Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Friday the 13th (1980)

by Alec ‘Mama WOULD hurt a fly!’ Cizak

Not much has been written about the original Friday the 13th that can actually be called relevant. It’s a thin film, to say the least. An obvious combination of Meatballs, Jaws I and II, and, of course, Halloween, F13 is actually the movie responsible for the wave of slashers that followed. It’s the movie that made money right out of the gate and demonstrated to the studios that a market existed for Animal House/Halloween hybrids. Most critics seem hell-bent on pointing out that the final girl in F13 is “tomboyish,” a claim I’ll demonstrate is ludicrous. There are the usual accusations that it promotes puritanical values. Of course, actually watching the movie reveals those notions to be rooted in ignorance. Oddly, what no one has caught on to is the fact that F13 may be the most powerful pro-post-feminist text ever created.

A few months ago I discussed Halloween with a feminist film professor from Minnesota. She insisted that Halloween was a sexist text because the survivor was a traditionally matriarchal woman. She pointed out that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) protected the children and did not engage in the “juvenile” behavior of her female peers. As I listened to this woman froth at the mouth over the notion that a young woman would not feel the need to participate in “hedonistic” activities along with her cohorts, I began to wonder why the idea of a woman as protector was so offensive to old school feminists. I refrained from getting into an argument, from explaining that every now and then, somebody needs to be an “adult.” As I studied F13 to write this article, I realized that Sean S. Cunningham and screenwriter Victor Miller had responded for me. Whether intentionally or by accident, their rip-off of Halloween answers the very concerns feminists have about the slasher genre at large.

For those who have lived in a cave and not seen the film, let’s do a quick summary:

Kids gathered around in a circle singing songs in 1958 (a set up taken right out of Jaws). Two of them break off to go someplace private and make their own personal Kumbaya. A stranger emerges from the darkness and stabs them. Cut to roughly twenty years later. The camp where the murders took place is being reopened. A group of young people arrive early to set the camp up. Murders start happening again until the final girl, Alice (Adrienne King), dispatches the killer who (spoiler alert! [really?]) happens to be the mother, Mrs. Vorhees (Betsy Palmer), of a boy who drowned at the camp in 1958.

Can you already see how radically feminist this movie is?

Before I make that argument, let’s put a rest to the notion of Alice, the final girl, as either “tomboyish” or a prude. Alice wears pants in the movie. That’s pretty much where the pro-“tomboy” argument begins and ends. Early in the film, she reveals that she does not like doing manual labor. In that same scene, it is hinted that she has been fucking Mr. Christy (Peter Brouwer), the ‘adult’ of the lot who disappears almost right away so that the counselors are on their own. As the film progresses, Alice proves herself more and more feminine. She casually takes over kitchen duties when the cook never shows up (having been snuffed while trying to get to the camp). A snake in her cabin scares the shit out of her. When some of the other counselors decide to go check the generator, a masculine activity if there ever was one, Alice refuses to go with them. To further thwart the claim that her character is a prude, she plays strip Monopoly while drinking beer and smoking pot. And most striking, one of the other counselors, Bill (Harry Crosby), is clearly her boyfriend. Thus, we have a final girl who is fucking two guys!

What the character of Alice adds up to is a progressive, post-feminist American woman. She is sexually liberated, feminine, and decides on her own what work she will and will not do. Coupled with her ass-kicking solution to the problem of the killer (beheading Mrs. Vorhees on the banks of Crystal Lake), we have a prototype for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lara Croft and every other butt-whooping heroine Hollywood has been selling for the last twenty years. One begins to wonder why this film isn’t taught in every feminist course on every campus in the nation.

To cement this theory, the film uses Mrs. Vorhees as a diametric example of the traditional, matriarchal woman, and advances the suggestion that the ultimate mindset of such a woman is not only detrimental to herself, but psychotic and, ultimately, dangerous to those around her. Mrs. Vorhees is a ‘loving’ mother. So much so that she is willing to brutally kill in effort to avenge her son’s death. In addition, she rationalizes her actions in a manner that turns motherly concern into a violent, vicious form of denial (“Oh, I couldn’t let them open this place again, could I?”). Her obsessive tending to her matriarchal duties traps her and her dead son in a roiling, co-dependent relationship that requires the boy come back to life and repay his mother’s vengeance upon her murder, establishing a cycle that spawned eight legitimate sequels, none of which released either mother or son from the horrid grip of pre-feminist societal expectations.

Discard your Laura Mulvey and Robin Wood diatribes! There is only one feminist text to be studied and intellectually digested. It is the battle between the liberated final girl of Friday the 13th and the enslaved mother who kills and loses her own life to maintain a dying status quo. I fully expect Sean S. Cunningham to be a keynote speaker at a future NOW convention…

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Halloween II (1981)

by Alec "Progress? We don’t need no stinkin’ progress!" Cizak

How can you tell when Hollywood has taken over a subgenre of films? One word: Explosions. Halloween II’s got two of them. Early in the film, when it’s clear that the whole exercise is nothing more than an unnecessary continuation of the first movie, a kid in a Shatner mask is blown up when a police car shoves him into a van. It’s Hollywood logic—two cars colliding automatically explode. It’s called production value. Need your movie to look bigger than it is? Hire a helicopter and shoot from the clouds. Or rig something to explode. Then, of course, there’s the big boom in the end, when both Mikey Myers and his goofy doctor go to hell together.

Now, the movie poster for Halloween II never promised anything other than ‘More of the Night He Came Home.’ John Carpenter has admitted that, while writing the script with the help of Budweiser, he realized he was crafting the same film as the original Halloween, only, “not as good.” Halloween II kicks off with a retread of the final three or four minutes of the original. The soundtrack is altered and we get a different angle of Mr. Myers dropping from the second floor with six slugs in him (seven, according to Halloween geeks who make me look completely sane). The big problem with Halloween II is that it is, from a narrative point of view, entirely pointless.

Halloween ends with some nice, nasty, Kentucky nihilism, courtesy of Carpenter and his bleak view of, well, everything. Michael Myers is evil. Evil never dies. End of story. Of course, the real reason Halloween II exists is because the first film spawned a gold rush of independent filmmakers splicing together Animal House and Halloween to cash in on Halloween’s success. Beginning with Friday the 13th, however, the element of danger—the stalker—became, momentarily, human. This demanded an explanation for the killer’s destructive hobby. The opening of Halloween, the murder of Judith Myers in 1963, morphed into some kind of ‘wrong’ committed against the eventual killer or someone close to the killer. Hence, Jason drowning and his mother then celebrating the (roughly) twentieth anniversary of that special event by killing some horny camp counselors. Every slasher from the golden age imitated F13’s misinterpretation of Halloween’s prologue.

The F13 template, I’m sure by accident, allowed ‘serious’ critics to view the killer as a symbol of reactionary forces from the past. That the heart of the civil rights movement generally sat between the inciting event and the “return of the repressed” allows an easy comparison to the return of right-wing zeal in the 1980s. Mind you, this was never, ever mentioned in any of the original slashers. It carries weight, however, because, as I have stated in previous reviews, it is appropriate to think of the kids who are stalked and killed as “the Other.” That’s correct, folks. Those smiling, middle class, ivory-faced teenagers (played by twenty and thirty-somethings) took on the burdens of every oppressed group in America and demonstrated their gains with their ‘hedonistic’ dismissal of authority (read as the status quo).

Most of these elements were included in the original Halloween. Carpenter and his buddy Debra Hill were young, most of the people working on the film were young. Judging by They Live, a film Carpenter made ten years later, these kids were not Republicans. It makes sense, thus, that their sympathies rested with the ‘progressive’ side of the neighborhood. But the larger issue of evil represented by a ‘shape’ lurking in darkness, toying with its victims before snuffing them, seemed to be lost on the imitators. Halloween, ultimately, was about death. Early in the film, Jamie Lee Curtis sits in a classroom listening to an instructor lecture about fate. “Fate never changes,” she says. That, I believe, was the only message John Carpenter ever intended his film to have: Try as you might, you cannot escape the grim equalizer.

The original theatrical trailer for Halloween II echoes the poster’s tagline—“More of the Night He Came Home.” The narrator of the trailer, however, goes on to promise “(t)here is no place to hide. He will always find you.” Whether conscious of it or not, Halloween II slammed the door on the golden age of the slasher by reiterating the fact that Michael Myers represented death and nothing—not a resourceful “final girl” or a demented knight in shining trench coat (Donald Pleasance and his useless pistol)—would stop him.

By cashing in on the family ties bombshell that made The Empire Strikes Back (probably) the most effective sequel of all time, Halloween II accidentally predicted the movement of anti-authoritarian sentiment from external symbols (police, politicians, school deans, etc.,) to internal, family symbols. Less than ten years after Animal House, the teenagers in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club would identify their parents as the prime oppressors in their lives (even with the character of the school’s principal serving as a peripheral reminder that oppression is bred by institutionalized authority). This removed the young people/“Other” in the slashers and mainstream subversive comedies such as Caddyshack and Meatballs from the role of “the Other” and placed them in their proper, white, middle-class demographic. By ‘revealing’ that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in a useless wig and hospital gown) and Michael Myers (wielding a tiny, useless medical scalpel) were siblings, Carpenter (and replacement director Rick Rosenthal) demeaned his mystic messenger of death from the status of primordial myth to human, all too human.

