Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Monster! (1999)

Med student Travis (Tobias Mehler) comes to the charmingly named town of New Purgatory (you think it’s nice and sunny there?) to take care of his grandfather Lloyd Reeves (M. Emmet Walsh). When he was younger, Lloyd starred in a long series of local low budget horror movies that are still celebrated with an annual movie festival in town, but in his old age, Lloyd seems to have gotten it into his head these films are actually real, and he has been fighting a monster that returns every three years since 1969. People aren’t just talking about Lloyd, they are starting to think he might be some kind of crazy killer in the making.

After some embarrassing events, the boss of the local psychiatric clinic grudgingly releases Lloyd into Travis’s custody. Lloyd tries to explain the whole problem to Travis as he sees it: there’s not just the monster problem threatening the town, the place is actually getting trapped in the rules and tropes of one of his monster movies too whenever monster time comes around. Not surprisingly, Travis doesn’t believe a single word of this, and when a teenage couple is killed while Lloyd is out and about screeching warnings like a madman while wielding an axe, he even believes the going theory his grandpa is an axe-murdering maniac.

However, Travis will change his tune soon enough, and he, the town doctor’s daughter Jill (Angela Keep), and the white, hip-hop loving youth of town might just take over the town hero job from Lloyd.

The 90s were a particularly bad time for horror TV movies; as a matter of fact they were a pretty bad time for TV movies period. So stumbling about a neat little film like John Lafia’s horror comedy made for the UPN (whatever that is) among the dross is a rather pleasant event. What’s even more pleasant is that this is actually a film that gets the ironic and knowing approach to horror film – or to be precise, old monster movies – right. There’s neither superior smugness that suggests the filmmakers don’t actually like the genre they are working in nor the big gesture of deconstructing the genre further than the film actually does on display. Lafia’s approach is loving, slightly nostalgic, and often actually funny, playing with the elements that make up a monster movie while still allowing the film to be one.

You could of course argue the film treats its material in a rather harmless way, never really delving into how horrible the basic concept of a town regularly trapped in monster movie tropes actually is, with people forgetting the dead afterwards and falling into the character types of low budget movies every three years. It’s as nightmarish as Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical stance, the longer I think about it. But then, it’s probably for the better it’s not me writing these movies, or what is supposed to be a fun, knowing romp would turn into weird cosmicist nightmare without any solution.

Monster! isn’t totally unconscious of these things, though. At least, it makes the very sympathetic attempt to change the role of The Girl into something more active, even suggesting Jill might be the more competent Town Hero, which isn’t at all something I’d expected to find in a TV movie of its time. Why, there might even be hope of the town breaking out of the endless cycle and moving into another movie.

Otherwise, Monster! is very much your typical fun TV monster movie, the sort of thing you might get to see on the SyFy Channel if you’re lucky, with an unconvincing yet cute CGI monster, inexperienced but decent and pretty leads supported by some experienced character actors (Walsh is a total hoot, it’s only too bad he never actually played in many monster movies), and competent direction. I can see this as a feel-good movie for the whole family, if your family is a bit like mine.

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