Monday, October 16, 2017

Cardboard Science: Roger That

Now that we’re firmly settled into our Amityville marathon, it’s time for that other October tradition: Popcorn Culture’s annual crossover with Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue! I’ve given him three more Census Bloodbath slashers to peruse, and in return I shall be covering another trio of 50’s sci-fi pictures for Cardboard Science!

Year: 1958
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Peter Graves, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef 
Run Time: 1 hour 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

Can you believe we’ve been doing this project for four years now and I’ve never been assigned a Roger Corman movie until now? I’m trying to get into the Cardboard Science undergraduate program after all, and Corman is a pre-requisite. The man has worn many hats (including shepherding a host of Poe films for AIP, starting the careers of Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, and Francis Ford Coppola, and more recently producing a slew of SyFy Channel originals), but the man who can shoot a film in five days with a script written on a napkin has rightfully earned his status as an icon of 50’s B-movies.

I’ve only spent time with Corman-as-director in 1960, having seen two of his films from that year: Little Shop of Horrors and House of Usher. And if you’re surprised he had two films come out in the same year, you’re not paying attention. But I digress. Let’s get to the topic at hand, my very first 50’s Corman film and one of his four pictures released in 1956 (it must have been a slow year): It Conquered the World.

And no, that’s not a headline describing the box office of September 2017.

The It in question is an alien being from Venus, who is holed up in a hot spring cave in that exact stretch of rocky, deserty wilderness that lies just outside every small town in America, according to 50’s B-movies. It has been in communication with Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef, of every spaghetti Western you’ve ever heard of), a physicist who has become a laughingstock thanks to his theories about extraterrestrials spying on planet Earth. Unfortunately he turns out to be right when a team led by Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves of Airplane! and probably some other stuff) launches a satellite into space, prompting It to pay earth a little visit.

While It uses its eight mind-controlling devices (attached to flapping plastic bats) to take over the town leaders by removing their emotion and humanity, Paul runs around trying to save the world and Tom attempts to help It carry out its dastardly plan, believing that It is helping to create a more sable, rational world in which he will be a high-ranking member. Meanwhile, Tom’s wife Claire (Beverly Garland) tries everything she can to talk him into resisting It’s evil influence.

It Ruined Her Marriage

At first glance, It Conquered the World is very derivative of a lot of other sci-fi flicks. When It arrives, it causes all the machines in town to shut down, á là The Day the Earth Stood Still. And there’s no ignoring just how similar the Controlled humans are to Pod People (Invasion of the Body Snatchers did come out in the same year, but the five months between the two should have given Corman more than enough time to steal the idea, considering his typical production schedule. Although it might be the case that both films were ripping off Invaders from Mars). But what works works, and when Corman sets his mind to it, he can make an allegorical B-movie even better than the next guy.

The way I see it, It Conquered the World is another treatise against communism and conformity, only with an unexpectedly rich philosophical duality between the red-blooded American Paul and nebbish outcast Tom. The movie is extremely wordy, with scene after scene of the men and their wives carving their way through mountains of dialogue, but the ideas at the center - while naturally pretty simplistic and retrograde – are fleshed out in a way that’s both consistent throughout the film and actually pretty compelling.

Plus, it’s for the best that the movie is mostly dialogue, because when we do pay a visit to the monstrous Venusian, it’s… rough. It resembles nothing more than an ice cream cone with fangs, drizzled in chocolate, wearing a condom on its head. Also it has lobster claws for some reason. It’s a perfectly hilarious B-movie creature, which is one reason I signed up to watch these things, but it makes it harder to take that parts that I actually like very seriously.

Behold his divine majesty!

Not only is It Conquered the World reasonably smart, it’s also unusually dour for a film of its vintage. More cautionary tale than rah-rah jingoistic fantasy, it has no qualms about straight-up murdering major characters. It’s not like we haven’t seen people being shoveled into the mouths of monsters by the handful in films like Godzilla, Beginning of the End, or The Giant Claw, but there’s something about the deaths here that are particularly brutal and violent. 

There’s no blood of course, but the deaths are perpetrated by other human beings rather than monsters. I dare you to watch through every 50’s sci-fi movie and find a single other scene where a woman is casually strangled to death or a man shoots his own wife point-blank. Hell, a portion of this movie’s microscopic effects budget was doled out to a plot-nonessential sequence of an airplane falling out of the sky and exploding! It’s very intent on grinding your face into the darker side of an alien invasion.

It Conquered the World feels like it’s breaking the rules of what these things are supposed to be, even as it’s trafficking in all the genre trappings, plot beats, and subtext that contemporary audiences had seen a million times before. Plus, although things end up pretty much exactly as expected, in the third act Beverly Garland takes up arm against the creature in a badass release of pent-up rage and feminist fury. Of course no 50’s movie was equipped to handle that type of scene well, but it’s one of the best, most exhilarating examples that I’ve yet seen. Forget film noir femme fatales, Beverly Garland is a proto-Linda Hamilton and I’m into. it.

In short, It Conquered the World is actually a pretty stellar piece, for what it is. It’s no minted classic like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it has a unique sensibility that propels it a very long way.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The idea that an alien intelligence would notice the launch of a single satellite has now become quite preposterous.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When a lieutenant is informed that the town is now under martial law, he exclaims, “Golly!”
  • Claire’s tiny little woman brain can’t handle Tom and Paul talking science over dinner: “Maybe you’ve got something in space medicine I can use for a headache.”
  • When the satellite equipment malfunctions, the one woman in the room feels the need to apologize.
  • At one point Paul describes his too-small bike seat as being built for the “spanking size,” which I’m pretty sure can Only mean what I think it means.
Sensawunda:
  • At one point, Tom refers to having worked on the Manhattan project in “War 2.” In addition to being the 8000th B-movie to name-drop nuclear testing, it’s the weirdest way I’ve ever heard of referring to that war.
  • Dick Miller is featured here in only his third movie role, at the bright beginning of the career that would give him parts in dozens of movies produced by Corman and his compatriots.
TL;DR: It Conquered the World is a cheap, crappy sci-fi picture with a surprisingly violent sensibility and strong subtext that lifts it above a lot of its contemporaries.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1311
Reviews In This Series
It Conquered the World (Popcorn Culture - Corman, 1956)

Monday, October 9, 2017

When I Sleep, I Dream And It Gets Me By

Year: 1990
Director: Tom Berry
Cast: Kim Coates, Dawna Wightman, Helen Hughes
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

And… here’s where this marathon is going to get tough, as if it wasn’t a hard pill to swallow from square one. After fending off the direct-to-video doldrums for four entries and eleven years, the swiftly declining haunted house series succumbed to the pull of its mediocre horror destiny with its fifth entry, The Amityville Curse.

