Saturday, September 29, 2012

[Series 31] CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)


SYNOPSIS: After a geologist discovers a fossilized Bela Lugosi hand in the Amazon, he asks for assists from this ichthyologist couple that he knows.  It wouldn't be much of a horror movie if they just found fossils, so they eventually meet the creature from the Black Lagoon, who becomes aggressive after they throw cigarettes and fish poison into his watery home.  He also like scientistette Kay and tries to cart her off while fending off harpoon attacks and being set afire by the boys.  

WHAT WORKED:
You won't find many "B-movies" that work this hard at establishing intriguing, memorable characters.  There are some throwaway victims who are 100% Hispanic, so maybe the Creature is racist IDK, but for the most part every character here is well-drawn.  The scientists are motivated in a myriad of interesting ways and have relationships and conflicts like real humans, not autastic movie scientists.  I appreciated that a movie from 1954 gives its female lead some depth—Julie Adams's Kay is a scientist in her own right, not there just to be a trophy-wife for a man-fish or to bake cookies for the boys after they scuba-dive.   I also liked the subtle ways that it established her relationship with good-guy scientist David (Richard Carlson)—he leans on her whenever he's removing his diving gear, for inst.  And Nestor Paiva almost steals the whole show as boat captain Lucas.  He's jam-packed full of Latino heat.  To this day, my friends and I use "I, Lucas, will do it!" as a boastful in-joke.  


The Creature.  The design mostly looks really cool (it's a guy in a suit movie and there are scenes in which it looks like a guy in a suit, get over it).  I prefer the underwater Creature shots, since they're a little murkier and hide the limitations of the design, but even in the very-lit grotto scenes, it mostly looks fine.  I love the characterization of the Creature so much!  He's portrayed not as an evil abomination, really, more a thing of nature that will kill you, like a lion or a shark.  I even like him getting a crush on Kay and being all, "Where the white women at?" because it dovetails with existing monster-movie canon (at least since KING KONG, if not before) and because it reflects the real behavior of manlike beasts (read about the chimp with a blonde fetish in Zoo Story if you doubt).  


The writing, settings, and direction are superb.  A lot of people have this hang-up about 50s movies and their overly deliberate pacing.  Those people should watch CREATURE and shut up, because there is always something happening in this film.  For its era, it has a breakneck tempo and is so deftly plotted that even some sticks blocking an inlet becomes this harrowing, dramatic obstacle.  I love the portrayal of science, curiosity, adventurousness, and love of nature as incredibly positive things.  I love the widely and justly admired underwater scenes and also the very underrated ending grotto scenes, with expert use of fog and shadow.  


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Sometimes the movie reveals its b-movie origins and budget.  I'm especially thinking of the painted jungle backdrop in the third trimester, plus (as stated) the creature suit occasionally looks a little rubbery and unbelievable.  It's nothing that will prevent you from enjoying the film unless you are really serious about being a dick, but it keeps the film from being flawLESS.

DID YOU KNOW?
Lead hunky scientist Richard Carlson didn't really get typecast after this, but they did keep sticking him in water-based bits like RIVERBOAT, THE AQUANAUTS, and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.  Lead scientist-cutie Julie Adams fared better, with a standout concerned-mom-who-hates-metal role in BLACK ROSES and a bunch of other credits, including Polanski's CARNAGE.  Like the Creature himself, Roman Polanski is kind of a creepy stalkery monster.

RATING: 8


REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955)


SYNOPSIS: The Creature is kidnapped by scientists and taken from the Black Lagoon to what's basically Sea World, where he's tasered with a bull prod, ankle-chained, and exhibited to fat tourists.  A pair of scientists-in-love condition him to not eat and not touch a ball by electroshocking the shit out of him, because that is what science is.  He develops a thing for the scientist with tits.  He gets sick of it and, after a long, long series of boring swimming-in-tank scenes, he violently escapes.  But no one can resist the siren song of sexy science and he stalks the lady ichthyologist and turns the kidnapping tables.  

WHAT WORKED:
The Creature (kind of).  I think the creature suit looks a bit better in this sequel than it did in the original, certainly so when he's walking the land.  Those expanding fins when he breathes!  In the scenes wherein he's lashing out or fed up with this world, the Creature is far more active and assertive & the movie really could've used more of him facepalming people over railings and crushing heads and fucking up cars.  



Nestor Paiva is back!  As Lucas!  For 15 minutes or so.  That's all you get!  But at least he provides a counterargument to "Hey, something natural, let's 'study' it Abu Gharib-style becuz we can!!"  I love that the movie opens with Lucas being jerky to crocodiles, then getting all philosophical about the Creature not evolving because it has a "spark of the divine".  



