The Monster (2016)

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The Monster: B-

How thou hast come again to find this Keeper – alone and withered as I am in the obsidian catacombs of VHS, in the ever-twisting silver maze of DVDs – I know not. I know only that I continue to watch!

And watch with horror, Dear Reader! I recently watched with mingled horror and amusement at this latest offering: The Monster, a tale of addiction, doom, and desperation only too familiar to your humble servant and Keeper of this tomb of terror!

Like the tale of King’s Cujo, here we have a woman trapped in her isolated and dilapidated vehicle, on a desolate road tucked in the remote and stormy woods, clutching her first-born daughter to her breast in abject terror. She quavers and sobs as a beast, driven by cruel hunger, stalks about the misty exterior, eyeing the isolated condemned with calculating hunger. The audience too is gripped with peril, unable to look away as the few unlucky enough to intervene – a towtruck man, a band of paramedics –  meet their bloody destinies as the Monster’s prey.

And what of this beast, this Monster? It is not man, oh no Dear Reader! Here we have a hulking brute with the frame of an ape and the head of a vicious shark. Its body is covered in the most loathsome scales that shimmer with a sable iridescence in this storm that besieges our poor woman and her babe. Like the terrible and famous Alien, the Monster is a massive chunk of unforgiving shadow and teeth that devours all in its path. 

And this, Dear Reader, is the film: The trapped and horrified mother and daughter, the malevolent stalking Monster. The darkness is its ally, a tent of horrible concealment into which the fiend retreats like a ravenous panther to pace about with vile stealth, emerging only to commit murder and strew the road with carnage. A weakness can be found in the Monster’s eyes which, like pebble-sized chunks of filthy glass, capture and reflect all lights shined directly into thus, inflicting the creature with a shocked instant of blindness and panic, inducing one of its enraged escapes into the surrounding night.  

At its core, this abomination is a symbol, a metaphor for the addiction to alcohol which grips the woman tighter than she grips her only child to her own ferociously beating heart. In a multitude of shadowy flashbacks, we watch (always, we watch, Dear Reader!) as this same woman pickles her sensibilities with destructive excess of drink. Her family bonds erode, her role as a mother diminishes, her daughter’s love vanishes completely. Between tear-choked gasps we learn that she realizes her folly, but can no more stop the rise of her arm to deliver the bottle to her lips than one could stop the rise of the sun which splits the dark horizon each morning. Alas, the bottle itself is a Monster, a Monster unchallenged! Thus is the eventual immolation of the Monster of the woods a cathartic extinguishing of the “Monster” of the bottle which restores the bond of mother and daughter that had nearly suffocated entirely in a tarn of the cheapest rum.

Dear Reader, I would be remiss if I did not concede that I, your cursed and eternal watcher, too have been ensnared by the intoxicating escape offered by strong drink. Many a poor horror film hath inspired my own arm to deliver the stinging kiss of the bottle until my wits fled my body and a Monstrous oblivion swallowed my being! ‘Tis true!

The aesthetic of this film offers no flamboyance of frivolity; the shadowy woods, the sheets of obfuscating rain, and pale headlights which slice the night all act in black congress to produce an atmosphere of stationary dread and isolation in which we can appreciate the stark delivery of this core metaphor for the battle with alcoholism, the battle against rum. The destructive bouts with the beast who comes crashing from the woods parallel the family’s war with our woman’s alcoholic abuse.    

Ultimately, a number of factors led me to bestow this “B-” to The Monster, which is worthy of your eye, Dear Reader: the design of the foe is all too familiar yet the beast is mighty and imposing still; the confined setting is familiar as well, but the atmosphere is one of constant and naked fear; repetition quickly renders the central metaphor of the film obtuse and obvious, yet there is admirable commitment to this thesis; the direction is superb; the acting and makeup are heart wrenching and real.

 

My Monster too, Dear Reader, is large and black and devilish. An abyss of VHS that threaten to swallow my mind and all!

Needful Things (1993)

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Needful Things: C-

This is a movie based on a Stephen King novel and it has been parodied so many times that even if you have never seen the movie or read the book, you sort of have even if you think you haven’t.

