Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Census Flashback: Bad Dads

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating Despicable Me 3, the third entry in a franchise about three girls who are adopted by a single dad who turns out to be a supervillain. In honor of this, we’ll be reviewing a 1987 film with one of cinema’s all-time Bad Dads: The Stepfather.

Year: 1987
Director: Joseph Ruben
Cast: Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you get deeper into horror fandom, as I have (if I go any deeper, you might never see me again), you discover that there exists entire worlds of cinematic ephemera around the edges of public consciousness. People generally know their way around the Friday the 13th or Halloween franchises, but it’s not until you take the plunge that you learn that there were three sequels to Psycho, or an entire trilogy of Slumber Party Massacre movies. But even with this insider knowledge, I’m constantly shocked when I remember that (including the remake), there are a whopping four Stepfather movies. Even more shocking, I’d never seen any of them. Well, that’s about to change.

What a service I provide for you. You’re welcome.

In The Stepfather, teen girl Stephanie (Scream Queen extraordinaire Jill Schoelen, whose candle burned bright in this, Wes Craven’s Chiller, Cutting Class, Curse II: The Bite, The Phantom of the Opera, Popcorn, and When a Stranger Calls Back, all between 1985 and 1993) has some problems. She’s been getting in trouble at school after the death of her father, and even worse, her mother Susan (Shelley Hack of Troll) seems to have completely gotten over it, thanks to the new man in her life. That man is the titular Stepfather Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn of Lost), whose Ward Cleaver-esque appearance and attitude disguise the fact that he’s the very same man who murdered his entire family in a nearby town over a year ago. He loved them… But they disappointed him.

Steph begins to grow suspicious of Jerry’s odd behavior, and attempts to find out the truth about him. Meanwhile, the brother of his previously deceased wife, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen of American Gothic), works to track down his sister’s killer, who he rightly suspects has taken up residence nearby. In the parlance of the meta-slasher Behind the Mask, Jim is this movie’s Ahab, a vengeful force for good who is inhumanly dedicated to stopping the evil, á là Dr. Loomis in Halloween. These characters are almost universally hilariously incompetent.

At least this one is handsome.

Let’s get the unpleasant business out of the way first: The Stepfather is hardly a slasher film. The body count is almost lower than Weekend at Bernie’s, and there is no focus on gore or creative kills. However, this doesn’t disqualify it from Census Bloodbath. Much like the terrific 1981 thriller Road Games, The Stepfather is a micro-slasher, expanding a tiny stretch of time and one particular set of victims from the overarching career of a serial killer. He’s presumably killed many people before the events of this film (it’s even heavily implied that he may have killed Stephanie’s dad), but we’re focusing in on one leg of a long journey.

Anyway, what The Stepfather is instead of a slasher film is a family drama mixed with a Hitchcockian thriller. The audience is immediately aware of Jerry’s homicidal tendencies, so the thrills are drawn from the dance between him and Steph as she comes closer and closer to discovering his true identity. Personally, I might have preferred it if there was even a scrap of doubt about his true intentions, but it’s at least amicably creepy.

The only real problem with The Stepfather is that it feels deeply generic. The central conflict is a game of cat and mouse that has been played over and over again in many a psycho thriller, and they don’t do much to spice up the affair. In fact, the movie seems to think that its thrills and chills are such a lock that they don’t really have to try all that hard for the story to make sense. Side characters teleport out of nowhere halfway through the film and nab a handful of scenes only to vanish without consequence, while main characters are often sequestered offscreen so long you almost forget they exist. It’s a haphazard construction that doesn’t offer a lot to support the film’s decently affecting atmosphere.

It's more like "No, seriously, who is this guy?"

Occasionally, those random shards of subplots and side characters coalesce into something truly delightful (a go-nowhere flirting scene between Jim and a Barb-esque secretary is inexplicably lovely, and the scene where he’s canvassing the town and accidentally walks in on the middle of a marital argument is excellent at implying a bigger world around the film), but there’s no real sense of intentionality to the film’s randomness.

