Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Pull The Other One

Year: 1982
Director: Greydon Clark
Cast: Joe Don Baker, Stella Stevens, George Kennedy 
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

It makes perfect sense that 1982 would be the year with the highest concentration of slasher parodies. The boom began in earnest in mid-1980 with Friday the 13th, and reached its highest theatrical concentration in 1981 (Night School, Friday the 13th Part 2, Graduation Day, The Burning, and The Fan were all released in a single three-week period). Combine that with the enormous success of Airplane! in 1980, and you've got yourself a recipe for a glut in that very specific sub-subgenre. 

The trend kicked off with the star-studded and decent Pandemonium and the execrable National Lampoon's Class Reunion, which began John Hughes screenwriting career and somehow didn't tank him immediately (he's white). The capper of this trilogy was Wacko, a film that lands somewhere between them quality-wise, though (spoiler alert) it's much closer to Class Reunion on that very limited scale.

Maybe humor didn't get funny until 1983?

Wacko "tells" the "story" of Mary Graves (Julia Duffy of Night Warning and a million TV shows you've actually heard of), whose older sister was killed by The Lawnmower Killer 13 years ago during the Halloween Pumpkin Prom. Wouldn't you know it, now it's time for her Halloween Pumpkin Prom, and someone else has donned the pumpkin mask to kill some kids. She's attending with her boyfriend Norman Bates (Scott McGinnis), who makes lawnmower noises every time he gets horny, and boy they just weren't even trying with naming this character, huh?

The other notable teens are her best friends Bambi (Elizabeth Daily of Bad Dreams and also she's the fucking voice of Babe), Rosie (Michele Tobin), and Rosie's date Tony Schlongoli (Andrew Dice Clay in his first film role), who has a dick so huge that he bursts through his pants whenever he gets a boner. Comedy! Unfortunately we don't get to spend a lot of time with the actual characters, because the producers spent a third of their budget on the name actors playing the adults, including George Kennedy (seen similarly slumming it in Just Before Dawn the year prior) as Mary's father, Stella Stevens as her mother, and Joe Don Baker as film noir-esque detective Dick Harbinger.

Their roles are all embarrassing, but they're laughing their way to the bank.

I suppose we should talk about the comedy, because there's literally nothing to this movie other than an endless litany of gags layered over one another. Sometimes that can be successful. That structure is one of the reasons people praise Arrested Development to high heaven. But in order for that to work, the gags need to be good (see: Arrested Development season 5). 

There is some mildly amusing stuff that crops up every now and again, because out of 100,000 jokes, there's a statistical improbability that not a single one will make you laugh. But none of these successful gags (including a rope hanging out of the window of an escaped mental patient's first floor room, and a student saying of her chemistry teacher "he makes science so believable!") have anything to do with Wacko's ostensible purpose to parody the slasher film formula in any meaningful way.

There are very forced gags pointing out the tendency for these films to have unnecessary dream sequences or perverted gardener red herrings, but in a style that recalls Scary Movie, a lot of the gags feature totally unrelated horror properties (including The Omen, The Exorcist, and Alien) and scattershot cultural detritus (the West Side Story musical number that introduces Tony is both hideously staged and resolutely unfunny, and it does not shock me to find out that it was Andrew Dice Clay's idea). Wacko is so lackadaisically committed to the slasher conceit that the only death in the first hour isn't even perpetrated by the killer who is supposedly stalking around town.

That said, the film's third-best line comes when Mary worries that her father might kill someone with the replacement medical instruments he's been using because he can't find his scalpel, and her mother calmly chides her: "Your father is a doctor. He kills people EVERY day."

And once the kills kick in during the film's Prom Night-inspired final act, they prove to be entirely bloodless and starved for creativity. Even a death involving a teen's head being shoved into a garbage disposal is just an excuse for a flood of gags (the lunch lady shows up to tell the killer he needs to be running the water to turn on the disposal, and then it's randomly revealed that she is the teen in question's mother) rather than a fun, outré death. There is not one drop of blood, or even a little motion implying the jiggling of the machine. It's just static and demure in every possible way.

It's surprising that the kills are so underplayed, because everything else in the movie is played up to the rafters. Any running gag is repeated no fewer than one thousand times, and the jokes are so crammed into every single element of the movie that any time it stops to breathe for even a two second shot like somebody walking across the lawn, the sound designer throws in a random elephant trumpet sound... just because?

Other than the occasional, incidental laughs, there are only two things I liked about Wacko. The first is that Julia Duffy is a great casting choice, and her cartoonish baby voice provides a heightened, over-earnest register that the whole movie should have taken and run with. And the second thing is that the band that plays at the prom is a group called Avalon, who I actually quite like. So this movie has at least added to my "Slashdance" playlist of songs from slasher movies, even if it hasn't benefited me to watch in any other way.

Killer: Dick Harbinger (Joe Don Baker)
Final Girl: Mary Graves (Julia Duffy)
Best Kill: The chemistry teacher saws a woman in half to prove something about matter, and seems mildly disappointed when he finds out he's murdered her.
Sign of the Times: Andrew Clay hadn't even earned the "Dice" in his name yet!
Scariest Moment: The dad spying on his scantily clad daughters and constantly being laughed off is just... bone-chilling.
Weirdest Moment: There's a random car chase scene where one car uses a ramp to launch over another car as it explodes.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm really honored that you're still a virgin."
Body Count: 6
  1. Lady is sawed in half in Chemistry class.
  2. Vice Principal has his head squeezed in a vise.
  3. Bambi is decapitated with an axe.
  4. Tony has his head shoved in a garbage disposal.
  5. Rosie is put into some sort of... meat grinder conveyor belt?
  6. Dick Harbinger is impaled with an American flag, stabbed a bunch, and probably shot; frankly I'd stopped paying attention at that point.
TL;DR: Wacko is funnier on paper than it is in practice, and it's not that funny on paper.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1174

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