Monday, December 6, 2010

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

by Cameron “Can Barely Hammer A Nail In Straight” Ashley

I bought The Toolbox Murders on DVD when I lived in Japan and my copy was fucked. I took it back to the import DVD shop in Osaka and, in mangled Japanese and Australian-accented English, had to explain what the problem was. The staff asked me at what point the disc stuffed up, and I had to stand around awkwardly while three of them popped it on and fast-forwarded to a scene featuring a naked redheaded hottie who masturbates in the bathtub, finds a masked killer in her home, runs around completely nude and gets brutally nailgunned to death, all while a horrible country song called “Pretty Lady” warbles onward. My only solace was the fact that I still probably wasn’t the weirdest guy they served that day.

A fairly notorious number from 1978, The Toolbox Murders (not to be confused with Tobe Hooper’s whatever the fuck it was) is perhaps best remembered for its unflinchingly brutal opening act and the aforementioned naked turn of Marianne Walter, better known as Kelly Nichols, who found Hollywood so awful she turned to porn. Yeah. Hollywood was so bloody horrid she started making fuck films instead. Check out Legs McNeill and Jennifer Osborne’s The Other Hollywood: an Oral History of the Porn Film Industry for some pretty choice words from Kelly on the Hollywood system. What’s interesting to point out is that it was not this incredibly violent, twisted and weird movie that was the tipping point for her to fornicate on film--in fact she veritably gushes about her Toolbox experience in a new interview on the DVD (which, by the way, was replaced post-haste once Kelly’s bush froze onscreen in the DVD shop and refused, in its woolly glory, to budge). In this interview, all Kelly does is beam about how awesome everybody was onset and how chuffed she is that her death scene is Stephen King’s favourite slasher film death ever. Good for her.

Directed by Dennis Donnelly, The Toolbox Murders had a writing team of three--two of which were women. Ironic for all the cries of "Misogyny!" that were hurled at it. I’m actually dead curious to know how the scripting of this tonally schizo film, with its three wildly differing acts, was broken down by Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter and Ann Kindberg, as it’s this unique structure that’s the film’s real calling card, and whether you love it, hate it or are bored by it, you can’t deny that its makers actually produced something pretty unique in the genre. It’s almost like three separate movies crammed into a single narrative.

The Toolbox Murders also has occasional moments of deliberately disorientating editing (images freeze-framing while the soundtrack rolls on, quick furious cuts between current victims and a past fatality making a weird kind of Ouroboros of death) and the solid development of its central killer (something that subsequently got mostly lost in the slasher wave of the following decade, where lumbering faceless killer after lumbering faceless killer bored us with their diaphanous back stories and weapons-of-the-week).

After a bizarre opening sequence featuring our killer driving to the scene of his future crimes, intercut with the some religious fervour on the radio, the sound of a car crash, and flashing images of a dead girl (actually quite crucial plot-wise), we move to a fairly non-descript apartment building where it soon becomes clear that numerous hot chicks, and several not so hot, reside. One of the not-so-hot, clearly sloshed, opens her door to our killer, whom she recognises. She bitches at him for not turning up several days earlier to fix her problems (hey, lady, I’ve been waiting since February to get my doors fixed, so quit your whining) which isn’t such a terrific idea, as he pulls a power-drill from his ominous metal toolbox and gets the thing a-whirring. In a wonderful image, post-kill, the man pops a black ski mask on all skewiff, totally ruining any surprise of who this guy might actually be. But it’s such a cool shot--both eyes peering out through a single eyehole--who really cares? It’s obvious this will be no whodunit. In fact, it’s almost like an anti-giallo: all possible suspense and mystery over the killer’s identity gone in an instant. Humming creepily to himself, our killer heads off to the next apartment and the next with an assortment of tools and dispatches the female occupants with such lengthy cold brutality, it’s actually a bit of a shock when the carnage finally stops and the plot starts. Seriously, the first third of the film is pretty unrelenting stuff and you may well find yourself going, “Christ, is this going to be just ninety minutes of bad pseudo-snuff?” and you may begin to feel a little dirty at the sleaze that unfolds.

It’s okay though, because here comes our friend intrigue...our masked killer (pretty obviously identified as apartment block owner Vance Kingsley, played with absolute relish by the weirdly eye-browed Cameron Mitchell) quits his killing of these ageing drunken tramps and young exhibitionist sluts and kidnaps the young Laurie Ballard, played by Pamyln Ferdin, for reasons I’m not sure we should discuss for fear of ruining the film. Ferdin’s all right here. She’s all cutesy and smiley with her brother Joey (Nicholas Beauvy) and helps her barmaid mum and hits the books like all good young American girls should. But I have to digress again, though, sorry. It always amazes me, the strange little real-life titbits of our slasher film actors. Pamyln’s IMDB profile tells us that:

“On January 11, 2000, Pamelyn, a vigorous animal activist, faced up to six months in jail after being found guilty of carrying an elephant "bullhook" at an August 1999 protest of circus training methods. A bullhook is a wooden rod with a sharp hook that is jabbed into sensitive areas of the elephant to keep it fearful and manageable. She received 30 days.”

For the curious, here’s a bullhook:

That’s pretty messed up. I feel an animal rights activist slasher film coming on...

Anyhow, once Laurie is kidnapped, it falls to her brother Joey to play sleuth, as the cops...well. They’re pretty shit. Good guys and all, but man, Detective Jamison actually snaps at Joey when he suggests that this is possibly an inside job, even though it’s clearly established that there was no forced entry into the secured apartment block. Top work there, Detective. Joey, pretty correctly convinced that these cops couldn’t spot the deodorant cakes in a urinal, goes sleuth and here, in our second act...things drag.

The scenes with Jamison doing his job are just totally superfluous, considering he’s made pretty much an afterthought not long afterward. The scenes with Joey scoping out the crime scenes under the pretext of cleaning them with his bud, and Vance Kingsley’s nephew, Kent, aren’t terrible, but Beuvy’s such a charisma black-hole, he fails to add any life to the proceedings. I’m fine with the film slowing down after its surreal opening and long, brutal killing sequences, I even appreciate that we know who the killer is and the film refuses to insult us by pretending we don’t, but it’s pretty ho-hum stuff here.

Things do pick up, however, once Cameron Mitchell is allowed to take over and overact his way into slasher film fame. It’s a nice surprise to actually see a killer in one of these films actually stop slaughtering because his job is pretty much done and try and establish a bond, however deluded, with his victim. There’s also a great continuity gaffe here involving lollipops that change both size and colour, so look out for that.

The concluding twist is perhaps there to add some further nastiness to the film’s final moments and to make up for the fact that we know Mitchell’s the killer incredibly early on. It’s a suitably twisted idea, but really lacking in execution and again, is foreshadowed too obviously. I would’ve been happier if the story just continued to build upon Vance’s relationship with Laurie, and her increasing the manipulations of Vance’s delusions instead of things becoming nonsensical for the sake of a cheap “horror” pop. Having said that though, the film’s closing image is fairly striking, complete with an assurance that what we just witnessed was based on fact (it wasn’t).

At the end of the day, The Toolbox Murders is overall an interesting, fairly well thought out piece of trash, made without the aid of a slasher film cookie cutter. Sure, it’s stupid and ugly (what movie discussed here isn’t?) but was at least created with some effort and actual inspiration. This alone should see it put on your Bad Films to Watch list.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

High Tension (2003)

by Jimmy "Ah, the life of a frog" Callaway

As much as this movie ends up pissing me off, I certainly can't take away the fact that these guys really did their homework. Part of me wants to say this is because they're French, and so they can come at this pretty tired formula with a fresh perspective, not nearly as mired down in the culture that spawned this brand of flick as Americans would be. But frankly, that's too easy an out for American filmmakers and artists in general. I'm sure the cross-cultural discussion has its place here, but mostly I think High Tension came out so well because these guys are just really good at their jobs.

In all the reading up I've done on slasher movies and horror in general, the Gaze is a topic oft discussed. Usually male, the Gaze affords certain characters massive power over others, especially those who do not have it. A ten-cent version is like this: the victims in Halloween are seen by Michael Myers, but they do not see him until it is too late. Jamie Lee Curtis' character eventually does see Michael and as such is granted power over him. And you can pretty much cut-and-paste any slasher movie into that formula, and it usually works, to varying degrees of thematic success.

