Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Census Bloodbath: She Kills Down By The Sea Shore

Year: 1982
Director: Karen Yang
Cast: Hsiao-Fen Lu, Alan Tam, Fu-Mei Chang
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

It's always fun when we get to travel overseas in our Census Bloodbath marathon, especially when it's a place we've never been before. Today's film, Exposed to Danger (titled Sha chu chong wei in the original Mandarin and Breakout from Oppression in the U.S. dubbed cut) is Taiwan's first entry in the 80's slasher cycle. Hopefully it's not its last, because we have a lot to talk about here. 

Not the least of which being that it stars a Taiwanese John Oates.

Exposed to Danger is a lot of things, but one thing that it kind of isn't, sadly, is a slasher. At least until the final 20 minutes, this is smack dab in the middle of the "women's melodrama" and "psycho stalker" subgenres. Until it begins to wildly lift scenes from Friday the 13th wholecloth, but we'll get to that.

The story begins when Tien-Chi (Hsiao-Fen Lu) arrives in a small seaside town to be the assistant editor at a newspaper. She has just been released from prison, where she served 8 years for a murder she didn't commit. She's looking for a fresh start and she hopes the letter she holds from the paper's President offering her a job can provide that for her. Unfortunately, bizarre happening quickly dash her hopes, beginning with the mysterious disappearance of the President shortly before she arrives. 

While she tries to process the trauma and abuse of her time in prison, someone is clearly breaking into her apartment and moving things around, watching her through her window, and putting her in the path of danger at every turn including cutting her bike's brakes and knocking over a ladder she's using to clean her ceiling. On top of all this, tensions at work are boiling over. Mrs. Chu (Hsiung-Kuo Li) is jealous that this pretty girl can waltz in and get a job in her department, and the President's young secretary Shih-Yun (Fu-Mei Chang) is seething with rage that she's receiving attention from the office cutie Hsiao-Tung (Alan Tam), who has - to her credit - instantly and obviously fallen madly in love with the new girl.

Anyway, it's not really a spoiler to say that the perpetrator is clearly Shih-Yun, because the movie does not keep its cards close to the chest and if you don't figure it out twenty minutes in, you must've fallen asleep. She does begin a murderous rampage eventually ending with a catfight on the beach, the villain shouting "Kill her!", a false ending involving a boat, a decapitation, and gee where have I seen that before?

I couldn't find many photos for this movie online, so pretend this is relevant.

That's the longest synopsis I've written in a while, but there are a lot of important factors that need discussion. Something I really want to drill down on is the prison element, because that isn't something you see in Census Bloodbath very often. It does speak to the way this movie is structured in no way like a slasher, but the way certain elements in her life trigger flashbacks to her harrowing abuse at the hands of the other prisoners are some of the most brutal, intense material I've seen doing this project.

I think part of why this film works so well in spite of its unclear focus on what genre it wants to be is that while everything is shifting and changing around her, Tien-Chi's character and psychology is always front and center, in perfect focus. I don't want to lay this all entirely on the fact that this film has a female director, but I don't not. It's a rare occasion that we get to dig in on an entry in this genre that has any sort of female touch behind the camera, and I love that it comes packaged with one of the most well-shaded female leads I've seen in quite a while.

I also don't want to diminish the contributions of actress Hsiao-Fen Lu, who works with the camera to let you into her character's head at every turn. There's a showstopping performance moment where she plays her younger self in flashback with such youthful venom and naïveté that it seems like she's a completely different actress, but that speaks to performance as a whole. It shows how well she knows her character and how she's been changed by what she's been through. 

When I put on a film called Exposed to Danger, I certainly wasn't expecting this. Maybe a Stripped to Kill prototype or a slasher set in a photography studio, but certainly not this.

Even though the whodunit side of this film is quite weak, and frankly the Friday the 13th Final Girl sequence is only interesting insofar as you can see an American film translated into a Taiwanese editing and cinematography style, there is plenty to chill the spine in Exposed to Danger. Menace lurks around every corner of this movie, and Karen Yang works hard to keep you as off-kilter as the protagonist. 

Even simple moments like Tien-Chi riding a bicycle are sprinkled with unease (this moment in particular involves a child doing tricks around her and threatening to knock her off her bike for no reason other than his own pure enjoyment), and a scene where investigating a murder-suicide puts her in the path of a knife-wielding banshee proves that even the people who don't want to specifically kill her are a constant source of danger.

Yang's style lights up the screen in these moments, as well. Take the simple flashback triggered by a bar of soap (in prison, she was slashed by a bar of soap with a razor blade embedded inside), which becomes an impressionistic nightmare involving the soap flying toward the camera in jarring insert shots. And then there's the matter of Shih-Yun. She might be an obvious antagonist, but letting us in on this quickly allows us to spend time in her twisted home life, which involves incessantly shrieking at her wheelchair-bound grandmother and chaining men up in the basement. It's all very What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and it's intense in a way that feels legitimately dangerous.

All told, it's not quite what we're looking for in Census Bloodbath, but it's something I recommend to cinema history thrill seekers who want to take a walk on the obscure side. I had a ball watching Exposed to Kill, and while it has its flaws, it's hard not to be sucked in by its unique style and characters. I think this movie struggles to carve a space for itself in film fandom by its lack of a firm genre. People who approach it as a slasher are inevitably going to be disappointed, as are the people who found it in the pack of kung fu films where it has mostly been available in this corner of the globe. But approaching it on its own terms, Exposed to Kill is a memorable slice of foreign genre cinema.

