Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 17

Flesh for Frankenstein (1974)

Many years ago, I was watching a television documentary about Frankenstein or the relationship between horror and censorship. Something like that. Anyway, mid-way through, they showed clips from a film called “Andy Warhold's Frankenstein.” The image of a snapping pair of clippers thrusting towards the camera has lingered in my mind. At the time, I was vaguely aware of who Warhold was – the Campbell's soup can guy, right? – but found his association with a horror movie odd. Moreover, the idea of an X-rated Frankenstein movie confused me. At that age, I guess I couldn't convince of how gory cutting bodies up and stitching them back together were. (And I was certainly not aware of the necrophilic undertones inherent in the story.) I first saw “Flesh for Frankenstein,” as it's more commonly known, a while ago and didn't like it. I think I'm a little closer to the wavelength of movies like this, these days, and decided to give it another shot.

The plot of “Flesh for Frankenstein” is a mess, a loose collection of subplots competing for screen time. Dr. Frankenstein has stitched together a female creation and endeavors to mate it with a yet-to-be-completed male monster. He hopes to breed a race of subservient zombies. His wife, who is also his sister, is dissatisfied with their marriage. She begins sleeping with Nicholas, a sexually potent stableboy she is equally entranced and disgusted by. The doctor uses the head of Nicholas' friend as part of his male creation, not realizing the friend is celibate or possibly gay. Meanwhile, the doctor's assistant, Otto, is eager to recreate the Frankenstein's experiments. Otto is not as experienced and his imitations end in disaster. Also, the Frankenstein children are wandering around the castle, looking sinister.

As a teenager, I found “Flesh for Frankenstein” tedious and unintentionally hilarious. Watching as an adult, I realize there was absolutely an element of camp to Warhol and director Paul Morrissey's work. Just the decision to add sleazy sex to a classy gothic horror story is an obviously trashy choice. “Flesh for Frankenstien's” camp is most evident in its performances. Udo Kier is utterly ridiculous as Dr. Frankenstein. He shouts or sweats his way through each line, always stretching his silly German accent as far as possible. This makes his delivery of lines like “To know life, you must fuck death in the gallbladder” or “You a sex maniac!” even funnier. Kier's key moment comes when exploring a cadaver's organs pushes him to orgasm. That's not the only absurd accent in the film. Joe Dallesandro's thick Brooklyn accent is totally out of place in the Victorian setting and often paired with his flat delivery. Monique van Vooren, as the baroness, appears to be dubbed with an unconvincing voice. Over all, the performances are hammy or inexpressive. I suspect this was largely an intentional choice on Morrissey's behalf.

“Flesh for Frankenstein” earns its X rating but in a way that's almost quint. Its gore is excessive but obviously fake. Frankenstein decapitates a guy with comically oversized hedge clippers. Afterwards, he holds an obviously fake head while the body spasms around for far too long, a ridiculous amount of gore spurting out. In several scenes, characters rip out organs – sometimes other people's, sometimes their own – and squish the rubber intestines. Did I mention the film was shot in 3D? Because of this, the gore is often extended towards the viewer, which just makes it seem more exaggerated. The sex is equally excessive. There's graphic necrophilia, visits to brothels, boobies and ding-dongs galore. In one scene, van Vooren licks Dalesandro's armpit while loud slurping noises play. And it goes on for a solid minute. That might honestly be the grossest scene in the movie. It all plays out like a ridiculous dare. You can imagine the filmmakers snickering and saying “Can you believe were getting away with this shit?”

As trashy and intentionally dumb as Morrissey's film is, there is obviously a satirical intent here. Morrissey inserts an element of social critique into the “Frankenstein” story. The Frankensteins are idle rich who are so self-adsorbed that they intentionally commit incest, for the betterment of the family. Despite his position of power, the baron hopes to extend his political sway further with his creations. His patchwork people are treated like slaves and servants, forced to respond to his every whim. (Comically exaggerated in the scene where he forces the female creation to kiss the unresponsive male, over and over again.) The working class, like Dallesandro's stable boy, are treated with contempt by the royalty. They are killed and fucked only when it serves the rich's petty demands. In the end, the put-upon zombies revolt, killing their rich and powerful creators. Morrissey tempers this message with some mindless nihilism, seen in the pointlessly down-beat ending, but it's obvious he was going for something. And he sort of succeeds.

I get “Flesh for Frankenstein” way more now than I did when I first saw it. However, one criticism still stands. The movie is insanely slow. This partially the fault of the disorganized screenplay, as scenes clamor into each other without much sense of rhythm or narrative coherence. A lot of it is Morrissey's direction, which frequently lingers on images and scenarios longer than necessary. Despite being far too laborious an experience for a cult oddity like this, “Flesh for Frankenstein” does regularly amuse me. That's mostly thanks to Kier's totally over-the-top performance, the rubbery special effects, and the atmosphere of depravity that only could've been possible in the seventies.  [6/10]

Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007)

As a horror obsessed teenager, I had a subscription to the late, great Fangoria magazine. Sadly, this was during a not especially good period in the magazine's history, when they had to squeeze several thousand words out of dreck like “Scarecrow” or “The Steam Experiment.” However, I still loved the magazine, for the lurid ads if nothing else. One such ad that caught my eye was for “Carved: the Slit-Mouthed Woman.” At the time, I wasn't aware of the infamous Japanese urban legend, Kuchisake-onna, that spawned the film. After reading up on it, being someone fascinated by urban legends of all types, I knew I had to see the film. It's been on my watch-list for years and now, since it's streaming on Shudder, I'm finally getting to it.

Kuchisake-onna is an urban legend that's been terrifying Japanese children since at least the seventies, where it led to mass hysteria The legend concerns a ghostly woman, wearing a surgical mask. She confronts children and asks them if she's pretty. If they respond in the positive, she removes the mask, revealing a hideously scarred slit mouth. She then asks the question again and what happens next varies from telling to telling. The 2007 film version follows Kyoto, a recently divorced, grade school teacher. Following an earthquake, the children in her class begin to disappear. The abductions are coupled with sightings of Kuchisake-onna. More kids vanish, some of them turning up dead afterwards. Kyoto teams up with Noboru, another teacher, to attempt to save the kid and uncover the mysterious motivation behind the yurei's violence.

Around the time “Carved” was released, J-horror was becoming popular in the west. Especially among quote-unquote hardcore horror fans, the more extreme Japanese genre efforts had found a following. “Carved” was sold under Tartan's Asian Extreme label and fits this subgenre somewhat. The film is pretty gory and, with Kuchisake-onna's victims being children, is unusually grim. However, director Koji Shiraishi isn't just interested in shock value. He builds some dark suspense. In one notable scene, Kuchisake-onna cuts up the children she has tied up in her basement. We watch from the perspective of one of the captured kids, who can only hear and vaguely see the gruesome act. Shiraishi is also really good at engineering jump scares. The slit-mouth woman has a habit of appearing suddenly, in a way that doesn't feel cheap but is genuinely shocking.

There's more to the slit-mouthed woman's rampage than just killing kids. “Carved” uses its child-hunting spectre as a symbol of all child abuse. Before the earthquake, we see an abusive mother smack her daughter for poor grades. The next day, the girl goes to school with a surgical mask, to cover the bruise, inviting derision from the other students and reminding everyone of the ghost. Kyoto is recently divorced from her husband. In a fit of rage, she slapped her daughter. She feels intense guilt over this and her daughter has yet to forgive her. As the film goes on, it reveals Kuchisake-onna's origins as a mother who seriallt hit and beat her children. It's a serious theme to weave into a horror movie but the film earns it. The script establishes that the abusive parents still love their kids, rooting its supernatural horror in human frailty. The “or is it?” ending presents the possibility that a child may never forgive a violent parent. The resolution suggest that it takes mutual understanding and self-forgiveness to move past these things.

As an urban legend fanatic, it's disappointing that “Carved” discards some of the legend's traditional aspects. The slit-mouthed woman asking kids if they think she's pretty gets a passing mention but doesn't play much of a role in the story. Legend has it, the yokai has its root in Japan's medieval days, not back in the seventies. Granting Kuchisake-onna such a definitive origin also bugs me a little. However, Shiraishi's film still has a decent relationship with the myth. The first scene shows kids, all over the city, discussing the legend. This shows how urban legends spread and also how they change from teller to teller. Ultimately, the kids' ability to be open to ghost stories like this helps saves the day. If nothing else, the film is certainly aware of the power of mythology.

