Friday, April 29, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Greek Tragedy

Year: 1984
Director: Nico Mastorakis
Cast: Joseph Bottoms, Kirstie Alley, Keir Dullea
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Blind Date, insofar as it has a plot, is about a thirtysomething American man named Jonathon Ratcliff (Joseph Bottoms) who is working in advertising in Athens, Greece and sleeping with his coworker Claire (Kirstie Alley). He kinda wanders around stalking random pretty women, watching them through a telescope. One time he's caught and chased through the woods and hits his face on a tree branch, which renders him blind, though the condition may be psychosomatic, brought on by seeing a woman he believes to be his former girlfriend at a modeling shoot. Anyway, with the help of Dr. Steiger (Keir Dullea of Black Christmas and 2001: A Space Odyssey), he regains a version of his sight with an experimental procedure that transmits a computer input directly to his optic nerve via a device that is housed inside a Sony Walkman, allowing him to see the world around him in a black-and-white outline. Meanwhile, someone with his own Walkman (just because he likes music, not because he needs it to see) has been murdering women with a scalpel. Eventually, about 25 minutes before the film is over, Ratcliff discovers that this is happening and vows to figure out who it is. Any questions?

Analysis: Now, people love to throw out the phrase "(insert country here) giallo" for any non-Italian slasher that has a modicum of style. But Blind Date truly is a Greek giallo. It is entirely a throwback to that '70s format, far more than what actual Italian filmmakers like Lucio Fulci, Michele Soavi, or Lamberto Bava were pumping out at the time. Down to the fact that it centers an American in a foreign land who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery, the way that the key to the solution is hidden in his own memory, the style-over-substance panache, and the fact that it makes not one single fucking lick of sense. 

It literally doesn't even make sense as a slasher, or at least a functional one. For most of the movie the killings aren't even commented upon. We're meant to assume that Ratcliff is the killer I think, but only because we've certainly seen him being an absolute creep, but nobody else ever really mentions the murders and the town is considerably less than rocked by the presence of a serial killer. Eventually the killer is revealed to be someone who we've seen in wide shots a couple times, in a reveal that is probably supposed to be shocking, but by that point anyone with a rudimentary sense of how to watch gialli has already given up trying to piece together anything that's going on.

Unfortunately, the kills are where the film diverges the most from the giallo format. Not in the misogyny though! The women who are murdered almost never get named or speak a line of dialogue (in fact, one of them is speaking but her lines are muted in favor of creepy music), this movie doing nothing to hide the fact that they are literally just bodies to be cut open rather than characters. Because of this gross undercurrent, I am grateful that the film doesn't revel in gory, over the top kills. However, the fact that pretty much every kill has the same M.O. and then cuts away before anything interesting happens makes those sequences deadly dull to watch.

Really, the entire film is far more dull than something this incoherent and strange has any right to be. This is a film where the lead character is introduced wearing a tan blazer over a T-shirt that reads "I <3 My Dentist." Where the eye doctor only tells him that he can use the computer device for a limit of two hours a day after he's already done the procedure and eliminated any chance of him getting his sight back the proper way. Where the killer stalks the final reel in a Speedo (I for one, am very grateful for this decision)

One misstep is pouring the bulk of Mastorakis' weirdo energy into the truly heinous '80s graphics that render Ratcliff's computerized POV. They may have been high tech at one point, but now the seizure-inducing polygons that fly around this film are truly insufferable. Fortunately, the non-computerized elements, which comprise about 94% of the film, are rather stylish. I would hesitate to call the film "gorgeous," but it certainly is always making aesthetic choices that are pleasurable in the traditionally shot sequences, even for mundane moments that don't scream out for an extra dash of style. It's a film that has atmosphere, and while that may be the only thing it has to offer, it at least prevents it from being the miserable slog it very easily could have been.

Killer: David (James Daughton)
Final Girl: Jonathon Ratcliff (Joseph Bottoms)
Best Kill: David is brandishing his scalpel and his hand is hit with a door, which sends the blade slamming into his neck.
Sign of the Times: I mean, you name another year where the plot hinges entirely on a Sony Walkman and the Atari Game Super Breakout.
Scariest Moment: The first time David begins to slash up a woman with a scalpel and you're like "How far is this scene about to go?"
Weirdest Moment: A bunch of friends rush into the bedroom on Jonathon's birthday to shout "surprise!" while he's in the middle of having sex with Claire.
Champion Dialogue: "Look ma, no eyes!"
Body Count: 6
  1. Woman #1 is scalpeled.
  2. Woman #2 is scalpeled.
  3. Blond Guy has his throat slit with a scalpel.
  4. Woman #3 is scalpeled.
  5. Woman #4 is scalpeled.
  6. David gets his scalpel jammed in his throat.
TL;DR: Blind Date is intriguing and stylish and weird, but ultimately too slow-paced and misogynistic to cross the finish line properly.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 985

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Dance Dance Dance Till You're Dead

Year: 1984
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Olga Karlatos, Ray Lovelock, Claudio Cassinelli
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Murder-Rock: Dancing Death follows a dance company training at the *checks notes* Arts for Living Center in New York City run by Candice (Olga Karlatos). The best dancers are being murdered one by one with a massive hatpin shoved straight into their hearts, so Lt. Borges (Cosimo Cinieri of Fulci's previous slasher effort The New York Ripper) is on the case.

