Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Census Flashback: Borderline Personalities

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 Emoji Movie, entirely populated by characters that have a single dominant personality trait. In honor of this animated tour de force, we’ll be exploring 1988’s Bad Dreams, about a therapy group for borderline personality disorders.

Year: 1988
Director: Andrew Fleming
Cast: Jennifer Rubin, Bruce Abbott, Richard Lynch 
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’ve noted before that the biggest trend in late 80’s slasher films is the incorporation of a supernatural element following the success of Freddy Krueger and the Elm Street franchise. There are certain tiers to this trend, the lowest being the sudden inclusion of elements like a telekinetic girl in Friday the 13th Part VII or a vengeful beauty queen ghost in Prom Night II, Then you get to the second tier of rip-offs, where films have transparently desperate titles like Deadly Dreams and Dreamaniac. Bad Dreams doesn’t belong in this tier. Hell, it doesn’t even belong in the top tier, where the Bollywood dream demon Mahakaal: The Monster resides. Bad Dreams is the grotesquely blatant, enormous cake toper straddling this entire trend and threatening to topple the whole thing over.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors gets a chill down its spine anytime someone utters the name “Bad Dreams.” Let me paint you a picture: starring Dream Warrior Jennifer Rubin (who played Taryn, the “beautiful and bad” drug addict), Bad Dreams revolves around members of a group therapy circle and their bland white doctor as they’re menaced by an incorporeal kier with a burned face who makes their deaths look like suicides. The details are slightly different, and we’ll get to them when we Meet the Meat, but hot damn is this not a subtle ploy for the throne.

There was no Wes involved, but they were certainly craven.

So, Bad Dreams follows Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin), the only survivor of a Peace and Love and Suicide cult who were burned alive at Unity Fields in the 70’s. She has just awoken from a 13-year coma and must acclimatize to the 80’s in a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Barrisford (Harris Yulin). She joins a group therapy session run by Dr. Karmen (Re-Animator’s Bruce Abbott, who must be very tired of hospital sets), but soon realizes that she’s putting the other patients at risk when the burnt specter of her cult leader Harris (Richard Lynch) returns to claim her life, killing her friends in the process.

That group includes the cripplingly shy Lana (Elizabeth Daily AKA Tommy Pickles on The Rugrats), and this film takes a page from Friday the 13th Part V in what exactly constitutes an emotional disorder; Gilda (Danita Jo Freeman), who seems to be psychic and acts only as a mouthpiece for Harris rather than an actual character – seriously, what is she even doing here?; Miriam (Susan Ruttan), an addled ex-reporter at a Weekly World News type publication; the requisite slasher movie sex couple Connie (Susan Barnes) and Ed (Louis Giambalvo), but the only difference is they’re both middle-aged for no reason; and Ralph (Dean Cameron, who I’m suddenly rocking a major 80’s crush on), a self-harmer with a  cynical sense of humor.

And dreamy eyebrows.

The most interesting element Bad Dreams brings to the table is the inclusion of the cult subplot. Although its hardly smart enough to really mine the psyche of a cult escapee (hell, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does a better job) or even that of a coma patient’s culture shock waking up in a different time, the cult itself is divinely creepy. I mean come on, the film literally opens with women and children being set on fire! Richard Lynch is a reliably creepy presence, hiding his malice beneath a too-thin veneer of pure love, and capturing the emotional whiplash of a cult brainwasher.

Of course, this all pretty much goes to waste, because nobody had any pretentions about being anything but Elm Street fan fiction. Luckily, in terms of that angle, Bad Dreams is at least passable. The deaths are toothless as a newborn babe, but at least the supernatural goings-on allow them to pirouette around the MPAA, providing scenes that are mildly eerie and impactful, if not particularly gory.

Naturally, the film also fails to follow through on the idea that mental institutions are as much a cult as Unity Fields, but hey. Dean Cameron gets a couple good self-mutilations scenes with scalpels, so it all evens out. 

God, I should be put in jail for this blog.

I think we’ve established that Bad Dreams is lethally stupid, and the jumbled, reality-warping third act does it no favors. But at the every least, it is presented with a basic level of cinematic competence that was tragically rare in 1988. Naturally, it’s all cannibalized from other, better films (like the shot where Harris’ face slowly fades into frame like Michal Myers in Halloween), but it’s at least enough to maintain a basic level of attention.

Really, at the end of the day, generic is much better than bad, so Bad Dreams passes with flying colors. The cast is above average, the action is visible, and the plot is mildly interesting. If this were a summer blockbuster, it would be bottom of the barrel, but on the sliding scale of Census Bloodbath it’s a breath of fresh air.

