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Creature Features in Review: Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare was a movie ahead of its times. In that I mean, the way the story was told, the significance of something we make-believe into being real (knowing it is actually fictional) and having it given back to us as this make-believe thing made real by our own imagination. That was kind of the genius of Craven’s New Nightmare. Freddy wasn’t real, but we pretended he was, as we do with all characters we watch on the big screen, small screen, or even in print, and yes even the horrorish ones. New Nightmare played on that, trapping the imaginative character Freddy in the make-believe world until the “movies” ended and thus releasing the bonds that kept imagination captive. Suddenly Freddy is real because WE made him real. Very clever, if you sit for a spell and think about it. Unfortunately, much like Jason Goes to Hell, audiences, and fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street series were expecting…well…what they have been accustomed to and not this metaphysical metaphor of fantasy meets reality through a sort of cognitive mythological construct. Not all movies fall prey to being ahead of their time. Take 2011’s Cabin in the Woods as a perfect example of the right kind of out of the box thinking movie coming out at the right moment in our social environment, which is to say at the very least uncertain.

Cabin in the Woods

By: Jeremy Flagg

I was raised on 80’s slasher films. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween filled my nights, and as an adolescent, they may have altered my childhood. However, these classic horror films provided ample education. I learned at an early age, you never separate from your friends, you never skinny dip, you never get drunk, and by all means, never lose your virginity in a sketchy locale. While a multitude of movies have attempted to recreate these classic tactics of terror, few have ever lived up to the original.

In walk Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard with Cabin in the Woods.

Horror movies have a recipe. With an ample suspension of disbelief, a movie builds tension, redirects our fear, and then in a moment of complacency, it scares. This recipe is repeated with variation for a little over an hour and somehow, at the end, our “final girl” perseveres by eliminating the big bad. We are put again into suspense as the credits end and claws emerge, or a hand rises from the grave, or a mask is picked up. There is a formula we’ve grown comfortable with, when it is tampered with, we get uneasy. However, Cabin in the Woods examines this formula, uses it, stomps on it, laughs at it, uses it again, and at the end, we’re left blinking in an entertained disbelief.

It starts with scientists talking about child safety cabinets and how only they and Japan remain viable options. What? Isn’t Cabin in the Woods a movie about a group of people going on a mini vacation to a vacant cabin in the middle of the, well, woods? Cue title scene and then onto the movie we expect.  A fun flirty vibe, filled with sunshine, dreams and the need for relaxation. We have all the expected character tropes necessary to make a mediocre horror film; the jock, the overachiever, the stoner, the sexy girl and the kind of nice guy who we instantly forget is in the movie. Everything about this post screams “middle of the road.” Or does it?

True to form, we’re ten minutes into the film and the group of soon to be killed young adults have met the old man who gives foreboding advice. However, in every scene, we see a hint of something. A man following them reports to his superiors. The old man makes a phone call asking for approval. A flying eagle crashes into an unseen wall. A room in the cabin holds a one-way mirror. There is a horror movie laid on top of something, perhaps a conspiracy? We’re barely into the movie and we already know we’re being played with and it’s not being subtle. Are we seeing hints of a twist? It must be a twist because goodness knows every movie has to have an obnoxious twist at the end. That’s how horror is done.

As the screen zooms out, we realize the scientists are watching the five young adults. Wait, that’s not how horror goes? These goons are watching them, luring them into this horrific situation. Lowering inhibitions with chemicals and increasing their libido, we have no idea to what end, but we know they’re setting them up for disaster. It’s only made more comical as they take bets on how the group will die. We have no idea why this is happening, but we know that the scientists can only lead them to a dangerous situation. The group must begin the catalyst that will set them up for death.

Now let’s recap, cause from here on out something serious changes in this movie. We know it’s a horror movie. We know the scientists are setting the scene for this horror movie. We know death is coming, but we’re still not entirely sure why. As they are led to the basement where a variety of talismans and treasures are stored, we discover they will choose their fate. Zombie redneck tortured family. Meanwhile, a similar fate is befalling a group of Japanese school children, a scenario competing with our movie for victims.

The movie adds a new element, horror movie as a spectator sport. However, the darker, and even more genius aspect is that we, the viewer are part of the movie. Much like the scientists watching their hidden cameras, we are rooting for the body count to begin. As danger looms on the horizon, we are hoping for a massacre. We want those partaking in dangerous activities such as drinking, drugs, or sex to fall victim to the classic horror deaths. And when the sex kitten is about to pull off her blouse, we want her to die. Then she resists and plays coy and we, along with a room full of watching spectators groan. Then science jumps in, releasing a pheromone mist.

Wait, does this potentially explain why in every horror movie stupid stuff happens? Were deranged scientists aiding Jason and those campers were all just victims of a mastermind game player? Did chemicals being pumped into the bedrooms of teenagers bring on Freddy as a hallucination? I’m left pondering if everything I’ve been told is a lie. But wait, I’ll worry about that later, because redneck zombies are about to start killing people. Did I just cheer? Maybe.

!!! Spoilers Below !!!

As redneck pain-loving zombies achieve their first kill (a girl about to get her groove on) we’re introduced to a new piece of the puzzle. Somehow, the scientists are culling the blood of the victims in some sort of ceremonial effort. Our next clue comes from the drug-addled hippy that is so used to altering his mind, the chemicals created by the scientists do little to affect him. Cue more classic death scenes, often times paired with comedic lines from the viewers in the bunker of scientists. When the victims refuse to split up, scientists manipulate the scene forcing the classic tropes to align to their 80’s horror counterpart.

Cabin in the Wood teaches us that a healthy addiction to Weed can save us in a horror movie.

The movie gets, even more, meta as the remaining two survivors find themselves in an elevator going down into the bunker hidden beneath the cabin. Locked in cages, we see a variety of classic horror monsters. Werewolves, giant bat things, even a unicorn are kept in cages, waiting to be called upon to slay the innocent. As the fool, our high-as-a-kite unlikely hero and the virgin unleash havoc on the underground bunker, releasing hordes of b-rate horror atrocities, we find ourselves cheering on the death yet again. We’re not quite right in the head.

As the final showdown begins, we’re not given a Final Girl showdown of immense proportions. Sigourney Weaver says that if the heroes live, they will destroy the world. The heroes, the ones we’ve been rooting for, either die, or we all die. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed or I commend them as they decide to live, thereby destroying the world. But, you know, it happens.

The snappy dialogue mixed with this meta look at horror creates something entirely new to the genre. We find ourselves cheering on the heroes, only to condemn them, and wanting more mayhem. We learn quickly that we, the viewers of this disaster, are really quite twisted. Most of all, we’re really excited that we got to watch a unicorn slaughter a man. At the start of the review, you had no idea a unicorn would be whom we cheered on. Cause you know, it’s a horror movie.

Jeremy Flagg is no stranger to Machine Mean, having reviewed for us Final Girls during our Freight Fest series, he also is the author of the CHILDREN OF NOSTRADAMUS dystopian science fiction series and SUBURBAN ZOMBIE HIGH young adult humor/horror series. Taking his love of pop culture and comic books, he focuses on fast paced, action packed novels with complex characters and contemporary themes. For more information about Jeremy, visit www.remyflagg.com.