Of course, it's assumed that this sub-text wasn't even conscious on the part of the filmmakers. I even read somewhere once where John Carpenter said as much, that the elements and plot progression present in Halloween just made sense to him as both film viewer and maker. Whether or not this is true for Carpenter or anybody else is irrelevant, as author intent does not carry that much weight in a post-modernist reading of any work. But as a fan myself, I will say that once that theory has been posited, you are a slack-ass motherfucker if you're gonna make a slasher flick and not be as read up on the genre as some know-it-all blogger type like me.

Director Alexandre Aja and his co-writer, Gregory Levasseur, are far from being slack-asses of any kind. The Gaze is ever-present in this flick and is used to its utmost without calling undue attention to itself. This very fact is another thing that sets High Tension apart from slasher films of any era: it is unforced and natural, yet still declares itself very much a slasher movie by simply having all of the necessary elements in place. It's unbelievable almost: a modern-day slasher flick that is self-aware without being overtly self-referential. What is the world coming to?

Anyways. College pals Marie and Alex are off to the south of France to Marie's parents' farmhouse for some quality study-time and, in Alex's case, quality touching-her-naughty-bits time. On their way there through the spooky, moonlit cornfields, we have set up for us through the dialogue a very distinct sexual tension between the two. Again, two major thematic standards: the strangeness of the rural community versus an urban one, as well as sexual tension riding high beneath the surface. None of this is ever overt; the filmmakers trust that you, the audience, has had enough experience with this set-up, as well you probably should by the beginning of the 21st century.

Marie introduces Alex to her sweet little family and all seems right with the world. Alex even gets to see Marie taking a shower, and all seems right in my pants. Here again, the Gaze: Alex as the outsider feels powerless here in Marie's innocent little world. We don't know much about Alex's background, but we can assume from her gruff and cynical demeanor that life's been a bit rough on the lass, although if it's helped her keep in the excellent shape she's in, she's got no complaints really. So this seemingly innocuous peep session she pulls on Marie's bathing time is a way for her to sort of lay claim back to power.

This parallelism between Alex, the final girl, and the killer (credited only as "Le tueur" ["The killer"] and played creepily brilliantly by Phillipe Nahon) also runs rampant through the movie, and while it's far from the first movie to explore this idea, it is the first of its kind to do so in quite a while, as far as I can tell. And again it all comes down to the Gaze. When Le tueur shows up in the dead of night and begins slashering the hell out of everybody, Alex is only able to spare herself by not being seen (cf. H.M. Government Public Service Film No. 42: "How Not to Be Seen"). Not only that, but she is able to attempt to help Marie escape because she can see Le tueur.

This comes up again as the cat-and-mouse continues outside the house. Le tueur throws the shackled Marie into his truck and takes off, not realizing he also has Alex back there. When he stops for gas, Alex attempts to get the gas station attendant to call for help. But she needs to hide as Le tueur comes in to pay for his gas and spread some more of his creepiness around. Now, Jimmy the gas station guy has seen Alex, he sees the blood on Le tueur's hands, he now has the power to stop Le tueur. But unfortunately for Jimmy, Le tueur has seen him see Alex, even if he hasn't himself seen her. It sounds convoluted a bit, I know, but it all equals Jimmy getting an ax to the chest like his name was Scatman Crothers.

A bit about Le tueur: the faceless killer is another slasher standard that High Tension does well without making sure we know how well it's doing. Le tueur does not wear a hockey mask or the like to signal to us that he is indeed The Other. But he does wear workman's overalls (watch out for them lower classes, kids!) and a ball cap pulled almost completely over his face. Aja films him from angles so that his face is constantly in shadows, and Nahon's face itself has that jowly yet wooden look that makes him look more like Michael Myers than Michael Myers does.

But oh. That plot twist. You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you, movie?

To say the plot twist comes across as cliché would not be doing it (in)justice, but that's exactly what it is. And the fact that things were moving along so well only heightens how much I wanna spank this movie for pulling this shit. Yeah, it's kinda clever, but it invalidates a lot of what's happened before and just generally acts as a turd in the swimming pool. Obviously, I don't wanna give anything away, and I also don't wanna take a dump on this movie, as much as I might feel it deserves it at this point. I guess all I can say is nobody's perfect. As well-executed as all the slasher tropes are in this movie, to let one sneak past the goalie like this is understandable, I suppose, or at least not the worst crime to be committed. But man, it really bums me out.

All in all, though, High Tension is almost exactly the sort of movie Let's Kill Everybody! has a raging boner for. The murder scenes are unflinching, no fancy camera tricks here. The pace is pitch-perfect; like I said, the whole film moves along at a brisk, natural clip that wholly sucks you in. And it's just plainly and simply really goddamn scary. It's been a while since we've had an actual good movie here at the LKE!, and all complaints aside, this flick has really raised my hopes for more to come.

Probably not such a great thing, now that I think about it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

by Oliver "You're all doomed!" Ho

Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger comprise the unholy three of slasher movies in the 80s and personify the genre in its predominant decade. Between them, Jason’s movie history has the strangest start, and in retrospect, it could be the one that best defined the slasher style. Unlike Michael and Freddy, Jason wasn't even the star of the first movie in his franchise.

Each had his peculiar proclivities (pro-kill-ities? pro-cleave-ities?): Michael had his William Shatner mask, his family and his doctor, while Freddy had nightmares, wisecracks and that glove. With Jason, it was all about the lake, the machete and the hockey mask. All three preyed on teenagers, and there was an undercurrent of sexual punishment in the way the killers did their thing. All three spawned so many sequels they moved quickly from horror to parody.

The second Friday the 13th movie is the first bona fide Jason Voorhees movie, and it contains several elements that would go on to define not only the franchise but the entire 80s slasher genre. In his "lexicon of horror," The Darkening Garden, John Clute describes the horror genre as being exceptionally concerned with creating a particular feeling in its audience.

"No other genre has ever been defined in terms of the affect it generates … with the result that critics and writers have found it easy to claim that horror is not therefore a genre at all, but a kind of peculiar sensation that may be generated in the telling of genre stories of any category," he writes.

Pretentious as that sounds, it presents a useful approach to examining a decidedly B-grade (to be generous) flick like Friday the 13th, the 2nd. As in most slasher movies, this one is all about sensation. Through the use of red herrings and forced sensations, the "killer-cam" perspective and visual point-of-view tricks, we see things designed to generate a visceral thrill, but that don't necessarily make visual-logical sense.

For example, at one point a young couple walks through the forest and past the camera, and a moment later, Jason steps out from behind a tree. From the audience's perspective Jason was hiding behind the tree, but from the opposite side, where the young couple walked, it would have been impossible not to see him.

Another example involves Crazy Ralph, a character who appeared in part one and two to tell the camp counselors, "You're all doomed!" Alas, poor Ralph makes his final appearance in this movie. When he dies, standing against a tree, Jason would have to have been above him with his arms already wrapped around the tree, in order to drop down and garrote poor Ralphie.

Admittedly, this is nitpicky. Did I mention that this isn't a great movie? While it was a nostalgia-trip (these were the freakiest movies when I was a kid in small town British Columbia), watching it now made my mind wander.

Friday part deux came out in 1981, a year after the first film in the franchise. According to Peter Brack's Crystal Lake Memories, the original plan was to have the series of movies tell an independent, unlinked story in each installment. That idea fell by the wayside like so many sex-crazed camp counselors. Instead, producers hit on the idea of bringing Jason back from his brief (apparently unserious, according to Brack) appearance in the first film.

In this movie, Jason hasn't yet adopted what would become his trademark vintage hockey mask and machete. At this point in his story, he wears what looks like a pillow case with one eye-hole cut into it, and when it comes off we see that he looks like one of the macro-cephalic radioactive hillbillies from The Hills Have Eyes. According to IMDB, he looks exactly like the killer in 1977's The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which was based on a true story of several brutal, unsolved murders (all together: "Ooooo...").

We pick up the story shortly after the end of the first movie, with the "final girl" from part one, Alice Hardy, at home and struggling to recover from the traumatic events that happened to her two months earlier at Camp Crystal Lake. The various camera fake-outs ("Is this the killer's perspective we're seeing? He's getting closer, watch out! Oh, never mind, it wasn't the killer-cam. How about now? Watch out! Oh, it’s just a cat.") make it clear that nothing good will come of her decision to stay home alone and take a shower.

After the opening credits, we jump five years into the future, where a new band of horny young'uns arrive to take part in a camp counselor training camp just around the bend from "Camp Blood," as Camp Crystal Lake has become known. Hi-jinks ensue, involving various acts of randiness, skinny-dipping and painful double-entendres. By hi-jinks, I mean they die.

