Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 30, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 29th

Vampire's Kiss (1988)

Somewhere along the way, Nicolas Cage went from one of those actors we were all suppose to hate to an adored cult icon. I attribute this shift in perception to a YouTube compilation of Cage “loosing his shit,” making people realize Cage's style of “mega-acting” was hilarious and highly entertaining. The actor has embraced his newfound cult popularity. In-between appearing in undistinguished junk, he's done actually great acting in genuinely interesting movies. No high-light reel of Cage loosing his shit would be complete with 1988's bizarro horror/comedy, “Vampire's Kiss.” In fact,  In fact, “Vampire's Kiss” may be the Cagiest movie ever made.

Paul Loew is a highly successful literary agent but, despite his life style of riches and hook-ups with random beautiful women, he isn't happy. Following a hot date with a young artist, Paul is attacked by a bat in his bedroom, which arouses him. Afterwards, he begins to have phantasmagorical visitations from Rachel. The fanged woman appears in his room every night, reducing him to a whimpering state as she drinks his blood. Paul naturally assumes her to be a vampire, feeling himself becoming one of the undead too. Meanwhile, he focuses his impotent rage on Alva, his secretary who can't locate an unimportant legal document.

Produced a few years before “American Psycho” was published, “Vampire's Kiss” is a similarly dark satire about the fragility of white masculinity. Paul would seem to have his life under control but, during his deeply shallow sessions with his shrink, he complains about his lack of a love life. His relationship with Rachel – which the film more-or-less confirms is entirely hallucinatory – involves this yuppie master of the world ceding control of his life to a woman. Rachel always dominates him in the bedroom, reducing Paul to a whimpering mess. A woman having so much power over Paul in his fantasies causes him to act out monstrously in real life. He heaps abuse on Alva, constantly harassing her, degrading her, insulting her, and eventually assaulting her. And it's no mistake on the filmmaker's behalf that the targets of Paul's wildest abuses are all non-white, non-American, female.

A lot of the movie's absurdist humor also arises from its horror content. The idea of a woman dominating Paul strikes him as so impossible, he imagines her as a fantastical creature: A vampire. Thus, Paul's splintering ego turns him into a vampire too. The movie mines humor from comparing the fantastic quality of the vampire myth with the extremely petty concerns of its protagonist. He imagines himself as unseen in a mirror, when he's still very visible... Much to the chagrin of someone sharing the public bathroom with him in that moment. He collapses in the sight of religious symbols. He improvises his fancy sofa into a casket. When unable to grow fangs on his own, he purchases the cheapest, plastic set of chompers he can find. It's a hilarious and oddball subversion of everything we've come to expect from a vampire movie.

Yet the greatest comedic weapon “Vampire's Kiss” has is Nicolas Cage's titanic performance. Cage isn't merely over-the-top. He's acting in such a grotesquely oversized fashion, that he creates a heightened cartoon reality all around him. Adopting a bizarre accent, he has one emotional outburst after another. He screams profanity, recites the ABCs, and declares his newfound vampirism as loudly as possible. Cage leaps atop desks, points wildly, gesticulates strangely with his hands and bodies, moans towards the heavens, heaves exaggeratedly, eats a live cockroach, and glares in the most unhinged fashion. It's an utterly unforgettable explosion of truly demented acting. Cage will make your mouth hang open in disbelief that someone would be willing to go so far to entertain and fascinate film viewers.

“Vampire's Kiss” is pretty interesting overall. You can read a lot more into what it says about men, women, and power roles. I only just scratched the surface there. Obviously too aggressively weird and mean-spirited to be a box office success, the film ended director Robert Bierman's career before it even really started. (He's mostly done television in the years since.) Bierman's visual sense is strong, the musical score is fittingly spooky, and the supporting cast features strong turns from Maria Conchita Alonso and Jennifer Beals. Yet Cage's ground-shaking, wildman performance overshadows absolutely everything else about this movie, making “Vampire's Kiss” the kind of cult experience that must truly be seen to be believed. [8/10]

This might be hard to imagine but A.I.P. and Roger Corman's cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were so popular, they actually spawned a few copy-cat movies. The films' popularity in Europe prompted a number of gothic horror pictures in Italy and Germany. (One of which, “Castle of Blood,” I've already reviewed this year.) Even the art house crowd got into the game with 1968's “Spirits of the Dead,” a Poe omnibus directed by Fellini, Vadim, and Malle. The most blatant emulation of the Poe Cycle was United Artist's 1963 feature “Twice-Told Tales.” Instead of adapting Poe, the film pulled from that other early American master of literary macabre: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Much like 'Tales of Terror,” it is a three-part omnibus film. And, of course, Vincent Price is here too. The similarities are such that, for years, I just assumed “Twice-Told Tales” was also an A.I.P. production.

Despite the title, only one of the stories is taken from the Hawthorne collection of the same name and all three adaptations are rather loose. In “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment,” the 79 year old Carl Heidegger celebrates his birthday with his closest friend, Alex. Carl is still mourning the death of his wife, thirty years earlier. That night, they discover special water that can restore their youth and soon use it to resurrect Syliva, unearthing horrific secrets. In “Rappaccini's Daughter,” Dr. Rappaccini is so terrified of loosing his daughter, he pumps plant poison into her until her touch is acidic and deadly. This doesn't stop the beautiful maiden form catching the idea of a young man, forcing Rappaccini into even more extreme action. Lastly, “House of the Seven Gables” Gerald Pyncheon returns to his cursed ancestral home with his new wife. He's in search of buried treasure but the ghosts of the past call the new Mrs. Pyncheon in another direction.

Despite his reputation, Hawthorne wasn’t really a horror writer, belonging solidly to the dark romantics movement instead. So “Twice-Told Tales” adds explicit spooky elements, like resurrection and ghosts, and more severe themes, like murder and betrayal. Yet “Twice-Told Tales” also seeks to emulate the dry, literary tone Hawthorne is known for. So the movie’s attempts at scares come off as pretty hokey. This is most evident in “Mr. Heideggar’s Experiment,” which adds the melodramatic plot point of a love affair, poisoning, and back-stabbing. It also throws in a big, goofy skeleton. In fact, “Twice-Told Tales” seems to think the mere presence of skeletons is the pinnacle of horror,  as they also appear in the wrap-around and the final segment. “Mr. Heideggar’s Experiment” does have pretty fun performances from Price and Sebastian Cabot in its favor, at least until the bullshit plot twist spoils their friendship.

The second segment, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” probably has the film’s best balance of horror and these literary aspirations. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the most faithful of the film’s segments, though it adds a more overt mad scientist element and a more tragic ending. The idea of a poisonous girl, whose mere touch kills anything, is fairly novel. The dramatic center of the story, a daughter struggling against an obsessively over-protective father, is fairly compelling. The story utilizes Price’s strength for sinister intonations well, though he also manages to make Rappaccini somewhat sympathetic too. Though the ending is a bit melodramatic, it also features the film’s most striking imagery.

Instead of adapting one of Hawthorne’s other short stories for its final segment — “Young Goodman Brown” would’ve been a good fit for this film’s tone — the filmmakers shove in an adaptation of a whole novel, “The House of Seven Gables.” (Price had previously starred in a more faithful film of the story back in 1940, which I previously reviewed.) It’s an extremely loose adaptation, adding more ghosts, more murder, and more spookiness to the House. Some of this stuff, like a bleeding painting or a handless corpse discovered under a stone, are kind of cool. Though the house collapsing finale is a pretty blatant attempt to emulate Corman’s “House of Usher.” However, abandoning most of Hawthorne’s heavier ideas in favor of goofier horror antics makes the segment pretty thin soup, thematically speaking. Trying to force an entire novel into the space of an anthology film makes this one of the more heavily plotted tales, dragging down the film’s already laborious pacing in its last third.

Speaking of which! While all of the Corman Poe movies had the good sense to get in and out in under 90 minutes, “Twice-Told Tales” drags on for two hours. I have no idea how successful “Twice-Told Tales” was at the box office, though it’s notable United Artist made no further Hawthorne films. The film could be seen as something of a follow-up to the same year’s “Diary of a Madman,” another spooky classic literature adaptation Price made for UA. Despite the best efforts of Price, Cabot, Richard Dennings, Beverly Garland, and Jacquline deWit, “Twice-Told Tales” is ultimately something of a snore. Its scares are hokey and its tone ponderous. [5/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Uncle Harry's Horrible House of Horrors

With “Uncle Harry's Horrible House of Horrors,” “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” touches upon a more amusingly benign moral than usual. Grouchy Uncle Harry takes his six year old nephew to the carnival for his birthday. While the kid is excited by each ride and sight he sees, his uncle cynically dismisses all the attractions. He refuses to let the kid enjoy any of them, seeing each of them as scams or death traps. Eventually, the boy convinces his uncle to let him board the haunted house attraction. This is no ordinary dark ride, however, and Uncle Harry is soon expose to a series of actual monsters.