Killer: Shih-Yun (Fu-Mei Chang)
Final Girl: Tien-Chi (Hsiao-Fen Lu) 
Best Kill: Wu-Ten the photographer is murdered in a three-part kill that involves wild banshee shrieking while he's slashed up, plunging down two sets of stairs, and being stabbed repeatedly while he's down. It's wild.
Sign of the Times: Sometimes the score will just evolve into electric guitar squealing at unexpected interludes.
Scariest Moment: Shih-Yun sneaks glass into the spring rolls that Tien-Chi serves at an office party, which cuts open the mouth of Mrs. Chu's son.
Weirdest Moment: The moment where Tien-Chi is knocked off a ladder involves some wild physics about a bar of soap being slid beneath the ladder at the exact moment it wiggles. Also she's in the process of wiping down the chandelier in what has been described as a "small apartment."
Champion Dialogue: I think the somewhat dubious translation of the subtitles disqualifies this film from an entry in Champion Dialogue, sadly.
Body Count: 5; not including three people who are murdered offscreen, which Tien-Chi is sent to report on.
  1. Ping-nan is stabbed in the back in flashback.
  2. President Wang is bludgeoned with a flashlight.
  3. Hsiao-Wai the Monkey is hanged offscreen.
  4. Wu-Ten is slashed, falls down stairs, and is stabbed in the back.
  5. Shih-Yun is decapitated.
TL;DR: Exposed to Danger is a bizarre mishmash of genres, but all of them are pretty good!
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1411

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Cry For Help

Year: 1982
Director: David Nelson
Cast: Susan Kiger, Martin Tucker, William T. Hicks 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

For the first time in a very long time, I've just entered into a slasher movie about which I knew absolutely nothing beforehand. It was kind of an exciting prospect, to be honest. Usually I at least know a log line or an actor or a kill or something, but this time all I had was a title. That title in question is Death Screams, which is just lurid enough to pique the interest. It's certainly better than the film's alternate title, House of Death. And it's a good thing this is the angle from which I approached the movie, because the poster for House of Death writes checks that this film can't cash. 


Death Screams has one pound of boring for every ounce of interesting in that poster. We open on the requisite prologue kill, where a couple - Angie (Penny Miller) and Ted (Larry Sprinkle of A Day of Judgment and Trick or Treat) - is making out by a river until a train passes and they... drown somehow? The next morning, their small town is gearing up for the annual carnival, so nobody can really be bothered by them going missing.

There are an infinite amount of characters wandering around the town for the next fifty minutes, but the ones we really need to key into are Bob (Curt Rector) and Kathy (Andrea Savio), a pair of college students who have been assisting the baseball coach Neil Marshall (Martin Tucker); Diddle (John Kohler), who takes the worst traits of every slasher movie prankster character and rolls them all into one obnoxious snowball; Lily Carpenter (Susan Kiger), who is marked as the Final Girl by the fact that she has a last name and that we spend way too much time with her for her not to end up being important, rather than anything actually interesting in her character; and Sheriff Avery (William T. Hicks, also of A Day of Judgment), who wanders around town savagely insulting any citizen he comes across.

After the fair, the infinite teen population of the town gathers at the river for a bonfire, where the killer waits another 25 minutes or so to actually start mowing them down. There are a huge number of red herrings that just kind of sit there doing nothing, including Edna (Helene Tryon, also of A Day of Judgment), Lily's salty grandmother who thinks no man is good enough for her; Casey (Hanns Manship also also of A Day of Judgment - all in all these two movies share four actors and one cameraperson hilariously named Gene Poole), the mentally challenged son of Edna's friend Agnes who loves Coach Marshall so much he wants to defend him from all harm; and Sheriff Avery who, have I mentioned, fucking hates everyone who lives in his town. Oh, and his son died in a car crash four years ago, as we find out in a random soap opera scene shoehorned in at about the hour mark.

To be fair, we do get ONE kill between the opening and closing ten minutes, but I literally don't even know who this is.

I don't want to confuse you into thinking the beginning and ending of the movie are substantially better than the middle. They're not. You're slogging through a whole bunch of nothing to arrive at... a whole bunch of nothing. There are a handful of kills that are fun enough in concept, but for the most part, they're either offscreen jabs with a machete or so underlit and choppily edited that you might be watching a chef prepare sushi for all you can tell. 

I'll admit it: This review has the worst body count I've ever prepared, because I'm entirely unclear as to how many people died in Death Screams, when they died, and what method affected their shuffling off this mortal coil. There's definitely someone who gets shot in the head at one point, but I didn't include it because I'm pretty sure it's someone who already died elsewhere on the list. And the dummy used to achieve this particular effect is so shoddy that it didn't occur to me that it was ever meant to be a person. I literally thought that, within the reality of this movie, the Sheriff was shooting a dummy.

So no, the kills don't work. And there's hardly any attempts at horror, but of the ones made, not much of it really works. There's a full five minute scene where Lily tells a campfire story, which I can only assume was kept in to pad the run time, and thern we get a botched cat scare where the poor creature struggles to wriggle out of its hidey hole so what's supposed to be a shock moment lasts a good twenty seconds. The one solid element is that killer has this trademark shriek that is pretty Llorona-esque and chilling, even if it doesn't make one lick of sense with the eventual reveal (hilariously, the killer's backstory is that their mom was a stripper so they hate sex - one of the most wrongheaded reveals in a subgenre with a history of front and center misogyny). 

If it helps, I'm pretty sure this movie passes the Bechdel test at least.

So if this film isn't full of kills, what is it full of? Well, other than shit I mean. Well, more than anything, Death Screams is about the ensemble of people that populates a small town, and it honestly does a pretty good job at achieving this atmosphere. Of course, capturing the rhythm and reality of small town life comes with an inherent sense of doldrums, but at least it's authentic!

There are moments that unspool infinitely forth of interactions between a numberless combination of characters pulled from the massive ensemble. Any time this involves the character of Diddle, one of those vexatious class clowns who is Always On (two standard slasher tropes he indulges in with gusto are the Unsolicited Impression and the Outhouse Scene), I want to rip this movie in half and throw it in the river. But otherwise it's vaguely pleasant, even if every cheerful scene is caked in ubiquitous, manic electronic music that sounds like the loading screen of an Atari game.

