Friday, March 31, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

In the late ‘70s and early ’80s, in the wake of Halloween’s record-setting success, producers were madly scrambling to grab any remaining holidays to center their own slasher movie around. As slasher films typically hinge on payback for some perceived (or actual) past betrayal or wrong, Valentine’s Day – a day famous for fostering bitter disappointments and hurt feelings – was an ideal candidate for the slasher treatment.

One of several slasher productions made in Canada in the early ‘80s (along with Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me and Terror Train), My Bloody Valentine proved easy for slasher buffs to adore, even if the MPAA – then on a crusade to neuter the new wave of splatter films – demanded heavy cuts be made before it awarded MBV an R-rating. To have the film released with all its bloodshed intact would’ve been nice but what makes MBV work is its attention to character and atmosphere so its FX didn’t have to be its key selling point.

An uncut version of the film was finally released on DVD in 2009 in time for the release of the 3-D remake, but while it was nice to finally see more of FX master Tom Burman’s work, as it turned out it didn’t really improve upon the version that fans were already familiar with. In its original, R-rated form, MBV was all it needed to be.

Following the trend of most slashers at the time, screenwriter John Beaird and director George Mihalka lay out a whodunnit storyline involving the possible return of crazed coal miner Harry Warden to the town that he terrorized many years before. Back in the day, Warden was the sole survivor of a mine collapse (triggered by unsafe methane levels ignored by supervisors eager to get to a Valentine’s dance) which left his co-workers dead and himself trapped with their bodies for weeks.

When rescuers finally got to Harry, they found that he’d had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Not the kind of thing one easily bounces back from. The next Valentine’s Day, Harry took his revenge on his former supervisors, hacking them to death with a pickax and leaving a warning to never hold another Valentine’s Day dance again.

Harry became a boogeyman figure that haunted the town’s collective memory, with his grim vow being enough to keep Cupid at bay in Valentine Bluffs for at least a generation. While the town’s elders successfully squelched holiday festivities for years, those who were only children when Harry conducted his rampage have come of age and want to forget the superstitious fears of their parents and have a Valentine celebration of their own.

Believing that enough time has passed, the mayor has given his permission but that will prove to be a heartbreaking decision. Days before V-Day, the mayor and sheriff receive a heart-shaped candy box containing a torn-out human heart along with a rhyming taunt warning them to stop the dance. After receiving this, the panicked mayor and sheriff cancel all celebrations while trying to keep the grisly truth from the rest of the town.

Even though all signs point to the return of Harry Warden, the sheriff isn’t having any luck locating Valentine Bluff’s most infamous son. The asylum to which Harry was committed to has lost track of him due to bureaucratic ineptitude – not being able to determine whether he is still a patient, was released, or has died. That makes the job of the sheriff and mayor all the more difficult as they work to root out the killer, even as the maniac claims another victim.

For their part, the young people of Valentine Bluffs are blissfully ignorant of the danger they’re in and are caught up in their own personal dramas. Appropriately for a movie built around Valentine’s Day, the kids of MBV are concerned with matters of the heart above all else.

Sarah (Lori Hallier) has been dating miner Axel Palmer (Neil Affleck) since her previous boyfriend (and the mayor’s son) Jesse “T.J”’ Hanniger Jr. (Paul Kelman) abruptly left her many months ago to go build a new life for himself in the big city, beyond the slim opportunities of Valentine Bluffs. Now that the big city has served him some humble pie, T.J. has returned with his tail between his legs, back working in the coal mine with hopes of picking up where he and Sarah left off.

This notion doesn’t sit so well with Axel and the competition over Sarah looks to be a potentially bloody one. Both Axel and T.J. are surly types, prone to outbursts of violence – surely one of them could be the gas-masked slayer (an outfit that’s among the most imposing in slasherdom) stalking the town. Or maybe it’s old Hap, the cranky bartender who doesn’t care for the way these rude-ass kids don’t respect the legend of Harry Warden. As it turns out, there are plenty of red herrings to go along with all the red hearts in Valentine Bluffs.

Of course, given that My Bloody Valentine is one of the most popular slashers ever, it’s safe to say that most of you (likely all) already know who the killer is. For those rare individuals who might not, though, spoilers ahead.

