Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Not That Innocent

Year: 1984
Director: Colin Eggleston
Cast: P.J. Soles, Kit Taylor, Martin Balsam
Run Time: 1 hour 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: After Cathy Willis (P.J. Soles of Halloween) witnesses her husband Joe (Kit Taylor of Early Frost and Eggleston's follow-up slasher Cassandra) murdering a prostitute (Debi Sue Voorhees of Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), she enlists the help of local Houston Sheriff Virgil Baker (Martin Balsam of Psycho, indulging in the chewiest Southern accent that ever y'alled) to catch him. Once he's behind bars, she flees to live with a friend in Australia, but the Sydney apartment complex she lives in is run by a voyeuristic madman named Philip (John Warnock) who sets his sights on her.

Analysis: I have never seen a movie that is more clearly split right down the middle. The two halves do ultimately come together to serve the general theme of "men, am I right?" but essentially the final 45 minutes of Innocent Prey is Innocent Prey 2. Unfortunately, like most sequels, there are diminishing returns.

It doesn't help that the first half of the film is shockingly good. Even though it's an Australian's vision of Texas, where everyone's accents are a little wobbly (except for the aforementioned Martin Balsam, who is encased in concrete) while they are looking out at you from under the brim of an enormous cowboy hat, it showcases an astonishing ability to ratchet up the tension using the camera. The film's plot is a pretty standard Lifetime movie-esque story (this is not a complaint, I love it when slashers do that), spruced up with an approach pure cinema.

The scene that best exemplifies this is the murder that poor Cathy witnesses. When she suspects her husband of cheating on her, she sneaks around the back of the motel that he has parked outside of and sees him with the prostitute, her body up against the window. We see Soles' eyes through a narrow sliver of the open window, then the other woman's heaving body with her lover only visible in the mirror, pulling out a straight razor and making a slashing motion above the character's sight line. Then the upper body of the woman drops into view, her throat slashed, as she crumples to the floor. It's an astonishingly well executed set-up that keeps the viewer off-kilter and highlights each horrifying revelation at the exact moment that it's too late for Cathy to do anything about it.

This is by far the best scene in the movie, but there are multiple moments in this branch of the story that achieve a similar level of visual tension. It then becomes a hell of a good "woman under siege" thriller as she must fight back after her husband traps her inside her home. It's also a showcase for P.J. Soles as a horror heroine in her own right, delivering a nuanced performance that's not quite Jamie Lee Curtis level but certainly worth celebrating.

The second half, on the other hand, is just goofy. It's basically asking the question "What would happen if Norman Bates ran the apartment building from Sliver?" The answer? "That would be pretty stupid." 

There is much less control over tone and tension in this part of the film, which highlights the fact that the gore effects are pretty minimal instead of using their limitation as an advantage, as the first half does. There is also some wacky-ass stuff with an electrified doorknob that has absolutely no business being in this movie. It's certainly not enough to ruin the movie, because it's still totally watchable, but it does have a deflating effect until the film's shocking but perhaps inevitable final shot.

Killer: Basically All Men
Final Girl: Cathy Willis (P.J. Soles)
Best Kill: Absolutely that opening motel bathroom kill, because holy shit.
Sign of the Times: The perm that threatens to throttle the life out of Cathy and gets closer than any man ever does.
Scariest Moment: The cop guarding Cathy steps out of the room and instantly stops responding to her conversation.
Weirdest Moment: Philip sings Cathy a lullaby while watching her fall asleep on the monitor.
Champion Dialogue: "My legs feel like they belong to someone else. And whoever it is just ran a marathon on 'em."
Body Count: 8
    1. Prostitute has her throat slashed with a straight razor.
    2. Warden #1 and
    3. Warden #2 are killed in a brawl, though their exact injuries are indistinct.
    4. Officer Casey is beheaded offscreen.
    5. Workman is strangled in the crook of Joe's elbow.
    6. Joe is killed offscreen.
    7. Gwen is blasted with scalding water. I think.
    8. Philip is electrocuted and defenestrated. 
TL;DR: Innocent Prey is two completely distinct films stapled together, but the first one is excellent.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 791

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Bummer Olympics

Year: 1984
Director: Michael Elliot
Cast: Sally Kirkland, Lynn Banashek, Sean Masterson
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Plot: While they train for the Summer Olympics, the nubile young students of Falcon Academy of Athletics are being murdered one by one with a javelin. 

