Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Halloween 2020: October 7th

There's no doubt that the events of 2020 have changed the way we interact with... Well, pretty much everything. But pop culture especially. Now, whenever I see a movie or TV show involving characters in a large crowd, I start to feel anxious. Whenever a piece of media depicts people outside without a mask on, I mentally chastise them. Coughing or sneezing, in fiction and real life, is now cause for serious concern. Some films, once watched as mere diversions, now come off as prescient. “Contagion” got so much more right than anyone wanted to admit at first. Earlier this year, just as most people were starting to go into lock down, an Irish feature filmed last year was released. Every review I've read of “Sea Fever” has mentioned how the film became all the more relevant in the era of COVID-19. Though I risked depressing myself by watching it, I figured I better be able to judge “Sea Fever's” merits for myself.

Siobhan, an expert in microscopic lifeforms, takes a ride on an Irish fishing boat. The crew, desperate to catch some fish, point the boat into prohibited waters. They uncover a net full of fish... But the boat is also stuck in place by a strange substance. A dive reveals that a large, squid-like creatures has caught the boat. After releasing it, the crew comes across an abandoned yacht, all of its passengers dead. Soon, a member of the crew suffers fever-like symptoms before his eyeballs explode, blood full of parasites. Whatever the creature was, it has infected the boat's water supply with microscopic offspring. Now Siobhan must determine who is infected and who is not.

During production, “Sea Fever” was most probably influenced by films like “Alien” – because of its isolated, blue collar crew – and “The Thing,” because of the uncertainty over who has been infected. Now, “Sea Fever” undeniably brings the current pandemic to mind. Nobody knows for sure who is or isn't infected, leading to a tense scene where people are being tested. Siobhan insist the crew member quarantine themselves, to keep the parasites from spreading. Some of the other crew members insist they return home as soon as possible. They argue that their self -satisfaction is more important than protecting people. Some of the crew members deny the parasitic infection is real at all. Most blatantly, the main sign someone has been infected by the parasite is a fever. Through no intentional move on the behalf of writer/director Neasa Hardiman, she has captured the paranoia and in-fighting of our current global situation. 

As a horror movie, “Sea Fever” is most focused on generating suspense and getting under the audience's skin. However, the movie occasionally pauses its more low-key objectives in favor of flashier genre elements. The parasites are among 2020's most insidious cinematic villains. The sequence where a man's eyeballs explode, squirming mites bursting out, is certain to generate some cringes. This is immediately followed by a moment where someone has the same mites raining down on them in the shower, their naked body marked with countless, microscope cuts. This kind of subtle but unnerving body horror is paired with impressive low budget special effects. The brief glimpses we get at the unusual organism are memorable. It's some sort of giant jellyfish like creature, with bioluminescent tentacles. What's neat about the creature is it looks like a real animal, instead of like a movie monster designed to be intimating or cool looking.

Despite everything “Sea Fever” has in its favor, the film didn't totally work for it. It has a pretty serious flaw: I never cared about any of the characters. Siobhan, played reliably by Hermione Corfield, may be the most reasonable person on the boat. She's also so scientifically, it's hard to relate to her emotionally. Most every other member of the crew is an asshole. Because of old sailing superstitions, most of them fear Siobhan because of her red hair. They treat her badly. Freya, the captain's wife, is antagonistic throughout most of the film. “Sea Fever” also engages, however briefly, in one of my least favorite horror movie tropes: Petty bickering between characters.

A horror movie like this, based on wondering who among the group will live or die, depends entirely on how invested you are in the characters. In “The Thing,” you immediately get an idea of who everyone is and are curious who will survive or be infected. In “Alien,” you like each of the cast members no matter how vague their characterization is. I'm still not sure who or what any of these people are. Put this down as another one of those films I admire – for its inventive special effects, observant story, and a few nasty gore surprises – more than I like. [6/10]

By 1978, Jose Mojica Marins had been playing Coffin Joe for ten years. Though he made many different types of films in that time, it seems his horror pictures were still his greatest claim-to-fame. I have no idea if this was true but it certainly appears that Brazilian cinema-goers' interest in horror films was starting to wane as the seventies' ended. Or maybe Mojica was just a little tired of the iconic character he created. As the decade came to a close, the filmmaker would cobble together deleted and censored scenes from the previous Coffin Joe movies into a new feature, “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind.” This would be the last Coffin Joe movie the director would complete for thirty years.

A man named Hamilton is having horrible nightmares. In these terrifying dreams, the pop culture figure Zé do Caixão presents grotesque and macabre images to him. The fictional mortician also threatens to claim his beloved wife, Tânia, as his own. Hamilton is so distraught by these night terrors that Tânia calls a psychologist's clinic to help him. When regular treatment is not effective, the doctors call up filmmaker José Mojica Marins, Zé do Caixão's creator, for help. The man is hypnotized and Mojica tries to convince Hamilton that the figure in his nightmares is only a fictional character... But is that entirely the truth?

Yes, “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” is essentially a Coffin Joe clip show. Hamilton's nightmares are largely composed of footage from previous Mojica films. It seems the bulk is taken from the Hell sequence in “This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse,” the acid trips in “Awakening of the Beast,” the torture footage in “Strange World of Coffin Joe,” and the black mass from “Black Exorcism.” (Though the shots of snakes and toads are from “Trilogia del Terror.”) Many sources claim these are deleted scenes. Some of these scenes, like a tongue being cut out from “Bloody Exorcism,” I don't remember. Other moments seem presented more-or-less how they were in the original films. About fifty minutes of this 86 minute long movie is composed of this reused footage. As you'd expect, a plotless montage of surreal torture and depravity gets tedious quickly. Especially when it's all scored to the same cacophony of screams, agonized bellows, and sparse synth music.

