Blood Diner (1987)

“Blood Diner” is a masterpiece. It was something I found on VHS when I was a kid and watched to death, made my friends watch, and so on. Then I sort of forgot about it for 20 years, until it was released on blu-ray a few years ago. And now I get to enjoy it all over again and tell you, dear reader, about it!

It’s one of those movies where a brief recap of the plot will be enough to put some people off immediately, so I’ll get to that and allow some of you to go about your day. The two nephews of psychopathic spree killer Anwar Namtut, shot by police after slaughtering a troop of cheerleaders in a sexual rage, grow up to follow in the same ancient religious tradition as he. As adults, they resurrect Uncle Anwar, who spends the rest of the movie as a brain in a jar, just one who can talk and has a couple of working eyes. He wants them to perform an ancient ritual to bring back the goddess Sheetar; this mainly involves murdering “immoral” women and using bits of them to stitch together a body for her, using other parts to make a “blood buffet” for a big banquet. They dispose of the rest of the corpses by serving them to people at their vegetarian diner.

And it’s a comedy! There are precious few movies where the leads, who we’re 100% supposed to be on the side of, are cannibals who gleefully murder anyone at the drop of a hat, but Michael and George Tutman (Rick Burks and Carl Crew) are two such leads. It’s clever, too, starting from a well-done twist at the beginning, as a radio tells us that the killer of some cheerleaders is on the loose, and two children cower behind their sofa as a cleaver-wielding lunatic hacks through their front door…only to discover it’s their charming Uncle Anwar, who gives the kids a pep-talk about reading the books he’s given them before walking outside to be mown down by the cops.

Because the main plot is so much fun, the sub-plots are either simply weird-feeling or irrelevant. There’s the rival vegetarian restaurant owner who decides to find out what’s going on – he has a sidekick who’s actually just a grotesque mannequin with a crudely animated mouth, but is treated as a normal human being by the rest of the cast. Then there’s the way George is obsessed with pro wrestling, watching a TV channel while cooking which shows nothing but it, to the point where he signs on to challenge wrestler Jimmy Hitler (who, yes, dresses like Adolf, just with a shock of blond hair). George wins, of course, by partially eating his opponent.

The two cops that make a half-hearted effort to track down the people who’ve murdered and hacked up dozens and dozens of people are perhaps the least interesting of the subplots; being hampered slightly by the fact that the female half of the duo, LaNette La France as tough cop Sheba Jackson, can’t act worth a damn (this appears to be her only movie appearance) and the male half, Roger Dauer as Mark Shepard, is such an unpleasant sleazebag that you want him to fail.

“Blood Diner” was intended as a sequel to the original gore classic, 1963’s “Blood Feast”, but because of lord knows why, it was changed just before production started to be a remake, of sorts. The blood sacrifice, the ancient deity, all that is the same, but it’s safe to say that this movie goes a little further than the original. Heck, it goes a little further than pretty much every horror movie ever made.

I think, if you decide to watch “Blood Diner”, and I wholeheartedly recommend you do, then you’ll be able to tell in the first ten minutes or so if it’s the sort of movie for you. Do you find Uncle Anwar’s gravestone (which reads “I’ll be back”) funny? Do you love movies which really go out of their way to gross you out? Are you not too bothered by the occasional technical shortcomings, such as terrible dubbing in certain scenes? Do you find someone getting their head battered, deep-fried and then knocked off with a broom funny?

It also manages to get grosser and weirder as it goes on, which is quite the feat. The final scene, which features the “Lemurian Feast”, and a band which looks like the guy from Dead Or Alive fronting five Adolf Hitlers, is so far over the top that you almost can’t help but laugh. Or how indifferent their restaurant rival is to his ultimate, blood-drenched, fate.

“Blood Diner” was directed by Jackie Kong, one of the tiniest of tiny handfuls of directing credits in the US for an Asian woman – she also does a commentary on this blu-ray which is pretty interesting. She made a few really odd-looking B-movies in the 80s (The Being, Night Patrol and The Underachievers) which we’ll probably cover soon. The writer Michael Sonye worked for enemy-of-ISCFC Fred Olen Ray in the 80s as well, and he seems to have a bent for comedy (“Star Slammer” looks like it has a few laughs in it).

