Monday, April 4, 2016

I Saw This!! - Here There Be Monsters

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  These are some monster films Graig watched recently.

Monster Squad - 1987, Fred Dekker - Shomi
Monster House - 2006, Gil Kenan - Shomi
What We Do In The Shadows - 2015, Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement - DVD

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I don't know what was going on with my adolescence, but there was a whole lot of films in the 1980s that my peers consider seminal that I've never seen.  Well, perhaps Monster Squad isn't as classic as, say, Watership Down, but its still one of those pictures that should have fit in with the Gremlins, Goonies, Explorers, E.T. -type films about kids getting into trouble that I didn't wind up seeing.  I never saw any horror movies as a youth, so perhaps my parents thought a film called "Monster Squad" would be too scary or gory or something?

What makes Monster Squad worthwhile is twofold: firstly, it brings together all of the classic Universal horror monster icons (Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Wolfman, though they were variations on the Universal versions since Universal didn't make the picture) and makes a fairly competent pre-teen friendly mystery/spookfest/adventure.  The second is the script co-written by Dekker and Shane Black.  Black, if you don't know, was the writer of Lethal Weapon (1 & 2), Iron Man 3 and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.  Following the release of the latter film, despite having over 20 years in the industry, he suddenly found himself a critical darling.  Thanks the internet.

Black is now well known for his dialogue, snappy banter and monologues alike.  He's got a penchant for clever action/violence and a keen wit.  He's like a straightforward Tarantino, with noir seeming to be his preferred genre.  He put that to good use within Dekker's script.  Where the film has aged somewhat in the visual effects and the general aesthetic, the script is still punchy, the kids all delivering these meaty lines like pros.

It's a genre of film that doesn't really exist today, the pre-teen horror/adventure film.  Back in the 1980's the perception was that adults wouldn't go see animated movies en masse, so they would make these high-adventure kids movies to capture the audience.  Goosebumps is the only one in recent memory and even that starred late-teens at best.  These were films where grade school kids were getting into all sorts of trouble.  These days, the CGI animation stuidos have that all-ages market on lock, and these kinds of films, where they're meant to appeal directly to the younger crowd but also be enjoyable for the parents (and Monster Squad still does both) don't get made anymore.


Monster House is one of those CGI films, but it's also an homage to those pre-teen horror/adventure films.  The story kicks off when the young protagonist, DJ, crosses the street to retrieve a basketball from the lawn of the the crotchety old man across the street.  The old man (perfectly voiced by Steve Buscemi) seemingly lies in wait to rush out and frighten anyone off his property but this time has a heart attack (though we don't find out he's still alive until late in the film, so it's a rather distressing opening moment) and keels over.  Without the old man's presence, DJ begins to notice strange things going on with the house.  It seems to be...alive.

Monster House was the lead of the second generation of CGI animated movies, where it delivered something unexpected and on par with Pixar, such that it didn't coddle its audience or play to the lowest common denominator.  It was notable as one of the first 3-D movies released in cinema, and even more notable since its script was co-written by Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon.

What's most interesting about Monster House is it's wholly not a comedy.  It's a horror movie for kids.  It's genuinely intense and frightening, but the severity of the threat is just at a much smaller scale.  That said, it was too much for my six-year-old, which, fair enough.


What is a comedy, full-on, while also being horror is the [expletive] delightful New Zealand film, What We Do In The Shadows.  I was on board with this film before it even started, being a huge fan of co-writer/co-director/co-star Jemaine Clement in Flight Of The Conchords (a musical comedy duo/HBO show) and also having enjoyed his past effort with co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi, Eagle vs Shark.

Where that latter film was a quiet outcast comedy, like a Napoleon Dynamite done New Zealand-style, this film is moves much faster as an ensemble mocumentary, a spiritual successor to Spinal Tap or the films of Christopher Guest, where the comedy is much more rampant, but it's equally charming with its distinctive Kiwi flavour.

The subject of the mocumentary is the hidden subcommunity of vampires in Wellington, in particular a small group of single men of different ages and backgrounds living together under one roof.  It examines how they live amongst the normals, and how they live with each other, their troubles with keeping a low profile while satisfying their urges, their "familiars", their friends, their gatherings, and their conflicts.  Early on it seems like the mocumentary angle might only support a short film, the introduction of a newly turned vampire to the group (and his still human best friend whom they all like more) adds a wildly entertaining narrative thrust as they adjust to his presence.

There are shockingly tense moments in this film as moments of comedy suddenly turn to the camera crew becoming genuinely frightened for their life.  It's part of its brilliance, it's ability to not abandon the genre its characters normally inhabit, while still making one of the funniest films of the decade.

What I enjoyed most was the level of detail provided to the back story of the characters.  All the aged photos and trinkets they've collected over their long lifespans (there's probably a nice art book ready to be made in there somewhere), as well as the way their personal style still reflects the era they were turned in.  They've not just thrown together a comedy but they've built characters and a cohesive reality for them to exist in, no matter how absurd it may seem at times.