Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 31st - HALLOWEEN

Say hello to Bud and Lou.

Halloween was in kind of a weird place this year. Earlier this year, when people realized the holiday would fall on a Thursday, there was a ridiculous petition to move the day. That failed, obviously, but it didn't stop most people from having their parties and celebrations last weekend. This caused the odd sensation of Halloween feeling like it was over prematurely.

Despite that, I went ahead and made plans for today. Originally, I was going to head over to a friend's place and help hand out candy to trick-or-treaters. However, a storm is blowing into the East coast tonight, with high winds and rains. Trick-or-treating was postponed to Saturday and the 31st was now left weirdly anticlimactic. I ended up buying a bitchin' Frankenstein mask for no reason. Oh well. More time to watch movies and wrap up the Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon in a big way!

Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)

There's no doubt that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is among the most iconic Christmas specials of all time. It's also delightful, being beloved even among relative, well, Grinches like me. Considering its success and status, it's unsurprising that there have been several attempts to follow up the original “Grinch.” The first of which, “Halloween Is Grinch Night,” was produced ten years later. It shows that Christmas isn't the only night the Grinch terrorized the Whos. As a “sour-sweet wind” blows into Whoville, the peaceful residents realize it's Grinch Night. The Grinch travels down from Mount Crumpit, riding his Paraphernalia Wagon and determined to unleashes surreal horrors on the Whos. Only one boy, Euchariah, is brave enough to venture out and confront the green creature.

While “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a beloved classic, “Halloween is Grinch Night” has been consigned to pop culture's dust bin. And it's not too hard to see why. While the “Christmas” special was entirely narrated, “Halloween” gives the Grinch and the Whos individual voices. Hearing the weirdly gentlemanly Hans Conried's voice come out of the Grinch is odd. Somehow, hearing Dr. Seuss' nonsensical rhyming verse actually spoken in conversation makes it go from charming to obnoxious. And the special isn't even committed to the rhyming, as it sometimes lapses out of it. The songs here are incredibly repetitive with tinny, irritating melodies. They also cause the plot to meander, as we get an unnecessarily depressing song told from the perspective of frequently abused Max the Dog. The attempts at humor – the Grinch falls into a bush of prickly berries – is uninspired. The animation isn't as well done either, as the character designs are more self-consciously “cute.” The Grinch looks like a cat here.

When “Halloween is Grinch Night' is remembered at all, it's for the collection of surreal imagery the Grinch unleashes. It begins with his eyebrows leaving his head and flying through the air, accompanied by another annoying song. Afterwards, he opens his Wagon and a succession of increasingly strange monsters appear. Some of these creatures are shockingly creepy looking. Like a gathering of tall, white, possibly robed and vaguely-penguin shape entities. Other high-lights include a spectral worm with glasses, a giant spinning wheel of legs and feet, metallic humanoids with massive spotlights for heads, and an enormous sea scorpion. There's also a cameo from the Jibboo, another Seuss creation originating in “Oh, the Places You'll Go.” The bird-like Jibboo, covering with ratty feathers and featuring an ominous posture, has always been one of Seuss' creepier creations. So it's a good addition here. All of these encounters take place among a typically Seussian surreal landscape of platforms and colorful backgrounds.

Aside from that phantasmagoric collection of nightmares, “Halloween Is Grinch Night” is pretty disappointing. It's not even explicitly set on Halloween. Apparently, the Whos have a conception of that human holiday Christmas but not of Halloween. Yet I guess someone liked it, as it won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. (I'm kind of guessing the competition in that category was none too fierce.) There would be one more Grinch television special, wherein the fuzzy green asshole met the Cat in the Hat. All subsequent appearances have re-told the Christmas story. I don't know if that's better or worst. [5/10]

The Vampire Bat (1933)

You might have noticed that, this Halloween, I've been trying to watch as many features with classic horror stars as possible. Over the course of 2019's Six Weeks, we've seen Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaneys Sr. and Jr., Barbara Steele, Peter Lorre, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, and lots of Vincent Price. With it now being October 31st, I'm worked my way through most of the big names. Yet how about Lionel Atwill? A regular of the Universal Monsters movies, Atwill was enough of a notable name at the time to headline a few of his own horror flicks. “The Vampire Bat,” from 1933, also features Fay Wray and Dwight Frye, making it a classic horror star triple header. Awesome. Let's dive in!

The vaguely Germanic village of Kleinschloss has been stricken with terror. A string of mysterious murders have occurred. Multiple people have died in their beds, totally drained of blood, with odd pin-prick bites on their necks. The suspicious townsfolk immediately blame the deaths on a vampire. They quickly blame Herman, the town simpleton with an affinity for bats, for the crimes. Police inspector Karl Breettschneider isn't so convinced and searches for a non-supernatural culprit. He works alongside Dr. Otto von Niemann, a local biologist.

“The Vampire Bat” was produced by Majestic Pictures, another one of the Poverty Row studios. The film was an attempt to ride the coattails of two other high profile releases: “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” which also starred Atwill and Wray, and Universal's “Dracula.” The latter was especially influential, as “The Vampire Bat” is a clear attempt to emulate the bigger studio's monster movies. Dwight Frye plays Herman, who is a more benign but still rather Renfield-like character. Lionel Belmore plays the Burgomesiter in this film, after playing the same role in “Frankenstein.” Majestic even used the same sets from “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” lending this low budget movie extra production values. The elements that made “The Vampire Bat” a cheap knock-off in 1933 now makes it utterly irresistible to classic horror fans now.

As you'd suspect, “The Vampire Bat” has its fair share of likable classic horror ambiance. It's not as shadowy and foggy as Universal's most atmospheric films. However, there are several pretty cool point-of-view shots of mysterious, creepy, caped figures closing in on sleeping maidens. An especially fantastic shot involves a cloaked figure crawling alongside the roof of a building. By the end, we have multiple incidents of electronic equipment sparking in a dark laboratory. There's even a mob with torches and pitchforks chasing people through a dark cave! The cast certainly helps along this classical feel. Dwight Frye is excellent as the bat-obsessed man-child. Lionel Atwil does a good job of balancing reasonable discourse with more mad scientist-vibes. Melvyn Douglas is a fantastically entertaining hero, showing a likable degree of humor and adventurous grit. I wish Fay Wray was given more to do though...

“The Vampire Bat” mixes a few other elements into its stew. Such as broad comedy. There's a portly aunt who is prone to fainting, gets a terrible fright from a dog, and spouts nonsensical medical advice. There's the required romantic scenes, Melvyn Douglas and Fay Wray kissing over each other and sharing an apple. I also like the element of skepticism that's brought to the story. While the populace immediately jumps to vampire-filled conclusions, and even kill an innocent man because of it, the Inspector maintains that nothing supernatural is afoot... And he's right, even if the film does take a likably odd turn towards science fiction in its last act. Yes, there's a pulsating tumor in a tank of water that feeds on blood. Still, “Vampire Bat” pulls off the incredible feat of doing a “Scooby-Doo” ending without it feeling like a cheat.

“The Vampire Bat” has a pretty underwhelming conclusion, the primary threat essentially being resolved entirely off-screen. It's very creaky, as films of this age and pedigree usually are. The non-horror/mystery scene do drag after a while. However, it's fair to say this film is entirely in my wheelhouse. It has just enough of that old monster movie atmosphere to make me feel right, especially on Halloween, and the star-studded cast certainly helps me enjoy it too. By the way, this one is also in the public domain – another theme this October! – so, if that strain of bullshit sounds amusing to you, you can watch it right now totally for free. [7/10]

Them! (1954)

The horror genre changed in a lot of ways throughout the fifties. However, the idea of giant and other monsters mutated to massive size by the power of radiation will always be the defining concept of the decade to me. And, of course, the giant mutant bug movie was 1954's “Them!” While it launched countless low budget creature features, “Them!” was not a B-movie. It was a major studio release, with a considerable budget and production values. The cast was headlined by two Academy Award nominees and featured more recognizable faces. It would go on to become one of Warner Brothers' highest grossing films of the year. So that's why this film would be so influential, if you ever wondered.

