Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 (1987)

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The difference between “Prom Night” and “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2” helpfully illustrates two of the main strands running through 80s horror and slasher cinema. Firstly, is the complete indifference to continuity. Originally titled “The Haunting Of Hamilton High”, and intended as a homage to horror/exploitation directors of the past (there are cast members with the surnames Carpenter, Romero, Craven, Waters, Henenlotter and Browning); the producers didn’t think much to it, so they reshot half. Then, the distributors Alliance Films retitled it to “build on the success of Prom Night”, you know, the sort-of popular movie from 7 years ago? It, of course, shares no cast*, crew or significant plot details with the first movie, aside from the name of the school – and it’s not like anyone says “hey, remember that slaughter we had at prom a few years ago?”

 

Secondly, is the evolution of the genre. “Prom Night” is (relatively) cheaply shot, with a cast of mostly amateur actors – see also “Hell Night”, “Final Exam” and most of the others of the era. The killer in all instances was a real flesh-and-blood person, but “A Nightmare On Elm Street” threw the doors open for horror movies to mess with reality, making it more “plastic”. This plastic reality, while not exploited to quite the same extent as Freddy Krueger did, is one of the many strands to this movie’s bow, along with a lot of psychological depth, with religious repression, a vaguely satirical anti-American message (from a Canadian movie) and what I think is a strong feminist undertone.

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Mary Lou Malone (Lisa Schrage) is a sexually active, hard-partying girl in 1957, which makes her a cross between the devil and Hitler to some people. I mean, okay, she goes over the top a bit, telling the Priest at confession that she sins all the time, loves doing it, and writes “for a good time call Mary Lou” along with her number on the wall of the booth; but her behaviour isn’t that bad. Anyway, she has a boyfriend, Billy, who she says “treats me right…and he’s rich”, but is unafraid to go and have sex behind the stage at Prom with Buddy, who she’s more sexually compatible with, and doesn’t seem bothered when Billy finds them. Okay, that behaviour is pretty bad.

 

Billy overhears a couple of kids who have a stink bomb but abandon it in a bin, so he takes it, sneaks up onto the gantry above the stage, and when Mary Lou has just been crowned, lights it and throws it down. Rather than doing whatever it is stink bombs are supposed to do, it sets everything on fire and kills poor Mary Lou, who sees Billy just as she dies and has revenge in her eyes.

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Fast-forward to the present day, and for some reason Mary Lou’s personal effects (including her old sash and crown, which did well to survive the fire) are locked in a chest in the theatre’s prop room. Our Final Girl, Vicki (Wendy Lyon) is trying to find a prom dress  – respect to her for not spending a fortune on one – but, in the one visual link to part 1, we are helpfully told via rapid cutting from one to the other that some of the characters were around back in 1957. There’s Buddy, who’s now a priest; and Billy, who’s the Principal of the school. Billy is played by Michael Ironside, who’s livened up many a movie with his super-intense bad guy portrayals, but here he’s a guy who appears to have successfully repressed the events of the past completely.

 

Fairly early on (certainly compared to part 1) Mary Lou comes back looking for revenge, thanks to Vicki’s best friend Jess, who we thought was gay but it turns out was looking sad because she was pregnant, prying a jewel from the tiara and releasing her spirit. Unlike the killer from part 1, Mary Lou appears to not give much of a damn who she kills, although she’s certainly got her eye on Billy and Buddy (not sure why she’s got a hate-on for Buddy, he did nothing other than have sex with her and try to put the fire out).

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I like that they made an effort with the background teenagers, as they’re not just the sort of bland pastel that most movies would have. There’s punks and skateboarders, heck, even a few black people! I also like bad girl Terri, who wants to be Prom Queen despite Vicki being a shoo-in (no idea why, she never seems all that popular); and her amazing boyfriend, who we christened Fabio Jr. Such flowing locks! But their evil is as nothing when Mary Lou decides that possessing Vicki is the way to go. She forces nightmares on her, including one amazing scene where she’s sucked into a blackboard, until eventually she’s ready to be taken over.

 

I mentioned there was an element of feminism here, and I think it’s to do with the repression of female sexuality. Mary Lou seems happy with her life, until she’s burned to death by a guy who wants her to behave like him; and then Vicki in the “present day” is controlled by a Bible-thumping mother who seems intent on her not being a sexual being at all. There’s a spot where the possessed Vicki kisses her own father and he responds – okay, it’s super-weird, but it’s showing how little human warmth is in that house, and so many others. There’s the sense that when Mary Lou takes her over, she’s pretty happy with the arrangement (with the possible exception of all the murdering).

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Or, you could see this as a crude rip-off of “The Exorcist”, which joins “Elm Street” and “Carrie” (for what happens at the Prom) as the three main inspirations. It goes a little off the rails at the end, admittedly, wearing its influences a little too obviously on its sleeve and giving us the traditional supernatural slasher cop-out of “she’s not really dead!”; and no-one seems all that surprised that Vicki murdered a bunch of people, then had Mary Lou tear herself out of her body, then mysteriously came back with no problems after everything…or that hundreds of people saw the Principal shoot his own daughter. But, dream-logic, I guess.