However, if the only thing you're coming to this for is that small town atmosphere, you'd do much better with My Bloody Valentine or Strange Behavior, which have actual good movies on top of that. Truly the only interesting things about Death Screams are that alt poster, maybe a couple kills, and the fact that the director is the brother of 50's teen idol Ricky Nelson. And to be honest, I had a small amount of fun at the expense of some of the sillier moments, but they're not in an abundance that would make this flick worth anybody's time whatsoever.

Killer: [Coach Neil Marshall (Martin Tucker)]
Final Girl: Lily Carpenter (Susan Kiger)
Sign of the Times: Every man who doesn't show interest in Ramona is called a "queer."
Best Kill: There's a throat slash with a piece of glass that's actually pretty gnarly.
Scariest Moment: Ted and Angie's corpses float up to a girl who's skinny dipping, and she starts to thrash around in fear in the mist.
Weirdest Moment: We've been watching Angie and Ted's corpses float downriver for hours, and yet they're discovered in the exact same place they were killed, so I suppose they must have circumnavigated the globe.
Champion Dialogue: "Shut your mouth before your brains fall out."
Body Count: 11; though the final number is unclear, as are most of the deaths themselves.
  1. Ted and
  2. Angie are drowned by a train passing?
  3. Water Fountain Girl is shot with an arrow and smothered with a plastic bag.
  4. Ladder Boy is macheted.
  5. Sandy is killed in the neck.
  6. Diddle is slashed offscreen and strung up upside down.
  7. Walker is decapitated offscreen.
  8. Walker's Girlfriend is decapitated offscreen.
  9. Party Boy is macheted in the hand to death.
  10. Ramona falls through the stairs and becomes in half.
  11. Neil Marshall is slashed in the throat with a piece of glass.
TL;DR: Death Screams is passable at creating small town atmosphere and almost nothing else.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1389

Monday, November 11, 2019

Census Bloodbath: You're It

Year: 1982
Director: Nick Castle
Cast: Robert Carradine, Linda Hamilton, Bruce Abbott
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Tag: The Assassination Game wasn't always on the list of 1982 movies I was planning to cover for Census Bloodbath. I came across it in my initial research, but it just didn't seem like it had enough elements to count as a slasher. Plus, take a look at that poster. This movie was heavily sold as an Animal House-style sex comedy, to the point that even I was almost fooled. However, when I finally took a look at it, it proved to me that it deserved a spot on this list. It's not a good one, but it's a slasher movie alright.

At the very least, I didn't waste my time watching a movie I wasn't even going to review.

OK, as much as it does count by my parameters, Tag still isn't particularly faithful to the tropes of the slasher, which had already been set in stone by this point. The plot revolves around a game of tag where a bunch of college run around shooting each other with dart guns. One night, student reporter Alex Marsh (Robert Carradine of Revenge of the Nerds) is hanging out in his dorm when committed player Susan Swayze (Linda Hamilton of... Linda Hamilton) slips through the door to use it as a hideout. He is instantly smitten and tags along with her under the pretense of writing a human interest story about the game.

What he doesn't realize is that the most interesting human in this game is Loren Gersh (introducing Bruce Abbott of Re-Animator and Bad Dreams), a five time champion who is so committed to winning that he has started using bullets instead of rubber darts. So about halfway through, this finally becomes a serial killer movie. Unfortunately he's using a gun because 1) slasher movies are always more interesting with a variety of edged weapons and 2) yikes, gun on campus stories have not aged well. Anyway, while Susan and Alex live out a noir-tinged flirtation, the missing persons reports are stacking up on the desk at campus administration.

A story Alex's editor urges him to track down, which he absolutely refuses to do until it's almost too late.

Tag is a production stacked top to bottom with recognizable names. We've already seen three of them in the synopsis above, but some of the smaller roles are filled out by Xander Berkeley, Michael Winslow, and even Forest F**king Whitaker. Plus, it was written and directed by Nick Castle, who played The Shape in Halloween. It's slasher royalty directing a cadre of 80's royalty, and it goes horribly, horribly wrong almost immediately.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Tag goes wrong, but I'll do my darnedest. I guess a good place to start is the opening credits, a bizarre, poorly executed James Bond parody that promises a movie more in line with what those misleading posters are trying to sell. This wacky, cartoonish quality peeps from behind the curtain from time to time, but never enough that the movie actually commits to being a quirky comedy. There are some genuinely funny moments, like a scene of Gersh disposing of a body, where a woman is in the background talking to her dad about a dude getting her pregnant, or the flock of people rushing the gym when Alex announces there's a free Grateful Dead concert while trying to get somebody off Susan's tail. Or not funny moments that are clearly at least trying to be, like the list of Tag players that includes entries like "E. Presley" and "A. Neuman."

This tone completely fails to gel with the horror elements which are already silly and malnourished, but take themselves quite seriously. Bruce Abbott is solid as a man so obsessed with winning that he's completely relaxed his grip on sanity or morality (I especially love the phone calls he makes to the game master after each kill, where the man encourages him to keep going, not realize he's actually been ending these people's lives), but the game is so ridiculous and complicated in its execution that it's hard to follow what his goals even are in any given scene. And the fact that there is a real game going on makes the first act an exhausting slog through endless fakeout assassination scenes.

At least it afforded Linda Hamilton a chance to prep her Sarah Conner routine.

One interesting thing about the film is that it's very much inspired by the narrative and aesthetic elements of film noir. This is the third tone that completely fails to match the others, so much so that I literally couldn't find an appropriate place to mention it until now. The absolute best way this concept is executed is in Susan's introduction to Alex, where she is lit up by a flashing light outside his blinds, sending harsh rectangles of light slanting across her form in the only shot in the movie that comes even close to being exquisite.

