Saturday, September 30, 2017

Census Bloodbath: It's Not Cranberry Sauce

Year: 1987
Director: John Grissmer
Cast: Louise Lasser, Mark Soper, Julie Gordon
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

When Eli Roth was asked to make a fake movie trailer for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez project Grindhouse, he decided to invent a fictional 80’s slasher movie called “Thanksgiving,” positing that the holiday-happy subgenre had somehow skipped over that particular celebration. Not to be an insufferable pedant (though I guess that is my brand), but I must point out that this isn’t entirely true. 1981’s Home Sweet Home was set around a vaguely defined turkey feast, for one. I’m not sure if that really counts, but then along comes Blood Rage, which is exactly, 100%, explicitly set on Thanksgiving night. Roth can be forgiven for this oversight, considering how the holiday theme plays into almost none of the sequences, kills, or advertising, but still. It happened.

Let us not commit the egregious sin of expecting too much of the slasher film.

Blood Rage is exactly a prototypical slasher, except that it isn’t. We get the ten-years-earlier prologue setting up the killer’s motivation, an escaped mental patient, a crop of horny teens, and a holiday setting to cap it all off. Blood Rage almost perfectly adheres to the formula, but what elements it chooses to foreground, and how it elaborates on that generic model, are completely bananas.

You see, that escaped mental patient is Todd (Mark Soper) and he is quite self-evidently not the killer. In the opening scene we see him being framed by his twin brother Terry (also Mark Soper), sending him off the deep end just enough that he can’t coherently proclaim his innocence. This leaves Terry alone with his doting mother Maddie (Louise Lasser, AKA Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), a manic neurotic who is like Aunt Cheryl from Night Warning paid a visit to Baby Jane’s beautician. When Todd escapes from the institution on Thanksgiving, the same night that Maddie announces her engagement to apartment manager Brad (William Fuller) – Terry’s Oedipal complex is triggered and he runs around the Shadow Woods apartment complex murdering sexually active tenants with a machete and blaming it all on his brother.

It’s not Thanksgiving without a little Meat, so some of Terry’s teen friends helpfully arrive for no particular reason to pile on the chopping block. There’s Karen (Julie Gordon), Terry’s girlfriend, who is finally ready to go all the way; Andrea (Lisa Randall), the new, bra-less next-door neighbor; and a gaggle of anonymous, hairy-chested, 30-year-old teen boys.

These guys must have had to start learning to shave when they were five.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Blood Rage is freaking weird. It’s a deranged family drama cocooned within the trappings of a slasher movie, and while each of the things that it is actively saps the energy from the other, it’s hard to ignore something this strung-out and peculiar. Maybe this hot mess would have boiled over into a forgettable pile of sludge, but there is a savior in our midst. His name is Ed French. He would later gain notoriety as the special effects make-up guru behind Terminator 2, but he cut his teeth on the blood and guts demanded by 80’s horror.

Although he had already worked on some early 80’s projects like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (where his work would mostly be attributed to Tom Savini, who vehemently protests that he had anything to do with it), Amityville II: The Possession, and Sleepaway Camp (where he’s cutely credited for “makeup illusions), he really came into his own with Blood Rage, which seemed to have poured its budget into only two things: Mary Hartman Mary Hartman’s trailer (and that’s a big maybe) and gore.

The kills in this movie are just flat-out incredible. Dripping, flowing blood defines every machete slashing, occasionally bringing a comically over-the-top Monty Python Black Knight quality, but mostly instilling every murder with a sense of motion and fluid reality that pushes it right up to the edge of bearably disgusting. They’re not perfect (an impalation gag in particular doesn’t quite match up the front and back of the weapon), but they’re delectably gruesome in a variety of twisted, creative ways. Probably the most famous gag is a severed hand clutching a beer can, and that’s for good reason. It’s gross, but the kills have a sense of comic glee that goes a long way. 

This always happens when we invite the Addams family over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Unfortunately, after heaving us through the first half of this incredibly short movie at a steady clip, the kills begin to sort of peter out, opting to occur offscreen in favor of waaay too many scenes of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman pounding back glasses of wine. Her performance is a woozy and captivating entry into the camp canon, but she seems to have it in her contact that she performs two-thirds of her scenes sitting down, and for the bulk of the third act we’re forced to watch her loudly emote while lazing around on a sofa. It’s not exactly dynamic material, and it blends with the slasher elements of the film like oil and water.

The only thing truly commendable about the deeply silly family drama is that Mark Soper so convincingly imbues Terry and Todd with different personalities and physicalities that I actually thought they were played by two separate actors. Maybe the bulk of that credit should go to his hair stylist, but it’s a performance that fulfills an absolutely necessary function for the plot to work, and his casting seems to have been the exact right decision. Maybe the only one that happened, given the pool of cardboard nobodies the rest of this cast seems to have been pulled from.

Really, even though Blood Rage takes a steep nosedive about two-thirds of the way through, it’s a pretty fantastic example of exactly what I’m looking for from an 80’s slasher: ludicrous fashions (alternate title: The Killer Wore a Sleeveless Two-Tone Top), campy bad movie nonsense (Terry keeps pointing at the blood on his machete and exclaiming that “it’s not cranberry sauce!”), and excellent gore effects. Unfortunately it fails to stick the landing, so I don’t adore it as much as I’d want to, but I shelled out for the Arrow Video Blu-Ray and I don’t regret that one bit. Also, it’s literally the only slasher movie I’ve ever seen where the killer stops to take a pee break, and I respect the hell out of that.

Killer: Terry Simmons (Mark Soper)
Final Girl: Karen (Julie Gordon)
Best Kill: Not only is Brad’s beer-clutching hand chopped off, it is later revealed that his entire head was split open like a melon.
Sign of the Times: I wish there were more men wearing yellow booty shorts in modern cinema, but alas that is a relic of a bygone age.

Scariest Moment: At one point, Andrea’s make-up is so terrible it seems to be throwing off the white balance of the camera.
Weirdest Moment: Ted Raimi cameos as a guy selling condoms out of his jacket in a drive-in bathroom.
Champion Dialogue: “All I want to do is party and play tennis.”
Body Count: 11
  1. Blonde Dude is axed in the face.
  2. Brad gets his hand cut off and his skull split open.
  3. Jackie is impaled with a machete.
  4. Dr. Berman is cut in half.
  5. Bill is decapitated.
  6. Julie is stabbed in the chest.
  7. Greg has his throat slashed.
  8. Andrea is killed offscreen.
  9. Artie is stabbed in the neck with a turkey fork.
  10. Terry is shot to death.
  11. Maddie Simmons shoots herself in the head.
TL;DR: Blood Rage is a delightful, gory, cheesy 80's slasher that is dragged down hard by a tremendously boring third act.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1299

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