Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sorority House Massacre II (1990) dir. Jim Wynorski

Logline: A sorority buys a new house for cheap, disregarding the fact that five years back a madman murdered his entire family there. Now someone is picking off the gals one by one and yeah you've probably figured out how these things go by now, huh?

Crime in the Past: So this part is pretty incredible: the inciting Crime in the Past for this Sorority House Massacre II is re-used footage from the film that this duology sort-of spun off from, Slumber Party Massacre. Literally the entire climax, cut down to about two minutes of footage. Except, it's not as if Jim Wynorski's film is purporting to be a direct sequel to the first Slumber Party Massacre-- instead, Sorority House Massacre II takes the footage and creates a totally new story for it. The mildly iconic Driller Killer is now the coincidentally identical Hokstedter, a man who goes mad, hides under a rug, and kills his whole family (the slumber partiers are now his daughters). What a sublime display of Jim Wynorski's insatiable desire to save a dollar or two.

Bodycount: 6, never to shower topless or wear thongs with nighties again.

Themes/Moral Code: Haha.

Killer's Motivation: Though the film tries to convince us throughout that the killer is the greasy, obese, raw meat-chewing neighbor/Jess Franco stand-in Orville Ketchum (Peter Spellos), it--of course--is not. The killer is Hokstedter's ghost, summoned by a Ouija board and possessing the body of Jessica (Melissa Moore). Why not? Hokstedter kills because that is what he does. His ghost is also very agile, slipping into Linda's body and then Ketchum's before the credits role.

Final Girl: Linda (Gail Harris), who sports an English accent and is one of the two non-blondes, is our final girl. She spends the majority of the film complaining and being a scaredy cat. Not bashful in the least, she's topless about as often as the rest of the ladies, so it's nice that the film doesn't condemn her for that, I suppose (though, nix that, she does die at the end). She gets the requisite "gosh, we're making a slasher film in 1990" metamoment when she spouts: "I feel like I'm in a horror movie." And despite her shaking knees, she does emerge as a heck of a brawler in the final act, kicking the crap out of the much larger Ketchum (pronounced, apparently, "Ketchup"), who she believes to be the killer. Really, she does a number on him-- strangling him, Slave Leia-style, with a chain and smashing his head repeatedly into a porcelain toilet. And she does it all while only wearing panties and a belly shirt, too.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Jim Wynorski is an interesting fellow. Having recently seen Clay Westervelt's documentary on the man and his filmmaking philosophy, Popatopolis (2009), I now have a certain appreciation for Wynorski's lack of scruples and boundless enthusiasm for trash cinema. (For one, I adore the fact that the man's kitchen cupboards are full of VHS tapes rather than food). His films, especially some of the early ones (like 1986's robot slasher extravaganza Chopping Mall), are fantastic romps with a smidgen of satire lacing them. But the man has directed nearly a hundred films over only thirty years, so (like with his spiritual filmmaking sibling Fred Olen Ray) we're lucky if even a few of them are any good. Sorority House Massacre II is not one of those rough gems. It doesn't have anything at all to say thematically, and I would guffaw at anyone who described it as a "romp," but I suppose it's not totally without its own skewed charm. It is a Wynorski film, so it features his usual obsessions: tall busty woman (mostly blonde), toplessness (failing that, the skimpiest of lingerie), big fat sweaty men, cheap murder scene cutaways, the repurposing of footage from other films, and constant stock establishing shots. Part II features the corny humor that's all but absent from Part I, much to its (ever so slight) benefit. (My favorite pun issues from a sorority girl mistaking an "Irish name" for an internal organ: "Colin? YUCK!"). At the same time, it's a great deal more exploitative than its predecessor; here, the shameless leering at massive mammaries is undoubtedly intended to excite. But it's a sort of objectification that's hard to be offended by-- other than being able to watch all of these (much too old) college girls take showers and run around barely-clad, the film lacks any other sexual content. In fact, prominent male characters total in at exactly two, so this is clearly more the ladies' show anyway, which means all of the near-nude gallivanting is fairly innocuous. This is the first and only '90s slasher I've covered this month, but being filmed so close to the end of the previous decade prevents it from distinguishing itself in any meaningful way. It's stupid, trashy, cheesy, and cheap-- which, in some ways, makes it a perfect summation of this month of on-a-budget murder. Farewell, Slashtober-- I've sent you out with a meat hook and an oversize brassiere, and I know you wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sorority House Massacre (1986) dir. Carol Frank

Logline: After the sudden death of her aunt, Beth (Angela O'Neill) is invited to sleep over at her friends' sorority house until she can get things settled. Unfortunately for her generous pals, Beth has established a psychic link with a madman who is hellbent on tracking her down and finishing a mission he started long ago. It's lights out at the sorority house on this night of ice cream gorging, fashion shows, and murder.

Crime in the Past: Thirteen or fourteen years ago (give or take a year), a man named Robert Henkel (John C. Russell) murdered his mother, father, and five of his sisters before being caught and put into an asylum. His sixth sister escaped with only a scratch.

Bodycount: 9 pledges pledge no more. Hazing is rough on the pulse.

Themes/Moral Code: Sorority House Massacre does my work for me. About half way through it points out what I'd already taken note of: the fact that all those wriggling knives poking out from walls, mirrors, and desks in Beth's dreams sure do seem sort of phallic. The film establishes this same point when the sorority gals gather around a book that helps its reader interpret dream symbols. Their little game of pop psychology results in the exclamation "the knife is a phallic symbol!" and the question "are you afraid of sex, Beth?" She claims she isn't, and we're left at that. This whole cheeky scene attempts to throw a little monkey wrench into such an easy reading of the slasher film's visuals (while it then attempts to be a more mature psychological thriller--key word "attempts"), but there's no escaping the fact that the film certainly makes some rather phallic use of its knives.

Also worth noting is that while there is a smattering of nudity early on from some of its sorority sisters, none of it is particularly sexualized. The camera doesn't linger as these girls geek out and lose their tops while trying on an array of eyeball-scarring pastel trash bags masquerading as '80s fashion. It's difficult to imagine such nudity was intended to be titillating-- it feels naturalistic and matter-of-fact, a middle ground between including the required nudity and keeping the show tasteful. I suspect this was writer/director Carol Frank's choice, and it's welcome.

Killer's Motivation: Robert "Bobby" Henkel escapes from his asylum to track down and take out his only surviving sister, Beth (though not before stopping off at the hardware store for supplies). He has a psychic awareness of Beth's location, so he finds it easy to track her down. His motives differ slightly from the typical crazed slasher villain's: in another (perhaps intentional) twist on slasher movie morality, Bobby isn't killing all the sorority sisters because of their sexual liaisons, but because he mistakes them all for his actual little sisters. He's driven to kill the morally innocent, rather than the morally guilty, presumably to spare them from something. What that something is we're never told, though whatever it is encouraged Bobby to wound and destroy his own ears way back when. (As the doctors helpfully explain, he heard something "he couldn't unhear").