The worst is probably the fact they thought they could get away with including the whole "you know how to whistle, don't you?" scene from To Have and Have Not verbatim. As a whole, this element is the most thoroughly achieved, with enough high key lighting and over-the-top production design to keep the feeling going throughout. But try as Nick Castle might, he's still making a movie where not every scene manages to avoid having the boom mic poke down from the top of the screen. It's a valiant effort, but it needs a little more delicacy to balance everything it wants to be.

It's not a total waste of time. Some of the shots that aren't too enshrouded in shadow to see anything are actually quite pretty. And obviously it's kind of a blast being surrounded by so many familiar faces slumming it with such a ludicrous concept. But being a fan of Terminator movies doesn't entirely carry over to watching Linda Hamilton play with a dart gun for 90 minutes. Maybe 20, at best. 

Side Note I Didn't Have Room for Elsewhere in the Review: A hippie character has a pet rat perched on his shoulder, which he names Ratatouille, inventing Pixar in the process.

Killer: Loren Gersh (Bruce Abbott)
Final Girl: Susan Swayze (Linda Hamilton)
Best Kill: Gersh times his shooting of Nancy with the gunshot beginning a track race. He then pulls her crumpled body through the bleachers and it is disturbing.
Sign of the Times: A bunch of college students are very excited to attend a Grateful Dead concert.
Scariest Moment: Loren chases Susan through the music department, surrounded by the sound of clicking metronomes.
Weirdest Moment: The bodyguards of a particularly intense player (one of whom is Forest Whitaker) have a moment alone, and they mime getting into a car and driving down the hallway.
Champion Dialogue: "I haven't seen you this high since last June when you were hanging out with a communist."
Body Count: 5
  1. Dwayne is shot in the shower.
  2. Nancy is shot in the butt.
  3. Wallace is shot.
  4. Security Guard is shot.
  5. Gersh is shot and falls off a building.
TL;DR: Tag: The Assassination Game is a weird tonal mishmash that sometimes works but mostly doesn't.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1225

Friday, November 8, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Stalker, Texas Ranger

Year: 1982
Director: Michael Miller
Cast: Chuck Norris, Ron Silver, Steven Keats
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

One fun thing about this project is nailing down what exactly qualifies a film as a "slasher." I know certain people will (and certain people have) disagree with some of the films I've covered being included in the project. But there's hardly a corner of 80's cinema that wasn't touched by the slasher genre's tropes. I've already made my argument for The Terminator (which won't be included here, but totally would fit right in), but during the decade we saw haunted house movies picking people off one by one, Hitchcockian thrillers shoving in body count kills, and plenty of action pictures shoving their burly stars into standoffs with knife-wielding psychos.

Today we're exploring the latter, with a deeply weird Chuck Norris picture called Silent Rage. It was directed by the man who made the execrable National Lampoon's Class Reunion, which filled me with dread. But it's also the first time I've ever seen a Chuck Norris project, so I wasn't not excited.

I know that's a weird admission for somebody as mired in 80's pop culture as me, but what can I say? He never made the effort to reach out.

As if you need a plot summary beyond that super wordy tagline on the poster, here's a quick rundown. Dan Stevens (Chuck Norris, and I wonder if the actor Dan Stevens' parents were huge fans) is the sheriff of a small town. So small there's only about four locations in it! When he and his bumbling, alleged comic relief partner Charlie (Stephen Furst, also of Class Reunion) are called to the scene of a double homicide, they end up in a shootout with the perpetrator John Kirby (Brian Libby). His corpse is taken to The Institute, the local experimental hospital where he has been watched over by psychologist Dr. Tom Halman (Ron Silver). In the process Dan is reunited with his ex, Dr. Halman's sister Alison (Toni Kalem). She is incredibly angry at him over their breakup five years ago so she immediately gets back into bed with him, because she's a woman in an 80's action movie.

Meanwhile Halman's boss/mad scientist Dr. Philip Spires (Steven Keats) is testing a serum that makes people like, super strong, and able to regenerate dead tissue. Of course he wants to use it on the unstable Kirby, because a braindead corpse doesn't just land in your lap every day. So Kirby of course embarks upon a killing rampage in the four aforementioned locations and Chuck Norris must stop him. Badda bing badda boom, this movie is 104 minutes for some reason.

We needed to give him room to sweat in as many scenes as possible.

Where The Terminator is an action film that puts on slasher movie drag, Silent Rage is a slasher movie that desperately wants to retrofit itself to work Chuck Norris and his whole deal into the plot. This is clumsily accomplished, but in the same way that most B-action movies of the 80's are clumsily accomplished, so it's kind of charming in spite of itself.

Not since the opening scenes of Commando (where Arnold Schwarzennger has ice cream with Alyssa Milano) have I seen a more unsettling, supposedly sweet montage that looks like the man could snap the other person's neck at any moment. Chuck Norris has a "rekindled love" sequence with Toni Kalem that's creepy beyond the massive ten year age difference, involving them swinging wildly back and forth on a hammock, him rescuing her from a tree, and generally just shirtlessly glowering at her like a blonde boulder. Incidentally, it's scored to a cheesy pop song performed by Married with Children's Katey Sagal, so this is a skeleton in the closet of even more people than you thought!

Also, consider the fact that Norris racks up a higher body count than the actual killer, when he single-handedly takes on an entire biker gang in a bizarre interlude that eats up fifteen minutes of the film across two scenes and has literally zero bearing on the plot. It does, however, provide some pretty delightful fight choreography. Heads are cracked, chairs are smashed, and a motorcycle goes flying through a goddamn window! It's a shot of adrenaline directly into the cornea.

