Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Tales from the Cryptid

Film: The Abominable Snowman
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I have a friend who loves cryptids and cryptozoology. Her penchant is much more for Mothman than for anything else, but name a cryptid around her and she’s going to know the lore. The Abominable Snowman (sometimes given the longer and more impressive title of The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) is a movie with her in mind. Not only is there the titular cryptid beastie at the center of this, it also features the great Peter Cushing as the sort of gentleman adventurer/scientist that he was born to play.

Dr. John Rollason (Cushing) is a botanist working in the Himalayas along with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and their assistant, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis). They are guests of the local lama (Arnold Marle) when a second expedition appears. This expedition is lead by Dr. Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), who brings with him a trapper named Ed Shelley (Robert Brown), a photographer named McNee (Michael Brill), and a native Sherpa named Kusang (Wolfe Morris). This expedition is geared to find, capture, and bring back a yeti to display to the outside world. Not realizing the full corporate greed of the expedition, John Rollason agrees to join, motivated by a desire to know about the creature. He goes, despite the protests of both Helen and the lama.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Return of the Giant Hogweed

Film: The Day of the Triffids
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

A good storyteller can make just about anything scary. Some things are certainly harder than others; Night of the Lepus demonstrated that. So what about killer plants? Invasion of the Body Snatchers sits on one end of the “scary plant” continuum with probably Attack of the Killer Tomatoes on the other end. Somewhere in the middle is Little Shop of Horrors, and right along the same line is The Day of the Triffids (sometimes called Invasion of the Triffids. Our creatures are killer man-eating plants from outer space, more mobile than Audrey II, and without the luxurious singing voice.

The film opens with a little backstory on carnivorous plants and introduces us to the triffids, which (in the movie, not the book) crash landed on Earth on a meteor. Triffids can grow to seven feet high or so, and are capable of uprooting themselves and “walking.” This characteristic is interesting, because it brings up something that’s important to talk about before we get into the story aspects of this: influence.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Return Trip

Film: Peninsula (Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

There was a time when you know what you were going to get with a sequel. You were going to get some of what you liked from the first movie, but in general, it wasn’t going to be quite as good as you wanted it to be. Then, we got some sequels that managed to at least play in the same ballpark as the original film. Movies started to follow the video game rule of being at least more than just more of the same. So, naturally, when I saw that Train to Busan had a sequel, I was interested. I honestly should have been a little worried at the title. While you can find this under the name Peninsula, the official title is Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. That seems like a title that is trying too damn hard.

Peninsula (and this is the title I’m going to use for the rest of this review) takes place four years after Train to Busan, which is convenient, since this was released four years after Train to Busan. What we learn, from a very stilted opening interview that is made up entirely of exposition, is that Korea has been blocked off from mainland Asia. The outbreak, which evidently started in a lab, was contained to South Korea.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dig It!

Film: The Body Snatcher
Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

There’s something very special about the films that were produced by Val Lewton. With Lewton as the producer, a film needed to work with a negligible budget but still deliver some thrills and scares. The enduring power of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie are indicative of just how good Lewton was at his work. The Body Snatcher is perhaps less well-known, but it comes with a hell of a solid pedigree. It’s another Karloff/Lugosi film (although Lugosi’s role is quite small and Karloff is the real star), and it was directed by no less a luminary than Robert Wise.

The Body Snatcher falls directly into the Burke and Hare realm, the snatching here being (at least initially) grave robbing for the benefit of the medical profession. We have a poor medical student named Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) who is looking to give up the practice because of financial difficulties at home. This revelation comes just after he demonstrates good bedside manner with a crippled young girl named Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett). His teacher, a respected physician named Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), offers Fettes the position of being his new assistant.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

It's Cicada Time Again

Film: The Beast Within
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Probably since horror movies have been in existence, one of the classic scenes is the transformation. There are plenty of classic transformations. Jekyll to Hyde, man to wolfman, vampire to bat, and plenty more. The Beast Within, for a film that has plenty of plot problems, has one of the greatest transformations in horror film history. That the film itself has a plot that makes zero sense doesn’t change the fact that the transformation that we get to witness is one for the ages.