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Double Feature Review: Get Out/ The Belko Experiment

I don’t think I’ve seen so many new horrors as I have this year. AND IT’S ONLY MARCH!!! I’m not going to list off all of them, as at this time in the morning hours with only one cup of coffee to keep my brain functioning, cannot recall. Though some honorable mentions are due. XX, a 4 film horror anthology directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, was a stellar performance, despite some notes falling flat. Another one that was actually listed as a 2016 movie, but I saw in January, so it counts on my list for this year, and that flick was Split…which split critics while still bringing in rather respectable ratings from audiences, not just because it released (late Dec?) in January (the month movies go to die), but also because it was a return of sorts for M. Night Shyamalan. This last movie brings up a point that I’d like to address. Maybe I haven’t really been paying close enough attention, but when did Blumhouse start producing good horror movies? And back to back, mind you. As per our double feature review here of Get Out and The Belko Experiment (more on those to follow), add in Split, and that’s two out of three money making horror movies for the apparently expanding horror flick producer. No complaints here. Blumhouse’s wheelhouse has added a sort of balance for me and my comic book movie obsession. So…lets get into this and take a look at two horror flicks, both of which I had the pleasure of screening on back to back weekends.

Let’s kick things off with The Belko Experiment.

Produced by, you guessed it, Blumhouse, directed by Greg McLean. From IMDb, “In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed.” I think it’s important to note that the screenplay was written by Guardian of the Galaxy director James Gunn who was originally asked to direct this movie but decided to step back for personal reasons. This was the most recent horror flick I’d gone to theaters to see, mostly out of having some free time come up and why not, right. I had a good feeling the theater would be empty and it pretty much was. Not for lack of trying for the producers. I’d seen a share number of advertisements both on the radio and on TV. And judging by said previews, the plot wasn’t hard to decipher. This wasn’t one of those kinds of movies. Here, there was no twist ending, and if the ending was supposed to be one, well…sorry buddy, I believe Joss Whedon already pulled it off in Cabin in the Woods. Not to get spoilerly here, as this is still showing in theaters. But you’ll get it when you see it, a very Cabin in the Woods kinda vibe. And that’s also not to say that Th Belko Experiment was bad. I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t have to think too much. It was a dark humorous action thriller with plenty of gore to please most horror fans. There were a few aahhs and ohhs from the audience when someone’s face got split in two with an ax, or when someone who’d been doing all the right things in a horror movie suddenly without much warning gets killed.   

That can kinda sum up The Belko Experiment. A boiling pot of other movies and mixtures such as Office Space meets Battle Royal meeting Cabin in the Woods. People who came looking for a mystery to solve probably left feeling disappointed, as it seems many other movie critics and audiences had, given the poor showing on Rotten Tomatoes or how it was pretty much cast into the back of the theater on opening day. Hell, the theater I normally go had stopped showing it, forcing me to drive an extra five miles to the next theater. Bastards! For me, I knew before the movie started what it was going to be. I knew there’d be one or no survivors. I came for the nihilistic violence and nihilistic violence is what I got. The Belko Experiment wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. The story seemed to falter against the easy to predict concept of the film. Too much attention was given to certain officer works battling internally over the dilemma of their humanity. I think if producers and director had turned the volume up on the violence, making it a sort of hyper-violent nihilistic movie, it would have been a shade better.

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Now…how about we Get Out.

It’s been two weeks since I saw Get Out. And while the movie had been out for at least a week if not more before I journeyed to the theater, if there were any doubts as to its popularity, let me say…my theater was not empty. Not at all. I’m rather certain it was plum full. The same happened to me when I saw Split. Packed theater. And for a horror movie no less, whether you liked the movie or not, should make you a little optimistic about the future of the genre, if you’re a genre fan, that is. Get Out was directed and written by comedian Jordan Peele (from Key & Peele and Wanderlust fame). And this was Peeles first go at directing, or directing a horror flick at the least. I can say without question that I wish upon a star that he returns to the director’s chair for another romp. For those who do not know, Get Out is about “a young African-American man who visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s mysterious family estate.” And that’s pretty much all you need to know. The plot is rather simple, actually. But the twist…oh my, it is almost too good.

Don’t worry. No spoilers here. I’d wouldn’t do that to you. But let me say for those who were told or believe that Get Out is an anti-white movie, you are DEAD WRONG. They (or you) couldn’t be furthest from the truth. In fact, I’d say this movie pokes more fun at white liberals than staunch racists. Racism is there, you can’t avoid it, just as you cannot avoid it in everyday life. But the real gem of this movie is the natural way it highlights the awkwardness between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. The scenes dealing with this phenomena are quite brilliant. And there are layers are weirdness that can only be described as such. And there are scenes that make little sense and/or do not add to the quality of the movie, nor do they take anything away. They’re kinda just….well…there. I’m assuming Peele’s way of appealing to traditional horror flick fans.

Also, don’t be fooled by those espresso hipsters, those fascist wannabes who think they know everything. Get Out is a horror movie in every definition. Just as there are multiple ways of horrifying audiences, when Get Out pulled out its heart-stopping end, I was truly terrified. When I allow myself to be put in his shoes and those who came before him, well…it kinda reminded me of some terrifyingly strange classic sci-fi flicks from the late 50s and 60s, with perhaps a touch of H.P. Lovecraft. Not to show my hand or anything, I’m trying not to spoil as the movie is still showing in theaters. You really do need to see this for yourself. Trust me. I had the assumption of what was going on and when I found out I was wrong, I was very surprisingly pleased. And it’s one of those surprise endings that make you think back over the course of the movie, and when you do, you’ll nod your head and say, “Oh, that’s why…” etc. etc. Get Out is by far my favorite horror movie of the year, thus far.

My rating: 5 of 5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of character-driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, and his newest release, The Hobbsburg Horror. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange events by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Creature Features in Review: Critters (1986)

Watch the skies! Keep your family close. A new terror is invading our world. They are…KRITES…no wait, sorry, CRITTERS…yeah, definitely that! If you’re a nerd, such as myself, then you are probably aware of such a movie called “Critters,” and the three other sequels that followed. Critters is not the first horror-comedy to grace this Creature Features series, but at the same time, it is something quite unique. When you think “monster movies” you kinda assume something like gigantic lizards that breath fire, or mutant genetically altered insects, or maybe even meteor shit that turns out to be some sort of alien slug that turns people into a mess of zombified conglomerated flesh. But when we get catch phrases like, “They bite,” and “When you got Critters, you need all the help you can get,” we sort of don’t know what to think. Is this movie serious? Or is it pure spoof comedy? Is it even horror? On one spectrum, you’ve got Roger Ebert giving this flick a thumbs up back in 1986 while on the other hand sporting a meager 43% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some critics have called Critters “Gremlins on acid,” (MovieHole) while others have said that “Critters [is] a franchise [that] has nothing on the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but it’s proven popular enough with Gen X-ers who forward ‘You know you’re a child of the ’80s if…’ emails to all their office mates” (Slate Magazine.) So what is it about Critters that appeals to some while turns away others?

Let’s take this one step at a time.

To get us started, here is a wonderful synopsis by our friends over at IMDb:

“A race of small, furry aliens make lunch out of the locals in a farming town.”

BRAVO!!!! Okay, well, my work here is done, folks. Furry aliens make lunch…oh, you can’t get any better than that people, that is pure gold. Well, as pure usual, they aren’t wrong. Here’s what I got while watching the movie for the…jeez…I don’t know, maybe twentieth time maybe? Somewhere around there. As our heroes over at IMDb pointed out, yes, furry aliens do make lunch, but as the New Line Cinema bold red screen appears, one Nightmare on Elm Street fans should recognize with a sense of glee, the screen opens on a giant space rock that so happens to also be a prison. We don’t really get to see much here, just a bunch of dialogue going on off screen. Supposedly, a violent criminal species known as Krites are being transported to the facility. Right away we’re told they “eat everything.” Just as my Magic 8-Ball predicted, the Krites escape the facility by stealing a space vessel and take off toward planet Earth. Here we get little (get it?) glimpses of the Krites, their claws and hear their language which has been thankfully translated for us via closed captioning.