Of all of Japan's legends, Kuchisake-onna seems to have a particularly powerful grip on the country's mass consciousness. There have been many other films inspired by the legend of the slit-mouthed woman. Before this one, there were at least two other movies entitled “Kuchisake-onna,” released in 1996 and 2005 respectively. A sequel to this one, released abroad as “Carved 2: The Scissors Massacre,” and a prequel were both made in 2008. Since then, there's been at least eight other movies about the ghostly woman. (Another of which was directed by Shiraishi.) Including ones that transpose the legend to Los Angeles or have Kuchisake-onna fighting other figures from Japanese urban legends, like Hanako-san or Teke Teke. Despite the bounty of material, “Carved” remains one of the best known films about the legend. It's a nasty, but relatively powerful, take on the story. [7/10]

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror II

During “The Simpsons'” second season, the show runners touched upon the idea of presenting an anthology of out-of-continuity horror stories every Halloween season. The first “Treehouse of Horror” was such a success that it became a yearly tradition. “Treehouse of Horror II” followed in the third season. This year's framing device dropped the treehouse setting. Instead, Lisa, Bart, and Homer eat too much candy and have a series of bizarre nightmares. In “The Monkey's Paw,” Homer acquires a wish-granting monkey's paw while in Morocco. As these things usually do, the paw's powers are as much a curse as a blessing. In “The Bart Zone,” the Simpson son has gained malevolent and omnipotent powers. He uses these abilities to keep Springfield in terror, at least until he learns to love his father. In “If Only I Had a Brain,” Mr. Burns decides to replace his workers with automated robots. He picks Homer as the test-subject, plucking the oaf's brain into a massive robot body. It doesn't go exactly as planned.

Like the first “Treehouse of Horror,” the segments here freely riff on well-known stories. The Simpson-ified take on W. W. Jacobs' classic short story is expectantly irrelevant. Many classic horror scenarios are goofed on. The mysterious shop Homer bought the paw from seems to disappear, before he realizes he's simply misplaced it. After Lisa wishes for world peace, aliens invade and, in a usual inversion of these kind of things, crush human society with simple weaponry. “The Monkey's Paw” also makes fun of “The Simpsons'” then-status as a fad. After wishing for fame and fortune, cheap Simpsons merchandise pops up all over Springfied. The town quickly gets sick of it, mocking the influx of Simpsons-branded junk that flooded stores in the early nineties. There's also some good old fashion silliness in this segment. Such as stabs at “Midnight Express” and Princes Grace. Or Krusty the Clown, a kid's house, disposing of multiple types of weapons.

The second segment is obviously spoofing “The Twilight Zone” episode, “It's a Good Life.” The premise allows the show to throw in all sorts of absurd sights. Like Bart transforming the family cat into a fire-spewing monster. (Which even shoots fire in its sleep.) Or American history being rewritten to match his smart-ass history test answers. The segment reflects Bart's young, TV-obsessed mind. He forces Krusty the Clown to perform continuously or, when Homer interrupts his TV watching, he switches the ball and his dad's location. There's some general good gags here. Homer attempts to block his thoughts while sneaking up on Bart, which doesn't work too well for him. After being transformed into a jack-in-the-box, Homer's constantly springing head is confused for an affirmative nod. The conclusion is a funny subversion of the original “Twlight Zone” episode's conclusion.

“If Only I Had a Brain” is probably the weakest part of the episode. The general premise – that Homer is just as lazy as a robot as he is a person – isn't very insightful. There are still some good gags. Such as Burns beating the still living Homer inside his sack for “scaring Smithers.” Or the two mad scientist pausing their experiment to get some pizza. Some of the other gags are not as effective. Such as Mr. Burns' slow attempt to escape the falling robot or Homer immediately falling asleep during his new job as a gravedigger. Still, Harry Shearer's vocal performance as the millionaire goes a long way. He makes lines about comparing rocket science and brain sugary, a jab at Radio Shack, or a totally random shout-out to Davey Crocket sound inspired.

“Treehouse of Horror II” is not the stone cold classic the first one was. It's still pretty funny. This early in “The Simpsons'” history, the show was still great at balancing sharp wit, sarcastic pop culture parody, and general absurdity. You can easily see these attributes in this trio of tales. There's just nothing here to match the first Halloween special's “The Raven” or “Bad Dream House.” Still, I've watched this one just as many times as the others, considering it a classic too. [7/10]

Frank Stein (1972)

The story of “Frankenstein” is one that looms large, not just over the world of pop culture, but the world of art in general. Universal's 1931 film version, in particular, has been a part of America's collective visual language for the last eighty years. Unsurprisingly, the story has seen some avant-garde readings over the years. In 1972, art designer and experiment filmmaker Ivan Zulueta would do something very unusual with Universal's original “Frankenstein” movie. He would compress the already short film into four frenzied minutes. The images from the movie flash by quickly, occasionally pausing upon one or two moments. The new musical score is composed of electronic droning, that recalls the equipment in Frankenstein's lab. Zulueta would re-name his experimental remix “Frank Stein.”

The short is, fittingly, a Frankenstein film Frankensteined from “Frankenstein” itself. The result frequently, composed primarily of a sped-up swirl and repetitive noise, feels like the halfway point between a nightmare and a Novocaine dream. When the footage stops upon one of the images from the original film, usually a face or a violent moment, it feels like a visual exclamation point. The buzzing music changes as the short speeds through the original movie's events. As the crowd grabs pitches and torches, a vague chanting can be heard. When the windmill catches fire, burning wood is added to the cacophony. At that point, you notice how grainy and blurry “Frank Stein” is. It seems like the movie itself is catching fire. At a concussive four minutes, “Frank Stein” is a rather unnerving experience. It's a blast of cinematic images, shoved into a collection of seconds, and stabbed directly into the viewer's mind. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 16

Flatliners (2017)

I'm of the philosophy that the films that should be remade are the ones with interesting ideas but weak executions. This should make “Flatliners” an ideal candidate for a retelling. Yet, in 2017, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for a reboot of a partially forgotten nineties movie. From the minute it was announced, we knew the kind of tame, PG-13 shenanigans we were getting. Even Ellen Page, absolutely my favorite actress working today, starring in the film didn't get my hopes up. It mostly made me wonder “Why is Ellen Page appearing in schlock like this?” So when the lame trailer dropped, I wasn't surprised. When the critics rushed to write their pithiest “falls flat/dead on arrival/shouldn't have been brought back from the dead” puns, I wasn't surprised. But, hey, it's been a while since I've seen Ellen on the big screen and I had a Regal gift card that I'd been sitting on for a while. Figured I might as well catch this thing during what will likely be its last week in theaters.

Despite some hubbub that 2017's “Flatliners” was actually a stealth sequel to the original, the film is in fact a remake. (That much touted Kiefer Sutherland cameo has him playing a totally different character.) This film follows Courtney Holmes, a young medical student obsessed with death, due to a tragedy in her youth. She lassos four friends into participating in her experiment: Tracking the brain's patterns while being clinically dead, using themselves as test subjects, only to be brought back. At first, the experience is powerfully positive, making the student smarter and vitalized. However, the group soon discovers that unnerving spectres – reminders of their greatest mistakes – have followed them back to the world of the living.

I went into 2017's “Flatliners” with abyssal expectations. Due to this, my initial reaction was positive. “This isn't so bad,” I thought. At first the new “Flatliners' seems to be a genuine improvement over the original. There's a more scientific edge to this version. The gothic cathedral is changed out for an abandoned hospital complex. A cat-scan machine is added to the procedure. Flatlining results in keener thinking and sexual euphoria, giving everyone more of a reason to do it. The characters' regrets, underwhelming in the original, have been made more serious. Courtney was driving the car during the wreck that killed her sister. Marlo ignored a patient's medical history, leading to a fatal reaction. Jamie manipulated an ex-girlfriend into getting an abortion, before abandoning her. Even Sophia's less tragic sin – spreading an academic rival's nudes around the school – is more devastating than anything in the original.

