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.

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