Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, February 07, 2014

Monster Capsules: BIG ASS SPIDER, WAKE WOOD, WOMAN IN BLACK, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, VALLEY OF GWANGI

BIG ASS SPIDER
2013 - ***

A sometimes not wince-inducing monster film, Big Ass Spider shows director Mike Mendez knows how to keep a low budget giant monster flick fleet-footed. Greg Grunberg (Alias, Heroes) shoots for a Seth Rogen vibe as the semi-dopey exterminator who "thinks likes a spider" and really wants a girlfriend, a combination that eventually proves him the best man for the job of tracking and wrangling the titular amok experiment. First it gets loose inside a hospital, then grows to titanic proportion and climbs a downtown L.A. office building. Playing a kind of PG version of Seth's unforgettable psychopath in 2009's Observe and Report, Grunberg walks against the tide of fleeing extras in slow-mo to a haunting cover of the Pixies' "Where is My Mind" and even if the film defies regulations by showing full monster too early, and even though the thundering orchestral library military leitmotif quickly wearies the nerves, low-key bemusement endures throughout. Ray Wise (Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks) is the head of the military clean-up squad that at first wants nothing to do with the dopey Grunberg; Clare Kramer is the hottie lieutenant who winds up all webbed up and waiting for rescue. Lombardo Boyar is a kind of less funny Michael Peña from Observe and Report (my review here). That's not a dis on Boyar, he's fine, but Peña is hilarious because he's genuinely dangerous, Boyar is merely genial. If Pauline Kael had been alive to praise Observe and Report in 2009 she would, and maybe it wouldn't have bombed and as a result Boyar would be edgier. She'd probably also enjoy, to a point, Big Ass Spider, because she liked bad bug movies. She was a great, great lady, man.

WAKE WOOD
2010 - ***

Hammer is back with this keen medley of Monkey's Paw-ish family grief, Wicker Man pagan rural secrets, and the never-gets-old 'terrifying child who kills for no apparent reason' motiif. When a veterinarian (Aidan Gillen) moves his family to the small rural England town of the title, and his daughter has her throat torn out by a guard dog, the townsfolk (led by Mike Leigh-regular Timothy Spall) spill their secret: the town is cursed/blessed with the ability to restore the suddenly dead to life for three days so loved ones can say their proper good-bye. But the grief-stricken mother (Eva Barthistle - who was in the similar The Children two years earlier) doesn't want to let her daughter go when time's up. Ungrateful woman! Doesn't she know what will happen? Did no one tell her?! No they didn't. Pretty short-sighted of them! Soon the child's using telekinesis in combination with a crowbar to off the protesting locals and her dull yellow raincoat in the dark woods conjures vaguely Don't Look Now-ish unease. What do the dead locals care, though, when they can always come back for a visit? Aside from a heart being ripped out, some crowbar blunt force trauma, and dying farm animals, there's not much gore. Ahhahah that's a joke. It's Hammer!

WOMAN IN BLACK
2012 - ***1/2

Hammer does it again! They are really on a second roll and, despite the immense attention to Edwardian period detail--enough to suffocate any ordinary picture--Woman in Black is never stuffy and really rather ripping. A surprisingly solid Daniel Radcliffe is a London lawyer sent, Harker-style, to inventory to a dark decaying mansion in a remote, fearful hamlet. There's a great metaphysical shocker ending involving a speeding train, and the woman in black turns out to be a vindictive wraith like Eva Graps and her ghost daughter rolled into one malevolent spirit, but not some Disney type, she's a genuine fright. And if the story follows a too familiar pattern (Dark Water / Ringu meets some Innocents), hey, Hammer practically invented this shit. The ample presence of tight-lipped, suspicious locals at the inn harkens back to the days when a crisply attired Peter Cushing would get a similar cold shoulder while asking for directions and ordering a pint, and the sense of pacing is superb. Even if there's the usual stretches of our Harker-ian hero running around the dark mansion with a drippy candle, here it's done briskly with the dark always a breath away from swallowing him whole. Director James Watkins shows that the chilling power of his Eden Lake (2008) was no fluke, that he is not afraid of bleak but compelling endings, and that he is a new force on the scene, poised to become the next Terence Fisher.

 DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS
1966 - **1/2

Then again, even Terence Fisher isn't always Terence Fisher, such as in this second entry in Hammer's Dracula series (or third counting the Drac-free Brides of Dracula), which I'd been struggling to see for a long time, there having been only a terrible non-anamorphic old Anchor Bay disc which I could never get into, thanks to terrible color fading. Well, this new Blu-ray version is gorgeous proof it wasn't just the non-anamorphic washed-out dullness that made it so avoidable. Even pristine and robustly colored it's a bit of a silly mess, depending on all sorts of idiocy (like a heroine who falls for the same trick twice, and never thinks to keep wearing the cross that saved her life mere scenes ago) to generate suspense. Most of this movie consists of posh Brits leisurely debating whether to spend the night at Dracula's castle. Once Christopher Lee is revived he seems to resent having to wear fangs again, so churlishly appears only 1/3 the way through, and the script thinks one can make a cross out of just about anything (stopping just short of the old crossed fingers trick scared kids are so fond of -see also: my piece on the confusion of symbols and reality in horror films), yet the vampire's got no problem at all strutting around a monastery. So he's fine in a house of God, just not if some atheist points out the cross pattern in the tiles on the floor.

