Saturday, May 31, 2014

Boys Next Door

Year: 2014
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Sure, Apatow comedies are funny enough. But after a couple years of increasingly bland fare like Wanderlust, The Five-Year Engagement, and This Is 40, it has been getting harder and harder to produce enthusiasm for what were already typically overlong and haphazardly misogynistic films.

What makes Neighbors interesting is that, for all its Apatow DNA (director Nicholas Stoller, co-producer Evan Goldberg, writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and stars Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Christoper-Mintz-Plasse, and Carla Gallo), Judd himself is nowhere to be found. Sure, his ghost is present in the framework, but this is an Apatow-free zone and, to tell you the truth, it turned out pretty great.

I can not promise that this isn't creating bias.

At a brisk hour and a half, Neighbors is about what separates the men from the boys (and the women from the girls) in one of the most thematically relevant comedies from this group to date. Seth Rogen plays Mac Radner, a new parent who has just moved into a suburban neighborhood with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne). Despite their attempts to stave off maturity, they can't help but be annoyed when a fraternity moves in next door, keeping them up late with their wild partying and loud music. 

Although the Radners initially intend to bond with fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and vice president Pete (Dave Franco) and feel young again, they eventually turn the frat against them when they call in a noise complaint. This initiates an escalating series of pranks as the Radners try to get the frat kicked out of their neighborhood and the Delta Psi brothers seek revenge.

All I can say is hooray for R-rated comedies. If slapped with a PG-13 rating, Neighbors could have been a delightful but routine affair. As it stands, however, it is a sharp, biting comedy that isn't afraid to go the extra mile in depicting the basest of human emotions and activities.

I mean, come on, this is a fraternity. PG-13 has no business here. 

Although the gross-out humor of this film's peers is certainly present and active, Neighbors is eminently less disgusting and crude than many of its predecessors, instead opting for character-driven comedy that comes from what seem like actual human beings, instead of the sketchy one-note constructs of your typical frat comedy. 

And the gross-out stuff that we do get is delightfully as far from misogyny as any film about a fraternity can get. There's penis humor galore and nary a wanton breast to be seen, except in the most plot-specific scenarios. Kelly has more of a character than "Mac's Nagging Wife," and there's even an entire scene devoted to deconstructing that character stereotype. Go Neighbors!

The characters are well fleshed out, getting at least as realistic as they can within this sort of scenario, all with their own motivations and goals. It's telling that the film continues to be interesting and compelling even when it dives into its more forthrightly dramatic scenes, usually an obligatory but shallow addition to this sort of comedy.

The central theme of the film is the terror of growing up and facing responsibility and each of the protagonists faces it in a different way. The Radners are afraid of losing their youth and being tied down in the suburbs with a kid when they could be out exploring the world. The frat brothers, especially Teddy, are frightened of what the world is going to be to them once the protective veneer of the fraternity is stripped away by graduation.

And that's not the only thing that will be stripped away.

So we have characters and moments with unusual resonance, comedy with unusual bite and snark, and on top of all that we get the most unusual thing of all - modern references that actually land. Because films take so long to produce, those that fill themselves with current technology and pop culture references tend to become dated even before they are released.

That's how we ended up with comedies still making MySpace jokes long after the beginning of the Zuckerberg Dynasty. Every modern touch here (including a solid Game of Thrones reference and a ponderous preponderance of FaceTime) will admittedly be dated at some point, but during this month of this year has absolute currency, proving that Hollywood is finally making a solid attempt to connect to the younger crowd instead of the feeble gimcrackery of past comedies that insist that people are still amused by the Harlem Shake.

We were never amused.

The comedy is consistently splendid, raising the question of why Rose Byrne isn't allowed to do this kind of thing more often. She is the absolute standout of the film, always halfway between her "Decent Mother" instincts and the wild impulses that make her a loose cannon, far more than any of her male cohorts. Her timing is pitch perfect and her line deliveries are consistently hilarious and Hollywood needs more Rose Byrne comedies right now!

The only other cast member who can even approach her caliber is Dave Franco, who absolutely owns his secondary role, grounding even his most emotional moments in an untouchably hilarious comedic performance. The subtlety of his role plays a large part in humanizing the entire fraternity, although the other actors do their best as well.

Including, oddly enough, the baby.

Rogen and Efron aren't standouts, but they work just as well as they need to and their later action sequence is one of the funniest moments committed to film in 2014. Other standouts are Lisa Kudrow, who shines as a pithy dean, and Randall Park as a representative at a job fair.

Kudrow has long since proven her worth as an actress, at least to me, with cult hits like Web Therapy and The Comeback, delighting in once again playing a caustic woman of authority. But Park is one of the most consistently under-appreciated comedy actors around today. I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with him on the web series Awesome Asian Bad Guys, which is the only reason I've even heard of him.

Despite his comic chops and astonishingly pleasant demeanor, he has only been given small insignificant roles for nearly his entire career. It's disappointing that he isn't getting leads (although hopefully his recently picked-up pilot Fresh Off the Boat will help him with that), but he always shines bright. And he is everywhere

He is on episodes of The Office and New Girl. He was in Larry Crowne and Dinner For Schmucks. Community. The Five-Year Engagement. ER. Reno 911!. iCarly. There's no escaping his circle of influence (including upcoming comedies They Came Together and Sex Tape), but nobody remembers his name.

Remember his name. I beseech thee.

So, yeah. Neighbors is a surprisingly excellent comedy about growing up with stellar performances at every level. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but then again I wasn't expecting a comedy with so much Apatow influence to be so kind-hearted and full of joy. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, despite being deceitfully packaged as throwaway entertainment.

