Friday, July 30, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Meh-Sommar

Year: 1983
Director: Hans Hatwig
Cast: Åke Eriksson, Sussi Ax, Eva Danielsson
Run Time: 1 hour 18 minutes

It's undeniable that the 80's slasher film is primarily a North American tradition. America was churning out the bulk of the chum, and Canada was batting clean-up with a lot of movies that were actually good. However, the whizzing of that money-printing machine was so loud it could be heard across oceans, and so far we've covered slashers from territories as far afield as West Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Spain, Brazil, the UK, and The Netherlands. However, it's always nice when another country gets in on the fun and throws their hat in the ring. Today's subject under the microscope is Blödaren AKA The Bleeder, Sweden's first (and only? I'll keep you posted) grab for the slasher brass ring. Let's see how they fared!

You do have to assemble the pieces yourself, unfortunately.

In Blödaren, the rock band Rock Cats (as played by the members of actual Swedish band Revansch) has finished their latest gig and is heading to their next stop in their tour van, which of course breaks down immediately. They grab their instruments and head to the nearby village of Bifors, the now-empty hometown of a boy whose family drowned 25 years ago, leaving him with brain damage from staying underwater too long. And wouldn't you know it, but this boy is now a man (Åke Eriksson, the drummer of the band Attack) dressed like a bad Chris Elliott character, and he has escaped from the local institution.

The girls (who are all blonde, and only distinguishable by their differently colored pants) wander around this abandoned village, peel off one by one, are kidnapped, and then killed. Meanwhile forest ranger Danne (Danne Stråhed), who has been investigating the abandoned van, canoes up and down the river and generally fails to get anywhere near helping any of them.

The authorities really need to learn that they have no business in a slasher movie anyway.

I'll say this one thing about Blödaren. They certainly did their horror movie homework. The music is stolen from Halloween, the squealing, dragging around of women, and bone decorating prowess of the killer is straight out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the baby carriage and bouncy ball that are his strange markers seem to randomly have been lifted from The Changeling. Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with stealing tropes from other movies. If James Wan has seen further, it is because he has stood on the shoulders of giants. You just need to deploy those tropes well. Which Blödaren doesn't do.

Yeah, did I forget to mention this movie is bone-crushingly terrible? Blödaren only has two scenes, which it repeats ad nauseam:

1) The girls explore an empty building that is covered floor to ceiling in blood, but don't get freaked out until they discover a skull somewhere in the premises, at which point they scream and run out. It's like a twisted Where's Waldo.

2) The killer kidnaps one of them, attempts to play with them, and then drags them offscreen when they attempt to escape. We hear them scream, and this means that they are dead. 

Reader, this movie has no onscreen deaths, and hardly a drop of blood to be found beyond the obligatory "this person is dead so they have to have a dribble of blood coming inexplicably from their mouth" makeup.

Usually a bad slasher featuring a rock band at least features them performing a lot of fun-bad music, but despite the rock cats carrying their instruments with them for the entire movie, the only glimpse we get of musicality is a snippet of a song from the end of their concert in the intro. Blödaren is content to be flavorless and empty for the bulk of its run time, an impulse I can't say I respect. The only thing that is pleasurable to gaze upon during the interminable Bifors sequence is the costumery on display. The girls are all kitted out in their best ridiculous mid-80's Eurofashions.

Each woman is bedecked in a cascade of fabric that will send your eye on a journey through colors and patterns previously unimaginable by the human soul, but the MVP has to be Nulle's legwarmers, which have little jingle bells sewn in that make her sound like a tambourine every time she moves. And the only genuinely terrifying moment in this horror film is when forest ranger Danne takes off his big jacket and reveals that he has been rocking a rat tail padawan braid this entire time.

OK, can I scrounge up anything else good to say about Blödaren? Well, there are some reasonably effective POV shots when some of the girls try to defend themselves with pitchforks and the like. The Swedish countryside is pretty, and I love a slasher movie that has the killer strike during daylight for a change (especially considering that, if this film is anything like its dozens of crummy contemporaries, the action in a night scene would have been essentially invisible). Oh! And there's a random blooper at the end of the credits that is surprising and made me giggle. End of list.

I always hope that when a new region generously coughs up a slasher for us to peruse, it'll give us a unique angle on the formula that you couldn't have gotten anywhere else, and Blödaren is a gargantuan disappointment in that regard. It's not even generic in a white noise-y, basically pleasant sort of way. It's more like a buzzing insect that you've heard a hundred times before, and it's annoyed you each of those hundred times.

Killer: Blödaren (Åke Eriksson)
Final Girl: Mia (Mia Hansson), or at least I'm pretty sure that's her name. We only ever hear these character's names when they're already dead and somebody else is looking for them, so nobody ever needed to look for her
Best Kill: There really isn't any. Although the best business surrounding a kill is the one where Eva uses the flash from a Polaroid camera to frighten the killer, and the next girl discovers the pictures she took of the killer scattered around the floor.
Sign of the Times: The hikers are wearing Fjällräven backpacks decades before they became trendy in the U.S.
Scariest Moment: The hikers discover a grotesque display involving a tarp and a skull (which they dutifully ignore).

Weirdest Moment: One of the girls wakes up with the killer playing a drum right next to her.
Champion Dialogue: "I don’t care about the telephone, I want a hot dog.”
Body Count: 6
    1. Male Hiker is killed offscreen.
    2. Female Hiker is killed offscreen.
    3. Maria is killed offscreen.
    4. Eva is killed offscreen.
    5. Nulle is killed offscreen.
    6. Axet is killed offscreen.
TL;DR: Blödaren is repetitive, derivative, and boring as sin.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1144

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Homo-Psychotic

Year: 1983
Director: Jimmy Lee
Cast: Barry Wyatt, Jake Henry, Francine Lapensée
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

One of the things that really interested me in doing this project in the first place is how, for all its tropes and rigid formulaic structures, the slasher genre is astoundingly elastic. Filmmakers can make a slasher elegant or prosaic, campy or deadly serious. They can center the story around the victims, the killer, or the authorities protecting the former from the latter. They can be supernatural or perfectly mundane, and the slasher genre generously allows everyone to participate. 

