Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Tagalong

Year: 1984
Director: Ben Yalung
Cast: Ace Vergel, Snooky Serna, Liza Lorena
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Plot: Basag ang pula follows Fernando (Ace Vergel), a murderous maniac who poses as a bus driver to escape from the cops and ends up driving the graduating class of a girls' school to a secluded vacation spot. Of course he can't help but murder quite a few of them once they get there, and he is particularly obsessed with the bemulleted Chiqui (Snooky Serna).

Analysis: A note: The only way this film was accessible to me was in unsubtitled Tagalog, so there are certainly nuances I may have missed. However, it's a particularly straightforward plot.

Basag ang pula is a curiously unfocused movie. If it has merely stuck with the idea of "maniac bus driver offs students," it would have been totally palatable, even with its roster of kills that mostly just involve the killer brandishing a knife and the victim going "oof" without any gore to speak of or maybe a smear of red. Especially considering the fact that there are approximately 80 students running around this movie, chittering nonstop, it could have been a gonzo good time if he just worked off that platter of Meat over the course of a night. However, the film keeps getting distracted and eventually lands on a third act siege out of First Blood that is much less exciting to witness than the slasher movie that precedes it.

However, the slasher itself isn't half bad. There are wholly decent suspense sequences scattered throughout, including a "killer has the keys and the victim inside the car" scene that isn't quite up to the level of Scream's corresponding scene but doesn't shame itself by being in the same sentence with it. There's also a good "backseat killer" sequence and a dreamlike setpiece where trees are drenched in fog and purplish moonlight that is quite something to behold.

I also really like the way the score incorporates the tune of "London Bridge" after it is first introduced to the film dietetically, which ties in with the film's interest in presenting a Silent Night, Deadly Night-esque exploration of the killer's childhood and about how sex and violence can get mixed up in an impressionable psyche.

However, the film's strong elements, however robust and surprising, aren't quite enough to overpower the general anemic quality of the filmmaking in general. The exterior night scenes are too darkly lit to parse out much of the action, and while it moves more quickly than a two hour film otherwise might, there are long lulls where it becomes clear that none of the schoolgirls are going to emerge as actual characters worth following. And despite the film's reasonably high body count, too many of them survive to justify including so goddamn many of them in the film at once.

Killer: Fernando (Ace Vergel)
Final Girl: Chiqui (Snooky Serna), even though the movie forgets about her
Best Kill: In true Jason Voorhees style, Fernando appears to slit a woman's throat with the non-sharp side of the knife blade.
Sign of the Times: Chiqui's mullet is so thick and lustrous it looks like the tail of a seal.
Scariest Moment: Fernando menaces a woman who is locked inside a car by rubbing his lips all over the car window, leaving a slimy trail of saliva.
Weirdest Moment: Bored, Fernando builds a sand castle on the beach while the girls swim.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 15; not including a woman who is presumably killed offscreen early on because she's not where we saw her last when the cops show up.
  1. Car Man is beheaded offscreen.
  2. Makeout Boy is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Bus Driver is stabbed in the chest.
  4. Teacher has her throat slit.
  5. Temptress is stabbed.
  6. Rainstorm Girl is stabbed.
  7. Red Cap Boy is stabbed.
  8. Headmistress is stabbed.
  9. Caretaker is stabbed.
  10. Pigtail Girl is stabbed in the gut.
  11. Cop is stabbed in the back.
  12. Cop #2 is stabbed.
  13. Sharpshooter is shot.
  14. Rope Climber is shot.
  15. Fernando dies in a bus crash after being shot a lot.
TL;DR: Basag ang pula is intermittently speckled with solid suspense sequences, but it's overlong, underlit, and too busy to focus on very much.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 711

Monday, May 2, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Strangler Danger

Year: 1984
Director: Slobodan Sijan
Cast: Tasko Nacic, Nikola Simic, Srdjan Saper
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Plot: Davitelj protiv davitelja or Strangler vs. Strangler is a film about the then-Yugoslavian capital city Belgrade and how it officially became a metropolis: specifically, by having its first serial killer. Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) is a down-on-his-luck carnation salesman who works for his Mrs. Bates-esque mother. The new generation of women who wear pants and listen to rock 'n roll hate carnations and he stalks and strangles the ones who tell him so. A David Byrne-esque rock musician named Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper) feels like he has a connection with the killer and writes a hit song about him, leading Inspektor Ognjen Strahinjic (Nikola Simic) to believe that he's the culprit.

Analysis: I don't think there's a single thing in cinema history that's like Strangler vs. Strangler. Sure, you can go for the easy marks and discuss the way that the plot is reminiscent of Bill Lustig's Maniac and obviously draws considerably from the Psycho well, but that would be minimizing the titanic creative achievement of this film, which is part madcap comedy, part diegetic musical, and part Brechtian theater piece on top of being a slasher.

The film opens on a chilly voiceover describing the violence and crime of a city in near-glowing terms, eventually opening up into the tale of Pera Mitic with a series of silent film style title cards that introduce new chapters of his life and the way it mirrors the development of Belgrade in the mid-80s. The film never lets up on engaging with its audience in this way. I wouldn't say it's "winking" at the viewer but it's certainly never afraid of letting you know that it knows you're watching. 

