Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 29

As always, it seems like this year's Halloween has just flown by. Before we head into the last two days, I want to shout-out some of my fellow travelers. Since Kernunrex has been M.I.A. for several years, Kaedrin Weblog is the only other person specifically keeping the Six Weeks of Halloween tradition alive. I know I haven't commented much on your stuff, Mark, but you do great work. Besides him, there's lots of other fantastic seasonal websites I recommend. Dinosaur Dracula experienced some personal interruptions this season but still managed to put out some fantastic content. Bogleech's daily monster reviews have been a blast, even if they lean more on video games and anime than movies and television. By some odd chance, if you read my stuff and not any of these other people, what's wrong with you? Check 'em all out!

Terrified (2018)

At least once during this year's Six Weeks of Halloween, I've already talked about this new trend in horror. You know, this tendency for a new independent film to come out once a year and immediately be declared a new horror classic, a groundbreaking masterpiece that will scare the bejesus out of you. “Hereditary” quickly established itself as the Indie Horror Darling of 2018. However, this past summer a different film started making waves on the festival circuit. Going into it, I knew absolutely nothing about “Terrified” other than it was supposed to be really scary. The Argentinan film was quickly picked up by streaming service Shudder and has already been generating debate.

In a suburban community outside Buenos Aires, weird things are beginning to happen. A married couple is awoken by strange noises next door, their neighbor assuring them he's just renovating his house. In fact, he's having terrifying nightly encounters with a strange creature. The wife swears voices are bubbling up from the sink. Later that night, she is murdered by an invisible force in the bathroom. In the same neighborhood, a young boy is killed when a bus strikes him. His mother, soon afterwards, digs up his body and keeps it in the house. A trio of paranormal investigators arrive to dig up an answer but are soon in over their heads.

“Terrified” is one of those horror movies were creepy things happen for no reason. The film is structured oddly. It essentially cycles through two sets of protagonists before coming to the group of characters we'll actually be following for the rest of the movie. The script also leaps around in time, making it difficult to follow when exactly something is happening. Eventually, there is an attempt – albeit an intentionally vague one – to explain why weird, creepy shit is happening. It has something to do with alternate dimensions occupying the same space. This, however, doesn't really satisfactorily explain why so many different things are happening in the same area. It's fairly clear that director Demian Rugna had ideas for a series of solid horror set-pieces and didn't really worried about weaving them into a coherent story.

However, the festival reviews didn't lie. “Terrified” is scary. Rugna may not have been able to build a clear story around those set pieces but, holy cow, are the set pieces good. The first major scare we get in the movie – the wife tossed back and forth in the shower – is certainly a bizarre, memorable sight. The neighbor being visited nightly by a gaunt, naked, humanoid creature is the stuff of nightmares. Especially the way it stands over his bed and moves things around the room when he's sleeping. As the investigative team dig deeper, we get more fantastic shots. Like a figure seen in the distance leaping across a yard in the blink of an eye. Or a distorted, twisted body slowly rushing up to a car window. Even the less propulsive scenes, like a young boy discovering the corpse of the child, have a creepy and unnerving energy. Some of these moments are potentially cheap jump scares, driven by an overwrought scare. Generally speaking, however, “Terrified” engineers some extremely creepy and shocking moments.

Common knowledge would have it that the scariest horror movies work because we're invested in the characters. “Terrified” proves that pure skill, filmmaking, and visual manipulation is enough to make something scary. Because the fractured script makes it impossible to get a bead on any of the main characters. Like I said, we're not even introduced to our primary heroes until half-an-hour into the story. The early scenes, spent with different sets of characters, end up having little impact on the plot. With about thirty minutes to go, the cop-turned-ghost-hunter emerges as the movie's unlikely hero. The fact that I can't remember anybody's names is probably a testament to “Terrified's” total lack of memorable or likable characters.

“Terrified” is ultimately a very unusual case. On the level of narrative or personality, it absolutely does not work. The characters aren't focused on enough to become fully fleshed-out. The story mostly feels like a way to do something like a ghost story without actually falling back on ghosts. Despite these massive road blocks,, “Terrified” is still an effectively intense and unsettling horror picture. You can't help but feel like Rugna could have create a terrifying collection of short films from this same material, instead of one very scary but deeply unsatisfying feature. Either way, the director has definitely marked himself as one to watch, that's for sure. [7/10]

The Creeping Flesh

From a modern perspective, it might seem odd that Hammer's Victorian horror films were so popular but proof abounds. Not just because of the sheer number of movies Hammer themselves produced but because of how many attempts were made to replicate their success. Amicus had the best run, producing 22 horror pictures between 1965 and 1977. In the early seventies, a company called Tyburn Films took a shot at it too, producing titles like “The Ghoul,” “Legend of the Werewolf” and “Tales That Witness Madness.” In 1973, a company called World Film Services would try their hand with “The Creeping Flesh.” It's easy to assume all these films were from Hammer. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appear in many of them. Freddie Francis directed films for all four companies, including this one.