Final Girl: Beth, with her androgynous haircut and wardrobe, makes a rather typical final girl. She's plagued by dream visions of a knife trying to catch her. It's revealed (as if we couldn't tell) that she's the killer's sister (in a twist ripped straight out of Halloween II (1981)). In every way she's typical of her character type. She's somber and moody, never participating in any of the other girls' activities. For these attributes she survives the film (at least as the credits start to roll), but they also prevent her from becoming of any interest. At one point she's kind of snuggling with a guy on the couch, for which he promptly is stabbed in the back-- Beth is quick to blame herself for his death. She's right: she understands slasher conventions, and her role within them, all to well.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Sorority House Massacre is as silly and superfluous as its title would make you think, but I'm worried that no one told director Carol Frank. The film is decently enjoyable and more than occasionally (especially during Beth's surreal dream sequences) filmed with some skill, but it's apparent that it takes itself much more seriously than we do. With talk of "psychic bacon," a dress-up montage, and lines like "I remember lime jello," it's surprising that it shoots for the sophisticated thrills of a Halloween (1978). This film tries its hardest, I suppose, but never allows us to forget that what we're watching is, at its best, a loose spinoff of the Slumber Party Massacre series. That trilogy understands its satire of the subgenre-- but this film merely motions towards it while aspiring to heights far out of its own reach.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981) dir. Romano Scavolini

Logline: George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is a foaming-at-the-mouth psychopath haunted by nightmares of his past who, after being "cured" by a new "secret experimental drug program," begins stalking a single mother and her three children.

Crime in the Past: A young boy in a cute little suit and bow-tie kills his parents with an axe after walking in on them performing some kinky sex. He then licks the blood he's covered in and, you could say, develops a taste for it. They always said he was a sensitive lad.

Bodycount: 8 brains damaged irreversibly.

Themes/Moral Code: A particularly gruesome murder scene (the film's first) demonstrates a gross inversion of the typical slasher's moral code. Instead of Sex being a prelude to and justification for Death, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain informs us that Death can also be Sex. This first murder scene, unlike virtually any other I can recall in slasherdom, is highly and explicitly sexualized to the point of discomfort. Generally, the sexual component in slasher killings is to some extent subdued in favor of the anger and frustration that the stoic, asexual killer expresses-- though their weapons of choice are often phallic in nature, it is their inability to derive any sexual satisfaction from their actions that defines them. This is not the case with Tatum, who, as he straddles his female victim, grunts and plunges the knife repeatedly into her lower abdomen. He does this not with swift, blind, or emotionless fury, but slowly and methodically, wracked with sexual agony. He resembles a man in the throes of guilty passion-- the fact that he collapses onto the body after he's spent, weeping and apologizing to the woman's corpse, confirms as much. It's rare that a slasher villain will express any sort of satisfaction in his or her kills (besides, occasionally, the satisfaction that comes along with sticky revenge), and here we see why: such satisfaction, derived by sexual means, makes the killer in question a whole new breed of monster, one that makes him a bad fit for any appearances on collectible trading cards.

Killer's Motivation: George Tatum is an amnesiac recently released from an asylum after successfully being pumped full of experimental drugs that are supposed to keep him sane and not at all murderous (they don't). His murderous proclivities are triggered by, wait for it, sexual activity. Seeing sex either makes him collapse and start foaming at the mouth or start his stabbing. What's clear to the viewer pretty much from the word go but is obscured and torturous for poor Tatum until the end is that he's haunted by the murder of his mother and father, which he committed as a child after catching them having, wait for it, sex. His goal throughout the film appears to be a reconnecting with his ex-wife and three children by murdering them. How he managed to start a family while being insane is beyond me, and it's never made clear why he's decided they're better off dead. Insanity, I declare.

Final Girl: Like Death Valley (1982), we're given a final boy in lieu of a final girl. C.J. (C.J. Cooke) differs from little Peter Billingsley in that he's rather overtly labeled a Bad Seed child by the film. We have the impression that C.J.'s about one bad report card grade away from some slashing of his own, and so we're never quite sure if he's intended to be our hero or not. He pulls dreadful, near-sociopathic pranks like frightening the babysitter into quitting and covering his shirt in ketchup while pretending like a man on the street has stabbed him, giggling when his mother and her boyfriend arrive back home, having rushed recklessly through traffic to get there. He's a little brat, basically, but not one you'd want to tangle with: when Tatum breaks into C.J.'s home to commit his evil deeds, C.J. pulls out a handgun and shoots him multiple times. Then, when that doesn't seem to keep the resilient psychopath down, C.J. whips out a shotgun and knocks a few more rounds into him. There's very little emotion displayed on C.J.'s part, even when the climax's major revelation takes place: George Tatum is C.J.'s father, bringing the story full circle and employing that old adage, "like killer father like killer son." C.J., sitting in the back of a squad car, gives the audience a knowing wink before the credits role. We knew it.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  I was quite taken with Italian director Romano Scavolini's proto-slasher A White Dress for Mariale (1972) when I watched it earlier this year at the tail end of my giallo moviethon. I noted in my capsule review for that film that it left me quite anxious to check out this later slasher of his, and now, having done so, I'm well satisfied. Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has a certain reputation because of its inclusion on the banned U.K.Video Nasties list back in the '80s. In some ways, its spot on that list was probably a boon. For as much as I enjoyed the film's sensory whirlwind of psychosis (with its hectic editing and nearly beatific central double murder set piece), I fear the film would be a great deal less well known today if those stodgy English censors had smiled on it with kindness. It strikes me as an accomplished film, but one that's just slow and contemplative enough to alienate the genre's more testy viewers. Though it's a swarthy, greasy, ugly film, it's never as grimy as contemporaneous films like William Lustig's Maniac (1980) or Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper (1982). In fact, though it begins with Tatum stalking through a perfectly slimy and fluorescent early '80s New York City (like those two aforementioned films), the location soon shifts to sunny Florida, which is obviously incapable of producing the same sort of atmosphere. While it's fun to see our sleazeball killer stalking his targets on the beach, it cannot help but make him appear like a shark stuck flopping about on sand. But this paradoxical set-up is perhaps appropriate considering the manic, hyper-stylized approach to genre filmmaking that the film displays. I appreciate Nightmares in a Damaged Brain's labored pacing and extended running time (just shy of an hour and forty minutes)-- it strands us in this aberrant cinematic world, one that quite fittingly resembles the jumbled content of a nightmare from a damaged brain, and it keeps us there just long enough to allow us to foster a new appreciation for our slightly saner world.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Anguish (1987) dir. Bigas Luna

a.k.a. Angustia

Logline: Mother (Zelda Rubinstein) and her adult son John (Michael Lerner) live together in a house full of birds and snails. Mother has hypnotic, telekinetic powers and compels John to stalk about the city, scooping out innocent victims' eyeballs for their growing collection. This is the first act of the film The Mommy, which we watch before switching perspectives and beginning to watch the audience watching the cinematic exploits of Mother & John. Patty (Talia Paul), a young girl in the audience who is devastated by the brutality she's seeing on screen, begins to believe that the film is seeping over into reality as the crowd watches. But it's just a movie... right?

Crime in the Past: The crimes in the present are too pressing to worry much about the past. That said, it's clear that The Mother and her mouth-breathing son have been collecting "the eyes of the city" for some time.

Bodycount: 18-21, let's say. It gets a little hectic.

Themes/Moral Code: The back text blurb on Blue Underground's DVD release of Anguish refers to the film as "an otherworldly twist of reality in the William Castle tradition." I'm not sure that's quite accurate. Castle, bless his raven-colored heart, was a huckster and a gimmick man, and his films (whatever enjoyment they provide) largely reflect that. Anguish has aspirations to mean something, even if that something isn't as developed or as clear as it could stand to be. The Castle comment is there because Anguish does have a "gimmick," if you'd like to call it that: its metafictional layers of films within films results in us (as the audience) watching an audience watch a film. But this fact isn't revealed until roughly half an hour in; up until that point, we've been merrily viewing The Mommy, that delightfully gratuitous and overblown film within the film. When it makes its narrative shift, and we begin to watch the reactions of the audience watching The Mommy, we're of course made aware of our own positions as audience members watching a film, and perhaps (or perhaps not) feeling the same discomfort as the diegetic audience. This reality-bending twist is all well and good, but what's the point? What prevents it from being nothing more than induced cinematic navel-gazing?

