Monday, March 27, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Billy The Kid

Year: 1982
Director: Dick Richards
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Hey, whaddya know, I’m actually doing a bit of chronological work in Census Bloodbath. I’ve been skipping around a bit, but our humble project is currently still plowing its way through the early 80’s. When last we left our genre, it was in its glorious Golden Age, producing some of its most iconic works. That period continued, to some extent, into 1982. Certainly the sheer volume of films was continuing, although the market had been flooded and was already starting to drown out public interest.

However, the death rattle of the slasher was too faint to be noticed, which is how we got a film as relatively stately as Death Valley, a family drama road Western with a psycho killer attached. It’s a far cry from the crass dregs of the genre that would be cropping up soon, to the point that we can’t even Meet the Meat. We have actual characters to talk about!

I know it’s weird, but bear with me.

In Death Valley, 10-year-old Billy (Peter Billingsley a year before A Christmas Story) is dragged on an Old West road trip with his freshly divorced mother Sally (Catherine Hicks of Child’s Play) and her new boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat of Puppetmaster). On a pit stop at an old gold mine, Billy discovers an abandoned RV and steals a medallion he finds on the floor, not realizing it’s evidence of a triple murder that took place there just minutes before. Now the killer (Stephen McHattie) is after Billy, wanting to silence him after he tells the Sheriff (Wilford Brimley) about the medallion.

Put that down, you’ll shoot your eye out!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this project, it’s that I’m a real sucker for roadside thrillers. To be fair, the likes of The Hitcher or Road Games are just damn good films, but you could stage Girls School Screamers on a cross-country outing and I would lap it up. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Southern California so highways are all I know, but there’s something quintessentially, darkly American about a thriller set on a dusty, lonely road. It’s the only identity we have.

But I digress. Death Valley blends two classic Americana genres (the road trip movie and the Western) with another, not so timeless one (the slasher). And it is a very very bad slasher, with a low body count and poorly rendered, monotonous kills. Most of the onscreen slayings are staged the exact same way, with a prop knife leaving a pale smear of ketchup on a victim’s neck. I know ten-year-olds with YouTube accounts who could come up with better special effects.

But here’s the kicker. In Death Valley, unusually, nearly everything else around the slasher elements does manage to work. From its intelligent but effective cinematography that captures the desert landscape and plants you firmly in the protagonist’s perspective to the production design that produced an eerie, ominous car that rivals the unbridled villainy of the truck in Duel, Death Valley’s non-genre aspects are pretty much working on all cylinders.

Christine be damned, this car really does cut quite a figure.

That’s not to say this is an unparalleled piece of cinema. Some truly clumsy foley work and abrupt, ugly insert shots see to that. And then the third act completely forgets about its characters in favor of genre clich├ęs, as most family drama hroror movies tend to do, it reveals how poorly staged the thriller elements have been the whole time.

But! It’s not really a pain to spend time with these characters. Death Valley’s willingness to really grind your face into the awkwardness of being a kid facing a mom who’s newly on the market and a brand new boyfriend who must ingratiate himself with said kid is truly refreshing. Both sides of the coin are genuinely engaging (except for the mother herself, who’s a bit of a limp dishrag. Thanks, 80’s horror), especially coming from Peter Billingsley, who gives a shockingly nuanced and realistic performance in his onscreen debut.

It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but it makes for a reasonably entertaining film. It’s too toothless to be a truly memorable horror movie, but as a drama featuring a serial killer, it’s completely passable. I enjoyed it, given my particular proclivities, but I can’t say I’d be too fast to recommend it to someone I cared about very much.

Killer: Hal and Stu (Stephen McHattie)
Final Girl: More like a final family – Mike (Paul Le Mat), Sally (Catherine hicks), and Billy (Peter Biloingsley)
Best Kill: Wilford Brimley gets a pickaxe to the chest in the only death that’s even mildly visually interesting.
Sign of the Times: Billy is obsessed with his new “electronic game,” which turns out to be a Simon Says toy.
Scariest Moment: Billy hides in a car which turns out to belong to the killer, who drives away with him in the back seat,
Weirdest Moment: Billy’s babysitter is an overweight girl who devours everything in the hotel room, loudly crinkling packaging and smacking her lips for like five minutes before getting killed on an ice cream run.
Champion Dialogue: “Let’s see if your gun’s as loud as your mouth.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Donny has his throat slit offscreen.
  2. RV Boy has his throat slit.
  3. RV Girl is killed offscreen.
  4. Sheriff Perry is pickaxed in the chest.
  5. Babysitter has her throat slit.
  6. Hal is shot to death.
  7. Stu is impaled on spikes.
TL;DR: Death Valley is a decent roadside Western, even if its qualities as a slasher are lacking.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 952

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Blumhouse: Spring Cleaning

Please enjoy another roundup of my newest articles at!