Also, from the way the gang talks and behaves, I'm pretty sure up until the moment of shooting, the script read "pirates" before it was hastily crossed out and replaced with "bikers."

This scene feels spliced in from a different film, and not just because it's an absolute footnote in the plot. It's because it's the only sequence that actually features good fight choreography. Every other time Chuck Norris is called into action, every character is clearly waiting their turn to softly strike the other, completely unaccompanied by any sort of music. It's like watching rehearsal footage. 

As for the slasher elements, they're not in top shape, but definitely not the worst I've seen in these here parts recently. The main kills (as in, the ones involving named characters rather than unnamed extras mowed down in the third act rampage) are more action-centric, focusing on the chase and the process of the killer wearing his victims out and outsmarting them, rather than delivering great gore gags. Which is a good move, because Silent Rage doesn't have many of those to offer.

What it does have, however, is surprisingly solid camerawork. Michael Miller really got his money's worth out of his Steadicam, because we're constantly swooping and gliding through our environment, slinking around the action with an eerie grace. This is at its best in the terrific opening scene, which is mostly delivered in one shot. We see a pre-serum John Kirby struggling not to let his inner demons become axe-wielding outer demons, all while three children scream and play in the lobby of his living space. The combined noises of their toy guns, their shrill cries, and their mother screeching at them to shut up reach Babadookian levels of unbearable, and really draw you in to his inevitable mental collapse. It's thrilling, frightening, and leaves you in suspense as to who exactly will receive their violent end at his hands. It's honestly nearly perfect, until the film shows its hand with an over-delicate swing of a prop axe that elicits the softest whisper of a "goosh" from the man it becomes embedded in.

Unfortunately, beyond that scene, when Brian Libby is asked to fill the role of "wordless pyscho killer," he loses any sense of personality and completely relaxes his grip on the character, becoming a complete blank.

"Here's nobody!"

It's maybe telling that the best the movie has to offer is already out of the way before Chuck Norris even shows up. He's saddled with a boring, stoic character that doesn't even learn about his antagonist's regenerative capabilities until about ten minutes before the film ends. His empty masculine posturing fails to fill a film that is more focused on pumping you full of dread rather than testosterone. Whereas I started to be rather fond of Dr. Halman and his wife Nancy, who share probably ninety seconds of screen time together, I never got a bead on Dan Stevens or what he wanted after an entire film of being shackled to his perspective.

I'd say that overall, in spite of its flaws, the movie is at least amusing enough as a time capsule of the bizarre, contradictory impulses of cinema in 1982. So perhaps it succeeds only in spite of itself, but it's still a success in my book!

Killer: John Kirby (Brian Libby)
Final Girl: I guess Allison (Toni Kalem), but you know it's actually Chuck Norris
Best Kill: The sheer drama that fails to successfully play out while Charlie is being bear hugged until his spine snaps is pretty hilarious.
Sign of the Times: Chuck Norris!
Scariest Moment: Allison discovers her brother's grey, bloodless body hanging on the back of a door.

Weirdest Moment: In a random interlude, Charlie tells a story about when he was six years old and tried to dry off his wet dog in the freezer, with horrifying results.
Champion Dialogue: "Whatever happened between us six years ago is water under the dam or over the bridge."
Body Count: 9; not including a man we see running down a hallway chased by the killer, who is presumably long dead by the time the credits roll.
  1. Tenant is axed in the face.
  2. Mother is axed.
  3. Tom is strangled.
  4. Nancy has her head smashed against a wall.
  5. Paul is stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle.
  6. Phillip has his neck snapped.
  7. Doctor is smashed into a wall.
  8. Charlie is bear hugged to death.
  9. Elevator Cop is killed in the head offscreen.
TL;DR: Silent Rage is a very silly 80's action-horror hybrid, which does put me on its good side.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1494

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Census Bloodbath: The (Last) Days Of Our Lives

Year: 1982
Director: William Wiard
Cast: Suzanne Pleshette, Barry Newman, Robert Vaughn
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

There are certain mini-trends I've noticed in my Census Bloodbath project, and as we dive deeper into our reflection on the slasher movies of 1982, we've encountered two of them. Last time, the sub-subgenre we unearthed was a personal favorite: a one-off entry from a foreign country trying to cash in on the boom. This time, it's an even more delicious discovery: one more fruit from the tree of the made-for-TV slasher. This entry in particular is Fantasies, AKA The Studio Murders, made for ABC in the early 80's to cash in on the craze that seemed like it would never die.

Unlike the characters that populated it.

Fantasies tells the story of Carla Webber (Suzanne Pleshette of The Birds and The Bob Newhart Show), the creator of a massively popular nighttime soap opera called Middleton, U.S.A. She receives a professional challenge in the form of a deranged madman murdering the actors on her show one by one, but she faces it with headstrong courage. She also must navigate a new potential love affair with Detective Flynn (Barry Newman), who's investigating the mruders, her teenage daughter Sandy (Lenora May) becoming independent and starting to date, and her ex-husband John (Patrick O'Neal) suddenly showing up to cause drama.

Also all that chalk dust is hell on the lungs. Somebody needs to invent laptops, stat!

Whenever I'm digging these trenches through the backwaters of the 80's and unearth a movie made for television, I get a teensy bit nervous. The TV restrictions on gore and sexual content, especially in  the 80's, would seem to strip slashers of every possible reason they have to exist. But maybe that existential challenge is exactly what filmmakers need to craft something unique, because between this one and the previous year's Dark Night of the Scarecrow, they've turned out to be pretty excellent so far.