What’s ironic about the movie’s forced familiarity is that the actors populating this film have been typecast so many times in the 90s that you sort of know what they are going to do the whole time. Max von Sydow is in it and you already know he’s playing a devil who deals in haunted antiques; wherever old MvS shows up, you can bet there’s probably some hidden evil afoot. Ed Harris is the hero and, yep, you guessed it: he delivers a powerful monologue while his neck-veins pop out. Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction screeches and gets violent and the asshole mayor from Pleasantville plays an asshole assemblyman.

So we have a movie you have somehow seen starring actors who will somehow do exactly what you think they will. And the movie production and acting are not very good, so the movie is off to a rough fucking start once you get a few minutes in. Speaking of minutes: there are 120 of them in this movie! That’s a full two hours of layered Stephen King predictability; I would have sold my soul to trim this down to 80 minutes.

Also, there are so many characters that it’s hard to care when old MvS puts some Satan Antique Magic on them and they start murdering each other. He reveals he has delighted in stirring up conflicts throughout history that boiled over into some of the world’s most famous and bloody atrocities. Why he suddenly feels the need to use a magic thrift shop to torture and kill a handful of people in Maine remains the movie’s greatest mystery.

I dissed the acting, but Sydow is pretty good, all things considered. He does a great job of switching between Your Friendly Swedish Grandpa and Grandpa Satan Who Sells Evil Antiques. If you disagree, I’d like to see you keep a straight face while you sell Honey Bunny a haunted antique doll and three quarters of your lines are just the worst fucking puns ever.

There are scenes that seriously drag on to the point where you wish Satan would just open up a Hell-fire volcano in the town square and just be done already. There is one scene where Honey Bunny breaks into the Mayor’s house. Watch that scene and ask yourself if it was necessary.

Overall, this is a goofy 90s piece of horror clockwork that isn’t absolutely awful. There is some satisfaction in seeing a story play out predictably, I guess. If you are not a fan of 90s horror schlock or if you don’t have a soft spot for anyone on the cast, maybe avoid this one and see one of the (rarer) good Stephen King movies instead.

Suspiria (1977)

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Suspiria: A

After watching Neon Demon (which I loved) the other day, I had a craving to re-watch Suspiria and it was better than I remembered.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary by praising this movie; its look and sound are cited as inspiration for a ton of American horror “originals” (like Halloween) and this movie is probably what comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of “cult” horror that isn’t piece-of-shit grindhouse exploitation. It has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and I would bet my soul that there are film classes with this on the syllabus. I am not the only person who likes this movie for the reasons I do.

The movie is “about” an American named Suzy who enrolls at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. The director is a witch and the academy is just a front to presumably stock a stable of virgin girls to be sacrificed for Satanic rituals; all the instructors are in on it. In between recitals, the faculty drinks blood and chants and stuff. There are some murders and lightning. That’s pretty much it. The aforementioned plot points happen over and over to the sound of deafening prog-rock while a rotation of primary colors is projected on everything.

The movie is good, but doesn’t have a lot of the things that make a movie “good.”

Like Neon Demon, this movie is more about maintaining a look/feel than about maintaining a plot. There is a saturation of color in this movie that puts Wes Anderson to shame; this is all in the name of atmosphere, not story. The result is a maximizing of emotion/dread while the story, which doesn’t matter at all, hangs in the background. The story doesn’t even make fucking sense. Most of the important exposition comes from a psychologist who wrote a book on the psychology behind being a supernatural entity. Suz tracks him down at a psychology convention, as if this guy who writes about the psychological make-up of witches and demons would be a respected authority somehow! He explains the psychology of witches to Suzy (and the audience) along with everything else that happens in this movie including a detailed history of the until-now hidden/unknown villain, a witch named Helena Markos.

The soundtrack is unique and overpowering. It will remind you of John Carpenter. There are loud synths and scary noises. It absolutely drowns out everything else that’s happening.

I love the characters in this movie. We have The Neo-Nazi Instructor, The Romanian with False Teeth, The Headmistress Who is a Bitch about Everything, The Poor Blind Guy who is Obviously Gonna Die, and many others. However, the acting is pretty awful.Everyone working on the film all spoke different languages, so there are a bunch of scenes where actors literally don’t know what any of their fellow actors are saying, so they just deliver their lines bluntly while trying to look assertive. But they all look great! This is a fitting metaphor for the film.

You gotta see it.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

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In the Mouth of Madness: B

I really enjoy this movie. I have probably seen it ten times and every viewing is a lot of fun.