If you hadn't guessed already, by the end of this half-hour, Uncle Harry learns to loosen up some, not be such a spoil sport, and let the kid have some fun. The idea of a kid's cartoon largely devoted to a stodgy old adult being terrified by a succession of different monsters is a fun one. Watching Uncle Harry be menaced by vampire bats, carnivorous plants, giant bugs, actual zombies, and eventually a giant swinging pendulum is exactly the kind of spooky but kid-friendly horror I expect from “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” That the kid is so excited by all of this is an amusing counterpoint. Sadly, the episode's denouncement takes it too far and lays the moral – of not loosing your childlike imagination and sense of fun – on too thick. And the host segments sees the Vaultkeeper and the Old Witch return, at their most irritating and obnoxious level yet. So this one was almost really good, is what I'm saying. [6/10]

Forever Knight: Father's Day

Another plot point “Forever Knight” was going to eventually touch upon was the mafia. The grandson of Toronto's biggest mob boss, Don Constantine, has made the decision to flee the family for the safety of his own son. This incenses the old man, who envisioned his grandson taking over the family business. The cops, Nick especially, are soon involved with protecting the guy. This is personal for Nick, as Don Constantine helped him travel to America decades before. (Apparently, the mafia has a side business giving vampire's safe passage to the new world.) Soon, the mob boss is calling in the favor owed to him by LaCroix.

“Father's Day” is a pretty solid episode largely because it directly links the typical crime-story-of-the-week and the vampire lore revolving around Nick and his old friends. LaCroix is blatantly painted as a father figure to Nick, explicitly mirroring the mobster's familial connection to his grandson. In both cases, the wannabe dad feels his offspring owes him a certain fidelity while the quasi-son demands freedom from his obsessive, controlling father figure. Building a lot of scenes around Nigel Bennet's hammy vamping as LaCroix makes this episode a delight. (LaCroix is back to his old DJ job, much to the viewer's delight.) There's a decent action sequence, of Nick fighting off some mob enforcers. The episode's tension keeps ramping up, until it looks like Nick and LaCroix are going to fight again... And then the episode just sort of ends in a disappointingly conversational anticlimax. Kind of a bum note to conclude a strong episode on. [7/10]

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 28th

Anaconda (1997)

Now the time has come where the dumb-shit studio blockbusters of my childhood are being re-evaluated as premium trash entertainment, accidental masterpieces of ironic hipster enjoyment. 1997's “Anaconda” was part of a wave of films at the time that retrofitted B-movie premises with big budget special effects, and then pitched themselves right at the pre-teen boy crowd. As someone who was nine years old in 1997, I can attest to this strategy's success. I didn't see “Anaconda” in theaters but I can vividly recall watching it multiple times on VHS. Furthermore, it was enthusiastically discussed across my elementary school playground. And now, just the other day, someone in the film group I'm a member of on Facebook was jokingly declaring “Anaconda” the greatest movie of the decade. What goes around, comes around, I guess.

Documentary filmmaker Terri Flores and researcher Steven Cale lead an expedition down the Amazon River. They head into the heart of the jungle in search of the Shirishamas, a mysterious and elusive tribe of native residents. Along the way, they pick up professional poacher Paul Serone. Serone has been tracking the giant green anaconda of legend that is said to protect the Shirishamas' territory. When they encounter the giant snake and it starts killing off members of the crew, Serone takes over the boat and drives them further into the forbidden reaches of the Amazon.

“Anaconda” is an incredibly dumb movie. It's blatantly derivative of superior films like “Jaws” (with its Quint-like villain and aquatic monster P.O.V. shots), “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (its doomed Amazon expedition and the image of a blockade in the water), and “Predator.” (Yet more P.O.V. shots.) The anaconda eats someone early on, within ear-shot of the rest of the cast, but nobody notices. The characters are all the broadest of stereotypes, from the inner-city black guy, to the British snob, the snooty intellectual, the horny couple. Despite being set on a tiny, rickety boat, the characters still have time for luxuries like golf and sexy dancing. “Anaconda” is so dumb that we are pretty clearly not meant to take it seriously. This comedic streak is represented through a goofy shot of nails wobbling through the air or Ice Cube being introduced by talking about a good day.

Not that I would expect a movie about a giant killer snake to take itself especially seriously. As a jumbo-sized slither thriller, “Anaconda” is occasionally a lot of cheesy fun. The large animatronic prop used to bring the anaconda to life is pretty stiff in its movement. But it also has a cartoonish charm, with the perpetual sneer its highly expressive face is given. The sequences of the snake slowly crushing humans or a panther have a grisly, nasty energy to them I appreciate. Director Luis Llosa, previously of “The Specialist” and lots of low budget action schlock, throws in some fun camera angles. Such as the camera peering out of the snake's throat as it swallows Serone alive. As cheesy as they are, the practical effects hold up a lot better than the dreadful looking CGI. The numerous shots of the computer-generated snake coiling around its victims, or the impression of someone's face through the animal's belly, are charmless in their rubbery weightlessness.

The big fake snake is the real star of the show but “Anaconda” still felt the need to assemble an all-star cast. Jon Voight decimates the scenery as Serone, whose Paraguayan accent sounds a lot like a Christopher Walken impression. Voight literally winks at the audience throughout the film, even after his flesh is left boiled from the snake's stomach enzymes. It's a monstrously hammy performance and a high-light of the film. A lot of the other performances are on a similarly campy wavelength. Ice Cube and Jonathan Hyde know exactly what kind of movie they are in, playing their parts like the cartoon characters they are. Jennifer Lopez and Eric Stoltz, as our heroine and her intellectual love interest, play things a little more straight. Owen Wilson and Kari Wuhrer, left in the indistinct roles as the would-be humpers, have fewer chances to express themselves.

Despite being a gussied-up exploitation film, “Anaconda” was a proper blockbuster in its day. It won its first two box office weekends and grossed 136 million globally against a 45 million dollar budget. A pretty good return on the studios' investment. However, the various sequels that followed “Anaconda” were unquestionably actual B-movie. The firsts, following seven years later, somehow appeared in theaters but the others – which include a versus flick with “Lake Placid” – debuted on DVD or the Syfy Channel. As for the original, I can hardly call it a '90s trashterpiece. It's definitely amusing and Voight's grotesque disregard of actorly tact is amazing to watch. But the movie is often as tedious as it is fun. [6/10]

Tales of Terror (1962)

Through his first three attempts to adapt the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman and his team ran into the same problem. It's hard to expand a short story into a feature film. When the movie just spun-off into its own story, such as in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” this wasn't much of an issue. But you definitely felt the strain of adaptation in “The Premature Burial.” So a novel solution was suggested for the fourth entry in the Poe Cycle. “Tales of Terror” would be an omnibus feature, packing together three different Poe stories. Naturally, Vincent Price would star in each segment while other classic genre stars, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone, were invited along. Obviously the public had no problem with this change in approach, as “Tales of Terror” was another box office success.

Price also narrates the wrap-around segment, an eerie series of voice-overs over images of beating hearts and dripping blood. (Which invokes the strangely absent “Tell-Tale Heart.”) In “Morella,” the sickly Lenora returns to her father's home. He blames her for the death of her mother, the titular Morella, during childbirth. The daughter's return summons up Moella's vengeful spirit. In “The Black Cat,” alcoholic Montresor abuses his wife and her pet cat when he isn't drinking. While at a wine-tasting, he meets Fortunato Luchresi. Fortunato and the wife begin an affair, which prompts Montresor to murderous action. Guilt is not so easily covered up though. Finally, in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” the rich Mr. Valdemar allows himself to be hypnotized at the moment of death by Mr. Carmichael. Carmichael keeps Valdemar in a mesmerized state of undeath, exploiting his riches and trying to steal his wife. This doesn't work out too well for the crooked hypnotist.

