Thursday, September 24, 2020

The night breed


Directed by Richard Alan Greenberg
Written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott

Spoiler alert: mild

Cult classics do, I suppose, get cultier than 1989's Little Monsters, but at that point you really have to be trying, and it's one of those curious objects that exists right on the edge of obscurity for everybody except for the cohort of people just about my age who caught it on VHS years after it flopped its way out of theaters.  It's a film that got dealt a really rotten hand, to be sure, and the biggest strike against it was its origins, coming out of the 80s' ambitious-home-video-purveyor-turned-indie-producer-and-distributor Vestron Pictures, at pretty much precisely the moment that Vestron ran out of Dirty Dancing money and went bankrupt after a parade of back-to-back flops (oh, was Lair of the White Worm not a sound investment?).  It was acquired by MGM/UA who did basically nothing with it, and on a budget of $7 million it returned barely a tenth that, the other strike against it being that it was an E.T. bandwagoner, arriving well after E.T.'s bandwagon had stopped.  It found its small, appreciative audience on home video, though the damage was already done: it was director Richard Alan Greenberg's debut, after a career mostly involving special effects and title design (both skillsets being put to good use here), and the next and only time he directed any other feature was a sketchy-looking, quite-possibly-cult-affiliated documentary called The Process in 2003.  And that's it—hell, the only other thing he ever directed at all was an episode of Tales From the Crypt.  That's how catastrophic it was for him, and if he barely lived to see it reemerge on streaming—I'm not certain he did, as he died in 2018—he did not live to see it finally get a blu-ray release last week.  It's a movie whose soundtrack was never released in whole or in part, in an age where that would've been unusual, and this despite its producers' resort to commissioning a pair of original songs for it (not to mention licensing a Talking Heads standard!).  It's a movie whose failure was so complete that the artist who performed those original songs, Billie Hughes, can't even get his tape for one of them back, probably because it was in a box that got thrown in the actual garbage, and in this year of our wrathful Lord 2020, there's not a clean version of "Magic of the Night" in existence.  Speaking to the circumscribed popularity of the movie, there's not even a Goddamn cover of it.  And it's a pretty great little song!

And yet Little Monsters absolutely was a "real movie," financed with real mid-budget money (high mid-budget, even), featuring something like real stars, and made with real talent.  I've always been rather inordinately fond of it myself, ever since I too saw it on VHS.  It obviously deserved better than what it got: it clearly has its weak points, but having seen it twice as an adult now, I've confirmed the accuracy of my memory, and it's kept its place in my esteem as one of the 80s' most exemplary kid's adventures.  Its weaknesses are the same as even the best iterations of that genre: the spotty world-building, the not-entirely-rigorous plot logic, the noticeable absence of dignity, and, of course, a bad ending (or, rather, a bad climax, something that literally every 80s kid's adventure movie has; though, like the better ones, the denouement is pretty great).   Its strengths, however, are likewise—and "lack of dignity" may honestly count as one of them.  Above all, it has the best thing you could hope for out of one of these things: the endearing, funny shitheelery of a morally-unformed kid navigating a dream realm of magical possibility that's as intoxicating as it is deadly.

The kid is Brian Stevenson (Fred Savage), age 12, recently moved to a new and unidentified part of American suburbia at the whim of his parents (Daniel Stern—nice Wonder Years tie-in there—and Margaret Whitton), who decided that this crapshack was their "dream home" for some reason, and apparently thought that possessing it would put their creaking marriage back together.  Brian also has a younger brother, Eric (Fred's younger brother Ben, long before he met the world, and besides being cute, this pays off in little ways, mainly in that Brian believably holds Eric in utter contempt).  Eric has lately taken to a belief that there are monsters under his bed, and Brian generously (after being offered cash) agrees to switch rooms.  That's when Brian discovers that Eric was right, but, against all sense for any child not the protagonist of a fantasy-adventure movie, the next night Brian puts his kid's engineering skills to good use, sealing the gate behind the thing that came from beneath the bed.  Having caught this blue-skinned, light-allergic demon—and having tortured him sufficiently to let him know he's not to be trifled with—Brian finally relents and lets his captive return to his home dimension rather than perish in the dawn.

Counter-intuitively—or maybe not—this is the beginning of a fast friendship between Brian and his new best bud, Maurice (Howie Mandel), who sees something of a kindred spirit in this precocious and not especially good-tempered boy, and is more than happy to initiate him into the hidden world of monsters that lurks beneath us while we slumber.  Indeed, Brian becomes something of Maurice's partner-in-pranks, terrorizing the children on Maurice's list with much the same gusto as his mentor—some of them kids Brian knows and already hates, most of them random strangers—and Brian loves his new secret life.  But it's becoming increasingly apparent that he's being groomed to leave his old one behind, and if he keeps up his escapades, he won't have any choice in the matter—which is exactly what the monsters' mysterious king, Boy (Frank Whaley), wants.  And Boy, it's said, always gets what he wants.

There's a fair amount going on here, most overtly how it's a tidy little allegory about the ways kids act out against their dysfunctional home lives, often unwisely, by finding new and questionable friends—basically, Brian's running with the wrong crowd—although there's more of an edge to that than you'd expect, insofar as it's just as much about how easy it can be to manipulate an angry, depressed child.  There is a constant if usually subliminal tension to the basic and immutable fact of the matter: Fred Savage is thirteen, and Howie Mandel is the grown man who enjoys spending all night with him (and who is, even on the face of the text, working to traffick him to an off-putting creep who dresses like Angus Young).  And it's at least strongly suggested that an unhappy childhood is where all these monsters started.