Why SEED OF CHUCKY is the Radically Queer Film We All Need Right Now

I was very proud of this article, in defense of a frequently misunderstood sequel that I find to be pretty brilliant, but it arrived to a resounding chorus of absolutely nobody caring. Oh well.

Five Hilarious Horror Movie Blooper Reels

This is a topic I've secretly loved for a long, long time but I've never thought to write about. I wonder what else this job will wring out of the deep, dark parts of my brain cavity.

5 Movies So Extreme They Sent Viewers to the Emergency Room 

Sure, people can be wimps, but some of these films are gross as hell. The thing I find most interesting about horror is that it's one of the few genres that can actually affect an audience physically, something that defines powerful art.

Art is Not Dead: 10 Great Horror Posters from the 2010's

I really dug into the It Follows poster in this article and I hit a rich vein of analysis I didn't know I had in me. Also, here's a runner up poster for good measure.

Like GOOSEBUMPS? Try 10 Lesser-Known Adolescent Horror Books

During the writing of this article, I discovered a wellspring of horror knowledge that revealed I've been into the genre for a whole lot longer than I originally thought.
Word Count: 237

Monday, March 20, 2017

I Find You Unpleasant To Be Around

Year: 1992
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Alien 3 is a disastrously compromised motion picture that its director disowned and is largely reviled by all but a select few outliers who hail it as a nihilistic masterpiece. As usual, the controversy around the movie forces people to take strong stances for or against it, ignoring the fact that it’s a completely middling film when all is said and done.

People never learn. They really ought to read my blog more.

In Alien 3, Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash-lands on a prison planet, not realizing that an alien Facehugger is along for the ride. Her fellow survivors from Aliens – Michael Biehn and the little girl formerly known as Newt – have perished during the crash. She conscripts the prison’s medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) to help her perform an autopsy on newt while she chokes down sobs and the camera repeatedly zooms past the girl’s dead eyes like a hungry fly. Then they toss her friends’ bodies into a flaming pit, superimposed over Ripley’s devastated eyes, while in the other room a Xenomorph bursts out of a puppy dog, painfully killing it.

They’re really making a meal out of this.

So yeah, Ripley must team up with the 25 interchangeably British prisoners to fight off the alien once more. They fight a lot about how exactly to accomplish this while the alien mows down the expendable meat who inexplicably decide to wander off alone.

It’s basically a slasher movie, with slightly less phallic symbolism.

Alien 3 has a truly spectacular opening logo. The 20th Century Fox fanfare trumpets from the screen, shifting almost imperceptibly into a blaring minor key musical sting that hits you like a ton of bricks. And that’s pretty much the last nice thing I have to say about the movie.

Alien 3 really revels in being a miserable slog, which is totally fine for a movie to do, even if I’m not a huge fan of that style. But a movie this nibbled-at by production quibbles in no way has the strength of character and tone to sustain such a dismal atmosphere. It’s too unsure of itself, rapidly flitting from idea to idea, to the point that its bleakness is inconsistent. So whenever something truly dire happens, it feels wholly unjustified, and whenever something remotely happy occurs (as rare as that is), it feels manic and forced.

And then there’s the fact that it’s all just wicked emotional manipulation, grabbing you by the hair and rubbing your face in its every bleating misery.


As if that wasn’t enough, it’s a technical misfire on every level. I’m not going to point fingers at any particular person behind this very tampered-with production, but Alien 3 is just a mess. Scenes bubble up from the plot’s molten primordial ooze with no context whatsoever, the geography of the prison appears to be some sort of M. C Escher thought experiment, and the editing is – in a word – perplexing.

There are some excellent deep focus shots of lurking aliens, but this cosmic ineptitude (and the fact that every single character – including Ripley – looks exactly alike), Aliens is muddled and incomprehensible. Even worse, it’s boring. The action of the third act is defused by the editing making it entirely unclear what is happening and where or why, so all we have to cling to is an endless carousel of scenes of Ripley being angsty at Charles S. Dutton.