At this point, I can’t help but worry that my reviews will begin to deteriorate, as there are only so many variations on “boring and poorly made motion picture goes through the motions of a haunted house thriller” that I can pull out of my brain. But let’s see if I can squeeze a few more drops out of this godforsaken franchise, shall we?

Lord knows Hollywood seems to be able to.

Well, at least there’s some semblance of a plot. Let’s talk about it. Twelve years after a priest (Jan Rubes) is shot to death in a confessional, his dilapidated house is bought by newlywed couple; Marvin (David Syerin) and Debbie (Dawna Wightman). It’s a surprise they’ve managed to stay together even this long, because they quite transparently loathe each other. Debbie is a psychic who has been receiving visions in her dreams of evil forces lurking in the house, and Marvin is a psychologist skeptic who scoffs at everything she believes in and stands for.

The couple is joined for the week by three friends who for some reason have agreed to drop everything and help them remodel the house. They promptly set into acting like a bunch of randy teens because this is a horror movie, even if they’re patently too old to be behaving this way. These bizarre houseguests include horny sex couple Abigail (Cassandra Gava) and Frank (Kim Coates of Sons of Anarchy in an early role), and Bill (Anthony Dean Rubes), about whom we know nothing other than he has a penchant for wearing stripes. Bill is by far the most mysterious thing in the movie, much more so than the shadowy presence who is bumping off the people in the house, starting with the one-eyed neighbor Mrs. Moriarty (Helen Hughes).

Also, spooky paranormal things happen, but they really take a back seat to scenes of remodeling and half-baked drama about Abigail’s fidelity.

Though that drama is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that you’d need a Clockwork Orange machine for it to even register.

As you may have noticed, this is the movie where the franchise really starts to lose the plot. Even the “haunted floor lamp in California” entry has stronger ties to the events of The Amityville Horror than Curse, which contents itself to merely present a paranormal story that takes place in the same town. As if Amityville, Long Island was built over a Hellmouth or something. As much as it behooves the franchise to break from the limiting confines of the “true” Amityville story, you just can’t expect to succeed when you oust the franchise’s most consistent and compelling character: the house, with its iconic arched, angry windows.

That house and its excellent expressionistic design went a long way toward delivering the chills even in the chintziest, most boring sequences the franchise had to offer. And The Amityville Curse is nothing if not chintzy and boring. The anonymous, squat pile of bricks at the center of Curse sucks out every last molecule of atmosphere, revealing the disappointingly bare foundation that all of these films have been built on.

The Amityville Curse revels in its own tedium, unspooling scene after scene of character interactions that have just enough flavor for you to despise every one of the players involved, but yet not enough to actually pique even the slightest amount of interest in their dealings. The plot seems to center around the vague shape of a mystery, but it’s so ineptly handled that the Huge Twist is something I just took for granted like 20 minutes in. There’s nothing to latch onto for at least an hour, other than a handful of lines written with an iota of pith and one or two shock gags that you can find scary if you really focus.

Forgive me for trying to feel something while sitting through this movie.

The only truly interesting thing about The Amityville Curse is that, by the end of the third act, it completely forgets that it’s a ghost movie. You see, the mysterious figure who has been murdering the hell out of folks turns out to be an actual flesh and blood human being, and just like that we have a slasher film on our hands. The Amityville Curse is so much of a slasher, in fact, that had this been released a year earlier, I would have had to strongly consider including it in Census Bloodbath.

And wouldn’t you know it, Debbie is actually a pretty capable Final Girl. Drawing inspiration from other hardcore heroines in terrible movies like The Demon or Lady Stay Dead, she gets creative when she’s in survival mode, using saw blades as Frisbees and even giving us a passable gore gag when crushing the killer’s fingers in a door.

Of course, this trick didn’t make me like The Demon or Lady Stay Dead any more, so it certainly doesn’t do the trick with The Amityville Curse. Ten relatively thrilling minutes don’t make up for all that wasted time sitting through this movie when I could have been doing something more interesting and rewarding, like watching a leaky roof drip water into a bucket, or pricking my own finger with a thumbtack.

TL;DR: The Amityville Curse make a surprising turn into decent slasher territory, but it's too little too late.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 963
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)

It's Everywhere I Go, It's Everything I See

Year: 1989
Director: Sandor Stern
Cast: Patty Duke, Jane Wyatt, Fredric Lehne 
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’m writing some of these reviews ahead of time because there are so damn many to get through, and cramming all these viewings into the span of one month would strain my hair-pulling muscles. If you’ll permit a peek behind the curtain, I’d like to tell you that it’s been a full month and a half since I’ve sat through an Amityville film. As much as I enjoyed Amityville 3-D, it took that long for my spirit to recover from the lashing that the original Amityville trilogy inflicted upon it.

It was with great trepidation that I stuck my toe back into the water of this franchise, but I’m pleased to report that – for the time being, anyway – Amityville has seemed to settle at the blissfully dumb register of mid-range horror sequels, which is really all I ask. After 3-D’s dismal box office got the franchise booted out of theaters and set on hiatus for six long years, the TV movie gods saw fit to resurrect it in the shape of a Patty Duke vehicle dubbed Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes. And this is not a drill, it’s about a haunted lamp.

I live for these moments.

Amityville 4 opens the way every haunted house sequel should: six priests descend upon that dastardly Long Island home with the glaring eyes it pretends are windows, and they exorcise the f**k out of it. They appear to be successful, minus the fact that the studly, cleft-chinned Father Kibbler (Fredric Lehne, who has had a thriving career appearing in one to three episodes of every show you’ve ever watched on a hotel TV set while waiting for your turn to take a shower) was sent to the hospital after a nasty encounter with a possessed floor lamp that looks like it sprouted straight out of the opening credits of Hannibal.

