Demolition Highway (1996)

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What would you call a movie that had no demolitions or highways in it? I wonder if some producer / money-man came to him and said “hey, Donald Farmer, I want to make something with this title, got a script knocking about anywhere that’d fit?” to which our friend Donald replied “er…yes! But don’t check with me until the movie’s done, okay?”

 

Up to a point, “Demolition Highway” had me thinking it was going to be a competent, and therefore utterly boring, B-movie. I understood who the characters were, what they were doing and why they were doing it, and the plot seemed to be progressing in a reasonable manner. The wheels fell off, so to speak, when our hero Frank Scarvo (Danny Fendley) meets a biker gang, and “Poet” (Ghetty Chasun) starts showing tarot cards to demonstrate that he’s out of luck. But she doesn’t show them to him, she shows them to us, pointing them right at the camera while cackling maniacally, and that thoroughly bizarre choice, and so many more afterward, lets us know we’re in Farmer country.

 

After an intro where Scarvo’s girlfriend is shot by some bad guys while the two of them are leaving some robbery or drug deal or something with a suitcase packed with $500,000, Scarvo spends five years in jail. He keeps his mouth shut, despite it being immediately obvious (to the viewer, not him) that he was double-crossed by his boss. So, he gets picked up by a couple of goons on his release, and he’s expecting a big party and some sort of reward. Unfortunately, that reward is to be shot and buried out in the wilderness, but Scarvo is made of tougher stuff than that and kills em both, plus he frees some old guy from the boot of the goons’ car. The old guy has a beautiful daughter, Summer (Lisa Tyre, hired for her boobs more than her acting) who’s been kidnapped by Scarvo’s old boss, Xavier Cardone (Joe Estevez), so Scarvo decides to pay his old boss a visit and rescue the girl at the same time.

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From this acorn doth a mighty oak grow. Despite being told Cardone is a tough guy to get close to, Scarvo is able to just drive up to the front door of his house and see him; and both good guy and bad guy ought to be a bit quicker to shoot people, because there’s far too many scenes of these two mortal enemies having conversations and then one or the other escaping. Then there’s Summer. Cardone, the guy who’s presumably raped her on several occasions and his holding her against her will, tells her that Scarvo is the guy who killed her Dad and she immediately believes him, levelling the gun at our hero and letting Cardone off the hook. So yes, I wrote “wow, Summer is stupid” so many times I nearly wore out my pen. One of the many problems this movie has is that it’s in the same position at the 1-hour mark as it is at the beginning, and that’s no good to anyone.

 

It’s pretty obvious Farmer had seen a few Tarantino movies before writing this one. He tries his best with what he’s got, both in terms of his own skill and the actors he can afford, but sometimes, that best just isn’t good enough. There’s a particularly crazy scene where Scarvo annoys that random bike gang (it turns out they work for Cardone), so they kidnap Summer and leave him tied to a noose with a rickety chair underneath him – next to a normal road, but that’s by the by. He manages to escape because he’s amazing, of course, and turns up at the bike gang’s base in the next scene. This requires a few questions be asked.

 

  1. They drove him an unspecified (but presumably not small) distance from his car. How did he get that car back?
  2. We see them throw his gun away. How did he find it?
  3. How did he know where the biker hideout was?
  4. Why did they let him drive up into the middle of their group without shooting him?

 

Although 4 could be applied a dozen times in this movie, with people just turning up in the middle of large groups of people who don’t like them, who don’t immediately shoot them despite it being in their best interests to do so. There’s a weird bike-jousting battle between Scarvo and one of the bikers, with Summer as the prize, and the bikers just let Scarvo steal the gun from his opponent and shoot him, without helping their comrade out. It’s not like they’re honourable guys, either…ah, this entire segment is crazy. It’s really trying for that self-consciously cool crime thriller, but it’s so far off the mark.

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I made reference to him doing the best he had with his actors, too.  Fendley seems to have improved very slightly since we first saw one of his movies; but I think if Ghetty Chasun had been discovered by any other director than Donald Farmer, she could have been a big name. She seemed comfortable in front of the camera, able to communicate emotions other than “confusion”, and I think she deserved better (and that they spelled her name wrong in the credits is just the final insult).  Joe Estevez is the only actor who realises what a piece of trash he’s in, and while he’s definitely the weakest of that acting family, he gives it his all and overacts with the best of them. Everyone else is, of course, terrible, but there’s one funny bit. I would bet good money on the biker gang boss having put that he could ride a bike on his acting CV, but if you notice in the movie, he’s always the passenger. Did he lose his licence or lie to the director?

 

The ending is perhaps the culmination of all this “classic Farmer” and relative acting chops. Cardone, his one remaining goon, and Summer, are stood on one side of a quarry, Scarvo on the other. Cardone shouts, because the two of them are supposed to be a long way apart. Perhaps because Fendley is unable to shout, Scarvo talks in his normal voice. The goon gets shot, from an amazing distance, with a handgun, too. It’s a great scene.