Things get interesting when a deranged man in the theater watching The Mommy decides to mirror the actions of John (the killer who he's watched countless times on screen) as he kills several victims in a movie theater. (Yes, that's right: in the latter half of Anguish we're actually watching an audience watching an audience watching a film. It's almost a shame the layers stop there). The "real" killer's actions bring up some interesting though thin thematic content: has his obsession with the violence in the literally hypnotic The Mommy directly inspired his own violent crusade? This seems like a tough point to counter, as we see that this killer mimics John's precise actions as he sees them on screen, even occasionally lapsing into speaking John's dialogue with him and reacting to the other projected characters. So what relevance does this have to our reality? Is Anguish agreeing with the concerns of lawmakers like those in Britain during the earlier Video Nasties moral panic, those that purported the ability of violent films to corrupt the minds of upstanding adult citizens and (especially) youths? Or, rather, is it sticking its tongue out at such an extreme notion, building a complex funhouse mirror that reflects society's anxieties while displaying how ridiculous they look, stretched far out of proportion to the actual situation?

My major complaint would be that Anguish never makes it totally apparent how it feels, either way. I'm afraid it becomes too caught up in its technique to resolve this theme in any way that eschews ambiguity. But we do receive at least one indicative hint towards its position: the film's closing credits are situated in a way that allows us to view from behind a new audience, one that is (presumably) intended to reflect us, as they watch the closing credits for Anguish. In singles, couples, and clusters, the audience members file out of the theater in silence-- all except one. This figure becomes the only soul left in the theater, sitting in rapt attention as the credits role. Momentarily, we begin to ponder if this figure is not unlike the killer who idolized John, who viewed The Mommy a hundred times and kept coming back for more until it convinced him to kill. We consider all this until the credits finish, and the man stands up: he's an unassuming old man who before leaving slaps a hat back onto his head. He's the sort of audience member who stays to the end of the credits out of habit and respect rather than homicidal intentions. In a moment like this one, Anguish both has its fun and bothers to make a comment about the world outside of it. It's not the film's obligation to have that sort of depth and relevance, but it sure does help.

Killer's Motivation: We never exactly discover what drives John and Mother to kill, but-- in consideration of the film's larger concerns-- the methodical stealing of the city's and particularly a movie theater audience's eyes is, I feel, of rather obvious symbolic significance.

Final Girl: Patty is our final girl and, in a move that falls far outside the tradition, she spends the majority of the film as a quivering wreck, spellbound and horrified by the graphic violence of The Mommy. Her mounting unease and paranoia does render her able to observe the bleeding between fiction and reality before everyone else in her theater does (an ability which also anticipates the closing twist that makes this point explicitly). In a way, she's a direct audience surrogate; unfortunately, that means she has to sit still for the duration like we do.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Anguish is my kind of movie. If I'd known about the central metafictional conceit before the film thrust it before my helpless eyes, I would have watched it a lot sooner. As it stands, I'm pleased to report that it's very nearly a great film. Despite my qualms with the rather limp thematic conclusions, there's no denying the craftsmanship on display. Director Bigas Luna is a radical Spanish art house filmmaker, and he brings his surrealist sensibilities to the genre slasher, transforming it into something that isn't at all outside of his purview. His production of layers upon layers of narrative mediation make Anguish one of the more disorienting films I've seen in horror cinema. The fact that the narratives weave in and out on the visual level, cutting directly from one to the next with nary a signal of warning, demands a certain level of audience awareness and engagement that's quite unlike the typical passivity that horror conventions engender-- to make heads or tails of what's happening, one needs to be as attentive as Patty, frozen and bleary-eyed but unblinking in her theater seat. This observation makes an even stronger case for Luna's brilliancy when we consider that the two primary narratives featured in Anguish are rather conventional on their own. It's his ability to weave them together through his rampant cross cutting and overlapping audio design (which allows for dialogue from each narrative to make peculiar entrances into the other) that elevate the material above what would otherwise be common genre fare. The film makes us aware of the division between its two narratives' diegetic realities, then deliberately attempts to confuse and conflate them in our visual and aural perceptions, forcing us to move our minds against such actions. Anguish is, as its opening text warning informs us with a smirk, an attack on the senses. I'm rarely this pleased to be attacked.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Disconnected (1983) dir. Gorman Bechard

Logline: Alicia (Frances Rains) works in a video store and likes collecting old timey knick knacks. When her boyfriend cheats on her with her diabolical twin sister, Barbara Ann (also Frances Rains), Alicia decides to go out with the creepy guy who visits the video store a lot and engages her in extremely awkward conversations. No surprise, but it turns out that that creep is a serial murder-- but is he responsible for the senses-shattering phone calls that Alicia keeps receiving at all hours of the night?

Crime in the Past: Not applicable. Sometimes killers just kill and ghosts just haunt.

Bodycount: 4, maybe 5 folks who are upset with their home phone service providers.

Themes/Moral Code: The major theme I kept picking up on is the film's obsession with the past. It sees itself as an old fashioned psychological thriller in sleazy slasher clothing, so in reflection of that there are countless visual cues signalling that its own characters are striving back towards that time and genre as well. The final girl has old movie posters hanging all about her apartment, though she works in a video store full of modern films she's totally uninterested in (primarily contemporary horror, of course). Both her and one of the male leads own Groucho Marx dolls, prominently displayed in their dwelling places (she a bobble-head, he a ventriloquist's dummy). One scene, canvassing this male lead's apartment, dwells upon all of the past cultural paraphernalia that he's collected (the creepiest piece being a large Kilroy sculpture). So what to make of it? It could be that these trinkets are coming straight from the director's personal collection, allowing him to decorate the sets and his character's lives with his own cultural preferences. But within the film, they serve to create a weird dissonance between the sort of cinema that is being produced with a film like Disconnected and the sort of cinema that the characters fetishize in their personal lives. No matter how hard they try, they can't wish themselves into anything other than an early '80s slasher film, and it's not tough to imagine that being a disappointment.

Killer's Motivation: Probably the film's best moment is its reveal that the killer is the dorky fellow, Franklin (Mark Walker), who has been hitting on Alicia at the video store. He takes a call from her in the early hours of the day, and is thrilled that she's agreed to go out on a date with him. When she asks if he'd like to go out that night he is forced to decline, rolling over as the camera reveals the bloody corpse in bed lying next to him-- he has some cleaning up to do. See, Franklin kills women who he sees as being cheap and easy; he tells that corpse in bed with him that Alicia will be better for him because "she's not disgusting and cheap like you. You do whatever a man says." He obviously has some issues with female sexuality, but this isn't explored beyond the surface level. (It is, however, quite unnerving to watch him snuggle up the corpse in his bed, as if the blood she's soaked in has become a purifying agent). He spends most of his energy killing drunk women that he picks up at local bars, though it's unbelievable that this social misfit has the ability to pick up any woman and take her home. (Alas: the suspension of disbelief). He turns his murderous sights on Alicia after she sleeps with him, but it's after a few dates so I don't know what his problem is. At any rate, Franklin is killed (off-screen, no less) with about a half hour to go. A second killer, who is revealed in the closing minute of the film and is who has been driving Alicia nuts with his abrasive phone calls, is an old man who she helped into her apartment to use her phone at the beginning of the film and who promptly vanished. We're forced to assume he's some sort of ghost who has been living in her phone all this time, waiting to strike. Curiously, the fact that he's a supernatural old man vaguely ties into the thematic concerns above: the film's modern slasher narrative died out early; the real threat was an old-timey haunting tale that we would have never stopped to suspect.