Oh, and there’s some abysmal CGI at certain points, but this was 1992. Hollywood was going through some forgivable growing pains.

In motion, it looks more like that dancing cartoon frog than an alien beast.

OK, it’s time to resheath the claws. As insufferable as Alien 3 tends to be, it’s far from the worst thing to happen to the franchise. While there are only one or two things that qualify as categorically “good,” it’s at least operating at a basic level of cinematic decency. It galloped by at a steady enough clip, and Sigourney Weaver is always a delight, even when her character’s actions are entirely inscrutable. If you love to watch Xenomorphs repeatedly drop down onto people from the ceiling, then boy do I have the film for you.

TL;DR: Alien 3 is a miserable, overwrought slog.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 748
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Weekend At Bernie's

Year: 1989
Director: Michael O'Rourke
Cast: Blake Gibbons, Ingrid Vold, John Marzilli
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

As I kick the sputtering engine known as Census Bloodbath back into gear, I’m easing back into it as I always do: with movies I’m specifically interested in or which have incredible titles. I’ll be tackling the regular chronological features of 1982 soon enough, but I need to grab onto the things I’m excited about to propel me through the rest. So when I saw that Amazon Prime just added the 1989 slasher Moonstalker, I didn’t hesitate. How could you possibly resist that title? The only slashers with names more flavorful and enticing are probably Amsterdamned and Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge.

If there’s one lesson to take away from Census Bloodbath, it’s that one should never judge a film by its cool poster. It’s time to add to that rule, because judging a flick by its title also turned out to be a bust. But we’ll get to that. First let’s Meet the Meat.

They really cleared out the butcher shop on this one.

Moonstalker, if nothing else, boasts a bizarrely bifurcated plot. The first half hour or so follows the exploits of a family on vacation at a snowy campground: parents Harry (Ernie Abernathy) and Vera (Joleen Troup of Slash Dance, another irresistible title) and teens Tracy (Kelly Mullis) and Mikey (Ron K. Collie). When a dirty old man named Pop (Tom Hamil) pulls up in a camper, they’re friendly until he starts acting a little strange. That night, he sics his mentally handicapped son Bernie (Blake Gibbons) on them and they are summarily Janet Leighed with an axe.

Bernie, doffing his face hood after he acquires a cowboy hat and some cool aviators, double checks his cheat sheet of the plot of Friday the 13th Part 2 and heads over to a nearby Wilderness Counselors training ground to continue defending his territory from the evils of premarital sex. 

The camp contributes to the body count in the form of Regis (John Marzilli), the hothead camp owner; Marcie (Ingrid Vold), Regis’ horndog girlfriend; Ron (Joe Balogh of Hollywood’s New Blood), the capable head counselor; Debbie (Jill Foors), the latecomer with the broken down car – seriously, were they hoping that eight years later people would just have entirely forgotten Friday the 13th Part 2?; Bobby (Alex Wexler), a woman-hungry dork who at last has the decency to switch things up and steal his character from Friday the 13th Part 3; Sophie (Pamela Ross of the classic Sorority House Massacre), whose only character trait is that she’s turned on by showers; Chet (Joseph Christopher), a vaguely ethnic counselor who I swear just teleports into the movie about 65 minutes in; some dude who is either from Seattle or named Seattle or both (Greg Marden); and a variety assortment of interchangeable counselors apparently named Vicky (Ann McFadden), Jane (the incredibly named Sioux-Z Jessup), and Taylor (Neil Kinsella). All I know is that one of them wears a headband.

So… The plot is they die.


There’s really not a lot to Moonstalker. Other than that fiddly structure of the first act, this is a very straightforward slice-‘n-dice picture. Cardboard characters have sex in the woods and get murdered in the woods. It’s exactly the type of film the genre didn’t need in 1989, when the played-out format was rattling its last desperate breath. I’m not saying that the slasher genre died because Moonstalker is generic, but maybe it could have held on a few more years if it actually took place on the freaking Moon. Titles, man. They’ll getcha.

Anyway, I spent about 45 minutes of Moonstalker being devastated that the movie had zippo to do with the moon (especially since the ill-lit snowscape of the dreadful opening scene looks alarmingly like the moon’s surface). Nothing else in the first act was soothing my wounds as I was forced to spend time with a sublimely irritating family gnawing on a script that spun around in circles in a tedious holding pattern while the killer pawns were set on the playing field.

