Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Writing's On The Wall

Year: 1982
Director: James W. Roberson
Cast: James Houghton, Albert Salmi, Lynn Carlin
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated

I figured October was as fine a date as any to relaunch a serious effort to press forward into my Census Bloodbath marathon, exploring every... single... slasher movie from the 1980's. I chose Wishmaster as my Halloween marathon because I knew it would be short and give me opportunities to really sit down and fill in some major gaps from 1982, the current year we're focusing on. The first title I'm jumping in with is Superstition, which was lovingly bestowed a Blu-Ray release by the maniacs at Scream Factory, whose judgment in early 80's nonsense I trust implicitly.

As usual, I was right.

Superstition doesn't give a flying shit what you might expect from its title or poster or tagline. Instead, it's about the ghost of a witch who was drowned in 1692. She stalks the property of her home at night and murders any trespassers. The house, which is owned by the church, is now occupied by alcoholic reverend George Leahy (Larry Pennell) along with his wife, pre-pubescent son, and a bevy of nubile teen daughters. When mysterious happenings begin to plague them, it's up to George's co-reverend David Thompson (James Houghton) to put the pieces together and try and figure out how to stop it. I don't rightly know why David cares so much, but I'm glad to have him here because he is extremely cute in a dorky teacher kinda way.

That all seems pretty cut and dry, but have I mentioned the fact that the opening scene involves a decapitated head being put in the microwave and exploding? The police liaison Inspector Sturgess (Albert Salmi), who seems to hate every other character and insults them whenever he's given the opportunity, which is all the damn time? Or the presence of a little girl in white who's so clearly a ghost she doesn't even really bother pretending she's not? Or the fact that there's a mute groundskeeper/professional red herring named Arlen (Joshua Cadman) whose mother Elvira (Jacquelyn Hyde) is doing her best Piper Laurie impression? 

Also she mostly acts from within a tiny window that makes her look like a painting.

Superstition is all about how much wild shit it can stuff in around the edges of its pretty rote and tropey slasher plot, and I certainly found myself responding to that. Supernatural slashers certainly have an edge over the average bear, laying the groundwork for people to expect the unexpected. Supernatural kills also usually sneak past the MPAA because they aren't always incredibly gory. That's how Freddy could keep tormenting his teens with aplomb long past the point where his peers were cut down in their prime by the moral majority.

Luckily for us, though, Superstition was made in 1982 before anybody cared (and released so ignominiously in 1985 that it's entirely possible nobody even noticed) so this film is full of good old hand-operated gore just like your daddy used to make. There are still an irritating amount of kills that are just people being grabbed by a spooky hand and deposited in random places, smeared so indiscriminately with blood so that specific wound is even evident (which is hell on any lunatic who wants to keep an accurate body count). But the ones that are present are delectable.

Did you not see that there's an exploding head in a microwave? And that's just the cold open! Also featured: A guy gets lopped in half by the top part of a window, and both halves lay twitching grotesquely on the ground. In the middle of a dialogue-heavy exposition scene, an elderly priest played by Stacy Keach's dad is felled by a rogue buzzsaw blade that flies off its device but continues to spin, drilling through his torso and the chair behind him. And one of the teens gets a spike malleted into her forehead, in an effect so convincing, I'm pretty certain that actress sacrificed her life to make this movie.

RIP Maylo McCaslin. It probably wasn't worth it.

I don't think I need to reiterate that Superstition is kind of a blast. Unfortunately, though, I can't quite place it at "hidden gem" status. It's more like a hidden rhinestone. Because as much as I want to adore its gonzo nuttiness, it's undercut by some severe incompetencies that I'm just not willing to ignore. For one thing, we're treated to a lot of my least favorite slasher trope: people wandering through empty rooms calling each other's names. And the pacing dies a miserable, lonely death in the sequence where the son goes missing and Inspector Sturgess must take a break from throwing shade to be obsessed by the dimensions of a basement for what feels like hours.

And between the lover's lane cold open, all the business with David, and a bunch of flashbacks to 1692, we really aren't given a chance to get to know this family or care about their fate. They don't even show up in the film until at least 30 minutes in! I didn't even learn the mom's name until after she was dead! And the one we do know anything about, George, just isn't a compelling figure. He's played as a spineless coward, which is an interesting choice, but his complete refusal to make any decision even when his wife is screaming in the kitchen is incredibly frustrating in a lead. He doesn't even have to save her. He could run! But he chooses to just stand there and stare as the seconds tick on by...

Don't even get me started on the score that kicks in any time the tension is raised, which sounds like it was contributed to the film by Dexy's Midnight Runners.

In the end, I'd say the cool elements of Superstition outweigh the bad (there's a half decent visual sense here too, my favorite being the killer in silhouette on a windy stairwell and blood dripped over a glass of spilled milk), but I am not so bowled over by them that I can find it in my heart to completely forgive it for its sins. I would highly recommend it for a party viewing though. There's a lot of wonderful fun moments to whet the appetite, and you can just talk with your friends during the boring bits. It's a win-win!

Killer: Elondra Sharack (Carole Goldman)
Final Girl: Rev. David Thompson (James Houghton) - come to think of it, this is probably our first lead character who belongs to the church in a movie that isn't explictily about exorcism
Sign of the Times: The score is one of those one's that's so clearly aping Halloween they practically just transposed it one octave up - there's no surer sign you're dealing with a slasher from the early 80's.
Best Kill: It's actually hard to choose, but for my money it's hard to beat a reverend getting sawed right through the gut completely out of nowhere.
Scariest Moment: Honestly, the idea of finding a stillwater pond on your property that hasn't been touched in years and then immediately stripping down to your skivvies and jumping in might be the most frightening concept to this Southern California boy.
Weirdest Moment: David learns that the only way to defeat the witch is to set a pond on fire?
Champion Dialogue: "Shut your bitchy mouth!"
Body Count: 13; a perfect number if the movie were actually about superstitions in any way, shape, or form.
  1. Artie is decapitated offscreen and his head is put in the microwave, where it explodes.
  2. Charlie is cut in half by a window.
  3. Jack is dragged into the lake.
  4. Henry is sawed in the gut by a spinning blade.
  5. Construction Worker is hanged in an elevator shaft.
  6. Justin is killed offscreen.
  7. 1692 Priest is crushed in a Spanish Inquisition torture device.
  8. Sturgess is killed offscreen.
  9. Melinda is killed offscreen.
  10. George has a mirror shatter into his face and throat.
  11. Cheryl has a spike hammered into her forehead.
  12. Ann is killed offscreen.
  13. David is dragged into the pond.
TL;DR: Superstition is inept in a couple deeply damaging ways, but its gung-ho supernatural spirit is still kind of a blast
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1379

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