Or rather, they excel at certain strengths that most slashers lack. As a horror-slasher film, Fantasies is a pretty abysmal failure. Not only are the killings bloodless, offscreen, or in silhouette, they barely scrape up enough screentime and consequence to be considered a B-plot. Because of the amount of time we spend with Carla, we don't get a lot of one-on-one moments with the victims themselves so it's hard to care what happens to them. And even though Carla is our anchor, we often don't even get her reaction to the killings, but rather cut to a point down the road where she's already learned of the death and processed it. There's no sense of mounting dread or progression to the murders: at one point we learn there's been a lull in the killings after the show was put on hiatus, but we literally haven't learned yet that either of these things have happened.

It's a good thing then that Fantasies has no aspirations to be a true blue slasher. Instead it works very hard at being a Lifetime-y "women's picture" thriller, a course of action which plays to its strengths extremely well. Its depiction of a woman in charge of a TV writer's room is decades ahead of its time, and it's fascinating to observe Carla's decisions behind every narrative beat and how it will affect the audience's perceptions of sexuality, gender, and morality. It's a story that really drills down into the ways that television informs the culture, for better or for worse, in a way that's specifically and thrillingly female-forward.

Fantasies has an iron grip on what makes Carla tick, and her every emotional beat is electric (the scene where her ex-husband laments that she wasn't destroyed but rather reborn when he left her is powerful), and it's all thanks to Suzanne Pleshette. She has bucketfuls of charisma, whether she's leading a saucy Q&A on a college campus, bonding with her impossibly lovely daughter, or lamenting the potential loss of the show that she is so proud of. Pleshette portrays a certain down-to-earth optimism with conviction, and it's impossible not to be drawn into her storyline. The horror she plays a little less well (as does the movie), but she's a magnetic lead character that redeems all of this film's quite severe flaws.

Here's more of her at a chalkboard, because apparently this movie didn't make enough of an impression on the zeitgeist for Google to give me a lot of options.

Carla stands head to head with most of my favorite adult final girls, including Lauren Bacall from The Fan and Lauren Tewes from Eyes of a Stranger. Interestingly, all three of them play public figures. Maybe that just does something for me. Anyway, she and her drama are fascinating enough to watch that you almost forget you're watching a slasher film. And it's a good thing too, because as bad as the horror elements are in progress, the way the end is almost worse.

After the disposal of a red herring using a clue that's deeply hilarious ("He couldn't have strangled her because there's literally no tendons in his left hand so he can't close it!"), we get a showdown in the surf on a moonlit beach that would be cool if there were any lights on it. It's a dark, fumbling, foamy pit of nonsense and it's not the best choice with which to end a movie that up until now hasn't really given a shit about its own tension. Plus, as much as this film is about female empowerment, the filmmakers were very skittish about having their lead character commit violence, so she's not real active about defending herself. I won't even mention the final gag that is not only cliché but actively undermines the entire 85 minutes that came before it. 

As it shakes out, Fantasies is at least still a fun time. But only if you approach it as something more Steel Magnolias than Friday the 13th.

Killer: [Arthur (Ben Marley)]
Final Girl: Carla Webber (Suzanne Pleshette)
Best Kill: There's not a lot of excitement going around in this section, but before Quentin Mallory is killed, he is thrown through a glass table which is kinda fun.
Sign of the Times: There is so much business about having to hand out different telephone numbers for every distinct place the characters are going to be at any given time.
Scariest Moment: I know the movie wants me to think it's the POV shots where the killer stalks Carla while whistling "Pop Goes the Weasel," but it's actually the scene where a woman approaches an actress in the grocery store and begins to talk to her like she's her character from Middleton.
Weirdest Moment: The killer breaks into Carla's house to strangle her, which she reacts to afterward like she just saw a mouse and is vaguely grossed out.
Champion Dialogue: "Those cozy little meals evoke too many memories, all of them unpleasant."
Body Count: 4; not including the husband of one of the victims, who is presumably killed alongside her but we don't see or hear about it.
  1. Quentin Mallory is beaten to death with a baseball bat.
  2. Larry Malden is pushed through a window.
  3. April is stabbed to death.
  4. Roy Hanson is shot.
TL;DR: Fantasies is not a solid slasher movie, but a rather fun Lifetime-esque movie instead.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1225

Monday, November 4, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Blame It On Rio

Year: 1982
Director: Jair Correia
Cast: Jurandir Abreu, Cláudia Alencar, Elias Andreato
Run Time: 1 hour 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: LOL no

Committing myself to watching every single slasher movie released in the 1980's has sure brought me to some dark corners of cinema history, and we're about to enter one more such corner today. I watched Shock: Diversão Diabólica, AKA Shock: Evil Entertainment, a Brazilian slasher movie for which I could find absolutely no subtitles. Even though I don't speak a lick of Portuguese, I will remind you of what I've said in my previous foreign slasher reviews: this is an exercise in slasher aesthetic and structure anyway - we all know the dialogue barely matters in these movies.

Don't worry, I've got this.

One thing I am completely unable to provide, however, is a particularly coherent plot synopsis or character names, but I'll give the bigger motions of the narrative a shot. According to several reviews I've seen online, the characters who are gathered at the music venue that is our setting are members of a band who are waiting for a van to come pick up their equipment. These reviews don't seem to mention why easily four of the main cast members are already having sex away from the main hall while the band is still performing, but perhaps their set was earlier in the evening. Who can tell.

Anyway, we have a very small platter of Meat, all told. After the first place-setting murder, there are just three couples left behind: Preppy Guy and Monologue Girl, who try to have sex but she turns him down and he falls immediately asleep for nearly the rest of the movie; Legwarmer Girl and Stripe Guy, who have a lot of sex and provide the movie its requisite nudity; and Scarf Lady and Beard Man, who are visibly older than the rest of them and eat sandwiches. That's about all I've got. There's also an unseen killer in black boots wandering around with a hankering to strangle, and there's our movie sorted!

Time to get down to business.