I also found the cast to be likable. And not just Ellen, though she's very good. Page makes the character's high points – sarcastically getting her friends to participate, her peppiness after flatlining – really charming while the darker moments are equally convincing. James Norton's Jamie, who is obviously inspired by Daniel Baldwin's character from the original, manages to be a cad but not an irredeemable sleazeball. He even becomes sympathetic by the end. Kiersey Clemons is cute and fun as Sophia. It's nice to see her break away from her controlling mother. Diego Luna and Nina Dobrev are probably the weaker links in the cast. Luna's serious moments are hard to take seriously while Dobrev is never entirely believable. But, generally speaking, the film's cast is not a problem at all.

Truthfully, “Flatliners” rolls along pretty decently until it has to become a horror movie. Director Niels Arden Oplev, who I guess is going to ride the success of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” forever, uses CGI pretty decently in the early going. The film's vision of the afterlife are genuinely interesting. The image of something squirming under a blanket, eventually revealed to not be there, is effective. However, Oplev eventually leans on CGI too hard. The climax involves a big, swirling storm cloud of computer-generated dust, for one example. The scare tactics the film deploys are lame and worn out. We've got multiple jump scares, usually assisted by pasty-faced ghouls suddenly stepping into frame. Both creepy nursery rhymes and creepy kids put in appearance. Probably the dumbest scare in the movie involves bloody letters suddenly appearing on a morgue door. It's all loud, unimpressive, and warmed over.

Something this “Flatliners” does maintain is the original's sappy streak. There's actually a moral here about self-forgiveness that couldn't be more forced in and unearned. Something that's new is the gratuitous product placement. Nina Dobrev's Mini-Cooper has more hero shots than any of the actual cast members. There's a mild plot twist midway through that did catch me off-guard, though mostly for all the wrong reasons. So, despite some minor moves forward, 2017's “Flatliners' is as exactly mediocre as the original but in a slightly different way. I hope Ellen can find better material than this in the future, as she deserves way better. [5/10]

Magic (1978)

The ventriloquist dummy has a proud history in the horror genre. Like dolls and mannequins, they have the corpse-like visage of looking alive but not being alive. Yet the dummy has the extra layer of having an intimate connection with a human. Pretty much from the first cinematic depiction of ventriloquism – 1925's “The Great Gabbo,” as far as I can tell – people have assumed a disturbing relationship between the dummy and the performer. One of the most famous evil dummy movies is “Magic.” The film was well received and reasonably successful upon release but, over the years, it has become even more respected.

Corky Withers has trained for years to become a magician. Though his skills are impressive, his inability to remain cool on-stage keeps his career from coming off. His luck changes when he adds Fats, a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, to his act. He's so successful that he's even offered a television special. Before that deal can go through, he has to undergo a mental exam. This scares Corky and he runs off to his childhood home in the Catskill Mountain. There, he reunites with Peggy Ann Snow, his high school crush. The two fall in love, despite Peggy being married. Fats, however, continues to occupy far too much of Corky's mind. The dummy – an extension of Corky's own madness – refuses to let Peg get in the way of their success.

Eleven years before becoming Hannibal Lector, Anthony Hopkins already had experienced playing a brilliant but insane character. Hopkins' performance is very intense. From the impressive first scene – where Corky describes a magic show as successful while the audience sees how unsuccessful it was – we learn about his angry streak. As the story progresses, Corky's neurosis and volatile side continues to manifest. As sweaty and unnerving as Corky can be, you also see how charming he is. His anger is balanced with a very relatable fear. He's also supported by one of the creepiest dummies in horror history. In a brightly-lit room, Fats is funny and non-threatening. In the dark, his wide eyes and unmoving face are spooky. Fats never comes alive anywhere but in Corky's mind but a first-time viewer sure doesn't know that. One scene, where Fats' lips quiver and his eyes go mad, is especially unnerving. Fats is somewhat tragic too, by the end, as his dying moans are deeply felt. “Magic” is a movie that keenly understands how the best monsters are equally scary and sympathetic. 

“Magic” was advertised with the tagline “A terrifying love story.” That might seem like a weird way to sell a psychological horror movie but the romance at the story's center is genuinely charming. Ann-Margret's Peggy is not happy with her life. She's trapped in a loveless marriage and has never left her childhood home town. Corky seems to intuitively understand her pain, as he's struggling with dissatisfaction too. The two quickly fall in bed but the warmth between Margret and Hopkins makes this believable. Corky's final gesture of love for Peg – a wooden heart he's whittled – gets me every time. His actions are sweet and selfless, rooted in a pure love. The film wouldn't work at all if the romance wasn't so believable. With it, “Magic” becomes a first rate film.

The film doesn't just exploit a creepy dummy for its horror content, though that goes a really long way. “Magic” is also a hugely suspenseful thriller. There are several stand-out sequences, that really push the tension as far as possible. When Corky's agent – played with warmth and bitter sarcasm by Burgess Meredith – forces the ventriloquist not to talk with his dummy for five minutes, the film makes sure the scene feels as long for the viewer as it does for Corky. This builds towards Corky bludgeoning his agent with the dummy, who refuses to stay dead in several inconvenient ways. Another impressive scene occurs when Peg's husband catches something on a fishing line. While he attempts to drag whatever it is up, Corky raises an oar, fearful of what might appear. As suspenseful as “Magic” is, it never looses sight of its tragic or romantic center.

As I said, “Magic” has developed a cult following over the years. I think the startling trailer has a lot to do with that. The trailer's sole focus is on Fats as he talks and eventually convulses in a disturbing manner. This was shown on daytime TV before parents of traumatized children requested it be removed. At least some of those kids grew up into horror fans. Beyond the really creepy dummy, “Magic” is a fantastically acted and wonderfully orchestrated feature, with some great performances and an effective score. I'm pretty happy that the original one-sheet is now hanging on my wall. [8/10]

Fear Itself: The Circle

For its final episode, “Fear Itself” didn't even bothered to get an arguable Master of Horror to direct. “The Circle” was directed by Eduardo Rodriguez, who had only made shorts up to that point. (He's since made the direct-to-video “Fright Night II,” doing little to help his case.) The series finale focuses on Brian, a hugely successful novelist. What he thought was going to be a quiet night with his wife, Lisa, is disturbed when Brian's agent and several other friends drop by. They're trying to get him over his writer's block. It's Halloween night, so neither are too disturbed when a pair of trick-or-treater's knock on the door. What they bring, a book called “The Circle,” is more unnerving. The monster from Brian's book, an amorphous darkness that infects people, encircles the cabin. Soon, Brian will have to write again if he hopes to survive the night.

I haven't seen any of Rodriguez' shorts, so I have no idea what was so effective about them that Mick Garris invited the guy to work on this show. I will say that “The Circle” is mildly successful as a horror film full of loud noises. There are many sequences of characters, infected by the darkness, leaping out and attacking people. Rodriguez has a decent enough grasp on tension that these moments are mildly effective. “Evil Dead” was a likely inspiration for this story – considering the cabin setting, the infectious evil, and an ominous book figuring into the plot – and Rodriguez captures that spirit a little bit. (The Halloween setting helps too.) The episode is also probably the goriest of “Fear Itself,” as people are impaled and tossed around repeatedly. Rodriguez does rely on CGI too much. The squirming mass of computer generated black tendrils do not impress.

