Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 27

I am a Halloween freak through-and-through. However, I tend to go low-key with my yard decorations. My sole outside addition to the outside this year is a corgi dressed as a bumblebee and that's about it. I usually stick with the same set of pumpkins and skeletons. My neighbors feel differently. Right up the street from me is a house that filled its yard with blow-ups. This includes two dragons, a dancing ogre, a shark eating a tourist, and one of the sand worms from "Beetlejuice." Their yard set-up also includes a graveyard full of zombies and several plastic dinosaur skeletons. I am envious and admire their convictions.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers” was a grim horror picture that managed to create some overwhelming suspense, despite its characters being dumb as a post. The film, with its healthy box office returns, seemed ready-made for a sequel. The trio of masked terrorizesrs were obviously ready to try the same stunt again. Despite these factors, the years went by without a “Strangers 2,” to the point were we all sort of forgot about the original a little. Finally, ten years later, the follow-up was made. It would seem the anniversary was what finally got part two out of its decade long stint in Development Hell.

I was really hoping “The Strangers: Prey At Night” would pick up right where the first left off but, since some modern smart phones appear, it looks like a decade passed in-universe too. Kinsey is a troubled teen and her parents, Mike and Cindy, are soon sending her off to boarding school. Before that, they take the family - including older brother Luke - to visit their aunt and uncle in a Kentucky trailer park. That night, there is a knock on the door. An unidentified girl asks for someone named Tamara. Yep, the Strangers – Dollface, Pin-Up and the Man in the Mask – are up to their old tricks again, terrorizing and murdering innocent people.

Even with its flaws, the original “Strangers” was an amazingly tense experience. Bertino used isolation and suspense to create an unsettling horror film. “Prey at Night” perhaps realized it couldn't top the original's grim thrills. Instead, the sequel goes for broader, more tawdry shocks. There's more gore, victims getting impaled, slashed, and left in puddles of their own bloods. The Strangers utilizes a jack-in-the-box, a gas station slushie machine, and messages written in blood to freak out their targets. The film doesn't use jump scares so much as shorter stretches of tension that conclude with louder shocks. Director Johannes Roberts, whose “F” was influenced by the first “Strangers,” flavors the villains' sadism and stalking with more of a sense of fun. The sequel trades the original's relentless dread for more of a fun house style of horror, an effective switch.

The sequel uses this somewhat trashier atmosphere to create some wild set pieces. A watermelon tossed at a windshield results in a truck slamming into a trailer, producing one of the nastier deaths in the movie. Just like in an eighties slasher pic, the cops are useless. Once one comes along to help Kinsey, he's gorily dispatched minutes later. (Also like in a classic slasher pic, the killers cut the phone lines.) That eighties approach continues in the soundtrack. A crash-zoom is used fantastically outside a pool. This proceeds a fight scene inside the water, scored to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Another Jim Steinman piece of overwrought soft-rock, Air Supply's “Making Love Out of Nothing at All,” provides the theme for a suitably deliberate truck-vs.-feet chase. None of these moments are scary, exactly, and certainly not on par with the original. But they are fun.

Another big difference between “The Strangers” and “Prey at Night” is the approach the films take to their heroes. The married couple in the first film were largely powerless against the Strangers, outmatched at every turn. The family in the sequel prove far scrapier. Mom and Dad – played by an underutilized Christina Hendricks and Mike Henderson – go down pretty early. However, their kids are surprisingly tough. They make repeated attempts to fight off the masked villains. That combat in the pool is just one example of a drawn-out fight scene between one of the Strangers and one of their targets. These kids don't miss an opportunity to use deadly force either, shotgun blasts and explosions putting in an appearance. The take-down of the killers are so brutal that it's going to be hard to make another one of these.