The scene that’s most symptomatic of The Stepfather’s total lack of a coherent identity is a shower scene that comes absurdly late in the game. With less than 20 minutes left, Jill Schoelen is shoehorned into the bathroom to bare her breasts and stop the plot dead in its tracks, in a film that at no point has otherwise indicated it wants to be a cheesy, exploitative slasher.

Fortunately, Terry O’Quinn is enough of a magnetic personality to hold the whole thing together. Watching him slowly unravel is truly remarkable, providing a certain skin-crawling otherness in a movie that’s mostly just a bland thriller by numbers.

The Stepfather is certainly one of the more stately entries in the genre, but that’s not always a good thing. It gives you a couple moments to cling to, but otherwise it’s entirely forgettable.

Killer: Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn)
Final Girl: Stephanie (Jill Schoelen)
Best Kill: There’s really not a lot to go on here, but I’ll pick Jim’s death, which happens pretty much immediately upon encountering Jerry, proving pretty definitively that Ahab character suck at their jobs.
Sign of the Times: Steph has to mail a letter to the newspaper asking for a photo of the killer, because she can’t just Google it.
Scariest Moment: The Stepfather loses his grip and accidentally uses the wrong name with Susan, revealing his deception.
Weirdest Moment: On his way to save Jerry’s family, Jim has to stop to let a nun cross the street.
Champion Dialogue: “Girls don’t get expelled.”
Body Count: 3; not including the family that is murdered immediately prior to the opening scene.
  1. Dr. Bonderant is bludgeoned to death with a 2x4.
  2. Jim is stabbed in the gut.
  3. The Stepfather is stabbed in the heart, and I’m counting this as a death even though I know full well there’s a sequel.
TL;DR: The Stepfather is a respectable but non-essential slasher adjacent thriller.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1161
Reviews In This Series
The Stepfather (Ruben, 1987)
Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy (Burr, 1989)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Pain And Life

Here is another trio of reviews on Pedro Almodóvar films, as we enter our final summer marathon of his collected filmography.


Year: 1986
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Assumpta Serna, Antonio Banderas, Nacho Martínez
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17

A matador obsessed with death meet a defense attorney with a similar fetish when one of his students confesses to a string of murders

Matador is one of Almodóvar’s weirder movies, and that’s really saying something. It’s kinky, edgy, and dark in ways only his early 80’s output could be. He was still exploring his craft, and there was certainly still room for improvement, but his inimitable voice still rings loud and clear.

For one thing, this tale of rape, murder, suicide, and necrophilia is hilarious. The A-plot is as straight as a drama can be, but it bounces between a litany of buoyant performances on the sidelines: Julieta Serrano as the pious, bullying mother of Antonio Banderas, Chus Lampreave as the doting, oversharing mother of the model he assaults in an early scene, and even Pedro Almodóvar himself, in an uncredited cameo as a fashion show director. Their antics and complete lack of self-awareness allow Matador a levity that prevents the subject matter from becoming too unbearably dark.

And despite its lack of the bold color patterns that would come to define the director’s work, Matador is beautiful on top of everything. The opening scene in which bullfighting is compared to seduction numbers among the director’s most sublime visual sequences. Unfortunately, this level of cinematic perfection fails to sustain itself, and in turn is incapable of keeping the messy plot on life support. It’s still a delightful slice of filmmaking, but it overstays its welcome, something that almost no Almodóvar movie is capable of doing.

Rating: 6/10

The Flower of My Secret

Year: 1995
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Carme Elias
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A romance author can’t find inspiration now that her marriage is on the rocks, and takes a newspaper job where she has to review her own novel.

The Flower of My Secret is definitely a middling Almodóvar work, from his period in the early 90’s that people don’t like to talk about quite so much. Nevertheless, if any other director had made it, it would be considered the peak of their career. That’s the kind of sliding scale we’re working with when we discuss Almodóvar, and that’s a glorious thing.

