Sledgehammer (1983)

After the Prior brothers’ “The Final Sanction”, reviewed the other day, I thought it’d be fun to go watch the entirety of their ouevre. But you probably don’t think that, or you may just not want to watch every single movie from a director you sort of half-liked, so you come here to find out if it’s worth bothering with. Well, yes and no. But read on, please!

Back in 1983, people just didn’t make shot-on-video slasher movies. “Boardinghouse” had come out the year before, widely regarded as the first full-length movie to take advantage of the new technology, but “Sledgehammer” was hot on its heels – and if you’d like to be pedantic, as “Boardinghouse” actually played in a few cinemas, this could be said to be the first to ever be made specifically for the home video market.

From the little information I can gather, Ted Prior moved from New Jersey to LA sometime in 1979 to become an actor, and ended up bodybuilding, becoming a fairly popular model for “Playgirl” magazine well into the 80s. Presumably, David followed him out there, and rather than shlupping himself round the studios trying to get work, he just made one himself, shot almost entirely inside his own apartment, in 7 days, for under $50,000 (probably significantly under, if we’re being honest). Apparently, the cameras were borrowed from a training-video company, so while they’re not just average normal ones bought from a shop, they’re still significantly fuzzier than even 16mm was at the time. The opening credits are surprisingly creepy / great, with some chilling synth score playing over the sort of credit font that I imagine the cameras came pre-loaded with. I’m a sucker for a good bit of synthy music.

If you’ve seen “Halloween”, you’ll recognise the opening scene, where a kid is locked in his room by his scumbag mother, who wants to have sex with her new boyfriend, only for the kid to emerge from the locked room, grab a sledgehammer (not just a clever title!) and beat them both to death. This scene has the best gore effect (the lover’s extremely fragile skull being split open) and also, I suppose, gives the kid motivation – which our old friend Michael Myers never really had. But, the scene might just be shot weird, or it might have been some indication that the kid didn’t really do it – how on earth did he swing a large hammer that hard? How did he escape from the room?

I was about to write “we don’t really have time to ponder that” but we do. We have a lot of spare time, as Prior, possibly to pad his movie out to feature length, has a quite staggering number of slow-mo scenes, including such non-essentials as a door handle being turned, a couple walking down a path, and so on. It’s ten years later, I think, and a group of hard-partying guys and gals in their late 20s turn up with one cooler of drinks between 6 of them – it’s not even all beer! – and they make sure to insert a scene where a mechanic takes their van away to be serviced, just so we know there’s no getting out of this mountain retreat. Yes, they say it’s up a mountain, 50 miles from anywhere, and no, we aren’t ever told why the family from the beginning would choose to live in such a remote location. In fact, the family at the beginning worry about what the townspeople would think of their union! Anyway, can’t get bogged down in minutiae that none of you care about.

Ted Prior, as Chuck, is the commitment-phobic boyfriend to final girl Joni (Linda McGill, although I have no idea why I’m listing any of these actor names as apart from Ted, none of them did much of anything in the industry). There’s also other people, who I’ll call Cannon Fodder 1-4. Because that’s what people do, apparently, they have a food fight in a room which might comfortably seat three; there’s one moment where an off-screen character tells them to stop, and I honestly thought for a moment it was the director and they’d just forgotten to edit that bit out. Then they have a séance, after a not-exactly-eventful first half-hour, and as Chuck relates to them what happened in the house long ago, things begin to happen, developing into a traditional “spam in a can” movie with a bunch of weird trimmings.

I love watching first-time directors doing low-budget genre movies, as they’re always unique in their own weird ways. The “this isn’t the way you do things” people hadn’t gotten to Prior by this point, so we get all sorts of weird stuff happening. The killer ghosts his way through closed doors, and sends other people through them too, but later on is seen messing with handles like he can’t get through. He’s the same kid from the beginning, impervious to damage, at one point, then he transforms into a man and suddenly becomes vulnerable. There’s a pentagram drawn on the wall in blood, but if it’s got a Satanic theme to it then it’s extremely under-developed. Chuck ignores slasher movie law and tells everyone to stay together, in the one room, and wait til morning (it doesn’t do any good, but it’s still sound advice).