Unlike a lot of weird movies that are misattributed as horror-comedies, there is absolutely a vein of humor running through this movie. Moments like the old lady commandeering a police station's suspect lineup or Inspektor Strahinjic cracking under pressure and swallowing a cigarette like a pill are unmistakably comedic, and even successfully so in a broad kind of sense. However, it is also very much born from the gallows humor of Eastern Europe during the time of the Iron Curtain, and lines that float by like "That's life. Some stranglers are lucky. Some are not." are both amusing and deeply disturbing at the same time.

Strangler vs. Strangler is also reasonably effective as a horror film. Even though it's a "hero killer" film positioning the murderer as the main character, Nacic finds a way to align his body with the frame that he is constantly a sinister and looming presence when he's stalking his victims. The kills are pretty much all strangulations, which would be a bloodless and repetitive M.O. that would drown a lesser slasher, but there's so much here to keep an eye on that the lack of particularly satisfying kills is hardly a blip.

The film is so committed to an aesthetic sensibility of boundless imagination that even the strange, out of left field moments like a cat suddenly delivering a moving speech via title card or the montage where the film depicts every step of a letter being written, mailed, sorted, and delivered feel powerful and meaningful. Everything about Strangler vs. Strangler is understandably accomplished on a shoestring, which does provide a certain ceiling for how wild they are able to go. However, despite their limitations, the filmmakers have created a completely singular and fascinating film that any aspiring artist should feel very jealous of.

Killer: Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) and Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Pera's semi-accidental hanging is the most slasher movie-esque kill in the entire thing.
Sign of the Times: Spiridon's band and their actually quite good hit song couldn't have come from a time that wasn't inundated with Talking Heads.

Scariest Moment: Spiridon approaches Sofija from behind, attempting to garrote her with a rope. When she turns around and notices him, he pulls back, at which point the looming figure of Pera emerges from the bushes.
Weirdest Moment: Pera sings an aria from Carmen with his mother while she gives him a bath.
Champion Dialogue: "Go home and bother your daddy with your pubescent foolishness."
Body Count: 9; not including about 8 people who are shot to death in an opening montage.
  1. Third Victim is strangled.
  2. Side Pony Girl is strangled.
  3. Opera Singer is strangled.
  4. Roduljub is strangled.
  5. Pera's Mother is smothered with his hand.
  6. Mrs. Dobrila is killed offscreen.
  7. Zorz the Cat is strangled.
  8. Sofija is strangled.
  9. Pera is hanged.
TL;DR: Strangler vs. Strangler is a peculiar and interesting bit of European cinema history.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 788

Friday, April 29, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Greek Tragedy

Year: 1984
Director: Nico Mastorakis
Cast: Joseph Bottoms, Kirstie Alley, Keir Dullea
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Blind Date, insofar as it has a plot, is about a thirtysomething American man named Jonathon Ratcliff (Joseph Bottoms) who is working in advertising in Athens, Greece and sleeping with his coworker Claire (Kirstie Alley). He kinda wanders around stalking random pretty women, watching them through a telescope. One time he's caught and chased through the woods and hits his face on a tree branch, which renders him blind, though the condition may be psychosomatic, brought on by seeing a woman he believes to be his former girlfriend at a modeling shoot. Anyway, with the help of Dr. Steiger (Keir Dullea of Black Christmas and 2001: A Space Odyssey), he regains a version of his sight with an experimental procedure that transmits a computer input directly to his optic nerve via a device that is housed inside a Sony Walkman, allowing him to see the world around him in a black-and-white outline. Meanwhile, someone with his own Walkman (just because he likes music, not because he needs it to see) has been murdering women with a scalpel. Eventually, about 25 minutes before the film is over, Ratcliff discovers that this is happening and vows to figure out who it is. Any questions?

Analysis: Now, people love to throw out the phrase "(insert country here) giallo" for any non-Italian slasher that has a modicum of style. But Blind Date truly is a Greek giallo. It is entirely a throwback to that '70s format, far more than what actual Italian filmmakers like Lucio Fulci, Michele Soavi, or Lamberto Bava were pumping out at the time. Down to the fact that it centers an American in a foreign land who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery, the way that the key to the solution is hidden in his own memory, the style-over-substance panache, and the fact that it makes not one single fucking lick of sense. 

It literally doesn't even make sense as a slasher, or at least a functional one. For most of the movie the killings aren't even commented upon. We're meant to assume that Ratcliff is the killer I think, but only because we've certainly seen him being an absolute creep, but nobody else ever really mentions the murders and the town is considerably less than rocked by the presence of a serial killer. Eventually the killer is revealed to be someone who we've seen in wide shots a couple times, in a reveal that is probably supposed to be shocking, but by that point anyone with a rudimentary sense of how to watch gialli has already given up trying to piece together anything that's going on.

