Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Some movies could never be made today.  Song of the South is a solid example and so is Bloody Birthday, the pitch for which would be "Okay, these three autistic kids run around and murder everybody in this tow—" And you'd never get to finish because the movie executives would have security toss you out.


Astrology, the science of the stars, tells us that children who are born during an eclipse will be born without compassion or empathy, looking at other humans as mere pieces of furniture or like silverware.  Hence, these are the three lunatic killers in our horror movie.


I know, I was pretty skeptical, too.  But 2/3 of the trio are very effective.  Grownup scream queens could learn a lot from Elizabeth Hoy as blonde girl maniac Debbie Brody.  She shifts from angelically sweet to a convincing monster-face on a dime.  Andrew Freeman as killer nerd Steven Seton is also quite effective, like an young and evil alternate-universe Egon Spengler.  Who loves peepholes.


I'm assuming the blonde boy actor was actually born during an eclipse because he lacks the charisma of the other two.  Anyway, even though this is called Bloody Birthday, the kills are not really that bloody.  Having kids kill with guns and arrows and such is more realistic, but not as spectacular as some of your more prominent 1980s horror deaths.


The most disturbing thing in the movie is this clown with an I CAN'T SAY NO shirt.  Why would God let this happen?


A lot of Birthday plays out as you'd expect, with adults dying in assorted ways and surviving adults never suspecting the kids.  Some of it lets you know the creators were trying, though.  You can see the ambition in the framing of the shots and in the way a character is named "Sheriff Brody".


I really dug a lot of the kill scenes, since the movie takes great pains to rarely show the kids directly killing.  All the shots are stitched together, like A) kid picks up knife, B) victim recoils in fear, C) kid raises knife and looks mighty pleased, and D) victim dies.  No actual interaction, probably to spare our baby killers, but the deliberate workarounds become interesting in themselves after a while.  And allow editing to take its well-deserved spotlight.


This isn't a classic and I'd be loathe to rate it above April Fool's Day or something, but it's generally a fun outing. Maybe because it's such an early entry, it seems to really pump the transgressive potential out of the killer-kid thing.  And two of the juvenile cutthroats are just endlessly entertaining.  Unless you're just dead-set against killer kids or proto-slashers, you should find something to enjoy in this!  PS I would like a T-shirt with the shot below, thx.


***

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The film announces its fantasticness upon its birth, during the opening scene.  We get an argument between a wax museum proprietor and his angry financial backer, in which the backer accuses the proprietor of sacrificing profits for art.  Why don't you create a Jack the Ripper or Burke & Hare instead of all this history crap? says the financier.  Then he starts a fire and waddles off, leaving the wax artiste to get baked.


I'll remind you that this verbal dialectic about pure art versus the commercially-viable macabre is THE OPENING SCENE TO A HORROR MOVIE.


You can tell immediately that Mystery isn't going to be constrained by genre limitations or stripped of its ambitions.  Departing from burnt, waxy London, we land in New York, where it's New Year's Eve, and bored morticians are sad about the low body count.  There's an amazing proto-jump scare that's topped with a pretty good joke, giving us our first real taste of the movie's genre-bending character.  Soon enough, we learn that waxman Igor, who was apparently burned right into a wheelchair, is reopening his shop in NYC.


It's 1933, it's a horror film, so that means we're probably going to see Fay "Overwrayted" Wray and here she is, as the girlfriend of a wax museum assistant. Wray is here to be pretty and imperiled and she does all that well enough.  


But the queen bee MVP of this film is clearly Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a wisecracking lady journalist.  I can't remember the last time I was this impressed by a performance.  Farrell delivers her lines at whiplash speed and, at one point, gets this extended Ayn Rand-sized monologue that she races through.  It's an almost athletic performance and she's awesome to watch whenever she's on the screen.  Thankfully, Florence is a pivotal character as she unravels the titular mystery, so we get lots of opportunities to enjoy her.  I'm not sure what Fay Wray's character does for a living.  Professional girlfriend?  Professionally pretty?  Who knows?


The wax museum scenes are certainly creepy enough, especially when we get to stuff like the stabbed Marat or the beetle-browed Napoleon.  This film doesn't skimp on the hard stuff, as we get a fair share of violence, plus junkies, bootleggers, and girly magazines called NAUGHTY STORIES.


But the movie's constantly shifting tones from grim images to light banter.  Some people will loathe the crazy patchwork quality on display here, but I loved it.  So interesting!


They even threw in a little expressionism in the woman-swallowing sets at the end of the movie.


And that ending!  Motherfuck!  Frequently, even very enjoyable pieces will fumble their finales, but Mystery sticks it for the win.  Everything from the big reveal to the masterfully-edited final chase scene is just delightful to watch.  This definitely exceeded my expectations and I could see it gaining even more of my heart after I rewatch it.  Which I will. 


***1/2

Patrick (2013)

Much like Maniac, a re-envisioning of a noted-but-flawed original, although I don't think Patrick succeeds as smashingly as that Elijah Wood hit.  The basics of the plot get ported over from 1978's Patrick—comatose Patrick lies around all day, involuntarily spitting, until a comely nurse arrives.  At this point, Patrick's Carrie-esque psychic abilities start manifesting themselves.  He specializes in hand damage, but also does some fine work with cars and mirrors. 


At least the visuals are significantly better.  This Patrick is very carefully constructed, with killer overhead shots and perfect color choices.  With the old architecture, subdued lighting, and muted colors, it feels like a period piece, until someone pops out a cell phone or earbuds to remind you that it's not.  


