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!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December to Dismember: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III (1989)

Monte Hellman. Worked with Roger Corman, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Johnathan Demme, Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson. Director of captivating, character-driven films such as THE SHOOTING and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and this direct to video slasher sequel. Cue needle skipping off the record.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) is widely acknowledged as the apex of hyper-controversial, highly entertaining slasher trash film-making with (for the time) a shocking amount of graphic gore, the likes of which the FRIDAY THE 13th series couldn't even consider trying to pull off due to Jack Valenti's permanent stink-eye. Likewise SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987) is widely acknowledged as the nadir of cheap, shoddy sequels that are simply using the popularity of the original to make some quick cash. Granted all sequels are, to some extent, using the popularity of the original, but actually have a well-conceived story to tell of their own. Sequels such as PSYCHO II (1984) continue the storyline in a fresh way without besmirching the memory of the original, where as BOOGEYMAN II (1983)... well, that's a horror of a different kind. This sequel, however, is off in its own little doped-up world of odd.

Starting straight in the middle of a nightmare sequence, a sweet tween named Laura (Samantha Scully) is stalked through white hallways by a menacing, knife-wielding Santa and a guy with what appears to be a savory jello mold on his head. Laura wakes up in a sleep research lab only to remember that she is blind and is doing a seemingly ethically unsound experiment where one Dr. Newbury (Richard Beymer) has her hooked up to one Ricky Caldwell (Bill Mosley). Yes, that Ricky Caldwell.

Apparently after being shot (six times?) to death at the end of PART 2, Ricky went into a coma, was put on life-support. His brain was reconstructed by Newbury, who defends his actions by saying that he is saving lives but actually has some sort of agenda (insert evil laugh here). Newbury's brain reconstruction involves a see-through glass dome over Ricky's brain, complete with plenty of Kool-aide in case it gets thirsty (I'm just speculating on that last part). Newbury believes that Laura is psychic and has been using her to psychically connect to Ricky in his coma via several machines that go "bing". Since this is the holiday season, they need to break away from their experiments so that Laura can go celebrate Christmas with her grandparents in Piru. No, not Peru, but Piru, CA. As in "yes, we have oranges", "population: less than 1000" (at the time) and "film permits are really cheap here". Laura, who is one sassy blind chick - working blue with a variety of bad jokes including one about masturbation, heads out to Piru with her meathead brother (Eric DaRe) and his girlfriend (Laura Harring). They are, of course, completely fucked. Because they will soon have a serial killer after them? No. Because Laura decides the best way to get to Piru during the holidays is by taking the 101 freeway. Talk about the blind leading the freakin' stupid! Even Little Red Riding Hood knew to take a shortcut to Grandma's house to avoid traffic. At least, Stan Freberg said she did.

How does that Terry Jones song go?
Never be rude to a killer?
Meanwhile in the hospital, a local Rx Renta-Santa gets smashed on a non-regulation bottle of hooch and wanders through the halls until he accidentally (or conveniently) stumbles into Ricky's room. Apparently too drunk to notice that a '50s flying saucer has crashed into this guy's head and is rife with opportunity for a wisecrack, he goes the more obvious route saying "Hey vegetable! Who's your favorite singer? Perry Coma?" Doesn't he know psychotic killers have absolutely zero tolerance for bad jokes? Even less if they are dead or otherwise incapacitated. Sure enough, this snaps Ricky out of his stupor and snaps Santa right into the next life. Now that Ricky is free to stumble about the premises, what is on his mind? Yes, a plexi-glass dome is true, but no, the answer we were looking for is "Laura". Yep, Ricky is now obsessed with finding Laura in Piru, which shouldn't be too hard, if he doesn't get lost in the oranges. Of course this means that he too is going to take a road-trip leaving a trail of carved up bodies for the cops to follow. A word to the wise: if you are going to pick up a hitchhiker, don't pick up Chop Top, and if you do, don't tell him that you hate Christmas because of the ugly sweaters. Come to think of it, if you ever see Bill Mosley, you should probably just start running.

Hot on his trail is top cop Lt. Connely (Robert Culp) who, with the help of the Doc, must figure out where Laura is headed. The Doc suggests that it might be Piru, but then is flummoxed by the fact that Piru is so large that she could be anywhere! How to narrow it down? The doc mentions that Linda said something about Grandma giving her oranges (Really? In Piru?), so she must be at an orange grower's! Ok, let's index all of the orange growers in Ventura County until we find some connection. Real policework in action. Yeah, Ricky's got all night to waste these chumps.

