Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, October 8, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 7

Candyman (1992)

Clive Barker is in the unique position of having a hand in creating two iconic horror villains. Pinhead and his legion of S&M torture demons created an immediately recognizable style of horror, that has been referenced and parodied many times over the years. Candyman, in his own way, would be equally iconic. It certainly had a big effect on my childhood. Knowledge of the film and its central villain spread through elementary school playgrounds quickly in the nineties. Soon, people were being dared all the time to say “Candyman” five times in a mirror. If you're wondering if I ever performed this task myself, the answer is simple: Absolutely fucking not. I know ghosts aren't real but I'm sure as hell not tempting fate.

Helen, the wife a college professor and student herself, is writing a thesis paper on urban legends. In particular, she is focusing on the legend of Candyman: The ghostly apparition of a black with a hook for a hand, According to the legends, Candyman can be summoned by repeating his name five times in the mirror. Helen traces the legend to the infamous Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. After sneaking around, she gets a gang-leader claiming to be Candyman locked up. This causes the real legend to appear, the ghostly killer framing Helen for murder and drawing her into a web of supernatural intrigue.

While many horror movies have referenced famous urban legends, or used those stories for set dressing, “Candyman” is one of the few that actually engages with what these myths mean. In “Candyman,” the weight and power of urban legends have a literal effect. The people of Cabrini-Green believe Candyman to be real. They perpetrate his legend, pinning every gruesome murder on the legendary figure's claw. When the gang members taking advantage of this legend are captured, Candyman must kill again to further his legend. This is the film's way of saying these aren't just stories. People bring these things to life with their beliefs. Old stories resonate and survive and mutate, through the ages, specifically because they say significant things to people. “Candyman” uses the power of a legend to endure, and what that says about us, as a source of horror.

Clive Barker's original short story, “The Forbidden,” was all about this. Something Barker's original text doesn't mention much is race, Candyman's pigmentation never coming up on the page. Changing the location from Liverpool to Chicago, writer/director Benard Rose creates a story about racial divide. Early on, Helen discovers that her apartment building has the same design as Cabrini-Green. However, her home resides in an upper-class neighborhood, while Cabrini-Green is one of the most crime-ridden ghettos in the city. Helen is introduced as a white intellectual while the black people who actually understand the legend are cleaning ladies and single mothers. Racial violence is the cause of Candyman's haunting. There's a romantic element to Candyman's murder-filled seduction of Helen. She's thrown into a nightmare world but it's where her black neighbors live everyday. While some of Rose's touches are good-natured but clumsy – like a white woman becoming a savior for an entire black community –  “Candyman” is ultimately a powerful plea to not let skin color divide us.

The film's ideas are high-minded but “Candyman” also never forgets that it's a horror movie. As in his debut, “Paperhouse,” Rose employs a distinctive visual approach. There's a detached, almost artificial look to the film, creating a subtly unnerving sense of unreality. Rose further emphasizes this with with aerial shots of buildings or spooky walls of squirming bees. Within that setting, the director creates some truly shocking moments of horror. Such as the incredibly grisly aftermath of Candyman's first appearance, which sees Helen waking up, smeared with blood. Or a fantastic jump-scare, where the hook bursts suddenly through a mirror. A creepy sexual quality is also brought to the murder scenes, Candyman grunting in an orgasmic fashion as he hacks away at his victims.

“Candyman” also has an excellent cast. The film would transform Tony Todd from an obscure character actor into a genuine cult icon. Todd's deep and intimidating voice rarely rises above a whisper, making Candyman seem like a considered and other-worldly character. Which also makes him a deeper and scarier character. Virginia Madsen  is also very good as Helen. The character spends most of the film's second half in a weeping, traumatized state, which is no easy task for a performer. Luckily, Madsen establishes Helen as a likable human before that. A subplot about her husband cheating on her especially allows her to bring some humor and heartbreak to the part.

Also lending to “Candyman's” eerie feeling is Philip Glass' haunting score, a gorgeous piece of piano music that builds and builds in emotion. When I first saw “Candyman,” I was surprised to see such a nuanced and thoughtful horror film. Its reputation, and premise, suggested something like a typical slasher flick. Instead, it's a deeply scary movie that also has more on its mind than jump-scares and gore. Twenty five years later, it still holds up as one of the best horror films of the nineties. And, no, I still refuse to ever say the name in front of a mirror. I'm not dumb. [9/10]

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

We've already talked about one killer brain movie this Halloween. While “Donovan's Brain” was obviously the far more famous film in the day, another movie about a floating, evil brain seems more famous today. “The Brain from Planet Arous” is an obscure title. However, it's central image – a giant brain floating around on its own – seems to have penetrated the pop culture consciousness. It's not uncommon to see that tropes included among other stock fifties sci-fi monster, even though few films feature an image like that. Despite secretly being kind of influential, I had never seen “The Brain from Planet Arous” before.

Doctor Steve March, a young scientist, goes with a friend to investigate a strange burst of radiation in the desert. Inside a newly created cavern, they uncover something extremely strange. A giant floating brain emerges from the darkness. It proclaims itself to be named Gor, kills March's friend, and then takes over March's body. Gor hopes to use his mass psychic powers to take over the world, with March acting as his disguise. Steve's girlfriend, Sally, notices him acting so strangely. Soon, Sally is met by Vol, another floating brain creature from the same planet. Vol is pursuing Gor and soon helps Sally lure the evil brain out.