Opening “Tales of Terror” with a less well-known Poe story like “Morella,” even a relatively loose adaptation like this, was an interesting decision. Though it does feature a lot of Poe's trademark themes – guilt, a dead lover, a sickly maiden, alcoholism – so maybe that motivated the choice. The segment is most notable for the cobweb strewn, spooky old mansion it is set in. (Supposedly recycled from “House of Usher.”) The scene where the ghost of Morella, depicted as a shadowy silhouette with spindly fingers, creeps over Lorena's sleeping form is among “Tales of Terror's” spookiest moments. Price's performance is quite good, as he's pulled between the resentment he feels towards his daughter and his familial bond with her. However, the story has a somewhat anticlimactic ending and ends up feeling somewhat minor.

“The Black Cat,” which has more in common with “The Cask of Amontillado,” shifts gear from the grim gothic tone that has directed these films up to this point. Instead, it's a farce and a damn fun one. Peter Lorre is hilarious as the belligerent, usually drunk Montresor. A scene where he harasses random bystanders for cash is hysterical. Price plays Fortunato as the dandiest of foppish dandies, giving in totally into the camp tendencies that always floated under his performance. (To the point were it's absolutely inconceivable that Fortunato would have any interest in Montresor's wife.) Watching these two legends play off each other is worth the price of admission by itself, especially during the bitterly funny live entombment moment. Montresor's drunken hallucinations allows Corman to include his trademark psychedelic sequence, which features random lobsters and a live decapitation.

With its final segment, Corman and Matheson set about adapting one of Poe's most frightening stories. This particular take on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” does maintain the chilling sequences of the dead, hypnotized Valdemar describing a cold, isolated afterlife. Price's droning delivery of doom-filled intonings was made for exactly this kind of thing. Basil Rathbone is nicely nasty as the duplicitous hypnotist. Corman confines most of the story to the same two rooms, shooting through the leaping embers of a fireplace or in multi-colored close-ups of Price's lifeless face. The final shock of the story is fantastically delivered, with what are some unnervingly gooey special effects for 1962.

While the first and last segment both feature some strong moments, the comedic middle chapter made the biggest impression on the filmmakers and audiences. Corman, Matheson, Price, and Lorre would bring the same approach to “The Raven” the next year, with the added bonus of Boris Karloff. (I reviewed that film back in 2015, so it'll be excluded from this Blog-a-thon.) Much of the same team went around again with “The Comedy of Terrors” a year after that, Rathbone returning to the fold. All that aside, “Tales of Terror” is quite a solid collection of stories, each strong in their own ways. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: The Brothers Gruff

“Tales from the Crypt” rarely touched on monsters like goblins or trolls, forcing the kids cartoon spin-off to pick up the slack. “The Brothers Gruff” follows Eddie, who is constantly tormented by his older brother, Horace. Eddie's best friend is Sheldon, who is obsessed with mythological monsters and the various rules used to combat them. Eddie and Sheldon are convinced a troll lives under a near-by bridge. After running across it one day, Eddie starts to suspect the bridge troll followed him home. After Sheldon's advice proves unhelpful, the troll appears and kidnaps Horace. This forces the kid to venture under the troll's bridge and barter for his brother's return.

“The Brothers Gruff” looks like another “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” episode about learning to appreciate your asshole siblings. Considering Horace's teasing of Eddie graduates to full-blown emotional abuse, I'm glad the episode gives the older brother a proper comeuppance. The episode is narrated by Eddie, given a properly sardonic voice by Amos Crawley. However, the humor is this episode is a little too manic and hyper-active for my taste, especially once the (very annoying) bridge troll appears on-screen. However, I did really like the host segments. It's devoted to the Cryptkeeper playing cards with some friends and thankfully does not feature any obnoxious antics from the Old Witch or the Vaultkeeper. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Undue Process

“Undue Process” has to be one of “Forever Knight's” grimmer episode. The episode begins with Natalie's previously unmentioned god-daughter being kidnapped. A suspect, a known child molester, has been determined to be the likely perpetrator. The worst comes to pass, as the girl's lifeless body is found. Soon, a public manhunt ensues for the kidnapper. Only Nick intervening with his vampire powers prevents an act of vigilante justice. The troubles are only beginning, as a public defender comes to the accused man's defense, while Natalie handles her grief. Nick, meanwhile, thinks back to when he was the target of mob mentality.

“Undue Process” is a very confused episode. It wants to make a point about the evilness of mob justice. That's obviously what the scenes devoted to people on the street hunting down the accused child-killer and Nick's flashbacks are meant to convey. Yet, the episode eventually reveals, the guy actually did this heinous act. “Undue Process” tries to double-down on twists after that, concerning the motivations of the guy's public defenders, which only further confuses whatever this one is trying to get at. That scattered approach further makes the episode unable to handle the heaviness of a dead child. It's definitely one of the more unsatisfying hours in the series so far. [5/10]

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 27th

With the box office success of “House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” it must've seemed obvious to Roger Corman that the public was ready for an on-going series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Evidence suggests that his bosses at American International Picture were reluctant to agree. For the third entry in the Poe Cycle, “The Premature Burial,” Corman decided to make the film independently through Pathe Labs. This prevented Vincent Price from starring, as he was under contract with A.I.P. Corman instead cast his “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes” star, Ray Milland. Funny enough, James Nicholson and Sam Z. Arkoff would bully their way into the production anyway, perhaps realizing Corman was right after all.

His entire life, Guy Carrol has been terrified of being buried alive. His father fell into a death-like cataleptic fits and was interned, only to awaken inside his casket still alive. Guy, who inherited his dad's condition, is terrified the same thing will happen to him. His phobia is so bad that he creates several caskets with elaborate, built-in escape hatches. His obsession is interrupting his relationship with his comely fiance, Emily. Eventually, the inevitable happens. Guy seems to die of fright and is buried, those around him seemingly unaware that he is still alive inside his grave.

With each subsequent entry in the Poe Cycle, Roger Corman seemed to be building on his approach to gothic atmosphere. Just as a visual experience, “Premature Burial” is absolutely gorgeous. The movie begins with a stunning pan over a fog-strewn graveyard, shot on an obviously artificial sound stage. The somber blue, blacks, and cloudy whites of the backdrops make it look like the cast members are walking around inside giant watercolor paintings. Naturally, long portions of the movie are set within the sprawling hallways and dining rooms of Carrol's spooky castle. The family tomb, under the home, is an especially notable set. Corman continues to include psychedelic fantasy sequences, such as a trippy and somewhat overlong nightmare scene here. If you're like me, and this kind of stuff sends a pleasant chill up your spine, “The Premature Burial” is absolutely a must-see.

Sadly, the rest of the movie doesn't really live up to its fantastic atmosphere. The biggest problem with “The Premature Burial” is simply mechanical. From the title card on down, we are waiting for the main character to be buried alive. It's all he talks about. Inevitably, he ends up buried alive. Even more inevitably, he digs himself up and goes on a mad rampage of revenge against those he blames for his premature burial. This stuff is fun – an electrocution death scene is especially grisly – but it takes a while to get there. Far too much of “The Premature Burial” feels like the audience is waiting around for something more interesting to happen.

Another big problem with “The Premature Burial” is its leading man. Ray Milland, by no means, gives a bad performance here. He certainly does a good job of intoning gravely about his horrifying family history and his persistent fears. There's even a wry humor to his delivery, especially in the moment he shows off the various countermeasures he's invented to being buried alive. Yet, all throughout the film, one can't help but wonder what Vincent Price would've done in this part. While Milland seems resistant to going totally over-the-top, we know Price would've spiraled completely into hysterics. A leading man that seems slightly detached from the material, instead of embracing hammy emotion fully, drags the movie down some.

“The Premature Burial” also suffers from an ending where a character outright explains a plot twist, a straight example of telling and not showing. While Corman and his team managed to successfully expand a short Poe story with “Pit and the Pendulum,” his “Premature Burial” proved harder to expand into a feature film without spinning its wheels for a while. While obviously among the weaker films in the Poe Cycle, I'd still say “The Premature Burial” is worth seeing for that bitching, foggy atmosphere. That stuff goes a long way for me and I wish the movie around it was more riveting. [6/10]

For many, many years, horror writers and filmmakers have been fascinated with the idea of humanoid fish creatures living in seas, oceans, and lakes. The idea of human/fish hybrids being out there somewhere dates back to ancient myths of mermaids, selkies, Jenny Greenteeth, and other primordial aquatic races. It's all wrapped up in man's mutual fear and need for the oceans and, perhaps, the unavoidable conclusion that life must've began in the sea. Though Lovecraft's Deep Ones provide a literary precursor, Universal's “Creature from the Black Lagoon” would put a permanent face and name to these fishy humanoids for all time, inspiring numerous other films and writers. Among the Gillman's seediest offspring is 1980's “Humanoids from the Deep.”