Killer: [The deaths were mostly suicides or accidents, but they were influenced by Dr. Barrisford (Harris Yulin)]
Final Girl: Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin)
Best Kill: Connie and Ed are chopped up in an air turbine and their blood and guts come pouring from the overhead vents.
Sign of the Times: One of the cultists is wearing a headband and overalls with no shirt.
Scariest Moment: A patient silently gesticulates her distress at a doctor who’s looking the other way.
Weirdest Moment: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” plays over the closing credits.
Champion Dialogue: “That man’s a candidate for shock therapy. A jumper cable right up his ass.”
Body Count: 7; not including the cult engulfed in flames.
  1. Lana drowns in the pool.
  2. Miriam falls out a window.
  3. Connie and
  4. Ed are chopped up in a turbine.
  5. Ralph commits seppuku with scalpels.
  6. Gilda drinks formaldehyde.
  7. Barrisford is pushed off the roof.
TL;DR: Bad Dreams is passable, despite being a transparently obvious Dream Warriors rip-off.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1083

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

At Least The House Was Terrific

Year: 1987
Director: Joseph Sargent
Cast: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A scant four years after the previous entry, Jaws: The Revenge sank the floundering killer fish franchise for good. There’s been scarcely a blip on the radar since, even during the horror remake tsunami of the mid-2000’s. How could that be? How could one of the most iconic franchises in history, the franchise that more or less defined blockbuster cinema as we know it, be dead in the water just 12 years after it first dipped its toe in? Maybe the fourth and final film holds the key.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

So, who are we even dealing with here? Franchise stalwarts Sean and Michael Brody reappear, though none of the six actors who have played those roles over the years saw fit to return (Mitchell Anderson fills the role of the former, Halloween II’s Lance Guest the latter). Roy Scheider says “the Devil himself” couldn’t have convinced him to return as Chief Brody, so he cameos as a portrait hanging up in the police station (businesses in the movie universe love to overly honor old employees who shouldn’t really be that important to them). That leaves us with… Lorraine Gary?

That’s right, Jaws: The Revenge more or less centers upon Gary’s Mrs. Brody, hammily suffering a bout of grief after her son Sean is tragically felled by Amity Island’s third Great White shark attack since 1975. Rent must be really affordable there or something. She takes refuge on an island in the Bahamas while her son Michael – looking the sexiest he’s ever looked, and yes that matters a lot – works as a marine biologist. While Mrs. Brody attempts to cope by caring for her daughter-in-law Carla (Karen Young) and granddaughter Thea (Judith Barsi) and tentatively falling in love with the intrepid airplane pilot Hoagie (Michael Caine, who famously took the role so he could buy a house and has never seen the movie), she fears that her family may still be in danger.

Meanwhile, Michael and his sassy coworker Jake (Mario Van Peebles) discover that a Great White is lurking in the tropical waters, seemingly with an eye toward devouring the Brodys out of some sort of vaguely defined “revenge.” Jake wants to study the shark, and Michael agrees - while hiding the fact from his family - because he is a supernaturally stupid human being.

At least you’re pretty, Mike.

Jaws: The Revenge is the film out of the four that most resembles a stupid horror movie, and that’s actually a plus in my book. If the whole movie focused on Lorraine Gary sobbing behind a pair of elegant sunglasses and locking lips with a supremely disinterested Michael Caine, I would want to dump a bucket of chum over my head and hurl myself into the nearest ocean. But no, we gets lots of “sitting bolt upright in bed after a nightmare” sequences, jump scares involving eels, no fewer than two presumed dead characters miraculously appearing unharmed (at least, depending on which cut you’re watching), and a shark battling a plane. Jaws: The Revenge is totally cuckoo, and that’s its saving grace.

Because boy oh boy does it just not work as a movie. Michael Brody being a drooling idiot I can accept, because audiences have been watching that happen since 1978. But the rest of the plot relies on characters actively pushing against their survival instincts for absolutely no reason. Jake’s shark-studying mania rivals Mayor Vaughn’s for sheer gluttonous hubris, and Ellen Brody’s constant staring-off-into-space sessions are excellent for padding the film with flashbacks to earlier entries (all scenes where she patently was not present, mind you), but in no way reflect the actions of an actual human being.

And the effects! Every consecutive Jaws movie has had worse special effects than the previous entry, and they started off with a film whose effects were so dodgy that the behind-the-scenes struggles are household knowledge. It shouldn’t be that hard to top Jaws’ malfunctioning shark, but this entry’s Bruce the Fourth (which we see in exact, inch-by-inch detail far too often) looks like nothing more than a piece of carved foam which has clearly been dented by overuse floating listlessly through the water. 

Though I guess I shouldn’t expect much from a film that can’t even pull off a “missing arm” gag. When Sean Brody’s appendage is devoured, his left side turns into an art installation of layered rain slicker material that more resembles a papier-mâché flower than actual gore. Also the sky in this one scene is literally a wall that’s painted grey.

Star Wars this ain’t.

The shark attack sequences are also terrible, presenting muddled flashes of close-ups that completely lack any sort of style of coherent geography. Literally the only thing this film adds to the Jaws canon is these little splashes of water during the shark POV shots that bob up and down through the surf. Nevermind that the shark doesn’t swim with its eyes above the water, at least there’s a scrap of a sense that there’s a human being behind the camera.

So.. that’s that, I guess. Jaws: The Revenge is horribly conceived and executed in every possible way. Its thorough stupidity does lend it a kind of dopey charm that makes it completely bearable to sit through, but Lorraine Gary treats this like it’s Ellen Brody Gets Her Groove Back, and she couldn’t carry this pile of narrative rubble if she tried. Frankly, there’s no reason I can think of to watch any more after the original Jaws, and I’m not even especially keen on that one.

But then again… Jaws: The Revenge is technically a Christmas movie, so that’s fun (the opening shark attack takes place just before Christmas, and the Caribbean scenes take us through the local Boxing Day celebration of Junkanoo and the New Year. Also a side character’s birthday. Pretty much every holiday in the book gets name-checked at one point or another.). You can add that to your holiday season counterprogramming playlist right next to Die Hard and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And I honestly wouldn’t mind watching this again. It’s horrendously insipid, but I’d sooner rewatch it than Jaws 2 or Jaws 3-D. Which is something, I guess.