Throw in over 100 films in the first three years of the 80's that covered a lot of ground which any slasher filmmaker wanting to be unique might wish to avoid. That might put you somewhere close to the headspace of Korean-American filmmaker Jimmy Lee when he set out to bring Hanging Heart into the world, a film so vigorously unique that it didn't even get released in the US. I don't have full insight into its VHS release, but it looks like it got distribution in Poland and Brazil and not much of anywhere else.

Lucky Poland and Brazil.

Hanging Heart is the tale of young up-and-coming stage actor Denny Curtis (Barry Wyatt), who is starring in a homoerotic play directed by a woman! Specifically Joanne (Valerie Swift). He has an affair with his co-star Cathy (Debra Robinson) on the set, which is just a mattress on a black box stage so really who can blame them. When she is strangled with a pair of pantyhose immediately afterward and the authorities assign hardened cop George McGill (Dan Zukovic) - who is introduced spin-kicking a gun toting perp - to the case, things begin to look grim for young Denny. 

I couldn't possibly write a better following line than Letterboxd already has, so I'll just deliver it to you here: "Homoeroticism ensues, blatantly and everywhere." More on that later. All you need to know right now is that the man he is renting a room from, Elliot Scott (Jake Henry) is also his lawyer, and very clearly has the hots for his hunky new roommate. Denny is aware of this, though he has complicated feelings about it, possibly because of something in his murky past. Don't worry, he still sleeps with plenty of women though, including his director and his other co-star Julie (Francine Lapensée of Hollywood's New Blood). But wouldn't you know it, they begin to be targeted by a killer too!


OK, everyone. This is not a drill. I've seen plenty of homoerotic slasher movies, from the "men are shirtless constantly for absolutely no reason" variety like The Majorettes and Girls Nite Out to the "holy shit, just make out already" entries like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and The Hitcher. But on the scale from 1 to Cruising, this is just one point below full marks.

Aside from the implications of Denny living with a full-on sugar daddy, the film is constantly putting him into intimate situations with gayness, whether in his play rehearsals, in his nightmares, at home, in prison (he gets strip-searched and then has to share a cell with two other men who are fucking against a wall), or even in an institution (he is whipped with a belt by a long-haired Adonis for literally no reason). Reader, I loved it.

Unfortunately, this being a queer-related slasher in 1983, it also means that the ending is both problematic and incredibly easy to predict (ie. whoever is the gayest is the killer, and once he is defeated everyone is safe to be straight again. You gotta watch out for those nasty Others, folks!). Considering that fact, the film probably shouldn't have contorted itself into a narrative structure where predictability would be its greatest downfall.

Oopsie doopsie.

Hanging Heart desperately needs to be a good whodunit, because it's not a particularly interesting slasher film. It very quickly takes on the burden of being a courtroom thriller on the side, which means that in order to keep everyone properly suspicious of him, the killings will only happen when Denny is out of prison, which is appallingly little of the time. Plus, the killings themselves are entirely bloodless and essentially all use the same tired M.O. During the 20 to 30 minutes of cuttable wheel-spinning before the final reveal, Hanging Heart gives us almost nothing to occupy ourselves with except for a couple of crudely shoehorned-in dream sequences.

It's a shame that so much of the real estate of the third act is occupied with being completely tedious, because given the sheer amount of random, off-kilter mayhem that's packed into the rest of it, the film was this close to being a bona fide camp classic. There is an electrically weird kind of Wonderland logic to a lot of Hanging Heart, a film that finds it wise to introduce the Denny-Elliot roommate situation while Denny is using a rock-em sock-em robot dummy of Ronald Reagan to punch himself in the face, or thinks that heterosexual sex involves rolling on the floor back and forth from wall to wall and giggling for 45 minutes. The scenes set in reality get us a great deal more off-kilter and perturbed than any of the third act nightmares do.

Hanging Heart has a lot of aesthetic potential, too. This is astonishingly well-mounted for such an unknown slasher, where even simple process scenes have a little extra zip to them. Is a character driving? Why don't those street lines zip across the frame diagonally, creating jagged slashes across the blacktop! Two people are making out on a beach in a wide shot? How about a car window rolls up in front of the camera, devilishly revealing that somebody has been watching them the whole time! The cinematography is frequently beautiful and never anything less than interesting.

All told, the good outweighs the bad in Hanging Heart, even though the slasher elements at its core are by far the least engaging element of the movie, and that stultifying third act tries dearly to ruin any potential goodwill the audience might have stored up. I'm certainly glad to have seen it, even if I have no urge to ever watch it again.

