Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Census Bloodbath: A Pleasure To Have In Class

Year: 1983
Director: William Wiard
Cast: Donna Reed, Larry Wilcox, David Ackroyd
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

You know a couple things ahead of time when you head into a TV movie slasher. You know there's going to be a bunch of random TV actors assembled for the honor of dying in order from least to most famous (the absolute most famous either don't die at all because they're just a cameo for one day of filming, or they're the killer. Or both.) And you know the kills aren't going to be what you're used to, given network censorship against violence, especially at that time. Although, given the way the MPAA was cracking down on the genre in theaters by this point in the 80's, there's hardly any difference.

So I always try to keep an open mind when approaching one of these things, and Deadly Lessons, which originally premiered on ABC, had a couple aces up its sleeve that I was keen to check out. First, it comes from director William Wiard of Fantasies, which was the best TV movie slasher of 1982 (yes, there were several. You couldn't escape the slasher film on any medium in the 80's, including NES games and 900 numbers). And it was written by a woman, in this case prolific TV movie and miniseries writer Jennifer Miller. Any time a slasher even glances in the direction of having anyone behind the scenes be female, it's worth paying extra attention.

Even when that movie is unwatchable like A Night to Dismember, which also came out in 1983.

So our story begins with young Stefanie Aggiston (Diane Franklin of Amityville II: The Possession) getting a scholarship to go to the prestigious rich girls' boarding school Starkwater Hall. It takes a while for her to fit in with the upper crust brats over summer session, but right when she starts feeling comfortable, someone starts murdering the girls one by one. Enter Detective Russ Kemper (Larry Wilcox of CHiPS!), hellbent on discovering the identity of the murderer. But can Stefanie, fueled by her Nancy Drew moxie and obsession with the Clue-esque board game Evidence! beat him to the punch?

Deadly Lessons has a shockingly huge cast of characters, almost all of whom are played by someone of note ("of note" includes the rather generous definition of people who were in another Census Bloodbath movie, but still, these names!). Let's start with the victim pool, AKA the girls of Starkwater Hall: literal Saudi princess Shama (Vicki Kriegler); the worldly - see: "horny" - Rita Armstrong (Ally friggin' Sheedy); her best friend and Token Black Character Cally (Renee Jones of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives); and shy overeater Libby (Nancy Cartwright, Bart Simpson herself).

Then we have the suspect pool, AKA the staff of Starkwater Hall: ice queen headmistress Miss Wade (Donna friggin' Reed); equestrian teacher and Wade's secret lover John Ferrars (David Ackroyd); requisite creepy groundskeeper Robert Hartigan (Donald Hotton of Freeway Maniac); handsome stable boy Eddie (Bill Paxton of Bill Paxton, but also Night Warning and Mortuary); stuffy bow-tied English professor Morgan Rank (Robin Gammell of Murder by Phone); French teacher Mrs. Grant (Ellen Geer of Bloody Birthday); and prim assistant headmistress Miss Hunt (Ruth Silveira, also of Bloody Birthday).

And the review hasn't even started yet! You ready?

I've already mentioned that we knew going in the kills weren't going to be remarkable, but they're actually even more demure than in Fantasies. There was never going to be any blood dripping around the place, but here we exclusively get either cutaway gags or people discovering the body after the fact. Luckily the filmmakers made the smart move of having the victims be strangled or drowned, so they can at least show the bodies without too much fretting. We're at least aware we're making a slasher movie here.

But what Deadly Lessons can't deliver in gruesome murders, it does in heaps of playful whodunit mayhem. The parlor room sequences abound here, as the plot thickens and two factions of sleuths race to the finish. There's a little too much cop nonsense in the movie, which you know I don't like (they needed as many scenes for Larry Wilcox as possible), but any moment where Stephanie and her Babysitters Club gaggle of Sherlocks are trying to get to the bottom of things is a delight. Unfortunately the Encyclopedia Brown sleuthing (there's a lot of material mined from whether or not people's boots are covered in mud) doesn't get us all the way to the finale, which kind of chucks murder mystery mechanics in exchange for a Big Grand Villanous Motive Explanation Speech. But it was fun while it lasted.

