Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Single White Psycho

Year: 1980
Director: Gordon Willis
Cast: Talia Shire, Joe Cortese, Elizabeth Ashley
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1980 really was a rip-roaring year for controversial queer films, positioning every facet of the spectrum as the raging psychopath of their very own slasher. There was no bisexual killer, because nobody seemed to have recognized that they existed yet, but a gay man rampaged through Cruising, a transsexual sliced and diced in Dressed to Kill, and completing the trifecta is Windows, about a lesbian maniac also wreaking havoc in New York City.

Because of the status lesbians hold in pop culture, Windows is much more of a psychosexual erotic thriller than a slasher, which is the reason I hadn’t covered it until now. And boy do I wish I hadn’t loosened my restrictions, because this movie was a capital S Slog.

I really do think I qualify for sainthood with the patience I’ve displayed during this project.

In Windows, we follow the story of newly divorced Emily Hollander (Talia Shire), who still works with her ex-husband at a… museum? It’s not actually clear what her job is, because she never goes to it and the only aspect of her personality the movie wants to explore is the fact that she has a stutter. One night a shadowy assailant breaks into her apartment and holds her at knifepoint, forcing her to strip off and make moaning noises, which he tape records.

Immediately, her kindly neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) rushes to her side, but Emily just wants to be left alone. Actually, we can only assume that they’re neighbors from the synopsis on the back of the box, because it is in no way clear where Andrea lives or how they know each other. They’re just piddling details in the story of the Stutter. Emily moves apartments and strikes up a relationship with Bob (Joe Cortese of Evilspeak), the detective who has been assigned to her case.

[SPOILERS, not that you should care] This ignites the jealous rage of Andrea, who is madly in love with Emily and hired the man who assaulted her so she could get a tape of her sex noises. She holes up in a loft across the river, where she spies on Emily with a telescope, killing anybody who comes between them.

And by that, I mean two totally unrelated characters who have barely a minute of screen time each.

Let’s kick this thing off by saying something nice. Windows, as the first and only directorial feature of The Godfather and Annie Hall cinematographer Gordon Willis, is very beautifully shot (Willis also lensed Windows, pulling double duty). The opening shot turns a walkway tunnel into a twirling kaleidoscope of color and silhouette, and his frequent exterior shots of the windows of Emily’s apartment are just plain gorgeous. And… that’s the absolute last good thing I have to say about Windows.

First of all, it’s not a true slasher by any definition. The kills – all two of them – are bundled offscreen in a  misguided attempt at class. But that’s the least of it. Windows is barely a movie. In addition to the murders, every single interesting thing about this plot happens off-camera: Emily’s divorce, her introduction to Andrea, the inception of her new romance, and so on and so forth. Perhaps it’s an experiment to see what would happen if you composed a movie out of only deleted scenes, but either way it’s a spectacular failure. Characters aren’t established, the plot is a nonentity, and the whole affair is a tremendous waste of time.

The only thing you have to cling to for dear life is Emily’s stutter, which the movie is convinced is something that makes her weak somehow. Seriously, Windows seems to think that Emily is just as impaired and imperiled as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s deaf, blind, and mute character in Eyes of a Stranger. There is no tension, no discernible threat for at least an hour, and no reason to care one whit about any of the three or four characters that drift aimlessly across the screen. It’s like watching an old Windows screensaver for 96 minutes. 

Actually, come to think of it, maybe that’s how they got the title.

Windows slips into one scene after another like an endless series of nightcaps, starting off relaxed but getting blearier and more disjointed as it moves along. I can’t stress enough how literally nothing happens in the plot. I sat through an hour and a half of this and all I can remember are the first and final scenes. Windows is extravagantly boring. If it was a case of style over substance, that would be one thing. It does have the capacity to be pretty, but that’s not exactly a defining feature of the thing. Style is still technically over substance, but it has already leapt off the cliff. Substance is at rock bottom, and style is following close behind. It’s all relative.

When it comes to erotic thrillers, even Sorority House Massacre II is an improvement on Windows. It might be so bad that you can literally see the ketchup bottle squirting out the blood, but at least there is blood. And frankly, the “erotic’ element barely comes into play either. Windows Iisso stiflingly demure about everything it wants to be that it ends up being nothing.

It’s not erotic. It’s not a thriller. It’s not a slasher. It’s certainly not a sensitive depiction of the lesbian lifestyle. It’s not worth your time.

You’d be better off just staring out the nearest window for two hours. Wherever you happen to be, whatever’s out there is guaranteed to be more interesting than this film, even if it’s just your faint reflection in the glass.

Killer: Andrea Glassen (Elizabeth Ashley)
Final Girl: Emily Hollander (Talia Shire)
Best Kill: C’mon. Not freaking applicable.
Sign of the Times: Emily has to cross an entire room to answer the phone.
Scariest Moment: Emily’s attacker randomly appears back at her apartment, shoving his arm through the door.
Weirdest Moment: Emily has like 80 books about stuttering on her shelf.
Champion Dialogue: “Please... don't hurt me. Please... don't hurt me. Please... don't hurt me. Please... don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. Please. Please. Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me. Please.”
Body Count: 2
  1. Sam is killed offscreen.
  2. Andrea’s Shrink is stabbed offscreen.
TL;DR: Windows is one of the most boring, demurely unsensational erotic thrillers ever made.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1090

Friday, August 25, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: La Movida

As our Almodóvar marathon draws ever nearer to its conclusion, let’s review three consecutive films from his early period, roughshod works born from La Movida: the progressive Spanish punk scene that formed in Madrid following the death of the dictatorial, conservative King Franco.

Labyrinth of Passion

Year: 1982
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Imanol Arias, Helga Liné 
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A gay Tehrani prince and a nymphomaniac rock starlet fall in love within the hustle and bustle of Madrid, surrounded by interlocking stories of passion, sex, and rock ‘n roll.

