Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 4, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 4th

I will be the first person to admit that I am a movie snob, especially when it comes to my beloved horror genre. Usually, I turn my nose up at most horror movies that come from big studios. You'll have to forgive me for this, as lots of mainstream horror flicks blow chunks. If I see a trailer loaded with cliches, I will outright dismiss a movie and only reluctantly give it another chance. Sorry, that's just me. So when I first saw the advertisements for “Orphan” over a decade ago, I had no desire to check it out. I'm innately skeptical of the “evil kids” subgenre anyway, since it's a story type that is handled poorly too often. Yet, over the intervening years, “Orphan” has acquired a certain reputation as a solid horror flick, or at least trashy fun. So I guess I better check this one out after all. 

John and Kate have two kids, pre-teen Daniel and Maxine, who is deaf following a near-drowning. The couple might've had three children but Kate gave birth to a stillborn. Still reeling from this loss, the couple make the decision to adopt. They discover Esther, an incredibly bright and talented nine year old from Russia. Charmed, they adopt the girl and invite her into their home. Max immediately bonds with the girl but Daniel is suspicious. Soon, accidents and other strange injuries occur and Esther seems to know more then she lets on. While John grows more protective of his adopted daughter, Kate begins to suspect that a pint-sized psychopath has moved in their home.

“Orphan” has a simple premise, asking what would happen if Rhoda Penmark was adopted. Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson needlessly junks the story up with overwrought back-story. John and Kate's life is wrought with tragedy even before Esther shows up. Kate is an alcoholic and John blames her for the accident that stole Max's hearing. John had an affair, an act Kate has never forgiven him for. This information is delivered through hilariously awkward conversations.  As it winds on, “Orphan” gets more absurd. A nine-year-old successfully out-thinks every adult around her and gas-lights the one she can't trick. Esther does lots of blatantly, obviously evil things but goes undetected. A grandparent lets two children wander a hospital unsupervised. Nobody sees a building burning until, somehow, it's too late. The coincidences pile up quickly enough but only Kate seems to notice. 

Mind you, all of this is before “Orphan's” astonishingly dumb twist. Once the utterly absurd truth about Esther is revealed, via yet another clumsy exposition dump, “Orphan” escalates into full-blown hysterics. There's a car crash that easily could've been avoided. Disturbing paintings that definitely should've been seen earlier are discovered. As “Orphan” degrades into slasher style shenanigans, including a dumb-ass one-liner, I almost found myself enjoying it. In fact, “Orphan” should've stuck to this atmosphere of campy trash more often. Its best scenes are often its most outrageous. A ludicrously sleazy attempted seduction, a threatened castration, the sight of a nine-year-old smashing a nun's head in: These are the kind of garbage thrills I watch killer kid movies for. 

Sometimes, “Orphan” is so overheated in its melodrama, that I wonder if we are supposed to think the movie is funny. Yet director Jaume Collet-Serra, previously of the “House of Wax” remake, is dead fucking serious. The film is loaded down with cheap jump scares. Including one involving a creaky mirror that is foreshadowed repeatedly. Esther's behavior is initially normal, yet the film still acts like she's sinister via creepy music and point-of-view shots that go nowhere. In other words, the scare factor of these scenes depend on you knowing this is a movie about a psycho kid. The perpetually wintry setting – probably stolen from superior killer kid flick “The Children” – is as flashy and slick looking as possible. The performances are similarly overwrought. Vera Farmiga embarrasses herself with throaty wails of anguish. Peter Sarsgaard seems to think he's in a serious chamber drama. Isabelle Fuhrman, who was twelve at the time of shooting, shows a lot more subtly and tact than the adult performers around her.

“Orphan” is also, for some inexplicable reason, over two hours long. That's another example of how the film is indecisively placed between serious horror and full-blown camp. There was no chance of the former ever working but if the movie had committed to the latter, it probably would've been way more enjoyable. Despite its quality, “Orphan” was a solid box office success. Collet-Serra has gone on to a good career, directing three Liam Neeson movies, “The Shallows,” and has two flicks with the Rock coming up. Isabella Fuhrman showed up in “The Hunger Games” and is still getting work today. More recently, a prequel entitled “Esther” was announced. Perhaps that one will abandoned the pretensions and focus solely on trashy thrills. As it stands now, “Orphan” needed to be either a whole hell of a lot smarter or a little bit dumber for me to enjoy it. [5/10]