As far as I can figure it, there are only two things “wrong” with The Flower of My Secret. First, while Almodóvar’s plots do tend to meander, this one really gets away from him, especially in the third act. The movie is short enough that the messy plotting isn’t exhausting, but it can be a bit difficult to really sink your teeth into it. The second thing is that the film is just plain. The director’s retro, eye-searing colors and bold set design choices are rather toned down here, so there are no images immutably burned into your brain.

Those are the reasons it’s not a classic Almodóvar film. The reasons it’s a great Almodóvar film are numerous. For one thing, it’s downright hilarious. The plot beats are reserved for some heartstring-plucking melodrama, but some of the film’s many detours find their way into character-based joviality, with dialogue slipping over itself in a beautiful farcical frenzy. This reaches a particular height whenever our protagonist visits her mother and sitter, played by Almodóvar stalwarts Rossy de Palma and Chus Lampreave. Lampreave especially takes what she was working with in Matador and turns it up 11 as a batty, headstrong aging mother stock character given warmth and depth around the edges of her irresistible performance.

The melodrama is also well-crafted, anchored by the terrific Marisa Paredes, who joined the Almodóvar troupe in the early 80’s, but really rose to the top of the heap with his 90’s material. The scene of Paredes seeking comfort from the women in a knitting circle in her hometown is worth the price of admission alone. Paredes suffers a lot, but Almodóvar uses her trials and tribulation to celebrate life, love, art, beauty, and especially women of every shape and size.

Rating: 8/10

Broken Embraces

Year: 2009
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A blind filmmaker revisits a tragedy that struck 14 years ago while he was directing his final film.

Broken Embraces is definitely a Pedro Almodóvar movie. If ever you see a lush melodrama filled with gorgeous women and mop-headed twinks boasting an ending that makes you go “oh, that’s all?,” he is surely behind it. A lot of his favorite themes are present: a death setting a chain of events in motion, an artist finding catharsis through their craft, Penelope Cruz looking gorgeous as all hell… It’s definitely in his drama vein.

Frankly, Almodóvar’s dramas don’t appeal to me nearly as readily as his comedies, but broken Embraces struck me more than most of the others. There’s a quiet beauty in this reflection on a long, full career. And the autobiographical elements are hardly veiled, considering that this character is in the middle of making a fictionalized version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The only difference is that this version (titled Chicas y Maletas) is kind of a disaster whereas Breakdown is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Like most of his dramas, Broken Embraces is a technical triumph. From the detailed production design to Cruz’s platinum blonde wig so fierce they had to call in animal control, every item in the frame is perfectly composed. All the better to let the emotions of the story spill out around it. Frankly, I can’t find that much unique to point out, because it’s exactly as sublime as his other efforts. I should really step back and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to take this film’s craft for granted, but the sad fact is if it’s not Volver, then I’m just not as invested.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1024

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Census Flashback: Female Directors

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating the 70’s horror remake The Beguiled, because Transformers 5 has opted to premiere midweek, blissfully opening up the weekend to a crop of smaller titles. The Beguiled was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, so today’s slasher boasts the same, highly unusual, distinction of being both written and directed by women: A Night to Dismember.

Year: 1983
Director: Doris Wishman
Cast: Samantha Fox, Diane Cummins, Saul Meth 
Run Time: 1 hour 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A good title is worth a thousand ticket sales, and Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember has a great one. Unfortunately, it’s attached to something that’s not even a movie. According to legend, a great deal of the negative was destroyed by a disgruntled film technician, forcing the movie to be a Frankensteinian assemblage of surviving dailies with a new voiceover track papered over the whole affair to make the story make sense.

Now, as much as I love to see a female name above the line in slasher movie credits, let alone two (the film was written by Judy J. Kushner), that doesn’t mean I’m inclined to go easy on them. Women can be just as good (the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy) or just as bad (Home Sweet Home) as male directors. Or in this case – if the stories are true – just as up a creek without a paddle.


