Friday, September 1, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Scareplane

Year: 1982
Director: Alfred Sole
Cast: Tom Smothers, Carol Kane, Paul Reubens
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Airplane! is one of my absolute favorite movies. It’s a wacky visual gag-laden parody of a very specific subgenre, and it’s a masterpiece. But it also has a lot to answer for. Suddenly, 80’s comedy directors thought that they too could make a film like Airplane!. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t. The tsunami of imitators fling themselves wholeheartedly into zaniness, but they lack the finesse and craftsmanship to be anything but a pale imitation.

Being as it was the premiere subgenre of the 1980’s, the slasher film attacked its fair share of Airplane! clones, as early as 1981’s Student Bodies, just one year into the Golden Age. In the year or two to follow, a whole host of crackerjack joke-em-ups would come tumbling down the chute, but the earliest would come in April 1982: Pandemonium, helmed by Alice, Sweet Alice director Alfred Sole.

Which – you may remember - is famously a laugh riot where a young Brooke Shields is brutally murdered at her first communion.

Pandemonium follows the hijinks that ensue at a cheerleader camp in Indiana that has recently reopened after a long history of attendees being brutally murdered. The camp is run by Bambi (Candice Azzara), the town’s only surviving cheerleader. When two separate maniacs escape from prison and an institution respectively, local Canadian Mountie Sgt. Cooper (Tom Smothers) investigates with his trusty, reluctant sidekick Johnson (Paul Reubens).

Because this is a parody of the rigid slasher formula, this is the first time in a good long while where we get to Meet the Meat. The cheerleaders on the chopping block today are Candy (Carol Kane), a wholesome and telekinetic riff on Carrie, one of the only films to be directly parodied for some reason; Randy (Marc McClure of Strange Behavior, but also the freakin’ Back to the Future and Superman franchises) and Andy (Miles Chapin of The Funhouse), two nearly identical horny white boys; Sandy (Debralee Scott), a pushy broad with impossibly high standards; Mandy (Teri Landrum), a toothpaste-obsessed beauty queen; and Glenn (Judge Reinhold), the platinum blonde son of a blind pencil salesman. …Don’t ask.

They begin to get killed, presumably at the hands of the same murderer who has been targeting cheerleaders in this town since 1963.

It’s pretty much an American pastime at this point.

As you may have noticed, Pandemonium has a pretty stellar cast of name-brand comedians and character actors. They are the wind in this film’s whoopee cushion, because without them the gossamer thin script would fall apart like tissue paper in a tornado. Carol Kane is a delight in a role that frankly never comes together, salvaging as much charm as she can muster to make up for the fact that Candy doesn’t even possess the one note most parody characters are provided at the door. Judge Reinhold is also superb as the cheerily clueless lunkhead with a  heart of gold. The only real sour note is – surprisingly – Paul Reubens, who attempts to solder his Pee-Wee shtick onto the archetype of the obligatory “random zany guy” and creates an excruciatingly irritating Frankensteinian monstrosity of a character in the process.

So, here comes the most important question of all… Is it funny? My answer is… mostly. Some of the broad comedy gags stick the landing (even the obvious ones like what happens when you order the “Three Stooges pie”), and the screenwriters clearly had a deep well of knowledge about the subgenre (especially in the parts where they less-than gently mock the Canadian slashers that masqueraded as American by having a cop in full Mountie regalia presiding over a Midwest town). It’s generally more “clever” than it is actually “funny,” but there’s one line in particular that had me laughing so hard my head rolled right off my shoulders. That’s a gold star achievement for a parody slasher of this ilk.

Of course, the film weakens considerably once the killings begin in earnest, so it can’t be that good a parody. Although the effects are slightly better than the demure offscreen antics of Student Bodies, they’re charmless and tend to focus on character traits that haven’t really been explored beforehand. The only worthwhile kill is in the prologue, in which a group of cheerleaders walking in an absurdly tight single file are shish kebabed with a javelin. 

This is what makes me laugh. Please don’t call the cops.

Now that’s not to say it’s funny all the time to begin with. The gags spray wildly in every direction, and forty percent of them plummet straight into the dirt. This is the nature of these films, but there’s nothing more exhausting than bad comedy, and even at a brisk 82 minutes, Pandemonium slightly overstays its welcome. The story isn’t interesting or consistent enough to pick up the slack when the jokes fail, and it sags desperately every ten minutes or so.

Is it funny to paste the Jaws score into a random chase scene? And since when has there been the stereotype of “Girl Obsessed with Toothpaste”? When Pandemonium is grounded in real tropes it excels (like the way the killer’s hands can effortlessly burst through mattresses and walls), but sometimes it can be a bit senile, wandering off in completely arbitrary, inexplicable directions.

The whole affair has a bit of a ramshackle charm to it, but frankly, Pandemonium is too piecemeal for me to proclaim that it’s a hidden gem. I sure as hell had a fun time watching it, but there’s not enough There there for me to want to firmly commit to standing in its corner. It’s about on par with Student Bodies, which I also don’t dig all that much. I respect the existence of both the films, with their occasional giggles, but there’s a reason Scream was hailed as a groundbreaking slasher satire 14 years later: Nobody cared enough to remember that either of these films existed.

Killer: Blue Grange (a briefly cameo-ing Tab Hunter)
Final Girl: Candy (Carol Kane)
Best Kill: Mandy being impaled with a cheerleading bullhorn, because it’s pretty much the only death that feels like the genuine escalation of what the slasher genre was working with at the time. (I disqualified the cheerleader shish kebab because I already rhapsodized about it earlier.)
Sign of the Times: The movie makes an absurdly racist Air Tokyo joke that just wouldn’t fly in this day and age.
Scariest Moment: Randy’s dead body is propped up wearing a horse mask.
Weirdest Moment: A man who just quit his job as the wind sock at an airport eats his lunch while wearing a huge chrome sock as a hat.
Champion Dialogue:  “He doesn’t want you to sin, unless He can watch.”
Body Count: 15; not including various cheerleaders killed within a spinning newspaper montage, or the offscreen victims of the serial killer Jarrett, who were turned into furniture.
  1. Five 
  2. cheerleaders 
  3. are 
  4. shish kebabed 
  5. with a javelin.
  6. Glenn jumps on a trampoline loaded with dynamite.
  7. Mandy gets a power drill stuck in her mouth.
  8. Fletcher,
  9. Jarrett, and
  10. Dr. Fuller are simultaneously electrocuted.
  11. Bambi is drowned in a milk bath.
  12. Randy is smothered with a pompom.
  13. Andy is smothered with a pompom.
  14. Mandy is impaled with a bullhorn.
  15. Blue is crushed by a statue of himself.
TL;DR: Pandemonium is a reasonably entertaining, if disastrously thin parody slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1242

1 comment:

  1. "1. Five
    2. cheerleaders
    3. are
    4. shish kebabed
    5. with a javelin."

    Heh. I swear I've seen this bit, somewhere, too.