Ultimately, “The Circle” is undermined by all its characters being awful people. Brian's agent is obnoxious, badgering him into writing a new book. His wife freaks out way too easily, spending most of the episode in a state of screaming panic. By the end, we learn that Brian has been cheating on his wife and his successful novel was writing by the other woman. The same woman that set the episode in motion by cursing the group. However, that woman is also annoying. Victoria Pratt plays the part in such a broad manner. Yes, like practically every episode of “Fear Itself,” this one also has a dumb twist ending. It's another mediocre hour of television from the underachieving series. [5/10]

In retrospect, “Fear Itself” was a little better than I remembered it being. Most of the episodes were deeply mediocre but only a few were truly awful. I even managed to like one or two. As a follow-up to “Masters of Horror,” it was a massive disappointment. Not just because the line-up of directors was generally underwhelming – though that was a big reason why – but because this series' goal seemed counter intuitive to that one's. “Masters of Horror” was all about allowing respected elder statesmen of the genre to do whatever they wanted. Moving the show to network television put a leash on that creativity. This is why, I think, “Fear Itself” was such a colossal failure. Even though I enjoyed a few episodes, I can't give this series too high a rating for that reason. [Fear Itself: 5/10]

The Early 70's Horror Trailer (1999)

I have no familiar with the work of director Damon Packard. He's done several features and a few shorts. His movie, “Reflections of Evil,” seems to have a small cult following. I watched his 1999 short film, “The Early 70's Horror Trailer,” because the title popped up on Letterboxd and it seemed like something I would enjoy. So what is “The Early 70's Horror Trailer” about? Exactly what it sounds like. It's a plotless series of images and titles, set to a groovy score, meant to recreate the look and feel of a vintage horror movie trailer. The non-existent movie the trailer is advertising seems to be about young women fleeing some sort of malevolent force, possibly a male killer.

As an act of re-creation, “The Early 70's Horror trailer” is pretty accurate. This does indeed feel like an old trailer. The musical score is excellent, especially the wild and shrieking violins that show up. The swirling, partially transparent titles Packard employ are period accurate. The rough zooms, color tinting, and shaky camera work recall a seventies giallo. A few of the images presented here are interesting. Such as a corpse-like man pointing ominously, a woman covered in blood laying in a bath tub, a witch-like face starring through a dark mirror, or a series of women running through a multi-colored area.

Otherwise, “The Early 70's Horror Trailer” gets tedious fairly quickly. Far too much of the short is composed of women running places. Packard seems a little over indulgent of his love of psychedelic colors. There are far too distorted or reflected shots. It's pretty cool for about two minutes. At seven minutes, it feels excessive. I would've preferred if Packard used his obvious attention to detail and talent for odd images to tell an actual narrative story. Unless this was some sort of meta experiment, about deconstructing a film into its bare parts and re-cutting that as a trailer... In which case, mission accomplished, I guess? [5/10]

Monday, October 16, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 15

Flatliners (1990)

The greatest mystery is the question of what happens to us after death. Whether your an atheist or devout, you've probably wondered what awaits us beyond this life. If the entire foundation of the horror genre is humanity's common fear of the unknown, death is surely the greatest unknown of all. Obviously, this is a topic that has come up many times in horror movies. One film that dealt directly with this premise was “Flatliners.” The movie would become a decent sized hit in 1990, mostly due to being the first Julia Roberts movie released after “Pretty Woman” made her a household name. It's cast full of known names made it a regular presence on cable. I've seen parts of the movie on TV many times over the years but this is the first time I've sat down to watch the whole movie from start to finish.

Medical student Nelson Wright has touched upon a deadly experiment. He will intentionally induced heart failure, leaving the person in a state of death for several minutes, before they are revived. This, he figures, will allow the individual a peak at the afterlife. He uses himself as the first test subject. The result is so impressive that he talks three of his friends – Rachel, Dave, and Joe – into also participating in the experiment. At first, the results are invigorating. However, the group of four quickly begin to experience strange side effects. Figures from their past begin to haunt them, even attacking them. Now, the group must unravel the reasoning behind these events.

“Flatliners” has a premise with great potential. What if someone really did get a peak at the afterlife and found something horrible there? Disappointingly, the film doesn't really tackle this question very much. Dave is an atheist but quickly drops this philosophy after one near-death experience. “Flatliners” boils the afterlife down to one simple idea: While “dead,” the characters simply flashback to their youths. They are shown their most haunting memories. And those memories are pretty underwhelming. Rachel sees her suicidal father's dead body, which is pretty upsetting. Dave simply sees a girl he bullied as a kid and Joe sees the women he's manipulated. Nelson is also haunted by a kid he made fun of as a youth, which is linked to a disturbing memory. But as far as traumatic past events go, these are pretty lightweight. Perhaps "Flatliners" should've been about older characters, who have experienced more horrors. By focusing on young people whose lives are just beginning, the script paints itself into a vanilla corner.

The way the flatliners' guilt manifest themselves simply aren't scary either. Rachel briefly sees her dad as a corpse, which is a decent scare. Dave, meanwhile, has the little girl appear and call him names. Joe's conquests – women he recorded having sex with, without their consent, which definitely makes him a sexual predator of some sort – simply appear and say pick-up lines to him. Nelson, meanwhile, is repeatedly beaten up by a small child. If you want to establish your protagonist as worldly and experienced, don't repeatedly show him getting defeated by a little boy. This is the wimpiest attempt at horror I've seen recently. The way the characters resolve their issues, by making peace with their literal and metaphorical ghosts, is incredibly sappy. Joel Schumacher's direction, which is heavy on the cool blue colors and religious iconography, does little to improve their scenes of debatable horror.

As I said, I think “Flatliners'” cult following is mostly owed to its cast. Each of the main characters are played by then-popular performers. Kiefer Sutherland plays Nelson as someone totally sure of his discovery that slowly cracks up as the story progresses. Sutherland is in his comfort zone here and does fine. Kevin Bacon probably has the juiciest character arc as Dave, an atheist who becomes a believer. However, the film undersells this growth so much that Bacon is left to brood and growl. Daniel Baldwin has always been one of the greasier Baldwins, an attribute well used in the role of Joe. Julia Roberts probably gives the best performance in the film, as someone directly confronting her childhood trauma. You do feel for her a bit, as she's put through the emotional wringer. Oliver Platt, a talented actor, is stuck in the role of an over-analytical know-it-all. Considering Platt's character never undergoes the near death experiment, I don't even know why he's in the story.

I get the feeling that “Flatliners” is a horror movie made for people who don't like horror movies very much. The horrors are totally weak and defanged. The presentation is music video pretty. The cast is full of heartthrobs and sex symbols. It's inoffensive and safe, neither of which are good qualities for a horror film to have. It's a decent film to play in the background while you do laundry, which might explain its long life as a schedule filler on cable. James Newton Howard's score is pretty, I'll give it that much. As I said, the premise has a lot of potential. Perhaps a remake will come along that exploits that? Mmmm... [5/10]

The Stone Tape (1972)

I never really know what to expect from classic British sci-fi and horror. I love most of the things Hammer produced. “Ghostwatch” gets scarier every time I watch it. Yet I have never been interested in “Doctor Who.” Nigel Kneale's “Quatermass,” very well respected in certain circles, have always left me cold. So it was with some trepidation that I approached 'The Stone Tape.” The TV film, part of the BBC's long running ghost stories for Christmas series, supposedly traumatized a whole general of kids when it first aired in the early seventies. The premise certainly intrigued. However, the film also came from the pen of Kneale, making me uncertain of what to expect. Time to stop hesitating and just watch the damn thing.

Ryan Electronics is moving into a new facility at Taskerlands, a mansion in the British countryside. The oldest room, in the basement, was built with stones dating back to the Medieval period. Peter Brock, the research team manager, hopes to create some tape recording technology that will impress his boss. Instead, Jill, a computer programmer, discovers a ghost in the basement. As the research team investigate the haunting further, they begin to believe that the ghosts aren't the spectres of the dead. Instead, they float the theory that ghosts are like recordings, made on the ancient stones. Their attempts to exploit this discovery for financial gain does not work out for them.

A reoccurring theme throughout Kneale's work is the crossover between ancient mythology and modern technology. For one example, “Quatermass and the Pit” had a subway tunnel uncovering aliens that were the basis for old beliefs in demons. “The Stone Tape” also explores this idea. The film attempts to explain ghosts, one of the oldest of all legends, with then cutting edge science. The story's central concept – that ghosts are past events imprinted on the surrounding environment, like video recorded to a tape – is a tantalizing one. (So tantalizing that it's even been adopted by some real life parapsychologists.) We also learn that the castle was built upon an even older haunted patch of land. So modern horrors are just variances on even older stories. This dynamic, of the ancient and the modern, is present in the basic outline of the story. “The Stone Tape” is all about people filling an old castle with what passed for high-tech computers in 1972.

