‘The Last Unicorn’

The Last Unicorn (1982)
Rated: G
Written by Peter S. Beagle
Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass
Starring: Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges, Tammy Grimes, Robert Klien
Tagline: There’s Magic in Believing!

By: Shelley Stillo

I was never really a unicorn kind of girl when I was a kid. I was more into Star Wars and doing unspeakable things to my small collection of Barbie dolls. But I must’ve seen the movie The Last Unicorn several hundred times before I was a teenager, starting at five or six years old. Part of this repeat viewing habit came from the fact that my parents, like many others, took full advantage of the VHS as babysitter trend that emerged with the advent affordable home viewing equipment. But it was more than circumstance that drew me to this movie.

The Last Unicorn was one of a handful of animated movies, like The Secret of NIMH, The Hobbit, and Dot and the Bunny, distributed when I was a child that was not released by a major studio. These films provided an alternative to the princesses and talking animals that were the provenance of Disney, but also to the pandering animated dreck, like An American Tail and Land Before Time, that came from the Speilbergian horror, Amblin Entertainment. The material in these non-studio animations tended to be different in terms of content—much of what I remember from The Last Unicorn and similar films seemed designed more for the Dungeons and Dragons crowd than the Mickey Mouse crowd—but also in tone. Something about these films felt less safe, and, to my mind now, more adult than the animation that was more readily available. Need I remind anyone of the childhood trauma that was Watership Down? With the Natsukashi crowd, I think not.

Even though I saw The Last Unicorn more times than I can count as a child, my memory of it has become very clouded since my last viewing, which has to have been at least 15-20 years ago. What has stuck with me from the film has stuck with me quite vividly, though. What I remember:

  • an intense scene about a harpy. I’m not entirely sure what happened in this scene, but I remember it being scary, and I remember that as a child I found it something like profound.
  • I remember something about a clock and another scary image, the Red Bull. When I think of these images, I feel like the film had a fairly complicated mythology for an animated endeavor.
  • I can’t forget, can’t imagine anyone who has ever encountered this film at any time for any length of time could forget, the soundtrack, which featured America. The theme song is particularly striking. It’s the kind of song that will be stuck in your head for hours at the mere mention of the film’s title. At the time, I found it emotionally engaging, though thinking about it now, it starts to smell a bit of cheese. “I’m aliiiiiivvveeee”

New memories: Though the story is simpler than I remember, the incomparable vocal (it seems that all roads in my life lead to Christopher Lee!) and animation talents ensure that The Last Unicorn ages much more gracefully than a 1982 cartoon scored by America should. Though I found Mia Farrow’s voice grating, the acting is so good that I even teared up a little during the emotional scene where an aging Molly Grue lashes out at the unicorn for visiting her now, rather than “twenty years ago? Ten years ago? …when I was new?” And Angela Lansbury ensures that the harpy scene is just as scary now as it was when I was the young girl Molly Grue longs to be.

The animation may be even more beautiful in this day and age, when computer generated graphics ensure that most animated experiences are big, loud, and in your face, than it was at the time. The animation here is subtle, full of cool blues and frightening reds, seemingly inspired alternately by Maxfield Parrish and medieval unicorn tapestries. At times, the film effectively and charmingly recalls these tapestries intentionally, and these are some of the film’s most beautiful sequences. It is no surprise to learn that Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, the producers of the film, often worked with the animation firm Topcraft on their pictures, the firm that help launch Hayao Miyazaki’s career.

The biggest surprise is America’s soundtrack.  “The Last Unicorn” and “Walking Man’s Road” somehow manage to fight off growing any of the musical moldand remain emotionally resonant. They also help the soundtrack stand out as fairly original, as they work more as rock themes than the Broadway-esque musical numbers you find in the Disney and Amblin counterparts. Beware, though, they’re just as mind-numbingly addictive as they were when you were a kid. You’ll be breaking out the hairbrush microphone and the power-ballad facial expressions as you belt out “I’m allliiiiiiiiveeee” for your stuffed animal collection.

Will Shelley still believe in unicorns? Check out the podcast below or download it here.

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‘Hellraiser’

Hellraiser (1987)
Rated: R
Written and Directed by: Clive Barker
Starring: Andrew Robinson as Larry Cotton
                Clare Higgins as Julia Cotton
                Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton
                Doug Bradley as Lead Cenebite (aka Pinhead)

Tagline: It will tear your soul apart!

By: Shelley Stillo

Pre-screening memories: The thing I remember most about viewing Hellraiser as a pre-teen is precisely how much it didn’t effect me. I got started as a horror fan young. I was raised by a group of pop culture mavens who compared family members to characters from Poltergeist and Children of the Damned, who let me stay up late and watch Tales From the Darkside on overnight visits to their houses. By the time I was 10, I’d had the good sense to become best friends with the video-store lady’s daughter.

In those pre-blockbuster days, the horror shelf in the video store was a special place—a vast undiscovered country of illicit sights. Today, as most people order their dvds from Amazon based on movies they’ve already seen or heard of, or worse yet, they `flix everything they watch, DVD cover art is a pretty sanitized business. Actors you recognize, a scene from the film, the promo poster you’ve seen a thousand times. Mid-80s VHS cover art was different, especially in the horror aisle. Intense color and extreme graphics were the only ways to give your film a chance to be seen, especially in an era when many horror films were independently produced or released direct to video. VHS covers could be downright terrifying. A trip down the horror aisle at the video store could often be an act of bravery for my 10-year-old self, and, unfortunately, most often a much richer artistic experience than viewing the films inside those Technicolor cases.

