Moonbeam’s Childhood Terrors: The Secret Kingdom (1998) & Magic in the Mirror (1996)

The most shocking revelation in our Movie of the Month discussion of the Charles Band-produced children’s fantasy film Magic in the Mirror was that I was the only member of the Swampflix crew who found the movie to be a total nightmare. While everyone else found the film’s villains— humanoid ducks who boil children alive to make delicious tea— to be amusingly quaint, I cowered in fear of their menacingly cheap presence. I stand by my description of those tea-slurping murder-ducks as resembling “a D.I.Y. production of the Howard the Duck movie as a stage play in an adult stranger’s basement” and believe a large portion of the movie’s appeal to be the discomfort of their design. Schlockmeister Charles Band’s production company Full Moon has long been fascinating to me for pumping out cheap, R-rated horror films that feel like they were intended for children. In the mid-90s, Band somehow made his aesthetic even more terrifying by deliberately making films for children’s media sensibilities, but still allowing his violent, horror impulses to shine through. If the cheap duck costumes from Magic in the Mirror are not a compelling enough argument that the Full Moon children’s media sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment was more horrifying than most of Band’s deliberately horrific productions, I’d like to submit 1998’s The Secret Kingdom as Exhibit B. The Secret Kingdom follows Magic in the Mirror’s exact formula of infusing a fairly innocuous down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy adventure with truly horrific character design, but its own childhood terrors are much more blatant & inarguable than the ducks that disturbed me so much in our Movie of the Month.

Mysteriously, neither Charles Band nor Moonbeam’s names are listed in the opening credits of The Secret Kingdom. IMDb lists Band as an “uncredited executive producer” on the film, though, and his fingerprints can be found all over the premise thanks to his seemingly lifelong obsession with miniature bullshit (see: Dolls, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Dollman, The Gingerdead Man, etc.). In this particular case, a pair of snotty siblings are transported to a miniature, war-torn kingdom located beneath their kitchen sink, due to a magical lightning storm (or some such nonsense). A world of miniature terrors awaits them there, thanks to a maniacal dictator’s obsession with achieving “perfection” through elective surgery. The Minister of Perfection barely fights back his Nazi undertones as he proudly shows off his favorite “perfected” creations: people with smoothed-over flesh instead of eyes, Nazi cops with metal places for faces, a creepy S&M dog-man who aids in hunting undesirables, etc. The Alice in Wonderland-riffing premise of The Secret Kingdom isn’t too far off from the basic plot of Magic in the Mirror. The only differences are in their Mad Libs-style details: instead of a fantasy kingdom the kids are transported to a steampunk metropolis; instead of traveling through a mirror their adventure is prompted by an ancient lighting rod; instead of negotiating a war between two queens they negotiate a war between a surgery-addicted bureaucrat & a band of woodland rebels. The only major difference between them is that the terror of the Minister’s creations are unambiguously horrific, while the menace of the humanoid ducks is vague enough to be debatable. Director David Schmoeller (who also helmed the horror oddities Tourist Trap & Puppet Master for Band) makes his blatant horror intentions clear in jump scares & references in the dialogue to titles like The Bad Seed & The Elephant Man. Charles Band’s stated vision for Moonbeam was to produce children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard hedge”, but by the time The Secret Kingdom arrived late in the sublabel’s run a glimmer of that hard Full Moon edge reemerged in the work and was all the more terrifying for its contrast with the safe children’s fantasy picture surrounding it.

