Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 28

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Today, John Carpenter’s 1981 version of “The Thing” is rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. But I’m sure, back in the early eighties, some monster kids were aghast that the 1951 original was being remade. For decades, “The Thing from Another World” was considered one of the great pillars of 1950s sci-fi/horror. Officially credited to Christopher Nyby but usually considered Howard Hawks’ film, the original “Thing” is now somewhat overshadowed by Carpenter’s version. This is unfair to such an influential picture that still manages to scare today.

Loosely adapted from John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?,” the film begins in an Alaskan military outpost. After an alien space craft supposedly crash lands in the Arctic, the team is deployed to investigate. What they find is a massive flying saucer buried under the ice. After accidentally destroying the saucer, the men recover a humanoid figure in a block of ice. They take the being back to base, where it thaws out thanks to an woefully deployed electric blanket. The strange thing, a vegetable life form that drinks human blood, stalks through the base, attacking all who encounter it.

Howard Hawks was a versatile filmmaker, who made great contributions to the crime, comedy, and western genres. “The Thing” was his only horror film. Hawks didn’t adapt to other genres. He brought his style to different types of stories. “The Thing” is filled with grounded characters that trade fast-paced dialogue. My favorite cast member is Douglas Spencer’s Scotty, a reporter that sticks himself into the action and always has a quip up his sleeve. Yet I also like Kenneth Tobey’s Captain Hendry, a no-nonsense hero. He has a charming romance with Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki, the film’s required Hawksian woman. The cast is too large, with many of the characters barely developed, but a few are still likable. The comedic dialogue threatens to drain tension from scenes but the likable cast keeps the far-out story grounded.

“The Thing from Another World” takes a measured approach to horror. Focusing on the old adage that the unseen is scarier, it holds off on revealing the monsters for nearly half its run time. We only see the vague outline of the Thing inside its ice cube. People shoot at the escaping monster. In the distance, we briefly see the Thing brutally tear through the sled dogs. The film successfully builds up a sense of foreboding around its titular threat. Aside from the fleeting glances, it does this by discussing the creature’s habits. It’s a vegetarian being that sucks blood with the pointed barbs extending from its skin. These two styles combine in a notable sequence where the scientist dissect the Thing’s detached arm.

As much as “The Thing from Another World” suggests its horror content, the film also knows when to deploy some shockingly visceral horror. In what must be one of the earliest jump scares in cinema history, the Thing bursts through a door. It swings its barbed hand into the door frame, startling the men and everyone in the audience. Another memorable sequence has the monster slowly closing in on the humans. When it explodes into the room, they set the creature on fire. This doesn’t make the Thing any less dangerous, as it continues to rampage while ablaze. Yes, the Thing’s appearance is somewhat underwhelming. James Arness looks like a greener, thornier Frankenstein. The climax, where the Thing slowly approaches the protagonists’ trap, isn’t as scary as these earlier moments. But those shocks are worth a lot.

“The Thing from Another World” would have an immediate influence on the sci-fi/horror genre. The untrustworthy scientist character, whose willingness to communicate with the monster endangers everyone, would be copied by many lesser films. (It’s pretty easy to read into this, to see post-nuclear anxieties about where science will lead mankind.) The final scene, which has Spencer’s reporter imploring the audience to keep watching the sky, would also be widely imitated. While undeniably slightly hokey to modern eyes – what with its slow pace, stock characters, and talk of giant carrots – “The Thing from Another World” is still astonishingly effective at times. [7/10]

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

The original “Child’s Play” was successful but its release was met with some controversy. Apparently moral guardians feared the film would corrupt the minds of impressionable children. This panic, combined with United Artists being acquired by a horror-averse new owner, had the sequel shifting hands. Eventually Universal Studios, no stranger to monster movies, picked up the sequel. “Child’s Play 2” came out in 1990 to commercial success. The sequel also remains a favorite among the franchise’s fans. A friend considers it his favorite of the Chucky films and he’s not alone in that opinion.

“Child’s Play 2” picks up quickly after the first film’s events. After stories of Andy Barclay and his murderous Good Guy Doll hit the tabloids, the corporation behind the toy suffer serious losses. Their attempts to figure out what happened revives Chucky, who renews his quest to transfer his soul into the boy’s body. Andy’s mother told the truth about the murders and was declared insane. So Andy is now in foster care. The boy attempts to fit in among his new family are fraught by his lingering fears. Which turn out to be well founded, as it’s not long before Chucky finds Andy again and continues to make the boy’s life a living nightmare.

John Lafia has taken over the director’s chair formally occupied by Tom Holland. While Holland’s direction aimed for ominous, Lafia’s is more vibrant. “Child’s Play 2” is characterized by the bright colors of the Good Guys toy factory. Yet Lafia remembers he is making a horror movie. Several scenes generate genuine suspense. Such as Andy being locked in a school room with the killer doll or exploring the basement, taking the fight to Chucky. Or Chucky watching while the innocent toy he replaced is nearly uncovered. Or, my favorite, when Andy’s foster sister explores an empty house, stumbling upon a dead body. That scene, in particular, ends on a hell of a jump scare. “Child’s Play 2” maintains a fun house sense of horror throughout.

But more scares probably weren’t what fans demanded from a “Child’s Play” sequel. They wanted more Chucky. Series creator Don Manchini happily obliged. Part two practically makes the killer doll the protagonist. He’s brought back to life quickly. An early scene has him toying with a bound victim. After a toss down the stairs, his nose bleeds. Brad Dourif’s oddly humanistic approach to the plastic-bound serial killer makes the audience concerned for Chucky’s health! Dourif also sinks his teeth into the multiple one-liners the character is given. There’s an amusing glibness to sarcastic lines like “How it’s hanging?” The villain’s profane freak-outs also make the audience chuckle. He even flicks somebody off in an especially hilarious moment. You totally buy the character’s existence, even when he’s holding victims hostage and bossing people around. The combination of Dourif’s vivid vocal performance and the brilliant special effects makes the killer doll an even more unexpectedly lovable villain.

“Child’s Play 2” also understands the laws of sequel escalation. There’s a higher body count and more elaborate murders. This includes clever deployment of a bicycle pump, a brutal tumble from some stairs, and machinery assisted eye gouging. There’s also your standard throat slittings, stabbings, and electrocutions, though these are less memorable. The film’s carnage peaks during an outrageous final act. A car chase leads to a foot chase through the Good Guys factory. This sequence becomes more ridiculous the longer it goes on. The walls of doll boxes lead on to a surreal factory, where spinning gyros assemble toys amid colorful backgrounds. As in the last film, Chucky takes a beating. He looses a hand, looses both legs, is boiled in molten plastic, and finally has his head exploded with compressed air. “Child’s Play 2” sacrifices suspense for lively set pieces but it’s a trade worth making.

In the years between the first and second film, Alex Vincent has become a better actor. Part two’s Andy is a little more wily, more willing to take the fight to the killer doll. I like it when he picks up an electric carving knife or opens a valve of smoldering plastic. There’s few of the rough, overly cute moments that characterized Vincent’s acting last time. A loaded supporting cast helps. Gerrit Graham is nicely hammy as the asshole foster dad. Jenny Agutter is sweet as the foster mother, very willing to take care of Andy until she’s pushed too far. (Grace Zabriskie is, sadly, wasted in a minor role.) Mostly, I like Christine Elise as Kyle, Andy’s foster sister. She quickly develops a liking for the boy and the two share a nice chemistry. This helps, since the last act is devoted to the two of them fighting off the franchise’s villain.

“Child’s Play 2” is an amusing horror sequel, nearly as much fun as the first. It’s got more elaborate special effects, bigger gore gags, a handful of decent shocks, and an equally endearing cast. Most importantly, it’s got lots more of Chucky’s smarmy shenanigans. The way it directly builds on the first film’s story is also commendable. Six year old me never would’ve guessed that the horror movie villain that frightened me would prove so charming. I’m actually looking forward to watching the rest of this series now. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Smoke Wrings

Part of the fun of watching “Tales from the Crypt” is to see what future stars appeared on the show. Behind Brad Pitt, who featured in season four’s “King of the Road,” Daniel Craig is probably the biggest star to ever show up in the “Crypt.” “Smoke Wrings” stars Craig as an ex-con who worms his way into an advertising firm. His lack of manners irritates Frank, his male co-worker, but charms Jacqueline, his female partner. In truth, Craig has been sent by an embittered ex-partner of Jacqueline for revenge. He carries a gizmo the inventor cooked up, a sound device that can manipulate minds. The situation soon turns deadly.