The warden on this highly secured prison, who looks like the Caterpiller from Alice in Wonderland, hires “the bounty hunters” to track down these fiendish hungry villains and dispatch them. And it’s around here when the screen opens on a quaint small farm in a quiet small town. Nothing much to hate about this place. We’ve got our A typical American breed family. Pa and Ma and big sister and little mischevious bro Brown. A stark difference to the science fiction space opera going on in the beginning. Here we’ve got one of the most overused and iconic of horror and sci-fi backdrops, the American farming town. But given the opening, there’s already a feeling of helter skelter. What are we watching? Horror or sci-fi? Is this ET or “Gremlins on acid?” I have no idea, but I do know one thing, we’ve got  Dee Wallace, ET’s Henry Thomas’s mother in nearly the same dubious role as the harried Ma Brown of young Brad Brown (played by Scott Grimes who I believed was actually a younger Judd Nelson), our plucky kid hero who goes to battle against these Krites; Critter invaders.

Several scenes play out as we patiently wait for what we really came here to see. Aliens eating people and GORE. Spoiler: the latter you’re not going to get much of, sorry. My biggest concern watching this film was regarding young Brad. Now, yes, we all adore the stereotypical young boy who loves fireworks and plays with M-80s, whistlin’ bungholes, spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, scooter stick, and whistlin’ kitty chasers. But good God man, this kid is packing more than your typical firecracker. This thing is a bomb. His father reprimands him, also looking a bit weary about his son’s interest in explosives. Later, we see Brad sent to his room where he has a workbench of destruction and assembles what looks a lot like a stick of dynamite. Seriously, where are this kid’s parents?

Two highlights soon follow. Billy Zane and Bill Zane’s death. More on that to follow. Zane must have been just starting out acting when Critters came along. He looks quite young and only has a few lines. I did like that they made the big sister and girlfriend of Zane’s (played by Canada’s sweetheart Nadine Van der Velde) as the promiscuous one. She’d practically dragging young Zane up into the loft where she has prepared a sort of love nest, complete with 80s jams. Earlier, when Pa learns of his daughter’s new New York city boyfriend, he quickly asks his wife if they’ve had the talk on “how things are.” Jeez, I can only imagine what that talk as about consider sister Brown’s later behavior. But hey, who am I to judge the phenomenal romance of teenage love?

As far as horror movies go. I do not think this is such. This wasn’t horrifying. Even the going into the basement scary scene wasn’t really scary. It’s hard to be scared with Gremlin sized furballs cracking jokes in some strange intergalactic language. That’s not to say Critters wasn’t good. Critters is actually a fun movie to watch. The characters are not deep or complex, but their motivations are easy to understand and thus we do not have to invest a lot of brain power with them. Just as with the plot, though seemingly complex with the beforementioned space opera, it’s actually an oversimplification of several movies that came out in the space of 1986. Critters is without a doubt “Gremlins on acid,” it’s also got a touch of The Terminator with the machine-like bounty hunters and the garb they wear. And director Stephen Herek (director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is not shy poking fun at ET. There’s a great scene with one of the Krites talking with a stuffed ET doll, yelling “Who are you!” And then ripping the doll’s head off. Looking back at Herek’s resume, it’s easy to see that he is mostly a fan of light hearted-humored movies. He wants to have fun and that mood is clearly carried throughout the film.

One of my favorite scenes involves Dee Wallace versus one the Critters that attack the family while they are retreating back into their house from the porch. The family gets back inside, and out on the porch one Critter turns to the other and warns that they “have weapons.” His Critter buddy replies, “So what?” Dee Wallace sticks out the barrel of her shotgun through the door and blows the “so what” Critter into goo. his buddy turns to his dispatched friend and screams “Fuck!” in his own intergalactic language, shown to use again by that marvelous closed captioning. It’s little moments like this sprinkled throughout the movie that makes Critters fun and funny to watch.

Oh, I also forgot. This town, as the sheriff (played by the fantastic M. Emmet Walsh) was quick to say, is a circus, and just like any good or decent circus, it comes complete with its very own town drunk/alien conspiracy nut/minor-leaguye baseball washout by the name of Charlie (played by Don Keith Opper). Charlie is quick to predict the arrival of the aliens, either by the feelings in his fillings or by dumb luck, the latter more like, and fumbles his way throughout the entire movie, stepping up at the very end by lofting a molotov cocktail into the alien spacecraft, destroying it and the creatures inside, thus saving the day. What I liked more about the end was the utter “fuck you” given by the Krites as they attempt to flee, firing a laser on the American Dream, portrayed in this movie with the Brown’s farm house, blowing brick and wood and shingles to smithereens. It’s usually in moments like this when I begin to formulate any possible meanings or questions the movie and or director are trying to convey. Seeing the destruction of the “American Dream” begs the question of what’s most important to us, was the “Dream” a lie all along? Was keeping the family together the most important part and that even when you’ve done everything right you will not necessarily get to ride off into the sunset?

Well…as I was pondering these questions I had believed the movie was asking, the preverbal reset button was pushed and the house rebuilt itself via a device given to Brad as a “thank you” from the aliens. In seconds, the house is restored to its original glory. Watching this and then seeing the credits roll I was left somewhat dumb stuck. Did the director just punk me, as I image he punked countless over movie reviewers before me? Maybe.

Regardless, Critters is certainly a classic film, one that kids of the 80’s without a doubt share in email and threads on social media as one of those flicks that defined an era. The mood was lighthearted, and despite certain scenes with F-bombs being dropped, I’d say Critters is family friendly. Could they have upped the gore and blood and violence and made this sucker even more of a satire than what it turned out to be? I think I would have loved it even more! But the lack of blood and guts doesn’t deter me from enjoying some 1980s nostalgia.

My rating: 4/5

Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo, and his latest release, THE HOBBSBURG HORROR. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging (coming soon) are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a Bachelor’s in History. He blogs here at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Fright Fest: Parents (1989)

 

parentspsoterIt’s my personal opinion that the phrase ‘cult classic’ is overused. It’s a phrase often applied to movies that are mainstream successes, purely because they happen to be a bit odd. For example, I find labeling anything David Lynch has been involved in from Twin Peak on as ‘cult’ just… well, wrong. I like David Lynch’s work, a lot, as it happens. But cult? Dude’s a mainstream success, albeit one who has managed to do that without compromising his artistic vision. Which is utterly awesome, and all respect and praise due.

But it’s not cult.

Cult, IMO, needs to be small. Obscure. Flawed. If everyone on your friend’s list has heard of it, it’s not cult. It’s just a cool thing you like.

And basically, I’m not a cult guy. My ear isn’t to the ground enough for that – I’m too busy failing to  skim off the cream of the mainstream offerings out there, in any popular culture genre, to have any realistic chance of finding some deserving second or third tier band or movie or TV show to enjoy. By the time I come across something, in other words, it’s generally by the above definition no longer cult – it’s broken out, reached a critical mass, if you can dig it. It may have been ‘cult’, but by the time I find it, chances are good it’s graduated simply to ‘classic’.

Except then, they’re Parents.

Parents released back in 1989. It was made for $3 million and grossed $870,500 box office. It got a brief US DVD release, and so far none at all in the UK. It stars Randy Quaid, in I think his best screen performance, and probably no-one else you’ve heard of. And by sheer fluke, I saw it on TV in the UK, as part of a horror movie season on one of the broadcast networks – BBC2 or C4.

parents

Now, Parents is undeniably a goofy movie. It’s set in the 50’s, in whitebread suburbia, and that’s an inherently goofy setting. Randy Quaid, is, well, Randy Quaid, and though he exhibits a level of restraint in this film that becomes actively creepy, there’s still an essentially goofy quality to, well, him.

