Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
In case you haven’t heard, Universal Pictures plans on destroying all monsters—all the Universal Monsters, that is. And by “destroy,” I mean “erase everything that makes them special and lazily turn them into wannabe superheroes.”
The bad news came from a Hollywood Reporter roundtable interview with six Hollywood studio executives, including Universal chairman Donna Langley. Admitting what everyone who suffered through last month's Dracula Untold already knows, Langley discussed how, basically, Universal has no clue how to handle their classic monster roster, that Murderer's Row of vintage horror: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man.
And now, the bomb drop:
“We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies—unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.”
In other words, get ready for Universal’s very own The Avengers. To which I'm all...
Presumably, Dracula, the charismatic, natural-born leader, will be Iron Man; Frankenstein, all enormous stature and lumbering girth, the answer to the Hulk; the Mummy, with its foreign-land origins, will be Thor; the Wolf Man, an average guy turned into something well above-average, is comparable to Captain America; and the Invisible Man can be Hawkeye, since the general public doesn’t give a shit about either one of them. Also, if Universal follows in the Wonder Woman/Captain Marvel feminine lead, they have the Bride of Frankenstein to fill the Black Widow slot—the rumored Hulk/Black Widow romance in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron supports this.
Now that Marvel Studios has a stronghold on the big-screen blockbuster market, every other company is scrambling to respond. Warner Bros. is busy trying to launch a new Justice League incarnation via Batfleck and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel universe, and now Universal is taking the cornerstones of American horror cinema and morphing them into cookie-cutter action pap.
It’s a smack across the collective faces of horror lovers—as if the forgettable 2010 Wolf Man movie and 2004’s Van Helsing nightmare weren’t already bruising enough. The new Universal Monsters initiative will be overseen by veteran writers/producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, a.k.a. the
nuanced storytellers purveyors of excess who wrote Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys & Aliens, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They’ll do to Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker what Paul W.S. Anderson did to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, or what Zack and Slater did to the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
They’re exactly who you don't want guiding these movies. Langley’s point of bringing the monsters into “the present day” makes sense. Costume dramas, even ones with ample bloodshed, don’t typically have widespread box office interest, and Showtime’s period horror series Penny Dreadful has done a fine job of revamping Frankenstein, vampires, and the Wolf Man all within the same fold—that Gothic/Victorian well’s been tapped. But removing the horror elements is asinine.
Not everything needs to be Marvel-ized, namely this stable of maturely handled creatures whose original movies, made back in the 1930s and ‘40s, are so lasting because they’re elegant, old-fashioned stories happening in minimalist settings. It’s acceptable to see Iron Man and Thor leap from exploding buildings and fly through the air—they’re comic book characters, and they’ve always been larger than life. The Universal Monsters, however, are smaller, self-contained macabre entities. By expanding their scopes, you lessen their impact. You drain their unique personalities and turn them into this.
Does the world really need a Frankenstein Unchained? Or The Invisible Man Unseen?
Monsters are always at their best when they're scaring us in recognizable, not-heightened worlds. For that, there are always the smaller alternatives. Once again, independent horror filmmakers have found new, fascinating ways to reinvent the never-ending but often bastardized genre tropes of vampires and werewolves—all of which are indebted to Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. This weekend, two indie horror flicks are here to ease the pain caused by that Universal Monsters development: the "Iranian vampire western" A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the geriatric-leaning lycanthrope thriller Late Phases.
Light on dialogue and heavy on atmosphere, first-time writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the most exciting new bloodsucker movie since Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (2011). The Farsi-language film hinges on an enigmatic but quietly emotive character named The Girl (Sheila Vand), a silent film transplant marauding around the fictional "Bad City" and drinking the blood of bad people, operating with a quasi-Dexter agenda. In a great bit of subtle characterization, she scares the inner-deviant out of a little kid by giving him a death stare and asking if he’s a “good boy” or not. The Girl’s tough-chick posturing softens when she meets the kind-hearted Arash (Arash Marandi), a James Dean look-alike who’s dressed in a Dracula costume when they first cross paths. He’s a good dude mixed up with a drug dealer in an effort to help his junkie father, and through The Girl he finds an unlikely salvation.
Amirpour tells a familiar love story in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but the film never feels ordinary. With its stark, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it’s the best Jim Jarmusch vampire movie ever made, feeling like something from his Stranger Than Paradise period, if Jarmusch hadn’t just made the equally sublime Only Lovers Left Alive. The mood here, though, oozes cool. Amirpour accentuates A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s alt-hip vibe by off-setting various tracks from Iranian rock bands with White Lies’ “Death,” placing her film’s tone somewhere in between a darker Rock ’n’ Roll High School and the retro sonic appeal of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.