“Smoke Wrings” is one of those “Tales” devoted to devious people tricking each other. Craig is manipulating the advertising firm. He’s, in turn, being manipulated by the inventor. The end reveals another layer of manipulation. The script admittedly contains a few surprising turns. The mind control technology leads to an amusing sequence where Jacqueline and Frank perform a series of demeaning tasks. The device also leads to the episode’s main horror element, a fantasy sequence where Craig imagines rats crawling over his skin. The cast is a lot of fun, with the future James Bond obviously being the stand-out performer. (Craig is, amusingly, billed fourth.) Ute Lemper and Denis Lawson are also amusing in their sleazy roles. Some lively direction from Mandie Fletcher further cements “Smoke Wrings” as another stand-out season seven episode. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Megaconda

“Lost Tapes” returns to the realm of slightly more plausible cryptids with “Megaconda.” If you hadn’t guessed, this episode’s monster is a big-ass snake. A duo of animal rights activist break into the warehouse of Ken Tobar, a local businessman. They suspect he’s illegally importing exotic animals and exotic animal parts. This suspicion is correct and they document the unlawful goods with their camera. However, Tobar’s latest black market shipment includes an enormous anaconda. The snake slithers forth from its crate, endangering the two activists and the night security guard.

“Megaconda” is one of those “Lost Tapes” were the protagonist should’ve dropped the recording device much sooner then they did. If a giant snake just ate my friend, I’m not lugging a camera around as I flee. The episode is actually okay, mining some average suspense from the cramped warehouse location. I doubt an anaconda this size could move that quickly but the snake attacks lead to at least one decent shock. We actually get an elongated look at the megaconda, thanks to glimpses on the security cams. The cast is mildly likable, especially Steven Littles as the security guard. The ending goes a little over the top, giving the unscrupulous businessman his just desserts. The info-tainment sequences are devoted to facts about anaconda and the black market animal trade, which are less ridiculous then the usual “Lost Tapes” factoids. [6/10]

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 27

Child’s Play (1988)

This one and I have some history. As an incredibly timid, easily frightened small child, I caught a commercial or advertisement for “Child’s Play” or one of its sequels. It traumatized me. The idea of something as innocent and harmless as a child’s doll, not unlike any of the ones I owned, becoming murderous was deeply upsetting to me. I had nightmares about Chucky. I lost sleep over it. For years, I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the VHS box. Even as an adult, the character sometimes makes me uneasy. Of course, as a horror fan, I’m aware of Chucky’s passionate fan following and the many sequels this first film would spawn. It’s way past time for me to face this particular fear.

There’s only one thing Andy Barclay wants for his birthday: A Good Guy Doll, a doll that talks, smiles, and promises to be your best friend forever. Andy’s mom Karen has to support the household by herself and can’t quite afford the pricey toy. So when a creepy homeless guy offers to sell her the doll at a discounted price, she leaps at the offer. The doll is named Chucky and Andy carries him everywhere. Not long after Chucky comes home, strange murders begin to occur around him. Karen fears her son is mentally ill. The truth is much stranger. Chucky is possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray, the notorious Lakeshore Strangler.

As a kid, Chucky obviously scared the shit out of me. But as an adult I can see the seams in the special effects, which makes the psychotic doll far less frightening. The elaborate puppetry is clever, even if you can clearly see how the director shot around the wires spooling out of the prop’s back. However, the times the character is played by a child actor in a cumbersome costume are quite apparent. Brad Dourif, who has made a career out of playing psychos and scumbags, brings that same nervous intensity to his vocal performance here. Yet for all of Chucky’s murders and quips, Dourif also grants a sweaty desperation to the character. Charles Lee Ray is a sick fuck but he’s eager to regain his literal, if not moral, humanity. He also has a sense of humor, being overjoyed at the possibility of possessing a young boy. So is he still scary? Startling, maybe. But not exactly terrifying.

Truthfully, “Child’s Play” can be quite funny. Director Tom Holland similarly combined comedy and thrills in his previous film, “Fright Night.” The film is good at generating tension. The build-up to the first two attacks is drawn out. For that matter, Chucky’s supernatural nature is kept off-screen for a while. When the carnage comes, it can be graphic. Using voodoo, a man’s limbs are twisted around, cracking painfully. Another character’s brain is fried with a shock treatment machine. One of the best scenes has the doll attacking the cop in the car, stabbing through the driver’s seat. Holland mines some tension from the cramped location and the escalating chaos. Yet the way Chris Sarandon dodges the blade is also kind of funny. Often, the film acknowledges how unlikely it is that a doll could take down grown men. Though less overtly funny then “Fright Night,” “Child’s Play” shows that Holland has always measured horror and humor.

“Child’s Play’s” mystery format and fancy special effects are good at disguising its basic structure as a slasher movie, a film built around gory death scenes. What most elevates the movie is its cast. Catherine Hicks plays Karen Barclay. She’s a single mom who works long hours at a low paying job just to keep the lights on. Which means she can’t afford to get Andy the Good Guys Doll he wants so badly. Hicks shows a genuine maternal love for Andy and an endearing vulnerability. After playing the bad guy in Holland’s “Fright Night,” Chris Sarandon reappears as the film’s hero. Despite the odd Chicago accent Sarandon adapts to play Detective Norris, he’s likable as someone who is incredulous at first but quickly begins to believe Karen. The only major cast member to falter is Alex Vincent as Andy. His delivery is often flat and his dialogue can be overly cutesy.

Screenwriter Don Mancini originally envisioned the film as a satire of how children are affected by toy marketing. Mancini’s script would be heavily re-written but this intent is still noticeable. The Good Guy Doll combines several eighties toy fads. He’s visually patterned after My Buddy, has Teddy Ruxpin’s gimmick, and causes a Cabbage Patch Kids like shopping frenzy. Naturally, there’s an accompanying cartoon show. Andy is so familiar with the series that he can recognize episodes immediately. He wears the tie-in pajamas and eats the breakfast cereal. Yet the mountain of merchandise isn’t what truly captivates Andy. It’s the doll’s promise to be his friend, to enliven his lonely existence, that captures his attention. “Child’s Play” toys with the idea that Andy might actually be committing the murders. Even after the truth is revealed, there’s the creeping suspicion that the spirit of consumerism has corrupted little Andy’s poor brain.

“Child’s Play’s” last act goes gloriously over-the-top, Chucky suffering more injuries and refusing to die. It’s a good example of the sometimes manic energy the movie summons, which is utilized for both laughs and horror. Kid-me probably would still be horrified by the film but adult-me enjoyed himself thoroughly. I’m not going to rush out and buy any of the countless Chucky action figures but I think I’ve successfully conquered my childhood fear of this movie. [7/10]

The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)

“The Hideous Sun Demon” is a late fifties monster movie with an interesting back story. Star Robert Clarke previously appeared in “The Astonishing She-Monster.” Clarke’s deal guaranteed him a percentage of the gross. Despite that movie being awful, it was successful enough to earn Clarke a pretty penny. Deciding he could do better, he conceptualized “The Hideous Sun Demon.” In addition to starring and working on the script, Clarke also co-direct with Tom Boutross. The funds were raised totally independently. The movie was shot on weekends with a crew composed of film students. The distributor who picked up “Sun Demon” went bankrupt not long after its release, meaning Clarke didn’t see a dollar from the flick. In time, though, the creature feature would develop a cult following.

Something has gone wrong with Dr. Gilbert McKenna. During a routine experiment, McKenna is exposed to radiation from a newly discovered isotope. As a result, McKenna develops a horrifying mutation. Whenever he’s exposed to sunlight, he slides backwards on mankind’s evolutionary chart, transforming into a scaly, reptilian monster. Instead of moving to Las Vegas and only going out at night, McKenna desperately searches for a cure to his condition. Along the way, he befriends a voluptuous bar room singer. However, he can only keep the Sun Demon at bay for so long.