In classic slasher fashion, MBV’s mystery is resolved with a climatic flashback that explains everything – sort of. Some nagging questions I’ve always had: first, why would everybody be so cavalier in discussing Harry Warden around Axel when his father was one of Harry’s original victims? We as viewers only find out at the end that Axel’s dad was one of the supervisors Harry murdered but yet the way it’s mentioned, it seems to have been common knowledge among the characters. You’d think that would’ve been an earlier point of discussion.

And the idea that Axel would want to emulate the man that had slaughtered his father seems, um, curious from a psychological standpoint. Wouldn’t he hate Harry and want to take revenge on him rather than want to carry on his legacy? But hey, so what if the logic is completely screwy? It’s a slasher movie – somebody’s got to be the killer and that’s that.

Slasher movies commonly leave room for a sequel but My Bloody Valentine left fans more primed than usual for a follow-up with the wounded but very much alive killer lurching off into the mine shafts vowing his revenge on the whole damn town. Sadly no sequel ever materialized.

On the upside, though, the 2009 remake was one of the finer remakes of recent times and came off like a genuine love letter to the original and to the slasher genre in general. The original is still unarguably the most preferred of the two MBV’s, though. Apropos to Valentine Bluffs’ major industry, it should be said that you’d have to have a real heart of coal not to have a soft spot for My Bloody Valentine.

Originally published 2/14/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Retro-Shock Theater: Deadly Blessing (1981)

Director Wes Craven has made horror history many times over and, most impressively, done so over the course of several decades. He first changed the landscape of horror in the ‘70s with The Last House on the Left (1972), then in the ‘80s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and again in the ‘90s with Scream (1996). With all due respect to those seminal shockers, though, my own personal favorites from Craven’s catalog tend to be the less heralded ones. Number #1 for me is 1981’s oddball offering Deadly Blessing.

Released at the height of the slasher craze, Deadly Blessing employed some stock elements that were already over-familiar from the sub-genre – a rising body count, macabre deaths, menacing POV shots, multiple red herrings, nubile females in peril (including a young Sharon Stone in her first film role), and, of course, the killer’s identity is concealed until the climax.

In those ways, Deadly Blessing is easily identifiable as a horror film that came out in the same year as Happy Birthday to Me and Graduation Day. It bears well-worn earmarks of the slasher genre that place it in its particular era. But beyond those familiar riffs, Deadly Blessing is much more idiosyncratic than the routine slashers that it shared marquee space with in ’81.

Set in an idyllic rural area, Deadly Blessing tells the story of Jim and Martha (Doug Barr and Maren Jensen), a loving young couple who have a testy relationship with an Amish-like religious sect called the Hittites that lives next to their property. Doug used to be a Hittite himself but he left the sect to marry Martha, earning the eternal wrath of his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), who also happens to be the Hittite’s inflexible leader. Isaiah considers Jim to be an abomination in the eyes of God now and he forbids any of his people to communicate with him, including Jim’s mother and two younger brothers (the oldest of which is played by Jeff East, from Craven’s 1978 TV movie Summer of Fear).

The bad blood between Jim and his family goes forever unresolved as Jim falls victim to a mysterious “accident” while alone in his barn late one night, crushed to death by a tractor. Once news of the tragedy reaches them, Martha’s best friends – Lana (Sharon Stone) and Vicky (Susan Buckner) – come to support her in her time of grieving. On top of the tension brought by having a whole trio of liberated modern women roaming the countryside under the Hittite’s disapproving watch, there is also the matter of a killer being on the loose.

Even though Jim’s death is believed to be an accident, a mysterious figure in the barn that night was the one that loosened the tractor. And in true slasher movie fashion, whoever the killer might be, they could be one of a whole range of possible suspects. Is it the stern Isaiah, out to cleanse the world one sinner at a time? Is it William Gluntz, the strange young Hittite (played by Hills Have Eyes poster boy Michael Berryman) who shows a proclivity for being a Peeping Tom? (It’s doubtful that any genre fan would peg Gluntz as the killer – he’s a true slasher movie red herring a la Robert Silverman’s Prom Night janitor).

