Friday, October 20, 2017

The Critters series (1988-1992) [31 Days of Gore]

A note about the screenshots in this post: I forgot to take them from the movies when I had a chance so I pulled them from Movie Timelines' excellent YouTube channel. This guy may not have the best audio and video quality, but he offers a fun way to revisit movie franchises. (I'm going to throw a shout-out to Screaming Soup as well, for no other reason than I feel like promoting YouTube channels today... I'll drop two more recommendations in the Critters 2 review.)

Oh, how I used to love Critters. No, I wasn't too stupid to realize it was a Gremlins cash-in, but a lot of the movies I like are cash-ins. Thankfully, there's a distinction to be made between good cash-ins (such as Lucio Fulci's Zombie) and lazy ones (such as Critters 4).

Critters (1986)

I'm not saying Critters is a great movie, but when there's fifteen hundred movies about vampires and werewolves, don't we have room for a handful of movie series about pet-sized monsters? Yes, the Gremlins series is better (and surprisingly darker than Critters despite its relative lack of blood), but that's like going out of your way to say a fine restaurant is better than McDonald's: sometimes you just want a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a lot of the time it's much more satisfying. You've also got all the other fast food chains to choose from: Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, Munchies, Elves, the little monsters from The Gate, Cat's Eye, and, one of my favorites, Trilogy of Terror. 

That's a lot to choose from, but the situation is far from saturated. I'm just saying: more tiny monsters, please. And in the meantime, Critters is one of the better examples of the sub-genre.

The Brown family are the wholesome types, living on a farm in the countryside. Dee Wallace and Billy Green Bush are the parents while M. Emmet Walsh plays the sheriff. (Lin Shaye and Billy Zane are in this, too.) Then there's the town drunk, named Charlie, a gap-toothed buffoon who becomes the unlikely but likable hero of the series. Unbeknownst to these earth-born characters, a couple of intelligent aliens known as krites have hijacked an extraterrestrial spaceship and hightailed it to our planet in order to feast on humans.

Then a couple of alien bounty hunters come to Earth to exterminate the krites. These guys are face-shifters who can look like anyone they want. One assumes the face of a popular rockstar while the other tries on the style of just about everyone he meets. He eventually chooses to look like Charlie, which really doesn't have anything to do with the plot... I'm not sure what they were going for here.

A couple things to admire about movies in the 80s: they still had slow-burn beginnings and didn't require a bazillion dollars to entertain us. But let's point out a couple of bogus things, too: the movie straight-up rips off a scene in E.T. in which Elliot artificially warms his thermometer in order to play hooky (funny that both movies should feature Dee Wallace). Then, it rips off a scene in Gremlins which references E.T.... not once, but twice.

Enough nitpicking. Here's what great about the mischievous krites: they talk. When one of them is blown away by a shotgun, the other exclaims in an alien language: "Fuck!" No, their antics aren't quite as hilarious as the gremlins', but they're a load of fun and The Chiodo Brothers' simplistic effects are far better and effective than they have any right to be.

Critters 2 (1988)

I clearly remember the day Critters 2 showed up at the local video store because I just about crapped my pants. I've said before that I admire its director, Mick Garris, and you can do worse than spending an afternoon on his official YouTube channel. What I like most about Garris is he's a genuine horror nut. He took part in Joe Dante's Trailers From Hell, unabashedly describing this, his maiden film, as "a low-budget sequel to a rip-off of Gremlins."

So the Browns have moved since the original film, but the son (now a teenager) has returned to town in order to visit his grandmother. (This is really just a nice way of saying most of the other actors passed on the sequel; interestingly, M. Emmet Walsh's character is now played by Barry Corbin, which has gotta be one of the least distracting actor replacements of all time.) It turns out the eggs we saw at the previous cliffhanger have an incubation period of two years, which makes you wonder how the two critters in the first film turned into roughly a dozen in a matter of minutes.

