Monday, March 31, 2014

Eighties Movie Monster Faves

If the ‘50s represented a golden age for monster movies, then the ‘80s were a Renaissance, a rebirth of creature design, filtered through an updated set of sensibilities.  It’s easy to draw parallels between the two decades, which exhibited their fair share of excessive fashion and Cold War paranoia.  Monsters of the ‘50s and ‘80s, whether they originated from a foreign land or alien planet, were metaphors for xenophobia.  Outsiders were not to be trusted.  But ‘80s monsters went beyond this paradigm, reflecting a new cynicism that criticized the authorities we were supposed to believe in. 
Monsters of the 1980s reflected the changing demands of a more sophisticated audience, jaded by decades of rubber monsters, and demanding something more convincing and visceral.  Answering the call were a new wave of effects masters, including Stan Winston, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.  In addition to good old man-in-suit effects and puppetry, their bag of tricks incorporated servo-controlled animatronics and modern lightweight materials.  While some of these methods may seem primitive by today’s standards, they took practical creature effects to a whole new level of artistry and craftsmanship, with a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood quality that millions of dollars of CGI could never equal.

No offense intended if I’ve left out one of your favorites (feel free to comment).  You may notice the absence of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, who at the very least deserve honorable mentions, but for reasons too arbitrary to mention, I’ve omitted them from my list.  Without further introduction, I submit a bakers’ dozen, in no particular order, of my favorite ‘80s monsters:

1. The Thing (TheThing, 1982) John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s classic The Thing from Another World was met with indifference from mainstream audiences and dismissed by critics when it was released in 1982.  In recent years, however, it’s climbed its way to the top of many horror/sci-fi aficionados’ lists, thanks in no small part to Rob Bottin’s mind-blowing effects.  With his various nightmare-inducing creations, Bottin takes us places only hinted at by the original version.  For the first time, we witness the messy onscreen ramifications of a shape-shifting alien life form that can become a perfect copy of anything it desires.  

2. Brundlefly (The Fly, 1986) Building on themes established by his earlier “body horror” films (including The Brood and Videodrome), David Cronenberg put his inimitable spin on his remake of another 1950s classic, The Fly.  Whereas the original creature, with its human body and oversized fly head, appears more kitschy than fearsome, the new iteration eschews the old aesthetic to present something that’s neither man, nor insect, but an amalgamation. After a teleporter accident combines his DNA with a housefly, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) undergoes a gradual metamorphosis that simultaneously evokes our sympathies and revulsion.  His final form, realized by Chris Walas, underscores the potential hazards of exploring new scientific frontiers.    

3. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Ghostbusters, 1984) Who knew the instrument of humanity’s destruction could be so hilarious?  Ivan Reitman’s riff on kaiju proves that any sufficiently large monster, no matter how ridiculous, rampaging through New York City can still elicit panic.  Fear, in this case, accompanies a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.  The late Harold Ramis articulated it best as Egon Spengler when he said, “...I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”

4. Tie: Werewolves (An American Werewolf in London, 1981, and The Howling, 1981) It’s big budget versus small budget, as two effects wizards, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, achieve the same ends with subtly different approaches.  In a departure from earlier incarnations of cinematic lycanthropes, which relied on time-lapse photography and cuts, audiences for both films witnessed the painful transformation of man to beast, through in-camera, real-time effects. 

5. Gremlins (Gremlins, 1984) Cute little chatterboxes transform into malevolent demons (No, I’m not referring to teenagers).  Joe Dante’s anarchic vision is brought to life through Chris Walas’ imaginative creations.  What starts out as one innocuous mogwai suddenly becomes hundreds of evil creatures, hell-bent with an appetite for destruction and a penchant for watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

6. Alien Queen (Aliens, 1986) How could James Cameron, working with Stan Winston’s creature effects crew, improve H.R. Giger’s original, elegant creature designs?  He didn’t.  Instead, Cameron and his crew introduced a new, equally terrifying monster to the Alien canon.  By appropriating some of the best aspects of Giger’s biomechanical elements and taking them to the logical conclusion for a bigger, more powerful creature, he created something entirely new.  Ever wonder what laid the giant eggs in Alien?  Wonder no more.

