Highway To Hell (1991)

Much like our last review, this features the brother of a much more famous actor in a prominent role; but unlike our last review, this movie is really good and entertaining and you won’t want to beat me up if you watch it based on my recommendation.

There’s also a few really interesting names to talk about, which is pretty fantastic for a movie I just picked off my pile of VHS tapes to review without knowing a great deal about it. First up is the writer, Brian Helgeland. Obviously, we know him from “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4” but less horror-literate fans may remember him from “LA Confidential”, where he won an Oscar for his script (he was also nominated a few years after that for “Mystic River”).

Then there’s the cast. Not so much the main names (although they’re all totally decent) but some of the supporting cast, who would go on to much much bigger things. First up, Ben Stiller! A year away from getting his own show on MTV, he plays two small parts and has a whale of a time with them both. His parents, legendary comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, also pop up in grotesque cameos, as does his sister Amy; and Gilbert Gottfried, who I’m pretty sure got to improvise his own lines, plays Hitler in one scene. Lita Ford acquits herself well in her only acting role too.

Anyway. Two young lovers are off to Vegas to get married, and it was here, before I knew who was going to show up later, that I thought “this is an A-list cast (for us)”. Chad “brother of Rob” Lowe and Kristy Swanson are Charlie and Rachel, and they’re eloping for…some reason. Are they too young? Not really, judging by looking at them. Controlling parents? Who knows. Anyway, with their cute dog Mr Ben in tow, off they go, but because they’re worried the authorities will be looking for them (?) they decide to get off the highway and use the back roads.

When they hit the Last Chance gas station, I noticed that someone had spent a decent chunk of change on this movie and my hopes lifted even further. Real sets! This has that classic old man who warns them against carrying on down that road, and especially warns them not to sleep in their car before they get past a second large tree. Of course, they both fall asleep almost immediately and nearly crash their car, and that’s when they meet Hell Cop, a mute monster with words and symbols carved into his face, with a very unusual pair of handcuffs, who decides to beat the crap out of Charlie, then kidnap Rachel and take her back to hell with him. Luckily, when Charlie wakes up and goes back to the gas station, the old man is full of useful information, giving him a car and a bunch of stuff that will help him out – and off Charlie goes to hell, which you can do just by driving to a certain place and then believing in it, really hard.

It’s at this point where the movie gets both better and worse. Better, because it becomes a funny (if over-broad) grotesque comedy with some superb characters; worse, because it seems a little too episodic, like the various places Charlie goes to find Rachel don’t seem connected to each other. Hell Cop seems to keep stopping at these colourful locations for no good reason other than to allow Charlie to catch up, look around for a few minutes, then have a confrontation and carry on.

But, those places are a heck of a lot of fun. First up is a diner, where cops (one of whom is Jerry Stiller) try and get a cup of coffee from the monstrous Medea (Anne Meara), and there’s a cook outside, frying up steaks on the hot concrete (Ben Stiller). The makeup is great, the look of the place is great, it’s a fine scene.

Charlie’s car breaks down and he meets the curiously helpful Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who fixes it for no charge – his tow-truck has “AAA – Anarchy Armageddon Annihilation” on the side; as he drives further he sees “Good Intentions Paving”, which is…er…a group of construction workers who are all Andy Warhol, feeding people who say stuff like “I only had sex with my husband’s boss” or “I let him drink bleach so he’d learn” into a gigantic grinder and coating the road in them.

And so on. I don’t want to recap the entire plot, because it would just be a rather breathless “and then he went here, and there was this cool reference, and then he went…” but let’s just say it unfolds at a decent pace and while it’s never enormously surprising, it has some good laughs, some good grotesquerie and…well, some of the acting is fine. Chad Lowe is a little too dull a main character to really support, and you kind-of want the smooth, charming, helpful Satan to win, but you’re having a good time so his wet-blanket-ness is less of a problem to overcome.

Hell Cop is a great villain, too. Mute, scary-looking, and with a badass weapon, he does what’s needed. The other main antagonist, Royce (Adam Storke, who was in “The Stand”) could have and should have been the good guy (he might have needed a haircut to look less like a douchebag, I suppose), and did a great job with what he had.

So, I enjoyed it a lot, but it doesn’t quite work. I think the biggest problem is the lack of flow – it’s perhaps more a series of sketches based in Hell than it is a proper movie. Some of the scenes are fantastic, and they’ve really worked hard on the visuals, but I kept wishing it would settle down a little. Helgeland was still honing his craft at this point, but he populates the movie with some memorable characters, if not a terribly memorable story. Perhaps the issue might be the director, one Ate de Jong, who also directed “Drop Dead Fred” (which I really wanted to like, but boy was it bad) in 1991 before going back to his native Netherlands and directing movies and TV there.

