Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: R is for The Runestone (1991)

We open on a ticking clock, counting down to doomsday, both physically and stylistically as our latest tale begins in a jumble of ominous portent as several overlapping narrative threads are introduced, along with a group of disparate players, twisting and turning, but all barrelling forward on a collision course with destiny.

First, we spy a large collection of clocks maintained by a stern, Nordic looking blonde man named Sigvaldson (Godunov), all happily ticking along -- save one, which has ground to a halt much to the watchmaker’s consternation.

Cut to a mine in west-Pennsylvania coal country, where something both odd and ancient has been uncovered a half-mile below the surface. And this peculiar anomalous stone, about the size of an old-fashioned wagon wheel, covered in engraved symbols and Norse runes, proves odd enough, ancient enough, and out of place enough to draw the attention of eccentric millionaire Martin Almquist (Laurance), who buys this runestone and has it shipped back to his highrise in New York City, where it will be added to his other gathered artifacts of pagan antiquity.

Here, things take the first of many sinister turns when the runestone is loaded onto a freight elevator to be hauled up to Almquist’s lab for further study, where it gives off a pulse of unknown energy. Of course, the only witnesses to this foggy discharge are killed when the elevator cable snaps, and they plummet a couple dozen floors. And while the two workmen died, the stone remained completely unscathed and the whole thing is written off as a tragic accident, no more, no less. And once his prize is finally secured, Almquist puts in a call to his old flame, Marla (Severance), who left him to marry a professional rival, Sam Stewart.

Now, Stewart (Ryan) is an archeologist currently on a dig with Marla in the middle of nowhere, Maine, where he is trying to prove his theory that the Vikings beat Columbus to the Americas by several centuries. And while Almquist could’ve called in any number of experts to translate the writing on the runestone, his ulterior motive to get Marla back within striking distance are all too obvious and his bait brings Stewart running.

Cut to a revival theater that specializes in showing Scandinavian films, where Lars Hagstrom (Hickey) stops by to bring his old friend, Ask Franag (Hotton), some troubling news about the discovery of the ancient runestone. And while they seem to know what this means, and it’s something pretty dire, before they can elaborate, Franag’s grandson, Jacob (Young), interrupts them, saying his grandfather is far too ill to get caught up in this Norse mythological nonsense they’ve been preaching to him since he was just a baby. Of course, this nonsense of gods and monsters has been plaguing Jacob’s dreams all this time, too, and Hagstrom asks if these stories are fodder for his nightmares or giving him what he needs to interpret them before it’s too late?

Meanwhile, back at the lab, Almquist is drawn to the runestone. In fact, it appears to be whispering to him. And he becomes so enthralled, he cuts his hand on the raised etching of some mythic beast. Luckily, his assistant, Angela (Schickel), snaps him out of this funk, reminding him he’s due at some fine-art fundraiser. 

And after a fairly hilarious interlude, where Almquist spends time with some trendy hipster doofi and other assorted “culture vultures” as they take turns demolishing a building with sledgehammers in the name of art and charity, he runs into Hagstrom on the way back to his building, who warns him not to listen to the siren call of the runestone. For while it will offer anything you want, the price to pay for this is unfathomably bad -- and this declaration is punctuated by a flash of purple lightning, never a good sign.

The next morning, Stewart and Marla arrive, still bickering over the tenants of which came first, religion or pornography that lasted their whole long trip. Taking that as a good sign, Almquist, who makes it clear he still has feelings for her, and Marla, who clearly still has feelings for him, play catch up, while the not as oblivious as they think Stewart sets to work; and while he can date the stone back to around the 6th century, unfortunately, the runes are so old and so degraded Stewart cannot translate them properly.

Which leaves the major question unsolved: why would the Vikings travel to the New World and bury the rock that deep? Stewart suggests they should consult with Hagstrom, saying he’s the foremost expert on such ancient Teutonic things, but Almquist says he already has and all the crazy old man said was the damnable thing just should’ve stayed buried.

With that white lie, they call it a night. But once they reach the street, Almquist realizes he forgot his keys back in the lab -- which he did on purpose. And so, while the others wait for a promised nightcap, Almquist heads back inside, where he hears those voices again, louder this time, which entice him closer to the runestone. 

Elsewhere, Sigvaldson is overcome by a vision of a large, bipedal, werewolf-like beast drawing ever closer, as does Jacob Franag, who wakes up in a sweat from a similar dream concerning this howling, harbinger of doom.

Meantime, a security guard in Almquist’s building hears someone screaming, traces it back to the lab, and finds the janitor torn to shreds. He then hears a guttural growl coming from behind a closed door and draws his pistol. But this will do him no good as the towering beast attacks, shrugs off the fired bullets, and savages him with it’s talon-like claws and razor-sharp teeth -- the exact same beast Sigvaldson and Jacob saw, one should note. 

