Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick or Treats (1982) dir. Gary Graver

Logline: Linda (Jacqueline Giroux), a struggling actress and part-time babysitter, takes an assignment on Halloween night that has her looking after the obnoxious, prank-pulling brat (Chris Graver) of two stage magicians. Coincidentally, the boy's biological father, Malcolm (Peter Jason), a wrongly committed mental patient, happens to break out of his confinement on the very same night and start his long, sexually ambiguous trek home to achieve his revenge.

Crime in the Past: A woman has her grumpy husband committed to an insane asylum over breakfast, because apparently this is a thing that you can do.

Bodycount: A mere 3 reasons to treat in fear of trick reprisals.

Themes/Moral Code: A moral message as old as Aesop and less clever than The Muppets, and even then the film doesn't take the time to develop it into a consistent variation on a theme, after no less than having the protagonist explicitly reference and retell the damn fable on screen. Sophisticated this is not.

A sub-theme: stepdads suck. A second: babysitting sucks. A third: children are inherently evil. This last one I concur with.

Killer's Motivation: Poor Malcolm. Enjoying your breakfast you were until your wicked wife, Joan (Carrie Snodgress), sicked those straight-jacket wielding orderlies on you, engaging you in a poolside tussle that nearly rivals a certain legendary alleyway tussle in its protraction. You spent the next four years in a psych ward for seemingly no reason at all while your wife went on to become a famous stage magician and marry a lecherous David Carradine, who would go on to raise your rotund, insufferable progeny as his own. Fed up at this injustice, you will plan and scheme. You will, on Halloween night, choke out a nurse and steal her uniform to escape your mental prison. You will walk the streets in this outfit and be propositioned by bums and sleazy suited drunks alike, despite the fact that you are an overweight middle-aged man in a dress. You will not take kindly to this, though it opens up potential doors of identity to you that you never knew were unlocked. (Yes, you can be beautiful.) You will eventually threaten a drunken Paul Bartel and steal his clothing. From there, you will continue on your journey home to your wife, murdering a woman who maybe sorta looks like her on the way before realizing your mistake. You will finally arrive. You will break into your own house, which you missed so dearly all this time, and stalk around, eventually seeing who you think is your wife but is in actuality the babysitter dressed up in her nightgown for reasons entirely plot-driven. You will chase her, for awhile, and in return you will be guillotined by her and your own son. This is your life, Malcolm. There is nothing one can do to make it poetic.

Final Girl: Linda the babysitting actress ain't bad, as far as these things go. She's career-driven, independent enough to refuse her boyfriend's every request, and always willing to speak her mind (as in the case of telling her young charge's mother what a rotten prick he is over the phone). But, boy, is she gullible. Every fake suicide and scare tactic performed by the boy she's babysitting sends her into wailing and flailing hysterics. And, because this happens nearly twenty times over a single evening, we begin to question whether this was adapted from the Extended 12'' Mix of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" or if Linda's memory for traumatic frights extends only as far as one trip around the circumference of the fishbowl.

Evaluation: The tagline on the above poster for Gary Graver's Trick or Treats attests to there still being truth in advertising, at least as recently as 1982. An abysmal excuse to highlight the director's husky son pulling off some amateur magician fake-outs while copping a 'tude as the other performers grin and bear it*, the film is what one with a grievous head injury might mistakenly label "a comedy." It is, rather, a spoof so dimwitted that its dubiously humorous intentions double back and devour themselves, creating an ouroboros of candy corn-infused inanity. In one critical scene of meta-reflection, a pair of female film editors congratulate themselves for being true artists in their efforts to salvage a barely salvageable horror movie in the editing room. What we're allowed to glimpse of this resuscitated film involves Dracula in the midst of creating Frankenstein's monster and instructing his two female assistants to "give [him] head!" This is anti-irony. Unsurprisingly, director Gary Graver's filmography is littered primarily by pornographic films, a large number of them being early '90s porn parodies of then-current blockbusters, the best titles of which are Cape Rear (1992) and the Joi Fuck Club (1993). Trick or Treats, an ostensibly legitimate filmmaking effort, boasts in its credits that Orson Welles served as "Magical Advisor." Unfortunately, he never advised the film to disappear.

*The film's only stellar performance belongs to the great Steve Railsback, who (literally) phones in his role as the heroine's high-energy boyfriend preparing for his debut on stage in the role of Othello. He knows he's a little young to be playing Othello, he tells her as he aimlessly swings around his wooden sword, but he can always drop the pitch of his voice, he says, demonstrating his finest Eeyore impression, in order to acquire the requisite gravitas.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Edge of the Axe (1988) dir. José Ramón Larraz

a.k.a. Al filo del hacha

Logline: A psychopath in a white plaster mask is axing the women of a small Northern Californian town some deadly questions. Though the cops couldn't care less, there is, in fact, a pattern to this killer's madness, and it will take the combined efforts of a drifter who moonlights as an exterminator, a girl who once pushed her cousin too hard on a swing, and a pair of personal computers circa-1988 to unravel this bloody mystery.

Crime in the Past: Allegedly, Lillian (Christina Marie Lane) once pushed her cousin Charlie's swing so hard that he flew off, banged his head on the ground, and spent the next near decade in a coma. Over that period, Lillian forgets about Charlie and her guilt over his accident until she learns that he indeed recovered and was recently released from the hospital. We wonder: might Charlie be seeking revenge against his cruel and forgetful cousin, who never even sent him a "Get Well, or At Least Out of Your Coma" card? Might Charlie be connected to the murders, all the victims of which appear to be suspiciously connected to a particular hospital? How many letters do you have to exchange in the name "Charlie" before you wind up with "Red Herring"?

Bodycount: 8 swings of the axe that connect. Additionally, one piggie and one puppy.

Themes/Moral Code: There's an awfully surprising bit of prescience lurking in this bloody affair: it predicts the forthcoming effects of computer and internet technology on relationships. When weirdo computer savant Gerald (Barton Faulks) gifts Lillian a personal computer after they've started dating, things take a short trip to suspicion and e-snooping. Beyond their awkward chats to one another (read aloud by a proto-Siri), the couple individually scan the web for incriminating information about one another and browse each other's internet history without qualms. We also see an incipient form of computer-assisted dating selection on display: Lillian queries a program on Gerald's computer about whether or not he's gay. Ah, love in the age of dial-up.

Killer's Motivation: Psychogenic amnesia, cranial encephalitis, and acute psychopathy. Also some daddy issues. And I suppose also a multiple personality disorder. See, the killer is "Charlie," Lillian's nonexistent cousin, who is actually Lillian herself. The childhood swing accident detailed above in fact befell Lillian herself, and the figure of Charlie was created by Lillian's mind as a sort of coping mechanism (I guess?) to justify and explain her post-coma homicidal tendencies. She's attacking and murdering anyone involved in her long-term care at the hospital (one of whom have gone on to an illustriou career as a prostitute, naturally) as well as anyone her father had a romantic interest in. I cannot explain or read much into any of this. Most of this information is imparted to the audience in a final minute exposition dump, up until which we'd been led (rather hamfistedly) to believe that nebbish Gerald is the killer. Whatever: sometimes a girl has just gotta dress up like a dollar-store Michael Myers and avenge herself against... herself?