Still, this is head and shoulders above the sort of thing we normally cover here, and I recommend it without exception. Funny, odd, and nightmarish in about the right proportion, it’s just got a blu-ray release so you can enjoy it properly now.

Rating: thumbs up

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

The Puppet Master series exasperated us over the late 2013 / early 2014 period, but the main takeaway was that Full Moon head honcho Charles Band tried, repeatedly, to make half a movie’s worth of plot stretch to feature length. This is literally the case with parts 4 and 5, which was going to be one cinema release, but when it was decided to release it straight to video, Band decided to split it into two movies to make more cash.

 

His penny-pinching tactics eventually caught up with him, and he went from having a major label distribution deal with decent budgets, to just hanging on at the outskirts of the micro-budget market, with hardcore fans and people who think a title like “Evil Bong” is intrinsically funny his only customers. Getting annoyed with Full Moon movies became boring a long time ago, but they’re still going, even if no-one’s really paying attention. “Puppet Master” is Band’s most abused franchise, stretching to 11 instalments (plus a “non-canon” entry where they took on Band’s other group of mini-things, the Demonic Toys). As well as the split movie mentioned above, there’s the ultimate scumbag’s trick, the clip movie – yes, part 8 of this least glorious of all franchises has about 5 minutes of new material in it

Which made the news that Fangoria Films were making a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, sort of good news. A proper budget! Actual actors! I heard Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Michael Pare and Mathias Hues were going to be in it, I started having the thought that…maybe this would be good? Add in sitcom “That Guy” Nelson Franklin and Full Moon veteran Barbara Crampton (who was actually in the first “Puppetmaster”, briefly, and was amazing as the star of “From Beyond”) and I was sold – the writer and co-directors seemed like new faces, but free of the “let’s do it for $10,000 in a week” impulses of Charles Band, I was ready for a winner.

 

I was not disappointed! This is easily the best “Puppet Master” movie, which is admittedly a low barrier to clear, but it’s funny, well-acted, actually quite frightening in places, transgressive, and liberally drenched in gore. It makes the puppets, who’ve long been cutesy figures of fun, into genuinely scary monsters, and left me really wanting more – a feeling that has yet to trouble with me any other Full Moon movies.

 

There’s a cold open with Udo Kier in it! He’s Andre Toulon, who’s been in most of the Puppet Master movies, as their initial creator, then a villain, then a sort of benevolent voice from beyond the grave. Here, he’s a full-on Nazi who escapes Germany with his inventions in tow when he sees the writing on the wall for Hitler and his lot. But we first see him in 1989, in a dive bar, when he butchers two women who make fun of his weird appearance and habits, and think he’s a creep. I mean, they were right, as he did murder them.

Thomas Lennon is Edgar Easton, a recent divorcee forced to move back in with his parents – the father seems to hate him, the mother is kinder. He works in a comic store but also draws a well-regarded strip, which has been on hiatus since the divorce. His employer at the comic book store, Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) and he have a fun, banter-filled relationship which actually sounds like how real nerdy friends talk to each other; and he meets a woman, too. The younger sister of one of his old high-school friends, Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), and they fall almost immediately into the sort of perfect romance that you get quite a lot of in movies, but sadly too little of in real life. But, the characters are good, and it’s enjoyable to watch them interact.

 

But this is a Puppet Master movie! It’s not just about well-observed characters and too-sudden romance! While cleaning out his old room, he finds a box of his deceased younger brother’s toys, including our old friend, Blade (who’s had a slight character redesign, but still looks good). He discovers it’s an original Toulon-created toy, and is worth a small fortune, and luckily there’s a convention coming up with a guided tour of Toulon’s old home (who was a well-regarded toymaker as well as being a famous murderer).

 

Markowitz and Ashley decide to accompany him, because of course, so the main table is now set. We’ve got a bunch of people bringing their old toys to a hotel, so you know there’s going to be some puppet-based mayhem. And mayhem there is! The puppets begin disappearing and people start turning up dead, and they do not spare the blood.

When I mentioned “transgressive” earlier, I really meant it. An early death scene involves a puppet flying up a pregnant woman’s vagina, then tearing out of her stomach and stealing the foetus from inside her; and it becomes clear that the puppets preferred murder victims are those who don’t correspond to Nazi ideas of ideal people – a lesbian couple, a black guy, and a Jewish couple, are among their early victims. There’s an amazing scene later where Markowitz, who’s a fairly observant Jew, takes a Hitler-looking doll and throws it in a lit oven, saying “see how you like it”. Limbs get chopped off, innocent children die and the corridors of the hotel are covered with bodies. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity, well, more than you’d expect from a movie with Thomas Lennon in it I guess.