TL;DR: Jaws: The Revenge is a goofy patch on the already faded Jaws franchise, but it's at least admirably dumb.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1080
Reviews In This Series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Census Flashback: Movies Starring Musicians

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 Christopher Nolan’s World War 2 film Dunkirk, which inexplicably gives a high profile role to ex-One Direction crooner Harry Styles. In honor of this film (which I will dutifully avoid seeing), we’re reviewing a 1984 slasher starring the L.A.-based hair metal band Sorcery: Rocktober Blood.

Year: 1984
Director: Beverly Sebastian
Cast: Tray Loren, Donna Scoggins, Cana Cockrell 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Rocktober Blood is a movie I’ve kinda been looking forward to for a long time. That sublimely stupid title is hard to ignore, even though 80’s rock ‘n roll slashers don’t have a particularly great track record. Terror on Tour and New Year’s Evil were kind of a wash, and the type of music bands are willing to write specifically for use by a cheap slasher film doesn’t tend to be terrific. There’s a reason there’s no “My Heart Will Go On” of the slasher era.

As usual, my excitement was unfounded, but I was rewarded with certain idiosyncratic nuggets that Rocktober Blood has to offer. For one thing, it’s yet another member of that oh-so small minority of slasher films that were directed by women. Beverly Sebastian (of the surprisingly prescient early 70’s slasher satire The Single Girls) is at the helm here, presiding over a script she co-wrote with her husband Ferd. Whether or not I dig the film, it’s always an honor to be in the presence of a woman her clawed her way through that blood-covered glass ceiling.

This is why we march.

Rocktober Blood weaves a tale about the band Headmistress (as played by Sorcery), who play music that some wily producer in the 80’s convinced everyone was called “rock.” After lead singer Billy Eye (Tray Loren) brutally murders the sound team one night, he is executed.

Now it’s two years later, and his band is back playing the old songs on their Rocktober Blood tour, now fronted by Billy’s jilted ex Lynn Starling (Donna Scoggins). At the press party kicking off the tour, Lynn is attacked by a killer who claims to be Billy, returned from the grave for revenge. He stalks her everywhere: from the band’s secluded lakeside cabin to their glitzy debut show, murdering those who get in his way.

By pure happenstance, many of these obstacles happen to be sexy women.

Because this movie was conceived first and foremost as a vehicle for Sorcery, we need to talk about the music. Really, considering the output of its rock slasher brethren, the three original songs that form the crux of the plot here aren’t bad at all. While they’re a sickening miasma blending hair metal, New Wave, pop lyrics, and goth performance art, they’re performed with gusto.

The character of Billy (voiced by Nigel Benjamin) has a frankly remarkable range, and Lynn’s gravelly yowl (provided by Susie Rose Major) gives her a lot more character than Scoggins’ performance ever could. Their song “Rainbow Eyes” I’m actually considering putting on my iPod, but the other sub-Dokken tracks “I’m Back” and “Killer on the Loose” at least aren’t boring. I’d place them somewhere between Slumber Party Massacre II’s “Tokyo Convertible” and “The Darkest Side of the Night” from Jason Takes Manhattan.

If you can follow that comparison, you’re a big ol’ nerd.

Although the music is surprisingly decent, the band’s self-promotional demands do get in the way of the plot, or at least the string of random scenes that Rocktober Blood attempts to pass off as a plot. The third act devolves into what is essentially a crummy concert documentary (Stop Making Sense this ain’t), and not a single band member is killed, keeping the body count at a perilously low level. If they had committed to the orgy of bloodlust the final 20 minutes attempts to be, I would be singing this film’s praises, but what we get instead is a killer awkwardly wandering onstage and flailing around a microphone stand like he’s one of Steven Tyler’s scarves.

It was certainly too much to ask for Rocktober Blood to be scary, but any semblance of tension vanishes around the hour mark (though there is a good/ridiculous jump scare that reveals the killer has been hiding inside a hot tub). It’s a rigorously formulaic slasher for the most part, which kind of inherently prevents it from being particularly atmospheric, but it also maintains a base level of interest that will at least slightly hold your attention throughout the film’s slight run time.

You really shouldn't underestimate a slasher that doesn't bore you to tears.

Within this ironclad formula, Beverly Sebastian does manage to have a bit of fun, spicing up a death-while-pinballing scene with a cheeky flash of a “game over” screen, and fitting in little bits of comic business on the sidelines like an MTV reporter accidentally getting caught on tape offering someone a bump of cocaine.

None of that really adds up to anything, even with a soap opera-esuqe twist at the end (which you know I love). Slasher films that are this rote live and die on the eccentricities of the characters, and the anemic crop in Rocktober Blood just doesn’t cut it. The anonymous band members barely appear offstage, only half the others are even given names, and thy share about 1 ½ character traits between them. Hell, there’s a character named Frankie that I’m pretty sure doesn’t actually appear in a single frame! That’s the level of bland we’re playing with here.

Do I even need to tell you that the acting is uniformly terrible? I feel like we can just assume that from context clues. So yeah, Rocktober Blood is a routine slasher that’s just OK enough that I don’t hate this project that I’ve committed myself to. I’m not sure that translates into a recommendation.