IMOM is a meta-fictive movie about Sam Neill, who is either a character in a horror novel or a crazy person or both. A worshiped horror author named Sutter Cane (based on Stephen King) writes wildly popular horror fiction filled with terrifying world-eating monsters (based on HP Lovecraft). When Cane goes missing, Neill is enlisted to hunt him down. He somehow travels to a town that exists only in Cane’s books which is populated by a bunch of gross creatures from his body of work.

I like the psychological and reality-questioning elements of the film but they are by no means groundbreaking. The “dream within a dream” jump-scare/misdirection is (probably) overused in this movie and the schizophrenic meta-fictive structure of the film is very Naked Lunch; time and space are messed with a lot and the audience isn’t always clearly notified when this is happening. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. Neil does a great job of slowly losing his mind and all of the rest of the cast (who may or may not be monsters or fictional characters or other crazy people or all of the above) is extremely creepy. Once the film gets going, you sort of get buried in dream sequences up to the point where the wizard behind the curtain “reveal” is kind of anti-climactic because you’ll be all “let me guess, Neil is going to wake up any second now?”

Say what you will about Sam Neill, but the man knows how to convincingly babble/cry like a crazy person.

The make-up is great and there are total homages to other famous works of horror. There is some awful 90s CGI, but there are some Carpenterian practical effects too. All the monsters are like Cthulhu’s relatives and there is a lady who walks upside-down like the girl in The Exorcist. The grandma from Happy Gilmore is in this and she is fucking hilarious.

People like to hate this movie and there are no shortage of anti-IMOM arguments. The movie is like a poster-child for bargain-basement 90s horror, so if you don’t find that genre scary or charming or at least funny, you’ll probably hate the movie. Also, it was directed by John Carpenter, a director who is extremely hit-or-miss for some because of his music and effects. Give it a try and decide for yourself.

Friday the 13th (1980)

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Friday the 13th: B

You already know what this one is all about: Some teens (including young Kevin Bacon) who like to bang each other get together in the woods to spruce up Camp Crystal Lake and they are systematically slaughtered while they try to bang each other. This is (arguably) the father of modern teen cut-em-ups and it’s full of too short cut-off jeans, games of strip-Monopoly, and first-person POV stalking. When people think of corny slashers, the images that come to mind are straight out of this movie, no doubt.

Just because it is one of the originals doesn’t mean it is perfect. I see people going easy on this movie all the time and this has resulted in an inflated collective memory we all have of this not-too-special movie. It’s understandable that this happened; this is a movie that sort of sucks objectively, but has been emulated for 30 years. It is a bad movie that people have used to direct and create good movies. If you don’t consider the “implications” of this movie, you aren’t left with much to praise. It is pretty fun, but not that good. When is the last time you actually watched it?

Mrs. Pam Voorhees is the killer in this one and she is creepy for sure. She’s wearing an adorable sweater that there is a 100% chance your grandma owns as she butchers the shit out of these kids. She isn’t revealed until the end; there’s some misdirection here so you think that, because of all the brutal first-person and the campfire stories, Jason is killing everyone. Nope. It’s Jason’s mom, who is punishing these teens who like to bang each other because some other teens who liked to bang each other were supposed to be watching her son who drowned. She has this split personality tick that makes her talk like her son. “Kill her mommy! Kill her!” It is disturbing.

The murders look alright. Savini was on effects but, again, nothing to stop the presses over. There’s a lot of stabbing here. Stomach stabbing, neck stabbing, chest stabbing. Pam stabs Kevin Bacon with an arrow. It looks slightly better than what other slasher movies were doing around that time, but for the most part, it hasn’t aged well. There is a scene where one of the teens is crucified and impaled with arrows. It looks above average.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the teens find a snake under a bed and they hack it with a machete (killing the snake IRL, fucking assholes). I took a film class in which the instructor insisted this was an important scene and he offered a cornucopia of take-aways: Maybe this is a clever scene that exists to introduce the violent atmosphere of the film. Maybe this is foreshadowing of Mrs. Voorhees’s death by machete. Maybe this scene is supposed to show that these teens are the type to take action and they will fight back. Or (here’s what I think) maybe it’s supposed to be a cheap jump-scare. I don’t really know. It’s not my job to interpret everything for you. But let me know what to make of that snake scene (fucking assholes).