Wouldn’t you know it, but a hapless antique shopper (Days of Our Lives stalwart Peggy McCay) with a pronounced sense of irony picks up the very same lamp at a yard sale and ships it off to her sister Alice (Jane Wyatt) for her birthday, but not before cutting herself on a jagged edge and dying of a mysterious infection. As luck would have it, the lamp arrives at Alice’s seaside California abode on the very same day as her mostly estranged daughter Nancy (Patty Duke), who was recently made a widow by a husband her mother never approved of. In tow are her three kids: teen daughter Amanda (Zoe Trilling, for whom this would not be the last horror sequel – her credits include Night of the Demons 2 and Leprechaun 3), pre-adolescent son Brian (Aron Eisenberg of Star Trek: Deep Space 9) and blonde moppet Jessica (Brandy Gold), who almost immediately begins talking to the lamp as if its her dead father.

As tensions rise between mother and daughter, the haunted lamp uses its power over household appliances to terrorize the family as it attempts to possess Jessica, for reasons of… I don’t know, evil or something.

Look, the fact that there’s even a plot at all is remarkable. Let’s not push it.

Sandor Stern, the auteur who wrote and directed Amityville 4, has a prior link to the franchise, having penned the screenplay for the original film. One would think this would be a detraction, given how messy and overlong that movie is, but honestly it’s a recipe for bad movie magic. With the street cred of having created the massively successful The Amityville Horror, its seems like he was given carte blanche to duck down whatever narrative rabbit holes he wished, and he did so with ravenous gusto.

Amityville 4 is bananas. It doesn’t have the budget to give us the truly ridiculous rubber creature antics of The Possession or 3-D, but the crackerjack “haunted lamp” idea is just the tip of the iceberg. We get people strangled with lamp cords, severed garbage disposal hands attacking plumbers, and what can only be described as a basement chainsaw battle between a young boy and an elderly maid. The script drops the ball on some of its most interesting ideas (the chainsaw sequence could have led to some good intrigue that sputters and stalls almost instantly, and the “Golden Girls vs. haunted lamp” movie the opening scene promises would almost certainly have been better than what we get), but the random fragments it has are still totally nuts.

Also, apropos of nothing, there’s a scene shot at the same high school as A Nightmare on Elm Street, so that’s rad.

But as much as Amityville 4 fails to cash in on some of the more interesting plot threads, the story at the core is completely solid. It’s all blandly functional boilerplate, there’s no two ways about it, but it’s a decently acted, reasonably engaging way to pass the time between fun fair fright gags. It might help a teensy bit that all the male side characters are extremely easy on the eyes, but in these marathons I must use every foothold I can get.

I’m not here to pretend that this movie is a great piece of filmmaking or a compelling diamond in the rough. But it’s affably dumb, and what more could you want from the fourth entry in a franchise that was already rotten from the beginning? The filmmaking doesn’t come anywhere close to the heights of The Amityville Horror, but The Evil Escapes has an eminently watchable quality that the original lacks. 

It might not boast the subtly chilling horror of muzzle flashes as viewed through the windows of a house in a nerve-shattering static shot, but it has a moment where an elderly woman suddenly develops super-strength and throws a floor lamp through an attic window onto a rocky beach, whereupon it explodes like it has been soaked in kerosene. That’s good enough for me.

P.S.: I didn’t have anywhere to put this in the article, but I had to mention the fact that there’s a sequence that opens with the teen daughter dumping two entire huge bowls of salad into a garbage disposal, and if that’s not the most beautifully insane way to motivate a scene, I don’t know what is.

TL;DR: Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes is dumb as rocks, but there's something inherently watchable about it.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1077
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)

Friday, October 6, 2017

I Can Make Believe That You're Here Tonight


Year: 1983
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, Robert Joy
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This is the moment I’ve second most been looking forward to in our Amityville marathon (the number one anticipated moment being Ryan Reynolds taking a bath, but we’ve got quite a lot to trudge through first): the infamous 3-D entry! Not only is Amityville 3-D the third film in the franchise, it’s the final third of the trifecta of Part 3-D’s that plagued the early 80’s, after Friday the 13th and Jaws had both had their wicked way with the format.

The 3-D gimmick promises a lot. It promises hilariously obvious sequences of people slowly poking long objects into the frame. It promises lengthy, unmotivated shots of glass bursting or flies buzzing that make way less sense in the unconverted 2-D edition. But most of all, it promises that the movie will embrace 80’s cheese in a profound, completely earnest way that the other entries steadfastly refused to.

This is what I need from a motion picture.

Finally the franchise has dropped the “based on a true story” conceit, untethering itself from the constraints of boring, hoax-fueled reality and instead telling a fictional story based around the real life house. Things immediately go bonkers, in the best way possible. Here’s the plot.

John Baxter (Tony Roberts) is a famed paranormal debunker who buys the Amityville house for two reasons. 1) to prove that the myths and ghost stories surrounding it are a bunch of hooey, and 2) the rent is spectacularly cheap and he needs a place to live now that he and his wife Nancy (Tess Harper) are divorced. They fight over whether this is the proper place for their daughter Susan (Lori Loughlin), who is constantly pushed into séances and other wicked shenanigans by her mischievous best friend Lisa (Meg F**king Ryan).

John insists that her fear of the house is brought on by superstition and paranoia, but the house insists otherwise and a series of increasingly disturbing events begin to occur within its walls.

Fortunately, the rent is to die for.

I’m just gonna let it all hang out: Amityville 3-D is the best of the original Amityville trilogy. It’s probably uncouth to heap such praise on a gimmicky haunted house sequel, but it’s a heady cocktail containing the best of the previous two entries. It maintains the goofy, effects-lade Dino De Laurentiis charm of Part 2, marrying that to the persistent slow boil of the original while trimming the fat that marred both those entries with a turbo-charged chainsaw.

The only thing the film truly lacks is a sense of the motivation of the evil presence in the house. It’s not trying to accomplish anything other than just being generally evil any way it can. That lowers the stakes just a teensy bit, but in exchange we get an unusually coherent plot with reasonably well-etched characters. Baxter’s attempt to find a way to define himself outside of his marriage just so happens to coincide with his pathological need to debunk ghost stories, creating a ripe conflict when his ex-wife demands that her daughter not be allowed to set foot inside his new home. There’s a complexity here that blasts the previous episodic narratives right on out of the water.

Plus, these characters are given life by a set of actors who actually had the talent to maintain reasonably successful careers, toning down the camp sensibility that made it hard to take Part 2 seriously as a horror film. And one of them is Meg Ryan! I’ve discovered a lot of skeletons in actors’ closets in my time, but this is by far one of my favorites.

