the Shadow Mountains. Both have had hard lives and have found solace and love in each other’s arms. While walking to work, Mandy catches the eye of Jeremiah Sand, leader of a drug-fueled cult known as Children of the New Dawn. He employs the Black Skulls - a gang of LSD-addicted, S&M gimp demon-bikers - to bring Mandy to him. When the woman rejects his advances, Sand burns her alive. Red, forging his own battle axe, now embarks on a rage-driven quest of bloody revenge.

“Mandy” is another 2018 genre effort set in the eighties, specifically 1983. This is but one signifier Cosmatos makes to his influences. The film is separated into three chapters. The first two appear on-screen, in a font right off an eighties paperback. The third chapter, sharing its name with the film, appears in a scrawled death metal font. Both of these elements are furthered referenced in Mandy’s love of fantasy novels and Johan Johansson’s noise-driven score. The characters talk about warlocks, cosmic Marvel comics, and acid. Cosmatos combines these elements with a truly hallucinatory visual sense. The film is shot almost entirely in purple, red, and orange colors. Lengthy drug trips frequently play out on screen. Elements of this psychedelic trip onto Hell may seem familiar but the whole feels utterly original.

These combinations are also evident in the film’s diverging tones. The first half of the film is molasses slow, lending a ponderous, prog-rock feel to Red and Mandy’s idyllic lives. Once Red begins his march of vengeance against the Black Skulls, “Mandy” morphs into a hellish, extremely bloody horror film. The Cenobite-Like bikers appear inhuman, with distorted voices, claws, and razor sharp penises. They bring face-melting acid trips and bottomless pits with them into the film. Director Panos is the son of George P. Cosmatos, director of “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Cobra.” Meaning cheesy eighties action is also in “Mandy’s” DNA. This leads to moments like Red’s home-made battle axe swinging through the air in artificial ways. Or a chainsaw duel, a spectacular moment of sparks and blood. Once again, Cosmatos blends this all together with his trippy presentation.

All of this would’ve been enough to confirm “Mandy’s” cult following. Cosmatos throws in other oddball excesses though. On his journey, Red encounters a drug chemist, who keeps a full-grown tiger in a cage, the symbolism of which I’m still trying to unravel. Red’s nightmares are filled with Frazetta-like animated sequence, showing cosmic landscapes and his naked wife kneeling before a dead ogre. There’s obnoxious folk songs, male frontal nudity, a crossbow named the Reaper, Illuminati-baiting triangular visuals, and the Cheddar Goblin. Though that last element appears on-screen only for a few minutes, his impact has been vast. Created by the team behind “Too Many Cooks,” the puppety goblin shills for a Kraft Mac and Cheese rip-off and spews macaroni all over kids. The hilarious commercial, and Cage’s amazing reaction to it, provides some much needed levity.

Nic Cage may very well be the element that holds “Mandy” together and makes it a truly impressive film. Cage is largely silent throughout the film, having little dialogue. The actor has become well known for his cinematic freak-outs but “Mandy” is a deeper performance. Yes, he screams like a lunatic. He damns the villains for ruining his favorite shirt. He glares and grins like a madman. He snorts coke and goes wild. Yet Cage’s shell-shocked silence points towards the seismic pain Red is feeling. His quest of revenge is as much a primal scream towards the injustices of the universe as an excuse for wacky action. Scenes of Cage blubbering and shrieking in his tightly-whities might be hilarious. They also point towards “Mandy” being a real movie about processing grief and the human mind’s inability to overcome loss.

At two hours and one minute long, “Mandy” feels like an acid trip in more ways than one. Despite a zig-zagging pace, the film is truly a cinematic experience, among the year’s more unique cult items. I have no doubt that the film’s reputation will only grow over the years, as more freaks are drawn towards its super-weird vision. What I really respect about the film, beyond its surreal humor, drugged out visuals, and daft combination of genre materials, is that a human heart beats beneath the surface. Cosmatos has already considered a sequel and next year’s Nic Cage cult movie is already lined up but “Mandy,” I think, will endure. [9/10]

Blood Feast (1963)

Herschell Gordon Lewis never intended to make horror history. He'd be the first to admit that he went into film-making more as a businessman than a creative individual trying to express something. He started out making nudie cuties – the softest of softcore pornography – because they were extremely cheap to produce and highly profitable. Along with producer David F. Friedman, he had a thought. If nudity sold so well, graphic bloodshed might as well. “Blood Feast” was shot in a week and probably written in a weekend, using local Miami landmarks and locations for the plot. It costs 24,500 dollars and grossed well over a million. It was also the first splatter film in horror history, signaling the changes the genre would undergo in the future before any other movie did.

A murderer is terrorizing Miami. He's sneaking into young women's home, butchering them with a machete, and leaving with a different body part each time. Detective Pete Thornton and the rest of the police force attempt to unravel the mystery but there are few leads. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fremont is planning her daughter Suzette's birthday party. She hires Mr. Fuad Ramses to cater the event. Ramses promises an event like no other, saying he'll serve a real Egyptian feast. Ramses is, of course, the killer. He's the last surviving member of a deranged cult that practices ritualistic cannibalism, in the name of the goddess Ishtar.

From any sort of objective stand point, “Blood Feast” is an atrocious film. From a technical perspective, it is an utterly incompetent production. Lewis' direction is amateurish. The camera's movements are awkward and stiff. Many of the shots are stationary. At least once, the camera is obviously bumped unintentionally. The acting is, at best, stagey. Mal Arnold mugs horrendously as Ramses and most everyone else just sleepwalks through their parts. The gore is not convincing. Animal brains, hearts, entrails, or tongues are awkwardly placed on top of or around the female victims, along with lots of fake blood. The musical score, largely composed of thumping drums, is monotonous. The pacing is wrecked. The movie's only an hour long but feels much longer.