 

For a movie with an at times very light tone, there’s a lot of darkness to it, and a heck of a lot of fairly meaty stuff to chew on. Without wanting to give what might be a random joke by a set designer too much credit, Vicki’s bedroom has a copy of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” displayed prominently on the wall, which is not something a religiously controlled home in middle America is going to have even heard of, much less buy, frame and display. It’s a movie about subconscious desires and repression, dressed up like a cheesy 80s slasher.

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A quick word about a few decent-sized “That Guy / Gal” names who show up. Vicki’s boyfriend, as bland and ineffectual a man as has ever been put on screen, is Louis Ferrara, who was in “Breaking Bad” and “Stargate Universe” – this was the very beginning of his career and was probably his “break”. Also, as the weirdly-coiffed…teacher?…well, the guy who was organising the prom?…is John Pyper-Ferguson, from “Suits”, “The Last Ship” and just about every big TV show of the last decade. And, with links to our “Endless Bummer” season of largely Canadian-produced 80s sex comedies, Jess, the girl who dies near the beginning, is Beth Gondek, aka Candy Barr from “Screwballs 2”, aka the short-sighted girl who touched Bryan Genesse’s penis.

 

I really liked “Hello Mary Lou”, and think it’s well worth a critical renaissance. Perhaps they need to de-emphasise that it’s a horror sequel? And from my faulty memories, part 3 is more or less a comedy, so that doesn’t help the argument either. But this one is absolutely worth your time.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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  • Weirdly, there’s one guy who appears in all four original Prom Night movies, as different characters, but I didn’t know who he was so I think we can dismiss him as the grand unifying thread.
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Prom Night (1980)

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I’ve been pondering slasher movies more and more, as we’ve been covering them. Are we guilty of using our 2016 biases to judge early 80s movies? Well, of course we are. But the more of them I see, with questionable levels of acting, gore, and pacing, I think “is it a fool’s errand to try and review this genre now? Is it uniquely tied to its era and fanbase?”

 

Then I watch something like “Prom Night” and all those questions go away, because it’s great. It manifests the same structural problem as other slashers, in fact to a crazy extent in one particular instance, but thanks to an interesting visual style, some good performances and a great script, I was never bothered by them.

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“Prom Night” is, like our recently reviewed “Hell Night”, from producer Irwin Yablans, who was using the sweet cachet he got from “Halloween” to make more money / more horror. Asking director Paul Lynch to base the movie round a holiday, Lynch tweaked it to be prom night, and used a story from a friend of his, Robert Guza Jr, about a tragic event years earlier returning to haunt a group of teenagers. Funding was secured when Jamie Lee Curtis signed up (who I recall was trying to avoid slasher typecasting, but she did okay), and away they went.

 

It’s 1974, and a group of small kids, all around 11 years old, are riding their bikes round the neighbourhood, and decide to play a rather mean version of hide-and-seek in an abandoned convent. Robin, who’s just 10, sneaks in to join them, but when they find her, they corner her, chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” She backs up and backs up and eventually falls out of a window to her death. The kids, led by Wendy, decide to just run away, leaving the discovery of the body to Robin’s twin brother Alex. Later, the murder is pinned on a known rapist, who’s sent to prison for life.

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Then we’re up to the present day, 6 years later, and it’s the run up to prom. Alex and his other sister Kim (Curtis) are looking forward to it, with Kim in the running for Prom Queen; their Dad (Leslie Nielsen, the same year his life was changed forever by “Airplane”) is the school Principal. There’s the evil kid turned evil teenager Wendy (Eddie Benton, “Sledge Hammer!”), who also wants to be Queen; but this normal teen activity is disturbed when the four kids responsible for Robin’s death get phone calls telling them they’re going to pay for what they did! And we find out the rapist has escaped from prison and is on his way!

 

As a quick aside, apart from “Halloween”, the escaped psycho is a red herring way more often than they’re the killer. I think a solid half the slasher movies we’ve covered recently have had an escaped mental patient or murderer in them, and they’ve not been the killer in a single one. Perhaps it’s just some sort of code among horror directors.

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Like I said, the pace of “Prom Night” sets it apart. Aside from the opening (and an offscreen kill committed by the escapee, nowhere near town) no-one dies until 63 minutes, which must have really frustrated the early gorehounds who went to see it. What they do is build up dread wonderfully (almost to the level of Jamie Lee Curtis’ previous horror movie) and fill things up with some really good escalating tension, lots of languid shots, as well as a variety of great characters. My favourite is “Slick” (Sheldon Rybowski), who shows you don’t need to be a bronzed Adonis to get with women. He charms the beautiful Jude (Joy Thompson) by having a cool van, a hollowed-out book with like 30 pre-rolled joints inside, and by being confident and able to talk to her, despite looking like a traditional nebbish-y teen. Good work Slick! There’s an amazing performance from a monobrowed David Mucci as “Lou”, the freshly expelled monster who Wendy has sex with so he’ll help her get revenge on the school; and a quick mention for a long-pre-fame Jeff Wincott, who made tons of JCVD-esque martial arts movies in the 90s, in what might have been his movie debut. Not all the acting is fantastic, but when you’ve got a lead actor as strong as Jamie Lee Curtis, you’re fine.