I’ll have what she’s having.

By dint of including actually interesting characters, Amityville 3-D also manages to generate some choice frissons of tension that really work. They can sometimes center around silly effects setpieces, like a memorable gag set in an elevator, but they’re subdued just enough to retain a crucial glint of reality.

Not only does Amityville 3-D place its scare gags in an arrangement that actually builds up to something, they’re also some of the best in the series. A personal favorite of mine would be the walls slowly closing in on John as he works in the bathroom. And I dare any Amityville film to conjure up an image as starkly bone-chilling as the scene where Nancy sees her daughter silently climbing the stairs, dripping wet, just as John is at the lakeside, watching her be pulled from the depths by paramedics.

Sure there are some ludicrous and indefensible developments (the Portal to Hell in the basement being a huge one), but it’s all part of the roller coaster ride the film provides. For every nugget of decent family drama, you get a Frisbee slowly arcing directly into your face. It’s not a Bergman film. As long as you have it in your heart to accept the goofy along with the intense, you’ll have a good time.

And be warned: it gets GOOFY.

I’m actually a little scared by how much I enjoyed this movie. This franchise got off to a rocky start. And considering the fact that this entry was a box office failure, forcing the next half-dozen entries to be released direct-to-video, we will surely plummet back down to a rocky middle. So I don’t want to get my hopes up. But this third entry has been an oasis; a bright spot that has renewed my motivation to push forward through the franchise with vigor.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Amityville 3-D justifies the existence of the entire godforsaken franchise, but it’s at least a reminder of why I attempt these projects. It’s a diamond in the rough, made even more valuable by the swill it finds itself surrounded with. It perhaps doesn’t stand in the pantheon with the best of 80’s horror, but it’s a solid, reliable spook-em-up. Really, that’s all I want from any of these movies.

TL;DR: Amityville 3-D is a triumph of haunted house filmmaking in spite of its silly gimmickry.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1026
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We Were Both 16 And It Felt So Right

Year: 1982
Director: Damiano Damiani
Cast: James Olson, Burt Young, Rutanya Alda 
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the original, but especially in the horror genre. Fear thrives on the feeling of the unknown, and the nature of a sequel intrinsically diminishes that. There are but a scant few Part 2’s that could even dream of considering themselves superior to their predecessors, but I would like to take this moment to herald a film that has now joined that elite group: Amityville II: The Possession. Mind you, The Amityville Horror was an exhausting bore, so it’s not like it was much of a challenge.

This is gonna be a great October, I can feel it.

Amityville II is a confusing beast. It’s generally accepted that it’s a prequel to the original film (it’s loosely based on the DeFeo murders, which occurred before the Lutz family took residence), but there’s nothing in the movie itself to suggest any sort of coherent time frame. It begins and ends with a “For Sale” sign, which could fit it literally anywhere in the Amityville chronology. And though the story allegedly takes place in the mid-70’s, the production crew didn’t make even a nanoscopic attempt to make it look that way, chucking it full of Sony Walkmen, Rocky posters, and abominable hairstyles that could only have existed in the aesthetic dark age that we called 1982.

The story follows the Montelli family, namely the kindly dishrag mother Dolores (Rutanya Alda of Girls Nite Out and the camp classic Mommie Dearest), abusive-at-the-drop-of-a-hat father Anthony (Burt Young), pious and needy teen daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin), and eldest son Sonny (Jack Magner). They move into a certain lakeside residence in Amityville, and almost immediately things begin to go awry as Sonny is seduced into murderous rages by a demonic presence. The family’s barely-below-the–surface dysfunction boils over, leading to an orgy of violence, incest, and hate that the family priest Father Adamsky (James Olson) finds himself mixed up in.

And unlike Rod Steiger previously, Olson is actually in this movie.

Only two films in, the Amityville franchise had already changed hands. The original film came from American International Pictures, which died a painful death shortly after the release, despite its phenomenal box office take. So  he sequel landed in the hands of infamous Italian schlock producer Dino De Laurentiis. Say what you will about the man, but this was the best thing for the nascent series. Whatever the sequel was going to be, it couldn’t’ help but be stupid, and De Laurentiis knew how to make stupid movies fun.

And Amityville II doesn’t mess around. Practically from minute one, the rubbery 80’s effects are flowing in full force. Just like in the original, the shock gags slowly boil into a crescendo, but here we start with bonkers mayhem like paint brushes flying around the room and whole dish racks exploding. This is a full-on effects spectacle, at the expense of anything but the most broad-strokes characterizations, but the trade-off is well and truly worth it for a film that isn’t so boring you’d want to crack the disc in half and stab it into your leg just to feel something.

It’s more of a campfest than anything, as cemented in by Burt Young’s over-the-top, belt-slinging greaseball character and Rutanya Alda’s reliably demented, bug-eyed performance. Plus, it’s just plain weird, casually introducing an incest plot line between Sonny and Patricia that’s more or less calmly accepted or ignored by the world at large. There’s also this tendency for the blocking to constantly arrange the characters like they’re posing for a family portrait. It attempts to drive home the impact of their family unit shattering, but it’s mostly just hilariously awkward.

Live, Laugh, Loathe

But really, Amityville II is pretty well put-together. The roving camera makes use of the house (and especially the creepy eye-like windows) in an actually spooky way, and there are a smattering of images that remind you that directors can do more than just point the lens at action if they really want to. There’s also a tremendously clever bit of sound design involving a ticking clock that I found genuinely chilling.

For an hour or so, Amityville II chugs along, amiably delivering silly effects showcases and Sonny’s theoretically disturbing descent into madness. Then it abruptly slams on the brakes, grinding to a halt with the late, unfortunate decision that what people really wanted to see was more of this Father Adamsky fellow. For forty grueling minutes, we’re forced to watch James Olson being put through the aces of a horrifyingly transparent Exorcist rip-off. The movie never regains its footing after that, forcing viewers through a crushing gauntlet of boring scenes of characters we’ve never met and couldn’t possibly care about. It fails to be redeemed by the allegedly showstopping effects of the final ten minutes because of how grotesquely detailed it is in mimicking the plight of one Father Karras.

The power of Christ compels you to shut this movie off!

