Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

December to Dismember: TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the blog
Not a reader was stirring, not even a…what the hell rhymes with blog? Slog? Log? BOG!

Ho, ho, ho (what did you call me?) and Merry Christmas! In getting with the Yuletide spirit, we here at Video Junkie have opted to deliver 12 days (give or take) of Christmas horror.  We’ll be looking at the films that bring out the sinister side of the holiday.  Some stuff so bad that it would make Mickey Rooney write a protest letter. If you’re up for it, allow us to be your guide to the Xmas horrors you should and shouldn’t see in our first ever December to Dismember!  First up, we look at the rarely discussed Santa slasher TO ALL A GOODNIGHT.

I’ve always found it ironic that SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) drew the ire of the American public when it was first released.  The positively terrifying origins of Santa Claus aside, this wasn’t even the first film to depict a killer dressed as Santa Claus as the Joan Collins segment “And All Through the House” in TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) beat it by over a decade.  In between these two films was the delightfully deranged CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980; aka YOU BETTER WATCH OUT) and the substandard slasher TO ALL A GOODNIGHT.  Hitting right at the peak of the stalk-and-slash boom, this film appears to have never actually gotten to theaters in the U.S. and debuted on video by Media Home Entertainment.  This is understandable when you realize this film is the movie equivalent of a stocking full of coal.

Mrs. Voorhees...uh, sorry...Mrs. Jensen
The action begins with an establishing shot (which is used over and over) of an all-girl school with the title card reading “Calvin Finishing School for Girls.  Christmas vacation. Two years ago.”  A gaggle of girls chase a young pledge around while shouting “Sorority! Sorority!” before she falls off a balcony and dies.  Killer motivation = established!  Two years later a group of six girls are spending their Christmas vacation on campus under the not-so-watchful eye of Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), who is taking over for the absent Mrs. Samantha. The apparent ring leader Leia (Judith Bridges) informs her pals that her boyfriend T.J. (William Lauer) is flying into the area in his dad’s plane (!) with some buddies.  In order to PAR-THAY, the girls need to subdue Mrs. Jensen and they do so by having Nancy (Jennifer Runyon), the Mrs. Goodie Two Shoes of the bunch, give her some drugged milk.  While trying to sneak the sleeping powder out of a room, Leia is scared by Ralph (Buck West), the requisite “you’re doomed” guy.  This leads to one of the film’s best dialogue exchanges.

Leia: “Jesus, you scared the hell out of me.”
Ralph: “Mrs. Samantha asked me to look in on the plants.”
Leia: “Uh huh.”
Ralph: “That’s our duty to take care of the plants.”
Leia: “Yeah.”
Ralph: “God put ‘em here to give us pleasure.”
Leia: “Yeah, yeah.  Excuse me.  Oh, by the way, Mrs. Jensen cooked up some cherry pie and stew. Better hurry on down before it is all gone.”
Ralph: “I like cherry pie.”
Leia: “Yeah, you and Nancy both.”
Ralph: “I like Nancy too.”

Before the “send Mrs. Jensen to slumber land” plan can even go into effect, Cynthia (Lisa Labowskie) and her boyfriend Paul (poor dude doesn’t even get a credit) are both knifed by a killer in a Santa Claus suit as she tries to sneak out to see him.  Oddly, no one seems to hear the screams.  Back inside, the girls think Mrs. Jensen is out for the night and head to the airfield to meet up with T.J. and his crew of hunks.  T.J. flexes his jerk skills by forcing the pilot to stay with the plane (huh?).  No PAR-THAY for you!