 

Michael Pare turns up as the cop, Barbara Crampton is the tour guide, being one of the cops who killed Toulon back in 1989, Charlyne Yi is a hotel employee who strikes up a flirtatious friendship with Markowitz, and Mathias Hues is a random German tourist who gets his spinal cord replaced by a puppet and turned into a puppet himself. By a distance, the best cast any Puppet Master has had.

 

For us Full Moon-heads, a bit of puppet talk. Pinhead, Blade and Tunneler are the three main puppets from the original series to make an appearance here – there’s also Kaiser, who looks a bit like one of the Nazi puppets from the more recent movies, and Happy Amphibian, who replaces Jester. One of the models has six arms in tribute to Six-Shooter, who doesn’t make an appearance, but Torch does (who’s not been in the “classic” movies since part 5). Oh, and talking references to earlier movies, one of the characters drives a van with “Bodega Bay” on the side, the name of the hotel from multiple previous movies.

So, it’s a gore-drenched masterpiece, in terms of Puppet Master movies, anyway, but there’s some criticism too. Ashley’s character feels like she was waiting around for Edgar to come back into town, and the beginning of their relationship is horribly under-written (although they work extremely well together as characters). The three of them being so excited about going to a fairly niche convention about a Nazi murderer is a bit unlikely, too. It feels like Barbara Crampton’s police officer had a bigger role left on the cutting room floor, although it’s nice to see one Full Moon alum in this. It feels like there’s a few too many people with significant roles in it, and it could have stood with being a bit longer, or having a few of those actors trimmed. But, again, this is still so much better than every previous Puppet Master movie that I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun I had watching this.

 

The writer, S Craig Zahler, is already something of a genre superstar, having written “Bone Tomahawk”, “Brawl in Cell Block 11” and the soon-to-be-released “Dragged Across Concrete”. He must have been a fan of these movies growing up, but like any half-sensible human, figured he could have written better, and did. The two directors have their upbringing in low-budget horror, but I’m interested to see what they do in future.

 

I hope there are more of these movies, and the hilariously perfunctory “to be continued” scene indicates there might be. There are some excellent images and ideas, and I hope it was enough of a success that we get more. Although that will no-doubt encourage Charles Band to knock out more in his “original universe”.

A quick word before we say goodbye, dear reader: one of the more mainstream reviews of this movie said it robbed the puppets of what made them special. Comparing this unfavourably to any of the Full Moon movies? What had that reviewer seen? Special? Did he see part 8? Okay, they don’t have a ton of personality, but I’ll take this over 80 incident-free Full Moon minutes any day of the week.

Rating: thumbs up

Nudist Colony Of The Dead (1991)

In a sense, a title like this is critic-proof: you’ll see it and instantly decide whether you’ll want to watch it or not. So, this review isn’t really aimed at those people who’ve already stopped reading this and have headed to eBay (or to www.pirromount.com, where I’ll be spending some money in the upcoming weeks), it’s aimed at those who’d immediately dismiss such a weird title.

It has “nudist” in the title, but isn’t remotely titilating, and indeed features almost no nudity. It’s a musical comedy, for heavens’ sake! Made for a cost of around $35,000!

It starts off with an apology for the quality of the film stock used! Mr Pirro shot on super-8, but when he came to re-release it on DVD many years later, realised the picture quality of some shots was so poor that it was basically unusable – so he replaced some scenes with video-taped shots of the same scenes, made for a behind-the-scenes documentary, and tried his best to clean it up. While it’s safe to say it’s not DVD quality, it looks a lot better than some micro-budget super-8 movie has any right to look on a 2018 55” screen.

A group of nudists are in court, defending their right to be nude all the time in front of Judge Rhinehole (Forrest J Ackerman); on the other side are the sort of religious busybodies I hoped didn’t exist in real life when I lived in the UK, but have encountered several times since moving to the US. They’ve collected signatures and the Judge sides with them, ordering the nudists off their property.

That’s the last moment “Nudist Colony Of The Dead” could be called sensible, in any way. The remaining nudists, led by Mrs Druple (a young lady by the name of Rachel Latt in a genuinely hideous body-suit), decide to commit suicide en masse, rather than, I don’t know, buying some other land somewhere else, and before they drink the poison, say they’ll be back to wreak their revenge on the town scumbags.

ISCFC FAVOURITE THING: the custom written theme song! I love a song which talks about the plot of the movie it’s the theme to, and this one is a doozy. Favourite line? “Exposing gonads, with no shame”. Beautiful.

