Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 5, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 4

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

We've already discussed Curt Siodmak, the man who invented the modern werewolf mythology and wrote many of Universal's 1940s monster movies, this Halloween. Curt was far from the only talent in the family. His brother, Robert, was an accomplished director. He made fifteen films in Europe in the thirties – comedies, crime thrillers, musicals – before fleeing Nazi persecution. After coming to America, he started directing comedies for Universal but soon found his niche in noir. Siodmak would make twelve noirs between 1944 and 1951. However, Curt occasionally dabbled in genre films. He directed “Son of Dracula” and island fantasy “Cobra Woman.” Somewhere in there was “The Spiral Staircase,” a classic which straddles the line between horror and noir.

At a screening of the silent feature “The Kiss,” confirming the 1914 setting, a limp woman is strangled to death. It's the latest in a line of serial murders, the killer targeting disabled women. At the screening was Helen, a girl left mute by a childhood trauma. Helen works as a caregiver at the rural mansion owned by sickly Mrs. Warren. Many people live there – Warren's son and stepson, a number of other maids and nurses, a secretary, a doctor with romantic feelings for the girl – but Helen is frequently alone. As a thunderstorm blows in, Mrs. Warren warns Helen that her conditions makes her a likely target of the killer. Helen is, in fact, in danger. The killer is in the murderer with her.

The cinematography for “The Spiral Staircase” was provided by Nicholas Musuraca. Musuraca previously shot several of Val Lewton's famous horror pictures, including “Cat People.” That same sense of shadowy imagery is brought to “The Spiral Staircase.” Simply put, this film features some of the most gorgeous gothic cinematography I've ever seen. The Warren mansion makes an ideal setting for a murder-mystery. Once the thunderstorm begins, the building become impenetrably dark. The camera often peers around the titular staircase, shadows cast tall on the walls by candles. The wine cellar is similarly black, faces and images quickly appearing out of the darkness. To lovers of black-and-white images like myself, “The Spiral Staircase” is a feast for the eyes.

Yet “The Spiral Staircase” isn't just nice to look at. Like so many of the best noirs, the shadows on display have deeper meanings. The Warren mansion is awash in the shadows of the past. The old woman is haunted by her memories. Both of her sons, in their own way, where traumatized by their harsh, hyper-masculine father. Most pointedly, Helen is held back by the shadows of her childhood, of the fire that claimed her parents and stole her voice. These haunted shadows linger with and fuse with the young girl's fading dreams. Most obviously in a powerful daydream where Helen imagines marrying her boyfriend but being unable to say “I do” at the altar. Inside this old dark house, all the thoughts of the unconscious mind bleed together.

For all the Freudian trauma and dream logic inside “The Spiral Staircase,” this is still definitely a horror movie. The murderer hunting his victims is played for suspense and fear. Siodmak's camera lingers in on the madman's glaring eyes, which often peak out of closest or darkened doorways. (And seems like a likely influence on “Black Christmas.”) Perhaps as a deliberate choice, or a result of the Production Code, Siodmak doesn't show the murder scenes in full. As the limp woman takes off her dressing gown, the camera focuses on her arms contorting in pain. Later, when a girl is strangled in the wine cellar, we only see her grasping hands reaching out of the darkness. Helen's inevitable confrontation with the killer, set on the staircase, builds to a fevered pitch, the madman slowly revealing his gloves and the central point of his psychosis.

Partially being a murder mystery, “The Spiral Staircase” fills the mansion with red herrings and potential suspects. The scenes devoted to explaining the various backstories are definitely the dullest moments in the film. However, some strong performances are contained within the building's walls. Primarily of interest is Dorothy McGuire as Helen. Acting without a voice, McGuire brilliantly expresses a sweetness, a deep-seated vulnerability, and a need to overcome her trauma with only her face and body language. Also of note is Ethel Barrymore as Mrs. Warren, a bitter and confused woman overwhelmed by her own memories. Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for the part, a deserving nod. Us horror fans will probably notice Elsa Lanchester as one of the nurses.