“The Stone Tape” has the production values you'd expect from the BBC in the seventies. In addition to the bell bottoms and muttonchops, the special effects look pretty cheesy to modern eyes. The film takes place mostly in one location. It's a pretty good location though. The modern hallways of the castle are cold and sterile. The basement, which maintains the original stone, is moldy and aged. It's the perfect place for a haunting. Some of the film's spookier events still provide chills. A ghostly apparition appearing at the top of the stairs is a little overdone. More impressive is a scene where Brock, walking into the stone room, only hears the ghostly screams. A moment where red eyes appear in the darkness is genuinely creepy. The climax, involving green spectres rising up out of the stone, borders on the campy. Yet there's some delightfully spooky about these creaky, old fashion special effects.

“The Stone Tape” definitely has some effectively creepy moments. A lot of it is still awfully dry in the same way Kneale's “Quatermass” films were. There are long scenes devoted to characters standing around in rooms, talking about events, instead of doing them. Far more time is spent talking about recording technology, of beating rival Japanese developers to major discoveries, than you'd probably prefer. There are long scenes of people trying to capture footage of the ghosts. This involves playing annoying noises inside the stone room and carrying around this ridiculous megaphone thing. Those scenes go on far too long. The kinship between the main characters are kept too stately as well. The exact details of Brock and Jill's relationship are a bit hard too read.

Some of the problems I had with “The Stone Tape” I totally anticipated. Like I said, if you're going to watch a movie that was made for British television back in the seventies, keep your expectations in check about special effects. If you overlook that, as well as the inherent dryness of the material, you'll find “The Stone Tape” to be pretty creepy. I can certainly see why kids, watching this back in the seventies, would be so affected by it. The ideas are fascinating and the proceedings are atmospheric. It's no “Ghostwatch” but I'm glad I gave it a look. [7/10]

Fear Itself: Echoes

I've seen every episode of “Fear Itself” before. When the DVD set came out, I bought it to complete my "Masters of Horror" collection. However, upon this rewatch, “Echoes” was the only episode I had absolutely zero memory of. It was directed by Rupert Wainwright, whose dubious horror credits include “Stigmata” and the godawful remake of “The Fog.” “Echoes” follows Stephen, who has just recently bought an old home. His female friend, Karen, is helping him move in. Stephen has romantic feelings for Karen but is too shy to make the first move. After his first night in the house, he begins to experiences memories from a past life. He recalls the life of Maxwell, a gangster who owned the house in the twenties. Maxwell murdered his girlfriend, Zelda. As Stephen digs deeper into the past, he realizes Karen looks a lot like Zelda. And he fears that history will repeat itself.

“Echoes” is very predictable. From the moment the story starts rolling, you know exactly where it will end up. Having said that, the ideas presented here appeal to me. People being caught in an inescapable cycle of events, especially when its connected to their past lives, is a theme I've explored in my own writing. “Echoes” hits every beat you'd expect. Stephen becomes more violent as the events of Maxwell's life start to influence him more. Yet it rolls along at a decent pace. Basing the episode around an unrequited romance is a nice touch, making the tragic outcome of Stephen and Karen's relationship more complex. It helps that the performances are solid. Aaron Stanford is likable and properly freaked out. Camille Guaty is lovely and has a nice energy as Karen/Zelda.

Sadly, “Echoes” ends up feeling very ho-hum. A subplot involving a psychologist goes absolutely nowhere. Stephen's exact connection to the past, whether it's just reincarnation or some sort of possession, is never sussed out. Instead of being a deliberate element of ambiguity, it just feels sloppy. Wainwright's direction relies far too much on shaky-cam. Near the end, the script starts to cycle through underdeveloped ideas to pad out the time. Did Stephen and Karen sleep together? Is Karen sleeping with every guy she knows? Did Maxwell and Zelda kill each other? It doesn't come together into a satisfying whole. At the very least, “Echoes” doesn't have a lame twist ending, like every other episode of this show. It's very nearly a decent hour but collapses once again into mediocrity. [5/10]

Conventional (2015)

As I've written about many times before, I've been to quite a few horror movie conventions. This is why I became interested in “Conventional,” a ten minute long short, starring and directed by Karen Gillan. Gillan plays Rachel Milligan. Milligan once starred in a slasher film called “Axe Wound 2.” Since then, her career has floundered. Now, in order to make end's meet, she makes regular appearances at conventions. She signs the same old glossies for fans dressed as Stu Mac, the film's axe wielding killer with a pageboy hair cut. She answers the same old questions at Q&As. She repeats the same phrases while pausing for photographs. The repetition, and the sense that her life is falling apart, is starting to get to her.

Usually, nerd conventions are portrayed unfairly in film and television. “Conventional” falls into this trap a little. I've never seen that much identical cosplay at one event. Otherwise, the film accurately captures the atmosphere. The first scene has Rachel signing an autograph for one devoted fan, while another guests has a much longer line. She feigns enthusiasm during the panel, while answering softball questions like “What does horror mean to you?” Gillan wears a ridiculous pair of fake lips in the short, showing that Rachel has had some ill-advised plastic surgery recently. That sense of sad desperation, of putting on a happy face while feeling like a has-been, I've seen that before. I wonder if this is the kind of thing horror convention regulars – your Adrienne Barbeaus and Kristy Swansons – think and feel all the time.

Mostly, “Conventional” is built around an impressive performance from Gillan. In the first half of the short, she hints at the depression the character feels while hiding behind a chipper smile. After hitting rock bottom – hooking up with a fan boy in the hotel bathroom – she cracks up. Gillan delivers an amazingly raw monologue to a half-empty panel room. Rachel goes on about feeling like a failure, saying how she lies about having new projects in development. How she struggles to find meaning in her life. She's tasted fame but it was fleeting. Now, she will do anything to recapture just the faintest reminder of that feeling. There's a dark humor to this scene, like Gillan spouting off a line about being “Bloody Disgusting's Babe of the Year,” but mostly it's a brazenly honest portrayal.

“Conventional” isn't just a film about horror movies, as it features a bloody murder in its final minutes. However, that last step almost feels unnecessary. The short is an impressive debut from Gillan. It's darkly funny, intensely sad, and insightful about a corner of nerd culture that can, let's face it, get a little pathetic at times. I'm sure, being a “Doctor Who” graduate, Gillan's been to more than a few conventions. However, considering her continuing role in a major Marvel franchise and the obvious talent she displays as a writer and director, she will probably won't end up like Rachel Mulligan. [8/10]

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 14

Baby Blood (1990)

Pregnancy is considered a miracle by some people. Of course, in a way, it is. The creation is pretty fucking magical when you think about it. It's also kind of horrifying. Humans are born out a sweaty act, arising out fluids being shot everywhere. Then a woman's body is transformed, hormonally and physically, as another creature grows inside them. This thing is then ejected via pain and blood. And that's not even considering the terror and anxiety associated with parenthood. Unsurprisingly, some horror filmmakers have found inspiration in the subject of childbirth. “Baby Blood” is a French film from 1990. I hadn't heard much about until a few years ago, when it started being recommended to me as a grisly, weirdo hidden gem. Immediately, it went onto my Halloween watch-list.

Yanka lives with her abusive boyfriend as part of a traveling circus. They receive a new shipment of animals from Africa. One of the big cats dies that night, something crawling out of its body. The parasite then crawls into Yanka's body while she's sleeping, taking up residence in her womb. The creature begins to grow inside her, Yanka becoming pregnant with the monster. It psychically communicates with her. Yanka's child demands blood, forcing her to go out and kill various men. As the parasite matures, her birth date drawing closer, Yanka and the creature begin to develop a strange relationship, equal parts resentful and warm.

“Baby Blood” exaggerates the regular pain and fears of pregnancy into something more explicitly horrific. Many mothers feel an immediate bond with their unborn children. The film turns this into a literal form of psychic communication. Embryos are demanding, making their mothers exhausted and demanded strange changes of them. In “Baby Blood,” the fetus' wants include the blood of victims. The parasite alternatively and deliberately causes Yanka pain and pleasure. She resents the intrusion at first but, eventually, develops a bond with the creature. This quickly builds towards a type of body horror. Yanka's skin stretches as the baby grows inside. She has an explicit nightmare about hands burst from her belly. Must pressingly, by making Yanka's child a literal parasite, the film brings the harshest irony of pregnancy – something is growing inside you and stealing from your body – to mind.