That’s right, you just witnessed an unprecedented quadruple mixed metaphor. This is why they pay me the no bucks.

However, once the counselor camp is introduced, Moonstalker transcends from a total waste of time to only mostly a waste of time. Nothing in the movie is arguably good, except maybe Douglas Pipes’ score (which is a shameless rip-off of Halloween sautered onto the meter of The Exorcist, but harnesses both those scores’ propulsive, eerily anthemic qualities), but it all settles into a cheerier tone where just about anything can happen. And it does.

Moonstalker’s approach to sexual seduction is frequently baffling (which is great) and occasionally kinda romantic (which is even better) but never boring. And though the low budget leads the film to a lot of dry, mostly offscreen kills, toward the manic third act they pull out all the stops when it comes to playful, creepy setups. If the entire film could have devoted itself to producing scenes like the severed arm bundled up in the bedroll, or the campfire sing-along of the corpses, this movie would easily crack my Top 5 of the year.

Unfortunately, it can’t sustain entertainment for more than two minutes at a time, so it’s too much of a slog to recommend. Moonstalker is only for hardcore slasher devotees, but speaking as a member of that elite group, it was just strong enough to keep stoking the flame of my renewed energy for this particular project.

Killer: Bernie (Blake Gibbons)
Final Girl: Debbie Harris (Jill Foors)
Best Kill: Detective Taylor is impaled while he’s holding a rope around a counselor’s neck, and his death causes her to be hanged in a wicked chain reaction.
Sign of the Times: There’s a character whose only goal in life is to listen to her Walkman.
Scariest Moment: When two counselors are having sex, the tent fabric rips, sending a splash of light over the girl’s face.
Weirdest Moment: Marcie preps for sex by dressing in a camouflage bikini and an ammo belt, then doing karate moves while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays.

Champion Dialogue: “I’m gonna kick your ass from here to the next hospital!”
Body Count: 18; not including four deaths implied in the opening sequence.
  1. Boy gets axed offscreen.
  2. Girl gets axed offscreen.
  3. Harry is decapitated.
  4. Vera is axed offscreen.
  5. Mikey is axed in the chest.
  6. PJ is strangled with a chain.
  7. Tracy is hit with a car.
  8. Mullet Counselor and…
  9. Jane are knifed mid-coitus.
  10. Marcie is axed in the stomach.
  11. Regis is shot in the mouth.
  12. Sophia is burned by a shower.
  13. Chet is axed in the chest.
  14. Pop dies of a heart attack offscreen.
  15. Bobby has a knife thrown through his forehead.
  16. Detective Taylor is impaled with a spear.
  17. Headband Counselor is hung.
  18. Ron is axed in the back.
TL;DR: Moonstalker is a deeply generic slasher film, but it's fun enough to overcome its boring first act.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1180

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bug Hunt

Year: 1986
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn
Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This October, I watched Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien for the very first time, which sparked the gestation of this marathon I’m about to embark upon. But, like most people born after 1983, the first film in the franchise I ever watched was James Cameron’s seven-years-later sequel Aliens. So we’re kicking off this exploration of a franchise that’s mostly new to me with a revisitation. I’d say  resurrection, but we’ll have to wait until 1997 for that. I haven’t caught this flick in over a decade, so I was definitely excited to give it another look.

You could say I was slavering at the jaws.

In Aliens, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only survivor of the Xenomorph attack on the starship Nostromo, has been drifting through space in cryosleep for 57 years. When she is found and awakened, she learns that the Weyland-Utani corporation has built a colony on LV-426, the very planet where her crew discovered the deadly creature. She is strong-armed by corporate stooge Burke (Paul Reiser) into joining a crew of marines bound for the planet after the company loses contact with the colony.

When they get there, they of course discover that the colony is decimated and turned into a hive for the hideous aliens. Flanked by the handsome and capable Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), the cowardly braggart Private Hudson (Bill Paxton, may he rest in peace), the half-trusted android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and the fiery badass Private Vasquez (Jennette Goldstein in brownface, oh me oh my), Ripley must fight off the aliens, escape the planet, and protect the colony’s only survivor: a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn).

Get away from her! Please?

