Friday, October 31, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part V): Terror Train (1980) dir. Roger Spottiswoode

Logline: The boys of Sigma Phi Omega are throwing what might be the biggest party of their pre-med college careers. Well, if not the biggest, it's certainly the longest: this New Year's Eve costume party is taking place on a specially chartered train chugging across the frozen Canadian countryside, because that sounds like fun (and practical, to boot!). What the amassed party-goers haven't expected is that their isolated, locomotive night full of booze, sex, and magic might change onto deadlier tracks. Beneath one of the attendee's costumes lurks a stowaway, seeking revenge for the pranks of parties past. Before the train arrives at the station, he's determined to make them all scream louder than the train's whistle.

Crime in the Past: Exactly three years prior to the current action, the freshman class of the Sigma Phi Omega fraternity pulled a life-altering prank on Kenny (Derek McKinnon), their most nebbish of pledges. Doc (Hart Bochner), the frat's resident prank-puller and asshole, noticed Kenny's attraction to the lovely Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), and so enlisted her and his fellow frat brothers to help him carry out a ruse aimed at humiliating poor Kenny. But not everyone involved in the prank knew Doc's true intentions, which were to get an unsuspecting (and underwear-ed) Kenny in bed with a dismembered, autopsied corpse. Doc and the gang flawlessly orchestrate the prank during the frat's annual New Year's bash, giving them all a good laugh at the end result (excepting that party pooper Alana, who screams in horror at her complicity). Then again, one supposes that the prank could only be considered a "flawless" prank if you disregarded the potentially perceived flaw of Kenny being so horrified at what has happened to him that he requires hospitalization for psychological and emotional trauma afterwards. But, come on, essentially flawless!

Bodycount: a serial magician makes 10 living people vanish, and 10 corpses reappear.

Themes/Moral Code: Terror Train is one of that rare breed of slasher films with a unifying theme informing its carnage, and the theme here is that of illusion. Though written only shortly after the beginning of the early '80s slasher boom, screenwriter T.Y. Drake's script is aware of how much weight films within the subgenre place upon misleading appearances and improbable plot points in order to further their not-always-well-conceived mystery and horror elements. Recurring slasher events such as the lightning-fast disposal of victim's bodies and the miraculous resurrection of the killer at the climax after certain death are here explained with tongue embedded deeply into grievous cheek wound: it's all magic! The casting of its killer as a professional magician allows the filmmakers to have a lot of fun playing around with the narrative cheats that most slasher films employ earnestly. Thus, when Terror Train imbues its killer with almost supernatural stalking and slashing abilities, it discourages us from critiquing it for fear of resembling those miserable souls who heckle magicians in the middle of their acts. The lapses in logic and violations of physics are all part of the act.

Additionally, the film also makes repeated use of the illusion of appearances, preventing the characters (and the audience) from seeing what's right in front of them. The costume party setting provides our killer with a perfect cover, allowing him to travel in plain sight and interact with his future victims while donned in the costumes of his previous victims. The killer makes numerous speedy costume changes over the course of the film, and this mutability of fixed appearance lends him a mysterious aura for both audience and characters, despite the fact that we're certain of his identity. Again, this is all in the spirit of fun, poking the conventions of the mystery-thriller genre in its ribs: for much of the second half of the film, we're encouraged with a knowing wink to consider the possible guilt of the obvious red herring, Magician Ken (David Copperfield), while the real killer Ken is standing beside him, cross-dressing as his red-haired assistant. The fact that this whopper escapes most viewer's discerning eyes on first viewing (I know it escaped mine) is a credit to the film's competency beyond the liberties we might afford it due to its emphasis on the illusory. It tricks us fairly and squarely, too. 

Killer's Motivation: Ostensibly, Kenny is seeking the psychotic version of comeuppance against those who humiliated him three years prior when they tricked him into becoming aroused by the cold, clammy embrace of a corpse. We're led to believe that Kenny's experience left him psychologically shattered and therefore susceptible to the desire for overblown retaliation. But maybe these motives are all an illusionist's misdirection: late in the film, we learn of the rumor that Kenny had been suspected of murder before the whole prank business transpired, and so might have already been a secret psycho all along, with the prank simply giving him a better excuse to stab people. Very tricky. A second alternative: as it's demonstrated that Kenny was always a student of magic, perhaps he's just homicidally pissed off that he didn't see the frat's sleight of hand (or, uh, bed) coming.

