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

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Death Race 2000 (1975)

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Without a trace of hyperbole, “Death Race 2000” is one of the best films of the 1970s. If you think in terms of b-movies, it’s perhaps the greatest b-movie of all time. It’s got a black heart and the sense of humour of a man being led to the gallows, and represents a very early example of the arthouse meeting the grindhouse.

 

The arthouse comes from director Paul Bartel and his long-time friend and co-star Mary Woronov. He was involved in the Theater of the Absurd in the 1960s, and she was a protégé of Andy Warhol, before he turned into a hack. The grindhouse comes from Roger Corman, the exploitation movie mastermind, one of my favourite movie people, who gave breaks to people like Jack Nicholson, Bartel, Joe Dante and Ron Howard, among many others.

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Thanks to the oil crisis of 1973, peoples’ dystopian ideas suddenly became a bit less dystopian, as the West looked to a future with basically no oil. So, in the alternate history of this movie, the two main US parties have merged to form the Bipartisan Party, and the President-For-Life rules from his Summer Palace in China. To keep the masses placated, they introduce the Death Race, and by 2000 it’s in its 20th year. The Death Race is a cross-country road race, but as well as points for finishing first, the most important element is killing people. You get points for offing various sorts of folks, with the highest scores going to the elderly and infirm (as who needs them, right?)

 

So you’ve got the race, which is the majority of the movie; the hideous commentators; and the resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, which is trying to bring down the Bipartisan Party and bring back democracy. Simple, effective, no padding or nonsense of any kind.

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The racers are truly amazing. Star is Frankenstein (David Carradine), who wears a leather mask and cap in public to hide his hideously scarred face and prosthetic limbs; then there’s “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), Nero The Hero (Martin Kove), Calamity Jane (Woronov) and Matilda the Hun, fully decked out in Nazi regalia along with her co-pilot Herman The German. The competitors are magnificently over the top and treat their job with relish, in different ways – Frankenstein appears the calmer type, but he’ll run over a bunch of doctors and wants to win as badly as anyone else. Frankenstein’s co-pilot is the stunning Simone Griffeth, and their relationship is cleverly written and central to the side-plots.

 

A lot of critics seem to think that the frightening aspects of this film are an accident, that Corman’s sole desire was to churn out a quickie to hoover up some of the money that future-sport classic “Rollerball” was going to get in 1975. I disagree. Corman wrote the original treatment for the movie, and realised that his serious take on the subject wasn’t cutting it, so handed it off to be reworked into a comedy – but his support for the little guy against the right-wing forces running the USA, demonstrated in this and many other of his movies, was present from the beginning. The ending is darker than it first appears, if you think about it for more than a few minutes, and that’s no accident either – Bartel and Corman may have both taken delight in shlock, gore, wildly OTT comedy and violence, but they had a social conscience, and it’s that melding that makes “Death Race 2000” the classic that it is.

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Compare it to the recent “remake”, which is a great film, but a great mainstream one – the competitors are forced to take part (in this, they’re very willing participants); it’s more race and less death; and they feel the need to waste time with backstory (this movie starts on the starting line of the race, and is much better for it). It’s not so much that “Death Race 2000” wouldn’t get made today – although it wouldn’t – it’s that no-one in the mainstream movie business would even think of making it.

 

Why is this movie so damned good? Entirely leaving aside the fun technical aspects of it – the driving, the gore effects – we have a very nihilist core, perhaps the blackest of all black comedies. The Nazis are seen as charming good guys, for one, and that’s just an entrée to the way that killing people is now the most popular spectator sport of them all. I mentioned above how it’s a product of its time, the oil-paranoid mid 70s, but as society keeps getting worse, while our mainstream entertainment becomes ever more safe and bland, “Death Race 2000” appears more prescient and frightening than it did then.

 

Rating: thumbs up