TL;DR: Neighbors is surprisingly funny and has enough thematic resonance to keep the entire film afloat, even during the more overtly dramatic sequences.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Yeah, absolutely! You won't regret it. And I should know something about regret. I spent money on This Is 40.
Word Count: 1258
Reviews In This Series
Neighbors (Stoller, 2014)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Kiss Of Death

Year: 1980
Director: Don Edmonds
Cast: Rick Styles, Chip Greenman, Rich Pemberton
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

When will I learn to never trust slasher movies with cool titles? 

Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Burning, The Initiation... All great titles for great movies, but their names are low key in the grand scheme of things. But give me a Christmas Evil, To All A Goodnight, or Memorial Day and things get down in the dumps pretty quickly. Can you guess which camp Terror on Tour falls into?

If you guessed the former, you're just as optimistic as me. And just as stupid.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

You see, Terror on Tour was produced by Alex Rebar and Sandy Cobe, two slick types who also perpetrated To All A Goodnight earlier in 1980. Add in the ingredient of director Don Edmonds' history of producing trash like the notorious Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and you've got the perfect recipe for a crap sandwich. Luckily, this film doesn't descend to quite the level of nuclear suckage that that might imply, but it would take a gentler soul than I to find anything substantial to praise about it. 

This film tells the story of The Clowns, a rock and roll band played by real life band The Names. Their show involves over the top KISS style costumes, makeup, and the murder of a mannequin onstage. Classic stuff, really. Their tour, which takes them to exotic locations as far and wide as this one rinky dink theater in middle America to.... the same rinky dink theater in middle America. 

But let us not get caught up in the minor crappy details when there's so much major crap to deal with. The band consists of Fred (Rick Styles), a real hit with the ladies; Ralph (Chip Greenman), who is succumbing to the lifestyle and battling a drug addiction; Henry (Rich Pemberton), the drummer with a heart of gold; and Cherry (Dave Galluzzo), who is a real sensitive type who doesn't really like the drug and violence addled personas they have had to take on to appeal to the crowd. I made those four sound much more interesting than they actually are.

The movie would have perhaps been a shade more interesting if it had focused on fleshing out their characters and enhancing their terror at their situation, but in that wall-to-wall 80's rock fashion, the killings this time are carried out while they're onstage and the film preoccupies itself with the machinations of the band's tour manager Tim (Larry Freaking Thomas, aka Seinfeld's Soup Nazi and the only "big" name in the entire film), their makeup artist Herb (Jeff Morgan), and their handsome roadie Jeff (David Thompson).

Oh, did I mention that the killer is decked out in full Clowns regalia?

Oh, did I mention that this regalia is comprised of Kiss makeup, a black unitard, a Phantom of the Opera mask, and an afro wig?

It had to come out sooner or later.

During the concerts and the afterparties, a whole horde of sexy young women are dispatched with a butcher knife that makes my crappy student film rubber knife look like a Ginsu. These scenes are interspersed with the copious nudity that is the trademark of these producers and this genre, but the murders leave something to be desired. It's all just people getting stabbed in the gut with a Big 'Ol Knife. Nothing groundbreaking here.

It's like the filmmakers watched Friday the 13th and pieced together that the formula for success was a high body count, crappy cinematography, and listless characters talking about nothing in particular. They even stole the CHA CHA CHA score! Unfortunately, they skipped over the magnificently rendered gore while compiling their list and the film loses a lot of the cheesy 80's impact it could have had. 

Although the costumes certainly work to make up for that.

The acting in the film is... well, what would you expect? The band members surprisingly hold their own, but the rest of the cast is pretty standard for a slasher of this pedigree. The men are too unattractive to make it in Hollywood, the women too untalented. Although ironically, the director and star of the 1982 slasher Boardinghouse (John Wintergate and Kalassu) make an appearance here as "Mod Boy" and "Mod Girl."

There are actually a surprising amount of slasher regulars in the supporting cast. Sylvia Wright, who played some chick named Carol would go on to make a name for herself in Bloody Birthday as "Girl in Van." And Verkina Flower, who played the charming "Well Endowed Girl" would go on to be a wardrobe consultant on Frightmare and Silent Night, Deadly Night, one of the very few truly good Christmas slashers.

But when that's the extent of your film's talent... Well, things aren't exactly the best. The songs are uniformly subpar, although they're not as grating as the endless slate in the same year's New Year's Evil. I already spoke of the acting. Since there's hardly any gore to speak of, at least I can't complain about its poor quality.

Although to be completely honest, I'd really rather have buckets of terrible chalupa sauce blood than nothing at all.

He gets it.

The only thing saving the film is those unforgettable costumes. Half KISS, half Juggalo, all ridiculous. The fact that at any given point, up to 75 percent of the cast is dressed like this gives the film a lot of mileage. Unfortunately, besides that and the presence of Larry Thomas who is at best a D-List celebrity, there's absolutely nothing else to recommend it.

OK, maybe there's one more interesting thing. Let's jump into SPOILER territory here. The killer, as anybody with a pulse could guess by the 30 minutes mark is, in fact, the Soup Nazi. He's killing the topless chicks for the usual reasons. They're whores, sex is a sin, he's a religious zealot, we get it. But there's an intriguing addition to this motive.

He kills them because he thinks they're morally unscrupulous and doesn't want them to bear children. Isn't that strange? I mean, it's not enough to amp up a dull, plodding final act that follows a goreless second act and a wholly boob-fueled first act, but it's certainly more creative than what we normally get in the end of these early slashers.

So it's not a total waste of time? But I wouldn't spend your time on it. Only mine. Because at least when I watch it, I can chalk it up to this Census Bloodbath project and feel productive. For you, it would merely be madness.