A little girl is found wandering through the New Mexico desert, totally catatonic. Police discover a near-by home that's been totally destroyed by something huge. More strange disappearances start to pile up – a destroyed grocery store, the dead body inside pumped full of formic acid – before the culprit is uncovered: A colony of ants, each mutated to the size of a Buick by exposure to nuclear radiation. A special of experts is assembled, including FBI agent Robert Graham and myrmecologist Dr. Medford, are called in. If the ants can't be contained and destroyed before a second colony is formed, all of mankind may be doomed.

The temptation may be to dismiss them as campy artifacts but the giant ants of “Them!” are actually still intimidating threats. The puppets move somewhat awkward but they are massive, with huge twitching antenna and giant snapping mandibles. More disturbing yet is that immediately recognizable noise they make, an electric chattering that always proceeds their arrival. Though it seems like giant ants wouldn't be hard to miss, the ants often strike when least expected. The sequence of them slamming suddenly through a wall and dragging off a cop is still a fantastic jump scare. Sequences devoted to being in a tight, confined area with these monstrous insects are the stuff of nightmares.

Part of what makes “Them!” so effectively tense is that even regular sized ants are pretty scary. The film takes the time to emphasize ants' organization, their strength, their efficiency. “Them!” successfully argues the case that a group of enormous ants, if allowed to grow out of control, would effectively be the end of mankind. Thus, “Them!” becomes a taunt race against time. The entire second of the movie is devoted to hunting down the escaped queen ants. While the montage heavy story structure, in which the heroes chase after one lead or another, slows the pacing a bit, the audience is still on their toes worrying about the apocalyptic ramifications of the story. “Them!” then throws in some missing children, trapped right in the middle of ant country, as if to show this situation actually could get more precarious.

While “Them!” is expertly designed thriller and special effects film, what makes the extra lovable to me is its characters. These aren't just the stern-chinned scientist hero, the bland voice of authority, the shrieking love interest that you usually see in fifties sci-fi. Many of the cast members are given little quirks. Edmond Gwenn – otherwise known as Kris Kringle – as Dr. Medford struggles with his goggles or can't quite figure out the specifics of talking over radio. Joan Weldon's Pat insists on going down into the ant tunnels with the men, not once feeling in terror into a guy's arms. Even minor characters have their moments. Like Fess Parker as a pilot who spots the flying ants, assuring everyone he's not crazy. Or another ant witness, an old drunk, who happily repeats what he wants in return for the information he's providing to the government.

While the build-up to it is effectively tense, I've always found the conclusion to “Them!” slightly disappointing. Yet the film, like many that would follow, issues a warning that unregulated nuclear experimentation could lead to more monsters again. (The original “Godzilla” notably concludes with a similar moral.) And that certainly proved to be true, as just about every common insect you could think of became the topic of a monster movie. While a few came close, none quite topped the thrills and smart writing of “Them!” Though there have been a few attempts to remake the movie over the years, none of them came to fruition. You'd think the story of giant radioactive ants taking over the world would be easily retrofitted into a story of large scale urban destruction and post-9/11 anxiety. Maybe someday. Until then, the original still stands up as the superior big bug thriller. [7/10]

As the age of physical media starts to slow to a close, I wonder if certain DVD traditions will be remembered by future generations. Who will mourn for the 50 Movie DVD Box Set, the collection of public domain movies from years long since passed? It's unlikely anyone will, as those movies will now survive forever as videos on Youtube or whatever other site you prefer. If you're a horror nerd of a certain age, you almost definitely received one such release for as a gift at some point. There were some stalwart inclusions in those sets, the A-list public domain horror titles: “Night of the Living Dead,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “The Terror,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and, for some reason, “The Brain That Wouldn't Die.” So why has this rather salacious B-movie become so notorious?

Dr. Bill Cortner wants to push science to new breakthroughs, and is particularly fixated on the transplant of limbs and organs, but his peers hold him back. His girlfriend, Jan, assures him that the world will catch up with his genius eventually. After receiving an urgent phone call from a colleague, Bill and Jan speed off towards a remote cabin. Along the way, he crashes the car. Jan is seemingly killed, decapitated. Saving her head, Bill uses his experimental chemical to keep her brain and head alive. Bill starts to seek a fitting body for Jan, moral ramifications be damned. Jan, meanwhile, sinks into nihilism and soon discovers how big of a scumbag her boyfriend truly is.

Though unreleased until 1962, “The Brain That Wouldn't Die” was filmed back in 1958. If released four years earlier, the film would've been notable for being unusually downbeat for a fifties sci-fi/horror movie. There's no good guys in “The Brain That Wouldn't Die.” The earliest scene establishes Bill as an egomaniac. As the film goes on, we discover he's performed a number of deeply unethical experiments. As the story goes on, he contemplates committing murder to “save” Jan... Jan, by the way, has no desire to return to normal. She only wishes to die. After being reduced to a head in a dish, she descends totally into nihilism and psychosis. Kur, Bill's assistant, is more sympathetic. He lost an arm in the war and Bill's attempt to grow it back has left him with a deformed claw. Yet even he is more concerned with making himself whole and is compliant in the ethical violations. No attempt is ever made to redeem the doctor or anyone else.

In addition to its grim tone, “The Brain That Wouldn't Die” is also far gorier and sleazier than you'd expect from an American monster movie made in the late fifties. Instead of looking for a suitable body from Jane Does at morgues, or something reasonable like that, Bill immediately hits the strip clubs. He quickly seduces a burlesque star in a see-through body-stocking, after implying she's a prostitute. This eventually builds to a totally gratuitous cat-fight with another stripper, this one in a black bodice. This is hardly the only part of the movie where the camera leers at attractive women. There's a swimsuit contest, a shot of women walking down the street accompanying by the sleaziest music possible, and a bikini-clad model being crudely hit on by a horny photographer. (In another surprising move, she's identified as a survivor of sexual assault and basically confirmed to be  a lesbian.) As for the gore.... After a hideous side-effect of Bill's experiments is revealed – played by Eddie “The Jewish Giant” Carmel in a mound of twisted looking latex – a man has his arm torn off. Later, the same monster bites a huge chunk out of someone's neck, the camera lingering on the bloody strip of flesh. When the film isn't grim and horny, it's grim and grisly. 

Yet, despite being such a dark, unpleasant film, “The Brain That Wouldn't Die” is regarded as a so-bad-it's-good classic. That's probably because the utmost melodrama the film approaches its goofy-ass premise with. The film' dialogue is especially overwrought. Jan – reduced to just a head in a pan – rarely stops going on about how much she wishes to dead. Her conversations with Kurt, about being half-formed and the hideousness of their conditions, are especially overdone. Every discussion in the film is like this, whether it's Bill and the lesbian, Bill and the stripper, or Bill's interior monologue. This is hardly the only ridiculous part of the film. After the monster in the closest tears his arm off, Kurt takes a very long time to die. The central visual, of a woman's disembodied head in a pan of juice, is obviously more goofy than scary. 