The brilliance of Parents is how it recognizes a great but underexplored aesthetic truth – goofy is only a very thin sliver away from creepy.

I mean, think about it for a second and it immediately makes sense. Grotesque is what happens when you twist caricature up just another half inch. Turn the volume up to eleven on an old cartoon and the distorted sound will become harsh, grating. The tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.

That said, I’m struggling to think of a movie that gets and exploits this better than Parents.

parents2

It start’s with Quaid, for me. That 50’s buzz cut, the serious glasses, and his early, misplaced humor with his son. It’s a brilliant performance, by turns utterly buttoned down, the kind of icy calm that makes you instinctively nervous, through to behavior so exaggerated past comedy it turns into creepy, without ever landing on ‘normal functioning human’. When we look back of the culture and advertising of the 50’s, there’s an inherent eerie, pod person aspect to it these days, especially when it comes to the rigid enforcement of gender norms, and totalitarian representation of the nuclear family as the irreducible final form of society, of humanity. Parents nails that vibe perfectly, creating a suburban environment where every smile looks like an upside down scream, where the perpetual sheen of sweat on Dennis Quaid’s forehead seems to give the lie to his preternaturally calm voice – and yes, where the increasing insistence of Michael’s parents that he eat up the unidentified meat they serve him for dinner takes on an almost screamingly sinister tone, even as the actual words and actions could as easily be those of exasperated parents as… well… as what, exactly?

It’s not clear, of course, and it remains unclear for most of the film’s 81 minutes running time. It’s the internet age, so you can look it up if you want, but I’m not going to spoil it here, and my firm advice is that you shouldn’t either, if by the end of this you decide to give the film a spin (spoilers: you should ). One of the reasons I think this movie deserves far more attention and love than it gets is precisely the way in which it spins out the central tension of what, exactly, the hell is going on in this family, well past the point where most movies would have come down on one side or the other.

parents3

A lot of that ambiguity is possible because of the kid. Michael, played by Bryan Madorsky, is about as far from a Hollywood leading child actor as you could have found in ‘89 (though he wouldn’t have been out of place one of the gangs in Stranger Things). He’s a quiet, shy, pale, awkward kid, with a vivid imagination that leads to some fairly spectacular nightmares. These sequences are beautifully shot, and yeah, they are a lot less impressive post The Shining, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still effective. Steal from the best, and all that.

Beyond the very good, and occasionally actually brilliant direction, the kid turns in a superb performance. Mirroring the wider ambiguity of what the hell is (or is not) going on with his parents, Michael is straddling that line between quiet and withdrawn, imaginative and disturbed (as I write that last, I wonder if that even is a line, or just positive and negative spins on the same phenomenon). He’s certainly a misfit, which in the hyper-conformist atmosphere of the 50’s setting places the viewer in a constant state of anxiety for his wellbeing. This is further amplified by intentionally showing us a sequence where his parent’s behavior is understandable to the viewer but incomprehensible to him, further fueling his imagination and nightmares, and for the audience heightening our anxiety as to what the truth of his situation might be.

The other strength, for me, is the movie doesn’t cop out. It plays out the tension as long as it can – indeed far further than most movies would dare to – but ultimately, the ambiguity is utterly dissolved, leading to a final fifteen minutes of high-stress horror. Again, the cast performances in this sequence are brilliant, as are many of the directorial decisions – the film didn’t have a massive budget, but some very imaginative choices with camera positioning and movement really help elevate some of the closing scenes.

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In summary, Parents is a movie long overdue a critical reappraisal – it’s a smartly made, well acted, quirky horror movie, and one where most of the horror is based on psychological tension, generated by the potential gap between the kid’s perception of the world and reality. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not a gore fest, but if you’re a fan of 80’s horror in general, and this one passed you by, I think you could do a lot worse than treating yourself by hunting it down and checking it out.

If for no other reason than it unambiguously qualifies for the title ‘cult classic’. And it’s probably the only one I’ll ever be able to recommend. 🙂

PS – If you HAVE seen the movie, and want to hear me in conversation with a couple of other film enthusiasts pulling the movie apart in gleeful detail (including some quite dark suppositions about what the central themes might be metaphors for), check out They Must Be Destroyed On Sight! Podcast episode 70 http://tmbdos.podbean.com/e/tmbdos-episode-70-tommy-1975-parents-1989/ . In fact, check them out anyway. They’re brilliant.

 

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bridehere.

And as always, if you enjoyed what you’ve read here on Machine Mean, please subscribe to our author mailing list by clicking on the FREE BOOKimage below to not only receive updates on sales and new releases, but also a free anthology of dark fiction.

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Universal Monsters in review: The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

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On today’s agenda, we bring you, The Mummy’s Hand (1940), directed by Christy Cabanne and produced by Ben Pivar. Another first screening for me on this journey through the classic Universal Monster pictures. Thus far, we’ve seen the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, and even one of the famed Abbott and Costello flicks, as well as some of the lesser knowns, the sequels to the great pillars of horror. Last week, we had Dracula’s Daughter, which turned out to be a direct sequel from the original film. On this episode, we’ll take a closer look at a movie I doubt many have seen, unless they count themselves among the shuffling, perhaps even undead, prolific Universal aficionados. If you have, bravo. And I hope you enjoy the review. If you haven’t, well, read on and decide for yourself if this of many Universal Monster movies would be something you fancy yourself watching on a dark night during a thunder storm. The Mummy’s Hand was one of my personal picks when contacting fellow writers and bloggers to help with this monumental task of reviewing Universal’s macabre lexicon. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. It is strange for me to say, the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters, especially considering how most of my published work thus far has focused on creating my own Wolfman’s and Frankenstein’s (though as a side-note and shameless self promotion, stay tuned for later this year when one my stories with my very own version on the Mummy gets published, wink wink). Regardless, the story of the Mummy is fascinating, to me at least. And I’m thinking on the boundaries of the Boris Karloff version, the brooding Imhotep willing to suffer live burial and a cursed death for his betrothed Anck-su-namun. With today’s adaptation, The Mummy’s Hand shares many similar attributes equally as it likewise differs wildly.

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Here’s a quick fire synopsis to get us all on the same page.

In Cairo, amateur wannabe archaeologist Steve Banning (played by the very stoic but still fantastic Dick Foran) discovers a vase at a local market with his good pal Babe (played by funny man Wallace Ford), which he believes could lead them to the ancient tomb of Princess Ananka. Steve contacts his colleague Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge) who believes, like Steve, the vase is a map to the tomb of Ananka. However, unknown to Steve and Dr. Petrie, fellow professor of Cairo Museum Andoheb (played by the steely eyed George Zucco), who happens to also be the High Priest of Karnac, a cult order of priests who hold the secrets of Karas, a mummy (played by future spaghetti western star Tom Tyler) who guards Ananka’s tomb. He attempts to persuade them the vase is a fake. When that fails, throughout the movie, he does everything he can to thwart the excavation of the ancient crypt. However, upon receiving funds from magician Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter, Marta (the famous Peggy Moran), Steve, his sidekick Babe, and the Solvanis, embark on an expedition to the grave site, where Karas awaits slumbering. Andoheb is then forced to summon the shambling corpse to keep the Hills of the Seven Jackals (or some such nonsense) and the Temple of Ananka safe from outside encroachment, because, as every fan of Mummy movies knows, while science may reveal some secrets, there are other truths which must forever remain unknown. 