“Baby Blood” is also about the different ways men abuse women. Yanka's boyfriend is abusive. After he catches a man – who later attempts to forcefully kiss her – peeping on her changing, he threatens and beats her. Later, he tracks Yanka down at an apartment and attacks her again. After running off to the city, Yanka encounters other abusive behavior. A truck driver picks up a hitchhiking Yanka but later abandons her on the side of the road  A man oogles her wantonly during a quasi-date. After some awkward sex, he proposes to her. Turns out, the guy already has a girlfriend. In the final act, Yanka gets on a bus full of soccer hooligans. They attempt to rape her while the driver just sits back and blames her for what's happening. So the world of “Baby Blood” gives Yanka little reason not to want to murder her male victims. Notably, in the original French version, the parasite has a female voice. In the dub, the voice is male, extending the theme of abusive men even into Yanka's internal life. (In his book, “Horror Films of the 1990s,” John Kenneth Muir claims Gary Oldman provided the parasite's English voice. I can't find any other source for this factoid though.)

Most of “Baby Blood's” cult following is probably owed to its crazy gore. The violence gets more intense as the film goes on. It begins with some simple stabbings and throat slashing. As the film progresses, the violence gets more intense. A slashed man vomits blood directly into the camera. Yanka crushes a man against a wall with a car, his decapitated head flying across the road. She later smashes another guy's head open with a canister of compressed air, a massive amount of blood spirals upwards. Probably the most outrageous death involves a man being inflated with air until he explodes. When the parasite slithers on-screen at the end, it begins to drain its blood directly. Yanka spends most of the movie splattered with blood, until she's completely covered by the end. It's crazy, fucked-up stuff.

“Baby Blood” is certainly a flawed film. The tone ricochets wildly between twisted humor and serious horror, without much cohesion. The ending is abrupt. The acting can be pretty ropy at times, though Emmanuelle Escourrou is very good as Yanka. Some of my problems with the film aren't even the filmmaker's fault. The Region 1 DVD of “Baby Blood” is way out of print and being sold for too much. It's not currently available on any streaming services that I could find. So I ended up watching a version on a pretty sketchy website. Most of the movie was dubbed into English but a few lengthy scenes were in unsubtitled French. Luckily, I was still able to follow the story. Amazingly, a sequel called “Lady Blood” was made 2008. Escourrou returned but director Alain Robak didn't. I have no idea if it lives up to the original, a delightfully gross and entertaining cult classic. [7/10]

Prevenge (2017)

If you ask me who Alice Lowe was, I'd probably look at you with mild confusion. If you mentioned her roles in “Hot Fuzz” or “Garth Miringhi's Darkplace,” I'd vaguely know what you were talking about. If you just referred to her as the lady from “Sightseers,” I'd immediately know what you were talking about. She's a hard working British character actress and has been very funny in many things. When Lowe was heavily pregnant, nobody would hire her. So she decided to make her own work. While eight month pregnant, she wrote, directed, and starred in “Prevenge.” That alone is pretty impressive but “Prevenge” also ended up being pretty good.

Lowe plays Ruth. Eight months ago, her boyfriend died in a rock climbing accident. She blames his death on the other people in the climbing party. Her baby blames them as well. The fetus inside Ruth is instructing her to hunt down and murder the people responsible, whispering vague threats at her all hours of the night and day. Ruth doesn't entirely agree with this journey, often arguing with the unborn child inside her. It's October, nearly Halloween, and Ruth's due date is coming soon. Her child is insistent that its revenge must be fulfilled before it is born.

“Prevenge's” premise – a fetus telling its mother to kill – brings “Baby Blood” to mind, which is why I decided this should be a double feature. The only real similarities between the theme is a homicidal, high-pitched voice emanating from a woman's womb. “Baby Blood” is more about how men abuse women. “Prevenge” is more about grief and the anxiety of bringing life into the world. Ruth is haunted by her boyfriend's death. He died when his cord was cut, bringing umbilical cords to mind and connecting his death with Ruth's pregnancy. The fetus taunts Ruth by saying nobody else will ever love her. That she must do what the fetus says. This speaks to her uncertainty about giving birth. At one point, she says he'd trade the baby to have her lover back. Yet she's also deeply protective of the unborn child. After giving birth, Ruth's ambiguity towards the baby doesn't change any. “Prevenge” is a film all about anxieties that surround pregnancy. 

It's also a really funny, extremely dark comedy. Ruth is not an experienced murderer. Her interactions with her potential victims are often very awkward. She haphazardly seduces a guy at a Halloween disco party. After going back to his house, they stumble through some extremely gawky banter, before the guy's senile mom wanders into the room. Even after murdering the man, the elderly woman continues to walk around, confused. At a job interview, the fetus whispers mean-spirited (but darkly funny) comments into Ruth's ear, which she then repeats to the interviewer. One victim is a self-defense trainer, leading to some fisticuffs which then leads to an amusingly terse conversation. Probably my favorite comedic moment involves Ruth making friends with the roommate of one of her targets. After joking around about food, she's then forced to murder the man, which she immediately regrets. This kind of conversational, awkward comedy is very British and won't be to everyone's liking. I can dig it though.

Lowe often balances the film's funny scenes with its overtly horrific ones. These comedic encounters usually happen directly before the murder scenes. The first death scene concludes with a graphic castration. Another cool gag has a throat being slashed onto a glass table, the camera looking up at the blood. There's also a pretty decent eye-gouging. Yet “Prevenge's” death scenes are not its most effective horror element. Instead, Alice Lowe's performance is its most frightening element. Throughout most of the movie, she's dryly hilarious, only occasionally showing an agitated side. Near the conclusion, she confronts the last one responsible for her boyfriend's death. Lowe's convictions are impressive and intense, making you really believe these things.

“Prevenge” runs a tight 87 minutes and is highly entertaining for most of that run time. It's clear that Lowe didn't have entirely enough material to fill her film, as a couple of scenes meander a bit. However, it's a promising debut. As a comedy, it made me laugh plenty. As a horror film, it's surprisingly potent. As a showcase for Lowe's abilities, it really impresses. Hey, the film also has a pretty cool synth setting. It also makes full use of its October setting, as the final scene takes place during a Halloween parade. Those two factors are enough to make me really like this one. [7/10]

Fear Itself: The Spirit Box

Among the “Masters of Horror” directors, one I most assuredly wouldn't have invited back was Rob Schmit. I liked Schmit's “Wrong Turn” but his “Right to Die” was one of the weakest episodes of the show's second season. Despite this, Schmit would return for “Fear Itself.” “The Spirit Box” follows two teenage girls, Shelby and Becca. While bored on Halloween night, the two decide to make a spirit box. That's a bootleg Ouija board made out of whatever is lying around, which is a pizza box, a cellphone, and some magazines in this case. The two girls seem to contact the spirit of Emily D'Angelo, a classmate who killed herself the previous year. Via the spirit box, Emily tells the girls that she didn't commit suicide. She was murdered. As the girls investigate, they begin to suspect one of their teachers is responsible.

“The Spirit Box” was an early starring role for Anna Kendrick, whose only claim to fame in 2008 would've been the first “Twilight” movie. Kendrick is awfully charming as Shelby, making a likable teenage hero. (Though the script's assertion that Shelby is unpopular with boys is hard to believe, considering she looks like Anna Kendrick.) She has good chemistry with Jessica Parker Kennedy as Becca. Just watching the two of them play off each other, doing goofy teen girl things together, is fun. As a teenage sleuth story, “The Spirit Box” is solid. A scene devoted to Shelby sneaking into the teacher's house is actually somewhat suspenseful. The episode almost plays like an edgier “Nancy Drew” or similar stories, following its girl detectives trying to unravel a mysterious crime. It's kind of fun.

