Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Halloween 2018: October 9

Alligator (1980)

Since the success of “Jaws,” every aquatic and semi-aquatic animal possible has gotten a horror/thriller devoted to it. Multiple different types of sharks, octopi, squids, piranha, even the humble barracuda became movie monsters. (This is excluding the landlocked knock-offs, about bears or demonic cars.) Since crocodiles and alligators do attack people from time to time, there have naturally been many films devoted to the semi-aquatic reptiles. Among the best crocodillian thrillers is 1980's “Alligator.” Drawing upon urban legends about gators in the sewers, the film's tongue-in-cheek approach to the material would earn it surprisingly strong reviews from professional critics.

A little girl adopts a baby alligator, which she names Ramon. The next day, her infuriated father flushes little Ramon down the commode. Twelve years later, a shady pharmaceutical company is testing a new growth hormone on stray dogs. When the animals die, they are tossed into the sewers... Where they are eaten by a still alive Ramon, who grows to massive side and gains a ravenous appetite. Once the sewer gator starts chomping on sanitation workers, detective Dave Madison and zoologist Marisa Kendall – coincidentally Ramon's former owner – are brought in to investigate. Can they stop the alligator before he crawls out from under the streets of Chicago and kills again?

“Alligator” shows an obvious debt to “Jaws,” with its P.O.V. shots and suspiciously familiar sounding score. John Sayles, who previously put a subversive spin on a similar subject with “Piranha,” and director Lewis Teague create a gleefully grisly tone. There are moments of genuine suspense, such as David and another cop being stalked through the sewers by Ramon. More often, “Alligator” highlights its violence with some dark humor. A kid's Halloween party goes horribly wrong when Ramon appears in the family pool, a moment so sick it becomes funny. Henry Silva's big game hunter – the film's Quint figure – is dispatched in an amusingly off-hand manner. There's a sense of ferocious joy to the climatic scene of Ramon crashing a millionaire's party, tossing people through walls, crushing cars, and munching on bystanders. The film conveys a feeling of campy fun to moments like the huge gator splitting the sidewalk open and emerging into the streets.

Sayles' career has often alternated between genre efforts and politically charged films like “Matewan” and “Lianna.” Sayles' tendency towards social commentary is present in “Alligator.” The film begins with an alligator wrestler getting attacked by a reptile, while the announcer rambles on about where the audience can buy a gator of their own. This sets up the film's point about how corporations treat animals like objects. The pharmaceutical company is illegally abducting and killing dogs, some of them people's pets, covering up their crimes. These innocent animals are dumped in the sewer, treated literally like shit. Just like little Ramon, an animal taken out of his world, dropped into our's, and then flushed down the john. When the alligator is destroyed, there's also something sort of sad about it. Ramon sure did eat a lot of innocent people but he's not really responsible for his own actions, is he? “Alligator” allows Ramon his revenge, as he gets to destroy the corporate overlords responsible for his mutation, making it clear  who the film thinks is really at fault here.

Another element in “Alligator's” favor is its likable cast. Robert Forster stars as Madison. Forster's easy-going charm makes David a fully fleshed-out character. He's haunted by the time he accidentally shot his old partner. But that's just one part of his personality. He also has a dog he loves. He's annoyed that he's loosing his hair. Dave has quirks and opinions, making him seem like a real person. Forster also has strong chemistry with Robin Riker as Marisa. The romance between the two doesn't serve much of a purpose but the two performers work so well together that it seems natural anyway. Silva is also amusingly campy in his role, a style also followed by Michael V. Gazzo as the put-upon police chief and Dean Jagger as the callous business tycoon.

“Alligator” has all the ingredients needed to be a lovably tasty snack for monster movie fans. It's approach is knowing but not overly campy. The cast is genuinely lovable. The special effects are strong and memorably deployed. It's certainly way better than a movie about a giant killer alligator needs to be. (For an example of the kind of undistinguished schlock “Alligator” easily could've been, watch its 1991 sequel “Alligator II: The Mutation.”) The movie is currently out-of-print and really needs to be picked up by Scream Factory, Arrow, or one of those companies. This deserve a prestige Blu-Ray release. [7/10]

Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999)

There's no shame in going direct-to-video, as it's a perfectly valid release strategy for any number of fine films. However, when the latest entry in an once theatrically released series skips theaters, that's usually a bad sign. In the nineties, the straight-to-video market is where horror franchises went to die. One Clive Barker created series, “Hellraiser,” would have any and all respectability drained away by countless shitty straight-to-VHS sequels. (Which have continued to this year.) But Pinhead is not the only Barker creation to suffer this indignity. While “Farewell to the Flesh” made 13 million in theaters, surely more than its production budget, “Candyman: Day of the Dead” would slip into video stores with little recognition three years later.

Caroline McKeever, an L.A. based artist, is having nightmares about the Candyman. However, these are not just random dreams. Caroline is the great-great-granddaughter of Daniel Robitaille. She has lent the paintings of Daniel to a local art gallery, around the time of the Mexican Dias de los Muertos. Caroline hopes to convince the public that Daniel was a real man, not just a horrific urban legend. However, the gallery owner sells the display with exploitative antics. That night, the man is murdered in a bizarre manner. Soon, Caroline learns that the Candyman is real. The ghost wants to convince Caroline to believe in him and then have her join him in the world of the unliving.