Killer: Tim (Larry Thomas)
Final Girl: None; Although the entire band survives, which is highly odd.
Best Kill: One of the girls is stabbed right in the boobs.
Sign of the Times: There's a character named "Mod Girl." Come on.
Scariest Moment: There is a room in the venue used exclusively for sex. It is decorated with red splatters. And a noose.
Weirdest Moment: The band members start to sing a song in the green room that actually isn't a pile of crap.
Champion Dialogue: "He's popping enough pills to put an elephant into orbit."
Body Count: 8
  1. Drug Dealer Girl is stabbed in the stomach.
  2. Horny Cocaine Girl is stabbed to death.
  3. "Next" Girl has her throat slit.
  4. Too Turnt Topless Girl is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Drummer's Girlfriend is stabbed to death. 
  6. Lt. Lambert is stabbed in the gut. 
  7. Narc Girl is stabbed in the stomach.
  8. Herb is stabbed in the back. 
TL;DR: Terror on Tour is not good, but at least it has funny outfits.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1292

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How Am I Gonna Be An Optimist About This?

Year: 2014
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Cast: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

We're not even halfway through the year and 2014 has already been the stage for some rather unusual cinematic phenomena. One of the most astonishing is the resurgence of the Christian Values film, which has been cropping up almost monthly with titles like Heaven Is For Real, Son of God, and Noah. Not that there's anything wrong with Christian film, it's just we've never seen a slate so inundated with Jesus since the religious epics of the early sound period.

Perhaps even more inexplicable in its sheer abundance is the return of the swords and sandals gladiator flick. Already this year we've gotten The Legend of Hercules, 300: Rise of an Empire, and Pompeii, the subject of this review. And we're currently staring down the barrel of an even more abysmal Hercules, poised to come out in July and starring the rock as the titular warrior.

Why has this genre suddenly gained so much currency with the American public? Well, one look at the box office grosses would suggest that, in fact, it hasn't. 300 fared well enough thanks to its franchise attachments, but Hercules and Pompeii collectively made less in their entire runs than The Lego Movie made in one weekend.

Typically this kind of inundation in a certain niche genre comes about a year after a big success in a similar vein, but there is no evidence to suggest that gladiator movies had any cachet even as far back as 2012. I suppose it's just one of life's many mysteries, for which we will never have a satisfactory explanation. Like the Marie Celeste or Amelia Earhart. Or where the other half of your pair of socks ended up after doing your laundry.

Whatever the reason, we can rest assured that it's a terrible one because, if Pompeii is a reliable indicator, the filmmakers of 2014 don't have anything new to bring to the genre.

Except Jon Snow, that is.

The story is set in A.D. 79 as gladiator-slave Milo (Kit Harington) is brought from his home in the UK to the grand city of Pompeii for the amusement of the locals in the arena. The horseman training he received as a child earns him the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the... Governor? Emperor? 

There's two different fancymen who seem to be in charge of the city and she is the daughter of one of them. Pompeii is full of little moments like this that slip through the cracks - I'm not sure the screenwriters bothered themselves with continuity, being too distracted diving into their swimming pools filled with gold coins.

Anyway, they have the strangest Meet Cute in cinematic history when he breaks her horse's neck to put it out of its misery. This apparently revs her engine something fierce, prompting anachronistic gossip with her handmaiden (Jessica Lucas) about how sexy his muscles are. I have it on good authority that the screenplay describes his character as "absolutely ripped," which just goes to show their devotion to being one hundred percent period-accurate.

"I'm, like, totally bummed about this whole volcano thing" - Actual Dialogue from Pompeii

Regardless, Milo is shoved into the slave barracks under the arena and befriends a fellow competitor, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje - Lost's Mr. Eko). While they both struggle with the idea of having to kill each other in the tournament tomorrow night (and, thanks to some severe continuity deficiency, "tomorrow night" is about three nights from now) and Cassia struggles with the unwanted attentions of Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), things start to go wrong in the countryside as some major seismic shifts begin to take place.

Suddenly, during the climactic tournament, all those times the camera panned up to that funny looking mountain outside the city start to make sense as it explodes all over everything. I put that in italics because the shrieking score indicates that this matter is of grave importance despite the fact that our heroes manage to walk through storms of raining fireballs and burning clouds of ash unscathed.

Come on, you can figure out the rest. Volcano does its thing. Milo tries to save Cassia from evil clutches.

Pompeii's tourism department weeps softly in the corner.

In case you hadn't noticed before, the screenplay and the editing are messy as all hell. The prisoners switch rooms in the space of a single cut. The opening title cards intersperse location and action titles (i.e. "Londinium, 62 AD" and "The Battle of IDK Whatever") with the cast credits in the exact same font, confusing even the hardiest of filmgoers.

And the script is full of witty, unique, highly original and inspiring gems like "If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it already" and people standing around giving monologues of grand significance when they should be running from the lava that's pouring out of the sky. My personal favorite moment is when grammatical structure breaks down completely to provide us with this avant-garde masterpiece of a line: "My family were murdered."

His backstory are tragic.

Unfortunately, for all of Pompeii's deficiencies, it's not quite as dumb as I was hoping. If it was a rip-roaring terrible gladiator picture, it could have been a lot of fun sitting around mocking it and making Bastille references. But as it stands, it is perfectly middle-of-the-road popcorn entertainment. It's too dumb to be actively good, but it's not dumb enough to attain "so bad it's good" status, leaving me up a creek without a paddle.

The action is bog-standard with an uncanny predilection for people fighting with two swords at the same time, which isn't as effective as it looks. There's one scene that's cool enough to be entertaining, cool enough that I won't spoil it here, but for the most part the film thuds back and forth between routine sword fights and characters with names just narrowly escaping the crumbling wreckage of the city, something which I call "2012 Syndrome."

The performances are all competent save Kiefer Sutherland, who was saddled with the most unfortunate of accents, rendering his villainy entirely toothless. And why is it that first century Roman officials all speak in clipped British tones? This phenomenon has yet to be explained by science.