I want to remind you that you should take this review with a grain of salt, because maybe the script as written is a masterpiece character study or delectable Sirkian melodrama. But as a slasher film, it is deeply shitty. How does it fail me as a Census Bloodbath entry? Let me count the ways.

To start, the kills are underwhelming at best. I've seen my share of low budget slashers, and while I always get frustrated by films with an overreliance on cutaway gags that don't show the actual kill, those would have been far preferable to the bloodless, tedious stranglings delivered by our villain here. I admire that they found a cheap effect that would still allow an onscreen kill, but personally speaking I prefer at least a little splashing blood and knifeplay here and there. The only times knives are even a major presence in the film are in a weird red herring where a chef chops a hot dog in the first scene, and when Preppy Guy is framed for the death of his girlfriend by having a bloody blade placed in his hand. This somehow works despite the fact that, as you might be able to put together, she was strangled.

The villain could have almost been interesting or even iconic if not for this disappointing M.O. I like the way they've translated the Italian giallo trope of the black gloved killer into a black booted killer, and the amount of random shots of people's feet early on (I was beginning to wonder if Quentin Tarantino was guest director on certain scenes) start to make sense as his steel-tipped shoes start clicking menacingly through the frame. And there's this uncanny thing he does between killings where he sits onstage and starts riffing on the drums. Doing something so mundane and non-threatening in between violent murders is actually pretty creepy, but the kills are staged so laxly that it doesn't play quite right.

And then we have to contend with everything outside of the killer and his antics. Again, there was obviously an important element missing for this viewer, but the characters seemed especially shallow this time around. If they're not having sex, they're screeching at each other in panic. And there's a lot of screeching because at least sixty percent of the movie is our entire cast barricaded in one room debating what to do and not ever reaching a decision.

And the prettiest couple in the movie doesn't even have a sex scene, so I don't understand what we're doing here in the first place.

During the final third of the film, the director apparently decided he wanted the movie to have some style, and it does shake things up a bit at least. Some of the filmmaking decisions (like setting an entire kill sequence under an unmotivated strobe light effect) are dire, but some (like smash cutting to the killer's next victim's scared face every time he takes a step up the stairs toward her) are visually interesting to a degree I can't say I was expecting given the evidence of the rest of the film.

Or maybe the editor of the film just plain didn't know what they were doing. The longest and most exploitative sex scene is even more incoherent than the one that opens A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Drem Child, presenting random close-ups of pulsing flesh that are indistinguishable as human body parts and flagrantly cross the 180 degree line to boot.

I can see the much better movie this could have been standing on the sidelines and begging to be put into play. Unfortunately, almost none of Shock's best qualities end up on the screen for a satisfying amount of time. So I'm just going to have to pick up that rock I found this beneath and put it back where I found it, hoping nobody is unwise enough to follow my example.

Killer: We don't ever actually find out, and that's not because I couldn't get anybody's name down
Final Girl: Scarf Lady
Best Kill: A guy who was framed for being the killer is tied up, then the killer uses the very rope he's tied up with to garrote him.
Sign of the Times: Every single character's hair is exactly the same, regardless of age or gender.
Scariest Moment: If somehow you missed the title card, the poster, or any advertising, the first kill would be a pretty shocking surprise, because for the first twenty minutes this movie gives absolutely no indication that there's a killer lurking about.
Weirdest Moment: This girl who keeps pointlessly monologuing to her sleeping boyfriend leaves the room and starts monologuing to the killer instead.
Champion Dialogue: "Assassino! Assassino!" (I got that one)
Body Count: 7; including a rat who gets the most slasher-y death of anyone in the movie.
  1. Boots Lady is garroted in a car.
  2. Monologue Girl is lifted off the ground and strangled.
  3. Preppy Boy is garroted with a rope.
  4. Beard Man is garroted.
  5. Legwarmer Girl is strangled.
  6. Rat is stabbed with a butcher knife.
  7. Stripe Guy is killed offscreen.
TL;DR: Shock: Evil Entertainment is not a movie I was able to fully review due to the language barrier, but if that was removed there's every chance I might have liked it even less.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1239

Friday, November 1, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Duck And Cover

Year: 1982
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Jack Hedley, Almanta Suska, Howard Ross 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

The giallo genre that dominated the Italian horror landscape in the 70's may have given way to the slashers in America when the 80's rolled around, but were those exploitation filmmakers just supposed to go away after that? I don't think so, honey. The Italian genre directors knew how to adapt and survive into any new wave of cinema, and gore maestro Lucio Fulci was preeminent among them. After the slasher dam burst with the flood of films following Friday the 13th, Fulci built himself a raft called The New York Ripper, and... well, it sure is a Lucio Fulci joint.

Hope you're not a fan of women making it safely through movies!

The New York Ripper tells the sordid tale of a killer using his trusty switchblade to carve his way through the women of New York's night life. Lieutenant Fred Williams (Jack Hedley of For Your Eyes Only) is on the case, teaming up with professor of psychology Dr. Paul Davis (Paolo Malco of that same year's The Scorpion with Two Tails - coming soon!) to profile the killer and track him down. 

That's really about it for plot. Otherwise we follow random victims of the Ripper through their daily lives until they do or don't get ripped. The most important of these are Fay Majors (Almanta Keller), who narrowly escapes an attack on the subway, causing her to interrupt her training for the Olympics - if you know what event she's training for, you have better ears than I do; her physicist boyfriend Peter Bunch (Andrew Painter), who always seems to have somewhere to be whenever the Ripper is around; and Jane Forrester Lodge (Alexandra Delli Colli), a kinky woman who has an open relationship with her husband and gets her rocks off at live sex shows in a cream-colored fedora. 

In other words, she's awesome.