Killer: Elliot Scott (Jake Henry)
Final Girl: Denny Curtis (Barry Wyatt)
Best Kill: The kills are all the same, but there's a moment where a broken bottle gets ground into somebody's hand that is more squirm-inducing than any kill could be.
Sign of the Times: The mullet on George McGill's partner would make Billy Ray Cyrus weep with jealousy.
Scariest Moment: Julie wakes up with a man standing over her bed.
Weirdest Moment: There are just so many to choose from, but I'm going to have to go with the random subplot with Elliot's dad in a nursing home, which is straight out of The Naked Gun. He is only in two scenes, but in the first, his son leaves to take a phone call and his wheelchair rolls down a ramp and into some garbage cans. In the second, a soccer ball beans him on the head out of nowhere. Neither of these incidents is ever mentioned again.
Champion Dialogue: "What do you want me to do? Touch you and make love to you and say thank you?"
Body Count: 4
    1. Cathy is strangled with pantyhose.
    2. Joanne is strangled with pantyhose.
    3. Guard is strangled in a dream.
    4. David is shot.
TL;DR: Hanging Heart is pretty good looking for a slasher of its vintage, but it really should be more interesting considering how much wacky shit it's pumping out.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1279

Monday, July 26, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Curtain Call

Year: 1983
Director: Michael J. Murphy
Cast: Steven Longhurst, Catherine Rowlands, David Bruhl
Run Time: 50 minutes

The thing about this Census Bloodbath project is that when you get into the nitty gritty of the most obscure slashers, there isn't always a lot of information about what the hell they are. Take the 50 minute British production The Last Night which doesn't even have it's own poster (the only indication that it was ever released is the above DVD artwork pairing it with the same director's ever-so-slightly better known feature Invitation to Hell

Director Michael J. Murphy's later Census Bloodbath film Bloodstream (which shares so many cast members with The Last Night that I won't bother to notate it when crediting them) seems to have received a limited theatrical release, but I can't imagine a world where this one did. One can presume from its run time that it was a direct-to-VHS effort, if not a direct-to-mom's-closet effort, but beyond that its origins remain a mystery to me. But the fact remains that it's a movie that I watched, so let's dive in!

So far, so good.

The Last Night takes place on, of all things, the last night of the play "Murder in the Dark," put on by a local theatre troupe. It's also lead actress Helen's (Catherine Rowlands) 25th birthday, so the crew is planning a combo wrap party/surprise birthday party for her after the show. The rest of the cast and crew dissolve into a bland, undifferentiated mass, but the one's that stood out to me were Sue (Lindsey Greer), the hardworking stage manager, and the producer Dave (Clifford Gardiner), who is like a more camp Ian McKellen.

Escaped criminals Mike (Steven Longhurst) and Gary (Colin Efford) (who seem to be playing into the public's fear of hooligan youths and as such are surprisingly attractive for slasher movie villains) arrive at the theater with the intention of hiding out in the attic while the theater is empty for the next several weeks. Unfortunately, they are quickly discovered by a canoodling couple and are forced to kill them, then hold the entire production hostage, threatening to kill any actor who disrupts the play or tries to escape, hoping to prevent the audience from knowing anything is awry.

And they kill almost everyone involved in the play. It's the perfect crime [sic]!

As far as stage-set slashers go, The Last Night is more on par with Nightmares than StageFright: Aquarius, especially when it comes to the aesthetic. A good transfer of this film doesn't exist, I imagine, but even presented in 4K high-def quality, it would still look overlit and underbaked. There's not a single shot in this movie that expresses any intention other than presenting the proceedings of the plot in the middle of the frame. 

However, The Last Night is not without it charms. It is an amateur production to be sure, but in such a way that it genuinely feels like a local theatre troupe decided to put on a slasher movie. They didn't have any idea how to do that, but they're clearly having fun pushing the envelope (even when they push it too far, in some of the more outrageously horny moments). Their bond is apparent, and without the veneer of film quality to get in the way, we the audience are allowed in on the joke.

The entire thing is infused with this playful energy, most of it in the unintentional stiffness of certain moments, but quite a few scenes deliver a dry British sensibility that is genuinely amusing. The moment where the killers are arguing about a bottle of wine while in the middle of murdering someone is certainly a prime example. And that's not the only element that succeeds in being good on purpose. The score is at least up to something interesting, with a non-diegetic cymbal crash accompanying some of the more impactful moments. 

Lying somewhere between intentional and not is the fact that the killers are constantly in flux between completely shirtless and 50% shirtless, but never less. It is my duty to track such things for you, and I serve you with pride.

I've been nice for quite a few paragraphs in a row, so let's get back to the matter at hand. The Last Night is still a shitty movie, any way you slice it. 

Its good qualities are just a palliative for someone like me who is so far in the weeds they're grasping at any straw they can find. The kills certainly aren't inspired (though there is an arterial spray in a throat slitting sequence that's better than most films of this caliber), and switching from a slasher mode to a hostage mode in the second act is a tremendously bad idea. That decision gums up the spokes of the slasher formula right when it's supposed to be getting into gear, and relies far too much on this troupe of actors to sell tension when they can't even sell "human." 

When you get right down to it, I wouldn't recommend this movie to anyone. There's nothing this film does that hasn't been done better elsewhere. If you want theatrical murder, StageFright is still the only way to go. If you want a sickly ironic birthday party, just watch Happy Birthday to Me. If you want a cute shirtless (naked, even) killer, 10 to Midnight is sitting right there, and you don't even have to leave 1983. I didn't hate spending time with The Last Night, but it doesn't do anything to justify its existence. And between you and me, if not for the evidence that I watched it, I'm not fully convinced it ever existed in the first place.

Killer: Mike (Steven Longhurst) and Gary (Colin Efford)
Final Girl: Helen (Catherine Rowlands)
Best Kill: Sue is kept in a headlock backstage and eventually chokes to death on Gary's bulging bicep, which all in all doesn't seem like a terrible way to go.
Sign of the Times: The song playing at the party at the end is the kind of new wave Britpop that is so ridiculously camp, it never made its way across the pond.
Scariest Moment: Mike forces Jill to change and watches her while she does it.
Weirdest Moment: The lady who is prepping the surprise party, who has been entirely sober the whole time, is all of a sudden drunk as a skunk and wanders in, humming a little tune to herself and stumbling down the aisle.
Champion Dialogue: "When you've killed once, it's quite simple a second time."
Body Count: 10; a quite reasonable average of one every five minutes.
    1. Rita has her throat slit.
    2. Clive is impaled on a prop sword.
    3. Dave is garroted with a rope.
    4. Sue is choked with Gary's bicep.
    5. Eileen is shot.
    6. Jill is stabbed to death.
    7. Trevor is shot.
    8. Robert is shot in the head.
    9. Mike is hanged.
    10. Gary is shot repeatedly and stabbed in the heart.
TL;DR: The Last Night is certainly nobody's idea of "good," but it has a certain low rent charm to it.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1187

Friday, July 23, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Rigor Mortis

Year: 1983
Director: Howard Avedis
Cast: Mary Beth McDonough, David Wysocki, Bill Paxton
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's perhaps redundant to note that the slasher genre has a bit of an obsession with death. That still doesn't help if you're in 1983 trying to decide between a screening of Mortuary or Mausoleum. Or maybe you could just stay in and rent Funeral Home. In case you're confused, we're here to talk about Mortuary, which has as checkered a pedigree as any of its funereally-minded peers.