Final Girl: Oh, Jamie Lee. The woman who birthed the slasher subgenre's archetypal heroine in Halloween (1978) returns to the scene a few years later with a very different sort of final girl. Unlike JLC's other slasher roles (Laurie Strode [of Halloween] and Kim Hammond [of Prom Night]), the character of Alana isn't exactly an innocent victim of circumstance. Rather, she is an active, if uninformed, participant in the cruel prank that triggers Kenny's psychological breakdown. What sets her apart from the other prank participants (i.e. the killer's eventual victims) is her remorse. She's horrified and ashamed of her role in the prank, which provides immediate contrast with how everyone else involved experiences it: as Kenny is freaking out on top of the corpse-bedecked bed, rolling himself up in the bed canopy with his hysterical twirling, we see Alana scream while her friends belly laugh. Her remorse extends so far as to have her attempt a visit to Kenny in the psych ward shortly after he's admitted, and to have her chide her friends for years afterwards for their fond reminiscences of their heartless treatment of Kenny. When confronted by Kenny late in the film, Alana even attempts to apologize to him, which we feel is a genuine action on her part, unlike the pleading of some doomed slasher victims. This isn't to say that Kenny forgives her; if anything, he's probably just saving her for last. But the film obviously operates under some sense of karmic justice, and so Alana is spared because of her better qualities. 

Evaluation: From the director of Turner & Hooch (1989) comes a film rife with magic, suspense, mystery, and 100% fewer dead dogs! But enough about Tom Hanks: Terror Train provides a wealth of slasherific pleasures. Inventive bloodshed, an implausible isolated location, an intelligent blending of mystery and magic, three iconic villain costumes, a young Jamie Lee Curtis screaming her heart out, and a gravely serious David Copperfield making peanuts serve themselves while grinding cigarettes through coins like the stud he knows he is-- these are but a few of the treasures that puff out of this one's chimney. To quote T.J. from My Bloody Valentine (1981), I'm "so damn sorey," but no one did this whole slasher thing better than the Canadians did in those halcyon days of the early 1980s.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part IV): Girls Nite Out (1984) dir. Robert Deubel

Logline: This year, Dewitt University's annual sorority scavenger hunt will go down in the books as placing a special emphasis on the word "hunt" after the participating sisters, their boyfriends, and their secret lovers are mercilessly stalked by a crazed killer outfitted in the basketball team mascot's wacky bear costume. Could this killing spree have any connection to the grisly murder of another sorority girl that occurred years back during an earlier scavenger hunt? Possibly, but who cares to find out when there are more pressing queries to address, such as "Is Prior's girlfriend really cheating on him with her second cousin?"; "Will Maniac's Mrs. Bates impression win him a feature role in Psycho II?"; and "How many Golden Oldies can they play on the soundtrack before the producers run out of money?" 

Crime in the Past: Some years ago, Dickie Cavanaugh. a "young, semi-illiterate American" attending Dewitt University, lost his mind in the middle of a hell week ritual out in the woods surrounding the campus. He was never the same. That's one way the kids tell it. The other, factual version is that Dickie Cavanaugh was a misogynistic asshole who murdered his girlfriend during the yearly scavenger hunt because she dumped him to start dating other guys, perhaps those who would most probably refrain from murdering their girlfriends after any perceived slight to their virile masculinity. Poor, pitiable Dickie: a victim the daily horrors of being a college-educated white male in American society! Sigh. So, anyway, after murdering his ex, Dickie is carted away to a mental asylum, where he lives for many years before finally hanging himself in his padded cell. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Bodycount: 8 (possibly 9?) "typical victims of a society gone berserk" have their internal organs fatally scavenged.

Themes/Moral Code: A simple thesis: women drive men violently crazy by jumping from one bed to the next. Almost every one of the film's college-aged women is either actively cheating on her boyfriend or considering it, and this is labeled by the film's moral code as A Terrible Thing. And of course there's a double standard: Mike Pryor's (David Holbrook) girlfriend cheats on him with her second cousin and we're encouraged to gag; Teddy (James Carroll) cheats on his girlfriend with Dawn (Suzanne Barnes), a girl a little bit higher on the social ladder, and we're supposed to congratulate him. (Although, conversely, we're also encouraged to condemn Dawn, who has callously cheated on her own boyfriend in order to make this pairing possible.) The notion being expressed here is that women are the property of men, to do with as they please. Adulterous behavior is permissible for the latter, but never for the objectified former. For the women of the film to express a masculine sexual freedom in their actions marks them for punishment. Enter sexually liberated women, pursued by killer in bear costume.

