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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 30

Hell House LLC (2015)

What even qualifies as “underrated” in the horror genre these days? Thanks to digital releases and streaming, even weird and tiny movies can find an audience. It's become more possible than ever for movies to sneak up on fans, even those that really keep abreast of the genre. Earlier this year, I started hearing buzz about a sequel to “Hell House LLC” premiering on Shudder, every horror fan's favorite streaming service. Here's the thing though: I had never heard of the first “Hell House LLC.” Apparently, it was a Halloween-themed found footage flick from two years ago. I'm touch-and-go on the found footage style but the film still sounded like a good choice for the 30th of October.

In the year 2009, a new haunted house attraction opened in a small town in New York state. Called Hell House, it was built inside the Abaddon Hotel, a local landmark with a history of hauntings. That night, something went horribly wrong. Fifteen people ended up dead. Years later, speculation still runs rampant over what actually happened. Now, a documentary crew has interviewed the only known survivor of the incident. She presents them with raw camera footage. In the weeks leading up to the attraction's opening, the crew moved into the abandoned hotel. They documented everything they did and soon began to witness extremely strange things.

I don't know why but the found footage genre has a bad habit of featuring asshole characters. Maybe it's just because the characters insisting on recording things, even after they go bad, reflects poorly on their personalities. “Hell House LLC's” filmmaker is kind of a prick. He constantly references being attracted to one of the female characters. He casually sexually harasses her in several scenes, which the movie tries to play as cute. Alex, the CEO of the attraction company, is also something of a jerk. Long after it's become clear the hotel is haunted, he insists in staying there. On the opening night, despite a litany of bad omens, he still goes ahead with letting crowds inside. It seems the film's writer/director had some of the characters act like morons or jerks to justify the contrived story.

Having said that, “Hell House LLC” does utilize the found footage format to create some creepy moments. An important prop in the film is a large dummy of an evil clown. More than once, this mannequin appears in place where it shouldn't be. One especially effective scene has its head turning in the course of a single shot. Another mildly creepy scene has a feminine figure walking into someone's room, over their shoulder, the audience seeing her before the guy does. The climax takes us right into the story's central chaotic night. These scenes capture a decent sense of panic. The best moments in “Hell House LLC” maintain an ominous feeling, using its creepy setting to create a general air of unease.

The movie is also guilty of the cheating often seen in the found footage genre. And I'm not just talking about so much of this stuff being recorded when there's no reason for it. Several moments feature a musical score, a huge distraction in a found footage thriller. More than once, the footage slows down to give us an extra look at something creepy. Wouldn't it have been better to just let those scenes play out naturally? Digital distortion is used at least once, likely to cover up some edits. The movie is also too long. After the climax, the exact fate of two characters are unnecessarily shown on-screen. A lengthy denouncement follows that, returning to the framing device and taking us back inside the house. Both of these scenes contribute little to the movie. Honestly, “Hell House LLC” could've cut the framing device and not loose much.

I'm pretty surprised that “Hell House LLC” received some of the rave reviews it did. The film is fine, gets in a few decent scares, but in no way rises above the frequent pitfalls of this style. I'm tempted to read into the film. Early on, a talking head interview mentions how people came to the attraction for “safe” scares, only for real horror to interrupt them. Is the film attempting to speak to modern anxieties, in our world where mass shootings or terrorism can occur anywhere? If so, “Hell House LLC” looses most of the vitality once the flashback begins. If the film had run with that element, focusing more on the panic of that night, it certainly would've been interesting. As it is, “Hell House LLC” is a slightly above average example of its genre. [6.5/10]

The Mad Magician (1954)

Vincent Price will always be remembered as a horror icon. Yet if you're really familiar with his career, you'll know that he acted for twenty years before really becoming famous in that genre. Even after the 1953 break-out success of “House of Wax,” Price wouldn't become truly synonymous with horror movies until the end of the decade. However, there was at least one attempt to cash-in on “House of Wax's” popularity. A year after that hit, Price would star in another Victorian set, 3-D thriller about an artist who takes revenge on those who scorned him. “The Mad Magician” even has the actor appearing in a disguise for lengthy parts of the story. The similarities have not gone unnoticed, by critics or fans.

Gallico the Great is a stage magician on the brink of greatness. He's a brilliant performer, a master of make-up, and a pitch perfect impersonator. His latest trick involves a giant buzz saw. However, just as he's about to perform it for an audience, the show is interrupted. The provider of the prop insists he has the copyright on the trick, preventing Gallico from performing it. Enraged, Gallico kills the man with the buzzsaw contraption. From that point on, he uses his make-up skills to disguise himself, murdering other rivals and taking over their lives. The police and an amateur mystery writer are soon on his trail. 

“The Mad Magician” is not a particularly good movie but it does have one thing going for it. Watching Vincent Price ham it up will always be entertaining. And Gallico the Great is an incredibly hammy character. The part allows Price to dress up in a number of different costumes, to vamp under several personas. When confronted with his enemies, Price gets to rant and rave about how the world has wronged him. He's also given lots of chances to outsmart people around him, Price adding an egotistical streak to the already melodramatic villain. There are even a few scenes where Gallico is afraid of being caught, Price allowed to bring some vulnerability to the part. The filmmakers certainly cast the right man in the leading part.