You can tell “The Hideous Sun Demon” was produced near the decade’s end. The film is far seedier then you’d expect from a fifties monster movie. Gilbert McKenna resembles the stout-chinned scientist hero of countless 1950s sci-fi flicks. However, he’s incredibly flawed, drinking too much and often making mistakes. He nearly commits suicide in one scene. In a bar, he meets Nan Petersen’s Trudy, a lounge singer. Petersen’s acting is quite bad but her low cut neckline is unforgettable. She even spends part of the film wearing only a towel, after she falls in the water during a beach side romp. The film consistently implies that Gil and Trudy are sleeping together. Aside from the sexiness, the monster scenes feature more violence then you’d expect. The Sun Demon squeezes the blood out of a rat. He crushes a dog with a large rock, albeit off-screen. He batters a cop to death with his claws. The film is a bit sexier and gorier then you might expect.

Don’t get the wrong idea though. “The Hideous Sun Demon” is still an incredibly goofy B-movie. The science behind McKenna’s transformation is dubious, based on the long discredited idea that fetuses advance through all the evolutionary stages in the womb. There are several scenes of stately authority figures explaining the science. How exactly the sunlight triggers his transformation isn’t expounded on. Since the script demands McKenna hulk out, he’s constantly put into sunlit scenarios. Throughout his adventures, he befriends a little girl while hiding out in a barn, a very silly story turn. The monster design is pretty cool. However, the long scenes of the Sun Demon wandering around in a button-down shirt and pants prove comical. (It doesn’t help that the Demon’s chest looks a bit like a scaly shirt too.)

Once you get down to it, “The Hideous Sun Demon” is essentially a backwards werewolf story. Instead of the moon transforming the hero into a monster, the sun does. Just as werewolf movies often contain subtext about man’s inner beast, something interesting hides inside “Sun Demon.” After awaking in his hospital, Gil asks the nurse for a drink. After escaping, he spends a lot of time in bars. His beach-side date with Trudy features plenty of booze. After a monstrous rampage, he hides in the basement of his virtuous love interest’s home. He begs her to help him, to provide a cure for his condition. Yet when that help comes, the cure proves too slow for Gil. He can’t control the disease inside him. Soon afterwards, “Sun Demon” ditches the subtext in favor of monster movie theatrics. But it certainly makes the movie a little more interesting.

“The Hideous Sun Demon” has been poorly reviewed over the years. It’s undeniably slow in spots, cheaply produced, and poorly acted. While Boutross would direct some television, this is Clarke’s sole directorial credit. (To think, I could’ve gotten a No Encore article out of this.) Despite this, “The Hideous Sun Demon” has some passionate fans. There have been numerous model kits. Fans would cobble together an unofficial sequel in 1965 with “Wrath of the Sun Demon.” In 1983, a humorous re-dubbing of the film would appear, alternatively known as either “What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon?” or “Revenge of the Sun Demon.” I’ve seen that one too and it’s pretty lame, despite an early starring role for Jay Leno. I’d suggest the story as a candidate for a remake but I can’t imagine the film being taken very seriously in today’s world. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Report from the Grave

“Tales from the Crypt” has often concerned itself with stories about communicating with the dead. The show returns to this subject with “Report from the Grave.” Young scientist Elliot has created a device that can read the thoughts of the deceased. For some reason, he tests this equipment on the corpse of a serial killer named Valdemar Tymrak. An accident happens and Elliot’s girlfriend Arianne ends up dead. A year later, he’s become obsessed with bringing her back. He succeeds but at the terrible price of pulling Tymrak’s psychotic spirit into our world. Soon, Elliot is faced with the hard decision of choosing his girlfriend or protecting his life.

“Report from the Grave” was directed by William Malone, who previously made season six high-light “Only Skin Deep.” Occasionally, Malone cooks up a memorable image, like a laboratory fading into a bedroom. Otherwise, Malone’s directorial sense is seriously overdone. The director obviously saw “Jacob’s Ladder” in-between his two episodes. More then once, the ghosts in “Report from the Grave” twitch their heads around spasmodically, a really annoying visual quirk the episode returns to often. The episode’s tone is unusually dark for “Tales from the Crypt,” lacking the gory absurdity and sarcastic wit you associate with the series. Instead, it’s dead serious, attempting to scare the audience with its overdone visual tricks. Further complicating things is James Frain, who plays Elliot as a huge asshole for no reason. Overly maudlin and obnoxiously directed, “Report from the Grave” is one of season seven’s low points. [4/10]

Lost Tapes: Cave Demons

Inspired by stories of the Vietnamese Night Flyers, “Lost Tapes” shifts that infamous incident into a more modern setting. We’re talking Afghanistan, circa the year 2002. The U.S. military’s search through the Tora Bora cave system encounters a snag. Something is blocking radio signals deep inside the caverns. Three marines are sent in to investigate. Their helmets are outfitted with video cameras, providing the “Tapes” half of the series’ title. Once inside the cave, they discover what’s messing with their radios. It’s a collection of giant bat-like creatures with humanoid features… Who are very defensive of their territory.

“Cave Demons” was very nearly was a good episode of “Lost Tapes.” It has a solid premise and even an understandable reasoning for why these events were recorded. There’s one sequence that comes close to generating suspense. While the men run through the caves, their radar shows a number of unidentified predators closing in on them. The potential suspense from that sequence, however, is undermined by the cheesy computer graphics. Which is but one problem with this episode. The acting from the three main characters are cartoonish. This is one of the most poorly shot episodes of the series. Combining shaky, found-footage style photography with an overly dark setting does not make for very many clear visuals. Lastly, the cave setting feels very small, as the soldiers spend most of the episode protecting an injured comrade. This is overlooking the script’s obvious debt to “Aliens” and “The Descent." The informative segments feature standard facts about bats, the Tora Bora caves, and some highly dubious discussion about bat-like cryptids, of which many are said to exist. [5/10]

Monday, September 26, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 26

Thinner (1996)

I’m a big fan of the stories Stephen King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. They tend to be leaner and meaner then the work he publishes under his own name. “Thinner” would be the last of the original Bachman books, with the author’s true identity being discovered not long after its release. “Thinner” is, thus far, the only one of Bachman’s stories to adapted to film. Directed by Tom Holland, of “Fright Night” and “Child’s Play” fame, the film would have a troubled production. This, combined with the negative reviews and mediocre box office, would lead to Holland taking a long hiatus from directing. Despite its pedigree, “Thinner” doesn’t have much of a following.

Billy Halleck likes to do things his way. He’s morbidly obese, constantly packing his face with food. He’s a dirty lawyer, who recently won a trial for a mob boss. While driving home from a celebratory dinner, his wife goes down on him. This sufficiently distracts Halleck, causing him to run over an elderly gypsy woman. After his local connections clear him of all charges, the old woman’s even more ancient father curses him. Halleck begins to loose weight, no matter how much he eats. Soon, he’s withering away to nothing. Halleck sets about confronting the gypsy, hoping to reverse the curse before it kills him.

Every single character in “Thinner” is a terrible person. Billy never feels any remorse for killing the old woman. His entire motivation is to avoid responsibility for his crime, eventually violently turning against those punishing him. The judge is blatantly racist against gypsies. The cop has no problem overlooking the circumstances of the death. His wife has an affair with a friend after Billy becomes ill. The mob boss has no qualms about murdering, torturing, or harassing people to achieve his goals. It’s clear what “Thinner” is getting at. This is an E.C. Comics style story, about a bad man getting his suitably ironic comeuppance. (The gypsy curse angle and all the mysticism that comes with it, which the film presents without any subversion or deconstruction, also suits this comic book mood.) While stories like this work fine for half-hour television or short comic books, seeing such a tale stretched to feature length quickly exhausts the audience.