Just two years after his messy but promising debut with Pepi, Luci, Bom, Pedro Almodóvar proved with Labyrinth of Passion that his early period of trial and error would be like no other. Although he wouldn’t achieve true greatness until 1987’s Law of Desire, all the ingredients that he would use throughout his career can be found in Labyrinth.

The absurd kinkiness delivered with a casual shrug that defines most of the director’s best works is at full bore here, with the farcical plot twisting around pharmaceutically-induced incest, a hilariously hard-up psychoanalyst, and a beachside flashback that in one fell swoop delivers upon two characters their nymphomania, daddy issues, and homosexuality, with the implication that a bunch of kids are about to have an orgy. It’s ribald. It’s excessive. It’s La Movida.

Although the plot is certainly more lucid and coherent than Pepi, Luci, Bom, Labyrinth takes frequent breaks from juggling its sixteen or so characters to indulge in a prolonged exploration of the fashion and music of Almodóvar’s Madrid (including two extended cameos of the director himself, alongside musical collaborator Fanny McNamara) Frankly, it’s not compelling filmmaking, but it’s a fascinating cultural document that helps you understand exactly where the man and his unique approach to cinema came from.

But even if it’s not on a whole one of his masterworks, Labyrinth of Passion shows an astonishing vertical leap in Almodóvar’s sense of style. Although his increased budget was still relatively small, he found much more freedom in creating a universe filled with bold colors and retro pop art designs. It’s a beautiful-looking movie, bursting fully formed from the visual imagination of an aesthetic genus.

And it’s damn funny. Almodóvar’s fast-talking, effortlessly cool characters deliver incredibly clever dialogue as if it were the easiest thing in the world. It’s a loving, hilarious portrait of a world burgeoning with life, and even though it’s still a bit slapdash and all-over-the-place, it’s a wonderful showcase of exactly what the young director was capable of.

Rating: 7/10

Dark Habits

Year: 1983
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cristina Sánchez Pascual, Will More, Laura Cepeda 
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

A heroin-addicted nightclub singer takes refuge in a convent, which is run by nuns who turn out to be just as sinful as she is.

Dark Habits contains the seeds of just about everything that would come to define Almodóvar’s alter work. Absurdly casual kink and blasphemy, loosely scripted melodrama with a pinch of ironic comedy and an enclosed world dominated by a group of diverse women.

It even features many key players who would come to define his key ensemble: Consummate cranky mother Chus Lampreave (as Sister Rat, who secretly writes porn in her spare time), 80’s muse Carmen Maura (as the bongo-playing Sister Damned, who cares for the convent’s pet tiger), The Flower of My Secret star Marisa Paredes (as the pious Sister Manure, who physically punishes herself every chance she gets and takes LSD to get hallucinations of the divine), the matronly Julieta Serrano (as the heroin-addicted lesbian Mother Superior), and All About My Mother heavy-hitter Cecilia Roth (as Mercedes, a drug-dealing former nun).

Unfortunately Dark Habits is mostly defined by those iconic Almodóvar qualities that it lacks. Aside from Serrano and Lampreave, the other ensemble actresses play very minor pars, and the crux of the plot lays on the shoulder of Cristina Sanchez, the wife of the producer. Although she played minor roles in Almodóvar’s two previous films (as “Bearded Lady” and “Eusebio’s girlfriend”), it’s obvious he didn’t find an inspiring figure in her as a lead, and the film’s emotional center is lopsided because of it.

Also, the technical quality here is extremely poor. Almodóvar was still building up his mastery of film aesthetic (which begins to rear its head a the party setpiece in the third act), but the kinks he had to work out include such major factors as sound and cinematography. There are entire scenes that are incomprehensibly muffled, and though he has fun with lighting during his chapel scenes, not even the most forgiving viewer would find the camerawork comparable to Bad Education, or even Law of Desire, which came a mere four years later.

It’s fine to spend time with these charming nuns, but the melodrama never coheres into a legible whole (entirely new plot developments are still unspooling five minutes from the end) and it’s a little too long for such a meandering hang-out movie. I love me some nuns gone wild, but an Almodóvar half a decade later could have made something much more moving and satisfying out of this very same premise.

Rating: 6/10

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Year: 1984
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Carmen Maura, Gonzalo Suárez, Luis Hostalot 
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The lives of a downtrodden housewife, a dominatrix, an alcoholic writer, an impotent policeman, a lizard, and a  telekinetic little girl intertwine in a Madrid apartment complex.

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (aka ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, which is not any easier to type) is the worst Almodóvar film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen all but four at the time I’m writing this. It’s the only one I’ve considered giving a score that isn’t even marginally positive, but as I was flipping through my notes I realized something. This movie is freaking hilarious.

The big standout is Chus Lampreave (playing essentially the same role as her peak performance in The Flower of My Secret, in which she’s lucky enough to get to play off the incredible Rossy de Palma, who the Almodóvar ensemble acquired in 1987). Her batty old mother schtick never gets old, but she has some especially sharp moments here, and her relationship with a lizard she finds in a park might just be the emotional lynchpin of the entire film.

And although Carmen Maura is limited by her character being the center of the “tragi-“ half of this tragicomic film, she still brings a blustery detachment to some of the director’s kinkiest scenes yet that makes them even funnier. You can’t not giggle as she makes a quick buck by sitting next to an exhibitionist going at it with her prostitute neighbor, still clutching the groceries she walked in with, bored out of her mind. And out of all the casual kink of Almodóvar’s early work, nothing can beat the brutally businesslike transaction where she lets her son be adopted by a pedophile dentist because she can’t afford to get him a new crown. It’s dark as hell, but not a single character sees it that way, and that’s the perverse magic of this director, especially during his boundary-pushing Movida period.