The story takes an odd turn when three counselors head into town for a night of drinking (and driving--woo hoo!), and at one point the soon-to-be final girl, Ginny, muses about Jason's psychological motivations. Having spent his entire life living in the woods, he might not even understand what death is, she tells her two friends (because creatures living in the wild never encounter death?). It's a nice gesture towards characterization, at least.

One of her drinking companions is a tall, gawky, geeky type of character named Ted, played by Stu Charno (creator of the "Stuniverse"). His demeanor is very stand-up comic-y and brings to mind a young Michael Richards. When Ginny and her boyfriend, Paul, return to camp, Ted decides to stay and chat up the bartender, and he's never heard from again. No, really. We never see him come back to camp and get hunted down. For all we know, he might still be at the bar. Maybe he was going to take on the mantle left by Crazy Ralph.

Paul is another unresolved character. He and Ginny battle potato-sack-head Jason throughout the night, but by the end of the movie, Paul has mysteriously vanished. My guess: he's back at the bar with Ted.

After the distinctly odd interlude at the bar, 13th the 2nd copies the first movie nearly move for move, with the grand guignol discovery of bodies in quick succession. In place of part one's scene of Jason rearing up from behind a boat, we get Jason crashing through a window.

Before that, there's an interesting scene in an altar Jason's built for his dead mom, and even though there's a severed head that is clearly played by an actual actor, we never see the head move in any way. According to IMDB, the eyes were going to open, but the filmmakers thought it would be too "hokey."

This is the only scene where Jason gets to "act": Ginny pretends to be Momma Voorhees from the first movie, and we have a moment where his one visible eye seems to recognize her ghost, and he lowers his weapon for a moment.

Aside from the single skinny dipping scene, there's not much that would preclude this movie from being shown on TV today. Gorier scenes get played for laughs on an episode of Bones. That's not to say that it isn't worthwhile viewing.

"Horror ... is a kind of afflatus, a wind from anywhere," writes John Clute in his lexicon of horror. The second Jason movie is hardly divine, but there’s a kind of creative madness at play.

As the first true Jason movie, Part Two holds a key place in the franchise's canon. The emphasis on thrill over logic seems like a style that's still developing here, and the nods towards Jason's psychological make-up are kind of touching, even though later movies would demonstrate how much more effective his character is when he's a faceless bogeyman, with no discernible humanity or off button.

There had been slasher movies before this one, but the Jason movies were a phenomenon, and this movie’s emphasis on pure thrill (however clumsy, and at whatever cost to anything like character, consistency and logic) seems to capture the template that so many other slasher films would copy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

by Jimmy “I Can’t Believe They Made a Movie Out of That Fresh Prince Song” Callaway

Yeah, yeah, it’s the scariest one in the series. The most original. The sequels are more “fun,” more light-hearted, but this one: this is the scary one. Your Uncle Jimmy’s heard it all before, kids, and it holds no more water than the million other times it’s been said.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a not very good movie.

From the top:

Beth from Better Off Dead has a dream about a mysterious boogey-man and his drafty basement apartment. Oh, and a sheep. I want to say that the sheep represents the innocence of the intended victims as well as connotes that easily-slaughtered tendency said victims have, and it’s all very Jungian and everything. But it seems writer/director Wes Craven gives up on this potentially intriguing imagery almost immediately, and thus so will I.

Beth tells her friends about it, including tonight’s final girl Nancy, who has one of those unfortunate faces that looks kinda goofy when she’s not wearing glasses. She was much cuter on Just the Ten of Us, if not much of a better actor. Speaking of cute, this is also of course Johnny Depp’s first movie, and while, yes, he looks good enough to eat as always, he has yet to develop any of that patent Depp spark that will eventually elevate him from Tiger Beat to Cineaste.

Anyways, slumber party at Beth’s (yeah, I know her character’s name is Tina. I call her Beth). Beth and Rod make some really loud, fakey sex noises, and then, as such is the fate of all who screw, she gets killed. She goes out into the darkened alley of her dreams and, since she’s so easily frightened by a trash can lid, Freddy figures he’ll do the goofy long-arm thing and really scare her. Frankly, I thought the same bit was a lot creepier when Terry Jones did it in the “Find the Fish” bit in The Meaning of Life, but I guess Beth’s probably not as big into Monty Python as I am.

Since you can get killed in your dreams and the same thing will happen in real life (that’s a given, right?), there’s a pretty neat upside-down room sequence where Beth’s rolling around on the ceiling. Playing Siegfried to her Roy, Rod watches like a dope as she gets shredded up until her guts are like spaghetti.

Detective John Saxon and his usual squad of bumblers hunt down Rod since he was the only one in the room and because he wears a leather jacket with no shirt. This also gives Nancy more excuses to overact, and the look on John Saxon’s face makes it evident that he wishes Mitchell 2: Mitchell Harder hadn’t fallen through.

In order to highlight Nancy’s overacting, Nancy’s mom gets drunk and they have lots of screaming matches. It puts me in mind of my old girlfriend and her mom, except these fights are on my TV and not distracting me from the TV.

Meanwhile, Freddy and Rod’s re-enactment of the opening to The Goonies gets out of hand and Rod gets hanged. Fortunately, the Springwood P.D. doesn’t post guards anywhere near the holding cells. Even though the adults seem to know more than they are letting on, they insist it’s just Nancy’s time of the month or something and she just needs some rest. Nancy’s mom takes her to see Dr. Roger Rabbit to give us more half-assed exposition on dream-states, until it sounds like Carlos Castaneda wrote the screenplay.

Eventually, Nancy’s mom drinks enough bourbon to hip her daughter as to what’s going on. Seems there was a guy, a Mr. Fred Krueger, murdering a buncha kids in town. He was arrested and brought to trial, but walked when it was discovered somebody had neglected to sign a warrant. Given the crack police force in town, this could not have come as much of a surprise (But really, how often does this happen outside of the movies? There’s gotta be some precedent for this movie cliché, right? If anyone knows, give a holler). So the townsfolk decide to dispense some frontier justice and set the dude on fire. Hey, movie, you know you can show us stuff like this through the magic of the flashback sequence, right? You don’t have to just have some drunken country singer tell us all of it in a dramatic monologue. C’mon, movie, you’re a movie, not a Greek tragedy (Also, if they had to get a drunken country singer to play Nancy’s mom, I really wish they’d gone with David Allan Coe).

Later, Johnny Depp is wearing one of those really gay half-shirts, so he doesn’t have much longer to live. He gets sucked into his own bed in his famous death scene, and apparently has enough blood in his body for three other screen-idols to spare. Nancy decides she’s had enough and, in a scant thirty-second montage, booby-traps her house more thoroughly than Kevin McCallister. Nancy is going to attempt to bring Freddy out of the noumenal and into the phenomenological where she claims she can kill him, but I think she just wants to give him his hat back.

Nancy succeeds in bringing Freddy into the real world, and Freddy succeeds in perfecting his Shemp Howard impression. Nancy finally gets John Saxon’s attention long enough so he can bust the door down, and then stand there with his dick in his hand while Freddy kills Nancy’s mom. Since Freddy is Nancy’s nightmare, Nancy has to be the one to face him down, and so she does, and this would all be very inspirational if I wasn’t so bored by this point. I think this was probably the moment America decided to root for Freddy—he may be unappealing as a big, hammy character, but at least he’s killing off all the other unappealing characters.

Yes, there are some genuinely scary moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Big fucking deal. It’s a horror movie—should I be okay with just “some genuinely scary moments”? I wish I could go to my job and jerk off all day, and then when my boss begins to chew me out, I could say I had some genuinely work-y moments. Then I could have several sequels made of me and eventually become an icon of late-20th century American pop culture. Then I could laugh my way to the bank.

Yeah, right. In my dreams.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Terror Train (1980)

by Josh "Lounge Car" Converse

All aboard! This train bound for murder, mayhem, and morbidity. The conductor will be making his way--ah, fuck it. It’s a slasher movie on a train, peeps.

Trains have long served as a means of creating tension in cinema, as in masterpieces like Murder on the Orient Express and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. A train comes equipped with all the elements required for a good white-knuckle ride into terror: speed, noise, claustrophobia, and a crew not quite sharp enough to handle baggage for any of the major airlines.

Our story begins at a frat party, where the pledges of Sigma Phi Omega are being mocked and jeered and forced to wear silly hats until they lose their virginity. For that matter, the whole damn movie exists within the frat party dimension, which is so 80’s it makes me wonder how the 80’s were already in full swing as early as 1980.

