Friday, October 2, 2015

A "New" Classic

I made a terrifying decision this year.  After much contemplation and soul-searching, I cancelled my cable subscription.  I just couldn't justify paying that bill anymore when I could get almost everything I wanted on demand from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  It was a peculiar feeling, to give that up.  Cable is something I have lived with all my life and felt as necessary as electricity or the telephone - not things that we would probably die without, but things we've come to take for granted as regular parts of modern life.  Once I got past the fear and anxiety, I found it remarkably freeing.  No more being tied to my television!  I could watch what I wanted anywhere in my house thanks to my tablet.  And it was wonderful!  But now, as Halloween approaches, I find myself, for the very first time, missing it.  I loved the Halloween rituals of my most-watched television channels.  SyFy's 31 Days of Halloween.  The somewhat disjointed 13 Days of Halloween on ABC Family.  And the granddaddy of them all - AMC's FearFest.  How was I ever going to live without them?

The answer, of course, was to make my own Halloween film celebration, which I am sharing here with you!  Aren't you lucky?  I started yesterday with The Monster Squad because it was fresh in my mind, but today I have a much better offering.

Those of you under a certain age probably don't remember this, but AMC, one of the first cable networks to recognize Halloween for its rich plethora of film offerings, used to be a station for old people.  I know, hard to believe, but true. The current home of The Walking Dead used to play nothing but boring black & white films that most of you never heard of.  And once in a while they'd have a musical marathon that would have my grandmother glued to her chair all day.  This actually made sense if you are aware that AMC stands for American Movie Classics.  But it probably didn't make for the greatest viewership.  So, gradually, AMC started weaving newer movies into their schedule and branding them "The New Classics."  How classic these movies were is really debatable, because they slapped that label on every movie they managed to snag the rights to and some of them were as far from classic as you can get.  But some they got right, like Die Hard, Scrooged, and today's offering, Children of the Corn.
AMC seems to have the rights to a number of Stephen King adaptations, and they play them A LOT.  To the point where you never want to see them again.  So I had avoided this one for some time.  But when I saw it was available on Hulu (through the Showtime upgrade), I decided to give it another chance.

I don't know that I have actually watched this movie all the way through, uncut, since I was a kid.  And back then, it was terrifying.  Growing up in Maine, I didn't encounter all that many corn fields, especially not ones that went on for miles the way the ones in the movie did.  And thanks to Children of the Corn, corn fields have terrified me for most of my life.  Was I way too young the first time I watched this?  Well, maybe.  My mother worked at a video store from 1986 to 1989, and in that time, I was allowed to watch literally hundreds of movies that she brought home.  And for those of you thinking she was a bad parent, you couldn't be more wrong.  I was just a really great liar.  I had my mom convinced that nothing scared me.  So what if I didn't get much sleep as a kid?  I got to watch the same stuff the grownups did, dammit!

The first thing that struck me rewatching this film was that it was nowhere near as gory as I remembered.  Maybe it was my overactive 8 year-old imagination, but I recall that opening scene in the diner as being horrific, with people vomiting bloody foam from the poisoned coffee and the poor diner owner's hand being pureed in some sort of grinder.  Of course, they would never show this on television, so I was stunned to see that none of it was there in the uncut version.  Did I really imagine all that?  Perhaps the images of children gleefully murdering their parents just so offended my young mind that I made the deaths even worse than they were onscreen.  It was still chilling, but not in the way that I remembered.

As the film progressed, I was further surprised by how much better it was than I recalled.  The children are a mixed bag, with some far better actors than others, but it actually works well in setting the tone.  Some of these kids are zealots, believing deeply in He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and others are just little lost children swept up in their town's mass insanity.  Courtney Gains is always given the most credit for his turn as the sadistic and psychotic Malachi, but I actually found him a bit over the top.  When he's parading Linda Hamilton down the street screaming, "Outlander!" it really is hard not to chuckle.  But that's part of what makes this film so creepy - the demented level of conviction these kids have surrounding their beliefs.  Other movies have featured gangs of killer kids - like the deeply disturbing Who Can Kill a Child? from 1976 - but none with such a fucked up motivation.