So yes, it’s funny. It’s just not much of anything else. The final scenes are incredibly moving, but for the most part the story keeps you at arm’s length, all the while being incredibly confusing. The interlocking story combines autobiographical elements (Almodóvar’s time as a letter writer in his home village is reflected here), vintage kink, a family drama instinct that will eventually pupate into Volver, and a bunch of scattered odds and ends of characters who pretty much amount to nothing (including a telekinetic little girl who should’ve had more than three minutes of screen time), which all jostle for attention in a harried mush.

There are feints toward the cinematic artistry that Almodóvar would truly manifest in Law of Desire, like the lizard named Money who arrives in a time of chaos, metaphorically representing every character’s tangled motivation. But the limitations of the set make this a very static, almost neorealist movie, and that approach is too inherently lifeless to benefit from the director’s particular talents. It’s a noble mess, but a mess nonetheless, and not one that I would feel particularly keen to revisit.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1075

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Fashion Victim

Year: 1980
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes 
MPAA Rating: R

The slasher genre in 1980 was full of belated riffs on Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slashterpiece Psycho, from the sleazy motel settings of Silent Scream and The Unseen to the All-American killers of Fade to Black and Schizoid. Hell, Don’t Go in the House is literally about a mother-obsessed killer who takes orders from her corpse and murders women in his secluded home. But if you want to see a Hitch rip-off done right, look no further than his premier acolyte Brian De Palma.

De Palma’s 1980 feature Dressed to Kill almost doesn’t count as a slasher movie. The body count is anemic, and if the investigation into a single murder qualified a film as a slasher, we’d be stuck reviewing hundreds of crappy whodunits and nobody wants that. But Dressed to Kill is so eagerly, flamboyantly translating Psycho for the modern era that there’s no way it could be excluded. If you haven’t seen Psycho, tread no further, because the spoilers are instant and abundant.

Anthony Perkins was an alien the whole time!

From the first-act murder of the apparent main character to the transvestite villain to the Dr. Explain-o character who arrives at the end to dump a heaping pile of exposition for the slower members of the audience, Dressed to Kill doesn’t just pay homage to Hitchcock’s film. It mugs it, beats it to a pulp, and rummages through the pockets of its broken, bleeding form, feverishly searching for another fix of suspense. It’s tarted up with certain, more 80’s-oriented details, blood, and nudity, but it’s a bald-faced, brazen act of copycatting.

When frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is slashed to death by an enraged transvestite, the only witness and prime suspect is high-end escort Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). In order to clear her name, Liz teams up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) to solve the murder. They start by investigating the records of her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who ahs been receiving threatening phone calls from a transsexual ex-patient of his but has hidden this fact from the police.

He’s the doctor Kate deserves, but not the one she needs right now.

Fortunately, one good thing Dressed to Kill has going for it is that of the very few contemporary directors with the chops to remix Hitchcock, De Palma is one of the best. He brings enough of his own personality and aesthetic to the table that it frequently doesn't feel like a trite imitation, which is really something of a miracle.

De Palma’s chilly, precise style is more or less the defining feature of Dressed to Kill, a film that’s intrinsically about surfaces and how they reflect and refract reality. The fractured identity of the killer is represented by the use of deliberately placed mirrors in the corners of shots, giving us a distorted second angle of the character in the frame. On top of that, we get a bunch of gooey cinematic gloss that glides right off the screen, from the director’s signature split-screen effect (which he only utilizes once, though frequently some element in a single frame like a wall or a doorway will also act as an in-shot splitting device) to an elegantly-timed series of smash cuts.

Dressed to Kill finds a cinematic master at the top of his game, so much so that you almost don’t notice the tawdry, shallow nature of the plot. I really don’t want to launch into a political diatribe and I won’t, except to say that the transsexual antagonist is a blatant case of vilifying the Other that lacks the relative sensitivity and/or lampshading that makes it slightly easier to swallow a film like Silence of the Lambs. But even beyond that, Nancy Allen is a protagonist with very little agency, being yanked through a plot that could have easily gone on without her. A plot which also ends ten minutes too late, going all-in on a tacky shock gag that lessens the film’s impact and drains every last drop of energy the film has accumulated.

But Nancy Allen gets naked, so apparently this scene’s presence is justified.

Dressed to Kill certainly boasts its share of suspense, especially in the central setpiece of Kate’s murder in an elevator. The deliberate pacing and gorgeous cinematography are reminiscent of the best of the Italian giallo, and this approach works wonders once more in a scene set in the flickering, claustrophobic interior of a subway train.

Occasionally, this pacing will hit a snag and drag on a bit too long, like in the part-stalking, part-seduction sequence set in a museum (this scene is also littered with completely inscrutable, unmotivated actions that dilute whatever emotion its attempting to convey), but for the most part Dressed to Kill is a tightly-wound thriller working with clockwork precision.

It’s far from a perfect film, and I’m not tempted to retroactively add it to my Best of 1980 list, but it is nonetheless a movie without peer in its station within the rise of the slasher. This kind of glamorous, upscale approach to the subgenre would become quite common in the early 90’s (Sleeping with the Enemy, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct), but at the time the idea of a slasher rising from the gutter of grindhouse cheapies was a far-off dream.