In order to compensate for this, “Thinner” makes some awkward attempts at comedy. Billy is munching on potato chips or rich deserts in nearly every scene. Holland draws so much attention to the snack food name brands, such as Doritos, that it has to be an intentional act. This being a Stephen King adaptation, character often speak in colorfully profane language. The gypsy business is so overheated that it quickly becomes comical. “White Man from Town” is repeated so often that it becomes funny. The film’s bizarre comedic streak peaks during a nightmare sequence. Billy is chased out of a fair by the gypsies, hops into a car driven by his equally mutated friend, and is crushed by two separate vehicles driven by the old man. It’s an odd, off-putting scene, a moment of slapstick violence inserted into a film that often reaches for seriousness.

Fitting the film’s over-the-top tone is its grotesquely ridiculous performances. Robert John Burke, who previously filled Peter Weller’s suit in “RoboCop 3,” plays Halleck. While wearing an unconvincing fat suit, he mumbles in an exaggerated fashion. After the character begins to loose weight, he continues to speak in a weirdly overstated voice. It’s a cartoonish performance. Joe Mantegna is equally overblown as the gangster, gripping and grinning in a goofy manner. Even the supporting parts, like Lucinda Jenney as Halleck’s wife or Kari Wuhrer as a sexy gypsy girl, have a quality slightly outside reality.

For all of “Thinner’s” obvious attempts to be a purposely ridiculous horror/comedy, its tone is the biggest problem. The film is too mean-spirited, too intentionally ugly, to ever be funny. “Thinner” can’t even be enjoyed as a body horror-filled special effects film, as the make-up is often rubbery and unconvincing. Holland spent years developing the film only to have the studio demand a new ending. In the book, Halleck ultimately accepts his actions and pays for his crimes. In the film, he gets away with it, which further confuses the audience. The aspects I most remember about “Thinner” ultimately have little to do with the movie. First off, Michael Jackson’s long form music video “Ghosts” was attached to some of the screening, an odd bit of trivia. Secondly, the line of dialogue “Eat your own pie!” became a running joke with a cousin of mine. Even after re-watching the film, it’s likely this will be all I remember about it. [5/10]

Jug Face (2013)

I first encountered Lauren Ashley Carter thanks to her excellent supporting turn in Lucky McKee’s “The Woman.” I’ve been happy to see her carve out a niche for herself since then, as a frequent leading lady in the indie horror scene. An important leading role for Carter was 2013’s “Jug Face,” which McKee produced. Though it remains obscure even within the horror community, and the somewhat silly sounding title surely didn’t help it any, those who have seen the film praise it. Director Chad Crawford Kinkle presented a unique vision. As I wrap up my look at Southern fried horror, “Jug Face” emerges as a film not quite like any other.

Teenage Ada lives in an isolated community deep in the woods. The families that live there worship the Pit. The Pit, or rather the entity within it, posses a magical ability to heal or protect people. And all it asks for in return are human sacrifices. These sacrifices are chosen when a sculptor receives a vision of a face, which he then molds unto a jug. Ada is already fearful of her parents, due to an unexpected pregnancy. When she becomes the next jug face, she flees her ancestral home. The Pit is pretty pissed off about this.

What most impressed me about “Jug Face,” upon first viewing and now, is the fully formed society Kinkle created. The people who live there have their own weird beliefs, philosophies, and rituals. There are strange dances and old curses, each with specific rules. They pepper their dialogue with odd phrases. Aside from jug faces and the Pit, marriage is called “joining.” Moonshine is abbreviated to “shine.” Those that break the rules become Shunned Ones. The characters have antiquated Southern names, such as Dawai, Jesseby, Loriss, or Sustin. Their clothing is also vintage and homemade, nary a sneaker or brand name in sight. This gives the impression of “Jug Face” being set at some point in the past. Yet the town Ada occasionally journeys too appears relatively modern. The film’s world is self-contained and vividly created, a backwoods cult that is totally believable.

“Jug Face” features no big stars. A-list ejectee Sean Young plays Ada’s mother. Her father is played by indie horror filmmaker and character actor Larry Fessenden. While both give fine performances, the film clearly belongs to Lauren Ashley Carter. With her huge doe eyes, she projects a sense of innocence. Yet Carter also gives Ada an inner strength, as the character subverts the rules in hopes of escaping her fate. She’s a misfit and an outcast even in her own family. She bonds with Dawai, the mentally unstable man who sculpts the jugs. The audience longs to see her succeed. When she accepts her destiny, it’s with grace and maturity. Carter’s powerful presence centers the viewer, which is helpful considering “Jug Face’s” odd story turns.

“Jug Face” refreshingly avoids hick horror clichés, save for one. The father of Ada’s baby is her own brother. Yet by following a strong female lead, threatened on all sides by a constricting society, “Jug Face” presents a rich feminist subtext. The cult of the Pit are controlled totally by strict traditions. Ada is “joined” with another boy in the community, essentially an arranged marriage, and is given no say in the manner. Her mother scrutinizes Ada’s sexual history, when she isn’t burning her with cigarettes. After Ada’s transgressions are revealed, her father whips her brutally. Even Ada’s brother and secret lover has no desire to protect her. Ada’s desire to escape the community shows her eagerness to escape a society ruled by old rules… Rules that show no kindness towards women.

For all its fascinating elements, “Jug Face” doesn’t succeed totally as a horror movie. The story’s supernatural elements, aggravated by a low budget, sometimes come off as hokey. After breaking the pact, Ada sees through the eyes of the Pit’s apparition, an image that graced the poster. The entity attacks people via oddly framed point-of-view shots. Later in the story, a ghostly boy appears, a relatively unnecessary addition. “Jug Face’s” more effective horror stem from its willingness not to spare details about the human form. Such as Ada’s grandfather embarrassing himself on the commode. Or a bloody miscarriage plopping wetly into a bath tub. Or that squirm inducing scene of Sean Young manually checking Carter’s virginity. The grisly remains of the Pit’s victims, their body parts tossed around, is far more effective then the camera shaking at people’s faces.

Flaws and all, “Jug Face” is a very impressive debut. For such a short film, it’s packed with details and interesting story developments. You can imagine a lengthy novel being set in this world, allowing a fuller exploration of the characters and their beliefs. An excellent lead turn from Carter further sells the audience on the strange story and odd title. (Some overseas releases bare the title “The Pit.” This is equally appropriate and more sinister but a bit more generic then “Jug Face.”) Chad Crawford Kinkle has yet to direct another feature film. Hopefully he’ll make a follow-up some day and prevent “Jug Face” from becoming a future entry in my No Encores series. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The Kidnapper

I’ll be totally honest. I haven’t recognized most of the actors from “Tales from the Crypt’s” U.K. set final season. But I know Steve Coogan! In “The Kidnapper,” Coogan plays one of the series most pathetic anti-heroes. Daniel Skeggs is a simple-minded pawnshop owner. On a cold Christmas night, a homeless and pregnant young woman enters the store. He takes her in and soon falls in love with the girl. After the baby is born, their relationship changes. He is unprepared to handle the stresses of parenthood while she denies having romantic feelings for him. In hopes of recapturing their earlier bliss, Skeggs has the baby kidnapped by black market crooks. This, as you might expect, causes more problems then it solves.

Providing a wry voice-over, Coogan plays Skeggs as an emotionally stunted man-child. His decisions are motivated by totally selfish reasons. But his immature attitude also prevent him from understanding the consequences of his actions. The episode doesn’t back away from how shitty a human Skeggs is, as he attempts to force himself on the girl at one point. However, Coogan’s performance presents him as a sad, pathetic man, allowing the audience to remain sympathetic. “The Kidnapper” is mostly a character study and is short on horror elements, save for the young mother’s quickly progressing madness. (There’s also a bizarre sequence involving mimes but it’s more comedic then creepy.) The twist ending almost comes off as needlessly cruel but cements “The Kidnapper” as a quasi-tragic story of a foolish man brought down by his own flaws. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Death Raptor

“Death Raptor” isn’t about the dinosaur equivalent of the Grim Reaper. Instead, it’s about Mothman’s English cousin: The Owlman of Cornwall. But Animal Planet wasn’t going to pay for a trip to the British Isles so the Owl Man has relocated to California. Two paranormal experts, who often sell their recordings to television, have been invited to investigate a local church. A seemingly demonic, owl-like creature has been spotted around the bell tower. The investigators bring along the little girl and old woman that the Owl Man seems to be fixating on, which successfully draws out the monster.