It’s possible I find The Secret Kingdom more outright creepy than Magic in the Mirror because it hits closer to home. First of all, the non-sink portion of the film is conspicuously set in New Orleans and reminds its audience of that locale often with a slew of gratuitous local details: The St. Louis Cathedral, The Natchez, French Quarter street performers, Mardi Gras parade floats, above-ground cemeteries, street cars, issues of the Times Picayune, etc. More significantly, the tiny-world-under-the-kitchen-sink premise is very reminiscent of the (presumably problematic) film The Indian in the Cupboard, which was a VHS era staple in my childhood. It might seem odd that Band would produce an intentional knockoff of a flop that lost $10mil at the box office, but I suspect that it’s possible he may have felt like he could improve on the premise as the king of miniature bullshit. Even if their similarities are only an instance of parallel thinking, Band’s way of putting his own unique stamp on the premise was hiring a horror director responsible for one of the most disturbing Texas Chainsaw Massacre-modeled 70s slashers in charge of a children’s film and populating it with eyeless, dog-like, Nazi victims of state-ordered surgery. Band may have truly thought of Moonbeam as a way to produce Full Moon-style pictures “with no hard edge” for a younger demographic and that may have been the case with early Moonbeam pictures like Prehysteria!, which sweetly supposed “What if dinosaurs were miniature & danced to rock n’ roll?” By the time he got to the eyeless goons of The Secret Kingdom and the child-boiling duck-people of Magic in the Mirror, though, I believe he lost sight of that mission statement. The children’s film backdrops that clash with these nightmarish monstrosities only make them appear more horrific by contrast and the sensation that dynamic generates just feels plain wrong. I don’t think the Moonbeam catalog necessarily reflects the creative heights of the Charles Band aesthetic in terms of absurdism or novelty, but it did often generate the most legitimately creepy imagery of his schlocky oeuvre, if not only for those creations’ soft-edge context.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film this comparison to its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play, and last week’s look back to Moonbeam’s premiere picture, Prehysteria!.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Funhouse (1981), Tourist Trap (1979), and Tobe Hooper’s Influence on the Unconventional Slasher

EPSON MFP image

The DNA of the slasher can mostly be traced back to the giallo murder mysteries of the 1960s & 70s where the gloved, off-screen killers of titles like Deep Red and Blood & Black Lace ran through disturbingly high body counts (of mostly young, beautiful women) in a distinct style-over-substance fashion. Filter the giallo genre through non-Italian titles like Psycho & Peeping Tom and direct its mayhem at the rebellious spirit of the American teenager and that’s more or less how you wind up with a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers or what have you. Not all slashers fit that mold, however, and a lot of the genre’s stranger outliers seem to point back to an entirely different source of inspiration: Tobe Hooper. Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a level of grime & idiosyncrasy to the early stirrings of slasher horrors that was almost unimaginable in 1974. Cautious not to repeat himself, he entirely shifted focus for his 1986 sequel to that iconic work, turning it into an absurd horror comedy (not unlike the curious shift in the MTV-themed cartoon Slumber Party Massacre 2). When Hooper first returned to the straightforward slasher in 1981’s The Funhouse, however, he brought back the same isolated weirdos vs. disrespectful teen brats dynamic of the first Chainsaw along with that film’s unmistakable grime, but shifted the details drastically with the specificity of a travelling carnival setting. By then, Hooper’s work had already influenced an entire crop of weirdo slasher outliers, though, and The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out as a radical work the same way 1974’s Chainsaw did.

The best example I can think of that adapts Hooper’s slasher deviations into a weird genre outlier is a film Britnee recommended during our evil doll movies conversation on the podcast. Her description of the 1979 horror oddity Tourist Trap sounded eerily similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with just enough quirk to distinguish itself from being a mere knockoff. In both films a group of suburban teens are slaughtered by an isolated family of outsider weirdos in the no-man’s-land of rural America. The major deviation in Tourist Trap is that the main killer’s backwoods family is made entirely of mannequins. Our terrifying hick killer commands telepathic abilities that allows him to animate his mannequin family so that they can physically attack his victims while singing in angelic voices or laughing maniacally. The supernatural element of these kills is largely different from Hooper’s style in his own slasher films (although not at all out of line with his titles like Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars). There’s an unmistakable, disturbing quality to the tone in Tourist Trap that points directly to the blueprint of a Hooper slasher, however. By the time the killer is wearing a doll mask & trying to make mannequins out of his teen victims Dead Silence-style, it’s all too easy to trace his origins back to Leatherface, who liked to uphold curious familial bonds of his own. Tourist Trap also has a weird crossdressing element that recalls the common slasher point of reference Norman Bates and as a whole is certainly unique enough to stand out on its own as an original work, but it owes a lot of its outlier status in the slasher genre to the strange space Hooper carved out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Released just two years after Tourist Trap, Hooper’s The Funhouse is in good company with the strange little supernatural horror. The Funhouse keeps its terror anchored in the real world in a way Tourist Trap’s telepathy doesn’t, but the grime & specificity of its carnival setting matches the eeriness of that film’s disturbing mannequin-covered roadside attraction. Also, although the dolls of The Funhouse don’t move on their own via magic, there are animatronic dolls in the film that add to a menacing atmosphere shared by Tourist Trap as soon as the opening credits. Adding a supernatural element to The Funhouse’s carnival-set genre thrills made for a laughably goofy experience in Ghoulies II, but Tourist Trap is too much of a nightmare to laugh off in that way. The way its killer (much like Gunther in The Funhouse) continually searches for love & validation despite his own brutality makes for too disturbing of a watch for the film to be brushed off as mere camp. Its laughing, singing, murdering mannequins have a sort of humor to them, but only in a cruel, twisted way that’s far more reminiscent of Hooper’s work than it is of Charles Band’s, despite that schlockmeister’s career-long obsession with killer dolls (and Tourist Trap director David Schmoeller later working on the Band-produced series The Puppet Master).