The ending of this movie is so imbalanced and tedious that I very nearly forgot every last scrap of enjoyment I gleaned from the genuinely charming opening hour. My advice would be to eject the DVD at about 71 minutes, then use that extra time to rearrange your sock drawer, a task that I promise you’ll find more interesting than the third act of Amityville II.

But still, it does clear that low, low bar of improving upon The Amityville Horror when you average it all out. I wouldn’t call that a recommendation, but if you had the stomach for the first one, you can certainly brave wading at least one film deeper into this alarmingly sprawling franchise. Why this series felt the need to continue I’ll never know, but if the films all improve upon the last at this rate, Amityville Dollhouse will be a flat-out masterpiece.

TL;DR: Amityville II: The Possession is a fun 80's effects spectacle until it launches into an excruciatingly boring third act.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1014
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

There's A Place On Ocean Avenue

Year: 1979
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger 
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s October again, which means that Popcorn Culture’s stern turns once more toward a franchise that hasn’t yet been covered on the pages of this here blog. Those are getting harder and harder to come by, but this year I’ve made the phenomenally stupid decision to tackle my horror movie Mount Everest: the outrageously expansive haunted house franchise The Amityville Horror.

It’s incredibly difficult, almost impossible in fact, to decipher what even counts as an “official” Amityville Horror sequel and what it merely a cheap rip-off with Amityville in the title. You could describe essentially every Friday the 13th sequel that very same way, but the difficulty stems from the fact that this franchise is based on a true [sic] story and you can’t copyright the name of an actual real-life town. Nevertheless, it’s time to brush back the cobwebs and take a long DeLorean ride back to that distant era of 1979. We’re knocking on the door of the very first entry in this sprawling cinematic pile: Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror.

Get out while you still can!

So. We’re in Amityville, as you’ve probably guessed. Enter the Lutz family: George (James Brolin), Kathy (Margot Kidder), and their three mostly interchangeable moppets. Their funds are tight, but they find a sweet deal on a lakeside house with creepy windows that resemble a pair of glaring eyes. As it turns out, the house was the site of a brutal murder a year prior, where a young man shot his entire family and then himself. The house also may or may not have been built on a Satanic ritual site or something. The film offers up many possible spooky explanations, but commits to none of them because at this point in time, they were at least pretending to be delivering the facts in this real life story.

Anyway, over the next month, paranormal happenings begin to slowly accumulate into what could only charitably be called a crescendo: spooky eyes appear outside the window, one of the girl children acquires a very opinionated imaginary friend named Jody, and Kathy’s visiting spiritual guardian Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) falls terribly ill after visiting the property. While Delany argues in favor of an exorcism with the obtuse Father Ryan (Murray Hamilton, who apparently made a career out of committing innocent suburbanites to bleak fates after playing the Mayor in Jaws), George Lutz’ sanity slowly begins to break apart, mirroring the murderous impulses of the previous owner.

And skipping all his barbershop appointments.

The Amityville Horror is a household name horror film, the second highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Kramer vs. Kramer, a number one smash that would never happen in today’s cinema climate). So it has to be great, right? Right?!

Truth be told, I have no idea why this film is so renowned, other than the fact that it’s based on an incredibly popular book/true-ish story. But against all odds, it was a zeitgeist tale that captured the public imagination the time. And yet the film is just unspeakably dull.

It has its share of spooky flourishes, but even at the time there wasn’t a single thing original about it, and the good bits are spaced punishingly far apart, considering how uninspired they tend to be (ironically, The Conjuring cribs a huge portion of its set design from this movie, and its sequel even steals an entire scare gag). The Haunting had already cemented in the tropes a good 16 years before, and two great movies reworking a lot of the same ideas would arrive a mere year later to prove just how incompetent Amityville was at its own game: The Shining and The Changeling.

All cliché and no plot makes George a dull boy.

It’s just so damn episodic. The film is shackled by its devotion to the “reality” of the case, refusing to allow itself to depict events in anything but the most rigorously detailed, diary-esque way. Day after day slides by with little consequence, setting up a boil so slow it’s almost imperceptible, barely reaching “lukewarm” before the credits roll.

All this is interspersed with Rod Steiger’s increasingly desperate attempts to save the family. These scenes are everything the Lutz material is not (the only quality they both share is that they’re terrible). Steiger’s scenes ditch the low-key atmosphere in favor of stilted melodrama and a bizarre crib from The Exorcist with no stakes whatsoever that appears to affect the plot not one whit. Steiger almost always ends up shouting at the top of his lungs, his eyes threatening to bulge out of their sockets. 

These scenes fit into the rest of the film like a square peg in a boring screenplay.

Unfortunately (because this must be the reason people still feel compelled to watch it), there is some good to be discovered here. Lalo Schifrin’s score has a haunting quality to its childlike chorus, the house exterior is an incredible feat of mundanely sinister design, and the opening murder scene is restrained and subtle in a way that actually heightens the tension.

And OK fine, there is one unequivocally terrific scene, in which a babysitter gets trapped in the little girl’s closet, forced to beat at the door until her knuckles are bloody. As for everything else, it’s just ephemeral. Nothing of major consequence happens for 70 minutes, nobody seems to be in any real danger even after that, and the story just peters out with an exhausted whimper.

The Amityville Horror is certainly not worthy of the haunted house pantheon it more or less presides over, though that box office pull proves that it was worthy of a dozen f**king sequels, at least in the eyes of Hollywood. I’m already fatigued by this marathon and it’s literally the first day… Wish me luck.

TL;DR: The Amityville Horror is a minted classic for no reason I can discern.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1002
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Census Bloodbath: It's Not Cranberry Sauce

Year: 1987
Director: John Grissmer
Cast: Louise Lasser, Mark Soper, Julie Gordon
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

When Eli Roth was asked to make a fake movie trailer for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez project Grindhouse, he decided to invent a fictional 80’s slasher movie called “Thanksgiving,” positing that the holiday-happy subgenre had somehow skipped over that particular celebration. Not to be an insufferable pedant (though I guess that is my brand), but I must point out that this isn’t entirely true. 1981’s Home Sweet Home was set around a vaguely defined turkey feast, for one. I’m not sure if that really counts, but then along comes Blood Rage, which is exactly, 100%, explicitly set on Thanksgiving night. Roth can be forgiven for this oversight, considering how the holiday theme plays into almost none of the sequences, kills, or advertising, but still. It happened.