“Death Raptor” indulges some of “Lost Tapes’” worst tendencies. About a third of the episode is composed of people screaming and running from the monster, the camera shaking wildly as they go. There’s an unintentionally funny sequence, devoted to our heroes studying the contains of a giant owl pellet. (In a likely steal from “The Blair Witch Project,” human teeth are found inside.) The decision to focus on the little girl and the mentally ill old woman brings unnecessary themes of Indigo children and mass hysteria into the episode. The ending is hugely anticlimactic and the acting is quite bad. This is disappointing as “Death Raptor” has a lot of potential. The gothic church setting could’ve contributed some creepy atmosphere. The single clear shot we get of the Owl Man is effectively spooky. Instead, the episode is mostly composed of magical little kids, a fidgeting camera, and owl screeches. Ow well. [5/10]

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 25

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Let’s look back on the early 2000s, when grisly horror movies were suddenly a big deal again. While James Wan and Eli Roth came to prominence in the mainstream, more compelling directors emerged from the independent scene. Such as Tim Sullivan. A buddy of Roth and Adam Green, Sullivan briefly seemed like a viable member of the Splat Pack. He never broke through to the mainstream, as his films were far too crude for that. (Though I remember “Driftwood” being pretty good.) Which brings us to “2001 Maniacs,” a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gore classic and Sullivan’s most popular feature.

Sullivan maintains the general outline of Lewis’ original. A handful of travelers follow a strange detour to the town of Pleasant Valley – clarified as being in Georgia – where they are caught up in the Centennial Jubilee. Of course, the redneck townsfolk actually intend to murder and eat the Northerners, as revenge against the Union Army for massacring the town one hundred years ago. Sullivan otherwise updates the story. There’s eight visitors, instead of six. Instead of vacationing couples and traveling school teachers, the protagonist are horny college students headed towards Florida for spring break. Yet both films are characterized by an irrelevant look at the Civil War and grisly violence.

By shifting the cast in a younger direction, Sullivan sexes up the material considerably. The majority of the characters are preoccupied with getting laid. When the male heroes encounter their female counterparts, both parties immediately express their mutual desire to bone. A montage in the middle of the film is devoted to the characters’ various sexual escapades. This sequence includes gay and lesbian encounters, voyeurism, and even some light S&M. The Pleasant Valley residents aren’t exempt from this air of general horniness either. A girl named Peaches, played by a very attractive Wendy Kremer, speaks almost exclusively in crude double entendres. One of Mayor Buckman’s son constantly expresses his desires to mate with a sheep. A pair of young women can’t keep their hands off each other, even though they’re cousin. Sullivan has essentially turned Lewis’ gore epic into a crude sex comedy. I mean, it’s dumb but fun in its own way.

When not focusing on the character’s lower desires, “2001 Maniacs” occasionally functions as a horror film. Sullivan frequently reprises and revamps some of Lewis’ most famous murder scenes. The drawn and quarter death is more graphic, focusing more on the victim’s suffering. A giant rock is traded out for a large brass bell but the splat is maintained. Sullivan cooks up some twisted deaths himself. Some are effectively ridiculous. Such as two scenes that push good taste, one involving a giant barbecue skewer and the other revolving around a cotton press. Others are just goofy, like a milk jug full of acid. Once or twice, “2001 Maniacs” touches on a genuinely macabre element. Like a blowjob gone horribly wrong or a grisly game of horseshoes. For such a farcical film, it’s weird when “2001 Maniacs” tries to play its story straight. As the story advances, we get more serious scenes of horror, all of them badly jiving with the rest of the film.

“2001 Maniacs” was clearly aiming for the established horror fan crowd. Being a remake of a cult favorite and the outrageous content points towards that. Another indicator is the cast. Lin Shaye, Mrs. New Line herself, has a delightful role as the outwardly friendly old woman who runs the hotel. More pressingly, Robert Englund occupies the part of Mayor Buckman. Sporting a ridiculous Southern accent, Englund hams it up nicely. Peter Stormare and Kane Hodder have cameos. Less immediately recognizable faces include Giuseppe Andrews as a weirdly charming Southern gentleman and Eli Roth, reprising his bit part from “Cabin Fever.” The actors playing the Yankee heroes are less distinguished. Dylan Edrington as nerd Nelson has a few okay bits but everyone else is pretty forgettable.

Disappointingly, Sullivan’s remake also ditches the original’s ambiguity. “2001 Maniacs” seems to think that the Pleasant Valley residents are totally justified in their revenge. You’d think, given the forty year time difference, a remake could’ve addressed the original’s racial and social subtext more directly. It’s super silly and more genuinely dumb then Lewis’ version but “2001 Maniacs” goes down pretty easily in the middle of the night with some liquid imbibements. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the dire sequel, which subbed out Bill Moseley for Englund and was generally far too cheap and dumb. [7/10]

Secret Window (2004)

Recently, I surprised a friend by telling him “Secret Window” was a Stephen King adaptation. That, in turn, surprised me since “Secret Window” is another story about King’s favorite subject. No, not Maine. King’s favorite subject is himself, the frustrated writer, which he’s often explored via fictional surrogates. See also: “The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Dark Half,” “The Tommyknockers,” “Desperation,” “Lisey’s Story,” and that one “Dark Tower” book. “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” featured in the “Four Past Midnight” collection, was adapted by screenwriter turned director David Koepp. Cutting the garden from the title, the film would prove to be a minor hit back in 2004.

Mort Rainey stares down the worst thing an author can ever see: A blank page. Rainey has a lot on his mind. He's in the process of divorcing his wife, Amy, after discovering she was having an affair with another man. His retreat to a lake side cabin is interrupted when a man knocks on his door. Calling himself John Shooter, he claims that Mort plagiarized a story from him. When reading the two stories, Mort is startled by how similar they are. Shooter’s persistent soon turns deadly, as bodies begin to pile up. But all is not what it seems to be.

Before he became a pop culture punchline, famous for trotting out different hats and aggressively eccentric characters to diminished returns, Johnny Depp was a genuinely interesting leading man. “Secret Window” is mostly a showcase for Depp’s talent. He spends large portions of the film talking to himself or projecting his thoughts at a dog. A briefly used voice over sometimes gives the audience insight into Mort’s thoughts and isn’t too intrusive. Mort is slightly grouchy, which is a good starting place for Depp. He builds upon the grumpy writer shtick with some nice physical comedy. Such as when the character stumbles while fleeing a dead body or tries to hide a cigarette from his house keeper. Honestly, if “Secret Window” had just been a one-man show for Depp, playing a blocked writer trying to kill time in an isolated cabin, it probably would’ve been a better movie.

Of course, “Secret Window” isn’t just a showcase for “Secret Window.” John Turturo gets the meaty role of Shooter. Turturo adapts a slightly exaggerated but still believable Mississippi drawl while wearing a suit like a Southern preacher and a ridiculous hat. For the first hour of “Secret Window,” the character does nothing but deliver threats. Turturo manages to summon an unnerving energy, creating a memorable threat if not a fully formed character. John Shooter also leads “Secret Window” to its most obvious horror elements. Such as a dead dog – executed as if in a slasher movie – and a truck occupied by two skewered bodies.

As a screenwriter, David Koepp has written huge blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Spider-Man.” As a director, he previously made ghostly cult classic “Stir of Echoes” and would go on to the likes of “Mortdecai.” It’s clear that Koepp is eager to show off his visual skills. This results in some flashy sequences, such as Mort having a nightmare about dangling over a cliff. Or the camera accenting the angles of Mort’s bookshelf. The direction isn’t the film’s only plea for seriousness. Koepp also lassoed Philip Glass, arty musician and occasional film composers, to do the music. (Or at least some of it. Geoff Zanelli did the rest.) Glass’ score doesn’t touch his iconic work on “Candyman” or “Koyaanisqatsi” but the main theme is kind of pretty and marginally ominous.