Let's look at that for a moment, shall we?  We are told that Isaac is the motivator here, that the kids follow him because he was a preacher when he was younger.  And he's either new to town, or he's always been there depending on which story is true.  This confuses the hell out of me.  First off, are child preachers common in the Bible Belt?  And , if so, how old is Isaac now?  In fairness to John Frankln, the actor portraying that little shit preacher, he suffers from Growth Hormone Deficiency and was actually about 25 when the film was made, but to me at least, he looked a hell of a lot older.  And isn't it kind of natural human behavior to single out the weak and different?  Children are especially cruel when it comes to peculiarities amongst their peers.  I have a really hard time understanding how this kid became so influential.

Perhaps it was the power of the demon?  Because, let's face it, that thing behind the corn rows was most definitely not God, in any sense.  The way the kids have desecrated religious images throughout town, and perverted religious rituals and symbols is disturbing on a almost visceral level.  It is abundantly clear to the rational viewer that something satanic is afoot.  Add in the Omen-evoking musical score, and you start to see the devil in the details.  Sadly, in 1984, the producers of this film were a bit more ambitious than technology, and maybe their budget, would allow.  When the Row Walker is finally revealed, it's a bit more cheesy than I'm sure anyone wanted.
I think these filmmakers missed the point.  The terror here is right in the title.  Whatever is behind their actions, the true nightmare here is found in the children.  As adults, we underestimate them.  But trust me, after more than a decade working in a public school system, I've seen the truth in the tale.  Real kids need no crudely animated fire-demon to influence them toward evil.  Fortunately, I don't live in the land of child preachers.  We're safe until they're united - I hope.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sometimes it's Better to Remember Things Fondly...

Happy Halloween!  Shut up.  I know it's only October first, but my local grocery store has had their giant Grim reaper inflatable up since mid-August.  And it's awesome.  As is the huge blow-up cauldron with the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup spider on top.  Love it!  But Halloween is my holiday, so I'm okay with that.  You can rest assured, however, that I will be the first to bitch when, three days before Halloween, that same grocery store starts putting out Christmas decorations.  If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it.  Halloween is FUN.  In spite of the fact that it is merchandised to death in the same way as Christmas, there are just no downsides to it.  It's not a sappy emotional holiday that requires you to socialize with friends and relations.  You can be a hermit in a cave and still enjoy Halloween - provided you have wi-fi.  You don't hear about a drastic increase of suicides around Halloween.  Murders, maybe, but not suicides.  Because Halloween is a good time for everyone - even sociopaths and serial killers!  It's a level playing field kind of holiday.  And that's why it's my favorite.  That and the fact that Halloween provides an excellent excuse to submerge myself in all things horror.  Granted, this is not much different from the rest of the year, but given the season, it feels somehow more special.  So, with that in mind, my goal is to share my seasonal joy and post a new review each day in October - or at least for each day in October (my tech has been having issues, so I am sneaking tech time on the sly whenever I can).

My first post for you this month is currently available on Netflix.  It's an old childhood favorite that I forgot about for a really long time.  I had always wondered why it didn't achieve the same cult status as The Goonies.  In fact, it seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth for a long time.  Then it celebrated an anniversary and was re-released on a special edition DVD, as all movies seem to be lately.  I considered buying it then, but I was really broke at the time and the price of the DVD skyrocketed fast.  I'm kind of glad I didn't waste my money, because this film was definitely better when I was ten.

 This tarnished nugget was given the promising title of The Monster Squad, and it is quite clearly a ripoff of inspired by The Goonies.  You have the fat kid, the older kid that joins because of a girl, and the completely improbable legend that sends the kids on an amazing adventure.  Unfortunately, what you don't have is Steven Spielberg's magic touch.  At least, that would be the kindest explanation, because I'm sure there are many people out there who remember this as I did and still think it's a classic.  The truth is a little harsh, but I've got to give it to you.  There's a reason this movie sank to the bottom of the dust heap.

