Thursday, June 2, 2016

Strung Out on Slashers: FATAL EXPOSURE (1989)

You know how there are video boxes that you've seen countless times in Ye Olde Days of VHS but never rented? This is one of mine. The reason for this, I realize now, is that the box art make it appear to be one of those thrillers that is heavy on the romance and light on everything else. As it turns out, this is only partially true. Not to be confused with the 1991 Mare Winningham made-for-TV thriller, this is a prime cut of shot-on-video splatter that easily trumps over-exposed entries such as CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988). Yeah, I know that bar is pretty low.

A presumably studly, young photographer (Blake Bahner looking like Lou Ferrigno's less Hulky brother) who has just inherited a big, southern-plantation style mansion off in the middle of nowhere near a town in the middle of nowhere, called Prairieville. After a couple of simple minded church folk go to welcome him to the town, we find out that his name is Jack T. Rippington and (in case you couldn't guess) his great grandfather was Jack the Ripper. Continuing in the family business, Jack arranges for people to come to his house so he can photograph them while killing them in the most brutal ways he can imagine.

His first victim is a couple who have apparently never seen an 80's slasher flick because they are having sex in their car parked in the woods, which as we all know is a bad idea. After Marybeth (Julie Austin), tells her amorous boyfriend Jay (Dan Schmale) to check out a suspicious sound (another bad idea), Jay just blows it off saying "it's probably just Kevin." So, wait. You told your friend that you were going to be getting some action, and then told him where and what time?! Before we get the chance to find out why the hell Jay would want Kevin to come a-knockin' when the car is a-rockin', a killer with an ice pick makes quick work of Jay and chases a topless Marybeth through the woods before finally catching her and... asks her three questions? Yep, our ice pick has an inquiring mind and wants to know:
"Are you obsessed with dying?"
"What do you think when you hear the word 'blood'?"
"Have you ever considered murdering someone?"
"Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about... your mother."
Ok, he doesn't actually ask that last one, but what the hell is with this guy? I was waiting for him to roll in a couch and bust out some Rorschach ink-blots. After getting all the wrong answers, Jack shoves the ice pick down in her mouth causing her to choke up about a quart of blood before dying. Yep, the first scene of the movie has a topless girl getting a phallic instrument of death right inside her throat. Damn! These guys are clearly committed. Or should be. One or the other.

As it turns out, Jack asks only the girls these questions because he is looking for the "right" girl. Someone who shares his interests and can provide him with the one thing he wants most, a son, Jack Jr (shouldn't that be Jack V?). Awwww, he just wants a family! It's almost touching aside from the fact that Jack also likes to drink the blood of his victims to maintain his virility. Interestingly, these moments of insight into Jack's character are bizarrely delivered straight to the audience, beating DEADPOOL (2016) to the bloody fourth wall punch by 27 years. In the middle of say, strolling about with a body in a wheelbarrow, Jack will turn to the camera and cheerfully discuss his motives with the audience. This not only an odd choice because we are left to speculate who might be holding the camera, but it's mainly odd because it only happens a few times in the middle of the movie and is quickly forgotten again by the final act.

When I said "brutal" previously, I was not just throwing out a hyperbolic adjective, nosir. Unlike so many other American SOV slashers of the era, this movie does not screw around. After the success of FACES OF DEATH, Good apparently knew what teens and tweens of the late '80s are looking for in a cheap SOV, DTV horror outing and delivers in spades. The husband of a bible-thumping couple who come around to welcome Jack to the town, is put in stocks and has the shutter exposure of the camera taped to his hand so that when Jack lops his head off with a cane knife, his death spasm causes him to take is own picture at the his bloody stump squirting blood. The wife, who suddenly starts waving the freak flag, jumping into a black teddy for her shoot, is tied to a chair and has hydrochloric acid injected in her neck causing the flesh to bubble and dissolve in a bloody mess. The take-away message here is; don't let strangers tie you to a chair while wearing a teddy. I should point out that all of this happens before the 10 minute mark! I tell you, this movie delivers the grue with none of the old cut-out knives or simple splashes of Kayro. Nope, it's pure latex loveliness right until the end, with a climax that is one of the most ambitious gore set-pieces I have ever seen in an American '80s SOV movie (notice I excluded the Germans. They're just crazy). I emphasise the American '80s SOV movie, because if you are a fan of THE WALKING DEAD, this will do nothing for you. At the time however, for what it is, it's pretty damn graphic.