But it was also an act of pure pleasure, as I anticipated my weekly visits to the horror aisle with an insane glee other children reserved for Disneyland. In the three or four years during which my best friend’s mother worked at the video store, my friend and I burned through every horror film on the shelf, each of our family’s taking weekly turns at playing host to our all-night bloodbath versions of the pre-teen girl sleepover.

Back then, Hellraiser was just another movie to add to the list of horror films I’d seen. Even though “Pinhead” was already an iconic figure in the genre by the time I’d encountered him, he left little to no impression on me. I liked that he was a cool-looking villain, but I didn’t know why he got so much attention in all of those horror documentaries I watched. And while this lack of effect was in part a consequence of my attraction to more kid-friendly horror—the comical Freddy films that spewed forth from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and PG-13 Stephen King adaptions chief among them—it wasn’t like I had no appreciation for more mature horror. I also counted Nosferatu and The Haunting among my favorite films. But Pinhead and his “magic box” never meant anything to me, besides the occasional ability to quicken my heart—and my step—when I saw their images on a VHS box.

New memories: I was recently able to view Hellraiser on the big screen, and my immediate reaction was “I’ve never really seen this movie before.” Even though Hellraiser has most likely made numerous appearances on my horror viewing lists (which haven’t stopped growing), I never really saw the movie until I watched it this year. This is obviously due to the fact that as a pre-teen horror fan, I had no capacity whatsoever to understand the erotic dynamics of a horror film that explicitly delves into the world of sado-masochistic pleasure (“Demons to some, angels to others” indeed). But because I’ve heard countless talking heads ruminate about Barker’s use of this subject matter over the years, I really thought I had a sense of this film—what it was about and how it worked—even though I hadn’t seen it for at least ten years. But I really had no idea, which can be a bit of a surreal experience, to realize that something you honestly believed to be familiar is actually an absolute unknown.

Obviously, as someone enthusiastic about rebel art (an enthusiasm that was only stoked by Barker’s own live introduction to the screening I saw, which included blow-job jokes and a raspy “Art should never be made for the man. Art should be made to take down the man.”), I was impressed by the frankness with which this film approached the topic of pain as pleasure. But the film seemed to go even further than that by criticizing, or at least portraying as equally horrific, the “normal” sexual couple. Kirstie’s father’s and boyfriend’s obliviousness to possibilities that don’t conform to their narrow view of the world seems as problematic as Uncle Frank and Stepmother Julia’s (if you can’t tell, there’s also a bit of an incest plot here, which only adds intensity to the atmosphere of the film) violent fantasies.

The other thing that keeps this film resonant and current is how well the special effects have held up. As a frequent attendee of midnight movies, I can definitely say that special effects rarely hold up. But despite the outrageouness of some of the imagery Barker tries to capture—the aforementioned skinless Frank and the “meat board” are two notable examples—you never laugh or flinch at an outdated technique watching this film. Perhaps it is actually because of Barker’s outrageousness that these visual moments hold up. The depths of imagination it takes to conjure such images guarantees that they’ll shock and disturb, even at more than 20 years old.

I can’t end this review without a word about the cenobites. They’re inventive villains, even to a 10-year-old who has no grasp of their meaning. In context (or, more accurately, when the context is understood), they’re the kind of characters that attach themselves to your psyche, and may never be completely shaken loose. The rich dialogue they’re given helps (quotes), but their visual characteristics truly are the stuff of nightmares. And as much as Pinhead is still a cool looking villain, it’s the sound of those chattering teeth that keeps me up at night today.

Is Shelly still interested in raising ‘Hell’ after all these years? Listen to the podcast, or dowload it here.

‘The Monster Squad’

 

The Monster Squad (1987)
Directed by: Fred Dekker
Written by: Shane Black and Fred Dekker
Starring: Andre Gower as Sean Crenshaw
Robby Kiger as Patrick
Brent Chalem as Horace (The Fat Kid)
Michael Faustino as Eugene

Tagline: “Call them for a monster-ous good time!”

By: Jason Plissken

Pre-Screening Memories: I haven’t seen The Monster Squad since I was in high school, but since it had “Monster” in the title, it was required viewing. I would scour the TV listings every week, checking for what creatures would be featured for the week. This one sounded like the Mother Lode, in that it featured all the classic monsters from Universal Studios: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The movie came out in 1987, but I didn’t see it until it came on HBO about a year later. My memories of the film are pretty vague but I did learn a number of things from watching it:

  • I remember the movie was corny but still able to keep my attention. There were several little details about the kids in the film that I wanted for my childhood: to battle monsters as a young kid, a really cool treehouse (that was two-story, no less!), and a neighborhood girl like Patrick’s sister (played by Lisa Fuller, which was really the height of her film career, unless you count Teen Witch).

  • I thought that it was really cool that the main character, Sean Krenshaw (played by Andre Gower), was able to watch a nearby drive-in movie from his roof. I could not have cared less if I could not hear the dialogue, just watching it would have been enough to occupy me. I could do the whole Mystery Science Theater 3000 thing, I suppose, and make up my own dialogue.

  • I remember Fat Kid declaring that the “Wolf man had nards.” Childish, I know, but ‘nards’ is just a funny word.

  • It was the first time I heard sex referred to as “dorking.”Again, I was a kid, these things were endlessly fascinating to me.

  • I remember a World War II bomber loaded with Dracula’s coffin in the
    beginning. At the time, it seemed perfectly plausible for the ancient tomb of Nosferatu to circle over middle America for no apparent reason whatsoever.

I remember having a fondness for the film in the way it handled its leads, not treating them as typical “Hollywood” kids, in much the same way that “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies” seemed to. They never seemed to talk down to their targeted audience.

Will the exclusive “Monster Squad” still allow membership to Jason now that he’s an old guy? Find out in the podcast here:

Or download it here.

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