Of course Ricky gets to Grandma's house before Laura and a game of cat and one blind mice begins, with a special twist that feels less December 25th and more like October 31st.

Mmmm... someone had sausages for dinner!

I expect that noses will start to wrinkle as soon as I say it, but I find this entry pretty damn enjoyable. Not a masterpiece deserving of Monte Hellman's credit, but it is completely absurd (which is a plus for me) and let's face it, after revisiting PART 2, by comparison this has the artistic depth and complexity of Hieronymus Bosch. Upping the entertainment factor, there is an amazing amount of oddball stuff going on in this movie, leading to all sorts of questions. Such as... Why do people keep handing Laura glasses of water? Does being blind make you dehydrated? How did Ricky get shot in the snow and end up in a hospital in Southern California?  Since when do hospitals have synch sound on their security cameras? Do gas station attendants really put their phone-sex partners on hold to help a guy with a towel wrapped around his head? If you go to your grandmother's house for Christmas and she is missing, is having sex in her bathtub really the first thing you should do? If you are blind, know that something is seriously wrong and people are missing is getting your likker on the best choice of action? And seriously, why does Grandma have a completely random gift "from Santa" that isn't for anybody except a random stranger?

So many questions, so few answers, but that's it's what makes this movie so much more than it seems to be at first glance. Sure they could have used just a touch more gore. Sure they could have done some really weird and interesting stuff with some of the groundwork they laid out. For instance, Ricky can telepathically "see" what Laura is seeing. I know, it's been done before. The catch here is - Laura is blind! WtF? Inspite of it's faults, or maybe because of them, this might actually be the best SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT sequel... so far.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December to Dismember: SANTA CLAWS (1996)

I am almost 100% certain that the epitaph on John Russo’s tombstone is going to read, “Hey, don’t forget I co-wrote the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD!”  It is his claim to fame and he is still riding it to this day.  When Russo and George Romero split in the early 1970s (after the second collaboration THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA [1971]), it became pretty apparently who the more talented filmmaker was. Both men stayed in Pennsylvania and went the independent route – Romero blossomed into an illustrious horror director with 1970s classics such as THE CRAZIES (1973), MARTIN (1976) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), while Russo made THE BOOBY HATCH (1976). ‘Nuff said.  Yet Russo kept right on trying.  He maintained a busy horror fiction career alongside more directorial efforts such as MIDNIGHT (1981) and HEARTSTOPPER (1991), all the while reminding everyone “I co-wrote the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” at conventions (where he would hock dirt from the original NOTLD cemetery).

Perhaps all that time spent at horror conventions helped him come up with the idea of launching the magazine Scream Queens Illustrated in 1993.  Under the sound business model of “sex sells,” the publication highlighted the bevy of horror hotties whose claim to fame is stepping before a camera and screaming.  With Playboy-on-a-budget style layouts, the bi-monthly publication seemingly catered to the virginal horror geek loser stereotype.  With business busting, Russo decided to once again use his filmmaking “skills” to create some companion pieces to his print fodder.  The resulting films from this era were SCREAM QUEENS’ NAKED CHRISTMAS (1996) and today's review subject SANTA CLAWS (1996).

Now I’m open to giving every film a chance, but when something offers me a shot like this within the first minute, I know that I’m going to be in for a rough ride.

Yes, nothing says fun movie like a flabby, middle-aged man with skin as white as frozen chicken topless with a hot lady. The offending above shot is what young Wayne sees on Christmas Eve.  Even worse, it is his mom in bed with his uncle after his father passed away, so the kid has no recourse but to shoot them dead (understandable).

Years later, we get a glimpse of Scream Queen Illustrated headquarters as a local news channel is interviewing producer Bruce Brunswick (Karl Hardman; yes, NOTLD’s Mr. Cooper).  He’s proud to announce that they have started filming SCREAM QUEENS’ NAKED CHRISTMAS (how meta!) and the lead is top scream queen Raven Quinn (Debbie Rochon).  Raven proves she is no dumb bimbo by explaining she has a degree in zoology.  But the scream queen grind pays the bills and she is having a tough time with her husband Eric (John Mowod), a nudie photographer, while trying to raise their two daughters.  Such is the life of a in demand Scream Queen/zoologist.