Will it rise above the pool scum of its predecessors? Time to find out.

One thing Mausoleum has above Mortuary is that it actually knows what a mausoleum is. You see, Mortuary opens with Greg (David Wysocki of Humongous) and his friend Josh (Denis Mandel) breaking into the storage area of the mortuary owned by Josh's former boss Hank Andrews (Christopher George of Graduation Day and the unforgettable Pieces), which is crammed with coffins, boxes, costumes, and fake guns, in order to steal some tires. Y'know. Mortuary tires. Anyway, they accidentally witness a cult ceremony and Josh is summarily murdered with an embalming implement, though Greg thinks he's ditched him.

Greg gets a ride home with his girlfriend Christie (Mary Beth McDonough) who agrees to shoulder the burden of being the protagonist from now on. Christie has a tough life. She witnessed her father being murdered, though everyone in town, her mother (Lynda Day George, who appeared in Pieces alongside her husband to utter the immortal "Baaaaaaaastardddddddd!") included, is content to gaslight her into thinking it was an accident. She also must fend off the advances of the creepy Paul Andrews (Bill Paxton, who we've already encountered paying his dues in the previous Census Bloodbath entry Night Warning), Hank's son who makes it very clear he has a sweaty, intense crush on her. Oh, and she's also being threatened by a killer who shows up at her house at night.

But really, the crush thing is worse.

Mortuary has a couple things going for it. First, the cast is pretty stacked with recognizable actors. Bill Paxton is recognizable to pretty much anyone, and the Georges are recognizable to Pieces freaks like me. Lynda Day George isn't as over-the-top manic as she is in that film, but her soap opera soft lighting and exquisitely made up face at any time of night lend her an ethereal quality, and her vacant performance style compounds with that to serve some real Nancy's Mom from Elm Street energy. Is that a compliment? You decide. I enjoyed it, at least.

Bill Paxton's performance is the one that most closely approximates "good," though really there's not a lot of competition. A group of three friendly teens keeps threatening to become actual characters in the movie but they demurely stay on the sidelines, making this cast max out at around 7. Paxton isn't giving a performance that makes you go "see, he had it in him, even then," but he's having fun, which is more than I can say for anybody else. 

The other thing that is unequivocally good about Mortuary is the face of the killer, which turns out to be a mask (in the film's only interesting move, the Satanic ritual the boys witness is just a red herring - just your regular run-of-the-mill Satanic gathering). It's a pale, heavy-lidded face that looks unnervingly fleshlike, giving off the same uncanny energy as the demon face that occasionally flashes onscreen in The Exorcist.

Pictured: Me after watching all 460 slasher movies on my docket.

Unfortunately, this is where anything good about Mortuary ends. It's an abject failure as a slasher, because even though it has a fairly respectable body count, the murder sequences are uniformly goreless and, in one case, so poorly shot that the murder weapon visibly doesn't make contact with the victim. Plus, the pacing is maddening. There is about a full hour where absolutely nobody gets killed, and instead we're asked to find spending time with Christie interesting.

Christie spends the entire movie processing her dad's death, rolling around in bed in the grips of a poorly acted nightmare and screaming "Daddy!" over and over again to the point that I had to turn my volume down lest my neighbors think I was watching straight porn. And maybe they would be right, because the remainder of that time, Christie wanders around her dark house in a low-cut nightgown, something that the producers presumably assured themselves would be fascinating, because their audience would always comprise nothing but straight men.

Well, surprise!

There's really no meat on these bones whatsoever. If Mortuary was just a couple degrees cheaper and chintzier, even without the gore, it might have been worth salvaging. But as it stands, it's desperately uninteresting. One scene after another plays out until it drowns in its own tedium and is replaced by an equally languorous snooze. This really is one of those films that makes you wonder why anyone bothered.

Killer: Paul Andrews (Bill Paxton)
Final Girl: Christie Parson (Mary Beth McDonough)
Best Kill: None of the kills are particularly good, but the first of several impalements with an embalming gun is at least shocking and fun. That's Josh's, by the way. Remember him? Neither do I.
Sign of the Times: We never see Greg in anything but a vigorously striped polo.
Scariest Moment: The killer corners Christie while she's swimming in the pool.
Weirdest Moment: Christie and Greg have sex on the living room floor of her mother's house when she could walk in at any moment.
Champion Dialogue: "They're communicating with the souls of the dead, and other stuff."
Body Count: 5
  1. Christie's Dad is hit in the head several times with a bat.
  2. Josh is impaled with an embalming gun.
  3. Eve is stabbed to death.
  4. Hank is impaled with an embalming gun.
  5. Paul is axed in the back.
TL;DR: Mortuary is a film with some good elements, but they are spaced far apart between aimless scenes of nightgown-clad wandering.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1012

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Digging Your Own Grave

Year: 1983
Director: Fred Olen Ray
Cast: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The slasher genre's relationship to the Native American population has been, shall we say, fraught. 1983's Sweet 16 seems at least mildly interested in exploring the relationship between white Americans and reservations, but usually we only see indigenous actors if they're here to explain whatever mystical artifact is wreaking havoc or playing the ghosts of undead "Indians" out for revenge that is never examined beyond "a non-white person wants to kill us!" á là The Ghost Dance in 1980. 