The acting is terrible, not that anyone could possibly care. The teens who like to bang each other are all pretty and look like they belong in a Levis jeans commercial, but their acting would be at home in any grindhouse midnight-movie garbage. They only exist to look physically perfect while banging/dying.

Alice, the “final girl” chops off Mrs. Voorhees’s head with a machete. Jason famously wields a machete for the rest of the franchise. That’s poetic justice I guess. The movie wraps up with Alice waking up in a canoe and one of the most famous jump-scares of all time.

It is sacrilegious in some horror circles to criticize the “13th” franchise at all, so I’m sure someone is crying right now because I didn’t give this movie an A++. Boo-hoo. I also cannot get past the fact that this movie came out shortly after Halloween (which is a good horror movie and a good movie-movie) and the director admits he just wanted to ride the wave of that movie’s success.

I don’t know. I’m a philistine I guess.

The Dead Zone (1983)

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The… Dead, Zone?

The Dead Zone: A-

This is a great horror movie and one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made.

Christopher Walken plays a jolly English teacher who gets in a car accident and goes into a five-year coma. Somehow, this gives him psychic powers. His life is all fucked up because he was comatose all those years and these psychic powers help alienate the few people he has left because they all think he is a ranting wack-o with brain damage.

At the beginning of the movie, he reads “The Raven” to his class (I have audio of him reading the whole poem; so badass) and then assigns Sleepy Hollow (Walken of course, went on to play the Headless Horseman in Burton’s version). I think you are supposed to remember this later in the film. “The Raven” is about a really lonely guy who thinks a bird is bringing him supernatural messages; Sleepy Hollow is about a terrorized English teacher. His character fits well with this: an abandoned English teacher who gets supernatural “visions” of the future, visions that only bring him pain. Walken plays it straight; no garbled Walken-talk or deranged facial expressions.

Walken only uses his powers for good, saving lives and even helping the local sheriff solve a murder case. I like that the movie isn’t about the origin of his superpowers and how they work, but rather about what to do with the power that you have. This Spidermanian theme is at the heart of the film’s conflict: Walken meets a politician named Stillson who is running for senate. Stillson is a real piece of shit (in the book, one of the first things you read about him is this time he killed a dog for fun). In Stillson’s future, he becomes president and authorizes a nuclear holocaust just because he wants to be remembered in history books (depicted in a hilarious scene where Stillson is screaming like a lunatic while some absolutely inappropriate/cartoonish oboe music plays in the background). Stillson seems to “know” that this is his destiny and Walken has to decide if he wants to assassinate this prick or what. So what you get is this guy who only wants to use his powers to help people vs. this guy who wants to use his powers to incinerate people.

Cronenberg directs this movie and but it has zero crazy-Cronenberg carnage. Even though this movie is not saturated in gore and violence, it never seems slow. There is one scene where a guy lethally head-butts a pair of scissors though; what a fucking awful way to end it all.

Ultimately, the developed characters and the theme are what make this movie great. You actually feel really bad for Walken’s character and want him to succeed and you want to choke Stillson the whole time. Watch this if you think you would like a Stephen King thriller that is more about suspense than grotesque monsters.

Fly II (1989)

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“Babies! They’re… BABIES!” – Shredder

Fly II: C+

Man, people are too hard on this movie. Yeah it has its problems. Like, for instance, it’s a fucking horrible movie, but it has a lot going for it too.

The “director” is a badass and I will not hear otherwise. This guy Chris Walas has two questionable horror B-movies under his belt. That and an episode of Tales of the Crypt which, let’s be honest, is a show that sometimes looks like it has no director at all.

BUT (caps lock BUT!) Walas is a special effects genius. The guy did the special effects for some heavy hitters (Gremlins, Arachnophobia, and the original Fly, just to name a few) and then decided to try his hand at directing. It could have been way worse and I am absolutely not knocking him for trying something new. Good for him. The movie has a Cronenberg feel to it because the effects are all gooey and wet and fleshy, and the actors are mostly Canadian oafs. Honestly, I bet if they put Cronenberg’s name on it, the Rotten Tomatoes average would rise by 20%.   