Dressed to Kill is a contradiction: ahead of its time and tragically retrograde, classy and tactless, a cheap rip-off and an aesthetic triumph. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely unique, and that’s always worth something,

Killer: Bobbi [(Michael Caine)]
Final Girl: Liz (Nancy Allen)
Best Kill: It’s not like there’s really a choice here, but the elevator slashing is quite gorgeous.
Sign of the Times: Kate’s conquest has a newfangled digital clock that’s s elaborate it looks like a nuclear device.
Scariest Moment: Liz is chased through the subway by a gang, leading her right into the arms of the killer.
Weirdest Moment: Kate tries to convince her son that the general Napoleon invented the baked good napoleon.
Champion Dialogue: “You’ve got a lot better motivation than I do: your ass.”
Body Count: 2
  1. Kate Miller is slashed to death with a straight razor.
  2. Nurse is choked to death.
TL;DR: Dressed to Kill is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but the plot is a downright shambles with a tasteless core.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1075

Monday, August 21, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Sometimes Aunt Cheryl Does Dreadful Things

Year: 1982
Director: William Asher
Cast: Jimmy McNichol, Susan Tyrrell, Bo Svenson
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Like many an 80’s slasher, our movie for today is known by multiple titles. Although the litany of monikers includes Momma’s Boy, The Evil Protégé, and Thrilled to Death, the two most common ones are Night Warning and the inarguably more evocative Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter which you choose, considering that none of them are applicable to a scrap of the film they claim to describe. Although one title clearly stands out above the others, to avoid my typing fingers cramping up, we’ll be referring to the film as Night Warning from here on out.

So now, without further ado, from the director of Beach Blanket Bingo and hundreds of episodes of Bewitched and I Love Lucy… a slasher movie called Night Warning!

This’ll be great, I can feel it.

So, here’s the plot. After his parents were killed in a suspicious car accident, high school senior Billy (Jimmy McNichol) was raised by his neurotic Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) in Flagstaff, Arizona. When his basketball coach (Steve Eastin, who played a cop in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) tells him about the impending visit of a scholarship scout from the University of Denver, he is thrilled because that means he might get to go to the same school as his devoted girlfriend Julie (Julia Duffy, also of Wacko). This sends Cheryl into a nervous breakdown.

Desperately trying to find a new man of the house, she attempts to seduce TV repairman Phil Brody (the delightfully named Caskey Swaim, who played the non-murderous paramedic in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning). When he resists her sweaty, shrill advances, she stabs him to death and claims he tried to rape her. Although she’s half-telling the truth, local Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) is a racist, homophobic, just kind of general trash bag, who discovers that Brody and the Coach were in a homosexual relationship, so he assumes that Billy was involved in a deadly love triangle and his Aunt is covering for him.

After that, kinda nothing happens for 40 minutes until a cadre of suspicious individuals descend on the house in the third act. That’s what you get for not building in a pool of body count victims.

Three screenwriters contributed to this film, and apparently not one of them could be bothered to crack open a Friday the 13th for research.

Night Warning is dominated by one thing and one thing only, and that is Susan Tyrrell. Her bravura performance is so gleefully, whole-heartedly bugnuts that it towers over everything else, casting a long shadow over the tepid high school drama. Her deranged, bulging eyes and fidgety physicality make for a perfectly wonderful villain, though it might be a bit of a stretch to call the performance “good.”

Her chopped-back hair creates an off-kilter silhouette and she’s always framed behind shots of kitchen knives looming ominously on the counter. She melodramatically smears blood across everyone and everything in her shrilly incestuous path of destruction, dropping Champion Dialogue-worthy lines like “Don’t go to school anymore. You’ve learned enough, and it’s full of perverts!” like delirious bread crumbs every three minutes.

If they made an inspirational wall calendar of Aunt Cheryl quotes, I’d be the first in line.

The only second that comes even close to reaching her is Detective Carlson, who is a hilariously bitter amalgam of the worst stereotypes of small-town bigotry. His blatant homophobia and racism are made bearable only by the film’s tone, which clearly hoists him to the status of a secondary villain. The film’s portrait of its actual gay character is reasonably sensitive: the Coach is masculine, not a pedophile, and caring – a victim of an evil man who doesn’t deserve the vile scrutiny he’s being put under.

Night Warning allows you to laugh at Carlson, and it also asks us – rightly – to be terrified of the possible violent consequences of his closed-mindedness. So the movie certainly does not want for compelling antagonists. But everything else is just kind of… there.

At least it’s well lit enough that I can see it. I’ll take what I can get.

The kills are bloodless and tedious, taking too long to ramp up and never really delivering a satisfying pay-off, and the plot is too aimless to drum up any sort of sustained suspense. Frankly, Night Warning is a complete hash of a slasher. The deranged character study at the center is what keeps it from total system failure, and even that can’t be bothered to hook itself to any truly compelling psychology. It’s just high-energy weirdness, a sugar rush that fades much too soon.

Plus, other than the fresh and sleazy opening flashback, there isn’t really a defining aesthetic to the film. It trots along through the drab grey interiors without a flair in the world. Even the title card is a half-assed affair, flashing onscreen so briefly that it feels almost like a subliminal message. Nobody whose named wasn’t Tyrrell cared about this movie, and thus that performance feels like a dazzling gem carelessly discarded in the gutter, wrapped in a bit of used tissue. At no point is it especially bad. It’s just thoroughly underwhelming.

Killer: Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell)
Final Girl: Billy (Jimmy McNichol)
Best Kill: Billy’s Dad’s head is Final Destinationed by a log that falls off the back of a truck.
Sign of the Times: A bully in a crop top has the gall to imply that Billy is the one who seems gay.
Scariest Moment: Cheryl hisses “I’m your girlfriend now,” to Billy.
Weirdest Moment: The end credits feature a scroll describing what the surviving characters are up to, as if this were a college movie.
Champion Dialogue: “College is for rich kids and people with brains. You wouldn’t fit in there.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Dad has his head smashed with a log.
  2. Mom falls off a cliff in a car, which explodes.
  3. Phil Brody is stabbed in the neck.
  4. Margie is axed in the stomach.
  5. Officer Cook is axed to death. 
  6. Cheryl is impaled on a fireplace poker.
  7. Detective Carlson is shot to death.
TL;DR: Night Warning is a thin slasher with lame kills that hinges entirely on a truly demented pair of antagonists.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1065

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Census Flashback: Afterthoughts

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, the last week of Census Flashback, we’re anticipating the dregs of the summer season: Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. In honor of this last gasp of the project, we’ll be reviewing a movie that isn’t even an 80’s slasher, but completes the mini-marathon we’ve been running within this very segment: the 1990 sequel Psycho IV: The Beginning.