A lot of the favourite films of my youth look poor with my old man’s eyes – either the jokes are weak, there’s strong racist or sexist threads I didn’t notice back then, or they’re just boring. But “Blood Diner” has definitely aged very well, as horror becomes more about the jump scare and less about throwing so much blood at the screen you start to feel ill. It’s hard to be offended by a movie which appears not to take itself seriously for a single second.

Rating: thumbs up

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Gravy (2015)

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James Roday is an interesting fellow. You’ll probably know him best as the star of “Psych”, the long-running TV comedy about a fake psychic who helps the police, but he’s also heavily involved in theatre in Los Angeles, and is a writer – he co-wrote the 2006 werewolf movie “Skinwalkers”, as well as 16 episodes of “Psych”. Aside from episodes of his own show, “Gravy” is his directorial debut, and looks…well, not like the sort of thing you’d expect from a light comedy TV guy.

 

Kerry (Sutton Foster) has passed her paramedic exams and is completing her last shift, on Halloween, at a Mexican-themed bar/restaurant, and the rest of the staff is gathered to celebrate with her. There’s friendly boss Chuy (Paul Rodriguez), security guard Winketta (Gabourey Sidibe), perpetually angry prom-dress-wearing Cricket (Molly Ephraim), and boxer-in-training Hector (Gabriel Luna), with a French chef and a customer who passed out after having his proposal turned down thrown in for good measure.

 

Upon discovering the (unlockable) door is stuck fast, the staff come into contact with three psychopathic cannibal killers who have a very specific MO – find a place with no windows or security, weld the doors shut and go to work. We’ve got the Wish brothers, Anson and Stef (Michael Weston and Jimmi Simpson) and Stef’s girlfriend Mimi (Lily Cole) and boy oh boy do they enjoy their work. When Mimi bites out Winketta’s voice box, you know it’s on! Our three cannibals then put the staff through a series of pop-culture themed games (including “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”), the losers getting murdered in some particularly gruesome way and eaten.

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I don’t want to give any more away, as it’s out on VOD today, and yes, that’s just the speed we produce these reviews at. But let’s talk horror-comedy. Despite it being a long-running genre – horror-comedies have been around as long as we’ve had horror or comedy – they’re really really difficult to get right, with a tiny handful of recent successes (“Cabin In The Woods” and “Tucker And Dale vs. Evil” spring to mind). You tend to get quite a lot of comedies which are about the tropes of horror more than being horror movies themselves, such as “Shaun of the Dead” or “Young Frankenstein”; less often, straight horror movies where the characters occasionally crack jokes (“Hatchet”, “Behind The Mask” – and yes, there’s a reason you’ve heard of one set of those examples but not the other).

 

Now, “Gravy” is way more a straight-up comedy than it is a horror, but it’s an exceptionally dark one, liberally (and I mean liberally) drenched in blood and guts. Roday and team throw everything at us – characters get chopped in half, have their feet hacked off and then have those feet offered to their friends, get their heads rammed into fan-blades, and so on, and so on. It’s just so…relentless, like a hyperactive child trying to recount a movie to you.

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I think we ought to have a moratorium on ultra-verbose pop-culture-obsessed psychos, too. Firstly, I don’t think they exist – once your mind’s in a place where eating people seems okay, I’m willing to bet there’s not a lot of room in there for discussions about obscure Wil Wheaton movies. Secondly, okay, it’s a comedy and I bet there are an extremely tiny number of decent, friendly 40-year-old virgins out there too; but there’s the horror part of the equation to consider, and I don’t find the switch from movie trivia to sticking a skewer through someone’s liver to be intrinsically frightening (or funny).