Sometimes the film succeeds at providing comedy.  Occasionally, this springs from an intentional exploitation of its satirical potential (the Creature at a theme park).  More often, it delivers funny-on-accident moments like BIRDEMIC and TROLL 2.  The "Creature watches you masturbate" window stalking scene being a prime example.  Comedy will become a big problem if you scroll down a smidge.  Can you guess which kinds of comedy these represent?


Gentlemen, feel free to come on down and die
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Remember how the original CREATURE was great because it cared about developing its characters and made scientists sympathetic?  The sequel decides to go the other way.  Its scientists mostly act like dickish automatons, there's a love triangle that exists only because the first movie kind of had one (and because the super-dick Bachelor #2 makes regular-dick protagonist look like less of a dick by comparison), and the blonde object of adoration is one of the most boring and bland lead ladies ever and has at most a B+ cup and YET EVERYBODY WANTS HER, EVEN THE MONSTER.  Kristin Stewart of the 50s!

The writing is very clunky.  The true CREATURE skillfully wove its science talk into the story, but in this film things come to a screeching halt so lady scientist can explain how gills work for 4 and a half minutes.  That's the last science talk you'll hear from her, though, as the rest of her dialogue is mostly mooning over how scientists don't understand love (she talks about looking up "love" in the dictionary, please remember that poor people in the 50s paid to see this).  Even the movie doesn't take her seriously, as she's described as a "pretty, young scientist" in a news report.  Plus this has hideously terrible attempts at comedy (like a cute chimpanzee, lololol), scored with the most grating and laugh-demanding "Green Acres"-esque music cues ever.

I'm sure it's because they weren't in the Black Lagoon anymore and the Creature from Marineland sounds dumb, but I hate the name Gill Man.  And the film makes it abundantly clear that Gill Man is his name, because look.

Huge portions of the original are essentially recycled—the putting stuff in the Lagoon scene to capture the Creature (dynamite in this case), the Creature swimming underneath the woman, even the ending of the film is essentially redone.  In the latter case, I'm assuming that's because they were planning to churn out one of these every year a la PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and SAW (for a while).  

Clint Eastwood's very first movie, you guys!  

RATING: 4



THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)


SYNOPSIS: The Creature's multiple gunshot wounds followed by lifeless floating at the end of REVENGE was not as bad as it looked and he has relocated to the swamps of the Everglades.  A team of medical doctors with varying motivations track the Creature.  One of them has a wife who is a little shark-smiting spitfire.  They find the Creature and luckily are not killed, but in the melee the Creature sustains severe burns.    The doctors perform surgery, switching him from gill- to lung-based breathing in the process.  Then they take him home, lock him in a pen full of sheep, and bicker amongst themselves until the pen-destroying, doctor-killing finale.  

WHAT WORKED:
The characters are thankfully a little more developed and interesting than the go-round.  No more actors who think the best way to be a scientist is to look smug!  No more actresses who basically sleep through the film like pretty props.  Rex Reason is perfectly fine as the most heroic doctor, who argues that you can catch more Creatures with honey rather than vinegar and cattle prods.  Leigh Snowden as spirited wife Marcia actually steals the show.  Her character is a nice return to the Julie Adams days of memorable female leads.  Plus her status as a wild thing caged by jerk Dr. Barton links her nicely to the Creature (and she loves to swim, too!).  All the characters are given something to do and time to do it, although this ends up being a negative in certain respects...

YEAH!  FUCK YOU, SHARKS!
The action scenes are pretty boss.  Switching from animal scientists to doctors lends credence to the scenes of them drifting into Florida swamps and freaking out about bird noises and Spanish moss.  And, when the Creature is unchained and allowed to rock out, he has never looked more powerful or agile.  The first jump scare and the scene in which he springs out of the water onto the boat are king-size.  The Creature vs. cougar scene is kind of a drag, though, since it reminded me how seldom big cats are now seen in the South (sigh) and isn't really edited or staged all that well, tbh.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Despite the title, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is sometimes more of a relationship drama than a monster movie.  There's so much time devoted to Dr. and Mrs. Dr. Barton arguing that you sometimes forget the Creature is out there in the sheep pen.  Even with all the talking, this still isn't as boring as REVENGE sometimes was, but it definitely weakens what could have been a riotous monster-carnage ride.

