Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Year in Movies 2017 Part 3 - The Social Concept of Monsters

The Social Concept of Monsters (Warning: contains spoilers)

Franchises, Shared Universes, and Blockbuster Fun

          I grew up in what can be called an age of monsters. I was born near the end of the twentieth century, and I was a fortunate child not to have to miss the large chunk of the century that had passed before me. I do not speak of the horrors of history like the Nazis or the atomic bomb, but those monsters certainly became the source of a great many metaphors. I speak of the movie monsters such as King Kong, Godzilla, the Frankenstein monster, the Gill Man, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and their many incarnations, and it was the magic of television that gave me the opportunity to see them again and again. 

          Several of the movies I saw this year, including a few I mentioned in my top ten for October in my previous post and promised to revisit, affected me in a way that I did not expect, and The Shape of Water brought all of it together for me with beautiful clarity. In another recent post, I quoted Gilbert Gottfried from his interview with Bob Goldthwait about the meaning behind the classic Universal Monsters and their longstanding allure. All of the monsters have an embedded connection to the human condition with regard to bodily changes during aging as well as the human mind's constant struggle with animal desire, morality, and fear. There is a funny touch of irony that the term Universal (uppercase) initially referred to the studio while many of the monsters themselves would come to be seen as universal (lowercase) social concepts. 

          I have not seen the new Mummy film. I generally like a Tom Cruise movie, but I still feel no desire to see it. I think the only movies of his I have skipped are The Mummy 2017 and the Mission: Impossible franchise. I do not like to make a judgment on the merits of any movie that I have not seen, but it already has become accepted that The Mummy 2017 failed in its attempt to create a "Dark Universe" franchise that would revive the Universal Monsters of the early twentieth century. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has sent virtually every major movie studio into a frenzy to create shared movie universes. Godzilla and Kong are set to meet once again in the new "Monsterverse" of Legendary Pictures, and the DC Cinematic Universe is struggling (poorly) to catch up to the same level of success. Universal's intended Dark Universe, however, apparently considered its first entry such a mishap that it required a return to the drawing board. Last I read, it seems that the studio was more interested in the success of film franchising than capturing the spirit of the classics, and perhaps they realized that. From an executive standpoint, however, I highly doubt it. I suspect that any attempt at a new Dark Universe will be another collection of big-budget popcorn blockbusters offering quantity over quality. They probably will be fun, but they will not be timeless like their predecessors. They probably will be something easily relegated to a RiffTrax commentary track and more enjoyable with it than without it. I am reluctant but not unwilling to say the same about the Monsterverse.

          In my previous entry, I talked about movies like The Dragon Lives Again and 3 Dev Adam (Turkish Captain America and El Santo vs. Spider-Man). These are the movies I mean when I use the word "fun." An unkind way to describe them would be cash-grab cosplay, and I tend to use that phrase with a bit more passion when describing, say, the X-Men movie franchise from The Last Stand to present. A kinder way to describe them would be "easy money." They are foreign productions, and I cannot deny that I have a lot of film bias when it comes to foreign movies as much as monster movies; however, they stand as a perfect example of exactly what the major studios have been doing lately with the X-Men and other popular properties. They are taking advantage of the same concept that has been in use since at least the late 1950s to get people in theater seats. All they needed were faces, names and costumes. The stories were not as important. Less adaptation and more exploitation to a point. Put Olivia Munn in a Psylocke costume, have Hugh Jackman take off his shirt, and at least a section of the audience cares little for the plot. On rare occasion, we were given the gift of classics from Hammer Studios, the gold standard of horror remakes, but even those have been criticized by some as the result of easy money.

          Easy money perks up an executive's ears. The Mummy 2017, which I will emphasize again that I have not seen and do not judge as such, looks like it was meant to be easy money from the trailer alone. The same goes for those more recent X-Men movies. I could call Kong: Skull Island easy money in a similar vein because it was produced, visually, to be a fun movie that hits you in that sweet spot. It certainly hit me in that sweet spot, but I have to make a distinction between being hit in the sweet spot while watching Skull Island on the big screen as opposed to being completely entranced while watching King Kong 1933 or Gojira 1954 on any size screen. Whether or not I have that same feeling for Skull Island remains to be seen because I have not seen it a second time. Yet. 

          I do not like to be one of the people to say that Hollywood is out of ideas, but "easy money" is at odds with "tell a story" every step of the way. "Tell a story." In the 1930s and 1940s when the Universal Monsters took the stage and real monsters like the Nazis were cutting a path of destruction, King Kong was arguably the first blockbuster. Despite its production costs, it was only nearly twice the budget of Dracula and only roughly a third more expensive than Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933. This could turn into a completely different argument about the correlation between a movie's budget and its overall quality, but it seems like the largest movie budgets suffer less risk simply because, love or hate the story, people will rush to see those familiar faces, especially with nostalgia being such a powerful lure. Even a lot of forgettable bombs still pull a profit. Easy money. Much as I dislike the direction of the Transformers live-action movie franchise, they make money, and I will not be the one to determine, one hundred years hence, whether or not they stand up to some future generation as cult favorites in a society where the inflation rate adjusts a one hundred-million-dollar movie budget into pennies. They are likely to do just that, and there will be (are) pockets of fans that hold them aloft and demand that they be given alternative recognition, claiming that Michael Bay had a pair of wrecking ball-sized testicles to be so bold in his production, perhaps in the same way that I hold aloft movies like The Dragon Lives Again, Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds, or Thunder of Gigantic Serpent. I have far less displeasure with the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie than I did at age nine, but I will not defend it for anything more than how much fun Frank Langella obviously had playing Skeletor. Like Bay's Transformers, the movie is still terrible and lacks the spirit of its namesake. I also will not be the one to tell anyone today to stop giving Michael Bay money, no matter how much I want to.