Year: 1990
Director: Mick Garris
Cast: Anthony Perkins, CCH Pounder, Henry Thomas
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

And so goes the mighty slasher franchise. Norman Bates, the granddaddy of the genre whose crimes have spanned decades and been helmed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch’s foremost Aussie acolyte, and then eventually Bates himself, finds his fourth and final outing to be a TV movie. It’s nauseating. Mind you, this wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Norman Bates in the 90’s, and the TV movie is actually quite good, but still. How undignified.

Mother would be furious.

The movie joins late night radio host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) in the middle of her call-in criminal psychology show “The Mother Killers: Boys Who Kill Their Mothers.” In a moment of serendipity so perfect it’s almost like some screenwriter wrote it that way. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the next caller. He wants to tell his story so people will understand why he killed his mother… and why he’ll kill again tonight. While Fran and her producers scramble to figure out where he is and who he’s targeting, Norman tells the story of the events leading up to his matricide.

As a young man, Norman (played as a teen by Henry Thomas and in one scene as a child by Ryan Finnegan) lives alone with his mother (Olivia Hussey), with whom he has a tempestuous relationship. His burgeoning sexuality is twisted by his needy mother, who alternately eggs him on and punishes him for his lust. When his mother starts dating local bartender Chet (Tom Schuster), Norman’s complex about his libido ignites in the face of his pious mother’s lustful hypocrisy.

Also, young Norman wanders around shirtless for like 90% of the movie.

I don’t like prequels, for the most part. There’s something intrinsically stagnant about the way that the character arc dumps you in a place you’re already intimately familiar with. But Psycho IV, for the most part, does it right. The only reason the “present day” angle is there is to squeeze in a few more moments with Tony Perkins without taxing him too much, but tying Norman’s past with his current condition allows the story a bit of freedom to go unexpected places and further flesh out the character.

And even if the flashback segments don’t provide much new insight, Mick Garris directs them with a flair that’s of a piece with the other two sequels. I’m especially fond of the transitions between past and present that use matching elements – sometimes including Norman himself – to create a distinct visual fluidity. And those scenes in the past have a palette to die for, with soaring candy colors emphasizing Norman’s youth and vitality.

And shirtlessness.

Plus, while I wouldn’t call the casting “brilliant,” it’s at least deeply weird – which it needs to be. Henry Thomas is a compelling presence, capturing Tony Perkins' entrancing all-American charm, with more than a hint of tumultuous eccentricity surging beneath the surface. And while Olivia Hussey in no way matches the version of Norman’s mother the other films have presented, her dubiously-accented rendition is pitched right over the top in a deliriously effective way, providing the feeling of Norman’s relationship with his mother more than the look or sound of any previous actress.

Hussey is perhaps even more unpredictable than her already unstable character, turning even the simple act of drinking iced tea into a three-minute odyssey of bizarre psychosexual mania. She commands the screen, demanding every last ounce of your attention through pure weirdness.

But soft, what light through yonder lunatic breaks?

It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than a made-for-TV third sequel really has any right to be. Mind you, this was made-for-Showtime, so some of the limitations of TV horror are avoided. There aren’t boobs and blood galore, but there’s enough to remind you that the spirit of the 80’s hadn’t quite died yet.

Really, nothing in Psycho IV is bad. There’s a hell of a lot that’s underwhelming, but there’s a distinct difference. For one thing, there’s no conclusion to the CCH Pounder storyline. Personally, I found it the most compelling part of the movie: a lazy night shift is suddenly plunged into chaos by the introduction of a deadly mystery. That’s exactly what I want to stumble across on TV at 2 in the morning. The efforts of the radio crew to keep Norman on the line and eke out details of his plan are essentially the driving force behind whatever narrative this loose collection of vignettes has, but they vanish as soon as he finishes his story, revealing themselves as the cheap framing device they truly were.

Psycho IV deflates like an unknotted balloon, forgetting everything that made it interesting and contorting the final ten minutes into an effects showcase that quite conspicuously avoids actually damaging the Psycho house in any way (Universal Studios would have had a fit), despite that being the only possible conclusion to this particular narrative.

It tiptoes to the finale of a story that has until that point been pretty fearlessly nutty. The disappointing ending isn’t enough to deflate a startlingly solid film, but it does show its hand as the weakest of the Psycho entries. But it’s hard to complain. Four films deep, it should’ve been impossible to make a movie this ultimately satisfying, but they did it against all odds.

Killer: Young Norman Bates (Henry Thomas)
Final Girl: Connie Bates (Donna Mitchell)
Best Kill: The only brutal kill here is CCH Pounder’s plotline, which is ruthlessly murdered.
Sign of the Times: People still listened to the radio.
Scariest Moment: The sound overlay just before the end credits. No spoilers, but it’s a brutal gut punch of an implication.
Weirdest Moment: Norman’s mom tickles him at his dad’s funeral.
Champion Dialogue: “You’ve got a tongue like an elephant’s memory.”
Body Count: 4
  1. Holly is stabbed to death.
  2. Gloria is garroted and drowned.
  3. Chet is poisoned.
  4. Norma Bates is poisoned.
TL;DR: Psycho IV: The Beginning is as good as a TV movie Psycho prequel could ever hope to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1116
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris, 1990)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Toronto Is Burning

Year: 1987
Director: Robert Bouvier
Cast: David Adamson, Lee Ann Nestegard, Edward Chester
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In my non-blogging time, I’ve been doing a bit of a unit on LGBT horror films, for my own personal edification. But as you may have noticed with my Cruising review, sometimes this marathon collides with Census Bloodbath in a delightful and surprising way. This entry was particularly unexpected: on a birthday trip to Amoeba Records in Los Angeles I picked up a copy of the hard-to-find City in Panic because I knew I’d never see it anywhere else. It wasn’t until I read the back cover that I discovered just how thematically appropriate the movie was.