Hard but not impossible. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” made twenty-four million against a five million dollar budget, which isn't a huge number but is surely profitable. So a third film certainly seems plausible. If that's coming, hopefully it won't take another ten years to get here. The film includes several deliberate references to older horror classics, with a score that directly copies John Carpenters “The Fog” score and a climatic shout-out to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It also rolls the Smiley Face killer theory into its trio's M.O. While not as frightening as the first film, “Prey at Night” is a reasonably entertaining sequel. [7/10]

Xtro (1982)

When Betty Hill ripped off “The Outer Limits” and told everyone her and her husband had been abducted by aliens, they really changed pop culture forever. The alien abduction put a modern name and face to the sleep paralysis phenomenon people have been experiencing since the beginning of time. Unsurprisingly, the alien abduction concept has inspired many horror movies. While most of these greys-ploition flicks came during the nineties, a film from 1982 was ahead of the curve. “Xtro” has the distinction of being one of the few home-grown films to be banned during the U.K.'s Video Nasty moral panic. I'm sure Mary Whitehouse was aghast that such a sick film could've come from her own country.

Tony's dad, Sam, disappeared three years ago. They were playing in the yard when a mysterious light appeared above. Sam vanished into thin air. Nobody believed this account and Tony's mom, Rachael, concludes that Sam just walked out on his family. In the time since, she has moved a French babysitter into the house and is living with a new boyfriend, Joe. Tony has never forgotten his dad though, nor given up hope he may return. The ball of light returns, producing a monster that impregnates a woman, who gives birth to a fully-grown version of Sam hours later. This extraterrestrial Sam soon reunites with his boy. This throws the household into chaos. Alien Sam can only keep up the charade for so long, so he infects Tony with strange powers, furthering the goal of alien insemination.

“Xtro” runs with a classic horror idea: The thought that a missing loved one can return but is somehow wrong. Tony is overjoyed to have his dad back at first. However, after catching his dad eating his pet snake's eggs, it becomes apparent that there's something wrong with Sam. This theme continues later in the film, when Rachael and Sam's attempt to rekindle their romance ends with gruesome body horror. Ultimately, the smartest thing “Xtro” does is use this idea to speak to a young boy's anxiety about his mom's new boyfriend. Tony never accepted that his dad left and hates that Mom has tried to replace him. This anxiousness manifest in his father returning as a horrific alien being, that further corrupts and destroys the happiness the household once had. 

That story idea – a boy discovering his returned dad is actually a monster – should've been straight-forward enough. Instead, “Xtro” goes on a number of bizarre digression. When Alien Sam infects Tony, the boy is given magical powers. He brings his toys to life. A tumbling acrobat becomes a small clown. This guy swings a buzz saw yoyo and wacks people with a rubber mallet. Tony also grows his G.I. Joe toy into a life-sized solider, who takes bloody revenge on the mean lady downstairs. Oh, also a black panther shows up. This stuff doesn't make much sense and feels unrelated to the rest of “Xtro's” story. It definitely feels like the writers threw this stuff in to pad the script out to feature length. But is some bizarrely intense horror imagery nevertheless.

“Xtro's” main claim to notoriety is its extremely gooey special effects. The monster on the poster only appears in the beginning (and in a bogus internet image about “skinwalkers” since), spraying a dude with acid and raping a random woman with a deformed ovipositor. That's where the very gross image of a woman giving birth to a full-grown man comes in. From there, “Xtro” throws in more gooey gore and gross body horror. Sam passes his powers along by sucking on the skin, producing huge tumors. Later, Tony's baby-sitter is turned into a grub-like incubator, popping out squishy alien eggs. The film's finale features Sam decompositing into a light-spewing monster. The disturbingly vivid special effects add to “Xtro's” mean-spirited and nightmarish tone, of fucked-up shit happening for very little reason.

“Xtro's” advertising campaign made repeated references to “E.T.” Indeed, the film plays a little like an extremely sick and dark variation on that film's cuddlier visitor. If “Xtro” can be called a rip-off of Spielberg's blockbuster, director Harry Bromley Davenport decided each movie in the totally disconnected “Xtro” series should rip-off another popular alien story. “Xtro II: The Second Encounter” draws heavily from “Aliens,” with military dudes battling extraterrestrial monsters. “Xtro 3: Watch the Skies” came in 1995. It was likely inspired by “The X-Files,” with its story involving government conspiracy and alien autopsies. Now, supposedly Davenport is working on a fourth “Xtro” film, which will presumably rip off “Guardians of the Galaxy” or something. As for the original, it's not a classic. However, it's baffling plot and icky special effects certainly doesn't make it forgettable either. [7/10]

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: October Country

On paper, the idea of a dark and gritty reboot of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” seems totally ridiculous. Especially if your primary exposure to the character is the deeply dumb and intensely silly nineties sitcom. Archie's long-running comic book has, traditionally, been on a similar wavelength. Yet the publisher did try to make Sabrina a proper horror host in the past. In 2014, after the shocking critical success of the zombie-themed “Afterlife with Archie” comic, the publisher decided a similarly serious reboot of the already occult-adjacent “Sabrina” might be worth a go. That comic has also been enthusiastically received, despite the company's inability to get actual issues out. And after a similarly grown-up take on “Archie” did well on TV, an adaptation of “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” came to Netflix this October. What could be more perfect for Halloween?

