Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Halloween 2018: September 30

Hell Fest (2018)

The horror event movie of 2018’s Halloween season is, obviously, the latest reboot in the “Halloween” franchise. And, yeah, sure, I’m looking forward to that. However, another slasher movie trailer caught my eye earlier in the summer. I can recall first hearing about “Hell Fest” quite a few years back, with “The Descent’s” Neil Marshall attached to direct. The project sounded cool but, as often happens in Hollywood, disappeared after the initial announcement. “Hell Fest” wasn’t dead though and was eventually directed by Gregory Plotkin, previously of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.” Heading out of Monster-Mania today, JD and I decided to hit the movie theater across the street and give this one a shot based solely on the strength of that trailer.

Hell Fest is the hottest Halloween attraction for horror fanatics. Around the autumn season, the horror-themed amusement park – filled with spooky mazes, jump-scare filled haunted houses, and colorfully costumed performers – travels the country. A few weeks back, a young woman was murdered at a similar park. This does not dissuade a group of six friends. In order to get her used to her new town, Brooke invites her best friend Natalie out for a night of screams. Childhood nemesis Taylor, her boyfriend Asher, Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn, and a cute guy Natalie likes tag along. However, the night of safe scares is soon disrupted by a mysterious masked man. He begins to stalk Natalie and her friends. Soon, he’s killing them, their terrified death throes unnoticed in the scream-filled park.

“Hell Fest” is amazingly economical. The film runs 89 minutes, which is just the right length for a slasher film. That time is used wisely. Our characters are introduced within minutes. Not long after that, they have all arrived at Hell Fest. Most impressively, there’s no attempt by the film to be deeper than it need be. Natalie does not have some childhood trauma or recent tragedy in her past, like so many horror heroines these days. There’s no deep connection between Natalie and the killer. Brooke is not bitchy, the boyfriends are not annoying. Even Taylor, who is introduced as slightly bratty, proves incredibly likable. (Being played by the immensely lovable Bex Taylor-Klaus goes a long way. She steals the show.) The film is refreshingly free of melodrama, contrived bullshit, and gets right to the point. “Hell Fest” is the kind of back-to-basics horror movie I didn’t know was still released in theaters in 2018.

This approach is especially apparent in the killer. Referred to in the credits as the Other, he’s a very uncomplicated guy. There is no myth-filled back story, no deeper connection with his victims, no attempt at probing psychotical insight. We learn almost nothing about the guy and he’s identified mostly by his steel-toed boots. Even the absolutely brilliant final scene, a fantastic subversion of what we’ve come to expect, leaves us with very little information. He’s just a guy in a creepy mask, who hums “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and likes to terrorize teenagers in amusement parks. This lack of information does not make him any less scary. The Other brutally executes his victims – using mallets, knives, syringes – in squishy, creative, and intense murder scenes. He’s as swiftly efficient and fiercely direct as the movie around him.

The main element of novelty in “Hell Fest,” other than seeing such a true eighties throwback in 2018, is its amusement park setting. The titular Hell Fest is not just window dressing. The haunted mazes are utilized well, the killer often ambushing his victims in dead ends. Or utilizing the surroundings to disguise himself. The setting also allows the killings to take place in a populated area largely undetected. The final girl sees the first murder committed but believes it to be part of the show. Later, she’s corner by several people wearing the same mask as the murderer, each of them park employees. The scariest scene in the movie takes place in a cramp and dingy bathroom, the skuzzy but commonplace location adding quite a bit of realism to the suspenseful moment. It doesn’t hurt that Hell Fest looks like fun, with some really cool costumes, props, and a cameo from Tony Todd as the master of ceremonies.