The fear of the status quo that fueled the great transgressive comedies and horror films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, was a fear of death converted to a fear of change represented by women and ‘minorities’ demanding equal status in the culture. For whatever reason, bigots all across the land could not cope with the idea of competing for a job with someone whose skin color was not the same as their own. The status quo rested their hopes for a restoration of “order” with Ronald Reagan. The word ‘prosperity’ became code for ‘safety’ and ‘security’ which were, in turn, code for “the good old days.” Revenge movies would thrive under Reagan’s watch. A decade and a half of ‘restoration’ would bring us Forrest Gump, a movie that suggested success in America comes easiest to those who don’t think. Police and hospital dramas would dominate television. And on September 11, 2001, twenty years after Laurie Strode sought ‘security’ in Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, President George Forrest W. Gump Bush would declare America “vulnerable” and call on the people of the United States to prepare for an endless war on an invisible enemy. A little outfit called The Department of Homeland Security would be formed and any hope for civil liberties surviving the reactionary forces of the right vanished.

Halloween II, for all its bigger budget trappings (explosions and the most awesome boobs in any slasher ever, courtesy Pamela Susan Shoop), makes one final stab at the illusion of safety and security. By setting the majority of the film in a hospital, Carpenter makes it clear that there is no such thing as security. Shortly after Laurie Strode is brought to Haddonfield Memorial, she begs the staff not to put her to sleep. The audience might echo that sentiment, partly because a “final girl” in a coma makes for an uninteresting film (which, for the most part, Halloween II is), and partly because that must have been what it felt like when Reagan and his regime took power and turned the clock backwards—those who slept through the 1950s, woke up for the ‘60s and ‘70s, surely must not have wanted to go back to sleep.

As in the first film, the “final girl” does not actually save herself. In a slight improvement, she ‘helps’ Dr. Loomis dispatch Michael Myers. In pure Carpenter cynicism that I believe is lost on most viewers, Laurie is wheeled out into the parking lot of the smoldering hospital and loaded into an ambulance that will take her to another hospital. No grand story arc here. Nothing learned. Nothing gained. Haddonfield Memorial created an illusion of security. Laurie Strode helped destroy it. For what? To be taken to another hospital, another illusion of safety.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Pieces (1982)

by Alec “We’re all just meat” Cizak

I have spent the last year searching for the perfect slasher movie. It doesn’t exist. There’s Halloween, a great suspense film, and then there’s a string of imitations that continue to be produced to this day. After reading criticism of the slasher genre, both supportive and hyper-critical (Robin Wood, I’m looking at your pseudo-intellectual, paranoid corpse), I got the notion that there was something very subversive about the early slashers. I wanted to believe that there was some play on “the Other” going on between the kids getting chopped up and their attacker(s) (as well as the adults who were, generally, spared the blade). As with every assumption made about slashers, the patterns simply weren’t there on a consistent basis.

For instance, the “Final Girl” in virtually every golden age slasher (pre-1982) is not pure and virginal, as so many critics have suggested. The original “Final Girl” smoked pot (Halloween), another “Final Girl” played strip-Monopoly (Friday the 13th), another boogied like she meant it (Prom Night), another was in on a sexual prank (Terror Train), still another juggled men (My Bloody Valentine), and still another was involved in a seemingly normal relationship the audience had every reason to assume included sex (Friday the 13th Part 2). It wasn’t until psychoanalytic film critics poked their unwelcome snouts in the genre that studios, picking up on both the success of the independently produced slashers and the assumptions of the idiot critics trying to gut the genre, that the virginal “Final Girl” became mandatory. Of course, the moment the studios began backing slashers with their own money (1982 on, though I would make the argument that Halloween II, appropriately enough, put the dagger in the slasher’s independence), the genre was, essentially, dead. And yet, to this day, so-called experts parrot this tired myth about virgins vs. sluts like mindless sheep.

Despite my disappointment in failing to find commonalities that would demand the genre be considered subversive, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something anti-establishment was going on in the early films. These movies made the status quo squirm. The goody-goody motherfuckers who cheered on the new president in 1981 pointed to the gore as a reason to hate them. That, I realize, is the clue to understanding why these movies bother those in charge. Violence has always been a part of storytelling. But violence in popular narratives is usually reserved for punishing those who do not fall in line with the status quo. Hence, it was OK for Rambo or any Arnold character from the '80s to slaughter hundreds with a machine gun. They were faceless representatives of the enemy (and here the psychoanalytic critic may substitute ‘enemy’ with ‘the Other’ and I will not protest). Take note that by Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (part 4), the trend of characters being hacked up without having been introduced in any way, given any personality, becomes commonplace in the studio-backed slashers (remember the obese girl on the side of the road in F14 pt. 4? Her murder was symptomatic of the conformist mentality that gobbled up this country’s conscience in the 1980s: She’s fat. Slit her fucking throat, Jason! There’s a good boy).

The victims in the early slashers were people. We got glimpses of their personalities. The filmmakers attempted to generate audience sympathy for those getting sliced and diced. By making them real people, and then showing their bodies mutilated in a manner most Americans like to pretend couldn’t possibly happen, these films were snubbing an unspoken agreement between the masses and their masters (once the government, now corporations)—Your function is to work, consume, and die of natural causes. Sometimes our masters will send the youth off to die in a foreign country to protect local business interests. Mostly, though, you are not allowed to die until you have exhausted your usefulness as a worker who then spends his or her pittance on the very products you waste your life helping construct (today things are even worse as we become a nation of service representatives while poor folks in poor countries are assimilated to the process of work-consume-work-consume…) Why else, my friends, would suicide be considered a crime?

In short, your body does not belong to you. Sorry if you thought otherwise. Showing bodies hacked to bits suggests that someone other than our masters may determine when we shuffle off this mortal coil. That’s a no-no. That’s why those wonderful, independently-produced slashers are, indeed, subversive.

Look how long I’ve gone without writing something about digression!

Enter a small film from Spain. Pieces. 1982. Well into the age of the studio-backed slasher in America. In order to see something remotely subversive in the grindhouse or at the drive-in, you had to rely on imports. Does Pieces stand up to the imitations it intended to imitate?

Let’s go back to that bit about your body and who controls it. Ask any woman and she will tell you this is in no way breaking news. Women have known for a long time that the Man, or the system, or whatever the hell you choose to call our collective master, likes to have complete control over all the little kiddies born within their respective borders. The Supreme Court made it legal for a woman to have an abortion in 1973 and fuckers are still trying to reverse that. Why? Not only does that allow a woman to make a serious decision about what happens to her body, she is, according to the opponents of Roe v. Wade, also making a decision regarding another body. A body our master(s) will not be allowed to control unless it is born. I mention this only because the victims in Pieces, unlike most other slasher films, are exclusively women.

Pieces doesn’t fuck around with a lot of plot. There’s some sort of psychological bullshit going on—the film opens with a child putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman. Before he can put the final piece of the puzzle in (the woman’s vagina, hohoho!), his mother busts in and punishes him (A nifty way of showing how women counteract the Man’s attempt to control their bodies by controlling the male libido). She berates him and his absent father. The boy lands an axe in his mother’s skull and is then “rescued” by some law enforcement officers who are too fucking stupid to realize the kid is the killer.

The film jumps forty years ahead, to 1982. The killer has decided on this arbitrary moment to put together a human puzzle of a woman and fit it with his mother’s bloody dress (the logic problems inherent in why the son of a murder victim would have access to the victim’s dress is one of many canyon-sized holes in the plot). He cuts off a woman’s head in a park with a chainsaw to start the process. Enter the tragic Christopher George, the near-worthless cop in charge of the investigation. George, the actor, dropped dead from disbelief over how shitty his career had gotten by the early 80s. The awful dubbing in the film, coupled with his casual, uninterested performance, turn almost any scene he’s in into comedy—after a body is found cut up near a blood-stained chainsaw, he asks the coroner, “Could that have been done with a chainsaw?” It’s beyond Ed Wood terrible.

There are multiple red herrings. Paul Smith plays a hulking gardener who does everything he can to convince the audience he’s the killer. Then there’s the anatomy professor (hohoho!), Dr. Brown. When all the suspects gather (again, for no logical reason), at the site of an attack on an elevator, the one character who is not set up as a red herring is obviously revealed as the killer.

The movie is an absolute farce. It easily competes for the honor of worst slasher ever made. But it gets a few things right, and they’re worth pointing out and they make the movie, for all its incompetence, worth a single viewing:

The gore in Pieces is astonishing. It is messy and ruthless. Supposedly the filmmakers decided to use real animal blood. It certainly looks like it. In the movie’s brutal final killing, a woman is cut in half in a shower stall. When the upper half of her torso is discovered, the white walls are drenched in blood, the way you’d expect a healthy massacre to look. The attack in the elevator is graphically realistic. Even the inciting murder of the boy’s mother is shocking. We see the axe hack right into her skull. There’s an acceptable amount of nudity, which I consider essential to a good slasher. Finally, the soundtrack, provided by a band (or, I’ve read, a stock library of music) called Cam, is a simple synthesizer score that could not have come from any other era. But these things only make the incompetence of the film even more tragic. What could have been, had this puzzle been put together by filmmakers who were not merely interested in cashing in on a dying trend?

