Friday, August 29, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back To Skull - Day 5

Year: 1986
Director: Carol Frank
Cast: Angela O'Neill, Wendy Martel, Pamela Ross
Run Time: 1 hour 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

And here we are at the final day of our university slasher marathon. I hope that everybody who started school this week has had a chance to settle in and figure out which classes they can skip and still get good grades. We welcome this new sense of jadedness with Sorority House Massacre, an overwhelmingly lazy and tawdry slasher from 1986.

Although it is one of only three (so far) slashers in Census Bloodbath that were directed by women, Sorority House Massacre holds in common with its predecessor and loosely-franchised namesake The Slumber Party Massacre (Carol Frank cut her teeth as the director's assistant on this feature) the fact that it is perhaps even more chintzy and exploitative than its male-directed peers.

Sorority House Massacre is by far the worse of the two, not only for appearing so late in the game, but also by losing the thin veneer of quasi-feminist quasi-parody that Slumber Party Massacre boasted, causing it to be a worthy entry in the subgenre. No, this film is a routine slice and dice picture, the female director adding about as much to the slasher formula as a nice face adds to an Abercrombie bag. It's great that you have it, but it ain't gonna be showing up in the frame.

Not when there's some good, clean massacring to be done.

This film also shares with Slumber Party Massacre the guiding light of an uncredited Roger Corman, who undoubtedly lent to the production its ineffably cheap "shot in three days" atmosphere. But hey, there's more than enough time to complain after the plot is laid out. And what a simple post-Nightmare plot it is.

Beth (Angela O'Neill) is a young woman with a butch haircut who makes the inarguably terrible decision to stay with the Theta Omega Theta sorority over the course of an unspecific school break. Being in the house triggers strange dreams within her, dreams of the same house in a different time and a mysterious killer chasing after her.

Her supportive Flesh friends include Tracy (Nicole Rio), a boy crazy, slightly insensitive girl who is dating the horny jock Craig (Joe Nassi), whose motto seems to be cojones ergo sum, for the entirety of his existence is predicated on the existence of his penis; Sara (Pamela Ross, also of 1989's Moonstalker), a fashion-backward pop psychology enthusiast who is dating Steve (Thomas R. Mustin), whose only scene in the film involves him ditching her to go rafting; and Linda (Wendy Martel), a down-to-earth girl who's friendly if a little ditsy and who is dating Andy (Marcus Vaughter), the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd the nerd and the second by that name this week.

Also there's John (Vinnie Bilancio), the requisite blind date character who exists solely to get in Beth's way while she hallucinates about bleeding picture frames and dripping knives and whatnot. These dreams eat up an alarming amount of the run time, padding a film that - even in its finished state - is only 74 minutes long.

There's more fruit on Sarah's outfit than there are minutes in this movie.

I'm going to go ahead and SPOIL this movie because the plot is dismayingly obvious (a dramatic twist near the end reveals... Beth's middle name). An escaped mental patient and our villain for the evening, Bobby (John C. Russell), is Beth's brother, who killed her entire family in this very house when she was a child and is returning to finish the job. I'd like to move on because this killer just isn't very interesting.

He kills in uninteresting ways (many of his victims are stabbed in the back with a minimum of blood - my guess is that they only had one good prosthetic and were determined to utilize it as many times as possible) and he stalks Beth in uninteresting, plodding, repetitive beats, both in dreams and in reality. The climactic chase sequence plays like a glitch in the matrix, with the girls repeatedly running upstairs and blocking the door with a bookshelf, discovering the killer, running downstairs to try to unlock the door, discovering the killer, and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

Although Bobby does manage to leap through a second story window at one point, so he's not all bad. 

Just the parts that aren't his calf muscles.

So, back to the cheapness, like I promised. Thanks to its presumably rushed production schedule, Sorority House Massacre falls into an unofficial franchise I like to call the Boom Mike Apocalypse series. There is so much exposed equipment on the edges of the frame, it honestly feels like the set is getting smaller and smaller, threatening to crush the actors if they don't finish the movie in time.

Perhaps that's the reason why the sets are so barren. What's the point of putting more than one piece of furniture or decoration in a room if it'll all be smashed to smithereens by dawn anyway? You'd think that the money they saved by not putting any decorations on the stark white walls (except for in one room, which is the absolute opposite - an ocular explosion of hair metal posters and hot pink) would allow them to afford to buy their prop knife somewhere other than Party City, but you would be wrong.

I mean come on! There's just no room in the budget. Look how many salaries they have to try to get out of paying!

Obviously Sorority House Massacre isn't a good movie. That's immediately evident from the title (and from the preceding paragraphs, but who reads anymore, amirite?). There's quite a few fun elements available for bad movie enthusiasts, though not nearly enough to recommend the film to anyone other than the most masochistic horror movie viewers.

But if you're up for it, Sorority House Massacre delivers a sexy saxophone dress-up scene that plays like a montage from an after school special except with 800% more naked breasts, some pretty cool creepy dream imagery, a sex scene in a teepee, an boy who seems more irritable than scared when his girlfriend is murdered, as if he were more concerned about bloodstains on his clothes, and a girl who announces she's going to venture out alone to fix the electricity and then turns on a lamp so she can grab her coat and head outside.