Most of the sequences I don't recognize in “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” were hardly worth rescuing. Several minutes are devoted to a wind-up snake or toy skull bopping around. There's footage of people showing their faces through what I guess is foam rubber, though it looks more like bread dough mixed with fake blood. Shots of body parts, including breasts and asses, stuck through holes in a big sheet take up quite a lot of screen time. About the only deleted scenes here that seem interesting is a moment from “Awakening of the Beast,” where masked figures gaze down at Coffin Joe in a casket. Some of these scenes might've been shot specifically for “Hallucinations.” Such as the opening, where naked women appear every time a hunchback thumps on a drum. While some of these bits are sort of neat, they all loose their novelty when repeated endlessly.

The parts of “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” that actually have plot continue the meta-fictional conceit from “Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe.” Once again, José Mojica Marins writes a role for himself where he repeatedly clarifies that Zé do Caixão is not real. This certainly continues to reflect on the feelings the filmmaker had towards his own creation. Yet too much of “Hallucinations” seems designed to massage Mojica's ego. An easily excised scene shows how considerate an employee the director is, as he throws his apparently large staff a pool party. (He's wearing the salmon suit from “Bloody Exorcism” in this scene, so it might be another deleted moment.) The denouncement features the filmmaker expounding on psychology to the actual psychologist. It all starts to feel very self-serving very quickly.

In its best moments, “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” functions like an underground horror mix-tape, mood setting for weirdo movie nerds. Sometimes, a kind of cool rock music even kicks in on the soundtrack, furthering this feeling. Ultimately, the film proves to be required viewing only for the most hardcore of Coffin Joe devotees. Most of the footage is inessential alternate takes or deleted scenes, all of it repeated until you're absolutely sick of seeing it. The result is more boring than hallucinatory. I don't know if this one killed public interest in the character or if Mojica was simply out of ideas. Either way, the lackluster quality of “Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind” suggest Brazil's most depraved undertaker probably needed to take a break of his own. [4/10]

The Ray Bradbury Theater: The Crowd

No writer has had a greater influence on me than Ray Bradbury. While best known for his science fiction stories, Bradbury classified himself as a writer of the fantastique. His macabre books like “The October Country,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Illustrated Man” had a profound impact on me as a kid. Bradbury was so well-regarded, and such a prolific short story writer, that he even got his own TV show. Much like “Tales from the Darkside,” “The Ray Bradbury Theater” ran for years without making much of an impact. And like “The Hitchhiker,” it would air on HBO for a few seasons before USA Network picked it up for several more. Among Bradbury's many creepy stories, “The Crowd” always struck me as maybe his creepiest. Naturally, the classic story was adapted early in the show's first year. 

While driving late at night, Joe wrecks his car. As he lays on the sidewalk, a crowd of people appear out of nowhere to circle his vehicle, drawing uncomfortably close. Minutes later, an ambulance arrives and Joe walks away from the crash with few injuries. Not long afterwards, he spots another car wreck, surrounded by another crowd, and notices some familiar faces. He begins to research vehicular collisions, recording evidence, and sees that the same people always gather around the accident site. And in all these cases, the people in the cars end up dead. He becomes convinced that he's stumbled upon a supernatural conspiracy and becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the crowd.

Like many of Bradbury's great stories, “The Crowd” takes a common place idea – the onlookers that inevitably gather around any auto accident – and extrapolates unnerving conclusions from it. Deriving paranoia from the everyday is part of what made Bradbury a great writer of the unusual and the printed “The Crowd” is an example of his prowess. The cinematic “The Crowd” is not quite as effective. The episode attempts to provide a supernatural explanation for what this mysterious crowd is, which is neither wanted nor necessary. The synth musical score and neon sets are immediately dated and campy. The camcorder footage of the creepy crowd are effective though. Nick Mancuso and R.H. Thomson are likable as the two leads. In its final minutes, “The Crowd” finally grasps some of the unnerving feeling the original text has. A snowy setting, multiple shots of people fading in and out of headlights, and whispered denouncements successfully creates an eerie feeling. I'd recommend the short story first but “The Ray Bradbury Theater” episode isn't too bad either. [6/10]

Forever Knight: Fallen Idol

A show devoting an episode to pro-wrestling is apparently a common enough occurrence to have its own TVTropes page. And so “Fallen Idol” is “Forever Knight's” grappler-centric installment. A wrestler known as the Bulldozer – real name Henry Ellis – has a mentally disabled nephew named Joey that worships his wrestling alter-ego. After an argument with another wrestler, Joey sees Bulldozer snap the other guy's neck. As Nick and Natalie investigate the slaying, Natalie and Nick temporary take Joey under their wings. In order to assist in the case, Natalie injects the boy with vampire blood. This restores his mind to normalcy but at the cost of making him unusually violent. 

“Fallen Idol” is a weird episode. The pro-wrestling element ends up being little but window dressing for the main plot. The story-motivating murder is resolved mid-way through in a very off-handed manner. Aside from the burly suspects and some theatrical promos, the focus of the episode is on Joey's condition. In his neurodivergent state, Joey is so child-like that he believes pro-wrestler to be real and doesn't realize his uncle is the Bulldozer. In his “cured” state, he's a computer genius but emotionally unstable. The episode climaxes with an attempted throat-slashing and an unhinged stand-off. Implying developmentally disabled people can only be whimsical simpletons or dangerous geniuses is not a good look. The reveal that vampire blood has magical properties comes out of nowhere. The gist of the episode, as the title indicates, is that Joey will not see his uncle the same way after its events. This parallels the flashback, where Nick had a human ward who admired him until he saw him draining some maidens. These scenes are underdeveloped. Overall, it's a muddled and uneven episode. [5/10]

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