If further evidence of writer / producer / director Mark Pirro’s view on religion was needed, the main body of the movie is the setting up of a…I think religious re-education?…camp on the site of the old nudist colony, and the group of “kids” who are sent there. The one parent we see just endlessly packs crucifixes into her daughter’s case while ignoring her repeated requests to not go; and the two people in charge of the trip were the two main women from the case against the nudist colony, years ago (I think the movie says it was two years, IMDB says five). The gang of “kids” goes there, along with the two old ladies and a couple of hillbillies who are, I guess, camp counsellors, and pretty much immediately all the nudists rise from their graves and get to killing, in a variety of interesting ways.

Let’s do the good stuff first. The songs are often hilarious, and while it’s not quite at the level of a Rocky Horror, they’re a great deal better than you’d expect from a no-budget zombie-horror-comedy. “Inky-Dinky-Doo-Dah Morning” is fabulous, for example (and does the classic thing of introducing a couple of characters to bulk out the chorus who are never seen before or since – a black guy and a red-headed woman, primarily).

The effects are hand-made in the best possible way, too, so kudos to Pirro for making a budget stretch a long way. It feels a little like “Oversexed Rugsuckers From Mars” (mercifully, it looks like Pirro’s career went better than that one’s director). I particularly liked the set of legs still moving after their top half was sliced off.

And then the bad. The acting is a wash, because what do you expect from people prepared to work on a movie with zero budget? But the script is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is, and so many of the jokes fall completely flat. Chief among these is Billy McRighteous, who has maybe 100 lines in the movie, and 95 of them are variations on this:

“The Bible says ‘he who turneth the other cheek, needeth more toilet paper’. Jeremiah Chapter 2, verse 5, Rocky 4.”

One of those, maybe, but after the tenth one you’re filled with a desire to sit the writer down and try to explain to him how jokes work. After the last one, you’re begging for some payoff – like, maybe the character isn’t reading the Bible at all, and is a lunatic who just wandered onto the bus before it set off for Camp Cutchaguzzout – but no.

I mean, it’s not all terrible. One exchange goes – “we’re Christians! We’re not supposed to think!” and the reply “or be rational!” and that’s nicely written and delivered. But it’s definitely the weak link, and I wish Pirro had gotten a little help with the script beforehand.

Also, it’s kinda racist? A few commenters have mentioned the black park ranger, but he not only saves the day, but his sweet 80s rap is a lot of fun too. He’s fine. It’s not the anti-religious stuff (my wife’s ears pricked up at a reference to Judaism, but neither of us really heard it) because I pretty much agree with it. It’s represented by the character Juan Too, who’s half Japanese, half Mexican. He’s a collection of wacky mispronunciations and, while he’s slightly better than the all-time most racist depiction of a person from that part of the world – Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” – the fact I can mention them both in the same sentence isn’t a good thing. I’m prepared to give Pirro the benefit of the doubt, like maybe it was a joke that just didn’t work, or fell flat in the edit, but it just looks bad today.

Anyway, should you watch it? Absolutely. It’s a lot of fun, and if you can forgive the occasional fallow patch, you’ll have a heck of a good time with it.

Rating: thumbs up

Prom Night 3: The Last Kiss (1990)

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Many years ago, my friend Dan worked in a 24-hour garage, on the night shift. Usually, it was very quiet, so we’d pop over and keep him company (we were all students or unemployed at the time), and part of the fun was grabbing a VHS tape from the bargain bucket and playing it over the store’s TV. We saw / fell asleep ten minutes into many a terrible B-movie, but the one I remembered with most fondness was “Prom Night 3” (having never watched parts 1 or 2 at the time). But now I have!

Mary Lou Maloney is in hell, after the events of part 2. Her hell is a Prom, a sort of hideous mashup of her 50s past and the disco of part 1, with shuffling zombies her only companions; but she’s resourceful, so with nothing more than a nail-file and a can-do attitude, she’s off and back to Hamilton High school! A quick couple of murders later (the janitor and an old boyfriend) and she’s ready to get involved with the main story.

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Our human “hero” is Alex (Tim Conlon, making his debut), an average student in every way – height, weight, shoe size, grades, everything. He has a beautiful, smart girlfriend, though, Sarah (Cynthia Preston); but she wants him to go work on a farm with her , post-graduation and pre-college, whereas his best friend Shane (David Stratton) wants the two of them to get motorbikes and hit the open road. I mean, a summer on a farm does sound like sort of a crappy way to spend your last free time, but what do I know? In school late one night, Alex hits his head and while he’s lying completely dazed on the floor, wrapped in the American flag which fell off on top of him, Mary Lou, flying through the school’s corridors looking for fresh victims, sees him and falls in love.