Final Girl: Alicia is a normal girl who works at a video store. She has a boyfriend until her evil twin sister steals him away. Her most telling nightmare is one in which her boyfriend kills her and then he and her sister have sex on top of her corpse. She dates and then has sex with the killer. Then she goes insane, locked up in her apartment as the voiceless yet monstrously loud harassing phone calls refuse to quit. Besides her affinity for the cultural productions of past decades, she's thinly developed. She is often naked, sometimes in a casual and non-exploitative fashion (like when she rolls out of bed, topless and groggy, to answer the phone). I suppose her biggest flaw is that she doesn't hesitate to give her time to strangers who look like they need it-- unfortunately for her, those strangers are, historically, psychotic killers or murderous ghosts.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  When a film begins, like Gorman Bechard's Disconnected does, with a man dropping a sandwich off a rooftop in surprise, you have to anticipate that you're in for something unusual. It's a weird one for sure, but it's never effortlessly weird like, say, Blood Beat (1983)-- one receives the impression that Disconnected is trying quite hard to be off-kilter, which somewhat lessens the overall effect. (But this isn't something I actually want to complain about; after all, at least the film tries). Bechard has fashioned a slasher, I suppose, but he sounds rather ashamed to have done so (the stock meta moments, with our final girl lamenting, "I feel like I'm stuck in the middle of some low-budget horror movie" and "I like the old movies with real stories, not the ones that rely on sex and violence," hint at as much, though don't manage to transcend the irony). He appears as if he would much rather be creating a thriller in the Hitchcock tradition, which the film can't help but make clear to us through its characters' discussions about Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and the existence of a The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) poster adorning the leading lady's wall. Arguably, the film comes off closer to An Idiot's Guide to Brian de Palma. To accomplish the lofty ambition of elevating itself out of the horror muck, Disconnected flexes its no-budget artistic pretensions, which are occasionally successful in shifting the film's aesthetic (a black and white still frame montage at the climax is quite nice) but are more often trite and goofy, producing only sighs (for instance, long stretches of the film are set to nothing more than moody '80s rock songs). The film has some major issues (it's cheap-looking, with dreadfully-recorded audio, bizarre pacing, a peculiar third act, total climactic incomprehensibility, and godawful performances) and I imagine the majority stem from budget issues. (I'd be astonished if this weren't the lowest budgeted film I've watched so far). But I was nevertheless engaged by Disconnected. There's some intangible quality to the film that allows me to embrace it, as if it's a film issuing from some half-remembered dream, recalled only in fragments that don't quite seem to fit but are difficult to shake off. So maybe I'm the chump, and Bechard made exactly the film he wanted to.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hotline (1982) dir. Jerry Jameson

Logline: Brianne (Lynda Carter) is a bartender working her way through art school. After she meets a stranger who offers her a job at his crisis hotline center, she begins receiving disturbing phone calls during her working hours from a garbled voice that claims to be a serial killer. As Brianne unravels the clues that the supposed killer gives her, she begins to realize that she may be his next victim and that he might be closer to her than she knows...

Crime in the Past: Not totally applicable in this case, but we do discover throughout the film that the killer has knocked off many women before the action of the film, all of whom have a curious connection to movie superstar Tom Hunter (Steve Forrest).

Bodycount: 2, so it's more like "lukewarmline."

Themes/Moral Code: There's a more-than-slight anxiety over homosexuality present here, discernible in the identity and motivation of the killer. The secret murderer is revealed to be Kyle (Monte Markham), Brianne's boss and former stuntman for Tom Hunter. He's been murdering a series of women over the years, each having in common with the others the fact that they had become the object of Hunter's affection immediately before meeting the pointy shears. Kyle, it turns out, is extremely possessive of his friend and double, being unwilling to share him with any woman. When he emerges from hiding on Hunter's boat and appears before Brianne, slathered in garish lipstick, eye shadow, and mascara, he becomes a visual representation of repressed homosexuality turned violent and psychotic. Dubbing himself "The Barber," he saws off the hair of his female victims, which serves to both rob them of their femininity (making their lifeless bodies androgynous and, hence, undesirable to Hunter) and give him possession of that same intangible quality, which he can never possess on his own but which Hunter values. It's quite the convoluted motive, but the fact that the film decides Kyle can't express his homosexuality in any other way is troubling. It implies that homosexual men are envious of women, desirous of heterosexual males, and prone to psychotic breakdowns. Worst of all, they are living among us and we can't even tell. Safe to say that Hotline hold some backwards opinions on this topic.

Killer's Motivation: Discussed above.

Final Girl: Lynda Carter plays our final girl Brianne, a name which plays up the typical androgynous heroine angle by deciding it's pronounced like "Brian." She's a recent widow who bartends to put herself through art school. So she's another one of those sensitive artist types, and it's that sensitivity that makes her such a swell crisis hotline operator when she's hired by her new boy pal, Justin Price (Granville Van Dusen), who owns a network of them. She's a neat heroine-- a woman who's seen as a highly desirable mate by the film's men despite her disinterest in conforming to typical standards of femininity. She's neither a full-on tomboy, nor a total priss, but a woman, complicated, diverse, and sometimes decked in flannel. A drunk at her bar tries to objectify her by calling her "sweet meat" and demanding sexual favors with force, but Brianne masterfully diffuses the situation by appealing to their shared humanity: she points out that they've both had long, hard days, reminding him that she's a human being with emotions, needs, and disappointments too. She's also a woman who's not won over by material wealth. The glamorous and extravagant movie star Tom Hunter is taken with her, but she gently refuses to date him, citing the absence of any emotional connection. Lastly, she proves to be a sharp mind as she unravels the killer's cryptic rhyming clues and discovers his grisly past, all without the help of the police-- Price calls her "a cross between Mother Goose and Sherlock Holmes" for this ability of hers. "Sherlock Goose" for short.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Another made-for-TV thriller that knows how to play up suspense with more class and style than half a dozen bottom-of-the-barrel slashers. Director Jerry Jameson has had a long career directing for television (from the late '60s through the close of the last decade), and what he lends Hotline is a professional sheen. Like No Place to Hide (1981), it nearly escapes its made-for-TV trappings, being roughly as cinematic and thematically-rich as any of its contemporaries gracing theaters in 1982. Where it's held back is, of course, the violence. Again, it's light on bloodshed (as per the unwritten code of 1980s television), so finds more juice in the stalk than the slash. But then, even the stalking is quite brief (being relegated primarily to the film's final moments), and what it chooses to develop instead is its mystery angle, which, at only three possible suspects, is a bit skimpy. There's no inherent fault in this-- a film can both forgo a bodycount and have a fairly obvious killer while still creating suspense-- but I couldn't help but feel the film was missing out on some tension by having Brianne investigate primarily past crimes, without the bodies of new victims mounting around her and driving her investigation forward. Regardless, the suspense is here, and it hits hard: a home invasion scene early on is tops, keeping us on edge while we wonder along with Brianne whether or not the man who claims to have scared away the invader actually is the invader. Furthermore, like in the cases of a couple other films covered this month-- Double Exposure (1983), American Nightmare (1983)-- I wouldn't hesitate to label Hotline an American giallo. It features an amateur detective embroiled in a series of murders, taunting phone calls from the killer, a slowly unraveling classical mystery, a killer with a psycho-sexual motive who can mime sanity in daily interactions, and the ability to plaster a large grin on my face. The evidence is undeniable.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Scalps (1983) dir. Fred Olen Ray

Logline: A group of student archeologists camp out in an off-limits ancient Indian burial ground for some grave desecration and hanky panky. The spirits of the dead are less than pleased.