“Hell Fest” looses a bit of momentum in its last third, after a guillotine-themed set piece fizzles out in a disappointing way. There’s also a little bit of shaky-cam, here and there. However, that awesome final scene and a genuinely likable cast makes up for a lot. I had a blast with “Hell Fest,” a meat-and-potatoes slasher that does almost everything exactly the way it needs to. If you clipped out the cell phones, the modern slang, and some fancier touches, this easily could’ve been made in 1982. If it had, I bet it would be as cultishly beloved as other stand-alone slash classics like “The Burning” or the similar “The Funhouse.” Though likely to be overshadowed by the new “Halloween,” I beg slasher fans not to sleep on this one. “Hell Fest” is a pure throwback blast. [8/10]

Race with the Devil (1975)

One of the things I love about seventies exploitation cinema is its pure willingness to do anything to make money. If two different types of movies were popular with the same audiences, reason dictated that a combination of those genres would be doubly popular. This is how we got blaxploitation westerns or kung-fu spy movies. Around 1975, devil movies like “The Exorcist” or “The Omen” were big money makers. Meanwhile, car chase flicks like “Two Lane Blacktop” and “Vanishing Point” were also profitable. Around that time, some smart producers decided to mash up these two types of stories. The result was “Race with the Devil,” the world's first car chase/devil worshiper movie. Naturally, this unique combination has attracted a cult following.

Roger, the successful owner of a motorcycle shop, is invited by his best friend, Frank, on a road trip. Frank has just purchased a fancy new RV. Along with their wives, Alice and Kelly, they decide to head on a road trip from Texas to Colorado. They forego a traditional camp grounds to park in a clearing for the night. Under the full moon, Frank and Roger spot something unusual. A group of masked people gather around a fire and strip a woman nude, performing some sort of Satanic ritual. The woman is then stabbed to death. Frank and Roger are spotted, fleeing the scene while being attacked by the cultists. The quartet continues to drive on but are still pursued by the Satanists, whose connections go deeper than expected.

“Race with the Devil,” if you'll excuse the pun, depicts the vacation from hell. Despite the title, there's very little racing in this film. Instead, there's a lot of unexpected pit stops and emergency layovers. Early in the film, Frank describes the RV as a home on wheels, so stop-offs for food or bathroom breaks are unnecessary. This illusion of self-reliance is shattered quickly. Frank and Roger frequently have to rely on mechanics, cops, and librarians after being chased by the Satanists. The film also violates these institutions. The family soon begin to suspect that everyone – the sheriff, the handyman, the gun shop owner, the friendly couple at the RV park – are part of the Satanic conspiracy. This quickly creates a sense of unease, our protagonists being totally without a safe haven, wondering if anyone or everyone could be their pursuers.

Director Jack Starrett previously made two motorcycle movies, “Run, Angel, Run!” and “The Losers.” (As well as blaxploitation flicks, “Slaughter” and “Cleopatra Jones.”) Despite this pedigree, Starrett holds off the motor vehicle theatrics. Save for an early gag of Satanists dangling off the back of the RV, he focuses more on building slow simmering tension. In the last third, however, “Race with the Devil” explodes into car chase shenanigans. Trucks and cars smash into the RV, trying to run it off the road. An exploding pick-up truck careens off a bridge. An impressive stunt shows a vehicle driving on two wheels for an extended period of time. The effective climax of the film has a shotgunned car impressively spinning, roof over wheel, three times before hitting the ground. These stunts are all the more impressive, since they come from the era before CGI. Car stunts can't help but be more exciting when you know real people are driving real vehicles.

Aside from its tense chills and twisted chrome, “Race with the Devil” has fans because of its leading men. This was Peter Fonda and Warren Oates' second movie together, after acid-western “The Hired Hand.” Oates and Fonda have an easy-going chemistry, the two being believable as best friends. Oates' tough guy exterior is well suited to Frank, who gets more angry and aggressive as their nightmare goes on. Fonda, surprisingly, projects an everyman feel as Roger, a guy clearly in over his head who only gets a bead on the situation after it's too late. Loretta Swit and Lara Parker are a little underwritten as the guys' wives, though likable enough.

