Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Get Stuffed

Year: 1981
Director: Netti Peña
Cast: Jake Steinfeld, Vinessa Shaw, Peter De Paula
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One of the fake trailers in Grindhouse was “Thanksgiving,” directed by Eli Roth. The thesis of this trailer was that slasher movies love to be set on holidays (Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, New Year’s… even birthdays and prom night got in on the fun), but none have ever been set on that most quintessentially American celebration of gluttony, Thanksgiving. Well, here’s Home Sweet Home to prove poor young Eli wrong, a forgotten flick that fell off the back of the slasher truck in 1981. To be fair, the word “Thanksgiving” is only mentioned on the poster and aside from a turkey dinner, there’s not much holiday cheer to be found, but hey. I didn’t make the rules.

And get this – Home Sweet Home is also one of those rare 1980’s slashers to be directed by a woman. In fact, it’s the very first of the decade. Does this alter my perception of it in the slightest? No, a crummy slasher is a crummy slasher, and the decade was infested with ‘em. But I want to publicly salute Nettie Peña for breaking that oh-so barren ground.

You paved the way for Slumber Party Massacre, and for that we thank you.

In Home Sweet Home, we gather at a secluded California ranch for a hearty Thanksgiving meal, but it’s unlike any holiday celebration I've ever been to. I went ahead an assumed that everybody in attendance was related (as the poster’s tagline would lead me to believe), but that thought quickly turns sour when the event pretty much becomes an orgy ten minutes in as couples pair off for some quick, pre-tryptophan canoodling. After a very confusing and sweaty half hour, I’m pretty sure I finally have all the proper pieces in place. Let’s Meet the Meat!

OK. Deep breath. The ranch belongs to Bradley (Don Edmonds of Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks and Gidget Goes Hawaiian), who so helpfully provided the name for the now even more confusing tagline. He has a son named Mistake (Peter De Paula) who runs around in KISS makeup with an electric guitar on an amp strapped to his back, as you do. Nobody likes Mistake, especially Bradley’s girlfriend Linda (Sallee Young), with whom he may or may not have had his second child, the 4 or 5-year-old Angel (Vinessa Shaw). Linda has invited her personality-deficient friend Gail (Leia Naron) and Bradley has invited his business associate Wayne (Charles Hoyes). At least I assume that’s what he is, because every line he grunts is either about wanting to talk business or griping about missing the game. He’s brought along his feisty Latina girlfriend Maria (Lisa Rodríguez of Terror on Tour), who doesn’t speak a lick of English but it very excited about everything anyone says. Also in attendance are Scott (David Mielke), the boarder who lives in the apartment upstairs, and his girlfriend Jennifer (Colette Trygg), who is a human woman.

Phew. That’s over with. On hand to help us keep track of who’s who by bumping them off one by one is escaped mental patient Jay Jones (Jake Steinfeld, fitness guru and uncle to Hailee). Backstory? Mask? A reasonable body shape? Who needs ‘em?

And is it just me, or do the buff men of yesteryear look weirdly like overstuffed scarecrows compared to the buff men today?

Home Sweet Home maybe has the best slasher opening scene ever. Fade in on a station wagon parked in what looks to be the concrete waterway where they had the motorcycle chase in T2. A man in the driver’s seat looks directly at the camera and proffers an ice cold can. “Hey, wanna beer?” Reverse shot: A hulking man leaps into frame snarling, and strangles him to death. Who are these people? We don’t know. Where are they? Who cares. All I know is that this movie starts with a bang, tossing you into a disorienting, violent fever dream and then immediately follows that with the beefy killer running over an old lady in a crosswalk, cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West while her raspberry jam blood slides down the windshield. Now that's how you open a movie.

Home Sweet Home plunges you into a universe entirely askew from our own, and that sense of total unpredictability carries over into the rest of the first act, something we’ve already discussed during my epic struggle to nail down the characters. Nothing in Home Sweet Home makes sense until about 45 minutes in. It’s like wandering through a funhouse showing twisted mirror visions of an idyllic American Thanksgiving where people say things like “She’s really hot! A jalapeño!”, decide to siphon gas from nearby cars on the way to the Arco, and threaten to kill themselves while swinging a bat at the teen KISS wannabe who just play hot guitar licks in her their faces while they were trying to make love to his father. That vigorously weird spirit is the only thing that carries the film across the finish line, because once the horror kicks in, it sucks the life from the film like a Dementor.

Look, if you were born in the 90’s, Harry Potter is never too far from your mind.

The endless chase scenes through the forest are dull, underlit fiascos, and Jay Jones’ innocent victims hardly seem invested in their own survival. Colette Trygg especially seems to be actively bored by the proceedings. Or maybe she was just saving up every ounce of acting energy for the final scene, where she peels the paint off the walls with a cacophony of terrible, ceaseless, identical shrieks. The entire third act, which mostly focuses on her, is a desiccated husk of a horror film, flapping limply in the breeze.

But damn if that first half isn’t the most energizing slasher sequence I’ve seen in a good long while. If a slasher can’t be particularly good or particularly scary or particularly gory (once again, 1981 was a weirdly chaste year in terms of depicting bloody death onscreen), I’m at least happy if it can rustle up some weirdest, and Home Sweet Home delivers the kooky goods in its character sequences.

The movie is a completely unpredictable jumble with surprises around every corner: perhaps the biggest is a pointedly un-campy scene where perennial annoyance Mistake has a tender moment with his little sister. It was even, dare I say, kind of sweet. I’m so lost with this film. Home Sweet Home is a careening ten-car pileup of a motion picture with a whirligig cartoon score and a devastatingly atrocious third act, but I still kind of adore it, at least a teensy bit. This is not a recommendation, but it was a nice, whimsical interlude during a tough end-of-year period for census Bloodbath 1981.

Killer: Jay Jones (Jake Steinfeld)
Final Girl: Jennifer (Colette Trygg)
Best Kill: None are particularly eventful, but Mistake is electrocuted with his own guitar, which carries a twinge of poetic justice.
Sign of the Times: I could carry on about Scott’s pastel yellow polo or Jennifer’s Debbie Harry bangs, but just look at Mistake. This character could only have crawled from the sewage pit of 1981.

Scariest Moment: Jay jumps out at Jennifer after she spends all night hiding.
Weirdest Moment: Mistake offers to play his guitar for the killer in exchange for letting Maria live.
Champion Dialogue: “She won’t drink anything. She hates to go to the bathroom.”
Body Count: 9
  1. Beer Guy is strangled.
  2. Old Lady is run over with a car.
  3. Bradley is crushed under a car hood.
  4. Wayne is garroted with his own gold chain.
  5. Gail is thrown over a car and hits her head on a rock.
  6. Linda is stabbed to death.
  7. Maria is stabbed in the chest.
  8. Mistake is electrocuted by his own guitar.
  9. Scott has his throat slit.
TL;DR: Home Sweet Home is an atrocious, but weirdly captivating slasher gem.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1344

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