Crime in the Past: One hundred Native Americans who have died in battle are buried in the land, their spirits becoming one with it.

Bodycount: 7 who will not be welcome on the reservation.

Themes/Moral Code: A bare-bones message about cultural respect, telling us not to disturb Indian burial grounds because it's bad for our longevity. As the final girl, D.J. (Jo Ann Robinson), points out for us, her companions on this trip have little regard for nature or the owners of the land they are intruding upon. These students rather callously dig up and remove ancient artifacts, one of them even going so far as to opine her reluctance to fork them over to some museum for nothing when her and her buds could always keep and sell them by themselves without anyone being the wiser. The students are, in essence, defiling the land of the Native Americans, and so the ghosts respond by doing the same to them-- in one case literally, as the character of Louise (Carol Sue Flockhart) is sexually assaulted by her boyfriend Randy (Richard Hench) while he's under the possession of an angry ghost. It's a not-too-subtle realization of the metaphor. This assault also renders inert any claim for these Indians' essential goodness. No one has the moral high ground here. It's icky.

Killer's Motivation: The killers are angry Black Claw Native American spirits desiring to punish those intrudes on their land. It's about as simple as that, as they never quite explain themselves (or speak at all). It's hard to tell if there's one spirit or many (we see various prosthetic make-up jobs, the most perplexing of which is a giant lion head that can curl the side of its mouth up into a snarl). They take revenge through driving folks to suicide (as seen in the opening sequence) but also through possessing them in order to have a tangible body carry out their slicing and dicing. This happens to Randy (who is dismissive of and disrespectful to the women early on in their trip, which makes the sexual violence he enacts later on (see above) mesh queasily with his non-ghostly-influenced personality) and also to our final girl, D.J. (who, while possessed, pulls her best "Karen Black at the end of Trilogy of Terror" face).

Final Girl: As mentioned above, D.J. is our sensitive, spiritual, hippie-dippie final girl. She's the quiet outcast of the group, preferring to spend much of her time off alone sitting on rocks, being at one with nature. She also possesses the most knowledge of Native American culture, as she demonstrates by carrying around her Indian prayer sticks and thumping them together every now and again. Appropriately, she's very disturbed by her friends' actions as they start disrespecting the land through their digging, defiling, and robbing. At this point she starts having visions of bad things to come, reporting to her assorted company that "this ground is alive with evil." Because she spends most of her time as a rock-sitting Cassandra, she doesn't develop in any interesting directions. She's spared because she's virginal, unlike the other girls in her company (though she does give Kershaw (Roger Maycock), the only boy who bothers to talk to her, one chaste kiss on the cheek). And at the end she is possessed by the spirit, happy to start more slaughtering. So there we go: development!

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Director Fred Olen Ray, with a filmography of over one hundred films to his credit, the majority boasting titles as representative as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Bad Girls From Mars (1990), has developed a reputation as a consistent purveyor of hokey sleaze, but Scalps is one of the earliest efforts in his career and so is the tiniest bit more earnest. It's still plenty goofy-- the kids' archaeology professor, Prof. Machen (Kirk Alyn), utilizes every excuse to ham it up, and there is a shameless Forrest J. Ackerman cameo, which serves as promotion for whichever one of his books of Famous Monsters that he's clutching during his fifteen seconds on screen-- but one also has the sense that Ray and Co. were at least trying to produce a legitimate horror film. (Or at least as legitimate as a film bearing the credit "Produced By: The Eel" can be). Scalps aims high for a spooky atmosphere, but doesn't seem aware of how to create one other than by focusing the camera on the various desert landscapes and allowing a synthesizer to drone on glumly over top. It also lays on some quite strong gore effects (including a particularly gruesome throat-slashing and scalping), but deflates any sense of horror with moments like the one where a ghostly disembodied Indian head floats over a campfire before exploding, getting soot all over a character's face. Scalps is a mostly earnest effort that attempts to add some supernatural flair to the slasher formula before too many others tried the same, and while it's never very good, it is (at under an hour and twenty) very short. That I can appreciate.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Midnight (1982) dir. John A. Russo

Logline: Nancy (Melanie Verlin) is a young girl who has run away from home to escape her sexually abusive stepfather, Bert (Lawrence Tierney). She hitches a ride with two fellows driving down to Florida, and before long the three arouse the ire of the local townsfolk and catch the eye of a family of devout Satanists, prepping for human sacrifice.

Crime in the Past: No specific inciting crime, but there is an opening prologue showing Mama (Jackie Nicoll) teaching her adolescent children the Satanic ropes by sacrificing a young girl that they've caught in a bear trap.

Bodycount: 13, making it more like 1:00 AM in corresponding body-per-hour time, but that would make a lousy title.

Themes/Moral Code: There's some mildly interesting religious themes coursing through here, but because I think you can essentially boil them down to a "good vs. evil" opposition, I'd rather focus this space on something else. That something would be the white trash rural racism that we witness perpetrated against Hank (Charles Jackson), the young black man that Sandy is traveling to Florida with, and his white friend, Tom (John Hall), by association. Hank and Tom are harassed at a bar in one small town and then driven out by the sheriff, who tells them rather bluntly "you're kind ain't wanted here." Hank and Tom shoplift from the local grocery store to both eat and stick it to the man, which leads to them being chased down by two fascistic police officers who arrest and then execute them in an open field. There are some very uncomfortable shades of the Mississippi Civil Rights workers' murders in 1964, wherein local sheriffs aided and abetted the murder of three both black and white Civil Rights workers. Here, the police are committing the murders, enforcing a violent segregationist policy supported by the bigoted townsfolk. It's a horrifying and extreme statement about latent racism in the 1980s, and the revelation that these two supposed police officers are actually crazy members of the Satanic family does little to soften the blow.

Killer's Motivation: The Satanic family is kidnapping and sacrificing young girls to (who else) Satan so that he will give their rotting corpse of a mother new vitality. They drain their victims' blood into a cup, pass it around for a quick sip, then pour the rest into Mother's skeleton jaw. This resurrection never pays off (though, boy oh boy, it sure would have been neat if it had). So that's their driving motive, but they're standard psychopaths as well. For instance, they obviously aren't planning on sacrificing Nancy's travel buddies, Tom & Hank, but that fails to stop the faux-policemen brothers from executing them, or the lumbering, brain-dead brother from killing a preacher. Killing is, for this family, a tradition as sacred as Family Game Night.