All this is hidden under a layer of slow motion, and weird periods of silence like he ran out of incidental music, making everything seem slightly surreal, otherworldly. It actually reminds me a little of all-time worst movie “Things”, but not in terms of quality, acting, or plot, just that enclosed location and the washed out tones of a video camera. The lighting and the blankness of the walls begins to get to you after a while, and it’s creepy almost despite itself.

I think the Final Girl wasn’t given enough character, as it feels all the way up to the penultimate fight that it’s going to be mostly about Chuck; but they stick to that one bit of slasher law, almost set in stone even by this early point. Prior, by the way, was a canny guy, and even though he knew the slasher movie was on its way out (although it’d be revived by Freddy Krueger a couple of years later) he figured if he made it cheaply enough he’d still turn a profit. And he was right – he parlayed this into bigger budgets, peaking around 1990 with his movies for AIP, before slowly tailing off (he took a decade off, coming back with Ted for a bunch of movies starting again in 2007).

I felt quite clever during the final credits, thinking to myself “some of these names sound fake. Is it union guys working under a pseudonym?” I think it’s more likely to just be the same three or four people doing all the jobs, but eventually the names become so ridiculous anyone could spot it – right at the end we’re treated to “Jac Meough” and “I.P. Phreilee”. Well done, Mr Prior!

It’s boring, slow, and ugly, with a ton of basically amateur actors – but all truly bad movies fail in their own weird and wonderful ways, and “Sledgehammer” is worth watching to see how it fails.

Rating: thumbs down

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Prom Night (2008)

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Remember how I said they’d saved the worst for last with “Prom Night 4: Deliver Us From Evil”? That was chuffing Shakespeare crossed with Tarantino compared to the 2008 remake, one of the dumbest, most pointless movies ever to go under the “slasher” banner. It’s down there with the worst of the worst, and in the little mini-era of remaking 70s and 80s horror – “Friday The 13th”, “Halloween”, “A Nightmare On Elm Street”, “My Bloody Valentine”, “April Fools Day”, “Children Of The Corn”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Day Of The Dead”, “Dawn Of The Dead”, “Fright Night”, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and “Black Christmas” – that happened between 2005 and 2012 or so, this is right down at the bottom.

 

But I can’t expect you to believe me, so let’s talk Idiot Plot. The Idiot Plot, as coined by Roger Ebert, is a movie that would fall to pieces in seconds if any person made a single sensible decision or asked a single reasonable question. It relies at every turn on people being as dumb as possible and for every single domino to fall exactly favourably for the antagonist – while this has its uses, such as the best tragedies, it’s fairly safe to say that “Prom Night” does not number itself among the great works of that genre. I will hopefully provide you with many examples of the Idiot Plot in action throughout the course of this review.

 

We have writer J.S. Cardone to thank for that Idiot Plot, and he’s got previous ISCFC form. He was an uncredited writer on the first “Puppetmaster”, and Full Moon Pictures gave him his break – he also wrote “Crash and Burn”. Then a little later he dabbled in SyFy Channel original movies, giving us “Alien Hunter”, before finishing up on crap like this (he hasn’t worked since 2009’s “The Stepfather”, another horror remake that didn’t exactly set the world on fire).

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The plot, in case you wondering, is so utterly dissimilar to the 1980 original that the decision to use the name can only be a cynical money-grabbing one.  Donna (Brittany Snow) witnesses the murder of her entire family by a teacher who’d become obsessed with her; three years later, he’s locked up on the other side of the country and she’s ready for Prom, going to the same school, in the same town. She sees a psychiatrist (played by the lovely Ming Na in a too-short cameo), has a boyfriend, Bobby (Scott Porter, who was 28 at the time of filming, playing 18), and a nice group of friends, who I won’t bother to list because they’re pretty much cannon fodder and no-one has ever complained about the lack of a list of minor characters in a slasher film review.

