Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Outing (1987)

Picture it: Sicily, 1946. No, wait, that's a line from The Golden Girls. Let's try again. Picture it: La Feria, a small rural town in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It's a hot summer day in 1990 and yours truly here has just come out of the bathroom of the local Maverick Market off on old Highway 83. My father is putting gas in the family van and I've strayed away from the bunch, as I always did when I had the opportunity in those days. As I made my way to the store's exit to rejoin the rest of the clan, I saw a little video rental section out of the corner of my eye and without even thinking, made a B-line for it. Quickly, I scanned the merchandise to see what they had to offer and saw a slew of titles that I'd never seen before. At the bottom of the shelf, I picked up this box and stared lovingly at the fantastic art before me. I'm a sucker for good box art. Just look at the photo for the blog's banner taken from Video Gem's big box art for the film House of Death. Just amazing. As my father came into the store to have me escorted by the ear, I kept that neat picture in my head and stored it for future reference alongside the great box art of The Mutilator and Squirm. Little did I know that I wouldn't see this again until 2003.

There was a little mom and pop video shop in the lovely little city of Warrensburg, Missouri called Video Castle that I frequented due to it's low rental prices and no membership fee. "Membership fee" - when was the last time you heard that term? My kid sister had introduced me to the place and I immediately fell in love with it due to it's vast collection of out of print and very hard to find 80's horror titles. Up to then and not since the 80's had I seen such a wide VHS horror collection as they boys showcased. I was a bit jealous, let me tell you, and within those great forgotten titles like Cheerleader Camp and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, was this little piece. As many times as I'd been in there and as many times as I rented, I never picked this one up. Soon enough, as all mom and pops did, they fell victim to converting the whole store into the DVD format and all their older titles - and I mean all of them - went on sale for the low price...of 49 cents. When I heard the news, I got into my car and rushed over only to be disappointed in seeing that most of the good horror titles had been sold, including this one. Though I did manage to rescue several ones that were on my list, this one was still one of those elusive videocassettes I thought would forever be out of my reach.

I did some reading on this title on various other horror sites and I was disappointed to read that this was just another bad piece of 80's horror history. It didn't seem to have any redeeming values or qualities, that the story was bad and it was just outright pointless. I got to exchange emails with several horror collectors on-line and they all had the same opinion. I was crushed. There wasn't any way that a film with such great box art would end up being a 10-ton bomb, could there? Needless to say, last month I was finally to get this on DVD-R through a collector's website and I was excited that I finally had it. Seeing that it had taken me this long to just find the film itself in any format, I told myself that I would put everyone's reviews and opinions aside and judge it on my own.

The basis of the story is that a mysterious lamp and a mystical bracelet are recovered from the scene of crime when a group of thugs vandalize an old woman's home, leaving her for dead. The items are turned over to the local museum and curator Dr. Wallace (played by daddy eye-candy James Huston) who is in charge of finding out their origins. While vising him one day, his daughter Alex (Andra St. Ivanyi) sees the lamp as suddenly has an immediate attraction to it. The lamp itslef is a prime example how one piece of critical prop can make or break a film. In this case, whomever was responsible for the creation of lamp really outdid themselves. Sleek design, crafty artsmanship and just the touch it needs to be memorable: the small hand on the end of the lamp that hold the red jewel. Absolutely beautiful. Alex begins to obsess over the lamp, even going as far as to steal the bracelet from the museum and ask her schoolteacher if there are such things as genies. Her curiosity grows until she one day grabs hold of the lamp and accidentally lets out the contents. When she is chastised by her father for messing with the darn thing, she spits out the usual teenaged tantrum and even goes as far as to say, "I wish you were dead." to poor dear ol' dad. She is soon possessed by the spirit of what's inside the lamp and, as corny as all this sounds, it actually holds up in the end. When her classmates attend a field trip to the museum, the "spirit" gets her to convice several of her best friends, including her beau, to sneak into the museum once everyone has gone for the night to have a sleepover. I mean, she's the daughter of one of the curator's, right? Why wouldn't she be able to have access to the place? But here is the little twist: Once all the kids are in the museum basement and once all the doors are locked for the night, the spirit leaves Alex and she becomes confused as to why she - and everyone else - are in the museum at all.