Maybe that's why “The Brain That Wouldn't Die” is so notorious. It's regarded as an especially bad movie. After all, the film was featured on both “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Bizarrely, it has been adapted into a comedic musical stage play on three separate occasions. (Even stranger, there have been no attempts to straight-up remake the movie, despite its public domain status, well-known title, and a premise with some room for improvement.) Even though it's considered a stinker, I think “The Brain That Wouldn't Die” is slightly better than its reputation. There's something bold about how nasty, how grim it is and its mix of sleaze and cheesiness has a certain appeal to. [7/10]

Hell Night (1981)

If you're looking for a premise for your college campus-set horror movie, fraternity hazing rituals are a pretty good place to start. This form of ritualized humiliation, in order to earn the approval of drunken assholes, continues to inspire horror filmmakers to this day. Especially considering a classic form of hazing is to spend the night in a spooky house, it was inevitable that someone would combine this custom with the slasher movie premise. In fact, it didn't take long at all. In 1981, producer Bruce Cohn Curtis would recruit Tom DeSimone – who previously directed a ton of gay porn and oddball comedy “Chatterbox” – to make “Hell Night.”

Some people claim “Hell Night” is set on Halloween but there's no mention of the holiday or any other seasonal signifiers in sight, so I'm just going to assume it's a generic costume party. The time of year has come when Alpha Sigma Rho subjects new initiates to the yearly hazing rituals. That includes dragging the new student out to Garth Manor, a mansion near the campus. Legend has it, Ramon Garth had several deformed children. After Andrew was born similarly maligned, Ramon killed his wife, his kids, and himself... Except Andrew's body was never found. Supposedly, he still roams the halls of Garth Manor. Everyone thinks it's just story but mechanic's daughter Marti, rich kid Jeff, party girl Denise, and surfer dude Seth are going to find out otherwise.

Setting goes a long way in the slasher genre, where many scripts are calling upon the same collection of tropes. “Hell Night” has a hell of a setting. A dark and gloomy Victorian-style mansion proves an ideal location for a murder-filled spook show. Garth Manor is full of shadowy staircases, dark rooms, and blue-black rooftops lit only by candles or the occasional fireplace. DeSimone and his team uses this setting to build up a surprisingly sustained tension. You really feel Marti, Jeff, and Seth's desperation as the killer closes in. The last third features several sequences, such as an extended chase through underground tunnels, where the intensity never lets up. “Hell Night” keeps throwing more scares at the audience until the monster is finally banished and the sun finally rises.

Andrew Garth was never going to be an icon on the level of Jason or Michael Myers. He's simply a grunting brute with a weird shaped heads and dressed in rags. However, beginning the film with the legend around his family sure was a great idea. It builds up a mystique around the Garth Manor, making the film's ritual as much legend trip as hazing prank. You're left wondering throughout the movie how much of the legend is true, an ambiguity bolstered by the plausible appearance of an actual ghost. To this air of uncertainty, a series of decent slasher scenes are added. “Hell Night” is not extremely gory but when it does uses violence – a body tossed from a window, a scythe to the chest, a neck graphically twisted – it counts.

While likable characters are not necessary for an entertaining slasher movie, they never hurt. “Hell Night” is a mixed bag in that regard. Linda Blair, looking chubby-cheeked and voluptuous in a low cut gown, makes for a compelling final girl as Marti. I love her backstory of being a mechanic's daughter, which comes in handy later when the typically faulty slasher movie car won't start. She has nice chemistry with Peter Barton's Jeff, even if he is obnoxious about his family's wealth. Vincent Van Patton shows an amusing goofy streak as Seth, who proves surprisingly resilient and brave for the token stoner. However, most of the rest of the fratboys are just fodder. However, the one dressed up as a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder leads to a good suspense gag.

By the way, future directors-of-note Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont worked on the film, as a producer and production assistant. “Hell Night” was mildly successful upon release but dismissed by critics as just another slasher flick. Which, granted, it is though one that also connects itself with older traditions like Hammer horror and old dark house flicks. Naturally, slasher fans have embraced the flick as a minor classics in the years since. There was even rumblings of a remake, back during that period when everything was getting a remake. I know it's nothing special but I still like this one a lot. [7/10]

It didn't even occur to me until just yesterday that 2019's wave of Halloween-set slasher movies are all attempts to ride the coattails of last year's “Halloween” reboot. (And the subsequent sequel, arriving next October.) In retrospect, even last year's “Hell Fest” was probably given a greenlight because of Michael Myers' then-forthcoming return. The most high-profile of this year's mini revival of Halloween horror is “Haunt.” The film was produced by Eli Roth and directed by the duo who wrote “A Quiet Place.” It's won the best reviews of 2019's slasher films and was given a plum release date on Shudder. As we head into the final hours of October 31st, I'll be the judge of that!

“Haunt” also superfluously resembles “Hell Fest,” as it's also another slasher movie about the “safe” horrors of a haunted attraction being invaded by real evil. It's Halloween night and Harper is reeling from a recent break-up. Her roommates hope to take her mind off things by inviting her out for a night of Halloween partying. While out, Harper meets the sort-of handsome Nathan. Nathan's friend insists on checking out a local “extreme” haunted attraction. Upon arriving, the group have to hand over their phones and sign wavers. Everything appears normal at first but soon the teens begin to suffer serious injuries. It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary Halloween prank. The proprietors of this haunt have murder on their mind.

I was pretty into “Haunt” for its first half-hour or so. Yes, the characters are kind of annoying. Especially the fat guy who dresses up as a solo Human Centipede. Yet once the characters arrive at the haunt, I was drawn in. The appearance of the haunt is very low-key and humble, beginning with corny scares like skeletons on springs or distorted mirror. This builds towards more intense scares playing off common phobias, like claustrophobia or arachnophobia. Probably my favorite scene in the movie is also one that was in “Hell Fest,” where a person is actually murdered and everyone assumes it's just part of the show. This version involves a witch costume and a red hot poker, which is cool. 

“Haunt” does, admittedly, have some clever ideas of its own. The film is as much “Saw” riff as slasher flick. Various traps are featured throughout the haunt, many of which put the characters in very uncomfortable situation. One involves shallow cuts appearing on the arm. A row of nails line the floor in one scene, waiting for someone to step on them. (You'll notice, this exact same gag was also in “A Quiet Place.”)  Another squirmy bit of gore involves the palm of the hand being torn away with a strip of glue. The shotgun on a timer is another relatively clever gag. The killers have a really cool look, wearing plastic store-bought mask. This is eventually revealed as a cover for far more horrific appearances, the film hinting at an odd philosophy for the clan of murderers.

However, “Haunt” features a lot modern horror tropes that I'm just so bored with. In addition to recently breaking up with her asshole boyfriend, Harper also has an emotional trauma in her past. Her father was abusive and she's haunted by a memory of dad pushing mom to the floor. This is a tiresome trope used to add emotional weight to stories in a cheap way, especially when the trauma inevitably has nothing to do with the film's story. (As it does here.) The cast of characters are mostly foul-mouthed assholes, who crack profane dialogue in some attempt to appear endearing. Naturally, they make dumb decisions too, running back into the path of danger when they have a clear chance to escape. By the end, “Haunt” is even relying on shaky-cam visuals and a blaring musical score.

The film tries to tie its various plot points together with an ending that, I think, wants to be cathartic. It doesn't work. I was still kind of on the fence about “Haunt” until a slowed-down, soft rock version of “Dragula” played over the end credits. That dropped the film down a whole number. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that all of the Halloween-themed slashers of 2019 kind of sucked, considering knock-offs are usually not very good. “Haunt” definitely doesn't beat the superior “Hell Fest” at its own game. While it's not terrible or anything, I wouldn't even say I liked it as much as “Trick.” [5/10]

2019 wasn't the smoothest Halloween I've ever had. I got the stomach flu mid-way through October, which seriously threw me off my game for a few days. I've spent the last two weeks desperately trying to catch up, which sucked a lot of the fun out of the proceedings for me. In general, trying to balance the Blog-a-Thon with my new life responsibilities was tricky. And, yes, the 31st did not go the way I had originally planned. Thank the rain and wind for that one.