Unfortunately, the kills are where the film diverges the most from the giallo format. Not in the misogyny though! The women who are murdered almost never get named or speak a line of dialogue (in fact, one of them is speaking but her lines are muted in favor of creepy music), this movie doing nothing to hide the fact that they are literally just bodies to be cut open rather than characters. Because of this gross undercurrent, I am grateful that the film doesn't revel in gory, over the top kills. However, the fact that pretty much every kill has the same M.O. and then cuts away before anything interesting happens makes those sequences deadly dull to watch.

Really, the entire film is far more dull than something this incoherent and strange has any right to be. This is a film where the lead character is introduced wearing a tan blazer over a T-shirt that reads "I <3 My Dentist." Where the eye doctor only tells him that he can use the computer device for a limit of two hours a day after he's already done the procedure and eliminated any chance of him getting his sight back the proper way. Where the killer stalks the final reel in a Speedo (I for one, am very grateful for this decision)

One misstep is pouring the bulk of Mastorakis' weirdo energy into the truly heinous '80s graphics that render Ratcliff's computerized POV. They may have been high tech at one point, but now the seizure-inducing polygons that fly around this film are truly insufferable. Fortunately, the non-computerized elements, which comprise about 94% of the film, are rather stylish. I would hesitate to call the film "gorgeous," but it certainly is always making aesthetic choices that are pleasurable in the traditionally shot sequences, even for mundane moments that don't scream out for an extra dash of style. It's a film that has atmosphere, and while that may be the only thing it has to offer, it at least prevents it from being the miserable slog it very easily could have been.

Killer: David (James Daughton)
Final Girl: Jonathon Ratcliff (Joseph Bottoms)
Best Kill: David is brandishing his scalpel and his hand is hit with a door, which sends the blade slamming into his neck.
Sign of the Times: I mean, you name another year where the plot hinges entirely on a Sony Walkman and the Atari Game Super Breakout.
Scariest Moment: The first time David begins to slash up a woman with a scalpel and you're like "How far is this scene about to go?"
Weirdest Moment: A bunch of friends rush into the bedroom on Jonathon's birthday to shout "surprise!" while he's in the middle of having sex with Claire.
Champion Dialogue: "Look ma, no eyes!"
Body Count: 6
  1. Woman #1 is scalpeled.
  2. Woman #2 is scalpeled.
  3. Blond Guy has his throat slit with a scalpel.
  4. Woman #3 is scalpeled.
  5. Woman #4 is scalpeled.
  6. David gets his scalpel jammed in his throat.
TL;DR: Blind Date is intriguing and stylish and weird, but ultimately too slow-paced and misogynistic to cross the finish line properly.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 985

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Dance Dance Dance Till You're Dead

Year: 1984
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Olga Karlatos, Ray Lovelock, Claudio Cassinelli
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Murder-Rock: Dancing Death follows a dance company training at the *checks notes* Arts for Living Center in New York City run by Candice (Olga Karlatos). The best dancers are being murdered one by one with a massive hatpin shoved straight into their hearts, so Lt. Borges (Cosimo Cinieri of Fulci's previous slasher effort The New York Ripper) is on the case.

Analysis: Among the well-known Italian horror directors of the '70s and '80s, Fulci is perhaps the most inconsistent. Sometimes he could deliver a gorgeous, disgusting fever dream like The Beyond. And other times he would rest on his laurels and deliver a sleepy, autopilot picture like The Black Cat. Usually he would stab out an eye or two while he was at it, but he was constantly crossing the line between art and trash rather than gradually backsliding from one to the other like certain Dario Argentos I won't mention.

I will give Fulci this. He seems to be really trying to make Murder-Rock artful, to the point that certain moments are mimicking the best scenes and aesthetic impulses of Suspiria. One particularly effective moment is achieved just in the sound mix, when the panting of a strung-out dancer gets mixed way higher than the music she's dancing to. There is also some excellent set design (the white tiled hallway of the locker room is something to behold), a gorgeous opening shot of the New York skyline in front of a deep purple sky, and a few shot setups that really made me perk up and pay attention. One in particular, with the camera tracking along as a body bag is being wheeled down a hallway past the watching faces of the dancers, is stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen in a slasher.

Unfortunately, his aesthetic ambition seems to be hampered by his ability. Or at least, he didn't have the appropriate equipment to make his vision happen. Even some of the best sequences are lit too harshly, with lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams' eyes roll back into his head. Most of the time the characters are lit from behind or above in a manner that completely obliterates their faces, and the motif of flashing lights is both preposterous (for some reason, the police carry around a panel of flashing lights to shine onto the body) and profoundly ugly.

Really, Fulci has ended up somewhere far closer to Stripped to Kill than Suspiria, only without the female gaze making the dance scenes tolerable at all. Now, I'm always partial to any film where I see a choreographer listed in the credits, but this dancing is terrible. It has all the intensity of Showgirls with all the precision of The Apple. The music that accompanies the frequent, extended dance sequences ranges from amusingly shitty (the uptempo disco track "Are the Streets to Blame" is an excellent slice of cheese) to ear-scrapingly abysmal (the opening theme "Tonight is The Night" sounds like "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes went to Hell and got laryngitis).