Final Girl: See above. Perhaps our alarms should have sounded in re: Lillian's final girl prospects when she is shocked by discovering a creepy file of info concerning the killer's victims on Gerald's computer, only to then proceed to go out with him on a pleasant date in the very next scene. The killer alone would have such confidence in being flirty with such an obvious suspect. The killer, or someone who has bumped her head very hard. In this case, both.

Evaluation: With films like Symptoms (1974), Vampyres (1974), and The House That Vanished (1974), José Ramón Larraz established himself as one of the finest Spanish horror filmmakers of the 1970s. Those early films, released in brief succession, are enigmatic and bizarre, nearly inscrutable through the blanket of fog concealing both their English countryside locations and the motivations of the their damaged characters. But 1974 is a long way away from 1988, and a film like Edge of the Axe does little to herald its filmmaker as one of the latter decade's greats. This is not to say that it's a lousy entry in the slasher subgenre (in fact, it's quite enjoyable, in no small part due to its quaint technological eccentricities), but it lacks that dim, perverse atmosphere that had infected (and so made exhilarating) the best of Larraz's previous features. Edge of the Axe is too sedate and predictable for the reputation of its director. Barring a few inspired moments-- such as an opening attack by the killer on his victim while she sits in a car moving through an automatic car wash, masterfully realizing and exploiting the potential of that singular tension created by those big sponges whomping the space just above our heads-- one might expect the film was constructed by any old independent American hack with a rented camera. From Larraz crediting himself as "Joseph Braunstein" despite being surrounded by the Spanish names of various other crew members, to the cow spotted dress that his heroine unfashionably dons at one point, to the Dolly Parton knockoff that leads us through the end credits, that unmistakable faux-American quality is discernible throughout the proceedings. And that's a shame: the film could have benefited from some European weirdness creeping into frame. I would never have dreamed of a day in which I would wish for a Larraz film to be more like Black Candles (1982), and yet here we are.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Majorettes (1987) dir. S. William Hinzman

Logline: In a small northeastern town, a disguised madman is knocking off members of the local high school's cheerleading squad. The townsfolk would find these developments concerning if it weren't for all of the town's sundry other distractions, including a wicked nurse plotting an inheritance scheme and a gang of rowdy, drug-pushing bikers tearing up the backroads. A town can only cope with so much at once.

Crime in the Past: Nothing explicit. The killer was obviously affected by his ruthlessly 'moral' religious upbringing, but it's not like he saw his mother gorily impaled by a crucifix falling down from a wall up against which she was having vigorous, wall-trembling sex with a man who was not her husband. Or anything like that.

Bodycount: 17, or the entire human population of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.

Themes/Moral Code: The moral code here is more complex and ambiguous than you'd think. First, you have a moralizing killer who is specifically targeting loose young women, but this is nothing new for the subgenre. However, it is interesting that the film paints some of its stock high school girls as deplorable enough to justify their fates: for instance, one victim has lured a bashful nerd from her class to a popular makeout spot so that they can get it on and she can then later claim him as the father of her unborn child, who is actually the spawn of her drug-pushing biker boyfriend. A class act, for sure. From this point we begin to notice that nearly everyone in the town that we meet is corrupt, villainous, or morally compromised. We discern this fact especially in the cases of those who hold positions and occupations in the town that one would typically label as benevolent: the sheriff (Mark V. Jevicky) is a murdering psychopath, a kindly old nurse (Denise Huot) is plotting the death of her charges, and the town's mentally handicapped "village idiot" (Harold K. Keller) is both a peeping tom and complicit in his mother the nurse's plans. If there's a "hero" in this film it's Jeff (Kevin Kindlin), the varsity football star, who-- upon the murder of his girlfriend and some other girl he's been hanging out with-- takes it upon himself to rid the town of its biker gang menace by blowing and shooting them all to hell, indiscriminately and single-handed. Sure, his actions are justified if we ground them in an action movie's morality, but burning people alive is morally dubious when measured by any other barometer.

Most amusing of all is when the villains from the film's disparate subplots converge and quickly turn on each other through blackmail and murder, as if trying to one-up each other for the title of Most Evil. It feels not at all unlike the cynical, black satire Mario Bava employed towards his similarly unsavory cast of scheming miscreants in Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). Except, you know, with more cheerleading routines.

Killer's Motivation: Again, it's never made quite clear to us what in particular caused Sheriff Braden-- our camouflage-wearing, bowie knife-wielding killer-- to do the nasty things he does to cheerleaders. However, he does helpfully explain that they are all "sluts" and "teases" and that what they really need is "to be purified," which he makes sure to accomplish during his murdering process by giving each of his victims impromptu postmortem baptisms (occasionally making do with whatever water source is available to him, as in one case dunking his victim's head into the stream of a locker room shower head). Because of this vagueness surrounding his motivations, Sheriff Braden remains an unmemorable villain. This does not, however, stop the film from allotting him the status of Ultimate Victor and leaving him standing as the closing credits run in order to slash another day. In fact, the film's only genuinely unnerving scene results from the lack of karmic punishment he receives for his crimes: the final shot is of Braden leering all skeevy from behind the school's metal fence at a group of little girls awkwardly practicing their cheerleading, insinuating that a new class of "sluts" is coming up for purification.

Final Girl: Our final girl is Vicky (Terrie Godfrey), an orphan who lives with her grandmother who has suffered a debilitating stroke and the slyly evil nurse who is planning on killing both Vicky and her grandmother in order to divert Vicky's upcoming inheritance to herself. Fortunately, the nurse's diabolical plans never come to fruition as Vicky is shot dead by drug dealers at the beginning of the third act. This is the sort of bleakness the film trades in.

Evaluation: There are weirder ones out there, certainly, but none quite so scattered and distracted as The Majorettes. The film is part standard issue slasher, another part melodramatic inheritance scheme thriller, and a big fat dollop of Rambo action revenge at the back end. It code-switches between these various modes of operation as it weren't no thing, but the result is akin to someone switching out the reels of the film you were watching with reels from another film of a totally different genre that just happens to star the same actors. It's a disorienting but always entertaining ride because-- luckily-- the film handles each of its unique genres with enough aplomb and no-budget enthusiasm to earn it a pass despite all of its narrative's logical shortfalls. Maybe this image is more apt: imagine it as being the result of master schlock director David A. Prior throwing whatever scraps of negative he had left for Aerobicide (1987) and Deadly Prey (1987) into the air and then spooling them back up in whatever order made sense at the time. I couldn't complain about a slasher film with Deadly Prey written into its DNA. Despite the surface level resemblances and shared year of release, The Majorettes was not the work of David A. Prior but of two late '60s horror icons: John Russo and S. William Hinzman of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). The Majorettes was the first of two directorial outings from Hinzman, the first modern zombie in horror cinema, and it was adapted from a novel by his pal John Russo, who earlier in the decade had directed another very peculiar slasher, Midnight (1982). Like a demented horror version of The Wonder Twins, only by joining forces could they make the subgenre even weirder.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Outing (1987) dir. Tom Daley

a.k.a. The Lamp

Logline: An ancient and mysterious Djinn lamp is discovered in the house of a murdered old woman and then moved to a nearby museum for study. Not-so-coincidentally, this all happens at precisely the same time that the daughter of the museum's chief archaeologist and her goofy, sex-crazed pals decide to sneak into the museum for an overnight full of beer, debauchery, and natural history education. No, the teens haven't decided that learning is fun: it turns out that this daughter, Alex (Andra St. Ivanyi), is lightly possessed by the lamp's matching bracelet and that for the wish she made that morning to come true, the genie will need all the bodies lined up in one convenient location.