And even though there isn't a murder setpiece around every corner, Deadly Lessons does its best to deliver overheated melodrama action as often as possible, including hay bales falling to crush Stephanie out of nowhere, and a bucking bronco triggered by an electric shocking gadget beneath the saddle. These are the moments where the thrills come, and while they're certainly not actually thrilling, they're deliciously cheesy in the way of all the best old school TV movies.

You must remember, this is back before all TV was movies.

And probably the biggest accomplishment of Deadly Lessons is making such a huge cast of characters seem unique and compelling in their own right. Sure, there are a couple of the tertiary characters I could never quite get straight, but on a whole the morass of identically clad schoolgirls is actually quite easy to parse through, thanks to a set of distinct performances that capture each girl's personality and her dynamic with the rest of the group.

The cherry on top is Donna Reed parading around as the frigid grand dame to rule them all, playing off of several saucy love triangles. Sure, it could have been better if it was a theatrical movie with the guts to include more guts. But within the narrow realm of what it is, Deadly Lessons is nothing short of a delight. I certainly wish William Wiard had continued to work in the slasher industry, because I could use a couple more sparkling gems like this to unearth coming down the line.

Killer: Det. Russ Kemper (Larry Wilcox)
Final Girl: Stefanie Aggiston (Diane Franklin)
Best Kill: There aren't any kills onscreen, but I'll say the death of mean girl Tember is the best because it's surprisingly early and means we don't have to deal with her for the rest of the movie.
Sign of the Times: You know this is pre-1985 because Ally Sheedy doesn't have the lead role.
Scariest Moment: The Obvious Red Herring Groundskeeper goes absolutely bananapants and kidnaps Ally Sheedy to tie her up and tell her all about how much he loved her mom.
Weirdest Moment: See above.
Champion Dialogue: "Who could be so barfy?"
Body Count: 3; though there is a fourth pre-Final Girl attack sequence where the victim just happens to survive.

  1. Tember is drowned offscreen.
  2. Althea is strangled with wire offscreen.
  3. Shama is strangled with her scarf offscreen.

TL;DR: Deadly Lessons is limited as a slasher by the nature of being a TV movie, but it leans into all the other things that make TV movies great.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1214

Monday, June 28, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Eh-Merica

Year: 1983
Director: Don McBrearty
Cast: Lawrence Day, Lora Staley, Neil Dainard
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

American Nightmare might just be the most Canadian slasher movie ever made, and that includes the title that cravenly wants you to think it's from the U.S. In front of and behind the camera is a coterie of Canadian slasher royalty, including screenwriter John Sheppard (Mark of Cain), producer Paul Lynch (who directed Prom Night and Humongous), composer Paul Zaza (Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Ghostkeeper, Curtains, and Body Count), and the word "abote." And the director doesn't have other credits in this marathon, but he does in another because somehow, some way he ended up directing a million Hallmark Christmas movies including Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe.

Now it's the accepted party line that Canadian slashers are of a piece a step above their American brethren, so let's kick the tires on that theory with the ne plus ultra of Canadian crews, shall we?

Pour some maple syrup on your popcorn and get to reading.

In American Nightmare, Eric (Lawrence Day) arrives in an unnamed American city (Toronto) to investigate the disappearance of his sister Isabelle (Alexandra Paul). He quickly discovers that she has been mixed up in the seedy underbelly of the city, namely a local strip club. The local detective (Mike Ironside, better known to everyone who isn't the credits designer on this movie as Michael Ironside, also of Visiting Hours and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) isn't super invested, so Eric enlists the help of stripper with a heart of gold Louise (Lora Staley).

All the while, a killer wearing an evil beret and a pair of clear gloves is stalking people involved in the club, including dancers Tina (Lenore Zann of Happy Birthday to Me, Visiting Hours, and Murder by Phone) and Andrea (Claudia Udy of Edge of Sanity and Skullduggery), as well as transvestite Dolly (Larry Aubrey). Oh, and also Eric's father Hamilton Blake (Tom Harvey) owns a TV station with his business partner Tony (Neil Dainard of The Incubus) that is putting on a huge New Year's Day telethon for UniSave, which is something something underprivileged children. Suspects include Tina's boyfriend Mark (Page Fletcher of Humongous), and literally any other man onscreen for any amount of time.