Let us not commit the egregious sin of expecting too much of the slasher film.

Blood Rage is exactly a prototypical slasher, except that it isn’t. We get the ten-years-earlier prologue setting up the killer’s motivation, an escaped mental patient, a crop of horny teens, and a holiday setting to cap it all off. Blood Rage almost perfectly adheres to the formula, but what elements it chooses to foreground, and how it elaborates on that generic model, are completely bananas.

You see, that escaped mental patient is Todd (Mark Soper) and he is quite self-evidently not the killer. In the opening scene we see him being framed by his twin brother Terry (also Mark Soper), sending him off the deep end just enough that he can’t coherently proclaim his innocence. This leaves Terry alone with his doting mother Maddie (Louise Lasser, AKA Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), a manic neurotic who is like Aunt Cheryl from Night Warning paid a visit to Baby Jane’s beautician. When Todd escapes from the institution on Thanksgiving, the same night that Maddie announces her engagement to apartment manager Brad (William Fuller) – Terry’s Oedipal complex is triggered and he runs around the Shadow Woods apartment complex murdering sexually active tenants with a machete and blaming it all on his brother.

It’s not Thanksgiving without a little Meat, so some of Terry’s teen friends helpfully arrive for no particular reason to pile on the chopping block. There’s Karen (Julie Gordon), Terry’s girlfriend, who is finally ready to go all the way; Andrea (Lisa Randall), the new, bra-less next-door neighbor; and a gaggle of anonymous, hairy-chested, 30-year-old teen boys.

These guys must have had to start learning to shave when they were five.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Blood Rage is freaking weird. It’s a deranged family drama cocooned within the trappings of a slasher movie, and while each of the things that it is actively saps the energy from the other, it’s hard to ignore something this strung-out and peculiar. Maybe this hot mess would have boiled over into a forgettable pile of sludge, but there is a savior in our midst. His name is Ed French. He would later gain notoriety as the special effects make-up guru behind Terminator 2, but he cut his teeth on the blood and guts demanded by 80’s horror.

Although he had already worked on some early 80’s projects like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (where his work would mostly be attributed to Tom Savini, who vehemently protests that he had anything to do with it), Amityville II: The Possession, and Sleepaway Camp (where he’s cutely credited for “makeup illusions), he really came into his own with Blood Rage, which seemed to have poured its budget into only two things: Mary Hartman Mary Hartman’s trailer (and that’s a big maybe) and gore.

The kills in this movie are just flat-out incredible. Dripping, flowing blood defines every machete slashing, occasionally bringing a comically over-the-top Monty Python Black Knight quality, but mostly instilling every murder with a sense of motion and fluid reality that pushes it right up to the edge of bearably disgusting. They’re not perfect (an impalation gag in particular doesn’t quite match up the front and back of the weapon), but they’re delectably gruesome in a variety of twisted, creative ways. Probably the most famous gag is a severed hand clutching a beer can, and that’s for good reason. It’s gross, but the kills have a sense of comic glee that goes a long way. 

This always happens when we invite the Addams family over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Unfortunately, after heaving us through the first half of this incredibly short movie at a steady clip, the kills begin to sort of peter out, opting to occur offscreen in favor of waaay too many scenes of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman pounding back glasses of wine. Her performance is a woozy and captivating entry into the camp canon, but she seems to have it in her contact that she performs two-thirds of her scenes sitting down, and for the bulk of the third act we’re forced to watch her loudly emote while lazing around on a sofa. It’s not exactly dynamic material, and it blends with the slasher elements of the film like oil and water.

The only thing truly commendable about the deeply silly family drama is that Mark Soper so convincingly imbues Terry and Todd with different personalities and physicalities that I actually thought they were played by two separate actors. Maybe the bulk of that credit should go to his hair stylist, but it’s a performance that fulfills an absolutely necessary function for the plot to work, and his casting seems to have been the exact right decision. Maybe the only one that happened, given the pool of cardboard nobodies the rest of this cast seems to have been pulled from.

Really, even though Blood Rage takes a steep nosedive about two-thirds of the way through, it’s a pretty fantastic example of exactly what I’m looking for from an 80’s slasher: ludicrous fashions (alternate title: The Killer Wore a Sleeveless Two-Tone Top), campy bad movie nonsense (Terry keeps pointing at the blood on his machete and exclaiming that “it’s not cranberry sauce!”), and excellent gore effects. Unfortunately it fails to stick the landing, so I don’t adore it as much as I’d want to, but I shelled out for the Arrow Video Blu-Ray and I don’t regret that one bit. Also, it’s literally the only slasher movie I’ve ever seen where the killer stops to take a pee break, and I respect the hell out of that.

Killer: Terry Simmons (Mark Soper)
Final Girl: Karen (Julie Gordon)
Best Kill: Not only is Brad’s beer-clutching hand chopped off, it is later revealed that his entire head was split open like a melon.
Sign of the Times: I wish there were more men wearing yellow booty shorts in modern cinema, but alas that is a relic of a bygone age.


Scariest Moment: At one point, Andrea’s make-up is so terrible it seems to be throwing off the white balance of the camera.
Weirdest Moment: Ted Raimi cameos as a guy selling condoms out of his jacket in a drive-in bathroom.
Champion Dialogue: “All I want to do is party and play tennis.”
Body Count: 11
  1. Blonde Dude is axed in the face.
  2. Brad gets his hand cut off and his skull split open.
  3. Jackie is impaled with a machete.
  4. Dr. Berman is cut in half.
  5. Bill is decapitated.
  6. Julie is stabbed in the chest.
  7. Greg has his throat slashed.
  8. Andrea is killed offscreen.
  9. Artie is stabbed in the neck with a turkey fork.
  10. Terry is shot to death.
  11. Maddie Simmons shoots herself in the head.
TL;DR: Blood Rage is a delightful, gory, cheesy 80's slasher that is dragged down hard by a tremendously boring third act.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1299

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: I'm A Happy Camper

Year: 1989
Director: Michael A. Simpson
Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Tracy Griffith, Michael J. Pollard
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may recall, I enjoyed Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, but only reluctantly given how it skated by on a bare bones, unembellished recitation of the slasher formula. Considering that that movie and its sequel were both filmed in the same six week period on the same sets with the same crew and lead actress, it’s truly mind-boggling how much of a vast improvement Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland turns out to be. I guess practice makes perfect, even if that practice is merely the first three weeks of what must have been a pretty fun shoot.