I wasn't sure what to expect from “The Spiral Staircase” going in. Melodramas that sometimes make it onto great horror movie lists frequently leave me cold. But, holy shit, did I love “The Spiral Staircase.” It's a mixture of so many things I love about movies: A loose sense of dream-logic, gothic setting, shadowy photography, a proto-slasher serial killer plot, and a young woman in trouble at the center. The film clearly struck a cord with other people as well. It's been remade three times. Television versions followed in 1961 and 2000. Elizabeth Montgomery and Lillian Gish starred in the former. (The 2000 version settled for Nicollette Sheridan and Judd Nelson.) A theatrically released version came in 1975, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Plummer. I have no idea if these remakes are any good or not. All of them being in color, it's hard to imagine them having the same shadowy power as the original. [9/10]

Psycho Cop (1989)

When I first heard about “Maniac Cop,” I was surprised to discover it was popular enough to spawn two sequels. Then I found out something even more shocking: “Maniac Cop” was popular enough that a knock-off was made! Was the direct-to-video horror market really that thirsty for homicidal cop movies in the late eighties/early nineties? I guess so, as “Psycho Cop” arrived at video stores in 1989, filling the gap between Matt Cordell movies. A cop people think they can trust turning out to be a murderous lunatic is a decent horror premise but hardly seems like enough to sustain two separate franchises. And yet, here we are, delving into the mystery that is “Psycho Cop's” mere existence.

Officer Joe Vickers is not your typical police officer. He's not so much about protecting and serving. Instead, he loves worshiping Satan. The only thing he loves more than the dark lord is killing random people. The psycho cop is hanging out in the countryside, murdering lost motorists, when he spots a car full of teenagers. The group of kids, composed of a few couples, are headed to a rental house in the woods. They expect to have a weekend of partying, swimming in the pool, and grilling burgers. Instead, Officer Vickers tracks them down and begins to pick them off, one-by-one.

To be fair, outside of the murderers both being men in uniform, “Psycho Cop” doesn't have much in common with “Maniac Cop.” While William Lustig's trilogy combined horror and action thrills, “Psycho Cop” is content to be a totally generic slasher movie. The premise is as stock-parts as possible. The victims are among the most indistinct I've ever seen in a slasher, a genre not well known for unique personalities. “Psycho Cop” doesn't indulge in too many character cliches. The writing isn't that thought out. There's a half-heart attempted at a practical joker, a ditsy blonde, and the good girl that actually notices weird stuff is going on. Otherwise, the teens are completely identical to each other. In an especially weird/lazy turn, the plot is motivated by the characters constantly misplacing simple items. Who will find their hairbrush, their boxes of soup, their beer, their radio, their purse, their et cetera first? Who will care?

Having said that, “Psycho Cop” does feature a dumb charm of sorts. Making the murderous cop a practicing satanist is at least something different. Joe Vickers decorates with pentagrams and sixes. He even builds spooky crucifixes in the woods, to hang his victims on. Bobby Ray Shafer's performance is ridiculous on a level that's rarely seen. He stares with a big goofball grin on his face and massive eyeballs. He's constantly laughing in a cheesy, fake-sounding way. He delivers as many one-liners as possible, including some that don't make any sense at all. At one point, he's dangling off a roof of a car and just starts chanting “Turning!” over and over again. The film's late attempt to build a mythology around its killer – including an abusive childhood, an asylum escape, and switched identities – is seriously dull. But Shafer approaching Eric Freeman levels of face-acting is certainly something to see.

“Psycho Cop” is borderline tedious but becomes a little more interesting once you discover writer/director Wallace Potts got his start making artsy gay porn. That certainly explains a few things about the film. Such as why all the male characters, even the ones ostensibly in relationship with women, seem rather effeminate. With this information in mind, the sight of the killer – a big guy dressed in straps and leather – takes on a new context. So does the moment where the Psycho Cop kills someone by shoving his billy club down their throat. As for the artsy part, you don't see much of that in “Psycho Cop.” There's a few foggy, night-time shots but not much else. Even the death scenes are fairly forgettable, save a ludicrous taser kill.