Aliens (especially in its overlong director’s cut) is actually structured a little bit like James Cameron’s later epic Titanic. The first half focuses on character drama that’s a wee bit too thin to sustain itself, before crumbling entirely in the face of a showstopping, groundbreaking special effects spectacle. There’s a very clear division in the middle too, as the Xenomorphs don’t appear onscreen until at least the hour mark (I clocked the director’s cut at 1 hour, 13 minutes). The first half is far from bad: it features a Sigourney Weaver with seven more years of experience under her belt (it shows) and a crew of mostly likeable, if interchangeable marines. Plus, it stays true to the trauma Ripley would be feeling as a survivor while it sets up a spooky little locked-room mystery in the empty colony.

But there’s no way any of that could compare to the triumphant return of the shiny black, relentlessly phallic H. R. Giger monstrosities. Although the first two or three scenes with the Xenomorphs (a shootout, a car chase, and an offscreen siege) do highlight the limitations of the special effects by showing only one or two aliens at a time in quick flashes and nudging them out of frame every chance they get, every sequence improves on the next until it becomes a pulse-pounding hailstorm of fire, bullets, and shards of black carapace.

And they saved the best for last. The alien queen, with her translucent crystal fangs, gargantuan bulging egg sac, and stories-high crown of spindly ridges, is a masterpiece of terrifying excess, a worthy foe for the hard-nosed survivor Ripley has become. She’s also an excellent foil for the film’s themes of femininity on attack, two sides of the same coin of motherhood.

Hail to the queen, long may she reign.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point out that Aliens takes the grindhouse horror villainy of its predecessor and transplants it into an action flick milieu. It’s a military siege movie more than anything: James Cameron’s Saving Private Ryan. Whether or not this makes it better or worse than the original varies depending on how much mileage the war genre has with you. For me, it’s about zilch, but I find Alien to be superior in many other ways, especially how it succeeds in creating and sustaining a mood. Aliens doesn’t have a mood. It’s blustery and loud and awesome, but there’s not quite as much going on beneath the surface.

That’s not to say it’s an unintelligent film. Cameron’s script just puts it all out there and throws subtlety to the wind, which isn’t a wrong way to go about things. It’s just a bit less sophisticated. Which is awesome.

OK, I obviously have conflicting feelings about this, but there’s one thing there is absolutely no argument against: Private Vasquez is a problem. It’s hard to take war scenes seriously when prancing through the middle of them is a white lady who has been dunked in bronzer and is grumbling things about “pendejos.” Jennette Goldstein gives a good performance, but there’s just no excuse for not hiring a Latina actress here. The fakest effect in Aliens should not be one of the human characters, and the racial baggage this forces onto the movie weighs it down like an anchor.

So… Aliens! I guess I don’t want to exit on a down note. It’s a gun sci-fi shoot-em-up romp with excellent production design and explosive effects. Everything here James Cameron has done better in other movies, but as its own entity, it’s not exactly a chore to sit through. It’s one of those films that justifies the practice of making sequels, and I can say as many negative things about it that I want because it will all just bounce off its sturdy ion hull. Aliens is a great movie. Mostly. But it is, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, nor would I want to.

TL;DR: Aliens is a little shaggy and problematic, but nothing can touch its sci-fi action glory.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 978
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Blumhouse: Ghosts And Knives

Here is another collection of articles I've penned for Blumhouse over the past week!

10 Obscure Slasher Films You Need to See

Longtime followers of Census Bloodbath may notice that the bulk of these films come from 1980 and 1981, the two years I've fully completed for this project. You would be right. The good news is, I'll have plenty of fodder for another list as I continue down the line.

Ghost stories do really well on the site, and I don't have any of my own. So I borrowed a friend's and it did gangbusters.

Five Unlikely Couples Found in Horror Fan Fiction

I'm so sorry about this one.

The Strange and Infamous History of Britain's Holloway Sanitarium

This is a subject I've been interested in for a long time, and I've finally found an outlet in which I could organize all the various bits of information I've accumulated over the years!

A Definitive Ranking of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3's Dream Warriors

The most important thing that I, or any horror writer, will ever produce.
Word Count: 190

Monday, March 6, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Cannibal Run

For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 1987
Director: Jackie Kong
Cast: Rick Burks, Carl Crew, Roger Dauer
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated

Is Blood Diner a slasher movie? No. Does it belong to any genre recognizable to the naked eye? Also no. But it contains a multitude of gory slayings (mostly one by one), a virginal survivor, and a pair of homicide detectives following the bloody trail of bodies, so it’s still fodder for Census Bloodbath. One of the few Bloodbath entries to be helmed by a female director (it joins the lonely pantheon of Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, and Home Sweet Home), Blood Diner doesn’t shy away from exploitation, but it’s a gregarious and winking kind of nudity that fits right into its horror-comedy tone.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Before we push on, let’s Meet the Meat!

