Thursday, March 16, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Upon its release in 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proved to be as welcome with Halloween fans as Tootsie Rolls are to trick or treaters. Few movies were given the bum’s rush so quickly and so few films brought together so many fans in near universal disdain. For years, if you asked horror fans how they felt about Halloween III, the stock response would be that they hated it.

So how is it that it’s become practically fashionable to like – even love – Halloween III? Plenty of films see their reputations improve over time but the turnaround in opinion on Halloween III to the point where some fans now call it the best of the Halloween sequels is nothing short of miraculous.

The unlikely road to redemption for this once-despised film comes down to three points… One, bringing back Michael Myers wasn’t such a hot idea. HIII was reviled for having the temerity to let Michael Myers stay dead but as each subsequent Myers-themed sequel, remake and so on did little but sully the legacy of Carpenter’s classic, the more taking a second look at HIII started to look like a good idea.

I mean, I really love Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers but when it comes down to it I could’ve lived without it. Similarly, I know that H2O has its fans but wouldn’t you say that the world have done without it? I think so. But now ask yourself if the world could go without Season of the Witch.

Think real hard. Think until the answer is “no, it freaking couldn’t!” then you’ll be right.

Why? Because there’s nothing else quite like it.

That’s the second reason that HIII has found an audience over time. It stands alone. Not just in the Halloween franchise but in the company of horror films in general. It’s just an odd, stubbornly goofy, little movie.

Horror fans have seen every plot told and retold from a hundred different angles so anything that throws even the slightest curveball is going to – sooner or later – earn some love. Every element in H3 isn’t 100% original in and of itself but the fact that so many quirky, divergent components – Stonehenge! Celtic magic! Catchy commercial jingles! Killer robots! An evil toy maker! – all exist in one film gives it the advantage of being something different.

How much of H3’s story came from the original scripter, the legendary Nigel Kneale, and how much came from director Tommy Lee Wallace’s rewrites is irrelevant. All that’s important is that none of the weirdness got scrubbed out along the way.

The third and final – and perhaps the most important – reason for H3’s ascension: Tom Atkins. When H3 was released, Atkins was already a familiar face in genre films but he hadn’t quite achieved the beloved status among fans that he enjoys today.

The fact that H3 gave Atkins one of his few leading man roles makes it hard for Atkins junkies to resist – even more so given how complicated and unique (at least among horror protagonists) his H3 character of Dr. Dan Challis is.

The horror genre is host to many classic heroes – everyone from Abraham Van Helsing to Laurie Strode to Clarice Starling. But Dan Challis is cut from a much different cloth. He’s a middle-aged dad (who doesn’t seem to be all that attentive to his kids), divorced, alcoholic, and something of a lecher.

Atkins’ innate likeability helps disguise Challis’ many unsavory qualities but yet he is undeniably skeevy – which is exactly what makes him such a memorable protagonist. Atkins had already played a borderline letch in The Fog where he exchanged fluids with Jamie Lee Curtis’ character before they even exchanged names but in H3, this (at the time) nearly fifty year old took it to the next level by getting Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the barely legal daughter of a slain shop owner, into the sack while they’re on the trail of her father’s murderer.

To be sure, Challis is not a guy with a shiny halo around his head. Aside from his appetite for bedding young women, Challis also has a insatiable thirst for booze. Before he and Ellie even hit to road to investigate the murder of Ellie’s father, Challis makes sure to make a packy run first. And when he and Ellie first arrive in the town of Santa Mira, home to the ominous Silver Shamrock Novelties factory, Ellie is eager to start digging around for clues about what happened to her dad but Challis’ immediate response to that is “Whoa! It’s getting late and I could use a drink!”

In what must’ve been a perversely deliberate move on the part of Wallace and Atkins, Challis is shown repeatedly to fail to act in a traditionally heroic fashion and when he does make the effort, he comes up (one channel) short. By coincidence, in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – released just a few months after H3 – James Woods’ character of Max Renn was just as morally muddied as Challis, and like Challis, Renn is also thrust into the position of saving the world from deadly televised transmissions. The two films make an unlikely but interesting double feature.

Challis’ personal complexities take a back seat to action as the last third of H3 is little more than a series of chases, fights, and desperate escapes but on the other hand, you get to see Challis in a zany death duel with a decapitated killer robot so it’s all good. Thirty years on, this one-time franchise killer has earned its place as an October essential. The Captain Kirk mask may have been retired in this entry, much to the consternation of fans, but Season of the Witch still boldly went where no Halloween had gone before.

Originally published 10/30/12 at Shock Till You Drop 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Dr. Giggles (1992)

Much to the frustration of filmmakers and studios eager to find reliable cash cows, it’s no easy task to create a successful horror icon – one that can be endlessly exploited in sequels, reboots, and remakes.