“The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” does share some surface similarities with the other versions of the character. Sabrina Spellman is still the teenage off-spring of a human woman and an immortal warlock. Due to her absentee parents, she lives with her aunts Hilda and Zelda. Her boyfriend is still the lovable but dumb Harvey. As her sixteenth birthday approaches, she's about to be inducted into full witch training. The big difference is that these witches literally worship Satan. Sabrina's birthday coincides with Halloween and a lunar eclipse. At her Black Baptism, she'll put her name in the devil's book and leave her home town to attend a witching academy. Sabrina is not sure if she wants to do this, disliking these institutions and not wanting to leave her friends behind. Outside forces are conspiring to make sure she does.

“October Country,” the show's debut, seems designed to convince anyone doubtful that a “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” reboot could actually function as horror. This Sabrina is a horror fan, introduced at a screening of “Night of the Living Dead.” She has a spooky nightmare or vision where she sees a baby with goat hooves. A trip through a corn maze features an attacking scarecrow, a mildly tense moment. After eating a magic apple, Sabrina has a vision of dead witches and a brooding Baphomet, which is fairly impressive. The introduction of Salem, her feline familiar – who is silent here, instead of a wisecracker – is maybe the creepiest scene in the episode. A shadow, wispy creature appears behind Sabrina's mirror, whispering in a spooky fashion, before revealing its black cat form. Beyond that, the show has a beautifully autumnal feeling, with warm but misty colors.

So “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” does fine with the horrific stuff. What about the other elements? Sabrina's adventures with her high school friends are mildly interesting. After her gender non-binary friend Susie is bullied, and the principal refuses to help, she casts an arachnophobic curse on him. The sequence where Sabrina tells Harvey the truth about her origins, and then wipe his memories after his incredulous response, is cute. The cast is fairly likable. Kiernan Shipka nicely combines a girlish charm and some smarmier sarcasm to make Sabrina a protagonist we don't mind following. She has good chemistry with Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as her aunts.

However, the show is already attempting to mine a deeper lore by setting up lots of mysteries and potential plot lines: What are the Satanic forces' final plans for Sabrina? What happened to her parents? What's up with those Weird Sisters? Or the sinister entity that has possessed one of her teacher? Is a witch hunter really active in town? Considering how exhausted serialized storytelling makes me, I'm not sure if I'm interested in seeing those questions answered. However, “October Country” is interesting enough that I think I'll give the next few episodes a try. See if my feelings about the show is more solidly negative or positive after that. [7/10]

Harpya (1979)

In order to figure out which horror shorts I would watch this year, I consulted a Letterboxd list of horror shorts freely available on the internet. I picked out the ones that sounded interesting or were especially praised. That's how I decided upon “Harpya,” a 1979 short from Beglian filmmaker Raoul Servais. The surreal short concerns a man discovering a harpy in a fountain. He takes the bird-monster home with him. She soon takes over his life, eating all his food. When he attempts to escape, the bird-woman tears his legs off. He keeps trying to get away but the mythological monster-woman continues to pursue him.

“Harpya” is extremely weird, in a very aggressive and absurd fashion. The short is animation via stop-motion but, instead of using clay or models, uses actual actors. They move stiffly and comically though expressionistic sets, their movements combined with goofy sound effects. This, combined with the simplistic goals of the characters and bizarre events happening on-screen, makes “Harpya” more a work of surreal humor than surreal horror. This is also reflected in its blunt, odd ending. Yet there's definitely something creepy about Servais' film. The harpy woman is annoying, yes, but also determined to ruin this guy's life. The halting movement of the characters feels very much like something out a bad dream. It's not a very satisfying experience, and is borderline annoying at times, but it is interesting. [6/10]

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