Analysis: Fatal Games is kind of in your face about how bare bones it is. What you get is sexy young people chatting, then wandering off to be speared. It's spare, is what it is. It's even got a hell of an organizing principle. The sports-themed characters and killings provide lots of opportunity for bared flesh and nasty murder set pieces. 

Unfortunately, the film's first flaw is that it uses the same gore gag over and over and over. Slasher films can survive the killer using the same weapon throughout the entire thing. Look at Scream or Sorority Row. But if it's the same weapon used the exact same way, it gets old quickly, and the inventiveness of using a javelin pales the third time you see someone clutching their gut with half of a wooden pike wiggling between their fingers.

The characters that are getting put through the wringer also aren't particularly interesting. Their dialogue is admittedly realistic to what Olympic hopefuls probably talk about in their day to day life, but you'd be hard pressed to argue that it's interesting stuff to come out of a horror character's mouth. The script is minimal as hell in every way though. The murder mystery is also incredibly anemic. Although multiple characters could conceivably be called red herrings, the screenplay never asks much of them and certainly never thinks to remind the viewer that they're meant to care about who is mowing down these teens.

The only place where the film shines in any legitimate way is two distinct shots. The first is a cool shot of the killer backlit in a gym sauna that is kind of reminiscent of the film-saving shot in Final Exam. The second is a close-up of a tiny character detail of a nervous coach picking at the label on his beer bottle. But that's it. In a nearly 90 minute movie.

Spareness and lack of creativity is not necessarily something that will sink a film for me, considering how many horrible slashers I've sat through in my life. In fact, I was floating along mildly enjoying myself and certain I was sitting through a totally satisfactory 5/10 movie. Until the killer reveal happened. I'm gonna drop some SPOILERS, be warned.

This film's tropiness doesn't stop with the ending, which indulges in the worst The Killer Was Trans storyline I've ever seen. Transness was constantly being equated with murderous rage in the early 80's, but the mystifying motive and confused depiction of what a trans person even is are especially poisonous, enough to make me dock an entire full star from my review of the film. The only spot of light in the sequence is that it also contains the laziest plot point I've possibly ever seen, which is at least remarkable: the killer is successfully hiding their identity until the final girl looks at the floor and sees a twenty year old newspaper explaining who the killer is. You know, those ancient papers that are always lying around in university sick bays. Good stuff.

Fatal Games is kind of like those store brand Oreo cookies. It assembles all the ingredients in the right way, so it's definitionally the thing you were looking for, but it's got a gross aftertaste and you wish you had just splurged and gotten the actual Oreos. 

Killer: Diane Paine (Sally Kirkland of Double Exposure)
Final Girl: Annie Rivers (Lynn Banashek)
Best Kill: The killer hides in the pool and gets Lynn right in the gut from underwater while she's swimming laps.
Sign of the Times: The shorts on these boys might as well just be athletic cups painted purple.
Scariest Moment: Annie unknowingly just barely avoids being murdered when she sneaks into the school after hours to retrieve a textbook.
Weirdest Moment: An overwhelming amount of time in the first act is spent on panic about there not being enough napkins.
Champion Dialogue: "How'd you like to come to my house tonight and bob up and down on my bed?"
Body Count: 6
    1. Nancy is javelined in the chest.
    2. Sue is javelined in the gut.
    3. Joe is javelined in the back.
    4. Lynn is javelined in the gut.
    5. Frank is javelined in the back.
    6. Diane falls and is impaled on a trophy.
TL;DR: Fatal Games is a barely-there slasher that is basically competent until a truly dire final ten minutes.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 778

Monday, May 23, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Detroit Cop City

Year: 1984
Director: Wes Olsen
Cast: Wes Olsen, James F. Moore, Sandy Schemmel
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

Plot: The Dark Side of Midnight takes place in Detroit as a killer known only as The Creeper begins to strike around town. Mayor Reilly (Dave Bowling) doesn't want news of the slayings to get out, as they could interfere with a shady land deal he's trying to pull, frustrating Chief Cooper (James F. Moore), who calls in expert criminologist Brock Johnson (Wes Olsen) to tackle the case.