So, here’s the plot. As recapped by an investigator in voiceover, drawing from the apparently very extensive, incriminating diaries kept by all involved, the Kent family comes across a spot of bad luck on October 15th, 1986 (making this a science fiction movie). Daughter Vicki Kent (Samantha Fox) has just returned from a five year stint in a mental institution, to the jealousy of her attention-seeking siblings Mary (Diane Cummins) and Billy (William Szarka, director of future Census Bloodbath entry Phantom Brother). These people are all adults so we can watch them have sex, but they pretty much exclusively act like children.

They conspire to drive Vicki back to the asylum, and the massively extended Kent family begins to fall prey to what I’m convinced is the exact same shot of the shadow of an axe on the wall, repeated ad infinitum.

They really gotta drive this point home.

A Night to Dismember is a shambles, no two ways about it. But if it had been completed as envisioned, it probably would have only been slightly less of a shambles. It’s just a string of slasher murders barely connected by the faintest wisp of a plot. OK granted, that’s pretty much true of all slashers, but presentation is key.

Snippets of catalogue music from the Greatest Hits of the Home Shopping Network collection jerk to a start and abruptly leap between tracks, cheerily underscoring the endless parade of cut-rate softcore porn and unfocused, jittery murder sequences. It’s like the celluloid itself chugged a gallon of coffee and is practically leaping out of the projector.

It’s just so manic, hopping from one bloody lily pad to the next without pausing to take a breath. And even brimming with this energy and boasting a run time so slight it’s barely visible to the naked eye, A Night to Dismember is incredibly, catastrophically boring. It’s poorly shot, packed with grainy close-ups, and the miles of plot it relentlessly spools through have no emotional anchor. It’s more like watching a PowerPoint presentation of slasher murders than an actual plot with recognizable characters,

Hell, that’s probably being unfair to the entertainment value of PowerPoint.

There is at least one interesting thing about A Night to Dismember, though "interesting” isn’t even in the same ZIP code as “good.” With its jagged motion and half-assed dubbing, it feels like an old silent film, only with 80’s hairstyles. The acting is pitched to the back row, and the shards of scenes are glued together by a monologue that might as well be a set of title cards. It feels like some surviving scrap of an ancient artifact, despite the anachronistic modernity of is setting. For that it’s kind of fascinating, but its worth as a curio does not extend beyond about a quarter of an hour.

And hell, I’ll come up with something nice to say. Why not? The film’s construction is dreamlike enough that some of the attempts at horror genuinely land. Out-of-context uncanny imagery like hands groping at Vicki in the dark or a “Halloween mask” played by a scaly old man will send a tingle or two down the spine. And the effects makeup on the kills is mostly OK, wallowing in a 70’s grindhouse vibe during its gorier sequences.

But let’s not pretend this movie is anything but a tedious, poorly acted, incoherently edited monstrosity. A teaspoon of interesting imagery can’t cover up that sour taste. If Ken Burns made a documentary where he read the phone book aloud over photos of severed fingers while elevator music droned in the background, I would still rather check that out than watch A Night to Dismember again.

Yes, I understand that this film was FUBAR behind the scenes. But still… They didn’t have to release it.

Killer: Mary Kent (Diane Cummins)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Mary literally rips her uncle’s heart right out of his chest.
Sign of the Times: Anybody allowed this movie to happen, because slashers were still profitable.
Scariest Moment: A muddy man rises from the lake and chases Vicki.
Weirdest Moment: the finale sees Mary pack her axe in a briefcase and take off into the woods.
Champion Dialogue: “Susan had accidentally fallen on her axe. She was dead.”
Body Count: 16
  1. Bonnie is axed to death.
  2. Susan falls on her own axe. She is dead.
  3. Lola is stabbed.
  4. Broderick hangs himself.
  5. Boy #1 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  6. Boy 2 is stabbed through the back of the neck.
  7. Frankie is decapitated with a machete.
  8. Sandy is decapitated with a machete.
  9. Uncle Sebastian is axed in the head.
  10. Auntie Ann is run over with a car.
  11. Bea Smith is axed in the neck.
  12. Adam gets a needle through his neck.
  13. Blanche is axed to death.
  14. Billy is buried alive.
  15. Vicki is strangled.
  16. Taxi Driver is axed to death.
TL;DR: A Night to Dismember is a catastrophically compromised slasher film.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1086