Final Girl: Nancy, our final girl, is defined primarily by two characteristics: 1) her having partaken of "carnal relations," and 2) her Catholic faith. The first characteristic makes her (besides a weak virgin sacrifice) one of the uncommon breed of Non-Virginal Teenage Slasher Heroines (who are my favorite bunch, and who should really consider starting up a club). Though it's a good thing that Nancy can be sexually active and make it out of this film alive, it's not as if she isn't punished or judged for her perceived "loose morals." In fact, the film's men appear to have a sixth sense for noticing this fact about her, and consequently make obscenely lewd gestures towards "getting a piece of that action": her stepfather attempts to rape her within the film's first ten minutes, a man who offers to pick her up while she's hitching asks for sexual favors as payment, and even the nice guys (Tom & Hank) talk about how they'd like to bed that "jailbait" as they're deciding whether or not to give her a ride. Worse is that, to some degree, the film seems to agree with these men's judgment of her. The film's credits run over a scene with Nancy in a confessional booth with a priest, where she's confessing her sins after a two-year lapse. The priest is horrified at the revelation of Nancy's sex life and reminds her that she would be burning in hell if she happened to die. Once she's kidnapped by the Satanic family, Nancy (and, by extension, the film itself) seem to believe that she's been thrust into this situation by God because she has forsaken him. She prays very earnestly for forgiveness this time (in contrast to her earlier, less spirited confession), and *poof!* she is given her freedom and redemption. Midnight's moral code allows you to have sex, as long as you're awfully sorry about it afterward.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  John Russo, who co-wrote and produced George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), has had a modest directing career in his own right, with 1982's Midnight being the most well-known and well-regarded. It's a fairly decent down-home thriller with slasher overtones-- call it The Pennsylvania Chainsaw Massacre. That's hardly a joke, as the film really is an only slightly tweaked Texas Chainsaw (1974): a deranged, murderous family-- who masquerade in trustworthy local occupations, keep bones in their living room, and cart around the corpse of a family elder-- kidnap young women and put them through some psychological torture. Moreover, it has a similar bleak, grungy, muddy tone and aesthetic. It's not half the film that TCM is (not that one should expect it to be), but it's an enjoyable rural slasher with enough genre peculiarities mixed in to keep it lively. Midnight's most eccentric but ultimately defining characteristic is its almost incessant folk rock soundtrack. These light and chipper melodies wash over even the grimmest scenes, making attempted rape and risky hitchhiking seem downright whimsical. Special mention goes the title track, which plays, oh, twenty or so times throughout the film and which I really wished to share with you but apparently no one's taken the trouble to rip it and put it on YouTube so you'll simply have to believe me when I tell you that it's a doozy and my ears are still bleeding.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Double Exposure (1983) dir. William Byron Hillman

Logline: Adrian (Michael Callan) is a photographer plagued by dreams that he's been slaughtering his models during their photo shoots. When the models actually do start turning up dead in the various ways he has dreamed, Adrian begins to doubt his own sanity-- though this won't stop him from courting a little romance on the side. Even deranged psychopaths need whimsical love montages.

Crime in the Past: I can't get too specific here, because I didn't really understand it. Something about Adrian and his brother B.J.'s mother and how she scarred them for life.

Bodycount: 9, all pretty as a picture.

Themes/Moral Code: Putting aside the fact that the film primarily concerns itself with the murder of sexualized women, it also has conflicted feelings about strong women. One scene featuring an awesome female cop upstaging her male partner by telling an uncooperative bartender to "fuck off" hard cuts to a scene in a lady's mud wrestling club. The film switches from admiring the strength of a female character's resolve and attitude to admiring women who can show off physical strength (I guess) in a highly sexually-charged environment sans most of their clothing. One of the female mud wrestlers is then challenged to tussle with Adrian's brother B.J. (James Stacy)-- a man missing two of his limbs-- in her mud pit. Though physically overpowered by B.J., this mud wrestler turns the match around by kissing B.J. passionately, bringing down his guard and allowing him to be pinned. Despite her triumph, this isn't exactly what I'd call an empowering moment-- the progression of these scenes seem to suggest that the power of woman's sexuality is ultimately more powerful than her personality (after all, the female cop had to tell the bartender off because he refused to cooperate with her-- a problem this detective also seems to have with her male superiors at the station).

Killer's Motivation: The film sets us up from fairly early on to believe that Adrian really is the killer, so of course he's not. It is, rather, his one-armed, one-legged stuntman brother, B.J. His motivation, given in an unclear piece of exposition at the climax, involves something to do with his mother, sex, disability, and "all those hookers and sluts." I'm less than interested to re-watch this scene and piece it all together, because no matter what the entire conceit is preposterous. Apparently (and if I followed all this correctly), B.J. would listen to Adrian's descriptions of his murderous dreams and then quick run out and commit the murder in precisely the same fashion. Hmm. Regardless of this, if Adrian was the killer (as he spends most of the film believing) his justifications for his alleged actions fall eerily close to B.J.'s own: in one scene, as he rants and raves in his groovy bachelor pad RV, Adrian snarls that one of the dead models was a slut, always teasing him without delivering, and so deserved what she got (though, full disclosure, he then switches gears and laments that another of the dead models was an innocent but, heck, he just couldn't control himself). So our hero feels essentially the same way about women as our killer does. Great!

Final Girl: The final girl is Mindy (Joanna Pettet), who is also Adrian's new girlfriend. He courts her by ceaselessly badgering her after they share an elevator until she agrees to go on a date with him. (She denies him many times before agreeing, so let this be a lesson to creeps everywhere: "no" actually means "maybe, ask again right now until you frighten me enough so that I give you my home address"). Their first date is some wine in the parking lot of a furniture store, which Adrian drives them to in his RV. It's easy to see why her heart was won. She doesn't do much in the film (besides work at a nursing home and staying very easy to please), but she does manage to save a restrained Adrian from B.J., who is about to drive an ice pick into his brother's neck, by stabbing him in his neck first (and this is after she was already stabbed and assumed dead herself!). Mindy is pretty tough in this moment, but follows it up by collapsing in tears onto Adrian's lap. She's too bland and dependent to leave much of an impression. (Again, I favor the sharp-tongued female cop, who would have made a superb heroine).

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Here's another instance where an American slasher ends up closer to a North American giallo. For all the evidence you need, simply glance at the above poster. We have a gloved killer, a story that takes place over several days in the world of modeling and photography, a generally sleazy atmosphere, and a protagonist who doubts his own sanity. These are some delectable yellow ingredients, and the film combines them well. It has a certain creativity when it comes to its murders-- the best being a "rattlesnake in a trash bag" trick played on a model's head-- but these scenes are most notable for their brutality. A scene featuring one of Adrian's many lady friends being stabbed and slashed in his RV is ghastly in its use of queasy yet realistic gore effects, but even the subtler murders (a prostitute being choked in a back alley; a model being drowned with a pool skimmer) only replace graphic intensity with emotional disturbance. Yet as extremely violent and disquieting as those moments might be, the film is not afraid to mix in some unquestionable cheese, too (almost everything to do with Mindy; see above). Double Exposure is one of the more competently made slashers I've watched this month, even if it's not the most logical, entertaining, or socially progressive. Director William Byron Hillman has gone on to direct only a few more features, most recently Quigley (2003), starring Gary Busey as a billionaire reincarnated in the form of a Pomeranian. Hillman's interests have clearly shifted. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blood Song (1982) dir. Alan. J. Levi

 a.k.a. Dream Slayer

Logline: A demented, flute-tooting man-child stalks a crippled girl with a magical eyeball because no one else wants to play with him.

Crime in the Past: As a child, Paul Foley (Frankie Avalon) witnesses his father murdering his mother and her lover before turning a gun on himself. In reaction to seeing this, young Foley pulls out his wooden flute and plays a shrill tune all the way to the looney bin.

Bodycount: 8 souls who couldn't face the music.

Themes/Moral Code: Quite possibly the least complex of them all: 1) People who are "not nice" die, so be nice. 2) Always be nice to your Dad (no matter how often her rags on your lowlife boyfriend), because he could receive an axe to the face at any moment and you may never have the chance to tell him that you think he's OK, if a bit old-fashioned. 3) Society should teach its adult-sized juveniles how to play well with others. 4) Be careful where you get your blood transfusions from?