Mega-dork Kenny Hampson is on deck, and pre-med heartthrob Doc and the gang have something special in store for him.

Using Alana (played by AARP spokesperson and purported hermaphrodite Jamie Lee Curtis) as sexual bait, the Omegas lure Kenny up to a room full of flashing construction lights and 16mm porno ambience. Hiding behind the headboard, siren Alana beckons Kenny closer. Scrawny Kenny strips down to his skivvies and hops in the sack, only to find himself in a liplock with the rotting, dismembered cadaver of what looks like Anne Ramsey of Throw Momma From The Train, provided by wacky pre-med prankster Doc.

Flash-forward a few years. It’s--you guessed it--party-time again, and this time the Omegas have chartered an excursion train for their last hurrah before graduation, which in this curriculum apparently takes place in the dead of winter. And guess what--it’s a costume party, buster!

Hey, who booked the magician? Nobody seems to know, but who cares--am I right, ladies?--when that magician is walking head-shot and perennial creep David Copperfield, sailing through his only film role on lapels of finest satin.

Did you know Copperfield taught magic at New York University? He’s, like, the Marty Scorsese of magic. And hair dryers.

Nearly viewable work from a non-actor, but then again, master of terror Roger Spottiswoode (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) has made a name for himself squeezing the best out of non-actors like Phil Collins in And the Band Played On, and Michael Rapaport in The 6th Day.

The carnage starts before the train even pulls away from the station. Right off the bat, unbeknownst to his frat mates, fellow Omega and general roustabout Ed is skewered with a sword and left on the tracks, where he is promptly bisected by the departing locomotive.

Or is he? Anyone seen Ed?

Oh, never mind, he’s over there in his Groucho Marx get-up. Why is he wearing the only Groucho Marx get-up in history that consists of a full latex head mask, you ask? And why so quiet all of the sudden? Ah, who gives a shit. Pass me that doobie, smart-aleck, and knock it off with all the questions.

The voice of reason is the kindly old train conductor, inexplicably named Carne, who, in an odd digression, offers an impromptu thesis on the future of train travel in the late twentieth century economy versus the relative convenience of RV’s. He runs a tight ship, Carne, and the discovery of the dead black dude in the latrine is no reason to divert a train that is running otherwise right on schedule. Best keep the ongoing slaughterfest under wraps, just until we see how things play out.

From here, the flick chugs its way into some familiar territory. There is a killer among us, and all the girls are dressed like sluts. Except for Curtis, of course, who has never looked less attractive as she shrieks her way from car to car in a baggy swashbuckler outfit. Way to waste a rack, Spottiswoode.

The train provides the claustrophobic tension, Copperfield shoves a cigarette through a quarter, and about an hour in, a pair of random tits finally find their way into the frame, possibly by mistake. Very little actual mystery involved in this one. You know from the very outset that Kenny is your killer, though it is only around the eighty minute mark that it is revealed that poor Kenny was, like, way into magic. This little twist, which seems ham-fisted at best when introduced, actually turns out to be something of a masterstroke. The image of Copperfield popping out of vestibules and luggage compartments with a slyly raised eyebrow before promptly running his victims through with a sword is one that many people probably hold within their subconscious to begin with.

All due snarkiness aside, the twist does get you in the gut a little when it fully manifests itself. I must also admit that for someone who loathes magicians as much as I do (in my realm of preferred entertainment, the magician resides somewhere between the ventriloquist and, on the low end, the person charged with rallying the sales department at any given Volvo dealership), there is a special kind of glee to see this man, who would go on to make the Statue of Liberty disappear, with a sword stuck through his head.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Urban Legend (1998)

by Jimmy “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” Callaway

A lotta my friends grew up out in the Imperial Valley, a big farm community about 150 miles east of San Diego and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Every one I’ve asked grew up hearing about La Llorona. A legend going back to the time of the invasion of Cortés, possibly further, the story goes that a woman drowned her kids so she could be with another man, who went ahead and took a pass anyway, causing her to then drown herself. Or something like that—there are always variations in how the story’s told. The important part is La Llorona’s ghost haunts the waterways of the American Southwest, and if you hear her mournful cry, that means you are marked for death.

Clearly, this is all bullshit. But in a place where there are miles of open aqueducts and canals that are deceptively deep and can suck an unwary kid to a watery grave in the blink of a cliché, cautionary tales of this sort, it can be argued, do far more good than harm.

Even a cursory glance at the rich tradition of urban legends shows that many of them hash out this way: Kids, it’s a scary world out there. The one about the hook in the car door is obviously meant to keep kids from parking out at Reputation Road. The one about the call coming from inside the house sends the dual message to young women to remain wary while simultaneously relying on male authority figures. And the one about the deadly spiders in the beehive hairdo is a strict warning about emulating the fashion stylings of the Ronettes.

Maybe these connections aren’t as obvious as all that, but once seen, they’re hard to dispute, not unlike my make-out skills. So it’s all the more strange that the slasher movie took so long to pick up on it. After all, the slasher film itself acts as a modern-day morality tale and seeks to impart these same sorts of lessons. Why it was nearly the turn of the century before this particular connection was exploited is beyond me.

It is just this concept of intertextual themes in American popular culture and their reflections of society’s mores that I’m gonna use as the reason that I really liked this movie when it first came out. It’s a much better excuse for liking this stinkburger than the actuality, which was that I was a horny twenty-year-old hoping for a glimpse of Tara Reid’s boobs (which I was unapologetically denied. Y’know, it was cute in Scream when they played with that notion of the audience's expectations of on-screen nudity. But why did none of the rest of the derivative second-wave of slasher flicks choose to carry on this tradition from the golden years of full-frontal? I dunno, but I’d wager to guess the revival mighta lasted a bit longer had they done so. I digress).

Yeah, this movie sucks really hard. But let’s accentuate the positive first. Right off the bat, if Brad Dourif shows up within the first five minutes of your movie, I will do you the courtesy of sitting through the rest of it, and with a smile if you think to make him stutter like Billy Bibbit.

The killings themselves are a lot of fun, if damn near impossible to pull off. Of course, they’re all based on urban legends, most of them familiar, but one in particular I’d never heard of. Apparently, word around the campfire is when the Ohio Players were recording “Love Rollercoaster,” a scream heard on the vocal track was reputed to be the dying breath of a woman murdered in the studio. The Ohio Players, displaying great wisdom in the face of being in such a crappy band, kept mum on the subject in order to fuel the fires of publicity and cement their place in pop culture (although I bet you a million dollars most wouldn't know the band that recorded that song if you asked them. Hell, I had to fuckin’ Wikipedia it). How this particular legend is incorporated into the movie is pretty retarded, but I am certainly grateful for that addition to my general fund of knowledge.

But the best contribution this flick makes to the sub-genre is the character of Reese Wilson, played by the appropriately named Loretta Devine. In most of these flicks, the authority figures are almost always old white men, who either value social standing over public safety (cf. Sleepaway Camp) or who swoop in at the last moment to save the day (cf. Halloween). This is kind of a weird standard to defy, but Urban Legend decides to include an authority figure who is not only black and a woman, but who is neither a moron nor a savior on a white horse. Seriously, all the sassy black mama jive-talk aside (and really, who doesn’t love that anyway?), this is probably the most well-defined character I’ve ever seen in a slasher flick. Part of me wants to be cynical and say the producers just included this to avoid accusations of racism and/or sexism, but the rest of me tells that part to shut up and quit being such a poopy-pants.

But everything else about this movie is pretty gay. The cast is a veritable who’s who of late ‘90s WB shows, which means it's also now a who’s who of who gives a crap. Tara Reid gets a pass for anything she does ‘cause she was Bunny Lebowski, so that’s fine (I just kinda hope she doesn’t read this and decide to set my house on fire because, obviously, I would not be able to alert the authorities). That Pacey kid is all over the place with his bad highlights, the future Lex Luthor hams it up right alongside of him (although I really liked his turn on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jared Leto gets to act all pretty, and that Noxzema commercial broad gets to chew as much scenery as she can fit into her oddly large mouth (and of course, a reference is made to those same commercials in the film. Oh, ironic late-‘90s self-referentialism, what did we ever do without you?).

The pacing towards the end is always a tricky bit to pull off, and Urban Legend fails to do so with flying colors. If you like saying “Huh?” aloud and looking at your roommate (or your cat, if you’re a shut-in) quizzically while watching movies, then this is the third act for you. The dénouement is kinda interesting, but by then you’re thinking more about the nap you’re gonna take later and all the subtlety goes pretty much ignored.