Crime in the Past: Our lamp from 3500 BCE (along with its fancy fashion bracelet) has had a long history of inserting itself into the lives of Arab women and fulfilling their wishes. In 1983, a cargo ship from the Middle East carries it to Galveston, Texas, as the possession of yet another Arab woman. Something happens, and all of the boat's crew turn up dead. The lamp's growling mystical occupant then does something vague and offscreen to the ship's captain as the Arab woman dies. The lamp and bracelet then find their way into the possession of the dead woman's close relation. The vague cycle continues. Wishers gonna wish.

Bodycount: 15 wished away into goopy oblivion.

Themes/Moral Code: The victims fit into the predictable molds: old-lady-murdering hick punk ruffians die; underage teens imbibing alcohol and getting randy die; racist, girlfriend-beating high school bullies die; even absentee fathers aren't safe from this slimy genie's wrath.

But really the film's controlling theme is exactly what you'd think it is.

Killer's Motivation: It's a goddamn genie. He's just doing his job. Well, sort of. See, this genie (who most closely resembles an unflushed turd) should technically only be following the command of his unwitting caretaker Alex's breakfast time wish, which was the perpetual absent-minded refrain of most angst-filled teen girls whose dads don't take them to enough Houston Astros games: "I wish my dad were dead!" If fulfilling that wish is the genie's sole concern, he sure does take the long, corpse-filled route to get there. This floating turd decides to murder everyone in Alex's general vicinity, perhaps because he's never seen a clear picture of Alex's father or maybe because he left his glasses back in the lamp. Pretty much omnipotent, the Djinn can levitate his victims, will their heads to explode, conjure up some venomous snakes to bite them, or simply shoot laser beams from his eyes to zap them, if he's not feeling like putting in a lot of effort. The dudes simply enjoys the slaughter. Nevertheless, fulfilling Alex's wish is his ultimate motivation, as he tells her that after doing so he will "own her." What this means is never made crystal clear, but we feel certain that the lamp-- as roomy as it may be-- is a bit cramped for two.

Final Girl: Alex loves Guess jeans, bad food, and her dead mom. She's so upset with her beloved father for spending the majority of his time these days at work dusting off old genie lamps that over a breakfast of burnt toast she wishes him dead. She immediately regrets her careless words and her and her father soon make up, but unfortunately the genie has very good hearing. Although she possesses a healthy amount of spunk, Alex is an unmemorable heroine. She comes off a little dim, and the fact that she used to date a blatantly racist prick is another strike against her faculty of judgement (the first strike being, y'know, wishing for her dad's death around a genie bracelet). However, I do believe she holds the distinction of being the only final girl spooked by the tinkling sound made by the contents of a Pepsi truck being unloaded, post-ordeal. And that's something.

Evaluation: Dopey simplicity, carried out with enough earnestness, can be endearing. And Tom Daley's The Outing is sublimely dopey: at the film's climax, one of the heroes consults a museum computer for assistance in defeating the rampaging Djinn, and it helpfully spits back at him "DESTROY THE LAMP, KILL THE GENIE." This is what we are dealing with here. Nevertheless, Daley (whose only directing credit is The Outing and whose only IMDB profile picture is of him piloting a boat) barrels through the pitfalls of a largely amateur cast, a harebrained script, and very little money by crafting the film with nary a dull moment in its brief running time. By structuring this supernatural demon flick as a slasher and ensuring an addition to the body count every five minutes or so, the film moves at a satisfying clip, and because the special makeup effects team do a nice job with what little they have to work with, it's easy to be pleased by the frequent thrifty carnage on display, which runs the gamut from random snake violence to levitating electro-lynchings. Apparently the film-- originally titled The Lamp-- had 18 minutes lopped off for its U.S. release, so perhaps we can thank this judicious editing for its en vogue slasher pacing. (This also appears to be one of the few cases in which being edited by the distributor after the fact was a boon to the film in question: I certainly can't imagine an extra eighteen minutes of teens stumbling into museum exhibits helping the The Outing any.) This U.S. version of The Outing was released just this month on DVD by Scream Factory after decades of commercial unavailability. I wish for you to pick yourself up a copy, if you feel so inclined.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Deadly Dreams (1988) dir. Kristine Peterson

Logline: Years after witnessing his parents murdered by his father's disgruntled business partner, Alex (Mitchell Anderson) is plagued by dreams of the sadistic killer, donned in a wolf mask, aiming a rifle squarely at him and his loved ones. But are these really dreams? Alex gradually becomes convinced that the deadly hunter-- long deceased-- is tailing him in his waking life as well. Are these random phantasmagoria the work of some sick prank or nefarious scheme? Worse yet, is his parents' murderer still alive? And the most pertinent question of all: can a dream slit your throat with a hunting knife? Inquiring minds would like to stop sweating through their sheets.

Crime in the Past: On Christmas Eve, Norman Perkins (Duane Whitaker) is given the very bad news that his business partner, John Torme (Geoffrey Forward), has screwed him over in their latest ambiguous business dealing and has now cut him out entirely. Perkins, desiring to place some coal in the Tormes' stockings, heads over to their house with a hunting rifle. Waiting for the arrival of his older brother from college, Alex thinks nothing of opening the door when he hears a knock. Perkins barges in, pulls down his super creepy wolf mask, and makes short work of Mr. and Mrs. Torme with his hunting rifle, all of which poor Alex is forced to view as he stands helpless, a mere child. Perkins then tells young Alex that they're going to play a fun game of hide and seek in the woods. Alex will hide, Perkins will seek. Though we don't see Alex escaping Perkins, presumably he does and (as we gather from information provided later in the film) Perkins responds to the whole mess he's created by blowing his own brains out a few days later. (OR DOES HE???)

Bodycount: a paltry 5 trophies to add to the wall, but there are plenty of graphic dream deaths to keep you satiated, you bloodslurping freaks.