Killer's Motivation: Paul Foley is an escaped mental patient with the mentality of a particularly sadistic Bad Seed-ish child (excepting, of course, that he's played by weathered former teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon, who starred in several of William "Nightmare Maker" Asher's '60s beach party films). He says things like, "you really hurt me," "I really like you," "I don't want to play anymore," and "peekaboo," and one has the feeling he means them to be charged with menace. Poor guy. His main motivation is an uncontrollable desire to kill anyone who fails to appreciate his wooden flute playing. (And few do-- I think I detected him playing Brahm's Lullaby, wretchedly). It's not a motivation that leaves us much to go on. His sole point of interest (leaving aside Avalon's masterclass in hamming) is that at one point he has consensual sex with an adult woman. Sure, he kills her soon after because she tells him to put his flute away, but otherwise this is almost unheard of in a slasher film. As per genre standards, male slasher villains are typically hulking representations of dysfunctional or conflicted male sexuality-- Foley not only seems to enjoy his sexcapade, but leaves his partner openly satisfied as well. The disturbing part comes immediately after, during their pillow talk: though she attempts to make it clear that this is a one night thing and that she'll soon be on her way, Foley starts imagining all the fun things they'll spend the next few weeks doing together. The death of his parents has obviously left him with some pretty extreme attachment and abandonment issues-- it's unfortunate that the film chooses to neglect developing these rather uncomfortable characteristics in favor of quips and camera mugging.

Final Girl: The final girl is Marion (Donna Wilkes). She wears a leg brace and walks with a limp because her drunk father got the both of them into a car accident one night when he was behind the wheel. (He then makes up for this injury by yelling at her constantly about her insistence upon seeing her cretin of a boyfriend). She wants to run away with her boyfriend once he finds work elsewhere, though she's still reluctant to sleep with him (despite his trying) and so maintains her virginal status. Her most interesting characteristic is that about every ten or so minutes the camera zooms in upon her cornea, which then makes the image go all solarized and transports us to a simultaneous vision of whatever murdering Foley is up to. It's a pretty direct rip of the central premise from the wonderful American giallo Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), but thrown down here with a creaky/delightful pseudo-scientific explanation slathered on top: see, after that maiming car crash, Marion was given a transfusion of blood, which happened to come from Foley, who still keeps up on his annual donations despite his insanity. The blood of a psychopath can give you telepathic visions. Oh, why not? It's the film's sole enjoyable conceit, so I'll take it.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  I can't find a trailer for this one, so you're just going to have to take my word for it: Blood Song is the least fun I've had all month. Yes, it is suitably preposterous and poorly made (these can be good things), but I generally appreciate a bit of thematic substance underlying the trashy leap onto the subgenre bandwagon. Blood Song doesn't have anything. (In comparison, Nail Gun Massacre (1985) is deep). If I were to be generous, I would say that it was striving to be a pure suspense vehicle, and so has no use for including narrative aspects as thoughtful as something like "substance," but it's a shoddy thriller too, so I can't even give it that much. What does it have working for it? It's certainly amusing to watch Frankie Avalon running around portraying an overgrown child and attempting to come off as legitimate threat. It also has a decent amount of competent and pleasantly goopy practical gore effects that add a certain disturbing, if still not yet scary, quality to some of Avalon's slashings. (I'm thinking here particularly of his attack on Marion's crotchety father with a butcher knife, which is both brutal in its intensity and unashamed to linger too long on the damage done). Regardless: without complexity or competency, it can only rely on its dull weirdness. A suitable metaphor for the film may be its climax, in which Avalon's killer seals his own (temporary) fate by driving a forklift into the ocean: it's clunky, cumbersome, and avoidable-- moreover, it takes a real nasty face-plant at the end.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alone in the Dark (1982) dir. Jack Sholder

Logline: Four violently deranged patients escape from an unconventional, low-security asylum during a electricity blackout and go on a rampage, their ultimate target being the home and family of their new doctor, Dr. Potter (Dwight Schultz).

Crime in the Past: No actual inciting crime here, but there is an imagined one. The four patients, due to the influence of leader Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), begin to believe that their previous doctor (who simply took a different job at a hospital in Philadelphia) was murdered by their new doctor, which is what inspires them to track Dr. Potter down to his home and exact revenge against him and his loved ones.

Bodycount: 11, which should clue you in to the fact that one is rarely ever alone in the dark.

Themes/Moral Code: The film rails against New Age-y psychiatric therapy, as seen through the example of a mental institution run by the eccentric Dr. Bain (Donald Pleasence), in which the patients are literally allowed to run the asylum. Bain refers to his patients as "voyagers"-- see, they're not permanently disturbed, but are merely on the path to a new plane of existence that sane folks can't fathom (as Hawkes grins at Dr. Potter, he asserts, "There's no crazy people, doctor. We're all just on vacation"). Bain's treatment of his "voyagers" include bright ideas like giving matches to pyromaniacs and making sure that his violent ones are restrained by a security system entirely dependent upon electricity. Before the dung hits the mechanical fan when the power goes out and the voyagers start their literal homicidal voyage, the film gives some hints that Dr. Bain's methods aren't quite as effective as he'd like to claim. Chief among these is a moment when he's forced to whisper to Preacher (Martin Landau) that he will hoist him up and cut him in half if he doesn't refrain from twirling a flaming jacket around ("sometimes you have to be forceful with them," he admits). The film itself takes a slightly more extreme position, arguing that we should probably either lock up our maniacs (and swallow the keys) or kill them outright if they pose a tangible threat. Dr. Potter and his family (a bunch of civilized peaceniks) are forced to cross the threshold into violence in order to save themselves, but unlike some other films that carry this same theme (see the last section, below) Alone in the Dark never seems to judge its characters for taking this drastic route to problem solving. When Hawkes tells Dr. Potter, "It's not just us crazy ones who kill. We all kill when we must," he's not exactly wrong. Alone in the Dark investigates the microscopic line separating the sane and rational from the deranged and murderous, deciding that one side bleeds to the next far too easily (see: the fact that society appears to crumble the moment after the blackout hits town). Perhaps we're all "voyagers," and what we call insanity is merely an congenital part of human nature, always at the ready to express itself.

Killer's Motivation: Well, they are violent mental patients. Each is scarred by his own personal demons: Fatty is a child molester, Hawkes was a prisoner of war, Preacher burnt down a church full of his parishioners, and The Bleeder... bleeds? But their assumed motivation is the imagined revenge plot described above. That rationale doesn't totally cut it, because they also murder people indiscriminately (the Bleeder because he's insane; Preacher because he likes to punish sinners). It's sort of a grab bag of motivations, but we may also choose to believe Dr. Bain's prognosis that "they won't survive on the outside" the asylum because it's "too scary," and so are simply reacting violently in fear. Again, doesn't quite work: as we see through the total devolution of its society through looting and murder during the blackout, Alone in the Dark's sane world is as mad (if not madder) than the asylum, and at the end of the film Hawkes couldn't be happier to be stranded outside with the insane. ("Insanity" is here coded as "attending a punk rock show"). Maybe Bain was right, and Hawkes' voyage has come to an end.

