MONSTER MASH: UTTERLY RANDOM EDITION

The theme for this Monster Mash is that there is no theme. That may be cheating, but I don’t care. This is a completely random selection of movies that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Beware of spoilers. Here we go!

Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name from his 1978 story collection Night Shift, and is one of several films based on stories from the book. Graveyard Shift tells the story of a Maine textile mill suffering from what could generously be called a rodent infestation. The movie expands on some aspects of the story, giving more details to the main characters and the town the mill is in, which depends on the mill to keep it going and can’t afford to have the mill closed.

Paramount Pictures

The mill is run by a corrupt and cruel foreman named Warwick, who pays off the building inspector to keep the mill open and runs the place with an iron fist. He rounds up a group of employees to clean out the mill’s filthy basement, and in the process the group discovers a warren of tunnels underneath the mill, and a grotesque bat-like monster that dwells beneath. The monster is gross and cool-looking, and hunts the hapless workers through the subterranean tunnels. It also suffers a grisly death when the protagonist traps it in a cotton picker and the beast is ground to bits.

People who suffer from claustrophobia or have an aversion to rodents should avoid this movie like the plague, although it’s a decent horror thriller. The acting is solid and the mill itself and the tunnels beneath it look appropriately worn-out and ancient. The mill looks like it would be a wretched place to work, especially at night, which makes the movie a bit depressing at times, but perhaps that’s the point. You might need a shower and a walk outside in the sunshine after watching this one.

The movie adds more detail to some aspects of the short story, but it also dumbs some of it down. The story has multiple kinds of mutated rats lurking in the basement, but the movie just has the giant rat/bat monster, as well as your garden-variety rodents. It’s too bad that the movie doesn’t have more variety in its icky antagonists, but the rat/bat monster is cool. Maybe that’s where all the special-effects budget went and there wasn’t anything left over, I dunno.

Graveyard Shift isn’t one of the more prestigious adaptations of Stephen King’s work, and won’t be mentioned in the same breath as King classics like The Shining, Carrie, or It. But Graveyard Shift still makes for a solid creature feature, as long as you have a high tolerance for creepy crawlies.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of the legendary Stan Winston, whose resume includes Terminator, Predator, Jurassic Park, Iron Man, Aliens, Avatar, and many more. It stars Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley, a man living a simple life in the country running a small grocery store with his young son Billy. Ed and Billy and their dog Gypsy are happy together until Billy is tragically killed when he is hit by a motorcycle driven by a guy named Joel, who is in the area camping with his friends, who are also present when Billy is killed. Joel is on probation for a similar motorcycle incident and refuses to let his friends contact the authorities.

Stricken with grief and rage, Ed takes Billy’s body to a supposed witch who lives in a dingy cabin in the middle of a swamp. She tells him she can’t bring Billy back to life, and Ed tells her he wants revenge. That’s something she can help him with, but warns him that vengeance comes with a terrible price. Ed decides to go through with it and the witch brings to life a spindly demon called Pumpkinhead which proceeds to hunt down not just Joel, but all of his friends with him, even though they were not responsible for what happened to Billy and tried to do the right thing in the wake of the accident.

As Pumpkinhead begins to hunt down Joel and the other campers, Ed experiences the beast’s murders through the monster’s eyes. He realizes he has made a terrible mistake and begs the witch to call the monster off. She replies that the monster will not stop until all of its targets are dead, and warns Ed that he will be killed as well if he attempts to stop it. Ed ignores her and attempts to help the surviving campers, leading to a series of tense confrontations with the relentless demon.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As the monster kills more, Ed and the other survivors notice that Pumpkinhead’s face is becoming more human-looking and that it is beginning to resemble Ed’s face. This leads to the realization that Ed and the monster are connected, and Ed kills himself to stop the demon and save the remaining campers, dooming himself to become the next iteration of Pumpkinhead for the next poor soul who goes to the witch seeking vengeance.

Normally I don’t go into that much detail for the plot of a Monster Mash movie, but in this case I felt it was appropriate. For a film called Pumpkinhead, there is a surprising amount of emotional depth to the story. Ed has a strong character arc for the protagonist of an 80’s horror movie with a cheesy title. He goes from happy with his son to grieving at his son’s abrupt demise, he becomes fueled by vengeance and sets loose a demon upon the people who wronged him, only to realize he made a terrible mistake and that vengeance is not the answer, as well as realizing that his actions have doomed people who were not responsible for what happened to his son, and sacrifices himself to save them.