So the main reason you should watch this is to compare and contrast and see if you can decide if fashions were goofier in the late ‘70s or the late ‘90s. Beyond that, you’d be better off looking for spider’s eggs in Bubble Yum as a way to kill an hour and a half.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

by Kevin "Pees in the Astro-Jump" Dillon

Like an obligatory birthday run through an overzealous spanking machine, 1981’s slasher exercise, Happy Birthday to Me, is a silly gauntlet of repressed resentments and creative violence that leaves you feeling a little sore, a little disoriented, and just a little violated for having experienced it. Even worse, at the end of your cinematic spanking, instead of cake and presents, the only gift this film got you is extended shots of an old-ass Glenn Ford with his shirt way too unbuttoned for a man his age. Happy birthday, indeed.

A fairly by-the-numbers knife-kill flick peppered sparingly with a few surprisingly good moments, Happy Birthday to Me centers around a rather large circle of friends called the “Top 10” at the Crawford Academy. I can’t confirm that Crawford is in fact a high school, as it looks like one of those old east coast colleges and its students all frequent a local bar, down brewskies together with nary a fake ID in sight, yet are still given detention for misbehavior. It’s confusing. This much is for sure though: Crawford is populated by rich, snotty, white, trust-fund babies, and the Top 10 (the top ten academically ranked students at school) are truly the snottiest as well as the whitiest.

For a group whose deep connections to each other mainly consist of similar grade point averages, and of course their bland, upper middle class-ness, this clique hangs out together an awful lot. Over the span of this movie, the gang enjoys a dirt bike race, a night at the movies, multiple visits to a local inn called The Silent Lady, they attend a soccer game, boogie down to some leftover disco music at a school dance, and smoke a doobie beneath the school’s pool. Seriously, over the handful of days the story takes place, they share more time together than cellmates doing a long stint in lockdown.

Hanging hard with her Top 10 buddies is this slasher film’s stereotype “final girl” candidate, Virginia, played by Little House on the Prairie's older sister to that bucktooth girl, Melissa Sue Anderson. Virginia, it seems, has a dark past, secret even to her, but definitely involving the death of her mother, and a traumatic accident/brain injury which has left her prone to blackouts but, sadly, not prone to nude scenes in horror films. Alas, my perverted Little House fetish will have to wait for the release of the porn spoof Little Mouth on the Prair-Rear, I guess. (Apologies.)

Virginia’s shrink, played by Glenn Ford (Pa Kent himself from the Christopher Reeves’ Superman movie), is trying, albeit in a slow, highly ineffective manner, to help Virginia to overcome her plot-convenient amnesia and come to grips with her dark past. Unfortunately, he only ends up traumatizing her and the viewers of this movie further with his oh-so-casual dress shirt, unbuttoned to near nipple level, revealing pink man-flesh, adorned with a gaudy gold chain that meanders quite naughtily through his sparsely haired chest. The horror. The horror.

When the Top 10’s lily-white membership starts to mysteriously decline due to even more mysterious disappearances, Virginia begins to wonder if there’s any connection between the suspicious disappearances and her possibly violent past.

Of course, we the audience are privy to what’s happening to her friends and it ain’t pretty. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, and many of the Death Wish and Planet of the Apes sequels) decided quite wisely to mix and match his killing methods, so there’s almost a pleasant anticipation in awaiting the next teen’s demise. In no particular order, and with no guarantees you’re actually watching a definite death and not a red herring/fakeout, you’ll see: a straight razor kill, a hedge clippers kill, a barbell kill, a fireplace poker kill, a cake knife kill, a drowning, a bell tower rope kill--and my two favorites--a scarf caught in the spokes of a dirt bike’s wheels face rub-off, and best of all, the image used in the movie poster itself, the infamous shish kebab kill. A shish-KILLbab if you will. Or maybe Fon-DIE?

As good as the kill scenes are, and some are doozies, the remainder of the film is filled with lulling scenes of the Top 10 bickering amongst themselves, interchanging romantic partners in the group, and generally not noticing that their ranks are quickly depleting. Add to that plenty of plot dead ends, red herrings, and worst of all, fake kills later revealed as pranks and hallucinations and the achingly slow spectacle that is Virginia slowly piecing together the incident in her past that somehow ties it all together, and an hour and a half of movie has now past.

Finally, when a more lucid flashback reveals that Virginia’s life-changing incident involved a terrible car accident, and worse, a poorly attended birthday party, it becomes clear as we head into this movie’s home stretch, that she might be harboring subconscious resentments and possibly played a part in the ever growing rich-kid body pile.

The scene is now set for a climactic birthday party of gruesome, near epic proportions. And what a birthday bash it is. Unfortunately, even amidst a sequence that appears to promise brilliant payoff to the erratic meanderings of this overly long movie, the filmmakers decide at this very moment to drop the ball, gang rape the referee, and walk off the field giving the entire crowd the finger, with their miserably conceived, extremely flimsy ending.

Normally, I give any somewhat clever movie a little leeway if its conclusion is not entirely satisfactory, but this movie really screws the pooch and then quickly rolls the credits while you try desperately to boo and hiss through your unswallowed vomit. It’s one of the most tacked-on, Scooby-Dooiest, bullshit endings you’re ever likely to experience. Imagine Psycho ending by revealing Martin Balsam was the killer all along because he had access to both a time machine and a Star Trek teleporter. Imagine that Rosebud was really Citizen Kane’s cutesy name for the clitoris. Imagine Stephen Baldwin’s Siamese twin (separated at birth) revealed as Keyser Söze. Imagine hating orgasms, democracy, kittens, laughter, kindness, decency, crispy chips dripping with piping hot nacho cheese, and everything else even remotely good in life, because that’s how this movie’s slap-in-the-face ending will make you feel.

Now, who wants cake?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

April Fool's Day (1986)

by Jimmy "The Joke's On Me" Callaway

The best thing to ever happen to planet Earth was Mystery Science Theater 3000. Those wacky Midwesterners took horrible movie after horrible movie and made them a hilarious and life-affirming experience. I could go on for days as to how important this show is to me, but I'll spare you. But even given all of that, some episodes are simply unwatchable because the movie is just so bad, a point the writers themselves make at the end of episode #423, The Castle of Fu Manchu. Then there's Mighty Jack, Space Travellers, the Russo-Finnish movies--there are more of these god-awful episodes than I care to admit. And April Fool's Day is my episode 423. No matter how witty I think I am, no matter how many salient points I try to come up with for this essay, it's no use. Deep 13 has won.

The worst part about April Fool's Day is not, for a change, the plot, dialogue, acting, clothes or hairstyles. Those certainly don't help matters, but the absolute worst part is that this may be the one that finally breaks me. I am Apollo Creed, and this movie is Ivan Drago. If Dr. Forrester were monitoring my mind right now, he'd be ecstatically doing his swing-choir victory dance because he'd finally found a movie he could wield like a blunt instrument and use to finally take over the world.

This little slasher-movie criticism project has been gathering steam over the past year or so, and now I think I can finally crystallize my reasons for writing this much about and generally putting forth this much effort into a genre of movies I never really cared all that much for, when you get right down to it. What really got the ball rolling was science-fiction author and over-all curmudgeon Harlan Ellison and his essay, "The Thick Red Moment," wherein he derides the slasher film as merely a hateful exercise in misanthropy and, worse yet, misogyny. He considers the rise in popularity of these types of movies to be a low watermark in this culture.

And maybe he's right. But as much as I love the guy and his work, Ellison can be a real opinionated blowhard who will let his emotions cloud his thinking. Not that I'm immune from such behavior, but that doesn't mean I can't still recognize it and call bullshit. Even if he is right, that's no reason to dismiss out of hand an entire art form, however low-brow it may be. So I suppose in my own high opinion of myself and my abilities, I sought out to write not just a rejoinder to Ellison's diatribe, but to write about every slasher movie ever made in an effort to inject each and every one with some sort of relevance. Even if that relevance was as minor as providing to me an insight into my own personal life, or even just a couple of laughs, I was gonna stick to it. If Ellison wanted to generalize an entire genre from a few examples, I was gonna go the opposite direction and narrow things down by watching every example, and show that the genre was worthwhile as a whole.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, things were going pretty good, but then I watch this flick and, all of the sudden, the rules start to change. Maybe Harlan's right, after all. Not with all his high moral outrage and deep personal offense at the anti-humanism he finds in these movies, but with the seeming fact that the makers of these films hold their audience in the lowest possible regard. The argument one often hears for movies this stupid is that it's all in good fun, just some harmless thrills. And really, that's fine. But what happens when the harmless thrills are also totally lame? How do you defend that most cardinal of sins, lazy fuckin' writing? You can't, not as far as I'm concerned.