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I’m not going to sugar coat my review here, and up front I want to be honest that I had some wild expectations when walking into this movie. Mostly because of my love for the Karloff version, and secondly because of my fascination with the mythos itself, and third, I’d heard or read somewhere the film was actually quite horrifying. And while I will not argue there are some rather dark and terrifying scenes, especially during close-ups of the Mummy when it looks as if the creature has hollowed out eyes, I’d say The Mummy’s Hand was far from being a true horror movie. If I had to categorize the film, it’d be right next to the Abbott and Costello pictures that would eventually release in the mid thru late 40s. The comedy, while at times actually humorous and well blended, did not seem to mesh well with the entire scope of the film. The relationship between Steve and Babe felt as if I was indeed watching an infant version of Bud and Lou. Perhaps, in retrospect, maybe my critique is due to my expectations, after all, the Karloff version had absolutely zero comedy and was altogether serious, due more or less to the decade of depression than anything else. Still, I found more things jarring then I did entertaining. Here are a few of my least favorite things about The Mummy’s Hand:

  1. Reboot. Yup, pretty much is. Sure, they changed the names, but the first scene backstory is pretty much a shot-for-shot of the story of Imhotep attempting to bring to life Anck-su-namun. Getting caught. And being buried alive. They simply replaced Karloff with Tyler. Some of the scenes actually look identical to the original. To me, this is lazy story telling.
  2. Full moon? What is the deal with everything involving a full moon with this movie? If I wanted a werewolf I’d watch something with Lon Chaney Jr. in it. This is the Mummy for crying out loud! And the moon is never really fully fleshed out, just given random references from the supporting cast, something about an elixir given to the “sleeping” mummy every full moon or something like that to keep him alive, or rather, undead. And then there was something about Jackals or whatever. And of course, who can forgive the Bela ripoff as the former high priest paraphrases Dracula with a “children of the night” quote. Ugh!
  3. Motivation. When writing characters, one must make them believable, the reader or audience must understand the motivation of the characters. They don’t have to agree with them, but the motivations must be plausible. I was actually able to follow along with The Mummy’s Hand through half of the movie. Yes, I get it. Steve got canned from the university and is looking prove himself as an budding archaeologist. Andoheb wants to protect the tomb in which the greedy men and woman are attempting to “steal the secrets,” and after watching them sledgehammer and manhandle their way into the tomb, I don’t blame the guy, seriously! Regardless, when the mummy starts taking them out, one by one, and we can certainty cheer during these brief moments of horror, the motivation of the mummy seems dull. The mummy obeys because it wants the elixir? Really, that’s what you’re going with? And what the heck is going on when the mummy kidnaps Marta, aka Peggy Moran? Okay, we can probably chock it up to a classic monster trope, but why, oh why is Andoheb suddenly attracted to her? He plans on making them both immortal, because, as he says, she is so beautiful. While the Elixir of Immortality is an interesting concept, it was very really played up enough in the movie for it to become a prime motivation for the story. It made zero sense.
  4. Babe straight up murderers an unarmed Andoheb and nothing is said about it or comes about.
  5. Category. I’m really not sure how to categorize this film. Is it a black comedy, is it horror, or is it something of a noir film as it seemed most of everyone was costumed in those sleek fedoras. Or maybe the film was a hybrid horror, comedy, spaghetti-western (the ending will explain this for you, six-shooters and all, and noting how pretty much the entire cast went on to make a dozen of those grainy wagon wheel movies).

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Certainly, there was plenty wrong with The Mummy’s Hand. I had expected serious horror and got instead a strange brew (no pun intended) of dark comedy and noir-western. However, we cannot discredit the film as being both moderately entertaining and a member of the Universal Monster classics. Watching the film for a second time, I did everything I could to remove all expectation and truly found myself enjoying the movie more than during my first screening. Some of the issues cannot be ignored, but altogether The Mummy’s Hand was still a monster movie, and in of itself had inspired later monster pictures, including a very reminiscent 1959 Hammer film titled simple, The Mummy starring both Peter Crushing and Christopher Lee (but in all honesty, Hammer did it waaaaaay better). The comedy of Wallace Ford (also marvelous in Tod Browning’s Freaks) playing the part of Babe was fantastic, in its own right. Dick Foran as our leading man was…okay, he did seem to be a bit stoic, and as I understand it he returned to the Mummy lexicon for one more picture in The Mummy’s Tomb with Lon Chaney Jr. taking on the role as Mummy. Peggy Moran was, to be blunt, kind of a prune, yet surprisingly strong and willful, until the end of course when her character Marta falls into the inevitable monster movie trope for women, which sadly still seems to go on into modern horror movies today. What can we say about Tom Tyler, who donned the bandages of the Mummy? His actions were certainly creepy, but the character in itself was mute, in more ways than one—sort of betrothed just as the movie was.

My Rating: 2/5  

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.

 


Universal Monsters in review: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Lock your gates. Shut the doors. The monster has returned!!! And I’ll keep my little intro here brief as our esteemed guest writer today has given us a magnificent opus on what many consider to be James Whale’s masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein. The Bride certainly has it all, social satire, horror, wit, comedy, and perhaps even a nuance of sexuality (homosexuality, to be bold). While Whale’s private may have private, not surprising considering how homosexuality was believed to be a mental disorder by the majority of Americans up until the 1970s, in Bride we get a little glimpse of satire to his hidden persona. Many symbolism’s I’m surprised survived the sharp blade of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship goons, now known as the MPAA, especially the scene in which the Monster is hoisted up in a near crucifixion pose.  However, I do not wish go too deeply into this topic, as there have been tons of scholarly paper written in its regard. If you are curious to dig deeper into what I’ve mentioned above, feel free to check out the following site I found, the research I found to be quite interesting, here. So, without further delay, let us see what our guest has in store for us today!

Would You Like To Hear What Happened After That?

By: Kit Power

 

So basically, this’ll be the ‘ignoramus’ portion of this blog series.

You see, I know nothing about the Universal monster series. Absolutely bugger all. Never one to let ignorance stop me writing (as those familiar with my work will no doubt attest), when Thomas S. Flowers approached me to take part, I lept at the chance – it felt like an opportunity to make a long-overdue correction, and fill one of the many many embarrassing gaps in my cultural knowledge.

Having been advised that the ‘marquee’ debut pictures were all already spoken for (The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Dracula etc) I was given a choice of over fifty titles. Scanning that list, Bride Of Frankenstein lept out at me immediately.

Because of the pinball table.

No, really.

See, of the many, many displacement activities I have to distract me when I really should be writing, pinball is one of the most consistent. The Pinball Arcade, a company dedicated to digitizing real world pinball tables to produce painstakingly realistic simulations pretty much owns a portion of my soul. Fortunately, all this play happens on the PS3 – if I was a Steam gamer and could readily see how many hours of my life have been sunk into the quintessentially pointless activity of using (digital) flippers to propel a (digital) steel ball around a (digital) table to make (digital) lights flash and bells ring, I suspect there’d be very little reason not to just end it all.

Anyhow, one of my favorite tables is ‘Monster Bash’, a 1997 table from Williams that features the Universal monster menagerie – specifically, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Creature From the Black Lagoon… and The Bride. If I tell you that ‘The Bride’ mini game consists of hitting a series of ramps, causing her digital counterpart to whack Frankenstein’s monster over the head with a frying pan while ‘Here comes the bride’ plays on a heavy metal guitar, you’ll perhaps get a flavour of how seriously the source material is being treated. That said, it’s a genuinely fun and well designed pinball table. My high score is in the 800 million range (more on this story later in the series).