Monday, June 19, 2017

Blumhouse: What You Missed

Hey everyone! It's been a while, because I've been actually working hard to stick to a regular blog schedule with my Census Flashback feature (which I'm very excited about), but here's what I've been up to over at!

The Haunted Save Mart of Chowchilla, California

Early on in an article, I made a joke that ghosts only haunt old things, not supermarkets or anything. Boy did I come to regret that when I Googled "haunted grocery store." Things got weird real fast.

Don't tell anyone, but you may recognize this as a reworking of my original review of The Birds. I thought this would be a controversial article, but apparently more people love The Birds than I thought.

This is my favorite article that I've written in quite some time. I love learning about weird-ass movies I've never heard of, and these franchises are made even weirder by the sheer amount of sequels that have slipped right by without anyone (at least in America) really noticing.

I will never stop writing about Wes Craven.

I started Hulu's monthlong free trial to watch The Handmaid's Tale, and considering that their catalogue is so hard to access if you're not a member, I utilized my unprecedented access to scour their horror section.

Thankfully we don't do reviews on the site, because I wasn't a huge fan of Seoul Station. But I did find the opportunity to expand on what i found most interesting about the film, and it was a lot of fun!

Clearly my Handmaid's Tale binge influenced a lot of recent articles. What can I say, it's a good show!
Word Count: 326

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Census Flashback: Sequels Nobody Asked For

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Cars 3, a sequel absolutely nobody asked for, this week I’ll be revisiting the Bates Motel with 1983’s entirely unwarranted Psycho II.

Year: 1983
Director: Richard Franklin
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly 
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Making a sequel to Psycho 22 years after the fact was a monumentally terrible idea. But miraculously, that was the only bad idea made in the process of creating Psycho II. An astoundingly qualified crew was assembled to bring the Bates Motel back to life: actors Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles returning, Child’s Play and Fright Night director Tom Holland manning the screenplay, and Richard Franklin in the director’s seat. Franklin you may recall from the earlier Census Bloodbath entry Road Games, a terrific roadside thriller that proved him such a potent disciple of Hitchcock that hiring him was a no-brainer. With this team supporting the film, at least it would have been watchable no matter what. A little bit surprisingly, it's even more than that.

Hold onto your wigs.

So, Psycho II pretty much picks up where we left off. It’s 22 years later and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been declared sane and released from the institution where he’s been held since his murder spree in 1960. As he tries to get his life back together, he takes in a wayward teenage girl named Mary (Meg Tilly), whose presence in his home sends him (and us) some painful reminders of the beautiful, deceased Marion Crane. As if we needed reminding, considering that her murder is crudely cut and pasted into the first five minutes of the film as if this were a cheap Friday the 13th sequel or something.

Anyway, people who cross Norman start to turn up dead, causing him no small amount of distress. Is he back to his murderous ways, or is someone else framing him? And exactly what is Lila Loomis née Crane (Vera Miles) doing skulking around town after all this time?

I mean, other than marrying her dead sister’s boyfriend like a badass.

Psycho II had quite the legacy to live up to. Not only was it the long-delayed sequel to a Hitchcock classic, it was being released smack dab in the middle of the slasher boom, the genre its forebear helped to create. That’s a lot of pressure. Psycho II is like the kid of the CEO attempting to take up the mantle of the company. It had to prove itself worthy in a massive pool of imitators. And mostly, it did exactly that.