Exorcismo Negro

After the censoring of “Awakening of the Beast,” Jose Mojica Marins would take a break from the horror genre. He would next make a satire of hippy culture called “Finis Hominis,” where he played a character that looked and acted a lot like Coffin Joe. He would then direct a sequel to that movie, as well as a western, a crime flick, and a sex comedy. But by 1974, “The Exorcist” must have made it to Brazil. Probably attempting to cash-in on that film's success, Marins would ramp up the demonic horror in his next picture... Which would, naturally, also see the return of his trademark character. When Something Weird released “Exorcismo Negro” – “Black Exorcism!” – on VHS in the nineties, they gave it the baroque title of “The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe." Presumably because that's awesome and also so folks wouldn't think it was a blaxploitation movie.

Expanding on the meta element seen in “Awakening of the Beast,” Marins once again plays himself in a story set in the “real” world. This is established in the first scene, which is a movie-within-the-movie that then cuts to the director and crew. Jose Mojica Marins finishes directing his latest film and leaves to spend the Christmas holiday with a friend's family. At a press conference, he clarifies that he is not Coffin Joe, that Coffin Joe is just a fictional character... Which is followed by a light bulb exploding. At the friend's home, the strange events continue. People act erratically, their eyes turning red. Books fly off shelves. Jose and the young daughter have frightening visions. People and animals are injured. It quickly becomes apparent that the family is being tormented by a Satanic conspiracy. Soon enough, the devil himself appears in the form of Coffin Joe.

There was a brief line in “Awakening of the Beast,” where Jose Mojica Marins explains that “Zé do Caixão was left behind in the cemetery." Mojica similarly grapples with his clearly mixed feelings about his cinematic alter ego here. The public frequently confuses him with his creation. (Though his insistence on keeping the overgrown fingernails even when not filming, which he insists he does to make his films more genuine, probably didn't help any.) "Black Exorcism" seems to deliberately outline the differences between the real man and his fictional counterpart. Mojica is depicted as usually soft-spoken, with a non-eugenics based fondness for kids, and wearing a salmon pink suit. He even saves the day by professing his belief in God, at total odds with his most famous character. It's interesting to see a filmmaker literally confront the icon he created, essentially making "The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe" a film about a director fighting back against the press' insistence that he must be as depraved as the stories he tells.

Which isn't to say that "Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe" is free of the exploitation movie antics that made Marins famous. The final act, in which the devil emerges in the form of Coffin Joe to oversee a Satanic wedding, features lots of whipping, beating, impalement, and some light cannibalism. The scene most obviously inspired by "The Exorcist" features the possesses middle daughter masturbating with a rusty pipe. As in his early films, goofy horrors stand side-by-side more explicit ones. Jose sees a crudely animated cartoon pitchfork in his mirror. A Christmas tree fills with skulls and snakes. An axe fight with a possessed family member generates more giggles than screams. Perhaps to match the film's "real" world setting, Marins' direction is often rather intimate here. His characters, when taken over by evil forces, get right in the camera's face, screaming directly at the audience. This is mildly creepy and makes the filmmaker's sleazy antics seem even more confrontational.

Unfortunately, Marins does not focus the film exclusively on black masses and fourth wall teetering plotting. For whatever reason, the director felt the need to detail the exact specifics of this demonic possession. There's a long segment halfway through the film where his friend's wife travels into the rain forest to meet with a witch. Here, we are greeted with a long and slow scene detailing a demonic pact and a Satanic adoption. It grinds the movie's pace to a halt, weirdly moving the focus away from Mojica himself. Making a mere witch the movie's main antagonist was a weird choice, since the Devil himself/Coffin Joe eventually show up. In general, the family the director is staying with is not so interesting. We never really get a bead on any of them as characters and their various romantic entanglements are not that memorable. 