The film under the microscope today is Scalps. As you can probably guess from the title and the poster (which would be an awesome fantasy novel cover if it wasn't wildly racist), it's probably one of those "Native Americans are magical and evil" entries. 

Here's a lesson: if you're looking for a light touch on the racial angle, maybe don't look to the director of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Scream Queen Hot Tub Party.

Scalps follows a group of archaeology students who are traveling into the California desert to do an illegal dig on the site of a Native American massacre. What a fun, sexy time for them. The crew is formed entirely of two horny couples - Randy (Richard Hench of Slaughterhouse Rock, and who was also a swing gang crew member on Slumber Party Massacre II) the jerk jock and Louise (Carol Sue Flockhart) the spoiled brat,  Ben (Frank McDonald) the studious leader and Ellen (Barbara Magnusson) who he mostly ignores - and one potential future couple - Kershaw (Roger Maycock), who is as close to sensitive as the men get; and DJ (Jo-Ann Robinson) a new agey chick who carries around prayer sticks and has extreme doubts about the morality of what they're doing. She also has psychic visions. Two guesses who survives this movie.

They do some digging, they enrage the undead Native American spirits, Randy gets possessed by black magic shaman Black Crow, and he summarily murders the rest of them along with a coterie of zombie ghosts. I think.

It's hard to tell if there are multiple killers or if it's just that the quality of the makeup fluctuates extremely from scene to scene.

Sometimes when a film is so outwardly problematic I get nervous that it'll actually be a pretty good slasher and I'll have to balance those conflicting feelings when I review it. Fortunately, that's not a problem here! Although there's a 15-minute stretch where Scalps starts looking like it might be fun exercise of the slasher formula, it quickly devolves into dysfunctionality. And that 15-minute stretch comes after a 10-minute prologue of incoherent dialogue, cuts that flagrantly cross the 180-degree line, and unfurnished sets that make the "university" look like a porn film's vision of an asylum. So it's not like we weren't warned about what we were in for.

Scalps is an exercise in how to fail in every department of constructing a film. There's a scene at a gas station where the passing cars drown out every bit of dialogue, and sometimes the ambient white noise of the desert gets just as deafening. And while nature-set slashers frequently have issues with visibility during night scenes (especially on bad VHS transfers), they usually don't forget what time of day it's supposed to be quite so frequently. The course of a single night takes us through pitch darkness, noonday sun, waning dusk, and an inexplicable red filter that would either imply that there's a lunar eclipse or the cinematographer was trying to get fired so they could go back to somewhere air conditioned. 

Interesting story: I just looked this up, and it may have actually happened. There are two credited directors of photography, so either they were working together or one took over the other. More exciting though is the one of them is a trans woman. This is the first trans person I've ever encountered behind the scenes of an 80's slasher, and I'm very excited! Of course, trans people can produce work just as bad as cis people, but equality is only equal when we can all fail upward!!

 We all have to start somewhere!

Additionally, the script is a shambles, not that we expect anything different from any film in this project. DJ mainly just sits there during the excruciating 50-minute slomo-padded stretch before the body count begins in earnest, announcing that terrible things are about to happen any minute! And when those terrible things actually start happening, they begin with an unnecessary rape scene, which is always an express route to my bad side.

The kills themselves aren't especially terrible, other than the use of stereotypical Native American implements underscored by tribal drums. The 80's really were a deliriously unconscientious time, weren't they? There's a genuinely good arterial spray in a throat slashing, which stands out in a year where slashers were mostly content to insist that knives just draw a red line on your throat and then you die. There's also a scalping, of course, though that's actually not a major focus of the movie (and a good thing too, because Maniac is already sitting right there with the most realistic, horrifying scalping scene in existence, and nobody can compete with that).

Of course, the movie needs to remind you that it's not very good, so it closes on a kill that is literally just a man sticking an arrow between his fingers and holding it up to his own eye like a child playacting a Western. So there you have it, folks! Other than the big thing, there's a lot of little things that make Scalps impossible to recommend. On to the next one!

Killer: Randy as possessed by Black Claw (Richard Hench)
Final Girl: DJ (Jo-Ann Robinson)
Best Kill: When Kershaw is decapitated, his head goes flying and knocks over a chair, which is kind of hilarious.
Sign of the Times: We're still just out here calling Native Americans "Indians."
Scariest Moment: When the killings are about to begin, an excavated clay bowl begins to fill with blood.
Weirdest Moment: There's a man with a lion head who we keep cutting to even though he literally does nothing.
Champion Dialogue: "If you love me, you'll dig."
Body Count: 7
    1. Old Man is stabbed in the throat with an arrowhead by his own possessed hand.
    2. Louise has her throat slashed.
    3. Ben has the back of his head tomahawked off.
    4. Ellen is shot with arrows.
    5. Randy is shot in the head.
    6. Kershaw is decapitated.
    7. Professor gets an arrow jammed in his face.
TL;DR: Scalps is racist, but it also lacks any of the fundamentals required to be a movie.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1126

Monday, July 19, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Midnight Madness

Year: 1983
Director: Norman Thaddeus Vane
Cast: Ferdy Mayne, Luca Bercovici, Nita Talbot
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

You wanna know something that's scarier than any horror film? Seeing the Troma logo at the beginning of a movie. To be fair, that was less of a death knell in the 80's than it would be in the proceeding decades, but the fact remains that the bulk of their output ranges from rancid garbage at the bottom to passable crap at the top. My top 5 Troma movies would include Splatter University and Graduation Day, which should really tell you something. 