The fishermen of Noyo, California are facing a problem. The local salmon population, which the local economy has always depended on, is mysteriously drying up. Meanwhile, massive corporation Canco is preparing to open a new canning plant, promising to bring jobs to the disenfranchised (and skeptical) townsfolk. This turns out to be the least of their problem. Soon, humanoid fish monsters – results of Canco's experiments with growth hormones – begin to crawl out of the water, killing men and raping women. A ragtag team of researchers and locals band together to stop the humanoids from the deep before the yearly festival.

“Humanoids from the Deep” comes to us from New World Pictures, those fine purveyors of seventies and eighties exploitation cinema. Even by these standards, the film is an especially nasty experience. Within its opening minutes, it breaks two of the big rules of horror fiction by killing both a child and about a dozen different dogs. Director Barbara Peters, previously of “Summer School Teachers,” clearly enjoyed orchestrating gory action sequences. The humanoids use their claws and teeth to literally rip people apart. Faces are torn away and chest ripped down until the rib cages are visible. During the climatic rampage through the carnival, the fish people gorily dismember one victim after another. One notable moment has them straight-up ripping a dude's head off. The gore effects are impressively visceral while the rubbery fish monsters – with their underbites, exposed brains, and comically long arms – are convincingly slimy creations. 

Of course, “Humanoids from the Deep's” notorious reputation isn't because of its explicit gore. The film takes Lovecraft's whispered about “profane rituals” and the romantic subtext of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to its most extreme, sleaziest conclusion. These fish monsters are horny. The film portrays this fishy hunger for woman-flesh in as leering a fashion as possible. There's lots of shots of women in swimsuits or underwear, when they aren't simply naked. (A bizarre scene involves a guy seducing a girl with his ventriloquist dummy and she's really into it.) It's well known that director Peters was reluctant to film the T&A, so producer Roger Corman hired a second-unit guy to film more explicit sex... Which results in sequences of slimy fish men ripping women's tops off, their breasts bouncing everywhere, and getting raped on-screen. It's tasteless and gross. But there is something admirable about the film's complete lack of tact. After all, it's hard to be offended by something as ridiculous as fish-man rape.

Much like New World's previous production, “Piranha,” “Humanoids from the Deep” clearly owes a lot of inspiration to “Jaws.” While very different, “Humanoids” shares its mutated DNA with Spielberg's shark epic. In both, the monster attacks are downplayed by local authorities so as to not interrupt a tourist-attracting celebration. However, the film expands that into a wider anti-corporate ideology. The new canning facility is opposed by the local Native American population, being built on their land. Canco has hired thugs to rough up the native population, hoping to prevent them from suing. That Canco is ultimately responsible for the vicious humanoids more clearly marks the company as a force of evil. Though, oddly enough, Canco's lead enforcer is giving a redemptive moment in the last act, rescuing a little girl. But I'm chalking that up to Vic Morrow wanting to play a hero.

“Humanoids from the Deep” was met with disgust back in 1980 from mainstream critics. They weren't alone. Most of the cast and crew weren't involved with the graphic reshoots. They were shocked to see such explicit moments of fish-monster-on-human sexual assault in their movie. And yet the sleazy gusto with which the film depicts its subject has won “Humanoids from the Deep” a certain cult following. Here in 2019, with a Best Picture winner and respected writers like Alan Moore touching on the subject of slimy fish lovin', it's tempting to say “Humanoids from the Deep” was ahead of its time. Okay, it obviously wasn't but I just wanted to type out that sentence. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Growing Pains

I'm really surprised it took “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” until season two to pay homage to “Little Shop of Horrors.” In “Growing Pains,” botany nerd Wendell meets his dream-girl in the similarly nerdy Rose, an asthmatic but pretty girl with a comparable passion for plant life. The two are bullied by a pair of jerks named Chet and Louie. They get revenge on them by secretly replacing their botany class project with poison ivy. As Wendell and Rose grow closer, it becomes increasingly clear that the young girl is hiding something about her family. As the bullies arrive to pay them back, and Rose is without her inhaler, the strange truth is revealed. 

Here's another episode refreshingly free of a heavy-handed moral. (Other than “don't be a bully,” I guess.) Instead, it's a super-cute story about two nerds falling in love. Wendell and Rose's courtship is agreeably awkward. His total inability to see how strange her home life is, even when she has giant venus flytraps growing in her backyard, becomes pretty funny. It's easy to guess where this is going, with the inhaler being fairly blatant foreshaodwing. Yet the way that plays out, with Wendell being utterly delighted instead of scared, is absolutely adorable. I also thought the design of the plant humanoids were really cute. With the exception of the typically obnoxious Old Witch jokes in the host segments, this is an all-together charming episode. [7/10] 

Forever Knight: Faithful Followers

I associate the '90s' fascination with cults as a post-Heaven's Gate phenomenon but I guess it must've been in the collective pop culture mindscape before then because here's “Forever Knight” putting its stamp on the subject. At the insistence of the police commissioner, Nick goes undercover in the local chapter of Illuminology, a sun-worshiping cult that also involves auditing its members' darkest secrets. One of the sect members were recently murdered. Schanke and Natalie become worried as Nick cuts off all contact with him. It appears the vampire is truly indoctrinated into the community. Meanwhile, Nick recalls a time a fellow vampire invited him to Egypt to investigate an ancient culture that had a possible cure to vampirism. 

“Faithful Followers” has a problem that previous episodes of “Forever Knight” have run into. It tries to generate suspense out of the question of whether or not Nick has truly been brainwashed by the cult. Obviously, viewers of the show will immediately realize he has not. That makes the long scenes of Nick acting weird around his friend feel truly superfluous. Beyond that, the cult stuff is kind of goofy, since their rituals involved sun stickers laced with addictive, psychedelic drugs. Having said that, I do like Natalie sneaking into the Illuminology building to help Nick, or Schanke's slow realization of what is happening. The flashback scenes prove a little more interesting, to see Nick interacting with another sympathetic vampire, even if those Egyptian sets are very cheap looking. [5/10] 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 26th

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

“House of Usher,” with its higher production values, was considered a risk for American International Pictures. The film became a success, such a success, that production immediately started on a second Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, with Roger Corman behind the camera and Vincent Price in front of it. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was quickly chosen as the source material but that presented a problem. Poe's story is pretty short and doesn't present much grist for a feature film. So Corman and soon-to-be-legendary writer Richard Matheson managed to cook up a lengthy story around elements from Poe's story, creating another classic in the process.

English nobleman Barnard has recently learned that his sister, Elizabeth, has died mysteriously. He travels to the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina. Nicholas' father was a torturer for the Inquisition, the torture chamber still being present inside the sprawling castle. Nicholas watched his father murder his mother and her lover and still feels the scars from that. He believed Eizabeth died of shock after discovering the torture chamber and feels immense guilt over this. As Barnard stays longer at the castle, developing an attraction to Nicholas' sister, he watches the Don become increasingly convinced that the ghost of the late Elizabeth still haunts the castle, his sanity starting to crack up.

Watching the Poe Cycle in order, you really notice reoccurring themes, even as early as the second film in. Perhaps A.I.P. was eager to recreate “House of Usher's “ success. Both films follow a traveler coming to a strange, sprawling gothic manor, the film beginning with the protagonist arriving at the cursed location. There, he meets Price's character, an eccentric who is overcome with emotion. He continually suffers until he goes mad. In both, Price's sister becomes the love interest for the heroic character. Much like Poe's work, both movies show a preoccupation with being buried alive, the raw terror of facing death head-on without actually being dead. I'm intrigued to see how these themes and reoccurring motifs will continue to evolve as I watch these films in order.