          I imagine this all makes me sound like a cynical film critic at best. I consider myself neither and save that label for embittered contrarians like Rex Reed and Armond White, people of my grandmother's generation who insist that good movies and music are no longer produced. My only point is to say that a new breed of universal (lowercase) monsters is already here. Before the Dark Universe made it beyond the water cooler, horror and science fiction of the past decade have been weaving new tales that take the social concept of the monster, expand upon it and, in a few cases, turn it completely on its ear. The collection of contemporary horror movies I saw this year, in particular, had this oddly perfect way of melding together, and I could see all of them inhabiting the same universe despite coming from various countries and years. They shared too many common threads of purpose and insight. 

The Social Concept of the "Monster"

          When I was in Kindergarten, the first game I ever played was "Monster." I would stick out my bottom jaw, growl, and chase other kids around the playground, usually girls. We all laughed. I never caught anyone. We did not think about the intricacies of what the monster was or what the monster would do if it caught someone. We just ran around in an imaginary game of chase until we got tired, and then we played on the swings. The standard definition of "monster" in its simplest form is anything abnormal or frightening, but, as a child of the 1980s, I had been exposed already to the notion that a "monster" was not always what it seemed on the outside. I had children's books like Where The Wild Things Are and obscure children's movies like The Monsters' Christmas, and these never left my mind.

          When I was a child, I always felt I empathized with the monster. I often cried when a monster died in a movie. So many of them seemed misunderstood and lost. My early love for reading Greek mythology came in part from Clash of the Titans, where I saw that a number of "monsters" were just people who were cursed with a horrible existence because their gods were assholes. Medusa was among the most powerful characters of my entire childhood, exiled and shunned as a victim of rape by a powerful man and cursed with deadly powers and frightful appearance as a way to ensure that all others held on to the belief that her lot in life was deserved. "She must have been asking for it." The mythology evolved as time passed and written history began to collect its recorded stories, but it became accepted as just one of those fine examples of societal bullshit that remains a standard practice in several cultures. Like monsters, many people in many parts of the world are still subject to exile and even death for being different or "defiled."

          Maybe this is what separates me from the Rex Reeds of the world, people who look at movies like these and see them through eyes that cannot help but look down upon anything that is less than the twentieth century white American concept of normal or the classical image of the hero, holding on to and insisting the righteousness of archaic ideals. The Rex Reeds and Armond Whites accuse us of romanticizing defects as deviant masturbatory aids, ridiculing us for asking why the monsters always have to be looked upon as forces of destruction while the Rex Reeds and Armond Whites ironically romanticize the chiseled masculinity of a John Wayne, who so often portrayed the most destructive force in American history: the settler who fought off the "savages" (just another synonym for "monster" no matter how you look at it). Of course they cannot see the depth of character in a movie like The Shape of Water because they are looking through a glass window at the help. 

          Speaking of Westerns, one of my earliest movie memories was a scene from some unknown Western when I was a very young child. I remember seeing a group of cowboys storming an Indian village, slaughtering everyone in sight. In the midst of all this chaos, I saw two small native babies sitting in the middle of the dirt, and I remember seeing one cowboy give orders to another cowboy to shoot them. The second cowboy refused, and the camera remained on his shocked expression as the audience heard two gunshots. I could not have been more than five years old, but I understood exactly what had just happened. There was a brief moment of shocked silence, and then I burst into tears. I was inconsolable for quite some time afterward. It remains on my list of mystery movies from my memory because I never saw more than this one scene to identify it. My family was enamored of the American Western genre and John Wayne, and they never understood why I did not share their idolatry. My grandmother would disown me for such blasphemous statements about The Duke. This mystery Western was the reason. It could have been an Italian "Spaghetti" Western for all I know. To me, those felt a little more honest.

          The other aspect of the monster that the Rex Reeds and Armond Whites never escape is that comfort zone where a monster is easy to identity by its appearance, and this applies even to reviewers giving glowing praise to The Shape of Water but remarking on "icky fish sex." There is a sense of security in the monster movie because there is always a way to differentiate the monster from the rest of us, even if that monster is something that can look like us for brief moments. They give us an escape from the real-life monster stories of serial murderers, sociopaths, ethnic cleansers, and abusers. That security melts away with a story like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Diary of a Mad Man, suggesting that a monster could replace us or inhabit us without anyone being the wiser, and, with the rise of the slasher movie, the social concept of the monster in film took it to the final step to suggest that we could be the monsters. They dared to remind us that, in some cases, there was no need for the supernatural or mythology for a monster to exist. A monster could be created in the womb or driven to become one later in life. People could be born with something missing or lose something along the way, succumbing to some animal response that erased their former identity. Michael Myers was an escaped mental patient. Before the supernatural was applied to Jason, Pamela Voorhees was a mother driven insane by the loss of her child. Leatherface, raised by a family of cannibals, never truly grew out of childhood and remained fearful of the outside world. Real monsters walk among us already. In hindsight, this was a silent truth that applied to a great many movie characters, but we typically referred to them as "villains." We based them on real people like Ed Gein and Jack The Ripper, but we often still referred to them as people. We still had to distinguish between something that was malformed or physically different and something else that could be both human and evil at the same time. 

          The word "monster" for a Gill Man or a Godzilla meant something animal, not human, or a mutant divergence from nature. The word "monster" for a vampire meant inhuman or humanity lost, a predator of humans. The word "monster" for a Frankenstein resurrection, a zombie, or a mummy meant humanity perverted, distorted, or defiled. In every case, "monster" was the go-to word for anyone that simply did not look like us, and it mattered more that they did not look like us than it did whether or not they were part of us or shared any equal level of intelligence. Even the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame were called monsters by some. The term "alien" barely moved away from the same notion, and H.G. Wells became a standard for the image of beings from another world: monsters bent on human destruction. And from these types of stories came similar "heroes" like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody, more images of chiseled white perfection poised to defend us from anything that we deemed unworthy of sharing our space or our land. This hero concept, of course, goes back through human history to Greco-Roman mythology and beyond, all the way back to those images of a hero like Perseus. Demigod. Monster slayer. Upholder of servitude to the whims of a petty and childish race of all-powerful beings. He was more than willing to behead Medusa and to believe that her fate must have been just because the gods cast her judgment down from on high. One of many schmucks who was part of the games of the gods all along, never truly thinking for himself and never truly looking at anything at more than face value. A great hero who reasoned with his sword, literally and figuratively.

