Saturday, April 28, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "The Skull"

In “The Skull,” a criminal master-mind called The Skull (Geoffrey Lewis) sets a plan in motion to awaken and re-animate all the evil geniuses in man’s history.  He decides to start with a famous Mummy, King “Toot.” 

Using the bandaged villain, The Skull plans to steal the 10 million dollar Selma Diamond.

Meanwhile, it is Frankenstein’s birthday and the Monster Squad celebrates the day before tangling with the Skull.

When Frankenstein is captured by Skull and Toot, his friends must come to the rescue.

Although, like most episodes of Monster Squad (1976), “The Skull” isn’t particularly good, it is notable, perhaps because it hits so many mid-1970s Zeitgeist notes. 

For instance, the episode involves an ‘energy crisis’ -- a key term in the era of OPEC embargoes and gas 

Secondly, there was a resurgence of interest in King Tut in the pop culture of the 1970s, and this episode transforms him into an evil henchman.

Thirdly, there is talk of “black outs” in the episode, another perennial problem of the mid-decade span.

Besides these specific 1970s touchstones, the episode actually features some new turns in the by-now highly repetitive formula. 

For example, the Skull escapes the climactic fight and flees to a graveyard, forcing the werewolf to fight him there.  The graveyard set is terribly cheap looking -- you can see the grass “sheet” moving back and forth as a battle in an open grave commences – but at least the episode doesn’t rely on the frequently seen final free-for-all or melee in the villain’s HQ that is usually featured.

Also, this is a nice episode for the Frankenstein Monster, who celebrates his birthday, and is threatened with death by electrocution by the Skull.  He survives, and even gets a “charge” out of his experience, but the character holds center stage well.

As Monster Squad episodes go, this is the most tolerable entry since “Ultra Witch.”

Next week: “The Weatherman.”

Friday, April 27, 2018

Guest Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

"Hear No Evil:" A Quiet Place

By Jonas Schwartz

Sound plays such a vital essence of any film, whether horror, sci-fi, or comedy, that the audience almost- takes it for granted. Not so for John Krasinski's masterful shocker A Quiet Place. Practically a silent movie, Krasinski's film reminds audiences just how much noise we make even without trying. Even something as gentle as a foot rustling in grass can be deafening when the rest of the world is absolutely still. And silence is tantamount in the world created in A Quiet Place, for even the softest whisper can get you and your loved ones eviscerated by creatures in wait.

The world is almost vacant, the human race almost decimated. Alien beings with hyper-sensitive hearing have slaughtered everyone. One family has survived because they could communicate through sign language -- their only daughter (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. Mother (Emily Blunt), father (Krasinski) and their three children live on a farm in upstate New York. They sneak into their deserted town for resources, drugs, food etc. They think they've covered all their bases, made sure that everyone is safe, but 2 AA batteries become blood in the water for the family.

Krasinski turns the suspense on high, with several terrifying set pieces and makes every sound seem dangerous.  Something as ordinary as picking a pill container from a shelf becomes a hair-raising moment if any of the bottles should topple over. He concentrates the camera on potential dangers, like a nail sticking on a step-board or a birthing, and pounds the fear into the audience that something horrific is around the corner. The film has minimal gore but relies on shock, tautness, and cringe moments.

The script by Krasinski, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck wastes no time with exposition or flashbacks. The prologue takes place a few months after the attack and the rest of the film, a year and a half after day zero. There's no explanations of why or how, just a few clues in newspaper clippings. The unknown becomes a leading horror. There's no idea how many alien monsters exist, where they came from, or how to kill them, so the family is always in peril. Adding to the horror, the film centers purely on the family. Other than a random character or two, the family is the audiences' only focal point. There's not a bus of camp counselors with victim tattooed to their foreheads, just the family, in constant jeopardy.

There are a few stretches of the imagination. For the storyline, having a main character pregnant, where one cannot stop the noises of childbirth or control a baby's wails, only adds to the tension, however, it's hard to believe that the parents in this situation would have done everything up to wrapping each other's full bodies in condoms to not get pregnant while merciless creatures are on the warpath. Also, because the aliens' weakness is revealed to the audience way before the characters, the public has plenty of time to work out why the characters should have been a bit savvier in bringing down the monsters.

Without the performances, the movie would never work. Krasinski, Blunt and the children play their roles without irony. The pain on their face throughout the film gives the illusion the actors are as terrified as their characters. Because this family unit is the whole film, the two leads, married in real life, have built formidable relationships with Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward, so that the bonds between them are undeniable.

Just like John William's seminal theme for Jaws, the score by Marco Beltrami warns the audience to hold tight to their neighbor's hand. Sounding like a fog horn over rattling tin, the music is simplistic but primal.

The creatures are reminiscent of Stan Winston's aliens from the space franchise, with spiderlike bodies and protruding teeth.  By adding pumpkin-like heads that glow and pull apart to reveal more teeth and ear drums that glow, the motion capture monsters feel fresh. 

Like last year's Oscar winner Jordan Peele, another comedy actor has emerged as a horror icon, someone not only carrying the torch but reinventing it.  John Krasinski's A Quiet Place is as startling as the early juggernauts of Steven Spielberg (Jaws), John Carpenter (Halloween), and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It will be exciting to see what brave new world he invents next.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Night Stalker (1971)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) originally aired in 1971. It was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s, where down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor Tony Vincenzo.

It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their bodies drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit...

Kolchak considers this theory but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die. 

Finally, once the culprit is named -- Janos Skorzeny -- the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. 

Realizing it is up to him, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. 

But in order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

In this project, writer Richard Matheson provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even an unforgettable sense of humor. McGavin does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat, staccato delivery that remains unmatched to this day. Kolchak is not your typical protagonist, but rather a persistent little irritant with a nose for news, and a penchant for annoying those in power.  The story itself, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, remains more interesting for what it doesn't tell you. Rather than spoon feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. There's face paint, wigs, etc, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, be well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot (by director John Llewelyn Moxey). The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack (in a dark alley...), it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool (a shaky cam) and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot: the hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers ourselves.

Finally, I should note that it has been about six years since I last saw this tele-film, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up today. 

For one thing, the climactic moments of the film are much scarier and much more suspenseful than I remembered. 

Watching it this time, I noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The result is that the only sound I could hear during this extended sequence was my own heart beating in anticipation and fear. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that though we say he's a hero, he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this tele-film when Kolchak walks to his car by pitch of black nighttime. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of his predicament. 

There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (and embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and realistic. Again, we see Richard Matheson's sense of the human, of the ordinary, and we recognize Kolchak in ourselves.  McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. It wouldn't work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. 

As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series...) Next week: The Night Strangler.