 

Anyway, the teacher, Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) escapes from maximum security mental hospital, but thanks to a bureaucratic mix-up, no-one bothers telling the police force of his old town for three days. This force is pretty much represented solely by Idris Elba as “Detective Winn”, and while he’s one of the best actors currently plying their trade, he must have really not liked being there as he’s as painfully generic as they come. So, Fenton has made it all the way back to his old town, with love on his mind – well, psychosis and murder, which is nearly the same thing. We see him right from the beginning, there’s never a twist or a single doubt that he’s butchering everyone, and butcher he does. Every ten minutes or so, one of the dumbass teens will go off on their own for some reason, and Fenton is always in the perfect place to murder them (but only with stabs to the gut, because this is PG-13 and they can’t be showing too much blood). He’s every psychopath you’ve ever seen, and is therefore almost instantly forgettable.

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Let’s talk fake scares! They are much beloved by crappy horror movie makers, and this one, directed by a fellow named Nelson McCormick (for whom this represents a very rare non-TV credit), is crappy. You name it, “Prom Night” has it – the dream sequence; the “hey, the murderer just disappeared behind that moving bus in the middle distance” one; the Final Girl backing into someone and screaming, only for it to be her friend (or a pot plant); a tree making spooky noise outside her window; and, by far the most common, the mirror scare. You can absolutely guarantee that if anyone goes to a mirrored bathroom cabinet, or is stood in front of a mirror, then looks away, then looks back, they’re in for a scare! It happens so often that you might be inclined to start believing it’s a joke, but there are no jokes in this movie. By the fifth or sixth one, I was ready to smash the director’s head into a mirror, just to make sure he never did it again.

 

So, we’ve already had the “sorry about not mentioning the psychotic killer on his way to your town”, but then this gets compounded. Idris pops round to tell Donna’s aunt and uncle that Fenton has escaped, but they decide not to tell her immediately, because it might spoil her Prom, and it’s not like the completely obsessed guy would head towards the woman he’s obsessed with, right? Then, Idris goes to the hotel, and rather than circulate Fenton’s photograph, just sort of vaguely asks a few hotel staffers if they’ve seen anything suspicious. Elba is the dumbest cop I can remember, staying three steps behind the killer at all times – well, until the last thirty seconds of the movie. Almost every member of the cast leaves the Prom at least once to go up to their room, just so they can be alone with the murderer, who’s able to move around at will, and always knows which closet his potential victim is about to use. Even when the Prom is being evacuated by the cops, looking for the killer, Donna decides to pop back to her hotel room, on her own, to grab a shawl. Good old horror teens and their complete lack of self-preservation! When they take her and her family home, they make sure to only have one cop with them, just to make it nice and easy for Fenton to kill them all, and Elba waits until way way too late to call for backup. Good work cops!

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Everything about the new “Prom Night” is glossy and dull. Not much point comparing the two, but the 1980 one had a home-made-looking Prom, with a cast made of fairly average looking people. This Prom went over-budget by $100,000 (what must the overall bill have been?) and has taken over a huge, glitzy hotel; the entire cast is model-perfect, of course. It has the flatness of something made by a committee, with not a single interesting creative voice within a million miles of the production; the cast are the same, blandly professional to the point you wouldn’t say they were good or bad, really (although you expect more from a guy like Elba).

 

It’s just a “nothing” movie. The scares aren’t scary, there is absolutely no humour whatsoever to leaven the stodgy script, there’s no gore, you don’t care about any of the characters, and the sense of utter futility is strong. I feel like this is about as close as we’ll get to just spending 90 minutes watching a company’s balance sheet slowly ticking up (it made a very small profit, mercifully not enough to bless us with any further sequels). A waste of time on every possible level.

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Rating: thumbs down

 

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

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

Christmas Movies: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

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The ISCFC begins its Christmas season based on when the Magic Tree in Columbia, MO, USA, has its lighting ceremony (why? Because), and although we covered a heck of a lot of Christmas classics last year, there’s plenty more for us to do. “Silent Night, Bloody Night” is a curious film – made years before even the earliest “slasher” films, a supporting cast made up of former Andy Warhol associates and hangers-on (most famous among them is future star Mary Woronov), made in 1970 but not released til 1972…

 

One of our recent reviews was “The Disco Exorcist”, which filled the screen with digital “noise”, to make it look like it was a real old 70s grindhouse movie. This, on the other hand, is the real deal. It looks like it was filmed on whatever cheap scrag-ends of film they could find and then left in a box in a mouldy cellar for a few years – in other words, exactly what you want from a 70s horror.