Analysis: Among the well-known Italian horror directors of the '70s and '80s, Fulci is perhaps the most inconsistent. Sometimes he could deliver a gorgeous, disgusting fever dream like The Beyond. And other times he would rest on his laurels and deliver a sleepy, autopilot picture like The Black Cat. Usually he would stab out an eye or two while he was at it, but he was constantly crossing the line between art and trash rather than gradually backsliding from one to the other like certain Dario Argentos I won't mention.

I will give Fulci this. He seems to be really trying to make Murder-Rock artful, to the point that certain moments are mimicking the best scenes and aesthetic impulses of Suspiria. One particularly effective moment is achieved just in the sound mix, when the panting of a strung-out dancer gets mixed way higher than the music she's dancing to. There is also some excellent set design (the white tiled hallway of the locker room is something to behold), a gorgeous opening shot of the New York skyline in front of a deep purple sky, and a few shot setups that really made me perk up and pay attention. One in particular, with the camera tracking along as a body bag is being wheeled down a hallway past the watching faces of the dancers, is stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen in a slasher.

Unfortunately, his aesthetic ambition seems to be hampered by his ability. Or at least, he didn't have the appropriate equipment to make his vision happen. Even some of the best sequences are lit too harshly, with lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams' eyes roll back into his head. Most of the time the characters are lit from behind or above in a manner that completely obliterates their faces, and the motif of flashing lights is both preposterous (for some reason, the police carry around a panel of flashing lights to shine onto the body) and profoundly ugly.

Really, Fulci has ended up somewhere far closer to Stripped to Kill than Suspiria, only without the female gaze making the dance scenes tolerable at all. Now, I'm always partial to any film where I see a choreographer listed in the credits, but this dancing is terrible. It has all the intensity of Showgirls with all the precision of The Apple. The music that accompanies the frequent, extended dance sequences ranges from amusingly shitty (the uptempo disco track "Are the Streets to Blame" is an excellent slice of cheese) to ear-scrapingly abysmal (the opening theme "Tonight is The Night" sounds like "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes went to Hell and got laryngitis).

And while the killer's M.O. is appropriately sleazy and horrifying for a Fulci flick, it also leads to an extreme lack of variety, to the point that some of the kills in the second half of the film take place onscreen because Fulci probably figured you got the picture by that point. The kill to dance sequence ratio was already off, but this severe drop-off makes the second and third acts a real slog. When the best thing about your movie about dancing and stabbing is the title font, you know something has gone horribly wrong. Murder-Rock is certainly less stultifying than The Black Cat and more artful than The New York Ripper, but it's just not enough of everything that it clearly wants to be.

Killer: Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: The opening heart-piercing kill is the one that luxuriates the most in how goddamn disturbing that particular M.O. really is.
Sign of the Times: If you listen to even a single second of the wall-to-wall music used in this film, you'd be able to carbon date the exact month of 1984 this came out.
Scariest Moment: When Janice comes home to a supposedly empty apartment, she spots a still-smoking cigarette in her ashtray.
Weirdest Moment: The film randomly cuts to the dancer Jill babysitting a kid in a wheelchair who shows her a slideshow of dead bugs
Champion Dialogue: "You're gonna grit your teeth and dance, even when your friend dies."
Body Count: 6
  1. Susan has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  2. DeeDee the Bird has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  3. Janice is killed offscreen.
  4. Jill is killed offscreen.
  5. Gloria has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
  6. Candice has her heart pierced with a hatpin.
TL;DR: Murder-Rock: Dancing Death is a bland slasher that attempts to doll itself up as an aesthetically interesting giallo.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 851

Monday, April 25, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Each And Every Day Of The Year

Year: 1984
Director: William A. Graham
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sharon Stone, Robert Culp
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes 

Plot: Calendar Girl Murders follows a faux-Playboy magazine called Paradise that is run by Richard Trainor (Robert Culp). When their calendar girls for January and February are murdered, homicide cop Lt. Dan Stoner (Tom Skerritt) must try to find out who is targeting the girls while also discovering the mysterious secret behind former Angel of the Year Cassie Bascomb's (Sharon Stone, who was still in the slasher trenches after Deadly Blessing) departure from the company. She also keeps crossing his path and trying rather desperately to fuck him despite the fact that he's married, which is really the plot of the movie if we're being honest.

Analysis: The TV movie format should be an absolute killer for the slasher genre, which thrives on blood, guts, and nudity, all things that were not allowed to be broadcast on network TV in the 1980s. However, I have found that those restrictions tend to empower the slasher movie to aim for better plots and more layered characters (especially for women), so TV films including Fantasies, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Deadly Lessons, and last week's Till Death Do Us Part have been delightful breaths of fresh air. If anything, Calendar Girl Murders being boring is the exception that proves the rule.

Even so, it's only boring because it favors a format other than the "Lifetime movie" vibe that a project like this demands. Instead it's a bland police procedural without much new to bring to the table. At least that element requires many characters who only show up in 1 or 2 scenes, allowing the cast to be even more stacked than the typical entry, including appearances from Robert Morse, Alan Thicke, Robert Beltran, and Barbara Parkins. 

The procedural is quite bad, not really committing to any proper red herrings and losing the organizing principle of women being killed in calendar order by the halfway point. It is then intermittently intercut with scenes that prove that Sharon Stone needed some practice before she could claim her seductive hold over cinema in the 1990s. I don't blame Stone for being unappealing here, she's struggling with an impassive love interest in a schlubbed-up Skerritt, a trite script, and the overall confusedly horny atmosphere that makes it feel like the film was produced by 12-year-old who haven't actually had sex.

