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. 

Observe.

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

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