The drab color palette (brown on brown on grey, with some brown-red thrown in for good measure) keeps things from getting too exciting and the emotional resonance is just plain absent. The central tragic romance is more Day After Tomorrow than Titanic, no matter how hard it tries to get us to care (by my calculations, approximately 15%).

Despite being a decently entertaining movie to sit through, it's just plain not worth seeing in any respect. Perhaps it might have been in the hands of somebody other than the director of Mortal Kombat, but as it stands, Pompeii crumbles before it has a chance to impress.

TL;DR: Pompeii is the worst kind of failure - a non-abysmal one.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1182

Friday, May 23, 2014

Time And Time Again

Year: 2014
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The X-Men film franchise has been going strong since its inception in 2000 with two sequels, two Wolverine spinoffs, and a quasi-prequel in 2011's X-Men: First Class. Because of the preponderance of alternate universes in comic books, which provide the source material for these films, First Class and its sequel Days of Future Past take place on an alternate timeline, which helps clear out some of the muck that has backed up over the years.

First Class was an interesting action exercise setting the origin of the X-Men into a historical context alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to the sequel, this sort of mutant Forrest Gumping has continued for the following decade and our favorite heroes and villains have been involved in everything from the Vietnam War to the assassination of JFK.

And the invention of the lava lamp (probably).

All of this meddling has inspired the mutant-hating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) to create the Sentinel Program, a highly advanced robotic system designed to trace the X gene and wipe out the mutants before they bring upon the extinction of humanity. When Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders him in his office in 1973, instead of stopping his intolerant menace, it merely proves to the government that mutants are a threat and they use her DNA to create Sentinels capable of adapting to any mutant attack.

This sets off a chain of events that leads to more or less the destruction of the entire mutant race and the planet. On the Earth of today, cities are desolate wastelands and the mutants roam the rubble in hordes, constantly on the move to escape the Sentinels that track their every step.

It's a bleak and grey world, but the return of some of the original X-Men cast brings me too much joy to be as disappointed in the state of the planet as I should. Although the roles hardly amount to more than glorified cameos, we get Magneto (Ian McKellen), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Storm (Halle Berry), and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, my one and only) back together again. 

It is enough to make any fan of the original trilogy weep tears of joy that wash away any and all traces of the emotional wreckage that X-Men Origins: Wolverine left in its path.

More than enough.

Kitty Pryde must use her newfound time traveling powers (if you have a complaint about this, please lodge it with Shannon) to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 and patch things up between ex-lovers friends Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to unite them in preventing Mystique from carrying out her murderous intentions against Trask and setting the world on a course that leads to ultimate destruction.

But time is limited, you see! The central conceit of the time travel this time around is that Wolverine is sent into a former consciousness, which means that he technically hasn't traveled backwards in time, merely into a shadow of his former self. So as time progresses in 1973, it does so in equal increments in the present day as the Sentinels draw closer and closer to their prey.

This is a genius way of creating a sense of urgency and raising the stakes, although it doesn't quite take until the second act, when cross-cutting becomes more of a prominent phenomenon. Although I do wish we could have spent more time with the original X-Men, this is a devoted sequel to First Class, remaining faithful to that film's characters, themes of discovering one's own identity amid the broad stokes of history, and sizzling homoerotic tension.

I'm serious. You can't make this stuff up.

The film is largely a success, deftly navigating through crackling action sequences and pithy humor with sure footing. In fact, the best scene of the film is a combination of both as the newly introduced Quicksilver (Evan Peters) uses his super speed to greatly amusing and powerful effect. 

Before the film's release, it was doubtful whether Peters would be able to hold his own when performing alongside such giants as Jackman, McKellen, Stewart, and Fassbender, but the kid seamlessly inserts himself into the universe as an important and necessary comic relief. The American Horror Story darling isn't about to get an Oscar nomination any day soon, but he's certainly proved that he is worthy of being respected as a character in his own right and not a one-off annoying cameo.

And that outfit doesn't look as stupid when it's within the context of 1973.

The film as a whole doesn't quite bring itself up to the level of First Class thanks to its reliance on generic screenwriting platitudes to drive the plot forward (there's lots of mumbo-jumbo about hope and the course of time and good vs evil and it's all been done before) and a penchant for overemphasizing certain plot points to make sure the audience gets it. But that doesn't mean that it's not an exciting and viable entry in one of the strongest (and longest-running) comic book film franchises of the century.

But before we go, a quick question. When did CGI get crappy again? We've been coasting along fine for years, but all of a sudden these last couple X-Men movies have been beholden to some truly questionable visual effects. It's not enough to take one out of the story, per se, but it's something to think about.

Let me just say that I am absolutely happy with what we got. A rad mutant power is a rad mutant power. But studios have gotta make sure they render before they export or something, because in a couple years, those plasticky-looking sentinel insides are going to get quite a laugh when viewed on Ultraviolet-restored Mega HD BluRay laser processors, or whatever the hell technology is coming down the pike.

But hey. It's X-Men. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

TL;DR: X-Men: Days of Future Past isn't quite as good as the movie that spawned it, but tells an exciting time travel narrative with compelling characters.
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Definitely, if you're a fan of the X-Men. If you're not, go catch Godzilla instead.
Word Count: 1053
Reviews In This Series
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Dash Away, All

Year: 1980
Director: David Hess
Cast: Jennifer Runyon, Forrest Swanson, Linda Gentile
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Holiday themed slasher films are always a huge draw. Centering the murders around a single unifying element helps the filmmakers find some great puns and kills that otherwise couldn't have existed. I'm just saying, nobody is gonna get their head shoved into a turkey or an American flag down their throat on a campground in the middle of August.