Obviously, a TV movie about nude models isn't going to show actual naked people. But it also didn't have to show us the photo shoots, where the women are donning outfits they could get away with wearing into church. It undercuts the sense of lusty fantasy the film is trying to indulge in, and that lack of heat is felt in no place more than the slow motion firefighter photo shoot that is the lead-out to a scene where Dan learns that his wife's life is in danger, instantly deflating whatever modicum of tension the scene had established.

Its kills are similarly lackluster, as must be expected from this vein of the slasher. Still, I might not be expecting blood, but I was definitely expecting there to be an actual kill in the second half of the movie rather than a woman failing to be drowned and a man who has his life support machine shut off, which I think can claim the record for history's least interesting slasher movie murder.

The film isn't aggressively bad by any stretch of the imagination, it's just content to be a bland bit of programming you can ignore while falling asleep face down in your TV dinner. It briefly livens up with a car chase that is by far the single best sequence of the film, but then it has the gall to leave us on one of the worst final scenes I have ever witnessed, half of which takes place with the characters blocked behind a closed door before it cuts to credits.

Killer: Cassie Bascomb (Sharon Stone)
Final Girl: Nancy Stoner (Barbara Bosson), but really only because she's the last woman we see
Best Kill: There's not much to choose from, but Miss February is stabbed while getting a snack and falls into the fridge which is kinda neat.
Sign of the Times: The dreadful synth cover of Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" this movie opens with.
Scariest Moment: Cassie is accosted by a strange man in a parking garage.
Weirdest Moment: A random dude who hasn't shown up before and won't be seen afterward does a midair splits at an otherwise relatively sedate party.
Champion Dialogue: "What am I supposed to wear to an orgy?"
Body Count: 3
  1. Pamela (Miss January) is pushed off a tenth story balcony.
  2. Kara (Miss February) is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Albert has his life support switched off.
TL;DR: Calendar Girl Murders is a passable TV movie effort but has a lot of wasted potential.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 826

Friday, April 22, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Get Your Fingers Burned

Year: 1984
Director: Howard Avedis
Cast: Sybil Danning, Eric Brown, Andrew Prine
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: They're Playing with Fire follows Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning), an English professor at Oceanview College, who seduces student Jay Richard (Eric Brown of Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy, and who was fresh off 1981's similarly themed Private Lessons) in an attempt to convince him to sneak into her mother-in-law's home, which will somehow drive her mad and thus get her declared incompetent so control of her vast estate goes to Diane's husband Michael (Andrew Prine of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Amityville II: The Possession, and two episodes of Freddy's Nightmares). Unfortunately, somebody kills Andrew's mother and grandmother that same night, and every member of the trio suspects another of committing the crime. Meanwhile, a killer in a ski mask is continuing to lurk around the property.

Analysis: This is definitely one of those films where being straight might be a prerequisite. Sybil Danning is a beautiful woman, and while the fact that she is either changing or showering during about 95% of her dialogue is highly amusing to me, it doesn't ignite any of the more prurient interests that this film was clearly intended to provoke. Instead of Eric Brown's affable geek character allowing me to transpose myself into his situation, it really left the door open for me to examine the mystifying way the relationships in his life function. Don't get me wrong, he's a cute guy, but the fact that every blonde in the film is throwing herself at his feet (his doting ex-girlfriend Cynthia is an especially peculiar psychological study) is less a fantasy and more an erotic uncanny valley. 

However, even for the people in the audience who might be interested in studying Sybil Danning's statuesque form from as many angles as possible, there's not that much that will rev the engine beyond one allegedly steamy sex scene and a lot of vacant stripteasing while she bloviates about her schemes. This is a boring movie by any yardstick, and it gets off on being withholding. 

Take the crop of teenagers who barely make any impression on the movie, including Glenn (Dominick Brascia, a well-decorated Census Bloodbath veteran from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Rush Week, Evil Laugh, and Hard Rock Nightmare). They show up every 20 minutes or so to debate whether or not they should party or study (the character of Janice is firmly in the latter camp, considering that every line she speaks is a variation on the theme of "let's go to my place and study!"), eventually arrange themselves neatly at the place where the killings happen while the person doing said killings is present, and then... drive away chatting amongst themselves, never to be seen again.

They're Playing with Fire keeps promising a slightly more interesting movie that it doesn't deliver on, so much so that the somewhat frequent really weird moments that crop up become even more potent because they're unexpected. I'm not just talking the random suit of armor in the basement or the guy who orders his pizza with mustard and anchovies (perhaps the scariest scene in the film), but a full on stalk-'n-slash sequence where the killer is wearing a Santa outfit that is never referenced before or after that moment.

The third act killer reveal is reasonably successful at drumming up atmosphere, at the very least. While Jay and Diane are trapped in an attic filled with genuinely unsettling paintings, the killer is outside the door menacing them in a baby voice that's certainly bizarre. If every scene had the energy of the brief moments where the killer rears his head, it would be a superb weirdo slasher, but alas there are too many long dialogue sequences that tax the actors delivering them far beyond their capabilities.

Killer: Martin "Bird" Johnson (Paul Clemens)
Final Girl: Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning)
Best Kill: Having the killer shoot a grandmother in the back of the head while she's watching a televangelist program on TV is certainly a bold move.
Sign of the Times: The title theme, which sounds like somebody rooted through Tina Turner and Irene Cara's wastebaskets and synthesized a track out of the scraps.