Back outside, Marla and Stewart watch as a patrol unit arrives, having been called in by the late security guard. Told to stay put while they investigate, the couple doesn’t listen and follows the two officers inside. And what they find is a grisly mix of body parts and a lot of blood. What they don’t find, however, is any sign or trace of Almquist...

First and frankly, nearly everything I know about Norse Mythology I learned from reading The Mighty Thor comic books (-- too young for Lee and Kirby, but I did do all of Walt Simonson’s run first hand) and the excellent The Last Days of the JSA, which was how DC Comics explained what happened to the Justice Society of America in a post-Crisis on Infinite Earths world by having them travel to Asgard to prevent Hitler from bringing about the end of the world by triggering the Ragnarok -- a/k/a Nordic Armageddon.

Now, three major players in this predestined Twilight of the Gods were Loki’s three children: the giant serpent Jormungand, prophesied to kill Thor during the Ragnarok; Hela, the god of mischief’s daughter, ruler of the land of the dead, whose refusal to release Balder the Brave from Niffleheim essentially triggers the whole shebang; and lastly, we have the monster wolf, Fenrir, whose destiny was to devour the All-Father Odin during this final battle, sealing the fate of a doomed universe to be burned to ash by the fire demon Surtur and his hordes from Muspelheim.

As I said, Ragnarok was a predestined destination in Norse Mythology. Still, according to the legends, the Asgardians did their best to delay this inevitable end for as long as possible, banning Jormungand to the oceans of Midgard (Earth), where he grew so big he encircled the world, and banishing Hela to the underworld. As for Fenrir, whom they feared the most, he was raised from a pup by the indefatigable Tyr, the god of war, making him the only one who dared approach the rapidly growing dire wolf to feed him.

And as Fenrir kept growing at an alarming rate, it soon became apparent he could no longer be allowed to run around loose. Several types of chains were used in an attempt to bind the beast, but he broke them all easily until the dwarves of Svartalvheim forged a chain that “was wrought from the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” In other words, the links were made up of things that did not exist, making them impossible and therefore unbreakable.

Now, this whole time the Asgardians had been tricking Fenrir with the myriad chains used thus far, saying the attempted bindings were simply a test of strength for the great wolf, clapping and cheering when it did break free to maintain the ruse. Now, with these new fangled chains, the wily Fenrir became suspicious and demanded one of the gods must lay his hand in its mouth as a pledge of good faith while the new bindings were applied. Knowing this would most likely lead to the loss of a limb, no one rushed to volunteer until Tyr stepped forward and placed his whole arm in the beast’s mouth. And when the chains held, an enraged Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand and swallowed it.

Of course, this detention was only temporary as Fenrir eventually broke free and fulfilled his destiny in the Ragnarok. But fear not, Norse Mythology always works in cycles, so this same story happened more than once and will most probably happen again. Again. And it was the legend of Tyr and the Fenrir wolf that formed the basis of author Mark E. Rogers’ first novel, The Runestone, which he wrote while still in high school. Rogers would go on to write and illustrate a series of graphic novels featuring his character, The Samurai Cat, and write several other series of fantasy novels. 

And while The Runestone was never published, it somehow wound up in the hands of Willard Carroll, who adapted it into a screenplay, and who would also go on to direct the feature version of The Runestone (1991). But in the novel and the movie, instead of having Fenrir chained, Rogers and Carroll had him banished to a pocket dimension, trapped inside the giant runestone, which was then hauled by Tyr across the vast ocean and buried deep underground in their efforts to stave off the Ragnarok. But now it has been rediscovered, and the long banished spirit of Fenrir found a willing host, broke free, and now possesses Almquist, turning him into an ersatz werewolf.

In fact, the only word Stewart could translate off the runestone properly was the word Fenrir, which he explains to a Captain Fanducci (Riegert), the foul-mouthed detective assigned to this bizarre case. They still don’t know about Almquist’s “condition” but he is a person of interest since he was at the scene and has since disappeared as Fanducci and the crime scene techs sort through the body parts and determined the cause of death were the teeth and claws of some animal, origin unknown. They also had a suspicious blood trail leading from the crime scene, which up and disappears halfway down the back stairwell.

Well, turns out those bullets fired by that security guard did have an effect after all as Almquist shows up at the Stewart’s apartment the following day. And as he goes all alpha male and stakes his claim on a terrified Marla, Stewart notices several healed-over bullet wounds in his chest when he moves to defend his wife. But he’s easily overpowered by the possessed Almquist, gets tossed around for a bit and then stabbed. This commotion has alerted the cops, and as the sirens approach, Almquist vows he will be back to claim what is rightfully his.