Whether or not we're supposed to be critical of the misogynistic cultural values expressed within the film probably never crossed the filmmakers' minds, but that doesn't mean there isn't enough here to get us questioning the status quo. Despite it's bizarre amount of sympathy for the "wronged" Mike Pryor, we can't help but see him as the abusive, violent asshole he is, even if he's innocent of his girlfriend's murder. Similarly, we wonder why such a big fuss is made over Maniac's (Mart McChesney) girlfriend dumping him, especially in consideration of his obviously repressed homosexual feelings for Teddy. (Shirtless male-only bedroom parties and Village People BDSM couples costumes should be an indication of something pertinent in the two men's relationship.) Must she remain his property even if he's uninterested in her sexually?

Finally, we're especially forced to consider (and perhaps criticize) the complicity of certain female characters in perpetuating these beliefs of male superiority. When one female character walking across the quad is told by a creepy male character that "girls shouldn't be out at night alone," to which she chirps in agreement, we feel disappointed. Can't a Girl just have a pleasant Nite Out without getting slashed to ribbons? And when we discover the identity of the killer and her motives, which essentially boil down to hero worship of the male sex, we feel grossed out by the terrible psychological influence that the androcentric values of her culture have had on her and others. Our villain may be acting as a self-defined "moral authority," but, considering the general likability of her liberated victims, her morals seem grotesque and draconian from our perspective.

Killer's Motivation: The killer is Barney (Rutanya Alda), a flirty middle-aged waitress at the on-campus diner who also sometimes goes by the name Katie Cavanaugh, identifying her as the impossible identical female twin (!!) of convicted campus murderer Dickie Cavanaugh. After Dickie's suicide, Katie snaps, kidnapping his body to preserve in the diner's walk-in freezer and embarking on a bloody scavenger hunt of revenge against those "sluts" and "whores" who ruined her poor brother's life by cheating on him and driving him to the mad house. Her acts of revenge conflate all young women with Dickie's ex and blame the inconstancy of certain women for the culturally ingrained violent misogyny of men. We also discover that Dickie is innocent of the crime he was committed for; it turns out that it was actually Katie who took it upon herself to teach Dickie's ex a fatal lesson in female subordination way back when.

Besides all this weirdness, the most interesting characteristic about Girl Nite Out's killer is her iconic costume. A mop-haired b-ball bear mascot with a protruding felt tongue and Freddy Kreuger-ish retractable claws might seem an odd choice for producing a menacing sight, but it's all quite effective in action. Moreover, the costume is an appropriate fit for the killer considering its prior context within the film and her ultimate aspirations. The costume formerly belonged to Benson, the campus's resident sleazy ladies' man, and we see him early on in costume groping and harassing various young women. By killing Benson and swiping his costume, Katie is able to do a bit of gender bending by inhabiting the role and outward appearance of the film's sex-crazed male. The fact that she uses this costume associated with the sexual harassment and objectification of women for the new purpose of doing physical violence to women demonstrates the frighteningly fine line separating these behaviors. Chalk another one up for "probably unintentional criticism of cultural values."

Final Girl: There's isn't one. Lynn (Julia Montgomery), quasi-hero Teddy's cheated-upon girlfriend, is our closest thing to a typical slasher heroine, but even she disappears long before the film's climax after she discovers the first corpse, making way for the film's true heroine to take center stage: Hal Holbrook as buxom campus security officer Jim MacVey.

Evaluation: Girls Nite Out (a.k.a. The Scaremaker) is like if Porky's (1982) were a slasher film. Yes, of course, any given slasher with a high school or college-aged cast of victims is destined to have at least a dollop of raunchy humor adorning the top of its entrails-stuffed casserole, but that's not what I'm getting at. Girls Nite Out's resemblance to a sex comedy runs deeper than the presence of a few locker-room pow-wows and pairs of exposed bosoms, making it a uniquely strange entry in the early '80s slasher canon.

Can you remember the name of a single hero or heroine in any generic, run-of-the-mill '70s or '80s teen sex comedy? Can you remember the relationships between any of the characters, or any significant story developments surrounding them? Of course you can't. The teen sex comedies of the era were carefree, discursive, and episodic sojourns into grossly exaggerated versions of contemporary teenage life, periodically punctuated by tasteless gags and cartoonish slapstick, and thus they generally had no vested interest in narrative or character development beyond the bare essentials (i.e. Male Character starts out virgin, then gets laid; Female Character starts out a bookish prude, then takes off her top). The sex comedy's focus is less individuals and their stories are than the random and varied assemblage of cultural signifiers relevant to teenage life: beer, boobs, and basketballs; joints, junk food, and jock straps.