The group then remembers why they are there - to have fun, drink, and sex each other up, as they do in these kinds of films. But mysteriously, the kids are all picked off one by one, along with the remaining staff on board including the head curator and an opera-toting - and rather obnoxious - secutiry guard which are gloriously slaughtered by means of ceiling fan and large harpoon, respectively. The films suddenly turns into an all-too fun game of cat and mouse as Alex tries to comprehend just what's going on. The best scene in the whole film was the "death by snakes", watch it and see what I mean. It made my skin crawl, and not in the good way. That scene itself was one of the most inventive - and by the way, eerie - death scenes I'd ever seen in a teen slasher pic.

Now we will touch on the subject of the actual genie, or "Djinn" as it is referred to here. We all were brought up with the stories of Ali Baba and the Forty theievs and the younger generation was raised on the Disney classic, so we all know when you release a genie, he grants you one wish as a token of gratitude for setting him free. See where I'm going with this? Well, it turns out that the "Djinn" isn't after Alex, he's after her father in the goal of fulfilling her wish! What wish, you ask? The one she muttered without thinking at the film's opening! Now is it coming together? So that's the reason the bracelet on her wrist glows! Not because the genie is in pursuit of her, but because the genie is actually determined to grant her wish! So with this in mind, we finally get to see the demon, sorry, the genie face to face. Now, seeing how great the film was up to this exact point is something to marvel in itself, but once the bad boy is actually materialized, oh Lord, is it funny. I think they found the poor chap in the bargain bin at Muppet Remnants R Us, because it totally shows. Now in fear of their lives, Alex and her dad have to find the mystery of the lamp and figure out how to defeat it. With the aide of a strategically placed Commodore 64 (did I just say that?) they find out that the only way to destroy the genie is to destroy the lamp! Now who would have thought that one out, right? To make this discombobulated long ending short, the "Djinn" just about destroys Alex's father but once the lamp is thrown into the even-more strategically placed incinerator, the darn things explodes in a fiery frenzy and poof! just like that, the story comes to a close and all can live happily ever after.

The film as a whole, honestly, isn't that great. But it's got so much going it for it in terms of camp and eighties references that you can't help but like it. In terms of the murder sequences, just the whole "Snake Bath" scene is enough to give you the heebies. I don't know why so many horror fans have a complete "I loved it" or "This movie sucks" viewpoint toward this hidden fun fest. For all the time I waited to finally set eyes on this one, it was a great payoff. Kids in 80's gear with their hi-top shoes, leg warmers and boom boxes, the cheesy synth music in the background, you just can't resist. This one is a real hard one to find, folks, but if you see it, please do me the honor of picking this up! Give it a try and you'll see what I mean. Just don't make any wishes you really don't want to have come true.

The Campus Corpse (The Hazing) (1977)

I'm not one to shy from a new experience when it comes to films, especially those that were produced with the 70's and 80's. There was a certain manner in which they were filmed and sadly, movies aren't made in those ways anymore. The carefully placed storyline, the atmosphere combined with an original soundtrack and good direction always made for a unique viewing experience. Scare films in the 70's - thanks to the still-uninvented use of computer graphics - were all the more effective. Producers and Directors had to use their brains to make something that had never been shown before to attract the audience they wanted to reach. They hoped that word of mouth would be a reason for the film's success and, hopefully, be remembered by anyone and everyone who saw it.

The Hazing or The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse was one of those films that caught my attention solely because of the poster art and tag lines. I found this by accident on a horror collector website and by the poster art you see on the left, I assumed that it was a horror film, or a fright film if you must. But, that wasn't the case at all. But, before dismissing it a a film which "lied" about what it was, I need to make a point by outlining this little Iowa-made piece of celluloid beauty. Before I go on, I will have to say as of now that this is not a horror film in any shape or form. There is no blood, there is no gore. But give it a chance, dig a little deeper and this is what you will find:

The movie begins with a young droopy-eyed boy named Craig Lewis (played by Jeff East, which most die hard film fans will recognize as the face of the young Clark Kent in the original Superman film). As beautiful as he ever was, is, or will be, the blond-haired, wide-eyed high school track star has his sights on a scholarship at one of the finest colleges in the country. His parents died when he was young and he is left in the care of his older brother, Carl (David Hayward). When his brother drops him off at his new college home, he is immediately befriended by a group of young men who are wanting him to pledge their fraternity known simply as "the Delts". Craig and his friend Barney (Charles Martin Smith of Never Cry Wolf fame) both must survive the initiation into the group, which is nothing more than to be taken up into the mountains in the freezing cold and run through the woods in nothing but a jockstrap. No, I'm not kidding. Though it was great to see lots of skin for a good amount of screen-time (and I mean lots of skin), I wondered where the film was taking direction. It didn't feel like this was going to be a fright film of any kind. It felt more like an ABC After-School Special, which was already letting me down. Once head frat leader Rod (Brad David) releases the two boys into the cold, the boys run in the direction of a cabin nine miles into the woods. Sounds easy enough? Just as it seems as it were too good to be true, Barney falls down one of the steep slopes and breaks his leg, leaving the two out in the freezing cold in nothing but their athletic supporters. Yes, I'm being serious.

With no choice but to leave his friend and go for help, Craig eventually finds Rod and the rest of the gang, including his wise-ass sidekick Phil (Jim Boelsen) and tells them about the accident on the mountain. The boys go rushing to where poor Barney was still waiting, cold and helpless, only to find him dead. I do have to be honest and say that during this scene, not even a half-hour into the film, I already knew the ending. I even went as far as to make a monetary wager with my cousin as to how this whole thing was going to pan out. Moving on, the fraternity vows to keep everything a secret, dub the whole as a "skiing accident" and hide Barney's body in the frat house freezer. Much to Craig's opposition, he is instructed to keep everything hush-hush and to pretend as if Barney were still alive and well, attending classes, and taking tests. But with Craig being a country boy being brought up with good moral values, this whole thing begins to eat away at him little by little, slowly. When he goes to one of Barney's classes and "sits in" for him, one of the girls from the opposing fraternity sniffs him out and questions the reasons why he is posing as someone else, which gets the rest of the frat boys all riled up. In exchange for her silence, she gets the poor chum to take her out on the town, which is something he wouldn't normally do. When he takes her to the local bowling alley and she wants to be taken to the local make out point, the two end up feuding and she walks out him and into the arms of his frat-brother Phil promising she would figure out just what is going on.

Soon, the police start sniffing around the frat house and start questioning the disappearance of Barny. Oh did I mention that Craig's older brother has a history with the Delts? Something about a protest, a bag of piss, and the removal of the fraternity from the school altogether. Anyway, with Criag's guilt eating away at him, he actually one day does go to the police ready to spill everything he knows. Rod and Phil barge in and pretend they're drunk and rebuke poor Craig for almost squealing on them. The boys have a plan, though: They will take Barney's frozen body up to the ski lodge, plant him out in the wilderness and make it look like a skiing accident - wait, I said that already, didn't I? Craig wants no part in any of this but Rod pushes for him to go along with it, stating that he is doing everything he can to protect Craig, the fraternity, and the school. How considerate, huh? The day comes to carry out their plan and the guys take the poor frozen bastard up to the ski lodge, dress him, and leave him out in the wilderness. When Rod and Craig hear the account of Barney's body being found out in the wilderness over the local radio station, Rod turns to him, smiles and coyly says "They bought It!" It seems all is well, but is it? Remember, I already said I had this movie figured out.

Craig's girlfriend comes to visit him, contrary to Rod's earlier disapproval. She immediately notices something is wrong and just as he is about to tell her everything, Rod comes into the picture and immediately announces that Barney's body had been found and that he was dead. Easy-squeezie, in the words of one Ms. Karen Walker. She leaves on the next bus and the next day, the homicide detective comes to snoop around the frat house and questions Craig about what he knows. To make matters worse, Barney's father comes around and wants to know why Barney would ever go on a skiing trip if the chap had only done it once in his life and hated it? This only mounts the pressure on Craig and it seems like it's only a matter of time before he pops.

Then, comes Barney's funeral - something Craig doesn't want to face. He knows too much and him being unable to talk about it has weighed on his mind. He wants everything to be over, to be done with. Sitting at the funeral surrounded by his fraternity brothers, he begins to hear voices in his head as the officiating minister reads the 23rd Psalm aloud. He can hear the voice of the homicide chief, the voice of his girlfriend, the voice of Barney's devastated father echoing back and forth in his mind. His face can no longer hide his shame. He is no longer wanting to hide the secret, but he must. As the boys go up one by one to pay their last respects, Craig approaches his friend only to see something terrifying: He begins to see Barney's eyes open! Is he seeing things? Has all the pressure finally driven him to the point of hallucinations? Barney opens his eyes and slowly begins to sit up! I'm not kidding! I started laughing to myself as I waited for those words that I was certain with my life he would say:

"Welcome to the Fraternity!"

The whole thing was a fucking practical joke! The whole incident was the actual Initiation itself! All I could say was Ha! Ha! I was right! and at the same time my brain was thinking WTF? This is how I said the film would turn out. I guess having watched April Fool's Day more than a dozen times taught me a thing or two. So there is poor Craig surrounded by everyone who was in on the joke the entire time. His frat brothers, the detective, Barney's father. So what's a poor guy who has been eating himself up alive for the last few days supposed to do? Transfer schools, that's what! Now, here is where I was a bit confused: As Craig says his goodbyes to everyone, he gets Rod to sign a document saying that if he didn't get it signed, he wouldn't be able to get his fee returned to him. Rod signs another paper, the guys say good bye, and Craig walks outside to meet his brother who is waiting for him. He pops his bags into his brother's truck and he takes off with his girlfriend into the setting sun. Meanwhile, his brother Carl takes the signed documents and mounts a rather large bulldozer. He turns the son-of-a-bitch on and rams it into the side of the frat house, scaring the horse shit out of Rod and Phil. The boys flee the house and everyone comes rushing over to see what the commotion was all about. Laughing hysterically, Carl rams into the house again and screams out for joy. My question is: What were those documents that Rod signed and why did said documents - I'm assuming - allow Carl to demolish the building? The part was left open-ended for me. The movie ends here and I rushed over to imdb to see if anyone had posted on this and I found nothing. Damn.

This film is great, not as a horror film, obviously, but for a great story, told rather well, with some good acting and a great ending - though I predicted it really early. Sure the plot twist may seem a bit hokey, but it explains many of the plot holes and inconsistencies that are present throughout the movie. I wouldn't go out and purposely hunt this film down as I found the version I found (as a DVD-R) was the alternate title to this films original one called, The Hazing. Not sure if the title change was because of distributor choice to market to a different demographical group - hence the original poster made the film seem like just your run-of-the-mill college film of the time, not like the "horror teasing" art that you see above.

If you find it at your local mom and pop, pick it up (Code Red actually released it under the "Campus Corpse" title). It's worth watching, just for the twenty minutes or so of semi-nude boy beef. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ghosthouse (1988)

Happy New Year everyone!

I am so sorry that I haven't posted anything new. I've been out taking some much needed time off and now that I'm back, let's get this thing going full force again! During my brief hiatus, I've been able to add a few morsels of good-'ol cheesy horror to my collection and am excited to share them with you within the coming weeks.