If “The Spirit Box” is mildly entertaining as a sleuthing teens story, it's totally lame as a horror movie. The episode throws several different types of scares at the audience and each one is a joke. Dramatic music blares while the make-shift planchette moves around the home-made spirit box. The girls receive ominous text messages, which are unintentionally funny due to their use of abbreviations. Ghostly hands leap out of the water, always accompany by loud music. A masked figure stalks Kendrick through the school but never becomes threatening. The episode's twist ending, like most of “Fear Itself's” twist endings, is totally asinine. So this is one of those rare cases where a horror story would've been improved by removing the horror elements all together. [5/10]

The Birch (2016)

I have no familiarity with the works of directors Ben Franklin and Anthony Melton. Apparently, some of their horror shorts are quite popular, with “Don't Move” garnering something like a following. While looking into their work, the title “The Birch” caught my eye. It was only four minutes long too. Anyway, the short follows a young boy named Shaun. At school, Shaun is ruthlessly bullied by a thug named Kris. At home, he deals with a sickly grandmother. While on her death bed, his grandmother passes him a book, detailing how to summon a spirit from inside the near-by woods. Soon afterwards, Kris chases Shaun into the forest. There, the bully encounters the Birch.

“The Birch” tells a surprisingly complete story, despite only being four minutes long. There's no narration or gratuitous set-up. Instead, Franklin and Melton leap right into the action. By smartly cross-cutting between Shaun's school and home life, they quickly establish the situation. The Birch, the supernatural entity in the woods, is set up with some speedy visuals. We see a book, an odd symbols in its pages, and next Shaun is building that symbol out of twigs. We understand the story's structure very quickly, which is a good thing when you only have four minutes. We learn about the bully's cruelty and long to see him get his comeuppance. At the same time, the short shows how frightened Shaun is by the powers he controls.

Many internet horror shorts build towards a jump-scare. “The Birch,” instead, builds up to a good look at the titular monster. I don't besmirch the directors for wanting to show the creature. The design is impressive. The creature wears a skirt that is indistinguishable from the skin of an old birch tree. The design can't help but remind me of the old Movie Maniacs Blair Witch figure. It has the same skeletal female face and wreath of branches around its head. Either way, the creature is a memorable special effect. Most attempts to expand horror shorts into features are disappointing. “The Birch” tells its story so compellingly in so little time that a longer version isn't necessary. At the same time, I feel like there's a bigger mythology here that might be worth exploring. [7/10]

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 13

Westworld (1973)

A couple of days ago, I was talking about how many horror films have been adapted into TV shows recently. I was initially skeptical about a lot of these announcements. When they decided to turn “Westworld” into a TV, I was really uncertain. What, were the robots going to go haywire and start killing people every week? Besides, it was already tried, back in the eighties, without much success. Against all odds, the “Westworld” TV show is apparently actually pretty good. I don't know because I've never seen it but the show's success did inspire me to go back and watch the original movie, which I first saw years ago. Besides, what Halloween season is complete without a killer robot or two?

In the near future – 1983 – the Delos Corporation has built a series of incredible theme parks. Medieval World, Roman World, and West World recreate the pop culture versions of their respective time period. The worlds are populated with realistic robots that expertly play their roles. The human visitors, meanwhile, can do whatever they want, murdering and debauch-ing with impunity. John Blane and Peter Martin visit West World, expecting to have the time of their lives. It's pretty fun until the robots begin to act outside their programming. The show is over and the machines become deadly. Now Blane and Martin must survive and escape.

You might question my decision to include “Westworld” as part of a horror movie marathon. History has recalled the movie more as a science fiction landmark than a horror one. But consider the facts. The film was the directorial debut of novelist Michael Crichton. Years later, Crichton would more-or-less recycle the same premise for “Jurassic Park,” replacing robot cowboys with dinosaurs. Though people argue about that too, I consider “Jurassic Park” pretty unambiguously a horror film. Robots belong to the sci-fi genre but murderous robots, I believe, fall strictly within horror's realm. The way the robotic gunslinger pursues Martin, slowly but always catching up with him, makes “Westworld” a predecessor to the slasher film. (So does the killer's habit of returning briefly from death for one more scare.) So I'll hear no more debate about this. “Westworld” is a horror movie. Case closed.

Crichton is most notorious for being equally fascinated and horrified by what science is capable of. Surprisingly, Crichton left all but the barest crumbs of this fascination behind with “Westworld.” Yes, you wonder at what a creation the park is and are then frightened when it all goes wrong. Yet Westworld is clearly a fantasy world, far outside the realm of possibility in 1973, so that no clear criticism of modern science emerges. Instead, “Westworld” targets something else. The theme parks are a place where violent and sexual fantasies can run amok. (Specifically, macho male fantasies of being cowboys or knights, though I doubt Crichton meant anything by that.) Inevitably, that kind of excess eventually leads to self-destruction. Meanwhile, it's also a film about how historical fact is repackaged to be modern day entertainment. Or how storytellers uses historical settings as an excuse to pack in as much flesh and blood as they want.  Honestly, there's a lot to chew on here.

As a genre effort, “Westworld” is pretty solidly entertaining. Several of the shoot-outs with Yul Brynner's Gunslinger are effective. In particular, the one that concludes with him flying out a window is neat. The way a sword fight with the robot black knight goes wrong builds nicely. A scene devoted to cleaning the park up after dark is nicely eerie. However, Crichton does make some rookie mistakes as a first time director. He cuts away from the main characters too often, focusing on irrelevant side characters. There's so little focus on the scientists running that the park that the inevitable robot rampage seems like no one's fault. There's also far too many scenes of people walking or riding their horses aimlessly. I haven't even mentioned the logic gaps in the story. The robots are colder than humans but nobody minds having sex with them? Why are the robots even given live ammunition in the first place?

As I said, Yul Brynner's Gunslinger is a prototype for later villains like Michael Myers and the T-800. Like the Terminator, he has his synthetic flesh burned off, revealing the mechanical skeleton underneath. (At one point, Schwarzenegger was attached to star in a remake of “Westworld,” which would've brought this connection full circle.) Brynner's casting is not just a reference to his many western roles. He actually gives a chilling performance. The reflective contact lens emphasize the uncanny appearance and detached quality that had long been Brynner's trademark. His best moment comes when that untouchable aura cracks up. At one point, the Gunslinger realizes he's wander into Medieval Land and doesn't seem to entirely understand what is happening. The other two leads in the film, James Brolin as Blane and Richard Benjamin as Martin, are also pretty good. It's a nice switch how Brolin, playing the more traditionally tough guy, gets killed first, forcing the more intellectual Benjamin to take the lead.

“Westworld” is obviously a flawed film. Yet it clearly resonated with the public. The film's success would give Yul Bryner's flagging career an extra act. It would spawn a sequel, though nobody talks about it much, in addition to those TV shows I've already mentioned. (It was also parodied on a pretty great “Simpsons” episode.) Even after “Jurassic Park” mostly overshadowed it, the film is well remembered by a certain strata of movie fan. It's vision of robotics has not aged well. Neither has the notion that people care enough about living in the wild west that they'd pay a thousand dollars to visit it. Crichton was clearly still getting the grip on directing. I like this one anyway. [7/10]

The Lure (2015)

Sometimes you hear a film premise and immediately know you have to see it. “The Lure” was released in its native Poland in 2015 but only began to circulate around English language festivals in 2016. Janus Films, the guys behind the Criterion Collection, gave it a stateside theatrical release earlier this year. So, for a while, I've been hearing about this horror/musical about man-eating mermaids singing in a nightclub. For a long time, I've been fascinated by the mermaid's potential as a horror character, since they're seductive, strange, and ultimately inhuman. The peculiar combination of horror elements and song-and-dance numbers always catches my attention. Oh, and did I mention its set in the eighties, so there's plenty of synth? Yeah, “The Lure” couldn't appeal to me anymore if it was made specifically for me.

A band – composed guitarist Mietek, a female singer, and several other musicians – practice on a beach. The music attracts a pair of mermaid sisters. When their bodies dry up, their fish tails turn into legs. A splash of water returns them to their natural state. (Though they notably lack human sex organs.) The blonde, naive sister is named Golden while her brunette, more adventurous sister is named Silver. They follow the band back to the club and are quickly incorporated into their act.  The sisters become a huge hit. However, neither sister can resist their natural instincts to kill humans and eat their hearts.