Analysis: For a film that was so clearly a passion project (director and star Wes Olsen is also writer, editor, and producer Wes Olsen), there's not a lot in The Dark Side of Midnight that seems worth getting passionate about. The bulk of the film is made up of scenes of middle-aged men with identical dark mustaches (one of which seems to be glued on, so this is apparently an intentional aesthetic choice - Poirot, eat your heart out) explain grisly murders to one another in a variety of wood-paneled offices. And they break this exciting action up by reading the newspaper to learn about what everyone else is up to.

Like most slasher movies that focus on police procedural, the victims are extremely two-dimensional and difficult to care about, though the (admittedly infrequent) stalk-'n-slash sequences are occasionally more suspenseful than they have any right to be. That said, the kills have almost nothing to offer other than the brief diversion from formula in a sequence where the victim is a ten-year-old kid. Every kill is performed offscreen and either seen in the aftermath or, more often, described at length in terms that make you go "gee, I wish this horror movie might have shown that to me."

But here's the thing. The Dark Side of Midnight isn't interested in being a slasher movie. It tells us that when it randomly shows us the killer's face (bestowed with a pitch black mustache, natch) 38 minutes in after keeping his identity a secret for the first act of the film. It's also not particularly interested in being a film, or at least particularly good at being one. The camerawork is amateurish and the frame is not infrequently jostled by a DP who clearly wanted attention. This person's polar opposite is the production designer, who was clearly in witness protection and didn't want to give a single clue to any potential viewer that there was a set dresser around. The blank white walls of most of the home interiors are pornishly bare, and there's a shot of a kid's closet that is - I shit you not - completely devoid of clothes. To be fair, the one time there has clearly been an aesthetic choice made, it sucks: at one point a swath of carpet has clearly been hastily spread out underneath the killer's feet, because you can see it ripple where it touches the wall.

No, this is not a good slasher nor a good movie. But it is a pretty good love letter from Wes Olsen to Wes Olsen. His character, who might I remind you is named "Brock Johnson," has his investigative prowess (which mostly involves guessing what typewriter is being used to create various notes) hyped up for twenty minutes, and when he finally arrives in a full-on cowboy entrance, he is described as young and handsome no fewer than three times, followed by a scene where he's described as a "sex fiend" and a "Don Juan" in the space of three seconds. He is like if Sherlock Holmes and James Bond had a shitty kid they sent to boarding school in America in the hopes that they could just forget about him. 

This suburban dad fantasy of being a cool, unflappable 29-year-old is an  intoxicating dose of heterosexual camp, and it is somewhat delightful to encounter. Unfortunately, it is buried in a film that is just too bad to be redeemed.

Killer: The Creeper (Dan Myers)
Final Girl: Jan Cooper (Sandy Schemmel), but this only matters because Brock Johnson saves her.
Best Kill: All the kills are uniformly shitty, but this movie has the guts to kill off a bratty kid, so I give them kudos for doing that I guess.
Sign of the Times: The Dark Side of Midnight has its own title power ballad.
Scariest Moment: Kathy returns to her room and can't quite remember if she turned the lights off before she left, but doesn't figure it out until it's too late.
Weirdest Moment: The chilling moment 25 minutes in at which point you realize just how many mustaches there are going to be in this movie.
Champion Dialogue: "I've got about 45 minutes of work left on dinner, so we'll be eating soon."
Body Count: 6
  1. Kathy has her neck broken and skull crushed offscreen.
  2. Timmy has his throat slashed offscreen.
  3. April's Friend is garroted with rope.
  4. April is killed offscreen.
  5. Linda is killed offscreen.
  6. The Creeper dies in a house explosion.
TL;DR: The Dark Side of Midnight is one man's love letter to himself, and it's not our place to get between him and his object of affection.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 864