Where Psycho II succeeds is that it doesn’t try to fit in with the slasher crowd. Sure, there’s a little more nudity, a little more blood, and one or two teens in the mix, but the film isn’t focused on the murder spree. It is very much about the aftermath of a broken mind attempting to mend itself, and as such it’s even different from Psycho itself. This is the best place to be, as free from expectation as humanly possible, and it spins quite a yarn out of it.

There’s so much yarn, in fact, that it can be fashioned into at least two different Mrs. Bates wigs, because buckle in folks: Psycho II has a lot of moving parts. The film has so many twists and turns that you’re constantly second guessing yourself, but not too many that it flies off the rails. It’s the perfect kind of melodrama, keeping you on your toes and glued to the screen. The plot is such a bucking bronco that the now-traditional “authority figure clunkily explains it all” scene gets the entire thing hilariously wrong.

As if I wasn’t already on this movie’s side.

Richard Franklin doesn’t get to have as much visual fun as he did on Road Games, but he still finds some cool imagery to play with, especially during the death scenes. Nothing could possibly live up to Psycho’s shower scene, but Franklin stages his murders with brutal flair, utilizing the modern effects without over-relying on them. His kills are full of motion and they’re unrelenting, letting you chew on every stage of the far-from-brief mayhem.

Another benefit of being a Psycho film is that it attracted a pretty solid, venerable cast. You won’t see Robert Loggia skulking around in no Sleepaway Camp sequel. There’s not a single dud in the cast, though it takes Perkins a minute to warm up into his old character. They ground the crazy story in a welcome, almost stately reality that does wonders for the film’s tension.

All this is what allows the film’s gonzo ending to work so well. Although it’s a slow burn to the finish line, Psycho II reaches a shrieking crescendo that feels like Bernard Hermann’s manic score come to life (incidentally, the classic Psycho theme appears in the flashback scene only – the rest of the film has to make do with a subdued and tedious Jerry Goldsmith jobbie). It’s a fun film, bringing Psycho into the 80’s without diluting its inimitable spirit.

Killer: Who could possibly keep track?
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Vera Miles with a knife sticking from her gob. You don’t see that every day.

Sign of the Times: There’s a cameo from a Ms. Pac Man machine.
Scariest Moment: Mary looks through the bathroom peephole and sees an eye on the other side.
Weirdest Moment: A revelation late into the film about Norman’s family tree comes completely out of left field.
Champion Dialogue: “I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”
Body Count: 6
  1. Mr. Toomey is stabbed to death.
  2. Basement Boy is stabbed to death.
  3. Lila Loomis is stabbed through the mouth.
  4. Dr. Raymond is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Mary is shot.
  6. Miss Spool is hit in the head with a shovel.
TL;DR: Psycho II is a surprisingly worthy sequel to an unimpeachable classic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1012
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris, 1990)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Blogaversary The Fourth

Folks, today marks the fourth anniversary of Popcorn Culture, and it’s amazing we all survived this long, let alone this little blog. Now, our good friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue started on the exact same day, so I want you to head over there and give him a little love. Our blogs are fraternal twins, after all. In celebration of this landmark, and in honor of the traditional fourth anniversary gift being electrical appliances, I have a little list prepared for you.


#5 TV Set in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The boob tube gets a bad rap. It might turn your eyes square and your brain into mush, but at least it won’t murder you… unless you’re in the nightmarish thrall of Freddy Krueger. This TV kill is one of the most iconic Elm Street scenes ever, and for good reason. It’s pithy, playful, and yet still unspeakably dark in its absurdity.

#4 Microwave in The Last House on the Left

The Last House on the Left remake was altogether much less grim than Wes Craven’s original, but that also allowed them to go to some incredibly silly places that even the intermittently goofy 1972 flick couldn’t reach. The highest peak of this bonkers attitude is this scene that brings a popular urban legend to bloody life: death by having your head shoved into a microwave.