Fly II takes place right after Fly and is basically a “Son of [Monster]” movie. The story begins with a gory birth scene in a delivery room. Except it’s not a baby being delivered; it’s Martin, Jeff Goldbulm’s fly-human offspring, born in a pulsating cocoon.

Marty looks like a regular kid, but we all know he’s full of fly DNA (because, come the fuck on of course he is). He is raised in a lab by a ruthless corporation called BARTOK. A series of workman like exchanges between scientists standing in front of ridiculous computer screens front-loads a ton of exposition about Martin’s genetic instability, accelerated growth, and manipulation at the hands of BARTOK.

Martin’s fly DNA also makes him a genius (because sure, why not?) and he uses BARTOK resources to perfect Goldblum’s teleportation device. While working in the lab late one night, his eyes beheld an eerie sight: Princess Vespa from Spaceballs, whom he promptly falls in love with. Also, his fly DNA kicks in or matures or whatever and he starts doing the same shit you saw in the first movie: getting all gross and puking and oozing all over his Canadian denim.

Martin realizes BARTOK only wants him so they can monetize his crazy fly DNA and he throws a tantrum and escapes for a while but is finally captured when he forms a cocoon to finalize his transformation. BARTOK goes full Bond villain and assigns a single squeamish doctor to monitor Martin (the hibernating super-dangerous/strong fly mutant who could wake at any moment) in a room with all the doors unlocked.

When Martin wakes up and goes on his killing spree, it’s pretty fun and you get to see many of your favorite 80’s horror archetypes get slaughtered: There’s the overzealous head of security, the heartless scientist, the evil CEO, etc. The final battle scenes are really cliche; Martin does all the old Xenomorph monster tricks like hanging on the ceiling and secreting acid, but all the carnage looks great. Martin himself looks just okay, sort of like Tokka from TMNT II if someone set him on fire and melted him a little.

We get a ton of mangled bodies, some faces/limbs melting off, varying degrees of a grotesque Fly transformation, and a head getting squashed by an elevator all designed by a talented effects virtuoso who is a little weak in the direction/story department. Watch this movie if you want to watch an effects master enjoy himself. Immortal cinema this ain’t.

Horsemen (2008)

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Don’t.

Horsemen: D

Back when I worked at the video store, we would always get these awful straight-to-DVD movies that were trying to shamelessly capitalize on whatever the hot new releases were. When Transformers came out, we got Transmorphers. When Alien vs. Predator came out, we got Monster vs. Hunter. There was a never ending trickle of these knock-offs and all of them were the most horrible of horribles. I guess you can always count on people to be desperate or careless or both, because these movies would fly off the fucking shelves. What a business model!

Well, if Alan Quartermain and The Temple of Skulls is a poor man’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then Horsemen is a poor man’s Se7en.

In Horsemen, the writers played “Anti-Hero Cop Bingo” and created Detective Dennis Quaid, a poor man’s Brad Pitt, who enjoys ignoring his family in favor of work, drinking, not shaving, and hitting his punching bag a little too much because he takes his job a little too personally.

The whole movie is about Detective Dennis Quaid examining meticulously staged murder scenes that all seem to have cryptic links to Bible passages. But not passages about the Seven Deadly Sins; that was Se7en, dummy! The passages in Horsemen are about the Four Horsemen! He doesn’t find his wife’s head in a boooooooooox or anything, but his family does get a little mixed up in this crazy kinda-plagiarized bullshit!   

Instead of one bald wack-o with a room full of composition books, the villains in this movie are a cult of death-worshipers. One of them gets captured and you have to watch multiple scenes with her and Detective Dennis Quaid in the police interrogation room where he utilizes an arsenal of psychological interrogation techniques like asking obvious direct questions, losing his temper, and getting bullied by the suspect. If you give a shit about intricacies of the story, watch these scenes because the interrogation room is really the exposition room.    

The dead bodies are the best actors. Some of them are dissected and impaled and hanging off of sex-swing/meathook contraptions and they are all more believable than any of the dialogue/scenarios that involve living people in this film. I will give the movie props for using some practical effects and creativity in their presentation of human charcuterie. Detective Dennis Quiad’s looks of disgust during these scenes are especially relatable, because that’s how my face looked for most of the movie.  

That’s where the props end. Overall, this movie is a bog of unoriginality that is a natural byproduct of the hype surrounding those Biblical conspiracy movies like The Da Vinci Code.