Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 29, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 28

Ghost Stories (2017)

The English have a long history of ghost stories. In fact, it's tempting to say the English invented the ghost story as it exist in the modern sense. The English also have a long tradition with the horror anthology. In the sixties, Amicus distinguished itself from the competition at Hammer by pumping out a series of spooky portmanteau films, one or two of which became classics. In 2010, actors/comedians/writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson created the stage play “Ghost Stories” as a homage to both of these traditions. Seven years, this homage came full-circle, as Dyson and Nyman adapted their play into a feature film. The cinematic “Ghost Stories” got some pretty good reviews, so I knew I had to check it out this October.

As a child, Philip Goodman was inspired by Charles Camerson, a famous television personality and debunker of the supernatural. He's followed a similar career path, becoming a skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Cameron disappeared years ago but Goodman has managed to track him down. The elderly Cameron presents him with his three strangest cases, that convinced him the supernatural is real: A night watchman working in the abandoned mental hospital for women encounters a ghostly child, a teenager hits a strange creature while out driving his father's car, and a financier is haunted by bizarre occurrences while waiting for his wife to give birth. As Goodman digs deeper, we see his own frightening experience from childhood.

Showing its allegiance to the genre, “Ghost Stories” functions more on atmosphere and suspense than gore or flashy special effects. The first proper segment focuses almost exclusively on atmosphere, as the abandoned mental hospital makes for a really creepy location. Sound design is also used excellent, as the night watchman's radio and the static from his walkie talkie further emphasize the isolation. The third segment, about the pregnant wife and the poltergeist, similarly uses a chilly location and spooky, barely seen events to build tension. In both cases, the grim suspense builds towards solid jump-scares, some spooky ghosts leaping towards the viewer in sudden ways. This approach makes “Ghost Stories” an effectively spooky horror picture with plenty of fun shocks.

The second segment, in particular, best balances this formula. The teenage boy at the story's center, fantastically played by Alex Lawther, is already nervous. He's a teen trying to hide something from his verbally abusive parents. Driving a car down a weird and dark back roads is an experience many of us can relate to, the sequence nicely capturing that creepy feeling. That notion builds to more dread once the strange creature begins creeping around. Some cool, “Evil Dead”-style P.O.V. shots are effectively employed in this scene. It builds towards a wonderful moment of dark humor and bristling tension, when the fiendish goat man finally makes it inside the car.

Lots of ghost stories have paired a skeptic against the supernatural before. “Ghost Stories” does this as well, characterizing Philip Goodman as something of a priggish jerk. He's too confident in his abilities as a debunker and will be humbled by his experience with the paranormal. However, “Ghost Stories” also grasps that ghosts resonant more as symbols than as proof of the afterlife. Each of the hauntings speak to the beleaguered protagonists' unstable mental states. The night watchman has a dead wife and a daughter locked in a coma. The teenage driver is belittled and traumatized by abusive parents. Martin Freeman's financier puts a productive face on the loss he experienced. Ghosts aren't real in actually, which “Ghost Stories” tactfully acknowledges by linking its spectres with the trauma that really haunts the living.

This is an astute and interesting observation, that is fairly evident throughout “Ghost Stories'” first three stories. In its last sequence, which brings the framing device full circle, the film annoyingly spells out this subtext for anyone who might not have caught it. The increasingly surreal denouncement leads to a twist ending, indulging in a trope that I thought was long since discredited. This may be another homage to Amicus' films, such as “Dr. Terror's House of Horror,” which frequently concluded on twists such as this. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth this time.

It's a bummer that “Ghost Stories” kind of shits the bed in the last fifteen minutes. Up until that point, it's the perfect kind of viewing for late October. Heavy on creepy atmosphere, with some cool special effects, some fun scares, a brain and a heart. Ultimately, the writers prove to be a bit too clever for their own good. Still, three out of four ain't bad. [7/10]

The Black Sleep (1956)

“The Black Sleep” was made in 1956, to fill the back-end of a double feature topped by “The Quatermass Xperiment,” released in the U.S. as “The Creeping Unknown.” The film was shot in all of twelve days. It was directed by Reginald Le Borg, who made a number of programmers for Universal in the thirties and forties. Among them was “The Mummy's Ghost,” “Jungle Woman,” and three of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries. (He would go on to make one more horror credit of note, Vincent Price flick “Diary of a Madman.”) After release, the film quickly sank into obscurity. I had never even heard of the movie until it started cropping up on TCM Underground a while back. It didn't receive a DVD release until 2011, a Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber following in 2016. The film has received some minor critical acclaim since re-surfacing.