It's just fun enough to not feel like a waste of time, but it's too dumb, cheap, and inconsequential to rise above even the lesser Back to School fare like The Dorm That Dripped Blood.

Killer: Bobby (John C. Russell)
Final Girl: Beth (Angela O'Neill)
Best Kill: Tracy's death - being stabbed in the chest - is exactly choreographed to best display her ample bosoms. You gotta love that kind of shameless energy.
Sign of the Times: Although there is a dress-up scene that is shot like the background of a Cyndi Lauper music video, I'm gonna have to give the final prize to this screenshot I grabbed. It's got everything - the inexplicable "middle-aged businesswoman" ensemble, the fruit-patterned crop top. The Billy Ray Cyrus hair. It's like the entire decade distilled into one vile, poisonous, colorful liquor.

Scariest Moment: After stealing a car, the killer gets on the 5 freeway, heading South. The traffic occurs offscreen.
Weirdest Moment: I am pretty in love with the teepee sex scene.
Champion Dialogue: "I remember lime Jello."
Body Count: 9; not including the family that dies repeatedly in flashback/dream sequences.
  1. Walkman Orderly has his head smashed against the wall.
  2. Store Clerk is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Andy is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Tracy is stabbed in the boobs.
  5. John is stabbed in the back.
  6. Craig is stabbed in the back.
  7. Sarah is stabbed in the chest.
  8. Linda is stabbed in the back.
  9. Bobby is stabbed through the throat.  
TL;DR: Sorority House Massacre is shoddy and cheap, but on occasion enjoyably dumb.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1335
Reviews In This Series
Sorority House Massacre (Frank, 1986)
Sorority House Massacre II (Wynorski, 1992)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back To Skull - Day 4

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1984
Director: Larry Stewart
Cast: Daphne Zuniga, Vera Miles, Clu Gulager
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As we venture out further and further into the murky depths of university slashers for our Back to School spectacular, things - as they are won't to do - begin to get a little hackneyed. Although I remember enjoying the 1984 sorority slashfest The Initation the first time I watched it, after about 50 of these reviews, the sheen wears off just a little.

The Initiation is a perfectly serviceable slasher with an all-star cast, but five years into the slasher boom, the flop sweat was beginning to stain the screen and it couldn't recapture the magic of similar films like the markedly superior The House on Sorority Row

It's at the very least better than Hell Night.

"Delta Rho Chi, Never Will Die."

This is the soon-to-be ironic motto of the local sorority, of which only 4 out of 15 pledges remain. Alison (Hunter Tylo) is your typical sorority girl - boy crazy, gorgeous, and ready to toss out full frontal at the drop of a hat. She is not the focus of our story. Megan (Frances Peterson) is the vile pledge trainer, drunk on sex and power. This is not her story. Marcia (Marilyn Kagan) is affable and demure, haunted by the taunting of the Greeks who mistake her innocence and purity for virginity. She's oh so close, but no, this is not her story. Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) is a warm-hearted pledge, the daughter of wealthy couple Dwight (Clu Gulager) and Frances Fairchild (Psycho's Vera Miles). She has lately been having dreams about a mysterious incident in her past, in which she watches her mother and father having sex in a mirror and stabs her father before another man bursts in, who then gets burned alive in a  fireplace. Whether this is a dream or a repressed memory she can never be sure, having suffered from amnesia and completely losing everything before age 9.


Was anybody keeping track of how many times I mentioned sex in the character descriptions? The Initiation occupies an awkward space between "at least the sexual characteristics are more varied than 'horny slut likes to bang bang'" and "this is uncomfortably dark and morally dubious." Honestly I would have preferred good old erotic exploitation to the nightmarish house of horrors that makes up about 50% of our characters' sexual development.

The "parents having sex" thing was a given, but "molested by a violin teacher" is patently not. Far better films than The Initiation would come unpinned tackling that particular topic, but this film - being what it is - careens wildly like a roller coaster car in a Final Destination movie. The Initiation handles its delicate topic in an outrageously clumsy way, suggesting that all the girl in question needs to soothe her troubled psyche is some vigorous porking.

Of which there is much to be had at Delta Rho Chi.

Sexual politics aside, The Initiation is a decent bit of fun in the immediately post-Nightmare era, one of the last gasps of non-supernatural slashers. Although the clumsy mishandling of its erotic elements plunge the film like a stone in the river of my esteem, The Initiation provides something a little different, just enough to pique my interest. 

Written by soap opera veteran Charles Pratt Jr. (whose CV includes 300 episodes of All My Children, 387 General Hospitals, and 304 Santa Barbaras), it's no accident that the plot pulls out all the soapy stops, replete with sexy dream therapists, hidden family secrets, amnesia, and SPOILERS [Evil Twins.]. The man deserves an Oscar for the "Repressed Desires" theme party alone.