 

There’s a lot of red herrings, of course, and when Leslie Nielsen disappears from the movie with about 20 minutes to go he makes a strong case for being the killer (don’t worry, ol Les just must have had another job, because his absence is coincidental). There’s also my least favourite trope of horror movies – the “victim running away from help”. Wendy shows excellent resourcefulness to fight off the killer, but rather than make her way back to the prom, with loads of people who can help her, she keeps running into darker and darker rooms and corridors and eventually cupboards. Sprinkle in a bit of “let’s not tell anyone the rapist – killer escaped” at the beginning, and you’ve got your requisite amount of dumb movie decisions to make sure all the pieces are in place.

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What has been interesting is seeing the way the genre developed. I think Friday The 13th, released the same year, was the beginning of the end for interesting slasher movies, as all producers had to do to get people in the cinemas was put a bunch of teens in an isolated location and kill them all in ever-more-brutal ways.  Given this was filmed in 1979, when the only game in town was “Halloween”, the “rules” weren’t in place yet and you could go down all sorts of different paths. Not saying all those paths were interesting, or good even, but they were there.

 

What I really liked about this is that the killer’s actions make perfect sense. He goes after a very small group of people, with the only real “I just fancied killing him” death being that of the great Slick. There’s no indication that they just hated all teens, or wanted revenge on the entire school, or anything like that. Plus, they’re sort of dumb, getting tricked several times by Wendy in their big chase (a long way from part 2, or even slashers from the same year, like “Friday the 13th” where Mrs Voorhees is capable of incredible feats of prediction and strength).

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If you like disco, you’ve got an extended sequence where Kim and her new boyfriend Nick (Casey Stevens) do a sweet disco dance, and it’s really them, no stunt doubles. Talking of Stevens, he dropped off the face of the earth after making this movie, and died of an AIDS-related illness a few years later – information about him is extremely limited.

 

I think this is absolutely worth watching, to see the evolution of a genre before the rules were set in stone, and to see a movie which prioritises atmosphere over shocks (but still puts some great tense action sequences in).

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Youtube Film Club: Hell Night (1981)

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The ISCFC’s tour through the early years of slasher movies continues with a perhaps slightly forgotten Linda Blair effort from 1981. Some less kind commentators have suggested the only reason for its existence was to raise more money for “Halloween 2”, this being produced by the same people, but we’ll give anything a fair crack of the whip here.

We start at a rather fun-looking party, where they bothered to hire enough extras to make it look busy. It’s “Hell Night”, which I believe is the final night of fraternity / sorority initiation ceremonies, so called because the police are bombarded with fake reports and the town goes to hell. Or something like that, please don’t expect too much from me, I’m English and approaching middle age. There are four pledges – Marti (Linda Blair), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), Peter (Kevin Brophy) and Denise (Suki Goodwin); all they need to do is spend the night in the spooky old Grant Mansion.

 

On the way, in a rather well-shot scene with a large group walking up a country road with flaming torches, we’re given the history of the Garth family, which ends after the usual twists and turns with the father killing the rest of the family as their sons were all deformed. One son allegedly survived, and is rumoured to live in the place still. So, there’s plenty of pranking going on at first, as the fraternity and sorority folks outside try and freak out the pledges. But then, refreshingly quickly, someone starts bumping off the people outside, unbeknownst to the people inside, and we’ve got ourselves a movie.

A decent, sensible group of heroes?

A decent, sensible group of heroes?

A quick word about the characters, as they make the movie. Denise, who’s English, has brought Quaaludes and Jack Daniels (and would have brought cocaine if she’d not been frisked on the way in), and is a lot of fun. This and an appearance in a TV show the following year represent her entire movie career, and it’s a damn shame as she was both beautiful and a totally decent actress, although perhaps too naturalistic in an era that didn’t like that. Peter and Marti are every dull final couple you’ve ever seen in a horror movie, but inhabit the characters well, actually making you care about them (Peter’s reaction when finding out Marti is a skilled mechanic isn’t to laugh or sneer, but to ask her to fix his car, which I liked). And then there’s Seth, the wonderful Seth.

 

Seth and Denise have some fun together, but when he leaves to use the bathroom, he comes back to find her gone and a different severed head in his bed. Now, right here is where the legend of Seth kicks in. Rather than sit around and freak out, or go looking for the rest of this woman, he gets the hell out of there and warns everyone else. Then, with the movie barely half over, he gets the hell out of the locked mansion (climbing over the fence) and goes to get help. When the police refuse, presumably sick of pranks, he takes a shotgun from the station, hijacks a car and goes back to the house to help out his friends. Good work Seth! But his awesomeness is not over – he fights off and kills the deformed murderer, and walking back into the house, shouts “score one for the good guys!” before… getting killed by a previously unknown second deformed brother! Seth takes no shit, is totally respectful towards Denise when she says she wants to talk rather than have sex (while still being a partly typical bro-type guy, and feels like a more fully formed, human character airlifted in from a different movie. We love Seth, and he’s in the top tier of awesome horror characters.

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A word about the police. Can you imagine the families of the dead kids not suing the pants off the cops for refusing to investigate someone coming in screaming about murder?  I would have that guy’s job in an instant, and this represents the second movie we’ve seen this week where the police refuse to come and help murder victims (along with “Final Exam”). What’s the worst that happens if you investigate and nothing’s there? Arrest the kids for wasting police time, maybe? How many kids actually run into a police station reporting murder, for a laugh? It can’t be that many.