"Hmmm, what was the tenth digit of Pi again?"
Back at the school, the kids show they are real party animals as they all sit around while T.J. plays a song on an acoustic guitar (lyrics: “Vagabond, vagabond. Running only makes you see, your answer is just another lonely day.”).  The kids soon split off into couples as British girl Trisha (Angela Bath) hooks up with Tom (Solomon Trager, who must hate his parents), Sam (Denise Stearns) gets cozy with Blake (Jeff Butts, who must hate his friends), and Melody (Linda Gentile) decides to deflower the nerd Alex (Forrest Swanson, who must hate frozen dinner jokes).  Trisha and Tom are the first to get killed, quickly followed by Sam and Blake.  This killer Santa is resourceful though as he drags the bodies out and buries them in the yard.  A serial killer with a strong work ethic, I like it.

And they said Ralph had no brains
The next day the remaining kids don’t seem too alarmed that their numbers have dwindled by half, but they do get freaked out when Ralph turns up dead.  Detective Polansky (Sam Shamshak) shows up to take the report and orders two of his plain clothes detectives stand watch outside for the night. Meanwhile, sexual politics are abound as Leia decides to dump T.J. for one of the private dicks (ah, boo yourself) and nerdy Alex starts enjoying his new manhood by taking a fancy to Nancy.  Of course, we still have a killer dressed as Santa skulking around and he quickly dispatches of the detective outside.  The cop obviously scored low on the “perceiving threats” test at the police academy as he walks right up to a guy in a Santa suit carrying an axe and says, “What the hell you doing up here in that dumb outfit?” Such naïveté will only get you an axe to the face.  From here on out viewers get the standard slasher setup as the killer gets into the house and stalks the remaining kids before the big twist ending.

If you’ve got someone on your naughty list this year, you might do well by sending a copy of this flick.  TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is about as standard as you can get for the slasher genre.  Perhaps the most interesting thing is it marked the director debut David Hess, the cult actor best know for playing Krug in Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972).  With a decade of experience under his belt by the time he filmed this, it appears Hess didn’t do much studying while on sets with other directors.  He fails even the most basic concepts, such as properly introducing all of the characters.  There is very little mystery to the killer’s identity.  Even worse, Hess does one of the dumbest giveaways in the history of horror cinema.  If you don’t want the killer’s identity revealed, stop reading right now.  Early in the film we see the killer cross off a list of names before looking at the photo of the deceased girl from the prologue.  A few scenes later, Hess has Mrs. Jensen sitting in her sewing room with the exact same photo on the wall behind her.  Is Hess freakin’ serious?

To be fair, there is actually a twist at the end in that the kids were stalked by two killers dressed as Santa (Mrs. Jensen and her husband Polansky).  Regardless, to reveal one of them so lazily (I can’t believe it was misdirection) is insane.  It is too bad as Hess has the exploitation factor down and does work in some interesting bits when he wants to (like one of the final girls not being killed but instead dancing around the house like a ballerina after her encounter with the killer).

Of course, you can’t really expect too much from something that was made for peanuts in order to cash in on the success of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) and PROM NIGHT (1980).  There has been a lot of confusion regarding when TO ALL A GOODNIGHT was shot as the Internet Movie Database offers a January 30, 1980 release date. That was dubious to me as the film rips off both of the aforementioned films quite obviously (the opening from PROM NIGHT; the “mother avenging her child’s death” angle and crazy “you’re doomed” dude named Ralph from FRIDAY THE 13th), yet they were both released after January 1980.

"Looks like someone axed the wrong question."
(to be said in David Caruso voice)
Thankfully I was able to get to the bottom of this mystery by contacting FX legend Mark Shostrom about the project.  He generously gave me some great behind-the-scenes info on what was his first film project.  The cast and crew slept at the main location and the budget was a miniscule $40,000 as opposed to the oft quoted $78,000.  When I asked about the filming dates, he remembered them perfectly thanks to one of the most historic moments of that decade.  “We shot TO ALL A GOODNIGHT right before Christmas, during a ten day period in Nov-Dec of 1980,” he recalled via e-mail. “IMDB says it was released January 1980, which is impossible. I remember because we were filming a scene when somebody shouted ‘John Lennon's been shot!’ and everyone ran to a TV. That was December 08, 1980. Hard to forget that moment.”