Contrary to their popular reputation as similarly shallow "dead teenager flicks," the majority of slasher films really don't follow the sex comedy's philosophy of disregarding story and character in favor of a scattered parade of indistinguishable teenagers doing teenage things. Certainly the slasher subgenre expresses a similar fondness for indistinguishable teens doing teenage things for one of its purposes: slasher films always need their victims. But, importantly, the subgenre is also littered with over-complicated (but more-or-less linear) mystery narratives and vulnerable, tortured protagonists who undergo radical transformations by way of their conflicts with their would-be killers. Essentially, the slasher film is obsessively concerned with story and character. Even the original Friday the 13th (1980), a simplistic slasher with threadbare characters and bare-bone plot developments, distinguishes itself from the mindless spectacle of the average sex comedy through its emphasis on the repetition of local history and the presence (and enduring popularity) of its heroine.

The way in which Girls Nite Out operates places it closer in line with the sex comedy's philosophy than the slasher's. The film is presented as an episodic series of events in the lives of its rather large cast of college buffoons. Because we shift frequently and rapidly among the various characters' stories, we're given no genuine protagonists to follow, as even those characters whose names we bother to learn eventually disappear for long stretches of the film, if not entirely (wherefore art thou, Maniac?). Like the generic sex comedy, Girls Nite Out creates a viewing experience akin to that of being an invisible observer at an actual college party: we absorb every action and detail, but the context is nigh inscrutable, and we're unlikely to ever discover where everyone has wound up at the end of the night.

Ultimately, those recognizable elements of the slasher film that Girls Nite Out possesses (namely, the bloody local history of Dickie Cavanaugh and its ramifications in the present) are not inextricably tied into this episodic sex comedy plot. The killer isn't revealed to be anyone's second cousin. No heroine emerges to confront her literal and figurative demons. The party isn't even cut short because all the attendees are dead. In fact, whenever our bear costumed killer pops in to slaughter another student we're left feeling that she has intruded from an entirely different sort of film (a slasher film starring Hal Holbrook, principally) and swept away another nameless body. Luckily, the Alpha Chi Omega house won't be running out of those anytime soon, and the keg's far from dry.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part III): Curtains (1983) dir. Richard Ciupka

Logline: While in pre-production on his new film, director Johnathan Stryker (John Vernon) decides to ditch his old leading lady (Samantha Eggar) in a loony bin and invite six younger starlets to his private mansion for an intimate weekend of auditions to take her place. Unfortunately for the hopeful young actresses, they must contend not only with the exploitation and disappointment inherent in the film industry, but also with a scythe-wielding maniac in an old crone mask, looking to pull down the curtains hastily on each of their performances.

Crime in the Past: After securing the film rights to a hot new property, an aging actress prepares for the lead role by committing herself to an insane asylum to help with her method acting. Unfortunately, the director of the project decides to leave her there.

Bodycount: 8 hams who've overstayed their welcome get figuratively yanked off stage with a figurative hook.

Themes/Moral Code: Thematically, the film attacks the effects of show business on the female psyche. Simply put, showbiz (specifically, the men controlling it) drives women insane. First, women are driven mad trying to get into showbiz when they have to deal with the backstabbing of their equally desperate female competitors and the sexual advances of the male producers and directors who act as gatekeepers to employment (and who deem the women valuable not as talent but as young, warm bodies). Then, once (and if) they've entered into showbiz, the manipulation and exploitation continues, with actresses of all ages and levels of success putting their money, careers, and bodies into the control of the same horrible men, who are eager to toss these women aside once they've grown too old or served their purpose.

This is the combined fate of all our actresses in the film. Patti (Lynne Griffin) can't get a gig because she won't sleep with her directors. Christie (Lesleh Donaldson) has talent as an ice skater, but quickly learns that the only thing that matters in becoming an actress is her willingness to give away her body. Tara (Sandra Warren) has accepted her designated role as eye candy, and allows her exposed breasts to have more screen time than her voice. Brooke (Linda Thorson), an accomplished but somewhat older actress, is forced to embarrass herself by auditioning for (and sleeping with) the director. Finally, there's Samantha Sherwood, the aging actress who literally risks driving herself insane by committing herself to an insane asylum, Shock Corridor-style, all for the sake of the role and her beloved director, only to be rejected upon her return.

Can these women be blamed for going a little nuts? 

