Monday, September 26, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: The Season of the Vampire King

by Rustbelt

Welcome back to Monsterpiece Theater, my friends. Last year, we looked at several classic horror stories and their treatments on the silver screen. It was a lot of fun, but there was one book that got away. That was too bad, as it’s a personal favorite of mine and truly stands out. For in this tome, evil is bound by no particular trait.

You see, the villain in The Hound of the Baskervilles was driven by greed and was willing to do whatever it took to take over the estate. Edward Hyde was but an alter ego that allowed Henry Jekyll an outlet to indulge in his unscrupulous desires. And Victor Frankenstein’s Creature was an experiment borne of its maker’s prideful hubris- its darker nature ultimately the result of neglect and isolation.
But this year, we’re going a little further than that. We’re looking at a purely wicked monster- evil for the sake of evil itself. Now, this kind of figure is hard to create. The temptations for the writer to go either too serious or too cartoonish are bountiful. But this book contains a villain that embodies the essence of evil perfectly- a character so beyond redemption and existing solely for the chaos that he brings. He is truly a blight upon humanity.

And what better creature for this being to be than a vampire? True vampires, mind you. This is before Joss Whedon and Stephanie Meyer turned the demons of the night into self-absorbed hipsters and glittering pixie sticks.
The vampire here is the animated embodiment of death: a corpse that gains an unholy extension to its own existence by stealing the life- via blood- from the living. And afterwards, its victims are condemned to the same damnation until a courageous soul comes forward to bring the cycle of death to an end. It’s a feat few can- or will- accomplish.
This Haunting Season, evil has a name, and a face.
“The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion…

“…I seized a shovel which the workmen had been using to fill the cases, and lifting it high, struck, with the edge downward, at the hateful face. But as I did so the head turned, and the eyes fell upon me, with all their blaze of basilisk horror. The sight seemed to paralyze me, and the shovel turned in my hand and glanced from the face, merely making a deep gash above the forehead. The shovel fell from my hand across the box, and as I pulled it away the flange of the blade caught the edge of the lid which fell over again, and hid the horrid thing from my sight. The last glimpse I had was of the bloated face, blood-stained and fixed with a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.”

And that name is Dracula.
…I heard a heavy step approaching behind the great door, and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.

Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere…The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will!" He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Film Friday: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Disney continues to generate live-action remakes of some of its classic and non-classic films. Some of these films have been better than others, but none have been particularly great. This time, Disney remade Pete’s Dragon, and the remake sucks pretty badly.

The original Pete’s Dragon was never a great film. It was a very representative example of the kinds of live-action films Disney was doing in the 1970s. It was fun. It was silly. It had just enough dark overtones to create some tension and make you sympathize with the characters, but otherwise it was just a zany-lite comedy with lots of sight gags.
The plot to the original involved a young orphan boy named Pete, who runs away from an abusive foster family of hillbillies and stumbles upon a small fishing town in the year 1900. The town is called Passamaquoddy and Pete arrives with an invisible cartoon dragon named Elliott he found in the woods along the way. Elliott draws the attention of a conman named Dr. Terminus, who makes phony medicine. He wants to capture Elliott and turn him into medicine. The rest of the film is a story of Pete fitting in with the new town as he and Elliott try to dodge Dr. Terminus.

As with other Disney films of the era, like The Boatniks and The Apple Dumpling Gang, these films were just meant to be fun. They weren’t classics. Disney wasn’t aiming for awards or probably even films that would be remembered. They were just putting out fun stuff to entertain kids. They excelled at this, and many of these films are fondly remembered because of it.
The remake of Pete’s Dragon is slicker. Its production qualities are higher. It has stronger actors, like Karl Urban. They spent more money on settings and their effects are far superior. Yet, it won't be remembered. Why? Because it sucks. It sucks because it lacks heart.

The problem with this film can best be explained in this formula:
1970’s Disney: Cheap Production + Genuinely Heartfelt Story = Wonderful Movie

201?’s Disney: High Production + Formulaic Emotional Manipulation = Dud
That’s the thing. If you asked me about any element of the film, I would tell you that it was well done. The acting was standard. The effects were standard. The music was obnoxiously standard. The story hit all the required highs and lows right on cue to create a standard movie. But there was no heart whatsoever. I did not care about anyone or anything I saw on film.
The movie starts with Tarzan, er Mowgli, er Pete being lost in the woods when his parent die in a car accident. Six years later, he is found by the lonely forest ranger chick whose boyfriend is a responsible logger and whose father is Robert Redford who loves to tell children stories of seeing a dragon. With no effort whatsoever, Pete takes to the forest ranger and becomes part of her family. Seriously, the only possible hangup is the twenty seconds where the ranger chick drives him to social services to be adopted but then decides to keep him without going in. There is no moment of tension between Pete and the girl who will suddenly be his sister either, and the father is irrelevant. Even when Elliott tracks Pete to the house and seems to be sad that Pete has left him, that only lasts around thirty seconds before they are reunited.

None of these characters are the least bit genuine and there is zero emotional content. Sure, they all mug for the camera and the director makes sure you get to see tears, but there's no substance what so ever.
The closest thing we come to an emotional driver for the film is black-hearted Karl Urban who decides he wants to hunt Elliott. Karl is neutered, however, because he wants to make sure Elliott is unharmed so he can somethingsomething with him and get rich. Of course, he does eventually catch Elliott, but Elliott escapes and then saves the father and ranger from the fire he caused on a bridge. Yawn.

At no point is there even the possibility of emotional connection. Everything in this film comes easy and fast. There is no danger whatsoever. There is no sacrifice. There is nothing to make you like these people or dislike them or want them to succeed or fail. There isn’t even any humor to make you enjoy watching them.
What’s worse, to try to make you care, this film is packed with heavy-handed emotional manipulation. The music pounds away with well-worn over-the-top manipulative notes. YOU ARE SAD!! THIS MAKES YOU HAPPY!! NOW YOU ARE SCARED!! The camera gets fuzzy and the lighting goes golden when Pete stares at the Ranger or she stares at him. Cue the strings, she just let a glistering-based tear fall down her cheek. The lighting goes down as the hunter appears. BUM BUM BUM!! YOU ARE TERRIFIED!!

Melodrama is subtle compared to what this film does.

The original Pete’s Dragon was cute because Pete and Elliott cared for each other, protected each other from danger, and ultimately needed to abandon each other so Pete could grow up. The new film has none of that. It goes through the motions, but it’s basically “overly-cute child actor must mug for ‘aren’t I adorable’ shots as he moves into so-perfect-it’s-fake home of actress wearing Park Ranger gear” while the “technical” aspects of the film beat you over the head with what you are supposed to be feeling.

This is the problem with constructing movies through the lens of marketing. It’s got all the parts, but it has no life.
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