Another aspect “The Creeping Flesh” shares with its competitors is a Victorian setting. Professor Emmanuel Hildern has just returned from a trip to New Guinea. An evolutionary biologist, Hildern has made a major scientific breakthrough. He has discovered a massive, humanoid skeleton that is older than the neanderthal man. His return is ruined when sent news that his wife, kept at his half-brother's insane asylum, has died. Hildern is scared that his daughter, Penelope, may develop the same mental illness that afflicted her mother. He believes he might have discovered a solution. The skeleton, when exposed to water, regrows flesh. A New Guinea prophecy identifies the creature as the pure embodiment of evil. Hildren thinks he might be able to use its blood to inoculate people against evil. It doesn't go as planned.

While most horror movies just assume their monsters are evil, “The Creeping Flesh” is all about the nature of evil. Hildern, and the film to a degree, correlates evil with insanity. James, his brother, treats his insane patients like prisoners. The wife, who was not faithful, broke his heart when she went mad. He perfectly perserved her room and, when Penelope begins to snoop around inside it, he's terrified the madness may spread to her. By trying to create a vaccine against evil, he's really trying to save his wife all over again. Yet evil cannot be controlled like that, the creature's blood immediately corrupting Penelope. When the monster is fully revived, he takes a finger from Hildern, seemingly implicating the knidly old man in the spread of the evil contagion. (That Hildern is a Darwinist in the 1870s certainly speaks to then anxieties as well.) That James' behavior is so casually cruel, furthered by the twist ending, suggests all of this is more complicated than it appears on the surface. You wouldn't expect a monster movie like this to paint itself in varying shades of gray.

“The Creeping Flesh” is also a surprisingly dark story of sibling rivalry. Casting Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as brothers – even if they are just step-brothers – was a nice move, considering how often they've starred opposite each other. However, there's not much love lost between the Hilderns. James thinks Emmanuel's research is hokum and tells him as much whenever possible. He almost took joy in locking up his wife. When Penelope becomes sick, James seems to enjoy locking her up to. The reason for their rivalry isn't even based around their parents or a loved one. It's because both are competing for a scientific prize. Lee is unquestionably the villain of the peace, as his pettiness ultimatley unleashes the monster. The performances follow this set-up. Cushing is painfully sympathetic, a man heartbroken from loosing his wife. Lee, meanwhile, is cold and almost sadistic. They compliment each other well.

Freddie Francis' direction is fairly lovely. He includes some Hammer-style gore, thanks to a throat shattered with a broken bottle, and plunging necklines during a bar room brawl. That seem scene features some surprisingly acrobatic flips and bludgeonings. Francis also makes good use of shadows and tight frames, when Penelope is confronted by an escaped lunatic. A scene where a monkey is injected with the vaccine climaxes impressively. In the last act, the atmosphere really ramps up. A carriage crash coincides with a thunder storm. The movie holds off on revealing the partially regenerated monster, showing his massive shadow on the house's wall or his waxy hand knocking on the door. The creature's actual face is kind of underwhelming but the build-up to that revelation is impressively tense.

In other words, “The Creeping Flesh” is one of the finest Hammer knock-offs. Add a little more gore and sex appeal, a bit more fog, maybe an appearance from Michael Gough, and the film would be indistinguishable from the more famous company's output. The association of Francis, Cushing, and Lee probably guaranteed that. The above-average script and creative concept pushed it over the top. World Film Services, during its short existence, would sort-of, kind-of make another horror movie. The next year, they would produce parody “Old Dracula,” which is not well regarded. That's a shame as “The Creeping Flesh” is a hidden gem. [7/10]

The Boogens (1981)

For a while, “The Boogens” was among the most obscure horror movies I had ever heard of. I recall the film's poster appearing in some message board thread about video stores or something. (This was also the first place I had heard of “Humongous.”) At that point, “The Boogens” was not available on DVD. A VHS release wouldn't arrive until 1998, so it might have been before even that. Those who remembered the film seemed to think it was pretty good. A few years later, I caught the movie on IFC – back when that network still primarily showed actual independent films – and enjoyed it well enough. Eventually, “The Boogens” would be rescued from obscurity with a DVD release and even a Blu-Ray a while back. Now, you can enjoy “The Boogens” with a click of a button. Oh, how times have changed.