When we first discussed The Funhouse in our Movie of the Month round table we asked why it didn’t quite have the cultural staying power it deserved. The answer might be that because Hooper already opened the door for weirdo slashers like Tourist Trap years earlier, The Funhouse had too much company to stand out as its own strange work of nasty mayhem. Hooper had already changed the game in an earlier work & The Funhouse was mostly just a nightmarish continuation of that initial deviation. It found some really strange company in similar continuations, though, not least of all in this strange killer mannequins slasher.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

Tourist Trap (1979)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

campstamp

About a year or so ago, Brandon sent me a movie trailer for Tourist Trap, and it was one of the most bizarre film trailers I ever laid eyes on. From watching the trailer, I assumed the film would be about a group of teens that were being terrorized by cackling mannequins. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and it turns out that my assumption was, for the most part, correct.

Interestingly enough, it turns out that the film’s director, David Schmoeller, directed Puppet Master. I guess he couldn’t get enough of killer dolls, so he moved from killer mannequins to killer puppets. Charles Band (the mastermind behind the Puppet Master franchise) actually went on to produce several of Schmoeller’s films and was the executive producer for Tourist Trap. What a dynamic duo! I also found out that he directed one of my all-time favorite thrillers, The Seduction (1972), which is basically a trashy Lifetime-like film starring Morgan Fairchild.

Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap is truly a one-of-a-kind horror film that is able to be legitimately terrifying without losing its campy qualities. The film follows a group of teens that find themselves stranded in, well, a tourist trap after they encounter some mysterious car problems. Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) is the owner of the tourist trap, which is called Slausen’s Lost Oasis. It includes a swimming hole and an old, rinky-dink museum filled with junky mannequins of cowboys and Indians. He brings the teens to the museum and offers to assist them with fixing their broken down vehicle. He leaves the girls, Eileen (Robin Sherwood), Becky (Tanya Roberts), and Molly (Jocelyn Jones) at the museum and heads out with Jerry (Jon Van Ness) to fix the car. Before Slausen heads out with Jerry, he tells the girls to not leave the museum. Eileen notices this huge, gorgeous house behind the museum and decides to ignore Slausen’s warning.

Eileen enters the home and finds that it’s full of creepy mannequins. When I say full, I mean it is seriously packed with all types of mannequins. It doesn’t take long for her to encounter the house’s owner, Slausen’s mysterious brother, Davey. He wears a fleshy doll-like mask that is so terrifying that it will haunt your dreams forever. He actually reminds me of Leatherface from the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except he’s a million times creepier because he has special powers (similar to telekinesis) that he uses to murder folks and bring his mannequins to life. He uses his powers to strangle Eileen with her own scarf, and then he turns her into one of his mannequins. It’s not long before Becky and Molly head out to find Eileen and get their time with this psychotic villain. Davey has one of the most disturbing voices I’ve ever heard. It’s sort of like a heavy smoker that talks like a demonic child. There’s a scene when he’s chasing Molly with one of his possessed mannequin heads, and he’s screaming “See my friend?” or something like that (I can’t remember the exact words). This was probably one of the most memorable parts of the film for me because it was funny, scary, and confusing all at the same time.

There’s also a really wacky twist about halfway through the film that caught me off guard. I won’t spoil it for anyone interested in watching this film, but I have to say that it’s better than anything M. Knight Shyamalan could ever pull off.

Tourist Trap instantly became one of my favorite horror films of all-time. I literally got goosebumps several times throughout the film, and I’m not one who gets scared easily. I highly recommend Tourist Trap for anyone remotely disturbed by mannequins or psychopaths.

-Britnee Lombas