Now, here’s where my carefully constructed feminist persona may crumble slightly. This is the first time in the movie we see the face of the new Mary Lou, Courtney Taylor (for whom this was her debut too). Now, we all have our favourite genders, sizes, shapes, and hair colours, but to say I developed a little crush on Ms Taylor is to understate things considerably. She was so beautiful that the film could have been a massive pile of crap and I’d still love it to this day – luckily, it’s great so I don’t have to pretend. Thank heavens the internet wasn’t a thing back then, I’d have made a horrible embarrassment out of myself – anyway, she’s also a lot of fun in the role too, playing someone who is so pleased to be out of Hell that she falls deeply in love with the first nice guy she sees.

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Unfortunately for those around her, Mary Lou’s way of showing love is somewhat influenced by her past. A science teacher with a sweet tooth is about to give Alex an F, so she tears his chest open and replaces his guts with chocolate and ice cream. The guidance counsellor thinks Alex is only good for menial labour, so Mary Lou melts her face off with battery acid. Then, because she may be an utter psychopath but she’s not stupid, she forces Alex to dispose of the bodies, which he chooses to bury in the middle of the “football” field for some reason, making sure he’s bribed well with sex. This bonds the two of them together quite well.

Alex turns into a cool kid sort of by accident, as the confidence he gets from Mary Lou (along with the murder of his enemies), and a bike / leather jacket from his parents (as a reward for acing a test that Mary Lou actually filled in for him), elevates him in the school’s eyes. He and Sarah have some serious problems, and Shane struggles with the new Alex too.

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As I always say, if you want a poorly worded recap you can just go to Wikipedia, so let’s talk character. Sarah is interestingly-played, as she’s pretty boring, wanting Alex to do a really dull thing with her, and having no obvious interests (that she’s not into sex, it would seem, is the icing on the cake for a teenage boy). She’s the archetype for many of that sort of character in teen comedy cinema, but rarely would they give her so few redeeming qualities. Mary Lou represents destroying small town tedium, and as well as being staggeringly beautiful, it’s very obvious to see how a guy obsessed with his own average-at-everything nature would fall hard for that. Alex is the everyman, and I’m pretty sure I identified with him quite a lot when I first saw it.

Then there’s the comedy element, as “Prom Night 3” is most definitely a comedy first and a horror second. The brutal murder of people around him is played with a sort of off-hand, casual indifference by Alex, but his nightmarish rise to the top of the school’s social pyramid is funny as well. It’s not jokes or wackiness, but laughs that come from the characters and the situations; okay, there are some great lines too, such as Alex’s “What am I talking about? I just stuffed my dead biology teacher into the cupboard. Things are not alright”, but then, that’s all in the delivery too. There are also some weird / brilliant visual touches, like the cactus shaped like a penis that keeps blocking the shot as Alex talks to the guidance counsellor; but, of course, some of it is terrible, like the PA announcer, whose lines feel like they were rejected from the worst, lamest “Airplane!” ripoff.

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The entire “Prom Night” series qualifies as “unquels” – sequels that bear no relation to what came before. The first one is a largely serious slasher movie; part 2 is a wicked black joke of a horror, which introduces a new central character; part 3 keeps the main character but completely alters everything about them; and part 4 isn’t even set at a prom! The curious-ish thing is that parts 2 and 3 were written by the same person, Ron Oliver, who now does kids’ TV and romance movies. He also got to direct part 3, which is perhaps why its odder comedic elements get dialled way up.

Is this movie any good? It’s almost impossible for me to separate my enjoyment of it from the time I originally saw it, but its dark, almost post-modern take on the wronged-girlfriend-slasher movie seems refreshing, even today. As comedy fans are unlikely to stumble upon it, most of its press has come from horror sites, who seem upset that something which looks like a horror movie actually isn’t- the same treatment that the (far superior) “April Fools Day” also got. Very few horror-comedies get reviewed well, because I don’t think fans of either genre understand much about the other, and while I’m not saying I hold any unique perspective, as a fan of both I can appreciate the movies that get it right. Whether that’s a comedy with a horror setting, or a gory horror with a few dark laughs in it, or something in the middle.

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Okay. It’s a long way from perfect, with an ending which smacks of “we ran out of money, will this do?” and a lack of normal human response to any crisis leaving things curiously hollow at times, but the the good outweighs the bad to a huge degree. Funny, a couple of great debut performances, a black heart at the centre of a light movie – it’s absolutely worth tracking down. Not for you if you like movies that take themselves seriously, but otherwise you’ll have a fine time.