Truth be told, TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is really only for slasher completists or folks looking for 80s milieu.  It is about as standard for the genre as one can get, although there is a certain charm to it thanks to the low budget trappings.  However, it never fully takes advantage of its one special gimmick - having a killer Santa Claus outfit.  I’d actually like to see a nicer version of it hit DVD though as the darker scenes on the VHS are hard to make out.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Satanic Panic: MIND, BODY & SOUL (1992)

I have too damn many unwatched movies.  While organizing some DVDs recently, I realized I had a cheapo Brentwood 10-movie set that I think I initially bought for David Heavener’s TWISTED JUSTICE.  That right there should tell you there is something wrong with me. Anyway, I decided I should actually watch some of the other films in the set (mistake #1).  Then I decided I would send a list of the 6 films from the set that I hadn’t seen to my friends and let them decide my fate (mistake #2). Being refined cinephiles, they all gravitated toward MIND, BODY & SOUL thanks to the casting of Wings Hauser and Ginger Lynn Allen.  Okay, I’ll do it *pops in DVD…credits start…directed by Rick Sloane* awwwww, hell.

The action abruptly starts with a shot of Brenda (Ginger Lynn Allen) and her boyfriend Carl (Jesse Hill) standing on a California hillside and staring at the camera. Apparently it is their 3 month anniversary and Carl has something special planned.  He takes her to a ritual held by the satanic cult he belongs to.  Ah, what a romantic.  Led by a masked man with a distorted voice (more on that in a bit), they stand around and chant “do-do-do-do” as the leader prepares to sacrifice a girl. Thankfully, the cops show up before the bloodletting can begin and the cult disciples plow out of the door in impressive fashion. The only person left standing is Brenda, so the cops promptly arrest her.  She is grilled by Detective McKenzie (Jay Richardson) about her involvement, but says she is innocent and will lead them to her boyfriend.  Of course, when they get there his apartment explodes in a blaze of stock footage.

Just another Friday night in L.A.

The cops decide to hold Brenda as an involuntary witness (huh?) and, wouldn’t you know it, the prison guard also happens to be a member of the cult. But luck is on her side as she is assigned lawyer John Stockton (Wings Hauser), who not only gets her bailed out but offers her a place to stay. Processing turns out to be a bitch though as the guard rapes Brenda as she is getting ready to leave (the act itself involves him apparently dry humping her leg while his pants are still on).  During the attack, she rips off his pentagram necklace and keeps it. Anyway, Brenda is released into Stockton’s custody and he wants her to write down everything she can remember about that night.  Hmmmm, why is he so damn interested in every little detail of this case?  I think you can figure this non-mystery out.  Their happy family soon becomes three as Rachael (Tami Bakke), Brenda’s old cellmate, shows up after she is released.  Brenda then does stuff like go on a talk show and starts dating a PA named Sean (Ken Hill).  But that pesky guard and the somehow-survived-the-blast Carl are still stalking around.  The film then limps along towards its obvious conclusion that you guessed the second you saw the masked satanic priest.

Viewers react to a Sloane movie
My past with director Rick Sloane is pretty dark.  While still a naïve teenager, I convinced my dad to buy a copy of HOBGOBLINS (1988).  It was a decision I would not soon forget. It turned out to be one of the worst movies I’d ever seen (a reputation the director now glorifies) up to that point in my life.  I made sure to put Sloane on the “do not watch” list. Yeah, I dig bad movies, but not the kind that have no redeeming value at all and make you question your existence as a human being.  So seeing his name on this film’s credits immediately sent chills down my spine.  I guess I could see if he had improved in the four years between this feature and HOBGOBLINS.  Well the answer is a resounding “no!”  The production values may have increased slightly, but the writing and directing are as inept as ever.  Seriously, did Sloane think he was pulling one over on the audience with his twist ending? I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for you when I tell you the cult leader turns out to be – GASP! – Wings Hauser.  As M. Night Shyamalan would say, “What a twist!”  The funniest thing is anyone familiar with Hauser will immediately recognize his mannerisms and vocal inflections under the mask.