          Among the best examples of that caricature of chiseled perfection is Gaston in Disney's animated Beauty and The Beast. He is the great conqueror, the great hunter, and the master of all he surveys, but he gets by on looks. Average women fall at his feet, average men idolize him, and he values outward appearance and physical strength over education. When "monster" was used to describe a human being, suddenly the word's true meaning came into focus. A human being did not have to be cursed to transform into a wolf or rise from the dead to be a monster. A monster could stand before you as that image of perceived human perfection. Dr. Frankenstein was a monster, a man of science driven mad in his quest for knowledge, putting himself on the pedestal of a god. Gaston was a beast, dimwitted and easily driven to murder in defense of his limited world view. 

          It has become difficult, if not slightly offensive, to use the word "monster" in the way that I always have to describe the movies I loved the most as a child. The word did not always apply, but it was so rare to see a story challenge its correctness. One of those unique exceptions was The Mole People, which used its monsters as a metaphor for the concept of human rights, slavery, and equality. To call something a monster in its simplest form is to assume it has no depth. In the movies, the people who use the term "monster" usually are "heroes" like John Agar or Richard Carlson, saving fair maidens from primitive, savage, immortal, or resurrected abominations that are unrepentant of their separation from the human race. The people who use the term "monster" are the frightened citizens who believe the lie that their purity is the reason for their security and that some holy power has their best interests in mind. The people who use the term "monster" are children who do not know any better and need a name for their fears. The people who use the term "monster" are displaced foreigners like Raymond Burr's Steve Martin, who bore witness to something he did not understand and was unable to translate it into any other word. In Godzilla's case, the entire human race was a group of displaced foreigners witnessing the return of a being that had walked the earth long before they existed, the great challenge to the longstanding belief of many that the world did not truly exist until Man first set foot upon it. It is no surprise that many individuals today still believe the same of America and continue to hold on to the belief that God told their ancestors to cleanse this land of its savages and subhumans and to claim it in His name. That dinosaur bones were placed in the soil to test our faith. That the Earth is flat. That homosexuality is a sin and a mental disease. The social concept of the monster certainly has no monopoly on primitive ideals.

          The term "monster movie" was cemented into the social vocabulary quickly, and there simply has not been any real effort to come up with an alternative. It always left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth because I grasped at an early age that the word was so much more complex, but I suppose that it also lessened the sting of it because I understood that complexity. The term "monster" often had every regard for what we consider physically human and no regard whatsoever for humanity, and it makes the term "humanity" a difficult word to use as well because it, too, is something that came out of that same time lock of hegemonic idealism. It is such an isolating word, embedded firmly in the soil of the planet Earth by its self-proclaimed dominant species. How arrogant we are to use "humanity" to describe our ability to comprehend complex emotions and intelligence, and how ironic it is that we most often use the word "humanity" to describe how we treat animals, the less fortunate, the disabled, and even those we perceive as monsters. To our detriment, we seem to use "humanity" the most as a substitute for "heart." It is an act of kindness toward something or someone "not like us" and often seems more pity than sympathy, more sympathy than empathy, and a self-centered way of proving we feel. The same linguists came up with so many other words like "monster" as a label for those we perceived as lacking in that capability, and we made it easier to lump the misunderstood in with the stuff of our nightmares. The fangs, the cloth wrappings, and the excess body hair just made it easier to compartmentalize some of those feelings and lose sight of the metaphor.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

          Kicking off this modern perspective of the universal monster was this vampire tale from Iran. This story presents us with a young female vampire who thirsts for blood but goes against the classic tropes. In Bad City, she seems to blend in with every other wretched soul in town as a prisoner of a lonely and dead-end life filled with injustices and abuses, and she serves as an angel of death to some and an angel of hope to others. She becomes the opposite of Dracula and Bathory. Instead of taking advantage of her supernatural powers to feed her base desires, that surrender to animal instinct that so often defines a monster, she feeds upon a form of "vampire" that truly exists in the world: the misogynist and abuser in a society that still views women more as objects and property than as people. How strange that we find it so easy to label monsters when we cannot stop separating human beings into categories of inferior and superior, casting judgment and looking away as if hair could entwine to become snakes at any moment. There is an added depression to the story in her sense of guilt and morality. One thing she understands more than anything is fear. She sees herself as a monster, but she feeds upon other "monsters" that use fear to exploit and manipulate their victims. She uses fear as a weapon. They fear death and loss, of course, but much of her behavior is driven by a fear she shares with those around her: an inescapable loneliness as she witnesses humanity draining from everyone around her. She sees hope that grows into love for a young man named Arash, but she still fears the damage she might do indirectly to someone undeserving because Arash's own father Hossein is the source of a great deal of misery and, ultimately, just the sort of man that she would consider a meal. Thus, we are given a dilemma: is her self-judgment misplaced? Does a monster that feeds upon monsters cease being a monster?


