Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 20th

The Woman (2011)

Though I know not a single soul who has watched it, “Offspring” must have been some sort of success because, two years later, a sequel would follow. However, this is an example of a sequel that is far more high-profile than the original. While “Offspring” was directed by a filmmaker nobody has heard of, “The Woman” would be directed by cult favorite Lucky McKee. Jack Ketchum and McKee would write the film together, as both a screenplay and a novel simultaneously, making it a much bigger deal for Ketchum fans. While “Offspring” came and went with little attention, “The Woman” would cause a minor stir in the indie horror scene. (And it didn't hurt that it's not necessary to have seen “Offspring” to enjoy “The Woman.”)

The Woman is the last surviving member of the clan of modern day cannibal savages. She stalks the woods, tending to her wounds and trying to survive. Chris Cleek is a successful lawyer with, seemingly, an idyllic family life. However, something is wrong in the Cleek house. Wife Belle is tightly wound. Teenage daughter Peggy is acting unusual. Son Brian shows little remorse. Six year old Darlin' is preoccupied with kissing. While out hunting, Chris comes across the Woman. Immediately fascinated, he soon captures her and drags her home. He ties her up in the fruit cellar and decides that civilizing this cannibalistic wild woman is the latest family project. The terrified Cleeks go along with this plan, the cracks in their suburban sunniness showing, while the Woman bides her time.

“The Woman” has a few points to make and it's not exactly subtle about them. The most obvious is asking if the polite man living in society is any less savage than the cannibalistic wild woman living in the woods. This point is not especially probing, as it's obvious right from the beginning that something is very wrong in the Cleek household. The second point the film is making – the abuse women suffer under men – is certainly more disturbing. What makes “The Woman” especially effective is the slow way it reveals how evil Chris Cleek is. The wife and daughter are clearly repulsed by the Woman and their husband/father's plan. Yet both are too terrified to act. Every interaction Chris has with his family is rift with tension. He casually slaps his wife when she protests his plans for the Woman, clearly thinking nothing of it. As we learn Peggy is pregnant, the cause becomes impossible to avoid. What makes these plot points especially unnerving is that there's nothing special about them at all. Abuse of this sort happens every day, all over the world. “The Woman” is bracing in its depiction of the evil that men do.

What makes the film even more effective is McKee's excellent direction. By this point, the visual stylist of “May” has evolved into an expert at generating chills and tension. “The Woman” is intimately directed, the camera focusing frequently on the faces of its actors. The Woman's glaring face, her sharpened teeth and filthy skin, is often shown in close-up. Through just his camera work and the wonderful performance, McKee reveals so much information. Such as the moment where Belle clearly considers whacking her husband with a 2x4 and freeing the Woman, before she seals her fate by following his lead. Or an amazingly tense moment that escalates the suspense in a simple shopping trip by cutting back to the fruit cellar, where the Woman yanks on her restraints. In the last act, the camera swirls around the characters, causing the audience to grow dizzy as one shocking event follows another. Every scene “The Woman” is directed, edited, and scored to leave an impact on the viewer.

Jack Ketchum brings with him a certain reputation, well known for his grisly shocks. While the film and novel could never hope to dethrone “The Girl Next Door” as his most disturbing work, “The Woman” might be his most depraved work. In its last third, “The Woman” shows us the depths of the Cleek men's evil. When Brian unleashes his bubbling sadism on the bound Woman, McKee smartly makes the scene more unnerving by suggesting more than he shows. The climax where something – I won't reveal what exactly – crawls out of the doghouse is among the most shocking, baffling, and disturbing plot twist I've seen in any film. Few films have made me shout “What the fuck?” in horrified glee like this one. Cleek's evil is such that the Woman's eventual revenge, as extreme as it is, feels totally justified and cathartic. Unleashed from the cellar, she becomes a typhoon of wild, feminine fury, chewing off a face, cleaving a body in half with a lawnmower blade, and ripping out a still beating heart.