Friday, May 20, 2022

Census Bloodbath: We Come To This Place For Murder

Year: 1984
Director: Rick Sloane
Cast: Mary Woronov, Jenny Cunningham, Jonathan Blakely
Run Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: Blood Theatre follows three young workers at Spotlite Theatres who are sent by their sleazy boss Mr. Murdock (Rob-Roy Fletcher) to open up a new location at the site of a closed-down vaudeville theater that is being haunted by poltergeist activity and the wandering stalker who burned 22 people to death many years before.

Analysis: Blood Theatre opens rather well, with an off-kilter strangeness that feels almost Twin Peaks-y, but it doesn't take long to discover that this quality is less than intentional. The filmmakers are clearly interested in making a goofy, random movie (at no point more so than the PA voiceover that plays incessantly in the theater, a non-stop source of alleged gags) that would fit well within the Troma canon, but most of the things that are the most off-putting about it come merely from incompetence and fail to add up to a reliable atmosphere, instead becoming absolutely exhausting.

By far the worst element of the film is the acting, almost exclusively from performers who had never worked before and would never work again. The main exception is Mary Woronov, a cult actress who frequently rubbed shoulders with both Andy Warhol and Roger Corman. While I certainly can't claim to have seen all 121 roles she played on film, this just has to be the worst. Nobody would accuse her of being one of the great actresses of our time, but she is a capable presence who can ground wacky material, as she proved in that same year's Night of the Comet. Here she is mugging to the rafters and it is an almost obscene failure of comic acting, likely due to a director who had no handle on his own tone. The other, untrained actors fare even worse and at times resemble video game NPCs who haven't been properly animated, waving their arms in vague approximations of human physical behavior while frequently dubbed deadpan lines emerge from their mouths.

The environment they are running around in is just as wooden and unbelievable. The movie posters in the theater are clearly just colored pencil drawings (Blood Theatre eventually had its own poster - a totally decent one, too! Why couldn't they have just hired that person early?), and the rest of the sets bear the plain white walls of your average porn studio. The foley artists were also clearly out to lunch. Literally, because that might be the only way to explain the way that a door being opened sounds exactly like a brown paper lunch bag being ripped in half.

It's a true blessing that this film is hardly feature length, because it would be beyond human endurance to sit and watch it for any longer. The minutes stretch before the viewer as the three teens wander around the theater in unison, vacantly staring at various objects without saying a word. I will give it points for at least having a solid, sinister opening sequence and a sizable body count, even if most of the kills are offscreen and all of them save one clearly took an effects person about 15 seconds to put together. There is also a modicum of camp to be found in the very worst performance, so at least something in the film rolls all the way around the scale of badness to end up somewhere amusing.

Killer: Original Owner (Jonathan Blakely)
Final Girl: Jennifer (Jenny Cunningham)
Best Kill: Adrian's death by decapitation is both the most dynamic (a window partition lowers and severs his neck when he's looking through) and the most unexpected because the movie was totally setting him up to go ape in a third act of The Shining kinda way.
Sign of the Times: Selena and Darcy show up for work in matching orange and purple stockings.
Scariest Moment: The phone dissolves in Mary Woronov's hand when she's hearing Selena getting murdered on the other end.
Weirdest Moment: The lazy concessions stand employee gets her "revenge" on Adrian and Jennifer for not paying for their popcorn by sneaking into the movie, removing her bra, and waggling her boobs at them.
Champion Dialogue: "They're giving us whores a bad name."
Body Count: 10; not including 22 people who die of smoke inhalation during a fire in the prologue.
  1. Ticket Taker is stabbed to death.
  2. Dee-Dee is stabbed in the chest.
  3. Dee-Dee's Friend (which is her credited name) is stabbed to death.
  4. Lisa dies offscreen.
  5. Lisa's Friend (also her credited name) is stabbed in the gut.
  6. Darcy is dragged under the stage.
  7. Malcolm is accidentally electrocuted.
  8. Adrian is decapitated by a window partition.
  9. Selena dies somehow, which is represented by a light being flashed at her.
  10. Original Owner is stabbed in the back.
TL;DR: Blood Theatre is a poorly mounted, goofy, and aimless piece of work.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 821