Or in some strange, psychological twist could it even be Martha herself?

If you haven’t seen Deadly Blessing yet, save your guesses about the outcome – it’s impossible to anticipate where this movie is going, except to say that the makers of 1983’s cult fave Sleepaway Camp might have been taking notes. As much as the killer’s reveal is an unexpected doozy, Craven manages to top that craziness by dropping a supernatural element (mandated by the studio) in at – literally – the last minute.

Not everything gels in Deadly Blessing but it scores points for being different – even at the cost of logic – and it has a couple of scary sequences that rank among Craven’s best. At a time when horror films were very much carbon copies of each other, Deadly Blessing had its own quirky angles to play.

An important component that ties Deadly Blessing’s scattershot nature together is the score by James Horner, then at an early point in his career but soon to become one of the most popular composers in Hollywood (despite his Oscar for Titanic, he’s probably best known to genre fans for his Aliens score). At a time when many horror films, especially low budget ones, had scores that simply mimicked Carpenter’s work on Halloween, Horner gave Deadly Blessing a creepy Omen-esque score, marked by ominous chanting.

Even though Deadly Blessing has been an often overlooked entry in Craven’s filmography and even though Craven is not the sole author of the screenplay (he shares credit with Matthew Barr and Glenn M. Benest), the clash of cultures embodied by the conflict between the Hittites and the “serpents” of the modern world places it on common thematic ground with Craven’s other work wherein different families or communities find themselves at deadly odds with each other (witness the degenerate Krug and co. vs. the accommodating middle class Collingwoods in Last House or the irradiated mutants vs. the vacationing Carter family – one “nuclear” family against another – in The Hills Have Eyes).

Deadly Blessing also comes across as something of a dry run for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not only is an eerie dream sequence involving Lana the film’s most memorable moment (immortalized on Deadly Blessing’s poster) but there is also a suspenseful scene in which Martha is imperiled in a bathtub that Craven would restage in the first Elm Street.

Not really a hit at the time and kind of forgotten about today, even by many genre fans, Deadly Blessing nonetheless made an impression. Memorable episodes of both Friday the 13th: The Series (“The Quilt of Hathor”) and The X-Files (“Genderbender”) show an obvious debt to its influence, with each involving eerie goings on in strictly religious communities. Now that Scream Factory is due to be blessing fans with a Special Edition Blu-Ray of this film (due January 22nd), hopefully it will finally garner the larger fanbase that it deserves.

Originally published 1/14/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Retro-Shock Theater: Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

At the time that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, modern horror franchises were a rarity.

The classic monsters of old had, of course, spawned many sequels during their Universal heyday and later remakes in the Hammer era but the groundbreaking slasher films of the then-current day – seminal shockers like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw – did not immediately generate follow-ups, for whatever reason.

But once the ‘80s arrived and horror hits were being spun into franchises with increasing frequency, studios decided that it was time to excavate their back catalog and cash-in – hence the return of characters like Norman Bates and Leatherface to the horror fold. Because Norman Bates was such a rich character, portrayed so compellingly by Anthony Perkins, the follow-ups to Psycho fared well – even with the burden of having to pick up over two decades since the original.

Making a franchise out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, was far more of a challenge. Every film is a collaborative effort – assembled by many hands, dependent on various elements in order to emerge in whichever way it does. That’s why trying to duplicate what made a film a success is always a tricky, often futile, endeavor. But even more than most films, the original Chainsaw was an especially alchemical act.

The brutal shooting conditions, in which the cast had to suffer through the unforgiving Texas heat while filming for long hours – often within the stifling location of the Sawyer farmhouse, trapped with the rising stench of decomposing cattle parts – imprinted an authentic air of real world madness onto the film. That’s the kind of guerrilla filming experience that would not ever be duplicated, not even in the most low budget Hollywood enterprise.

That arduous shoot was essential to what made the original TCM what it is, though, so it’s not surprising that the sequels, remakes, and prequels all, to different degrees, failed to measure up to that first film. Being that Chainsaw is too irresistible a brand name for studios to resist, though, they have never stopped trying to recapture lightning in a bottle (see Texas Chainsaw 3D for the latest example of that).