 

A large amount of this film is done in voiceover, mostly by Woronov (although there are others). It reminds you of Sissy Spacek’s amazing work on “Badlands”, until you remember that this predates that – Woronov tells us half a story, basically. The Butler house has stood empty for 20 years because Wilford Butler died by accidentally setting himself on fire; he left the house to his grandson on condition that he leave it exactly as it was. That covenant is now presumably done and grandson Jeffrey is coming to town to sell the house to the townspeople, for cash, at a huge discount.

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We also see an escaped mental patient, the implication being it’s the person who killed Wilford those years ago, sensing people are moving back in. And thanks to the younger Butler’s lawyer, we meet the town’s leaders, including John Carradine as the local newspaper editor, who never utters a word (all sounds from his mouth being added in post), and seems to run off the movie about halfway through, only to have a double get killed in his place near the end. I assumed this was towards the end of his career and his alcoholism rendered him unable to learn lines; but he was still working 15 years after this movie, so who knows? Maybe they hired him at the last minute and “wrote” a part with no words just for him (the story of one of his sons pouring half a bottle of scotch down his throat as he lay in his coffin indicates he certainly liked a drink, though).

 

It’s a well-crafted slow burner of a movie. The lawyer and his mistress go to the house to spend the night and wait for the younger Butler; they are brutally murdered and from then on, a mysterious voice, claiming to be the daughter of Wilford, phones people up from the house, asking them to come there, and then murdering them too. One particularly superb performance comes from stage actress Fran Stevens (making one of her only two on-screen appearances) as the town’s switchboard operator Tess, whose face tells of a lifetime of secrets.

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With the voiceover, the flashbacks (that tell a slightly different story) and the twist, which is one of the ballsiest ones I can remember, what could have been just another cheap horror movie becomes something altogether more interesting. The atmosphere hangs heavy over everyone and the central performances are all superb. Perhaps this is all post facto rationalisation and I wouldn’t have given this movie a second thought if it had been the work of some hack with no involvement from the Warhol people (as well as Woronov, Candy Darling, Ondine and Lewis Love appear, among many others); but what we have is lovely dark little non-Christmas Christmas movie, worth your time.

 

There’s fascinating and sad trivia related to this movie too. Director Theodore Gershuny was married to Woronov at the time, and after a few movies in the early 70s and then a divorce, didn’t work again for over a decade (and then wrote and directed a few episodes of “Tales From The Darkside”). Star James Patterson, the younger Butler, died of cancer shortly after the end of principal photography, so all his lines were dubbed by another actor. Thanks to some contractual oddity, the film fell into the public domain in the 80s, which means if you’ve ever bought one of those “50 Horror Movies on 12 DVDs!” box sets, chances are this is in it.

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That public domain-ness has had bad as well as good repercussions. You may remember our review of “Night Of The Living Dead: Resurrection”, made by British indie company North Bank Films as the original had also not done its copyright work correctly. They appear to specialise in being bottom-feeding scum, making cheap awful horror that they hope reminds you enough of stuff you like that you’ll give them a few quid. So it is with “Silent Night, Bloody Night: Homecoming”, from 2013, which I think I’d need to be paid to see. Then, to confuse us all, some other low-budget company has made “Silent Night, Bloody Night 2: Revival” in 2015. We’ve got time before Christmas, so I might give that one a go.

 

Rating: thumbs up

A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Revenge on who? Isn't the first movie his revenge?

Revenge on who? Isn’t the first movie his revenge?

Once your eyes are opened, some things come into a wonderful new focus. As a kid, I watched “A Nightmare On Elm Street 2” and thoroughly enjoyed it, a different turn from the “hey, Freddy is after some other group of kids this time” that I’d been trained to expect from slasher movie sequels. Then, after watching the excellent documentary “Never Sleep Again” about the series, which said outright “it’s about homosexuality” I was like “oh, of course!” It’s slightly embarrassing that I didn’t notice it before, how obvious it was, but you, dear reader, will not have that problem thanks to this review.