Christmas is a particular favorite because of the innocence and joy usually associated with the holiday. And nobody can resist the idea of a killer Santa. I mean, the man is omniscient. He sees you when you're sleeping. He sneaks into your house in the middle of the night. And he knows when you've been bad. The whole thing is pretty creepy without the help of a carving knife and minor key synth music.

Because of the sheer profusion of films of this stock, I hold an annual Christmas Slasher Movie Marathon at my house in the winter. We've seen gems like Psycho Santa, Satan Claus, Silent Night, Deadly Night and way way more. So when I began Census Bloodbath way back when last summer, I decided to skip over To All A Goodnight at first because I wanted to save it to watch with my friends during the holidays. I'm really glad I didn't.

Because they would have killed me for showing them another crappy-ass Christmas film just because the title sounded promising.

I'll never learn.

The film opens two years ago at the Calvin Finishing School For Girls, utilizing the hoary trope of "transgression in the past" to provide a motive for the murders, this time the accidental killing of a sorority sister (Maybe. It's never made explicitly clear that this is a sorority, but they look and act like one and the DNA of Black Christmas is too apparent to avoid drawing connections.) during a prank. This entire scene is alarmingly perfunctory, only lasting less than a minute.

It's astoundingly odd that this should be the case. A lot of later slasher films spent only a brief amount of time on this kind of thing, because they knew that audiences had already picked up on the patterns from watching so many similar movies and it was only necessary to provide a sort of summary of the transgression. The audience could do the rest of the heavy lifting.

But To All A Goodnight (I hate the grammar of that title more and more every time I type it) was the first slasher film of 1980, certainly too early in the game to be participating in any sort of self-assured truncation like that. Perhaps its just an indicator of the ubiquitous poor quality of the film, shepherded to ever more rancid degrees by director David Hess aka the rapist in The Last House on the Left, and quite obviously not a huge proponent of good taste.


So here we are in present day. It's Christmas break and many of the girls have decided to stick around. The most prominent character is Nancy (Jennifer Runyon), a meek, mild, quiet, demure, snoozefest of a human being with a voice that hardly raises above a squeak. She is the Final Girliest Final Girl to ever exist, and not the last to bear that name. She's the only one who objects when the other girls decide to slip sleeping pills to their housekeeper, Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Harrington) and hold a party while she's sedated.

The sorority party offers us a heaping platter of Meat including Trisha (Angela Bath), the slutty British girl; Melody (Linda Gentile), the slutty American girl; Cynthia (Lisa Labowskie), the slutty blonde; and Leia (Judith Bridges), the slutty dancer. As you can see, the characters have an unparalleled level of nuance second only to some of Shakespeare's greater tragedies.

Cynthia's boyfriend is Paul (mysteriously, there is no actor listed under this name), who gets about three seconds of screentime before he is summarily dispatched; Trisha's boyfriend is T.J. (William Lauer), a lunkish jock and ringleader of the boys; Melody has grown attached to Alex (Forrest Swanson), a nerdy kid who is inexplicably obsessed with medical technology and is rather fond of Nancy despite the fact that a wet mop would be more fun to hang out with than Nancy; also there's assorted men and women who blend together too much for my poor fevered brain to focus.

Not a single one of these actors has ever been in anything else even remotely interesting for their entire careers (except, oddly enough, for the fact that several of them appeared in episodes of Diff'rent Strokes). In fact, a large portion of them would never act again. I hope they all had day jobs, because it's easy to see why they wouldn't be hired back. Every bit of dialogue plays off like they're fumbling to read off of cue cards printed in off-white ink on white paper.

Not exactly my Fantasy Dinner Party roster.

The partiers proceed to drink and screw and die and wake up and screw some more and die. In between all the boning, they are bumped off one by one by a homicidal maniac in a Santa suit. This is less interesting than it sounds, because absolutely nothing clever is done with the conceit. If it's Christmas and you're a slasher movie, at the very least I expect somebody to be strangled with tinsel. But no, our Saint Nick with his belly like a bowlful of helly makes do with a garden variety kitchen knife.

I am so done with 1980.

So, about the sex. I'm all for sleaze in my exploitation movies (in more of a hilarious historical interest way, not a lecherous one), but the entire film is essentially one long, ill-lit sex scene. It's like the seventh circle of hell with randy co-eds doffing their tops into eternity.  It's so relentlessly sleazy that it's boring, squandering its shock value and losing any ability to titillate,  merely becoming an incessant grinding gear of agony for everybody but the most perverse, tormented shadows of human beings. Also, the music rips off Jaws.

I wish the rest of the movie had ripped off Jaws. It would have been far more interesting.

The kills are uninspired and either to dark to be discernible or framed too far from the camera to have any sort of power. The only captivating moments of the scarcely 80 minute film are in the final scene, and that's only because that's the moment when the film shifts from being a tedious grind to powerfully strange.

I'm going to throw in a SPOILERS tag here just out of courtesy, but please read on. I actively desire to spoil the ending, hopefully preventing any bad movie buffs with piqued interest from becoming yet another of the film's victims.

So, it turns out that the killer is Mrs. Jensen, who was apparently the mother of the girl who was killed two years ago. So that's interesting. Female killers always give me a thrill, even though the genre is still too misogynistic to allow them to be anything but hysteria-driven monsters. And the fact that her nature and motive predicted Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th is quite intriguing.

But we haven't even gotten to the strange part. This is all presented very plainly and the killer is shoved unceremoniously off a balcony with little effort on Nancy's part. The editing starts to get a little wacky here, and the movie loses its grip over what time of day it is and/or whether we're in a flashback and/or whether she fell off a balcony onto the lawn or into the living room. Just to spice up this little bit of manic editing dross, another Santa steps in, revealing himself to be the police inspector/husband of the killer!

And he attacks! And! subsequently killed without a moment's hesitation.