7. Cenobites (Hellraiser, 1987) Clive Barker introduced the world to these leather-clad demons from a hellish nether realm.  Mortals who are foolish enough to toy with a Pandora’s Rubik’s Cube, the puzzle box, summon the beings, who thrive on pleasure and pain (Guess which aspect you’ll witness most?).  Each Cenobite appears in various states of mutilation, including a mute, perpetually chattering creature, with lips cut away to reveal a set of gnashing teeth.   Pinhead (Doug Bradley), known as the “Lead Cenobite” in the first film is their de facto spokesperson, and tour guide to hell.  Sadly, his impact has become diluted over time, on account of his subsequent appearances in the numerous, non-Barker, sequels attempting to turn him into another wisecracking boogieman, like Freddy or the Leprechaun.

8. Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988) The Kevin Yagher-designed Chucky owes a debt of gratitude to the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as the creepy My Buddy toy of the 80s (see below) for its inception.  When dying mass murderer Charles Lee Ray’s (Brad Dourif) soul enters a Good Guys doll, the toy comes to life.  Needless to say, when people get in the way of Chucky, bad things happen.

 Behold, this nostalgic bit of nightmare fodder:

9. The Toxic Avenger (The Toxic Avenger, 1984) Hailed as “the first superhero from New Jersey,” the Toxic Avenger (aka: “Toxie”) is a champion of the downtrodden citizens of Tromaville, and underdogs everywhere.  Director/co-writer/producer Lloyd Kaufman’s enduring character has become synonymous with Troma films, and reminds us that sometimes, the monsters are on our side.

10. “Ghouls” (They Live, 1988) To the best of my knowledge, there’s no official name for the aliens in John Carpenter’s allegorical 1988 film, They Live, although they’re sometimes referred to as “ghouls.”  While they roam freely among us as fellow humans, their true appearance is only revealed through special glasses.  In this case, an invasion has already occurred, and we’re their conquest.  For most of the populace, we choose to remain in a brainwashed state, blind to the truth that resides in front of our own eyes.

11. Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988) Who doesn’t like clowns? Oh yeah, just about everyone.  The comical, yet horrifying, clown-like aliens (or “klowns”), created by the Chiodo brothers, tap into our universal fears.  They managed to distill everything we ever disliked or suspected about clowns into these nightmarish extraterrestrial creatures, who abduct and dine on human prey.

12. The Predator (Predator, 1987) Although this Stan Winston creation wears dreadlocks, he’s not interested in peace, love and reggae, but collecting human skulls as trophies.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch finds his ultimate nemesis in the predator, played by 7-foot, 2-½ inch Kevin Peter Hall.  Most Schwarzenegger vehicles focus on his strength, but the former bodybuilder appears puny next to his massive opponent.

13. Belial (Basket Case, 1982) Frank Henenlotter’s tale of brotherly love stretched to its limit features everyone’s favorite homicidal parasitic twin.  Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) carries his deformed twin Belial around in a basket, vowing revenge against the physicians who separated them in an illicit surgical procedure.  You might be tempted to ask, “What’s in the basket?” Hope you never find out.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monster March Quick Picks and Pans

Big Ass Spider! (2013) I wasn’t expecting much from director Mike Mendez and writer Gregory Gieras’ giant bug flick, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Taken at face value, it’s nothing new, but the snappy dialogue and brisk pace hooked me from the start.   It’s a fun homage to 50s mutant monsters that’s aware of its low budget origins (watch for the Lloyd Kaufman cameo as one of the spider’s victims).  Unlike the cynical B-movie exercise that was Sharknado, with its incoherent plot and wooden acting, Big Ass Spider’s filmmakers realize you need more than a ridiculous premise to keep viewers interested.  Aside from the requisite monster pandemonium, the film takes time to establish its main characters. 