So ‘Bride…’ felt like an obvious choice. A quick Amazon search to confirm that it was available in the UK (it was, as part of a BluRay set of 8 Universal monster movies for under £20 – sold!) and I was in.

I watched Frankenstein first, just to try and get some context, before settling down to Bride. I noted that Boris Karloff didn’t get a named credit in the original movie, but is absolutely star billing in the sequel. And I mean, fair enough, because he was fairly awe inspiring in the first movie, but it’s still interesting the degree to which this has become the Boris Karloff show.

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The opening five minutes didn’t inspire me with a huge amount of confidence, I have to say. The actor playing Byron is operating like we’re on the back row of a 1,000 seater auditorium, and at least to a modern eye, he’s camp as ninepence. It’s not a serious problem, but I did find myself trying to frantically readjust my sensibilities to 1935 settings.

And then the movie proper started, and none of that mattered.

I found this film to be so thunderingly good I watched it twice, and I’m still not sure I’m going to be able to do full justice to it. After all, there’s a ton of elements that go into making a good movie. When a film is actually great – as I think this one is – each of those elements could fill an essay in their own right. I’m going to try and talk about most of the elements in the order they occur in the film, but that won’t always be possible. I will also talk spoilers, for both this movie and it’s predecessor, Frankenstein, so  please, please, if you haven’t seen these movies yet, go away and come back when you have, okay? On the other hand, if you’re an aficionado, apologies in advance for my no doubt shocking stupidity and ignorance.

The first thing to note is that it’s an immediate sequel, in the style of Halloween 2 or Hellraiser 2, beginning where the drama of the first movie ended, with the burning mill. And it looks brilliant. I mean, there’s a gorgeous effects shot of the outside of the mansion that the prologue is held in – crashing thunder, torrential rain – which logic dictates has to be a model shot, but… well, I guess back then they knew how to sell a model shot. The burning mill is similarly spectacular, the black smoke against a grey sky, the roaring timber frame collapsing.

And there’s a weird thing about the acting. Because on one level, for many of the performers (cf. Byron, above) there’s a clear sense that these are stage actors who simply don’t get how film acting is different. So there’s a lot of what we might charitably call broad performances, especially from some of the bit players, like the burgermaster, and the maid. And you can absolutely chalk that up to the fact that it’s 1935, and ‘talkies’ have only been a thing for 8 years, especially with the older performers.

Except then, there’s Karloff.

And I mean, sure, the makeup does at least some of the heavy lifting. It’s absolutely iconic. It’s so good that I’ve seen it a million times, from Halloween masks to coasters to T-Shirts to  pinball tables to, shit, everywhere, same as you. And still, the moment that he stands out of the water and that face fills the frame is genuinely chilling. And that’s not all the makeup.

There’s something in his eyes.

There’s this terrifying blankness, with just a hint of… something. Some spark.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesinger, 1935

The movie wastes no time in reestablishing the monstrosity of the creature, with him committing a swift double murder of the parents of the child he killed in the last movie. There, of course, it was out of a tragically misguided sense of play. Here… well, he’s a wounded, terrified animal, cornered and burned, and righteously pissed off. And it’s not like he knows who he’s fighting with, or why.

Still, it’s uncomfortable – a genuinely grizzly fate for a blameless couple that have already suffered more than anyone should. It was an interesting decision to link the beginning of the movie so explicitly to the most horrific sequence of the original. It’s a clear statement of intent, but also reminds us how dangerous the monster really is.

From there we are acquainted with Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and his suspiciously young bride –  and I can’t tell if it’s comforting or depressing to know that even 80 years ago, actresses would get swapped out from one movie to another, but there it is. It’s also interesting to me to note that the technique of having the characters explicitly talk about the themes of the story via argument/dialogue, which has really been in vogue in a lot of TV writing of the last few years (I’m thinking particularly of Moffat era Doctor Who, here, but I’m sure you will have your own examples) was, again, clearly standard practice in 1935. In once sense, of course, that’s really a happy accident – likely if I’d seen this movie ten or fifteen years ago, there’s every chance this scene would have felt far more clunky and old fashioned that it does now. On the other hand, I found it surprising to find that modes of storytelling like this can apparently be both fashionable and cyclical, such that a film from 80 years ago can feel almost anachronistically modern.

And I guess this is a good time to talk about Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. I mean, the headline is, he’s brilliant, but it’s worth unpacking why, I think.

For starters, there’s a real range to his character. In this scene alone, he goes from romantic lead, to remorseful, to wistful dreamer, to a hint of the manic driven scientist from the first movie, then back again. In a single short monologue. The way Clive plays it is really clever, fluid, transitioning from one to the other smoothly, generating real unease in the process. Given the title of the film, and the tagline on the poster (‘The Monster demands a bride!’), there’s no real suspense about where the story is actually going. Nonetheless, the conflict evident in the character serves well to re-establish him as sympathetic, as well as laying the groundwork for the inevitable tragedy of his temptation and fall.

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And then of course, there is the agent of temptation himself – Dr Pretorious himself, played by Ernest Thesiger.

Again, you really could do a whole essay just on this guy. Possibly even a book. He really is that good, the performance that deep. There’s elements of Peter Cushing, for me, albeit camper and less restrained. It’s a fascinating performance – I mean, morally speaking, he’s unambiguously the villain of the piece, the snake in the garden tempting Henry back to the forbidden fruit of even more forbidden knowledge. He compares himself to the devil at one point, so you couldn’t fairly call it subtle. At the same time though, it’s not quite the flamboyant villain of, say Rickman in Robin Hood, (or, for that matter, the cold calculated villainy of Die Hard). He occupies a strange space, suave, but not too suave, persuasive yet sinister. It’s a fine line to walk, and for my money he walks it to perfection. It also reinforces my point earlier about stage vs. screen actors, because this guy has absolutely gotten the memo – so much of his performance is in his face, his eyes.

As befitting the Devil, he also gets all the best lines – ‘A new world of Gods and monsters’, of course, but even more striking to me, perhaps because I hadn’t heard it before, ‘Science, like love, has her little surprises’. The scenes with the two doctors talking, one by turns pleading and manipulating, the other drawn in against his will reminded me strongly of the classic ‘Doctor vs Davros’ conversations from Doctor Who (if you don’t know what I’m talking about get out. No, really. Get. Out). While the power dynamic is of course quite different, there’s still that tension of intellects being attracted even as the divergent morality creates repulsion. it’s potent stuff.

I’m conscious that I haven’t talked much about one of the absolute crown jewels of the movie yet; namely, the direction. In this regard, it’s instructive to watch this movie back to back with the 1931 original, because one of the things you realise is just how much technique improved in just four years. Not that the direction for Frankenstein is bad – quite the reverse. But here, less than half a decade later, director James Whale has improved his already considerable skills dramatically.

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I mean, you can take your pick, really. As in, put the movie in and scene select at random, I guarantee you’ll see something within five minutes that, if you know anything about film making and what it must have been like in the ‘30’s, will just blow your mind. There’s an effects shot involving little people in jars at one point, during one of Dr. Pretorius’ seduction attempts, and I just flat out do not know how it was done. I mean, I know how you’d do it now, in 2016 – piece of piss. But 1935?!? It’s insane.

But in some ways, it’s the things you don’t notice that are the most powerful. Like just how amazingly well lit Dr. Pretorious face is, especially in a few pivotal dialogue free scenes. Or how – and this I only spotted second time through – almost all the shots it the lab have the camera at a slight angle, creating a subtle sense of disorientation, dislocation – an unease that you can’t even quite put your finger on. It’s powerful enough that they’re still using techniques like this today.