Final Girl: We're actually gifted three final girls: Dr. Potter's wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall), his daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), and his sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan). While ostensibly Dr. Potter is forced to "man up" and protect his family, these woman actually hold their own well: during the siege on the Potter residence, Lyla slits Fatty's shins with a knife (incapacitating him and allowing the others to take him out for good), and Nell stabs The Bleeder to death while Dr. Potter restrains him. Toni isn't much help in this squabble, but she's sort of debilitated by her pathological fear of the dark, so it's understandable. These are interesting, nuanced women-- both Nell and Toni smoke pot and are arrested for protesting the nuclear power plant; Toni wears a mesh top without a bra, moshes at a punk show, and pretty clearly doesn't have any hangups about sleeping around; and Lyla is precocious but responsible, chastising her parents for their lapses in smart behavior. The film treats its women well, which is in sort of shocking contrast to its most well-known scene, wherein the film's sole female victim, Lyla's babysitter, is menaced by a knife that repeatedly pops up through the mattress of the bed that she and he boyfriend just got busy on. The phallic knife leaping up through the mattress towards the babysitter's spread legs creates a pretty horrific image of overt sexual violence, but this seems to be an anomaly within the film-- a scene filmed for the creative novelty of its conceit rather than any thematic or moral import.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  What a gem. Alone in the Dark was the first horror film produced by Robert Shaye's New Line Cinema, two years before they scored their first major hit, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which forever defined their brand. That's all well and good, but it's a shame that Alone in the Dark hasn't received the same mainstream appreciation or regard. Director Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), The Hidden (1987)) skillfully blends the slasher with the siege picture, deriving almost as much influence from films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and Straw Dogs (1971) as it does from its recent bodycount picture contemporaries. (In fact, considering its thematic concern of "kill the bastards before they kill you," we could call it most akin to Straw Dogs, but this also means it bears a connection to Wes Craven's first two films, Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), both of which feature genial protagonists devolving into savagery in order to survive). Alone in the Dark is alternately creepy (some very unnerving shots of the killers lurking in the bushes, just barely visible, standing still as statues), surreal (Landau's character's opening dream of being hoisted up at a diner and split down the middle at the crotch by a sword-wielding Pleasence dressed as a short-order cook), humorous (mostly moments provided by Dr. Bain's new age healing methods), and cheesy (a punk rock show featuring the Sic Punks and their oversize axe-chopping dancers.). I mean, honest, if I'm telling you that it's a schlocky yet skillful film prominently featuring Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, and Martin Landua, and you don't start salivating, then there's little hope for you. Personally, I am incredibly peeved to have taken this long to get around to it, so will now commence hanging my head in shame with all the lights turned off.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blood Rage (1987) dir. John Grissmer

 a.k.a. Nightmare at Shadow Woods

Logline: Young twins Todd and Terry (both played by Mark Soper) are two Momma's boys who are identical in every way expect one... one of them is a deranged killer! Ten years after the killer framed his innocent brother for crimes he did not commit, the innocent brother escapes from a mental asylum and heads back home for a Thanksgiving dinner where, odds are, the guests will end up as gutted and stuffed as the turkey they're feasting upon.

Crime in the Past: After a brutal axe murder at a drive-in movie theater, Todd, an innocent young boy who witnesses it, is fingered as the culprit by his sociopathic twin brother, Terry, the true murderer. Todd then spends his next ten, catatonic years in a mental asylum for the criminally insane. Surprisingly, this does not turn Todd into a second wise-cracking killer.

Bodycount: 11, all victims of wasteful cranberry sauce spillage.

Themes/Moral Code: We're given a slightly atypical variation on the reliable SEX = DEATH morality: Blood Rage focuses more concretely on a convoluted notion of SEX = BAD PARENTING = DEATH. Our opening sequence at the drive-in features ten-year-old Todd & Terry's mother, Maddy (Louise Lasser) neglecting her parenting duties by making-out with her boyfriend while her children pretend to snooze in the back of the car. Seeing this inspires Terry to slip out and axe another snogging dude in the face while allowing that dude's girl to escape-- it's pretty apparent that Terry is displacing his "blood rage" onto this couple in anger and disgust at what his mother is doing in neglecting her children. (Also telling is the fact that the film their mother takes them to see at the drive-in is titled The House that Cried Murder!, so when Terry later expresses his puritanical (and, of course, hypocritical) dislike of horror films, we're clued in to the notion that this screening was a formative experience for him). The film's distaste for bad parenting extends to a young mother who puts her baby to bed in order to go seduce a man and give her child "a new daddy." The film and Terry punish both for this, but again the stepfather figure gets it worse-- there's an obvious dislike here for men who attempt to enter already established family units, encouraging the mothers to wander in their affections. This bad parenting is recuperated at the conclusion, with our virginal heroine saving a baby, but it's not recuperated without some bleak complications. When the innocent twin Todd and his mother are reunited, Maddy refuses to acknowledge that Todd is really himself, instead repeatedly calling him "Terry," much to Todd's heartbreak. She then shoots herself-- perhaps punishing herself for her own maternal transgressions-- and it's only after this moment that the film feels comfortable ending.

Killer's Motivation: Terry's motives echo the above. We're never really given any concrete explanation for his sociopathic tendencies, which is appropriate for the nature of the disorder. However, Terry does express a more than normal distaste for stepfather figures (he murders two of them--and one proxy stepfather figure--in the film). This is probably because (in good old psychoanalytic tradition) most of his knife-licking insanity derives from his attachment to his mother. Terry likes being his mother's only man, and is disturbed and angered by the idea of anyone (even his own brother) taking any of her affection away from him-- a jolly piece of symbolism, one in line with similar themes from Nightmare Maker (1982), is that during Thanksgiving dinner Terry prefers a tall glass of milk to the champagne that everyone else is downing. He's a killer who needs the undivided nurturing of his mother, and will butcher everyone around him-- throwing any semblance of caution to the wind-- in order to have it all for himself. (It's also worth noting here that Mark Soper pulls out two unusually solid performances as Todd and Terry. Todd displays a vulnerability and innocence that is tough to reconcile with Terry's overt sociopathy, so its to Soper's credit that we're never unsure of which we're seeing onscreen).

Final Girl: The final girl is Karen (Julie Gordon), Terry's girlfriend, who is sort-of-dating a psychotic killer and doesn't even know it. She's a conservative dresser and lousy at drinking tequila; she spurns the advances of other boys, and would rather play video games than engage in typical teenage tomfoolery. She spends most of the movie feeling envious over Terry's wandering affections. (Terry seems more interested in the new neighbor, Andrea (Lisa Randall), probably because she majors in "partying" at the local university and so is prime slashing material). Karen imagines Terry has lost interest in her because she hasn't been putting out, so decides to awkwardly approach him with the line, "and, well, I want you to make love to me" (sadly, she mistakenly delivers this line to his twin brother, Todd, instead). At any rate, her sudden willingness to having sex with Terry make her a target for his rampage late in the game, naturally leading to a climactic chase. Incredibly, the symbolism becomes way heavy-handed during this sequence after she saves a baby whose mother Terry has killed-- our final glimpse of Karen is a low angle shot of her holding the baby, swaddled in a blanket, casting her as a very pious Holy Mary and restoring her virginal status.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese: Unlike many of its contemporaries, Blood Rage is a latter day slasher that adds a bit of spirit to its standard utilization of genre conventions. It's a Thanksgiving-themed gorefest with a pacing so manic it felt as if I was watching it while absentmindedly pressing the fast forward button-- it pulls moves like showing us a character being cornered by the killer in the woods, cutting away momentarily to a scene of relative calm, and then returning to show us that same character split in two, writhing around on the ground in her own gore. Its cutting of those sorts plot-based of corners only serves to make the film more surprising and engaging, rather than frustrating. Blood Rage is a lot of fun, one that with a creative retitling could have been that elusive Thanksgiving slasher classic that the genre is lacking-- it even has its own holiday catchphrase: "it's not cranberry sauce!" I have a hard time imagining a genre fan not digging this one. I mean, at the very least it counts among its many charms the two fundamental staples of late '80s horror: 1) excessive and skillful gore effects (a leaky, split open skull is the queasiest, but my favorite might be a stop-motion severed hand clutching a beer can), and 2) a Ted Raimi cameo (here as a nerdy-cool condom salesman in the film's drive-in theater prologue). My only complaint is that I watched it about a month too early-- to rectify the film's grievous error, I suggest it now retroactively adopt the alternate title Cranberry Rage.