And while the killer's M.O. is appropriately sleazy and horrifying for a Fulci flick, it also leads to an extreme lack of variety, to the point that some of the kills in the second half of the film take place onscreen because Fulci probably figured you got the picture by that point. The kill to dance sequence ratio was already off, but this severe drop-off makes the second and third acts a real slog. When the best thing about your movie about dancing and stabbing is the title font, you know something has gone horribly wrong. Murder-Rock is certainly less stultifying than The Black Cat and more artful than The New York Ripper, but it's just not enough of everything that it clearly wants to be.

Killer: Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: The opening heart-piercing kill is the one that luxuriates the most in how goddamn disturbing that particular M.O. really is.
Sign of the Times: If you listen to even a single second of the wall-to-wall music used in this film, you'd be able to carbon date the exact month of 1984 this came out.
Scariest Moment: When Janice comes home to a supposedly empty apartment, she spots a still-smoking cigarette in her ashtray.
Weirdest Moment: The film randomly cuts to the dancer Jill babysitting a kid in a wheelchair who shows her a slideshow of dead bugs
Champion Dialogue: "You're gonna grit your teeth and dance, even when your friend dies."
Body Count: 6
  1. Susan has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  2. DeeDee the Bird has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  3. Janice is killed offscreen.
  4. Jill is killed offscreen.
  5. Gloria has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  6. Candice has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
TL;DR: Murder-Rock: Dancing Death is a bland slasher that attempts to doll itself up as an aesthetically interesting giallo.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 851

Monday, April 25, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Each And Every Day Of The Year

Year: 1984
Director: William A. Graham
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sharon Stone, Robert Culp
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes 

Plot: Calendar Girl Murders follows a faux-Playboy magazine called Paradise that is run by Richard Trainor (Robert Culp). When their calendar girls for January and February are murdered, homicide cop Lt. Dan Stoner (Tom Skerritt) must try to find out who is targeting the girls while also discovering the mysterious secret behind former Angel of the Year Cassie Bascomb's (Sharon Stone, who was still in the slasher trenches after Deadly Blessing) departure from the company. She also keeps crossing his path and trying rather desperately to fuck him despite the fact that he's married, which is really the plot of the movie if we're being honest.

Analysis: The TV movie format should be an absolute killer for the slasher genre, which thrives on blood, guts, and nudity, all things that were not allowed to be broadcast on network TV in the 1980s. However, I have found that those restrictions tend to empower the slasher movie to aim for better plots and more layered characters (especially for women), so TV films including Fantasies, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Deadly Lessons, and last week's Till Death Do Us Part have been delightful breaths of fresh air. If anything, Calendar Girl Murders being boring is the exception that proves the rule.

Even so, it's only boring because it favors a format other than the "Lifetime movie" vibe that a project like this demands. Instead it's a bland police procedural without much new to bring to the table. At least that element requires many characters who only show up in 1 or 2 scenes, allowing the cast to be even more stacked than the typical entry, including appearances from Robert Morse, Alan Thicke, Robert Beltran, and Barbara Parkins. 

The procedural is quite bad, not really committing to any proper red herrings and losing the organizing principle of women being killed in calendar order by the halfway point. It is then intermittently intercut with scenes that prove that Sharon Stone needed some practice before she could claim her seductive hold over cinema in the 1990s. I don't blame Stone for being unappealing here, she's struggling with an impassive love interest in a schlubbed-up Skerritt, a trite script, and the overall confusedly horny atmosphere that makes it feel like the film was produced by 12-year-old who haven't actually had sex.

Obviously, a TV movie about nude models isn't going to show actual naked people. But it also didn't have to show us the photo shoots, where the women are donning outfits they could get away with wearing into church. It undercuts the sense of lusty fantasy the film is trying to indulge in, and that lack of heat is felt in no place more than the slow motion firefighter photo shoot that is the lead-out to a scene where Dan learns that his wife's life is in danger, instantly deflating whatever modicum of tension the scene had established.

Its kills are similarly lackluster, as must be expected from this vein of the slasher. Still, I might not be expecting blood, but I was definitely expecting there to be an actual kill in the second half of the movie rather than a woman failing to be drowned and a man who has his life support machine shut off, which I think can claim the record for history's least interesting slasher movie murder.

The film isn't aggressively bad by any stretch of the imagination, it's just content to be a bland bit of programming you can ignore while falling asleep face down in your TV dinner. It briefly livens up with a car chase that is by far the single best sequence of the film, but then it has the gall to leave us on one of the worst final scenes I have ever witnessed, half of which takes place with the characters blocked behind a closed door before it cuts to credits.