Welcome back to Census Bloodbath!

In Blood Diner, brothers Michael (Rick Burks) and George Tutman (Carl Crew) own a successful vegetarian diner on Hollywood Boulevard. What’s their secret? The food contains human body parts. The boys, guided by their undead Uncle Anwar (Drew Godderis) – who is now a brain in a jar - are part of an ancient cannibal cult, collecting body parts to assemble a perfect vessel for the resurrection of their goddess Sheetar. They will raise her at a ceremonial, cannibalistic black magic bacchanal, but first they need to kill the hottest babes in town to get the proper ingredients.

They also need a virgin to sacrifice, and Michael – the smarter and more charming of the two – has his eye on the lovely young cheerleader Connie Stanton (Lisa Elaina). The closer they get to the date of the ritual, the nearer draw their enemies: the competing veggie chef/ventriloquist Stan (Bob Loya), who wants to learn their secret recipe, and homicide detectives Sheba Jackson (Lanette La France), a hardnosed newcomer and Mark Shepard (Roger Dauer), a hairy-chested, medallioned Guido caricature.

Hey, I’m stalkin’ here!

Blood Diner is a low budget B picture, but it’s also very deliberately a horror-comedy. Which makes the spectrum of intentionality a very confusing thing to sort out. Luckily, it’s not in the vein of movies like ThanksKilling or Kung Fury, which set out to make a bad-good movie on purpose. Blood Diner is an earnest attempt to make a crazy, silly picture that exists within the horror genre while lightly lampooning it. That’s still a tangled web to unweave, but its intentions are pure, and that makes all the difference.

To properly assess Blood Diner, what we have to do is split the film’s humor into three camps. The first is that blissful bastion of the cult horror fan: unintentional hilarity. Blood Diner certainly hits that mark during some of its more ambitious special effects sequences, though the actual script seems to be entirely purposeful. Now that’s cleared out of the way, our second (and best) category is the clever skewering of genre tropes. Here is where the sexy victim is given her opportunity to escape… but returns to the scene of the crime to grab her purse. This is the category responsible for the film’s smartest, most genuinely satisfying jokes, like the “slutty” victim who turns out to know kung fu or the hilariously gratuitous nude aerobics class (OK, “smart” is a relative term – this is Census Bloodbath).

The third, most common category is Troma-esque humor: Juvenile, sophomoric, and totally uninhibited. Blood Diner drowns in bizarre, rapid-fire gags that run the gamut from vomit to Hitler impersonators to an irritating ventriloquist’s dummy. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this rude, crude approach to comedy, but enough of it tickled me that I’m on board. This category especially flourishes during the film’s many kills, which are madcap special effects extravaganzas that combine lunatic surrealism with gleefully gory excess.

I am not so strong a man that I do not weep with laughter when a wrestler dressed as Hitler is bitten on the leg and his blood spays the audience like a Shamu show.

When you’re in the hands of Blood Diner, you might not enjoy every second of the ride, but you’re guaranteed that around the next corner is something completely, delightfully unpredictable, a quality that I highly value in my 80’s horror. Sure, the acting is terrible (the boys coast on their good looks and mugging, but there is no excusing the artistic poison that is the buddy cop sequences) and the plot is incomprehensible, but it’s a hog-wild thrill ride that doesn’t give up until its requisite third act lull, which thankfully doesn’t last too long.

It’s like taking a shot of melted cotton candy. It tastes a little funky and it has no nutritional value, but your nerve endings light up like a Christmas tree. It’s a rush of pure, bonkers 80’s cinema and I sure am glad I gave it a look.