Rating: thumbs up

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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

Grave Misdemeanours (1989) (aka Night Life)

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The worst thing ever – yes, even worse than all the dictators and diseases that have ever existed – is comedy movies that aren’t funny. Horrors that aren’t scary or thrillers that aren’t thrilling at least have a plot to fall back on, but when the entire point of a scene is a gag that just doesn’t work, you’re left with nothing. So it was with deep sadness that, about 20 minutes into this, that I realised it wasn’t just a bit unfunny, but a sort of comedy black hole where the writer clearly thought “hey, people being really mean to each other is funny, right? I’ll just fill the movie with that!”

 

Take a look at the video cover, above. Looks like a wacky, knockabout zombie comedy, doesn’t it? Well, it sort of manages that for the last 20 minutes or so, but for the first 55 minutes, no zombies and precious little fun. It’s the tale of young Archie Melville (Scott Grimes, “ER”, “American Dad”), who works at his Uncle’s mortuary – that Uncle is played by John “Gomez Addams” Astin, seemingly annoyed at having to be there – and dreams of the hot cheerleader, who has a douchebag boyfriend (of course).

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The first two-thirds of the movie is Archie being insulted by his Uncle and mocked by the group of assholes (one of whom is a young Mark Pellegrino, who’d go on to much greater fame in “Supernatural” and “Lost”, among other things); tricked into almost having sex with the hot cheerleader; his only friend, Charly the mechanic (Cheryl Pollak, “Pump Up The Volume”, “I Was A Teenage Vampire”) gets a job working for a NASCAR team and leaves town immediately; then he gets sacked when the assholes steal a corpse and rig it so it falls on Archie when he enters the room. You know, a nice reasonable prank!  There’s a whisper of an idea that Pellegrino and the cheerleader are actual human beings with empathy, but that must have been stuff left over from a previous script draft as it’s entirely ignored for the rest of the movie. Anyway, the four douchebags die offscreen in a car accident, colliding with a chemical truck, then when they’re back at the morgue get hit by lightning and turned into zombies.

 

The last section is sort of okay, with Archie and a returning Charly (turns out the guy who hired her was an alcoholic pervert, not a race-car mechanic) fighting the zombies, trying to save the town, and so on. It perhaps only appears exciting in comparison to the funereal (no pun intended) pace of the first two-thirds, but still, it seems someone thought it’d be a good idea to have stuff happen.

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It’s really all over the place. When Archie realises the dead bodies are his enemies, he doesn’t seem upset, or secretly pleased, or anything, he just seems sort of indifferent, a curious character choice. The recently undead just want to torture him, like they did when they were alive, and the only real difference is they’re almost indestructible and don’t talk. Charly    doesn’t strike me as the sort of woman to take a job that starts in the middle of the night, with an obviously sleazy guy, at seemingly a few hours’ notice, but it’s small potatoes for a movie as dumb as this, I guess.

 

Director David Acomba had a largely undistinguished career in TV, but was an (uncredited) director on the “Star Wars” Holiday Special, one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life; aside from his first ever directorial credit, an independent Canadian movie called “Slipstream” from 1973, he never made another movie. Writer Keith Critchlow only has one other writing credit, the Tom Hanks / John Candy damp squib “Volunteers”, so the signs were there if only I chose to pay attention to them before watching it.

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But, like I said, it’s a comedy with no jokes in it. It’s a zombie movie where the zombies don’t show up til it’s almost over. It’s slow and boring, and is of interest nowadays for its weirdly strong cast of people you’ll definitely recognise from other, more fun movies of the time. And for the middle section, you can safely have a conversation about whatever you like (we chose to discuss “Star Trek” fan films) safe in the knowledge you’ll not miss anything important at all.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

Detention (2011)

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Our Monday night movie club has found its first modern classic. Every Monday night, a group of my friends and I congregate to watch a film and talk rubbish, and we’ve got a rota system for the film pick. My last pick was the thoroughly miserable “Witchery”, so all credit for this goes to my friend Hado – and the first question that was asked after the credits rolled was “why is this not better known?”

 

It seems director Joseph Kahn is doomed to make amazing movies that just don’t do terribly well. He’s also responsible for “Torque”, the “Fast and Furious” ripoff / parody which I absolutely loved, and the “Power/Rangers” bootleg film; but his day job is being a pop music video director. He won pretty much everything at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards and is presumably much happier being Taylor Swift’s go-to guy than he is trying to get absolutely bonkers genre parodies like this off the ground.

