Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 6

Mohawk (2017)

Too often in fiction, Indigenous Americans are treated as shallow stereotypes. The horror genre is no different. Indian mysticism was usually as a cheap way to add some extra mythical resonance to various stories. When filmmakers actually drew from Indigenous mythology, it is rarely well done. When “Mohawk” first started to make the festival circuit earlier this year, it was apparent that it was not your typical Indian exploitation flick. Ted Geoghegan, previously of “We Are Still Here,” directed and the script was co-written by Grady Hendrix, of “Paperbacks from Hell” and “My Best Friend's Exorcism” fame. The film seems to have been conceived as a project for Kaniehtiio Horn, a Mohawk actress. It received largely positive reviews earlier in the year and I knew I wanted to check it for the Blog-a-thon.

Set during the War of 1812, the film follows a polygamous couple: Mohawk female Oak, young Mohawk warrior Calvin, and American trader Joshua. During the war, the Mohawk tribes have remained neutral, despite aggression from the white man. In the night, Calvin has burned down a military outpost. The white soldiers march into the woods, led by Colonel Holt. Holt has an obsessive desire to exterminate the Mohawk, which only increases after Calvin kills his son. Soon, only Oak is left alive. A supernatural entity in the woods grants her the powers necessary for her to revenge.

“Mohawk's” status as a horror movie is not immediately obvious. For most of its runtime, it could be more accurately described as an especially grisly historical thriller. The film's violent is especially graphic. Elbows are blown open by musket fires. Heads are punctured with bullets and tomahawks. Calvin is tortured by the white men, hanged with a noose and scolded with boiling water. As Holt grows more obsessive, he massacres the entire Mohawk camp. Even afterwards, “Mohawk's” horror elements are fairly subtle. There's a startling shot of Oak's face appearing inside a cave. The exact nature of the supernatural influence is kept vague and how it changes Oak is never really defined. Geoghegan featured a similarly under-explained mythology in “We Are Still Here.” However, the film's mixture of genre is interesting, I'll give it that. 

The film's cast is excellent. Kaniehtiio Horn is largely silent as Oak, projecting an interesting mixture of vulnerability and a steely strength. As the situation grows worst, you're more than willing to follow Horn on Oak's journey. Ezra Buzzington's Colonel Holt undergoes a similar transformation, becoming more unhinged as the woods around him begins to resemble hell on Earth. Pro-wrestler Jon Huber appears Lachlan, a towering but soft spoken member of the military troop. Noah Segan has a good part as Yancy, a foppish translator who feels increasingly out of place as the story goes on. I also liked Robert Longstreet as Beal, a gravelly voiced sharp shooter who hides his facial disfigurement with a pair of anachronistic goggles.

“Mohawk” was obviously a low budget production. The film's cast is kept small and the entire film is shot in a nondescript stretch of forest. That's not really a problem though. What does bother me is the film's atrocious cinematography. There's a lot of shaky-cam in “Mohawk.” The film is rarely still as characters run through the woods, the camera spasmodically jerking and wobbling. This is extremely distracting and greatly undermined my enjoyment of the otherwise decent writing. It doesn't get better as the movie goes along, as there's a very silly shot of someone getting tossed through the air near the end, the awkwardness of the moment emphasized by the jittery direction. “Mohawk” also has the electronic synth score that is apparently a requirement for all indie horror movies now. I usually love this shit but it doesn't really fit with the colonial setting, now does it?

“Mohawk,” with its story of racist white men freely using slurs as they attempt to exterminate another race, clearly resonates with our current, troubled times. However, the film left me a little cold. The cast is very good and I liked the idea. I certainly can't recall another action/horror hybrid set during the War of 1912. However, the literally shaky direction and a script that's a bit up it's own ass keeps me from enjoying the film more. Hopefully, Geoghegan will actually be willing to tell a complete story in his next film, to go along with his apparent command of atmosphere and love of gory, practical effects. [6/10]

Rawhead Rex (1986)

Clive Barker would ascend rapidly through the halls of beloved horror writers. His “Books of Blood” collections would become an immediate sensation in the world of horrific fiction. You can tell how big those stories were because film adaptations followed quickly afterwards. Less than two years after “The Books of Blood” were published, the first movies based on Barker's prose would follow. He would write “Underworld” specifically for the screen, only to see the project badly handled by the producers. The same company would take on “Rawhead Rex,” a key story from volume three of “Books,” a year later. This film would also be badly handled, disappointing Barker. (This disappointment caused him to pursue directing himself.) Unlike “Underworld,” “Rawhead Rex” has become a cult classic among eighties monster fans. There was even a 4K re-release recently!

Photographer Howard Hallenbeck is traveling through rural Ireland with his wife, Elaine, and their two kids. He's documenting ancient religious sights and seems especially impressed with an old church. At the same time, a farmer drags up an old stone pillar. Pulling it aside, he unleashes Rawhead Rex, a pagan deity that used to rule over this land. The monster soon goes on a rampage across the countryside, claiming one of the Hallenbeck children. As Rawhead influences the local clergy and stacks up a body count, Howard tries to uncover the secret behind defeating the monster.