Killer: John Harper (Tray Loren)
Final Girl: Lynn Starling (Donna Scoggins)
Best Kill: I can’t say I’ve ever seen somebody strangled with an iron before.
Sign of the Times: C’mon.

Scariest Moment: The grammar in the title card: “a film by The Sebastian’s”
Weirdest Moment: Somehow, Lynn gets chases through the forest by the sound of backmasking.
Champion Dialogue: “I don’t think you’re nuts. You sign the paychecks.”
Body Count: 8; not including Billy, who dies between the events of the prologue and the movie proper.
  1. Kevin has his throat slit.
  2. Mary is impaled on a spike,
  3. Donna is drowned in a hot tub.
  4. Honey has an iron pressed against her neck.
  5. Stage Vixen #1 is impaled on a mike stand.
  6. Stage Vixen #2 is impaled on a mike stand and has heart ripped out.
  7. Stage Vixen #3 is decapitated.
  8. John is electrocuted.
TL;DR: Rocktober Blood is an underwhelming, rote slasher with only a few decent hair metal songs to offer.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1161

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

People 0

Year: 1983
Director: Joe Alves
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

One of the most common jokes you’ll hear people make when they’re coming up with silly-sounding fake sequel titles is “[Insert Name Here] 2: Electric Boogaloo.” But the second most common joke is “Part 3: In 3-D!,” and that is at least forty percent the fault of Jaws 3-D, which arrived on the scene smack dab in between the releases of Friday the 13th Part 3D and Amityville 3-D. Two titles is a coincidence, but three is a trend, and thus the world will never forget it. That is the one and only way Jaws 3-D has contributed to world cinema.

You’re welcome.

The Brody family must have some issues with object permanence, because Jaws 3-D begins with an average day in the life of Michael Brody (Dennis Quaid), who has moved from Amity Island to the equally oceanbound Florida coast to serve as an engineer at SeaWorld (a real life theme park/aquatic gulag providing some of the most ill-advised product placement in human history).

Although his visiting brother Sean (John Putch, director of American Pie Presents: The Book of Love) still retains a healthy fear of the ocean after surviving two devastating Great White attacks, Michael seems to have forgotten that sharks ever existed, to the point that he shouts “What the hell is that?!” when he spots his newest fishy nemesis for the first time. Also, in the five years since Jaws 2, the Brody bros appear to have aged a decade and a half, so I guess this film takes place in the mid-90’s. Wazaaaap!

Anyway, to nobody’s surprise except Michael’s, a brand new Great White shark descends upon SeaWorld during the grand opening of its new underwater exhibit. It’s up to Michael, his marine biologist girlfriend Dr. Kay (Bess Armstrong), the park’s owner Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr.) and random British photographer Phillip Fitzroyce (Simon MacCorkindale, and I don’t know which name is more hilarious), and SeaWorld dolphins Cindy and Sandy to stop it. The movie completely forgets Sean exists after a while. 

Just like his father.

So, a Jaws movie in 3-D. Sounds like an opportunity to really explore that vast undersea environment with newfound depth, right? …You know where I’m going with this. There isn’t an effect in the entire picture that’s not hot garbage, but the 3-D effects especially are hot garbage on a hot tin roof. Really, all it takes to be an amusing 3-D movie is to shove long stuff in the camera until your arms get tired. Friday the 13th did this just fine, commandeering laundry poles, eyeballs, yo-yo’s, and even a harpoon gun (in a gag that’s lifted verbatim by Jaws 3-D) to general delight.

Jaws 3-D doesn’t even seem entirely aware that it’s in 3-D. Sure, water splashes into the camera sometimes, and bloody bits of people and fish float into the middle distance for an uncomfortably long time, but the visual gags are few and far between. Around the end of the second act, the camera just sort of lazily drifts toward any object on set that happens to protrude a little bit. It’s uninteresting to such a degree, it feels almost maliciously intentional.

Somebody on this crew wants my eyes to suffer.

Then there’s the rest of the effects, which seem to go out of their way to be terrible. A submersible vehicle putters across the lagoon in a bad composite effect that would have looked embarrassing in a Star Trek episode, let alone the sequel to a Spielberg movie. Seriously, did this film not have the budget to fill a tank with water and stick a  yellow dinghy in it? This is a goddamn Universal Pictures production, for crying out loud! And if you have to cut a few water ski pyramids to give us good underwater action sequences, you freaking do it!

I can understand the terrible compositing of the shark scenes, because who wants to deal with an actual Great White, but the erratically sped-up stock footage turns it into a Speedy Gonzales cartoon with teeth. Hell, it’s less scary than your average Looney Tunes joint. And don’t get me started on the disastrous, dysfunctional animatronic that can’t even gnash its teeth properly, or those dead eyes that look like glued-on Rolos. The fact that the shark roars like a lion I can actually forgive, because at least it’s amusing in its maniacally piecemeal little way.

But seriously, all I ask of one of these movies is some fun shark kills, and Jaws 3-D doesn’t even come close to clearing that low, low bar.

That bar is so low, it’s in the Mariana Trench.

But a Jaws movie is more than its effects (at least a tiny bit), so let’s stop griping about them. And start griping about the dizzying inscrutable geography of every chase scene. Or the fact that the most visually arresting elements of the movie are the beefcake extras playing non-speaking employees.