That probably describes Ana Lily Amirpour’s iPod playlist, too. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night couldn’t have been made by anyone other than her—in that, it’s of the same singular mind as Canadian twins Jen and Sylvia Soska’s unconventional body-horror gem American Mary. Like how American Mary subverts the early works of David Cronenberg to Stuart Gordon, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night defies everything we currently know about vampires in popular culture. Recent, inferior vamp properties like Twilight and NBC’s Dracula were soullessly manufactured and disposable, overseen by corporations to satiate audiences who couldn’t care less about ingenuity. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has none of that interference—it’s exactly the film Amirpour wanted to make. Your enjoyment of it will depend on whether or not you’re able to get on her antithetical wavelength. Open minds are required.
Late Phases, on the other hand, is far less maverick yet no less refreshing. It’s the English-language debut from Argentine horror breakout Adrián García Bogliano, whose 2013 supernatural oddity Here Comes the Devil remains a prime example of modern-day punk rock horror. With Late Phases, though, Bogliano’s gone much more classical. A lot of that has to do with the film’s setting, an old folks’ retirement community called Crescent Bay, where blind widower/Vietnam War vet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici)—whose badass name evokes those of Civil War generals—begrudgingly checks in with his seeing-eye dog, Shadow, and, before it’s time for bed, quickly learns Crescent Bay’s dark secret. Once a month, when the full moon is out, predatory werewolves as large as Shaq invade the otherwise quaint senior citizens' domain.
Admirably, Bogliano goes more for potent drama than full-tilt scares, spacing the wolves’ attacks apart in order to put the focus on Ambrose accepting the inevitability of old age—Liam Neeson's The Grey but with the ass-kicking ending those 'Neeson vs. wolves' commercials promised. It’s a somber film about embracing death that's occasionally interrupted by outbursts of violence; watching it, you'll wish that Bogliano had lightened up and pushed the concept's inherent goofiness. You want it to be horror's Grumpy Old Men when it's just a melancholic Charles Bronson riff. But Nick Damici—a man’s-man actor with Tommy Lee Jones’ grizzled disposition and Bruce Campbell’s genre fan appeal—carries Late Phases with the toughness of old-school Clint Eastwood. He makes the long waits in between the wolves' appearances more than tolerable.
And they're worth the wait. Bogliano waves a furry middle finger towards the CGI in Benicio Del Toro’s The Wolf Man and harkens back to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, specifically channeling makeup effects wizard Rick Baker's handmade creations. The wolves in Late Phases are all practical—they’re actors wearing prosthetics and full-body suits. Tall, snarling, and humanoid-looking, the werewolves here look like the unholy love-children of The Howling’s creatures and the late Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead monster.
Nearly the whole third act of Late Phases is dedicated to old-man-vs-beasts adrenaline, kicked off with an impressive transformation sequence that’s not quite An American Werewolf in London but is infinitely better than Hemlock Grove’s Atari-level graphics. It’s a raw hide treat for anyone who grew up on Lon Chaney, Jr. and came of age with David Naughton and Dee Wallace.
Movies like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Late Phases do what Universal—a massive conglomerate understandably concerned with profits and dollar signs—will never be able to pull off: bringing the scare machines of the ‘30s and ‘40s into the new millennium without losing any of their integrity. Ana Lily Amirpour and Adrián García Bogliano are horror fans honoring their favorite monsters while also injecting themselves into projects that can just be little horror pictures. That’s the only way to successfully modernize things: by turning what’s old and, perhaps, stale into something personal and of-the-moment.
In today’s world of excess, the smarter, or at least less destined-to-fail, idea would be to form an Avengers-like supergroup with horror’s latter-day icons: Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, and Pinhead. Forget about all of the backdoor studio negotiations and necessary deals that’d need to happen for those characters to ever unite—hypothetically speaking, if that League of Extraordinary Homicidal Maniacs got the green light, the extreme nature of their respective movie franchises would translate well for popcorn-munchers conditioned to Michael Bay-isms and visual overload. Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931), on the other hand, would probably put those viewers to sleep. The Universal Monsters are covered in cobwebs; those slasher movie icons glisten with gore.
Besides, the world already has a modernized Universal Monsters team-up movie (even if Universal wasn't actually behind it). Twenty-seven years later, it's still all we'll ever need:
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens in limited theaters today, via Kino Lorber.
Late Phases opens in limited theaters and on digital VOD today, via Dark Sky Films.