Killer: Cassie Bascomb (Sharon Stone)
Final Girl: Nancy Stoner (Barbara Bosson), but really only because she's the last woman we see
Best Kill: There's not much to choose from, but Miss February is stabbed while getting a snack and falls into the fridge which is kinda neat.
Sign of the Times: The dreadful synth cover of Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" this movie opens with.
Scariest Moment: Cassie is accosted by a strange man in a parking garage.
Weirdest Moment: A random dude who hasn't shown up before and won't be seen afterward does a midair splits at an otherwise relatively sedate party.
Champion Dialogue: "What am I supposed to wear to an orgy?"
Body Count: 3
  1. Pamela (Miss January) is pushed off a tenth story balcony.
  2. Kara (Miss February) is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Albert has his life support switched off.
TL;DR: Calendar Girl Murders is a passable TV movie effort but has a lot of wasted potential.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 826

Friday, April 22, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Get Your Fingers Burned

Year: 1984
Director: Howard Avedis
Cast: Sybil Danning, Eric Brown, Andrew Prine
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: They're Playing with Fire follows Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning), an English professor at Oceanview College, who seduces student Jay Richard (Eric Brown of Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy, and who was fresh off 1981's similarly themed Private Lessons) in an attempt to convince him to sneak into her mother-in-law's home, which will somehow drive her mad and thus get her declared incompetent so control of her vast estate goes to Diane's husband Michael (Andrew Prine of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Amityville II: The Possession, and two episodes of Freddy's Nightmares). Unfortunately, somebody kills Andrew's mother and grandmother that same night, and every member of the trio suspects another of committing the crime. Meanwhile, a killer in a ski mask is continuing to lurk around the property.

Analysis: This is definitely one of those films where being straight might be a prerequisite. Sybil Danning is a beautiful woman, and while the fact that she is either changing or showering during about 95% of her dialogue is highly amusing to me, it doesn't ignite any of the more prurient interests that this film was clearly intended to provoke. Instead of Eric Brown's affable geek character allowing me to transpose myself into his situation, it really left the door open for me to examine the mystifying way the relationships in his life function. Don't get me wrong, he's a cute guy, but the fact that every blonde in the film is throwing herself at his feet (his doting ex-girlfriend Cynthia is an especially peculiar psychological study) is less a fantasy and more an erotic uncanny valley. 

However, even for the people in the audience who might be interested in studying Sybil Danning's statuesque form from as many angles as possible, there's not that much that will rev the engine beyond one allegedly steamy sex scene and a lot of vacant stripteasing while she bloviates about her schemes. This is a boring movie by any yardstick, and it gets off on being withholding. 

Take the crop of teenagers who barely make any impression on the movie, including Glenn (Dominick Brascia, a well-decorated Census Bloodbath veteran from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Rush Week, Evil Laugh, and Hard Rock Nightmare). They show up every 20 minutes or so to debate whether or not they should party or study (the character of Janice is firmly in the latter camp, considering that every line she speaks is a variation on the theme of "let's go to my place and study!"), eventually arrange themselves neatly at the place where the killings happen while the person doing said killings is present, and then... drive away chatting amongst themselves, never to be seen again.

They're Playing with Fire keeps promising a slightly more interesting movie that it doesn't deliver on, so much so that the somewhat frequent really weird moments that crop up become even more potent because they're unexpected. I'm not just talking the random suit of armor in the basement or the guy who orders his pizza with mustard and anchovies (perhaps the scariest scene in the film), but a full on stalk-'n-slash sequence where the killer is wearing a Santa outfit that is never referenced before or after that moment.

The third act killer reveal is reasonably successful at drumming up atmosphere, at the very least. While Jay and Diane are trapped in an attic filled with genuinely unsettling paintings, the killer is outside the door menacing them in a baby voice that's certainly bizarre. If every scene had the energy of the brief moments where the killer rears his head, it would be a superb weirdo slasher, but alas there are too many long dialogue sequences that tax the actors delivering them far beyond their capabilities.

Killer: Martin "Bird" Johnson (Paul Clemens)
Final Girl: Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning)
Best Kill: Having the killer shoot a grandmother in the back of the head while she's watching a televangelist program on TV is certainly a bold move.
Sign of the Times: The title theme, which sounds like somebody rooted through Tina Turner and Irene Cara's wastebaskets and synthesized a track out of the scraps.

Scariest Moment: While Jay is sneaking through a seemingly empty house, a shadow moves in an ever-so-slightly wrong way that could be his shadow but keeps nagging at you until it is revealed that he is indeed not alone.
Weirdest Moment: I mean, the scene where the killer is dressed as Santa (an outfit that is never reused) and bonks Cynthia on the head with a baseball bat just has to be it.
Champion Dialogue: "Come on in, I'm not going to rape you."
Body Count: 6
  1. Lillian in shot in the chest and cheek.
  2. Grandma is shot in the back of the head.
  3. Cynthia is beaten to death with a bat.
  4. Michael is stabbed in the gut.
  5. George is macheted in the neck.
  6. Bird is shot.
TL;DR: They're Playing with Fire is a boring, allegedly erotic thriller, but there is just enough off-kilter weirdness to keep it afloat.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 864

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Census Bloodbath: 1984

If you're new to Census Bloodbath, click here.

Well, well, well! Now that we're done covering the slasher films of 1983 and all of the ones we missed from 1980, 1981, and 1982, it's time to look forward into the bright glittering future that is 1984. 