It seems that the only way for it to happen is for it to happen by complete chance because whenever filmmakers deliberately set out to create the next Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, the attempt typically falls flat. That’s even true even when the successful creator of an icon tries to catch lightning again – witness the failure of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), the movie that was supposed to make the mega-watt madman known as Horace Pinker into a household name.

Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) played Pinker to the hilt in that film and the gimmick of a villain able to travel through any electrical device had potential but audiences didn’t show any appetite for Shocker, much less for a Shocker 2.

Likewise, Max Jenke of The Horror Show (1989) proved to be a one-and-done slasher villain as did The Trickster from Brainscan (1993) and, well, the list goes on. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve always indulged a high level of fondness towards failed fright franchises and so I’d like to celebrate the twentieth (!) anniversary of one of my favorite second rate fear figures: the maniacal master of medicine and mirth (and girth!) known as Dr. Giggles.

With a fear of doctors (or at least a palpable sense of anxiety concerning them) being so commonly found in so many people, you’d think that a horror franchise centered on an insane doctor would be a guaranteed hit but it didn’t go that way for Dr. Giggles when it was released by Universal in October of 1992, just in time for Halloween, and quickly succumbed to a fatal case of audience indifference.

It’s become standard practice among horror fans to regard the slasher films of the ’80s – no matter how sub-par they might be – as horror classics while their ’90s counterparts still aren’t granted the same amount of affectionate leeway (even Scream remains out of favor with many hardcore fans). But that won’t deter me from giving some critical care to the reputation of Dr. Giggles.

Directed by Manny Coto (who, in recent years, has worked as writer and executive producer on both 24 and Dexter), Dr. Giggles remains a grisly and good humored slasher effort, bolstered by its major studio production values.

The script (by Coto and Graeme Whifler) follows the standard slasher movie template – a long-institutionalized lunatic escapes from the asylum only to make a beeline back to his hometown to stalk unsuspecting teens – but compensates for its assortment of clichéd beats with grotesquely funny kills (ingeniously executed by KNB) that display a comic book sense of exaggeration (the film was in fact adapted as a four-issue miniseries from Dark Horse Comics tied to the movie’s release) as Dr. Giggles occasionally employs oversized props (like a giant band aid, for instance) to dispatch his victims and actor Larry Drake’s portrayal of Dr. Evan Randall Jr., aka Dr. Giggles, is purposely larger than life.

As Dr. Giggles uses every instrument in his medical bag on the soon-to-be-ailing population of Moorehigh as he tries to carry on the twisted legacy of his disgraced (and deceased) physician father, Coto shows an appropriately sick sense of invention in exploiting his medical motif. Nothing is left on the (operating) table as every possible pun and one-liner related to any well-worn medical cliché makes its way into the film.

The corniness of such an approach might be off-putting to some but I love that Drake delivers every groaner in the script (and there’s a lot) with equal enthusiasm, right up to the last gasp where he breaks the fourth wall to deliver his parting quip directly to the audience (“Is there a…doctor in the house?”).

Coto and co. are so thorough in squeezing out every last potential joke and creative kill from their concept that had a Dr. Giggles 2 ever happened, I don’t know if there would’ve been anything left to deliver as I think they pretty much exhausted the character in one shot.

Giggles’ gaggle of victims – including future Charmed star Holly Marie Combs, the late Glenn Quinn (best known for his role in TV’s Rosanne), and ’90s personality Doug E. Doug – represent the standard character types that find their way into every teen slasher. They all seemed pretty tiresome and unexceptional back in 1992 but twenty years can lend an endearing aura of nostalgia to even the most vacuous teens.

Looking at the movie now, it’s clear that Combs made for a more than adequate scream queen in her turn here but this film wasn’t about the kids, it was all about launching Dr. Giggles as the next horror superstar.

That didn’t pan out so well but with horror films you can’t always go by the snap judgment of audiences. Appropriately for the horror genre, just because a movie might look dead on arrival doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay dead. Some films just take awhile to be discovered or appreciated.

At the time of its release, Dr. Giggles appeared to serious horror fans as being nothing less than a dose of pure poison. Today, it looks considerably less toxic. It may not balance its mix of horror and humor with surgical skill, exactly (it’s no Abominable Dr. Phibes), but it plays like a welcome antidote to the overt grimness that has often pervaded the genre in recent years.

It’s an old cliché (that doesn’t go unmentioned in this film, naturally!) that laughter is the best medicine and, as it turns out, there may be more than a bit of truth to that as, twenty years on, Dr. Giggles is looking healthier than ever.

Originally published 10/24/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Night of the Living Dead 1990

Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema – bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003.

Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kid’s films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, it’s hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.

The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD ’90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema – like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunza’s underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.

Ironically, the only zombie movie to get a wide release during the ‘90s was the 1993 Disney comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (produced by Sean Cunningham and written by Jason Goes to Hell co-writer Dean Lorey) about a teenager who comes back from the dead for a girl he had a crush on but that film (both in its poor quality and dismal box office performance) only confirmed that zombies were deader than they’d ever been.

