Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prison Prescription: DESTROYER (1988)

As is sometimes the case in Copywood, one good idea becomes a basis for an entire wave of films. Literally in the case of the waterlogged films of the late '80s. The likes of DEEP STAR SIX (1989), LEVIATHAN (1989), LORDS OF THE DEEP (1989) and THE RIFT (1990) all were brought to life due to the fact that a little movie called THE ABYSS (1989) was being made by some no-name director. This was much in the same way that for a very brief span of time, prison-based horror films became all the rage. You know what they say, the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long and in the case of prison pictures, all it took was Wes Craven's SHOCKER (1989), a soulless, desperate attempt to recreate the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), to fry that high-concept all to hell.

Released literally one month after PRISON (1988), this is probably more like what Irwin Yablans had in mind when he came up with the story for PRISON, though to their credit, writer-producers Peter Garrity and Rex Hauck realize that, again, having a fellow prisoner terrify fellow prisoners isn't going to work.

It's not just the filmmaking that's hard...

Convicted of the rape and murder of 23 men, women and children, serial killer Ivan Moser (Lyle Alzado) is sent to the chair. It's never said which prison this was supposed to be, but it seems pretty obvious that it's Texas since Warden Karsh (Pat Mahoney) wears a white Stetson and is more interested in frying the sonofabitch than finding out where the remains of the 24th victim are that Moser just confessed to. After Moser gets rendered extra crispy, the prison power fails and a riot ensues. Well, at least that's what we're told. It's pretty obvious that the riot was one of many corners cut. The riot, the largest in history, resulted in the deaths of 13 guards and 37 inmates forcing the prison to close.

Now, a year and a half later, a low-budget film crew (obviously inspired by Roger Corman's productions), take over the abandoned prison to shoot a trashy women's prison epic titled "BIG HOUSE DOLLS". The screenwriter, David (Clayton Rohner), decides that he should use this opportunity to do some simultaneous research on the history of the prison, which the residents, including the local British cabdriver, are strangely superstitious about. In between clashes between the director (Anthony Perkins, playing it straight down the line) and his scenery-chewing leading lady (Lannie Garrett), there is some attempt at light romantic chemistry between David and his girlfriend Malone (Deborah Foreman) who is the stuntwoman on the picture. I'm pretty sure the only stunt Foreman ever pulled off was in the bathroom trying to get on her Flock of Hairdo. Also we have to get in the antics of other members of the crew, such as those of Rewire (Jim Turner), the special effects guy that's half geek, half stoner. These scenes take up way too much of the movie, but once we do find out that Moser is "half alive" and living that half-life in the prison, things pick up speed.

Just because you are low budget,
doesn't mean you can't compose cool shots

While at first it might seem like a stroke of preposterous casting, Alzado makes the movie. Alzado's eyes bulge as much as his steroid-bloated muscles to the point where it seemed like he was in danger of having a stroke at any moment. The producers didn't go out of the way to do any complex make-up, outside of some appliances marking the spots where he was electrocuted (the main one, amusingly being the bald spot on his head), but they really don't need to. Alzado is The Hulk in pinkface with a completely psychotic laugh that actually at times is downright testicle-shrinking. I mean, the guy is 300 pounds of pure 'roid rage mixed with sheer lunacy. In my humble opinion, one of the most disturbing moments in a mainstream '80s slasher film can be found right here. The scene in which Moser straps Malone in the electric chair and rubs his face on her thighs while calling her "mommy" is only topped by the queasy moment where he slowly cuts and eats her hair. Also, I don't think I've ever seen a movie of this era where the slasher villain masturbates while peeping on the girls he's about to kill. The movie may not have a lot of gore even in it's uncut form, but it does have its moments.

Even though I firmly believe that horror films, or maybe just films in general, should not fully explore all of the ideas that they raise, this film throws out a lot of intriguing details that are left hanging. Perhaps they were more fleshed out in the original script (seeing three writers credited with a script is usually a sign that the concept was drawn and quartered by too many cooks), but here they take a back seat to some of the more mundane aspects, such as David and Malone's relationship. I particularly like the gameshow obsession that is in the beginning of the film. Moser is introduced feverishly watching a show that is clearly supposed to be Wheel of Fortune minutes before his execution. We cut to the TV screen and see the puzzle with the clue being "sentence". As in "death sentence". While he is being led to the electric chair you can hear the gameshow announcer (the one and only Gary Owens) in the background talking up the high points of a prized La-Z-Boy recliner, complete with musical cue as Moser sits in the chair. Later in the film, we find out from one of the townies that one of Moser's victims was the Vanna White-esque co-host. It's a cool idea but it never really goes anywhere past that point. The idea was borrowed from a few different places, most likely RUNNING MAN (1987) and it's quickie cash-in cousin DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987), but actually is really well implemented here, except that it gets forgotten about in the ensuing milieu.

It's also worth mentioning that the US R-rated release, like so many horror films of the day, is missing some of the gore due to Jack Valenti's posse of cinematic luddites. A leaked tape included the original cut, but unfortunately it's been decades since I've seen it and can't seem to find a copy of it anywhere these days. As I recall main censored scene was the one in which Officer Callahan (Bernie Welch) is impaled on the end of a jackhammer (where did that come from?). In the R-rated release version the tip of the jackhammer pokes through the wall behind Callahan and drips blood. In the uncut version, the jackhammer breaks through the wall and blood gushes out. Sounds pretty tame today, but back then that was enough to give one of the genteel MPAA biddies an attack of the vapors.

Is it the greatest slasher flick of the 1980s? Maybe not, but it is pretty damn fun, has some cool ideas, it's very well shot and quite frankly, Lyle Alzado is completely off the charts as Ivan Moser. Plus, it beats the orange jumper off of the following year's high-profile, semi-ripoff SHOCKER (1989). That alone should be enough for someone (say, *ahem* Shout Factory) to give this a nice widescreen, uncut release.

1 Reactions:

  1. Interesting film. Sad to see Perkins looking so frail. Deborah Foreman should have had a better career.
    Features stuntman Mark Dissette, a friend of my fb friend Lyle Darose who directed Jenna Bainbridge and Andrew Caldwell in mentally challenged theatrical groups as seen in the documentary A Pharma Story, and did stunts in a short called Crippler.


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