Alas, that is what Pieces ultimately is: A cheap imitation of a slasher film and an insipid entry in the post-golden age where the victims are only women (giving credibility to those critics who believed the slasher was a reaction to feminism). The “Final Girl” in Pieces isn’t even allowed to save herself. She is drugged into paralysis so that the men can save her. Any slasher that denies women in the audience the pleasure of seeing a woman defeat the monster who has been cutting (mostly) women to shreds is unforgiveable.

No, Pieces is just another opportunistic cash grab. That becomes obvious late in the movie when a cop and a student researching files to figure out who the killer is are shown in a room with a large poster of Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall. To make the moment complete, there is obvious product placement from Wendy’s. The commercialization of the slasher had arrived. Jason would rise from the dead (F13 pt.6) and become the hero, instead of the antagonist, and Freddy would evolve into a stuffed doll appropriate for children. As is often the case with subversive art, the establishment learned that banning it wouldn’t defuse its power. So they appropriated it instead. Like Nike, using “Search and Destroy” to sell tennis shoes, or that SUV commercial from a few years back that played “TV Eye” while some yuppie snowboards over the gas guzzler being peddled.

I propose that this will be my last slasher review. May I end on a bit of a digression? That glorious year, 1981, was for slashers what 1967 was for the counter-culture—a brief moment where a little bit of magic happened that irked the mainstream. How beautiful those goofy Halloween imitations look, with their porno-style lighting and synthesizer soundtracks. Their twenty and thirty-something actors attempting to look like teenagers. Their mad rush to execute the most gruesome special effects their low budgets could afford. It can never happen again. I recently watched Hatchet, which had been touted as a return to the old-style slashers. No way. Didn’t even come close. The golden age of slashers was a flash of inspired stupidity that rests in the wounds of nostalgia. There is no way to recreate, remake, or, for shit’s sake, “reboot,” them. Let’s accept the handful of originals as they are and find new ways to make our collective master angry by harming our rented bodies.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Basket Case (1982)

by Eric “What’s in the basket?” Beetner

You’ve been warned that this post will be too much about me, but you must understand Basket Case was a very important film in my life. Stop judging me, we just started here.

See that poster over there? Bleeding letters, spooky eyes peering out, teasing tag line? That poster hung over my bed in high school. Not on the wall, on the ceiling so the eyes watched you as you slept, or tried to. Around it were posters for Dario Argento’s Creepers, the original Halloween and Dawn of the Dead (signed by Tom Savini--geek check!). Do I need to go into how hard it was for me to get laid? No? Good, let’s proceed.

(As an aside, I should take a moment to acknowledge the girls who were cool and brave enough to get in my bed. Kudos to you young ladies.)

You see, I was a mid-80s horror junkie. I attended more than one Fangoria Weekend of Horror. I even spent the night walking the streets of New York and sleeping on a bench on Grand Central Station because our hotel room fell out at the last second but I didn’t want to just pack it in and go home and miss the convention. This, added on top of the insult I suffered the night before by being refused entry to a Slayer/Megadeth/Bad Brains concert at the Ritz because I was too young. You’ve heard of “The Man”? I met him that night.

This all ties in together because, as proven, I was a horror movie nerd, I mean nut, and much of my impression of New York City night life was derived from movies, Basket Case being chief among them.

You see, Basket Case is not a glossy Nightmare on Elm Street budgeted A-list affair. It is gritty, dirty, ugly and as malformed as the evil twin hiding in the basket.

Briefly: Duane is one of a set of twins. His brother, Belial, was born...different. In a tricky flashback structure Pulp Fiction would have been jealous of (and you know Tarantino is a Basket Case fan), we learn that Belial is nothing more than a misshaped blob that hangs off Duane’s torso like a lump of spilled butterscotch pudding.

But they love each other. They can communicate telepathically, of course. But when a trio of doctors arrives to finally set God’s mistake right and remove Belial, things take an ugly turn. Duane doesn’t want Belial removed. Belial doesn’t want to be tossed in the garbage like yesterday’s meatloaf, which he kinda resembles.

The operation is a bloody, messy and--from the looks of it--highly unsanitary affair. Long story short, Belial isn’t dead. Duane rescues him and keeps him in the titular basket and now that they are grown, they head to beautiful New York City to track down the butchers who separated them. And give them a cupcake and a thank you note? No. To kill, KILL, KILL!!!!

The NYC they encounter, on their modest budget that matched my own 15-year-old pocket change, was one of hookers, pimps, grifters, porn theaters, junkies and a flophouse manager who should have been a big star for his mustache alone but suffered from an utterly cardboard line-delivery acting style. Overall this movie is not exactly an ensemble of on-the-cusp stars. More like off-the-floor mannequins.

The film becomes a checklist of revenge set pieces as they hunt and kill, one by one, the three doctors who performed Belial’s really, really late term abortion. Of course anyone who gets in their way doesn’t stand a chance either. (Here’s a tip--do not try to steal the basket. Y’know what? Just don’t open it at all. Seriously, the best thing you could find in there is laundry. The worst is violent shrieking death.)

But the plot is certainly not why this film was so influential to me. The execution, however, is.

You see, as a horror film nerd and a video store employee (my ticket to discount posters to plaster over my walls and ceiling until not a single chip of the cat shit brown walls remained), I decided I wanted to make movies. When I got to film school they showed us Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Breathless, Battleship Potemkin. They fed us a diet of films they called great in hopes that greatness would inspire us.

Yes, I had seen all these films before and still, I didn’t take much inspiration from them. You see Citizen Kane as someone working out with a Super 8 camera and, if anything, it makes you want to give up and go home because there is no fucking WAY you can ever make something that good. Game over, man.

But I had a secret. I knew better. My high school years had been spent wallowing in the muck as well as swimming upstream through the classics and the avant garde. Guess what? The muck was much more inspiring.

I could watch a film like Basket Case, and specifically the scene where Duane and Belial defy physics and build a death trap machine from a radial arm saw and somehow send it down a flight of stairs to bisect a human torso until all that remains are two freestanding legs that fall, with deft comedic timing, one to each side of a dirty basement floor, and thrill to the giddy joy of it. I watched that scene over and over until I praised out loud the inventor of the rewind button.

What did I learn from the slumdog charms of Basket Case and other 80s gems like it? I learned, “Well, shit, I can do that. If this is all it takes to be called a movie, and if I’m deriving this much visceral pleasure from it, hell, I can make a living out of that. Citizen Kane be damned.”

The film is not without heart either. As the revenge continues, Duane begins to have some second thoughts, a problem Belial doesn’t have. Granted Belial was the one cut off and left for dead in the trash, so he does have more of a bone to pick.

Duane making friends with a hooker doesn’t seem to really bother Belial, but when Duane finds true love, oh look out. He can’t talk, walk upright or presumably wipe his own ass (if he even has one...?), but Belial can feel jealous rage with the best of them.

Did I mention the effects? Where should we start? With the stop motion they use when they show any full “body” shots of Belial, like when he trashes the hotel room like a post-nuclear attack Keith Moon? With the gloved hand of the director they use when Belial feels up a tittie? The utter impossibility of a woman’s face getting skewered by approximately 142 scalpels and syringes that were laying flat in a drawer?

Glorious, gory mayhem.

And the New York City streets have never seemed more dangerous. It’s like the 12th ring of hell. This is when Times Square was a truly scary place, and when I walked from midtown to Greenwich Village that night in 1985, I saw Belial in every darkened alley. His red glowing eyes stalking me from every dead end and under every dumpster.
I’ve never walked anywhere, New York or otherwise, and felt the presence of Charlie Kane over my shoulder.

Ignore the sequels. They try to cash in on the camp value Basket Case earned after its release. But the original wasn’t intentionally campy. It just happened that way. If it was, it wouldn’t have a downbeat ending right out of the blackest Film Noir.

I’m not the only one to see the greasy charms of Basket Case. It has become, since it’s 1982 release, a genuine cult classic. The thing’s got a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For a film that is technically inept, that says a lot for the earnestness and the gore and--yes, I’ll say it--the characters. It has actual characters. One of them is a mute, rage-filled abomination, and yet you feel a little tug at the old heartstrings for the wrongs done to the mutant and his brother. You even find yourself wanting Duane to find love in the middle of all the bloodletting. Best not to mention the whole "Belial rapes the beautiful girl" scene. I'm trying to build a case that you actually like the little freak.

There’s even some great humor. The running, “What’s in the basket?” gag is on par with my favorite running line of all time, Escape From New York’s “I thought you were dead.”

Did I say it wasn’t intentionally campy? Maybe I spoke too soon. The way Duane feeds Belial like a zoo keeper, the cheap-ass recycled sets, the way Belial likes to perch on (or hide inside) toilets? Yeah, maybe they knew what they were doing.

So, okay, maybe I never hit it big as a director, but I work in the industry and I make a good living. This would have seemed unattainable if not for films like Basket Case, which made movie making so much less intimidating. They made it seem possible. And even now, as we head toward the 30th anniversary of Basket Case (holy shit!), the fact that people are still talking about it, still seeking it out and still seeing the scrappy deformed charms of this kill-happy camp classic makes me think my dream still isn’t dead.