At some point, twist endings became mandatory for thrillers. King’s novella had one built in, so “Secret Window” happily obliges genre conventions. The twist might catch an unobservant viewer off-guard but anyone paying attention shouldn’t be too surprised. The various red herrings, such as Timothy Hutton as the ex-wife’s current boyfriend, are unconvincing. The script keeps harping on Mort’s resentment of his wife and the violent ending of Shooter’s version of the titular story. Yes, the killer and the protagonist are the same person, the result of a split personality. The film reveals this twist in a hamfisted manner, with Depp talking to himself and slipping into a ridiculous accent. The gory ending comes off as slightly mean-spirited but is memorable, if nothing else. (King’s story had a happier, more supernatural ending that the filmmakers ditched. Which was probably the right decision.)

“Secret Window” is ultimately a minor work, much like the story that served as its inspiration. The script is standard stuff, removing King’s musings on the creative mind in favor of traditional thriller exercises. However, the two lead performances are enjoyable, the pacing is snappy, and the scenery is lovely. It seems unlikely that “Secret Window” was designed to linger in the brain for very long. Instead, it’s a mildly compelling bit of horror/thriller fluff that won’t make you roll your eyes, oh, more then two or three times. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Cold War

To talk about “Cold War,” one of season seven’s best episodes, you have to spoil all the twists that make the show fun. So if you’ve never seen this one, you might want to skip this review. “Cold War” follows Ford and Cammy, two petty thieves. After a grocery store stick-up goes awry – some other robbers have already claimed the place – the couple have a big argument back at home. Cammy goes to a bar and meets up with Jimmy Picket, an attractive black man. After bringing the man back to the apartment, Cammy and Ford’s true nature is revealed. They’re ghouls, undead creatures who feast on the flesh of corpses. Jimmy, meanwhile, is a vampire who sees these zombies as beneath him.

“Cold War” is a lot of fun, the episode holding off on revealing the characters’ true nature as long as possible. When the twist comes, it signals a transformation into a highly amusing monster fight. The direction is colorful, a green light often shining on Jimmy’s eyes after he shows his fangs. The script is full of colorfully profane dialogue. Like “Kiss my zombie ass!” Or “Fight’s over, Count Chocula!” Boosting an already amusing story is a fun cast. Ewan McGregor and Jane Horrocks have great chemistry together, the two happily playing up the characters’ love/hate relationship. (Horrocks spends the entire episode in corsets, leather mini-skirts, and stockings which is nice too.) Colin Salmon gets to go gleefully over the top as Jimmy, especially once his true nature is revealed. The final image throws in some gruesome make-up effects too. In other words, “Cold War” is classic “Crypt.” [8/10]

Lost Tapes: Devil Dragon

“Devil Dragon” features one of “Lost Tapes’” more mundane monsters: The Megalania, a twenty foot long monitor lizard that actually exists in the fossil record. Unsubstantiated rumors suggests the species may survive into the modern day. “Devil Dragon” also has one of the series’ better premises. The star of a “Survivor Man” style reality show is dropped into the Australian rain forest alone, with nothing but a backpack and a camera. While delivering practiced banter to the camera, he’s bitten by the unseen predator. Over the next day, he’s stalked by the giant reptile while growing sick from the festering bacteria in the bite wound.

By focusing on a reality show host, “Devil Dragon’s” script provides a genuine reason for its main character to record everything and constantly talk to himself. (Though you’d assume that, while running for his life, he’d toss the damn thing.) The actor playing Tim Akrin – IMDb doesn’t provide a cast list – is charismatic enough. Akrin repeatedly flubs his lines, forcing himself to re-shoot several moments. He lies directly to the camera before admitting the truth in asides. After getting bitten, his physical health degrades quickly which adds a grounded, human element to the story. There’s few of the silly moments that characterize other “Lost Tapes” episodes… Aside from the monster remaining entirely off-screen. It’s hard to imagine a giant lizard being that good at hiding itself, even in a heavily forested area. [7/10]

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 24

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

How is it that I’ve been writing about horror movies for eight years and I’ve never reviewed a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie? I reviewed a movie about H.G.L. before I reviewed a movie he actually directed. Despite that, I’m a casual dabbler in the Godfather of Gore’s creations. During my college journey into trash cinema, I watched a handful of his crude but charming splatter flicks. Of these, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” emerged as my favorite. The film is also an early example of the murderous redneck subgenre.

During a road trip through the American south, six travelers takes a mysterious detour. The path leads them to the small town of Pleasant Valley. Each of the Northerners are given a grand welcome. The Yankees are the special guests of the Centennial Jubilee. One of the travelers discovers that, a hundred years ago during the Civil War, a Union army massacred the inhabitants of the town. Now, during the anniversary of the war crimes, the residents of Pleasant Valley decide to visit their bloody vengeance on any Yankee that wanders into their town.

The films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are an acquired taste, to say the least. Gordon’s cinema is not especially concerned with the traditional aesthetics usually valued by professional filmmakers. The film’s low budget is apparent in its crude production design. Aside from Jeffrey Allen’s jovial turn as Mayor Buckman, the acting is extremely flat and amateurish. The characters are thinly defined and indistinguishable from each other. The story rambles loosely from set piece to set piece. The music ranges from distracting to actively annoying. The pacing is awful, the script alternating between scenes that creep at a snail’s pace and moments of manic comic relief. The movie has about six different endings, tortuously extending the story to feature length. Fans of Lewis just have to take these things in stride. It’s all part of the filmmaker’s charm. “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is lo-fi, home made, nutty, roughly assembled but fun in its own way.

After all, the main attraction for Lewis’ exploitation flicks were the gore. Back in 1964, graphic dismemberment and Technicolor blood were shocking sights. To modern eyes, the gory special effects in “Two Thousand Maniacs!” are obviously unsophisticated. When a woman is held down and has her arm chopped off with an axe, the removed limb is clearly a mannequin's arm. The film’s often displayed blood is obviously bright red paint. Despite how evidently fake the gore is, it still has its charms. The methods of murder are usually creative. A woman is drawn and quartered by charging horses. A guy is rolled inside a barrel hammered through with spikes. An especially amusing sequence is devoted to a contraption that drops a big ass rock on a bound victim. While there’s a clear streak of sadism in the death scenes, the execution is too goofy to offend.

As cornball as “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is, some have actually applied a scholarly reading to the film. This is, after all, a film about murderous rednecks that was released during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet I doubt these issues were on Lewis’ mind. Instead, the film re-characterizes the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, as an outrageous gore comedy. The residents of Pleasant Valley are monstrous. They’re cannibalistic murderers. Yet their actions are motivated by the bloody atrocities visited upon them a hundred years earlier, making their revenge understandable, if not reasonable. But things aren’t that simple. After one of the graphic murders, many of the town’s citizens are unnerved. The Mayor forces them to celebrate. And the Northerners are, ostensibly, the heroes. If Hershell Gordon Lewis was making any point at all, it seems to be that the victors write the history books. Or that nobody gets out of war without blood on their hands.

If you’re not already a fan of H.G.L.’s demented motion pictures, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is unlikely to win you over. As cheap and unrefined as this one can be, it’s actually one of his most polished movies. For those on the director’s trashy wavelength, “Two Thousand Maniacs!” can be a lot of fun. Any film that opens with an upbeat blue grass number like “The South’s Gonna' Rise Again” can’t be all bad, no matter how many wooden performances and unnecessary endings it has. [7/10]

Cell (2016)

When first published in 2006, Stephen King’s “Cell” was a hot literary property. The story cashed in on the newly popular again zombie genre while commenting on fears that cell phones would take over our lives. The film rights were immediately picked up. For a while, Eli Roth was going to direct, from a script by King. By the time the “Cell” movie actually came out, Roth was nowhere in sight. The film had switched production companies and distributors several times. What was once hyped as a big horror movie event slipped onto VOD and DVD with little fanfare. No, “Cell” is not one of the good Stephen King movies.

Comic book artist Clay Riddell has arrived in Boston, hoping to reconnect with his estranged wife. At the airport, people begin to go fucking nuts. Anybody with their head near a cellphone is turned into a mindlessly homicidal zombie. Chaos breaks out in the city. Soon, Clay teams up with other survivors – gay Vietnam vet Tom, teenage girl Alice, prep school student Geoff – with the goal of reaching Maine and rescuing his wife and son. However, there’s a hidden intelligence behind the psychic outbreak.