Despite their similarities, I think “The Pit and the Pendulum” is actually head-and-shoulders superior to “House of Usher.” The film opens with a swirl of psychedelic colors, Les Baxter's sinister score – among his most discordant – playing overhead. Aside from the music, the opening sequence of Barnard arriving at the castle is silent. This establishes an atmosphere of creeping dread. It's pretty easy to figure out where the plot is headed. Nicholas is obviously being gaslit by Elizabeth and his thought-to-be-best-friend. What makes this slow escalation,  more crazy events slowly cracking up Nicholas' sanity, is how Corman makes it seem inevitable. The flashbacks to Nicholas' traumatic childhood, shown in the same cobalt blue dream-images seen in “House of Usher,” set us towards an inescapable fate of violence, torture, and madness. Someone will end up in that torture chamber. Someone will end up entombed alive. “Pit and the Pendulum” draws out that inevitability for extensive tension.

Helping along that almost tragic feeling of unavoidable horror is Vincent Price at his most histrionic. From the moment, Nicholas appears on-screen, he's intoning gravely about forbidden subjects. Price vacillates wildly between two emotional extremes. Nicholas has never truly recovered from his childhood scars and they can still send him into depressive episode. He spends large swathes of the movie grieving for Elizabeth, her bedroom practically reducing him to tears. As he receives more signs of her possible resurrection, flashes of hope are overcome by lingering guilt. Finally, after the game reveals itself, Price descends into full-on cackling madness. It's all absolutely over-the-top – look at how exaggerated his face of terror is when walking into a spider web – but Price was a master at overacting. He makes Nicholas a pathetic figure of pity before turning him into a truly intimidating villain. The moment Price visibly snaps is absolutely brilliant.

And as far as pure visceral impact goes, few other films in the Poe Cycle can match “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The movie's gothic trappings are top-notch, as the castle sets are packed with cobwebs-strewn underground tunnels lit only be candelabras, hidden passages into forbidden places, spiral staircase that head down into darkened areas. Of course, the titular pit and pendulum is the film's highlight. Price going fully nuts as he describe lurid madness and torture, as the giant blade swings closer to the bound hero, is the stuff of classic horror legend. Of the film's many sights, the only one more horrifying than the twisted visage of a corpse buried alive are the mad, glaring eyes of someone trapped inside an iron maiden, which closes the movie off on an unforgettable image.

It's a good thing Price is so fantastic, as the supporting cast is weirdly sleepy. John Kerr lacks Mark Damon's humanity, making a largely stiff hero. Luana Anders is robotic as the love interest. Barbara Steele's dynamite screen presence is well utilized in her few scenes but the odd decision to dub her natural voice is distracting. While it's certainly possible my opinion on the other Poe Cycle movies will evolve as I rewatch and review them, it'll be hard to top “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Corman takes the tricks he learned on "House of Usher" and improved them ten-fold with this masterpiece of vintage gothic terror. [9/10]

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Let's recall that time, in the late nineties and early 2000s, when it seemed like Artisan Entertainment was at the cutting edge of cinema. It seemed, for a while there, every independent film of note I watched had that distinctive silver-on-black logo in front of it. Two weeks after their release of “The Blair Witch Project” would basically change the horror genre forever, the studio dropped another horror movie. “Stir of Echoes” was adapted from a 1958 novel by Richard Matheson – so here's a double feature of sorts – and directed by blockbuster screenwriter turned director David Koepp. A modest box office success at the time, the film has won better than average notices over the years. So I'm finally getting around to watching it.

After his sister-in-law reveals that his wife Maggie is pregnant again, blue collar worker Tom Witzky is convinced to let himself be hypnotized. That's when things start to get weird. He notices his three-year-old son Jake is having conversations with a girl that isn't there. He begins to have unsettling nightmares about death and bodily decay. He even has premonitions, sensing his son is in danger and that a neighborhood boy – son of a close friend – will attempt suicide. Soon, Tom becomes obsessed with these visions and begins to suspect that his neighborhood is covering up a grisly murder.

I guess I've gotten used to seeing families in horror movies always being portrayed as on the brink of collapse. The Witzky household in “Stir of Echoes” is surprisingly tight-knit in an appealing way. They certainly have their challenges. Tom is bitter about being stuck in his lot in life. As he grows increasingly fixated on his new supernatural obsession, he and Maggie certainly argue. Yet this family are united by their love for each other. Maggie and Tom are extremely protective of Jake, who they emotionally support in a number of ways. Even when frightened by his increasing unhinged quality, Maggie still stands by Tom. That you care so much about the family central to its tale makes “Stir of Echoes” especially effective.

What most surprised me about “Stir of Echoes” is how genuinely creepy it is. The film engineers an eerie atmosphere with a number of different approaches. There's moment of squirming discomfort, such as a cringe-inducing nightmare Tom has about tearing a tooth out. Befitting its title, the film's sound design is excellent. A cliché I normally hate – the little boy's voice suddenly going demonic – is actually effective here, as its deployed without drawing too much attention to itself. Even the big jump scares, the ghost girl suddenly entering into frame, work pretty well. Koepp utilizes a reoccurring siren, often accompanied by the screen flashing red, to keep the audience edgy. Another visual trick, a point-of-view shot during a key moment, also makes an impression on the viewer. Subtly, the film indicates that something is wrong during a nightmare sequence, ending in a decent shock. Overall, Koepp shows a head for horror that I never would've expected from the director of “Mortecai.”

Another element in “Stir of Echoes'” favor is its leading man turn from Kevin Bacon. Bacon excels in blue collar roles like these, emitting an everyman likability that makes him seem like a decent worker, a good dad, and a solid husband. Yet Bacon is also great at loosing his mind, which the film's increasing stakes certainly provides plenty of opportunities for. As for the rest of the cast, Kathryn Erbe is feisty and warm as Maggie. Illena Douglas gets some of the film's most colorful dialogue as the sister-in-law who kicks off the plot. Befitting the Chicago setting, Kevin Dunn gets to trot out his native son status with pride.

“Stir of Echoes” certainly has its flaws. The ending is slightly anticlimactic, though logical enough. The way it feels the need to explain every facet of its haunting is disappointing. However, I found myself getting a lot out of this one. Koepp and his team commit to a chilly atmosphere, which is carried all the way to the very unnerving final image. Well regarded without exactly being a favorite, “Stir of Echoes” is an underrated, spooky little chiller that definitely deserves your attention. By the way, the movie also got a direct-to-video sequel in 2007, though it was a case of an unrelated film being dolled-up after the fact to connect to another movie. I kind of doubt that one is worth seeking out... [8/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: The Haunted Mine

I wasn't a regular viewer of of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” as a kid, as my eyes were usually glued elsewhere on Saturday mornings. However, “The Haunted Mine” is an episode I definitely recall seeing. Fancy-pants city boy Dale heads into the desert to convince his elderly Aunt Melva to move out of her dilapidated home. She refuses to go anywhere without her beloved pet dog, who is both partially death and blind. Meanwhile, the once abandoned local mine shaft – which is haunted, according to local legend – is being re-opended. The blasting causes cracks in the ground, Dale and Aunt Melva falling into the caverns below. That's where they all encounter a strange species of deadly subterranean creatures.

“The Haunted Mine” has got one of the better “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” premises. Despite the title, this is not a ghost story. Instead, our ragtag group of heroes are beset by oddball monsters that don't really fit any other horror archetypes. Their appearances recall both rats and cats, while their pale and bumpy flesh is pretty grotesque, and their claws and fangs make them dangerous. It's a novel premise that honestly could've been expanded into a neat feature. Further refreshing is how this episode doesn't seem to have the sappy moral message that bogs down most of the rest of this show. While the characters are kind of annoying – especially the old miner that has improbably been living down there for forty years – I'll admit watching Dale evolve from asshole rich guy to scrappy hero is amusing. I do wish the mine shaft setting was utilized a little more inventively. Either way, this is a solid little episode. (Though I'm thoroughly sick of the Cryptkeeper and Vault Keeper's rivalry, I did enjoy all the cowboy puns in the host segments.) [7/10]

Forever Knight: Hunted

Since its a genre television show from the nineties, it was inevitable that “Forever Knight” would do a spin on “The Most Dangerous Game.” Criminals of increasing severity have been killed all throughout the city. Each one is left wearing the same, peculiar watch. It's apparent a serial killer of some sorts is active. While tracking a tough guy biker, Nick is shot several times, shrugging it off. This guy isn't the killer but the latest victim. He informs Knight and Schanke that he was offered two millions to be hunted. And now that the hunter has gotten a peek at Nick's ability, they want to hunt him next. Schanke is kidnapped and used as bait.