Killer: Michael (Rick Burks) and George Tutman (Carl Crew)
Final Girl: I guess Connie Stanton (Lisa Elaina)
Best Kill: The competing diner owner Stan gets his hands chopped off and attempts to drive away while blood spurts all over his windshield from his stumps.
Sign of the Times: Every single character has a single George Michael earring. And the main characters are literally named George and Michael.
Scariest Moment: Sheetar is resurrected and her body sprouts a massive, toothed orifice.
Weirdest Moment: The plot veers into an extended interlude at a wrestling match.
Champion Dialogue: “He has been spotted in the West Side with a meat cleaver in one hand and his genitals in the other.”
Body Count: 11; not counting the incalculable masses slaughtered at a topless aerobics class and the third act bacchanal.
  1. Anwar Namtut is shot by the police.
  2. Gravekeeper is hit in the head with a shovel and his eyes pop out.
  3. Bouncer has his head crushed by a tire.
  4. Peg has her head fried and knocked off with a broom.
  5. Peg’s friend is cleavered in half.
  6. IRS Guy is killed offscreen.
  7. Biker is run over with a van.
  8. Kung Fu Slut is hit in the head with a stalactite.
  9. Stan has his hands chopped off and crashes his car into a mountain.
  10. Michael is shot.
  11. George is fed to Sheetar.
TL;DR: Blood Diner is a messy, incomprehensible, but utterly delightful absurd horror-comedy.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1071

Friday, March 3, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Final Cut Girls

In which we review two films covered in the month of Scream 101 spotlighting female horror directors.

Near Dark (Listen to the Scream 101 episode right here.)

Year: 1987
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young cowboy meets a lovely woman one night, and a charming romance swiftly descends into chaos when she turns out to be a vampire, biting him and inducting him into her murderous vampire family.

I’m not a huge fan of vampires, but one thing I do love about them is the rigid, almost Victorian formality of the rules governing their existence. They can only be killed with a wooden stake. Garlic repels them. They can’t cross a threshold unless they’re invited in. Sure, different interpretations pick and choose the rules as they please, but there’s something fun and engaging about the cat-and-mouse game as potential victims try to manipulate these rules and outwit the bloodsucking monsters.

Near Dark acts in active defiance of the established mythos, a route that can lead a film to some pretty incredible places, but this time prevents any of it from making very much sense at all. Or at least being particularly interesting. The vampire family is characterized well enough (especially Lance Henriksen, who gets the chance to spit some killer dialogue), but there’s no real sense of how this group fits together and what rules govern their existence.

Their Mad Max style combined with the film’s dusty Western aesthetic makes it a cinematic triumph, but on the story level it’s just lacking, for me at least. Perhaps it’s that the struggle of the protagonist is placed on such bland shoulders, or that the slow-paced mood smothers most of the more horrifying elements. But while I see the appeal, this one doesn’t do it for me.

Rating: 6/10

Pet Sematary (Listen to the Scream 101 episode right here.)

Year: 1989
Director: Mary Lambert
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A man attempts to reverse his family tragedies by using a graveyard that brings the dead back to life, only they tend to come back… different.

Pet Sematary is definitely a B-grade Stephen King novel, so it only makes sense that it would turn out to be a B-grade Stephen King movie. Hey, they can’t all be The Shining. But what pet Sematary lacks in Kubrickian production value, it makes up for with a certain homespun charm. The presence of Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) is a valuable asset as he adds character to anything he even breathes on, but the film also captures a dreamy vision of small-town life that allows the supernatural to organically slip right in.

Unfortunately, just like the film’s hero, screenwriter Stephen King opens the gate to the otherworldly much too far. Instead of presenting a simple, straightforward challenge to the moral fiber of one family man, he bogs down his tale of death and undeath with a psychic child, a helpful Jedi ghost, and the resurrected spirit of a horribly deformed side character. The sheer amount of deus ex machine gimcrackery and vaguely eerie padding prove exhausting at times, and almost always feel completely inorganic to the story being told.

But while King has never been the best editor of his own material, he knows how to call an effortless sense of the macabre into being with a rattling breath, and when Pet Sematary doubles down on the horror, it succeeds. The special effects bringing its gruesome deaths to life (to coin a phrase) aren’t particularly shocking or brutal, but they make up for that with a dripping, tactile motion that twists your stomach like a wet rag. The special effects are more subdued than your average 80’s horror fare, but when they’re called upon they do the job quite nicely.

And in spite of the film’s rather thin characterizations, the cast mostly is up to the task of at least keeping things mildly interesting. Gwynne, like I said, is fantastic, and the 2 ½-year-old Miko Hughes gives an astoundingly impactful performance, both as the soul-crushingly adorable cherub begging to be loved and the demonic entity from the other side. It’s maybe the best horror performance from an actor that young, and it’s strong enough to pick up the slack in a father-son relationship where the father is laying it on a bit too thick.