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One last scene breakdown before we head off. Scarvo and Summer have a plan to steal $500,000 back from Cardone, and it involves intercepting a drug buyer before he can hand over the cash. To carry out this plan, they need the help of one of the strippers, a friend of Summer’s. She agrees to help, and does so, but when Scarvo and Summer drive off with the money, they leave her there and Cardone just shoots her in the face. One might expect the two heroes of the movie, who we’re supposed to be sympathetic with, to want to save their friend, or be a bit sad that she’s dead just so they can be rich…but no. They don’t so much as mention her again – sorry, stripper friend!

 

It’s another gem, and although it’s every bit as incompetently made and poorly acted as any other Farmer movie, this one looks a lot better (it’s either shot on a very good camcorder or maybe honest-to-goodness film) and is therefore easier to sit through. As I hope I’ve made a few fans out of you, I worry that future pickings are going to be slim indeed. There’s comedies, kids’ films, and more thrillers – although it looks like this was the last time Danny Fendley acted in a Donald Farmer movie, so we’ve got that to be thankful for. Let’s hold hands, dear reader, and brave 21st century Farmer together.

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Rating: thumbs up

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Red Lips 2: Bloodlust (1996)

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A woman meets a seemingly indifferent woman in a bar, and tells her about a dream she had. The dream is about a female vampire picking up a woman and starting a relationship with her, eventually turning her into a vampire too. The woman in the bar, it turns out, is also a vampire, and after a long conversation, turns her new friend. They go for a walk and the first woman gets bored and just ditches her on the street, walking off laughing.

 

That’s it. That’s everything that happens in this movie. I would love to tell you I’m joking, or being a little facetious, but no. Donald Farmer has done it again! This is the most unfinished-seeming movie I think we’ve ever covered, and I have a theory, but more on that later. It’s yet another movie that manages to be bizarre in a whole new way, so our admiration for the great man grows still further. It’s also a welcome return to the ISCFC for Debbie Rochon, who doesn’t get the chance to show much of her acting chops, but is definitely the best of the cast. It’s got lots of different sorts of filler too!

 

The initial scene, in the bar, is insane. According to the end credits, most of the characters in this movie don’t have names (and IMDB definitely gets at least one wrong) so I’m going to have to go by their actual names. Anyway, Debbie Rochon is sat at a bar, and Maria Ortiz (credited co-writer) just sits next to her and starts talking. Perhaps ranting would be a more appropriate word, as she reveals to Rochon, whose body language could not be any more uninterested, her most intimate fantasies about vampiredom. Ortiz, who I’m guessing wrote her own dialogue, trips over her lines and repeats herself and generally acts like a lunatic, but Rochon, who remains turned away from her the entire time, humours her.

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The majority of the movie is Ortiz’s dream, starring two completely different actresses. I admit I’m assuming that the footage we see is her dream, because the movie doesn’t tell us. A couple are casing a bar before robbing it…well, I say bar. They’re obviously in an empty room with a dark curtain draped behind them, but I’m not sure whether to think this is some deliberate audience alienation stuff from Farmer, or he had ten minutes to get a scene done, no money and no props. The plan is, the woman (Jenny Wallace) is to seduce the owner of the bar while the guy (really not sure who he is) robs the office. So far, so good, but while Wallace is in the “bathroom” (which looks like someone put an unplumbed toilet in the middle of an empty room), snorting some cocaine to give her courage, she’s approached by Caroline, the only person referred to by name in this entire thing.

 

Now, I know I’m as guilty of hyperbole as the next low-budget movie reviewer, but Kashmere, the lady playing Caroline, could well be the worst actress I’ve ever seen – In a field with many, many strong competitors, she stands head and shoulders above them all. I presume she was an exotic dancer (this is her sole movie credit, thank heavens) who was the only person to turn up for the audition, because I’ve seen corpses who’d be more convincing as a sexy vampire than she is. She bites Wallace, which makes her her slave, sort of, and after Wallace and the boyfriend indulge in a remarkably extended sex scene (I began fast-forwarding, it went on for a good three or four minutes), Wallace sees her at the window, bashes her boyfriend over the head with a bottle and the two of them go off together, with Kashmere eventually turning her into a full vampire (whatever that means).

 

If you thought the Wallace / sleazy boyfriend sex scene was unerotic and too long, wait til you see her and Kashmere go at it! Although it’s difficult to read any emotion on Kashmere’s face, she appears thoroughly bored, and the two ladies sort of lay next to each other, naked, occasionally stroking each other on the arm or the leg. Again, it’s so bad that I’m beginning to wonder if this is all some Dadaist experiment. The second sex scene, positions the same as the first, at least has something moderately interesting visually, as scenes from classic horror movies are projected onto their bodies. But this pales into insignificance next to filler so blatant they might as well have replaced it with a blank screen.

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After a heavily processed scene in a graveyard, where Kashmere may or not kill Wallace’s boyfriend, our two lesbian vampires go to a cinema – well, five chairs in a room somewhere, that looks a bit like a cinema. Bearing in mind this scene is a dream, apparently, being related by Ortiz to Rochon in the bar…we’re then treated to approximately 10-15 minutes of the movie they’re watching! It’s a spy thriller set in Moscow (and apparently filmed there, if the credits are to be believed) about some woman who can kill people with a touch, and the KGB guys who want to stop her. The sheer balls to put something like this in your movie is almost to be commended, almost. So, the couple kill a guy in the cinema, go home and live the rest of their lives happily.