There is a modicum of fun to be had here, especially in the warm, sometimes quite sexy relationship between Sean and entertainment staffer Kelly (Lea Thompson), but it’s not enough to keep the entire production afloat. The campiness of 80’s sequeldom keeps trying to creep in along the edges (actual line of dialogue: “He can take a flying leap in a rolling donut on a gravel driveway!”), but it doesn’t quite burst through until the very last scene, which features the hilariously batty and instantly iconic dolphin cheer freeze-frame.

It’s perhaps more genially dumb and thus amusing than the flat-out dull Jaws 2, but watching a crowd of Jurassic Park rejects being menaced by the stiff, unmoving mandibles of death isn’t my idea of a good time. When actual SeaWorld is more horrifying than your thriller film, something has gone terribly awry.

TL;DR: Jaws 3-D is stupid even by the standards of a Jaws sequel.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1000
Reviews In This Series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3 (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Census Flashback: Trilogies 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.

This week we’re anticipating War for the Planet of the Apes, the third in the unexpectedly popular reboot/prequel franchise. In honor of this film, which people may be looking forward to now but certainly would never have claimed that they wanted back in 2010, we’re watching another third film in a franchise nobody asked for: 1986’s Psycho III.

Year: 1986
Director: Anthony Perkins
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The thing that’s most infuriating about the deeply unnecessary second sequel to the belatedly pointless first sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho is that it’s also a pretty great movie. It’s difficult to grouse about cash grab franchise extension when you actually like the movies.

For being such a good sport and returning to his most notorious role, Anthony Perkins was allowed the luxury of actually directing the film. And although his directorial debut is but an imitation of Richard Franklin’s imitation of Hitchcock, that bar is set so high that everything still winds up above average.

I can’t believe I waited so long to watch these movies.

Psycho III has one of the best opening scenes in history: “THERE IS NO GOD!!!” shouts nun-in-training Maureen (Diana Scarwid) as she prepares to jump from the bell tower. She gets in a scuffle with the sisters trying to save her, and one of them cracks her head on the massive metal bell behind her, plummeting ten stories to her death. The Bates Motel hasn’t even appeared yet and already things are going psycho.

The film doesn’t sustain that manic, crazed energy, though it does manage to recapture it from time to time in delicious spurts of mayhem. So anyway, Maureen runs away and hitches a ride with wannabe rock star Duane “Call Me Duke” Duke (Jeff Fahey, who I am now rocking a major 80’s crush on). Although she escapes from his sexual advances, they both wind up at a certain secluded motel. Duke takes a temporary job at the front desk to earn gas money an the troubled Maureen falls helplessly in love with the nebbish proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who saves her from a second suicide attempt.

The only problem is, this means ol’ Normie is back to his old ways, sneaking into androgynous women’s motel rooms in the middle of the night. While he resists his new mummified mother’s murderous impulses, he also finds himself tentatively falling for Maureen. Unfortunately their love bubble is threatened by snooping reporter Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), who is looking for evidence that Norman isn’t as mentally fit as he claims to be. The mounting pile of bodies on the motel lot would be exactly the proof she needs.

What’s a Psycho movie without a nosy middle-aged woman poking around?

Now, I wouldn’t want people to think I’m saying Psycho III is a superior film to the original psycho. It’s more enjoyable, but then again so is Cupcake Wars, so that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. No, Psycho III exists on an entirely different spectrum (that of the 80’s slasher film), and in that realm it excels. What it lacks in psychological nuance, it more than makes up for with pure slash panache. (And let us not misremember the “lunatic drag queen” original as a searingly observant character study. It’s a well-crafted film, but being black-and-white doesn’t make a movie smart.)

For one thing, it has a sure-footed sense of style that makes you wish Perkins had gone on to helm more than just one other feature. The transitions here have an incredible, ephemeral feeling, slipping almost imperceptibly between locations and scenes, keeping you on your toes and putting you in the appropriate off-kilter mindset. And the lighting is full of deliciously unmotivated splashes of color that create a lurid, unnatural dreamscape. Every frame pops off the screen like a demented comic book, and that helps smooth over some of the more (putting it charitably) unrealistic beats of the plot.

Like yet another young woman/wounded bird with a short haircut crossing Norman’s path.

Psycho III is thoroughly an 80’s slasher, bringing Norman Bates crashing into the topless, bloody world of 80’s horror with a sense of culture shock that Psycho II was somewhat lacking. But it’s also just a plain solid thriller, which is something that not many a 1986 Census Bloodbath entry can boast. It features a marvelously compelling antihero. No longer are you speculating whether or not Norman has slipped back into his old habits. He has, but he desperately wants to be free of his mother’s influence, making him a figure you can root for even as he’s slashing throats and stabbing townies in effects sequences that don’t rise to the level of Vera Miles’ departure from Psycho II, but are nevertheless the most blatantly bloody of the franchise.

I’m not gonna pretend I have a problem with that.

Another factor that has Psycho III stand above its slasher brethren is its cast. Tony Perkins the director gives Tony Perkins the actor a little too much leeway to ham it up, but Roberta Maxwell is frankly a revelation, effortless trading witty barbs with the likewise solid Jeff Fahey, and selling the hell out of the dotty emotional climax. Diana Scarwid is also excellent, powering through some truly putrid theological dialogue, and even a random sideline victim (played by, of all people, Stripped to Kill director Katt Shea) has bucketsful of charisma to toss around.