Not unlike Sleepaway Camp II or III, April Fool's Day front-loads a bunch of two-dimensional knife-fodder characters within the first ten minutes. They're all college kids spending the weekend at their friend's island villa. So we've got the guaranteed sex scenes and isolated setting, check. They all talk about how great it is to be young, so we've got the irony that they're not gonna get any older, check. Yeah, I know, every slasher movie has all this garbage, but (and again, maybe I'm just burnt out) even the filler in this movie feels like filler for the filler.

But the underlying theme, as should be clear from the title, is pranks and hilarity and it demands not to be taken seriously (hence, my difficulty in taking it seriously enough to write about it, I would guess). So for every plot point, every twist, every iota of implied suspense, the filmmakers have the escape hatch that it's all a big gag anyways (an escape they use over and over again). It's just for fun, right? A harmless thrill?

Man, fuck you.

I really can't discuss this any further without blowing the ending, and that's still something I'm unwilling to do. Suffice it to say, it's clear that everybody involved with this movie hates me and you and anybody else who watches this flick, not to mention joy and love. After already including not a single redemptive quality to the entire enterprise, the filmmakers come right out in the last ten or fifteen minutes and say, "Hey, thanks for your hard-earned money and precious time, assholes. You're even dumber than you look." And after voluntarily sitting through this movie twice, I'm hard-pressed to disagree with that assessment.

If there's anything salvageable from this movie-going experience, perhaps it's that now that I've scraped the bottom of the barrel, there's nowhere to go but up. Since this writing, I've begun soliciting submissions from my other writer friends, and so not only have they taken some of the weight off my shoulders, but now I'm guaranteed new material by writers I was already a fan of. It still breaks my heart that Thomas F. Wilson was in this stinkburger, but I think I can pick up the pieces and move on. I can't control where the movies begin or end. But I'll try to keep my sanity by watching #1007 Track of the Moon Beast again.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

by Alexander "Their world is full of Elm Streets" Kraft

I racked my brain for weeks to find something to say about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. My first impulse was to talk about the subjective nature of reality: how the diegetic blurring of lines between dreaming and waking, like when a boy walks through a locked door or a girl gets her head inside a television mounted seven feet off the ground, mirrors the blurred line between one's internal model of the world and the objective world “outside” of our consciousness, and the children banding together in dreams to combat Freddy likewise comments upon the way collective, intersubjective agreement can reify imaginary threats and likewise provide tools to cope with them.

My next thought was to examine the film from a feminist perspective: after all, it is in this installment of the series that Freddy is revealed to be the spawn of a hundred vicious rapes, Freddy refers to women exclusively as “bitch,” and in one scene he turns into a sort of gigantic penis-creature that tries to eat a girl. Nancy, our returning heroine, has been recast as a woman who is being marginalized in a “man's field” and struggling to be taken seriously. It is only when she refuses to play their game and takes matters into her own hands that she achieves self-actualization and the respect of the men in the film. The children in the hospital can likewise be interpreted as marginalized voices (like those of women) struggling to be heard.

But the reality is that neither of these perspectives is compelling. Do you want to know why? Because this movie is a turd. Don't let the high production values, Laurence Fishburne's panty-drenching animal magnetism and your love of the franchise blind you; this film is not just a waste of time, it literally corrupts the time spent watching it, infecting it with a black ichor that rots the rest of your time, giving you a kind of time-necrosis that will slowly destroy you. Yes, literally. I am not speaking figuratively. This will actually happen.

“But wait!” you cry, “Of course slasher movies are bad! Therein lies the fun, and furthermore, you're killing the delicate balance of irony required to enjoy them by pointing out that they're bad, baby-killer.” My rebuttal is twofold: First, that last bit about my being a baby-killer is uncalled-for and kind of mean. That was an accident, and you know it. Second, what makes Nightmare 3 so bad is that it kind of isn't. It's just glossy, mediocre dreck. What makes a slasher flick fun? Sometimes, they break new ground, pushing the limits of taste and acceptability in film in a way that makes them shocking even to today's audiences. Sometimes, the limits of budget force filmmakers to explore innovative and experimental techniques that are sometimes brilliant and often hilarious. Sometimes, there is a delight in discovering an underappreciated gem of a film that has been ignored because of its location in a genre that has been largely dismissed by critics. And often, of course, none of this happens, and we are left with a “film” so screamingly bad that it reaches heights of comedy undreamed-of by earnest comedians.

But alas, Nightmare 3 is none of these things. It is the product of a crank-operated prolefeed machine. Released in 1987 as a sequel to a successful franchise in a successful genre, the formula had been set and it would have been business heresy to suggest that it be deviated from. The guy kills the kids, the kids get scared, nobody believes them, they fight back. The production is nice enough not to be funny (except the giant cock-Freddy! Hoo-boy!) but modest enough not to break any new ground. The acting is wooden, but not enough to be quotable, and the scares are predictable, within the context of a Nightmare film. This is the film equivalent of a Hot Pocket. You pay for it, you consume it, you have no complaints. But if asked to articulate what about it was satisfying or pleasing, you are left searching for an answer. “Well, I ate.” Well, you've watched a movie. I guess you had to do something with your 96 minutes, and this is more engaging that staring at an ashtray, an almost-empty bottle of bourbon and a framed photo of your ex that you've been meaning to get rid of for the past year and four months. For an hour and a half. Again.

This film specifically disappoints Nightmare fans for a couple of reasons, as well. First, someone has apparently tipped off the producers that by 1987 most people are laughing at American horror movies, not being terror-stricken. Accordingly, Freddy (no longer the shadowy “Fred” of the first film) has begun cracking wise and mugging for the camera--the vanguard of the postmodern '90s self-aware meta-slasher of Scream and Urban Legend. The first Nightmare on Elm Street was clunky in ways, and certainly a product of the American horror tradition of its time, but Wes Craven was doing what he then did best: tapping the horror and menace implicit in seemingly innocuous activities--in this case, dreaming. Perhaps we chuckled at the cardboard sets and hackneyed dialogue, but we were engaged by the workmanlike telling of a legitimately scary story that made us look at something mundane in a new way. Dream Warriors tells essentially the same story, the retelling of which weakens its power. But worse, it does it with a wink and a nod that completely strips away any gravity, leaving us with a comedy. But if this is a comedy, why do so many scenes drag so damn much?

Secondly, Nightmare 3 disappoints because of Wes Craven's involvement. Sure, he only shares co-writer credit with three other dudes, but nonetheless, his involvement raises a fan's hopes and contributes to the impression that an uncritical viewer may take away that they have just watched a film that was somehow worth watching. In the same way that Dream Warriors marks a shift from a movie about the uncontrollability and potential danger of dreams to a movie about Freddy Krueger, it also marks a shift in Craven's career, from movies about scary things to movies about Wes Craven movies. Which, well, sucks. It is difficult to view Last House on the Left and Scream 3 in the same week without wanting to kill yourself, or at least write about how sad what happened to Wes Craven is. Which is, well, never mind.

Honestly, the only thing this film leaves me with that approximates a burning, unanswered question is this: why in the world is Heather Langenkamp still here? Of all the mediocre performances in this film, she is the only one who stands out as being downright bad. And this is not only our star, but our returning star? This casting decision really underscores the fact that the filmmakers were on vacation when they shat this brick. Why look for a new actress? We got a perfectly good one right here. And by perfectly good I mean, you know. One. That's here. Like this movie.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

by Jimmy "The Anti-Cupid" Callaway

On Thursday, February 14th, 1929, soldiers of Al Capone’s, disguised as police officers, marched seven of Bugs Moran’s gang into a garage on Clark Street, lined them up against the wall and gunned them down. That’s the ten-cent version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, probably the most famous organized crime story in our country’s history. Nowhere in my reading on the subject have I come across any reason why Capone picked that particular day to up the ante in his turf war with Moran, and I have the feeling that if Bugs Moran had tried to muscle in on the action at one of Big Al’s dog-tracks later on in the year, we’d probably be still hearing about the Arbor Day Massacre. Or more likely, if it hadn’t happened on an ironic holiday, we wouldn’t be hearing about it at all.