However, let's applaud the effort. This year, I watched fewer films than I usually do – topping out at around 97 – but more television episodes. While marathoning my way through the third season of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” and the second season of “Forever Knight” wasn't much fun, I did really enjoy sampling a selection of different anthology series. I will definitely be doing that again next year. On the film side, I ran through a number of interesting themes and series. I watched all sorts of cool stuff I hadn't seen before and re-watched a number of films I love. That is a big part of why I do the Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon after all. So even if keeping up with the daily habit of watching and reviewing two movies and two TV episodes was sometimes exhausting, I'm still satisfied with what I accomplished.

The bitchin' mask.
And now it's November first. The sun will be rising soon. I have stayed up through the night and greeted the Harvest. I can hear them now, the ghosts singing sad songs as they shimmer back to their crypts. The candle lights flickering out inside the Jack O'Lantern, the dancing skeletons dancing so hard they crumble to dust. The bats have left the bell tower. The victims have been bled. The wolves have howled until they can't howl anymore. Yes, it is bittersweet when Halloween ends. Yet putting the spookiest, scariest season of the year to bed also comes with a promise. Renewal. Return. Like a slasher movie villain, Halloween will be back.

And so will I. 2019's Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon is completed. I had a blast. I hope you did too. Thank you all for reading and see you again real soon.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 30th

Trick (2019)

Depending on who you ask, the director/writer team of Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer are either geniuses or total hacks. In-between the two of them, they have created flashy, trashy horror flicks like “Jason X,” “Dracula 2000,” “My Bloody Valentine 3D,” and “Drive Angry.” At one point, they were so successful that they had been chosen to reboot iconic franchises like “Halloween” and “Hellraiser.” It seems like the duo has had more trouble getting their projects off the ground recently. The two has largely worked in television since 2011. However, the infamous twosome return this year with “Trick,” an original slasher flick set around the Halloween holiday. What the hell, I'll give it a shot.

In 2015, high school student Patrick Weaver – known to all his friends as "Trick" – goes on an inexplicable rampage on Halloween night. He slashes several of his friends to death while wearing a pumpkin mask. Injured, he ends up at a local hospital where he escapes, getting shot and tossed out a window by Detective Mike Denver. Trick disappears after that... Until Halloween of next year, where he kills more people at another party. For the next two years, Trick reappears on October 31st to claim more victims. Denver becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer, believing Patrick Weaver is still responsible. Meanwhile, Trick becomes a cult figure on the internet. As Halloween approaches, Denver and his former partner prepare for the killer's inevitable return.

At the very least, “Trick” is trying to put a clever spin on the slasher genre. The film is attempting to show how a Michael Myers-like figure would emerge in the modern age. Trick's violence is unprompted, without explanation, a seemingly normal teen turning vicious killer. Like Myers or Jason, he reappears every year on the same day. He can seemingly shrug off any wound, always slipping away from the cops at the last minute. Rather accurately, the film posits that such a killer would immediately become a figure of fascination among internet denizens, even attracting obsessive fan-girls. The film eventually reveals why Trick is capable of these amazing feats, the filmmakers clearly finding this twist far more clever than the audience does. (Let's just say I've seen it done before and in a film one of the co-stars here appeared in.) Still, coming at the slasher premise from this angle – attempting to squeeze an entire series into one film, basically – is almost a fresh take on the genre.

That last act reveal – which goes on for way too long, the film smothering any remaining plot points – is not the only time “Trick” thinks itself more impressive than it actually is. The killer has another gimmick. He always spins his knife, spin-the-bottle style, when selecting his victim. The murderer swoops, leaps, spins, and flicks his blade around like a henchman in a “John Wick” movie. Trick also builds elaborate, Jigsaw-style death traps that people are repeatedly caught off-guard by. He's also a genius plotter, seemingly always one step ahead of his cop adversary. The point is clear: We are suppose to think Trick is cool and bad-ass. It's a good example of a movie trying too hard to impress the audience, without realizing that kind of style eventually becomes silly-looking.

Despite hyping up its killer like he's a big deal, the gore in “Trick” is actually pretty underwhelming. There's lots of stabbing, slashing, a disemboweling or two. None of its that memorable. The decapitations we do get are hampered by obviously fake-looking blood. That's not the only janky special effect, as CGI muzzle flashes afflict the guns in the film several times. Eventually, “Trick's” plot degrades into one endless chase scene after another. The scenery changes – a dock, a haunted attraction, a midnight double feature, a hospital – but “Trick” never gets any closer to building some actual tension.

Omar Epps gives an okay performance as Denver, staying grounded no matter how obsessed he becomes with wanting to capture the killer. Yet the only truly memorable performance is from Tom Atkins, returning from “My Bloody Valentine 3D,” as the folksy and lovably smart-ass owner of a local diner. But that's just Tom Atkins being cool. Lussier's direction is frequently overdone, with images flashing on-screen, handheld shots, and over-editing. “Trick” has a decent premise and some bitchin' Hallowen atmosphere – a hallway full of jack o'lantern is a nice touch – but the film is ultimately almost a textbook definition of “trying too hard.” [5/10]

Gog (1954)

One of the first movies I watched during 2019's Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon was a killer robot flick. So it only seems fair to me that one of the last movies I watch this year also be a killer robot film. In the 1950s, Hungarian playwright and filmmaker Ivan Tors – who later became famous for producing animal adventure shows like “Flipper” and “Gentle Ben” – would produce a trilogy of science fiction films. The connecting fiber between these films was the Office of Scientific Investigation, a fictional organization meant to decipher sci-fi mysteries. The third, and most famous of these films, is 1954's “Gog.” Unlike the other two, “The Magnetic Monster” and “Riders to the Stars,” “Gog” was filmed in color and presented in 3D. It also features a pretty cool killer robot, perhaps its greatest claim to fame.

Deep within the New Mexico desert, there is a top secret, high-tech, underground facility designated with designing space stations. The nuclear-powered lab is operated by a super-computer called NOVAC. But something is going wrong down there. Two scientists and a monkey are killed when a freezing chamber malfunctions. Prototypes all over the property are beginning to act up fatally, without warning. Dr. David Sheppard and Joanna Merritt, agents with the OSI, are sent in to investigate. They begin to suspect that a mysterious robot jet flying over the base might be a cause of the deadly malfunctions. Soon, they are fighting for their lives against the berserk machines, specifically two robots named Gog and Magog.

“Gog” doesn't get as much tension out of its underground setting as you'd hope. This being an upbeat 1950s sci-fi flick, the facility is not claustrophobic. Rather, it's brightly colored and roomy. However, that isn't to say “Gog” doesn't have its tense moments. The rather slow first act is largely devoted to introduced all the gizmos that are then turned into dangerous weapons. It's necessary though, or else these sequences probably wouldn't be as suspenseful as they are. A fight with a solar-powered death ray inside a very small room is probably the film's highlights. A sequence involving a series of out-of-control tuning forks is certainly a novel threat. “Gog” stacks up a surprisingly high body count, as it thinks up more high-tech ways to kill its various supporting characters.

While some of the technology-run-amok moments in “Gog” are genuinely suspenseful, many come off as silly. A gyroscope spinning two astronauts to their deaths looks like a piece of playground equipment gone horribly wrong. This double-edge sword is no more apparent than with the titular robot. From a design prospective, Gog and Magog are kind of cool. They don't seem practical by any means but their spherical heads, multiple antennas, six flailing arms, and tank-like bodies make for a memorable sight. The only problem is the damn things don't move around very well. The murderous machines are incredibly awkward whenever they have to move. This makes their eventually defeat by the human heroes, bludgeoned or burned into submission, seem inevitable. In order to utilize the 3-D effect, the film repeatedly thrust the robot's limbs towards the camera, which doesn't make them look any less goofy.