Later, as Stewart is treated at the hospital, and Fanducci tries to explain to his superiors that they’re dealing with something preternatural, Marla pays Hagstrom a visit at his sanctum sanctorum, hoping the eccentric old man has some answers as to what they’re dealing with and how to stop it. Seems Hagstrom and Franag were part of an ancient society known as The Watchmen, who were experts in “secrets and knowledge smaller minds rejected.” Now, only he and Franag are the only Watchmen left but their time is almost up.

Hagstrom then explains the origin of the runestone, why it was buried here in a desperate but ultimately failed attempt to get rid of it for good, and how the Almquist situation is not a crime but a curse. He tried to warn Almquist, but was too late. The doorway had already been opened, and the beast has found its way back. When asked how to close this doorway and stop Fenrir, Hagstrom says they will have to look for help from someone else; a man named Sigvaldson. For Hagstrom knows his time is up as he leaves Marla to go check on his dog but finds Fenrir instead, who kills him -- just as he had foreseen.

The beast then chases Marla out of the building, where she discovers her police escort had already been killed, and into a nearby park, where the monster kills a bum and two would be muggers, giving his prey time to find an off-duty taxi -- who’s suddenly on duty when Fenrir rips off his back fender, and speeds away.

With the beast’s body count now at nine, the Chief of Detectives (Tierney), despite Marla and Fanducci’s best efforts, still believes they’re dealing with either a serial killer dressed in a dog-suit with razor blade claws or an escaped bear from the zoo. But forensically and through sworn eye-witness testimony, it’s clear what they’re dealing with isn’t human or a bear.

Now, what happens next is a completely bonkers montage of the Stewarts having passionate sex, Fanducci searching Hagstrom's apartment for clues, and Fenrir in the park, eating another tourist, and having an unintentionally hilarious stand-off with a nosy raccoon, all under the same full moon. Wow.

The next morning, the Stewarts track down Franag at the hospital, hoping he can help. But the frail old man has slipped into a coma, but Jacob, feeling guilty for not listening close enough all those years, accompanies them to The Cloisters, where one of the curators shows them some old paintings of the Norse Gods in action while Jacob recites the legend of Tyr, how he tricked and trapped Fenrir in the runestone and lost his hand.

I guess it should be mentioned at this point that Sigvaldson is also missing a hand, which I guess makes him the reincarnated Tyr, and he’s abandoned the clock shop and is presumably on the way. Meantime, Fanducci figures out the runestone had to leave an impression in the earth back at the mine and maybe left a clearer impression of what was engraved on it like a fossil.

And so, as the Stewarts head to Pennsylvania to track down this lead and solidify their marriage along the way as Marla declares she made the right decision by choosing him over Almquist, meantime, there’s another gala art opening for the cultural elite, who marvel at the nonsensical, live-action diorama art installations on the human condition, which is livened-up considerably when Almquist transforms into Fenrir, attacks, and starts tearing up the place.

Responding to the scene, Fanducci is nearly killed when he gets trapped on the roof with the beast but manages to survive thanks to a stunt that would’ve made Indiana Jones blush.

Anyhoo, Stewart manages to translate almost everything on the stone, which says if Fenrir returns so will Tyr, who will battle the beast with the help of Jakob -- which they figure must mean Jacob. But how these two will defeat the beast is still a mystery as that part of the etching remains stubbornly unreadable. Here, Jacob feels he should know the answer, as if part of a dream he can’t quite remember. In the meantime, Fanducci has ordered around the clock protection for the Stewarts, and has moved them to a hotel room for safekeeping.

Despite these precautions, Almquist / Fenrir still finds them and, after another tonally off the charts interlude where the werewolf tries to disguise himself as a cop by putting on a patrol hat and hiding in the backseat of a cruiser, he attacks and mauls his way through the protection detail until some automatic weapons finally manages to drive him off.

With Fanducci out of ideas, fortunately for all involved, Sigvaldson finally shows up. And when Fanducci’s incredulous boss offers up some wolfsbane and silver bullets to help this nutty crusade, Sigvaldson declines, saying all he needs is 100-men, an isolated place to lay a trap, and Marla for bait. Sigvaldson also asks to speak to Hagstrom and Franag, for they have something he desperately needs. Told Hagstrom is dead and Franag is at death’s door, a resigned Sigvaldson realizes he will just have to improvise.

But! Franag is still hanging in there, who whispers something to Jacob. And then the boy returns to his grandfather’s movie theater, where there is a large portrait of Tyr holding a great axe as he fights Fenrir. Finding a ladder, Jacob smashes through the paint and plaster and finds a real battleaxe secreted behind the painting.