We start close to two decades before the film’s present. Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch) experience some car trouble in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. While Eli goes back to the last town for help, Caroline waits in the car. Meanwhile, a creature breaks out of captivity nearby and finds Caroline. Naturally, the creature rapes her, then vanishes.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Not Fade Away

Film: Relic
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

There are some hard truths when it comes to films. When we talk about great horror movies, for instance, the classics of the mid-‘80s and before (and perhaps well into the ‘90s) come from men, generally speaking. That’s not shocking when you consider that most movies of that era were directed by men. But these days, a lot of the more interesting and vital work in the horror genre is being done by women. In fact, if you remove white men from the horror genre right now, you’re not losing a great deal with the exception of Leigh Whannell. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone—use the comments for that.

Anyway, that brings me to Relic, which is the feature-length debut of director Natalie Erika James. I’d heard good things about Relic and was interested to see it. This is a pared-down film, one that works well as a directorial debut because of the scope. James’s work is ambitious in the sense of what she wants to convey with the story, but is limited in the places where she can limit it without damaging that story. There are only a handful of characters here, for instance, and really only three we’re going to spend a lot of time with. While we’re going to move around a bit, most of what we’re going to do is stay put in a single (admittedly disturbingly convoluted) house. Relic runs about 90 minutes and dismisses a lot of frills. It sticks to the story, the characters, and the meaning, and because of that, it works pretty well.

Edna (Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her house. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcoate) travel to her secluded home to help look for her. Her house is locked from the inside, and there is evidence of a disturbing black mold growing in parts of the house. There are signs that Edna is slipping mentally; primarily this comes in the form of handwritten Post-It notes around the house. Kay and Sam spend a difficult time in the house, plagued by nightmares, spreading mold, and strange noises from inside the walls.

Eventually, Edna shows up again, unaware that she was missing. She appears mentally and physically whole, aside from a large black bruise in the middle of her chest. This bruise looks suspiciously like the mold growing in the house. But Edna is clearly fading. Kay considers putting her in a nursing home. Meanwhile, she has a tender moment or two with granddaughter Sam, but also suddenly turns on her. More and more, Edna’s actions are incomprehensible. Kay finds her behind the house tearing photos out of the family album and eating them, and then burying the album. I’ll stop here. What follows is really the point of the movie, and probably needs to be under a spoiler tag.

* * * BUT WHAT IS THE RELIC? * * *

It’s not hard to see Relic as a sort of allegory about dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it’s hard not to see it that way. If someone told me Natalie Erika James and/or her co-writer Christian White had dealt with either of those conditions in their families, I would not be remotely shocked. The rot that infests the house is an outward manifestation of the rot going on in Edna’s mind. Her own physical deterioration mirrors the same process.

Much of the third act involves Sam being lost behind the walls of the house. These hidden corridors appear to loop around themselves, and even when she back tracks, she can’t find her way out. They are also filled with the same mold and with piles and piles of junk. These hidden corridors are, metaphorically, Edna’s deteriorating mind. Ultimately, the complete physical deterioration of Edna and the possibility that the same might happen to Kay may mean that Kay will go through this same terrible degradation.

What’s the relic? Possibly this terrible genetic curse handed down from generation to generation. At least that’s my read.

* * * SO THAT’S THE RELIC * * *

This is a story that could have been (and has been) told in a much more straightforward way, assuming my read on the deeper meaning is correct (and, honestly, I can’t see how it’s not). So why make this as a horror movie? Because there are some real horror moments here—some ugly and gruesome moments. The true horror of what’s happening to Edna needs to for the ultimate impact.

This is a smart movie. It’s a little dark in places, but it’s a movie like Get Out that seems far too mature for a first-time director. I’m hoping we see great things out of Natalie Erika James, because based on this, she’s got some chops.

Why to watch Relic: A solid debut from a director I hope gets more work.
Why not to watch: It’s a little dark (physically, not emotionally) in places.