After yet another hot young thang, Erica (Ena Henderson, of the very odd 1991 SOV thriller MOLLY AND THE GHOST), throws herself at Jack, he finally gets the right answers and finds true love, the only thing is, even though she answered all the questions right, this ain't no PSYCHOS IN LOVE (1987), Erica still doesn't realize that he is a serial killer in spite of the fact that his job is to take photos of simulated death for a magazine that nobody has ever heard of and has a secret room that she is not allowed to go into. She even sees his gory photos and just assumes it is a make up effect even though she has never seen him work with make up, nor does she ever see his "models" again! I guess in a town so small it can't even be seen on camera, one can't be too choosy about one's partners.

The outstanding make-up effects were provided by Scott Coulter and Dan Frye, who managed to make some virtually seamless prosthetics under the bright lights of a video shoot. Coulter started his lengthy career as a make-up assistant on 1987's STREET TRASH, which should be enough to pique your interest on its own. Coulter racked up over 30 credits in make-up effects, including the junk-food favorite DEMON WIND (1990) and the instant classic TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT (1995), after which he switched over into visual effects with over 130 credits and counting. Dan Frye worked for Coulter on several films and himself went on to do make up effects in an amazing array of great movies from Frank Henenlotter's BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) to METAMORPHOSIS: THE ALIEN FACTOR (1990), to LAST ACTION HERO (1993) and GAME OF THRONES (2015). My guess is that Coulter was using this movie as a demo reel of sorts, to showcase his studios talent, as the effects showcased here are excellently executed for what is clearly a very low-budget movie.

Shot almost entirely inside of a large house, of which we only see maybe four rooms, the exteriors are so minimal as to comprise of about two exterior shots of the house and a few scenes in the "cemetery", which is merely a remote patch of trees and grass next to a forest that they have dressed with a couple of headstones and a pile of bricks that Jack refers to as a "crypt". Uhhh, I guess the family fortune all went into that big ass house. Perhaps the models that come over to his deadly shoots bring him groceries as well, because Jack never leaves the damn house, except to take his bodies to said cemetery where he throws them in said crypt because he figures "nobody's going to look for a corpse in a cemetery." Presumably like nobody looks for shellfish in an ocean, or this movie in a video store.

This is cinematographer Peter B. Good's second and final feature film as director following the grueling exercise in tedium, the sci-fi wilderness epic, THE FORCE ON THUNDER MOUNTAIN (1978). Aimed squarely at the family demographic and adopting the style of one of Disney's family films of the '70s, this film consists almost entirely of a man and his boy (and Benji clone dog), hiking around a mountain marveling over stock footage of animals, until the boy meets an old, bearded hermit who lives in the hills and teaches him (wait for it) the ways of The Force, a power that controls all things, living and inanimate! I know, it doesn't sound familiar at all, right? This wilderness film, while almost impossible to sit through, makes sense as he actually was a director of photography for the TV shows ANIMAL WORLD (1969-1972) and DISNEY'S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR (1972-1977). Better still he went on to shoot the drive-in classic JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975) and the not-so-classic FACES OF DEATH III (1985) and FACES OF DEATH IV (1990). Now if that isn't an eclectic career, I don't know what is.

Good's floodlit video cinematography often makes the movie look like a daytime soap opera, which is ironic as Bahner, a veteran of two Chuck Vincent films, SENSATIONS (1987) and THRILLED TO DEATH (1988), also starred in DAYS OF OUR LIVES and GENERAL HOSPITAL around the same time. During the two lengthy sex scenes, shots are often composed to look like Harlequin romance novel covers. This begs the question, who are they trying to appeal to here? Did they really expect romance novel and soap fans to watch a movie that is verging on being an American reiteration of the infamous Japanese "snuff" videos in the mid-'80s GUINEA PIG series? Or for that matter do they expect splatter movie fans to sit through a soap opera punctuated by hot topless girls and graphic gore? Erm, well I guess  the answer to that last question is "yes". Yes we will, and we'll like it.

5 Reactions:

  1. great review. i also walked by this box many many times. now i regret passing it up. any tips tracking this movie down? i can't seem to find it anywhere.

  2. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. The VHS tape has gotten to be a real rarity these days. Perhaps it was at the time and I just didn't realize it. I'd suggest saving an e-bay search or joining a movie trading group on Facebook or Reddit. Good luck!

  3. will do! btw, despite reading your reviews for years, i don't think i've ever commented before. just wanted to let you know i really love your site and get super excited any time a new post goes up. keep up the great work.

  4. Thanks so much for letting us know, that means a lot to us. I'll try to pick up the pace a bit!

  5. Picked this up on your recommendation. Its pretty glorious. Thanks for shining a light on this one.


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