Snow falls on a small town in the Colorado mountains. A silver mine, closed decades before after a mysterious cave-in, is set to be reopen. Mark and his best friend Roger have gotten jobs cleaning the place up. That weekend, Roger's oversexed girlfriend Jennifer is coming up to stay with them at the cabin. Her best friend Trish will also be attending, Mark hoping he'll hit it off with the girl. However, a terrifying secret waits underneath. The mine was closed in the first place because strange, subterranean creatures inhabit the caves below... Caves that are connected, via a series of tunnels, to cabins all over the town. Including to Mark and Roger's cabin. As friends mysteriously disappear, Mark and Trish will have to uncover that awful truth for themselves.

Despite the silly title, “The Boogens” manages to be a surprisingly intense horror flick. The snow-covered location proves appropriately chilly. The audience feels the cast's isolation, furthered by the wind always blowing outside. Early on, when the owner of the cabin is picked off, the audience knows something bad is going to happen. This creates a sense of tension early on. At the same time, the cabin is quint. The monsters violate this safety in creepy ways, their tentacles reaching up through the vents and basements. The attack sequences feature plenty of first-person shots, from the monsters' POVs, which creates an intimate feeling. The camera focuses on the characters' panicked faces, as they hide in the cramped location and have their skin slashed. It's very effective and you can appreciate the filmmaker's work even more on the gorgeous Blu-Ray.

Part of why the attack scenes in “The Boogens” are so suspenseful, save for the excellent direction, is how likable the cast is. Roger and Jennifer are obsessed with sex. They constantly talk about wanting to jump each other's bones. They do just that the first chance they get. Despite their out-of-control hormones, the characters are well realized. Roger, played by the personable Jeff Harlan, seems like he's probably fun to hang out with, if slightly annoying. Anne-Marie Martin brings enough humor to Jennifer to make her seem realistic. Mark and Trish are even more lovable. The two have a series of surprisingly sweet romantic scenes together, their flirtations escalating in a sweet, if hot-and-heavy, fashion. You actually miss some of these characters once they start to go missing.

“The Boogens” has some slasher movie elements. Sex equals death, there was a tragedy in the past, and an old man warns people about not reopening the mine. However, “The Boogens” is a monster movie through and through. The creatures are kept off-screen throughout most of the film's run time. We only catch glimpses of their tentacles and claws, making them more mysterious. Their claws slash throats and tear skin, making them seem especially dangerous. When the Boogens slither on-screen near the end, they are impressive creations. The monsters don't really look like anything else, though they resemble turtles a little. Their big eyes and sharp teeth are intimidating. Despite their awkward appearances, they move quickly and attack brutally. In other words, the creatures are original and brought to life effectively.

Really, if I had to pick a flaw with “The Boogens,” it's that the cave set part of the story takes place in looks pretty fake. Even that, oddly, adds to the movie's charms, making it seem even more like a home-grown production. Director James L. Conway has worked exclusively in television since making this film, which is a shame. The guy was obviously talented. By focusing on characters and suspense over gore and body count, “The Boogens” manages to be a surprisingly strong eighties creature feature. Now that it can be found a lot easier than back in the day, you should definitely check it out. [8/10]

One Please (2014)

I never really know if an internet horror short is going to be good. Even popular entries in the genre have left me cold. “One Please,” a 2014 short from Jesse Burks, impressed me though. The short has no dialogue. It begins with a  series of wholesome images: A suburban mom chopping vegetables for dinner, Dad reading the newspaper, the young daughter playing jumprope outside, an ice cream truck coming down the street. As the daughter goes to request the payment to buy a treat, “One Please” reveals a very disturbing side. It's then topped off with a surprise cameo from a horror icon.

Burks uses sound design excellently throughout “One Please.” The repetitive chopping in the kitchen is soon paired with the equally repetitive jumping in the yard. This creates a sense of normalcy but also slight unease, as it all feels too coordinated, too perfect. Contrasting behavior that should be totally normal with behavior that most definitely is not is where “One Please's” power comes from. The depth of the situation's freakishness is slowly revealed. When that little burst of gore comes, it is lingered on in a disturbing and flinch-worthy fashion. The thing then wraps up with a nasty twist ending, suggesting this creepy ritual is about to happen again. If I come off as vague, that's because “One Please” is better the less you know about it. I recommend this meticulously presented little slice of suburban Hell. [8/10]

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