 

Things are shot well, and the pace is very different to recent slashers we’ve watched. The cast realise there’s a monster after them really early on, compared to such snoozers (relatively speaking) as “Graduation Day”, where the discovery is barely in time for the end credits. It’s interesting to know who the killer is for most of the runtime, which makes it a little more like a monster movie and a little less like a slasher. This is fine by me. And congrats to them for making a little go a long way, with the sets, tunnels, and so on, which all look great. The gore, too, which is minimal but really effective, plus a couple of jump scares which are actually scary and not just annoying.

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It could have been ten minutes shorter, maybe, and it’s not the most original idea in the world, but with a decent sense of humour, some great characters, and fine sets, they made a solidly above-average movie, which is no given in the murky waters we’re currently paddling in. It seems weirdly less sexist than the swathe of slashers that emerged later in the decade too, with no T&A and the women giving as good as they got.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Youtube Film Club: Graduation Day (1981)

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While the ISCFC has covered many of the big slasher series, there’s some gaps for classics and one-offs. Dear reader, we know you’re sat there, paralysed, wondering “which old horror movie should I watch? The ISCFC won’t tell me!” so consider this a public service.

“Graduation Day” is from the first wave of slashers, riding high on “Friday 13th”, “Prom Night” and “Halloween” money. It’s got a good ol’ simple plot too – Laura is the star of the track team, but collapses after over-exerting herself in a 200 metre race and dies, apparently due to a blood clot on her brain.

 

Just so’s you know this is Troma country we’re in, the movie tests if you’re paying attention quite early on. Laura’s older sister is Anne (Patch McKenzie) and she’s in the Navy, and she comes back several weeks later for the graduation ceremony. Why not the funeral? She said she was stationed in Guam which is, admittedly, most of the way across the Pacific, but I’m sure the military would let you go home for your own sister’s funeral, right? After being unapologetically mauled by a guy giving her a lift, she turns up in town and the red herrings start. She establishes a little connection to Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy, who looks old enough to have a kid in high school), although it seems fairly obvious to our 2016 eyes that Anne is a lesbian.

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We may be the only Linda Shayne fan site in the world. She was in “Screwballs” as the excellently named Bootsie Goodhead, and was also the credited co-writer on that movie – she worked a lot with Jim Wynorski in the early 80s. She later moved into directing but her career faltered in the early 2000s (she directed a teenage Neil Patrick Harris in her last movie, who says how much he hated her, so maybe she wasn’t that nice a person). Anyway, she’s the first member of the track team to get theirs, a few minutes after Anne arrives in town, and has such a small role that she’s uncredited. Sorry Linda!

 

The movie progresses in classic slasher movie fashion. There’s a picture of the track team which is gradually getting all the faces Xed out as they die. There’s red herrings aplenty, like the Xs being done in lipstick, yet when we see the killer’s bare arm, it’s thick and hairy and clearly a man’s. There’s the (clearly gay) music teacher who has sex with one of the female students for a passing grade. There’s the biggest one of all, the track teacher who’s almost psychotically angry. There’s the way that several people have the same grey tracksuit and stopwatch that the killer is seen holding. There’s the way that every single person at the school is absolute scum. The usual.

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This is all very standard, if we’re being honest, but “Graduation Day” emerges from the pack by keeping a decent pace up; sticking to the “shock, scare or kill every seven or eight minutes” mantra; and having a strong cast. “That Guy” par excellence Michael Pataki is the Principal, there are no really bad weak links in the rest of the cast, and there’s a couple of future “stars” in very tiny roles. Linnea Quigley, who’d go on through the late 80s and 90s to be the premier B-movie scream queen, is the girl who takes her top off to get an A, and was in fact hired because the movie’s first choice (who you can see in the opening shots wearing a no. 46 jersey) refused to take her clothes off for the role. Ah, never change, low-budget scumbag movie producers! Then there’s Vanna White (“Looker”) as one of the background girls. She would soon go on to huge fame as a host on US game show “Wheel Of Fortune”, which she still does to this day, and this represents one of the very few acting appearances where she’s not just playing herself.

 

It’s not all fun and games, though! The killer holds a stopwatch which he stops at 30 seconds, because that’s all the time it took Laura to die. Now, one of the kills takes way longer than that, like 2 or 3 minutes, but still that stopwatch gets stopped at 30 seconds because reasons. Come on, movie! Then there’s the rollerskating pre-graduation party. Very slightly successful new-wave-ish band Felony are playing one of their songs, and kids are skating round while Linnea Quigley and her boyfriend appear to walk several miles into the nearby forest to have some sex and get murdered (seriously, she runs back to the party for ages and still doesn’t make it). This song goes on, according to someone who timed it, over seven minutes, and if you haven’t reached for the fast-forward button long before then, you’re a better man than I.

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The bit of the slasher film template I don’t care for is how long it takes someone who’s still alive to find a dead body and for the authorities to be alerted. In a 96 minute movie, the first body isn’t found til 73:00, and with the last five minutes being a nightmarish coda, there’s really not a lot of time for the inevitable Final Girl shenanigans. Talking of which, Anne is a trained combatant, and the best she can manage is to just about almost hold her own against the killer, rather than – I don’t know – kill him immediately? I was a bit unsure if she was even going to be the final girl, because she flat-out disappears for the entirety of act 2, pretty much.

 

The ending is great when you think the killer is going to get away with it scot-free, but then goes a bit OTT when Anne discovers the real killer’s identity and what he has in his attic. The real horror, though, is Anne and Laura’s mother and step-father. He’s an angry, miserable drunk who openly hates Anne, doesn’t care at all that Laura is dead, and only tolerates her in the house because he wants some of the insurance money which would normally go straight to Anne (not sure how that works out). The mother is constantly downplaying what a piece of garbage he is, and one can only imagine the sheer misery that goes on in that home when Laura leaves at the end. Sorry, that should be “Laura leaves, not waiting for the second funeral of her sister or to talk to the cops about the mass-murder that just happened”.

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It’s not terrible, by any stretch, even if it has some weird lulls. And, if you think about it, the reason for the killer doing killing makes no sense, if you go with the “blood clot” explanation. But, if you’re at all interested in the history of slasher films, then you definitely ought to put this on your viewing list (plus, it’s on Youtube, so it won’t cost you anything).

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Ratman (1988)

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I have my friends Val and Nick to thank for this – on holiday in Edinburgh, they spotted the DVD and thought of me. One way of looking at it – it’s good to have friends who buy you things like this; the other way – why did they torture me so? To say it didn’t exactly seize the attention of the people in the room is something of an understatement, but there’s stuff to talk about, should you, dear reader, be in a Fopp shop and wondering whether to drop your hard-earned cash on one of Shameless Videos’ releases.

 

The original title for this movie is, translated from the Italian, “The Villa At The Bottom Of The Park”, which is even less descriptive than the one we ended up with (perhaps “inspired” by “The House At The Edge Of The Park”, because if you’re going to be sleazy you might as well go all out). A scientist, going for his Nobel Prize, has successfully crossed a rat with a monkey.

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Wait, what? Wouldn’t the title of the film be “Rat-Monkey”, then? I wrote that in my notes at the beginning of the movie, and I now dream of the time when that was my biggest problem with it. If you’re in a forgiving mood, you can imagine that Peter Jackson was inspired by this to create the Sumatran rat-monkey which is the driving force behind all-time gore-comedy classic “Braindead” – he is a student of the genre, so it might well be true.

 

So, back to the rat-monkey, which the scientist has left for some reason in the world’s tiniest and most flimsy cage. The hybrid has poison in its claws and teeth which is fatal; and escapes pretty quickly. Ratman is played by Nelson De La Rosa, who was 2’4” and weighed around 16lbs at the time; you may remember him from “The Island Of Dr. Moreau”. I’m not really sure what to think of his use in this movie, although it lends it an exploitation authenticity that few others can touch. Slap a set of fake teeth in him, smear him in brown makeup and put some rags on, and you’re good to go.

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Nothing happens for half an hour. Then Rat-man watches a woman take a shower, at incredible length. Then nothing happens for another half an hour. Finally Rat-man kills a bunch of people, overpowering each and every one of them despite him being about the same size and weight as a small  dog, and being so clearly disabled that his walk is a slow side-to-side trot that anyone could run away from in seconds. Not a single person fights back or shows any desire for self-preservation at all.

 

There are a couple of main characters in it – Janet Agren (“City of The Living Dead”) and David Warbeck (“The Beyond”), but I’ve got no idea why they know each other or what their relationship is. She’s the sister of a model who goes into the jungle for a job, and they both go looking for her and instead encounter Rat-man. Even remembering what happened in this film 24 hours ago is a miserable experience, but I think I’ve given you the highlights.

 

This could well be the dirtiest, sleaziest, broke-looking movie we’ve ever reviewed. Every room is dingily lit, and the walls and floors are filthy. Everyone looks sweaty and ground-down by life, although this could just be the attitude of the actors who were obliged to take roles in a piece of crap like this.  According to about half this movie’s other reviewers, the main highlight is a full-frontal nudity shower scene featuring 80s Euro-hottie Eva Grimaldi, but luckily for those of us in 2016 who want to see that sort of thing, there are millions of websites and DVDs with nothing but nude ladies in them, rendering the need to watch 80 minutes of nothing to see two minutes of showering entirely moot. Add on to that an ending my notes merely described as “bullshit” (luckily, I remember none of it, thanks, chest infection!) and you’ve got something that resembles a movie!

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I’m actually sort of delighted that the era of exploitation cinema is over. It’s useful to remember why they were made – because unpleasant people wanted to make money as easily as possible. They’d have made ballet movies, or documentaries about concrete, if that’s where the money was, and almost to a person had no aptitude or particular interest in making movies. So we get hype – “you’ve never seen anything like this!” to describe miserable experiences, where huge chunks of nothing are broken up by female nudity or violence. Take “Ratman”, for example, whose DVD cover proudly states:

 

“a glorious exploitation fest of bad taste, worse acting, needless nudity and tense wince-inducing slaughter”.

 

Let’s clean that up a bit.

 

“A boring movie, with some needless nudity but barely any gore”.

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You’re welcome, Shameless Cinema. Of course, the current business model of companies like Shameless are partly responsible for the great swathes of old crappy exploitation movies. I imagine it goes something like:

 

  1. Person finds an old movie he loves and wants to release on DVD
  2. He does so, setting up a company along the way
  3. The connections and money he makes allows him to find some other cool old movies to give the same treatment to
  4. Eventually, quite quickly, he runs out of half-decent movies
  5. He carries on sweeping up whatever garbage movies he can find
  6. He has to lie ever more strongly to generate any interest in it
  7. Everyone stops caring

 

“Ratman” is just so un-entertaining. I feel annoyed towards everyone involved – the director (whose career looks like a series of bandwagon-jumps – spaghetti westerns to giallo to crap like this, plus “Exterminators Of The Year 3000”, and he retired immediately after “Ratman”, dying last month – September 2016); the producers who paid not one cent for any set dressing or anything that might be remotely nice to look at; and now the company that chose lying over just stopping with the DVD producing and obtaining gainful employment elsewhere.

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Is this caring too much about some trash with a Rat-man in it? Probably. It’s dull as hell, though, no matter how much or little you care about it. Sorry, Val and Nick! Thanks for the pressie though!

 

Rating: thumbs down

Final Exam (1981)

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Because we have no set schedule or genre here, our reviews wander a bit. A brief mention from one of my friends can lead to the 13-part “Witchcraft” series, which I regret wholeheartedly, but then something like seeing an actor I like or enjoying a script will send us down the path of watching everything they’ve ever done. This has resulted in me being a Donald Farmer fan, for one (after watching “Vampire Cop”) and today’s review is the result of rather enjoying “Killer Party”. The two movies share an actress, Sherry Willis-Burch, who looks like a slightly nerdy Rene Russo, and amazingly we’ve now covered her entire career. She’s great in both, so I hope she just found a job that paid more money.

This is 1981, so some of the rules around slasher films weren’t clichés yet, and in some cases hadn’t firmed up, so there was a bit of wiggle room. But we start with a classic – a couple of college students in a car, the boy trying to get the girl to have sex with him, but before either of them have any fun they’re butchered by a rather strong person. We then switch to a different college, Lanier, where the bulk of the action is going to take place. It’s final exam week and most of the campus is empty, fortunately for the extras budget.

The “Meet The Meat” section is rather well-handled. You’ve got hard-drinking jock Wildman, Courtey the determined student, Lisa the party girl (who’s sleeping her way to an A), Gary the fraternity pledge and his girlfriend Janet (Willis-Burch), Mark the main sleazy frat guy, and best of all, super-nerd Radish. But the rest of the cast is fun too, with a cool adulterer Professor, an angry local cop and a remarkably calm campus security guard, who’s seen it all before and believes in letting the kids have their fun.

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This fun starts off with staging a mass shooting, so in the chaos the frat guys can switch out their exams. I mean, really? Surely that sort of thing would have got you expelled, even in 1981? But it’s all good here. Aside from this, the first hour is fairly quiet, in the same proportion as “Halloween” but without any of the earlier classic’s artistry and tension. The most fun is watching Wildman (extraordinarily, Ralph Brown’s only credit, he’s really compelling) acting quite convincingly like a lunatic, with a rather homoerotic subtext to the tying of Gary to a tree. While it’s not slow, not a lot happens, if that makes any sense – we’re treated to some excellent character building while not necessarily progressing a great deal.

Okay, the killer. As people start dropping like flies (but with barely any gore, which is a bit of a disappointment), we see a bit more of his face, until near the end he’s front-and-centre in a few shots. And the weird thing is…he isn’t anybody. He’s just some guy who decided to start killing people. He’s given no character, no motivation, no name, he’s not anyone’s parent or kid or jilted lover. It’s fascinating, in an era when movies were trying to create characters that could return in multiple movies, to have such a non-presence in the role. Writer / director Jimmy Huston (who also wrote the Billy Crystal / Gregory Hines classic “Running Scared”, and directed one of my favourites, “My Best Friend Is A Vampire”) wanted a movie that concentrated more on character than chills.

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This is perhaps an admirable desire, but the problem becomes that the character building stuff isn’t all that interesting unless you put the characters in some sort of dramatic situation (like being stalked by a killer). There’s way too many murders happening off-screen, so it’s fair to say it’s like a comedy with not enough laughs, paired with a horror with not enough horrific stuff.

The constant foreshadowing just gets boring after a while, and while it’s nice to see a horror movie with posters for such obscure gems as “The Corpse Grinders” and “The Toolbox Murders” in it (Radish is a fan of the genre, apparently), it ought to have remembered that slasher films with no slashing in them are very rarely fondly remembered. Having a killer who appears to be an afterthought is a really weird choice – and he teleports around with incredible speed, and at one point plucks an arrow fired at him out of mid-air, so…no, I got nothing. What the hell were they going for? Thinking back, a college kid who killed herself because she couldn’t get into a sorority is mentioned briefly once, but not a single link is made between her and him, but that’s the best I can think of.

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What is interesting is seeing, back in the early 80s, how many perfectly fine actors only ever did one or two movies. Aside from Willis-Burch, there’s Wildman, final girl Courtney, Mark and Gary, whose careers go no further than “Final Exam”. None of them are terrible, so perhaps they were just local theatre people who never bothered taking it up as a career? It’s a shame, anyway.

It’s perhaps so unusual that it’s worth watching just to see what early slasher movies could have turned into, but then again…not much happens and the killer is just some guy and the plot is mostly non-existent.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Killer Party (1986)

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Although I watched this as a teenager, I have no recollection of it whatsoever, so it was with some trepidation I dusted it off and played it. I shouldn’t have worried, though, as it’s a surprising forgotten gem, funny, scary, and female-dominated (although not behind the camera, sadly). I do love a good 80s horror-comedy!

“Killer Party” really tries its best to confuse you from the off, though. The opening five minutes are a film-within-a-film-within-a-film (the star, watching a movie where a woman is watching a movie). Top that off with the simple old film-within-a-film finishing with a song and dance number with zombies in it, and, well, it’s all a bit curious. I did wonder about accidental cremation being played for laughs, and honestly I’d have liked to see that one perhaps even more than the one we got.

Anyway, our stars are three women who all sort-of want to pledge to a seemingly unpleasant sorority – since I discovered you have to pay a lot of money to live in a sorority / fraternity house, I’ve got zero idea why anyone would want to do it – Jennifer, the obvious heroine / Final Girl; Vivia, the super-cute nerd; and Phoebe, the other one (I’m sorry, they don’t give her a ton of characterisation). They’re accepted, after some seriously gross-looking initiations, just in time for the annual April Fools’ party, co-hosted by the sorority and the Beta Tau fraternity, which is due to take place at the old abandoned frat house, which has lain empty for 20 years after a frat guy was decapitated there.

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Vivia is tasked with setting up some pranks inside the house, as her faux-decapitation during one of the hazing rituals impressed the head sorority sister. Jennifer seems to have some sort of psychic connection to the house as she freaks out every time she goes inside. And there’s plenty of decent supporting characters too – Blake, Jennifer’s love interest; Martin, the nebbish guy who Vivia likes, but he’s way more into Jennifer; Professor Zito (the great Paul Bartel), the head of the Greek letter council; the House Mother who has some mysterious connection to the dead frat guy; and lots of well-sketched out minor characters from the college. Everyone gives an excellent account of themselves.

The thing I liked most about “Killer Party” is how it ignored slasher conventions, set in stone even as early as 1987. You’re tricked into thinking it’s a zombie movie, then it switches gears to be a teen sex comedy, then when it gets round to remembering it’s supposed to be horror, the slasher element is quickly dealt with, the Final Girl is revealed to be anything but, and it ends up with some possession and being a “spam in a can” movie (a phrase I just learned, people trapped in one small location all getting butchered, and one I’ll be using a lot I think). It’s not like it was made this way by accident – the scriptwriter was also responsible for “Friday 13th: The Final Chapter” (one of the less rotten ones, and he gives this one some decent dialogue too), so they knew what they were doing. I think that’s a large part of the reason for its poor reception critically, because there’s a lot of people for whom watching a horror movie is to watch a set of clichés mechanically slotting into place, and any deviation from those norms is irritating. Now, some clichés are a thing because they work and make sense, but the rules of the slasher movie were made to be broken pretty much from the beginning.

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Now, all this seems pretty positive, but it’s certainly not perfect. The central section of proceedings, what could largely be called the teen sex comedy (despite most of the cast being in their mid-to-late 20s), is that it goes on too long, and the horror section is too short. As the survivors are walking through the party, and we see some fairly central cast members just lying off to the side dead, the thought does wander through your mind “I wish we’d had less of that asshole Martin” (who just drunkenly stumbles out of the movie with 20 minutes left and is never seen again). In their glee to ignore the tropes of slasher cinema, they throw a bit of the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps.

The now-obligatory gender discussion! While the lead actresses are all pretty strong (Sherry Willis-Burch, who played Vivia, was great, and it’s a damn shame she only appeared in two movies, this and 1981’s “Final Exam”), you need to have some space in your head between how they’re treated and what the subtext of the movie is telling you about the rightness of that treatment. Two guys, called “Bee Guy” 1 and 2 in the credits, exist to maul at women at the party, but they’re seen as almost subhuman (one of them is Jason Warren, who long-term ISCFC readers will remember from “Screwballs 2” as Marvin Eatmore). Vivia is getting with Martin but he’s obviously way into Jennifer as he constantly asks about her; she rolls her eyes and insists he carry on, which is low on the self-respect scale, but, goddamit, she has needs too! All the other ladies have a healthy attitude towards sex and there’s no coercion or trickery or anything – so good on the makers of the movie for absolutely ignoring the T&A aspect.

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Also, as it’s over 30 years old (released in 1987 but made in 1984), I think I can spoil the ending a little. It turns out Jennifer is possessed by the spirit of dead frat guy Allan, and her facial and physical acting as a demonic creature are pretty damned good. The rug-pulling aspect of the Final Girl actually being the killer (disguised with a full diving suit for most of the movie, lord knows where she got it) is handled really well, too.

So, its status as a largely ignored gem is perhaps understandable; but if you’re prepared for your horror to go off the beaten track a bit, I reckon you’ll love this one. The long time between filming and release I can’t explain, but I can help with the title – it was originally called “April Fools”, but the classic “April Fools’ Day” was released earlier in 1986 so a name change was sort of forced on them. Good alternate title too!