That’s real life, though. Real life is pretty dull, so we’re forced to make tenuous connections between celebrations of romance and a mass murder of men who referred to others in the plural as “youse.” Y’know, just to liven things up a bit. Art, however, allows us to make these connections freely without having to completely ground things in reality. Therefore, we can have a story about, say, alien visitors coming to Earth, but have it really be about apartheid. Or a story about the dead rising from the grave to feast on the living, but it's really about race relations in America. Real life has no sub-text, and it can be really difficult to work it into any kind of literature as well, but it’s much more rewarding to stretch the imagination rather than credibility.

Or you can just try to cash in on the trend of naming slasher movies after holidays.

Again, I hate to impinge on the motives of any filmmaker (in print, anyways), and so I say this as objectively as possible: if you’re gonna have a slasher movie that takes place on Valentine’s Day yet has fuck-all to do with Valentine’s Day, then you’re a big hacky jerk with whom I will never be best friends.

Yes, yes, yes, the town is called Valentine Bluffs. Yes, the killer sends his victims’ hearts to the police chief in heart-shaped candy boxes. Yes, the first victim in the movie has a heart tattoo above her boobs (the only boobs in the whole movie, as I recall. Also, the only victim to not even get an actual character name. Draw from that what you will). But these are all entirely superficial to the story, complacent nods to the title.

Look, I’ll give you the synopsis really quick before we get back to this: the mining town of Valentine Bluffs finds itself under siege by an unknown killer. It’s believed to be Harry Warden, perpetrator of a string of murders twenty years prior. It seems way back when, a bunch of miners were left in a cave-in because their bonehead foremen were eager to get to the Valentine’s Day dance before all the punch was gone. Harry survived, though, and wreaked his revenge, thereby passing into urban legend status as some sort of boogeyman who’ll kill anybody celebrating Valentine’s Day.

I mean, it’s not a bad premise, but what does it really have to do with Valentine’s Day? Change the name of the town to Lincoln Heights and you could call the movie Presidents Day. If the foremen had been on their way to a 4th of July barbecue, I’d be writing about We, the People...Will Be Slaughtered! right now. Put it in an office setting and we can make it into Bring-Your-Daughter-to-Die Day.

On a similar note, once it’s revealed who the killer is, the reasons as to how this person became a homicidal maniac are even more boring than the movie itself. One of the things that draw us (or draws me, anyways) to these movies is the tendency on the killer’s part to totally confuse sex and violence to the point where they’re inseparable as concepts. A kid goes through an especially traumatic experience—like, I dunno, he sees his parents boning and then get killed at the same time—the kid is completely warped by this, he is in no way able to handle all the grief the world can give him nor can he appreciate the beauty in the world, and then he snaps. That’s a story I never get sick of, but My Bloody Valentine couldn’t be bothered apparently.

Another thing about the big reveal is that anyone even halfway paying attention will notice that not only was the killer without motive in several killings (not anything new there, but still), but also could not possibly have killed at least two of his victims, unless the laws of time and space have been suspended.

But this movie does have a couple things going for it. For one, it was filmed in Canada, so everybody talks like Bob and Doug McKenzie, and that’s always fun. For another, most of the characters are pretty likeable. All the twenty-something miner dudes and their chicks seem like they’d be fun to hang out with. I wouldn’t mind shotgunning a Coors Light with Hollis and then arm-wrestling. Howard pre-dates Chris Parnell by about fifteen years. So that’s all right.

The other thing is something that I’m sure is painfully obvious by now, but it still interests me, and that is the red herring. For those of you not in the know, a red herring is a literary device with which the author tries to throw you off the scent of the real killer. So in this movie, it’d be Harry Warden. As I was watching this, it occurred to me how completely pointless is the use of the red herring in these movies since, without fail, the guy any of the characters think is the killer never is the killer. Not only are the filmmakers not fooling anybody, but they actually reinforce who it must be by effectively eliminating a suspect from the list. I find this pretty funny, I guess, or at least noteworthy: by utilizing the same tool again and again, these guys have all but dulled it into uselessness. Way to go, exploitation film producers. Thanks for churning out another boring-ass movie.

As if I don’t have reason enough to hate Valentine’s Day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

by Chad "I Am Not Dreaming of a White Christmas" Eagleton

Bob Clark’s name may not mean anything to you. But you know his work. There was a time when HBO or SkinaMax aired the shit out of Porky’s. And unless your parents were too cheap for premium channels or, like me, you grew up in the sticks before cheap cable, there’s no way you made it through December without seeing at least five minutes of A Christmas Story.

But Clark’s real impact lies in another Christmas tale. Black Christmas set the stage for the slasher films to follow. If you haven’t seen it (though please, please skip the unnecessary remake), you’ll still recognize the set-up.

A sorority house Christmas party. A stranger climbs through the attic window. A phone call all heavy breathing quickly turns creepy and menacing.

One of the girls goes upstairs to pack as the party hits full swing. No one hears her murder. And later, when they began searching for her, none of them knows that she’s rotting in the attic. The attic where the Killer, who refers to himself as “Billy,” makes his lair.

That’s right…he’s in the house and, like everything of any real worth, this premise will get ripped off by cheap imitators.

The set-up, however, doesn’t make the film. Clark’s directing is so well done, unless you’re someone who pays close attention to credits, you probably won’t associate this film with Porky’s or A Christmas Story. Four years later, Carpenter would use widescreen in Halloween for the horror of The Shape—giving every corner, nook, cranny and shadow menace. Clark takes a different route, shooting Christmas in tight close-ups. Even the shots leading out into a hallway, or up the stairs, are at these angles that make everything seem narrow and cramped. The film is claustrophobic. As the minutes tick away, the girls’ home becomes a coffin.

Christmas walks the line that, unless we’re dealing with the outright supernatural, barely separates horror from thriller. Billy doesn’t wear a mask. Clark manages to conceal his identity in a series of trick shots that somehow doesn’t feel like cheating and adds to the creepiness. The question of Billy’s identity serves as a plot point and furthers the suspense. While searching for the missing girl, their numbers dwindling, all eyes turn suspiciously to the male characters.

The cast is classic. There’s the lovely Olivia Hussey, whom you’ll recognize from that version of Romeo & Juliet you watched in English class and actually paid attention to because you had heard there were bare boobs. Margot Kidder looks pretty damn hot in this one. Far better than she ever did later as Superman’s love interest. You might remember Andrea Martin from SCTV, while Lynne Griffin acted in a different classic—Strange Brew. For the male roles, you have Dave “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” Bowman and John Saxon, who seemed to be in everything ever made for at least a decade.

Unless you haven’t taken your Ritalin, the pacing is good. Quick enough to keep boredom at bay, but slow enough to build suspense. Fans of the plotless gore porn Hollywood now calls horror will probably be bored since cheap buckets of blood don’t try to hide the lack of script or make up for the lack of real horror. Like I said, the women are attractive, but if you’re socially retarded and seek out these torture-fests as replacement for real-life conversations with women, you should probably skip it.

But none of that is the real strength of this film. Its resonance comes from a very simple idea that’s been forgotten. The true horror in watching someone murdered on screen only comes through attachment. All too often in the latter films of the slasher genre, the victims are cardboard and ripped to pieces just as easily. Without a sense of identity, without the sense that this girl who just got ran through with a fireplace poker has a name, a personality, and loved ones there is no attachment from the audience. Without attachment, there is no sense of reality. The whole purpose of this brand of horror is then undercut and reduced to the punch of sixth graders playing, “What’s grosser than gross?” Even the first victim, killed at the very beginning of the film, achieves a life beyond a scream and a gurgle. Her father won’t stop searching for her. Her sorority sisters can’t just let her go.

In a lesson Rob Zombie would do well to learn, Olivia Hussey’s character is even given an entire subplot involving an unintended pregnancy. All the girls of Black Christmas are actual characters and not just big breasted bimbos jiggling toward the next novelty death. You’ll have a scene of suspense, or just a scene to deliver a plot point, also giving characterization.

Every year someone mentions how the spirit of Christmas has been ruined. They don’t know how right they are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prom Night (1980)

by Jimmy "Goin' Stag" Callaway

Now, I don’t know about you, but prom night was simply magical for me. I bought the new issues of Cerebus, The Demon, and Starman, and then David Duchovny hosted Saturday Night Live with musical guest Rod Stewart. While the rest of my classmates were at the yearly promenade ball, I listened to The Vindictives a bunch and fell asleep with the TV on. A night I’ll never forget.