In the ten years between the publication of “Cell: The Novel” and the release of “Cell: The Movie,” we as a culture have only become more dependent on our cell phones. The film had the oppretunity to comment on this. Instead, “Cell” presents its zombies in a ridiculous manner. The opening scene is more likely to produce laughter then gasps. When the mysterious signal takes over people’s mind, they seize, gyrate, and foam at the mouth. The erratic behavior has the zombies smashing their heads into walls or running out of bathrooms, pants still around their ankles. It’s silly and the film only gets sillier. The zombies quickly earn the goofy nickname “phoners.” They open their mouths and release bizarre audio feedback sounds. At night, they sleep, their collective signal singing the “Trolololo” song. Through their dreams, the protagonists become aware that the phoners are controlled by a zombified man in innocuous red hoodie. “Cell” is packed with unintentionally comical touches like this.

That “Cell” would limp out to little commercial success must’ve been a bummer to its investors. The last time John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in a Stephen King adaptation, it produced “1408,” a decent sized hit that was well received. Admittedly, “Cell’s” cast is its best attribute. Samuel L. Jackson steps outside his usual BAMF roles to play a seasonal, relaxed gay man who just happens to be handy with a rifle. I like Isabelle Fuhrman, who panics nicely, as Alice. Wilbur Fitzgerald stays on the right side of likable as Geoff. Stacy Keach shows up for a small role. He mostly delivers some awkward expositions but still maintains that gritty charm. Of the performers, only Cusack seems bored. He spends most of the movie whispering grimly, showing little of the humor or humanity that made his “1408” role memorable.

While King’s novel bent the zombie apocalypse story in some bizarre directions, the movie plays the subgenre’s conventions much straighter. “Cell” partakes in those usual scenes of survivors scrambling around for supplies. The heroes conveniently stumble upon a home hoarding guns and ammo. There’s the expected moments of city-wide chaos, of the mad horde descending on innocent by-standers. There’s even the expected middle of the story sequence of the heroes finding shelter, which quickly turns deadly. Yes, some of the ensemble die and loved ones have to be put down. As dull as “Cell’s” typical zombie movie shenanigans are, its attempts to deviate from the formula are baffling. How the zombies act shift from scene to scene. The climax borders on incoherent, the end landing weakly.

Yeah, “Cell” is pretty lame. It squanders more-or-less all the potential its premise has and doesn’t give a talented cast nearly enough to do. Instead, the movie quickly collapses into goofiness and clichés. By the end, I’m not even sure what was happening, as the story’s attempt at self-mythologizing are more bizarre then interesting. Would Eli Roth’s “Cell” have been better? Maybe not but I bet it would have been a lot less boring. The “Cell” we got instead is destined to rest in Wal-Mart DVD cheap bins, rarely seen and even more rarely enjoyed. [4/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Horror in the Night

After more general thriller stories for the last two episodes, season seven of “Tales from the Crypt” takes a hard swing back into horror. In “Horror in the Night,” a jewelry store robbery goes horribly wrong. The two thieves turn on each other, shooting one another, with Nick surviving. He hides out in a seedy hotel, mending his wound and carrying the briefcase full of diamonds. Inside the hotel, he meets a sexy woman who seems interested in him. Nick, however, is haunted by bizarre visions.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Yes, Nick died in the opening shoot-out and the episode that follows is his dying vision, his subconscious guilt manifesting as an elaborate fantasy. Despite the predictability, “Horror in the Night” still manages to entertain. Russell Mulcahy’s direction is moody, making great use of the flickering lights and the shadowy location. Nick’s graphic hallucinations manages to include several effective images. Such as the pipes bursting with blood. Or Nick’s sex scene with Eliazbeth McGovern’s simmering sexpot, which quickly turns gory and weird. While that ironic ending is easy to predict, “Horror in the Night” throws in a few other twists that makes the situation more personal. That’s what the best “Crypt” episodes were about: Using established story idea and bending them in unexpected, entertaining directions. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Oklahoma Octopus

When this episode of “Lost Tapes” first aired, I thought for sure the show’s producers dreamed up the titular monster themselves. Surely, no one truly believes that a freshwater octopus lurks in the lakes of a land-locked state like Oklahoma? But, nope, the Oklahoma Octopus is a cryptid some say exist. As for the episode itself, “Oklahoma Octopus” follows a group of high school graduates on their last trip together before college starts. One of the boys decides to video tape the day at the beach. After an asshole boyfriend strands the group on a raft in the middle of the lake, an unseen but tentacled creature begins dragging the kids to their deaths.

“Oklahoma Octopus” is one of several “Lost Tapes” that resemble underachieving found footage flicks. (It also resembles “The Raft” segment from “Creepshow II.”) The teens are uninspired characters. The main guy harbors an unrequited crush on the main girl, which he announces to the camera as soon as the episode starts. Some of the kids, such as the aforementioned asshole boyfriend, are obnoxious. The script is repetitive, quickly falling into the pattern of kids leaping off the raft and getting killed. Several of the attacks happen off-screen, characters disappearing in the blink of an eye, which really defuses tension. The episode’s conclusion is underwhelming. The educational segments discuss lake monster legends and attempt to explain how a freshwater octopus could possibly exist. The documentary shots of real octopi manage to be creepier then anything in the actual episode. [4/10]

Friday, September 23, 2016

Halloween 2016: September 23

Cat’s Eye (1985)

In the mid-eighties, Stephen King inspired stories were big business. For a while, at least two adaptations of the author’s work were hitting theaters every year. So many were being made that it actually became possible for the films to be overlooked. “Cat’s Eye,” released in-between “Firestarter” and “Silver Bullet,” did satisfactory box office and was well reviewed. However, the film isn’t talked about much and is often passed over in favor of the bigger King adaptation. This isn’t fair, as “Cat’s Eye” is a charming little picture that King fans should seek out.

“Cat’s Eye” is an anthology feature, adapting two of the stories from King’s “Night Shift” collection and featuring a third story unique to the film. The only connecting fiber between the tales is an unlucky, traveling cat. The movie’s opening segment is “Quitter’s Inc.” Compulsive smoker Dick is determined to quit his nasty habit. In order to facilitate this, he seeks out the services of Quitter’s Inc. The company is guaranteed to get results. Dick is watched at all hours. His family is threatened. After one relapse, his wife is tortured. Ironically, the stress is really making him want a smoke.

“Cat’s Eye” is not a serious horror film, going for lighter thrills. It begins with jokey references to both “Christine” and “Cujo,” director Lewis Teague’s previous Stephen King adaptation. “Quitter’s Inc.,” meanwhile, is pure black comedy. James Woods’ typically high-strung but frequently sarcastic performance establishes the tone. High-lights include him arguing with a closest and destroying a phone. Though the threats of violence are serious, the manners in which they’re delivered are fallacious. Woods has hallucinations of dancing cigarette boxes at a smoke filled party. A gunman sent to observe his family makes light-hearted comments. Alan King’s performance as the glad-handing councilor is dripping with sardonic amusement. “Quitter’s Inc.” feels a bit like a “Twilight Zone” segment and ends with an appropriately memorable twist.

For its second story, “Cat’s Eye” shifts its location to Atlantic City. In “The Ledge,” we meet Cressner, a mob boss willing to bet on anything. Ex-tennis player Johnny recently got caught with Cressner’s girlfriend. The villain has the athlete kidnapped and decides to play a game. Johnny is forced out onto the eighteen inch wide ledge outside the sky-scraping casino. If he can successfully navigate around the building and return to the window, Cressner will send him on his way with money and the girl. The alternative? Fall to his death on the streets below. But the mob boss doesn’t play fair.

“The Ledge” is a bit more serious then “Quitter’s Inc.,” though it maintains the film’s light tone. The tense set-up, sadistic villain, and ironic ending recalls “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Kenneth McMillan is amusingly nasty as Cressner. His rigs the challenge by blasting Johnny with a hose, honking a horn in his ear, or tossing a sheet on his head. The obstacles the story puts in Johnny’s way, including a pesky and persistent pigeon, escalates the stakes nicely. The reveal is one of “Cat’s Eyes’” most grisly element but certainly puts a strong exclamation point on the film. The conclusion is easily predicted but is certainly satisfying. The only true weakness with “The Ledge” is Robert Hays’ forgettable protagonist.