“The Brain from Planet Arous” is not just similar to “Donovan's Brain” because its primary antagonist is an evil brain. Like that quasi-classic, this “Brain” is also a story of possession. The memorable image of Gor is only on-screen a few times. Instead, the evil alien spends most of the movie possessing Steve March, the hero's friends and family noticing his odd behavior. While likely inspired by Curt Siodmak's novel, “The Brain from Planet Arous” is far denser and wackier. When possessed by Gor, Steve has immense psychic powers. He blows up an airplane with a glare. He detonates a nuclear bomb with just a thought. He threatens an entire board of military officials with annihilation. If “Donovan's Brain” was too low-key for you, this killer brain movie delivers some far pulpier thrillers.

John Agar starred in a bunch of fifties B-movies, battling giant spiders, Gillmen, and mole people. Usually, Agar lent his powerful jawline to heroic roles. “The Brain from Planet Arous” has Agar playing the villain. Sort of. When acting like himself, Steve March is a typically wholesome classic sci-fi protagonist. When possessed by Gor, he's a cackling madman. Agar is clearly having a good time subverting his heroic image. When performing villainous monologues and glaring like a supervillain, his eyes light-up and he puts on a huge smile. This is not the only entertainingly hammy performance in the film. Dale Tate, as the voice of Gor, gleefully plays a full-voiced bad guy.

“The Brain from Planet Arous” has more than enough crazy ideas to occupy its hour and eleven minute run time. The movie could just have easily been called “The Brains from Planet Arous,” as there are two. Introducing a heroic brain monster is one thing but the movie goes even nuttier, as Vol disguises himself as a dog throughout most of the movie. Amusingly, Gor doesn't just want to take over the world while possessing Steve. He also wants to fuck his girlfriend, which results in several surprisingly hot and sexy scenes of Agar making out with co-star Joyce Meadows. “The Brain from Planet Arous” saves its craziest moment for its climax, when Gor finally emerges in all his wrinkly glory. The super psychic threat is then hacked to death with an axe, a very direct way to deal with an intergalactic terrorist.

That surplus of wacky ideas makes “The Brain from Planet Arous” a highly entertaining and quickly digested piece of fifties sci-fi cheese. The film's unlikely influence can be seen all over the place. Clips of Gor's evil monologues have been sampled in countless songs. It inspired an episode of “SCTV.” A shot from the film's climax plays in the opening credits of every episode of “Malcolm in the Middle.” A loose and unofficial remake, simply called “The Brain,” was made in 1988. I guess all of this proves that people really needed a movie about a floating, evil, alien brain in their lives. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Gone Fishin' / A Little Body of Work

For whatever reason, the fourth episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” contains two stories. In “Gone Fishing,” a boy and his uncle go on a fishing trip. Uncle Ned is a massive asshole, who bullies his nephew for reading, throws away the fish he captures, and seems to actively enjoy torturing fish. When the boy starts having fantasies about giant fish, his uncle remains defensive. Naturally, he should have listen.

“Gone Fishin'” is probably my favorite episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” so far. With a couple of changes, it could've fit in with the live action “Tales from the Crypt” fairly well. Uncle Ned is such a grotesque asshole – who bullies a kid for reading? –  that you can't wait to see him get his comeuppance. Yet there's something totally plausible about an anti-intellectual douche bag who is proud of gratuitously wasting food. The fantasies of squishy fishmen are pretty neat. It all pays off in a delightfully ironic moment, Uncle Ned getting as grisly a fate as a Saturday morning cartoon probably could allow. The moral, warning against being a wasteful asshole, does not distract from the story at all.

The second story, “A Little Body of Work,” revolves around two hot-rodding teens. Eddie and Herman have been building their own car with parts stolen from various wrecks. After assembling their vehicle, they challenge another teen to a race. They sabotage the guy's car the night before and he crashes, totaling his ride. Afterwards, Eddie and Herman are haunted by a phantom vehicle, eventually forcing them to confess to their crimes.

My favorite element about “A Little Body of Work” are the scenes of the car moving on its own, which play like a kid's version of “Christine.” Once again, you can see this one fitting into the original series with a few easy changes. Obviously, the other racer would have suffered a nasty death in that crash if this aired on HBO instead of ABC. The thieves would've gotten a similarly gory punishment too, I'm sure. Otherwise, the story of crime never prospering fits right in with the EC Comics tone. The animation is pretty fun here, especially the sequence devoted to the teens going for a ride in the haunted vehicle. While not as strong as “Gone Fishing,” “A Little Body of Work” is pretty fun too. Overall, it's a really entertaining episode! [8/10]

Forever Knight: Unreality TV

I'm surprised “reality TV” was a common enough phrase to be riffed on by a cop show in 1992 but I guess it was. “Unreality TV” has Nick and Schanke being followed for a few nights by a “Cops” style docu-drama show. Constantly being on camera prevents Nick from using his vampire powers, causing a mad gunman to get away. While pursuing the same crook, the camera records footage of Nick getting shot and shrugging it off. The vampire attempts to dissuade the show's host from running the footage, knowing it'll blow his cover. Soon, her life is in danger from a secret cabal of vampires that ensures their existence remains a secret.

“Unreality TV” is an interesting episode of “Forever Knight” because it expands on the show's world a bit. Since vampires can be photographed and recorded in this universe, a secret society of vamps tasked with covering up the truth has existed since the dawn of the technology. We see this during the fascinating flashback, when Nick was working as a doctor of mercy during the Civil War and a battlefield photographer caught some shots of LeCroix feeding on the dead soldiers. We also learn that vampires can't hypnotize people if they have empirical evidence of the truth at their disposals. So Nick has to destroy the tapes before the reporter can be saved, which he has to do once the vampire hit-squad appears. I like the show to delve into its mythology some more and hope we see more of this soon. [7/10]

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