It looked like modern zombie cinema had, perhaps fittingly, gone out the very way it came in – with Night of the Living Dead. It would’ve been impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice but George Romero’s script for the remake was still a squarely told tale. And having cut his directorial teeth on several episodes of Tales from the Darkside, Tom Savini was an ideal candidate to helm the remake as his first venture into feature filmmaking.

On the surface, all the elements were in place for a successful retelling of NOTLD but when the film was released in October of 1990, even with Halloween around the corner, audiences didn’t turn out for it.

As far as the general public goes, I think the feeling then was that zombies were little more than yesterday’s garbage. After all, by then the zombie genre had devolved into limp comedies, like 1988’s Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams buddy cop/zombie pairing Dead Heat. And in the eyes of older horror fans, the original Night of the Living Dead was sacred ground, a film not to be remade under any circumstances – not even with the original players involved (remember, too, that this was not far from the time of the much-reviled move to colorize classic black and white films – including Night of the Living Dead – so fans were extra sensitive to the idea of anyone tampering with NOTLD).

For a younger generation of horror fans (the first to grow up in the VHS era), weaned from an early age on a diet of splatter heavy zombie films – from Romero’s Night sequels Dawn and Day, to Fulci’s Zombie, to Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground – anything less than an unrated zombie pic just wouldn’t do.

At the time, an R-rated Night remake was too mousy for most fans to bother with – especially with Romero and Savini involved. After Dawn and Day had raised the bar for splatter, what hardcore fan wanted an R-rated zombie film from these guys? The remake seemed to be, and was largely received as, a pointless enterprise (even if it had the well-intended purpose of helping the original filmmakers strengthen their copyright claims to the original). But good filmmaking gets noticed eventually and over the years, NOTLD ’90 has slowly become appreciated in its own right.

Savini’s direction compliments Romero’s lean script by not going for any unnecessary ornamentation. He doesn’t whip out a lot of stylistic tricks; he just puts the camera where it needs to be to get each scene across. It’s an old-fashioned film in that regard as by the late ‘80s/early ‘90s it was common to see directors becoming more indulgent with their visuals, trying to accomplish more impressive, innovative shots. Sometimes this would be to brilliant effect, as with Sam Raimi, but Savini practiced a more classical brand of storytelling.

More time and money on this production might’ve achieved a different result as Savini has said in interviews over the years that many of his storyboarded plans were scuttled due to limitations but such compromises arguably worked to the film’s favor. With Savini in the director’s seat, the film’s myriad FX duties were headed up by John Vulich and Everett Burrell of Optic Nerve FX and their crew did a bang-up job, delivering an array of memorable zombies with some of the gags – such as Johnny’s wince-inducing fatal face dive into a headstone – bearing Savini’s stage magic-based influence of accomplishing illusions in-camera with simple props and misdirection.

Savini also had an excellent group of actors to work with – with a cast including Tony Todd as Ben, Tom Towles as Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Bill Moseley as Johnny, and Patricia Tallman as Barbara. It’d be right to criticize the decision to turn Barbara into an action heroine – one of several creative choices that ensure this version doesn’t resonate as deeply as the original as it strives to be more rousing and crowd pleasing – except for the fact that Tallman does such a great job with the character.

She’s so good in the part that she makes it easy to overlook the fact that Barbara loses her glasses early on but yet still proves to be a dead shot with a rifle. Female heroines are commonplace these days but Tallman imbues her Barbara with a sense of resiliency and humanity that remains rare.

Tallman’s Barbara isn’t just about mowing down zombies. She makes smart decisions, argues her points with intelligence, and never seems cartoonishly superhuman as many action heroines (as well as their male counterparts) now do. In fact, the best moments of Tallman’s performance show her very human responses to what’s going on around her, as when she’s confronted with a female zombie clutching a child’s doll.

With Barbara in the forefront more than she was in the original, Romero’s script makes Ben slightly more childish in his squabbles with the petty, cowardly Cooper. In the original, Ben was more clearly depicted as the voice of reason (even if he wasn’t always necessarily right) but in the remake, Ben is still heroic and well-intentioned but his inability to temper his rage against Cooper is his undoing (he’s also shown to unfairly overreact to Cooper at times, as when he causes the TV Cooper is carrying to tumble down the cellar stairs) while Barbara is the one who’s more able to keep her cool.

Even Ben’s idea to board up the house turns out to have been a fatally flawed plan as Romero introduces the idea that all that hammering may have been responsible for attracting a larger group of zombies to the farmhouse as we see zombies aimlessly staggering in the field suddenly become aware of the noise and then turn and walk towards it.

Todd fills Duane Jones’ shoes admirably, though, and he gets a classic moment towards the end as he sits alone in the basement, sees the missing keys to the gas pump, and laughs madly to himself at this last bitter irony.