So Sloane couldn’t even tell his lead, “Hey, ease up on your easily identifiable acting style.” If there was a single person who was fooled by this twist and had their jaw hit the floor during the revelation, I want to meet that person and tell them I’m Jesus.  Seriously, Sloane, you couldn’t be bothered?  Words and ideas are free – give them a chance to do something creative.

"This is just too kinky for me."
Of course, this kind of movie doesn’t really exist to challenge the audience.  It is there to provide cheap thrills (with an emphasis on the cheap as nearly every stunt in this movie is from stock footage).  Most of the thrills will come from viewers hoping to see lead Ginger Lynn Allen nude.  If only there was some other film genre that allowed audiences the chance to see her go all the way.  Yes, the main attraction here is to see the former porn queen get topless. Weird, right?  I must admit, it is kind of funny seeing her act like an old maid when her boyfriend asks her to drip wax on him. Allen was trying to make the transition from X-rated films to legit film, but this unfortunately found her in the land of Sloane.  It is a shame as she is a decent actress and should have fared better than her decade long sojourn into mainstream cinema allowed (she also got saddled with Sloane in three VICE ACADEMY features). Backing her up are Richardson and Hauser in their supporting roles.  I’ll be honest I think Wings could read the McDonald’s menu and make it sound compelling, so it is always a bummer when he ends up in subpar stuff like this.  Anyway, I can now scratch MIND, BODY & SOUL off my list of unwatched flicks.  Now only 1,000 more to go!

Ginger Lynn glimpses her pantsuit in a full length mirror:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Celluloid Chopping Block: RUBY (1977)

Curtis Harrington’s RUBY is one of those films I was infinitely familiar with before I ever saw it.  After all, it is nearly impossible to go digging into old Box Office and Variety issues without encountering that singular image of a screaming blood soaked girl, who I always incorrectly assumed was the Ruby of the title.  That image and title coupled with the casting of Piper Laurie always made me think RUBY was a quickly done CARRIE (1976) knock off.  That couldn’t be further from the truth and – thanks mostly to a badass sale at VCI Entertainment – I was finally able to see RUBY this past week.

The film opens in 1935 with gangster Nicky Rocco (Sal Vecchio) going on a moonlit date with the titular Ruby Claire (Piper Laurie).  Nicky is apparently quite the romantic as he has taken her out to a swamp. But before the duo can cuddle in the arousing aroma of swamp gasses, some of Nicky’s associates show up and fill him full of lead.  The pregnant Ruby collapses as her beau sinks to the bottom of the swamp.  16 years later, Ruby is still living on the land with her and Rocco’s young daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin, the young girl gracing the powerful poster images). Quite the entrepreneur, Ruby has built a drive-in theater on the land where their casino used to be and hired Nicky’s killers to run the place.  Around the anniversary of her lover’s death and Leslie’s birthday, the mute daughter starts to act strange.  Even worse, the conspirators involved in Nicky’s death start turning up dead.  Vince (Stuart Whitman), one of the gunmen, begins to suspect something supernatural is involved and invites Dr. Paul Keller (Roger Davis), a doc he met while incarcerated who dabbles in parapsychology, to the location.  The doc quickly surmises that not only has gangster Nicky Rocco come back for his revenge, but that he is using his own daughter as his instrument to enact it.

One of the great things about VCI’s special edition release of RUBY is the nearly 1-hour conversation that director Curtis Harrington has with film historian David Del Valle.  The cheerful discussion covers his entire career, but one of the more fascinating revelations was that this disc represented the most complete version of the film and that most viewers were only familiar with an altered version via TV broadcasts and VHS releases.  As revealed by Harrington, the producer removed several violent scenes and added unauthorized new footage to help pad out the running time for the television airings. When it came time for the VHS release, the TV print was the one erroneously offered.  What’s that?  A VHS version with additional footage?  I’m all over that.  After a bit of online searching, I realized I already owned the offending copy of RUBY on VHS (a scenario I’m sure all video junkies, professional or not, reading this can relate to) but hadn’t watched it yet.  With the theatrical release fresh in my mind, I dove into this one and was amazed by the differences.

For clarity’s sake (and what is left of my sanity), I’m only going to write about what was added to theatrical version and not meticulously focus on what was removed.  Suffice to say nearly every blood/body close up ends on the cutting room floor and the biggest excision is the finale involving the man in the wheelchair and the revelation of what Ruby has in her jar.  Both versions open with the 1935 prologue and unfold in the same manner until roughly the 21 minute mark.  It is here that the TV version offers up the first amount of new footage.  It is a nearly 3 minute scene set inside police headquarters.  Sheriff Rich (John Crawford, who is not credited for his work) opens the conversation by saying he is trying to “figure out where my wife goes every night.”  This new subplot actually stems from a scene earlier in the Harrington version where a couple making out at the drive in and the woman reveals her husband is the sheriff.

It is here that Deputy Len reveals that there has been some trouble at the drive-in.  He says a local boy said he saw a man hanging in the projection booth (the film’s first murder).  When the deputy went to investigate, he was met by Vince, who covers up the death by saying it was just people letting the horror flicks get to them.  The deputy then reveals both he and the sheriff have a previous history with the mob folks by saying, “You know, the way we had things going with folks down at the drive-in.”  The deputy then also reveals he thinks he spotted the sheriff’s wife there, causing the sheriff to say, “Looks like I’m going to have to do a little checking up at home and at the drive-in.”  Ah, infidelities, a true staple of TV fodder.

Around the 27 and a half minute mark is where the TV version inserts four new scenes back-to-back.  In total, this chunk runs just under 7 minutes and comprises the largest amount of new footage.  First up is a two minute scene of the sheriff in bed with his wife Mae Belle (Mary Margaret Robinson).  He questions her about her whereabouts on her nights away and she says she has been going out to church socials.  Ha!

He then tells her about the trouble up at the drive-in, which leads her to ask, “You don’t suppose those killings are starting up again, do you?”  Man, does anyone in this town not know this secret?

This scene is followed by a 90 second bit with Barney (Len Lesser) doing some work on the speakers at the drive-in while the younger Kenny bitches about his lack of increased pay. Aggressively grabbing the audience by the collar rather than gently leading it by the hand, the poor kid starts asking about the old roadhouse and then says, “I got a feeling all you guys got something to hide.”  When he asks about the swamp, Barney warns him to stay away from the swamp.  Real subtle there, Mystery Ghost Director.

The kid then asks what happened to Jess the projectionist and Barney says he got a call from his brother and had to leave.  He then pulls the kid face-to-face and sternly says, “Just forget it kid.  Mind your own business and you’ll live a lot longer.”  As if minimum wage weren’t insulting enough!  

The next new scene defines time padding.  For some odd reason, the makers of the new footage brought back the character of Lila June (Crystin Sinclaire), the bitchy teen who shows up at the drive-in each night with a different date. She is shown at home on the telephone and coos about the expensive gifts she gets while holding the necklace from her “really nice” friend (you know, the guy who tried to rape her a few scenes ago!).

Lila June’s mother comes in and then tells her to get off the phone.  She then asks her daughter where she goes every night and Lila says she goes out to homework study groups and sometimes to babysit.  Damn, this town loves its groups. Anyway, mama ain’t buying any of that and blows her story full of holes by asking, “Who do you babysit for?”  Lila then protests and says, “Mama, why are you asking me all these things.  I’m a good girl.”  Her mom then finds the necklace and asks, “What’s this?”  Obviously this is an utterly pointless new scene.

The fourth scene of this new section marathon involves the sheriff heading to the drive-in to ask some tough questions. The sheriff asks about the hanging report from last night.  He then asks when Vince is and Barney says he is out looking for Leslie, who he describes as a “strange girl.”  Sheriff Rich then tells Barney of their old relationship, “I want you to forget how it used to be.”