And if it is going to die someday, please let it die as gloriously gory and karo-syrup blood soaked as Basket Case.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Graduation Day (1981)

by Alec "Foiled Rotten" Cizak

The class of the slasher genre emerged in 1981. Not that these movies were that great or classy. They were among the last “spam in a cabin” flicks, as Joe Bob Briggs once referred to them, to uphold some basic tenets of late ‘70s/very early ‘80s subversive cinema. In the case of the slasher, the youngsters represented the Other. This was reinforced any time an adult was present. Adults and especially authority figures, such as police or deans or politicians, were generally safe from the killer because they represented the old order, which was threatened by the new order. There are numerous essays and books that attempt to explain other aspects of the genre. Most of them focus on the idea that sexual activity was the prime cause for the kids being punished. If you watch the majority of the slashers released in 1980 and 1981, which unfortunately, I have, it’s obvious that this wasn’t really true across the board. Terror Train, for example, came the closest to proving the gender critics’ theory about the old switcheroo taking place between the killer and the final girl (i.e., the killer is effeminate, the final girl is masculine). But even Terror Train doesn’t dwell on the notion that sex will get you killed. Jamie Lee Curtis does not play a “virginal-type” in Terror Train or Prom Night. I would go so far as to argue that her character in Halloween is not all that pure either. She smokes a joint, after all, on the way to her babysitting gig.

But I digress. You’ll notice throughout this piece that I digress frequently. I’m a digresser. Things might be different were I reviewing any other movie.

The slasher genre was already dying by 1981. It was clear that no filmmaker trying to cash in on Halloween’s success understood why John Carpenter’s template worked. A few films got the suspense part, but failed to create any characters worth caring about, so that when the characters got killed, the audience’s emotional response was hinged to the cleverness of the murder or the believability of the gore (which was not a part of Halloween). By 1981, the genre was subjected to “deconstructionist” experiments, such as The Burning and Slumber Party Massacre. And the genre was ready to be outright spoofed. Student Bodies was an example of a film removing any remaining elements of horror and suspense and demonstrating that the genre had become a joke. Quite by accident, ex-rabbi Herb Freed co-wrote, co-produced and directed the silliest slasher ever made, Graduation Day. The title, thus, is more appropriate than Freed might have intended. Graduation Day marked the end of any possibility of taking the genre seriously. After 1981, very few slashers were worth watching, let alone discussing in any critical manner.

Graduation Day is bad. It approaches Ed Wood-bad. Throughout the film, a flash-editing technique is employed to no dramatic effect at all. The result is annoying. The opening sequence is a great example of this. The event from the past that will cause the eventual stalk and slaughter of teenagers occurs amidst a flurry of flash cuts between a track meet, the track coach, and the crowd in the bleachers. Most of this is set to a disco song called “Everybody Wants to be a Winner,” which is appropriate considering everybody who imitated Halloween did so not out of respect for the style John Carpenter employed, but the profits the film earned. The winner of the track meet drops dead at the finish line, which is also appropriate, and off we go on an adventure of cinematic incompetence that’s not even coherent enough to warrant the ridicule of an audience at a midnight movie.

Things are suspect right away. Paula, the eventual final girl who spends the majority of the film off-screen, has hitch-hiked with a truck driver wearing a purple shirt and yellow ascot. The driver tries to feel her up, tells her he has “enough tongue” for the both of them, and then accuses her of being a “lesbo” when she refuses. She is set up as the first red-herring when she gets out and walks through a forest where the first killing will take place. The killer uses a stop-watch to commemorate the confusing track meet from the beginning of the film. The first victim, like everyone who is actually murdered in the film, is an anonymous member of the track team the audience is never allowed to get to know and generate sympathy for. The coach is then set up as another red-herring in one of many terrible musical sequences in the film. As he walks across campus, we get a "meet the crazy kids!" montage cross-cut to a heavy metal tune called, for absolutely no logical reason, “Lucky Strike.” Oh, yeah: half the “crazy kids” we meet have nothing to do with the film’s alleged plot.

Crammed in among all the nonsense and moronic killings (after the first victim, the killer, for no apparent reason, adopts a fencing foil as his or her weapon of choice), we manage to learn that a character named Kevin, who looks like he’s thirty-five-years-old and belongs in a Lord of the Rings movie, was in love with Laura, the girl who dropped dead at the track meet in the beginning of the film. So much for red-herrings. So much, also, for the film maintaining its rep as a piece of subversive cinema. The moment the killer in a slasher turns out to be one of the “crazy kids,” the notion of the teenagers being the Other is pretty much snuffed.

One could write a book on the disjointed elements of Graduation Day—there is an inexplicable acoustic “jam” in the middle of the movie. Some guy who has nothing to do with the other characters cross-breeds Elvis and T. Rex for a god-awful performance of a god-awful song called “Graduation Day Blues.” Most notable is the eventual killer singing back up and “jamming” along with a harmonica. Then there is the most notorious musical number in the film—some horrific New Wave band called Felony plays a song called “Gangster Rock” for seven and a half minutes. By the time it’s over, the song’s annoying refrain is stuck in your head for the rest of the movie. Finally, the film’s most memorable line of dialogue is uttered near the end when a detective who is barely connected to the plot asks the final girl, Paula, “Who are you? What’s your stake in all this?” It’s a question that could be presented to every character in the movie.

But I digress. Again.

It’s my job to extract some sort of meaning from this mess, to come up with a clever take that suggests there is more going on than just an embarrassing narrative failure that still managed to rake in nearly twenty-four million dollars. It took me three miserable viewings to figure out what’s really going on in Graduation Day. Then, of course, in a half-waking state, I realized that the gold nugget of wisdom Graduation Day offers is this:

Life ends after high school.

For most of the conformist, yuppie clones that litter the American landscape, nothing could be more true. High school is it. Life never gets more glorious than scoring a winning touchdown on Friday night or “finger-banging old Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her purty pink panties” in the back of a beat up Chevy on a Saturday night. It’s no accident that the killer and victims in Graduation Day are athletes (save Linnea Quigley, who gets killed simply because she showed her famous tits to her music teacher. But I digress). These are the shining jewels of every high school, and in most cases, as we all know, they go on to get married; work mindless, routine office jobs; put their fluids together to pump out one or two replacement clones and die without ever having established any meaning to their lives. Depressing? Of course. That’s why God invented suicide. But they don’t even have the guts to do that. So, enter Kevin, the goofy thirty-five-year-old with a goofier white-boy afro.

Herb Freed wants us to think Kevin is avenging the death of his true love, Laura. In fact, he is saving his classmates and teammates from entering the adult world and becoming one of the half-dozen jaded, corrupt, dishonest authority figures lurking in and around the high school. Folks like the music teacher, who dresses like Jerry Lewis, talks like Liberace and bangs young girls “just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” Folks like the principal and his secretary (played by a healthy, pre-bulimia Vanna White), who banter back and forth about doing work, particularly the bothersome task of explaining to parents where their children might have gone off to, before agreeing to meet up later to drink and screw. The worst kind of adult these kids can become (and a great many athletes do, in fact, become) is a law enforcement officer. The school cop is a smarmy fuck who threatens to throw the kiddies in jail for smoking weed before lighting up a joint for himself (read: Adults are hypocrites). The detective who shows up late in the movie to look for the students who have been murdered is the worst of them all. He has no interest in doing his job. When asked where his badge is, he shrugs and says, “Must have lost it.” And he harbors no illusions about his feelings towards the youth (thus, the Other) when he tells the principal, “I hate schools.”

The one adult the movie tries to set up for a ninth-inning Gatorade shower of sympathy is the track coach. The film fails, however, for several reasons. The coach is a red-herring right up until the very end. Also, he’s played by the bad guy from El Dorado, Christopher George (who ended his career pretty much the same way Bela Lugosi did, in one bad horror movie after another), who looks like a mean old fuck even when he’s smiling.

Nope. There’s nothing attractive about growing up and becoming “mature.” Adults are just teenagers who are allowed to get away with their bad behavior. The message of Graduation Day is difficult to find, but it’s there:

Trust no one over the age of twenty.

Halloween established, among many other conventions of the slasher genre, the contempt for authority. When Annie’s (Nancy Loomis) father fails to recognize the stench of marijuana in his daughter’s car, the audience knows he’s useless. When he blames the break in at the hardware store on teenagers, the audience knows he’s an enemy. Like most so-called conventions of the slasher genre, this element is used and abandoned throughout the canon of films that picked up the loose dollars Halloween left in its wake. Friday the 13th opens with a truck driver who won’t take a camp counselor all the way to Crystal Lake. That allows Mrs. Voorhees to pick up the unlucky gal and slit her throat in the forest. Like most slasher conventions, the contempt for authority gets twisted around in movies such as Terror Train, where the authority figure is a senior citizen whose demeanor is so friendly the audience can’t help but sympathize with him. This, of course, ruins the convention as it was originally intended. Some films incorporate authority into the band of kids being stalked, an example being The Prowler. The point here, before I digress again, is that the conventions of slasher films, as they have been defined by critics and theorists, are barely conventions since they don’t play out the same way on a consistent basis from film to film.

Graduation Day, however, bears the honor of taking the useless, corrupt authority figure to a campy, inept extreme. The film’s cynical portrayal of all adults is, in fact, its only redeeming feature.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Burning (1981)

by Alec "Just kill me when it's over" Cizak

I realize The Burning has a cult following that adores it. It features good special-effects make-up work by Tom Savini. It’s notable for its cast, which includes Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter (not to mention Brian Backer, who went on to channel Paul Simon and Woody Allen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). The truth of the matter is that it is not a very good slasher. At all. I would go so far as to say that the writers and producers tried to get "clever" with the genre, possibly even attempting to “deconstruct” it while the genre was in its prime.