At every step of this process, Lance Henriksen does great work in making Ed a sympathetic protagonist, his actions are extreme but understandable given his emotional turmoil. The movie also engenders a lot of sympathy for Pumpkinhead’s victims, since most of them are good people who tried to do the right thing after Ed’s son was killed. Even the initially-despicable Joel begins to see the error of his ways.

Stan Winston is responsible for some of the most iconic and influential movie monsters of all time, and the spindly, demonic Pumpkinhead may be one of his most underrated creations. The beast is genuinely creepy and its murder spree, while not as graphic as slasher films like Friday the 13th, is still quite harrowing, made all the more so by the sympathy the viewer feels for its victims.

Pumpkinhead is a surprisingly great movie that absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic. Stan Winston died from cancer in 2008 at the age of 62. It’s a damn shame he didn’t get to direct more of his own films, since Pumpkinhead shows a lot of promise for a first-time director. But his many iconic creations will live on and continue to inspire generations of aspiring filmmakers, and for that we can all be grateful.

Jurassic Park III (2001)

JP3 is the black sheep of the Jurassic Park series, the awkward middle child of the family. There were the first two Jurassic Park movies made by Steven Spielberg, and then there were the more recent Jurassic World movies with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Sandwiched haphazardly in between is Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston, who made the first Captain America movie, The First Avenger, in 2010.

JP3 is barely 90 minutes long, in sharp contrast to the other four films, all of which are around two hours long. That’s because JP3 has no plot. None. Some random kid disappears in the vicinity of one of the dinosaur islands, and original Jurassic Park protagonist Alan Grant, played once again by Sam Neill, is hired under false pretenses to help look for him. The movie tries to throw in a couple of extra wrinkles to the plot, all of which are predictable and do nothing to make the movie feel like a complete story.

Universal Pictures

All of that sounded harsh, so let me clarify: I don’t hate this movie. It’s reasonably well-made and entertaining, there are fun action sequences and the Stan Winston-created dinosaurs look great. Admittedly the bird-like velociraptors are kinda dopey and haven’t aged well, but the Spinosaurus is badass. But by the end of the movie, there’s no sense of having arrived anywhere, no feeling that anything important happened. It’s a reasonably diverting way to kill an hour and a half, but it’s no surprise that JP3 is the least-remembered film in the series.

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018)

Deep Blue Sea 2 is the recent direct-to-video sequel to the original Deep Blue Sea. It stars no one you’ve ever heard of and looks like it cost about a buck-fifty to make. The back cover of the Blu-Ray mentions the events of the original film and makes it sound like the new one is a direct sequel, but in the movie itself there are no references to the original whatsoever and aside from a vaguely similar premise the two movies have nothing to do with each other.

I will admit to having a certain fondness for low-budget, straight-to-video sequels to movies that had wide theatrical releases, A-list stars, and much higher budgets. Such low-budget schlock can be quite a bit of fun, but sadly Deep Blue Sea 2 is mostly just boring. The film’s budget must have been so low that they could barely afford to put any actual sharks in the movie, CGI or otherwise.

Warner Bros.

This poster scene is a lie, by the way. It doesn’t happen in the movie. The characters wander endlessly through flooded hallways that all look exactly the same, with different colors of lighting being the only distinguishing feature. There’s no tension or suspense, the characters are boring and the plot, if you can call it that, is a rehash of the original. Honestly, the best thing about this movie is the ample and frequently-displayed cleavage of the lead actress. It’s like the makers of this cheapie knew there was nothing else of any interest going on or anything cool to look at, so they put the lead actress in a skintight, low-cut wetsuit for most of the movie. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

The Pyramid (2014)

The Pyramid is a found-footage movie with lots of jump scares. That sentence alone should be enough to dissuade many people from seeing this film, since people love to complain about jump scares and found-footage horror films. There has been a deluge of such films ever since the massive success of the first Paranormal Activity movie in 2007 and Cloverfield in 2008. It’s been a genre of increasingly diminishing returns since then, and The Pyramid is no exception. It’s not completely terrible so much as it is exceptionally average.

As with other found-footage movies, The Pyramid claims to document actual events, which of course it does not. The fake true events that comprise the film’s story surround the discovery of a pyramid in Egypt buried 600 feet beneath the surface of the desert. This pyramid is three-sided, unlike other pyramids, and a team of five people soon ventures inside. This turns out to be a BIG MISTAKE, as they soon find themselves lost and trapped within the dusty, dark confines of the ancient structure. They also discover that they are not alone.