Scariest Moment: While Jay is sneaking through a seemingly empty house, a shadow moves in an ever-so-slightly wrong way that could be his shadow but keeps nagging at you until it is revealed that he is indeed not alone.
Weirdest Moment: I mean, the scene where the killer is dressed as Santa (an outfit that is never reused) and bonks Cynthia on the head with a baseball bat just has to be it.
Champion Dialogue: "Come on in, I'm not going to rape you."
Body Count: 6
  1. Lillian in shot in the chest and cheek.
  2. Grandma is shot in the back of the head.
  3. Cynthia is beaten to death with a bat.
  4. Michael is stabbed in the gut.
  5. George is macheted in the neck.
  6. Bird is shot.
TL;DR: They're Playing with Fire is a boring, allegedly erotic thriller, but there is just enough off-kilter weirdness to keep it afloat.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 864

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Census Bloodbath: 1984

If you're new to Census Bloodbath, click here.

Well, well, well! Now that we're done covering the slasher films of 1983 and all of the ones we missed from 1980, 1981, and 1982, it's time to look forward into the bright glittering future that is 1984. 

1984 is the most Christlike of the slasher movie years because the genre had petered out and died by this point in the decade until one Mssr. Freddy Krueger swooped in toward the Fall and resurrected the entire enterprise with a wave of his clawed hand.

In fact, according to my research, not a single film was released in the first three months of the year, a dazzling stretch considering that there were only three months without a slasher over the entire first four years of the genre (April '80, December '81, and - weirdly - October '83). This year isn't particularly anemic, considering there are still 28 entries that came and went, but compared to the more fallow periods the slasher had and would have, that's downright paltry!

A reminder that, going forward, I'm still going to be focusing on less intensive capsule reviews for films, because that's all I have the strength and time for at the moment. But frankly, I'm still spitting out a startling word count, so I don't think you'll actually be suffering by me harnessing slightly more brevity.

Without any further ado, here is the calendar of all the gruesome glory you've got coming to you soon!

Census Bloodbath: 1984
Movies in bold are films I have already reviewed before posting this index. Once I write each review, I will link to it from this page.

They're Playing With Fire (April)
Calendar Girl Murders (April 8)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (April 13)
Murder-Rock: Dancing Death/Murderock - Uccide a passo di danza (April 20)
Death of the Jackal/La muerte del chacal (May 10)
Blind Date (June)
Scream for Help (July)
Fear City (July 18)
Basag ang pula (July 20)
The Mutilator (October 5)
Silent Madness (October 26)
Day of the Reaper (October 31)
Evil Judgment (November 9)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (November 9)
The Initiation (December)
Fatal Games (unknown)
Innocent Prey (unknown)
Rocktober Blood (unknown)
Satan's Blade (unknown)
Word Count: 423

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Welcome To The Snake Pit

Year: 1982
Director: Timothy Bond
Cast: Matt Craven, Jack Creley, Helen Hughes
Run Time: 1 hour 17 minutes

Plot: Till Death Do Us Part follows three married couples who have arrived at the isolated mansion of Dr. Sigmund Freed (Claude Jutra) for a weekend of radical couples counseling on the weekend between Good Friday and Easter. The house is run by Dr. Honora Freed (Toby Tarnow) and her mute younger brother Stephen (Dermot Stoker, who was a key grip on Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), who operates a bizarre control room. The couples in question are Dr. Susan (Candace O'Connor) and Robert Craig (James Leach), who are processing the loss of their son; Tony (Matt Craven of Happy Birthday to Me) and Ruth Archer (Rachel Wilkinson), who are trying to get a handle on his addiction to coke; and Wally (Jack Creley of Videodrome) and Edna Kroog (Helen Hughes of Visiting Hours, The Incubus, and The Amityville Curse), who are dealing with the fact that he's a lascivious creep and she's a nagging shrew. As bodies begin to pile up, all with crosses slashed into their foreheads, the couples begin to believe that something may be amiss at Dr. Freed's establishment.

Analysis: So. Till Death Do Us Part was the final film I needed to watch in order to fully catch up with films I missed from 1980, 1981, and 1982, following my fifth and (hopefully) final round of research for this project. It was by far the hardest to obtain, to the point that I had to acquire a VHS copy and a VCR to make this happen. Usually if a film is that difficult to track down, it's not worth tracking down. Trust me, I've been burned before. However, there was an element I hadn't accounted for: this is an obscure slasher VHS from Canada. The theorem posited by Tim Brayton, which I have had the opportunity to kick the tires on dozens of times, is that there is an inimitable magic to Canadian slasher filmmaking of the 1980s, and whatever X factor they provide usually helps those films rise above their American counterparts.

Well, that dictum has held true yet again. Even with the limitations of being a made-for-TV slasher movie, Till Death Do Us Part (whose director has had a typical career trajectory for a Canadian TV workman, going on to direct episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series in the 80's, Animorphs in the late 90's, and most recently helming a myriad of Hallmark Christmas movies) is pure bliss. I shouldn't be surprised. The TV slasher sub-subgenre should result in a lot of hollow, useless tripe, but has provided a weirdly robust slate of worthwhile projects, including Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Fantasies.

However, still color me surprised that Till Death Do Us Part is top to bottom compelling. Usually these TV slasher have to find a way to be interesting that aren't the kill sequences, and this film accomplishes that, but the kills are as singularly brutal as their bloodless execution could possibly allow, especially the opening kill that results in a woman being crucified in the upper branches of a tree. It helps that even the de rigueur kills like drowning are accompanied by that excellent organizing principal of crosses being carved onto the victims' foreheads, which both lends an air of creepiness to the proceedings and reminds viewers that this film has a screenplay with an actual consistent aim.