          Revisiting this movie briefly from my previous entry, Colossal is not what it appears to be. It is not so much a kaiju movie as it is a story of lonely people unable to find a distinct purpose and place in life. There are some interesting parallels between A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Colossal, and they share an underlying emotional tone that focuses on the awareness of one's own footprint. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night looks at the worries of a young woman about the suffering her existence can create while Colossal does much the same thing on a giant-sized scale and with a more literal interpretation. The vampire girl remains in Bad City, feeling trapped within its borders. Meanwhile, Gloria has escaped her hometown life to travel the world, but she is equally trapped within her own existence and tethered to her childhood home. The kaiju and mecha in Colossal are manifestations of inner human turmoil brought to life through a cosmic accident, and it is through their human hosts that we learn that the real monster in the story is entirely human. Oscar, a pathetic man who drowns his troubles in alcohol to bring his misogyny and jealousy to the surface, has no need for a giant robot that mimics his every move, but he takes advantage of it for his own selfish and self-loathing ends. Much like the drug-addled Hossein, Oscar drains the humanity from those around him, pulling them toward him and making it almost impossible for them to escape him because they are beaten down and dependent upon him. Those who find the strength to escape him, he extorts and abuses. Oscar and Hossein are monsters that care only about themselves. One could consider both movies to have a similar sort of happy ending. The vampire girl and Gloria both seem to escape their self-doubt and fear of purpose. They have their moments in which they both see themselves as monsters, but they are not monsters at all. 

Evolution (2015)

          I truly hate to spoil Evolution in this discussion. I enjoyed this one so much that I almost want to exclude it entirely because its reveal is worth the surprise. If you have not seen the movie, then stop reading and go watch it NOW.

          I had it figured out within about the first ten minutes of the movie, so perhaps some of my admiration was the joy I got from being right. As the first several minutes of the story progressed, I began to think to myself, with a few clues, You're not telling me that this about starfish people. This movie was absolutely about starfish people. In Evolution, the adults are not what they seem. The story focuses on a group of young boys supposedly suffering from a terminal medical condition and seeking a potential cure through surgical experimentation, but there is mad science afoot. In this bleak story, it seems that the starfish people are the ones suffering the terminal medical condition and are no longer able to reproduce, and they are struggling to prevent their own extinction by using human children as incubators for a stronger breed of hybrids. I loved this twisted take on the transplant horror stories of the 1950s, and there is a little hint of Cronenberg in the visual feel of this movie. In this case, the "monsters" are a species of intelligent creatures that are other than human. For their race to survive, well, the title says it all: they need to evolve. The separation from their label as "monsters" is a young nurse among them. A starfish herself, she develops a compassionate attachment to Nicholas, the focal point of the story. Does she have feelings for him that are contrary to her nature? Is she responding to him in such a way because she senses he is ultimately the key to their survival, or is she drawn to him because she begins to understand more of humanity through him, perhaps a "humanity" her race once had before falling into desperation? Does she set him free because she takes pity on a lab rat, or does she do it because she sees no point in her own race's survival if they cannot see the misstep in trying to manipulate their adaptation? 

The Lure

          It seems that a large number of movies on this list involve fish people. The Lure takes the monster story fully into mythological territory with a pair of carnivorous young mermaids. This movie is like someone took Splash, Victor/Victoria, and Species and put them in a blender. There is a sort of ho-hum acceptance in this world that fantastic creatures exist, limiting much of their fame to that of a seedy nightclub singing act with a little interspecies prostitution on the side. Everyone uses each other to their own selfish ends. The mermaids treat their situation as a flight of fancy mingled with a little bit of god worship, and their ersatz human "family" takes advantage of the modest fortune that the singing act brings in. This gives us the real lure of The Lure as a wonderful 1980s-era pop musical. In the midst of severe family dysfunction, the mythological rules and natural laws of these mermaids come into play, not unlike Evolution's efforts of "monster" to become more like Man. Although they enjoy the taste of human flesh, these fairy tale creatures have it within their power to forsake their mythological identities and become human, and this is where "humanity" deviates away from "heart" as one of the mermaids decides to shed her immortality in exchange for true love, knowing that, if that love is not reciprocated, she will wither away into sea foam. Her acceptance of this fate makes her perhaps the most human character in the story, the only one willing to give up all of herself for the heart.

It Follows

          To some, it might seem a little off that I included this movie on the list at all, but go with me on this. We have our vampires and our werewolves and our gill men, but one of the important facets of the monster as a social concept is fear. There is a monster that lives under your bed and can find you wherever you go. It is a monster born of recklessness and selfishness, and it can take the form of anyone you know to taunt you, gain your trust, or weaken you, making you easier to catch. The only way to survive the monster is to pass it on to someone else. It Follows is a unique take on a monster as a sexually transmitted disease. It is not clear whether or not the monster is a living entity or, like Colossal, a physical manifestation of inner human turmoil. No matter its true origins, the monster forces you to forsake another's survival for your own, testing the limits of humanity one victim at a time. I almost passed the movie up entirely, but a few trustworthy sources nudged me toward it. There is a touch of The Invisible Man here, but that may be considered a stretch. The Invisible Man was the "monster" driven mad by casting off all human constraints and self-control for a godlike life entirely without consequence. The monster of It Follows, invisible to all but its victim, is the unstoppable and ever-looming embodiment of that consequence.

When Animals Dream

          This Danish entry brings the Wolf Man mythos of the classic monster neatly into the new millennium. This one reminds me a little bit of the highly underrated Ginger Snaps in its poignant portrayal of the transition from adolescence into adulthood with a supernatural twist. This, as Gottfried mentioned, was the underlying theme of the classic Wolf Man and his connection to the human condition: the change, the loss of emotional control, chemical sexual attractions, and the alienation from those around you on both an emotional and a physical level. Instead of Michael J. Fox's dad coming to the bathroom door to discuss the changes he is going through in Teen Wolf, however, When Animals Dream adds an extra layer of family betrayal in an attempt to prevent the transformation, a metaphor for overbearing parents trying to prevent children from growing up and to protect them from family secrets.


          Like Evolution, this one did not fool me for a minute. I saw what was coming early, and it was nothing like I expected from the things I heard about it. I still loved it. As I mentioned in my top ten horror highlights entry for October 2017, a lot of misleading hype drew me to this movie. What I got for my troubles was possibly the best movie I saw for October and one of the best movies I saw all year. Taking a similar path as When Animals Dream, there is an underlying effort from parents to prevent certain truths in their children's lives from coming to light, but there is more surrender to the likelihood that heredity is inevitable with a slightly contradictory acceptance that children do grow up and seek their own paths. But what are parents if not slightly contradictory? It is almost like an episode of Skins, only with more cannibalism. This gem is a nice horror take on a coming of age story, falling a bit into the monster category of zombies and vampires as the stars of the tale have indiscriminate nutritional tastes. With cannibalism, we return to the monster among us with the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter, but the young women of Raw are not psychopaths or sociopaths. They are victims of family genetics, a separation from humanity that manifests itself as a transformation into a monster of sorts, a complete regression into an animalistic state of hunger.