The film's final image is a good summation of how Marins' combination of home-made camp and transgressive sadism creates an effectively creepy feeling. "The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe" is the only film in the series I hadn't seen before this month, as it's a bit rarer than the others. On one hand, it's not as disturbing as "Strange World of Coffin Joe" or "Awakening of the Beast." When given the license to do full-blown demonic horror, you'd expects Mojica to go a little harder. Yet it's also not the cheap "Exorcist" knock-off I was expecting, the meta-film element adding a unique layer. And, hey, it's also a Christmas set horror movie which might not be too seasonal now but is a blend that's always fun. Ultimately, if you enjoy the Coffin Joe-style, you'll probably find a lot to like about this "Bloody Exorcism." [7/10]

By the start of the eighties, there wasn't much interest in genre anthology shows. (At least in America.) The format was headed for a revival in a few years but, circa 1981, there were few programs of that style on the air. This didn't stop NBC/Universal from creating “Darkroom.” In the tradition of “Night Gallery,” each episode would contain multiple stories. James Coburn would serve as host, presenting macabre tales from a spooky house. Due to audience indifference, “Darkroom” would be canceled after one season. However, cable re-airings would lead to a small cult following and the show is currently streaming for free on NBC's website. 

The third episode is composed of two stories. In the brief “Needlepoint,” a pimp confronts the mother of one of his girls, who recently died. The old woman curses him with a voodoo doll and he kills her in retaliation. His troubles don't end there. In the longer “Siege of 31 August,” a farmer – still emotionally and physically wounded from his time in Vietnam – buys his son a set of army men. He plans to send the boy to a prestigious military academy, in hopes he'll have a better life. However, the boy's toys seem to have a mind of their own. Soon, the son is talking about American atrocities in Vietnam, the army men seemingly reenacting them. This raises difficult feelings in the father. 

There's not much to discuss about “Needlepoint,” which is only ten minutes long. It has a good central concept, and a fitting (if easy to predict) ending. But there's little else on its narrative bones. “Siege of 31 August” is more interesting. It's another piece of eighties pop culture dissecting the lingering trauma of the Vietnam War. Neil, the farmer, is one of those veterans that is weirdly proud of his service, despite having witnessed American war crimes overseas. It's odd that he hopes for a better life for his son but can still only see the military as a path to that future. Despite a strong performance from Ronny Cox, the audience looses all sympathy for him after he smacks his wife around. He apparently blames her for informing their son about American misdeeds during the war. The special effects during the inevitable conflict with the toy soldiers aren't great, as you can see the wires holding them up. The climax is underwhelming too. “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” would do the same premise better years later but “Siege of 31 August” is still worth a mild recommendation, if you want to see another attempt to grapple with America's collective guilt towards the war. [6.5/10]

Forever Knight: The Games Vampires Play

Here's another way you can tell “Forever Knight” was made in the mid-nineties: The show did a hilariously misguided episode about virtual reality. In “The Games Vampires Play,” a game programmer is murdered inside his office. The man was working on a virtual reality game, played online through a cellphone connection and sunglasses-like headsets. Nick soon learns that the game that was being designed is about vampires. The in-game model Nita, who was also the game's co-programmer, is the main suspect but has an alibi. Nick soon begins to play the game, where digital Nita leads him to clues in the real world. The game also encourages the vampiric bloodlust he has worked so hard to suppress and playing it soon becomes an addiction for Nick.

First off, yes, the depiction of virtual reality and gaming in “The Games Vampires Play” is utterly fallacious. The idea of playing a co-opt video game via a wireless internet connection, through a cellphone, in 1996 is completely ridiculous. Programming is depicted as a guy typing words beneath a 3-D image of a rotating cube. This untitled vampire game is entirely immersive, even though all the player wears is some visors and gloves. How exactly you play the game is never explained, since Nick seems to move through the environments simply by thinking about it. The game segments are depicted by adding a fuzzy filter to normal scenes. (Though this is one of the more accurate elements of the episode, as it vaguely resembles full-motion video games like “Phantasmagoria.”) Obviously, the amount of detail, depth, and interactivity depicted here was way beyond any game technology at the time. 

Despite these clear shortcomings, “The Games Vampires Play” is still a very entertaining episode. The game scenes allow for the most action sequences we've seen in season three. In the game world, all the weapons have a neon glow to them for some reason. Nick is warded off with a lime green cross, battles guys with Nerf guns in a sewage plant, and swings a glowing battle axe at a dude in an underground tunnel. It's goofy as shit but lots of fun. There's also some decent drama to this episode, as the vicarious bloodsucking thrills of the game makes Nick more reckless. Getting to see Nick be an actual bad-ass vampire is another factor making this one of the season's more amusing hours. [7/10]

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