The script certainly has its ups and downs (the religious angle is almost completely forgotten by the end, and the dialogue relies on a few too many cheeky callbacks to events and lines in the original film), but when it’s up it’s tall as a skyscraper. Psycho III defies all laws of cinema by being the third spectacular entry in a horror franchise that had at that point already spanned two and a half decades. Hitchcock fans might not get what they’re looking for, but slasher fans should make a beeline to the continuing adventures of the Bates Motel.

Killer: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
Final Girl: Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), but only incidentally
Best Kill: Sister Margaret takes home the prize for sheers bonkersness.
Sign of the Times: Minimum wage was $5 an hour, and a double room at a motel cost $25.95.
Scariest Moment: Norman turns off the TV, which is showing people screaming, but in the silence the screaming continues.
Weirdest Moment: Duke has sex with a townie (played by Friday the 13th: Part V actress Juliette Cummins), and their foreplay involves her licking her own arm and making out with a nudie photograph while he points purple lamps at her.
Champion Dialogue: “You’re about as warm as a cry for help.”
Body Count: 5
  1. Sister Margaret falls from a great height.
  2. Red is stabbed in a phone booth.
  3. Patsy Boyle has her throat slit.
  4. Duke is hit in the head with his guitar and drowned in the swamp.
  5. Maureen is impaled in the back of the head by a statue.
TL;DR: Psycho III is a delightfully bananas slasher film with a sure directorial hand.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1222
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris, 1990)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Theater

Year: 1978
Director: Jeannot Szwarc
Cast: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Jaws was bigger than any movie that ever came before it. It splashed onto the cinema scene like a 400-pound Great White shark, and the only surprising thing about the fact that it got a sequel was that it took them three years to make it. One good thing about this is that it allowed Italy time to crank out Orca: the Killer Whale, in which a whale devours a Great White in a show of aquatic horror supremacy (more on that in a bit). The bad thing is, they don’t seem to have spent those three years developing a shark animatronic that would actually work properly.

Bruce Jr. is carrying on the family name of being a massive disappointment.

One thing Jaws 2 has going for it is the return of a lot of the core cast and locations from the original: We pick up off the coast of Amity Island, where two scuba divers are attacked by a Great White shark, which we know more because of the John Williams score than the actual special effects. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) isn’t alarmed at first, but a sudden spike in disappearances and accidents (including a beached Orca with a huge chunk bitten out of it – zing!) leads him to believe that Amity is once again under siege by a giant shark. Lord knows how he got re-elected, but once again the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) intercedes with his attempts to shut down the beaches on the account of some visiting investors.

This is how Brody’s son Michael (Mark Gruner), now a sexy teen, ends up on an ill-fated sailing expedition with a gaggle of his sexy teen peers and his little brother Sean (Marc Gilpin), who appears to be the exact same age as he was three years ago, eve though Mike has apparently accelerated through puberty like a regular Jack. Time is weird.

Anyway, Brody finds himself in the position of singlehandedly saving his sons and their friends from the ministrations of a ravenous, very pissed-off shark.

Also, it got its face burned in an explosion, because it was almost the 80’s, so SOMETHING had to explode.

You know that thing that happens in the credits of movies where, after the names of the main stars appear, they’ll save time by showing a block of eight to ten names of the lesser actors? There are no fewer than two of those blocks in the opening of Jaws 2, and that speaks to what is perhaps its biggest flaw. The film has already speared as many Jaws actors as possible into returning (including the guy who played Screaming Swimmer and the lady who asked “Are you going to close the beaches”) and yet it still feels the need to cram in a baker’s dozen of horny teens, only four or five of which get any semblance of a personality or even an introduction.

There are a couple horny and loathsome nerds, the mayor’s son, two female cousins, and three or four couples in various combinations, but they live and die in a world that’s almost entirely undisclosed to us. They are but ants, interchangeably suffering at the fins and teeth of Amity’s second largest export. Coming after Jaws’ expert work at imbuing even the minor, one-scene characters with color and inner life, the endless parade of identical slasher-esque teens with floppy hair is a crushing disappointment.

Although, let’s give a warm Census Bloodbath shoutout to Donna Wilkes of 1980’s Schizoid!

There is more to Jaws 2 than the uncomfortable marriage of small town drama and teen horror, but precious little more. While Chief Brody does the old “man who cried shark” soft shoe, he finds himself at the receiving end of some mildly amusing dialogue, and the devastated townsfolk are for the most part well-acted. It’s not a slog to sit through, and if you bob along with your brain turned off, you will make it through to the end just fine.

That’s far from strong praise, but it’s the best I can do. Unlike its titular sea beast, Jaws 2 is pretty toothless. It drops any and all pretense of actually being a horror film (though it does keep the faux-grindhouse ending that cuts to credits with brutal efficiency the second the threat is vanquished), and that tonally flat presentation mauls any sense of tension.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the shark menacing this film’s shores looks downright terrible. Even with the added crutch of a scorch mark across the shark’s face, it rings incredibly false, all emotionless rubber and endlessly gnashing teeth. Unfortunately, director Jeannot Szwarc (of the similarly lauded Supergirl) is no Steven Spielberg, and he flails when he tries to walk the tightrope of suggestion: trying to imply the beast’s size and strength without actually showing it requires an actual vision.