Yet this is the campy but still oddly grim world “Gog” inhabits. The movie reflects the time it was made in some very strange ways. The story is built around the concept of sending man into space, if it's even possible, which was still something scientist where trying to figure out at the time. This leads to a ludicrous sequence of potential astronauts doing ballet in a zero-g environment, while wearing outfits that look like glittery bathing suits. This gee-whiz space age optimism is paired with a Cold War tension. The saboteurs that cause the facility's machines to go nuts are never identified. They are only referred to as “America's enemies.” The film reflects an era when people were still a little too nervous to even mention the Soviet Union – and, thus, imply the Cold War and the concept of nuclear destruction – in their ultimately light-hearted sci-fi monster movies.

That mixture of camp and political concerns is also reflected in some of the movie's minor plot points. The fear of exposure to radiation runs throughout the entire movie... Until its heroine collapses from exactly that at the end. In the next scene, she's making out with the hero, assured that “it's nothing serious. Just a little too much radiation.” I'm sure that's the attitude she'll have when she develops cancer in a few years. This oddball contrast – and those lovably dorky killer robots – is what makes “Gog” way more interesting than it probably would've been otherwise. Should I give the other films in the OSI trilogy a look? I've never heard a word about them, good or bad. [6/10]

The Real Ghostbusters: Halloween II ½

The first season of “The Real Ghostbusters” introduced a couple of iconic villains that would reoccur throughout the show's run. Such as the Boogeyman. Or, most pressing to tonight's topic, Samhain. Yes, the pumpkin-headed ghost of Halloween from “When Halloween Was Forever” would return in season three episode “Halloween II ½.” This time, the spirit of Halloween is freed when two imp henchmen of his break into the Firehouse and sabotage the Containment Unit. Freed again, Samhain turns the Ghostbusters' headquarters into his own base, capturing the Junior Ghostbusters in the process. It's up to Ray, Winston, Venkman, Egon, Slimer, and Janine to save the day once again.

Obviously, a pumpkin-headed pagan god associated with October 31st was too cool a villain not to brain back. Sadly, Samhein’s second appearance is not up to snuff. This is another season three episode focused on the Junior Ghostbusters. These characters were introduced early in the show's run, as an obvious attempt to appeal to the younger viewers. And they are super annoying. They take up so much time, they practically steal the spotlight from the main heroes.

The third season would also re-design Janine, giving her a less stylized look and a less grating voice. This softening really begins to show its strain. (Kath Soucie uses nearly the exact same voice she’d use later on “Rugrats.”) Slimer, too often an obnoxious comic relief character on this show, is also given an extended role. All this makes sure “Halloween II ½” is packed full of annoying elements. Samhain isn’t as threatening as last time either, mostly taking over the firehouse and sending lesser ghosts out to do his bidding. His defeat is almost comical. It’s a fairly weak episode but does have some decent Halloween atmosphere, such as they opening scene devoted to the trick-or-treaters. [5/10]

Spooky Club (2016)

Here's your required bit of punk rock-influenced, Halloween-themed, absurdist comedy. The titular organization of the Stas' brothers' 2016 short are made up of four Halloween-obsessed weirdos. Each have a totally useless but spooky superpower. For example: Franklin can stop his heart for a second, Marge can temporarily go stop-motion, and Whitby vomits at least once a day. On Halloween day, the Spooky Club decides to steal back the missing skull of Vincent Price and cremate it, just like the rest of him was. This quest will both be easier and more difficult than anyone the group imagines.

“Spooky Club” packs its brief four minute run time with as many gags as possible. Which is your favorite? The hilarious on-screen realization of someone going stop-motion for few seconds? How about the relative ease with which Vincent Price's skull is received? (The actual break-in occurs totally off-screen.) Maybe the best gag is the not-so-intimidating guard dog that the Spooky Club treats like a major threat. The Stas brother's visual sense is energetic, the movie driven by a rowdy rock soundtrack. The aggressively wacky tone occasionally pauses for moments of quiet comedy or even oddball pathos. Such as the final sequence or the unexpected death of one of the members. The cast is committed, especially Simon J. Curd as the very enthusiastic Franklin. The makers of “Spooky Club” haven't tried their hands at features yet but I hope they do someday. [7/10]

Halloween 2019: October 29th

Willard (2003)

For a brief, shining moment, Glen Morgan and James Wong were primed to become the hottest genre filmmakers in Hollywood. The two wrote some critically acclaimed episodes of “The X-Files” before breaking out with the critically and financially successful “Final Destination.” After that, remakes started to emerge as the trend-of-the-day in horror. And the movie Morgan and Wong wanted to remake was “Willard.” For whatever reason, I was really excited for this movie in 2003. I had never seen the original, wasn't super familiar with the cast or crew, and have no special affinity for killer rat movies. Yet, for whatever reason, I was an early champion of 2003's “Willard” and continue to sing the film's praises after seeing it. It's somehow been sixteen years and I still think this movie is underrated.

While reading “Ratman's Notebooks” last week, I was surprised to find the 2003 version of “Willard” was the more faithful adaptation. Morgan's movie excises the protagonist's nickname-lending career as a thief and downplays the office romance. It takes several elements from the original movie, such as Willard's more sympathetic personality, the role of a clock in the family house, Mr. Martin's speech to the office, or a pet cat. Over all, the book's events are modernized and streamlined but a number of minor incidents left out of the previous adaptations are maintained here, such as an encounter with a yapping little dog. This is still the story of Willard Stiles, outcast and mama's boy, befriending rats and seeking vengeance on his mean boss, before Ben turns on him.

What really impressed me about “Willard” in 2003, as an anxious, intensely nerdy teenager, was Crispin Glover's portrayal of the titular character. The film is a display for Glover's quirky acting style. The camera emphasizes the rather rat-like angles of Glover's nose and chin, the actor fully embraces Willard Stiles' awkwardness. He stammers his dialogue, twitches, broods, all with that particular Gloverian elegance. When confronting his boss, he quivers with either fear or overwhelming anger. Crispin delivers at least two brilliant monologues. Glossy with sweat, he rants at an insurance salesman about how his life is nearly over. Later, after Mr. Martin fires him, he slams into a door while having an epic meltdown. It may seem over-the-top but I saw so much of myself in his anxiety-ridden performance, of someone who barely knows how to interact with other people, who can't quite hold it together in public.

More than anything else, “Willard” takes us inside the title character's deeply lonely world. Willard lives in a world without love. His mother, played by a wonderful disgusting Jackie Burroughs, heaps scorn upon him. She makes fun of his name and even spits on him at one point. His boss, played by an amusingly shouting R. Lee Ermy, is a bully that hates Willard because he seems weak. The film has the balls to have its main character consider suicide, in a touchingly direct scene. This is why he immediately bonds with Socrates, petting him and loving him within the first night they meet. The little rat is the first creature to ever show him any kindness. When Socrates is killed, Willard's heart shatters. His revenge is cathartic, his declaration of “liking himself” being bracing. 1971's “Willard,” and even Gilbert's original book, seem to keep the audience distant from Willard's isolated existence. The remake makes us relate, and maybe even love, this sad and pathetic outsider.