Why introduce two killers in your final five minutes, only to have them both amount to nothing? Who actually killed all those teens at the party? Were they working together? Or was it just Mrs. Jensen and her husband stepped in to avenge her death? Why are they both dressed as Santa? It's not like the holiday played any big part in the film, except for some twinkle lights in the set design and sleigh bells on the soundtrack (which is ear-splittingly awful, by the way).

By now I have grown accustomed to nonsensical slasher endings, having been inoculated by watching the entire Friday the 13th franchise twice over, but what in Sam Hill is this movie even about?

You know what? It doesn't matter. I watched the entire thing, so I'll never have to sit through it again or waste another second of my time thinking about it. And neither should you. Don't watch this movie. There are a few scattered fun 80's moments, but they're just not worth all the digging it takes to reach them.

Tragically, this isn't the last disappointing Santa movie that will be featured on Census Bloodbath. Steel your loins.

Killer: You tell me. I'm just gonna split the difference and say Santa.
Final Girl: Nancy (Jennifer Runyon)
Best Kill: Santa kills two escaping partiers with an airplane propeller in a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
Sign of the Times: The awkward moaning that ensues during simple acts like kissing is a uniquely 80's phenomenon.
Scariest Moment: The creepy groundskeeper and obvious red herring Ralph takes an odd liking to Nancy, crawling into her window and demanding that she pray for forgiveness.
Weirdest Moment: Leah does pirouettes with a cheese platter in a pre-coital moment.
Champion Dialogue: "I was just on my way to drink some milk."
Body Count: There seems to be some contention around this, but I feel comfortable sticking with around 15; including the 2(?) killers and their daughter. Also, I apologize for the lack of names in the body count but I just couldn't bring myself to rewatch the film to make sure I got them all right, even just skimming it.

  1. Mrs. Jensen's Daughter falls to her death from a balcony.
  2. A boy is stabbed to death.
  3. A girl is stabbed in the chest.
  4. A girl has her throat slit. 
  5. A boy has his head split open with a rock.
  6. A boy is shot through the head with a crossbow.
  7. A girl is decapitated with an axe.
  8. A man is killed in the head offscreen.
  9. A man has his head split open with an axe.
  10. A man is stabbed in the back.
  11. A boy is garroted with wire.
  12. A boy is dismembered with helicopter blades.
  13. A girl is dismembered with helicopter blades.
  14. Mrs. Jensen falls to her death from the balcony.
  15. A man is shot with a crossbow. 
TL;DR: To All A Goodnight is a worthless, sleazy trifle of a slasher film that wastes what should at the very least be a corny and entertaining premise.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1852

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Census Bloodbath: My, What Big Feet You Have

Year: 1980
Director: James C. Wasson
Cast: Michael Cutt, Joy Allen, Bob Collins
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As we approach the end of 1980, the first year of my Census Bloodbath marathon, things start to get a little weird. You see, the back end of the year is where I logged all the slasher movies that, by all accounts, did come out in our year nineteen hundred and eighty, but for mysterious and perhaps sinister reasons have no official release date on IMDb or anywhere else.

Night of the Demon is one of those films and the rest of its pedigree is no less murky. The only copy available to me was what appears to be a bad VHS transfer on YouTube (should you wish to subject yourself to it, here's the link!) that's so blurry I might have been watching a bootleg of Breakfast at Tiffany's for all I knew if it weren't for the screaming.

And the dazzling visual effects.

Night of the Demon is quite a unique slasher film because, for all that it is beholden to the tropes of the genre (a herd of teen campers being picked off one by one), which had been cemented in with Friday the 13th in May, the formulaic ideas were still new enough that the filmmakers felt freedom to marry them with other genres as well. 

Well, other genre.

I guess there's no beating around the bush here. The killer is Bigfoot. You heard me. Bigfoot. In a costume that makes me rethink my contempt of 1313: Bigfoot Island. At least you could tell that that movie wasn't trying.

It might not make the film any less crappy than it is, but the additional of such an important American mythological figure really amps up the campiness in the kill scenes, providing the film a shot in the arm during its duller moments.

Of which there are many when this guy's not around.

The plot centers around Professor Nugent (Michael Cutt, who we will see again in Sweet 16 if we ever make it out of 1980 alive), a bigfootology (?) professor who brings several students of his on a Sasquatching trip to the woods where the murderous beast is rumored to live. Seems like a fun and safe field trip, I daresay. No abuse of power here. Perfectly legal.

These students are such characterless meat puppets that even Carla, the most obviously Final Girly one of them all, the daughter of a fisherman who was killed by the rampaging Sasquatch, gets nothing to do and is quickly dispatched and forgotten in the finale. The other four are Greg, a pretty blonde boy; Linda, a pretty blonde girl who they only allowed to come along because she agreed to do the dishes although I don't see the point because they didn't actually bring any dishes because, you know, they're camping; Roy, a dumb Bluto-esque young man; and Pete, who doesn't even get a name until after he dies, until which point I affectionately referred to him as "Bowl Cut."

The film doesn't even have the decency to inform us of which actors played which characters in the credits, so I'm going to have to use my Francis Bacon scientific method skills to hypothesize that the students were played by Joy Allen, Bob Collins, Jody Lazarus, Rick Fields, and Michael Lang, none of whom ever appeared in anything of note ever again.

Only my nightmares.

So basically they all go around searching for Bigfoot and he begins to murder them because this is a slasher movie and he's a big hairy beast so who needs a motive? Also, a young student in a sleeping bag is killed in an early scene and never spoken of again. I may have actually hallucinated that whole thing because that scene or character is literally never mentioned before or after it occurs.

So, let's start with the good, shall we? 



There's one well-composed shot! Exactly one. In the opening scene. As a fisherman gets his arm pulled off (Cheesy, but cool. More on that later.), his blood begins to pool, filling up a massive humanoid footprint when the title appears.