Charlie the drunk has cleaned up his act since the first movie. Although we clearly saw the bounty hunters leave Earth without him, it's established early on that he's actually been going on space adventures with them. As expected, when the eggs inevitably hatch, the trio of bounty hunters return to Earth and start shooting the town up. Ug, who assumed the appearance of an earth-based musician, is still rocking the same face but radically different hair. His partner Lee changes his/her face numerous times throughout the picture without rhyme or reason. Again, I'm not even sure what the writers were going for with this face-changing stuff, but whatever.

The film takes place over Easter weekend and, due to a series of unlikely events, krite eggs are hidden for the little children to scavenge. Sounds like an awesome premise, but the movie never really does anything with it. (There's actually quite a few of these anti-payoffs, particularly toward the end... there things happen only to be rendered pointless seconds later.) The cute little bastards hatch, wreak havoc, and the Easter egg hunt is never mentioned again.

Here's the level of character stupidity we're dealing with here: in one scene, the sheriff is attacked by krites, who managed to get inside his Easter Bunny costume, and thrown through the window of a church. Someone suggests it was a farm accident. Yeah.

Although this one doesn't outright copy Gremlins like the original did, it certainly feels a lot more like Gremlins in the way the krites go about their shenanigans. Once again, the absolute limit of the PG-13 rating is pushed as Garris gets away with full-on breasts and a surprising amount of gore. I like the look of the original film better, mostly because I prefer night scenes, but the creature effects are just as good if not better.

Critters 3 (1991)

Yep, that's Leonardo DiCaprio in his first feature. (How he didn't win the Oscar here, I'll never know.) He plays the son of a vicious landlord who's evicting all the tenants from his rundown apartment building. What they don't know is a fresh batch of krites have just moved in and they're about to feast on the remaining dwellers... slowly and boringly.

I remember catching this on TV one weekend. I eventually got bored and decided to play Nintendo instead. I wouldn't say straight-to-video sequels are the bane of my existence—I liked at least one of the Universal Soldier followups and didn't completely hate Hellraiser: Deader—but it's usually a safe bet they're going to suck.

Critters 3 isn't an exception, although it has its moments. As usual with the franchise, the best part is the critters themselves. The creature designs look creepier than ever (the red eyes have never been as vibrant), but there's a slight reduction in the puppetry itself, probably because the filmmakers didn't have the budget or the schedule they had on previous movies.

The second best part of these movies is Charlie, but in this one he only appears in the beginning and at the end. I appreciate they were trying to do something different, but it was the wrong decision nonetheless. The final product is neither good nor bad enough to entertain, but I was less offended by its mediocrity than most unnecessary sequels.

There really isn't any more to say about this one.

Critters 4 (1992)

Hey, look! They shortened the wait between movies! That must mean this one is especially great!

At the end of the previous film, Charlie was contacted by Ug, via space telephone, and told he couldn't destroy the final two krite eggs because it's against intergalactic law to extinguish an endangered species. Charlie's orders: wait for an autonomous pod to arrive and store the eggs for safe keeping. Critters 4 picks up immediately after this cliffhanger and you'd expect it to retain some of the momentum—what little was left—but it drops the ball immediately.

When he climbs in to store the eggs, the cryogenic pod malfunctions, freezes Charlie, and takes off for deep space. For reasons not explained (or maybe I was sleeping during the explanatory dialogue) the pod never makes its way to its intended destination. Instead, it's coincidentally picked up by a far-future group of space travelers, including Brad Dourif and Angela Basset.

I didn't pick at the earlier films, not because they were without flaws, but because they were fun. I'm going to pick at this one because I hated every second of it. For one, these people have no idea how mindbogglingly big space is. Two, they have perfected cryogenic freezing biological organisms, yet the entire crew remains awake for a space trip which takes years?

Here's my dilemma: I enjoy three of the performers in this film, so I can't blame it on them. I'm a big fan of co-writer David J. Schow, so I can't blame it on him, either. I know next to nothing about the one-time director, but I'd hate to place the blame solely at his feet either. Let's just pretend it never happened.