Post-burning and -surgery Creature needs clothes since his protective scales have burned off, leaving just the weather-sensitive humanlike skin underneath (not sure why he wouldn't be okay naked, since he's in Florida in the summer, but whatever).  So the doctors dress him up like a janitor, basically, and it looks like this:


This film actually has the same problem as REVENGE in that the Creature is fascinating when he's wreaking havoc, but in much of this film he's being penned up or bullied (by SCIENCE NERDS).  It's hard to take a monster seriously when he's overpowered by dorks in fedoras or lying in hospital like a sick kitten.


Better than REVENGE, but nowhere near the glorious heights of the first film (which is really the only CREATURE that you absolutely must see).

RATING: 5




Sunday, September 23, 2012

[Series 31] THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

You were warned, tipped that I would be skipping the "31 horror movies/31 days" of October which used to be so pure and underground but has been 100% debased through being co-opted by fat moms, like vampires, BDSM, and social networks.  Hordes of mom-locusts descend upon our rich fields, ruin them, then run on to new victims, and we must keep moving and moving to survive, like sharks or the Roma.  So this year I am doing something different. 

Basically, this is an excuse to revisit old gems and PUPPET MASTER myself to death.  I (and maybe some guest starz) will be watching and rating 31 horror franchises/series in their entirety.  Instead of each film getting its own review, they'll be smooshed into value-pack posts like this one.  No way am I committing to gorging down all the WITCHCRAFTs in a day or whatever, so this will consume more blog time than just October.  It will go as long as it needs to go, then we'll get back to talking about "masturbation side effects after 45" and "dang girl sex", as my search stats report.  Protip: these posts are going to be giant-size man-things.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)


SYNOPSIS: Five youths, including hippie hottie Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin, travel to the part of Texas where the wrong kind of white people live.  Ostensibly, they're there to check on a relative's grave in the wake of grave-robbing reports.  They learn why no one has ever said, "I am sure glad we picked up that hitchhiker!"  After failing to find gas, they decide to visit the abandoned house where the Hardesty grandparents used to live.  Unfortunately, the next house over is occupied by backwoods cannibals with no decorating skills.  If you haven't seen this, you're hopeless, why are you alive.

WHAT WORKED:
Almost everything.  I'd seriously rank TCM as one of the two greatest horror films of all time and, if I get around to watching Romero's DEAD movies this time and DAWN doesn't hold up (as I fear), I might be putting a tiara on my copy of the Seriously Ultimate Edition.

Lots of people wrote this off at initial release because it is named THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, but Daniel Pearl's gorgeous cinematography and Tobe Hooper's skillful, supple direction belie the grindhouse sneers.


There is no film that is more perfectly cast than SAW.  Once you see Paul Partain whine his way into the skin of wheelchair-bound Franklin, you can't even imagine anyone else doing that role.  Ed Neal's hitchhiker makes the van scene one of the all-time creepiest, as tension just keeps racheting higher and higher until the inevitable happens.  Jim Siedow is king-size as The Cook and strikes the perfect balance between Grand Guignol comedy ("Look what your brother did to the door!  He ain't got no pride in his home!") and unsettling imbalanced menace.  Teri McMinn's ass is so immaculate that even cameras duck under swings to follow it.  And Gunnar Hansen IS THE DEFINITIVE LEATHERFACE, period.  It speaks volumes for his acting abilities that he's able to create this complete character without a single line of discernible speech.  Leatherface here veers between terrifying danger and this melancholy primitive childishness.  Hansen apparently studied kids with behavioral disorders to prepare for the role and, wow, it works so well.


The writing is pitch-perfect. It's become a cliche to note that a movie named TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is really pretty restrained when it comes to bloodshed, but it's true. The film takes it time to deliver the goods, slowly cranking up the atmosphere and the impending dread. When it needs to let loose, though, CHAIN SAW is bold as hell.  That dinner scene has been copied and recopied by film after film, including many of TCM's direct descendants.  TCM isn't just a killfest, though. Character on both sides of the family feud line is handled adroitly and the film even includes solid elements of humor (the on/off car-washing at the gas station scene makes me lol every time!).


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
I watched this specifically looking for errors or weaknesses and didn't really find anything notable. I am not trying to kiss the ass of the well-respected luminary here.  CHAIN SAW's just too legit to quit.

DID YOU KNOW?
According to Gunnar Hansen, the catering budget for the film was so limited that they could only get food from the local hippie caterer, so the cast was generally eating marijuana brownies for at least one meal per day and were sometimes stoned out of their gourds.  Also, people refuse to believe that it's not based on a true story, even when the people who made it tell them so!