Yes, this is the best shot. Citizen Kane it ain't.

The other (and only) good parts in the film are the kill sequences, which are of a piece ineptly rendered (the characters seem to have watered-down Tapatío running through their veins), but hilarious in their clumsiness and surprisingly brutal at times. The film knows that these scenes are its strong suit and it makes sure to pack in as many as it can at the expense of plot coherence.

Kill scenes are jammed in haphazardly throughout the film like a board game that doesn't quite fit back in its box after you've played it for the first time. The beginning and middle thirds are thoroughly padded with the professor abruptly saying mid-stroll "Did you ever hear about the (logger/biker/girl scout/rodeo clown/etc) that was murdered in these woods?" then cutting to a "flashback" kill sequence.

None of these are connected in any way and the sheer proliferation of the scenes, especially toward the slower parts in the middle, gets irritating, but the killings are all lovely cheesy 80's artifacts. There's a woodsman who gets the axe. We get a swinging sleeping bag impaled on a branch. We get arms ripped off, guts pulled out, and all sorts of lovely things. Sure, it's no Tom Savini, but after slogging through all those goreless proto-slasher "suspense" pieces, it's a breath of fresh air to see the blood flowing freely.

And come on! It's Bigfoot! Who could ask for more?

To my consternation, a film can't entirely be comprised of awesome kill scenes, and unfortunately that seems to be the case here. Everything that doesn't directly involve the murderous ape being is like trying to watch paint dry in an ocean - monotonous and futile. The whole thing is so padded from beginning to end that they even have the audacity to cut away to a dream sequence of a character who doesn't even have any involvement in the plot and would never appear again.

Bigfoot's POV is demarcated by a searing bright red filter with a small circle in the middle of the frame, and the entire final act is a dull slog when it's not being crass (with an unforgivably nonessential Bigfoot rape) including another one of those dreadful hypnotism scenes that horror movies always seem to think are so compelling.

There's not a lot to like during the human sequences, although I do commend the composer for including such daring orchestrations that swing between genres like "instructional PSA," "coffee commercial," and "synth falling asleep over a Celine Dion instrumental."

So, really, Night of the Demon isn't very good at all. It has a threadbare plot populated with hyperbolically uninteresting characters. But I do have a soft spot in my heart for appendages being ripped off, so there's that. And at least we'll always have this shot of Dr. Nugent in his underwear.

From the Andrew Christian "Dicey Professor" collection.

UPDATE: As I was writing this article, it occurred to me that what with its early 80's production date and overload of specifically sexual gore and vicious rape, it sounded like a perfect candidate for the Video Nasties, a notorious list of films banned in the UK for violent content in the early 80's. After some digging, I discovered that it is, in fact, on that list. It's remarkable that it slid under the radar, considering that many of the other films listed are far less vicious than this.

Killer: Bigfoot
Final Girl: Professor Nugent (Michael Cutt)
Best Kill: A motocylist takes a pit stop to relieve himself. Then Bigfoot shows up to relieve the man of his penis. By tearing it off. (Also, notably, the first full-frontal male nudity I've seen in this entire project! Yay gender equality!)

Sign of the Times: In the first sex scene (yes, first), the young woman's hair is even bigger than her breasts.
Scariest Moment: Two knife-wielding girl scouts are slammed into each other repeatedly, cutting one another with their own knives.
Weirdest Moment: A woman screams in orgasmic rapture as her boyfriend gets killed. For a full minute.
Champion Dialogue: "Begin at the beginning of your story."
Body Count: 15; 14 by Bigfoot and 1 by fire. Quite an ambitious number, even higher than the prolific Jason's first outing in the genre.
  1. Mr. Thomas' arm is ripped off.
  2. Found Footage Girl #1 is killed offscreen.
  3. Found Footage Girl #2 is killed offscreen.
  4. Van Lover is mauled and tossed onto the windshield.
  5. Hunter is swung around in his sleeping bag and impaled on a tree branch.
  6. Motorcyclist has his penis torn off.
  7. Woodsman is hit in the shoulder with an axe. 
  8. Girl Scout #1 is stabbed repeatedly.
  9. Girl Scout #2 is stabbed repeatedly.
  10. Pete has his face slammed into a tree.
  11. Reverend McGinty is set on fire.
  12. Carla is strangled.
  13. Gary is thrown onto a saw blade and has his innards ripped out.
  14. Roy has his head bashed through a window and his neck sliced on a glass shard.
  15. Linda is impaled with a pitchfork.  

TL;DR: Night of the Demon is shoddily made, but the murder sequences are entertaining and the killer is unique for the genre.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1570

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Casting Cull

Year: 1980
Director: John Lamond
Cast: Jenny Nuemann, Gary Sweet, Nina Landis
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Though I haven't written as many entries into my Census Bloodbath feature as I'd hoped when I started it, I'm really trying to buckle down over summer break before school leaps up from behind me and pulls me back into the water à la Jason in the end of Friday the 13th. But with Nightmares aka Stage Fright forming my 30th entry in the long-running series and almost completely rounding out my coverage of the year 1980, I'm feeling pretty good about things.

It helps that Nightmares is closer to the tried-and-true method of slasher filmmaking than many of its brethren in the first year of the decade. As much as I enjoy the thematically intriguing, morally dubious Psycho riffs, they just can't compare to the down and dirty "boobs 'n guts" trashiness that makes the genre such a cheesy draw. It also helps that Nightmares marks the first Ozploitation film of the bunch. The Australian accents help ease the pain of how utterly dreadful the film actually is.

Perhaps that's a bit unfair.

Perhaps it isn't.