There's a place for Troma, for sure, it's just that that place is not on my Blu-Ray shelf.

So what has Troma dragged past our doorstep this week? Good news! It's passable crap! Frightmare AKA The Horror Star follows the final days of Vincent Price-esque aging B-movie star Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne). On his way out, he murders a couple directors who have gotten on his nerves, but the fun doesn't truly begin until after the funeral. His mausoleum is robbed by the young folks at the local community college's Horror Film Society, which somehow has the funding to live in a giant Gothic mansion off campus. They spend the night partying with the corpse Weekend at Bernie's style and being generally terrible, until Conrad's widow uses a medium to resurrect his corpse, at which moment he exacts gruesome revenge. The missing corpse is also being investigated by a Detective (Chuck Mitchell of Don't Answer the Phone, but he's better known for playing the title character in Porky's) who moves the plot in exactly zero ways.

Even by the standards of the slasher genre, the characters on the chopping block are bland and undistinguishable. The ones that stand out are Meg (Jennifer Starrett), because she is the Obvious Final Girl who isn't so sure they should be partying with a dead man; Saint (Luca Bercovici, who was the screenwriter for Ghoulies and Rockula), because he is named Saint and also is Meg's boyfriend; and Stu, because he is played by Jeffrey Combs, who would rise 80's horror royalty after his role in Re-Animator the following year (rumor has it he was cast because they needed a brunette to match the severed head they were using). 

Oh Jeffrey, you have no idea what's coming. I envy you.

Basically, this film was created on the same model that would Troma would later use to produce the mediocre Girls School Screamers: a big mansion, a group of co-eds (mostly female), and just enough supernatural mayhem to separate it from even more basic slashers. The only considerable difference between these two movies is that in its extended prologue, Frightmare actually spends time with a character who's over the age of 25, as Conrad struts and preens his way through a mini Theatre of Blood remake.

As an exercise in running characters through the slasher formula with little embellishment, it's totally watchable, though there are several dozen mediocre slashers I would rather throw on before pulling this one off the shelf. The kills are at least varied and in ample supply, even though only 3 of them really exert themselves as any sort of special effects spectacle. We do unfortunately get a lot of the undead Conrad holding his hands up to his temples and bugging his eyes out while something vaguely telekinetic happens to his victim, which is disappointing. We have a physical killer wandering around, so why not just have him stabbing people with corkscrews and whatnot? It's not hard!

The space between the blandly functional kills is where they really get you, though. Even with its tight run time, there's a lot of flab on Frightmare. Especially before it commits to being a body count picture in earnest, we're just stuck hanging out with an undifferentiated mass of white people who are all equally unpleasant and think it's the height of comedy to flirt with a corpse.

Not pictured: Anyone I'd want to spend time with.

There are a couple times that Frightmare nods toward the campy classic it might have been (especially when we spend time with anybody connected to Conrad's home life, which seems utterly bonkers), but largely it is content to go through the motions and not suck harder than it needs to. Except for the cinematography, which sucks hard all the way through. As you can see in the screenshot above, anything that's bright enough to cause glare will create a constellation of hazy glow that obscures anything around it (I liked cinematographer Joel King's work better in a film I liked worse, 1981's Just Before Dawn).

The best I can say about Frightmare is that it indeed does everything it needs to do to be a slasher movie. If you've seen everything there is to see and you're on the constant hunt for more material, this one will arrange those impulses in your brain in the right order. I understand if "it's not entirely unsatisfying" isn't exactly selling you on Frightmare, but that was never my intention anyway.

Killer: Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne)
Final Girl: Meg (Jennifer Starrett)
Best Kill: In the film's single best effect, Eve is menaced by a floating coffin chasing her down the stairs before it smashes her body like a battering ram.
Sign of the Times: Conrad's mausoleum is marked with a tacky flashing neon star.
Scariest Moment: Conrad's mouth emits a horrible prolonged screech when he corners Saint in an embalming room.
Weirdest Moment: Apparently the ghost of Conrad gave his widow the phone number of the film society's mansion.
Champion Dialogue: "Good night, sweet prince of ham."
Body Count: 9; not including an additional 18 victims implied to have been murdered by Conrad prior to the beginning of the film.

    1. Director is pushed off a railing.
    2. Wolfgang is smothered with a pillow.
    3. Oscar has his tongue pulled out.
    4. Donna is set on fire with telekinesis.
    5. Bobo is killed with poison gas.
    6. Eve is bashed with a floating coffin.
    7. Stu is decapitated with a sword.
    8. Saint is cremated.
    9. Mrs. Rohmer has a wad of money shoved into her mouth.

TL;DR: Frightmare is a paint-by-numbers slasher that is satisfying, but at the minimum possible level.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1051

Friday, July 16, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Silenzio, Bruno

Year: 1983
Director: Lamberto Bava
Cast: Andrea Occhipinti, Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

So, I may have built up A Blade in the Dark too much in my own head for a very ridiculous reason. Back when I was first researching Census Bloodbath, oh, eight years ago or so (Jesus Christ), I learned that this film with a pretty cool poster came out on my birthday in 1983. I bought the DVD pretty soon after that, and it has been sitting on my shelf gathering dust, waiting for the day to come to actually crack it open. Well, that day is today, and I was untenably excited to come full circle on this film.

Now, don't get me wrong. I pretty much knew what I was getting myself into. I've already had some experience with Lamberto Bava (the son of prolific horror maestro Mario Bava), with his promising but lackluster Delirium: Photos of Gloria from 1987. So when A Blade in the Dark turned out to be a bit of a dud, it's not like a piece of my soul had been ripped away. It was just mildly disappointing, although at the very least it's less of a dud than Delirium.

The things we tell ourselves to stay sane...