As fantastically entertaining as Price's campy villainy is, it only goes so far to make up for 'The Mad Magician's” shortcomings. The film's plot is quite ridiculous. Gallico may be a master of disguise but having him so perfectly trick so many people quickly strains credibility.  There are multiple scenes where the film seems to forget the magician gimmick, focusing far too much time and effort on the disguises. It doesn't help that Price's voice is dubbed when he's undercover, making his transformation seem even more improbable. Needless to say, Gallico probably should've been caught many times before he actually is. He's terrible at covering his tracks.

Aside from Price hamming it up, there was one other thing I liked about “The Mad Magician.” Most of the supporting cast is not that interesting. Eva Gabor has a showy part as Gallico's adulterous ex-wife. Mary Murphy is pretty and screams a lot as the distressed damsel. She's not introduced until mid-way through the film but Lenita Lane's Alice, the mystery author and would-be detective, is a cute addition to the story. Lane is spunky in the part, energetic and funny. Moreover, she makes a far more interesting protagonist than Patrick O'Neal's utterly forgettable police detective.

By the way, the 3-D effects are underwhelming. A fountain of water is directed at the camera once and there's one or two other gags. Generally speaking, the commitment to the gimmick is not as strong here as it was in “House of Wax.” I saw “The Mad Magician” on television years ago, at the end of a Vincent Price marathon. I was starting to doze by this point but recall enjoying the film. I certainly remembered the scenes involving the buzz saw and the crematorium. Half-asleep is, perhaps, the best way to watch this very silly and fitfully entertaining Price vehicle. [6/10]

Vincent (1982)

Tim Burton is such a parody of himself now. It's easy to overlook that his particular style was established pretty much from the beginning. Take a look at “Vincent,” Burton's stop-motion animation short from 1982. Detailing the adventures of Vincent Malloy, a young boy obsessed with Vincent Price and gothic horror, you can see most of Burton's obsessions right here. The short is built around contrasting Vincent's sunny, suburban life with the nightmarish horrors he imagines in his head. The love of classic horror imagery is present, with shots of Vincent and his zombie-dog stalking through the fog. Or the expressionistic castles and laboratories Vincent daydreams about. The art style is, of course, immediately recognizable. The round eyes and elongated faces, along with the curving bodies of the various supporting characters, are Burton through and through. You can even spot some black-and-white spirals in a few scenes.

This is not really meant as a criticism. “Vincent” is delightful. The glee with which young Vincent Malloy imagines his gothic adventures perfectly capture the exuberance of youth. His Poe-inspired angst is intentionally overwrought. The images of dipping his aunt or wax or transforming his friendly dog into a monster are gleefully macabre. Cutting back and forth between the boy's horrific inner life and his sunny day-to-day existence produces several laughs. Most notably near the end, where Vincent's mother tries to convince him to go outside and play.

Two elements hold the short together even more. Getting Vincent Price himself to narrate the short turns it into a beautifully flattering homage. You can tell Price really enjoyed narrating this story. Secondly, Ken Hilton's musical score is perfect. It totally plays the boy's melocholey daydreams straight, giving this silly little short a surprisingly soulful streak. I guess “Vincent's” enduring appeal proves that we didn't get tired of Tim Burton's style. We just got tired of him using it in interesting or innovative ways. [8/10]

The Real Ghostbusters: When Halloween was Forever

Really, I could probably review all of “The Real Ghostbusters” as part of future Halloween Blog-a-thons. You'll have to excuse me for singling out the first season's Halloween episode, as I really don't feel like squeezing in all 173 episodes later down the line. In “When Halloween was Forever,”the Ghostbusters have their hands full. Halloween is approaching and ghostly activity is increasing in New York City. Egon links this to a series of Celtic ruins being added to a museum recently. He's right. A pair of goblins sneak into the museum and release Samhain, their god and the Lord of Halloween. The pumpkin-headed deity organizes the city's lesser spirits and freezes time, making Halloween last forever.

Samhain would return a few times over “The Real Ghostbusters'” lifetime, even getting a cameo in the sequel series. It's easy to see why the villain was so popular with viewers. First off, he looks awesome, a pumpkin-headed wraith with a scratchy baritone voice. He also really cares about the other ghosts he summons, calling them his “little ones.” As far as villainous goals go, stretching Halloween out forever probably wouldn't be so bad if it didn't also cause ghosts everywhere to go crazy. “When Halloween was Forever” actually featurs a lot of fun, spooky moments. Such as a diner full of demonic skeletons, a fuzzy ghost eating a chair, a bizarre creature driving a car, and a briefly glimpse griffin-like entity.

To modern eyes, the series' vaguely anime-esque animation has aged pretty poorly. This is most evident in the scene where Janine is attacked by Samhain's minions, disguised as trick-or-treators. However, the voice cast is still top-notch. Lorenzo Music's deadpan vocals were a perfect fit for Venkman, actually making a few goofy one-liners funny. Maurice LaMarche was similarly well cast as Egon, mining humor out of the stuffy scientist's actions. Such as when he has to taunt some ghosts into attacking him. It's not high art but “When Halloween was Forever” works very nicely on All Hallows' Eve Eve. [7/10]

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