But try as it might with all its lather and antics, The Initiation suffers from a lethargic first half, where it insists on being a bad college psychological drama rather than a bad soap opera slasher, which is a much less punishing thing to be. Luckily the second half delivers. When the pledges find themselves trapped in Kelly's father's mall during a prank gone wrong, the kids play in the stores, screw around with boys, and are offed one by one by a mysterious killer in creative, rewardingly drippy sequences.

For a slasher fan, it doesn't get much better than this. Perhaps it's best if you don't think about it.

The acting isn't great. Zuniga, though later she became a fairly medium-sized celebrity, is not in her best form, and James Read as her dream therapist/quasi-boyfriend lets his eyebrows completely subsume his persona. It's like watching two caterpillars battle for domination over an impassive, fleshy battlefield.

The kills aren't great. An impalement with an arrow fails to line up both sides of the appliance properly - either that or Megan has a small wormhole located just above her gallbladder - and some of the makeup shows its seams.

But there's a party full of glitter, 80's teens (by far the most likeable horror ensembles) get to play around in various mall stores doing their 80's teen thing (which, although I can't understand it for the life of me, includes doffing your top for twenty seconds, then going roller skating), and there's more blood than a lot of its peers and that adds up to a lot, ramping up the absurdity factor.

All in all, The Initiation is not the worst piece of crap I've ever seen. But I've already seen two better films this week, so I'm not going to toot its horn more than it deserves. It's a fairly entertaining movie, but as sorority flicks go, there have been way better offerings both before and after this one. If you find yourself loving The House on Sorority Row or other low budget titillators like The Slumber Party Massacre, maybe this film is worth your time, but otherwise I'd steer clear of it.

Killer: [Terry Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga)]
Final Girl: Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga)
Best Kill: I'm partial to harpoons and mid-coitus mayhem, so Ralph's death by harpoon gun while he's on top of Marcia is by far a standout.
Sign of the Times: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Heidi. Raise your hand if you're shocked she never made a movie outside of the 1980's.

Scariest Moment: The opening nightmare sequence is hellish, rapidly edited, and massively disorienting.
Weirdest Moment: Ralph shows up to a party dressed as a penis.
Champion Dialogue: "It's like looking for the meaning of life in a donut hole."
Body Count: 10
  1. Nurse Higgins is stabbed to death with a trowel.
  2. Dwight Fairchild is stabbed in the neck with a trowel. 
  3. Todd is stabbed in the chest with a trowel.
  4. Andy is hit in the head with an axe.
  5. Megan is shot in the chest with an arrow.
  6. Chad has his throat slit offscreen.
  7. Allison is stabbed to death.
  8. Ralph is harpooned in the back.
  9. Marcia is killed offscreen.
  10. [Terry is shot through the chest.]
TL;DR: The Initiation is an uneven, but pleasantly bloody and soapy affair.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1170

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back To Skull - Day 3

For our podcast episode about this very film, please click here.
For our interview with Mark Rosman, the director of this film, please click here.

Year: 1983
Director: Mark Rosman
Cast: Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Janis Ward
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Just like the classic slasher killers, school keeps rising from the grave again and again to haunt us. My educational franchise is currently in its 16th and hopefully final installment, which is why we are celebrating this week. And there's no better way to approach university slashers than diving into a classic subject of the genre - sororities.

A house full of partying girls obviously has a lot to offer to the slasher formula and it's no surprise that producers found the Greek system to be a fertile field to till, starting with Black Christmas in 1974 and ending with the heat death of the universe. Our selection for today is The House on Sorority Row, not the first sorority film out of the gate, but one of the best.

I'll drink to that.

The film opens with black and white footage (tinted blue by producers, who were evidently afraid that the lack of color would cause the young audience's eyes to implode, as if MTV wasn't already doing a good enough job of that) of Dr. Beck (Christopher Lawrence) operating on Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt) during a traumatic birth. Beck mutters something mysterious about this being the last one and Mrs. Slater screams for her child.

CUT TO: 24 years later, and the obviously perturbed Slater is the house mother of a sorority on the local campus. She is showing signs of age, relying on a metal cane with a carving of a bird at the head to get around. Slater is outraged to find out that the girls are planning a graduation party on June 19th, the day she usually shuts the house down to be alone on the anniversary of the birth. She responds venomously, leading the girls to counter her verbal attack with a prank involving setting her ornate cane on an inner tube in the middle of the never-cleaned pool and pointing a gun at her, forcing her in.

As you can imagine, this doesn't go over well and Slater is shot, forcing the girls to scramble to cover their tracks as the party begins, dumping the body in the pool and praying nobody discovers her until they can figure out what to do in the morning. As the party begins, a menacing killer begins picking the seven implicit girls off one by one with Slater's sickeningly sharp cane (sharp as in lethal, although it is pretty stylish to boot). Is it Mrs. Slater, not quite dead? Or is it something far more sinister?