Killer's Motivation: The killer, Patti, is driven by her willingness to do anything to win the role, even if it means knocking off the competition in the most deadly of fashions. We also know that she's lost roles repeatedly because of her refusal to play the skeevy casting couch (er, casting Jacuzzi) game with sleazy Hollywood bigshots. (Or, worse yet, she may have lost roles even after submitting to the casting couch game.) As she's also a stand-up comedian, Patti initially seems the least likely suspect among the assembled women, and also the least likely to win the coveted dramatic role of "Audra." It's clear that Patti has a hard time of things being a funny girl in a Dramatic Actor's world, but the film never convinces us that this frustration would propel her into full-bore straight-jacket insanity, instead of the clear-headed insanity of cold-blooded opportunism. Nevertheless, into the straight-jacket she goes, and the last time we see her she's giving her glassy-eyed comedy routine to a group of patients in the mental ward.

The film's quasi-red herring is, of course, Stryker's former muse Samantha, who has the best excuse for insanity and revenge. The killer's outfit, including a droopy old hag mask, is obviously meant to further this suspicion in our minds, as it could very likely represent a visual projection of Samantha's inner feelings about herself, scared as she is that Stryker is right, and that she is a worn-out old woman whose career has reached its end.

However, the hag mask could as easily have relevance to Patti and her feelings about her own age and the state of her career. While not as old as Samantha or the also accomplished Brooke, Patti isn't exactly young anymore either, and her complete lack of success as an actress probably has her fretting when she sees a younger crop of actresses, like Christie, enter the scene. Patti knows that the time one has to flourish as an actress in Hollywood is very limited, and that even the relatively young can be seen as grotesque hags after too long.

Final Girl: The last girl standing is our killer, as there's no room for final girls in the cutthroat world of show business, wherein any moral superiority is soon corrupted. Early on, Christie, in her youthful naivete, seems the likeliest candidate for elevation to final girl status, but almost as quickly as we begin to think so, we find that she has jumped into bed with Stryker. The aftermath might leave her in tears of regret, but those will only get you so far in a slasher film. Specifically, in Christie's case, as far as the next scene.

Evaluation: In the storm of press that followed Curtains' recent and much-needed Blu-ray and DVD release from Synapse Films, many reviewers adopted the opinion of the film's cast and crew (as detailed in the special feature interviews and commentaries) that the film is an utter mess, the slipshod and barely comprehensible result of a troubled (director replaced! cast shake-ups!) and prolonged (3 years!) production. I think anyone who believes Curtains to be a trainwreck hasn't sufficiently plumbed the chaotic depths of low-budget horror cinema. 

Certainly, the film is saddled with some dangling ends (what's Michael Wincott doing here?) and abrupt switches of tone and style (massive re-shoots with a different [non]director will do that), but what continues to surprise me most about Curtains is how complete of a film it feels, despite its production problems. Patchwork as it may be in reality, there's a coherent story in the finished Curtains that builds to a cheekily morbid crescendo. Along the way, the film is dotted with surrealism, satire, melodrama, cheesy exploitation, tasteless fake-outs, genuine chills, flashy setpieces, and mind-numbing chase sequences. The film crams in every commendable and lousy attribute that characterized the early '80s slasher, and the truly remarkable thing about it is that this strange brew feels intentional, as if it were all business as usual in the constricted, hysterical world populated by the vile Stryker and his batty ingenues. Editors Michael MacLaverty and Henry Richardson deserve a lot of credit for molding the disparate footage they had into the film's relatively cohesive whole.

Unlike the fun but fairly rote Prom Night (producer Peter Simpson's other major contribution to slasher cinema), Curtains is a unique and (mostly) classy affair, steeped more thoroughly in the austere tradition of classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries than in contemporaneous dead teenager flicks. (Mark the hallmarks: a mostly adult cast of characters! a posh, isolated mansion location! wicked betrayals! bitter jealousies! a Ten Little Indians plot structure!) Add to this sense of class a healthy dose of self-awareness (the film proper is credited on-screen to the director within the film! the plot of the film itself appears to mirror that of Stryker's script! meta fake-outs galore!) and a handful of masterfully constructed slasher setpieces (icecapades! doll in the road!), and you're looking at one of the most satisfying, stylish oddball slashers of the subgenre's halcyon days. Even if its seams show.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part II): Just Before Dawn (1981) dir. Jeff Lieberman

Logline: Five young adults pack their gear in a van and head up into Oregon's scenic mountainous region to check out the property that one of their group, Warren (Greg Henry), has recently inherited. Unfortunately, the kids do not heed the warning to stay away, as given to them by kindly forest ranger Roy (George Kennedy) and his trusted horse, Agatha (Agatha the Horse). Thus, after crossing the rope bridge into terror, the group must contend with a maniacal killer (or is that killers?) in between setting up camp and skinny dipping.