Let's circle back to that, because the most successful phase of Little Monsters ignores it (even if it partly works because it hasn't just gone away), and to some degree—though the production history is a little murky—this must've been an attempt at doing a kid's adventure Beetlejuice, and it does that well, if maybe not uniformly well.  Little Monsters' big advantage, anyway, is that first-timer Greenberg got a very real cinematographer to help him out, and Dick Bush is this film's secret weapon, challenging himself to perform miracles with very little light, so that virtually every single scene—the movie, naturally, takes place almost solely at night or within the monsters' nighttime realm—presents itself as a twilight space, barely-illuminated by the moon or streetlamps, or by its underworld's hellish, unmotivated oranges and teals, all while remaining an easily-readable film for children.

That Bush balances these two requirements is an accomplishment; that he makes it so compellingly pretty is a tribute to his skill and, to a lesser degree, production designer Peter Paul, though I do rather appreciate Paul's Escher-meets-Bosch storybook set design of the monsters' world—all crooked staircases and ladders leading nowhere, amidst fields of junk.  But it's Bush who's really showing off, clearly relishing the prospect of carving this expressionist-lite fantasy realm out of the depthless darkness, and even indulging in an "impossible" mirror shot made possible by simply hiding the camera within all these enveloping blacks.  Despite the bombast, however, I think the best photography here does not announce itself: it's simply the way it captures a fantasy-tinged vision of what a bedroom looks like in the middle of the night when your eyes have adjusted as far as they can go, and you can see, but every color is a steely gray-blue and there's a sort of uncanny flicker in the dimness as your rods strain to render shapes.  With all due respect to Hora (Explorers), Davieu (E.T.), and Thomson (Labyrinth), Little Monsters might have the strongest cinematography in its whole damn genre.

Kid's adventure does not succeed or fail based on its photography, of course, but on its characters, the vivid relationships between them, and the fun they have along the way.  On this count, Little Monsters' not-remotely-a-secret weapon is Mandel, who is off the fucking wall here, apparently in some unpublicized competition with Robin Williams for the crown of King Zany of Earth.  (That screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott went on to write Disney's Aladdin represents a pretty flat trajectory.)  Mandel, anyway, is a torrent of bad jokes, bodily functions, and weird ad-libs, and in such constant whirling motion that he must've burned 6000 calories every day of shooting.  He is, also, the beneficiary of by some margin the film's best creature design make-up.  (Boy and his henchman, the Meatloaf-looking Snik (Rick Ducommen), get the best of the rest of it, and there are some enjoyably-gnarly fiends otherwise; but if Little Monsters has one thoroughgoing weakness, it's that its backdrops are mostly populated by rejected muppets and refugees from a community clown college, something compounded by the fact that Greenberg isn't a keen judge of which ones are worth shoving into the foreground, and which ones are not.)

Maurice himself, however, is as fine a creation as kid's adventure fantasy ever managed, a punk-styled anarchic jackass capable of practical effects shapeshifting (I rather like Little Monsters' lo-fi effect of light-hobbled monsters reduced to quivering piles of dirty clothes—good camouflage, that), and Mandel's performance matches the character, irritating-on-purpose but nevertheless good company.  If there's a problem, it's that Mandel's enormous energy overrides Savage, but that seems fair (Savage is our stand-in trying to play it cool, after all), and there's a rapport between the actors that just works, a feature-length effort by Mandel to annoy-amuse Savage that is terrifically fun to watch.  And, as I implied, Little Monsters is at its funnest when it's just Mandel and Savage, in a string of montages demonstrating the endless ways they fuck over their victims, apparently for no reason but the lulz.  (Whatever else, Little Monsters does not need to spend two hours out of an hour and a half runtime setting up its monster world's arcane rules, unlike some children's movies, Pixar.)

Which brings us back around to the quality that makes Little Monsters special: that it feels genuinely dangerous and genuinely mean, the same way actual children are dangerous and mean.  There are lessons learned and conservative family values re-reified and all that shit, but Little Monsters has a nastiness to it that marks it as unique, even in 1989.  It doesn't get there by way of eyebrow-raising politics (which is what "product of its time" is often shorthand for).  It's simply that it's so appealingly irresponsible: between the constant swearing and frequent recourse to body horror—initially comedic, and eventually outright nightmarish—it astonishes me that something this violent, crass, and cruel earned a PG in a post-Gremlins world.  (It is probably most famous for Brian and Maurice tricking a kid into drinking Maurice's piss, and I still always forget the even-better stinger to this gag's punchline.)  Even beyond content, there's a sense of unease that would never be allowed in a kid's film today, from the obvious ways—there's a unnerving scene where Brian watches his crush Kiersten (Amber Beretto) while she sleeps—to the quiet ones, like a sequence where Brian skips obliviously along a graveyard wall.  Of course, this quality is omnipresent in the squicky-if-you-interrogate-it fairy tale horror at the bottom of it.

It eventually has to get on with its plot, and maybe this is its downfall; almost no 80s kid's adventure has a genuinely good third act, and while Little Monsters is no exception, it almost seems like it should've been.  This time it's not the crumbling sense of threat, à la The Goonies—in fact, Little Monsters escalates surprisingly well—but just the jumbled, dissatisfying way it deals with that escalation, ultimately pinning its hopes on a two-part climax that's awfully confused in its storytelling and editing, and which essentially boils down to doing the same thing in the same place exactly the same way, but slightly bigger, and it comes off like Rossio and Elliott had to finish their screenplay on a napkin the morning it was shot.  It recaptures some urgency and cleverness before the movie actually ends—and the E.T.ness of it all maybe isn't heartbreaking, but it's affecting—and I do like that Talking Heads song.  ("Road to Nowhere," for the record.)  But that climax is a finger in the eye after a film that's previously been humming along perfectly, albeit on its own highly peculiar frequency; and if it's unfair to blame it for doing what its genre always does, it's a pity since up till now it had been doing it better.

Score: 9/10

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