The seven sorority girls provide us with nearly our entire platter of Meat, so let's spend some time getting to know them. There's Liz (Janis Ward), a soon-to-be stewardess with a fear of flying; Jeanie (Robin Meloy), a mousey girl who is prone to hysterics; Diane (Harley Jane Kozak), a down-to-earth girl who is going into law school; Stevie (Ellen Dorsher), the smartest of the bunch and the one many of them turn to for guidance; Morgan (Jodi Draigie), a ditsy blonde who gets soused more times a week than there are words in this sentence; Vicki (Eileen Davidson), the wicked and vain leader of the septet, the girl who suggested the prank in the first place; and Katherine (Kate McNeil), a shy girl who's unsure about what to do with her life although she does know she wants nothing to do with this body-hiding business. This combination of reluctance to comply with the group and character traits that might be found in a script outside of the exploitation genre mark Katherine as our Final Girl as clearly as if they had painted a red target on everybody else's foreheads.

Although that neck accessory does the trick nicely.

Did y'all notice that I had to trot out four whole paragraphs just to get through the basic scenario? The House on Sorority Row is tricky like that, providing a great deal more working beneath the surface than your average bear. It's no great intellectual classic, this film. The characters tend to be paper-thin and as interchangeable as pegs on a Lite Brite board, and the setting is there for the reason that it gives us a chance to watch girls change (Morgan's sheer gossamer top certainly caused several young boys in the audience to hit puberty then and there).

But this is a movie that very literally portrays the process of guilt tearing a group of friends apart. A terrific panning shot across a dance floor links all seven girls together, blaming them as a unit for the murder of their house mother even as their reactions and motivations for keeping the secret vary wildly. 

This isn't the only time that The House on Sorority Row acts like it's an actual piece of cinema. It's by no means a terrific film, but that doesn't mean it can't be a great slasher. Writer-director Mark Rosman (who would go on to direct to Hillary Duff films, so it's up to you to ascertain which career direction is more terrifying) works hard to separate his film from the pack with a strong visual language and kinetic editing, providing some of the very best scenes of tension in a film of this mint.

Because, despite all the limitations of the genre, Rosman's film actually succeeds in creating and maintaining a consistent sense of dread, whether it's in an attic door slowly creaking open over a hapless Morgan or Jeanie cowering in the bathroom stall as the shower heads turn on one by one, filling the room with noise and steam. The Final Girl sequence especially benefits from a full-steam-ahead approach to visualizing the mental condition of a harried survivor through cross-cutting, color palette, and composition.

And creepy clowns.

This flick is filled to the brim with childhood memorabilia and toys, notably a clownish jack-in-the-box and a colorful ball, both eliciting a sense of the deep trauma lying dormant in Slater's psyche and reliably tapping into the inherently creepy aspects of playthings that have no children to play with them. 

So despite any flaws in the acting (Draigie forces dialogue out of her mouth like she's performing a verbal Heimlich maneuver; McNeil is only intermittently convincing, swinging between naturalistic guilt and lolling, drowsy fear), production design (a "cemetery" looks like a barely spruced-up golf course), and sound mix (the mixing of the party music - provided by the incredibly underrated band 4 Out of 5 Doctors - is exactly as amateurish as my first student film), The House on Sorority Row soars thanks to a stylish atmosphere and solid thematic material.

The ending is terrific [In an impressively thorough twist, Slater's mutant son Eric (Charles Serio) is performing the killings in revenge for his mother's death] and the gore - though far from being an out-and-out bloodbath - delivers in a satisfying way. The House on Sorority Row has the essence that makes all of the best 80's slashers. Namely, fun characters, loony dialogue, creative kills, a great location and setup, and an all-encompassing sense of fun interspersed with surprisingly scary moments. It's no Nightmare on Elm Street, but it has a head on its shoulders, which was something altogether uncommon in the ripe old year of 1983.

Killer: [Eric (Charles Serio)]
Final Girl: Katherine (Kate McNeil)
Best Kill: Jeanie is decapitated and the killer leaves her head in the toilet.

Sign of the Times: The band that plays at the party is called 4 Out Of 5 Doctors and this is their song. (I apologize for the, er, unorthodox choice of background. I didn't make this video.)

Scariest Moment: In a film with an appealingly large number of actually effective moments, one of the best is a hallucination Katherine has after Dr. Beck sedates her.
Weirdest Moment: Girls at the party gossip about a cute boy, intercut with footage of a greasy nerd winking at them. Maybe it's an 80's thing.
Champion Dialogue: "I wanna thank you for helping me become what I am today. Wasted."
Body Count: 9; also a parakeet and a water bed.
  1. [Mrs. Slater is shot to death.]
  2. Bobby's Friend is stabbed in the throat.
  3. Stevie is stabbed in the face.
  4. Morgan is impaled.
  5. Debbie is hacked to death.
  6. Jeanie is decapitated.
  7. Liz has her throat slit.
  8. Vickie is hacked to death.
  9. Dr. Beck is hacked in the chest and falls off a banister.
TL;DR: The House on Sorority Row is a surprisingly thrilling, visually solid slasher.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1426
Reviews In This Series
The House on Sorority Row (Rosman, 1983)
Sorority Row (Handler, 2009)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back to Skull - Day 2

Year: 1982
Director: Stephen Carpenter & Jeffrey Obrow
Cast: Laurie Lapinski, Stephen Sachs, David Snow
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's back-to-school week and I would be remiss if I didn't include The Dorm That Dripped Blood in the college-themed proceedings. You see, it's the only film mentioned by Randy in Scream 2 that I hadn't actually seen yet. This is very important to me. It also has a presence on the Video Nasties list, the list of abhorrent films compiled by the British censorship board in the early 80's. If there's one thing I love more than slashers, it's slashers that the government doesn't want me to see.

Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, The Dorm That Dripped Blood isn't quite as nasty as one would hope, censored largely on the strength of one scene and a poster depicting a murder weapon. But it's pleasantly charming in its ineptness as the lesser slashers in that time period tended to be. So you won't catch me complaining.

Plus, we're treated to oh so sexy scenes like this one.

The Dorm That Dripped Blood  has the perfect slasher setup. A group of college students stay in an old dorm building over Christmas break so they can empty it out and prepare it for demolition. The canned Meat this time around includes Brian (David Snow), the helpful and supposedly hunky man's man; Patti (Pamela Holland), who is somewhat uptight and clingy; Craig (Stephen Sachs), the resident prankster and horny douchebag; and Debbie (Daphne Zuniga, the only member of the cast who can afford to have a headshot on IMDb and who also appeared in the terrific 1984 slasher The Initiation), the requisite girl who announces to everyone repeatedly that she is about to leave, then becomes the killer's first main victim.

This troublesome troupe is led by Joanne (Laurie Lapinski), an officious but capable young woman who is in a waning two-year relationship with Tim (Robert Fredrickson), a pushy and rude fellow who leaves for a ski trip early on in the movie and confounds expectations by not reappearing in the third act so he can be summarily offed. The kids work and play, but when mysterious occurrences begin to haunt them, the blame falls on John Hemmit (Woody Roll), a creepy drifter who looks like the result of an illicit affair between Larry from The Three Stooges and a tornado.

The film leads with its best elements - a healthy platter of college-aged victims and an intriguingly brutal sensibility. It's not particularly gory and the gore itself isn't particularly well-executed (one notable strangling has the woman's collar bleeding several inches above the wire around her neck), but the two scenes that really go for it hit the mark (well enough to land the film on the Video Nasties list, although offending the British isn't exactly a demanding achievement), landing at exactly the right points in the film to fuel any gorehound in the audience. And the many kills that are sentenced to exist slightly more offscreen still tend to feel gritty and savage in the best way possible.

If this doesn't fit your definition of "best way possible," maybe this movie isn't for you.

It's a good thing the kills are so (relatively) intense, because the rest of the film is so anemic. No single element is film-breaking, but that's only because each individual piece of The Dorm That Dripped Blood was broken before they even thought about coming together as a whole. In fact, the film is so resoundingly incompetent - and one's enjoyment of the film is so necessarily hinged on one's capacity to appreciate that fact - that I feel the need to expound upon this in a more lengthy manner than I typically prescribe.
  • The Editing: With copious use of dissolves that don't so much show passage of time as conceal deficiencies in coverage, The Dorm That Dripped Blood plays like a bad pornographic film. This is doubly embarrassing considering that the far more technically competent 1981 slasher know as Hell Night actually was shot by a porn director. If an internship in the porn industry could improve your film, maybe it's not quite time to be making features yet.
  • The Sound Design: In between more routine moments like footstep sound effects failing to match the actual footsteps, when the music attempts to be thrilling, it typically drowns out the dialogue, including one conversation that provides a major key to deciphering the finale.
  • The Cinematography: In most slashers, the cinematography only exists to put the gore onscreen, not to present it in any meaningful or artistic way. The Dorm That Dripped Blood ups the ante not only by failing to be artistic, but by fundamentally misunderstanding what it means to light and shoot a moving image. Actors step in and out of a single, retina-searingly bright key light as if their only equipment was a lighthouse beacon. An important kiss scene is shot from yards away and the actors all have such interchangeable shag haircuts that it's nigh on impossible to tell who is kissing whom. My money is on Craig and Brian. There's no sense of geography, just that of seven or so separate locations that exist without a modicum of contact with one another. And several conversations are shot in a dark room with a spotlight bearing down on a table, as if the table is drifting through the all-knowing Void. At least that staging makes some sense, as it's likely a ploy to hide the severe errors in...
  • The Production Design: The Dorm That Dripped Blood was clearly shot in some sort of warehouse, because not once does a set remotely resembling an actual dorm room come into play. Nearly every location is made up of four stark white walls, sometimes spruced up with a wan-looking rainbow flag. And due to the disconnected nature of the locations and the "cleaning up the dorm" thing, many of the requisite killer POV shots feel like B-roll from an unfinished documentary about garbage, rarely having anything to do with the victim being stalked, sometimes taking place in established locations halfway across the building from where we believe the prey to be. Although, of course, any sense of spatial relationships would merely be conjecture, requiring an advanced degree in nuclear astrophysics to accurately follow along.
  • The Plot: There's the usual Idiot Plot trappings - Joanne doesn't decide to call the police until long after the line has been cut, she closes her blinds but not the window, and there's "I'll be right back"s galore. But the true whammy is in the finale, so I'm gonna spoiler block it just in case. [After the killing is finished and John Hemmit is out of the picture, Craig nonchalantly reveals that it was him the whole time. He just tosses off that dialogue like a bit of idle chatter long before he devolves into the obligatory Final Ten Minutes psycho. There is little to no justification for this, merely the sense that a slasher really ought to have a twist so why not this one? A true classic ending.]
  • The Characters: First off, the main character trait in the film is that everyone wants to bang Joanne, despite the fact that she has about as much personality as a waffle iron. It's an epidemic claiming Tim, Brian, Craig, and even Bobby Lee Tremble (Dennis Ely), the man with the best name in recorded history who just wanted to buy some desks but got caught in Joanne's mighty gravitational field of inexplicable lust. Although my favorite anecdote that exemplifies the wafer thin characterizations is the fact that when Joanne needs to go get Brian and ask him for a favor, she opens the elevator door and he's just standing there blankly by the wall, merely a prop waiting to be called into use. It's too much to ask for slasher characters to have inner life, but an outer one would be nice. But here, characters that are offscreen merely cease to exist, lending credence to my theory that the director/screenwriter team wrote the first draft as infants before object permanence kicked in. That would at least justify the needlessly overexplanatory dialogue that runs rampant throughout the entire thing.
"How many EGGS do you want? I sure do hate SPIDERS. I hope there's no SPIDERS in my EGGS. What a PRANK, Craig!"