The shark might as well be played by an oven mitt with googly eyes, but the alternative is worse. The shots of people thrashing about in the water are much too wide, exposing the fact that, unless the shark is nibbling on their toes, there’s actually no way a fish that huge is touching the person in the shot. It’s all just desperate artifice without a solid story to hold it all together.

And the villain looks more like a hot dog with teeth than a shark.

Jaws 2 certainly isn’t the worst sequel in the world. At least it’s faithful to the universe it takes place in and the characters who live there (the same could not be said for the likes of the abominable Exorcist II: The Heretic, released just one year prior). Unfortunately, it’s a charmless waste of time. I know Spielberg makes everything look easy, but you wouldn’t think it’d be such a challenge to make a big budget shark attack movie into something that’s actually fun to watch.

TL;DR: Jaws 2 is mildly entertaining but completely fails to even attempt to compete with the excitement of the original Jaws.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1024
Reviews In This Series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Census Flashback: High School Mayhem

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 Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which a high school kid suits up and fights crime. In honor of its release, I’ll be reviewing a Brad Pitt slasher about deadly crimes at a high school: Cutting Class. Does the Sexiest Man Alive have what it takes to STAY alive?

Year: 1989
Director: Rospo Pallenberg
Cast: Donovan Leitch, Jill Schoelen, Brad Pitt
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1989 was the last gasp of the slasher golden age, churning out as many half-baked slice-em-ups as humanly possible, despite the MPAA’s crackdown on gory movies. The slashers of the year had essentially split into two camps: crazy last-ditch gimmicks and self-parody. While Cutting Class isn’t tonally tight or incisive like the far superior Return to Horror High, it’s certainly a flimsy stab at the latter.

One thing Cutting Class has going for it is its cast: almost every single person from the leads on down has had enough success to afford to include a headshot on their IMDb profile, a luxury very few Census Bloodbath entries can boast. That doesn’t mean they’re good, but at least they’re professional, and that definitely counts for something.

And also one of them is LITERALLY Brad Pitt.

Here is the plot those headshots are asked to play out. High school overachiever Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen of The Stepfather) has the house to herself when her D.A. dad (Martin Mull, who is incredible in a lot of things, but especially Clue, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Arrested Development) goes out for a weeklong hunting trip.

She wants to use this time for incessant studying, but her jock boyfriend Dwight (Brad F**king Pitt) has other ideas. She resists his libidinous advances, but agrees to get dragged into high school hijinks with their beer-swilling friends Gary (Mark Barnet) and Colleen (Brenda James). Unfortunately the people around her begin to disappear at the hands of an unseen murderer. Is it the creepy Brian (Donovan Leitch of The Blob), who was just released from a five year stint at a mental institution after cutting the brakes on his father’s car? The leering principal Mr. Dante (Roddy McDowall, having a great time)? The schizophrenic, philosophizing janitor Schultz (Robert Glaudini)?

Meanwhile, Martin Mull has been shot with an arrow, and spends literally the entire remainder of the film on an allegedly wacky quest to get back home through the swamp. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally sat on your remote and changed the channel every 15 minutes or so.

Cue the tuba music.

Cutting Class’ wackiness is the only thing that differentiates it from the pack, but it’s also its downfall. Although there are mildly amusing interstitial scenes like a student haggling over a 50 cent ticket or the incredibly weird janitor smoking a joint, most of the comedy comes in the form of half-assed Breakfast Club antics that endlessly vomit forth with no sense of urgency. And then there’s Martin Mull over there, who seems to be wading through some kind of long-lost Caddyshack sequel.

All this unfunny business drastically undercuts the tension, and the kills are too few and far between (and mostly bloodless) to hold your attention. Cutting Class drifts like an unmoored yacht, smashing into scene after scene with brute force and no apparent direction until the final 20 minutes.

But oh, what a final 20 minutes they are! They pull out all the stops so smoothly it almost makes you feel as if the entire movie had been perfectly tuned to lead up to this sparkling crescendo (spoiler: it wasn’t). It’s ladled with so much bonkers 80’s cheese that it drowns out all the memories of anemic horror, inconsistent character motivations, and crushingly repetitive scenes of Paula trying to study.

If the entire movie matched the manic energy of the killer’s reveal (a bizarrely twisted explanatation that’s exactly what you expected but so much more, delivered with a Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 level of wooden fervor), the Saw-esque math problem death trap, and the battle in the woodshop, Cutting Class would be without a doubt the greatest slasher entry of the year.

Not that Jason Takes Manhattan was much competition.

Unfortunately, we do have that full hour of teenybopper nonsense to contend with. And while this cast is well above the standard for slashers at the time, that’s still a perilously low bar. Jill Schoelen, for one, delivers all her lines like she’s murmuring them in her sleep, and not even Brad Pitt shines. For one thing, his character is a raging asshole that he probably wouldn’t even be able to redeem now as a veteran actor. Seriously, Dwight is the freaking worst, and its hard to get on board with his late-film stint as the heroic boyfriend.

If an asshole saves the day and there’s nobody around who cares, is he still a hero?

Frankly, I wouldn’t care if you played hooky on Cutting Class. It’s a minor amusement from the dregs of the decade, and you definitely do worse, but it’s just not as fun as it wants to be. The flop sweat is overpowering, and only the most hardcore of Brad Pitt or slasher fans should consider making the approach.