Themes/Moral Code: Director Kristine Peterson, a female horror director best known for helming Critters 3 (1991) (a.k.a. The One with Leo) and working second unit on films like Chopping Mall (1986) and Tremors (1990), doesn't fall into the trap of misogynistic capitulation that Roberta Findlay does in her slasher, Blood Sisters (1987). While on the one hand being altogether uninterested in providing conservative comeuppance for its characters' assumed sexual transgressions, Deadly Dreams also craftily toys with the audience's perception of female agency. The films subverts our initial impressions of its female lead (Juliette Cummins) as, by turns, a nurturing lover and a duplicitous, conspiring gold-digger with another boyfriend (both images of women held in sway to the desires of controlling men) by revealing her to be, in actuality, a morally dubious but unquestionably independent avenger. The point being: don't think you've got a woman pegged under your Madonna/Whore dichotomy, 'cause she could always be a Lilith. The film's portrayal of this principle female character is far from totally flattering (she is, after all, at least in part responsible for the murder of two essentially innocent young men and one scheming chump), but she's nonetheless imbued with a certain self-driven power and skewed moral certitude that places her in opposition to the rather petty and aimless male characters.

Killer's Motivation: The motivation driving our ominous and omnipresent Hunter (Gary Ainsworth) is obvious by the film's conclusion: he's being paid. The Hunter, decked out in the same sick garb as the deceased Norman Perkins, is no more than a faceless and nameless man who has been hired by Alex's weasel of an older brother, Jack (the ever-weaselly Xander Berkeley), to drive the already fragile Alex insane and, eventually, to his own "accidental" death. Jack plots against his beloved younger brother because, well, money, duh. Having invested all of his own livelihood into continuing their dead parents' failing company, Jack believes that Alex is going to squander his share of the inheritance by refusing to partner up in the family business and instead running off to "be a writer" with his fancy liberal arts degree. Yes, this film is more cynical than most, presenting an image of the wealthy capitalist who will-- in elaborate fashion-- turn violently against his own blood in order to remain part of the upper echelon and afford to be dressed up in "ugly yellow power ties." Wryly cynical to the end, the film isn't content to let events stand at that and so proceeds to undercut Jack's momentary "victory" by showing him as both haunted by his fratricidal actions and ultimately victim to another sort of predator: one seeking selfless revenge for a family member who has been wronged. If the bloodshed Jack causes devalues or makes a twisted mockery of the notion of family bonds, his own blood being shed in the name of family serves to reaffirm the inexorable influence of that most sacred of human social institutions, even from beyond the grave.

It's also worth noting that the image and concept presented by the character of The Hunter, that of a home-invading, arsenal-toting for-hire hunter/mercenary wearing a unfathomably creepy animal mask who is tied up in a cynical inheritance scheme between bitter family members, bears an awful resemblance to the image and concept of some baddies that crops up in a more recent flick. Coincidence? Unacknowledged inspiration? Outright thievery? Eh, I'll bet they just dreamed it up.

Final Girl: Our protagonist, Alex, fulfills the role of the neurotic gaslight victim. This is a stock figure most often presented in this type of film as a woman, and so naturally Alex displays more typically "feminine" qualities than the average perpetually shirtless slasher movie hunk. Alex is sensitive and needy; he's quick to fall in love and ridden with guilt over his inaction during a past event. His visceral, physical experience of his own traumatic nightmares makes him a touch hysterical on occasion. He's a ball of nerves with aspirations to forsake the family tradition of ruthless capitalism and reinvent himself as a writer. And yet, his status as a "feminine male" does little to save him in the end: he's killed quite brutally by the film's villains at the climax, making him into an innocent if gullible victim. His death is a shocking choice that is solely in service of the film's cynical tone: it is a very, very giallo maneuver.

Evaluation: Though gaslight plots were prevalent (to say the least) in the era of the giallo, the giallo's American slasher descendants were always a little too blunt and, well, obvious to employ the same necessarily semi-complicated gaslighting shenanigans during their headlong sprint into a pile of butchered bodies. Though not the most intellectually taxing of cinematic scenarios, the gaslight plot nonetheless requires both a certain amount of finesse from its filmmakers (in order to prevent the true goings-on from being screamingly obvious from the start) and an equal amount of attention from its audience (in order to piece together the maddening puzzle of possible psychosis and hallucinations). Slasher audiences in the 1980s skewed significantly younger than those flocking to the gialli of the 1970s, and-- to judge by the example of those films that raked in the thick stacks of scattered cash during the latter decade-- these teenage creeps preferred their body count flicks as brutal and simplistic as possible. Under that criteria, devoting screen time to convoluted schemes and questionings of the protagonist's sanity would be a risky proposition when some swift stabbings would suffice.

And yet, some slasher films gave the gaslight an honest go: No Place to Hide (1981) is a fine if sedate made-for-television attempt, and Happy Birthday to Me (1981)-- though by no means featuring a conventional gaslighting-- reveals by its climax that it has digested the lessons of a few of the formula's key tricks. Arriving late in the slasher cycle, Kristine Peterson's Deadly Dreams may be the most ambitious slasher gaslighting of them all, presenting a hardcore inheritance scheme that results in a poor sap being driven mad by a hulking masked killer in varied scenarios stuck somewhere between the empirical world and Freddy Kreuger-lite rubber reality. Its careful balancing act of providing the slasher's shallow visceral thrills alongside a sizable-enough heaping of quasi-complex thriller intrigue is admirable and by and large successful. Intense, surprising, and ever-so-slightly surreal, the film is the sort of clever and enthralling stuff that inspires one to eBay an original video store one-sheet immediately after viewing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Blood Sisters (1987) dir. Roberta Findlay

Logline: A ragtag group of snooty sorority pledges must spend the night completing a scavenger hunt in a haunted former cathouse for their initiation. The elder sorority sisters' frat boyfriends have rigged the house up with spooky gags to scare the girls during their game, so the girls are in for a harrowing time of it. But aren't the ghosts they're seeing a little too convincing to be mere mirrors and holograms? And why are all of their companions disappearing one by one? What's clear is that by the end of the night these pledges will become blood sisters... of one sort or another.

Crime in the Past: A prepubescent creep attempts to bribe his schoolmate with candy and lunch money in exchange for the privilege of touching her undeveloped private parts. She, rightly, proceeds to yell that he's a pervert (and, curiously, makes a point of making fun of him for lacking a father). The boy runs back home to the whorehouse where he and his mother reside. Enraged and emotional already, he's further troubled by the sight of his mother getting touchy with another new john. He then chooses to express his feelings in the only way he knows how: by shooting his mother and her client to death with a shotgun larger than his tiny perverted body.

Bodycount: 10 beer pong cups brimming with blood, plus one plucky gal dragged off-screen into the shadows, never to flirt indiscriminately again.