NOTLD ’90 differs from the original most notably in its last act, as characters meet different fates than their original counterparts and we see more of what’s happening in the world outside the farmhouse on the morning after. The sympathy towards the undead that Romero developed in Dawn and Day is in evidence here and as we see the grisly circus of undead abuse unfolding through Barbara’s eyes (this is essentially the ground level view of what the Dawn of the Dead crew glimpsed as they flew in their stolen news helicopter over rednecks shooting zombies for sport), the closing moments of NOTLD ‘90 serve as an effective coda – not just for this retelling of Night, but for Romero’s zombie series as a whole.

Even though this is Savini’s film rather than Romero’s, Romero’s screenplay is enough to give it a credible place within the official Romero canon. If anything, this version of Night dovetails more neatly with Romero’s sequels than the original does.

I hasten to add that this doesn’t make it a better film than the original Night, only that it better reflects how Romero’s “rules” of zombie behavior had evolved over time.

Romero would later (thanks to the resurgence of zombie cinema) add to his undead legacy with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and 2009’s Survival of the Dead (with more to come, probably) but whether you think those films are good or bad (and they have divided fans), they feel like they inhabit their own separate space.

NOTLD ’90 was the last of the Romero-verse zombie films to be made in Pittsburgh, rather than his current base in the Great White North, and it feels like a grave marker for that earlier homegrown era. Ignored or derided upon its original release, the reputation of Savini’s film has only grown over the years – proving that eventually every Night must have its day.

Originally published on 9/13/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Silent Rage (1982)

With the ‘80s action hero ensemble The Expendables 2 currently on theater screens worldwide, it’s worth remembering that most of these men of action have dabbled in horror over the years. Bruce Willis has the ghostly hit The Sixth Sense (1999) to his credit; Arnold Schwarzennegger went toe to toe with a tenacious space-spawned hunter in the classic sci-fi/horror hybrid Predator (1987) and took on Satan in End of Days (1999); Sylvester Stallone battled a serial killer in the little-seen Eye See You (1999) and some would say that his violent cop thriller Cobra (1986) rests comfortably on the periphery of the ‘80s slasher genre. But despite the various merits of those films, I have to single out the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage (1982) as a true action/horror favorite.

In Silent Rage, directed by Michael Miller and written by Edward di Lorenzo and Joseph Fraley, Chuck plays Sheriff Dan Stevens, the head lawman of a small town who finds himself at war with a relentless human killing machine. Some would say that nature alone could never create a being powerful enough to go up against Chuck Norris and the makers of Silent Rage wholeheartedly agreed, making their unstoppable maniac (Brian Libby) the Godless product of scientists who commit the mistake of reviving a homicidal killer hovering on Death’s Door.

Not only is he granted a new lease on life, but thanks to the miracle of genetic engineering, this psycho can now withstand almost any form of physical harm. The “almost” is where Chuck Norris comes in. As Silent Rage begins we meet Libby’s character of John Kirby as he wakes up in the boarding house where he’s been staying. Kirby receives a concerned call from Tom Halman, his psychiatrist (Ron Silver), and during the brief call Kirby struggles to talk while fumbling in vain for his medication.

We sense that Kirby might be losing it – especially when he tells Halman “I’m losing it, Doc! I’m looosing it!” He then proceeds to lose it, chasing his landlady through the house with an axe (complete with a nod to The Shining as Kirby leers maniacally at the landlady through the hole in the door he’s just chopped through).

This homicidal outburst, naturally, brings Chuck onto the scene. While he has back up available in the flabby form of his devoted deputy Charlie (Stephen Furst, best known as Animal House’s “Flounder”), Chuck goes in alone like the one man army that he is and, after a prolonged fight, he puts Kirby in cuffs.

Unfortunately while waiting in the back of a cruiser, Kirby breaks free and the cops on the scene have no choice but to gun him down, much to the anguished protest of Halman, who arrives too late to spare his troubled patient.

Barely alive, Kirby is taken to the medical facility where Halman works and where, it just so happens, groundbreaking genetic research is being done (not the thing you’d expect to find in a small town, but whatever). Against Halman’s ethical protests, Kirby is revived by the ambitious and scientifically ruthless Dr. Philip Spires (Steven Keats) and Spires’ devoted toady, Dr. Paul Vaughn (genre regular William Finley).

Thanks to an injection of Spires’ experimental serum, Kirby is now virtually impervious to injury. Why Spires couldn’t have waited to give the gift of invincibility to someone who wasn’t a psychotic murderer, we don’t know, but scientists in movies are prone to making catastrophically bad decisions.

Once the new and improved Kirby gets his feet on the ground, he covertly exits the lab and pays a nighttime visit to Halman – and it’s not for a therapy session. The home invasion that follows as Kirby arrives at Halman’s isolated abode is Silent Rage’s horror centerpiece as the malevolent Kirby goes after both Halman and then Halman’s wife. The scene isn’t graphically gory but instead features expertly staged suspense (a prolonged pursuit is punctuated by a surprise head slam to the wall that effectively startles, even on repeated viewings).