The problem I have with these found-footage movies is that they’re all the same. Some people hear about some weird stuff going on somewhere and gear up to investigate, only to encounter something horrible and never be heard from again. The most influential movie in the genre is The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999, a film loved and hated in equal measure. The Pyramid is The Blair Witch Project with Egyptian trappings, and follows the exact same structure as you might expect, right down to the frustratingly ambiguous ending.

20th Century Fox

So why am I talking about this film during a Monster Mash? Well, the pyramid is full of emaciated, hairless, feral cats that have adapted to their dark confines and become rather vicious. They cause plenty of problems but the main reason The Pyramid counts as a monster movie is because of Anubis, the half-man, half-jackal Egyptian god who ushered souls into the afterlife. He does quite a bit of afterlife-ushering in this movie, and his pursuit of the hapless protagonists are the best scenes in the film. He looks cool and I like the fact that he’s the main antagonist. How many other films have an actual Egyptian god stalking people? Not many.

Anubis doesn’t make The Pyramid a good movie, but at least he makes it more interesting. The found-footage angle of this movie doesn’t even make sense. These kinds of movies are meant to be composed of footage shot by the characters themselves, and as such two of the people who venture into the pyramid are members of a documentary crew. You’d think that the movie would be entirely made up of their footage, but it isn’t. The movie cheats by frequently showing much of the action in the exact same way any other movie would, only using the found-footage conceit when it’s convenient. This renders the entire point of the found-footage thing moot.

The Pyramid is a decent scare-fest but it lacks originality and its scares are mostly predictable. Anubis is a cool antagonist but his inclusion is not enough to help the film rise from the depths of mediocrity. When the inevitable “History of Found-Footage Movies” book is written, The Pyramid will be little more than a footnote.

Spawn (1997)

Calling Spawn a monster movie is a bit of a stretch, since technically it’s a comic-book superhero movie. But it’s full of enough grotesque demons and hellspawn that I figure it counts as a monster movie. It’s right in the middle section of the Venn diagram of monster movies and superhero movies. It stars Michael Jai White as Al Simmons, a black ops operative who is betrayed and killed by his shady boss Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen) and sent to hell. In hell Al makes a deal with a demon called Malebolgia. Al agrees to serve Malebolgia and lead the armies of hell, and in return Malebolgia will allow him to return to Earth to see his wife again.

The demon inevitably screws Al over and soon Al becomes involved in a weird and frankly rather baffling plot. I haven’t read any of the Spawn comics, but I found the story of the film to be very hard to follow. Of course Al seeks revenge on the duplicitous Jason Wynn, but there are a bunch of other characters and subplots that are thrown around haphazardly and the movie feels cluttered and unfocused.

I’ve got to talk about the CGI in this movie. It’s awful. This film has some of the worst-looking CGI characters I’ve ever seen. The Malebolgia demon looks like something from a 90’s PlayStation game, the scenes that take place in hell look like they were created on a laptop, and the final battle is nearly incomprehensible. Maybe the effects looked OK to audiences in 1997, but they haven’t aged well at all. The Matrix came out two years later and still holds up well today, but the same cannot be said of Spawn’s pixelated hellscapes.

New Line Cinema

In contrast to the lousy CGI, the film’s practical effects are quite good. Spawn himself looks really cool, and not all of the film’s CGI is bad. There are some very cool shots of Spawn’s red cape billowing out behind him that I liked a lot. Michael Jai White is an accomplished martial artist in real life (he has seven black belts) and a badass actor. He makes Al a sympathetic protagonist, despite the fact that he spends most of the movie covered in layers of makeup that make him look a bit like The Thing from the Fantastic Four, but with third-degree burns.

New Line Cinema

But White isn’t the movie’s top-billed star. The first name in the credits is John Leguizamo, one of my least-favorite actors. I find him insufferably irritating in every movie I see him in, with the possible exception of John Wick. In Spawn Leguizamo plays a demon named Clown, a fat, crude, repulsive little creature who farts green clouds and eats maggot-filled pizza, and later transforms into an ugly monster called the Violator. He’s obnoxious and unpleasant, but from what I’ve read it’s a pretty accurate representation of the character from the comics. Still, I hated him. Maybe I was supposed to, but the fact remains that he drove me nuts.

Spawn is a profoundly flawed movie, but was still fairly influential in its own way. Its protagonist was one of the first African-American superheroes on film, and the film was one of the first superhero movies to be promoted largely based on the popularity of the then-recent comic book, with Spawn having made his first appearance in 1992. Spawn is a character that could really use a new cinematic incarnation, since special effects have now caught up to the ambitions of the filmmakers of the original movie. There has been talk of a new Spawn movie with Jamie Foxx in the title role and that could be very interesting, but we’ll have to wait and see if it actually happens.