1984 is the most Christlike of the slasher movie years because the genre had petered out and died by this point in the decade until one Mssr. Freddy Krueger swooped in toward the Fall and resurrected the entire enterprise with a wave of his clawed hand.

In fact, according to my research, not a single film was released in the first three months of the year, a dazzling stretch considering that there were only three months without a slasher over the entire first four years of the genre (April '80, December '81, and - weirdly - October '83). This year isn't particularly anemic, considering there are still 33 entries that came and went, but compared to the more fallow periods the slasher had and would have, that's downright paltry!

A reminder that, going forward, I'm still going to be focusing on less intensive capsule reviews for films, because that's all I have the strength and time for at the moment. But frankly, I'm still spitting out a startling word count, so I don't think you'll actually be suffering by me harnessing slightly more brevity.

Without any further ado, here is the calendar of all the gruesome glory you've got coming to you soon!

Census Bloodbath: 1984
Movies in bold are films I have already reviewed before posting this index. Once I write each review, I will link to it from this page.

They're Playing With Fire (April)
Calendar Girl Murders (April 8)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (April 13)
Murder-Rock: Dancing Death/Murderock - Uccide a passo di danza (April 20)
Death of the Jackal/La meurte del chacal (May 10)
Blind Date (June)
Disconnected (July)
Scream for Help (July)
Fear City (July 18)
Basag ang pula (July 20)
The Mutilator (October 5)
Silent Madness (October 26)
Day of the Reaper (October 31)
The Prey (November)
Zombie Island Massacre (November)
Evil Judgment (November 9)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (November 9)
Don't Open Till Christmas (December)
The Initiation (December)
Blood Theatre/Movie House Massacre (unknown)
The Dark Side of Midnight (unknown)
Deadline (unknown)
Fatal Games (unknown)
Innocent Prey (unknown)
Masacre en Rio Grande (unknown)
Rocktober Blood (unknown)
Satan's Blade (unknown)
Screamtime (unknown)
Shadows Run Black (unknown)
Sleepwalker (unknown)

Word Count: 423

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Welcome To The Snake Pit

Year: 1982
Director: Timothy Bond
Cast: Matt Craven, Jack Creley, Helen Hughes
Run Time: 1 hour 17 minutes

Plot: Till Death Do Us Part follows three married couples who have arrived at the isolated mansion of Dr. Sigmund Freed (Claude Jutra) for a weekend of radical couples counseling on the weekend between Good Friday and Easter. The house is run by Dr. Honora Freed (Toby Tarnow) and her mute younger brother Stephen (Dermot Stoker, who was a key grip on Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), who operates a bizarre control room. The couples in question are Dr. Susan (Candace O'Connor) and Robert Craig (James Leach), who are processing the loss of their son; Tony (Matt Craven of Happy Birthday to Me) and Ruth Archer (Rachel Wilkinson), who are trying to get a handle on his addiction to coke; and Wally (Jack Creley of Videodrome) and Edna Kroog (Helen Hughes of Visiting Hours, The Incubus, and The Amityville Curse), who are dealing with the fact that he's a lascivious creep and she's a nagging shrew. As bodies begin to pile up, all with crosses slashed into their foreheads, the couples begin to believe that something may be amiss at Dr. Freed's establishment.

Analysis: So. Till Death Do Us Part was the final film I needed to watch in order to fully catch up with films I missed from 1980, 1981, and 1982, following my fifth and (hopefully) final round of research for this project. It was by far the hardest to obtain, to the point that I had to acquire a VHS copy and a VCR to make this happen. Usually if a film is that difficult to track down, it's not worth tracking down. Trust me, I've been burned before. However, there was an element I hadn't accounted for: this is an obscure slasher VHS from Canada. The theorem posited by Tim Brayton, which I have had the opportunity to kick the tires on dozens of times, is that there is an inimitable magic to Canadian slasher filmmaking of the 1980s, and whatever X factor they provide usually helps those films rise above their American counterparts.

Well, that dictum has held true yet again. Even with the limitations of being a made-for-TV slasher movie, Till Death Do Us Part (whose director has had a typical career trajectory for a Canadian TV workman, going on to direct episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series in the 80's, Animorphs in the late 90's, and most recently helming a myriad of Hallmark Christmas movies) is pure bliss. I shouldn't be surprised. The TV slasher sub-subgenre should result in a lot of hollow, useless tripe, but has provided a weirdly robust slate of worthwhile projects, including Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Fantasies.

However, still color me surprised that Till Death Do Us Part is top to bottom compelling. Usually these TV slasher have to find a way to be interesting that aren't the kill sequences, and this film accomplishes that, but the kills are as singularly brutal as their bloodless execution could possibly allow, especially the opening kill that results in a woman being crucified in the upper branches of a tree. It helps that even the de rigueur kills like drowning are accompanied by that excellent organizing principal of crosses being carved onto the victims' foreheads, which both lends an air of creepiness to the proceedings and reminds viewers that this film has a screenplay with an actual consistent aim.