Something that made Barker's short stories so special where their pure imagination. He created monsters, hellscapes, and hauntings that were unlike any previously seen. Even his more straight ahead creature tales were deeper than their surface readings. “Rawhead Rex” is essentially a story about a giant phallus rampaging across the Irish countryside, eating children and raping women. Barker's symbolism – about the violence reaped by the rampaging, unhinged masculine id – is not subtle. Especially once Rawhead is defeated by a symbol of femininity. Some of these fascinating ideas survive within the very cheesy monster movie that is “Rawhead Rex.” Rawhead still pisses on a priest, the man corrupted by the hornier desires the pagan god awakens, but this corruption comes off as deeply ridiculous. He's still defeated by a woman but this is conveyed via extremely cheesy animated effects.

No special effect is cornier than Rawhead himself. The producers deemed Barker's priapic design too graphic. Instead, they cooked up a far goofier creature. This Rawhead wears tattered leather and has a head of floppy blonde hair, looking a bit like a hair metal frontman. The gorilla-like face barely emotes and is usually locked in an open-mouthed roar. In several shots, you can see the rubber head bouncing around as the actor underneath runs. That actor, by the way, has been described as Barker as a German ski instructor with “tits bigger than Linda Evans.” It is not a convincing special effect. However, there is a goofy charm to Rawhead, who looks like an elaborate Halloween costume and acts as much like a rowdy teenager as a ruthless monster.

“Rawhead Rex” doesn't have too much in its favor, outside of that charmingly dumb-looking monster. Director George Pavlou, who also made “Underworld,” occasionally creates a memorable shot. Like Rawhead, lifting a decapitated head, silhouetted by the full moon. Pavlou throws in just as many cheesy composite shots or POV angles. The cast is slightly better than the movie demands. David Dukes, as Howard, is a likable lead and watching him unravel this mystery is mildly interesting. Ronan Witmott goes way over-the-top as the perverse priest, spitting some especially profane dialogue in memorably goofy ways.

“Rawhead Rex” is the kind of movie I want to like more than I actually do. Campy and gory creature features like this are usually extremely my kind of thing. However, the film drags badly, as there's not much going on when Rawhead isn't killing people. Turns out, the charms of a silly looking monster only goes so far. Though I'm not shocked folks who rented it as kids look back on it fondly. The film is a good candidate for a remake, as there's still plenty of solid material in Barker's original story. Until then, the fittingly grisly comic adaptation Eclipse put out in the nineties will have to suffice. [6/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Pleasant Screams

The third episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” reminded me a lot of the first episode of “Perversions of Science.” As in that episode, it resolves around someone unable to awake from a disturbing dream. An elementary teacher named Mr. Purdy and a young girl named Jenny awaken in a nightmare, unaware of their names and professions. They progress through several scenarios, encountering zombies, a kaiju, gargoyles, a swamp blob, and the spitting image of the Golem. Each time, they are confronted by a strange faceless boy. Soon, the duo realize they are caught in the dreams of a classmate and student of there's.

“Pleasant Screams” is a fun episode. The pairing of a snarky pre-teen girl and a constipated teacher makes for an entertaining combination. Watching the two figure out their identities, while dealing with a whole selection of monsters, is fairly amusing. Mostly, “Pleasant Screams” is worth recommending because of all those crazy creature encounters. The kaiju dream is my favorite, as it includes homages to Godzilla, King Ghidorah, and Ultraman. The Golem dream is pretty neat too, as the resemble is far too close not to be intentional. The episode includes a fairly unobtrusive anti-bullying message and it's interesting that an adult is depicted as one of the bullies. [7/10]

Forever Knight: Only the Lonely

“Forever Knight's” sixteenth episode turns its focus back on Nick and Natalie's relationship. Someone is sexually assaulting and murdering women he meets through a dating service. The night the case comes up is also Natalie's birthday. Nick forgets and his attempts to make up are awkward. At the same time, the coroner meets a handsome flower shop owner. Partially to spite her vampire friend, Nat begins dating the guy. As Nick investigate the assault/homicide case, eh begins to suspect Natalie's new boyfriend may be responsible.

The mystery aspects of “Only the Lonely” is easy to parse out. The minute we meet Natalie's new beau, we know he's the killer. However, the episode is much more interesting for giving us a deeper look at Nick and Nat's relationship. In slightly overwrought flashbacks, we see how the two met. Apparently Nick was exploded with a grenade while trying to stop a stick-up and ended up on Natalie's slab. When he couldn't hypnotize her memories of him away, the two struck up a friendship. Seeing the vampire fumble her birthday, and eventually get jealous over her new guy friend, is cute. So are the scenes of Nat coming home to an apartment that's empty save for her cat. Watching the two make up at the end, after the vampire saves the day, is actually quite sweet. It's an episode that probably would be forgettable if not for Geraint Wyn Davies and Catherine Disher's excellent chemistry together. [8/10]

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