On a personal note, I remember badly wanting to see this film in 1997 when I was nine years old, and my mom steadfastly refused to let me see it. At the time I thought this was a blatant act of wanton cruelty, but of course my mom was completely right in not letting me see it, because if I had seen Spawn when I was nine it would have traumatized me for weeks. Thanks, mom.

So there you have it, a bunch of fun if mostly forgettable movies that have nothing to do with each other. Most of the movies I talked about here weren’t that great, but I still had fun watching and writing about them. I’m not going to rank them because most of them weren’t very good and I feel like deciding which one was slightly better or worse would be pointless and arbitrary, but I will say that the best film on this list is Pumpkinhead, and is the only film discussed here that I would wholeheartedly recommend. So check that one out and skip the rest. I watched them so you don’t have to.

MONSTER MASH: AQUATIC EDITION

Earlier this month I saw The Meg in theaters, and it got me thinking about monster movies with an aquatic setting. Sharks, carnivorous fish and slimy sea monsters await!

The Meg (2018)

The Meg is a movie that I wanted to see as soon as I heard about it, since it can be boiled down to “Jason Statham fights a giant shark.” The Meg is an unapologetically silly B-movie, but it’s an unapologetically silly B-movie with a nine-figure budget. It makes me happy that Hollywood is willing to spend that kind of money on cheesy creature features. 2018 has been a good year for such films, since it has also seen the release Of Rampage and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Both films are full of plot holes and people making monumentally stupid decisions, and I enjoyed them both immensely. The Meg follows suit, and once again, I had a lot of fun with it.

Warner Bros.

The Meg of the title is a gigantic prehistoric shark, now extinct. Or is it? In the movie, of course it is not. Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor, who encountered the beast years ago during an underwater rescue operation. No one believed him at the time but it turns out he was right all along. The Meg is a very fun movie, the kind of movie whose flaws made me like it more. Take lines of dialogue like “that living fossil ate my friend!” as an example of things about this movie that are stupid that I still really liked. That was a poorly constructed sentence, but whatever.

The Meg was directed by Jon Turteltaub, best known for the National Treasure movies starring Nicolas Cage. Why have Nicolas Cage and Jason Statham never been in a movie together? Someone needs to make that happen. Turteltaub understands the inherently ridiculous nature of the film he’s directing, and wisely doesn’t take it too seriously. The film moves along briskly and the special effects are top-notch. There’s one bit during the climax that was so awesome it made me want to stand up and cheer. The Meg is a deeply silly movie, but it’s a very enjoyable slice of popcorn entertainment.

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

In stark contrast to the large budget and A-list stars of The Meg, Humanoids from the Deep is a cheapie from infamous schlockmeister Roger Corman. It concerns the residents of a small fishing town who are set upon by the titular humanoids, who are the result of, you guessed it, a science experiment gone wrong. The movie is every bit as cheap and forgettable as its name implies, although the humanoids themselves look appropriately slimy and gross, thanks to Monster Mash regular Rob Bottin. The movie was directed by a woman named Barbara Peeters, which is surprising when you consider the amount of sexual exploitation present in the film.

New World Pictures

Apparently this was thanks to Corman, who didn’t think Peeters’ initial cut of the film had enough nudity, so he had the movie’s second unit director film additional scenes of the humanoids assaulting women and inserted them into the film without telling Peeters. Classy. With a title like “Humanoids from the Deep,” a certain degree of tastelessness is to be expected, but Corman’s sleazy additions to the film leave a bad taste in the mouth. Let’s forget this piece of junk and move on.

Piranha (1978)

Piranha is another Corman production, and as such contains the requisite amounts of gore and nudity, but thankfully this one isn’t as mean-spirited as Humanoids from the Deep. Piranha was directed by Joe Dante, who made The Howling a few years later. It was one of many films inspired by the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and is generally regarded today as one of the better Jaws ripoffs, including by Steven Spielberg himself.

New World Pictures

The hungry man-eating fish of the title are yet another failed experiment, this one a military operation wonderfully codenamed Operation Razorteeth, the goal of which was to produce a resilient strain of piranha that could inhibit the movement of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Operation Razorteeth was shuttered when the war ended, but some of the specimens survived and are unwittingly released early in the film. Wouldn’t you know it, directly in the hungry critters’ path are a summer camp for kids and a water park resort celebrating its grand opening and is chock-full of tasty human flesh.

