This being October, I thought I’d give all my columns a vague Halloween theme. Let’s see how well I incorporate ghouls, witches, goblins, cheap masks, and/or other assorted traditional figures of darkness during the month. Today’s column, though, is an easy one as it features a demon.
Well, at least I think it’s a demon …
Anyway, we first screened “The Devil’s Gift” early on in Yakmala’s history. These were the times when we watched six films in one day. It still staggers me that we ever did such ambitious programs. Consequently, movies like this one and The Warrior & The Sorcereress were lost under the weight of our fatigue. I’m pretty sure few Yakmala regulars even remember this movie, but it did contribute in the creation of one of our best memes about movies of questionable quality.
Plot: After a harrowing eight minutes of filler with a house, character, and situation we never see again, we are introduced to San Rafael local David Andrews. He is a good father, good neighbor, good son, and good boyfriend. He takes his boy, Michael, out for a day at the fair, but not before we’re introduced to the beardy neighbor in upsetting shorts who offers to take care of Michael’s dog Sparkle.
The fair montage — good lord, we’re ten minutes into this and already facing a montage — feels like something out of a charity organization video about spending quality time with your children. As you know, they are our future.
Meanwhile David’s girlfriend, Susan, shops downtown for Michael’s birthday gift. She happens upon an antique store and spots a sinister looking toy monkey. You know the type, with the cymbals and an evil grin. Just in case you didn’t pick up on the evil of the toy, the score helpfully let’s you know creepy things are afoot.
David and Michael return as Susan helps David undress the boy. I’m not kidding. They strip him down to his skivvies before tucking him in. Afterward, the two adults enjoy some playful banter out on the front stoop. I should probably mention that David kind of resembles Walton Goggins, the actor best known as Shane Vendrell on The Shield and Boyd Crowder on Justified. Susan, meanwhile, resembles every late-70s replacement mom with the odd bowl-cut and high-waisted jeans. I should probably mention this movie likes to show David parking his car.
A few days later, David and Pete, the creepy neighbor guy, organize a birthday party for the boy. While unwrapping his gifts, Susan presents Michael with the toy monkey. He is so pleased by this present that he ignores the mother-lode of Star Wars toys his father and the sexually ambiguous neighbor have bought for him. Watch out, Michael, that toy is league with Lucifer!
Did I mention someone got Michael a fucking AT-AT? Those things cost a mint back in the 1980s when they first came out and he ignored the thing for the old monkey toy. I’m just saying if I got an AT-AT for my birthday, there would be no other toy I’d care about, except maybe some Storm Troopers to fill it with and Rebel soldiers to smash under the Transport’s mighty foot.
After five more scenes of parking, little things start dying like plants, flies, the fish, Sparkle. At this point, David becomes suspicious and visits a local psychic (who does nothing but yell at him). Soon after, Susan, now in the thrall of the monkey, tries to drown Michael. When David confronts her about the incident, he accidentally pushes her down the stairs (like a man).
Y’know, this wouldn’t have happened if Susan had given the boy an AT-ST or a Wampa figure. Michael would’ve just been disappointed later in life when he discovered the entire toyline is a monument to a petulant child and terrible writing.
But I digress …
With Susan off the board, the monkey locks David in the shower and tries to scald him with rounds of boiling hot water, blood, and human waste. This sequence is more horrifying for having to watch David in practically nothing and bathing. He’s a hairy guy on top of looking like Cletus Van Damme. Just imagine him covered in chocolate syrup and you’ll get an idea of this scene’s true horror.
David manages to get the toy monkey out to the trash, but Michael discovers it and brings it back in the house. When the boy nearly gets hit by a car while riding his Big Wheel, David is forced to reveal that he knows the toy is evil and takes the it out to one of the many empty hills in Northern California. After a goofy sequence where rain tries to kill him and the ground opens to swallow him whole, it seems like the good man has defeated evil.
Or has he? Muahahahaha!
Analysis: This movie has an astonishing plot/filler ratio. The actual events of the film could take up a half-hour, but we get an additional fifty minutes of David and Susan talking, David and Pete talking, Pete’s bad impressions, and Michael watching old Ub Iwerks cartoons. I suppose that would be okay if we got some idea of who these people were. Instead, these scenes are dramatically free of substance. Pete and David josh each other about Pete’s custom auto-repair business and David’s use of his tools (not innuendo). David and Susan offer no clue as to how long they’ve been going out or how Michael feels about this new woman hanging around their late 70s contemporary dwelling. Little bits of backstory woven into the banter might make the characters come to life. I know that sounds crazy, but maybe if we cared about these characters, we might be concerned if the monkey kills them.
And while the main characters have a lack of character, writer/director Kenneth J. Berton infuses service characters seen for a few moments with more character than Michael or Susan can muster for the film’s entire 112 minutes. This includes two employees at the junk shop where Susan found the monkey (one is a new hire to the company and the other is the store’s owner, a turn-off-the-19th-century Italian stereotype) and the psychic who mistakes “terror” for “anger” and offers Michael the most fury-laden advice ever committed to the some-what silver screen. I don’t know how that happens, but it seemed to please the director.
In fact, a similar thing happens in Berton’s subsequent film, 1996’s Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonder. While searching for a lost artifact, Merlin encounters several local shop owners who all come off as more complete characters with concerns about the neighborhood and backstories far more compelling than the main character in anachronistic robes. Sadly, none of them have seen his toy monkey.
It turns out The Devil’s Gift forms 40% of Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonder. It is, in fact, how we first heard about the movie. Merlin’s screened incessantly on Showtime for weeks before it appeared in a late-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Mike and the bots skewer the poor filmmaking and obvious time difference between the first half — which clearly aspires to be an episode of Tales from the Darkside and was made in the early 90s — and the second half’s material from The Devil’s Gift, which is inescapably a product of the early 80s.
While Merlin’s is a bad movie, I found that later portion more fascinating for its poor camera work and stilted pace. I bought a VHS copy on a whim and figured it may be a good choice for our emerging bad movie club. What we discovered was a mess of poorly thought-out scenes, extraneous characters that are more interesting than the protagonist … and the origin of “Commuting and Parking.”
In the annuls of Yakmala, we have witnessed a phenomenon of prolonged scenes in which characters are commuting and/or parking. This began with the tedious way scenes open in this film with Michael or Susan parking their car. I’m not kidding, you see the car turning the corner, signaling a right turn, pulling into the driveway and the character getting out of the car. Really, it’s there to pad out the film in a way other than pointless banter, but it really calls attention to itself. We subsequently noticed that the Star Wars prequels are almost nothing but scenes of Commuting and Parking. Attack of the Clones has something like 18 instances of starships parking. Now that’s padding to the extreme.
That said, I think the six parking shots in “The Devil’s Gift” call attention to themselves because so little is happening the film. I suppose a better picture could make this work by highlighting how evil can creep in to the mundane existence of a Northern California single father and his son. Sadly, Berton is not the filmmaker to make that tone work. It’s really his inability to handle the material that makes the whole affair work as a Yakmala film. While it’s on the slower side thanks to the padding, it offers some daft thinking, dull main characters, and a bizarre habit of giving the supporting players too much character. The emphasis is always on the wrong thing, making it a horror movie only by the inclusion of some stage blood.
And really, toy monkeys are fucking scary, so it takes an especially inept craftsman to rob that image of its power.
Next week: How a cheap mask can turn a compelling examination of race relations into an old-fashioned TV movie of the week.