Men! What would we do without them?

There are two types of exploitation slasher movies. There is the kind where everyone is in on the joke and ready to have fun embracing the over-the-top ridiculousness of it (usually teenybopper sex romps full of boobs and bloody murder ie. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), and then there is the kind where everything is just grimy and sleazy and makes you want to take a shower afterward (anything focused on horrible rape, sweat dripping down a maniacal man's face, etc., ie. Don't Answer the Phone). It's all a matter of tone.

American Nightmare is somewhere in the middle. It doesn't have the finesse of Visiting Hours to position itself as a commentary on the misogyny of its killer, or the benefit of having a female director like the later (but similar) Stripped to Kill. But it has its merits in its own idiosyncratic, lopsided way. In the negative column, the kills are more brutally functional than creative (lots of slits throats and angry choking), and are thus pretty rough to watch. It's easier to watch annoying upper middle class teenagers get bumped off than sex workers who deserve better. Don't ask me why. Slasher viewer ethics are a gray area at all times.

But, on the plus side, American Nightmare takes the Stripped to Kill approach of including burlesque sequences that are of course meant to titillate, but also have an explicit interest of showing off a variety of talented women expressing themselves. And the characterization of the women is deeper than one might expect from the slasher genre. Hell, just a few entries ago, we reviewed Boardinghouse, where every female character was like the Phoebe Cates pool scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High had a baby with a wooden block.

There is a great deal of empathy in the portrayals here, especially Louise, who genuinely likes her job even though in some respects she is trapped in it (note the freedom she feels while performing topless vs. the torment and horror when she attends a TV audition and is forced to take off her clothes - powerfully performed by Staley). This movie posits that sex workers are real people with real feelings who deserve respect, even as it brutally punishes them with violent death. In a way, the movie is doing its job. It makes you care for its characters (including Dolly, who would probably have identified as transgender in a modern milieu, and is given an unusual depth of emotion for 1982) and thus infuses the murder scenes with extremely high stakes. 

Maybe it's harder for the slasher genre to express both sides of the body count coin when it's dealing with typically oppressed people, because - intentional or not - the themes of these movies do tend to politically align the audience in some way with the killer's actions. Note how the killer only targets women and queer people, not the straight white pimp who is actually responsible for the crime he wants revenge against.

Honestly I don't have an answer here. Let me move on before this becomes a full-on thesis.

There's a great deal of good or at least above average in American Nightmare. It's frequently well lit and occasionally throws in a pretty shot or two for good measure. And it's part of a time honored slasher tradition of being a secret Christmas movie (the impending telethon is on New Year's Day after all, and there are some threadbare Christmas trees tucked into corners). Plus Lenore Zann is intensely compelling with her huge, glistening doe eyes.

Honestly, the only weak spots in the acting are Day and Harvey as father and son. Their climactic confrontation is frankly baffling to witness. One flatly intones accusations while the other mutters lines under his breath that should have been shouted. It's all very high school one act festival. But really the only thing holding me back from giving this a full-fledged 7/10 is the extremely complicated feelings that led me to philosophize for objectively too many paragraphs earlier. All in all, not a bad start for my first real attempt at tackling 1983!

Killer: Tony Shaw (Neil Dainard)
Final Girl: Louise (Lora Staley)
Best Kill: I can't say I really liked any of these kills, but Dolly's murder, where they are lifted off the ground by the killer's sheer strength is pretty impactful.
Sign of the Times: There's a loooooot of business with VHS tapes going on.
Scariest Moment: The killer puts on vinyl gloves right after washing his hands, which I can tell you from experience over a year of quarantine is a recipe for disaster.
Weirdest Moment: Eric sits down to a movie marathon of his sister's sex tapes (to discover the identity of the killer, but still).
Champion Dialogue: "Things are really bumming out for me."
Body Count: 6

  1. Isabelle has her throat slashed with a straight razor.
  2. Andrea is drowned in the bathtub.
  3. Dolly is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Tina has her throat slit.
  5. Hamilton Blake shoots himself.
  6. Tony Shaw is pushed off a roof.

TL;DR: American Nightmare is grossly exploitative, but also has a surprisingly deep approach to character that redeems it somewhat.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1258