As a story and as a film, Pet Sematary is uneven, but as a source of atmosphere, it’s a very solid piece of work. The metronomic, oppressive repetition of shots of trucks barreling down the road provides a perfect bass line for the rest of the film, a constant sense of unease and danger that allows the darker impulses to spring forth. It might not be grade-A King, but there are many disparate levels in his bibliography (Duma Key, anyone?), and it earns its silver with aplomb.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 833

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Knight Of The Demons

In which we review two demon-related films covered on the Scream 101 podcast.

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (Listen to the Scream 101 episode right here.)

Year: 1995
Director: Ernest Dickerson
Cast: Billy Zane, William Sadler, John Kassir
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A secluded New Mexico motel is besieged by the demonic forces of The Collector, guarded only by an ancient knight armed with a holy key imbued with the blood of Christ.

Demon Knight was the first of an intended trilogy of feature films meant to bring Tales from the Crypt to the silver screen. They only squeaked out two (and a half, if you consider the years-later dribble Ritual) before they collapsed panting to the sticky, popcorn-covered floor, but it’s a damn shame it had to happen that way. Demon Knight is a film that effortlessly capture’s the show’s effervescent celebration of the macabre.

Even better, it kicked things up a notch. Anthologies and especially TV horror tended to rely on EC comics pastiche and morality plays to be just creepy enough to be memorable, but not so intense they wouldn’t appeal to younger audiences and network executives. Demon Knight still has that general, safely spooky atmosphere about it, but it’s far from toothless. When Tales from the Crypt graduated from the constraints of TV, it leaned into the curve so far that its spine snapped. Demon Knight has great fun wallowing in nudity and absurd sexual references, but where it really shines is its balls-out commitment to gooey, gory special effects.

The rise of the demons arrives in a spectacular effect that rivals Frank’s gory resurrection in Hellraiser, and the periodic bursts of violence that pepper the film are visually inventive grotesqueries that will delight the senses of gorehounds without pushing things too far past the mark where normal civilians can still stomach it. Even the non-violent scenes showcase spectacular effects, including a ghostly seduction where a woman’s lip shows the imprint of an invisible thumb as her tear is flicked away.

Demon Knight might not have much in the way of a story (it’s a typical Romero-esque tale of trapped people turning on each other in a crisis), but it more than makes up for it with that full-tilt approach to the genre and an immortal sense of fun. Plus, at its center is a truly glorious villain performance from Billy Zane. He is the gleefully deranged beating heart of Demon Knight, perfectly capturing the tone by creating a sly, cunning character who’s the charming face of pure evil, part slick con man, part unhinged demon.

Come on, this is a movie full of Crypt Keeper puns, dripping bodily fluids, electroshock sex, and a dude getting punched with a severed head. It is like taking a long, luxurious bath in the best, craziest horror tropes ever concocted. It’s a downright blast, and I recommend it heartily.

Rating: 8/10

Night of the Demons (Listen to the Scream 101 episode right here.)

Year: 1988
Director: Kevin Tenney
Cast: Cathy Podewell, Alvin Alexis, Hal Havins
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A Halloween night birthday party goes horribly awry when partying teens run afoul of evil demons while trapped in an old funeral parlor.

Night of the Demons has the perfect 80’s B-horror setup, and it just barely doesn’t squander it. Although the dialogue in the opening act is pretty sharp, it’s hampered by a lousier-than-usual slate of performances, some gratingly tinny sound design, and a complete lack of atmosphere that does nothing to hide the cinematography’s blatant rip-off of The Evil Dead.

But when the demons kick it into high gear and Steve Johnson’s special effects take their rightful place at the helm, nothing else matters. The plot is so thin a slight breeze would rip it away, but the revolving carousel of showstopping FX sequences is a spectacle not to be missed. A personal favorite of mine involves the reliably naked Linnea Quigley devouring a tube of lipstick in a flawless, obscene moment that holds up perfectly and creates an effortless atmosphere of the uncanny.

They don’t save what is honestly a rather boring motion picture, but the twisting and writhing effects provide Night of the Demons with an unassailable cult status. It’s notable for having the black character actually survive the night, but its final girl is bland, and the waning energy of the 80’s can really be felt in full force. It’s a bit sad, really: a film that deserved better but came out too late to be of any real use.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 768