 

The ending is Ortiz then doing the same thing to Rochon, the two of them walking through New York for a few minutes – which is the most interesting thing in the movie because they’re really filming, guerrilla style (best guess, they hid their camera) on the busy streets. Then Rochon fails to attack some street bum, and is left by Ortiz, with the final scene being Ortiz walking off laughing. Wrap your minds round that!

 

If I had to guess, I’d say this is the result of Farmer trying and failing to get three different movies off the ground. There’s the stuff with Rochon and Ortiz; the stuff with Kashmere and Wallace; and the Russian stuff. Neither of the two vampire related stories have anything close to a resolution – one is “they killed a bunch of people and lived happily ever after”, and the other is “huh?” Kashmere is so mind-blowingly awful an actress that perhaps Farmer did everything he could to limit her time on screen. And the spy movie? It’s a rich stew of truly baffling moments. Also, if you have Debbie Rochon in your movie, who’s a great actress in the right project, and she’s barely in it compared to the amateur hour people surrounding her, then there’s some serious questions you need to ask yourself.

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I’m sorry for asking more questions than I answer (information is very thin on the ground about this movie). I wonder how Maria Ortiz got a writing credit on this? It’s her only one, and she only ever acted in Farmer movies, before dying in 2000, at age 27. I get the feeling she could have been a decent actress, too, but the dialogue she gave herself, about vampires and eroticism and dreams, while possibly very important to her, sounds like lunacy coming from the mouth of a person in a movie. I wrote in my notes “this is the dumbest conversation ever” and underlined it several times over the course of “Red Lips 2”.

 

So, yet more ultra low budget lunacy. Drink it in, dear reader.

 

Rating: negative thumbs up

 

PS – and yet again, pictures borrowed from the fantastic blog Taliesin Meets The Vampires. Go read their stuff, it’s great.

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Different Strokes: The Story Of Jack And Jill…And Jill (1997)

Thank you at least, British VHS distributors

Thank you at least, British VHS distributors

I appreciate none of you are quite as interested in this stuff as I am, but this represents a coming together of two strands of bad movie history. Representing Donald Farmer, who brought her into the world of ultra-cheap and ultra-poor erotic thrillers with “Compelling Evidence”, is Dana Plato; and directing this movie is Michael Paul Girard, whose previous work we’ve covered with “Oversexed Rugsuckers From Mars” and “Getting Lucky”.

 

We’ve already talked about Plato’s sad life story in our “Compelling Evidence” review, but this was a couple of years further on, and it seems she was still as decent as she ever was – in other words, a reasonably competent sitcom actress who was completely out of practice. No sign of the problems that were apparently ravaging her at the time. Here, she’s Jill, a fashion mogul of some sort who’s coming to LA to get a series of shots done by Jack (Bentley “grandson of Robert” Mitchum), a famous photographer. He has a girlfriend, also called Jill (softcore star Landon Hall), Plato is a lesbian and zeroes in on Hall, they get involved, erotic shenanigans!

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That’s really all the plot you need. Or are given, for that matter. Where to start? Firstly, Jill’s pursuit of Jill just seems like a male fantasy of what these things are like, and so much of it is so abominably written and acted that it feels slightly sordid to be watching it. The stench of exploitation (of Plato’s fame for the title of the movie, for using a woman whose problems were common knowledge) is very strong. Girard went from a guy who was prepared to live in a van so he could afford to shoot his movies, to the worst sleaziest hack who was prepared to write and direct an erotic thriller starring a walking billboard for the problems with the use of child actors, in the space of a decade.

 

But then, why am I reviewing it? Literally the only reason anyone would find this movie today is because of its car-crash aspect, with a slight exception to someone who for reasons unknown was watching every Girard movie (we stopped at two, before this, because that second one was just beyond terrible). Honestly, that’s part of the reason I put it on too, so if you’re at all interested in the by-products of the sleazier, more dead-eyed side of Hollywood, then nothing I say is going to change your mind.

 

In terms of “sleazy”, I don’t even really mean the subject matter of the movie. Lots of perfectly fine ones have sex in them, and nudity, and lots of actresses who previously worked in sitcoms have done them. While they’re not usually my cup of tea, the erotic thriller is a broad church containing both great and awful work. I mean sleazy in the sense of exploitation – like this would have utterly disappeared forever without the presence of Plato, and the money that it made is more poorly earned. Perhaps I’m being over the top, and I am literally part of the problem, as at least some people reading this would have never heard of this piece of garbage without this review.

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So, to sum up, a thoroughly wretched movie which most definitely doesn’t even work on its own pathetically low level, and one for which I hope someone involved in the production felt some shame about. Ha, what am I talking about? This is the same industry which made “Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave”, which not only doesn’t have Bruce Lee in it (him being dead and all) but isn’t even about Bruce Lee! And that’s what I feel about “Different Strokes: Jack And Jill…And Jill”.

 

Rating: thumbs down and buried in the producer’s eyeball

Christmas Crush (2012)

Continuing the dubious pleasure of reviewing random festive Netflix movies, next up was Christmas Crush AKA Holiday High School Reunion. This is a made for TV movie which Netflix must have picked up as part of a package deal or something.

