Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report # 5: Monsters

Monsters have long since been a staple in horror. Films in particular have iconized a number of monsters, most notably the Universal Studios monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. It wouldn’t be a Horrorfest without several films in which monsters took the focus. This year was no disappointment.

Along the lines of iconic monsters, Tim Burton gave us a look at one of America’s classic ones back in 1999 with his filmed version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with the abridged title “Sleepy Hollow”. In it very little of the original tale remains, but the monster of The Headless Horseman is envisioned with more charm and thought than ever before.

The casting of Christopher Walken as The Horseman, like any role the man seems to take on, is a stroke of genius on director Tim Burton’s part. But like any Burton/Depp collaboration, it is Johnny Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane that makes this movie such a delight. Transforming Crane from a bookish school teacher into a bold, yet still bookish, innovator of police investigation is a great example of how Burton takes this classic tale and transcends the source material to make it all his own. Horror flicks are not supposed to be this fun, but I am so glad this one is; and that it is one of my wife’s very favorite films means that I get to watch it just about every year.

One of the classic horror monsters is the Wolf Man. Our filmmaking friends to the north had an epiphany a few years ago when the Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” redefined the werewolf flick for the modern teenager.

Werewolves have always been represented by younger people to parallel the sometimes difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Teen Wolf” are some obvious examples of this, but “Ginger Snaps” gives the notion a fresh take with its subversively pricked lines of dialogue and a very direct parallel to the female reproductive cycle.

Ginger and Bridget are sisters that find themselves outcasts in high school and each running late in getting their period. After a sudden werewolf attack, Ginger suddenly becomes aware of her feminine wiles. She finds her fortunes turn toward popularity, all the while slowly turning into a werewolf herself. Unfortunately, a simple plot description cannot hint at the level of cleverness and droll humor with which this all comes to pass.

As droll humor goes, it has been a while since a horror flick has reached for the knee slapping level of comedy that “Slither” does. Coming across as a sort of “Critters” meets “Night of the Living Dead”, “Slither” makes great use of its star’s ability to play against all movie hero stereotypes.

Nathan Fillion, who didn’t rise to as much fame as he deserved as the captain in the underrated FOX sci-fi series “Firefly”, plays the sheriff of a small town where a meteor lands one evening. The slimy creature contained within this meteor projects itself into a host body which then goes on a feeding frenzy and turns into some sort of slug-like being and then…. Well, really this space slaughter monster has a very intricately detailed life cycle, so I’ll just tell you that eventually it turns the town’s people into flesh-eating zombies.

“Slither” is certainly unique in the way it combines action oriented comedy with some of the most gruesome gross-out horror I’ve witnessed. These two extremes could threaten to cancel each other out and become some sort of gore fest that neither frightens nor humors, but Fillion is so adept at the dry humor of a hero that only knows the motions and not the actual practice of being a hero that he holds the whole mess together.

As gross-out horror goes, however, Rob Zombie either raised or lowered the bar (depending on how you look at it) with his feature film directorial debut “House of 1,000 Corpses”. While this is more of a serial killing family flick in the vein of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it does contain a number of monsters which come into play at the end of the picture, including the infamous Doctor Satan who acts as a catalyst for the poor group of over curious young victims.

I very much enjoyed some of the oddball characters found in this film, which at most points resembles some sort of traveling freak show than an actual movie with a plot, hero or villain. The character of Captain Spalding, played by actor Sid Haig, was the most appealing presence in the movie.

I believe the charisma of some of the more “normal” (a very relative term when speaking of a Rob Zombie production) serial killers is why his follow up feature “The Devils Rejects” has been more widely accepted by critics and audiences alike; but this first feature really starts to fall apart when the last remaining victims find themselves thrown into an unhinted at underworld where these strange grotesque killer monsters reside. These monsters seem to exist merely for their shock value than any other reason. In fact by the end of the film, even slasher movie reasoning seems to have been thrown to the wind.

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