“The Lure” is a really cool update of the mermaid premise. The sisters do not look like Ariel. Instead, their tails are long, wide, and especially fleshy. They have bloody slits along the skin and yank out their scales. When their hunger is aroused, they grow jagged, fearsome teeth. Changing the sirens song to pop music is another clever change. Another neat touch is that the sisters can communicate via sonar. Mostly, I enjoy “The Lure's” horror movie take on the age-old legend. When the sisters get angry or hungry, they can easily tear open necks and rip out hearts. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska also links the girl's budding sexual desires with their need to eat people, giving the film's horror content a deeper meaning. (It would also make “The Lure” a good double feature with “Raw.”)

As a musical, “The Lure” is also really impressive. The songs are uniformly great. “You Were the Beat of My Heart” is a remorseful number disguised as a slinky, catchy come-on. “Take Me in Your Care” is a touching duet between Golden and Mietek, which the film beautifully illustrates as a swim through a murky lake. Maybe the stand-out number in the film is “Abracadabra,” which features the girl dancing through the green-lit club while dressed as Siouxsie Sue, against a thumping electronic beat. Smoczynska's directs the scenes fantastically, such as in the haunting “The Bed,” where Golden sings about gaining legs, or “I Came to the City,” which features the girls dancing through a mall, having discovered the joys of shopping. I don't speak Polish but I still found myself responding to the emotion, power, and melodies of these songs.

The cast is also extremely impressive. “The Lure” probably wouldn't work at all if the actresses playing the sisters weren't so perfect. Marat Mazurek plays as Silver as a teenage seductress who is learning to use her budding sexuality as a tool to get what she wants. Yet Mazurek also brings an undercurrent of sadness and rawness to the part, the young mermaid still learning to balance her emotions. Michalina Olszanska is even better as Golden. While her sister is cynical, Golden is wide-eyed and trusting. Olszanska's performance is instantly likable, the audience immediately wanting to protect this young girl... Who just happens to be a murderous mermaid. I also like Jakub Gierszal as Mietek, who manages to prevent the character from coming off as a total cad.

“The Lure” is also an adaptation of sorts of Hans Christian Anderson's” The Little Mermaid.” And I don't mean the Disney version. Smoczynska maintains the tragedy at the center of Anderson's story. Golden gives her heart to an Earthly man, giving up her tail and her voice. Ultimately, it doesn't work out and she suffers the same fate Ariel did. Thus, the film ends in tragedy. It's the story of young girls who have their hearts broken and, ultimately, can't find their place in a world they still don't understand. If the film truly is a coming-of-age story, it's about reaching maturity but learning the cost of these things.

Surprising absolutely no one, I loved “The Lure.” It has to be one of the most original films I've seen this year. The direction is colorful, expressive, and brilliant. The performances are fantastic. The music is amazing. The writing is funny and touching. This odd ball story of mermaids singing in a bar manages to touch upon just about everything I enjoy about movies. Smocynska's next project is apparently another musical, described as a science fiction opera based on the songs of David Bowie. So I'm probably going to love that movie too. [9/10]

Fear Itself: Chance

I probably should've mentioned this in the last review but, by the time “Chance” came along, “Fear Itself” had been canceled. After “Skin and Bones” aired, the show went on hiatus for NBC's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics. After the games ended, “Fear Itself” had disappeared from the schedule. The show was so beneath NBC's notice that they didn't even officially announce its cancellation until a few months later. So the show's remaining five episodes didn't surface until the DVD release. (They were then burned off on other channels like Fearnet and, for some reason, E!)

“Chance” was directed by John Dahl. He's made some good films but his only horror credit of note is “Joy Ride,” which hardly qualifies him for master status. Anyway, the episode follows a guy named – go figure – Chance. He's had some money problems recently, which is girlfriend is very concerned about. After discovering that an antique vase he owns is worth thousands of dollars, he thinks his hard times may be at an end. After meeting with the antiques dealer, Chance learns the vase is much newer than he thought and only worth a fraction of the expected value. The situation becomes tense and Chance accidentally ends up killing the antique shop owner. At this point, a morally corrupt version of Chance emerges from an ancient mirror, seeking to help him out of this problem.

“Chance” is one of those stories where the writer wants us to think the character is a victim of fate. If that was the intention, they totally failed. Chance isn't at the whims of, uh, chance so much as he's just an idiot. He doesn't check the actual value of the vase before attempting to sell it. When he discovers this vase isn't his gateway to financial freedom, he argues with the antiques dealer. Instead of walking away when things get intense, he picks a fight with the guy. Instead of leaving immediately, he sticks around, activates a fire alarm, gets the police involved, and ends up with more blood on his hands. In other words, Chance is a total idiot who consistently makes the worst possible decisions. Ethan Embry's performance is squrimy and unlikable.

The supernatural element that pushes “Chance” into the horror genre is that mean-spirited doppelganger that seemingly emerges from a magic mirror. This element is not well-explained. The twist ending – because every episode of this show has a dumb twist ending, it seems – suggests Chance had a psychotic break and did everything by himself. Which doesn't explain how the doppelganger can clearly affect things around him. It's a nonsensical narrative device added to an undercooked script, doing nothing to improve or complicated things. Dahl's direction is frequently shaky and unstable, making the episode hard to look at too. [5/10]

This House Has People in It (2016)

After “Too Many Cook's” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear's” meme-eriffic success, Adult Swim realized they were in the surreal horror short business. Alan Resnick, “Bear's” creator, was next allowed to make his most ambitious project yet. “This House Has People in It” is told from the perspective of security cameras set up inside a seemingly normal suburban home. The cameras watch in every room and the short cuts back and forth between them. The young son waits for his birthday party guests to arrive. The grandmother and the infant child watch TV. A plumber works in the basement. Mom and Dad argue in the kitchen about an upcoming vacation. That's when they notice their teenage daughter is laying on the floor, unresponsive. Soon, she begins to sink through the floor. The parents panic, trying to find a way to save their daughter from this bizarre condition. It gets weirder from there.

If one theme unites Adult Swim's trilogy of weirdo horror shorts, it's the perversion of the mundane. After twisting sitcom intros and commercials into weird, disturbing things, the next target is the normal life of a large family. At first, the titular house that has people in it seems normal. This is just a regular family going about their day, right? Then you notice the body laying on the floor. Or the cooking show grandma is watching, which seems to be about eating clay. Or you'll briefly glimpse a bizarre, cartoon animal shape moving outside a window. By the time the short escalates into its unnerving last act, you're already freaked out. This is the fundamentals of horror. First you set up the normalcy of the situation, which then allows you to subvert it in disturbing ways. “This House Has People in It” teaches this lesson very astutely and only in eleven minutes.

Still, the short is grounded in very real anxieties. As the teenage daughter sinks into the floor, he asks his wife if she took pills from her friends. A minute later, he's wondering if this is some sort of “woman's problem.” The dad has a well-meaning, if misguided, concern for his children. From there, Resnick's capitalizes on other common anxieties. The plumber in the basement is working on some project, which seems expensive. The little brother is anxious about his birthday party, which is canceled in the worst way. The food on the stove burns and the baby screams. This are every day concerns, thrown into sharp relief by the strangeness of the film's central problem.

By the end, “This House Has People in It” descends into total insanity. The father acts increasingly unhinged as the situation becomes more grave. Smoke fills the house, while grandpa sits in front of the TV, seemingly unaware of what's happening. Kids have a party on the lawn. The baby wanders out of the house, towards God knows what danger. The security cameras cut between the rooms more frantically. As an inevitable, horrible thing happens to the daughter, the cameras seem to loose the signal... Before regaining it long enough for us to see that the girl's condition is apparently contagious. Then you realize the title is also a twisted pun. When the daughter sinks into the floorboards, the house literally had people inside its very structure.

While “Too Many Cooks” and “Unedited Footage of a Bear” were one-and-done deals, “This House Has People in It” is actually at the center of a wider, creepier universe. There's a website for the fictional security company, dozens of videos hidden across Youtube, and an extensive Wiki. Down this wormhole, you'll discover other weird details. Like a pink skinned phantom haunting the house, a psychosis breeding disease caused by eating clay, and a parody of Sonic the Hedgehog called Boomy the Cat. Even without these extra details, “This House Has People in It” is a surprisingly potent bit of surreal horror. Not the kind of thing you expect from a channel best known for “Family Guy” reruns and stoner cartoons about talking fast food items. [9/10]