This is another of those films which just happens at Christmas rather than being about Christmas. Here, I think it fails the “Is this a Christmas film?” test in that it could be set at any other time of the year with minimal changes. Also, do people have school reunions at Christmas?

Let me stress at the outset that I only watched this film because I wanted to see something trashy and not too Christmassy (it was nearly midnight on Christmas Day: I was all Christmassed out) and in an effort to watch a broader spectrum of movies, I opted for the festive rom-com. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…

I actually enjoyed this movie. Far more than I thought I would, given there aren’t any lasers nor Cthonian evil.

The plot is a bit better than Netflix would have you believe. Netflix describes it as “Twentysomething Georgia pines for her old boyfriend and is thrilled to have a second chance at love when she attends their high school reunion.” That’s not strictly true. She dumped her old boyfriend because she thought he was cheating on her but because she never had any proof, she romanticises their together and seeks to reclaim the “best thing she ever had.”

Georgia Hunt (played by Rachel Boston, which IMDB tells me has consistently worked since 2002, despite never having seen her in anything else) was voted “Girl most likely to succeed” at her prom. At school, she was popular and talented (head cheerleader and award winning glee club singer). After school, she hasn’t really amounted to much in the following 10 years.

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Genuine chemistry!

I think that’s something we can all relate to. At school, there is a sense that the whole future is open to you but as time elapses, your options narrow and narrow until it’s almost like you are trapped in your chosen industry, paying off your loans toward the dream of homeownership (which is somewhat depressing as not paying someone else to live in their house is like the smallest of dreams). I mean, the trap isn’t actually real: at any time you could quit your job, sell your house and illegally emigrate to Australia. If you really wanted to.

But anyway, when Georgia hears about the reunion, she laments her life and romanticises her high school years. So obviously she decides to go and reconnect with her old high school boyfriend, Craig (played by Jon Prescott, who has also done quite a lot of work).

Once back in town, she bumps into her high school best friend, Ben (Jonathan Bennett, “that guy” who was in Mean Girls, Smallville and a load of other minor roles in TV and films). Georgia and Ben haven’t spoken in 10 years as he moved away and lost contact with everyone from high school.

It is clear from the outset that Ben was Duckie to her Andie at high school (Pretty In Pink) and moved away to forget about her. And if you have seen any films of this nature (Trojan War and Some Kind of Wonderful), you know how this movie is going to end…

Georgia ends up hanging out with her fellow former-cheerleader and glee club girlfriends, Tory, Katie and Heather (all attractive, relatively successful twentysomethings). Feeling somewhat inferior, she lies to them about her work (and if you have seen any amount of films, you know how that will play out too).

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After the initial set up, the film is largely about the reunion itself. Despite the fact that you know exactly where the plot is going at all times, there is an honesty underlying the film that I found very refreshing. I feel like that the writer had something to say but was tasked with making a charming rom-com, so any edge or point she was trying to make is buried amongst the schmaltz. Still, it is there if you pay any thought to it.

The performances of the principle players are very good (Rachel Boston and Jonathan Bennett especially so) and purely through the power of good acting, you are shown just why Georgia enjoyed her time at school so much (because she was hot and fun and doing the splits could get you the coveted role of head cheerleader and you got to date the captain of the football team, things which mean nothing in real life).

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Totally 18…

As an aside: all the high school roles are played by the adult actors and actresses, who have pigtails and fringes to make them look younger. It doesn’t really work but then again, this is a trashy TV movie, why do you care?

The more Georgia explores her past, the more she realises that she wasn’t remembering her time at school as well as she thought. Most of the memorable things she had done at school weren’t with the boyfriend she regrets breaking up with, they were with her best friend, Ben.

This then causes her to question everything, including her reasons for breaking up with Craig in the first place. Ultimately, Georgia realises that none of it matters and comes clean about her lack of success outside of school (which others at the reunion also relate to). And, spoiler alert, she realises that Ben was the one she should have dated.

The message is that the things we do, and the things we are, in high school don’t really mean anything. The captain of the football team might be a good quality at school but outside? Things like personality, interests and applicable skill sets are far more important outside of that fishpond.

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The world’s tamest fan dance about a Christmas tree you’ll ever see

Furthermore, it is easy to romanticise the past (take the very cringe-worthy dance routines the glee club won awards for 10 years ago but now look ridiculous), especially if your present is not that much fun.

The movie does a good job of remaining fun and light (if not exceptionally cheesy at times) but still having a valid and important message at its heart. As I said, this is a trashy TV movie but it was far more fun and far more interesting than it ought to be.

TLDR; “Strong performances from the principle players and decent writing elevate this trashy sounding TV movie into a worthwhile 1 hour something.

Deadly Run (1995)

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This is a movie which is perhaps more notorious than it is well-known, and even that notoriety was relatively short-lived. The producer, Samuel Rael, used to be an attorney, and one of his most regular clients was a low-level criminal called Gary Hilton. Hilton and Rael became friends, and when Rael got out of the lawyering business, Hilton operated as an unpaid producer / ideas man on this movie. He found the location (a shack in the Georgia wilderness) and came up with the plot, about a guy kidnapping and hunting beautiful women in the woods. A little over a decade later, Hilton was arrested and charged with the murder of a young woman, whose body was found in very similar terrain 30 miles from that shack. He’s since been charged with a number of other murders, with some similarities to the plot of this movie, and if you like you can read about his story here.

 

If that rather chilling detail isn’t enough to put you off, then perhaps the involvement of Donald Farmer and his regular actor Danny Fendley will send you over the edge. Farmer is only credited with “additional scenes”, as most of the movie is filmed competently by credited director Mark Bender, with sufficient lighting and camera coverage, and is therefore unlike any other Farmer work. Fendley is supposed to be the villain, but with his inability to act and high-pitched southern accent, he’s not remotely threatening – in other words, just like every other time we’ve seen him on screen.

 

The basic gist of this movie is yet another riff on “The Most Dangerous Game”, that idea so beloved of cheap movie producers (all you need is a forest, a villain and a few victims). Fendley is Bobby Wilson, a wealthy property developer who has a hobby he keeps from his wife and son – that he picks up prostitutes, strippers, and transients, flies them in his little plane to his cabin in the woods, then releases, hunts and kills them. This has been going on for some time, if the statistics spouted by one of the cops later on is to be believed, so clearly Bobby is getting bored as he breaks what must be rule 1 in the “psycho kidnap-murderer handbook”: don’t leave witnesses. He hits on two women in a bar, takes one and leaves the other, so when the friend disappears off the face of the earth, there’s a fairly clear route back to him.

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Luckily for him, the police are almost comically indifferent, and when Barbara (Amy Bush) goes to report her friend’s abduction, the desk sergeant just says “she’ll be fine, stop worrying about it”. When the one cop who seems to give a damn (Joe Spivey, the sole screen credit for one David Jacob) trots out statistics about the rather high volume of local missing persons cases, the other cops get angry with him, saying no-one wants to cause a fuss. Amazing!

 

So, Barbara, Joe, and some old guy whose introduction I must have slept through because I had no idea why he was there or who he was related to, try and work out who the killer is, while Bobby just carries on murdering people in classic Donald Farmer “act 2 is just act 1, repeated” style. You’d expect the net to start closing in on Bobby at some point, but you’d be wrong – although Joe gets an arrest warrant after a lucky break with a pen that Joe foolishly gave Barbara just before abducting her friend, Bobby trumps that by blowing up the police helicopter with a bazooka (!) and to all intents and purposes getting away with the fairly high number of murders, entirely scot free. Okay, I understand the legal system works differently if you’re rich, but even wealthy people can’t use high explosives on cops and expect to suffer no consequences, surely?

 

Bobby’s plane is blown up by a woman trying to escape at one point, but a few scenes later he’s got another one, presumably thanks to the insurance (although this is never stated). You’d think the insurance people would check the wreckage and find evidence of a human body in there, or perhaps he’s with my favourite company, “Lazy Useless Insurance Ltd”.

 

“Deadly Run” is a classic example of having your cake and eating it. Presumably, the people who made the movie don’t want to tell you that it’s fine to abduct, hunt, and kill women, so at the very very end the bad guy gets his comeuppance. But they also can’t think of anything to put in it other than women in peril, so a good 90% of its running time is repeated scenes of just that. Bobby’s life doesn’t unravel in any way, the police don’t step up their investigations, nothing. Just killing people (including a few hunters wandering across his property, presumably to head any criticisms of misogyny off at the pass) and the occasional scene of Barbara looking a bit sad.

Not from the movie, but I thought this was funny

Not from the movie, but I thought this was funny

I appreciate I’m just a critic, and people like Mark Bender (who never made another movie after this, I think the IMDB credits are for a different guy with the same name unless he just took a decade out) got out there and actually did it. But I just don’t understand why this movie was made. “The Most Dangerous Game” is responsible for so many movies, endless variations and retreads of the same theme, so it’s not original, it’s not fun to watch, the acting is pretty weak and it’s full of holes (how does a property developer buy a bazooka with multiple reloads?)

 

Donald Farmer didn’t have enough of a hand in this to make it fun in his own unique way, so in the end it’s just deeply, deeply dull. Strictly for the Farmer completists (if anyone can think of a fun collective name for we fans of the man’s work, please let me know).

 

Rating: thumbs down

Black Christmas (2006)

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The years 2006 to 2010 represent the great horror re-making. Every franchise that money-grabbing scum producers could get their hands on was given a fresh coat of paint – so we had “Friday The 13th”, “Halloween”, “A Nightmare On Elm Street”, “My Bloody Valentine”, “April Fools Day”, “Children Of The Corn”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Day Of The Dead” and “Prom Night”, among others (“Dawn Of The Dead”, “Fright Night” and “Silent Night” coming just outside this period, too). It’s not surprising, given its strong cult fanbase, that the fantastic 1974 original “Black Christmas” would get the same treatment, but would it fare any better than the list above? (Hint: only “The Hills Have Eyes” is worth a damn).

 

The more I think about the original, the more I like it. The atmosphere is superb and the ambiguity of the ending was perfectly judged – director Bob Clark had to fight the studio to leave it that way. Perhaps the simplest thing to say about this 2006 version is that it feels like no-one gave enough of a damn about any aspect of it to fight for anything. Or, to get another stupid analogy out of the way, it feels like some drunk guy watched the movie and related the details to this one’s scriptwriter, who…had a severe head injury before he could start work.