It's bad, is what I'm saying. But there are different tiers of bad. There's To All a Goodnight bad, where  everything is dull, underlit, and goreless. And there's The Room bad where everything is so sincerely terrible it's hard not to appreciate the pure misguided effort that fuels the whole thing. The Dorm That Dripped Blood is somewhere in between, not as thoroughly engrossing as Tommy Wiseau's masterwork nor as insipidly stupor-inducing as David Hess's lump of coal.

It's a rather workaday slasher that will neither offend nor titillate modern audiences, but it has that magic of pure 80's trash cinema that makes it worth viewing for any enthusiast. Don't put The Dorm That Dripped Blood on your Netflix queue unless you're thoroughly prepared with a squadron of chums and a full box of pizza.

Killer: [Craig (Stephen Sachs)]
Final Girl: Joanne (Laurie Lapinski)
Best Kill: Definitely the one that earned the movie its Video Nasty rating - the drill through the back of the head.
Sign of the Times: In true slasher dreck fashion, The Dorm That Dripped Blood has gone through a variety of names - also operating under the aliases Pranks and Death Dorm.
Scariest Moment: A shock scare in the very first scene is the first slasher gag in a while that's actually caught me off guard, although in retrospect perhaps it shouldn't have.
Weirdest Moment: Debbie's trip to find something in the basement storage room somehow lands her on the roof.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm sorry I took the bread. I just took it."
Body Count: 10
  1. Some Random Dude is strangled and his hand is sliced in half.
  2. Debbie's Dad is hit with a spiked bat.
  3. Doris is garroted with wire.
  4. Debbie is run over by a car.
  5. Bill is drilled in the back of the head.
  6. Brian is slashed with a machete.
  7. Patty is boiled alive in a pot of water.
  8. John Hemmit is slashed with a machete.
  9. Bobby Lee Tremble is shot to death.
  10. [Joanne is incinerated offscreen.]  
TL;DR: The Dorm That Dripped Blood is only memorable for its badness, but the relative quality of its kills and the ubiquity of its ineptitude render it more than a total dud.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1767

Monday, August 25, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back to Skull

Year: 1981
Director: Jimmy Huston
Cast: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Today is a day that will live in infamy. Even I, the curator of terrors that I am, can only face my impending fate with grim horror... School is starting back up again.

To cushion the blow I've decided to bestow upon you all an entire week of college-themed slasher movies. For those of you sitting around waiting to print your syllabus in the library, I hope this soothes your troubled souls. For those of you with diplomas already framed on your walls, I hope this will help you look back fondly on times past and appreciate your health. For those of you in high school or below, let this be a warning. And for those of you who never went to college, congratulations. You might just survive this week.

Our first subject is 1981's Final Exam, straight from the mind of writer-director Jimmy Huston, who promptly went on to do not much of anything else. It's a darn-tootin' shame, though, because his creation is one of the more interesting slasher offerings in a year filled to the brim with them.

And, surprisingly, not for the reasons you'd think, knowing my penchant for saucy captions and all.

Final Exam takes place in the last week of the semester at picturesque Lanier College. As the students study their butts off, a menacing killer knocks off a couple at a nearby school's Make Out Point. This scene already differentiates itself from typical slasher fare by the added dimension of the killer ripping his way through the cloth roof of a convertible. It's not much, but hey, the slasher is an enormously rigid genre and any small divergence from form is as rare as a successful album from a winner of The Voice.