It sounds like a great premise - a small band of kids obsessed with monsters encounter monsters in real life and  face them in a battle to save the world from eternal darkness.  Awesome, right?  Well, kind of.  This is a movie full of great moments, with some really fantastic monster designs by the legendary Stan Winston - I absolutely love his underutilized swamp creature.  The problem is those moments just never fully gel into a believable whole.  What elevated The Goonies to greatness was, no matter how implausible it actually was, you fully believed in what was happening.  Why couldn't there be a pirate ship full of gold in a hidden cave system, found by a bunch of kids more or less by accident?  That could happen, right?  But Dracula, gathering a band of monsters to find a magic rock and cast the world into darkness?  That requires a bit more suspension of disbelief.  And The Monster Squad just hasn't got the goods to get you there.

The problems?  First off, the script doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.  I know!  It's just a movie, and a movie sort of aimed at kids, no less.  But movies often underestimate the intelligence of children, and even as a kid, I remember thinking the plot here was paper thin at best.  The movie opens with infamous Dracula foil Van Helsing leading a band of soon-to-be-dead-people into Dracula's castle.  There's some nonsense about a stone and a girl reading a book, then vampires start busting through the floor and it's game over.  So, the plot basically hinges on this scene, since we are later told that Van Helsing and company botched up this ritual and it must take place again - correctly this time - one hundred years later, which puts us in present day.  And here is where it all falls apart.  How has this stone come all the way from Transylvania to the US of A?  How the F did Van Helsing's journal wind up in the exact same place - not to mention that the mother of the Monster Squad leader's randomly buys it for her son, even though it's written in freakin' German?!  And furthermore, since we see only vampires in that opening scene, why in the holy hell is Dracula suddenly traveling with Frankenstein?  Did we miss the part where the two became best buds?  Also must have missed the part where they said that magic stone summoned monsters, because the Creature (of Black Lagoon origin, one supposes) appears randomly after Dracula arrives, a mummy wakes up in a museum, and a man turns into a werewolf.  And they all naturally defer to Dracula because...?  Oh, and did I mention how the monsters seem to conveniently randomly pop up in the vicinity of the Monster Squad kids?  The youngest member of the gang - more on that later - has casual run ins with both the Creature, who pops out of the water right outside Monster Squad's clubhouse, and the Mummy, which manages to find its way into this child's closet without ever being detected.  WTF?

I could get past all this.  I really could.  Because the idea of it all is just so damn much fun.  But I can't do it for one simple reason: these kids can't act.  Harsh?  Maybe.  But true.  There is a never ending supply of child actors being churned out of Hollywood like one of those Playdoh Factory noodles.  Most of them are mediocre at best.  But there are some really good ones out there.  Those are the kind of kids that get cast in a Spielberg film.  This bunch would never have made that cut.  To be fair, the lines they're supposed to be delivering aren't the greatest either.  I mean, what child is not going to feel stupid debating whether or not the Wolfman has "nards."  And for those of you that have no idea what nards are, it was the 80s Godammit, and us old folks think your slang is every bit as stupid as ours was.

Don't get me wrong.  The Monster Squad is not a terrible film.  It's watchable, which cannot be said for a lot of the films I loved as a kid.  There are some chuckles scattered throughout, and some moments that might be genuinely scary to a child.  So probably not the best thing to view with the toddler set on Halloween.  But if you've got a bunch of eight year old boys at your house for a sleepover, you are definitely going to be the cool parent introducing them to this.  And for us old folks, it's not so bad either.  The music is pretty sweet.  The relationship between Frankenstein and Phoebe tugs at the heart strings.  And - SPOILER - the scene where the Wolfman blows up and comes back together is pretty damn nifty.  Just don't expect much, and The Monster Squad will surely meet those expectations.

My one word of warning - this is a movie that dates itself pretty quickly in an early fight scene.  If, like me, you're someone that cringes at ignorance, you may want to be forewarned that the word "fag" gets thrown around a few times more than it should.  But, like Bing Crosby's blackface routine in Holiday Inn, it was part of the times.  Doesn't make it right, just makes us look stupid.  But then again, you knew that.  ;)

The Monster Squad