Crime in the Past: Generations upon generations of inbreeding. Sure, sister-brother/child-parent coitus might not be against the "law" in their armpit of the woods, but it sure as heck turned out to be against nature. There are also faint intimations that the rural population of Oregon's mountain region has had disastrous run-ins with city folk before, though this possibility is not elaborated upon.

Bodycount: 6 souls are forced to "skadoot" from this mortal coil.

Themes/Moral Code: Being a backwoods slasher, the film tosses at us the standard issue urban vs. rural rigmarole. Warren, the leader of our gang of cool college city kids, is a "land baron" through family inheritance, and thus he and his companions believe they have a right to visit and occupy the forest and mountains for a weekend of fun. They don't stop to consider that the mountains might be home to any rural folk, and when they discover that this is the case, one of Warren's friends slyly remarks to him "Congrats, you're a landlord." See, these city slickers believe they can waltz into rural landscapes and take possession of them through use of their money and obscure legal system, and the film embarks on setting them straight (i.e. stabbing them). They'll learn that all the land deeds in the world don't mean squat if, as Sheriff Roy so eloquently puts it, "mountain can't read."

If you felt like stretching, you could also claim that the film has an environmentalist streak to it, arguing for the conservation of natural wilderness that is threatened by the encroachment of filthy, destructive human interests. For evidence, see the shot in which the boot belonging to one of the film's killers stomps down a piece of litter tossed onto the forest trail by the protagonists. Heavy stuff.

Killer's Motivation: Keep it in the family long enough, and that seed's gonna grow bad. Our killers are a pair of twins, and the products of inbreeding. (The birth of twins is a quite common occurrence among the mountain folk, we're told. We're left to assume why.) There's also the possibility that the twins are "devils" belonging to "the devil race," but what exactly that means isn't elaborated upon. Unlike their skittish but harmless peers, these hillbillies like to kill any and all intruders into their domain, for reasons unspecified. They're the strong, husky, mostly silent type. (Only mostly silent because they do frequently giggle out the raspy snicker of Muttley, Dick Dastardly's canine companion on Wacky Races [1968-1969].)

Though uncomplicated villains, they certainly are frightful when glimpsed as hulking, obscured figures in the background of various shots. Moreover, their dual identity lends itself to the film's best trick: the surprise revelation (about halfway through) that the killer we thought was flying solo had a wingman all along.

Final Girl: Our final girl for this particular jaunt into the madman-infested forest is Constance (Deborah Benson), Warren's girlfriend. She possesses many of the hallmarks of the archetypal final girl. She's attractive but plain and a bit tomboyish, maybe even prudish. (She's contrasted with the other female on the trip, Megan [Jamie Rose], who goes skinny dipping the first opportunity she receives (while Constance builds a campfire) and whines to the trees about the local wildlife thieving her makeup in the night.) She's a lover of animals. She's more responsible and cautious than her fellow travelers, wanting to abandon their weekend plans long before the others do. Finally, she's also the first to realize the actual danger of their collective situation.

But by the film's conclusion, Constance emerges as one of the more complicated final girls of the early slasher years. Like most final girls, Constance grows in strength and resilience against the killer, and she ultimately dispatches him through the reversal of symbolic phallic power. Here, this reversal is construed as a fist and upper arm straight down the killer's gullet, making her victory one of the most viscerally and physically powerful in the slasher's history. Yet, bizarrely, this adoption of stereotypically masculine strength comes at the height of her "femininity": this whole final sequence occurs immediately after Constance emerges from a tent wearing makeup for the first time in the film and dressed in Megan's booty-revealing shorts. Strangely, it seems as if Constance's more outwardly "masculine" characteristics were holding her back, making her, as she explains earlier in the film, helpless to save herself. Only by embracing her femininity is she able to become the Amazonian warrior she always was deep inside.

This is a total inversion of the final girl syndrome. Femininity is championed, and masculinity devalued. Where is Warren, Constance's cocky and superficially tough boyfriend, all throughout her fight with the surviving killer? He's lying on the ground in abject fear, cradling his wound and weeping, unable or unwilling to assist while his girlfriend completes the manly heroic task. After the conflict has ended, Warren (still crying and moaning uncontrollably) stumbles into her as she stands dazed but victorious over her vanquished foe. To her great credit, she doesn't hug him back.

Evaluation: Jeff Lieberman-- not the roboticist, of course, but the (hmm) auteur behind Squirm (1976) and Blue Sunshine (1978)-- created in 1981 what is quite possibly the finest backwoods slasher outside of the obvious prestige of the sub-subgenre's granddaddy, Deliverance (1972). Just Before Dawn isn't highly regarded by slasher connoisseurs because of its gargantuan body count or gnarly practical gore effects. The cast of victims is small, the methods of dispatching them far from outlandish, and the bloodshed minimal (though the film does have one particularly memorable piece of effects work in its final moments. Hint: gulp). Nor is the film esteemed because of wacky plot developments or a colorful cast of bit characters (though the presence of George Kennedy, with his horse Agatha and his amateur green thumb, doesn't hurt).

Rather, what sets Just Before Dawn apart from dopier backwoods fare like The Prey (1984), Don't Go in the Woods... Alone! (1981), and The Final Terror (1983) is its emphasis on capital "A" Atmosphere. Employing the classic (though rarely [successfully] imitated) Halloween (1978) style, tension and suspense dominate Lieberman's film, leaving the murders as punctuation marks rather than film-justifying setpieces. Instead, the film revels in agonizingly protracted chases through the forest and subtle, blink-and-miss glimpses of our lurking menace(s) at the sides of the frame. And speaking of John Carpenter, keep your ears perked for those pulsating Carpenter-esque synth chords that ring off the film's mountains. And speaking of those mountains, let's not neglect to note that Just Before Dawn is a vibrantly lensed film, despite its requisite small budget, thanks to the location shooting in Oregon's gorgeous Silver Falls State Park. Few slasher films have the means or access to fill their frames with to majestic waterfalls, and so they settle for filling them with exposed breasts instead. Aware of its advantage, Just Before Dawn gives you both in the same shot.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part I):The Prowler (1981) dir. Joseph Zito

Logline: In the summer of 1945, the small New Jersey town of Avalon Bay was shocked by the gruesome double murder of two young lovers during the local graduation dance by an unknown assailant. Thirty-five dance-less years later, a group of college co-eds resolves to revive the town's abandoned graduation celebration despite the fact that it's the year 1980 and, as such, they'd probably all be happier off at a house party somewhere with a keg and "Funkytown" blaring on the stereo. Nevertheless: with the local sheriff (Farley Granger) away on a fishing trip, the combat-geared killer of thirty years prior is primed for his big, pitchfork-laden comeback. The residents of Avalon Bay are advised to check their bushes for The Prowler.

Crime in the Past: Can we fault Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) for ditching her GI boyfriend, off fighting overseas in World War II, through one of the era's many Dear John letters? She makes a strong case for her own innocence: she's a young girl, and she had resolved (okay, sure, "promised") to wait for her beau to return from the war, but boy that war sure is going on for a long time and she's not going to be young forever, you know? In this case, distance (or thousands of miles of ocean and war-torn European countryside) does not make the heart grow fonder. It's a bum situation, but Rosemary handles it with surprising maturity in her letter, which we have read to us through voice-over. She lets her unnamed high school lover down lightly, explaining her sympathetic dilemma and expressing her hope that they can still be friends when he returns. Rosemary's is not the best way to show appreciation for this particular Nazi-pummeling Defender of the American Way, but it's her choice, and she's honest, respectful, and realistic about their situation. 

So it's really rude that her former lover, upon his disembarkation from the Queen Mary, mails a pitchfork through the beating chests of Rosemary and her new boyfriend, Roy (Timothy Wahrer), at the 1945 graduation dance as his form of a reply letter. The USPS would deliver anything in those days.

Bodycount: 8 Dear... (er) Dead Johns.

Themes/Moral Code: In most ways, The Prowler's moral code is about as prudish as you'd expect: vodka, condoms, and rolling papers litter the trail to slasher hell. Bawdy college students of both sexes (though with special emphasis placed on the women) are punished for their transgressions, which are as various as flashing old men in wheelchairs, spiking the punch at the dance, and canoodling in the shower.

That said, the film does feature a few moments that undermine the typical slasher audience's expectations. For instance, consider the surprise arrival of creepy big lug Otto (Bill Hugh Collins) wielding a shotgun in the final act. Though a red herring for the killer in his early appearances, here he arrives as a hero, attempting to assist Pam (Vicky Dawson) in her tussle with the killer. "Attempting" is the key word, for Otto is almost immediately murdered by the killer after making his presence known, shattering our sense of momentary peace and prolonging the finale. With Otto dead and her boyfriend deputy, Mark (Christopher Goutman), lying unconscious in the other room, Pam is made of aware of the fact that the cinematic world she's living in is not one in which gallant men ride into the scene and save the day. This maiden will have to fend for herself.