Killer: Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch)
Final Girl: Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen)
Best Kill: The physical and motivationally preposterous scene where Coach Harris is bouncing idly on a trampoline until a flag is placed underneath him, on which he impales himself.
Sign of the Times: Brad Pitt gets third billing behind Jill Schoelen, for crying out loud.
Scariest Moment: Colleen sees her boyfriend killed in front of her and her screams are drowned out by the marching band.
Weirdest Moment: Roddy McDowall’s final onscreen appearance is during a backstage auditorium chase scene where Brad Pitt walks in on him trying on a powdered wig full of fruit.
Champion Dialogue: “Have you ever felt my tingle?”
Body Count: 7
  1. Mr. Conklin is baked in a kiln.
  2. Gary has his throat slit.
  3. Colleen is killed offscreen.
  4. Mrs. Knocht has her head slammed into the copy machine.
  5. Coach Harris is impaled on an American flag.
  6. Mr. Glynn is axed to death.
  7. Bryan has the short end of a hammer buried in his head and is buzz sawed in the back.
TL;DR: Cutting Class is a mildly bemusing but gormless slasher that's at least slightly redeemed by its bonkers ending.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1099

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My, What Big Teeth You Have

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

Year: 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

It’s Independence Day! For someone who dislikes hot dogs, medically can’t view fireworks, and has no discernible patriotic spirit, there’s no better way to celebrate the occasion than by kicking off a marathon of the Jaws quadrilogy! As per usual on this here blog, there’s no specific time frame for the next couple reviews, but keep your ear to the ground!

The other three Jaws flicks are but a drop in the bucket of the 1975 Steven Spielberg flick’s legacy, which includes Piranha, Alien, about half of Italy’s cinematic output between 1976 and 1983, and – oh yeah – the entire concept of blockbuster filmmaking as we know it. That’s a lot to hang on a little movie adapted from a Peter Benchley pulp novel about a giant fish. But, like its titular Great White, Jaws is strong enough to carry the weight.

That is, when it’s actually working.

Jaws starts off as an oceanbound slasher movie and sticks in that vein for a lot longer than people give it credit for (though in 1975, people wouldn’t exactly have had the parlance to recognize it as such, having only Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, and the Canadian import Black Christmas to look to). Off the coast of Amity Island, a skinny dipping co-ed (Susan Backlinie) becomes a midnight snack for a mysterious unseen creature heralded by John Williams’ twitchy minimalist title theme. The island’s police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches immediately, but the town’s cocksure mayor (Murray Hamilton) insists that they remain open for the Fourth of July weekend – Amity’s biggest tourist season.

Thus the aquatic beast – a gargantuan Great White shark – is allowed the opportunity to feast on a three course meal of unsuspecting Amity-ites. After enough is very thoroughly proven to be enough, Brody takes to the seas with the sardonic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the grizzled sea captain/cartoon character Quint (Robert Shaw) to attempt to defeat the beast once and for all.

Or at least until they box office starts skyrocketing and they ship in another one.

Jaws made me jump. During an underwater investigation scene, I – a jaded horror veteran – was freaked out by a movie that’s over 40 years old. Honestly, I should end the review right there, that’s recommendation enough. But I have standards to uphold and so we press on.

For its first hour, Jaws is a perfect thriller machine. Spielberg’s tendencies toward the maudlin actually blend rather well with the 70’s grindhouse vein the film inhabits more than it lets on. Not only is a little boy devoured by a shark, but we get a deeply perfect shot of the masses scrambling out of the water, exiting the frame until just one bereaved mother is left on the sand. His short, sharp shocks are immediately followed by languid moments of emotion that grind your nose into how grim and grubby the situation is.

This all culminates in the most grindhousey ending possible: cutting to credits almost the very second the threat is defeated; and therein lies the problem with the second half of the movie. While the first half lives and dies on the colorful residents of Amity and their even more colorful demises, Jaws’ second hour is a pared-down potboiler focusing in on our three heroes. All that energy and tension now lies on the shoulders of a cartoon character, one of blockbuster cinema’s most boring protagonists (yeah I said it, sue me), and an admittedly great comic relief character attempting to fill the gaping void between the two.

You did what you could, Hoops.

Frankly, the third act is a bit of a slog, bouncing between solid action sequences and aimless filler for an exhausting stretch of time. For what it’s worth, you really do feel like you’ve been sitting on a boat for a day and a half. And I understand that many people enjoy every last minute of the film, and I am loathe to take that away from them. For me, it just falls a teensy bit flat.

Of course no amount of complaining could possibly take away from Jaws’ titanic and earned reputation. It’s a remarkably well-crafted thriller with showstopping effects (when they worked) and chilling implications of danger when they didn’t. Other than the unwise decision to hang the back half on the characters they did, there’s not a hole in Jaws’ construction, from the dialogue right on down to the music. 

And John Williams is in rare form here, composing a relatively restrained theme that transposes his typical bombast into a tightly controlled minimalist crescendo. While nothing else in the score remotely matches the majesty of the title theme, it’s such a tremendous piece of work that it’s hard to mind.

Jaws isn’t Spielberg’s best. It’s not Williams’ best. It’s nobody’s best. But it’s a magnificent creature produced by a team of incredible talents with supreme mastery of their craft. It’s a delight to watch even all these years later, and it has heartily earned its gargantuan status.

TL;DR: Jaws is a well-constructed thriller with a weak third act that doesn't quite sink its massive heft.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 897
Reviews In This Series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)