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Tagalong

Year: 1984
Director: Ben Yalung
Cast: Ace Vergel, Snooky Serna, Liza Lorena
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Plot: Basag ang pula follows Fernando (Ace Vergel), a murderous maniac who poses as a bus driver to escape from the cops and ends up driving the graduating class of a girls' school to a secluded vacation spot. Of course he can't help but murder quite a few of them once they get there, and he is particularly obsessed with the bemulleted Chiqui (Snooky Serna).

Analysis: A note: The only way this film was accessible to me was in unsubtitled Tagalog, so there are certainly nuances I may have missed. However, it's a particularly straightforward plot.

Basag ang pula is a curiously unfocused movie. If it has merely stuck with the idea of "maniac bus driver offs students," it would have been totally palatable, even with its roster of kills that mostly just involve the killer brandishing a knife and the victim going "oof" without any gore to speak of or maybe a smear of red. Especially considering the fact that there are approximately 80 students running around this movie, chittering nonstop, it could have been a gonzo good time if he just worked off that platter of Meat over the course of a night. However, the film keeps getting distracted and eventually lands on a third act siege out of First Blood that is much less exciting to witness than the slasher movie that precedes it.

However, the slasher itself isn't half bad. There are wholly decent suspense sequences scattered throughout, including a "killer has the keys and the victim inside the car" scene that isn't quite up to the level of Scream's corresponding scene but doesn't shame itself by being in the same sentence with it. There's also a good "backseat killer" sequence and a dreamlike setpiece where trees are drenched in fog and purplish moonlight that is quite something to behold.

I also really like the way the score incorporates the tune of "London Bridge" after it is first introduced to the film dietetically, which ties in with the film's interest in presenting a Silent Night, Deadly Night-esque exploration of the killer's childhood and about how sex and violence can get mixed up in an impressionable psyche.

However, the film's strong elements, however robust and surprising, aren't quite enough to overpower the general anemic quality of the filmmaking in general. The exterior night scenes are too darkly lit to parse out much of the action, and while it moves more quickly than a two hour film otherwise might, there are long lulls where it becomes clear that none of the schoolgirls are going to emerge as actual characters worth following. And despite the film's reasonably high body count, too many of them survive to justify including so goddamn many of them in the film at once.

Killer: Fernando (Ace Vergel)
Final Girl: Chiqui (Snooky Serna), even though the movie forgets about her
Best Kill: In true Jason Voorhees style, Fernando appears to slit a woman's throat with the non-sharp side of the knife blade.
Sign of the Times: Chiqui's mullet is so thick and lustrous it looks like the tail of a seal.
Scariest Moment: Fernando menaces a woman who is locked inside a car by rubbing his lips all over the car window, leaving a slimy trail of saliva.
Weirdest Moment: Bored, Fernando builds a sand castle on the beach while the girls swim.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 15; not including a woman who is presumably killed offscreen early on because she's not where we saw her last when the cops show up.
  1. Car Man is beheaded offscreen.
  2. Makeout Boy is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Bus Driver is stabbed in the chest.
  4. Teacher has her throat slit.
  5. Temptress is stabbed.
  6. Rainstorm Girl is stabbed.
  7. Red Cap Boy is stabbed.
  8. Headmistress is stabbed.
  9. Caretaker is stabbed.
  10. Pigtail Girl is stabbed in the gut.
  11. Cop is stabbed in the back.
  12. Cop #2 is stabbed.
  13. Sharpshooter is shot.
  14. Rope Climber is shot.
  15. Fernando dies in a bus crash after being shot a lot.
TL;DR: Basag ang pula is intermittently speckled with solid suspense sequences, but it's overlong, underlit, and too busy to focus on very much.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 711

Monday, May 2, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Strangler Danger