Speaking of voice, Final Exam is notable for the way it enhances its characters and situations beyond the typical stock scenarios. Whereas in most slashers, the humans populating the film act as one-dimensional knife cushions, this film uses its characters to paint a rich tableau of college life, only reluctantly becoming anything resembling a body count picture near the abrupt finale. In most films (cough cough Killer Party cough), this would feel like a waste of time, but here it's a blessing, allowing us to fully occupy the world of these people and have them wiggle their way into our hearts before all the slashing and gashing begins in earnest.

Our meat this time around (I'm not even capitalizing the word, that's how much I believe in these characters) are Mark (John Fallon), the ringleader of the Gamma Delta fraternity and an overwhelmingly colossal douche - an impossibly titanic, orifice-cleansingly douchey douche, the type of guy who would stage a machine gun-toting terrorist attack on campus to get out of a test (yes, this does happen and no, this would not fly in 2014); Radish (Joel S. Rice), a cocky poindexter who is obsessed with the macabre; Wildman (Ralph Brown), a homoerotically-repressed Neanderthal who acts as Mark's muscle; Gary (Terry W. Farren), a spineless pledge who gets himself mixed up in things far too easily and who, after giving away his pin, finds his junk becoming the unwilling recipient of the world's first #icebucketchallenge; Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, also of - ahem - Killer Party), a girl who falls in love like you fall asleep - every damn night - and clings on to Gary like he's the last life preserver on the Titanic; Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), a pretty young thing who uses her looks to get her what she needs - like an A from the lusty chemistry professor; and Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), a down-to-earth girl who spends most of her time in her dorm studying or playing Solitaire and thus inadvertently becomes our Final Girl by dint of not being around when the important things are happening.

Very important things.

For the bulk of the run time, the story is driven completely by the escapades of these characters and - against all known laws of physical science - this is the best possible scenario for the film. Their plots and subplots collide and interconnect, providing an engaging throughline with a solid ensemble. And once the killing actually begins, you begin to root for your favorite characters. The fact that their deaths are brutal but not particularly bloody (think more Psycho than Silent Scream) means that you are hit with the impact and don't even mind the lack of gore because the film is providing you something else to chew on.

That alone is more than enough to make Final Exam a lost gem in the genre, but toss in an especially strong visual style and you've got yourself a lifelong fan in Brennan. The brutality of the death sequences is accomplished through strong stylistic flourishes and, in some cases, inexplicably gorgeous cinematography and lighting. Most notable is a face-off between Wildman and the Killer (Timothy L. Raynor) in the gymnasium, a hauntingly poetic composition with an impeccable balance between light and shadow that creates a stirring sense of menace.

This really makes me glad I never go to the gym.

Unfortunately, rather than saving the best for last, Final Exam hands off all its goodwill to its two biggest liabilities, the Killer and the Final Girl. Neither character is as complex or appealing as Courtney's formerly intact classmates and their showdown takes some of the air out of the movie until another character sees fit to intervene.

Katniss Everdeen's long-lost father, pictured here in 1981.

The Killer is just some dude with no motive, name, or personality, mindlessly slashing up a college campus because it was 1981 and that was just the thing to do back then. His physicality is impressive, especially in the body count sequences, but there's no reveal whatsoever and the finale lacks bite because of it.

Courtney is another blank slate, alternating between Laurie Strodeian levels of Final Girl incompetence and Tommy Jarvis pedal-to-the-metal fury. Luckily she shifts to attack mode often enough to help the uneven climax limp across the finish line, but her Katharine McPhee dixie cup blandness puts a damper on the overall mood of the film.

But other than the sputtering climax, Final Exam is a force to be reckoned with. I usually prefer a little more gore in my slashers, but I'm not one to turn down a good story, no way no how. This film reminds me of the fantastic He Knows You're Alone in the way that it paints a group of human beings one can really care about rather than butchering a herd of caricatures.

The embarrassing denouement prevents me from giving higher praise, but Final Exam is a unique, at times visually-challenging slasher film that reminds me why I started this project in the first place.

Killer: The Killer (Timothy L. Raynor)
Final Girl: Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi)
Best Kill: Wildman is choked with a cord attached to a weight machine.
Sign of the Times: When Courtney plays Solitaire, she uses actual real life cards.
Scariest Moment: The Killer accosts Wildman in the dark gymnasium.
Weirdest Moment: Wildman begins kissing Gary's neck and licking his ear after bear hugging him following a successful prank. But, you know, in a manly way.
Champion Dialogue: "Ducks don't swim at night. Their headlights short circuit in the water."
Body Count: 11
  1. Claire's Boyfriend is hacked to death.
  2. Claire is killed offscreen.
  3. Gary is stabbed to death.
  4. Janet is killed offscreen.
  5. Wildman is strangled to death with a weight machine cord. 
  6. Mark is stabbed in the chest. 
  7. Radish has his head smashed through a door.
  8. Mitch is killed offscreen.
  9. Lisa is stabbed to death.
  10. Coach is stabbed in the chest with an arrow.
  11. The Killer is stabbed to death. 
TL;DR: Final Exam has a good head on its shoulders, depicting realistic characters with a strong visual style.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1324

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On The Move

Hello everyone. I'm sure you're wondering why I've gathered you all here today.