Crystal Lowe (Lauren), Andrea Martin (Ms Mac), Lacy Chabert (Dana), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Heather) and Michelle Trachtenberg (Melissa) star in Glen Morgan's BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Crystal Lowe (Lauren), Andrea Martin (Ms Mac), Lacy Chabert (Dana), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Heather) and Michelle Trachtenberg (Melissa) 

Let’s see. From the very beginning, this movie assaults your intelligence. We see a hospital for the criminally insane, with a guy in a Santa outfit able to wander in because a door was accidentally lodged open with a carton of milk – justifying his presence, he says he was just in the childrens’ ward. Really? A hospital for the criminally insane with a childrens ‘ ward attached? Billy (the resident of this hospital we’re interested in) has fashioned a shiv from a candy cane, sucked to a precise point, killed a guard with it, killed Santa, stolen his outfit and escaped. There’s no way! I am prepared to bet every penny I’ve ever earned that it’s next-to-impossible to kill someone with a candy cane. And this is the smorgasbord of stupid they choose to start the movie with.

 

Unlike 1974’s, which expected its audience to be able to think, this just gives you everything right on a plate. Red herrings are introduced only to be found with their brains bashed in a few minutes later, and the twist is almost insultingly easy to spot. But anyway. The plot is very roughly the same as the original, with Christmas approaching, and a sorority house empty of all but the last handful of stragglers. In another similarity, they hired a decent group of young women – Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Katie Cassidy and Lacey Chabert are the main cast, but there’s also Andrea Martin, the only member of the original cast who wanted to return, as the house mother.

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Billy escapes and heads back to his old home, as every boring killer in every boring movie does – seriously, how played out is “killer escapes from psycho ward?” The dramatic tension, such as it is, revolves around murders being committed while Billy is still locked up, so who’s the murderer? Dun-Dun-DEEERRRRR it’s a stupid reveal, when it finally comes. Because the stuff from the 1974 version with the police and the telephone exchange (“the call is coming from inside the house!”) was exciting and interesting and people liked it, it’s been replaced with…nothing. Well, not quite nothing – we do get an extended bit of backstory for Billy, the escaped killer, talking about his family and how he was raped by their mother and is his own sister’s father, and so on. Just that nasty, pointless, bleak stuff that horror movies insert in place of a plot sometimes, although at least it wasn’t given to us in the form of a complete prequel! But other than that, we’re pretty much stuck in the sorority house throughout the movie, with a storm keeping the police busy elsewhere and everyone’s phones being out of juice or whatever.

 

Let’s talk red herrings and “the boyfriend”. You may remember Keir Dullea’s rather tightly strung performance as the pianist boyfriend who wanted Jess to marry him and give up her own hopes and dreams. Because, again, that’s a plot with some resonance to it, it’s been replaced by Kelli’s boyfriend, who’s a townie and far far too old for her (he was 30 at the time of filming, but looked 35, she’s supposed to be in her late teens), filming a sex tape with one of the other sorority girls. He’s never anything but suspicious from his first moment on screen, and he joins about half the cast in behaving in ways that make no sense, just so the movie can have a ton of red herrings. Is it the odd looking girl who shows up in one scene, hands over a glass unicorn (a murder weapon from the 1974 movie) as a present and then leaves? Is it the elder sister of one of the missing girls, who’s apparently a former member of the same sorority even though the house mother doesn’t remember her? No and no, and a lot more no’s as well.

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It became so bad towards the end that I wondered if, perhaps, it was a joke; as the two killers are burned to death, only to be put in bodybags and taken to the morgue, where they both miraculously revive. BORING! They’ve had a pretty easy time of it, though, as the entire cast has subscribed to the “quick, let’s split up!” method of surviving a slasher movie. And this is without a doubt a slasher, absolutely chock full of close-up gore effects and eyeballs being pulled out and so on. Because the most iconic image in the first  movie was the woman with a bag over her head, that now becomes the killer’s preferred method of dispatch, even when it makes no sense…you know, clueless garbage by people who are utterly afraid of having a single original thought.

 

Because you can visit it as easily as me, I try not to lean too hard on the IMDB trivia section, but there’s a gem in there. Mary Elizabeth Winstead apparently read message boards with people complaining about remaking such an iconic film and had a good old laugh about it. Oh, did you? If only you’d channelled some of that effort into making this film suck less, eh? Thanks Mary! Director Glen Morgan has also disowned it, due to interference from the Weinstein brothers, who wanted ever higher levels of gore. Now, Morgan’s career is pretty odd – he directed one movie before this, which was a flop, then this which was a huge flop, and then nothing (although he’s directing an episode of the new “X-Files” series). He’s presumably much happier as an executive producer of TV, although since working on the X-Files back in the 90s, he’s struggled to find a hit.