The acting's pretty solid, too.  And the score by Pino Donaggio is top-notch.  But here's the problem: a lot of this film brings yawns.  The early goings are slow, which is to be expected if you're setting up relationships and characters and stuff.  But, even after telekinesis is happening and blood gets loosed, it's still plenty unengaging.  One difficulty might be that our protagonista is established through interaction with a motionless hunk of flesh.  There's not much to draw viewers in, y'know?


In fact, the shift in tone from crawlingly slow to wow-explodey doesn't really mesh too well.  Especially when some very ill-advised CGI effects are added.  And, as stated, even the sudden injection of action into the plot didn't do much to charm me.


I'm a big advocate of remakes of the right kind of movies (one that could be improved by a second attempt).  Patrick would certainly seem to qualify and yet I suspect that this remake's only enduring legacy will be the immortal line "Patrick wants his handjob".  Such are the vagaries of fortune.


**1/2

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Son of Kong (1933)

So King Kong did pretty well and they apparently fast-tracked this sequel.  Fay Wray refused to reprise her role, but they did manage to get some of the original cast to sign on for a second outing. 


Including Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham!  He brought King Kong to New York, remember, and now everyone's mad about property damage and killings, etc.  Denham is hiding out in a cheapo boardinghouse of sorts, but he is still comically beset by journalists and process servers.  This whole schism of wacky antics and angsty regret about Kong-caused genocide runs through the whole movie.


It was going to be difficult to pull off a Kong postscript no matter what, but I think I would have liked either a remorseful approach or an lol approach to prevail throughout the movie.  The mixture of the two sometimes doesn't gel well.  Although it's hard to fault scenes like the one below, which is Denham escaping the boardinghouse by wearing a bashed tub as a mask.


Denham's an interesting character in this film.  The movie totally utilizes Armstrong's comic timing, but, in a lot of ways, Denham's a sour jackass.  When he finally gets one lawsuit notice too many, he up and leaves New York for the high seas.  Through a series of circumstances, he meets former ballerina-cum-guitar gal Hilda (Helen Mack).  He wins her heart by berating her, a technique he later applies to the Son of Kong.


More circumstances lead a portion of our cast back to Skull Island, where they encounter said Son, trapped in quicksand.  Note that the "son" of Kong is white, so we might need to get Maury on the case here.


Henceforth, the film plays pretty much like a retread of the first Kong.  Monster fights, romance, all that.  The effects are well up to par and everything's executed well, but it does feel a little tedious and unnecessary at times.  Remember how Ghostbusters II was pretty much Ghostbusters again, but less fun?  Same thing here.


One thing that is noticeably different is that Son is way more kiddied up compared to the first movie.  The Kong we have here is cutesy and goofy and makes "Aww, geez!" faces directly at the camera.  He pounds down on a cave bear, but otherwise lacks a lot of the menace that his dad brought to the screen.  Denham is responsible for most of the aggression here, calling Lil' Kong a "dummy" and a "half-wit" when coconut accidents occur.


It would be a big stretch to consider this a horror film (one could say the same about King Kong, but at least it had deliberately frightening scenes).  Son is far more of a light adventure film.  How light?  Well, one character's recently dead parent is dismissed in the dialogue with, essentially, "Aw, that's too bad.  Well, keep your chin up!"  Granted, we've already fled from the consequences of all the people the first Kong killed, but it's still quite glib.


Overall, pretty fun, if a serious step down in quality compared to the first Kong.  This is really more reminiscent in tone of Mighty Joe Young or something, if not a Rankin-Bass cartoon.  It feels like something you'd see on Saturday morning, sandwiched between cartoons and "Solid Gold".

***

Friday, July 11, 2014

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)


This is what happens to you if you take drugs.  Beautiful model Valentina takes the experimental hallucinogen H.D.S. as part of a magazine expose, but, during her trip, she sees the vicious murder by spiked glove of the startled woman below.


You'd think that deaths aplenty would follow, but they mostly don't.  If Death Walks is a giallo, it definitely leans more towards that subgenre's mystery roots.  The focus is on tension and menace with the deaths making brief cameo appearances between chase scenes.  We don't get tons of bloodletting or spilled gore, and we only get flashes of the things I most enjoy about these movies.  For a lot of its running time, this is a mighty pedestrian affair—not offensive, but definitely not noteworthy.  Death walks.  It never sprints.


Occasionally, director Luciano Ercoli gives us the sort of gorgeous visuals we might hope to see, but these are the exception to the film's low-energy rule.  Also rarely present are the kinds of nutso minor characters that sometimes end up being these films' best elements.


We get a brief visit to an insane asylum with very hands-off supervisors.  We meet a crazy dude who's super happy about tapdancing in a straightjacket.  We get a scene with a guy who apparently lives in his van, in which he's installed a bottle opener (and, by now, we should all know not to trust guys who have vans!).  Valentina herself is intermittently interesting—the script gives her an edge in the form of a pretty short temper.  Still, Death Walks is not a smashing character study.


Maybe my favorite characters only get spotlighted at the end.  I love how vicious thugs in these movies always dress like alcoholic banquet managers.  Plus one guy keeps smoking that cigarette throughout a long chase scene and fight scene, so hats off for that.  


Overall, this is pretty much an also-ran as far as these things go.  I've seen far worse, but also much better.  Completists have probably already caught it and, if you're a casual fan of this genre, you probably won't miss much by giving this one a pass.

**3/4