What truly solidifies “The Woman's” status as a modern horror classic is an exemplary cast. Polly MacIntosh builds upon the character she created in “Offspring.” With a glare, a snapping of her jaws, a turn of her head, she speaks volumes. We get a clear idea of the Woman's thoughts, feelings, history, and her entire internal world just from MacIntosh's body language. Sean Bridgers is perfectly unnerving as Chris Cleek, hiding a twisted mind behind a broad smile until he finally unleashes a cavalcade of misogynistic rage in the last act. Angela Bettis would reunite with Lucky as Belle Cleek, a woman stiff and shaky from living with a petty tyrant. Bettis gets her own cathartic outpouring of anger, though it doesn't end well for Belle. Lastly, the doe-eyed Lauren Ashley Carter would launch her own career as an indie scream queen here. Deeply vulnerable but keenly observed, Carter expertly portrays a teenage girl struggling to overcome a lifetime of abuse.

“The Woman” is one of those rare film that pissed off both ends of the political spectrum. The movie gained some notoriety when a man walked out of a festival screening, vocally deriding the film as sexist trash. Some feminists disliked it for being another film made by men about women being abused. A very sensitive breed of dude bemoaned the movie for portraying all men as raping, sexist trash. All of the above missed the point. “The Woman” has an incredible power to horrify, is beautifully acted and directed, and draws the viewer in with each new plot twists. It does everything horror is suppose to, scaring and prompting discussion. [9/10]

Producers Releasing Company was a low budget film studio that operated from 1939 to 1948. Despite existing for less than a decade, PRC produced and released well over a hundred different movies. They were among the most well known “Poverty Row” studio. PRC specialized in B-movies, the back-ends of double features, and rarely spent more than 100,000 dollars on any of their productions. They mostly put out westerns, crime thrillers, and the occasional horror movie. Many of their films have fallen into the public domain and I've already reviewed one, “The Devil Bat,” this season. Among the studio's better regarded horror pictures is “Strangler of the Swamp.”

Deep in the American south, there is an isolated community surrounded by a thick swamp. The only way through the swamp is by ferry. The previous ferryman, a man named Douglas, was lynched for a crime he didn't commit by the citizens of the village. Now, his ghost roams the swampland, looking for revenge against those that wronged him. He strangles Joseph Hart, the current ferryman and the man who actually committed the murder Douglas was framed for. Afterwards, the strangler of the swamp sets his eyes on the replacement: Maria, Hart's lovely young daughter. 

“Strangler of the Swamp” has exactly one thing going for it. The movie is loaded down with spooky, foggy atmosphere. Though the film was obviously shot on cheap sets, the swamp setting still goes a long way. The scenes of the characters crossing the swamp on the ferry, the boggy waters covered over with fog and shadows, are effectively spooky. Moments like a noose appearing in the trees, or a ghostly figure calling from the smoky vapor, scratch that classic horror itch. The film is a remake of the same director's German language “Fährmann Maria,” and it's easy to imagine an Expressionistic version of this story even heavier with shadowy, foggy dread.

Aside from the thick atmosphere, “Strangler of the Swamp” is a totally unremarkable ghost story. This is the kind of movie that begins with a group of unimportant supporting characters explaining all the backstory the audience needs to know. That expositionary tone extends through most of the movie, the characters discussing the recent past in heavy detail. The script is generally hokey and stiff. While the Strangler certainly seems like a threatening presence, he mostly just whispers from the darkness, not doing much besides standing around. Everything that's happens in the movie is predicted earlier. The climax features a character calmly talking the ghost out of haunting the town, a hugely underwhelming conclusion.