RATING: 10


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)


SYNOPSIS: 13 years after the original Texas chain saw massacre, an incredible chainsaw murder on a Texas road is inadvertently heard by a local radio DJ.  She soon joins with Texas marshal Lefty Enright, uncle of wheelchair cadaver Franklin Hardesty, to track down the perps—the murderous Sawyer clan, including a returning Cook and Leatherface.  Things come to a garish conclusion at a nightmarish amusement park turned human sausage production factory.

WHAT WORKED:
The occasional macabre comedy of the original steps up 2 tha streets here, from Cook Drayton Sawyer (Siedow) winning a chili cook-off to the late, lamented Lou Perryman as boorish sweetheart engineer L.G. ("Look, darlin', I built you a little fry house!"). For the most part, if you're not too upset about losing the verité of the first film, it's pretty fun.



Usually, it's bad news when sequels introduce new characters (scroll down for examples!), but only a dingbat would deny that Bill Moseley's Chop-Top is one of the best things about TCM2. His performance is just so spastic and insistent! Think of any quote that you have heard from Saw 2 and it's likely to be a Moseley joint.




The aesthetic choices in terms of colors, sets, and makeup are glorious and Tom Savini, production designer Cary White, and returning director Tobe Hooper deserve big ups for creating this demented  Christmas town gone wrong and then using it to maximum effect.


Jim Siedow gets all the chains taken off and is off the chain in this, vying with Moseley for VIP honors. Imagine the door scene from the original expanded into a towering apartment complex of crazy, rife with bitching about the economy and the travails of small business. The Reagan eighties dissected with a satiric scalpel.  Holy fuck, I miss Jim Siedow. 


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:

Sorry, Bill Johnson, but Leatherface is a lot less compelling in this one. There's a skin-thin subplot about Leatherface's infatuation with DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) and it promises to lead to laughs, but really just kinda hangs there (like a sad penis).  Hansen's Leatherface is a composite of aggression and monstrous simplicity, but TCM2 Leatherface is a full-on man-child, bossed around by his family, inelegantly fumbling at seduction.  Johnson's not to blame, since I'm sure that's what was demanded by the script and Hooper, but it's not a very good thing when Leatherface is the least interesting Sawyer in a TEXAS CHAINSAW movie.

I understand why they re-did the dinner scene, but it had already started to feel worn-out by this point, although it would get much, much more worse in time.  Likewise with the film-ending chase scene.


The scrapey-metals and banging-electric-screwdrivers soundtrack of the first film was replaced with actual music for this one. Some of it's electro-poppy, which should be right up my alley, but unfortunately none of it is particularly memorable nor as effective as the raw proto-industrial clatter of TCM.

DID YOU KNOW?
One of the versions of the script called for Dennis Hopper's Lefty Enright to be Stretch's dad.  It would have made for a cool continuation of the family-vs.-family motif of the first film, although you can understand why they jettisoned it.



RATING: 7


LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990)


SYNOPSIS: A couple in the throes of breaking up is driving a car across Texas, home of body pits full of putrefying corpses and Jessica Simpson.  Also home to the world's most lady-friendly gas station, wherein lady Michelle (Kate Hodge) is ogled through a bathroom wall by Alfredo Sawyer (Tom Everett).  Thankfully, she's saved by gentlemanly Tex (Viggo Mortensen).  Thanklessly, their car crashes after they take a Tex-recommended road and the same thing that happened in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE pretty much happens, only with a different family and inferior lighting/cinematography and more Lããz Rockit.



WHAT WORKED:

R.A. Mihailoff's Leatherface is much more vicious and intimidating than awkwardly-pubescent Leatherface from Part 2. This film, IMO, does a better job at balancing Leatherface-as-killer and Leatherface-as-functionally-retarded.  The mask is also far cooler this go-round.


LEATHERFACE ditches the funnyman stylings of the first sequel for pure horror. This is probably the CHAINSAW film most serious about scaring you from start to finish and any "light" touches are almost instantly tweaked into scenes of brutal horror.

New family members show up in this film and the ones who are made out of sugar and spice are pretty fab. I'm not sure how I feel about female members of what had hitherto been an all-male family, but Miriam Byrd-Nethery does a good psychotic job as the wheelchairin' Mama Sawyer (cool allusion to Franklin, movie!) and little Jennifer Banko is awww-inducing as "Leatherface's Daughter". Solid performances from both ladies, sisters are doing it for themselves!