The towering Libby is truly sinister as Kirby and he stands out as one of the more formidable movie maniacs of the ’80s. While the majority of Halloween and Friday the 13th rip-offs that were in theaters at the time made splatter FX their selling point, Silent Rage went light on gore but applied hard-hitting action to the slasher formula.

The climax to Halloween had Michael Myers shot off the second floor balcony of the Doyle home and fall with a heavy thud on the dirt of the Doyle’s backyard but in Silent Rage, Kirby is shot through the glass window of a medical facility and plummets about five floors down to the pavement and that’s just the start of an extended climatic battle between Kirby and Sheriff Stevens (one that sees Kirby undergo a head to toe burn similar to the one that Myers endures in Halloween II).

It might not have been any direct inspiration on trends to come but certainly the stunt-heavy nature of Silent Rage did anticipate the more action-oriented approach the slasher sub-genre adopted as the ’80s went on. Once the MPAA all but outlawed gore by the mid-‘80s, it left filmmakers little choice but to turn to action as a readily exploitable, and more easily MPAA sanctioned, element.

Latter day Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels were much more aligned with action cinema than the series’ earlier films had been. Witness scenes like Michael Myers battling gun-toting members of a Haddonfield posse while on the back of a speeding pick-up truck in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), the spectacular RV crash that Jason survives in 1986’s Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, or even the wink to the James Bond series seen in that film’s title sequence.

The final frames of Silent Rage left the gate wide open for a Silent Rage 2 but sadly a sequel never came about. Either the film wasn’t regarded as a big enough hit (it grossed just under $11 million in US theaters) or else Norris was simply on to bigger things as his career was moving into its peak years with hits like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Code of Silence (1985), and others.

Norris is regarded these days as something of a camp character – especially by younger fans who, thanks to late night host Conan O’Brien, think of him first and foremost from the long running TV series Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001) – but Silent Rage is a good example of the straight-forward B-fare he originally made his name on.

As a reminder of an earnest exploitation era when slasher films and Chuck Norris pictures were two of the best reasons to go to the movies, Silent Rage endures as a satisfying and high-kicking genre hybrid.

Originally published on 8/31/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Friday the 13th Part 3-D (1982)

As the summer of 2012 rolls on, tributes to and fond reminisces of the summer of ’82 continue to pepper the internet as that legendary summer – one that arguably yielded the biggest bumper crop of genre classics ever – celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. The most famed titles of that summer are never far from the hearts and minds of genre fans as films like The Thing, Blade Runner, and Poltergeist continue to be obsessed over, three decades after their releases.

But the summer of ’82 wasn’t just about its genre milestones (even if the films that fit that description now weren’t all recognized as such back then). No, there was also a fair share of schlock to be found. In the case of films like Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, it was often golden, grade-A schlock as only the early ‘80s could supply – but it was still schlock nonetheless.

One film from that history-making summer that fit firmly into the schlock category was the third installment of the Friday the 13th saga, with Jason slashing to the same familiar beats but this time doing it in 3-D. Just three films into the series, the limiting nature of Friday’s body count formula was evident. Although initial discussions on Part 3 had involved the idea of continuing the story of Amy Steel’s character from Part 2 as she dealt with her trauma in a mental institution, that new direction never took hold. Instead, a choice was made to stick to the tried and true elements that had proven to be popular with audiences. That meant bringing another group of young kids into the woods to be slaughtered by Jason.

With so little to differentiate Part 3 from its predecessors, though, Friday’s producers felt they needed a hook to draw audiences back for more of the same. Luckily, 3-D was on the rise again and it seemed like an obvious match for a Friday film. This time around, the new batch of kids heading to their doom weren’t camp counselors but rather a loosely gathered bunch of friends looking for a weekend getaway on the rustic grounds of Higgin’s Haven.

You would think that even the dumbest of kids would have second thoughts about partying anywhere near Crystal Lake as, within the timeline of the series, the grisly events of Part 2 have just happened and the killer is very much still at large. But in the world of Friday the 13th, good sense would only get in the way of a good slaughter so this group of fun-loving kids throws caution to the wind with nary a second thought, piling in the van with plenty of weed on hand and heads to their secluded weekend getaway.

As much as the majority of Part 3 indulges in déjà vu nods towards the first Friday (an under the hammock kill that mirror Kevin Bacon’s death in the original, a final dream sequence with another leap from a lake), it isn’t all idle repetition. We’ll get to the addition of Jason’s famous face gear momentarily but first, it should be noted that we learn an essential new “don’t'” in the Friday the 13th universe in Part 3 in addition to the already familiar maxims of “don’t have sex” and “don’t do drugs.” Some might believe it to be unnecessary for this particular “don’t” to be explained but Part 3 confirms that when you survive an encounter with Jason, it’s a terrible idea to test your luck with a rematch.

