Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 3

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Ray Harryhausen was, of course, a student of Willis O'Brien. Among O'Brien's many unrealized projects was a hybrid of the western and dinosaur movie. Originally entitled “Valley of the Mists,” the film would involve cowboys discovering a hidden valley in the Grand Canyon filled with dinosaurs. O'Brien would die in 1962, never completing his long-dreamed about dinosaur/western mash-up. Harryhausen, though, was determined to bring his late mentor's dream project to compilation. The now re-titled and reworked “The Valley of Gwangi” would roar into theaters in 1969. Creature features such as this having fell out of favor, the movie was not a commercial success at the time. Of course, Harryhausen devotees and dino-fans would later reclaim it. 

Set somewhere south of the Rio Grande, during the waning days of the wild west, the film follows Tuck, a would-be promoter of wild west shows. He meets up with T.J., an ex-girlfriend who is working as a stunt rider in such a show. T.J. has a bizarre new attraction likely to boost show attendance: A horse the size of a chihuahua. Local paleontologist Professor Bromley recognizes this as a prehistoric eohippus. A group of gypsies believe the horse is cursed and wish to return it the Forbidden Valley from where it came. Tuck, T.J., and Bromley follow them, discovering a valley full of dinosaurs. The cowboys soon capture an allosaurus and bring him back to the city, to be displayed in the circus. The dinosaur quickly escapes and goes on a rampage, as you'd expect.

By 1969, Ray Harryhausen had established himself as a master monster maker. “The Valley of Gwangi” would be his last dinosaur movie, following “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and “One Million Years B.C..” The film represents the stop-motion animator at the top of his game. Simply put, “Valley of Gwangi” features some of Harryhausen's most fluid and expressive work. The combination of live action and puppetry is almost seamless. The dinosaurs all breath and move like living things. A pteranodon and styracosaurus are beautifully brought to life. Gwangi, however, is obviously the star of the show. The allosaurus' reptilian glare is sinister. His snapping jaws give him quite a bit of personality. Though Gwangi kills several people, an elephant, and two other dinos, Harryhausen still manages to bring a tear to your eye with the allosaur's death wails.

Story wise, “Gwangi” obviously resembles two of O'Brien's previous classics: “The Lost World” and “King Kong.” As in both of those, a creature is taken from a wild lost world, brought back to civilization, put on display, escapes, and causes carnage. All three stories even conclude by featuring a famous landmark. In the past, it was London Bridge and the Empire State Building. Here, it's the Cuenca Cathedral. (Which has apparently been transported to Mexico.) Yet these familiar themes still resonates. The paleontologist believes the dinosaurs should be studied. The cowboys want to exploit them for commercial purposes. The gypsies think human and dinosaur should never interact. They are, perhaps, the most correct group. Gwangi's final rampage proves that nature can never be controlled. Any attempt by mankind to do so will result in disaster.

Aside from the stop-motion dinosaurs, “Valley of Gwangi” has a pretty decent set of stars. James Franciscus, who I'll always think of the ersatz Charlton Heston in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,”  stars as Tuck. Francicus is a likable lead, beginning as a bit of a rogue but ending as a wholesome guy. He has solid chemistry with Gila Golan as T.J. An interesting element of their romance is how their opinions of each other changes. First, T.J. wants to settle down and Tuck isn't interested. Realizing the dinosaur is a pathway to a big payday, he decides maybe the two do have a future together. Later, T.J. decides pursuing further fame suits her better. The two do not end up in each other's arms, suggesting their romance may be at an end. (Golan, by the way, was dubbed. Apparently her thick Israli accent seemed out of place in 1890s Mexico.)