Even this dummy is creeped out by Wayne!
We now meet the grown up Wayne (Grant Cramer), who just happens to be Raven Quinn’s biggest fan?  How big?  The man ordered an un-lifelike bust of her to make as the centerpiece of his Raven Quinn shrine (which he makes sure to mention contains original props from her feature THE HOODED CLAW). You know he is nuts because he literally wrings his hands while saying, “I’m your biggest fan.”  Meanwhile, Raven is still dealing with her marriage woes. She picks up her kids from their grandmother (Marilyn Eastman; yup, another NOTLD alum) and gets bitched out for having such a horrible career. Okay, let me get this straight, getting nude before the camera (Raven) equals inappropriate, but being the nudie photographer (Eric) is perfectly okay?  Whatever, grandma! To make matters worse, Eric is off at a hotel in Akron, Ohio with some other scream queen to do a photo shoot for a few days.  What!?! When do these shoots (with a one man crew, no less) take a few days?  And who the hell goes to Akron to do anything? Such are the mysteries of Mr. Russo’s screenplay.

Poor put upon Raven must deal with the two kids on her own. Thankfully, she has help from her neighbor.  A local teacher named…wait for it…Wayne!  Dah-dah-dahhhhhhh!  Yes, her no. 1 fan proves his status by living right next door to her. Of course, Raven has no idea this guy is a true fanatic and tells him all about her latest scream queen project.  “Basically an excuse for a bunch of horny guys to watch naked women” is how she explains it.  For some reason the idea of anyone else looking at his nekkid precious is enough to drive poor Wayne over the edge.  He decides the best recourse is to start offing people with his garden claw.  I mean, when he is not busy babysitting Raven’s kids.  After offing a scream queen (who doesn’t scream too well) and the producer, he goes completely nutzo and buys a Santa Claus suit, spray paints it black and heads to the studio to take care of Raven during her shoot.  Gee, I wonder if wayward husband Eric will save the day.

Looks like these kids took in a John Russo flick:

About the only clever thing about this movie is the title that playfully puns old St. Nick’s name. But SANTA CLAWS will immediately evoke something much better in your brain than a guy in a Santa suit and black mask carrying around a garden tool.  Hell, even the Shock-o-Rama DVD cover (see above) to “celebrate” the 10th anniversary (ha!) offers a better monster.  We want Santa tearing people apart with actual claws!  Damn, Russo, why didn’t you even try?

"Hmm, I wonder what that Wayne guy is up to?"
The craziest thing about this is Russo has a pretty lengthy bibliography, but he apparently couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything inventive here.  I don’t think he realized how close to home he hit when he wrote the line about Raven’s films being nothing but stroking material for horny fans.  This has segments of completely naked ladies dancing for minutes on end, to the point of becoming boring.  And if you thought his writing was lackluster, wait until you see the direction. Russo is the kind of guy who feels it is perfectly normal to film a murderer disposing of bodies in broad daylight in the middle of a snowy day.  Would a killer ever be that dumb? The only thing less obviously would be if his van had a “Serial Killer on Board” magnet stuck to the side of it.  Russo's script is full of such nonsensical bits like this.  I died when Eric rushes to the studio he works for to save his wife and is told by a PA that "I need to see some ID" after being buzzed in.  This is just moments after the killer walked in the same door without having to be buzzed in!  Do they only do security every other visitor?  Even better, Eric calmly pulls out his ID and then grumbles "I even work here" after the guy lets him pass.

It is a shame because the “horror geek stalks scream queen” scenario actually has a lot of potential (especially if you’ve ever been to a horror convention).  I’ll confess that despite having over 200 credits to her name, Debbie Rochon has only graced my TV a few times.  She is a decent actress, but I could only imagine the whole time how much better this would be had it starred Linnea Quigley, Maria Ford or Brinke Stevens.  You know, a real scream queen who has probably dealt with these issues.  And I also imagined how it would be directed by someone like Jim Wynorski or, hell, even Bill Hinzman, who acts as the DP here and has a small role. Flesheater could have brought this sucker alive!  Basically, the whole time I was wishing for a better movie and that is not a good thing. So, once again, my theory of any film featuring a naked middle-aged man in the first minute is never going to be good is confirmed. Damn you, laws of cinematic truths!