I've seen some people online classifying this film as a horror-comedy, which I think is a bit of a stretch (most of the "jokes" would be contained in the scenes of playful banter that precede the killings, which is an element found in most slashers, though I will give those people the excellent recurring gag where Freed reveals the titles of his published works). It's less "funny" than it is gonzo and weird, which is exactly the right move for a slasher that needs to keep its audience off kilter without pumping gallons of blood across the frame. 

There's an energy to this film that's like holding onto a live wire. From the absurd plot twists (that include undercover reporters, incest, and the truly delectable tossed-off reveal that Stephen isn't mute but "just shy") to the orgiastic pleasure with which the couples indulge in a game of Killer to the constant parade of shirtless men to Dr. Freed's incessant manic piano playing, there's constantly something going on onscreen that is well worth staring at in goggle-eyed wonder. There are also a few random moments of heartstring pulling in the subplot involving the Craigs that are more emotionally impactful than they have any right to be. 

The best way I could classify this movie is that it's like if the bloodless but playful plot structure of April Fool's Day was grafted onto the energetic dismissal of the limitations of low production value of Island of Blood. I would 100% classify this film as a hidden gem, with a single caveat. Before anyone is galvanized enough to start the journey into finding some way to watch this film, it's important to remember that these films are still graded on a sliding scale. If a weirdo mid-tier slasher isn't something that thrills you, Till Death Do Us Part still isn't going to be your thing. But if that's your bag, this film is an absolute thrill.

Killer: Dr. Honora Freed (Toby Tarnow)
Final Girl: Literally every woman except the maid and Dr. Honora.
Best Kill: I mean, who could resist the sweet delicious irony of Dr. Freed being konked on the head with the bust of himself that he keeps on his desk?
Sign of the Times: Two characters make a Deliverance reference out of nowhere.
Scariest Moment: Wally's attempts to flirt with Ruth at a garden party border on sexual assault.
Weirdest Moment: Dr. Susan decides she wants to make another baby the second she gets over the death of her son.
Champion Dialogue: "Geez, step on, you big goofball."
Body Count: 6
  1. Martine is crucified in the upper branches of a tree.
  2. Wally is hit on the head with a meat tenderizing mallet and falls down a well.
  3. Carl is stabbed in the gut with a tire iron.
  4. Tony is drowned in a jacuzzi.
  5. Dr. Sigmund Freed is hit on the head with a bust of himself.
  6. Dr. Honora Freed shoots herself.
TL;DR: Till Death Do Us Part is perhaps only excellent on the sliding scale of slasher enthusiasts, but it is excellent nonetheless.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1096

Monday, April 18, 2022

Census Bloodbath: In Case of Emergency

Year: 1982
Director: Francisco Rodríguez Gordillo
Cast: Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller, Claudia Gravy
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

Plot: El cepo/The Icebox Murders follows Chantal (Mirta Miller of the previous year's Bloody Sex, bless her heart), a prostitute who is taken by her rich sugar daddy Dr. Beneau (Jack Taylor of Edge of the Axe and the same year's schlockterpiece Pieces) to an isolation mansion along with her friend Sylvie (Claudia Gravy). They discover he and his creepy assistant Jean (Juan Meseguer) are very protective of a mysterious icebox in the basement that may be linked to the recent disappearances of a slew of French women.

Analysis: A note: The single battered copy of this film that exists in the world has... a few flaws. The first act loses 2 seconds of footage every 20 seconds or so. And then there's a 20 minute period in the middle where there's no audio at all. After that it's relatively flawless, but there might be some nuances I have missed, shall we say.

That said, the movie has done an excellent job of making sure that every boring scene that occurs is repeated at least once, just so we don't miss anything. Instead of kill scenes, like most slasher movies come liberally stocked with, El cepo is content to watch Sylvie and Chantal wander around this giant house and be vaguely creeped out for 80% of the run time, a feeling that does not transfer through the screen to the viewer via osmosis, as it turns out.

It doesn't help that the film's inevitable Bluebeard twist is visible from space, so whenever the film thinks it's ratcheting up the tension, it's just reminding you that you're still farther from the reveal than you wish you were. Also the red herring at work here is one of the most bizarre in the business. We're not meant to recognize that the wealthy man who approaches Sylvie at the bar is also Jack Taylor, just because Dr. Beneau wears sunglasses that he refuses to take off, even when in the bedroom with his lover. You know, like normal, non-suspicious characters always do.

The slasher element, which begins anemic, proves it has nothing to offer once the few kills actually kick in. You'll notice in my body count below that two out of three victims are shot, but what is not mentioned there is that another victim who is believed dead until a third act twist was also shot. Unless you're in the third act of a Scream movie, there is no need to have a gun in your slasher, and centering multiple kill scenes around people clutching parts of their body then keeling over highlights the film's excruciating lack of personality.

Most of the atmosphere it succeeds in creating is glommed off of Psycho, down to the swinging lamp that lights a climactic moment. There's also one good original shot (pictured below), and while I have certainly committed the sin of bumping up my score of some Census Bloodbath entries because of one good shot, the inane goings-on of the rest of the film prevent that from proving to be much of a boon in this case. The best I can say about this unimaginative slasher entry is that it suffers from Good Poster Disease like so many of its illustrious contemporaries, where the film imagined by its promotional material is oodles more exciting than the way it actually turns out.