The first sequel, the only one helmed by Tobe Hooper, was reviled by most critics and fans for veering into gonzo black humor but has since been rightly reassessed as one of the highlights of ‘80s horror. But the flak that TCM 2 initially received for its perceived mistakes was a key influence on the direction that the second sequel would take.

Once the rights to Texas Chainsaw Massacre were acquired by New Line Cinema in the late ‘80s, it was inevitable that they’d try to relaunch the franchise. As every horror fan knows, New Line achieved their initial success thanks to the Nightmare on Elm Street series and The House That Freddy Built proved themselves to be adept at building successful franchises (not just in horror, as they also scored big with the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the House Party films) so the prospects for the return of Texas Chainsaw looked good.

With Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the second film would be ignored and the new film would act as, essentially, the first sequel to the original. It would also dispense with the comedic approach the Hooper’s sequel took and return the series to the pure horror that the original was known for (although it’s often forgotten or ignored that the original had its share of dark humor). Jeff Burr, who had developed a name for himself in the genre with the well-regarded films The Offspring and Stepfather II, was tapped to direct and noted splatterpunk author David J. Schow (“The Kill Riff”) penned the screenplay.

The plot is as basic as it gets – a young couple (played by Kate Hodges and familiar ‘80s horror figure William Butler) in the throes of a break-up are taking one last trip together as Hodges’ character is driving her father’s car from California to Florida. They take an ill-advised detour while in Texas and before long, they’re fighting to avoid being dinner, or trophies, or whatever for a clan of cannibalistic killers (whose ranks include then-unknown Viggo Mortensen).

A weekend warrior/survivalist type (Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree) is pulled into the action as well but will assault rifles prove useful against Leatherface’s chainsaw? Not so much. The shoot was a difficult one and compounding that, the MPAA did not show the film any love (it was submitted before the board 11 times), demanding extensive cuts, making sure Leatherface was as neutered as possible before it hit screens in January of 1990.

Upon its release, Leatherface didn’t quite cut through the competition, earning reactions ranging from indifference to disdain, but I maintain an enduring nostalgia for this movie – admittedly less for its own cinematic virtues than for the period of time it embodies.

Leatherface came out at a time when horror was very scarce on the big screen. Even a kind of slow-ish year for the genre like 2012 seems like a deluge compared to what was in theaters in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when genre films came out in drips and drabs so just about any horror movie from that time strikes a nostalgic chord with me as, even if a movie was lackluster (and they usually were), I always appreciated the chance to see horror on the big screen.

Every release was a reason to keep the fire of fandom burning. The best things to come out of Leatherface were the pimped out chainsaw (insisted on by New Line head honcho Robert Shaye) with the engraved motto “The Saw Is Family” and the clever teaser trailer that referenced the Arthurian legend of The Lady In The Lake – one of the best horror trailers ever made.

The movie itself, though, is fairly unremarkable. Not terrible, just unremarkable. It’s a reminder of a time when horror films were usually pale imitations of better days, made for and marketed to a diminished but still stubbornly dedicated fanbase patiently waiting for the genre to rally. You had to be a real horror fan to stick with the genre back then and as such I continue to remember Leatherface fondly.

Originally published 1/4/13 at Shock Till You Drop

Retro-Shock Theater: Psycho (1960)

I believe that every horror fan has a list of movies that came out before their time that they wish they could’ve experienced first run in the theaters. As much as one can still appreciate classics like Jaws or Night of the Living Dead even if they first encounter them decades after their initial releases, the fact is catching up with a classic after the fact can’t quite compare with the seismic experience of seeing a game changing film fresh out of the gate with an unsuspecting first-time audience – long before every moment of the film has been committed to the cultural lexicon.

If I had my own movie-going time machine at my disposal, at the very top of my must-see list would be 1960’s Psycho. I would love to see that film with an audience that had no idea what was going to happen – and even more, to experience it with an audience that wasn’t jaded by the many decades’ worth of slasher pics inspired by Psycho.

As part of Psycho’s promotion, Alfred Hitchcock forced theaters to employ a then-unprecedented policy of not letting any patrons in after the film had begun and he also urged viewers who had already seen the film to keep the film’s secrets to themselves. The marketing of Psycho was very much about preserving the surprise, to keep the viewing experience as pure as possible. But it’s a testimony to the airtight artistry of Hitchcock as well as that of screenwriter Joseph Stefano (adapting Robert Bloch’s novel) and the film’s cast (particularly the irreplaceable Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh) that even long after Psycho has lost the ability to ambush viewers that it still endures.

It may not shock in the same way it once did – only that first generation of Psycho viewers ever really experienced the movie in that way – but it still chills and entertains and fascinates. Despite the way that Hitchcock sold Psycho, shrouding it in secrecy, it wasn’t simply a cinematic sucker punch destined to only work on the uninitiated. Instead it was a movie that revealed its wicked sense of humor only after its secrets were fully known and it’s a movie that is also possessed of a piercing, and perpetually timely, understanding of life’s sadness with its characters that “never budge an inch” from their private traps.

Amid all the accolades that Psycho has received in the fifty-plus years since its release, the one common nitpick revolves around the penultimate scene, in which Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist character explains, in tedious detail, Norman Bates’ schizophrenia. The psychiatrist is purposely depicted as a self-satisfied windbag.

When Lila Crane (Vera Miles) asks if Norman killed her sister, rather than giving Lila the courtesy of a straight answer, the psychiatrist instead responds “Yes…and no.” Oakland plays the psychiatrist as someone who’s somewhat smug and who enjoys playing to an audience. His long winded explanation is all about demystifying what we’ve seen transpire in the fruit cellar.

But then Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under that speech by bringing us back to Norman in his cell and letting us hear “Mother’s” thoughts (the voice of actress Virginia Gregg, who returned to voice Mother again in Psycho II and III before her death in 1986). While everything that the psychiatrist says about Norman may be true from a clinical standpoint, the coda with Norman shows just how empty those words are.

Hitchcock could’ve let the audience off the hook with Oakland’s explanation and left it at that. Vera Miles and John Gavin could’ve walked out of the police station after Oakland’s speech with a big ‘The End’ title imposed over them. That would’ve signaled the restoration of normalcy. But in letting Mother’s thoughts be the film’s final words, Hitchcock kneecaps everything Oakland just said and thumbs his nose at any attempt to comfortably explain away Norman’s madness – or madness in general, for that matter.

The second half of Psycho in which Lila, Sam, and the ill-fated Arbogast (Martin Balsam) try to unravel the mystery of the missing $40,000 that Marion stole from her boss is all about people looking for rational answers. To their mind, the money must be at the heart of it. Either Bates killed Marion (Janet Leigh) for her money or Bates is hiding Marion or some variation on either of those scenarios. They’re looking for motives that make a “from point A to point B” kind of sense.

In the end, though, Psycho guts the search for rationality and gives madness the upper hand. While the influence of Psycho lives on with the murderous “Bloody Face” terrorizing TV viewers on this season’s American Horror Story, the serial slayer of The Collection butchering on the big screen, the making-of Psycho tale Hitchcock now in theaters as well, and a Bates Motel prequel series coming to A&E next year, Psycho itself remains the Mother of all shockers.

Originally published 12/1/12 at Shock Till You Drop

Retro-Shock Theater: Vampires (1998)

With the final installment of the Twilight saga now out, horror fans seeking some counterbalance might be craving a film slightly less sympathetic towards bloodsuckers and less interested in wooing the teen girl demographic. To that end, I recommend John Carpenter’s Vampires.

Based on the novel “Vampire$” by John Steakley, Vampires saw Carpenter indulging his long time love of westerns as hard as he ever has. This is a straight up cowboy and Indians style story with James Woods starring as Jack Crow, a vampire slayer under employment by the Vatican who leads a team of fellow slayers in a covert, Catholic Church-endorsed campaign to purge vampires from the face of the earth.

Crow and his crew do a brisk business ferreting out vampire nests and they’ve got a pretty efficient system going for wasting “goons” that involves spearing them in their nests and dragging them out via steel cables on a winch into the sunlight but when Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the king of all vampires, puts his boot down hard on Team Crow in a surprise ambush, killing all but Crow himself and Crow’s right hand man Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), Vampires becomes about Crow’s single minded hunt for Valek.

Making this about more than payback is the fact that Valek is in pursuit of a holy item known as the Bérziers Cross that will figure into a ceremony that will give vampires the power to walk in the daylight. And if that happens, then it’s game over for humanity.

Caught up in this battle is Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker who was partying with Team Crow on the night they were decimated and who was bit by Valek. Katrina hasn’t turned all the way yet but the psychic connection she now shares with Valek is something that Crow believes he can use to his advantage. Katrina is dragged against her will along with Crow and Montoya in the hopes that she’ll be able to get them close to Valek before it’s too late. Just to make sure things go smoothly, the Vatican assigns a young priest named Father Adam (Tim Guinee), an archivist for the church, to tag along with Crow.

Of course, the pursuit of Valek proves to be anything but a smooth operation and by the end of it all, loyalty and faith are tested, old bonds are severed and new ones are formed. The action in Vampires lacks the sort of state-of-the-art pizzazz that most modern action pictures strive for (released just a few months earlier, Blade offered a much more stylish slice of vampire slaying) but on the plus side, everything in Vampires is accomplished with practical gags and stunt work. Every inch of this movie is old school – there’s not a single frame of CGI to be found. The vampires are depicted with minimal makeup work and when they burst into flames, it’s not rendered with CG (something that was common even on TV by then with vampires crumbling into CG dust on Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Vampires is not about spectacle and splatter (even if KNB do come through impressively in that regard – with one of the best gags involving the vertical bisection of one character) so much as it is about the ways that each character finds themselves tested. Carpenter cares less about carnage (the climactic battle is depicted not in an orgy of FX but rather by the off-camera sounds of gunshots and screams) and more about where the characters end up by the movie’s end and how their relationships to each other have been changed.

Much of this choice in focus is no doubt due to budgetary considerations. There was no way that this modestly priced movie ever had the means to compete head to head with top of the line, big studios action pictures but Carpenter wisely didn’t even try. Instead, he and screenwriter Don Jakoby kept the focus on the small cast, giving each of their arcs a distinct meaning.

At the heart of Vampires is the long time friendship between Crow and Montoya and how Katrina and Father Adam both figure into, and ultimately change, that once-insular dynamic. Vampires is a very profane film, filled to the brim with f-bombs and derogatory slurs. It’s been accused of misogyny, homophobia (at one point, Crow taunts Valek by calling him a “pole smoking fashion victim.”), anti-Catholism and general surliness. And, on the surface, it’s true that there is an awful lot of crude attitude on display.

Carpenter’s filmography is famously host to its share of anti-heroes with harsh demeanors but Crow is in a league of his own. Even aside from the very ungallant way he treats Katrina, the physical abuse he personally delivers to (the wholly sympathetic) Father Adam during the course of the film is astonishing. Beating the meek priest at what seems like almost every turn, for various minor infractions, he stops just short of curb stomping him (nowhere else in the annals of film, by the way, is there another movie in which the hero kicks a priest across the dirt like a dog and then afterwards asks if that savage beating sexually aroused him). And Montoya is every bit as thuggish as Crow, as his treatment of Katrina attests.

It’s hard to argue with viewers who find all of this too much to take. Perhaps Vampires was Carpenter’s retort to the rise of the PC mentality in the ‘90s. Who knows? And yet, underneath all the machismo and displays of bad behavior, there lies an unmistakable streak of sentiment. Crow and Montoya aren’t the type of men to ever sit around and talk about their feelings and yet there is a deep connection between them and their final parting scene is every bit as heartfelt as the goodbye at the end of Carpenter’s Starman. Well, that is if Starman had also ended with one character promising to hunt down and kill the other after a brief grace period. But still...

Vampires proved to be a modest hit back in the fall of 1998 but it got a lot of flak and derision as well. That’s par for the course for a Carpenter movie as, more often than not, they have to exist awhile before they’re appreciated but now almost fifteen years since its release, the scrappy Vampires isn’t looking long in the tooth at all. In fact, I see a hint of immortality in it.

Originally published 11/16/12 at Shock Till You Drop

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.