Monday, December 24, 2012

December to Dismember: PUREZENTO (2005)

You will probably hear us mention SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) over and over in our Christmas horror coverage, mostly because of its controversial past when U.S. parents protested in outrage over the idea of a killer Santa Claus.  The funny thing about this was it wasn’t really a killer Santa, just a guy killing people who happened to be dressed in a Santa Claus suit.  But the public wasn’t about to have the cheery image of Santa sullied, despite the origins of Santa via predecessors like Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas being scary as hell.  To the best of my knowledge, the real Santa – the man, the myth, the legend – has only appeared as a villain in four films: Netherlands’ SAINT (2010), Finland’s RARE EXPORTS (2010), America’s SANTA’S SLAY (2005; with Bill Goldberg as Santa!) and Japan’s PUREZENTO (2005).  And leave it to the Japanese to make the most brutal depiction of Santa out of that group.

PUREZENTO (PRESENT) opens with young Yuko in bed on Christmas Eve, when her parents tell her about blue-eyed Santa Claus.  She’s told if she is a good girl that Santa will return the favor.  However, if she’s bad, he’ll come and get you.  Years later the teenage Yuko (Mai Takahasi) is getting ready to celebrate Christmas with some friends.  She has a crush on Ryosuke (Takamasa Suga) and in her card to him she writes “my gift to you is me.”  Ah, virginity, the gift that keeps on giving.  The young lovebirds and two other couples are driven to a spooky looking hotel high on a mountain top during a snowstorm.  The kids seem to have no qualms that the guy working the front desk is a scary looking blue-eyed Santa (Randall Himes) and they split off into their separate rooms for a night of Nativity naughtiness.

Yuko and Ryosuke make it into their suite and she is disturbed by everything looking so familiar.  Indeed, the room has many of the same items Yuko had as a child, right down to her world flag bed sheets.  As if déjà vu weren’t freaky enough, the couple’s night (post-coitus, of course) is interrupted by screams from down the hall. They go to investigate and see a door shattered on the floor.  Inside the room, two of their friends are butchered.  The young boy is split in half and the girl is missing some limbs. As she slowly dies on the floor, the girl babbles about Santa’s revenge because “we’ve been desecrating Holy Christmas” and how Santa will “retrieve the presents he gave us in the past.”  Wait, Santa is an Indian giver?  Not cool.  After Ryosuke empties his stomach contents, the duo heads out into the hall to warn the other couple. Santa has just gotten to their room though and the girl makes it down the hall to Yuko and Ryosuke.  The boyfriend isn’t as lucky as he is bounced off the wall and then has his leg sliced off by Santa’s big-ass ninja star on a chain thingy.

The three surviving kids make a run for it and find safety in a stairwell.  It is here that they all realize they are seeing different version of Santa – Yuko sees the blue-eyed one (the one the audiences always sees), Ryosuke says he saw his father as Santa and the third girl says she sees a female Santa.  While Santa pounds at the door, Ryosuke tries to stop him while the two girls bolt.  They make their way to another door and are greeted by the killer Santa, who knocks them out.  What is going on here?  Yuko wakes up apparently on the set of a SAW movie as she watches Santa brutally butcher her friend (even feeding her brains to his reindeer) in a grimy kitchen.  Ryosuke shows up to save her, but as they got to leave he says he can’t move his left leg. For good reason as they look down and it has been chopped off.  Santa then shoves a Christmas light covered spear into his head.  Yuko runs into the snow-filled night and begins to question if this is all her fault. You see, Miss Innocent isn’t as pure as we thought.  Via flashbacks, we learn that the bad girl Yuko (this is established by showing her smoking) had plotted to get Ryosuke into bed by acting chaste and she feels this is her punishment for being naughty.  She then runs right into Santa, who confirms her theory by stabbing her with his spear and…Yuko wakes up!

Damn, it was all a dream and she fell asleep while writing out that Xmas card.  Girl, you so crazy!  She talks to her friend on the phone who tells her she had the exact same dream except the Santa Claus was a woman (because her mother was a feminist and told her Santa was a woman).  While on the phone though the girl screams that the female Santa is in her house right as Yuko opens the fridge and the severed body parts of Ryosuke tumble out.  Hold on, kids, it gets weirder.  Yuko then notices a gaping hole in the back of her skull and then the young Yuko shows up and rips her brains out. WTF!?!  The young Yuko then wakes up in her bed.  Whew, it was all a dream within a dream.  Her parents come in to comfort her and seem pleased they have such a lovely young daughter.  Of course, this is countered when they leave and Yuko gives the “scary kid stare” into the camera.  The end!

PUREZENTO came from the twisted mind of cult Japanese horror comic writer Kazuo Umezu.  Probably best known for the manga sci-fi series THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM, Umezu’s bloodier works inspired a generation of young Japanese filmmakers and they sought to pay tribute to him with a series of film adaptations. Six films were made as part of KAZUO UMEZU’S HORROR THEATER and this entry was done by Yudai Yamaguchi, who is probably best know for writing the gangster-zombie cult film VERSUS (2000).  Shot on video, the 47-minute PUREZENTO is probably the most graphic depiction of Santa that you’re ever going to see.  I’m sure Fox News would love to have this guy in their corner for their imaginary “War on Christmas” as he loves pulling off fingernails and snapping off fingers.  Unfortunately, that leads to a rather dull viewing experience.  Yamaguchi does some nice things in his episode (the use of red and green lighting), but mostly this is just wannabe subversive stuff that would give Eli Roth a boner.  The film works best in the final minutes when things get totally loopy and really reinforce that dream-like state (yes, I’ve had dreams where I decide to start picking at a gaping hole in my body).  The rest is just torture porn stuff that I’d only recommend for viewers who want to know how Santa looks throwing a flying guillotine-style weapon.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

December to Dismember: ELVES (1989)

Good subversive Christmas movies are hard to come by. They are usually independent, often so independent that they might never see the light of day but for the sucking vortex of DTV fodder for video store shelves back in the '80s. On the one hand, you have SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984), which was actually gleefully subversive, yet slickly executed for its million dollar budget, on the other hand you have ELVES (1989). It wants to be subversive and slick, but not even with a million dollar budget (this was clearly made for roughly the trade-in value of a '77 Ford Pinto) would writer-director Jeffrey Mandel manage to do anything other than trip-over his own shoe laces. I could say that this movie is the equivalent of a stocking full of coal, but at least coal is useful if you set it on fire. [2022 edit: I don't know why I was so down on this movie, it's actually a lot of fun and is intentionally funny in a way that isn't obnoxious and over the top]

Opening with a trio of high-school girls trying to light candles and read one of Grampa's old books in the middle of the woods at night, one girl, Kirsten (Julie Austin), accidentally cuts herself on the glass candle-holder dripping blood on to the ground. This causes the girls to flip out and run back to their respective homes. Kirsten's life pretty much sucks ass. While trying to return the book to wheelchair-bound Gramp's (Borah Silver) room, she gets caught and Gramps doesn't use his wheelchair as an excuse not to get a good beating in, slapping around Kirsten like a red-headed stepchild. Mom (Deanna Lund) decides the best way to punish Kirsten, is to clean out her personal bank account and give the money to her little brother Willy (Christopher Graham), who likes to spy on her in the shower... Which leads to this exchange:
Kirsten: "You pervert!"
Willy: "I'm not a pervert, I like seeing naked girls!"
Kirsten: "I'm your fuckin' sister!"
Willy: "Yeah, and you've got fucking big tits and I'm gonna tell everybody that I saw them!"
After a few more inflammatory comments, Willy finally says "Well fuck you! Mom says that she's giving me all your money, so fuck you!" This leads to an inevitable tickling, giggling and deep sighs, just like confrontations between siblings always do... right? Uhhhh, yeah.

The next day at work, at the local department store (which sounds like it's named "Golem's", so I'm just going to go with that), Kirsten and her friends decide to "goof" on Santa by sitting on his lap. When the coke-snorting letch decides that he is going to promise an extra special present to Kirsten, he whispers "oral" in her ear. Not the most interesting of cheap come-ons, but hey, you never know, he could be talking about Mr. Roberts. After getting a hand across his face, he is then promptly sent to his breakroom by the manager where he is stabbed in the crotch - to death - by the woodland creature while trying to keep his beard out of the dope. Ummm, why doesn't the creature use it's claws and razor-sharp teeth? And if you are going to steal a knife from housewares, why get that dinky vegetable knife? Strangely, the next day the store manager tells the cops "nothing like this has happened in Golem's in 50 years!" Wait, so are you saying that fifty years ago the department store Santa also got stabbed in the nuts while doing coke? What are the odds? Actually, it is small-town Colorado, so yeah, totally believable after all.

This Santa is bringing in his snow from Mexico...