The longest segment in “Cat’s Eye” is its last one, “General.” Throughout the film, the cat has been having visions of Amanda, a child actress played by Drew Barrymore. The two finally meet after the cat catches a train to Wilmington, North Carolina. Amanda immediately likes the cat, who she names General, but the mother is suspicious. She’s worried about the old legend of cats stealing children’s breath at night. Amanda insists General sleep with her, as she believes the cat is protecting her from a monster living in the wall. The little girl is right and the cat has to leap into action to save her life.

“General” begins as a traditional story about the give and pull between parent and child. Our alliance is with Amanda, especially since her mom’s reasoning is so silly. Drew Barrymore is more comfortable here in the part of a normal little girl then she was in the previous year’s “Firestarter.” What’s most memorable about “General” is its little monster. A troll, wearing a jester’s hat and carrying a tiny dagger, crawls from the wall at night to suck the breath from the girl’s mouth. The troll design, created by Carlo Rambaldi, interacts with an oversized bedroom set. This is a cool effect while the troll, with his grimacing voice and Frank Welker provided grumbles, is a memorable adversary. The final showdown between General and the troll proceeds with a whimsical edge, nicely walking the line between spooky and goofy.

“Cat’s Eye” is a nice snack for fans of King or eighties horror, assuming you’re on its light-weight wavelength. More funny then scary, “Cat’s Eye” is extensively charming nevertheless. Each of the stories has a nice dose of black comedy but enough macabre twists to fit in with the Halloween season. And General is a pretty cool cat too. [7/10]

Redneck Zombies (1989)

With a title like “Redneck Zombies,” you know what you’re getting into. “Redneck Zombies” is brought to you by Troma, the notorious New Jersey based producers of extremely trashy horror/comedy nonsense. But don’t expect cameos from Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman or Lloyd Kaufman. “Redneck Zombies” was one of those locally produced flicks that Troma merely picked up for distribution. Yet the association with the studio has brought the film some notoriety, as it was even released on DVD as a “Tromasterpiece.” The film was also an early example of a movie shot on video and released direct to video. Don’t let these factoids fool you. “Redneck Zombies” is not a delightful cult item. It is, instead, an exercise in tedium.

The premise, at the very least, gets right to it. A barrel of radioactive toxic waste is transported across the American south via Jeep. After a vehicular accident involving a dog and a joint, the barrel bounces out of the truck. A local redneck corn farmer gets hold of the barrel. He sells it to another backwoods brood, who transform the barrel into a still for making moonshine. The rednecks then sell the moonshine all over their town. The combination of radiation and booze causes everyone who drinks the concoction to transform into a flesh eating, pasty faced zombie. Chaos ensues.

Though not produced by Troma, “Redneck Zombies” maintains the Troma sensibility. The movie is crude and offensive, filled with gore and obnoxious jokes. It also lacks the social satire and demented wit of the studio’s best films. Instead, the movie double downs on the grotesque redneck shenanigans. The toxic waste is stolen by a morbidly obese hick in overalls, a hideous human the movie focuses on repeatedly. After the hillbillies get a taste of the zombie brew, we’re treated to a slow motion montage of the Southerners blithering on the ground. The colors invert as the camera zooms in on their gyrating mouths, their tongues flapping in the air. A later sequence has one of the film’s heroes freaking out, imagining a painfully long medical presentation, which has him swishing a knife through the air repeatedly. This is in addition to the movie’s sound design and music, which is extremely grating.

In order to meet the required 90 minute run time, the script inserts a bunch of random bullshit. Most of these sequences are obnoxious. Such as an old woman who carries a squealing piglet around or a young mother who shares her moonshine with her baby. Or how about an extended scene devoted to a moonshine client who keeps a duck tape bound woman on his couch and watches footage of chickens being slaughtered on TV? While most of these scenes continue the movie’s stupid, gross streak, occasionally a likable loopy moment emerges. Such as a scene parodying “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” where a hitchhiker rambles on about his shaving hobby. My favorite moment has two of the rednecks running to meet the Tobacco Man, as if it was an ice cream truck. The Tobacco Man wears a burlap sack on his head, speaks with a demonic voice, others Luciferian bargains, and monologues about the evil in the world. It’s the film’s sole moment of genuinely amusing randomness.

Overall though, “Redneck Zombies” fail miserably as both a horror film and a comedy. Its humor mostly manifests as annoying characters doing annoying things. In the back half, the black lead screams and mugs horribly in a high pitched voice. Two minor characters sit around, watching naked women on television, giggling crudely about titties. There’s some good old fashion homophobia too. Among the soldiers is a flamboyantly gay man. One of the redneck sons insist on being called by a woman’s name, though he shows no other transgender traits. As for the horror, “Redneck Zombies” piles on the crude gore effects. There’s gut munching, flesh tearing, eyeball squishing, head crunching, shotgun murder, and much spraying blood. There’s also some vomit too, if you’re into that. If cheap gruel is all you look for in horror flicks, I guess “Redneck Zombies” will satisfy.

Mostly, I found “Redneck Zombies” to be an incredibly irritating and generally boring experience. The opening credits are packed with obviously fake names like Pericles Lewnes, Zoofoot, Boo Teasedale, and P. Floyd Piranha. (Mr. Piranha also plays one of the rednecks.) This suggests that even the people who made the movie wanted to distance themselves from it. Don’t be fooled by the awesome title or outrageous poster art. “Redneck Zombies” annoys more then it entertains. Maybe Pericles Lewnes should’ve made a movie about the Tobacco Man instead… [3/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Escape

For the first time since season three’s “Yellow,” “Tales from the Crypt” returns to the World War setting. World War II, this time. “Escape” follows Luger, a German deserter who betrayed his fellow Nazis and winds up in a British-run prisoner of war camp. He’s immediately recruited by several other prisoners in their bid to escape. Luger is resistant at first, as he finds the entire war effort to be pointless. Yet when the commanding officer he betrayed winds up in the camp, he suddenly became very eager to get out.

Despite the episode’s inspiration being published in “Vault of Horror,” “Escape” is pretty light on the horror elements. The commanding officer is bandaged up like a mummy, there’s a gory throat slashing, and some caskets play an important role. Despite that, “Escape” is still a decently entertaining episode. Martin Kemp gives a nicely slimy performance as the main character. It’s interesting that Luger is slightly sympathetic – a war deserter willing to intellectualizes his cowardice – without sacrificing his scumbag qualities. (The guy is a Nazi after all.) The escape sequences are fun and the twist ending is very satisfying, paying off on several minor elements laid down earlier in the episode. I enjoy the Cryptkeeper’s military puns in the drill sergeant themed wraparound segments too. [7/10]

Lost Tapes: Swamp Creature

“Lost Tapes” take on the Honey Island Swamp Monster has to jump through some especially convoluted narrative loops. A zoologist, documenting the local alligator population following Hurricane Katrina, takes a trip into the Louisiana swamp with her inexperienced nephew/cameraman. After their cell phones and GPS are snatched by a (seemingly heavily sedated) gator, they get lost wandering through the bayou. The cameraman accidentally stomps through a patch of strange eggs and the two soon discover odd, three-toed foot prints. They stumble upon a Cajun fisherman who refuses to go out after dark, for fear of the monster that is closing in.

In addition to the strangled set-up, “Swamp Creature” is, thus far, the “Lost Tapes” episode most blatantly derivative of other horror films. The characters getting lost in the woods recalls “The Blair Witch Project.” Maybe it’s just because I watched it the other day but a sequence where the heroes are threatened by a Cajun after nearly stealing his boat reminded me of “Southern Comfort.” The monster’s rage being activated by the destruction of its nest brings “Crocodile” to mind. Aside from the derivative qualities, the characters in “Swamp Creature” are broad and annoying. The encounter with the Swamp Monster is far too brief. It appears outside the tent, attacks the fisherman, and then wanders off, leaving its eggs unavenged. For once, the edu-tainment segments are more entertaining, as they focus on alligator facts and real interviews with Honey Island locals. [5/10]