Teaching us that painful lesson here is the character of Ali (Nick Savage) – a bad-ass biker who isn’t content with living to tell the tale of his brush with Jason. Ali first takes on Jason in a barn and is quickly beat down in what appears to be fatal fashion. But while Jason leaves him for dead, Ali pops up again towards the end of the film in a surprise resurrection worthy of Jason himself, momentarily distracting Jason from his attack on Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell).

But having the element of surprise on his side isn’t enough of an edge for Ali as Jason immediately chops off the biker’s right forearm before finishing him off for good. When it comes to Jason, if you should ever miraculously survive Round 1, DON’T challenge the Sultan of Slaughter to Round 2.

Of course, Part 3 is famously the film where Jason established his signature look as his iconic hockey mask was introduced – the most important contribution to the series aside from Harry Manfredini’s Ki-ki-ki Ma-ma-ma score. It’s never been decisively determined who made the creative decision concerning Jason’s hockey mask but whoever did come up with it, they gave Jason one of the most distinctive looks of any screen psycho.

The Friday series pretty much fell ass-backwards into its own mythology over the course of the series’ early films but this is the one where things began to get fully locked down. This was also the first Friday to establish the tradition of bringing in random victims outside of the core group of characters just to put up bigger numbers for Jason.

In the first two films, you needed a harbinger of doom to provide some unheeded warnings so Crazy Ralph wasn’t so out of place and, of course, the law had to get more directly involved eventually so the sheriff in Part 2 wasn’t so random but Part 3 was the first Friday that brought in completely extraneous characters just to have them killed.

If you loved the banana-eating hitchhiker in The Final Chapter, or any of the many ‘walk-on’ victims that have appeared in other Fridays over the years, you can thank Part 3. It was with this film that the producers realized that it was always better to fill screen time with someone getting killed – no matter whom it was or what part they played in the film. Hence, in Part 3 there’s Harold, the luckless shop owner (played by the late Steve Susskind) and his nagging wife Edna (Cheri Maugans) as well as Ali and his two sidekicks in mischief, Fox (Gloria Charles) and Loco (Kevin O’Brien), who all run afoul of Jason.

Screen time that in the previous films might’ve been spent on moments of character development with the main cast were now used to deliver more of the moments that audiences came to see in a Friday the 13th film. No more downtime as we listen to Bill strum his guitar, or a buzzed Ginny theorize at a local bar about the legend of Jason – Part 3 changed the pace of the series.

This practice of shoe-horning in more and more kills reached its apex in A New Beginning with its staggering body count of seventeen (twenty-one, if you count the death of the bogus Jason along with his son’s death and two dream deaths in the pre-title sequence).

As with Part 2, encoring director Steve Miner staged yet another exciting final chase with Richard Brooker’s Jason pursuing Chris over every inch of Higgins’ Haven. With Jason portrayed as a hard to kill backwoods psycho, rather than as a reanimated zombie (as an old-school Friday fan, I continue to prefer this earlier version of Jason), Brooker gets to display some moments of human rage during the film’s climatic chase – as when he throws a frustrated fit in a barn stall when it momentarily looks like Chris has eluded him.

It was moments like these that suggested, albeit briefly, an extra dimension to Jason beyond what was engineered by 3-D technology. Many fans consider 1984’s The Final Chapter to be the quintessential Friday but I think Part 3 deserves that mantle a little bit more. It was where the series became more polished in its presentation and where Jason became a true slasher icon. It made the difference between the Friday films going on to be an enduring franchise or simply closing out as a trilogy.

But even if you don’t regard Part 3 as being the quintessential Friday, its place in the line-up of ’82 means that it’ll always be remembered as part of a classic summer gone by.

Originally published on 7/25/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Frogs (1972)

By the 1970s, mankind had finally realized that, as species go, we were pretty much the worst thing to ever happen to the planet – what with treating the natural world as our own personal dumping ground, pumping pollution into the air, and poisoning the waters with chemicals – and so the modern environmental movement was born.

Not only was this a hopeful development for the survival of the Earth but it was also terrific news for connoisseurs of B-movies as “eco-horror” became a popular trend and the ‘70s became a decade when – on screen, at least – nature had finally had enough of man’s bullshit.

In Frogs, directed by George McCowan and written by Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees, a young Sam Elliott stars as Pickett Smith, a freelance photographer busy taking pictures of the trash-strewn Southern swamplands surrounding the island estate of the wealthy Crockett family. While paddling around the Crockett’s property, Pickett’s tiny canoe is accidentally overturned by the careless motorboat antics of cocky Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), who’s racing across the water with his sister Karen (Joan Van Ark) along for the ride. After capsizing Pickett’s canoe, Clint and Karen fish Pickett out of the water and, after apologizing, take him back to the family estate to change into some dry clothes.