WHAT DIDN'T WORK:

The new male members of the Sawyer clan are not quite as memorable as the girls and they unfortunately get a lot more screen time. The Tinker character especially bugs me, since he signals the dawn of SAWyers who are basically just weirdos with one quirk, like he's really into technology and talks about it A LOT. So basically saw murderers stop becoming complete psychotics and become Junos who eat people. No thank you.

The recycling of elements continues here apace. It feels like at least half of LEATHERFACE is a chase scene through dark woods, which does not exactly make for compelling viewing. Ditto the dinner scene, which is admittedly much more savage than previous entries, but it still feels like a retread.

David J. Schow's script has some good ideas, but fails to capitalize on them. Ken Foree shows up as a survivalist character, which would have been potentially great if he'd utilized his Turner Diaries/Bear Gryllis skills to combat the Sawyers, like setting traps or making weapons out of the forest, but that doesn't really happen. Likewise, the body pit that the movie very carefully informs us is composed of adipocere, dead bodies which turn into poison as they decompose, would be a great place to have a finale! But it doesn't happen. Instead, the movie ends in a lake full of bodies that is apparently not poisonous or dangerous at all.  Even Leatherface's Daughter's tea party table would have been a great place to stage a miniature version of the dinner scene from every CHAINSAW movie ever!  I kind of wish that studios would be dying to remake Part IIIs, because this one would benefit from the treatment.  Plus it's never really explained how we got from the end of Part 2 to this, given that events in the second film are mostly ignored.  It seems unmanly to claim to be a Part III in order to gin up box office sales, but shy away from answering the tough questions.

DID YOU KNOW?
The DVD of this film will not play in my computer, so I couldn't get screenshots.  Luckily, it has one of my favorite trailers ever.  Also, this is the only one of the original CHAINSAWs that I saw theatrically.  I made my mom take me and she started crying when a hobo shot up in front of us three rows down.  Son of the year!



RATING: 5

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (1994)



SYNOPSIS: The worst narrator yet tells us the story of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and basically blatantly says that they're ignoring the two prior sequels.  Then a group of teenagers escape their prom only to have a car crash in the woods after bantering for twenty minutes and the same thing that happened in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE pretty much happens, only with a different family and inferior everything.  Renee Zellwegger and Matthew McConaughey are (terrible) in this!


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE!!1!

WHAT WORKED:

It's pretty evident that the makers were shooting for a campy comedy here, much moreso than TCM2 tried to do. Some of it gets so ridiculous that it nears the orbit of stuff like THE ROOM, when you can't believe that beings from Earth actually made it. Parts of this work in that fashion, especially the early dialogue from Heather (Lisa Marie Newmyer): "Wait, wait, wait, I just thought of something so cool. What if we got into a wreck and we crashed into a car in front of us and we all died? They could write a song about it!"  She unfortunately turns into a whimpering hook-pierced victim, but I could see an alternate universe version of this built around Heather's inane dialogue being just wonderful.

This won't matter to the straight-lady viewers of this blog, but Tonie Perensky as the latest female addition to the clan is totes gorgeous and her after-work home clothes are incredible in an acid-trip kind of way.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:


Like Part 3, this much-maligned film actually has some good ideas, but refuses to exploit them. I can't believe this myself, but the last 15 minutes or so suggests that TCM: THE NEW CLASS was intended to be a sort of proto-CABIN IN THE WOODS! Fucking real-talk! A guy in a tux shows up in a limo and demands that the crazy family work harder at producing "real horror". There are also suggestions of conspiracy theory, which would theoretically be amazing! Can you imagine if there was a TCM that incorporated the original film and people like Tobe Hooper and Gunnar Hansen denying that it was a true story, BUT IT REALLY WAS AND THEY WERE PART OF THE CONSPIRACY???

Leatherface is, for the first time, a problem. He's a butt-of-jokes transvestite here and he screeches incessantly like a bird with bad digestion challenges. His choice of weapon already makes him a poor stalker, but the nonstop shrill screaming just wrecks him as a menace at all.


Again, the new additions to the family are pretty poor. One guy's "thing" (because murderous cannibals have to have a thing now) is that he quotes literary and historical figures. Wow. Why not just have a guy constantly eating asparagus or wearing a bowler derby? Less character hooks, more meat hooks, pls. The characters in general are fairly unmemorable. Lady Sawyer is easy on the eyes, but none of them have any personality and Renee Zellwegger is the absolute worst of TCM's final girls.

DID YOU KNOW?
This film was completed and sat on the shelf for many days until Zellwegger and McConaughey suddenly developed careers.  It is THEIR Y Kant Tori Read?!  Zellwegger won't even discuss it, lol.

RATING: 2

Look at this graph: