Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Scalps (1983)

Every so often, you will come across a horror film that instantly catches your eye. Maybe because of the way its presented, maybe because of the actors or actresses in it, maybe because the title was something a bit out of the ordinary. And sometimes, one will catch your attention just because the subject matter is far from the "cookie cutter" formula of most horror films - which isn't always a bad thing, but sometimes isn't a good thing, either.

On the left you will see a piece of horror history for me. Just one look at this big box and I'm instantly inside the Valley Mart grocery store in Weslaco, Texas circa 1987. I'm about thirteen or fourteen years old and been given permission to browse the film titles in the video rental spot located in the northern corner of the store as mum and dad did the shopping. Ah, those days of staring at those bright colored big boxes as they each begged me to pick the up and hold them for just a little while. Each one in their own distinct voices calling out to me just yearning to be looked at, read and ultimately, taken home. Of course, I was too young for that and my parents would have never allowed it in the first place anyway. Valley Mart holds a special place in my heart as one of the first places where I was exposed to the many classics I now hold dear to me. It was something forbidden, something I longed to explore even further, and I made myself a promise that when I got older, I'd go back and rent each film at least once. But that was never to happen as the video section of the store was soon phased out at the start of the 90's. Long live its memory.

The first time I picked up Continental's big box boasting the double-bill of this film with The Slayer, I stared at it for a while and read the synopsis on the back. I loved the idea of two films on one VHS - which was something of a rarity then (if you notice, the photo to the left indicates a DVD release which I have yet to find). Every time I was in the store, I made a point of picking this one up just to stare at it longingly. To this day, I've never seen this Continental double-bill cassette again. When I started my collecting hobby back in late 2002, I had forgotten this film existed therefore never searched for it, until I laid eyes on the 20th anniversary edition DVD released by RetroMedia about a year ago. I immediately began doing my research on this one, reading up as much as I could and reading other's reviews and thoughts about the film. Some said it was great, some said it fell flat on its face. What intrigued me most was a blurb across the back of the DVD stating "the most censored film of all time" - I had to pick it up and judge for myself. I first looked up the theatrical trailer on youtube and watched it only to have my curiosity mount. Sure, it looked really low budget, but that didn't meant I couldn't give it a fair chance.

The first thing to grab my attention was the disclaimer notice at the beginning of the film. Actually, I take that back. The psychedelic title card reading "Feature Presentation" that looked an awful lot like the opening title card used by Grindhouse Releasing caught my eye first. Then the notice stating the film was coming from different prints was next. This wasn't the first 80's horror film whose DVD treatment from several masters promised the most "complete version". According to IMDb, this DVD was made with a heavily cut German print, a Canadian print and the U.S. VHS edition - and believe me, it shows. In many places in the film the quality, in both video and audio. goes in and out from clear to dark to grainy and back again. But that's not the worst thing about the film.

From the moment the film commences, it screams - no, it howls - low budget. And it howls with such a furor that all of the dogs that inhabit the block I live in are still following suit. A group of kids takes a trip out into the deserts of California to do an "archaeological dig" to uncover secrets of a lost Native American tribe. The characters are all obviously naive about this sort of thing even though they act like they know what they're doing. Among those characters are Randy and Ben (Richard Hench and Frank McDonald, respectively) - the token "eye candy" of the film leading the expedition followed by the always-present nerd Kershaw (Roger Maycock). They lead a group of three ladies (two of whose performances are so vapid I won't even credit them with their real names) out into the California wilderness to dig up artifacts on an Indian burial ground. Of the three ladies, the only one that stands out is poor, bumbling blonde D.J. (Jo-Ann Robinson), who spends 2/3 of the film trying to warn the group about the possible grave dangers of disturbing the dead. But not before being personally warned by local Indian man Billy Ironwing (George Randall) channeling Crazy Ralph in the Friday the 13th series, except not as overbearing and spooky. She seems to have a premonition about what might happen on the dig, but does she know something that she's keeping from the others? And why is she so insistent about everything?

The storyline itself leaves much to be desired. The exteriors switch from night to day then back again, all within the same scene. The use of the three different prints leaves gaps and jumps in the film's continuity making it all the more confusing. The lighting is poor, especially in some of the darker areas. The acting is just plain horrible - and I'm being gracious. I was really expecting a film with more of a punch, especially with the description that I'd read on the back of the DVD, but the entire thing quickly fizzles and stays that way. I was really hoping a film that explored the idea of tampering with an Indian burial ground and its ghosts haunting the living to carry itself with ease, but it does just the opposite. There are probably less than a handful of horror films with this sort of plot line and this one should have stood out. The gore scenes didn't deliver enough to the point of doing anything but compare themselves at times to scenes in Maniac. The film ends just as I'd predicted: that D.J. was aware of what was going on the entire time and that she would be the only one to survive, carrying the ghost of "Black Claw", the film's ominous villain, within her. The film in its final moment even gives us something I would have never expected: a title card promising a sequel? Oh, pretension, where art thou? I honestly thought the producers were kidding, but no, they were going to give us a dose of Scalps II: The Return of D.J.. Thankfully, the sequel was never made and all of us can now rest knowing that the final shot of D.J. surrounded by all the dead bodies - ala Mrs. Voorhees in Friday The 13th - Part 2 - was just that: the final shot.

If you're really into horror history and/or honestly curious about this film, find a rental copy. Even the small bit of money I paid to get this into my collection was a bit much for such a painful film to have to sit through. The film is cheesy, and not in the good way. It's banal and completely oblivious of itself and the potential it had to be a well-made shocker.

Here is the trailer. Listen as the announcer claims this to be "a film that you might not be strong enough to survive until the end" and "No one under 17 will be admitted without parent"...They were kidding, right?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Friday the 13th - Part 2 (1981)

The true horror-film devotee can easily name you not one, not two, but several different films in the genre that have gone on to not only spawn a sequel or two, but ones that have gone off to become million-dollar franchises, each one as bankable as the next. From mainstream knowns as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street to the more obscure and lesser-seen titles as Children of the Corn and Hellraiser, the genre as a whole is scattered with plenty of sequels to keep any fan's palette happy. But amidst all the endless titles on the shelves at the local Blockbuster, no franchise stands out more nor has had the impact upon the world that the Friday the 13th series has had. And this was the sequel to begin all sequels.

The movie takes place five years after the events that happened on the shores of Crystal Lake in the first film. All horror die-hards know the story of how Alice (Adrienne King), still trying to free herself from the memory of what happened there, is hiding away in her home away from the outside world. She is quickly killed off by an unknown killer and left to die. Side Bar: Did you know that this movie holds the honour of being one of the few films in cinema history with a pre-credit sequence totalling over fifteen minutes? Not bad for a horror sequel, huh? But, could this be the maniacal Jason whom she told police she'd seen rise up from the annals of the lake itself? We instantly move to Camp Packanack where a new set of young and nubile counselors are setting up to re-open the camp despite the warning from local doom-preacher crazy Ralph. Leading this new group is experienced head camp counselor Paul Holt and his faithful sidekick Ginny (fan favorite Amy Steel) - one dedicated to train the other counselors in the good 'ol ways of survival in the woods, the other to allow the kids to goof off once in a while and enjoy their surroundings, and each other. Seems like the perfect team. But little do we know there is a romantic history behind them.

The problems begin when Paul decides to gather the counselors in front of a roaring campfire and scare them with the legend of Jason Voorhees and his mother and the bloodbath that took place years prior. This not only scares everyone, but it sparks the curiosity of two of the counselors-to-be, Jeff and Sandra (who's brother will avenge her death in The Final Chapter) to take a peek at the now-condemned - and off limits - area once known as Camp Crystal Lake, better known to them as "Camp Blood". When they're brought back by an officer patrolling the area, it also sparks the curiosity of Ginny, who makes her opinions and thoughts known while some of the group enjoys one last night out of the town during a rainstorm. Could the legend of Jason and his mother be true? Did Jason really see his mother killed that night on the lake shore? Is a real maniac hiding in the woods ready to kill to avenge his mother's death? Is that a real KISS pinball machine in the pub's background? Inquiring minds want to know!

Meanwhile, back at the cabins, teen-aged hormones are running rampant. Couples having decided to stay behind are pairing up, enjoying the rain outside form the inside and enjoying each other just the same. Especially Jeff and Sandra, forced to stay behind as their penance for their foray into the wilderness without permission. But, unbeknownst to them, something is lurking outside watching their every move. Sounds like every other slasher film cliche, doesn't it? But Part 2 goes for panache and delivers it well, even though it totally borrows from the Italian giallo shocker Reazione a Catena better known to the U.S. horror-loving world as Twitch of the Death Nerve or Bay of Blood directed by maestro Mario Bava. Almost all the death scenes are alike: The machete across the neck, the machete in the face, and the world-famous double-impalement on a bed. I didn't really believe it until I took both films and played them side by side and there's a lot of truth to it, which surprised me. Was Steve Miner's intention to re-do Bay of Blood by means of a Friday sequel? Or was he secretly paying direct homage to the film itself hoping die-hard horror buffs would get the tongue-in-cheek references? There are horror experts out there who even claim that the original Friday the 13th borrowed from the same film: Simon, the killer in that film and Mrs. Voorhees shared the same blue-knitted sweater! Because of these explicit scenes, the MPAA chopped this one up like a chicken salad, taking the best out and leaving barely enough to savour. If you own the original Paramount VHS version, look on the back and you will see that a still from the cut scene of the double-impalement is proudly slapped on the back of the box! And it was even omitted from the DVD sleeve! Something like that deserves a "WTF"? But more on that later.

The film is the first to showcase Jason, and in my opinion, this is the scariest he's ever been. The sack over his head - again, maybe borrowed from The Town that Dreaded Sundown - to me, is creepier than the hockey mask any day. Especially in the scene where he sits up from the bed when Vicky is looking for Sandra and Jeff. Yowza, that still gives me the heebies. There isn't much to Jason in reality, since he doesn't appear really until the film's closing act. But what we see does deliver and it delivers good. From the moment Ginny delivers the classic line, "Paul there's someone in this fucking room!" the action really begins. And it's one hell of a fun ride. This one for me is the best of the many sequels that would follow the original film, though Jason Lives comes in at a close second. Steve Miner's direction is charismatic and flamboyant and he showed us how much fun being scared to could be. And not many films can do that for me. The film's final minutes in which Ginny dons Mrs. Voorhee's sweater and tries to outwit the son-of-a-bitch - Remember, it's mentioned at the beginning of the film that she has a degree in child psychology - are fantastic and are quite clever if you really think about it. How they got Betsy Palmer to return in the second film is something to think about. She did call the first installment a "piece of shit", remember? But her short performance here steals the show. And I'm glad that the original idea of closing shot was never done. I've read that the original closing shot was going to have the eyes of Mrs. Voorhees' decomposing head open and her smile at the camera. That would have ruined the film for me. What they kept was just perfect.

Now, back to the "WTF" moments and questions posed by this film, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to ask these, but here goes. 1) In the first act, when Ginny and Paul are in the cabin alone - in the seconds before Ralph is killed - she kisses him and says, "Paul, I think there's something I need to tell you." That is never explored in the film and the question is never answered. What was she going to say to him? Was she pregnant? Was she out of condoms? Was her monthly visitor in town for the weekend?** I had never really noticed that question until just the other night when I sat down for my yearly Halloween dosage of this film. So, what was she going to say?! 2) What the hell happened to Paul? Friday history says he was killed off screen, but could this really be true? Maybe when Jason broke through the window, Paul made a run for it, got into his car and disappeared? Paul is the only character in the series who's whereabouts are never explained. Did he really die? And if he did, why did Jason spare Ginny instead of him? She was the one who tried to kill him. She was the one that tried to fool him by channeling his mother. So why him? and 3) What did the other counselors who had been out all night come back to find? We don't see anything but the ambulance and police car at the end of the film. Case in point: Ted, played by Stu Charno, is one of the main characters in the first half of the film, then he just disappears and we never hear anything about him again - why wasn't he brought back at the film's close?

(**Ginny was on her monthly. Remember Paul's line about bears and menses?)

This one remains in my top 10 of all time favorites. I watch this one more than the original film itself, maybe because I have more fun with this one as I'm still creeped out by the first film. This one delivers the scares but it does it on a different level. The first one was gloomier and it had more of a dreaded type of tone. Most horror-fans have this in their collections, I would assume. I own the original Paramount VHS, it's 90's re-release on the Paramount/Gateway label, and the Paramount DVD. I wished that Paramount would have included more in their special features in these films besides the theatrical trailer. Maybe a mini-documentary on how this sequel was contrived would have been a treat for fans. Though there is an uncut version of the original film that can be found on the likes of ebay, I've never heard of an uncut version of this film. I am aware of a television version in which alternate scenes are used that exists and currently, I'm trying to get my hands on a copy of it. Check this one out if you haven't seen it yet. Honestly, if you're reading this, you've seen it more than twice, I just know it. Sadly, the Paramount R-rated version is all we have to go on for now. Maybe they'll change their minds one day and give us a special edition with all the scenes cut by the MPAA in tact. But sure, that will happen. Just like one day Paramount will finally release an uncut version of My Bloody Valentine. But we can all dream, can't we?

Here is the short trailer. The actual full length trailer continues the "counting" where the first one ended. I think once was enough for that. If you are a true Friday devotee, you will notice the hundred-or-so things that are wrong with this trailer

Isn't in fun being a horror geek?

(Update 5/25/12): So Paramount has released a Special Edition of Part 2, as well. I won't be the first one to say that I was very disappointed to see that we still don't have the excised footage that was removed at the request of the MPAA having seen the light of day yet. Now that My Bloody Valentine has been released in a very gorgeous uncut version on DVD, I will now  personally consider Part 2's cut footage the holy grail of M.I.A. footage. I would actually dismiss any talk that any extra footage exists if it weren't for that one still shot that still remains printed on the back of every single VHS box in the United States. You know, the one that copies the infamous scene from Twitch of the Death Nerve? I've read a handful of articles regarding this and from what I've read, it seems that Paramount won't release the uncut footage and some articles claim that Paramount doesn't even acknowledge that said footage even exists. Part 2 looks fantastic in this edition and sounds just as good. I'm even thinking about buying this on Blu-Ray just to see how much better it looks. The total waste of a sequel to Lost Tales from Camp Blood is avoidable on this one, as well. Just skip right past it. Still remains, for me, the best of the bunch. 

Paul, there's someone in this fucking room! 

Monday, October 13, 2008

Girls Night Out (1984)

Back in the early eighties, budding horror fans like myself were either hooked on or curious about a television show called USA Up All Night, a late night cable show that showcased now-beloved slasher and obscure B-films. While some of us fans got to sneak into the living room while mum and dad were sleeping to catch rare glimpses of said slasher and B-films, I was not allowed to say up that late anyway, much less be allowed to watch a program of that nature. And I can safely say that all of us as a collective would give anything to have shows like that back on television, even in syndication.

I've actually spoken to a few horror fans who hold this film in high esteem and one thing we all concurred on was the wonderful memories we have of the television trailer:

"You know what really turns me on?"
The lone naked girl under the sheets in her bed smoking a cigarette in her dorm room as the thunder crashes outside. She narrates most of the plot of the film for us: I can still hear her voice as she tosses her curly brown hair behind her. I can still see some of the scenes of the film. I can still feel my heart beating rapidly and as I'm writing this, I'm smiling. But what we all remember the most fondly is the last spoken line of the trailer:

"But what can you expect...on a girls night out?"

Oh, the memories that come rushing back from my childhood when I think of that sentence. I'm living in Reedley, California on Pecan Street and I'm in the third grade. We'd just gotten cable from Group W and all of us were discovering the joys of USA and WGN. This was the time in my life when the 80's horror boom was well underway and my friends and I would gather inside the jungle gym and try to out do each other with some of the stories we could tell of those horror films we had "seen" over the weekend. It was a great time in my life - the only film I'd actually seen pieces of was the original Friday the 13th and even then it was hard to beat some of the other tall tales my friends were coming up with. The first time I saw the trailer to this one, I was sitting alone after nine o' clock and USA was on the television and as it came on, I realized that I was the only one in the living room. I sat there, terrified and at the same time, ecstatic. I sat through those thirty seconds of wonderful pleasure and as the title card came onto the screen, I wondered if I'd ever see it again. I did, several days later and that was all that remained of it: a memory. Man, do i miss the eighties.

Over the years, I hoped to somehow see this for rent somewhere and I never did. I actually didn't see this again until 1999, when one of the local (and last) mom and pops in Brownsville, Texas was closing and I stopped in to see what I could find for sale. I remember seeing the black cover and picking it up and all those wonderful memories came rushing back to me as I held the VHS cassette in my hands. I asked the owner of the store if he would be willing to part with it but sadly, he declined. I really doubt that he knew what he had and didn't want to sell it to me just because. Little did I know that I wouldn't see it again until 2003.

The age of the Digital Versatile Disc brought to light some of the rarest and most obscure - and forgotten - horror films of the break-dancing era and this was one I was happy to see get the special treatment. I saw this for the first time on DVD at Best Buy in Independence, Missouri and saw it only that one time. Why I didn't buy it is beyond me - I mean, the price tag was pretty reasonable for an obscure title as this was. I have this annoying habit of seeing a movie that's on my "Must have" list and letting it slip only to wait months and months to see it again and finally pick it up. This one was no exception. It wasn't until just last year that I saw it again on DVD at Video Liquidators in Fresno, and I didn't hesitate to take it home. Was I excited? Read the first few paragraphs of this review a second time and ask me again. I rushed home with my cousin and sat down to put this in. The first thing I looked for was the presence of either the original theatrical trailer or the TV spot and to my own surprise, the trailer was on there! And the exact one I remembered! I sat there in front of my cousin, gushing like a Japanese school girl, and watched it over and over again until he asked me *cough* politely to start the film. I was in hog heaven - but I do need to confess that I'd never seen the film in its entirety. Ever. So we pressed 'play'...

The movie has a simple and promising premise: After the big basketball game, some students at a local college participate in a campus-wide scavenger hunt and little do they know that a killer is on the loose wearing the same bear costume worn by Benson, the school mascot. But is the killer really Benson, or is it someone trying to wreak havoc on the school and blame Benson for all the mayhem? As exciting as it sounds, it starts off strong and, sadly, fizzles out as the film progresses, which was a real disappointment seeing as how long I'd waited to actually see it. The film does drag in places and the gore was very tame for my tastes seeing there were only a few on screen slashings. The cast wasn't much to make a fuss about, though it was great to see Laurie Marie-Taylor of Friday the 13th - Part 2 in another horror film. I really would like to sit here and tell you the course of how the events in the film transpire but this one ends up being one of those that you see once and put back on the shelf. The "twist ending" was a little predictable and honestly, it made the film all the more confusing.

I watched this again just last night for the sake of this review and still found it as tepid as it was the night I first viewed it. Even Teddy (James Ratliff) and Benson (Matthew Dunn), the "eye candy" of the film, weren't enough to keep my interest afloat - or anything else for that matter. The DVD print is gorgeous with little or no grain during the dark scenes and the soundtrack was clear. I've never seen the VHS edition so I can't tell you if that particular print was used as master for this release. I would actually only recommend this film to those 80's film purists who have a "Must see/have" list or are curious about the more obscure entries in the slasher genre. Sadly to say that the final verdict on this one is that the trailer has more panache than the actual film itself. Now I'm not saying that the movie is a total bust - I did mention the presence of "eye candy" - I'm only saying not to expect this to be one of those diamonds in the rough. That would just be too far-fetched. Stick to gems like Happy Birthday To Me, Burnt Offerings, or Curtains.

Maniac (1980)

There are a good plethora of films in the beloved horror genre that have their reputation(s) precede them, and for good reason. Some for their blatant exploitative violence, some are known for their mundane use of cheese, and some are known for the genuine horror that they provide the viewer. The first memory I have of this film is seeing the poster up at a mom and pop video store my parents used to rent from in Reedley, California at the start of the eighties. I can still see myself, only about seven or eight years old, looking at the poster of a man's lower body, knife in one hand, scalp of blonde hair in the other. I still have that tagline burned into my memory, I warned you not to go out tonight! And just that was enough to scare the hell out of me, enough to stay away from the possibility of seeing this film ever.

I began reading about this film's notoriety in the early 90's - about its inception, its creation, the backlash behind it and the furor it created upon its release. What most people don't understand is that back in the time this film was unleashed onto the unsuspecting public, it wasn't like modern times where even kids as young as eight and nine years old have witnessed everything in the book regarding violence. Nothing seems to faze this generation's youth, that's why I feel that all the modern horror films that are being churned out by the Hollywood machine are as inept as they are entertaining. Maniac, though, delivers on a totally different scale.

I really don't want to go into this one and review it scene by scene mainly because the whole film can be summarized as a study into a human being's descent into madness and the methods in which he chooses to deal with said madness. The story chronicles the life of Frank Zito, brilliantly played by the incomparable Joe Spinnell who actually wrote the screenplay and helped produce this film. To make up for the loss of his mother as a child, Frank goes on a killing spree in New York City, disposing of young prostitutes and bringing home their scalps to place on the heads of his collection of mannequins he keeps in his squalid apartment. The thing I love most about this film is that it can actually be viewed with two different viewpoints: superficially, it's an effective and genuinely disturbing piece of horror cinema that has moments that have never been rivaled. Anyone can walk away from this film and have it in their mind they've just sat through just that: another slasher film. Then there are those who can say that this piece of work is a look into a mind damaged by years of psychological and physical abuse and how the effects have still lasted so many years later. We see how Frank, the character, plays many parts: the tortured child, the socialite, the demented madman and the victim vying for some kind of help to ease the pain he's been feeling and to somehow surpass the carnal instincts to kill and kill again. From New York City streets and alleyways to subways late at night, Frank relies on his urges to kill to survive day by day and Spinnell does this with such a panache that I honestly think he deserved an award of some sort - Golden Globe, maybe? - for his performance.

One of the film's most terrifying scenes in when Frank and Anna (played by Caroline Munro) visit Frank's mother's grave. Possibly derivative from the final scene in Carrie, this scene could only serve as the perfect moment for Zito's personalities to culminate into once person, therefore allowing his harrowing secret to come through: that he is the New York Maniac that killed her friend. When Frank's mother's hands come up and grab him, I did, honestly, jump out of my seat and scream - but not for the conventional reasons. It was the realization tat every haunting memory ever kept within his mind, every fear that he kept secret and every bit of resentment toward his mother materialized itself for those few seconds, and it drove him mad. And those few seconds were his kiss of death.

I hate to read about the film's feminist backlash and how women's groups - along with other groups - fought to have this film banned here in the U.S. Before I actually sat down and watched this for myself, I'd painted a picture of how this film would be: misogynistic in nature, brutally violent with absolutely no redeeming values. But if you actually sit down and watch this, you'll discover that it's a look at a troubled man with a past so damaged that his own slow demise is eminent. And this film does a fantastic job of of portraying Zito's downward spiral, especially during the film's final ten minutes. You are torn between feeling jubilation for his death or apathy or how his life ended up. Was it his fault his mother was a prostitute who kept him in the closet while hosting trick after trick? Was it his fault he had to listen to so many men abuse her? Was it his fault that he was unable to keep her from the lifestyle that led her to be taken from him at such a young age?

Many people bash this film for its violence and to some extent, I could agree that it is one of the more violent film's I've ever seen. But do people criticize this film just because the violence altogether without even taking a good look at the film itself and seeing just what the story is really about? For example, I've read on many sites that film critic Gene Siskel was outraged with this film and walked out of the theater just after the murder of "Disco Boy" - which I'll get into below - and protested the film on his television program. But did Gene really take a good look at the real story taking place on screen? The psychological downfall of a human being for evens that happened in his life that he had no control over that ultimately mapped out the rest of his adult life? If this film would have starred Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, I fell the overall reaction to this film would have been that much different. It didn't help that this film wasn't even submitted to the MPAA as to avoid the "X" rating it knew it was going to be slapped with. The most horrific point of this film for me was when the tagline, "I warned you not to go out tonight" was uttered by Frank. I think I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand when it hit me that the famous tagline was about Frank himself. This is why I make the constant point hat horror films of today don't even stand up to the ones we grew up with in the eighties. You tell me a recent horror film that has a tagline as memorable as that I can almost guarantee that you won't come up with one.

Yes, the film is reprehensible in some instances. The violence is shocking and over-the-top. The first scalping scene, the murder of the nurse in the subway station lavatory, and the murder of "Disco Boy" (played by the master Tom Savini himself) are three of the high points in the film. It was amazing to see how a make up genius such as Savini could craft and execute his own death scene with such brilliance that it would make it a piece of art. You actually have to watch it a few times to believe that he could get away with something so elaborate, and make it work the way it does. That murder sequence in particular will remain in your mind for days after you've seen the film. And sure, I could agree that violence toward women is a little much, but again, you have to keep reminding yourself why Frank is committing these murders and the motives behind them. He's not killing these women to get any kind of sexual gratification - though if you look long enough at the film's infamous poster art you might not agree - but more to ease his own psychotic mind in an attempt to free himself from the demons that plague him day after day.
The only version I currently own is the original Media VHS version which I believe is the cut R-Rated version. I know that Elite was the first to release this film uncut on DVD before Anchor Bay released it's definitive version. There is a new print on Blue Underground, which, if you don't know, is the new Anchor Bay. I believe the release is the exact same as the original AB version. Hopefully, I will own one of those DVD prints soon. I've never seen the film in it's uncut version and I'm dying to see what was going to become the sequel, Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, which was a conceived - and partially filmed - follow up until Joe Spinnell's tragic death.

The film is a must see for fans of the genre and it is a monumental film, yet to be rivaled, imitated or duplicated. I usually don't praise a film that's this graphic but you have to watch it and understand the reasoning behind what takes place as a whole to completely appreciate its message. If you're squeamish and can't handle this type of film, avoid it. But if you're the least bit curious, let me say that you won't be disappointed one bit. This is a film that deserves its place in horror history and it deserves to be remembered for Spinnell's tour de force performance.
Here's the amazing trailer:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Burnt Offerings (1976)

In the horror genre, especially during the horror explosion of the late 1970's-early 1980's, there were many definable sub-genres including, but not limited to, the supernatural and possession sub-class, the zombie sub-class, the cannibal sub-class, and the budding slasher sub-class. One that stands out to me that remained underappreciated was the haunted house sub-class. For some reason, I tend to enjoy these films more than I'm willing to admit and up until the beginning of this month, I thought I'd seen the majority of the cream of the crop: The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, Poltergeist, The Legend of Hell House, Ghost Story. But nothing had prepared me for the unstoppable gem that is Burnt Offerings.

I heard about this film back in the late eighties but had no idea that it was a haunted house film until the beginning of last year when I ran into a VHS copy at the local Video Liquidators. I knew that the film had a very devoted cult following but never took the idea of that following seriously so, I left the film behind and didn't take it home with me. And believe me, I'm kicking myself in the ass now, since I read a few weeks ago that the VHS version is long out of print and is one of the hardest to find in the haunted house sub-genre. But, a friend of mine had it on DVD (which I knew nothing about!) and allowed me to finally experience the film in the privacy of my own home.

The plot surrounds Ben (the absolutely gorgeous and gallant Oliver Reed) and Marian (Karen Black) who rent a majestic and picture-esque mansion out in the countryside for the summer. When they find out they are renting the home for the entire summer for only $900, Ben suspects that there's a catch to the whole thing, since the idea of renting a home for that length of time should have cost them more. The owners of the home (Ellen Heckart and Burgess Merideth) are excited to have them there and ask only one thing while they are away: that the new tennants take care of their mother, Mrs. Allardyce, who lives in the top floor of the home, quiet and shy from the rest of the outisde world. Marian thinks this a fantastic idea and promises to do her best to live up to their expectations. The family moves in, along with their son Davey and Ben's aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis in one of her final roles) and begin to enjoy everything the home has to offer: the wonderful countryside, the wonderfully large swimming pool and the decor and style of the house itself. Everything in the house just seems to perfect, so beautiful, so peaceful. But, something soon starts to come over Marian. She slowly becomes obsessed with caring for the unseen Mrs. Allardyce, and it begins to take its toll on the rest of the family. But is it Marian's devotion to the patron of the house that is beginning to tear her and Ben apart? Or is the house istelf that is taking over the family? It all doesn't make sense until one day Ben is sitting on the lawn after a hard day of yardwork when he sees an old-style hearse begin to drive up to the house. It seems familiar to him and it looks just like the one that he rode in the day his mother died. And who is driving the hearse? An evil looking man whom still haunts Ben's thoughts still many years after his mother's passing. And it scares him terribly. Something isn't right. As he's determined to find out why.

The pool takes over him, almost making him kill his own son and driving them apart forever. He sees things he shouldn't be seeing. And he isn't the only one. Poor Bette Davis is accused of attempting to suffocate their son by means of a gas heater. She tries to convince Marian that she didn't do it, that she had just gone in to check on the boy. But Marian doesn't believe her and the family continues to be torn apart by strange and horrible random acts against one another that tear the family further and further apart. Something is after them, but what exactly is it? Or is just a figment of thier imaginations? And why is Marian spending so much time with the still-unseen Mrs. Allardyce? And what's with the collection of photographs she has mounted on the credenza in her room? Then one night, something invades aunt Elizabeth's room. Something unseen, something evil that mangles her body and torments her. Ben comes to her rescue and tries to help her until they both hear a knock at the bedroom door to find the eerie chauffer who had haunted Ben earlier standing with a coffin in the hallway. Terrified, Ben and aunt Elizabeth scream as the driver thrusts the coffin at them violently. She, sadly, passes away from the experience leaving the question as to the who did this to her and why. And Ben notices that Marian is taking the whole thing rather lightly. And there's something different about her that just isn't sitting well with him. And why is it that Marian is insistent on staying in the 
house when it's obvious that the house is beginning to have a hold on them?

The ending is fantastic, so I don't want to give it away. At first glance the film looks pretty modest as far as scares and it has just about zero gore. But the storyline completely wraps itself around you and you become involved with the characters, something that a haunted house movie rarely does for me. I felt for the family and sympathized with the way the house's grip on them cost them everything they'd ever worked for and everything they'd ever loved. In the film's final moments, I screamed out of sheer delight, sorry for what had taken place but amazed at the turn the film had suddenly taken. I don't think I've ever heard a man scream the way Ben does when everything is finally revealed and Mrs. Allardyce comes into the picture once and for all. The closing shot is something that will leave you speechles and it's something you're not expecting and it makes you understand why this film has the underground following that it's had since its release in the late seventies. What's even more amazing is that this story didn't rely on any special efffects at all to make the impression that it did. Well, okay, only in once scene. This is one film that should be praised for what it is: a haunted house movie that makes sense and that grips you until the final moment. Spectaular, legendary performers givng spectacular performances. Read the book by Robert Marasco, if you can find it. According to IMDb, the film's ending is completely different from the one in the book. Apparently director Dan Curtis wasn't happy with the one in the novel and changed it when the opportunity was given him to direct the film version. The MGM DVD has a great commentary with Curtis and actress Karen Black. And to my sheer glee, the DVD includes the original theatrical trailer. A brilliant film packaged just as brilliantly.

At any rate. this is a film that deserves a place in your collection and a place as one of the best haunted house films of an era now long-gone.

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (Night Warning) (1981)

(5/25/12: I'm shocked to see that there are over 1350 hits to just this one review, and this is my blog's top viewed page. Thanks, guys!)

If I close my eyes right now, it's 1981. My brother has just turned a year old and I've entered the second grade. I am sitting in the living room of my father's old house in Reedley, California and we're watching KFSN-TV. Suddenly a commercial appears on the screen of a spiralling psychadelic swirl of some sorts and there is a shilouette of a boy and girl, holding hands and running in front of it. I can't make out what the announcer is saying but I do remember him uttering the words in his deep gruff voice, "Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Rated R." That was so many years ago and still, I can remember it like it was just this morning. It was one of those things that as a child, is burned into your memory forever. And that was just the 10 second television spot.

That's all I would hear about the film until 1999 when I would visit a mom and pop video store and see the box for a film called Night Warning that had an image of a boy and girl, holding hands, and running. I instantly remembered that television spot and I could hear the announcer's voice in my mind again. I picked up the box and was immediately confused by the synposis on the back cover. It sounded nothing like the commercial would have been. So I put the movie back on the shelf and walked out with both the box image and film synposis in my head. A few years later, the wonder that is the Internet Movie Data Base was introduced to me and I quickly began to spend countless hours on the site, looking up information about those obsure film I new little to nothing about. I remembered the title Night Warning and decided one late night to look it up and to my own surprise, I read that this was indeed Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker - the same film whose TV spot I'd remember so longingly from my days as a kid - and I had to look for it, but with no luck as I got to read that the film was one of the original films listed on the DPP Video Nasties list of the mid-80's in Britain and that it was very long out of print. I didn't give up though. I remember scouting countless mom and pop video stores and Goodwill stores in my area and even if I was out of town visiting, I'd hit the local charity shops just to see if I could come across anything even remotely close to what I'd seen back in the late 90's - even if it was just the film itself with no box. Again, no luck. I resorted to several "collector to collector" sites on the internet and still, nobody had this film in print. And then one day, again, I took a venture on Ebay while living in Missouri and found the film, the same box cover and all that I'd seen at one of the last independent mom and pops in Brownsville, Texas. I was ecstatic.

In all honest truth, I ended up paying almost $30 for the U.S. out-of-print Thorn/EMI VHS edition in it's lovely white makeshift clam shell casing. I didn't care, I just wanted this in my collection. I had researched the film enough to learn about its bizarre and completely original plot line and the trivial aspects behind the film but never got to actually sit down and watch the film in its entirety until just last week, almost three years after it oringally made its way into my ever-growing collection. And wow, was it worth the wait.

The plot surrounds Billy (a very *cough* cute and twinkie Jimmy McNichol - yes, brother of actress Kristy) and his loving aunt Cheryl (an astounding Susan Tyrell) who brings him up after his parents die in a tragic auto accident when he was only three years old. What surmounts from the prologue is something that I never would have expected. We flash forward fourteen years to the eve of Billy's seventeenth birthday and an episode where auntie Cheryl calls over the local repairman to have something in the house fixed. When her sexual advances don't work on the bloke - and there is good reason why - all hell breaks loose and she kills the poor bastard with a knife as a horrified Billy watches outside through the window. Claiming it as an attempted rape, the local police cheif (Bo Svenson) doesn't believe her story and thinks Billy did the deed and that auntie is just protecting him. But little does everyone know that Mr. Fix It was playing for the other team and was seeing the local high school basketball coach whom the police think convinced Billy to kill him. To make matters worse, the cheif thinks that Billy is well, playing on the same court. Can you say, "gay love triangle"? And that's just one of the bizarre plots to this film.

The second plot involves auntie Cheryl, the loving 'mother' that Billy never had who is trying everything within her power to get her dear nephew to stay with her instead of running off to college with his girlfriend (Designing Women's Julia Duffy in a very surprising role). She loves her dear boy and the more you watch her around him, the more you hear her talk to him, the more you realize that there's more to her love for Billy that the film is willing to admit, at first. There is a very bizarre scene in which Billy is about to take a shower and aunt Cheryl walks in to talk to him, as he's standing in front of her stark naked and they stand there in front of one another, as if nothing. That really made my stomach churn a bit, even because I got to see little 'ol Billy's naked backside for a good three minutes. It slowly goes from her being his protector to outright jealousy. When she leaves for the weekend and comes home early to find Billy in bed with his amore, she makes a scene, throwing the poor girl out of the house, calling her every name in the book, and firmly setting her rules that Billy is not to be with any woman. Yes, and it gets worse. Her attempts to make sure he stays are so determined that she begins to drug his milk so that he'll fail in basketball to the point where he could lose the offer for an athletic scholarship. It's absolutely horrifying. But at the same time, it's amazing how horror films (or any films for that matter) in this day and age don't even go near this type of subject matter. And this one stands out, believe me. But, what is the secret that aunt Cheryl is hiding in her basement that nobody can ever know about?

If you really think about it, the story is rather sick on most, if not all, levels but it is presented and executed quite well. Billy has to defend himself from the chief (who loves to use the term "fag" which, in this film, is used over twenty times in the span of three short minutes) and the school bully (Bill Paxton in one of his first film roles) and with everything that's going on, he has to deal with the antics of aunt Cheryl. So what is a teenaged boy in love supposed to do? Get to the bottom of things, snoop around the house, get the girlfriend to help out, and finally expose the truth for what it is: Aunt Cheryl really killed the gay Maytag Man because he didn't like her sexually (who would with her psychotic disposition?), that Aunt Cheryl isn't really his aunt, she's his mother (even I didn't see that coming), her boyfriend who mysteriously disappeared one day is actually down in the basement in the form of a rotting corpse with a candle-laden shrine made to his memory, and she wants an incestual relationship with the boy who made her life complete. Now that is one messed up film plot if I'd ever heard of one before. But it works here and that's what counts.

The film stands out from the majority of the horror films of the era. Though I'm not sure as to why it remains on the DPP Video Nasties list, as there isn't much gore in the film at all. Maybe it could be because of the really bizarre nature of the film and the issues and subject matter it tackles head-on. I've never seen a movie like this before and I don't think anyone would make a film like this in today's modern world. With it being out of print on VHS, DVD distributors Code Red have already included this on their coming soon list so hopefully, 2008 will finally see this one get it's proper treatment. I would love to see an interview with Susan Tyrell, or at least hear her on the commentary, just to see what her viewpoints on the film were then and now. This is arguably her best role, period. While this one, for me, was really hard to get a hold of, I don't suggest seeking this out on VHS. If you're curious, Code Red's DVD should be out soon, and all their releases so far have had reasonable price tage on them, so wait for this to come out. This is one film that will stay in your mind for a while and will have you talking about it days after you've seen it. Definitely one that didn't go mainstream, and for good reason.

(Update: 5/25/2012) So it seems that Code Red is most likely not going to release this film on DVD, especially with the whole Nightmare fiasco that ran shock waves through the company. We've been waiting for many years for this one to come out and it looks like those of us who are lucky enough to have it on VHS are going to have to hold on tight to our copies of the Thorn/EMI cassette. It would have been really great to see an on-camera interview with Jimmy McNichol - which was the reason CR gave us that had been delaying its release. I actually transferred my copy to DVD-R so that way I wouldn't wear out or damage the VHS - since it seems that will be the way it will ever be in print of the U.S. It would have been also great to have a print of the film with both the original "Butcher, Baker" title card and the original trailer or TV spot that I mention at the beginning of this review. I'm not going to throw shade or talk smack about Code Red because they have at least made the effort of releasing some great old memories. Some fans expect way too much from a small distribution company not completely understanding the monies and sacrifices that go on behind the scenes just to put something on the store shelf. I love the fact that they've been able to put out gems like The Unseen, Boarding House and Sole Survivor - and for that I am grateful.