Year: 1984
Director: Slobodan Sijan
Cast: Tasko Nacic, Nikola Simic, Srdjan Saper
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Plot: Davitelj protiv davitelja or Strangler vs. Strangler is a film about the then-Yugoslavian capital city Belgrade and how it officially became a metropolis: specifically, by having its first serial killer. Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) is a down-on-his-luck carnation salesman who works for his Mrs. Bates-esque mother. The new generation of women who wear pants and listen to rock 'n roll hate carnations and he stalks and strangles the ones who tell him so. A David Byrne-esque rock musician named Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper) feels like he has a connection with the killer and writes a hit song about him, leading Inspektor Ognjen Strahinjic (Nikola Simic) to believe that he's the culprit.

Analysis: I don't think there's a single thing in cinema history that's like Strangler vs. Strangler. Sure, you can go for the easy marks and discuss the way that the plot is reminiscent of Bill Lustig's Maniac and obviously draws considerably from the Psycho well, but that would be minimizing the titanic creative achievement of this film, which is part madcap comedy, part diegetic musical, and part Brechtian theater piece on top of being a slasher.

The film opens on a chilly voiceover describing the violence and crime of a city in near-glowing terms, eventually opening up into the tale of Pera Mitic with a series of silent film style title cards that introduce new chapters of his life and the way it mirrors the development of Belgrade in the mid-80s. The film never lets up on engaging with its audience in this way. I wouldn't say it's "winking" at the viewer but it's certainly never afraid of letting you know that it knows you're watching. 

Unlike a lot of weird movies that are misattributed as horror-comedies, there is absolutely a vein of humor running through this movie. Moments like the old lady commandeering a police station's suspect lineup or Inspektor Strahinjic cracking under pressure and swallowing a cigarette like a pill are unmistakably comedic, and even successfully so in a broad kind of sense. However, it is also very much born from the gallows humor of Eastern Europe during the time of the Iron Curtain, and lines that float by like "That's life. Some stranglers are lucky. Some are not." are both amusing and deeply disturbing at the same time.

Strangler vs. Strangler is also reasonably effective as a horror film. Even though it's a "hero killer" film positioning the murderer as the main character, Nacic finds a way to align his body with the frame that he is constantly a sinister and looming presence when he's stalking his victims. The kills are pretty much all strangulations, which would be a bloodless and repetitive M.O. that would drown a lesser slasher, but there's so much here to keep an eye on that the lack of particularly satisfying kills is hardly a blip.

The film is so committed to an aesthetic sensibility of boundless imagination that even the strange, out of left field moments like a cat suddenly delivering a moving speech via title card or the montage where the film depicts every step of a letter being written, mailed, sorted, and delivered feel powerful and meaningful. Everything about Strangler vs. Strangler is understandably accomplished on a shoestring, which does provide a certain ceiling for how wild they are able to go. However, despite their limitations, the filmmakers have created a completely singular and fascinating film that any aspiring artist should feel very jealous of.

Killer: Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) and Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Pera's semi-accidental hanging is the most slasher movie-esque kill in the entire thing.
Sign of the Times: Spiridon's band and their actually quite good hit song couldn't have come from a time that wasn't inundated with Talking Heads.

Scariest Moment: Spiridon approaches Sofija from behind, attempting to garrote her with a rope. When she turns around and notices him, he pulls back, at which point the looming figure of Pera emerges from the bushes.
Weirdest Moment: Pera sings an aria from Carmen with his mother while she gives him a bath.
Champion Dialogue: "Go home and bother your daddy with your pubescent foolishness."
Body Count: 9; not including about 8 people who are shot to death in an opening montage.
  1. Third Victim is strangled.
  2. Side Pony Girl is strangled.
  3. Opera Singer is strangled.
  4. Roduljub is strangled.
  5. Pera's Mother is smothered with his hand.
  6. Mrs. Dobrila is killed offscreen.
  7. Zorz the Cat is strangled.
  8. Sofija is strangled.
  9. Pera is hanged.
TL;DR: Strangler vs. Strangler is a peculiar and interesting bit of European cinema history.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 788