I've seen some people online classifying this film as a horror-comedy, which I think is a bit of a stretch (most of the "jokes" would be contained in the scenes of playful banter that precede the killings, which is an element found in most slashers, though I will give those people the excellent recurring gag where Freed reveals the titles of his published works). It's less "funny" than it is gonzo and weird, which is exactly the right move for a slasher that needs to keep its audience off kilter without pumping gallons of blood across the frame. 

There's an energy to this film that's like holding onto a live wire. From the absurd plot twists (that include undercover reporters, incest, and the truly delectable tossed-off reveal that Stephen isn't mute but "just shy") to the orgiastic pleasure with which the couples indulge in a game of Killer to the constant parade of shirtless men to Dr. Freed's incessant manic piano playing, there's constantly something going on onscreen that is well worth staring at in goggle-eyed wonder. There are also a few random moments of heartstring pulling in the subplot involving the Craigs that are more emotionally impactful than they have any right to be. 

The best way I could classify this movie is that it's like if the bloodless but playful plot structure of April Fool's Day was grafted onto the energetic dismissal of the limitations of low production value of Island of Blood. I would 100% classify this film as a hidden gem, with a single caveat. Before anyone is galvanized enough to start the journey into finding some way to watch this film, it's important to remember that these films are still graded on a sliding scale. If a weirdo mid-tier slasher isn't something that thrills you, Till Death Do Us Part still isn't going to be your thing. But if that's your bag, this film is an absolute thrill.

Killer: Dr. Honora Freed (Toby Tarnow)
Final Girl: Literally every woman except the maid and Dr. Honora.
Best Kill: I mean, who could resist the sweet delicious irony of Dr. Freed being konked on the head with the bust of himself that he keeps on his desk?
Sign of the Times: Two characters make a Deliverance reference out of nowhere.
Scariest Moment: Wally's attempts to flirt with Ruth at a garden party border on sexual assault.
Weirdest Moment: Dr. Susan decides she wants to make another baby the second she gets over the death of her son.
Champion Dialogue: "Geez, step on, you big goofball."
Body Count: 6
  1. Martine is crucified in the upper branches of a tree.
  2. Wally is hit on the head with a meat tenderizing mallet and falls down a well.
  3. Carl is stabbed in the gut with a tire iron.
  4. Tony is drowned in a jacuzzi.
  5. Dr. Sigmund Freed is hit on the head with a bust of himself.
  6. Dr. Honora Freed shoots herself.
TL;DR: Till Death Do Us Part is perhaps only excellent on the sliding scale of slasher enthusiasts, but it is excellent nonetheless.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1096

Monday, April 18, 2022

Census Bloodbath: In Case of Emergency

Year: 1982
Director: Francisco RodrĂ­guez Gordillo
Cast: Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller, Claudia Gravy
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

Plot: El cepo/The Icebox Murders follows Chantal (Mirta Miller of the previous year's Bloody Sex, bless her heart), a prostitute who is taken by her rich sugar daddy Dr. Beneau (Jack Taylor of Edge of the Axe and the same year's schlockterpiece Pieces) to an isolation mansion along with her friend Sylvie (Claudia Gravy). They discover he and his creepy assistant Jean (Juan Meseguer) are very protective of a mysterious icebox in the basement that may be linked to the recent disappearances of a slew of French women.

Analysis: A note: The single battered copy of this film that exists in the world has... a few flaws. The first act loses 2 seconds of footage every 20 seconds or so. And then there's a 20 minute period in the middle where there's no audio at all. After that it's relatively flawless, but there might be some nuances I have missed, shall we say.

That said, the movie has done an excellent job of making sure that every boring scene that occurs is repeated at least once, just so we don't miss anything. Instead of kill scenes, like most slasher movies come liberally stocked with, El cepo is content to watch Sylvie and Chantal wander around this giant house and be vaguely creeped out for 80% of the run time, a feeling that does not transfer through the screen to the viewer via osmosis, as it turns out.

It doesn't help that the film's inevitable Bluebeard twist is visible from space, so whenever the film thinks it's ratcheting up the tension, it's just reminding you that you're still farther from the reveal than you wish you were. Also the red herring at work here is one of the most bizarre in the business. We're not meant to recognize that the wealthy man who approaches Sylvie at the bar is also Jack Taylor, just because Dr. Beneau wears sunglasses that he refuses to take off, even when in the bedroom with his lover. You know, like normal, non-suspicious characters always do.

The slasher element, which begins anemic, proves it has nothing to offer once the few kills actually kick in. You'll notice in my body count below that two out of three victims are shot, but what is not mentioned there is that another victim who is believed dead until a third act twist was also shot. Unless you're in the third act of a Scream movie, there is no need to have a gun in your slasher, and centering multiple kill scenes around people clutching parts of their body then keeling over highlights the film's excruciating lack of personality.

Most of the atmosphere it succeeds in creating is glommed off of Psycho, down to the swinging lamp that lights a climactic moment. There's also one good original shot (pictured below), and while I have certainly committed the sin of bumping up my score of some Census Bloodbath entries because of one good shot, the inane goings-on of the rest of the film prevent that from proving to be much of a boon in this case. The best I can say about this unimaginative slasher entry is that it suffers from Good Poster Disease like so many of its illustrious contemporaries, where the film imagined by its promotional material is oodles more exciting than the way it actually turns out.