My mind was so bored I began to long for the previous films, which actually had a bit of worldbuilding in the background. You got the feeling Ug and company were going on crazy adventures every week, that there were worlds much more interesting than earth, that there were critters out there far wilder than the krites. It all could have been spun off and woven into a rich, expanded universe—comics, books, TV shows—but instead the series ends with a painful whimper.

In fact, I'd rather see something new in the Critters universe than an unneccessary Han Solo spin-off. But it seems the owners of the Critters IP were so tired of it, they were intent on killing it forever.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Little Evil (2017) [31 Days of Gore]

I'm glad Netflix has gotten into the movie production game, but man, they really need to step it up. It's not quite bad enough to call "mediocre," but I can say with 100% certainty I'll never watch it again.

Adam Scott and Evangeline Lilly play newlyweds in Little Evil, a comedic take on Richard Donner's The Omen. What Lilly failed to mention was her odd little boy, who Scott struggles to connect with, may or may not be the Antichrist. The concept is ripe for dark fun, but dressing the boy exactly like Damien and surrounding the leads with stock comedy characters isn't very creative. This is routine stuff, only marginally better than your average Adam Sandler flick.

The supporting cast is decent enough. You get Sally Field, Clancy Brown, Donald Faison, and Bridget Everett who plays the kind of sidekick usually reserved for dimwitted males. She's a dude-bro who makes dumb sex jokes and owns a monster truck. I like it and I don't... good idea, disappointing execution.

What I loved about The Omen was I couldn't wait to see how it resolved; you knew they probably wouldn't kill a kid in a Hollywood movie, but if Gregory Peck didn't kill the kid, the world—and all its children—would die. There was a little bit of that suspense in Little Evil, too, but then the filmmakers cheat and give themselves an easy out. That decision takes us far from the realm of "dark comedy" and puts us right back into "routine comedy" territory.

I love a good comedy, but this ain't one of 'em. There are funny moments and it never really felt insulting to the intelligence, but rarely did I laugh out loud. Oh well, it just isn't my kind of movie.

While Netflix Originals aren't quite as good as theatrical productions, they're a helluva lot better than the straight-to-video trend which proceeded them. Little Evil isn't a movie I would recommend if it had premiered in theaters, but it's an okay watch for a casual afternoon, provided you already subscribe to Netflix. I certainly don't think it's as funny or well made as the director's Tucker & Dale vs Evil, but you could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Society (1989) [31 Days of Gore]

I'm generally a fan of director Brian Yuzna and special effects guru Screaming Mad George. Maybe they don't make a lot of great movies, but they almost always make movies that are great to look at. As expected, Society is far from being a great movie, but I'll be damned if there isn't some great stuff in it. 90% of that greatness comes at the finale, which is far more memorable than the rest of the jerkily paced movie.

Television actor Billy Warlock plays Bill Whitney, a high school student who's plagued by disturbing visions. (Yuzna credits his inspiration for these sequences to Salvador Dali's The Great Masturbator, which should give you an indication of how weird Society can get.) Bill confides in his shrink that he believes he was secretly adopted because his family seems so alien to him. He also insists he doesn't fit in with his classmates, but the scenes in which he's seen at school are contradictory to this proclamation.

Early on there's a scene in which Bill catches sight of his sister's figure through the translucent door of the shower. Something about the image is not quite right, though; as Bill is inexplicably drawn toward the shower, his point of view reveals her anatomy is all out of whack. Later, when he ends up making love to one of his classmates, one of her hands caresses his body in a manner which would be humanly impossible. This is the best stuff the movie has to offer: the surprisingly subtle optical illusions.

What it's not so good at is its pacing and character development. Bill isn't portrayed as a teen who's trying to live his life in spite of his problems. He's portrayed as a normal teen who doesn't even think about his problems whenever they're not actively haunting him. In the normal scenes he seems like a completely different person, entirely unaffected by his life-altering troubles. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the movie feel uneven, as if they wanted half a horror flick and half an 80s comedy.