Themes/Moral Code: Well, we could certainly call the film's moral code conservative. Here is a list of some of the conservative ideals and beliefs that the film's action supports: 1) Exposing children to sex at a young age corrupts their minds, usually psychotically, 2) Boys need fathers, because mothers cannot raise children alone and will abuse, pervert, and damage their children's psyches without the presence of fathers to keep them in check, 3) Modern girls are flippant about sex and often sleep around, and this will almost certainly lead them into trouble. Some of the these young women will have multiple male dates on any given weekend and those who don't are merely envious of those who do, 4) Young girls don't care about their educations, and in fact actively strive not to better themselves. (One pledge snarls about her lack of scholarly ambition at university, "Daddy's paying for it. What do I care?"), and 5) Some young women are evil, perverted lesbians who join sororities exclusively to have easier access to other nubile young women. While these first two points explain-- almost sympathetically-- the tortured plight of the film's deranged male killer, the last three rationalize that killer's actions in wiping out the amoral sorority sisters, as if they had it coming. The film has a very clear opinion about its female characters, none of whom is allowed to survive this ordeal: after death, each sorority sister appears as a lingerie-clad ghost, joining the ranks of ghost prostitutes already haunting the dilapidated cathouse. Unambiguously, the film is calling them "whores," and, moreover, whores who could only benefit the moral fiber of society by being dead. So, yes, rather conservative.

Killer's Motivation: The little matricidal pervert from the opening scene grows up to be Ross (Dan Erickson), a crossdressing psychopath who conceals his mania quite well behind a dashing, level-headed college frat boy facade. We discover that poor Ross had spent the bulk of his childhood locked in a closet because his mother strove to deny his existence whenever a client was around (to admit to having a child would make her less desirable, she believed). This physical and psychological abuse, compounded with the absence of any male role model, drove him to his violent actions as a child and their effect on him has clearly lingered on into his young adulthood. Ross' choice to stalk the sorority sisters while decked out in a frilly nightgown and bright red lipstick for the majority of the film is less explained than implied: how about them domineering mothers, huh? Though he's the film's villain, it's hard not to reason out (as stated above) that the film expresses a certain sympathy towards him. He's not inherently evil, the film appears to argue, and blame for his homicidal tendencies rest snugly in the evil that "loose" and "wicked" women do.

Final Girl: An atypical final girl, Linda (Amy Brentano) is far from the wide-eyed tomboyish prude we have come to expect in these films. For instance, she's naked and writhing around on a bed with her boyfriend within the film's first ten minutes. In addition, she's a smidgen catty to her fellow to-be sisters throughout and so, considering that she's also the orchestrator of the evening's mean-spirited pranks, she more closely resembles a slasher film's "bitchy" character than she does its heroine. She reinforces this association by her selfish actions once the goings get bloody. By being a senior member of the sorority and accompanying and supervising the pledges during their initiation, she holds a role of leadership and responsibility that the other girls look up to. So when she abandons two of her friends to certain slow death at the killer's hands in order to save her own hide near the conclusion, our opinion of her as a benevolent caretaker lessens somewhat. Also relevant is the fact that her boyfriend is revealed to be the killer, demonstrating that she sure can pick 'em. For these reasons, Linda is knocked off before the credits roll. (Technically, she's not even really the final girl-- though she performs the final girl's basic functions during the climax-- as there is one final female corpse added to the pile after her in a pre-credits stinger.) A rusty old moral maxim proves its resiliency to progressive development here in this latter day effort: if you show your boobs, you die.

Evaluation: Female slasher directors are rare birds indeed, and so I always harbor the hope after catching one's name in the credits of any given slasher film that her perspectives and sensibilities as a woman will serve to complicate, if not elevate, the standard material in thoughtful and transgressive ways while she plays in the overwhelmingly male-biased jungle gym that is horror cinema. With a woman-helmed slasher like The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), that's absolutely the case: we find that film poking fun at the slasher's fondness for employing the male gaze while labeling the subgenre's basic formula as little more than a violent male power fantasy (that is, before expertly demonstrating how swiftly that premise can be twisted into a female-driven castration nightmare). But Slumber Party Massacre was directed by Amy Holden Jones (who would go on to pen the coming-of-age chick flick epic Mystic Pizza (1988)) and written by queer feminist author Rita Mae Brown. The later Blood Sisters, on the other hand, was written and directed by the notorious Roberta Findlay-- director of such forgotten hardcore classics as Teenage Milkmaid (1974), Anyone But My Husband (1975), Love, In Strange Places (1976), Fantasex (1976), and The Clamdigger's Daughter (1974)--  for the even more notorious Cannon Films. Thus, their combined agenda was clearly a little different from that of Jones and Brown.

One can easily imagine that Cannon merely wanted Findlay to make a derivative sorority slasher with just enough nudity and violence to garner it a prime slot on rental store shelves. In that she succeeds. A hodgepodge of premises and specific plot beats from the earlier Hell Night (1981) and Girls Nite Out (1982), Blood Sisters desires to pave not an inch of new turf in the slasher game, and because it's always at least competent it's difficult to take too much issue with that lack of ambition if you enjoy these sort of things. But from the mocking lines Findlay has spout from the mouth of the character Marnie (Marla Machart) that comment on the hackneyed quality of their situation-- "like any good horror film, the van won't start" and, sarcastically, "you think the hero of this piece will discover we're missing and come rescue us?"-- one receives the sense that Findlay is a tad self-conscious about phoning it in. The film's super-cynical ending-- which manages to both deny gendered retribution and, in effect, confirm that all of its characters are damnable harlots-- is a blunt capitulation to the subgenre's norms, crying-- proudly? stubbornly? resignedly?-- "There ain't nothing new to see here."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Unseen (1980) dir. Danny Steinmann

Logline: After arriving to cover the local holiday parade, a freelance reporter, Jennifer (Barabara Bach), and her two gal pals find themselves stranded in a small town with no vacant motel rooms. By chance they run into an over-friendly museum owner, Ernest (Sydney Lassick), who-- upon hearing their predicament-- all too eagerly invites the trio to spend the night in the home he shares with his sister, Virginia (Lelia Goldini). Thinking they've caught a break, the three young women have in fact caught their own collective doom, courtesy of something Ernest and Virginia have been keeping locked in the basement for twenty years...

Crime in the Past: A brother and a sister love one another, or perhaps they just got bored one day twenty years previous. Brother + Sister = Mutant baby. In some small towns, it is exactly this equation that basements are constructed in preparation for. "Rural playpens," they're called, or so I've heard.

Bodycount: 4, never to be seen or unseen again.

Themes/Moral Code: It's a film about parenting, both good and bad, and how our actions as parents and our genetic predispositions warp our poor offspring into terrible mutant beasts. Obviously, the film is critical of Ernest and Virginia Keller's incestual relationship, as we see from the fact that it results in the birth of a horrifically deformed child. But, on the other hand, the film isn't exclusively shaming backwoods mating habits: the Kellers's monstrous son is essentially a loving and obedient child towards his parents, and it can be argued that only their lifelong neglect of him and his emotional needs drives him to twisted behavior. Though his is a twisted behavior that is, not coincidentally, much like that of his perverted father's. Consequent of this uncertainty over the killer child's behavioral origin, we've got threads of the "nature vs. nurture" debate running underneath the film's action throughout, all of which come to a head in Jennifer's predicament: she's pregnant with the child of her violently abusive boyfriend, and she must decide whether or not she wants to keep the child and risk seeing what sort of person that child grows up to be. Prior to her harrowing encounter with Ernest and Virginia's offspring, Jennifer appears resolved to carry her child to term (witness her crumpling up her abortion prescription), but the last act of the movie gives her an experience in the trials of parenting that should raise some doubts in her mind. Placed in seclusion with the film's childlike killer, Jennifer attempts to become a surrogate mother to him in order to save her own hide, and she finds her trial run at parenting to be a mixed bag. Her stern, motherly affection can hold the childish monster in place momentarily, but not forever, as eventually the bestial instincts win out. Jennifer learns that raising children is , well, tough and that-- despite all of one's efforts to the contrary-- the kid still might grow up to be a fiend. Neither genetic parentage nor careful parenting are any guarantee. Abortion at least provides some certainty.