          Between The Lure and Raw, I feel like I am not saying nearly enough about how good these two movies were. All I feel I can do is to give them my high recommendation. As for my highest...

The Shape of Water

          Best movie of the year. Best movie of many years. It was the first movie I saw for 2018 and just missed the cut-off for this 2017 highlights list, but I am including it anyway. It earned it, and after seeing the movie, every feeling I had about this entry fell into place. When I speak of the great impact that the twentieth century age of monsters had on me, I can think of almost no other director who understands that impact better than Guillermo del Toro and almost no better example of this than The Shape of Water. His work as a director proves that he analyzed those classic horror movies much the same way I did, studying what made them timeless and looking deep beneath their surface. We see a vast array of time locks firmly in place in The Shape of Water: color, gender, religion, capitalism, and the great American lie that we could feel safe and secure behind our white picket fences and our embroidered drapes because we were the most powerful and advanced country in the world. The good old American Dream. The idealism that the Rex Reeds and Armond Whites and Donald Trumps of the world still seem to think we are supposed to worship. The caste system of discrimination and alienation and property and material wealth that we still struggle against today, where the square-jawed man in a fancy suit is the poster child of normal on his surface, and the people of color and those with disabilities or limited capacities for communication are simply janitorial staff. Or kept in a tank. It is a version of our real world with all its evils, but a fantastic race of amphibious humanoids just happens to exist in it. A world  just like ours where the real monsters are the people deciding who has the right to be treated like a human being. The Shape of Water proves that we should throw neither "humanity" nor "monster" around so casually.

          As with most monster movies, there is a general complaint that the creature never gets enough screen time. Unsurprisingly, I have seen that complaint about the amphibian man in The Shape of Water and admit that I share it just a bit. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but it feels to me that he has less screen time than the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I could be wrong, but, I repeat, I was a child of the early 1980s. My "uphill in the snow both ways" story to impatient young people is that I had to sit in front of a television for an hour and a half just to see a fantastic creature on the screen for as little as a minute at the end of an old horror movie, but I was happy and grateful for it. This issue goes all the way back to Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, a film originally not supposed to have a physical monster in it at all. Although it was an executive decision denounced by the director to add the demon to the final scene of the film, the monster itself was on screen for mere seconds. This brings me back to Godzilla. Almost no one receives the amount of complaint about lack of screen time than the King of the Kaiju (notice how I try to refrain from calling him a monster, even if it is in the American title of his first movie). One reason I gravitated to kaiju movies so much was that they seemed to be the creatures who got the most screen time of them all, but it still never was enough. The existence of the demon or of Godzilla is the important point of the story, and this is no different for the amphibian man. His actual screen time aside, the amphibian man is the symbol of an ideal that remains on the lips of everyone else in the movie. In a classic horror film like Night of the Demon, The Haunting, a number of films from Val Lewton, and even The Shape of Water, the core of the plot is the acceptance or denial of the main characters that their concept of reality is incorrect. A gill man, a supernatural demon, and a Godzilla force humans to re-evaluate human existence, and they can do one of two things in response: reshape their world view to accept the existence of these creatures or seek to destroy said creatures to keep their world view intact. 

          The real monster in The Shape of Water has plenty of screen time, given that very name in the opening narration in an obvious line to trick the audience into thinking the word "monster" is still nestled safely in their comfort zone. The real monster is that square-jawed poster child of a normal human played by Michael Shannon. Shannon, in a role worthy of a Best Actor Oscar, is a much crueler Gaston in this Beauty and the Beast tale, shattering the image of the human hero portrayed in sci-fi classics like The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I will find it hard to look at John Agar the same way ever again. Del Toro's perspective paints the smug and handsome 1950s drive-in monster movie hero as someone willing to use advances in science as an excuse for exploitation, segregation, abuse, and bigotry. He is a traditional family man, and he refuses to allow the world around him to change. The 1950s drive-in hero claims to be virtuous and wishes to unlock the mysteries of the world, but he is armed at all times with the means to destroy anything he does not understand or deems unnatural.

          Through Sally Hawkins and the amphibian man, we see "heart" rather than "humanity." We see empathy rather than sympathy. We see just how unfit the definition of "humanity" truly is. In the high halls of military and science, we see the stoic power struggle of the Cold War. On the streets of this version of our world, we see the fight against attack dogs and fire hoses for basic human rights. In conversation, we hear of God's image, how He intended us to look and how we are meant to perceive Him. The pioneers of "humanity" tell each other that some are more human or more godly than others, and, behind closed doors, those same pioneers and men of power tell each other that the image of "humanity" is just part of the lie being sold to everyone else, no different than a teal Cadillac or a terrible key lime pie. Shannon acts as both prophet and enforcer of these laws of humanity, preaching sermons while striking down the wicked with his holy cane. He never had to stand in line to purchase the lie. He pre-ordered it. As far as I am concerned, the Rex Reeds and Armond Whites and Donald Trumps of the world can sit down and enjoy a slice of an altogether different pie, one cooked and served up by the great Octavia Spencer, if you catch my drift.