Back to the infamous finale: this is some of the best special effects work you can get, provided you like creature effects and body horror. The pacing still feels a little off, but even I have to admit I'd be dead not to be moved by something so fantastically macabre. I think this could have been a great movie, but they could have easily trimmed twenty minutes to make it move smoother. Also, resolutions like this one don't exactly mesh with this kind of satire. It's a cheat when a movie as fucked up as this one takes the easy way out.

Otherwise, there's something special here. You just have to look for it sometimes.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The New York Ripper (1982) [31 Days of Gore]

The New York Ripper is an acquired taste. In it, a serial killer who's adopted a Donald Duck voice to taunt the police is murdering beautiful young women in The Big Apple. That's it. That's the entire setup.

The immediately apparent aspect of movies like The New York Ripper is the surrealism, which is likely the byproduct of an Italian film crew making an "American" movie. A foreign actor whose accent has been dubbed over should, in theory, be undetectable, but that's never the case. And although Fulci and company drag their handheld cameras to the darkest corners of NYC, it doesn't quite look like the city we've seen in countless movies. Some of the indoor locations were probably filmed in Italy, but even the stuff that's undeniably New York feels... off.

"Off" is an effective feeling in horror movies.

As with Pieces, there's something inherently fun about the tone in a drive-in movie kind of way. And it's bold in the way it never cuts away from its depictions of sex or violence prematurely. The fact that it was the cinematic embodiment of everything the Moral Majority rallied against doesn't hurt either, an aspect I think is lost on moviegoers who didn't grow up in such embarrassingly stiff times (the VHS copy of The New York Ripper has nearly five minutes removed to appease Reagan-era sentiments).

Too many people maintain that a movie is always more effective when it only implies the carnage. If that were strictly true, why do the crusaders only rally against the ones that dare to show it? Better yet, why can't we just appreciate both types of movies?

Fulci and his crew go everywhere in this movie and you get the feeling they did an awful lot of it without permits: sex shows, grimy movie theaters, disturbingly empty subways. This is a gritty film highlighted by cartoonish, over-the-top violence and the killer's comical voice. It's also one of the better movies I've featured this month.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stir of Echoes (1999) [31 Days of Gore]

When Stir of Echoes was in theaters, I begrudgingly went with a friend (he had a car and I didn't at the time so... yeah). I'm not sure why I didn't want to see it at the time. I ended up liking it, but this time I'm utterly impressed.

First of all, I'm a bigger fan of Kevin Bacon now than I was before. The guy has a lot more range than your typical name brand and he doesn't get enough credit for the things he does with his voice. Bacon straddles the line between movie star and character actor quite evenly.

Here he plays a blue collar lineman whose dreams of rock stardom become more and more unlikely the older he gets. He struggles to smile when he discovers his wife is pregnant and about the only fun he ever has is getting drunk at block parties and high school football games. It's at one of these parties that his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) puts him in a hypnotic trance with the intention of "opening his mind." Unfortunately for Bacon, she's pried it open a little too far and he soon sees things not meant for mortal eyes.

What we get is a supporting cast of believable characters played by a bevy of familiar faces. David Koepp's word play make these people all the more likable. Outside of the magic negro trope, which seems ripped out of Kubrick's The Shining, there's rarely a misstep and I was glad I had forgotten enough in the years since I first saw it to be surprised again. This isn't to say the reveal at the end is particularly good, but it's not as bad as I remembered, either.

I think what's most interesting about Stir of Echoes is that you'd expect it to be a lot more wholesome considering Koepp's past work, but he pulls no punches. There's not a whole lot of gore in the movie, but the imagery he pulls off is genuinely unnerving. So don't let the gore rating give you the wrong picture: the stuff in this movie is way more effective than the kitschy kind of gore I designed the scale for in the first place.