A Blade in the Dark follows the exploits of film composer Bruno  (Andrea Occhipinti of The New York Ripper), who is holing up in an enormous villa rented to him by Ted (Michele Soavi, Bava's assistant at the time who would go on to direct the excellent StageFright: Aquarius) while he works on the score for the thriller A Story of a Murder, which is being directed by Sandra (Anny Papa of Sweets from a Stranger, which we'll cover down in 1987). Incidentally, it's really cool that there is representation of women in filmmaking here, even though her presence is certainly borne from the impulse to have as many sexy ladies around as possible.

Before too long, some of the other sexy women who drop by for no particular reason go missing (we know they're being murdered by a woman with a shadowy face, but he doesn't), and he realizes that something mysterious is happening with the villa, perhaps having something to do with the former tenant Linda.

Well whoever it is, they know how to rock a bold red.

A Blade in the Dark is essentially a tug of war between visually satisfying filmmaking and really stupid everything else. And "everything else" is the winner. However, when the film's aesthetic perks up (which occurs almost exclusively during its kills), it's pretty damn impressive. The murder setpieces are glorious, reveling in their own brutality and refusing to end, just rubbing your face in madness and visual splendor, sending a shiver up your spine with the slow click of a box cutter being readied to slice or startling you with a grotesque close-up.

You could splice any three minutes of murderous mayhem from this film, and anyone with a bit of a gorehound streak would immediately want to check out the rest of the movie. Don't let them. This is a mistake. For one thing, these moments are doled out with hellish slowness. Of the six murders in the film, four are crammed into a short period at the end of this film that the overlords of Hell decided should be 108 minutes long.

Some of the moments that fill space between kills (this was originally designed as a four-part TV miniseries with a murder at the end of each episode, and it shoooooooows) are at least amusing in a "holy shit, what were they thinking?" kind of way. The English language dialogue is tortured to within an inch of its life, and especially in any scene where Bruno first meets a new woman, completely off-kilter. Here are some choice cuts that didn't make the Champion Dialogue slot:

"Bruno, it's me, I'm Julia, your girl."

"I adore musicians, they're really great in bed. How are you in the feathers?"

"I have to say you're very perspicacious, because that's exactly what I was thinking."

Pictured: The position I wish I was in while the screenwriters were penning this movie.

Unfortunately, the movie thinks it will excite us if it spends its time watching Bruno slowly march down one dark hallway after another (after watching 195 slasher movies, the thrill of a hallway pales, I'm sorry to report). And when he's not doing that, he's sitting to his piano to play the one theme he wrote over and over again while he rewatches the one scene they shot for the film-within-a-film over and over and over and over and over. In fact, when we finally watch the much ballyhooed final reel of the film, which the director wants to keep a secret and which may hold the clue to the killer's identity, it's just that exact same scene with two seconds of extra footage.

Likewise, when the script turns its attention from resplendent absurdities to the actual plot, it's dishwater dull. It is extremely clear what the ultimate twist will be, and all the obvious red herrings (including a weirdo groundskeeper with a murder scrapbook - it's never the weirdo groundskeeper with a murder scrapbook). Here's a hint for guessing the ending of an 80's slasher movie: If there's an opportunity for the killer reveal to go down a transphobic route, it will take it.

Yup, the killer is a man dressed as a woman (complete with a vigorously ill-researched and offensive psychological explanation for his murderousness). I'm too exhausted by this trope to even muster much steam about it at the moment, especially considering that if you want to watch an actually interesting transphobic slasher from 1983, Sleepaway Camp is just sitting right there.

Killer: Linda AKA Ted (Michele Soavi)
Final Girl: Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti)
Best Kill: Angela's murder is brutal as all get out (see below for full details), but the clincher is that it begins with her hand being impaled with a knife, trapping it to the counter. As she struggles, the knife slowly splits her hand down the middle, and damn if that didn't make me curl up into a little ball.
Sign of the Times: Bruno says he won't have time for Ted to come listen to him play, but he can record him a cassette!
Scariest Moment: The killer attempts to stab Katia with a box cutter while she hides in a narrow space protected by chain link. The chain link prevents the box cutter from fitting all the way through, but it waves millimeters from her face.
Weirdest Moment: When investigating, Sandra and Bruno find a trunk full of tennis balls in the basement.
Champion Dialogue: "Is it possible you're such a vacant nerd? Your satisfaction is to sit like a frog in the sun?"
Body Count: 6

    1. Katia is stabbed in the gut and the throat.
    2. Angela is smothered with a plastic bag, has her head slammed into the counter, and has her throat slit.
    3. Giovanni is hit in the head with a wrench.
    4. Sandra is garroted with a film strip.
    5. Julia is impaled through the black with a blade that really didn't seem that long when the killer was holding it just a second ago.
    6. Linda is stabbed in the gut.

TL;DR: A Blade in the Dark is yet another pretty but underwhelming giallo clone from Lamberto Bava.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1241

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Lost In The Woods

Year: 1983
Director: Andrew Davis
Cast: John Friedrich, Adrian Zmed, Ernest Harden Jr. 
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Considering how long I've been doing this project, the criteria for something to be a Big Title is pretty low at this point. But nevertheless, The Final Terror is one of them. It's a movie that is constantly brought up in the same conversation as classic "youngsters in the woods" slashers like Friday the 13th and The Burning. Now, I'm no fool. 1981's Just Before Dawn is often brought up in those same conversations, and I was massively underwhelmed by that movie. But when you're staring down the barrel of a bunch of movies that were shot on video and nobody's ever heard of, you'll grasp at any straw sticking out of the dung pile.

So yes, I was excited to check out The Final Terror.

Two guesses how that worked out for me.