Killer's Motivation: One of slasherdom's more sympathetic villains, our mutant killer, "Junior" Keller (Stephen Furst), can't help his murderous predilections. A deformed, mentally impaired child in a watery-eyed adult's body, Junior acts on impulse, and unfortunately those impulses result in him collecting and handling the bodies of human women as if they were dolls (we see that the boy loves stuffed animals, but he's obviously never been taught how to care for his possessions, particularly those that writhe around and scream in protest). As for a deeper subconscious motivation, it's apparent that Junior has been physically and emotionally abused through his lifelong imprisonment in the Kellers's basement, so that might be one cause of his psychosis. But a second explanation seems both simpler and more poignant: Junior displays that he's a Momma's Boy through his actions in the final act, but, because he's been ignored and neglected by his traumatized mother throughout his existence, his desire for love manifests itself only as simultaneous violence and affection against the various mother proxies he encounters (i.e. any fertile female). The boy probably just needed a hug somewhere along the line.

Final Girl: Barbara Bach's Jennifer is a successful news reporter whose independence and self-determination in her career bleed over into her personal life. At the beginning of the film, we witness her leaving her abusive pro football player boyfriend, Tony (Douglas Barr), whose obsession with recovering from an ankle injury has transformed him into a frustrated, woman-beating prick. When he follows her to the small town that her assignment takes her to and tries to confront her about their relationship "problems," Jennifer greets him with the quip, "Beat up any more women today?" But despite Jennifer's seeming flippancy towards her recent ex-lover, the break isn't as clean as she might wish: she's pregnant with his child. Through the character of Jennifer we see society's desire to squash the individual played out under the auspices of conforming to traditional gender roles and family models. Jennifer cares much more about her career and personal goals, stating that she might one day wish to start a family, but certainly not today. But it ain't that easy.

The societal pressures from those around Jennifer-- Tony acting as their chief representative-- encouraging her to abandon those independent desires and become a selfless mother are palpable, creating uncertainty within Jennifer's mind about what actions she should take. Her horrific experience with Junior Keller is, in a way, her maternity trial period. While she shows resourcefulness in dealing with the dangerously childish Junior, she also demonstrates that she's not quite prime mother material. She's revolted by her proxy "child" and the maternal responsibility she must take on as a burden in order to survive: for Jennifer, motherhood is clearly lacking in those profound, instinctual joys that our family-oriented culture assures us exist for everyone. Which direction she ultimately chooses between independence and motherhood is left unresolved by the film, and this omission feels like a significant flaw. Nonetheless, it's quite telling that the strongest image of mothering the film provides us is that of a regretful mother cradling her child for the first and only time as he lies on the ground as a corpse. Not every person is capable, ready, or interested in becoming a parent, society. Look what happens when you force the point.

Evaluation: The Unseen is a peculiar but awfully entertaining quasi-slasher/basement mutant thriller from director Danny Steinmann, he of the leather-clad Linda Blair rape-revenge epic Savage Streets (1984) and my second favorite but first weirdest entry in the Friday the 13th franchise, Part V: A New Beginning (1985). Those films having been produced later than this one, we can consider The Unseen as being Steinmann's humble beginnings (so humble, in fact, that he took his name off the finished film in shame. The film's direction is credited to the nonexistent 'Peter Foleg'). But there's nothing one wishes could remain unseen here: carried by its histrionic performances, clothespin-eroticism, and a smattering of sleaze, the film works despite an unnecessarily drawn-out third act that doubles as a tedious crash-course in demented parenting. Slasher devotees will be-- if not pleased-- at least appreciative of the film's creative mining of various trademarks of the subgenre placed into a rural Gothic context, from a faceless killer messily dispatching young women from out of frame down to the final girl's shock discovery of her companions' arranged corpses.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nightmares (1980) dir. John D. Lamond

a.k.a. Stagefright

Logline: The cast of a pretentious theatrical farce are being picked off by a killer with an affection for pointy shards of broken glass. When all is said and done and the bodies are cleared from the stage, Melbourne's theater community will never be the same. The quips, at any rate, will be much less pithy.

Crime in the Past: Imagine seeing your mother have sex with a man who is not your father on January 26th, 1963. Then imagine, on February 23rd of that same year, seeing your mom felt up by that same man in the front seat of a car after you wake up from being asleep in the back. Upset, you might then inadvertently cause the car to crash, sending your mother flying partially through the windshield. Seeing your mother in physical distress, you might then also give her legs a few pulls, accidentally ripping her throat open and causing her to bleed to death in the process. Imagine then waking up hours later in the hospital and overhearing your father calling you a murderer. Imagine shortly thereafter being assaulted by a lascivious, pedophilic hospital orderly and saving yourself only by shoving a nearby shard of glass deep into his neck. Imagine all that, and you'd probably start stabbing random people with nearby shards of glass twenty years after the fact, too.

Bodycount: 11 budding thespians receive some career-killing reviews.

Themes/Moral Code: There is, for obviously traumatic reasons, the standard "sex = death" morality at play here. Seeing, as a youngster, her mother groped shortly before her bloody expiration, our demented serial murderess, Helen (Jenny Neumann), tends to associate the two bodily states. This association leads Helen to committing many acts of castration and the tearing of breasts with aid of pointy glass shards whenever she sees her co-stars getting randy behind the curtain. And, naturally, in the theatre community of Melbourne, everyone is sleeping with everyone on the sly, so Helen has much sin to vanquish (i.e. stab repeatedly). In fact, the film devotes a good amount of its running time (though perhaps not enough) to skewering the theatre scene. The theatre directors, actors, and critics we see parading about the film expressing ludicrously inflated senses of their own artistic import are good for some chuckles (they speak of their slapstick stage comedy about death in terms befitting Brecht), but ultimately one wishes the film had developed this notion further by tying it more closely to the motivations underlying its slasher plot. Sure,  by the film's conclusion Helen has risen in the ranks of Melbourne's crop of actors because the majority of her top competition is laid up in pieces at the morgue, but this seems more a fringe benefit of her psychopathy than a pointed jab at the ruthlessness of a corrupt and attention-hungry artistic community.