Killer: Dr. Beneau (Jack Taylor)
Final Girl: Chantal (Mirta Miller)
Best Kill: Sylvie (pictured above) is shot while standing in a herd of cardboard stand-ups of women with targets on their chests.
Sign of the Times: Chantal works out in a monochromatic peach tracksuit.
Scariest Moment: Jean screams at the women to take off their blouses while he photographs them on a boat.
Weirdest Moment: Although Jean is believed to be dead for half the film, he shows up in the end to save Chantal from the killer, at which point she promptly hitches a ride and drives away from him, leaving him running behind the car like Sweetums in The Muppet Movie.
Champion Dialogue: "I want you to give up your ridiculous profession."
Body Count: 3; not counting several mangled bodies discovered in a nightmare sequence on a train.
  1. French Woman is strangled.
  2. Sylvie is shot.
  3. Dr. Beneau is shot.
TL;DR: El cepo is a boring, arid film that barely crosses the line into being a legit slasher.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 748

Monday, April 11, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Baby Blues

Year: 1982
Director: Yao-Chi Chen
Cast: Emily Y. Chang, Alan Tam, Sha-Fei Ouyang
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Plot: Devil Returns follows a young woman named Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang) who was attacked by an escaped criminal. Two months later, she has married her fiancé Lo Yu-ching (Alan Tam) and discovers she is pregnant with her attacker's child. When the baby is born, she suspects it of being possessed. A variety of supernatural accidents begin to occur until she gets the baby exorcised and a shadowy figure with a knife begins stalking her home.

Analysis: Like many of the Hong Kong films we've been covering recently as we swing back around and check out the films that slipped past my radar during my first (several) rounds of research, Devil Returns (aka Jing hun feng yu ye) is a real kitchen sink affair. It's tremendously hard to pin down what subgenre this film wants to exist in, as it seems to slide effortlessly between the type of supernatural slice-'n-dice picture that would become much more common post-A Nightmare on Elm Street and a formula slasher so traditional that it literally steals entire scenes from Halloween, including the car horn death, the closet scene, spying the killer out the window, and pounding on a door screaming for it to be opened by a sleeping child.

But also it spends the whole first half of the film riffing on The Omen and Rosemary's Baby while ripping off the score to Suspiria and wholesale stealing the score to The Exorcist, so it takes some getting used to. Eventually I was won over to the film's wavelength, but it takes some time after the slow-paced first act that keeps trying to capture the "women's picture" thrills that made its superior 1982 peer Exposed to Danger so thrilling but bogging it down in a supremely boring and ill-paced execution of the "am I imagining things?" trope. Once things start clicking, they really click though, especially when the film realizes that it can use the trappings of motherhood (the home, the belly, and the baby itself) to spin out terror both metaphorical and entirely immediate.

Part of why the film is so slippery is that it's never clear what the fuck is going on with the killer, and not in a way that makes it a compelling mystery. Is the killer possessing her son? Or is he just wandering around in a Michael Myers jumpsuit? And why are some kills entirely Omen-fueled supernatural mayhem (including a woman whose chest starts spontaneously erupting with blood) while others just involve people being poked with a big knife? There's no consistent M.O. established, so it's hard to grasp the actual stakes involved. I will admit that the film ends on an epigraph that is untranslated, which may have helped explain everything, though certainly not soon enough for it to help the film in the moment.

Luckily, the kill sequences (which are entirely backloaded, because that first half really can't get anything right) are pretty fascinating, and at one point act as a wildly kinetic shot of adrenaline at the exact point where the movie begins to flag the most. The film is also occasionally pretty, particularly in an early scene where Fang Mei-hsun is kidnapped on a rainy street, dropping her umbrella, which is left upside down to forlornly fill with water. And the first half is stuffy but not terribly made, so while it's a bit of a slog to get to the superior second half, it's not the most punishing.

Killer: There's too much going on here to land on calling this entity anything other than what the title suggests: Devil
Final Girl: Fang Mei-hsun (Emily Y. Chang)
Best Kill: The abortion specialist is slashed in the face with a scalpel by a possessed nurse, at which point he begins to be thrown around by a telekinetic force before being defenestrated and falling several stories to his death.
Sign of the Times: There is an extended sequence that takes place at an aerobics class.
Scariest Moment: Devil appears in the hallway watching Mrs. Chou while she cooks, visible through the open door behind her.
Weirdest Moment: Shen Hsiao-ling starts brushing her hair and laughing maniacally.
Champion Dialogue: "Let's have a steak for your health."
Body Count: 5
  1. Doctor is slashed in the face and thrown out the window.
  2. Mrs. Chou is impaled through the back of the neck.
  3. Lin Haui-teh is stabbed in the back though his car seat.
  4. Shen Hsiao-ling is smothered with a shower curtain.
  5. Devil is shot.
TL;DR: Devil Returns is a little slow paced, but it throws caution to the wind in terms of ripping off the best of horror cinema and pouring 18 different subgenres into its bubbling cauldron.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 800

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Census Bloodbath: For The Dogs

Year: 1982
Director: Robert A. Burns
Cast: Terry Evans, Mitch Pileggi, Aldo Ray
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Plot: The handsome and frequently shirtless blond Ken (Andy Tienann) moves into a... whatever you call a mansion run by Aldo Ray (Dark Sanity, Terror Night) where a different person lives in each room like a dormitory. He quickly befriends nebbish weirdo Jerry (Terry Evans), and while they both have a crush on non-weirdo Sharon (Catherine Molloy), their homoerotic tension distracts them enough that it doesn't become much of a problem. Then the boardinghouse is struck by a pair of tragedies. First, the vicious dog owned by militaristic weirdo Ike (Jonathan M. Ingraffia) is shot by slovenly weirdo Woody (Mitch Pileggi of Shocker and The X-Files) after attacking hippie weirdo Leon (Daniel Medina). Second, a prank goes horribly wrong, resulting in a death. Afterward, Jerry is haunted by dreams of the dog coming back as a ghost, and what do you know, people keep winding up dead, mauled to bits, the next morning.