I have seen direct-to-video slasher flicks with even lower production values, so “Psycho Cop” earns some points for being a decent looking movie. The title graphic, where the film's new is streaked across with blood, is pretty cool. However, there's only so much to recommend about this one. Shafer's goofy performance and how totally formulaic the script is are mildly interesting. For this definitely some charm in a movie that hits all the expected beats so exactly. Otherwise, only truly comprehensive slasher movie fans will probably seek this one out. [5/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: While the Cat’s Away

One of my favorite weird quirks of the eighties and nineties was to adapt R-rated source material for children. This was primarily because gory action movies featuring bad-ass cyborgs, giant alien bugs, and immortal decapitators naturally appealed to kids just as much (if not more) than they did to adults. Despite this trend, horror films were rarely turned into kids stuff. No, there wasn't a Freddy Krueger Saturday morning cartoon, as amazing as that would’ve been. HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” was sold on how much violence and sex it included but kids loved the joking Cryptkeeper. So, in 1993, Nelvana - the folks behind the Care Bears - began producing “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” The show appealed to kid-me but, as a loyal Fox Kids viewer, I rarely turned over to ABC to watch it. Time to catch up with the Cryptkeeper’s G-rated adventures.

The series’ premiere, “While the Cat’s Away,” revolves around brothers Stu and Dwight, sons of a struggling travel agent. Both boys desire a fancy BMX bike but figure Dad won’t cough up the cash. So they instead decide to rob the home of their dad’s latest client. The house turns out to be delapidated and spooky. As the boys venture further into the home, they encounter a werewolf, a one-eyed Frankenstein monster, some vampires and zombies, and a killer squid. In an amusingly meta twist, “While the Cat’s Away” is an adaptation of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper’s” own opening credits!

Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the last thirteen days watching the atrociously animated “Darkstalkers” but “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” looks gorgeous in comparison, even if it recycles some of its own scenes. The haunted house backgrounds cram in lots of spooky details, looking a lot like the comic art that inspired it. The character designs are likably cartoony. The kids aren’t too annoying, even the hiccuping Dwight, and John Kassir’s Cryptkeeper is just as amusingly hammy in animation. (He delivers some solid puns here about going on vacation.) There’s even some decent jokes in this episode, like a snarling werewolf being named Fifi or the exact nature of the hidden treasure.

Adapting “Tales from the Crypt” for kids does make a degree of sense. Kids in the fifties loved the original comics. The undying Scooby-Doo franchise proves little ones love the spooky aesthetic. Both the “Tales from the Crypt” comics and shows were usually morality tales. The cartoon keeps the message - don’t steal, kids - but leaves out the gory punishment. Being scared is enough for this episode’s youthful protagonists to learn their lesson. I have no idea if “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” will remain this consistent but the first episode is actually a lot of goofy fun. [7/10]

Forever Knight: Spin Doctor

In its fourteenth episode, “Forever Knight” takes on politics. The Toronto mayoral race heats up when a tabloid reporter, trying to blackmail conservative candidate Clifford Hiatt with information about an affair, is found dead in his hotel room. Though Reeves is immediately questioned, liberal candidate Barbara Norton is soon under suspicion as well. The case drives a wedge between Natalie, who supports Norton, and Schanke, who supports Hiatt. Nick remains apolitical but is reminded of the time, in the fifties, when he was persecuted by the Red Scare.

“Spin Doctor” feels unusually relevant in our current political climate. Not just because a make Republican and female Democrat are campaigning against each other. Distrust of the media plays a role in the plot. Both candidates end up denouncing the press here, though luckily no one screams about “FAKE NEWS.” “Spin Doctor” features a surprisingly explosive car crash, some more cheesy shots of Nick flying, and a mystery that’s fairky easy to figure out. Seeing Natalie and Schanke debate is ultimately more entertaining, though Nat pulls a stunt here that would likely get her fired in reality.

My favorite part of the episode is the flashback, which are shot in moody black-and-white. We learn that Nick was an archeology professor - which makes sense - in Chicago before he was accused of being a communist and had to flee to Canada, I guess. It’s a middle of the road episode, though I still found a few things about it I liked. [6/10]

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