2003's “Willard” also leans into the absurdity of the premise more than any other version. The movie might function better as a weirdo comedy than a horror movie. There is an edge of dark humor to Willard's endless humiliation. As in the scenes where he quietly considers his options for exterminating the rats. The way his co-workers also suffer under Martin are mildly amusing. The fate of poor Scully the cat is a sick and twisted joke if I've ever seen one. As a horror movie, meanwhile, “Willard” doesn't have too many tricks up its sleeve. We are so much on Willard's side, that we're never afraid of him. Mr. Martin is such a bastard, that you can't squirm too much when the rats crawl all over him. The scenes of the fuzzy rodents sneaking out of toilets or filling a kitchen might make you uneasy if you have a rat phobia. Otherwise, the film isn't scary nor it is trying to be.

This strange streak of humor is most evident in the power struggle between Willard and Ben. The film smartly combines Ben with a bigger rat that played a small role in the book. Now, Ben is a very intimidating Gambian pouched rat. And he's a shockingly good actor, the rodent glaring with angry intent more than once. Ben constantly challenges Willard's authority, pretty much from the moment they meet. He climbs into a bag, refuses to stay in the cellar, enters the bedroom, chews up a walking stick, and violates Willard's inner sanctuary multiple times. Eventually, as Willard turns on the innocent rats, the film cheekily aligns him with post-9/11 terrorist with nods towards box cutters and Tora Bora. It's a breed of overheated melodrama, as the film never lets you forget this is a man fighting for control with a rat here.

“Willard” was a box office failure. It's almost as if audience weren't interested in a remake of a movie nobody remembers with the star power of the dad from “Back to the Future.” It didn't help that the studio insisted the film be re-cut for a PG-13. The lack of squirm-inducing rat attack gore didn't affect the movie too much. An obviously tacked-on pseudo-happy ending, the finished film's weakest element, certainly did though. In the years since, “Willard” has developed a cult following of sorts and even recently earned a special edition Blu-Ray. I think the film is severely underrated. It's production design is awesome. An Elfman-esque score from Shirley Walker couldn't be more on-point. The performances are fantastic. It's funny, weird, and gruesome in equal measure and an obvious improvement over the original. [8/10]

Macabre (1958)

After almost twenty years spent working as a hired gun in Hollywood, directing television and B-westerns, William Castle reinvented himself as the King of Gimmick Horror. He cemented his legacy by tying low budget but well-made horror flicks like “House on Haunted Hill,” “The Tingler,” and “Mr. Sardonicus” with outrageous in-theater gimmicks with wacky names like “Emergo!,” “Percept-o!,” or “The Punishment Poll!” And that legacy started with “Macabre.” Castle promoted the film, which he partially financed by mortgaging his house, by having each ticket buyer sign a life insurance policy, in case they died of fright during the movie. Actresses playing nurses were camped outside each screening and hearses were often parked in front of theaters. The scheme worked, “Macabre” grossing over five million dollars and launching Castle's career as an independent horror meister.

Dr. Rod Barrett is at the center of quite a lot of small town gossip. His first wife, Alice, died during the birth of their child, Marge. (He quickly became engaged to another woman, named Sylvia, adding to suspicion.) Not long afterwards, his former sister-in-law, the blind and promiscuous Nancy, passed away under mysterious circumstances. On the night of Nancy's funeral, Dr. Barrett receives a threatening fun call. His daughter Marge has been kidnapped and buried alive. He has exactly five hours to rescue her. Along with his nursing assistant Polly and his former father-in-law, the funeral director, Rod seeks to save his daughter before it is too late.

“Macabre” begins in the world of mundane, with multiple scenes set in streets and small rooms of this suburban town. The direction is rather flat, ordinarily looking, in these early moments. Yet, as soon as “Macabre” heads towards its darker story points, the visual design changes. The cemetery is overgrown, the graves pushed together. A thick layer of fog floats over this desolate location. It's a very spooky setting and one that constitutes most of “Macabre's” horror elements. Inside this foggy, classical tableau, Castle occasionally injects startling imagery. These are the times when “Macabre” probably came the closest to the unlikely possibility of scaring its viewers to death. A bleeding corpse appears propped up in a shadowy tomb. A decomposed skull peers out of a small coffin. Most chillingly, a child's teddy bear appears on the steps of her mom, caked with dirt. These moments certainly made an impact on this horror nerd.

Despite its ghoulish advertising campaign, “Macabre” is really only marginally a horror movie. If anything, it feels more like a noir at times. The movie's plot can get a bit convoluted at times. Early on, a mess of red herrings are introduced. There's a nervous mortician with gambling debts and a local cop who is clearly a bit of a bully.A mess of romantic entanglements are slowly revealed. From Dr. Barret's dead wife, to his sister-in-law's affair with that same cop or her caufere, to the doctor's current fiance, nanny, and assistant. Each are cast in a suspicious light from time to time. The shady and gloomy visuals befit noir just as much as they do horror. And it's not like “Macabre's” twisting story of mixed alliances, and eventually moral uncertainly, wouldn't fit in either.

Sadly, “Macabre” ultimately chokes on its own plotting. During a tense scene of Barret and Polly snooping around the spooky cemetery, including ducking into an open grave, the film suddenly lapses into a lengthy flashback, detailing Nancy's back story. It uses the harp sound effect and the gauziness around the frame and everything. There are several of these flashbacks throughout, further detailing Nancy's romantic life or the fate of the doctor's first wife. Eventually, it starts to destroy the pacing. It's hard for the story to feel like it's moving forward – especially when there's pointedly a time limit, emphasized by the repeated looks at a ticking clock – when it's constantly going backwards. By the time we get to the twist ending, things have gotten so knotted that it's hard to follow exactly how we've gotten to this point.

Then again, I suspect we are not meant to take “Macabre” so seriously. The end credits feature goofy animation while Les Baxter's score put an unusually jovial twist on the stereotypical funeral march. “Macabre's” entire existence was based in gimmickry. The novel that inspired it, “The Marble Forest,” was written by “Theo Durrant.” That would be a pseudonym for twelve different authors, each one writing a separate chapter. I don't know how close the film is tot he book but that might explain why the story gets so needlessly complex. “Macabre” is better as a test run for Castle's later, better films, showing that he could pack houses with his crazy gimmicks and generate some spooky atmosphere. I wonder how that remake would've turned out? [6/10]

It seems to me the world is very ready for the return of the horror anthology show. Fake “anthology shows,” that actually devote an entire series to a story, have already proven popular. Various attempts have been made to reboot “Tales” from both the Crypt and the Darkside only for legal entanglements to sink them. “The Twilight Zone” has returned. Hell, even “Amazing Stories” is coming back. Out of this confusion, a hero rises. Greg Nicotero and Shudder had the bright idea to finally fulfill George Romero and Stephen King's dream of launching a “Creepshow” TV series. The Creep is maintained as a silent, ghoulishly grinning host, mostly seen in comic-style wraparound segments. Shudder's “Creepshow” has been a success, driving record-breaking numbers to the streaming service and already receiving a second season order. 

Naturally, the series featured a Halloween episode in its first season. “All Hallow's Eve” follows a group of trick-or-treaters calling themselves the Golden Dragon Club. The group – which includes a sarcastic black kid, a budding romantic couple, and a strangely silent child in a sheet ghost outfit – make vague references to some sort of ritual. They are greeted, at every house they stop by, with expressions of horror and fear. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the Golden Dragons are not of-this-Earth anymore. And that they are seeking revenge on certain people within the town.

The most disappointing thing about “All Hallow's Eve” is that a twist is obviously coming and it's not too hard to see what. Clearly, the townsfolk fear these trick-or-teaters for some reason and it's  difficult to guess why. However, the contrast behind the light-hearted interactions of the kids and the uneasiness they cause everywhere they do is a nice touch. The group of youngsters are all fairly lovable. The sardonic and always hungry Binky is especially amusing. The flashback that reveals the gang's origins is well done, shot in black-and-white save for one element. Considering “Creepshow” is a homage to E.C. Comics, it's only fitting that this story ends up being one of bad people being punished for their misdeeds. The episode's ending is nicely bittersweet too.

