Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Beauty School Escapee

Year: 1982
Director: Alan J. Levi
Cast: Donna Wilkes, Richard Jaeckel, Frankie Avalon
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The slasher genre has featured plenty of celebrities in its time, but it usually only intersects with stars at either end of their career. Big shot celebrities like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Johnny Depp got their start in the slasher genre before moving onto bigger, occasionally better things. And then we get to the other end, where older stars like Farley Granger, Ernest Borgnine, Hal Holbrook, Rod Steiger, and Lauren Bacall show up to collect a paycheck once Hollywood isn't knocking down their door.

Even knowing this, let me tell you that seeing Frankie Avalon's name in the credits here is like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on your head. Sure, the timing was right. Even though he's best known these days for his cameo in Grease, the reason he was invited was because he was a venerable icon who could give that 1950's-set movie its retro cred rather than because he was a hot ticket name in 1978. But still.

He's as shocked as I am.

So here's what we're dealing with. When Paul Foley (Frankie Avalon) was a child, his father killed his adulterous mother and then himself, right after crafting his son a wooden instrument that is called a flute by every character but is pretty clearly an ocarina. His father only ever taught him one song (the lullaby "Go to Sleep Little Baby") and now that he's a grown man that's still all he can play. Oh, he's also in an insane asylum for unclear reasons. Probably because he's Pure Evil, because he escapes and immediately starts murdering everybody in his path.

One of those unlucky people in his path is Marion (Donna Wilkes of Schizoid), a high school student who is in a leg brace following a car accident caused by her alcoholic father Frank (Richard Jaeckel), who has only become more indolent and abusive since then, harassing her at every moment and turning every minute conversation into a harangue about defending her virginity from her fisherman boyfriend Joey (William Kirby Cullen). She and Joey are planning to run away to Portland, Oregon but before that things are getting more and more difficult. After a receiving a blood transfusion sourced from the local asylum, she is having terrible nightmares where she witnesses Paul's murders, and when he begins to stalk her around town, she's having a hard time separating dreams and reality.

"That can't be Frankie Avalon, I must be dreaming!"

Blood Song had the budget for both Frankie Avalon and a third act showdown in an operating sawmill, so I'm going to go ahead and assume there was some money behind it, but it looks like a typical microbudget slasher and certainly has the poster of one, so I bet it wasn't much. There's a lot of chintzy work here, especially with the awkward push-in close-ups on her eye that tunnel out into flashes of the killer's actions.  Or the electronic score that sounds like two cats fucking on a synth keyboard. Or the kills that aren't particularly bloody, though they do get a lot of use out of their axe wound prosthetic. But within those pretty tight parameters, Blood Song is actually extraordinarily competent. We're full of surprises today!

The film succeeds in a lot of areas where its peers fail. Beginning with the fact that it actually manages to drum up a little tension every now and again. Sure, the scenes that openly ape Halloween are just surfing in John Carpenter's wake, but there's one scene in particular with a hitchhiker that keeps you constantly on your toes whether Paul is going to profess his love or brutally murder her, sustaining that tension for a good two or three minutes. That's two or three minutes more tension than anything that something like - say - Blood Lake could deliver.

And despite the killer's motive being absolute dumb movie horseshit (His dad killed himself so now he's a murderer who kills anyone who makes fun of his flute? Psychologically sound, for sure), his calling card of snatches of flute music drifting along the wind is actually quite something. I do wish they did something more fully fleshed-out with Marion's psychic connection to the killer, but let's not ask too much of Blood Song.

Let's just sit here and nurse the fact that I can still enjoy anything in this marathon 180 films deep.

And while we're on the subject, I actually quite like Marion, especially the scenes where we're just hanging out with her and her friends. There's something surprising and satisfying about watching a young woman dealing with a physical disability that makes her vulnerable to the killer, yet who is well-liked, sexually active, and driven to survive by any means possible. A Hollywood studio would never have made that call for the character in 1982.

And this may be faint praise, but I promise it's not damning: the climactic chase sequence is lit properly. That is a luxury you can rarely expect from a slasher movie of this budget and vintage. But in every shot of the heroine running from the killer in the dark, you can see every facial expression, locked door, and improvised weapon that you need to see. It's not just a smudgy black screen with random flecks of color muddily swimming around. I could cry! Also there's a shot that's even kind of beautiful, of a forklift bearing a pallet of wood boards being knocked into a body of water, the machine sinking as the lightweight wood floats up and breaches the surface of the water.

I don't think Blood Song is a movie I would recommend to literally anyone. It just doesn't do enough beyond the exact baseline of not sucking. But coming from someone who is dangerously deep in the weeds on this subgenre, the care and skill put into making it was a real breath of fresh air. It's like a well-built chair. You might not rave about it to your friends, but you've sat in enough uncomfortable chairs to quietly appreciate the craftsmanship.

Killer: Paul Foley (Frankie Avalon)
Final Girl: Marion (Donna Wilkes)
Best Kill: Marion's dad's death, both because he deserves it and Paul really goes to town on him, axing his chest, face, and knee with some showstopping (for the budget) special effects.
Sign of the Times: I don't know what the hell this guy's problem is, but I know I'm more scared of him than the killer.

Scariest Moment: Literally any time Marion's dad speaks.
Weirdest Moment: The film opens with a Tennyson quote for some unfathomable reason.
Champion Dialogue: "I've got a hangover that would make King Kong climb a wall."
Body Count: 9; not including Joey, who is presumably killed offscreen before the final shot.
  1. Wife and
  2. Lover are shot.
  3. Jack shoots himself.
  4. Orderly is strangled.
  5. Driver is axed in the face.
  6. Hitchhiker is garroted with a necklace.
  7. Cathy is killed offscreen.
  8. Frank is axed to death.
  9. Bill is crushed with a forklift.
TL;DR: Blood Song is surprisingly a totally passable obscure weirdo slasher effort.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1208