Meantime, Sigvaldson has set his trap back at the lab in Almquist’s building. And as they wait, back where it all started, Marla is curious as to why the beast chose Almquist. Fenrir seduced him, says Sigvaldson, and promised him his heart’s greatest desire: her. With that, Fenrir attacks and makes short work of Fanducci’s vanguard in the lobby.

When the wolf reaches the lab and tries to kill Stewart, Sigvaldson goes into battle with a fire axe. This, goes about as well as you'd think. Luckily, Jacob arrives with the real battleaxe, and this three-punch combo of Sigvaldson, Jacob, and the magic weapon do the trick; the beast is slain, and its spirit is once more trapped inside the runestone.

And as the dust settles, and the monster reverts back to Almquist, Fanducci asks the obvious question, “Now what do we do with this f@cking rock?!"

Remember when I reviewed Dark Was the Night (2014), which feels like 10,000 years ago now, and how I mentioned how the film really dropped the ball when it came to the realization of its monster by relying too heavily on some shoddy CGI work? Well, I am happy to report that back in 1991, with Jurassic Park (1993) still two years away, practical effects still ruled the Hollywood landscape and the monster for The Runestone was realized with a man in a rubber suit!

The suit and other special-effects were provided by Cinemotion Pictures Incorporated, who had also served on the likes of The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and Tammy and the T-Rex (1994). The monster itself was designed by Lance Anderson, a protege of Stan Winston, who had worked on The Thing (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), and My Science Project (1985)

And his design is pretty cool, well articulated, and fully realized monster from head to toe, with an assist from John Eggett -- Hell Night (1981), The Being (1983) Dreamscape (1984), and David McGregor -- The Willies (1990), Maniac Cop 2 (1990) Alligator II: The Mutation (1991). Stuntman Dawan Scott wore the suit, and being over six and a half feet tall without all the prosthesis, he made Fenrir a menace to be reckoned with despite any perceived shortcomings of the suit.

As for the rest of the cast he got to interact with, Joan Severance, in my humble opinion, is one of the most beautiful human beings on the face of the planet. And she makes a pretty good heroine, too, who didn’t shy away from this type of genre stuff as she would go on to play a super-heroine in Black Scorpion (1995). 

And I suspect Fanducci was supposed to die on the roof about halfway through the movie but Peter Reigert made the constantly f-bombing detective so endearing as the comedy relief, director Carroll let him make it to the end. It was also fun to see William Hickey out of character, and while the two male leads were pretty forgettable -- except for Tim Ryan’s obnoxious boxer shorts during that sex scene, Alexander Godunov adds some much needed testosterone-punch for the last act.

The Runestone would be Carroll’s first live-action feature as up to that point all he had done was write and produce animated films -- most notably The Brave Little Toaster (1987) and all of its sequels and Rover Dangerfield (1991). And you can sense a bizarre, out-of-the-box approach to this film as each decision he makes will likely leave you scratching your head, and yet, every decision he made fits perfectly for the gonzo story he was trying to tell. And Carroll definitely has a thing for monster movies and monster rampages, as there are a ton of references and a blatant Godzilla motif running throughout the film that is absolutely delightful.

And when you combine Carroll’s avant garde approach, comedic punch-ups (-- poking New York’s art scene in the eye not once but twice, the standoff with the raccoon in the park, having the werewolf wear a police hat in the car), with all the action and carnage, that kick-ass monster, some dialogue exchanges that were clearly written by a Martian, and David Newman's obnoxiously bombastic score trying to make the film seem bigger than it actually needed to be (-- and if I have one complaint about this film the sound-mix is terrible as a lot of dialogue is drowned out by the music), you really got something here. And it this, Sure, Why the Hell Not-ness of The Runestone that makes it so damned great and so downright enjoyable.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 18 reviews down with 8 more to go! Up Next: To Bee or Not to Killer Bee!

The Runestone (1991) The Movie Group :: Hyperion Pictures :: Signature Communications :: The Runestone Corporation :: Live Entertainment / EP: Peter E. Strauss, Frank Giustra / P: Harry E. Gould Jr., Thomas L. Wilhite / CP: Joe Michael Terry / AP: Vicki Ellis, Greg Everage, Maria C. Shaeffer / LP: David Robert Cobb / D: Willard Carroll / W: Willard Carroll, Mark E. Rogers / C: Misha Suslov / E: Lynne Southerland / M: David Newman / S: Joan Severance, Peter Riegert, Alexander Godunov, Tim Ryan, Chris Young, Mitchell Laurance, William Hickey, Donald Hotton, Erika Schickel

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