The bad-guy-of-the-week on “Forever Knight” are usually totally forgettable. “Hunted,” however, creates a really memorable adversary for Nick. Credited only as the Hunter, Gwynyth Walsh is gleefully hammy as a villain that deploys a number of methods to claim her prey. Watching her grow fascinated or flustered with Nick, before her suitably ironic defeat, is a lot of fun. Even if most of the episode is set in a darkly lit warehouse, there's definitely still some fun to be had in seeing Nick face off against an enemy who actually planned to fight a vampire. The flashback has Nick, Jeanette, and LaCroix chasing a homeless man for the thrill of the hunt, which compliments the main storyline nicely. There's also some cute flirting between our vampire hero and Natalie at the end. So, over all, “Hunted” is definitely among the strongest “Forever Knight” episodes I've thus far watched. [7/10]

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 25th

House of Usher (1960)

Throughout the 1950s, American International Pictures had found great success releasing cheapie, black-and-white monster movies, usually distributing them as double features to drive-ins. As a new decade dawned, AIP started to loose market share to a series of bloodier, sexier, brightly colored, gothic monster movies from some British studio named Hammer. Noticing this, Roger Corman convinced the studio heads to spend the amount of money they'd usually save for two movies on one, shot in widescreen CinemaScope and vivid Technicolor. To match the literary adaptations Hammer had been making, Corman decided to adapt an American source material: Edgar Allen Poe's “House of Usher.” Vincent Price, definitely the U.S. equivalent to Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, would star. The resulting film would be a huge success, prompting AIP, Corman, and Price to re-team on a whole series of Poe adaptations.

Philip Winthrop travels into the Baltimore countryside to the crumbling, ancestral home of the Usher family. He's there to retrieve his beautiful young fiance, Madeline. Her older brother, Roderick, refuses to let her leave the home. Both Madeline and Roderick suffer from a strange malady, being overly sensitive to any loud noises, bright lights, or touches. Moreover, Roderick is obsessed with the family's long history of madness and murder. He believes that Madeline will die the minute she leaves the house. This fear seemingly comes true as Madeline is struck dead overnight. Quickly burying her, Philip quickly realizes that Madeline wasn't truly dead when Roderick placed her inside the stuffed family tomb.

Compared to the shock-filled monster movies AIP largely made up to this point, Corman's “House of Usher” aims for a different kind of scare. From the opening credits, with their swirl of psychedelic colors, it's clear “House of Usher” is trying to create a dream-like atmosphere. The dilapidated Usher house is always surrounded by fog, which glows almost purple under Corman's camera. The building itself is composed of winding staircase, dusty hallways, and darkened corners. The distorted family portraits are an especially creepy touch. Corman seemed determined to prove that color could be as atmospheric and creepy as black and white. He makes a good case, as “House of Usher” looks deeply moody. The titular abode is rift with uneasy energy.

That uncanny quality is increased by the tremors that shake through the building form time to time. The film is supported by an excellent score and quite good sound design, making the “House of Usher” an even more unsettling place to be at. That tension is eventually released. Sometimes through a chandelier shaking loose and nearly crushing Madeline and Philip. Sometimes through a trippy dream sequence, in which Philip walks into a party occupied by the madly grinning Usher ancestors. That sequence – with its blue-tinting, mad faces, and suddenly appearing skeletons – borders on the campy. However, that campiness is short-lived. When the gone-mad Madeline pulls herself from her tomb, eyes glaring ahead in steely concentration, it's practically shocking. Corman definitely makes the film's fiery climax hit with a lot of impact.

Mark Damon's Philip is technically the protagonist of the film. Damon, who was appealing in his various films with Mario Bava, is fine here. He comes off as a little stiff, when trying to reason with the clearly unhinged Roderick. But his scenes with Madeline, played by the bubbly and lovely Myrna Fahey, are cute and he's allowed to go a bit over-the-top later on. Of course, Vincent Price is truly the star of the show here. Price does not play Roderick as an over-the-top villain. Instead, he's someone consumed by his fears, utterly terrified of the family curse he's built up in his mind. Price, of course, could panic with the best of them. When Roderick's worst fears start to come true, Price unleashes the wailing madness that's floated within the character the entire time.

It's a testament to Edgar Allen Poe's standing within the American mind that “House of Usher” would prove so popular in 1960. It's not really a ghost story, monster movie, or psycho-thriller in any ordinary sense. It's hard to say if anything supernatural even happens in the film. Instead, it's all about neurosis boiling over, repressed passion – some clearly bordering on the incestuous – driving the residents of the home mad. And the destined-to-fall Usher house is one that reflects as much on its occupants as they reflect on it. This template of gothic settings and psychological madness would prove fertile for Corman and Price, at least for a while. “House of Usher” gets the Poe Cycle off to a pretty great start. [8/10]

Fire in the Sky (1993)

I've mentioned before how the nineties brought with them a newfound interest in alien abduction stories. I'm not sure what was going on in the culture that people where suddenly fascinated with nocturnal visits from greys and anal probing. Maybe “Communion” was a bigger deal than I recall. Maybe we were all just eagerly hoping for proof of life on other planets. Yet these far out ideas, of people being zapped out of their beds at night and into alien space ships, where passionless visitors performed strange test on them, were about as mainstream as possible. Look no further than “Fire in the Sky.” Based off a supposed abduction experience that occurred in the 1970s, the film was a 15 million dollar production from a mainstream studio. Keep in mind that budget was a lot more money in 1993.

The place is Snowflake, Arizona. The time is November, 1975. Travis Walton, a well-liked guy, heads off to work with his co-workers – including best friend Mike Rogers. After a hard day spent cutting trees, they drive home that night through the woods. This is when they see the sky lit up in red. An unidentified flying object floats through the sky. Travis gets out to investigate and is struck by a ray of light from the craft, tossed backwards. His friends drive off, terrified, before returning and finding Travis gone. The local police initially treat Travis' disappearance as a potential homicide, investigating Travis' friends. Five days later, Travis is found, clearly traumatized. He recounts a traumatic encounter with extraterrestrials.

Including “Fire in the Sky” as part of a Halloween horror movie marathon is probably slightly misleading. This is not truly a horror film. For most of its run time, it's a mildly tense drama about life in a small town being disrupted. Snowflake, Arizona is depicted as fairly idyllic, occupied by wholesome families and good-natured good ol' boys. Travis Walton's disappearance, the idea that a well-liked member of the community was possibly murdered, disrupts that peace. The group of Travis' friends are harassed by pokey cops and local hard-asses. They almost get into fist fights, with each other and other people. Moreover, Mike and his friends are unsettled by the feeling that no one believes them, that the world is turning on them. This stuff is mildly interesting, executed decently enough, but is barely enough to build a movie around.

This stuff is not what people remember about “Fire in the Sky.” Instead, the film's alien encounter is utterly fantastic. The UFO's appearance is proceeded by the night sky turning bright red, an unforgettable sight. The image of Travis levitating into the air, under the beam of light, is dream-like. Powered by Mark Isham's pounding score, the sequence is appropriately thrilling. Yet it's nothing compared to “Fire in the Sky's” climax, where Travis recounts his experience on the alien craft. It's a truly bizarre and nightmarish special effects reel. He awakens in a fleshy cocoon, floats up a part organic/part industrial tunnel, and ends up crashing into a decomposing corpse. The aliens first appear in silvery, black-eyed suits. Which is creepy enough but the creatures themselves, beady-eyed potato monsters with utterly dispassionate gazes, are among the creepiest extraterrestrial ever put to celluloid. The claustrophobia and gross sliminess is ratcheted up when the aliens in case Travis in a mucus-y membrane before shoving some sort of apparatus down his throat. It's an intense series of nightmarish images that are truly unforgettable.

Helping sell “Fire in the Sky” during its less interesting moments is a fairly capable cast. The film is a rare starring role for Robert Patrick and he's really given a chance to show his ability. As Mike, Patrick gets to play an average man that is put in a hard spot, accused of killing his closest friend in the whole world. D.B. Sweeney, as Travis, spends his early scenes as the most likable guy in the world. Which is a lot to swallow. Once he returns to earth, clearly suffering from some alien-induced PTSD, Sweeney's performance becomes a lot more compelling. James Garner has a showy part as the state police officer brought in to investigate the case. Garner brings all the folksy wit to the part you expect from him.