Slashers do have to be graded on a curve, because a lot of the fun comes from how cheesy and shoddily made they are. And Nightmares is certainly a lot of fun when it's not being ploddingly dull. There's ample flesh, both male and female (a staple of any solid exploitation flick) and plenty of people getting stabby stabbed.

The relentless filler, dubious character motivations, and uncreative weapon choice do put a damper on things in terms of quality, but sometimes it's quite nice to relax into the rhythms of an insipid genre piece and just let it take you on a ride.

The film opens on January 26th, 1963. A young girl catches her mother in the act. The film immediately cuts to February 23rd, 1963, because it apparently forgot when the actual plot was supposed to take place. The young girl is put in the back of a car to nap while her mother gets busy in the driver's seat. An ill-timed awakening leads to a car crash and a lifetime of sexual hangups.

Cut to present day and young Helen Selleck (the lovely Jenny Nuemann, who would appear in Hell Night a year later) as she prepares to audition for a local play. She meets the handsome Terry (Gary Sweet), an ex-soap opera star who is instantly enamored of her. She feels quite the same way, although she turns down his lunch invitation because of her SEXUAL HANGUPS!!! !!! !! !

Was that quite clear enough? If not, the ceaseless cutaways to Helen's mother and her lover doing the nasty will jog your memory.

She hates sex more than Mrs. Voorhees, which is something I never thought I'd say.

She gets the part, despite her only acting technique being bugging her eyes out like a deer in front of an eighteen-wheeler. From then on, the other members of the theater company have sex or attempt to have sex before they are subsequently murdered. With some complete strangers thrown in there for good measure.

These delightful characters include Bruce (Edmund Pegge) and Judy (Nina Landis), her and Terry's co-stars; George (Max Phipps), the pretentious director who is constantly stutteringly angry; his nemesis, the esteemed critic and bisexual maniac/Benedict Arnold lookalike Bennett Collingswood (John Michael Howson, who we'll revisit in 1989's Houseboat Horror); Angela (Briony Behets), the stage manager; and Fay (Sue Jones), the randy costume designer. 

Note that there is not a fleck of a character trait in anybody but the director and the critic, played by two of the most esteemed actors on set. This would require a much more savvy knowledge of human psychology than writer Colin Eggleston could manage, especially since he was too preoccupied mishandling Helen's psychosis.

There's plenty of that old slasher standby of sex equals death, but with none of the what I shudder to call nuance of other slasher films. Helen seems to be using murderous rage to act out on her repellant sexual desires, all under the guise of Cathy, the girl she once was. But giving it a reading that straightforward is an insult to the author's original intent, because he clearly had no idea what he was doing, sending her from scene to scene without a care in the world as to internal consistency.

Except for the eyes. Always the eyes.

It's clumsy and the dialogue scenes average about ten seconds each while the POV stalking sequences can stretch as long as two or three minutes, sometimes never even showing a single human being. 

The score attempts to up the atmosphere by working overtime, but there only seems to be about one musical cue that composer Brian May (no relation to Queen, although for one brief second my weary heart worried that it might be him) repeats ad nauseum.

Helen (and try as they might, the filmmakers can not hide the fact that she is the perpetrator) always kills her victims with a shard of glass but never plans ahead, so she ends up breaking a new pane for every kill. It's a miracle there was any glass left in the theater at all by the time she was done with the place.

It's a metaphor for my shattered soul, having watched this movie all the way through.

In fact, the entire film is quite startlingly bad, at times feeling like a random collection of outtakes from the cutting room floor of some other, better horror film. One memorable moment involves the killer's hand in close-up slashing down and to the left while cutting to a wide shot of the glass shard swinging down and to the right. But at 79 minutes, it's over in a flash and some of the more unique elements provide the film some historical interest for masochists like me. 

First off, it's rare for every single speaking character save the killer to have shuffled off the mortal coil by the last reel, as it does here (Except, of course, for Sue (Adele Lewin), the assistant stage hand who vanishes halfway through the film with no explanation). It is also exceedingly rare for a film to have no Final Girl (even counting those who die in the last scene), as this one adamantly does not.

It perhaps shouldn't earn the distinct honor of being so aberrant from the form, but the fact remains that it was brave enough to play with what was already a hoary trope of the genre (Final Girls can be seen all the way back in 1974 with Texas Chainsaw and Black Christmas). The film that contains this impish experimentation is not a particularly memorable one, but it has enough sleaze and mindless killing to satisfy the slasher connoisseur. 

Killer: Helen Selleck (Jenny Nuemann)
Final Girl: For the first time in all my years of doing this, there is nobody that even comes close to being a Final Girl. I'm just as astonished as you.
Best Kill: They're all pretty much the same, but I am partial to the one where Jenny slices a random girl's boob, causing her to cup it erotically. Slashers. Gotta love 'em.
Sign of the Times: Helen and Terry chill out in front of a Midnight Oil poster.
Scariest Moment: The nightmare that leads us from the flashback to modern day is a cluttered and stressful explosion of avant garde noises and pictures.
Weirdest Moment: Helen explodes into peals of weeping laughter during an acting exercise.
Champion Dialogue: "You are an actress's big brown freckle."
Body Count: 11; 10 by Helen's never-ending supply of glass shards, and one in a car wreck that she inadvertently caused.
  1. Helen's Mom has her throat gouged on a windshield.
  2. A man has broken glass thrust into his neck.
  3. A woman is slashed to death with broken glass.
  4. A man is slashed to death with broken glass.
  5. A woman is stabbed to death with a shard of glass.
  6. A man is stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass.
  7. A man is slashed to death with broken glass.
  8. A woman is slashed to death with broken glass.
  9. George is stabbed in the back with a shard of glass.
  10. A woman falls to her death.
  11. A man is stabbed in the neck with broken glass. 

TL;DR: Nightmares is not a great slasher nor a good one, but it plays with the genre enough to be of minimal interest.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1427