We do need a plot to get these particular youngsters into these particular woods, so here it is. A crew of forest rangers from Redwood County have decided to go camping out at Mill Creek with a group of civilian girls for a vacation filled with sexy shenanigans and outdoorsmanship. They are driven there by Eggar (Joe Pantoliano!), who has been roped into being their chauffeur despite the fact that he's not invited to actually camp with them, he hates them all, and they all hate him.

The campers all display a staggeringly varied set of vivid and layered personalities. There's Mike (Mark Metcalf, the father from the "We're Not Gonna Take It" music video and also he was in Animal House or whatever), who's kind of the ringleader; Melanie (Cindy Harrell), who is his girlfriend; Nathaniel (Ernest Harden Jr.), who is Black; Vanessa (Akosua Busia, who only had to wait a couple years to get out of the slasher muck when she appeared in The Color Purple), who is also Black and miraculously not automatically coupled up with Nathaniel; Windy (Daryl Hannah, like, the Daryl Hannah), who has beaded braids like she just got back from a Caribbean vacation; Zorich (John Friedrich), who is just a little psychotic and obsessed with survivalism; Marco (Adrian Zmed), who isn't part of the ranger crew and is kind of a third wheel; Margaret (Rachel Ward of Night School) who is a girl who exists; and Boone (Lewis Smith), who is a guy who exists, or at least that's what the credits tell me.

The campfire story that inevitably turns out to be true and right behind you holding a knife is this: years ago, in these very woods, a woman was molested by her uncle and had a kid after being institutionalized. Now she lurks around the woods defending her territory.

And really, what IS more sinister than the victim of a sex crime?

One thing that I never expected was a film that I would like even less than Just Before Dawn, but life loves to throw us curveballs. The Final Terror is a top-down failure on every level I can think of, which is shocking considering the sheer amount of qualified people with actual careers that have gathered to make this film (in addition to the cast full of familiar faces, I haven't yet mentioned director Andrew Davis - of The Fugitive! - or producer Samuel Z. Arkoff - of The Amityville Horror, Dressed to Kill, It Conquered the World, and so on).

Let's take a look at the acting first. Joe Pantoliano doesn't embarrass himself, though his character is assembled from nothing but scraps of manic, contradictory doggerel. But everyone else ranges from bland to shrill, and no higher. Strangely, the reliably vacant Rachel Ward gives one of the best performances here, perhaps because at least two other cast members also share her "dead-eyed and inexplicably British" performance style and both of them are worse. 

Also failing us is the score, the main theme of which was inspired by Billy Idol's "White Wedding" (this is not a joke), except for when it randomly wings a naked Friday the 13th rip-off into the mix in one random moment. As is the cinematography, which will rouse itself occasionally with a fun, capable camera move or canted angle, but mostly just struggles to distinguish the outlines of the poorly lit characters from the poorly lit trees surrounding them.

I would get down on my knees and weep with gratitude whenever the sun rose.

The thing that is super special about the slasher genre is that it can survive all kinds of flaws as long as it throws in some creative kills with half-decent blood. Guess what The Final Terror doesn't have? I don't even know where to start with the list of ways this film fails as a slasher, but here goes. (SPOILERS abound for the rest of the review)

Of the giant victim pool this film provides for us, which comfortably sits at 9, only three of them die. Three. We get to spend time with six whole characters who neither separate themselves as distinct personalities nor have the decency to expire and rid us of the burden of having to deal with them. The film is so anemic with kills that they had to do reshoot to shove two more random deaths in the intro, or else people wouldn't have known it was a slasher at all. Plus, there's a handful of scenes that promise to lead to kills, then inexplicably pull back at the last moment. Indeed, the character Marco gets two of these scenes, the first when he vanishes after being abandoned in the middle of the woods on the first night, and the second when he is unsuccessfully garroted with a rope.

The kills we do get commit the two worst sins of slasher murders: most of them take place offscreen, and the ones that don't are very nonspecific (ie. knife slashes somewhere, blood smears everywhere, nobody is sure what actually happened). Instead of these campers being picked off one by one, we're just forced to watch them bicker with one another in survivalist scenarios as the men become increasingly less shirtless the further we get into the run time (the opening scenes were promising a Girls Nite Out level of unmotivated barechested men, which would have knocked the movie up the scale at least one extra point).

The experience of watching The Final Terror is more akin to sitting through a barely tolerated acquaintance's Instagram stories about their camping trip than a bona fide slasher film. At least the film accurately recreated a survival scenario, given the way my note taking quickly devolved into stuff like, "It's been 80 minutes, no sign of anything interesting."

Killer: Eggar (Joe Pantoliano) and his mom (Anthony Maccario)
Final Girl: Pretty much everyone
Best Kill: The only kill that is in any way inventive, even if there aren't any actual gore effects involved, is the moment where Lori springs a trap that sends two tree branches covered in sharp tin can lids flying into her face. 
Sign of the Times: The film was shot in 1981, but shelved until 1983, when producers decided they had to capitalize on the rising star of... Adrian Zmed.
Scariest Moment: The campers are hiding in the bus when the killer starts smashing the windows from the outside with an axe.
Weirdest Moment: The killer dresses Melanie in a cute little Steve Irwin hat before throwing her body onto the raft with the other campers.
Champion Dialogue: "What the hell do you think they're gonna do out there in the woods with girls, huh? Pray?!"
Body Count: 7

    1. Jimmy has his throat slit (probably) offscreen.
    2. Lori is hit with that classic branch/tin can lid trap offscreen.
    3. Mike is macheted in the back mid-coitus.
    4. Melanie is killed offscreen.
    5. Zorich has his ankle hooked by a blade and falls to his death.
    6. Eggar is beaten to death.
    7. Eggar's Mom is impaled on a spiky log trap.

TL;DR: The Final Terror is a movie seemingly tailored to draw out your disappointment for as excruciatingly long as possible.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1357