Greg Grunberg stars as unlucky-in-love exterminator Alex, whose day keeps getting worse by the minute.  In an early scene, he’s bitten by a brown recluse spider, but soon discovers he has a much bigger problem on his hands when he faces an even deadlier foe.  Soon, he’s in over his head, helping the U.S. military combat an eight-legged mutant arachnid rampaging through the streets of Los Angeles.  Ray Wise co-stars as a no-nonsense general, and Lombardo Boyar steals the show as Alex’s ad hoc sidekick Jose.   Highly recommended.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Bad Milo! (2013) The second movie in this post to have a title with an exclamation point is another welcome surprise.  Duncan (Ken Marino) lives a stress-filled life: he’s feeling pressured to help his wife (Gillian Jacobs) conceive a baby, his obnoxious boss (Patrick Warburton) just embezzled company funds, and his co-worker accidentally deleted his presentation.  All of this stress inevitably winds up in his bowels, but a trip to the bathroom isn’t enough to alleviate his woes.  A creature that resides in his lower intestine emerges to wreak vengeance on those who crossed him.  Director/co-writer Jacob Vaughan manages to handle this admittedly juvenile premise with wit and a modicum of restraint.  Marino generates sympathy in his thankless role as the beleaguered Alex.  The movie also features some nice supporting performances, including Mary Kay Place as his overbearing mother, and Peter Stormare as his therapist, who helps him come to terms with the monster inside (during one session, Alex comments, “I had a monster up my ass.  It’s the furthest thing from a metaphor!”). 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Of Unknown Origin (1983) Based on a novel by Chauncey G. Parker III, George P. Cosmatos’ urban horror flick stars a pre-Buckaroo Banzai Peter Weller as yuppie businessman Bart Hughes.  Bart seems to have it all, with a beautiful home, loving family, and a prominent position in a Manhattan (actually filmed in Montréal) firm.  His life takes a turn for the worse when a large, unseen rat threatens his renovated house, and his sanity disintegrates in the process.  Of Unknown Origin rises above many of its contemporaries, thanks to some clever commentary on corporate America and the pursuit of the so-called American dream.  The rat becomes Bart’s white whale, the embodiment of his deepest anxieties and fears.  Despite the film’s aspirations to be Jaws in a brownstone, Of Unknown Origin works best on a metaphorical level.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

The Giant Claw (1957) This movie was made for late night viewing.  Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday star in director Fred F. Sears’ giant monster epic, featuring one of the goofiest creatures ever committed to film.  Looking something like a cross between a buzzard and Gonzo the Great, a gigantic bird from “a galaxy millions of light years away” terrorizes the skies.  Mitch MacAfee (Morrow) leads a team of scientists, endeavoring to find a way to combat the indestructible avian fiend that threatens any aircraft that cross its path.  Throughout the film, we hear constant comparisons of the creature to a battleship, as if the writers ran out of analogies.  It’s the best kind of stupid, the kind that could only be made without an ounce of irony.  If you’re looking for the ideal title for B-movie night, search no further.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Dogora (aka: Uchû Daikaijû Dogora) (1964) Watching director Ishirô Honda’s slow-moving giant space jellyfish flick, I got the distinct impression that he really wanted to direct a jewel heist story, but based on his reputation, Toho probably insisted he deliver on a monster movie instead.  The end result is this (alleged) compromise.  At least, that would explain all the cops and robbers stuff, with a little dash of kaiju thrown in to spice things up.  A massive space jellyfish floats above Japan, absorbing diamonds and coal for sustenance.  Before long, anything carbon-based becomes its potential dinner.  Dogora doesn’t have the wholesale destruction present in many of Honda’s other, more prominent flicks, but it might be worth a look, if only for the unique creature, which (at least to this viewer’s knowledge) never appeared in another Toho kaiju picture.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) This late-80s relic promises much more than it delivers.   After a global nuclear war has left most men impotent, Sam Hell (Roddy Piper), one of the few surviving virile males, is recruited to rescue some fertile women from their captors and procreate with them to help repopulate the human species.  Well, at least the movie lives up to its title, as Hell does in fact come to Frogtown, a post-apocalyptic zone run by frog-human mutants.  Unfortunately, once he gets there, not much happens.  There are a couple stray funny bits, but most of the movie drags when the filmmakers should have taken more chances with the material instead of pulling their punches. 