There are films that somehow have slipped under the radar of the avid 80's collector and they sometimes do for many reasons. Either the film didn't well and fell into the realms of obscurity or it was promoted enough to get a proper following. In this case, Ghosthouse, is one of those films. At least, as far as I'm concerned. This was released in 1988, just as the horror boom of that era was slowly coming to a close and I'm still trying to find out as to why I've just heard of this film within the last year or two. The first time I heard of this film was while browsing on the Internet one rainy June back in 2007 and I was researching some other films and through another horror website, I discovered an entry for this film. Drawn solely by the film's title, I clicked onto the page and started to read. Instantly intrigued, I started looking up page after page of Internet information on this little ditty and was surprised to read many of the things I uncovered.

For starters, this film was helmed by none other than Umberto Lenzi. Yes, as in Cannibal Ferox Umerto Lenzi. That was ten points just right there. I read the storyline and the whole background of the film and I knew I had to get my hands on this. But, where? I'd never even heard of this film and had never seen it at any of the mom and pops back in the day nor recently in any of the shops I frequent so I didn't even know where to start. Before resorting to paying for it via mail order, I scrounged all the local shops and surprisingly, no one had ever heard of this film. I did some calling around and chatted with some fellow horror collectors and one day, while on a trek to the Humdinger Toy Show in San Jose, I found a horror collector who not only had heard of this movie, but actually had it in his collection. We talked for a good while about it and I was amazed at his fond recollection of the film. He gave me a little overview of the whole thing, though he was reluctant seeing as how I'd never seen it and I could see the sparkle in his eye as he talked about ever facet of the film, but concentrated on one piece of the puzzle: The killer clown.

Ever since I first sat through Poltergeist at the tender age of nine, I've been deathly afraid of the clown within the horror film element. I passed over Killer Klowns from Outer Space and It for just that sole reason but there was something about the way this guy was talking that had me itching to get home and onto the computer to find this. I'm the avid horror collector preferring my selections to be on VHS, especially if I can find them in their original boxes. It has a lot to do with the nostalgia factor and remembering the days when mom and pop video stores were in their prime. So, I logged on to ebay and started to look around for it. And, I looked for several months for this, losing auction after auction. Well, the ones that would come up, seeing that this is a rare piece to find in it's original Imperial U.S. VHS version. The last bid I lost was for the hefty price of $78 - which was something I wasn't going to fight after. I had already spent those kinds of price tags for films in the past and I really didn't have the wallet to do that again anymore. So, I gave up. But, when I returned to the same Humdinger Toy Show a year later and ran into the guy I'd met before, he asked if I'd been able to come across the film. Sulking, I had to tell him my plight to get this on VHS. For one thing, he laughed and told me to get the idea out of my mind that I was going to find it laying around at the local Hollywood Video. This is a real collector's item, Leonel, he said to me. You're going to have resort to something a little more gung ho. Long story short, have me the web address of a private horror collector, a deal was made and two weeks later, I had a DVD-R of the film in my hands. It was just that easy.

Sidebar: Just before Christmas, I wandered into the local Fresno Best Buy and came across Witchery, starring Linda Blair and David Hasslehoff which is better known as Ghosthouse 2. I decided to wait until viewing the first one before proceeding. More on that later.
Excited as a virgin on prom night, I sat my cousin down and we popped this thing into the DVD player. The first thing I immediately noticed was the beautiful transfer. I couldn't tell you if it was a direct-from-VHS or DVD but it was clear and crisp and magnificent. The sound was just as great. Now, onto the film itself:

The film deals with a ham radio enthusiast Paul, played by eye-candy Gregg Scott who one day hears a mysterious transmission come over his radio of some people screaming as if they were meeting their demises. He and his girlfriend follow the signal to a remote house in the woods where several squatters have taken up residence. The house hold a secret: A little girl whose father enclosed her in the basement below for an incident of killing the family cat with a knife (!) is left to die along with her father and mother who are killed by an unseen force by axe and knife, respectively. The murder is never solved and the house remains haunted to this day. But the kids don't know that yet. Shhh!