You see, the film’s original title was The AIDS Murders. It’s not something that inspires much confidence in the subject matter, but it’s the first contemporary horror movie I’ve seen that directly and explicitly referenced the AIDS epidemic of the early 80’s that claimed the lives of many members of the gay community. It certainly wasn’t a sensitive document, but it was a document nonetheless, so I was eager to see what it had to offer.

Being a forgotten 80’s slasher, the answer was – as usual – not much.

City in Panic takes on a format we’ve seen in many a slasher before and since. Just like the protagonists in Don’t Answer the Phone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Psycho IV, Dave Miller (David Adamson) is a radio host. His controversial talk show, Speak Up, has mostly been used to criticize alarmist journalist Alex Ramsey (Peter Roberts), as he details the exploits of a serial killer who has been terrorizing the city and putting it in the aforementioned panic.

While Dave and his guests endlessly discuss the killer’s motivation and society’s role in fostering it, gay men around the city are being stabbed to death. The murderer, known only as M (named after the Fritz Lang film from which they draw inspiration, an unusually deep cut for a sleazy slasher) seems to be targeting people suffering from AIDS. While these killings go on, we also follow Dave through his depressing bachelor life. Of the three or four interchangeable blonde women he interacts with, the one we spend the most time on is Liz (Lee Ann Nestegard), an ex who is now Alex Ramsey’s assistant.

Will that cause friction between them? And does anybody care?

The foremost takeaway from City in Panic is that they have no clue how AIDS worked or how to properly represent it. To be fair, I’m not certain if the difference between HIV and AIDS was widely known in 1986, but City in Panic certainly is not aware of the distinction, characterizing the disease as a sort of cough that makes you a little pale. The only remarkable thing about this representation is that it acknowledges that women can suffer from AIDS as well, and other than a cop who flies off the handle in literally every second of every scene he’s in, the characters aren’t particularly homophobic. So that’s a start.

Unfortunately, in spite of its Canadian pedigree, City in Panic doesn’t boast much that separates it from the pack of low-rent, mid-80’s cheapies. And what little there is quickly falls away after the first couple of scenes. The first murder is literally a shot-for-shot recreation of the Psycho shower scene only with a male victim, which is a pretty brass-balled way to open a film, and the killer is reasonably giallo-esque, cutting a sleek silhouette with a face-obscuring black hat and matching cloak. But the more plot-oriented the film gets, the further it falls into the gutter.

It’s not like the semi-stylish murder sequences are the work of a master (they’re ineptly cut, keeping the gore offscreen so demurely that the geography is completely inscrutable), but I’d much rather rewatch the scene where a man is slashed to death while doing upside-down situps on a pull-up bar than slog through a single one of the film’s copious, dire dialogue scenes. For one thing, the sound designer is trying this fun experiment to see how long a viewer can physically keep paying attention while every line of dialogue is drowned out by keening music, background sirens, or even just some particularly robust white noise. For another thing, the script is incredibly repetitive and tedious to begin with.

I really feel like I should earn some sort of medal when I complete this project.

Occasionally, the ineptitude of the cinematography accidentally stumbles across something strange and exciting, like the way the camera will suddenly take on a character’s POV, bursting into motion with an impressively fluid dexterity. But mostly we end up with eyesores like the impressively ugly extended close-up of Dave’s mouth during a recording or the reeeeeally slooooooow sex scene that moves practically one frame at a time like a slide show.

Considering the sociopolitical context City in Panic is taking the time to explore, its poor construction wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker. Unfortunately, it just seems to be an inept cash-in on a tremendously important social issue. It’s not deeply offensive like it easily could have been, but it’s still a misinformed waste of time. The occasional bursts of creativity (or at least absurdly brave plagiarism) are beaten down by every other element, which work in tandem to make City in Panic a deeply disappointing experience, even if it’s not quite as execrable as some of the worst entries in the genre.

Killer: M [Liz (Lee Ann Nestegard)]
Final Girl: Dave Miller (David Adamson)
Best Kill: A security guard gets stabbed in the dick through a  glory hole.
Sign of the Times: At one point, Dave plays with one of those remote control 80’s robots that I wasn’t certain actually existed.
Scariest Moment: The killer envisions Dave as an AIDS-riddled monstrosity clutching a skeletal baby.
Weirdest Moment: A hamfisted attempt at comic relief sees Dave’s producer write “M” on a piece of paper, but wackily hold it upside-down so it says “W.”
Champion Dialogue: “Haven’t I got enough problems with alimony, the cops, and now you?”
Body Count: 6; not including two victims killed offscreen and mentioned in a news report.
  1. Random Guy is stabbed to death.
  2. He-Man is stabbed to death.
  3. Thomas is stabbed to death upside-down.
  4. Security Guard is stabbed to death.
  5. Alex Ramsey is stabbed to death offscreen.
  6. Liz dies of AIDS.
TL;DR: City in Panic isn't as crude and offensive as the concept promises, but it's also not much of anything.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1095

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Census Flashback: Girls School Screamers

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 are anticipating Annabelle: Creation, a spinoff prequel about a group of young orphan girls being menaced by a haunted doll. In honor of that film, we’re reviewing an 80’s slasher that pits another group of hapless schoolgirls against a deadly menace: Dario Argento’s Phenomena.

Year: 1985
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi 
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Dario Argento is the Robert De Niro of Italian horror directors. Although he made some masterpieces in the 70’s, his career began to wobble a bit after a decade and a half, before flying completely off the rails into a creative decline that turned his name into a punch line despite still producing the occasional success. Whether it’s Dirty Grandpa or Dracula 3D, you wonder what could have possibly happened to the cinematic giant. Then you take a look at their late 80’s work, where the first whiffs of rot began to set in, and you’re on the road to understanding.