#3 Lawn Mower in Misery

Is a lawn mower an appliance? I’m not actually sure about that, but who could resist Annie Wilkes’ inimitable gusto and the creative way she dispatches one of her captive’s only means of potential survival? [Editor's Note: OK, I'm dumb. This scene is in the book, not the movie. But it's still great.]

#2 Toaster in Inside

Inside is a bleak, incredibly gory movie, but one of the scenes that has the most impact is this little moment of blunt force with a toaster. It’s a startling gag that’s so abrupt you want to giggle, but quickly devolves into full-fledged horror.

#1 Blender in You’re Next

You don’t get to be one of the best new horror flicks of the decade without an awesome kill scene, and You’re Next is chock full of them. One of the most memorable is the incredible denouement where our heroine demonstrates the incredible versatility of a common household blender.
Word Count: 399

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Census Flashback: Ancient Entities

Summer has struck again, so it’s time for the melanin-challenged folks like Yours Truly to retreat to the cool air conditioning of the local cineplex. And the return of the summer movie season means the return of our long-suffering feature Fright Flashback! Every Wednesday from now until mid-August, we’ll be exploring an older horror film that is somehow spiritually related to an anticipated new release. Only this time, there’s a twist. We’ll be merging this project with my Census Bloodbath marathon, so we can keep that train a-rolling as well! So every week, we’ll be reviewing an 80’s slasher film instead of just any old horror flick.

This week, we’re anticipating The Mummy, in which Tom Cruise and that chick from Annabelle fight an ancient mummy unearthed from her tomb. Our slasher features another powerful, mythical enemy: a bloodthirsty genie. Let’s dive into 1987’s The Lamp!

Year: 1987
Director: Tom Daley
Cast: Deborah Winters, James Huston, Andra St. Ivanyi
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As any reader of Census Bloodbath certainly should know by now, 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street done changed the game. The newly revived slasher genre was flooded with a deluge of supernatural villainy, taking after Wes Craven’s dreamlike M.O. And although it takes after certain Elm Street precursors like The Boogeyman or The Ghost Dance, The Lamp (inexplicably directed by a Tom Daley who is patently not a teenage swim champion) certainly could not have existed without Freddy Krueger. So I guess we know who to thank.

And I know it’s rare, but I really do mean that sincerely.

As elemental as the plot of The Lamp is, there are a lot of moving parts, so let’s get into it. We open on two separate prologues, the first depicting a series of mysterious deaths in Galveston, Texas in 1893, leaving behind only a young girl whose mother (Deborah Winters) was the very first victim. The second depicts the final minutes of that young girl, now an old woman (Deborah Winters again), as she is robbed of her mysterious lamp by three Southern fried hooligans. They open the lamp, they die in horrible supernatural ways. Pretty straightforward.

Anyway, the lamp ends up in the custody of the local museum, which is curated by Dr. Wallace (James Huston). His relationship with his daughter Alex (Andra St. Ivanyi) has become strained since her mother died, but he’s finally found happiness with Alex’s high school teacher Eve Ferrell (Deborah Winters again, and did I mention she has an associate producer credit on this movie?). So Alex finds a magic bracelet that’s linked to the lamp, and wouldn’t you know it, her sexy teen friends want to spend the night in her father’s museum.

There’s barely 40 minutes left, but let’s Meet the Meat and make it snappy. We have Ted (Scott Bankston), Alex’s horrifyingly bland new boyfriend; Babs (Damon Merrill) and Ross (Barry Coffing), a white couple; and Terry (Raan Lewis) and Gwen (Tracye Walker), a black couple. Look, the person handing out character traits could only stay for the first half hour, OK? Their revelry is intruded upon by the ne plus ultra of 80’s bullies, Mike (Red Mitchell). Mike is the worst. Mike thinks that because he used to date Alex, he has free license to ram her new boyfriend’s car and strangle her on school grounds. You will want Mike to die a horrible death, and you will not be disappointed.