As much as I loathe and despise “deconstructionism,” I can set my personal feelings aside as “deconstructionism,” with respect to horror films, rarely, if ever, works. While Scream made a lot of money at the box office and started a trend of slick, studio-produced "post-modern" slashers in the late 1990s, purists pretty much agree those movies suck shit out of a donkey’s ass with a straw. Sarah Trencansky backs this view up in her article, “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror.” Trencansky uses a lot of later examples, i.e., A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser, to make the case that 1980s horror movies are subversive in nature (the teenagers representing "the Other") and the polished, nauseating "post-modern" films of the 1990s are more restorative than disruptive of the “dominant culture.” I agree with Trencasky, though I think the movies she’s really talking about, when discussing the 1980s, were made in 1980 and 1981. There are a few examples afterwards, but by 1982, more money is spent in order to make more money and that, by definition, takes the rug out from a low-budget film’s subversive nature. Further, I have a problem including films like A Nightmare on Elm Street in the canon of slasher films because the supernatural element separates those films from the bare-bones model of a human monster stalking young people (and the occasional impotent authority figure).

Okay, so maybe I’m kind of a low-budget snob. A slasher movie, to me, is filmed on a shoe-string budget. It has bare-breasts and buckets of blood. It has a soundtrack that places it firmly in the early 1980s, meaning synthesizers, and lots of ‘em! It appears right in that borderland period between the excessive freedom of the Carter administration and the repressive, deadly clampdown (thank you, The Clash) that occurred when Reagan and Bush took over (remember that Reagan doesn’t take office until 1981, giving the country a year or two to adjust to his oppressive, murderous regime, thus, making the appearance of Rambo and Rocky IV, two films Robert Kolker uses to describe how the clock was suddenly turned back to Cold War paranoia, inevitable; I would go so far as to argue that the “puritanical” aspects of the slasher film were not brought to forefront of the genre until Reagan thoroughly took over--but that’s another article for another time...)

The Burning appears during this time. 1981, which was, in my opinion, the high-point for the slasher genre. The Burning was the first effort by the Weinstein Brothers. That makes quite a bit of sense. They were also responsible for letting Wes Craven unload Scream on a thoroughly impotent 1990s audience of teenagers who had been conditioned to believe that self-consciousness was/is “clever.” It’s not. The Burning proves this.

The film starts off great. A group of teenagers at camp play a horrible prank on the camp’s caretaker. It’s an early example of Reagan-era conformity-fever. The guy is different, so he needs to be punished. The prank--surprise--goes bad, and the weirdo gets engulfed in flames. He survives and is released from the burn ward, horribly disfigured, five years later. In a scene that seems out of place, the pissed off, permanently barbecued caretaker follows a middle-aged hooker up to her room and kills her. Feminist critics have used this scene as an example of the genre’s misogyny towards older women as the hooker looks hideous as she realizes she’s let a freak into her apartment. It’s possible. The truth, I think, is that it’s just a cheap way to set up the reality that the man is going to be a permanent outsider and justifies his exacting revenge on a new batch of campers. Another possibility is that the producers realized how much time passes between the establishment of the campers and the first real killing and stuck the scene in after principal photography wrapped.

What follows is about a forty-five minute rehash of Meatballs. We meet the jokers, the outcast, the suspiciously Aryan-looking bully, the girls, and the camp counselor who--surprise--was one of the little pricks who caused our killer to get burned up five years previous. Noting the obvious ethnic differences between the Ayran bully and the “good” kids and Brian Hacker’s “weirdo” who--gasp--likes to look at naked girls, one begins to suspect the Weinstein brothers are going to use the slasher genre to make a statement about the holocaust. But that would have been too clever (and, I believe, would have fit the film right in with the anti-authoritarian purpose of other slashers being made at the time).

No, instead what follows is just an extended period of character development, which isn’t such a bad thing. It certainly collides with the hypersensitive criticism claiming the victims in slasher films aren’t likeable (that trend, again, evolved with Reagan’s turning the clock back and making individuality a social crime deserving of a machete to the skull). However, the producers simply take too long to get to the slashing. I’m of the Atari generation, so my attention span has not been completely eradicated. I can take story and character development. But in a slasher picture, you need to start carving the kiddies up a whole lot sooner.

When the killing does start, it’s not suspenseful. Tom Savini doesn’t get nearly as gruesome in this one as he does in the (my opinion, folks) vastly superior The Prowler. There is no Final Girl, which I believe takes away one of the genre’s most potent weapons of subversion--the woman who doesn’t need prince charming to save her. Instead, it’s two guys who are symbolically tied to the killer, one being the camp weirdo and the other being the counselor who was partially responsible for the killer’s shish kabob routine in the beginning of the film. There is a long, convoluted chase through what appears to be Civil War ruins (turns out to be a mill or something) and then an anti-climactic face off with the killer.

One element of the film that made me furious was the treatment of sex. While sex in other slashers appears to be “punished,” the kids at least have a good time while they’re doing it. Perhaps foreseeing the repressive Reagan age, the Weinstein brothers decided to make the sex in The Burning unfulfilling. The Aryan bully fails to satisfy his girlfriend and the experience is presented in such a way as to send a repressive message--Don’t have sex, you won’t enjoy it. I’m certain the producers thought they were “deconstructing” the sex in previous slasher films. All they really did was back the status quo, which during Reagan’s regime, was highly represented by the uptight Christian “right.”

That scene alone puts The Burning in the right-wing camp and, by definition, thwarts any other attempt by the film to be radical and subversive. I find it shameful and refuse to recommend this movie to anybody who doesn’t first try to recommend the church to me...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Halloween (1978)

by Matthew "Latent phase" Funk

Sex is scary.

Sure, sex has a lot going for it: biological urge, the romance of bonding with another, all the Red Shoe Diaries hype that society slathers on--we’re soaked with ways sex is a special and positive thing. But every reason that sex is special has a flip-side that’s a reason to be frightened of it. John Carpenter’s Halloween is that fear of sex distilled into a walking, faceless fatality.

Halloween was as much as a creation of its producer and co-writer, Debra Hill, as it was John Carpenter. Hill stitched its dramatic beats together from the fantasy frights she had as a teen babysitter, and the film smacks of both a coming-of-age tale and an urban legend. For those of you who’ve just arrived on Earth, I’ll summarize the story: A little boy, Michael Myers, flips his five-year-old wig one Halloween night and stabs his naked sister into oblivion, before ending up in state’s custody. Years later, Myers escapes from the asylum with his far-beyond-driven doctor on his trail, and goes about murdering a flock of babysitters and another hapless boyfriend.

But really, it’s all about how sex is scary.

It’s stylized, as John Carpenter films tend to be. This also makes it dated. And compared to the latex-happy fare these days, it’s pretty tame. Despite all these expiration dates, Halloween remains a timeless classic. That’s because, like all good myth, it is human experience distilled.

Halloween understands that when puberty hits, libido comes barging in and rifling through your darkest places. Sex, as a force in your life, is urgent and fierce and faceless. You don’t know what it is yet but you know it feels like your life depends on it. Like a horror film stalker, it can’t be seen or escaped, but it sure as Dickens has your number.

Halloween nails the quintessential quality of its message: its menace is faceless and, for most of the film, seen only as a shape or as the gaze of the camera. Myers isn’t shackled by humanizing elements like motivation or fancy gimmicks. He is distinctive in his lack of identity. His only purpose is to be a deadly power pursuing girls and boys awakening to their sexuality.

He does this with supernatural efficiency when it comes to targeting the randy. Myers may have been locked up at Xavier’s School for the Gifted given his ability to vanish from view, detect how scared teens are and invade their dwellings without so much as a busted window. How Halloween is shot drives this home, with Myers’s character being conveyed by the shot’s perspective itself for most of the flick. The Kryptonite to Myers’s baffling powers takes the form of the sexually uninitiated protagonist--whenever Myers goes after the wallflower, Jamie Lee Curtis, he turns into the fourth Stooge.

Putting the cinema-studies analysis to this facelessness shows how pure Halloween’s message is: there is a primal force that wants to kill you because you are naked and horny.

Legends are rife with this breed of cautionary bogeyman. The Greeks used to personify their fears as fickle gods and animal-human hybrids. Later cultures dropped the whole "Furries of Vengeance" bit and invested terror in the garb of these supernatural Scared Straight programs--Grimm’s fairy tales featuring a scissor-wielding maniac who went after nose-picking children’s fingers. Getting a paranormal punisher on your tail for bad behavior is nothing new.

How Halloween made these murderous tales of misbehavior new was by using the medium of film to liberate the vengeful spirit from identity. Myers is just a leering camera shot, stalking his victims, untouchable but all-knowing. Refining the malevolence to perspective itself removes it from the safety of something we can see and face. Myers has no face--he’s just punishment itself: mortality magnetized to teen libido.

When his mug finally is spotted, it’s just a Bill Shatner mask white-washed into anonymity. How better to model libido-made-ghoulish than to have him look like the ghost of the star-faring sexual conquistador of the Enterprise?