1985’s Phenomena, which was released in the States as Creepers, came out in the five years between Argento’s more respected works Tenebrae and Opera. It is one of those whiffs.

Clothespin your nose, we’re about to dive in.

Even the plot of Phenomena is a little ragged and patched, sampling Suspiria so thoroughly that it might actually count as a cover. Instead of a ballet school in Germany, it’s a boarding school in Switzerland. Instead of awkwardly shoehorning in Udo Kier for an exposition dump, we get a wheelchair-bound Donald Pleasence as an entomologist with a chimpanzee best friend. And instead of a doe-eyed Jessica Harper, we get a very young Jennifer Connelly, packed to the gills with guileless earnest.

The plot is altogether too simple, despite its unusually elaborate window dressing. Connelly is Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous beefcake actor. She arrives at the Swiss girls’ school smack dab in the middle of the reign of terror of a serial killer who targets young girls using a knife fixed to a metal pole. She has nightmares about these killings and attempts to use her telekinetic power to control bugs to find out who’s behind them.

Yeah, that sounds pretty normal for… wait, what?

Yup, the protagonist has a bug-controlling superpower, and it just barely factors into the plot. It’s about as tossed-off a character detail as her famous father, who figures into the story not one whit despite the massive amount of lip service the dialogue grants him in the first act. As far as I can tell, the bug thing was just intended as an excuse to torture Jennifer Connelly, because from the evidence of this film it seems like Argento hated her guts. 

She’s the Bruce Campbell to his Sam Raimi, forced through a gauntlet of onscreen misery, including being dunked in water filled with rotting corpses, smacked in the face by a jet of sewage, at one point actually sent to the ER because the chimp tried to bite her finger off, and at any given moment being covered in beetles, flies, or maggots.

Phenomena is the director’s vocal tirade against little girls (the victim in the opening sequence is played by his own young daughter) to the point that everything else – including his typical phantasmagoric approach to filmmaking – seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Parenthood, am I right?

Even without the weird kid angle, Phenomena is a spectacularly spotty entry in the Argento canon. He’s never really been great at crafting murder mysteries that make a lick of sense (“style over substance” is the mantra of the Italian giallo movement), but this one is especially muddled, so completely failing to introduce anything resembling a suspect that I just figured the monkey did it (yes, I know apes and monkeys are different – do I look like I care?).

And fankly, the monkey gives the best performance of the whole lot. Pleasence just sits there and sputters a bunch of dotty insect mythology, bringing neither the inspired manic energy of his Halloween role nor the gravity he was certainly capable of, and Connelly is flatly uninteresting in a role that asks nothing of her other than plaintive suffering.

Certain critics have called Phenomena “dreamlike,” and they’re not wrong. Dreams are pretty incoherent. I watched the cut of the film that fans of this sort of thing tend to agree is more legible, and even it was a jumbled mess. Scenes crash into each other (sometimes quite literally) with no rhyme or reason, dropped lines and major characters either amount to nothing or randomly teleport into the film midway through, the plot has no thrust, and even the dizzy effects spectacle of the third act fails to entirely redeem its anemically meandering quality.

This plot is more of a labyrinth than that OTHER Jennifer Connelly movie.

That’s not to say that Phenomena is a total failure. It’s mildly amusing enough that it’s never boring, and that finale really is incredibly gross, if that’s something you value as I do. But you can’t help but feel like some projectionist mixed up the reels, even if you’re watching it on DVD. The film just never manages to come together.

The kills have some Argento flourishes (particularly his favorite image of heads crashing through glass windows), but for the most party they’re pretty workmanlike, created without an iota of the feeling or glamour that typically accompany Argento’s murder sequences.

It’s a pale imitation of the far superior work displayed as recently as Tenebrae, the film immediately prior to this one. It’s 80’s Argento, so it’s still heaps more interesting than your average Italian slasher knockoff, but it’s a mélange of genre clichés that fails to flesh out any of the idiosyncratic details that threaten to make it interesting. It didn’t feel like a slog to get through, but I certainly wouldn’t dream of recommending it. Just watch Suspiria again instead.

Killer: [Mrs. Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi)]
Final Girl: Jenifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly)
Best Kill: A man is decapitated with a hug sheet of metal in a hilariously overreaching bit of excess.
Sign of the Times: A major tension sequence involves someone trying to lift a phone by its cord.
Scariest Moment: Jennifer Connelly has maggots under her fingernails. Icky!
Weirdest Moment: A group of boys hit Jennifer with their car, offer her a ride, and then end up dumping her out on a hill.
Champion Dialogue: “He’s got more hands than the entire basketball team!”
Body Count: 7
  1. Vera is stabbed in the gut with scissors.
  2. Gisela is knifed through the back of the head.
  3. Sophie is stabbed.
  4. Professor McGregor is stabbed in the gut.
  5. Mutant Son is killed by bugs.
  6. Morris is decapitated with a metal plate.
  7. Ms. Bruckner is slashed to death.
TL;DR: Phenomena is a tremendously wonky motion picture with a muddled, unsatisfying mystery at the center of it.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1186

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Census Flashback: Novel Adaptations

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 Dark Tower, based on the popular Stephen King series. In honor of that film, we’ll be reviewing a 1987 slasher based on a much less high-profile piece of literature: The Majorettes.

Year: 1987
Director: Bill Hinzman
Cast: Kevin Kindlin, Terrie Godfrey, Mark V. Jevicky 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Over the course of this Census Bloodbath project, there are certain names that I’ve learned to dread when they pop up in the credits: B-movie hackmeister David DeCoteau for example, or Canada’s drearily average wunderkind Paul Lynch. John A. Russo’s name had only come up once before, so I was only just barely tentatively willing to give him another chance when I saw his screenwriter credit on The Majorettes

1982’s Midnight, which he also adapted from one of his own novels and even directed, burned me in a way I won’t soon forget. However, the Night of the Living Dead co-writer’s work would be diluted through director Bill Hinzman (who actually appeared in NOtLD as a zombie, because they’d let literally anyone direct a movie back in those days), so I hoped for the best. I’m glad I braved it and made the plunge, because The Majorettes is completely uncanny in almost every way. Let’s jump in!

Or rather, let’s leave the jumping to the cheer team and twirl in.

In The Majorettes, a killer is prowling around murdering baton-twirling majorettes from the local high school one by one. That, at least, is the path the film starts on, so let’s Meet the Meat: we have Nicole (Jacqueline Bowman), the Rizzo of the group; her date for the moment Tommy (Colin Martin), a sputtering nerd who can’t believe his luck; Barbara (Dana Maiello), whose parents own a swimming pool; Judy (Sueanne Seamens, who also doubled as the film’s production assistant), who is nervous about her boyfriend leaving for college; the aforementioned boyfriend, mawkish star quarterback Jeff (Kevin Kindlin); and the pure and virginal Vicky (Terrie Godfrey), who would be the prime suspect for Final Girl if The Majorettes was a regular slasher film.

Ah, but The Majorettes is anything but a regular slasher film. The first half is dully mundane, with the killer affectlessly slitting throats and dunking the corpses in water á là Night School, but we actually learn the identity of the killer about 50 minutes in and things go absolutely bugnuts after that. Criss-crossing murder plots involve the German hospice nurse Helga (Denise Huot), her Peeping Tom janitor son Harry (Harold K. Keler), and the delightfully-named town drug dealer Mace Jackson (Tom. E Desrocher) along with his gang of cronies who dress like they just raided the theater department’s costume closet. 

The film crescendos into a flurry of gunfights, explosions, double crossings, and generally just a whole slew of things you don’t normally find in a teenybopper slasher film. It’s fascinatingly unpredictable, and at this stage in Census Bloodbath, when a slasher randomly metamorphoses into, well… anything other than a slasher film, I’m always delighted.

When you’ve seen over 200 of the things, you kind of get the gist.

The Majorettes is a real conundrum. As an out-and-out slasher, it’s tremendously subpar. The kills are all ploddingly identical and mostly bloodless, the performances of the entire ensemble are flatter than a stack of pancakes, and the female characters are virtually indistinguishable leotarded cyphers. But The Majorettes is very infrequently an actual slasher. Sometimes it’s a crime movie about a punk gang. Sometimes it’s a Masterpiece Theater murder mystery. And sometimes it sits us down to have a long talk about abortion or the meaning of religion, then give a surprisingly lucid breakdown of the psychosexual subtext of the slasher genre.

It actually is pretty similar to Midnight, when it comes down to it, with its bizarre speeches, twisted religious villains, distracted narrative, and amateur acting. But it masks the foul flavor of that turd by drenching it in a heaping helping of hot, gooey 80’s cheese. Every outfit is a screaming mad conflagration of the worst trends ever invented, and the synth score that only occasionally apes Halloween is a delirious fumble toward “suspense” that lands closer to “merry-go-round calliope.” 

And I don’t claim to know anything about the director here, but The Majorettes is so very gay. It starts at the football practice, where every boy is kitted out in a decidedly non-regulation sheer crop top. It continues when our boy Jeff has evidence he wants to share with the cops, exclaiming “I can’t keep this secret inside of me!,” and it reaches its full, glittering zenith during the Rambo-esque finale that sees him running through the woods shirtless, gripping an assault rifle.

Even when he goes to the hospital, they don’t bother with a gown.

I’m not saying this queerness is intentional, but it certainly kept my attention. And that’s what every aspect of The Majorettes is capable of doing, no matter how bad it gets. It’s utterly weird and unpredictable, which is not the same thing as good, but is just as satisfying.

Also, it delivers the most beautifully 80’s title card you ever did see.

The Majorettes is the antidote to Midnight. It takes that film’s poison and converts it into something new that soothes the soul. There are a lot of better films that have similar plots (Night School, Cheerleader Camp, The Prowler), but none could possibly match its inimitable spirit. Just like its final confrontation, The Majorettes is surprisingly explosive. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the average viewer, but for the wizened slasher fan, it’s a fun whiff of cotton candy that challenges your perceptions of what exactly the subgenre can be, twisting and subverting it sometimes by accident, but always to excellent effect.

Killer: Sheriff Braden (Mark V. Jevicky) mostly, but really, get in line
Final Girl: Jeff Halloway (Kevin Kindlin)
Best Kill: Vicky, but only because it looks like she’s been shot in the butt.
Sign of the Times: The beautiful synthcrap song hat plays over the opening credits, as performed by a group of audibly bored vocalists.
Scariest Moment: Helga threatens a catatonic grandmother.
Weirdest Moment: The punk gang attends a “strip club” that is clearly some community center’s rec room where a topless woman is dancing with a snake, surrounded by Christmas lights.
Champion Dialogue: “You could’ve sent him to school on a drug scholarship.”
Body Count: 15
  1. Tommy has his throat slit.
  2. Nicole has her throat slit.
  3. Barbara has her throat slit.
  4. Judy has her throat slit.
  5. Leather Vest is shot.
  6. Angel and
  7. Beardo #1 die in a car explosion.
  8. Vicky is shot in the back.
  9. Beardo #2 is shot in the head.
  10. Redneck is shot.
  11. Babyface is shot in the back.
  12. Mace Jackson is shot.
  13. Elvira is injected with poison.
  14. Helga is hung.
TL;DR: The Majorettes is a haphazard slasher, but it's fascinatingly weird.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1180