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It’s just such a pointless waste of a movie. The plot is dumb, and it’s an utterly forgettable / forgotten entry in the slasher revival sub-sub-genre. Watch the original and marvel at how it can be done properly, and let this one sink ever further into obscurity.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Black Christmas (1974)

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Part of why I enjoy doing this is to learn stuff at the same time as giving you, dear reader, a few interesting tidbits too. While I’d heard of “Black Christmas” before, it was pretty much exclusively as a proto-slasher, that occasionally some smug reviewer would say “well, actually Halloween wasn’t the first, blah blah blah”. I may be lazy, poor at checking details, and prone to crowbarring my own stupid theories into reviews, but I try very hard not to be smug, so with that in mind our Christmas season rolls around to this, and the discovery that it’s really nothing like your stereotypical slasher movie.

 

I think “Black Christmas” should join those select few movies which are great, and are set at Christmas without being about Christmas (“Die Hard”, all the Shane Black movies, if you’re feeling generous “Silent Night Deadly Night 2”). Our base of operations is a sorority house, with a few fairly big names of the future in early roles – Margot Kidder as sarcastic drunk Barb, and Olivia Hussey as Jess, the sensible heroine who provides this movie with a surprising amount of feminism. Keir Dullea, famous from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, shows up to play Jess’s douchebag boyfriend, and John Saxon’s a cop. Also, we nearly got Gilda Radner, but she got the “Saturday Night Live” job and had to pull out of this, so in the end we got Andrea Martin, who was also in 1973’s “Cannibal Girls”, which we really liked, before going on herself to a comedy career with “SCTV”.

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So, it’s Christmas, and the sorority is getting quieter as most of the girls have gone home to their families, until the end of the final party of the year, when their friendly neighbourhood heavy breather gives them a call. The phone calls are a masterpiece of sound-work, full of inhuman moans and screams and snippets of speech that sound like they’re coming from all sorts of different people, and they quite legitimately frighten the life out of the sorority girls (apart from Barb, who’s too permanently soused to be bothered by much of anything). Barb loses her patience with the caller, after he starts talking about rather sexual matters, and when she starts mocking him back, he says “I’m going to kill you all” and hangs up. Whether he makes good on his promise is a conundrum I shall leave unanswered, because I cannot recommend this film highly enough and want you to watch it.

 

Everything is slow and deliberate, with the phone calls, the murders, and the attempts to trace the calls all being given ample space to breathe. Bob Clark directed, and looking back at his career he made some really good movies (early in his career, admittedly) – “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”, “A Christmas Story”, “Dead Of Night”…and “Porky’s”. Some of the shots are wonderful, especially the final journey through the house, and Clark deserves credit for fighting with the studio over the ending, rejecting their ideas in favour of the much better ambiguous ending we were left with.

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He also deserves credit for the portrayal of Jess. When her boyfriend says he’s dropping out of school and that they should get married, she says no because she has hopes and dreams of her own; also, she’s pregnant and decides to have an abortion. I can’t imagine a movie being made today where the heroine makes that decision and doesn’t get punished for it, so it feels weirdly modern, but a nice version of modern, not the right-wing hell we’re currently living through.

 

It’s also edited wonderfully. Dullea was only available for a week, and barely met any of the rest of the cast, but the way his scenes are placed throughout the movie makes him seem much more central than he was. The regular cuts back to the rocking chair, and what’s in the rocking chair, is some of the blackest humour imaginable – there’s some proper comedy too, like the scene at the kids’ Christmas party that the sorority organises. And even more credit, this time to the cinematographer Albert Dunk, who fashioned a harness so he could get some of those extremely creepy POV shots.

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So, really, I’ve not got anything bad to say about this movie. It’s slow, but actually the pace works in its favour as the fabric of the movie (script, acting, sets) is so strong that you’re not waiting for the next set piece. The murders happen largely off screen, but again when the movie is good you don’t need those shocks to keep the audience interested. It’s a whodunit without an obvious answer, and even goes as far as killing a 13 year old girl (off screen, naturally). How many movies made in 2015 would introduce a kid only to kill her off? Horror is a pretty conservative business these days, and even though the effects are better they’re often far gorier, they still feel more sanitized.

 

So, all in all, this is a very creepy, very good movie. I’m even looking forward to watching the modern remake, and they’re always rotten, so that tells you how much goodwill the original has built up. This could be my favourite Christmas horror movie yet, and if you get the chance give it a go.

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Rating: thumbs up

 

Red Lips (1995)

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I think there’s some sort of graph you can draw that plots the descent of a certain sort of director – as the budgets drop on one axis, so the number of boobs increase on the other. Such luminaries as Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski have long since gone down this path, the late great Don Dohler did too, and there are dozens of others whose names are lost to time but whose smutty movies are not. Luckily, a glimpse into the future reveals this isn’t the fate of Donald Farmer, who’d go on to all sorts of weird and wonderful cinematic works. Although we were worried there, for a minute.

 

Although I’m a heterosexual man and like boobs just fine, I’ve never quite understood why low-budget horror directors are so insistent on having a few in there – no-one sees horror movies for titillation, surely? Even full frontal shots and hefty amounts of simulated sex? Especially now, when everyone with a phone has access to an almost infinite amount of smut at any time, there’s a significant number of low-budget directors who seem insistent on getting women to disrobe on camera, which speaks more to them than it does to their audience. Perhaps I’m over-estimating the tastes of low-budget cinema fans?