Killer's Motivation: Helen sees sex, then sees shards of glass conveniently nearby. Helen kills. Her choice of weapon is rooted in the early childhood trauma of inadvertently ripping her own mother's throat open with jagged shards of car windshield glass. This early act of violence was obviously accidental, but her devastated father's insistence in the hospital soon after the incident that she's a murderer appears to take hold of her vulnerable psyche: maybe, after all, she intended to kill her mother for her cheating ways, and maybe she can reenact the murder time and time again with her new victims and, by taking a deliberate roll in the murdering this time, fulfill her father's labeling of her. Maybe. The film inexplicably treats Helen's identity as the killer as a mystery throughout, in a storytelling choice akin to that made in a hypothetical episode of Scooby Doo that pretends that the only other person in the creepy, cobwebbed theater other than the Mystery Inc. gang couldn't possibly be a suspect responsible for the ghoul in the big rubber costume.

Final Girl: One of those rare instances in which our final girl is also our killer. Helen's mania finds her wandering around in a totally and obviously deranged state, constantly muttering in various voices to herself while in the general vicinity of others: one wonders if her oblivious cast mates simply mistake her for a dedicated method actor. Helen's psychological complications and sexual hang-ups have a certain simplicity to them for the most part (she's never had a boyfriend before, she's never been allowed to have a boyfriend before, she's plagued by memories of her dead mother having sex, and she's incapable of being touched, which also reminds her of her mother), but these personality quirks vanish after she's completed the bulk of her murdering, allowing her to have one spirited romp in the sack with her new sort-of boyfriend, Terry (Gary Sweet), before framing him for her crimes. One's mother-proxy-murdering work is never done.

Evaluation: An Aussie slasher that punctuates its many sequences of drawn-out wandering killer-POV with explicit close-ups of labia majora, Nightmares has something for everyone. What's a rather enjoyable but undeniably by-the-numbers slasher contains-- if you peel back the festering skin a bit-- some rather surprising bits of sleaziness. Besides the videographic lessons in female anatomy, viewers bear witness to genital mutilation, talk of a character's "big brown freckle," and a rather queasy scene in which a victim vomits all over himself while being attacked by the killer. These are unusual, if not entirely admirable, moments in a film so very typical in every other respect. Lead actress Jenny Neumann would go on to be more captivating as a severed head in slasher semi-gem Hell Night (1981) the very next year. Though worth the marginal experience it provides for the slasher devout, the film's most amusing moment arrives early, during its opening credits no less, when the text informs us that director John D. Lamond is being credited with the script's "original idea."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Hide and Go Shriek (1988) dir. Skip Schoolnik

Logline: A quartet of recently graduated teenage couples decide to bid adieu to high school by staying overnight in a furniture store and committing grievous acts of furniture-supported hanky panky. But when the couples begin to permanently disappear during a game of hide and go seek, those remaining begin to ponder whether or not the creepy ex-convict nightwatchman is more dangerous than he seems...

Crime in the Past: The crime here is twofold, though neither involves the sort of early trauma we're used to seeing as slasher audiences. First, we learn that ex-con nightwatchman Fred (Jeff Levine) was previously incarcerated for armed robbery, which sets him up nicely as our red herring, especially when we notice that the actual killer bears similar prison tattoos. However, this literal crime is not the figurative crime we're looking for: the actual crime is that of a broken heart. It seems that Fred's homosexual prison liaison only suited him when behind bars, and his rejection of his male lover on the outside left that lover hopelessly devoted without romantic reciprocation, driving him to derangement.

Bodycount: 7 souls plopped down onto soiled display mattresses for the last time.

Themes/Moral Code: Whether consciously or not, slasher films have always attacked what they deem to be "perversions" of the norm, but it's not often that one of them gets any more specific than railing against the actions of horny teenagers. Hide and Go Shriek, however, gets awfully specific when illuminating its perceived perversion by using its bloody mayhem to prop up a heteronormative worldview that vilifies homosexuality. This vilification is accomplished primarily through the revelation of the killer and his motive (discussed below), but also through the film's handling of a character who repents for his past homosexual leanings. While imprisoned due to an armed robbery conviction, creepy nightwatchman Fred carried on a happy relationship with his cellmate, Zack (Scott Kubay). Upon their release from prison, Zack attempted to get back into contact with Fred, whom he had seemingly grown to love. Fred was repulsed by the notion of reigniting their romance outside of prison, telling Zack that whatever was between them was merely a product of their shared situation. Fred's implication is that in the real world people are heterosexual, regardless of what they do behind locked cell doors. Fred's reasoning doesn't sit well with Zack, nor should it: it's total hooey.

What's interesting is that the film doesn't attempt to make us feel sympathy for the abandoned lover, but for the schmuck who denies his own sexuality and carries out the abandonment. When Fred lays out the preceding details in front of Zack and the surviving teens during the film's climax, he transforms, instantaneously, from a mute, creepy, grunting potential fiend into a poor, unfortunate soul who has been misled but is seeking forgiveness for his sexual transgressions. He's made into a sort of tragic hero and protector of our protagonists-- if only momentarily-- for rejecting his homosexual impulse while his spurned gay lover remains a frothing maniac. It's an unfortunate fact that even as late as 1988 homosexuals were being openly demonized in visible works of popular culture, with a work like Hide and Go Shriek contributing in its own less-than-subtle way by harmfully impressing into the minds of its young audience the notion that those folks who prefer their own sex are a breed of boogeymen indistinct from a Myers or a Voorhees.

Killer's Motivation: Zack kills the teens because he doesn't want anyone or anything to come between him and Fred, his former lover. The fact that the teens are merely occupying the same building as Fred and are in no way interfering in the rekindling of the prison lovers' relationship is irrelevant because Zack is certifiably insane. There's two ways of taking this: either Zack is a heterosexual man whose prison experience created his "unnatural" homosexual passion for Fred and thus drove him to insanity or Zack is a homosexual man who is "naturally" insane. The former interpretation could be supported by Zack's failed opening encounter with a female prostitute, while the latter could be supported by (in the movie's logic) his effeminate characteristics (like giggling!) and penchant for cross-dressing. Either explanation signals that the film is lacking a certain, shall we say, sophistication in its understanding of sexuality and gender. It's a little bit like director Skip Schoolnik and his writer Michael Kelly watched Glen or Glenda (1953) and mistook it for a horror movie.

Final Girl: Hide and Go Shriek ignores the slasher convention of having an innocent, virginal final girl as the massacre's lone survivor, which seems curious considering its otherwise conservative approach to morality. Instead, a whopping two out of the four couples survive the grisly events, but for no particular reason other than perhaps the heteronormative nature of their sexual encounters, which the film clearly favors. All of the film's teen women are topless and horny at one point or another and their deaths don't directly correspond to what they choose to do with their private parts in their spare time. The film does feature an (at least initially) virginal female, but when she performs a slinky striptease for her boyfriend (that she saw "in a porno movie," she tells him) before bedding him, we can feel confident in saying she doesn't quite fit the archetype. That the film allows her and her boyfriend to walk out alive is to its credit, despite its more troubling perspectives.