Though directed by Jim O'Connolly, who previously made Joan Crawford psycho-circus thriller “Berserk!,” “The Valley of Gwangi” obviously belongs to Harryhausen. His fantastic dino effects are the main reason to see the movie. The movie around these creature is perfectly serviceable, even featuring a rousing score from Jerome Moross. But it's all about the dinosaur, especially the vicious but ultimately tragic Gwangi. I saw the trailer on a VHS compilation as a kid and it's stuck with me ever since, the way the titular dinosaur's name is whisper in a musical, eerie fashion.  [7/10]

Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993)

During the direct-to-video boom in the early nineties, two genres really dominated the market place: Horror and action. Horror's evergreen appeal is easy to explain. The low budget, faithful fan following, and no need for big stars made horror well suited to the video market. Action has a similar appeal. The specification of the genre means even a wooden actor can become a marketable star. Though more expensive than horror, a decent action movie can be made pretty cheaply too. So the “Maniac Cop” series becoming a success on video makes a lot of sense, as it appealed to both audiences. Following “Maniac Cop 2's” video release, “Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence” would hit store shelves in 1993.

Some time after Matt Cordell's burial, he is resurrected once again by a voodoo priest. In the same span of time, Detective McKinney has befriended Officer Kate Sullivan, a notoriously tough female cop. Sullivan investigates a robbery at a pharmacy. She shoots the thief, Frank Jessup, but is then shot by the pharmacist, the criminal's girlfriend. Kate is left in a vegetative state while Frank survives, likely to profit from his story. McKinney is incensed by this and is determined to get to the truth. Cordell, meanwhile, senses a kindred spirit in Sullivan. The Maniac Cop decides to resurrect her as his undead bride. McKinney and the pretty physician he takes a liking to are caught in the middle of this.

Making a third film in the “Maniac Cop” series presents a few problems. Matt Cordell's story concluded in the second part. You can see these story hiccups, as the voodoo houngan never explains why he brings Cordell back. Either way, William Lustig and Larry Cohen delivered another fast-paced and moody horror picture. This is evident in the plot, which could have easily been subtitled “Bride of Maniac Cop.” Cordell, played once again by the magnificent Robert Z'Dar, is back to hacking up folks. He gets several slasher style set piece just to himself. Such as when he tosses a bum through the air, shooting him in the heart before he hits the ground. Or stalking scenes that weaponize both defibrillator paddles and a shock treatment machine. Hospitals can make atmospheric locations for horror stories. This is obvious in the scenes of Cordell hanging around the shadowy, industrial tunnels under the building or the gothic cathedral.

“Badge of Silence” is an easy-to-digest horror picture, with a padded out body count and creative kills. As an action film, it's a far more elaborate creature. Midway through the film, Cordell frees Jessup and his gang. This results in a bloody shoot-out in the hospital. McKinney shoots at them from underneath a covered gurney before doing a cool flip over a nursing station. As neat as that scene is, the film tops it in the last act. After a shoot-out in a church goes up in flames, the heroes drive away, the story seemingly wrapped up. That's when Matt Cordell, still ablaze, chases after them in a police cruisers. It's an insane, protracted sequence, obviously designed to top the lengthy burn stunt that the second movie concluded with. The car chase goes on for a hilariously long time, introducing as much twisted chrome and sparks as possible before finishing with a torn-off arm and a big explosion. Glorious.

“Maniac Cop 3” breaks with series tradition by letting the primary protagonist survive past the first forty minutes. Robert Davi, returning as McKinney, makes it to the end. He proves to be just as solid a lead this time, especially when playing up the hard-boiled cop image. The romance he forms with Caitlin Dulany's Dr. Susan Fowler is fairly random. However, Dulany and Davi have good chemistry, especially in a romantic scene in a locker room. Jackie Earle Hurley appears as Frank Jessup, getting sweaty and unhinged as the crackhead killer. He's a suitable mid-film villain, whenever Cordell is off-screen. Though Gretchen Becker as Officer Sulilvan exits the film early, she proves to be both likable and a solid action heroine, leaping across a roof and shooting goons.