In 1872, Dr. Gordon Ramsay is about to be executed, framed for the murder of another man. As he awaits the gallows, he's visited by Sir Joel Cadman. A doctor, Cadman feeds him a strange drug – which he calls the Black Sleep – that puts Ramsay into a death-like trance. Freed, Cadman recruits Ramsay to be his assistant. Cadman, in hopes of restoring his comatose wife, has begun performing unethical brain surgery on people he's captured and given the Black Sleep to. The victims are provided by a tattoo artist turned body snatcher. Though Ramsay wonders if Cadman is actually furthering science at first, he soon discovers that Cadman's behavior has quickly escalated to the grotesque and ghoulish.

Released in the middle of the Atomic Horror era, “The Black Sleep” is an old fashion gothic story. It partakes freely in classic horror cliches but in a slightly weird way. Cadman is very much a mad scientist. His efforts are more based in fact than expected, a primitive form of brain surgery which is shown in surprisingly graphic detail. It takes a while for him to be revealed as a truly insane villain and he has a sympathetic back story. The film floats a lot of other gothic archetypes, like a secret passageway, a dungeon full of lunatics, an unscrupulous body snatcher, and a brutish mute. Some of these elements are treated in a very matter-of-fact manner, the secret passageway being explained away and the body snatcher just being a petty crook. The mutants in chains still act like monsters, with their deformed faces, hair-covered bodies, and insane rantings. They are still far more human than expected. I'm not sure if “The Black Sleep” was attempting to drag some old tropes into the modern age or was just half-assed.

I'm more inclined to believe the latter because most of “The Black Sleep” is really boring. The film is painfully slow. There's lots of long scenes of people standing around and talking. Seemingly every character explains their history through extended dialogue sequence. One moment that is insanely dragged out involves Udu, the roma body snatcher, luring a beggar woman into his parlor. Le Borg's direction is flat and uninvolving. He manages to make an old castle, the moodiest of all settings, look as uninteresting as an office building. Only a few moments – the descent into the dungeon, Ramsay's nightmare about the man they crippled – provide any classic horror atmosphere at all.

“The Black Sleep” likely owes its renown to its cast. The film is packed with horror icons, many of whom were washed-up in 1956. Sadly, they aren't given much to do. Bela Lugosi, in his final completed credit, is largely wasted as a mute servant. Lon Chaney Jr. plays another mute, this one more feral. He gets to stalk and brood some, using his large frame and soulful face to generate a tiny bit of pathos. John Carradine appears near the end as a ranting Muslim extremist and manages to be the most entertaining performer in the film. Tor Johnson also shows up, as another monster with whited-out eyes. Largely, this is Basil Rathbone's show. While the material is a bore, Rathbone treats it with utmost seriousness, attempting to craft a nuanced and intimidating villain. (The film almost had another classic genre star in it, as Peter Lorre was originally cast as Udu. After he asked for too much money, they got Akim Tamiroff to do a serviceable Lorre impersonation.) Herbert Rudley and Patricia Blake are forgettable as the hero and distressed damsel.

I really wished that “The Black Sleep” would be an overlooked classic. That star-studded cast got my hopes up. The mutated people in the basement provide an early example of body horror. The one guy's face is melting and the woman is bald, with patches of hair all over her body. That monster-filled climax is the only time this movie comes to life. Apparently, the filmmakers took the idea of a movie about a death-like trance a little too literally. I don't even like “The Quatermass Xperiment” that much but that double feature really sagged in its second half. If you're looking to nap though, “the Black Sleep” comes highly recommended. [5/10]

Ticks (1993)

The big bug film has its place in genre history. Despite remaining beloved by a certain breed of horror fan, that particular type of story largely burned out its popularity with the public by the end of the fifties. However, the enduring cult appeal of the subgenre has led enterprising genre filmmakers to make new additions to the big bug canon, about once every ten years or so. This year we had “It Came from the Deserts” – ants – and last decade we had “Eight Legged Freaks.” In the early nineties, “Hellbound: Hellraiser II's” Tony Randell and Doug Beswick would be inspired by another arachnid to create “Ticks.” Considering they suck blood and carry disease, it's surprising nobody thought to make a horror movie about ticks before. Released direct-to-video in 1993, the film would still win some minor acclaim from creature feature fans.

A group of troubled urban youths have been gathered up for a weekend trip into the Californian forest. The nerdy Tyler has a phobia of the forest, which is why his dad is sending him on this trip. He quickly meets the other campers: Hip-hop kid Panic, spoiled rich girl Dee Dee, her Latino boyfriend Rome, the unusually quiet Kelly, and Melissa, the daughter of the camp organizer. What the kids don't know is something sinister lurks in the woods. A ring of marijuana growers have been using a special steroid to strengthen the drug. This has had the unforeseen side effect of making the local wood tick population grow to massive size. Soon, the kids are fighting off the giant bloodsuckers.