The second story of the episode, “The Man in the Suitcase,” comes from director David Bruckner. It's has an amusingly bizarre premise, of a heartbroken stoner discovering a twisted-up man in his airport luggage with a surprising ability. Once again, the monstrous, special effects-filled reveal is heavily foreshadowed early on.  It's still fun to watch the oddball premise unravel itself. Seeing the increasingly sadistic way the suitcase-bound man is increasingly tortured is fun. Much like the first tale, the segment ends by punishing the wicked for their crime in a suitably ironic fashion. Brucker leans harder into the comic book visual style found in the original “Creepshow” film, making the second half of this episode far superior to the first. Even if it lacks the cool Halloween atmosphere. [7/10]

The Visitant (1981)

Sick of the jump scare heavy horror shorts that get passed around the internet these days, I decided to skew slightly older with most of my shorts-selection this year. Such as with “The Visitant.” Made in 1981 by an 18 year old student with all of 500 dollars, the short concerns a man visiting the grave of his late father. He is haunted by the spirit of his late son, which he literally chases through the cemetery. Soon, a barrage of other spectres begin to haunt and pursue the man. Shortly afterwards, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary visit after all.

Knowing the backstory behind “The Visitant” certainly makes it a more impressive achievement. For such a low budget, amateur production, it looks shockingly professional. The camera work is nicely expressive. There are multiple tracking shots, including a few attached to moving vehicles,  which really impress. The make-up effects look quite good, especially the axe-wielding ghoul with the missing eyeball. “The Visitant” keeps throwing spooky apparitions at the audience, never giving the tension a chance to subside. “The Visitant's” low budget shows in its over-reliance on voice-over narration, which basically explains the plot, and a twist ending that you see coming a mile away. Yet this is a pretty cool little short, all things considered. Director Paul Bunnell has made a handful of shorts and two features since 1981, a few of which are horror or horror-adjacent. I'll have to see if I can track those down. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 28th

3 from Hell (2019)

Say whatever you will about Rob Zombie: Filmmaker but most people agree 'The Devil's Rejects” is his best movie. (Maybe his only good movie, depending on where you stand.) The psychedelic vulgarity of “House of a 1000 Corpses” is interesting, if unfocused. “Lords of Salem” had its moments. I'll even defend parts of his “Halloween.” Yet “Halloween II” and “31” represented the filmmaker at his most self-indulgent, drowning in directionless excess. When it was announced Zombie would be returning to the Firefly brood, I was initially intrigued. The title “3 from Hell” suggested a return to the supernatural elements of his debut. Instead, Zombie revealed he would resurrect his hideous brood in the laziest way possible. The gang simply survive their obviously fatal wounds at the end of “Rejects,” negating the ending's soulfulness and making me deeply uninterested in a third film. But what am I going to do? Not review this thing?

Yes, Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding somehow survive the “Free Bird” hail of bullets that concluded “The Devil's Rejects.” The infamous trio are left in critical condition, going into comas. They awaken on death row, Captain Spaulding being sentenced to death and the other two getting life sentences. Ten years later, the Rejects have become counter-cultural cult figures. With the help of his previously unmentioned brother Foxy, Otis escapes prison. He soon springs Baby from the clink. The new trio head to Mexico, leaving more bodies in their wake. Eventually, they cross paths with the drug lord son of a previous victim.

“3 from Hell” does little to dispel the notion that Rob Zombie brought the Fireflies back to life because he was completely out of any other ideas. The film frequently plays like a greatest hits reel for Zombie. A stopover in a hotel, which ends in brutality, and the Rejects holding a family captive in their home and torturing them are quotes from “The Devil's Rejects.” A slow-mo full frontal murder scene set to a Slim Whitman song is from “House of 1000 Corpses.” Baby's surreal daydreams of a cat-headed ballerina recall the acid horror of “Lords of Salem.” When not repeating himself, Zombie has his character just... Doin' stuff. This is a frequently directionless hang-out movie, devoted to the Fireflies talking shit, partying and occasionally killing people. There are totally superfluous sequences, like Baby entering a knife throwing contest or Clint Howard's cameo as the worst party clown ever. The plot is essentially wrapped up half-way through, when Baby is busted from prison. Zombie has to invent an entirely separate story in the second half in order to keep the movie going. (And continue-to-go it does. The film is almost two hours long.)

What is most frustrating about “3 from Hell's” totally lackadaisical approach is that there's interesting ideas contained within. The Fireflies becoming cult icons is dumb but could've set up an interesting confrontation between the killers and their new fans. This never happens. At one point, Baby flat-out asks what the point of the Fireflies' nihilistic lifestyle is anymore. The bubbliest Firefly genuinely seems to be tiring of being a serial killer, if her friendly interactions with a sympathetic hotel employee is any indication. After nearly an hour of recycled slaughter and aimless partying, “3 from Hell” becomes a spaghetti western pastiche. Which is kind of fun and cool, the Fireflies becoming pitch-black anti-heroes against luchador mask wearing drug cartel thugs. It's not fresh but at least it's different from the first two movies.

All that aside, I sort of get why Rob Zombie made this movie. He loves these characters and just wanted to spend more time with them. That's why he wasted so little energy conceptualizing their resurrection. He just wanted them back, just wanted another adventure, and didn't care how. The cast is doing some interesting things. During her most unhinged moments, Sheri Moon successfully recalls the manic heights of “House of 1000 Corpses.” Yet there's also something sadder going on here, the character realizing she's lost her way. Her interaction with Pancho Malor's innocent hotel worker are rather interesting. Bill Mosely is more obviously tired, as he doesn't bring the same bite to Otis' arch, vulgar dialogue. Even then, the scenes devoted to him talking about classic movies are kind of fun.

Obviously Sid Haig was intended to have a larger role but his failing health limited his role to a fiery monologue at the very beginning. Zombie rather lazily swapped Spaudling out for his new favorite character actor, Richard Brake, as a family member that previously never existed. Brake does okay, for what it's worth, but the switch is still awkward. You can tell “3 from Hell” had a smaller budget than either previous film. The soundtrack has fewer classic rock radio standards. The cast has fewer recognizable cult icons. (Howard, a briefly returning Danny Trejo, and Dee Wallace as a sadistic prison guard are about it.) Jeff Daniel Phillips, as the prison official watching over Baby, tries to capture the sweaty levels of over-the-top nuttiness seen previously in Zombie's movies but just can't hack it.

Zombie's style as a director has not evolved in any meaningful way. “3 from Hell” looks as grimy and sun-faded as “Rejects” and “31” were. His action sequences feature a lot more Peckinpah-esque slow motion than expected. (“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was an obvious inspiration.) The ten year jump into the future means “3 from Hell” is set in 1988 but, aside from a split second shot of a photo of Ronald Reagan, there's no indication of that. This still feels like the burnt-out seventies, especially in a rowdy party with Mexican prostitutes. I will give Rob this much. Somehow, this movie represents a step back from the hideously unpleasant excess of “Halloween II” and “31.” The dialogue is still steeped in F-bombs but less exhaustively edgy than in those films. There's little of the spark or energy that made “The Devil's Rejects” so endlessly quotable but Zombie is audibly trying to recapture that.