 

Star Mark Patton has had an interesting life. He was an out gay man while living in New York early in his career, but when he moved to Hollywood found it a very homophobic place – some of the stories are terrible (like certain agents posting people in gay bars to get blackmail material on up and coming stars with other agencies); and was forced to largely go back in the closet, despite playing a gay character in “Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” and…well, more on his character in this movie later. He found the homophobia so bad that he quit acting altogether, becoming an interior decorator, but since appearing in the documentary “Never Sleep Again”, has started making appearances at conventions and discovering how beloved this movie is with the LGBT community. Well, some of them, it’s sort of ridiculous to say “all” LGBT people like anything. He’s been living with being HIV+ for some time, too, but is controlling it and is healthy and well.

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Patton plays Jesse, a teenager whose family move into Nancy’s old house on Elm Street (she’s still alive but has gone insane). Five years have passed since the events of the first movie, apparently, but it’s sort of stupid to say part 1 was set in 1981 as there’s posters for stuff which happened after that on everyone’s walls. Still, nowhere near as stupid as the Friday the 13th timeline! Anyway, he develops a relationship with Lisa (Kim Myers, “Heavy Metal Summer”), who he drives to school…despite her living in a gigantic house which is presumably nowhere near Jesse’s normal suburban home. I never understood that bit.  Anyway, Jesse starts being plagued by bad dreams, featuring that burned child murderer we’ve come to know and love – Freddy must have been weakened or something by Nancy in part 1, as he needs Jesse to kill for him.

 

Jesse is an interesting character. The initial dream sequence has him looking like kind-of a sad sack, the sort of character who’s the terminal outsider; but during the movie, he takes no crap from anyone, befriends jock Grady (Robert Rusler), attracts Lisa and seems a bright, outgoing sort of chap. He does get on the wrong side of sadistic gym teacher Coach Schneider (ultimate “that guy” actor Marshall Bell), and the way Grady just off-handedly remarks about how the Coach is gay and goes to S&M bars is the first really big clue that there might be something bubbling under the surface here. But he’s basically powerless to stop Freddy, relying on Lisa to save the day with good old heterosexual love, so…er…who knows?

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Director Jack Sholder was presumably the only guy available (although he did make the fun “The Hidden”). Everything’s nice and tight here, even if there are a few bits where you wish there was a bit more explanation; but perhaps we ought to blame scriptwriter David Chaskin – who apparently worked in the New Line advertising department – for that. He absolutely packs the movie with gay subtext (my favourite line, Jesse talking about Freddy: “He’s inside me, and he wants to take me again!”) which allegedly the director was unaware of…but there’s just no way! It can’t have escaped his notice that every time Jesse gets close to Lisa, he starts hallucinating Freddy or an attack happens; or that Jesse walks through town barefoot to have a beer, and just by accident ends up in the leather bar. To his shame – and according to IMDB, so this might be apocryphal – Chaskin blamed Patton for playing the part “too gay” when the movie started attracting notice and denied putting any subtext in there, although he finally admitted to it during “Never Sleep Again”.

 

Wes Craven wanted no part of this sequel, because he didn’t want it to become a franchise (and indeed pushed for part 1 to have a happy ending), but it’s head and shoulders above any slasher sequel. It’s certainly not without its problems – first up, I don’t understand why Jesse and Lisa are friends in the first place, if he’s just moved to town; and then there’s a bit where Freddy attacks a pool party full of teenagers, while they’re all awake. Heck, no-one dies in their sleep in this movie at all! Freddy appears to be able to manipulate reality, which when you think about it makes no sense at all. Well, even less sense than the average movie of this sort.

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There’s also the ending, which I guess is just another dream in the mind of the presumably hospitalised Jesse. It seems like a happy ending, but how is that even possible? Jesse killed those people, whether or not he was having a Freddy-inspired psychotic break, and there’s no way they’d just bandage him up and let him go back to school. When you have dreams and reality butting heads in movies like these, there’s a tendency to just handwave away weird plot holes as being dreams, but I think that’s a cop-out. Ultimately, it’s just too confusing.

 

It’s a fascinating movie with a number of fairly hefty problems. Like “Carrie”, it uses the confusion teenagers feel about sex as a driving force, but with the gay themes pushes way further than “Carrie” ever did; it has lots to like (and not just because of my youthful crush on Kim Myers) but it’s all so muddled as if they established a set of rules but kept ignoring them – which I suppose, taking part 1 into account, they did.

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Rating: thumbs in the middle