:”Fire in the Sky” did not exactly burn up the box office charts in 1993 and it would seem the film disappeared from the public memory soon enough... Until recently, when it seemed to me that a bunch of people my age – people old enough to have seen this movie on VHS or cable when they were kids – have started talking about the nightmarish abduction sequence. Even if the rest of the movie isn't that memorable, those scenes definitely make an impression. The whole movie is worth seeing for them. Oh, by the way, the true story the book and movie are based on does not hold up to much scrutiny, you might not be surprised to read. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Dead Men Don't Jump

Basketball was such a cultural force in the nineties, with Michael Jordan being one of the biggest celebrities in the world and everyone knowing someone who owned a Chicago Bulls jersey, that even a children's horror series felt the need to riff on the sport. “Dead Men Don't Jump” follows teenager Nathan, who frequently forgoes school in order to hustle at basketball. This is encouraged by his unscrupulous “manager” Marvin but greatly concern his studious little brother, Erin. Marvin sets up a one-on-one match that he swears will be Nathan's route to fame and fortune. Yet this is no ordinary basketball game. The other player is a towering, Grim Reaper-like figure and Nathan's very soul is on the line.

I feel like “Dead Men Don't Jump” – another good title – had the opportunity to comment on how the sports industry sells dreams to underprivileged kids that are ultimately unobtainable. Of course, a Saturday morning cartoon was never going to do that but this is still a stronger episode. I'm a sucker for stories about competitions between immortal beings and regular humans, their souls being the wager. Applying this to basketball is something I don't think I've seen before. As silly as it sounds, the hooded b-ball player from beyond is actually a fairly intimidating figure, especially with the way he toys with Nathan by going easy on him at first. This is one of season two's better animated episodes, with the abandoned court being fairly spooky and the various dunk accomplishments being well done.

Naturally, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” tags something like a sappy moral to this story. Nathan realizes that there are no easy routes to success, that everything must be worked for. There's an element of “stay in school, kids!,” as well as some “Tortoise and the Hare”-style underdog success at the very end, which comes off as totally unearned. I'm also trying to figure out what's been bugging me about the host segments, with the new addition of the Vaultkeeper and the Old Witch. While the Cryptkeeper's puns ultimately direct the viewer to the story, commenting on or even enhancing its themes, the Vaultkeeper and the Old Witch's schtick exist for its own purpose. It's additional punnery and slapstick in a show that really didn't need it, which is why their act is feeling increasingly like nails on the chalkboard to me. Otherwise, this is a solid episode. [7/10]

Forever Knight: Capital Offense

“Capital Offense” is another episode of “Forever Knight” that is kind of hard to pin down. The episode details Nick and Schanke capturing Laura Garfield, an escaped convict from Texas who is wanted for brutally murdering her husband. Laura maintains her innocence, blaming a local scumbag for the crimes, and Nick is inclined to believe her. He recalls a town in 1800 century France, when a friendly nun protected him from a gang of bloodthirsty vigilantes. However, the present day case with Laura isn't as open-and-close as he memories from a decade prior.

“Capital Offense” has an interesting idea, that Nick ultimately puts his trust in the wrong person. Yet that twist is delivered in a rather mean-spirited tone, making it seem like the screenwriters really wanted us to hate Laura for some reason. (Her accent is annoying but, otherwise, I have no strong feelings about the character either way.)  It does lead to a dramatic ending, where Nick is feeling especially nihilistic and nearly gives into drinking cow's blood. The flashbacks to France are a lot more interesting, Nick showing some vulnerability as a young woman keeps him safe. The totally superfluous side stuff actually ends up being much more interesting in this episode. LaCroix got his old job as a radio DJ back and there's a running gag about Schanke wanting to go fishing with his wife. Both of those elements made me laugh. [5/10]

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Halloween 2019: September 24th

IT: Chapter Two (2019)

I figured the first “IT” would be popular. Stephen King's novel is among his most highly regarded and was a bestseller. The original television mini-series was, in its own way, iconic. The movie was obviously capitalizing on the success of “Stranger Things” with its nostalgic, “kids-on-bikes” vibe. But I also figured the public's interest in killer clown shenanigans had peaked by that point. Boy, was I wrong. Andy Muschietti's “IT,” of course, became the highest grossing horror film in cinema history, at least without adjusting for inflation. A sequel was already a foregone conclusion, as this was always planned as a two-part adaptation, but clearly the demand for “IT: Chapter Two” was overwhelming. While the box office receipts for the second “IT” have been typically massive, the general reaction has been much more mixed. After about a two week delay, I am finally able to judge for myself.

Twenty-seven years ago, the Losers Club – Bill, Eddie, Ben, Mike, Richie, Bev, and Stan – banished the malevolent, child-eating entity under the streets of Derry, Maine. They made a vow that, should It ever return, they would come back to kill it once and for all. The killings have started again and Mike, who stayed behind as the town librarian, recruits everyone to return to Derry. The shock is too much for Stan, who commits suicide, leaving the now adult Losers one short. As they explore the town, preparing to face It down once and for all, they rediscover the traumatic memory of their youthful summer.

I wouldn’t say I loved 2017’s “IT” but it definitely exceeded my expectation and was a surprisingly well-acted and fun horror show. I liked it just enough to be disappointed in “IT: Chapter Two.” A large chunk of the movie is devoted to the adult Losers tracking down “tokens” from their childhood, which triggers old, previously unseen memories and modern day encounters with It. This leads to a seriously episodic structure. It feels a little like the filmmakers wanted to utilize some of the unused incidents from King’s book but didn’t know how to build a straight-forward narrative around them. This also leads to a bloated runtime, as the film’s first half sags with too many attacks. The tone is also weirdly uncertain. There’s too much sarcasm and too many quibs in “Chapter Two,” as if Trashmouth himself took over the screenplay at random intervals. This is most obvious in a bizarre, comedic episode involving a Pomeranian inserted into the otherwise serious last act.

The first “IT” successfully captured a funhouse atmosphere of horror, tossing big loud scares at the audience that left them with a smile. The sequel doubles down on this, throwing more gangly CGI monsters around than you can count. Occasionally, this approach is successful. Three of the sequel’s best scenes are taken directly from the novel. The joy of the Losers reconvening at a Chinese restaurant transforms to seasick tension when grotesque surprises crawl out of the fortune cookies. Bill’s joyful reunion with Silver and the subsequent encounter with a bunch of little hands mines a similar dynamic. Adult Richie’s fight with a pissed-off Paul Bunyan statue is well done. Giving the statue a frayed fiberglass smile was a cool design choice. Having the proceeding meeting with Pennywise go Technicolored for no reason was cool too. Another of the sequel’s best scenes - Pennywise luring a little girl under the bleachers at a ball game - was invented for the film. It’s actually better executed than the similar scene with Georgie in the first film, as you believe the girl would find Pennywise friendly instead of scary in this scenario.

Usually though, I was left wondering why the screenwriters decided to make-up some goofy bullshit instead of utilizing more good stuff from King’s book. Beverly meeting It in the form of an old witch - one of the book’s creepiest scenes - is overdone here and that’s before a tri-mouthed, creaky-boned, witch woman shows up. Eddie meeting the Leper again goes on and on and ends with an utterly baffling needle drop. Ben’s flashback banks on making the adorable, lovable Sophia Lillis a figure of fear which just doesn’t wash. Pennywise’s increasing goofy facial expressions engineer laughter, instead of fear. The sequel ditches the fascinating cosmic weirdness of King’s last act for increasingly over-the-top CGI nightmares, like a drawn-out homage to “The Thing.” Overall, “IT: Chapter Two’s” scares are too proud of themselves. That smugness is also evident in King’s painfully meta cameo and a random shout-out to “The Shining.”

My fears that Muschietti and his team didn’t actually understand King’s text is confirmed with “Chapter Two.” In the book, Pennywise isn’t just a spooky clown or a succession of freakier monsters. It’s a symbol of the hateful heart beating underneath Derry and every small town. This is why he hangs out in the sewers, why a horrifying hate crime awakens It in the modern day, why the town dies when the monster finally dies. Muschietti recreates that hate crime but, with the movie so disconnected from the book’s themes, it feels tasteless. Instead of these profound statements, “IT: Chapter Two” becomes an unsightly sentimental story of self-forgiveness, of overcoming fear, and dumbass love triangles. The film literalizes the moral of “fears are small when confronted head-on,” creating a somehow more underwhelming climax than the 1990’s version. Though the Teutonic journey into the Earth is nicely handled, by largely ditching King’s cosmic weirdness, It goes from an unknowably ancient evil entity, an intrinsic force of the universe, to just another movie monster. A monster that looks like a giant spider because the human mind can’t grasp the enormity of its true form is scary. A giant spider with a clown head is just goofy.