Zombie can at least be commended for not attempting to replicate “Rejects'” strangely powerful ending. No, “3 from Hell” concludes by giving the Fireflies the closest thing to a happy ending that is possible for them. Which is a major anticlimax, as it makes the film feel like it just ends, that it's just an episode in some endless saga. And maybe it is, because there's nothing stopping Rob from doing this again in another ten years. “3 from Hell” certainly does not justify its own existence. It's a tired film, hopelessly straining in the shadow of “The Devil's Rejects.” It's not even a good tribute to the late, great Sid Haig. But it's not totally worthless either and is slightly better than I anticipated and then the acidic reviews suggested. [6/10]

Ben (1972)

Movie studios might not have been as wild for horror sequels in the seventies as they would become in the next decade. Still, a success of “Willard's” level – not to mention the waves of knock-offs and similarly themed films that followed – suggested the public might be hungry for a killer rat sequel. Willard died at the end of the first movie but who needs a human protagonist when you have a homicidal rat you can build a movie around? Thus, the premise for a follow-up emerged, Ben the rat supplanting Bruce Davidson as the star of the show. Rushed out for release the very next summer, “Ben” would be another box office success, if not on the level of the original. But that's not the reason people remember this movie, when they remember it at all.

“Ben” actually utilizes some of the untouched elements from Stephen Gilbert's original book. Such as a scene of the rats infiltrating a grocery store or the rodent attacks driving the public into an anti-rat panic, the government forming rat exterminating kill-squads. After his death, Willard's notebooks leak to the press. This starts a manhunt (rat-hunt?) for Ben and his brood of verminous offspring, who are just trying to survive. Ben befriends Danny Garrison, a lonely little boy with a heart condition. Soon, Danny and Ben are called upon to protect each other, as the boy is bullied and the exterminators close in on the rats.

“Ben” is a movie that occupies two worlds. The first of which is a nasty horror movie about rats invading human spaces. In that regard, “Ben” is actually more effective than “Willard.” Even speaking as someone with no fear of rats, sequences of rats swarming through a grocery store or filling out the interior walls of a building are squirm-inducing. The rats bring down police officers, wreck an eighteen wheeler, and absolutely infest the sewers underneath suburban streets. People scream as rats crawl all over their bodies. Aside from a campy scene of the rats invading a women's gym, “Ben” is an effective horror movie.

That's just half the movie “Ben” is, though. The other half is an extremely sappy kid's flick. The scenes devoted to Danny and Ben's relationship feel like something out of a Disney family film of the same era. Danny, also an amateur puppeteer, performs elaborate marionette shows for Ben. He even makes a puppet of the rat, which dances in one scene! Danny cuddles with Ben, sings songs for him, plays games with him, puts him in a box, and declares him his best friend. Ben, in return, rescues Danny from bullies and happily watches Danny perform. Lee Montgomery's performance is as gee-shucks adorable as you can imagine. In the end, after the cops wipe out all the other rats, Danny and Ben have a tearful reunion. This subplot is best summed up by Michael Jackson's saccharine theme song, which is performed several times throughout the film. Ultimately, the tonal shifts are whiplash inducing. The film can not correlate Ben, the lovable pet, with Ben, the leader of the bloody rat revolution. The disconnect is real.

“Willard” had some, probably unintentional, racial connotations. Socrates, the white rat, was beloved and accepted. Ben, and all the other brown and black rats, were rejected and scorned. The sequel leans into this aspect. Though the film obviously plays Ben's rebellion for horror, it's also emphasizes that he's just striving to live. The last act is devoted to extended scenes of the police exterminating the hordes of rats. They march into the sewer lair with flamethrowers and shotguns, eliminating every last screeching one of them. The police are being unnecessarily brutal. The cops also, pointedly, utilize fire hoses. The film's detective and journalist heroes are played straight. Yet the film is clearly depicting law enforcement officers are oppressors and the rats as antiheroes of sorts. (I'm willing to bet, however, that racial minorities did not appreciate being compared to literal vermin.)

I'm sure Bing Crosby Productions – did I mention that Bing Crosby produced these movies? – didn't loose money on “Ben.” However, M.J.'s theme song would have a far greater impact on pop culture history. It would be the iconic performer's first number one hit, would win a Golden Globe and be nominated for an Oscar. While the movie has been more-or-less forgotten, the song remains well known. To the point that most people probably don't even know that this romantic ballad to friendship was originally intended for a rat. (And it's certainly fitting that Jacko, self appointed King of the Freaks, would perform a totally sincere love song to a murderous rodent.) The sequel certainly has its moments and is, in some ways, better than its predecessor. Yet those kid-friendly scenes are almost unbearable. [6/10]

Tales from the Darkside: Halloween Candy

When George Romero and producer Richard P. Rubinstein realized they couldn't make “Creepshow: The Series,” as they weren't the sole owners of the film's right, they decided to make “Tales from the Darkside” instead. The show would largely ditch the comic book gimmick but keep the idea of tales of presenting macabre and the fantastic on a weekly basis. Frequent cable broadcast and nostalgic memories of seeing the show in syndication has made “Tales from the Darkside” a cult classic. (Part of this can definitely be attributed to the show's excessively spooky opening narration.) While not every episode was horror related, the show frequently veered in that direction. Naturally, that's the genre that was chosen when episodes revolving around Halloween, like season two's “Halloween Candy,” arrived.

Mr. Killup is a bitter old man with no use for frivolity or joy, caring only for food. His son, whom he is also hateful towards, stops by on Halloween night. He doesn't want to clean eggshells off dad's house again and insists on bringing some Halloween candy by. Dad instead keeps the candy for himself and gives trick-or-treators glue and mayonnaise. Late at night on the 31st, a very strange trick-or-treator comes to Killup's door step. The apparent child demands candy and won't take no for an answer. Killup soon awakens in a nightmarish night of endless horror.

Since “Creepshow” was inspired by the E.C. Comics, it's only fitting that “Tales from the Darkside” would frequently feature stories of mean people getting punished. That's exactly what “Halloween Candy” is. Roy Poole is perfectly nasty as the old man, a total asshole who heaps scorn on absolutely everyone. Tom Savini directs the episode and captures a decently spooky Halloween tone in the few shots of the outside of the house. The demonic trick-or-treator has an appealingly scaly design. The way it leaps through the air in slow-mo is kind of cheesy though. “Halloween Candy” doesn't really have time to explore concepts like time loops in its brief half-hour run time. It's gooey horrors, like a bag moving across the floor on its own or a glass full of roaches, are more effective. Overall, “Halloween Candy” never truly impresses but has enough clever tricks and fun ideas to sustain its brief run time. [7/10]

Polaroid (2015)

Earlier in the Halloween season, I watched the remake of “Child's Play.” Swedish director Lars Klevberg got that gig based on the strength of “Polaroid,” a long-shelved haunted camera flick he previously directed. While the feature version was finally released earlier this year, I opted instead to watch Klevberg's original short, as horror shorts are almost always superior to their feature expansions. The short follows two teenager girls, Sarah and Linda, who are trying to kill time while snowed-in at Sarah's house. They discover an old Polaroid Instamatic camera, a possession of Sarah's recently passed mother. After snapping a picture of themselves with the device, spooky shit begins to happen.

What does work about “Polaroid” is Klevberg's visual sense. The entire short has a gloomy, nighttime greenish-blue coloration to it that I rather like. (The use of color was also a highlight of Klevberg's Chucky remake, so clearly it's a strength for him.) There's a stand-out moment of suspense, when a someone crawls across the floor under a swinging light bulb. Sadly, there's not much else of interest in “Polaroid.” The girls never come to life as characters. Their long scenes of dialogue do not build up their personality but just seem to be killing time. There's no interior logic to the film's events. Once the old camera is snapped, ghostly incidents happen for no rhyme or reason. It all builds up to a lame jump scare, as seemingly all horror shorts on the internet must. “Polaroid” certainly suggest its director has the potential to create an effective horror film but he's not quite there yet. [5/10]