Except for those poor people who had to clean up a month’s worth of Karo syrup.

Like all good slashers, Sleepaway Camp III opens with a murder. Everyone’s favorite wickedly peppy camper killer Angela (Pamela Springsteen) murders and takes the place of Maria (Kashina Kessler), who was on her way to Camp New Horizons. An “experiment in sharing” that will pair underprivileged inner-city youths with rich kids from around the country, New Horizons was opened on the site of the Camp Rolling Hills massacre that took place a year (AKA three weeks) prior. The camp is owned by a couple named after The Munsters – the lascivious Herman (Michael J. Pollard of American Gothic, but also Bonnie and Clyde!) and the lazy Lilly (Sandra Dorsey) – who ostensibly want to bring two cultures together but are quite transparently scamming government funds to go on a tropical vacation.

Let’s not pretend there’s any more “plot” to get through and Meet the Meat, because there’s a hell of a lot of them. Representing the inner cities are: Tony (Mark Oliver, who played “Boss,” in The Boss, so I guess he’s technically the title character?), a profoundly sexy Latino from East L.A.; A-rab (Jill Terashita of Night of the Demons), a profoundly sexy leather-clad punk girl; Snowboy (Kyle Holman), a bottle blonde douchebag who’s so addicted to graffiti that he spray paints everything that isn’t nailed down – and everything that is; and Riff (Daryl Wilcher), who’s obsessed with rap music, insofar as this movie’s idea of “rap” is “license-free synth instrumentals with light scatting.”

And on the rich snobs side we have: Marcia (Tracy Griffith, Melanie Griffith’s half-sister and the third consecutive celebrity sibling to have a prominent role in this franchise), who is so thoroughly bland she has to be the Final Girl, though she has a genuinely sweet romance with Tony; Bobby (Haynes Brooke), a sweetly nerdy Judge Reinhold type who’s always up for a little bondage play; Cindy (Kim Wall), a mousy girl whose shyness hides a deep well of seething racism; and Jan (Stacie Lambert), the obligatory hot girl who inexplicably wants to sleep with the gross camp owner.

And that’s the ABRIDGED list!

You may have noted that the rich kids are named after the Brady Bunch and the poor kids were named after West Side Story. This is either because the screenwriter simply didn’t know as many names as this massive platter of Meat received, or he wanted to engage your brain in some way other than the plot, because that certainly wasn’t gonna do it. Here’s all 80 minutes in a nutshell: the campers play trust games, then Angela kills them. Bada bing, bada bom. Oh, and one of the counselors is officer Barney (Cliff Brand), the father of Hot Sean (a camper who was murdered in the previous film – what a rich mythology we’re building here).

The only thing notably about the kills-only plot is that it’s much more structurally dynamic than the episodic slashings of Unhappy Campers. Our meat is divided into three digestible groups of five that Angela splits her time between in what amounts to a series of vignettes. This gives us time to familiarize ourselves with the characters and their one distinguishing trait before their untimely demise. It’s not rocket science, but the flow is smooth as butter and the interpersonal conflicts stand out clearer among the din.

Perhaps something as simple as a comprehensible structure is a small compliment to pay to a film, but when you’re grading on the scale of Unhappy Campers, this is a skyscraping leap in quality. But that’s not the only improvement Teenage Wasteland has to offer. The post-Freddy quips awkwardly shoehorned into Angela’s mouth are likewise much sharper and clearer. This time they’re actually relevant to some element of the character or the kill (probably because we actually have a sense of who any of these people are), and one or two actually made me laugh out loud (although the best line comes from Marcia in her closing scene, when she delivers a stupendously well-timed joke), which not even Freddy can do most of the time.

Angela is ready for prime time!

The kills here are also delightful. They’re not necessarily an improvement, and there’s no gore gag so epically memorable as Sean’s papier-mâché beheading, but they’re again more appropriate to the characters and setting. The preposterous kills are what propel both movies into to the lower tier of the slasher pantheon, but Teenage Wasteland’s grace notes (like Angela roasting marshmallows over a camper’s burning corpse) propel it forward just a smidge more.

Really, the refrain I’m noticing here is that Teenage Wasteland is actually consistent. That doesn’t make it a great film or even a particularly good one (never forget how poorly lit and staged these movies are), but if Unhappy Campers was raw and unpretentious enough to earn respect from hardcore slasher fans, then Teenage Wasteland surpasses that mark by actually giving a crap. Both are unusually watchable for direct-to-video horror, but Part III - as much as the story behind its production should make this impossible - has learned from the failures of its predecessor to deliver a satisfying chunk of gooey 80’s cheese.

Killer: Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen)
Final Girl: Marcia (Tracy Griffith)
Best Kill: The “firecracker in the nose” gag is one of the greats, even if the special effects aren’t quite up to the challenge.
Sign of the Times: Angela delivers Riff a tape containing a rap about how she’s going to murder him.
Scariest Moment: Any scene with Herman will give you serious Hard Candy vibes.
Weirdest Moment: Angela delivers Riff a tape containing a rap about how she’s going to murder him.
Champion Dialogue: “Good thing you’re dead, cuz in a couple of years your breasts would’ve been sagging something terrible.”
Body Count: 16
  1. Maria is run over by a garbage truck.
  2. Tawny snorts cleaning powder.
  3. Herman has a stick stabbed through his mouth.
  4. Jan is beat to death with a stick.
  5. Peter has a firecracker lit in his nose.
  6. Snowboy is hit in the head with a log.
  7. A-rab is decapitated with an axe.
  8. Cindy is dropped from a flagpole
  9. Lilly has her head run over by a lawnmower.
  10. Bobby is crushed against a tree by ropes.
  11. Riff has tent spikes hammered into him.
  12. Officer Barney is shot to death.
  13. Greg and
  14. Anita are axed simultaneously in a Home Alone-esque trap.
  15. Paramedic is stabbed with a hypodermic needle.
  16. Cop is stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland is an inexplicable improvement on its relentlessly average predecessor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1233
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Angela's Ashes

Year: 1988
Director: Michael A. Simpson
Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins 
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Sleepaway Camp franchise is a testament to how resilient the 80’s slasher formula truly was. In the face of moral and artistic protest, a strict MPAA crackdown, and declining box office, even a low-profile cheapie from five years prior could bear fruit. The blood squeezed out of the stone that was the delightfully off-kilter Sleepaway Camp came in the form of two direct-to-video knockoffs, shot back-to-back on the same set and released in subsequent years. The first of these belated sequels, released in the declining days of the slasher boom, is Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.