 

But enough of our armchair psychoanalysis, we’ve got a movie to cover! After a girl-girl sex scene which might be related to the rest of the movie or might not (thanks to the VHS quality, it’s pretty difficult to tell) we get right into things. Caroline (Ghetty Chasun, resplendent in an L7 shirt) is a young woman, living on the streets, and has been reduced to selling her blood in order to survive. The doctor (billed as “Doctor”) says that actually, if she wants $100 a day rather than just the $15 every 6 weeks from selling blood, she can get Caroline into a special test programme, where they inject her with a special new serum that may well render her immune to any disease.

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She naturally jumps at the chance, but there’s a side effect – she grows horrific sharp teeth and is compelled to drain peoples’ blood, murdering them in the process. You know, that old chestnut! So, one day, she’s just wandering the streets in a serum-induced daze and happens upon Lisa (Michelle Bauer), who’s just broken up with her girlfriend over the phone. That girlfriend, by the way, is famed B-movie actress Kitten Navidad, who lived with Russ Meyers for many years, the chap who according to legend paid for her breast enlargements. She was at the stage of her career where she was appearing in pretty much anything (including many hardcore movies, where she would just go topless and not do any of the actual “work”). It appears Navidad never learned to act, or perhaps it was a little hard to motivate herself when the scene involved Donald Farmer turning up at her apartment with a camcorder, filming her in the bath for ten minutes then leaving?

 

Much like every Donald Farmer movie, there’s so much rich detail that it’s tough to not just recap every scene.  Anyway, Caroline and Lisa meet, and Caroline is a mess by this point – she’s already killed quite a few people, and she’ll kill the doctor soon, too. Lisa looks after Caroline, and the two of them fall in love remarkably quickly (the entire movie seems to take place over the course of maybe a week, although it’s difficult to tell). They meet Gina at a club and all three of them hit it off. I think? Anyway, Gina invites them to stay with her, but Caroline wakes up in the middle of the night, drinks her blood and kills her in the process, and Lisa, insanely committed to the woman she met YESTERDAY, disposes of the body for her by cutting it up and putting it in the fridge! A brief cameo from Farmer favourite Danny Fendley as Gina’s pimp and you’ve got yourself a movie, kind of.

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There’s so much more I wanted to talk about, and I’d happily tell you everything that went on, but we don’t have all day. As with all Farmer’s movies, I recommend you watch it because it’s a singular experience. Saying that, though, this one honestly feels like a regression in terms of budget and acting – Farmer’s previous two had real actors in them, and at times looked like actual movies. Certain scenes in this are as close to home movie footage as anything I’ve seen for the ISCFC – Navidad’s is the best example, but there are plenty of others. One would hope that after directing movies for close to ten years, he’d have figured some stuff out, but apparently not.

 

You may have noticed the little recap section up there bounced around a bit – if so, it was only because it was mirroring the movie. It would have made a ton of sense to have a bit about their developing relationship, perhaps a montage intercut with Caroline’s feeding, but all we get is…well, nothing. This mirrors the attitude of every woman in the movie, as they’re all up for a lesbian experience pretty much anywhere, at any time. Caroline just walks up to a few victims and starts kissing them, and every one of them is “cool, let’s go” and not “excuse me, I’m just washing my hands, I was in the middle of lunch”. Although Farmer seems to have finally figured out sex scenes, that both people should look like they’re enjoying themselves.

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There’s half an interesting plot here, too! The issue is, it feels like he couldn’t be bothered to develop it. If they’d merged the Doctor and Lisa characters, they could have had the doctor race to find a cure for her lover’s weird vampire curse; this would have provided at least a bit of dramatic tension. Instead we just get endless scenes of Caroline eating people with not even the pretence that we’re moving forward in any remotely logical way.

 

Factor in the out-of-nowhere conclusion with Fendley, and you’ve got a movie that feels like Farmer knocked it out in a bored weekend with whatever piece-of-crap camcorder he could get his hands on. And that’s a shame, I reckon. Ghetty Chasun as Caroline, while not the greatest actress of all time, is strikingly beautiful (I think, through the VHS haze) and towers over the other women, so she’s already 100 times more visually interesting than the average Farmer actress. She appears to have opted out of acting according to this chap who did some research before me, so good for her. Michelle Bauer as Lisa is fine too, but everyone else is just awful, including Danny Fendley, although mercifully he’s kept to a few minutes in this one. I keep expecting him to luck into hiring a good actor, the law of averages indicates he’s due a few, but no. Just legions of the wooden.

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Every Farmer movie is weirdly compelling and absolutely worth watching, but even for him this is grimy and ugly and undeveloped. Don’t jump in with this one, only for the experienced. For a final bit of trivia, Leslie Q, a fascinating experimental musician active in the 90s, is featured in this movie, and you get the entirety of one of her songs. Hell, I liked the music in this much more than anything Farmer had done to this point, a wild noise assault which mirrored (possibly accidentally) the descent of the main character. But this review is nearly done, I can’t start it up again!

 

Rating: negative thumbs up

 

PS thanks to “Taliesin Meets The Vampires” for the screenshots, saved me the hassle. Go read their reviews, should you need more vampire-related stuff in your life.