Monday, June 23, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Black(Jack) Magic

Year: 1986
Director: W. G. MacMillan
Run Time: approx. 1 hour 30 minutes

Yesterday, Sergio and I were lucky enough to attend the world theatrical premiere for the 1986 crime horror Cards of Death, a film otherwise thought to be lost in time. Written in 24 hours and shot on video by a disgruntled actor abandoning the studio system, the film was only ever distributed on Japanese VHS by a company known as Exciting Video, Cards of Death hasn't been seen in America for over 25 years. In fact, the film is so forgotten that it doesn't even have a page on IMDb. My student film has a page on IMDb! But no. Even according to the most thorough film compendium known to man and woman, this movie does not and should not exist.

Oh, but it does. One of the lost tapes has recently resurfaced and is being put into distribution by a new VHS-only label run by the guys from Bleeding Skull. So, thanks to the efforts of these brave men, I can actually write this entry in my Census Bloodbath feature, something I had serious doubts was ever going to happen. It's been a truly special experience and I'm eternally grateful to The Cinefamily for making sure that films like these don't go unnoticed.

For obvious reasons, this review is going to be slightly different than most of my Census Bloodbath posts. Thanks to the utter lack of an IMDb page and the fact that my hand isn't fast enough to scribble down every name in the credits, I have no idea who acted in this movie, so I can't include any details about the cast, save for what I can recall. Also, there are only about six pictures of this film circulating the Internet, all of them small enough to fit inside Leatherface's brain cavity.

You have been warned.

Trying to describe Cards of Death in terms of any established film genre is like trying to nail a slippery spaghetti noodle to the wall - a futile and unrewarding task. It is typically described as a slasher film, which is not entirely untrue thanks to the gory killings and the metronomic frequency with which they occur, but most of the typical tropes of the genre as established by 1986 (large man with a variety of edged weapons, ample teen victims, and a virtuous Final Girl) aren't even in the conversation at all. In fact, they're all the way across the room making out in the corner and wondering just who this Jay Gatsby is, after all.

The story goes a little something like this. Every Wednesday night, an illicit card game occurs in an abandoned warehouse, hosted by the evil mastermind Hog and his sexy leather/swastika-clad sidekick Harley Quinn Tracy. The game itself is different every night, but it is always played with a deck of tarot cards and the winner has 24 hours to kill the loser, or else forfeit their massive reward - and their life.

On the other side of things, the police are working tirelessly to discover the reason all these mutilated bodies keep appearing every Thursday morning. Basically it's a 70's grindhouse murder thriller dolled up in New Wave fashions and sensibilities.

And a thick layer of grime.

Let's stop right there for a second, because the New Wave visual schema is the single most important element of the entire film. Without it, Cards of Death would be decent enough for a crappy shot-on-video crime potboiler, but in its presence, it transcends its limitations and becomes a manic phantasmagoria of sin.

Hog's den of gambling, debauchery, murder, and rhinestone bracelets is one of the most enthusiastically lit and designed locations I've ever seen in a low budget production. It's hardly even a space (this sense is further compounded by the extreme focus on close-ups typical of the shot-on-video style), but rather a pure sensation formed with impressive swaths of color and jagged neon. Searing greens, blues, and reds dominate the color scheme in a way that no film after Suspiria has managed to capture better.

The card room exists in some alternate universe where time stands still and impressions rule over concrete fact. The players all wear unnatural masks that obscure their humanity, the editing runs full tilt into the experimental (especially when depicting the bald man that constantly watches over the games but never seems to take physical presence within the room, but is always lurking and quietly judging), and the enthusiastic if unskilled Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore pushes it all over the edge. Pretty impressive for a room with walls covered in garbage bags.

This atmosphere is incontestably what makes the film unique and utterly engrossing and luckily it is present more or less from start to finish, wreaking havoc on the senses in a way that the supremely annoying theme music (an endlessly repeating "refrain" that sounds like a slowly deflating balloon being beaten to death by a party horn - one supposes that John Williams was out of the office that week) simply can not despite its gargantuan effort to do so.

This is the only good picture I can find for the film on the entire Internet, but man is it a great example of what I'm talking about.

It's a good thing, too because the rest of the movie is seedy as all get out, but in a rather deliriously charming and cheesy vein. The acting is of a piece dreadful, save for those playing the villains, although their performances are solely effective because their characters are intentionally unfeeling and inexpressive.

And the production design of any building that isn't the den of Hog and his Cabal is, shall we say, haphazard. A "police station" is clearly just somebody's house halfheartedly disguised by throwing a constantly ringing phone into the soundscape. Somebody should really answer that, it could be an emergency.

The gore is fascinatingly squelchy (A police captain gets his nose chopped off in the first five minutes) and the topless scenes ludicrously sleazy (Tracy and Hog smear blood on each other, Tracy tries to get a bound prisoner to suck on her nipple -also we get a pretty hunky shirtless man), which is all I've ever asked for out of these things, but the last 25 minutes or so becomes a slog as the story resolutely refuses to end, instead opting out by adding more and more "erotic" scenes that so inundate the viewer that it hardly even registers when a woman begins yowling like a cat.

There's something to be said about sensory overload, but I prefer the more restrained mania of the first half to the ineffectual piffle of the second, although it never loses its humor entirely. It certainly would have been a better film given a higher budget and more than 24 hours to work out the kinks at the story level (I'd certainly love to see this film remade with more considerable means), but for the most part it is engrossing even when it's merely a routine police procedural and especially in the villain's orgiastic den of evil.

Killer: Hog and his Cabal
Final Girl: Ha! This movie defies your genre tropes and all they stand for.
Best Kill: Father Morse is impaled on a fencepost and, when he is pulled down, his organs snap like turkey giblets.
Sign of the Times: Holy crap, I wish I could show you all the make-up that was happening on this screen. Unforgettable.
Scariest Moment: Take your pick of the psychedelic card game scenes.
Weirdest Moment: The clue that Captain Twain left was a doodle of a pig. The cops realize that it's actually a hog and dismay at his drawing skills as if there was some major visual difference between the two that could have been solved by improved art skills. It then takes about a full minute of repeating hog to themselves to realize that the culprit was probably the one guy in the movie who's named Hog.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm starting to hate Wednesday nights. Especially when you find dead bodies Thursday mornings."
Body Count: 8
  1. Ed is axed in the chest and has his face cut with barbed wire.
  2. Father Michael Morse is impaled on a wrought iron fence. 
  3. Tanda is shot to death.
  4. Map is crushed to death in a shrinking room.
  5. Card Player #1 is crushed to death offscreen.
  6. Card Player #2 is crushed to death offscreen.
  7. Tracy is strangled.
  8. Hog is impaled on a gardening tool. 
TL;DR: Cards of Death is an uneven shot-on-video film that lives and dies on its thrilling aesthetic.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1441

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