Rating: **.  Available on DVD

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Classics Revisited: Creature from the Black Lagoon

(1954) Directed by Jack Arnold; Written by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross; Starring: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Whit Bissell and Nestor Paiva; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“The creature was violent because he’s provoked into violence.  Inherent in the character is the statement: we all have violence within, and if provoked are capable of any bizarre retaliation.  If left alone and understood, that’s when we overcome the primal urges that we’re all cursed with.” – Jack Arnold (excerpt from Tom Weaver’s DVD commentary)

Ever since my blog’s inception, I intended to review Creature from the Black Lagoon, but life and other projects had a way of intervening. The title creature was one of my primary influences, and could just as easily have been my avatar (I briefly considered Robby the Robot as well), before I decided upon Peter Lorre as my official mascot.  Although I’m just getting around to discussing the creature (or “gill man”) now, his importance in monster movie history can’t be denied.  Better late than never, I finally pay my respects to the last great classic Universal monster.

Creature from the Black Lagoon* was originally filmed and projected in 3D.  While the 2D images from my Blu-ray** copy (the disc includes 2D and 3D versions) look stunning, it’s one of the few times I wished I had a 3D TV to appreciate the movie as the filmmakers originally intended.  At one time, the filmmakers planned to shoot this in color, but the crisp black and white cinematography adds a layer of mystery to the movie.  Also, despite being separated from its Universal horror brethren by two decades, the absence of color helps it fit in with its predecessors more seamlessly.  Shot on two coasts (the above-water scenes were shot in the Universal Studios backlot in California, while the  underwater scenes, with a different cast, were shot in Florida) and edited together, the combined footage create the illusion that all the scenes originated from the same place. 

* The film went through a number of titles during development, including The Pisces Man and Black Lagoon.

** Nitpickers take note: the screen shots provided here are from the DVD, which was issued several years back.

The creature’s appearance is distinctly human, but different enough to give audiences the creeps.  Even by today’s standards, the suit effects hold up; a remarkable testament to practical effects.  Although no one would ever describe him as cute and cuddly, the creature remains sympathetic due to his identifiable human traits.  He just does what he does, existing in isolation, until humans encroach upon his environment.  The creature was brought to life, by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes and Ben Chapman in above water scenes.  According to film historian Tom Weaver’s commentary, while Bud Westmore is credited for the creature’s distinctive design, in reality he had little, if anything, to do with it.  Instead, the creature’s form, which went through several iterations, was the result of many skilled individuals on Westmore’s team, including the initial design work by Milicent Patrick, and head sculpture by Chris Mueller.    

The film features a terrific composite score by three (uncredited) composers, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, and a very young Henry Mancini.  Each handled different components of the movie, to set the tone, ranging from playful, to romantic, and horrific.  Stein contributed some of the more strident components, including the famous three-note gill man theme.

With all due respect to my blog’s mascot, this film concerns another form of mad love.  Early in the film, we witness a love triangle between the two male lead characters, David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Mark Williams (Richard Denning), his publicity seeking boss.  At the apex of the triangle is the fetching Julia Adams as their assistant, Kay Lawrence.  It doesn’t take a scholar in Freudian theory to decode the phallic imagery of Denning wielding a speargun throughout the picture.  To be fair, the ubiquitous presence of his speargun was likely a conscious effort by the filmmakers to exploit the 3D process, but added an unintended subtext to the scenes.  As a result of losing Kay to his subordinate, he takes out his aggression on the creature, fueled by his perceived impotence.  The creature becomes another participant in this love triangle (love square?), when he discovers Kay.  In a scene that would be echoed 21 years later in Jaws, we share in his voyeuristic pursuit, watching her frolic in the lagoon, unaware of the danger that lurks below.  Once he’s caught a glimpse of Kay, he’s determined to claim her for himself.  What he hopes to do with her is probably best left to our imagination.

Creature from the Black Lagoon spawned two inferior sequels: Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, which continued the saga of the gill man but didn’t have the impact of the original.  Over the years, the idea of a remake has been thrown about, but nothing has amounted to much.  I’m not a big fan of remakes, but I was intrigued to learn about a proposed 3D remake by producer John Landis in 1982, which would have featured makeup effects by Rick Baker and Arnold at the helm once more.   The material still has potential with the right combination of cast and crew, but it will be difficult, nigh impossible, to top the original creature design.  60 years onward, Creature from the Black Lagoon still captivates and inspires.