As though I didn’t have few enough regrets about missing out on another bullshit rite of passage, along comes this movie, starring Jamie Lee Curtis before she was taken seriously and Leslie Nielsen before he wasn’t. All the grisly murders not withstanding, I was left with a feeling of relief after watching this movie, not just because I missed my prom, but also because I missed the late 1970s. Close call, that one.

Yes, if there’s one thing we can say about knife-kill flicks, it’s that there’s nary a childhood experience full of joy, wonder, and happiness that any halfway capable filmmaker can’t exploit for his or her audience’s bottomless appetite for mindless sex and violence. And we’ve also learned that I’m all for it. The sex and the violence, obviously, but more important is the thwarting of these overblown ideals of innocence.

The innocence of childhood is largely a myth, as far as I’m concerned. Call me cynical if you want, but doesn’t anybody else remember what little bastards kids can be? Sure, they’re cute, but so are leopard cubs until they tear the jugular out of your neck. I remember being a little kid and seeing most of my peers as these horrid little monsters, all teeth and snot and inexplicable brutality (Not to paint myself as an angel, mind you. I’m reasonably sure there’s at least one person out there saying, “Man, remember what a little shit-stain that Callaway kid was?”). It’s no accident that when one of your friends is acting like a tithead, you say to him, “What’re you, a fuckin’ kindergartner?”

Prom Night asks of us much the same thing. The flick opens on one of the best places for small children to play unattended: an abandoned building. Young Nick, Kelly, Jude, and Wendy are playing a rousing game of hide-and-go-seek, only in their depthless naïveté, they’ve re-named it “Killers Are Coming!” Aw, that’s precious.

Along comes young Kim, with her younger siblings, fraternal twins Alex and Robin, but they’re not welcome to join in any reindeer games. Whatever: Kim’s got better stuff to do, and Alex wants to get home so he can change out of the outfit his parents made him wear, the one that matches his twin sister’s (I’m certain many a swirlie was handed out that day). But Robin can’t seem to resist the allure of running around in a darkened ruin with four brats who have already made clear their dislike for her.

So, as kids will do, they kill her. Not on purpose, I guess, but they chase her around, chanting like savages, and Robin takes a header out a second-story window. Oops. Nick, Kelly, Jude, and Wendy instantly make a pact to split out of there and never speak to anybody of what happened. But as the lovable little scamps flee the scene of a fatal accident, they don’t realize there’s been a witness. We, the audience, don’t get to see who this witness is, but we can safely assume, from the title, that he or she is willing to wait until these four snotnoses have almost graduated high school before meting out any sort of justice. Patience is a virtue, after all; only a panicky idiot would do something rash like call a paramedic or report what happened to the police.

Conveniently enough, a perverted psycho killer is on the loose in the neighborhood, so the cops decide to pin Robin’s death on him. Trying to escape, the guy flips his car and ends up in a coma, so it’s case closed as far as anybody else is concerned (At least, this is what I think happens, after two consecutive viewings. Attention, all directors: no flashbacks without visual support, please! Footage of Leslie Nielsen thinking really loud with bad reverb is not sufficient to move the plot forward. Thank you).

Jump to six years later: although the Hammond family still grieves for little Robin, time marches on, and the prom looms large for our little band. Naturally, the anticipation of puking up warm beer in your dad’s car and engaging in awkward and dissatisfying sex is enough to eclipse any such sad memories. And so here’s where we are now: Wendy and Nick used to date, but since she’s even more of a bossy-boots than she was when she was in pigtails, Nick is now courting Kim, which makes sense since most dudes are into chicks whose sisters they’ve accidentally murdered (I know I am). Alex still has a goofy white-boy ‘fro. Kelly is reluctant to go all the way with her beau, no matter how well he wears the dry look. Vicki was not in the first segment of the flick, but she’s got a really very nice ass, so we’ll keep her around.

And Jude has as her prom date my main man Slick, who is instantly in the top 3 most likable characters in film history. Slick is a short, pudgy Jewish kid with glasses, who by all rights shouldn’t be able to get laid in a funeral parlor, but since he’s got a boatload of charisma and balls of solid brass, he of course gets all the ladies. If there’s one guy in this movie to pattern your life after, it’s this guy (now that I think about it, I believe this explains Jonah Hill...).

But life isn’t all pep rallies and spirit ribbons. A menacing pall is spreading over this happy day. Kelly, Jude, Nick, and Wendy each receive a phone call from a raspy-voiced stranger who whispers threats, chilling in their opacity. Who can this be? Is it Leonard Merch, the long-comatose psycho perv, now suddenly up and at ‘em and on the loose? The cops seem to think so, but true to form in these types of movies, the cops couldn’t find north on a compass, much less a killer-at-large. Is it Mr. Sikes, the creepy janitor with the patented tape-around-the-bridge brand creepy-guy glasses? The kids seem to think he’s up to something, all right, although it seems to me the only thing this guy gets up to is Penthouse Forum (and as a glasses-wearer, I always bristle at this sort of characterization. Like tape on my glasses is all I need to make me a creep. Talk to me for five minutes, and you’ll clearly see the myriad other traits that make me a creep).

No, the true villain in this movie is none other than that scourge, Disco Fever. The admittedly intense chase scene, where Wendy is doggedly pursued by the killer, holds no candle to the mind-searingly painful sight of Jamie Lee Curtis and what’s-his-name who plays Nick shaking their well-choreographed booties down to the ground, accompanied by the sizzling sounds of some generic Donna Summers knock-off. How people ever got laid back then is a mystery to me. Or why they’d even want to, given those goofy clothes everybody wore.

Oh yeah, the killings. So, Kelly’s the first to go, ditched by her date when she refuses to help with his blue balls. Sure, she gets gruesomely stabbed to death, but having seen the Leif Garrett look-a-like she had pawing her, I still think she made the right choice.

Jude and Slick are next to go while enjoying a post-coitus joint in Slick’s boogie-van. Obviously, I was sad to see ol’ Slick go (he’ll live on in my heart forever), but what was even more disconcerting here was the lighting. The official DVD release I have was apparently transferred from an old VHS copy. But even allowing for poor picture quality, it still looks like all of the night shots in this movie were lit with a Timex. At one point, Slick tries to escape by jumping behind the wheel and flooring it, but the killer is right behind him, and they wrestle around while Slick is trying to drive. Thing of it is, the killer’s wearing all black, so I couldn’t even pick him out at first, and I spent a good chunk of this sequence thinking Slick was just being a big spaz (which would certainly not be in keeping with his character). Maybe since this was shot in Canada, I dunno, maybe they spent all the lighting budget on Elsinore beer, eh?

Then, as mentioned, Wendy gets hunted down and sliced up. Eddie Benton (better known as Anne-Marie Martin of Sledge Hammer! [one of my favorite shows as a kid] and the former Mrs. Michael Crichton) does a really good job making her character extremely hateful, so I spent the whole movie just itching to see her get an axe in the face. But then, true to that pushy loudmouth character of hers, she perseveres to elude her pursuer to the point where I almost thought she was gonna make it. And, y’know, had she made it, I wouldn’t have felt ripped off. Good job there.

Next, the movie decides to rip Carrie off even more than it already has. Lou, the monobrowed juvie thug, knocks Nick out just before he’s about to be crowned prom king. Lou’s gonna go out there and show ‘em what a real prom king looks like. Thing of it is nobody bothered to explain to Lou that you don’t get to be prom king by defeating the current prom king in combat. This isn’t Richard III here, buddy. But Lou does end up taking Nick’s place as murder-victim king, and as Lou’s severed head rolls out onto the stage, everyone screams and runs. So, disco is fine and dandy, but a severed head is going too far? Whatever you say, late ‘70s.

So, the killer’s revealed, and ooooh, it’s a big surprise. Mainly because there is little to no connection between the identity of the killer and all the clues to which were peppered throughout beforehand. It’s like the filmmakers were so determined not to let anyone figure it out, that any and all hints they dropped were either really vague or just flat out didn’t make sense. A pretty disappointing end to what was shaping up to be a pretty average slasher-flick.

Okay, so I guess Prom Night exploits, but not much else. There aren’t as many layers to be found as there are in the original Sleepaway Camp or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But it still had Slick. So, as soon as my Chevy van is done being custom painted, you know where to find me: cruising the senior parking lot, waiting for cheerleading practice to end.

(God, what a fucking creep I am sometimes. Excuse me while I go put tape on the bridge of my glasses.)