From a narrative prospective, “Blood Feast” barely makes any sense. Fuad Ramses walks with a noticeable limp. Despite that, he's able to sneak up on people several times. Even more ridiculously, he manages to outrun the cops on several occasions. Ramses' end goal is difficult to discern, as he seemingly plans to ritually murder and cannibalize Suzette a few feet from her friends and families. Naturally, the killer's behavior is ridiculously weird and off-putting at every point. However, nobody seems to think he's acting strange until the very end. The detective hero puts the clues together through sheer chance. The bad guy is then disposed off due to a totally random act of fate. Naturally, the film's backstory is phooey, starting with Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, being referred to as Egyptian.

Of course, none of these factors distract from “Blood Feast's” appeal. In fact, the movie's incompetence and incoherence is largely why people like it. The film is frequently hilarious, in-between its ridiculous acting, unconvincing gore, and brainless characters. This is an exploitation film, through and through, so Gordon throws in some sex appeal too. There's some brief nudity in the first scene, a rejection of the good taste and style “Psycho” showed in a similar situation. Later, there's some lingering shots of the girls in their bikinis. Sometimes, Gordon's artlessness accidentally becomes artful. Such as a foggy fantasy scene, depicting a priest of Ishtar sacrificing a girl. It feels like a weirdo home movie but there's an interesting grace and poise in that context.

“Blood Feast,” in fact, is probably best appreciated as outsider art. The film doesn't have the surreal dream logic of “Robot Monster” or the oddball humor of Ed Wood's movies. It's much, much cruder than even those films. However, Gordon's mercenary approach is interesting in its own right. Naturally, the movie's historical importance can not be overstated. Aside from a spiritual sequel, an actual sequel, and a remake, it was basically the first American gore movie ever made. There's no “Night of the Living Dead,” no “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” no “Halloween” without “Blood Feast.” Just beyond its significance to genre history, “Blood Feast” is certainly, well something. [7/10]

The Goldbergs: Mister Knifey-Hands

Michael Myers isn't the only slasher icon to make a comeback this year. Freddy Krueger, portrayed once again by Robert Englund, made a slightly more low-key return. I have never seen a single episode of “The Goldbergs” before. The involvement of Patton Oswalt, as the “Wonder Years”-style narrator, has made me tempted to check out the show before. I've always thought the promos looked obnoxious. However, a cameo from the O.G. Freddy was enough to get me to watch this half-hour at least.

As I said, I have no prior experience with “The Goldbergs” but I'll recap the plot as best as I can. Adam Goldberg, the youngest child in the family, wants to rent “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and watch it with his girlfriend, Jackie. Adam's smothering mother, Beverly, doesn't want him to watch the movie, fearful it will give him nightmares. She turns out to be right and Adam is soon afraid to sleep, terrified he might meet Freddy. This creates a schism between Adam's parents and Jackie's. The B-plot involves older sister Erica and her relationship with teenager Geoff, who hasn't graduated high school yet. Somehow, the story bends from him wanting her to wear a stupid couple's costume to her hanging around the school again, pretending to be cool.

So this show is awful. The characters are as obnoxious as the commercials made them look. Beverly is especially offensive, using every opportunity to undermine and irritate her son. Adam is just as annoying, his exaggerated nerd voice being especially grating. This peaks during an argument between the two parents at a Halloween corn maze, where everyone reveals what spiteful and awful people they are. The B-lot is especially inane. Can you imagine how creepy this would be if it was a male high school grad dating a senior girl and hanging around her class? The boyfriend is just as annoying as all the other characters on the film. His word-play based couple costumes are exactly the kind of stupid bullshit I hate. Despite all the lip-service the show pays to its eighties setting, it feels extremely modern. In general, this is one of those shows that's cut as quickly as possible in order to fit a joke every two seconds. There's no heart, personality, or substance under the nonstop one-liners.

Having said all that, “Mister Knifey-Hands” is totally worth seeing for the Freddy segment. While regretting being such a terrible mother, Beverly has a Krueger dream. There's actually some decent atmosphere in the shot of Freddy chasing her through a foggy corn maze. Two sight gags here made me laugh, when the family photos above Beverly's bed are replaced with pictures of Freddy. Later, a closest full of his trademark sweaters spring to life. Englund is not as svelte as he used to be but can obviously still ham it up like a pro. Seeing Freddy trade quibs on a sitcom is a weird feeling but it also ends up being the sole redeeming quality of an otherwise tortuous half-hour of television. [4/10]

The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow (2008)

Here's another short that the internet told me to watch and I checked out largely because the title was cool. As it started, I was surprised to see a familiar name in the credits. Rodrigo Gudino, long time editor of Rue Morgue Magazine, wrote and co-directed the film. “The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow” has a novel idea. The short presents a static image: A photograph from the thirties of several people standing around a car, in front of a church. There's a man reaching into his coat, another trying to start a bonfire, a smiling man in sunglasses, and a woman holding a swaddled infant. The camera peers around the photo, going inside it, and revealing more and more disturbing details.

It's a really cool idea for a short film, one that strictly uses the visual elements of film to tell its story. It does bug me ever so slightly that the filmmakers cheat a little, changing the image to reveal more details from outside the frame of the photograph. Even then, the title is rather literal: These are the 'facts,' in the sense that what we are seeing is all we know. The details raises a lot of questions – the blood inside the car, the strange tattoos on everyone's wrists, the contents of the bonfire, the woman's expression – and fires the imagination. The simple musical score doesn't hammer any note too hard, allowing all the creepy possibilities to sink in naturally. “The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow” is a really cool idea, executed in a mostly clever way, that is perfectly built for the short film format. You couldn't do this as anything but a short moving picture. [7/10]

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