 

What “Detention” is, is the craziest bits from every high school movie you’ve ever seen, with ideas that could fill entire run times just casually dropped in for ten minutes or so. Taylor Fisher, head cheerleader, starts off with a monologue to camera, and she’s a delightful bitch – which, to her, stands for “beauty, intelligence, talent, charisma, Hoobastank.” But don’t get too attached, because a serial killer dressed as movie villain “CinderHella” offs her sharpish.

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The heroine, who just gives us a voiceover, is Riley (Shanley Caswell), and she’s a bit of a loser – waking up covered in fries and ketchup, broken ankle, and former best friends with Ione, another cheerleader who turned a bit self-absorbed a few months previously and pursued the boy Riley was into, Clapton (Josh Hutcherson, who got hired for “The Hunger Games” around the time this was being made, and is also one of the executive producers). Riley’s got the Duckie-style pining male friend, there’s Billy the psychotic jock, and Dane Cook as the Principal. Everyone’s basically waiting round to graduate – all the fun stuff of high school seems to be over barring the prom, and these kids want to be getting on with the next stage of their lives.

 

Trying to pin down the plot is a tricky one, because it gleefully picks up and discards so many ideas. It’s The Breakfast Club…for about five minutes. Real Genius. Heathers. Three O’Clock High. The Matrix. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Fly. Freaky Friday. Can’t Hardly Wait. Back To The Future. Of course, there’s “Scream”, but they mock the idea that this is anything like “Scream” explicitly. There’s a ton of different visual styles, too, with onscreen text worked into the fabric of things and used by the characters on several different occasions. To say it moves fast is pretty much an understatement. They casually throw in a brilliant film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film segment too, and make it work in the context of what’s going on.

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The third layer of the above joke

And then there’s the references. Why is Ione so obsessed with 1992? But it’s a fun riposte to the idea of the mid-80s being the ultimate touchstone for high school movies, because these characters would’ve all been born in the 90s, so 80s nostalgia would’ve made no sense. The actual detention (which doesn’t come til after the halfway point) introduces them to the guy who’s been on detention there for almost 20 years, the equation he’s been carving into his desk that entire time, and the time travel machine that one of the other students was building inside the giant grizzly bear that stands in the foyer of the school.

 

I know it’s an odd thing to say about a time travel / slasher / high school comedy which breaks the fourth wall all over the place, but the characters all feel real, and lived-in. Hutcherson is obviously great, but so is everyone else, from top to bottom (even the guy credited as “Hipster Thief”, with two or three lines, works some magic). Dane Cook, as dull and bro-y a standup comedian as you’ll ever see, is good as the resentful Principal – and he also appeared in “Torque”, so he and Kahn must get on. Perhaps the weakest link is Gord the Canadian, but then maybe I’m just bummed out he won a debate on vegetarianism by arguing for eating baby animals due to them not having had much life to enjoy.

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Why should you, as someone who perhaps isn’t as obsessed with old high school movies as I am, like this? Well, first is the feminist strand of the plot. Riley is complex in a way few female lead characters manage – funny, awkward, smart and beautiful (her realisation that she’s hot enough to be a slasher movie victim is a great bit of business). She and Ione dominate the plot, and the male sidekick is the reward for the success of her plan, in a clever reversal of how this normally plays out. When people lie about how 80s slasher Final Girls show that those dumb movies are feminist, this is what you should show them.

 

There’s also the way it strips the veneer from certain character archetypes, showing them more how they’d be in real life. The “Duckie from Pretty In Pink” type who pines for the lead is a weird, needy, psychopath-in-waiting; and the angry jock is shunned by almost everyone (okay, he’s also got fly DNA thanks to a meteor he touched as a kid, but that’s by the by).

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I think the thing I’m happiest about, and you will be too, is how tightly it works as a movie. Hiding the fact you’re laying pipe for the final act is one of the trickiest things you can do, and making it funny is even harder, yet “Detention” does it effortlessly, so much so that when the payoffs come you’re totally not expecting it. Bad movies with a time-travel element might as well have arrows pointing to the stuff which will come in handy later, yet Kahn is clever enough to avoid that, and he’s also given us a plot which absolutely rips along . It’s an extremely smart film with nary a dropped thread, and it masquerades as part dumb horror-comedy, part-parody of those same genres.

 

I loved “Torque”, but I felt it was slightly held back by the studio wanting an actual “The Fast And The Furious” clone and Kahn wanting to parody those genres; “Detention” was largely funded by Kahn himself, so it has none of the same problems. Full-on Joseph Kahn is a joy to behold, and I know he’s probably making decent money with music videos and adverts these days, but I’d love to see him given more opportunities to make movies like this. I think “Detention” compares extremely favourably to “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”, released the same year this was filmed: Edgar Wright’s direction is almost pedestrian compared to Kahn’s, and all Pilgrim’s wacky on-screen graphics and stylistic tics were just covering up a fairly standard plot. This is anything but standard.