Piranha is a fun creature feature, and it must have been tricky to make given the technology of the time and the challenges of filming in and around water. Unsurprisingly, the movie isn’t particularly scary, though I’d imagine it was pretty gory by 70’s standards. Piranha was remade in 2010 and while I haven’t seen the whole movie, I’ve seen enough bits and pieces of it on YouTube to know that the remake is FAR more graphic than the original. Let’s just say that my use of the phrase “bits and pieces” was not coincidental. Damn, that movie is not for the faint-hearted.

DeepStar Six (1989)

DeepStar Six was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who directed the original Friday the 13th. Despite being responsible for one of the most infamous and influential slasher movies of all time, Cunningham’s deep-sea survival adventure is nowhere near as exploitative as one might expect. It was released the same year as a bunch of other water-based horror/survival movies, including Leviathan (covered in a previous Monster Mash) and James Cameron’s The Abyss, among others.

DeepStar Six follows the same basic structure as Leviathan, right down to the first hour of the movie being pretty boring. It takes more than an hour into the 99-minute movie for the creature to show up, and even then, it’s barely in the movie. It’s some kind of giant crustacean, which is awesome. Or it would be, if it were in the movie for longer than maybe five minutes.

TriStar Pictures

The film’s title refers to the experimental underwater US naval facility in which most of the action takes place. One of the biggest problems with the film is that it doesn’t do a good job explaining what the hell the point of the station is. I didn’t even realize it was a US naval facility until I read some plot summaries online. I spent most of the movie wondering what the protagonists were even trying to accomplish by being there in the first place. Maybe there was something obvious I missed, I dunno. The Meg also had this problem, since it was never clear what the purpose of the research facility in that film was either.

DeepStar Six isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a forgettable one. The acting is solid, the characters are mostly likable, the sets have a lived-in feel, and the special effects are decent for the time. But it ultimately fails to deliver the exciting monster action, which makes it a disappointment.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Deep Blue Sea is a hell of a fun movie. It’s best known for one scene, in which Samuel L. Jackson is giving a rousing speech to his fellow survivors about how they are all going to survive and escape their current dire predicament, only to be unexpectedly devoured mid-sentence by a giant shark. It’s a hilarious scene, and even though I knew it was going to happen I still got a kick out of it.

The rest of the movie is quite a bit of fun as well. It was directed by Finnish director Renny Harlin, whose resume includes hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, as well as notorious flops like The Legend of Hercules and Cutthroat Island, the latter of which is one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Deep Blue Sea was a pretty big hit in the summer of 1999, and is my favorite of the movies in this aquatic monster mash.

Warner Bros.

The plot concerns the inhabitants of an undersea laboratory called Aquatica, where Dr. Susan McAlester (played by Saffron Burrows) has been experimenting on the brains of mako sharks in order to develop a potential cure for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. Something about how shark brains don’t degrade over time like human brains do, I think. I have no idea if that is remotely plausible, but it makes for a fun movie so I’m not too picky.

Anyway, Dr. McAlester’s experiments have also increased the size of the sharks’ brains, which has had the side effect of making them extremely intelligent. I don’t know if that’s how brains work, but again, I don’t much care. Things inevitably go sideways and the facility becomes flooded, turning it into an all-you-can-eat buffet for the three hyper-intelligent sharks.

Renny Harlin has a bad reputation these days, but I’ve enjoyed the films of his that I’ve seen, although to be fair I haven’t seen Cutthroat Island or The Legend of Hercules. His films are cheesy but slickly made. The effects and acting in Deep Blue Sea are solid, although some of the CGI sharks look a bit cheesy. Saffron Burrows and Thomas Jane are likable protagonists that I did not want to get eaten. Jane plays Carter Blake, the facility’s mysterious and heroic shark wrangler. I’m not making that up, he’s called a shark wrangler in the movie. Think Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, except with sharks instead of velociraptors.

Deep Blue Sea is full of fun action, narrow escapes and suspense. There are also some quality pyrotechnics and a satisfyingly gory sharksplosion to close out the movie. What more could you ask for? Check it out, it’s great fun. It’s rated R “for graphic shark attacks, and for language,” which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. And I have to give a shoutout to my favorite aquatic monster movie, Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, which kicked off my monster movie binge. The movie recently got a brand-new Blu-Ray release, which is a must-have if you love that silly movie as much as I do.

Buena Vista Pictures

Here’s my ranking for aquatic monster movies, including the two I covered in my first monster mash.

1. Deep Rising
2. Deep Blue Sea
3. The Meg
4. Piranha
5. Leviathan
6. DeepStar Six
7. Humanoids from the Deep

See you next time!