          Without saying a word, Sally Hawkins gives one of the best emotional performances I have seen in years. When she insists for her best friend, played by the spectacular Richard Jenkins, to "say what I sign," I almost cried. I could have saved myself a lot of time writing this entire entry if I were to tell you to go and watch that one scene. This scene is one-hundred percent the point of all of it: her emotions, her identity, her comprehension of that flawed rift between "humanity" and what we perceive to be less than human, and her struggle with another lonely soul to share that comprehension. At this point, she has decided to take the enormous risk of freeing the amphibian man from captivity, but she cannot do it alone. She pushes Jenkins to define how he sees her as a person, challenging him to face his true feelings about their friendship. She demands that he admit whether or not he empathizes with her or simply pities her. Of course, he is defensive and unwilling to open up about how hypocritical his own feelings are, and he dismisses the possibility of the amphibian man sharing her comprehension as if it were no different than a cat meowing when its owner returns home. The presence of so many cats in his apartment creates a valuable image of that separation between human and animal and the belief that it is impossible for the relationship between a human and a non-human to have the level of depth that Hawkins shares with the amphibian man. We see that the definition of "humanity" imposes the same limits of comprehension on every other living thing, buying the biblical ego-stroking decree that Man was meant to hold dominion over all other living creatures on the earth. This so-called statement from the Christian divine strengthens our perception of animal and monster because we are conditioned to believe that Man is closest to God and that everything else, no matter its appearance or behavior, is beneath Man and God, and it is a sin to consider the alternative.

          Jenkins has to experience two final acts of humiliation and degradation to open his eyes again to the truth he always knew: even he, in the eyes of a great many people, is something less than human, someone perceived to exist outside the laws of humanity and nature. He is a homosexual in 1960s America and not a young man anymore, and the wholesome pie salesmen drop their fake smiles when they see the truth come to the surface. He has no physical deformity, no malice of purpose, but to the uneducated and bigoted members of society, those people like Shannon who hold to a strict standard of what is human and what is not, Jenkins is a monster. His very existence threatens and scares them. There is no consolation in the fact that these fears of "monsters" are misplaced.

          See this movie. I hope that it gets more awards than any one person involved in it can carry.


          I love a good crossover, but we don't need them. Not really. We don't need a "Dark Universe" or a House of Frankenstein to bring several different timeless tales together. We just need someone to keep making stories like these. If they are meant to cross paths, then they will, but a shared cinematic universe does not dictate whether or not any of these stories are allowed to share common threads with one another. A movie genre does not need to be reduced to a gimmick for success, and I was happy this past year to see so many movies that truly understand what the monster movie is meant to be. It is something that always challenges us to keep defining who and what we are as a species and a civilization, and it is always evolving to show us that even our concepts of good and evil can be too simplistic. Is it easier to face some abstract fears when they are more easily identifiable as something that triggers a primal instinct? Maybe, but that attempt to communicate and comprehend, even if the result is a priest being disintegrated by a Martian death ray or a man turned to stone by the gaze of a snake-haired woman, is something that is never irrational or illogical. It is the greater act of bravery and heroism than the chiseled half-god swinging his sword at a reflection. As a race of living things, even if we are the dominant species by some grand destiny, we are still children struggling to overcome fear, to survive, and to grow. The "monster" is often an effigy of the obstacles we face, and the way we identify monsters in all aspects of history and media proves that we remain a little "primitive" ourselves, taking an ideal in need of great thought and distilling it down to a grotesque shadow on a cave wall. Meanwhile, some "monsters" who walk among us every day know and exploit those triggers to keep their power and superiority.

          I think this might have been the peak of my highlights for the year, but keep an eye out as I delve into a few more of the best moments of 2017 for me and the movies.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Year in Movies 2017 Part 2 - Martial Arts, Monsters and Superheroes

          This might be the easiest section to write because these are the easiest movies for me to turn on and enjoy. The past few years have been good for new monster and superhero adventures with Marvel and the new lives of Godzilla and King Kong, and I am thankful that I never seem to run out of older cult classics, giant monsters, and superheroics despite how passionately and quickly I jump at the chance to see them most of the time.

The Dragon Lives Again

          This was the first movie of the year that really hit me. The Dragon Lives Again is the epitome of exploitation (specifically "Brucesploitation") with a plot that is all over the place and a cast that cashes in on enough classic movies to make your head spin. Bruce Lee has died and gone to the underworld, where he makes both friend and foe of some of the biggest names in film from Michael Corleone to Dracula to the One-Armed Swordsman to "The Exorcist" to Popeye. Yes, "The Exorcist" (that's what they call him) and Popeye. I could talk about this movie at length, but I will let this little clip speak for itself:

This movie is so insane that I watched it three times and hosted it as a livetweet for #MondayActionMovie, and it was guaranteed a mention in this year-end review before the opening credits finished rolling. Of course, all of the famous faces and characters were in name and costume only, but that did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of this crazy story. For a fun slapstick martial arts double-feature, watch this one with Jackie Chan's City Hunter, which was also on my first-time viewings list for this year for no other reason than to see Jackie Chan dressed up as Chun-Li.

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare

          The second entry of the Yokai Monsters trilogy and, quite possibly, the best. I have not gotten around to the third installment yet, but this was a fun story about different spirits and creatures in cultural folklore crossing paths. Rather than pranking or taking revenge on evil humans who desecrate sacred lands and totems, this time the Yokai such as the turtle-like Kappa and the snake-necked woman discover that many of the humans around them have been overtaken by an invading vampire from a far-away land. There is a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that the Japanese Yokai themselves consult an encyclopedia of their own kind and can, in turn, research creatures and ghosts from other lands and countries to find out just what their adversary is. This vampire is so ancient that it bears no resemblance to the likes of Dracula, but most of the classic rules of blood-drinking and possession apply. The humans are powerless against this ancient evil, and even the Yokai themselves are no match for the vampire's power until they realize that they have strength in numbers. Other than The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, at the moment I can not think of any other movies that took different mythologies and blended them together. Even if I am missing a few, there are not enough of them out there.