Now, I want you to keep this in mind. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers is not very good at all. But such is the cognitive dissonance of the slasher fan that it is one of the more well-respected examples of the form in the artistically bankrupt year that was 1988. As much as I too find it entirely entertaining, take any recommendation with a grain of salt. When you’re buffeted with the likes of The Last Slumber Party and Death Nurse 2 day in and day out, pretty much anything is going to feel like an oasis.

You can put that blurb on the poster.

In Sleepaway Camp II, we find ourselves in the bucolic Camp Rolling Hills deep in the New Jersey woods. Over the campfire, a bloodcurdling tale is told about the murders at the nearby Camp Arawak. Five years ago, one of the campers went psychotic, killing “over 30 people,” which in no way gels with even the most generous of body counts for the original film. The killer is still at large. Now if only they could remember her name…

Story time is suddenly interrupted by the relentlessly peppy counselor Angela (Pamela Springsteen, the most famous Springsteen if you only watch horror movies and don’t ever listen to music or talk to my dad), who it quickly becomes clear is the very same deranged killer: Angela is hell-bent on making sure her campers follow the rules. Those without the requisite amount of pep are given the axe… right in the face. Everything about this flies directly in the face of Angela as we knew her back in 1983, and with a tossed-off expository line removes the single most interesting element of her character, but Bruce Springsteen’s sister delivering terribly anti-witty quips that would make Freddy Krueger cringe is better than nothing.

Here are the campers who are under threat of being “sent home” by Angela: Molly (Renée Estevez of Intruder), who is clearly our Final Girl because she’s the one who says “guys, I really don’t think we should be doing this…”; Sean (Tony Higgins), her beefy love interest who appears to be in some sort of Jack situation because he looks at least 25 year old; Ally (Valerie Hartman, who returns for Sleepaway Camp III holding the coveted position of “raccoon wrangler”), the obligatory Slut character who is so sexually aggressive it’s a surprise the camp is still standing; and a whole slate of anonymous characters played by even more anonymous actors. These characters are given names like Judd, Emilio, Anthony, and so forth.

Geddit?

The defining feature of Sleepaway Camp II is rather the lack of a feature: there is no plot. It’s just a handful of slasher tropes scooped into a garbage bag, which is shaken periodically and dumped out in a new order every 10 minutes or so. Fortunately, the deaths come at a steady enough clip and the run time generously caps it all at around 76 minutes, so nothing stays onscreen long enough to get tiresome.

For all its bareness, Sleepaway Camp II really strips the slasher genre down to its core elements, and it’s rather charming for it. Don’t get me wrong, almost everything in it is impossibly lame: The kills are cheaply constructed. The dialogue attempts to be funny but constantly arrives at hopeless non-quips like “say no to drugs.” And the acting isn’t execrable, but it’s pretty vanilla, with the exception of Pamela Springsteen, who takes home both Best and Worst in Show (her performance is shrill and one-note, but her facial structure has an uncanny ability to shift from chipmunk-cheeked cheer to angular menace, and that’s nothing to thumb one’s pointy nose at.)

But! There’s something genial and compelling about its total lack of pretense. The filler scenes with the campers showcase some fun, unforced character dynamics that breathe life into the campground setting. And the murders, while scarcely as outré as the best of the late 80’s weirdo slashers, have a bare minimum of creativity and a random grab-bag sensibility that make them unpredictable and sometimes even a  teensy bit nasty.

You’ve been a naughty girl, Angela.

There’s something genuine and honest about a film that’s trying so little to impress, and thus most of the badness swings around the horn to become positive qualities. There’s only one unequivocally awful sequence, in which Angela has a “nightmare” that’s just a blue-tinted assemblage of flashback footage slowed down to an excruciating crawl. Now that is indefensible, but although two minutes of filler is admittedly a rather large percentage of 76, it’s still not enough to turn me against the film.

I in no way endorse this kind of lazy filmmaking, but I can’t change what’s already been done. And as it stands, Sleepaway Camp II is a lark I don’t mind pursuing every now and again. Its inextricable link with its simultaneously-produced sequel (more on that next time) makes it a bit of a unique curio, but standing on its own merits it’s a totally acceptable way to while away an hour and change. Also Sean is pretty. Let's take a quick peek before we go.


Killer: Angela Johnson née Baker (Pamela Springsteen)
Final Girl: Molly (Renee Estevez)
Best Kill: Angela tests out a variety of objects in the cabin to assess their murderous capabilities before deciding on a guitar string to garrote Demi.
Sign of the Times: The music playing on the boom box in the mess hall sounds like the soundtrack to Chopping Mall.
Scariest Moment: Sean and molly discover Angela’s secret cabin full of bodies.
Weirdest Moment: One of the female characters seems to think that flashing her boobs is a hilarious punch line to every joke she makes.
Champion Dialogue: “Too bad they haven’t figured out a way to make French fries nutritious. I’m a  nut when it comes to French fries!”
Body Count: 18
  1. Phoebe (not Cates) is hit in the head with a log.
  2. Jodi (not Foster) is barbecued.
  3. Brooke (not Shields) is barbecued.
  4. Mare (not Winningham) is drilled.
  5. Anthony (not Michael Hall) has his throat slashed with a Freddy glove.
  6. Judd (not Nelson) is chainsawed.
  7. Ally (not Sheedy) is drowned in an outhouse.
  8. Demi (not Moore) is garroted with a guitar string.
  9. Lea (not Thompson) is stabbed in the heart.
  10. TC (not Tom Cruise) has battery acid thrown in his face.
  11. Sean (not Penn) is decapitated.
  12. Ralph (not Macchio) has his throat cut.
  13. Charlie (not Sheen) is killed offscreen.
  14. Emilio (not Estevez) is killed offscreen.
  15. Uncle John (not Hughes) is killed offscreen.
  16. Diane (not Lane) is stabbed in the gut.
  17. Rob (not Lowe) is hanged.
  18. Truck Lady (not anyone) is stabbed repeatedly.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, for no reason I can properly discern, is a reasonably delightful if thoroughly generic example of the slasher form.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1259
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)