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Rating: thumbs up

Dead And Breakfast (2004)

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I think “Dead And Breakfast” is a victim of over-expectation. The pull quotes used on the trailer are full of praise, even if one or two of them are weirdly indirect – “sure to become some sort of cult classic” is an odd one. There’s a level of expectation built up (the trailer also features two moderately big names, Portia De Rossi and David Carradine, when their level of participation in the movie is barely more than those few seconds, which is a bit of a dick move) and I feel if they’d toned it down a smidge, viewers would’ve been a lot happier with what they got.

 

But they really give it their all. Everything is thrown at the screen, every gore effect and comedy style you can think of, and…most of it is pulled off. In terms of what the finished product is most like, I’d say it’s more “Brain Dead” than “Shaun Of The Dead”. There are a couple of straight lifts from other horror-comedies, but by and large it finds its own niche.

 

How many horror movies have started with a group of teenagers / young adults in a camper van? Hundreds? I imagine fans of romance movies also do this mockery with stuff like…a woman rushing into an office with her clothes all dishevelled because she had to run for the bus and her heel broke? I don’t know, I don’t watch them. Anyway, this group are driving to their friend Kelly’s wedding (De Rossi), and in amusingly perfunctory fashion, get lost on the way and end up in the small town of Lovelock. Even though they’re driving in a massive camper van and could all sleep in there (presumably the reason they picked that particular mode of transportation) they stop off at a bed and breakfast, run by Mr Wise (Carradine) with an assist from exceptionally rude French chef Henri (Diedrich Bader). Because of reasons, there’s an ancient and powerful magic box just stored on a shelf at the B&B, and when it falls off and is opened, an ancient evil spirit is released and people start getting murdered sharpish; the person in charge of the box can put a small part of someone else’s body in there (blood, hair, a finger) and then that person becomes a mindless sort-of-undead slave.

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So, all hell breaks loose. Our heroes and a few friendly residents (the Sheriff, the lady in charge of the Hall Of Records) up against a horde of sort-of-zombies. A mysterious drifter, who knows all about the box, also helps out – there’s a group trapped in the B&B and a group who go to find Wise’s body so they can do some ritual to stop it all. It’s a bit tenuous, but it works. They’re forced to improvise weapons, and the blood! So much blood. Gallons of the stuff – one particular gruesome beheading drenches an entire room (bringing to mind that classic lawnmower scene in “Brain Dead”).

 

I’ve already mentioned some of the cast, but the rest of them are strong too. Jeremy Sisto is sort-of star Christian, the sensible-ish one; and Erik Palladino is hot-head David (Palladino and Sisto look enough alike to easily play brothers, but don’t). The female side of the camper van crew is Gina Phillips, Ever Carradine and Bianca Lawson, and all five are solid TV and movie hands. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, just pre-“Supernatural” and much bigger fame, is the Sheriff, and lovers of “Friends” will recognise Vincent Ventresca, aka Fun Bobby, as the town doctor. In a direct lift from “There’s Something About Mary”, there’s an onscreen musical narration from time to time, supplied by actor/musician Zach Selwyn – although Jonathan Richman never performed a rap song about how him and his zombie buddies are coming to eat you (the little zombie dance is another lift, though, from “C.H.U.D. 2: Bud The C.H.U.D.”)

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I’ve not even mentioned the comedy yet. It’s a mix of every comic style you could think of – there’s some nice wordplay in there, lots of juxtaposition (zombies shouldn’t behave in this wacky way!), lots of situations where the wildly OTT action just becomes funny; but most of all it’s farce. Farce is a tough one to pull off alongside everything else, but they manage it, with some lovely pratfalls and visual gags.

 

I appreciate I like movie trivia probably more than some of you do, but “Dead and Breakfast” has some interesting examples. Credited co-writer is Billy Burke, the actor known for “Revolution” and the “Twilight” series; turns out he and Jeffrey Dean Morgan have been friends since childhood. Burke was going to play the Drifter, but got a bigger gig; Burke asked if their other childhood friend, Brent David Fraser, could play the part instead. All three have been friends with director Matthew Leutwyler since their first days in Hollywood in the early 90s, and Leutwyler must be a good guy to work for as Palladino, Burke, Morgan and Sisto have all appeared for him multiple times.

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So, it’s a decent movie. Not as hilarious as it could have been, but handles the horror / comedy split better than most. Approach it with a friendly mind and you’ll have a fine time.

 

Rating: thumbs up