Wonder Woman

          I have been hesitant to see anything of the DC Cinematic Universe since Batman v Superman, but Wonder Woman was a necessity, not just for me but for us all. I tried to like BvS. Honest. I really did try (, but BvS was a hurried attempt to catch up to everything that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done already and too dark a take on DC's greatest heroes. I grew up watching Lynda Carter's incarnation of the Amazon heroine, and Gal Gadot's Diana was virtually the only good thing I could glean from Dawn of Justice. And, once and for all, the shift between BvS to Wonder Woman to Justice League is perhaps the best example that we need to stop letting men direct female superheroes. Have you read Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman script? And he might get to direct a Batgirl movie? Great Caesar's ghost...

Marvel Cinematic Universe

          In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn does it again. The Guardians remain one of the shining examples of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Gunn's stories continue to elicit every emotion from laughter to heavy tears. Taika Waititi essentially threw a white glove of challenge on the field with Thor: Ragnarok, and I expected nothing less from the What We Do in the Shadows director. This double dose of Marvel Cosmic took me back to my late teens and early twenties. At the time, I was more likely to read stories involving the Silver Surfer and Jim Starlin's tales of Adam Warlock, Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet than I was to plant my feet on Marvel's Earth with the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. Space was the place, and Thor and the Guardians have done a fine job setting the stage for Thanos' arrival.

          Say what you will about Spider-Man reboot after Spider-Man reboot, but I have been on board for them all the way down the line. I even have a tailored Spider-Man shirt that I have worn to every Marvel superhero movie premiere since Sam Raimi's first outing. I have gotten a little big in the gut and can no longer button it up, but I have a couple of very nice Marvel Superheroes t-shirts that enhance the look quite nicely underneath. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a delightful return to Peter Parker's roots with a little modern-day comics mythology mixed in. The MCU needed Spider-Man, and I am glad they got him. I miss Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy, and Homecoming was the perfect palate cleanser for the abysmal handling of Amazing Spider-Man 2. One thing I particularly loved about the plot was that the writers threw a curve ball at long-time fans. We hear a lot of first names and come to assume that they are certain people, but even an encyclopedic knowledge of the Spider-Verse can be a red herring. I was a little put-off to see Miles Morales' best friend Ganke stolen away from Ultimate Spider-Man for this story, but he was a welcome addition. I said it early in the casting stage, but I would have loved to see Michael Keaton play Mysterio. He can play anything to perfection and was great as the Vulture, but a character like Mysterio seemed tailor-made for his personality.

Love & Peace (2015)

          Another instant holiday favorite for me. It would be a spoiler to explain why this is a Christmas movie, but it is most definitely a Christmas movie. This is a story of magic, living toys, talking animals, and wishes coming to life, and when it revealed its Christmas secret, I cried like a baby. I am getting a little choked up just thinking about it. It was an overdose of hope and holiday spirit. I walked into it for one specific reason: I love giant monsters and Gamera movies, and Love & Peace boasted a giant turtle of its own. It took some very strange twists and turns, but it did not disappoint with a little city-stomping. Love & Peace is not widely available yet, but I hope that it receives a domestic US release sometime in the near future.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Warning: contains spoilers)

          Another instant annual holiday tradition for me. I suspect that I will be watching this and Love & Peace every December for the rest of my years. This is a perfect Christmas horror movie, and I would argue that it is good for the whole family despite the many penises present near the end. No one ever listens to the children in a horror movie, but our story's young hero is not one to leave it at that. He holds within him the true meaning of Christmas: a sense of honor, honesty, generosity and self-sacrifice, but the evil incarnation of Santa Claus in this story is blind to anything short of being good for goodness' sake. I have officially traded in my childhood dream to ride on Falkor from The Neverending Story and would rather hitch a ride on a helicopter net full of frightened Finnish children in burlap sacks.

          Only one aspect of Rare Exports disappointed me, but this is my bias as a fan of giant monster movies. I was a little upset that we did not get to see a gigantic Santa demon thaw from his ice block and lead to a climactic effort to put him back in his tomb, but it took a more heartwarming and Christmasy direction to have a wonderful ending with our young hero willing to put his own life at risk to save everyone else.

Colossal (Warning: contains spoilers)

          I was not sure what to expect from this one, but it was a lot more satisfying than I expected. This was not so much a kaiju movie as a tale of dysfunctional relationships and selfishness with the metaphor brought to life that a monster can live within any of us. If you are among those to count this as a kaiju movie at all, then it was certainly one of the weirdest ones. It is hard not to love Anne Hathaway in virtually everything she does, and Jason Sudeikis is easy to hate in this type of role. I have been a fan of "hating" Sudeikis since his days on Saturday Night Live. He can make me laugh and infuriate me at the same time because he is so good at playing the kind of straight-faced jerk that he plays here. It takes a special kind of talent for a comedian to play a psychopath so well. Given the cast and the small dose of mentions I saw about the movie in various places, I assumed wrongly that this would play out as a comedy or, at the very least, a romance, and I was about as far away from the mark as Seoul is from New York. Those last thirty minutes are an emotional gut-punch when you begin to realize the story is taking a dark turn, and Sudeikis shifts dramatically from "nice guy" to "he seemed like a nice guy AT FIRST." Hathaway is a hot mess, but she begins to find some of her own inner strength when she starts to see just how pathetic and hateful Sudeikis is and always has been. The supporting cast is the first red flag to illustrate how imposing Sudeikis is in his character and how much power he manages to hold over them, and they stand virtually helpless on the sidelines like tiny human spectators in a traditional kaiju movie. This becomes the major charm of Colossal. The kaiju scenes are minimal, but the emotional tone of the human scenes is no different than two giant beasts laying waste to everything around them.

Sector 7 and Train To Busan

          I remember hearing about Sector 7 when it was about to be released, but it slipped my mind until I found it by accident this year. It is an unabashed love letter to some of the greatest action horror movies of all time. Nonstop action, top-notch effects, likable characters working the site of a besieged oil rig, and an assortment of visual nods to the likes of Aliens and other classics. Highly recommended, and very little I could say would do it proper justice. If you enjoy movies like The Host, then this is a must.