There’s really little worth to Halloween beyond this central motif. Jamie Lee Curtis manages a nerve-gripping performance at times. Donald Pleasance, in the role of Myers’s gun-toting therapist, delivers the dramatic goods. Otherwise, the film is just a study in how stilted slasher flicks can be. At this stage in his career, Carpenter only manages to make his supporting cast marginally less zombie-like than the gangland hordes of Assault on Precinct 13. His shots often look like just what they are: a young director trying too hard to amp up the tension.

The real merit is in crafting the antagonist as an archetype: Not an angry human like Freddy Krueger, not a wild animal like Leatherface and not a phantom with a vendetta like Jason Vorhees. Myers is just violence drawn by adolescent sex drive, for no reason other than that’s scary.

The fact that this threadbare motive isn’t so flimsy as to collapse the whole plot is a foundational principle of slasher flicks. On a certain primal level, we understand why sexuality incites horror. Whether from fear of emotional vulnerability to another, or performance anxiety or basic carnal repression, we get that sex has an inherent anxiety--it has power. In Halloween and its many misbegotten spawn, that power is a fatal one.

The only character who escapes that power--Jamie Lee Curtis--is the “virginal” type. Myers has gone through her pals like Ted Bundy on a crack binge, but he balks during the many attempts to do her in. Faced with her sexual innocence, Myers fumbles like an overanxious geek trying to score with the prom queen. He can’t hold the object of his desire and, try as he might with his handy butcher knife, he can’t penetrate her fatality. Just like in the unicorn legends, only a virgin maid can tame the beast without getting the shaft. Jamie Lee manages to bungle her way into defeating him three times before deus ex machina can arrive in the form of Donald Pleasance with an itchy trigger finger. Penetrated by an older male, our phantom of teen sex falls like the limp dick he is and fades away.

Confronted by all these coincidental sex metaphors, Carpenter and Hill have claimed they were unintentional. I only buy that as far as I can throw their ids. They may not have spent weed-fueled late-night brainstorm sessions analyzing why what they were writing was scary, but they knew how scary was supposed to work. Whether Halloween and its host of imitators understood why the ethics of its plot were palatable to the viewing public is irrelevant. That’s like trying to figure out libido itself. They worked because, for the common viewer, they were instinctively understood.

That’s what keeps people buying tickets and what keeps the basic motif of Halloween flowering into knock-offs where the nubile die for nookie. Viewers don’t need Freud sharing their popcorn to get that sex has a whiff of death to it and that the sexually innocent should avoid that fatality if the moral universe is to be sane and orderly.

Even audiences in the know may roll their eyes, but still tune in to see boobs, and those who dare to touch them, drenched in blood. That dark and restless corner of the libido that never quite exited the adolescence into the light is fascinated with sex’s forbidden thrill.

And that’s the sole reason Halloween remains relevant. Out of legions of cinematic exercise, it’s the seminal model--the originator of the modern model for sex as fear. It’s the pure power of the gaze, stripped of all the safety identity grants by clever camera work and minimalist editing. To see it is to stare into the abyss of adolescent libido at its purest and most vulnerable.

If you can look past the Farrah hair and overacting, that is.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

by Jimmy "They Took My Baby Away from Me" Callaway

So, at first, I was gonna take critic Vera Dika's formula for slasher films and apply it to this movie, figuring so much has been said about Texas Chain Saw that I might as well just go ahead and say something someone has already said. But that didn't go so well, so I figure I can do that some other time for another flick actually within Dika's very limited time frame of 1978 to 1984.

So then what? Well, in my umpteenth rewatching of this flick last night, I felt disturbed and uncomfortable, as I often do when watching this movie, and it occurred to me that the only other movie that makes me feel this dirty and oily is 1972's Deliverance. Really pretty obvious on the face of it, and though I'm far from the first high-minded, penny-ante Roger Ebert to come up with the comparison, hey, it's all I've got. I'm a man who knows his limitations.

Deliverance is of course the epic saga of Burt Reynolds and just how downhill his career would go. Burt and Jon Voight and Ned Beatty and New Mexico's own Ronny Cox all decide to go whitewater rafting before the river gets dammed, and find out just how lonely those hillbillies can get. Texas Chain Saw, as the progenitor of the slasher film, took the basic premise of Deliverance and expanded it to include the youth of 1970s America: we dunno where you kids are headed, but it ain't fuckin' pretty.

Texas Chain Saw opens with those grisly shots of dug-up, dismembered corpses, and you're not likely to find a more effectively tone-setting opening. Our merry band drive their boogie-van down to Newt (or is it Newton? Mapquest assures me Newt exists, but no Newton, yet Newt is nowhere near Childress, TX, which is also mentioned in this film as being nearby. Can anyone clear this up, or should I just shut up now?) to ascertain that Sally and Franklin's grandpa's resting place has not been disturbed. Right away, we get almost nothing but the keening discrepancy between these youths of the hippie hey-day and the old-boy South. The secondary characters--sheriff's deputies, local citizens, big-headed mute gas station boys--all ooze a friendly disdain for these five kids and their paisley shirts and incredibly short shorts, but it is indirect and non-confrontational. Personally speaking, the time I've spent in Texas has never been anything short of lovely, the people as friendly as they're reputed. But at the same time one can't deny there is a certain near-condescending attitude towards outsiders. Like when the kids show up at the graveyard, and the one deputy guides Sally away, all like, "Hey, you boys don't mind if I borrow the little miss?" He means her no harm, of course, but he wants the rest to know that even if they did have a problem with it, that would just be their tough shit.

Once they've all been assured that Granddad was just as they'd left him, the kids bug out and read their horoscopes and just generally be youthful. Franklin, Sally's brother, never shuts the fuck up, a choice for which I take my hat off to director Tobe Hooper: it was like he made the handicapped character the most irritating, as if to challenge us to hate him without then feeling guilty for wishing harm on a guy stuck in a wheelchair. Well played, sir.

It's weird to think that there was a time when picking up hitchhikers was a viable option, though I'm certain the release of this film did a lot to un-viable that (actually, I used to live in a hilly rural area, and so would pick up hitchhikers every now and again, just 'cause I knew what it was like being without a car in a hilly rural area. Still no way to not have a creepy, or at the very least awkward, situation when you invite a stranger into your car). Our merry band picks up a hitchhiker out by the slaughterhouse, and he and Franklin immediately get into a heated discussion over current trends in meat-packing. Franklin is well impressed by the captive bolt pistol currently in use, humane and efficient as it is. The hitchhiker loudly shouts that down, hewing instead to the old days of a grated floor and a well-placed sledgehammer. As the first really significant scene, you'd have to be asleep to miss out on the thematic importance of this exchange.

The surface stuff is obvious, but I dig what Hooper does next: the hitchhiker takes out a camera, an old accordion-lens model. He points it around, in his generally creepy way (guys with birthmarks on their faces must really loathe this scene--"Hey, I'm a nice person! Just 'cause I have an overgrowth of melanocytes on my face doesn't make me a Texan cannibal!"), and then snaps a picture of Franklin. When Franklin refuses to buy the photograph, the hitchhiker takes some foil and some flash powder out of his roadkill bag and burns the picture in a display of hoo-doo that finally gets him kicked out of the van. So apparently, the hitchhiker can employ modern(-ish) technology if it's gonna make him money. But if/when it doesn't, he resorts to the old, back-country ways. It's almost as though it's this hypocrisy that makes him unsympathetic, rather than his later horrid, violent actions. I guess Hooper knew he'd have a lotta cynics in the audience, y'know, jerks like me who'd make excuses for sociopathy but not for having double standards.

Anyways, the kids then stop at the filling station and are warned off by the proprietor, whom we find out later is also the eldest of the Leatherface brood. Given that, it's difficult to figure later if he's genuinely warning them off from exploring their old family home, whether out of concern for their well-being or for them discovering his family's distinctly anti-social ways. Or he could have been inviting them to stay and have some BBQ with the intent of luring them into the oven that way. Hard to say in the context of this movie, though I gather his character is a little more fleshed-out (har) in the sequel. I choose to read the Old Man's character here as being at least a bit sympathetic: as we see later, he has little stomach for actual violence, though he does seem to delight in torturing poor little Sally. So it's like he's saying here, "Look, y'all, I know me and my kin all too well, so please don't put us in a position where we have to slaughter y'all up and have you for Sunday supper." Doesn't make him likable, but it does put an interesting spin on his character, and also will allow Hooper something of a back door for his final girl to escape.

And then Leatherface. Oh, Gunnar Hansen, you are truly one of the unsung actors of your generation. I think the fact that Hansen has no dialogue at all in this film really allows him to do the finest acting in the movie. As with most exploitation films, the acting is far from marquee-billing, but the way Leatherface gets to emote by screaming and cross-dressing actually makes his acting the most subtle and nuanced, if you can dig that. First up on the chopping block is Kirk, who never sees it coming, thereby setting the tradition for just about every slasher-victim to follow. When I first saw this flick as a teenager, that first kill was such a release: I'd been held tight in the grip of tension and mostly laughable characterization. Then out pops Leatherface, like he's on some twisted Laugh-In set, quick sledge to Kirk's skull, and then back out of camera range. Tobe Hooper will always remain one of my favorite directors just for the way he set up that shot alone, placing the audience at a distance, helpless. The visceral close-up certainly makes sense, but you'd think after that had been done over and over and over again, some half-assed director woulda gone, "Hey, why don't we try to steal directly from Texas Chain Saw for this scene?"