But I’m getting a bit self conscious, to be honest, because I have no doubt that a real film buff will see a hell of a lot more than I did, so I guess I’ll attempt to quit while I’m ahead on the direction, and just say that if you want to know more, I’m sure there will, again, have been many books written.

Getting back to the story, there’s an interesting runaround where the monster is found, captured, then escapes again into the woods. In a modern film, you’d cut between these scenes and those of Dr. F and his old friend having their ‘will they/won’t they’ chats, but it doesn’t detract from the storytelling that they don’t do that – indeed, it’s a pleasure to spend such an unbroken amount of time in the presence of Karloff’s monster, because it’s an amazing performance.

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Especially in this sequence. Because, after a bit of good old fashioned growly rampage, we get to one of my favorite sequences in this exceptional film – the blind hermit. It’s lifted straight from Shelley’s novel – the blind old man in the woods who befriends the monster because he cannot see his monstrosity. And again, as ideas go, not exactly subtle, right? But what sells it is the performances from both players. The old man is superb – ernest, yes, but with a drive to kindness born of desperate loneliness and desire for companionship. And of course, the monster responds to that kindness (after some initial understandable suspicion) with a joy that’s just heartbreaking.

One of the reasons it’s so powerful is because it highlights again one of the core traits of the monster, which is that he is innocent. Not good – he kills from rage, and indeed killed a child, albeit from a misguided spirit of play – but innocent nonetheless. And innocence is a term we normally associate with either goodness (as in children) or blamelessness (as in victim). To have an innocent murderer, an innocent monster… I mean, never mind 1935, that’s a sophisticated and difficult idea in 2016 to put out there. There’s echos of it in other movies – King Kong, most obviously (I can’t be the only one who cries at the end of that picture), and even The Incredible Hulk, to a lesser degree, but I can’t think of a purer expression of it than the ten minutes or so of screen time where the blind man teaches the monster to talk, to smoke (!). When the monster grins and yells ‘Friend!’ while grabbing the woodsman’s hand and shaking it, your heart creaks a little. When the woodsman tucks him in, and the camera fills the frame with Karloff’s scared, discoloured face, and the tears start to flow from the monster, overwhelmed by simple kindness… I mean, that’s pathos.

Because, of course, it can’t possibly end well, and when a couple of hunters inevitably turn up and attack the monster, he’s left in a burning house as his blind friend is dragged away.

There’s an incredible effects shot here as a ball of fire rolls out the window of the burning cottage, and I’m no expert, but it looks bloody dangerous to me.

The circumstance that brings Dr. Pretorious and the monster into contact does seem suspiciously convenient in retrospect, but I have to say it’s not something that jumped out on either of my viewings. I think the performances are a big part of why – Thesiger is on fire in this scene, moving from imperious and overbearing with his hapless graverobber flunkies, to drunken revelry when he thinks he’s alone, to the look on his face when he realises he isn’t. From there, his interaction with the monster is just superb – you can almost hear the gears in his mind turning as he reacts to the creatures’ newfound ability to talk (which he later casually takes credit for as he confronts Henry Frankenstein, in a deliciously subtle character moment).

And of course, on the other end of that equation is Karloff. It feels dumb, if not outright surreal, to be talking about the emotional arc of a creature in a 30’s monster movie, but what the hell, we’ve come this far, right?

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Because this is where the tragedy of the monsters innocence plays out, in the process again highlighting the difference between innocence and goodness, and the inherent exploitability and danger of innocence wedded to strength. The monster here is traumatised, desolate even – having unexpectedly been given, all too briefly, something that had been outside of his realm of experience – kindness, friendship – only to have it inevitably snatched away again. His desire to rekindle that is as palpable as it is desperate, and the way both Karloff and Thesiger play it establishes the true depth of Pretorius’s callousness in a far more profound way than his causal pronouncements about the nature of good, evil, and science ever could. His manipulation of this innocent creature reveals him to be by far the darker and more evil monster. Similarly, the desperation of Karloff’s repetition of the word wife, the awful hunger in his voice, manages to elicit sympathy and fear in equal measure.

From there, the inevitable dragging of Henry Frankenstein back to his ‘extreme stitching’ antics (aided and abetted by the monster kidnapping his wife, of course) is handled with commendable pace – though the scene where Henry is confronted by the monster, and the Doctor’s reaction to his creation having rudimentary language skills, is wonderfully played by all concerned. Similarly, Clive’s performance as he returns to his laboratory is superb – the manic, driven scientist of the first movie is there, but more haunted, desperate… and, when he remembers, guilty and remorseful. A more pitiful and accurate portrayal of a regretful addict, succumbing to their demons despite the voices of his better nature crying out, you will not find. I’ve generally avoided metatextual knowledge here, but I can’t help but note that this was a struggle Clive was all too familiar with, as by the time of making this picture, he was already deep in the throes of the alcoholism that would kill him just five years later. I didn’t know that when I watched his performance, of course, but it surely makes sense of just how well he nails that desperate energy.

Then we hit a sequence where it just all comes together – the direction, the acting, the lighting, the sound, the set design, the effects – In a set piece that, 80 years on, is still thrilling and mesmerizing – the awakening of The Bride. I mentioned earlier the slightly off-kilter camera angles, but it’s something I only noticed second time around, because there’s so much else going on, and none of it remotely that subtle. There’s the enormous crashing and booming of the storm, for starters, and maybe it’s just my BluRay remaster, but it’s a glorious cacophony, especially mixed with the static bursts from the machinery in the lab. The lab set itself is enormous, and tall – the gurney that lifts the Bride up into the storm must be 70 or 80 feet, maybe more, and it’s amazing watching it go up, with all the thunder and lightning crashing around, under the fixed stares of the two Doctors, their faces underlit to perfection.

And so, at last, we reach the portion of my notes labelled simply The Bride.

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There’s a genius cut, first of all, where they start with the bandages, and reveal the feminine eyes, before jumping to her fully unwrapped and robed. It means we as the audience have no time at all to get introduced to her gently, instead being given the full-on impact of a full length shot of her awesome weirdness with basically no chance to prepare.

And, I mean, bloody hell, it’s an amazing piece of costume/makeup/effect work. The Bride in on screen, all told, surely no more than ten minutes (I suspect less) but that initial shot alone is enough to understand why this creature is so utterly iconic. To the extent that there’s an excellent chance, bordering on near certainty, that you already know exactly what I am talking about – can picture her clearly in your mind’s eye right now. And in the unlikely event that you can’t – firstly, I’m envious, but secondly, go watch the damn movie, okay?

It’s possible what you may not be as familiar with is how she moves – and here, Elsa Lanchester earns her stripes with a truly remarkable performance. There’s a fragility, utterly at odds with the solidity of Karloff’s monster, but at the same time, underneath is that same blank innocence, that same animal fear. She is uneasy on her feet. Her head snaps about, eyes flitting, like a bird about to take flight. The score swells with wedding bells as Praetoris declares ‘The Bride of Frankenstein!”, but they are discordant, cacophonous, eerie.

A fade cut, and the monster is introduced to his bride. Karloff’s desperate hunger here is palpable, his instant infatuation heartbreaking. And I mean look, there’s something about this scene and how it plays out that I think connects to a fundamental element (of at least the majority of) the hetrosexual male pyche, so I’m just going to lay it out here: I think most straight men, when we are around a woman we desire, kind of feel like the monster. We feel clumsy, inarticulate, ugly, undesirable. Inadequate. This is irrespective of how the lady in question feels about us, incidentally – this is about especially the moments before first contact, when we’re torn between our desire to reach out and our abject terror at being rejected. We are all, in that moment, the monster. And Karloff just nails it. Agian. His dopey grin as he lurches towards her is – there’s that word again – heartbreaking.