So yeah, a genie gets released from the lamp. It possesses some of them, murders most of them, Alex and Associate Producer Deborah Winters survive, and credits roll.

Bada bing, bada boom.

The Lamp, genie or no genie, is a bog-standard late 80’s slasher at the structural level: we have a set of heteronormative pair-bonded teens spending the night somewhere they shouldn’t be, with a prankster skulking around to add an element of chaos until they all die in mostly bloodless ways. But the filmmakers must have mad a wish on a magic lamp, because the result is far greater than the sum of its parts.

For starters, every inch of this film is draped in terrible neon fashions, and radios are shoehorned into as many scenes as possible to allow for a free-flowing New Wave synthcrap soundtrack. That’s the bait for an 80’s cheese-o-phile like myself, but here’s the hook: The Lamp is completely insane. One thing I value above all else in an 80’s slasher is when a movie proves to be completely unpredictable, showing me sights I never thought I’d see in a million years.

Unfortunately, a major part of what’s inexplicable about The Lamp is Mike, who never ceases to be deeply offensive, but if you view this as a bizarre-world time capsule, it makes for an enjoyably surreal watch. Take for instance this one scene, which takes up no more than five minutes of the total run time: Mike barrels down the school hallway, grabs his ex in a chokehold, calls the principal the N word, and starts beating up Ted until Ms. Ferrell lays him out with a broomstick, flipping him over like a kung fu queen. This is a nuclear blast of lunacy that just keeps building into a stunning crescendo. And it’s less than five percent of the movie!

Thankfully though, the N-word use is a one-time thing.

What else does The Lamp have to offer other than utter weirdness? OK, not a whole lot, but the death scenes – though bloodless – compensate for the lack of gore with a whole slew of explosive supernatural effects. This movie must have had a bit of a budget on it, because not only do we get a random car chase in the first act, we get a whole roster of kills involving people being levitated Elm Street style into a variety of gruesome demises. The kills could perhaps stand to be more creative, but they still maintain the madcap, anything-can-happen energy, with death pouring in from all sides rather than a single killer with an axe or whatever.

It’s not a perfect movie, (don’t think I’ve forgiven Mike, who has a flagrantly unnecessary - though thankfully brief – rape scene) but The Lamp floats by being blissfully amusing in its own dumb-as-rocks way. If I can’t have actual quality I will accept something that’s thoroughly weird, and The Lamp gives me what I need.

Killer: Jinn (Jackson Bostwick)
Final Girl: Alex Wallace: Alex Wallace (Andra St. Ivanyi)
Best Kill: One of the robbers is hung with an invisible rope in a sublime effect that proves the movie certainly won’t be a waste of time.

Sign of the Times: Literally any outfit or song in the entire movie.
Scariest Moment: An old woman weakly protests as robbers steal the lamp and proceed to murder her with an axe.
Weirdest Moment: One of the museum’s security guards loudly sings opera while making his rounds.
Champion Dialogue: “I never said I was the wizard of coffee and toast.”
Body Count: 16; not including a female teen who presumably dies but we don’t specifically see it.
  1. Young Arab Woman dies… somehow.
  2. Random Dude is mauled offscreen.
  3. Old Arab Woman is axed to death.
  4. Max is cut in half or crushed or something, it's hard to tell.
  5.  Harley has his face impaled on an axe.
  6. Faylene is hung with an invisible rope.
  7. Dr. Theo Bressling has his head chopped with a ceiling fan.
  8. Bob is impaled on a spear.
  9. Ross is split in half offscreen.
  10. Babs is attacked by bath cobras.
  11. Terry is bitten by a snake in his pants.
  12. Tony gets his head twisted off by a medieval helmet.
  13. Mike is impaled with a viking helmet.
  14. Jeff is killed offscreen.
  15. Ted is devoured by a reanimated corpse.
  16. Dr. Wallace is killed offscreen.
TL;DR: The Lamp is a thoroughly weird and engrossing supernatural slasher flick.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1317