Thursday, October 1, 2020

Census Bloodbath: No Monster Is An Island

Happy October, everyone! Every year I do a horror franchise marathon leading up to Halloween, but this year I thought I'd do things a LITTLE bit differently. I've been slacking on my Census Bloodbath project, and I want to be finished with it before I'm of retirement age, so I'm giving it an adrenaline shot directly to the heart. I will be covering all 22 of the remaining slasher films from 1982 this month. Wish me luck! I'm gonna need it.

Year: 1982
Director: J.S. Cardone
Cast: Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The British censorship craze in the early 80's that birthed the term "video nasty" is basically a summer reading list for any self-respecting slasher fan. While 1982's The Slayer wasn't fully prosecuted as a nasty, it's still on the longlist, and for that I approached it with a slightly smaller grain of salt than usual.

Just one that was the size of a boulder. What a load off!

The Slayer immediately disappoints by being about a foursome who travels to a remote location for a much-needed vacation (meaning the body count will be prevented from being particularly high), but it is a perfectly formulaic setup that slasher fans will gobble up. The two couples are David (Alan McRae), a.... photographer? the only thing I really know about him is that he's the one with a mustache; his wife Kay (Sarah Kendall), a painter whose latest gallery show has taken a turn for the surreal and become a failure; her brother Eric (Frederick Flynn), a commercial director who is absolutely shitting himself at having the chance to go fishing; and his wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook, now a producer who perpetrated 2006's The Covenant), an actress who seems to hate his guts.

The location in question is an unnamed island played by Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia, and things begin to go south almost immediately when the horrifying nightmares Kay has been having for years turn out to be prophetic, and an evil presence is lurking on the island murdering them one by one.

Is it a monster, like she dreamed? Yes, actually. But honestly I'm not sure why. We see it a LITTLE more than in The Incubus, but that is the faintest praise I could possibly damn a monster with.

One thing I've learned is that absolutely nothing exists in a vacuum. While it's true that Wes Craven's 1984 masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street changed the course of the slasher genre to exist in a more supernatural rubber-reality space, it didn't invent the subgenre. Here we even get a character who fights to stay awake to prevent her dreams from manifesting as a killer presence. But there's a reason The Slayer didn't have the impact on the horror genre that Elm Street did. It's just not very good.

The dialogue scenes (of which there are many) offer literally nothing to the seasoned slasher viewer. I mentioned that the clich√© of the plot setup is serving what any connoisseur of the genre wants to see, but usually the reason the formula works so well is because of the many minute and varied differences in character, dialogue, setting, etc. etc. that are varied over that same basic skeleton. Take American Gothic which has almost exactly the same setup and is an infinitely more wild good time. But in The Slayer, the characters barely have a single dimension apiece (the women complain a lot and the men ignore them a lot) and their dialogue is so rote and uninspired that every time they open their mouths they might as well be saying "lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..."

And how could they be at a loss for something to talk about when that hair is threatening to strangle the life out of her head at any given moment?

Unfortunately, Sarah Kendall is not an actress with the range to compel us to pay attention to the nonsense that she's saying anyway. The vacancy of her performance does work for the character, whose mind is always a million miles away, but the movie severely lacks charisma in the scenes outside the necessarily infrequent killings.

Oh, but the killing that graces the end of the first act is as sublime an act of grisly slasher creativity as there ever was. It begins as many of these scenes often do, with David hearing a noise up in the attic and going up to investigate. But it ends way before most of these scenes. The instant he pokes his head up into the attic, the trapdoor snaps shut, crushing his neck into jelly in a wrenchingly long shot, slowly decapitating him as his body hangs uselessly from the ceiling. It's shocking, it's violent, the special effects are surprisingly well realized, and it leaves an impression that lasts for the rest of the film. The other two setpiece kills aren't bad (one is far too dark to really get an impression of what's happening, other than that it's complicated and horrible, but the other is a solid The Prowler-esque rake impalement), but they succeed largely because the movie has already infused its atmosphere with the manic anything-can-happen energy of that first kill.

Single-handedly, this scene redeems the 40 minute stretches on either side of it. OK maybe it's not a single hand. This movie has another half a hand or so, in the form of two things: The first is the magic of location. Tybee Island in 1982 has a haunting, desolate beauty that provides a stark relief to the horrors The Slayer visits upon it. And the second is the cinematography, provided by Karen Grossman. Now, I'm not going to overpraise it merely because of the fabulous excitement of seeing a female D.P. for what I believe to be the first time in this project (a female director is hard enough to find), but she finds a delicate interplay between light and shadow that does great things for the tone of the movie, because the dialogue and the acting certainly wouldn't clue you into the fact that this is supposed to be scary.

And I suppose I can't close out this review without mentioning that the monster itself is also a positive aspect of the film, even though it's in so little of it that it hardly counts, and the reason it is there is hardly explored to satisfaction. But please enjoy this GIF of its ooey gooey goodness (in practice, the jaw mechanism maybe didn't work quite as smoothly as they wanted, but it's still a neat look).


Killer: The Slayer (Carl Kraines)
Final Girl: Kay (Sarah Kendall)
Best Kill: You know which one; I wrote this entire review as an ode to it.
Sign of the Times: Kay wanders around on the beach in a chunky cable knit sweater with hair teased to the heavens.
Scariest Moment: Kay has a nightmare about kissing her husband good morning then discovering that he's just a severed head.
Weirdest Moment: The ending, where [SPOILERS] it turns out the whole movie was a (probably prophetic) dream that a five-year-old Kay had on Christmas morning.
Champion Dialogue: "observe the ass, for instance" (yes, this is a quote from Kay reading Mark Twain aloud. There is nothing in this script, I'm telling you)
Body Count: 5
  1. Wally is smacked on the head with an oar.
  2. David has his neck crushed with an attic trapdoor.
  3. Eric has his face wrapped with fishing line and pierced with a hook.
  4. Brooke is stabbed through the back with a rake.
  5. Marsh is shot with a flare.
TL;DR: The Slayer is a deeply boring and generic movie that is kept afloat by a pretty good location and pretty great kills.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1300

2 comments:

  1. "I will be covering all 22 of the remaining slasher films from 1982 this month. Wish me luck! I'm gonna need it."

    Yikes, good luck indeed

    Anyway, are slashers the weirdest genre? Other than the top-tier stuff, I guess they're kind of all completely unacceptable ensemble drama (sometimes completely unacceptable ensemble comedy), but with murders every so often. I guess we get used to it, but that *actually is* pretty weird, you know? Yeah, look who I'm talking to, I guess you would!

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    1. You raise a really interesting point that, yes, I have been completely inured against. They're also weird in so many other ways, but the requirements of the structure sometimes create overflowing canvases that filmmakers can't ever figure out what to do with.

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