While the original “Candyman” set out to be the classiest movie possible about a hook-handed ghost killing people, “Day of the Dead” does not have such artistic ambitions. Director Turi Meyer, previously of Freddy Krueger knock-off “Sleepstalker,” primarily worked in TV. This is evident in “Day of the Dead's” flat and colorless direction. The film's special effects are incredibly cheesy, with Tony Todd wearing an obviously too long hook hand. The horror sequences rely heavily on cheap jump-scares, slow motion, and flashing scene transitions. The movie even features plenty of gratuitous nudity, such as when a naked woman is stung to death by CGI bees. This is not high art. “Candyman: Day of the Dead” is cheap and tawdry.

If the sequel attempted something interesting within the boundaries of being a sleazy horror sequel, I might be able to forgive it. However, “Day of the Dead” is pretty boring and inconsistent. It's a direct sequel to “Farewell to the Flesh,” as Caroline is the grown daughter of that film's protagonist. However, that film killed Candyman off pretty definitively. The spectre returns to existence without explanation here, people continuing to believe in his legend apparently being enough to resurrect him. Caroline's character arc, which has her coming to grips with her mother's suicide, is pedestrian. As in the last two movies, the girl ends up being pursued by cops as they blame her for Candyman's murders. The script is trite and shameless, as evident in the scene where Caroline believes her friend is being attacked only to discover – go figure – that she's simply reading from the script she's auditioning for.

About the only interesting thing about “Candyman: Day of the Dead” is that it continues the franchise's prominent role for non-white races. The lead character may be a busty blonde woman but the supporting cast is full of people of color. The Dias de los Muertos setting ends up being little but window dressing. However, it does add some variety to the story. An interesting subplot revolves around a racist cop that loves nothing more than to harass the Latino characters. A shitty direct-to-video horror sequel is not the place where you'd expect an honest depiction of police brutality against racial minorities. All of this barely connects with Candyman's history as a victim of racial violence. But at least the movie tried to add a little more depth to the material.

“Candyman: Day of the Dead” is a lazy horror movie, reliant upon cheap gore and cliched jump scares. The acting is fairly bad, though Tony Todd is still giving it his all as the titular villain. (Todd has supposedly express disappointment with the sequel.) It's pretty lame and that's all the more disappointing, considering the original “Candyman” is so damn good. Since the sequel's release, there have been occasional rumbles of a fourth installment. The latest news is that Jordan Peele will be producing a reboot, which seems like an extremely good fit. Until then, “Candyman: Day of the Dead” is the thoroughly underwhelming final film in the series. The movie would get Candyman an action figure in the “Movie Maniacs” toyline, so at least it has that much going for it. [4/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: The Sleeping Beauty

With its sixth episode, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” does something a little different. “The Sleeping Beauty” has the Cryptkeeper telling a variation on the classic fairy tale, of a sleeping princess and the prince seeking to wake her. In this version, Prince Charming is an obnoxious and narcissistic blowhard named Chuck. He's accompanied by his nerdy twin brother Melvin. The two journey through the perilous forest surrounding the castle, encountering all sorts of dangers. Once they finally reach the castle, fighting through more booby traps, the princes discover the sleeping princess... Who turns out to be a vampire.

“The Sleeping Beauty” is fairly light on horror content, which is a little disappointing. There's an animated suit of armor in one scene and a snarling direwolf in another. Things pick up once the vampire princess appears. In a nice touch, she has reptilian features, instead of the traditional bat-like ones. The episode, however, is mostly focused on delivering fairly unmoving comedy. Both of the princes are annoying in different ways. Re-contextualizing Prince Charming as a narcissist obsessed with his own good looks was hardly a novel idea. His twin brother has a fairly annoying Woody Allen-inspired voice. Watching him scrap his way out of danger, while his clueless brother bumbles along, only has so much entertainment value. The twist ending is mildly cute but, for the most part, this is not one of the better “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” [5/10]

Forever Knight: If Looks Could Kill

Once you put aside the protagonist being a vampire, most episodes of “Forever Knight” would fit in with any cop show. “If Looks Could Kill,” however, goes a little weirder. A young woman seemingly has a psychotic break at a mall make-up counter. She shoots the clerk before being gunned down by a security guard. Afterwards, the woman's body seems to age rapidly. Nick and Schanke soon uncover a local ring of women, all of them much older than they look to be. The case causes Nick to recall a time, hundreds of years ago, when a middle-age French duchess asked him to make her immortal. These two scenarios end up being connected.

“If Looks Could Kill” is another episode about the plight of modern woman. In particular, the pressure to remain young. It's an interesting premise though the episode doesn't really explore it that much. Instead of criticizing society, the script seems to be criticize feminine vanity. Making the person responsible to be another evil vampire drains the episode of much of its bite. Still, there are some elements here worth liking. The moment where Natalie realizes she has a grey hair made me chuckle. I like the rapport Nick has with several of the women. Schanke's reaction to being hypnotized by Nick is pretty funny. Otherwise, there's not too much to this one. [6/10]

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