When two of them recognize the eerie voices from the radio transmission as their own, the group of them suddenly become terrorized by the apparition of the dead little girl and her um...friend. Her friend is a really spooky kid-sized clown doll that will give anyone who'd ever been afraid of the jester in the original Poltergeist film a run for their money. And I'm not joking either. So the group of teens plays a game of who-done-it while trying to figure out what's killing them off one by one. While this sounds like a great reason to spend the night inside, this film, ladies and gentlemen, I must warn you, makes absolutely no sense. There are plot holes everywhere and the film stands as more of a paradox of itself. In some spots it's so good that you're on the edge of your seat and in other's you're reaching for the remote to turn the bloody thing off. There are a few genuinely spooky parts but for every scene that makes you jump out of your seat and scream, there are two or three that will have you asking who the hell green-lit this cattle drive? But, that's the irony of whole thing: Somehow, it works. And it manages to keep you creeped out, spooked and laughing all at the same time. The "song" that's played when the killer is about to make his presence known will remain in your head for days. It's overtly diabolical in all it's own right and you'll want to turn the volume down every time it comes on just to keep the hairs on the back of your head from standing at attention.

The direction by Ferox maestro Lenzi - who uses a crock American pseudonym for this Boston-filmed-but-Italian-produced scare fest - is actually quite good and the gore scenes are not bad to watch a few times. The whole guillotine scene was completely unexpected and I thought it to be one of the highlights of the film. I will be honest and admit that there were a few times where I screamed out loud - and rather loudly - during the appearance of the clown doll. Especially during the scene where Paul's girlfriend stumbles upon the little girl's bedroom and is attacked by the birthday decorations and ultimately, Mr. Clown himself. But the scene where I couldn't help but close my eyes and mutter oh shit in a low murmur has to be the scene where the girl is inside the RV and the television turns on by itself and the program du jour is of the little girl and her clown. Scary! There is a lot more plot to the story, surrounding the groundskeeper of the house and his connection to local funeral parlor where Paul visits and has a crack at one of the dead people who is being prepped. The mortician is quick to make note that the woman being prepped had been stuck by a bus and that it wasn't polite to laugh at the dead.

The secret is then known as to how to free the house from the spirit of the dead little girl and in one whoosh of a match and a can of gas, the evil force is broken and those who remain are allowed to leave the house and lead happy, normal lives. The best scene of the film for me though was it's unexpected ending where Paul's girlfriend is waiting for him on the sidewalk of downtown Boston after they've come home and allowed themselves to move on from the horrible events at the house. It's like a Mentos commercial: She sees him across the street and throws him a pearly white smile. He returns the smila and waves back to her. Just as he begins to cross the street, she turns around to take a glimpse in the shop window and to her horror she sees the clown doll she thought they'd been freed of. She screams and turns around and just as Paul makes it to where she is, the evil song comes on again and a bus comes out of nowhere and slam! The closing shot is a freeze frame of poor Martha, hands over her mouth, screaming in horror as she's just witnessed the demise of her boyfriend. Just like that, the film ends, unhappy ending, with no resolution. I love films that take this turn instead of the long denouement and closing. Only a few number of films in my recollection have this type of ending: I Spit On Your Grave and Pieces come to mind first. It leaves you with that last closing shot in your mind, left to wander around for hours and hours once the closing credits end. Just brilliant.

This ended up being a great film. After all I'd read about it and the devout following that it still has, I'll be honest and say that I did expect a lot more, but what I got was fantastic on it's own. It's a great piece of film work that stands out above some of the more-known horror fodder and gives you many chills and scares that you don't expect. And let me tell you, the image of that bloody clown is going to stay in your head for days. I'm sure you'll be thinking of the picture at the top of this posting and thinking oh, you bastard. Get your hands on this if you can find it. If you really want to know where I got it from, send me a message and I'll be more than happy to refer you to the collector site where I got it from.

Enjoy, and happy new year!