If you're looking for traditional Satanic devilry, there's less here than expected. The one ritual we see is pretty fun, a nude girl lifted into the air and stabbed by a dude in a spooky mask. (Her breasts are partially obscured by the flames, insuring the PG rating.) Aside from that, you'll have to wait until the downbeat ending for more shots of robed cultists and burning fires. The movie is more focused on dead dogs and surprise snake attacks. Despite that, “Race with the Devil” is an effectively tense horror film with some cool car stunts. Fans include Kevin Smith, who drew from this one for his own “Red State,” and Drew McWeeney, who wrote a remake that came close to getting made in 2005. [7/10]

Darkstalkers: Samurai's Honor

Episode ten of the American “Darkstalkers” cartoon serves two purposes. Donovan is hunting Demitri. The “wizard” catches up with the vampire just as he attacks a family. Donovan runs the bloodsucker off before he kills Amanda, the little girl. The girl is cursed into a state of catatonia by the shock. Through some magical bullshit, Donovan and Amanda are bonded together. He calls upon Felicia and Harry to help. On the trail of the vampire once more, Donovan is soon facing off against Bishamon, the cursed samurai serving Pyron against his will.

Despite the title, “Samurai's Honor” is as much about introducing Amanda as explaining Bishamon's backstory. Amanda is this show's half-assed take on Anita, Donovan's video game sidekick. In the games, Anita is brunette, a powerful psychic and Donovan's greatest link to his humanity. She also carries around a headless doll, Wednesday Addams-style. Amanda is blonde, mute, carries a knock-off Godzilla plush, and has no powers at all. Despite the many differences, the little girl still softens Donovan's asshole personality. The cartoon doesn't handle this in an interesting or intelligent manner but it's something.

After floating around the series for a while, we finally figure out what Bishamon's deal is. As in a game, he was a noble samurai until being cursed by a demonic blade. The cartoon also maintains his dead ghost wife, Orin. Unlike the game, Bishamon's heroic personality still shines through even now that he's a monster. (And it seems just the sword, instead of the whole armor, is cursed.) As he fights Donovan, the hunter attempts to reach the samurai's inner goodness. Naturally, the episode ends with Bishamon's curse being lifted and the samurai joining the good guys. The cartoon also adds a whole bunch of bullshit about Bishamon being betrayed by a shogun and transforming into a bell.

As for the episode itself, it's full of the animation error, underwhelming action, and bizarre superpowers I've come to expect by now. An especially embarrassing moment gives the audience a peak at Bishamon's tightie whiteies. I will give the show some points for actually depicting Demitri as a bloodsucker. Then again, the episode looses major points by opening with a solid five minutes of stock footage, reused from the first episode! Harry is also especially obnoxious here, constantly belittling and teasing Amanda. Felicia also eats cat food in this one. Gee whiz. Anyway, it sucks. [4/10]

Forever Knight: Dead Air

“Forever Knight” seems weirdly fond of radio D.J.s. After LeCroix's gig as a disc jockey in the pilot, we now have an episode about a more sympathetic radio talk show host. Dr. Christina Noble, a former psychologist who now hosts a steamy call-in show, gets a disturbing phone call. On air, a man seemingly kills a woman. The cops, including Nick and Schanke, quickly uncover the victim. It happens again the same night. Nick and Christina form a friendly relationship, the doctor explaining her greatest failure: How a former patient was released under her watch and then proceeded to kill his mother. Christina and Nick quickly begin to worry that this same boy is responsible for the string of murders. 

As a mystery, “Dead Air” is pretty disappointing. Only one suspect is introduced and he, naturally, turns out to be the killer. The motives behind the killings, a bunch of mommy issues, are fairly derivative and uninteresting. Schanke is not the only one to reference Norman Bates. The conclusion is disappointing, with Nick showing up and the bad guy offing himself by accident. Despite these flaws, “Dead Air” is a decent episode. Diane Cary is likable as Dr. Noble and has a good rapport with Geraint Wyn Davies. Nick and Schanke also have some funny bits together, as the vampire's partner listen to the sleazy radio show as a guilty pleasure. Aside from the routine plot and a useless montage of Nick sitting on his apartment floor, it's a decent enough episode. [7/10]

No comments: