The VRAs – Frozen Scream (1975)

This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

It’s been a while since we did a video nasty, and that’s because, if we’re being honest, they’re sort of samey. Slow-paced late 70s euro-thrillers with occasional nudity and a few scenes of ultra-violence, and with the passing of the years and the wide availability of movies so violent they make the video nasties look like family films, it makes the whole pursuit sort of pointless. But, I run a movie blog that only a handful of people read, a pursuit far more pointless than that, so let’s go nasty!

Although “Frozen Scream” is apparently American, its pitiful dubbing and weirdly bland locations mean it could easily have been another Italian “epic”. The Girards, Ann and Tom, are having a nice conversation on the phone, she visiting her parents, he sat in his office, but the happiness is to be short-lived as he’s chased through his house by a bunch of robe-clad dudes who are invulnerable to bullets and…okay, here’s where the first weird thing happens.

He dies, and she apparently witnesses it. But, minutes ago, she was out of town, right? Whatever. Because she’s a woman and this was the 1970s, people are way more interested in telling her to shut the hell up and get on with her life than they are in believing her, so she calls on her ex-boyfriend Kevin, who’s now a cop, to help her out. And here’s where the second weird thing happens.

For the first half of the movie, every now and again we’ll be treated to some of the cop’s voiceover, which appears to be inserted at random – it’ll just play over conversations that seem sort of important, start halfway through scenes, and so on. It’s a genuine bad-movie-classic sort of choice, and I love it (I actually paused the DVD to make sure the sound of the voiceover wasn’t coming from somewhere else).

The plot involves some drug which apparently makes you immortal, but which Dr Lil Stanhope (Renee Harmon, also the producer and co-writer) thinks can turn you into a low-temperature zombie. Sure, why not? Given her mover-and-shaker status, it sort of explains why her performance is wooden even by the standards of this sort of garbage, her extremely thick German accent not exactly helping matters. You know how I mentioned dubbing above? Well, her sidekick, the weird old doctor guy who’s doing the actual experiments, Dr Sven, was dubbed by a guy whose voice definitely does not look like it ought to be coming out of that body.

One of Kevin’s earliest voiceovers is saying how he and Ann were once a couple until she suddenly left him one day for Tom – a red herring so enormous that you may well boo when it’s left unresolved at the end. Anyway, even though her husband died mere days ago, he’s desperate to get her back, which must have looked a little creepy then and seems almost pathological now – but, he’s the hero of the piece. Hurrah for the 70s!

Then there’s the flashbacks, which aren’t announced, and with all the men sort of looking the same, you could be forgiven for not realising are even flashbacks. I think Ann and Tom were in a cult, based round the idea of eternal life? Which sort of explains why he was so unhappy to see his cult brothers at the beginning of the movie, and why they were invulnerable. But when you don’t even get a wobble-fade for your trip back in time, there’s understandably going to be some confusion.

One of the most fun things about these video nasties is trying to figure out why they were banned in the first place. Some of them (“Toolbox Murders”, for one) were just because of the similarity of the name to other, more famous slasher movies, I’m sure. One of them, “Contamination”, was even re-released, uncut, with a 15 certificate (sort of like an R, I guess?) several years later. There’s almost no nudity in “Frozen Scream” so it’s down to gore, and that’s pretty minimal too – an axe to the head, with the aftermath shown in lots of detail, and a shard of glass to the face. I feel bad for the gorehounds of the mid 70s, trying to get their thrills from such meagre fare.

It’s not a bad movie, particularly. It’s even interesting, in places, as the flashbacks and the bizarre voiceovers give it a vaguely surreal air; plus, the party scene where the band plays copyright-abusing versions of famous rock-n-roll hits is an all-time classic. Completely decent ending too.

But overall it’s not all that good, either, with a script that, hilarious mockery aside, is just rotten from top to bottom. Were it not for its status as a video nasty it would be legitimately completely forgotten, like…all those 70s horror movies that no-one gives a damn about.

Rating: thumbs down

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The VRAs: Delirium (1979)

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This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about their content. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

When I discovered that one of the video nasties was filmed and set in St Louis, soon to be my home (if I don’t get turned down for a visa, that is), I had to watch it. It manages to reinforce my belief, though, that the films caught up by the Video Recordings Act might as well have been names drawn from a hat, with a few exceptions. In other words, if I’d spent any money tracking this down expecting a gore-drenched classic, I’d have been very sorely disappointed.

No-one seems particularly interested in saving this movie from utter obscurity, with the exception of people like Tom Stockman, the St Louis film historian / cult movie expert who did a public talk on the movie a little while ago. This huge gulf between its brief notoriety over here, and the almost complete indifference to it in its home country, is sort of interesting – probably a lot more interesting than the movie itself.

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Anyway, a rather sad looking fellow called Charlie (Nick Panouzis) goes for what appears to be an interview, and ends up picking up one of the secretaries there, even though he’s almost completely mute; taking her back to her place, and then when he struggles to get an erection, murders her with a conveniently placed spear. Charlie does a whole bunch more killing throughout the first hour of the movie, including one bit where he picks up a hitchhiker, frightens her by driving too fast, then just leaves her in the car to go and sit by a lake. Rather than running the hell away, she joins him, gets naked and goes for a swim, inviting him in (he accepts and murders her).

The thing is, the killer isn’t really the focus of the movie. It’s a “Star Chamber” style group of local businessmen, who have decided to take the law into their own hands. The main guy in the group, a bald chap by the name of Eric (Barron Winchester), is an old army buddy of Charlie’s, and he’s been using him as a sort-of-mercenary for the last year, since his escape from a mental institution. Yes, the Vietnam war traumatised them both, which would have been a very recent memory for Americans of the time. Oh, and one of the group is the guy Charlie was having his interview with at the beginning, which is the tenuous thread holding all this together.

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The final spoke of the wheel is a cop, Larry Mead (Terry TenBroek), who’s got the major hots for the first victim’s roommate, Susan (Debi Chaney). Because he wants to have sex with her, he figures he ought to try and solve the case, so he and his partner go to interview the boss, realise there’s something fishy going on, and keep pulling at that thread.

“Delirium” feels like during its production it was taken over by different people, who all wanted different things. You’ve got a traumatised Vietnam vet movie; a serial killer movie; a vigilante movie; and a cop drama. Honestly, you could cut all the serial killing stuff out, literally all of it, and the movie would be largely the same; this is an indication that something went wrong somewhere. The pieces just don’t fit together – perhaps the best indication of this is, Charlie is killed during a random break-in a little before the hour mark, and it doesn’t change anyone’s motivations or actions at all.

If I was writing this review 15 years ago, I’d have made a lot of hay out of how “Sabotage”, the Beastie Boys music video, borrows footage from this for one segment and rips it off in another; “Delirium” was so obscure even by then that I don’t remember a single mention of it (and that video was talked about for ever by the music press).

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And if I was writing it at the time of its release, I’d have gone “hold on! That’s the Mastermind theme music!” British TV quiz show “Mastermind” (started in 1972, continuing on to the present day with a hiatus or two) used a piece of music called “Approaching Menace” by a composer called Neil Richardson for its theme. It was taken from a library music LP – compilations in various styles, where anyone can licence the music for a low rate (copyright resting entirely with the publisher, as the composition was a work for hire). If you’re reading this in the USA, the most famous use of library music is probably the theme tune to “Monday Night Football”; whereas “Mastermind” is the most famous in the UK, which makes it popping up when a gang of scumbag businessmen are torturing someone quite unusual.

As you can tell by my spending several paragraphs not talking about the movie, it’s sort of a tough one. The action is slow and horribly disjointed, with gore that’s laughably quaint by today’s standards. If they’d figured out which of the multiple plots they wanted their movie to actually be about and concentrated on that, it could have been interesting; but it’s a lot of very wasted effort.I’ve got absolutely no idea why it was banned, unless right-wing businessmen revenge-killing criminals was in the news at the time?

 

A quick note about the cast – most of them appear to be St Louis natives who have this as their only real credit (and there are stories on IMDB about one of them walking round malls with a parrot on his shoulder, like he expected this to be his big break). There’s some weak links, but they’re mostly fine.

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As is sadly traditional, a final word about the role of women. I mentioned it briefly above, but they’re absolutely only there to be sexual objects or murder victims. There’s a woman who works for the police who’s clearly brilliant at her job (retrieving ancient paperwork, quickly) but the male cops just thank her, then ogle her as she walks away. And she gets off lightly compared to the hitch-hiker. It couldn’t be any more of its time, with all the negativity that entails, if it tried. I feel bad for the women in director Peter Maris’s life, to be honest – Maris is the only person from this movie who had a “proper” career, directing as late as 2007 (this makes him an ISCFC two-timer, having also helmed 1986’s “Land Of Doom”).

You’re not likely to stumble on this any time soon. As the years pass from the video nasty moral panic, the movies that achieved brief fame are increasingly only of interest to movie historians; you can find worse violence and better movies on Youtube in a few minutes. Still, it’s the only slasher movie to feature the Gateway to the West, the arch that dominates the St Louis skyline, so it has at least one thing in its favour.

Rating: thumbs down

Zombi 7 (1980) (aka Antropophagus)

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We’re almost at the end of our “Zombi” series! And if Andreas Schnaas’ “Anthropopaghous 2000” proves impossible to track down (I’m not going to spend too much on it, obviously), this will be the end! Although the “official” series only consists of 5 instalments, it feels like I’ve watched 50 of the bloody things, even though this is no.14. We’ve reviewed a few classics which hopefully you’ve since enjoyed yourselves (“Zombie Flesh Eaters”, “Virgin Among The Living Dead”) and a few which ought to wiped from existence (“Panic”, “Zombie Flesh Eaters 2”).

 

We’ve also discovered that, if you’re a cheeky enough distributor, not having zombies in your movie is no problem. If you count this one (spoiler!) an amazing 5 of the 14 don’t have a single zombie in them! If you’re being extra-generous, dead people walk and talk in a few, but this, “Absurd” and “Panic” all feature just one villain, who’s definitely alive. This was part of the great zombie makeup shortage of the late 70s, of course.

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“Antropophagus” is not particularly well known as “Zombi 7”; but it’s extremely well known as one of the 72 “video nasties”, and was also one of the 39 to be successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Unlike its not-really-a-sequel, “Absurd”, there’s absolutely no doubt why this one was banned, and that is our cannibal villain eating a foetus. I figured I ought to mention that at the top of things, in case it was a deal-breaker for you (the prop was, apparently, a skinned rabbit), but it’s a really well-done effect and induced a wince or two from even this jaded reviewer.

 

Let’s talk movie! The cold open features a young couple strolling through the streets of a picture-postcard Greek village before going for a sunbathe. He lies on the beach with huge headphones on (who takes headphones to the beach?) and she goes for a swim, finding something extremely unpleasant in a small drifting boat before getting chopped up by persons unknown, closely followed by the boyfriend. Solid open, as they go, and it’s another in the surprisingly durable “ship drifts into harbour carrying something nasty” sub-genre.

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Basically, the movie is about a group of pretty chill buds going for an island-hopping holiday. They’ve hired a boat, they’ve got some places to go, and as they’re travelling on the cable car down to the bay, the beautiful Julie (Tisa Farrow) asks them if she can get a lift to the island her friends are on. Because she’s hot, and one of the guys fancies her, they say yes. I wonder which island that will be?

 

A quick word about Ms Farrow – she seems to have hopped out of 2016, with everything about her – clothes, personality – seeming to come from a more enlightened age. She takes no nonsense from the guy she’s into, because he’s in a weird situation with another woman; she travels on her own; and she does her own rescuing. Honestly, it’s just refreshing to see a woman remain fully clothed throughout a movie, given what we’ve watched recently. If I can be bothered to mess about in Paint for a few minutes, below you should find a picture of her compared to a picture of Kristen Stewart in this year’s “American Ultra”.

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Okay, it’s the not the closest resemblance, but it’s good to see a woman not be wallpaper. Sadly, the island Julie wants to go has had something bad happen to it, in a style reminiscent of “Dagon” (although the inspiration went the other way, I presume). No-one’s on the streets, and the only person they see runs away, but not before writing “Go Away” in dirt on a window.  Their boat is unmoored and left to drift into the Mediterranean, people start disappearing, until eventually they’re led to the mansion owned by the wealthiest people on the island, who unfortunately all died in a boating accident a few months ago.

 

I’ve skated over a few details, because those long recaps leave me bored long before the end, even if it’s a cool movie. And this is pretty decent, surprisingly! The characters are all believable, the settings are great (kudos to the person who did all their location scouting for them) and the gore is plentiful. Given its status as a video nasty and the way it always used to show up on semi-legal “10 DVDs for a tenner” box sets, I expected a pretty miserable experience, but kudos to everyone involved. The scene in the ossuary (which featured at least some real bones, which the crew accidentally took away with them) is a great and creepy bit of business.

 

What’s more surprising is how this and “Absurd” are from the same writer and director, have similar-ish plots and were filmed a year apart. I think I bought the peril of this group more than the family from the later movie, I liked the actors more and they found better sets. But it’s not perfect, obviously, so it’s time for your favourite feature, “the paragraph where I mock the dumb stuff in the movie!”

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There’s a set of tarot cards used at the beginning. Now, have you ever seen a set of tarot cards in a movie ever, where the Death card doesn’t come up? It’s like the ultimate Chekov’s gun. I thought this was going to be the first, but as if in an acknowledgement of this rule, after “dealing a hand” and chatting about it, the highly strung and jealous Carol flicks through the pack until she finds the Death card, which still gets the big dramatic music sting! Excellent work. Carol locks Julie in a cemetery and leaves her there, with a psychopathic cannibal on the loose…then, ten minutes later, after she escaped, Julie’s way too forgiving. Lastly, the big mansion has a room where the killer has hidden all his bodies, which has a good number in there, all of whom have been there for some time. Two things – he’s a rubbish cannibal, only biting his victims enough to kill them; and those corpses must’ve absolutely STUNK in the height of a Greek summer, yet not a single person makes reference to it, or is particularly grossed out by the presence of dozens of dead bodies.

 

Small potatoes, I suppose. It’s a little on the slow side, and the sort of heavy editing that it had to go through to get British certification must have made it a rather curious film; but it’s here now, uncut since 2015, and is a very solid film. Director Joe D’Amato would make a movie in the same locations, with roughly the same plot, next year, with the only difference being its X-rated nature, called “Porno Holocaust”, which shows how Europeans definitely had a different attitude to matters sexual. By the way, there’s a tribute to D’Amato on the DVD which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen – he’s talking about how the images at the centre of his latest film are from his heart, and his dreams, and talks about it like it’s this big production…when it’s just one of the dozens of porn movies he made in the last few years of his life. Then, there’s a bunch of montages of his smiling face, almost always with a cigarette in his mouth, with the title pages of his movies popping up in the foreground. It’s hilarious, and so stupid that I’d have easily believed it to be a joke if it weren’t on the DVD.

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Rating: thumbs up

Zombi 6 (1981) (aka Absurd)

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As well as being part 6 of the super-inaccurately-named “Zombi” series, “Absurd” is also a video nasty. Not only was it one of the 72 movies listed by the Director Of Public Prosecutions, it was one of the 39 successfully prosecuted under the “Obscene Publications Act”, making it the worst of the worst.

 

And now you can watch it on Youtube. How times have changed, eh? May it be a lesson to people who attempt to stir up moral panics in the future (although I’m sure no-one will learn). To complete the “huh?” factor, “Zombi 6” is actually a sort-of sequel to “Zombi 7”, aka “Antropophagus”, another video nasty. Both directed by Joe D’Amato, both starring George Eastman, and both featuring a scene where he gets his guts ripped out. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!

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“Absurd” starts with what looks like the end of the most extreme game of Tag ever, as Mikos, a dishevelled chap (Eastman) is running away from a rather unhappy looking man (Edward Purdom), only to get his guts ripped out and collapse on the doorstep of the Berger family. The Bergers consist of a comically indifferent set of parents, Ian and Carol, and their children Katia and Willy. Willy might be the worst child actor in the history of the world, and Katia is paralysed, strapped down to a bed to stop her from ruining whatever healing process is going on. Remember, paralysed, because this will be important later on.

 

As Mikos is taken to a nearby hospital (which is once again, barely lit – how many hospitals do you know that have any murky areas, anywhere?), the staff there are shocked by the rapidity of his healing, so the police gets brought in, and the unhappy man catches up to them. Turns out he’s a priest, and Mikos was being experimented on as part of some church-sponsored scientific thing – Mikos can regenerate any damaged or dead tissue (apart from the brain), and is now effectively immortal. On top of all that, the drugs they gave him turned him insane, and he’s all about killing. No eating of body parts or drinking of blood, Mikos just wants to saw your brain in half, or stick a drill through the base of your skull, or put your head in an oven.

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I’d have been so disappointed if I’d tracked this down at great expense in the 1980s, expecting a gore-fest, and just gotten tedium. In what is almost the main plot, it takes up so much time, the two parents and a bunch of their friends are getting together to watch a big NFL game; we see actual footage of a Steelers / Rams game, and the commentator seems to be commenting on the action taking place, which is a nice bit of attention to detail. While this is going on, they leave their kids in the house – a house which had a guy with his intestines hanging out in it just a few hours ago, lest we forget – with the babysitter, who gets killed, and then another babysitter, who also gets killed. I wasn’t sure about that bit, perhaps it was a babysitting tag team.

 

The crucial element of this movie is the kids. Willy is so irritating I’d have happily killed him myself, and they picked a shrieking moron to dub his voice too. After being a pain in the arse for most of the movie’s run time, babysitter 2 tells him to run over to where his parents are at, because there’s a killer in the house – instead, he waits outside for a few minutes then hops back in through a window, forcing babysitter 2 to emerge from her secure hiding spot to rescue him, which directly leads to her death. But he’s not done! He then stands outside Katia’s room, begging to be let in, and for what feels like 10 minutes (but is probably more like 1) he screams “let me in Katia! Please let me in! I’m begging you!” over and over. He knows his sister is literally unable to move, right? But she spends an hour (okay, 2 minutes) undoing the straps which held her to the bed…and it turns out she can walk around just fine, although he’s run away by the time she manages to get up. Screw you, movie, screw everything about you.

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Urgh

I hated this so much. I hated that it ripped off “Halloween” but didn’t bother copying any of its good qualities. I hated the pathetic levels of gore. I hated that it was called “Zombi 6” but didn’t have any zombies in it. And wow, did I hate that kid. If any of you happen upon Kasimir Berger at a horror convention or anything like that, please kick him for me, several times. Not well-written, not well-acted, not interesting, not funny, not scary, not anything. I feel bad for everyone who’s ever been fooled into spending money on this.

 

I wish Joe D’Amato had just stuck to porn, because then at least I wouldn’t have bothered watching any of his miserable films.

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Rating: thumbs down

Mardi Gras Massacre (1978)

This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

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“Mardi Gras Massacre” is interesting as it’s one of the very few of the 72 banned movies to never re-submit itself for a BBFC classification. Now, this is probably down to the distributors going bankrupt or something, but “Mardi Gras Massacre” has never been seen legally by anyone in the UK. That is a damn shame, because with a bold display of rank incompetence, bizarre plot choices and gore so mild as to be almost charming, it’s shot right to the top of my B-list of video nasties (obviously, there’s an A-list, which is stuff like “Driller Killer”, “Tenebrae”, “The Evil Dead”, and “Possession”).

 

I hope you enjoy this review, anyway, even if you don’t track it down (although you definitely should). “John”, a sharp-dressed Englishman with a huge chin dimple walks into a sleazy New Orleans bar and asks around for the most evil prostitute in there. A helpful pair of ladies points him in the direction of someone the credits refer to as “Shirley Anderson the Evil Prostitute”, and he has one of the odder conversations I’ve ever witnessed. The line that seals the deal is Shirley saying “I could win first place in any evil contest”, so off they go to John’s place, a little apartment with a very unusual soundproofed bedroom.

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It’s about now when B-movie aficionados will notice the similarities to a great gore classic, 1963’s “Blood Feast”. Both movies are about the ritual murder of women for an ancient god, although “Blood Feast” is an Egyptian god and just random women; this one is a Latin American god and specifically prostitutes. Anyway, John gets to work, tying up the women and then slicing hands and feet before cutting open their chest and removing the heart, which is a decent effect for a low-budget late 70s movie, even if it’s barely enough to get it banned. Now, John kills three women during the course of things, and those three murders are pretty much identical – he goes, finds a prostitute, takes her to his bedroom, ties her up and cuts out her heart. They’re shot pretty much the same way too, so I might suggest director Jack Weis (who clearly thought he’d given the world his masterwork, as he never directed anything again) was more interested in showing gore than he was in making things visually appealing.

 

Time to talk about the cops. We’ve got personality and brains to discuss! Our main man is Sergeant Frank Herbert, a former vice cop who’s now working homicide. After talking to Sherry the friendly prostitute about the death of her friend, he decides to take her to dinner – I thought it was to do with getting more information, but no, Frank and Sherry start up a relationship, and we’re treated to a substantial montage of their week of bliss together. Hey, Frank, someone’s murdering prostitutes and you’re supposed to be investigating it! Their relationship is treated at least initially as perfectly normal, but surely it must be a bit weird for a cop to date a hooker? Even in late 70s New Orleans? Of course, when he’s bored of her, he calls her a whore and slaps her about a bit, only at the end for her to apologise to him! Wow! I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but I’m kind of on the side of the murderer, who at least has a moral code.

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The “brains” part of the above is the investigation itself. The murderer is a well-dressed Englishman with a distinctive facial feature (a huge chin-dimple) and goes into places with a weird request – to purchase the services of the most evil prostitute there. The first killing takes place weeks before Mardi Gras, so it’s not like New Orleans will be heaving with millions of tourists, and you’d have to think he’d stand out a bit. But he’s able to carry on killing, no-one bothers warning anyone to be on the lookout, no-one comments on anything other than a weird ring he wears, and the police don’t seem to do anything other than the most perfunctory investigation. And there’s one moment where Sherry sees the killer and doesn’t recognise him! Surely you’d at least notice the accent? What the hell? Although if we’re talking baffling choices, the bit when John picks up a woman who he thinks is evil because she’s wearing devil horns and red body paint is my favourite.

 

On top of the weird plotting, we get a real flavour of New Orleans in the late 70s. This movie was filmed in dirty back alleys and dive bars and is, I imagine, much more “authentic” than the traditional tourist-style videos we normally see. There’s also footage from Mardi Gras itself, which must have been miserable that year as everyone is in thick coats and hats…it’s surprisingly interesting visually, if not for the reasons that anyone intended at the time. It’s also heavy with disco fever, to the extent of (with the exception of 15 seconds near the end) the entire soundtrack being disco, even though New Orleans is the jazz capital of the world. Even seeing the real patrons of the bars (not a paid extra in sight) is a fascinating look at another time and place – there’s a fight on one dancefloor which is witnessed by a chap dressed as Frank N Furter, for example. The camera really captures the grime, and the cheap nature of the film used helps in that regard. It’s got a great grindhouse look to it.

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The ending is pretty strange, which fits with the rest of the movie. John tries to kill three hookers at once (including Sherry) but finally the police decide to do their damn jobs for a second and find out where he lives – although, they’re tipped off and decide to go to a bar, have a drink and wait for backup! Anyway, John escapes and at that point the actor just disappears from the movie – we’re treated to a car chase and some extreme long shots of someone dressed the same as John driving a car into the ocean and disappearing. Low-budget movies always find weird and wonderful new ways to do things!

 

While it’s often dull (those murders go on forever and are all the damn same) and treats women absolutely appallingly, it’s entertaining enough to give a go to. I wouldn’t even worry about the gore, it’s hardly worse than the opening of the average episode of “Bones”. The decision to ban it seems sort of stupid, giving it notoriety it never deserved, although it’s not like they’ve ever tried to capitalise on it by re-releasing it over here. It’s an anti-classic!

 

Rating: thumbs up

The Driller Killer (1979)

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   An artist slowly loses his mind as he and his two female friends scrape to pay the bills. The punk band downstairs increasingly agitates him, his art dealer is demanding that he complete his big canvas painting as promised, and he gets into fights with his girlfriends. When the dealer laughs at his canvas he snaps, and begins taking it out on the people responsible for his pain…

   The title is made to thrill. It evokes images of 60s B-movies and shocking headlines written to sell newspapers. The poster’s tagline is lurid and evocative – ‘The Blood Runs In Rivers… And The Drill Keeps Tearing through Flesh and Bone’. The thrill-seekers waiting to see the film are half eager for it to start, and half hoping it doesn’t. The film was banned in the UK until 1999 under the ‘Video Nasty’ Act, so it’s predicted to be a truly horrific peep show. As the projector flickers on, one or two of the girls in the audience shriek pre-emptively. Nervous, coquettish laughter is heard, but it quickly dies down when the dripping RED LETTERS – IT’S BLOOD – appear. ‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD’ flashes across the screen, followed by the title. And that’s where the peak of terror is reached, before the film actually starts.

   Driller Killer is one of those films that seemed to reach cult status not because it was well made (it wasn’t), but because it has a style and theme that makes it interesting to watch. The early Abel Ferrara work is more of a social commentary than a slasher gorn-fest, exploring the struggles and existential angst of young people in a place like New York City. It is, in essentials, a loosely punk film from the early days of punk rock. Abel is both director and leading man, playing Reno Miller; the aforementioned suffering artist. His current work is a large painting of a buffalo (drinking a large amount of wine before viewing makes the film endlessly more enjoyable and the mediocre art more exquisitely beautiful). He’s a sarcastic and snide individual, which is cool, and owes money to every capitalist business in the town, which is not cool – his buxom lady friends spend their time lending him money, spending his money and taking PG-15 erotic showers together. Presumably it’s a harsh necessity to save on water bills, because we all know they aren’t getting paid if Reno doesn’t sell that painting.

   Close-up flashes of whirring drills (we’re never explicitly sure why drills, but there was a whole film about a microwave as a weapon so go figure) and blood pools abound until Reno finally snaps and starts killing the homeless. It’s certainly violence, but not slick, realistic, nauseating gore like you’d expect. The effects are good, if dated, but the indiscriminate murder hobby just seems like a small part in Miller’s life rather than the central focus of the plot. Driller Killer is truly grim and as much shocking as the classic film it’s clearly inspired on (namely: Taxi Driver, definitely Taxi Driver) but it lacks a fitting tone and an appropriate background. The film opens with a very confusing (read: hackneyed) sequence in which the protagonist is standing at an altar while being approached by an elderly man. This footage is extra since the 1999 re-release and it looks like Ferrara wanted to supply his film with some kind of spiritual depth. It leads nowhere, though.

   In fact, Driller Killer could have so easily escaped the UK ‘Video Nasty’ list if the original video cover wasn’t so graphic. It featured a very bloody close-up of a drill boring into a man’s head while he grimaced and screwed his eyes up slightly in agony. The cover was featured in video catalogues and earned the complaints that lead to the film’s classification as obscene. A large amount of the film’s cult status does derive from just being on that list, so the ban was probably the best thing that ever happened to its sales. It’s now available free online and in various boxsets – chances are that it’s become public domain.

   Overall, is the film worth the two hour runtime? Strip away the minimal violence and the gratuitous lesbian showers and it’s just an urban study – an arguably boring one. It’s definitely better when held in context with Ferrara’s other work than compared to the other Video Nasties – it’s a surprisingly good film that has a lot more depth than expected. It’s still not that much, though. More arthouse than grindhouse, Driller Killer should be taken more as a character study with a slightly exploitative advertising campaign than a traditional horror offering.

Serving Suggestion: With a glass – with a large glass – with a bottle of wine before viewing. Personal recommendation is a low-end 2012 Shiraz.

The VRAs – Don’t Go In The Woods (1981)

This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

From the video nasty list to being freely available to anyone on Youtube, “Don’t Go In The Woods” (occasionally with “…Alone!” appended to its title) has a strong case for being the worst of the VRA films we’ve seen so far, and I get the feeling it’ll be right down there when we finish this project too.

This is a real slasher film. You want plot or characterisation? Get the hell out of here. You want good acting? Then go to the theatre. But if you want plenty of seemingly randomly-picked people wandering about a forest, getting themselves butchered, then come sit down with me, friend, and let’s discuss this movie.

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My notes feature an awful lot of “why do all the women shriek so much?”, so if I’m talking about a woman in this film, chances are she screams in a nasty high-pitched way (or repeats the name of the man she needs to come and save her about 50 times in a row), and the movie starts with one of these. Then a guy who appears to be an oddly-dressed birdwatcher gets killed in the most confusing way possible – see if you can figure it out – before we meet the people who you’d probably have to describe as the film’s stars, a group of four hikers. Their “leader”, the boring wilderness-rule-spouting guy, could be used as foreshadowing, so it’s people who forget to follow his rules that get killed – or someone who remembers one of his survival tips is able to beat the killer. Want to guess if that happens or not?

As they wander round, and a few other people get killed, we see the local police responding to a missing persons report. Is this from a previous murder or one of the ones we’ve been watching? If the latter, who reported them missing and how long had they been gone for? Sorry, questions. This is a film devoted to murder!

We are soon to meet my second-favourite characters in the film, Dick and Cherry. They’ve gone for a honeymoon, in a camper van, in the middle of the woods. Their van is decked out in a wonderful variety of colours, and weirdly includes that iconic poster of Farrah Fawcett, which I feel would be an at best unusual choice for the ceiling above your marriage bed. But they pull it off! Until Dick goes out because he hears a sound, takes a sound thrashing and then the as-yet-unseen baddie manages to flip the entire camper van over on his own, plunging Cherry to her death too. He’s strong! Or this film is stupid!

The film became so dull round around halfway, and it wasn’t exactly starting from a high point, that I began imagining how to make this movie in several simple steps.

1. Go to the woods with a decent-sized group of your friends

2. Make sure none of them are particularly attractive or good at acting

3. Film them just wandering about, doing normal camping things

4. Every now and again, film one of them getting killed in a really confusing way, and chuck a load of fake red blood about

5. Explain nothing

6. ???

7. Profit!
Only read the rest of the review on the proviso you’ve watched that Youtube video above, or don’t care about having the film spoiled for you. It turns out the killer is some filthy hillbilly, unable to talk, who it’s implied has lived in a cabin in the woods for his entire life. He steals a baby at one point, and the last scene of the film is that baby, sat in the middle of a clearing playing with an axe. THE CIRCLE OF HORROR WILL CONTINUE, YOU GUYS

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Two of the four manage to escape the woods, and the police round up a big posse and go huntin’. Problem is, the male survivor is wracked with guilt at leaving his friends so decides to go back up into the woods – and the doctor brings the woman up as well, because the experience will be good for her. Huh? This whole bit has the feel of a tacked-on-at-the-end sequence, inserted between their lowest point and their final fight with the killer. Or maybe it’s just terrible.

My favourite character in this, or possibly any other, film pops up around this point. To give a little background, the wilderness where most of the film takes place is not pretty. It’s overgrown and everything is gnarled and about as far from a rural idyll as you could get. So, it’s a somewhat surprising development when we see coming up a winding, fairly steep path…a guy in a wheelchair! He’s clearly ready to camp, as he’s got a rucksack on the back of his chair, but unfortunately he’s unable to talk, as all we hear is grunts and moans coming from him. We see him fall over a few times, and as he’s completely on his own he has to pick himself back up. His arc ends when, after yet more grunting and attempting to push a wheelchair over very rough ground, the killer just chops his head off. What?! I’m all for people who need wheelchairs being able to do anything they want, but solo camping up a fairly steep mountain forest seems to be courting disaster (okay, he maybe wasn’t expecting to get his head chopped off, but you get the idea).

The title of this film is misleading. As the film starts in the woods, it’s already too little, too late, and I think “Sod Off Out Of The Woods” would be a much better title. As I realised that the film was mercifully over, I rued the day that it was banned, for that was the only reason I – or any other sensible human – would have to watch it. It’s not particularly gory (by today’s standards, it’s almost laughably quaint), and I suppose the toddler-in-peril was the thing that pushed it overboard with the censors.

I don’t know if I’ve hammered home how awful this film is. There’s no dramatic tension, no character you care about, no sense of moving from one place to another place. It’s a chore to watch, and I feel bad for the drive-in and grindhouse cinema patrons who had to sit through this for the lack of anything better.

Rating: thumbs down

The VRAs – Dead And Buried (1981)

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This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

Part of the fun of these films is trying to figure out why they were banned, and without looking it up I’d honestly have no idea about this one. Is removing peoples’ will to live a reason for banning something?

The first thing to notice is this is appreciably higher-budget than any of the VRA films we’ve covered so far. A whole small town is used and the special effects, by Stan Winston, while occasionally terrible even by the standards of the time, are often excellent. There’s also a decent cast assembled, with many future TV stars and dependable character actors early in their careers. But enough of that!

A photographer has driven to the small town of Potters Bluff to take photos of the beach, apparently. After being entranced for what would pass for a beauty in small town standards, he’s tied up by a bunch of mean-looking locals, photographed repeatedly and then burned almost to death, which brings in Sheriff Dan Gillis. He’s a solid guy, but the same definitely can’t be said for the rest of the inhabitants of Potters Bluff – the woman serving him coffee was one of the people present at the burning, and a few others around him look a bit suspicious too.

The photographer is visited in the hospital by a nurse, who drives a needle through his remaining good eye and walks off, no-one thinking of stopping her even though the guy starts screaming and the Sheriff definitely sees her leaving his room seconds before. But the rest of the murders are almosty equally un-subtle – hitch-hikers, families passing through, a drunk fisherman – all are fair game for the locals, and the bulk of the film is a sort of cross between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Wicker Man”, with the Sheriff gradually suspecting more and more while the town’s remaining friendly inhabitants meet grisly ends.

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This film was co-written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who also wrote “Alien” a few years previously. O’Bannon is one of those guys who just seemed to not give a damn, and had a fascinating career – friends with John Carpenter at film school, and he wrote and co-starred in “Dark Star”; special effects work on “Star Wars”, was attached to the Alejandro Jodorowsky version of “Dune” before it fell through; wrote and directed “Return Of The Living Dead”; and wrote “Total Recall” among many other films. Sadly, it appears his contribution to this was name only, as Shusett asked him to attach his name to it to make it easier to sell, promising to make some changes from the rather crude original draft which ended up not happening.

The thing that’s surprising about this video nasty is that it’s not that nasty. With a few seconds of trims, this could easily qualify for a 15 certificate in the UK of today, and the best guess anyone has it that it’s the special effects, including some fairly unpleasant autopsy scenes and a “live” burial which were the reasons for its banning (it had already enjoyed a fairly successful cinema run in the UK).

There are moments where you want to shout at the Sheriff – hey dum-dum! In a town as small as this apparently is, why aren’t you noticing the new people suddenly doing menial jobs? but, to be fair, the ending has a decent crack at explaining all that. While not the most surprising conclusion in the world, it’s done well and provided you aren’t too squeamish about endless facial scarring, and can tolerate that peculiarly slow-paced horror which was in vogue at the time, you should enjoy “Dead & Buried”. Up to now, this is by a mile the best of the VRA films we’ve covered, and probably the only one which would be remembered now with any degree of fondness.

Rating: thumbs up