Friday, October 25, 2019

Creature Double Feature Night 5: DOLLS, THE MONSTER SQUAD, + Trilogy of Terror's "Amelia"

Here's a two 1/3 films for the whole family, rich with scary dolls and vampire brides, waiting right there on Prime, in glorious HD. And by family, I don't mean in a sticky, irritating way where the kids who star in the film are saints with little string leitmotifs accompanying their dewey-eyed close-ups or passively suffering Stephen King-style bullies and shady government agents. Hell no. These two films have kids in them, but they're cool kids. They don't grate a childless old curmudgeon's last nerve the way some do. What happened to kids in movies, man? They used to be cool, like Tatum O'Neal and Jackie Earle Hayley cool. Well, we have to films with their like within them. These have cool settings, deep blacks, and interesting approaches to the good vs. evil dichotomy. Shall we go then, you and I?

(1987) Dir Stuart Gordon
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

A disparate bunch of dislikable travelers, along with two 'good' ones, seek shelter at a remote mansion full of dolls when their cars run into a sudden storm and mysterious engine trouble. Little do they suspect, the eerily tolerant elderly couple (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) who live there are... well... I can't say more. Creepy and colorful, beautifully photographed, and with just the right note of macabre glee, all ages are welcome to DOLLS if they don't mind a little or a lot of blood. Of the six travelers, only an sweet-dispositioned endomorph (named Ralph, what else?) who never lost his inner child, and the very imaginative daughter (Carrie Lorraine) of a particularly hammy pair of life-size dipshits (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon [the 'mean' rival shrink trying to give everyone electroshock treatments in From Beyond] and Ian Patrick Williams) may be spared. Everyone else is asking to die--or be shrunk and locked inside a ceramic doll-shaped encasement. Even the jangly-jeweled over-acting Madonna-ish Aussie new wave punk hitchhikers (Cassie Stuart and Buntley Bailey) are asking for it by, amongst other things, trying to rob the place after the humans go to bed. See, late at night the dolls come to life and are rather insistent on everyone else doing the opposite. The pissed off parents accuse Ralph of the murders since he's running around covered in blood and his habit of running around with the daughter, screaming.

The all-in-a-single-night pace and a refreshingly non-carousel-sourced score by the impossibly named Fuzbee Norse help this one sing briskly and without insufferable whimsy. Producer Charles Band's main man Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directed, so it's invested with considerably more style and care than usual for a New Moon/Empire production. The HD Prime print is sublime, better than great, allowing Marc Ahlberg's cinematographic craftsmanship to fill in every ornate room and hallway with deep black dark corners, and nooks brimming with malevolent lifeless doll eyes, all lit seemingly only by the fireplace, candles, or the incessant cracks of lightning from outside. (That's the Charles Band secret, shooting in cash-strapped European countries with affordable genius lighting craftsman) Pretty darn perfect for an October drinking sesh, bro. Just be respectful of the noise levels, or we newly sewn-together old folks are gonna get ya. ++