Well, you may have noticed (but hopefully not) that my posting this month has been a little sporadic. That would be because I have been frantically searching for an apartment and spending all my free time bleeding onto applications instead of watching movies or (ha!) writing about them. But now things are settling down and I'm moving into the new place and there's only one thing on my mind.

Television has lied to me.

You see, TV shows love to tell stories about people struggling to make a living. It's relatable and the audiences eat it up. The only problem is, especially for a network sitcom, there needs to actually be enough space in the fake apartments to fit a four-camera crew. Anyone who has attempted to make a living in the city could tell you that your average apartment could hardly fit a camera battery let alone anything else.

So it's understandable why the sets would need to be bigger than actual real life apartments that people could afford. More room for crew, more room for antics. But this leads to a series of woefully unrealistic expectations once you set out in the real world, in which people with no discernible income live in ornate pleasure palaces. And thus begins our list for the day:

Five Unrealistic Apartment Expectations From TV

#5 Holliston

Location: Holliston, MA

Holliston is a show that I recently got into, and I definitely recommend it for horror fans. It's basically a crappy sitcom, just pumped full of horror trivia, guest stars, and strange elements - like Twisted Sister's Dee Snider as the boss of Joe Lynch and Adam Green (two indie horror directors who play younger versions of themselves).

In traditional sitcom fashion, Adam and Joe can't pay their bills and frequently throw away rent envelopes without opening them to pretend that they never got them. Yet they are somehow still allowed to live in an apartment large enough to fit Gwar's Oderus Urungus in the closet.

I told you it was a weird show.

Not only that, but they also have 1) a bathroom large enough to fit a standing bathtub and 2) a standing bathtub.

Maybe things are just different in Massachusetts. 

#4 New Girl

Location: Los Angeles, CA

OK, canonically I guess I can't get mad because the rent for this apartment is largely paid by Schmidt, who is a high-powered... bank person, or whatever. I'm not sure that's ever made clear - in true sitcom fashion. But his job involves wearing suits and talking about files so you know he makes a ton of money.

But I still find it patently ridiculous that this is the abode of Jess - a frequently unemployed schoolteacher - and Nick Miller, who - and I quote - "has the credit score of a homeless ghost." These two humans do not deserve the elegant bathroom they receive. I hope they appreciate the glory that is their apartment.

It even has urinals! It's like paradise.

And I find it hard to believe that an apartment containing four single(ish) twenty-somethings in Los Angeles has enough room for Zooey Deschanel to do her quirky schtick to her full range of motion.

My apartment only has space for about 1 1/2 loopy twirls.

#3 Friends

Location: New York City, NY

Here's another completely ridiculous apartment, but at least it has somewhat of an explanation. The apartment was owned by Monica's grandmother for many years and thanks to rent control - and a little fudging on the lease - she and Rachel (then Phoebe, then Chandler, then Joey, etc.) can live there with ease.

Rent control or not, the idea that six entire people can relax comfortably inside a New York City apartment is sillier than ketchup on Oreos.

And I could decorate the Taj Mahal with Monica's interior design budget. But hey, one million dollars per episode ain't too shabby.

Neither is this to-die-for attached balcony.

#2 Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

Location: New York City, NY

Here's where things really start to get tough. No rent control here, just an unemployed con artist / professional drunk and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, underemployed waitress. In a lavishly furnished two bedroom.

And another standing bathtub! I swear, I'm gonna blow a gasket.

I'm pretty sure slipping bills out of your one night stands' wallets isn't enough to sustain a property that size. At least she's friends with James Van Der Beek. He can slip them a check when things get too rocky. Which, because this is a sitcom, is always.

The apartment needed to be large to fit all his handsomeness.

#1 Glee

Location: Bushwick, NY

Ah, the Bushwick loft. The crown jewel of this post. When Kurt and Rachel move to New York, they take up residence in this massive industrial space large enough to ride bikes in.

Her being a waitress and him being a... clothes wearer?

We all know by now (five seasons in) that Glee isn't exactly a go-to reference guide for realism in television, but this living space makes me want to cry bulging green tears of envy. This fantasy New York provides two broke college students with a space large enough to hold Rachel's temper tantrums...

Just one night of her righteous anger could power a third world country for three weeks.

And regularly host full-scale dance numbers.

It makes me want to puke.

If that's how New York real estate actually is, I'm buying my ticket yesterday.

Bonus Unrealistic Dorm Expectation: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Location: Sunnydale, CA

I know it's a UC and they have more money than my cash-strapped CSU, but let's face it. No dorms are good dorms. I have it on good word that the dorms at UCI might as well be oiled because they're packed in like sardines.

But then there's this.

People might tell you the Initiative is the reason people don't like Season 4, but I don't buy it. It's one-hundred percent displaced college angst and jealousy.

There's enough room not to be forced to shove a furniture piece under the cork board. This is no earthly institution.
Word Count: 1029