          I thought I was going to pass up Train To Busan entirely, but I am glad that I changed my mind. A top five favorite for the year, no contest. Zombie movie fatigue has been heavy for several years for me, and I dropped out of the sub-genre almost entirely after The Walking Dead hit its second season on television (around the same time the comics introduced Negan). Train To Busan is another of my top ten favorites of the year, and I am not sure which movie made me ugly cry harder: Train To Busan or Logan. I was a wreck afterward, and this story provides the essence of survival horror.

3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty Men AKA Turkish Captain America and El Santo vs. Spider-Man)

          I had this in my possession for several years before I finally got around to it, and it did not disappoint. The world of Turkish "adaptation" cinema is a strange one, indeed, and there is no end to Turkish versions of Hollywood classics. Similar to The Dragon Lives Again, this is another instance of famous characters in name only, but the plot makes some effort to convince you that Captain America and El Santo live in a shared universe and have come together to thwart an evil plot that goes beyond their own borders. The wild card, of course, is the villainous "Spider-Man," and the traditional Spider-Man, if he exists in this universe, is nowhere to be seen. His bushy eyebrows suggest that he might be J. Jonah Jameson underneath the mask until you realize that the eyebrows are part of the mask. Less a superhero movie, this is an all-in-good-fun foreign spy action thriller to the tune of Diabolik or Batwoman.

Kong: Skull Island and Logan

          Shamefully far down the list beginning at #62, these are the first two movies I saw in theater for 2017. I still draw a blank trying to remember the last time I went to the theater to see two movies in one day. It had to be in the 1990s at least, but I broke that unknown streak of twenty-some-odd years this year to treat myself to a double feature of Logan and Kong: Skull Island. My nephew skipped out of town on that opening weekend for Kong to visit extended family with his mother, leaving me high and dry on a birthday movie outing that had been postponed for two months already. We were supposed to see some rare Ultraman screenings in January, but everything seemed to fall through for us at the beginning of this year. We did not get to see a movie together in theater this year at all until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but I was not going to miss my favorite giant ape on the big screen. If I had a gun to my head right now and was forced to choose between Godzilla and Kong, I think a lot of long-time friends and acquaintances would stop speaking to me. I choose Kong. I do not like to choose between them and spend far much more of my time watching Godzilla movies over and over again than Kong movies, but I have a thing for a long list of famous apes in general. Spectreman's Dr. Gori and Karas, Mighty Joe Young, the original King Kong and Son of Kong, and Planet of the Apes are among my all-time favorites, and Koko had a huge impact on me as a kid. This puts Kong in a special category as a beast not far removed from humanity. Godzilla is a force of nature. Kong is a force of emotion, and he is the giant monster originator of the 20th century. Although the final line of Godzilla 2000 states that we can see a little of ourselves in Godzilla, we can see even more of ourselves in Kong. Kong: Skull Island was solid giant monster fun, and I look forward to seeing the direction the new Legendary Monsterverse takes. Mostly, I just hope they pronounce Ghidorah's name right. If you're not saying it like Nick Adams in Monster Zero, then you're wrong.

          Logan is easily in my top five movies for 2017. Like the DC movies, I have avoided the X-Men franchise ever since The Last Stand and have only seen Deadpool and the last half-hour of First Class when I caught it on a cable channelI enjoyed Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, but even he never drew me to see any of the solo Wolverine movies until Logan came along. I have been a huge fan of What If...?Elseworlds, The End stories, and parallel universe/future stories because they can play around with canon. Logan was the Marvel MAX of superhero movies, and it was long overdue for a comic-based movie to pack this kind of an emotional punch. It was a Marvel superhero version of a gritty samurai tale, specifically Lone Wolf and Cub with the introduction of X-23, and there was a good dose of The Road Warrior mixed in for good measure. It is a shame that the franchise did not risk taking Wolverine in this direction much sooner. I have followed a great many Wolverine stories in the comics over the years, and the biggest mistake that the X-Men movie franchise made was to glamorize him, but a faithful visual depiction of Logan probably would not sell tickets. Hugh Jackman is too good for the role in every sense of the word... until Logan. Logan does not glamorize Logan. Logan is Logan. Finally, Wolverine can be seen as the long-traveled, weathered, and tortured soul he has been, and we see more clearly his struggle with the animal inside.

          Cross audiences tend to dismiss some of these movies and bring up the "fatigue" argument, but one point to remember about the superhero sub-genre is that it can be formulaic and non-formulaic at the same time. The presence of superheroes is a backdrop. What we are seeing now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a grander fashion, is a rebirth of theatrical serials not unlike the 1940s adventures of Batman and Robin, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and other classics like The Crimson Ghost. The only problem, the real "fatigue" involved, is that this is no longer the 25-cent all-day kiddie matinee and that each new superhero movie is not broken down into 15-minute chunks that always end with an explosion or someone going over a cliff to entice you back to see the next chapter. Imagine being expected to go to a theater in 1949 and to see all 264 minutes of Batman and Robin in one sitting as a complete story. At the same time, I wonder what it might have been like to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe broken down into installments to revive that old theatrical tradition. Theatrical presentations of a few television shows have become a thing, but I would like to imagine having the option of going to a local theater every week to see the next episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of tuning in at home. That volume of material, however, is a large part of the "fatigue" of the superhero movie of today more than anything else, and this is where Logan and Deadpool come in. They break away from the formula in just the right way. It is a shame that the X-Men could not share the same studio with the Avengers, but Logan and Deadpool had the right people involved in the project, making their stories more like a comic series that did its own thing instead of diverting away from a solid story for the company-wide crossover event of the week. It will be interesting to see how the MCU translates this concept in Infinity War.

Up next in part three, I revisit a chunk of my Halloween highlights to talk about what I call the new breed of universal (lowercase) monsters taking shape in the footsteps of the classic Universal (uppercase) Monsters. Speaking of shapes, come Hell or high water, I intend to see The Shape of Water as my first new movie of 2018 before it leaves my local theater. I have little doubt that I can incorporate it into the discussion.