Doug Beswick is a special effects supervisor while Tony Randell got his start in the same field. So it's not surprising that “Ticks” is a film all about the creative special effects. The titular critters look fantastic, appearing enough like normal ticks to be believable while being exaggerated enough to be movie monsters. Their movement is also surprisingly life-like, especially in a scene where one escapes into a veterinarian's office. Not satisfied with just making a movie about palm sized ticks, the filmmakers include lots of creative effects. The ticks grow in fleshy sacks. They crawl inside people's bodies, causing mutations in gory fashion. The biggest special effects splurg occurs when one of the human baddies is mutated into an even bigger queen tick. It's all well down and it's beautifully gooey.

“Ticks” doesn't just have cool special effects in its corner. The cast of young protagonists are surprisingly affable. Even the most obnoxious teen in the movie is surprisingly likable, as there's something cute about Rome and Dee Dee's interactions. Seth Green is lovably nerdy and shy as Tyler. Alfonso Ribeiro, Carlton himself, has a ridiculous part as tough black kid, Panic. (So named because that's what he never does.) Despite that, Ribeiro makes the character humane and enjoyable, especially because of how much he loves his dog. The camp owners want to genuinely help the teens, which seem more mixed-up than truly troubled. Continuing this friendly tone, most of the kids make it out alive. They band together to fight the bad guys, survive the giant ticks, and escape to safety.

While the ticks may be the primary threat of “Ticks,” obviously, they are not truly evil. The bloodsucking arachnids, referred to exclusively as insects, are just doing what they always do. When the forest is set ablaze, the ticks even become slightly sympathetic, as they flee the fire. Instead, humans are the villains of “Ticks.” The kids stumble upon a group of pot dealers, who are viciously violent and kind of sleazy. They are responsible for just as many fatalities as the big bugs. I'm not sure if “Ticks” is making some sort of point about bloodsuckers but, either way, it's interesting that the big bugs are more a neutral force of nature than actually evil.

There's some cult cred in the cast too. Clint Howard appears as the drug chemist indirectly responsible for creating the giant ticks. Funny enough, his dad Rance has an even smaller role as the friendly sheriff. Just for fun, the movie also throws in some drug-trip sequences, as the ticks' bites are also mildly hallucinogenic. In short, “Ticks” is a bunch of fun. The effects are fantastic and bloody. The script is goofy and fun. The characters are surprisingly likable, campy as they might be. This might not be high art but is, nevertheless, a perfect horror snack for weirdos like myself. [7/10]

The Demon (1972)

I guess it should be obvious by now that I'm really fascinated by myths and stories of monsters from any culture, foreign or otherwise. This is likely why, when researching short titles for this marathon, Kihachiro Kawamoto's 1972 stop motion short “The Demon” – simply “Oni” in the original Japanese – leaped out at me. Set in medieval Japan, the short concerns two brothers who live alone with their elderly mother. They live her alone in their home as they go out to hunt deer. Along the way, they are attached by an oni, an ogre of traditional Japanese myth. The one brother is caught by the creature and freed when the other brother slashes away its arms. When they return home, they are greeted by a grisly surprise.

“Oni” is based off a 15th century folk tale, which is very evident. Much like an old legend, the story has a cylindrical feeling. Early on, we learn that the boy's mother has had a hard, loveless life. She's a miserable old woman. When the hunters are attacked by an unseen ogre in the woods, successfully disarming it, it's easy to see where this is going. The moral here is twofold. If looked at from the mother's perspective, this becomes a story about appreciating your parents, no matter how old or bitchy they might get. If taken from the sons' point of view, this is a legend about how you should never let the hardships of life turn you into a heartless person. Either way, the ironic and mythical tone of this short is part of its appeal.

Of course, the animation is probably what you'll most remember about “The Demon.” The models look like figures from traditional Japanese wood-cuttings, adding to the film's classical feeling. They move in a dance-like rhythm, which pairs nicely with Seiji Tsuruzawa's staccato acoustic string score. There's no spoken dialogue, the plot instead conveyed with silent movie intertitles, further adding to the classical tone. The backgrounds are largely black, save for the splash of gold used for the trees and bushes. This insertion of regular animation, against the stop-motion puppets, really makes “Oni” pop. The way the oni is largely only seen as a part of red eyes against a vague, moving shape is likely the creepiest thing about this monster short. Though I can see the weird dolls that star in the film creeping some people out. I found “Oni” really fascinating and will probably look up some of Kawamoto's other shorts now. [7/10]

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