Oh well, the Blu-ray is deliciously un-faded, with rich sickly gold yellows and cherry lifesaver red gels, a 3-D-ish feeling of the dimensions and spaces of the castle, laden with all those masonic triangle candle holders, shields and soft serve swirl columns that constitute Dracula's and nearly every other Hammer castle (which is not a dis- I prefer their sets to real castles which always seem depressing and dank). It's good that it's gorgeous, in short, as there's not much else to do in this film aside from watching idiots leaving each other behind to go investigate sounds, saying they'll be right back, slowly walking down halls, entering rooms, slowly pushing doors open, and never returning. So while Darwin chuckles from on high, we're forced to count the minutes as we're shown every last real-time moment involved in stringing a person up by his feet and slitting their throat over a big stone trough full of Drac ashes. The yellow mist is cool, but still... both Hammer and Universal seemed to think audiences wouldn't buy a character killed in the last film if he didn't get magically revived or de-thawed, as if we couldn't imagine say, a prequel, considering Dracula had been around for centuries they could have scrolled back and killed him all over again and no one would demand their money back or remember what happened last time (this being long before VHS). But whatever, it is what it is, and for Hammer fans that's enough. At least old Drac has good taste in brides as usual. When he punks out hottie Barbara Shelley, we all benefit as she finally undoes her prim bun and dour persnickety grousing manner, unleashing her beautiful red hair, gorgeous alabaster gold neckline and posh bloodlust. The absence of Peter Cushing, though, is felt like a kidney punch.

VALLEY OF GWANGI
1969- **

Here's a bizarre mix of devotional Harryhausen animation and unconscious cowboy brutality that feels why too dated for 1969. The tedious story involves a posse of rodeo cowboys led by James Franciscus stumbling onto a desert paradise, long hidden from man, that looks almost the exact same as the depressing lifeless desert they just were traversing, with no sort of ecosystem on evidence remotely close to being able to realistically nourish apex predators like the Allosaurus (colored purple here, for reasons which I'm sure exist). I haven't read up on anything dinosaur-related since third or fourth grade but I still knew more than the alleged paleontologist riding with the cowboys. At one point he even calls a dinosaur a "styranosaurus!" which I presume is his shorthand for tyrannosaurus and styracosaurus, since his mutton chops and teeth are so bogus it must be hard for him to enunciate two such Latin syllable-enriched names in one sentence. At least he knows to get out of the sun when it's time for the Allopsaureuys / Styrackosauss smack-down!

And no disrespect meant to the great Harryhausen but there's only so many times you can watch creatures who could never survive in their depicted ecosystem mix it up in a flat ugly middle shot diorama desert (these films always imagine dinosaurs as being in the desert since that's where the bones are found, which again betrays a contemptuous disregard for paleontology, since America's deserts used to be fecund jungles) and here their monochrome purple colors and lack of close-up inserts make them look like plastic kid's toys. Harryausen's no slouch; he even animates the eohippus when a movie this cheap and meant for kids would usually have regular pony footage shrunk... but it's not even as interesting as a typical arc in Land of the Lost and that used goddamned puppets.


So yeah, I tried to love it as long as I can remember, but I can't dig Gwangi and I with its recent TCM screening I finally figured out why: it's not just that I hate children in monster movies, especially the burdensome cliche'd scam artist local boy, 'one peso senor,' that all monster movies set in Mexico, Italy, Greece, or Spain seem to insist on, and it's not just that all that sun-bleached scenery makes me depressed and thirsty, it's because of the unconscious brutality on the part of these cowboys. They never doubt their right to grab the still surviving beasts of Gwangi's valley for public display thus proving the point that man destroys everything he touches all in the name of a measly profit or science. We can't help but wish they never found the place, and that the movie never existed. Harryhausen's famous for getting us to care about his monsters, but that can backfire, such as in Twenty Million Miles to Earth, which also has the tiresome 'one peso senor' kid. And like in that earlier film, our abused creature here even has to battle another abused creature, in both cases a circus elephant, also Harryhausen-animated. I love Howard Hawks, too, but have the same problem with Hatari!  I can't abide a callous approach to abducting animals and keeping them captive for no reason other than for a zoo or circus, or worse, medical experiments and/or forced labor.


Big Ass Spider/s, grasshoppers, plant or rock beings, and mantises never manage to earn my sympathy which is how I prefer it; the last thing I want from a film like this is to feel like I'm getting as ASPCA pitch. Even a genius like Harryhausen can't give a bug a soul, and for that I am truly grateful. It's this realization that prompts me to stop trying to love Gwangi and instead to look over towards my disc of Jack Arnold's classic Tarantula (1955--above) like a man who finally realizes what matters in life... a giant spider in love... with Mara Corday...

(See also: I Like Big Bugs and I Cannot Lie)

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