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Rating: thumbs up

Deadly Descent: The Abominable Snowman (2013)

Nothing this exciting actually happens

Nothing this exciting actually happens

You know that bit at the end of horror movies when the sole survivor will say “I wonder who the real monsters are?” During those moments, I occasionally joke “the thing with green skin and massive teeth was the monster, you idiot”, but after watching this, humans are the monsters. Specifically, the humans in this movie, who are thoughtless morons and deserve to die in the most horrible way possible.

 

This is the third of our SyFy Channel yeti / sasquatch / abominable snowman reviews (none of them exist, so I don’t care about lumping them all together), along with “Yeti: Curse Of The Snow Demon” and “Abominable”. This is by a million miles the worst of the three, and could well be the worst SyFy movie we’ve ever covered, despite looking decent and having reasonable special effects. Every second of it would be the dumbest second in any other movie, and I’ll try and relate to you just how bad it gets.

DUMBASS

DUMBASS

The first five minutes seems to be in a race to give you as much plot as possible, but to do it in a super-confusing way. Brian (Chuck Campbell, “Jason X”, but twenty times more irritating here) is off up a mountain trying to find his Dad, who was killed when he was a kid. Brian’s climbing partner is killed by a Yeti, a huge brown thing with crazy teeth, and despite the monster standing in front of Brian, shouting, Brian makes it back down the mountain just fine. This scene (like several others) is perhaps victim to an over-zealous special effects department, as it feels like they inserted a yeti in a location that makes no sense. Or perhaps it’s just good old fashioned idiocy?

 

Anyway, Brian waits a bit and then goes back up the mountain, driven by the desire to kill the yeti once and for all; he gets a lift from local rescue helicopter pilot Mark (Adrian Paul, “Highlander”, and even though I like him a lot, he’s pretty rotten in this). Finding the monster extremely quickly, he’s attacked and we think that’s the end for him.

 

So then a search operation is put on for Brian. This includes proper search & rescue teams, and when a couple of their skiers are eaten, they halt proceedings, and it’s up to Brian’s sister Nina (Lauren O’Neil), his old Army CO Rick (Nicholas Boulton), a newly married couple who are also his old army buddies, despite looking way too young, Stacey and Jon (Elizabeth Croft and Sam Cassidy) and a guy called Erlander whose introduction I missed (Sean Teale). The crucial information you need at this juncture is that Nina bills herself as an expert on mountaineering and the local area; and that everyone else has spent some time in the Army.

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When they get up there and immediately panic and mess up, causing Jon to break his leg and eventually get eaten, them to lose their only method of communicating with the outside world, and turning Erlander into a gibbering wreck, you might reasonably shout at the screen “this is what the Army trained you to do?” Their complete lack of preparation and ability in any field of endeavour would be funny, if this were supposed to be a comedy. As you’re supposed to be cheering them on, their failure and incompetence – before they ever meet the yeti or come close to rescuing Brian, lest we forget – is less than ideal.

 

Eventually, they happen upon an enormous ski lodge, five stories high or so, closed for the season, and in it they find Brian, who’s perfectly fine (escape from yeti no.2) and is just waiting for the creature to turn up so he can kill it. With a pistol. The monster that’s a good 12 feet tall and weighs a ton or so (despite being described by one of the characters as 8’, 6-700 lbs) is not going to be stopped by a pistol, and given Brian’s army training, you might reasonably expect him to know this, and have access to better firearms.

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A quick pause from discussing the futility of their endeavours. Brian is fine, at this moment, so just think about the number of people who die trying to rescue a person who’s not only capable of leaving the mountain under their own steam, but doesn’t want to be rescued…and all the money and people-hours that went into the search. Six people die because of him, but is he remotely remorseful? Not a bit. I’m not even sure the movie is aware he’s sort of a dick for doing all this. When they blow up the ski lodge to try and stop a yeti later, causing millions of dollars of damage (not a lot of insurance against “I thought I was killing a mythical creature”) and ensuring jail time for the survivors, it’s just passed over as if, well, this is the sort of thing you do in monster movies, so we’ve got to do them!

 

During a fight at the lodge, Erlander is seen looking close to death and bleeding from the mouth, but is perfectly fine in the next scene…Brian and Rick take a break from barricading to discuss their relationships with Nina, because “Scriptwriting For Sociopaths” says you need a quiet character moment to provide a counterpoint to the action, never mind if it makes the remotest bit of sense. And Mark falls off the wagon (we see him drinking milk at the beginning) and we’re treated to some of the most embarrassing drunk acting of all time from Adrian Paul. The bit later, where he positions the helicopter just right so Nina can ski off a cliff straight into the passenger seat is just the icing on the cake – I’ll accept that sort of nonsense in a Fast & Furious movie, where physics is just a mild annoyance, but not from this.

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Liberally sprinkle skiing footage, to the point where even an enthusiast would go “okay, I think we’ve seen enough skiing now” and you’ve got yourself one of the most annoying movies we’ve seen in some time. Rotten acting performances, a script of almost mind-bending stupidity (courtesy of Nathan Atkins, who also did the much better “Cold Fusion” with Adrian Paul in it) and lousy direction (can we use the excuse it was a very early English-language movie for Marko Mäkilaakso? No) produce something which is only of use to you if you enjoy shouting abuse at the screen every thirty seconds or so. Absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel. That it was shot in Bulgaria in 13 days doesn’t justify it, just makes me sad. Shame on everyone who thought this was good enough to release.

 

Rating: thumbs down