The Crocketts are preparing to celebrate the next day’s 4th of July holiday as well as the four Crockett family birthdays that all fall within the month of July and Pickett is invited to stay. The hard boiled patriarch of the Crockett clan, the wheelchair bound Jason Crockett (Ray Milland of X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes), whose fortune was made in chemicals, grills Pickett on why he was taking pictures on his private property but it doesn’t take long for Pickett and Jason to develop a bristly, but not disrespectful, rapport.

Pickett explains that he’s doing a layout on the effects of pollution but all that environmental talk doesn’t hold much water with Jason Crockett. Bitter and bullheaded, he doesn’t have any apologies to make or any remorse to express for the way he treats Mother Earth. And he also holds no patience for the army of frogs that are slowly encroaching on his property day by day and the ever-maddening cacophony of croaking that they unleash every night so Pickett’s talk of environmental abuse falls on deaf ears.

With the entire Crockett clan gathered at the estate for the holiday celebration, we’re introduced to the kind of large cast that’s always a clear indication to horror fans that a film’s body count will be high. And in that regard, Frogs does not disappoint. Besides Jason, Clint, and Karen, there’s also Clint’s wife Jenny (Lynn Borden), their two preteen kids, as well as various aunts, uncles, cousins along with household staffers Charles (Lance Taylor Sr.) and Maybelle (Mae Mercer) – and not a single one of them are the least bit alert to the fact that, on the eve of America’s greatest holiday, that nature has declared war on them.

As the 4th dawns, the various animals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects that make their home on, or around, the grounds of the Crockett estate roll out their own plans for celebrating Independence Day. Rather than the expected cookout and fireworks, it’s the Crockett’s vs. the Croakers in a 4th of July showdown. As various species come together in an unlikely coalition, with the frogs presumably acting as generals, it’s like Cyrus’ unrealized plan in The Warriors to unite every gang in New York City into one unstoppable army. Here, it’s about the unprecedented affiliation of frogs, lizards, alligators, spiders, birds, turtles and – just for good measure – leeches (apparently snails, crickets, and earthworms missed the memo and failed to show up for battle).

Those who haven’t watched the movie might (understandably) assume that Frogs goes for the campy approach but it doesn’t. There’s no winking, no ironic acknowledgment of how absurd the premise is. This was, thankfully, a movie made years before it became customary to approach B-material with a smirk. Taking a straight-faced approach with this story does present challenges, however. Like, how is it believable that any full-grown adult would get done in by the likes of frogs or butterflies?

The answer is that they’d have to practically shoot themselves in the foot first and that’s more or less exactly what happens to one character here as they make the mistake of running with a rifle in hand only to trip and shoot themselves in the shin – which then makes them easy pickings. Other doomed characters in the film simply aren’t able to get the upper hand when it counts – no matter how unimpressive their attackers might be. When you get taken out by a turtle, for example, that’s a humiliating death – even if it is a snapping turtle and thereby must be automatically considered to be more ferocious than any ordinary turtle.

All the deaths in Frogs are protracted and quite nasty. They’re kind of sad to behold, frankly, as the characters get it pretty bad – most notably dotty old Aunt Iris (Holly Irving), who has cause to regret her hobby of collecting butterflies during her last tortuous moments on Earth.

As silly as it might be to consider that this absurd film is even the least bit unsettling, I maintain that Frogs possesses a weirdly disturbing quality – perhaps because it spends so much time lingering on the suffering of each victim. No one dies a sudden, quick death in this movie and the howls of agony that some give out are grim to behold as they are slowly overwhelmed by the vengeful emissaries of nature.

The original blueprint for the eco-horror subgenre, of course, was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (1963) but Hitchcock was not interested in serving up a message and, in keeping with the Daphne du Maurier short story that his film was based on, left the motivation of his feathered fiends unexplained – an artistic choice that made The Birds difficult to imitate.

It wasn’t until environmental abuse became a hot issue that filmmakers were given a story hook they could understand in regards to unleashing nature on man. As a result, the eco-horror films of the ‘70s have always seemed to be a separate species from the enigmatic Birds – even when they involved actual birds.

Among that group of revenge of nature films, in which payback was the order of the day, Frogs remains a movie that leap (frogs) past its creepy crawly competition.

Originally published on 7/3/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Vampire (1979)

Having not read Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel, I didn’t know what to hope for from the first footage of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but I have to say my initial reaction upon seeing the first clips was one of slight dismay. The sight of Lincoln boasting apparently superhuman strength as he splinters a tree into toothpicks with one mighty swing of an axe and seeing him engaging in Matrix-style fighting moves told me right away that this wasn’t the kind of vampire hunter movie I was hoping to see. Then again, they just don’t make those kinds of movies anymore.

While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might well turn out to be great fun (if not for me, then at least for others), my weariness at watching the overblown action elements on display in its commercials and trailers sent me searching for solace in old-school vampire hunting as depicted in the 1979 TV movie Vampire.