(1987) Dir. Fred Dekker 
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

It was easy for me to steer away from a child-encrusted title like The Monster Squad for years, expecting a kind of super-tacky faux-Spielbergian/faux-hip family stickiness with monsters and kids teaming up to fight illiteracy or something, a kind of ET-meets-Ghostbusters with, presumably, a fat kid who never stops eating his feeling and getting chocolate on everything he touches. Boy was I wrong. I should have looked at the screenwriting credit, seen Shane Black's name, and known these kids were going to be cool (as per his great kid characters in Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys). Black and Dekker (!) were UCLA English majors together and this was their big collaboration - it died on arrival but found a second life on cable and is now highly regarded, so finally I had to see it. Wow! Now, here's a film ahead of its time as far as depicting the kind of reasonably cool kids where the local cops (the main kid's dad is a bewildered homicide detective) don't mind the boys taking their guns during big stand-offs with armies of monsters. These kids are like my buddies and I were back in the day, i.e. well-armed and well-versed in self-defense, the types who don't flinch from a fight with the local bullies, or monsters, and have perhaps the coolest tree house in all tree houses; the type who draw monsters in science class instead of taking notes. It's such a breath of fresh air if you grew up psychically harassed a priori by all the bullies in Stephen King movies (and that includes IT), you'll be like 'at last, here's a film for the kids who actually fight back right out the gate' and not have to endure proxy humiliations and wait for the later moment of vengeance. And lo, there's the ultimate in cool Stan Shaw (TNT Jackson) as dad's partner. Dekker also gave us Night of the Creeps and House, two other pastiche films done with real love and care, for a certain type of viewer. The Amazon HD print is sparkling, with great dusky golden colors (as per the tree house above) and the monsters are genuinely kind of scary, able to provide chills as well as laughs and never resorting to self-aware camp. Any movie where Dracula fights those humans out to kill him by dynamiting their houses and cop cars definitely has something on the beam.  The big extended Main Street climax, an all out war between armed kids, cops and monsters, guns blazing, death toll mounting, is just about the neatest thing this side of the Stay-Puff marshmallow man. Best of all, Dekker doesn't forget the three sexy vampire brides (top), though they die a bit too easily.

Though one caveat, why are these genius kids totally unwilling to use crosses when fighting Dracula? It never seems to occur to them! The end rap theme is terrible and might make you belatedly realize this film was trying a little too obviously for a Ghostbusters-style hit and maybe franchise, but don't let that stop you from giving it the chance it never got on the big screen! There's even a cool little sister (don't ask me to list any of their names). Even if, like me, the idea of a bunch of kids fighting the Universal pantheon seems tacky to you, believe me, it's done right. Those idiots who ruined the Mummy reboot should have given it a close gander. Even the tagalong little sister is cool, even her tearful goodbye to Frankie is done nicely, with nary a shred of Spielberg maudlin tack. If you're like me, still traumatized by the death of little Maria in the 1931 original, seeing her holding that hunted and despised monster's hand and leading him not into flower-throwing temptation proves a truly healing moment.

part 3:"Amelia"(start at 45:42)
(1975) Dir. Dan Curtis
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

Karen Black got a chance to show off her versatility in this Robert Bloch-penned horror triptych TV movie, and, wigged out those of my generation who got to stay up late and see the last story, forever known as 'the one with the crazy fetish doll'. And since we're all digital now it's super easy to skip the first two, not that there's anything wrong with them. They're okay. But nothing like "Amelia," the tale that starts at the 45:42 minute mark. So since we've already seen Dolls and The Monster Squad, consider this one a final chaser, not really aimed at kids but we who were kids in 1975 regard it as one of the key touchstones of our TV horror youth, the sort of tale told in dark closets with flashlights illuminating our faces, or at night around campfires.

The story has Karen Black as a woman under the thumb of a domineering mom (we hear her dealing with, and submitting to, mom's unreasonable manipulations via a phone call), who we never see leave her high-rise apartment after walking in with the package containing a large "Zuni" fetish doll she receives as a gift. The note with the doll proclaims it promotes fertility etc. and is supposedly a god trapped in the doll by a chain around its waist. If the chain falls off, the doll... well.... it comes to life, and it chases her around the room, even into her bath. Yes I know that sounds crazy and m-m-maybe it is but you have to believe me when I say everyone I know who saw it during its initial broadcast never forgot it. My strict bedtime meant I missed it and could only hear of it from kids with cooler dads. It sounded kind of silly to me that a crazy doll with a spear could inspire such a reaction. The doll is great but all the kudos go to Karen Black. She brings so much life to the story she could freak you out using just a sock puppet and some string if she half-tried. Either way, you may never take a bath in a room with a Zuni fetish doll again! Fairly warned be ye. 

If you're really into Black, you can start Trilogy over after it's done and see the first two stories, also written by Robert Bloch, but not half has freaky. Or you could just go to bed! Good luck!

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