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

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