When not focused on its underwhelming haunting, “Strangler of the Swamp” features the kind of melodrama you'd expect from a forties B-movie. Upon arriving in town, Maria immediately catches the eye of a local guy, Christopher. Though her father insist she can't marry him, Maria and Christopher immediately fall in love. Many long scenes of the two flirting and talking follow, the audience never being drawn in. The love story threatens to become interesting when a drunken guy on the ferry tries to hit on Maria. This just ends up being a set-up for Christopher to play hero, not a commentary on harassment. The only other interesting thing about the love story is that Christopher is played by Blake Edwards. Yes, the director of “The Pink Panther” and “Breakfast at Tiffany's.” No, I didn't know he was an actor either. 

There's a reason I tracked down “Stranglers of the Swamp,” which I had to rent off Amazon for a dollar as it's apparently not in the domain. I've written extensively about SciFilm, a wonderful website devoted to classic science fiction and horror that I frequented in my youth. The forum used to have “Monster Wars” contest, where various horror characters would be pitched against each other. The Strangler of the Swamp, a character I had never heard of before and have rarely heard discussed since, was one of the combatants.  I think he lost to the Predator in the first round. Anyway, after years of remembering the title, I finally watched the movie. It's not much but I'm happy to have that curiosity sated. [5/10]

Night Gallery: The Caterpillar

“Night Gallery” is generally regarded as a disappointing follow-up to “The Twilight Zone,” especially by fans of the classic series. Rod Serling never had as much control over the later show, acting more often as simply a host than as the creative director, and was frequently frustrated by his role. Despite that, “Night Gallery” is still in regular rotation via syndication and a few episodes have acquired reputations as classics. Such as “The Caterpillar.” (Which Serling, perhaps not coincidentally, wrote.) 

Set in colonel Borneo, on a tobacco farm, “The Caterpillar” follows Steven Macy. Macy is going slightly stir-crazy in the constantly rainy jungle. Moreover, he's developed a serious crush on Rhona, his boss' considerably younger wife. She, however, is disgusted by him. Convinced he just needs to kill the old man, a sketchy old crook informs him of an unorthodox form of assassination. He can hire a man to place an earwig, that legendary insect said to burrow into the ear canal and through the human brain, on the man's pillow. However, the assassin makes  a mistake and Macy ends up with the earwig inside his head. 

As a student of urban legends, it's cool to see “Night Gallery” take a wack at the classic earwig legend. (Even if, obviously, earwigs don't actually do this in real life.) The details of what the insect does in this episode are certainly squirm-inducing. We never actually see the bug but we do see plenty of Lawrence Harvey's agonized face, screaming in silent torment as the critter digs through his brain. Honestly, that may be more disturbing than any special effects could be. “The Caterpillar” is well directed, a spotlight often being ominously shined on Harvey's eyes. The rain-soaked setting certainly adds to the dreary atmosphere. The twist ending is fantastically cruel too, even if it's easy to predict. Say what you will about “Night Gallery” as a whole but “The Caterpillar” is pretty damn good. [7/10]

Critters: A New Binge: Veronica

“A New Binge” gets plottier in its fourth installment. While Chris and Charlie attempt to make the police believe they had a close encounter with the Crites, the furry aliens invade the family house. However, what they thought is the missing comrade they seek turns out to be a false start. Two other discoveries are made though. Veronica, Chris' mom, had a previous encounter with the Crites in the past. Meanwhile, her delivery man boyfriend reveals himself to be a shape-shifting bounty hunter sent to Earth to track the ravenous critters.

There are some amusing gags here. Such as the reveal concerning Uncle Murray's secret in the basement, or the “Mission: Impossible”-inspired ways the Crites attempt to rescue the assumed captive. However, a lot of the other jokes here fall flat. Such as the police officers' vulgar digressions to Chris and Charlie's footage of the aliens. Or a long conversation between Veronica and her boyfriend, about how him being an alien bounty hunter affected their sex life. Otherwise, this episode is more focused on moving the story forward and action. While watching a critter get blasted into green slime once is fun, this episode repeats that gag too many times. Hopefully, the next episodes will balance humor and plot better than this one did. [5/10]

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