Poor little Pammy is next on the killing floor, and Hooper's early use of the Gaze here is interesting. Kirk, Jerry, and Franklin never really have a chance because, even though Jerry and Franklin actually get to see Leatherface before he dispatches them to the meat-locker, by then it's just too late. Pam is at least given a running start because she actually manages to lay eyes on her killer before he does away with her. It doesn't do her much good, but that shot of her actually making it to the porch of the Leatherface household before he drags her back in probably comes in second-place for my most chilling visuals in this flick.

Pam getting the meat-hook here was also probably the beginning of people considering the slasher genre to be largely misogynistic. And though I disagree, it's hard not to see Pam being literally treated as a piece of meat as anything less than non-feminist. But as often happens, the actions of the characters--particularly the antagonists--are being confused with those of the filmmakers. It seems as plain as day to me that Leatherface and his family have got some major fucking issues with the fairer sex, to say the very least, and this is not to be celebrated or empathized with by the audience, but is to add to the audience's revulsion for them.

And as long as we're on the subject, let's talk about Leatherface's wardrobe, shall we? Firstly, aesthetically speaking, I have no greater favorite look for a killer. A mask made of human flesh on a hulking man-child who speaks in grunts and shrieks is almost a prerequisite, even at this early stage of the genre. But when we first meet him, he's wearing a shirt and tie and (unless I'm very much mistaken) a butcher's apron. This is day-time Leatherface, hard-at-work Leatherface. A guy who lives in the middle of nowhere and cuts people up with a chainsaw still takes the time to tie a tie in the morning. That alone really sets my mind to reeling, and actually does make Leatherface at least that much more sympathetic, despite it all. That drive to still be normal, despite the fact that normalcy waved bye-bye to you a long time ago--I dunno, would it be completely weird if I said I could fully relate? (Yes.) And then from there, he drags it up, which is just kind of funny on its own, but also speaks volumes as to how far a woman's touch really matters. Even the shittiest grad student in the world could connect those dots for you, especially when Leatherface changes into his more formal dining gown. Man, I'm just prattling on at this point; lemme try and delineate:

Leatherface wears a mask made of human skin to simultaneously hide himself from the world and as a (failed) attempt to seem more human. He dresses like a butcher because that way he is one: a nice, normal, friendly neighborhood butcher, who still puts a thumb on the scale, but in a much sicker way. He becomes Suzy Homemaker when it's time to cook dinner and takes the Old Man's abuse because a woman's place is in the kitchen and on the end of the strap. He becomes a glamorous hostess during the cocktail hour, likely because they will be dining with (and on) guests that evening. The perverse logic in play here is only all the more appealing since it's never directly addressed. And this is why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is truly one of the finest examples of American cinema: for all the exploitative trappings herein, Tobe Hooper's eye for detail in this regard sets him and his work above the bland and the average.

Let's talk Grandpa. By this point in the movie, everybody's been killed except for Sally. Leatherface and his brothers are all het up over the king's ransom of fresh meat they've got now, and then hubris rears its classical head. The boys are so excited, so proud of this little blonde side of beef they've got, that they want Grandpa to have the distinct pleasure of slaughtering her himself. Of all the crazy shit these boys get up to, this is by far the craziest. It doesn't matter how out of their minds they are, you'd think one of them would say, "Hey, ol' Gramps is pretty much a corpse at this point. I mean, fun is fun, boys, but maybe we oughtta be a little more careful with our acquisition here is alls I'm sayin'." But like I was kind of getting at before, this characteristic wrinkle allows Hooper a nice out for his protagonist, so much so that one barely blinks when it's suddenly morning, and Leatherface is suddenly in his Sunday-go-to-meetin' suit, and suddenly their house is near enough a major highway that a trailer-truck not only arrives to flatten Brother Hitchhiker, but also a Samaritan pick-up truck can pass by to whisk Sally away.

Given the earlier double-standard about the new ways vs. the old ways that we saw with the Hitchhiker, it's a fitting end for him to get mowed down by an 18-wheeler, driven by a black guy, no less. You can try to hew to the old ways however half-assedly you want, but just as Sally and her friends were caught unawares by the back-country killin' culture of Leatherface and his family, so too are the boys so caught up in their mindset that little things like Grampa's inability to hold a hammer or the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street fatally slip their minds. Even Leatherface, clearly the most successful crazy guy in this crazy family, loses control of his own chainsaw, which is like another limb at this point, and slices his own leg open. You just can't have it both ways, fellas, as much as you might not want to hear that.

And another nice thing about this final scene is that it sets up another slasher tradition wherein the final girl escapes with her life but not any semblance of normality. This final sequence contains what is easily Marilyn Burns's finest acting in the film, if not ever in her career. She is at once hysterical with fear and with joy at her escape, and that particular blend would be difficult for anyone to convey. Before we cut back to Leatherface and his impotent chainsaw/dick-swinging, we can see in Sally's face that, though she's glad to be alive, she also wishes she were dead. There's the rub.

To get back to my abandoned Deliverance analogy: when we were in our early 20s, my buddy Craig and I finally rented that flick, and were all a-giggle for the famous rape scene we knew was forthcoming. But when it actually happened, we were nauseated and creeped thoroughly out. This is how I constantly come at The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: it always feels like I'll get a couple beers in me and say, "Hey, ain't watched that in a while, think I'll pop it in." And then I remember, "Oh yeah, this isn't a 'fun' movie. It's a horrible and horribly well-made chunk of cinema which is about as purely transgressive as one can get."

Which is obvious to just about everybody but me, it would seem.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

by Brian S. "The Moonpie Murderer" Roe

Charles B. Pierce was an ambitious man. Not content to merely help in the making of films as a set director, Pierce also wanted to produce and direct. And although his films were sometimes successful, they also suffered from many of the constant curses of local independent films: bad acting, lack of direction, and random voice-overs. All of these curses are in evidence in Pierce’s 1977 drive-in background noise The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The movie is based on several real killings and attacks that occurred in Texarkana in 1946. The attacker had all of the gimmicks that would become standard tropes for slasher-movie killers: he was never caught, he wore a mask, and he had cool names stuck to him. The Phantom Killer, The Texarkana Phantom (or simply The Phantom), The Phantom Slayer and The Moonlight Murderer. I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t want to be The Moonlight Murderer? The actual attacks were cruel and brutal with a blatant sexual element that implied a person incapable of getting off and who wanted to hurt people as a form of release.

So what a great idea for a light-hearted cop comedy! There’s a severely flawed concept behind TTTDS that everytime the audience sees something nasty happen, give them a little Keystone Kops and they’ll feel better. And the worst offender as an actor is the ambitious man himself, Charles B. Pierce.

The movie begins well enough with several slice-of-life set-up scenes describing Texarkana immediately after World War II. These play almost like documentary footage or home movies from a time when people still threw actual rice at weddings (Fuck the birds). Texarkana is described as a decent town where a lot of returning soldiers were going to college on the GI Bill, people were wanting spiffy new cars, and lots of homes were being built. All in all, a pretty snug little burg.

Then a really cute 1940s-style girl and her Crypt Keeper-looking boyfriend are attacked in a hidden lovers' rendezvous. The actual attack in this scene is pretty blunt and straight forward. The killer is totally in control of things, and his glaring eyes from beneath his gunny-sack mask are intimidating and iconic. The Phantom’s mask becomes another character in this movie, swelling like an attacking fish as the killer breathes out and contracting to form the shape of his skull as he breathes in.

Two brief scenes stand out during this sequence. After the boyfriend has been dispatched, the killer crawls into the car with the still screaming girl. Then the car begins to rock. The implication that something foul is happening here is pretty awful. There’s something vulgar about the rocking of the car as the girl’s screams fade. And this is followed up by some very unkind images of the beaten and mud-spattered girl crawling along the side of road begging for help from passing motorists.

"But what about the comedy, Roe?! I needs me some chuckles if I’m going to get through this whole thing."

Which leads me to fucking Sparkplug. Fuck you, Sparkplug. Director/producer Pierce loves putting himself in his movies. He thinks he’s an action hero, college professor, policeman, and comedy fucking genius. In TTTDS, he plays Patrolman A.C. Benson, a.k.a. Sparkplug, a pissy little good-for-nothing dickhead who can’t drive and threatens to shoot some old broad’s dog when he comes over to kick the shit out of her son. Sparkplug has two facial expressions both apparently designed to make me want to destroy him. One is angry and slightly unhinged. The other is disbelieving and slightly unhinged. Several times in the movie, he fucks up some simple task and then gives this odd glare to whoever rails on him about it. The guy just seems unpleasant, stupid, and violent. Great choice for a cop, Texarkana! Actually my main candidate for who the killer was is Sparkplug. Except he’d fuck that up too.

Wait a minute, back to the killing and assaulting and such. Another couple goes out and gets all attacked while Deputy Norman Ramsey tries to find them on a lonely, rain-deluged road. Again this sequence plays out well, even though it is shot day-for-night and has some of the most awkward and unnecessary Foley work in any movie. While Ramsey is trying to cross a pond in pursuit of the killer, his footsteps in the water are matched with sounds that are obviously someone splashing in a tub. And then just to reinforce that this is a pond, a very out-of-place bullfrog croaks loudly. I’m surprised that this wasn’t followed up by the sound of a cartoon frog tongue-zapping a fly out of the air.