As is her reaction.

Because she’s an innocent too. Everything that applies to the monster applies to her. Moreso for her, in fact, since at this stage it the story she’s effectively maybe an hour old. And it’s fascinating, because there’s a moment in the story, right here, where the whole structure, the type of story being told, is hanging by a thread. If this is ultimately a comedy, in the classical sense (and the film is not devoid of humor, making this genuinely plausible)  it will end in a wedding, after all.

“Friend?” The monster asks, hopefully. Her reply is a sharp short noise, a maybe-laugh, and a maybe-grin. The monsters’ smile wavers, grows. he staggers towards her, as she lurches on the spot, uncertain, her actions unclear. He reaches for her arm.

Then she screams.

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It’s a powerful moment. Heartbreaking, of course, for the monster, but perhaps even more chilling for what it tells you about the Bride. All at once, it is clear that, despite all the callous assumptions of the arrogant men around her, she is a creature of independent thought and mind. And she does not like what she sees. In some ways, it’s an inversion of the blind man sequence; there, a man with no sight could, with mindfulness, find the innocent inside the monster, and speak to him. Here, an innocent has only her eyes to guide her, and her response is as predictable as it is chilling.

Chilling, because it brings home the horror of what the doctors have done, in their arrogance and the kind of stupidity that only very intelligent men can manage.

The rest of the courtship is brief, and excruciating. When the monster reaches out to embrace the Bride, and she screams again, Karloff’s face moves from fragile hope, to despair, and then to blank resignation.

From there, the end is swift.

And really, I kind of know how he feels. I’m sure, without checking Amazon, that books will have been written about this movie – at a guess, a lot of them. To come in as a green observer in 2016 and try and find anything original to say about it was always going to be an act of  folly, doomed to failure. Nonetheless, it’s been a privilege to take the journey. I hope this inspires people to rewatch this movie, because it’s a film the deserves to continue be seen and talked about.

Thanks for the opportunity, Thomas. Hope I didn’t stink the place up too bad.

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Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as, GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.

 


Krampus (2015): movie in review

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December, the same for many of you I’m sure, is one of the busiest times of the year. With all the shopping and family functions, the gift wrapping and long distance phone calls, and Santa visits over at the mall, and festive Christmas lights or Hanukkah, depending on your jam, and Zoo Lights or whatever you’re local county folks do, and eggnog and TV specials…well, if feels almost impossible to fit everything in those special 24 days till Christmas. For me, even more so now that some of my publishing exploits have picked up pace since my start in 2014 and with the release of two new books in the same month, interviews and book tours…etc etc, well, it can all feel overwhelming. To keep from frying a circuit, its a good practice to unplug once and awhile from those blinking little tablets and cellphones and computer screens and traffic jams and enjoy the simple pleasures of going to the movies. And as chance would have it, I was able to venture out to the theater this past Saturday for the next to last showing of Krampus.  And I’m so glad I did!

Krampus is interesting. Not just the movie, but how this year it seems to be a rather proper resurgence of a very old folk story from Germany, where it is in fact celebrated still, once a year, in Christmas parades. I’d hate to make certain ties to our current political situation…but it seems (if this Krampus popularity is any indication) people are tired of all the hoopla. The media blitz. The Black Friday, ruin Thanksgiving shopping. The non stop ads (this recent season of South Park with PC Principle could also be a indication of this). Why else would a guy like Trump hold such popularity as a Presidential candidate? Jesus, I’d hate to think it was because people actually wanted him as president. Retaining my optimism with the human race, I’d wager Trump’s popularity was more about the overall attitudes with American politics nowadays. “Nothing ever changes” blah blah blah, or so people say, If nothing ever changes then why take anything seriously anymore? I think I’m getting off topic here, so let me rein it back in. What I’m getting at is perhaps this new found interest with Krampus is our “tiredness” with ignoring certain holiday traditions, as Krampus is the oldest of holiday traditions, it seems plausible. But this is all conjecture and maybe myself overthinking things, as I tend to do. Lets get back to the movie, shall we?

Here is a quick fire synopsis:

When his dysfunctional family clashes over the holidays, young Max (Emjay Anthony) is disillusioned and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know, this lack of festive spirit has unleashed the wrath of Krampus: a demonic force of ancient evil intent on punishing non-believers. All hell breaks loose as beloved holiday icons take on a monstrous life of their own, laying siege to the fractured family’s home and forcing them to fight for each other if they hope to survive.

To be honest, I had little notions of what I was walking into last Saturday. I knew I would probably enjoy the movie, but I think in the back of my head I was expecting a little more dumb and a lot less smart; however, it seems the opposite to be true. Krampus is actually a very smart movie, but not over-the-top, despite the “black comedy” jive. The film opens perfectly. Bing Crosby or some other Christmas classic is playing. Everything is in slow-mo as we watch what we’ve all seen on YouTube, Black Friday shoppers duking it out over random unless objects. From teddy bears to rocking horses to TVs to popcorn tins to crying children with black-eyes to store security guards tazing would-be shoppers with a look of absolute glee. Your attention is not really on what these people are fighting over, its the expressions on their faces as the film is slowed down to a crawl, whilst some homely comfortable cheer is playing in the background. Its a fantastic opening and sets the mood for the entire movie with both hilarity and repulsion. If watching this beginning is any indication, perhaps the return of Krampus to America is long overdue!

I’d like to give my honest review without any spoilers, so I shall not mention too many things. The ending is off limits, but I will say that it was great…which is surprising, cause these kind of movies typically fall flat at the end. The ending so very much like the entire movie, where certain expectations are shot down for something otherly unexpected. One of my favorite scenes is when grandma Omi Engel (played by the very talented Krista Stadler) , who only speaks English once, here during a little flashback to her childhood, while in the rest of the movie she’s speaking in German. I loved this part. The movie has little to no exposition moments, which is great. This scene with Omi is fantastic. With things are getting pretty strange and an explanation of what the cause or causes may be, she steps in and offers her family and us a little more information on what Krampus really is. Her memory is told in a very creepy paper styled cartoon which reminded me very much of something Tim Burton would do. Surrounding this much younger Omi, a bombarded village, assuming this to be a German town just after WWII ended. People are desperate and forget the “meaning for the season,” as they say. Krampus visits the town and takes everyone away, all but for young Omi. She fears Krampus has returned. And as the family is picked off one by one, they soon believe her tale. But this begs the question: can they fight back? Can they survive Krampus and his minions?

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There are a few other “great” scenes, truly haunting ones and comedic as well. Whatever that thing was in the snow was pretty creepy. And the snowmen, while you never really see them move, somehow they slowly surround the house. Each time Max looks out the window, there’s a new one grinning back at him, more twisted then the last. The gun jokes and political humor gave me a good chuckle. And the death count was very surprising. Much like Gremlins (a movie many are comparing Krampus to), the death counts in many blockbuster holiday themed movies are typically low. Not in Krampus. Expect death. Lots of it.

Like I said before. I had certain expectations with Krampus. Those being a complete dumb movie, but a fun dumb movie, were altogether shot out of the water. This movie was smart as well as entertaining and fun. Krampus certainly does not take itself too seriously, while also giving us some serious moments. As far as labeling this as a “black comedy,” I think the comedy was actually more lite then most “black comedies.” This was a horror story, no doubt about it. And comedy has a special relationship with terror. Each blended marvelously. Krampus will no doubt be one of those movie that become tradition in the years to come, much like Die Hard or Silent Night, Deadly Night has.

My Review: 5/5