The confrontation ends with the following exchange.

Sheriff: “I’m warning you.  You tell Vince 
for me. It’s a new ball game.”

Barney: “Sheriff, no need to get steamed up.  We was 
always able to take care of you. It’s no different now.”

The next half hour or so of the TV version follows its theatrical blueprint as Leslie starts showing her odd behavior and guys get killed.  Around the 64 minute mark, three more new scenes involving Dr. Keller (Roger Davis, returning for this role) appear.  The first is a 3 minute scene of him going to the town bar looking for George Whitehouse, editor of the local newspaper.  He finds Mr. Whitehouse playing a mean game of pool by himself (ha!) and explains who he is.

Keller asks about the background of Leslie.  Whitehouse says, “Nothing to tell, she’s retarded that’s all.” Ha! Keller says, “I believe something happened to her 16 years ago at birth, something horrible and tragic.  Perhaps even before she was born.”

Keller then asks questions about what happened at the old roadhouse casino and how it relates to Leslie.  Mr. Whitehouse fills him in on the details of what went down back in the day, but gets all grumpy (as small town newspaper editors are prone to do) when Keller asks if there were any killings.  Jeez, can’t a guy play pool by himself in peace? Keller then says he walked around the swamps when he first got here and gets all moody (as small time parapsychologists are prone to do) when saying he felt death there. Anyway, the editor lets him know their conversation is over via the classic “I’m focusing back on my game” body language snub.  Burn!

The very next scene has the sheriff inside his greenhouse watering some plants.  His deputy brings in the doc because he “heard he was asking questions downtown.”  Again, Dr. Keller shows he is nobody’s friend as he asks about the events from 1935 and the sheriff says, “That was an unfortunate case.”  The doc begins to outlay his evidence so far and gets the sheriff all flustered when he asks where Nicky Rocco is buried.  The sheriff says, “A doctor should be interested in pills and medicine.”  Keller then whips out his “you wouldn’t be hiding something” line, but the tension is broken when the sheriff’s wife enters.

After Keller leaves, the deputy returns as the sheriff talks with his wife.  “He knows everything damn thing,” the sheriff cries.  The deputy asks if he should “take care” of him and the sheriff objects, causing the deputy to say he will just scare him.  The wife then tells her sheriff husband that “you better do something old man or some young man will take your place.” Ouch!  Rub it in, why don’t ya?

The next scene is the final bit of new footage as we get a minute long scene involving the deputy attempting to scare off Dr. Keller.  Having received a car ride, Keller gets out and begins walking back to the drive-in when a series of gun shots ring out.  He ducks behind a tree as a few more shots are fired.

It is then revealed that Deputy Len was the one doing the firing.  Apparently his plan was the worst because not only did it not scare Dr. Keller off, but it resulted in the film unfolding to its end credits without the benefit of any new footage. You know you suck when you’re written out of footage especially to be written in.

The only new inclusion after this is the very last shot in the film’s credits:

Ah, our old friend Alan Smithee!  At least they got creative with the spelling.  While it has never been confirmed, the internet tells us the writer/director of this new footage is rumored to be Stephanie Rothman (she has denied this). Whoever it was, I guess we can commend them for actually bringing back some of the film’s original cast members, but I don’t think the footage could have been more mundane.  I mean, you work in this whole “the sheriff and deputy were in on it too” deal, but don’t have the common courtesy (or sense) to give us an extra kill or two off of that?  I’d say “why bother?” but I know the intent was solely to pad the film’s running time for TV airings.  Even worse, we get continuity errors like the drive-in in the new scenes looking nothing like the ones in the original scenes.

Harrington’s RUBY is by no means a perfect film, but the original version has some really great acting, interesting set pieces, and some genuinely spooky moments.  Do yourself a favor and check out the DVD if you’ve only ever seen the VHS version.