Evaluation: A mostly unmemorable late entry in the subgenre, Hide and Go Shriek nevertheless provides some small interest for slasher aficionados. Its dopey teens are fun enough to laugh at, its fixation on creepy mannequins is almost unnerving, and its gore is on par with some of the scrappy best that the subgenre has to offer (a glorious elevator decapitation is a highlight). And, as is the case with so many bottom of the barrel slashers, it's hard not to admire its thrift: the characters' near inaudible dialogue echoes in all scenes because of cheap sets and improperly placed boom mics, and-- best of all-- a sound-alike version of "Walk This Way" is used for a musical cue after a lame "Walk This Way" joke in order to avoid licensing fees. The film, like character Randy's $6 haircut, is far from stylish, but it won't leave you scarred with any serious pangs of 1980s flashback embarrassment. Director Skip Schoolnik remains active as a TV producer, but his only directing credits after this film are a handful of episodes of the Buffy spin-off Angel and the "true story" reenactment anthology guessing game Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. Pair Hide and Go Shriek with Chopping Mall (1986) for a night of off-kilter slashers set in furniture stores.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Mutilator (1985) dir. Buddy Cooper

Logline: Three college couples head off to a beach condo belonging to the estranged father of one member of their group for some rest and relaxation during their fall break from classes. In-between all the Monopoly and hanky-panky, a madman with a (literal) axe to grind begins to stalk them, hoping to add their corpses to his collection of macabre trophies.

Crime in the Past: While his mother is decorating a cake in the kitchen, a young boy decides that he'll clean his father's prized rifle collection as a birthday present to his progenitor. You can imagine where this goes from here. When the father returns home and discovers the lifeless body of his accidentally blasted wife, he gives his boy a few whacks before settling into a lifelong case of severe alcoholism and psychosis.

Bodycount: 7 go bye bye, as does a stout, middle-aged police officer's leg, which he shouldn't have so carelessly misplaced. R.I.P. LEG.

Themes/Moral Code: The Mutilator is no multi-layered slasher epic, but it does feature a surprising structural unity. All of its characters-- villain and victim alike-- appear preoccupied with games of skill and dominance. Games are all over the film, fused to every stock slasher situation: witness a sexy skinny dipping session turn into a game of tag. But whether it be setting the new high score on an arcade game, owning all the property in Monopoly, or besting all the competition in an accuracy contest, the aim of each game we see or hear of in the film is proving one person's superiority over another. This emphasis on gaming becomes interesting when juxtaposed against the killer's obsession with hunting and fishing, which are themselves games of dominance over nature and other living beings. Through oblique references to Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" ("he hunted everything but man," one character says in reference to the killer), the film hints that the killer may be-- in his mind-- making these young men and women his game (as in hunted animals; the killer actually hangs them up like taxidermied trophies after killing them, as seen in the above poster.). We see how easily an environment that defines itself through frivolous games of skill can be twisted into something deadly by a warped mind: this notion is perfectly encapsulated by a scene in which our victims are playing a game of blind man's buff at the same time that the killer is stalking them throughout the house, making him, in essence, an unwitting player, though in a much severer game. The film doesn't do enough to tie these thematic threads into the overall tale, but they pervade nonetheless.

The film's moral code, on the other hand, is standard issue "sex = death." The skinny dipping couple (one of whom is the ludicrously pretty Frances Raines, star of earlier wacko slasher Disconnected (1983)) die first, followed soon after by the couple hoping to get it on after they investigate whether or not they locked the house up (amateur mistake). The only couple spared by the film's end is that constituted by our hero and heroine, who can be seen lying chastely side by side, fully-clothed, whenever they're in bed together. What distinguishes The Mutilator from the countless other slasher films that conform to this code is-- in one particular instance-- the horrific severity with which it deals out its moral judgement upon the transgressor. Though most of the film's kills feature a bit of oozing gore courtesy of the makeup department, the demise reserved for Sue (Connie Rogers) is unfathomably ghastly, standing in queasy opposition to the film's otherwise rather jolly tone. The killer hauls her onto a wooden table in the condo's garage and, having her pinned down, stabs a menacing fishing gaff into her crotch, up through her vagina, and out through her womb. This sexualized violence is stomach-turning. It reveals the often barely concealed contempt the culture had (and undoubtedly still has) for sexually active women: the punishment they receive in morally conservative slasher films like this is often far out of balance with that received by their male counterparts. (Sue's boyfriend, Ralph (Bill Hitchcock), gets a comparatively gentle pitchfork to the throat.)

Killer's Motivation: The killer, Jack (Jack Chatham), is the widowed father of the trigger happy Ed (Matt Mitler), one of our college kids heroes. It seems that Jack still holds a grudge against Ed for accidentally shooting his wife to death, as he invites Ed and his friends to the condo under false pretenses so that he can anonymously hunt them and exact his revenge. Though we know he's the culprit from early on, Jack is mute throughout the film, so never exactly spills the beans about his motivation verbally. Luckily, we are privy to his subconscious mind when he's taking a nap in the garage, and in his dream fantasies we see him variously shooting and strangling Ed when he was a little boy. The demented gamesman and moral executioner personas certainly figure into Jack's motivation, but primarily he's a sad, angry, and drunken father.

Final Girl: The final girl is Pam (Ruth Martinez), Ed's girlfriend. On the one hand, she's totally typical of her type: prudish when it comes to sexual matters, hesitant of any risky shenanigans, and eager to contact the police at the soonest possible sign of something being awry. But, then, she's also distinct in several keys ways from the bulk of her predecessors in the role of 'final girl.' Pam demonstrates early on that's she's pretty tough when she tosses Ralph to the ground and restrains him when he won't stop teasing her, and similar physical skills are put into effect during her climactic struggle with the killer, Jack. While the wounded Ed sits around meekly watching and sobbing, Pam tussles with Jack, eventually stabbing him and then crushing him between the rear bumper of a car and a brick wall. Her physical resilience in an adverse situation puts her helpless boyfriend to shame, and that's a pretty neat twist on the usual damsel in distress routine. Regardless, Pam is still a little bland (the most we ever learn about her is that "lightning is not one of [her] favorite things"), and the film isn't willing to make her-- a mere woman-- a totally competent character: despite all her other fine abilities, she can't seem to start a car for the life of her.

Evaluation: By the mid-'80s, the slasher subgenre had become so supersaturated that its next stop could only be self-parody. The mainstream examples of this retreat into lightheartedness would be films like April Fool's Day (1986) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), but Buddy Cooper's The Mutilator, a no-budget video gem, would beat those major studio efforts to the punch by at least a year. It's a goofy but endearing jaunt into tonal madness, replete in equal measure with Benny Hill-style sped-up slapstick and human evisceration. Sometimes, the slapstick and horror are even present simultaneously, like during Mike's (Morey Lampley) death scene, which reaches Paul Reubens-levels of protraction. It's hard to frown at a film that plays a jaunty sax and piano ditty titled "Fall Break" as its bloody-fonted "The Mutilator" title card pops up on screen during the opening credits. How much of this juxtaposed absurdity was intentional is of course up for debate, but Cooper and Company (including the film's many non-actors, who walk around their scenes with corny grins plastered permanently across their faces) seem aware of what they're doing. And it's not often that a straight-faced slasher ends with a blooper reel over its closing credits. Even less often that that blooper reel begins with a flubbed child strangulation. The Mutilator is unique in that way.