But, yes, the film is excellently cast. The adult versions of the Losers could not be more on-point. James McAvoy is well utilized as the strong leader type as our grown-up Bill. Bill Hader is hilarious and surprisingly melancholy as Richie, even if his jokes are disruptive sometimes. James Ransone is similarly ideal as our grown-up Eddie, maintaining his childhood neurosis. While the subplot involving her abusive husband goes absolutely nowhere - the related subplot concerning Bill’s wife is similarly abbreviated, wasting Jess Weixler in one scene - Jessica Chastain certainly is strong and likable as adult Beverly. Even Isaiah Mustafa, otherwise known as the Old Spice guy, is pretty good as Mike. And it sure is nice to see all the kids again, Finn Wolfhard and Lillis especially. They are both going to be huge stars.

While I reasonably enjoyed the first “IT,” the sequel is one of those adaptations that just make me want to go back and re-read the book. While the cast is great and Muschietti has a strong visual sense, “IT: Chapter Two” represents pretty much everything wrong with modern studio horror: Loud, superficial, too long, and obsessed with CGI tomfoolery. There’s already been talks of a possible third film which seems like a terrible idea on the surface but a prequel, exploring the history of Derry more, maybe has potential. But a new creative team should be assembled. Also, this is a nitpick, but the subtitle is dumb. “IT: The Book” has way more than just two chapters. [5/10]

Count Dracula (1971)
Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht

I've spoken before about how Halloween is often a time for me to fill some blind spots in my horror nerd education. So here goes: I've never seen a Jess Franco movie before. The hugely prolific Spanish director made well over a hundred films in genres such as spy movies, erotica, spaghetti combat, giallo, poliziotteschi, and even hardcore pornography. Yet it seems horror was his favorite, as he worked in it the most often. Franco is one of those directors considered a genius by some and one of the worst directors of all time by others. That's a reputation that certainly deserves a closer look. Among Franco's most well regarded films is 1970's “Count Dracula.” Which has about a dozen different titles but that's the one I'll be going with tonight.

Made as the popularity of Hammer's “Dracula” series was just beginning to wain, Franco's “Dracula” earned some novelty by supposedly being one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel. And this is certainly kind of true. The first twenty minutes of the film follows Stoker's novel pretty closely, featuring Jonathan Harker's trip to Borgo Pass, the strange coachman and his encounter with the wolves, Dracula feeding his brides a baby, and Harker discovering the count in his crypt. After that, the film differs considerably. It includes many usually excised elements, such as Quincey Morris, Dracula's gypsy servants, Dracula growing younger as he feeds more, his climatic flee back to Transylvania, and vampire Lucy's nighttime activities hunting children. Yet it combines some characters, cuts others, removes many events, and invents others wholesale.

Over the years, I've read a lot about Jess Franco's directional style. I've seen it referred to interchangeably as stylish or tacky. Having now watched a Franco film, I can say that both adjectives seem fair. Franco sure does seem fond of his crash-zooms. Over the course of the film, characters being surprised, shocked, or scared are emphasized by fast zooms on their faces. This particular habit peaks during a hilariously goofy sequence. While hunting for Dracula, Van Helsing and Quincey are menaced by a room full of animated taxidermied animals. Franco conveys this by zooming in on the faces of the dead animals while they unconvincingly shake and discordant noises and hisses fill in the soundtrack. This also points towards the film's low budget, which keeps this version of “Dracula” largely confined to interior shots and not so much sweeping images of foggy castles.

However, “Count Dracula” does have its effective moments. That early sequence of the disguised Dracula warding off the wolves works for me. As does a scene of Dracula luring Lucy to her window, so that he may enter and bite her neck. Probably the creepiest moment in the movie occurs soon afterwards. We see the sickly Lucy collapse, followed by Quincey entering the room, and then hear his anguished wails from off-screen. However, Franco's pacing is exceedingly slow, many sequences going without music or being largely devoted to people just wandering around locations. The film apparently wanted to replicate the feeling of reading a long novel and not just the events that take place in its pages.

Lending further legitimacy to “Count Dracula” is its cast. While Christopher Lee's involvement with many of Hammer's “Dracula” movies seemed begrudging at best, here he seems excited to play a more accurate version of Stoker's count. An early scene has him monologuing about the proud military history of the Transylvanian people. Multiple scenes of Lee intimidating people from the shadows show the pure power and screen presence Lee was capable of. (And the man certainly knew how to rock a mustache.) Sadly, the rest of “Count Dracula's” cast is kind of wasted. Klaus Kinski should've been an amazing Renfield but the character is confined to an asylum the entire time, Kinski never speaking and simply making wild facial expressions while being restrained. Herbert Lom makes for a decent Van Helsing but he often has little to do besides delivering exposition. Otherwise, Maria Rohm as Mina or Soledad Miranda as Lucy aren't much more than pretty faces.

While it certainly features many variations from the book, Franco's “Count Dracula” probably still stands as one of the more faithful adaptations of Stoker's novel. The version that seems to be the most faithful is the BBC mini-series version starring Louis Jordon, also known as “Count Dracula.” And even that made some pretty notable changes. At this point, it's fair to say that those that want Dracula represented 100% as Stoker intended should probably just - duh - read the novel. While this “Count Dracula” has its moments, including a fiery Chris Lee performance, there's a whole lot of tedium you have to wade through to get to them. [5/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: The Weeping Woman

In season two, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” decided to do something the original “Tales from the Crypt” never did: It sequelized one of its previous episodes. “The Weeping Woman” sees the return of Camille and Mildred, the teenage girls/amateur paranormal investigators from season one's “Fare Tonight.” Having recently earned her driver's license, Mildred drives Camille out to a small town on the coast. Mildred claims to have given up the spook life, deciding to collect teddy bears instead. After their car breaks down in the middle of the storm, the two girls are forced to take shelter in an old hotel... Which happens to be haunted by the spectre of a wailing, feminine ghost.

Sadly, “The Weeping Woman” is not as much fun as “Fare Tonight.” Downplaying both girls' affection for the supernatural makes sense from a dramatic level. After all, more conflict between friends should make for a more interesting story, right? But Mildred and Camille are a lot less cute when bickering and I really miss their horror nerd enthusiasm. In general, the sleuthing and situations in “The Weeping Woman” aren't as much fun. However, the episode does earn points for having a truly intimidating antagonist. The shrieking spectre is relentless in her pursuit of Camille, tearing up the building around her in the process. She is never played for laughs, making it likely that this episode might've frightened some kids back in 1995. Though never spooky, there's some mild atmosphere in this episode, whenever we hear the crying of the little ghost girl that accompanies the main woman. Refreshingly, “The Weeping Woman” doesn't seem to contain any preachy moral lesson like most episodes of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.”

Also, I'm increasingly uncertain if I find the Vaultkeeper's slapstick or the Old Witch's obnoxious puns – as opposed to the Cryptkeeper's awesome puns – more irritating. Those two are really dragging down the host segments this season. [6/10]

Forever Knight: Forward Into the Past

Season two continues to more explicitly tie Nick's vampire past in with his cop present. In “Forward Into the Past,” we learn that, in 1950s England, he was friends with a woman named Katherine and her secretary Madelyn. After Katherine's husband was murdered, there was an attempt on her life. Nick had to reveal his vampire powers to protect the woman and then helped them slip away to new identities. Now, forty years later, Madelyn has been discovered dead, after being tortured to death. Nick must now locate Katherine before a decades old crime plot threatens her life as well.

“Forward Into the Past” is not the most compelling episode of “Forever Knight.” I'll be totally honest with you guys. I found the crime plot of this particular episode so dull, that I actually slept through a good chunk of it. As far as I can, some prominent member of society is responsible for the killing, causing Nick to put the pressure on the guy, against the police chief's wishes. What is more interesting about this episode is the friendship Nick formed with the women in the past, even if the vampire's increasingly common tendency to reveal his true idea nature to people is starting to bug me. My favorite part of this episode is Aristotle, a vampire specializing in providing the undead with new identities when they have to leave town suddenly. That's a cool bit of world building in an otherwise dull episode. [5/10]