Analysis: Mongrel was directed by Robert A. Burns, the art director for illustrious horror projects like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Re-Animator, and The Hills Have Eyes, plus less illustrious entries like Microwave Massacre. Hey, we all gotta pay bills. This was his only directorial feature, which frankly makes sense. Although it shows some early promise, it certainly wouldn't function as a calling card for other directorial gigs. The art direction also suffers from him not being present in that sphere, so you can't even point to that as a win.

As a Gay and a feminist, I do love when men are objectified onscreen (Is it ethical that this is the case? No, of course not. Is it satisfying? Hell yes.), and if you're in the same boat as me the first act of Mongrel will treat you real nice. The unmotivated shiftlessness isn't quite as pure or campy as something like The Majorettes, but it does underscore a nice bit of table setting as we get all our ducks in a row and meet all the characters. This first third of the film is also where Burns pulls off his two best shots. They are the only images in the film that might make one perk up, but they're among the best in their breed. One is a shot of Ken's arrival, refracted through panes of glass in an arrangement reminiscent of Almodóvar's The Flower of My Secret, and the other is a kinetic moment where a tranquil cityscape is interrupted by a figure lurching into frame, which provides a propulsive energy that the film sorely lacks elsewhere.

Unfortunately, once the film draws its Psycho influence to its natural conclusion and offs a lead character at the end of the first act, things begin to fall apart. Characters just kind of hang around being weird and gross, but not in the Tobe Hooper way that provides oodles of uncanny atmosphere. Luckily these characters are being brought to life by a better cast than this film deserves, but when they are brought to death, as slasher characters are wont to do, it's not particularly interesting. The film's gore budget is abysmal, and every kill - which all feature the same M.O., usually a demerit in a subpar slasher to begin with - takes place offscreen before the body turns up smeared in Caro syrup. The finale twist is reasonably entertaining, but the doldrums of the middle hour and change can't be erased quite that easily. Overall there is enough solid material bookending the film that I'm glad I came across it, but it's not really a diamond in the rough. Let's call it cubic zirconia in the rough.

Killer: Jerry (Terry Evans)
Final Girl: Sharon (Catherine Molloy)
Best Kill: A guy named Toad for some reason is impaled on one of those useful spikes you apparently have sticking out of the wall in a basement.
Sign of the Times: The ground floor of the boardinghouse boasts a super cool Deep Throat themed pinball machine.
Scariest Moment: Adult men giggle like children while pulling a prank that high school freshmen would deem immature. Straight people are terrifying.
Weirdest Moment: Woody's girlfriend Turquoise hums "The First Noel" while gardening in the summer sun.
Champion Dialogue: "Why don't you stick a dog biscuit up your ass?"
Body Count: 9
  1. Mongrel is shot.
  2. Ken is electrocuted.
  3. Puppy is gutted.
  4. Ike is mauled.
  5. Woody is mauled.
  6. Leon is mauled.
  7. Turquoise is mauled.
  8. Toad is impaled through the back with a spike.
  9. Jerry is shot.
TL;DR: Mongrel has a promising opening act, but fails to do all that much with its potential.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 781

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Sometimes I Give Myself The Creeps (Capsule Review)

Year: 1982
Director: Frank Hennenlotter
Cast: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

Plot: Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) arrives in a grubby New York hotel carrying a giant wicker basket. It turns out the basket contains Belial, a deformed mutant who was formerly conjoined to Bradley's side. They are in town to exact bloody revenge on the doctors who forcibly separated them, but Duane's burgeoning interest in a beautiful local woman (Terri Susan Smith) begins to threaten their inseparable bond.

Analysis: Basket Case lives in a strange dichotomy that is announced by the opening title card (depending what version you're watching). This movie which cost $16,000 and comes from the coterie of grubby early 80's exploitation films set in a pre-Giuliani New York City (like C.H.U.D., Q, the Winged Serpent and Maniac) has also been restored and preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. Whether it deserves to be revered by the art community more than any of those other similarly scrappy guerrilla productions is an important question, but the fact remains that it has earned every ounce of attention it gets through sheer gonzo willingness to go ahead and push itself to be the exact thing it wants to be.

This is B-movie director Frank Hennenlotter's first feature, and it shows. The audio is shitty and muffled at its best. Two thirds of the cast perform their lines like they've just been hit on the head with a hammer. There are enough hairs in the camera gate to make a Rapunzel wig. However, there is an effervescent charm to the proceedings that redeems its ineptitude, or at least harnesses it to the greasy, weird atmosphere of the corner of New York that it's capturing and uses that to accentuate its strengths.

A microcosm of how things that shouldn't work just plain do is Belial himself. He's an ugly, stunted puppet with stiff, immobile lips that look like a BOB punching dummy got left out in the sun for too long. Plus, his motion obviously switches between shitty, herky-jerky stop motion and not-particularly-convincing puppetry. However, this film had more effective scare moments than any other film I've seen this year, perhaps because what you're looking at is so thoroughly and indefensibly wrong.