Also reflect upon the moment that transpires just before the credits roll. Pam, relieved and exhausted after her victory against the killer, returns to her dorm room and discovers the still-living, lobotomized body of a friend of hers (and one the killer's victims) strung up in the showers. In this Carrie-inspired stinger, the poor boy reaches out towards Pam and the camera as if he were an undead creature, but in reality he's gasping for assistance. We realize he's been hanging around in that steamy tomb, hovering above his girlfriend's corpse with a belt around his neck, for almost the film's duration, and only now, at the conclusion, is his suffering allowed to end. This brief coda reminds us, in a rather chilling way, of the massive death toll that is often forgotten by the audience of slasher films and by the characters within them as the action rushes towards the final conflict. Forgetting the killer's demise and whatever little catharsis that brings, there's no happy ending in The Prowler. Just a lot of bodies.

Killer's Motivation: Our killer in both 1945 and 1980 is none other than our sheriff, George Fraser. His identity as the killer isn't exactly difficult to guess: the actor playing him, Farley Granger, is the film's only marquee name, and his early excuse of "Gone fishin'!" to explain his absence for the bulk of the film is about as subtle as "Gone slaughterin' the innocents!" We might imagine that his motivation for killing his ex-girlfriend Rosemary and her new, obnoxious boyfriend back in 1945 was due to rage and jealousy fueled by the misogynistic, macho bullshit expectation of men's possession of women as objects. Or, perhaps, we might imagine that he was merely homicidally offended that of all the other dudes she could have chosen over him, she chose the jackass Roy, whose proudest accomplishment is his access to his father's checkbook.

But, nah. This killing is no rational act. Georgie Boy seems to have suffered some sort of war trauma (witness his preference for killing in full combat gear) and has now psychotically associated it with the end of his romantic relationship. Suiting up in his murdering garb for him is like preparing to head into battle, and his enemies are young lovers everywhere. The revival of Avalon Bay's college dance awakens George's psychotic personality from its decades-long slumber, forcing him to relive that fateful night in 1945. As we see, he mistakes every girl he comes across for his once-beloved Rosemary, and thus must once again plunge the pitchfork into her heart and into his own.

The killer also seems to have a particular hang-up about young women submerged in water. That one I can't explain. He hates the juxtaposition of water as the symbol of purity with the nubile bodies of sexually-active women? We've dived too deep, I fear...

Final Girl: Pam is textbook. She's pretty, but not as conventionally pretty as her girlfriends. She's more motivated than her friends, as she demonstrates by spearheading the planning for the dance. She doesn't take part in the other teens' hanky-panky, nor does she imbibe alcohol or controlled substances. She's squeaky-clean. She's dating an older guy, Deputy Mark, and squabbles with him over his giving more attention to the other girls. (Perhaps, in grand final girl tradition, Pam doesn't put out.) Best of all, she's also an amateur sleuth, narrowing down the list of suspects quicker than the police manage to. When her strength is called upon, she goes at it with the killer and winds up blowing his face off with a shotgun. Pam is everything a final girl is prescribed to be, and that makes her a crushing bore.

Evaluation: The Prowler is a personal favorite, but I would never deny that it's an acquired pitchfork to the gut. Director Joseph Zito (he of Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Friday [1984], and a few Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Gary Daniels action films) must have had a reputation on set for falling asleep on set and thus neglecting to communicate his directions to the actors. How else to explain the many unending sequences of characters aimlessly wandering through a handful of locations, discovering and accomplishing nothing? Could he have possibly imagined he was hired to direct a documentary on the formation of cobwebs? These laborious, suspense-free stretches of the film (seriously, they might make up as much as 1/4 of the running time) are so patience-testing that they're certain to turn off all but the most tolerant of viewers. In fear of having these moments transform the whole affair into cinematic molasses, editor Joel Goodman goes so far as to cut into them unrelated shots of the killer wandering around. But we're not fooled: this thing is padded, and it knows it.

But when it's not wasting our time, it's one the bizarro greats. Arguments for the defense: a) it's a partial period piece slasher, the most rarefied of its kind, b) it features some of Tom Savini's most brutal practical gore, and it utilizes these moments exceptionally well (like little shots of adrenaline to perk us up out of our collective slumber), c) and it boasts a wickedly bleak sense of humor that demonstrates a willingness to play around with the subgenre's conventions, even if only subtly (see: Themes/Moral Code section above or the opening "heeey, are you alive out there?!" type smash cuts, but particularly see Bill Nunnery as the character of "Hotel Clerk" about half way through the film, in one of the longest and most gleefully infuriating bits of character weirdness in all of slasherdom). The Prowler might suffer a few cuts and bruises while on its prowl, but it sure succeeds in breaking into my house every October.