Killer: Dr. Beneau (Jack Taylor)
Final Girl: Chantal (Mirta Miller)
Best Kill: Sylvie (pictured above) is shot while standing in a herd of cardboard stand-ups of women with targets on their chests.
Sign of the Times: Chantal works out in a monochromatic peach tracksuit.
Scariest Moment: Jean screams at the women to take off their blouses while he photographs them on a boat.
Weirdest Moment: Although Jean is believed to be dead for half the film, he shows up in the end to save Chantal from the killer, at which point she promptly hitches a ride and drives away from him, leaving him running behind the car like Sweetums in The Muppet Movie.
Champion Dialogue: "I want you to give up your ridiculous profession."
Body Count: 3; not counting several mangled bodies discovered in a nightmare sequence on a train.
  1. French Woman is strangled.
  2. Sylvie is shot.
  3. Dr. Beneau is shot.
TL;DR: El cepo is a boring, arid film that barely crosses the line into being a legit slasher.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 748

Monday, April 11, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Baby Blues

Year: 1982
Director: Yao-Chi Chen
Cast: Emily Y. Chang, Alan Tam, Sha-Fei Ouyang
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Plot: Devil Returns follows a young woman named Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang) who was attacked by an escaped criminal. Two months later, she has married her fiancĂ© Lo Yu-ching (Alan Tam) and discovers she is pregnant with her attacker's child. When the baby is born, she suspects it of being possessed. A variety of supernatural accidents begin to occur until she gets the baby exorcised and a shadowy figure with a knife begins stalking her home.

Analysis: Like many of the Hong Kong films we've been covering recently as we swing back around and check out the films that slipped past my radar during my first (several) rounds of research, Devil Returns (aka Jing hun feng yu ye) is a real kitchen sink affair. It's tremendously hard to pin down what subgenre this film wants to exist in, as it seems to slide effortlessly between the type of supernatural slice-'n-dice picture that would become much more common post-A Nightmare on Elm Street and a formula slasher so traditional that it literally steals entire scenes from Halloween, including the car horn death, the closet scene, spying the killer out the window, and pounding on a door screaming for it to be opened by a sleeping child.

But also it spends the whole first half of the film riffing on The Omen and Rosemary's Baby while ripping off the score to Suspiria and wholesale stealing the score to The Exorcist, so it takes some getting used to. Eventually I was won over to the film's wavelength, but it takes some time after the slow-paced first act that keeps trying to capture the "women's picture" thrills that made its superior 1982 peer Exposed to Danger so thrilling but bogging it down in a supremely boring and ill-paced execution of the "am I imagining things?" trope. Once things start clicking, they really click though, especially when the film realizes that it can use the trappings of motherhood (the home, the belly, and the baby itself) to spin out terror both metaphorical and entirely immediate.

Part of why the film is so slippery is that it's never clear what the fuck is going on with the killer, and not in a way that makes it a compelling mystery. Is the killer possessing her son? Or is he just wandering around in a Michael Myers jumpsuit? And why are some kills entirely Omen-fueled supernatural mayhem (including a woman whose chest starts spontaneously erupting with blood) while others just involve people being poked with a big knife? There's no consistent M.O. established, so it's hard to grasp the actual stakes involved. I will admit that the film ends on an epigraph that is untranslated, which may have helped explain everything, though certainly not soon enough for it to help the film in the moment.

Luckily, the kill sequences (which are entirely backloaded, because that first half really can't get anything right) are pretty fascinating, and at one point act as a wildly kinetic shot of adrenaline at the exact point where the movie begins to flag the most. The film is also occasionally pretty, particularly in an early scene where Fang Mei-hsun is kidnapped on a rainy street, dropping her umbrella, which is left upside down to forlornly fill with water. And the first half is stuffy but not terribly made, so while it's a bit of a slog to get to the superior second half, it's not the most punishing.

Killer: There's too much going on here to land on calling this entity anything other than what the title suggests: Devil
Final Girl: Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang)
Best Kill: The abortion specialist is slashed in the face with a scalpel by a possessed nurse, at which point he begins to be thrown around by a telekinetic force before being defenestrated and falling several stories to his death.
Sign of the Times: There is an extended sequence that takes place at an aerobics class.
Scariest Moment: Devil appears in the hallway watching Mrs. Chou while she cooks, visible through the open door behind her.
Weirdest Moment: Shen Hsiao-ling starts brushing her hair and laughing maniacally.
Champion Dialogue: "Let's have a steak for your health."
Body Count: 5
  1. Doctor is slashed in the face and thrown out the window.
  2. Mrs. Chou is impaled through the back of the neck.
  3. Lin Haui-teh is stabbed in the back though his car seat.
  4. Shen Hsiao-ling is smothered with a shower curtain.
  5. Devil is shot.
TL;DR: Devil Returns is a little slow paced, but it throws caution to the wind in terms of ripping off the best of horror cinema and pouring 18 different subgenres into its bubbling cauldron.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 800