Oh, did I mention the killer quacks like a duck while he's murdering his victims? That seems like it's probably important. Yes, in every scene he's doing a half-decent Donald Duck impression. And yes, this is extremely terrifying. I had heard about this element going in and fully expected it to be laughable, but I was dead wrong. The manic quacking combined with brutal, bloody violence is uncanny as all hell, and my spine wanted to curl right out of my body every time it happened.

Fulci's films are famous for their use of nightmare logic, an argument that I usually assume people adopt to defend his frequently inept editing, stilted dialogue, and sound design. But whether or not it's intentional, the way his scenes lose control and start to degrade (sometimes outright eschewing continuity and/or the laws of physics) right as the horror and - yes - the quacking kick it up to 11 packs a powerful, disorienting punch.

I'm actually much more inclined to believe that his twisted logic is intentional, because there are a great many scenes explicitly designed to knock you off kilter, even in little moments. Take the sequence where the killer makes a late night phone call to Lt. Williams, who is in bed with a woman we assume to be his wife. It's not until minutes later that it's revealed she's a prostitute who he frequently meets. Does it make sense that these people would be in a full deep slumber together*? Of course not! But it all serves the fact that every single one of these characters has a stake in the city's nightlife, twisting our expectations along the way.

*Come to think of it, every couple that has sex in this movie falls into an immediate deep sleep like they pricked their finger on a magic spinning wheel.

In addition to being surprisingly chilling, The New York Ripper provides buckets and buckets of the expected Lucio Fulci grue. Normally when I'm taking notes on a slasher film, the description of a kill will looking something like this "*Nancy is impaled on antlers." Well, for each and every murder scene here I had to keep adding note after note until it practically became a full fledged paragraph.

This movie is brutal to the women who populate it, putting them through the ringer, smashing that ringer with a sledgehammer, and building a new ringer out of shards of their own bones before putting them through that. The slasher genre (especially the Italian flavor) has a lot to answer for RE: the way it treats beautiful women, but I've gone into that a million times before. So all I will say is that the kills are grotesque, scuzzy, fabulously rendered, and hold off on the trademark Lucio Fulci eye trauma just enough that you think he might not even do it this time.

Don't worry, he does.

Ripper is one of those slashers that takes the grimy, run down streets of early 80's New York City and turns that aesthetic into a meat grinder of horror that makes you want to take a shower afterward. As in, it would make a great double feature with Maniac. These kills aren't fun. They're horrible, which is I guess a good thing, because they're supposed to be. It's just a rough watch sometimes. I suppose it all has to do with tone. There is a queasily realistic shot involving a razor blade and a nipple that is genuinely upsetting, the polar opposite of the transparently, almost charmingly exploitative scene in the daffy Bloody Moon where a knife goes straight through a woman's back and sticks out of her breast. I suppose there's room for both of these in the horror landscape, but Ripper takes the sleazy grindhouse approach rather than the... whatever the hell Jess Franco was doing in Bloody Moon.

At any rate, it accomplishes what it sets out to do: horrify. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't work quite so well, even on its own terms. For one thing, it is an absolute failure as a police procedural whodunit. 

I've already expressed my distaste for police-centric slashers, because they don't allow us to spend enough time with the potential victims that we really get a sense of their character or begin to care about them. But The New York Ripper is an absolute mess on top of that, forgetting to introduce major suspects or red herrings until the halfway mark, in scenes that act like we've already met these people half a dozen times before. It also fabulously mishandles its own tone, choosing to end on a maudlin bit of sentiment that had only been set up ten minutes before in one of the film's most narratively confusing, sloppily edited sequences. 

It's the Winchester Mystery House of movie scripts. Characters show up, are given names and personality traits, then never appear again. Crucial details (including the major decision to reveal that Dr. Davis is gay) arise and are immediately forgotten. And certain beautiful images (my favorite being a woman's reflection in a turning doorknob) are surrounded by a dreadful mire of repetitive, gloomy guerrilla photography.

I would only recommend The New York Ripper to people who know exactly what they're getting themselves into and are willing to subject themselves to it. Taken on its own terms, I'd say it's a pretty darn good exploitation offering, but it's not the type of movie I rush to rewatch or recommend. I'd say if you've seen Maniac and The Beyond and had the stomach for both of them, then this might just be the movie for you. That's a very small sliver of a Venn Diagram, but there's plenty of people who fit it, so if that's you, have a ball!

I guess I'd like to end this review with a small discussion of Dr. Davis' homosexuality, which is revealed in a purposeless scene of him buying a male nudie magazine. I'm almost entirely certain that this was included in the film to show that he is a "pervert" and position him as a murder suspect because he's a wild and crazy guy who would eschew the delights of female flesh. But it never gets brought up, and he's allowed to be a smart, capable person and survive the film. So that's still pretty damn good representation for 1982, just saying.

Killer: [Peter Bunch (Andrew Painter)]
Final Girl: Fay Majors (Almanta Keller), once she finally shows up
Best Kill: This is one of those sleazy movies where it doesn't feel right to reward the murders, but in terms of special effects, Kitty's death by razor (including it slicing through her nipple and eye) holds up stomach-churningly well.
Sign of the Times: A victim's landlady recalls the exact time she last saw her alive because Dallas had just come on.
Scariest Moment: Fay is sitting in an empty movie theater and a man starts violently grabbing at her crotch from beneath the seat.
Weirdest Moment: Jane visits a restaurant and one of the patrons pleasures her under the table with his bare foot for a loooooong time.
Champion Dialogue: "Well well well, if it isn't the big chief person himself."
Body Count: 6
  1. Rosie is slashed.
  2. Live Sex Show Lady is stabbed in the gut with a broken bottle.
  3. Jane is sliced up the abdomen.
  4. Kitty is mutilated with a razor.
  5. Mickey is suffocated with a plastic bag offscreen.
  6. Peter is shot in the face.
TL;DR: The New York Ripper is disgusting and sleazy, but that's exactly what it aims to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1592