The deputy is played by Andrew Prine (one of two actual actors in this film) with a reserve and decency that makes the character likeable and trustworthy. Upon witnessing the aftermath of the first attack, Deputy Ramsey seems truly shaken and pissed off, not in a Walking Tall way, but in the way that actual cops must feel sometimes. There was nothing he could do about the first attack but during this second assault, he might have a chance to stop the killer. But the rain slows his running and he finally gets close enough to the suspect to see him drive away. Justice will not be served on this sad, tragic day.

Oh, wait! More comedy, says you? So Sparkplug dresses up like a woman and his balloon tits are different sizes and Jimmy Clem (yes, THE Jimmy Clem) tries to feel him up during a sting operation. And then one totally pops! High-larious!

Okay, I’m tired of this bullshit back-and-forth routine, so I’ll just talk about Ben Johnson and be done with it. Ben Johnson is one of those dudes who was born in the real American West and carries it in his voice like iron thunder. The guy just walks into the movie and it starts to swirl around him. Even the simple act of buying cigars just seems powerful somehow. If you haven’t seen The Wild Bunch (which includes so many other powerfully grizzled fucking actors that it should have a monument for it made from hand-carved oak and cast iron), check it out. Or Cherry 2000 is good too. So yeah, Ben Johnson, the other real actor in this movie.

What else? Jimmy Clem comes off really bear-gay here. There’s a really sad but stupid killing with a trombone. The guy who wrote the movie tries to act. All the black people in the movie are either servants or are getting called “darkie”. Oh and Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island is in it (How I pine for Ginger).

The Town That Dreaded Sundown shares a lot of similarities with the David Fincher film Zodiac. Except that Zodiac had a clear purpose and story to tell. Pierce had the basic tools to make a film that, for its time, could have been somewhat as powerful as Zodiac. There are glimpses here that show something pretty creative at work. But you can’t make two kinds of film simultaneously and expect them to work. Especially the oil-and-water mix of brutal assault and murder and goofy cop humor. Perhaps Pierce was just trying to add some treacle to the brimstone. Instead he made something oddly indigestible and empty.

Charles B. Pierce: A Brief Appreciation

For all the foulness that I sling at Charles Pierce, I actually respect him greatly. I respect anyone who can get a single film made, let alone a dozen. When I first started writing this piece, I found out that Charles Pierce had died. Suddenly I didn’t feel like mocking him anymore. The guy had done his time on Earth, had made some stuff, given me some entertainment (even if this was indirectly his doing sometimes), and often worked locally, giving his friends and neighbors parts in the great Hollywood machine that they never would have been a part of otherwise. Besides he was born in Indiana, so I feel for him.

Although Pierce worked primarily as a Hollywood set decorator, he still pushed himself to produce and direct his own films locally. With the success of the original Boggy Creek, he helped to create an independent film style that used the grit and dirt of real life to heighten the experience of certain types of films. The horror movie genre would look very different today without the involvement of Charles Pierce.

Seeing many of the same actors in The Town That Dreaded Sundown that were in Boggy Creek 2 made me realize that Pierce, much like the often but unfairly maligned Ed Wood, had built a group of people around him that liked him enough to be in his movies. Try getting a group of your friends to make a movie in summer in Arkansas and you’ll see what I mean. Dedication to filmmaking is laudable even if the end results are uneven or could have been improved by a little more care, craft, or money. Pierce said, “Damn it! I want to make movies in Arkansas.”

And he did.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cheerleader Camp (1988)

by Jimmy "Push 'em back, push 'em back, way back!" Callaway

What is it about cheerleaders that holds them fast in the sexual fantasy life of the average American male, age 8 to 88? Is it because they act as a counterpoint to the sweaty, testosterone-soaked sporting events where they are so often found? Is it because they represent wholesome Americana and make us pine for a simpler time, when masturbation was satisfying in and of itself? Is it because we're all really, in our heart of hearts, the oily, creepy music teacher who lingers a bit too much around the lower field during cheer try-outs?

These are all burning questions for the intelligent pervert, and Cheerleader Camp seeks to answer none of them. The flick does, however, answer the question of why I kinda feel sorry for Leif Garrett. It's certainly not because he got all strung out on drugs. Hell, if anything I envy him that, even if only because he got to go out with Justine Bateman at the time. No, it's because of Three for the Road. That very short-lived show also featured Alex Rocco, better known either as Moe Greene or Roger Meyers, Jr., depending on who you ask. It also co-starred Vince Van Patten, who had the good sense to star in Rock 'n' Roll High School before taking the world of men's tennis by storm. See that? The show that launched Leif Garrett's career also thrust him into the god-awful world of '70s pop music, then left him hanging out to dry in the '80s in shithole movies like this one, while his two castmates barely noticed, one because he's talented and one because he's a Van Patten. I dunno, maybe I'm nuts, but it just kinda seems like a raw deal.

And trust me, you can see in ol' Leif's cutie-pie face as he slogs through this piece of shit, he wishes he'd never gotten that callback for Walking Tall. Cheerleader Camp is one of the slew of late '80s slasher flicks which, like the last two Sleepaway Camp movies, abandons all pretense of being a creative project. Tits, blood, bad jokes, more blood: that's the formula, and we're sticking to it.

The movie opens with a dream sequence that sets up one theme purposefully and another quite accidentally. Tonight's final girl, Allison, is dreaming that she's running late for a big cheer competition, and then she falls flat on her face in a mud puddle. Her mother and father are the only ones in the stands and they walk off disgusted as their daughter makes a fool of herself. Right off, you can see the filmmakers wanting to use the dream sequence as a motif to say something about the futility of competition; that empty ambition, a pointless desire to "win," is always going to be frustrated. And I so desperately want to concede that to them, I do. But the other theme this scene sets up is that these guys flat out suck at making movies. Whatever original or interesting ideas that are to be found in Cheerleader Camp are always almost immediately quashed by bad acting or bad hair or bad dialogue. An A for effort, seriously. But a big F-, all around.

The main kids in the movie are all from Lindo Valley. It's never clear just what sort of institution is Lindo Valley, exactly. Some of the dialogue implies it's not a high school, but is it a community college? A technical school? I dunno. I guess they didn't make it a high school since there's nudity and stuff in the movie, and that might imply kiddie porn of some kind. But Porky's and a ton of other movies never seemed to have a problem with this. Anyways, they all pile in the van and go up to Camp Hurrah, in order to further perfect their cupies and their teddy-sits. Leif Garrett plays Brent, the rarin' go-getter who's in it to win it (if he's in it to win anything except a receding hairline, however, he's shit out of luck) and also Allison's boyfriend. The only other dude in the group is Timmy, the standard big, fat party animal, the sorta guy we could blame on John Belushi if we wanted to (but St. Belushi can still do no wrong, in my eyes).

What is it with the late 1980s in that every single girl has the exact same hairstyle? It's almost hypnotising. They all have that poofy sorta poodle-cut, like each and every one of them are in Poison. This isn't to say they're not all quite easy on the eyes, especially future porn star Teri Weigel. Man, she's hot. She's got those sleepy eyes and pouty lips and everything. Definitely cold shower material. She still looks good today, even if she's had a bit of work done and mostly does MILF porn, which phenomenon is getting a bit creepy, even for me.

What were we talking about? Oh, right, tits. Right away, Brent starts making goo-goo eyes at the other cheerleaders at Camp Hurrah, yet somehow they're able to resist his trainer mullet. Allison is upset, naturally, but when one of the other girls ends up dead, Allison starts to wonder just how upset she really was. See, little Allie's been having nightmares and is all looped up on psychotropics, so she thinks she may be capable of anything while whacked on lithium. Cory, the Lindo Valley mascot (which renders her an untouchable by her cheermates), does her best to be a friend to Allison, and Allison returns the favor by having acting skills more wooden than the Black Forest.

Sadly, Pam as played by Teri Weigel is the next victim. Happily, there's a sex scene with her beforehand (although it is unhappily also with Leif Garrett). Oh well, there's only, like, ten minutes left, right? What? Another hour? Oh, man, this is not gonna be easy.

Everybody gets killed and they die, the end.

Now, I get that budget constraints are often going to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. And so I'm willing to look the other way on some things. The mascot costumes in this movie, for example. They all look like they were in the cut-out bin down at Party City on November 1st, certainly not top-of-the-line mascot wear. But hey, I get it, you work with what you have. But I'll tell you what, as soon as you get the screenplay and there's a scene that calls for Leif Garrett to rap, I will go into my own pocket to buy the Liquid Paper to fix that. If you wanna go ahead with it, then I got no sympathy for you.

Give up your dreams, filmmakers, that's all I'm saying. They're not that big a deal, especially when they seem to mainly involve getting girls to take their tops off. Hell, I've managed to do that more than once without having to tell them I'm a movie producer. Just stop making movies when you suck so hard. You can have all the C-list punk bands (by the way, Sounds of Suksexx, please do not reform) and all the Buck Flowers you want to keep your penny-pinching producers happy. Round up the local Bakersfield High cheer squad as extras, g'ahead. It'll be difficult to make a good movie with that thin a gruel, but it can be done. And if you can't do it, then it's simple: fucking give up.

How's that for school spirit?