The kills meted out by Belial are rendered with considerably better effects, though they do commit the sin of lacking specificity. A lot of the things he does to his victims merely result in their faces becoming smeared with blood (at least at first), and don't quite pack the punch to the gut that something specific like, say, a gouged eye, would have. Plus, the setups for the kills get too repetitive and samey by the time the film reaches its conclusion. Same goes for the dialogue scenes, which drag out the reveal of Belial's backstory long past the time that pretty much every viewer might have figured it out on their own, and repeat a lot of the same setups over and over again.

But in spite of all this, the sheer audacity of this film to exist is still endlessly enjoyable. It doesn't hurt that Van Hentenryck is an adorable - if amateurish - screen presence, with his fresh face haloed by a cumulous cloud of hair that can't exactly be called a mullet because it's got a party in the front as well. Plus, his co-star Beverly Bonner (as his across-the-hall neighbor Casey) has a glowing natural charisma that outshines her limited acting prowess. Ditto a random featured extra who gives a rambling monologue about the drugs Duane could buy from him. Basket Case definitely hits the sweet spot where the handmade quality makes you want to coo over it and fall in love even as it's burping up blood all down the front of your shirt.

Killer: Belial
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Somehow, Belial sets up the world's largest circular saw blade on some sort of ramp contraption that slides down and saws his father in half, vertically.
Sign of the Times: Duane buys a TV that could fit in the palm of my hand.
Scariest Moment: Dr. Needleman turns on the lights, only to reveal that Belial is clinging to the wall over the switch.
Weirdest Moment: I'm not sure how one would even begin to choose one, so I'm gonna go with the MoMA credit in the intro.
Champion Dialogue: "That's OK, I like you drunk. You're cute when you slobber."
Body Count: 6; not including Belial or Duane, who clearly die in the denouement but then come back for Basket Case 2 in 1990.
  1. Dr. Lifflander is clawed about the face.
  2. Dr. Needleman is ripped in half.
  3. Brian Mickey O'Donovan is clawed.
  4. Dad is bisected.
  5. Dr. Kutter has her face shoved into a drawer of scalpels.
  6. Sharon is strangled.
TL;DR: Basket Case is a mite repetitive, but it spins a maniacal good time out of almost nothing.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 828

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Cats Take Orders From No One (Capsule Review)

Year: 1981
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Freely adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe short story of the same name, The Black Cat follows the medium Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), whose murderous instincts are channeled through a hypnotic black cat who is simultaneously his tool and his nemesis. As people around town begin to die one by one, Scotland Yard Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck of Formula for a Murder) enlists the help of visiting American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer of Body Count) to help him get to the bottom of this strange web of mystical intrigue. 

Analysis: When you're approaching a Lucio Fulci movie that came out in the same era as The Beyond and The New York Ripper, you make sure you're strapped in. Unfortunately for you, if you have chosen The Black Cat, you're more in danger of choking yourself on your seatbelt than garnering any excitement from the film itself. It's definitely an "off" moment for Fulci, whose directorial style is sleepy and dreamlike in his best films, but becomes tedious as hell in his worst.

I will say that his methodical pacing really hammers home the death sequences in this film, which are usually accidents that happen around or because of the titular feline. Watching someone, say, asphyxiate on gas while their mouth begins to foam or have the flesh melt off their body in a house fire is one thing. Watching it happen in languorous stretches of film that make you feel trapped in the frame and forced to reckon with their prolonged suffering is another thing. Unfortunately, the deaths are few and far between. They also aren't redeemed by the presence of a satisfying villain, because there is no real "slasher" figure causing all the mayhem we see here.

That slow pace fails to elevate any other part of the movie, unfortunately. That's not to say it's not all very well-mounted and pretty. The lighting and cinematography are perfectly bucolic and dreamlike. And in one case, a piece of set design is even breathtaking, when a potential villain escapes into an attic with a wall decorated in a swirling curlicue pattern. And Fulci continues to prove he has an obsession with eyes even when he's not jamming huge pieces of wood into them, with evocative closeups of humans and cats staring into the camera. 

However, the overbooked nonsense of the plot and the vacant acting of British people dubbing Italian actors require a lot more energy than they're given. It's a deathly dull slog through anything that isn't a kill, and because of the "was it an accident?" nature of the kills themselves, they don't offer enough variety to spice up their rare appearances in the first place. There isn't a lot in this film to justify its existence, less so because Italian horror has already received the most perfect adaptation of "The Black Cat" it was ever going to get, in Sergio Martine's 1972 film Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key. If you're considering a double bill of that and The Black Cat, you'd frankly be much better served by just watching Your Vice twice.

Killer: Prof. Robert Miles (Patrick Magee)
Final Girl: Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer)
Best Kill: None of these kills really deliver in the way that only Fulci knows how to, so I'll nominate a non-kill gore moment when the cat attacks Miles and slashes stigmata onto the palms of his hands.
Sign of the Times: Jill's bleached blonde Junie B. Jones haircut.
Scariest Moment: Miles starts babbling in panic as he uses one of Maureen's possessions to channel her last moments.
Weirdest Moment: The film briefly goes full Exorcist when Miles tries to kill the cat, and Jill's bed starts shaking around and floating.
Champion Dialogue: "Could've been worse. Could've been a case of chicken wrestling."
Body Count: 5
    1. Ferguson dies in a car crash.
    2. Maureen and 
    3. Stan asphyxiate from a gas leak in an airtight room.
    4. Drunk falls from a great height and is impaled on a spike.
    5. Mrs. Grayson falls out of a window while burning to death.
TL;DR: The Black Cat is gorgeous, but the story doesn't have enough oomph to wake up Fulci's sleepy direction.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 726