The third “Maniac Cop” film had a troubled production. William Lustig's first cut was only fifty-five minutes long and he refused to shoot any further scenes. Another director handled the extra sequences. This might explain why many of the murder scenes, of Cordell picking off random people, feel somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story. (It also explains a few moments of gratuitous stock footage.) When Lustig's Blue Underground re-released the movie, he took his name off the movie and replaced it with Alan Smithee. Despite what the director might think of “Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence,” I actually love this movie. The action scenes are hilariously over-the-top and awesome. The horror stuff is solid and comfortable. The cast is having a good time. What's not to like? [8/10]

Darkstalkers: Everyone's a Critic

For its final episode, “Darkstalkers” brings back nearly every major character. Pyron's more powerful brother, Terramon, is flying towards Earth. Knowing that his brother will send him back home if he sees how badly he's fail, Pyron and his computer cook up a goofy scheme. He invites all the Darkstalkers he knows, both good and evil, aboard his ship. This is part of a plan to convince Terramon that everything is under controll. The resulting dinner party quickly goes awry through. Soon, both the good and bad Darkstalkers are working together to prevent Terramon from taking over the Earth and eating all the humans.

The American “Darkstalkers” ends things on an obnoxiously corny note. Pyron is reduced to a whimpering cry-baby, terrified and jealous of his older, more successful brother. The comedic scenes depend heavily upon characters acting goofy. Such as when Harry throws a cream pie at Bigfoot's face. Or Lord Raptor acting like a fool at dinner. The action scenes that follow, as the heroes and villains run around Terramon's ship, are immediately forgettable. Though Terramon is defeated at the end, through utterly ridiculous means, there's no sense of closure in this series finale. The characters carry on as if they'll have more adventures next weekend. The series' final moments are devoted to Anakaris belly-flopping on Pyron, which seems about right. [3/10]

After reading about it and seeing out-of-context clips for many years, I'm sad to say the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon is exactly as bad as I've always heard. The show was consistently poor throughout it's entire, thankfully brief run. The better episodes stood out more for their unintentional humor than anything else. It makes me sad to think that this shitty cartoon was probably some people's first, or only, exposure to the “Darkstalkers” cast. It's a shame too, as an on-going animated series is probably the best way to adapt a fighting game, as it would leave plenty of room to flesh out the large cast and explore the convoluted storyline. If nothing else, this series certainly adds to the “Darkstalkers” franchise's oddball legacy. If Capcom ever makes another game, maybe someone will try to make a movie or a Netflix show or something.

Forever Knight: Father Figure

“Father Figure” has Nick Knight considering another thing impossible for vampires: Fatherhood. After a shoplifting ten year old named Lisa witnesses a mob-land execution, she becomes the next target for the killers. With her helicopter pilot father out of the country for a few days, Nick decides to babysit the girl. Despite her occasionally bristling against his vampiric ways, Nick feels a bond with the child. It reminds him of a time, during World War I, when Lacroix and Janette adopted a homeless boy. Where he couldn't protect that child, he hopes to protect this one, which he has to do once the killers show up.

Introducing a cute kid into the equation usually reads as a desperate move for a TV show. However, “Father Figure” makes the premise work. Chantellese Kent is cute and likable as the kid, who is never too precious or annoying. (Even if she accidentally blinds Nick while playing with his automated shutters, leading to a fairly contrived climax where has to fight the assassins without his sense of sight.) The scenes devoted to her stumbling upon Nick's blood bottles or playing poker with Schanke are fairly adorable. The questions the girl raises in the immortal's mind, whether he would want to be a dad if he ever regained his mortality, are equally interesting. This is best summed up during a scene where Natalie pulls a bullet from his shoulder, the vampire briefly reflected in a mirror.

The flashbacks this time are also good. Once again, we see Nick bristling against his vampire cohorts even before the present. Watching Geraint Wyn Davies' concern for the boy grow, as Lacroix and Janette get more predatory, provides some interesting suspense. The tragic ending to the flashback makes the current situation more relevant. I also like the little mustache Wyn Davies wears in these scenes. The action climax might be pretty cheesy but this is still an above average episode. It also earns bonus points for the old Harryhausen movies the kid watches on TV and a prominently displayed “Battletoads” ad on a comic book.[7/10]

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