 

Having seen every episode of “Psych”, I’m now aware of just how much character and actor came to resemble each other later on in the show’s run. Curt Smith of Tears For Fears made several appearances in that, and does the soundtrack for this; plus, there’s the episode which was an homage to “April Fool’s Day”, perhaps the greatest horror comedy of all time. In Roday’s writing for “Gravy”, there’s a lot of “Psych” coming through, especially in the Wish brothers and Mimi, who feel like little more than a deranged version of the central three characters from that show, most of the time.

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Roday should have probably resisted the desire to put himself and Dule Hill in cameo roles; but he’s got some really strong performances from superstars of alt-comedy (Simpson, Weston, and a cameo-ing Sarah Silverman), and most of the rest of the cast is great too. Kudos especially to Sutton Foster, who takes what could be the straight-person role and gives it some real meat.

 

Ultimately, though, the movie just tries too hard. It’s so relentlessly trying to shock that by the end, even the grosser events sort of just elicit a shrug, and the ending really doesn’t make a lick of sense, being one of those things that happens in horror movies that would 100% never happen, ever, in real life. Plus, and this is the mortal sin, it’s not really all that funny. There’s some nice jokes in there, sure, but watching it made me remember how tough “Psych” could be to watch when Roday was given full rein, and writer/director on a low-budget comedy is pretty much the definition of full rein. It’s really difficult to do a gore-drench black comedy when most of your cast feel like they’re acting in a sitcom, and I’m not sure this movie pulls it off.

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It looks like the movie distributors of the world agreed with me, as this has ended up being picked up by Shout Factory, best known for box sets of old TV shows. But…it’s not terrible, just a bit much. By all means get it via your favourite VOD service, support independent cinema and keep your fingers crossed that someone can marshall Roday’s considerable talent a bit better next time.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Student Bodies (1981)

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Although this film bills itself as the first ever comedy-horror, the genre has been around as long as either comedy or horror. It’s the world’s first comedy slasher film, probably, although it came out the same year as “Saturday the 14th” so it might not even be that. In the interests of full accuracy, I propose they change the poster to “one of the world’s first comedy slasher movies”. Done!

It’s very much in the “Airplane” mold, as well, where jokes are thrown at the wall almost continuously to see what sticks. “The Breather” is upset at kids at Lamab High School having sex, and luckily for him every single trysting couple behaves in exactly the same way – they find a secluded spot, then the boy realises he has to go and get something, the killer kills the girl and waits for the boy to get back before killing him too. Every damn time.

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After a beginning which borrows music and visual aesthetics from “Halloween”, it apparently works its way through the gamut of horror films of the time, much like the “Scary Movie” franchise would do years later. “Carnival of Souls”, “Black Christmas”, “Carrie”, “When a Stranger Calls”, “The Shining”, “Friday the 13th”, and “Prom Night” all get mocked, apparently (I didn’t notice them all). Oh, and “The Wizard of Oz”, I suppose.

Although I can find no online information, it would appear the Dr Pepper corporation paid for this film to be made- it’s not quite blatant enough to be a joke, but that stuff is everywhere. “The first film to feature product placement as a joke!” – sorry, “Student Bodies”, wrong again.

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The film itself…is okay. There are some good jokes and lots of rotten ones; the shop teacher, Mr Dumpkin (Joe Flood) is hilarious. But, the circumstances of the film’s production are more interesting, to be honest. Made during a strike in Hollywood, the producer / director went by the Allen Smithee pseudonym, and the vast majority of the film’s cast (including both stars, who were actually pretty good) have this as their one and only film credit. The most amazing performance goes to janitor Malvert, played by someone listed only as “The Stick”. He’s an extremely tall, extremely thin, extremely odd-looking chap, double-jointed, who was apparently a standup comedian and about whom very little is known.

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It’s a strange film, is “Student Bodies”. No sex, gore or nudity, and they got the R-rating they wanted by having the film stop at around the half-hour mark and cutting to a man at a desk who discusses this problem before doing a very bad swear. The body count is displayed at the bottom of the screen, as well as the occasional helpful comment like “Suspect”. I just wish a good comedy writer had been given a few more runs at the script, or something.

Rating: thumbs in the middle