Anyway, this mysterious murder leads to down-and-out, chain-smoking, ex-cop Mike McGavin (Dan Haggerty) to be given the job as Santa, as well as the same dressing room, complete with the chalk outline and bloodstains from the previous Santa. This piques his latent detective skills, as does the cryptic rune drawn at the crime scene. Hmmmm... has someone been watching too much Fulci? A Romero reference comes during a bit of dialogue in which we are told "when there is no more room in hell, the elves will walk the Earth." Well, apparently hell, is only over-crowded by one as there is only a single elf in this movie. That's right, the title is plural and even the tag line, "they're not working for Santa... anymore", states multiples, even the characters refer to "them" instead of "it"! Anyway, through keen insight McGavin sees through the mundane particulars of the case and decides he needs to gumshoe it. He discusses his plans with the detective on the case in an exchange that sounds like rejected dialogue from a BILL AND TED movie:

McGavin: "...I need a little time!"
Detective: "Alright, you have 24 hours pal! That enough time?"
McGavin: "I really don't know if that's enough time!"
Detective: "It better be enough time!"

Typecasting. It's a bitch. Or it is indicative of the (limited) range of an actor, if we're going to be cynical. If I say "Grizzly Adams" what are you going to say? Dan Haggarty of course! Haggarty lays on his soft-spoken, puppy-dog eyed, hard-luck ex-alcoholic (are you ever really an "ex"?) shtick with a trowel and largely spends his on-screen time smoking like a freakin' chimney. This guy brings a full carton of Camels into the department store coffee shop just to have a cup of joe. Hell, he even puffs his smokes while looking up evil rune lore in the local library. Incidentally, according to a nerd on the IMDb, evil runic lore is not found in section 666 as the librarian states, but since American libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, it would actually be found in section 130. Not nearly as interesting sounding, is it?

As we find out, Gramps is an ex-Nazi (are you ever really an "ex"?) who was involved in an experiment to create the master race by breeding progeny that will be able to have sex with an elf, creating the Aryan master race which is also The Anti-Christ! Ok, I have to admit, that's a pretty damn cool idea, if completely freakin' bonkers. Too bad Mandel is completely incapable of expressing it on film in any cohesive fashion. If there's one thing I can't fault the movie for (but other people might) it's the plethora of random strangeness. At one point Gramp's crazy Nazi buddies are looking for Kirsten and find her in the department store trying on lingerie with her friends in the middle of the night. Instead of slipping in silently and subduing her, they decide the best thing to do is start a massive firefight right next to the gun section (this is Colorado remember), for which McGavin actually sets aside his cigarette. This close-quarters shootout seems to be inspired by a Nick Millard film as it is simply cutting back and forth for seemingly endless time with nobody able to hit anybody else in spite of being ten feet away from each other! The best bizarre business is with Kirsten's mom, who is flat out psychotic. At one point she decides, for no adequately explained reason, to drown Kirsten's cat in the toilet before burying it in the yard. And why is Mom single? I can't imagine. In another scene she freaks out in the bathroom, smears lipstick all over her face and starts to write something in the mirror. We never see what it is that she writes - the next thing you know, her blatantly obvious body double is being electrocuted in the bathtub while what appears to be Leonardo Cimino nods his approval at the end of the tub.

Interestingly this film appears to have had some budget issues in the later phase of production. All of the footage that would be shot by a second unit is pretty well botched. Don't get me wrong, there is a shitload of fumbling going on during the regular scenes, but the second unit stuff is a total, unmitigated disaster. This is interesting as there is no second unit director credited, only a first and second assistant director, positions that don't handle any sort of actually shooting, and would seem to command more salary than this production can possibly afford. The prosthetic elf, that is only in insert shots, looks half finished is barely animated, limited to minor neck and eye movements, frequently looking like it has suffered a major stroke. The other parts of the elf are simply a rubber hand and rubber feet that are clearly being manipulated off camera and bend in silly ways (I guess that's why the elf needs a knife, his claws simply crumple when he grabs someone). Even worse, the lighting for these shots is usually a single, undiffused bulb that makes the prop look even more like something that you'd find in the back pages of Fango. I'd guess that maybe either the budget was mismanaged or that the funding suddenly ran out and perhaps this is why the movie says that there are "elves" when it is clearly an elf. Or perhaps they simply didn't know what they were doing. The big climactic finale where the kids kill the elf is actually nothing more than a whole mess of video feedback distortion with whooshing sound effects while Kirsten and Willy roll around on the ground for what seems like forever.

Can you see the hidden pattern
on this Official WWII Document?
It's too bad this movie never had a sequel, there's so much you could do right with the concept, instead of doing everything so very wrong. That said, there is some fun to be had here, depending on how amused you are by lines like "Life's a bitch. First you're Santa, then you die. Or in my case, they piss on ya." Words to live by, I reckon.

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: