ZERO STARS/**** Image D Sound D
starring Dean Iandoli, Diana Frank, David Marriott, D.J. Kerzner
screenplay by Roy Langsdon and John Platt
directed by Rudiger Poe
by Alex Jackson I do not use this analogy lightly: Watching Monster High is sort of like watching your wife get raped. I felt actual fear as it unspooled, and there were several times I had to hold back from melting into a crying fit. These were not tears of incredulity or even pain, but tears born of anger, existential despair, and finally an acknowledgment of one's own innate inadequacy. There is this feeling that the whole thing will go unpunished and unacknowledged. Director Rudiger Poe and screenwriters Roy Langsdon and John Platt have taken something vital from me, something I don't think I can ever get back. And they have done it for no reason. There is no sin I could have committed to prompt this atrocity, it's something that just happened, as random and as meaningless as life itself.
This has to be the worst movie I have ever seen. There is a sense in which, as my colleague Walter Chaw is fond of saying, cold is just cold, and comparing films this far removed from the Aristotlean golden mean of cinema is entirely fruitless. But for whatever it's worth, Monster High is actually worse than Assignment Terror, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, and the 1987 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's bad in a way that goes beyond camp, beyond boredom, and beyond immorality. It creates new limits for bad. One begs for the release of an atrocity like Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold in the same way that that guy in Casino begged to have his throat sliced open when Joe Pesci squeezed his skull in a vice.
Maybe it's me. I believe I might be allergic to this movie--I seem to be missing that vital bit of genetic code that makes other people immune to it. Or maybe it's the result of a deeply buried childhood trauma that somehow surfaced as the result of subtle cues in the picture. Other people have apparently seen it and they haven't reported such a volatile reaction. In fact, I found somebody who loves this movie. His name is Adam Cooley and he lives in Columbus, Indiana. In his posted comment on the IMDb, Adam Cooley from Columbus, IN calls Monster High "the Greatest B-Movie of All Time. Period." Obviously Adam Cooley from Columbus, IN would like pretty much anything, right? Not so. He's written negative and relatively thoughtful reviews for a number of films, three of which I've seen: The Devil's Rejects, Collateral, and Psycho Scarecrow. He feels that Psycho Scarecrow had way too much padding and that the ending of Collateral was terrible. Fine; I agree with both charges 110%. But his review of The Devil's Rejects is a tip-off as to the flaw in his critical eye. He never exactly mounts an attack against the film, he just feels that its shock value has been over-hyped. You see, Cooley isn't evaluating these pictures in an objective sense, but rather according to how well they met his expectations for them. The reason Monster High receives high praise is because he wasn't expecting anything from it and it delivered accordingly.
Personally, I have but one standard under which I evaluate all films: the movie in question must be worth watching. If it is not then it fails to serve its purpose and it's not a good film. Yes, we can discuss the higher purpose of art and such, but on a broad level I am basically a utilitarian. What I'll never do is turn film criticism into gym class. This is the real world and the real world isn't fair. You aren't judged relative to your potential or your individual capabilities, but by what you can actually do. Although the ending of Collateral really does suck ass, that stretch of ass-sucking is superior to anything in Monster High. Seeing Michael Mann fail is still preferable to seeing Rudiger Poe "succeed." The two filmmakers are on separate planes of evolution.
Faceless intergalactic supervillain Monster-in-Charge (Bob Cady) is in the business of destroying planets. Looking through his logs he discovers that the destruction of Earth has been postponed. It turns out that Mr. Armageddon (David Marriot), a renegade project manager, is to blame. We see exactly how Mr. Armageddon dropped the ball via a multimedia presentation on CD-ROM. For one reason or another, Armageddon started the destruction of Earth at Montgomery Sterling High (get it, MontSter High? The liner notes seem to find this hilarious), home of Norm Median (Dean Iandoli). Norm is in love with French foreign-exchange student Candace Cain (Diana Frank) but thinks she's out of his league. With the end of the world dawning, will Norm grow into enough of a man to win over Candace? Oh yeah, and will they stop Mr. Armageddon and save the world?
Of course, you know they're going to save the world because I just told you that the film begins with Monster-in-Charge discovering the postponement of Earth's destruction. Look, I'm not an idiot, I'm an experienced moviegoer and, like you, I know that happy endings and triumphs over the forces of evil and such are to be expected--and like you, I've reached the point where I understand that it's not the destination that's important, but how you get there. With that said, telling us how the film ends in the very first scene shows a violent disregard for the principles of dramatic conflict and the emotional engagement of the audience. Pre-emptively, we're told not to care about anything that happens in the film.
This format provides the filmmakers the freedom to introduce narration from the CD producer and ongoing commentary from Monster-in-Charge, as if freedom was something they were lacking. Monster High is not a satire of high school, monster movies, corporate greed, or anything else, for that matter. Satire requires a perspective towards your subject matter and Monster High quite simply has nothing to say. Instead, it uses its pseudo-satirical attitude as a license to throw shit against the wall and see what sticks. Let's look back on that plot summary. Why is Monster-in-Charge in the business of destroying planets? What's the purpose in destroying planets? Who is hiring him? Does he have clients? He says that he banished Mr. Armageddon, so why is Mr. Armageddon destroying Earth? And are these aliens or are they demons or are they something else? Were I to confront Adam Cooley with these questions, I imagine he would answer: "They destroy planets because they are evil"--or, considerably worse, "Don't worry about it, it's a spoof." The filmmakers didn't need to ask these questions much less answer them, because "it's a spoof." As long as you're making a spoof, you're protected from having to produce art and your audience is protected from having to be affected by art.
One of the truly scarring aspects of the film is its misogyny. I don't knee-jerk dismiss movies that are unkind to women, and in fact it's somewhat difficult for one to squeeze that charge out of me, as I think there are more ways to pull off misogyny than there are to flub it. Monster High, however, just seemed to do the right things to piss me off. Though there is nudity in the film, it's all from body doubles framed in order to crop their heads off. This is as distilled a form of objectification as you can get and as such it's not any fun to watch. It's so painfully cynical, like they're giving us what they think we want without any pretense. Too, it's obviously lacking in the bare threshold of emotional intimacy necessary for good erotica.
The movie is deeply offensive, yet it doesn't view itself as such, indicating that Poe, Langston, and Platt are not iconoclastic so much as deeply diseased. For absolutely no reason whatsoever, Monster-in-Charge has sex with his perpetually-disrobed assistant while he watches the story unfold. When she interrupts his dialogue with the movie with a comment on their lovemaking, he tells her, "Button it bitch!" The narrator tells us that French student Candace never learned how to say "no," but actress Diane Frank speaks English fluently and only gradually do we realize that she has an accent. So why the dig? (Furthermore, the word "no" is pretty much exactly the same in English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Granted, I'm just addressing level one of the stupidity at this point.) For absolutely no reason at all, Mr. Armageddon systematically seduces/rapes and kills every girl in the high school and checks their pictures off the school yearbook with a blood drenched fingernail. Neat idea, I suppose, but again Poe doesn't seem to have any feeling for the weight of the visual, nor can we help but think that he is subconsciously compensating for deep wounds inflicted in adolescence. While therapy is not an ignoble use of the artistic instinct, Monster High is not therapy. Therapy necessitates some form of self-knowledge.
Poe is incompetent as a filmmaker and occasionally there is a bit of heat in his incompetence. He breaks rules simply because he doesn't know any better. Much of the film is visually static; Poe doesn't have either the time or the imagination to block or frame his shots interestingly, much less move the camera, leading him to produce most of his effects through editing. A key sequence is conveyed in an extreme close-up of a screaming mouth, while in a scene perhaps intended as homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when the heroes look through a door they see a montage of unrelated "disturbing" images, including a fat hairy stomach being folded into a talking "mouth." The costumes are terrible, nay, the monsters are terrible. Particularly offensive is the "Stinksucker," a reddish-orange creature played by genre icon Phil Fondacaro (The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Troll). The Stinksucker costume not only has no movable parts, it's not fitted onto Fondacaro's legs, either. He just sort of waddles.
There are two bumbling "skinhead" aliens from the planet Polyester that factor significantly into the film. For whatever reason, it's when those aliens entered the picture that I really began to feel as though I was staring deep into the black void. There is something so...banal, petty, and desperate about these beasts. I don't know what kind of mind could be so atrophied and understimulated to have thought them attractive enough concepts to take the time to design and photograph them. I'm not sure I want to know--sleep comes easier if I don't have to acknowledge that people like Rudiger Poe exist in the world. Then again, at least Poe had the good sense to never work again; screenwriter John Platt went on tearing apart the fabric of civilization by producing the reality-TV series "Big Brother", "The Amazing Race", and "The Surreal Life".
Sony has shown Monster High exactly the respect that it deserves on DVD. The film doesn't appear to have aged naturally in its dreadful 1:33:1 fullscreen presentation (since the film was shot for theatrical exhibition, this cannot be its original aspect ratio); it looks dried-out and stale, with desaturated reds that have a distinctly claylike tone. Meanwhile, there's a gulf of detachment between the image and the muffled Dolby 2.0 mono audio that proves difficult for the viewer to resolve. Trailers for Sony's latest cash-grabs Boogeyman (2005), Devour, "Kingdom Hospital", Vampires: the Turning, Frankenfish (?!), and Chupacabra Terror (??!!) round out the platter. Originally published: November 14, 2005.