1979 happened to be a banner year for bloodsuckers with the release of both John Badham’s Dracula remake and Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu in theaters and on TV, the premiere of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot adaptation as well as the serial The Curse of Dracula as seen on the short lived but fondly recalled NBC series Cliffhangers. Lost in the shuffle was Vampire, a minor but entertaining TV movie that was intended as a pilot for a series that never came to be.

Directed by the wonderfully named E.W. Swackhamer (who, during the course of his career, directed episodes of everything from I Dream of Jeannie to The Partridge Family), Vampire was co-written by Steven Bochco, who would go on to be the co-creator, writer and producer of some of the most successful and critically acclaimed TV programs of the ‘80s and ‘90s – including Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. Bochco’s co-writer on Vampire was Michael Kozoll, whose previous television credits included penning a couple of episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and who would later reteam with Bochco on Hill Street Blues as co-creator and fellow head writer.

Bochco and Kozoll’s script for Vampire is not nearly in the league of their better known work but it is serviceable, if rudimentary, and it has the advantage of being brought to life by a top-notch cast – including Jason Miller (The Exorcist), E.G. Marshall (Creepshow), Kathryn Harrold (The Sender), and bad guy extraordinaire Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer, Bad Dreams). Even Maniac’s Joe Spinell shows up in one scene as a police captain.

With a cast like that, it’s a crime that Vampire has been largely forgotten over the years. As Vampire begins, the construction of a new church in San Francisco causes the slumbering form of Anton Voytek (Lynch), a seven hundred year old Hungarian prince, to awaken. Forty years earlier, he was buried on the site when his old lair collapsed on him during a fiery battle with a police detective determined to extinguish Anton’s evil from the world once and for all and he has laid there ever since, oblivious of the passing decades until the recent construction began.

In charge of the building project are the happy couple of esteemed architect John (Miller) and his wife Leslie Rawlins (Harrold). Thanks to this project, their stars are rising on the San Francisco social scene but all that success and happiness is about to be shredded once their attorney and friend Nicole Decamp (Jessica Walter) introduces them to her new boyfriend – the dapperly-dressed smoothie known as (da-dum!) Anton Voytek. Anton, like any good vampire, has a fortune to his name but when he hires Nicole’s trusted friend John Rawlins to excavate an old estate in order to retrieve the many priceless artifacts and works of art that he has accumulated over the years, John recognizes many of the works as being stolen goods and drops the dime on Anton.

Anton is arrested and although his new lady friend bails him out before dawn (with barely enough time for him to flee through the streets of San Francisco back to his coffin), Anton vows revenge on John and he soon makes good on that threat by paying Leslie a night time visit. After Anton shatters John’s world, bloodsucker style, Vampire becomes a bitter battle between John and his undead adversary, with a curmudgeonly ex-cop named Harry Kilcoyne (Marshall) allying himself with John in order to stop Anton for good. Harry’s ex-partner is the one who put Anton in the ground years earlier and now it falls to the vigilant Harry to continue the fight. But will these two mortal men be enough to end an immortal vampire’s reign of terror?

During the course of this writing, the sad news was announced that Richard Lynch had passed away at the age of 72. As you would expect based on Lynch’s infallible record of essaying evil doers, he makes for a hell of a vampire – both sinister and suave as he rocks his impeccably slick late ‘70s duds. He isn’t on screen long in Vampire but his impact is felt throughout the film. As with every role he ever played, his persona leaps off the screen.

For their part, Miller and Marshall make an appealing pair of vampire hunters. For younger fans, I expect that Vampire might come across as being as dusty and dry as (cemetery) dirt but for older fans – or for anyone who needs a respite from non-stop razzamatazz – following the dogged and determined efforts of Miller and Marshall makes a welcome mental tonic. At this point, to watch a vampire film where the vampire hunters are just two craggy-looking dudes tooling along the San Francisco coast in a station wagon is ideal to me. I’ve had enough of bullet time, slo-mo, CGI, all of it.

There’s no gymnastics in Vampire, no 30-foot leaps in the air, no morphing, and I like it like that. Vampire is so low tech in fact, that it looks like there wasn’t even enough money in the budget for fake fangs but that’s cool. They do, however, feature an effect that I’ve never seen utilized in a vampire film before – when Anton is struck by a cross, instead of the usual sizzling skin, electrical sparks fly off him.

As Vampire was intended to be a series pilot, the movie’s conclusion is an open ended one. There’s no final staking, no roasting at sunrise, none of the usual climatic payoff that you’d expect from a vampire film. The best John and Harry can do is momentarily route Anton’s plans but given recent events, it’s actually a comfort to see Lynch slip freely into the night – his brilliant brand of menace fought to a standstill but undefeated and ready to return with a vengeance.

Originally published on 6/20/12 at Shock Till You Drop.

Couldn't find a TV spot for Vampire but hey, here's a nifty promo for Cliffhangers from '79 with a bit of Michael Nouri's Dracula! Enjoy!